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Archive for May, 2008

Viaduct

An old photo. A new project. A bit over a week ago Meg and I decided to embark on our own little chronicle of East Van – its institutions, its food, its history, its people, its struggles and celebrations and possibilities. Viaduct, we’re calling it, though viaducteast is its web-name.

Why viaduct? Well, the Georgia Viaduct is a known marker of one’s entry into the east side, and the former site of Hogan’s Alley, a hugely important but too-often forgotten working class district, and for a long time a centre for Vancouver’s black community. But also – and from the site’s own description – “a viaduct is a bridge for carrying traffic. It is also a journey over water, a deviation from a path, a step astray, or the practice of traveling.”

And that sounded like what we wanted, that sounded like our community, and that sounded like us.

This all started – as so many of Meg and my plans do – with a lazy Sunday in bed, drinking coffee and chatting about this’n’that. We talked about those places that define the east side for us; we talked about gentrification, and the loss of those places; we talked about the ones that somehow seem to hang-on against all odds; we talked about the fact that, no matter how much the yuppies move in, the east van locals refuse to be moved. (All while recognizing, of course, that each of us fits not only the category of east van locals, given our long histories and roots in working class communities, but also the category of yuppies, as we’ve had a number of years in well-paying jobs that grant us even more economic and cultural privilege than we were born with.)

And so we’re off, the site now up and running with its first post – the story of our dinner last night at The Brave Bull’s House of Steaks on the corner of Hastings and Clark. Yeah, that place. Yeah, there really is food in there.

We’ve got quite a list growing in our heads about what to add –  more restaurants, old theatres, community gardens, pubs and lots of things we’ll leave unsaid til we do our visits, collect some photos and write our stories. And our friend Tammie may well be joining the fun too, so we’re quite hopeful that we can get something going here that captures this part of the world, at least as seen by a few of its  radical “participant-observers”, as we say in sociology-speak. 

For now, you can see the site in its infancy and decide for yourtself if you want to stop in for a bite at the Bull. We certainly hope you’ll visit us on-line periodically to see what we’re up to. And if you have suggestions for East Van places to visit or myths to explore, or want to jump on board and join this little collective-in-the-offing, just give us a holler and come on in.

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It’s been a union-centred life of late, even more than normally. Meg spent last week in Ottawa bargaining and rallying to express offense at the flat-out shitty offer the government has made to its workers, so I was thinking about her and her frustrations alot. And here in Vancouver I was getting settled into my first week back as grievance rep from Executive Director and working on drafting a first collective agreement for our staff union (part of CEP Local 467, which brings together union staffers from a number of union-employers).

I work with collective agreements all the time, but it’s been a long while since I’ve worked with one that applies to me, and never before have I been involved in writing an agreement from scratch. So it’s an exciting thing to be doing, and taking the edge off any lingering resentment I have about being forced out of my old position – well, perhaps not taking the edge off, but providing me a productive outlet for my anger at the kind of shit positions my employer has taken with regard to its own staff.

Collective agreements are strange things. They are peace treaties, really, promises by a union to do what it can to control workers in exchange for some commitments from the boss and legal recourse for the union should the boss renege on those commitments. Agreements, then, really are the union. Though it wasn’t always that way. Radical unions like the IWW originally refused to sign collective agreements – the attitude being, “No, the boss signs an agreement. The boss makes concessions because otherwise we don’t work and his business is fucked. We don’t make any promises to be satisfied or pretend we’re satisfied, because we’re not after a bigger piece of the pie but the whole damn bakery. And we don’t make any promises to control workers’ anger because workers’ anger is exactly what we’re all about.”

Unions haven’t been about that for a real long time, however. And so I am finding that the whole process of organizing my workplace, setting my “will-do” / “won’t-do” boundaries and writing a first agreement is leading me to think alot about the relationship between all the shit I hate most about unions and the day to day work that I do.

Unions as managers; unions as employers; unions as bosses.

In 1951 eighteen workers employed by the US Air Line Pilots’ Association (ALPA) embarked upon an organizing drive, and for the first time in North America, staff working for a trade union sought to unionize themselves. And the employing union challenged their right to doso, presenting to the US Labor Relations Board two central arguments:

all union staff should be seen as managers, as they deal with confidential membership information;

a union by definition cannot be an employer as that term is defined legally, and so the right to organize does not extend to employees of unions.

ALPA lost. The Board ruled that the union was indeed an employer, whatever its self-defined “class position” might be. And the significance of all this wasn’t lost on unions or union staff – or the public for that matter. On January 15, 1952, the New York Times printed a story on “Union as Employer”, suggesting – quite rightly – that something had dramatically changed in the way unions should be understood politically, economically, and socially:

The increase in number, variety and complexity of

issues has subordinated the local union and has

compelled the national unions to engage experts,

technicians and professional employees, and the

union structures have tended to fit their new functions.

Within a few years, many of the largest international unions were confronted with staff organizing drives – the Teamsters, the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, the International Association of Machinists and more, so that by 1961, the AFL-CIO leadership was actively and publicly engaged in the battle to halt unionization of labour staffers. Staff who sought certification were vilified for promoting factionalism, seeking to undermine the growing strength of the workers’ movement, and for promoting –  yes, get ready for it…communism! The message was simple – staff either submit their interests to the good of the union, or they actively undermine the union and so serve instead the interests of corporate America or Bolshevism or both. Here’s then-ILGWU President, David Dubinsky:

We have always had a concept of the union leader as a

leader of masses and not as a paid mercenary or as one

engaged in a business for self-aggrandizement.

I spent time in a Czarist jail because I was part of a struggle

to free people, not because I was paid to agitate. The founders

of the ILGWU starved themselves into sickness and death,

faced beatings and crippling, gangsters and prisons because

they felt that this was their responsibility to their consciences

and to their fellow workers…We chose to stay with the labor

movement not because it paid better, not because it offered

more security, not because it offered greater leisure, but

because it was our dedication, our struggle, our belief – our

very lives. What a bitter joke that we are now characterized as

‘management’

Dubinsky went on to lament the ‘materialism’ of union staff, intimating that it was in fact their unionization that caused the bureaucratization of labour. Staff insistence on higher wages and benefits created a “class of super-citizens” within the union, and by organizing they made the union a business rather than a ‘movement’.

I’ve heard variations of this line a whole many times – every time, in fact, staff at a union take issue with the crappy behaviour of their employers. The Telecommunications Workers’ Union staff strike in 1999; numerous job actions by BC Teachers Federation staff; pickets by employees of the Canadian Labour Congress and the BC Government and Services Employees Union – in each case, the debate arose again, and in each case a significant part of the left leapt up to defend the “real” working class from these pretenders.

At the TWU, for example – where I was an elected local rep at the time – the Executive went through various responses – initially declaring at a local meeting, “We’re the employer in this situation and we intend to behave like an employer”, later recanting and hiring an Executive Director precisely because “we don’t want to be bosses” – as though establishing an intermediary could make the conflict disappear. The BCTF, for its part, wrapped itself in the professional association flag, lamenting staff’s “old-style trade unionism”. And the CLC and BCGEU strikes each generated considerable debate among the left generally, the former on a left-wing electronic bulletin board, the latter causing such a schism within BC’s Solidarity Notes labour choir that performances and practices were cancelled after a number of its members suggested a trip to the picket line to sing in solidarity with the strikers.

So, yeah, it’s an old story, but a current one, too.

“Union staff shouldn’t be allowed to organize – they work for the working class.”

“Staff unions just divide workers – how dare these people undermine the credibility of unions when labour is in so much trouble.”

“Union staff have no loyalty – we all volunteer our time, why shouldn’t they?”

It goes on and on.

Really though, the power dynamics at play in union staff/ union executive relationships are variations of general tensions at play within the union as an organization. Whatever is happening with staff at a union is probably happening with members as well.

Now, I’m not whinging about how bad I got it. Union staffers aren’t victims any more than union members are. Professional staffers like me have significant power – we are the drivers of the machine, even though we often find ourselves crushed beneath its wheels and even though we spend every day convincing workers to give the machine their trust. We are often the most critical of the labour movement, but we’re also the most responsible for its continued operation as partner in the industrial relations regime. Staff like me, in short, embody all the contradictions of the labour movement. We are uniquely positioned to reveal that the emperor has no clothes and yet our jobs depend on loyalty – whether genuine or phony – to that emperor. So going to work is alot like walking a maze, and though many of us understand that the only way out is through or beneath the walls, we continue to walk, searching for a door marked exit.

I am a union staffer. I work for an organization recognized under a legal code as a representative of workers’ interests. I am a negotiator, bargaining with management to write joint agreements.  I am an advocate, campaigning for improved working conditions and higher wages. I am a politician, brokering deals, managing political support, selling policy. I am a counselor, offering advice and support, drying tears, referring to specialists. And I am a unionist, arguing with bosses, fighting discipline, seeking more money for less work against managers who seek more work for less money. I work in an environment of contradictions. But make no mistake about it – I work; I have a boss; and my job depends on my ability to serve the interests of that boss.

So I am not, in my work-life, part of a working class movement. I am not, in my work-life, charged with organizing workers against capital. I work as one small part of a regime designed to maintain, if not increase, productivity, to satisfy workers’ immediate and specific demands, and to dampen their long-term and general aspirations. I serve labour peace, industrial calm, and good citizenship. My office is a workplace like any other, in which we as employees give up our skills, our experience, and our labour to an employer who directs that labour in its interest. In return, I get a salary, a pension, benefits.

It’s not a bad job, as jobs go. But make no mistake – it’s a job.

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Damn

Only a matter of days after I wrote about Utah Phillips here, this old Wob has passed on. Rather than write anything more myself, I’ll simply refer those who don’t know him to this video, and copy here the words of Jim Page that are circulating.

Rest well, comrade.

—————

In the night of May 23, 2008, Bruce Duncan Phillips died in great peace,
asleep in his bed in Nevada City, California, with his wife Joanna by his
side.

Amazingly, at the very same instant that the scholar Bruce Phillips finally
discovered his angle of repose, U. Utah Phillips flagged a westbound freight
train. Yes, a mighty fast rattler, on a long west-bound track. He needed no
ticket, he was welcomed on board.

The immediate family and neighbors of Bruce Phillips, along with any
Wobblies who happen to be passing through, are gathering in Nevada City to
do all the things that must be done. Please give them the quiet respect they
so need right now.

But you can wave “So Long!” to Utah when that train moves west. Hey, hear
the whistle? He’s passing by right now!

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Obama-rama

Meg and I spent an afternoon at the beach recently with a friend – sharing beer, enjoying the sun, watching herons and eagles and kingfishers. So of course we talked about the U.S. primaries and upcoming election.

Just to make my own position clear – I begin biased, because I have no fucking time for Hillary Clinton. First, she just plain creeps me out, even more than her husband creeps me out. Second, her platform seems to primarily about promoting “bomb-’em-all-to-shit” as an ostensibly-feminist political agenda. ‘Nuff said.  I see little  point to commenting on her further at all. Obama, however, is another story. As he gets closer and closer to clinching the nomination – as noted here –  I’m more and more interested. And not only because I want nothing more than to see Clinton disappear off the political stage, but because this guy seems to be something we haven’t seen before.

Now, I normally don’t pay a whole lot of attention to these American contests, and I have no faith whatsoever in the Democratic Party. As far as I’m concerned, even being remotely hopeful about a Democrat would be reason to check my head. But I find myself caught up in Obama. And it’s not because I think he’d make some radical president and drive any significant social change, but rather because of his personal attributes, his ways of thinking and speaking, and what these indicate about the perspective he comes from – not ideologically, but personally.

I cannot remember ever before hearing a US presidential hopeful who seemed to understand that the world is bigger than the United States. I cannot remember ever before seeing one of these folks who seemed to get that there might – just might – be occassions in which the U.S. would need to make compromises. In short, I can’t remember any previous contender who projected anything but a nationalist sensibility. But Obama doesn’t. Regardless of how I feel about any specifics in his policy proposals, regardless of the fact that those proposals mean shit anyway because the state is the state, and regardless of the fact that even if he wanted to do something very differently it’s pretty damn likely steps would be taken to prevent it – despite all of that, this guy strikes me as someone who really is an internationalist. In the sense that his perspective is global, he understands the international reach of his own country, and – more importantly – he understands not only that American decisions impact the world but that people elsewhere impact the world, too.

This is a guy who’s not only smart, but thoughtful. This is a guy who seems genuinely to be not only about diplomacy, but conversation. This is a guy who speaks from a globe-trotting personal history in ways that suggest he knows that the world exists, that the world is complicated, that the world is diverse, and that sometimes his own little political corner fucks things up.

Notice there is nothing in here about any particular political position he takes on an issue, or on Obama as a great hope. And there is sure as hell nothing on any remotely-decent class politics. No, cause those aren’t things I expect out of Obama, and those aren’t things I see in him.

But I still have a sense that this is a revolutionary moment in some respects – not because he’s racialized in a particular way, not because he’s radical. But because thoughtful, prone to conversation, and truly global in outlook are themselves revolutionary in the context of the U.S. Yes, the place is that fucking provincial.

Meg and I have talked alot about our predictions of what might come in the aftermath of an Obama presidency, should that come to pass. I won’t comment on those thoughts here – something about putting them into print makes me uneasy – but certainly I don’t imagine that a U.S. after that would ever be quite the same country again. No, I’m more likely to expect a major crisis and further social disintegration than I am to hold out anything resembling hope. But that doesn’t change the fact that this would be a pretty signficant political moment, one way or other.

And I guess, at the end of the day, that’s why I’m feeling engaged with this process. That’s why the Canadian public, according to a new poll, is pretty uniformly jazzed by this guy, regardless of income, gender, race, or region – hell, even Alberta overwhelmingly is with him. It’s something different than the Ronald Reagan cowboy game; it’s something different than the Bill Clinton “see how I care” charisma. Barack Obama is an important candidate, not for his policies but his globalism and his thoughtfulness. And for how these – pretty fucking basic characteristics in any other context – pose a real challenge to the myths that have kept the U.S. as politically stable as it has been. After all, until now “God Bless America” really has been the starting and ending point of Democrats and Republicans alike for as long as I can remember.

If you haven’t heard this guys talk, check out an amazing speech Meg’s posted some time ago. No, not what he says, but how he says it, how diffferent this kind of discouse is from what we’re used to hearing. Could be an interesting place to watch over the next years. 

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Family. In recent days, I have begun to re-define this term for myself. There’s the family of my parents and brothers. There’s the family I created with my ex. And always, across these and also outside of them, there is Mica. Now, however, for the first time since that kid was born ten and a half years ago, there is someone else I can seriously imagine making family with. And that is an immeasurable joy and also pretty fucking frightening. Because families sustain and nurture us. But they don’t come easy.

I’ve noticed that as I have more and more come to see Meg as not only current partner but future as well, I’ve also been thinking a good deal about parenthood. And I don’t simply mean the question of Mica and Meg, and how they interact, and where that goes. But something deeper and more devastating.

Yes, devastating. That’s the word that springs to mind when I try to think of my love for my kid. It has no negative connotation to me in this context. It quite simply captures an intensity that comes up suddenly and with such force sometimes that the rest of the world simply does not exist.

In the early stages of our courtship, Meg and I took a trip together and found ourselves on the Sunshine Coast during a major windstorm. That weekend was a turning point in our relationship for a number of reasons, but it also provided Meg her first glimpse of my parental insanity. Trees coming down, massive wind gusts, power outages. But we were safe, we were fine, holed up in our little cabin with a restaurant that could still produce food only steps away. I however, was frantic. What if something happened to Mica? What if an emergency arose and I couldn’t get to her? I needed out. I needed to leave that place now, to get somewhere with power and phones and access routes, just in case.

Meg was great. She was calm, she understood, and she got us organized to get out as best we could. We drove, moving branches and avoiding fallen power lines, til we got within spitting distance of the ferry. And then I was fine. Once we hit town, once I felt again that I had access to the resources I’d need to get to my girl if something went wrong, I was immediately fine again, and any inclination to race home dissipated pretty quickly. Because it’s not like anything was wrong; it was a fear brought about only by the what-ifs, by the knowledge that if my kid needed me, I might not be able to get to her.

That’s why I use the word devastating for that love. There is no other feeling like that.

Anyway, I’ve been thinking about this as I’ve been thinking about Meg, because I am facing, for the first time since Mica was born, the possibility of expansion in the larger families we all cut across, and a whole new family unit in our day to day lives. What does any of this mean for the families I’ve made previously? How do they get re-cast in the context of Megan and I? How does she deal with the prospect of a child so suddenly and in time so intimately part of her life? How does she wrap her head around the fact that my ex and I will have a co-parenting relationship on an ongoing basis, and she’ll become party to that? How does my ex deal all those same questions from the other side, imagining her child with a step-parent? It can be pretty fucking overwhelming, for all of us.

But nobody’s running away. Meg and I have talked about that among ourselves, about the enormity of all this, and how that inspires both hope and doubt. But mostly hope! Somehow, we’re into naming this thing we’re building, and the naming makes it both more real and more unreal – the relationship is great, the potential is palpable, the unknown of it all is ominous.

As the sun comes through this window, though, and as I think of Meg at the bargaining table in Ottawa, and Mica getting up and dressed for her school day, all that anxiety evaporates. I just feel damn lucky, and so fucking hopeful about where this might go. And I don’t mean two, ten, twenty years from now. I mean today, and tomorrow, and next week, and the first time we all get to throw a softball or swap tastes of gelato or make up songs together or just lie about in hammocks and watch squirrels. I’m reminded that those really are the moments that make family, those really are the pieces of relationship that come together to make  a shared life – and those are entirely within our grasp.

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I was 15 years old, and a friend of my folks’ made a few tapes of political music for me to take along for our year in Zimbabwe. That’s where I discovered Billy Bragg, Little Steven and a whole host of others. And it’s where I found Bruce “Utah” Phillips – storyteller, songwriter, keeper of the oral history of American workers.

Utah’s a wobbly – a member of the Industrial Workers of the World – and he’s the reason I became a wobbly, too. That first bit of music came off his We Have Fed You All for A Thousand Years, an album recorded during a tour he did of the Pactific Northwest in the 80s, exclusively of songs and stories out of the early radical union movement.

I listened to it intently, over and over, learning every one of those songs. I raced out and found whatever I could on the history of lahour generally, and the IWW in particular. I spoke to my grandfather and other elders who’d been active in their own unions, gathering their recollections and myths and songs. And then at some rally or other I got handed a copy of the Industrial Worker and saw for the first time that this old IWW was still kicking around. Not only that, it was being rejuvenated.

After a lengthy decline after being identified as the greatest domestic threat to US capital and state – a status that resulted in the imprisonment, exile and murder of countless organizers – the Wobs were for a long time a relic, more a historical society than anything else. But now, around 1990, this was union that was growing. Judi Bari and other EarthFirst!ers had come in, and were actively organizing around the northern California redwoods. Strippers at San Francisco’s “Lusty Lady” were talking union, and work was being done to organize collectives among sex workers. And it kept growing, particularly in those places of work disproportionately populated by over-educated and under-employed twenty-somethings – Starbucks, bike couriers, student newspapers including Langara College’s Gleaner right here in Vancouver.

Well I signed myself up, of course, getting my first red card in early 1991 and heading down to San Fran for that year’s IWW Convention, crashing with Clif Ross, a writer and radical who lived just outside of town. I watched and learned and marvelled. Utah sang and story-told. Judi and Darryl Cherney brought new music from the redwood struggle, and talked about the FBI campaign against them. (She’d been hurt in a car bombing a year earlier – then promptly accused of knowingly-carrying those explosives and plotting terror. I’ll try to blog on it in the future, but for now you can get the basics of her story here.)

Since that time I’ve only kept up my wob membership very intermittently. I was around for a while, engaging in the debates, doing some writing for the newspaper and so on. But it lapsed as I travelled and studied. I never stopped thinking of myself as a wob, though, whether dues-paying or not.

Anyway, back to Utah.

After a stint in the Army he worked a variety of jobs and wrote some songs, eventually falling in with Ammon Hennacy and the Catholic Workers – rooted in an earlier and more anarchist version of the radical Catholicism I’d find around the Central American revolutionary movement in the 1980s. Utah lived and worked in Hennacy’s Joe Hill house in Salt Lake City – Catholic Workers fairly regularly set up collective homes on the skids in various places, offering open doors, food, and so on for whoever needs them, and trouble-making as much as possible while they’re at it.

And then, when that house closed its doors in the late 1960s, it was mostly music for Utah, so he’s spent the last several decades writing, recording, performing, seeking out old stories, making up new ones, and generally trying to keep alive the tradition of political organization and education through song and humour and oral history.

Utah had his birthday the other day, but he’s not doing as much singing anymore. Heart trouble has plagued him for the last number of years, and he’s had to undergo some pretty extensive medical treatment. As you can imagine, singing on picket lines and telling radical stories ain’t much as a get-rich-quick scheme, no matter how much Ani DiFranco talks about ya.  So – and only now do we get to the real reason for posting this at all – Utah’s friends are in support mode, with benefit concerts being held across the States, and folks raising money to make sure this elder gets the care he needs.

To give some love and solidarity in the only form capitalism knows, visit here.

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Today I woke up thinking about Ogden Nash – the man who taught us, among other things, that we’ll never see a billboard lovely as a tree, and that, when it comes to gettin’ close to a lady friend, “candy is dandy but liquor is quicker”.

I’m a fan of the rhyme. Couplets. limericks, rhythm and wordplay in general. It’s something I play with alot in my writing and in my speech. And it’s one of the regular sillinesses Mica and I share – bouncing rhyme off one another, making up little songs and poems just because.

I’ve been thinking about this lately, for a few reasons. One, cause the other day when I was starting to write a post here I found myself doing it in rhyme – not an uncommon experience for me, but somehow the idea of posting it made me more aware, so I ended ditching it and doing this instead. Don’t worry – you’re not missing anything!

Another reason this is on my mind, I think, is because Shel Silverstein is on my mind.

Mica’s got a big book of Silverstein verse, and periocially that’s what she wants to read for days and days on end. We’ve been in one such period lately, so I’ve been getting recitations and readings out of the blue, and that’s been a really nice little addition to the days. And then, as Meg and I passed our lounge-around Sunday, we started talking about Silverstein in general, and his “Boy Named Sue” – yes, the Johnny Cash song – in particular.

Yeah, Shel Silverstein wrote that tune, which got us wondering what other songs he’d written. And of course, being who we both are, moments later we’ve popped the laptop, browsed and wowed over a few Wikipedia entries, and picked up more random little bits of info. Not only Johnny Cash, but also the Irish Rovers, Marianne Faithful, Loretta Lynn, Bobby Bare, and Emmylou Harris covered his songs. Everything from unicorns to venereal disease set to music. And, the thing we noted in particular, a sequel to “A Boy Named Sue” about the whole experience from dad’s perspective – “The Father of a Boy Names Sue“. Yes, silly. I fuckin’ love silly.

Well, of course thinking on one thing gets you thinking on another, and I noticed yesterday that my mind kept returning to my favourite ryhmers.

Dr. Suess, of course. Funny smart thymes and some politics, too.  A writer and editor in university, he threw a drinking party in defiance of Prohibition, and was barred from any non-academic activities. He dropped his name, Geisel, from the mastheads of the publications he worked on, writing instead under his mom’s maiden name and his own middle name – Seuss, which he always rhymed with “voice”.

He worked in advertising and other such things trying to make his career, but the two big pieces were the kids’ books (obviously) and magazine-writing and cartooning for popular and left-leaning publications. Here it was sounding the alarm about fascism in Europe, critiquing anti-communism and decrying certain racisms at home – the “certain” qualifier being necessary since Seuess, outspoken critic of anti-black and anti-Jewish racism, was a more than a little guilty of fanning the flames of internment and war when it came to those of Japanese descent, writing,

“But right now, when the Japs are planting their hatchets in our skulls, it seems like a hell of a time for us to smile and warble: “Brothers!” It is a rather flabby battle cry. If we want to win, we’ve got to kill Japs… We can get palsy-walsy afterward with those that are left.”

Nice, eh?

I prefer the Seuss of the children’s story, who put together some pretty progressive stuff on ecological destruction (The Lorax), tyranny in general (Yertle the Turtle), the arms race (The Butter Battle Book) and race (The Sneetches). Contradictions in his work? No doubt. But the kids’ books are pretty consistent – maybe rhyme and reaction just don’t mix that well.

And keeping in the realm of kids, A.A. Milne. Now here’s some writing I absolutely adore. Milne, of course, is the inventor of Winnie the Pooh. And that’s some good stuff. But the stand-outs for me are his books of kids’ poems centred around his son, Christopher Robin. When We Were Very Young and Now We Are Six are quite simply superb, for their verse and for their understanding of the emotional and psychological lives of kids – kids like I was, anyway. A couple of favourites:

Halfway Down

Halfway down the stairs is a stair where I sit.
There isn’t any other stair quite like it.
I’m not at the bottom, I’m not at the top;
So this is the stair where I always stop.

Halfway up the stairs isn’t up, and isn’t down.
It isn’t in the nursery, it isn’t in the town.
And all sorts of funny thoughts run round my head:
‘It isn’t really anywhere! It’s somewhere else instead!’

And

Independence

I never did, I never did, I never did like “Now take care, dear!”
I never did, I never did, I never did want “Hold-my-hand”;
I never did, I never did, I never did think much of “Not up there, dear!”
It’s no good saying it. They don’t understand.

And then, something from my own kid-days that really isn’t children’s poetry – Robert Service. When I was little, my dad used to put me to bed at night with terribly-sung versions of Waltzing Matilda, The Frozen Logger, and The Ballad of Thunder Road. His other standards were not songs at all, but the two best-known Robert Service poems: The Shooting of Dan McGrew and The Cremation of Sam McGee. I loved both, and I love them still. When I went off to the University of Victoria right after high school, I spent most of my time wandering old book stores on Fort Street, and one of my earliest purchases was a collected works of Robert Service.

If I liked him before, I loved him now. Son of a Scottish bank clerk, he ditched country and career for a life lived and written in the Yukon. And what writing for a young radical to discover out of his childhood bed-time stories! Anti-war poems, verses on the communism of Jesus, writings on work and struggle. Robert Service was a balladeer of working people, mingling oral history, myth, pamphleteering and a celebration of working class culture.

Read or re-read The Shooting of Dan McGrew. Read The Song of the Wage-Slave. And read Michael.

Yeah, I like rhyme. It sneaks up on me in conversations and in my writing – indeed, I ended up including in my dissertation the history of capitalism in verse just because it came to me that way and was a hell of alot easier than searching for citations. (That can be found a ways down the Poems and Pieces page of this site.) Verse is fun. It’s smiley. And though cheezy cheezy cheezy, rhymes more often than not make people feel a little bit better. And that’s enough reason for me to love it.

 

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