Eastend, Saskatchewan, Wallace Stegner, and George R. Stewart – a Reprise.

On this fine spring day in Carson City, Nevada, memories of Eastend, Saskatchewan, and its connection with George R. Stewart have burst out like the blossoming flowers visible from the window of this writer’s current roost.  That’s probably because I first saw Eastend as the snows of winter gave way to the flowers of spring, visible outside the window of the Wallace Stegner Boyhood Home.  So I reviewed the earlier post about Eastend and Stewart.  It’s been revised, upgraded and renewed.

Eastend is, in and of itself, worth a trip to Canada.  If you’re heading to visit Canada’s prairies or the Rockies, a side-trip to the town should be on your itinerary.  If you’re going to Idaho or nearby to see the August Total Eclipse, head a few hundred miles north to visit Eastend.  It will be a highlight of your trip.

The updated post follows.

About 16 years ago, quite by accident, I wandered into Eastend, Saskatchewan.  The tiny farm town in Saskatchewan’s southwest didn’t seem of much interest — until I noticed the T-Rex Laboratory in the middle of town.  Intrigued, I visited the lab, where  paleontologists were hard at work preparing the fossil bones of the most massive T-Rex ever discovered.

Eastend was apparently more than it seemed at first look, so I began to walk around the town.

In two blocks I realized the “accidental” visit was a classic Jungian  synchronicity.  A sign on the main street  pointed toward a modest home on a quiet street near the Frenchman River was “Wallace Stegner’s Boyhood Home.”   Stegner, who spent his boyhood years here,  was profoundly influenced by George R. Stewart.  Stegner wrote a fine essay about Stewart,  included in Stegner’s  WHERE THE BLUEBIRD SINGS TO THE LEMONADE SPRINGS.   In the George Rippey Stewart Papers at the Bancroft Library (See link in the header of this page) there are several wonderful letters from “Wally” Stegner to Stewart; in the Stegner Papers at the University of Utah, there are replies from Stewart.

Later, researching a chapter on the friendship between Stewart and Stegner, I found the website for the Boyhood Home (now a Canadian Heritage site). Restored by the hard work of local people, the house had become a residence for writers and artists.  They accepted my application; so I had the rare honor of living in Stegner House for several weeks over three visits.  And the pleasure of getting the chance to know Eastend and its wonderful people.  Some, like Charlie Goulet, are now gone; but I know if I drove into town tomorrow I’d soon run into Ken and Ethel Wills, Dick and Clora Banford, Tim and Jacquie Tokaryk,   the Websters, and the others who have helped bring that community back into vibrant life.  It’s now home to one of the finest small enlightenments in the world today.  Good cheeseburgers at Charlie’s Lunch, good meals at Jack’s, several b&b’s;  and a new T-Rex Discovery Centre that would do justice to the Smithsonian, and that interdisciplinary marriage of art and science – STEAM – that characterize Enlightenments or Renaissances.

It was an inspiring place to work on the biography.  And, as things turned out, it was the place — in the living room of the Stegner House — where I found the key to the George R. Stewart biography.

The other highlight was being honored with a presentation of a Saskatchewan supporters of the arts pin, by Lieutenant Governor Lynda Haverstock.

Visit Eastend.   And give it some time.  Good campground, adequate motels, not far from a CAA approved motel in Shaunavon if you prefer a “larger” town.

With the Stegner House, the T-Rex Discovery Centre, a fine pottery, and other art locations, Eastend is a highly recommended place to visit.  Also recommended is Stegner’s book about Eastend, Wolf Willow, and his collection of essays described above, WHERE THE BLUEBIRD SINGS TO THE LEMONADE SPRINGS.  The collection of essays, which includes the essay about George R. Stewart,  begins with his memories of Eastend.

George R. Stewart: A Founder of the Environmental Movement Turns Road Scholar

Today, many people see a conflict between the environmentalist view of the world and the engineered view of the world.  Roads are often seen as threatening the environment.

George R. Stewart didn’t see it that way.  So after he helped create the Environmental Movement with Storm, Fire, Earth Abides, and Sheep Rock, he turned to writing about odology – the study of paths.  Doing so, he created a new kind of literature – the odological book.

Stewart had often considered writing about US Forests – a book that would be a kind of a wayside introduction to them.  But his friend Wallace Stegner, now a regional editor for the publisher, Houghton Mifflin, suggested that he focus on highways instead.  Stegner’s suggestion made sense, since hundreds of thousands of Americans were now taking to the road in cars, rather than using the train. A book that explained America from the roadside should be a big seller.

Stewart was convinced, and went to work. Since U.S. 40 went from Atlantic City to San Francisco on a central route, he chose that road.  Today, many people consider Route 66 more important – it’s the Mother Road.  But U.S. 40 is in fact much older and much more important.  In the east, 40 followed the route of the first Federally-funded road, The National Road.  That was also the eastern route for the first transcontinental highway, the National Old Trails Road, established and signed before the Lincoln Highway was founded.

In 1949, the year of Earth Abides‘ publication, and the Year of the Oath,  he took the first of two coast-to-coast research trips to gather material for his book.  Ted accompanied him on one trip.  His son Jack, who was turning out to be a good map-maker and photographer, joined him on the other.  The family presence helped; he listened to their ideas, which improved the book.

Stewart wrote a few introductory essays, essays introducing each section of the road, and a concluding essay about road signs.  Most of the book, however, consisted of photographs of geographically-representative sections of the road and precise (rather than literary) descriptions of the scenes.  There were beautiful maps and small expository drawings by the great mapmaker Edwin Raisz placed appropriately throughout the book.

U.S. 40 was published in 1953.

Stegner was not happy with the result.  He felt it was too academic. Yet the book was a success.  It helped Americans traveling through their country to understand its geography and history.  At least one owner wrote the date pf their visit by each place visited.  It was, that is, a roadside interpretive guide to the USA in the mid-twentieth century.

The book also had a great influence on others.  William Least Heat Moon was inspired in part to write Blue Highways by Stewart’s book; and in researching Roads to Quoz, Least Heat Moon took U.S. 40 Scholar Frank Brusca along, eventually adding four chapters about GRS and U.S. 40.  German film Director Hartmut Bitomsky, who had been commissioned to do a movie about the trails of the Westward Movement, chose instead to produce “U.S. 40 West” after reading Stewart’s book. A copy of U.S. 40 is visible in some scenes of the movie, which has become a German classic.  And Tom and Geraldine Vale produced  the first book to “descend” from a George R. Stewart book, U.S. 40 Today.  Following Stewart’s route, the Vales photographed and described as many of the original Stewart locations as they could find, commenting on landscape change between 1953 and 1983.

Stewart liked the book, and its approach.  It was successful enough that he was encouraged to write more odological works.  N.A. 1 Looking North (more properly N.A. 1 Looking North: The North-South Continental Highway) and N.A. 2 Looking South were the result.  These were a two-volume examination of a highway which existed partly in the imagination – a Highway that would go from Alaska to the Panama Canal.  Stewart traveled from the Canadian border north to the road’s end 50 miles north of the Arctic Circle for the first book; and from the Mexican/U.S. border to the impenetrable jungle north of Panama for the second. It was a much more adventurous pair of drives than those for U. S. 40; but on the other hand the proposed North-South Continental Highway was no more rugged than the National Old Trails Road Stewart hitch-hiked in 1919.

Were the road books anti-environmental?  Had Stewart abandoned his great Whole Earth vision?  In a passage from the southern highway book, Stewart makes clear that  highways aren’t the problem – it’s the TYPE of highway:

  …freeways…almost brutally imposed upon the face of the countryside…the driver and his passengers alike lose the sense of a countryside, because it has literally been steam-rollered away….

… in Mexico or Central America … if [the road] winds through a canyon, you still know that a canyon is there.  It does not by-pass all the villages and towns, and so you see what they are like. And, all the time, you know you are really driving a car and feel the pleasant sense of achievement that goes with that….

So even here, in arguing for a gentler highway which follows the contours of the land and takes the traveler into that land, Stewart sees such a road as an introduction to the ecology and geography of a place.  He is suggesting that travelers who are enjoying their journey – as opposed to tourists rushing to some heavily-advertised vacation spot – should follow what Least Heat Moon calls the Blue Highways.  Thus even in a car on a highway, we can choose to be environmentalists, and Stewart is showing us how to do that.

“Each time I read it, I’m profoundly affected…” EARTH ABIDES

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James Sallis on EARTH ABIDES:

“…Each time I read it, I’m profoundly affected, affected in a way only the greatest art—Ulysses, Matisse or Beethoven symphonies, say—affects me….

“… Art’s mission is to make our lives large again, to dredge us out of this terrible dailyness. I begin each reading of Earth Abides knowing that, once the flight’s done, I’ll be meeting a new man there at the end of the concourse. The guy who got on the flight’s okay. I like the one who gets off a lot better.”         (Quoted with permission.)

James Sallis is a fine contemporary writer – poet, detective novelist, and the author of the recently filmed Drive.  Of all the accolades given to Stewart’s great novel – and there have been many – Sallis’s seems to me the best.  He captures the power, the magnificence, and the beauty.  He also honors the transcendent, life-changing nature of the novel.  For most, to read Earth Abides is to undergo an epiphany.    (Read Sallis’s essay here.)

Sallis is not the only one who reads and re-reads the book.  The Pilgrim, Steve Williams, who went to school in Liverpool with Lennon and McCartney, has read it so many times he’s lost count – but it’s in the hundreds.  A fellow blogger who goes by the name of teepee12 tells me she reads it every couple of years. I’ve read it many times since the summer in 1956, when it was placed in my hand by The Librarian.

She was one of the best teachers encountered during my life journey, and I don’t even know her name.  To this day, and in my biography of Stewart, that perceptive woman is only known as The Librarian – but when she handed me that book she handed me my life.

I don’t want to give the plot of Stewart’s novel away, but I’ll share enough to intrigue you – if you like adventurous, ecological, philosophical,  almost-religious works of literature. As in Storm and Fire, the ecosystem is the protagonist.  But in this case, it’s not an isolated ecological event; it’s the entire ecosystem, thanks to a small virus. The lives of the few human characters are defined by how they respond to the effects of the virus.  Ish, the male protagonist, is an intellectual who tries to find meaning in the events of the book. For him it’s a quest for a faith. His wife, Em, responds by bringing new life into the post-human world. For her, it’s a duty to carry the flame of human life and culture onward, no matter what the conditions.

The greatest adventure happens in the early part of the novel, before Ish meets Em. Returning from an ecological research project in the Sierra he finds that he has returned to a post-human world. He must deal with what has happened – even questioning whether it is worth continuing to live.   But he finds his answer in the sciences of geography and ecology.  It is a remarkable opportunity for a scientist – he can study the effect of the removal of most humans from the ecosystem. (Note that this book was written a decade before the Environmental Movement and nearly two decades before the first Earth Day.)

He decides to travel the USA to see how others have fared.  (Stewart was a great wanderer of trail and road, and took the journeys he describes in the book.)  Ish begins by heading south from Berkeley, California, on US 99.  He heads east over Tehachapi Pass on California 58; then follows Route 66 until a tree blocks his way.  Eventually he reaches Manhattan; then returns on a more northerly route on US 40 until a forest fire near Emigrant Gap forces him to turn off on California 20.   Along the way, he finds a few survivors who seem to be almost stereotypes of diverse American subcultures.  Some, Ish believes, will prosper.  Others, like the couple in Manhattan who drink martinis in an apartment with no fireplace, probably won’t survive the first winter. Here, and later in the book’s sections on the evolving culture of The Tribe, Stewart is writing a wonderfully speculative anthropological work.

After the journey Ish meets Em.  As they grow closer, and begin a family, his quest changes to a search for faith – one that will help him, and his descendents, live in the changed world?  As the work evolves, he finds himself turning to the Old Testament, since it was the work of a small tribe like Ish and Em’s Tribe that had to survive and find meaning in an often hostile world.  (Stewart taught himself Hebrew so he could translate some of the Old Testament – notably Ecclesiastes – into English without losing the rhythm of the original.)

But the book is not a dreary religious tract by any means.  Much of the time, Ish and Em are building a small community in the Berkeley Hills.   Others join them and the “Tribe” begins to grow.  The “Americans” – those who lived before the event which begins the story – work hard to keep some of their culture alive.  But the youngsters, who will truly become a tribe, must live within the new world.  To them, a good method of hunting with bow and arrow is much more important than learning to read or going to church.

The book is an anthropological work in many ways.  The old culture tries to protect its great store of knowledge.  The younger members of the Tribe work to survive, and have little time for sitting and reading or listening to prayers.  They practice shooting their bows and arrows. Yet The Tribe will develop its own faith, as Ish is seeking his.  Both faiths, ironically, revolve around a simple American object.

During his research in the American River Canyon, Ish finds an old single-jack miner’s hammer.  It gives him a sense of security, so he carries it with him throughout the novel.  By the end of the book, the Hammer of Ish has become the most revered object the tribe possesses.  They insist that Ish must pass it on when he dies.  The person who receives the Hammer will become almost god-like – as Ish does, in the latter pages of the novel.

The Hammer of Ish is one of the great symbols in literature.  And it’s a quintessentially American symbol, designed for common tasks by the Common Man  – but it can also be used to find and mine gold.   I believe the Hammer is one of the reasons for the book’s strong effect on readers.  Like Ish, readers feel very comfortable with the Hammer; but readers feel its mythological power growing throughout the tale as it becomes a spiritual object.

Like the book, the Hammer haunts readers.  A casual mention of the Hammer in conversation often starts a discussion of the novel; and that happens more often than you might think.  One wealthy reader, the late Frank Sloss, even had a sculptor create a silver version, which sat at the center of Sloss’s vast Stewart collection.   Stewart Scholar and Artist Steve Williams was inspired to do a series of fine paintings of The Hammer:

Ish's Hammer(1)The Hammer of Ish.  (Painting Courtesy Steve Williams, Artist and Scholar.)

The book was based on solid research.  The Stewart Papers in the Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley hold many letters from colleagues and companies responding to Stewart’s questions about a post-human world.  For example – how sheep and cattle would fare, how long auto batteries would last, and when rust would collapse the Bay Bridge. One of the letters is from Carl Sauer, the greatest geographer of his age and one of the greatest minds of any age, discussing the sheep/cattle question.  It, like all the letters, reveals how intrigued Stewart’s correspondents were with his questions.

The book was published in the fall of 1949.  After a few years of good sales, Random House decided to stop publication and return the rights to Stewart.  Almost immediately, one of the book’s strongest fans, Alan Ligda, contacted Stewart and asked to publish Earth Abides at his  Archive Press and Publications.  Stewart granted permission and the book quickly went into print.   Ligda’s publication sold out quickly.  Random House asked for the return of the rights, and the book returned to print with that major trade publishing house.

Thanks to Alan Ligda the novel has never been out of print.  Readers and scholars owe him a great debt.  Although he died poor and relatively young, Ligda played a major role in the story of Earth Abides.

Does Ish find his faith?  Does the Tribe survive?  Does Earth abide?  What adventures, literary and intellectual, are found along the way?  To find out, read the book.

Earth Abides has had an extraordinary literary and intellectual life.  Never out of print in the 65 years since publication, now in an audio version as well as a print version, and in 20 languages,  the book and its ideas have swept across the Earth.

The next post will discuss how the book has affected some of the finest literary minds, and how the book has influenced art, science, and thought.

George R. Stewart, 1948: Taking Stock

By 1949, George R. Stewart was successful beyond any possible imaginings he might have had in the early 1930s.  In those days, early in his writing and professorial career, he seemed stuck in a low-level academic position, held there by a particularly unpleasant English Department Head who had taken a dislike to him.  His only books were the sort of composition books expected of English professors – one on the Technique of English Verse, another on English composition.  His marriage was a great success – Ted (Theodosia) Stewart supported him as his best friend, and encouraged him to keep at the writing.  Although he would not have won any awards as parent of the year, his children were doing acceptably.

The situation with the English Department Head turned out to be a blessing in disguise.  Since he was apparently not going anywhere in the Department, he turned to writing instead – the writing of books that appealed to both scholars and the general literate audience – books that would sell, and sell well.  Since he enjoyed wilderness and history and the strange beauty of American names, he decided to write about those things.  Since many of his favorite colleagues were in the geography, history, or science departments, he decided to write about those areas of knowledge.

His first best-selling book, Ordeal By Hunger, introduced the Whole Earth Perspective – the understanding of Earth as one place, and as a system of ecological systems.  His first novel, East of the Giants, was about California history and told from the viewpoint of an independent California woman.    Storm was the first ecological (or geographic) novel.  Names on the Land – a remarkable and never-equaled book – was the first in the history of the Earth to tell the tale of national place-naming.   And Fire carried the ecological, geographic, cross-discipline methods used in Storm to new heights.

His influence was beginning to be felt, and honored.  He became a character in a radio play.  Disney invited him to the studio to help develop new types of films (and later made Storm and Fire into Disney movies.)  Stewart’s influence on his friend Wallace Stegner encouraged Stegner to begin writing the environmental/history works that would define much of Stegner’s later creative life.  Stewart won awards – both the silver and gold medals of the California Commonwealth Club.

During his service in World War II, writing up the Submarine Sailing Directions for the Navy, he had an encounter which showed him the influence of his work.  During a flight to Hawaii, he met Vic Moitoret, a young Navy meteorologist who enthusiastically shook Stewart’s hand and then told him a war story.  Moitoret kept a small diary of the books he’d read which he felt most influenced his life and career.  One of those was Storm.   Moritoret survived two aircraft carrier sinkings, once in shark-infested waters.  But he never lost that diary, which he showed  Stewart.  It was, in a way, a talisman or charm.  Later, Moitoret, who had gone to UC Berkeley and then on to the Naval Academy, would become the Chief Hydrographer of the US Navy.

Moitoret’s story was a great honoring of Stewart’s work.  Stewart received a high professional honor as well – he was invited to join the faculty of Columbia University – a high honor indeed.

Stewart did not go to Columbia.  His nemesis was no longer the Department Head, and the University admired him.  Besides, he loved the wild nature of the West.  And at any rate, he didn’t have the time for a major career move.

He had begun work on a third ecological novel.  This one would expand the ideas and the literary devices developed in Fire and Storm. This time, the protagonist would not be an event of the ecosystem, nor human character revealed by how someone reacted to a fire or a storm.  This time, the protagonist would be the ecosystem itself.  And the characters of its primary human characters would be revealed over the span of lifetimes.

By 1948, Stewart had achieved great things.  Now, he would achieve a pinnacle of human thought and literature of the late third millennium.

The Western Literature Association and George R. Stewart

There were two papers about George R. Stewart at this year’s Western Literature Association conference, in Berkeley.  Sadly, GRS, who should be honored as a star by the WLA, is almost unknown there.  Very few of the attendees at my panel even knew who he was.

Cheryll Glotfelty, who encouraged my attendance, said that she thinks his lack of popularity comes from – among other reasons – his inability to create well-rounded characters.  It was a perceptive comment, which acted as a catalyst for some thinking.

I was also interested in this question:  If writers honored by the WLA – Wallace Stegner comes to mind – and others of that level, like Ivan Doig, Larry McMurtry, and William Least Heat Moon consider GRS to be an important and under-appreciated writer, and readers buy his books by the thousands, why does the WLA seemingly not appreciate him?

After some thinking, I have a tentative answer.   Stewart’s important characters were not human – they were the events of the ecosystem, like a storm, and the ecosystem itself.  He may have purposely kept the human characters flat for the same reason that he did not name most of them in STORM – because his emphasis was on those ecological characters.  And there’s no question about his ability to bring eco-event to life.   Other writers realized what an extraordinary and culturally significant accomplishment this was, both in the ability to bring those characters to life and in the development of the literary devices that GRS used to do that.  Without analyzing devices or human character development, readers understood what he was doing and embraced it.

The only group who did not seem to be impressed by what GRS did is that of the literati, of the west and elsewhere.  This is probably because there is a different standard of “great” literature in those groups, including the university teachers of literature.

None of this is intended to be critical of the WLA or other literati, although I might suggest some deeper attention to the work of GRS.  I’m certainly glad that Cheryll talked me into attending, I enjoyed the conference, and all-in-all had a worthwhile weekend there.  Most important, it was a wonderful, learning experience, listening to other papers and discussions (like the one between Kim Stanley Robinson and Molly Gloss).

A final thought is this:  It seems to be an historical truth that great creative minds are often forgotten for a time, especially if they don’t do much self-promotion.  Johann Sebastian Bach, who wrote music “for the glory of God,” was unknown to all (but the musicians who studied his work) for a century after he died.  Not until Mendelssohn performed one of Bach’s oratorios in honor of the centennial of his death did Bach begin to become a household word.  I expect GRS will be rediscovered by the literati, sooner or later, and will himself become a household word in literate households.

Perhaps the publication in China of Names On the Land will make Americans take notice, and that will lead to the re-discovery of GRS.

 

 

Updating Wikipedia

Wikipedia has a good entry about George R. Stewart.  But a few errors needed to be corrected, so I’ve just updated as a Wikipedia editor.  Here’s a link to the updated page:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_R._Stewart

One change had to do with the number of books Stewart wrote.   The number given is usually incorrect, since few people know about Stewart’s works on English composition.  Even Wallace Stegner, in his wonderful essay “George R. Stewart and the American Land,” mentions only 28 books by Stewart.  But Stewart wrote 31.  The three usually forgotten are The Technique of English Verse, 1930, Stewart’s first nationally-published book, English Composition:  A Laboratory Course, and The Department of English at the University of California, Berkeley.  Fred Waage, Stewart’s first biographer, tells me that the Lab book was in two volumes.  Volume 2 was probably a workbook and likely to be thrown out once used by a student, so none are likely to exist.  (If you find one, please let me know!)   The Department of English was Stewart’s history of the Department, written for the University’s Centennial in 1968, and it contains some fine thoughts about the importance of curriculum.

Stewart’s books are a rich and diverse collection of works, many  the first of their kind.  In the next few weeks, I’ll review them, lightly, hoping to encourage you to take a look at some of them.

Eastend, Saskatchewan, Wallace Stegner, and George R. Stewart

About 16 years ago, quite by accident, I wandered into Eastend, Saskatchewan.  The tiny farm town in Saskatchewan’s southwest didn’t seem of much interest — until I noticed the T-Rex Laboratory in the middle of town.  Intrigued, I visited the lab, where  paleontologists were hard at work preparing the fossil bones of the most massive T-Rex ever discovered.

Eastend was apparently more than it seemed at first look, so I began to walk around the town.

In two blocks I realized the “accidental” visit was a classic Jungian  synchronicity.  A sign on the main street  pointed toward a modest home on a quiet street near the Frenchman River was “Wallace Stegner’s Boyhood Home.”   Stegner, who spent his boyhood years here,  was profoundly influenced by George R. Stewart.  Stegner wrote a fine essay about Stewart,  included in Stegner’s  WHERE THE BLUEBIRD SINGS TO THE LEMONADE SPRINGS.   In the George Rippey Stewart Papers at the Bancroft Library (See link in the header of this page) there are several wonderful letters from “Wally” Stegner to Stewart; in the Stegner Papers at the University of Utah, there are replies from Stewart.

Later, researching a chapter on the friendship between Stewart and Stegner, I found the website for the Boyhood Home. It had become a residence for writers and artists.  They accepted my application; so I had the rare honor of living in Stegner House for several weeks over three visits.  And the pleasure of getting the chance to know Eastend and its wonderful people.  Some, like Charlie Goulet, are now gone; but I know if I drove into town tomorrow I’d soon run into Ken and Ethel Wills, Dick and Clora Banford, Tim and Jacquie Tokaryk,   the Websters, and the others who have helped bring that community back into vibrant life.  It’s now home to one of the finest small enlightenments in the world today.  Good cheeseburgers at Charlie’s Lunch, good meals at Jack’s, several b&b’s;  and a new T-Rex Discovery Centre that would do justice to the Smithsonian, and that interdisciplinary marriage of art and science – STEAM – that characterize Enlightenments or Renaissances.

It was an inspiring place to work on the biography.  And, as things turned out, it was the place — in the living room of the Stegner House — where I found the key to the George R. Stewart biography.

The other highlight was being honored with a presentation of a Saskatchewan supporters of the arts pin, by Lieutenant Governor Lynda Haverstock.

Visit Eastend.   And give it some time.  Good campground, adequate motels, not far from a CAA approved motel in Shaunavon if you prefer a “larger” town.

With the Stegner House, the T-Rex Discovery Centre, a fine pottery, and other art locations, Eastend is a highly recommended place to visit.  Also recommended is Stegner’s book about Eastend, Wolf Willow, and his collection of essays described above, WHERE THE BLUEBIRD SINGS TO THE LEMONADE SPRINGS.  The collection of essays, which includes the essay about George R. Stewart,  begins with his memories of Eastend.