21 April 2017

CNQ Scores National Magazine Award Noms

Word from Toronto yesterday that the Canadian Notes & Queries "Games Issue" has been nominated for a National Magazine Award. Congratulations to all who contributed:
Chris Andrechek
Tobias Carroll
Vincent Colistro
Daniel Donaldson
Alex Good
Spencer Gordon
Kasper Hartman
David Mason
Maurice Mierau
David Nickel
Alexandra Oliver
Mark Sampson
Robert Earl Stewart
Kaitlin Tremblay
Most of all, congratulations and thanks to editor Emily Donaldson, who not only put the whole thing together, but earned a second nomination for her essay "Pinball: A Walking Tour". Emily's essay is available online here at the CNQ website.

My own contribution to the issue, concerning Pierre Berton and Charles Templeton's foray into the competitive board games industry, can also be read online: "Tour de Force Reawakens".

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17 April 2017

A Motorola TV Hour Nightmare

A not-so-brief follow-up to last week's post on Judith Merril's Shadow on the Hearth.

"The title of my book had been chosen by the publishers in preference to about a dozen other titles I had provided, all of which pointed towards the idea of atomic war," writes Judith Merril in her unfinished autobiography, Better to Have Loved (Toronto: Between the Lines, 2002). Was Atomic Attack one of them? I prefer Shadow on the Hearth, just as I prefer her novel to the television adaptation.

Atomic Attack aired on 18 May 1954, as part of the first and only season of The Motorola TV Hour. The director was Ralph Nelson, justly celebrated for the films Requiem for a Heavyweight and Lilies of the Field. So why is this so bad?

Blame lies with writer David Davison's script, though I do wonder whether it was entirely his fault. A New York newspaperman, in 1947 Davidson earned significant praise for his debut novel, The Steeper Cliff. The story of an American serviceman's search for a missing person in post-war Bavaria, it was published in the United States, Britain and Australia (right). Through much of the 'fifties, Davidson made good money writing for Kraft TheaterThe Ford Theater Hour, The Alcoa Hour, The Elgin Hour, and The United States Steel Hour, but had become disenchanted by decade's end. Davidson's moment in the spotlight came in 1961, when he appeared before the FCC to testify on the networks' deteriorating standards, which he blamed on the pursuit of ratings. By that time he'd all but given up writing for television. His two remaining decades were spent teaching.

Was Motorola just after ratings with Atomic Attack?

I ask because it ended up with so much more. Cold War historian Bill Geerhart informs that the teleplay was used in Civil Defense instruction and was listed for rent or sale in government catalogues. Indeed, the opening of Atomic Attack sounds every bit like propaganda:
The play you are about to see deals with an imaginary H-Bomb attack on New York City, and with the measures Civil Defense would take in such an event for the rescue and protection of the population in and around the city.
Davidson cuts the first two pages of Shadow on the Hearth, in which Veda calls in sick, and begins with the Mitchells – Gladys (Phyllis Thaxter), Barbie (Patsy Bruder), Ginny (Patty McCormack) and Jon (uncredited) at breakfast. It's a short scene, though it establishes all we need to know about the family and the busy day ahead: Jon is off to work, the girls are off to school, the maid is ill, and there's washing to be done.

Cut to the blandest of establishing shots:

Gladys descends the stairs and there is a blinding flash of light. She thinks a blown fuse is to blame, until rocked by a shockwave. Air raid sirens sound.

Extreme overacting follows, though I can't quite bring myself to fault Thaxter, who is stuck delivering this long monologue as she races about the house:
"Air raid? No. No, no, it can't be! Children! Jon! Clouds of smoke! Coming up from the south, from New York! Mrs Jackson! Mrs Jackson, what's happened! Don't you hear me? Oh, please! Is nobody home?"
This last bit is yelled out her kitchen window. Gladys rushes through the dining room and living room to the vestibule closet and then the telephone:
"Children at school. Jon! Jon at the office in New York. Oh, New York. New York. Operator? Long distance. No answer. Try the local operator. Operator? Somebody? No answer from anybody! Children. Must get down to school."
She throws on her raincoat and is almost out the door when the radio she'd turned on moments earlier comes to life:
"Your attention, please. We interrupt our normal program to cooperate in security and Civil Defense measures as requested by the United States government. This is a CONELRAD radio alert. Listen carefully. This station is now leaving the air. Tune your standard radio receiver to 640 or 1240 kilocycles for official Civil Defense instructions and news. Once again – Your attention, please! Your attention, please! This is your official Civil Defense broadcaster. An explosion has just taken place in New York City, which has believed to have resulted from the dropping of a hydrogen bomb. The bomb was probably carried by a guided missile launched from a submarine at sea! All Civil Defense workers report to emergency stations immediately."
"The children!" she cries. Gladys rushes to leave, but stops when she hears this:
Stay where you are, unless you are in immediate danger! Do not attempt to join your children if they are in school! They are being well taken care of where they are! Do not try to telephone! Remember: radioactivity may make food and water in open containers dangerous. Use canned and otherwise protected foods until further notice. Do not attempt to enquire about relatives in New York – as yet there is no information!

It reminded me of nothing so much as an old Gilda Radner sketch.

The remaining forty-three minutes of Atomic Attack – it runs fifty – aren't quite as funny, which isn't to say that they're not worth watching, particularly for readers of the book. After all, Shadow on the Hearth was written by a Trotskyist who would one day relocate to Canada in part because she "could no longer accept the realpolitik of being an American citizen." Atomic Attack strips away all shading and uncertainty, with everyone living under a government that has the situation well in  hand. Nowhere is this more evident that in the depiction of Jim Taylor, the Civil Defense Block Warden. Where in the novel he is a nefarious figure who sees the crisis and his new status as a means of manipulating and ultimately bedding Gladys, the Jim Taylor of Atomic Attack (William Kemp) is a by the book, no-nonsense and reliable.

Scientist Garson Levy – rechristened "Garson Lee" (Robert Keith) – has much the same background, but a very different future. As in the novel, he is being pursued by the authorities, but as he discovers this isn't because of his activism; they want him to set up a research project on "radiation exposure and how to deal with it."

Garson should know better than to distrust authority.

A youngish Walter Matthau plays young Dr Spinelli, but nothing is mentioned of his Shadow on the Hearth pacifist background. As in the novel, he takes Ginny to be examined at the hospital, which is here depicted as a calm, professional place with little activity. Ginny aside, the only patient seen is a rambunctious young scamp with a few sores on his face. "They're only important if they're not kept clean," Dr Spinelli reassures.

Other differences have less to do with propaganda than the challenge of cramming a 277-page novel into an Hour that isn't an hour long. Drunken neighbour Edie Cowell is replaced by Mrs Moore (Audrey Christie), one of several homeless people dumped at the Mitchell house by Block Warden Taylor. One of their number, Mrs Harvey (Elizabeth Ross) gives Gladys the opportunity to open up about her concerns for her husband. The scene is interrupted by a phone call from Jon's secretary, who more or less implies the worst. This is the greatest departure. As a reader of the novel, and a viewer familiar with the Hollywood Ending, I fully expected Jon to appear in the closing minutes. This never happens. And, so, a daring, unexpected conclusion.

In Better to Have Loved, Merril writes:
Watching the adaptation was sort of like having a different lens on each of my eyes. One part of me was saying, "They killed my book. They've killed my book." The other part was saying , "But they did the best they could to translate it into television."
I wonder about this.

Atomic Attack can be seen today on YouTube. When did Judith Merril last see it? I'm betting decades before her death – and perhaps only once.

Atomic Attack didn't kill Shadow on the Hearth, nor was it the best one could expect from television. The novel has great potential for adaptation today. Imagine a period piece in which it is believed that exposure to extreme radiation is might be cured. Imagine a time when nuclear weapons weren't nearly so numerous or powerful, a time in which most might actually survive all-out nuclear war.


Trivia: Radio broadcasts come fast and furious in both the novel and the Motorola TV Hour adaptation. In the latter, but not the former, Gladys uses Motorola radios to keep abreast of developments.

Product placement.

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16 April 2017

Easter Verse by Ethel Ursula Foran

Mature juvenilia by Ethel Ursula Foran, from her first volume, Poems: A Few Blossoms from the Garden of My Dreams (Montreal: Beauchemin, 1922):  
                     The holy Lenten season
                     At last has passed away.
                     And to-day we celebrate
                     Our glorions Easter Day.
                     "Reserrexit sicut dixit"
                     The Angels sweetly sing,
                     And in humble adoration
                     Pay homage to their King.
                     "He is risen," Yes, we knew it;
                     He had but the word to say
                     And His glorious, sacred Body
                     Rose from out the tomb that day.
                     Christ has risen," Alleluia,
                     Let us all our treasures bring
                     To the feet of our sweet Savior,
                     To our dear triumphant King.
                     Only one sweet tiny treasure
                     Jesus asks with love divine,
                     'Tis your heart — then won't you give it
                     To your risen Lord and mine?
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11 April 2017

A Nuclear Family Nightmare

Shadow on the Hearth
Judith Merril
New York: Doubleday, 1950

Westchester housewife Gladys Mitchell is leading the life of June Cleaver. True, there had been struggles in her past – the Great Depression, for example – but things are now going swimmingly. She and husband Jon, a highly successful engineer with his own firm in Manhattan, can take pride in having provided a comfortable family home for their three children. Their eldest, freckle-faced Tom, is in the ROTC. Babsy – she now prefers "Barbara" – has begun putting on airs, but is otherwise an agreeable fifteen-year-old. And then there's Ginny, the baby of the family, an adorable little girl of five whose best friend is a stuffed toy horse.

The novel opens on a day like any other with the family – sans Tom, who is away at school – seated around the breakfast table. But then Veda, the poorly-paid Mitchell family maid, calls in sick. Barbara needs some clothing washing done, which means that Gladys won't be free to attend a ladies' luncheon. Oh, and she'd been working so to be accepted!

Jon leaves for work, dropping the girls at school along the way, and Gladys attends to the laundry. She's down in the basement, hovering over her washer and dryer, when there's a sound that is something like thunder. The light streaming through the window doubles in intensity, then becomes very dull. Dismissing it as "a freak electric storm", Gladys dons a new dress, powder and lipstick. It isn't until after the girls return, courtesy of nice new schoolteacher Miss Pollack, that Gladys comes to realize there has been an atomic attack... Atomic Attack being the title of the 1954 Motorola TV Hour adaptation. The news comes courtesy of the radio:
"For those of you who have just tuned in, we repeat: several atomic bombs of unknown origin landed in and near the harbor of New York City this afternoon. The first explosion occurred at about 1:15 P.M., Eastern Standard Time, and was followed by others over a period estimated to be approximately one half hour. It is know that no bombs were dropped after two o'clock. Eyewitnesses state that the first bomb exploded underwater at the mouth of the East River, affecting harbor shipping in New York and Brooklyn, and substantially damaging a large part of the lower tip of Manhattan Island."
Gladys listens in horror – "Jon was in the city all day!" – realizing that she alone must care for the girls and... well, the hearth. If only Veda
hadn't called in sick!

Nearly all 277 pages of Shadow on the Hearth take place in the Mitchell home, which is not to say that things aren't eventful. Early in the crisis, Gladys must deal with troublesome neighbour Edie Crowell, who persists in phoning, despite instructions to leave the lines clear. On the second day, she shows up drunk as a skunk on the front steps.

Can you blame her?

There's a gas leak, which probably has nothing to do with the bombs, but does add to the drama. At another point, thugs try to break in, but are beat back by Dr Garson Levy, the high school's science teacher. Barbara fills her mother in on the doctor's background:
"He knows everything about atom bombs. He was at Oak Ridge and everything… Only he got black-listed or something on account of refusing to do war work, and making a lot of speeches and being on committees, so he had to go be a teacher."
Yes, he had to go to be a teacher.

Levy has been running from house to house informing parents that their children have been exposed to radioactive rain. Local Civil Defence officials are in hot pursuit. When the heat becomes to great, Levy is offered temporary refuge in the Mitchell home, filling something of the void left by missing husband Jon. He fixes a toy, boards windows, and devises a clever solution to that pesky gas problem. Gladys comes to think of him as "Mr Fit-It", but he's so much more. Garson Levy comes equipped with personal geiger counter and everything required to monitor the white blood cells of the Mitchell children.

It's all a bit much.

Fortunately other characters are better drawn, the most interesting being Jim Turner. The Mitchell's hard-nosed next-door neighbour, Gladys is surprised to learn that Turner is the leader of the local Civil Defense squadron.
"Well, nobody else knew either," he assured her. "Nobody who wasn't in it. When you want to win you got to keep a poker face and play it close to the vest. And any time the government let out any information about what we were going some scientist would start yelling about warmongers, or some reds would have a demonstration."
Turner turns up frequently, revelling in his newfound authority, and doing prep work to put the moves on Gladys. As evacuation looks imminent, he tries to dictate where she will live and what she will be doing. Maid Veda reenters the story, dragged in by soldiers who are investigating whether she is a foreign agent. Neighbour Edie plants the seed that maybe, just maybe, the Civil Defense would prefer people like herself dead. We learn that Peter Spinelli, the young medical doctor who accompanies Turner on his route, was denied funding for his studies because of his association with pacifist groups. The press is censored and then disappears, replaced by government broadcasting that consists almost exclusively of lengthy lists of casualties.

These sinister elements run beneath the surface, overwhelmed by a flurry of activity and the ever increasing challenges faced by the survivors. It's such that a broadcast reference to "the military government" passes without comment. Before anyone has a chance to catch their breath, the war comes to an abrupt end. The news comes over the radio:
"Five thirty-seven A.M., Friday, May seventh,” a hoarse voice intoned. “That is the historic moment. We have just received official news from General Headquarters. The war is over! The enemy conceded at 5:37 A.M., Eastern Standard Time, just five minutes ago. Ladies and gentleman, the national anthem!"
As for Jon, he somehow survived the bombs that rain down on Manhattan. In fleeting scenes – vignettes, really – he escapes an infirmary and makes his way to Westchester. Nearing home, he's shot through the shoulder, loses a good amount of blood, and is carried the rest of the way by good Dr Spinelli. Merril's original ending had Jon die. Doubleday wanted a happy ending... so why am I left with the impression that things are only going to get worse?

Object: A first edition of the author's first book, my copy was purchased last year in London at Attic Books. Price: $6.25. The ugly jacket was designed by Edward Kasper, a man whose awkward work I first encountered in the inner gatefold of The Band's Moondog Matinee.

Access: The 1950 Doubleday was followed three years later by Sedgwick & Jackson's first British edition (above left). Remarkably, Shadow on the Hearth has appeared only once in paperback: a 1966, edition published in the UK by Compact Books (above right). It is currently available in Spaced Out: Three Novels of Tomorrow, a collection of Merril's novels published by the New England Science Fiction Association.

There are plenty of first editions listed online, the least expensive being a Good Sedgwick & Jackson at £7.00.

At US$375, the most expensive is a Very Good signed copy of the Doubleday first once belonging to International Festival of Authors' founding Artistic Director Greg Gatenby... but let's not get into that. The bookseller is throwing in a copy of the festival's newspaper tribute to Merril signed by Samuel Delany, Michael Moorcock, Frederick Pohl, Spider Robinson and the lady herself. I recommend the Fine signed copy being offered by a Michigan bookseller. Price: US$87.00.

A German translation, Dunkle Schatten (Dark Shadows), was published in 1983, complete with cover that looks every bit like it comes from the Reagan Era... because it does. In fact, the enemy is never identified. The Italians did a much better job with the covers on their translation, Orrore su Manhattan (Horror of Manhattan), which has twice seen print (1956 and 1992).

Library patrons will be disappointed. Library and Archives Canada, the Toronto Public Library, and six of our universities have copies.

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09 April 2017

Canon Scott's Vimy Ridge Poem

Verse written on the occasion of the greatest Canadian victory of the Great War by one who was there. This version of Scott's poem is taken from Canadian Poems of the Great War, edited John W. Garvin (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1918).

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01 April 2017

Verse from an April a Century Past

Likely the penultimate poem by Toronto's Bernard Freeman Trotter – killed by a German shell the following month – from his posthumous A Canadian Twilight and Other Poems of War and Peace (Toronto: McClelland, Goodchild & Stewart, 1917).

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