Monday, September 25, 2006

Chumley's New York Redux

During the first year of operating Chumley & Pepys Second-hand Books, a customer came in and asked if we had any connection to Chumley's in New York City. Nope. No connection. But six months later there we were.

My brother-in-law was in the production of King Lear starring Christopher Plummer that year in Stratford, and Christopher Plummer took it to the Lincoln Center over the winter. It was our opportunity to make the circle complete.

We travelled overland using our VIA points to the border, and enjoyed a train car with the ideal temperature and hot Red Rose Tea--"only in Canada, you say. Pity." Then it was tepid Lipton's Tea--don't they make soup?--and overheated train cars from Niagara Falls to New York City. Oh, well, it was cheaper than flying. We only had three full days in New York so we had to narrow the tourist possibilities to our specific interests: libraries, books, art, tea and Chumley's. Beside the performance of King Lear of which Christopher Plummer had me in tears again, we managed to squeeze The Brooklyn Bridge, Central Park, Time's Square, and a quick tour of Soho and the Village into our itinerary. New York is inexhaustible. Three days was just a taste, but enough to see the Cloisters, The Frick Museum, New York Public Library, Colliseum Books, Gotham Book Mart, The Strand Bookshop, as well as enjoying much needed sustenance at Alice's Tea Cup, Zen Palate and a great little Italian Bistro on Columbus.
Greenwich Village alone could easily take three days of exploration. So many writers and their fictional characters have lived in this literary and artistic neighbourhood: Thomas Wolfe, Djuna Barnes, e. e. cummings, Sherwood Anderson, Marianne Moore. The list could on and on. We passed 75 1/2 Bedford which is a very narrow red bricked building where Edna St. Vincent Millay lived for a short time. And it was along this stretch of sidewalk that Saul Bellow's Charlie Citrine walked on his way to visit Humboldt who lived on Bedford Street near Chumley's. Simone de Beauvoir found it to be a place conducive to writing, reading and good conversation. She said it had "atmosphere." I can't remember where I heard that F. Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda had their wedding reception at Chumley's. Probably from the same source who told me that the newlyweds had conceived their first child there. Sounds like hearsay. But then again. . . .
Chumley's, 86 Bedford: we arrived at 1 p.m. not knowing that it didn't open till later in the afternoon. This wasn't a problem for they didn't have signage let alone hours of operation posted. We just tried the door. It opened. We heard, oddly enough, British accented voices rising from the depth of the pub. We entered as if into another dimension, feeling like we just stepped out of the Tardis and were following Dr. Who into another adventure. We found ourselves amidst a large group of 17 year olds and a few middle-aged overseers. It turned out it was an F. Scott Fitzgerald literary tour for a public school from England and Chumley's had opened especially for them. We were just lucky. We sat down at a table and picked up what we thought was a menu but it was really a plastic folder providing the students with literary information on Fitzgerald et al. They did allow us to stay for my brother-in-law's British accent and natural charm paved the way with the British teachers and the pub manager. After all, it was a pilgrimage like theirs, and special for it was a Chumley in search of a Chumley. Well, figuratively. The portobello burger, fries and a beer set us right. We took photographs and browsed before leaving by what was originally the front entrance on Barrow Street and its fascinating courtyard, feeling the gods were looking kindly on us that day. We were entranced by Pamela Courtyard and the brick archway on 58 Barrow Street. In prohibition days, the owner, Leland Chumley would stall the police here while the patrons left by the exit at 86 Bedford. The euphemism "86 it" was in common parlance for many years as the code for "let's get out of here".
Street front anonymity hasn't hindered this unique meeting place. It's introverted character conceals a creative and imaginative extroverted joie de vivre. Most especially on a Friday night I imagine.

shadows and pathways

It was a Remedios Varo kind of day.

Friday, September 01, 2006

Badminton on the Beach

On The Beach
On the 19th of August, 1826, John Galt, novelist, poet, writer and business entrepreneur, along with his financial associates in London, England, were granted a charter for their corporation, The Canada Company, which eventually allowed them to purchase over a million acres in Upper Canada known as the Huron Tract, and they were granted this charter without any intimation that 180 years later my wife and I would be playing badminton on a white sandy beach along Lake Huron on the August Bank Holiday weekend.

They can be forgiven for this lack of foresight since badminton as we know it only truly developed in the 1860s, when British Army officers in India created a variation on the popular children's game Battledore and Shuttlecock by introducing a net and competition. The game was known as poona, from the city where the officers were stationed. However, in the year 1873, in the heart of sporting Gloucestershire, the Duke of Beaufort's country house saw many a military officer entertained, and one of their amusements was the playing of poona on the sumptuous grounds of the Duke's estate, Badminton House, and so the game was soon referred to as the "Badminton game," and then quite simply, badminton. Not far away in one of the oldest cities of Britain, the first badminton club was created, The Bath Badminton Club, 1877. Perhaps they inaugurated the opening with a taste of the medicinal waters which induced the Romans to settle there in A. D. 44 naming it Aquae Sulis after the Celtic goddess Sul.

As we casually played badminton on the beach, I thought of how the trajectories of the shuttlecock were similar to the trajectories that so entertained soldiers in India and on the Duke of Beaufort's estate, as well as the children playing battledore and shuttlecock on the streets of many an English village and city for hundreds of years. The trajectory of my own memories followed the shuttlecock, leading me back to recollections of holidays on Prince Edward Island playing badminton on Cavendish Beach as a youngster in the 1960s. The beach was not dissimilar; the scent of the dune grass and the rich marine essence in the air, the hot sun upon my arms, the warm sands beneath my feet, and the sound of the waves breaking upon the shore all helped to recreate a vivid recollection, and time seemed to have shifted forty years into the past. The trajectories of the shuttlecock revealed the rythyms of life in their novel patterns of flight, authors of parallel variations played out in our footprints in the sand.

Over The Horizon
I gazed and squinted, shaded by sunglasses, straw hat and the small colourful beach umbrella attached to the seemingly miniature beach chair in which I sat, my bare feet seeking out the cooler depths of the therapeutic sands. My wife beside me, likewise, reading, content. It was the distant horizon, however, that commanded my attention, the New York Times crossword having fallen to my lap, and the voices of our friends and family frolicking in the warm waters becoming part of the general chorus of holiday-makers carried on the breeze. The horizon is such a powerful symbolic line. An inspiration for the dynamics of change, of chance, of daydreams. I was that youth again, on that Prince Edward Island beach, staring out at the horizon, blue on blue, wondering where a straight line ahead would lead me. I had not learned that life rarely flows in a straight line, and I didn't know that many years later, I would be travelling the distant shores on the other side of that horizon, following the North Shore of the St. Lawrence River towards the Quebec/Labrador border where I would find myself having breakfast in the small Labrador town of L'anse au Loup on a foggy morning in the month of August.

It was the month of August in 1809 when the thirty year old John Galt found himself between landfall and departure at Gibraltar. Galt was on a business venture hoping to find ways to bring British trade goods to Europe via the Mediterranean to circumvent Napoleon's economic blockade. He was about to embark on a ship sailing to Sardinia, Malta and Greece and he had found refuge from the heat of Gibraltar by entering the library of the Military Garrison. As he sat reading, a younger man sat down beside him sighing heavily as if the weight of the world was upon him. Galt later wrote of him:

his dress indicated a Londoner of some fashion, partly by its neatness and simplicity with just so much of a peculiarity of style as seemed to show, that although he belonged to the order of metropolitan beaux, he was not altogether a common one.

He later caught sight of this uncommon young man aboard his ship bound for the wild Sardinian coast. It was, he learned, a young aristocrat named Lord Byron. Byron and his good friend John Cam Hobhouse, were travelling to the exotic Levant having been blocked on the overland route by the Napoleonic wars. Byron characteristically panned the overland Grand Tour route as nothing but "the common turnpike of coxcombs and virtuosos," justifying, no doubt, his forced trajectory via Portugal and Gibraltar. Little did John Galt realise as he gazed upon the horizon and hopeful promise of adventures gained, that he would publish a biography of Lord Byron twenty one years later based on his experiences sailing with the young poet.

I wonder though, did Byron forsee his own last horizon, when in September of 1809 he and Hobhouse sailed up from Greece to the then Albanian city of Preveasa passing the town of Missolonghi, remarking on its strange shoreline and the mountains rising into mystery beyond; a town where he was to die, helplessly and hopelessly, of fever in 1824 at the age of 36, the same year that Galt was busy writing to make money and busy with his plans for the Canada Company and the distant lands reaching the sandy shores of Lake Huron, where I sat with my wife enjoying the warmth of an August Bank Holiday, relaxing from our pleasurable exercise of badminton on the beach and ruminating on how life can be an enrichment of horizons with the promise of countless stories.