The Blood that Binds Society Together

Many of the posts on this blog discuss the ways we create community through face-to-face interactions with friends, family, and neighbours. There are, however, times when we build our communities and society in more indirect fashions. Many of us give to charities and most of us pay taxes that help pay for community development. Giving blood is another example of indirect society building. We give blood so that fellow members of our society can live and unlike taxes, we do it voluntarily.

A couple of days ago I traveled down to the Manulife Centre and donated a pint of blood. I’ve not been a regular blood giver during my adult life, mostly because I’m not organized enough to make plans. However, Katie’s been giving blood regularly for the past few years and this has inspired me to make more of an effort. The process is not particularly enjoyable. First they prick your finger, then the ask a series of uncomfortable questions before forcing you to wait in uncomfortable chairs. The reward is a needle in the arm, a free juice box and a wound that leaves friends and co-workers wondering if you’ve taken up injecting hard-drugs.

So why do we do it? We don’t get paid for giving blood in Canada and the small tokens and smug sense of self-satisfaction are not worth the hassle. Instead, I think donating blood suggests to me that we do live in a society and at least some of the time we are willing to make small scarifies for the benefit of our fellow Canadians. Sure, there is a vague sense that we as individuals, or our loved ones, might need blood some day, but Canadian Blood Services provides blood to doners and non-doners alike. Margret Thatcher famously claimed that society did not exist, just individuals and families, but when I looked around at the range of people giving up part of their day and dealing with some pain at a doner clinic, I’m comforted with evidence that she was wrong.

Unfortunately there is a hitch: Canadian Blood Services feel they need to continue to drive a wedge into this otherwise harmonious community building activity. Each time I give blood I cringe when they ask the two awful questions about gay sex. Knowing the history of the tainted blood crisis, I recognize why they felt the need to exclude large sections of our society from giving blood (former residents of the UK, Africa and Mexico are excluded alongside gay men), I do think it is time for them to revisit this policy. At the very least they should consider the language and tone of the questions, as it feels very homophobic. I know people who boycott Canadian Blood Services because of their exclusion of gay men and I understand their decision, but I’ve reconciled my continued association with them with the knowledge that they’d willingly give my blood to those in need, gay, straight or unsure.

So while I think blood donations demonstrate that we live in a functioning society, clearly the exclusion of large sections of the population and the regular blood shortages confirm we do not live in a utopia. Nonetheless, I intend to keep giving blood.  If you are interested in either giving blood or would like to learn more on donor eligibility visit: Canadian Blood Services.

Cleaning the environmental and social conditions of the 2012 Olympic Park

The clock is counting down to the start of the 2012 Olympics in London. The main Olympic Park [map] is located in East London in heart of the Lower Lea Valley, which happens to be the same place I studied in my recently completed PhD. My research demonstrated the close correlation between the degraded environmental conditions and the disadvantaged social conditions in the sections of West Ham built on the wetlands. I ended my dissertation wondering whether the current multi-billion dollar project to clean up the environment for the Olympics might result in a comparable effort to clean out the socially undesirable people from this landscape.

An article in the Guardian, “Houseboaters being ‘socially cleansed’ from Olympics area,” suggests this process might be underway. House boaters are concerned that British Waterways are going to increase the mooring costs along canals in the Lower Lea:

British Waterways, which manages 2,200 miles of canals and rivers, has put forward changes to the mooring rules on the river Lea, in east London, that could increase the cost of living on the waterway from about £600 to £7,000 a year. Residents see the move as a deliberate attempt to drive them away. A draft note from British Waterways on 6 December 2010, seen by the Guardian, says: “The urgency … relates to the objective of reducing unauthorized mooring on the Lea navigation and adjacent waterways in time for the Olympics.” Continue reading

The MacDonalds Effect

My wife Katie is named after her great aunt Kate. Or at least that was the justification her parents came up with after watching a MacDonald’s commercial and deciding they liked the name.

Yesterday I attended a great workshop by Dr. Bill Turkel on the growing digital toolbox for historians and I learned about WolframAlpha, a computational knowledge engine, which has a growing curated database of useful information. Give it a try and search “China population” or “caffeine”. Along with this interesting demographic and chemical information, WolframAlpha has data from the US census on first names. Bill demonstrated a few names and I started punching Jim and Katie into the search bar. Turns out Jim has been on a long-term decline for the better part of a century.  The graph below show Jim was a lot more popular in the 1890s, when my great-grandfather Jim Clifford was born, somewhat popular when my uncle Jim Clifford was born in the early 1960s, and not very popular at all when I was born in 1980.  However, it made the first Jim Clifford’s widow, Florance Clifford, happy to have another child named after the husband she lost in the height of the depression fifty years earlier (I’ve got a cousin named Florence Clifford, born in the 1990s, who according to WolframAlpha, makes her almost one of a kind).

US Childern named Jim

The trend for my official name, James, is not much better:

US Children named James

Now I can’t do a post about names on the Daily Gumboot without stroking the ego one of the editors-in-chef, so here is the chart for the name John (it does look like Johnism‘s potential is in decline):

US Children named John

Now back to the MacDonald’s commercial and the name Katie. When I typed my wife’s name into the search bar yesterday I was really surprised to see the huge spike starting in 1980. Turns out the commercial was first aired on July 31 1980. Either the marketing team on Madison Ave were really in tune with the beginning of a trend or they made this trend.

US Children named Katie

Head to and test out your own name.

North American Historical Community Rallies to Save Hungarian Archive

When John and Kurt asked me to rejoin their team of bloggers 6 weeks ago I imagined that after completing my PhD in late January my life would get a little less busy in the weeks that followed.  Unfortunately this has not been the case.  It turns out I’ve been falling behind in just about every aspect of my life for six months and it takes more than four weeks to get caught up.  So here we are on the day my blog post is due and I’ve got nothing written.  Thankfully Christopher Adam forwarded me a blog for today for that is worthwhile re-posting here.  This blog is  about community and Christopher is leading a grassroots movement to rally the community of historians in Canada and the USA to support historians in Hungry.  Historians need archives to study the past and unfortunately, the government of Hungry wants to cull most of the secrete police files from the Communist Era from their National Archives.  This will create a major hole in this records for a particularly important period of recent European history.  Here is Dr. Adam’s posts in full:

The Government of Hungary faced widespread international criticism last December, after it introduced legislation that curtailed press freedoms. The outcry came from all corners of Europe and North America, and Budapest had little choice but to bow to European Union pressure and amend the ominous law. But journalists, political analysts and foreign politicians paid far less attention to an announcement by Bence Rétvári, the secretary of state at the Ministry of Justice, when he noted that his government would enact legislation leading to the removal and possible destruction of original archival documents currently stored at the Historical Archives of Hungarian State Security (ÁBTL).

<!–more–>According to Mr. Rétvári, <em>“</em>a constitutional state cannot preserve personal information collected through unconstitutional means, because these are the immoral documents of an immoral regime.” The proposed legislation, scheduled to be drafted by November 2011, would allow for victims of the country’s former communist political police to remove files that include information on their activities and then do as they please with them, including either selling  these documents online or destroying them at home.

These secret police files have been available to researchers, as well as to victims, since 2003, but as with any archive, only copies of these original documents may be removed from the reading room. Professional historians conducting research at the ÁBTL are also bound by ethical considerations when it comes to releasing names or personal information discovered in these files.

By proposing legislation that would lead to the destruction of archival material, the Hungarian government not only demonstrates a complete lack of concern for preserving and safeguarding the country’s national archival heritage, but is also clueless as to the nature of the documents that they seem willing to scatter. In many cases, the secret police files that form the ÁBTL’s collection refer to groups of people who were spied upon by communist state security, raising the question of who would actually obtain originals of individual files containing sensitive data on others and whether citizens could simply walk away with Hungary’s archival heritage on a first-come-first-served basis.

Even the ÁBTL’s files pertaining to the activities of Hungarian agents in Canada during the Cold War generally make references to groups of people, whether they be to a United Church minister (and his congregation), who was perceived as partial to developing closer ties with the Eastern bloc, or the Hungarian agent who visited Montreal to spy on his elderly uncle, and his uncle’s circle of politically active friends in the city’s Hungarian community.

The Hungarian government’s begrudging willingness to bow to international pressure and change its controversial media laws suggests that a similar outcry from historians, archivists, other academics, community activists and concerned citizens from around the world may have a similar impact and could help save irreplaceable archival documents from impending destruction.

A <a href=””>petition</a> launched in Canada will be submitted to the Embassy of the Republic of Hungary in Ottawa at the end of February, in order to show the government the extent of overseas concern. Before I launched the petition, a Hungarian civil servant told me in a private discussion that only a small handful of enthusiastic historians really cared about such “esoteric” issues. But with enough support, the government and those indifferent to the fate of historical archives might just come to see how much they underestimated the concern among people around the world when politicians try to erase the records of the past.

Cycling Clubs

Cycling is more fun in a group.  Not only do groups make road biking less work, as cyclists take turns breaking the wind, they also make riding feel safer, as car drivers easily see a pack of cyclists.  For this reason, cyclists tend to form clubs and participate in organized group rides.  Here in Toronto there are lots of options, from the informal and very fast Doughnut Ride on weekend mornings, to the dozens of weekly rides for all skill levels, organized by the Toronto Bicycling Network (TBN) who claim to be Toronto’s friendliest bike club.  This does not include the numerous competitive cycling teams and group rides organized by bike shops around the city.

Last year I began riding with the TBN and was amazed by the large number of riders that came together every Sunday for their long rides up into the hills of the Oak Ridges Moraine north of Toronto.  Each ride I did with them in April and May last year pushed me beyond my limits, ending with a grueling Century.  Sadly, I hurt myself running and then broke a rib, before traveling to Europe for six weeks of research and conferences, so my connection with this cycling community fell apart before the height of the cycling season.  This year I’ve convinced Katie to join the network and I hope to ride with them weekly until the fall.

On Sunday we ventured out on the Sunday ride to Bolton and we really enjoyed a great Spring day of riding. If nothing else it’s great to be one of many spandex clad people swarming into the Bolton Tim Hortons for lunch. The TBN leads countless activities throughout the year and they are a great example of community building in a big city.

TBN is only one of many exciting things going on in Toronto’s cycling community.  Here is a quick overview of a few of the others I’ve come across.

  • BikingToronto is one of the best sources of information on what is going on.  One feature is a round up of weekly events, including everything from rides to workshops to public meetings where decisions will be made about bike lanes.
  • The Toronto Cyclists Union aims to bring a strong, unified voice to Toronto cyclists.  It is a grassroots advocate aiming to make cycling a legitimate, safe and accessible form of transportation in Toronto.
  • Dandyhorse Magazine is a great publication that can be picked up for free from local bike shops.  It has a refreshing urban focus compared to many of the mainstream cycling magazines. 
  • The Toronto Cycling Map which the City of Toronto puts out each year, is a map of the entire city with bike lanes and bike routes highlighted.   It is great to have on hand to find fast and safe routes where out for a ride.
  • Ride the City is a website where you can find cycling directions between destinations (kind of like Google Maps) with 3 route options based on directness versus safety of the route.

What about your city?  Are there any great clubs, unions, blogs, magazines or resources that are helping to build the cycling community?  If so, please share the links.

Toronto’s Music Scene

Misha Bower of the Bruce Peninsula

Years ago Thursday nights were for parties, cheap drinks at the Golden Lion and very late nights.  As I count down the last few weeks of my twenties, Thursday nights generally see me in bed at about the same time as every other weeknight.  Last Thursday, however, I found myself on a streetcar at 1:30 in the morning wondering if I’d make the last northbound subway.  The Bruce Peninsula’s tickets said nine o’clock and I naively assumed this meant they’d likely start the show at some point between ten and eleven.  Instead there were two opening acts, pushing the BPs back to midnight.  This put Katie and I in an awkward position, as we’d invited four people to come to the show with us.  Thankfully, after a few hours of waiting, the Bruce Peninsula put on an amazing show and everyone left really happy and only a little tired.  This concert was the last in a string of great concerts we’ve been to in venues around Toronto.

Friends in Bellwoods 2

This started with the Friends in Bellwoods 2 CD launch party, headlined by Ohbijou at Lee’s Palace last August.  This double CD introduced Katie and I to a lot of great local acts and inspired us to start following the concert listings more closely.  These concerts have made me realized just how amazing Toronto’s music scene is at the moment. I already knew Toronto has produced a range of major successes like the many groups that combine to make the Broken Social Scene (including Feist and Metric), Blue Rodeo, and John’s favorite rapper: K’naan.  Sadly, the cost of tickets to see major shows at venues like Massey Hall normally exceeds the limits of my student budget.  Thankfully, there are dozens of great bands on some of the smaller independent labels in Toronto who play cheaper shows at Toronto’s smaller venues – (many of which are featured on the Friends in Bellwoods charity compilation CD).  Not only do these shows cost less money, but you also feel more connected with the local community when you are sitting a few rows back from the band’s parents or friends.

Six Shooter Records

Six Shooter Records has an amazing list of artists including Justin Rutledge, Melissa McClelland and Luke Doucet.  We were lucky enough to see these three perform at one of my favorite Toronto Venues, Trinity-St. Paul’s United Church in the Annex neighbourhood.  In the months that followed we returned to the church twice more to see Basia Bulat and the Great Lake Swimmers.  The acoustics in this nineteenth-century building more than make up for the somewhat subdued atmosphere (not much dancing on the pews).  If you are not familiar with Basia Bulat yet, check out this video from a CBC radio program:

Finally, returning to last week, we discovered a new venue on Dundas West called the Garrison.  It had a small stage in the back of an unfinished bar.  This led to crowding, as the Bruce Peninsula had between 7 and 9 people on stage.  Their high energy gospel-choir-folk-prog rock had me rocking and clapping awkwardly in something resembling dancing as the power and energy of Marsha Bower’s and Neil Haverty’s voices blew us all away.  Have you been to a great local show lately?  Please share suggestions of local bands that might make there way to Toronto in the months ahead.

For more on the Toronto Music scene, watch some of the short films produced by City Sonic, including this one on Justin Rutledge’s start at the Cameron House:


Murmur is a grassroots memory and audio archive project that began in Toronto and has since spread to other cities in Canada and around the world.  The technology is simple and it relies on the now ubiquitous cell phone.  Murmur records stories about neighbourhoods from long-term residences and then installs an Ear Sign where the story takes place.  When you come across a Murmur Ear you call the number on the sign and then enter a code to hear the story.

In the early days they used clandestine methods to attach their “Ears”  to telephone poles in the dark of the night, quietly inserting traces of the city’s past into today’s landscapes.  Soon they found you draw less attention installing the signs in day light and that most cities and local Business Improvement Associations (BIAs) support and even fund their work.  In recent years their local accomplishments led to international attention and they have been adding cities from around the world, including Edinburgh and São Paulo, to their list of completed projects.

This project, however, is particularly important in its hometown, Toronto, as the city does not have a history museum.  The city recently launched a virtual online museum, but until the city constructs a physical location for this museum, I’d rather go for a nice walk and learn about a neighborhood from people’s stories.  At this time Murmur has recorded stories about eight of Toronto great neighbourhoods, from the Junction in the West to Little India in the east.  Most of the recordings are memories from residents, unfiltered by academic or public historians.  In other cases, like Fort York, where the history goes well beyond living memory,  Murmur recorded interviews with the city archaeologist and Fort York employees.

In Vancouver, where you do have a museum, there is only one Murmur neighbourhood at the moment: Chinatown.  For readers in Vancouver, I suggest you watch out for the Murmur Ears the next time you are in Chinatown and take the time to listen to a few stories.  If you like what you hear, maybe you should lobby your city councillors and local BIAs to fund Murmur to add a few of the wonderful neighbourhoods highlighted on the Daily Gumboot during the lead up to the Olympics.

If you don’t have a Murmur neighbourhood nearby or you are among the minority of humans who don’t have a cell phone, but do have high-speed internet, you can explore a neighbourhood’s stories through the Murmur websites.  They have developed a distinctive map style to host their stories and a simple mouse click allows you to listen to a whole range of stories from the comfort of your computer chair.

Olympic Neighbourhoods: London 2012 and West Ham

With the Vancouver Olympics behind us, the countdown to the next games in London, England begins.  While the Olympic stadium is taking shape, I’m not too sure how much the people of London are paying attention to the games at this point.    The willingness of some British newspapers to attack Vancouver suggests that some have forgotten they are coming under the limelight next.  London is a city with many great neighbourhoods and as you can imagine, they are not planing to bulldoze buildings in historic Westminster to build an aquatic centre.  Instead, they are using the games to “revitalize” the Lower Lea Valley, a post-industrial landscape, situated between four inner-suburban boroughs in the East of London.  For this reason, the games are out of sight and out of mind for many Londoners.

A century ago R. A. Bray described West Ham “as that of a spot somewhere near London to which people went with reluctance if they had business there, and from which they returned with joy as soon as the business was over.”[1] Sadly, I don’t imagine the average Londoner would describe it any differently today and most probably only know it as the home of a football club.  Half a century of rapid industrial and population growth in the second half of the nineteenth century transformed the once green wetlands of the Lower Lea River and Thames Estuary into a dirty manufacturing suburb with a range of social problems that matched the extensive environmental degradation (for more on the history check out my research blog).  Despite this troubled history and the scarred landscape it left, I would still suggest travelers to London should venture eastward and see a different side of London from the regal and imperial parks and buildings in Westminster.  The Docklands Light Rail lines make it easy to travel around East London and they are above ground, so you can see where you are going.  Most of the sites listed below are within walking distance of a DLR station.

Here are a few highlights:

  • The Olympic Park:  While the stadium is visible from a lot of places in the Lower Lea Valley, the park is blocked by high blue walls.  The best views are from the elevated Dockland Light Rail trains traveling from Stratford to Bow.  You can get off at the Pudding Mill Station for a longer view.  The building is starting to accelerate and each time I visit more of the buildings are taking shape.  You can also see the two Back Rivers that flow through the Olympic park and the massive piles of contaminated soil that the organizers promised to clean on site.
  • Abbey Mills Pumping Station (Cathedral of Sewage): This amazing building located alongside a polluted stream and old factories looks really out of place.  It is even more bazaar when you realize its function: to pump sewage through the massive main drain underneath the green-way path you’ve just walked on to find this Victorian relic.  The architecture provides a reminder of the civic pride  created by an integrated sewage system in the 1860s.
  • Three Mills Island: This is the oldest remaining tidal water mill in England.  There have been tidal mills on the Lower Lea since before the Normand Invasion in the 11th century and the House Mill building dates back to the early 18th century.  You can also admire the massive gasometers just south of Three Mills and contemplate the changing scale of industry between the 18th and 19th centuries (or you can wonder why Jim spends his time contemplating such things).
  • The Royal Docks and the Excel Centre: The former docks provide an excellent opportunity to see the process of revitalization already underway, as the warehouse have been replaced with a university, an airport and a large conference facility.  The Excel Conference centre will host some of the Olympic events and this is one of the better places in town to find a cluster of nice restaurants.
  • The Thames Barrier: Taking the train out to the amazing flood barrier bring your past the handful of remaining industrial sites in West Ham, including the Tate and Lyle sugar refinery.
  • The Lea Towpath:  If you are lucky enough to be in London during nice weather the many tow paths along the old canals are great locations for walks.  You can walk north along the River Lea miles, all the way to Waltham Abbey if you are feeling really ambitious.

View Olympic Neighbourhoods in a larger map

[1] R. A. Bray, “Review: West Ham A Study,” The Economic Journal 18, no. 69 (March 1908): 60-64.

Making friends with liver and raw beef

Two weekends ago Katie and I were in Kingston to meet our friends’ new baby.  At some point during our deliberations on what kind of interesting meat dish we should try to make we decided to use the two pork livers hidden unused and unloved in his freezer to create a pate.  Now, for the most part I’m a very adventurous eater, but I have never gone out of my way to eat organ meat and aside from some commercial pates that I’m sure I’ve tried over the years, I don’t think I’ve eaten too much liver.  I remember finding it really odd as a child when my grandfather willingly ordered liver and onions at restaurants.  I guess one of my parents doesn’t like liver as we never had it at home.  My friend and I searched the internet, found a You Tube videos demonstrating how to make a pate and we set about making a bacon heavy pork liver pate – it is really easy once you assemble the ingredients.

The reason for my recent inclination to try organ meats is that I’ve been reading through The River Cottage Meat Cookbook for a new cookbook reading group some of my friend started. As the idea developed we decided to meet once a month at one of our homes and to try and cook some of the recipes out of that month’s selection to eat while we discuss the book.

The first liver pate we made in Kingston was so good that I decided I would try and make it again and bring it to the first meeting  last night.  Not having any liver hiding in my freezer, I ended up buying duck liver from the local Healthy Butcher.  Everyone was inspired to try new things having skimmed through the book and watched clips of the author Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s TV show on You Tube.  Hugh expounds a ‘nose to tail’ philosophy and argues that thrifty meat consumption helps off set the increased cost of sustainably raise animals.  I believe almost everyone in the group tried the liver pate and most seemed to enjoy it.

Another friend brought some beef tenderloin and prepared an amazing beet root and raw beef Carpaccio.  I’ve tried a few Tartars over the years, but this was the first time I tried Carpaccio.  It was really amazing and wonderfully tender.  Finally our hosts made a great stew with the much more affordable and therefor plentiful chuck cut of beef, nicely complementing the delicate but limited Carpaccio.

As we enjoyed the meal and a glass of wine we talked about Hugh’s food politics and the challenges of finding affordable and sustainable meat in Toronto/Canada.  We assessed the strengths and weakness of the many butchers around town and shared advice on where to buy pork belly or whole chickens.  The cookbook reading group model was a great way to bring together a diverse group of friends to not only cook interesting food for each other, but also to talk about our approaches to buying, cooking and eating food.

Here is a link for a liver pate recipe

The lonely community of winter runners

Winter Runners - Wayne MacPhail Photo

During the summer months the sidewalks and pathways of Toronto are chock-full of runners, bikers, dog walkers and strollers. During a long summer run I can pass hundreds of people with out a single interaction. Come January, this changes dramatically, as most people avoid the outside world and the city’s pathways empty of people. Instead of seeing dozens of fellow runners on a long weekend training run, I now pass four or five.   Those of us who keep running outdoors through the winter months are branded as crazy by many of our fellow Torontonians.  I know this, as until last year I was among these naysayers.  I grew up in White Rock, BC, and the thought of running in the painfully cold winter here in Toronto never appealed to me  until I started training for an early spring half-marathon in Waterloo last year.

Having started running last winter, I soon found the ostracization, combined with a collective sense of superiority, creates an interesting bond amongst winter runners.  All of a sudden, after the first major snow fall or cold snap of the year, we start exchanging waves as we pass each other on the street.  It seems like a fairly universal instinct, as I rarely pass a runner, even if they are some distance away on the other side of a street without receiving a wave. Come spring this yearly ritual will melt away with the snow and I’ll go back to my normal big city ways of avoiding contact with the multitude of strangers I pass on the street. Clearly this is not a deep sense of community as the interactions are brief, but it is still fairly significant.  In my experence of small town Canada, people wave to friends and strangers as they pass by on the street, while in big cities we often avoid even this very basic form of interaction – so it’s nice to bring it back, even in this limited seasonal fashion.

All with this small town community feeling provided by winter running there are a lot of other benefits.  A winter running outfit costs a lot less than gym fees or treadmills.  Running creates enough heat which allows you to spend a lot more time outdoors during the winter than you otherwise might.  I find this helps alleviate cabin fever and mild cases of seasonal depression disorder.  Plus there are a slew of great long distance races in the Spring to help motivate you out the door during the darkest evenings of winter.  North America’s oldest road race, the Around the Bay 30KM, stared three years before the Boston Marathon, way back in 1894 and now runs in late March to avoid conflicts with cargo ships entering the harbour.  For those on the West Cost the Vancouver Marathon and Half-Marathon takes place on in early May. Either of these races promises amazing views (of heavy industry or English Bay and lovely mountains).

Ben Lawson Photo

Around the Bay - Ben Lawson Photo

Do you know of other ways that cold or wet winter weather creates bonds between strangers or fosters a sense of community in the cities or towns that you live in?  Anyone reading this brave enough to cycle through the winter or run in significantly colder regions of Canada? I deeply admire the cyclist that continue to commute to work all winter long, but I’m fairly certain my ride to York University Finch Ave is dangerous enough in the summer, so I’ve not yet joined their ranks.  I can only imagine the intense feelings of superiority among winter runners in Edmonton or White Horse, but maybe the community dwindles down so low that you never pass fellow runners on the streets.  Do winter runner in Vancouver have a bond, or do your mild winters prevent it from developing?