Although very little remains of Vancouver’s past, some effort at conservation has been made in the oldest original settlement known as ‘Gas Town’. The pride of place here has been given to the much photographed ‘Steam Clock’ – a twelve feet high clock powered by a steam engine which announces the quarter hours with a whistle chime and the top of the hour with a puff of steam. It looked Victorian but turned out to have been installed in the 1970s. The authentic spirit of Gas Town turned out to be not architectural but human.
John ‘Gassy Jack’ Deighton was born in 1830 in Hull, England and is the man most credited with establishing the city of Vancouver. A contemporary described him as being of ‘grotesque, Falstaffian proportions’ but his nickname stemmed from volubility rather than gastric disorders. He was never happier than when he was regaling strangers with tales of his adventures. To be fair, he certainly had a tale to tell.
He joined the British fleet at the age of 14, then deserted to the American fleet because the food was better. Later he became a bucko mate on a clipper bound for San Francisco, enforcing ship’s discipline at the end of his fist and the tip of his boot. Having failed to find gold in California he headed north to pan the Frazer River diggings. When this also failed he trained as a river pilot and ended up as the best on the Frazer. His next venture as a saloon keeper was ruined when his manager embezzled the takings, forcing Gassy Jack to move on.
In true pioneer style, he acquired a dugout canoe, filled it with his First Nation wife, his mother-in-law, his dog, two chickens, his wife’s cousin Big William to do the paddling, and a whisky barrel. In Sept 1867 he landed in Burrard Inlet where amidst the swampy wilderness he found some logging activity already in place. Spotting an opportunity he set up an embryo tavern by placing a plank across two tree stumps.
Then he struck a momentous deal with the loggers. If they would build him a large hut he would supply them with all the whisky they could drink in a single session. Within 24 hours his shed was erected and the loggers suitably refreshed. He named the new saloon ‘the Globe’ and the patch of land around it ‘Maple Tree Square’ after the tree under whose branches he and his family sheltered.
Despite this success the infant Vancouver was not a particularly salubrious spot. Jack wrote in a letter: ‘This was a lonesome place when I came here first, surrounded by Indians. I cared not to look outdoors after dark. There was a friend of mine about a mile distant found with his head cut in two. The Indian was caught and hanged.’
Although officially the new settlement was named Granville after a British political grandee, unofficially it was called ‘Gastown’ after its garrulous saloon keeper. As the place began to flourish Jack was able to construct a rather grand building named the Deighton Hotel. He maintained order in his usual manner by liberal use of his fist. When his wife died, he married her 12 year old niece Madelaine.
However Jack’s reign did not last long. In 1875, after an evening in which his dog presaged the future with desolate howls, Jack died aged 44. The Deighton Hotel was burnt down during the Great Fire of Vancouver in 1886. His wife Madelaine however survived till 1948. She said that Jack had told her that the inlet: “would make the nicest of harbours. I might not live to see it, but it will be a port someday.”
Jack Deighton has not been forgotten in the place he created. The district was renamed ‘Gas Town’ and in 1970 his statue was erected in Maple Tree Square. It is his main memorial. That, and the City of Vancouver.
It turned out that Granville Street, where our hotel was situated, had something of a reputation. Sean mentioned after a trip outside that it had seemed a bit edgy. It was an obvious entertainment area filled with cafes and bars and even a sex shop with a large sign in the window that proudly announced:
‘Canada’s Oldest Adult Store – Serving Vancouver for over Fifty Years’.
Thoughtfully the local Starbucks had provided a bin in their lavatories for the disposal of one’s used hypodermic needles.
But what was really striking was the amount of sheer literal madness on the street. All major cities now have their homeless, their beggars, and their insane, but Granville Street seemed to be overrun by them. At times it resembled an open air Bedlam.
Over the length of a day we witnessed a man running along the road and screaming as he dodged the honking traffic. Another man squatted on the pavement while bending double and emitting high-pitched shrieks. Another walked past our bus queue with his arms outstretched conducting an invisible choir.
Later we watched a ‘carer’ who looked like an extra from ‘Mad Max’ hurtling down an incline pushing a wheel chair. Its cackling invalid occupant lolled alarmingly over the side wheel.
Occasionally we noticed a man talking to a wall on an imaginary mobile phone – it seemed that he talked either to God or Satan depending on the time of day.
In a city touted as one of the most desirable places to live on the planet and amidst huge wealth, Granville St and Eastside Downtown at times seemed like a vision of urban hell.
Amazingly, it turned out that this situation had arisen as a result of deliberate government policy. Prior to the 1980s Vancouver had not had a homeless problem as sufficient affordable housing was provided by the authorities. This programme then had been stopped. Houses continued to be built but only in the private sector. The poor were priced out of the market and now had no public sector housing on which to rely.
Homelessness in itself causes a disproportionate amount of addiction and emotional instability – ‘no direction home’ – and extra cuts to social care pushed a new wave of the mentally ill out onto the streets. Other cuts to welfare funding meant that access to food had become more limited, and the street people were increasingly reliant on begging and sifting through garbage. By the year 2000, the amount of homeless vagrants in Vancouver had increased to 600. By the time of our arrival in 2017 it was now over 4000.
In the end one had to wonder what was the more insane – the street zombies or the political ideology that had so intensified their misery.
Amidst this social wreckage Granville Street did provide a glimpse of glamour in the shape of a Hollywood-style ‘Walk of Fame’ – a line of bronze stars inlaid in the pavement bearing the names of the famous. However, as the names consisted entirely of British Columbian celebrities, to us it was more like a ‘Walk of Obscurity’. The only name that we had heard of was that of Chief Dan George.
I remembered him in the Clint Eastwood film ‘The Outlaw Josie Wales’ and in ‘Little Big Man’ starring Dustin Hoffman in 1970. George had been nominated for an Academy Award for his role in the latter film, the first member of the First Nation to receive that honour. After a life as a longshoreman and school bus driver, he had not taken up acting until the age of 62 and then only by chance.
His eldest son Robert had been playing the role of a ‘Red Indian’ in a Canadian TV series. When a white actor who had been playing the role of an old ‘Indian’ fell ill, the director asked where he could find a replacement. Robert had remarked: “Why don’t you try a real old Indian. I’ve got one at home.” A star was born.
As the rain continued to lash Vancouver (a not uncommon event), Sean and I looked around for some indoor entertainment. On an extended pier beside the ferry harbour, we noticed a queue outside an attraction called ‘Flight of the Dragon and Fly Over Canada’. This sounded interesting – we both fancied seeing a film about the natural beauty of the country through which we had so recently passed. It would make a pleasantly restful interlude before the evening.
We joined the queue and quickly glanced over the introductory brochure:
“Buckle up your seat-belt and get prepared for our virtual flight ride double feature! First, follow a mythical dragon as you soar over some of China’s most spectacular landscapes during Flight of the Dragon.
Then take off once again to experience the Ultimate Flying Ride, a thrilling virtual flight that takes you across Canada from east-to-west.
The experience is a gentle ride. Guests sit in chairlift-style seats and are elevated before a large, spherical screen. Both rides incorporate state of the art special effects including wind, scents, and mist in addition to the movement of your seat to make you feel like you are truly flying.
The experience is suitable for young children (must be 40″ tall) and seniors alike.”
This sounded reasonable enough and, as I had never experienced virtual reality before, could be an interesting half hour. Underneath the main advert there was a smaller print addition:
“A tiny percentage of the public may find it uncomfortable. Therefore, if you are particularly susceptible to motion sickness or fear of heights, you may wish to consider refraining from participating.”
This did give me pause for thought. Despite the fact that both Sean and I are very experienced air passengers and Sean in particular has flown hundreds of thousands of miles, we both suffer from acrophobia. I get dizzy standing on a chair, and Sean is not much better. On the other hand, there were dozens of young children in the queue ahead, some aged about six. And this was not reality, it was virtual – there was absolutely nothing that could go wrong. With an indulgent shrug we paid $20 each and joined the queue.
After passing through a waiting room, we were led to a corridor to stand in lines before filing through to a ‘cyclorama room’ – a blank screen ahead of us protected by a safety bar. A row of seats resembling dentists’ chairs faced the screen. We were told to stack our possessions under the seats and then strap ourselves in with safety belts. For the first time, I had a sense of foreboding. A jovially menacing guard strode along the passage in front of us announcing that if anyone wished to leave, now was the time to do it. I gave a slightly worried glance to Sean. He reassured me:
“It’ll be OK. If you feel dizzy, the trick is to keep looking at the side wall. That’ll give you a sense of perspective.”
I settled back.
Then all hell let loose. The side wall that I’d just been told to watch vanished. The safety rail ahead suddenly snapped down and out of sight. The floor beneath disappeared and we were left dangling thirty feet in the air. Then the screen ahead burst into life and we were flung into virtual space and hurtling down a waterfall at fifty miles an hour with a writhing dragon for company.
After about four seconds I realised that I was in for one of the nastiest experiences of my life – my acrophobia exploded into near swoon. I realised that the only way to survive was to close my eyes. For the next five minutes I clutched on to the chair for dear life, while occasionally being hit in the face by a spray of water presumably representing rain clouds or dragons’ piss or something. It’s difficult to be precise about details when one’s eyes are clenched shut. A couple of times I ventured to peep out only to swoop into a passing mountain or dive bomb a skyscraper. An utterly terrifying five minutes.
Finally and mercifully they stopped the machine. This had just been the warm up – the main feature was still to come. As the room returned to normal for a minute, I looked at Sean. Sean looked at me. We both looked at the attendant and, unhooking the safety straps, demanded to be released. With a sniff of contempt, he nodded his permission. We walked out in a halo of shame as the row of six-year-olds gazed at us in disdainful puzzlement.
Stumbling off to the nearest Starbucks, we slowly recovered. But what a total disgrace. And our own fault as well. What in God’s name had ever possessed two grown adults who were perfectly aware of their height aversion to go on a ride that had been labelled as unsuitable for people with a fear of heights? Unbelievable! Even the film had been absurd – rain clouds and dragons. It was like a bad acid trip in Wales.
I looked again at the brochure and noted that the ride had been advertised as ‘gently thrilling’.