Curt Lang: World's Edge
From At the World’s Edge: Curt Lang’s Vancouver 1937–1998, published by Mother Tongue in 2011.
Curt, Al and Jim converged on Montreal in October 1955. Curt, who hitchhiked, arrived first. He showed up on Irving Layton’s doorstep, introduced himself as a poet from British Columbia and wangled a place to stay. “I would never have had the nerve,” said Jim. Then Al came, having spent a few days visiting his mother in Ontario, and Jim, who rode the bus (through the United States since the Trans-Canada Highway was not yet built).
Their grand tour of Europe was about to start. The three men had saved for a year to afford the trip. Al had tried to persuade Doug Kaye to join them, saying, “Doug, we’re not getting any younger, you know.” Doug, now eighty-four, chuckled as he told me that. “I didn’t want to go,” he said.
After a short visit in Montreal, the friends crossed from Montreal to Le Havre on the creaky Ascania, a Cunard liner. The Ascania was truly at the end of its life; it was scrapped after this voyage. The passage was rough. At night, the rolling vessel bashed them into the walls of their cabin, and their arms, still aching from recent inoculations against diphtheria and smallpox, throbbed with pain. In other respects, the week at sea was boring. According to Jim, “It was a British ship and old ladies organized sing-songs on the deck—‘Knees up Mother Brown.’”
Curt, Al and Jim had made no prior arrangements about where to stay in Paris, but they found a hostel near Place Pigalle. This was the heart of Paris’s red-light district—made famous by nightclubs like the venerable Le Moulin Rouge, which opened in 1889, the year the Eiffel Tower was completed. In the past, many artists had lived in the area—Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, whose prints immortalized it, but also Pablo Picasso, Pierre-Auguste Renoir (who waited on tables here in his youth), Edgar Degas, Maurice Utrillo. Curt’s impressions inspired his poem “Paris 55.”
After some time in Paris, the trio went south to visit Gary Ness, a painter they knew from Vancouver. He was living in a ruined church in Chémery. When Ness decide to return to Paris, Al went along, to help carry Gary’s paintings. Curt and Jim did not see Al in Europe again. Though they had been planning the trip with great anticipation, their relations had turned rancorous.
After Curt and Jim toured the rest of Spain (visiting many gypsy nightclubs along the way), they returned to France. Curt’s brother, Greg Lang, lent me a diary which Curt started on this trip. A brown and battered, water-stained volume stamped, “Richardson and Co., 176 Charing Cross Road,” it smelled musty. The first entry is from Saturday, March 23, 1956, when Curt was back in Paris. It was raining slightly that day, a bit sombre. Curt wrote: “The past is always so alive. It encroaches like a green tide on every hour and day, breeding a sadness in everything. A summer sun reminds me of lost summer suns, the rain of misspent days.” Two days later: “All the usual discontents and doubts banging around inside.” But not everything was lost—at least not yet: “I went into the street wearing sandals and very proud to see them covertly admired.”
By early April, Curt and Jim were in England. Then Jim returned to the continent while Curt stayed on in London. Curt met a woman—Adrienne, a waitress in a restaurant called the Stock Pot. When he first saw her, she was wearing an attractive black dress and had her hair wound in a thick plait. Curt wrote: “It is not that fable of love one hears of, but I like her, am a little content with her, her face fascinates me endlessly, she is passionate and entirely womanly, and needs my help. Why not her?” In a letter to Curt, Al commented: “Your Adrienne sounds attractive. I mean a person that dreams such dreams…” Jim told me that she was very nice—blonde and plump. She was also pregnant—although Curt was not the father of the baby.
On April 26, Curt wrote: “Still no money, porridge and poverty.” The prospects of escaping grinding destitution seemed better in Canada. Britain was slowly emerging from its post-war economic slump; rationing only came to an end in 1954. By contrast, Canada was riding a megaproject-fuelled boom, constructing the Trans-Canada Highway, the St. Lawrence Seaway and the TransCanada pipeline from the East to the Leduc oilfields in Alberta.
Curt said goodbye to Adrienne at Euston Station on June 13. As he left her there, he was struck by the expression on her face. “She does care for me, and I for her,” he later wrote in his diary. He boarded a steamer for Montreal.
As the ship ploughed west, Curt contemplated what attracted him to Canada, especially the North Pacific Ocean. He wrote about the coast so alluring to him, his language almost trance-like:
"The Queen Charlotte Islands, cedared, rich, breathing a perfumed wind in long audible sighs. The sea becomes green, the islands are named after Indians as the others are named after Spaniards. The tiny bays have brown clay banks with forest starting up immediately, and birds—crows, gulls, runners, fish hawks—endlessly patrol and crowd the shores. Then farther north to Kamano [Kemano]. A glacier pours into the sea, making it an opaque milky green. The islands are rock-granite, and have no trees. Only a sheathing of ice that glitters all summer long. And finally Prince Rupert where it rains and rains and rains."
But he was also bothered by the idea that he was taking the easy way out, and wrote: “And I? I am becoming safe. No more burning itch of discontent, no more seeing the wall fall down and the weather come in. Where is that beautifully unworldly, reasonless rampaging of my old self?” He needn’t have worried. He was hardly becoming safe.