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Tag Archive: history

Beyond the Pale

A librarian recalls the War of 1812’s invasion of York, and US soldiers’ looting of the first-ever Toronto Library
Elmsley HouseToronto Public LibraryOriginally built in 1798, Elmsley House served as Upper Canada’s Government House from 1815 to 1841. (Photograph of photo-mechanical reproduction of a drawing by Jane Harris.)

Throughout human history, libraries have been targeted in seemingly personal attacks by invading forces. The immense Library of Alexandria was burned in 48 BCE — whether by accident or on purpose is not entirely clear; the Japanese army destroyed many Chinese university libraries during WWII; the Khmer Rouge burned most of the National Library of Cambodia in the 1970s; and Iraq lost huge portions of its national archives during the 2003 war, perpetrator unclear.

The invasion of York during the War of 1812 contained a touch of “comic opera” quality, as historian and former University of Toronto professor George Glazebrook called it in his 1971 book, The Story of Toronto, that was especially evident in the looting of the first-ever Toronto Library. As a long-time librarian, I often think that libraries are special; this part of the war’s history suggests that they may indeed be considered sacrosanct in the conduct of warfare.

The fifteen-ship American fleet first appeared in the York harbour on April 27, 1813. According to Glazebrook, York was “defended by a few obsolete cannons and 300 regulars, with the shaky support of an equal number of inexperienced militia against an invading army of 1,700 supported by powerful guns on a ship that moved at will.” Despite the weak defensive line, Canadian and British casualties in the invasion were less than half those of the Americans.  (more…)

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Posted in History  •  3 Comments

Old Souls

A letter from Venice

A letter from Venice, where the author is soon to attend the premiere of Barney’s Version

VeniceNoah Richler

Noah Richler is in Venice to attend the premiere of Barney’s Version, the film adaptation of his father’s famous novel — and the subject of Noah’s cover story for The Walrus’s November 2010 issue. In the coming days, he will report on the event itself; meanwhile, The Walrus Blog presents a charming anecdote from his time in the city.

On the Lido, by the pier at San Nicolò, I asked an elderly woman where the Jewish cemetery was and she said she had no idea. As it turned out, the cemetery was right behind her. Founded by decree in 1386, the resting place has endured much greater indignities over the more than six centuries of its existence than being overlooked by one who lives immediately next to it.

At its gates, a mere twenty feet away, I met Mr. Izzo, a kind and impeccably attired man in his seventies, a fellow Jew who agreed to show me around the old cemetery as well as the “new” one started in 1774. Mr. Izzo is lean and handsome, with deep lines furrowed into his forehead. He was wearing white linen trousers, a light-blue linen shirt, cobalt blue blazer — and a kippah, of course. I was not dressed shabbily either, but I was grateful that he was emanating such kindness, as I was not wearing one, and could feel that some part of him was trying to gauge to what point of forgetting my Judaism had descended — and whether or not my wife Sarah, with her good Hebraic name, was Jewish or another post along the road of his people’s vanishing.

We toured the cemetery for a good three hours, during which time Mr. Izzo recounted centuries of abuse of its graves, starting with the encouraged vandalism of those in the employ of the irritated Benedictine monks who lived, when the cemetery was founded, in the monastery beside it. This pattern of defilement continued at the hands of various armies, including Napoleon’s and Hitler’s, but also Italy’s (there is still the remnants of a shooting range next door); it was perpetuated as well by property owners and even the city, which built roads over some of the 12,000 graves in the area (according to Mr. Izzo’s estimate), if the cemetery is measured to its true, vague extent. Mr. Izzo, who is the graves’ custodian, pointed out the resting places of celebrated rabbis and poets; he clearly enjoyed the vagaries of an accumulated history impossible to ascertain in all its details, and with ambiguities often rooted in language. (Is “Guidecca” derived from “Jew” or “judged people”? Who really knows?) (more…)

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Posted in Foreign Correspondence  •  No Comments

Exclusive Edward Burtynsky photos Backstage at the Royal Alexandra Theatre. Click for gallery

(Backstage at the Royal Alexandra Theatre, photograph by Edward Burtynsky.)

In the sixth grade, I played Lysander in the Iles Elementary School’s presentation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It was as professional a production as you’d imagine it to be. The fairies danced to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”; Hermia, Helena, Demetrius, and I wore pyjamas (it was nighttime, you see, and we were very sleepy); and Christie Walden’s memorable Titania looked like a twelve-year-old cross between the Bride of Frankenstein and Diana Ross on the cover of Why Do Fools Fall in Love?

I wasn’t cut out to be an actor, and it was my second and final appearance on stage. (The year before, I’d played a senile mountie in a show about an old folks’ home. My job was to intermittently wander across the stage singing, “I love the North.” Video survives.) In fact, I’ve grown to vaguely dislike the theatre. I prefer my artifice in the form of anapests and enjambments, and I do not like being seated in a crowded room. In high school, I tried to avoid the theatre kids, and was largely successful. I went to one play in university, and only because a friend was playing Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest, a role that I knew (from reading, not seeing) that I liked. While she was good, I enjoyed the version in my head better. (more…)

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Posted in The Shelf  •  No Comments
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