Arts and Letters Portrait

The unveiling at the AGM

The unveiling at the AGM

This year I was chosen by the Arts and Letters Club of Toronto to paint the portrait of Marianne Fedunkiw, 2015’s outgoing (in both senses) President. It was a great privilege because I joined a long list of notable Canadian artists, including members of the Group of Seven, who have created images of former presidents. My portrait will hang on the wall in the club’s Lounge along with the others.


Fossil Hunters by Alan King

At the site

At the site

Science fiction writer H G Wells didn’t know the half of it. Time travel sometimes takes more than just imagination and clever engineering; it can take a lot of arduous footwork, the kind that gets you up to 7,500 feet above sea level.

Unlike Wells’ lucky Time Traveller who was effortlessly zapped millions of years into the future, my son Christopher and I hiked half a billion years in the other direction to the Burgess Shale an ancient fossil bed. It’s location is a swath of scree 11 km up the side of Mount Wapta, a spectacular hunk of geology looming majestically over Field, BC.

The fossils here are from the Cambrian Explosion an era that began 542 million years ago when simple life in the sea erupted into a huge array of species, all of them vastly larger and weirder than anything that had come before. It was an extraordinary event in the earth’s history but what made it really unusual was that it was mostly soft-bodied creatures — squids, worms and cactus-like sponges — that ended up as fossils, not the usual specimens with hard shells and skeletons.

They were buried in an underwater avalanche of fine mud that sealed and preserved them so well in some cases that their inner organs are clearly visible. The mudslide took these aquatic bizarreries by surprise as they swam along the continental shelf and today, amazingly, they reside a mile and a half above sea level.

How they got there is no secret. Continental drift and plate tectonics did their slow-motion bump and grind, eventually pushing them heavenward.

But the question of why they suddenly blossomed is still a subject of fierce scientific debate. One thing’s for sure: it’s a very big deal in evolutionary history. There isn’t a biologist or palaeontologist anywhere who doesn’t know about it and isn’t mystified by it.

Discovered in 1909 by the Smithsonian director Charles Walcott while exploring on horseback (no hiking for him) it has become a mecca for geologists and palaeontologists from around the world not just for its scientific importance but because the view from the site — as well as the hike — leaves you breathless.


That’s Emerald Lake at the bottom of the valley

At the bottom of the valley lies famous Emerald Lake, whose water is so turquoise and luminous it looks like a CGI-enhanced illusion. Across the valley at eye level sparkles the glacier of Michael Peak with an outlet stream plunging into a series of astonishing cataracts.

Along the way our walk is punctuated with stops for brief lectures by Annie our guide from the Burgess Shale Geoscience Foundation (access to the site is restricted to those on guided tours). She riffs excitedly about the history of the planet, mountain building, plate tectonics, the discovery of the site and the life forms we can expect to see. And mercifully, once in a while she lets us stop to soak our feet in a cold, crystalline lake and to photograph marmots, alpine flowers and butterflies.

The last killer kilometre is a series of steep switchbacks but worth the effort. There are fossils underfoot everywhere if you know where and how to look.

Trilobites – those creatures that look like big, aquatic cockroaches — are the easiest to spot. You can also find the wonderful marella another arthopod with two elegant, swooping appendages that resemble the hood ornament on a 60’s Cadillac. If you’re very lucky you might even see the bizarre and appropriately named hallucigenia. This guy sports a worm-like body with seven pairs of legs and an equal number of long spines running along its back — part garden hose, part porcupine.

If you can’t find the precise critter you’re looking for, Annie will haul prize samples out of a permanent steel cabinet all carefully labeled. Not that everyone needs her help. The rest of the group includes a brain trust of geologists and academics who wear their knowledge as lightly as their knapsacks and happily explain who ate whom, who didn’t make the evolutionary cut and who is still around, lurking in the ocean today.


Takakkaw Falls

As it began so it ends, with a long, exhilarating trek down to the parking lot across from Takakkaw Falls, (‘It is magnificent’ in Cree) at 300 metres one of the highest waterfalls in Canada. This glacial stream bursts from the cliff face as if it has been fired from a huge water-cannon, turning into a misty rainbow near the bottom. Magnificent indeed.

Exhausted and hungry we head for dinner and a glass of wine at a restaurant in Field to ponder the origins of complex life and to toast the indisputable fact that some its secrets are revealed at one of the most beautiful places on earth.

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The Man Who Mistook His Life for a Notebook

Sacks-bodyI have a confession to make. I’ve read just about every word Oliver Sacks ever wrote and, God knows, the man wrote a lot. Yes, I know it sounds like an unhealthy interest in medical literature — borderline OCD. But it’s not like I’ve read all of Sherwin Nolan or Jerome Groopman or Atul Gawande — just Sacks. I read him endlessly, page after fascinating page.

You could think of it as a mental disorder or a ‘cerebral deficit’ if you like. My doctor certainly does. In fact he has a name for it: florid non-sackistic verbo-dysplasia. It’s a rare, somewhat  disabling affliction. There are maybe 50 people on the planet who have it and sufferers typically live only on beautiful, faraway tropical islands, hilltop Tuscan villages or have been institutionalized for decades without ever seeing the outside world.

I’m one of the lucky ones. I’ve been able to live a fairly normal life, albeit hiding my condition from friends and colleagues.

Fortunately my doctor is concerned about my welfare and happy that he can be of help. He says this is just the kind of disorder he signed up to medical school for — non-contagious, non-life-threatening, pain-free. Patients just wander about in a daze and stare vacantly at books with weird titles.

He would love to discover the source of my mysterious ailment and perhaps find a way to alleviate the symptoms. There’s also the possibility that his research might have an impact on the larger world. Understanding my condition might shed new light on the mind/brain duality and answer some very important questions about perception and consciousness. If I forgo the confidentiality and financial compensation clauses he might even write a book about me!

Since the only thing I do with my brain is read Sacks he thinks there may be another part of it that’s working overtime to compensate. He calls it neuroplasticity and he may have a point. Those parts of my brain that could’ve been thinking about Daniel Dennett or A R Luria have probably either atrophied through lack of use or developed enhanced capabilities.

And you know something? I have noticed lately that I do have some unusual abilities, usually when I’m in the grip of a powerful emotion. I’ve never studied music or played an instrument but recently I read a sentence that reeked of grandiosity and filled me with a profound sense of inadequacy — “I received a letter from W H Auden telling me my new book, Awakenings, was a ‘masterpiece’.” I suddenly found myself sitting at the piano, playing a very creditable rendition of Who Let the Dogs Out!

And then there was the time I read in the same book about someone who figured he had a photographic memory when he was a young man because he had memorized a seven-digit phone number scrawled on the wall of a phone booth. “Photographic memory”? I’ll show you a photographic memory. And in an instant I was able to memorize nine numbers in a row. Incredible!

That’s not all. Reading about someone who sat through an entire orchestra concert scribbling in his notebook I thought, ”Well I’m sure glad I wasn’t sitting next to that narcissistic nincompoop”. Then suddenly I was able to draw a vividly idiosyncratic interpretation of Munch’s The Scream on my iPad with just my little finger. Go figure!

My doctor tells me this is exactly the kind of compensatory behaviour he would expect. My brain is reconfiguring itself to deal with an insidious intruder that has robbed me of normal human consciousness.

As a first step in his treatment regime he has decided not to employ his usual course of powerful SSRIs. He wants to try something much more radical and he feels it’s necessary if I’m going to get my mind back.

Next week, he says, I’ll be starting on the complete works of Anthony Trollope.

Bach and me

Bach200I’ve been learning Bach’s Goldberg Variations recently. I know that sounds absurd. It’s the piano music Glenn Gould dazzled the music world with in 1955 and it’s famous for its technical and interpretive challenges. If you didn’t have the chops or the months or maybe years to commit, you’d have to be nuts to even try.

I’ve sight-read them over the years, learning 4 or 5 to performance level, but thought it would be too much effort to learn them all. Then I thought, well why not? At least I could say I gave it a shot.

Of course, not all the variations are finger-breakers. As well as the evocative aria and final recapitulation, there are quite a few simple, relatively non-contrapuntal bits that let you focus for a while on interpretation rather than technique.

The difficulties arise from the fact that Bach wrote them not for the piano —  which had only just been invented — but for the two-manual harpsichord. In fact he identifies which variations should be played on one keyboard and which on two.

The ones played on two have parts where the hands overlap. The right hand, normally playing alone at the top of the keyboard, suddenly heads south towards the bass clef and the left hand, normally playing alone on the other keyboard, heads north. It’s not a problem when you’re playing on a two keyboard harpsichord. But on the single keyboard of the piano the fingers can get hopelessly entangled. It’s a bit like ten people all playing hopscotch on the same patch of sidewalk at the same time. They have to land on a different square one after the other in perfect synchronicity.

This bit of fingered choreography requires a huge amount of practice and decisions have to be made about whether right should go over left or vice versa. Be assured, if you’ve heard a performance of the Goldbergs played well, the pianist had to play certain bars in the fast movements thousands of times to get them right.

One of the reasons I love them is because they were sort of Bach’s neglected step-child. They lay gathering dust for a couple of centuries, relegated to a pedagogic limbo. Then along came Gould who discovered there was gold buried in them thar Goldbergs. He dug out the nuggets, then hammered and burnished them into a string of glowing pendants.

To me they’re a microcosm of Bach’s biography. Neglected after his death, it wasn’t until the young Mendelsohn conducted a performance of the St. Matthew Passion that musicians started to take him seriously. Since then, and certainly at this moment, there isn’t a single second where Bach isn’t being performed somewhere in the world.

Part of this is a result of his almost incomprensibly huge output. Hänssler Classics put out a collection of CD’s a few years ago of his complete works — 155 disks. If you do the math it means if you put the first disk in your player on a Sunday and play them one after the other, you wouldn’t take out the last one until the following Sunday. And the amazing thing is that nearly every minute of it is worth hearing. Much of it is truly great music.

The other daunting aspect of this is that Bach probably wrote the Goldbergs in less time than it’s going to take me (or anyone else) to learn to play them.

I’d better get busy.

The Anatomist: A True Story of Gray’s Anatomy (Book review)

The AnatomistI finished reading Oliver Sacks new book On The Move: A Life this week and towards the end he writes about his late-blossoming relationship with Bill Hayes, author of The Anatomist. It reminded me that I’d written a review of it for the CMAJ. You can see why they might be drawn to one another — medicine, writing, San Francisco… 

Pity Bill Hayes, writer of the new biography of Henry Gray (The Anatomist, Ballantyne Books) the British surgeon who gave the world Gray’s Anatomy. A fitness buff,  magazine freelancer and writer of two popular medical books, Hayes noticed there had never been a biography of the writer of the world’s most famous anatomy textbook. He must have thought he heard the knock of opportunity tapping out ‘bestseller’ on his laptop. But after a few library enquiries and search engine marathons it became apparent why the book had never been written: the good doctor had left a very cold trail. There was about as much personal detail about him in the archives as there was about the anonymous cadavers laid out on the pages of his textbook.

While a few photographs of Gray survive, nearly all of his papers were lost in a fire that destroyed his publisher’s archives the year he died and a mere handful of published scientific papers grace the shelves of medical libraries. Worse, he lived a tragically short life. He died at 34 of smallpox after treating his 10-year-old nephew for the disease, meaning a potentially interesting life swept along on a wave of early fame wasn’t available to be written about.

What to do? Faced with same dilemma that bedevils biographers of Shakespeare, Hayes resorts to similar strategies to plug the gaps: he mixes personal experience with imaginative fantasies of what his subject’s life might have been like in the social and scientific context of his time — mid-19th century England.

Starting with an examination of a photograph showing Gray surrounded by his students in the pathology lab, Hayes moves quickly to its contemporary equivalent. In San Francisco he signs up for a course in anatomy at the University of California, joining medical students in performing dissections and prosections.  Much of the book is a first-person account of Hayes’ experiences in the dissection lab and his reactions mirror that of Western civilization’s conflicted relationship with post-mortem examination since Leonardo da Vinci first started hauling bodies out of the Arno. Fear is his initial reaction, then revulsion, curiosity and finally amazement and delight. In his final days at the lab he is almost gleeful as he peels back the skin and rattles off the names of the muscles attaching to the pes anserinus.

Hayes then goes to England, where he takes us along on research expeditions to Gray’s home, St. George’s Hospital in London (now a luxury hotel) and a small museum dedicated to his work.

If this were the extent of the story, this small volume might exude the faint odor of formaldehyde. Fortunately, Hayes finds another way to enliven and expand it. Gray’s Anatomy is not the product of one mind, but two. Henry Gray wrote the text. Another Henry, artist/surgeon Henry Vandyke Carter, did the woodcut illustrations. And when Dr. Carter wasn’t engraving woodblocks or wielding a scalpel in the pathology lab, he kept a diary. Little of it was about the writing and illustration of the book but it does provide a glimpse into the life of a young doctor at the school where Gray taught and insight into Victorian medical education. It also shines a light into the soul of an introspective, deeply religious young man, struggling to find a direction for his life and career.

In many ways it’s the most interesting part. As Hayes points out, ”The sprawling paper trail left behind by H.V. Carter would lead me… into the troubled heart of a gifted man of science.” It’s easy to forget in a secular age that 150 years ago the best science was being carried out by researchers who held strongly to the traditions of mainstream Christianity. Confronted, as Carter was, with the wondrous mechanics of the human body, he struggled to find a philosophy that reconciled scientific practicality with religious belief.

His relationship with Gray was far less burdensome than the one with God.  As a student four years behind the gifted, fast-tracked Gray, he expressed an admiration that verged on awe. By the time Gray was twenty he was already the equivalent of an MD, by twenty-five, a Fellow of the Royal Society and head of the anatomy museum. In a burst of intense activity that lasted a year and a half these two young men produced the magnificent volume that turned  the interior of the human body into a work of art and the learning of its parts into a pleasurable ordeal. It became the standard reference manual for generations of medical students. The irony is that Henry Gray whose name is forever identified with it, is a near total mystery. The artist, Henry Carter, whose name is all but forgotten, left a fleeting but penetrating sketch for us to remember him by.

Ron Bolt, artist

For the past little while I’ve been co-chair of the Art Committee at the Arts and Letters Club here in Toronto. This month there’s a one-man show by Ron Bolt, a renowned landscape painter and print-maker. If you want to see the show, call me and we can do a walk through. At the opening night dinner I introduced him with the following:


Evening Surf by Ron Bolt

Evening Surf by Ron Bolt

I want to begin this introduction with a quote from Alain de Botton, a British author who writes about the modern world. It expresses today’s conventional wisdom. I’ve changed the tense but it goes something like this,

“But then came a transformation to which we are still the heirs…. Over the course of the nineteenth century, the dominant catalyst for that feeling of the sublime has ceased to be nature. We are now deep in the era of the technological sublime, when awe can most powerfully be invoked not by forests or icebergs but by supercomputers, rockets and particle accelerators. We are now almost exclusively amazed by ourselves.” Amazed by ourselves…

I think Ron Bolt might disagree with that sentiment and looking around this exhibition I see a powerful rebuke to that notion.

You’ll notice that there are few human figures in his work. Ron doesn’t seem to be terribly amazed by modern humanity or in the thrall of technology. What he is amazed by is the gift of the natural world. He will take a patch of Canadian wilderness or rugged shoreline and transform it into something akin to a religious icon — an exquisitely constructed object that mainlines the viewer right to the emotional core of its subject matter.

There’s a lot of discussion these days about ‘mindfulness’, about heightening one’s awareness of the world around us. Ron Bolt does that and more. He directs our attention to the sacred places on our planet and hopes that our attention will not only give us aesthetic and spiritual sustenance but perhaps help to protect these places from exploitation.

I won’t list the scores of awards and honours he has received over the years. I’ll just mention that this is just one of 100 one-man shows he has had in a 50 year career. His paintings, prints and limited edition books are in the collections of public galleries and libraries across Canada. He has collaborated on books with some of the finest writers in the country. And he has played a prominent role in the development of a positive work environment for Canadian visual artists, serving as president both of the Royal Academy of the Arts and the Society of Canadian Artists, among other roles.

And just as a by the way, he’s also a fine pianist and, for an artist, an exceptionally modest person. I asked him at lunch on Friday whether he still played. He said, ‘Yes, once in a while. I’ll fumble my way through something.’ Then, before people showed up for the Sunday Opening he sat down at the Steinway and gave a note-perfect rendition of some very difficult Albeniz.

The fact that he can make the very difficult look easy doesn’t mean that he is amazed by himself. Far from it. He works hard to produce works that are brilliantly crafted, unmistakably his own and that connect us to the miraculous beauty of our planet. It’s left to us to be amazed…. Please welcome Ron Bolt.

The Invention of Scotland by Hugh Trevor-Roper (Book Review)

by Alan King

British historian Hugh Trevor-Roper seems to have had a lifelong fascination with fakes and fraudsters. The first book of his to reach beyond an academic readership was his 1976 exposé of Sir Edmund Backhouse, the turn-of-the-century sinologist who was regarded as an expert on the Chinese Empress Dowager and her court. Trevor-Roper revealed that the court diary Backhouse relied on was actually a forged document. A well-written, fascinating chronicle. Unfortunately, hardly a word of it was true.

The posthumous publication of Trevor-Roper’s correspondence with Bernard Berenson shone a light on his relationship with the famous scholar/entrepreneur who made a fortune authenticating, then selling Renaissance paintings to rich Americans. A number of those paintings were later found to be wrongly attributed but coincidentally boosted the commissions for Berenson who worked with the dealer, Joseph Duveen. Trevor-Roper could hardly have been unaware of Berenson’s unsavory record.

Then, of course, there were the Hitler diaries. In 1983, as a director of the London Times, he authenticated the hand-written notebooks when they appeared out of nowhere and was forced to make a hasty reversal when they were proven, conclusively, to be fakes. For the Master of Peterhouse, Cambridge, aka Baron Dacre of Glanton, it must have been a humiliating climb-down.

Now his interest in deception seems to have followed him to the grave. An enterprising editor, Jeremy Cater, has fine-tuned a manuscript about the history of Scotland that Trevor-Roper had left not quite finished a few years before his death. Though incomplete, there was still enough material to  challenge many of the country’s most cherished beliefs. He felt that much of what the Scots thought they knew about their history was untrue or wildly embellished – a fraud, in other words.

He made no secret of his reasons. A vociferous opponent of Scottish independence, he began writing the book during the resurgence of the independence movement during the 1970’s. He felt that Scotland owed much of its success to its commercial and intellectual ties to England. His opinion of pre-unification Scotland was that it had been a backwater and feared it would slip back if it severed its ties to Westminster. An icy dip in the turbulent waters of Scottish history might be just the thing to bring the Scots to their senses.

His first splash of reality is a reminder that the first people to use the name ‘Scots’ were actually Irish. Sometime after the Romans abandoned Britain in 410 AD, a group of Irish raiders set up a ‘petty kingdom’ in the north west of Scotland called Dariada. Over the next five centuries they fought intermittently with the long-established Picts whom they eventually came to dominate. “The result” says Trevor-Roper, “was that the Irish Scots, from a small original colony in a corner of Argyll, succeeded in imposing their name, customs, and their language upon the more ancient and numerous people inhabiting the rest of the country.”

Like the Germans, the Scots harkened back to early fables of warrior kings to reinforce their sense of identity and as psychological compensation for defeat on the battlefield. The consequences of this imaginative rationalization were obviously much more benign for the Scots. In the 18th century one of those myths was given life in the romantic poetry of Ossian, who, according to his discoverer, James Macpherson, was a wandering bard who recorded the noble exploits of the great highland chieftains back in the mist-shrouded centuries before Christ. The original fragments of Celtic poetry from which the poems were translated never seemed to be at hand when Macpherson was asked for proof, but that didn’t stop the brilliant minds of the Edinburgh Enlightenment from being swept along by its Scot-affirming message.

No less than David Hume was caught up in the fever. And he was far from alone; incredibly, much of France was in its thrall as well. Massive murals depicting scenes from the poems decorated Napoleon’s Malmaison chateau.

Trevor-Roper tracks down all the extant sources – diaries, letters, Highland Society records – and concludes it was about as authentic as Japanese Glenfidditch. James Macpherson did own a few fragments of early Celtic poetry but the Ossian epics could really only have been written by one person – James Macpherson himself.

As the Scots’ fascination with Ossian faded it was quickly replaced with another history-burnishing fiction. This time, a sartorial myth. The story of the kilt is an oft-told tale but Trevor-Roper treats it with a sympathetic understanding of the psychological currents that swirl beneath national character. The tartaned kilt was essentially invented, woven and marketed by Thomas Rawlinson, an English Quaker from Lancashire. Far from being the ancient Caledonian dress, it didn’t make an appearance in Scotland until the 1730’s.

But the myth was a useful one. It served to unify highland and lowland Scotland. It was “a process whereby the customs and costumes of the Scottish Highlanders, previously despised as barbarous, and at one time formally extinguished, were resumed, elaborated and extended.” It was a fraud, yes, but one that Trevor-Roper was, and the rest of us, are quite happy to live with.