A Story of Origins

I can’t get London off my mind. After a dazzling opening ceremonies last night that poignantly captured British history and culture, my heart went back to 2009 when I visited the city for the first time.

It was summer of my 3rd year in university. Being an English minor and knowing I wanted to eventually do my Master’s in English Lit, I knew I also couldn’t go further in this field without taking a trip to the birthplace of what I was studying. It may sound silly but I really felt I had to experience the origin of what I loved to love it even more – as if a dark cloud would be hanging over me and my academic future if I didn’t make this trip. I had to go.

I went with so much expectation, hoping to find answers about where I should study for grad school (Canada or England?) and what area I should specialize in (17th century, Romantic, Victorian, or modern literature?) I came back without much clarity on these questions (I’ve learned that when I want a big revelation in life, I don’t get it), but I did come back with a magical summer I like to relive every now and then.

Herstmonceux Castle, England

I studied literature at a castle about 45 min south of London (see pic above) – yes, a castle with sheep baaing out my bedroom window and a Shakespearean garden where I read As You Like ItThe Winter’s Tale, Oliver Twist and Mrs. Dalloway. How much more British can you get? It felt like I was transported into a fairy tale world, or maybe Harry Potter. Not only did I read Shakespeare’s plays but I experienced them in their original form, performed at the Globe theatre in London, where I stood so close to the stage I could see the sweat dripping from the actor’s faces.

front-line view of the Globe Theatre, London

After the six-week program at the Castle was complete, I did my own literary tour through the UK.

With my bucket-list of places to visit that I had only experienced second-hand through books, I traipsed through England, Scotland, and Wales to see places like this first-hand:

Tintern Abbey, Wales

Romantic poet William Wordsworth made this abandoned Cisterian monastery famous in his lyrical poem, “Lines Written a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey.” Did the words ever come alive when I was reading them in the space that inspired them!

How oft, in darkness, and amid the many shapes / Of joyless day-light; when the fretful stir / Unprofitable, and the fever of the world, / Have hung upon the beatings of my heart, / How oft, in spirit, have I turned to thee / O sylvan Wye! Thou wanderer through the woods / How often has my spirit turned to thee!

Overlooking the River Wye, Wales

“While here I stand, not only with the sense of present pleasure, but with pleasing thoughts that in this moment there is life and food for future years.”

Early grey tea and a poem. Couldn’t have been happier

I’m looking back on this trip three years ago and realize there was life and food in it for future years, even though I didn’t see it at the time. I took a course that summer called “Literature and Place” that ended up having a huge influence on my interests in grad school. We took field trips to London to regularly walk the city like a character in a novel, travel the tube, and get to know the city that provides a muse for so many writers.

This London course began in me a fascination with literature and cities that hasn’t ended yet – nor do I want it to. I applied a lot of what I learned in London to my Canadian home context, Vancouver, when I wound up doing grad school (in Canada), and I’m still exploring ideas from the course in my current creative and non-fiction writing. So I guess London hasn’t left me yet, nor left me unchanged . . .

Needless to say, because of this background, I loved the literary references in last night’s ceremonies. Did any part of the long 4-hour ceremony strike a special London memory with you?

Children representing the Great Ormond Street Hospital, the NHS and children’s literature take part in the Opening Ceremony. (Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

Let the Names/Games Begin

Recognize this iconic map?

Take a closer look. Transport for London (TfL) has changed the names of its 361 tube stations into the names of Olympic athletes from all different countries and sports to celebrate the Summer Olympics in London beginning next week.

The map groups athletes along different tube lines according to their sport. Distinctions are given for:

  •  Athletes with five or more medals (e.g. swimmers Michael Phelps and Mark Spitz, track athlete Carl Lewis, gymnast Nadia Comaneci)
  •  Renowned athletes who haven’t won a gold medal (e.g. track athletes Zola Budd and Frankie Fredericks)

    Namibia sprinter Frankie Fredericks

  •  Renowned athletes famous for not winning a medal (boxer Roy Jones Jr, long-distance runner Paula Radcliffe)
  •  Athletes who have starred or featured in films (runners Eric Liddell and Harold Abrahams in Chariots of Fire, boxer Cassius Clay, aka Muhammad Ali in Ali)
  • Athletes without a symbol means they have won at least one gold medal (the majority of names on the map)

Simon Whitfield. Photo by John Ulan.

Canada’s flag-bearer and favourite triathlete Simon Whitfield has a presence on the map. Situated at the top of the teal-coloured Waterloo & City line (formerly “Bank” stop), you’ll find “Simon Whitfield.” This Victoria resident won gold in Sydney 2000 (the first time his sport was featured in the Games) and silver in Beijing 2008. Side note: his come-from behind race in Beijing to capture the silver still gives me goosebumps. I secretly hoped I would run into him (get it?) when I lived in Victoria, but alas, our paths never crossed.

Michael Phelps and Muhammad Ali share the highest honour as marking the two entrances to the Games at Stratford and Stratford International.

So if you’re in London for the Olympics (lucky you), you’ll no doubt find yourself hopping on a name to get to the Games.

And because I love the Olympics and have to show my Canadian pride just a bit,


Wheeling around Art

You know how I talked here about encountering art in places other than museums and art galleries?

The other day, my sister and I had a chance to do this by going on the Art Wheelers bike tour in Vancouver. It was a 2 ½ hour ride stopping at about 15 works of art, beginning in Coal Harbour, passing through Stanley Park, going along English Bay and False Creek, and then ending up in the Olympic Village.

I won’t list all 15 but I’ll share with you some of my favourite pieces.

1. Lightshed. Liz Magor

Location plays a big part in this piece. This ‘wooden’ shed sitting on log pilings in Coal Harbour recalls the area’s maritime history since freight sheds once sat here on wharves. I say ‘wooden’ in quotation marks because although that’s what the material looks like, if you go up to touch it, you’ll find it’s actually made of aluminum – including the barnacles crawling up the posts. According to this article, the artist likes to challenge our assumption of the familiar, not just through an unexpected material but also through the precarious angle of the shed, as if it’s about to collapse. I would love to see this piece at night because apparently a silver light shines from inside it, lighting up the windows. It gives the illusion of habitation even though the out-of-reach doorway means whoever or whatever’s inside remains inaccessible to us.

2. Engagement. Dennis Oppenheim

It’s hard not to notice these gigantic engagement rings standing about 30 feet high in Sunset Beach Park. American sculptor Dennis Oppenheim made them, who also designed this interesting bus station in California. Oppenheim likes to leave his works open to interpretation, and many have interpreted this piece as a political message about same-sex marriage given that both rings are ladies’ rings and they’re situated in the West End, Vancouver’s gay community. The angle of the rings tilting away from each other also speaks to the precarious balance in marriage, but also in any relationship. This piece would be another great one to see illuminated at night, where the ‘diamond’ part of the rings shine.

3. Khenko. Doug Taylor

This kinetic sculpture hanging over the False Creek pathway gets its name from the Coast Salish mythical term for Great Blue Heron. Addressing sustainability, this piece celebrates the return of this bird to the False Creek waterway, which was a main industrial site in the city’s early history. Notice the combination of man-made, heavy mechanical elements and the grace and lightness of the bird that actually flies through this wind-powered device.

4. King and Queen. Sorel Etrog

King and Queen highlights the relationship between man and machinery. King is on the left; Queen is on the right—a regal looking pair sitting in Harbour Green Park. Despite their rigid steel parts, Etrog makes these figures inviting through the curvature of their multiple laps (a favourite for children to climb on) and their humanized features like rivets for eyes. I like the play between the forms’ formality and casualness, just sitting in the park like all the other Vancouverites enjoying the sunny evening.

5. Time Top. Jerry Pethick

This 1940s-style spaceship standing along the False Creek shoreline evokes time travel, as if it just washed up from another world. We saw it at low tide, but depending on the time of day, its bulbous feet can be completely submerged, changing the way we interact with the piece. I’d imagine it could also look like a spinning top bobbing along in the water. This piece literally underwent some ‘time travel’ itself. It was submerged for two years in the ocean by Gibsons, BC, where it was also given a low-level electrical charge to attract sea life to its bronze surface. I love how the colours of Time Top echoed the colour of the water when we were viewing it, blending it with its ‘natural’ environment. Unfortunately the artist passed away before he saw the completed work.

Mapping your way through a book

Looking for a Canadian book that takes place in your region, city, town?

Check out the 49th Shelf, an online interactive map that tags Canadian books to  geographic places. You can even add your own books.

Say you pick up Timothy Taylor’s Stanley Park. Maybe you’ve never been to Vancouver and don’t know where Stanley Park is. You can search for it on the map and it will come up.

Or maybe you’re going on a cross-Canada vacation and want to read books about the regions you’re going to pass through. You know, to “culture” yourself. Zoom in on an area of the map and see the variety of books you have to choose from — fiction, non-fiction, young adult, memoir, cookbooks, mystery – you name it!

Seeing the places you read about makes the text come alive in a new way. It offers orientation, familiarity. As great as maps can be, nothing beats seeing what you’re reading about in person though.

Here’s a passage from Canadian author Anne-Marie MacDonald’s Fall on Your Knees showing a character’s diary entry about New York that really came alive for me because I had just recently been there. I’ve interspersed my own photographs at the appropriate moments in the text to show this spatial/textual relationship. If there’s no photo, well, that means I unfortunately didn’t get around to seeing it this trip (but here’s hoping to going back one day!)

On foot up through the Bowery, the Italian quarter — kids, carts, food, women in black, good-looking guys but don’t let them see you looking, opera verismo —

Greenwich Village, ladies and gentlemen,

Tenderloin — get hungry here, buy a pretzel, have lunch in Hell’s Kitchen – really! Why do they call it that? Seems perfectly nice . .

Up Broadway a bit tipsy – not used to beer –

the golden mile, Union Square,

Madison Square,

Herald Square, past the Met — genuflect —

promenade through Times Square,

Columbus Circle,

buy popcorn for the pigeons to keep them in the statue business (where they perform a valuable civic service by keeping the glorious past in perspective), into the Park,

zigzag through the immense chunk of countryside smack in the middle of the greatest show on earth, past the Pond,

the Lake, the Castle, skip the Reservoir it’s too big and too small, promise to go the Metropolitan Museum next time, Haarlem Meer (sit down and decide I’ve walked far enough) out onto Central Park North, up Lenox thirty-seven blocks to the Haarlem River. It’s night.

From being in NYC myself, I could follow the character’s footsteps through the city and understand the terrain, the proximity of places to one another, and the sights, sounds, and smells when you look around. I’d love to go to London and trace Clarissa Dalloway’s route home along the Strand, or Oliver Twist’s escapades through East London.

What places do you want to visit because of books you’ve read? Which characters’ footsteps would you like to follow?