The r/Place Experiment In Internet Community

Reddit is a place where anyone can find or create a group about anything. It is very loosely moderated and, consequently, has developed a reputation as a hangout for neo-Nazis, anti-Social Justice Warriors, misogynists, and assholes in general. But on the April first weekend, reddit.com created an experiment that will be the focus of discussion and debate for years to come — or at least as long as people are interested in the Internet.

Reddit created a space, r/place, where any Reddit member (and there are legions of them) could contribute to an art project. The Place was 1000 X 1000 pixels in size. Participants were invited to place a pixel, in any one of 16 colors, anywhere on the space. Users could place more than one pixel, but had to wait five minutes in between placements. After a few individual attempts at making a picture, groups formed to make team projects. Penis pics proliferated. Soon the entire one million pixel grid was covered and pictures both created and destroyed by users. There were attempts to grief the project, including the creation of a black blot that spread like a malignant virus from the center of the page. Teams began utilizing their time and energy to protecting what they had done, and this was the final result at the end of three days:

via sudoscript.com/reddit-place

Pretty impressive, right? Let’s check out a few highlights. First, that block of text is a Reddit tale inspired by the Star Wars prequel. The national flags show an interesting progression over the weekend — someone extended the German flag over the French one. The French retaliated by going vertical and, finally, the flag overlap was replaced by the European Union banner. Canada began with a suitably modest maple leaf that was replaced by one that was somewhat larger but perhaps more significantly, hockey logos abound in the grand scheme. The entire design is strung together (sort of) by a rainbow highway.

Here is the final version of Place on Reddit.

Here is a time lapse of the Place being created. (You can search “r/place timelapse” on YouTube and get others of varying lengths.)

Here is a time lapse of small (but interesting) sections.

Fall of the Void (black blot).

There are several heat map breakdowns, showing most-changed pixel sites over time. A fully browsable map done in Minecraft.

Already major critiques and interpretations of the project have appeared on-line. Here’s Ars Technika being sort of thoughtful, for instance. But my favorite is this post by sudoscript, who comes up with a Hindu exegesis: Creators, Preservers, Destroyers = Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva. (If you don’t look at any other site about this, you should click on sudoscript, which has some fine graphic excerpts.)

Andy Baio has a swell collection of links, but by the time you read this, it’s already obsolete.

[discovered via Metafilter]

Pictures I Like: John Decker

The other night I watched a 1940s crime movie, Scarlet Street, on TCM. Edward G. Robinson plays a hen-pecked husband who holds down a stultifying job as cashier/bookkeeper at some sort of company. His only joy is painting, which he does in the bathroom of his run-down apartment. His wife hates his painting — doesn’t like the smell. One day, Edward G. Robinson meets Joan Bennett and is enraptured. Dan Duryea plays the heel who Joan loves (she likes to be smacked around). He persuades her to seduce the old guy. Things lead to a murderous climax. Okay, pretty much standard noir fare, but…

The paintings that Edward G. Robinson’s character creates are derided by his wife and others, but the first one I glimpsed made me sit up. The subject matter is a nondescript white flower in a glass, the painting looks like the artist was using hallucinogenic drugs. This was something special! In the movie, critics and dealers agree. Leaving aside the movie plot, I had to know more about the flower, some street scenes, and an incredible portrait of Joan Bennett, with eyelashes spiky as a psychedelic flower!

Screengrabs from Scarlet Street: the flower, portrait of Joan Bennett, closeup of portrait. The movie is in black-and-white, of course. I don’t know if any color was used in these paintings or not. (At least one of the paintings — that features a snake wrapped around an elevated train support — was in color). Decker has deliberately aimed at a primitive, untrained style — look at the dead-on composition of the Bennett portrait, for instance.

It didn’t take much digging to discover that the paintings had been made by John Decker. I researched him and that’s where things got really interesting, because John Decker was an artist, art forger, and drinking companion of W.C. Fields, John Barrymore, and other famous boozers. He may or may not have been a spy. He may or may not have forged the Head of Christ attributed to Rembrandt that hangs in Harvard’s Fogg Museum. He certainly did a famous portrait of W.C. Fields as Queen Victoria. Any of these accomplishments are enough to make a man interesting.

John Decker probably about 1935. [Wikipedia]

John Decker was born Leopold von Decken in Berlin. Or possibly in London. Or Greenwich. One story had his aristocrat father eloping with an English opera singer and the young couple fleeing social scandal to England. An art gallery bio has him born in San Francisco before being abandoned in England. Wikipedia has the more conventional tale: that the child was two when his parents moved to London.

Graf Ernst August von der Decken, son of an artist, worked as a reporter and married Maria Anna Avenarius, an opera singer, in Greenwich in 1898. Their son was born in 1895. Hence the scandal. Maria abandoned the household at some point in what was, apparently, a stormy marriage. Ernst left his son alone in 1908. Decker despised his mother, “That red-headed whore!” “I like John Decker,” John Barrymore once said, “He hates sunsets and his mother.” Sunsets, possibly, because they reminded him of his mother’s red hair. At least that is the legend as recalled by one of Decker’s cronies. It does appear that Decker hated the natural auburn shade of his own hair. Maria died in 1918. Ernst in 1934.

Legend has it (meaning John Decker told a drunken story that was recalled later by someone who had heard it while drunk) that, at the age of thirteen, the young lad began to work for an art forger, whose specialty was conning tourists. During World War I, some of these paintings were shipped back to the continent and some had writing on the back of the canvas that may have been coded espionage messages. And that, according to legend, got the young man interned on the Isle of Man in 1917 or 1918. Later, Decker said that it was a terrible experience; that he had witnessed scenes of depravity too horrible now to relate. One that he did relate had to do with an internee who committed suicide by immolating himself on an electric fence. Since there is no record of electric fences at the Man internment camp, that seems unlikely. Decker also claimed that internees had to eat the corpses to keep from starving.

Internee art for one of the four newspapers published at the Isle of Man camp at Knockaloe. [via bbc.com, copyright Manx National Heritage, knockaloe.im]

Most likely Decker was interned because he had been born in Germany and was still a German citizen. His father may have left him in 1908, but someone seemed to support him, and it probably wasn’t an art forger. Decker was studying art at the Slade School of Art in London (where Barrymore also studied) before his internment, but that factoid was later embellished by naming his teacher as Walter Sickert, who, both legend and Patricia Cornwall claim, was Jack the Ripper.

Released at the War’s end, the young man may have travelled to Europe (or not) but did shift his name from von Decken to John Decker. Using phony papers, at some point he sailed to America, probably in 1921. He hung around New York for a while, working as a newspaper caricaturist and set decorator for stage productions. He tried acting, but, legend has it, he was already a heavy drinker and passed out on stage during a scene with Jeanette MacDonald. In 1928, or possibly 1930, Decker emigrated to Hollywood, where anybody can be anyone they want to be. He left his first wife, Helen, in New York, along with his baby daughter. When he arrived in California, Decker had a second wife, Judith. He never divorced Helen, not even after marrying a third time.

Decker had met John Barrymore in New York (in a bar, of course, where they discovered they had the same taste in beer, the legend says) and soon became part of a drunken crew known as the Bundy Drive Boys. Bundy Drive was the location of Decker’s studio and the boys included, besides Barrymore and W.C. Fields: Ben Hecht, who wrote the dramatic sketch that Decker performed in New York; Gene Fowler, journalist turned script-writer; Sadakichi Hartmann, art critic and poet; and actors Errol Flynn, John Carradine, Thomas Mitchell, Alan Mowbray, and others who drifted in and out. Toward the end of the group’s existence, a few younger men, such as Anthony Quinn and Vincent Price, tagged along. Members of the original group had achieved some success in New York, where several of them first met, and had trekked out to Hollywood where the money was. Most of them hated the place and the film industry. All wanted to be a different kind of artist than they were — the screenwriters wanted to be novelists, the actors wanted to be painters, and so on. Decker was very clear about his art and his motivation: he wanted to make money and he would paint anything, anytime for a fee.

Decker was very gifted and could draw well and paint quickly. Somehow, though, he could not become wealthy, or at least, not wealthy enough. Mind you, he was living the high life through the 1930s, but there was an air of dissatisfaction about him that was revealed in the coat-of-arms that he hung on the Bundy Drive door. It shows his initials on a shield flanked by unicorns and bears the motto: “Useless. Insignificant. Poetic.”

Decker portrait of Henry Hull as Jeeter Lester, 1935. [photo from eBay sale of painting. It went for $3250.]

For a time, Decker produced caricatures, the same kind of work he had done in New York. Occasionally, he did a portrait and, one auspicious day, someone — legend varies as to who — requested a portrait in old master style, or as a knight or royalty or something, and Decker obliged. Soon, many of Hollywood’s most recognizable stars had paintings that showed them as a lead character in some historical fantasy. Decker’s forte turned out to be satire and most of his clients understood his work. There were some dissatisfied customers, though — Clark Gable is said to have refused to pay for a portrait that made his ears look big — and there were lawsuits. When one client refused a portrait, Decker painted prison bars over his face and was sued for defamation. Decker counter-sued and the case was dropped.

Jimmy Durante and Buster Keaton admire paintings of Cyrano de Bergerac and Hamlet. Note the Army outfit on Durante who was probably on his way to or from a USO gig.

Sometimes Decker worked for himself and not a contracted customer. So he produced a portrait of W.C. Fields as Queen Victoria. Her Majesty, recognizable both as herself and as Fields, frowns at a picture of Johnny Walker. Fields pretended outrage: “Decker has kicked history in the groin.”  Dave Chasen, owner of the restaurant where the Bundy Drive Boys hung out, demanded a copy. Decker dashed one off for him. He claimed to have done many others in various sizes, small copies going for $50 a picture. One would think that there would be more examples on the Internet, but surprisingly few examples of this famous image can be found on line.

 

Fields/Victoria hanging. [via Movies from the 20’s – 60’s]

Decker continued to create other works besides the caricatures. A few items can be found by googling. A painting of the Normandie on fire in New York harbor is interesting, but a study of black singers is not. Recent auction prices have Decker’s portraits going for $10000 and up, depending on who is the subject, and his “serious” work selling for $2 – 5000.

Harpo Marx as Gainsborough’s “Blue Boy”. Dave Chasen liked this painting so much that he commissioned one with his face on it. The Chasen picture actually was blue and not green.

In 1941, Decker did a series of murals depicting the history of Hollywood for the Wilshire Bowl nightclub. The murals have disappeared, but Decker’s preliminary drawings are in the Smithsonian. Then, in 1942, Decker produced a great piece: a drawing of John Barrymore on his deathbed.

Barrymore on his deathbed. He had eczema and clawed at his skin as he died. Decker turns this into a theatrical gesture.

Barrymore was Decker’s closest friend. The actor’s self-destruction was mirrored in that of the painter. Both were very aware of the damage that they were doing to themselves. Later, Decker worked up some finished, sentimental, death-of-Barrymore pieces, but it is the drawing that strikes home. It may have hung over Barrymore’s coffin at his funeral, or that may have been one of the more sentimental pieces that Decker did at the time. Errol Flynn once claimed to have abducted Barrymore’s body and, with some other Bundy Boys, transported it from bar to bar, feeding it booze. Later, Flynn admitted that he made up the story (which has also been told of other dead drinkers).

Hartmann was the next of the group to die. He was also the oldest, 78 at the time of his death in 1944. In some ways. Sadakichi Hartmann was a model for the other Bundy Drive Boys. Born to a German father and Japanese mother in Japan, Hartmann was thrown out of the family (he said) at the age of fourteen and later adopted a Bohemian lifestyle in New York. He met Walt Whitman, quarreled with him, it is said, and eventually moved west to California. He is more known now for his criticism, which took photography seriously, than his other work, which included poetry, painting, and a brief turn as an actor (he appeared in Douglas Fairbanks’ Thief of Baghdad).  Alcohol and other drugs fueled his poetry. He had the habit of pissing himself while drunk. Decker’s daughter found Hartmann repellant and steered clear of him because he smelled so bad. Alcoholics may be fun to read about but aren’t so nice to live with. [pictures by or of Hartmann may be seen here. And here.]

Decker portrait of Sadakichi Hartmann, 1946 [via Laguna Art Museum ]

Born in Japan with two Axis parents meant that, during World War II, Hartmann was a person of interest to the FBI. He escaped internment because of age and infirmity, but was visited several times by federal agents, just to make certain he wasn’t passing information back to the Motherland. Gene Fowler was working on a biography of Hartmann that was never finished. In 1952 Fowler published a book of Bundy Drive tall tales about attempting to write the bio. Hartmann’s daughter was incensed by the fact that her father’s life had been reduced to a bunch of drunken anecdotes, but that was the fate of others of the Bundy Drive Gang as well, including Decker.

At the end of 1946, W.C. Fields died. Six months later, suffering from diabetes and cirrhosis, Decker passed away. His then-wife, Phyllis, had an open bar at his funeral. She also darkened his red moustache with mascara. The drawing of Barrymore on his deathbed was placed on Decker’s casket and a Decker portrait of Barrymore hung on the wall. Legend has it that, when the minister recited the words, “Let us pray”, the flower wreath fell from Barrymore’s portrait into the coffin. John Decker was 51 at the time of his death.

Van Gogh or Decker?

But that’s not the end of the story. In 1949, a Van Gogh self-portrait purchased by William Goetz, Louis B. Mayer’s son-in-law, was pronounced a fake by experts. Goetz angrily defended the work, which he had bought from a dealer in 1946. The dealer, said to be reputable, withheld the painting’s provenance for “business reasons”. The authenticity of the picture is still being debated and one name that keeps coming up is that of John Decker. According to a drinking buddy, Decker loved Van Gogh’s work and claimed that the Dutch artist sometimes used his penis to apply paint. No one has examined the disputed painting looking for traces of Decker’s organ, but legend has it…

The Fogg Museum says this is a Rembrandt study. Legend has it that the painting was done by Decker.

And in 2003, Stephen Jordan published a biography of Decker in which he claimed that Decker faked a Rembrandt study at the behest of Thomas Mitchell. Whether Mitchell was part of the con or its victim is unclear. According to the story related to Jordan, Mitchell, who was an art collector, bemoaned the fact that he could not afford a Rembrandt. Decker said that he could locate one that only cost $2000. Then Decker bought a piece of 17th Century furniture and pulled out a drawer bottom that he used as a surface. After painting the piece, Decker then cracked it along the back and sent it to Holland for repairs. When the piece returned to the US, it bore Dutch customs papers, which helped provide some provenance. Mitchell may or may not have paid $45000 for it, but it seems to have been part of his estate. That painting is now in Harvard’s Fogg Museum (which bought it for $35000). Harvard and the Fogg maintain that the work is genuine. Some testing was done a few years ago which showed that the wood panel was, indeed, Baltic oak from the 17th Century.

Finally, although not as valuable as Rembrandts or Van Goghs, Decker’s paintings have been a target for thieves.

Notes:

Bohemian Rogue: The Life of John Decker by Stephen C. Jordan, so far as I know the only full-length biography. The paperback now sells for $90

Hollywood’s Original Rat Pack: The Bards of Bundy Drive by Stephen C. Jordan. Out of print.

Hollywood’s Hellfire Club by Gregory William Mank. Was out of print, now seems to be back in stock.

The books above recycle all the legends and anecdotes that might better be read in:

Minutes of the Last Meeting by Gene Fowler. Fowler’s account of trying to write Sadakichi Hartmann’s biography. Mostly anecdotes about the Bundy Drive Crew.

Good Night, Sweet Prince by Gene Fowler. Bio of John Barrymore with lots of anecdota.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Decline of Justin Trudeau

Over the past few months, several Americans have e-mailed me sentiments along the line of  “You can’t complain. You have Trudeau.” Now, I have nothing to say about America’s present political state, but I do want to post some correctives to foreign Trudeau worshipers because the guy is simply not doing as well as they think. But first, let’s look at what Trudeau did right: he won a stunning electoral victory, he promised to bring in Syrian refugees, to work for environmental well-being and justice for First Nations and Inuit peoples, to reform the electoral system, and he said he wasn’t afraid to bring in an unbalanced budget if that’s what it took to get the economy moving again, which he would do by funding infrastructure projects costing billions of dollars. Oh yes, and he promised to legalize (finally) cannabis. Let’s look at these items, one by one.

The Election: The incumbent Conservative Party came up with a grand formula for victory. They had brought in a set time for an election (as opposed to the traditional way of waiting for the party in power to call it. This was supposed to be a reform, a word that gets bandied about quite a bit when people talk of changing electoral systems. Reform or no, the Conservative plan was to manipulate election timing in order to inconvenience the other parties. Since the Tories are wealthy, they called the vote early, figuring that the Liberals and New Democrats could not match them in funding over a long period. The writ was dropped on August 4. So, instead of a normal campaign of a month or so, the candidates began hustling votes and buying ads almost three months before voting day, October 19, as legislated, remember, as a Conservative reform. This was the longest federal election campaign in history.

The Conservative scheme backfired. The extra time gave Trudeau the opportunity to introduce himself to voters. No one really knew what to expect from this young, inexperienced guy but, over time, he charmed everyone in sight. Meanwhile, the Conservatives thrashed about with attack ads saying that the kid just wasn’t ready. The New Democrats, who were supposed to do quite well, were blind-sided by Trudeau’s embrace of an unbalanced budget. For decades The New Democrat Party has pursued a mythic political center, believing that by turning to the Right, they would gain votes. Indicative of this approach was the removal of the word “socialist” from the NDP constitution, and the elevation of a professional politico (and former Liberal) to the leadership. Instead, they found themselves outflanked on the Left by the Liberals.

So Trudeau won and hit the ground running by making moves to keep some campaign promises.

Justin and Sophie with trademark hand on heart gestures election night, October 19, 2015. [Christinne Muschi/Reuters via Maclean’s]

Refugees: The first promise made and kept was to bring in Syrian refugees. This was a surprisingly popular move and the exact opposite of the Conservative government’s approach. Possibly voters reflected that high immigration rates had been good for the country; more likely they were influenced by the news photo of little Alan Kurdi’s body on a Turkish beach. The Kurdi family were sponsored in Canada, meaning they wouldn’t cost the taxpayer anything. The family was stuck in a refugee camp because of deliberate red tape delays engineered by the Ministry of Citizenship and Immigration. (Right wing parties always claim to cut red tape and always increase it.) The minister in charge, Chris Alexander, fumbled questions about Kurdi and came to appear an unfeeling monster. Currently running for the Conservative leadership, Alexander is well back in the pack of declared candidates.

So, score one for Trudeau.

Deficit Financing of Infrastructure Improvements: Once again, Trudeau got off to an early start by funding some projects here and there. In particular, the replacement of the elderly Nipigon bridge in Ontario was widely reported. Mind you, any government would have been moved to do something because the bridge was a vital transportation link, but Trudeau got credit for quickly moving on the problem. Two months after it opened, the new Nipigon bridge collapsed. Okay, embarrassing, but it was soon repaired. (The Ontario auditor-general report on the bridge construction, released a year ago, was scathing but didn’t harm Trudeau, as the screw-ups were mainly Ontario’s.) But that was then, now the Liberal government has actually approved only a third or so of the amount that they said they would spend on infrastructure. This will not help the government meet its growth targets. Still, unemployment is down and people are happy for the moment. Okay on this one, but not an emphatic score.

Incompetent Administration: Several government chores have been mishandled. For instance, there is the Phoenix system that handles pay cheques to civil servants, except that tens of thousands of them did not get paid at all. Trudeau blamed this on the outgoing Tories, and they might bear some blame, but the election was a while back, how much time do you need to get a computer program to run properly? And there are ongoing problems with veteran’s programs, including treatment for PTSD, which don’t seem to be going away any time soon.

Civil servants outside Trudeau’s office protesting lack of pay last October. [Ashley Burke/CBC News]

The Environment:  Again, Trudeau looked good at the beginning, signing the Paris Accord to diminish greenhouse emissions and so on, but then… Trudeau approved two pipelines including one to the tar sands. Two! That caused him to be seen as a hypocrite by environmentalists. Early this year, Trudeau “clarified” his stance by saying that the tar sands would be phased out. That caused him to be seen as a hypocrite by Albertans and others wedded to an oil economy. Mind you, the tar sands are doomed, not by environmental decree, but by cheaper forms of energy, especially natural gas — but saying so will not win votes from either environmentalists or Albertans. Clumsy politics mean a decline in image for Trudeau.

Indigenous Groups: During the campaign, the Liberals promised to implement all of the 94 recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The Commission was created to deal with fallout from residential schools, but went on to address general problems of indigenous groups and stated that Canadian governments had an “adversarial” relationship with native groups. Last December, Trudeau spoke to the Assembly of First Nations, once again promising  to implement all 94 recommendations. One month later, it was announced that one recommendation (at least) would not be legislated. That recommendation was that the government be transparent with aboriginal groups and publish the legal opinions that it had solicited for dealing with these groups. In particular, the legalities around land use, including dam-building, pipelines, and so on, will now remain the government’s secret. So much for transparency. Aboriginal groups will continue to do their own legal research and then the respective lawyers of government and affected groups will fight it out in the courts, an adversarial process.

Other complaints by First Nations and Inuit peoples include the slow movement to fulfill campaign promises for assistance.Grassy Narrows is still polluted by toxic mercury and the people are being poisoned long after the government promised to clean it up. Trudeau has acknowledged this but says he is trying. Some First Nations people gave credit to Trudeau for even showing up at their conference; this is not something they are used to. But, crediting Trudeau for taking another photo op is very faint praise indeed.

Justin Trudeau wipes away a tear or two after addressing the Assembly of First Nations, December 2016. [Justin Tang for Canadian Press, via Radio Canada International]

Medicare: Canadians are very proud of their medical system. They can look south and both shudder with horror and swell with pride. But Liberal governments, beginning with Jean Chrétien’s, have cut the transfer payments back to the provinces that are meant to soften the provincial tax burden. Trudeau went one step further: he announced a cut to medicare transfers and then forced each province to negotiate separately with the federal government for a piece of the diminished pie. This was a nasty bit of strongarm tactics and one not designed to win friends at the provincial level.

Banking Regulation: Canada escaped most of the 2008 downturn and the bank bailouts because, in spite of Right wing efforts, the country maintained a high standard of regulation. But, last year, the Trudeau government introduced a strange banking bill ostensibly to allow for infrastructure re-financing (or something) that includes a weird “bail-in” clause. On paper, “bail-in” seems to mean that banks can seize your assets — such as your chequing account — if it’s in trouble. Is that really what it means? Who knows (cf. “transparency” above). One thing, the Liberals, no less than the Conservatives, understand that banks run this country and are to be indulged whenever they ask for a handout.

Insurance Companies and Genetic Discrimination: Another Liberal campaign promise was not to allow genetic discrimination by insurance companies. That is, if an infant’s DNA shows a family propensity for heart disease, for instance, it would be discriminatory for a company to deny life insurance to that person. When back-benchers introduced an anti-genetic discrimination bill, Trudeau and his cabinet came out against it as a result of massive insurance company lobbying. Their attempts to gut the bill failed and the Liberal Parliament overrode Cabinet and passed the bill anyway. That’s important. Parliaments almost never pass legislation opposed to Cabinet wishes. Perhaps that’s a sign that the Liberal MPs are tired of breaking promises, perhaps… Oh, who am I kidding? Trudeau will find a way to get this through — if the insurance lobby promises high enough rewards.

Electoral Reform: Trudeau promised some kind of proportional representation before the next election. After a committee studied the matter for a while, the Liberals determined that there was no necessity to change from the system now in place. There were several reasons for this: First, about half of Canadians agree with that and want to maintain the current system. [Full disclosure: I am one of them and, just to confuse matters, I also view all polls with mistrust.] Second, back when the UK Tories needed support they made a deal with the Liberal Democrats that they would hold a referendum on electoral reform if the Lib-Dems would join their government. But after the election, the Tories waffled and finally held a referendum on alternative voting, a form of preferential ballot, but not PR, used in Australia. The referendum failed. Third, any change to Proportional Representation would mean adding seats to the legislature, and “More Politicians” is not a great campaign slogan.

The main force behind changing the electoral system is the Green Party, Canada’s answer to the Liberal-Democrats. Greens seem to think that Proportional Representation is a magic wand that will lift them to power, or at least reward their leaders with electoral office, and it has largely replaced environmental issues as the party’s focus. This shift has occurred as the Green membership has gentrified and turned to protecting the middle class from taxation. For instance, the Green support to continue dumping raw sewage in the waters off Victoria, because sewage treatment would raise property taxes. (Remember those polls finding that people would willingly pay more for a clean environment? Those people were not, apparently, Green.)

The New Democrats, adrift after their poor election showing, also backed PR and, for a while, used it as a means to attack the Trudeau government. They seem to have discovered now that most people don’t give a rat’s ass about PR and have given up on that issue.

So that’s… Wait, there was something else. If only my medium-term memory would kick in. Oh, wait! I have it now:

Cannabis Legalization: Pretty quickly post-election Trudeau made some comments that revealed that he thought provinces would regulate cannabis the same way they do liquor and, in fact, sell the two drugs in the same stores. Immediately, Quebec objected, saying that no one had asked them what they wanted and maybe they’d sell cannabis in drug stores, especially the medical stuff. Several court decisions decades ago had said that the federal government could not prohibit medical marijuana, because if you can show medical necessity then the drug has to be available. In one decision, a time limit was given and, if medical marijuana was not available after the date, then cannabis would be removed from the controlled substance list altogether. So the governments of Chrétien and Paul Martin’s brief regime grudgingly made dope available. With a prescription, you could get federally-grown marijuana delivered to you by Canada Post. The Harper Conservative governments left the medical stuff alone, even as they beefed up law enforcement efforts to control the killer weed. Meanwhile, most Canadians said, “legalize it!”

Lots of entrepreneurs were ready to open shop after Trudeau made his announcement, but there was still no formal legislation. Municipalities were left without direction about matters such as licensing. Finally, police began busting these newly opened businesses in Vancouver, Toronto, Montreal, and other cities. Meantime, a House committee is pondering a new law. Possibly it will finish before the next election.

Marc Emery, “Prince of Pot”, being arrested March 9, in Montreal. [Global News screen cap]

In Sum: Only the promise to bring in more Syrian refugees has been kept. This does not mean that Trudeau’s government is in trouble, although the revolt of back-benchers over genetic discrimination has to be a bit worrisome to party leaders. There was once a time when the Liberal Party was seen as Canada’s “natural ruling party”. That time ended with Mulroney’s Conservative government that followed the Thatcher/Reagan model. Then came Chrétien who made some colossal blunders, but kept us out of Iraq. But when he left, the country dumped the Liberals until Harper became too much to bear. Before Mulroney, the Liberals managed to swipe New Democrat initiatives every time they sensed it would help them, but the NDP has lost its soul and hasn’t anything worth stealing now. The Conservatives are looking for a new leader. One of the two front-runners is Kevin O’Leary, who has never held office and is best known as a reality TV star. Sound familiar?

 

Twelve Days of Christmas

According to some sites, the “Twelve Days of Christmas” has a hidden Christmas meaning. It’s a secret code for either persecuted Christians or persecuted Catholics, depending on the story being told. Snopes says this is cobblers and that the song is a counting rhyme. But Snopes also says that “gold rings” refers to pheasants and that’s wrong, because the earliest printed version has an illustration of rings, not birds.

12_five_gold_rings

Five gold rings from Mirth Without Mischief. [Wikipedia commons]

The Twelve Days rhyme first appeared in print in 1780, in Mirth Without Mischief, a book for non-mischievous good children. It has the curious sub-heading “Sung at King Pepin’s Ball”. England never had a King Pepin, but France did, thus adding to the idea that the song is originally French. So what about the French hens, three of them? Certainly they were not faverolles, as some suggest, because that bird was not bred until the 1860s. Maybe in the original they were simply “poulets”.

12_days-title

Or perhaps they were something else,  something other than hens. There are several versions in France of a counting song called “The Partridge/ la Peridriole”. The oldest (possibly) says that on the first of May the singer gave his love “a partridge that flies in the trees”. Then he gives her two blue jays sitting on their eggs, three crows, and, in lieu of hens, four blackbirds “with eyes of pearls”. And so on for seven birds. “Blue jays” = “geais bleus” (geese a-laying?). The “calling birds” were originally “colley birds”, i.e., “black birds”, in the English version of 1780, so may be derived from the French blackbirds. A later version of “la Perdriole” includes two turtledoves and ups the number of gifts (and days) to nine. The next version has twelve months of the year and adds milk cows, handsome lads, and beautiful maids. Saskatchewan Métis sang a ten-gift version that included items from the other three. (All these versions may be found here.)

The “Twelve Days” of the English version probably mean the twelve days between Christmas and the Feast of the Epiphany. In the Faroes, there are fifteen days and gifts. In the north of England, only ten. (The North always gets short-changed.)

12_faroe-islands-1994-stamps-christmas-um-nh-mint

1994 Faroese stamps showing fifteen days of Christmas. Start on the right with one feather, two geese… [via picclic.co.uk]

So, a counting song. Kids would have to sing it without forgetting or confusing anything. If they couldn’t, they paid a forfeit, or, for older kids, gave a kiss. There are many counting songs sung in the world, including a few more Christmas ones:

Children, go where I send thee.
How shall I send thee?
I shall send thee one by one.
One for the baby Jesus,
who was born, born, born in Bethlehem. (several versions on YouTube)

And that brings us back around to Christian meanings hidden in the Twelve Days. Not likely. Christians have been pretty ambivalent, and sometimes hostile, to the very concept of Christmas. Christ’s Mass is a relatively late addition to Christian holy days and one disdained by early church fathers. At the time Mirth Without Mischief was published Scots Presbyterians forbade the celebration. I suppose they allowed counting songs though. Hmm, perhaps the “code” is an attempt to pretty up Christmas for hard-nose Puritans and Calvinists. No? Well, Merry Christmas anyway.

 

 

Remembrance Day: Major Percy Rigby

The Nelson, B.C. cenotaph lists more than a hundred names of soldiers killed in World War I. This from a town of 6000. Other memorials in the Kootenay Lake area bring the total number of area men killed to around 300. “Their Names Liveth Forevermore”, taken from Rudyard Kipling’s poem, is the official war dead epitaph.  But just who were these names, these men who no one now alive has ever met?

rigby_plaque

The old Post Office/Customs House building (1902), which has also served as City Hall and city museum, bears a marble plaque dedicated to the memory of one of these men, Major Percy Rigby:

He was so loved by his men, who called themselves “Rigby’s Terriers”, that those remaining of his company would take up a collection from their meagre pay to erect a memorial to him…

Sylvia Crooks, Names on a Cenotaph: Kootenay Lake Men in World War I

 

 Major Percy George Rigby. Unit: 7th Battalion, 1st British Columbia Regiment, Canadian Expeditionary Force. Death: 10 March 1915 shot by sniper Near La Boutillerie Armentieres Western Front Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205387788

Major Percy George Rigby. Unit: 7th Battalion, 1st British Columbia Regiment, Canadian Expeditionary Force. Death: 10 March 1915 shot by sniper Near La Boutillerie Armentieres Western Front Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205387788

Percy Rigby was born in London, in 1871. His father, Major-General Christopher Palmer Rigby had a long army career before becoming British consul in Zanzibar. Christopher died in 1885 and Percy went on to an education at Marlborough College and Sandhurst. At the age of 19 he joined the Sherwood Foresters and, from 1896 – 1911 served in various Africa campaigns, including the Boer War. Percy was Christopher’s youngest son and had no prospects in England, aside from his Army pension. Like many other men in his position, Rigby decided to emigrate.

Canada began advertising for immigrants in 1892. At first these ads were directed generally and many East Europeans came to Canada, but as time passed, the immigration program was aimed more and more at Great Britain and “desirable” people. One prospect that enticed many Brits who shared Rigby’s circumstances was fruit ranching in British Columbia.

rigby_fertile_canada

Money grows on trees in Fertile Canada. Immigration propaganda from 1900.

Edible dessert apples, as opposed to cider fruit, had been developed as a crop only in the latter half of the Nineteenth Century. Members of the British Empire (the Commonwealth came much later) developed their own apple varieties — for instance, Macintosh from Canada, Granny Smith from Australia — and British and American varieties were also available. The apple trees were propagated by slips or cuttings from good trees (as they still are) and thus, always bred true. British Columbia wanted settlers, apples grew well there, and Englishmen were always welcome. In addition, ex-officers could commute their pensions into enough to meet the initial investment in fruit — much larger than that required for either cattle or grain.

So, in 1911, the same year he retired from the military, Percy Rigby travelled to British Columbia and became a fruit rancher. He settled at Boswell on Kootenay Lake, named his new residence “Sans Souci”, and soon became known for throwing great Christmas celebrations as well as his minor, but lovable, English “eccentricities”. (I haven’t been able to discover much more about these.)

Fruit Ranching in British Columbia written by John Bealby in 1909 describes the process of developing a new orchard in the area. It was tough work, but rewarding and spiced with reminisces of colorful locals — and the locals were mostly colorful, all except the new-comers from England who were, of course, English and therefore models for the world.

"Cox's Orange Pippin, Two Years Old" from Bealby's Fruit Ranching in British Columbia

“Cox’s Orange Pippin, Two Years Old” from Bealby’s Fruit Ranching in British Columbia

Perhaps by 1914, Rigby’s ranch was producing a profit — fruit trees take time — but, in August, there was a new priority. Ten days after the outbreak of World War I, Percy Rigby was training volunteers in Nelson. Shortly afterward, Rigby and 175 men travelled to Valcartier, Quebec and signed up with the Canadian Expeditionary Force. Probably three quarters were English immigrants going to defend the Motherland. Another local contingent of more than 200 soon followed.

Rigby’s contingent included 26 men who carved their names into a CPR tabletop. Of these 26, 10 were killed. 80% of the first Kootenay Contingent were killed, captured, or suffered debilitating wounds. So many losses of young men had serious repercussions in sparsely populated interior British Columbia. Widows, who had little enough when their husbands went off to war, now had to subsist on inadequate pensions — inadequate, but the highest amount paid by any of the Allied nations. Many fruit ranching communities, including Rigby’s Boswell, never recovered. Some became ghost towns. Fruit ranching of the kind discussed by Bealby ceased to be a major enterprise in the Kootenays, although Christmas apples were still featured in Sears and Eaton’s catalogues as late as the 1970s. These were shipped in bulk to England and re-packaged there as “A Gift to Home”.

CPR train table carved by members of the Kootenay Contingent, (photo: Tony Holland via: Crooks, Names on a Cenotaph: Kootenay Lake Men in World War I

CPR train table carved by members of the Kootenay Contingent, (photo: Tony Holland via: Crooks, Names on a Cenotaph: Kootenay Lake Men in World War I)

In February, after three months training in England, the Kootenay Contingent was shipped to France as part of the Canadian Expeditionary Force. (Some individuals were assigned to Scottish regiments.) In March, the Canadians were assigned to the assault on Neuve Chapelle, a German-held town just south of the Belgian border. There was an English unit to the Canadians’ left and an Indian unit to their right. British command thought this a fine example of the Empire in action. Following a massive artillery bombardment, which obliterated the town, the Indians charged in and actually gained a foothold in Neuve Chapelle, but British forces were unable to turn the situation into an immediate victory and several days of fighting ensued before the town was taken at a cost of some 11600 Allied and an equal number of German casualties and captured. Percy Rigby saw none of this. On March 10, as the battle opened, he was shot in the chest by a German sniper.

Notes:

Sylvia Crooks, Names on a Cenotaph: Kootenay Lake Men in World War I was mentioned before. This is a great book and a model for local history. (And, in the end, all history, like all politics, is local.) Crooks has also written about World War II, both the names on the cenotaph and life on the home front.

 

The US Election

It seems like years since the US began this Presidential election campaign, but it’s only twenty or so months. American voters are hopeful, afraid, and indifferent, as usual. Like everyone else, I have some thoughts that are worth no more than those of your least favorite pundit; like everyone else, I have to voice these thoughts, because otherwise the Internet would just go to waste. Anyways:

Everyone has their reasons. At the beginning of the Trump ascendancy, many folks began asking, “Who on earth is voting for this phony? They must be stupid.” Well, no. Trump supporters have their reasons. For instance, at the beginning of the Republican nomination process, Trump was the only candidate to come out against the invasion of Iraq. While Jeb was trying not to disown his brother and the other Republicans were attempting to support the troops by justifying the mess a Republican administration had created for those soldiers, while this was going on, Trump said that the war was a bad idea. Now let me pause here and say, yes, I know that Trump had been for the war early on, but that is also true for Clinton. The point is that he was the only Republican willing to disavow it. I suppose there may be a few people who still think that invading Iraq was a good idea, but I doubt any of the candidates thought so, they just lacked the guts to say it out loud. And that was an early reason to support Trump.

Then there are NAFTA, the TPP, and other free trade agreements. It may be that the overall impact of free trade on the US economy has been positive, but you try selling that point of view to someone whose job was exported to Mexico. So, another reason.

Then there are the bad reasons, racism and misogyny. You may deplore them, but they are reasons. Racism is particularly prevalent in this campaign: four states are ignoring a Supreme Court decision that found their registration requirements discriminatory. A voter registration drive in Indiana has been busted by  state police, claiming that applications to register were “fraudulent or forged”. It will be many weeks before the investigation concludes, so 45,000 Black men and women may not be able to vote in November. Indiana’s governor is Mike Pence who, of course, is the Republican vice-presidential candidate, but that’s just a coincidence, right? On top of all that, Trump is urging his supporters to hang out around the polling stations, possibly code for “intimidate the opposition”. After all, intimidating Black voters is an American tradition that goes back a hundred and fifty years, to when Blacks were finally granted the franchise. So, a bad reason, but not stupid, if you fear losing your White privileges. It might be worth remembering that Obama has faced a lot of this stuff during his tenure. The reasons behind misogyny are similar to those behind racism: people are afraid of shifting gender roles that may diminish or change their own status. (More below on that.)

Finally, after years of neglect, many voters are just fed up and ready to kick over the apple cart because why the hell not? Similar reasons caused Brexit (IMO). It may be futile, it may be self-damaging, but damn! it feels good to watch the knobs in charge running around in panic.

So quit calling Trump supporters stupid. (Or “basic Rednecks”. Just shut up, Bill.) Once you start name-calling, you’ve lost the debate anyway. (And you do not name-call your opponent’s voters. That’s a basic political precept that Clinton violated with that “deplorables” business.)

“The awful thing about life is this: everyone has their reasons.” Jean Renoir

The Republican Clownshow  Beginning in 2008, the Republican nomination process has become stranger and stranger. Usually there are some professional politicians, a business professional or two, and an outlier. There will be a token black, a token woman, but (so far) no openly gay tokens. These categories overlap, of course. Sometimes candidates will take truly outlandish positions, like Newt Gingrich in 2012, who proposed that America create a moonbase so that precious elements could be extracted and sent back to Earth. (Incidentally, I believe he got this concept from the Dick Tracy comic strip, which utilized a similar story line back in the 1960s.) Other extreme statements have been made by Alan Keyes, Michele Bachmann, and Ben Carson, just to take an example from each of the three nominations since the Bush presidency ended. These positions seem to draw the other candidates into making their own platform more extreme. After all, Bachmann was declared the “winner” of the first 2012 Republican debate, so the other candidates had to take her seriously and respond. To ignore what seem to be outlandish positions may mean not recognizing an outside-the-box notion that has resonance with voters. Such as opposition to the Iraq War.

There’s another, somewhat disturbing, aspect to Republican nomination spectacles: Alan Keyes, Herman Cain, Ben Carson — what do they have in common, besides being Black? Well, they have been candidates people laugh at. Not everyone all the time, of course — each of those candidates was quite elevated in a post-debate poll or two in their respective election years — but, by and large, they were the butt of jokes. So, is the Black Fool (cf. Stepin Fetchit) a permanent fixture in Republican campaigns?

Black or not, clowns have become an integral part of Republican politics. Perhaps this has something to do with politics becoming show business. Even so, some Republican voices have been calling for party reform before the GOP is written off as a bad joke. So far, they have been ineffective. The one change that will probably happen is that the Republicans will strengthen the role of appointed delegates, so as to head off another candidacy from someone like Trump.

“The painted grin leers out at us from the darkness, mocking our insane belief in order, logic, status, the reality of reality.”  Terry  Pratchett

Groping The video that has Trump bragging about grabbing women by the pussy has caused a great deal of fuss, but not always (IMO) the way that it should have. Trump has characterized his words as “locker room talk” and “salty” language, and his supporters have brought up “political correctness” as an evil that keeps people from speaking their mind. The problem is, this isn’t a matter of Trump using incorrect language, it’s about repugnant attitudes and behavior. The hypocrisy of the Trump campaign was demonstrated when Trump supporters on a television panel requested that another panelist (a Republican) not use that terrible word, “pussy”. Ana Navarro insisted on repeating the word: pussypussypussy. The panel demanded that she employ a euphemism because the actual word used by their candidate was distasteful. But it’s not the word, it’s the mindset behind the concept of grabbing women that is offensive. Calling this locker room talk and diminishing the words used, is a dodge. Trump belongs to a privileged class that views other human beings as objects for his amusement. He is not alone. Even the Republican male opposition to Trump’s video often began with the words “I have a daughter… a wife…” In other words, “I respect women. Why, I even own a few.”  Mothers were not mentioned, of course. You can’t own your mother.

“It’s just words.” Donald Trump

Hillary Hatred Hillary Clinton has faced some nasty criticism ever since becoming First Lady of Arkansas. I found it hard to understand the degree of venom directed at her — until a few years ago. I noticed that people changed the reasons they gave for despising her and I began looking for the common thread in their anti-Hillary comments. First, she was attacked for having an over-developed sense of morality; now she is accused of being corrupt and amoral. She was accused of being uppity when she had an office in the White House and she wound up being blamed for Bill Clinton’s failure to bring in universal medical care. It is easy to dislike or disagree with Clinton’s hawkishness, or to say that the Libya intervention was a huge mistake, but it is really beyond reason to accuse her of being a Communist or to claim that she had numerous people murdered. But anti-Clinton folks seem willing to hang any accusation on her that they can, truthful or not. Sooner or later though, these detractors will descend into attacks on her appearance or make snarky comments aimed at her sex or her sexuality. I believe that she makes many people afraid. These same people, male and female, see their worldview threatened. Hillary Clinton challenges gender roles; she challenges a sexual order that does not allow women to openly show ambition or to wield power. So, all her life, Hillary Clinton has been tagged with whatever labels can be used to attack her very femininity. I recall New York Magazine, at that time edited by John Kennedy, jr., running a cover that showed Hillary and Bill in fetish garb. Hillary held the whip. Because, if she is strong, he must be weak. The lesbian tag has been freely applied to Clinton, linking her to this or that other woman who perhaps also deserves a bit of chastisement. Because, if she is strong, she cannot be completely feminine. She must be a perv. I can only marvel at the strength that Clinton has shown when dealing with this. Mind you, women are more used to handling insults and denigration than men. Still, Clinton is remarkably strong.

Recent polls have shown Clinton leading by a wide margin among women voters, while Trump leads among men. According to the polls, he would win if there were no female suffrage. You can analyze this in several ways: women are emotional and all worked up by Trump’s pussy remarks, for instance, which suggests that men are cool and rational when they support Trump. Spin it anyway you want — this election is yet another battleground in in the long struggle for women’s equality.

“Well, that hurts my feelings.” Hillary Clinton

Julian Assange Remember when Information was to be Free? Last interview I saw with Assange, he was wearing a T-shirt that read “truth“, and that was the rationale that gave WikiLeaks its gravity. Now, WikiLeaks serves some strange agenda that is anti-Clinton and, possibly, a Russian initiative. This is a peculiar end for an avowedly anti-authoritarian group. Of course, Assange means to attack what he used to call “the Conspiracy of Governance”, and this may be the immediate strategy he has chosen. But working against one political party hasn’t much to do with ending that conspiracy and doesn’t sit well with folks who would like to be sympathetic. Why no leaks from the Republican, as opposed to the Democratic, National Committee? After all, if the GOP is vulnerable, then why not bring it down? A  decade ago, Assange spoke of reducing the Republican and Democratic parties to “organizational stupor”. So show us, Julian; take down the GOP. WikiLeaks tactics have been ineffective against the Democrats, why not test them against the Republicans? Perhaps the answer is that Assange’s theories are just so much BS. Does this election mark the end of the usefulness of WikiLeaks and Julian Assange? Collateral damage, I suppose.

“Only revealed injustice can be answered; for man to do anything intelligent he has to know what’s actually going on.”  Julian Assange

 

 

Good Books: Granfa’ Grig Had A Pig by Wallace Tripp

Back when our children were small, we picked up two books by Wallace Tripp: Granfa’ Grig Had A Pig and A Great Big Ugly Man came Up And Tied His Horse To Me . These immediately became family favorites, books still remembered as those once-small children advance into their forties.

A Great Big Ugly Man disintegrated long ago, but I did discover the dilapidated remnants  of Granfa’ Grig a little while back. The graphics from here on are scans of that particular piece of family culture. And let me just stave off those who would say that our children should have been more careful with these books. No! You do not stop a child from reading; you do not make them wash their hands before opening the cover. These are some of the myriad ways  in which people destroy a child’s interest in reading. Little children are messy and heedless of consequence, and so is their love, whether of books or anything else. Would you demand your child wash their hands before hugging you?

Ah well, another day, another rant. That’s done. Here’s the wraparound cover for Granfa’ Grig:

Tripp_cover

And the double title page:

Tripp_inscover

Is this getting through yet? This is a book of nursery rhymes, some quite obscure, illustrated by a very fine artist.

Wallace Tripp quit his day job and sought to find work illustrating children’s books in the mid-1960s. After a time, he established himself and worked on many books including the Amelia Bedelia series. Soon he discovered his forte: exquisitely rendered anthropomorphic animals. This genre lends to satire, and Tripp embraced a very gentle and humane satire that infuses all his work. Look at this silly rhyme:

Tripp_bearpin

Look at the marvelous expression on the bear’s face. And check out the children in these two rhymes:

Tripp_ale

But it’s not all animals. This rhyme was a family favorite:

Tripp_bony

“Beat you! Beat you! Beat you!” my kids would joyously shout. God knows what images were swimming in their partly-formed consciousness. And, speaking of family favorites, here is my wife’s:

Tripp_anne

She really enjoys scenes of pomposity being slapsticked.

Here’s some other Tripp work not in Granfa’ Grig:

Tripp_attila

Tripp had a company, Pawprints, that distributed his drawings in various formats. Now you should look to eBay for those calendars and greeting cards.

Tripp_ sword

In the 1990s, Tripp began to have physical problems that were diagnosed as Parkinson’s Disease. He has been retired for twenty years now.

Tripp_feet

Here is the rhyme and illustration that ends Granfa’ Grig:

Tripp_end

There are numerous collections of Wallace Tripp art reproduced on-line. For instance:

Flickriver, My Delineated Life, Michael Sporn: Some Pawprints cards

Tripp has a website but it appears moribund.