Winter, 2016–2017 / No. 38
Illustration by Matthew Daley
Matthew Daley
Howland Poole Mair

I saw him face-to-face only twice—one Sunday when walking to church and another Sunday when learning to swim. I was toddling with my mother to the salt-water swimming pools of the Saraguay Club where a solitary swimmer in late August twilight was described to me as H. P. Mair. He was climbing up the ladder of the deep end, water streaming from sun-faded scarlet trunks, thistles of white vellus hair vegetating from his shoulders and ear rims, and I was deeply impressed that someone so time worn and baldheaded would carry himself with such sovereign composure. I was mesmerized by the smooth curve of his crown, sun burnished with freckles and age spots, and I admired his self-serious intelligence, his skepticism, his assurance and conceit. My mother confided he’d once been premier—that he’d worked with my grandfather to build the city’s harbour bridge and the province’s highways—and her general tone implied a man of some consequence. But her inflections conveyed further insinuations of arrogance, difficulty, pride. She seemed of two minds about the man, reverent and skeptical. “You know he’s read War and Peace twenty-six times? Who would read the same book twenty-six times?” I was four years old, didn’t care for adult books, and more concerned that the mesh underlining of my bathing suit was exposed and tangled in my drawstring. When I came to read the book in later life, I would think of H. P. Mair and how his family had been by war dissolved—a brother destroyed in the Halifax explosion, another sunk in the Second World War, two sisters dead from tuberculosis brought back from Europe. But on this late summer afternoon I knew nothing of hawkish niceties nor the key ports of the British Seaborne Empire nor anything within his dark world and wide and when I looked again toward the deep end, of course the man was gone.

Halifax Music Scene

Many of the teenagers in that Quadrophenia movie lineup—those that were then the Halifax Smart Kids—would become, yea, doctors and lawyers and professors, but some would congregate after university in cheaper sections of big cities—Parkdale, Mile End, Silver Lake, Commercial Drive, Wicker Park, Williamsburg—where they flocked into arts scenes various and impecunious, their weeks filling up with day jobs, headshots, chapbooks, merch tables, one-person shows, church-basement auditions, Merce Cunningham workshops, low-budget movie shoots, stories in little magazines. I was thrilled that, in the years following my departure, my hometown would become an alt-music hot spot, many of the kids present at our gigs going on to form bands—not only Pony DeVille and the thrash kids who became the Posers, but ambient synth poppers like Tanz Kopf and Smackanoid. These created a nucleus out of which burst a seriously effervescing music scene, the Halifax pop explosion as it was called, and acts and combos of every independent sort were set in motion—Fuckocracy, Fisher Bird, Off Day, Ack Ack Ack, Gobo Nobu, Morning Dick Cracker—many finding their way into surveys and anthologies of the era. Interested readers may wish to consult the compilations Never Mind the Molluscs, Hear and Now, Cod Can’t Hear, Out of the Fog, Out of the Fog Too, and the Halifax chapter in Have Not Been the Same: The CanRock Renaissance 1985–1995. Lastly, and just mentionably, the second chord in “Changeling Girl” is actually an E-flat augmented fifth minor ninth no. 3 and the song’s descending chord progression punkly reminiscent of everything from “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” to Sum 41’s “Fat Lip” to the swan-call finale in Sibelius’s Fifth Symphony.

The Waegwoltic club

Built in 1861 as a residential summer property on the city’s Northwest Arm, the Waegwoltic Club is still a going concern in the city’s West End and it is, along with Vancouver’s Hycroft, if you like this sort of thing, one of the more splendid examples of seashore stateliness in Canada.

Halifax Purlieus

The main ways and high streets of the city’s downtown are now somewhat desolate. “Barrington Street’s a graveyard now. No stores anymore. But they’re building all these condos. I don’t know who they’re going to get to live in them. Who wants to live downtown? Not young families. They’re all in Bedford.” It would be the suburbs that would expand, the communities of Bedford, Spryfield, Cole Harbour, and Clayton Park proliferating with multiplexes, shopping malls, box stores, hockey arenas. Empire Plaza, Howland Mair’s final development, when last investigated had two-thirds occupancy, top tiers mostly vacant, bottom floors leased to Atlantic Debt Advisors, Bluefish Sustainable Ocean Systems, Caledonia Lotto, Chebucto Business Academy, Jay-Dee’s Catering, Marshlands Unlimited, the Nic-Nac Smokes Shoppe, Perfect Hair Nail Plus, P.M.D. Prosthetics Supply, Ruby Thai Thai, Scotia Investment Solutions, and Zaydie’s Donair.

The Published Works
of Cyrus Mair

The published works of Cyrus Mair would amount to three lengthy monographs published separately in three different academic journals. The first, “Context and System,” came out when its author was just twenty-one. The second, “Symbol and Scheme,” was published a year later. The last in the series, “Identity and Consequence,” was in circulation two years after that. Cambridge University Press would collect all three in a slim paperback edition and soon thereafter, to my wonderment and semi-consternation, “Mair, Cyrus F.” began posthumously appearing in academic indices around the free world. The book has since been published in multiple translations, Contexte et système, Kontext und system, Kontekst og system, Contesto e sistema, and so on, but it’s that artfully designed first edition, with its distinctive pale blue cover, I remember best. It would follow me around in various ways: a peek-a-boo flash on a new girlfriend’s bedside table, a glimpse of blue faded to grey in a bookshop’s soggy remainder bin, and, most vividly, when an oddball ex-roommate waved a copy in my face at some random yard sale. His goatee festooned with multiple elastic bands, his eyes gleaming with the fervor of the converted, my ex-roommate held a well-worn copy to the sky and declared, “This is the best book I’ve read about anything.” I confess it remains a book I’ve never started. It’s not as if I’m waiting for something to come out in Urdu, I just don’t think it’s for me.

Vance Allan Blomgren

First-born son to Madeleine Zwicker and H. P. Mair, dubious drug-dealing mentor to me, biological brother to Cyrus, the only Mair blood relative among the quick after 1985, I would see Vance Blomgren sporadically in Halifax, most memorably one wet spring midnight when both of us were remanded to the overnight lock-up in the Gottingen Street police station for public intoxication. By this time, he was mostly out of the drug racket and reduced to driving cab for the Regal Taxi line. In the years of my boyhood, the trafficking of marijuana in the eastern provinces of Canada was nominally controlled by a workaround motorcycle gang called the Thirteenth Tribe. When the Hells Angels came from Montreal to run drugs out of the Halifax docklands, Deacon Vickery, Joseph Estabrooks, Martin Michael Longafils, and other Tribe members were patched into the Angels, sometimes amicably, sometimes not. Non-essential associates, street-level traffickers like Vance Blomgren, were made to know they were free to explore new opportunities. The night Vance and I reunited in the drunk tank he was very much in the midst of this transition. He was drunk and bleeding, did not recognize me from our earlier dealings, but, like many Maritimers, he turned and spoke to a stranger as if he had known him all his life. “Hey there, bud. What are you—just passing through? Like everybody else, I guess. Me, I’ve been here awhile. And why’s that? Fucking coleslaw. I’m here tonight, I’m here in the fucking drunk tank tonight, because of fucking coleslaw. You believe it? I swear to God.” He called to the corridor. “Hey there, Officer Bubba? Could I get some Mercurochrome or something? I’m bleeding all over here.” He kicked at the stainless steel toilet. “Fuck me. I haven’t dranken since New Year’s. You don’t drink for a while and you get fucking wasted. Nine beers and I’m done. Nine beers and I’m I don’t know what. Some circus professional. A fucking juggler. Juggler on the road of life.” He turned to me. “Now would you be surprised if I said I’m here because of a woman? This girl, this little deviant, she’s been breaking hearts since Grade 11, and if you saw her, you’d think she’s this perfect little “Skinny Minnie” Miller type girl, but think again. Because I’m telling you right fucking now, no word of lie, this girl is cracked. She’s been wheeling and dealing her whole life but she couldn’t win if she was crooked. And it’s made her a very angry individual. She’s mad at umpteen people every day. Look at this. I’m not trying to fruit you, buddy, but she cut me with a screwdriver, two inches the other way and—foop—she’d’ve slit through my kidneys and I’d be dead. Seriously. Some people. Some people shouldn’t have kids and her parents was one of them, all’s I’m saying. And you know why she done this? Because I wouldn’t drive her back to get her fucking coleslaw from Kentucky Fried. After all I done for her. Styrofoam cup of coleslaw? Fucking juggle that. Seriously. Hey, maybe I’m not the nicest guy in the world but you think this girl would have the common decency to fucking understand where a man is coming from.” He tucked in his shirt and looked up at the surveillance camera. “Or how about a Band-Aid? If it’s not too much trouble.” He was silent a second. “I mean the whole thing’s so disgracious I can’t believe it. And I don’t need the aggravation. I really don’t. I know where she lives, too, right? You know the tanning salon on Agricola? On the north-hand side of the street there? Across from the Hells Angels? Sure you do. Everyone knows that clubhouse. And I know the Angels, right? Joey Estabrooks, Deacon Vickery, friends of mine from way back in the day. Nicest guys you’d ever want to meet. Unless you rip them off. Rip them off and they don’t fool around. Good buddy of mine, he’s up to his nut sack in loans to those fuckers. You fuck up those deals and you’re done. Lead poisoning. Tits up in Lake Banook. Fuck, these guys got fifty points on the Misty Moon, they own Little Nashville outright, they probably got the fucking Chickenburger for all’s I know. Deacon’s a serious son of a bitch now. For fuck’s sakes, I used to run Fern Lane for them two fuckers! And they look at me now like I’m some jeezly little low-life. Like they wouldn’t hire me to shovel shit in Upper Wilmot. But I’m not out of the picture. I got my own basic cable. Maybe it ain’t ready right yet but it’s on the go. It’s happening. Because what does she want me to do—drive cab the rest of my life? Fuck that noise.” He touched at the damp blood on his shirt. “We’re having a beer at Camille’s Fish and Chips and she gets there, whining about this and ragging about that, because I wouldn’t drive her back to get her fucking coleslaw and macaroni salad. Then all of a sudden like this she says she’s going to call Crime Stoppers to come arrest me for assault! And I haven’t laid a fucking hand on her yet. Some bitch from Pugwash threatening to snitch on me then fucking stabs me in the women’s bathroom! How’s that for your Friday night? And she’s crying like, ‘Why don’t you want to fight for the relationship?’ Fight for the relationship? Who do I have to fight to get out of the relationship is what I wants to know. Here I am, Jesus. Send me. Let’s get this done. For fuck’s sakes. Last thing I need’s my name in the papers. Because I don’t want to cause any rhetoric, you know? My name’s in the papers and I’m a fucking liability. I do not need to be arrested again, thank you very much. And Halifax County Correctional Facility? You know what it smells like? Like a fucking mop. Like disinfectant. The whole place.” He wiped his bloody hand on his jeans. “I can’t believe she’d sell me out. And she’s a Christian! She’s a fundamentalist Christian who goes to church every Sunday. What a crazy fucking world. Two people could be riding side by each on the bus and one’s a fundamentalist Christian who doesn’t believe in dinosaurs and the other thinks she’s going to be reincarnated as an astronaut or, I don’t know, maybe she’s just some crazy bitch from Pugwash who thinks she knows better than me. I mean, don’t get me wrong. She’s a gorgeous girl, and I waited three fucking years for her to get legal, but enough’s enough, you know? You don’t want to be one of those guys who doesn’t know when it’s over, right? You don’t want that. No, you do not.” He looked up at the sound of a door opening at the end of the corridor. “Here we are. Here he is. Finally. Some medical attention.” He squinted at me. “But buddy—have I seen you somewheres before? You look like a guy who’s got a handle on things. You want a gum? Actually I might have a piece of gum somewheres.” Searching through his pocket, he leaned close to me and whispered, “And you ain’t looking for anything tonight, are you? I got a gram of hash at the house if Miss Pugwash hasn’t stole it off me. Give it to you for twenty. Because you ain’t in here forever.” He pressed a stick of Juicy Fruit into my hand. “Life is short, the road is long. But juggling, let me tell you something about juggling there, brother. The thing about juggling is the balls always go where you throw them. Put that in your pipe while you’re at it.” Camille’s Fish and Chips was a landmark North End eatery. It burned to the ground in March 2007 under never-explained circumstances. Vance Allan Blomgren would expire ten months later, the day before New Year’s Eve, in a shoddy ice storm, a derelict in a snowdrift, his body found frozen on a sloped-over headstone in the Old Burying Ground, the oldest cemetery in the city, where the last person was buried a hundred and fifty years before.

Gregor Burr

The most fantastically self-absorbed and vainglorious personality I would ever encounter, Gregor Burr never explained, never apologized, never admitted weakness. He did not allow into his systems and contexts any interpretation that did not benefit him. When my father acted for Gregor Burr in the various sexual harassment suits brought against him by the R.C.M.P., Gregor’s wife and sons were in the courtroom every day. Whether this sign of support made any real difference—and I know for many of the women of Halifax it did—no one will ever know. The case ended in a mistrial when the judge dismissed as unreliable the testimony given by a key complainant. There were two further cases, brought about some years later, which did not go to trial because they were settled out of court, the parties entering into an agreement to resolve the issues without any admission of liability and with the understanding that the terms of the settlements would never be made public. His reputation outwardly intact, Gregor Burr continued to serve as member of Parliament for Halifax West. When Brian Mulroney’s government collapsed in the 1993 federal election, Gregor Burr returned to provincial politics and became the premier of Nova Scotia for three terms. He resides in the city now as a Tory elder statesman, the point man for the Conservatives in Atlantic Canada, enormously wealthy, having corporate directorships with National Sea Products, Sobeys, the Bank of Montreal, and Moosehead Breweries, as well as acting as senior counsel for what began as Merton Mair McNab and is now branded Merton Fortiers L.L.P. Two years ago, he established the Gregor Burr Scholarships at King’s College in Halifax with a gift of two million dollars, the largest individual donation in the college’s history. Philanthropist, patriarch, founding father, statesman, sportsman—over the decades, the city’s attitudes toward the man have softened. “Old Gregor’s a toothless lion now,” said my mother. “But what a lot he’s achieved. He’s raised more money for good causes than anyone else in the city. And he loves his grandkids. Takes them to soccer. Takes them to hockey. That little boy, Greggy, he plays on the same team as Carolyn’s kids. And my, does Gregor dote on those children.” I don’t care. I have seen Gregor Burr smirk his way through life, at all points convinced of his own importance, his confidence stunning to behold, and I will know him always as a bully who ignores everything that is not his own.

Kelly Gallagher

Petulantly fertile in youth, Kelly Gallagher in maturity would develop mental-health issues and walk the South End streets distracted with obscure sadness. Even so, thirty years later, grown men—single, divorced, married—remembering the beauty of her high-school years, would Google “Kelly Gallagher Halifax” and drunk message her, leaving lengthy notes on her Facebook page, suggesting she feel free to say hello if ever she comes through town—Kingston, Peterborough, Thunder Bay.

Brigid Benninger

For some reason, in preparing these histories, I have thought often of Brigid Benninger. When we were young, there were many who argued Brigid was frigid and subsisted in Halifax without any perceptible emotional nuance or motivation. It was more complicated than that. The deaths of her mother and father forced her inside herself, I think, and reminders of these events, and her hometown’s understanding of her lot in life, contributed to her decision to leave the city for good. Her beauty was stellar, prissy, ubiquitous. It was the first thing you noticed when you came through the door and the last thing you remembered when you left the room. Of course she never herself referred to her beauty but all meanings seemed refracted through its prism and the truth is, at least for me, it all got sort of fucking boring. Fast-forward a number of years, and I am someone’s date at the Daytime Emmy Awards in New York. In the Rihga Royal Hotel afterwards, following the reception, a dark-haired woman walks into the piano bar. She wears black tights and an oversized sweater. She looks around, assessing the room, as if searching for her companion. I notice instantly her allure, a curtain of black hair flopping across her face and eyes. It is, of course, Brigid Benninger, whom I’ve known since I was seven and who, I notice, as she retreats from the room, chooses to engage with absolutely no one.

Gail Benninger


Alex Pugsley won the Journey Prize in 2012. Last updated winter, 2016–2017.