The pointing arrow said 3.2 kilometres. Already we had driven 5.7 kilometres along a winding, pot-holed, one-lane road that hugged the side of the small mountain. Happily, we had encountered no vehicles, no cyclists -- in fact, nothing but recalcitrant sheep who frequently stood defiant in the middle of the road until we beeped our horn. We were on the tiny island of Raasay, which is situated between the Isle of Skye and the Scottish mainland. Our destination was Hallaig, one of the best-known sites in the history of the Highland Clearances. It is famous because the 20th-century poet Sorley MacLean, arguably the greatest who wrote in Gaelic, gave the name "Hallaig" to his most celebrated poem. He was born in this place, once a thriving settlement, now a ruin, a jumble of rocks. Once out of the car, we followed a dirt track slowly upwards for what seemed longer than 3.2 kilometres. At last we reached the cairn created in memory of MacLean, "the people of Hallaig and other cleared crofting townships." On the cairn, you can read the poem in Gaelic or in English translation by Seamus Heaney. To me, it is reminiscent of Fern Hill by Dylan Thomas: "Time, the deer, is in Hallaig Wood/ There's a board nailed across the window/ I looked through to see the west / And my love is a birch forever . . . .
Monday, May 29, 2017
Saturday, May 27, 2017
We made a spontaneous dash to Orkney to visit Tom and Rhonda Muir. Then we contrived to banish them to the wrong camera (hence no pix of them!) and ended up with shots of a hotel, a statue and a charming young couple on the steps of a classic edifice in urgent need of refurbishment (see my previous blog posts re: fund-raising campaign). We stopped in to say hello to the owner, Ivan Craigie, and whoosh! back I flashed to 1998, my first visit to Orkney, and Ivan inviting me to ride the back of his tractor to cross the rough field to the water where as a boy, in a "noust," John Rae stored his boat. What a time we had -- not just then, but today, zooming around on a Tom-led tour of cottages, beautifully restored, dating to the 18th and 19th centuries, all in aid of a crash-course on the history of the Clearances in Orkney. Except for Tom, who even knew they happened?
Friday, May 26, 2017
Here we have the splendiferous Dunrobin Castle, the most politically incorrect edifice in all of the United Kingdom. In the early to mid-1800s, the Duke and Duchess of Sutherland ordered (though they did not personally orchestrate) the infamous Sutherland Clearances. This entailed forcibly evicting thousands of tenant farmers from the lands of their forefathers. Many of those driven from their modest crofts settled eventually in Canada. A few miles north of Dunrobin, at a coastal town called Helmsdale, we find a statue, The Emigrants,
Thursday, May 25, 2017
Thursday, May 18, 2017
John Rae Society. The Society is bent on turning the Hall into a John Rae Centre celebrating the links between Orkney, the Canadian Arctic, and John Rae's Inuit and First Nations allies. OK, I may have mentioned this once or twice. But those just discovering Rae might enjoy reading about when the Society purchased the Hall or the unveiling of the National Commemorative Plaque, or look, here's an Open Letter to the Explorer on His Birthday. A more comprehensive narrative is coming in September, when HarperCollins Canada publishes Dead Reckoning: The Untold Story of the Northwest Passage. Meanwhile, to achieve its objective, the John Rae Society has launched a Go Fund Me campaign. Turn the Hall of Clestrain into a John Rae Centre? All I can say is YES!
Sunday, May 14, 2017
Monday, May 8, 2017
Wow, three decades and change: whoosh! Where did those 32 years go? Back in 1985, when Margaret Atwood published The Handmaid's Tale, I interviewed her and wrote as follows. . . . then included the piece in Canada's Undeclared War: Fighting Words from the Literary Trenches.
Call it "a feminist 1984" and Margaret Atwood won't argue. But she describes the novel as "a female Clockwork Orange." The Handmaid's Tale is "not science fiction in the usual sense," Atwood said. "It doesn't have spaceships or trips to Mars. But it is speculative fiction."
Like Brave New World by Aldous Huxley or Woman On The Edge Of Time by Marge Piercy, it belongs "to a long tradition of utopias—although in the 20th century, the vision is much bleaker and utopias have become dystopias."
While writing The Handmaid's Tale, Atwood was "very conscious" of this tradition, which began in the 16th century with Sir Thomas More's Utopia and includes Samuel Butler's classic Erewhon.
During the 1960s, when she was a graduate student at Harvard, Atwood studied the 19th century intensely "and a lot of utopias were written then."
Born in 1939, Atwood is widely regarded as the pre-eminent Canadian author of her generation. She has published fiction, criticism and poetry, and her works include The Edible Woman, Power Politics, Surfacing, Survival, Lady Oracle, Life Before Man and Bodily Harm.
Has her work become increasingly political?
Atwood resists the idea. She long ago defined politics as "who does what to whom"—that definition appears again in The Handmaid's Tale—and insists that all her works are political. "Survival was a very political book," she said in a telephone interview from Toronto. "But so was Edible Woman. It all depends on your focus."
"It isn't true that the novel is not a political form," she said. The genre "has gone through occasional periods of privatism, but it has also been used throughout the ages for social comment." To an Irishman, even the supremely detached James Joyce was political, Atwood said. And British novelist D.H. Lawrence, the high priest of love, was "very class-oriented."
In Canada, Rudy Wiebe has explored the politics of Indians and Mennonites, and Mordecai Richler writes "very, very pointed social satire." The Quebec novel has always been politically engaged.
"The world is getting more explicitly political," Atwood said. "It's no longer possible for us to live only in our private lives. We can't exist in that exclusively personal world anymore."
Set in the near future, The Handmaid's Tale "is an extrapolation of present trends," she said. "It's set in the U.S. partly because I lived there for four years, but also because trends happen there first. Here in Canada, we don't see the structure. We're too cautious, too egalitarian."
The effects of pollution, for example, "are having an impact on the birth rate right now," Atwood said. "And it's going to lead to a situation such as the one I describe."
The Handmaid's Tale, however, is "as much about the past as about the present," she said. "There's nothing in it that hasn't actually happened somewhere. Polygamy? Check out the Mormon Church. Public hangings? They were standard in the 19th century."
Atwood got the idea for the novel in 1981. She spent one year "actively writing it" in three different places—West Berlin, Toronto and Alabama. The book's title recalls The Canterbury Tales and so pays subtle homage to Geoffrey Chaucer. But it alludes mainly to the Bible, in which handmaids are described as bearing children for their mistresses.
Of the 12 tribes of Israel fathered by Jacob, Atwood said, eight came from children born to his wives, and four from those born to their handmaids. One of her novel's three epigraphs is taken from Genesis, where Rachel says to Jacob: "Behold my maid Bilhah, go in unto her; and she shall bear upon my knees, that I may also have children by her."
Atwood chose, as her first-person narrator, a new-age handmaid. This young woman has been re-educated, and her job, her sole function, is to bear a child for her "commander." To this end, she is stringently controlled and kept ignorant of the world around her.
"I wanted to work with a single person who was part of the society, and see how much I could tell through that person," Atwood said. "When you're unable to read, it's very hard to know what's going on."