Friday, December 16, 2011

Late For Layton

Browsing my small record collection--hardly a collection anymore, more a remnant from youth having sold many during the late 80s to that wonderful source of so much, L'échange in Montreal--I felt for every LP I flipped through, four or five ghost LPs would be conjured up. Sometimes with regret. I was not like a few of my adolescent friends in the early 1970s who saved up a substantial amount of money and stood in line outside Sam the Record Man in Montreal on Boxing Day in the early hours to shiver with more than anticipation, envisioning every desired pristine record on their wanted list to be resting gently awaiting their nimble half-frozen fingers. No, I was likely down at the local park's outdoor rink with my brother, pretending to be Guy LaFleur or Ken Dryden. (There was something special about outdoor rinks in Montreal in the 1960s and 1970s, rinks where they left the shovels for you to remove the snow yourselves while the caretaker drank his coffee in the building talking to his compatriots, often in French or Italian; the sound of skate blades sliding across the ice, the sound of the the Victoriaville hockey sticks tapping the ice, the smell of hockey tape, the sound of pucks as they hit the aged frozen boards with an invigorating thud.) I knew I could always check out my friend's LPs in the New Year and wait for a later sale and browse without the crowds elbowing me for that prized LP.

(Why did I sell--or was it one of the lost--Sing it Again Rod (1973) one of my favourite LPs from that year and with that fabulous record sleeve? Oh, well. And Clapton's Rainbow Concert? Rick Derringer's All American Boy? Young's After the Gold Rush? Frampton's Camel? Somethin's Happening? Tubular Bells?..... I guess I changed, outgrew some, moved on to Jazz and classical. Perhaps it is all just nostalgia now. They moved me then, and now rekindle memories. But it would have been nice to have kept those and so many more, and have the senses of touch, sight, smell, and sound fully involved. Rather like old love letters.)

Well, life is a progression of sorts. So, to get back to the browsing, I came across an unusual LP.

The year was 1992. The Montreal Library in which I worked was planning its annual fund raising campaign. The chair of the board of directors, having a background in Canadian literature, put forward the name of Irving Layton to be their fundraising spokesperson. He accepted. The chair thought it would be appropriate to have a display of the poet's works and she made the request of the poet whether he had anything of interest that could be used in the display. He said he would look for items. Since I was overseeing the archives and displays at that time, I was generously given the opportunity to go to the poet's house and make a choice of the selected material. I was truly excited. This was not the kind of opportunity that ever came my way. I had a week to think about the approaching day. I had a couple of Irving Layton's many, many books of poetry, and wondered if I should scour the shops for additional titles so I could bring him a handful of books to sign. I did, I confess, pick up a few more.

The day arrived, August 29, 1992. I was given the afternoon off to visit his home in my old neighbourhood of Notre Dame de Grace. I was fairly nervous to meet him. His poetic reputation and his robust personality was on my mind as I entered the taxi. Half-way there I realised I had forgotten his books. In my nervous haste I had left them on my kitchen counter. To turn back and retrieve them was a fleeting thought, but I would be late for Layton. I didn't want to be late for Layton.

Arriving on time, I approached the front door on Monkland Avenue and rang the bell. As I readied myself to say hello to a renowned poet, the door was opened by an attractive younger women, his partner and companion of the time, and she invited me in. I waited in the entrance as she quietly disappeared to the back of the house. As I waited, I heard some movement upstairs and the great poet came into view at the top of the stairs and began a composed descent. For his age, 80, he seemed in robust health, his thick long grey hair was impressive, an ideal poet's mane. A strongly built man who in his prime could probably have taken me out with his pinky. Though not a tall man, he had a strong physical presence. Our pleasantries over, he ushered me into the living room and back to the dining room where he had laid out the chosen materials. I think he recognized a devotee and he was quite lovely. There were a number of foreign language translations of his works and he was proud of his popularity in Italy. I looked over the material and made my choices. Then he brought out an LP of a reading he did back in the 1980s. I said that was terrific for the display. I told him I had forgotten a few of his books to sign, and he brought out another copy of the LP. He bent over the dining room table, rested the LP on the books and papers and delicately inscribed it for me in a somewhat shaky hand.

I left with the materials, feeling invigorated by the meeting. I walked back into my old neighbourhood before setting off for lower Westmount. It had been an interesting visit.

When the annual board meeting took place in September and Irving would give a speech, I was unable to attend as I had a university class that evening, so I missed out on a bonus meeting and chance to have my books signed. I did get one however. A few years later I came across a limited signed fine press edition of one of his books in Italian translation illustrated by an artist. Some things take time.

The LP: Layton Reads Layton The poetry of Irving Layton as read by the poet himself. Recorded live at the Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario Public Library, November 10, 1981. (A Karlay Production, recorded by Satalite Sound, 1981.)

Monday, December 05, 2011

Nabokov Covers

I am in the midst of reading Haruki Murakami's 1Q84, and the latest warm-hearted offering by Alexander McCall Smith, but I now find myself 90 pages into The Gift by Vladimir Nabokov.

I blame housecleaning.

In a moment of vacuous calm after a bout of dusting and vacuuming, I happened to be staring at bookshelves, no doubt through the rise and fall of imperceptible dust motes, when I noticed how very plain the dustwrappers of the
Nabokov hardcovers issued by Putnam in the 1960s were in comparison to the surrounding books. My initial reaction to the covers was to wonder why they were so drab. Was there a lack of direction in the art direction department? Was there a lack of funds? Was it a style of the period? Was it due to the sophisticated nature of the text that made them avoid putting a foot wrong, and resort to plain typographic design with a wash of backcloth colour? The contrast with contemporary designs for Murakami's works by Chipp Kidd made these covers seem exceedingly plain.

While these questions settled in my mind, I looked at some of the paperbacks of his work for which I have a fondness. The vintage illustrations for the Popular Library editions issued in the late 1950s and early 1960s do not tend to correspond to the text within but at least they are on the conservative side of the lurid illustrations of the day, when sex was used to sell paperbacks. These latter covers generally remind me of the
1955 film, The Seven Year Itch, where the actor Tom Ewell, portrays a character who is overseeing a manuscript by a pyschiatrist, and the cover art designs for this non-fiction work are luridly ridiculous.

My first encounter with Nabo
kov's work was with Nabokov's Dozen (Popular Library, 1958), a paperback I picked up secondhand. I still return to this slim volume to reread Spring in Fialta and other short stories, sporting my pencil marks, signposts of a youthful passage. These illustrations are by the talented and prolific illustrator Stanley Zuckerberg (1919-1995), a New Yorker who illustrated many paperback covers during the 1950s and 60s, and according to Classics Illustrated: A Cultural History by William B. Jones, Jr., he illustrated two Classics Comics, A Tale of Two Cities (1942) and Robinson Crusoe (1943). He married a fellow artist, Lillian Chestney who also had a long and prolific career as an illustrator, and she also illustrated two Classics Comics, Arabian Nights (1943) and Gulliver's Travels (1943).

I cannot find a reference by Nabokov to this specific cover art
for Nabokov's Dozen, nor to The Gift, but I gather from reading his selected letters, that he was adamant about what he did and did not want, and was often provided with cover art that was not to his liking in the extreme. The cover for Nabokov's Dozen does seem more like an advertisement for hair styles, but as a reader, I am rather fond of the volume.

The one-line blur
bs on the back of the Popular Library edition of my 1963 copy of The Gift pictured here, are rather amusing: "A bizarre and special romp" (St. Louis Globe-Democrat), "A powerful kick" (Associated Press), "An occasion of delight" (Commonweal). On the back of my 1964 Popular Library copy of The Defense is the following hyperbolic purchase-motivating blurb: "Superior to Lolita and, in its way, as much of a shocker" (W. G. Rogers, Saturday Review Syndicate). Anything to sell a book.

In the late 1960s, Nabokov's son Dimitri
provided paperback cover art sketches for a number of his father's works, The Defense being one. When it was to be reissued in the early 1970s, Nabokov was unhappy with the new cover. Writing to Rosa Montague of Wiedenfeld and Nicolson, the author wrote :

I do not wish to appear choosy, but the new cover design won't do. The banal pop-arty combination of a broken chessboard inserted between Siamese twins (identical except for the forlock on one brow) is meaningless and repulsive. I do not insist on cover designs illustrating a novel realistically, but I do object to a pseudo-realism unconnected with anything in the book. It is a great pity Panther does not wish to use the 1967 cover-design, but if so, let us have some purely ornamental pattern without eyes, noses, or hands. -September 9, 1970. (Vladimir Nabokov Selected Letters 1940-1977, HBJ, 1989, p.472.)

Dimitri Nabokov also provided the cover art for The Gift issued by Panther in 1967, one that his father approved of fully, referring to it as a "subtle and intelligent sketch. . . with the keys on the floor of the hall."

It seems if the art departments of publishers could not figure out a proper concept for his covers, large black lettering on a pale background was preferable. I gather that is what helped sway the decision process at Putnam's when they issued his books in hardcover with similar dustwrapper designs with the only variation being the subtle colour shadows to the titles.

Much more could be written about Nabokov covers, especially the wonderful book, Pnin, but I will leave that to another day, or to another altogether. I really should get back to 1Q84, but I so enjoy the rich textured prose of The Gift that I forget I have already been there before, walking beside Fyodor Godunov-Cherdyntsev listening to his thoughts.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Gleanings from the Odd Book Book Shelf: No. 2, Alexander Gardner, Publisher

The New Testament in Braid Scots rendered by William Wye Smith and published by Alexander Gardner in 1901, is not an uncommon or scarce title but it is a bit of an odd fish in my collection. I picked it up at library sale in London a number of years ago for a few dollars. I thought I would research this publisher and book and hopefully find some interesting gleanings for the odd book bookshelf.

The publisher's device to the left belongs to Alexander Gardner, the Scottish publisher based in Paisley, whose history can be traced back to the late 1820s. The device was a fairly recent addition to this publisher as it only begins to show up in books published in the first decade of the last century, and is generally found at the back of the book centered on one of the penultimate pages. It reflects a certain modernity in its design with its use of the silhouette of an oak tree and a man planting what I assume to be an acorn, and the publisher's initials bookending oak leaves surrounding a Scottish thistle image. The latin motto, vive ut vivas, and its placement around the outside, hearkens back to older designs used by printers and publishers.

According to the Scottish Book Trade Index, Alexander Gardner began as a bookseller, stationer and printer and first appeared at 14 Moss Street, Paisley, from 1828-1830 and their Printing office was at 4 Lillia's Wynd in 1831. This narrow street, “wynd” no longer exists today, but according to an old Paisley Street Directory, it ran up from High Street and met Dyer's Wynd, another narrow street which still exits (truly but an alle
y today). They moved about over the years, but stayed in this vicinity which is just around the corner from the present City Hall and nearby Paisley Abbey.

They began printing mainly religious tracts, pamphlets, and other theological publications which became the foundation of their business. This is not uncommon for a provincial publisher of this period. Some of their earliest publicati
ons I can find are: Letters to a Minister of the Gospel on His and Other Interpretations of Our Saviour's Predictions of His Return by James A. Begg, published in 1831; Sermons Preached to the First United Associate Congregation, Paisley, on Sabbath, 27th December, 1835, by John Mitchell (1768-1844) published in 1836; Symbola Classica, Intended to Assist the Classical Student by William Hunter (Rector of Paisley Grammar School), published in 1833; The Sabbath, a Day of Rejoicing by Rev. Alexander A.M. Rennison, 1849; and Sermons by the Late Alexander Rennison M. A. Minsiter of St. George's Church Paisley, with Memoir, 1868.>

In Fowler's Paisley and Johnstone Commercial Directory for 1845-46, a relation of Alexander Gardner, one Archibald Gardner, is also listed as working at the printing business, and is listed as a “writer” whose domicile was in Nethercommon. He was the author of Morisonianism Refuted: A Review of the Rev. James Morison's Exposition of the Ninth Chapter of Paul's Epistle to the Romans
published by Alexander Gardner in 1852. A list of other titles written by Archibald Gardner is provided and they are: A Defence of Infant Baptism; A Catechism on the Nature, Design, Subjects and Mode of Christian Baptism, 3rd. Ed.; and A Catechism on the Lord's Supper for the Use of Young Communicants. A one page advertisement of works published by Alexander Gardner is also at the back of this volume and includes: A Brief Commentary on the Epistle of James by Rev. Alexander S. Patterson; The Judgement of the Papacy and Reign of Righteousness by Thomas Houston; and a reprint from an American edition, Hodge on the Romans with an Appendix on the Nature and Extent of the Atonement

By the 1870s they have diversified and expanded their range of publications. Issuing reprints is fairly common pursuit and they came out with a series of literary reprints, poetry, books on local history, travel, as well as their books on religious subjects. A few examples include:
Folklore: or, Superstitious Belief in the West of Scotland Within This Century: with an Appendix Shewing the Probable Relations of the Modern Festivals of Christmas, May Day, St. John's Day and Halloween to Ancient Sun and Fire Worship by James Napier, 1879; The Poems of Allan Ramsay 2 vols., 1877 (being a reprint of a well-known 1800 edition of George Chalmers); Cantus, Songs and Fancies to three, four. . . by John Forbes, 1879 (originally published in 1662); The Songs and Poems of Robert Tannahill ed. By David Semple, 1879; The Poems and Literary Prose of Alexander Wilson, the American Ornithologist ed. by Rev. Alexander B. Grosart, 2vols., 1876; and the unusual Colquhoun's Closets: or, The Dry and Ventilating System in Lieu of the Present Water Closet and Sewage System by John Colquhoun, 1870. Their publication of John Jamieson's An Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Language, 4 vols., 1879-1882, plus the supplementary volume issued in 1887 is one that can be readily found through online bookselling sites but it seems to be the most expensive multi-volume issues of Alexander Gardner's publications presently available.

Some interesting titles from the 1880s include: Remains of Nithsdale and Galloway Song
, by R. H. Cromek, 1880 (a re-issue of an 1810 London publication, the poems and songs really belonging to the pen of the Scottish poet, Allan Cunningham); Saga of Halfred the Sigskald by Felix Dahn, translated by Sophie F. F. Veitch, 1886; Benderloch: or, Notes From the West Highlands by W. Anderson Smith; Loch Creran: Notes From the West Highlands by W. Anderson Smith; Biographical Dictionary of Musicians: with a Bibliography of English Writings on Music by James D. Brown (Mitchell Library, Glasgow),1886; Martyrs of Angus and Mearns: Sketches in the History of the Scottish Reformation by Rev. J. Moffat Scott (Arbroath), 1885; Wit, Wisdom and Pathos from the Prose of Heinrich Heine, with a few pieces from the “Book of Songs” selected and translated by J. Snodgrass, 2nd. Rev. Ed., 1887; Law Lyrics (anonymous author: Robert Bird) 2nd Ed., 1887; Pinkerton's Lives of the Scottish Saints revised and enlarged by W. M. Metcalfe, 2vols.,1889; Loch Etive and the Sons of Uisnach by R. Angus Smith, New Ed., 1885; The Tragedy of Gowrie House, an Historical Study by Louis A. Barbe, 1887; Life in Shetland by John Russell, 1887; and Idylls of the Captive King by James Sharp, 1887.

On August 23
rd, 1888, Queen Victoria visited Paisley in honour of the city's fourth centenary, and somehow Alexander Gardner managed to procure the licence to print on his title pages from that time onwards, “Publisher to Her Majesty the Queen.” After her death it was continued with “Publisher by Appointment to the Late Queen Victoria.”

The Scottish Review

From November 1882 to July 1886, Alexander Gardner published and collaborated in editing the Scottish Review. Antoinette Peterson in the 1972 publication The Wellesley Index to Victorian Periodicals, 1824-1900 edited by Walter E. Hough writes:

And although Scotland possessed two influential newspapers, the Glasglow Herald and the Scotsman, no monthly or quarterly was engaged in the fight for Scottish Home Rule and other liberal-national measures. To correct this situation, two men living in Paisley, both intensely Scottish, determined in 1882 to found a new quarterly in order to “protest against the idea that London is the center of Scottish life, as also against the idea that Scotland is not strong enough to have a literary organ of its own.” The Reverend W. M. Metcalfe, a minister of the Established Church of Scotland, was the “originator and editor” of the Scottish Review. His collaborator was the Paisley publisher whose name was associated with so many Scottish literary revivals, Alexander Gardner. Gardner described the venture as one in which he was to take the pecuniary risk and Metcalfe was to do the editing, though in point of fact this division of labor was never precisely adhered to. (p. 1144).

The Review provided an innovation in their section of summaries of foreign reviews which was copied by other prominent publications. According to Peterson, (p. 1145) Gardner lost 1000 pounds by 1886 and could no longer keep it going, so he sold it to J. P. Crichton-Stuart, the third Marquess of Bute. Gardner remained as publisher until the Review ceased publication in October 1900, the same month as the death of Lord Bute. (p.1147) Gardner had published many books by W. M. Metcalfe over the years, including A History of the Shire of Renfrew from the Earliest Times Down to the Close of the Nineteenth Century; History of Paisley; and Ninian and Machor, the Legends of, in the Scottish Dialect of the Fourteenth Century.

I have noticed that quite a few of the publications of Alexander Gardner contained errata pages. Whether that was due to the Paisley compositors being more acquainted with the vernacular broad Scots, or whether it was due to hasty editing I cannot say. I did find a preliminary note to an errata that was rather charming. It is to be found at the back of the second volume of The Poems and Literary Prose of Alexander Wilson, the American Ornithologist, ed. by the Rev. Alexander B. Grosart, 1876:

"A final reading of both volumes makes us thankful that the 'slips,' whether of Editor or Printer, are very slight, and of a kind, as the old Divines were wont to put it, as "easily corrected as espied."

Alexander Gardner continued to publish interesting books in the 1890s, and into the next century. The name survives today in Paisley on a modern sign hanging above a nondescript building abutting the rather more interesting wine bar called The Abbey on Lawn Street just around the corner from the Paisley Abbey, and not far from their origins on Moss Street. The sign is the same as the publisher's device found in their books as described at the beginning of this essay. I have made a link to the Google street view here. It seems the company has survived as a printing business, a return to roots it seems. The tree still has life.

The New Testament in Braid Scots

William Wye Smith (1827-1917) was born in Jedburgh Scotland. His parents emigrated to America
in 1830 and after some time in New York, made their way to Southern Ontario. He worked in various jobs in his life, including shopkeeper, teacher, court clerk and in the 1860s, owner and editor of the Owen Sound Times. He then became an ordained minister in the Congregational Church which became his life's work, beginning in Listowel, Ontario and finishing off his career in St. Catherine's, Ontario. He wrote poetry typical of early Canadian poetry, Alazon and Other Poems (Toronto: Hugh Scobie, 1850), and The Poems of William Wye Smith (Toronto: Dudley & Burns, 1888). His rendering of the New Testament into the vernacular Scottish dialect is interesting to read and was seemingly popular during its day. In a note to the helpful Glossary at the back of the volume, Reverend Smith writes:

As to the dialect used in this version, the dialect of Burns, which has become fixed as the literary form of the Broad Scotch, has been mainly followed; and that, notwithstanding many Border predilections on the part of the translator. Burns, Scott and Hogg are the great dialectic authorities in Scotch, to whose diction all must conform: and the world has accepted as a representative form of the language, a dialect used by these, which is not strictly peculiar to any definite locality.

This is an example of his translation, from Mark, chapter 4.1:

And he begude again to teach by the Loch-side. And an unco thrang gather't till him, sae that he gaed intil a boat, and sat i' the Loch; and a' the folk war by the Loch, on the lan'.

This volume has one small errata slip tipped into the book, with one correction:

"Page 146, heading of page, for "Peter's treat" read "Peter's trial."

In my copy, there is a personal ownership inscription on the front free endpaper, "J. Crawford Smith, Perth, Scotland."

Addendum: I began to wonder why William Wye Smith who had used Toronto publishers for his other work, decided upon Alexander Gardner to be his publisher for this book. Undoubtedly Smith was familiar with the books issued by this publisher because the libraries of the day in Mechanic's Institutes generally purchased books from the United Kingdom, often following a guide book
issued by UK based Mechanic's Institute Societies, on what works to choose. Smith was Scottish and the publisher did tend towards religious books so these facts may have all led to the choice of Alexander Gardner. But moving into the area of supposition, Smith's mother's name was Sara Veitch, and Alexander Gardner published a number of works by a writer named Sophie Frances Fane Veitch, and used her work in the Scottish Review to a great extent. Sophie F. F. Veitch was born in 1858 and died in Wanlochead Dumfries in 1912. If this writer was of some relation to Smith's mother, perhaps that also added to the choice of Alexander Gardner. Pure supposition and an open possibility to explore.

Works by Sophie F. F. Veitch published by Alexander Gardner:
Angus Graeme, Gamekeeper, 2vols. 1883.
James Hepburn, Free Church Minister, 2vols. 1887.
The Dean's Daughter: A Novel, 2vols. 1888.
Duncan Moray, Farmer: A Novel, 2vols. 1890.

Sophie F. F. Veitch also used the pseudonym J. A. St. John Blythe.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Gleanings from the Odd Book Bookshelf: No. 1, Japanese Fairy Tales by Yei Theodora Ozaki

Although trained in the laws of librarianship, I find I have never ordered my library according to any rules, even those of the thumb. Binding, colour, and author tend to guide my eye and hand as I arrange books on the shelf; more aesthetics than bibliographics (if I may coin a word use). So my "Odd Book Bookshelf" is rather imaginary for the books are found on various shelves in different locations. Perhaps they harbour desires of shelf-hood and my initiating this series is at their silent beckoning, such is the mysterious nature of the book.

The book in question, Japanese Fairy Tales compiled by Yei Theodora Ozaki (New York: A. L. Burt Company) is a reprint copy likely from the 1920s. It is not a valuable book, nor is it hard to find especially with the internet horn of plenty. The binding of black cloth with orange/red titles is likely from the late 1920s or early 1930s, and it is a style which seems to have been in fashion during this period, books by such authors as Rafael Sabatini, Knut Hamsun, and many others were published with similar bindings. It is the binding style that made me arrange such books together on a shelf, the black bindings and orange/red titles forming an aesthetic continuity even though the actual texts vary significantly. A copy of Scaramouche sitting beside a reprint copy of Brave New World may seem odd but for the binding style.

The book was first published under the Andrew Lang inspired title, The Japanese Fairy Book in 1903 by Archibald Constable & Co. in London, and by E. P. Dutton in New York. It included four colour plates and 62 black and white illustrations in the text. Constable issued a second impression in 1904, a third impression in 1906, a fourth impression in 1908, and a New Edition in 1922, dropping the four colour plates and introducing colour illustrated endpapers by Take Sato.

The copy I have, the A. L. Burt reprint, does not have the colour plates and provides only a selection of the illustrations. This publisher began business in the early 1880s in New York and began to print cheap editions of the classics and eventually came out with "Burt's Home Library" which was popular. (The Discourses of Epictetus was a title in this series and it that makes me think of a favourite story by Stephen Leacock, where a bookstore owner, a Mr. Sellyer would direct his scholarly time-wasting browsers to the back of the shop to peruse the cheap reprints of classics, while he pushed the most recent publications of perhaps dubious value on the unsuspecting public.) In the early years of the last century, A. L. Burt competed with the rival Grosset & Dunlop for the rights to reprint works, mainly fiction, and were successful in the areas of popular fiction and children's books; such authors as Henty, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Conan Doyle, and Edgar Wallace were issued by them. In the 1930s, A. L. Burt was bought by Blue Ribbon Books, a company who also specialized in cheap reprints. (Blue Ribbon Books began using the term "pop up" for their movable books, and it is a term which has certainly outlived their background story.)

The story of Yei Theodora Ozaki (1870-19--) is an interesting one. She was an independent, strong young woman who chose her own path and found her way through literature and teaching. The basic outlines of her life would provide the structure for an interesting movie.

Ozaki Saburo (1842-1918), a junior diplomat of the Meiji period, was in London in 1868 to learn the English language and customs and he boarded with William Mason Morrison (1819-1885) a scholar and private tutor. Ozaki Saburo became close to Morrison's daughter, Bathia Catherine and they were married in 1869. She gave birth to three daughters, Yei Theodora in 1870, Masako Maude in 1872, and Kimiko Florence in 1873. Their father returned to Japan in 1873 leaving his wife and daughters in London. Bathia never visited Japan and she was later divorced in 1881. At the age of 16, Yei went to Japan to stay with her father now a high ranking politician. While there, she grew to know Mrs. Hugh Fraser, the wife of the British Envoy to Tokyo.

Seeing that Yei did not want to participate in an arranged marriage, Mrs. Fraser suggested she come and live with them as her companion and secretary to which Yei accepted. When the Frasers travelled to Italy, Yei accompanied them and while there, she was introduced to Mrs. Fraser's (née Mary Crawford)
famous brother the writer Francis Marion Crawford who hired her to catalogue his substantial library. She was like an elder sister or young aunt to the writer's daughters, telling them many of the Japanese fairy stories found in her first book. Her dedication to this book is to Eleanor Marion-Crawford, the daughter who would inherit her father's modest palace in Sorrento. Eleanor's sister, Clare, according to one source, went on to be a nun and she served her order in Japan where she is buried.

When she returned to live and teach in Japan, she began receiving the mail of the rather handsome dashing Yukio Ozaki (1858-1954) a prominent individual who happened to be the Mayor of Tokyo. When they finally met, a deep friendship developed and they were married in 1904. In the year 1912, Yukio Ozaki, as Mayor of Tokyo, organized a gift of 3,000 blossoming cherry trees for Washington D.C., cherry trees that continue to be celebrated to this day. The spring of 2012 will be the 100th anniversary of this gift and there will be special celebrations in Washington during the National Cherry Blossom Festival from March 20th to April 27th, 2012.

Books by Yei Theodora Ozaki:

The Japanese Fairy Book, 1903.
Buddha's Crystal and other Fairy Stories, 1908.
Warriors of Old Japan, 1909.
Romances of Old Japan, 1919. (as Madame Yukio Ozaki)

The writings of Yukio Ozaki were collected in 12 volumes, Works, Ozaki Gakudo Zenshu (Tokyo: Koronsha, 1955). A recent English edition of his autobiography was published by Princeton in 2001, The Autobiography of Ozaki Yukio: The Struggle for Constitutional Government in Japan.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Autumn Reflections

There is a favourite image I have always loved and keeps coming up in my thoughts with the approach of autumn: a hedge with a dusting of fallen leaves. I seem to fall back on it as a poetic image as these poems of mine from different periods reflect.

Under leaf frothed hedge
Dark-eyed crow in stillness lies,
Staring out the sun.
(September 21, 2011.)

Beneath ashen clouds
Huddle-wise brewing unhallowed cares,
Fresh linen forms the breeze beyond hedges frothed with leaf.

On this autumn head, this top-dressed sod,
With alluvial shoulder shouldering but another age,
I squat, printing finger's touch on stone,
Feeling the silences that hold.

(October 1985)

Fireflies on BirchWood-stove sweet hints of maple
Fluent with the breeze
Swaying over cedars feathered in leaf fall
With October's gilded text.

Motionless above me,
Fireflies on birch.
Codelessly camouflaged on a dark window of grace,
A natural scar
Form for their gathering
Beyond the cold light of their old desires,
And beyond the strange embers
Beneath my cigarette ash.

(Lake Malaga, Autumn 1983)

Actions as at autumn bent brow
Chestnut cordial countenance.
Oak on over phrases pile
Encausted flicker of leaves on hedges
Frothed with glass imaginings.
Tapered thought, til up was wrought
Rows, rows, sitting so.
Life margining movements, power dives,
Pliant stiffs waxing within wreaths.
Down, down, down each edge flows frozen full.

(Autumn 1982)

poems copyright ralph patrick mackay.
Note: The Haiku was inspired by the sad sight of a dead crow under a hedge and a well- known haiku by Basho; Bounden reflects my searching out my grandfather's grave; Fireflies on Birch was inspired by direct observation of nature; and Leafage reveals a youthful interest in Gerard Manley Hopkins. It is interesting to look back and see subtle influences by some favourite poets such as Edwin Muir, Hopkins, Ted Hughes. I have to admit that the title for the third poem was made with Irving Layton's famous poem, Butterfly on Rock, in mind, (it is not a comment on the great Canadian poets poem) but what I call my light verse lacks his robust life force. I come across as more lapsed Presbyterian than poet.

If, Dear Reader, you are still reading, you deserve a treat for venturing this far into my poetic hinterland, so I shall post this wonderful music, Autumn Leaves with the masters of poetic musical expression:

Friday, September 09, 2011

Sock du jour

Nothing quite like a large pile of freshly laundered socks,
to keep one's feet on the ground.
So to speak.

They promise autumnal promenades over leaves and rocks,
and toe holds on a future sound,
when snows will squeak.

The game's afoot with emotions, as the seasons and the clocks
in their filial round,
chime antique

Til the day our labeled toes point like compass stars, in dry docks
for our lost and found
souls oblique.

ralph patrick mackay
september 9, 2011.

Monday, August 22, 2011

And See the Land Where Corals Lie

I can see him walking amid the shadows. He breathes in the heady odours of buckram, Morocco, vellum and calf. There are manuscript pages and a book in his left hand as he walks along humming quietly to himself, thinking of an odd passage from an ancient obscure work, the sheltered light glinting off his spectacles as the dust motes rise and fall invisibly between the bookshelves as he passes.

That is my imaginary vision of Richard Garnett in his lair, the British Museum, a phantom amidst the stacks, shifting books and papers in an endless round.

Ford Madox Ford in one of his many books of biographical and autobiographical impressions described him as "a queer, very tall, lean, untidily bearded Yorkshire figure in its official frock-coat and high hat." I wrote about Richard Garnett not too long ago in a post about
Robert Louis Stevenson, and having recently re-read the above mentioned book of memories and impressions by Ford Madox Ford, the author provides a further dimension to his passing physical description of Dr. Garnett, one which I failed to remember. It would have been apt for my post on Stevenson as it included a reference to umbrellas:

Having a passion for cats, Egyptology, palmistry and astrology, the great scholar could assume some of the aspect of deaf obstinacy that distinguishes cats that do not intend to listen to you. He cast the horoscopes of all his friends and reigning sovereigns; he knew the contents of a hundred thousand books and must have stroked as many thousand "pussies" pronouncing the "pus" to rhyme with "bus." He was inseparable from his umbrella with which he once beat off two thieves, when at five in the morning he had gone to Convent Garden to buy the household fruit. He was the author of the most delightful volume of whimsico-classical stories that was ever written and the organiser of the compilers of the catalogue of the British Museum Library--an achievement that should render him immortal if his Twilight of the Gods fails to do so.

In the older post on Stevenson, I quoted a poem he wrote on the other side of the world in his tropical paradise, thinking of his old friend Sidney Colvin and his visits to Colvin's home attached to the British Museum. I feel I should round off this brief revisit with a poem by Richard Garnett, who in his dusty comfortable haunt, thought of Robert Louis Stevenson in his exotic lotus land and wrote a sonnet about him after the young author died in 1894. It was published in his The Queen and other Poems, 1901:

Robert Louis Stevenson

Wondrous as though a star with twofold light
Should fill a lamp for either hemisphere,
Piercing cold skies with scintillation clear,
And glowing on the sultry Southern night;
Was miracle of him who could unite
Pine and the purple harbour of the deer
With palm-plumed islets that sequestered hear
The far-off wave their zoning coral smite.
Still roars the surf, still bounds the herd, but where
Is one to see and hear and tell again?
As dancers pause on an arrested air
Fail the fast-thronging figures of the brain;
And shapes unshapely in dim lair,
Awaiting ripe vitality in vain.

It is interesting to read the line "the far-off wave their zoning coral smite," for it recalls Richard Garnett's poem Where Corals Lie, written in his youth and published with many other poems in his Io in Egypt and Other Poems, 1859. Edward Elgar used Where Corals Lie in a song cycle, Sea Pictures, Opus 37. Perhaps I should leave this post with a recording of Janet Baker singing the song:

Sunday, August 14, 2011


A recent bookish Internet pastime, an internet meme, which rather harkens back to the sortes virgilianae, had me reaching for the nearest book to locate the 5th sentence on the 56th page, a reaching out to the breadth of randomness within a collective readership. (Perhaps these games are unconscious remnant longings for the bicameral brain, a nostalgia of the unconscious mind at play. Our dreams too are perhaps remnant offshoots of this oracular vision.) My eyes alighted on the closest book on the nearest shelf, Michael Dibdin's Cabal, and the sentence: "The Nun backed out, closing the door behind her." This was suitably prosaic in its context. The entertainment and amusement of this pastime being in the out-of-context juxtaposition of this sentence with other randomly chosen sentences posted by other suitably curious individuals. Some sentences were amusing in their singularity.

I am unsure who decided on the page number and sentence chosen, and whether this is but one of many random online bibliographic pastimes, but the specific vectors shared by each book undercut the complete randomness, and add a structural element not present in the ancient pastime of opening Virgil's Aeneid and alighting a finger on a spot whose line or lines of verse would answer a question in mind. But, then again, the latter's randomness was confined to one book and was essentially an event of private divination.

Curiosity led me on and I found myself investigating this specific location in many books. One benefit of this process was it refreshed my view of my bookshelves and the books thereon, many neglected and forgotten. Using this bibliographic dead reckoning I discovered that the great majority of the 5th sentences on page 56 were ones that the eye would sweep over in casual reading, while coming across a blank page was rather like having one's ear up to the sphinx's cold dry lips awaiting the sibilant whisperings of a riddle.

Only a few books provided sentences in that position with some textual weight. Of course that was not the game. It was all about spontaneity and chance, not a search for words dripping with colourful style. The following are a few examples that would go well with “The Nun backed out, closing the door behind her” either preceding or following:

He seemed, leaning on crimson damask, to take in the bright day.
-The Golden Bowl by Henry James.

I liked, as I like still, to make words look self-conscious and foolish, to bind them by the mock marriage of a pun, to turn them inside out, to come upon them unawares.
-Despair by Vladimir Nabokov.

If it wasn't for Anatole's cooking, I doubt if he would bother to carry on.
-Right Ho, Jeeves by P. G. Wodehouse.

I fear I wasted too much time on such an amusement, and I apologize Dear Reader, if you have come this far and arrived at the same conclusion. Perhaps to add more gravity to this post, I should resort to a
sortes virgilianae, by the asking of my copy of Virgil's Aeneid, whether the world will ever come together and solve the problems of human suffering:

My random finger fell upon a section of the page after the end of Book 3, without text.

Perhaps I should interpret this as we must all provide our own text for the answer to such an important question.

Saturday, July 09, 2011

Inscriptions of Interest, or, Croquet in Winter.

Author signatures and inscriptions seem rather common these days. Behind most title pages there are author tours, book signings, readings, the authorial laying on of hands at book festivals and the blessings of bookshops and libraries. Then again, perhaps it is just a question of scale. Authors in the past no doubt employed their fountain pens just as fervently when faced with pristine fresh printed stacks of hardcover books. Booksellers and bookbuyers, hovering expectantly, no doubt had their moments in time with a celebrated author. One hopes.

Placement of signatures and inscriptions vary like styles. Front free endpapers, title pages, half-title pages, dedication pages have all been used by authors. I find when authors strike out their printed name on the title page and then inscribe their signature beneath in flowing liquid ink, it is rather like an act of existential defiance, as if reclaiming identity from the machine and its machine ways. Authors who hide their signatures on half-title pages intrigue me. Those who go further inland and lay their touch on dedication pages may well have something of the trickster about them. The front free endpaper, however, does not bode well as a place for signing. Too vulnerable. Like being left on the stoop in the rain. Perhaps these authors are extrovertedly adventurous and carefree. Motorcycle drivers and fans of the mountain's edge.

The late and multi-talented author Paul Quarrington was fond of playful line drawings to accompany his artistic flourish. That of Alice Munro, simple and straightforward on the title page. William Gibson, large looping flourishes with occasional dots and underlinings on half-titles. The diversity in this realm is fascinating.

I remember a book that was donated to the library I worked for by one of the Molson family. A wonderful older volunteer had worked for the Senator Molson and she was instrumental in getting book donations from his sons. This book on the Montreal Canadians was a birthday gift and it was signed by all the great Montreal Canadian hockey players, Béliveau, Richard, Cournoyer, Lemaire, and on and on, and each signature revealed exquisite penmanship. Catholic schools of the day truly taught fine penmanship. Through the volunteer I inquired whether it was mistaken donation, such a personal gift that it was, but I was told that he had many other items and it was not a mistake. I had hoped the Library would use it for a fundraising item, but having left the library I don't know of its fate. But certainly an interesting inscribed volume.

Inscriptions and association copies are always of interest, even from lesser known and forgotten authors. It is humbling to come across an author whose work, for the most part, has been swept into the vast dusty penumbra of pen wielders. Authors who scratched away for years forming sentences and paragraphs, methodically building a body of work, a list of titles, letter by letter, creating a name and reputation which they hoped would have some lasting value, only to slip into the dark shadows of disinterest, and perhaps be only vaguely remembered for a best-selling and unworthy volume.

Moray McLaren (1901-1971) was unknown to me when I picked up three of his books in Montreal many years ago. In doing a bit of research on the author in those pre-internet days, I didn't come up with much. Even now I can't say I have enlarged on my knowledge. There is a such a thin veil of information about the author and his books, the questioning mind begins to wonder why. I am sure most booksellers know of the name and some of the titles, and probably have one or two in stock, but he seems to be one of those authors of his period--one of many perhaps--who is no longer relevant. His books are certainly available for purchase on various bookselling sites but in such great quantities--over 700 volumes on ABE-- that I could possibly conclude that the value of his writings was transitory, the works of their time and place.

He was to a certain degree, a younger contemporary with Compton Mackenzie (1883-1972), and he wrote an address for Mackenzie's eightieth birthday at a gathering at the Scottish Arts Club in Edinburgh. This was later published as a booklet of a few dozen pages: Compton Mackenzie: A Panegyric for his Eightieth Birthday (Edinburgh: Macdonald, 1963).

Dipping into his Stern and Wild: A New Scottish Journey (London: Chapman & Hall, 1948), I found him to be a good stylist, though perhaps dated in his attitudes, the following quote being one example: The one-man business of being a writer has been described as one of the only two professions that can be practised in bed. This is not strictly true. Writing in bed is possible but uncomfortable. (p. 26). Sounds like a joke from Jimmy Carr.

He was born in Edinburgh in 1901 and went to Corpus Christi, Cambridge for his degree. He was an assistant editor of The London Mercury, and The Listener, and was also with the BBC radio service, Scottish region where he wrote plays and broadcast talks. His involvement with the British Foreign Office during WWII led to his being in charge of the Polish Political Institute during the war years.

So he was a Scot who went south for his education and employment and ended up being a freelance writer after the war and garnering an OBE into the bargain. His Scottish brethren might have looked askance at his involvement with the English milieu, but he, like Compton Mackenzie, was a devoted Scot, writing many books on the subject. His first book, Return to Scotland: An Egoist's Journey (Duckworth, 1930) being the first of many. His second book, A Wayfarer in Poland (Methuen, 1934), must have led to his being appointed to the Polish Political Institute. I can imagine the conversations of Foreign Office types, wondering what chap could fill the position, and someone piping up with a tidbit about a friend of theirs having written a book about the country a few years ago. Good enough, sign him up. Images of Evelyn Waugh's William Boot in Scoop come to mind. Poland in the early 1930s, I can only imagine what he wrote. No doubt dated.

Two books of fiction followed after the war, a collection of short stories based on his radio work, A Dinner With the Dead and other Stories (Edinburgh: Serif Books, 1947), and a novel, Escape and Return (London: Chapman & Hall, 1947). This novel is described by Robert Eldridge as: "a dark portrait of an alcoholic writer in wartime Britain and his perilous recovery, all the more forceful for its lack of temperance moralizing or sensationalism. The first half is set in London, the second in Scotland, where the protagonist recovers with the help of sympathetic doctors and priests, finally regaining his Catholic faith along with his sobriety. The story contains hints of Satanic goings-on in London." On the inner flap of the dustwrapper this description is provided: "It is the story, in modern life, of demoniac possession and exorcism, rendered all the more striking for the fidelity with which the scene is constructed, lower Bohemian London during the air raids, a world of black magic, illicit drinking, war-weariness and work-weariness." Sounds like a book Colin Wilson might have read and enjoyed.

I have yet to dip into either of these books of fiction. Life is short. The novel, Escape and Return, however, has an inscription of interest and holds a certain charm. Located on the front free endpaper, and written in a fine hand with dark ink somewhat faded with time, the 46 year old author wrote the following:

Thank you for buying this book. You are the first who (as far as I know) has done so. I hope you won't be the last.
Moray McLaren.

Considering that Moray McLaren did not continue writing fiction, I imagine his sales were not promising. Non-fiction became his area of concentration, mainly popular biographies and histories, books on fishing and wine as well, along with basic newspaper and magazine work.

His inscription in his first and only novel, is one that every author hopes will prove true. For some authors, however, trying to sell fiction is like playing croquet in the snow.

Addendum: Having only dipped into one of his books, I don't want to sound unkind in my judgements of his work. He may very well have been an excellent writer, friend, and associate to the many who knew him. It is also quite likely he was damn good at winter croquet.

Books by Moray McLaren:
Escape and Return, Chapman & Hall, 1947.
A Dinner With the Dead (stories), Serif Books, 1947.
Stern and Wild: A New Scottish Journey, Chapman & Hall, 1948.
"By Me...": A Report Upon the Apparent Discovery of Some Working Notes of William Shakespeare in a Sixteenth-Century Book (edited by Raymond Postgate), J. Redington, 1949.
A Small Stir: Letters on the English, Hollis & Carter, 1949.
The Capital of Scotland, Douglas & Foulis, 1950.
(Editor) The House of Neill, 1749-1949, Neill & Co., 1950.
The Capital of Scotland: A Twentieth-Century Contemplation on Edinburgh, Douglas & Foulis, 1950.
Stevenson and Edinburgh: A Centenary Study, Folcroft, 1950.

The Scots, Penguin, 1951.
(Editor of revision) Desmond Campbell Miller, Questions and Answers on Evidence, Sweet & Maxwell, 1951.
A Singing Reel, Hollis & Carter, 1953.
The Highland Jaunt: A Study of James Boswell and Samuel Johnson Upon Their Highland and Hebridean Tour of 1773, Jarrolds, 1954, W. Sloane, 1955.
Scotland in Colour, Batsford, 1954.
Understanding the Scots: A Guide for South Britons and Other Foreigners, Muller, 1956.

Lord Lovat of the '45: The End of an Old Song, Jarrolds, 1957.
The Pursuit, Jarrolds, 1959.
Fishing as We Find It (letters), Stanley Paul, 1960.
The Wisdom of the Scots: A Choice and a Comment, M. Joseph, 1961, St. Martin's, 1962.
If Freedom Fail: Bannockburn, Flodden, the Union, Secker & Warburg, 1964.
The Shell Guide to Scotland (edited by Yorke Crompton), Ebury Press, 1965,

Poland's Thousand Years: The Vanguard of Christendom, Catholic Institute for International Relations, 1965.
Pure Wine; or, In Vino Sanitas: A Centenary Celebration of, Quotation From, and Comment on Dr. Robert Druitt's Remarkable Book, "A Report on Cheap Wines, 1865," A. Campbell, 1965.
Corsica Boswell: Paoli, Johnson, and Freedom, Secker & Warburg, 1966.
Sir Walter Scott: The Man and the Patriot, Heinemann, 1970.
Bonnie Prince Charlie, Saturday Review Press, 1972.
The Fishing Waters of Scotland, J. Murray, 1972.
Scotland, Ebury Press, 1977.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Beautiful and Immovable Forever: Patrick Leigh Fermor (1915-2011)

The recent passing of Patrick Leigh Fermor (1915-2011 ) at the age of 96 has produced a florescence of memories, tributes and obituaries. His passing has led many back to his writings, myself included.

Words of Mercury (John Murray, 2003), a selection of PLF's writings edited by Artemis Cooper is an excellent book to reacquaint oneself with his writings, and it will be a fine companion to her anticipated biography of Patrick Leigh Fermor. This selection reproduces choice excerpts from his published works as well as a selection of his pieces written for magazines and journals. There is a short essay he wrote for Architectural Digest (August 1986), Sash Windows Opening on the Foam, which is a detailed and fascinating look at his home in Greece, a home he designed and helped build. The essay tellingly opens with a reference to books--for though he was a man of action, he was also most definitely a man of the book: a scholar, a gentleman, and an adventurer. The essay also opens with a reference to his dining table, a place of convivial discussion:

Where a man's Eleventh Edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica is, there shall his heart be also; and of course, Lempriere, Fowler, Brewer, Liddell and Scott, Dr. Smith, Harrap and Larousse and a battery of atlases, bibles, concordances, Loeb classics, Pleiade editions, Oxford Companions and Cambridge histories; anthologies and books on painting, sculpture, architecture, birds, beasts, fishes, trees and stars; for if one is settling in the wilds, a dozen reference shelves is the minimum; and they must be near the dinner table where arguments spring up which have to be settled then or never. This being so, two roles for the chief room in a still unbuilt house were clear from the start.

The large living room and dining room are surrounded by bookshelves and windows and he describes his convenient device to reach the smaller volumes on the upper shelves:

The bookcases with no divan in front rise nine feet from the floor and we have discovered a brilliant way of reaching the upper shelves without steps: an elephant pole of brass bound teak made by the Hong Kong Chinese to help minor rajahs to climb into their howdahs: it splits down the middle and half the pole drops away parallel with a heartening bang like grounded arms; the rungs, slotted and hinged in hidden grooves, fall horizontal and up one goes.

Such Victorian pole ladders are not uncommon but certainly pricey these days, running into the thousands of dollars at auction houses. Patrick Leigh Fermor's dinner table, however, was unique:

A visiting friend unsettlingly hinted that a Victorian mahogany dining-table was not up to the rest; so, years later, we ruinously exorcized this complex with an inlaid marble table made by Dame Freya Stark's marmorista in Venice. Based on a tondo in the chancel of S. Anastasio in Mantua, flames of Udine stone radiate from the centre of the design of subtle grey carsico rosso di Verona. When it arrived, lugging the triple plinth of Istrian stone down from the road and then trundling the heavy circular top through the trees was as bad as the earlier struggles with the lintel. But the friend was right. Here it was, beautiful and immovable forever, and when set down with glasses and candles, it turns the humblest meal--even oil and lentils--into a feast.

A very recent blog by a writer who was living in Greece and visited the author at his home, provided photographs of his bookshelves, his dinner table, and Patrick Leigh Fermor and his guests. It seems the post has quite disappeared, perhaps due to the personal nature of the photographs. The shelves were interesting to peruse from afar, however, many works of Freya Stark, Norman Douglas, Winston Churchill, Evelyn Waugh and Aldous Huxley among others. Heavy old volumes, bereft of dustwrappers, slightly shabby, well read, well thumbed. A working library. There is still a photograph of his dinner table and I hesitate to post it, but it has so much charm. His home must be imbued with his spirit, a spirit that will also live on in his extraordinary and vivid prose.

The latest on all things Patrick Leigh Fermor.

Thursday, June 02, 2011

A Little Flutter, or, a Montreal tavern, a race track, U2, and the Patagonian Groo Groo

Part 1
“March, my muse! If you cannot fly, yet flutter.” - Byron, Don Juan xv, xxvii 1824.

When U2's 360 Tour rolls into Montreal's disused Hippodrome in July, bringing their wonderful mindful, emotional, multi-textured (from intimate to interstellar) musical soundscape experience, perhaps the ghostly remnant energies of so many countless horse races ever spinning like some enormous invisible ourbouros, tail in mouth, will add to the heightened sense of energy, time and space as the fans surround the enormous stage which may well appear to have descended from above and beyond like some massive intergalatic spaceship.

It is unlikely, however, that latent histories of this island city would be entertained by the many fans as the musical events play out, but perhaps the musicians upon the stage might, in a rare moment of timeless calm, catch a glimpse of reflections on water in the distant south west (if such reflections can be seen from such a location upon such a stage) and think of how over 400 years ago, the great explorer Samuel de Champlain travelled with the First Nations inhabitants past the rapids of the St. Lawrence and viewed the open expanse of Lake St. Louis, and naturally thought that he had reached the passage to China, thereby calling the location, La Chine, or the Lachine Montrealers know. It was there that Champlain created a fur trading post, perhaps the most important of the three, the others being at Tadoussac and Quebec city.

I think of this rather significant moment because the Hippodrome was originally called Blue Bonnets and this name is tied into that historic riverscape close to the present
municipality of Lachine.

“I used to flutter the ribbands of the London Croydon and South Coast Coach.” -Eton School Days, i, 11. 1864.

Back before the railroads linked the centre of Montreal to the outlying region of Lachine, there were stage coaches, caleches and other horse-powered vehicles carrying both mail and passengers to the steam boats at the Lachine docks. These stage coaches left from McGill street near St. Maurice Street, and travelled to the dock at Lachine with a number of watering stops along the way such as Deschamps, a stage house near the tanneries, and further on, a tavern known as Blue Bonnets in an old area once known as Cote St. Pierre named after the river that once ran from its origins in present day Hampstead and Cote St. Luc, down towards Ville St. Pierre and eastwards along the Lachine Canal before flowing out into the St. Lawrence at old Montreal's Pointe à Callière.

“Down the rock the shallow water falls,/ fluttering through the stones in feeble whimpering brawls.” -John Clare, Village Minster, 1821.

The river is still flowing underground but a remnant does reveal itself above ground in the old Wentworth and later named Meadowbrook golf course, a golf course I have fond memories of playing—especially that short par 3 on the hill (number 7 I think) so pretty, and so much easier to play for a complete duffer like myself. I never knew that the small picturesque stream I crossed on the way to another green or fairway was the part of the last visible remains of the historic river St. Pierre. It was, and hopefully still is, a lovely spot and I hear small red fox can be seen from time to time, fox who are fairly tame and approachable as this recent video attests. How long such a scarce piece of wooded green will be left alone I can only wonder. The original Wentworth golf course was much larger and was a part of the Canadian Pacific Railroad Recreational Club for its employees. With time, however, the railyards expanded and expanded taking up more and more land. Much of the land that used to be part of the original Wentworth golf course is now a vast space for parking new cars, a sparkling reflective field of glass and steel.

“A fluttered hope his accents shook / A fluttered joy was in his look.” -Sir Walter Scott, Rokeby iv, xxix.

The story concerning the name Blue Bonnets seems to be that a Scottish soldier named Alexander “Sandy” McRae from one of the Scotch Regiments in Montreal, opened a tavern named Blue Bonnets in the Cote St. Pierre area in the early 1840s, with a large signboard featuring a Scot in full regalia and blue bonnet. The name became a byword for the area as well.

When the Grand Trunk Railway was laid from downtown Montreal to the docks at Lachine, the railway replaced the horse as the major means of transport, and so the stage coaches fell into disuse as did the watering holes. When a racetrack opened in the year 1872 just to the north of this area, now part of Montreal West, it was named Blue Bonnets, so the name of Sandy McRae's establishment was reborn and lived on.

The land at that time was divided into long stips of farm land and much of it was owned by the Decarie family (often written 'Decary' as on the Hopkins' Atlas of Montreal for 1879). The strip of land on which the Blue Bonnets race track lay, belonged to Joseph Decarie. If you stood at the juncture of Sherbrooke Street West and Westminister North, near the CPR railway tracts, you could look north west and envisage where the race track used to be.

When the Canadian Pacific Railroad laid their line down westwards in 1886, it passed just south of the Blue Bonnets raceway, and once again the advancement of technology, transportation and urban development seemed to keep pushing the origins and spirit of the Blue Bonnets further afield. The race course moved to its present location near Decarie Boulevard and Paré in 1907, and was inaugurated on June 14, 1907 and once again the name Blue Bonnets lived on, at least until 1991 when it was renamed the Hippodrome. The race track went into bankruptcy and has been in disuse since the autumn of 2009.

Print  Blue Bonnets Race Track, Montreal, QC, about 1910  MP-0000.873.2
Image of Blue Bonnets c. 1910 from the McCord Museum Notman Archives. Mount Royal can be seen in the distance.

When the U2 360 Tour has come and gone, and their beautiful and energizing music lingers on in the atmosphere and in the souls of those who attended, the ultimate fate of the large tract of land upon which their concert took place remains in question. It appears a mix of residential and commercial development has been suggested. It would be a fine municipal gesture to honour the old spirit of Blue Bonnets and keep the name alive in a street name or a park. I think it warrants at least some civic consideration. Perhaps a nod to U2 would also be considered. Place U2. U2 Boulevard. Rue U2. But perhaps a round park would be more appropriate, with a fountain in the middle, Parc U2. That would have a nice feel.

Part 2

"They do not beat at all, like imperfect consonances, but only flutter, at a slower or quicker rate according to the pitch of the sounds." -Robert Smith, Harmonics, 1759.

This brings me full circle to what I originally had meant to write about: the assumptions of the reading eye.

For years I have had a book I picked up at the old Fraser-Hickson Library in Montreal. A book that has travelled with me but I have never read: A Little Flutter (London: Cassell, 1932, orig. 1930) by Ernest Bramah. It doesn't have a description on the dustwrapper and no blurbs are to be found, only lists of their 2/6 reprints, romance and adventure novels for the most part by many a forgotten name. The only clue to its subject matter would be the title, and the illustration on the front panel of the dustwrapper. For years I looked at the spine title of the book on the shelf while I practised my guitar and I always assumed it to be a novel that involved horse racing and the exciting venture of a bet or two. Occasionally it reminded me of Montreal's Blue Bonnets race track where on a few occasions, I enjoyed the spectacle of a horse race or two, breathed the cigarette and cigar smoke and heard the stirring sounds while watching with fascination not just the horses but the people around me. The book title also later reminded me of the Black Books episode of that name, where Bernard catches the betting bug.

This book title became part of the inspiration for a piece of music I composed. I had been greatly impressed by the musical piece Last Train to Dusseldorf by the extraordinary guitarist Tommy Emmanuel, where he captures the sense of train travel. One day practicing guitar, I was staring at Bramah's A Little Flutter on the bookshelf, and thought that I could come up with a piece of music which could mimic a horse race and I could call it A Little Flutter. So, inspired by Tommy Emmanuel and a book title, and my memories of Blue Bonnets, I created the music piece.

The odd thing is that the book has nothing to do with horse racing and is merely a play on words. The book's subject matter, comically absurd, is about birds, and the rare Patagonian Groo Groo plays a major part. I only recently read the book, skimmingly, for it is written in an idiom which reminded me of From London Far by Michael Innes, a style which seems exceedingly verbose and dated.

Perhaps I should try to compose a piece of music to mimic a bird's flight. I could name it after the rare Patagonian Groo Groo. The Groo Groo Groove. Hmm, might be something there. It would be a dream to write the song with the Edge and Bono, but I think that would be dreaming indeed.

Anyway, here is my music which I recorded direct to an inexpensive MP3 player and ran through a reverb on a music software program to add depth. State of the art it is not. Cheers. Music copyright Ralph Mackay aka Chumley.

Addendum: I have not been back to my hometown Montreal since I left in September of 2002, so if I ever get back there, the old Blue Bonnets may draw me in. Perhaps I could bring my cheap acoustic guitar and play the song as I gaze out over the remnant race track oval and think of the cyclical nature of this strange world we live in.

Addendum2: Who's Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses metaphorical, but a Equus ferus caballus reference nevertheless.

Addendum3: The source for the reference to Sandy McRae and the original Blue Bonnets is a book I've had for years: Canadian Pen and Ink Sketches by John Fraser (Montreal: Gazette Printing Company, 1890). It is a book of essays, often repetitive in detail, dealing with Montreal history, and specifically the area of Lachine, his birthplace, and the site of the great French explorer La Salle's homestead. John's brother, Hugh Fraser (1818-1870), a wealthy Montreal wine merchant, died unmarried and left $200,000 of his estate for the founding of a library. This will was contested by his brother John, a rather prominent case at the time. John lost his case however, and the will was upheld. It is perhaps strangely ironic that the book by Ernest Bramah entitled A Little Flutter, the book that originally got me thinking on this subject of horse races, was purchased by me at the Fraser-Hickson Institute free Library, the very library that Hugh Fraser's money brought into being. I think there is a full circle in there somewhere.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

fugitive dreams

The Lyric Pieces of Edvard Grieg appeal to me greatly, and his No. 5, Drommensyn (Phantom) from his Book 7, Opus 62 expresses an ethereal quality which consoles. It moved me to create this video using older illustrations from journals and books. The narrative is, I hope, a good compliment to the beautiful music, though, naturally, one facet from one mind.