Sunshine Sketches of a Little Coast

For 30 years they have held a literary festival at Sechelt. That very first year I was glad to send Jack Hodgins (from his Lantzville home on Vancouver Island, right across the Strait of Georgia from the Sunshine Coast ) as one of the five authors attending. He had a wonderful time, and reported back with great enthusiasm.

Over the years, as the little festival grew into the established “Sunshine Coast Festival of the Written Arts,” in my role as Publisher I was pleased to send a steady stream of authors to this festival, assuring them that they would “have a great time.” They always did.

This year, in my new role of author, I got to see for myself. The hard-working Jane Davidson had secretly attended my performance at the Vancouver Writers’ Festival last October, and followed up with an invitation to attend the Sunshine Coast Festival that she runs.

So August saw Jane and me flying in to Vancouver, then dashing off to catch a seaplane that skimmed up the coast to land us at Sechelt. There we were met by Sally Quinn, a welcoming volunteer who identified herself brilliantly by displaying a copy of my book . . . always visible to an author’s eye at 100 paces. A quick tour of Sechelt took us to the Festival site, where we met Jane D. (astonishingly calm, given that over the next three days she would be receiving more than 20 performing authors from across the country, yea, even unto Michael Crummey’s Newfoundland, and Linden MacIntyre, fresh from Edinburgh). I also got to see the hall where all of the readings/performances take place. It is an all-wood open structure, the ceiling held up with tall pine poles, lending the air of a West-coast longhouse (crossed with a Cathedral, as one admirer put it). Ten seconds on the empty stage were enough to show me that this was a very special space, open yet intimate.

Since one of the strengths of this fine festival is that all events take place there, with no competing events at different venues, Jane and I were to spend many happy hours in the audience at that theatre over the weekend, enjoying the varied readings, Q and As., conversations, and performances. I’m happy to report that my own tightly scripted but apparently informal Stories About Storytellers show was reviewed by the local paper as “polished ramblings.” Aha!

Most of the time we sat with our host and hostess, the authors Sharon Brown and Andreas Schroeder, who live just outside Sechelt as “Roberts Creekers.” (Over time, we warned them, “Roberts Creakies” may apply.) We had the great good fortune to stay at the cabin down by the shore that Sharon and Andreas (whom I have published with great pleasure over the years) provide for lucky friends. And the blackberries! Words fail.

One of the high points of the festival is that at the end of each session, the great Hall is cleared, and everyone files out to drink, chat, or (usually) line up for the next session starting in 30 minutes. As a result, the placid queues along the Rhododendron-lined paths are a great place to meet old and new friends, and to chat about books and authors.

The local support for the festival is all you would hope for, and people are proud of what they have built up over the years. One retired man who sought me out to sign his copy of my book said it best. When I commented on what a great thing for the community this festival must be, he said, “This is why we moved here.”

A footnote: on Sunday Andreas took us for a quick tour of Gibsons, just to the south. For someone with my name, the place is a goldmine for delusions of grandeur. A quick tour reveals “Gibson’s Cinema,” “Gibson’s Curling Club,” “Gibson’s Swimming Pool” and so on and on. At the waterfront (near where The Beachcombers was filmed) is a statue of Captain George Gibson, who founded the town in the 1880s, rowing his produce down the coast to Vancouver. I posed proudly with my arm around his oilskin-clad shoulders, and felt right at home.

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Words Really Matter

Tourists in Cambodia are likely to find themselves given the chance to buy a jokey T-shirt with the message, “I Survived Cambodia.”

Ho, ho. Very witty.

In fact, it’s about as witty as tourists visiting Nazi death camps being offered amusing souvenirs that play on words like “concentration” or “gas.”
Because in Cambodia, in the memory of half of the population, survival was by no means a given. Millions died at the hands of their fellow-countrymen, during the days of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. To survive was a major achievement.

Most of us in the West are aware, to some extent, of what went on. We saw the movie The Killing Fields with its happy ending. And we know that Pol Pot was a bad guy. But a visit to Cambodia reveals a country that, in the words of one observer, is in the grip of post-traumatic stress. Tourists get more than a hint when they go to Toul Sleng prison, in downtown Phnom Penh (my daughter Katie lives about three blocks away). The site was a high school, and therefore a perfect location for a Khmer Rouge torture prison, since education was a threat to the peasant world the Khmer Rouge were creating. Now stunned tourists file through the cells with bloodstained beds with iron bars and shackles at the foot. After the dozens of silent, stained cells there are whole blocks filled with individual photos (police line-up style)  of the men and women , and young teenagers, who were tortured to death there, or executed elsewhere.

Incredibly, in one row of photos of the condemned, one hero is smiling. He’s a dark-haired man in his late 30s, wearing a dark shirt. The smile is a resigned one, and there’s even a hint of a shrug in his pose (“What can you do?”). In the array of hundreds of doomed, grim faces, his resigned heroism stands out.

“I Survived Cambodia” T-shirts, anyone?

Most of the prisoners were shipped, by night, just outside the city to a site that we also visited, known as “The Killing Fields.” It’s a major tourist site, and even giggling school groups are soon stunned into silence as the tour takes you past the scene of so many deaths. To save bullets, many people were bludgeoned to death by the axes and hoes and hammers that are carefully preserved in the attached museum. Worst of all is the tree against which babies were smashed by the young Khmer Rouge soldiers who ran the place. I walked around the tree, to try to absorb the evil, in the vain hope of understanding what happened here. Almost as horrible is the central stupa, or tomb, where a mountain of  skulls is  arranged in a central case, layered according to the method of death. And the site still has clothes of the dead emerging from the soil, which I tripped over.

Witty T-shirts, get them while you can?

As a finale we arranged to visit the United Nations-supported Genocide Courtroom, where a few surviving Khmer Rouge leaders are being prosecuted. The Court was not in session, but a Canadian friend who works there took us in and allowed us to see the bullet-proof courtroom, walled off from the 400-seat spectator area. It’s an awkward blend of UN-supported international court and a Cambodian Court that is uneasily administered by the Government, which is all too aware of how much of the population was implicated in the Khmer Rouge crimes. When they captured Phnom Penh, for example, they forced the entire population out of the city, directed in different directions to become peasants at work on the land. To have spectacles, or soft hands, was usually enough for summary execution. Roughly three million people died in this internal genocide.

And where were we, concerned Canadians? Because Pol Pot opposed the “Commie” Vietnamese (who eventually marched in and deposed him) the Western powers continued to support the Khmer Rouge as Cambodia’s official government at the United Nations, for many years.

I’m learning more about all this. I have now read a memoir of these days, The Gate, by a French survivor, Francois Bizot, which I recommend, as John le Carré does in his foreword.

And I’m learning the power of the word “survived.”