(started 06.05.02 | 09:15am EST) COVERAGE OF THE ROYAL JUBILEE has been unusually subdued over here in the Commonwealth's intemperate hinterlands, mostly because of continued political melodrama in our federal government, partially because, as it should be plain by now, we've finally begun to regard the monarchy with the same diffident disinterest we usually reserve for the European parliament, or the Eurovision song contest. They look like part of the same thing here on the other side of the Atlantic; alternately tedious and tacky, but never relevant to life lived in the land of the wind-blasted pine and the dutifully returned two-four.
Our prime minister sacked his main rival, finance minister Paul Martin, this weekend. Martin has been, for years, his only constant rival for the leadership of the federal Liberal party, and like any other sly, insecure political paranoid, the P.M. kept him close, appointing him to the most important portfolio in cabinet, where he heroically managed to maintain an ethically sanitary profile unique among his pork-padded peers. As in any dictatorship, though, his position was never secure, and the Borgia-like machinery of Chretien's regime turned on him this week.
Since there are precious few other stories for political journalists to cover in a political landscape where every other party has been rendered vestigial, this is big news. There's been speculation that Martin will use his dismissal from Chretien's corruption-ridden cabinet to distance himself from the regime, becoming an unofficial opposition within the party - a fantastic feat, considering how essential he's been to the Liberal imperium, but it might just work - sitting by until Chretien faces a revolt from within the ranks. It's the "Paul Martin as Charles De Gaulle" theory, and it's very appealing to political journalists who desperately need a strong light with which to illuminate what's basically a tawdry internecine power struggle.
Coverage of the jubilee has been demoted to a cover photo every other day, and two or three articles in each issue - no small potatoes, really, but a major dimunition in a country that would once have re-designed front pages with a border of union jacks, a huge official portrait, and colour coverage from all parts of the empire, with emphasis on our own stolid loyalty. There have been few, if any, pieces on the Canadian angle, mostly because there is none. The national television station has covered the celebrations with special programming, but the spectacle has overwhelmed any obeisance to the figure at the centre of the tribute. Brian May's solo guitar version of "God Save the Queen" on the roof of Buckingham palace and Ozzy Osbourne singing "Paranoid" to the Princes Royal is the story here, like any other awards show or cable music channel special concert. The Queen has been, basically, unplugged.
Even more telling, one of the three Jubilee pieces in today's Globe and Mail front section was an analysis piece of essentially republican sentiment - Ian Hunter, a professor and Malcolm Muggeridge biographer, reviewing the Jubilee spectacle and admitting alliteratively that it's "turned me from a milquetoast monarchist to a reluctant republican." He shows his age and attitude by describing the rock tributes to her majesty as an "ensuing cacaphony" and Brian May as "some nitwit on the palace roof", noting that Prince William was seen "sensibly plugging his ears." This part of the piece could have been written in 1977, or even 1957.
Appropriately, then, Hunter recalls the then-infamous 1957 Muggeridge Saturday Evening Post article, "Royal Soap Opera", which anticipated the dimunition of the royal family to overpaid players in a tawdry domestic serial, if only on the strength of its title alone. By becoming media figures, and allowing themselves to be imagined as "just one of us", the royals were effectively overstepping the limits, and destroying the necessary dignity, of a constitutional monarchy. In the wake of the Princess Margaret/Peter Townsend affair, Muggeridge was - amazingly, from today's perspective - seen as overstepping the bounds of discourse on the subject. Muggeridge was demonized for what is, today, a standard line of complaint about obsessive royal media coverage and the co-dependant relationship the Windsors have developed with the media. He was effectively blacklisted by the British media and forced to seek work in the U.S., Canada, and the rest of the vestigial Commonwealth - a move that ended up doing wonders for his international profile; I remember his almost constant presence on Canadian television as a boy, so frequent that I assumed he was Canadian.
There's an odd logic to Hunter's conversion to republicanism, even more now than when Muggeridge began questioning the uses of monarchy. Hunter infers that he would still be a "milquetoast monarchist" if the Queen and her family had maintained their aloof pose of more-than-merely-human dignity, the blank face of the near-divine, "sitting atop the social ladder". If you didn't know better, you'd think that Liz had shimmied out onto the stage at Buckingham palace and done the dirty boogie with Sir Cliff Richard before sharing a meal of doves heads with Ozzy, pumping her fist to "Snowblind". The "encommoning" of the royals has been more of a media incursion, with access to and speculation about the lives of the Windsors virtually boundless; the Queen herself, her husband, sons and daughter, still behave in public like a caricature of Victorian protestant proprietry, awkward and insular, averse to any but the briefest public displays of affection.
It's a reactionary kind of republicanism that looks backward to an era when people knew their place, even those at the top, instead of forward to a time when symbols of unearned power and tamed despotism can finally be discarded, when patience for social ladders of any sort has been exhausted and national insecurities that require spurious links to the hierarchical past can be gratefully shed. Australia stands - fretfully, if their recent referendum on the republic is any indication - on the verge of that future. It's a future we haven't reached the outskirts of yet in Canada, though it will come one day, later than sooner, but it will come.
The golden carriage will be pulled out again soon enough, probably for some royal wedding first - William or Harry, in a decade or so - and then, one day, for the funeral of the Queen, though the rawhide-tough Saxe-Coburg-Gotha constitution might see her through to a 75th Jubilee yet. They'll hit the streets again when Charles - or William or Harry - ascends to the throne, but their destination after that could be a museum somewhere, part of an interactive display, a dusty old prop more at home in little girls' Cinderella fantasies than any existing reality.
The youngest direct heirs to the throne don't look like they relish the job awaiting them, and some buzzing, restless memory of their mother might prompt rebellion, or at least a lunge at reform. The line of succession is tenuous, though, and once broken will take more effort to mend in the second or third decade of the 21st century than it did in 1837, or 1701, or 1559. By the middle of the century there will be almost no one still alive to personally remember a "finest hour", the last time the royal family still had a vital duty to perform for their people. Perhaps, then, we can finally put the ladder away, and allow ourselves to imagine a country where people allow other citizens to rule with discretion and careful, vigilant skepticism, like a real democracy, in a real world where no one family's domestic traumas are worth a whole section in a bookstore. (finished 11:33am EST | 06.05.02)
(started 06.11.02 | 08:30pm EST) MEA CULPA. A month or so ago, after four Canadian soldiers were killed by a U.S. Air National Guard pilot on a training exercise in Afghanistan, I was aghast that ANG pilots were even in Afghanistan, assuming - wrongly - that the ANG was a "weekend warrior" outfit without nearly the same amount of training as regular air force. As Steven den Beste points out, though...
There are a lot more pilots retiring from the Air Force who want to keep flying high-performance jets than there are open positions in the ANG, so the ANG can pick and choose and take only the best. And the ANG pilots are men who have literally thousands of flying hours, sometimes upwards of 2,000 in combat jets. (Most of them worked as airline pilots, as well.)
Which pretty much trashes that section of my entry, and if I had a pilot from the U.S. ANG in front of me now, I'd apologize. I'd still like to know just what the hell happened, though. The story has fallen off of the radar screen, though - I'm trying not to be the least little bit paranoid about this.
In related news, Canadian troops pulling out of Afghanistan this summer might be replaced by Romanians - the proposed deployment being offered consists of "one infantry battalion of 400 soldiers, 76 troops trained for biological and chemical warfare and 15 doctors." I'm impressed that Romania, a "poor" former Soviet bloc state struggling to overcome economic basketcase status, can field a force over half as large as that of Canada, a "wealthy" first world country theoretically able to afford a healthy standing professional military. Any Canadian will tell you, though - especially those who've served in our armed forces - that our underfunded, ill-equipped armed forces probably wouldn't stand a chance next to the small but well-supported militaries of our economic "inferiors". We'll see how it all plays out, but I'm sure that the thought is being entertained in Brussels that there are, after all, benefits to letting onetime police states into NATO. (finished 09:18pm | 06.09.02)
(started 06.11.02 | 09:19pm EST) MAN TROUBLE. Went to the doctor today, for no real reason except that it seemed like a good idea. Except for emergencies, I haven't seen a doctor probably since high school - twenty years ago. It's not as if I couldn't afford it, either. We have publicly subsidized health care up here in Canada, so I didn't have to rely on my wife's health plan. (I'm still only a contract worker here at the paper, so I'm not on their medical plan, but that should change soon.) The simple fact is that I'm afraid - terrified, actually - of doctors or, rather, what they can possibly tell me.
You're a dead man, headcheese.
It's not as if visits to the doctor were rare in my family. Quite the contrary - my mother would haul me off to the medical centre across from the church at the first hint of any malady, and check-ups with Dr. Burnie were a yearly ritual, unfortunately; she had a voice like a particularly assertive foghorn, and you could entertain yourself in the waiting room by listening to the most private details of every patient ahead of you until, of course, it struck you that everyone behind you would be just as entertained. If she were a decent doctor, it wouldn't have been so bad, but she seemed utterly unable to diagnose my mother's own increasingly dire condition until it was too late. On my own, I fled the care of doctors mostly to flee Dr. Burnie's strident, bullying bedside manner and the theatre of mortification that was her waiting room.
A visit to the doctor in the interim years was mostly done out of necessity, like the time I lopped off the tip of a finger in the film developing machine at a one-hour photo place, or when the earphones at a cramped, funky little recording studio gave me an ear infection that had the not-unpleasant sensation of making me into a sensitive listening device - I could pick up conversations across a room as acutely as one happening inches from my face; the only drawback was a tendency to fall down. A few stitches or a course of antibiotics and I'd be on my way, nevertheless certain in the knowledge that I was only forestalling the inevitable.
My wife wanted me to go, it's a simple as that, and helpfully provided me with an ad on the back of the parish bulletin for Dr. G., a family practitioner recently installed in the medical centre down the street. I put it off as long as I could, and finally made an appointment last week for today, simmering in dread the whole time.
It wasn't, ultimately, as bad as I expected, if only because the exam wasn't half as intense as it could have been. I have to go back to the medical centre for blood and urine tests this weekend, and somewhere in me a six-year old boy is cringing in anticipation of needles. Most of the session was spent talking, a "getting to know you" chat between new patient and doctor, reviewing my medical history, family history, and general lifestyle. Since everyone basically likes to talk about themselves, it was painless.
When asked about sleep, I had to admit to bouts of insomnia; asked about my work schedule, I had to describe the freelance scrounger/deskjockey lifestyle that leads to twelve-hour days and has made visits to the gym scarce. As expected, this prompted a few subtle shakes of the head and pursed lips. He probably gained my confidence when he said that two years was far too long to go between vacations, something I'm certain of myself. Recalling the ear infection, I mumbled about a suspicion that it had done some damage to one ear, and my own certainty that years in rock clubs and rehearsal rooms had definitely done something to my hearing. "We'll have to think about tests for that," he said. Of course.
Finally, though, he brought up the fact that a man in close proximity to forty should be aware of new health risks that he never imagined at twenty. "Do you snore?" he asked, and I had to admit that I did, so badly sometimes that my wife has had to sleep on the living room couch. "Do you sleep well? Do you wake up with headaches?" Lightly, I said to the former, and yes to the latter, which brought up the subject of "sleep apnea", and the possibility of a visit to a sleep lab at some point. The simmering dread, which had cooled to lukewarm, suddenly began crawling to a boil. Sleep apnea can lead to heart attacks, the doctor mentioned in passing, before bringing up the subject of various, gratefully unelaborated, types of cancer that become more probably with age.
The irony of waiting two decades before the first physical exam of my adult life is obvious enough - any problems you worried about confronting when you were younger were going to be waiting for you, increased in strength and numbers, the longer you put it off. Suddenly, they were crowded into the tiny office where I sat with Dr. G., some shamefaced and embarassed that we had to go through this, the others positively gloating, flush with self-satisfaction and "I told you so". I know they followed us into the examining room next door, and had the decency to look away when I underwent THE FIRST PROSTATE EXAM OF MY ADULT LIFE YOU REALLY CAN'T IMAGINE, a milestone of sorts that probably shouldn't be commemmorated in any way except that I just did, didn't I? Thank you for sharing, you're saying to yourself. Well, thank you. (finished 10:21pm | 06.11.02)
(started 06.12.02 | 01:58am EST) SHE LIKES IKE'S WIFE. My wife has decided that her new hero is Mamie Eisenhower, based on a quote she found by the wife of the 29th president:
"Ike runs the country and I turn the lamb chops."
I mostly just think it's cute. My wife seems to be in the thick of an ongoing battle to kill her inner hippie, and I'd rather be a bystander on this one. Still, it's nice to live with someone who dreams of wearing a picture hat while serving juleps and tea snacks to the women's auxiliary. Provided she doesn't expect me to wear a tie. (finished 02:13am | 06.12.02)
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