Friday, December 30, 2011

(No.183) Christopher Hitchens: unworldly fluency

One of the pleasures in my life has been reading or listening to the words of highly articulate, thoughtful people. Disagreeing with a particular point of view need not diminish one's enjoyment of its expression.

There are people whose words I will always try to find an opportunity to read or hear. Those who are highly articulate writers are often not as fluent when it comes to verbal presentation. Among my favourite columnists is Toronto Star columnist Rick Salutin (formerly with The Globe and Mail). More articulate as a speaker than as a writer is Stephen Lewis, the former Ontario NDP leader and Canadian UN ambassador as is the English satirist and director Jonathan Miller from Beyond The Fringe.

Then there is the type far less frequently encountered: those who are as skilled verbally -- in debate, discussion or interview --as they are when writing a column or essay. In this category my longtime favourite was Malcolm Muggeridge (1903-1990), English writer, editor and television host. Another is the journalist and former editor of Harper's Magazine, the American Lewis Lapham.

My notional group among whom I regard Muggeridge and Lapham as charter members has another who figured in the news recently. On Dec. 15 of this month Christopher Hitchens died, age 62, after a life of heavy drinking and, as most obituarists seemed anxious to emphasize, even heavier smoking. He was, as was Muggeridge in his day, one of the most accomplished and controversial people in Anglo-American letters.

The views argued with ferocious energy by Hitchens were often controversial and as a polemicist he annoyed many right the way across the political spectrum. He wrote hundreds if not thousands of columns for publications as diverse as The New Statesman, The Nation, The Atlantic, Vanity Fair and Slate. He willingly appeared on American cable news, Fox as well as CNN, when they were not afraid to have him on.

From Hitchens' sharp criticism of targets such as Henry Kissinger, Mother Theresa and Diana, Princess of Wales through his support for Margaret Thatcher's Falklands War to support of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, perhaps nothing aroused his critics as much as his frontal assault on religion laid out in his bestseller "God Is Not Great".

As the years passed Hitchens became more difficult to categorize politically. He gained his early English reputation as an Oxford University Trotskyite but he became far less predictably left wing on issues, especially after he moved to the U.S. in 1981.

Nothing tested Hitchens' courage, beliefs and principles as did the esophagael cancer with which he was diagnosed while in the midst of a book tour promoting his 2010 memoir "Hitch 22". However he never wavered in his atheism nor in the forcefulness and articulateness of his writing and speaking, virtually to the end of his life.

Those who waited for and in some cases wanted to see him turn to religion during his public dying were disappointed. He declared: "Suppose I ditch the principles I have held for a lifetime in the hope of gaining favor at the last minute. I hope and trust that no serious person would be at all impressed by such a hucksterish choice."

I among many, many others will miss Christopher Hitchens. I cannot improve on what his longtime friend, the English novelist Ian McEwen, has written: "His unworldly fluency never deserted him, his commitment [to writing] was passionate, and he never deserted his trade."

by Alastair Rickard




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Tuesday, December 20, 2011

(No.182) Manulife: pigs get fat, hogs get slaughtered

In the last couple of months I have written several columns about Manulife and Sun Life and their respective performances as Canadian financial institutions. My critical comments about Manulife and its senior management in "Manulife Jabberwocky" (column No. 177, posted Nov.13, 2011 to attracted a number of responses from the financial services community, almost all of them positive.

Just recently a Canadian college business instructor wrote to thank me "for maintaining your blog. I am sure that it seems a thankless exercise at times, but I enjoy reading it and it helps me to better understand the life insurance industry. I am quite looking forward to your comments in light of Sun's announcement of this morning [withdrawing from the sale of individual life and annuity policies in the U.S.], especially given your blog posts on Sun's U.S. business."

I have received several emails expressing similar expectations involving I will indeed be devoting a future column (likely the next one) to comments on the changes at Sun Life since the Nov.30 retirement of CEO Don Stewart and the takeover by his successor Dean Connor. However in this column I want to share a few of the reactions I received to my comments about Manulife. [Insertions within square brackets are mine.]

A securities analyst in Toronto thought my Manulife comments were "Well said!! Let's not forget where was the central regulator [OSFI] as all of this was going on? Oh ... and if some Canadian life insurers want U.S. GAAP [I] wonder how they would feel about a U.S. P/B valuation on their shares? GAAP may have many shortcomings but markets are not that inefficient and know how to look through the weakness as the much lower valuations of some U.S. insurers can attest. ... Always enjoy your column."

This rocket came from a person associated with one of the big five Canadian banks: "Thank you -- and keep up the good work!! Bunch of goddamn [deleted] and the financial press says nothing. It was interesting to note that Berkshire [Hathaway] announced a ton of losses on derivatives on the same day that the Manulife [deleted] told us how they plan to make so much money on CDSs -- because they are 'experts' at credit?"

A life insurance broker connected with Manulife emailed to say that "I read your blog on a regular basis, and ... you are spot on with Manulife. The bloom is certainly off that rose. As a distributor for Manulife and several other insurers it has always been a puzzle as to why they consistently do what so many other manufacturers won't. I will say however from a retail perspective Manulife has done an excellent job building its brand in spite of itself. Anyway, the saying 'pigs get fat and hogs get slaughtered' fits the Manulife scenario. Insurers have always had the keys to the financial treasure chest,why is it that they must always try to blow themselves up?"

Another response to my Manulife column came from an American university professor of insurance who wrote to tell me that "you've done it again! I laughed out loud -- something that doesn't happen so often these days. Keep after 'em!"

A former senior executive at a major Canadian life insurance company also thought my Manulife comments were "well said!. Yours is at times a lonely voice as much of the financial media in Canada acts as a cheering section for the press releases of the likes of Manulife. They continue to be the darling of the analysts largely because they are the loudest of the voices at the table and have defined how to read the tea leaves."

On the other side of the matter an opinion from someone at Manulife posited that "someday the market will stop looking in the rear view mirror and start looking where Manulife is going. Interest rate sensitivity is 90% hedged, equity risk is 60% hedged. MCCSR was 241 last quarter .... I'm higher on Manulife than I have ever been and while I don't expect a great quarter, I think given the market it won't be too bad."

And finally on the subject of my comparison of Manulife with Sun Life, this flattering but hyperbolic comment from a former regulator: "Al, you have outdone yourself. Move over Conrad Black."

by Alastair Rickard



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Sunday, December 11, 2011

(No.181) "The Sisters Brothers" & other reading

Many if not most regular readers of fiction have favourite authors. Some write novels featuring a continuing character who strikes a chord with the reader. I am certainly one among such readers.

In the last month or two I have been the beneficiary of many hours of reading pleasure provided by the recent novels of several of my favourite writers plus a couple of newcomers to my bookshelf. In this column I share references to several of these novels, all of which are recently published; some are not yet available in paperback. I enjoyed them all in varying degrees and I recommend them all.

Ian Rankin, "The Impossible Dead".
In the crime/police genre my longtime favourite fictional character is the now retired Scottish Detective Inspector John Rebus of the Border And Lothian (Edinburgh) police. He is the superb creation through numerous novels of Ian Rankin, a Scot who has now written a second novel featuring D.I. Malcolm Fox. He works in the Edinburgh police department referred to as "the Complaints", what in American terminology is usually called Internal Affairs -- the police who investigate the police. Fox has some similarities to Rebus but also significant differences. This Fox novel is even better than the first; a textured and multi-layered tale that suggests that the Fox novels will become as addictive as were those featuring Rebus.

Patrick DeWitt, "The Sisters Brothers".
Dewitt is a Canadian living in Oregon and this is his first novel. It has been a great success and was shortlisted for the Giller Prize and the Man Booker Prize and won both the Governor-General's Literary Award and the Writers' Trust Prize. This novel has been referred to by some critics as a "concept western", a reference that I think cloaks a fashionable unwillingness to acknowledge having enjoyed a 'western' set in mid-19th century Oregon and California. It is in fact a fascinating, well written novel that is certainly different in tone and style from what the reader may think of as a 'western' novel. Two brothers whose family name is Sisters are hired regularly as killers by an Oregon businessman. This story follows their travels on assignment down to and back from San Francisco during the California gold rush. Marvellous narrative.

T. Jefferson Parker, "The Border Lords".
For some years Parker wrote crime novels set in southern California, particularly Orange County. Generally his characters did not reappear in subsequent stories. However three novels ago he began a series featuring an L.A. Sheriff's deputy named Charlie Hood who has latterly been working along the California border with the ATF and involved with the violent world of drug cartels and cross-border smuggling of drugs and guns to and from Mexico. The Border Lords is the fourth in the Hood novels and maintains the standard of the earlier novels in the series.

Lee Child, "The Affair".
This is the latest novel in the series about the adventures of the loner Jack Reacher. What distinguishes it from its predecessors in the Reacher series is that it looks back and tells the story of how Reacher, a U.S. Army major in the military police, arrives at the point of leaving the army and beginning his aimless travels around America carrying just a toothbrush (although latterly reality has forced him to add ID and an ATM card). It is as violent and tough as any of Child's previous Reacher novels and just as absorbing. It is already a bestseller.

Peter Robinson, "Before The Poison".
Robinson, a Yorkshireman who came to Canada to pursue his graduate studies in English, is best known for more than a dozen novels set in Yorkshire featuring Inspector Alan Banks. They have been translated into 15 languages and published around the world. His latest novel, while set in Yorkshire, is not a Banks story. As its focus it has a recently widowed Englishman returned from a successful career as a Hollywood movie music composer. He buys a restored house in Yorkshire and becomes absorbed in examining a murder case involving a previous resident. The novel is both interesting and complicated.

Guy Vanderhaeghe, "A Good Man".
In my opinion A Good Man should have won the Giller Prize this year; it wasn't even short listed. It is the third novel in a trilogy set in the Canadian prairies in the late 1800s that began with The Englishman's Boy in 1996 and was followed by The Last Crossing in 2001. Much of this third novel takes place in Montana but it is as Canadian in tone and content as the first two novels. Vanderhaeghe, a Saskatchewan resident, is a superb storyteller and ranks as a fine novelist in this country or elsewhere.

John Sandford, "Bad Blood".
Sandford is the author of the "Prey" series of police novels. Bad Blood is the fourth in a newer series featuring Virgil Flowers, a detective in the state of Minnesota's special department whose members are sent to handle difficult cases in various locations in the state. Bad Blood sees Virgil sent to a small town to deal with a case that comes to involve a religious cult that practises paedophilia. The pace is brisk and there is a good deal of violence. In some ways Virgil Flowers represents an American opposite to Scotland's John Rebus.

Martin Walker, "Black Diamond".
Walker is a former journalist and author of a number of non-fiction books. Beginning in 2008 he published the first in a series of novels: Bruno, Chief of Police is the first, The Dark Vineyard is the second and Black Diamond is the third. The lead character is Captain Bruno Correges, the chief of police in a small French town in the Dordogne in the southwest of the country. There are mysteries to be solved but Bruno is up to it (his military background elevates his skill and experience well above what one might expect from a small town policeman). I have just discovered this series and it is most enjoyable reading: well written, gentler (if that word can be applied to crime stories) and more slowly paced reflecting its location. Lots of interesting information about wine and truffles and rural France today, all presented as part of a novel with a good plot.

by Alastair Rickard




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Monday, December 5, 2011

(No.180) J. Edgar Hoover, Clint Eastwood & Creepy Karpis

Recently to be found in movie theatres has been "J. Edgar", a biographical drama directed by Hollywood legend Clint Eastwood with Leonardo DiCaprio as J.Edgar Hoover. The film has received mixed reviews, perhaps to be expected when it is about a man whose self-created image as the leading American "G-man" of the last century began to crumble soon after his death at age 77 in 1972, still FBI director thanks to his secret files he used to blackmail American presidents and other politicians to keep him in office.

Whenever Hoover comes to my attention I think of an incident involving Hoover and Alvin Karpis (dubbed "Creepy Karpis" by cops and the media in the 1930s), an anecdote that Hoover ensured did not surface until many years after the incident occurred.

Karpis, who was actually a Canadian born in Montreal, became a famous American gangster in the 1930s, especially after he was elevated by the FBI to the status of "Public Enemy No.1" following the death of John Dillinger.

He was a bank and train robber who was said by the government to have killed at least 14 people. This was never proven although he was tried and convicted in Minnesota for a kidnapping for which he was given a life sentence and ended up in Alcatraz. He was captured in New Orleans by a squad of two dozen or so FBI agents at about 5 p.m. on a May 1936 afternoon. Hoover told the media that he had personally reached into Karpis' car, grabbed him and then disarmed him.

After Karpis was finally released from prison in Dec. of 1968 and then deported to Canada he related what had really happened that afternoon in 1936.

Karpis had been captured by the FBI agents and held standing beside his car. He looked over his shoulder towards a nearby street corner and saw Hoover peeking around a corner. An FBI agent called to him "Come on out boss, we got him" at which point Karpis relates that Hoover and his longtime second in command Clyde Tolson, "the gold dust twins" as Karpis referred to them in a Canadian interview (one I well remember seeing at the time), came down the street to where Karpis was being held prisoner.

Karpis ended up settling in Malaga Spain in 1973 and died there in 1979 under suspicious circumstances. He had lived modestly on the money he made from collaborating on a couple of books including his autobiography Public Enemy Number One published in 1971. He wrote it following his deportation to Canada. His second book published after his death, On The Rock (1980), was about his time in Alcatraz.

I read both these books (I think one or both have been reissued) and recommend them as no nonsense and interesting counterbalances both to Hoover's self-mythologizing and to any number of Hollywood myths involving people Karpis knew or worked with such as Ma Barker (a harmless woman shot to pieces by the FBI in 1935 and subsequently elevated to mythical status) and the 'Birdman of Alcatraz', Robert Stroud (a vicious head case).

Karpis was refused the parole he would likely have received sooner had it not been for Hoover's opposition (no mystery as to why). Karpis was incarcerated for 33 years (1933-69) and therefore was unable to say anything to the press about the phoniness of Hoover's personal crime-busting reputation.

After Karpis had been returned to Canada it was a different circumstance. Today one can read his books and also watch on YouTube excerpts from interviews done with him including his description of his capture in 1936 and Hoover's peek-a-boo part in it.

by Alastair Rickard




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