Wednesday, September 02, 2015

Just another day in Qaqortok

Hvalsey Church, abandoned c1408 -- been there!

After the Norse starved/fled/died/got better offers in Scandinavia in the 15th century, European interest in Greenlandic settlement started again in the 1780s, when one Anders Jensen tried a settlement based on sheep-rearing on the west coast near the southern tip of Greenland.  Some years later he moved to Qaqortok, (Julianthab to him) and is regarded as the founder of the town, some of whose buildings, including a nice little museum date to c1800.

But wifi is buggy as hell here tonight, so that's it for now.  Hope to continue travel notes plus regular blogging, but that somewhat depends on events tomorrow, when some explanations should be forthcoming.

Tuesday, September 01, 2015

Hilsen fra Groenland.

A little like a very small St John's
Suck it up, monkeys.  You're at home, probably preparing for school.  And I'm in Qaqortok, Greenland.

How do you get to Greenland?  Practise history, practise history, practise history.  But today it actually involved flying Toronto-Amsterdam-Copenhagen, then taking Air Greenland from Copenhagen to Nurnarsuaq Narsarsuaq,* and then riding the AG helicopter down the fjord to Qaqortok.  23 hours total, 10,000 k, more or less.

History of Oaqortok.  The name may mean "white thing," more or less, and may be named for Hvalsey Church, the most substantial Norse sight in Greenland, which is a few k away up the fjord. The stone walls of the ruined church and other buildings were originally plastered in mortar made from local seashells, hence blazing white in the heyday. That heyday ended c1408, the last record of Norse occupation.

More to come.

* Hardly anyone speaks more than restaurant-waiter English - which is kinda charming if you have visited hyperlingual northern Europe lately -- and Greenlandic ain't easy to spell, let alone say.

Monday, August 31, 2015

Four books for fall 2015 noted (or brought to my notice) lately

Like a very large proportion of Canadian writers, I'm a friend of the editor and publisher Douglas Gibson.  When he retired from publishing a few years ago, he became a distressingly active competitor of his friends, starting with a very successful memoir called Stories about Storytellers, full of essays of the writers he had known and worked with.

He also proved himself a formidable book promoter, giving a lively illustrated talk anywhere people would have him by land and sea. Now he returns with Across Canada by Story, a book about the tour itself, full of more stories of writing in and of Canada from the 'sixties to today.

Historians of Canadian writing and CanLit in general will be mining Gibson's stories and observations for a long time -- start of a golden age, or memory of a lost moment, who knows?

Having a blog, I do get offered books and interview opportunities now and then by book publicists. Most of the online publicists are American, and they tend to offer dubious historical novels or books on subjects like "American Aircraft of the Vietnam Conflict" (boy, there seem to be a lot of those). I decline most. But for reasons I'll get to in a later post, I'm interested in things Norse right now. So Skyhorse Publishing's offer of The Vikings and their Enemies by Philip Line got my attention.

It's an American edition of a British scholarly study, and in its way, a bit like the "American Aircraft" line of books, though of another era. It is very narrowly fixed on tactics and weaponry. But if Northern European warfare of 750-1100 interests you, this is surely the latest word on the subject at the moment. Canadian alert: The words "Iceland," "Greenland," "Vinland," and "North America" are not found in the index -- those aspects of things Norse are clearly peripheral to this study.

History's People by Margaret MacMillan is one of the heavily promoted books of this fall season, I'm happy to say.  Because it's good to see history getting noticed.  Good to have a new Margaret MacMillan, too.  This one is a series of essays on people from history who have interested her, from Bismarck to Elizabeth Simcoe to Babur.

And good that Anansi and CBC Ideas, which together publish the Massey Lectures -- to be broadcast this winter  -- are going to have a bestseller and a talk-starter in this book. Anansi's promised me a copy and I'm looking forward to getting into it.

Last year, I published a little essay in Canada's History about Donald Creighton, based on a very engaging chat I had with Donald Wright of UNB, who has been working on a Creighton biography.

I haven't read Donald Creighton: A Life in History yet, but I plan to.  It is out from University of Toronto Press now, and a friend of this blog is deep into it, so we may have a longer notice of it before long.  

Saturday, August 29, 2015

A History book review of sorts?

Would you consider becoming an occasional reviewer if we started a little informal review of (mostly Canadian) history books here?

I'm thinking

  • there is not enough timely notice of new Canadian history books out there
  • this blog is at least timely -- and (reasonably) available
  • many of its readers must be looking at new Canadian history titles worthy of attention
  • I can't search out all of 'em myself.
So my thought is to invite readers of this blog who are also reading new books deserving of notice to become occasional reviewers.  I'm thinking probably we would not try to compete with the scholarly or popular press. "Reviews" might be more like brief notes to bring a book to readers' attention:  what's the book, who's it by, what's it about, something of interest about it. They would be signed.  (They would also be unpaid! You might get a book now and then.)

Right now: Don't send me a review!  I can't handle that right now.  Just give it some thought.  I'll think out a few details and put out an invitation soon.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Women's history webinar starts in September

Canada's History launches a Women's History Webinar series, starting ing September 9 with Veronica Strong-Boag online, and continuing through the fall

Details here

Photo from

Selfies: Moore in the National Post, and the CHR

  • First the Post:  Regulars on this blog know the views regularly expressed here on party leadership and the proper relationship of leaders to caucus MPs. Yesterday, provoked by some of the political assumptions revealed in the Duffy trial, I took that idea to the National Post and they are running it today. The Post is not my political soulmate, but the people there will run my pieces more than the Star or the Globe have.  And I do think it is a commendably non-partisan POV for the middle of an election campaign.  You can find the op-ed  "Want to fix the Senate? Fix the House first" right here.
  • On the scholarly journal side, the Canadian Historical Review for September has Blake Brown's very gratifying review of my Court of Appeal for Ontarifrom last fall (along with Dale Brawn's study of Manitoba courts). Who knew the phrase "worthy of unabashed praise" was even allowed in scholarly reviewing?

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

History of Cheating in Sport

The Vuelta a Espana seems to stand distinctly third among the three grand tours of cycling.  The Giro d'Italia goes first, the Tour is the big one, and then comes Spain at the end, mostly showcasing what a hot dry arid country much of Spain is. Also Ryder Hesjedal has skipped the Vuelta to ride in the Tour of Alberta next week, so Canadian attention should be turning to the Rockies: Big mountain finishes around Jasper, bring it on.  (CanCon update Quebeckers Antoine Duchene and Dominique Rollin are both in this Vuelta.)

But in a world where sports cheaters use the most incredibly sophisticated medical regimes and the most obscure drugs, there's something refreshing about a good old-fashioned outrageous breaking of the rules. To wit, this bit of Vincenzo Nibali, last year's Tour de France champion, in the Vuelta the other day (near the end of this short clip):

You have fallen behind the leaders in the bike race.  So you call up the team car. You grab on to it.It goes rocketing ahead at 40 km/hr. The cyclists who had been with you vanish in the rearview mirror.

They threw Nibali out of the race, and his team director too.  But you gotta admit, it has a refreshing simplicity!

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

History and Policy

Not a Picasso.  A Toronto regional planning concept, 1970
Richard White's Historical Perspectives on Toronto Planning considers a difficulty for historians: getting their work out of the "antiquarian interest" box and into the policy-making one
The study has plenty of merit, and I have no reason to question its factual observations, but like so much work done by Toronto urban analysts it lacks historical perspective. Toronto’s history is not unknown, and more is being written all the time – Neptis has itself commissioned historical studies, perhaps the only urban research body to have done so – but it always seems to end up in the ‘history’ box, to be brought out and viewed only for antiquarian purposes. Historical analysis rarely informs present-day discourse. But it could, and it should.
White's new book is upcoming from UBC Press.

Monday, August 24, 2015

History of journalism: Historicist on Frederick Griffin's Soviet Union tour

Many of the historically-inclined blogs I look through are more or less on hiatus. It's August. Who can blame them?

But the blog of Toronto history, Historicist (at the news site Torontoist) keeps up its unrelenting weekly schedule. Every Saturday Historicist presents a new piece of Toronto-related history, always lengthy and original, copiously researched, well-annotated, skillfully illustrated, usually by Kevin Plummer, Jamie Bradburn or David Wencer.

This week's was (as often) new to me: It's Plummer on a Toronto Star reporter, Frederick Griffin, and the stories Griffin delivered to the paper during a long tour of the Soviet Union in 1932. There have been a number of hostile exposes about western reporters who were duped or worse by Stalin's Russia.  Plummer keeps his balance, noting what Griffin criticized (or could not see) as well as what he admired. He quotes Griffin saying, “Weigh the terrors of the dictatorship of Stalin [...]against the terrors of czarism and they won’t even begin to tip the pressed down scales.” but he also has Griffin noting evidence of coercion and regimentation, and finally declaring:
My views don’t matter; your views don’t matter. Your views or my views will not change the facts of Soviet Russia one iota or alter the course of the Communists there by a hair’s breadth. Your fear or my fear, your hatred or my hatred, should not blind us to the facts. I have sought to speak not as a visionary or a theorist, but as a dealer in facts. What is happening over there in Russia is not fable, but history.
Nice work, Historicist.

Friday, August 21, 2015

History of professional ethics

Of all the PMO staffers caught up in the Duffy affair, it seems Benjamin Perrin may the one to emerge with his reputation least tainted intact.  He seems to have made full disclosure from the start of who knew what and when, and seems not to have been much complicit in the PMO calculations as they were proceeding.

Is it significant that Perrin, a longtime Reform supporter, was also a lawyer and a law professor, and only on loan in the PMO?  One might surmise that he had an independent career and an independent set of ethical standards and constraints to maintain, and thus had counterweights to the "do it for the team" attitude. (Legal ethics, not a contradiction!) By contract, Ray Novak, who seems to be in the crosshairs nowhas had no career other than as a Harper acolyte. Never elected, never even a candidate for public office, his whole position has depended on Harper's support of him and his support for Harper.

So what about Nigel Wright, independently wealthy, with a thriving career in the finance industry? Could he not show some independent judgement? Well, Michael Lewis (Liar's Poker, Flash Boys, The Big Short, Boomerang) is here to tell us that the finance boys, like the tech boys, make so much money that they are above ethics and always get to do what they want.

What's really troubling is that no matter what party is in power, in Canadian politics real authority is almost always wielded by small armies of Ray Novaks, true believers in the leader's retinue without accountability or independence. The really telling revelation of all this may be Wright's casual assumption that the only problem with the Senate majority caucus was that it was not so completely under the control of the PMO as the Commons caucus was.

To fix the Senate, the place to start has to be the Commons.  If the Commons worked, the Senate wouldn't be a problem.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Howie Morenz and the Franklin Expedition

The new DCB entry online today is Howie Morenz, the Canadiens hockey star who died at 34 after a mid-game accident at the Montreal Forum in 1937.

I remember learning as a child that his funeral was held at the Forum, where his casket was placed at centre ice. I misunderstood this to mean he was buried at centre ice. For a while, every time Hockey Night in Canada showed a Montreal game, I was a bit creeped out by the awareness of his frozen body entombed just below the playing surface.

Much later, this memory came back to me powerfully when the archeologist Owen Beattie exhumed the frozen preserved bodies of those Franklin expedition casualties who had been buried on Beechey Island. Exactly!

Why are university presses' contracts so bad?

The (US) Authors' Guild has some thoughts on why scholars should not assign copyright:
"When you assign copyright to publishers, you lose control over your scholarly output. Assignment of copyright ownership may limit your ability to incorporate elements into future articles and books or to use your own work in teaching at the University.” And those are by no means the only potential problems. That’s why we admonish authors never to assign a copyright to a publisher.
And yet:
The copyright grab remains endemic among university presses. To find out why, we recently canvassed several academic authors. Every form agreement that a university press had initially offered these authors contained the copyright grab clause. And yet every author we know of who requested to retain copyright was able to get the publisher to change the agreement.
The problem is that most academic authors—particularly first-time authors feeling the flames of “publish or perish”—don’t even ask. They do not have agents, do not seek legal advice, and often don’t understand that publishing contracts can be modified. So they don’t ask to keep their copyrights—or for any changes at all. Many academic authors tell us they were afraid to request changes to the standard agreements.
One could add a Canadian question:  Why do Canadian academic presses want a waiver of moral rights? (Moral rights: essentially your right to be identified as the author of your work and not to have the integrity of the work tampered with.)

Update:  An object lesson on why not to yield copyright, from this blog just a couple of weeks ago 

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