Travels by Night by George Fetherling

As a preview of our First Spring Launch, Quattro would like to share an excerpt from Travels by Night: a memoir by George Fetherling.

“I checked into the YMCA on 20th Street where a friend of mine lived who was talking about launching a little magazine (as with so many literary magazines, one would only need the premiere issue in order to have a complete run). There was barely space in his room for the iron bed and the chest of drawers with cigarette burns all round the edge, much less for the portrait busts he’d been making. I found the Y a loudly congenial place, as it was about to go off, pending the day when methadone users would outnumber Methodists. At twenty-one dollars a week, however, the rent was more than I could afford. When one of the reporters at the Intel left town, I was able to assume her spot in a communal apartment in the old flat-iron building at Main and South Streets, between the newsroom and the cavernous railway freight sheds by the river. Five of us lived there for what one or two persons might have expected to pay for other accommodations of equivalent squalor. A determining factor in the price was the way that one could reach the place only by passing through the premises of the business that occupied the ground floor. The establishment was called the Stark Artificial Limb Company. We had latchkeys and at night would grope our way across the showroom in the dark, bumping wooden legs and other such prostheses.

I marvel now at how busy I was and to so little purpose. No doubt it was partly to put emotional distance between Mother and myself that I ran everywhere and took part in everything, though beneath the desperation, I believe, was a real sense of joy at being able to indulge an appetite for experience. The war dominated the news and reaction to it was becoming the central element in the arts, whether boldly stated or not, and I entered into a stage, lasting perhaps a dozen years, when I felt completely attuned to the rhythms of the popular culture even though I was not a direct consumer of its goods. All through that period, for example, I never had a stereo or even a radio but knew all of the music intimately, as though some generational organ inside me had sucked it in from the atmosphere and drawn it through my pores. Looking back, I seem to have been balanced on the moment, living in past and present alike, nocturnally and in daylight. I was sick, frightened and disgusted most of the time, but strangely I was never more open to experience.”

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“In those days Greenwich Village was still a flourishing enterprise, though it had taken a rough turn. Walking up and down, huddled inside a reefer coat from the army surplus store, you got somewhat the same feeling you get in England, the sense that history lies in layers beneath your feet. The past was almost tactile but it wasn’t real. What set it apart was its improbable innocence. Whether you looked at the residue of the First World War generation of writers or the atmosphere that Dylan had bequeathed to his folksinging friends in 1963 or so, you couldn’t help being brought up short by the lightness and optimism that had vanished somehow, been killed off by the new realities. One of these was the occupation of the East Village. It didn’t have the same artistic history – until relatively recently it had been part of the Lower East Side of Italian and Jewish immigrants – and there was nothing to give it the hard centre of cultural humanism so apparent in the other, which people were beginning to call the West Village. The New Wave was under way there. You could see it in the rejection of gentleness and in the violence that informed the happenings, the light shows and most of all the street life.

I had a routine because I had a mission. Each morning, before the lack of sleep disabled me, I would ascend Fifth Avenue to the main public library at Forty-second Street and study the Canadiana there. It wasn’t all in one place but it amounted to an extraordinary collection. Since the day Mary Tominack first put the notion of Canada in my head, I had been subscribing to Canadian periodicals and through Jasmine [Erskine]’s example monitoring the CBC. In time I got to the point of maintaining a correspondence with a few Canadian writers. Now, sitting in the library, sometimes taking pills to help me stay awake in the impossibly overheated reading room, I deepened my commitment to learning Canadian politics, economics, culture – the works. The abiding tradition of anti-Americanism always present deep down in the public if not always pursued by cowardly governments, was one I found especially attractive, though I was careful not to let my own enthusiasm shape my curriculum. For the only time in my life, I was a serious pupil in addition to being a good student.”

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“Anansi was small in sales but big in its goals. Its main ambition, as seemed obvious even then, was to publish its own people, the ones engaged in the expression of a new Canadian, reality, urban, politically savvy and ‘freewheeling’ (Dennis [Lee]’s favourite word at the moment), and propel them into the mainstream. The place seemed haphazardly run, with erratic schedules, inconsistent design, almost non-existent promotion. Yet we were the new attractions at the zoo, drawing large crowds, and the media had to pay close attention even though they had never seen such animals before. Incredible though this may sound today, the big newspapers rushed to do full-page stories on us.

A few other small presses on the scene were engaged in interesting publishing too. Talonbooks was in the process of emerging from Talon, the little magazine, and there was another Vancouver press of some importance: Very Stone House, which the poets Patrick Lane and Seymour Mayne had started in 1966. But Very Stone House tapered off after a while, as Pat roamed restlessly around the country, haunted in some measure, I think, by the tragically early death of his elder brother, the poet Red Lane. Towards the end, the Very Stone House publications were chapbooks or folded broadsides under the imprint Very Stone House in Transit, put out from wherever Pat happened to be – logging in B.C. somewhere or hunting in the Rockies.

The most important underground press prior to Anansi had started in 1965 when Stan Bevington and a number of others opened Coach House Press in Toronto, on Bathurst Street below Dundas in a perfectly nice slum, which an overly officious government later razed for a park. One approached the eponymous coach house by navigating a muddy little alley running beside a deserted building that had once been a locksmith’s shop. Bevington, a printer, had red hair and wore a big beard, and was friendly in a slow-moving non-specific way – and equally so to everyone. His interest was in handsetting type and keeping his old Linotype in operating condition. The Coach House logo, then and later, was a cast-iron platen press with an enormous fly-wheel, and in those days he actually printed on the press from which the image had been made. Later, in the 1970s, Bevington made a complete volte-face, suddenly abandoning the traditions of the craft for the vanguard of computer-generated graphic arts. The switch was probably coincidental to the emergence of Coach House as one of the primary institutions of what would later be prevailing orthodoxy, but the two events were parallel in time.”

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Don’t miss the launch of this and other exciting Quattro Books titles at our First Spring Launch on Thursday, April 24, 2014 at Supermarket Restaurant, beginning at 7:30 pm.Visit the Events section of our website for more information.

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