Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Desire rekindled for book about the No. 20 streetcar

Rolf Knight's "Along the No. 20 Line" was first published by New Star Books in 1980. The book, called a "lost gem," is to be reissued later this year as part of Vancouver's 125th-anniversary celebrations. This second-hand copy was purchased at MacLeod's Books by Bob Kronbauer, who is seeking original editions of all 10 legacy books to be reprinted for the quasqicentennial.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
March 2, 2011


As a boy, Rolf Knight dropped seven pennies into the fare box of the No. 20 streetcar for a tour of Vancouver’s working waterfront.

He rode from his home on the eastside along a busy stretch of the docks. The Powell Street landmarks are committed to memory — grain elevators; the Capilano brewery (opened, unpromisingly, in an old vinegar plant;) the four-story Princeton Hotel, a yellow brick refuge for the drinking man; the forbidding, prison-like menace of the Rogers Sugar refinery; the Campbell Avenue fish docks; the Powell Street Grounds, where chicken wire protected spectators from foul balls; Little Tokyo with its green grocers; the pier where striking workers took it on the head from police billy clubs in the Depression, earning the moniker Blood Ballantyne; and, finally, the wonders of downtown, just beyond Victory Square.

Mr. Knight shared his ride with loggers and longshoremen; watchmen and fishermen; grainhandlers and foundrymen; housewives and mischievous children who reach out the rear window on sharp turns to yank the trolley pole from its line, imps plucking a one-stringed harp.

He remembers the trolley car reeking of the stench from unfortunates who worked at the fish-oil processing plant and he remembers a peg-legged hobo, a wooden stump replacing a fleshy limb lost to misadventure while riding the rails.

In 1949, the streetcar tracks were torn up to make way from rubber-tired buses, a sign of prosperity and progress, or so people believed at the time.

Over the years, the city’s economy changed and, with it, the waterfront.
Rolf Knight.

Many years later, Mr. Knight wrote a reminiscence of the harbour and the people who worked there, including his mother, who punched a clock at a disagreeable sausage factory.

The book, titled “Along the No. 20 Line,” was published in the fall of 1980 by New Star Books, a small press housed in the basement of an old Kitsilano hippie house.

The memoir earned favourable reviews. The Vancouver Sun ran a lengthy excerpt about Mr. Knight’s memories of Pat Fitzpatrick, an old Irishman who lived in a tiny, wooden “coolie cabin” in which he shared mutton stew with the boy. The old man, his “big handlebar mustache stained with tobacco juice,” had worked on railroad gangs.

“Pat’s place was furnished with the usual wood stove and a heavy camp cot,” Mr. Knight wrote. “There was a kitchen table and a couple of wooden chairs, a washstand covered with red-checked oilcloth, a washbasin, and a water pail with a dipper standing in it. The cooler was an old apple box attached to some breezy place on a shaded outside wall and covered with wet clothes.”

The publisher ordered a modest print run, likely about 3,000 copies, which sold steadily, though not briskly. In time, the title went out of print.

But it was not forgotten.

From time to time, a literary figure would stumble upon a copy, waxing eloquent in print about the memoir.

Now, it is to return to the press.

“Along the No. 20 Line” is one of 10 “lost gems” to be republished to mark Vancouver’s 125th anniversary. The quasqicentennial celebrations will see the reprinting of four novels, two books of poetry, and four works of non-fiction, including Mr. Knight’s book.

Mr. Knight was asked his reaction to the happy news about his memoir being named a “lost gem.”

“God knows what that means,” the 75-year-old writer said. “That’s the kind of puffery that booksellers put out.”

Mr. Knight is 75, about the age of Pat Fitzpatrick when he knew him. He has been retired for about 15 years, since he gave up driving taxi, an arduous job of low pay, but one which gave him time to write books.

He lives in north Burnaby, a few kilometres from his childhood home on Wall Street, an ironic address for a writer whose life work it would be to chronicle the province’s workers.

He left home to work at age 14, working on a coastal boat running from the city to logging camps as far as Bute Inlet. He laboured on government trail crews and in construction. He proved to be a terrific scholar, eventually earning a doctorate in anthropology from Columbia University after spending a year at a Colombian sugar plantation.

“A bloody dangerous place to wander around in,” he says now.

He taught, but felt himself a failure as a teacher, as he could not engage undergraduates. He became another Mac driving a hack.

With little publicity, he generated a library of books about the working life in this province — the important "Indians at Work," "An Ordinary Life," "A Man of Our Times," "Stump Ranch Chronicles and Other Stories," "Traces of Magma: An Annotated Bibliography of Left Literature," and, most entertainingly, a biography of fishing union leader Homer Stevens.

He did so in obscurity. BC Bookworld magazine called him a “brave and little-heralded historian.” He eventually won a career award from the prestigious Canadian Historical Association.

He is now tasked with writing a four-page afterword for “Along the No. 20 Line,” which will be reprinted by New Star, which is now seeking archival photographs as illustrations. The publication date is, appropriately enough, Labour Day.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Rolf Knight is a fabulous writer, I think one of the best actually, but he should change his personality a little bit.
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