Spine-tinglers: A Truly Creepy Childhood Hallowe’en

It’s October 31st and beautifully sunny.  That means I can actually write this brief post without looking over my shoulder half a dozen times or panicking as soon as I hear an unfamiliar creek in the apartment.

Hallowe’en as an adult is funny.  Facebook is full of friends and frenemies posting odd photos of their toddlers in humiliating costumes.  People go off to dress-up parties — the best I ever heard of was a “before and after” event that had one of my friends arrive as Dirty Harry Potter.  There will be bags of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups on sale tomorrow morning and thousands of us will either be listening to Thriller or Rocky Horror or both before the night is done.  I, myself, have an afternoon planned around Young Frankenstein… or maybe Red Dragon.  Camp comedy or psychological thrillers are how I like to usher in the fall months these days.

But Hallowe’en as a tiny tot was different.  Not only because of the pressure any costume in Canada had to be both what you wanted and also functional under a snowsuit or garbage bag (October 31st is notorious as having either the first snowfall or a well-timed thunder-storm as soon as the kids get outside), but because there was a lot of creepy shit available to youngsters.  And I’m all for it.  I think children should read the original Grimm’s Fairy Tales and feel frightened in order to figure out what is good and what is bad.  Lots of people think that way.  So the following list is not a condemnation by any means, but more of a personal recitation of the things that really, really scared me before I had the words (or dry, sarcastic wit) to know what to do next.

If you weren’t ready for it, Hallowe’en could truly terrify you as a little person — and it had nothing to do with watching The Exorcist.

Experts tell us that children before the age of 6 are the most impressionable.  No bloody kidding…

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“There’s No Getting Away From It If You’re Irish”: Gender, The Irish Diaspora, and Gone With The Wind

It might be the most famous rejection in literary history. Aware too late that she has made a horrible mistake for the past dozen years, Scarlett O’Hara Hamilton Kennedy Butler runs through the mist to tell Rhett that she loves him. And he, exhausted and jaded, tells her that’s done.

In 2005, the American Film Institute announced that “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn” was the greatest line of dialogue in the history of the movies, not only for its dramatic importance, but also because of the struggle off-screen simply to have it said.

The Hays Code had been adopted in 1930s and truly enforced as of 1934 under the guidance of Will H. Hays, the one-time U.S. Post-Master General and a man who, in the immortal words of Gore Vidal, “looked not unlike Mickey Mouse.”[1] There was nothing short of a full-scale epistolary war in order to convince Joseph Breen, chief enforcer of the Production Code Association, that the famed word ‘damn’ from Rhett Butler was, at the most, a “vulgarism” rather than true profanity.

Scarlett’s reaction to the ultimate put-down is just as well-known. She summons up images of Tara, her family plantation that has survived despite the horrors of the American Civil War and Reconstruction, and declares that, “After all, tomorrow is another day.” However, what wasn’t apparent in the film’s sweeping Max Steiner score or on Vivien Leigh’s face, are the words Margaret Mitchell wrote that immediately precede the novel’s final sentences:

With the spirit of her people who would not know defeat, even when it stared them in the face, she raised her chin” (Mitchell, 959).

These words are not about Southerners who have been broken by the war and still cling to illusions of moonlight-and-magnolias or the mythology of the ‘Lost Cause.’ As she had done since the novel’s earliest pages, Mitchell once again was underscoring Scarlett O’Hara’s Irish heritage as the key to her American/Southerner identity.

We might think of Scarlett as the ultimate icon of the antebellum American South, but she is, just as much if not more so, the relentless heroine of the Irish Diaspora. As a personality, she is complicated, frustrating and even despicable at times, but she also stands as an irrefutable success story of gumption and survival that mimicked the lives of tens of thousands of Irish migrants arriving in America and their descendants throughout the nineteenth century.

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Burning Convictions – Getting Fiery about Canadian Politics

A week from now, we might have a new country.

Well, okay, not a new country, but certainly one with a different outlook for the future. The federal election is set for October 19th and for weeks the pollsters have indicated that it is far too close to call. The Nanos numbers today suggest the Liberals might be pulling ahead, but there have been major surprises before.

Perhaps because of the tight race, the headlines on the news this past weekend were full of stories about long lines at the advance polls. The most recent findings I saw from Elections Canada state that 2.4 million of us voted over Thanksgiving weekend. Some people waited hours to cast their ballots – in a Canadian election – more than a week before voting day.

This is not the norm.

The turnout for the last six federal elections was fairly pathetic: around 60%. That might sound large enough, but consider that this means a political party can win a “majority” mandate from the country with less than 22% of the electorate.

We Canadians are a fairly apathetic bunch when it comes to our political convictions. We value our freedoms, but we’re hardly marching in the streets to protect them. I polled one of my classes the other week, asking how many of them had ever marched in protest, or demonstrated in a public place. The result was minimal: maybe half a dozen out of a class of nearly 60 students.

Like a good sex scandal, getting all up in arms over politics is really not a very Canadian thing to do.

Or, at least it hasn’t been for a long time.

There was a time when elections in this country meant one thing: violence. Lots and lots of violence: riots; brawls; fisticuffs; arrests; even the odd murder or two or three (though, sadly, still no sex scandals).

Yes, we literally used to kill each other over politics in this country.

There was even a time when marching in protest wasn’t enough: we needed to burn things.

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The “Cultural Compatibility” of “Old-Stock Canadians”

Two men walk into a bar.

Both are cynical, though one is certainly more flamboyant than the other. They order single malt whisky and begin to break down the problems of the world; in particular, they discuss the merits (or lack thereof) involved in bringing a paramilitary leader to meet the president at the White House.

“When did it become policy of the United States to negotiate with terrorists?”

The debate turns lofty. There is an attempt to out-do one another with remembered quotations – something akin to Bobby Kennedy and Richard Burton’s duel of sonnets, or Quint and Hooper’s comparison of scars on the Orca. The two men battle out their positions through the words of dead Irish writers:

“It was Kipling who warned to expect ‘the hate of those ye better and the blame of those ye guard’.”

            “Wasn’t it James Joyce who said that ‘history is a nightmare from which I’m trying to awake’?”

            “Yes – but it was your own great Irish master, Eugene O’Neill, who said ‘There is no present or future, only the past, happening over and over again, now.’”

            “You’re saying we should butt out of Ireland until we know what we’re doing?”

            “I’m saying Brendan McGann cannot come to the White House.”

            “Say, speaking of dead Irish writers…”

            “Yes, another drink.”

Quibbling aside that Rudyard Kipling hardly counts as an Irish writer (although his son did fight in the Irish Guards at the Battle of Loos), Aaron Sorkin picked a bevy of quotations about history for this scene from Season 3 of The West Wing. But it’s the final one of O’Neill’s from A Moon for the Misbegotten that, I feel, best encapsulates the twisted ironies of one of my current projects: how the Irish have been treated over the generations by various Canadian governments, and how that fits into the Syrian question in the headlines. We think we’ve come a long way into the future over the years, but, really, it’s just the past happening over and over again. Racialized interpretations of Irishness throughout the past two centuries in the country have created quite an unsettling picture about who has mattered most in Canadian society, and who continues to “count”.

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“Kings are killed, Mr Garrison” ~ The Kennedy Craze Fifty Years On

The moment of silence has just been called for in Dealey Plaza.  The bells are ringing.  It’s been fifty years to the minute since John Fitzgerald Kennedy was shot to death.

I was born eighteen years after the Kennedy Assassination.  Having two historians as parents meant that I grew up with a lot of “extra fairy tales” told at bedtime: the discovery of King Tut’s tomb, the Battle of the Plains of Abraham, the fall of Anne Boleyn…  I don’t remember Dallas in November 1963 as one of the ones I continually asked for, but I do know that I learned the “facts” very early on.  I know where my parents were when they found out the news; I know where my godfather was; I’ve seen the clips of Walter Cronkite and remember my grandmother (who was the same age as JFK) telling me how eerie and silent the weekend was, with everyone unable to stop watching the coverage, both before and after Oswald was shot on live TV.

This morning, I watched my generation’s version of 22 November 1963: Oliver Stone’s JFK from 1991. Continue reading

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The Orangeman in Winter: Ogle Gowan, Masculine Frailties, and the Rise of the Orange Order

After many, many months of silence, I’m posting again.  The time since March has been slightly mad with conferences and research on the new book.  The next half-dozen or so posts will be versions of these papers that I gave at conferences in Boston, Montreal, Belfast, Galway, Vancouver, and Ottawa.  This first, “The Orangeman in Winter”, was first given at the Northeast Victorian Studies Association meeting at Boston University in April.  The subject of the conference was one specific year of the Victorian era: 1874.

*** *** ***

Picture Toronto in the cold spring of 1874.  There’s still frost and snow on the ground.  Your breath shows in the air.  In the lanes off Yonge Street in North York, a slightly haunted figure walks ahead of you.  In a kinder, more literary world, he could almost be Scrooge on Christmas morning, out in the snow in bed-slippers – if only he was smiling.  The man’s hair is grey, as are his sideburns and unshaven cheeks.  Seeing him, one can’t help but think that this is a broken man, an old man, someone who, perhaps, has lost something precious.  The man slips into a public house and makes his way inside.  Maybe the publican or a few boys at the bar recognize him; maybe not.  The old man looks up, checks that the liquor license for the premises is plainly visible, nods, and then heads out into the cold again until he comes across the next pub (and, this being Toronto, it’s not that far away).

1874 was a cruel year for Ogle Robert Gowan.  Forty-five years before in 1829, he had arrived in Upper Canada from Co. Wexford, Ireland; within one year, he had become one of the most important men in the colony.  As the founder and first Canadian Grand Master of the Grand Orange Lodge of British North America, Ogle Gowan might not have walked with kings, but he certainly came close.  He received commendations for bravery from Queen Victoria, was a personal friend and professional asset for John A. Macdonald, Canada’s first prime minister, helped to crush the oligarchical power of the Family Compact after the 1837 Rebellion, and was the centre of the Orange Order, the most influential fraternity in British North America and, later, Canada, for over a century.  And yet, during his own lifetime, he became a forgotten relic of the past.  In 1874, he was forced to retire as the liquor inspector for North York, a job given to him by the Toronto municipal council out of pity rather than respect, at the same time that Orangeism was defining itself as one of the most powerful aspects of the Irish Diaspora, not only in English Canada, but worldwide.  So, what happened?

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Family History Ghosts

A brief plug before I return to a regular season of weekly posts.  I’ll be speaking at the British Isles Family History Society of Greater Ottawa Conference on 22 September.  This is an interview I did earlier today about it…




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