Monday, September 11, 2017


 My nephew Etienne and me deep in conversation about spies, the Cold War and novelist John le Carre, who has just released a new book. Our discussion made me think about how differently each generation views history. (All photos by John.)

It was all very serious, but we found something to laugh about.
History, schmystery -- Emi, with her mom Aya behind her, knows that a joke and chocolate cake (still on mouth) are the most important things in life.

Every once in a while, John and I go to our bookshelves and pull out one of our old John le Carre favorites – Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and The Honourable Schoolboy are the most thumbed – but we have them all. For us, they’re a staple, the best ones throwing us back into the scary days of  the Cold War, the Berlin Wall, and the Soviet Union as a stark, dark and merciless place where anything could happen.

 So a big hole opened under my feet this weekend when my mid-30s nephew Etienne said he’s not only never read le Carre, but doesn’t understand what the panic over communism and British-spies-turning-out-to-be-Russian-spies was all about anyway. Of course spies are duplicitous, he said, what do you expect?

John and I spent the rest of our coffee date explaining the significance of events that -- to us --happened just yesterday: the Second World War, the Cold War, the Bletchley Park codebreakers, the elite Cambridge students recruited as spies, and the Queen’s art collector Anthony Blunt exposed as a Russian agent. The young people heard us out politely, but in the end, I realized it wasn’t a knowledge thing; it was a feeling thing. They may know the facts of my generation's history, but they'll never feel the  Cuban Missile Crisis in their bones. The events of their own lifetime will bring them their own versions of our Cold War and British spy dramas; one is playing out right now with North Korea.  I just hope they'll have someone as brilliant as le Carre documenting it for them.

Outside the coffee shop, Emi finds something interesting to point out to her dad Etienne.  The touchstones of her generation's history will be very different from Etienne's or mine.
Emi and Etienne share a laugh as mom Aya rescues the coats from the coffee shop. Life is pretty good, so far anyway! 

Monday, September 4, 2017

Heat warning

It's hot and smoky again in Vancouver, but John and I know how to cope with that. He interrupted his own swim to take this photo of me on Monday.
High tide at Spanish Banks late Monday afternoon, and the light was a surreal red-gold, warming the bodies, the sand, the bouncing waves. “A Mediterranean light,” said John, whose photographer’s eye is always noticing. On the way to the beach, he’d already pointed out the cause – a grey haze of wildfire smoke hovering against the North Shore mountains.

 It was the third hot day in the city, with temperatures at 30, an Environment Canada heat warning in effect, and a warm wind blowing off the water. Adding to the strange atmosphere, two ambulances, lights flashing, sirens blaring, raced past, and we could see the Coast Guard hovercraft, all noise and plumes of spray, heading in to the beach to meet them.

 Meanwhile, the volleyball players near us kicked up clouds of dusty sand. On the beach, a young woman wore a black bathing suit that could have been a figure-skating costume, all flared skirt, fitted waist and intricate back lacing. In the water, an older woman with thinning white hair floated on her back, flipped over, and dived right under like a kid.

 For the third day in a row, John and I stopped at the Dairy Queen after our swim. “Two small cones, one dipped?” asked the clerk.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Princess Emi

From a cat to a princess: my grandniece Emi was already wearing cat-whisker markings from her daycare when we brought over her gift for her third birthday. She was happy to add a princess persona to the earlier one. Photo by John.
My sisters and I had no access to TV or movies, let alone iPads, when we were children, so it was probably from books that we learned about princesses and their tiaras. Out of the dress-up box would come the sheer white blouse with “diamonds” embedded in the front that commonly topped off our best princess looks, combined with crinolines or whatever else we could find that was fluffy or filmy. 

The piece de resistance was always a tiara conjured out of cardboard and covered with tinfoil to give it the required glitter. A length of a fur-like substance, placed at the base of the tinfoil creation, served as the ermine we had seen in photographs of Queen Elizabeth’s crown.

It’s been more than 50 years, but princesses are back in my life again, thanks to my grandniece Emi, who is fascinated by Elsa, the ice princess from the 2013 Disney animated film Frozen. Emi’s third birthday was last week, so when it came to a gift, even her mom (who tries to avoid cartoon-related clothing) agreed a Frozen-related something would be appropriate.

Which is how I ended up setting foot in my first-ever Disney store, today’s replacement for our old dress-up box. Choose your colour and your favourite Disney princess, and there’s a full-skirted tulle dress there for you, along with a gargantuan necklace and earrings, and yes – just the right matching tiara.

I stood firm against the full-skirted tulle, imagining how hard it would be to clean and maintain, and went for an Elsa-themed hoodie, with a floaty little cape-like attachment on the back. But as the former official tiara-maker for the princess games of my youth, how could I resist a “real” piece of sparkling headgear?

Emi loved it.

A close-up of the Frozen-related tiara. It's supposed to be made of snowflakes, I think.

Elsa is Emi's favourite character from the movie. 

 A little sheer cape on the back turns the hoodie into something more.

Emi admires John's photos of her in her birthday gear.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Breathing and sighing

My latest challenge: finding my way through a James' novel that even the dust jacket calls "problematic" and obscure. Looked at through the right lens, though, it's quite a funny story about four people -- three Americans and one Italian prince --  in a soap-opera-style love quadrangle. 

“Say it out, for God’s sake, and have done with it!” That’s the plea William James, eminent American philosopher and psychologist, made to his younger brother, novelist Henry James, after wading through the tangled thickets of his later prose. Now that my little reading group is tackling The Golden Bowl, one of Henry James’ last books, I am feeling William’s pain.

According to W.W. Robson’s introduction to the 1904 novel, William contrasted his own style -- “to say a thing in one sentence as straight and explicit as it can be made, and then drop it forever” – to his brother’s. Which he described, in a style getting close to Henry’s own, as being “to avoid naming it straight, but by dint of breathing and sighing all round and around it, to arouse in the reader who may have had a similar perception already (Heaven help him if he hasn’t!) the illusion of a solid object, made (like the ghost in the Polytechnic) wholly out of impalpable materials, air and the prismatic interference of light, ingeniously focused by mirrors upon empty spaces.”

Robson says much of the difficulty of James’s style is his use of colourless words that replace abstractions and point backwards or forwards to other words. “The mystified reader must be prepared to cope with a flood of its, whats, thats, theses, whiches, most of them of the murkiest antecedents.”

Here's an example – and by no means the muddiest: Rich American art collector Adam Verver steels himself to propose marriage to his daughter’s best friend, Charlotte Stant, during a trip to Brighton:

He liked, in this preliminary stage, to feel that he should be able to ‘speak’ and that he would; the word itself being romantic, pressing for him the spring of association with stories and plays where handsome and ardent young men, in uniforms, tights, cloaks, high-boots, had it, in soliloquies, ever on their lips; and the sense on the first day that he should probably have taken the great step before the second was over conduced already to make him say to his companion that they must spend more than their mere night or two. . . He was acting – it kept coming back to that – not in the dark, but in the high golden morning; not in precipitation, flurry, fever, dangers these of the path of passion properly so called, but with the deliberation of a plan, a plan that might be a thing of less joy than a passion, but that probably would, in compensation for that loss, be found to have the essential property to wear even the decent dignity, of reaching further and of providing for more contingencies.

You can see the problem, especially given that I spent my career revising and clarifying murky prose. But now that I can wander a bit, I find it interesting to look at other ways of presenting ideas. Not “straight and explicit” as William James prescribed, but roaming around, using evocative words (“tights, cloaks, high-boots” and “high golden morning”) to spark images in the reader’s own mind. Since I’m reading this for pleasure (!) I try to get a general sense of what’s happening, rather than parsing out the clauses, the dashes, the complex punctuation for an exact meaning. It comes through: When thoughts about an upcoming marriage proposal include words like “less joy than a passion,” “deliberation,” and “decent dignity,” and avoid “love” altogether, I’m suspecting we’re not talking about mad passion.

James provides other compensations. His figures of speech are wonderful: Verver’s son-in-law, an Italian prince, is like an ancient gold coin embossed with glorious medieval arms; he’s also a Palladian church. Verver himself, a “small, spare, slightly stale person,” is like a “small decent room, clean-swept and unencumbered with furniture.” Often buried in the verbiage are James’s stiletto jabs of humour. For example, there's Verver’s marriage-minded guest Mrs. Rance, not “at all deliberately or yearningly invited,” who pursues him to a deserted billiard room in the hopes of getting something going.  Verver looks at her across the “expanse of desert sand” that is the billiard table and wonders what to do. “She couldn’t cross the desert, but she could, and did, beautifully get round it; so that for him to convert it into an obstacle he would have to cause himself, as in some childish game, or unbecoming romp, to be pursued, to be genially hunted.”

 James couldn’t have written that without smiling. Despite all his circuitous "breathing and sighing," for that sentence alone, I forgive him.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Sunshine Coast haven

With real-estate prices stuck at crazy-high on the Lower Mainland, the Sunshine Coast is beckoning more and more of our acquaintances. At 40 minutes, the ferry trip there is a blink of an eye compared to the trek to Vancouver Island or the Gulf Islands. Sunshine Coast real-estate prices have climbed, thanks to all the Lower Mainland refugees, but a spacious house with a big garden is still do-able for many.

 This week we visited our latest friend to find a haven up the coast. Antonia, the daughter of our late Saltspring Island neighbour Kathy, has a new house full of light, a garden with lots of established plants and trees, and a bear that likes sleeping in it. Luckily, the bear had stepped out for the afternoon, so Antonia and I could explore while John took photos.

It's not uncommon these days for people to commute from the Sunshine Coast into Vancouver every day for work. A fairly short ferry ride and beautiful scenery makes it feasible, and perhaps even enjoyable -- for awhile.

Antonia on the deck of her new house, which feels a lot like her mother's beautiful home on Saltspring. Antonia previously lived in North Vancouver.

Antonia and I enjoy exploring her garden on a perfect August afternoon.

The garden has well-established pear, plum and crab apple trees, plus what we think is an ornamental cherry.

I couldn't identify all her plants, but I did spot roses, photinia, weigela and crocosmia.
Most of the plants appear to be drought-tolerant and hardy, a good thing since we seem to get so many dry summers now, and water on the Sunshine Coast is expensive.

This is a malva zebrina, one of those tough little plants that reseed and come back year after year. A great plant to have scattered through the garden.

I've known Antonia for 17 years now, as she often visited her mother Kathy, our all-time favourite neighbour, on Saltspring. Kathy, a talented artist, died in 2014.

 In her living room, Antonia gets reacquainted with some of her mother's paintings. We've been storing them, and brought them back to Antonia on this trip, now that she's settled. 

The paintings are covered in plastic, so it's hard to see them, but Antonia was particularly drawn to this one, of red leaves over a grey fence.

On our way back to the ferry, we stopped to visit another friend, Rhonda. She made us an excellent coffee with her stunningly beautiful (and expensive) machine. 

And, the trip home. When there's no ferry lineups or delays, it seems pretty idyllic.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

A book of gratitude

An old-fashioned book with timeless ideas: George Gissing's The Private Papers of  Henry Ryecroft was first published in 1903, just months before Gissing's death. I like it for a lot of reasons, including the fact that it is full of gratitude -- not a common theme in modern literature. Its hero is a nature-lover, and in honour of that, I photographed it against the backdrop of our yard on Saltspring.
My friend Georgeann, photographed here against another scene of nature -- the lake at VanDusen Garden -- introduced me to the book. She just happened to have it on her library shelf.

I loved the book's delicate pages and the way it was created with such care. I found another, more current copy of my own so I could fold down pages and not worry about ruining it.

A beautiful sketch of the author at the front of Georgeann's book. No modern publisher would include anything like this.

Why would I – or anyone – care about the eclectic jottings of a grumpy old man who sequesters himself away in rural England in the late 1800s? He doesn’t like modern life, visitors, religion, hotels, science, vegetarianism, industrialization, the city or people -- especially people. Nor does much happen in The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft. There are some walks, the arrival of a parcel of books, a couple of chance encounters, the change of seasons. We know when and how our protagonist dies: the preface tells us that he goes to sleep after a long springtime walk and doesn’t wake up.

So, no mystery, no drama, no romance and a failed writer as our hero. Why did I still love this book, from the moment my friend Georgeann showed us her early-1900s copy, with its whisper-thin pages, its old-fashioned cover decorated with author George Gissing’s tiny silver signature, and its fine sketch of Gissing himself in the opening pages?

Because Henry Ryecroft – a semi-autobiographical version of Gissing himself – is, for all his querulous relationship with many things of the world, a thoroughly happy man. After a miserable, lonely life, starving and scraping his living out of writing in the cheapest hidey-holes of London, he is bequeathed an annuity. It’s a modest one – 300 pounds a year – but it means he can rent a small house in the country, hire a housekeeper and spend his days doing exactly what he wants – reading, thinking and enjoying nature.

His pleasure in this new life; his intense appreciation for his reprieve, shine through every page of this little book. How rarely we read about – are suffused in – gratitude! How uncommon are the heroes thankful for a modest break and not yearning for a bigger one! How seldom does a protagonist choose simplicity and nature over the glitzier rewards of the world!

“Here was a man who, having his desire, and that a very modest one, not only felt satisfied, but enjoyed great happiness,” writes the fictional character who explains in the preface how he “finds” Ryecroft’s journals after his death and decides to publish them.

There’s more beyond gratitude, of course. Gissing wasn’t a famous writer, but he was a serious one, comparable to Thomas Hardy and George Meredith. He knew his classics, his philosophy, his history, and the Ryecroft character he created was as deep and accomplished as himself. And so we have Ryecroft grappling with such Enlightenment questions as the mind/body split; man’s and nations’ propensity for war, and his dislike of science, which he fears will become “the remorseless enemy of mankind,” destroying beauty and simplicity and leading ultimately to chaos.

But mostly, Ryecroft talks – bluntly – about anything and everything, and it’s that openness that reverberates more than a century later. We may not see ourselves in all his topics, but we’re sure to catch glimpses in some of them. As I look for some of my favourite passages to give as examples, I notice how often they include that theme of gratitude:

Here is Ryecroft reflecting on his own character:

“Do I really believe that at any time of my life I have been the kind of man who merits affection?” he asks, then answers: “I think not. I have always been much too self-absorbed; too critical of all about me; too unreasonably proud. . . I had brains, but they were no help to me in the common circumstances of life. . . But for the good fortune which plucked me out of my mazes and set me in paradise, I should no doubt have blundered on to the end.”

On the coziness of his living room; an ode to a coal fire:

“See how friendly together are the fire and the shaded lamp; both have their part alike in the illumining and warming of the room. As the fire purrs and softly cracks, so does my lamp at intervals utter a little gurgling sound when the oil flows to the wick, and custom has made this a pleasure to me. . . .After extinguishing the lamp, and when I have reached the door, I always turn to look back; my room is so cozily alluring in the light of the last gleeds, that I do not easily move away. . . . With a last sigh of utter contentment, I go forth, and shut the door softly.”

On helping a friend: Ryecroft, who spent most of his working life unsure whether he would have a roof over his head or enough food to keep from starving, delights in being able to help others now:

“Greatly as I relish the comforts of my wonderful new life, no joy it has brought me equals that of coming in aid to another’s necessity.  . .  Today I have sent S--- a cheque for fifty pounds; it will come as a very boon of heaven, and assuredly blesseth him that gives as much as him that takes. A poor fifty pounds, which the wealthy fool throws away upon some idle or base fantasy, and never thinks of it; yet to S--- it will mean life and light.” Ryecroft recalls that in his poverty, he sometimes gave money away, but always in fear “that I myself, some black foggy morning, might have to go begging for my own dire needs. That is one of the bitter curses of poverty; it leaves no right to be generous. Of my abundance -- abundance to me, though starveling pittance in the view of everyday prosperity – I can give with happiest freedom; I feel myself a man, and no crouching slave with his back ever ready for the lash of circumstance. . .how good it is to desire little, and to have a little more than enough!”

Ryecroft is never able to forget the horrors of his working life in London. One of his starkest descriptions is of a dark foggy morning, when he had a bad cold and a sleepless night:

“Hideous cries aroused me; sitting up in the dark, I heard men going along the street, roaring news of a hanging that had just taken place. . . It was a little after nine o’clock; the enterprising paper had promptly got out its gibbet edition. A morning of mid-winter, roofs and ways covered with soot-grimed snow under the ghastly fog pall; and, whilst I lay there in my bed, that woman had been led out and hanged—hanged. I thought with horror of the houses, nothing above me but a ‘foul and pestilent congregation of vapours.’  Overcome with dread, I rose and bestirred myself. Blinds drawn, lamp lit, and by a blazing fire, I tried to make believe that it was kindly night.”

On blackberries: Once, when Ryecroft was poor, he was astounded to realize that he had eaten enough wild blackberries during a walk that he didn’t have to buy any food. The memory makes him appreciate even more his current prosperity and to reflect on the brutality of the economic system. 

“At that time, my ceaseless preoccupation was how to obtain money to keep myself alive. Many a day I had suffered hunger because I durst not spend the few coins I possessed; the food I could buy was in any case unsatisfactory, unvaried. But here Nature had given me a feast, which seemed delicious, and I had eaten all I wanted. The wonder held me for a long time, and to this day I can recall it, understand it.” Ryecroft thinks there “could be no better illustration of what it means to be very poor in a great town . . . . I know, as only one with my experience can, all that is involved in the possession of means to live. The average educated man has never stood alone, utterly alone, just clad and nothing more than that, with the problem before him of wresting his next meal from a world that cares not whether he live or die.”

On silence:

 “Every morning when I awake, I thank heaven for silence. This is my orison. I remember the London days when sleep was broken by clash and clang, by roar and shriek, and when my first sense of returning to consciousness was hatred of the life about me. . . Here, wake at what hour I may, early or late I lie amid gracious stillness. . . But there is the rustle of branches in the morning breeze; there is the music of a sunny shower against the window; there is the matin song of birds.” 

Monday, August 7, 2017

Flowery homecoming

I left my Dunbar garden to its own devices for a couple of weeks this summer, hoping there would be a little rain to see it through. None came, so I was a little concerned about what I would find when I got back home at the end of July. Here's what I found:

A leaning tower of sweet peas. They were heading sideways, but they were alive!
In the same garden bed, the delphiniums (see the bare stakes) had finished blooming, and in the bed to the right, the daisies were in full bloom.

The white hydrangeas were making a good show over the boxwood hedge in the front garden. The leaves were a little wilted, but a dose of water perked them up. 

The red hollyhocks were blooming in the front garden.
The white hydrangea out back was growing into the bird bath.

In the front, the blue hydrangea seemed to be thriving without water.

Another look at that hydrangea, which is spreading farther every year.
In another bed in front, purple phox and white daisies were doing well.

But not everything was happy. Two containers of petunias were worse for the wear, and most of the plants had died in one. 

My concrete urn container of petunias was also looking sad.

I collected all the sweet peas and made one beautiful bouquet for the house. An amazing reward for two weeks of neglect!

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Kittycats, teapots and play

Preparing for exploration: mom Aya puts on Emi's shoes at the back door. Photo by John.
We’re all back in Vancouver after various summer adventures, and on Saturday we got together at our place with my nephew Etienne, his wife Aya and their daughter Emi to catch up. It was a classically beautiful summer day, and I thought how blessed we are right now to have our health, our lovely city and each other. It’s especially fun to watch Emi, now nearly three, discover the world around her. This day, the highlights were our neighbour’s garden teapot display, a cat called Phantom and a play session at a nearby park. Here are some photos of our get-together, mostly from John.

Wooo! It's fun to run as fast as you want around the back yard.

But what's this? Emi doesn't quite believe me when I say it's a bathtub for birds.

Up the alley, in front of our neighbour's house, Emi meets Phantom, their cat. John and I were a bit worried because Phantom tends to be fierce, often fighting with our cat, Mr. Darcy. (Who vanished for the day, being shy of visitors.) Photo by John.

Emi and Phantom get along just fine, thank you. No hissing, biting or scratching. Photo by John.

The other attraction is our neighbour's famous teapot display, with all kinds of pots nestled among the flowers and greenery. 

One of the cutest teapots -- a little tea centre in itself.

Emi thinks this display is pretty wonderful.

And goes in to investigate. The pots are filled with water, probably to prevent them toppling in the wind.

Lifting the lids off the pots seems like the main attraction.

So here is an elaborate game called "Dessert." Emi assembles pebbles called strawberry, lemon or banana dessert. She asks what you want, and when you give your order (sorry, no lemon today), she gives you a handful of pebbles and a twig to eat it with. You must scoop up the pebbles -- all the pebbles! -- and the twig, take it to a nearby bench and pretend to eat it with appropriately grateful snacking sounds. Aya, who knows the rules well and can explain them, watches her daughter prepare her goodies. Photo by John.