In search of a more peaceful life we moved on to the world of art – at least it didn’t move. Although we checked out the main Vancouver Art Gallery, it was in the small Bill Reid Gallery on Hornby Street that we came across something fascinating. No less than the discovery of a whole new civilisation.
Born in 1920, Bill Reid was the son of a Scottish father and First Nation mother who was working quite happily as a radio announcer in Toronto when he happened to visit the local art gallery and spotted an old totem pole. Somehow it struck an atavistic nerve. On investigation, remarkably he found that the pole had originated in his mother’s village. Up till that time she had denied her heritage – that of the Haida people. Realising it was also his heritage, Bill started to trace his Haida roots.
The Haida Gwaii are a remote group of mountainous islands situated about 600 miles north of Vancouver off the coast of British Columbia and were formerly known as the Queen Charlotte Islands. It is possible that these islands provided a stepping stone during the first migration of humans from the Kamchatka Peninsula to the American mainland 13,000 years ago. For centuries the Haida were the dominant tribe of the area and as skilled and warlike canoe seafarers they gained a reputation as the ‘Vikings’ of the North-West. Their trading influence was felt throughout the west coast as far south as California. They were a matriarchal society in which the women made the major decisions – these included imposing the belief that all creatures were equal to humans. Less attractively, they built a society based on slavery. In 1800, their population was roughly 10,000.
In the late 18th century, Europeans arrived for the first time and were initially thought to be visitors from the spirit world. They soon proved their human fallibility when they dropped off a crew member who was suffering from smallpox. The resulting epidemic hit the Haida so fast that there was not enough time to bury the dead. When typhoid and syphilis were added to the calamities infesting the islands, the Haida culture almost totally collapsed. At one point less than 300 people remained alive.
Gradually the usual West Canadian pattern of fur traders, then gold seekers, then logging companies seeking the ‘green gold’ arrived to exploit the islands, although even today the population is less than half that of 1800.
Finally in 1995, a measure of justice was achieved when the Canadian Government agreed with the Haida argument that the logging activities were destroying the balance of the earth and declared a dual co-operative area protected by watchmen. In 2010, the Queen Charlotte Islands were renamed Haida Gwaii (‘the islands of the people’).
Almost the only remaining evidence of the old civilisation remained in their totem poles. Usually made from cedar trees, they were erected when a chief died and the story passed on through the sculptures. In the ghost villages of the Haida, the poles were left to rot and to be re-absorbed by nature – a cemetery of mute history.
Fascinated by what he found, Bill Reid studied the Haida tradition under tutelage of his maternal grandfather. He established his studio in Vancouver and worked on fusing modern techniques with the ancient principles of Haida art; the totem poles became his inspiration. Starting in the micro world of jewellery he realised that the same art could be magnified to vast sculptures. He himself became the living link between a lost world and a vibrant present. When he died in 1998, his friends paddled a canoe the six hundred miles up the Pacific coast to take his ashes to Haida Gwaii.
It was in the prosaic surroundings of Vancouver Airport departure lounge that we came across probably Bill Reid’s finest work. Standing 12ft high, made of green bronze, and depicting a large canoe absolutely crammed to overflowing with a half human, half animal crew, it seems as if Bill had dismantled the figures on a totem pole and cast the assorted characters adrift in a boat. It is a Noah’s Ark of First Nation mythology. It is called ‘The Spirit of Haida Gwaii – the Jade Canoe’ and it is quite simply magnificent.
It was decided that we really should do something to engage with what was the essential Canadian sport – ice hockey. Oscar Wilde must have been driven by the same impulse but he chose to go to a lacrosse game instead. He appears to have enjoyed it saying that he preferred it to cricket. Afterwards he chatted to the Red Indian team, (they had invented the sport but had yet to invent the term ‘First Nation’). He rather upset even the minimal political correctness of the 1880s by suggesting that they played their games while wearing war bonnets and tomahawks. They declined the suggestion but presented him with a Red Indian feather fan all the same.
We set out about 6 30pm to reach the events arena in the suburb of Langley in good time. Boarding the Sky Station train at Granville St we travelled east for an hour, passing through sixteen stations till we emerged at Surrey Central. Sean checked his instructions.
“It’s only a bus ride away, so we should be OK.”
We found a bus with a ‘Langley’ destination and boarded it. On and on we went through night time suburb after night time suburb. At one point we noticed a sign that read ‘USA Border: 8m’.
Sean called out to the driver and asked if we were near Langley. All he received in reply was a taciturn “Nope”.
We travelled further and further east. Now we were late for the game.
“What time do they puck off?”
“I think the expression is puck drop, actually.”
Piles of snow started to re-appear. Finally even the road lights ceased.
“Where the hell are we going?”
After one and a half hours travel the bus pulled into a stop and through the darkness we spotted the Events Arena ahead.
After buying burgers and shakes at the rear of the rink, we climbed down to our seats to watch the action. The local team, the Vancouver Giants, were already losing to the Prince George team and tempers were fraying.
It seemed that there were really four elements to an ice hockey match. The first was the very fast and undoubtedly skilful skating work and the genuine courage of the goalkeeper in facing a fusillade of puck attacks.
But after about ten minutes the play stopped and the large teams, most of whom seem to have been confined to the rink-side benches, went off for a conference. The advertising section then took over. In this case a supermarket team occupied the rink with volunteers attempting to throw oversize groceries into an outsize trolley. It was quite weird. A giant bottle of wine made of inflatable vinyl floated over the heads of the spectators.
As the advertisers departed the third group arrived – the sweepers. These consisted of large smoothing machines levelling the ice, accompanied by teenagers with brooms. I think it was the comedian Linda Smith who described curling as ‘housework on ice’. I think the same applies to hockey as well.
Finally the teams returned and the fourth element of play came to the fore – the fights. Roughly every four minutes, play was suspended while both teams crashed together for a general exchange of blows. These altercations were then broken up by officials known as linesmen. What I only discovered later was that this was regarded as part of the actual match. Some of the team, called ‘enforcers’ or ‘goons’ are not there to skate and play but simply to beat up their opponents.
Although this behaviour was banned many years ago in Europe and in the Olympics, fighting is still part of the North American game. Most fights consist of a player holding his opponent with one hand to maintain balance while punching him with the other. There is even an etiquette to the affrays. It is considered infra dig to use hockey sticks or ice skates to wound your antagonist, and penalty points can be added if you spit at the opposition or beat up the referee.
The Canadians are well aware of the general bloodiness of the sport. One variation of a perennial joke was: ‘I was drafted into World War Two. When I arrived on D Day it was hellish – a hockey game had broken out.’
In a 1987 game between Canada and the Soviet Union the altercation lasted so long and became so dangerous that the officials turned off the stadium lights in an effort to stop the brawl. It was to no avail and the game was declared null and void. As punishment the Soviet team was barred from the end-of-tournament dinner.
Another feature of the arena were the very high plexi-glass panels all around the rink itself. I had assumed that this was to protect the audience from a wayward puck. It appears that the extra height was actually introduced to protect the audience from the players. In 1979 a player from the Boston Bruins, enraged by comments from the crowd, had leapt over the barrier, torn off a spectator’s shoe and proceeded to beat him unconscious with it. Penalty points were awarded against him for this action.
We left at 9pm. It only took two and a half hours to get back to Granville Street.
I suppose that after experiencing a Canadian January it was appropriate that the last full day in the country should be spent in the snow. Leaving rain-swept Vancouver, Sean and I caught a bus that took us eighty miles north along the Horseshoe Bay sea fjord, up the Squamish River valley, and then above and beyond the snow line to the ski resort of Whistler.
The sky had cleared when we arrived and now the sun sparkled on the pine-clad slopes and white-tipped summits of the mountains surrounding the town. Whistler turned out to be a Swiss village that had been plucked out of the Alps and dropped into the Rockies. It had a cheerfully holiday atmosphere rather like an upmarket fairground. Its pedestrian-precinct streets meandered between the gaudy restaurants, bars, and hotels that catered to the two million visitors that Whistler receives each year.
The town had been sub-divided into three village districts. Upper and Whistler were separated by woods and a small creek while North was situated further down the hill. The resort had been the host of the Winter Olympics in 2010, an event commemorated by a sculpture of the five connecting Olympic Rings in the North Village Plaza.
Having checked out the attractions, we wandered up past the Irish pub (I think that it is now compulsory for every town world-wide to have an Irish pub) and watched the action on the slopes. Dangling gondolas conveyed the cargo of skiers on an endless loop to the upper slopes of Blackcomb Mountain to the left and Whistler Mountain to the right.
For a moment we wondered whether we should hire some equipment and join the throng, then decided that maybe après ski activities were preferable. In my case this consisted of finding a comfortable armchair in a five star hotel lobby, while Sean went for a walk in the adjacent forest.
And that, as far as our venture into Canada went, seemed like it was going to be that. I hadn’t realised that the country still had a wonderful gift left to push our way.
As we strolled back in the early evening we turned to look up the slopes. The very tip of Blackcombe Mountain was tinged with pink from the setting sun; the mackerel sky above it turned to mauve. The swaying figure of the last skier floated left and right down the mountainside before curving to a neat halt by the now deserted ski lifts. Emptied of its human ants, the black bulk of the mountain began to merge into the twilight.
Below us in the town the outline of each tree and each building was decorated by coloured electric bulbs. A faint catch of music – Neil Diamond’s ‘Sweet Caroline’ – drifted up the hill. Whistler glowed with welcome as the dusk grew deeper and the air chiller.
We walked down towards it and, using a covered bridge to cross the creek, entered a path that wound its way between the tall pines. In this patch of forest suddenly we were alone – just the trees and the snow and nightfall.
We paused in silence and realisation seeped in. We were literally ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’ and they were indeed lovely, dark and deep. We were slap bang in the heart of one of the greatest poems ever written.
It didn’t really matter that it was by the American Robert Frost and it was about a night in Vermont. It was obviously close to the Canadian soul – Justin Trudeau even quoted the lines at his father’s funeral.
It was one of those moments when time stops and you really have nowhere else in the world where you would prefer to be.
And then you realise that there are still miles to go – about five thousand of them – back to England.
Next Tuesday on January 8 – a very different story – the long trip round Ireland for a bet. 20 shows in 20 towns in 40 days – hitch-hiking, camping, and performing every second day.