City of David

I had a brainwave in the shower Christmas Eve morning. It had been building for a while, I think, but I was humming Joni Mitchell’s “River” and remembering how I played it for colleagues a couple of weeks previous on a semester-end Zoom social. I work with the Centre for the Study of Islam in the UK at Cardiff University, and many of my colleagues and our students are Muslim. Easy assumptions about Christmas are therefore suspect, but it’s not a matter of rejection. My friend and co-lecturer Mansur Ali, for example, gives an annual sermon about the nativity and the importance of Jesus in Islam.

Nonetheless, I didn’t think that “O Holy Night” would be the right one to bust out. And puerile commercial Christmas songs like “Jingle Bells” just grind in the annoying dominance of the season with none of the spiritual uplift. Well, “River” is the silver tuna, then. Christmas-adjacent, and pretty besides. One of my students even beckoned her mum to join the Zoom call to hear.

Photo by Katie Munnik

So now we’re all locked down again for Christmas. The governments at Westminster and the Senedd really mishandled the messaging for this season. They devised a dubious pretext for safe family gatherings, which then required a tranche of other disruptions to school and university students so that isolation could happen in time to make these gatherings “safe”. I personally thought this was a bad idea, but the stakes are low for me anyways because my family is all back in Canada; we’ve been used to being just the five of us for the holidays for many years.

I’m not a Grinch, though, and I’m sympathetic to the desire of those whose grannies and aunties and cousins and such are close. I’m also a pragmatist, and I know that many, many British people were going to do it anyway. But when the weight of the bad-ideaness crushed even the bumbling optimism of Boris Johnson, who redrafted people’s plans with less than a week to go, even I felt angry and dismal.

That was the moment the ukulele brainwave should have landed, but it took a few days.

Continue reading

I knew where I was going; it wasn’t where I ended up

When I was a young warthog, I had the pleasure and privilege to help found my high school newspaper. Dover Bay Secondary School in Nanaimo, BC was a brand new high school, and I was to be among the first cohort to start there in Grade 8 and go all the way through to graduation. The school board had solicited a few keeners from the schools that would feed into the new place, along with the high schools from which kids in the catchment would be decanted, to form what was charmingly called the “ad hoc student council”. That was my first bit of work in setting up the school’s institutions. It resulted, mainly, in a very poorly attended dance in October.

But I also knew I wanted to do journalism, and I understood from Degrassi that this meant being on the school paper. So we needed to have one of those. And my Grade 8 English teacher, Ted McPherson (of “Old McPherson had some verbs, ee-yi-ee-yi-oh” fame) was willing to guide it. Cue legitimate reasons to skip classes every six weeks or so for the next five years.

The Bastion, iconic tower in downtown Nanaimo, in exaggerated blue light at night

All my high school photos are, like my comic collection, in my parents’ house, one ocean and thousands of miles away. So here’s an eerie crop of the Bastion that I took when I was back in Nanaimo last August.

Ted got back in touch with me and a couple of others back in December. It’s his last year teaching before he retires, and he wanted to take one more go at the paper. (It, like so many of the professional institutions it aspires to, including the Nanaimo Daily News, seems to have shut up shop somewhere along the line. I tell ya, you take your eyes off these things for just a minute…) And he invited me to write a guest column, which I did. I was happy to hear just a week or so ago that it was published, printed (!), and because distribution’s weird for these things, stapled to the bulletin board in the hallway. Probably E Wing. I can see it now.

Anyway, I didn’t want those hard-fought 470 words to be limited to that one audience, relevant though it may be. So here it is, doing that thing whereby print journalism migrates to some free blog in the hopes that exposure is sufficient.


It helps in life to know where you’re going.

When I arrived at Dover Bay in 1992 – a Grade 8 student in the school’s first year – I knew where I was going: journalism. I wanted to tell people’s stories. That’s why I helped start the brand-new paper, The Dover Bay Mirror, which I went on to edit from Grade 10.

Over those Dover Bay years, I refined the plan a little: I would study at Carleton University, in Ottawa, and I would go into radio – specifically, the CBC. 

And here’s the thing: it worked. I got the grades I needed, and with the Mirror, I got experience, and so I got a scholarship. Carleton’s journalism school cuts steeply from first to second year, but I made that cut and carried on to graduate with the Senate Medal for Achievement.

By that time, I was already working for CBC Radio. What started as a two-week internship at the end of third year became occasional on-call replacement work over the spring, which became full weeks of booked work over the summer. I knew where I was going, and I got there.

So why am I writing to you from Cardiff, Wales, in my office at the university’s department of religious studies?

Because although it helps to know where you’re going, that’s no guarantee of where you’ll end up.

I was casually employed at CBC for years. Ottawa was a great station, so I didn’t mind (much). The work was interesting, the people were fantastic, and this was what I always wanted to be doing. Then, just when I got an actual job there, CBC made hundreds of cuts across the corporation, and I was back where I started.

I chose to move to the UK, get a master’s degree, and see where it took me. Maybe back to journalism in Canada with some specialized skills. Instead, it took me to a PhD, a three-year contract, and now another three years. I’ve had to move with my family many times, but it’s been a rich life.

To get here, I’ve had to be resilient. Perhaps your teachers talk about “building resilience”, and in a tough world that’s getting tougher, it’s a good quality to have. As Diana Krall, Nanaimo-ite and student of Bryan Stovell, sings, 

Pick yourself up and
Dust yourself off and
Start all over again.

I knew where I was going, and it wasn’t where I ended up.Really, who’s to say I’ve ended up here? Life is long – I turn 40 this spring. That may seem old to you, but theres a lot of life ahead of me. Things can change again.

What helps me get through it is resilience, staying alert to my circumstances, and setting a direction, even if it’s not the path I continue on.

Tough Gig

//platform.twitter.com/widgets.js

Sad days for the newspaper industry – in my current home, the UK, with my beloved Guardian, but also in Canada, the country where I learned and practised journalism. The bleeding at Postmedia was painful and shameful (and, thanks to the dubious blessing of social media and the courage of people like Jana Pruden, completely exposed in all its personal minutiae), and then Friday saw the shuttering of the Guelph Mercury and, less significantly for the country (we all know where the power sits) but more significantly for me, the Nanaimo Daily News.

My parents gave me the drop on the Daily News by Skype this week. Nanaimo’s their home, the Daily News their daily, well, news. They knew I’d care because it’s big news from where I grew up, because I study media for a living, and because I used to be a journalist myself until, as happened to so many of my fellow travellers in this reporting game, the axe fell.

But my history with the paper is more entangled even than that paragraph suggests. Barring a mighty letter to the editor of Maclean’s when I was in Grade 9 (yes, I was That Kid), the Daily News was my first gig in journalism. Continue reading