Archive for September, 2007

I recently watched two mini-series from when I was a teen-ager, and from watching them and remembering other series that I have watched during and since then, I have the imprerssion that the eighties was a special era. There were three shows that stood out for me:

  • Roots
  • Shogun
  • Masada

There are of course a number of factors that contribute to this feeling. First, I was young, and while rather more well read than most of my friends in school I wasn’t all that worldly. And while I had read about some of the issues in the shows, they readings didn’t really have a visceral impact. Second, all three series were dramatic, with strong and sympathetic characters. Third, the characters tended to be multifaceted, with good and bad qualities. Fourth, most of the three were so powerful that they changed the viewpoints, and in some cases the behaviour, of significant portions of hte viewing audience.

First consider Roots. It originated in a major bestseller written by Arthur Hailey about his own family. It was the third highest rated show in history, and 85% of the viewing audience in the United States saw part or all of the series. People who had seen the opening told their friends, and by the finale most of the country was watching it. It brought awareness of the reality of slavery home in a personal way, while showing how the white “masters” were human and compassionate intelligent people, while at the same time having a blindness to the humanity of their slaves. The impact on the white U.S., especially my generation, was huge. It also made an amazing number of people interested in their family history, and the geneology craze continues today.

Shogun also came from a hit bestseller of the same name, written by James Clavell. It is also the only 1200 page paperback that I managed to read at one sitting! The mini-series covered a critical period in the history of Japan, when Europeans started arriving. It was also the end of a long period of warfare, and ended in the Tokugawa Shogunate of 1600, which eventually drove Western influences out of the country until the Meiji restoration in 1867. It also froze the culture of Japan and prevented any large scale warfare. Basically, the series covers the arrival of Dutch and British influence during the lead-up to the Shogunate, with battles, intrigues, and characters that are fairly close to the real players during the era. The major character, Pilot-Major John Blackthorne, is based on William Adams, who became a confidant of Tokugawa aswell as the first western Samurai and Hatamoto. After arriving there among the last surviving ship of a fleet of five, he never left Japan, but had a major influence on the culture.

Like Roots, more and more people stayed by their TV’s as the week went on. For many, it was the first conprehensive view of the Japanese culture (at least in an earlier incarnation), and it covered one of the most important events in Japan in the last thousand years (of which few westerners had the first clue). It was filmed entirely in Japan, and only two of the Japanese cast spoke English. In fact, the female lead Yoko Shimada didn’t speak English and had a voice coast. She still won a Golden Globe as best actress in a TV drama. I learned more about the culture, and especially how it looked and people behaved, than I had out of a dozen books. The book was great, but the series kept the spirit of the book and brought this world to life.

One important aspect was the way the audience viewed the events from Chamberlain’s point of view, as an Englishman thrown into a new world, unable to speak the language, and liable to die at any time because he didn’t understand the culture. Also, the Japanese dialogue didn’t include English sub-titles, but the great acting allowed you to understand an amazing amount, causing you to see these interactions from the viewpoint of Blackthorne. I also learned some basic Japanese from the series, including the meaning of wakarimas, wakarimaska, and wakarimasen.

Some say that sushi bars and Japanese restaurants became popular after the showing. It also made samurai, ninjas, and other characters tiresomely prevalent for a few decades after.

Masada had a more specific goal. It was about a branch of the Jewish Zealots, who after the fall of Jerusalem retreated to the mountain fortress of Masada, created by Herod in the Negev desert. This site is where modern Israeli soldiers were sworn into military service, and the symbolism of the place is due the the Zealots refusal to surrender to the Romans. You see, the Romans laid seige to Masada, and after several hellish and grueling years managed to storm the fortress via a giant ramp up the side of the mountain. When they arrived, the Zealots, as well as their wives and children, had suicided rather than be captured.

What it did for me was to develop an inkling of what it means to Jews to have their home back after two millenia, and an idea of the Israeli Defence Force mentality. The meaning is especially strong for those who remember the Holocaust, and those who fought for nationhood before the 1967 Six-day War. Finally, it also gives some insight into how people can become fanatics, or at least viewed as such.

As a story, it gave me a better insight into the time of the Zealots and the fall of Jerusalem, it had one of the best performances by Peter O’Toole, and Roman legions at war, especially when they are fighting with wierd and wonderful contraptions, is fun to watch. It was a great drama, and taught me about Jews before the Diaspora, and about Israelis of modern times.

I think the main reasons these series were so great included the following:

  • they all addressed meaningful, substantive issues, and these issues tended to resonate with large segments of those watching,
  • being miniseries, significant character development was much more likely than with a regular series,
  • you learned a lot while being entertained,
  • they were really well done, with good to great actors. For example, Richard Chamberlain, Peter O’Toole, Maya Angelou, Toshiru Mifune, Anthony Quayle, …
  • in the early eighties, you either had movies, which couldn’t cover these subjects in great depth, regular TV series, which usually used uncennected episodes with no real development of a topic over a series of episodes, or fairly dry documentaries. The idea of a miniseries, which covered a topic on consecutive nights and which reached a conclusion in an organic manner, was new, entertaining, and refreshing. Combined with great and meaningful stories, this recipe drew in many people.

Today, of course, pretty well everyone thinks they have a good understanding of Japanese culture, and with the best electronics and cars which started to come out of Japan in the 70s and 80s there was at least a grudging respect for them. Regarding slavery in the U.S., it seems that many have accepted separate but equal cultures along with mutual accomodation, and of course the popular geneology bug popularised by Roots continues almost unabated (i.e. a good friend is really into it). With regards to Israel and the proud independance of the Sabras versus the Diaspora Jews just after the Second World War, very few gentiles care anymore. The State of Israel and the way it treats Palestinians has pretty well eliminated much of the sympathy for their plight during the Holocaust and the pograms going back through history, and the admiration of the Western world in the state they made in the 50s and early 60s. So today Masada’s symbolism matters not to the West, and to the some of the Palestinians and some other Muslims it might be argued that a repeat of that era might be a good thing.

I learned much that was new to me, or looked at it from a different perspective, by watch these three events. And I had a lot of fun doing it. It would be nice to have more shows like this, but in the internet culture, and with the decrease in viewership of the major networks, it’s not likely that we’ll see much to match the 80s.

Or maybe I’m just prejudiced towards what I liked as a teenager.


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Zabriski Point, Death Valley-3

This glancing life is like a morning star

A setting sun or rolling waves at sea

A gentle breeze or lightning in a storm

A dancing dream of all eternity

-Caravanserai from An Ancient Muse by Loreena McKennitt

Last night I went to see Loreena McKennitt’s new concert, An Ancient Muse. This tour will cross Canada in September, then move south through the United States in October. I confess to a “slight” bias towards her music, but I have never seen her live before. Given the recent release of the CD An Ancient Muse, I expected that the performance would focus on the new music, and I was worried that her earlier work would be short-changed. Also, given the high ticket price and the less than perfect seating, I was dreading the possibility that the show would be less than stellar. Here is what actually happened.

It was a dark and stormy night. I arrive fifteen minutes early, wrung myself out and went to my seat. Much to my relief the audience was dressed in a relaxed and eclectic style, so my lack of dress shoes and a tie fit in well with others jeans, shorts, tuxedos, mini-skirts, ballroom gowns, and celticised serapes. The stages set-up was elegant and simple. A piano, keyboard, harp, and key accordion were at centre stage for Loreena’s use, with a slightly raised section behind her for the nine over-talented accomplices to her magic. Hanging from the ceiling were half a dozen Arabic chandeliers, and the backdrop was a simple Arabesque tapestry of a neutral light tan colour. Just left of centre stage was a classic pointed arch framing the main percussion session.

While simple and clean, the lighting system made this stage setting magically versatile. By varying lighting angles and colours, the backdrop would become a solid glowing royal blue, or dripping ruby fading to darkness as you looked upwards, or a wavering rich green dimming to darkness in the lower depths. Sometimes the background disappeared as vertical spreading beams overlapped to form a gossamer silken canopy draping towards the stage, or fog, or crystal-sharp stars on a moonless night. They also made sure that the lighting effects did not distract from the performance, only focusing spots on key performances in a gradual understated manner, and only making major lighting changes between songs.

From left to right on the stage were

  • Brian Hughes: electric and acoutic guitar, oud, celtic bazouki
  • Ben Grossman: hurdy-gurdy and percussion
  • Rick Lazar: percussion
  • Tal Bergman: drums and percussion
  • Tim Lander: acoustic and Electric Base
  • Socratis Synopoulos: lyra, Greek Lute
  • Donald Quan: viola, keyboards, tabla, accordion
  • Caroline Lavelle: cello
  • and Hugh Marsh on violin.

I had no idea how the performance would commence, so I was sitting up anxiously as the lights went down, with all sense on the alert. A vertical golden spotlight slowly brightened, and a vertical viola appeared and started playing. As the light slowly increased, a silhouette of a harpist with a halo of yellow-orange hair appeared. Then a second spot shone on the harpist as she started singing “She moved through the fair”. Her voice filled the auditorium, and when her voice rose towards the higher notes, it felt like you were within and part of the song, instead of listening to something from outside yourself. As the music moved into the instrumental finale the light faded over Loreena, she returned to being a silhouette framed by the sunlight of her hair, then the viola was the only thing visible on the stage, then it faded into the night.

The audience, after a moment of awe, started applauding, and I knew that there would be magic that night.

Happily, the repertoire included a good selection from The Book of Secrets and The Mask and the Mirror. There were also a number from the new album, An Ancient Muse, as well as such favourites as The Lady of Shalott, Bonny Portmore, The Old Ways, and Cymbeline from The Visit. Her voice and the feeling she put into the music were wonderful, as were some of her entertaining and rambling discussions of the travels of the Celts both east and west. It seems that there are mummies of communites of proto-Celts at the eastern end of the Silk Road, dating back as far as three thousand BCE, including a six foot tall man with red hair and wearing plaids.

Regarding the musicians and the instruments used, as seen from the list above the variety was amazing. More amazing were their performances. My favourite player was the fiddler Hugh Marsh, who must have been trained in Fiddler’s Green via the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. For example, they gave him an extremely loud ovation at the end his solo during Santiago. Also, I was impressed that during one song he held a single note without perceptible variation for over thirty seconds while busily bowing back and forth; I couldn’t hear a pause, nor a perceptible waver in the note. I also loved the electric guitar under the fingers of Brian Hughes, especially when he played counterpoint to Hugh during “The Bonnie Swans”. On stage they played some riffs not in The Mask and the Mirror, and the audience stood to applaud them at the end of the song. Ben Grossman on the hurdy-gurdy was also great, and this was the first time I had seen this instrument played; from where I stood it seemed as if he was stroking the base like Aladdin polishing his lamp, and the music that came out was just as magical.

At the end of the show she gave two encores. During the second encore she discussed and celebrated the search and rescue efforts of the Canadian Armed Forces, and mentioned that she was made Honourary Colonel of 435 Squadron, which conducts Search and Rescue (SAR) operations as well as transport duties in Western Canada. For those who don’t realise it, 2006 the first time that she has toured since 1998, when her fiance and two close friends died during a boating accident. This caused her to be active in prevention efforts and fundraising, and eventually to her interest in military SAR operations. She then dedicated “Dante’s Prayer” in remembrance of Shawn McCaughey of the Snowbirds, who died last summer in Montana. Anyone who knows this song will realise how appropriate it is.

In summary, her voice is as good as ever, the musicians with her are excellent, and the arrangement and staging were simple and elegant. It was well worth the walk home through the rain.


One aspect of Loreena McKennitt’s music is the research and historical depth that informs her music. In the case of An Ancient Muse, she mentioned several times an excellent book by Susan Whitfield called Life along the Silk Road. The Silk Road is the collection of routes used for trade and communication between China and its predecessor states with the West, extending back possibly beyond 4000 years. In recorded history the first major connections probably occurred between 200 BCE and 200 ACE. One of the major periods of trade was the 8th century, which Whitfield’s book concentrates on. The appeal of this book is that it reads like the Canterbury tales, showing what life was like for soldiers, nuns, steppe horsemen, Imperial Tibetans, traders, etc. It shows how information, technology, and people spread east and west over some of the strangest and most hostile terrain on earth.

For me, while I listen to songs such as Caravanserai, Kecharitomene, and Beneath a Phrygian Sky, I imagine the multitudes of races meeting and trading at the bazaars, the caution and daring needed to get a caravan over 15,000 foot passes, seeing sand dunes reaching 300 metres into the sky in the Tarim Basin, going for days without water in the Taklamakan Desert, watching out for horsemen of the steppes along the northern routes, and the great battles in the mountains at the top of the world between Imperial Tibet and China for access to the eastern side of the Silk Road. To the West it was the Great Unknown; to those who lived along it it was magical, dangerous, and ever changing.

Here are some names that evoke the lure and mystery of the route to me:

  • Lapis lazuli
  • Bactria
  • Samarkand
  • Tashkent
  • Herat
  • Kabul
  • Khyber Pass
  • Peshawar
  • Karakorum
  • Gobi Desert
  • Taklamakan Desert (Uighur for “if you go in there you won’t get out”)
  • Tien Shan Mountains
  • Kunlun Mountains
  • Pamirs
  • Lop Nor
  • Hindu Kush

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A few weeks ago I took a two hour cruise (therefore no Gilligan-type problems) on a ketch that turned out to be more colourful than usual. We sailed from Lunenburg Harbour out to the Ovens and back (this is on the Southwestern Shore of Nova Scotia). The wind was light but steady, and we made fairly good time.

It reminded me of how much I like sailing. Maybe I’ll get a boat.

Romantic Sunset
Two retirees enjoying the light.

Heat Shimmers
Sailing Dory reaching back into the harbour.

Cirrus Streamers

Captains Courageous
Sailing as far into the wind as possible in order to round the lighthouse.

Clearing Battery Point
Clearing Battery Point on the return leg.

Final Run
Sailing towards the berth.

Wake of the ship and the Moon.

Twilit Silhouette

a quickr pickr post

Master of all she surveys.

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