Image 9 In 1997, Rebecca Mead moved from New York Magazine to The New Yorker. You know, the best magazine in all the world, with the most stacks of unread copies in all the world to prove it. Because, of course, copies of The New Yorker pile up in so many homes of those who subscribe as a profound tribute to the publication. Each issue is so dense with incisive reviews and intensely delicious features, not to mention its bevy of hilarious cartoons and other tidbits, that it can take weeks in a busy life to get through a single issue. Hence, copies accumulate dust waiting to be read. One of these days I’ll get to that March 3, 2008 issue, which I just noticed has Nancy Franklin weighing in on a new TV drama, Breaking Bad. I peeked. “Breaking Bad is very well done, but it has a bleakness that seems to be manufactured for no good reason,” she writes. “I don’t feel won over by the show.” Wonder how she feels now. Incidentally, as another aside, Franklin wrote one of my favourite pieces of all time, on former big band singer Jo Stafford.

(Get on with it – ed.) Okay, back to Rebecca Mead. She was here for the Vancouver Writers’ Festival to talk about her book, My Life in Middlemarch, inspired by George Eliot’s much-loved Victorian novel described by interviewer Bill Richardson as a novel that could badly use a few car chases. ”If ever a movie will never star Vin Diesel…”

But Mead also chatted a bit about life as a staff writer at The New Yorker. Noting her move from New York Magazine to The New Yorker, she observed: “That ‘er’ at the end made all the difference.” For one thing, given The New Yorker’s prestige, people almost always called her back, something that was forever hit and miss at New York. “It gives you such access to fascinating people.”

The atmosphere at The New Yorker, said Mead, is “so nice and genteel. You hear all these lovely, quiet conversations behind closed doors… ….[And] you’re not required to do anything you really don’t want to do.” She likened her arrival to her entry to Oxford, after growing up in a bit of a backwater. “Suddenly, there were all these really intelligent people, focused on doing intelligent things.” Mead described editor David Remnick as relentless in pursuing matters that interest him. “He is very much engaged in the world.”

Her most recent long feature was a profile of the controversial British classics scholar, Mary Beard, whom she much enjoyed getting to know. Mead said she’s grateful to have left behind her old desire, fired at New York Magazine, to write critically of people, an aspect of her earlier writing that she attributed to her relative youth. It’s easier to write critical, edgy articles when you’re younger, she said. “I’m weary of that kind of heartlessness.”

At The New Yorker, she much prefers to engage with “someone I love and admire. I’m looking for the good in the world, not for a cheap way to bring someone down, although that still has a place in the world.”

One more thing. Mead is not a fan of journalism courses. She said her decision to study journalism at New York University was a mistake. “You only learn by doing something you’re told to do, and getting paid for at the end of it…..sorry, journalism professors.”

Then, it was on to Middlemarch and Mead’s book detailing how George Eliot and her massive tome, considered by some the greatest English novel, has impacted on her own life. She still re-reads it every five years or so. Mead reflected on how her own attitudes to the main characters and the plot, itself, have changed as she has grown older. She’s gone from thinking of the novel, at 17, as a love story, to a treatise on what makes a good marriage, to a sobering consideration of one’s place in the world. She is also much more sympathetic to the odious Casaubon and his scholastic failures. Unknown-3Meanwhile, she has found similarities with the author in her own life. George Eliot also loved to eviscerate people when she was young. “She was venting her own frustration with the world on the people she wrote about. Then [like me] she grew out of it.” More interestingly, George Eliot famously co-habited with intellectual George Henry Lewes and considered him her husband, despite the fact that Lewes remained officially married to the mother of his three sons. Eliot helped care for his sons and was close to Unknown-5them. The name of Rebecca Mead’s husband is also George, and he, too, has three sons from a previous marriage that Mead has helped raise. How odd is that?

As an added bonus, in a discussion on whether the world of email and Twitter has doomed insights into authors’ lives that were previously revealed in letters, we learned that the scarily-intellectual Susan Sontag once sent an email with the subject line: “Wassup”. All in all, with Rebecca Mead’s pleasant English accent, candour and succinct observations, augmented by the ever witty and erudite Bill Richardson, the session flew by. It was certainly worth missing the Canucks that night.



On June 19, 1953, at the height of Cold War hysteria in the United States, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg died in the electric chair at Sing Sing, convicted of passing atomic secrets to the Soviet Union. Their executions remain perhaps the darkest of the many dark chapters of that terrible time. Even more than half a century later, the appalling cruelty of killing the father and mother of two young sons, six and 10, is hard to stomach.

Such was the sweep of anti-Communism and the fear of being seen as “a Red” that relatives of the Rosenberg would not take them in, leaving the youngsters to be brought up by Abel and Anne Meeropol, a kindly, left-leaning couple in New York. (Under the pseudonym Lewis Allan, Abel Meeropol wrote the Billie Holiday classic, Strange Fruit.)


Newly-elected president Dwight Eisenhower ignored world-wide pleas for the lives of the Rosenbergs to be spared. Among those who gave voice to the clemency campaign were Albert Einstein, Harold Urey of the Manhattan Project, Pope Pius XIIverner_31_sm (albeit timidly), Picasso, Jean-Paul Sartre and French president Vincent Auriol. Hundreds of prominent Americans, including many religious leaders, also protested the death penalty. For many who participated in the drive, still hopeful of a last-minute reprieve, the bleak news that the Rosenbergs had indeed been executed was overwhelming. The legendary religious activist and editor Dorothy Day summed up those feelings the next day in her paper, The Catholic Worker:

“My heart was heavy…knowing that Ethel Rosenberg must have been thinking, with all the yearning of her heart, of her own soon-to-be-orphaned children…..What greater punishment can be inflicted on anyone than those two long years in a death house, watched without ceasing so that there is no chance of one taking one’s life, and so thwarting the vengeance of the State.

“….At the last Ethel turned to one of the two police matrons who accompanied her and clasping her by the hand, pulled her toward her and kissed her warmly. Her last gesture was a gesture of love….Let us have no part with the vindictive State and let us pray for Ethel and Julius Rosenberg. By virtue of the prayers we may say in the future, at the moment of the death which so appallingly met them, they will have been given the grace to choose light rather than darkness. Love rather than Hate. May their souls rest in peace.”

Although there was widespread belief among protestors that the Rosenbergs were innocent, we now know for certainty that Julius Rosenberg did spy for the Soviet Union. However, his contribution to development of the atomic bomb by the Soviets was far from critical, wildly exaggerated by prosecutors, government and anti-Communist media. Whatever he did, nothing justified death in the electric chair.

Far worse, we also know that hard evidence against Ethel Rosenberg was extremely weak, hinging on false testimony by Ethel’s own brother, David Greenglass, also part of the Soviet spy ring, who was seeking to cover up his own wife’s involvement. He died recently at the age of 92, unrepentant to the end over his decision to send his older sister to her death.

The shameful story is vividly recounted in obituaries this week by the New York Times and the Guardian. Once a snake, always a snake.


tired pilgrim

Last month, I walked 335 kilometers in 16 days, covering a good chunk of the historic, pilgrims’ trail that winds through France and eventually all the way to Santiago de Compestella in Spain. Our party of four was booked into small hotels along the way. The deal also provided breakfast and dinner at these hotels, and transportation of our main luggage to the next day’s destination. Amazingly, I survived the marathon trek without blisters or serious aches and pains, beyond immense fatigue and extremely tired feet at the end of the day. Basically, I loved it. This coot is made for walking. For those thinking they might want to try something similar, I offer the following, aka “The Zen of Long-Distance Walking”:

  1. No gain without pain. No pain without gain.
  1. Always useful to remember: each step, no matter how painful, brings you one step closer to your destination, however distant. And a wonderful, hot shower.
  1. The ability of a wracked, tired body to heal overnight is a daily miracle.
  1. Make tracks in the fresh, glorious morning air, absolutely the best time to walk.
  1. Life on the road goes like this: 9 am to 1 pm, divine; 1 pm to 3 pm, tired but happy; 3 pm to 5 pm, who’s idea was this?
  1. The last few kilometres of any day’s walk are always toughest. Will we never get there?
  1. A path that goes down must eventually go up.
  1. Walking poles are recommended. They are certainly better than speeding Serbians.
  1. Bad jokes are not recommended.

10. Surface is everything. Pavement, rocks bad. Dirt, soft gravel good.

11. Short steps are better than long strides.

12. Whining, groaning, cursing availeth ye nought.

13. On a hot day, under a relentless sun, shade is priceless.

14. If the forest seems a little dark, it may mean you forgot to take off your sunglasses.

15. When going down a steep, treacherous slope, don’t look up.

16. Any glimpse of the charming, beautiful blue tit (chickadee) cheers the soul.

17. Walking reduces daily existence to its basics: rising at dawn, simple breakfast, walk, simple lunch, walk, shower, hot dinner, deep, blissful sleep.

18. Nunnery food is best avoided.

19. On the open road, being one with nature, one with the world, yields few deep thoughts. But small pleasures are myriad: the smell of a forest, the vivid greens of the rolling countryside, towering white clouds in a vast sky, sun-lit patches of moss covering ancient stone walls, the million-euro taste of local bread and cheese, and on and on.

20. When the walking is good, there’s no life like it. One is reminded of Scrooge on Christmas morning: “I don’t deserve to be so happy.”