Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Happy/ Merry Christmas!

When I was a kid, I thought Christmas crackers were for eating. I'd see them on store shelves leading up to and after the holidays and wonder: "What's different about "Christmas" crackers?" "Do people eat them with soup?" "Don't crackers go bad? Why would one want to buy them, on sale, three weeks after Christmas?!?" I've also seen tubes that look like crackers filled with tiny pots of jam so I assumed they were a fancy treat. And, since crackers were not a tradition at my house so I didn't, I admit, learn their function until my late teens.

The tradition of crackers is a British one and shared throughout the Commonwealth nations. Either before of after dinner, these cylindrical tubes are pulled apart by two people and reveal a paper hat (crown), a bad joke, and some sort of toy/ treat. Crackers have not changed significantly from their 19th century origins (originally created as a hygienic way to keep sweets) though they are no longer (or rarely) handmade and are widely available at most retailers during the holidays. While thinking about the post, I googled "Canadian Christmas crackers" thinking some demented individual might have invented crackers with bacon bits and maple syrup (patent pending). Alas. Harrod's, of course, offered a "luxury" version one year that included mp3 players and other extravagant baubles. Who says Harrods isn't classy? This year, my friend Red bought beautiful crackers decorated with cutouts of characters from the Nutcracker. We each received a whistle (of different sizes) and were assigned numbers. The point was that if we all followed the music sheet, we'd be able to play Christmas songs. We gave it the good ol' college try but did not produce any festive melodies ...

Now that I have become a savant in all things British, crackers are an essential part of the holidays. I wonder what my friends get up to in order to spread yuletide cheer?

Have a happy holiday readers!!


My friend has alighted on a Christmas tradition that was a part of my childhood, but which I had somewhat forgotten about. I remember Christmas crackers very well (the paper hat/plastic toy variety, not the Harrods luxury version). In fact, what I mostly remember about crackers is being pitifully unable to properly hold up on my end of the proceedings and proving rather ungainly in the attempt to hear the signature "crack." For various reasons, namely the uselessness of the objects within, the Christmas cracker has fallen out of favour for some years now.

The Night Before Christmas
(Illustrated cover, London, 1904)

Other British traditions continue to be of some holiday cheer in one form or another: pudding, mince tarts, Lessons and Carols from King's College Cambridge, the Queen's Christmas Message at noon on CBC, and (of course) Boxing Day (sadly now rivaled by the American import of Black Friday, but never replaced).

However much or little one marks the Yuletide, I would wish readers in the immortal words of the classic story: "a merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night."


Tuesday, December 4, 2012

The Iceman Cometh: Mark Carney to the Rescue of the UK Economy

This past week a story came along which truly merits inclusion in this blog -- the apotheosis of the Canadian-British past and present colliding, complete with useful stereotypes and colonial baggage. Canadian Mark Carney ("the outstanding central banker of his generation" according to George Osborne) was appointed the next governor of the Bank of England (that's guvnor to you!), with the appointment taking effect in July. Carney is the first non-Brit to hold the post in 318 years -- a measure of his stature, or the desperation of British national finances, or both.

Mary Carney: Next
Governor of the Bank of England

So... how would the appointment of Johnny Canuck play in Britain's green and pleasant land? On the whole the reaction seems to have been rather muted, though The Toronto Star has written of the "fodder" that it has provided for the British press. Yes, certainly fodder in the sense that the British pay scant attention to Canada, and when they do it tends to be in a narrowly formulaic manner. As the story notes: "[there is]  as old Fleet Street joke that “any story with ‘Canada’ in the first line is guaranteed not to get read,” [but] Carney’s appointment has proved an exception."

"From the desolate wilderness" descriptions abounded, including ample references to snow, his love of hockey (ice hockey of course, is there any other kind?) and participation on the Harvard hockey team during his time at the university. To the extent that such a feat could be stretched, Carney was, in a friendly manner, the "exotic other" of the week. Only The Guardian (in that sneering manner it has, entirely of a different ilk than the sneering manner of the tabloids) veered into more scathing territory, publishing this rather startling cartoon with Carney depicted as a moose. (As for what else the cartoon shows, well, one can merely warn you that once you've seen it, there is no "unseeing" possible.) The Daily Mail (of all papers!) deemed him to be as "sharp as a tack," and other publications pointed out that for all his colonial-tundra-hockey-moose credentials he does have a British wife, Diana (also an economist, with properly posh credentials to boot), and four daughters who presumably have dual British-Canadian citizenship. Very much "one of us" then, and hardly a "Bob and Doug MacKenzie" lumberjack figure.  

One can only hope (if somewhat in vain) that this appointment helps revive some feeling of Commonwealth common cause, and the importance of our shared history and outlook. At the very least Carney will help counter the limited imagination that many British people (even highly educated ones) have demonstrated in contemplating Canadian character and society. I wish Mark Carney all the best in the daunting job that awaits him. To Brits: you're welcome. Treat him kindly. From Canada with love.


Dear Britain,

Mark Carney is kind of a big deal in Canada. By that I mean, most people haven't heard of him until he flooded the news last week. Even then, only a few people were properly impressed by this young(ish) Canuck kicking the doors down of one of Britain's oldest institutions. The worldwide recession/ economic turmoil has been felt but certainly not as harshly on these frigid shores because Carney has quietly and assuredly steered us from the brink. Canadians don't know about Carney because they don't have to know about him. But, more importantly, there isn't the same amount of interest in the lives of our leaders and representatives as in Britain. We don't care about  the details of his rather wimpy college hockey career (as Harvard's back-up goalie) or that his wife is an "eco-warrior"
in the same way that your media, for example, loves to shame George Osborne/ David Cameron for their Bullingdon Club days. I, as someone who follows your news moderately, know more about the families/ personal lives of each leader of each of Britain's political party's (front bench MPs as well) than I do of any single Canadian politician. Even when our politicians screw up (*ahem* Bev Oda), they get off relatively lightly. So, while I agree with the Financial Times that Mr. Carney needs to develop a thick skin quickly, I would ask, like the Idle Historian, that you be kind.

Will economic recovery for Britain be swift? I sincerely hope so and, certainly, Mr. Osborne has staked his career on this bold choice. How he has managed to survive until now, I don't understand? David Cameron has a blind spot when it comes to George (Bullingdon and all) or, more likely, there is NO TORY capable to taking over! But, before you revert to your English tendency to only see doom and gloom, have some patience with our Mr. Carney. He can't do worse than Sir Mervyn King, right? He will speak with a strange accent and might not take to cricket right away. He's also brilliant but not a god. He cannot lift austerity and replace it with 1980s-like champagne infused prosperity overnight. If you're not happy with his performance, we'll happily have him back. 

Yours ever,


It seems like Britain's old colonial history is being reversed in the City, with the Bank of England now under the leadership of a Canadian, and that enormous temple of global capitalism (The Shard) being erected with Qatari financing. This, on the back of recent news that Canada and Britain will be sharing some foreign embassies, has led some to observe that "The Empire Strikes Back." Old colonial ties have been dissolved, but some shared interests remain. Members of the Commonwealth, similarly governed by systems of common-law and a shared proficiency in English, conduct trade at a rate 20% lower than with non-Commonwealth countries, says The Economist. With euroscepticism high in Britain, a few have pointed to the Commonwealth as the potential site of new free-trade zone if Britain exits the common market. Exiting the EU would be a great shame, and despite its present condition Britain's membership should be preserved. But, perhaps the Commonwealth could concurrently become more than just an organization with a shared monarch and a quadrennial sporting event. It's an organization with reserves of soft power.  New imaginings of Commonwealth should ONLY begin with the member-states existing in partnership as equals. Between these nations, closer connections through trade, scholarship exchanges, and visas for work and travel could create an international organization capable of holding meaningful summits on climate change, and encouraging the protection of free speech, the freedom of religious expression, greater access to education for both genders, and improved health care. 

Certainly such a relationship would be easiest to build between the former dominions, whose culture and political systems are most similar, and whose memories of Empire are much the same having not experienced repression, but actively repressed (and still to varying degrees repress) the aboriginal peoples whose land they possess. But, for these nations, regional trade ties promise a potentially greater reward, and allow access to a large market. However, as India continues to grow into a powerful world player and the world's largest democracy, there are great incentives to creating another world organization dedicated to the exchange of information, ideas and people, to promote peace and understanding. 


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