Footballers Have Opinions, Too

Gary Lineker’s been getting some stick from the anti-immigrants for speaking up on Twitter about the child migrants coming across from Calais before France bulldozes the camps. Cabinet ministers and tabloid newspapers have questioned whether some of these kids look too old to count as minors, and the former Leicester City and England striker dared to call out those statements and even acknowledge the struggles these people have experienced prior to arriving on the French coast.

I don’t need to get deep into it. Plenty’s been written about it already. I just remember when Pearl Jam and other musicians were playing during the US presidential election campaign of 2004, and rocking Republican Alice Cooper called such action “treason”.

“When I was a kid and my parents started talking about politics, I’d run to my room and put on the Rolling Stones as loud as I could. So when I see all these rock stars up there talking politics, it makes me sick.

“If you’re listening to a rock star in order to get your information on who to vote for, you’re a bigger moron than they are. Why are we rock stars? Because we’re morons. We sleep all day, we play music at night and very rarely do we sit around reading the Washington Journal.”

-Alice Cooper

I make no secret of my great and abiding love for Pearl Jam, and this response from Eddie Vedder made me love him and the band all the more:

“I read a piece from a musician I respect, Alice Cooper, who wrote that musicians really need to keep out of political discussions. For one, they’re idiots, he said. For another, when he was a kid and his parents started talking politics, he ran to his room and put on the Rolling Stones and turned it up as loud as he could. And I agree with Alice. I don’t think any of us want to be doing this. . . . But my problem is that my stereo does not go loud enough to drown out the sound of bombs dropping in the Middle East.”

-Eddie Vedder

I think Cooper will find plenty of fans old and young who disagree with the limits he tried to impose (and still imposes, in lock step with Trump). People who rocked out to Cooper in the 70s may have gotten switched on a few years earlier by Dylan or Buffalo Springfield. Why deny their experience? Similarly, why deny Lineker his views? If he does nothing more than read the headlines, he’s as well informed as most in this country. No surprise that those ridiculing the rock pulpit or the sports pulpit seem to disagree with the views expressed from those celebs, though they couch their opinions in a critique of the person, instead.

I’ll give my last word on this to a biting blog. I found it on Twitter.

That’s When the Hornet Stung Me

Summer’s here, and I’m on annual leave. Kids are out of school, and when my wife isn’t bashing away at the keyboard upstairs, we’re finding lots of time for other good things. Picking blackberries, riding bicycles, eating/making hummous that makes your bread look like a slice of watermelon. Reading Tragically Hip think pieces (including my own).

Hummous that makes your bread look like a slice of watermelon

Hummous that makes your bread look like a slice of watermelon.

It’s also a good time to reflect on summers past, and share a few stories. The one I’m sharing here was inspired by my wife’s blog from a few weeks ago about a wasp trapped in her office; she melds it with a memory of a wasp from her childhood, full of danger and suspense and blessed maternal rescue. I’m biased, of course (reader, I married her), but I think the writing is exceptional.

One afternoon, I sat on the swing, kicking my sandaled feet, and a wasp settled between the straps. I froze. I couldn’t swat it away because I had to hold on to the chains of the swing. I tried to kick, very gently, to dislodge it. The wasp crawled over the strap and down along my foot. Then it crawled onto the bottom of my foot, its tiny feet and buzzing wings moving between my sandal and my skin.

Sometimes, speech is impossible, but I must have said something because my little brother ran for Mum. I gripped the swing’s chains tightly. The wasp explored. No wind moved the leaves above my head. Everything stopped. Except for those tiny, tickly feet.

-Katie Munnik, “Wasp”

I have felt those tiny, tickly feet. Continue reading


So my last post was about how long it took to get a blog published (not on this site, obviously). Just thought I’d ad a quick counter-narrative about a guest blog that got published superfast.

My wife keeps a regular column on the Presbyterian Record website. Notionally, it updates every Monday. Sometimes, that competes with other things, and a couple of weeks ago, we had very dear Canadian friends visiting – Presbyterians, to boot, so when the kids were all in bed and we were having a cool drink around the kitchen table, it was time for her to sigh and start to crowd-source some ideas for the blog. (Or canvas lots of, “No, no, just write it tomorrow” comments; sadly, the Presbyterianness of our visitors meant they cared a lot about what she wrote and thought it would be good to put something up on time and in good order.)

So in my typical offhanded way, I start spouting off things she could write about, and after just a couple of minutes of this, she says, or I say (I can’t remember, and that’s probably what’s good about being married) “Why don’t I just write it? Another guest post – when was the last one I did?” It had been over six months, and that was a Christmas present and something I had already plotted and planned.

Rather than retiring to the upstairs office to write, which is what my wife typically does, I just gassed up the ol’ laptop and started typing right at the table while the other three laughed and told funny stories about when we used to live in the same neighbourhood or cute stories about what our kids do. No more than twenty minutes, it was done, even with me interjecting once or twice in the conversation. She vetted it: it looked fine. Some writing I thought was actually quite clever (my wife noted that this had some similarities in tone to Roald Dahl’s Danny, the Champion of the World, which we had been reading as a bedtime story).

Here’s a sample:

“Were you and Mummy confirmed?”

“Yes,” I say. “I was just a bit older than you are now.”

“Some of the kids who were confirmed today are in the same year of school as me,” she says.

“Hmm.” We pedal a little further on. “Would you like to be confirmed?”

“Well, I’d like to taste the wine,” she replies. Now that’s an honest answer. “But they said the bread tastes like cardboard.”

“No, it’s not like the bread your mummy bakes.”

The whole thing is here.

Solace in Quantum

Cover of Quantum: A Guide for the Perplexed

Sometimes it takes a long time for a piece of writing to get out there.

I don’t mean “long” in cosmological terms, like Douglas Adams, who likens a walk to the chemist’s as “peanuts” compared to space. But when you put your writing into someone else’s structures – their spaces, their publishing formats, their agenda – you have to wait. It’s not the case with a blog like this, of which I am in full control (and therefore have no one else to blame for how infrequently it gets updated, but I never promised you quantity here.)

But while you have to wait, and sometimes you have to adjust things to suit your editor, there are real benefits to publishing with other people. Like reach. An audience wider than the friends on Facebook who bother to click the link (Note: ‘liking’ is great, but I’d love for you to read the posts, too. And comment. And share them. Go ahead.) The relevance of that audience can be a factor, and so I’m pleased that after a long wait, a blog I wrote has finally found a public home.

It began as a little musing I was going to post here, several months ago. Last year, in fact, before Christmas and just after I’d finished my first term lecturing at university – a course on social theory, which is not incidental when you read the post. Continue reading

Daddy, the Champion of the World

Picture of me by my toddler

We don’t make a big deal of Father’s Day or Mother’s Day in our house. Sensitive to the greater cultural environment, my eldest son had prepared a glitter-filled piece of art about a sunset as well as a loom band in the Daddy Approved colours of green and purple; my daughter improvised a puppet show which included a crocodile eating a dragon and finished with me being knighted; my youngest gave me a picture that he had declared earlier was a crocodile – and it very much was, in a not-yet-three kind of way, though the real Father’s Day treat, such as it is, was the portrait he made of me on his chalkboard a few days earlier (see above).

What really made it good for me was doing the things I always and already do that make me a father: going out in the rain to do errands for the family, trading silly jokes, and best of all, reading the bedtime story. The celebration, for me, is in the doing. Continue reading

The Darkest One

Gord Downie at K-ROCK, Kingston

Photo by David Bastedo (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

“Where the wild are strong,
And the strong are the darkest ones,
You’re the darkest one.”

It says something that a friend of mine – a journalist back in Ottawa with a vigorous Twitter account – could write this, and I would know exactly what he was referring to.

Residing in Britain, I had been living with the news of Gord Downie’s brain tumour for five hours before he and other friends found out. In a year that started so hard and has kept being hard, this one is particularly hard. Like Bowie for all the freaks and weirdos in Britain and then beyond who needed someone to attach to, Gord Downie and his mates who make up the Tragically Hip were epochal, giving an indigenous confidence to young, pop-oriented Canadians just as the alignment of music video television, more accessible recording and distribution, and government regulation made it possible and even acceptable to dig Canadian music.

But that would say little on its own about the courageous, enigmatic, smart lyrics and Gord’s absurd performances. The band was more than special – it was unique. Looking now at their performance from 1995, when Dan Ackroyd introduced them on Saturday Night Live, it amazes me that their management thought this could work. Think of all those Americans watching the screen – who is this guy? What the hell is he talking about? I mean, grunge made opaque lyrics cool (hip?) but there was an intent behind these words that just did not compute:

“I’m total pro.
That’s what I’m here for.”

At dinner last night, we told the kids about when they were smaller – our nearly-ten-year-old not yet four – and we were in Nanaimo, visiting my folks. My dad got a gig down at the Port Theatre filming a dance company that had arranged a show Beside Each Other to Downie’s music and poetry, and he had tickets to spare, so my wife took our daughter to the show. We reminded her of how physically she responded to the dance. The words, I expect, flew by her.

After the kids were in bed, I put on some Hip, of course. It’s difficult, because most of our CDs are back in Canada, including almost all my Hip. We made some tough decisions before that first flight and took only the double-disc Yer Favourites, a best-of collection that is, at least, curated in its order rather than arranged chronologically. (Why do I even have a greatest-hits collection? Necessity: our last road trip across Canada as a family, I realised just before Mattawa that we hadn’t brought any Hip with us – an essential feature, for reasons I’ll explain in another post. So we bought it at the WalMart as a corrective.) I put on disc 2 – the better one, I think, as disc 1 seems to go a bit more for the obvious hits, in a more requisite order. Starts with the obligatory “new” track, then “Grace, Too” (which should be first), then “Music@Work” (which in my opinion shouldn’t be on there at all but which they insist on putting near the top of sets because of its thematic appropriateness).

Disc 2 instead starts with the dark horse, “Fully Completely”.

“You’re gonna miss me,
Wait and you’ll see.
Fully… and completely.”

Quite. And then this, holding the same place in the second chorus:

“Either it’ll move me
Or it’ll move right through me.
Fully… and completely.”

This is followed by throw-away bar-rocker “Twist My Arm”, which nonetheless has Gord’s shrill, paranoid delivery of the complementary line:

“It won’t hurt if you don’t move.”

We can only hope.

Then, of course, “Courage”, which already takes the brave step of name-checking mid-century novelist Hugh Maclennan in the title (go on, mass public: I dare you to stop paying attention.)

“There’s no simple explanation
For anything important
That any of us do.
And, yeah, the human tragedy
Consists in the necessity
Of living with the consequences
Under pressure, under pressure.”

Every song in the corpus contains a consolation for the desperate fans all reaching back to the old albums, hoping to find one there. It’s a great gift, as is their vow to take Gord on the road one more time and connect with the fans who have connected with them. “We are all richer for having seen them tonight,” he said of the Rheostatics, but of course we say it of them. I hope he makes it. I wish I could be there.

Put Yer Ukes Up: Ukevangelism, Part 2

Michael playing the uke at a tribute concert for Bob Froese, May 2009

Photo (c) Laure Kolk 2009

So I wrote about a change in my ukulele fortunes a while back, when Child Number 2 started singing in the choir and I lost my Monday night pupil. (We still have not fixed a new time for lessons, and this is really bad, but he can still play the hell out of “Taps”, so all is not lost but merely on hold.) I referred to a book on the uke by Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain member Will Grove-White, and I sorta intimated that I would write a review of it soon. Sooner, later, whatever: here it is now.

The book is called Get Plucky with the Ukulele, and it’s a gift to the modern world, coming at the right time now that the second wave of ukulele has crested and the Good Ship Jumping Flea has come down the other side, not upturned. The wee instrument got rather faddish, to the point where US comedian Ria Lina could sing “Not Another Ukulele” at the Edinburgh Fringe on the ukulele with as little irony as is possible in such a setting. You still see them in shop windows, but I think the surprise factor is gone. Those who bought them in the swell of the hype may still have them kicking around the house, so when you talk about playing it, the response is no longer a) are you kidding?, b) oh, I do that too!, or c) ukulele? pfft, that’s so Hackney-three-months-ago now where’s my beard oil? We can confront the instrument as it is, unironically and neither undersold nor overhyped. Continue reading

(Dis)United Kingdom

Daffodil by Dave Morris

Daffodil, (CC BY 2.0) Dave Morris, found on

So Happy Saint David’s Day, or as they say here in Wales, Hapus Dydd Dewi Sant, though I’ve also seen a Gwyl in there, and I may have the order wrong. I’m mostly relying on Twitter for these things; my children, who are being educated in the English system but are of course learning Welsh as a subject, are not really better placed to correct me yet.

We’re figuring it out.

The move from Scotland, which as I’m fond of saying is distinct because of its institutions, to Wales, which is instead distinct due primarily to its language, is full of opportunities to learn. In fact, Wales has always been about learning for me: I remember doing a class project in Grade 3 about Wales, drawing the flag (ineptly), making a map full of mountains and castles, and drawing Sir Percival in his red-gold armour. In truth, I’m all about Wales.

Our first St David’s Day in Cardiff was grey, windy, and wet. Really, it felt like we hadn’t left Edinburgh at all. These things should unite us, but every St David’s Day, I can’t help but remember an object lesson of disunity.

In 2013, I was in Glasgow, doing field work for my PhD, and I had to get from one site to another rather quickly, so I took a taxi. We pull up outside Location #2 on a gloriously sunny March day (yes, in Glasgow), and I ask the driver for a receipt.

“What’s the day?” he says to himself as he fills it out. “First of March.”

“Yeah,” I say (in my Boy Scouty Canadian accent). “Happy St David’s Day!”

He snorts. “If you’re Welsh.”

“We All Cherish Strange Things”: A Meditation on Ukulelevangelism

100_6369Last night, I would have been giving my middle child a ukulele lesson. I taught his sister when she was his age, and she has augmented this with violin through school and, this year, singing in the church choir. I would have been teaching him, only last night, he joined his sister for choir practice, a step he’s really excited about.The author on uke and his daughter on violin

We’ll have to find another time for uke lessons, though, because he’s been progressing really well and there’s still so much to learn. But with a vacant hole in my early evening, I picked up a book by Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain member Will Grove-White – I’d thumbed through it when I bought it, but I was writing up my PhD at the time, so I didn’t give it a proper “look”. It’s fun and good advocacy, and maybe I’ll pop a review of it up here shortly. But reading it sent me back to an old piece of writing of mine. Before I started “maintaining” this blog (that may be too grand a word for it), I would put occasional longer pieces of writing on Facebook in the “notes” category – remember those? Thing is, those don’t always get a lot of reading, and they’re rather buried. But I thought this was a rather good piece of writing that deserved a second public.

So, it’s a recycled blog post (20 January 2012), reviewing two records – one dated even at the time and the other largely inaccessible outside the snug Ottawa market. Obscure, as the ukulele itself is. But not small: it’s a long read, so grab some popcorn.

“We all cherish strange things”
– Neil Gerster, “Set Me On Fire”

This is partly a review of two albums – Neil Gerster’s Hearts and Other Shipwrecks and Eddie Vedder’s Ukulele Songs – and partly an essay on the ideas these records inspire for the strange thing that I, or we, cherish, the ukulele. (Vedder’s record barely qualifies as “new” anymore, but both were released in 2011, so I’ll take that as “recent” enough to give me licence for writing this.)

First, my own interests on the table: I am a ukulele performer, and so my appreciation of these records is overly informed and rather biased. I like the instrument, and I want others to like it, too. As well, I am personally implicated with both these artists. I’ve known Neil for 13 years – though we’ve not been in close contact for all of that time. But we played at Carleton University’s sadly (for all intents and purposes) defunct pub, Rooster’s, and shared a love of good lyrics and melodies. More recently, he played bass and sang on my own record, I Am with the Hunters; and while he was putting his own record together, he asked me for thoughts on arrangements and such. Whilst I have no such direct contact with Eddie, I might as well have done. From the release of Pearl Jam’s second record, Vs, I have faithfully followed his musical progress, memorising and personalising his words, learning his changes and riffs, and letting myself get swept up with thousands-strong audiences during his performances. Continue reading

Shrove Tuesday, or On the Plasticity of “Fixed” Culture