Category Archives: Blog

Atlantic Crossing

I am following this excellent series on PBS. Of course, for personal reasons – having to do with my Norwegian mama and her brother – I have an interest in it. But it would be worth my time, regardless. It is an intelligent series that covers the personal lives of the protagonists, while still managing to capture the terror inflicted by, and the existential threat of, the Nazis. In the first episode, there is a scene in which the Germans – invading Norway – strafe a passenger ship: impossible to avert your eyes from the cruelty and capriciousness of the act, as well as the fear of the victims. It has only been 80 years, but it is easy to forget how depraved the Nazi vision and actions were. The cast is terrific – I am pleasantly surprised by Kyle MacLachlan as FDR. He isn’t doing an impression – thankfully – but manages to capture the whimsy and gravitas of the president.

What I most appreciate about the PBS website is that they have included a “fact or fiction” page for each episode. I was delighted to learn that a particular moment in episode two was fact: Princess Martha is leaving Norway with her three children, bound for a ship that will bring them to the United States. In order to reach the ship, they must go out on a smaller boat through a harbour in which there are many Norwegian fishermen. They recognize the princess and begin singing the Norwegian anthem and cheering then three-year-old Prince Harald (future king). Martha holds him up in response. So beautiful. And made more so by the fact that the little boy is still king of Norway! I wonder what he remembers from that difficult time.

Update: wanted to add this paragraph from the obituary (written by yours truly) of a family friend. His name was Haakon Aass, and as such a name would suggest, he was Norwegian. He was living in Norway during some of the events of Atlantic Crossing:

“…Haakon went on to engineering school, graduating in 1936. Shortly thereafter, he committed himself to a career in the Royal Norwegian Air Force. During the Russian-Finnish conflict of the late 1930s, Haakon, along with several Air Force classmates, took an active part in the protection of Finland. One war barely over and another to fight, when, in April of 1940, the Germans invaded Norway. Along with many other Norwegian soldiers, Haakon went first to England and then to Canada to further train for missions in Europe. In Toronto, he was stationed at a camp known as ‘Little Norway.’ Writing of that time, Haakon recalled that many of the people there were brave members of Norway’s underground resistance. They were, he wrote, ‘the cream of Norwegian youth.’ Modesty ever intact, he continued, ‘Please do not consider me in this class. I was sent by the Air Force.’…Soon after [1942], he was posted overseas to fly missions in the North Atlantic. In May of 1945, he co-piloted the plane which flew the Allied delegation to Norway to accept the surrender of the Germans. He often told us how wonderful it was to have German officers clicking their heels and saluting him, to be part of liberating his country.”

Prince Philip’s Mother

I had known that his mother was among the Righteous at Yad Vashem, but I am surprised – maybe I shouldn’t be – that it got little media attention during his life. I was also surprised that it was not written into The Crown. Again, perhaps I shouldn’t be. The Crown, while entertaining, is fictionalized history, and as such relies on caricatures: Prince Charles is a spoiled pill; the Queen is duty-obsessive; Prince Margaret an embittered tippler, and all the rest. When the Duke of Edinburgh died, a lot of column space was devoted to his colourful comments over the years, and I suppose that is justified. But there was clearly so much more to him than that. His sisters married Nazis and yet he fought against the Nazis. His mother rescued Jews, at very real risk to her own life. His great mentor during his teen years was a Jewish refugee who founded the Gordonstoun School which Philip and Charles attended (poor Charles did not enjoy it, I gather). For all the bluster about what an old curmudgeon he was, he spent his adult life walking three steps behind his wife. I read that he was the last person in the Queen’s life to call her “Lillibet,” her childhood nickname. I can only imagine Her Majesty’s grief.

Prince Philip: The Patriarchs – An Elegy

The poet laureate of the UK, Simon Armitage, has written a most beautiful tribute to the late Duke of Edinburgh (title above). Not sycophantic, not pompous, fresh and sensible, like the Duke himself. It was published for the first time yesterday, the day of Philip’s funeral. It reads like a tribute to a man and also to a generation – we won’t see their like again, sadly.

The weather in the window this morning
is snow, unseasonal singular flakes,
a slow winter’s final shiver. On such an occasion
to presume to eulogise one man is to pipe up
for a whole generation – that crew whose survival
was always the stuff of minor miracle,
who came ashore in orange-crate coracles,
fought ingenious wars, finagled triumphs at sea
with flaming decoy boats, and side-stepped torpedoes.

Husbands to duty, they unrolled their plans
across billiard tables and vehicle bonnets,
regrouped at breakfast. What their secrets were
was everyone’s guess and nobody’s business.
Great-grandfathers from birth, in time they became
both inner core and outer case
in a family heirloom of nesting dolls.
Like evidence of early man their boot-prints stand
in the hardened earth of rose-beds and borders.

They were sons of a zodiac out of sync
with the solar year, but turned their minds
to the day’s big science and heavy questions.
To study their hands at rest was to picture maps
showing hachured valleys and indigo streams, schemes
of old campaigns and reconnaissance missions.
Last of the great avuncular magicians
they kept their best tricks for the grand finale:
Disproving Immortality and Disappearing Entirely.

The major oaks in the wood start tuning up
and skies to come will deliver their tributes.
But for now, a cold April’s closing moments
parachute slowly home, so by mid-afternoon
snow is recast as seed heads and thistledown.

Good Friday

Stuck in Toronto – there are worse places to be, of course – I feel the dearth of great art. It isn’t like walking around virtually any city in Italy, say, where you can be treated to absolute delights in a random manner. For Good Friday, I thought I’d post some images pertaining to the day. All three were taken in Perugia, Italy, in 2019. First two are high reliefs along the steep staircase that leads up to the Convento di Monteripido. The third is an image of Saint Veronica from inside the Tempio di Sant’Angelo (also somewhere you reach after quite a climb, something consistent with so many Umbrian cities). Her story has always enchanted me.

For all who celebrate, I wish a joyous and hopeful Easter.

A high relief of the First Station of the Cross – Jesus condemned to death.
Detail of the image above.
Sixth Station of the Cross – Saint Veronica wipes the face of Jesus and his image is revealed on the cloth. Votive fresco, 14th century.

World Poetry Day

When I posted about Gwendolyn Brooks, I did not realize it was World Poetry Day. Apparently, it is. Fortuitous. I am always writing poems, most of which are kind of cruddy. Here is one that isn’t so bad, which I wrote a while back about my time living in Istanbul. True story.

Faith

In the small shops

in my old neighbourhood in Istanbul

the shopkeepers would use a battered shoebox

as a cash register. They would leave me alone

with it – no locks

in sight, as they went down the road to get me a tea, a cay,

sweet and dark like amber fossilized into stone.

They had faith that I was good. They were lucky. In the main

I was. I was me: not perfect but never one

to spit at trust.

Gwendolyn Brooks

How had I not heard of Gwendolyn Brooks, dear readers? Had any of you? What beautiful poetry. I discovered her, of all places, on Instagram, where I follow an account that posts poems.

when you have forgotten Sunday: the love story

– And when you have forgotten the bright bedclothes on a Wednesday and a Saturday,
And most especially when you have forgotten Sunday—
When you have forgotten Sunday halves in bed,
Or me sitting on the front-room radiator in the limping afternoon
Looking off down the long street
To nowhere,
Hugged by my plain old wrapper of no-expectation
And nothing-I-have-to-do and I’m-happy-why?
And if-Monday-never-had-to-come—
When you have forgotten that, I say,
And how you swore, if somebody beeped the bell,
And how my heart played hopscotch if the telephone rang;
And how we finally went in to Sunday dinner,
That is to say, went across the front room floor to the ink-spotted table in the southwest corner
To Sunday dinner, which was always chicken and noodles
Or chicken and rice
And salad and rye bread and tea
And chocolate chip cookies—
I say, when you have forgotten that,
When you have forgotten my little presentiment
That the war would be over before they got to you;
And how we finally undressed and whipped out the light and flowed into bed,
And lay loose-limbed for a moment in the week-end
Bright bedclothes,
Then gently folded into each other—
When you have, I say, forgotten all that,
Then you may tell,
Then I may believe
You have forgotten me well.