Tuesday, 30 November 2010

A Bad Boy Grows Up: David's Homel's New Novel, Midway

Ought to put the disclaimer right at the top: David Homel has long been one of my favourite mechant gars. That is, this Montreal writer of considerable talent enjoys playing the naughty boy and making people think the worst of him. His earlier novels, beginning with Electrical Storms, contain a heavy coat of machism, which camoflages intelligence, moral sense and sensitivity that for artistic and/or personal reasons Homel choses not to highlight.

His last novel The Speaking Cure was a dense, disturbing look at life in the aftermath of the Balkan Wars of the 1990s. Full of sex like the provocatively named Get on Top, the novel nevertheless was concerned with the way men and women slowly make their way toward a space where they can find a semblance of peace and perhaps moments of redemptive happiness.

It probably should be no surprise that his most recent book Midway takes this desire for movement/escape to a better place a step further. At the center is an essay that the hero Ben Allen writes about dromomania, an apparently real masculine hysteria identifed in the 1880s which compelled a handful of Europeans to head east by train or on foot. Why they did so never was clear, but as Ben considers his life at age 50 something, wanderlust is quite attractive.

The Montreal Gazette reviewed Midway on the weekend, giving high marks to the way that Homel presents a man in the sandwich generation, with widowed father, slacker son, and wife who's not as interesting as she once was. The reviewer suggests that the book would be stronger if Homel had his hero respond to this mid-life crisis by jumping over the traces and taking off as if he were a latter day dromomaniac. But the point of the book, in my opinion, is quite different--that adults of substance don't cut and run, don't use "art" as a pretext for cruelty or irresponsiblity--and as such it demonstrates once again Homel's seriousness, not to mention his skill as a story teller.

Monday, 29 November 2010

Another Crisis for Haiti: No Legitimate Winner in Presidential Elections

Sad day in Haiti, as charges are flung around concerning the presidential election yesterday. Twelve of the 18 candidates declared it a "massive fraud" with ballot box stuffing as only one of the irregularities.

The Friday before Radio Canada had an interesting documentary about how non-governmental organizations, for good or will, are providing much of the aid and infrastructure in the country which was ravaged first by an earthquake last January and then by hurricanes and cholera this fall.

The two situations are related: the country has been without a strong legitimate government for far too long. How to provide wise leadership is always a big question, and here it reaches immense proportions. If one has any doubt, one need only compare the way that Chile--which has had its own problems of leadership in the past--pulled together to rebuild after its much larger earthquake last spring Or, to look further in that past, the masterful way that Portugal under the Marquês de Pombal rebuilt Lisbon in the 18th century.

Wise leaders, social organization, civil society: what every country needs, what every people deserves.

Saturday, 27 November 2010

Saturday Photo: Joseph Branco's Lovely Lace

There's a bit of snow today--not the first snowfall, but the first that might stick around for a while. Branches of trees and bushes look like white lace, which made me think of this azulejo by Joseph Branco, a Montreal ceramacist of Portuguese origin.

Branco made this design, inspired by his Azorean grandmother's lace, for a series of 12 granite benches, each bearing a quotation by a Portuguese literary figure. The benches have just been covered up for the winter to protect them from snow and ice, but their memory lingers on.

Friday, 26 November 2010

The Next Korean War: a Manufactured Opportunity for Conflict?

One of my first political memories is of the beginning of the Korean War in 1950. There was talk of a call up of former American soldiers, and I worried that my father--whose military career, begun in 1944 when he was 31, lasted, according to him, "two years, two months, two days, too long"--might have to go fight on the other side of the world. I still remember having nightmares.

The two Koreas are stumbling around again now, with North Korea getting the bad press. Heavy artillery aimed at a disputed island is cited as a major provocation by the country led by a family which seems truly scarily weird. But let us not forget that the current attack comes just as South Koreans and Americans are putting the pieces in place for a war game simulating an invasion of South Korea by North Korea. Some 70,000 South Korean soldiers are on the ready, with Americans standing by to help out.

The New York Times and other "serious" media mentioned this build up before the North Korean attack, including the fact that South Korea had fired test shots in the area. But wilder information purveyors have said little or nothing about the optics of this since. Looks like somebody thinks a little war on the edge of Asia might be good for their interests.

But I love the headline in the Korean paper Chosun Ilbo: "China Stays Firmly on Fence Over N. Korean Attack." I keep imagining several billion people hunkered down on the Great Wall! Something to think about when nightmares recur from childhood.

Thursday, 25 November 2010

Muito Obrigada!

Lovely book launch last night. Thanks to everyone who attended and/or sent their good wishes. Abraços e beijinhos

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Why Someone Named Soderstrom Wrote a Book about the Portuguese

If there ever was any doubt about the need for a book like Making Waves: The Continuing Portuguese Adventure, the Amazon.ca listing provides it. Just checked to see if it was in stock to find that it's listed under Books > History > Europe > Spain ! Hope to see lots of you tonight for the launch of the book that I hope will help fill the gap: 5:30-8 p.m. Bobards, 4328 St. Lawrence, Montreal.

For more about the book and me, check out Mike Boone's column in the Gazette this morning "Lusophile Trains Spotlight on People Who Tend to Sail under the Radar."
He writes: "It is tempting to make a piscatorial comparison:

"In Making Waves, Mary Soderstrom's latest book, the Portuguese are packed like sardines into 171 pages.

"Soderstrom's style, however, isn't dense, claustrophobic or oleaginous. Making Waves is not a bite-sized condensation of 600 years of history but rather an appreciation of people who have fascinated Soderstrom since her 1950s childhood in San Diego."

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Construction Corruption in Quebec: Not Good, but Don't Throw out the Baby with the Bath Water

As evidence of mounting collusion and outright corruption comes out in Quebec, the temptation is throw up one's hands and say, Basta! Enough! Some serious housecleaning is in order. Perhaps it should begin with a formal comission of inquiry, perhaps with the resignation of Premier Jean Charest. Certainly the official petition calling for the latter is gaining support: this morning more than 228,000 people had signed it, which is something considering the fact that the mechanism is set up so that people can't sign twice.

But in all this we should not lose sight of the fact that work on infrastructure projects is only necessary in order to provide good services to the population. Futher more, the stimulus packages begun after the 2008 financial meltdown, as well as previous long-term replacement projects undertaken by the Charest government have helped mightily in keeping Quebec out of the depths of economic slump.

Of course, we might be getting more per tax dollar without collusion, but we must not stop infrastructure replacement and investment because recently projects have not been properly overseen.

Monday, 22 November 2010

Blood Chilling Column by Paul Krugman and Hope about the Economy by Spending More

Paul Krugman, winner of the Nobel Prize in economics and notable Cassandra, has a particularly depressing column today in The New York Times. Instead of doing what might help the US economy and the world's future, the US Congress will soon make matters worse, he writes, by refusing the change the statutory debt limits without even more cuts in government budgets. Republicans will block anything that might help simply because it is proposed by the Democrats and the country is becoming ungovernable, Krugman writes:

"My sense is that most Americans still don’t understand this reality. They still imagine that when push comes to shove, our politicians will come together to do what’s necessary. But that was another country.

"It’s hard to see how this situation is resolved without a major crisis of some kind....we can only hope that the nation that emerges from that blood bath is still one we recognize"

Compare this with a front page story in last Thursday's NYT which explains that measures to encourage economic growth actually do a whole lot to cut or prevent deficits--and remember it's deficit spending that the Republicans and the Harperites in Canada are ostensibly so concerned about.

David Leonhart wrote that "the single best way to cut the deficit is to make sure that any deficit-cutting plan does not also cut economic growth... First, we shouldn’t plunge ourselves back into another economic slump by raising taxes and cutting spending too quickly. President Franklin Roosevelt made that mistake in 1937...

"In the short term, we should actually spend more. 'Some politicians and economists present a false choice: reduce unemployment or stabilize the debt,” argues a new bipartisan deficit plan that will be released Wednesday, the second such plan to come out in the last week. As Alice Rivlin, a Democrat who oversaw the writing of the plan with Pete Domenici, a Republican, put it: “We can do both. We can put money in people’s pockets in the short run and trim government spending in the long run.'"

Needless to say, we should be holding our breath about that report--and about whether other Republicans will go along with it.

Friday, 19 November 2010

Saturday Photo: Pombal, Enlightened Leaders, and Democracy

I'm off this weekend to the biennial convention of the Quebec section of the NDP in Ottawa. There are a couple of resolutions that I'd like to see past concerning health care and the role of government in social programs. Whether reason will prevail remains to be seen.

But in the meantime, I've been thinking a lot about the fundamental tension between leadership and democracy. The statue at the left is of the Marquês de Pombal, a martinet who transformed Portugal in the late 18th century when a weak king handed over to him the reins of power. In Making Waves,
I spend considerable space talking about all he accomplished--rebuilding Lisbon and outlawing slavery in the home country, to mention only two--and wondering just where the border is between being strong and being a tyrant.

We're lacking strong leadership on the left in Canada and the US at the moment. How to get it, how to channel dissatisfaction with the state of things into action, how to protect our right to choose: those are difficult questions about which I'd like to think there will some serious talk this weekend.

Everything that Goes Around Comes Around: Stefan Zweig on Brazil

Stefan Zweig, the Austrian writer (1881-1942,) is a recent discovery for me. A wildly popular writer of novels, short stories, travel essays, history and biographies, his reputation has been obscured in the English-speaking world for decades. Lately, however, new translations of his work are appearing, and I stumbled across one a couple a years ago. By chance I picked up a copy of Beware of Pity in the library the summer I had Xray therapy for DCIS, and found the long novel engaging enough to keep me distracted while I waited to be zapped.

Two of my book groups have read his work this fall. Last night the French-language group at the Kirkland library discussed 24 Hours in the Life of a Woman, a deceptively simple story of repressed passion among the wealthy at the turn of the 20th century. That was where I found his suicide letter, written just before he and his second wife Lotte gassed themselves, in despair over the state of the world, it seems.

They had taken refuge in Brazil, hoping to find a place to weather the storm of World War II. But the world outside couldn't be kept at bay, so he wrote:

Before parting from life of my free will and in my right mind, I am impelled to fulfill a last obligation: to give heartfelt thanks to this wonderful land of Brazil which afforded me and my work such kind and hospitable repose. My love for the country increased from day to day, and nowhere else would I have preferred to build up a new existence, the world of my own language having disappeared from me and my spiritual home, Europe, having destroyed itself.

It seems Zweig did not realize that he was living in another sort of dictatorship--those were the years of Getúlio Vargas--but nevertheless his words are another tribute to a vast country, whose qualities are frequently underestimated, it seems to me.

Thursday, 18 November 2010

More Bagpipes, and Traditional Music: The Celtic Connection Again

This is a good accompaniement to the Charbonniers d'enfer, I think.

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

A Democratic Tragedy: Charest, Yeats and "The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity."

Here is the link to the petition calling on Quebec Premier Jean Charest to resign. It was begun only about 48 hours ago and as I write has more than 146,000 signatures. That so many people are disgusted with the nastiness going on on his watch is both telling and a tragedy. Obviously there needs to be a thorough house-cleaning. But convincing principled people to go into politics these days is becoming more and more difficult: who wants to get involved in such a mess?

One is reminded of William Butler Yeats' poem written in another time of trouble, right after the First World War:

The Second Coming

TURNING and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity."

The poem goes on, with a prophecy that did not come through then, and I expect will not now. Nevertheless the words give me a chill...

"Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born? "

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Road Trip Music: La Nef and Les Charbonniers de l'enfer

This is what we listened to on the drive back from Quebec City last week. Definitely a terrific musical and historical experience, and quite in keeping with the cross cultural adventure we had.

Monday, 15 November 2010

Encouraging Kids Requires More Than Finger Pointing: It Means Rethinking Private Schools, Urban Living, and Income Policy

Quebec Premier Jean Charest got in some hot water last week when he opined that parents are partly to blame for the province's high school dropout rate. The French press generally blasted him for taking it out on families, although The Gazette played the story differently. According to the the English language daily, parents were "encouraged" to "encourage" their children's progress in school.

Certainly supporting childen in school work is very important, but other things are in play here. One is the fact that public schools are bearing far more than their share of the burden of "exceptional" children--any child who doesn't fit the usual mold. Private schools here--and most receive substantial provincial government subsidies--can pick and choose their students. Support for learning disabilities is practically non-existent, as any parent who has a child with an attention deficit will tell you. Even a bright child who has an very high energy level can be unwelcome in a private school: one exceedingly talented and imaginative girl of our acquaintance whose grades were very good was hounded from one school because of her energy.

At the same time, a combination of more opportunities for women and changes in pay for "ordinary" jobs requiring two incomes for a middle class standard of living have meant that even two-parent families usually do not have someone at home after school to encourage homework. Long commutes for many young families who have chosen to live in the suburbs only make matters worse.

So what do? Here's a short list:

1. Reinforce the public school system and require that private schools bear their share of the burden of difficult kids.

2. Recognize the fact that it takes two incomes to live comfortably these days, and plan social programs accordingly.

3. Encourage through zoning, recreational and banking policy the densification of cities. Promote of the advantages of city living for families, among them shorter commutes for all members of the family, established parks and schools nearby, a wider range of activities and all that.

Saturday, 13 November 2010

Saturday Photo: Fireweed along the St. Lawrence

The season is past but I was reminded of this photo yesterday when I got back from our road trip. It was taken near Trois-Pistoles, on the south shore of the St. Lawrence, downstream from Quebec.

Fireweed is one of the glories of mid-summer, a plant that grows on marginal, cleared or burned-over land, as you might guess from its name. The landscape as we drove back from Quebec City was practically devoid of green, and the fireweed has retreated to its winter hiding places, except when it surges upward in memory.

Friday, 12 November 2010

Quebec City or, simplement Québec: a Mixed Heritage

Quite by accident Elin, Jeanne and spent last night just up the hill from the Quebec Literary and Historical Society, at the end of the Chausée des Écossais and not far from St. Andrew's Church. This remnant of the Anglophone presence has been going since 1824. Its library, shown here, contains books from the first publicly funded library in what would become Canada, set up by Govenor Frederick Haldimand in 1794. The collection also contains many more recent books: it now is the only English language library in Quebc City.

About 15 years ago, I had the pleasure of talking about one of my books in the library. The Society invited me shortly after my historical novel The Words on the Wall: Robert Nelson and the Rebellion of 1837 was published. It was nice to show Elin and Jeanne around before we went down the hill to the Musée de la civilisation for a presentation where the music and the text recited were from 18th century France.

Thursday, 11 November 2010

All Girls Road Trip and One of the Best Road Movies of All Time

Elin, Jeanne and I are on a road trip today. Elin plays in Quebec City tonight and I get to tag along, grandma-groupie that I am. Pretty neat. Jeanne and I are going to have FUN.

But I expect it will be unlike the trip recounted in one of my favourite road movies, Going Down the Road. Interestingly, The Globe and Mail had a story on the weekend about how director Don Shebib is doing a "40 years later" film. Definitely worth looking out for, and if you haven't seen the original, you're missing something very good.

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Evidence-Based Medicine: Just What the Doctor and the Health Ministers Should Order

A point scored for those who believe that medical practice should be based on hard evidence: the Quebec College of Physicians has come out against running head-long into use of the Zamboni angioplasty technique for treating multiple sclerosis. Their stand comes at a time when high tech medicine is making headlines, with many decrying both rising health care costs and long wait times for access to health services.

Nine studies have been undertaken to test the usefullness and safety of the procedure, but only one comes even close to reproducing the results of the Italian doctor, according to Dr Marc Girard, president of the Quebec Association of Neurologists. Two studies--one in Germany, the other in Sweden--have not even found the vascular problems the Zamboni procedure is designed to correct among their subjects. Because the intervention--now offered in 18 other countries--is not without risks, he and the other Quebec physicians say that the results of carefully designed studies must be available before giving the okay to widespread use of the procedure.

Their stand has repercussions far wider than Quebec or one disease. "Advances" in medicine frequently are expensive, but how effective they are is often not evaluated. Dr. Maurice McGregor, former dean of McGill University's medical school who is active in evaluating medical technology, argues that these changes are usually paid for by cutting in other parts of health budgets.

He wrote recently that to avoid continuing impoverishment of the health care system, hospital financing should require stricter accounting procedures and "a specific review of techonologies before their acquisition." The issue is far from academic since "our healthcare system is currently marred by prolonged wiat times, leading to deamsn for 'fundamental' reforms and increased privatization."

It would seem that the Zamboni procedure is only the tip of the iceberg. Let's see what sort of stick-handling the provincial health ministers can give us.

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Batten Down the Hatches and Prepare for an Assault on the Health Care System

Very disquieting series of articles on Canadian health care in the Globe and Mail this week. Unfortunately I haven't had a chance to read them carefully, but it is clear that a storm is gathering that will shake the system as we know it.

The Harper government is going to cut the funding to the provinces, and then tell them that if they want more they should agree to rejig the Canada Health Act. (See another story in today's Globe about how Steve will be soon be doing a "listening" tour.) This is very bad news, but it doesn't look like the opposition in Parliament or in the society as a whole is ready to fight it.

More later (I hope.)

Monday, 8 November 2010

Buzzing with Energy Today, Partly Because of Great Concerts on the Weekend

There are concerts that will live in your memory, and we were lucky enough to experience one on Sunday. No, make that three concerts, because Laura Andriani, the first violinist with the Alcan Quartet, gave three seperate concerts that afternoon of the six solo violin works by Bach.

Playing the three sonatas and three partitas in one go is a young person's challenge, and the 35 year old fulfilled the technical demands admirably. She also brought extraordinary energy and passion to her interpretation. It was a truly memorable afternoon.

The concerts were organized by Ensemble Da Capo, a musical formation that I had not previously known. But obviously their programming is worth following.

Now you must excuse me, while I play the concerts over in my head, which was already full of Bach from hearing the Violons du Roy play the Brandenberg Concertos on Saturday night. What marvelous music!

Saturday, 6 November 2010

Saturday Photo: Smiles of a Tiny Perfect Baby, Who's Part of a Mini-Baby Boom

Jeanne is 10 weeks old now, and I think I've been very restrained. Haven't talked about her very much, but this week I can't resist. She is smiling and babbling and Elin says she's just discovered her hands. It just gets more and more interesting!

Also interesting is the fact that she seems to be part of a mini-baby boom in Quebec. La Presse this week had a story about the way that the province's measures aimed at encouraging having children are working. Quebec had a very high birth rate for several centuries, but that dropped from the highest in Canada in 1951 to the lowest in 1971. In recent years, the fertility rate (the number of babies a woman has in her lifetime) has been well below replacement of about 2.1, reaching a low of 1.45 babies per woman in 2002.

But it looks like family-friendly policies, like $7 a day child care and more generous parental leave packages, have resulted in a sharp jump in births. In 2000 72,000 babies were born in Quebec, compared to 88,600 in 2009, bring the fertility rate up to 1.731.

The La Presse story features the Maisonneuve-Rosemont hospital where our Jeanne was born. Its obstetrical unit was designed for 2,300 births per year, but in recent years between 2,600 and 2,900 babies have been born there. Same thing in most other hospitals, the story says.

Will this last? Certainly, fertility rates drop wherever families can expect to raise two children to adulthood, even without coercion from governments. Educate women, allow contraception, provide clean water, childhood immunization, and a semblance of civil society, and people choose to have far fewer children. And that is all to the good for the fate of the planet.

But I'd sort of like to see the fertility in our immediate family continue to increase. Would be nice for Jeanne to have siblings and more cousins too, when Lukas and Sophie are ready, says Grandma Mary.

Friday, 5 November 2010

Transit Wars in Montreal:We Need More Buses and Fewer Cars

A flurry of activity on the transit front in Montreal:

Mayor Gérald Tremblay wants to tax vehicules registered in the city.

Richard Bergéron, leader of the environmentally friendly Projet Montréal, has resigned/been fired as a member of the city's executive committee because he won't approve a new plan for the reconstruction of a major traffic interchange, sight unseen.

Road construction projects as well as rebuilding Montreal's aging water system makes traffic congestion terrible.

The public transport system needs much reinforcement in order to meet growing demand.

Will it happen? Let's see if the annoyoance of all those people caught in traffic jams results in anything other than more highways.

One good thing: The major public transit provider, the Société de transport de Montréal, won the 2010 Outstanding Public Transportation System in North America. The award was given in October for the "excellent results" between 2007 and 2009 in terms of effectiveness and efficiency. According to the press release announcing the Award, "the STM registered 382.8 million linked rides in 2009, some 19.5 million more than in 2006, a 5.4% growth rate. Its paratransit service for the disabled provided more than 2.4 million rides in 2009, a 16% increase over 2006. The overall satisfaction level of transit users also rose from 84% in 2006 to 86% in 2009. "

Steps in the right direction, for sure.

Thursday, 4 November 2010

Les Violons du Roy Play the Brandenburg Concertos with Elin on Viola da Gamba

The viola da gamba is an instrument whose repertoire is varied, but which isn't featured frequently in the works which have become staples for "classical" music concerts. Bach's Brandeburg Concertos are an exception: the sixth concerto has a lovely section where the gamba plays.

Les Violons du Roy, a stellar ensemble from Quebec City (here's the link to the New York Time's glowing review of their performances last December), is presenting the concertos Friday night in Quebec City and in Montreal Saturday night. We'll be there Saturday because of the music, but also because it marks Elin's first gig after Jeanne's birth. She, the baby and Emmanuel were in Quebec all week for the rehearsals: will interesting to learn how the little family enjoyed their first trip outside Montreal. And it will be a delight to hear Elin playing again.

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Coming up: Making Waves Launch Set for Wednesday, Nov. 24

Don't know if we'll have the equivalent of champagne to break over the bow of the book, but we've set Wednesday, Nov. 24 from 5:30 to 8 p.m. for the launch of Making Waves at Bobards, 4328 Boulevard St-Laurent. It's a lively bar/show space right across from the Parc du Portugal in the heart of the old Portuguese neighborhood of Montreal, and it frequently has Brazilian musicians--a very Luso-friendy place.

More details soon.

Photo: Left; Parc du Portugal when the roses were in bloom
Right; Brazilians at Bobards during the World Cup this summer.

"It's the Economy, Stupid" 20 Years Later: A Message Sent Yesterday Is Likely to Make Things Worse

In the backwash of yesterday's elections, it's worth looking at an interview with James Carville in Saturday's Globe and Mail. He's the guy who told Bill Clinton to focus on the economy during his campaigns, to very good effect. Obama wasn't doing that, to his peril, Carville said.

The exit polls yesterday had people saying that they were worried about the economy and were voting Republican/Tea Party because of it. Fair enough. The big problem is that the solutions the US right is proposing are going to make things worse. The US needs more stimulus not less, and no more tax cuts for the rich.

I'd like to think that Obama and company will start listening to Paul Krugman and Carvile and make the next two years a battleground for economic policy that will do some good. Probably not, and that could be a tragedy for us all.

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Maybe the Truest Thing an Economist Ever Said Was Keyne's "In the Long Run We Are All Dead."

Thought for election day in the US, from a column in Friday's Globe and Mail by Gerald Caplan:

"You might say that an ordinary economist is someone who guesses wrong about
the economy while an econometrician uses computers to guess wrong about the
economy. A comparable dynamic distinguishes micro- and macro-economists. The
first are wrong about specific things, the second about everything."

Credit goes to Lee (formerly in the employ of McGill University as an economist) for passing this along. He also points out that Paul Krugman's column in the NYT Monday offers some good sense where many economists, idealogues (including, surprisingly, Margaret Atwood) and politicians in the US and Canada have been hell bent for leather in condemning what really might work: stimulus.

Monday, 1 November 2010

Not Letting a Good Crisis Go to Waste: Lisbon Earthquake 255 Years Ago Today Allowed Rebuilding the City

The Portuguese princesses wanted to spend the All Saints Day holiday at the royal retreat just outside Lisbon on November 1, 1755, so the king, Dom José I, agreed that the court would go there after attending a very early morning mass.

Lucky for them, because between 9:30 and 9:40 a.m. thousands of were killed when a magnitude 9 earthquake struck. A tsunami swept through the lower part of the city in the hours that followed, and much that was left burned in fires that raged for days afterwards.

The city was rebuilt relatively quickly under the direction of Marquês de Pombal, who abundantly deserved the nickname he's been given subsequently, Enlightened Despot. After the Great Fire of London in 1666, a portion of London's centre was rebuilt along lines suggested by Christopher Wren. In the early part of the 1700s, Turin had also been expanded beyond the city walls, following plans which featured squares and streets laid on grids. Pombal and his engineers looked to both these major changes in urban structure for ideas, but in the end forged ahead to plan a new city center that was the largest urban reconstruction project ever undertaken until Napoleon III hired Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann to remake Paris more than 100 years later. (For more about the plan click here.)

When I started researching Making Waves: The Continuing Portuguese Adventure, I knew nothing of this. Discovering the story has fueled my reflection on the role of leadership in government. It's worth thinking about today, not only because of the anniversary of the earthquake, but also because of the election yesterday of Dilma Rousseff as Lula's successor in Brazil and the mid-term elections in the United States where Barack Obama's too timid actions are likely to be rebuffed by electors who think going right will make things better.

Photos: Top right; the Carmo Convent was destroyed in the fire and never rebuilt. Its ruins now house a musuem.
Bottom right; this portrait of the Marquês de Pombal is in the Lisbon city museum, Museu da Cidade.
Bottom left: view from near the Carmo Convent to the east, and the hilltop which was fortified during Moorish times.