Sunday, November 30, 2008



I don't got to church much - blame Richard Dawkins - but I love gospel music, particularly at Christmas.
The Christmas concert has a special niche in my nostalgia and to hell with those who ban them.
Life wasn't exactly great for my sisters Joyce and Joanne and I when we were kids, but the Christmas concert in the little Baptist church on the hill was a highlight of the season.
Mary is a faithful Mass goer and ignores my idiosyncratic approach to religion where I listen to the Gaither gospel hour on TV but church is for weddings and funerals these days.
As Editor of the Toronto Sun, my intense evangelical past was no secret to faithful readers who not only perservered through my defenses of Christmas but also noticed that the replies at the end of our letters - a Sun tradition that became so popular, polls showed more read the replies than the letters - often had a Biblical flavour, thanks to my boyhood where we read a chapter of the Bible after every meal.
I'm reporting to all who figure I'm backsliding towards hellfire that I've already attended my first Christmas concert of the year. And I hope it won't be the last.
The local Anglican church, All Saints, like other wonderful Toronto churches, has an out-of-the-cold program every Friday for the homeless. The first twenty get a bed for the night, and there's a hearty meal and free warm clothing for another 60 or so. They start lining up at 3 p.m.
Other churches, families and groups help the 100 or so volunteers at this Kingsway church. And then there is the annual Christmas concert, now eight years old, held in Our Ladies of Sorrows church where five other churches gather in the Catholic church to listen to a combined choir of 120 voices, reinforced by the Kingsway Ringers and an orchestra called The Talisker Players. And of course we sing too.
The Kingsway business association supports it all, and so does Etobicoke"s Guardian newspaper, which means there is free chocolate and doughtnuts after, plus a chocolate Santa in tinfoil, and the offering during the concert, which last year was around $8,000, goes to the out-of-the-cold program.
It is a community effort, and feels like it too, in all its warm and hearty detail. There were mistakes during the program, like the troupe bringing gifts during a play came down the aisle too soon, but we all laughed as if a neighbour had just said something funny over the fence. ( And I remembered as a child soloist that I discovered half-way through that I had screwed up the hymn and I stopped in awkward silence.)
I've lived near Royal York and Bloor since 1963 - the longest I've lived anywhere after bouncing between 13 addresses as I grew up. But it's only because of such events that I feel like I really belong on these familiar streets, that the Kingsway really is a grand name for a place to call home.
The city may be 2.5 million strong, with another 2 million just outside. But it really is a mass of neighbourhood and villages, and it is possible to go to a big church on a busy street near the subway, and there sing the glorious music of Christendom in an event that is possible because the doctors and restaurants and shops I patronize - even the local pool hall - unite to help an honourable program during a wonderful holiday season.
And then there are jerks who want to cloak the Christmas in this holiday. How dare they when surely all religions believe its fundamental message of peace on earth good wiil to all. Humbug to them, and not to us.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008



I will never forget the first time I heard one of the greatest anti-war song ever written. The memory floods in every time I hear John McDermott sing And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda as if he was looking into the face of a mother yearning for her fallen soldier.
So when I heard McDermott sing it the other night, with its composer Eric Bogle sitting off to one side staring at the floor, it was a magic moment. Bogle had never heard McDermott sing it live before, for various reasons, and tried to shrug away the emotion it must have stirred in his soul by saying the experience was "better than sex."
Then he added "more profitable too." Of course it has been recorded by at least 80 singers, although the best of them can only tie McDermott.I first heard it on a downtown trip to celebrate a family birthday. I missed the start on the car radio but insisted everyone wait in the car until it finished. But I didn't know who was singing it and who had written it. Joe Lewis had played it on his Saturday show on CJRT and when Lewis came to the Sun office on his rounds as a ballet publicist, he filled in the blanks. It had been sung by an Aussie group the Bushwackers and composed by an Aussie named Bogle.
( Bogle grew up in Scotland and still sounds like it despite decades of living in Australia. But Australia and its pubs have given him a certain bawdy charm when he sings and yarns. )
Of course I immediately told McDermott, at that point the Sun's staff troubador, about this great song. But I didn't know any more. So he searched and asked and finally a CBC producer gave him a copy, and the song became almost as much of his program as Danny Boy.
Bogle also wrote another great war song to tug out your tears called The Green Fields of France. And soon, I predict, we also will be listening to a new song called "Buddy's never coming home" which McDermott and Bogle will be singing to all the American troops overseas on a simulcast from Boston on Dec. 12.
And that will complete a musical trilogy. Bogle didn't want to denigrate the soldiers from the States and Australia who fought and died in Vietnam when he was writing a song about war. So he set the message from And the Bands Played Waltzing Matilda around the great Australian slaughter in Turkey in the Great War. The Green Fields of France is set in World War Two. And the new song, Buddy, which has not yet been recorded, is about the grim American toll in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Bogle and McDermott are touring and did two nights at Hugh's Room on Dundas St. W, which is a great place in its acoustics and sight lines to watch music. (And the food's good too. Have the steak.)
This is a warm-up for McDermott's annual Christmas concerts in Toronto. (This year at Roy Thomson Hall on Dec. 22 and 23.) Bogle is busy writing for the concert because McDermott explains that the Christmas songs that Bogle has already composed are decidedly too risque. It must be all those years in the pubs.
McDermott now has 20 CDs out for his fans. I love Christmas music and when McDermott sings the queen of carols, Silent Night, I am carried back to my childhood and the charms of Christmas even if you were living in modest circumstances. I'm still playing his music on Boxing Day.
Yet it's the CD that doesn't have his signature song Danny Boy that has a special place on my shelf. There are 17 songs of war on this CD titled Buy Victory Bonds. And I studied the history carefully of each one before I wrote the liner notes. It was a frustrating experience because how can mere written words match the nostalgia, passion and pathos as a great singer doesn't glorify war but makes its wistful waste a trifle more tolerable.

Thursday, November 13, 2008



I'm amazed at the increase in illegal sports fishing in Ontario. But when you try to figure out the fishing regulations, some of it is understandable.
For 28 years I've had a cottage on Burnt Point. Because the current of the Trent River sweeps around my point after it circles Burnt Point Bay on its way to Seymour Lake, fish love to hang out just off the point with their snouts stuck in the flow to feed.
It's long been famous for fishing. Before I came in 1980, my shoreline was reinforced with flagstones to reduce the wear from all the fishermen. It's not just the family and friends, there's are always some sneaking in. The rumour was that the point had been mentioned in an European fishing magazine, which was probably a myth, but it seemes the point is discussed whenever fishermen get together to drink and fib.
I have a ringside seat, unfortunately, on local fishing since it's normal rude behaviour for people to fish within a few yards of my shore all daylight hours. So I see boats keeping everything from big minnows to stringers fat with catches beyond the limit. When the family sat down for Thanksgiving Dinner, I looked over their heads and saw four boats so close I could talk to them without raising my voice.
And I used to raise my voice. In fact, Dave Garrick, a friend and bass fishermen, gave me a birthday gift of a sign with a comic fish standing on its tail with the circle symbol for prohibition painted on top. Underneath it says The Dog Is Fine... Beware of Owner. I don't have a dog, and, of course, the sign only can stop legally those fishing on the point and leaving their garbage behind, occasionally taking anything that isn't nailed down.
But I've stopped doing that, after encounters with drunks who threatened to come ashore and beat me up. And then are the drunks who are bright as boards. And then there was the jerk who boasted about all the people he employed and said that he could tell I had the Big C and would die within the year.
Not exactly nice people, which you can tell from their manners, curses and peeing on top of my water line.
What I do now is watch them carefully, although this year I didn't have to be that attentive to see all the fishing a day before the walleye season opened.
My score for the last three weeks shows the sad state of fishing in cottage country.
I asked one chap where he lived, since I thought if it was close by, I would go and sit in front of his home for a few hours. By his own admission, he had been fishing in the same spot within 10 yards of my shore most days since Labour Day. I asked if he was fishing with two lines, which, of course, he was. No. he sad flatly, without explanation, but disappeared when I walked away.
I took a picture of three men in a launch who had been around most days. Since there were several other boats nearby, I thought the picture would illustrate an article I'm going to write on manners in cottage country. Two days later, one of the men was stalking my cottage and when a neighbour asked, he said he wanted to see me. She gave him my phone number in Toronto and he used it to trace my home address through the Internet. He drove 200 km. and knocked on my door to apologize, in a stumbling fashion, for the fact they had been fishing with illegal bait. He said they had thrown the fish back and he couldn't sleep and would never do it again. But he's returned, with his brother, fishing just off my shore although he promised never to do it again.( I will keep checking his bait if he stays.)
The worst example came from three men who acknowledged they had fished off my shore for two weeks and caught their limit each day. They said they were from Ohio and one of them had been coming for 40 years to fish there. I said they must be lazy if they come all that way and just sit in the same spot. Sure, one said, this is where the fish are. You must like to eat bass, I observed. They became suspicious and slow to reply. I pointed out they were saying they had caught 252 bass, and the possession limit allows them only six bass daily, and that includes what they have in storage. I asked if they were pretending they had eaten 18 bass each day for 14 days. One said they had had three fish fries back at the camp. (But fish you give away is included in your possession limit.) I told them they could explain it all to the game warden. When I turned away, they skedaddled. (Of course the neighbourhood knows that wardens are rarely seen.)
Because of these encounters, I double-checked the rules, first the paper version of the Ontario fishing regulations and then the Internet version. Once again I cursed how complicated it is to figure out basic rules regarding the main fish of my area of District 17.
I Googled bass closing for my area, which was Nov. 15. And that's what I confirmed after 10 minutes of punching keys. (But I also found a date of Nov. 30.) One problem is that I kept getting listings for brook trout when I searched for bass.
Many of us get our info about fishing from friends and neighbours because our fishing regs are as murky as the bottom of a swamp, I tend to check with a cousin, a retired banker who is so precise on the rules of everything from golf and fishing to cards that he's been an official at the Canadian Open and is often consulted by friends.
But I've just discovered that even he and I once broke the rules on fishing for pickerel, which have now been reduced to a catch or possession limit of only four daily, and only one can be over 18". It was a few years ago and it was a surprise to both of us that the rules had changed, although I'm not about to go further. After all, the punishment is extreme, or so I'm told, not that I've seen it written down in the booklet of fishing regs or the Internet. But perhaps the rules were different then. It's hard to tell.
Trouble is, the fishing regs are put together by insiders. You have to wade through info that is only interesting to biologists. And then there's the old stuff that should be pruned, like press releases that are two years old. So it all clouds changes, such as the one that you can now only keep four walleye a day, and only one can be over 18.1 inches. This is news to most people I've asked.
Years ago, I watched a Toronto City Hall committee trying to demystify bylaws. Karl Jaffary, a brilliant lawyer, said that what was needed was not something that would be a guide for the guilty and a trap for the innocent. David Crombie, later the mayor, who is gifted in communications, and Bill Archer, another great lawyer, agreed.
And that's what we have with Ontario's fishing regs, a trap for the innocent, who just want to catch a few fish, and a guide to be ignored by the jerks who want to catch 252 small mouth and large mouth bass off my point for 40 years and never expect to be challenged.
I called Walter Oster, head of the Toronto Sportsmen's Shows, who I know through such great projects as the Great Ontario Salmon Derby. Good person to give advice. He gave me the name of a Ministry of Natural Resources official for whom I left a message. That was weeks ago, but then my experience in 50 years of newspapering is that civil servants seldom rush to call you back, if they do call.
So I will complain to the minister, Donna Cansfield. A blog I wrote on July 11, 2008 describes how she ended up on page one of the Sunday Sun holding the biggest fish she has ever caught, thanks to Oster and kibitzers like me. She comes to her ministry as an outsider, not indoctrinated in hunting and fishing. Just the minister to cut through the gobbledegook and bafflegab that you face when you're just trying to check on provincial rules, even on such simple things as the minimum length of fish that you keep.
Government is filled with windy reports. In order for senior officials and the media to understand what it all means, someone produces an executive summary, a short, hopefully clear precis, without all the ifs and buts and don'ts.
That's what we need here. The basic rules for the main species that we catch in the front of the rules booklet. A synopsis. We don't need mating habits and biological history. Just the facts, ma'm. After all, there are enough people fishing illegally. We don't need more cheating by accident.

On Jan. 29, 2009, in a blog titled A GUIDE TO ONTARIO FISHING, I give Natural Resources Minister Donna Cansfield's answer.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008



We take Remembrance Day more seriously than when I was a boy, although I grew up in the long, awful shadow of war.
But then Canadians take their holidays more seriously each decade. Even Halloween has become a major occasion. Perhaps because we got rid of Sunday as the pause day. Now we search for an excuse to retreat from the world, if only for those terrible two minutes.
As an editor, I always wrote about our wars and tried to do my best for all the families who were changed forever. But it never matched those who had heard the brazen throat of battle and did not flee.
Farley Mowat is a egotistical twit but he wrote a wonderful war book called And No Birds sang. Once I worked with a bomber pilot named Jim Emmerson who, as I said in my farewell at his funeral, could look at his typewriter keys and find his soul. There is a yellowed Telegram clipping in my basement treasure trove where Jim wrote about returning on the last raid of the war and seeing the plane off his wing crash into a Belgian hill. His friends burning as the first victory bonfires began.
The fact that Canadians, bless 'em, now honour Remembrance Day more than a few decades ago, and that the young have taken to it with zest, came home one tearful evening when I watched the Remembrance Day memorial at Richview Collegiate on TV. The entire school gathered in a huge circle around the Etobicoke school, teachers and students holding hands, and high on the roof, my son Mark played the Last Post. The tape is stored with Emmerson's clipping.
We live across from Sunnylea Junior School, which was designed by the famous architect John Parkin (who helped finish City Hall after the creator died.) It was supposed to be the model for elementary schools in Canada but is now just another 60-year-old school. My sons know each creak in the floors, and now two grandsons use the same classrooms that their father Brett once squirmed in.
And so each Remembrance Day I find myself in Royal York United Church for the service that the school holds there. It does heal some aches. Matthew, the 10-year-old grandson, is part of the junior singers and the choral speaking group, while Mikey, 9, is part of the audience, After all, he says, someone has to listen.
The parents arrive early to get a good photo location before the teachers arrive like mother hens shooing chirping chicks. And it all begins after the principal speaks - if only my principal had been that pretty - with a lusty singing of O Canada. I have a friend, John McDermott, who does a magnificent job on our anthem but it doesn't match the hearty singing of the kids from Sunnylea. (I do have a quibble. The anthem goes down on the last line, not up. That's the way Calixa Lavallee wrote it, and since I have a minor connection to that Quebecer, since he's the ancestor of my daughter-in-law Marie, I don't like tinkering with national anthems, especially those Americans who look on the Stars and Stripes as a musical experiment.)
When I was in high school and the Korean war was somewhere on the other side of the world, I figured war was inevitable, what with bomb shelters and the Cold War. So I decided to pick how I was going to fight and joined the RCAF Reserve. I became a radar expert, which didn't help me with speeding tickets.
So that gave me a taste, since for some around me, war had been their textbooks. Then in 1958 I joined the Toronto Telegram and I was a kid surrounded by veterans, including the graceful Emmerson. The air force and the Tely vets certainly reinforced my respect for those who fought and died or were maimed forever.
I used to think in the early 1970s as a columnist that Remembrance Day would become minor under the fire of the politically correct and the apologists of the CBC. For those born in the 1930s, like me, who were too young to fight, it still hung over us like a spectre. As the depression did.
But Remembrance Day has blossomed like a field of blood-red poppies. For a time it seemed we were going to end, as the legless veteran in Eric Bogel's great song And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda, wondering who was going to be left to march.
But Afghanistan has put an end to that. The country has moved from a rainy day subject for desperate editorial writers to a killing ground for our sons and daughters.
The service at Royal York United ended with the kids singing Let there be peace on earth. It was beautiful. And as their voices bounced off the plain red-brick walls, I wondered how many of the parents around me were worrying about how in 15 years or so, these kids might march off to war, again.
I thank the heavens that my three sons didn't have to face the world war that I thought was inevitable. Now I have to worry about four grandsons. If only history didn't repeat itself.