Writers' Ink at Caledon Public Library

A Stranger in a Strange Land

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It could be said that, for my first 25 years, the strange land where I was a stranger was England. Too many Leicester folk felt my ability to see auras meant I was mentally ill. The fact I was not a member of the middle class also meant I hadn’t gone to the right schools, and was considered less capable than those who had that background.

After I finished my National Service in the RAF, I felt strangely hemmed in by British ways. I made enough money to have a sailboat and a small aircraft, but my financial position was considered insufficiently secure by parents who didn’t want their daughters associating with the son of a draughtsman whose father was a shop-keeper. This class restriction meant my commercial art and design business could not gain the larger and more challenging projects. While businesses who did hire me felt I had valid experience in creative thinking, contracts were awarded on the basis of class rather than ability.

This restrictive outlook came up in a discussion with my Canadian Uncle on one of his visits, where he said, “That doesn’t happen in Canada. Designers are hired on their abilities and examples of their work.” That made Canada sound far less strange, and I bought a ticket the next day. However as soon as I started planning my emigration, I picked up a very interesting contract, and cashed in the ticket. Nine months later I completed the project and again bought a ticket. Within a week I was offered an attractive contract with the Essoldo Cinemas who introduced wide screen movies to England. But the head office staff turned out to be even more bureaucratic than the RAF and, after a particularly miserable session with the Board, I resigned and bought the third ticket.

I could not sell my business, had given my boat to my brother and had crashed my plane six weeks before. After paying for my ticket, I had only $175. The prospect of finding employment was a small cloud on the distant horizon, but, at 25 years of age, I wasn’t going to let that spoil this adventure.

I boarded the ‘Empress of Britain’ on May 6th, 1956 and found I’d be sharing a cabin with two other émigré’s on my journey to Canada. My uncle had offered accommodation for a few days in Toronto until I’d found a job and my own lodgings. By the time we passed Ireland’s southern tip, we were running into heavy seas and my companions were confined to the cabin, seriously seasick. I’m lucky as I just don’t get sea-sick, and could walk the decks, or lean on the ship’s rail and sketch the sea-birds, the huge waves, an occasional freighter and even a sailboat or two. But I still seemed to be a stranger on that huge ship.

My first break came on the third day when I was walking around the ship. Very few people were on the deck as many were also troubled by the ship’s motion. But I noticed a middle-aged man and woman sitting in deck chairs. I had seen them there before, but they were reading the ship’s newspaper and I had a typical Leicesterite’s nervousness about introducing myself to people I didn’t know. On my fourth circuit the woman grinned at me and said, “Come and sit down, you make me tired just watching you stroll around as if the sea was as calm as a mill pond.” So I sat down, and experienced a typical Canadian acceptance of a total stranger as if they’d known me for months. Fred and Molly Shepherd lived in Etobicoke and had two sons and a daughter. “Ron, my eldest son, is about your age,” she said. They were actually travelling First Class, but their fellow passengers would not associate with anyone who was not part of the upper crust. Fred was a printer and his specialty was printing fancy cut-out labels. He had been visiting his die-maker for the cutting tools at the company’s plant in Leicester. I knew the die-maker, and had bought dies from him for a special publicity piece. Molly was skillful in knowing what questions to ask and how to ask them without any feeling she was prying. I met them each day after that, and those chats created a lasting friendship.

In Montreal a minor negative occurred when I went through customs. I had a large sea-chest and a crate (it had originally been used to bring tea from India) filled with my art books and tools of the trade. One of the inspectors opened one of the books filled with nudes, and immediately treated it as though it was pornographic. Fortunately his superior asked me, “What sort of work will you be doing, sir?” I told him I’d be working in advertising design and commercial art. He turned to the inspector and said, “He’s an artist for Chrissake. He’ll need all these design and art books for that.” So the crate was sealed again and I was told a carrier would drive it up to the train station. He called one of the waiting carriers over and, for fifteen dollars, I was taken with all my luggage to the station where I could then transfer it to a train next morning. While there I bought my ticket to Toronto.

I then took a taxi up to my cousin’s home and, after paying the driver, realized the grand total of all I had was twenty-five dollars. I had a wonderful reunion with my cousin; she had visited England six years before and we had maintained a pen-pal relationship. She was now married, with a two-year old daughter.

My uncle met me the next day at Union Station and after arranging for the transfer of my luggage to his house – which he paid for – we drove up to his home in Leaside. On the way up he said, “David, I’m not your Dad and you’re old enough to handle whatever will come your way here, but I have two suggestions that may help you settle in. First there is a very large British Empire Club here on University Avenue – don’t go near it! They speak in England’s upper crust idiom and do everything the English way. They haven’t a clue why we do the things in our way. Secondly, and relating to ‘our way’ of doing things, you will find out very quickly that we do have ways, habits and general responses you may find weird. Use a small notebook and jot down your thoughts about them, but don’t discuss them with anyone until a year from today. By that time you’ll have discovered why we do it ‘our way’.

Four unusual events happened within the first three weeks of my arrival in this strange land. First I took my resume to the Advertising Association. An official helped me rewrite it, using words and phrases I thought were quite exaggerated, but it was then distributed, free of any charge to me, to all members of that Association. The next morning I received seven offers.

The second surprise was a statutory holiday which fell on the second weekend after I was employed, and the Shepherds insisted on my going up to their summer cottage just outside Algonquin Park. While I was there, the family seemed to decide I’d be a family member on all future long weekends.

The third was Ron Shepherd’s presidency of the young people’s group at Kingsway Lambton United Church. He encouraged me to join, and there I met a large group of people my age who all seemed to feel I was ‘one of them’. As a result, I had none of the homesickness new immigrants often experience in their first year or two.

The fourth occurrence happened when I was at their cottage up there in the Muskokas. Looking around, I suddenly had this overwhelming sense of belonging – “I’m finally home. This is no strange land. It’s where I was meant to be and I’m no stranger here.”

by David Chesterton

About Alton Chapter

The Alton Chapter of Writers' Ink meets the 1st Wednesday of the month from 6:30 to 8:30 pm at the Alton Branch.

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This entry was posted on February 7, 2015 by in Alton Chapter and tagged , , , , , , .

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