Thursday, January 24, 2008

Canadian Runagate - The Basic Bethune

Last week a university student of my acquaintance launched into an excited introduction of a extraordinary and important Canadian from the past, whom he had just "discovered" while researching a term paper at U.B.C. The great hero had sacrificed his life for Mao's China and more students "should be taught about him". Within a moment or two I broke into a broad grin, as I realized he was referring to Dr. Norman Bethune, one of Canada's most notorious runagates.
"Discovered"? When did Bethune ever become lost? During my time at university, the late 1970s, the political ghost of Norman Bethune attracted more press than the average NHL star. The CBC has a webpage with over a dozen interviews available for download, and you can judge for yourself the dimensions of Bethune mania in the 1970s. The fact that we are now in the period of the 70th Anniversary of the sojourn of the Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion to Spain, fairly guarantees that Dr. Bethune's story will be popping up soon enough. In fact I had a heads up today from UBC Press that they have a new book on Canadians in Spain coming in March.

Since Wikipedia seems to be the primary source for most curious students these days, I took a look at the Bethune page and was arrested by the bald claim that he was "virtually unknown in his homeland during his lifetime." Unknown? As apposed to whom? Anyone who cared to follow Canadian politics in the 1930s, especially the significant inroads achieved by the Communists among labour and arts groups, or anyone who had any sort of opinion about the Spanish Civil War, knew of Dr. Bethune. Because he was famous, and had credibility, he made appearances across the country after his return from Spain. Bethune was one of the most interesting personalities of his era, and a master at self promotion. Indeed, as early as 1943 his story was in script development at 20th Century Fox - because China was then a war Ally, one of the "Big Five Powers". The propagandists were hungry for material.

I have researched Bethune for about thirty years, (he is one among a large cast of runagate Canadian communists) and suspect that a legion of the curious but silent also invest productive hours studying his legacy. I hope to contribute my "rendition" of a Bethune profile, but not yet. Not yet. I do agree that the Bethune story needs to be taught to every generation of young Canadians, but surely not in the fashion that the Maoists and Trudeau Era Liberals sold it. That tune is worn out from over playing.
To assist curious students in finding inexpensive material on Dr. Bethune I have put together what I choose to call "The Basic Bethune" - the most common material published during the Bethune Boom of the 1970s. I put the set together for $15, tax included, and you can too. Of course there were other important Bethune milestones in the 1970s, like an NFB documentary and a telefilm, but those are not easily accessed.

This is Dr. Bethune in one of the many publicity photos made in Madrid. The Renault motor ambulance is nifty but note the sedan with Great Britain motor registration CXE 26, which he and Henning Sorensen drove into Spain. It was given a military two colour disruptive camouflage pattern and an "S.R.I." Socorro Rojo Internacional insignia above the bumper. (It tickles me that the boys in the communist paint shop didn't remove the chrome Automobile Association "A.A." badge screwed to the licence plate. The badges had serial numbers, and remained the property of the A.A.) I doubt the car or badge ever made it back to England. Bethune was a committed Communist, but like George Orwell became the victim of Communist duplicity and infighting. Orwell learned, and left us his prophetic warning Nineteen Eighty four. Bethune just became angrier and threw his life away in China.
1. The Scalpel, the Sword, revised edition, Toronto 1971
2. Prologue to Norman: The Canadian Bethunes, Oakville. 1976
3. Bethune – a Play, Vancouver, 1975
4. The Chinese Voyages of Angus Bethune, [article] The Beaver, 1977
5. BETHUNE, [paperback edition] Don Mills, 1973
6. BETHUNE, Toronto, 1973
7. The Mind of Norman Bethune, Toronto 1977

Roderick Stewart's BETHUNE is still the standard biography although his scholarship has been surpassed recently by that of Larry Hannant and Michael Petrou who had access to higher grade archives. Stewart's later book - The Mind of Norman Bethune has wonderful photos. Beth loved posing for photos. Ted Allan's The Scalpel, the Sword is crap, and manages to combine plagiarism with two other tricks of fraudulent writing. The article on Angus Bethune is fun because it describes the grandfather's voyages to China, history which Dr. Bethune's biographers missed, and which even the runagate grandson was probably unaware. (Items 1, 4, 5 and 7 contain photographs.)

Much more has been published since the 1970s on Dr. Bethune. So much that it fills an entire shelf... the 1990 movie and postage stamps, memoirs by the Ewen's, new books on the Canadian volunteers in Spain, the archives of the COMINTERN etc, etc. Still, it was the Trudeau - China political agenda which will always be credited with the national popularization of Norman Bethune. He may be reassessed by future generations of historians, but surely never forgotten.

Playwright Rod Langley published a play in 1975 called simply "Bethune". First performed at the Globe in Regina, and then the Centaur in Montreal, this poster was for the show at the Owen Sound Little Theatre (OSLT).

1 comment:

Carly said...

Hi there,

I am currently doing research for a professor on Dr. Bethune and particularily we are trying to track down the paper records or script from 1943 that you mention in your blog. Do you have any idea who holds the rights to these paper documents or where they are currently being archived? We have tried UCLA in their 20th Century fox archive but they don't have anything. If you could provide us with any information on locating this unmade movie script, we would greatly appreciated it.