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Review

This Day in Vancouver

March 20, 2014

Review By John Belshaw

      

There are some stories about Vancouver that bear retelling. Take the tale of Theodore Ludgate, an American capitalist in the lumber trade who arrived in the city around 1899 with a lease for the whole of Deadman’s Island. He was intent on logging its stand of trees and establishing a mill there for the duration. City officials demurred, as they had other plans for the islet in Coal Harbour. There was a confrontation between Ludgate and his employees on the one side, and Mayor James Ford Garden and a platoon of policemen on the other. Poses were struck, fists were shaken, damage was done, and the whole business wound up in court. In the end, Ludgate won his appeal to the Privy Council and the island was completely denuded. No mill would ever rise on the site, however, and the few residents would be chased off for good.

Three of the four books before me cover this tempest and each does so in its own way.  What’s more, a fifth 2013 imprint on Vancouver history — Sean Kheraj’s Inventing Stanley Park — examines it as well. Indeed, the Deadman’s Island War has been a favourite of local historians for many years. Chuck Davis and Eric Nicol both related the story in their own respective ways years ago. It is a fact: these events happened. But as Pirandello points out (and I have E.H. Carr to thank for this reference), a fact is like a sack — it won’t stand up unless you put something in it. How these three authors address the facts of the Ludgate Affair is, thus, illuminating.

For Jesse Donaldson, author of This Day in Vancouver, the arrest of Ludgate and his men on 25 April 1899 is outstanding for its newsworthiness. The affair is important to us precisely because it was important then. (And the tale is enriched by Donaldson’s inclusion of comments by Ludgate’s terrified wife.) Donaldson’s collection covers 356 days’ worth of events (sorry, no accommodation for leap years) and is driven by what dominated talk around the figurative watercooler. If it made it to the front page, it had a good chance of making it into This Day. Which is fair enough. These were the issues that stirred public interest, at least on the local level, and we certainly get a sense of what newspaper editors felt would excite their readership and expand their sales. Whether Vancouverites obligingly joined in with a chorus of applause or jeers is seldom stated. That’s not the point. Stories like these, when they happen, become the people’s property and shape their sense of the city and their place within it.

By contrast, Lani Russwurm positions the logging of Deadman’s Island in a longer narrative of conflict and mortality. From pre-contact era mass executions and gravesites through Ludgate’s axe-men to the occupation of the islet by the Canadian military, it comes across as a place where not much nice has happened. Russwurm, whose Vancouver Was Awesome arose from the historical research he contributed to the similarly named Vancouver Is Awesome website, is expert at pulling on one thread and showing how it connects to another. Deadman’s Island is not one story: it is several. And the ability of so many of Vancouver’s stories to reveal depth and breadth is what, one has to conclude, gives the city its awesomeness.

Mike McCardell’s contribution to this discourse stands significantly apart from all others. The gimmick of this book is that the first-person narrator is a corporeal ghost, a Sapper from beyond the grave with a passable complexion and a long-term interest in the Lower Mainland. He journeys about, chatting up historic figures, sharing historical experiences, and reporting on them. Mostly he does so in a voice that is far more millennial than Victorian. As to Ludgate (“a rotten guy”) and Deadman’s Island, McCardell stretches out the story over eight pages, drawing on aboriginal accounts of its use as a deathscape, various newcomer plans for nineteenth-century Coal Harbour, the logging fiasco, its use as a smallpox quarantine station, and then the assignment of a military presence. McCardell doesn’t scrimp on content but it is eclipsed by his style: this book is an exercise in trying to make history interesting to an audience that requires entertainment to ease digestion. The effect is jarring. Surely there is no other history book freshly in print that uses the word “braves” to describe Aboriginal males and “OMG” to indicate surprise. I surely hope not. (And if you must write a tongue in cheek spectral history of Vancouver then please make room for Ghost-Buster’s Towing.)

To demonstrate how academic or scholarly history handles the same topics, Kheraj’s recent monograph provides a helpful example. He’s writing from the perspective of environmental concerns. For Kheraj, what happens at Deadman’s Island in 1899 is indicative of ongoing tensions between city and wilderness, nature and nurture, resources and recreation. Value systems in conflict are played out in Stanley Park, the touchstone of the Vancouverite identity. Inventing (enough with the gerunds already, UBC Press) is richly theoretical and nuanced, but it is not where Vancouverites will go if they are looking for an interesting tale about their town.

Indeed, local histories serve a variety of audiences and purposes, which is why they are so delightfully diverse in their approaches and so distinct from the academic variety. They offer access points — visual stimulation, a reminiscent tone, a note of celebration, an authoritative voice, the development of a tiny detail that will appeal to a niche demographic the existence of which few suspected — in a manner that is neither the purpose nor bailiwick of most scholarly work.

We learn as much about a city from the purported audiences of “popular” histories as we do from the histories themselves. For example, if we recall Alan Morley’s 1961 Milltown to Metropolis or Eric Nicol’s 1970 Vancouver, the tone of both is boosterist and the theme is maturation from troubling adolescence into manly or womanly adulthood. Both are vindications of the visions articulated by the city’s founders. Is it unfair to say that this is what the city needed at the time? Morley was writing when local economic expansion was finally escaping the gravitational pull of the Depression and the war years; by Nicol’s day, those darker memories were fading and one could begin entertaining lofty notions of “destiny.” Too, these authors were writing guidebooks for a rapidly expanding population, one made up very heavily of newcomers from post-war Europe and post-dustbowl prairies. At the same time, Vancouver and Milltown capture the scriptural high ground for a largely bourgeois city in which growth was good, the CCF/NDP was mostly bad, the town’s rough-and-tumble days largely behind it (and therefore safe to wink at now), and its future safe in the hands of the Kerrisdalean establishment.

To get a sense of how much this has changed, one has only to pick up a copy of Vladimir Keremidschieff’s Seize The Time. This is the latest local reflection on the 1960s and early seventies. While Nicol was grinding out columns at The Province, Keremidschieff was capturing the news on film for The Sun. Nicol was looking back at a glorious past while Keremidschieff was boldly throwing himself into the crowds and marches that demanded a better future. Keremidschieff’s Vancouverites — certainly those on these pages — are young and not very impressed with what the city had accomplished. The book’s photographs are not consistently well presented, nor are the captions always legible, but it comes with a remarkably good afterword by Jamie Reid. The poet/activist and contemporary of Keremidschieff observes of the photographs, “One feels the dominance of brown and grey — of damp Vancouver skies rather than summer sunshine. Those who never witnessed and experienced the events recorded by Vladimir’s Pentax will probably see them as a kind of sepia representation of their parents’ history and life. Those who were present will be seeking tokens of remembrance….”(120). Just as every generation gets its own “gap,” it is also entitled to its own nostalgia. To quote Reid once more, “The survivors of the sixties protest movements … might well now be asking how much their idealism, effort and sacrifice has actually accomplished in terms of effecting positive social change over the past half-century”(120). There is something smug about that comment that wants underlining: most generations feel that, in their youth if not at some other time, they hoped to create a better world, whether that is one in which there is no Third Reich or no interior towns without electricity. The baby boomers never had a monopoly on hope, whatever arrogant claims were made at the time or since. Having said that, this collection of photographs of placards, politicians, and pop stars will rouse memories and stimulate conversations among people who may see in it proof that History with a capital-H is not just something that involves other people.

Indeed, the Donaldson and Russwurm compendia and even the McCardell ghost-narrative contribute something similar in this regard. History, as these four authors present it, is something in which everyone has a place and a role, or at least an entry point. No surprise on that front, perhaps. Not so long ago everything that wasn’t politics was trivia to historians. Keremidschieff’s very intense young protesters of the sixties shout (perhaps chant) this out on every page. Now that big league politics itself has descended into parody, other topics move to the forefront, jostling for the attention they possibly deserved all along. A generation nourished on a diet of discomfiting disclosures of abuse of children and metropolitan/senatorial kleptocracies, one that sees through shopworn phrases like “national interest” and eschews the ballot box for the blog is more likely to attend to stories that don’t easily fit into a bankrupt master narrative. McCardell’s ghost-writer is an everyman who takes people pretty much as he finds them, and mostly they’re a collection of yutzes. A few are gold-plated or at least bronzed but not to the extent that they are elevated far above the wet Vancouver pavement. Russwurm’s Vancouver is special because its people do special things. They are individually extraordinary. The can-you-believe-it? quality of This Day similarly hands the reader an opportunity to say, “There are 365 stories in the Terminal City. This is one of them….” In short, it lays claim to a historical vitality that stands comparison with any burg.

That’s what you get for being a World Class City. It invites opportunities to celebrate many things but it also demands that the city shows some character. Or characters. The English television personality and former Squeeze front man, Jools Holland, returned home from Expo ’86 and quipped that “Vancouver is a city without a soul.” In these four books we find something of a reply to that canard.

REFERENCES

Kheraj, Sean. 2013. Inventing Stanley Park: An Environmental History. Vancouver: UBC Press.

Morley, Alan. 1961. Milltown to Metropolis. Vancouver: Mitchell Press.

Nicol, Eric. 1970. Vancouver. New York: Doubleday & Company.

This Day in Vancouver
Jesse Donaldson
Vancouver: Anvil Press, 2013 416pp., illus. $38.00 paper

Seize the Time: Vancouver Photographed, 1967-1974
Vladimir Keremidschieff. Afterword by Jamie Reid

Vancouver: New Star Books, 2013 112pp., illus., 10pp. $24.00 paper

Haunting Vancouver: A Nearly True History
Mike McCardell
Madeira Park: Harbour Publishing, 2013 256pp., illus. $32.95 paper

Vancouver Was Awesome: A Curious Pictorial History
Lani Russwurm
Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press, 2013, 160pp., illus. $24.95 paper