Tuesday, 24 April 2018

Willowdale

I grew up in a pleasant neighbourhood of modest homes, deep back yards, old trees, small shops, supermarkets in outdoor malls, a municipal library and swimming pool, a old-fashioned cruciform Catholic Church just around the corner from the Catholic school, an old cinema, a hardware store dating from pioneer days on the north-west corner of the southernmost major intersection.

My mother grew up in that neighbourhood, too.

Our neighbourhood disappeared decades ago, or rather, was covered over with a new neighbourhood-- monster houses, row houses, giant condos, business towers, massive indoor malls, modern churches, a proliferation of Korean and Persian shop signs. The main street--Yonge Street--became a real concrete canyon.

As the development started when I was 13 or so, I guess I shouldn't say I grew up in the old neighbourhood. The new neighbourhood grew up with me: I worked in the  new North York Centre mall and I studied in the North York Central Library.  I've long been ambivalent about the changes, however. The last time I was home, I went for a walk with a new resident, a former professor of mine, showing him where my childhood home used to be, where the school-bus picked us up, and where the ravine starts. I pointed out where my grandfather's workplace--a massive printing press--used to be.

When I'm back in Willowdale, I like to pick out the few shops, buildings and trees that have managed to survive. The candy store, for example. And even here in Scotland I can recall great swathes of vanished streetscape.

This was not the first transformation of Willowdale, of course. After the Toronto Rebellion of 1837, British soldiers burned down the farmhouses owned by rebels on either side of Yonge. Until yesterday, that was the biggest local tragedy, and as it happened so long ago, it no longer seemed tragic.

Yesterday a man from nearby Thornhill  Richmond Hill got in a rental van and, from Finch Avenue to Poyntz Avenue, mowed down everyone in his path. At least ten people are dead.

One of my schoolmates was within earshot and seems traumatised, poor woman.

I saw the news online as I did a last check of Alfie Evans stories and went a little crazy as I tried to get in touch with my family. At last I got my dad on Skype, and while we were talking, my Toronto brother phoned him, so that was Quadrophonic accounted for, too. Try sister Tertia posted that she and her son Pirate were safe north of Steeles Avenue.  Mum was at her volunteer job north-east of Finch and Yonge; Dad said he'd look for a phone number.

Dad was quick to suggest that this wasn't a terrorist attack but the actions of a madman. The police have released the man's identity, and when he was a teenager he was a high school student in Thornhill. I am disgruntled with people on Facebook who see photos and footage of the Persian signs and assume that Willowdale is "a Muslim neighbourhood" and that the perpetrator was Muslim.

Sheppard-and-Yonge when I was a kid
I imagine it is possible to have an Armenian surname and also be Muslim, but as yet nobody knows why this man did what he did. Having been a Willowdale kid, I think it's too soon to ask that question.  I'm still wondering who died and if I knew any of them.

Does anyone ever imagine this could happen in their own quiet childhood town?

Sheppard-and-Yonge when my mum was a kid.

Sunday, 22 April 2018

Pray that Alfie Evans has a good death

Most Christians have a prayer list already, so I'm not really into prayer requests--unless for Benedict Ambrose, as history shows. However, I do have one today: it's that Alfie Evans is allowed to die in God's time and not sooner than that. I worry he's in danger of a most unnatural death.

I have seen what is apparently a court order detailing how Alfie is supposed to be "treated" while his ventilator is removed. He is going to be injected, via cannula, with midazolam and fentanyl. I looked up fentanyl on Google, and sure enough, one of its more dangerous side-effects is respiratory depression. This article confirms that.  

One argument of Alder Hey hospital's supporters is that Alfie's life support is not "natural". Their assumption is that Alfie will die "naturally" once he is removed from the ventilator. But Alfie's father has long maintained that Alfie would be able breathe for himself were he not on drugs that were preventing him from breathing on his own.   

My hope was that, once the ventilator was removed, Alfie would breathe on his own, and keep on breathing until the part of the brain that controls breathing stopped. In short, I hoped the child would die a natural death. However, it seems as if he is not going to be allowed a natural death. If his father is correct, and if these drugs do repress his ability to breathe, Alfie might die sooner than God and nature intends. *

On the one hand, Alfie Evans is an innocent baptised infant. A moment after he dies, he will be eternally better off than any of us are now. On the other hand, intentionally speeding up the death of an innocent child is a crime against God, the Author of the child's life, and against the child himself. It also puts in danger every other living person in Britain whom the courts decide does not have a life worth living. Right now that means particularly severely disabled children. Perhaps eventually that will mean people with intransigently conservative views.  

I have a few thoughts about very mentally disabled people I have known. 

People from a local L'Arche community used to visit my theology school, and once I went to visit them. The L'Arche person I knew best, as it were, was a woman named Rosie. Rosie was severely brain-damaged--from birth, I believe. She had been found in a state institution, tied to the bars of her crib, when L'Arche rescued her.  She couldn't walk, and she needed 24 hour care. She was pre-verbal, but she laughed and shrieked and seemed to enjoy being spoken to. She was not at all pretty, but people loved her devotedly. 

She was at a mid-week Mass-in-the-round at our college, she escaped from her wheelchair and crawled along the floor to the centre of the "round", flopping on her back to look at the ceiling. She gazed at the ceiling so contentedly,  I wondered what on earth she saw to interest her there. 

I wondered so much that after Mass, when everyone was gone, I lay down on my back to look myself. And now I don't remember what was there--a dusty skylight? I just remember that Rosie's eccentric action and how she inspired me to look at something I had never considered before. 

She died naturally one or two years later, at the age of 43. Her obituary says " Rosie had a stubborn, independent and lively spirit that transformed the hearts of many people." It's absolutely true. 

Long before I went to theology school, I knew a few kids with developmental disorders. They were sent to "normal" school with everyone else. They were often bullied despite teachers keeping an eye on them and their tormentors. I am thankful to say that I was never one of the bullies although I do wish now I could have thought of them more as fellow children and not merely as "Special Ed." The ones who were best off had brothers and cousins among the rest of the student body. 

Anyway, one of the most intellectually disadvantaged was named Frankie. Frankie was pre-verbal and his greatest joy in life was tearing up bits of toilet paper and watching them drift away on the breeze. As long as Frankie and I were in the same playground, which may have been as long as eight years, I noticed him and his eternal relationship with paper and the wind. The only thing I have seen like that since is the plastic bag blowing around in American Beauty.  The blowing bag was beautiful, and so, in hindsight, was Frankie. 


*I changed part of this article because I don't want to be unjust to the medical staff. I know almost nothing about palliative care. The thing is, the justices I listened to were just so keen on Alfie dying ASAP.  They really believe it is in his "best interests" to "no longer remain alive." 

Friday, 20 April 2018

A Working Class Hero is Something to Be

This essay is not getting the attention I hoped it would, so please be little angels and read it. I'm not sure if the trouble is the headline, or too much coverage of the Alfie Evans case, or the mention of Liverpool.

Why should Americans be interested in Liverpool? Well, the Beatles came from there, famously, and I am sorry I didn't have time to do to any kind of "Beatles" sightseeing, for I am sentimental about 20th-century England. Then there's the "Irish" feel to the city, and thousands of Irish emigrants once made their way to the USA and Canada via Liverpool. There's also the residents' feeling of being ignored or looked down upon by the elites, which is something Americans from non-coastal areas might recognise. 

Liverpudlians--or Scousers, as they proudly call themselves--are on the friendly end of the British spectrum of amiability, with the Glaswegians. That made my job writing the aforementioned essay relatively easy.  Three out of four cab drivers were well-informed and willing to talk about the Alfie Evans case; the fourth was rather deaf.  The night receptionist at my hotel was informative, and the morning receptionist was willing to chat, too. Unsurprisingly, they were less candid than the well-informed cabbies. And then there was Alfie's Army.

Members of Alfie's Army were willing to talk, but they were not always easy to understand. From Edinburgh to Liverpool is quite an auditory jump, and I had to strain my powers of concentration to make sense of the new vowels. Writing down names was a nightmare. 

I also put my foot in it when trying to establish what family relationships were because I always assume siblings-in-law are actually married to the siblings. This engrained habit caused awkwardness when I met my own British in-law's partner's son's partner, and now I understand why so many people in the UK now say "partner." Nevertheless, I still tromp about in my dumb way, assuming all couples got married by their late-twenties, eat at a dining-room table, and were read Mother Goose's Nursery Rhymes as children. 

The Alfie Evans story is more chaotic than my essay does justice to. For one thing there are duelling Facebook pages--one supporting the parents (Alfie's Army Official), and one supporting the hospital (Dignity4Life)--and it is unclear how many of these people are actually from Liverpool.  I certainly did not meet anyone in Liverpool who said "Poor little Alfie should be allowed to die", but that is the refrain of Dignity4Life when they are not sneering at Alfie's Army.  

When it comes to insults, AAO mostly confined itself to calling the good doctors and nurses of Alder Hey Children's NHS Foundation (hospital) murderers. However, now it rails against Dignity4Life, and with good reason. There are those on Dignity4Life who hold up the working-class roots of Alfie's Army for mockery. They also attack the characters of Alfie's parents and accuse them of this teenage incident and that. 

There is deep resentment that Tom Evans is a hero in the eyes of thousands of people across the world. Dignity4Life posters accuse Alfie's Army of being blind to facts (to put it politely), but they themselves seem blind to the fact that Tom Evans is a powerful symbol of responsible fatherhood and parental rights. They can sneer "Saint Thomas" all they like, but none of my cabdrivers would be taken aback by any teenage scrape a working-class lad got into as long as he is a model father and partner today.  

Wednesday, 18 April 2018

In Kensington Gardens

In future I shall try to arrange an annual mid-April visit to London. First, I am a big-city girl, and I feel energised by London. Second, spring comes to England before it comes to Scotland, and by mid-April London  has blooming gardens and flowering trees. There was magnolia tree in a garden under my hotel window, and I could smell it from my room.

Yesterday morning I had no appointments, so I went for a walk to Kensington Palace ("No Photographs") via Kensington High Street and through Kensington Gardens as far as the Round Pond. I sat on a bench, admired the swans, and tested my Polish vocabulary with flashcards

One can now visit Kensington Palace and traipse through its gardens, but I thought I'd rather not. I prefer to keep a respectful distance from the Royal Family, so as to retain the mystery. There are also a playground and a fountain in memorial of the late Princess of Wales. I was sentimental about Diana from her engagement up to her honeymoon and then on the day she died, and that was enough. I am currently sentimental about Prince George, Princess Charlotte and the Royal Bump.  

But I am even more sentimental about my parents, who arrived in London with my brother Nulli and me a very long time ago. My mother was taken to London by her parents about 17 years before that, which is another sentimental thought. Her father had been on leave from his regiment in London on VE Day some years before that. Family legend said he stayed in his hotel and slept through the riotous celebrations. I pondered whether or not his father had been in London during (or before, or after) the First World War, and reflected on how different London must have looked a hundred years ago.

Yes, I had quite enough sentimentality to be getting on with, and it's a miracle if I didn't mutter "Centre of the Empire" again. 

Naturally, as I sat on a bench in the Centre of the Empire, I was vastly amused to hear passers-by speaking to each other in Polish. One pair of Polish conversationalists were two women in sports clothes, one older, one younger, and the younger one carried a hula-hoop with knobs on it. I couldn't imagine what it was for, and I still cannot. 

I did not do particularly well at understanding all the Poles around--the Polish businessmen in the hotel breakfast room, the tough Polish youths in Ealing, the Polish families in parks--but I did have some success on the Tube. On that particular Tube journey, some very noisy Polish girls erupted into the carriage and settled around an elderly Englishman trying to read the Telegraph and me. 

"I am sitting here!" announced one, in Polish, plunking herself down beside the Englishman. "You sit there," she advised her friend, who sat on his other side.

"And I am sitting here!" said a third girl, dropping down behind me. 

There was some conversation about Michał. I believe the girl beside me said she liked him. He was, at any rate, the grammatical object of the sentence. As for the rest, they spoke too quickly for me to understand, and I couldn't guess the context, which is usually a help. Then they came to their stop, and there were Polish cries of "Let's go!" and "Come along!" 

These Polish girls really made my day although probably not that of the elderly Englishman, who looked a bit squashed. Tube carriages are rather narrow. 

When I returned to my hotel from Kensington Gardens (and I did not, after all, go into the Kensington Hobbs of London, for I have an Edinburgh Hobbs of London to spend too much money in), I packed up my laptop in my old kit bag and left them with reception. Then I went to Kennington, which is south of the Thames, to visit the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children and lunch with a friend. 

Although Kennington is south of the Thames and therefore too far from Brompton Oratory for true comfort, it has some very elegant streets and, what is more, gardens and flowering trees. After half an hour of photographing SPUC, I went to a very pleasant salad place with my friend, and afterwards on the way back to the Tube station, I admired the sun, and the gardens, and the trees, and the quirky little streets and felt the kind of happiness I believe I felt when I was four. 

For, lo, the crux of the matter may be that I remember being four--and being three, for that matter--in England.  I have a goodly store of memories of England--quite apart from all the false memories bookish children get from English children's books. For the rest of my childhood, I  wanted to go back there.  And although people often tell me how awful London is--how unfriendly, how expensive, and how big--I think I could live there quite happily, especially in the spring.  

That said, I wasn't particularly interested in England after I got into the direct train to Scotland. Instead of looking out the windows all that much, I studied my Polish textbook and then wrote out first sentences of travel stories, to see how proper travel-writing is done. But four hours later, when we had passed Berwick-on-Tweed, I got rather excited about Outdoors again, and stood for the rest of the journey, looking out the window at Scotland. It was great fun recognising the coastal towns of East Lothian and then, to my great joy, I saw the Historical House flash by in the distance.

So maybe I love Scotland best of all. Hmm. 

Tuesday, 17 April 2018

London Work Day

Today was a very odd day for me. It was like living someone else's life.

First I woke up in a tiny, sightly smelly room in the Kensington district of London. It wasn't even 6 AM yet, so I got an hour's work in. Then I had a shower, took my bag to the desk, got a double macchiato at "Paul", and headed for the Tube.

I took the Tube to Westminster, while idly trying to guess people's jobs from their clothes, and then I went to the Court of Justice to see if I could get in yet. I couldn't, so I went to Pret-a-Porter  (free wifi) to do some work.

At 8:50 I went back to the Court of Justice and attempted to chat with big, tough, chummy paparazzi who looked at me as if I were a multi-coloured squirrel, so I meekly subsided. At 9 I went in and found the courtroom. The security guards were very amiable and kind.

Eventually I met some young journalists, and they were amiable too. I suspect the one from the Daily Mirror was surprised when I said, "Daily Mirror? That's AWESOME!" Not something he probably hears every day, but then he probably hasn't written almost exclusively for the Catholic/Christian press for twelve years. There was a young man from the Liverpool Echo there, too, and two or three people from the BBC. One of them was using actual shorthand.

Then court was in session, and everyone in the press gallery just wrote like mad. The hearing was, of course, very sad and rather complex, and I wondered how I was going to pull stories out of all this sad and complex stuff. I managed not to puff and sigh until near the end, i.e. about six-and-a-half hours later.

I understand why the judges think dying is in Alfie's best interests, but I can't get my mind around why they think his "privacy" is so sacred. He is 23 months old; even a fully functioning AGPAR-acing 2 year old has no real concept of privacy. In Liverpool I mentioned the privacy question to a cabdriver, and he reacted as though privacy was abuse and neglect and assured me that Alfie would never have any privacy even when he dies, for the whole city will go to his funeral.

Anyway, they managed not to mention privacy until about 4:30 PM, and I sighed before I could remember about contempt of court and stop myself. Fortunately it was a quiet sigh.

There was a two hour recess, during which I gobbled a sandwich at Pret-a-Porter and wrote messages to work, including my notes. Then I went back to the Court of Justice, and was there until 5 or so.  As it was too late (and hellishly expensive) to get a direct train to Edinburgh, I took the Tube back to Kensington. They gave me a nicer, non-smelly room, and after dinner at Wagamama (don't ask), I went back to work.

So that was my 9-5 work day in London. I wore my excellent grey tweed suit and not my rain boots.

Sunday, 15 April 2018

Oranges and Lemons

In a moment of sheer serendipity, I was outside St. Clement Danes, City of London at 6 PM. The famous church rang the hour and then burst into a chorus of "Orange and Lemons". Could there be any child brought up on "Mother Goose's Nursery Rhymes" who could fail to be moved by that?

That's the thing about London, "centre of Empire" as I muttered aloud while waiting to cross to Westminster Tube Station. The woman beside me might have thought I was a bit crazy.  Not crazy--but tired. In another serendipitous moment, I found myself at Westminster Abbey in time for the Evening Service. Having been at Mass at the Brompton Oratory already, I took a programme and went in. My family has a devotion to Saint Edward the Confessor, and Saint Edward is, of course, buried in the Abbey. He decreed that it be built, too.

I went to "High Mass" at Brompton Oratory, which is at 11:00, according to the Novus Ordo, but in Latin. Splendid choir. The homily preached against the media, especially "the Catholic media", and gave "the blogs" a good drubbing. We are not to trust in the media but in the Gospel, which we should read instead. Something along those lines. All very sad for your humble correspondent, who was having a hard enough time praying instead of worrying about whether or not her computer was being stolen at that very moment by Kensington hotel thieves.

After Mass I saw absolutely no-one I knew other than the famous Andrew Cusack, who wanted to know the Edinburgh gossip and was delighted to hear that his favourite Edinburgh priest had not changed. The homily was very down on fake news, so I won't use scare quotes for Cusack, but I said something like "Father [redacted] is exactly the same" and Cusack said that this was the best possible news. That was literally the first piece of gossip that came to mind, in part because people who love Edinburgh are always happy to hear that it is just as they left it.

We walked along Cromwell Road a ways, and then Cusack disappeared, probably to some amazing luncheon party whose photographs will end up in Hello or, if not that, the champagne-fuelled launch of some exciting book about gentlemen's hats or shoes or jackets or some such.

I, being a "poor b... reporter" (as Salcombe Hardy in the Lord Peter Wimsey stories would say), bought a "meal deal" from Marks & Spenser, sent a few messages, and went to Ealing to take sad photographs.  Then I went back to the Brompton Oratory to buy a copy of the Catholic Herald, which I adore now that it is the Catholic Spectator.  Then, because it was nearby and has loos, I went to Harrods for the first time in my adult life and had quite a shock.

Not to put a fine point on it, Harrods is not very British. Harrods is the Hanging Gardens of Babylon in department store form. I went in thinking of Paddington Bear and found myself plunged into the playground of billionaires. No wonder the Saudis live in South Kensington.

There is--get this--there is literally a Hall of Perfumes in Harrods and when you walk in, you are almost overcome either with the combined scent of all the expensive perfumes of the world or one special scent Harrods spritzes into the air from hidden vents.  Meanwhile, in the ladies' loo on the first floor--the floor dedicated to women's clothing and I barely dared to look--one can douse herself as liberally with Coco Chanel or a number of other scents as she ought to use soap. The bottles are just sitting there above the sinks.

Having decided that this excess was actually pagan and part of the worship of Mammon or Baal or goodness knows whom, I did not dose myself in perfume but headed for the exit to Brompton Road as soon as I could. I swiftly marched away from wicked Harrods in my rain boots without a rest until I was safely in Exhibition Road. I then spent £6 on a double macchiato and a pain-au-chocolat.

After this restorative refreshment, I went to the Courts of Justice and took their photograph. Then it was 6 PM and the serendipitous moment happened in from of St. Clement's. I had a look at the Thames, which was grey and populated with tour boats, and then I went to Westminster. Poor Big Ben is still covered with scaffolding and his hands are missing.

The theme of the sermon during the Westminster Abbey Evening Service was "identity through stories." And you'll never believe it but there were special prayers for the media and subtle hints about our "fake news", as if we were all engaged in writing the "Hilary Clinton Space Alien Sex Shocker" stories that apparently so influenced the U.S. presidential election.

Now I am back in my slightly-smelling-of-drains hotel room, and I am pretty tired. I have also forgotten to have any dinner, woe is me, poor b... reporter.

W Londynie/A Londres

I am on assignment in London, which is not something I thought I'd be writing today. If I had, I would have fetched my Oyster card from the Historical House, not just my tweed suit. By Friday morning I knew there was a good chance I'd be sent to Liverpool to cover the Alfie Evans protests. On Saturday morning my editor and I were in agreement that I'd go to London next.

Naturally nobody I know in London has any space to keep me in, so I booked the cheapest room I could in Kensington. Kensington still carries the cache (in my mind, at least) of being safe, and my hotel is only a 30 minute walk away from the Brompton Oratory.

Strangely, it is sunny out.  Although I am in a tiny semi-underground room, I have a gauze-curtained window and the sun is shining through it.  Soon I will stop this blogging nonsense and go to church via Hyde Park.

It was sunny when I arrived in London yesterday evening, too. I was surprised at how light it was, and had a confused idea it was because London is so much further south than Edinburgh. Actually it's because at that hour I am usually in another small room writing up dark news. But all the same, I felt exultant and happy and remembered a line of poetry my mother used to declaim, "Oh to be in England, now that April's here."

A one-way underground ticket from Euston railway station was an eye-watering £4.90.

I found my hotel and after a struggle got online and then got the receptionist to call Ognisko and make a reservation for one. This saved me the embarrassment of being rejected, should the popular Polish restaurant feel disgruntled about single diners. However, Ognisko said I could come at 8:30 PM, which was fine by me, as it gave me time to call my husband, have a shower and walk to Exhibition Road.

Thank heavens for the shower, for I was exhausted. And thank goodness for Ognisko, as I hadn't eaten since 9AM. I spent most of Saturday taking cabs across Liverpool, rushing hither and thither and talking to Scousers about Alfie Evans. The cab drivers of Liverpool seem unanimous in their support for Alfie's parents and their disdain for Alder Hey Children's Hospital. Two cabbies told me they were sure Alder Hey doesn't want Alfie to go to "that Italian hospital" for fear the Italian doctors will find some hideous mistake Alder Hey made in Alfie's treatment. The cabbie who took me to my 3:50 PM train had been at the spontaneous 1000-person strong rally on Thursday night.

Showered and in my nice blue wool dress, I walked to Ognisko and had a splendid dinner: trzaski (deep fried pork crackling) with pear and horseradish sauce, barszcz with a tiny croquette of pate, smoked salmon blinis, and a shot of the house's pear vodka.  I had never eaten in Ognisko alone, but I've been there with Benedict Ambrose and with Polish Pretend Son, so the elegant dining room was full of deeply amusing memories.

As I munched I reflected that if I were to die at a restaurant, as trad heroes sometimes do, I should like it to be at Ognisko, although not until I had eaten the trzaski. The barszcz, by the way, tasted as though it had been stewed from the bones of the oxen of Mt Olympus, or so I wrote to PPS afterwards. Quite a heady soup for a lady used to the vegetarian Christmas Eve version.

Then I walked back to my hotel to assure my Edinburgh-loving, London-hating husband over Skype that I had not been killed. Cromwell Road has unintentionally funny real estate ads for Saudis, featuring Dad-Mom-Child photos of Saudis in full Saudi dress sitting in a field with an English palace in the background. I passed a live Arab Dad-Mom-Child family on the street, the Mom all in black with a face veil. There were also other young Arab men on the street, but also a dozen other people from all over the world, it seemed, usually carrying shopping bags and looking heartbreakingly tired.

Earls Court Road teemed with Poles. I passed an incensed Polish woman just as she yelled "----JUZ alkohole!" at her man, and a couple of young Polish men conversing in very drunken Polish. This morning the neighbourhood seemed less Polish. Soon after the fire alarm went off in my hotel, I sauntered off in the direction of "Paul", a French (or "French") boulangerie and cafe, having spotted it last night. (When you're as addicted to coffee as I am, you look out for these things in advance.)

Paul has a very large variety of croissants, doughnuts, breads and colourful little cakes shining like jewels behind high plastic windows. The counter is staffed by pretty women from various places in Europe and (indirectly, I am guessing) China, and the espresso is very good. The large "Americano" was less good, but that serves me right for being greedy.