Saturday, October 27, 2012

The Cruellest Season

Autumn, some people believe, is the cruellest season. Like spring, it is two faced and deceitful, but unlike spring it promises nothing better ahead. It soothes and tempts with warm golden days but deliberately deceives, lulling us into believing that the joyful days of summer are not really gone.

Golden days, Dying Leaves
It lulls us then slaps us unexpectedly with biting winds, cold rain, darker days and the first falls of winter snow. It strips sheltering trees, leaving their naked bones exposed to the wolfish winds of winter.

Autumn’s cruelty is a favour, however. It helps us to understand the importance of change. Its soft and golden moments offer time for reflection and preparation. Winter requires thoughtful preparation for shelter, warmth and how to get life’s basic necessities in weather that is unkind to those who don’t prepare.

It also offers a deep satisfaction not found as easily in other seasons. A satisfaction that comes from knowing all that can be done has been done. That preparation nourishes confidence, and the hope that good preparation will carry us safely to the renewal promised by the distant spring. 

(Coming in two weeks my new book: Smoke Signals: The Native Takeback of North America's Tobacco Industry. Dundurn Press)

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Remembering Billy

Writing a book can be a mystical experience. Things happen that sometimes cannot be explained. Like last month after the final proofread for Smoke Signals: The Native Takeback of North America’s Tobacco Industry, which will be in bookstores next month.

Once a book is off to print it’s time to reorganize your life; organize and file notes, toss outdated stuff to make space. I was at my burning barrel feeding outdated files into a fine autumn fire. As I steered a handful of 1999 tax papers toward the leaping flames, a breeze caught it, scattering some. I retrieved the escapees and as I started to toss them into the barrel saw the name ‘Billy’ on one of the pages.

I flipped through pages and saw the following sentence: “Billy Skead was buried almost three months ago but the question continues to prick the conscience of this troubled community: Why did he die?”

Lost 1976 News Story about Billy Skead

I was stunned. That was the opening sentence of a story I had written in 1976 about a 22-year-old Indian man who didn’t need to die, but did because of the unbearable social conditions our society had allowed to develop in northwestern Ontario. The same conditions that continue to exist four decades later in places like Attawapiskat on James Bay.


I keep everything I write but the Billy Skead story had gone missing many years before. I had looked for it many times because it contained some shocking statistics on violent deaths in the Kenora region. Most recently I had looked for it to see if I could reference any of it in Smoke Signals. I gave it up as lost forever.

The deeper I got into the writing of Smoke Signals, the more I thought about Billy Skead. I didn’t have his story to reference but I did have the memory. So I decided, for no explainable reason, to dedicate the book to him.

After re-reading that long-lost story, I’m glad I did.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Just watched The Rum Diary, the movie version of Hunter S. Thompson’s novel based on his wild newspapering days in Puerto Rico. It got me reconsidering my previous negative views on Thompson’s unconventional approach to journalism.

Thompson’s legacy was the use of Gonzo journalism, reporting and writing based on feelings, not facts. It was subjective and emotional writing driven by rage over perceived wrongs in society. For many working in traditional journalism settings, Thompson’s work was considered bizarre, unworthy and not true journalism.

Looking at today’s society, and the reporting of it, it is easier to understand Thompson and his work. There are so many issues demanding that someone stand up and scream for action. Yet, journalism gets shallower every day, too often never getting close to exposing and promoting action against things that are terribly wrong within our society. Too much reporting is fluff, simply entertainment. Fluff reporting is cheap and easy and designed to build market share, profit and ratings, all of which now take precedence over deep journalistic work aimed at helping to create a better society.

Hunter S. Thompson’s living style is not to be admired. Too often it was about booze, drugs, sex and rock and roll, and it ended with his suicide. But today’s society could use more of his journalistic style, more Gonzo to wake up a complacent society and make it shout out against the marketing crap, distortions and outright lies offered up daily by business, industry and governments and their bureaucrats.

The novelist Hari Kunzru once wrote that Thompson was a misshapen sort of moralist, “one who often makes himself ugly to expose the ugliness he sees around him.”

Our society needs more of that, and likely will get it as newborn citizen journalism begins to mature.

(My New Book: Smoke Signals: The Native Takeback of North America's Tobacco Industry. Available in November 2012 Wherever You Buy Books)