Whiskey with Al Neil in the Blue Cabin in 1971

(from a longer piece that appeared in Geist 57 in the summer of 2005 )

. . . . 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 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 weighted 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 the sky that moved”; eventually he was billetted in Nijmegan, 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 Baederbecke, 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 Nijmegan 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 (in 2004) 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 Geist 57

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