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Reading by Railway
The snow blows past the windows of the train as you look out into the almost monochrome landscape of northern New Brunswick, black shapes of the woods, white snow on the ground and along the branches, hints of dark green and brown as if a black-and-white photograph had been subtly touched up with colour. You pass a river, chunks of ice floating in the dark water. Now and then a ruined shack, or a highway, a village. You look back at the book you hold in your hand.
Three times in the last year, I've travelled long distances through eastern Canada by train. It's the best way to travel if you can take the time, and as the slow journey goes on, the world outside the windows, the world of the people you meet on the train, and the world of the books you read all come together into a complex music of imagination. One summer evening on the edge of Newcastle, I looked out and saw a couple, working people by the look of them, standing in their yard to watch the train pass. They exist in some other dimension for me, as I, passing, do for them. A sign on the road says "Station Street", and the name is somehow familiar. I searched my mind and came up with a title. Nights below Station Street: those profligate encumbered lives created by David Adams Richards, the odder to call to mind when I found myself reading Henry James.
I made the trip again just before Christmas. On the way west through New Brunswick, Quebec, and Ontario, I was reading Timothy Findley's novel The Piano Man's Daughter. Toronto was my destination, and the streets of the city were laid out in front of me in his words. The man in the seat next to me had been a Toronto cab-driver for thirty years, though he was now living in Nova Scotia and doing woodwork, and we talked about the suburban train stations. I can remember from childhood a Dufferin Street station where the train, which had earlier set off from downtown, picked up passengers before continuing northwest. We may have been going to visit my grandfather, or maybe to a summer cottage, when we caught the train there one bright morning. I think my mother bought me a new book to keep me amused during the trip. Most of The Piano Man's Daughter takes place before I was born, but the way the city was shaped by streetcars and how southern Ontario was held together by trains were magically familiar. Findley's family chronicle, like a train trip through a landscape you love, makes the exotic familiar, the familiar exotic, and interrupted by food and sleep and conversation with strangers, it carried me to Toronto, where I got off the train for a family reunion of my own.
You walk the streets of the Annex, take the streetcar to Cabbagetown, have lunch in Kingston between trains, move on, and find yourself walking across the bridges between Hull and Ottawa, crossing from one province to another in the bitter cold. In Hull, I picked up a copy of Ray Conlogue's Impossible Nation: The Longing for Homeland in Canada & Quebec, a book that has its roots in the experience of arriving in Montreal to live and work and attempting to see, with clear eyes, the sheer differentness of a different culture speaking a different language. (Does that bridge across the Ottawa lead from province to province or country to country?) I moved to Montreal around the same time as Conlogue, and had an experience a little like his. Arriving back, I went to my old neighbourhood, the French streets east of the mountain, to do some shopping, and it was, as always, another world.
The train to the east leaves Montreal in the evening, and in winter, you travel through Quebec in darkness. At Lévis, you can see the bright lights of Quebec City on the steep heights across the river. Then you sleep and wake, sleep and wake, through the Gaspé and into New Brunswick. By now I was reading White Madness, a collection of Alden Nowlan's columns for the St. John Telegraph-Journal, and it was Christmas Eve.
Alden Nowlan died in 1983, and Anne Macklem, who travels selling books for Oberon Press, the publishers of White Madness, said she was having some problems selling the book. Public memory is short. "I suppose I should know who he is," one young librarian said. A voice from the past: I didn't know Alden well, but it was back in 1970 that I first met him, and he always embodied a certain old-fashioned respect for the way things are. The voice in the newspaper columns is very much his own, but the level of irony, the way he played with the events of ordinary life, reminded me of books I read in the 1950s. He had something of the manner of Stephen Leacock, or what I could remember of Robert Benchley, or Thurber perhaps, or the Robertson Davies of the Marchbanks books, which also began as newspaper columns. In the work of those writers, there is no sense that one needs to speak of deep matters, of great issues, or deep personal pain. Nowlan was a master of the decorum of small things. By comparison, how fraught and self-indulgent a lot of contemporary essays are. Axes are ground to a fine edge and beyond. Taking sides is everyone's favourite athletic activity.
Reading about banking and birthdays, cats and licorice, I look out the train window. We've stopped somewhere, and families are greeting each other on the platform. A mother and daughter walk arm in arm while father and son-in-law follow behind working at conversation. It is the accepted wisdom that we are the children of revolution, that everything has changed, for the better or the worse, but when you sit in a train that has run on more or less the same tracks through more or less the same towns for a hundred years or so, and you see the bustle of coming and going, you think for a moment that nothing much has changed.
Look back to the book. Nowlan is writing about some old New Brunswick school readers that he's been looking at. "In a curious kind of way," he says, "the Canadian outlook may have been more cosmopolitan and less colonial in 1898 than it is today. I'm not sure that that's true, but it's a thought that occurred to me as I examined this old schoolbook." A different reading, that is, of past and present, a useful corrective in a world where the word "conservative" has lost its meaning or been hijacked by what David Lewis Stein calls "the Leninists of the right".
Good books encourage you to take a second look. As I sat in the train seeing the small towns of New Brunswick and the people who lived in them, all I could think was how little some things alter. On an earlier trip, going west, I met Newfoundlanders who were going west to look for work in Alberta. The young men sitting behind me on this trip were back for a visit from a place where they were working in B.C. Change, sure enough, but there's no sense that these people aspire to a new kind of life. They want a job and go where the work is, as their fathers did, as my father did.
Nowlan has a comic essay about how he can no longer get out of Fredericton by train. Fly or stay home. That's true in a lot of places, where the old stations are mouldering. Is that inevitable change or the illusion of change? Perhaps those who spend half their life in the air and wired lose track of those of us on the ground, still moving pretty slowly, and so they invent those new rules by which you have to have particular educational requirements in order to be a school janitor. Every politician and journalist should be required at least once a year to take a long train ride through the country while reading Canadian books. We are still out there on foot in the snow.

 David Helwig lives in Belfast, P.E.I. His most recent book is A Random Gospel (Oberon).


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