MOTHER JONES COMES TO BC

(Mother Jones rallying Colorado miners)

Notwithstanding the dread my teacher mother felt every Labour Day, today is a day to celebrate the contribution of working people and their unions, not only to the building of BC, but to the many social benefits they fought for over the years, which we now tend to take for granted. You know, boring stuff like the eight-hour day, the five-day work week, paid holidays, workers’ compensation, safety standards, pensions, sick pay, the simple right to join a union and so many others. Sadly, some of these gains are being eroded in this scary new gig and everything-goes economy that seems to be driving workers down, rather than up. But that’s a topic for another day. Instead, to mark this country’s 123rd Labour Day, I offer a little-known tale from BC labour lore. At a time when the heroic fight of Vancouver Island coal miners against the robber baron mine owners was seriously flagging, done in by strikebreakers, militia soldiers and the courts, they received a legendary visitor.

Mention Mother Jones today, and thoughts immediately turn to the prominent muck-raking journal of the same name. But 100 years ago, the world knew a different Mother Jones. Mary Harris Jones was arguably the most famous woman in America. She was also regularly denounced by authorities as the most dangerous woman in America. A diminutive firebrand well into her senior years, Jones preached a fierce, anti-capitalism gospel of resistance and socialism wherever she travelled, and that was mostly wherever miners were on strike. Undeterred by jailings and frequent arrests, she took on mine owners, Pinkerton thugs, strikebreakers and governors alike, with her no holds barred support for miners and their families. She once wrote of miners in those grim days of low wages and terrible working conditions: “For a second more sunlight, men must fight like tigers. For the privilege of seeing the colour of their children’s eyes by the light of the sun, fathers must fight as beasts in the jungle. That life may have something of decency, something of beauty – a picture, a new dress, a bit of cheap lace fluttering in the window – for this, men who work down in the mines must struggle and lose, struggle and win.”

In June of 1914, she came to British Columbia. Two thousand Vancouver Island coal miners were in the second year of a desperate struggle against the mines’ grasping owners. Their union had sent for Mother Jones to buoy the strikers’ spirits. She made the long journey to Seattle from the violent Colorado coalfields, where striking miners were being gunned down by the state militia. As she prepared to board the steamer for Victoria, however, Canadian officials barred her way, labeling the feisty 77-year old “a disturbing element…likely to stir up trouble.” Mother Jones, who had friends in high places, retorted: We’ll see about that. She contacted U.S. Labour Secretary William B. Wilson, a former official of the United Mineworkers Union, who pulled strings in Ottawa, demanding that she receive “every right she is entitled to as an American citizen”. The next day, Mother Jones was on her way to Canada. The country was not new to her. A daughter of Irish parents, driven from their homeland by the potato famine, she grew up in Toronto, educated at Toronto Normal School, before heading permanently to the United States at the age of 23.

In Nanaimo, Mother Jones received a rapturous reception from the hard-pressed miners. As she recounted in her autobiography: “A regiment of Canadian Kilties met the train, squeaking on their bagpipes. Down the street came a delegation of miners [who] wore the badge of the working class—the overalls. I held a tremendous meeting that night, and the poor boys who had come up from the subterranean holes of the earth to fight for a few hours of sunlight, took courage. I brought them the sympathy of the Colorado strikers, a sympathy and understanding that reaches across borders and frontiers.”

A photo of that first meeting shows crowds of miners and their families, decked out in the best clothes they could manage, gathered on a hillside as Mother Jones hammers home her message of miner solidarity and resistance. From there, she went to four other strike battlegrounds, including Ladysmith and Cumberland. Years later, one of the strikers remembered: “She was a fiery one. I think she was 4-foot-5 or something. A short woman but, by God, she was something.” Mother Jones finished her BC visit with a rousing speech at the Labour Temple in Vancouver. Before an overflow crowd, she called for unity and a general strike, if necessary, to win the battle of the coalfields.. “Capitalism,” she told cheering trade unionists, “has danced too long on the hearts of the aching miners.”

 

MJ Funeral Headline

When miners’ guardian angel died in 1930 at the age of 93, no less than a young Gene Autry, the famed, future Singing Cowboy, recorded The Death of Mother Jones. Sang Gene: This grand old champion of labor/Was known in every land/She fought for right and justice/She took a noble stand.” The song concluded: “May the miners all work together/To carry out her plan/And bring back better conditions/For every laboring man.”

Surprising, yes, but as someone pointed out, in his big hit 15 years later, Here Comes Santa Claus, Autry wrote the words: He doesn’t care if you’re rich or poor, he loves you just the same.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

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WORKERS OF THE WORLD UNITE WATCHING MOVIES….YET AGAIN!

NOTE: This is not really a new blog posting. So apologies for repetition. I was trying to update a previous post on this from 2015 for Facebook, and ran into WordPress hell. So it’s up as an original rather than as an edit of the 2015 post, if that’s clear. Who am I again? Where’s Waldo? Anyway, Happy Workers’ Day!…

I had fun doing this a few years ago, compiling a list of my top ten films for Labour Day viewing. This was in 2014, when BC teachers, instead tending of heading back to school, were still on strike from the previous June. They would have several more weeks to go, before the longest province-wide teachers strike in BC history was over. And, just like in some of these movies, there was a happy ending. Last November, the teachers won a resounding victory in the Supreme Court of Canada, restoring classroom limits and other staffing measures the BC Liberals (remember them?) had illegally stripped from their contracts way back in 2002 (Jean Chretien was still prime minister!) The result has been the hiring of hundreds of new teachers for the new school year, making this perhaps the best ever Labour Day for BC teachers.

So, in response to absolutely no demand, here’s my Top 10 List again. Please scrutinize the comments, since there are some good proposed additions to the list. I, myself, would definitely add the recent movie Pride, which is now one of my favourite union films. It’s a true story, combining both gay rights and the historic 1983 coal miners’ strike, and is terrific from start to finish. Highly-recommnded. And I note that the great Charles Demers, writer, comedian and socialist extraordinaire, is high on Billy Elliott as a union movie, since the same miners’ strike depicted in Pride is very much a part of the inspiring saga of young Billy’s aspirations to be a dancer.

Anywhere, here’s my list, from 2014. Additions welcome!

https://mickleblog.wordpress.com/2014/09/01/labour-movie-viewers-of-the-word-unite/

IN THE BEGINNING…THERE WAS DAVE BARRETT

Image 7Watching the joyous, almost giddy swearing-in of the province’s new premier and his gender-balanced cabinet, I couldn’t help thinking of BC’s very first transition of power to the NDP, so long ago the Vancouver Sun had two full-time labour reporters. That historic ground-breaker took place way back in 1972, or five years before David Eby, the province’s new Attorney General, was born. July 18 was only the third such right-to-left tilt in BC history. Of course, that’s three more than the zero Stanley Cups won by the hapless Canucks, and just enough to keep politics interesting and a semblance of two-party democracy alive in BC’s polarized environment. No wonder John Horgan couldn’t keep that big goofy grin off his face. But the circumstances could not have been more different than the first official visit to Government House by an NDP premier-in-waiting. No live TV, no tweets, no hoopla from First Nations dancers. Very little buzz at all. Yet it was a pivotal moment for the province, never to be the same again. So, for David Eby and “all you kids out there”, return with us now to that thrilling day of yesteryear, when NDP leader Dave Barrett succeeded the indomitable W.A.C. Bennett as premier of British Columbia.

Given the NDP’s string of 12 consecutive, electoral defeats, going back to the formation of its CCF predecessor in 1933, it was a day many thought they would never see in their lifetime. Against all expectations, however, the party’s 13th campaign proved lucky beyond imagining. On August 30, 1972, Bennett’s 20-year grip on power came to a decisive end. The NDP won a stunning, landslide victory that few, beyond Barrett and a few canny observers, saw coming. The hysteria, bedlam and sheer outpouring of joy at party headquarters that night was off the charts. The “socialist hordes” were inside the gates at last.

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Yet such was the strange, almost surreal, nature of the times, like Monty Python’s depiction of the dull life of Ralph Mellish, suddenly, nothing happened. Barrett had no idea when he would actually get to be premier. The shattered, 72-year old Bennett said nothing about how and when the transfer of power from Social Credit would take place. An eerie, political silence descended on Victoria. Unsure of protocol, for much of the next two weeks, Barrett sat at home in Coquitlam, twiddling his thumbs, waiting for a summons to Government House. Finally, on the morning of Sept. 15, Bennett officially resigned, and the long-anticipated, formal phone call from Deputy Provincial Secretary Lawrie Wallace came through. The boyish, joke-cracking, 41-year old social worker, son of an East Vancouver fruit peddler, would be sworn in that afternoon as premier of British Columbia, the first Jew and the first socialist to hold the province’s top elected position.

Still, given the absurdly short notice, Barrett had to hurry. He scrambled his wife and kids into the family Volvo and headed off to Tsawwassen for the ferry to Swartz Bay. The premier-to-be’s vehicle took its place in line with everyone else. Once on the other side, Barrett realized he didn’t know exactly where to go. Fishing a dime from his pocket, he used a pay phone at the ferry terminal to call Government House for precise directions. “I think he reached the gardener,” Shirley Barrett laughed later. Barrett parked the car in the visitors’ parking lot, and the family sauntered happily up the driveway. Barrett’s tie flapped casually in the breeze, his teenaged sons grudgingly wearing jackets, but tieless.

The new premier was sworn in before a few officials and associates, family and the media. As he signed the book, a photographer asked him to “look up, Mr. Premier”. Sun columnist Allan Fotheringham reported that Barrett displayed a look of surprised delight at hearing himself addressed as “premier” for the first time. Afterwards, he lifted a glass of champagne and proclaimed: “This breaks a 20-year fast.” Outside, queried how he felt, the province’s 26th premier replied: “I feel a little more honourable.”

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An hour later at the legislature, the province’s first socialist cabinet was sworn in. Fotheringham watched Barrett, closely. He wrote: “[He] wore a continuing grin of simple pleasure. It was not a smug, greedy look. Just a boyish failure to subdue his true feelings.” It was if he knew already his government would fundamentally change the province. There would be no hesitation, no turning back.

Four and a half decades later, it was the turn of another NDP leader to take the oath of office. This was a far more public, more high-spirited swearing-in than the low-key ceremony that ushered Dave Barrett into office. The ornate room at Government House was packed, befitting a date for the transition set well in advance, rather than by the back-of-the-envelope whim of Wacky Bennett. TV networks carried the ceremony live. First Nations dancers were front and centre. All 40 NDP MLA’s were there, brought to the august residence in a rented bus. “That’s the way I roll,” said Horgan.

The atmosphere could not have been more happy and relaxed. Lieutenant-Governor Judith Guichon, who made the critical, pressure-packed decision to reject Christy Clark’s request for an election and call on the NDP to give government a whirl, got into the spirit of things. After Horgan, while taking the first oath of office, awkwardly stopped at “I’, without repeating his full name, she quipped “He’s a quick learner”, when he got the second and third oath right. Her Majesty’s Representative also gave Agriculture Minister Lana Popham an affectionate hug, after Popham inked her name in the ceremonial book. It was that kind of affair.

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Now comes the hard part, of course. Governing is never easy, especially when so many are out to get you. But Horgan has wisely copied one of the positive pages from the Barrett playbook: bring in simple and popular measures that help those who need it most right off the bat. Besides quickly increasing the minimum wage and welfare rates, the Barrett government enacted as its first order of business a guaranteed “mincome” of $200 a month for the province’s senior citizens. The first program of its kind in North America, it remained the most cherished of all the far-reaching moves by the NDP over the next 39 months. Mincome, said Social Services Minister Norm Levi, represents “the unfinished work of the socialist movement in its concern for people of all ages”.

On his third day in office, Horgan hiked disability assistance and welfare rates by $100 a month, the first welfare increase in more than 10 years. It was a good start.

 

 

 

 

Auntie Irene, Helena Gutteridge and The Mayor

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At the age of 70, my beloved Auntie Irene, under her scholastic name of Irene Howard, published her definitive biography of Helena Gutteridge, Vancouver’s first woman “alderman”. Ten years later, when she was 80, she completed her remarkable book Gold Dust On His Shirt, a moving saga of her family’s working class life in the gold mines of British Columbia, feathered with impeccable research of the times. At 90 she published a very fine poem, which is reproduced below.

And one morning last month, at the age of 94 and a half, Auntie Irene sat in the front row of chairs arrayed in a room off the main lobby at city hall, looking as elegant and vivacious as anyone who pre-dated Vancouver’s Art Deco municipal masterpiece by 14 years could dare to look.

She was there as a guest of honour, and rightly so, for the unveiling of a national historic plaque paying tribute to Helena Gutteridge, the woman she had written so authoritatively about more than 20 years earlier. Without Auntie Irene’s book, Gutteridge would almost certainly be just another footnote in the city’s neglected history of those who fought to make life better. With justification, Auntie Irene had subtitled her biography: The Unknown Reformer. Not only did her chronicle bring Gutteridge to public prominence, it was she who submitted the application for her recognition to Parks Canada and the august Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada. The application had been gathering dust throughout the nearly 10 years of government by the Harper Conservatives, who evinced no interest in commemorating activists, let alone a strong, challenging woman like Helena Gutteridge.

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From the moment she arrived in Vancouver in 1911, Gutteridge had set to work to change the way things were. She was a relentless campaigner for women’s suffrage, a social reformer and active trade unionist, president of the local tailors’ union and the first woman to crack the executive of the Vancouver Trades and Labour Council. In 1914, she established a successful cooperative to provide employment for impoverished women, producing toys, dolls and Christmas puddings. She was the driving force behind the province’s first minimum wage for women and led a courageous, spirited, four-month strike by women laundry workers in the fall of 1918.

Marriage and a move to a Fraser Valley arm curtailed her activism for a time, but the Depression re-ignited her fire. Her marriage over, she returned to Vancouver a strong supporter of the new CCF and in 1937, Gutteridge entered history as the first woman elected to city council, championing, among other causes, low-income housing. Demonstrating anew her commitment to the oppressed, she hired on as a welfare officer in a Japanese-Canadian internment settlement, quarreling at times with bureaucrats who criticized her for being too generous. At the age of 66, low on money, Gutteridge went to work for a time at a city cannery. Despite the physical toll, she told friends she appreciated the chance to learn about the harsh conditions faced by her fellow assembly-line workers. For the rest of her life, living on a small pension, she threw herself into the cause of international peace, rejecting attempts to brand her as a “red”. When she died at the age of 81, her passing was noticed, but barely.

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Now, thanks largely to Auntie Irene, the contribution to the cause by Helena Gutteridge will not be forgotten. The mayor was there, pointing out that “we continue her work in earnest at city hall”. Liberal MP Joyce Murray was there, along with four city councillors, reporters, and of course, members of our family. There was a fuss made over Auntie Irene. She was interviewed by the Vancouver Courier, providing her usual trenchant comments on the significance of Helena Gutteridge. “When she saw something that needed to be done, she rolled up her sleeves and did it,” she told the Courier’s Martha Perkins. “I admire the fact that she was so progressive. She looked at the slums and thought: ‘This shouldn’t be.’” To our pleased applause, she was singled out from the podium, and, at the end of the formalities, the mayor came over to say ‘hello’. Gregor Robertson was more than gracious, He sat down beside Auntie Irene, and the two engaged in a lively conversation both seemed to enjoy. After bantering that she didn’t know whether to call him Your Excellency, Your Worship or Gregor (she settled on ‘Gregor’), she reminded the mayor of Helena Gutteridge’s political work and her passion for social housing. “It was a big and sorry problem, which she just took on and brought the other councilors with her.”

His Worship told me later: “It was great to have a chat with her. It’s always a highlight to connect with elders who have seen this city and world transform.” Indeed, Auntie Irene is almost the last surviving member in our extended family who were part of the resolute generation that persevered through the Depression, World War Two, the Cold War and so much more. The toughest thing I ever faced was running out of dope at a be-in.

Born in Prince Rupert in 1922, she had a childhood of upheaval, moving from mine to mine, living in tents and log cabins, and one of tragedy, shooed into the kitchen at the age of nine, as her mother lay dying on the sofa. There were three elder brothers, Art, Verne and Ed, then Irene and young Freddie. Their life was all about hard work and survival in the toughest of conditions, similar to the lives of so many British Columbians, whose labour built this province. At last, ironically, just as the Depression began, there was permanent work for her father Alfred Nels Nelson and two of “the boys” at the Pioneer Gold Mine near Bralorne. No one got rich. It was the Depression, after all. But there was stability. Inevitably, perhaps, it did not last. In 1935, her father was diagnosed with silicosis. At 60, his life as a working miner was over, with little to show for it but a deadly disease.

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He took up chicken farming in the Fraser Valley. That’s where our families intertwined. My mother’s parents were trying to extract a living from a stone-strewn farm in nearby Aldergrove. She and Irene became lifelong friends. The bonds were further fastened when Irene’s brother Ed married my mother’s younger sister Greta. In January, 1948, Alfred Nels Nelson took his final short breath and was gone. Years later, Auntie Irene wrote, bitterly: “Miners have died before from silicosis, but these men weren’t my father. Some fifty years later, as I write this, I sit and cry, and it’s not just about the oxygen tent and the desperate last gasps and my not being there that night. It’s about the gold, the Christly useless gold (that’s his word, ‘Christly’) stashed away somewhere – in Ottawa at the Royal Mint I guess, and Fort Knox, Kentucky.”

Her upbringing and the stark injustices meted out to ordinary people led to a career that produced numerous historical essays on workers and women, plus, of course, her authoritative account of Helena Gutteridge, which was short-listed for both a BC Book Prize and the City of Vancouver Book Prize and, as mentioned, her moving story of her own immigrant family, Gold Dust On His Shirt. It is a book that cries out for a wider audience.

So, all hail Auntie Irene and her other persona, Irene Howard. When you are ninety-four and a half years old, just waking up to the breaking of another dawn is a big deal. But how gratifying to have had that special day, when we all paid court. Her smile could have melted armies. At times, it truly is A Wonderful Life.

As promised, here is her marvelous poem, a tribute to the working life of her Scandinavian father, published in her 91st year.

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PETER COMPARELLI, R.I.P.

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It has been a terrible year. Bowie and Prince taken far too early. Leonard Cohen leaving us to mourn and light candles against the dark. Long-time friends battling serious health issues. Fake news, the decline of newspapers and the mainstream media, more necessary than ever to hold governments and politicians to account. An antiquated electoral system, an FBI “announcement coup” against Hillary Clinton and Russian hackers delivering a sniveling, bullying, thin-skinned, shallow-thinking prima-donna with the attention span of a child to the White House, while the most adult of U.S. presidents takes his dignified leave. Terrorism in Europe. Aleppo. And now, to cap off this annus horribilis came news of the passing of Peter Comparelli, as lovely a person as there ever was in the tough, crazy world of journalism.

Beyond being a wonderful fellow and someone to enjoy a beer or five with, Peter had a special place in my heart, as the guy who took over my beloved spot on the labour beat at the Vancouver Sun. He thrived on it. A few years later, when I joined the rival Province as that paper’s labour reporter, thirsting to kick the slats out of the Sun’s coverage, I had a hard time harbouring any ill-will towards my good friend, Comparelli.

In fact, one of the best times either of us ever had on the beat was getting to cover the international convention of the Brotherhood of Teamsters in, where else, Las Vegas. We were both sent because it was a good local story. A band of feisty Vancouver dissidents had managed to get elected as delegates, and they were determined to raise the banner of reform against the organized thuggery of the big, bad, beefy Teamsters. If that embarrassed Vancouver’s own Senator Ed Lawson, the smooth, highly-paid presider over the Canadian section of the union and an international vice-president, all the better.

And they did cause a ruckus, most notably when feisty B.C. truck driver Diana Kilmury stood on the convention floor, braving the intimidating howls of several thousand male, mostly large, delegates, and denounced the Teamsters for all the criminal indictments amassed against their leaders. “I didn’t indict you,” Kilmury shouted into the mike. “But if the FBI has issued that many indictments, you must be up to something!” (In fact, then president Roy Williams was eventually sent to prison for his connections to organized crime. His prominent partner at the head table and successor, Jackie Presser, avoided going to jail only by dying of cancer.) But beyond all the great copy, and the fascination of seeing the Teamsters operate up close, with the ghost of Jimmy Hoffa hovering over them, it was a delight just to hang out in Vegas with Peter. We coughed up small amounts of money in the casinos (more by Peter, of course… ), bathed in the neon sun that banished night along the strip and spent our expense money. It doesn’t get much better than that.

Comparelli eventually moved on to cover the legislature. Then, to everyone’s surprise, off he went to sample the delights of life and journalism in Hong Kong, never to return. But, as the spontaneous outpouring of love and affection for Peter on the Pacific Press Facebook page attests, he was not forgotten in Vancouver, even after 30 years away.

Apart from his cracker-jack reporting, he was a union shop steward when those positions mattered, an exceptionally able catcher on the Sun’s competitive softball squad, teaming up with ace pitcher Kelly Evans to win so many games, and an embracer of the good times life had to offer, someone you were always glad to see. Former Sun reporter Debbie Wilson, who had decamped to Mexico, noted how grateful she was when Peter suddenly turned up, amid the ruins of the 1985 Mexico City earthquake. “He was dispatched by the Sun to cover the disaster and also to find me, as I was (unknown to me) MIA.” With an innate ability to love and attract women, he broke some hearts, it must be owned, until finally meeting his match and marrying Idy. At his wedding reception in Vancouver, I had never seen him happier and more assured that he was doing the right thing.

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He worked for Asiaweek in Hong Kong, was their correspondent in Kuala Lampur, became a skilled editor, then bounced around with other publications and jobs, till it became hard to keep track. But it was in Hong Kong where he was most remembered, a regular at the city’s legendary Foreign Correspondents Club, along with other refugees from the Vancouver Sun who washed up in Hong Kong. Der Hoi-Yin, Jake van der Kamp and the irrepressible Wyng Chow were particularly close. Peter’s last trip back to Hong Kong, from his permanent home in Penang, had been in May. But Wyng Chow had been in touch with him only a few weeks ago. Though a bit less chipper than usual, with his experimental anti-cancer drugs proving difficult to manage, Wyng said Peter talked of returning for yet another reunion. News of his death was a shock. He died, at 63, from lung cancer, surrounded by Idy and his three brothers.

Farewell, Peter. We loved you, man.

His Vancouver Sun obituary is here: http://www.legacy.com/obituaries/vancouversun/obituary.aspx?n=peter-comparelli&pid=183190212

And this affecting tribute from Tim Noonan of the South China Morning Post: http://www.scmp.com/sport/other-sport/article/2057942/editors-office-baseball-field-peter-comparelli-was-man-all-seasons

(photos courtesy of Wyng Chow and Der Hoi-Yin)

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Orme and Gordie, friends for life.

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(Troop Sgt. Major Gordon Bannermann, left, and Sgt. Orme Payne, shortly after 73 days in action without relief.)

For the first time in forever, World War II veteran Orme Payne did not go down to the Legion to mark Remembrance Day. He’s had a rough patch this year. After a long spell in hospital, he’s lost weight and is weaker than when I last saw him a year ago. “I’m too damned tottering on my feet,” the feisty 94-year old vet told me over the phone when I called to check on him, his voice still strong. “I’ve lost 20 pounds. I put on my blazer and it weighed a ton.” His life-long friend and fellow vet Gordon Bannerman is in tough, too, having suffered a grievous personal loss just last week.

The two have been through so much. Boyhood friends in Saskatchewan, they fought beside each other all the way through the bloody campaigns of Italy and Holland, survived some close calls, and remain, today, after more than 70 years, the very best of friends. “We still talk pretty nearly every other night,” said Orme. Of those not claimed on the battlefield, time has claimed all but a handful of wartime enlistees in the prairies’ 60th Battery of Royal Canadian Artillery. “Yep, the ranks are thinning out, all right,” said Orme, mystified that two of the few survivors are himself and his closest pal in all the world. “It’s kind of a dream in way.” As we rang off, Orme said I could call him whenever I wanted. “Anytime you want to hear a lie…”

A year ago, I wrote about their remarkable lives and friendship for the Globe and Mail. I offer it here, with immense pleasure that they are with us, still.

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(With Bannerman and Payne. John Lehmann photo.)

http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/british-columbia/brothers-in-arms-a-friendship-that-has-endured-long-after-their-warended/article27197709/

Lest we forget.

His Bob-ness joins Yeats, Beckett and Eliot

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In the winter of 1990, I waited with a handful of reporters and photographers in a grand salon of the Palais-Royal in Paris for Bob Dylan. More than 25 years ahead of the Nobel Prize people, the French had decided that Dylan’s lyrical prowess was worthy of the country’s highest cultural honour, Commandeur dans l’ Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. T.S. Eliot was one of the first to receive the award in 1960. Borges followed in 1962. And now, following in the footsteps of Sean Connery (1987), it was Bob’s turn.

Finally, the gilded, ceiling-high white doors opened, and there he was, ambling into the opulent room, followed by France’s flamboyant minister of culture at the time, Jack Lang. He was wearing a snazzy, tux-like black jacket over a sharp white shirt, sleek dark pants and, I couldn’t help noticing, cowboy boots. As flashbulbs went off, Dylan seemed like a deer caught in the headlights. He looked haggard, eyes half open, as if he’d just been roused from bed, without a shower and“ one more cup of coffee before I go”. We were separated only by a low velvet rope. I could have reached out and touched him.

It was almost unnerving, being so close to the figure who’d been my hero and constant companion since high school, when I put on my father’s copy of Another Side of Bob Dylan for the second time, and began listening to the lyrics. (The first time I thought what I heard was a joke…)

As Jack Lang spoke briefly about Dylan’s music and “poésie”, Bob rocked nervously side to side, glancing about, twitching. He appeared “lost in Juarez” or “old Honolulu, San Francisco, Ashtabula”, an ordeal merely to remain still. Lang then reached into his pocket for the illustrious medallion and closed in to affix it around his neck. Dylan stiffened, as the Culture Minister embraced him on both sides of his cheeks in that winning Gallic manner. Awkwardly, Dylan took out a crumpled piece of paper, and muttered: “Mille mercis.” Seemingly relieved that was over, he said in English, a bit more audibly, with his hand over his heart: “A thousand thank you’s.” For the first time, he actually smiled. Briefly. Dylan stayed another 30 seconds or so for the photographers (“Bob! Bob…!”) and poof, he was gone. The Jokerman had made his escape.

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(Lucie McNeill photo)

He’d been before us no more than five minutes. As is almost everything about Dylan, the entire experience was surreal. One can expect something just as strange IF he appears before the Swedish Academy to pocket the Nobel Prize for Literature on Dec. 10. There’s no guarantee he will show up at all.  The night the Prize was announced, Dylan’s “never-ending tour” played, appropriately, Las Vegas. (On Oct. 30, he’ll be in Paducah.) True to form, he said not a word to the audience about anything, least of all the astounding recognition of his life’s work. And so far, not even an official statement. Is anyone surprised? If there is one constant of Bob’s oddball, reclusive life, it’s this. He has remained, from the beginning, a contrarian. As University of Toronto literature teacher Ira Wells wrote perceptively in the Globe and Mail: “It’s hard to think of an artist who has worked harder, or more consistently over a span of decades, to alienate his own fan base.” Like a true artist, and I am one of those who consider Dylan the Shakespeare of our age, he lets his work speak for itself. And what a legacy it is.

People who criticize the Nobel Prize going to “a songwriter”, miss the point. Dylan is so much more than that. His vision and lyricism over more than 50 years is out there all by itself. It goes far beyond his terrific protest songs and mind-bending rock canticles of the 1960’s. There is a reason so many books are written about Dylan by serious literary critics. For all the greatness of Bowie and Prince and Springsteen, that doesn’t happen with their music, outstanding as it is. Bob Dylan has treasured words all his life. He uses them in a way no songwriter has, before or since. (Leonard Cohen comes close, but lovely Leonard has never come close to the over-arching influence of Dylan, who changed the face of music. They are mutual admirers of each other, by the way.) At 75, Bob’s mystifying muse continues to drive him forward. The Nobel Prize is for an exceptional body of work, not for a bunch of good songs. In the words of the Academy, it went to Dylan “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition”. I couldn’t be happier over their decision.

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A final note. While dismissed by many who just like his “old stuff”, Dylan’s output following his lost decade of the 1980’s is exceptionally rich and rewarding, containing some of his best songs. But they are no longer anthems of a generation. They don’t impact society the way Dylan did all those years ago. So they tend not be listened to all that much. And, as always, some are put off by his voice, now in heavy croak mode. But Dylan still knows how to wind it around his consistently-brilliant, deep lyrics. Plus, his veteran band fits him like a glove. Start with the under-rated Oh Mercy (1989), all the way to Modern Times, released in 2006 when Bob was 65, which I would put in the top five among all his albums. I could go on and on.

Never expect the expected from Bob. A reverse chameleon, changing to ensure he does not fit it. Frank Sinatra covers, anyone? As he sang more than 50 years ago:

 And if my thought dreams could be seen

They’d probably put my head in a guillotine/

But it’s alright, Ma, it’s life, and life only.

 A few years ago, I put together my list of Dylan’s Top 100 Songs (reduced a bit). It wasn’t easy. So many favourites didn’t even make the cut. Imagine, not just a few great songs, but more than a hundred. Anyway, here it is, with selections more  or less chronological. Enjoy and nitpick away.

Song to Woody.    He Was a Friend of Mine.    Who Killed Davey Moore?

John Brown.    Lay Down Your Weary Tune.    Blowin’ in the Wind.

 Girl from the North Country.    Masters of War.    A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.

 Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right.    Farewell, Angelina.    Tomorrow Is a Long Time.

 The Times They Are A-Changin’.    The Ballad of Hollis Brown.    When the Ship Comes In.

 Boots of Spanish Leather.    With God on Our Side.    One Too Many Mornings.

 The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll.    Chimes of Freedom.    It Ain’t Me Babe.

 To Ramona.    My Back Pages.    Subterranean Homesick Blues.    She Belongs to Me.

 It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry.    Maggie’s Farm.

Love Minus Zero/No Limit.     Mr. Tambourine Man.    It’s All Right, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)

 Gates of Eden.    Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream.    It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.

 Like a Rolling Stone.    Queen Jane Approximately.    Ballad of a Thin Man.

 Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues.    Desolation Row.    Visions of Johanna.

 Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands.    I Shall Be Released.    All Along the Watchtower.

 I Dreamed I Saw Saint Augustine.    I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight.    I Threw It All Away.

 Day of the Locusts.    Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door.    Forever Young.

 On a Night Like This.    Simple Twist of Fate.    Shelter From the Storm.

If You See Her, Say Hello.    Tangled Up in Blue.

You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go.    Hurricane.    Romance in Durango.

 Black Diamond Bay.    Where Are You Tonight (Journey Through Dark Heat).

 Gotta Serve Somebody.    Slow Train.     I Believe in You.    Every Grain of Sand.

 Angelina.    Blind Willie McTell.    I and I.    Jokerman.    Licence to Kill.

 When the Night Comes Falling from the Sky.    Dark Eyes.    Political World.

 Everything is Broken.    Man in the Long Black Coat.    Most of the Time (bootleg version).

 What Was It You Wanted?    Series of Dreams.    Tryin’ to Get to Heaven.    Highlands.

 Not Dark Yet.    Cold Irons Bound.    Mississippi (first bootleg version).

High Water (for Charley Paton).    Things Have Changed.    Nettie Moore.

 Workingman’s Blues #2.    The Levee’s Gonna Break.    Ain’t Talkin’.

 Thunder on the Mountain. Dignity.    Red River Shore.    Huck’s Tune.

 Tell Ol’ Bill.    ‘Cross the Green Mountain.    It’s All Good.    Titanic.

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