Sunday, April 21, 2024

Storia di Todi

Thursday the 28th we came to Todi in Umbria. It is called the prettiest hilltown in Umbria, and you won't find me quibbling. Also - be still my Louisbourg-shaped heart - it is a true walled city. After defeating the Romans at Lake Trasimene just north of here in 2-something BC, Hannibal passed by fortified Todi without even making an attempt on it.

Todi has three sets of walls. Just traces of the paleo-Etruscan wall, but the Roman walls are mostly intact, and the medieval ones are even bigger and better. Which rather sums up a lot of the history of Italy.  The walls may be decorative now (though they do help limit car access), but they were not always. Todi has seen a lot of armies go by.

One of those armies, just eighty years ago, included my own father, who came through in June 1944 in a Sherman tank as part of Sixth Armoured Division of the British army, driving hard for Northern Italy after the stalemate at Cassino was finally broken late in May.

But somewhere north of Todi his tank was destroyed and he spent two weeks in the Ospidale di Todi.) (It now serves as government offices, and there's a new regional hospital a few miles away.)

The other day the host at our accommodation, the wonderful Residenzia San Lorenza Tre, told us her mother and grandmother served at the Ospidale, first helping the German wounded, then the British. At that point I seemed to get something in my eye and couldn't speak for a few moments.  Happy to say my father survived his wounds and came away with a lifelong affection for things Italiano.

Todi is a great place to visit even without this kind of connection. Views, history, architecture, food (!), hospitality second to none. Wouldn't have missed it for the world.

Friday, April 19, 2024

Travel notes 2

 Could post about a thousand pix about this place, and each would deserve about a thousand words.  Here' s a couple of pix:

Gondola traffic jams: would thunk it?

Venice is sinking, no doubt, but I'm pretty sure the tilt to the left here is my sloppy camerawork. The doge's palace, at centre, was really more a place of government than a palace, since the doges were elected for limited terms and had their own palazze, so it's full of council rooms and Senate chamers and courts of appeal, all well explained to suggest how a sort of republic lasted a thousand years or so.  Great collection of Old Masters too.

A little canalside cafe, this one on the adjacent island of Mutano, one of a million in Venezia. More substance soon. But if you get the chance, don't pass on either Rome or Venice. Next stop: a little off the beaten path.

Travel notes 1

So it turns out bopping around Italy with my girl is more appealing than stopping to tap out one-finger posts on a tablet when we have wifi. So much to see, so much to eat, so many steps to tally.  Gotta rest sometime. However:

We spent a few days in Rome under wonderful blazing sun and mid 20s temperatures.  Stayed in a charming residential neighborhood and saw a lot of the classics: Spanish Steps, Trevi Fountain, Pantheon, and some quieter places too.  Liked this 'look what's down at the end of the street' shot.

Then we jumped on one of these Frecciarossa high-speed trains and blitzed off to Venice at 300 kph.

Wednesday, April 10, 2024

Blog on Hiatus. sort of

Yer blogger is going on vacation. Usually that means I announce a hiatus here, and you all find something else to read for a couple of weeks.

It's a little different this time.  There will be a hiatus on Canadian history news and views for a couple of weeks.  But while we are on the road, I'm going to try posting some short travel-diary entries here.  I'm travelling with only phone and tablet, so entries are likely to be short, but I hope there will be photos.

And where we are going is Italy. So there should be something to see, or so I've heard.

Next post, assuming all goes right with the tech:  ROME

Book Notes: Friesen on John Norquay

Another one of the books I have been wanting to devote more time to is Gerald Friesen's enormous biography of the 19th century indigenous premier of Manitoba: The Honourable John Norquay, Indigenous Premier, Canadian Statesman, just appearing from University of Manitoba Press

It's a remarkable book:  a political biography of a familiar-looking kind.  Except the subject is indigenous, an English-speaking Metis raised in a mostly traditional life with indigenous grandparents all over his family tree  -- and therefore a new and fresh kind of political biography.  

Friesen seems to have mastered every possible source and every possible interpretation of John Norquay, and that makes it a long and detailed life story. I haven't even got to his premiership yet, but what I have read so far seems remarkable new and absolutely authoritative.  This will be the basic book on early Manitoba for a very long time, I think

Tuesday, April 09, 2024

Book Notes: The Slow Rush of Colonization

I have been meaning to take a deep dive into Thomas Peace's big new book The Slow Rush of Colonization: Spaces of Power in the Maritime Peninsula 1680-1790.  But it's a book that demands quite a bit of undivided attention -- and I have not had a whole lot of that recently. (More on that tomorrow.)

But I'm already impressed. Peace is covering a period that starts when there has already been a century of so of contact between Europeans and the indigenous peoples and nations of what is now eastern Canada.  It ends another century later, in what is still the remote past of Canadian history, but when colonial states were beginning to be able to operate with a much reduced need to give respect or attention to indigenous needs and requirements.  That I guess is the ""slow rush."

Peace documents all this in meticulous detail. But the conclusions are large. He's arguing, I think, that what happened in this time period set a template that still defines the deep constitutional underpinnings of Canada and of indigenous-newcomer relations. The book's way of getting inside indigenous policies and strategies in this period overthrows a lot of standard visions of "pre-confederation" history. But his argument about political fundamentals that endure today being established before the end of the eighteenth century is vastly expands what we might take to be the standard model of Canadian political history.

If you too have not taken the time yet to dive deep into The Slow Rush, you might listen to Tom Peace on the Witness to Yesterday podcast, particularly his concluding remarks about the enduring constitutional meaning of what went on in this period. 

More, maybe, when I've gone deeper into the book.  

History of the eclipse


Yesterday the eclipse was fabulous in Burlington, Ontario, not far from Toronto and (unlike Toronto) just inside the edge of the zone of totality. I took this picture before the moon completely eclipsed the sun and everything got cool and dark and amazing. But by then I preferred to watch than try to photograph. Just as the eclipse was gathering strength, the clouds vanished from the western half of the sky -- so my happily gazing family (above) had an unobstructed view.

Eclipse anywhere near you?  It's worth making time for it.

Friday, April 05, 2024

This Month at Canada's History: air power

Strong issue of Canada's History just out for April-May. This year is the hundredth anniversary of the formation of the Canadian Air Force.  Created in full peacetime, oddly enough: Royal Canadian Air Force, est. 1924.

The magazine seizes the moment with a bunch of spectacular full colour art of Lancaster bombers and Sopwith Camel fighters and all the rest.  

Two well told Second World War stories, both improved by blending in the interest of descendants's pursuit of knowledge about the exploits of their family members.  

 So the air force's grim Battle of Berlin experiences is focussed on one Joe Halloran, a Lancaster bomb-aimer but otherwise nobody distinguished or famous.  But there is detail of his experience, thanks to his daughter Patsy's search for it, and it brings the story home very well.

Something similar in the story of Flight Sergeant Robert Spence, whose bomber was shot down over the Libyan desert -- and who proceeded to walk several hundred kilometers across the desert back to Egypt.  Here too the story includes his penpal back home and the info she received about his exploits.  She didn't even marry him in the end, but it's make a good article. 

Also Timothy Andrews Sayle on NATO's seventy-fifty anniversary.v  Book reviews, historic places, much more.

And, be still my heart, TWO letters responding to "Fuelling Anger" my essay on east-west tensions in Canada from the December-January issue.  I do try to write possibly provocative stories from time to time:  the monarchy, the senate, "worst Canadians."  Usual response: crickets. 

Tuesday, April 02, 2024

Scandal of the Archives at Active History


Story of the week, for serious archives rats, at least, has to be Allan Greer's essay for Active History.

Recently I had occasion to visit Library and Archives Canada. Marching up Wellington Street, I noticed my heart beating a little faster as the historical juices began flowing through my researcher’s veins. Even at the time, I recognized this pulse of excitement as a throw-back, a residual thrill from a time long ago when I was an eager graduate student discovering the wonders of dusty manuscripts; more recent visits to the federal archives had been anything but thrilling.

Okay, you know that feeling or you don't, but I guess a fair few of the readers here know exactly what Allan Greer is talking about: "Thrilling" and archival research together in a paragraph, know what I mean? Yes.

But...  As Greer's last sentence signals, it's not a story about the warm fuzzy side of historical research. The story is called "The Scandal of the Archives." 

Archives don’t simply store and conserve documents, they structure and organize them, carefully recording the provenance of government records, collections of private papers, films, recordings, images, etc. LAC has always been very good at this and generations of archivists built up an infrastructure of guides and finding aids, but instead of using these resources to curate their online collections, the archives seem determined to hide the results of their past efforts from the eyes of researchers.

The last time or two I was at Library and Archives Canada, I thought it must be my fault. I just didn't seem to know how the system worked anymore. But Allan's account is authoritative and persuasive: it's not you. It's not even digitization. It's that the whole archiving system there doesn't work well any more. Read it and weep. 

Thanks, Active History. I hope LAC will respond and that this investigation will continue.  

Update, April 3 I must follow "historians' Twitter" because I saw quite a bit of commentary about this essay: Thomas Peace, Shirley Tillotson, JDM Stewart Stephanie Pettigrew....

Shirley Tillotson thought it was about failed digitizing, and Pettigrew argues it's just underfunding. But I thought Greer's point was larger than either of those. Big problems with digitization, yes, and money, too, no doubt. But I thought he was telling us those are mostly symptoms of an archives increasingly run by managers driven by the pursuit of popular attention and numbers counts and ever-rising statistics to report. 

An archives is about storing documents and making them available (sure, to genealogists and journalists and civil servants and lots of others besides historians).  But still making sure the documents are preserved and made available. If an archives cannot provide the record of, say, microfilm numbers that makes the document findable, that's not making available -- whether the searcher is in the building or in British Columbia, whether they are a tenured prof or someone searching their grandmother.

Tuesday, March 26, 2024

Book Notes: Livermore on William McDougall

(Continuing my series of notes on books I have been neglecting to get to.  And this one I actually have read.)

During the 150th anniversary of confederation 2017, a group of Toronto historical societies got together to commission public lectures on each of the Toronto area Fathers of Confederation. (I know. Times have changed, haven't they?) I was asked to do the one on William McDougall.  Which I did, and it was well received, but there were limits to what I could present in a brief talk.

McDougall proved fascinating, however, a real piece of work. I was struck by how little had been written about him.  Even his moment of maximum notoriety in 1869, when he tried to become Lieutenant Governor of Red River and was sent packing by Louis Riel and the Red River Council, has not produced a lot of in-depth examination of his career. An in-depth biography?  Nottachance.

(Once again is confirmed the maxim that there is no subject in Canadian history about which the statement "Too little has been written about X" is likely to be false.  Almost any Father of Confederation -- but one -- might be called a Forgotten Father, n'est-ce pas?)

Anyway, I recently learned that there is a novel about William McDougall: Wandering Willie: The Memoirs of William McDougall, 1822-1905: Canada's Forgotten Father of ConfederationIt is not a hoax being passed off as the real thing. Daniel Livermore the author is upfront about having created a fictional memoir. He has done a lot of research, too. The novel includes a lengthy bibliography, probably the most detailed I've ever seen on McDougall, plus detailed references to archival collections of McDougall papers, which include the draft of a start to an actual McDougall memoir. Daniel Livermore is a Ph.D in history and a retiree from the Canadian foreign service. 

Livermore reports in his introduction that he wrote a novel in order to explore "the shadowy spaces of McDougall's career" and his mode of thinking, and that in other respects the book is history and biography. I have to admit that, while I admire the effort, I rather wish that since he chose the novel form, he had made it more of a novel.  McDougall, it seems to me, had massive blind confidence in his own intellect and not much respect for anyone else's and did exactly what he wanted throughout his career. He fought with everyone. And made just about everyone annoyed with and distrustful of him.

But in the novel "McDougall" and his author are trying to rehabilitate McDougall, perhaps. So the first person McDougall is constantly trying to show himself reasonable and moderate, not a troublemaker at all, and often giving a version of events around him that sounds rather like history books written long afterwards. 

Well, perhaps the real McDougall would also have striven to justify himself if he had actually completed the memoir he started. But a storming, pontificating, egomaniacal McDougall might have been a lot more fun to read.  And I wonder if that might not have been truer to his character. 

Anyway this is a valiant effort to give the public (willing or not) at least one booklength account of the guy.  I wonder how many people will neglect the author's notices and assume it really is the memoir of William McDougall. 

Monday, March 25, 2024

Book Notes: Roberts on Boosters and Barkers

I've been busy with other things and can't keep up with my reading at all. So starting today, here come a few book notes: books that may remain a little while longer on my to-read pile, but may get a longer look if/when...

My friends at UBC Press were kind enough to send me a copy of Boosters and Barkers: Financing Canada's Involvement in the First World War, just coming out.

With the recent income tax histories, we know about the arrival of one means of potentially financing Canada's huge commitments to the First World War.  Roberts focusses on another:  the Victory Bond, which eventually funded almost third of Canada's total war costs. So it's a financial history? 

Well, as Roberts points out, raising that much money required a public willing to place its savings at the government's disposal.  So the selling of the Victory Bond from 1915 on should be a significant indicator of public attitudes to and commitment to the war effort.  Roberts looks at the financial planner who bet the war effort to their ability to get war bonds sold, but also on the bond marketers  -- and the bond buyers.   

Saturday, March 23, 2024

Peter Neary 1938-2024 RIP, historian of Newfoundland

Earlier this month I logged on to hear Peter Neary to give a Yorkminster Park talk on the 75th anniversary of Newfoundland's accession to confederation. But he was unable to give it. David MacKenzie stepped in very ably.

Today Peter Neary's obit appeared in the Globe and Mail. Son of Bell Island, Newfoundland, he was a long time professor at Western University and the author of many publications in Newfoundland history. 

Also in the Globe obits: Edward Roncarelli, not a historian but the son of Frank Roncarelli, historically significance for the legal case of Roncarelli versus Duplessis, a leading civil rights decision of the Supreme Court of Canada in the 1950s. The father was a restauranteur in Montreal; the son did very well in advertising in Toronto. Who knew?

Wednesday, March 20, 2024

Prize Watch: Shortlist for Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing

The Writers' Trust has announced the shortlist for its annual Shaughnessy Cohen Award for Political Writing.  A pretty strong list, I think. Winner to be announced May 7.

Rob Goodman, Toronto, Not Here: Why American Democracy Is Eroding and How Canada Can Protect Itself  published by Simon & Schuster Canada

Benjamin Perrin, Vancouver, Indictment: The Criminal Justice System on Trial published by Aevo UTP

Donald J. Savoie, Moncton, NB, Canada: Beyond Grudges, Grievances, and Disunity published by McGill-Queen’s University Press

Astra Taylor, New York, NY, The Age of Insecurity: Coming Together as Things Fall Apart, published by House of Anansi Press

John Vaillant, Vancouver, Fire Weather: The Making of a Beast, published by Knopf Canada.

Perrin is the former legal advisor to the Harper government who had a change of heart and has become a vigorous critic of "lock-em'up" theories. Savoie is the political scientist with an enormous list of titles explaining how to improve Canadian governance, Vaillant has won prizes and attention worldwide for this book about the Fort McMurray firestorm and what it means for a rapidly heating world.  His is the only one I have read, and I can't imagine a better book right now, so he gets a cover shot. 

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