I have a little problem …

I’m a hoarder. I admit it.  I don’t have cupboards full of stacked margarine tubs from the ’80s, or garbage bags full of holy orphaned socks, chipped mugs or birthday cards  from friends I no longer even know. I’m selective in my obsession. It’s books that I just can’t seem to part with.

Once, there was a forced cull. I can’t blame Kim, really. She was the one who schlepped most of my books to their current home – my office on the third floor –having schlepped them there from their former home, in another office, on another third floor. This earned her the right to say enough one day, when I arrived with stacks “rescued” from my brother-in-law in North Bay. (He too, has a little problem). Also, Kim built my bookcase. It was a birthday present one year. I went away for a weekend, and when I came back, she surprised me with this wall-to-wall bookcase in my office. Let me repeat: She built it, alone, in a weekend. Yes, I married wonder woman.

So Kim gets a say when things get out of hand. The first time it was painful. What if, one day, I needed all three of my copies of Twelfth Night? I’m not too sure how I ended up with three. Granted, one was my mother’s teaching copy with her cramped notes filling the margins. That’s the one I opted to keep. My point is, it was a thin play, and by my losing two copies of it, the emotional wrench equated to barely a dent in the pile still to be sorted. I managed, with Kim’s help, to get it under control. But that was years ago, and the books kept piling up.

Yesterday, I undertook another cull, in anticipation of my problem soon getting completely out of control. This time, it was my collection of magazines that got the boot. Sorry Toronto Life, but I just don’t need any of you from 2005. It actually felt good to make a little wiggle room on the shelves. But it won’t last long. I know I’m an addict. And it doesn’t help that my friends are enablers. Mel, for instance, made this for me and enclosed a gift card  for York’s bookstore. David and Jen are equally to blame, giving me the superb two-volume collection Reporting WWII. Stacks are growing, beside the bed, in the living room. There are even accretions forming in the kitchen. A copy of John Keegan’s Intelligence in War was recently bespattered by pasta sauce. Oh well. Like I said, I have a little problem.


It’s been 68 years since Operation Overlord. Yesterday, I thought it fitting to re-read Ted Barris’s Juno. I had forgotten how good it was.

I had forgotten details like, on the night of June 5, a BBC newscast was interrupted with reports containing the phrases “Eileen is married to Jo….It is hot in Suez….The compass points north….The dice are on the table.” Those words signalled the French Resistance to start blowing up specific infrastructure targets because the invasion was imminent.

I had forgotten that some Canadians had unusual and dangerous jobs to do leading up to D-Day, like the brave souls manning two X-Craft midget submarines off the coast of France, waiting to guide the first landing craft to the beach. The weather delay meant the five men in each vessel risked asphyxiation.

I had forgotten the grim detail of how many Canadian mothers lost more than one son: nine pairs of brothers and three brothers from one family, The Westlakes, were all killed in the Normandy campaign.

I had forgotten.



Ode to a Former Naval Person

One summer, a few years ago, I decided to read all six volumes of Churchill’s take on WWII. Why, is what most people want to know. I’m not sure. I like to set myself epic tasks. I think I had just read War and Peace and was feeling smug. Anyway, I spent many, many hours in the garden with one of these thick, red-linen bound, first run books at my side. And I got through them all, from The Gathering Storm to Triumph and Tragedy. I knew then that as far as history goes, I had to take in quite a bit of these 1948 – 1953 tomes with the salt shaker on hand. Case in point:

Winston Churchill began his career as a journalist in the South African War where he was a special correspondent to The Morning Post. I use the term journalist loosely. Churchill was never prone to letting the facts get in the way of a good story. In his autobiography My Early Life, he claims to have been a witness to one of the most famous handshakes of the era, between Sir George White and Lt.-Col Hubert Gough after he rode in with troops to relieve Ladysmith in 1900.

“[We] galloped across the scrub-dotted plain, fired at only by a couple of Boer guns. Suddenly from the brushwood up rose gaunt figures waving hands of welcome. On we pressed, and at the end of a battered street of tin-roofed houses met Sir George White on horse-back, faultlessly attired. Then we rode all together into the long beleaguered, almost starved-out Ladysmith.”  In fact, Churchill was miles away, and didn’t arrive in Ladysmith until the evening. (A delightful Churchillian tid-bit I learned from reading Thomas Pakenham’s The Boer War.)

This doesn’t make me admire Churchill any less, although, as someone who teaches journalism students the importance of fact checking and telling the truth, it should. But this is Churchill. For me, he was always larger than life. I had long been fascinated by The First Lord of the Admiralty who signed his letters to FDR ‘Former Naval Person,’ and who delighted in writing KBO to the wartime president of the United States. (Keep Buggering On).


And like everyone, I’m still moved by Churchill’s speeches – particularly his famous address to parliament, thanking the RAF during the Battle of Britain, delivered at a time when England was bracing for possible invasion without American support. Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few

He did so much in his long life, certainly not all of it good. This was the man who, as First Lord of the Admiralty,  was responsible for the decimation of Anzac troops at  Gallipoli in 1915, a disaster than nearly cost him his political career. He was widely considered to be an eccentric old fart for calling on re-armament in the post WWI years. Always a prolific writer, then painter, who probably suffered from depression ( he referred to it as The Black Dog), he was such a wonderful contradiction. I think that’s what I find most compelling about him.

The ashtray, incidentally, was given to me by my Aunt Rene, who proudly served in WWII in the Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS) and who knows, first-hand, a hell of a lot more about Churchill than I do. I treasure the ashtray, and smile to think that at one time, people crushed out their butts into his Keep Buggering On smile.