London, Ontario is a larger-than-average small metro of 375,000 people that is both conservative and home to punks and graffiti artists. With stately Victorian homes and loads of malls, London seems a city of contradictions. Vanessa Brown and Jason Dickson capture this oddness with charming specificity in London: 150 Cultural Moments (Biblioasis), a book that features 150 moments with page-long riffs and photos about the wacky things that have happened within the city.
It’s a unique experience to live in one place for most of your life. To do so means finding nooks and crannies, details and minutia that might be looked over by the casual observer or occasional tourist. Your sense of home expands out of your front door, down the block, and all around you, even down dead-end streets. Especially down dead-end streets. If you love the place you live, you have the urge to uncover all of its secrets. London, Ontario might seem like a benign, conservative place to most Canadians, but to us it’s home and even more, it’s an enigma.We’ve channeled our weird passion for local history and love of regional art into London: 150 Cultural Moments, where we try to capture the idiosyncratic background of the Forest City. Many stories have been told about this place, but the most interesting ones have never been written down. Oral history is, after all, the most fascinating history. That’s where you hear rumours and tall tales. That’s where someone tells you that Kim Mitchell named his song “Patio Lanterns” after the dangling bulbs on the patio of your favourite bar—a myth that we debunk in London: 150 with our kindest apologies.What makes a city or a community different from everywhere else? This difference is found in loving a place and calling it home. We write about the first libraries and working artists in the city, and teachers like Pasquale Venuta who gave the gift of music to the legendary “Mr. New Year’s Eve” Guy Lombardo. Speaking of Lombardo, who knew that he had his picture taken by Stanley Kubrick? Tidbits like this are why we wrote London: 150, giving the cocktail banter you need about a mid-sized Canadian city, to see the extraordinary in the ordinary.We tell you stories you might not have heard, like how Londoners scorned their most famous artist, Paul Peel, who ended up broke and dying in his hometown after massive success in Europe. We write about controversial happenings in the 1960s, forgotten haunts and punk shows, and the chain of mentors and students who create the bizarre landscape of London’s art scene. We retell Johnny Cash’s drugged-out proposal to June Carter at the London Gardens, and the debut of his Johnny Cash Machines in the same city where Chicken McNuggets first hit the MacDonald’s menu. Along with the eccentrics like hippie mainstay Roy MacDonald, we included endearing stories like those of Little Donny, the illiterate newspaper salesman, and Dicky Dean, who became Canada’s youngest magician.We wrote London: 150 full of cheek and candour, to be a book you can read in one sitting or pick up time and again to revisit the love you might have, and that we certainly share, of our hometown, the Forest City. * * * A freelance writer, editor and local historian, Vanessa Brown is the author of The Grand Old Lady: A History of Hotel London (London and Middlesex Historical Society). In addition to being an antiquarian bookseller, Vanessa Brown consults on early and rare editions and ephemera for the Friends of the L.M. Montgomery Institute.Jason Dickson is the author of Clearance, The Hunt, and Glenn Piano by Gladys Priddis (all published by Bookthug). His work has appeared in Quill & Quire, Maine Antiques Digest, Geist, Kotaku, Fine Books and Collections, Broken Pencil, Rue Morgue, and Open Letter. His column, “The Antiquarium,” appears regularly in Canadian Notes and Queries. * * * Thanks to Vanessa and Jason for sharing this story with us, and to Casey at Biblioasis for making the connection! To explore more of Canada through literature, click here.