Category Archives: CBC radio

Huck Finn : The Rebel



As readers of my blog may remember I am engaged in two quests. One is to pursue the religious quest in the modern age. The other, is to re-read at least one book each year.  Well reading this book does both!


I am often asked what is the best novel ever written? I answer that question in different ways at different times. That is entirely appropriate to a person who is meandering, uncertainly, I hope, towards the truth. In my opinion this book is certainly one of the best novels ever written, perhaps the very best. I think is my favourite novel of all time!

The book was published first in England in 1884 and America in 1885. In many ways it is the story of America.

Please note in this review I won’t worry about ‘giving things away”. Even if one hasn’t read the book it has been around long enough that everyone knows what the book is about and more or less what happens. So if you don’t like that, read the book first. It is much better than this paltry review.

Many years after I read and immensely enjoyed the novel, I read a book by Azar Nafisi called The Republic of the Imagination. It is a book about a number of American novels, including this one. That book significantly deepened my understanding of this great novel.  Nafisi was a teacher of English literature in Tehran, Iran, before moving to the United States and becoming an American professor of literature.

That seems almost inconceivable.  In Iran she taught a class of mainly young women, many who had asked her to form a book club which she led. One of her students was Farah who was dying but wanted the last year of her life to be devoted to the pursuit of a classic. This book—The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. 


Many people consider this book a book for children, particularly young boys. Why is it that so many great American novels are considered books for children?

Nafisi said about young Iranian women reading this novel:


“The original Huck was our guide, our inspiration, the thorn in our side who reminded us to be true to ourselves and who, goaded us when we became too complacent, too conventional in our preoccupations,  whenever we seemed too comfortable with our lot. He gave us vital chaos as the kind of American we wanted to be.  He reminded us—best American heroes are wary of being overcivilized, and that they carve out their own path and look to their heart for what is right and just.”


Nafisi denied that a book was in the ordinary sense moral. She did say this, “it can be called moral when it shakes us out of our stupor and makes us confront the absolutes we believe in.” That is precisely what Huck Finn does. It wakes us from our moral slumbers. And all of us fall into such slumbers. It is intellectual indolence. A common disease.


One of the most amazing scenes in Nafisi’s  book is when her class at the University decides to put the book The Great Gatsby on trial. The prosecutor is a strict straight-laced Muslim regime supporter. The defense counsel is one of her female students. It is a remarkable achievement. Both learned a lot by reading closely that novel.  According to Nafisi, “a great novel heightens your senses and sensitivity to the complexities of life and of individuals , and prevents you from the self-righteousness that sees morality in fixed formulas about good and evil.


This of course is exactly what happens in a totalitarian society like Iran. The mullahs and morality police control everything in the lives of the people. The people are told what to do and what to think and even what to wear and how to wear it. This is what is now happening in Iran when the people are revolting against these restrictions, but it will be difficult. Yet the courageous women in her class did quietly revolt too. Merely reading Huck Finn was rebellious. Huck Finn was a rebel without a cause. No he was actually a rebel with a cause. A very important cause. We will get into that.


But how different is America?  As Nafisi said, “I wanted to write about Huck, to capture what he could teach us, at a time of reality TV and phony bombastic patriotism, about a more authentic American ideal.” It is interesting that I write this right after the 2022 midterm elections in the US. These are normally excruciatingly boring. But this year Americans were given a chance to reject the phony patriotism of the Trumpsters, and at least to some extent they seized the moment. Farah “wanted what Huck appeared to be escaping from—a comfortable and predictable home.” This is what Nafisi wanted too.


Huck of course became an orphan in the book. His father, Pap,  was mean and inscrutable and in his death freed Huck. So many novels about orphans who encounter a cruel and ungenerous world but then finds wealthy patron and all is then well.  But Huck was different. As Nafisi said about Huck, “But here was one little orphan who not only did not find a home, but was repulsed by its very idea, taking off whenever he was offered one.”


Nafisi made a bold statement about Twain: “If there was any figure in the history of American fiction who through his writing, created a literary declaration of independence, it was Mark Twain.” Huck was the classic scamp, rapscallion, and rebel. He dissented from the moral constraints imposed by society. As Nafisi said,

“Huck was a mongrel, an outcast, uneducated and unmoored, and since his creation countless Americans have recast themselves in his image.. He was suspicious of the smothery ways of conventional society, but in his ideals, his moral courage, his determination to open himself up to the lessons of nature and the vagaries of experience, he was as much a product of the Enlightenment as were George Washington and Benjamin Franklin…”


Twain understood how difficult it was to dissent from conventional morality.  It is never easy to turn your back on what most others are doing or saying in your society. It is much easier to paddle with the stream rather than against it. But Huck Finn found he could not do that.

That is why Huckleberry Finn is such a subversive novel.

That is why it is such a great novel.



Power Shift: The Longest Revolution


The 2019 Massey Lectures were delivered by Sally Armstrong. You can listen to them on CBC radio by using the free CBC app. A book on the lectures is already out called Power Shift: The Longest Revolution.  The theme of the lectures was the arrival of women’s fundamental equality. Armstrong argues The better off women are, the better off we all are.

Many parts of it were very interesting. The last 5 minutes of the last lecture were one example. With passion she concluded her lecture series this way:

“Man the hunter is bogus. There is no evidence that woman was not right there beside him hunting. The ancient past is a flawed account that was history recorded mainly by men and mostly about men. In fact, for millions of years we now know that men and women had equal status. And then they didn’t. It was during the agriculture era when food became plentiful, when they could focus on development rather than sheer survival until tomorrow, then both men and women realized that the future depended on producing more labourers and only women had the sexual reproductive capacity to deliver a child. Pregnant women were appropriated by men to produce the next generation, as much as land was prioritized and acquired by men at that time. That was the birth of patriarchy and subordination of women. That subordination was heightened when religion was formalized and institutionalized in the early legal codes. It has taken 10,000 years and a million years to right those wrongs. The power shift came from goddesses and priestesses, seers, diviners, nuns, healers, writers, reformers, activists, suffragettes, and feminists who took on the prophets and the kings, the orators and the philosophers, the politicians and the bullies, to find justice, fairness, and equality for all. It has been indeed the longest revolution.’

It really is time for male dominance to end. Even men would be be better off if that happened.

The Interesting World of Len Deighton



Though the wonders of the CBC Radio App, I listened to a fascinating interview on CBC with an old friend whom I have never met–Len Deighton. I never met him but I grew up with him. Deighton was the writer of spy novels from the 1960s to 1980s. He was in my opinion a great writer. He was right up their with another favortie John LeCarre.  Both of those writers broke the protocol of spy novels in suggesting that the good guys–the British and America spies–were just as morally corrupt as the bad guys–the Communists. Who would ever have thought that?

Listen to this  conversation between Bernard Samson and his boss Dickie Cruyer in British intelligence, who Phillip Coulter described as having “a PHD in office politics,”


Bernard: Who pays him?

Dickie:        He’s not for sale Bernard.

Bernard:      Then he’s no one I know.

His first novel, which he actually wrote for himself because he did not intend to publish it, did catch the public attention after he did publish it. He described blink and dingy streets of Berlin soaked with betrayal and paranoia. As Philip Coulter said, his books described “a broken down society at war with itself in which the greatest dangers were from within.”

Deighton realized that one of  the most most common fears of our policial leaders was a fear of a lack of information. He likened this to a fear of the dark or a lack of confidence that our future unknowns will be benign.      That opened up a lot of room for intelligence services (at least until the arrival of Donald Trump who relies instead on his own personal ‘intelligence.’)

Deighton described this in the first of the fabulous trilogy  Game, Set & Match where the spy Bernard Samson had sent a young and inexperienced spy, McKenzie, to a situation in which he was murdered. After that Bernard had terrible visions of McKenzie’s brains spattered on the wall behind his corpse. The visions came back to him at night and he shuddered. “I felt guilty and as I prepared for bed I suffered the delayed reaction that my body had deferred and deferred. I shook uncontrollably. I did not want to admit even to myself that I was frightened but that image of McKenzie kept blurring into an image of myself. And my guilt was turning into fear for fear is so unwelcome that it comes only in disguise and guilt is its favourite one.”

Coulter interviewed Deighton in the London Travellers Club dining room where well educated and well to do Englishmen who had travelled abroad met to discuss their travels. The club was a vital a cog in the British class system. It had a huge library with books that went right up to the ceiling. However, like the books in British aristocratic manors, many of them were seldom read. They were not really there to educate their owners; they were there for decoration. As Coulter said, “Fake books.  A Library not used for the purpose of imparting knowledge are in some ways metaphors for the themes in Len Deighton’s novels. Worlds where things are seldom what they seem where those with the trappings of power and competence actually rarely have those skills. The room too is emblematic of the class tensions that run through Deighton’s books. The tension between a natural aristocracy with wealth and power and the classes below them with little or none.”

Yet Deighton was actually ambivalent about that class system. He saw the good and the bad of that system and saw himself as a referee between the classes. He is a spectator.  As Deighton said in the interview, “If we look at history we see that the upper classes provided people with a sort of dignity, knowledge, self-respect and honour that is completely absent from the political world today and the world has grown much poorer in practicalities.”

Deighton’s complex view of classes is a familiar theme right through his books, filling them with humour, delight, and wonder. As Coulter said, “Yes he believes that there should be a leadership cadre, but no it shouldn’t be closed. Those who lead bear responsibilities not legislated but moral.”

This ambivalence in his novels is exemplified best by his main protaganist Bernie Samson. Sampson is constantly  wracked by that cruel division. After all he is the one who failed to go to one of the better British schools and had this constantly held over his head and his career by his superiors in the office and inferiors in life. “His office wars revolved around the occasionally inept but well educated bureaucrats who are his bosses.” Here is a delightful example, in a description by Bernie Samson:

“On Wednesday afternoon I was in Brett Renssalaer’s office. It was on the top floor not far from the suite the DG occupied. All the top floor offices were decorated to the personal taste of the occupant. It was one of the perks of seniority. Brett’s room was modern with glass and chrome and gray carpet. It was hard, austere, and colourless, a habitat just right for Brett with his dark worsted Saville Row suit, and the crisp white suit and club tie and his fair hair that was going white and the smile that seemed shy and fleeting, but was really the reflex action that marked his indifference.”

Deighton knew this world of spies from London was interesting, sly, and vicious, but above all complex. It is a world well worth inhabiting with a master guide like Len Deighton. He is well worth reading.

CBC Radio: One of the wonders of Canada



I am still on the first day of our trip to Arizona. I really enjoyed listening to CBC radio’s Sunday Morningas we drove. Their excerpts from past shows to celebrate their 1,000thedition of the show inspired me to think about past radio shows I loved.

I have long believed that CBC radio (CBC TV not so much) is one of the blessings of living here. It is a fine example of what I call “the commons.”  Things we enjoy in common are among the finest things.  The same goes for our national parks, our universal health care (despite its flaws), public education, our libraries, and many other things. Often these things are worth morethan things we own privately. I believe in private property. But I also believe in communal property–i.e.–the commons.

I know some people hate the CBC, but for the life of me I don’t understand why. It costs Canadian taxpayers about a billion dollars per year. That is a lot of money, but I think it is worth every penny. At least the radio portion of it.



I first encountered CBC radio in 1974.  I had just graduated from Law School, and was hired as an articling student at law by a lawyer in Steinbach, my hometown. I had never expected to work in Steinbach, but there I was. I was actually not sure I wanted to work there.  But I had completed my studies at the U of M, had a young wife Christiane, who had supported me for 3 years while I went to school, and now I had to contribute. I needed a job and the lawyer offered me one.

The lawyer who hired me did not pay me much. Less in fact than the green as grass secretary he hired to work with me. But he actually paid me morethan the going rate so I did not complain.

Chris was now temporarily unemployed so we lived modestly. We lived well but cheaply. For a while we did not even own a TV. My sister Diane had leant me one, but negligently I had broken it. She did not offer to lend me a second one. Who could blame her? One night I accidently discovered CBC radio. I was startled to learn it did not have commercials. Nor inane top 40 hits. But it had great conversations. And great music.

In those early years of radio I listening to a treasure trove of great radio shows. I loved As it Happens with Barbara Frum. Through her inquisitive mind I learned a lot about the news stories of the day, as they happened. There was a great comedy show (whose name I have forgotten) with ultra intelligent guests who astonished me with their vast knowledge of absolute trivia delivered with elegant flourishes and razor wit.

One of my favorites was Anthology hosted by the learned Robert Weaver. It was a fantastic literary show on Friday nights. We had such a boring life I often spent Friday night listening to the radio. For decades, literary editor and radio producer Robert Weaver gave a helping hand to many young Canadian writers by broadcasting and/or publishing their work. By listening to that show I learned about writers like Alice Munro, Morley Callaghan, Margaret Atwood, Margaret Laurence and many others.  Morley Callaghan was a regular book reviewer. I loved his book reviews.

Another favorite was the Danny Finkleman Show, again with wonderful guests and conversation. I first encountered Danny Finkleman on his Saturday morning show. Surprisingly, he graduated from the law school at the University of Manitoba in 1967, 4 years before I started.Then he came to his senses and became a CBC guy. He weekly interviewed a wide array of interesting guests including a book reviewer whose last name I have forgotten but whose first name was Ruthie. They were the reviews of an ordinary person, not a stuffy intellectual. Later he hosted Finkleman’s 45s, which I also liked, but not quite as much. In that show he would play a song from the 1950s, 60s, and early 70s and then delivered a rant between each song. He called them, “fat opinions,” and I have shamelessly used that label for my own modest opinions. My favorite  rant was his story about the how the exercise he loved the best was a “stroll”  with his dog while smoking a cigar. His shows were all very informal without any pretence at great erudition. He said that after the early Beatles, starting with Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club band, music began to sharply deteriorate. That’s why he never played more recent songs.

I also came to enjoy The Radio Show with Jack Farr, who, of all things was also a Winnipeg lawyer in his other life. He was also a friend of Danny Finkleman and I figured they must have met in law school. Originally he started out as a regular guest on Danny’s show. There he played the role of a big sports fan called Joe Fan who spoke without plural words, for some inexplicable reason. In other words he did not put the letter “s” at the end of plural nouns. I could never figure out why he did that.

On his own show, Farr grandiosely styled himself “Captain Radio.” Some called his show “an electronic pub,” or “a radio Chautauqua.” Farr believed in light entertain, eschewing anything like the ‘heavier’ CBC shows. He interviewed a wide range of guests including a person who grew huge pumpkins, a person who reported an attack by wild cows, and oddball inventors, among many others. He mocked the story of wild cows, but I always wondered if this was an early case of “mad cow disease” a very serious illness. One of his regular commentators was Billy Casselman who spoke about words and delivered some fantastic rants including a memorable about gun lovers. He mocked how brave he-men hunters carrying huge guns engaged in mortal combat against a “1-foot duck.”  He also said, “the bigger the gun the smaller the you-know-what.” Another regular guest Alan Fotheringham favored us with outrageous political rants. Farr regularly interviewed a purported Vatican Priest by the name of Father Guido Sarducci. When he appeared on television he wore dark sunglasses and chain-smoked cigarettes under a big floppy black hat. He looked like on the spies in Mad Magazine’s comic stripSpy vs. Spy. John Doyle in the Globe and Mail called Farr “a sort of Peter Gzowski from hell.” The show often had debates of no consequence, such as whether or not curling was actually a sport. In other words the show was mainly about nonsensical trivia. My kind of show.

I also loved Eclectic Circus with the delightfully irreverent and pathologically odd, Allan McPhee.   It was heard late at night. He had some very strange habits. He often talked to an imaginary mouse, or what he called a “small grey presence” that appeared to live in his pocket. Amusingly, he played a variety–an eclectic variety–of strange mystifying musical selections. He also made very unusual sounds including an imaginary chicken. Or was it real? He often referred to himself, without any false modesty, as “your delightful host”. For some reason he referred to his audience as, “all those out there in vacuum land”.


On Sunday mornings besides Sunday edition I also listened to Gilmour’s Albums, where Clyde Gilmour, a TV critic in his other life, played his personal musical albums from his vast collection. He had a vast and varied collection of music. Through him I learned that there was more to music than the rock music or folk music that I was accustomed. I even got to like classic music! I remember my mother could hardly believe that happened. I could hardly believe it happened. I even began to think there mightbe something to opera.

All of these CBC shows made it feel like we were a part of a highly intelligent conversation. And we were. In later years the more serious show Ideas became my a favorite. I have heard some of the most fascinating discussions on that show on an amazing variety of topics–from the obscure and profane to the sublime.

My favorite show of all time though was the two versions of Peter Gzowski. First, This Country in the Morningand later Morningside. On both shows Gzowski interviewed all of Canada’s finest artists and most brilliant thinkers. I particularly loved his weekly political panel with Liberal Eric Kierans, Conservative Dalton Camp, and social democrat Stephen Lewis. The discussions were scintillating, but never mean spirited or wildly partisan. Each of them respected the others, unlike similar shows in the US today. This was Canadian political debate at its finest, without rancor.

Gzowski also added eclectic spices to the mix of his show including: a wide array of Canadian novelists, commentator Stuart MacLean who started out on CBC radio as a travelling reporter, celebrations of Canadian music, talks about the north, and a great variety of friends of Gzowski. At least they all seemed like friends and so did we the listeners. That was the point. On one astonishing show he had Chili cook-off around the country. At the same time and live CBC broadcast people cooking Chili in studios right across the country. On the radio where we could taste nothing. How is that possible? Can any other country do anything like it? Another treasure was Gzowski’s interview with Stuart MacLean who had gone to great lengths to collect some live bugs that he brought on the show in a small box and unhappily one died accidently. Gzowski and MacLean could not stop laughing. The bugs did not seem to see the humor.

I have been a lifelong CBC listener ever since. I have always felt that CBC radio was what connected Canada together. How else can such a large country with so few people connect? Radio is the only way, or at least a great way, and they have always done it with a deft flourish. it sure makes long road trips more fun. Long live the CBC!