#78 Godiva, Zulu and Nanaimo bars
January 25th, 2017
REVIEW: Hard Knox: Musings from the Edge of Canada
by Jack Knox, Foreword by Ian Ferguson
Victoria: Heritage House, 2016. $19.95 / 9781772031508
Reviewed by Bill Engleson
For almost three decades, Jack Knox of the Victoria Times Colonist has been reporting on, and lampooning, life on the west coast and has now assembled his columns into his first book, Hard Knox: Musings from the Edge of Canada.
Nanaimo-raised Bill Engleson wades in with an appreciative review from Denman Island, his own vantage point on the western edge.
I cracked open Jack Knox’s Hard Knox: Musings from the Edge of Canada on the coldest day of 2016 on Denman Island, alarmed at the baby blanket of snow on the ground near my front gate. You see, though I was born in British Columbia, I am snow-sensitive. This is Denman Island, not Baffin Island. It doesn’t take much to snow me.
The next morning, as I made ready to read on, I forgot to put the coffee pot on the element and some of the fair trade organic coffee grounds overflowed onto my almond-chocolate croissant. My west coast tragedies were mounting.
Despite these missteps I knew that I was in good hands with Jack Knox. This charmed Vancouver Island satirist seems to know me even better than I know myself.
And I seem to know Knox. I believe he might adhere to the credo, famously espoused by the late Art Buchwald, the American humourist and Pulitzer Prize winner, that “You can’t make anything up anymore. The world itself is a satire. All you are doing is recording it.”
And does Knox record it. He explores the full arena of Island and west coast oddities, fetishes, and rituals. He charts, with a deskbound meteorologist’s precision, the vagaries of coastal weather. He is a weatherman intruding into the happy unpredictability of west coasters. No local peccadillo, imagined or real, escapes the anthropological notebook of this latter-day Franz Boas.
Or maybe I should observe that the entrepreneurial spirit of Robert Dunsmuir has inhabited him. He takes random chunks of cultural coal and, applying gentle pressure, turns them into gems and retrieves them from geological time. “No pressure, no diamonds,” as Thomas Carlyle put it.
Even as Knox fires his jokes at you, and about you, as if he is salting a coal mine, he is a delightfully funny fellow — as well as a self-described grump — from whom readers should be prepared to take their lumps.
No subject is verboten in Hard Knox, even Victoria’s antiquated sewage system. He mentions it a couple of times, but it only earns a single spot in his index. Indeed he tips his hat to the iconic “Mr. Floatie” (James Skwarok), Victoria’s turd-gid, occasionally bubbly, anti-raw-sewage-directly-into-the-sea activist. Nuff said about that.
But my point, dear reader, is that Hard Knox has an index. This means that the author is a serious fellow, despite his voracious appetite for wisecrackery. In 2003, Art Salm, the book reviews editor of the San Diego Union Tribune, categorically re-butted any qualm regarding the pungency of book indexes with the following helpful aphorism: “A nonfiction book without an index has no heft. I pay it no attention. When I am deciding on whether to review or have a book reviewed, I check the index to get a good idea of what’s covered in the book to help me decide.”
I can only assume that R. Mackie, the book reviews editor of this learned gazette, The Ormsby Review, was guided by a similar deference to indexes when deciding to review Hard Knox.
Thus sustained and buoyed, indeed floated, with confidence, I flushed forward to a fuller glance at the index to Hard Knox. The first item listed, curiously, is the “4/20 Marijuana Rally.” I stared at this for some time. I got myself another café au lait and a fresh pain au chocolate.
Thus sustained, it dawned on me that the book is not alphabetically coordinated. I was incredibly slow to grok that the number 4 refers to the fourth month and that, for the uninitiated, April 20th is international marijuana-smoke-your-brains-out-in-public day. It has nothing to do with wanting to celebrate Adolf Hitler’s birthday. I was making progress.
The 4/20 reference appears in one of the more rabble-rousing of Knox’s chapters, “Our Contrarian Culture: THE NAKED TRUTH,” in which he wangles a catalogue of issues and protests that have emerged in our peevish past. Of course, he au naturel-ly begins with naked protests, summarizing our protest penchant succinctly by stating that, “After all, this is British Columbia, where people have exposed their wobbly bits to draw attention to everything from logging, war, religion, and subsidies for small bookstores, to, of course, antinudity laws”
I was unsure if his comment about “wobbly bits” refers to human appendages or Knox-speak meant to conjure up an image of the IWW movement in B.C. His index failed me on this point. I wanted to reference the infamous 2001 anti-logging ride of Briony Penn, aka Lady Godiva, but I am told that she is now also a book reviewer for this august publication.
Moving right along, the index ends with Zulu. Again, Knox and I are in astonishing alignment. In “Griswolding Part 1,” he compares his outdoor Christmas lighting geist to the 1964 colony-enhancing and Imperialist epic film, Zulu, starring Michael Caine in his first significant cinematic role.
Our effervescent journalist takes issue with Christmas foofaraw and compares his burnt-out Christmas lights to the fallen British Army fusiliers at the Battle of Rorke’s Drift in 1879. A bit of a stretch, perhaps, but I have no doubt the comparison brought tears of joy and nostalgia to the Oak Bay Branch of the Monarchist League.
This discussion also served as a niggling reminder to me of an overdue domestic duty and so, on December 27th, I hauled out my box of strings of ancient outdoor Christmas lighting and strung them up in five minutes’ flat. Many had fallen in earlier exposures, their light forever dissipated. A few more are now broken, shattered by my never-ending carelessness and the Great Freeze of January 2017. But I digress.
I then warmed up with a re-watch of Zulu, available for nada on YouTube. A ripping yarn.
Some time later, I pondered on how easily one can be ensnared by indiscriminate indexing. You will find –– well, I found, and you may — that Jack has a favourite saying he oft repeats. It is almost a theme to live by, a reflection of his classically organized Kamloopsian mind.
It is, ta-da, “But I digress.” This utterance appears several times throughout the book (pp. 59, 76, 195, to name but three). It suggests a candour about the man that is appealing. When Knox digresses, he tells you he is digressing.
He could easily have placed “But, I digress,” in his index. It would have slipped in comfortably between “Butchart Gardens, The,” and “Butter Tarts.”
Speaking of desserts, Knox gains considerable favour with me with his rhapsodic ode to Nanaimo Bars in his wide-ranging chapter with its Franco-friendly title, “CHERS Touristes,” which attempts to inform francophone (and American) visitors about Vancouver Island politics, currency, crime, culinary confections, and related local traits and foibles.
Let me digress. I was raised in Nanaimo. I cut my teeth on Nanaimo Bars, the chewy kind, and later slaked my insatiable young chops in the other Nanaimo bars — the more prevalent beer parlours, of which the Hub City was rumoured to possess the most per capita in the known world.
As for butter tarts, my mother made the best ones, often freezing them for months on end. I periodically snuck downstairs to the basement freezer to liberate a frozen butter tart or three. I loved those hard, sticky-sweet beauties, poker-faced harbingers of future dental disease.
As I journeyed through Knox’s musings, I found myself flummoxed as to what was my favourite. I was especially drawn to the chapter, “My Illicit Love, BC Ferries,” which has a peculiar charm. Besides its ironic (I think) allure, I was bemused that Knox and I were, seemingly, drinking from the same trough.
To wit: where he, economically and in one tightly composed paragraph, references the 2005 story of heroic Jay Leggit, the Mayne Island baseball player who jumped from the Spirit of British Columbia into Active Pass to get to his game on time, I devoted a whole convoluted chapter to that audacious episode in my recently released book of essays. Great minds.
Perhaps, throughout this entire review, I have been digressing as much or more than Knox does. It may well be a West Coast pastime. So many things to say, so much time to say them.
“Satire is a sort of glass, wherein beholders do generally discover everybody’s face but their own,” wrote Jonathan Swift. By this measure, Hard Knox may not even be satire at all.
Indeed, I found my own image looking back at me repeatedly as I floated through Hard Knox. Many readers will, I suspect, see their image captured in whole or in part as Knox traces delightfully common denominators to life on the western edge of Canada.
Bill Engleson is an author and retired child protection social worker. Born in Powell River, raised in Nanaimo, he spent his first year of life trapped aboard his parents’ leaky fishboat. He resided in New Westminster for most of his adult years, retiring to Denman Island in 2004. He writes fiction, essays, poetry, and letters to the editor. He has been writing most of his life and his first couple of poetic efforts were printed in the sadly defunct Nanaimo Daily Free Press. He self-published his first novel, Like a Child to Home (2013); his second book, Confessions of an Inadvertently Gentrifying Soul (Silver Bow Publishing, 2016), is a collection of humorous literary essays. He is working on several new projects including a prequel to his first novel entitled Drawn Towards the Sun; a mystery, Bloodhound Days; and a collection of home grown, satirically tinged essays, DIRA Diary: Tall Tales of Democracy in Traction. His website/blog is www.engleson.ca
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