Sunday, October 27, 2013

Three reasons why I hate Vancouver

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You knew it was coming. And now, having been here almost 24 hours, I stand ready to deliver. Why do I hate Vancouver? The first reason is the Seawall that encircles Stanley Park. Today is nothing but sunshine here and of course we went walking along that wall. Yes, in T.O. we have the boardwalk in the Beach, and you can spot me there on any given day, either walking or cycling. But here we have greater potential distance, and you can see freighters standing out to sea, and beyond the horizon, well, to me that looks like the magic of the Orient. Doesn't everybody who lives in not-Vancouver hate the Seawall?
Reason two is the SkyTrain. We saw it whizzing joyously past as we rolled into Van on VIA-Rail’s Canadian, and immediately I felt my gorge rise. The SkyTrain is a light rapid transit system featuring 70 km of track, spectacular views of the city, and 95% on-time reliability. It is precisely what we need in Toronto, but cannot have because of what we did to ourselves at the last municipal election. You know it, I know it, the whole world knows it.
The third reason I hate Van, where once UBC granted me an MFA, is that it marks the end of the line for The VIA-Rail, 50 Canadians, Ocean-to-Ocean, Book-Tour Extravaganza. We’ve spent the past couple of weeks crossing the country on Train # 1, getting on and off to promote 50 Canadians Who Changed the World, staying at historic railway hotels (at present the magnificent the Hotel Vancouver), beating the drum for a contest that could win you a $5,000 travel voucher, and generally enjoying the trip of a lifetime . . . and arriving in Van marks the beginning of the end? Of course that makes me bilious.
But wait: we’re here for a few days more. That photo above? Our Hero ankle deep in the Pacific? That’s just one ocean. We're talking ocean-to-ocean, remember? The Atlantic is yet to come. Vancouver-lovers, as you were.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Jasper marks the spot where the railway meets Canada's most spectacular drive


Jasper has had a 40-foot Haida totem pole since 1915.  The original Raven Totem arrived four years after the railway, and ten years before the train station in which I sit.  I know these things because we contrived to spend a couple of hours rambling around Jasper after driving here from Banff.
Yes , the Icefields Parkway through the Canadian Rockies offers Canada’s most spectacular drive: Lake Louise, Bow Lake, Saskatchewan Crossing, the Columbia Icefields, Athabasca Glacier, and towering mountain ranges all the way.
It didn’t hurt that we had memories, having once spent a summer on Mount Sarbach working as fire lookouts. We used to scramble around the side of the mountain to sit looking out over Howse Pass, where in 1807 David Thompson went mapping. 
But the Haida totem in Jasper: By 2009, it was showing its age and had to be removed. Two contemporary Haida carvers went to work, and in 2011, up went the new pole pictured here: the Two Brothers Totem Pole.
Steel rails had reached this picturesque town 100 years before. The Canadian Northern and the Grand Trunk ran competing lines from Edmonton. Both railways collapsed after the onset of the First World War and the opening of the Panama Canal.  From their ashes, the federal government forged the Canadian National Railway, and then, in 1925, erected what is now the Jasper Heritage Railway Station.  You can see it above, in Sheena's photo . . . but surely the old steam engine deserves pride of place? Today, of course, VIA-Rail runs the only passenger trains through here. And I can't help myself, because I think it's terrific: along with HarperCollins Canada, VIA-Rail is offering Canadians a chance to win a $5,000 travel voucher that could get you out onto these very rails.  Check it out by clicking here.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

In praise of the Banff Springs Hotel . . . .

 
And so we arrived at the Banff Springs Hotel.
Yes, there are other contenders. But for me, this is it: the flagship of Canada’s fleet of historical railway hotels. From our window, we can see a statue of William Cornelius Van Horne, the visionary who built both the CPR and, not incidentally, this extravagant hotel. The four black-and-white photographs that adorn the walls of our room memorialize the 1939 visit of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth.
But whole books have been written about the Fairmont Banff Springs, as it is properly called, detailing its history, its celebrities, its amenities. I will mention only the 32-metre pool, the attendant outdoor pool, which is heated, and finally the hot pool. These brought back memories that need not detain us.
However, I must put in a word for the gondola ride to the top of Sulphur Mountain. It’s pricey, $35 a head, but when you reach the top, you discover marvelous views of Banff and surrounding mountain ranges, and you get to hike a splendid boardwalk to the Eagle’s Eyrie, a stone-built weather observatory built in 1903. It’s like walking into your own IMAX movie, complete with 3D mountain goats, and you're live.



Our Hero regrets omitting Mordecai Richler

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I omitted Mordecai Richler from 50 Canadians Who Changed the World. Now I am sorry. I realize that I was wrong.  At a recent promotional event, someone asked me, “Have you discovered any omissions during this trip across Canada? Anyone you feel you should have included but did not?”
At the time, I said no. Now, I would have to say yes.
Mordecai Richler (1931-2001) is the Canadian writer from whom I learned most about writing narrative. Consider only the way he juggles timelines in St. Urbain’s Horseman, Joshua Then and Now,  and Solomon Gursky Was Here.
Richler was a brilliant craftsman. As a novelist, he worked in the great Jewish tradition of Saul Bellow, Norman Mailer, and Philip Roth. But he changed the world by adding a Canadian dimension to that tradition. He changed it, as well, by taking a courageous stand against ethnic nationalism in Quebec, which culminated in his controversial Oh Canada, Oh Quebec.
Somewhere, I have a photo of Mordecai and me sharing a drink at the Palliser Hotel.  Above is a recent shot, taken by Sheena, of the Palliser bar and the table where we sat.
When I write a sequel, call it Another 50 Canadians Who Changed the World, I will write first about Mordecai Richler. 


Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Three reasons why I hate Calgary

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I have learned to hate Calgary for three reasons. And speaking earlier tonight, at Pages on Kensington, I laid them out to an audience of book-lovers.
The first is Naheed Nenshi. We were here when Calgarians elected this brilliant, charismatic leader to a second four-year term. Meanwhile, Toronto has yet to rid itself of a certain Mortifying Blowhard. That alone would be sufficient.
The second reason is Calgary’s C-Train. It’s an LRT system that runs like a dream. It is precisely what Toronto needs out Scarborough way. Instead, the city has opted for a radically inferior and more expensive system. More smart versus stupid.
The third reason is the public swimming pools. Here in Calgary, they are everywhere. They are clean and they are half empty. Swimming in Toronto is like something out of The Hunger Games.
Nenshi, the C-Train, the amenities. All hard to forgive. On the other hand, the Herald ran that intelligent piece. The CBC Homestretch did a great interview. And I saw lots of friendly faces at Pages on Kensington.
And then I saw a few more at the Fairmont Palliser Hotel. This Edwardian edifice opened in 1914, and is named after Captain John Palliser, who explored the Canadian west in the late 1850s.  The Palliser, as it was called originally, was the brainchild of William Van Horne, general manager of the Canadian Pacific Railway. “If we can’t export the scenery,” he declared, “we’ll import the tourists.” Somewhere, I have a photo of me and Mordecai Richler, sharing a drink in the bar.  My hatred is not unmitigated.
(The photographer here is Sheena Fraser McGoogan.)


Monday, October 21, 2013

Calgary set to join ocean-to-ocean, 50 Canadians extravaganza


 

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Great to see this article turn up in today's Calgary Herald. Looks like my old home town is ready. I'll be at Pages on Kensington Tuesday evening, at Global TV on Wednesday morning, and then at Cafe Books in Canmore that evening.

By Eric Vollmers, Calgary Herald
Pride is a peculiar thing.
It is clear to author Ken McGoogan as he travels Canada by rail that while we may still struggle with our infamous inferiority complex on a national level, regional pride is alive and well.
McGoogan is travelling from coast to coast promoting 50 Canadians Who Changed the World, his latest historical book that should challenge our infamous modesty.
“I learned that a long time ago when I worked at the Toronto Star as a young reporter,” says McGoogan, from a tour stop in Saskatoon. “The Toronto Star is famously obsessive. If there’s an earthquake in India, what does it mean for metropolitan Toronto? Was there a Torontonian involved? That was beat into me early. People like to hear about themselves, read about their own. It’s just a human thing. It’s true in Winnipeg, true in Saskatoon and I’m sure it’s going to be true across the country.”
So one of the handy bonuses in publicizing this book, other than being able to travel the country by rail, is that different cities tend to focus on different characters McGoogan has profiled depending on geography.
Albertans can rejoice that Edmonton-born luminaries such as philosopher Marshall McLuhan and activist/actor Michael J. Fox are included. We can also beam with pride when reading about the tremendous contributions to computer-aided architecture made by Calgary-born Douglas Cardinal. In a pinch, we can also lay claim to iconic singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell, who was born in and then quickly vacated Fort Macleod.
But McGoogan, who has lived in cities across the country and was Calgary Herald books editor from 1979 to 1999, is obviously after a more communal, Canada-wide love-in for the book. In the Table of Contents, he doesn’t even name those the chapters are dedicated to, hoping to dissuade that reader temptation to simply skip to the names they have heard of.
“I didn’t want it to be a list,” he says. “You have to actually go into the book. I wanted people to get into the book and wrestle with the Canadians themselves.”
Which is not to say that the book is full of obscure figures. But McGoogan wanted them to be modern — no Sir John A. MacDonalds or Norman Bethunes or anyone else one born before 1900 — and to be recognized abroad for their contributions. . . .
To read the rest of this GREAT PIECE, click here.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

This castle on the river is a Canadian landmark

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Which grand railway hotel turns up on an album cover? Answer: the Delta Bessborough, a Saskatoon landmark known as The Bezz.
The album is Clouds by Joni Mitchell, who grew up in this town on the South Saskatchewan River. She painted a self-portrait for the cover, and there, in the upper right-hand corner, we discover Saskatoon's castle.
This hotel is worth celebrating. It arose out of burning envy. When the Canadian Pacific Railway built a grand hotel in Regina in 1926, the burghers of Saskatoon lobbied the Canadian National Railway to respond in kind. In exchange for building a chateau-style hotel of at least 200 rooms (in the end: 225), the city exempted CN from paying property tax for 25 years. 
 The Bessborough, completed in 1933, was one of the most luxurious hotels in Canada. It still qualifies as “grand.” We lucked into a view over the five-acre gardens and the South Saskatchewan River and all I can say is that I’ve looked at life from both sides now, and traveling VIA-Rail with 50 Canadians Who Changed the World is for me the only way to go. Judging from the way our contest is going, a lot of Canadians share the same view.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Saskatoon Global TV: 4 minutes, 50 Canadians, and $5K can be yours

Turns out Saskatoon IS ready for me. This morning, 7:45 a.m. at Global Morning TV, host Kevin Stanfield got Our Hero talking. Cutting-edge Canada, 50 Canadians, almost 40 per cent women, Joni Mitchell of course, Margaret Atwood, Leonard Cohen, the VIA-Rail ocean-to-ocean book-tour extravaganza, the train ride itself, the easy-to-enter contest that can win you a $5,000 travel voucher. Here's a link to the 4-minute broadcast. Did we miss anything? Oh, here's that contest link. Now, if only Our Hero would learn to sit up straight. . . .

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Countess of Dufferin evokes the glory days of Winnipeg


Meet the Countess of Dufferin.
We did so today at the Winnipeg Railway Museum.
Built in 1872, and named after the wife of the Earl of Dufferin, Canada’s third governor-general, she was the first locomotive to operate in the Canadian prairies.
She arrived in Canada in 1877 and served for more than 30 years. In 1992, through the cooperation of CP Rail, CN Rail and VIA Rail, she moved to her permanent home on Track 1 in Winnipeg’s Union Station.
The museum is inside the Station, where it occupies 37,500 square feet. This I learned from Doug Bell, president of the Midwest Railway Association, a nonprofit organization that runs the place.
The Countess belongs to the glory days of Winnipeg. In 1881, with a population of 12,000, the city was a contender: third-fastest-growing in North America, after only New York and Chicago. 
In the early 1900s, railroaders hired the same architects for Winnipeg and New York. They built Union Station (1911), visible from our room in the Fort Garry Hotel (1913), as a prototype for Grand Central Station (1914).
Winnipeg was bound for greatness.  What happened? In 1914, the opening of the Panama Canal transformed shipping and devastated railways and railway centres throughout North America.
(Photos: Sheena Fraser McGoogan. Behind the VIA-Rail Station, the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, opening in 2014).


Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Ten thumbs up at Canada's History


We had ten thumbs up at Canada’s History magazine.
But that classic photo ended up on someone else’s camera.
Here, as you can see, we registered four.
Mark Reid, editor of Canada’s History, and Our Hero are signaling joy and satisfaction. Today’s the day The Book turns up in bookstores: Oct. 15 = Pub Date for 50 Canadians Who Changed the World. Yes, we’re still in Winnipeg.  Speaking of Canada's History, it rightly alleges
here that we’re heading for McNally-Robinson tomorrow night.  7 pm. A similar tale emerged from CTV Morning Live, where Our Hero talked with Kris Laudien. Later, would you believe we crossed paths at the Winnipeg Art Gallery?

Monday, October 14, 2013

Fort Garry Hotel works contest magic for 50 Canadians


You’ve got to love the magic of Canada’s grand railway hotels.
Soon after we checked into the Fort Garry here in Winnipeg, the first such hotel on our list, we discovered a fantastic contest announcement in the Globe and Mail.
This year marks the 100th anniversary of this hotel, which was built in the chateau style of architecture that turns up in Ottawa’s Chateau Laurier and New York City’s Plaza Hotel. The Grand Trunk Railway decided to build the Fort Garry in1911, near the junction of its east and west lines (Union Station), and finished the job in 1913. (Photos here by Sheena.)
From our window on the ninth floor, we have a clear view of Union Station and of the original stone gate to Upper Fort Garry, built in the 1850s by the HBC. But this location has exploration history dating back to La Verendrye and the 1730s.
The best news is that Winnipeg is turning that Gate into the entrance to an interpretive centre, now visibly under construction. Or, no, the best news is the contest announcement that caught up with us here. We’re travelling across Canada by VIA-Rail in celebration of 50 Canadians Who Changed the World. Yes, we’re having a blast. But you could enjoy a similar trip if you win the $5,000 travel credit available as top prize. Is that magic or what? Check out www.50Canadians.ca. All aboard!


Notes from an upper bunk while rocketing towards Winnipeg

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At Hornepayne, while the train took on fresh water, we got out, strolled around, took photos of ourselves with The Canadian (21 cars) and also of the old brick train station, its boarded windows decorated with art. At Longlac, a site well-known to fur-trade voyageurs of the 18th and 19th centuries, we rocketed beneath an overpass. Apparently the road overhead, Highway 17, constitutes an extension of Toronto’s Yonge Street, the street formerly known as the longest in the world.
Night has fallen and I write from my upper bunk. Tomorrow morning, we arrive in Winnipeg, our first destination. Surely this is the best way to cross the country, no security checks, no heavy-lidded driving, just rocking and rolling, well fed and watered, along the route that Sandford Fleming surveyed and championed some fifteen decades ago.
We are in a “Cabin F” and about that I will offer some unsolicited advice. If you get to choose from among cabins A to F, choose Cabin F: it is slightly larger than the others, and has a neighbor on one side only.
What, you want more? If you seek extra space, or are uncertain about bunk beds, you can select either a cabin for three or else two adjoining cabins. Some of these sleepers, notably the Fs, can open up and double your space.
More tips, you want? Check out the “Park Car” as soon as possible. It is located at the rear of the train, and is the deluxe version of four or five dome cars. You already know about dome cars: nothing beats looking out as the scenery rolls past: the autumn leaves a blaze of color and the sun going down beyond the far side of a vast lonely lake.
[Oct. 15, CTV Morning Live, 8:15 am; Oct. 16, McNally Robinson, 7 pm]

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Departure Day: Ocean-to-Ocean with 50 Canadians

Later today, Sheena and I embark on a VIA-Rail journey that will extend from ocean to ocean, Pacific to Atlantic, Toronto to Vancouver to Halifax. The above photo, shot a couple of weeks back, finds us on the east coast of Orkney with the North Sea behind us. But the North Sea adjoins the Atlantic, and that is good enough for me.  Besides, the alternative was an image of our departure point, the construction zone that is
Toronto's Union Station. So I opted for metaphorical truth.
As you can see, our bags are packed and, oh look, how did that get there? We're heading out across the country to promote 50 Canadians Who Changed the World, which will start turning up in bookstores next week. Yes, Alice Munro is in the book. So are David Suzuki, Naomi Klein, Marshall McLuhan, Irshad Manji, Wayne Gretzky, Samantha Nutt, and a host of other Canadian world-beaters. We're talking cutting-edge Canada. And we're on our way.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Alice Munro, the Toronto Star, and the bookshop ghettos of Canadiana

We were moving in the same direction. Today's lead editorial in the Toronto Star noted that "as Thomas Hardy did with Dorset, and William Faulkner did with Yoknapatawpha County, [Alice] Munro chronicled and mythologized her corner of southwestern Ontario." In 50 Canadians Who Changed the World, coming next week, I put it this way:"When readers contemplate Jane Austen, Thomas Hardy, or William Faulkner, they think of the fictional countries those writers created -- Jane Austen Country, Thomas Hardy Country, Yoknapatawpha County -- and how sojourning in these various worlds has changed the way we experience our own lives. To suggest that Alice Munro has done the same by creating a distinct and recognizable 'Munro Country' is not just plausible, but irrefutable."
But then the Star took what I view as a wrong turn: "When [Munro] began publishing in the late 1960s 'Canadian literature' barely existed, or was hived off in the bookshop ghettos of 'Canadiana.' Now the Atwoods, Ondaatjes, Martels and so many others win international prizes and take Canadian writing around the world."
I would suggest that the 'hiving off' and the global recognition are unrelated. No, I would go further.  I would argue that Canadian writers have achieved international acclaim DESPITE their disappearance as an identifiable collectivity from the shelves of Canadian bookstores.
Not long ago, I visited the main Waterstone's bookstore in Edinburgh. One entire wall -- one long wall, floor to ceiling -- is devoted to Scottish books: fiction, biography, history, travel, children's, crime, you name it. Yes, it sells books. And it serves additionally as an assertion of national identity: we are here!
A short while later, in Dublin, I visited the Eason bookstore in O'Connell Street. This time, I found one long wall, floor to ceiling, offering Irish books: fiction, biography, history, travel, children's, crime . . . . it's glorious.
Here in Canada, we went wrong when we moved away from devoting sections and walls to Canadian books. Yes, Canadian writers were complicit in this. Apparently, we needed to prove that we could stand with the best in the world. Well, now, surely, we have done that, and we can stop acting out this national inferiority complex. Let's admit that we made a mistake and bring back the bookshop ghetto. Bring back Canadiana.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Chasing history around Ireland

Celtic Life International. In the latest issue, Fall 2013, we find Our Hero straying off the beaten track. . . .
We got lost in the dirt roads north of Clonakilty. We were looking for the spot where Michael Collins got ambushed. According to historian Tim Pat Coogan, Collins was  “the man who made Ireland.”

  In “Clon” itself, as they call it, a busy town 330 km southwest of Dublin, we had seen the house where, as a boy, Collins lived with one of his sisters. We had admired the larger-than-life statue of the legendary figure. And we had followed the signs to nearby Woodfield and explored the site of the family homestead.
 But as evening fell we headed north towards Beal na Mblath, roughly along the route Collins followed in August 1922. The movie Michael Collins, starring Liam Neeson, made that final journey look easy enough. We had a Google Maps printout: how hard could it be? . . .
 . . . Finally, we spotted it: the white stone cross that marks the spot where Collins died. As we stood there, alone in the evening, I realized that this would be a highlight of our driving adventure in Ireland. Looking back, I can not only confirm that, but add that most of our peak moments arose when we strayed off the beaten track.
Yes, we got lost. We got lost in Kinsale, looking for a stone chair. We got lost hunting the birthplace of the Irish saint who founded the monastery at Iona in Scotland, and then again, seeking the lakeside castle that, late in the 16th century, served as a base for pirate queen Grace O’Malley.
But when we did reach our various destinations, we would find ourselves alone: no tour buses, no hordes of souvenir-hunters. With the Irish “Gathering” already in full swing, and more than 300,000 people expected to visit in Ireland this year, some travellers may yet be looking for that more private experience. In our “hire car,” we drove 2,200 kilometres in three weeks and got lost half a dozen times. But we would repeat this journey in a heartbeat. (To read the rest, check the nearest magazine outlet or else www.celticlife.com)

Monday, October 7, 2013

How 3 Canadians spirited the '60s into the 21st century

Our Hero surfaces in the latest issue of Destinations drawing on what he learned while writing 50 Canadians Who Changed the World. The magazine, published by VIA Rail, turned up this delightful image of Leonard and Joni. And it makes intriguing mention of your chance to win a $5,000 travel credit with VIA Rail. I'll keep you posted. Meanwhile, here's how the article begins . . . .


New York City. A thirty-three-year-old Montrealer took up residence in the Chelsea Hotel on West 23rd Street and began crooning his poetry to anybody who would listen. His name: Leonard Cohen.
A few blocks south of the Chelsea, in Greenwich Village, a young Saskatchewan woman who had recently fled a broken marriage was paying the rent by singing songs in the folk clubs where Bob Dylan once played. She called herself Joni Mitchell.
 A one-day train ride to the north, in Montreal, a twenty-eight-year-old academic from the Ontario wilds was revising her first novel while teaching two courses at Sir George Williams University. This was Margaret Atwood.
These three Canadians, who grew up in Montreal, Saskatoon, and Toronto, would emerge from the ferment of the 1960s to forge global reputations as ground-breaking artists. The three would become friends. For a few months, two of them, Cohen and Mitchell, would be lovers.
But what, beyond personal interactions, do these three have in common? I found myself wondering about that as I researched them for 50 Canadians Who Changed the World. And it occurred to me that Cohen, Mitchell, and Atwood, shaped by the Zeitgeist of the 1960s, have never ceased to champion the countercultural values of that decade.
[For the rest, pick up the September/October issue of Destinations.]

Friday, October 4, 2013

The VIA-Rail, Cross-Canada, Ocean-to-Ocean, Book-Tour Extravaganza



A friend suggested that, for the first leg of the trip, Toronto to Winnipeg, I might prefer to travel by air.  I said, what? Disrupt the integrity of the train journey? This is an all-rail, cross-country, ocean-to-ocean, book-tour extravaganza. This is Jack McClelland on steroids. This is celebrating cutting-edge Canada, as revealed in 50 Canadians Who Changed the World, while following in the footsteps of those who created a nation by mapping a wilderness and running steel rails across it. Call me old-fashioned, but I wouldn’t miss this for the world.
The itinerary runs Toronto to Vancouver and the Pacific Ocean; then Toronto to Halifax and the Atlantic.
Main events include the following. Maybe I'll see you at one of them
Winnipeg, Oct. 16: McNally Robinson.
Saskatoon, Oct. 20: McNally Robinson.
Calgary, Oct. 22: Pages on Kensington.
Canmore, Oct. 23: Café Books.
Vancouver, Oct 29: University of British Columbia.
Toronto, Nov. 7: Dora Keogh / Ben McNally Books.
Ottawa: Nov. 8: Books on Beechwood.
Montreal: Nov. 10: Paragraphe Books & Breakfast
Halifax (Dartmouth): Nov. 11: Alderney Gate Library

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Our Hero says goodbye to the magic of Orkney

Our Hero says goodbye to the statue of John Rae, erected in the heart of Stromness on Sept. 30, 2013 to mark the explorer's 200th birthday. Yes, Rae lives on in the hearts of many. This statute will be the first thing you see when you get off the ferry from mainland Scotland, which is a great way to arrive.

Stromness offers plenty of excellent accommodation, but we recommend The Shed, run by Kathleen Ireland. It's cosy, self-catering, chock-a-block with amenities, and shows what a brilliant architect can do with a modest amount of space. (kathleenireland@btinternet.com) As for the extraordinary, 3-day conference on Rae, it ended last night with a banquet at the Stromness Hotel. The climactic event of the evening was a performance by renowned musician Jennifer Wrigley, who played what was once John Rae's fiddle. That moment I would characterize with a single word: magic.