Just to illustrate the pros and cons of Wikipedia, here is how para 3 of the article on The Last Jedi read this morning, and again a half hour later.
I use Wikipedia all the time. It’s a really useful general resource, and I donate every year to the Foundation. Still, let’s acknowledge its limitations. Its open content status means it can be manipulated by anybody in the short-term.
There is no substitute for diligent, independent research based on multiple sources. In other words, get thee to a good old-fashioned library.
Today, as the anniversary of 911 approaches, I want to put aside the whimsical APOL tour to talk about the cover of A Person of Letters. Person is a satire on writing, creativity, obsession, and love. That encompasses a lot of territory, and while there is humour in the book, there is absolutely nothing funny about 911. So why are those two not-quite-WTC towers depicted on the cover of the book?
Perhaps it was an over-reach. Those who have read Person know that it is not about 911. It is the life story of its narrator, and yes, he is there, in one of the towers, on September 11. He, like so many others, got out of bed that morning, put on his socks, and went about his business, not suspecting the cataclysm that was to come. He survived, although he is wounded and scarred, both physically and psychologically, by the experience. It changes him, and having cheated death (or so he believes) he changes the course of his life, setting out to write—to become a man of letters.
Back in the early, gleam-in-the-eye days when I began work on Person, I decided to subject an ordinary (if quirky) character to a life-changing ordeal, and imagine how he would react and what he would do. The question was, what kind of ordeal? I didn’t want it to be the subject of the book. I reasoned that by throwing him into the horrific cataclysm that was 911, he would be traumatized and forced to take stock of his life—and as everyone knows what happened that day, I would not have to write about the event itself. My skills were (are) simply not up to that task, and it was what happened afterwards that I wanted to explore: how he responds.
He is certainly deeply affected; he manifests all the symptoms of post-traumatic stress; but in his survivor’s guilt, he refuses to acknowledge his own PTSD. He chooses instead to escape—he writes about anything but the experience that traumatized and nearly killed him. He becomes obsessed, and as his journey unfolds, he veers (possibly—it is left to the reader to decide) into madness. Is the spark external (his experience) or internal (a seed that was always there)? (Or is it pharmaceutical? I left many clues to that possibility.)
I wanted to examine many things in Person: if there is a manic aspect to creativity; the point at which obsession becomes madness; and how somebody’s creation actually becomes “art”—how does it get recognized? To my narrator’s credit, he refuses to be defined by the 911 experience; he is an everyman who takes up a pen, and he wants only to be known on the merit of his oeuvre. But that is not how things work, and ultimately he is defined in terms suggested by others.
911 is a turning point in the character’s life, but A Person of Letters is not about 911, and I know that the picture on its cover confuses some people on that point. In light of that confusion, I might today choose different imagery, but artist Andrew Judd’s iconic image was created to be symbolic, not literal. What appear to be two towers, one flaming , one inert, are actually books. Person’s protagonist finds relief from his trauma in writing. The two volumes represent his first book, which has come to nothing, and his second, which is stalled. Perhaps the reason is his refusal from the start to confront his trauma straight on. Instead, he produced a muddled, un-publishable nautical epic, an escape, so he thought, but in truth an avoidance; hence the ship on Person’s cover, sailing away from the conflagration at its centre.
For those who question the cover, I accept your perspective. 911 was a cruel tragedy. But inspiration comes from many places, and in many forms. From darkness springs insight, and in this case, dark farce; and hopefully, a modicum of truth.
To mark Canada’s 150th birthday, APOL is on Queenston Heights, where in 1812 a combined force of British regulars, Canadian militia, and First Nations warriors repulsed an American army—and saved Canada.
British General Sir Isaac Brock died leading a charge up the heights, and when his Canadian aide-de-camp John Macdonnell assumed command of the assault, he too was killed. Today a memorial column stands atop the Niagara escarpment to commemorate the victory that was ultimately won, and the battle’s fallen. A statue of General Brock stands in silent vigil atop the massive pillar, a reminder of the cost of Canadian sovereignty and independence.
Happy Birthday, Canada. Chi-miigwech, to all those who Stand on Guard. And Happy Canada Day, world.
(A different type of American invasion has occurred in Canada over more recent decades. Today, the Canadian retail landscape is dominated by American chains. Perhaps it is more benign form of invasion than that of 1812, but it remains a sore point for APOL, which has yet to win shelf space at Walmart or Price Club. Perhaps it will seize these heights in due course. In the meantime, though, A Person of Letters is readily available on the American behemoth Amazon’s many domestic and international platforms. Readers everywhere are encouraged to support this hard-fought bridgehead.)
Note: “APOL” is the anthropomorphic version of my satirical novel A Person of Letters, which has gone on tour without me (with a wink and a nod to magical realism). Follow APOL’s quixotic world tour here or on my Facebook Author Page, and read about all of APOL’s (mis)adventures in sequence on this tour archive. For information about the book, go to Martin Scribler Media.
In his Second Inaugural Address, President Abraham Lincoln invoked passages from both the Old and New Testaments to describe the significance of the challenge his nation then confronted, and to emphasize his commitment to see justice prevail. Whether you are religious, or whether you love the beauty of the language of the King James bible for its own sake, or whether you admire the eloquence of a leader who did not shrink from a grave and momentous struggle, it seems appropriate on this day, the day after his latest successor withdrew his country from the Paris Climate Agreement, to consider again the words he chose to emphasize in 1865:
“Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.” (Matthew 18:7)
“…so still it must be said, ’the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’” (Psalm 19:9)
So too, the judgments of history are true and righteous. This is a bad decision. History will judge Donald Trump accordingly.
“Never be agitated by more than a decent warmth and offer your sentiments with modest diffidence,” George Washington once advised. “…opinions thus given are listened to with more attention than when delivered in a dictatorial style.” This is worthy advice for any leader. On the eve of Donald Trump’s inauguration, I can’t help wondering what America’s first president would make of its latest.
I just completed Ron Chernow’s exhaustive, Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, “Washington: A Life.” Chernow’s account is sympathetic and sometimes hagiographic, but it does not ignore the contradictions of the man, a slave-owning icon of Liberty. George Washington was a man of his time, and today historical figures are judged by contemporary standards. Be that as it may, I have new respect for Washington and his accomplishments. He was a leader of moderation and balance, a dignified, magisterial character who acted in the best interests of his fledgling country, its people, and its democracy. Would that there were such an individual to lead his country now.
The APOL book tour pauses this week as I myself pause to remember a friend who has passed away. Don Stewart was a naval officer and successful businessman, husband, and father. I first met him in the summer of 1976, when we entered basic training at CFB Esquimalt, BC. Don was a loyal friend, a guy you counted yourself lucky to know, someone who you knew had your back and would never let you down. He was a born leader with an impish sense of fun; and he told marvellous stories, some of which were tall, all of which were entertaining.
Don is seen here in California last winter; he was an early reader of A Person of Letters, and one of the first enablers of “APOL” on its quirky world tour. He and his wife Karen kindly sent me photos of the book taken in the Palm Desert area. These photos launched the tour on January 19 of last year – almost exactly a year ago. This is, then, a good moment to pause; although I deeply regret the circumstances. RIP, old friend.
We are the sum of our experience, of our triumphs and defeats, and the friends we meet along the way.
Lahore’s Badshahi Mosque, largest in the world when built in 1673
The Minar-e-Pakistan monument
A departure this week from the recent APOL book tour theme. A Person of Letters is in Pakistan on my behalf to honour the victims of extremist violence.
In Karachi in June, gunmen shot Amjad Sabri, one of the country’s most popular qawwali singers, dead in the street. He and his famous musical family are associated with the ancient Chishti Order of Sufism which emphasizes love, tolerance, and openness.
In Lahore in March, 75 people were killed and more than 300 injured in a suicide bombing at a popular park. A militant Sunni group claimed responsibility for the attack, saying it was targeted at Christians celebrating Easter. The park is frequented by Lahoris of all faiths; the majority of victims were women and children. Of the dead, 61 were identified as Muslims.
Also this year, Sabeen Mahmud, human rights activist, was shot dead by unidentified gunmen on her way home from a seminar in Karachi.
There is a high cost to free expression in Pakistan. The country’s paradox is illustrated by the life and death of Salmaan Taseer. Taseer was a successful businessman and politician who in 2011 was shot 27 times by his bodyguard for his opposition to Pakistan’s blasphemy law. Certain clerics and religious scholars warned against mourning him and declared his assassin a “hero of the Muslim world.” Yet hundreds of people braved such threats to attend Taseer’s funeral the day after his murder. In the face of extremism and intimidation, tolerance, decency, and compassion survive.
What a contradiction, what hypocrisy, when violence and murder are justified in the name of religion. Let us stand with people of goodwill and against the haters, wherever they may be.
No surprise that Bowie embraced a project in which “something entirely fictitious could experience a life in the world as something wholly credible, real, and true.” Bowie forever toyed with and brilliantly challenged the notions of fame and persona and the nature of art and yes, of existence itself.
The trope of fabricated artist, manufactured fame, has a long and colourful history in literature, dating back to Swift and Pope et al with their creation of Martin Scribler; and it continues (ahem) to the present day.
It is ironic that Maurice Strong should pass away on the eve of COP21, the Paris climate conference. He was among the most influential of environmentalists, the first head of the UNEP, the Secretary-General of the first UN human environment conference in 1972 and of the Rio Earth Summit in 1992. He helped light the candle of environmental awareness and as it guttered over the years, he sheltered it from extinguishment, indeed gave it fuel, never losing hope nor abating in commitment, always seeking sustainable, just solutions. He was, according to John Ralston Saul, a man with “a rare talent for bringing together two opposites – highly original conceptual thinking and highly pragmatic approaches to getting things done.”
Those of you who have read A Person of Letters know that its protagonist becomes obsessed with environmental activism. When, he wonders, are extreme forms of “direct action” justified? APOL is set in the wake of the 2009 Copenhagen conference on climate change, when environmental activists demonstrated, gate-crashed events, and bannered parliaments, and concerned citizens everywhere marched in the street; but none of that was sufficient to affect the ultimate outcome. In 2009 there was no consensus, no leader who dared upset the global status quo–and thus no meaningful accord was achievable. Copenhagen was a failure, and that was enough to gird APOL’s protagonist into his own idiosyncratic form of direct action.
On its own, activism is not enough; it is helpful, necessary even, but not sufficient. What is needed above all is a genuine and widespread commitment to change. Activists can point the way but we need our leaders to lead, and we need to hold them accountable for what they do (or do not do). And ahead of that we need pathfinders, bridge builders, catalysts, never-give-up facilitators and entrepreneurs like Maurice Strong, people of vision and goodwill with an abidingly respectful and humanist worldview.
Kofi Anan once lauded Strong’s “unwavering commitment to the environment, multilateralism and peaceful resolution of conflicts.” There can be no higher accolade for anyone on the international stage.