People’s Choice: Ai Weiwei or The Highway?

“Ai Weiwei Wraps the Columns of Berlin’s Konzerthaus with 14,000 Salvaged Refugee Life Vests!”

I’m generally against aestheticizing human suffering (pace Picasso) in the name of politics: efforts other than revolutionary slogans scrawled by proletarian artists on alley walls seem patronizing and smug. Has expensive “conceptual art” ever adequately addressed crimes against humanity? I think any creative gesture that fails to make current world leaders run for cover is simultaneously collaborationist and a defence of the status quo. This “work” by Ai Weiwei will be of little comfort to surviving parents of drowned children, nor will it threaten or deter those responsible for the crimes it purports to address.

Ai Weiwei Installation at Konzerthaus, Berlin Image via Oliver Lang

Ai Weiwei Installation at Konzerthaus, Berlin
Image via Oliver Lang

But it will give succour to a layer of well-to-do aesthetes who imagine that daring “engagement” with the un-named enemies of humanity has been achieved on their behalf. “Speak truth to power” is sometimes their credo, their having failed to notice – despite repeated hints – that power doesn’t give a shit. The installation’s impotence as a political act is beneath measure, with appeal only to art-world toads who engage in a nihilist and self-referential “analysis” of such works. Radical protest at the plight of refugees is sorely needed, but this stuff is not it.

The worst thing about this expensive, media-celebrated installation is that it allows the ruling class and the rich to “own” public sympathy for the victims of the refugee crisis. “See?” says the art, “We’re all shedding tears together for the victims of this very troubled world.” The notion shifts the blame from the powerful – who are the authors of the crises that make people flee their homes and countries – to “our flawed common humanity.”

I’m thoroughly fed up with Weiwei’s public installations that, in the words of one apologist, “engage with policy.” Modest levels of a tepid  “Refugee Awareness” may result, but mass protests will be absent, because installations such as this help to dampen public rage. Given the daily crimes committed by the powerful class that rules us, can you honestly believe that they do anything but laugh at this fatuous “artistic” gesture? Hell no! They’ll even pay for it!

The installation’s intellectual-symbolic quality manages to insulate its elite supporters from accusations of genuine radical outcry, lest it tarnish their reputations and jeopardize their incomes. As for the German and international film glitterati who confront this “art” on their way into the Konzerthaus, I doubt that it has the slightest impact, other than engendering contempt for those who would remind them of their criminal collusion.

Appreciation of Ai Weiwei’s installation is predicated on belief that governments are working tirelessly to solve the refugee crisis and end war. But the opposite is true: immigrants are being permitted entry to host countries because capitalism wants cheap, non-union, thankful-to-be-here labour. War is great for business.

Does Weiwei’s installation express moral outrage and genuine sympathy for drowning victims? The act of hanging their life preservers on high pillars – the way medieval victors hanged bodies from battlements and heads on poles – can be interpreted differently. I suspect that in neoliberalism’s war on the poor and defenceless, the installation is emblematic of victory over ethical politics, humane standards, and the struggle for a just world.

But things are due to change. As we said in the 1960s, “Ethics is the aesthetic of the future.”

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The Selfie

Though at the dying light I rage,
I can’t erase the map of age.
From the moment of my birth,
Topographies of tears and mirth,
I’m captive in a human race:
Death writes its name upon my face.

—Doug Williams

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HEINZ KETCHUP

I love Heinz Ketchup. I grew up near Leamington, Ontario, once home of the world’s largest Heinz factory. In summer, you could smell the ketchup and pickles for miles down wind, and most teenagers in the area found vacation employment picking tomatoes, loading transport trucks with baskets of them, or working in the canning factories in Essex and Kingsville. Ever wondered how tomatoes are peeled for canning? No knife marks, perfect every time? The secret is this: They’re soaked in giant vats of LYE (peaches and pears, too) which eats the skin away. It’s a demandingly precise process, dependent on strength of bath, immersion time, and subtler considerations such as ripeness, air temperature, amount of rain, even which side of the hill the vines were on. But skin removal wasn’t overseen by chemists with clipboards – where I worked, an old geezer who was treated like royalty did the job. He claimed that the direction the wind was blowing affected the strength of lye he chose. His expertise was the product of a lifetime of experience in the surrounding fields and bone-deep feeling for natural elements. They paid him so much that he didn’t have to work the rest of the year. Cooled his heels in Florida, they said. The cultural highpoint of the summer was an immense rotten tomato fight, organized by Heinz, on the broad tree-lined avenue outside the factory in downtown Leamington. Teams of farm kids would hurl rotten tomatoes at one another until the pavement was awash in red. Those were the days… Heinz Ketchup tastes of tomatoes, salt, sugar, vinegar and… cloves. Once the most popular sauce in the world, I read recently that ketchup was replaced – first by salsa, and since then – by sriracha, an Asian hot sauce.

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Tired of the Phoney Debate?

CHARLIE HEBDO: “Racist!” or “Not Racist!”? I’m tiring of the so-called debate. I learned long ago from the civil rights/anti-racism and feminist consciousness-raising groups I attended, that if victims of racism or misogyny say I’m guilty, then I probably am, and I should sharpen my perceptions and clean up my act. Charlie Hebdo’s humour/satire was sufficiently ambiguous (to some) to provoke feelings of victimization in the already-victimized. So, despite what some claim was the “leftist” sympathy of Charlie Hebdo, my notion of leftist political activity doesn’t allow for the ambiguity (at best) exemplified by their cartoons. Our mission as leftists is political clarity and human liberation, not frat-boy nihilist humour – it’s not what socialists do. In the end, the whole affair has done nothing but strengthen the ruling class’s hypocritical pretensions as supporters of freedom of speech, while triggering further repressive laws. Let the pundits babble on with their noble declarations. I’ve stopped listening.

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TELLING YOUR STORY I will be teaching a course in writing memoir and (auto)biography at Centennial College in January, 2015

Telling_your _Story_Flyer_Dec2014_FA_hr

The course is delayed until next semester.

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DEADLY DEADPAN PETER PANNED! A Review of NBC’s Peter Pan Live!

Sweet nostalgia engulfed me as I settled in on Thursday evening hoping to recapture the pleasures of a special TV event from broadcast television’s early years. The opening theme brought a tear… and suddenly … There it was! The familiar children’s bedroom and the grand window – adventure’s gateway – through which the kids would FLY! I was home for the holidays, about to relive the emotional impact of the revered NBC Mary Martin/Cyril Ritchard version(s) of Peter Pan!

Good will’s momentum carried me through the first few scenes in the Darling children’s bedroom, even while I resented the dumping of Lynn Fontanne’s lovely opening narration from the original. Did its absence signal contemporary disdain for poetic metaphor? “Some say that as we grow up we become different people at different ages, but I don’t believe this. I think we remain the same throughout, merely passing in these years from one room to another, but always in the same house.” A bit wordy, perhaps, its wistful tone a little too thoughtful for the contemporary Walmart consumer (Walmart sponsored the show). But I missed the poetic gesture that was so important in setting the ambiguously light-hearted tone on which the whole Peter Pan conceit depends. Still, the juggernaut of NBC’s update of the J.M. Barrie classic had set sail, and getting through the creaking, leaky artifact was the modest goal of an industry far removed from the era of live television drama.

Soon, hobbled with the charmless performances of the entire Darling clan, all rushing through their lines as if they hadn’t a hope of finishing on time, Peter Pan Live! signaled that television’s first Golden Age was ancient history, and that its current standards had little to do with the theatrical and television craft that once were its hallmarks.

Last hopes vanished with Peter’s arrival. Who could top the folly of casting Allison Williams as Peter? She mumbles through her text like a non-actor, with little concern beyond flashing her magnificent mouthful of teeth while emitting reedy renderings of appointed songs. Compare Mary Martin’s studied and graceful rendition of the opening theme song, Neverland, to get a feel for how far we have not come: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hJFtCfHDFfwtitleerings At 42, Martin was wholly unbelievable as a boy, but she still sold every line with such distinction that she was irresistible. Not Williams.

Indeed, they did top the Williams folly with Christopher “Mister Quelude” Walken – I simply cannot imagine a worse choice for Captain Hook, even counting Dustin Hoffman’s disastrous turn in the Spielberg film, Hook. His Zombie Apocalypse performance is no substitute for the flamboyant fun of Cyril Ritchard’s immortal Hook. Walken hasn’t memorized a line in decades, much less delivered one – you can see him reading cue cards here, deadpan as usual. His every performance has the quality of a first read-through at best, with the star saving himself for the camera. This is truly offensive cult star-fucking – why cast this guy? It’s as wrong-headed as casting Dick Cheney to play Mother Theresa. It’s time for Walken (and his fellow travellers, the spiritless trio of Bill Murray, Al Pacino and Robert de Niro) to stop taking our money and make room for real, still-living actors. And if you insist on raiding the alt-actor cupboard, Willem Dafoe might at least have brought some enthusiasm to the role.

Even Walken’s well-remembered dance skills in Pennies From Heaven are grudgingly absent here. Did they cast Walken as a politically-correct foil for Cyril Ritchard’s flamboyant caricature from half a century ago? Were they afraid the former Hook seemed too “gay”? Well, I’ve got a surprise for you, NBC! The bizarre sexual politics of Peter Pan offers a smorgasbord of sexual ambiguity: No Women Allowed On Pirate Ships! is your first clue, Lost Boys your second, and Peter Pan’s peculiar tradition of casting women in the title role a disturbing third. Although the latter practice is rooted in Britain’s 19th century child labour laws, a hearty whiff of misogyny in the concept of Peter’s unrealized manhood’s being “womanly” pretty much condemns the whole enterprise as beyond redemption in contemporary terms. And,it’s hard to imagine Mister Quelude tackling O, My Mysterious Lady with anything resembling the fey relish of Ritchard’s version – a comic highpoint of the show.

Finally, the direction was a failed attempt at crowd control, nothing more: It all looked severely under-rehearsed, and even worse, underinterpreted. The Mary Martins’ mises en scenes made this show look like gangs of hooligans running riot in a supermarket: Great remembered moments from the 1950s were squandered in the joyless rush to the finish line. The Lost Boys – here, not juveniles but all strapping fellows in need of shaves – were said to have fallen from their baby carriages: So why were they in ill-fitting school uniforms? The pirates were abandoned to helpless orbit around Walken’s black hole performance. Only Kelli O’Hara acquits herself as Mrs. Darling with touching authority. But… why cast Minnie Driver as Wendy Redux? Nothing’s worth doing without star power, I guess.

From its Walmart-friendly colour scheme, to its casting of self-indulgent actors who are too circumspectly “hip” to give real performances, the whole project ignores the needs of children for sincerity and focused intention. Frankly, the play’s middle acts were a hard slog even in its earlier versions; There’s just not enough story to support its length. I remember struggling with its weighty running time in 1954 and ’56 (it was topped a few years later only by Amahl And The Night Visitors, which I suspect has never actually ended to this day). What saved it then were the inspired performances, catchy songs and wistful scenes bookending the story. The final scene gives the children’s audience a touching and rather melancholy view of life-to-come. It was unforgettable at the time, and ironic proof that, even last night on NBC, you can’t go home again.

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My Brother, Ivan Clifford Williams

My 69-year-old brother, Ivan, died of heart failure in his sleep a few weeks ago. Hospitalized for pain, he underwent tests: kidney failure was imminent. He had been blind from birth, but as he wound down, he told his caretakers that he could finally see – and that everything was beautiful. Left alone for a while, he began to have conversations with… whom? When asked, he said “the angels.” Staffers listened outside his room: he really was having conversations – with pauses for angelic reply that were thoroughly mysterious. 

Ivan was also severely mentally-challenged. His afflictions broke my parents’ hearts, and his institutionalization cast despair over my family’s life. In the years before her untimely death, my mother visited him every week, haunted by her inability to care for him, and by the life to which he was condemned.
 
My earliest memories of Ivan are ones of frustration with a brother who couldn’t play like other kids. He cried too easily. Finally, at age seven, he was sent to (as it was originally known in 1876) The Orillia Asylum for Idiots. For families and communities who couldn’t care for their “idiots,” Orillia was an enlightened solution: these broken and embarrassing children were now fed and housed, while thankfully hidden from view.

But in 1960, Pierre Berton denounced the renamed Orillia Hospital for Retarded Children as a nightmarish firetrap, and he compared Ontarians’ attitude towards “the retarded” to Nazi Germany’s. Subsequently, millions of taxpayer dollars were spent to conceal the mentally-challenged in more humane style: by 1974, ten thousand such people were hidden in modern brick and concrete institutions across Ontario.

I worked one summer in Ivan’s new home at Southwest Regional Center near Cedar Springs – a vast compound on farmland overlooking Lake Erie. It was populated by nearly a thousand clients – at the high-functioning end: misfits and juvenile delinquents, and at the low functioning end: knots of human flesh lying forgotten on basement floors with no means to express their rage beyond hurling feces across the room.

I saw Ivan every day. Life there was better. Rather than a bedlam-like ward, he now shared a room with three others, and had his own locker. New training and education programs, with swimming pool, gymnasium, and classrooms, reflected the humanistic trends of the 1960s.

But Cedar Springs’ residents were still locked away from public view. Despite the good intentions that swept Ivan and his kind under this metaphorical rug, I can’t have been the only one for whom its rural isolation and industrial smoke stacks echoed Pierre Berton’s fears regarding society’s darker solutions. 

Then, around 1990, the Liberal government took aim at the institutional and ideological failure of places like Cedar Springs, and proffered the alternative of group homes. Class action suits regarding widespread institutional abuse were launched, and the media trumpeted theories about liberating the mentally-challenged to live in urban and rural communities.

In angry letters to the Ontario Ministry of Community and Social Services, I cynically charged that the campaign to push people like Ivan out the door into group homes reflected sinister motives and social entropy. Grotesque as Cedar Springs was, it was too big to fail: large, warm, safe – what more could be done for Ivan? The imagined horrors of group homes – inadequately monitored by a distant bureaucracy, staffed by unemployable misfits who would neglect, exploit, torment and abandon Ivan – compounded the fear and heartache that I felt about my poor brother. 

But Cedar Springs was to be closed, regardless. We were told that the “best” group homes were flagships for the policy change, and that if we waited, Ivan would wind up in lesser facilities as funding ran out. So, away he went to a suburban house in Fergus, Ontario, ninety minutes from Toronto. Unexpectedly, it was the beginning of a new life for Ivan.

In contrast to the often sullen, uncommunicative people who populate his IQ level, Ivan was a lot like my gregarious father: He loved music, singing, food, beer – and women. In Fergus, he was taught life skills by mostly-female college-trained caretakers: he folded towels and learned macrame; he wore colorful ties and was clean-shaven; he was employed for one hour a week (with pay!) in the town chocolate store. He learned the voices of dozens of townsfolk. But community life offered heartbreak too. Ivan’s relationship with a Down syndrome woman – a constant and devoted companion – ended when she died suddenly, and he cried in his room for days.

Although he displayed echolalia – an autism-like repetitive speech pattern – he sometimes uttered stunningly conscious statements, as though an intelligent adult was dreaming inside him, only occasionally able to waken. You couldn’t be more blind than Ivan – but towards the end of his life, he would tell you what color shirt you were wearing. No one could figure out how he did it.

I wish my mother and father had lived to see Ivan’s later life. His IQ was around 35, but unlike his more intelligent brother, he was completely happy. I’ve never believed in angels, but Ivan spent his last twenty-five years surrounded by kindly young women who doted on him. At his memorial, they wore his ties and in honor of him, sang his favorite song: “Jesus Loves Me.” When people rose to reminisce fondly about him, I was barely able to speak. Sixty years of anxiety and sadness had led to this: For the first time in my life, I was proud to be Ivan’s brother.

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Book Review: REVOLUTIONARY ACTIVISM IN THE 1950s & ’60s (Vols. 1 & 2) by Ernest Tate

Ernest Tate’s new two-volume memoir, Revolutionary Activism In The 1950s and ‘60s, is a significant accomplishment. In recounting the savor and substance of daily life devoted to the socialist cause, it not only offers a fascinating account of revolutionary militancy in mostly backward times, it sets a discomfiting example for weekend activists, armchair revolutionaries, academic Marxists, and veterans of the political upsurge of the 1960s who retreated into private life following the end of the Vietnam war.

It will surprise few that Tate’s preference for the Trotskyist version of revolutionary politics lies at sharp variance to all other political currents: He needn’t mention that he’s no monarchist; bourgeois democracy provides an antagonistic arena in which to exercise his political rights. Not only the Right, but liberal and left-reformists encountered in labour politics and social democratic parties, capricious celebrity intellectuals, fickle allies from the perpetually warring, sectarian left, and the plain old ornery, corrupt, self-serving characters one meets at every turn in life – are all adversaries in Tate’s struggle.

His largely-unheralded David/Goliath relationship with the political world defines the socialist struggle itself. Tate, and the tiny handful of Trotskyist women and men whose efforts he shares, are extreme rarities: eschewing bourgeois ambition, the sack-cloth-and-ashes of religious piety, the charitable pretensions of the privileged, and the feeble moralizing of (in Trotsky’s words) “apostles of slavery and submission,” they seek to “elaborate the morality of insurrection.” Their goals embrace neither glamour, elitism, celebrity nor wealth, and, in bourgeois terms, their stories – unless they can be sensationalized as “criminal” – are unworthy of the telling. Consequently, they are doomed never to be featured on the cover of People Magazine.

But for the politically-conscious, his story is of substantial interest. Tate describes decades of struggle in an exhaustive manner: The daily grind invariably consists of stop-gap opposition to the relentless assault of reaction in all its forms. Socialist activism is a thankless task: Only occasionally do socialists taste victory. We like to think we had a decisive hand in ending the Vietnam war, although many are they who would dispute our importance. But whatever our relative practical impact in the 1960s and ‘70s, socialist triumph lies in our accruing experience of movement building in preparation for the next opportunity, for the great, spontaneous political upsurge forever waiting in the wings.

Therein lies the great value of this book. Socialist forces are so small that, unlike capital’s – which daily remind us of their manipulative supremacy with advertising and propaganda – it’s nearly impossible to transcend a defensive role that can only react rather than act. So, with one eye on history, we try to channel manifestations of rebellious energy into constructive forms, warning of the temptations, pitfalls and enemies that previous experience has thrown in our path. In society’s laboratory, we would be the scientists, observing, noting, learning and cajoling intransigent elements into agents of genuine systemic change.

Thus, Ernest Tate provides a well-written, surprisingly-gripping account of some twenty plus years of life on the front lines of the socialist cause. With fellow comrades, he crosses Canada in a dilapidated truck jerry-rigged as living quarters, dodging police harassment, living sparsely off the proceeds from sale of socialist newspapers and pamphlets to an indifferent populace, at the behest of the Toronto leadership’s overly-optimistic vision of nation-wide “movement building.” He describes the dominance of Ross Dowson, whose eccentric leadership of Canadian Trotskyism included running for Toronto mayor (running openly as a Trotskyist, Dowson got over 20% of the vote in 1949 – how times have changed!) and whose long-simmering nationalist sympathies, expressed in viewing Canada as a U.S. colony, led him to fatally split the Canadian Trotskyist forces in the late 1970s.

He recounts the protracted agony of the Fourth International’s ambivalent endorsement of guerrilla warfare in Bolivia and Argentina – and its tragic and bloody failure. And for those who hunger for the frisson of celebrity memoir, Tate describes a roller-coaster ride of collaboration with Bertrand Russell, Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and Vanessa Redgrave in the British antiwar movement (even sharing an office with Rush To Judgement’s conspiracy author, Mark Lane, ground-breaking nemesis of the Warren Commission’s report on the murder of JFK). Along with his life-companion, the equally-committed Jess MacKenzie, Tate works with many Fourth International luminaries, including Joe Hansen, Earnest Mandel and Tariq Ali. He also tells the heroic story of Trotskyist Vern Olson, founder of Canada’s Fair Play for Cuba Committee, and his grueling navigation through the shifting sands of the Cuban leadership.

As a political light-weight whose sympathies lie with the Trotskyist world-view, I find that Tate’s level of commitment makes me squirm more than a little. His choices seem filled with conviction, straightforward in a way that mine – those of a relatively privileged Canadian worker – were not. Ernie hails from the poorest Shankhill Road area of Belfast, a veritable cauldron of political oppression: British rule openly acknowledges its class nature – he’s a slave among slaves; his prospects for upward mobility are statistically nil and any success requires egregious moral compromise with corrupt power. He recounts a life of universal poverty in which paying your rent two weeks in a row invites a visit from police inquiring where you got the money.

But Tate’s Belfast neighbors don’t become revolutionaries despite limitless provocation. Why not? Tate doesn’t much consider the question, nor provide an answer.

Finished school at fourteen, Tate distinguishes himself by independent reading of classic and radical literature. He doesn’t dwell on the alchemy of his political growth, but it seems to spring from generosity, clear-headedness and absence of personal rancor. He has a straightforward grasp of the necessity of human progress and welcomes the opportunity to play a conscious, productive role.

Ernest Tate typifies the working class kid whom the system would happily exploit from “can’t see in the mornin’ till can’t see at night,” except that his unique perspective – originating from the arcane depths of unusual intelligence and independence of mind – furnishes an escape. Virtually alone among his peers, he steps outside of prescribed working class limitations, travels half-way around the world, happily assumes leadership roles as labor union militant, and displays an internationalist vision – despite being barely twenty years old. Through it all, he maintains an almost self-effacing simplicity of demeanor and purpose that might be termed “saintly” if socialists embraced such concepts.

Living poor – often in poverty – Tate’s single-minded devotion to socialist revolution is unmarred by intellectual posturing, subservience to a leader, or cultish illusions. His Trotskyist milieu is a group of thoughtful, educated iconoclasts who look beyond personal concerns to see – and respond to – the system’s most pernicious manifestations: war, misogyny, racism, colonialism, and exploitation. There is no choice, for people like Tate, about how conscious human beings should react to the massive misery and injustice of the world. And while you may quibble with details of how he/they confronted these problems, the ethical and intellectual rigor of his activity – compared to our cynical media pundits, ineffectual and corrupt political leaders, and those who choose to vote for their hypocritical charades – is nothing short of noble.

Along with “saintly,” I’m sure Tate would reject the term “noble” – its aristocratic connotations preclude common usage in socialist circles. But its common meaning – “possession of admirable qualities such as honesty, generosity, courage” – really applies to Tate and the people who fight for human liberation from the material scourges listed above.

I’m not counting myself among the virtuous, here. Although politically-active during the 1970s, I chose a dubious career and the self-indulgence of a personal life that, these days, few can afford to experience. Having grown up in the right-wing somnolence of small-town Canada’s so-called “boom” years, with lots of food, lots of educational and career opportunities, and a tantalizing counter-culture of personal growth, existential angst, sexual liberation, psychedelic drugs, and unprecedented consumer choices that happily diverted much of my generation away from hum-drum socialist politics, my progress towards socialist consciousness was marked by – to put it charitably – lots of pseudo-philosophical dilly-dallying and procrastination. But not Tate. He was there from the beginning.

Tate has made an indelible contribution to the history of the struggle for socialism in Canada and the U.K. Although I don’t know Tate personally, I’m proud to reveal that, for a few years, both he and I participated in the same tiny socialist organization – one whose impact is relatively unknown to the wider world and (of course!) debated years later even within our narrow community. Looking back at the statistical rarity of our common sympathy, a cynic might ask “What’s the motive?”, or “Why Ernie Tate?”, or even “Why anybody?”

But while the psychology behind the arcane “life-style” choice of the socialist militant is worth exploring, I’m proud to concur with Ernest Tate on this central point: the question should not be “Why him?”, but “Why not everyone?”

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DOUG WILLIAMS Interview re: PROMISED LANDS on Angie’s Diary

http://angiesdiary.com/interviews/douglas-williams/

ANGIE’s DIARY 1577 views (as of Aug 5, 2015)

Artist Spotlight » Douglas Williams

Interview with Douglas Williams about his book ‘Promised Lands: Growing Up Absurd in the 1950s and ’60s.’

Tell me about your background: Who you are, where you are from.
I was born in Windsor, Ontario in 1946 and grew up in Kingsville, Ontario. Kingsville’s on the north shore of Lake Erie, near Point Pelee. It’s the most southerly town in Canada – when I was there, the population was around 3000. My father was a businessman, and my mother a high school teacher. I left when I was 20 years old to see the world. My book, ‘Promised Lands,’ is the story of that journey.

Is there a particular feeling or experience that you hope to evoke for the reader of Promised Lands?
I wanted to relate some of the magical moments – and some of the less-magical ones, too! – that I experienced as a traveller in distant lands during a time of great social upheaval – the 1960s. If this interview were a film trailer, you’d see me living a surrealist lifestyle in a mansion full of hippies in Athens, driving overland through the Middle East, getting stoned with goat herders by the Dead Sea, hiding as jets scream overhead during the June War of 1967, astonished on LSD during the Running of the Bulls in Pamplona, and living free in a mobile community of like-minded road-trippers.

Douglas-WilliamsIt was a great time to be young. BTW, many readers have referred to the book as “hilarious,” “provocative” and “a real page-turner.” One reviewer called it “deeply sad” too, a trait common to old-guy reminiscences about growing up, and another said it was “beautifully written – full of superb turns of phrase.”

What themes does your book explore and what do you hope the readers will take away from the experience?
It’s a very personal account of escaping from the limitations of Canadian small town and family life – a classic predicament for young people of every generation. Kingsville was a place I couldn’t wait to get away from. My unrest was compounded by family tragedy and happily influenced by the burgeoning counter-culture of the 1960s. I would encourage all young people who feel the urge, to embark on journeys of exploration and self-exploration. Seeing the world – becoming “worldly” or “cosmopolitan” – is a big part of the struggle we all face to resist pressures of conformity and narrow-mindedness. In the 1960s, young people really wanted to reach out to the rest of the world in friendship and solidarity – against those who saw only war and conflict.

The subtitle of my book, Promised Lands, is Growing Up Absurd in the 1950s and ‘60s; it refers to sociologist Paul Goodman’s famous best-seller, ‘Growing Up Absurd,’ which helped define and inspire the youth rebellion of the 1960s. There was immense pressure to conform then, and there’s even greater pressure to conform now. But it’s your life, and you owe it to yourself to decide freely what to do with it, and how to view the world.

So, do you feel that the 1960s have relevance for us today?
Absolutely – All contemporary progressive movements have roots in the 1960s. Some critics have labelled the counterculture of the 1960s as “the last great flowering of human freedom,” and it’s a persuasive idea, especially if If you look at the youth culture since that time. Now, schools are training grounds for corporate workers who eat factory food, watch corporate movies, absorb corporate-approved information, and listen to corporate music. Corporate culture has attempted rather successfully to roll back many of the achievements of the 1960s.

Have things really changed so much since the ‘60s?
Yes, and it’s been an insidious process. When I returned to Canada in 1970, after four years in Europe and the Middle East, the counter culture of the 1960s was still in full flower. One of the hallmarks of that time was seeing crowds of back-packers thumbing rides at very city intersection and on major highways – young people setting out on personal exploration of the world. It was part of a new openness and feelings of universal brotherhood and internationalism that flowed naturally from counter-culture philosophy.

Now, you never see people hitch-hiking: hitchers are suspected of being terrorists or serial killers or possibly the inevitable victims of serial killers. Fear and distrust have taken over society, reactionary feelings consciously fostered by corporate culture, because they want us to seek solace – not in creativity and exploration but – in consumption of the products they produce.

So, part of my book’s purpose is to remind young people that there might be other ways to live and that a better world is possible. While mere survival is a growing challenge for most of us (and a very conservatizing influence in itself), it’s easy to forget that human life should be fun too. It’s our birthright as living sentient beings, and that right is being severely curtailed today, and channeled into narrowly-defined corporate-sanctioned lifestyles. There’s a world of extraordinary experience out there that has nothing to do with video games, iPads, iPods, tweeting movie stars, FaceBook, etc.

What prompted you to be an author and did you have a specific inspiration in mind? Were you influenced by a certain person, artist, or genre?
Going “on the road” when you’re young inevitably yields a variety of experiences, and keeping a journal of events, thoughts and feelings is very important. The modern classic example is Jack Kerouac, the “beatnik” writer. My inspirations were mark Twain (who was quite left-wing and anti-imperialist), George Orwell, whose 1984 was a life-changer for me, and recently, I’ve started re-reading John Steinbeck, who’s very leftist and very funny and humane. Tom Sawyer Abroad and 1984 are two of my favorite books. I had the great pleasure of reading Twain to my young daughter and she was knocked out. The travel bug bit her in a serious way, too. The down-side of that is my never seeing her for years at a time.

I read Steinbeck’s Travels With Charlie back in Kingsville: it was very inspiring. I also read Black Like Me, by a white journalist, John Howard Griffin, who darkened his skin in order to find out, first hand, what it was like to be black in America. It typified the empathy felt by young people for the oppressed everywhere. James Baldwin was an important writer for me, too.

So, reading those writers was a great influence: Promised Lands is saturated with rebellious feelings and ideas, and bizarre characters and events – all from the viewpoint of a very young, rather unsophisticated young man. One of my aims was to contribute definitively to literature about the 1960s. I hope the book has significant nostalgic appeal for people who were young then, too.

Do you enjoy writing? Do you feel a sense of purpose as you work?
I enjoy writing and have always been a journal-keeper and letter-writer; I still correspond with friends I met forty or more years ago on the road. English composition was one of the few subjects I liked in school. At my age, I feel very generationally-aware, and I have no regrets about our opposition to war and the many other ways we rebelled. We were iconoclasts and I hope that my generation will re-awaken and continue to distinguish themselves as rebels against the burgeoning corporate police state we face today.

Our mainstream intelligentsia is confused, largely silent or has “sold out” as we used to say. Meanwhile, police violence – against youth, the poor, minorities and the marginalized – is skyrocketing everywhere in North America, not just in Toronto; it’s a reflection of the violence America inflicts on helpless countries around the world, and Canada is complicit in everything America does. Unfortunately, too few voices are raised against what’s happening. In the 1960s, we saw the criminality of America’s war in Viet Nam – the assassinations of the Kennedys, Dr. King and Malcolm X – as major reasons to question the system and our rulers – who were used to obedience and conformity. They responded with ferocious determination: That’s why, today, the media wages relentless war on the traditions of the 1960s.

These attitudes fueled my desire to travel and see the world for myself. But, I don’t want to give the impression that PROMISED LANDS is dry sociology or a political tract – far from it: it’s a personal memoir full of travel to “exotic” places, strange adventures and lots of “sex, drugs, and Rock’n’Roll!”

If you could compare your book to any other existing works, which ones would it be and why?
As long as “compare” doesn’t mean “equate”, I would say Huckleberry Finn, the Tom Sawyer books and Kerouac’s work figure prominently for me. Hemingway and Burroughs to some extent. Along with Alice Monroe and Richard Ford, they achieved simplicity of style that I find very attractive, and travel was a featured theme in much of their work.

Tell us about your latest work, and what inspired you.
I’m working on a sequel to Promised Lands and a collection of short stories. My study of cinema led to writing film criticism as well as making films; you may not have guessed this, but I write cranky cultural criticism, film and book reviews and some outrageous political stuff for my Blog: ME OF ALL PEOPLE.

How can your readers contact you? Or buy your books? Or where can they sign up for a newsletter?
My BLOG: ME OF ALL PEOPLE will connect readers with the slow unravelling of my mind; it has a few excerpts from my book, comments from literary experts, and Readers Reviews which can also be found on Amazon. PROMISED LANDS is widely available in paper and electronic formats on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, etc. And I have extra copies in my bedroom closet if Amazon runs out.

Tell me about your education and career.
I studied painting and drawing at Wayne State University in Detroit, photography at OCAD in Toronto, creative writing at University of Toronto, and film at the London School of Film Technique in England.

For a living, I direct, produce and sometimes write television programs – my resume includes TV movies, documentaries, and hundreds of hours of various kinds of TV. I’ve directed shows in Europe, USA and North Africa, and have lectured in film and television at Ryerson, Humber and Centennial. I’ve lived in Toronto since 1970, am married to screenwriter Laura Phillips, and have 2 children. And I have considerably less hair than I used to, but not by choice!

Thanks for taking the time for this interview. All the best!
Thanks for the opportunity, Paul.

 

 

 

 

 

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Tough Times for The God Squad

“Jesus was frankly a big disappointment to me,” said God in a recent interview. “I hated his faggy friends, there was too much turning water into wine when the going got tough, and his bitch Mary Magdalene was a fuckin’ ho’, to be blunt. She had three abortions (imagine if the Son of God had had a Son! Or a daughter!) and was always putting down Judea and wanting to move to France. Jesse whined endlessly about the fucking crucifixion. I admit the Ascension was pretty impressive, although it was just a variation on the Rope Trick he’d learned in India.”

According to insiders, the real split came because Dad had always preferred armed rebellion to his Son’s peace and love plans: “The boy was just too much of a fucking Ferdinand to get behind that notion. He didn’t understand that Earth was one world among many, that this was just a beginning. Baby steps, you know? He could have been someone…” said former colleague, D. Thomas, of Florida.

Reached at his home in Boca Raton, Jesus said: “All that was a long time ago. I lost all branding rights at Nicaea – they wouldn’t even let me speak at the opening ceremonies. No copyright, no Royalties (we call them Dieties, of course), can’t put the cross on my letterhead, nothing. They use a Swedish or Welsh guy’s face instead of mine in all their artwork. I’ve tried for a comeback a few times, but people are so cynical now… I’ve really had to move on and find forgiveness, which hasn’t been easy.”

Jesus hasn’t spoken to his father in ages, and according to some, he’s actually been disinherited. “I’ve had to go into business for myself,” he said. “RC Merchandising overlooked the niche market in Mom’s tears, so we’ve made a little money there. But anyone with a chemistry set can make them, and the formula’s all over the fucking internet.”

Satan, who actually rules the Universe, said, “Fucking losers, all of them!” and declined further comment.

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