Our Hero Disbelieving

Our Hero Disbelieving

Monday, November 23, 2015

Haven't we forgotten the French? In Celtic Lightning?

The question is fair enough. In writing Celtic Lightning, and exploring the origins of Canadian nationhood, did I neglect a crucial element? Given that I am one-quarter Quebecois, with pur laine roots stretching back to the early 1600s, I could hardly forget Canada's French Fact. But I also view myself as a realist. And I can no longer cling to the cozy old narrative of  how Canadian
nationhood arises out of a French-English rapprochement. Yes, I refer to the Confederation Story, which highlights the political alliance between John A. Macdonald and George-Etienne Cartier.
Few people appear to have noticed, but that narrative is dead. It ended with a whimper on Nov. 27, 2006. That was the date when, under Stephen Harper, the Canadian House of Commons passed a resolution recognizing that “the Quebecois form a nation within a United Canada.” Basically, one partner has withdrawn from the rapprochement. We have gone through a divorce. What? Are we supposed to keep telling the same old story of a happy marriage?
If the Quebecois constitute a distinct nation, what happens to the rest of us? What happens to the idea of Canadian nationhood? We find ourselves driven to engage, yet once more, with that perpetual Canadian question: Who do we think we are? One answer, currently fashionable, is that we should embrace our identity as a Metis nation. Alongside that idea, Celtic Lightning presents a numbers-based alternative. It suggests that we recognize our Scottish and Irish heritage as seminal.  
Celtic Lightning emerges out of the view that Canada is postmodern: one state, multiple identities. It also recognizes that of those 29 million Canadians who do not identify as Quebecois, almost one-third claim Scottish or Irish ancestry. By celebrating “Celtic” heroes and heroines as having played a crucial role in establishing this country's bedrock values, the book recognizes a forgotten dimension of Canadian nationhood. 

Monday, November 2, 2015

Celtic Lightning strikes: 'engaging, readable, entertaining, overdue'

Reviews turn up in Toronto, Glasgow, Winnipeg, & Victoria . . .
The Globe and Mail: "Celtic Lightning is engagingly personal. We follow McGoogan and his wife as they travel enthusiastically throughout Scotland and Ireland, from Grace O’Malley’s Connemara and Jonathan Swift’s Dublin to the Dumfries of Robert Burns, and even to the St. Andrews castle where John Knox was captured and sent to France as a galley slave. . . . [McGoogan argues that we should] look carefully at the great figures in Irish and Scottish history, because, in his prologue’s fighting words, they 'shaped the values on which we have built
a Canadian nation.'  This poses two great challenges. The first, obviously, is to blend the two strands of history, Irish and Scottish. This, he achieves brilliantly. . . .The range is fascinating, from Robert the Bruce to The Chieftains, and he avoids a strict Irish-then-Scottish rotation. For example, “Democracy” features the lives, and the Canadian influence, of Sir John A. Macdonald, Thomas D’Arcy McGee, John Knox, Robert Burns, Daniel O’Connell and Charles Stewart Parnell. The reader will find it hard to argue with his specific proposal that McGee and Macdonald formed a vital link in creating Canada, and his general belief in the importance of Irish and Scots to the country. -- Douglas Gibson 

 The Scotsman"[McGoogan] describes Celtic Lightning as 'cultural genealogy,' an exploration of the values and ideas that Scottish and Irish immigrants took with them from their homelands. . . . The result is as engaging mixture of history, memoir, and travelogue as McGoogan explores his own Scots-Irish roots and visits historic sites across Ireland and Scotland . . . . There is no disputing his bottom line. The sheer number of Burns statues, Irish pubs and other trappings of Celtic culture in Canada offer compelling evidence that values and ideas can cross oceans -- and the centuries."  -- Dean Jobb

The Winnipeg Free Press: “Like a latter-day Pierre Berton, Ken McGoogan would like history to be fun. Celtic Lightning is his latest effort at carving a niche for himself in the field of 'pop' history, bringing a delectable dish of thoughts and anecdotes and just enough facts to make us feel a little wiser. . . . . McGoogan credits British author Richard Dawkins for the 'cultural genealogy' idea that pervades the thinking behind Celtic Lightning. But the engaging prose, which made books like Lady Franklin's Revenge so readable, is McGoogan's own, enlightening as it entertains." -- Dave Williamson

The Victoria Times Colonist: “
The way we think, as well as the things that we say and do, are influenced by the forces around us. The early European arrivals in Canada planted the seeds, certainly, and helped shape our government and our way of life . . . . McGoogan’s work takes a long overdue look at the forces that helped to shape this land.” -- Dave Obee

(Photos of Oscar Wilde and William Wallace statues by Sheena Fraser McGoogan)

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Confusing poor John Franklin with conquistador Hernan Cortes

The 2014 discovery of Erebus increased interest in the Arctic, where climate change is more in evidence than anywhere else, while inciting commentary that has sometimes gone over the top. "What the Franklin Expedition glorified,” Roy Scranton wrote recently in The Nation, “was the war of Man—white men—against Nature. Franklin was indeed a tragic figure, and the tragic flaw he embodied was a will to power
that knew no bounds. He was doomed because ‘nature’ proved, finally, unconquerable, but in honoring his memory, we were celebrating and carrying on the war he’d waged." Ah, yes, the war of those awful white men against nature. That would be the same war that gave rise to the steam engine, airplanes, submarines, icebreakers, central heating, air-conditioning, the internet, smart phones, and of course the list goes on forever.
Scranton offers an excellent account of climate change, and also of his own expeditionary voyage through the Arctic. But having shown no qualms about accepting a free Arctic experience, including airfare, Scranton then declares adventure tourism “an ethically dubious proposition.” He continues: “Built on and often glorifying a tradition of brutal, racialized colonial domination, adventure tourism restages the white-supremacist conquest of ‘nature’ and ‘natives’ as a carefully controlled consumer encounter with ‘pristine wilderness’ and ‘indigenous cultures.’”
From nature we have slid to natives. But when he speaks of “brutal, racialized colonial domination,” Scranton appears to be thinking of the Spanish conquests of the Aztec, Mayan, and Incan civilizations. He confuses poor old Franklin, who had trouble finding indigenous folk when he needed them, with figures like Hernan Cortes and Francisco Pizzaro, who did indeed wage “brutal, racialized” wars -- though the Aztecs, especially, were perhaps not without sin in this regard.
Still, let us admit that John Franklin was no John Rae, who made a point of learning from the indigenous peoples, and who championed the Inuit against the most powerful people in Victorian England, among them Charles Dickens. At the same time, I would suggest that adventure tourism, far from being part of the problem, is part of the solution. In the Arctic, whether we like it or not, climate change will require adjustment and adaptation. The greatest threat by far is that of oil tankers sailing willy-nilly through the Northwest Passage. Better, I think, to have adventure tourism creating jobs while clogging those waters with small ships and friendly passengers. That would, not incidentally, help make the Canadian-sovereignty case for controlling tanker traffic.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Ready or not, Our Hero is coming your way . . .

Just back from an exciting weekend in the Niagara area, thanks to the splendid Ridgeway Reading Series. What's next? Thought you'd never ask.
 -- Nov. 5, Cambridge, Ontario. Third Age Learning, 10 a.m. to noon.
 -- Nov. 12, Toronto: Eh List, Toronto Reference Library. Note time change to 7 p.m.
 --  Nov. 15, Montreal: Paragraphe Books & Breakfast, 10 a.m.
 -- Nov. 18, Halifax: Central Library. Paul O'Regan Hall, 7 p.m.
-- Nov. 20: Winnipeg: St. Andrew's Society Dinner. 
-- Dec. 1, Hamilton: Different Drummer Books. 
Hope to see you at one of these events!

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Seeking unsolicited advice? 'Don't quit your day job'

Meanwhile, at University of Toronto . . . .

Creative Writing, School Blog
With his latest book, Celtic Lightning: How the Scots and the Irish Created a Canadian Nation, author (and instructor at the School) Ken McGoogan plunges into the perpetual debate about Canadian identity: Who do we think we are? He argues that the Celtic ancestors of more than nine million Canadians arrived early enough and in sufficient numbers to shape the Canadian nation. Ken has published a dozen books, among them How the Scots Invented Canada, Fatal Passage, and Lady Franklin’s Revenge. He has won the Pierre Berton Award, the UBC Medal for Canadian Biography, the Drainie-Taylor Biography Prize, and the Canadian Authors’ Association History Award. Ken voyages with Adventure Canada as an author-historian, and has taught creative and narrative nonfiction at the University of Toronto School of Continuing Studies for more than a decade.
Lee Gowan, head of the Creative Writing Program at the School of Continuing Studies had a chance to ask Ken some burning questions about writing and teaching.
Lee: Last summer, you gave a talk at the Summer Writing School entitled Top Ten Things Every Writer Should Know. What was your number one tip?
Ken: Number one? Don’t quit your day job. In 2015, the Writers’ Union of Canada published a survey of Canadian authors. Today, on average, we are making 27 per cent less than in 1998. If we relied solely on writing-related earnings, 80 per cent of authors would be living below the poverty line. Our average income: $12,900. Median income: less than $5,000. In the United Kingdom, things are even worse. The incomes of British authors have dropped 29 per cent in the last eight years. Less than 12 per cent of them make their living by writing, compared to 40 per cent in 2005.
Why are things so tough? We all know the digital revolution is transforming the book industry, wreaking particular havoc among independent booksellers. When a writer sells a book to a traditional publisher, he or she receives an advance against royalties based on projected sales. If a book is projected to sell 5,000 copies, the best advance you can hope for is $15,000, and that would be spread out over a couple of years. Wait, what about grants? Doesn’t the Canada Council offer grants worth $25,000? Indeed it does. But a writer can only receive two grants in any four-year period, which works out to a maximum of $12,500 per year. Most granting agencies have similar conditions. And landing a grant is ridiculously difficut. Too many applicants, not enough funds. Until you write a “breakout book,” think of writing books as a vocation. Don’t quit your day job.
Lee: What’s the best part about teaching Creative Writing at the School of Continuing Studies?
ken in tarbertKen: Best part: you’re working with people who want to learn what you’re teaching. They’re interested and motivated and that makes all the difference. These days, I teach online and also in the week-long summer school. Moving to online forced me to clarify and organize my thoughts. I could no longer skate by on my good looks and one-liners (ha ha). Also, ten weeks is just about right. Some courses run sixteen weeks, but in my view, that is too long. I like the summer school for different reasons: mainly, the intensity. It is amazing how much you can accomplish, and how well you can get to know each other. Finally, I am proud to be associated with University of Toronto, one of the leading universities in North America.
Lee: As an instructor at the School, you meet people at different stages of their development as writers. Tell us about a memorable experience of sharing your knowledge with students.
Ken: Working online, I have especially enjoyed interacting with writers based in Japan, Uganda, Seattle, or Singapore. Quite a number of my students have gone on to graduate studies, and a few have published books. Usually that comes later. In class, I get people to write on the spot. When I see a really creative response to a particular exercise, I get a kick out of that. Last summer, one writer knocked my socks off with a double-whammy, incorporating a point-of-view lesson into an exercise on plotting. Last month, when I launched Celtic Lightning in Toronto, I was thrilled to see more than a dozen former students turn out.
Lee: Has teaching at the School had any impact on your writing?
Ken: I believe that, by compelling me to think about craft (e.g., what is wrong here?), teaching at U of T has done so, yes. I see the result when I compare my latest book, Celtic Lightning: How the Scots and the Irish Created a Canadian Nation, with How the Scots Invented Canada, which I published in 2010. I do love that earlier work. But I think the new one is broader, deeper, more original, and better crafted. It is broader because it treats both Scottish and Irish figures. It is deeper because it does not confine itself mainly to those who have lived in Canada, but goes back to the 1100s and beyond. It is original in arguing that (1) Canadian historians have been wrong to assume the limitations of geographers; that (2) genealogists provide a better model for historians; and that (3) Richard Dawkins has introduced a mechanism that explains the transmission of values and ideas through generations and across oceans. Is the book better crafted? I believe so, and think that teaching has forced me to refine my craft, and to consider, for example, how best to incorporate personal presence and use it as a unifying device. You see the end result, I think, in Celtic Lightning. But that, finally, is a matter for readers to judge.
Thanks so much to Ken McGoogan for sharing his story with us.  Visit Ken’s website and Twitter to learn about upcoming classes and events.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Did I vote today? Heck no!

No, I did not vote today. Instead, I voted days ago at an advance poll. I am so desperate for  change that I could not wait. In Celtic Lightning, I identify Democracy as one of Canada's five foundational values, and show how it took hold in this country thanks to such figures as Robert Burns, Daniel O'Connell, John A. Macdonald, and Thomas D'Arcy McGee. The Democracy section of the book begins as follows . . .

In October 2014, Canadians were outraged by the cowardly, cold-blooded murder of a soldier standing on ceremonial duty in Ottawa. We were angry that the gunman had then been able to race into the House of Parliament and wound several guards before dying in a hail of bullets. We were glad that this hateful fanatic was cut down before he could do any more damage. And the next day, we felt proud when our elected representatives returned to Parliament Hill and, after a brief but emotional display of solidarity, went back to work. Canadian democracy was alive and well.
Less than one month later, an Ontario judge sent a former Conservative Party staffer to jail for violating the Canada Elections Act. Michael Sona got nine months for “an affront to the electoral process.” He was convicted in the “robocalls” scandal for preventing or trying to prevent electors from voting. Twenty-two years old at the time, Sona sent out 6,700 automated phone calls with misleading information about how to vote.
The judge described this as “a deliberate and considered course of criminal conduct designed to subvert the inherent fairness of the electoral process.” The federal election was not “some Grade 8 election campaign for student council,” he said, but was held “to elect representatives who form the governing body of our nation.” The bottom line message? To Canadians, the democratic process could not be more dear.
Canada’s parliamentary variation, in which the prime minister is responsible to the legislature, derives from the Westminster model of Great Britain. The same is true of the way we conduct elections: first-past-the-post, winner-take-all. This voting system frequently creates governments that a majority of Canadians do not want, which is why we should probably introduce a measure of proportional representation. But to abandon the egalitarian principle of democracy, one citizen one vote -- for Canadians, that is unthinkable. Democracy is so deeply rooted in Canada as to be inseparable from this country’s existence. . . .