Guy Vanderhaeghe's The Last Crossing

by Shaun Hunter


Calgary through the eyes of writers

Built in 1891, Beaulieu, James and Belle Lougheed's sandstone mansion announced Calgary's aim to become a great city. From the fashionable Lincrusta wallpaper and customized stained glass windows, to the wood-panelled library stocked with literary classics, the Big House was intended to show the world that Calgary had the makings of a cultivated metropolis. (Photo, taken in 1956: Calgary Public Library Alison Jackson Collection)

Built in 1891, Beaulieu, James and Belle Lougheed's sandstone mansion announced Calgary's aim to become a great city. From the fashionable Lincrusta wallpaper and customized stained glass windows, to the wood-panelled library stocked with literary classics, the Big House was intended to show the world that Calgary had the makings of a cultivated metropolis. (Photo, taken in 1956: Calgary Public Library Alison Jackson Collection)

London, England, 1896. The renowned English painter and poet, Charles Daunt sits in an elegant hotel lobby and studies the young journalist who has come from Canada to interview him. Gaunt offers Thomas Harkness a cigarette from his silver case, and asks, “Does a newspaper in … in Calgary, is it? Remind me, that is the place?... Does a newspaper in Calgary maintain a correspondent in London?” Harkness explains he is on honeymoon in Europe, and Calgary is home. “I believe that our little out-of-the-way place ought to learn something about Charles Gaunt the poet.” Gaunt is unmoved by the flattery, and wary. The young man’s visit stirs up memories of his arduous travels in the West twenty-five years earlier when there was no such thing as a city named Calgary. Desperate to track down his lost brother, he followed the half-breed guide, Jerry Potts across the western plains – a harsh and hostile land. Now, Potts is dead and the West Gaunt remembers exists no longer.

 

Gaunt, seeking breathing space, remarked, “Lately, one sees a good deal in the British press of your part of the world. Advertisements for settlers, much talk of boundless opportunity.”

“One could say Western Canada changes by the hour,” Harkness said with fervor. “Towns and cities arise almost overnight. Why, Winnipeg, in the province of Manitoba, already has a population of several hundred thousand and is a bustling rail centre. There are those who say that in a decade it shall surpass Chicago. And Calgary, only a short time ago, it was nothing but a whisky post on the Bow River, and now it is the coming place. Hotels, businesses, it boils with activity.” He paused. “You might pay us a visit. The better class of citizen is very eager to attend lectures on literary topics. We do not wish to moulder in a cultural wasteland. You should give it your consideration.” 

 

Guy Vanderhaeghe, The Last Crossing (McClelland & Stewart, 2002)