The treatment of melanoma is undergoing a sea change thanks in part to the pioneering work of the three scientists pictured above. James Allison, Tasuko Honjo, and Gordon Freeman paved the way for what some are calling the immunotherapy revolution. I was fortunate enough to interview all three men and come to understand the science which saved Gordon’s life. Our discussions can be found in “Battling Melanoma.” The innovative trio have received many scientific prizes and awards. But so far, the oldest and most prestigious one, the Nobel, has eluded them. However, I recently read that Thomson Reuters, an information business, has predicted that this year, the Nobel for physiology and medicine will go to immunotherapy research. If Thomson Reuters is right, then Allison, Honjo, and Freeman, as well as some other scientists will share the Nobel for their work! Since 2002, Thomson Reuters has forecast 37 Nobel Prize winners, so its record is pretty good! The Prize will be announced early in October.
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Gordon and Claudia Cornwall revel in good health and each other’s company following Gordon’s protracted struggle with melanoma and the challenging aftermath. Claudia documented the story in her new book Battling Melanoma. photo Mike Wakefield, North Shore News
The first scene of At the World’s Edge takes place on a jetty in front of Malcolm Lowry’s shack in what was North Vancouver’s Maplewood Mudflats settlement. The shack is no more. The District of North Vancouver demolished the whole community in 1954 to make room for a park. However, in 2010, artist, Ken Lum, created replicas of three shacks from the settlement for a sculptural installation. They were the ones belonging to Malcolm Lowry, Tom Burrows, and Paul Spong. Today you can find these replicas at the entrance to the Maplewood Conservation area, south of the Dollarton Highway. I took the photo here and I think it is of the replica’s of Lowry’s shack. It’s diminutive, somewhere between dollhouse and playhouse-size. The area has been completely transformed since Lowry lived there. Lowry Lane, named after him, is now the site of some of the most expensive homes in North Vancouver. Delicious shack life is a mere memory.
Booklist has picked Catching Cancer as one of the best books of 2013.
Creating a book trailer was harder than I thought it would be. It took us three tries! For the first one, Gordon and I went over to the Cates Park beach in North Vancouver—where the opening scene of At the World’s Edge takes place. It was a lovely West Coast afternoon; we got background sounds of water lapping at the shore, squirrels chattering in the trees, and a lovely long lonely wail from the train that skirts the south shore of Burrard Inlet. I read from the book, which usually goes over quite well, when I do so in person…but on the video? For some reason, it missed…
So back to the story board. We decided to do something quite different. We’d shoot in Chinatown in an alley that Curt had photographed. This wouldn’t be West Coast idyllic but gritty and edgy—maybe more fitting for the book. So on a Saturday in December, we parked on Chinatown’s main drag and walked over to the particular alley, off Gore Avenue, that interested us. I stood in front of a smelly dirty yellow garbage bin that was covered in graffiti. This time I didn’t read from the book. I spoke earnestly to the camera about Curt’s photography and how Chinatown was a favourite subject of his. It was a disaster. The seagulls were so raucous, they practically drowned me out. Cars kept driving up the alley and interrupting the shoot. And people kept wandering through. Sometimes they asked us what we were doing and what we thought of Vancouver. I think they figured we were tourists on some kind of grunge tour. And so we explained that we weren’t tourists, we lived here, and we showed them Curt’s picture of the alley in 1972. They looked bewildered, they were probably wondering on what planet we made any sense. It was all very distracting.
We returned home and I sent off some emails to people who know more about this than I do. I mulled over their replies and then I got another idea. We didn’t have to shoot any film at all. We could use stills and create movement a la Ken Burns—pan across the stills—zoom in on the aspects that were most intriguing. I spent a morning in the City Archives looking for pictures of the 1400-block West Pender where Curt lived with his good friend, Fred Douglas. There weren’t many pictures of that section of Pender. Other parts of the street were much more popular subjects. But remarkably, there was a photo of the dilapidated building where Curt and Fred shared a rat-infected “pad.” It was perfect. And from there the video grew. We added a photo of Vancouver’s skyline in 1959, as seen from Stanley Park, and included some pictures from the book. We used Curt’s poems typed in courier on onion skin. I love to see that now—the uneven analogue words. And with a clever tool that Gordon found, we got Curt’s words to lift off the page. I wrote to Gregg Simpson asking his advice about music. I knew he’d been a musician in the 60’s and I thought he’d have some good ideas. He sent me a few pieces by the Al Neil trio—of which he had been a member. More serendipidy. The music saturated the video with mood and then it was just a matter of a short narration. Gordon mixed the whole thing, the music, the narration and the pictures, and managed in a quite wizardly fashion to save the parts and the combinations all in the appropriate places. Here it is. Did it work? Well, you can be the judge of that!
You will find my description of Curt’s life as a bookseller in the chapter entitled, The Vault. (To read the interesting story about why it has that name, you’ll have to read the book!) When Curt started the store at 350 West Pender Street, he quickly discovered that that being a bookseller was not for him. The enterprise floundered and Don MacLeod bought it for a song–well, $200. He kept the stock and the same location, although he renamed the shop, “MacLeod’s Books.” Don took out a loan from a credit union to make the purchase and was able to pay it off after his first day in business. Here’s a picture of Don’s store in 1981. Sharp-eyed readers will notice that MacLeod’s Books, currently at 455 West Pender, on the north side of the street, still sports a remarkably similar sign. Don Stewart is the current owner.
A letter from St. Petersburg arouses memories of Curt
Tod Greenaway was a friend of Curt’s and he is quoted in At the World’s Edge. (p. xv and 204). He was an artist, a writer, and a photographer. Recently I had the pleasure of encountering more of Tod’s thoughts about Curt. They came to me via Irina Borisova, a writer in St. Petersburg, Russia, with whom Curt and Tod corresponded. Below you will find a letter Tod wrote to her two days after Curt died.
I also wanted to mention that I have several copies of Tod’s last book of essays, Loitering, to give away, thanks to the generosity of his daughter, Rachel. If you would like one, let me know.
Date: December 19, 1998.
So, it has finally come to pass, the death of Curt Lang. I am sorry not to have written to you. Everything was happening so fast, there were so many demands made on my time and I was rather frantic at not being able to get to my work. And I am not feeling all that well. But it was clumsy of me not to think of you being left in suspense.
I find a long-lost film-maker, a long-lost painting and (maybe) a treasure trove of Vancouver’s beat history
Writing a book is a little like having a child. The child grows up, ventures out into the world and does all sorts of things that surprise you. I was reminded of this quite vividly when I unexpectedly received an email from PG Forest. He introduced himself by saying that his father was Leonard Forest, who directed a National Film Board documentary in which Curt Lang briefly appears. PG Forest lived in Montreal but wrote that he would be visiting Vancouver for a few days and wondered if we could chat. Of course I was curious and suggested we meet for coffee.
I knew exactly which film he meant—In Search of Innocence, a haunting movie about artists, writers and musicians in beat-era Vancouver. Leonard Forest, an Acadian and the director of French programming at the NFB, made the film about 1964. (There’s a French version too, called À la recherche de l’innocence).
Curt was a friend of mine for about 12 years. But this is not in itself a reason to write a book about someone, so I’d like to say a few words about why I was moved to write At the World’s Edge.
Curt was a person who did many different things, he was a beat, he wrote poetry and published it, he painted and exhibited his paintings in the Vancouver Art Gallery, he started a bookstore, which became MacLeod’s Books and still exists today, he built boats, he salvaged logs, he was a fisherman, a photographer and high tech entrepreneur. So his life gives us a unique window into Vancouver’s changing economic history. This in itself is interesting but there is more.
Curt was something very unique; a free spirit, a latter-day Odysseus. Read more »
It is book launch eve. Of course, I am nervous! I am reflecting back on the journey that this book has been. I will miss it. For some reason, I find myself thinking of one of Curt’s poems. It is untitled and undated. My best guess is that he wrote it sometime in the mid sixties:
If you want to see someone smile,
Send out your mind, secretly
like a thief,
Gently like a butterfly,
Silently like a loving glance.