Let Us Remember

My mother’s father came to Canada from Ireland. In Winnipeg, he joined the militia. When war broke out, he volunteered. In 1915, he went into the trenches as a machine gunner and sniper. He survived some of WWI’s major battles but was gassed.

After medical leave for being gassed, he was sent back into the trenches. During a battle, shrapnel ripped through his right hand.  He was bandaged but infection set in so he was invalided out to England. There were no antibiotics in those days. Infection wards crammed with soldiers were common. At the end of the war, he was still sick with infection. He was shipped to Montreal and stayed in a hospital there until the infection was cured.

He had risked everything for King and country. For the rest of his life he suffered from the damage done to his lungs. Back in Winnipeg, he spent a lifetime working for the Great Northern Railway. He couldn’t afford a car and rode his bicycle to work summer and winter. In the cold weather, he sometimes could not breathe and my grandmother told me, he crawled through the snow.

I asked him once, when I was a child, had he killed anyone in the war. “Thousands,” he replied and would say no more. Machine gunners laid down enfilade and slaughtered German troops as they struggled through the mud of No Man’s Land. When the Canadians attacked, the Germans did the same.

He and his companions seldom talked about the war. It was too disturbing. Once, he told me about a young replacement from Saskatchewan. A farm boy. Nervous, curious. He kept putting his head above the trench to see what was happening. He was told not to but did it anyway. A sniper shot him. He arrived in the morning and was dead by evening.

My grandfather had no use for stupid comments from civilians. It wasn’t returned soldiers that made ignorant statements about the Germans. It was the civilians who had risked little or nothing, in many cases, civilians who had grown prosperous on the war. He had no patience for the stupidity of romanticizing the war. There was nothing romantic about trenches deep in water, trenches where the rats were so thick, feeding on the dead, that the soldiers used to entertain themselves by trying to bayonet them. One Christmas, the senior officers dined off fine china and crystal, had a real Christmas meal, while the soldiers ate tinned meat and strawberry jam. They were down to nine bullets per man. He remembered these details with bitterness.

He’d met my grandmother when he was on leave in Ireland. He’d taken a fancy to her and wrote, asking her to come to Canada and marry him. She wrote back and said that her mother was dying of cancer and she was looking after her. However, once her mother died, she’d come to marry him.

She came, they got married, they bought a house. His wages got cut, then cut again, then cut again. It was brutal. The boss would show up and say, “We’re cutting your wages and if you don’t like it, get down the track. There are a hundred men who want your job.”

Finally, he couldn’t pay the mortgage. The bank foreclosed. When the foreclosure notice came, it was delivered by one of the soldiers he’d served with in France.

 

“How can you do this?” he asked. “We fought together. We were comrades in arms.”

His former comrade said, “Bill, what can I do. I have a wife and kids. If I don’t deliver this notice, I’ll be fired.”

If my grandfather had retreated during battle, one of the officers coming behind would have shot him. He would have been called a coward. He would have been condemned by politicians and civilians who risked nothing. Thousands upon thousands of men died in the trenches where he fought. Death came from every direction. Men were killed by the body parts of their friends who were blown up by exploding shells.

The politicians and the senior army officers had no mercy, not just for the Germans, but for their own soldiers. No mercy. It didn’t matter how many men died in an attack, a thousand, ten thousand, a hundred thousand. It didn’t matter that they drowned in the mud and water. That they died coughing their lungs out after breathing mustard gas. They were expendable.

It didn’t matter that they’d risked everything, their limbs, their lives, their sanity. When they got back to Canada, they didn’t matter. They were no longer an asset. They were a liability. They needed things like medical attention, jobs, things that cost the taxpayers money, and that could cost the politicians votes.

I am proud of my grandfather. He was brave. I am proud of the other members of my family that served in the war. But Stephan G Stephansson was right. It was a slaughter house. Only someone incredibly stupid could think it wasn’t. He was also right about the war memorial he opposed. He said collect the money, give it to the soldiers who are returning. Help them deal with their personal cost in the war, their ruined bodies, their ruined minds. Statues are about glory. My grandfather didn’t think there was any glory in the mass slaughter in which he participated.

What he would have appreciated was the bank saying, he’s a returned veteran. He risked everything. He nearly lost his life. He is handicapped by the injuries he received. We’ll do whatever is necessary to see that he gets to keep his house. Or, the government that was prepared to send its young men to their deaths, to step forward and help pay the mortgage. Or, the community, in an act of appreciation for the courage and sacrifice of its soldiers, to raise money and donate it to see that returned soldiers received as much as they had given.

Statues, by their very existence, imply that there is glory in war. There is no glory. There is no glory in having your body torn apart by explosions. Your limbs blown off. There is no glory in being shot and lying in the mud, dying. There’s no glory in being burned to death by a flame thrower or in a tank. There’s no glory in drowning in the mud. Whisper into a young man’s ear, a young man drowning in the mud, this is glorious. I dare you.

After WWI ended, there was a conflict in the Icelandic North American community. Some people wanted to raise money to build a memorial to the soldiers from the Iceland NA community. They were opposed by the poet, Stephan G Stephansson. All through the war he had written poems opposed to the war. The argument had grown so bitter that a member of the Icelandic Manitoba community had wanted him charged with treason. Now, that conflict was resurrected with the argument over the building of a monument.  Those proposing the monument wanted to honour the soldiers from their ethnic community. Stephansson had a different vision.

In Wakeful Nights, Viðar Hreinsson´s biography of Stephan G. Stephansson, he tells us that Stephan, after the war was over, thought “What was important…was the welfare of the living – the returned soldiers and their famlies. The soldiers had been promised all kinds of benefits before they went to war and the Icelandic communithy should demand that these promises be kept….those who had been seduced into the army with nationalistic fanfare should have the right to a job and other benefits.“

It was an unfortunate conflict between people who had views about the role of the Icelandic community in North America. What made it even more difficult is that Iceland never had an army, never had a role to play in warfare. Armed conflict in their history went back to the vikings and that was in ancient times. There was no history and tradition to guide anyone.

Both the ideas put forward were good, even necessary. Those who supported the idea of the memorial should have continued raising money and, when they had raised all they could, created a memorial for which they could pay. Those who felt that money collected should go to help soldiers returning from the war should have done that. The idea that there could only be one right way to acknowledge and honour our returning soldiers was wrong. Both the memorial sculpture and the immediate help for servicement who needed it would have been a powerful expression of our respect for those who died and those who returned.

That monuments do  help to preserve the memory of battles fought in past times is without doubt. However, history has shown that Stephan‘s concerns were valid. Today, 94 years and a number of wars later, the newspapers regularly feature stories about veterans being denied benefits. Every possible reason (excuse) is found to deny benefits. It is true in the United States. It is true in Canada. The CBC reports on Oct, 23, 2012, “Injured ex-soldiers often unfairly denied benefits, AG finds”.  Or The Huffingtson Post, 9 Oct 2012, “Former members of the Canadian military who are struggling with mental health problems say they’re being denied benefits”. Or Sympatico CA.news, “Veterans denied funeral expenses by Canadian government program”.

The maimed, the dead need to be remembered. We need to honour those who have sacrificed their health and their lives for us. However, when we build our statues, let them not be used to absolve us of our responsibility to our soldiers. My grandfather, Irish as he was, would have agreed with Stephan. He’d rather have had help with his mortgage, help with finding a decent job, help with improving his education and qualifications, help with making up for the five years lost from his life than a statue.

Let us remember. Let us wear poppies in memory. Let us lay wreaths at our monuments. Let us tend and care for those monuments and teach each generation about the sacrifices of those who fought. But, never let us forget that our first duty is to those still living who have risked everything for us.

 

 

 

Publishing Stephan G

In pages 347 to 361 of Wakeful Nights, the biography of Stephan G. Stephansson, there is a description of everything that took place to get his poetry published in book form. It seems both sad and appropriate that I should be reading these pages as news has come that Douglas&McIntyre, Canada’s largest independent publisher has declared bankruptcy.  With the demise of D&M, a Canadian voice has been stilled.

When Stephan G. was publishing, there was, as yet, no Canadian voice. His writing was in Icelandic and was read by people in Iceland and by the Icelandic immigrants and their descendants.

After Eggert Jóhannsson suggested that money be raised to publish Stephan´s poetry in book form, Stephan wrote back to say that he could not keep operating the farm and prepare such a manuscript. He said that he´d need $20.00 a month so that he could hire someone to do the farm work while he edited and rewrote.

How little times have changed. This correspondence takes place in 1906. It is now 2012 and very few Canadian writers can survive without a day job. Many, such as David Arnason and Kristjana Gunnars, have held or are holding, teaching positions. Other writers are carpenters, lawyers, farmers. Like Stephan, they fit their writing into the nooks and crannies of their days.

In Stephan’s case, his friends and supporters do raise money to provide him with the time to work on his manuscript and to publish it. To publicize the book and promote sales, he goes on a tour. By so doing, he begins a tradition that has become critical to any author. Viðar Hreinsson, with the support of the Icelandic National League and various Icelandic Canadian clubs, has just finished a tour promoting and selling Wakeful Nights. It seems ironic, reading about Stephan´s tour—Winnipeg, Marshland, Argyle, Shoal Lake, New Iceland, Duluth, Gardar, Churchbridge, Wynyard, Foam Lake, etc.—that his biographer has just completed a similar tour, giving presentations in many of the same places.

Andvökur was published privately. Now, these many decades later, the English language edition of Stephan´s biography, Wakeful Nights, had to be published privately. There are many reasons for that. The Icelandic North American community is small and widely scattered. Although, Stephan G is well known among older members of the community, he is no longer well known among the younger generations for he wrote in Icelandic and the language has largely been lost. Canadian publishers such as D&M have fierce competition from American publishers who have the advantage of their much larger population that is, by and large, only interested in American authors and American subject matter. Publishing a book about an author whose work is of interest to a small ethnic group makes no financial sense.

Viðar says in his preface, “Funding the work on this biography was difficult. I worked at various odd jobs, borrowed money, and finally entered into arrangements with three funding sources: the Icelandic shipping company Eimskip, a genetics company and a bank.” It took a lot more than Stephan’s need for $20.00 a month so he could edit his poems. But then, the editing could be done by Stephan at home and didn’t require international travel, years of research in Iceland and North America and writing that was yet to be done, not already done.

There are those, unfortunately, who believe and espouse a market place view of life to the exclusion of all other values. Nothing should be allowed to exist unless it makes a profit. These are the progeny of the money changers whom Christ drove from the temple. They are inclined to know the price of everything but the value of nothing. If it were for them, there would be no published poetry by Stephan G and no biography. Nor much of anything that we might call culture or history.

Although I grew up in Gimli, Manitoba which many see as the heart of all things Icelandic in North America, I never heard anything of the religious conflicts that divided the community. My father regarded the church with utter contempt and, if he ever spoke of it, he chose no sides. His contempt was universal. My mother was Irish, didn’t speak Icelandic, and as an outsider, was not privy to the fierce gossip that raged around kitchen tables or the attacks and counter attacks in Logberg and Heimskringla. The papers were still published in Icelandic and that kept the internecine warfare private. The British overclass wouldn’t have been the slightest bit interested in Icelanders ranting and raving about obscure religious opinions. The result was that when I was growing up, I knew about King William and the Battle of the Boyne but not the battles that took place in the West End of Winnipeg.

Wakeful Nights has made me aware of some of the religious undercurrents, the Lutheran/Unitarian divide, the secular divides over women’s rights, capitalism and, although, I haven’t got there yet, the divide over active participation in WWI vs Stephan’s pacificist ideas. I’ve always regarded Icelandic Canadians, myself included, as rather stodgy, phlegmatic and reserved. We’re inclined to make long speeches and be rather uptight about a lot of things. It comes as a revelation that behind this mask are raging, tumultuous emotions. I assume this is the lingering effect of a Viking heritage.

When Stephan went to Winnipeg, Viðar says, “There was still strong antagonism in the Synod and Stephan’s supporters wanted to steer him clear of this dispute.”

Stephan arrives in Winnipeg on November 3, 1908. The city has grown to 150,000 but the Icelandic community was still raging about opposing religious views.

Ours was a small, very small, tiny, teeny ethnic community, in a much larger immigrant community. Stephan G was the most talented, productive writer we produced. Like any writer, unless he is going to write romantic pap, he’s going to write works based on his beliefs. Our community is now even smaller in proportion to Canada’s population, never mind to the USA’s population. Writers from other immigrant groups have created Canadian literature. The Icelandic place in Can Lit is very small. It is Stephan’s accomplishments that may give us a place in Canadian literature, and that is only because his work was able to overcome the opposition by people who disagreed with his view of life.

That place in Canadian Literature is still tenuous because translating poetry into English from Icelandic is filled with problems, many of which seem insurmountable. That Wakeful Nights has been published is a great help. It may be that because of it, Stephan G and the Icelandic community will be recognized in Canadian literature courses. However, it is one thing to say “Stephan G was a great writer. One of the best.” But then Guttormur Guttormsson, the poet from Riverton, did say in a one of his poems that we know we’re great because we say so. Without translations of his poems that prove Stephan’s a great writer, it is still just an assertion. Anyone can claim that.

I laughed out loud when I read one of Stephan’s comments. Rögnvaldur Pétursson wrote to him asking for a poem for the publication, Heimir. Stephan eventually sent him “‘Landnámskonan’ (The Settler Woman).” “Everything in it, however, challenged generally accepted views, he pointed out, adding that he preferred that his revolutionary poems be published in the “most acrid reactionary papers” rather than liberal papers, as the healthy have no need of a doctor.’” What a hoot! That’s like saying I’ve written an article that sex is bad and I want it published in Playboy. For a guy sitting on a farm in the middle of nowhere in Alberta, he certainly knew how to get under people’s skin.

Canadian literature, as can be seen by the repeated bankruptcies of Canadian publishers and Canadian bookstores, is under threat. With it, our Canadian identity, which never seems quite certain, loses an important way of defining ourselves. Stephan’s poems about the immigrant experience, about the landscape, about the conflicts, about the values tested and retested, can help with that identity. As Icelandic Canadians we need very arrow in our quiver and, it would seem, with current events, every arrow in our Canadian quiver.

Perhaps if Stephan had been the literary equivalent of Norman Rockwell, producing romantic, unrealistic but comforting clichés, he’d have had fewer people incensed by his writing but, then, he wouldn’t be considered one of Iceland’s great authors, nor one of ours. He’d just have been another public relations promoter for the moneyed class.

 

 

 

 

 

Viðar Hreinsson and Stephan G

 

Here´s Viðar

Viðar Hreinsson has come and gone. We are better for his visit.

Viðar is the author of Wakeful Nights, the biography of Stephan G. Stephanson. The Icelandic version was published in two volumes in 2002 and 2003. The English version is one volume. In his talk last night he said that if he had the opportunity to re-edit the original Icelandic publication, he would have cut out some material. However, individuals who have read the book or are part-way through reading the book say that they love the detail because it gives them not just a picture of Stephan G’s life but of life in Iceland and later in the USA and Canada.

We picked up Viðar at the Clipper ferry terminal. He´d been in Seattle giving a reading and talk at the Icelandic Club there. His trip was arranged with the cooperation of the Icelandic National League, the various Icelandic clubs, the Richard and Margaret Beck Trust and the Icelanders of Victoria.

The Clipper that brought Vidðar is a catamaran that takes two and a half hours to make the trip from Seattle to Victoria. He said the weather was good, the trip over, smooth. Thank goodness. In rough weather, the Clipper has been known to deliver a lot green, wobbly passengers. In any event, since Viðar has worked on Icelandic fishing boats and experienced bad North Sea weather, we expected him to easily handle anything the waters around the BC Coast could throw at him.

The day was hot. The sky clear. We intended to take him sight seeing but one of the circuits in the house blew out when I went to change a light bulb. My son in law and an electrician friend responded. Instead of seeing Gold Stream Park or the Empress hotel, Viðar got to watch the intricate search for an answer to why there were live wires that weren´t supposed to be live and dead light bulbs that should have been live. It wouldn´t have mattered except the circuit that went down included his guest bedroom, the dining room where the food and coffee were to be served and the stairwell the guests were expected to ascend.

As the search went on, we began talking about Icelandic history and literature. Viðar knows his Icelandic  history, politics and geography and has an opinion about them all. He´s not shy about taking stands and it is easy to see why he would want to write a book about Stephan G.

Here are Viðar’s wonderful shoes.

Stephansson was a man ahead of his times. Today, we do not think of poetry as a way of expressing political, economic and social views but in Stephansson´s time, (b. Iceland, 1853-d. Alberta, 1927), poetry, particularly in the Icelandic immigrant communities was  used for all these purposes. Poetry was not all about the beauty  of daffodils or pretty girls. For Stephansson, his poetry was a way for him to express deeply held beliefs about war, capitalism, and the role of humans in the environment.

Over coffee, Viðar talked about the difficulty of supporting a family as a free lance scholar and writer. Not for him, the security and comfort of a tenured academic position, but the hurly burly, high energy world where individuals, corporations and institutions have to be convinced to provide funding for projects like Wakeful Nights.

Making a living as a writer of any kind is precarious. The stories in the newspapers or on TV about some writer who has just received a million dollars for a first time manuscript is there because the occasion is rare. So rare, that it is news. The struggle of most writers is to pay the rent, the grocery bill, or, as Viðar told us, to buy a pizza to celebrate his son´s birthday.

Here’s Viðar´s wonderful book.

Viðar read from the book, then gave a talk about the content of the book, followed by a reading of some of Stephansson´s poems. Even though most of us do not understand spoken Icelandic, it made no difference. We followed along on handouts and let the music of the language wash over us. Afterwards, there was a question and answer period. All the available books were bought. We had coffee, dainties, fruit and conversation.

It was a pleasure to have this event in my home. After the talk, Tom Benjamin, the president of the Icelanders of Victoria club, thanked Viðar and I mentioned to the guests that this was an historic occasion because soon after the first Icelandic settlers arrived in Victoria in 1886, gatherings such as we had with Viðar was an important part of their life.

Ben Sivertz, in his autobiography says “There were Sunday gatherings in different homes where the house would fill with people in an atmosphere of story and song, coffee  and cake and poems – always poems. Recent compositions would be read and met with universal applause.”

This evening with Viðar was about poetry, about a great poet, about the life of these immigrants who had travelled far and formed new communities and new identities, about Iceland. There was coffee and cake. We lived, for those hours, in a proud tradition.