Share the Love—Coco Love Alcorn in Kaslo

Coco Love Alcorn at the St. Andrew’s United Church, Kaslo, Sunday, September 18, 4 pm, sponsored by The Langham’s Guest Artist Series.

Coco Love Alcorn, St. Andrews United Church, Kaslo, BC, Sept. 18, 2016 image Sean Arthur Joyce

Coco Love Alcorn, St. Andrews United Church, Kaslo, BC, Sept. 18, 2016 image Sean Arthur Joyce

One thing Coco Love Alcorn has always been great at—blending her singing and songwriting gift with an upbeat optimism. I’ve been a fan of hers now for nearly 10 years and can safely say she’s never given a bad show. A natural performer, she has a way with an audience that makes them feel instantly at home. Having been the Arts and Culture Editor for the Valley Voice for nearly as long, I’ve seen a seemingly endless parade of singer-songwriters pass through the West Kootenay. But few of them have the grasp of songwriting skills Coco makes sound so effortless. ‘Many are called but few chosen,’ as the old saying goes.

Coco’s current tour follows a four-year hiatus as she raised her daughter Ellie from infancy to preschool age. Her time off, if anything, has only enriched her abilities. Her 2011 album Play was a jazzy tribute to motherhood and to Ellie herself but to my ears failed to capture the instantly memorable tunesmithing of earlier classics like Joyful (2009). But with her new album Wonderland, she’s achieved that rarest of accomplishments for a songwriter: making the music simultaneously of-the-moment and timeless. The musical approach is stripped down, bringing her amazing vocal range and emotive qualities to the fore, often accompanied by only backup vocals, strummed ukelele and percussion. As a production decision it makes perfect sense, since Coco’s greatest instrument by far is her voice.

Coco with the Wonderland Choir, Kaslo version, Sept. 18, 2016 image Sean Arthur Joyce

Coco with the Wonderland Choir, Kaslo version, Sept. 18, 2016 image Sean Arthur Joyce

Almost all the songs reflect a gospel sensibility, so having today’s concert in Kaslo’s historic St. Andrew’s church was absolutely fitting. Coco was joined by her ‘Wonderland Choir,’ a group of locals who convened only this afternoon to learn a few of her new songs, which are ideal vehicles for a massed vocal treatment. The effect was luminous and—to borrow her own title—joyful, enhanced by the soaring acoustics of the vaulted church ceiling. As Lynn van Duersen, who coordinates The Langham’s guest artist series, said, Coco’s “spiritually uplifting collection of songs” lent itself naturally to such a setting.

Without knowing the details of Coco’s personal life, it would seem she’s had her fair share of trials the past five years. It’s evident in many of the lyrics on Wonderland, which show a more mature take on positivism than the naïve optimism of earlier songs like Joyful and Hope for the World. At the St. Andrew’s church concert she prefaced her new song Old Habits Die Hard by saying it was inspired by the continuous flood of feelgood books, magazines and websites all telling people how they can be better somehow. The reality is that change is difficult for the best of us, and as we age it only gets harder. Transformation gurus would have you believe otherwise but they would, wouldn’t they—it’s their living.

John Foster brought electronic percussion to Coco's vocal layering on the loop station. image Sean Arthur Joyce

John Foster brought electronic percussion to Coco’s vocal layering on the loop station. image Sean Arthur Joyce

On Wonderland she delves deeper than she has in the past while still retaining her apparently innate and perennial optimism. Album opener Good News keeps the sunny side up but already by Trouble we know her optimism is more hard-won now. The River sounds like it was plucked from a hymnbook in a deep southern revival church, as so many of these songs do. By the time she gets to Unbreakable, it’s clear this statement of survival in the face of an often hostile universe is the product of real living, not just wishful thinking. Tiny Lights was borrowed from the tiny folk festival of the same name at Ymir, BC, near Nelson, and riffs beautifully on the theme of each individual’s intrinsic value. Roots and Wings expresses the artist’s need for both a stable home—providing the security within which to create—and the need to experience the wider world, whether to tour new work or get inspiration for new works.

The St. Andrew’s church concert was—true to Coco’s inimitable form—as much a love-in as a performance. The audience was invited to sing along and did so magnificently. The locals in the Wonderland Choir did an amazing job for amateurs. In the second set Coco and percussionist John Foster did what she called “a kind of theatre sports for music,” inviting the audience to submit words to improvise to—anything from business cards and receipts to hastily scribbled poems. Using her loop machine along with Foster’s electronic percussion, Coco somehow managed to turn the most mundane material into magic. It was a gutsy move that paid off, though in the hands of a lesser talent it could have been disastrous or merely boring.

Coco gets spiritual. Let the spirit be moved! image Sean Arthur Joyce

Coco gets spiritual. Let the spirit be moved! image Sean Arthur Joyce

She finished up with the classic Revolution from the album Joyful, with an encore of another audience favourite, Fiori Modena, about her favourite Italian-made bicycle. I would have loved to also hear earlier songs like Where Do the Robots Go When They Die or Intellectual Boys, but by now she’s earned the right to move on with her work. No one has worked harder touring her music to audiences across the country. Fittingly, Coco and John received a standing ovation.

In an era when so many songwriters seem to opt for the meandering and almost tuneless—if they’re capable of writing original material at all—Coco Love Alcorn shines as a beacon of the art and craft of songwriting. (Of course, it helps that she has killer vocal cords.) As she writes in the liner notes: “Everything I’ve ever done has led me to here. To Wonderland, a collection of songs that are an invitation to connect, an invitation to sing, and an invitation to myself to dig deeper than ever before.” Amen to that!

Check out Coco on her Wonderland tour—share the love! http://cocolovealcorn.com/tour

And while you’re at it dig deeper into Wonderland: http://www.cocolovealcorn.com/wonderland

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Historical Amnesia: Remembering History’s Ignored Children

Imagine that a mass amnesia had gripped society and we suddenly lost our memory of history. Then imagine that history was rewritten for us, leaving out the entire story of the civil rights movement in the ’60s, or the Suffragettes’ campaigns for women’s vote. Or, to take it to a more Canadian-specific level, imagine that this newly rewritten history left out entirely the Riel Rebellion, or the On to Ottawa trek of unemployed men during the Great Depression, or the role of Tommy Douglas in universal health care.

Of course, political power interests rewrite history all the time. Note that it’s the history of resistance that is itself often ignored or rewritten. It happens daily in the corporate-owned media, which recasts events such as the police shooting of black Americans in a light favourable to authority and can even ignore mass global protests that break historical records. Hence the old expression, “The victors write the history.” Thankfully more honest historians such as Howard Zinn have helped provide balance to this skewed picture of history along with other conscientious writers.

Life for the poor in the early days of capitalism was bleak. Image public domain

Life for the poor in the early days of capitalism was bleak. Image public domain

Now imagine that 100,000 people, whose descendants number up to four million in Canada today, were erased from this new history. Their lives wiped out like text on a whiteboard, their contribution to the building of our nation eliminated. I speak of course of the British Home Children, who due to an accident of birth found that their lives amounted to a zero on the balance sheet of capitalism. These boys and girls, ranging in age from 5 to 16, faced a bitter future in 19th century Britain: scrabbling together a life on the streets of Birmingham, London, Glasgow or Dublin, the brutal regime of a workhouse, or what few overcrowded orphanages provided food and shelter. In Malthusian terms they were viewed by emerging capitalist barons as “surplus population,” an inferior stock in need of culling anyway. Obviously not all of the British elite shared this view. Many aristocrats such as Lord Shaftesbury were all too happy to fund emerging philanthropists such as Annie Macpherson and Dr. T.J. Barnardo in the building of ‘day schools’ and eventually orphanages. But with the industrial revolution displacing more workers than it could employ, even these well-intentioned relief efforts were soon overrun by those in desperate need of help. Remember: this is the era before social programs and welfare, the law of the capitalist jungle: You either do well or you die, period. And if you don’t do well, it’s your own damn fault—you’re defective so you deserve your fate. Sadly, we’re hearing this sociopathic litany repeated in the political rhetoric of late, whether it’s regarding immigration in the EU or poverty in America.

A popular portrait of Dr. Barnardo, whose organization emigrated some 30,000 children to Canada.

A portrait of Dr. Barnardo, whose organization emigrated some 30,000 children to Canada.

So with the orphanages packed to the rafters and a political regime still almost a century away from creating the modern welfare state, there was only one recourse: export the unfortunate children to the British colonies for use as indentured labour. In purely Machiavellian terms, it was a stroke of genius, solving both the social problem at home and the labour problem in the newly developing colonies. The one thing it left out of the equation was the human factor—the tearing effect of separating children from their families and their country of origin and sending them across an ocean to an alien land with almost no one to help them. The descendants of these families are still dealing with this legacy a century later. In recent decades there have been many fine books and documentaries—and one feature film, Oranges and Sunshine—made to redress this gap in our official histories.

And now there’s another chance to set things right. Former Member of Parliament for BC Southern Interior Alex Atamanenko, prior to retiring from politics last year, introduced a motion in the House of Commons calling for an official apology to the British Home Children (BHC) and their descendants in Canada. Former Prime Ministers of both Australia (Kevin Rudd) and Britain (Gordon Brown) have already offered official apologies and some restitution. This is not about ‘compensation,’ but a long overdue acknowledgement of the critical role these neglected children played in an early stage of Canada’s development as a nation, and an apology for the neglect or abuse they suffered. We’re willing to thank our war veterans for their sacrifices but we need to do the same for the families of these children. It’s a sign of strength, not weakness, to come clean and apologize for past wrongs.

The real reason poor British children were brought to Canada—to work. From the image on the 2010 Canada Post stamp. Image: Library & Archives Canada

The real reason poor British children were brought to Canada—to work. From the image on the 2010 Canada Post stamp. Image: Library & Archives Canada

Atamanenko’s successor, MP Richard Cannings, reintroduced the apology motion as Private Members’ bill M-51 in April this year. The text of the motion reads: “That, in the opinion of the House, the government should: (a) issue a formal, unequivocal and sincere apology to Canada’s British Home Children and child migrants, including their families and descendants, for the injustices suffered as a result of its participation in migration schemes between the years 1869 and 1948 thereby enabling the importation of an estimated 100,000 orphaned or destitute children from Britain to provide indentured labour for Canadian farms and households; (b) express its gratitude and appreciation to the families whose ancestors were responsible for building up Canada’s agricultural industry at a critical early point in its development; (c) assist in a coordinated effort with survivors and descendants to track and record their genealogies and ensure that reunification with lost family members is made possible; and (d) take steps to ensure that all Canadians are informed about this important period of history in a way that makes certain it is never forgotten by present or future generations.”

At a time when we are re-examining our public school curriculum to teach the terrible legacy of the Native residential schools, the story of Canada’s British Home Children deserves equal consideration as a vital component of public history. As much as anything, it reminds us that capitalism’s victims are of any colour or ethnicity. An estimated 10 percent of Canadians are descended from these children.

“Torn from family, friends and country, these children were met with severe discrimination and often placed with no further monitoring in harsh or abusive situations where they were exploited,” noted Atamanenko in February 2015.

The famous image of a shipload of Barnardo girls arriving in Halifax, circa 1920. Courtesy Library & Archives Canada

The famous image of a shipload of Barnardo girls arriving in Halifax, circa 1920. British Home Children were typically exported in large groups like this. Courtesy Library & Archives Canada

Lori Oschefsky, founder and CEO of British Home Child Advocacy and Research Association (BHCARA), has been collecting signatures for a petition calling for the apology for some time. “For the most part, these children were not picked up from the streets but came from intact families, who, through sickness or even death of one of their parents, had fallen on hard times,” says Oschefsky. “Because there was no social system in place to help them get through these difficult circumstances, the family had no other way than to surrender their offspring” to the various organizations offering assistance, such as Barnardo’s, Quarriers, National Children’s Homes, etc.

“Never should defenseless, lonely, loveless children be treated in such a way anywhere in the world,” declared Tom Isherwood, a Child Migrant brought to Canada at the age of 8 with Fairbridge Farm Schools. “When asked to be heard, nobody listened, not even God, as we were to be seen and not heard.”

ACTION: To support MP Cannings’ motion you can sign petition e-312 at the Parliamentary website here: https://petitions.parl.gc.ca/en/Petition/Details?Petition=e-312

FOR MORE INFORMATION: Richard Cannings’ website: http://richardcannings.ndp.ca / Cannings’ motion on the Parliamentary website: http://www.parl.gc.ca/Parliamentarians/en/members/Richard-Cannings(89327)/Motions?sessionId=152&documentId=8175447 / British Home Children Advocacy & Research Association (BHCARA) website: http://canadianbritishhomechildren.weebly.com

Posted in Activism, History, Home Children, social commentary | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Nakusp Medieval Days a blast from the past

Turns out there’s far more going on at Nakusp Medieval Days than just an exercise in nostalgia. Far more than merely a forum for staged battles, the festival boasts a wide array of revived ancient skills. Although numbers were down slightly this year, Daniel Abraham, Nakusp Medieval Society (NMS) president, says the event was a success. Judging by the delight I saw on the faces of young and old watching ‘sword’ combat, archery skills, Highland games, and jousting matches with competing ‘knights,’ I’d have to agree.

Don't panic! No sharp blades were used. Photo Sean Arthur Joyce

Don’t panic! No sharp blades were used. Photo Sean Arthur Joyce

The partnership this year with the NMS and the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA) was a first for both organizations. The SCA was established some 50 years ago and represents “over 1,000 years of history from pre-17th century Europe and the cultures that influenced Europe.” For those new to this event, a little explanation helps. “Participants in the SCA develop a persona which represents an individual from the Middle Ages who might have existed (but not based on a real figure from that time…) For most SCA participants this means selecting a particular time and culture from the Middle Ages, building a name from documented historical records from that culture, and wearing clothing that someone from that culture would have worn.” And indeed, it’s this colourful array of costumed characters that helps create the unique allure of Medieval Days.

The Jousting Alliance of Washington State brought in fully armoured ‘knights’ competing with lances on horseback – another first for Nakusp Medieval Days. The event featured a ‘page’ or announcer who goaded the audience to cheer for just about any competitor besides the Black Knight, who delighted in taunting both his competitors and the audience. For safety the lances are designed to shatter on impact, but this is not a sport without risk. The female Green Knight, Ariana Wolf, sustained a slight injury at Saturday’s match when a lance deflected off her shoulder armour and caused a bruise on her cheek. Nakusp resident Richard Sahlman was ‘knighted’ for coming to their assistance when he drove to the border to tow a horse trailer when one of the jouster’s trucks broke down. The crowds loved it.

The Green Knight chats with admirers after a jousting match. Photo Sean Arthur Joyce

The Green Knight chats with admirers after a jousting match. Photo Sean Arthur Joyce

The war on Saturday pitched the principality of Tir-Righ, comprising BC and part of Washington, and Avocal, the kingdom to the east, comprising Alberta, Saskatchewan and part of Idaho. Contestants compete for ‘war points’ at various events throughout the year that can determine who rises to the position of royalty in the kingdom. Sunday’s Highland Games featured a half-dozen kilt-clad competitors displaying feats of strength and agility with such sports as the shot putt and caber tossing.

In an era when we’re accustomed to seeing everything from thumbtacks to iPads made in China or Malaysia, the merchants at Medieval Days are more artisans than mere retailers. William Litwin, a.k.a. Taliesin ap Hafgan, specializes in calligraphy, and explained the painstaking process he uses to create ink from black walnut, among other sources for his inks. His partner Christopher ‘Topher’ Mackenzie creates chain mail as well as being a spinner and weaver. Kimberley Grigg, a.k.a. Duchess Meaghan, hosted a sewing and weaving circle teaching young women her skills, including Norse knotwork (nálbinding) that predates modern knitting by some 2,000 years. Stuart Tringle and Aleyn Wyckington displayed handcrafted medieval period lyres and encouraged festival patrons to try them out. Metal artists displayed handcrafted armour for sale and there were blacksmithing demonstrations from Nelson’s Kootenay Arts Studio. Leather workers such as Vargas Hides and Dyes happily take commissions for armour or belts and pouches made to last. Someone at the festival was the lucky raffle winner of a handcrafted longbow by Kootenay artisan Clark Dennill. A medieval-style furniture maker came all the way from Denver, Colorado with his wife, who displayed a beautiful tapestry-in-progress. The festival also teamed up with Nakusp Secondary to create swords for sale to would-be knights.

This women's sewing circle hosted by Duchess Meaghan taught ancient skills. Photo Sean Arthur Joyce

This women’s sewing circle hosted by Duchess Meaghan taught ancient skills. Photo Sean Arthur Joyce

“We recognize that there’s a lot of traditional handcrafted arts around here,” says Abraham, “so we thought one way to promote tourism is to give them a chance to promote their wares at our festival. Last year we had 28 vendors but this year we had about a third more. We try to keep things as local as possible, as relevant as possible.”

No medieval festival would be complete without music and featured strolling musicians John Anderson on flute and Kootenay Kiltie Pipe Band bagpiper Dale Morris. Multi-instrumentalists Suzanne LeClerc and Bryn Wilkin, known as Vazzy, held court in their music tent, performing award-winning renditions of traditional French, Celtic, Métis and Canadian songs. Dr. Kevin Zakresky, who recently performed at Britain’s Wembley arena with the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra, offered short presentations on medieval musical history and Gregorian chant. Nakusp’s own Nikki Cole kept the kids’ tent well entertained with puppetry.

This woman's voice and medieval lyre were hauntingly beautiful. Photo Sean Arthur Joyce

This woman’s voice and medieval lyre were hauntingly beautiful. Photo Sean Arthur Joyce

The food and beverage department was a blend of ancient and modern. A bakery vendor sold both traditional and gluten-free goodies. A big hit was the tent offering ‘Irish-style’ whiskey (only whiskey made in Ireland can be called ‘Irish whiskey’). Award-winning Kootenay Craft Distillery was there with their regular and flavoured vodkas. The Burton City Cidery offered a distinctly medieval touch to its high-test ciders. The festival tavern sold out of everything they ordered. “Last year we were a little more strict on the food, that it had to be medieval food,” says Abraham, “but we had only two vendors and they sold out fast. So this year we thought, we can sacrifice authenticity to keep peoples’ bellies full. And it worked.”

Haggling with a merchant at the armoury shop. Photo Sean Arthur Joyce

Haggling with a merchant at the armoury shop. Photo Sean Arthur Joyce

The festival closed around 6 pm each day, making it both a family-friendly and easy on the neighbours. Look for another exciting event at next year’s Medieval Days. For more information visit www.medievaldays.ca or www.sca.org.

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Avoiding the Circus of Fear

UPDATE: I wrote this poem following a harrowing period in my life during the latter days of the Stephen Harper regime, when he appointed Steven Blaney as his Minister of Public Safety. Photos of the man expostulating in Parliament were shocking: Blaney looked like a rabid demon foaming at the mouth. I was used to hearing such inflammatory rhetoric from American politicians but coming from a Canadian minister of government it was deeply jarring. I was shocked that our country might be following the path to perdition laid down by our disintegrating neighbours to the south.

Then one night I had an epiphany: if these men are so terrified of the world they feel the need to cage us in an ever tightening ring of security and surveillance, then they are truly to be pitied. Why should I fear them? They’re actually quite pathetic creatures. Thankfully with the election of Justin Trudeau’s Liberals, Canada has veered away from the abyss the United States and other countries seem to be plunging headlong into. For now. However, the old saying is true: “The price of freedom is eternal vigilance.”

What I learned from my Long Night of Fear under Harper is that it’s as essential to manage one’s own fear as it is to monitor those who cultivate it to their own ends. Once we can do that we can’t be manipulated nearly so easily.  It’s an especially important lesson as we watch the chaos unfolding in Turkey, Syria, Yemen and elsewhere in the world. Put simply: Don’t get sucked into the Circus of Fear.

Artwork created in 2015 to accompany the poem. ©2015 Sean Arthur Joyce

Artwork created in 2015 to accompany the poem. ©2015 Sean Arthur Joyce

Exorcising Demons

I saw you on TV—tongue

flicking fear

into our bones.

Haggard as a demon

on a three-day bender.

Bald as a bullet

biting the air

for its target,

halo of knives glinting

in oily light.

Your skin long abandoned

by touch, the leap

in the breast

all but forgotten.

 

Collars wrap serpentine

around your neck,

and everywhere you go,

you look over your shoulder,

listen for grit

beneath a boot.

And no matter

how many minds

you tie in knots,

they need only relax

to escape. After all,

the dead can sing

through anything.

While the armour

closes over your body,

they dance naked

in the streets.

 

Why should I fear you?

Your eyes are dark moths

beating weakly

against a screen—

desperate

for incandescence.

 

©2015 Sean Arthur Joyce

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Deadly Fascination: The Allure of Game of Thrones

  1. The Allure of Psychopathy

Why are people so fascinated by psychopaths? Judging by the runaway success of the HBO series Game of Thrones, which features a cast largely populated by psychopaths, the allure at this moment in history seems greater than ever. Right out of the gate with season one, “the box set sold over 350,000 units within the first seven days of its release, the largest first-week DVD sales ever for an HBO series,” according to Wikipedia. “Illegal downloads grew to about 7 million in the first quarter of 2015,” with a single episode in 2012 downloaded 4.2 million times. This kind of multi-media success qualifies it as a genuine cultural phenomenon. As the Wikipedia entry notes, Game of Thrones expressions such as “sexposition” have entered the lexicon. But in all the hoopla, it begs the question: What does it say about us as a culture that a TV series so dominated by sexual violence, objectification of women, and vicious brutality is so universally popular?

Game of Thrones: HBO’s most successful series ever.

My argument is that when you depict a society in which 90 percent of the characters are grasping, vicious psychopaths, you not only reverse the actual order of things, you normalize psychopathy. In reality, psychopaths attract attention not only because of their brutal crimes but precisely because they are such a deviation from the norm. Probably less than one percent of the population could be assessed as fitting the American Psychiatric Association’s checklist for psychopathy in the Diagnostic Statistical Manual (DSM). Good thing too, or the human race wouldn’t last very long. Of course, not all psychopaths are murderers like those depicted on Game of Thrones. Many of them are heads of our most prominent corporations.

But the point remains. In his book, Without Conscience, Robert Hare writes: “To give you some idea of the enormity of the problem that faces us, consider that there are at least 2 million psychopaths in North America; the citizens of New York City have as many as 100,000 psychopaths among them. And these are conservative estimates. Far from being an esoteric, isolated problem that affects only a few people, psychopathy touches virtually every one of us.” While we may not have the misfortune to meet a psychopath, we’re personally affected by the many corporate products that pollute the environment or destroy health simply for profit. By definition, psychopaths lack the capacity to feel regret for their actions or empathy for others, so the potential damage they can do is disproportional to their small numbers. There’s also the related phenomenon of sociopathy and narcissism, equally capable of leaving destruction in their wake. In fact, psychologists Jean M. Twenge and W. Keith Campbell argue in their book The Narcissism Epidemic that the condition is rampant in our civilization. “In a June 2009 national poll of more than 1,000 college students, 2 out of 3 agreed with the statement, ‘My generation of young people is more self-promoting, narcissistic, overconfident and attention-seeking than previous generations.’”[1]

Filmmaker Max Stossel calls time on making murderers famous. Image: USA Today

It’s an especially relevant point in the aftermath of mass shootings like Orlando, which prompted filmmaker and storyteller Max Stossel to produce a short film titled Stop Making Murderers Famous. He might well have used Murray McLaughlin’s song I Hate Your Gun as his theme song, from the overlooked classic 1982 album Windows. McLaughlin wrote it out of grief for the murder of John Lennon. Prefiguring Stossel’s argument by some three decades, McLaughlin sang: “May you die alone / Without publicity / Without sale of biography / A nobody for eternity…”

In part Stossel bases his appeal on research done by psychologist Sherry Towers and her team in concluding that, “We found evidence that killings that receive national or international media attention do indeed inspire similar events a significant fraction of the time. … The researchers did a statistical analysis of 176 mass shooting events in the U.S. from 2006 to 2011 and 220 school shootings between 1997 and 2013.”

Psychologists Twenge & Campbell get to the root of the matter.

It’s a point reiterated in The Narcissism Epidemic. Social media has been gasoline on the fire of the sociopathic personality. Like Stossel, by Twenge and Campbell argue: “Given the upswing in the narcissistic values of American culture since the ’90s, it may be no coincidence that mass shootings became a national plague around the same time. …The first step toward severing the link between narcissism and antisocial behaviours is to make socially inappropriate behaviour go unnoticed and unrewarded.”[2] Granted, this is reality, not fiction, and the argument about causation or lack of it as a factor in real-life violence seesaws back and forth. But why take the risk of poisoning the well? Why not err on the side of the angels? Of course, that’s not as likely to make you a fabulously wealthy TV producer…

  1. The Fiction of Medievalism

The most common argument I get when I ask people about the deadly fascination of the series is, “Well, it’s set in a medieval society, and that’s how things were then.” Really? Are any of the creators or even viewers of the series that well versed in medieval history that they can say this with authority? In recent decades there’s been a number of revisionist histories written about the Medieval or ‘Dark Ages’ period. The good news? It was nowhere near as bleak as typically believed, and certainly nothing like the hopeless world depicted on Game of Thrones. Monty Python alumni Terry Jones has written an excellent and much-needed revisionist history, Medieval Lives, one of many such books published in recent years that shed light on the period. Jones, who studied medieval history before going into show business, writes: “An unholy alliance of 19th century novelists and painters with 20th century movie-makers has created a period of history which never existed.”[3] That said, Jones acknowledges that, “Chivalry was a fantasy, used to put a respectable gloss on the horrors of war.” And certainly, in the early post-Norman conquest period of Britain, the system was “totally based on violence.”[4]

Was the Medieval period as “dark” as we’ve been led to believe?

By the time the chivalrous knight of courtly fiction and poetry arrived, the Medieval period was already blurring into the Renaissance. It’s an ancient trope in literature: by the time a tale is finally committed to print, it’s already so old it’s in danger of passing into oblivion, starting with the Epic of Gilgamesh—probably a thousand years old before the first versions were committed to cuneiform tablets somewhere around 2400 BC. Gilgamesh is now known to have been an ancient Mesopotamian king of the city-state Uruk. All legends begin with a kernel of truth. But you can imagine the distortion that enters the tale over that stretch of time. Artistic license is a legitimate creative tool, of course. The problem begins with a culture like ours, steeped in 24/7 entertainment and steadily losing its legacy of critical thinking. As our educational system shifts ever more toward utilitarianism, the broad knowledge of classical literature that informs our reading of these stories has largely been lost.

What’s often overlooked about Medieval Europe is the fact that in the vacuum left by the collapse of the Roman Empire, communities had to pull together to survive. So far I’ve yet to see this better elucidated than in Peter Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid. Kropotkin, known best as a writer of anarchist works, was a disciple of Darwin and set out to study examples of mutual aid in nature, in contrast to the “nature red in tooth and claw” theory advanced by Victorian social scientists. “Sociability and need of mutual aid and support are such inherent parts of human nature that at no time of history can we discover men living in small isolated families, fighting each other for the means of subsistence,” wrote Kropotkin. “On the contrary, modern research… proves that since the very beginning of their prehistoric life men used to agglomerate into gentes, clans, or tribes, maintained by an idea of common descent and by worship of common ancestors. …when the bonds of common descent had been loosened by migrations on a grand scale… a new form of union, territorial in its principle—the village community—was called into existence… Far from being the fighting animals they have often been compared to, the barbarians of the first centuries of our era… invariably preferred peace to war.”[5] The arbitrary and twisted notion of justice depicted in Game of Thrones is a far cry from these Medieval European communities. “The new occupiers of Europe evolved the systems of land tenure and soil culture… (and) worked out their systems of compensation for wrongs, instead of the old tribal blood-revenge… the deeper we penetrate into the history of early institutions, the less we find grounds for the military theory of origin of authority.”[6]

As part of that new social structure, guilds—the historical predecessors of labour unions—were formed for craftsmen and routinely provided for their widows and children in the event of their death.[7] Some Medieval communities had city charters stipulating that the necessities of life—coal, wood, grain, etc.—were to be offered first to citizens before retailers could purchase them to be marked up for profit. In many European cities, trustees bought goods from merchants to ensure their citizens would have fair access, stipulating in law that only an ‘honest profit’ could be made. Usury—the charging of excessive or compound interest—was illegal. In that respect, modern society has a lot to learn from the so-called ‘Dark’ Ages.[8] 

  1. Nihilism as Catharsis

Game of Thrones as 21st century gladiatorial games? Image: Wikimedia Commons

Of course, Game of Thrones is neither history nor legend but fantasy, based on popular genre fiction. And a rather bleak, nihilistic fantasy at that. On another level, the series may be a 21st century equivalent to the Roman gladiatorial games. Since the Romans the principle of ‘bread and circuses’ as a mode of state control over a population has seldom been lost on rulers. And I’m sure no one since the promoters of gladiatorial games has ever gone broke promoting this kind of public spectacle. But this too is a form of narcissism or sociopathy that ignores the potential harm to the public good. The question left unexplored here is to what degree a fiction like Game of Thrones acts as cultural catharsis, a means of both reflecting and purging current conceptions of society. Certainly there seems to be a sense of civilizational decay in the air wherever we look, whether in the current presidential primaries in the US or the profusion of dark visions of the age in everything from movies to popular music. I make no creative judgments about Game of Thrones. However, reading between the lines, we may be seeing the same kind of right-wing solipsism as the one that promoted the false view of evolution as a bloody, inevitable struggle. At a time when the lines between fiction and our perceptions of reality seem increasingly blurred, it’s important to take in a little historical and sociological context. Without that, the old principle of ‘garbage in, garbage out,’ is likely to predominate, to everyone’s detriment.

NOTE: It’s worthwhile, if you’re interested, reading some of the debates on just the issue of sexual violence toward women in Game of Thrones. It seems a massive step backward to the cause of feminism to me, but hear what these women critics have to say: http://ca.complex.com/pop-culture/2016/04/female-critics-on-game-of-thrones-violence-against-women

The Atlantic has so far been the only major media outlet to provide in-depth commentary on the sociological implications: http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2015/06/game-of-thrones-sexual-violence/396191/

On the issue of historical accuracy, read what Live Science has to say about Game of Thrones’ depiction of Medieval life: http://www.livescience.com/44599-medieval-reality-game-of-thrones.html

So far, only one media review outlet has chosen to no longer feature reviews of Game of Thrones based on its objections to the graphic violence and sexual degradation of women: http://www.themarysue.com/we-will-no-longer-be-promoting-hbos-game-of-thrones/

ESSAY SOURCES[1] Jean M. Twenge & W. Keith Campbell, The Narcissism Epidemic, Simon & Schuster, New York, 2009, p. 34.

[2] Jean M. Twenge & W. Keith Campbell, The Narcissism Epidemic, Simon & Schuster, New York, 2009, pp. 200, 207.

[3] Terry Jones and Alan Ereira, Medieval Lives, BBC Books, 2005, p.13

[4] Terry Jones and Alan Ereira, Medieval Lives, BBC Books, 2005, p.70

[5] Peter Kropotkin, Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution, Black Rose Books, Montreal/New York, 1989, pp. 153, 154.

[6] Peter Kropotkin, Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution, Black Rose Books, Montreal/New York, 1989, pp. 155, 159.

[7] Peter Kropotkin, Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution, Black Rose Books, Montreal/New York, 1989, pp. 169–176.

[8] Peter Kropotkin, Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution, Black Rose Books, Montreal/New York, 1989, pp. 181–184.

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A Mother’s Day Story–Mama Duck Gets a Helping Hand

This year my mother has not had the best of Mother’s Days. After suffering from chronic bronchitis that progressed to pneumonia, followed by fluid on the heart that caused a heart attack, she was rushed to Williams Lake hospital. It was determined that she needed to be air ambulanced to the Kelowna hospital, where they have the best cardiology wing in the BC interior and she could receive a full range of diagnostic tests. Anne and I had to quickly arrange to have our garden looked after, pack up the car and head off from our home in New Denver to Kelowna on the afternoon of May 3. It took them another day to finally get Mom to Kelowna and since then we’ve been at the hospital every day keeping her company.

Although Mom and I have never been close, it’s still a deep shock to see a parent in such a diminished condition, her dignity so battered down, her health so suddenly frail. As our friend Judy said, she’s your mother—the connection is visceral, beyond any other emotional considerations and personal history. Her breathing is laboured and she barely has the strength to lift herself back onto her hospital bed. Because she’s been suffering oxygen depletion from the pressure on her lungs, she’s not entirely lucid and often gets confused. This from someone who was always a very strong personality. Just a few years ago she chased off potential thieves on their ranch property with a shotgun! So seeing her phasing in and out of lucidity is particularly hard for me, as for myself I value my mental clarity and capacities above all else. And in the midst of an already challenging medical crisis it makes it hard to separate Mom’s reality from what is just another symptom of her illness.

After Anne and I got back from the hospital just before dinnertime on May 7, we were chatting with our hosts Keith and Judy on the front porch when we noticed a mother duck and her brood of ducklings come waddling through the yard. She seemed a little disoriented but it was immediately clear she was headed toward Okanagan Lake, which is only about three blocks distant from Keith and Judy’s place. However, as it is a busy residential neighbourhood with many fenced yards, people on bikes, driving cars, and walking dogs, I felt I should follow her to make sure she made it safely to the water.

Keith and Judy’s cross street is a dead end so poor Mama Duck found herself in someone’s backyard, confused about how to get out. I opened the gate and then realized I’d have to act as a shepherd to get her headed in the right direction. If I got too close she made a defensive posture and opened her beak as if to hiss at me, though she made no sound. I kept just far enough away so as not to scare her but close enough to herd her away from going down a dead end street or getting stuck in another fenced yard. Along the way people would smile and comment on the situation.

This scene is very much the one I observed as I acted as Mama Duck’s unofficial herder. Courtesy Wikimedia.

I managed to get her herded onto the main street that heads toward the lake but about half a block along she made a left turn into a rather lush looking yard at another of the lovely heritage homes in this neighbourhood. An older woman was on the porch with her iPad so I explained why I was coming into her yard and she immediately helped gently herd the Mama and her nine ducklings back toward the street, as again there was no other way out of the yard. The woman gave me directions for the shortest route to the water. I used those to continue herding the ducks in that direction.

Then in the next block a male mallard appeared, and decided he wanted to have at ‘er with poor Mama Duck. “Hey, honey, let’s get it on!” Of course she was having none of it but there was a few minutes of tense drama while he chased her in circles through the air. Somehow she managed to finally get through to him: “Look, I’ve got nine little ones already. I’m in no mood.” I was worried it could end badly, and kept an eye on the temporarily stranded ducklings. Another neighbour watched this drama play out as I explained to him my role in it.

So on they went. I had to keep to the street side of the ducky procession because drivers in this town have a habit of behaving as if they’re on the Indy 500 with their expensive cars (Kelowna is after all a kind of Beverly Hills North). I had to flag one driver to the fact that he needed to pay attention to the ducks and slow down. Another neighbour shouted helpful directions toward the lake.

The last main cross street before the lakefront is another busy street, with walkers, cyclists, more racing drivers, and even the occasional rollerblader. Luckily there was a lull in traffic as Mama and her brood crossed but then she seemed to want to continue along that street in the wrong direction. I blocked her, forcing her to go the right way again. She slipped under a tall cedar hedge and I could no longer track her. I walked along the sidewalk of the property, one of Kelowna’s rich houses, complete with iron gates, but couldn’t see them anymore. However, as it was the last property before the beach, and indeed has private beachfront, I figured Mama would be able to take it from there.

On the way back I met the lady in the heritage house on her front porch again, who wanted to know how they made out. She said, “Well, you’ve certainly earned yourself a nice glass of wine.” Back at our home away from home, Keith and Judy said, “You’ve done your bit for the environment today!”

Ah, the bond between mother and baby duck…

It was a lovely interlude in an otherwise deeply stressful time. I’m sure a biologist would tell me that to the mother duck, I was just another potential danger to be overcome in her odyssey toward the lake. But being the romantic I am, I can’t help but hope that Mama Duck remembers a tall stranger in a straw hat and red summer shirt who helped shepherd her and her babies to safety on the water.

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Convergence 2016 Writers Weekend

Looking for a way to use your writing talents to inspire and guide a progressive 21st century? Join renowned Canadian authors J. Edward Chamberlin and Sharon Butala for Convergence 2016: The Spirit in the Landscape, a special weekend writers’ retreat held in Silverton, BC, May 13-14 at the Silverton Memorial Hall on Highway 6.

J. Edward Chamberlin is one of our featured guests at Convergence 2016.

J. Edward Chamberlin is one of our featured guests at Convergence 2016.

Subtitled “If this is your land, where are your stories?” from Chamberlin’s book of the same name, this year’s Convergence explores the growing worldwide movement to make sacred again our relationship with Nature, to return us to a sense that all beings are sacred and we are merely one strand in that web.

All stories, songs and poems teach values. This is an understanding inherent in many First Nations mythologies. Now at the other end of the industrial and technological revolutions, it’s time to allow ourselves to be re-absorbed into that sense of the sacred. And often it’s our storytellers, poets and indigenous elders who lead the way in crafting the narratives that point us in the direction of such a sacred relationship.

As Chamberlin writes in his book, “Other people’s stories are as varied as the landscapes and languages of the world; and the storytelling traditions to which they belong tell the different truths of religion and science, of history and the arts. They tell people where they came from, and why they are here; how to live, and sometimes how to die. They come in many different forms, from creation stories to constitutions, from southern epics and northern sagas to Native American tales and African praise songs, and from nursery rhymes and national anthems to myths and mathematics. And they are all ceremonies of belief as much as they are chronicles of events, even the stories that claim to be absolutely true.” (J. Edward Chamberlin, If This is Your Land, Where Are Your Stories?, Vintage Canada 2003-2004, pp. 1, 2.)

Sharon Butala will speak on the theme of 'The Spirit in the Landscape.'

Sharon Butala will speak on the theme of ‘The Spirit in the Landscape.’

Our other guest at Convergence 2016 is renowned author Sharon Butala, whose memoir The Perfection of the Morning has become a Canadian classic. Written on the cusp of transitioning from a promising university career to life on a Saskatchewan ranch with her husband, it beautifully develops the ‘spirit in the landscape’ featured in this year’s Convergence theme: “Surrounded as I was by miles of prairie still in the state it had been in since the glaciers had melted back ten thousand years before, with mirages hovering in the distance, the nights filled with the distant wail of coyotes, and with the canopy of stars, and the wind a constant, whispering companion, I began to have the first intimations that there was in Nature, much more than met the eye, something that existed in back of it. I did not know what that something was. I didn’t even expect ever to know, but nevertheless I strained every day to catch a glimpse of it. I thought if I could just see it, maybe I would understand it and that understanding would show me how to live.” (Sharon Butala, The Perfection of the Morning, Harper Perennial, 1994/2004, pp. 23, 24)

Convergence was founded in 2012 by author Sean Arthur Joyce with a mandate to help writers concerned with social and environmental justice to polish their skills and engage in stimulating discussion with world-class authors and thinkers. Chamberlin writes that, “It is only through the pressure of our imagination that we can resist the pressure of reality,” and, arguably, to stoke the fires of transformation at this critical juncture in human history. “In this sense, all stories are resistance stories and all songs are songs of resistance, pushing back against the tyrannies of the everyday as well as the terrors of the unknown.”

Convergence since its inception has been hosted by Heart’s Rest Retreats in New Denver, British Columbia, operated by United Church ministers George Meier and Therese DesCamp, advocates for progressive, inclusive spirituality. Included on the Convergence board as advisor is renowned Canadian poet Tom Wayman.

Beautiful Slocan Lake, just a block from Silverton Memorial Hall, will provide plenty of inspiration. Photo Sean Arthur Joyce

Beautiful Slocan Lake, just a block from Silverton Memorial Hall, will provide plenty of inspiration. Photo Sean Arthur Joyce

Located 100 km. north of popular small arts town Nelson, BC, Silverton and New Denver are inspiring communities in the gorgeous Valhalla mountain range on the shores of pristine Slocan Lake—a truly inspiring setting. Local accommodations are affordable and the strong organic farming ethic in the Slocan Valley means you’ll eat healthy while here. Meals will be catered on Saturday so those registering are asked to let us know your meal preferences. Evening meals can be a problem during the off-season for tourism here so have your meal options planned for Friday evening and Sunday. (See webpage registration form at http://www.heartsrest.com/convergence/convergence-writers-retreat/.)

SCHEDULE: Friday, May 13, 7 p.m.

Presentation by Sharon Butala and J. Edward Chamberlin followed by audience Q&A. Open to the public.

Saturday, May 14: Writing workshops

Open to registrants only; registrants can take one or both workshops.

  • 9:30 am – 12:30 pm: Sharon Butala
  • 2:00 – 5:00 pm: J. Edward Chamberlin
  • 7:00 pm: Spirit in the Landscape panel discussion with Sharon Butala, J. Edward Chamberlin, Therese DesCamp, and Sean Arthur Joyce.

Full registration (online or at the door) covers Friday night and Saturday night events, plus Saturday writing workshops: $35.

Saturday only admission (writing workshops and/or evening panel discussion): $35.

Friday evening only admission: $5. 

  • To register in advance contact Sean Arthur Joyce at ajoyce@uniserve.com and let us know your preferences for writing workshops and meals.

NOTE: While we are happy to provide links to area accommodations, Convergence is not providing accommodations for registrants.

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