Sherlock and Murdoch and Me

Why do we do what we do? Many people struggle with the answer but I know. I think I’m a detective and I think what I do matters. Take a second and name a detective from literature or television. It’s easy because we know a lot of them. They entertain, inform, and leave us with a warm assurance that, in their hands at least, the good guys always win.

murdoch and sherlock

Every detective begins already knowing what happened. The detective’s job is to find out why it happened, who was involved, name the guilty, and exonerate the innocent. While many others may have already combed the scene, his job is to see it differently. The detective gathers clues that others may have missed or dismissed. The detective reads and then reads some more to become expert on whatever and whoever the case involves. The detective sifts evidence through the sieve of his reading and experience. He then writes up his conclusions which are based on his use the past to explain the present and will hopefully help people to avoid similar bad stuff and people in the future. But he’s not done. The court brings together other experts; some perhaps embarrassed by having missed what the detective found and eager to punch holes in his conclusions. Members of the public arrive who are fascinated with the event and eager to learn more. The detective’s work and conclusion are put to the test and the media weighs in with its opinion. Meanwhile, the detective has already moved on. The detective will happily discuss the case now holding the public and court’s interest but his mind is already on the next case.

Now here is the challenge. Please go back and re-read the last paragraph but substitute the word historian for detective. Don’t cheat – do it. Go ahead, I’ll wait for you ………………………………………………………………………………………………..done?  Interesting isn’t it? That’s what I do.

I am working on a case right now. Everyone knows what happened but I arrived on the scene about a year ago. I have read everything I can find about the people and events of the era that I am investigating. I always know I’m done that stage when the books and articles start overlapping and repeating themselves. It’s then time to do the real work, the archival work; to stop going wide and go deep. Last month I did research at the archives in Ottawa. I then moved on to the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum in Boston.

If a museum is a country’s front parlour then an archives is its attic. Its job is to hold and protect every document, book, record, and piece of music, foot of film, picture, painting, and photograph that tells our stories about ourselves. Like museums, libraries, monuments, and architecture, an archive represents, reflects, and explains us. Archives are a historian’s playground and workplace. Without archives historians are unable to solve cases, unable to write history.

So what, you may say. Well, history is never settled because the story is never completely told. History is the stories and myths that hold us together as a people. Without at least a cursory knowledge of history we are like Forrest Gump’s feather floating without purpose, understanding, or intention. Without history we are like amnesiacs; constantly surprised and confused and vulnerable to the next politician or pundit arguing without context and hoping you won’t ask the next question. But the historian is there, like the nosy detective who pokes around and sees things that may have been missed and urges a new look at things considered settled.

Journalism is history in a hurry and TV punditry is history on crack. Real history is a wise detective asking new questions and offering a new perspective. History is not nostalgia, that warm-bath sensation of gazing longingly back on misty memories of times gone by. No, history is a cold shower. It is not a balm but a challenge. It insists that we not be like those who after the tragedy of 9-11 asked like dewy-eyed school girls why they hate us. It will not allow us to grow angry at Native people’s anger. History is neither a weapon to attack another’s ideas or shield to protect one’s own. It is a spy glass, a detective’s spy glass, there to examine people, events, and ideas to determine the past to explain the present.

A good history book is a grand detective story. It is a mystery solved that you didn’t even think was a mystery in the first place. So I guess, sitting there alone, so far from home and opening another archival file I was Sherlock or maybe Murdoch. But I felt more like Columbo. I was a little dishevelled and ragged around the edges but doing my best to ask the right questions so that the story I will tell will be worth the telling.

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John F. Kennedy and My Mother’s Tears

I recall the first time I saw my mother cry. You need to understand that my mom was a tough woman, as tough as burnished leather, at least on the outside, the side she allowed most folks to see. But on this day she was sobbing. It was the afternoon of November 22, 1963. I was a middle-class Canadian kid in a brush cut just rolled home from the rigours of grade one but now standing in my living room, still and stunned at the sight of my mother, slumped into the couch, red-eyed and weeping before the flickering television.

She explained that a man had died, a good man, and that he had been shot by a crazy man. I remember that I cried too. It was not for him – I had no idea who the good man was – but for her, for her grief, and for my addled efforts to understand. Today, for the same three reasons, I cried again.

You see, the little boy grew up to be an author and this week I’m doing research at Boston’s John F. Kennedy Library and Museum. Boston is a terrific city. On my first morning I jumped the red line to Pawk Street, that’s right, that’s what the man said. Within 200 steps of the subway stop I glommed on to a walking tour of the Freedom Trail led by a gentleman in period costume who was among the best guides I have ever experienced. It was marvelous; there were great sites and greater stories. I then watched a legalize marijuana rally in the Commons and laughed out loud when at the count of three the thousand or so folks splayed on blankets on the grass lit up their grass. I told a yellow T-shirted volunteer about Justin Trudeau’s pledge up in Canada but she didn’t care.

The dawn brought work. The Kennedy Library’s enormous, white, flat tower soars like a sail into the sky and overlooks the bay that reminds visitors of Kennedy’s love of the sea. The commissionaire found my name on the list, led me to an elevator in the back and with the turn his special key I was lifted to the fourth floor archives. For the rest of the day and the next two I time travelled to the 1960s. Tapping away on my laptop I recorded notes from box after box and file after file.

Kennedy library archives

My spot on the 4th floor.

On the afternoon of the third day I declared a break to finally see the museum. I stood with a group of women enchanted by home movie clips showing the Kennedys at play in Hyannisport. Kennedy smiled as he swung a golf club, sailed, swam, and at one point drove a gaggle of laughing, bare-chested, sun-tanned children far too fast on a bouncing golf cart. They were pictures of a family and life about which only the stone-hearted could not feel warmth. It was then on to politics. Films and artifacts depicted the nomination and then the election. No wonder people watching the debate thought he wiped the floor with Nixon. No kidding, did people really wear those goofy buttons and hats?

It was all good. I wandered with the gentle acceptance that like most museums its analysis was skimming as a stone over very deep ponds with its focus on entertainment more than education. But then I arrived at the gallery dedicated to the inauguration. The large screen with seating before it invited you to suspend belief and imagine you were there. About fifteen people were doing just that. There was a clutch of teenage boys with their big caps and big feet, three or four couples about my age, and a young man and woman whose eyes and hands betrayed either a honeymoon trip or one in the offing. I stood at the side not expecting to stay for the whole thing but I became entranced. There was Kennedy, tanned on that freezing January afternoon so long ago and speaking in that Boston twang. And here were these people, generations later sitting silent, eyes wide, many mouths agape, drinking in the idealism of his message as if cool water in a steaming desert oasis. I listened to him but watched them.

Kennedy inauguration

It was then it happened; a tear found my eye. I smiled and my lip quivered. I let it hang there and then run down my cheek, closed my eyes, and nodded. My mother has been gone for years now and I had not felt so close to her in a long while. The tear was not mine – it was hers. After all this time I think I finally understood that November afternoon.

The day Kennedy was murdered tore time. For millions of people the irreparable rending forever split the before and after. The violence in Dallas was visited not just upon the man but also on the very idea that everything was possible and all problems solvable. As I watched the people watching him and smudged my cheek I realized that in the final analysis, Kennedy’s gift was not his programs and polices but himself. His contribution, and the one that brought my mother to him then and the people to his museum now, was the courageous determination that idealism is not naive, hope is not silly, that acting collectively is not surrendering liberty, and that community can extend beyond one’s family, or city, or even country.

Of course Kennedy was a flawed man. The museum is silent about his hiding crippling health issues and the cocktail of drugs with which he was injected each day to carry on. It did not mention the women. He was a flawed leader. The museum ignored his ballooning the deficit to build a mammoth military and glanced over his being late in joining the march to civil rights and his having started the march to Vietnam. But that’s okay. There is no such thing as a perfect man or leader.

Now I’m back in my hotel scrunching notes into prose. When this book is published I hope that readers will understand Kennedy’s time a little better and consider the effects that his policies and personality had on Canada. What they will not know is our secret; that in the book’s writing I came to an understanding far more profound. In a city far from home, and for just a moment, I was once again my mother’s little boy.