1 July 2016

Day of Nation and Memory

I greet my fellow countrymen on this day of nation and memory. A day of nation, because it is the one hundred and forty ninth anniversary since Confederation, and anniversary formerly known as Dominion Day. Memory, because it is the hundredth anniversary of the first day of the Battle of the Somme.

At the time of Confederation, only four provinces elected to enter into the new Dominion- Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland opted to stay out. Prince Edward Island joined the confederation a few years later, and was later joined by BC, Manitoba, Alberta and Saskatchewan. Newfoundland, the last to join, only joined the Dominion in 1949 after a hotly contested plebiscite won by the narrowest of margins for the Dominion side. There are those in Newfoundland who believe the plebiscite was rigged by the British government who wished to shed themselves of a poor colony.

For Newfoundlanders, July First holds a double meaning. It is Canada Day, but the day holds another meaning to which they are dedicated- memory. It is the memory for which the provincial university- memorial university- is named and dedicated: to perpetuate the memory of the 1st Newfoundland Regiment and the events of July First, 1916, the first day of the Battle of the Somme.

The Battle of the Somme has its roots in 1916's other and greater bloodbath, Verdun. The French were sustaining huge losses at Verdun, to the south of the British sector of the Western Front. The French appealed to General Haig, the British commander, to launch an offensive in his sector in an attempt to draw German units out of Verdun and to relieve the pressure on the French. According to legend, Haig took a pushpin and placed it randomly on the map. "We will attack there," he said. "At the Somme."

By this time, the war had reached a stalemate. Each side had adopted defensive trenches as a way to fortify their position, and no advance was made on either side. The trenches were a complicated affair. Each side laid out series of parallel trenches to create a defense in depth. Running perpendicular to the front line, second line and third line trenches were another series of trenches allowing movement back and forth between the trench lines, called communication trenches. The ground between the trenches was often covered in barbed wire, as was the area in front of the front lines. It was a formidable defense.

The battle plan, such as it was, called for the largest bombardment yet to destroy the German lines- trenches, barbed wire and all- at which point the British forces would push through unopposed and continue straight on to Germany. The British quickly amassed the shells necessary for the bombardment, and began the shelling on June 24, 1916. The attack was originally scheduled for June 29, but inclement weather caused the attack to be postponed. The delay also allowed an additional two days to the bombardment. So confident were the British of the utter destruction of the Germans that the units of the first wave of the attack were told they could walk upright and erect to the German lines. The trenches, the barbed wire, the Germans themselves would long since have been destroyed. The British generals even ordered the men to sew metal reflective plates onto their backs that would flash in the sunlight as they moved, so the generals could better observe their advance from aerial reconnaissance photographs they would peruse from their safe positions far in the rear.

In the meantime, the Germans stayed in their bunkers. The Somme region was known for having a bedrock of chalk, which could be easily excavated and provided excellent protection from shelling. The Germans dug their bunkers deeper and moved in more troops, as the French had desired. Far from obliteration, the only result of the bombardment was to warn the Germans of an impending attack, and allowed them time to reinforce their line. It did not destroy the trenches. It did not clear the barbed wire. The German position was actually stronger after the bombardment than before.
On the morning of July 1st at about 7:30 the guns fell silent, whistles were blown, and the British climbed from the trenches and began their advance. The Germans could not believe their eyes- thousands upon thousands of British troops advancing in parade ground marching formation, many of them lead by bagpipers. Their shock did not last long. They reached for their rifles and machine guns, sent signals to their own batteries, and opened fire.

It was a massacre. For almost the entire length of the Somme sector, the first wave was wiped out. The second wave was ordered over the top and met the same fate. Communication was a shambles. The only reports that reached the British Command came from the few units who had succeeded in their attack. Thinking the attack was successful, the third wave was ordered to prepare to go over the top.

The Newfoundland Regiment was at a place called Beaumont Hamel when orders came through at 8:45 am. The command had confused flares sent up by the Germans to their gunners to be flares from British troops calling for reinforcements, and believed the first and second waves had been at least partially successful. They issued the orders for the third wave go prepare to go over the top. The 1st Newfoundland and 1st Essex were to move forward and occupy the enemy's first line of trenches. At the time they were about two hundred metres back from their own front line, out of sight of the enemy. The Newfoundlanders tried to move to the forward trench, but the communication trenches were clogged with wounded and under shell fire. The commander of the regiment, Colonel Hadow, decided to move immediately to attack positions by ordering his men out of the trenches and to march on the open ground above the trenches to the front lines. Meanwhile, the first Essex decided to try and move through their communication trenches, and as a result were not in a position to launch an attack until 10:30. At 9:15 The Newfoundland men, about 780 of them, rose from their trenches. Colonel Hadow gestured with his stick the in the direction of the Germans, and gave the order. With that, the 1st Newfoundland Regiment began to move in rehearsed formations through their own front lines to the jump off point.

At first they were protected by a small rise that lay in the middle of the British trenches, but before long they crested the top of the little hill and were completely silhouetted against the morning sky. By then, they were the only thing moving on the battlefield. Every German gun in the sector turned towards them and opened fire.

Men began to fall. Men from tight knit communities, men who had served together, knew each other as friends and as brothers fell to the ground. Those who remained continued on. As one witness later said, they moved forward "with chins tucked down as if walking into a blizzard". More men fell. They continued their advance. They had not yet cleared their own front lines.

They marched on because they believed. They believed in courage and honour. They believed in truth and justice, they believed in their cause. Those who had been educated had learned the words "Dulce Et Decorum Est Pro Patria Mori"- "it is sweet and just to die for one's country" These words had meaning, such meaning that men were prepared to die for these words, and also for an empire that would shake off their beloved homeland the first chance it got. They were men of a generation that proved beyond all others that they believed. And because of days like this, because of four years of days like this, they were the last generation that could believe so honestly, so naively, so blindly, and so totally.

Deeper into the storm they marched. By the time they had cleared their own barbed wire and crossed into No Man's Land they had suffered perhaps 30 per cent casualties. With every step they drew closer to the German guns. The fire became more accurate, more concentrated, more deadly. They stepped over the dead and wounded from the earlier attacks, swelled the number of dead and wounded with their own, and pressed on. There was no cover. There was no retreat. There was no escape.

Perhaps forty or fifty men made it to the German trenches. They fought bravely, aided by a few of the survivors of the earlier attacks, but the end was never in doubt. Their fate had been sealed the moment  they first rose from their trenches. It was over by 9:40.

For the wounded in the field the nightmare continued. As a final, terrible joke the wounded found thy could not move at all. The metal plates sewn onto their backs so the Generals could observe their movements also betrayed their movements to the German snipers. They had to lie still on the field, and hope they survived until nightfall. In the Northern Hemisphere, July First is one of the longest days of the year.

The 1st Essex attack was cancelled, but due to the communications chaos of that day, the order never reached them. They went over the top at 10:30, and suffered 280 casualties before the attack was called back.

July First remains the greatest one day disaster in the history of the British Army. Up and down the Somme front the casualties totalled 57,470, of which 19, 240 were fatal. For the 1st Newfoundland Regiment, 780 went over the top on July First. The next day, 68 answered roll call. The Regiment suffered the second highest rate of casualties of all the units that went over the top that day. Ultimately, tragically, the day was merely a prelude to slaughter. Before the Battle of the Somme was finally ended by Autumn rains it would claim over a million casualties. It was second only to Verdun for blood.

News of the disaster soon winged its across the Atlantic to the Island home of the men in the form of telegrams telling their families and friends of their death. To an Island of small tightly knit communities, everyone was touched in some way by that day. The British tried to put a good face on the disaster by invoking the words that once meant something in ways that ring hollow today. The Divisional commander paid a grim tribute to the men: "It was a magnificent display of trained and disciplined valour, and its assault failed of success because dead men can advance no further." Later the reconstituted unit received the unique honour of adding the word "Royal" to its name, so they were now the "Royal Newfoundland Regiment". More men signed up, followed their people back across the ocean to the desperation of No Man's Land. The war would continue for another two years.
After the war Beaumont Hamel was ceded to the Newfoundland Government. The ground of the attack was preserved as much as possible as it was during the war. The government placed a statue of a caribou, the regimental symbol, standing over the British trenches, forever facing the German foe. The ground has been cared for, as a reminder of that desperate morning 100 years ago. Near the entrance to the park an epitaph is inscribed in Bronze. It reads:

And with bowed head and heart abased
Strive hard to grasp the future gain in this sore loss.
For not one foot of this dank sod
But drank its surfeit of the blood of gallant men
Who for their Faith, their Hope, for Life and Liberty
Here made the sacrifice.
Here gave their lives, and right willingly for you and me.

24 June 2016

On the Feast of John the Baptist

Today is, in the Roman Calendar, the Feast of John The Baptist. It is an important day to Catholics particularly those in Quebec, but it is also an important day for music lovers everywhere.  It is about as close as possible to the anniversary of The Day Everything Changed in Music.  How so? you may well ask.  Well, gather around, The story goes a little like this:

About a thousand years ago the Church was facing a crisis. This is of course nothing new: the Church is always facing some sort of crisis. This one had to do with music.

For the first millenium of the Church's history composers had been creating music to go with every part of the Mass, along with the divine office, and general hymns of praise, and so on. The total of music was immense, and every last bit of it was in danger of being lost forever because no one could write it down. As St Isadore of Seville put it: "Unless sounds are remembered, they perish, for they cannot be written down." Early attempts at write music at that time consisted of arrow-like markings over the words, indicating if the pitch went up or down, and sometimes elaborate squiggles. However, such markings were mnemonic devices, aimed at helping someone who already knew the piece remember how it went. It would not have been possible for someone who had never before heard the song to pick up a piece so marked and sing it from the page.

Enter the hero of our story, Benedictine monk Guido d'Arezzo. Our hero was in charge of teaching music to the young monks in his monastery. While teaching them our hymn for Vespers on the Feast of St. John Baptist, he noticed that each line began on a successive ascending note:

Ut queant laxis
re-sonare fibris:
mi-ra gestorum
fa-muli tuorum:
sol-ve polluti
la-bii reatus:
Sancte Ioannes

If you take the first syllables on which those ascending notes appeared you have Ut, re, mi, fa, sol, la, and si... If you were to change the "ut" to "do" (pronounced as in "a deer"- a female deer) and "si" to "ti" (as in the drink, goes well with jam and bread, so I'm told, I don't like jam) you have something familiar to us all. What Guido had done was give the notes names, and names can be written down. The issue was how.

Eventually the solution he arrived at was to draw four lines over the words, and mark one line either as "ut" or as "fa" and indicate the notes with square dots placed on the line or space over the word, thus indicating that word's pitch. And thus the first modern music notation was born.

He also created a method of teaching singers still used today, wherein singers are trained to sing the intervals by having the singers sing the notes out of order, rather like Julie Andrews in Sound of Music, where she teaches them, as Guido did, first the names of the notes, and them how to move between them "so, do, la, fa, mi, re, do- when you know the notes to sing." And his students could now sing most anything.

The immediate reaction to Guido's brilliant and workable solution was the reward so often given to those who find think outside of the box and find elegant solutions to complicated problems: He was fired by his bishop, who was upset that Guido turned novices into professional singers, instead of professional pray-ers.  But another bishop of a nearby diocese was quite happy to have professional singers, and brought Guido to his place, where he encouraged Guido to write a book on his method. That book, the Micrologus, came to the attention of the pope, who summoned Guido to Rome to explain and demonstrate his new method. Guido did as told, and the pope, after seeing the method demonstrated, almost immediately ordered all monasteries to adopt Guido's methods and set down their music. And thus the crisis was ended.

But Guido's invention stretched far beyond the preservation of Chant. All the music that exists in the West today, whether Polyphony, or Baroque, or Classical, Romantic, Jazz and so on, exists because it could be written down by one writer, and handed over to musicians who could then faithfully reproduce what they saw on the page. And for that, we owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to a simple Benedictine monk, who was simply trying to teach his novices to sing.

22 June 2016

Uncle Screwtape on Modern Education

I've been hard on modern education for the last while, but the problems I identify are by no means new or recent.  As always, others have seen the problems before I have, and, as is usual, they phrased it much better than I ever could.  Here is CS Lewis on  those who read (or used to read, at any rate) the old books:

Only the learned read old books and we have now so dealt with the learned that they are of all men the least likely to acquire wisdom by doing so. We have done this by inculcating The Historical Point of View. The Historical Point of View, put briefly, means that when a learned man is presented with any statement in an ancient author, the one question he never asks is whether it is true. He asks who influenced the ancient writer, and how far the statement is consistent with what he said in other books, and what phase in the writer's development, or in the general history of thought, it illustrates, and how it affected later writers, and how often it has been misunderstood (specially by the learned man's own colleagues) and what the general course of criticism on it has been for the last ten years, and what is the "present state of the question". To regard the ancient writer as a possible source of knowledge - to anticipate that what he said could possibly modify your thoughts or your behaviour - this would be rejected as unutterably simple-minded. And since we cannot deceive the whole human race all the time, it is most important thus to cut every generation off from all others; for where learning makes a free commerce between the ages there is always the danger that the characteristic errors of one may be corrected by the characteristic truths of another. But thanks be to our Father and the Historical Point of View, great scholars are now as little nourished by the past as the most ignorant mechanic who holds that "history is bunk",

19 June 2016

Father's day

Anybody else think they should stop pretending dads count even one day a year and just cancel the thing?

18 June 2016

Terrible pun for today

The only thing that scares me is German sausage.   That's right: I fear the wurst.

17 June 2016

US Army launches pilot project that allows rolled up sleeves with Uniform.


I guess that means that soldiers finally have the right to bare arms.

16 June 2016

What is the purpose of the university?

Back in the '90's when I was drawing to the end of my time as a TA teaching Shakespeare, I noticed something in the year end reviews the students filled out.  Again and again, the students ranked the class on the basis of whether or not they got their money's worth out of it.  It was foreign to me, but they seemed to think of the university as a kind of intellectual fast food restaurant.  Yes, I'd like a degree. In English.  With some Shakespeare, some moderns, a little of the Romantics and a side order of history.  How was this possible? Did they not understand that what they were getting for their money was an opportunity to enrich their minds?  Would they walk into a gym, lay out their money and demand the muscles be delivered post haste, and complain that they did not get their money's worth when they did not do the exercises and developed no muscles?

Apparently they would.

But that was then. Now it is, in my opinion, far, far worse.

Higher education used to be rooted in the Liberal Arts, the arts of a free man, a citizen.  It's purpose was to have students encounter new ideas, increase both their own knowledge and ultimately that of mankind.  The unexamined life was not worth living, said Socrates.  University was to teach men the life that was.

But different ideas crept in.  University, it was later thought, was to prepare students for a career.  Never mind that the majority of university programs lead to no career at all.  Within living memory, it was important to graduate from high school, because graduating from high school was rare.  Doing so marked you out as smart, as someone who had a good head on their shoulders, someone who could learn.  But, by about the late fifties to early seventies, practically everyone was graduating from high school.  Having a diploma no longer marked one out as special, it marked you out as average.  If you wanted to stand out, you needed a university degree. 

But even that has changed.  More and more people are getting more and more degrees, and most of them are junk.  Students are, increasingly, downloading papers off the internet and handing them in as their own.  The university does nothing about it because the problem is too widespread.  To enforce the policy on academic dishonesty, my university would have to expel between one third and one half of its students, and in so doing lose hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue.  Better to turn a blind eye.

How  useless are these degrees? let me tell you about my own field.  Where once we studied the classic authors, Chaucer, Milton, Shakespeare, Dickens, the Romantics, we now study children's books (Cat in the Hat is now a university text,  So is Goodnight Moon) and comic books (I speak as someone who loves comic books and has enjoyed many a pleasant hour flipping through them- they do not reward intense study) and very little that was not written in the last fifty years.  They are not encountering the old ideas.  They aren't even encountering new ideas.  They are only encountering what is current, without gaining a context of how this came about, or what makes this age different from others. 

Students aren't being challenged.  They are only learning what they already knew. They are being confirmed in their opinions, not challenged,. It is not learning: it is narcissism. TS Eliot once wrote "We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time." But the students aren't arriving at the place where they started so they may finally know it, because they are never leaving it in the first place. 

And they are paying through the nose to do so.  They are going heavily, heavily into debt.  University isn't merely taking all their money; it is taking all their current money plus years of future money, just so they may be even with the pack.

It is possible, I think, to debate about the purpose of the university, whether it I a place to seek the life of the mind, or a place to prepare for a future career.  What I don't think can be debated is that it is failing to achieve both purposes.

Staff Appreciation Day is Coming.

Exactly six years ago today, I returned to work after taking a five day parental leave for the birth of my son, and was promptly pulled into a meeting where I was told to choose between having my hours cut or finding work elsewhere.  The boss had shut down the store and held a meeting the day before, explaining to the staff that we needed to become awesome in our service. He then revealed his grand plan to achieve this goal: we were going to shrink our way to awesomeness. Some people were let go. Most of us had our hours cut. Awesome.

As I said, I wasn't there that day on account of my son having just been born. I returned to work the nest day, and was immediately called into a private meeting with him, the next in charge and my union rep. My boss, in addition to whatever else he may be, is a nervous smiler: he smiles when he's under stress. And so it was that this man had a stupid, dopey grin on his stupid, dopey face as he told me he was cutting my hours. My union rep sat beside me and seethed a palpable rage, but he was of no practical use to me. Pretty much par for the course with this union. They 'feel ' our pain, even though they aren't feeling our pain, look angry and swear they will do 'something', actually do nothing, and garnish our salary.

Over time, we sort of got our hours back, and we sort of didn't. We work full time hours, seven instead of six, but the seventh hour is an 'extra' hour. The biggest place we feel that is when we take our holidays or are sick: we lose that extra hour. If you're living from pay cheque to pay cheque, like me, the loss of that hour's pay adds up quickly, and it hurts. I even avoid taking holidays because of the loss of pay. I have almost forty days stored in my bank. No father with small children should ever have that many days stored up. He should be taking them, and spending time making memories with his family.

Since then five people have retired. One person left the store. Two have died. One took LTD and early retirement due to early onset alzheimers. (the university fought giving her the LTD- they felt she was still capable of working) but we still haven't shrunk our way to awesomeness, and we aren't getting those hours back.

In other unrelated news, I have been contacted repeatedly about the staff appreciation barbecue that's coming up. they're doing it to let me know just how much they appreciate me and my work. But I don't need a badly cooked beef 'n' sawdust patty to know how much I am appreciated around here. They told me, loud and clear, six years ago.