In Me­mo­riam Al Neil

Geist - - Findings - STEPHEN OS­BORNE

Al Neil was a mu­si­cian who co-founded the fa­mous Cel­lar Jazz Club in Van­cou­ver. He was also a vis­ual and per­for­mance artist and poet. He died in Novem­ber 2017. This piece first ap­peared in Geist No. 57 with the ti­tle “Evic­tions.”

When Mal­colm Lowry’s shack on the beach at Dol­lar­ton, BC, burned to the ground in 1944, he and his wife Mar­jorie were able to save the man­u­script of only one of the nov­els that he was work­ing on at the time. A few months later the same man­u­script had to be res­cued again when the house that friends found for them in Oakville, On­tario, also burned to the ground. The Lowrys re­turned to Dol­lar­ton, which had been an idyl­lic home for them for about five years, and re­built the shack on the beach; Lowry fin­ished his novel be­fore the end of the year. (When it ap­peared in print as Un­der the Vol­cano, it sold, ac­cord­ing to Lowry, pre­cisely two copies in Canada.) And

now the Lowrys, along with the other squat­ters along the beach, mostly fish­er­men and log­gers and their fam­i­lies, had to pre­pare to be evicted from their home to make way for a pub­lic park named for a fam­ily of tug­boat op­er­a­tors. Lowry wrote elo­quently in sev­eral short sto­ries (“The For­est Path to the Spring” is per­haps the best known) against the pro­cesses of evic­tion and land devel­op­ment that were wip­ing out the tiny com­mu­nity that he and his wife had come to love. The vil­lage of Dol­lar­ton, which is about twenty miles north­east of Van­cou­ver, had been named for the owner of a fleet of steamships known for the dol­lar signs painted on their fun­nels. Lowry re­named it Eri­danus (for a river said by Vir­gil to be beloved of poets in the un­der­world), and he called Van­cou­ver Enochville­port (Enoch was one of the sons of Cain); Lowry was a child of Em­pire, and there­fore con­fi­dent in claim­ing oc­cu­pa­tion by map­ping the Old World onto the New, rather than by look­ing at the land it­self and its lo­cal namers, or even its orig­i­nal namers, whose de­scen­dants, mem­bers of the Tsleil-wau­tuth Na­tion, were se­questered on an al­lot­ment bor­der­ing Lowry’s beach (and men­tioned in pass­ing in his sto­ries as “the Re­serve”), and whose evic­tion from that beach sev­eral decades ear­lier had failed to lodge in his imag­i­na­tion.

Some years later, and many years ago, in 1971, when I went to Dol­lar­ton to have a look at Mal­colm Lowry coun­try, a cou­ple of hun­dred squat­ters in Van­cou­ver were liv­ing in a shan­ty­town at the mouth of Stan­ley Park (the evic­tion no­tices and the bull­doz­ers ar­rived a year later); that spring the Queen had come to town to eat din­ner with the navy on Dead­man’s Is­land, which lies at the cen­tre of his­tory in Van­cou­ver, a site of se­rial evic­tions of the liv­ing and the dead, the dis­lodge­ment of a First Na­tions vil­lage and at least one shan­ty­town put to the torch by or­der of the sher­iff’s of­fice. In 1971 I was try­ing to keep com­pany with a woman whose en­raged and dan­ger­ous hus­band had made it im­pos­si­ble for us to pass an af­ter­noon to­gether any­where in safety, when the idea came to me of es­cap­ing for a day to Dol­lar­ton to look for signs of Mal­colm Lowry’s shanty. We set out on a blus­tery day in the rain in a de­crepit Chevro­let bor­rowed from a friend who warned me not let the en­gine cut out, and we drove into the forested coun­try along Dol­lar­ton High­way and tried not to be ner­vous when blue Volk­swa­gens ap­peared on the road (the hus­band, I was told, was driv­ing around in a blue Volk­swa­gen with a loaded ri­fle in the back seat). We had en­tered a long, de­serted stretch of high­way when the rain be­gan to sluice fiercely down onto the wind­shield and a gnomish fig­ure ap­peared at the side of the road draped in a vo­lu­mi­nous hooded pon­cho; as we drew near, a hand emerged from within its folds as if in sup­pli­ca­tion, and I pulled over with a toe on the brake and heel on the gas, and the gnomish fig­ure—i want to say an­cient gnomish fig­ure, for there was some­thing of an­other age about the an­drog­y­nous crea­ture now scut­tling up to the car—opened the back door and fell into the seat in a heap. I let out the clutch and we jerked onto the road and our pas­sen­ger let out a whoop and a chuckle, and when I looked into the rear-view there was a lit­tle man in the back seat hold­ing up a bot­tle of Scotch whiskey. Wouldn’t you say it’s time for a drink, he said, and he passed the bot­tle up and we sipped and drove on in the rain, and he talked on about the pleas­ant­ness of the oc­ca­sion, and I re­call that he sang some­thing as well, and chanted to him­self per­haps more than to us. We be­gan to climb a long hill and the rain let up, and near the crest of the hill, where there was no sign of habi­ta­tion, he said that here was where he lived, and as soon as we came to a halt the en­gine in the Chevro­let sput­tered and died. We helped him un­load the shop­ping bags that he had been car­ry­ing un­der the pon­cho and we saw that he was not as old as we had thought he was: he was prob­a­bly younger than my fa­ther. He lived down, down through the woods, he said, and then he waited while I tried and failed to get the Chevro­let go­ing, and he said that we should come along with him and visit, and he led us into the for­est and down a nar­row path to the sea.

The path down to the beach lay un­der a canopy of enor­mous cedar trees, some of which had been dec­o­rated with bits of junk, and near the shore­line, which was rocky and cov­ered in peb­bles, more bits of junk had been piled up here and there: twisted and rusted pieces of metal, hub­caps, door­knobs, wooden slats, kitchen uten­sils, bro­ken glass, mis­cel­la­neous stuff stuck into frames and propped up on boul­ders. He lived on an old barge that looked as if it had washed up on the beach long ago. We fol­lowed him up a ramp and onto the deck, and into a ram­shackle shady room filled with more mis­cel­la­neous junk, and books and pa­pers and a cou­ple of big masks on the walls, and a guitar or per­haps two guitars,

and flutes and a tam­bourine. I re­mem­bered hav­ing seen a no­tice in an art gallery, or per­haps it was a re­view, and I asked if he might be the artist that I was think­ing of, and he said yes he prob­a­bly was that per­son, whose name was Al Neil: I had seen a mask or per­haps a col­lage in a gallery some­where, and I knew that he was a jazz mu­si­cian of renown, but I don’t re­mem­ber now how I knew that. He brought out the whiskey and some wa­ter and we sat in wicker chairs and looked out over the in­let to the far shore, where the Shell Oil re­fin­ery that Lowry had put into his sto­ries lay in sun­light, for the clouds were break­ing up and the rain had stopped. He said that Mal­colm Lowry had lived just down the beach a lit­tle far­ther east. There was noth­ing that way but stony beach and grassy fore­shore. You don’t need to go over there, he said. It was cool and dark on the barge and there was a wood stove in the room and some kind of sink, and I don’t re­mem­ber if there was wa­ter or if we had to go to a pump some­where to get wa­ter. We drank more whiskey and then we drank some beer that came from the in­ner re­cesses of the shack, and Al Neil played some­thing on one of the guitars and then he per­formed a cou­ple of num­bers with the tam­bourine and the shaker, and then he sat down at a piano that we had not no­ticed tucked away in the gloom and banged out a few chords. We passed an hour, two hours, hid­den away from the world in this strange, per­fect refuge. Even­tu­ally we said good­bye and made our way back through the fierce out­door gallery of objets de refuse, along the path through the tall trees to the car, which started up with no prob­lem, and we drove on to Dol­lar­ton and turned around with­out hav­ing to get out to look for Mal­colm Lowry’s place be­cause now we knew ev­ery­thing we would ever need to know about Eri­danus. We drove back into Enochville­port and weeks passed and then we never saw each other again.

Nine years later in the spring, Al Neil ap­peared in my pub­lish­ing of­fice, wrapped in a green pon­cho and drip­ping wa­ter onto the floor. He had no rec­ol­lec­tion of me. He had a man­u­script in a plas­tic bag un­der the pon­cho. When I read the first sen­tence—“i was good with guns in the sec­ond World War, and not bad with the neat lit­tle Sten ma­chine gun”—i knew that I wanted to pub­lish it. It was a col­lec­tion of mem­oirs, glimpses of a life il­lu­mi­nated by flashes of the war that he had gone to when he was eigh­teen years old and weighed 125 pounds. “On the beach­head in Nor­mandy I picked off a big Luger pis­tol from a dead Ger­man sol­dier ly­ing in a ditch and strapped it around my waist. I ripped off his boots too. They were niftier than mine.” In 1944, the year that Lowry’s shack burned down at Dol­lar­ton, Al Neil had stormed off a land­ing barge dur­ing the Nor­mandy in­va­sion, “into the predawn dark­ness, the sky for miles up and down the beach lit up with flares and thou­sands of rounds of flak from the anti-air­craft bat­ter­ies, the gun­ners shoot­ing like mad­men at any­thing in the sky that moved”; even­tu­ally he was bil­let­ted in Ni­jmegen, Hol­land, where he learned to ride around drunk on a big Nor­ton mo­tor­cy­cle as he waited with the 2nd Divi­sion for the cross­ing of the Rhine and the Bat­tle of Arn­hem, and the fi­nal dis­lodge­ment of the Nazi oc­cu­pa­tion. He was a big jazz man even then, be­mused by Mary of Arn­hem, the pro­pa­ganda broad­caster beam­ing out­dated swing mu­sic at the Al­lies from be­hind Nazi lines while he was read­ing Down­beat mag­a­zine and fol­low­ing the ca­reers of Parker, Monk, Chris­tian and Min­gus in Har­lem, where the be­bop rev­o­lu­tion was un­der way. In “The For­est Path to the Spring,” Lowry’s pro­tag­o­nist is a jazz man liv­ing in a shack by the sea at Eri­danus, dream­ing of Bix Bei­der­becke, who pre­dates even Mary of Arn­hem, as he strug­gles to re­cover to a life; in Hol­land Al Neil was en­deav­our­ing to find a life: “I lost my vir­gin­ity in Hol­land in 1944, I can’t re­mem­ber where or any­thing about it”; he re­mem­bers Rot­ter­dam “and the wartime hook­ers in the bombed out rub­ble of the city, grind­ing and churn­ing, touch­ing and touch­ing and sigh­ing in the flesh­pots.” In Ni­jmegen that win­ter he en­ter­tained chil­dren with Bach and boo­gie woo­gie on the piano. He de­scribes a pho­to­graph taken on St. Ni­cholas Day, De­cem­ber 5, 1944, in the chil­dren’s hospi­tal: “there in the back row, is what ap­pears to be a silly, naïve ju­ve­nile. That’s me, folks.”

Last year I saw a re­view of Al Neil’s work, and gath­ered that he still lives part of the year on the barge on the beach near Dol­lar­ton. He seems to have eluded evic­tion all these years; per­haps he has even eluded other pro­cesses of his­tory. Mal­colm Lowry is re­mem­bered to­day in the chronol­ogy of the Tsleil-wau­tuth Na­tion as a “fa­mous au­thor forced out of his par­adise” fifty years ago on the beach that is still un­ceded ter­ri­tory, and which is also named Whey-ah-wichen: Fac­ing the Wind.

From Ori­gins, an ad­junct pub­li­ca­tion to the ex­hibit Ori­gins: Celtic Se­ries. West­ern Front, 1989.

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