Several years ago, teaching a high school course in Canadian history, I had the shock of finding in a text book a picture that included me. It was of the front of an anti-cruise missile testing demonstration, a reprint of a photo that had appeared in MacLean’s magazine. It struck home that events I still felt were alive and recent were in fact far away in history. What helped to give shape and meaning to my life was no longer living but in some sense a fossil.
I suspect that what I felt wasn’t unique. It is a common middle-aged phenomenon. The Statler Brothers, in their song ‘The Class of ‘57’ dealt with a group of middle aged people through brief descriptions of their current life with the refrain:
“And the class of ’57 had its dreams,
Oh, we all thought we’d change the world with our great works and deeds.
Or maybe we just thought the world would change to fit our needs,
The class of ’57 had its dreams.”
In a different way, June Carter Cash, in the song ‘I used to be Somebody’, looked back on her life in Greenwich Village in the 1950s. One gets the sense that she was rooted firmly in a present moment somewhere in the past, and particularly in the refrain:
I used to be somebody, Lord, I used to have a friend.
I’d like to be somebody again.
I used to be somebody, but Lord, where have I been?
I ain’t never going to see
(James Dean; Elvis; Patsy Cline; Hank Williams) again.
As we age and look back, perhaps nostalgia for the past is a dominant feeling. But also, I suspect, we start to wonder if we have disappeared from life. Are we truly ephemeral? Or has someone noticed us and tried to move us into the future?
In the last few years I have come across a few books that mentioned me. My review of one of them, Ann Hansen’s Direct Action, was fairly widely published (and follows in this post). Neil Carson’s Harlequin in Hogtown and John Clearwater’s Just Dummies are two others (and reviews of them will be included later in this post). In finding my name, I felt myself becoming more real. In none of the books am I key participant, but yet I exist somewhere beyond myself. Thanks to authors and publishers and libraries and Project Gutenberg and other initiatives the tapestry I’m a part of is wider than my physical existence.
I know that even with my name on the pages of a book much of my existence will disappear from human knowledge over time. It’s a postponement of oblivion in this world. Even the postponement is only partial—knowing a name isn’t the same as knowing the person.
But there is something comforting and sustaining in knowing that a generation or two down the world a graduate student will likely come across my name and wonder about the person once described by it.
Reviewed by Brian Burch
(this review appeared in a number of places including Direct Action and Organise! For Revolutionary Anarchism)
No matter what has happened in the last twenty years, the defining moment of my political activist career was the bombing of Litton Industries. Its plant, in north west Toronto, was where Canadian complicity in the arms race was more publicly revealed. In the factory on City View Drive Canadian tax dollars were subsidising the production of the guidance system for the American air launched cruise missile. For years, the Cruise Missile Conversion Project and various local expressions of the Alliance for Non-violent Action, persistently and non-violently attempted to end this expression of Canadian involvement in the arms race. In the fall of 1982 there was a rupture, an upheaval in the resistance to manufacturing the tools of war—a bomb went off at Litton Industries, a bombing that the group Direct Action took responsibility for.
The police took this opportunity to go after peace activists. Our homes and offices were raided. People were picked up off the street or out of movie theatres for questioning. False charges were laid to pressure people to name names. It was a fearful and formative time, one that is hard to realise was 20 years ago.
Ann Hansen was one of the members of Direct Action. Her book is a slightly fictionalised account of the history of Direct Action and the political realities of the late 1970s and early 1980s.
Reading Direct Action, one gets a hint of Emma Goldman’s Living My Life. There is a strong, personal narrative linked to a broader world of movements for positive and compassionate social transformation. Created conversations between known activists, sections that are almost a diary in nature, parts that are close to a newspaper feature in balanced detail—Direct Action is a structurally complex work. Finding out that Ann Hansen had not read Living My Life was a surprise. None-the-less, Direct Action is in the tradition of Living My Life—an open reflection on personal experiences living in a revolutionary milieu.
I shall confess that my first time reading through the work, my first intent was to see if I was mentioned by name—and I was. While I was amused at the use of a possible conversation between myself and Len Desroches to indicate some of the different responses to the Litton Bombing within the peace community, what struck home the most was the short retelling of the incident of being picked up by police who were driving an unmarked car. This is, to me, symbolic of one of the less talked about realities in the aftermath of the bombing of Litton—the effects on the lives of people unconnected to the bombing. For about 2 years there was a strong sense of fear in the lives of a number of activists wondering about what will happen next—who will have their home raided? Who will face a series of harassing charges? Will one of us be charged because the police need to charge someone? Our partners and families faced harassment as well. There was no indication in the book that this impact—that the fallout of the bombing would cause harm to the lives of people far removed from the action—had been considered by any of the participants. I would have liked to see that, partly because I know through correspondence with the 5 while they were in prison that all of them were genuinely concerned about the victims of the police actions that arose in the aftermath of the bombings.
What is revealed throughout the book is a real militant compassion. Ann Hansen is good at portraying the range of issues that the five participants in Direct Action had attempted to address. There was not a sudden leap from a desire for social change to a participation in urban guerrilla warfare. Rather, we are invited to share in a process that helps to reveal why people who were deeply committed to a just and ecologically sound world would accept the risks of both their freedom and lives and the lives of others as a step towards their ideals bearing fruit.
Some of the biographical details of Ann Hansen were a surprise. The tapestry of relationships she was a part of was quite complex. Some were intensely emotional; indicating a capacity for love that I think also underlies her own willingness to take major personal risks in order to make life better for others.
The practical details of how the various actions were done, from the fire bombing of Red Hot Video to the bombing of the Dunsmuir site to armed robberies, don’t indicate a romanticised view of armed struggle or sabotage. Rather, they are pragmatic and to a great extent background details to the story of the Vancouver 5/Squamish Five/Direct Action/Wimmin’s Fire Brigade from Ann Hansen’s personal perspective.
While Direct Action is a personal statement, it is also an historical document. 20 years ago, revolution was not merely an advertising concept. Like in the period when the Weather Underground arose, there were massive and public demands for radical social transformation. In Nicaragua and El Salvador there were massive, popular revolts against U.S. backed regimes. In Canada leaders of unions and churches were participating in demonstrations that were definitively anti-capitalist and anti-militarist. There was enthusiasm as victories could be pointed to—such as reproductive freedom—that had been run through mass, non-violent resistance to unjust laws. So if there were roadblocks to change, was it unreasonable to want to remove the roadblocks? If there was immediate harm going to occur—such as building weapons for the U.S. military or destroying the ecosystem or exploiting women’s sexuality—was it unreasonable for people to try and sabotage the actual places where harm was occurring?
Direct Action looks at this reality and helps to question it. In the light of a strong anti-globalisation movement and the U.S. response to the events of September 11th, I think that this is an essential book to read and reflect upon. We are in a world where the police have recently been given extreme powers to crack down on dissent. If nothing else, this book will encourage serious thought about how to effectively resist while considering the consequences of resistance.
DIRECT ACTION: MEMOIRS OF AN URBAN GUERRILLA
493 pp. paper
2001 – Between the Lines
2002 – AK Press Distribution
Between the Lines
720 Bathurst St., Suite 404
AK Press Distribution
674-A 23rd St
Harlequin in Hogtown
Reviewed by Brian Burch
Growing up in the Sault was like living in a theatre paradise. People would leave Algoma Steel at the end of their shift and a few hours later be performing in opera, or a musical or a drama. The Sault Opera Society, Sault Musical Comedy Guild, Cathedral Players, Theatre Algoma, Sault Theatre Workshop…The Magic Flute; End Game; The Music Man; A Man for All Seasons; Oh! What a Lovely War; Charlie’s Aunt; Maybe We Can Get Some Bach; Madwoman of Chaillot; Rumplestiltskin; A Midsummer Night’s Dream; Marat/Sade; The Mikado; Teacher Thomas…traditional plays and theatre of the absurd were all a part of what the community as whole found ways to bring to life. And we were close enough to be exposed to new directions in Canadian theatre—10 Lost Years, Road to Charlottetown…
It is therefore hard for me to realize what the theatre world in Canada was like before George Luscombe and Toronto Workshop Productions. My exposure to the Ontario theatre world of the 70s (including Ontario Youtheatre in ’72; Niagara College Theatre Centre 74 – 76; The Artist in Community Programme and B.Ed. with drama as a teaching subject) in the Faculty of Education, Queen’s University 1980 – 81) was exciting for me but what had once been revolutionary was already the norm. And what really helped to make this transition possible was the Toronto Workshop Productions and George Luscombe in particular.
My connection to TWP was limited to being a lighting technician with a company that rented space there one summer and as a reviewer of one production—The Wobbly—for the Toronto Clarion. This was enough to make me feel an ongoing interest in the company and for Harlequin in Hogtown to attract my attention when I saw it on a friend’s bookshelf. It was more than a co-incidence for me to open it at random and find my name in it—at an excerpt from the review of The Wobbly I wrote long ago.
I obtained a copy for myself, wanting to get a clearer picture of the world that I once floated in. I was particularly interested in learning more about the linkage between creative and political struggle that was a real part of what motivated Luscombe for his many decades of work. What I found was both a history of a moment in the development of a Canadian theatre and a biography of a person who I may not have liked if we had to work together was one whose work I truly admire.
For Luscombe, and the core of those involved in TWP over the years, theatre had to grab the attention of the audience as a way to open up the possibilities of a new world. Theatre and socialism were to be woven together. What appeared on stage was to be rooted in the lives of the world outside the theatre, not in order for the stage to hold a realistic mirror up to the audience so much as to encourage the audience to become iconoclasts. Harlequin in Hogtown details how this idea came to life, first in the experience of Luscombe in moving from Toronto to the United Kingdom and back again, and then in an exploration on how the idealistic person formed by working with those such as Joan Littlewood and Ewan MacColl, brought this vision to collective life.
It is an honest work—it touches on both the successes and ultimate crisis and failure of TWP. Luscombe is shown to be both visionary and a not too likeable person , traits which both contributed to the unique nature of TWP and also to its ultimate failure.
What I enjoyed most about the work was description of the creative processes involved in the development of plays produced by TWP. Its first productions were existing works, but quickly TWP began to collaboratively rework existing scripts—Lysistrata became And They’ll Make Peace—and to work on completely original collaborative efforts. Hey Rube!, for example, started from physical exercises in clowning, acrobatics and other circus acts. Even when not taking explicitly political stands, TWP’s work explored, challenged and confronted issues of class and race, and to a much lesser extent gender, with a European Marxist underpinning. TWP, except for the brief period towards its end after the purging of Luscombe from the company, maintained this core ideological underpinning from its beginnings, when it was rare to link ideology and spectacle in theatre intended for a broader audience, through the period in the late 60s and early 70s, when a number of companies mounted both collaborative productions and political works, to the late 1980s when TWP was again unique in its vision.
Harlequin in Hogtown has woven into its pages something often forgotten or overlooked—the role of critics in the nurturing and promoting of theatrical visions. There was a degree of interaction between critics and TWP I wasn’t previously conscious of. On behalf of the Toronto Clarion I did attend rehearsals of The Wobbly and its production run—but I had thought this was fairly unique and attributed it partly to my membership in the Industrial Workers of the World (the Wobblies). Nathan Cohen and Herbert Whittaker both critiqued and encouraged TWP, helping to expand the base of an informed theatre community. It wasn’t only those directly involved in a production that helped to transform the nature of theatre in Toronto—it was also those in the mainstream media who pushed for and promoted an new definitively Canadian theatre. And, as the majority of new voices in Canadian theatre had a left nationalist perspective which was reflected in their plays, getting people into theatre seats in the 1960s and 1970s meant exposing them to a critique of dominant values.
I was shocked at the way TWP ended. Similar companies that arose around the vision of one dominant person folded or transformed themselves. This didn’t happen with TWP—rather a combination of funding crisis and the takeover of the company by those who opposed the Marxist vision of Luscombe lead directly to the end of the company. Pressures from local property developers exasperated the problem. What hurt me was a realisation that something more than a theatre company had ended. With the demise of TWP was the effective dismantling of a vision of art as a disciplined way to challenge society. In a way different from agit-prop theatre and radical individualist statements, what TWP attempted was in a collective, focused way to promote a manifesto in a campaign that lasted more than a generation. Other companies tried this for a play or a season; TWP started at the end of the 1950s and finished as the 1980s ran down.
TWP was a part of the world I grew up. On its stage, in productions such as Che!, Chicago ’70, You Can’t Get There From Here and Jail Diary of Albert Sachs, we were provided a lens through which one could interpret the world shown in the news. Its going has left a permanent hole in the theatre world of Toronto. (I saw a production of The Threepenny Opera relatively recently which managed to mount a production that eliminated the Marxist underpinning of Brecht’s work, something that TWP would never have done). It has also left the left weaker; creating a new world has to include a way of bringing a class analysis to vividly to life.
HARLEQUIN IN HOGTOWN:
GEORGE LUSCOMBE AND TORONTO WORKSHOP PRODUCTIONS
ISBN 8-8020-7633-5 (paper)
ISBN 0-8020-0680-9 (bound)
University of Toronto Press
10 St Mary Street, Suite 700,
Toronto, ON M4Y 2W8
Reviewed by Brian Burch
For a while when I first moved to Toronto I was a professional dissident, paid to work for organisations such as The Against Cruise Testing Coalition and the Cruise Missile Conversion Project. As such I was intimately involved in the work to challenge Canada’s involvement in the production of components for, and the testing of, U.S cruise missiles. From dealing with the media to filing correspondence to sitting in jail cells, saying NO! to Canadian involvement in the escalation of the arms race during the final years of the cold war occupied years of my life. This showed in many ways, but was brought close to home when my wife was woken up one night by my suddenly sitting up in bed, still definitively asleep, to proclaim “We need a more efficient phone tree”, a week or so before a major demonstration against cruise missile testing.
Just Dummies looks at the historic involvement by Canada in the U.S. military priorities, most explicitly in support to the arms industry and military testing; the way that successive Canadian governments beginning with the Liberals under Trudeau and continuing through both Conservative and Liberal governments; have responded to U.S. calls for direct and indirect Canadian support for initiatives such as the air launched cruise missile; and the growth and ebbing of public opposition to Canada’s involvement in the arms race, specifically around the cruise missile.
There is one specific mention of me in this book, in relation to a protest at Griffiss Airforce Base. Egotistically, I would have liked more than one mention. My involvement with the Griffiss Airforce Base protest was minimal. I was much more involved with organising demonstrations in Toronto, leafleting at Litton Industries, participating in the Queen’s Park Peace Camp, taking part in civil disobedience campaigns, etc. The police harassment I faced was as a result of my Toronto efforts, not the less intense involvement I had with the peace movement when I lived in Kingston.
However, there is substantial attention paid to groups I was a part of and individuals I worked with for years. It is fascinating to read about the vast numbers of people who took part in opposition to Canada’s involvement with the cruise missile. It was a cause supported (according to most opinion poles) by the majority of Canadians. From the heads of the largest Canadian churches to veterans groups to labour unions to bicycle clubs, it was hard to find a voice that was not in opposition to Canada’s involvement with this new generation of weapons delivery systems.
Whenever I read of a cruise missile used against a village in Afghanistan, I think of the time decades ago when many argued that the ultimate intent of the cruise missile wasn’t as a deterrent against the U.S.S.R. but for use against third world opponents of U.S. interests. I don’t know what more we could have done—everything from petitions to court challenges to election campaigns to mass demonstrations to civil disobedience to political violence was taken up by various opponents of Canada’s involvement with cruise missiles, ultimately unsuccessfully as the various governments of Canada put U.S. interests ahead of Canadian voices of opposition.
What is most important in Clearwater book is the well documented exploration as to why and how various Canadian government’s justified to themselves and to Canadians the use of Canadian resources in support of U.S. militarism. While primarily focused on the testing of the air launched cruise missile, Just Dummies touches on other areas where U.S. military interests were and are aided by Canada. Contradictions between government statements and reality are shown in context, helping to develop the perspective that when the U.S. calls upon Canadian government for direct aid for U.S. military interests Canada responds positively. Indeed, it was pointed out that there is no evidence that Canada has ever turned down a U.S. request to test military equipment in Canada.
There are minor flaws with the book—not in terms of what is based on government documents, but in dealing with the opposition to cruise missile testing which can be annoying to those of us who are aging activists. As examples, Karen Harrison was a participant in “The International Fast for Life”, not “Fast for Peace”, and it was Angela Browning, not Angela Brown, who was the main organiser of the early Against Cruise Testing Coalition protests. Similar flaws don’t occur in the sections based directly on government documents dealing with government actions and agreements. One hopes that these errors weren’t in the RCMP files Clearwater obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests.
Just Dummies is very important in the revelation of Canada’s role in the development and escalation of the arms race, during the cold war period, and its continued role in supporting the development of new generations of weapons which the U.S. has been using in its invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. Many in Canada see Canada as having a history of peacemaking. Such a reputation is nice to have, but in reality Canada has been intimately involved in supporting U.S. military interests to the detriment of Canadian sovereignty for decades. Testing of the air launched cruise missile is one visible sign of this role that Canada has. From storing nuclear weapons at Canadian military sites to NORAD agreements in support of new missile defence initiatives, Canada has shown that what ever party is in power it is a serious supporter of war, and particular U.S. military interests, and not a nation of peacemakers.
Canada’s role in the arms race can be seen today wherever the U.S. military is present. Clearwater’s book brings this point home clearly and directly. It is a challenge to those of in Canada who want a world free from war to look at ways of bringing our opposition home. There will be consequences to attempting to assert sovereignty and an opposition to U.S. military interests, but every time a cruise missile is launched our hands are involved. If we are ever to get to a world where missiles aren’t launched, we do need to start somewhere.
CRUISE MISSILE TESTING IN CANADA
University of Calgary Press
2500 University Drive N.W.
Calgary, Alberta, Canada T2N 1N4