Wednesday 20 November 2013

The Monuments Men – A Book Review

Monuments MenWith riding season now at an end for a few months I get to catch up on my reading, tackling some of the pile of books I have managed to amass which threatens to topple over causing grievous bodily harm to the unwary.
The Monuments Men is my current read. It contains nary a mention of two-wheeled motor vehicles so it is not a “motorcycle” book, but it is a great story nonetheless.

The “Monuments Men” were a little known group consisting of a small number of Allied soldiers tasked with the responsibility to protect, to the extent possible, all the cultural treasures of Central Europe during the latter months of the Second World War. I’d never heard of them before and, for that matter, had never really thought about it, but when you consider the destruction wrought on so many cities during the war the fact that any artworks remained at all is in itself amazing.

Although they had a mandate from President Roosevelt and the support of General Eisenhower the initial team of a dozen or so men had no specific orders or logistical support once in the field. They were on their own, scattered across Europe, competing with operational needs while trying to follow the advancing armies. Transportation was usually by hitching a ride with someone going, hopefully, in their general direction although abandoned cars and bicycles were also commandeered when possible. Once in theatre these men had to convince field commanders to protect priceless cultural artefacts from the ravages of battle, looting, or the wanton destruction caused by retreating armies. They were of low rank (Private through Major) so moral suasion was their only tool to accomplish this. Sometimes it didn’t work. Other times they were too late, able only to document the ruins. But often enough they managed to convince commanders to take a particular course of action that would preserve an historic building or work of art.

In the process they also uncovered vast treasure troves of stolen paintings, sculptures, gold and silver. These, and other artworks, had been systematically looted by the Germans from museums, private collections, and Jewish homes. Intended to become the greatest collection ever amassed, representing the magnificence of the Third Reich, these artefacts had been stored in basements, abandoned mines, and remote hideaways while Hitler awaited the construction of his F├╝hrermuseum in Linz.

It was an incredibly daunting task, and dangerous - some Monuments Men lost their lives in the process – but the very fact that we can, today, go into the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and see  Rembrandt’s Night Watch, or view the Bayeux Tapestry at its home in Bayeux, or even experience the Louvre’s collection is a testament to how extraordinarily successful these few men were.

It’s well worth a read. Highly recommended.

Tuesday 12 November 2013

Long winter’s nap….

Hunker DownThe sun is losing its edge, no longer sitting so high in the sky. Its weakening power is seen in shorter days and sharply slanted rays – even at midday. The dark comes at 4PM now, a full five hours sooner than just a few short months ago. And mornings arrive with ice on the pond, frost on the cars’ windshields, and perhaps a sprinkling of snow on the ground. The feel of winter is constantly in the air.
We live in hope of that occasional, spectacular autumn day when the inexorable movement of the seasons seems to reverse itself, even if only for a few hours so we can have one more ride. But the odds are increasingly stacked against that happening as we move into late November.
I managed to use the one nice day last week (nice being above zero, not raining, and not too windy) to give my bike its final bath of the season. But even that was just a lick and a promise (as me dear old mam used to say), enough to get the bugs and mud off, little more.
It’s now tucked away in the garage, battery charger connected and fuel stabilizer in place. There are a few maintenance tasks to be done but I think I’ll wait with those until the depths of January/February when my need for a motorcycle fix of any sort will be at its highest. Spring will, by then, at least be visible on the distant horizon.
Meanwhile we hunker down to wait, dreaming of warmer days and envying our friends in warmer climes. Try not to brag too much please.

Monday 4 November 2013

Not a good idea

I saw this over at Bikes in the Fast Lane today and just had to comment.
Seems like a good idea, right? And, really, how can one argue with protecting babies and young children – it’s motherhood and apple pie. But think about this: in the event of an accident this car seat won’t be ensconced in a more or less crush-proof cabin but will be anchored to the outside of 800 or more pounds of sliding, bouncing, shredding metal, hot engine and spilled gasoline. And that’s not anything I’d care to contemplate.
Even if no disaster were to occur, proper riding gear is simply not available in those sizes. Eye protection would be compromised and any helmet would be too big and ill-fitting (to say nothing of the strain a heavy helmet puts on a still-developing neck and spine).
I know we all want to share our passion for riding with our kids but wait until they are old enough and mature enough to hold on properly, get them the best protective gear, and enjoy our great sport together, in safety. A car seat bolted to your luggage rack is not the way to go.

Friday 1 November 2013

Lest we forget…

Yesterday I received a box of books previously owned by a WW II veteran who died earlier this year. An avid reader of military history he had accumulated quite a collection over the years, many of which meshed with my own interests, specifically the stories of the men and women of The Great War. Students of military history can argue over the tactics and strategies of war, but in the end the stories that resonate, that stay with us, are those of the people who lived, loved, fought, and died in the trenches.
The second decade of the 20th century was a different time, a time where 17 and 18-year-olds weren’t consumed with playing at war through increasingly violent video games but were actively embroiled in a deadly cauldron of brutality none of us can imagine. Those that survived  didn’t come home to psychiatrists, psychologists, and trauma councillors, but to families decimated by the loss of loved ones and a war-weary country that had just lost the better part of a generation. Most held the horrors they experienced to themselves, burying them deep knowing, and rightly so, that we would never be able to understand. Still they went on and farmed, worked, married, and raised their families. They were our grandparents and great-grandparents and, compared to the stereotypical self-indulgent youth of today, made of sterner stuff.
Historians claim that Canada’s future was forged in the crucible called Vimy. That may be so but it was only part of it. With nearly 10% of the population in uniform, and nearly 3% of the total population of the country killed or wounded between 1914 and 1918, the impact on the psyche of the nation cannot be denied, even to this day nearly a century later. 
And so it is with those thoughts in mind that I shall remember all veterans as we come up to another Remembrance Day - John as I read his books, my father and grandfather, aunts and uncles, and the hundreds of thousands of other men and women who have, over the years, fought for this country. Some made the ultimate sacrifice; others survived only to live with physical and psychological scars that affected their quality of life forever. All gave up more than we will ever know.
They all deserve our undying gratitude and respect, not only once a year but every day. Thank you.
Lest we forget.