Thursday, September 29, 2011

ViaRail: Winnipeg to Edmonton with Thrilling Views 2011

 So we prepared to leave from the giant station. 

 Because the train is so long, Viarail makes sure to have large “golf carts” 
at the ready to carry passengers to their rail cars. 
What a difference from the long walks in airports.

 Our attendant, Tim, greeted us and made us welcome. All the ViaRail 
staff on The Canadian are especially “people persons”..
 ...including our dining car hostess, Wendy. “Oh, you’ll find it boring – 
the prairies are just flat” they said. 
“Just” flat? Joan and I found “just flat” just thrilling! You’ve never seen “flat” 
until you reach these astonishing wheat fields, now in autumn golden stubble. 
They stretch forever – as far as one sees, in every direction. Manitoba 
has roughly 1.1 million people, and 26,000 farms, mainly wheat, though 
that’s been decreasing. (Also the largest hog farms in Canada!) 
And how easy to see the wonders of prairie skies from a ViaRail train!
 Did you know why our trains rails are four foot eight and one half inches 
across? Why on earth? Well, it’s obvious — because wheel bases of 
Roman chariots were that size... Hard to believe.
 Did you imagine Manitoba was all prairie? Just check out the marvellous wetlands.
 Towards the end of the day, our activities hostess (they often explain where we are 
and what we are passing) announced we had entered Saskatchewan, 
which has the largest potash deposits in the world. We sometimes run along 
beside the Trans-Canada Highway – carrying those unfortunate drivers 
who decide not to relax on ViaRail. 
  This train (carrying now 278 passengers) has four observation cars and of course 
the splendid “bullet” car at the end, with observation space upstairs, a nook 
for serving drinks underneath, the main space with easy chairs and snacks,
 and a view all around, especially out the back window.
 After the amber waves of grain across this glorious prairie, we were surprised 
by threading among wonderful rolling hills...
 ...and then we sped along the Qu’Appelle valley, many miles long. ViaRail...
What a way to travel! 
 Again, great meals prepared by experienced chefs in the ample kitchen.
After a splendid sleep, we awakened at sunrise as we pulled into Edmonton.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Winnipeg Manitoba: McNally & Chapters 2011

 Joan and I were rescued from the maze and traffic of this windy city by our 
cousin, Stephanie Hayes. Stephanie runs a wonderful cleaning service, 
Sweepers Keepers, which services many commercial properties, and lots 
of residential along the massive Lake Winnipeg to the north.
  Stephanie's daughter, Kiana, wants at 13 to be a writer, 
and reads voraciously.
 Rand McNally, the flagship bookstore of the Middle West, 
put on an amazing display of The Alford Saga. It’s an 
“event-driven” bookstore, so they sure know how to do things.
 Christa introduced me.
 Here, I met the relatives of the famous Ukrainian film-maker, Yurij Luhovy, 
who with his outstanding talents as an editor had helped me on 
many feature films. Prof. Yaroslav, here with Oksana, was a key 
in developing Ukrainian Studies at the University of Manitoba.
 At Chapters, I found the store sells a variety of other things beside books. 
 I was pleased to meet a TV personality: TV Chef Robert Thomas (on facebook 
at and his pretty partner, Abbey Martin. 
Abbey claims an offspring studying film in Montreal, but she’s far too young.
From our splendid hotel room in the Fort Garry Hotel, we could see 
the huge Viarail station awaiting our next departure. 
The construction behind the station will be the new 
Museum of Human Rights.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Brandon, Manitoba: Manning the Guns 2011

 From Winnipeg, Joan and I drove through more wonderful flat, 
and I mean flat, golden fields for a hundred miles. 
 We got out of our car to savour the vastness of the prairie 
as we headed for Shilo... meet Major (Ret’d) Marc George...
...the head of the Royal Regiment of Canadian Artillery Museum, the largest 
artillery museum in North America. Marc worked with me on the
 Alford Saga’s  Book Six, The Gunner, all one summer. He was afterwards
the advisor on the film Passchendaele. 
 He and his pretty wife Caryl live in nearby Brandon.       
Caryl in her garden.
 My father, Lieut. The Rev Eric Almond, served in a howitzer brigade. 
This alternately horrifying and exciting story follows my father as he fought 
through Vimy Ridge (above is a painting of this battle by Richard Jack 
in the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa), Passchaendale, Ypres, every major 
battle of the war. I use the Battalion diaries as a basis, though 
the actual scenes might be called fiction.
 At the RCA Museum in Shilo, every heavy artillery piece has been 
carefully restored and preserved. 
 They even have an original printing plate of Lieut. Colonel 
John McCrae's poem In Flanders Fields...
 Here's an inscription of the complete poem in a bronze "book" at the
John McCrae memorial at his birth place in Guelph, Ontario, Canada.
Col. McRae with his dog. He was a surgeon, 
but preferred to join up as a fighter. 
 Paul and Marc, stand beside the 4.5" gun with which, for several agonising 
years, Paul's father Eric fought — resulting in severe shell-shock lasting 
all his life. Marc holds a 4.5" howitzer projectile; Paul, a captured German 
cartridge engraved by the 35th Battery with their battles and gun positions. 
 The gun required six horses to pull, and five men to fire.
 Book 5 of The Alford Saga is set in the Boer War. Paul stands with a 
12-pounder beside the Boer War mannequin in the pith helmet.
Marc arranged for Paul to have an article in the venerable Brandon Sun, 
and to appear on radio, and in the forces magazine, Stag. 
Here is the article:

'Alford Family' author grateful for input from 
Shilo museum director
by Ian Hitchen, 24/09/2011

Award-winning filmmaker turned bestselling author Paul Almond is asked the title of his book. It’s not named yet, and Almond — as he often did while writing the novel — turns to RCA Museum director Marc George for some help.

“What do you call an artilleryman, do you call it that?” Almond asks George.
“The gunner,” George replies.
“Oh, the gunner? That’s cool,” Almond says as he grabs a pen, borrows a scrap of paper and scrawls down “The Gunner” as the possible title.
“Oh, that’s great! Yes sir, that’s a great title,” Almond says.
This exchange is the kind of collaboration which enabled Almond to write the sixth book of “The Alford Family Saga” in the first place.
The eight-book saga is a fictional account based on the history of Almond’s family between 1800 and 2000. As such, it describes 200 years of Canadian history through the eyes of a settler’s family on the Gaspe coast of Quebec.
The saga begins with Almond’s great-grandfather leaping from a British warship and his struggle to settle in the harsh Canadian wilderness. It then follows the family through such major historical events as the Boer War, the First World War, the Great Depression and the development of Canadian culture.
The first book, “The Deserter,” was released last fall and the second book, “The Survivor,” was released in the spring.
Almond, 80, was in Brandon this week as part of a national tour to promote the saga and got a chance to meet George for the first time in person after spending months corresponding by email.
They’d teamed up to research the sixth book, which is due to be released in 2013.
It follows the story of Almond’s father, who served in Europe with the 35th Howitzer Battery in the Canadian Field Artillery during the First World War.
Seeking historical accuracy as he wrote his account, Almond approached the military in search of an expert on howitzers and was directed to George at the RCA Museum at CFB Shilo. Their collaboration spanned six months in 2008.
“Marc helped me all the way through, we were on email every day for six months,” said Almond, a recipient of the Order of Canada and the Directors’ Guild of Canada’s Lifetime Achievement Award. “I could not have written the book without Marc.”
George provided details about how the First World War gun would have been fired, and detail for scene-setters — such as, who would have stood where during parade and what the soldiers would have heard.
George said the research he did with the help of museum staff expanded his own knowledge about the First World War.
“It’s really fun because I learned a lot as well,” George said. “I certainly don’t know everything about the artillery. I have to look up a lot of this stuff as well.”
George said Almond’s novel brings life to First World War history, and he believes it’s an engaging way for Canadians to learn about the soldiers and their experience.
“I’m sure, in my heart of hearts, that a gunner from the First World War sitting here, if he’d read the book, he would nod and smile and say yes, that’s pretty close to what it was like,” George said.
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition September 24, 2011