Daniel Francis

Reading the National Narrative

Vancouver in the Fifties

May 2, 2019

One of my favourite books about Vancouver is Eva Hoffman's 1989 memoir Lost in Translation. Hoffman writes about her life growing up in Poland and emigrating to Canada with her parents and sister when she was just entering her teens at the end of the 1950s. The family settled in Vancouver and judging from her book Eva hated everything about the city, which she called "a bit of nowhere."

With the bracing certainty of adolescence, she dismissed the people as shallow and conformist. She could not adjust to the dating rituals of her schoolmates, which left her feeling awkward and foolish. Far from being grateful for the chance at a new life, she was disdainful of her new surroundings. The city seemed to be an uncultured wasteland. While her parents struggled to get established in this new place, Eva could hardly wait to get out. Immediately after finishing high school -- she graduated the same year I did -- she left to attend university in the United States and went on to a career as a teacher, critic and writer in New York and London.

What I like about Hoffman's book -- aside from the fact that it is beautifully written -- is the contrary perspective it gives on my home town. But how true is it? Undoubtedly young Eva felt unhappy and alienated there but was Vancouver really such a boring, backward place in the 1950s?

Not according to another book I've been reading recently, George Woodcock's memoir Beyond the Blue Mountains. Woodcock arrived to live in Vancouver with his wife Inge in 1953. According to his book, he found a much more culturally alive community than Hoffman did. Woodcock found all kinds of support for his literary projects from a group of friends that included the poet Earle Birney, founder of the department of creative writing at UBC, another poet and UBC professor Roy Daniells, painters Jack Shadbolt and his wife Doris, and Molly and Bruno Bobak, and the novelist and radio producer Robert Harlow. “Our cabin [on Burnaby Mountain], with its air of remoteness from civilization and yet its panoramic view of the city, appealed to these people,” Woodcock writes, “and we would entertain them at open air dinners which Inge ingeniously cooked on her tiny wood stove and a couple of hotplates… I found in Vancouver the mixture of stimulation and detachment that I need, and I have been fortunate enough to find it in a physical setting of whose beauty I have never tired. Settling in Vancouver was, in the creative sense, finding home.”

Woodcock was coming from London where he had edited a literary magazine and hung out with the likes of George Orwell, Julian Symons, Herbert Read and lots of others. He knew a wasteland when he saw one (yes, T.S. Eliot was another acquaintance). Yet in his opinion there was a bustling cultural life going on in the city in the '50s, based around the university, the art school and the CBC.

It is always tempting to think of 1950s Vancouver -- 1950s Canada for that matter -- in the terms laid out by the young Eva Hoffman: suburban blandness, provincial close-mindedness. Obviously it wasn't Paris or New York (or in Hoffman's case, Cracow), but for George Woodcock and his friends, it was not the backwater it is often made out to be.