Frontlines

A partnership with time

Audrey Grescoe December 3 1979
Frontlines

A partnership with time

Audrey Grescoe December 3 1979

A partnership with time

Frontlines

Audrey Grescoe

In 1910 when Hubert Evans was a reporter in Toronto on The Mail and Empire, he interviewed an amputee who could play the piano. The story haunts him today. At 87 Canada’s oldest active author, Evans has battled emphysema, dizziness, heart trouble and near-blindness to write his third novel and he’s afraid he too will be seen as a trick artist. Although he has peripheral vision, Evans cannot easily see what is in front of him. He wrote 0 Time in Your Flight using three tape recorders—one for ideas, the second for rough draft and the third for revision. Then he typed a working copy wearing special glasses, his face close to the paper. That’s what made him think of the pianist. “I don’t want to be known as a man who played the piano with his nose.”

He laughs as he thinks how like the piano player he has become. He can laugh easily; he is feeling well, cheered by the sun that warms him as he sits in his home in Roberts Creek on the shores of the Strait of Georgia, British Columbia. He is dressed niftily in grey slacks and a soft blue sweater that intensifies the whiteness of his wavy, rather long hair. As he talks—in a voice fraying at the edges—his face loses that set sternness it has in photographs and becomes animated and much younger. “I never expected to get to be this old,” he says. But he is coping. With help from friends and relatives who chop wood and maintain the grounds, he manages to cook, do his laundry and keep the place tidy. He works slowly because of his pacemaker. “Sometimes I have to rest twice while I’m sweeping the floor.”

Even though he rarely goes out, he is remarkably current. He listens to the radio, reads what he can, and is part of a group of writers and artists who meet Tuesday evenings at his place. His conversation is as often about today as it is about the past. He speaks of Alice Munro, Future Shock and acid rain.

Evans’ writing career began more than half a century ago. He has written 200 short stories, 60 magazine serials, 12 radio plays, a biography, seven books of fiction (four for children) and two volumes of poetry. Since 1927, when his first novel was published, he has earned his living primarily as a writer; everything else that he has done—commer-

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cial fishing, beachcombing, logging, trapping—has supplied the raw material. “Writing,” he says, “was my cash crop.” True, he’s not among the bestknown writers; he has an underground reputation for his 1954 novel, Mist on the River, which deals with the struggle of B.C. Indians to come to terms with two cultures. The book was republished in 1973 by McClelland and Stewart in its New Canadian Library series of classics. In the introduction, William H. New, editor of Canadian Literature, describes the book as “an historical document as much as a work of art. ” And in 1954 the Indian newspaper The Indian Voice wrote that the author “fully grasps the tragic problems of the fight of the Native Canadian .... Only great love could have made this possible.”

0 Time in Your Flight, released this fall by B.C.’s Harbour Publishing, is a fictionalized account of Evans’ boyhood in Galt, Ontario, at the turn of the century. The title comes from a Victorian recitation piece: Backward, turn backward, 0 time in your flight/make me a child again just for tonight. “It is,” says New Yorker writer Edith Iglauer, “a magical book. There’s something perfectly beautiful about it; it’s a gem.” It’s also good social history, a revealing look at this nation as it entered the 20th century, a measure of how we have changed in 80 years and how we learned to think as we do.

The book grew out of a tape-recorded history of his family made about 10 years ago when Evans was recovering from heart surgery. It deals with a year in the life of nine-year-old Gilbert Egan, son of a high-school master, growing up in a proper Methodist home in 1899.

Before finishing high school, Evans had left home twice, once to work up north, the other time to be a cowboy on a cousin’s ranch in Alberta. “I was a two-time dropout from Galt secondary school. I had trouble with trigonometry. My father said I’d never be a scholar.”

Evans did register to study forestry at the University of Toronto, but was waylaid by journalism. Hired by The Mail and Empire, he spent his first two weeks learning to type—and all his life he continued to hunt and peck until the Canadian National Institute for the Blind taught him touch-typing a few years ago. He had, he says, at least one qualification for newspaper work: he was cynical. “I felt that the world was a charnel house filled with spectres.” He was working for the Toronto World in 1915 when he enlisted to go overseas in the First World War; a year later he was wounded at Ypres.

He cannot talk of the war now with-

out passion, names the places where he fought i muddy trenches— Vimy Ridge, The Somme — and knows they’re just history for most people. “I try to tell my grandson. You put 39,000 people in a stadium. You fill it twice. Imagine it—that many Canadians died, a whole generation of young men wiped out.” But it was the war that began to soften his cynicism. He says now that he came home glad to be alive and sure that life was precious.

Demobilized in 1918, he rejoined the World for a time but more and more the advice of an earlier editor began to make sense: “If you stay in newspaper work for five years, you will have a liberal education. Stay in any longer, and you’re a damn fool.” He left to think it over in B.C., where his parents had moved. B.C. entranced him. He tore up his return railway pass and went north and trapped for a year. It was there he wrote a letter proposing to Anna Winter, a teacher he had met in Toronto. They were married in 1920 and were to have 40 unconventional years together. “We lived in 24 cabins, shacks and tents,” he figures now.

After the wedding, Evans worked as the foreman of a fish hatchery in the northern Skeena area. Later he was transferred to Cultus Lake, east of Vancouver, where he started his free-lance writing career, rising early in the morning to write. He sold his first article of 500 words to the old Life (a Punch-Yike New York humor magazine) for a remarkable 17 cents a word. With his wife’s encouragement he quit his job to write full-time. In his first year he made $96; but within two years he was making a living. He wrote several books for children and his first novel, New Front Line, about a soldier returning home from the war.

“Ann had this idea of going up the coast,” he recalls. “We were looking for a sheltered cove, a sand beach, a stream. We kept checking the papers and then quite by chance we heard of this place. We didn’t even know where Roberts Creek was.” It’s on the Sechelt Peninsula, now only an hour’s ferry ride from Vancouver. In 1927, when the Evanses moved there, it was remote and unpolluted. Evans still lives in the house that he built by the ocean. From his front window he looks out on the marine traffic and remembers being part of it during the Depression.

His American writing markets disappeared in those years and Evans turned to commercial fishing, in the summers for eight years. Living with Ann and

their three children on his converted rum-runner, he fished around Hornby and Lasqueti islands.

In 1945 Evans again went north, this time so Ann could open a one-room schoolhouse for Indian children who had been without a teacher for several years. Out of that came two books: North to the Unknown, a biography of explorer David Thompson, and Mist on

the River, a moving portrayal of the Gitkshan Indians he and Ann had known for years.

Evans was 62 when Mist was published. A few years later, in 1960, Ann died. There would be no more major works until 0 Time in Your Flight. But he did publish Whittlings and Endings, two volumes of poems he calls “winnowings of a long life.” “These poems are excellent for a man of any age,” wrote fellow poet Earle Birney. As Evans talks today about the way society has changed since he was a boy, he recites from his poems to illustrate his despair of wastefulness, of cruelty, the certainty that an apocalyptic accounting will be rendered, and his belief that his own spirit will never be erased: The echoes of my words repeat themselves/What was done—is done./There is no oblivion/Nor any absolution.

Nevertheless, Evans is an optimist: “Man will survive somehow.” His own plans are as always to write—another novel about an old man who has knocked about a bit. “I have the main character but he’s two-dimensional. I can’t make him jump through the hoops yet. I’ll have to live with him for a while. If the Lord supplies the steam, I’ll do the work.”1^