Author Archives: Brian Brennan

Why do I charge $3.99 per story?

Because I expect to be compensated for my work. That’s how I make my living: I write stories and sell them. I don’t have another day job, but even if I did, I would still expect to get paid for my writing. Does this make me “priggish and ungracious?” That’s how a British academic characterized British novelist Philip Hensher recently when Hensher refused to contribute an introduction to the academic’s book for free. The academic’s name is Andrew Webber. He lectures on modern German and comparative culture at Cambridge.

Hensher took to the pages of the Guardian newspaper to explain his refusal to work for free. “How does he (Webber) think that today’s writers make a living?” he asked. “We’re creating a world where we’re making it impossible for writers to make a living.”

Webber was not available for comment when contacted by the Guardian. But later he wrote a letter to the newspaper claiming that unpaid work contributes to the “common good of our culture.” “Many academics give freely of their time in support of, and in collaboration with, writers and other artists,” wrote Webber.

Fair enough, but the point here is that Hensher is not an academic. Neither am I. We don’t have university jobs to subsidize our writing. We depend on the proceeds of our writing to put food on the table. If you want us to contribute to the common good of our culture, don’t expect us to do it for nothing. We deserve better.

Thoughts on turning 70

Today I am three score and ten. Not quite ready yet to fly away, but certainly aware that more of my life is now behind me than up ahead

What has life taught me? Three things. There may be more, but three will suffice for now.

The first thing I learned was that Mother knew best. My father knew a thing or two as well but my mother was the one who – consciously or otherwise – pointed me in the right direction.

My mother enrolled me in piano lessons when I was six. She knew nothing about music but she sensed – rightly as it turned out – that I might have some incipient talent worth cultivating when I started rocking in my crib in time to the music on the radio. After I had taken piano lessons for seven years she got me a paid gig as organist for our church. That pointed me in the direction of eventually drawing on music as a secondary source of income. Mother knew best.

My mother taught me to touch-type. How did she know this clerical skill would one day stand me in good stead when I became a journalist? She didn’t, of course. But she probably knew that in the years to come the ability to type a letter without looking at the keys would bring me as much satisfaction as playing the piano without looking at the keys. Mother knew best.

The second thing I learned was to trust my gut.

When I was in my early 20s, I worked for the Irish civil service as a customs and excise regulator. The pay was good and the benefits were generous. But my gut told me the job wasn’t right for me. My gut also told me that Ireland wasn’t right for me. So I quit my job and immigrated to Canada.  My friends told me I was crazy but my gut told me I was right. Trust your gut. What did my mother say? She hugged me close and said, “Look after yourself.”

When I got to Canada I had an opportunity to go on the road playing music – singing Irish ballads as one-half of a recording duo named the Dublin Rogues. My practical-minded father thought I should look around for something more stable; something more like the Irish civil service perhaps. But my gut told me I should try making it in the music business, at least for a while. Trust your gut.

I met the woman of my dreams while playing a gig in Halifax. I knew within a short time that I wanted to spend my life with her. I didn’t talk to my parents about this. They probably would have told me to wait until I had a stable job and money in the bank. My gut told me I should get off the road and settle down with this wonderful woman who would soon become my wife. Zelda and I have been married now for 45 years and we have an amazing daughter, Nico, who is the apple of our eye. Trust your gut.

The third thing I learned was to follow my dream. This is a slight variation on trusting your gut.

Life, to paraphrase Wayne Dyer, is not a dress rehearsal; it’s the actual show. Find what you love to do and go do it. If you don’t like your job, quit and try something else. If you don’t like the second job, quit and look for a third.

My father was a civil servant. My mother was a civil servant before she married my father. They both believed the civil service was the best employer in Ireland. That’s why I joined the civil service; I was following their dream.

But I wasn’t following my dream. My dream was to play music and write stories. I didn’t know if this dream would butter any parsnips for me in Ireland, so I moved to Canada to pursue it. Within a few weeks of arriving I had a regular piano-playing gig at a pancake house in Burnaby. I spent my first Canadian summer in Dawson City playing nightly at the Palace Grand Theatre. I followed that with a year on the road playing nightclubs from Toronto to Halifax. Follow your dream.

When I quit the road I went to journalism school. That brought me a job at a newspaper, writing stories. That’s all I’ve done ever since: write stories. Today I market them on the Internet, which is the way everyone does business in the 21st century. I still play music from time to time but that’s now mainly for pleasure. Hauling keyboard equipment to the gig is no longer my idea of a good time. My musical friends keep telling me that the manufacturers are coming out with lighter and lighter gear every year. Maybe I’ll get me one of those feather-light keyboards before I give up the business entirely.

So there you have it. Three lessons that life has taught me during my 70 years on this planet.

I don’t like to think about death. But it’s the destiny we all share so I have to think about it sometimes. When I was in my 20s I bought my first life insurance policy. The broker offered me a hypothetical rationale, something along the lines of “How would you look after your family if you were diagnosed tomorrow with a terminal illness or were to get killed in a traffic accident?” Nobody of my generation actually believed that our families would ever have to deal with such a morbid prospect. Now it’s no longer a hypothetical concept. It’s a reality I have to face: My life will end.

I am still blessed with reasonably good health. My mother died of colon cancer when she was 62, and I used to worry the same might happen to me when I reached that age. Now I savour every moment, cherish every hour, enjoy every day. Life is more precious to me than ever so I try to focus on the good things – love, family, friends – and forget about the stuff that ultimately I have little control over anyhow. What the politicians might be doing to the economy or what industry might be doing to the environment is still a concern. But at the end of the day it will have to be somebody else’s concern. I will have done my bit. I cast my ballot and I rode my bike.

A couple of weeks ago, I attended the 60th wedding anniversary celebration of an American aunt and uncle who were good to me when I first came to Canada. She is now in her late 80s; he is in his early 90s. Their oldest children are in their late 50s. At first I didn’t think I would go to the anniversary bash, in Rochester, because of the distance and the cost involved. But now I’m glad I did. Family and friends, more than 80 of them, came from Ireland, Alberta, Ontario, California, Georgia, Maine, Massachusetts and upstate New York. Some I hadn’t seen in eight years. We shared a lot of stories and a lot of laughs. I came away with one more life’s lesson to add to the three I’ve given you:

Family comes first.

The great Irish poet Seamus Heaney had died a few weeks before I went to Rochester. In the first poem of his first published collection he wrote about his father, who dug potatoes, and his grandfather, who cut turf:

I’ve no spade to follow men like them.

Between my finger and my thumb

The squat pen rests.

I’ll dig with it.

In another poem, Heaney wrote about his aunt, describing how she baked bread:

And here is love

Like a tinsmith’s scoop

Sunk past its gleam

In the meal-bin.

He wrote about his mother:

When all the others were away at Mass

I was all hers as we peeled potatoes.

And, in a poem reprinted by the Irish Times on the day after his death, he wrote about his four-year-old brother, killed in a road accident when Heaney was away at boarding school:

Wearing a poppy bruise on his left temple,

He lay in the four-foot box as in his cot.

No gaudy scars, the bumper knocked him clear.

A four-foot box, a foot for every year.

Family comes first.

Florence Lassandro: Bootlegger’s moll and executed murderer

(This story is one of a series entitled “One Person’s Journey” telling how people from all walks of life, including a few rogues and rebels, have left their marks upon the world. To see a list of others featured in the series, click here.)

Florence Lassandro 1900 – 1923

Florence Lassandro
1900 – 1923

One of Alberta’s most notorious murder cases of the 1920s occurred in the Crowsnest Pass in 1921, when Prohibition was in full force. It involved the gunning down in broad daylight of a provincial police officer assigned to combat illicit liquor traffic in the towns of Blairmore, Bellevue and Coleman. Two suspects were convicted and sentenced to death. One was a rumrunner named Emilio Picariello who had vowed to kill the policeman for shooting at his son. The other was his female accomplice, Florence Lassandro, a Picariello family friend who became the only woman ever to be hanged in Alberta. Lassandro considered herself innocent yet still took the blame for the policeman’s killing because Picariello had told her that Canadian judicial authorities would never execute a woman.

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John Brownlee: Disgraced premier

(This story is one of a series entitled “One Person’s Journey” telling how people from all walks of life, including a few rogues and rebels, have left their marks upon the world. To see a list of others featured in the series, click here.)

John Brownlee 1883 – 1961

John Brownlee
1883 – 1961

As political sex scandals go, it seemed like pretty tame stuff at first. When a junior government stenographer named Vivian MacMillan accused Alberta premier John E. Brownlee of sexual misconduct, the province’s newspapers devoted less coverage to the civil lawsuit than they did to a juicy wife-swapping suit involving Brownlee’s public works minister, O.L. (Tony) McPherson. But when the stenographer’s charges stuck and the 50-year-old premier had to publicly defend himself in court, the newspapers broke out the big black headlines that they normally reserve for coverage of a world war. It was cheap entertainment for the Depression-battered masses, and they devoured it with prurient relish.

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Henry Marshall Tory: University of Alberta founder

(This story is one of a series entitled “One Person’s Journey” telling how people from all walks of life, including a few rogues and rebels, have left their marks upon the world. To see a list of others featured in the series, click here.)

Henry Marshall Tory 1864 – 1947

Henry Marshall Tory
1864 – 1947

The University of Alberta was founded in 1908 for the most pragmatic of reasons: to sell the young province to prospective settlers. The fact that many of the settlers might not actually use the new university was of little matter to the provincial government of the day. The university would show the world just how far Alberta had come in the first three years of its existence.

The man chosen to lead the university was cut from same common-sense cloth as many of the settlers. Henry Marshall Tory was a down-to-earth individual who thought an institution of higher learning should serve a practical purpose.


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