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The Blue Road

Edinburgh and London, Mainstream Publishing, 1990.

Author’s Preface

     I got the call from Labrador, the land that God gave Cain, as Captain Cartier called it, when I was eleven years old. It was all because of a book and the images it contained : of Indians, Eskimos, mountains, fish and white wolves howling at the moon.
     So, you get images fixed in your mind when you’re eleven years old (you can think yourself lucky it was that kind of image you got), and you follow them up thirty years later, having accomplished in the meantime several more or less erratic, more or less fertile excursions into the fields of life and knowledge.
     That’s how I got onto this blue road.
     But what’s a “blue road” ? I hear somebody asking.
     I’m not too sure about that myself. There’s the blue of the big sky, of course, there’s the blue of the ice. But all those notions, along with a few others I can think of, while they talk to my senses and my imagination, still don’t exhaust the depth of that “blue”.
     So it’s something mystic then ?
     I wouldn’t want to get involved in palaver about that word at this juncture (there’s something a whole lot fresher calling us out), but if I let my mind dwell for a moment on this kind of vocabulary, I recall that in some of the old traditions they talk of the itinerant mystic, and they say that if a man caught up in “Western exile” wants to find his “Orient”, he has to go through a passage North.
     Maybe the  blue road is that passage North, among the blues of silent Labrador.
     Maybe the idea is to go as far as possible – to the end of yourself – till you get into a territory where time turns into space, where things appear in all their nakedness and the wind blows anonymously.
     Anyway, I wanted to get out there, up there, and see.

     It’s later that night I make the acquaintance of Eskimo Joe.
     He’s planted there on the sidewalk, swaying back and forth, back and forth, and spouting a garrulous monologue into the heathen darkness.
     A King Lear of the ice !
     When I get close to him, he thrusts his face, framed in the furred hood of an anorak, into mine and says :
     “Spare a quarter ?”
     I ask him what for, but the question is rhetorical, for the smell off his breath would make a whale turn pale.
     “Rum !”
     I put my hand in my pocket. What comes out is a dollar. I hand it over.
     “Come on and have a drink !”
     He shouts that with an accent as Irish as the pigs of Docherty.
     Who is this guy ? A Killarney Eskimo ? The playboy of the Northern world ?
     We go into the bar.
     The barman looks at the Eskimo, and he looks at me, but the doesn’t say anything.
     “Rum ! Two !”
     The rum is on the counter.
     Bottoms up.
     “Where’re you from ?”
     “Nain ! North Labador !”
     I ask him his name.
     “Just call me Joe. That’s what they always call me…”
     And he goes into a long mumbling monologue about “they”.
     I’m curious to know more.
     “You work here ?”
     “No, man, I’m out of work here !”
     “What did you do ?”
     “Iron ore ! The Company !”
     And he goes back into his stumbling monologue.
     “Where’d you get that Irish accent,”
    “All over the place ! Construction gangs ! I cover the world !”
     “Where are you going now ?”
     At that last question, a wild gleam comes into his hyperborean eyes and with a majestic sweep of his arm, he thunders :
     “Trans-Canada !”

Extract from the chapte “Eskimo Joe“

     Piers, promontories, headlands.
     I stood out at the end of the pier watching the gulls.
     The white dance !
     “What is chaoticism, Mr White ?”
     That need for words that energize and space out.
     The leap into another logic.
      I was drunk with the wind. Drunk with the great white rumour of the St Lawrence. Drunk with ideas.
     Ideas like fish and gulls. “Swimming thinking, winged thinking.”
     Oceanic philosophy.
     Why write ? So as not to go completely crazy with that kind of drunkenness. That white drunkenness that is the source of all real writing.

Extract from the chapter “The Wind at Seven Islands”

The title of this book – The Blue Road – sounds at first as if it might give more scope for the dreamy romantic side of things. But it also proves to be down to earth, in the best sense : an exhilarating journey through Labrador, feet literally on the ground. […] The Blue Road gives a full account of the travelling, of the encounters and visits, […] the approach is measured, literally step by step, practical but opening into moments of excitement when the world reveals what it can display when given adequate time and space : “…basic practice, which only seems exotic and impossible to us because our culture destroys the very space in which it can take place : the space of solitude and silence.”
What is being defended here is not mystical, though it could be seen as ecological in the widest sense. It’s a plea to see the world as it is, something our society has generally abandoned in preference for hanging the world to our own imagined version of it – a self-centred act in the most literal sense.
     Hugh Macpherson, Scottish Book Collector

The Blue Road is a road along the coast, from Montreal along the banks of the St Lawrence river, northward into Labrador, where “in winter, the white bark of the birches takes on a rosy tint”. […] The author travels, not as a tourist avid of sensation, but as a seeker of what lies beyond, beyond the casual encounters, the scenery, the history and the inanities of the travel brochure. He is mindful of the zen saying : “When you reach the top of the mountain, keep on climbing.” […] White is trying for something that isn’t literature but is like a piece of the mineral called labradorite, which when turned into the light gives out “a multiplicity of blue flashes”.
     Douglas Sealy, Irish Times.

The Blue Road is an ambitious account of a trip to Labrador, seen in metaphysical terms. […] Written in diary-style in short, clearly-seen passages, most a few paragraphs long, it is a vivid account of the journey. The simplicity of the writing accommodates a great many learned references, often to early explorers, geologists, and buddhist writers. In a poem at the end he writes a sort of credo : “a man needs to fix his knowledge/but he also needs an emptiness/in which to move”.
     D. M. Black, Chapman