Thursday, July 9, 2020

Baby beauty queen: Shirley Temple at three

There's something beautiful, but a little bit disturbing about this brief clip of Shirley Temple, age three, primping in front of a mirror in a very early short. Obviously she has already learned to mimic adults in a way which was considered amusing back then, but her dancing in these short films was deliberately styled on the seductive hoochie-koochie "shimmy" dancing of the day. Did they see nothing wrong with this? 

No less an author than Graham Greene wrote a review of one of her early features that is jaw-droppingly inappropriate today:

Wee Willie Winkie     Graham Greene

Oct. 28, 1937

The owners of a child star are like leaseholders — their property diminishes in value every year. Time’s chariot is at their backs: before them acres of anonymity. What is Jackie Coogan now but a matrimonial squabble? Miss Shirley Temple’s case, though, has peculiar interest: infancy with her is a disguise, her appeal is more secret and more adult. Already two years ago she was a fancy little piece — real childhood, I think, went out after The Littlest Rebel). In Captain January she wore trousers with the mature suggestiveness of a [Marlene] Dietrich: her neat and well-developed rump twisted in the tap-dance: her eyes had a sidelong searching coquetry. Now in Wee Willie Winkie, wearing short kilts, she is a complete totsy. Watch her swaggering stride across the Indian barrack-square: hear the gasp of excited expectation from her antique audience when the sergeant’s palm is raised: watch the way she measures a man with agile studio eyes, with dimpled depravity. Adult emotions of love and grief glissade across the mask of childhood, a childhood skin-deep.

It is clever but it cannot last. Her admirers — middle aged men and clergymen — respond to her dubious coquetry, to the sight of her well-shaped and desirable little body, packed with enormous vitality, only because the safety curtain of story and dialogue drops between their intelligence and their desire. “Why are you making my Mummy cry?” — what could be purer than that? And the scene when dressed in a white nightdress she begs grandpa to take Mummy to a dance — what could be more virginal? On those lines in her new picture, made by John Ford, who directed The Informer, is horrifyingly competent. It isn’t hard to stay to the last prattle and the last sob. The story — about an Afghan robber converted by Wee Willie Winkie to the British Raj — is a long way after Kipling. But we needn’t be sour about that. Both stories are awful, but on the whole Hollywood’s is the better.

Wednesday, July 8, 2020

PIERS MORGAN: Meghan and Harry? . . . PLEASE SHUT UP.

PIERS MORGAN: You're right, Meghan, confronting inequality is uncomfortable – but not as uncomfortable as watching unemployed Harry lecturing the world about it from the comfort of your Hollywood mansion hideaway

I've seen less disconcerting hostage videos.

That was my thought this morning as I watched Prince Harry staring blankly into a camera and lecturing the world – yet again - on our need to face up to our privilege.
As he spoke about why we all have to right the wrongs of the past, his wife Meghan stared intently at him, boring her eyes into his skull as if she was virtually transporting her own pre-programmed thought processes into his brain.

I'm not a conspiracy theorist but at one stage it looked like his lips were moving in sync with her blinking eyes.

We're going to have to be a little uncomfortable right now,' said Meghan when she herself spoke.

No s***.

She continued: 'Because it's only in pushing through that discomfort that we get to the other side of this and find the place where a high tide raises all ships.'

This sounded very profound.

Then I remembered where I'd heard it before.

President John F. Kennedy famously said the words 'a rising tide lifts all boats' in a 1963 speech.

Meghan just forgot to credit him. 

An easy mistake, perhaps, when you're desperate to impress everyone with the power of your own world-changing rhetoric.

What was even less palatable than her linguistic plagiarism was Meghan's next claim: 'Equality does not put anyone on the back foot, it puts us all on the same footing - which is a fundamental human right.'

The essence of this assertion is entirely correct.

But there's something quite breathtakingly unedifying about a very rich deeply privileged Duchess banging on about equality from her $20 million borrowed mansion in Hollywood.
One of the few benefits of the coronavirus crisis has been that fame-hungry attention-seeking narcissistic celebrities have been put firmly back in their boxes.

From Madonna sitting naked in the rose-petalled bath of her lavish home as she told us COVID-19 was 'the great equaliser', to Gal Gadot's grotesquely tone-deaf annihilation of Imagine with a bunch of other tuneless virtue-signalling stars, the pandemic has exposed the utter irrelevance of celebrity culture when there's a killer virus on the loose.

For Meghan and Harry, this moment of reckoning has come at a particularly awkward time.
Six months ago, they quit the Royal Family and Britain in a blaze of aggrieved self-righteous glory - and announced big plans to be newly liberated global superstars, trading off their royal titles to make themselves enormously rich.

We were informed that they had 'never been happier' and were 'very excited' about their new lives of freedom from control by evil racist palace courtiers and the even more evil racist UK media.

It was a spectacular two-fingered snub to the Queen and the Monarchy, and to all the British taxpayers who had funded their lavish lifestyle.

And for a few weeks they were one of the most discussed and debated news stories in the world, dominating newspaper headlines and TV bulletins – all fuelling their superstar status.

But then came the biggest health crisis for a century, and suddenly we all forgot about them with the same speed that all their big plans for global domination got cancelled.

Meghan and Harry's terrible 'struggle' that they'd spent months moaning about was now put sharply into perspective by horrendous, chaotic scenes at hospitals around the world as heroic health workers risked their lives to save people infected by the disease.

Frankly, as Rhett Butler might say, we didn't give a damn about them or any other self-absorbed celebrities.

The REAL stars were the doctors and nurses on the Covid frontline.

As the threat of lockdown loomed, the Sussexes faced a dilemma: should they return to the UK from their vast Canadian riverside hideaway so Harry could help his family support the British people in our darkest hour since World War II?

Or should they hop on a private jet to Los Angeles?

They chose the latter, decamping to the sprawling $20 million Hollywood home of American actor Tyler Perry.

And that is where they have stayed ever since.

The house is an eight-bedroom, 12-bathroom Tuscan-style villa, which sits on 22 acres on the top of a hill in the ultra-exclusive Beverly Ridge Estates guard-gated community, offering sweeping views of the city from the backyard and with a massive swimming pool as its centrepiece feature.

It's hard to imagine a more luxurious or spacious place to spend lockdown.
Or a more incongruous place from which to lecture the world on equality.
'It's not going to be easy,' said Harry, 'and in some cases it's not going to be comfortable - but it needs to be done, because guess what, everybody benefits.'


Again, there's nothing inaccurate about that statement, especially when applied to racism.
(Though his direct attack on the Commonwealth for its racist colonial wrongs suggests a poor grasp of history given it was formed in 1932 to bring an end to the British Empire and make amends for all the racist colonial wrongs with the British Empire.)

But there's something horribly inappropriate about it coming from a jobless prince sitting in a Hollywood mansion, living off his father's money and still reportedly using British taxpayer cash to fund his family's very expensive security costs.

In fact, it's hard to think of a more privileged, elitist life than the one they're now currently living – one that has all the luxury and glamour of royal life without the need to perform any of the duty.

I really didn't want to write about Meghan and Harry today.

I've managed to avoid it for four months and know there genuinely are far more important things to worry about.

But by making such overtly controversial political pronouncements, they are deliberately forcing themselves back into the news cycle and that makes it impossible to ignore them.
Their latest outburst follows last week's extraordinary revelations by Meghan in court documents filed in her privacy case against the Mail On Sunday.

She claimed, with zero evidence and quite staggering delusion, that her wedding to Harry made $1.2 billion in tourism cash so more than paid for itself.

She said she was 'unprotected' by the 'institution' of the Royal Family and was unhappy she couldn't take paid work like minor royals including Princesses Beatrice and Eugenie - who don't carry out public duties, so the comparison is completely irrelevant.

She complained that the Palace didn't correct 'hundreds of thousands of inaccurate articles' about her, which is a laughably exaggeration and, as Palace sources responded, the Duchess didn't seem to understand the difference between untrue stories and negative critical ones that were true.

But honestly, who cares about any of this trivial first world bleating when so many people are losing their lives and livelihoods?

In several weeks, a new biography of the couple, written by friends to 'correct' all the supposed myths about them, will be published and doubtless spray more dirt at the Royal Family, causing further embarrassment and upset for the Queen in her 94th year.

None of this sits well with Meghan and Harry's claim when they quit the Royals that they were doing so for the sake of privacy.

It's now clear that this pair of royal renegades have no intention of remaining 'private' and every intention of continuing to lecture us how to think and behave from behind the protected walls of their gilded new Hollywood life.

This wouldn't matter so much if people weren't suffering so badly from the terrible impact of the coronavirus and the horrific economic fallout as a consequence.

The last thing people want to hear right now is yet more whining from Meghan and Harry about how badly they've been treated, yet more digs at the Queen and other members of the Royal Family like William and Kate who have stepped up so commendably to comfort the British people during the pandemic, and yet more of their haughty, patronising, hypocritical sermons about equality.

So, before I return to more important things, three final words of advice for the Duke and Duchess: please shut up. 

(Please note! I don't own this material and am re-posting it here for educational purposes only, and because Piers Morgan KICKS ASS.)  

Tuesday, July 7, 2020

I threw away ALL my bras!

Yes. Just now. I. Threw. Away. My. Bras.

ALL of them. They went straight into the garbage bin, and in that bold instant I said goodbye forever to straps biting into me, hooks digging into my flesh, baggy fit, too-tight fit, squashed uni-boob torture traps, and everything else that I have endured since the age of 14.

This is, of course, a pandemic thing. Trapped in the house, you let things slide a bit, so I’d pop something over my head, a bright Indian-print dress, maybe - braless – then found I was going to the grocery store that way, and the earth didn’t fall down.

Nobody was looking, for one thing, which is a real blessing at my age. Some older women complain that they have become “invisible", but I LOVE being invisible because I can go about incognito, almost undetected. The writer/observer/detective in me loves it.

The other thing that nudged me to this unthinkable act is the current war against body-shaming and the general fattening of the developed world, verging on dangerous obesity but fast becoming the norm. Women’s sizes have “sized up” for several years now, so the 10 you wear now is more like a 14 a few years back. It matters not at all, to anyone really, but somehow I hung on to the horror of gaining weight that was instilled in me virtually from childhood.

We were all on diets, all the time. None of us could enjoy food without guilt or saying “I’m being bad”. My older sister was so obsessed that she kept a chart beside her scale in the bathroom, which had a graph with date, time of day, weight, and measurements for bust, waist, hips and thighs. She ticked all those boxes daily, and agonized if she was up a few pounds or a couple of inches. Because she was supposedly my role model, I was expected to follow her, and did, damaging myself in ways I’m still trying to pull myself out of.

When I was 16 I went into a suicidal depression so severe that my parents actually sent me to a doctor. He said I needed to lose 30 pounds and dress the way the boys liked. That would cure my depression. (It hasn't worked yet.) I weighed about 140, and my sister described me as "enormous". These influences programmed and twisted me mentally in a way Nazi interrogators would have approved of. 

But things have changed, and so drastically. I see it every day. I went through a phase of exclaiming to my husband, “Look at that! Doesn’t anyone care any more? She must be 300 pounds!” He would say something like, “Why do YOU care?” It made me wonder. I began to notice women were letting it all hang out, mostly younger women who were quite obese, but middle-aged and older women too, wearing short-shorts and spaghetti-strap tops with no bra, no “underpinnings” like we used to wear even in the firmness of youth.

I was at the tail-end of the girdle era, though said older sister wore them even at her lightest (104 pounds, which she agonized over; she had an ideal of 100 pounds which she never attained, claiming that if she did, she’d be hit by a car and killed the same day). So I don’t remember wearing one. Panty hose was a new thing, so I didn’t have to deal with garters, but bras were another story.

Bras were a rite of passage, like your first period, and being busty at 13 was a good thing, but BOY did you need a lot of coverage and “support” (meaning, disguise and control). A girl friend of mine once made me do up her bra in back because she just couldn’t manage it herself. There were just so many hooks. She was a 36C and wanted me to know it. I was relatively flat then and very depressed. I couldn’t wait to wear those holsters the other girls were wearing, even under heavy sweaters and winter dresses.

OK then, THAT wasn’t healthy – was it? – but what we’re seeing now does shock me sometimes. When I see this let-it-all-hang-out bodily freedom,  I even resent that I was forced to torture and abuse myself just to attain the proper “shape”, which was then re-shaped even more, no matter how excruciatingly uncomfortably. It’s a whole new ballgame now, but meantime I kept on playing the SAME ballgame for literally decades, trying to find something that fit me and supported me (never mind comfort) as my body changed and changed, weight surging up and down, ashamed of it, appalled at myself, covering up, but still wearing the holsters, because. . . I guess it was unthinkable NOT to.

You couldn't go around without a bra. Jesus!

In my day, my deluded, frightening, astoundingly ignorant day, the only people who went braless were rabid feminists and little old ladies who had given up. Drooping breasts were like having a rat’s nest for hair – just so ugly it wasn’t thinkable, not in public anyway, where appearances had to be carefully kept up. My mother wore house dresses around the house, but put on a much more formal kind of dress to go to the grocery store. That's how it was.

The “fat woman” in our neighbourhood was heavily stigmatized, and my mother (who didn’t have friends but “caseloads”) was basically the only person who associated with her. Her friends were blind ladies, ladies with “retarded” or “mongoloid” kids, people no one else wanted whom she adopted, thereby assuring they would be beholden to her forever. So the neighbourhood  “fat lady” was in the same category. She might have weighed 250, not more than 280 tops, and in this era of My 600 lb. Life, that’s almost thin. (People on that show talk about "getting down to 500".) She did wear the requisite confining bra and was cruelly girdled, making her look like a sausage in what must have been torture in hot weather.

Well, all that’s gone now – isn’t it? – so why did it take me so long to dump these things, these things that dug in, cut my flesh, didn’t support me anyway because they never fit? We still hear that shaming statement, “80% of women wear the wrong-sized bra!”, no doubt perpetrated by the bra industry and meant to make women scurry to an expensive specialty shop to be “fitted”. Never do they mention that there is NO SUCH THING as the “right-sized bra”, unless you have them individually tailored to your body, which none of us can afford. Not only that, but they never tell us exactly how they arrived at that 80% statistic. It seems it was plucked out of the thin air, but no one thinks about that. Stats are intimidating and generally designed to induce shame and the consumer response which is the only way to relieve it. So we skulk about knowing we’re wearing the wrong size, depressed about it, but unable to fix it. Nothing is more cruel and nasty and self-punishing than trying on bras, spending a fortune, and finding deep red lines and welts all over your body the next day.

So the bras are in the garbage, but I did make one small concession. I have never worn anything like a sports bra, and thought they were only for young women who jogged, but had the thought that if I walked briskly it might be uncomfortable for me with no support at all. I also jounce violently in the car.  I am 66 years old, breast-fed two babies, and need tell you no more about gravity. Cautiously, I experimented. I ordered  two lightweight sports bras online, and pulled one on – no hooks, no clasps, no underwiring, no plastic or metal or anything at all but soft, very forgiving fabric.  To my amazement, it felt GORGEOUS. Nothing cut. Nothing bound. It felt like a comfortable tank top and actually lifted me up like two cradling hands. (Excuse me for that.) 

I would not wear these every day, in fact I may not even wear them at all, ever. But it made me realize I could have spared myself a lot of distress for a lot of years just by wearing something that looked good and felt nice under a clingy blouse (which I never wear anyway). The sports bras went into a drawer for now, until the pandemic passes, during which time I will do what I swore I’d never do – just throw on one thing, an Indian-pattern dress from China ($20 on Amazon), and be “dressed” – dressed enough to GO OUT. 

What does this mean? I don’t know, but I DO know you will never catch me pulling and twisting at circles of wire under my breasts, and yanking on metal hooks that leave little holes in my back. For these things are now where they belong, in with the garbage and the baggage and all the other things I am shedding and throwing away, in the bittersweet realization that I never needed to torture myself like that to begin with, and never will again.

Monday, July 6, 2020

AT LAST! Harold Lloyd: Introduction to The Freshman

At long last, I was able to post the clip where Harold refers to his screen alter ego as THE GLASS CHARACTER. Almost everyone else referred to "the glasses character", and no one is sure why Harold didn't, but it made a much more poetic name for my novel about his life and work (not to mention this blog and a Facebook fan page!):

The Glass Character: a celebration of Harold Lloyd

I just noticed several more very positive reviews on (though they didn't appear on, which is why I never saw them!) So here they are, folks. . . I have to make the most of this, as the book had a very modest release and never reached the silent film devotees I had hoped for (nor was it made into a movie, which really ran me over - but I must rise again!).

The Glass Character by Margaret Gunning paperback edition

The Glass Character by Margaret Gunning Kindle edition

Reviews on

Reviewed in the United States on May 29, 2017
Having become recently absorbed, nay, obsessed by all things Harold Lloyd I found myself drawn into Muriel's world---and what a world! I think one would be hard pressed to find a novel that captured the zeitgeist of the early years of motion pictures. The author did a superb job of balancing the events in Muriel's story with Harold's life. I was hooked and highly recommend it to anyone who likes the silent era of filmmaking, smart storytelling and the delicious Harold Lloyd :-)

Reviewed in the United States on April 27, 2014
In case the name doesn't ring a bell, he's the guy with the straw hat and Woody Allen glasses, in the suit, dangling from a clock on the side of a building so far above a busy avenue the cars below look like ladybugs on wheels.

Harold Lloyd.

Movie comedian of the silent 1920s. Called himself the "Glass Character" because his trademark glasses were fake. No glass in them. The guy was a nut. Blew one of his hands to Kingdom Come fiddling with what he thought was a stage prop bomb. It was real. Deliberately gave himself powerful electric shocks to get his hair to stand straight up. Did his own stunts--the clock dangle, the shocked hair, pretending to trip and stagger on building ledges up in the sky, netless--a brave, some would say foolhardy, genius. Nut.

Knowing this and being acrophobic, I can't watch his movies anymore. It even scares me to look at the photos. I'll let Margaret Gunning watch the movies and look at the photos, and I'll read her reports. Well, then again, I don't have to anymore. I've read her book, "The Glass Character". It's all in there.

Margaret, poor girl, is in love with Harold Lloyd. It started out as just a fascination with soundless images. Love snuck up and struck her dumb somewhere amid the exhaustive research she was conducting for a book about what was then still just a fascination. Love. Alas. Margaret is happily married and has two lovely daughters and four darling grandchildren, yet is far too young to leap the gap into the day when her beloved Harold held sway with the girls of a baby Hollywood. Fortunately, for her and for us, she's a novelist. She has the skill to weave the magic carpet to carry her backward in time to those days of yore, those Harold heyday days, and set her gently down along the path the love of her dreams must follow should he wish a rebirth in the imaginations and hearts of admirers forevermore. She's woven that carpet. It's large enough to take us with her on that long strange trip. I rode along on a test flight. We made it back, and I'm still agog.

When we stepped off the carpet in la la land I saw that Margaret had changed. No longer the familiar author of two of my favorite novels--"Better than Life", and "Mallory"--she'd become sixteen-year-old Jane Chorney, a virgin and erstwhile soda jerk in Santa Fe, New Mexico, with a terrible crush on movie idol Harold Lloyd. Soon after we landed, Margaret /Jane (and later "Muriel", as you will learn) decided to pack up her meager belongings, cash in her chips (two cents shy of fifty bucks) and head to Hollywood and into the arms of her eternal love. I might have tried to instill sense in her were I anything more than invisible eyes and ears. Unfortunately I had lost my voice and corporeal substance upon alighting in the Santa Fe dust.

So it was off to Hollywood via a wearying, bumpy bus ride, Margaret/Jane/Muriel full of glitzy dreams and innocence, and me hunkered weightless, mute and unseen on her delicate shoulder.

I won't say more. I took no notes and had to avert my gaze any number of times during moments that really were none of my personal concern. The Glass Character is Margaret/Jane/Muriel's story, not mine. What I did see and hear, and learn during our holiday in history is captured with such lucid, insightful poignancy I can't help but wonder if Margaret didn't in fact remain there, dictating her journal to a holographic image of herself in the distant future tapping on a keyboard somewhere in a place called Coquitlam, B.C.

Reviewed in the United States on April 12, 2014
I couldn't resist turning page after page when I started reading this novel. It is as fast-paced, frenetic, frantic, as the jumpy quick movements of silent film action. To say this book captures the spirit of the silent film era, of the flashing, double-dealing, over handed and underhanded Hollywood of the 1920s and onward, is a disservice. The reader is drawn right in, involved totally with the heroine of the story. The story is about her, but it is also a thorough portrait of the great film Comedian, Harold Lloyd. He comes to life in these pages, a three dimensional fully rounded fictional character. The good, the bad, the surprising, the ugly. He is totally human and his motives and circumstances are clear.
I've read Gunning's two earlier novels, Better than Life, and Mallory. The Glass Character is far more ambitious in its depth and breadth. It is longer, more expansive than the early works. Gunning has presented her master piece, in this novel. She fully comes of age as a serious, yet entertaining writer, who displays a lovely choice of words and a often refreshing turns of phrase.
If you haven't read Gunning yet, start. If her latest novel doesn't win, or at least get nominated for the top literary prizes, there is no justice.
Don't miss an engrossing, absorbing read. By the way, you'll definitely want to hit YouTube to find full length Lloyd films, outtakes, and documentaries.
Don't leave yourself hanging from the clock hand, get the silent era spirit and enjoy the book!
One person found this helpful

Reviewed in the United States on December 18, 2014
You're in for a real treat with Margaret Gunning's Novel "The Glass Character"

If you enjoy traveling back to the time when many of our parents frequented silent films as the prime source of entertainment, then you will love to bury your nose in this madcap treatise on the time and personalities of that era.

If the name Harold Lloyd doesn't ring a bell, you will know him intimately by the time you reach the last page.

We know so much about the entertainment industry today, but so little about what went on behind the scenes of the Silent Film era. You will be shocked by Gunning's expose of that wildcap period of our history.

Don't miss this treat from the pen of a very gifted author.

Saturday, July 4, 2020

An outbreak of "mental health"

I've said all these things before, but can you believe that, in these worst of all possible times, I need to say them again? Since no one is paying heed, I guess I have to. This was a Facebook post, and I think it's good enough to share here if anyone cares to read it. 

I don't know if it's the celebrity influence or not (which it might be, because that is mainly what de-stigmatized AIDS via Elizabeth Taylor et. al), but now people NEVER say "mental illness". They say "mental health", and even say things like "I have mental health" or "I lost my son to mental health." 

I protested for years and years about the use of the terms "mental illness/mentally ill", because if you are mentally ill, the terminology means you can never be "well". How can you be well and ill at the same time? You can't. I used to despair that there were NO runs or events or concerts or fund-raising things for "mental illness" and decried the widespread use of "whack job", "nut bar", and all the other appalling terms used to dismiss "the crazies" (and always said with apparently no awareness at all that it's wrong). 

Now, suddenly, I have "mental health", but boy, I don't feel a whole lot better! It was a great thing when "cancer victim" (which used to be the term even for people who were successfully treated) was replaced with "survivor", "warrior," etc. Now we've at least moved ONE chess jump, from "ill", not to "well", but to "health". Now I suppose I'll be told, "well, aren't you grateful the stigma no longer exists?" 

A few years ago, ONE woman rode a horse across Canada to raise awareness of the plight of the "mentally ill". It was barely covered, and she might have made at most a few thousand dollars. But it was implied she was a little crazy herself to be doing it. In the meantime, little or nothing has changed. 

I believe in these pandemic times that references to "loonies", "psychos", etc. etc. have ESCALATED, with people having no qualms whatsoever throwing around terms that, to me, are as offensive as the n-word. I was just a little stressed lately and tried to book a counselling session at a clinic where I had made a good connection earlier in the year, and was told "your file is closed", and as it turns out, even if it COULD be reinstated, all appointments were booked up until well into September. If you want to get any sort of help before that, you have to go to Emergency.

Hell, I'd be violently triggered if I had to go there for a broken toenail, let alone because I have "mental health", due to the demeaning and humiliating treatment I have received there in the past. No thanks!

Thursday, July 2, 2020

I'm in a Harold state of mind

This blog was originally set up as a kind of extended ad for my novel, The Glass Character, a fictionalized account of the life and times of Harold Lloyd as seen through the eyes of an obsessed fan. This was done at the request of my publisher, along with a Facebook page which I still update when I feel moved to do so. Over the years, the blog evolved and changed and spread itself out, and continues to, but Harold Lloyd is still at the root of it all.

Having researched the novel for a couple of years, I have thousands of photos, gifs, videos, artwork, a handmade doll (yes!), and other bits and pieces of Lloydiana which I sometimes still feel moved to share. Though the novel did not do well at the box office and was considered a failure by most, writing it was by far the most positive experience of my life as an author. I had had a disastrous mental breakdown in 2005 and was not sure I would even physically survive, let alone write again, let alone write a novel, let alone get it published! Harold, and the four grandchildren who were born over the next four years, literally saved my life, and I'll always be grateful for that.

Harold comes around again in cycles, because whatever happened or didn't happen with the novel, I will always  believe my connection to him is positive, lifeward, even uplifting. I had a spiritual connection to him, and still do. He was not a perfect human being, as he was well-known to be a womanizer with a fierce temper, but he was also big-hearted, exuberant, brilliantly inventive, a constant enthusiast, unquenchable even in the worst adversity, and in all, just a hell of a good influence on me during an extremely dire time.

So I'm once again looking at Harold as a way to muddle through all this mess. I am not in a good place medically now, in constant pain, unable to see a counsellor (booked solid 'til well into September!), and if I have any mental health issues I've been ordered to "just go to Emergency". Since going to Emergency even for a cut on my foot can trigger unbearable panic (just a little quirk of mine!), it's not on. So whatever I'm going through, I'm going through pretty much on my own. Everyone has their trials and tribulations now, and the admonishment to "reach out for help" is now more hollow and hypocritical than ever before.

So. . . here he is, and I'll be digging around in the archives to see what else I can come up with. 

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

BUS PEOPLE: a novel of the Downtown Eastside - Part Twelve (conclusion)

This is a serialized version of my novel Bus People, a story of the people who live on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. The main character, Dr. Zoltan Levy, is loosely based on author and lecturer Dr. Gabor Mate. It's a fantasy and not a sociological treatise: meaning, I don’t try to deal with “issues” so much as people who feel like they’ve been swept to the edge of the sidewalk and are socially invisible/terminally powerless. I’m running it in parts, in chronological order so it’s all there, breaking it up with a few pictures because personally, I hate big blocks of text.

Margaret Gunning

Bus People: a novel of the Downtown Eastside 

Part Twelve (conclusion)

"No one is as capable of gratitude as one who has emerged from the kingdom of night." Elie Wiesel

The bus

Bert Moffatt often thinks about taking an early retirement, he’s 57 years old now, and this driving business is a young man’s game, requiring a stamina he no longer thinks he has.

The things that happen on his shift are pretty disturbing. The other day two hookers got on along Hastings Street and got into a screaming battle about something, probably drugs, and actually started physically fighting on the bus, yanking hair and scratching faces, and had to be pulled apart. One of them was wearing only a bra, no blouse, and the other one, Bert didn’t know how anyone could be that thin and still be alive, she must be in the final stages of AIDS, it was heartbreaking to see.

He feels terrible about Aggie. It’s a shame when that happens, a woman just vanishing like that, he knew Aggie had some pretty serious problems, but he was fond of her, they had a real connection going for years, almost a friendship, and now she has just disappeared, wandered off somewhere in disorientation, or did something worse happen? Around these parts, you never knew.

The guy with the blanket over his head never comes around any more. Bert has no idea where he went. Nobody seems to know. But that young fellow, Porky or whatever his name is, he’s taking the bus nearly every day now, that’s a change, and he looks different, he has cut his hair for one thing, and it looks much neater, he’s dressing better too, but it isn’t just that, he’s standing up straighter or something, carrying himself differently, so that he almost seems like a different person.

Today on the bus, somebody tries to give him a hard time. But his reaction is so completely different, Bert is taken by surprise.

“Hey nigger.”

The old Porgy would have absorbed this, just taken it. Vester won’t take it.

His hand whips out, he grabs the young smart-ass by the collar and almost lifts him off his feet.

“Take that back.”

“Hey, don’t get excited, I was only kidding around.”

“Take. . . that. . .back.”

“Okay, okay, I take it back. Jeez!”

“Now apologize.”


“You heard me. Apologize.”

“Okay, okay. I’m sorry.”

“Are you?”

“Yes! Jesus, let me go!”

“You have to promise me one thing.”

“Okay, I will.”

“That you’ll never call anybody by that name, ever again.”

“All right, I promise.” 

“Now mean it.”

“All right! Christ! Let go!” He finally releases him, and he slumps into a seat, pale and shaky-looking. Vester Graham knows he has scored a major victory.

But there is still something left for him to do.


The progress he has made with Dr. Levy has surprised both of them. The depression that weighed him down for most of his life seems to be lifting at last, and

he feels different, just different in a way that is hard for him to explain or even comprehend.

He has talked about the foster homes. Anguish at first, and the flashbacks nearly killed him, but with Dr. Levy as his guide, he has been able to slay one dragon after another.

Aggie’s disappearance has been brutal. After a few months, the search for her whereabouts becomes a search for her remains. The police have found nothing – Vester doesn’t think they looked very hard - though the psychic they consulted claimed that she had “gone home” and was in a happier place, her soul finally at peace.


“What is it, Vess?”

“Some guy called me a nigger on the bus today.”

Dr. Levy looks at him, his brows drawing together.

“I made him take it back.”


“I made him apologize. Oh man, I thought I’d never be able to do that.”

“That’s – Vess, that’s remarkable, I’m proud of you. You are doing so well.”

“Doc. That’s the thing. I’m not.”

Dr. Levy’s puzzled expression makes his insides squirm. But there’s no turning back now.

“There’s. . . there’s all sorts of shit I haven’t told you about.”

The pause that follows is loaded.

“Are you ready to tell me now?”

“No. Doc, I’m never going to be ready. If I say this shit, I know what’s going to happen to me.”

“And if you don’t?”

“If I don’t. . .if I don’t, then all this stuff that’s happened here, all these changes I’ve made, it just won’t mean a damn thing.”

“I think it’s time you told me, Vess.”

He rubs his eyes, takes a deep breath, and in a voice shaking with dread, he begins.

“When I was fifteen years old,” he says to Dr. Levy, “I started setting fires.”

Epilogue: Szabó’s Fire

The turning of the year is like every other year, with the usual milestones and markers, another spring with its torrential rains and surges of lush supernatural B. C. green, another summer of rides and cotton candy at the PNE, another fall with the kids piling on the bus to go back to school, then everyone dressing up for trick-or-treats, then the mad frenzy of preparation for yet another Christmas and New Year’s.

But like every other year, this one is unique. Powerful changes have swept through Zeddyville, some of them heartbreaking. Aggie is now an absence, another dotted-line void, just gone. She has disappeared without a trace, almost as if she never was.

Women disappear from the Downtown Eastside all the time, a bitter, unpalatable fact. Vess Graham can’t quite swallow it, and still holds out some sort of hope that they’ll find Aggie, or even some remains of her, something.

There are moments when he can almost convince himself that she found a way to put her hand through the veil. Then he dismisses the thought as just too fantastic. It’s impossible to get out of the time you were born into, you just have to deal with what’s around you, hard as it sometimes is. Dr. Levy taught him that.

Dr. Levy taught him a lot of things. One of the greatest lessons was about taking responsibility: after confessing the fires, which was the hardest thing he ever did in his life, he wondered if the doctor would turn him in, report him. But he didn’t.

He left that up to him.

It took him a while. For several weeks he didn’t eat or sleep. His guts twisted with anxiety and dread, and even though he knew what he needed to do, actually doing it was almost impossible. Wouldn’t he lose all the progress he had made over the past few months, all the changes, his newfound power, his freedom, his life?

Then one day it became too much for him to carry. Vess Graham called the police, and told them he had to come in and talk to them.

There were consequences, harsh ones. He knew there would be. Vess would have to serve time for his offenses, there was no way around it. But when he learned that the man who died had had a heart attack, that it wasn’t the fire that killed him, the relief he felt was almost worth the four years he had to spend in prison.

Though four years was bad, it sure beat ten. Dr. Levy saw to it that his sentence was

reduced. The full confession and the determined effort he had made to reclaim himself

had not gone unnoticed.

He made good use of his time. One of the counsellors suggested he train himself for a career in computer support: “You’re a techie, Vess, a natural for this industry. Think of it. You could be completely self-supporting then, and not have to rely on your father for handouts.”
“Really?” It sounded fantastic, too good to be true.

“You can start your education right here. Once you get out, we can arrange for you to take classes at BCIT. This is something you love to do, Vess, and you’re a smart young man, you could really make a go of it.”

This was kind of like finding out he had two heads and didn’t even know it, a complete and total shock, but – the more they talked about it, the more plausible and even possible it seemed.

Step by step, starting in prison, then carrying on when they let him out in only two years, Vess Graham began to build a life.

Mavis Potter did become famous, but not in the way she had anticipated. The story of how she broke into Zoltán Levy’s house and assaulted him made her into a minor celebrity, and for a time she was hounded by reporters. Excerpts of Eastside Story appeared in the Vancouver Sun, but finding a publisher proved to be impossible. The manuscript was over 1200 pages long, a rambling stream-of-consciousness prose poem too bizarre to be marketable.

Though he was deeply shaken, Zoltán Levy did not press charges. The woman was obviously sick, not a criminal. But he did insist she get some help. Mavis entered therapy with a Gestalt psychologist in North Vancouver, separated from Charles, and began to write a memoir about her experiences posing as a bag lady on the Downtown Eastside.

Dr. Levy’s year has been complicated. He made a good connection with Sandy Alexander, the young woman who had the baby in his office last winter. She would bring little Anton in to see him, he’d crawl all over the floor, and they’d talk.

One day, Sandy is playing peek-a-boo with the little boy, and he laughs out loud in delight.

Dr. Levy feels his heart turn over.

He has heard that laugh before.

He looks at the baby, sees the resemblance for the first time. He must have been blind before.

Missing pieces fly into place, slam together in shock, and the muddled picture in his brain jumps into sharp relief.

He looks at Sandy; she’s smiling a little. She knows, of course.

And she knows that he knows.

He feels a little faint.

“Welcome to the family. Or should I say – welcome back.”

Bert Moffatt did decide to retire, but not before finding out what happened to the guy with the blanket over his head. He should not have worried, for soon the name of Tamás Szabó will be all over the newspapers, not to mention the internet.

He remains secluded during the long and difficult process of the restoration of his face. But during that time, amazing things begin to happen in his new studio on East Hastings Street. Inspiration floods through and reanimates him: “The desert shall rejoice, and blossom as the rose,” Dr. Levy says to him, quoting Isaiah. In this great second blooming he conceives an exhibit of sculpture depicting the third-world streets of Vancouver, a collection entitled The Kingdom of Night.

When the media get wind of the facial reconstruction story, Szabó’s fortunes take a huge upswing. With a little urging from Dr. Levy, the Vancouver Art Gallery agrees to host his exhibition, a one-man display of virtuosity pulled out of complete darkness.

Zoltán Levy is excited, and eagerly anticipating opening night. Szabó hasn’t let him see the results of the facial surgery; no one has seen it but the doctors. Mystery creates interest, and Szabó knows that the time has not yet come for the great unveiling.

On the night, the gallery is unexpectedly mobbed. A crowd was anticipated, mostly from the arts community, but not this. Excitement crackles in the air, cameras flash, and media people jostle, sensing a good story. Zoltán Levy gets there an hour early, but still has to push his way through a dense and noisy crowd.

A white limousine pulls up in front of the Vancouver Art Gallery at 8:15 p.m. Tamás Szabó gets out of the back, and his new assistant, an attractive dark-haired woman named Zoë, takes his arm to guide him up the steps.

No more buses for Szabó. Now he rides in style.

The scene is beyond surreal, and would be almost comical were it not for Szabó’s palpable dignity. With his head draped in a cowl of heavy silk, he would not be out of place in a medieval monastery. The crowd parts as he enters, everyone stepping back in awe. There he is, that’s Szabó, that’s the man who had no face.

The sculptures are all thickly draped, cloaked in black. One by one, Tamás Szabó walks up to them, stands before them a moment, then pulls the covering away.

The crowd falls deathly silent.


A woman of the night, flesh pared down to bone, eyes staring ahead like inanimate glass. A panhandler with tattoos sculpted in relief on his body, his hands held up in a gesture of surrender. A gaudy gang mural with graffiti expressed in three dimensions.

One sculpture is modeled after the Cenotaph, the “Is it Nothing to You” motto carved into a giant tombstone. Another is of a great rearing horse.

The crowd is quietly buzzing, some of them commenting on technical merit, but a few sculptures make them stop talking altogether. The pieces appear to be breathing, subtly expressing a kind of movement, entwining familiarity and strangeness.

When the nine huge sculptures are all unveiled, Tamás Szabó ascends to the podium.

He stands there for a full two minutes. The tension is unbearable. No one knows what will happen next.

Zoltán Levy recalls that other unveiling, that day in his office when he let the blanket fall. But this time it’s different, this time he has hundreds of witnesses. He draws the heavy dark silk covering up over his head, lets it drop to the floor.


The audience can’t help it. They gasp.

He lets them look, lets them take it in. He knows they are having difficulty believing what they are seeing.

The face is smooth and unlined, and looks eerily young for a man of sixty-seven.  There are no Frankensteinian seams to disclose the fact that this is a man-made, manufactured face, not the face he was born with.

Working from photographs, the surgeons restored the bone structure as accurately as possible, the missing half of his lower jaw, his chin, his teeth, his nose, and though they are new, these features are all Szabó, they are his. The brilliant blue glass eyes are unsettling, like the eyes of a wolf.

The word the reporters want to use is “lifelike”, though it is obviously a facsimile, a fairly convincing replica of a “real” face. The colour and texture closely resemble human skin, minus any bluish waxworks pallor, but the surgeons have not yet learned how to age and weather a manufactured face. It somewhat resembles the portrait of Dorian Grey, a reflection of a man, his traumatic past burned to ashes and blown away.

A long silence; then someone begins to applaud. Then a few more.

Then the room comes alive with applause, relieving the crowd’s apprehension that they would be looking at a freak, someone to be pitied and feared. Words are coming together in the journalists’ heads, things like “miracle of modern science,” “quantum leap in surgical sophistication,” but media clichés will never express this phenomenon, this restoration of destroyed flesh.

When the applause and cheers finally die down, something happens that dwarfs even this bizarre miracle. Tamás Szabó begins to speak.

“My friends. I welcome you all to this day of triumph. For today I share with you my vision, a vision that was taken from me by a cruel twist of fate, then miraculously returned to me.”

Once the initial shock of hearing him wears off, the audience realizes he is not speaking in the normal way. How could he? Speech would never be possible for a man so deeply damaged. Then comes the slow recognition that they are hearing a speech synthesizer, similar to the device used by the disabled physicist Stephen Hawking.

Some genius has programmed it to speak with a Hungarian accent.

“When I lost my eyes, I lost my heart also, and my will to live. I became a beggar on the street, living on the pity of others, a cruel parody of my great dreams of success. My art was gone, I lived in total darkness, and yet God would not let me die. My pride would not allow me to hold my hand out for help.  And so I suffered a hell beyond your powers to imagine.”

“Then one day I could carry the burden of my life no longer. A man touched me on the street that day, a countryman, he spoke to me in my own language. Though I did not know it, it was the beginning of my second life. I came to see him one week later, and – this man, this Zoltán Levy, he healed me. He healed me inside, where the scars were worse than the mess I had made of my face. He gave me back my soul.”

Zoltán Levy stands in the crowd, swaying a little, giddy with a feeling he can’t identify. He wonders if a new emotion needs to be invented to accommodate the strangeness of this day.

“Though the surgeons restored my face, for which I am profoundly grateful, Dr. Levy restored something far more important: my reason to live, my dignity, and my art. There are no words to express my gratitude to this man. He is remarkable.”

Suddenly the crowd’s attention shifts to Zoltán Levy; cameras flash, and applause swells again, this time for him. He feels a twinge of unworthiness; Szabó did this, not him, he only showed him the way. But he accepts the recognition, knowing that worthiness is not the issue here.

If it were, he is certain he would have perished a long time ago.

The exhilaration of the evening lasts about a day. Zoltán Levy cannot bring himself to leap back into the arms of his abandoned family. It’s not that simple. God knows he has told his patients often enough that they have to stop replaying those old tapes, get on with things, live forwards. But how to live forwards when you are afraid to look over your shoulder at the lives you have damaged and destroyed?

What right does he have to ask forgiveness?

So for a long time, Zoltán Levy does nothing. Sandy still comes in once in a while with the baby, and, incredibly, Dr. Levy bounces him and talks to him and makes him smile, as if everything were normal and this was just another chubby, healthy, happy baby, not the son of his son.

His work grinds along. Some days are gratifying, some nearly intolerable. He has started listening to those sealed CDs in his living room, something he thought he would never do. He even considers returning the rest of them to the store, but is just too embarrassed.

He decides he doesn’t need six versions of Don Giovanni and donates four to the public library, then starts to distribute the rest of his ill-gotten treasures to community centres and nursing homes, hoping they like Rautavaara.

Incredibly, for the people at the Portland anyway, he goes out on a date. Some of his patients see him with this intellectual-looking brunette with glasses who spends the entire evening lecturing about forensic anthropology. When they return from seeing a documentary called Sophie Scholl – The Final Days, an experience which is about as enjoyable as having major dental work, one of his Portman patients sees them and calls out, “Hey, doc! Gettin’ any?”

He feels ridiculous when he walks her to her door, says good evening and wonders whether he is supposed to kiss her or not. Remembers how awkward he was before he met Annie, and realizes he has returned to that state and can’t seem to break out of it. He makes an excuse about a sore throat and leaves quickly.

Transformations come slowly, for some people. Not everyone can be a Szabó, but we can take small steps. Or so he tells himself.

Because of the hazardous nature of his work, Dr. Levy must be tested for HIV at regular intervals. This has become so routine that he no longer considers the danger. Rubber gloves get punctured, it happens all the time. He doesn’t give it much thought.

Then one day, the young nurse in his office receives the most recent test result. For some reason she doesn’t want to give it to him. They run the test over again, to be certain there has been no mistake.

For years now, he has been breaking this to people: the test results are back, and I’m afraid it’s not good news. But now we can deal with it. Aren’t you glad you came in?

His own reassurances bounce back in his face, useless. HIV is no longer a death sentence. But it IS a life sentence, and it has to be treated on a continuous basis. You’ll have to live with this until we find the cure. He has said it a million times, and now he must say it to himself.

Suddenly, everything he has known has been thrown up in the air.

He sits with Sandy and the baby in his office, looking telescopically distant.

“Dr. Levy.”

“Oh, sorry, Sandy. My mind was wandering.”

“You know, you’re always telling me that every bad thing that happens has a hidden gift in it.”

“I said that?” He presses his fingertips into his eyeballs. “I must be a veritable fountainhead of wisdom.”

Sandy smiles. Anton, now a robust, unmistakably Hungarian-looking baby with dark eyes and curly black hair, babbles happily.

“Yeah, you are, except that you don’t know how to take your own advice.”

“Are you telling me what I should do?”

“No. I wouldn’t do that. But it looks to me like this test result might be a blessing in disguise.”

“I don’t see how it could be.”

“Dr. Levy.”


“Zoltán.” It feels funny to call him that, but isn’t he her son’s grandfather?

“Anton likes to quote this line out of a Bob Dylan song: ‘When you ain’t got nothin’, you got nothin’ to lose.’ What have you got to lose in seeing him? What’s the worst that can happen? So, okay, maybe he’ll be furious with you and tell you to fuck off for abandoning him. But isn’t that better than nothing? Isn’t that better than dying without having the chance to see your son again?”
Zoltán Levy has always been amazed at the capacity of ordinary people to cut through all the bullshit and obfuscation and get at the truth.

But he doesn’t go to see his son. Anton does not appear to be interested, or still hates him. Why don’t their paths cross more often, when he seems to live in the vicinity of the Portman, his beat? Mysteriously, they live in two separate universes that overlap.

Then it happens again, the weird dodge-game that brought them face-to-face in the first place. They literally run into each other. It’s disconcerting to suddenly see yourself, to see a younger version/older version, mirrors reflecting mirrors.

But this time they both stop, glued down with shock.


No response.

Dr. Levy impulsively reaches out and clasps his son’s bare forearm. Just holds on to it. Two pairs of black eyes lock.

Zoltán lets go of his arm, then gestures with his head towards the clinic, his body a question mark.

Anton stares at the pavement for a few seconds. Looks up at his father, straight into his eyes.

He reaches out, grabs his father’s forearm, squeezes it once, then sprints away into the night.

Bus People Part One

Bus People Part Two

Bus People Part Three

Bus People Part Four

Bus People Part Five

Bus People Part Six

Bus People Part Seven

Bus People Part Eight

Bus People Part Nine

Bus People Part Ten

Bus People Part Eleven

Bus People Part Twelve