Category Archives: Society

The Victims of the Victims

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Family Reunited inside Haskell Free Library, Stansted, Quebec (Public Radio International)

The Victims of the Victims

The service station at Exit 115 Orford/Magog, two hours East of Montreal, is a place people come to hang out. They get to see the Exotic here, like a woman wearing a dress, or her son in a button-up shirt and knee-high socks. Formal is not normal. The old guys in blue shirts can’t pass by without some kind of interaction. ‘You know the bus stop is round the other side? It isn’t really a bus, it’s a limo…’ I smile appreciatively and they go and have coffee in paper cups and look at me through the window.

The bus (‘limo’) only goes to Montreal. I’m headed the other way, further East, where there used to be railways but aren’t any more and the untarmacked roads were state of the art early last century. The Quebecois romantically name these regions, ‘Les Cantons de l’Est’, as if they are to the East of anywhere one would want to be. The English-speaking residents call them more prosaically, ‘The Eastern Townships.’

My problem is that in this bureaucratic land no one will drive me without a booster seat for my five year old son. And no one has a booster seat around here so we are waiting for a taxi to come up from Sherbrooke, forty minutes away.

The only even half black person I will see the whole trip strides in and out. She is taking this day seriously, in tight jeans and wedge heels. Now and again when she’s in the car park she finds toddlers and leads them by the hand to look at her boyfriend’s Harley Davidson. It is a beautiful machine, sky blue and shining with sunlight. Mums emerge quickly from their parked cars and go and squat protectively next to their tots. Finally the Harley Davidson exits, roaring like a lion.

A tall, snowy-haired man wanders onto the forecourt. He wears a wide blue tie which sports the fleur de lys of Quebec. He stares straight ahead and drops a twenty dollar bill. It’s around his shuffling feet for a while and then he pulls it up again on a nylon string. Everyone smiles. For the next hour or two, I meet him here and there around the service station, at the queue in Tim Hortons, in the corridor by the toilets. He keeps dropping his money and pulling it up again. People smile, but no one asks him the question he’s waiting for: ‘Excuse me, monsieur, I think you’ve dropped something…’ Everyone can see the string, better than he can.

Eventually our taxi driver arrives. He is a kind man who takes our cases. He wants to communicate but he has very little English. I thought I spoke French but it turns out I don’t. I was an au pair in Toulouse once upon a time but that doesn’t count for anything over here where the language branched off in the seventeenth century. ‘Je ne sais pas’ is something like ‘J’en sayeess puh!’ It’s too hard.

This area used to be mainly English speaking, and railways linked the towns together. The tyres crunch over the gravel roads. The misty dark green of the forest is balm to the eyes. Our taxi driver doesn’t know Baldwins Mills. He wonders if I mean Ways Mills. There are a number of these old settlements dotted around the rolling countryside: two white clapboard churches stare at each other across a junction, their sharp lines contrasting with the soft haze of the forest, which is just about kept at bay. One church will be Anglican. The other could be Catholic, or a different Protestant denomination, little frequented now. The saw mills, owned by Anglos, worked by Anglos and French, shaved the whole forest coating these Northern Appalachians. The trees have sprung up again, home to moose and coyotes. But the secondary growth is no good for lumber. The region has fallen back on tourism, loved for its lakes in summer. Far fewer stick it out through the winter, despite the attraction of quaint old sports like curling – spinning a stone over ice.

My friend John is tall and tanned with a white beard. At 79 he still bathes in the lake twice a day. John’s father graduated from Edinburgh and Oxford in the 1920s. Like many of his time, he was attracted to the opportunities and wide open spaces of the Brit-colonised world and he took up a university post at Bishop’s in Sherbrooke, Quebec. He married a forceful woman whose mother had run a chain of clothes shops in Vermont. It was all part of one world.

John was eager to show me that world’s holy relic, the Haskell Free Library and Opera House at Stansted, where he works as a volunteer. Built in 1904, during the region’s golden age, the library straddles the border between Quebec and Vermont. Its foundress, Mrs Martha Stewart Haskell, a Canadian married to an American saw mill owner, wanted her library to be enjoyed by citizens of both countries.

The building exudes grace and peace. With its art nouveau decorations of foliage, its high windows and purple and yellow stained glass, it is a temple of educated liberalism. An Algerian man visiting at the same time as we were wrote in the visitors’ book, ‘One day there will be no more borders.’

Above the library is an opera house where orchestras and choirs came by railroad to perform classical music, alongside jazz played by ‘nigger minstrels’. The performers are more local now. A line is chalked on the carpet, demarking which members of the audience are sitting in Canada and which in the USA.

Occasionally, someone comes in to use the toilet and leaves a gun there for someone else to pick up. The US government is stepping up the security. However, it cannot stretch to funding a new coat of paint for the woodwork around the windows.

Image may contain: people sitting and indoorThe town of Stansted’s main employer, the dye factory, is gone, along with the railway. There is a nice patisserie now. John orders in French and we sit by a wide glass window. The pain-au-chocolats taste Parisian but they are double the size of their European cousins.

John is one of the ageing population of English speakers in the area. His sister refuses to speak French. ‘Life is too short,’ she jokes. But John loves swearing in Quebecois. Perhaps it chimes with a Protestant streak for him, as most of the swear words seem to be profaning the Catholic Mass. ‘Tabernacle!’ he booms, shaking his fist. ‘Caleeess!’ (Chalice) ‘Je m’en calice, mon hostie!’ ‘I’ll wine-cup you, you holy bread!’ For a really infuriating situation there is ‘Hostie de calice de tabernacle!’ ‘Host of the chalice of the tabernacle!’ – or ‘Damn!’ for short.

‘When I was a young man I was all for Freedom for Quebec. That was the radical thing. I called myself Qubecois!’ John stirs his café au lait. ‘Now I call myself an Anglo-Quebecker.’

John’s father was chancellor of Bishop’s University in 1969, the year of student rebellions everywhere. The local council was worried that there might be nationalist riots and the English-speaking university might be targeted. They sent along some police for protection, but the police were mainly French-speaking. The chancellor rang up the kitchen. ‘How many steaks have you got in the freezer?’ ‘Two hundred.’ ‘Cook them all!’ The police dined well and the rioters stayed away.

In another corner of the café sits Peters, broad-waisted, chatting with some acquaintances in French. ‘He’s an Anglo, but he’s a fruit farmer. He needs to keep in with everyone, for his business,’ John mutters to me.

It’s not just the linguistic changes that take some getting used to. The Quebecois government is very bureaucratic. Water police charge over the lakes in motor launches, making sure everyone is wearing a life jacket. On our drive this morning John had to turn back after ten miles, remembering that he had left his driving licence at home. If caught, that would be an on-the-spot fine.

‘What would happen to the Anglos if Quebec became completely independent?’ I ask John.

‘They would move.’

There is an Eastern Townships Association now, which is trying to protect the rights, culture and wellbeing of mainly ageing Anglos. They help their members cope with the language and the bureaucracy so that they can access public services.

John pulled a piece of plastic out of his wallet: his health insurance card. ‘We have to show this every time we want treatment. Look. It’s all in French. Some people might feel offended about that.’

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A Plea for Disobedient Computers

We need to redesign computers so we can relate to them more as equals. At the moment they are our slaves and it’s no good for our souls. I am probably particularly guilty but I behave atrociously towards mine, with all the sense of entitlement of a Roman Emperor. I click my fingers and it comes running. And the slightest hesitation or misunderstanding on its part throws me into a fury. I only see this creature in relation to myself and how much labour I can squeeze out of it before I chuck it in some dump. Like a woman in a sexist society its body is reduced to three aspects: a bit you look at, a bit you touch, and a bit you turn on. Oh and it can be a status symbol. I have no interest whatsoever in its inner life. I try to cover this up but the truth is I don’t want to see its insides. They revolt me.

Does its dedicated service engender love? I fear not. I hate how it looks. I shut it away upstairs. I am an awful snob about it. If I had a daughter I’d forbid the wedding. I worry at night about my son becoming too friendly with it.

Where does this revulsion come from? I am no Psycho-Sociological expert but I am guessing that it is its low status in our society, its servility and precarious existence, that give rise to disgust. There but for the grace of money go I….

This train of thought jumped out at me after listening to the BBC’s Thinking Allowed, last Wednesday. Rachel Plotnick from Indiana, who has written a book called Power Button, pointed out that every time we press a button we are giving a command. It isn’t a request or a suggestion or a negotiation. Push-buttons are the direct descendants of the servants’ bells in stately homes.

As servants encroached on the existences of the wealthy, they robbed them of health, of capability, of intimacy with the fundamental processes of their own lives. Computers in their present servile state do the same to us.

Meanwhile I have washed up in a new job sitting in A-level Computing classes, taking notes for a partially sighted student. There are twenty students in the class and they were each given one of the twenty most popular computer languages to research. (Actually, the boys commanded their faithful machines to do the research!) There were mathematical languages, functional ones, those where a term corresponds to a set of instructions and those with one-to-one correspondence. Some involve telling the computer to start before the activity and stop after it, superseded by later languages that managed to leave that to the computer’s brain to handle. But my point is, that no one thought of putting anything into these languages other than commands!!

Whence this sense of entitlement?

Computers were forged in the crucible of war, under the supervision of generals who were used to giving orders to armies; and in a climate of urgency, where humans were prepared for a fixed period of time to trade their autonomy for safety. That is one heritage. Another is that many of the educated, who were designing computers, had grown up with servants. Another is in the tradition of administrative work which, before computers, was carried out by that army of clerics in shabby bowler hats who staggered half starved over London Bridge and into the City each day to compute and record the wealth of others. Many died young, many never dared marry because of the precariousness of their existence, living in single rented rooms.

In fact precariousness of existence, disposability, probably underlies most relationships of absolute obedience.

If something has to be enslaved, I would rather a computer than a human. One of the main charges against slavery is the cruelty, the creation of suffering. I’m not suggesting that our computers feel pain. But I am suggesting that what slavery did to slave-owners computers are doing to us. We are learning bad ways of relating to significant others.

Let’s imagine some new computer languages, which leave the computer free to respond with a ‘Yes’ or a ‘No’ or a ‘Later’, so that sometimes we have to just shrug our shoulders, laugh, spin round on our office chairs and look out the window or chat while we wait. Let’s imagine a computer that needs a little praise to work well, and daily gratitude to function; that we are required every so often, at least once a week, to explore it, to admire its teeny weeny chips, its pulsation of wires. What if we had to do some of its jobs for it, like evacuating memory space and de-bugging? How would we feel about that creature then?

I think we would start to relate to it as a person. We would be more interested in it, more humble, maybe even more joyful? Our new learned behaviours might spill over into other relationships. We might behave with our nearest and dearest, or with strangers, with less entitlement? More curiosity?

What would be the effect on my own job if my computer didn’t always work? Sometimes I would have to walk down the corridor and talk to someone. I might have to cross the courtyard and breathe some outdoor air, feel the discomfort of the rain. At present after every half-hour tutorial with a student I have to log the meeting in a record on screen to ‘claim the funding’. If I were unable to claim the funding, then the government, and behind it the citizen, would have to trust me to do my job. How would that trust affect me? What would it do for my self esteem? What would it do for my sense of responsibility towards the young people I deal with? What would it do for their sense of gratitude?