At The World's Edge: Curt Lang's Vancouver 1937-1998
by Claudia Cornwall

Mother Tongue Publishing, 2011. ISBN 978-1-896-94917-8.
Reviewed by Mary Ann Moore
Posted on 11/29/2011

Nonfiction: Memoir; Nonfiction: Biography; Nonfiction: History/Current Events

Curt Lang's life was full of such a variety of occupations, avocations and inventions that there's something to pique everyone's interest in this biography by one of his friends: freelance writer Claudia Cornwall.

The unraveling of Curt Lang's life is a fascinating journey, all the more so as it was undertaken by an award-winning journalist. Cornwall talked to many friends of Lang's: his mother Hope; his two wives Gail (now Abby) and Ruth; his brother Greg who wrote the introduction; and her own husband Gordon. For twelve years, Claudia and Gordon were friends of Lang's and recollections include the businesses the men were involved in together as well as their personal interactions. The Cornwalls kept journals and Lang also had unpublished writing all of which have obviously been an invaluable resource for this biography.

Cornwall poses questions and offers her opinions and personal thoughts at times, but not so much as to detract from the story of her subject. Her writing is such that it illuminates Lang's mercurial nature and allows him, along with the memories of him, to take centre stage. Having said that, the biographer's journey is an interesting one too. The unfolding of the story is rather like reading a mystery novel as the author sets out, like a private eye, to find out all she can about her subject and his usual haunts. Because of the describing of her own journey of discovery, the book is a memoir as well as a biography—a stimulating combination.

I especially enjoy reading about writers' early lives so was particularly interested in the fact that, when Lang was a teenager, he showed his poems to Malcolm Lowry who had already published Under the Volcano and was living in a North Vancouver beach cottage. Al Purdy also became a friend in 1952, when he was working in a mattress factory, before he became a well known poet.

Lang knew many other poets and artists including David Marshall and Fred Douglas. Douglas and Lang shared "a dilapidated, rat-infested studio" on Vancouver's West Pender in the late 1950s. They got up to a lot of mischief while working as janitors at the Vancouver Art Gallery.

In the early 1970s, Lang was a street photographer and a member of the Leonard Frank Memorial Society of Documentary Photographers, along with his good friend Fred Douglas. Previously unpublished poetry, drawings and photographs are included in the book as well as an exceptional portfolio of forty rare 1972 Vancouver photographs. Wood houses, small corner grocery stores, cafes and apartments are among the images of the ordinary places that make up a city and would have appealed to the unpretentious Lang.

Lang went on to design and build boats and become a fisherman in his thirties. During the next decade, he became involved in the high-tech industry where he was awarded two patents and started several companies.

At one point, Cornwall feared she was "locking him in to these pages." From what I've read, there can be no locking of Curt Lang, even after death. The book will no doubt ignite more memories of the man and the early days of Vancouver and environs.

Claudia Cornwall has been a freelance writer for more than twenty years. Her book, Letter from Vienna: A Daughter Uncovers Her Family's Jewish Past (Douglas & McIntyre), won the Hubert Evans Non-Fiction Prize in British Columbia for 1996. In 2009, she received a $20,000 journalism award from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research to support medical journalism and reporting. Visit her website.

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