Monday 25 October 2010

St Catharines Municipal Election: My First Canadian Voting Experience

Despite being a Canadian citizen, I haven't ever lived long enough in Canada as an adult to be able to vote in an election. Today, at the age of 32, I participated in the democratic process for the first time in my native country, voting in the St Catharines Municipal Election.

I probably wouldn't have voted at all if I hadn't run into St Patrick's Ward candidate John Bacher at the downtown Farmers' Market on the weekend. I thought I'd left it too late to register as a voter, but he advised me to go along to the polls with as much ID as I could gather and exercise my right as a citizen. So I did.

This afternoon, I phoned City Hall to confirm that I could just show up with proof of citizenship and residency. Some gremlins interfered with the line, and I got cut off before I could ask where to go to vote. Ah well, I figured the information would be readily available online. I checked out the City of St Catharines website, but found the interactive map rather unwieldy. Nevertheless, I decided the polling station was St Catharines Central Library, and set off on foot this evening.

An hour later I was still wandering around downtown trying to find the polling station. No one was around to ask--Niagara Police Headquarters was shut, City Hall was empty, and the only people in the street were pushing around shopping carts or scouring the sidewalks for cigarette butts. Oh dear.

I gave up and returned home to recheck the details, discovering that the library was in fact the advance polling station, open over a week ago, and the actual polling station was in the school directly behind my apartment building. I suppose I should be rather proud to have endured a two-hour merry chase, all told, to take advantage of my democratic rights.

I voted only for mayor and ward councillors. (The ballot also included regional councillors and school board trustees.) Even then, I had difficulty remembering who was who. In the UK, local councillors almost invariably represent a political party, so you know whose box to tick depending on whether you're a lefty, a righty or a moderate who can't make up his mind. Here, it depends on knowing each councillor and what they stand for.

The municipal website wasn't overly helpful in my decision. Most of the candidate descriptions were full of fluff that didn't tell me much. For example:
During the past term of Council we have put into place broad plans for economic, social and cultural renewal. Over the next 4 years the detail of these initiatives must be developed to build the foundation upon which our success can grow. I bring to the residents of St. Patrick's Ward 4 and the City at large, a commitment to address these challenges with a sound business sense, a creative approach, with openness and transparency, and most of all, a strong vision for the future!
Which tells me what, exactly? That there were plans, that the candidate is going to build on the plans, and that he thinks he's good and honest. Well, fine, but what is he actually going to do?

Another candidate wrote:
I want St. Catharines to be a place of opportunity for all of our children. Our city is at a crossroads and smart, well thought out growth has to be our priority. I want to help lead that growth.
Sure, but tell me something concrete that you're going to accomplish.

Still another:
Times are changing and we need fresh new ideas and outlooks. As well many serious issues are not being looked at with the importance they need to be, and I plan on addressing these issues.
Oh dear. All the right words, but what are these mysterious issues? (In fairness, he later mentions poverty, sustainable income and economic development, but these are vague, and I'm still left asking what, if any, policy is being suggested.)

Tonight, many people in St Catharines are bemoaning the low turnout at today's election--little more than 30 percent.

I suspect the voter apathy is partly the fault of a system that makes people really work. (Even harder than I did in my quest to find the polling station.) Of course, in an ideal society, everyone would take the initiative and go out and find out for themselves who's running and what they stand for. But most people just don't have that level of political interest. They want to be able to pick up a leaflet or log onto a website and see in black and white what the candidates stand for and what they plan to do for the city, and make a decision there and then who to choose.

If voters have to turn to a dozen different sources to cobble together information for themselves, they probably aren't going to make the effort. Perhaps that's sad, but it's the reality. Make the information relevant, useful and accessible, and maybe people will vote.

Sunday 17 October 2010

Prescot: A Study in Wasted Potential

As you drive away from Liverpool on the A57, just beyond Huyton, a church steeple atop a hill dominates the skyline. It has stood for almost 300 years; the church below it, St Mary's, has just seen its 400th birthday. The parish of Prescot itself dates to at least the 12th century.

The steeple looks over a town that has been home for centuries to the Earl of Derby. His sprawling estate now contains Knowsley Safari Park, the legacy of the 13th Earl of Derby, who kept a menagerie of animals on the land. He invited an artist to the estate to create paintings of the creatures for posterity; the artist was Edward Lear, the nonsense poet and limericist, who wrote The Owl and the Pussycat for Lord Derby's grandchildren.

In the late 16th century, the Prescot Playhouse was one of the most important free-standing theatres outside London. There is strong historical evidence to suggest Shakespeare himself stayed in the town and wrote or staged plays there. (This is not merely anecdotes and folklore kept alive by local armchair historians. Ongoing research by academics at John Moores University, Liverpool, supports the thesis, and historians Richard Wilson and David George are among those to have backed the theory.)

In 2007, the Shakespeare North Trust was established to advance its connection to the Bard and, backed by Knowsley Metropolitan Borough Council, they launched a lottery bid to build an arts centre, to be housed in a replica Elizabethan cockpit theatre in the town.

Three years later, the project, having failed in its bid for funding, has dwindled to virtually nothing. Will anything be done to commemorate Prescot's Elizabethan heritage and its Shakespearean associations? It seems to be just one of many lost opportunities in Prescot.

Prescot has a museum, the only permanent visitor attraction apart from Knowsley Safari Park. While it has housed some excellent temporary exhibitions on non-local subjects, the only permanent display is dedicated almost exclusively to Prescot's historic clock- and watch-making industry. Where are Shakespeare, Edward Lear, Horatio Nelson and Emma Hamilton? Where is the history of one of Merseyside's most beautiful churches (and the borough's only Grade I listed building)? Where is the celebration of the town's vibrant Elizabethan past, some of which can still be glimpsed in the age-old timbers, shop-fronts and buildings of modern Prescot? Where are the boasts that Prescot is home to the narrowest street in Britain? (And a quaint, cobbled street it is, too.)

Those boasts just don't exist. We get clocks instead. And, puzzlingly, the museum closes its doors on bank holidays, when the most visitors are guaranteed to be passing through the town.

It's not just tourism that suffers. Who in a position of any political power is doing anything for business and trade in the town? Local authorities seem to have given every conceivable break to Tesco, resulting in a thriving retail park on the edge of the town centre, but small businesses and shops in the town centre lie forgotten. One by one, Eccleston Street shops have become vacant and been boarded up. A walk through the now-dreary town centre reveals few signs of life.

The Prescot Festival (disclaimer: this author was its assistant director from 2005 to 2009), an annual 10-day arts and music festival, has done sterling work to make use of the town's venues--mostly churches and their halls--but still the town lacks a single purpose-built venue for arts, entertainment and community functions. There is an outdated, dilapidated leisure centre with a moderate-size function room, but Knowsley Council is currently heavily pushing plans to close it and replace it with little more than a block of pitch-side changing rooms. In fact, it needs radical renovation or replacement with a far better community venue.

But there are signs of hope. It seems some Prescotians are finally at the end of their tether and are standing up to fight. In the past few months, several Facebook groups have sprung up to decry the situation. People are talking, and the talk is becoming action. Earlier this month, over 500 signatures were collected in a few hours to protest the planned closure of Prescot Leisure Centre. A handful of grassroots activists, supported by Lib Dem councillors, are starting to make noises and fight Prescot's corner against Knowsley Council. (This author is no partisan, but where are the local Labour councillors in this?)

It is grassroots activism that will save Prescot. Everyone knows there is little money to go round at the moment. But Prescot doesn't want special treatment. Prescotians just want what is due to them, and what has been given to other towns in Knowsley. Tesco and big developers have more than their fair share of the Prescot pie, leaving the town centre to die. Towns like Huyton and Kirkby have more than their fair share of the Knowsley pie, leaving Prescot to pick at the crumbs.

Their fair share is all Prescotians want and are entitled to. Otherwise, Prescot will continue to sink into a mire of wasted potential and squandered opportunity.

Floreat Prescotia--may Prescot flourish.

Saturday 16 October 2010

James Street Night of Art, St Catharines

Last night I watched a couple run over a reindeer in a shop window, sat in a high-end furniture store listening to a jazz trio and went down a dark alley to talk to British rock legend Keith Richards. Or someone very much like him.

The occasion was the James Street Night of Art, held in downtown St Catharines, Ontario. The idea was that artists and performers of every kind would take over the block from 6 to 9pm, singing, music-making, acting, dancing, painting and entertaining.

Keith Richards, famed as the guitarist of The Rolling Stones, had positioned himself on a velvet couch at the end of an alleyway. He kindly put down his Jack Daniels and his cigarette for a moment so I could photograph him. (I heard a rumour said rock star was actually actress Dee Jones, of the Niagara-based theatre group Suitcase in Point, promoting The Keith Richards One Woman Show, which runs from Thursday 4 to Sunday 7 November at The Mikado on Helliwell Lane. I prefer to believe it was Keith himself.)

In the adjacent building, a furniture store, The Scholarly Trio gathered round a grand piano to croon a few standards by Harold Arlen (Somewhere over the Rainbow) and Carlos Jobim (The Girl from Ipanema). A similarly classy furniture retailer at the other end of James Street hosted a quite different trio: brothers George and Gordon Cleland (St Catharines Chamber Music Society) on violin and cello, playing music to the words young narrator Davian Hart, in excerpts from the upcoming musical presentation Fabulous Aesop (19 March 2011, 1pm, St Catharines Centennial Library).

It was quite possible to wander around the area for a good three hours without hearing or watching the same performance twice. I spent a mere two hours flitting between storefronts and cafes, sampling Earthbeat's African drumming at Coffee Culture, joining in with barbershop quartet Audacity (albeit rather timidly from the back row) at the St Catharines Arts Council and chuckling at an absurd scene of a rather odd couple from Theatre Beyond Words reviving Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer after mowing him down in the Hoogasian Insurance storefront.

Compared to last night's block party of absurdist spectacle, today's Doors Open Niagara seemed quite sedate. I ventured to Queen Street Baptist Church, St Catharines, to hear the organ and view some rather lovely stained glass windows. The church, whose current building dates to 1891 (the 1833 original was destroyed by fire earlier that year) is also open tomorrow, Sunday 16 October, from 12 noon to 4pm.

Thursday 7 October 2010

Roy Ward Baker dies at 93

Roy Ward Baker, the British film director who sunk the Titanic and sent Quatermass down the pit, has died at the age of 93.

Baker, credited early on in his career simply as Roy Baker, counted The October Man (1947) and A Night to Remember (1958) among his first successes. Before that, he was second assistant director on the Will Hay comedy Oh, Mr Porter! (1937) and first on the Hitchcock thriller The Lady Vanishes (1938).

In the 1960s and 1970s, Baker made a name for himself directed horror, fantasy and science-fiction, including the Hammer horrors Quatermass and the Pit (1967), The Vampire Lovers (1970), The Scars of Dracula (1970), Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde (1971) and the entertaining kung-fu crossover The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires (1974). For Hammer's rival, Amicus, he shot And Now the Screaming Starts! (1973), as well as the anthologies Asylum (1972), Vault of Horror (1973) and The Monster Club (1980).

He was a talented director whose knack for suspense and horror technique could also be his downfall. Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde has some truly memorable moments, but Baker's skill is almost too showy at times. Quatermass and the Pit stands out as one of Hammer's all-time most tense and riveting movies, however. The Scars of Dracula stands out as one of the studio's most embarrassingly bad pictures, while the same year's The Vampire Lovers pleasingly echoes Hammer's very best Gothic style.

Roy Ward Baker, who was born in 1916, in London, passed away on Tuesday, October 5, 2010.

Friday 1 October 2010

St Catharines Movies

St Catharines, Ontario, of which I am proud to be a resident, has a classic line-up of Halloween films in store this year.

Starting on Thursday October 7, there will be free movies at Market Square (King St/Church St/James St), with a double bill of horror films
each week until Halloween:
October 7

7pm Halloweentown 1998 Disney film starring Debbie Reynolds
9pm: The Lost Boys 1987 vampire comedy starring the late Corey Haim, Keifer Sutherland, Jason Patric and Corey Feldman

October 14

7pm Bedknobs and Broomsticks 1971 Disney musical comedy starring Angela Lansbury and David Tomlinson (irrestible family fun)
9pm The Evil Dead 1981 camp cult horror with Bruce Campbell

October 21

7pm Practical Magic 1998 family comedy horror starring Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman
9pm Halloween Seminal 1978 slasher directed by John Carpenter and starring Jamie Lee Curtis and Donald Pleasance

October 28

7pm Monster Squad 1987 horror comedy featuring all the monster favourites, including Dracula and Frankenstein
9.30pm The Rocky Horror Picture Show Ultra-camp 1975 musical starring Tim Curry and Susan Sarandon

Entry to all movies is free--all you need to bring is something to sit on. More information here.

As a fan of the old classics, I am excited about Chorus Niagara's special screening of the Lon Chaney/Universal horror The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) on Friday and Saturday November 5 and 6 (7.30pm, St Thomas's Anglican Church, 99 Ontario St). Tickets are a steep $35, but the film will be accompanied by a live choral soundtrack. More info here.