Emphysema City — Darkness at Noon

The summer of 2017 was the worst for British Columbia forest fires in 59 years. As a direct result, by August smoke-filled skies cast a dirty smudge over Greater Vancouver and, for 10 days in September, the sun was completely obscured by layers of particulate. During this time, Edward Schuldt, a former Vancouver resident now living in England, arrived for a visit. He files this report.

I first suspected something was amiss about 10 minutes into our descent on Air Transat TS777 from London to Vancouver. Less than a mile above ground, we were descending through thick dark cloud, seemingly at the centre of a thunder-less storm.

The aircraft monitor in front of me read one minute to landing—and still no sight of Vancouver’s ubiquitous mountains, forests and inlets. Only a grey landscape, punctuated by the faded yellow of parched fields and lawns. Just 11:20 a.m., and it looked like the last stages of twilight. What on earth was going on?

Several days later and it still looks like twilight. I realize that the ever-present cloud blanketing everything isn’t cloud at all, but stagnant smoke from the forest fires burning throughout BC. No wind, no rain. Occasionally, a faint orange ball materializes in the haze, masquerading as the sun. I have to remind myself this is Vancouver. It could easily be one of those bleak landscape sets in a Star Wars movie.

Online reports suggest that the air-pollution risk is either very low or non-existent. I don’t believe them. The air does not feel fresh. Reports also suggest the air will clear by such and such a day. But it doesn’t. The smog/fog/blanket of cloud sits low and heavy. Claustrophobic, I’m desperate to see blue sky and mountains.

This is pristine, clean, beautiful Vancouver? I’ve known the city for 70 years and I’ve never experienced anything like it.

I can believe what some reports say, that this is the worst smog in the entire history of the province.

Uncharacteristically, the concrete skyscrapers of Yaletown and the West End provide no contrast to the natural beauty of this forest-cushioned metropolis. And with no towering mountains as a backdrop, the city becomes another cheerless Alphaville.

Surprisingly, Vancouverites seem to take this all in stride. Young and old alike still jog along the miles of seawalls. And the limitless restaurants and sidewalk cafes are brimming with happy chatter, as though all is as it should be.

I’m overjoyed to see that the sky is completely clear this morning. Finally, the Vancouver I know and love. Bright, beautiful, breezy.

But I can’t help feeling unsettled by what I experienced here this summer. Is Vancouver’s response to the wildfires a version of the British stiff upper lip? Or a form of blindness? After all, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to ask if the smoke, while gone now, and the fires that produced it, are another unforeseen result of global warming. And they will likely happen again.

Shouldn’t BC be more prepared the next time?

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Bob Laughlin, Luthier — All About the Sound

Luthier (noun): The word "luthier" comes from the French word luth, which means lute. A luthier was originally a maker of lutes, but the term now includes makers of stringed instruments such as the violin, guitar or mandolin.

When luthier Bob Laughlin heard a giant maple tree on Anvil Island had come down in a Pacific storm, he went to see for himself.

Anvil Island resident and amateur musician Peter Hill met Laughlin at Porteau Cove in his 18-foot runabout and spun him across Howe Sound to the island.

Twenty minutes later, the two made their way to the blasted tree: a century-old Big Leaf maple that, once sawed and milled, would be transformed into a thing of beauty. A guitar with singular acoustic properties.

But first, the four-foot slab had to be lugged through the woods and back to the boat. Eventually the maple slab could be seen drying in Laughlin’s workshop off Commercial Drive in Vancouver.

Over the next two years, Laughlin would treat, prepare and shape the wood for use as a back for a stunningly carved small-bodied guitar. The instrument took pride of place at Laughlin’s exhibit at the recent Vancouver International Guitar Festival.

Laughlin’s exhibit at the festival drew attention from customers, gawkers and musicians. It also gave him the opportunity to talk shop with other luthiers he admires.

His instruments are strikingly beautiful. And they resonate with a clear, rich timbre.

Peter Hill, who used the guitar in a later recording session, describes the sound this way: “The tone is clear and warm at the same time. You can feel it warm up the more you play it. This guitar actually gives me musical ideas. It somehow allows me to remember long forgotten songs or create new ones. And how can something that plays so well look so good?”

The instrument has a carved Sitka spruce top, with a side port so the musician can better monitor her or his playing. Top-of-the-line tuners, selectively chosen and carefully tuned woods fit out an acoustic machine with the best of 21st century technology.

How to explain Laughlin’s 40-year career trajectory? A modest man who evinces the wisdom and patience that comes from working alone, Laughlin once studied mathematics and psychology, winning a major scholarship to a prestigious U.S. university. But he turned that down and turned instead to computing science, winning an NSERC scholarship to Simon Fraser University. After graduation he taught computer science at a local college.

But Laughlin had another life, one all about music. He had grown up in the Ottawa Valley and, as a teenager, had listened to Bruce Cockburn, David Wiffen and Willie P. Bennett.

Later, moving to the West Coast, he rented a home on Trafalgar Street in Kitsilano, holding musical open houses several nights a week. People of all talents were made welcome—folkies, three-chord rockers, aspiring opera singers, flutists — and would show up with guitars, dulcimers, mandolins and boxes of beer. There were occasional attempts at taping such sessions—a Revox A77 with two AKG mics was sometimes in evidence—though only a few aural scraps remain today.

Friendships were forged during 12-bar blues and D-minor Celtic dirges, lasting, in some cases, a lifetime. The music was often heartfelt, and every once in a while, profound.

Songwriters would drop in, with scraps and “mumbles such as promises” because Laughlin’s was the place to try out a new idea. Even as musicians warily eyed each other’s chops, an inclusive sense of belonging allowed people to relax, to stretch out, try new ideas.

Things could get loopy. Mimicking the Rolling Stones during their “country period” one songwriter chipped in: “I’m just from Kitsilano/But what the fug do I know,” fueling a roots-based jam that lasted days.

All the while Laughlin kept learning, absorbing information from books and attending conventions put on by the Guild of American Luthiers, taking in the hard stuff: the physics, the quality of the woods, the bracings, the gluing, the myriad and time-consuming steps that go into each instrument.

Was it worth it? Laughlin answers with a resounding yes: “The reason I do it is simple. There is nothing that compares to stringing up an instrument for the first time.”

Q & A With Bob Laughlin, Luthier

Q: How long does it take make a guitar?

A: For something I’ve made before about six weeks—I only work two to three hours a day now; this makes the process much more enjoyable—or about 60 to 100 hours per instrument on average. I only make one instrument at a time so there is lots of rejigging time involved, glue/finish drying time. I spent a year making my first violin.

Q: How many guitars have you made now? Other instruments?

A: Sixty-eight guitars. More than 100 instruments in all. For much of my luthier career, I had a good day job that allowed me to avoid financial struggle while doing something I loved.

Q:When did you start?

A: In 1977—a Bill Lewis night course at a Vancouver high school. Lewis is a legendary figure in the luthier world. He started the first luthier supply company, Luthiers Mercantile now based in California. His electrics are renowned, worth $100,000, owned by the likes of Jimmy Page and David Gilmour.

Q: Yours seems such a solitary craft. How do you handle that? A: I’m a loner to begin with; I play music for a social life. The upside is total control. This appeals to me greatly.

Q: Do you prefer to work with B.C. woods?

A: Yes, I prefer local woods: Yellow cedar, Sitka spruce, Big Leaf maple. Some of the best tonewoods in the world grow here in B.C., including Red cedar which I don’t use. I prefer softer hardwoods for back and sides. This makes for a lighter guitar with a smoother, more balanced sound.

Q: How is the luthier business changing?

A: I only make what I want now. Recently I’ve made some very small-bodied guitars simply because that’s what interests me. I play mandolin and appreciate a smaller instrument. Then, of course, I have to sell them.

Q: How do you make a living as a luthier?

A: Many are attracted to this exciting field and soldier on with little remuneration, myself included. Yes, a few stars emerge to make a decent living. But no one gets rich in such a solitary enterprise. Some go on to start factories—Larrivee, Taylor, for example—that's where the money is. But that's not for me.

Q: You emphasize it's all about the sound. Please explain.

A: It is all about the sound! Any luthier will say this, even visual artists and experimenters like Grit Laskin, Linda Manzer and Michael Dunn. The end product of luthiery goes to waste unless interacting with a player. The sound can inspire a player to new heights. Of course, you also need longevity and playability. And appearance can go a long way to selling instruments. But it’s all about the sound.

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Teardowns in Upper Professorland — Larry Wolfson’s Leica M

Documentary photography refers to a popular form of photography used to chronicle significant historical events.

Larry Wolfson's striking images do just that: provide evidence of the teardowns in Vancouver's upmarket Point Grey neighbourhood.

Armed with his Leica M, the photographer patrolled the leafy streets and quiet lanes to research and shoot his subjects — homes set for demolition.

Haunting the land of the affluent, Wolfson, a retired English teacher, played trespasser to shoot the exteriors and interiors of abandoned homes. A visual sneak thief the past five years, he set out to make visual sense of homes waiting for the wrecking ball — torn curtains, sagging walls and smashed porcelain where broken windows afford a splintered view of detritus strewn across a lawn.

Using a variety of wide-angle lenses, Wolfson masterfully captures the ghost-like melancholy that emanates from buildings about to be demolished.

Many of these Wolfson images were seen in a show held this past winter at the Firehall Gallery in Vancouver.

Through his images, Wolfson allows us to sidestep the tedious and oh-so predictable blather of Vancouver real estate, a subject that has led the news these past several years.

Today, across the city, we witness so many tear-downs we take them for granted, incorporating the images into our everydayness. But Wolfson's images compel us to slow down, to take a second look, to consider the images for their aesthetic appeal — to see them as something else entirely.

Wolfson provides an objective, unfiltered view of the sweeping, dramatic change — almost certainly to increase over time — now creating a new cityscape that some of us will hardly recognize.

"For me, these spaces conjure up thoughts of beginnings and endings, and the related melancholy often associated with ghost towns," Wolfson explains.

"Each photograph captures a moment when change is still its early stages, when we might contemplate a nostalgic past, consider a rapidly changing present, and be forced to contemplate an unknown future," Wolfson says.

More of Wolfson's teardown images can be seen here: http://larrywolfsonphotos.com/projects/

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Mel Bevan’s Treaty Making Blues

Making a treaty is hard, Sisyphean. Playing guitar brings sweet solace.

Mel Bevan is a man at the very heart of the transformation taking place in Northwestern British Columbia. From an office tucked away in the corner of a building in Terrace overlooking the Skeena River, the 76-year-old member of the Kitselas Nation works his way through the emails on his computer screen.

After 50 years in the “Indian business,” Bevan is a true believer in treaties, yes, but he also recognizes — and constantly reminds his colleagues — that aboriginals are going to have to embrace a cataclysmic shift if they are to join the economic mainstream in the 21st Century.

They can no longer afford to wait for the white man, to go on bended knee to Indian Affairs bureaucrats. A new generation of aboriginals needs jobs and skills beyond bookkeeping and band administration. They need to work in the resource industries right on their doorstep. And Bevan has spent his working life trying to make that happen.

He goes to a map on the wall, a colour-coded depiction of Kitselas lands under the agreement in principle (pre-cursor to a final treaty). Fee simple. Private lands. No longer owned nor managed by officials in Ottawa or Vancouver.

Bevan grew up staring at maps and spent his adult life trying to protect and be tested by the dramatic rivers and valleys of his beloved country. Under the treaty — the culmination of his life’s work — he is no longer in exile. But, curiously a melancholy note persists as he explains the terms of the deal to a visitor. He won’t say it, of course, but his body language betrays him: 20 years of treaty-making was inhuman, far too long. He has seen his children grow up and move away as he has seen scores of aboriginal leaders come and go.

For Bevan and many aboriginal leaders of his generation, treaty making became a holy grail and they were willing to sacrifice themselves — and their families — to bring home a deal. The negotiating sessions themselves were often complex, tedious and exhausting. Day after day, year after year, they pored over documents written by, and for, lawyers who had little interest in translating them into plain language. It’s the law, has to be this way, the lawyers said.

For Bevan, negotiations have become a way of life, a quest, one he simply has to endure. And despite endless pleadings and sharply written rebukes to governments in Ottawa and Victoria, there seems no way to speed up a process few politicians seem eager to embrace.

The glacial pace of the talks is the direct result of policies dictated by Victoria and Ottawa where politicians have become ambivalent, frightened or hostile when treaty-briefing papers cross their desks. Powerful teams of federal and provincial negotiators are assembled, and because of an enormous talent base, more resources and unlimited funding, Ottawa and Victoria can rotate key players and bring new talent, just like professional sports teams.

As the years drag on — work is now underway for a final treaty — Bevan and the mostly male team of negotiators (there is but one woman on the team, the “documents manager”) live in a kind of a bubble. The very process itself is extraordinarily controlled, unnatural and somehow devoid of human feeling.

Bevan has endured one interminable set of deliberations after another. Teams break into smaller groups — lands, finance, fisheries, forest resources, economic development, self-government to name just a few — and these groups then subdivide into five or six subgroups and the process commences again. The logistics of this means adherence, at all costs, to a kind of quasi-military discipline, meted out by the negotiators themselves. *** Life, of course, has intervened. Bevan’s children grew up. Son Stan became one of the most important aboriginal carvers in the province. After enrolling in the Gitanmaax School of Northwest Coast Indian Art in 1979, he underwent an extensive apprenticeship with his uncle Dempsey Bob who was also an early influence in his decision to become an artist.

Besides his family, one thing brings Bevan a kind of solace: music. He is a skilled guitarist and serious collector of guitars. Over the years he researched, tracked and eventually purchased Gibsons, Martins and Rickenbackers. In his youth, Bevan teamed up with other Terrace musicians to play concerts and pick-up gigs at parties, weddings and other events. Even today, he can turn up his amp and tear the roof off his home near Copper River canyon. Infrequent guests — he prefers those who play music — can be heard running through basic chord changes while Bevan takes an extended solo or two.

Early one evening Bevan invites me to his suburban home with its backyard a stone’s throw from the Copper River. He wants to show off his guitars.

A bachelor — he proudly mentions grandchildren but not a wife — whose five electric guitars are set strategically about a large living room that looked out towards the river; each instrument plugged into its own amp, each set to a particular sound. A shrine.

There are two Gibsons (a black Roy Orbison 335 and a gleaming older 345); two Gretschs (including a cherry Chet Atkins Tennessee Rose with twang bar) and a sunburst Les Paul. (He recently sold a 1964 Gibson J-45 acoustic for $3,000.) He offers a Bavarian lager while he sips a non-alcoholic. I can tell he wants to play and I ask for a tune.

And play he does, strapping on the 345 for a marvelous set of Hank Snow, Roy Orbison, Scotty Moore, Hank Williams and Johnny Cash. Ballads with love-crazed cowboys, long-haul truckers and big hurting love. Bevan would have been good in his day: the melodies ring out clear and strong and out into the night. He isn’t faking it, his guitar pick a laser-guided missile.

“Did you sing too?” I ask.

“Never did,” Bevan replies. “But I had them up and dancing for hours.”

I try to strum along as he calls out the keys, but it isn’t helping much. Many of the songs are in basic keys, but they have interesting and unexpected chord changes. I try to add inversions and a few lead lines but the result is a messy mélange, mere tinkering. What Bevan really needs is a strong rhythm player with all the changes down. Maybe that’s why he stops playing and puts down his instrument.

He looks tired; time for me to go.

“Just one more tune,” he says, handing me the Tennessee Rose. “Play some blues — or whatever it is you do.”

And so it is. And as I play he keeps cranking the volume, loud, louder, deafening. Tweaking the amp, he gleefully adds more distortion, then even more. One is a setting for Hey Joe attempting Hendrix. Followed by a ragged blues in A, a string of D minor arpeggios, and fumbled, fake Bach.

Driving back to the motel, I try to make sense of such a complicated man. Are Bevan’s guitars a bulwark against the Sisyphean travails of treaty making? Or simple six-string solace for a solitary man who lives beside a northern river?

Alex Rose visited and interviewed Mel Bevan for the book, First Dollars: Pipelines, Ports, Prisons and Private Property

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London Calling

  image As I mentioned in my first post, the popular international view of the English is that they are arrogant, class-conscious snobs, universally disliked and clinging to the notion of a now-defunct British Empire. Well, that’s about as true as the idea that all Americans think that the American Dream is a reality. The truth, of course, is more complex. Indeed, the English mind largely senses the world through class-conscious antennae. The average English native can tell from a couple of spoken phrases: 1) whether you are posh, middle-class or on benefits; 2) your city or county of abode, or, if London, what part of London you’re from; 3) what type of education, if any, you received; and 4) the nature of your work, if any. Just as a dog can hear sounds well beyond the human range, the English antennae can classify another native with a remarkable degree of geographical and socio-economic accuracy. You call your son Henry? Posh or quasi-posh and you’re probably sending him to an expensive independent school. Your daughter’s name is Sharon or Tracey? Hmm…..single parent, father has left and you’re on benefits. Someone says, “To be honest with you….”, definitely a tradesman and likely dishonest, whereas “I say…” signifies a Daily Telegraph reader from the Shires. No Vancouverite could ever discern from casual conversation whether a fellow Canadian was from North Vancouver or Burnaby, Calgary or Winnipeg. Englishmen can of their own fellow citizens. After years of listening to the plethora of accents here, even I can distinguish someone from Newcastle, Birmingham, Liverpool (that one’s very easy) or the East End of London (also easy). The accents, phrasing and cultures in this country are amazingly varied: approximately 115 languages spoken by Londoners alone. Yet England is only about 300 miles long and at no point is it more than 50 miles from the sea. And with a population of, let’s see….actually no one knows as there are so many hidden people here, but that’s another story. Anyway, something else that most Englishmen have in common: the snobbishness is hidden beneath modesty and understatement. Apart from the hair-slicked-back Wall Street wannabes of London EC1 and Canary Wharf, and ignoring the Lamborghini/Ferrari driving sons of the Emirate multi-billionaires, the majority of English like to be considered ordinary—even if they are from the highest echelons of aristocracy; the Princes William and Harry personify this dichotomy perfectly. Even the Queen allowed herself to be part of everyone’s fun when her lookalike was parachuted in, Bond-style, during the opening ceremony of Olympics 2012. My wife and I were once invited to the Earl and Countess of Malmesbury’s. At lunch, servants waited on us, but this was a far cry from the ordinary scene we found on our arrival: the Countess ironing clothes in a side room, while massive hairy sheepdogs sprawled on a nearby couch. Gordon Brown, the former Prime Minister, made sure that everyone knew his favourite band was a good old lowbrow Indie rock band, the Arctic Monkeys. In election campaigns, all British candidates must be seen holding a pint of beer in some local pub, and then scoffing either fish and chips or curry. When Tony Blair was PM, he was well known for adopting a lower-class accent when he wanted to appear popular. Often, the English are not what they seem. Beware the Englishman who says of a given activity: “Oh yes, I dabble in it from time to time.” That likely means they know a helluva lot about it and are probably the world’s leading authority on the subject. I used to think I was good at snooker. A London colleague of mine said that he “had tried it a few times,” so we played. He thrashed me. I believe this sense of downplaying oneself so as to be ordinary has at the back of it a strong sense of equality and fair-mindedness. Take, for example, the English habit of queuing (or standing in a line) to wait for something. Yes, I want something, but so do the other people here; so instead of shoving everyone out of the way or pleading my special case, I will join the queue just like everyone else. It’s only fair. In my early days here, I was flabbergasted one rush-hour morning to see a long queue of well-dressed women and tailor-suited men heading towards one of the darker entrances of the London Underground. There they were, inching along, patiently reading their morning papers or dabbling with their mobiles, waiting for the train that would take them to the heart of London’s financial centre. No one fussed; they just moved slowly but progressively towards ‘The Drain’ (as this particular Underground line is called), knowing they’d all get to work sooner or later. Once I was standing in the foyer of the train station looking up at the arrivals and departures board to determine the next train to New Malden. After one or two minutes, I turned to see that an orderly queue, about six people deep, had formed behind me. God knows what they thought I was queuing for. Anyway, I walked off quickly, much to their bafflement. So, in the English temperament, a sense of class is very much mixed in with a sense of wanting to be like everyone else. While most Canadians strive to keep up with, or surpass, the Jones, the average English native struggles to climb down the social ladder. Maybe the hidden feeling is, we are such a special nation that we can afford to be ordinary. More to come soon…

Ed  Schuldt

     
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London Calling

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Does everyone hate the English? It certainly seems so. The French have fought them for hundreds of years. Even when the French go on strike, as they are wont to do, they block the port of Calais (England’s main doorway to France) just so the English will suffer. The Scots also despise the English; everything in England to them is ‘shite’. So great is their dislike they now want a Disunited Kingdom, to divorce from their southern enemy and become a separate country. In spite of the film’s gross historical inaccuracies, which make Darth Vader seem a beneficent angel compared to the English military, the film Braveheart is a Bible to the Scots, a bible they constantly revisit to reinforce their hatred. The Irish, until recently, liked to bomb the place. And an Englishman would never go into a Welsh pub after a Rugby International between the two nations unless he was surrounded by a horde of other English and, ideally, a few Welsh bodyguards. For the Americans, the war of Independence was not enough. Even today, most bad guys in an American-produced film have English accents. In short, most of the world sees the English as arrogant, if not evil, cruel, class-ridden or desperately clinging to the dream of a now defunct British Empire. In a recent April Fool’s joke the Australian media announced that the future Commonwealth games would henceforward be called the British Empire Games. Given the general Aussie attitude to the “Pommie bastards,” the Aussies, of course, assumed this to be true. It’s the kind of thing the Aussies would expect the Brits to do. It caused an almighty uproar Down Under, until someone pointed out the date of the announcement. Pommie, by the way, is derived from the acronym POME, for Prisoner of Mother England, so the Aussies got that wrong as well. Even the English don’t like themselves very much. Remember Henry Higgins’ comment, “as soon as an Englishman speaks, it makes another despise him.”  When a Londoner detects, for example, that I am from abroad, their first question is often, “Why on earth would you want to live here?”  A Canadian would never ask that of an Englishman. The obvious retort is, “Well, why do you live here?” That’s usually met with confused mumbling, as if the concept had never occurred to them before. Not a good answer. Over the years I’ve developed a variety of better responses. An acceptable one seems to be, “I love England/London!” depending on whether you are inside or outside the capital. Even though they love to deprecate their country, god help anyone who does it for them. But if you love London, you must be daft. Therefore, you are likeable. Other variations I use are, “My wife is English” (ie. so you’re not really foreign).  Or “If you’ve seen one mountain, you’ve seen them all” (ie ah…this colonial has a reasonable sense of irony and can belittle his own country – so basically has the potential to be truly English). Are the English really like this? As a Canadian who has lived and worked in London for about 30 years, I’ve had plenty of opportunity to see them first-hand.  Certainly, a proportion of English people are just as I have described. But you do need to scratch below the surface because the reality is a bit more complex. More in my next piece...

Ed Schuldt

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