In spite of an uninspired career as an English student at John F. Ross High School in Guelph, Ontario, James began writing through journals that he started keeping as a teenager, through his travels with the Boy Scouts.
An early journal that has survived from those days is an account of a journey to achieve First Class standing as a scout. For a 13 year old, this was a serious adventure from Friday after school until Sunday night that involved following a path in the rural areas to the north of Guelph. The route was set out in a series of six digit topographic map grid references, each of which included an instruction (i.e. turn east here and travel for four kilometers) and/or a question or two, much like a scavenger hunt, that required careful observation and interaction with what was going on at each spot.
Ken Danby owns a huge dog.
At one of the mysterious grid references between the ghost villages of Ennotville (home of Chicken in the Woodpile) and Speedside, the Scouter who had set up the journey (who obvious was well acquainted with everything happening on the route we were to travel) said that just north of the grid reference was an old mill on the banks of the mighty Speed River that an artist had purchased recently. We were to sketch the mill and, if possible, to call on the artist and learn a little bit about him. The artist, as it turned out, was a really nice chap called Ken Danby who invited my travelling companion and me into his studio under construction in the old mill itself where we stood amongst works, works in progress, sketches, easels, paints, brushes, cans and the other scattered trappings of a busy artist. As that first journal recounts, in answer to the Scouter’s questions and instructions I wrote: “It was a grist mill built in 1857 by a man called Mr. Armstrong. An artist lives here now called Ken Danby.” And then, with the door open to a full first-hand description of the world world of one of Canada’s foremost realist painters, the journal continues with what I noticed next: “He also owns a huge dog,” it says. Read samples of this trenchant cultural analysis here.
Silly or simple as that may sound, that journal started a hand-written and immediate record of travels that have stretched on (so far) for nearly half a century.
And that process—those journals—took a love of adventure, curiosity about people and a passion for the natural environment and wove them into a habit of mind and hand that have produced magazine articles, books, monographs, films, and radio documentaries. It is not every writer perhaps who can track back their passion to a particular turning point or moment in space and time but that First Class Journey and that journal were where my passion writing and for storytelling began.
And it is for this reason that in my kit that goes to all journal-keeping and expeditionary learning workshops is that three-holed Hilroy, No. 990 Narrow Ruled Exercise Book that I bought at the Woolworth’s Store at in the stripmall at Speedvale Avenue & Stephenson Street in Guelph for $.19.