Bike to Work Week is winding down in Vancouver, while June is also Bike Month. Coincidentally or not, a video of a bike ride from 1974 has surfaced. It started in East Vancouver, goes over the Ironworkers’ Memorial (2nd Narrows) Bridge, through North Vancouver, over the Lions Gate Bridge, through Stanley Park, on the Burrard Bridge, on the seawall path still under construction, and along Terminal and 1st Avenue back to the start point.
The first video is a sped-up version; the second one slows it down, adds comparative photos from a repeat trip done in 2011, and throws in contemporary radio promos and a news piece. It’s a great way to see Vancouver and North Vancouver in a very different time. Very well done!
(Hat tip to Price Tags)
Daniel Okrent, Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition (Scribner, 2010)
Last fall, PBS aired Ken Burns’ latest documentary project on the subject of Prohibition. One of the advisors used for the film, and who appeared onscreen, was Daniel Okrent, who had his own book on Prohibition in the United States. Both projects’ developments ran in parallel; the inevitable cross-polination between the two led Okrent to call his and Burns’ works first cousins.
Like Burns’ doc, Okrent begins Last Call in the late 19th century with the rise of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and Anti-Saloon League. From the point of view of almost 100 years later, it just seems ludicrous that the movement toward Prohibition went as far as it did, toward its enshrinement in the Constitution of the United States. It wasn’t necessarily the enduring issue to begin with, but other events (such as the First World War) made Prohibition front and centre in the second half of the 1910s.
Okrent weaves many stories: from the crusaders who brought Prohibition from a religious movement to a political one; to those within government who weren’t really enamored of the whole thing and went out of their way to avoid enforcing the Volstead Act; and the bootleggers and criminal masterminds who built empires around the provision of illegal liquor to the masses. He then spends the last chapter winding down those stories, describing what happened to them when the 21st Amendment repealed the 18th, ending a 13-year experiment in alcohol proscription. Some have been forgotten into the mists of history, while others (Al Capone being an obvious example) live on in popular culture.
Clocking in at almost 400 pages, Last Call may be long, but it’s certainly not dull. It is a very intriguing look at the Prohibition era, and is a good complement to Ken Burns’ doc, but is just as enjoyable by itself, or perhaps your favourite drink.
Related: my review of Drink: A Cultural History of Alcohol
The Museum of Vancouver has taken out of storage the various neon signs in its collection, and put them all on display, buzzing noises and all. These signs are mere glimpses of the golden age of neon signs in Vancouver, primarily during the 1950s and 1960s. Neon was practically everywhere in the city in the mid-20th century.
The museum’s information blurbs include a scientific background of the noble gases (not just neon) that were used to create the colourful signs, as well as the companies that manufactured them.
Besides all the glorious neon on display, what also struck me was the displays on the movement to tone down the proliferation of neon. One of the groups that led the charge was the Community Arts Council of Vancouver. This intrigued me because, as a current board member and treasurer to the Council, the name recognition was apparent. But when I dug deeper into the CACV’s role in the days afterward, there are clearly two sides to every story.
I took the above picture of the first panel of the museum’s display on the anti-neon crusade. There was even a reproduction of a letter explaining the Council’s position with a postcard-style form letter that can be mailed to the mayor. Further along in the display, the CACV is said to have continued the fight throughout the 1960s, until a sign by-law in 1974 limited the use of neon displays in Vancouver.
Just looking at these displays, one could come to the conclusion that the CACV was fighting tooth and nail for the end to neon signs. But the CACV has provided its own side of the story, in a 50th-anniversary retrospective published in 1996 (Elizabeth O’Kiely, The Arts and Our Town). There is one chapter in this book dedicated to the Council’s Civic Arts Committee. The committee was concerned with neon proliferation, true, but also billboards, painted advertisements on walls, and other items that have become a blight on Vancouver’s visual landscape. The text goes on to mention that the CACV encouraged the use of neon in commercial areas such as Granville Street or Kingsway.
If it weren’t for my connection with CACV, I would have taken the “purity crusade”, as the MoV has described the anti-neon movement in its promotional material, at face value. As a student of history, I feel that it’s important to view an event from as many perspectives as possible, in order to form a better opinion on the causes, circumstances and outcomes of that event. It turns out that the fight against neon is one of those events, and it formed part of the colourful history of Vancouver.
The Neon Vancouver | Ugly Vancouver exhibition is at the Museum of Vancouver through August 12, 2012.
Additional reading: an interview with Civic Arts Committee member Elizabeth Lane. The interview was conducted as part of CACV’s 65th-anniversary celebrations.
I guess Wikipedia is actually good for something: yesterday, I read about the eruption of Mount Vesuvius happening on this day in 79 CE, so I went back and listened to the Big Finish audio The Fires of Vulcan (synopsis). Featuring the 7th Doctor and Melanie, it’s similar to the 10th Doctor story “The Fires of Pompeii” in that the Doctor and Mel get tangled with the locals, trying to retrieve the TARDIS before Vesuvius erupts.
I then returned to Wikipedia today, and found out that on this day in 1572, the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre occurred, during which French Protestants (Huguenots) were targeted and murdered, starting in Paris and eventually fanning out all over France. Doctor Who made a story from this (synopsis), culminating in the first night of the massacre. As with The Fires of Vulcan, I dusted off the CD to listen to this classic story, as it only exists in audio form. Originally aired way back in 1966, it features William Hartnell playing the 1st Doctor, as well as the Abbot of Amboise in a rare double act. Indeed, the plot of The Massacre of St Bartholomew’s Eve is darker in tone relative to contemporary Doctor Who serials generally, and as an historical story in particular.
I find it interesting that both of these events (and the Doctor Who stories that arose from them) happened on the same day. As a student of history viewing black-and-white Doctor Who for the first time in the late 1990s, I appreciated Sydney Newman’s original remit of the show to entertain and educate. I’m quite keen on stories set in Earth’s history, and some of them (The Aztecs for example) can rival among more traditional sci-fi stories as among my favourites.
Although some stories in the Doctor Who revival are set in the past (and many of those, like “The Empty Child”/”The Doctor Dances”, are quite good), I’m slightly disappointed that none of them is a pure historical. I might have mentioned it before, but maybe it’s time for the production team to return to this format, if only as an “experiment.” What would make this experiment more bold is to move away from the more obvious time periods (WWII for instance) and choose a period of history not yet covered in the Doctor Who canon. It just might prove to be a lesson for the cast and crew, as well as the audience!
Dave Feschuk & Michael Grange, Leafs Abomination: The Dismayed Fan’s Handbook to Why the Leafs Stink and How They Can Rise Again (Random House, 2009) and Al Strachan, Why the Leafs Suck and How They Can Be Fixed (Collins, 2009)
Another NHL season has concluded with the Toronto Maple Leafs not in the playoffs, and the rest of Canada can only smile. Paradoxically, Canadians’ passion for hockey is matched in intensity by Canadians’ disdain and loathing of the Leafs. After reading not one, but two, histories of the Leafs since last winning the Stanley Cup in 1967, I think this is more an extension of general anti-Toronto sentiment than of the hockey operations of the Leafs.
The two books obviously cover the same ground, but from different perspectives: Dave Feschuk and Michael Grange look at common scapegoats, as evidenced by such chapter titles as “Blame History” and “Blame the Fans”. Al Strachan takes a more linear approach, emphasizing individual incidents in the post-1967 history of the Leafs and expands on how each incident has contributed to the Leafs’ constant ineptitude. Indeed, a bulk of Strachan’s book summarizes each season from that Cup-winning 1966-67 campaign to 2008-09.
The reign of terror error of long-time Leafs owner Harold Ballard has, rightfully, been given significant emphasis in both books. Ballard’s exploits, some of which were legendary, seem nevertheless unbelievable in their scope and severity. The very-public battle for control following his death, and the team’s eventual partial ownership by the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan are also covered to varying degrees of detail.
The actual on-ice product, such as it was, that the Leafs tried to bring to fans had its own drama, and while some of it was connected to Ballard, a lot of it had to do with poor management. These books were obviously written before Brian Burke decided to trade 1st-round draft picks to Boston for Phil Kessel, but there were definitely precedents in that deal. One example that’s relevant for Canucks fans: in March 1996, Leafs fan favourite Wendel Clark (and Mathieu Schneider) was reacquired from the Islanders for Kenny Jönsson and a first-round draft pick. The Islanders used that pick to select Roberto Luongo.
As for the parts of the books where the Leafs can be fixed, Strachan used a hypothetical situation involving starting from scratch and selecting draft picks that seemed too convoluted to follow properly. Feschuk and Grange use the Boston model, based on the successes of the Celtics and Red Sox in the 2000s as examples. Both books, of course, devote some time on Burke, but more in terms of his shortcomings in his previous GM positions, particularly in the playoffs (his 2007 Cup win with the Ducks notwithstanding).
I do recommend both these books as entertaining primers on the laughable Leafs, and the fact that the authors didn’t have the rose-tinted glasses when assessing Burke’s status as saviour of the team. And so the drought continues…
In some ways, Vancouver Opera’s production of Nixon in China was following the historical plot, but it went far, far beyond that.
Having read Margaret MacMillan’s history on “The Week That Changed the World” in the weeks before Tuesday’s performance, I had an idea of who the main players were and why they were integral to the opera. But an opera based on the official histories probably wouldn’t work so well, which is why I appreciated the liberties composer John Adams and librettist Alice Goodman took in giving the main characters, especially Richard Nixon and Mao Tse-tung. As MacMillan herself put it during her opera-sponsored conversation, Nixon and Mao were given mythical status in the opera.
I think there is a complexity in the characters of Nixon in China that lends credence to an additional human element that actually makes some of them likable, even Nixon himself. One example: one scene had Richard and Pat Nixon doing the twist, which soon had Mao and Chiang Ch’ing trying to outdo them. And there’s the innuendoes surrounding Henry Kissinger, whether it’s Nixon dropping hints about his prowess, or his participation in that play-within-an-opera involving whips. (Yeah, I can’t get that image out of my head either.)
This being an opera, there should certainly be something said about the music. A note in the program, and from what I’ve learned in the very informative pre-show talk, mentioned the various musical influences of John Adams in the sounds of Nixon in China. At different points in the opera, there are hints of big-band sounds, film noir, and even synthesized 1980s pop (keep in mind the opera premiered in 1987 in that cultural mecca known as Houston). The way the music drives the plot, from the soaring introduction as Nixon’s plane makes its way to China, all the way to the subdued conclusion and Chou En-lai’s solitary rumination on the future, shows how Adams works the appropriate emotion into the opera.
Similarly, Alice Goodman’s libretto is just as instrumental in how well Nixon in China expresses itself on stage. Goodman’s poetry background is evident here, with many lines in rhyming couplets. There are also good examples used by Goodman of the contrasts between Nixon and Mao in their momentous meeting, and particularly of Mao’s cryptic responses to Nixon and Kissinger. One of these is of Nixon upholding the utmost respect to history, only to be countered by Mao’s assertion that history is a “dirty old sow”.
Nixon in China was definitely great fun to watch and listen. It gave interesting insights into that historic visit, but more than that, it was a chance to see six intriguing character studies, and the impact on each of them as they experience a whirlwind week.
It might have been because it was part of the Cultural Olympiad. It might have been amplified when I decided to read up on the subject by reading Margaret Macmillan’s recent history on “The Week That Changed the World”. But getting my ticket for one of the performances at Vancouver Opera’s staging (and Canadian premiere) of American composer John Adams’ Nixon in China sealed the deal, and based on some reviews from opening night, I will probably not be disappointed.
Even though I’ve always been interested in 20th-century American history, I’ve never had the chance to examine Nixon’s ground-breaking visit to China in February 1972. Reading Macmillan’s Nixon in China (2006) gave me the chance to see the multiple layers that this visit entailed, and why it proved opportunistic for both the USA and China. In addition to the Tuesday performance of the opera, I’m also attending a conversation with Margaret Macmillan the following night. It should be interesting to see what additional insights she can provide.
As for the opera, this will only be the 2nd performance of VO I’ll be watching. The first one was Magic Flute in 2007. It was CBC Radio Two’s 2006 live broadcast of the Ring Cycle that got me interested in opera. While I do have bits and pieces of the popular ones in my music library, I hadn’t experienced a complete live performance until I decided to go to the Magic Flute. Granted, Nixon in China should be a different beast, given the minimalist style and the English-language libretto, but it will still be worth watching.
(Illustration by Edel Rodriguez for Vancouver Opera)
Iain Gately, Drink: A Cultural History of Alcohol (Gotham Books, 2008)
I may be eight years removed from graduating from UBC with a history degree, but that hasn’t stopped me from continuing to read up on my chosen field, even if my career path didn’t actually go in that direction.
Recently, I’ve started to read overarching socio-cultural histories of certain themes, such as travel and alcohol, which leads me to this one I’ve just finished by Iain Gately. Drink starts at the very beginning of human civilization and recounts how alcohol has been a part of human history ever since. From its initial discoveries,through antiquity and medieval times, all the way to exploration, industrialization, and globalization, booze, according to Gately, plays a central role throughout. Even the experiments with temperance and prohibition in the UK and USA in the 19th and 20th centuries couldn’t halt that progress.
Intriguing as it is that alcoholic beverages have contributed to many historical events, it seems idealized or fantastical that booze alone contributed to such events. Gately portrays it that way, and it works in the context, providing some credibility to the pivotal role of alcohol. There is certainly an emphasis on modern, Western history, as more than two-thirds of this book covers the 18th century onward. There was one chapter devoted to Westernization of Asian drinking habits in the mid-20th century, but sadly, not much else.
Gately also takes some time to look at the drinking habits of various practitioners of art over the centuries. Dutch painters, Romantic poets, French artists, and even rappers’ love of cognac and Cristal are all mentioned. And it’s not all good times, either. Gately devotes some pages in the later chapters to combat the darker side of alcohol consumption, which led to the formations of Alcoholics Anonymous and Mothers Against Drunk Driving, and the ongoing saga of the health benefits of alcohol consumption, its promotion by (mainly) winemakers, and the US government’s two-faced attempts to prevent such promotion despite the growing evidence.
Drink, while thick (at almost 500 pages), certainly makes for a great reading companion to that glass of wine or pint of beer. It also provides, for me at least, a new perspective to the established history and adds that cultural dimension that was lacking in the histories I was studying all those years ago.
This November 11 marks 90 years since the armistice that ended the Great War. It may be a stat holiday (or this year, some of you may have taken a four-day weekend), but it’s more than that. It is a chance for us to commemorate the great sacrifices of Canadian soldiers and peacekeepers from the Boer War all the way to the present conflict in Afghanistan.
When I did a guided tour of London and Paris this past summer, our bus stopped at Vimy Ridge. Going up to the National Memorial there, it was incredible just to walk around it and read the inscriptions, particularly the names of the soldiers who lost their lives during that battle in April 1917 [wiki].
It was similar to my visits to old cathedrals and castles elsewhere in my trip, but Vimy Ridge was special in that I could almost feel the heavy seriousness of what transpired there 90 years ago, but also a sense of sereneness; the memorial is a permanent reminder of our past, of what many young men endured to secure a peaceful future for generations to come. Obviously, it came to naught 21 years later, but their sacrifices should never be taken in vain. Now more than ever, especially with one remaining surviving Canadian veteran of the First World War, we should take a renewed interest beyond the history books and look at the experiences of the soldiers and record them for posterity.
Do take a moment at 11:00 on 11/11 to pause and reflect. Lest we forget.