Our past has never been boring

Ask Trent University history professor John Milloy, reports the National Post, and he will tell you Canadians have been “much too polite” about their history.

Ask me, and I will tell you Canadians have for a long time acknowledged the notoriety of our historical scoundrels and scallywags. We may not give them knighthoods – as the English have done with such bad-boy rockers as Sir Mick Jagger and Sir Elton John – but we do find other ways to recognize them. Nowhere is this more evident than in Fort McMurray, where a street and a shopping mall are named after Peter Pond, an 18th century fur trader and confessed murderer run out of the country in 1788 for shooting a fellow trader to death.

“Blood, sex, greed, that’s the good stuff,” says Prof. Milloy. “That’s what brings people into the movie theatres.”

So what else is new? Hugh Dempsey knew this when he included in his book, Calgary: Spirit of the West (1994), a story from 1889 about the strangling murder of a Native prostitute that drew headline comparisons with the Jack the Ripper killings in England. James H. Gray knew this when he wrote his 1971 bestseller, Red Lights on the Prairies, a book that forever exploded the myth that the West had been settled by “monks, eunuchs and vestal virgins.” And I knew this when I included in Boondoggles and Bonanzas (2003) the story of Don Cormie, the disgraced financier who left 67,000 investors holding the bag when his Principal Group of Companies declared bankruptcy in 1987.

The Post writer, Tristin Hopper, had to reach back to 1923 to find a university professor (unnamed) who complained to a meeting of the Canadian History Association that his students had a “special hatred for Canadian history.” Hopper bolstered his Canadian-history-is-dull argument with a later, 1996, quote from a “Vancouver immigrant” (also unnamed) who complained that Canada’s history is “without a doubt the most boring history I have ever encountered.”

Well, I’ll grant you that back in 1923 it might have been difficult for Canadian history students to find anything on the shelves other than what Hopper describes as “dry textbooks on responsible government.” But for a newcomer to feel the same way in 1996? What books was this person reading? Did this immigrant ever read anything by Pierre Berton or Peter C. Newman?

I’m an immigrant too, and I soon discovered that Canadian history was far from boring. In the summer of 1967, about eight months after arriving in Canada, I had a part-time job in the gold room of the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce in Dawson, telling Canadians about the history of their own country. Surrounded by imitation ingots in the bank where Robert Service had worked as a teller, I explained to visitors how a sluice box works and told them about the individuals who had struck it rich during the 1890s. My teaching guide was a well-thumbed copy of Berton’s book, Klondike, loaned to me by the local pharmacist.

Yesterday afternoon, when the snow was flying outside, I emceed an event at the Calgary Public Library where four of Calgary’s best historian-storytellers – Hugh Dempsey, Harry Sanders, Max Foran and Nancy Townshend – kept an audience entertained for more than two hours with tales from Calgary’s colourful past. It was a powerful show; the audience didn’t want it to end.

There are dozens of similar events held in Calgary every year. During Historic Calgary Week, at the end of July and beginning of August, hundreds of Calgarians turn out to hear talks and musical performances, and take part in historic walks and tours. They may have heard the stories before, but that never stops them from attending.

I was thinking this morning that I should have brought along this National Post story yesterday afternoon, and asked the Library audience to comment on the headline, “Who says our past is boring?” I’ll bet you nobody in the crowd would have held up a hand and said, “I do!”


Whatever gets me through the day

(With thanks to Susan Orlean for the idea)

Where did you grow up?

In Dublin’s fair city (“where the girls are so pretty”).

Where and what did you study?

University College Dublin. Majored in English, drama, satirical revues, Guinness, and pretty girls.

Where do you live and why?

Calgary, Alberta, Canada. Albertans are my raw material. I write about them. I immortalize them.

Of which of your books are you most proud?

The first one, Building a Province. It opened the gate for me.

Describe your morning routine.

Check calendar. Check upcoming deadlines. Check e-mail. Check Twitter. Check Facebook. Check LinkedIn. If all’s right with the world, I drink tea and start writing.

What is a distinctive habit or affectation of yours?

I always check my e-mail but rarely answer the phone.

What is your favourite item of clothing?

A crisp shirt.

Please recommend three books (not your own) to your readers.

Blue Nights, The Year of Magical Thinking, Slouching Towards Bethlehem. All by Joan Didion. One of America’s best nonfiction writers.

What book do you wish you had written?

Mavericks by Aritha van Herk. She’s an Alberta novelist who turned her hand to history and did it better than those of us who profess to write history for a living.

Describe your routine when conceiving of a book and its content, before the writing begins.

Go for a long walk and daydream.

Describe your writing routine.

Shut off radio. Close blinds. Drink tea. Write lead. Check e-mail. Write second sentence. Check Facebook. Write third sentence. Check Twitter. Rewrite lead. Check New York Times home page. Finish ‘graph. What more can I tell you?

Do you have any unusual rituals associated with the writing process?

See above.

Besides the obvious, what do you keep on your desk?

A shillelagh. Don’t ask.

What is the view from your favourite work space?

I never really notice. The blinds are always closed. Sometimes I think it may be snowing outside, but I never know for sure.

What do you do when you are stuck or have temporary writer’s block?

Check Twitter. Check Facebook. Go to Tai Chi.

What do you do to relax?

See above.

Do you have any superstitions?

I believe that if I finish my day’s writing in the middle of a sentence, I’ll be able to pick up tomorrow where I left off and never miss a beat. If I finish with a full stop, I’ll get writer’s block for sure.

What is something you always carry with you?

My credit card. Even when I’m walking around the house. You never know when a buying opportunity might present itself.

What is your favourite snack?

The pizza slice I put in the fridge after last night’s supper.

What phrase do you overuse?

“That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.”

What would you do for work if you were not a writer?

I wouldn’t work. I’m too old to do anything other than write.

Tell us something about you that is largely unknown and perhaps surprising.

I made it into the Guinness Book of World Records (1981 edition, p. 212) with the shortest book review ever written.

What would you like carved onto your tombstone?

“He never ate his vegetables.”