Crash Test Dummies Blog

Written by Brad Roberts

13 Oct

All the Evidence In, But No Inference Drawn

Having started a conversation with a new-found cousin on I found myself being asked by said cousin, Why did my great-grandfather Crook (yes, that was his surname) move from Hampshire in England to Winnipeg in Canada? What skills did he take with him to this new place? And why Winnipeg?

This new-found cousin still lives in the UK, as do many other members of my Crook family who did not choose to emigrate to Canada in the early 20th century. The question then, was quite natural. But it was a question I hadn’t thought much about.

My answer, because I didn’t really have one, was going to go something like this: my great-grandfather Crook moved to get away from a place where his background—his class and accent—held him in check, to go to a country where he would be just one of many other immigrants, neither more nor less.

And while this is true in many ways, I hadn’t thought the question through in a more literal way: What did my great grandfather expect to find here? Why did he choose Winnipeg? Did he have any skills? I had no idea.

And then it occurred to me, why not look at the Passenger List from the boat he came over on, and see if this shed any light on the problem? It was a document I’d looked at many times before, but only to ascertain the date of his arrival in Canada.

It turned out that this document posed many interesting questions to each passenger:


My grandfather’s answer? MANUAL LABORER


Answer: YES


Answer: CARTER;




Answer:  IN 1905


Answer: RAI LAB

I had not realized that the passenger list was such a wealth of information! I’d found it so hard to read the first time I looked at it (about 2 yrs ago), that I hadn’t spent much time with it.

Now, however, I knew that my great grandfather had been a carter before he moved—that is, he carted things around, a very common job description at the time. I also discovered that he’d been employed this way for a long period—6 years straight work for a working class person was a very long period indeed—and that he either lost his job, or lost heart in it, because at this point, he decided to come to Canada.

But his intended occupation still puzzled me. Rai Lab? ‘Lab.’ usually stood for Laborer. I looked again. Rail—there was an ‘l’ there, I was pretty sure. Rail Lab., then, would probably mean—railway laborer?

I looked up when the railway came to Winnipeg, and it turns out it was being built at the time my grandfather emigrated. Begun in 1908, it was finished in 1911; my grandfather arrived in 1910. It all seemed to make pretty good sense.

Nevertheless, I still didn’t feel absolutely confident about this conclusion. I’d thought my great-granfather had wanted to be a farmer. I began to browse the Canadian census for 1921, another document I’d looked at many times before, and there I saw, once again, his occupation: farmer. But wait, I’d read it wrong—looking at it again, I realized it read ‘teamster’.

Teamster! The Union for people that worked for the Canadian Pacific Railway!


22 Sep

The Genealogical Files–Bringing the Dead Back to Life (Where They Belong)

For a long time, all I knew about my great uncle Alfred Lepoidevin was what my father could tell me: that he was born in Guernsey, in the Channel Islands; that he was the only Lepoidevin not to emigrate to Canada with his family in 1920; and that he “ended up,” as my father put it, in Wales.

Alfred’s decsion not to join his mother—my great-grandmother—upset her a great deal. There seemed to be little contact between Alfred and his family after that. Nevertheless, based on this slim intelligence from my father, I was able to discover Alfred’s birth and death certificates (b, 1900, died, 1970); I also found him on the Guernsey Censuses of 1901 and 1911, living out his childhood on Ramee Road in St Peter Port, Guernsey. But I could discover nothing further about the man. His life between childhood and death remained a big fat question mark.

Then one day last summer I mentioned Alfred again, and my father said that he seemed to remember that his wife’s name was Margaret. This simple fact led to a chain of discoveries about Alfred and his wife that came together like a beautiful jigsaw puzzle.

To begin with, I found an Alfred Lepoidevin marrying a Margaret A. Williams without too much trouble: Alfred’s last name is very unusual (except in Guernsey, where it is enormously popular), so it was easy to see that in Wales, there was only one Alfred Lepoidevin marrying a woman named Margaret A. in Wales at a time that made sense. So I ordered the marriage certificate with confidence, hoping for more information, and possilbly more leads.

I was not disappointed. I learned from the marriage certificate that Margaret’s age was 25 at the time of marriage, meaning I could guess her birth year as about 1906; secondly, I dicovered that her middle name was Anne, which meant I could further narrow the focus of my search for my next quest: her birth certificate.

Much to my disappointment, there were too many Margaret Anne Williams’s born in 1906 in Wales to know which one was “my” Margaret. Then it occurred to me that Margaret’s Anne’s last name would be her married one at the time of her death—Le Poidevin—and, armed with this more unusual name, I searched around and was indeed able to find a death record indexed for a Margaret Anne Lepoidevin in Wales: she died December 1976 at age 69 in Wrexham, Denbigh. This same index entry also supplied me with her exact birthdate, which I’d despaired of ever discovering—18 Feb 1906.

Thus I’d killed not two but three birds with one stone. The marriage certificate led to a middle name for Margaret; to her roughly estimated death date; and to her exact birthdate. What more could I ask for?

Of course I could ask for more, i.e., the exact death date, but I’ll have to order the actual death record to get it—that’s how they get money out of genealogy addicts like me, and there are many of us. Still, from the death certificate I’ll likely get not just a death date but also a cause of death, and that’s yet another detail I wouldn’t have had otherwise. Morbid? No, I wouldn’t say morbid exactly. Just curious.

Moving on, I had noted that the marriage certificate supplied me with Margaret’s address at the time of marriage: 5 Bury Road. Further, it told me that that Alfred was a Sergeant with the Royal Welsh Fusiliers at time of his marriage.

This latter fact was more interesting to me than the first, so I now looked to see if Alfred had any sort of military record. I could find nothing. Next I looked at Passenger lists, to see if Alfred had been on the go; and in fact, there was an Alfred Lepoidevin on a passenger list heading to Canada shortly after his mother did. My heart thumped—could he have visited Canada unbeknownst to me, and the rest of our family, all this time? Looking further, though, I saw that it wasn’t “my” Alfred—this Alfred had a middle name (my Aflred does not) and he came from the wrong part of Guernsey.

There was, hower, on 16 July 1934, a “Margaret A Le Poidivan [sic]” on the passenger list of a ship called the Britannia. The Britannia was heading back from Bombay, India, and had picked up Margaret Anne at Gibralter on the way to Liverpool, where the Britinnia finally docked before it’s next out-going passage.

I wondered if this could be “my” Margaret, so I looked to see if she was travelling with an Alfred, hoping to thus make a positive identifaication. Alas, there was no Alfred. Then I noticed that Margaret’s home address was on the passenger list, and lo and behold, it matched the address on her marriage certificate—5 Bury Street, Wrexham, Denbigh, Wales!

And this, friends, is just part of what I love about family history research: just when I think I’ve been given a releatively inconsequential fact, it turns out to be the very thing I needed to know, and on a quest that I could never have anticipated.

In the mean time, other questions remain: When did Margaret leave Wales for Gibralter? I have her returning to the UK, but not leaving in the first place. Further, why isn’t she with Alfred on her travels? And what was she doing in Gibralter anyhow? She was a small town girl and a farmer’s daughter (her father’s occupation was on the birith certificate)—what could she be doing in Gibraltar? Was it an extended honeymoon. or perhaps related to Alfred’s military duties?

One more thing: on her way home from Gibralter, Margaret is travelling with a 5 month old baby girl named Cynthia Le Poidevin.
Apparently Margaret gave birth to a daughter while she was away from Wales!

This little nugget of information gives me another birth certificate to look for, which just might provide me with more leads, and these new leads might confirm old suspicions, or lead to fresh investigations—or nothing at all.

Well, folks, that’s all I have time for today on—The Born-Again Genealogy Files: Bringing the Dead Back to Life—Where They Belong.

10 May

New Yorkers from Cradle to (Nearly) the Grave

image image image

1 Response Filed under: PHOTOS
09 May

just outside my door, nye


Ah the WORLD TRADE CENTER. I won’t call it the Freedom Tower because I think America has used that term to mean so many things that it ceases to signify anything real. But what a gorgeous hunk of steel and glass!

09 May


200px-Ashbery-2010-09-12THE DIFFICULiT PLEASURES

Today’s Difficult Pleasure is courtesy of the rather floridly complexioned (at least in the photo above) American poet, John Ashbery, whose “sestina” below was one of the most spectacularly Difficult Pleasures that I had the good luck to encounter in my early years of reading.

Ashbury managed—at least for me, and at least in this poem—to do what so few of the “post-modern” poets tried to manage: his sheer force of invention is compelling enough to make me want to keep reading.

A qualifying remark is in order here: Postmodernism in the arts has been a long and, at times, a rather tiresome affair in which meaning is evaded at almost all costs. God forbid that there be a clear linear thread, or indeed any of the norms of continuity that we find in more “reader-friendly” writing, for both of these are an anathema, even gauche, in that rarified world. Is this to throw out the baby with the bathwater, as perhaps Arnold Schoenberg did when he first eschewed any semblance of traditional harmony and started “from scratch” with his twelve-tone theory? Perhaps, but you won’t catch me maintaining anything like that in The Difficult Pleasures!

To resume: In the by-now famous selection below, Ashbury tackles and revamps one of the moldiest old poetic forms, the sestina, ploughing right through any preconceptions I had had about what poetry is, or what it could be. I quote it here in its glorious entirety:



The first of the undecoded messages read: “Popeye sits in thunder,   
Unthought of. From that shoebox of an apartment,
From livid curtain’s hue, a tangram emerges: a country.”
Meanwhile the Sea Hag was relaxing on a green couch: “How pleasant   
To spend one’s vacation en la casa de Popeye,” she scratched
Her cleft chin’s solitary hair. She remembered spinach

And was going to ask Wimpy if he had bought any spinach.   
“M’love,” he intercepted, “the plains are decked out in thunder   
Today, and it shall be as you wish.” He scratched
The part of his head under his hat. The apartment
Seemed to grow smaller. “But what if no pleasant
Inspiration plunge us now to the stars? For this is my country.”

Suddenly they remembered how it was cheaper in the country.   
Wimpy was thoughtfully cutting open a number 2 can of spinach   
When the door opened and Swee’pea crept in. “How pleasant!”
But Swee’pea looked morose. A note was pinned to his bib. “Thunder   
And tears are unavailing,” it read. “Henceforth shall Popeye’s apartment   
Be but remembered space, toxic or salubrious, whole or scratched.”

Olive came hurtling through the window; its geraniums scratched
Her long thigh. “I have news!” she gasped. “Popeye, forced as you know to flee the country
One musty gusty evening, by the schemes of his wizened, duplicate father, jealous of the apartment
And all that it contains, myself and spinach
In particular, heaves bolts of loving thunder
At his own astonished becoming, rupturing the pleasant

Arpeggio of our years. No more shall pleasant
Rays of the sun refresh your sense of growing old, nor the scratched   
Tree-trunks and mossy foliage, only immaculate darkness and thunder.”   
She grabbed Swee’pea. “I’m taking the brat to the country.”
“But you can’t do that—he hasn’t even finished his spinach,”   
Urged the Sea Hag, looking fearfully around at the apartment.

But Olive was already out of earshot. Now the apartment
Succumbed to a strange new hush. “Actually it’s quite pleasant
Here,” thought the Sea Hag. “If this is all we need fear from spinach
Then I don’t mind so much. Perhaps we could invite Alice the Goon over”—she scratched
One dug pensively—“but Wimpy is such a country
Bumpkin, always burping like that.” Minute at first, the thunder

Soon filled the apartment. It was domestic thunder,   
The color of spinach. Popeye chuckled and scratched
His balls: it sure was pleasant to spend a day in the country.


Tour de force is by now perhaps a merely hackneyed critical phrase—literally it means “feat of strength”—but to my mind this poem has muscular power, a firmness of hand and a bravado that all suggest tour de force.

On my first look at it 30 years ago, I had actually not noticed that the end-word in each line is part of a strictly-maintained pattern; now it shouts at me. At the time I was too taken in by the seemingly improvisatory, rapid-fire shifts in tone, to even notice.

Nor did I know what a “sestina” was in those early days. Now I have wikipedia—I confess—and I learn there that the sestina was originally called a “cledisat,” meaning “interlock”, which beautifully describes how the sestina works: we find not so much a rhyme scheme in the usual sense as we do an algorithm.

Yes algorithm! See the chart at:

If you’ve just looked at the chart (and I hope you will–Wiki-freakin’-Pedia won’t let me insert in into my blog),  I have to tell you that I don’t know quite what the chart does for our larger understanding of the sestina, except perrhaps to tincture it with the quasi-divine fragrance of Scientism; clearly, though, I couldn’t very well just leave it out of a blog called the Difficult Pleasures, now could I? In any case, one needn’t know the arcane rules of the sestina form to appreciate that the collection of end-words thunder, apartment, country, pleasant, scratched, and spinach bring a charming rigor to this odd meditation on Popeye et al.

The sestina, unlike, say, the sonnet, has not enjoyed great popularity in the English language, though interest in it picked up towards the end of the 19th century. Indeed, in the handful of sestina’s I’ve come across in English, the repetition of end-words has had a rather unfortunately corny effect, whereas Ashberry’s oddball selection has just the opposite feeling: there is, thankfully, a total lack of corn-pone sentimentality in this extravagant outburst, and one is more mesmerized than moved by Ashbery’s dazzling control of the compressed repetition inherent in the sestina.

Of course Ashbery—and indeed anyone else living and hoping for credibility since Ezra Pound and early Modernism—has had to remake (read “ironically re-appropriate”) this fussy and fustian form, and in my view he’s done a fabulous job. My view, however, may not be that of the majority. Many critics have excoriated Ashbery for being purposefully “obscurantist”, even going so far as to charge him with hiding his (gay) sexuality behind a cloak of impenetrable obfuscation (penetration joke, anyone?). For my part I couldn’t disagree more, and I welcome him here with open arms, (if not an altogether stiff penis) to the Canon of what are, for me… The Difficult Pleasures.

John Ashbery, “Farm Implements and Rutabagas in a Landscape” from The Double Dream of Spring. Copyright © 1966, 1970 by John Ashbery. Reprinted here from Poem Hunter:

For more information on the sestina, see

All spelling and grammatical errors are owing to the malignant forces of a vast conspiracy, and not the fault of said diarist.

07 May

NYC downtown graveyard


No Response Filed under: PHOTOS
05 May



Ezra Pound photographed in 1913 by Alvin Langdon Coburn


The “difficult pleasures” is a phrase not of my own making. It belongs to Harold Bloom, but I have chosen it anyhow, because it so nicely encapsulates my own experience with much of the literature that most people seem to find—as far as I can tell—arcane, remote, and even tedious.

Bloom’s formulation is both paradoxical and a little snobby. Paradoxical for the obvious reason that we don’t ordinarily think of pleasures as difficult; we expect them to be, well, pleasurable. Snobby in the positive sense, because it is rooted in Bloom’s faith—a faith I happen to share—in the value of studying the recently much-maligned “Western Canon”, that (in)famous parade of so-called Dead White Males, from Plato to NATO, which has been castigated for at least several decades by the very same Learned Academies that had hitherto striven so long to preserve it.

In my first year at the University of Winnipeg, I read the early 20th century poet Ezra Pound—most of whose work is most definitely a difficult pleasure.

Though his auspicious beginnings were later marred when he became bitterly and publicly anti-Semitic, Pound’s place in the Western Canon is by now assured. Ironically it was a canon he continually railed against, and which he also managed to bolster and transform. His importance cannot be underestimated: his aesthetic, even more than his poetry, helped to define what we now call Modernism.

Pound wrote an early essay which I never forgot, and which I dug up on the internet just today. It reads:

Three years ago in Paris I got out of a “metro” train at La Concorde, and saw suddenly a beautiful face, and then another and another, and then a beautiful child’s face, and then another beautiful woman, and I tried all that day to find words for what this had meant to me, and I could not find any words that seemed to me worthy, or as lovely as that sudden emotion…
(from Gaudier-Brzeska, 1916)

Pound goes on to say that he tried all day to work out a way of saying what he had felt, but without result. Eventually—he does not say when—he wrote a poem of 30 lines; but, unhappy with the results, he made a second attempt, some 6 months later, and cut it down to 15 lines. A year later still, he had boiled it down to a single couplet:

“The apparition of these faces in the crowd:
Petals, on a wet, black bough.”

The title Pound provides for this couplet—“In A Station of the Metro”—gives the reader a place to put the image, and completes the work.

Pound wrote many volumes of verse that were vastly more “difficult” pleasures than this terse but extraordinary poem. However, “In A Station of the Metro” was by no means dashed off in a moment of inspiration, and it powerfully indicates his devotion to reworking this material over and over until it had become as compressed as his initial “sudden emotion.” This is the kind of persistency that marks the mind of one who wishes to encounter the complex simplicity of the difficult pleasures.

May we relish them together in Difficult Pleasures to come.



Brad Roberts,



Pound’s words are quoted on 05 May 2016 at,


All spelling and grammatical errors are owing to the malignant forces of a vast conspiracy, and not the fault of said diarist.

1 Response Filed under: Uncategorized
04 May

Best Guest Spot

imagesMy best guest spot on any record had to be Joe Jackson’s 7 Deadly Sins record, where I sang the part of Sloth on “Bud and a Slice”. Joe is one of the few great acts out there who can combine pop music with the symphonic tradition. He was delighted to hear that I like Shostakovich–no other pop musician ever shared my taste in that department! Check out his (relatively) new record. A must hear.

1 Response Filed under: Uncategorized
03 May

Back in Canada

Five years after my herniated disc, and many hours of yoga later, I have returned to the road:  and, well, bless my soul! it’s already treating me very well–nay, better–like an old friend! And I have another old friend with me, Mr. Stewart Cameron, who is in my view the greatest acoustic guitar player in Canada–and among a handful of gifted players internationally. He can interpret a fully orchestrated track and boil it down to its essentials. And he does all of this with only a minimal knowledge of theory–indeed, I certainly know more theory than he does–but I’ll never be able to play guitar that in his league. I hope some of you readers will join us in the Canadian Maritime Provinces, as well as in Southern Ontario, come the end of May and first two weeks of June. The dates are posted everywhere so I won’t repeat them ad nauseous. But please do come! I give you my personal guarantee that you’ll be most happy. I long for the fresh sea air of Halifax, but for now I must breath the rancid stench of NYC. Best, Bard

Who doesn't love a high rise?

Who doesn’t love a high rise?

09 Sep

Daryl’s House Club

Hey Everyone: If you can’t come to the USA for my new shows, you can watch me stream online at –

Just click on the icon for live shows, and you can buy a ticket.

The show is live only! You can only watch it in real time.

If it turns out well, I might purchase and release it.

All for now,


No Response Filed under: Uncategorized
 Page 1 of 9  1  2  3  4  5 » ...  Last »