Sunday, November 13, 2016

Fifty Years in the Making

A peregrination of a different and very exciting sort reached journey’s end yesterday. Before a crowd of eighty at the Victoria Public Library’s main branch I launched my book, Remembered in Bronze and Stone. Though the actual writing of the book took only a couple of months in 2015, in a very real sense Remembered is a book half a century in the making. The book  is dedicated in memory of my great-uncle, Harrison Lincoln Livingstone. In 1964 Harrison acquired a big, beautiful piece of land in Cape Breton: five hundred acres, five miles of shoreline, an island all his own. The acquisition of the land ushered in a period that was the happiest of his long life.

The unhappiest period of Harrison’s life surely occurred in the years 1915 to 1918 when he was a Canadian soldier in the battlefields of Flanders and France. In the spring of 1965, the first spring after he’d acquired his Shangri-la near Marble Mountain I went there with him to take the first steps at rehabilitating the ancient, near-derelict house that had been the lifelong home of the bachelor who lived there all his days and had sold the land and house to Harrison in old age.

In the front room of the dark old house there was a wooden puncheon – a very fragrant one – packed with pickled herring. How long it had been there? The attic was literally knee-deep in the detritus accumulated over decades by old Johnny MacKenzie. Among the 1930s-era issues of Maclean’s magazine and myriad other markers of decades gone by there was a weathered leather jacket. It fit me perfectly. I wore it on campus for a few years as I completed a degree at Dalhousie University then commenced a master’s at the same learned institution.

Apart from cleaning up the house, I helped Harrison cut trails through his land and reduced dense groves of red alder to firewood. Together we found a little forgotten cemetery engulfed in forest of spruce and fir.

Harrison and I were on our own at Marble Mountain: no television, not even a radio I can remember. We only had each other. Circumstances were just right for the momentous event that soon took shape. I managed to get Harrison talking about his experiences in the trenches and battlegrounds of the Great War. His accounts were both horrifying and appalling and at the same time riveting and unforgettable. It was there and then, in the spring of 1965 at Marble Mountain, that my life-long fascination with the Great War was seeded.

In 2005 Jan and I, with good friends Mary and Mike, made our first circuit of the Western Front, by bicycle. We saw the battlefields, visited the graves of six Cape Breton relatives killed in the war. Upon returning home I began in earnest to gather artefacts of Harrison’s war and that of his brothers, cousins and friends: images, documents, memories. I built an online inventory of these items and shared them through the Internet.

In 2010 while on a war history mission in Westville, Nova Scotia, I chanced upon something that literally stopped me in my tracks: the community war memorial. In a green space beside the town post office was a bronze soldier standing on the town cenotaph. The soldier, wearing no helmet, his rifle strapped across his back, stands at the battlefield grave of a comrade. It is a mute essay in loss, regret and contemplation. It was, simply, the finest community war memorial I had ever seen.

At the base of this compelling figure was a mark identifying the sculptor and the year he produced his work: Emanuel Hahn, 1921. A new mission was born: I decided I had to learn more about Hahn and the life work he had accomplished. The following year Jan and I embarked on an ambitious plan: we mapped a journey across Canada aimed at delivering us to other memorials featuring a bronze or stone soldier, not just those conceived by Emanuel Hahn but the whole works: all the memorial soldiers we could arrange to see. We followed the 2011 transcontinental journey with another in 2012. This time a west-to-east quest along a different route, to other soldiers on other monuments. Further, regional journeys occurred in 2013 and 2014.  Eventually we managed to see, study and photograph a big majority of Canada’s stone and metal soldiers.

In the spring of 2014 I gave a presentation on the country’s war memorial statuary to the west coast branch of the Western Front Association. It was wonderfully well received. I was urged to write a book. I dodged the task for a while. Who would be interested in such a book? Who would publish it? Then in 2015 a new imperative arose: health issues compelled me to forgo an entire season in Cape Breton. My friend Ron Caplan said I had to make worthy use of the time I would otherwise be in Cape Breton. I had to write the book. I did. Though the treatment I underwent was sometimes distinctly unpleasant, I wrote. I never felt more alive. I completed a manuscript.

It took three months but I found a publisher who liked the manuscript and wanted to publish it. The publisher, Rodger Touchie, and his able staff at Heritage House did a marvelous job: they turned my manuscript into a finished work I consider beautiful – and while they were at it commanded the attention of media far and wide, CBC Radio from Victoria and Vancouver to Cape Breton, stories in print media in Victoria, Vancouver and Halifax.

Yesterday was the official book launch: eighty attended, I spoke about my book. People lined up to acquire a copy. I signed at least fifty.

The past week has been the best and worst of times. Leonard Cohen departed this mortal coil. Somehow, unbelievably, D. J. Trump was elected leader of the free world. And yesterday, at Victoria’s main library, a journey commenced fifty years ago at Marble Mountain in Cape Breton reached its destination.

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