Times taxing poor Scrooge

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 22, 2012 J14

VANCOUVER — Finance Minister Ebenezer Scrooge VI stared from his office window at the unpopulated square below. The building was empty, silent. His face was a study. Reflective? Troubled? Conflicted? Perhaps all.

It had been a long road for the Scrooges from the once-considerable 19th-century firm of Scrooge & Marley. Scrooge’s uncle several times removed, the first Ebenezer — so the family oral story went — had some ghostly experiences on Christmas Eve.

The British Society for Psychical Research investigated and found no conclusive evidence. The certainty was that overnight Scrooge was transformed. A hard businessman, he abruptly began distributing his fortune among the needy. He died broke, but smiling.

In succeeding generations, continuing with Scrooge’s nephew, this became a family tradition — almost an obsession. Its enterprises, including a prosthetics company, flourished, only to dwindle through excessively helping the poor, and then somehow they picked up and repeated the cycle.

Ebenezer VI’s father, who immigrated to Vancouver and lived on the streets, his only companion his dog, literally gave away the shirt on his back. Again family fortunes miraculously revived, thanks to the dog, who learned fantastic tricks and become a Las Vegas headliner.

Ebenezer VI’s reverie was broken by a deferential tap on his door. It was his deputy minister of finance, Jones.

“Ha, Jones, I welcome you,” cried Ebenezer. “I’m new, of course, and doubtless was chosen finance minister for the family’s gift for amassing fortunes — not for its genius in losing them. Can we talk, away from daily pressures? I’d like your advice. Not metrics and least-cost optimums, or whatever. What’s the essence?”

Jones had a deserved ministry reputation for both ability and cynicism. He drily replied: “Not enough money in, too much out. Had a chance to go over the books?”

“Enough to confirm that we’re in serious straits. The deficit is staggering. The debt is worse,” Ebenezer replied.

“All we have to do is to generate more national wealth, and tax it,” Jones smiled.

“Merely compete in trade with aggressive and creative people in 190-odd countries, some selling what we’re selling,” Ebenezer mused.

“We have great natural resources, Minister.”

“And, if some have their way, best left in the ground and not disturb the wildlife and the trees,” Ebenezer winced. “It happens that an environment society is one of the family’s most beloved charities. As for taxes, can your people dream up any more? Or make business and individuals enjoy paying them, out of sheer public spirit?”

“Answer to the first question, no. The second, also no. People insist they’re taxed to the max.”

“I disagree,” Ebenezer said ruefully. “I get sincere advice every day from groups demanding higher taxes. For other people.”

“I’ve noticed that it’s much easier spending the public’s money than my own,” Jones replied. “That’s one category that’s expanding — the country’s Gross National Advice. Not just from the Opposition.”

“Yes. Think-tanks, columnists, academics, hot-line listeners, social media fans, all convinced they can run government better than the government. Some might even be right,” Ebenezer smiled.

“Now, your reputation preceded you,” Jones said. “Since your great-uncle saw the light, or whatever he saw, the Scrooges have been famous philanthropists.”

“First, though, we earned the money. Then we helped,” Ebenezer said. “I’m uneasy in government, spending money we don’t have. Passing on the debt to future generations.”

“Future generations have this special characteristic,” Jones said sardonically. “They aren’t here.”

“And the hungry are, and monetary theory and balance of trade figures don’t feed them,” Ebenezer replied.

The sun was setting. The two men walked to the silent hallway.

“You asked my advice, Minister,” Jones said. “My opinion is: We’ll muddle through. I suggest you go home, have some supper, relax, and maybe you’ll get some brilliant insight, a bolt from the blue, in the night. Merry Christmas.”

“Ah,” Ebenezer Scrooge VI remembered, “it is Christmas Eve, isn’t it?”

Retired Vancouver Sun editorial board member Trevor Lautens is a columnist for Vancouver’s North Shore News and Business in Vancouver.

© Trevor Lautens, 2012

The greatest gift I ever received

Appeared in the Winnipeg Free Press – December 23, 2011

VANCOUVER — I sat down to write about the greatest gift I’ve ever received. But, like a river in flood that carves a new channel, it became about my mother.

Here, hard-eyed, I declare a sour disposition toward columns about (a) one’s mother and (b) books, the gift my mother began and in death still gives.

Mothers, books: two topics that usually stick in the throat with cloying sweetness. The man who, damp-eyed, states he loves books is as suspect as the one who announces he loves women. All of them? I’ll kindly show you duds of both.

But — the gift.

My mother, Bertha Irene George, tiny and plump in my memory, grew up in small-town Manitoba and had a Grade 10 education.

Born in 1908 in the dawn of movies, which she adored, her own reading was monopolized by Photoplay, Modern Screen and Modern Romances — evil literature hidden under a sofa cushion where I was sure to find them.

But, though my brother Gary and I were to scratch out a living as the fable-writers called newspapermen, our mother was incomparably the best storyteller.

She made a fairy tale of her hometown, Morden. Too late I realized that under her open-hearted, child-like joy with life’s smallest diversions and comic scenes was a gift for concealing disappointment.

But that’s a topic for another day that will never come. Back to that gift.

One day, she took me to the library, and afterwards, descending the imposing stone balustrade (it was a Carnegie), I stopped and stared at my new card, excited.

I knew, as children know before they know, that it would open locks.

If I stand on my tippy-toes and reach way, way up to the top shelf, like the child I have never outgrown, I can pull down my earliest remembered books:

Animal Stories by Thornton W. Burgess. I wrote to his Springfield, Massachusetts home, he sent an autographed picture and handwritten note, and I was sure an author was the most glamorous person on Earth, announced by a flourish of trumpets, petals strewn in his path, his name whispered with awe when he strode the streets or entered a café.

The bitterness of rejection, the publisher’s harsh contract, never occurred.

Next was Ernest Thompson Seton. One of his claims was that he was “naturalist to the government of Manitoba.” The last paragraph of his wolf story, Lobo, King of Currumpaw, I can still quote after a drink or two.

The bulky Animals of the World was my Christmas present, age eight, in 1942, and around then, P.A. Taverner’s Birds of Canada, never surpassed in magisterial depth and tart opinion.

Sometime in those days an anchor-weight Underwood appeared on the dining room table. Mother’s doing?

One day, alone, I cautiously approached it as if it were a trap. So it was. My fingers were caught and have not yet been released.

I began reviewing books at age 11 or 12, a canny book editor in my hometown, Rhys Crossan, deciding that if you want a boys’ book reviewed, you should send for a boy to do it. My memory is that all my reviews rigidly began: “This is a book about…”

My mother typed my handwritten words for submission to the editor and doubtless improved them.

She was an encouraging booster, a backer, but never specifically encouraged writing, reading, or anything else.

Parenting and other paid, pop-psychology experts hadn’t been invented yet, thank God.

My Winnipeg-born father, a Canadian Press teletype operator and mechanic, said even less. Maybe both thought I’d grow out of it, like little boys who announce they’re going to be firemen.

Accidentally, I slowly created a malignant cornucopia of books — five bookcases within my sight as I write, three more plus 13 unwieldy stacks in my bedroom, books on my bed, books crawling up the steps to my office, and newspapers and magazines (and clumps of my own columns back to 1958 that want to be books when they grow up).

I was recently invited to speak to the North Shore University Women’s Club in suburban Vancouver and was presented with a book. I gave gracious thanks, but drew a loud, knowing laugh when I stated candidly that my wife would rather I came home with another woman than with another book.

I blame mother. Who, I trust, is reading Photoplay somewhere.

© Trevor Lautens, 2011

Of Old Bulls and Young Turks

Appeared in Winnipeg Free Press – May 14, 2011

VANCOUVER — Ready for the Parliamentary Channel switching to re-runs of Sesame Street?

How about a private member’s bill bringing acne into the Canada Health Act?

Think diaper boards in the washrooms will raise public respect for the Commons?

The parliamentarians’ informal afternoon naps may be made mandatory, with taxpayer-funded teddys and dolls provided (why not, in the nanny state?). Could be a bit of a shock to see Pablum on the parliamentary cafeteria menu, though.

You’ve (now) heard all the jokes about the new BQ (Baby Quebecois) party, the young New Democrats — five from McGill University — who trounced Gilles Duceppe and the Duceppetions in the May 2 election. Earnest persons who repeatedly fail to grasp the brass ring of electoral victory must have been dismayed to see that for these youngsters, some barely of legal drinking age, winning an election is mere child’s play.

The youth wing’s tastefully gender-inclusive pin-ups are Pierre Luc-Dusseault, University of Sherbrooke politics student and youngest-ever MP at age 19 and 11/12ths, and Ruth Ellen Brosseau, who worked at Carleton University’s student bar and whose “campaign” was conducted from the fantasy world of Las Vegas — excellent preparation for Ottawa. She’d never even set foot in the riding, yet beat the incumbent by nearly 6,000 votes. Must be a lesson there somewhere. There were more women elected, too, than ever before, almost a quarter of the Commons.

What a deliriously gripping election that began as a snorer. But, to those of philosophic bent, with an overlay of anticipated poignancy. Parliament needs young blood, but, unless party leaders, and especially the NDP’s Jack Layton, loosen the screws, the heavy hands of party whips and Parliament’s grey ploddings will quickly turn them into young stuffed shirts.

At first they may blurt out some alarming truths, even their honest beliefs. Then they will be sternly taught — symbolically, a whack of the ruler on the knuckles that they never felt in school life — that all Canadians enjoy the right of free speech except MPs.

The Conservatives got their welcome majority, almost a footnote in this shoot-’em-up Wild East election. Stephen Harper’s campaign was repetitiously dull — rote-teaching that the young neophytes also never experienced in their progressive classrooms. That’s a compliment to Harper. It is a great feat when a government successfully defends what has been, with its chronicled warts, against the assaults of its opponents’ what might be, the fluffy clouds of costless campaign dreams.

Now don’t overplay your hand, prime minister. Let Layton twist slowly in the wind of his probably unmanageable success. It would be fun to be the scorpion on the wall at NDP caucus meetings when the party’s Old Bulls, like those here on the Left Coast, confront the Young Turks — with the generational friction of old people’s very natural hatred and jealousy of the young, and youth’s equally heavenly ordained cool contempt for the old, in the mix.

A serious word. Our elections trivialize policy into trite slogans and dumb-down candidates into puppets mouthing pre-programmed party bromides. Michael Ignatieff and Layton hold PhDs, but in our political culture they, like all candidates, have to disguise their learning, so that the highest praise for Layton, was the vomit-inducing mantra that he’s “the kind of guy you could have a beer with.” What a grand qualification for leading the country.

Our denominator is so shudderingly common that Bob Rae was brave to pitch a rare literary note at beer-swilling Boobis canadensis, quoting Kipling’s profound words in his poem If on the twin impostors of Triumph and Disaster. Ignatieff quaffed the latter in full measure.

It is a deeply unkind irony that he and his motley allies touched off — whatever Harper’s parliamentary provocations, evidently of little import to us belly-scratching, hockey-hypnotized Canadians — an assault on the castle walls that ended with two of the three leaders bathed in boiling oil and politically slain, and the third with the ambiguous success of soaring in status but with diminished power. It was a curious time, and we may not see its like again. Or care to.

© Trevor Lautens, 2011

An early Christmas schnoodle

This is not a new column, but since we recently passed the one-year mark of having Kaylan in our lives, it seemed fitting to post the piece on the new website. TL

From Winnipeg Free Press – December 24, 2009

Kaylan

VANCOUVER — In the household where these words were written, Christmas arrived early this year. To be precise, on May 17.

You may question whether the following qualifies as a Christmas story. I can only reply that, like the enduring masterpiece by Charles Dickens, it revolves around a tiny cripple who touches many hearts, a gift of priceless proportions.

On that day the phone rang (as it so often does). It was my Littlest, no longer so little, alas. She was calling from the West Vancouver veterinary clinic where she worked summers between grappling with science studies in Ontario.

To attempt to reproduce her words would be vain. We need audio.

The burden of what she said was: There’s this poor little dog that the vet (she was filling in for the regular vet) brought in, and he’s so cute, and he was hit by a car two years ago, and he lost part of his leg and had a dislocated hip, and she fixed him up and the owner wouldn’t take him back, so she kept him with her other dogs, and she’s tried to have him adopted but nobody will take him, so could we have him, please?

(As an aside: I was gratified that in these days when fathers are routinely cast as blithering idiots and pathetic fools, I was actually being consulted like a respected paterfamilias.)

I said …

But before I could get a word out, my Biggest came on the line, and then my wife — because, by one of life’s flukes, the latter pair had dropped in to see where the Littlest worked, and, boy, do those details slow down this story?

When the three had finished their coaxing, wheedling, and sniffling, I stated cynically: “We already have a dog” (Booker, the most permanently hungry black Lab in captivity) “and a cat” (Max, a typical cat, cross and ungrateful). “On Sunday you, Biggest, will return to Victoria. On Monday morning you, Mom, will go back to work. And at summer’s end you, Littlest, will hit the books again in Guelph, and who the hell d’you think will be left to look after this damaged dog?”

The answer was predictable. Thanks be to God, or to the roll of the cosmic dice or whatever, that answer was: Me. Undeserving me.

Though no dog could share himself around the family more than this little squirt.

The people who had turned down the dog — the vet explained that when she offered him to a certain well-known animal agency, she was told nobody would adopt such a dog and they’d just put him down — fortunately don’t know what they missed.

He came into the house that day with his injured left front leg in the air, paw partly missing, a resulting bounce in his step like the old door-to-door salesman’s, and liquid brown eyes for which the phrase “melts your heart” was cobbled and tried out in the minor leagues for its appearance here today.

Kaylan — the name came along with the limp — loves all laps. He cuddles against all thighs. He democratically leaps on all beds and swiftly falls asleep, often shifting in the night to another bed in order not to hurt anyone’s feelings. In the dark I sometimes reach out and touch his small body, and for a moment am perfectly at peace.

And — almost painful in its poignancy — when a family member comes home, Kaylan does an ecstatic tight-circle, straight-up-and-down bounce, then rockets up the stairs and proudly returns to present the arrival with a “toy” — one of the Littlest’s stuffed dolls. One favourite teddy is three times as big as he is.

“He’s a joy,” said the Middlest, my son, who previously had the least interest in our dogs.

Booker accepted Kaylan with classic easy-going Lab tolerance. Max the Cat, not so much. The two seem mutually fascinated and repelled. The odd chase up the steps to Max’s kingdom seems instigated by either or both.

Kaylan is a nature-lover, as long as it’s squirrels. Motionless, usually barkless, he stares for hours at their (unwanted, but who can blame anything with a mouth and a hunger?) patronage of the bird feeders.

Early on — matted hair, ears thick with fur uncut because of underlying skin infections — he went to the canine beauty salon and came back another dog altogether.

His antecedents were a matter of speculation. Recently a schnauzer owner stated with an authoritative air: “He’s a schnauzer, poodle cross. A schnoodle.”

New to me. When my wife heard this, she went hysterical. A schnoodle! We have a schnoodle!

Hundreds of passersby have asked about his injury. He runs with the bad leg half-raised in an amiable wave to everyone approaching, meanwhile bouncing like the Energizer Bunny. He draws pity. I remark that he’s happier than the sympathizers and I are. He has no existential dread. He has not read Sartre or Freud. He does not fear death.

But on our very first walk on West Vancouver’s Ambleside Beach, something happened.

A young woman, a teenager or not much older, stopped with what became the customary pat, pity and questions. I replied with a summation of Kaylan’s life, which sometimes includes the sick-making, third-hand story that he was hit when his original owner threw him out of his moving car in downtown Vancouver — the vet had treated him and kept him for two years herself with a house full of other dogs.

“But you’re fine now, aren’t you, Kaylan?” I said, unoriginally, bending down to scratch him.

Only then did I see it. A flash of metal. The young woman had an artificial leg.

I straightened up, the inside of my face white, whatever colour on the outside.

“How did it happen?” The awkward, well-meant question seemed almost obscene.

The woman smiled. “The usual,” she said. And no more.

I had not really looked at her until then. And then I saw one of the most transcendentally beautiful faces of my life, a face illuminated with such stunning grace that it did not seem to belong to this earth. Fanciful though it will seem, to this day I’m not sure that it did.

This is not much of a dog story. It is not much of a Christmas story. It is not much of a story. It is shapeless and has no real ending. I could not have made it up.

© Trevor Lautens, 2009

Five days that saved the world

Seventy years ago, civilization hung in the balance — and Churchill tipped it

Appeared in Winnipeg Free Press – May 29, 2010

You would not be reading this, nor I writing it, if it were not for the five most important days of the 20th century — 70 years ago this week.

Those who lived through it, those living today, would have had very different lives in a very different world.

In May 1940, Germany’s Wehrmacht, the Second World War’s best army as most historians agree, had surged over Norway, Denmark, Holland, Belgium and northern France, and just 10 days after starting its offensive had reached the English Channel — a goal Germany couldn’t attain in the four years of the First World War.

Many people in Britain, including or especially those in government and the elites who had information about how desperate the situation was, despaired. Many others, living their ordinary daily lives, didn’t know the graveyard was quite as scary as it was until they had successfully whistled past it.

There, around the Channel, total victory in its grasp, the Wehrmacht slowed, hesitated, for reasons still disputed, one of the great puzzles of military history. It’s theorized that Hitler paused because he himself couldn’t believe his lightning triumph, because he thought Britain would surely be forced to plead for peace and the war to end, even that he had a soft spot for the British.

The certain thing is that the French and British armies had been defeated, as was the so-called “appeasement” policy of the bitterly disillusioned Neville Chamberlain.

On May 10, Chamberlain was replaced as prime minister by a man whom many Britons scorned as unscrupulous, crudely ambitious, a dangerous warmonger, an irritating gadfly, a widely distrusted yesterday’s man with a record of failure — Winston Churchill. The king, George VI, preferred the chilly aristocrat in manner as well as title, Lord Halifax, for the job.

Days later, on May 13, Churchill uttered in the Commons his now-famous “I have nothing to offer but blood, sweat, toil and tears.” Words now treasured were not uncritically hailed at the time (like Abraham Lincoln’s few words at Gettysburg in 1863, buried under the hours-long speech of a forgotten rhetorician). Many of Churchill’s own Conservatives were unimpressed.

Defeatism hung in the air and was more frankly expressed in diaries made public only decades later. American President Franklin Delano Roosevelt wasn’t ready to be drawn in to a European war, Robert McCormick’s powerful Chicago Tribune was militantly isolationist, and the Nazis weren’t without American sympathizers of varying degree, including flying hero Charles Lindbergh and Canadian-born broadcaster Father Charles Coughlin.

This set up the drama of May 24-28 that historian John Lukacs brilliantly detailed in Five Days in London: May 1940 (Yale University Press, 1999).

In those few days Churchill won over a demoralized war cabinet and a distrustful Commons. Almost overnight he rallied Britons under the gravest threat in their modern history. Above all, in those days, too, a feat was pulled off that beggars the language — the word “miracle” got more exercise than any to describe it — the rescue of the routed British and French troops from Dunkirk.

Churchill himself had expected about 50,000 soldiers to make it back. In fact about 340,000 scrambled aboard ships and private boats of every description. In some quarters it was even eagerly described as a victory (does anyone still remember the propagandistic boys’ book Dave Dawson at Dunkirk?). It was not that.

Exactly 70 years and one day ago the British foreign office circulated a top-secret plan for the flight of the royal family, the government and valuables to some part of the empire. Churchill rejected this out of hand: “I believe we shall make them rue the day they try to invade our island. No such discussion can be permitted.”

Historian Lukacs is impressively minimalist in assessing what Churchill accomplished: He didn’t — as so many people everywhere expected — lose the war. Churchill and Britain could not have won the war — that was accomplished by the U.S. and the Soviet Union — but Churchill could have lost it. And in those five days Hitler was never again so close to winning it. There is a strong case that those five days constitute the turning point of the war.

Long years have passed. Like all ambitious people in our dynamic society, young historians don’t make their mark by following in well-worn footsteps. So, no surprise, some — like John Charmley (born 1955, comfortably after the events) — are Chamberlain men. Charmley made the Chamberlain case in Chamberlain and the Lost Peace (Hodder & Stoughton, 1989).

He and other anti-Churchillians argue that Chamberlain’s appeasement policy was correct. Chamberlain was motivated by his certainty that war would strip Britain of its power and empire, and the Soviet Union would dominate Europe. Right on both counts.

But the alternative in May 1940? Graham Greene’s remark, that life is a choice between black and grey, was never more applicable.

You’d have to be a Charley, as the English say, to have trusted any peace with Hitler. No seer could be sufficiently clear-eyed to predict in detail what would have followed. But Nazi sympathizers everywhere, like British fascist Sir Oswald Mosley, surely would have been exalted. Leadership would have passed, likely without decorous parliamentary transition, to those willing or reluctantly forced to make deals with Hitler. The extremes that are so alike, fascism and communism, might still be slugging it out, the democratic middle crushed, personal freedom vanished.

Perhaps — or surely? — the human spirit would not have been crushed. But it would have been a terrible struggle to regain the rule of law, freedom from arbitrary power, and decent lives for the majority under democracy, which Churchill famously described as the worst system of government, except for all the others.

Permit a personal memoir, often recalled. I suppose I’m a rare practising journalist who remembers, with a child’s accurate reading of adult emotion when the facts are beyond grasping, those indescribably tense days. Perhaps I picked it up from table talk, my father being a Canadian Press teletype operator and mechanic (who, as I proudly responded to a Grade 1 teacher’s question, was “the first man in the city to know the news” — close to the mark in terms of news from beyond town, read off the clattering teletype).

So somewhere about that time my five-year-old self asked my mother: “Will the Germans win the war?”

“Oh, no,” she replied, “God would never allow that.” Moms being as all-knowing as they are all-powerful, I was content. But, looking back, I wonder if I detected her unease.

Do many people today know or care about those five days? Is such history taught to the young, or has history been shrunk to fashionable soft “social studies,” issues concerning minority and women’s rights, and racist and imperialist wrongs?

© Trevor Lautens, 2010