Manitoba History: Review: Bob Johnstone, Today in History

by G. Lewis
University of Manitoba Libraries

Number 38, Autumn / Winter 1999-2000

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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Bob Johnstone, Today in History. Revised edition. Toronto: Warwick Publishing, 1998. 388 pp. ISBN 1-894020-43-X.

Bob Johnstone’s popular, folksy approach to the telling of history is sure to kindle an interest in the past. The series of vignettes which began with the occasional story on CBC radio 17 years ago has become a well-loved daily feature. Popular demand led to a published collection of scripts gathered under the title of the radio programme, Today in History, in 1995. This revised edition (1998) is the winner of the 1998 Pierre Berton Award for Achievement in Popularizing Canadian History. While the book has been honoured for its contribution to Canadian history, it really selects from all times and places. Truly this book takes as its subject the “pageant of history.” The good and the bad, the strivers and losers, the noble and horrendous of all ages and nations pass before the reader.

The book is arranged by day of the year, beginning with January 1 and ending with December 31. The revised edition is a ‘leap’ edition with February 29 being devoted to the composer Giacomo Rossini who was born on this day in 1792. Each entry is given a title caption which loosely reflects the general subject matter. The title for Rossini’s entry is “The Phenomenon of the Opera.” The arrangement is part of the pleasure of this book. The reader has the option of reading from beginning to end or browsing as the mood takes him. The book is easy to put down and take up again without losing continuity. The casual reader may choose to follow an intriguing caption or explore the entry for a birthday or holiday. This flexibility will appeal to many readers and the curious will find new and entertaining corners of history to explore.

Today in History takes the reader down new roads and well-worn paths. The range of material demanded by Bob Johnstone’s radio presentations—he has been broadcasting almost daily for the past 15 years—means that readers are guaranteed of finding something new in the book . Obscure subjects demand our attention. Old stories are given a new perspective. Events such as the earthquake of February 23, 1887, which occurred along the Mediterranean coast of France during Mardi Gras claiming more than 2,000 lives, or people like Andrew Bonar Law, the Canadian-born businessman who was Britain’s prime minister for seven months, have long since been eclipsed. They are briefly revived by Johnstone, and we are reminded that the texture of history is found in the shadows as well as the light. On the other hand, Johnstone has to rely on such over-done tales as the building of the Taj Mahal (January 5) or Lizzie Borden’s exploits (July 19) to meet the demands of his format.

Canadian history does well in Johnstone’s repertoire. He does not single out Canadian events for special treatment; he applies the same principles of selection and narrative as the rest of the stories. This is a strength for it says that Canadian history is as capable of being interesting and significant as any other. So it is simply understood that Canada’s history is as interesting and significant as any other with the same range of humour, excitement, trivia and heroism as the other entries in the book. John Abbott, “The Fixer” is one of Canada’s unknown prime ministers. Johnstone gives us a very positive picture of a career which made substantial contributions to the stability and wellbeing of a young nation wrestling with political corruption, the religious and racial strife of the Manitoba School Question and United States pressure over the Alaska boundary. Hugh Scobie, “The Voice of Reason,” was a Scotsman who had come to Canada with his family in 1833. Trained as a lawyer, Scobie turned newspaper publisher in the aftermath of the Rebellion of 1837. Although he did not support the armed uprising, Scobie’s newspaper, The British Colonist, became a reasoned voice for reform. Scobie’s political aspirations were cut short by his early death at age 42. Johnstone opens the questions of whether he might have become a major political figure in Pre-Confederation Canada.

Johnstone touches upon a variety of other Canadian events: Canada’s independent signature to the League of Nations, Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s cool ascent to the leadership of the Liberal Party, the ill-fated Second Narrows Bridge in Vancouver. One narrative in particular stands out. Johnstone wrote the piece on the Canadian defense of Hong Kong especially for this collection. Two under-trained and under-equipped battalions of Canadian troops were sent to defend the British territory of Hong Kong against the Japanese in 1941. The troops held out for 17 days until they were ordered on December 25 to abandon the defense.

Official incompetence put the Canadians in an untenable position; Japanese brutality put them through hell. Over 550 Canadians died either at the battle or in the appalling conditions of the prison camps. Those 1,418 who returned to Canada alive were permanently marked by the experience. In Johnstone’s summary, “The Hong Kong vets suffered poor health, mental breakdown and, worst of all, official indifference.” It was not until 1976 that the remaining Hong Kong veterans received a modicum of justice from their own country with the adjustment of pension monies for those who were left. If this piece has not aired on radio, it should. It deserves the widest possible audience so that history can shine its light into this dark corner of the national psyche.

Personalities play a large role in Johnstone’s collection. Characters, rogues and the hapless share the historical stage with great heroes and leaders. Take Thomas Cream, a graduate of McGill’s medical school. Was he Jack the Ripper? There is no conclusive proof of this; only tantalizing hints that have placed Cream high among the suspects. We do know, as Johnstone reports, that Cream was implicated in a series of deaths due to mishandled abortions and that he was twice convicted of murder by poison. While his first conviction was for the murder of his lover’s husband, most of Cream’s victims seem to have been women, particularly prostitutes. He was linked to crimes both in Britain and in North America. At his trial for the murder of two young prostitutes in London, the trial judge received a letter signed Jack the Ripper claiming responsibility for the murders. At his hanging, Cream hinted that he himself was Jack the Ripper. However, he was supposed to have been in a Chicago jail for his earlier murder conviction at the time the Ripper was active. Johnstone leaves us with one of the many theories concerning the identity of Jack the Ripper, namely, that the Chicago police were so corrupt that Cream may have bribed his way to freedom for a period of time before he was released and could have been at large in London during the time of the Ripper murders.

While many of the stories feature murders, either in cold-blood or by the insane, others are light-hearted or ennobling. It was delightful to read the history of Jack Simpson, the good natured Yorkshire man who became adept at forging British archaeological artifacts ranging from pottery to arrowheads. He was able to make a steady living and it was years before anyone questioned his skill at finding these pieces. Johnstone notes: “Jack ranged all over northern England, never getting greedy and flooding the market ... He just wanted enough to live on with enough left over for booze. He loved his whiskey.” When finally asked whether his finds were forgeries he admitted immediately that they were. For a time he became a celebrity in academic circles, lecturing and demonstrating his methods of recreating artifacts. However, he later turned to more serious crime, ending his academic career.

Johnstone gives us anecdotal vignettes of writers, stage personalities, war heroes, explorers and politicians. We hear of the antics of opera diva Nellie Melba, the feats of Fernando Magellan, Emily Jennings’ struggle with the Canadian medical system of the day to be recognized as a medical doctor. The stories are humanizing and give a glimpse into the interesting characters behind many of the names which passed through history.

The strength of Today in History is its purpose—to give history new life by making it popular. The demand for the programme and the subsequent publications attest to its success. Bob Johnstone’s casual, almost gossipy tone makes his material very accessible. However, in some instances it works against his purpose. In particular, the title captions for his pieces leave much to be desired. Many titles are broad puns based only loosely on the content of the piece which follows. Some are even misleading and a few are just silly. “Corpus Christie” refers to the discovery of the bodies of the victims of mass murderer Reg Christie. The story of the Spanish flu epidemic is “Under the Influenza.” We may perhaps guess that “Permanent Incapacitation [sic]” has something to do with the ancient South American kingdom of the Incas. In fact, the focus of the piece is the career of Francisco Pizarro and his death at the hand of his partner Almagro’s followers. “Guerillas in the Mist”? Che Guevara’s life.

While acknowledging that Bob Johnstone did not intend his work to be scholarly or academic, some tools of scholarly publication could have been modified to make this book more helpful and interesting. The book would have benefited from titles that clearly state the subject of each piece. This would not compromise the overall qualities of the work and would be very helpful for the user. This would allow the reader to identify subjects of immediate interest or for future reference. For the same reasons, this book would have been more useful with a subject and name index: It is quite difficult with the current arrangement to go back and find a piece on a particular person or event.

What prompted Bob Johnstone to begin this series? Where does he find his material? Aside from having to associate a subject with a date, what are the other reasons for selecting? What sources does he find particularly helpful? Does Bob Johnstone have any personal favourites among his selections? His audience might enjoy hearing his opinions on some of the stories he has reported. Have listeners or readers reacted negatively to any of the persons or events being chronicled? Why? If Bob Johnstone plans another edition of Today in History an introduction which answers these questions would be appreciated. But that’s another story.

Page revised: 13 October 2012