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Neil Cameron

Neil Cameron is a Montreal writer and historian. He served as a member of Quebec's National Assembly from 1989 to 1994.

Men of power and their God-fearing appointees

The last temptation is the greatest treason: To do the right deed for the wrong reason. - Thomas Becket, in T. S. Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral. 1945-65 was a good time for theatre. Two of the most memorable plays opened in 1960, Robert Bolt's A Man for All Seasons in London, and Jean Anouilh's Becket, or the Honour of God, in New York. Both were also soon made into successful films. I saw the Anouilh play in New York, with Anthony Quinn playing King Henry II, Laurence Olivier playing Becket, and later saw the movie, with Richard Burton playing Henry, Peter O'Toole as Becket. The Bolt work I know only as a film, with Paul Scofield as an unforgettable Thomas More, clashing with Henry VIII (Robert Shaw) and his Machiavellian courtier, Thomas Cromwell (Leo McKern). I imagine I am one of many people who found both works a transforming personal experience. In both, the theatrical account strays far from what historians have learned about either of the English Kings or their sainted opponents. Anouilh even created much of the dramatic tension by making Becket a voice of the defeated English Saxons, Henry of the triumphant Normans, while the real Becket was actually another Norman. Both plays and films had many other examples of dramatic license, also true of other retellings of the two stories, like T.S. Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral, first appearing in 1935, but frequently revived since. Like Shakespearean dramas, these 20th century works offered recastings of myths, above all of the clash between worldly rulers and uncompromising idealists, although the concluding murders were historically real, however raised in meaning by theatre. Stories of powerful men with plans they are determined to execute running afoul of their own chosen priests, or magistrates, even when these latter were… Read More

The Most Famous Spoiler of Canada Celebration

This April we will mark the 100th anniversary of the highly symbolic victory of the Canadian soldiers at Vimy Ridge, and the 150th year of Confederation will come in July. But there will be some 50th and 25th anniversaries that resonate mainly or only in Quebec. Of 1967 and 1992, I retain strong recollections. In 1966-67, I was taking half a dozen history courses at Sir George Williams, to qualify for graduate studies at McGill. I had lived in Montreal some years earlier, but had grown up and taken previous undergraduate studies elsewhere, and was nearing thirty, so was almost a decade older than the mass of baby boomers arriving at all campuses in 1965-75. I had been reading history for many years, and scarcely encountered television until my twenties, so I often felt like a visitor from a disappearing older civilization. Montreal, especially on the francophone side, was full of the continent-wide youthful fevers. As elsewhere, much of these centred on opposition to the American war in Vietnam. But there was as much or more local noise coming from intensified and recently radicalized nationalism. Excitement had been stirred earlier, by the death of Duplessis, the reforming Papacy of John XXIII and the Second Vatican Council, and the state expansion and modernization launched by the Lesage Liberals in the first half of the decade, not much reversed by the last Union Nationale governments of Daniel Johnson and Jean-Jacques Bertrand in the second half. However, there was also good cheer in Montreal about the future of a united Canada. Montreal was Canada's largest and richest city, its business and financial head offices booming, and its population growing rapidly. Jean Drapeau, in youth himself a fiery right-wing Quebec nationalist, had proved an energetic and imaginative Mayor, and in co-operation with the Pearson… Read More

Advice from a 17th Century French Aristocrat for Public Figures of Our Times.

François VI, Duc de La Rochefoucauld, Prince de Marcillac, (1613-1680) was one of the finest writers of maxims. The carol 'Good King Wenceslas' is about a 10th century Bohemian monarch, now patron saint of Czechs; its melody is from 16th c. Finland, the English lyrics from 1853. For Christmas this year, the notion came to me that, with a few judicious adjustments, a dozen of the Duc's maxims could be sung to the melody of the carol, as good advice to some celebrated folk of our time.   Advice from a 17th Century French Aristocrat for Public Figures of Our Times.   Re-reading La Rochefoucauld, found us still his brothers; Had we no faults., be less pleased, finding fault in others. And take one on success eased, done in manner steady: Always pretend, when you can, you're success alrea-dy. Donald Trump   Judging speeches aimed at you, use this firm foundation: Sincerity is found in few, much dissimulation. Self-reflection seldom nails, how two things we sever: All admit their memory fails, but their judgement ne-ver. Hillary Clinton   Don't expect the world will bless, nor for it to hopes kill, Temper rules our happiness, just as much as fate will. Need to watch out what believed, when you're shaped by druthers; Simplest way to be deceived, think you out-think others. Bill Maher   When we're old and give advice, it's without elation: As we can't now practise vice, warn as consolation. While we can't still coolish be, nor an early riser, In old age more foolish we, also are much wi-ser. Conrad Black   Bad behaviour isn't nice, though it comes with cheap trick: Vice to virtue pays a price, hypo-crisy laid thick. While we pretend to be kind, schadenfreude we treasure, Friends' misfortune we don't find, causes our disple-asure.… Read More

Max Aitken and the limits of unidirectional power

The Canadian who did most to change the world in the first half of the 20th century did so as a a British tycoon. Max Aitken, First Baron Beaverbrook (1879-1964), a small pixie in appearance, was a phenomenon of energy. Son of a Scottish clergyman, growing up in New Brunswick, he made his first fortune in Canada as a bold and adventurous company promoter and stockbroker, becoming a millionaire before he was thirty. He left permanently for Britain in 1910 and became a Commons MP less than a year later. He then set about becoming the richest and most politically influential of the British press barons. He built the Daily Express, from a circulation of 40,000 when he acquired it, into a giant, with hundreds of thousands of readers by the end of the 1920s; after 1945 it reached daily sales of almost 4 million, highest of any newspaper in the world. By then, he owned as well a large string of other newspapers and businesses, and maintained a dozen luxurious homes in England, France, Canada, and the U.S., famous as well for his many affairs and for the lively conversation of his dinner table. Aitken was both a whirlwind business expansionist and a writer of real talent. Near the end of his life, over eighty and dying of cancer, he still sometimes telephoned orders to his employees, barking “You gotta gotta say...” I knew some Daily Express reporters in London in the early 1960s; an otherwise irreverent crew, they all held "the Beaver" in awe. They recognized his astuteness about what readers wanted, and his own literary gifts. His many books included three brilliant ones about British politics in the First World War. He also hired other first-class writers, including Evelyn Waugh, who lampooned him in two of his… Read More

The soldier president and the conservative philosopher

We know more than we can tell. - Michael Polanyi Leadership is the art of getting someone else to do something you want done because he wants to do it. - Dwight Eisenhower Historical amnesia began reaching new proportions in the 1960s, especially in the United States. Baby boomers in their salad days felt the impact of network colour television and its depiction of the Vietnam War. Among many of them, even the major two most destructive wars of all time in 1914-18 and 1939-45 and the first decade of the Cold War were almost consigned to oblivion. This supercharged amnesia extended to the eventful eight-year Republican Presidency of Dwight Eisenhower (1890-1969), a balding grandfather replaced by the dashing young Jack Kennedy. Yet Eisenhower had appeared splendidly qualified when he was elected in 1952. He had been the Supreme Allied Commander who had defeated the Nazis in Western Europe in 1944-45; had written an impressive book about it; and had proved a successful postwar president of Columbia University. His earlier background also held surprises. A rebellious West Point student, he had nonetheless been so talented in calculus that he introduced a novel proof still used, and he spent years as a skillful poker player. His 1952 campaign used posters and buttons showing his winning smile and the "I like Ike" slogan. Adlai Stevenson, twice his Democrat opponent, once ruefully reflected, “What was I doing, running against George Washington?” By his second term, however, Eisenhower was frequently viewed as a disappointment, even a failure: both too bellicose and not bellicose enough as a Cold Warrior; doing too little to resist the demagogy of Senator McCarthy; too slow to respond to the 1954 desegregation decision of the Supreme Court, even though he sent National Guard troops into Arkansas to enforce school integration.… Read More
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