In 1971, Harry Bruce, recognized as one of Canada’s top non-fiction writers, lost his mind—according to his peers—when he left bustling, lucrative Toronto and moved his family to the tough little seaport of Halifax. Harry was already acquainted with Halifax; at eighteen, he lived at HMCS Stadacona as an officer-cadet in the Royal Canadian Navy. He joined the navy chiefly to lose his virginity. “For what finer way could there be to serve queen and country?” Though he did not achieve his goal, that summer gave him his first whiffs of the port whose magnetism he would one day find irresistible.
I can’t necessarily speak for Harry Bruce, but I’m willing to give it a go. You see, a funny thing happened to me on my way out of Halifax. I’d been in town for a convention and a few days of travel lit research. Coming off an intense stretch of conference activities—workshops, breakouts, meet-and-greets—I was in full-on conventioneer mode, every sentence starting with, “Hi, I’m Bill, from Vancouver …” From this I went directly to Halifax Stanfield Airport, where I found myself in an elevator with a woman in a suit, wearing a lanyard, same as everyone I’d spoken to in the past week.
“Hi, I’m Bill, from Vancouver …” I said with a smile, extending a hand.
“Hi Bill!” she said, shaking my hand. “Really nice to meet you!” A momentary pause, then, “Gosh, I have to apologize, I don’t remember where it was we first met.”
It was then I realized I was no longer at a convention. Just an effusively friendly weirdo at the airport. To which I said, somewhat ashamed, “Oh. Yes. Right. Well in fact we haven’t actually met. I’ve just come from a conference and was in auto-pilot, meet-and-greet mode. I apologize.”
To which she laughed, relieved. “Thank goodness for that!” she said, “I pride myself on remembering people I meet. You see, I’m Lieutenant Governor here and I admit I fall into that trap too sometimes. But it was lovely to meet you Bill. Have a good flight.”
Which I did, chuckling most of the way across Canada. The other thing that encounter accomplished was to take a city I enjoy and imprint it permanently into my psyche. So when I learned eminent author Harry Bruce had written a memoir of this place he too loves, well, I simply had to jump in.
But if Halifax was gloomy, it was also dramatic. For it had the sea, and all the stories, ships, tugs, horns, toots, whistles, harbour lights, and fogs, tides and roaring winds that went with the sea. What awaited me in the strange streets of this world port? In what manly adventures would I excel while sailing o’er the bounding main? I was eighteen, and on my way. Halifax was my oyster.
This is poetic prose delivered with journalistic directness. And with that, we’ve met not one but both our protagonists. If I didn’t already have vivid visuals of this alluring maritime city, I do now—every sense engaged—the touch of ocean breeze, the saline taste of spindrift—sights, sounds, aromas. The potential of someplace new.
From the balcony of our eleventh-floor condo near Windsor and North, I see the bridges to Dartmouth, bridges that didn’t even exist in 1953; the white ferries, toys at this distance, nipping back and forth on the blue of the harbour; and in the south, the high-rises on the downtown waterfront, skyscraping cranes, the green mound of Citadel Hill; and if I lean far enough over the railing, even a stretch of the open Atlantic. The view reminds me, sixty-seven years after my fling with the navy, that the deal with the oceans was a major reason why I finally came to call Halifax home.
A sentiment I can relate to. And one I suspect you may too, in reading Halifax and Me. It reads, quite naturally, like the recollections of an old man, which is exactly what it is. As an old man myself I’m comfortable in that shared space. Some readers might wince on occasion at a turn of phrase that could be interpreted as sexist. Yet our narrator is sincere, articulate, and worldly. I read no malice in the words, only the observations of an acutely aware observer of a certain age, living in the midst of those observations.
Like any memoir or story set somewhere we’ve been, familiarity not only engages but can literally pull us once more into that common ground. I feel this with Harry Bruce’s Halifax and Me with an intensity that surprised me. Yes, the city itself is a touchstone, a personal landmark, but more than that it’s the words and communicative capability of this author, something he does exceedingly well in recounting his story.
(This review originally appeared in Atlantic Books Today, and is reproduced here by arrangement.)
About the Author: National award-winning author Harry Bruce has been a journalist for more than forty years. His books include Down Home: Notes of a Maritime Son, and Maud: The Life of L.M. Montgomery. He lives in Guysborough County, Nova Scotia.
- Title: Halifax and Me
- Author: Harry Bruce
- Publisher: Pottersfield Press, 2020
- ISBN: 9781989725177
- Pages: 190 pp
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Bill Arnott is the bestselling author of the Gone Viking travel memoirs (Gone Viking: A Travel Saga, Gone Viking II: Beyond Boundaries, Gone Viking III: The Holy Grail) and A Season on Vancouver Island. He’s won numerous book awards and received a Fellowship at London’s Royal Geographical Society for his expeditions. When not trekking with a small pack and journal, Bill can be found on Canada’s west coast, where he lives near the sea on Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh land.