About Writing . . . the Books
The way I've gone about writing each book has been different - in its genesis and in its procedure. In some respects ‘A Perfectly Beautiful Place’ is a travel book; travel and anecdotal history. Stories about people and events. How we respond to circumstances; how we react to adversity, to pleasures and gifts, to danger. Much of the content in APBP came from notes and fragments I’d kept over the years, and all of it came from personal experience. Even my fiction books have come in some ways out of personal experiences.
You could say that APBP is a series of non-fiction stories; many of them linked in some way or another, but not all of them. The first one, ‘Beirut’, was triggered by a photograph taken of an apartment building near the point of West Beirut. The picture showed a heavily damaged apartment building after it had been hit by Israeli artillery in the 1982 war with Lebanon. That was the summer of the massacres at the nearby Sabra and Shatila refugee camps. I’m not wanting to get into the whys and wherefores of what happened there, except to say that the refugees were children, women and men, and the militias who perpetrated the massacres were not stopped or dissuaded by the Israeli Army, which was present.
I had lived in that apartment block with my father and stepmother years earlier in my teens, when the city was peaceful; when it was still known as ‘The Paris of the Middle East’. Outside my native Scotland, I thought Lebanon the most beautiful country I had ever seen.
‘Malta’ and ‘Doors’ were based on the stories my father recounted about his years as a bomber pilot, then as a flying instructor in the Royal Air Force during the Second World War, and on the entries in his RAF log book—which I now have. The stories didn't come out until late in his life. He would meet me at Gatwick Airport when I got off a long flight from British Columbia. He knew I'd be jet-lagged and he'd trained himself to stay up all night so he could keep me company. He'd brought in a suitcase full of John Smith's beer to help the process along. Sometime around three in the morning is when the stories would start to come out; stories he'd buried for years.
‘Following Edward’ came out of a summer we spent in France, much of it tracing in the most exacting detail the footsteps of Marilyn’s grandfather Edward Grist. By careful attention to historical records and accurate map-reading we reckon we had him down to within a hundred yards or so, nearly seventy years after he had been there as a young infantryman in the Canadian First Division in the First World War. We camped that summer on the battlefields of Picardy and Flanders, following Edward from Sanctuary Wood to Vimy Ridge, Hill 70, Passchendaele and Amiens—and points in between. Lying on that soil, breathing the night air, listening at dawn to the countryside awakening, then picnicking later in peaceful, Commonwealth War Graves cemeteries on baguette, ham, cheese, and wine was an extraordinary, visceral experience. I've never had dreams like I had that summer, in those places.
‘The Ardennes’, and some of the stories that follow, is a recounting of a midwinter journey we took to Germany, Luxembourg, Belgium and France. That journey was self-directed research, and it took us quite by accident to the house of Helene Detry-Gustin in the little village of Grune. The encounter with Helene led eventually to my first fiction book ‘The Gate’.
‘The Seville Diaries’ comprises the second section of APBP. Almost all of it came out of notes I kept during the years we lived in Andalusia. Spain had only just joined the European Economic Community, as it was called then, and Andalusia was changing from an agrarian society into something much more industrial and urban - and perhaps even egalitarian. It was a time replete with cultural misunderstandings, yet a time rich with learning and wonderful gifts. To facilitate the writing of the notes I made, I wrote them up as if I was writing to a friend. The 'friend' in that case was a newspaper editor I knew only slightly, back in the village we lived in western Canada. He knew nothing about it, but that little device was surprisingly helpful.
My other non-fiction book 'Writing on Stone' came out of that perpetual search that all Scots emigrees go through. I think it comes from the power of the landscape we leave behind us when we go to live in another country - whether it's England, or Australia, or Canada - or wherever. Scotland's mythologies, its legends and its history are rooted in the land, and written through its cities. It's not the same in the new world, not for most incomers. It can take a lifetime to get that visceral connection with the land, or a semblance of it. In Scotland I'm always conscious that I'm walking on the shoulders of people of have tramped the land or walked the streets for generations, aeons, before me. I'm aware that every fold in the hills has a story to it, whether I know its details or not. It is different in the 'new' world. We have been slow in our ignorance to grasp what we lose by failing to recognise and learn from the original - the aboriginal - peoples of the places we have gone to; colonised. We lose far, far more than we can possibly have gained by ignoring the connections these First Nations have with the land - their land.
The first half of WoS is in Scotland; living in Glen Lochay, teaching at Edinburgh University's wonderful outdoor centre on Loch Tay, wild nights in snow holes in the mountains, with the ghosts of Glencoe howling outside, channelling the women of Sollas on North Uist when they fought the factor's men in 1849, walking the land of the Picts; walking the streets of Edinburgh which, with the transience of cities, has become for me a place of ghosts - and an experience on the Cauldstane Slap, deep in the Pentland Hills which seemed to bring a ghost to life.
The second half of the book is about coming to Canada's west coast - to Vancouver first, and difficulties there. On to Vancouver Island, and tough jobs in the pulp mill, and on two-person commercial fishing boats up and down the coast. Working nine thousand feet up on a mountain top in the Rockies, and on the ski slopes of Mt. Hood in Oregon. Hitching and drifting down to California, and across to New York. And then the place of revelations that gave the book its title - Writing on Stone in the Milk River valley in southern Alberta, just across the Montana border from the Sweet Grass Hills. Names to conjure with - but that river valley was where young Blackfoot had gone since time immemorial on the vision quest. And by a conjugation of circumstances, something of the spirituality of that extraordinary place was gifted to me.
'Writing on Stone' is not entirely chronological, probably because it's as much about personal discovery as anything else; about experience and learning. Perhaps it's also about trauma. It doesn't go into the trauma, just - hopefully - some of the results of it, for gifts and great learning can come out of adversity. The book is back to front really, and there is irony in that because I had to leave my home and friends in Scotland in order to find out about the place I'd come from; its history, its deep culture, and the mythologies that have tied its people to the land and the sea for millennia. A phase of that coming alive began with the chapter 'White Magic'. After the section - 'The Old World' - I found I could begin to write about 'The New World', and finally 'Two Worlds'. There is a level of spirituality in the book, but it has nothing to do with any church, except perhaps in recognising that we're capable through belief and application of discovering for ourselves the deeper meanings of life - and finding solace in the uplifting magic around us.
My novel 'The Gate' had its genesis in Montmédy in eastern France. John, Sue, Maria and I were heading from Munich to Brussels during a break in a wandering post graduate course we were taking. The lovely old village within the massive walls of Montmédy's 16th century fort had seen plenty of war, but on the day we were there it was peaceful, and beautifully captivating. Walking beneath Vauban's great walls I saw a rusted, Second World War US Army helmet hanging from a nail by a garden compost heap. In the ensuing years, with research help from M.R.D. Foot, official historian for Britain's WWII Special Operations Executive, and some fascinating hints from Queen Elizabeth's late dressmaker, Sir Hardy Amies - the novel took shape. The central characters in the book are fictitious, although some of the other characters are modelled on people who were involved in the events leading up to the Christmas of 1944. The core events that envelope the story - by which I mean the movements of military forces and the weather conditions during that unusually cold and hard winter - are as accurate as I could make them. I named the main historical character in the novel after a young fellow we met in the town of Hirson on the eastern edge of the Ardennes. Pascal . . . , who with his friend Joel, wined and dined four transient strangers with unforgettable generosity.
'The Gate' begins in Vancouver, British Columbia, and takes us to the Pemberton Valley among the Coast Mountains before it moves to France. It is a war story, but it's really about the unexamined life; something we're all capable of if we spend our days on what my sailor friend Jeremy Hewitt once called 'microscopic treadmills'.