Elizabeth Hay Interview

Elizabeth Hay interviewed Whalley in Yellowknife in April, 1976.

This is a transcription of the interview:

EH: George, I’d really like to know why you chose to write about John Hornby.

GW: I’d always been fascinated by polar literature and the experiences of people travelling in the Antarctic, particularly, then in the Arctic. I’d experienced some of the sorts of things that Edgar Christian wrote about. I was fascinated by his diary, and then later on when it was possible to learn more about Hornby, I became even more fascinated by him. And what interested me was the writing of the biography, of finding out how to write about a person like that so that he came out of the book. So that I judged him as little as possible and could reconstruct his life, and allow his feelings, his sense of the country, his feeling for life, to arise from it without trying to answer in too forthright a way why he did certain things. But to try to let that — to let the reasons come out of the record of his experience.

EH: Why did your fascination shift from Edgar Christian to John Hornby?

GW: When I read and studied the diary and was working on it for a broadcast, I found that Hornby was the dominant figure in that whole episode of the last journey. That he was a very laconic, mysterious figure in the background, and yet he had imparted practically the whole colour to everything that was present. So I naturally wanted to find out about him, to see how it was possible for a person to have, as it were, commanded the lives of the other people without taking their lives in command. Without in fact saving their lives, which is what he should have been able to do.

EH: What do you think made him tick? Can you speculate on that? In fact — in fact you talk quite a bit about that in your book, so can you read from your book, then, where you talk about that?

GW: Yes, there’s a bit, in the account of the years after the war when he first went back to the East end of Great Slave Lake, and I wrote about that in a general sort of way, about those experiences. That hardships and starvation seem to take on a positive value for him, as though they were the only substantial values left. As though an ascetic and masochistic spirit were driving him to some impossible consummation with the country he loved. He courted death because he didn’t fear death. He went into the North alone and with little provision, because he loved the unfenced land, cheerlessly. He loved the unfenced land to the point of obsession and felt that any other approach defied the integrity of the land. If he was deliberately seeking death he had many opportunities to gratify such a wish. But his supreme self-confidence allowed him to do impossible things, as a child would do them, without bravado, absent mindedly, without even delighting in skill. He survived feats of endurance, and endured miracles of survival. You either got through or you didn’t. If you ignored pain, and hunger, and exhaustion, the issues were horribly simple. As long as you weren’t dead you were alive. And some last tendril of the will to live could cling to the most improbable surfaces. What some men would suffer to make a living, or a fortune, or a reputation, or to extend the limits of knowledge, or alleviate the human condition, Hornby endured continuously, alone, without encouragement, with no reason anybody could see, for no reason he himself could give. He got into predicaments that nobody else would have courted, and he survived them as nobody could have been expected to survive.

EH: Do you think he was incapable of being happy?

GW: No, I don’t think so. He seems to have had a real capacity for enjoyment. I think his sense of humour was sometimes rather laconic and even cruel, as it was with Critchell Bullock, and he sometimes played some, rather awkward pranks on his friend George Douglas. But he did have a sense of humour and he had a real enjoyment of life. And like, anybody who travels alone in the North at all, if he met people they’d brew tea and they’d stay for a day or two, or three days, and spin yarns, and enjoy themselves.

EH: Can you give me an example of that cruel sense of humour, that you say he sometimes played on George Douglas?

GW: Well Douglas was a rather straight-laced, formal, kind of person, and Hornby knew this and was constantly teasing him. And when he was a guest in Douglas’ house he would sit it out in the kitchen telling outrageous stories to Douglas’ cook instead of spending his time with George Douglas, or he would disappear without saying where he was going and Douglas would chase off into Peterborough or Lake Field and do a round of the bars looking for him. He wasn’t in the bar at all, he was just annoying Douglas by vanishing. But he was inclined to vanish. He was like a bird of passage: never knew when he would arrive, or if he did arrive, when he would leave.

EH: And that last time he vanished, of course, he vanish with two other people. What kind of reaction do most people have to the fact that he really took two people to their deaths? People you’ve talked to, like George Douglas for instance.

GW: I would say that the reaction was almost uniformly of indignation: Denny Lenouse, George Douglas, Guy Blanchet, the Northern Affairs people at that time, the police who were asked to stop him, and didn’t feel that they could, and therefore that they shouldn’t. The only person that I have met, who didn’t feel that way was Edgar Christian’s mother. And she seemed to have no feeling of bitterness at all, about Hornby, about Jack as she called him. She was very fond of him. She was very proud of Edgar, and what he had done, of what he had written. She had a letter from John Buchan, who was then the Governor General, saying what a fine book it was, and congratulating her and her son. She came from a service family and I think she took it that was the sort of things that happened if you took risks.

EH: Hornby isn’t really regarded all that highly by a lot of people, is he?

GW: No, I don’t think he is. The department of Northern Affairs, certainly the Northwest Territories and Yukon Branch as it was called then, didn’t have a high regard for him. But they did grubstake him on one occasion. And he wrote a caribou report that present authorities on the caribou say shows remarkable insight into animals that very little was known at that time. But, he wasn’t a reliable person, you never knew what he was going to do next.

EH: What about you? I mean, do you like him?

GW: Yes, I like him – I like him in a way. I’m wary of him. I have one very close friend who is very like him. And it may be that there’s some similarities between us. There’s something about him that I find both fascinating and admirable, and yet there are things that I simply cannot understand. Why with his experience, for example, he travelled so slowly going into the Thelon; he knew where he was going, knew what he wanted to do, but he went too slowly and got there too late for the caribou and things worked out badly for them.

EH: What is it you admire about him?

GW: I think what I admire about him is his respect for the — his respect for the country and his feeling that he had to live in the country on its terms. How that he was prepared to face up to whatever implications there were in that.

EH: Mmhm.

GW: He was a compassionate kind of person. He hated killing and trapping animals, for example, and only did that when necessary. And, he — when the trips were really down on the Thelon he did everything he possibly could, and he virtually killed himself for the others. On the one hand he led them to their deaths, it’s true, but having got into an impossible situation he did everything he could to get them out of it.

EH: You were saying that you thought if he had been by himself he probably would have survived.

GW: I think he might well have done, because Edgar Christian was too young and inexperienced to be able to stand the privations and particularly the cold. And because they had missed the caribou they didn’t have proper winter clothing. It’s well known that younger people can’t stand the cold: mountaineers, and polar trappers, so on, are well aware of that. Uh, Harold Adlard, I think was the best hunter in the party. Unfortunately he got frost bitten and was out of the action for almost a month at a crucial time, so that for that time Hornby virtually had to support two people. Adlard I think comes out of it extremely well, certainly the early part of it. He broke down in the end, but then he was the third man, and emotionally in an impossible situation.

EH: Do you think you are at all like John Hornby?

GW: I think I very often do things just about as crab-wise as he did.

EH: What do you mean?

GW: I think I very often come on the things I really want to do sidewise; not always going directly going for them, not always knowing what it is I’m going for.

EH: Mmhm.

GW: So that even writing a book about Hornby is something I had no intention of doing, until circumstances happened to point in that direction. And it took, I think about seven years to write the book.

EH: Since you wrote the book, what kind of information and feedback have you received?

GW: I’ve had letters and conversations with a number of people. Some of whom I had not known before, who produced personal records, sometimes diaries, letters, and the like, from rather a wide area, all in Canada, but some of them people in the North and missionaries, one person in New Brunswick who had known him quite well, members of families that are mentioned in the book and were able to provide other information. There are a number of details that I could clarify in a larger part of the book now, if I were doing a new edition of it.

EH: Would you change anything in the book essentially though?

GW: No, not essentially. I would correct some small details, like the distance of the fishery from the head of the Bear River, which I’m told is seven miles and not six and a half miles. A few things of that sort. Otherwise, it would just be amplifying and giving a little more human perspective to some of the circumstantial detail. I recently met a man who had been a young lawyer at the time of Hornby’s death in the office of the solicitor that handled Hornby’s affairs, who gave me the impression that he could find documents to prove that Hornby was in fact in possession of a considerable estate when he died. All the evidence that I’ve been able to come at from the family and from the family’s solicitors in England, and so on, suggests the contrary, that he had practically nothing when he died. But apparently he didn’t. Which was what was always supposed in the North, that he was really quite a wealthy person.

EH: About how much money would he have had then?

GW: Oh, what for those days would have been a considerable sum. A few tens of thousands of dollars, perhaps.

EH: Mmhm. What else, what other significant things have you uncovered since writing the book?

GW: I don’t think any things that would affect the main outlines of the story or the way of telling it, or my own view of Hornby or of the people involved. Fortunately, most of the people who knew him best, I was able to meet just before they died. Practically all of them are gone now. It was very lucky that I wrote it when I did.

EH: In fact, you were telling me earlier that you worked very closely with George Douglas in writing the book, and that you had to work—well you almost didn’t have the book ready before George Douglas died. Can you just—

GW: Yes, he died very shortly after the book was published, but I was able to get a finished copy of the book to give him, 3 or 4 months before the book was published. By then, he was failing very rapidly. He hardly recognized me. But he liked the looked of the book and he kept turning the pages and trying to remember what connection there was between himself and myself and the book. It was rather sad. I couldn’t have written the book without his help, and it’s dedicated to him because he had so many letters and documents, maps, and all kinds of things.

EH: And he like you seemed to be fairly wary of Hornby in some ways.

GW: Yes, temperamentally, he was both quite unlike Hornby and in other ways like him. He was also a loner, but he liked things to be methodical and predictable. He wanted to take charge of the country that he was working in. Hornby was just the reverse. And he had had a very ambiguous feeling for Hornby. He was obviously very fond of him, and admired him in certain ways, yet I think both of them sent each other around the bend. It’s clear from the accounts of the time on Great Bear Lake that it’s just as well that Hornby built a cabin for himself, over by Fort Confidence, because then, every now and then Hornby would go back to his cabin and leave the Douglas brothers alone. They could live as they wanted to, keep things tidy.

EH: When you came up here in 1971 and during that visit you were able to see the cabin, where Adlard and Christian and Hornby died. Will you describe that?

GW: It’s a very strange, very moving feeling going to the cabin. I think anyone who’s ever seen it feels that. The cabin is completely derelict now. I’ve had photographs of it year by year from people who have passed it, usually in the Wildlife Service, and by 1971 the whole roof had fallen in. But the walls are standing, and many of the details that I was imaginatively familiar with were all there and easy enough to identify. But there’s a very strange haunted feeling to the place, not unhappily haunted, but you feel that something momentous had happened there. And there are the crosses standing – the three of them – just behind the cabin and a little bit to the East of it, with the initials carved in them. Animals knock them over from time to time and people set them up again. They look almost as fresh as when they were carved, I think.

EH: When you were there for the first time, what were your feelings?

GW: Almost like one of those dreams where you’re visiting a place that you know you’ve never seen before, because imaginatively, so much of it, even to the position of trees and of particular logs in the walls in the cabins and things like that were familiar to me and I’d never actually seen them before. And suddenly I was there, and these things were exactly as I thought they would be. There’s one tree missing – that puzzled me very much – the tree in the front. Then I realized it wasn’t a tree at all, it was a — it had originally been a support for the weather porch at the front of the cabin. It had fallen down. It was on the ground, it was a fairly thick stick, with a fork at the end of it.

EH: At one point you had Edgar Christian’s actual diary, original diary in your hands?

GW: Yes, when I was in London a few years ago, about four or five years ago, I asked Dover Cottage – they owned the diary, that was Edgar Christian’s school – whether they would send it to the British Museum Library for safe keeping so that I could study it there. And instead of that, the headmaster sent it to me directly registered post. So for about two weeks I had the diary, the actual manuscript, with me in the house.

EH: When Edgar Christian died, or just before he died, he put the diary in the stove for safe keeping. And you were saying that you could actually still smell the ashes on the diary.

GW: Yes, the diary still has a slightly damp, musty smell of the ashes in it.

EH: Mmhm.

GW: I suppose it must have been Hornby’s idea of that — of leaving the diary and the papers in the stove. There isn’t any other way they would have survived. Perhaps they could have been dug into the ground somewhere. The diary is absolutely dry. There’s no sign of dampness at all in it, except in the inside of the cover. It has if I recall a bright red cover, red leather cover and some of that inside the binding is run a little bit. The pages are perfectly intact.

EH: It’s really an amazing diary isn’t it, because he just seems like Christian had a really natural flair for writing. It is written so well.

GW: Yes, it’s written with such complete confidence, and lack of self-pity, and he goes on right until the end recording temperatures and noting down the birds. I wonder whether he — either he or Hornby or someone knew a lot about birds, because they’re very good at identifying the particular species. And I think they must have had some sort of bird book with them, whatever the equivalent in that day of the Peterson Guide would be. But some of the – his diary is, I think the most complete record for winter observations of birds and animals in that part of the Thelon. Because they are of interesting, and as transcribed in the printed version, they have turned up in biological statistics from time to time.

EH: Why was Hornby so hell-bent on taking Christian and Adlard with him up to Thelon?

GW: In the first place, he didn’t intend to take Adlard, he was just picked up on the way, more or less, by chance. He agreed with the Christian family, or he offered the Christian family, to take Edgar and show him a bit of the North. I don’t think it was more definite than that. They liked the idea, and so did the boy. They set off for the West, and stopped along the way to see the Armsteads, who were distant relatives of Hornby and were the people he first stayed with when he came to Canada in nineteen-four, and there met Adlard, whom Hornby had known some time before, and had apparently promised to take him into the North on some occasion. He wanted to take him on the Bullock expedition, but Bullock didn’t think that Adlard was up to it, so he wouldn’t take him. And I think Hornby was fulfilling an old promise, or felt that he was. He knew where he was going once he went down the East end of Slave Lake. He picked out the place with Bullock. He knew exactly where their stand of timber was and where he wanted the cabin. And it may have been because he knew so well where it was, he may have made some mistake about the distance away it was, and certainly stretched the journey in.

EH: And he had people all along the way across Canada, as Hornby travelled with Christian, tried to persuade Hornby not to take Christian up North. So, didn’t they know then that he was going to be taking Christian quite far up North, if they were afraid for Christian?

GW: It was very difficult for them to tell what he was up to because he gave different stories to different people to Blanchet in Ottawa and to Blanchet at Chippewa and he didn’t meet Douglas unfortunately, but he told the McKenzies in Toronto one thing, he didn’t even tell them he was stopping in Winnipeg when he was setting off for Edmonton. And so I don’t think anyone knew except they were uneasy about his taking an inexperienced boy of sixteen or seventeen, because they all knew by reputation that Hornby was a dangerous man to travel with, that he didn’t make proper provision.

EH: When you’re talking about Hornby’s character you mention in the book that he changed a lot during the first world war, that he was a different man when he came back after that war.

GW: Yes, he certainly was. He had a very bad experience during the first war because we went almost immediately into the trenches in the Western front and coming from the kind of life he’d been living in the North, not only the discipline, but the whole way of life was absolutely appalling to him. I wouldn’t be surprised from what Douglas has told me, having seen him in England at that time that Hornby did, as a soldier, behave in a somewhat suicidal manner. He was awarded an MC, he was also very badly wounded. And when he came back to Canada, and made his way North, people who met him at that time said they didn’t understand how he could travel at all, he was so ill and shattered. And as so many men who had been through that sort of experience, just haunted by the madness that he had seen. And he got to Bear Lake and found that the country he had always regarded as his own had been taken over by someone else. He hovered about there on the fringes of it and set off a new country for Great Slave Lake. And that was where the worst things happened to him, those two or three starving winters which he laconically called Fort Hornby: a little six by eight log shack.

EH: He spoke of loving the North and of wanting to get back there but at the same time, later on, he spoke of how he hated the North, didn’t he? He said he wished he’d never come there.

GW: I don’t know how usual that is, but he certainly — when he came back to England at the time of his father’s death he said that he wasn’t going back to the North and then he said, as so many people do, he thought maybe he’d just make one more trip, and he did that and didn’t come back from it.

EH: Mmhm.

GW: I think that he knew that physically he was past his prime, he needn’t have been, he was only — he was less than fifty, and as he knew people like Pete McCallum who was agile as a cat at eighty, and he might well have been. But he had been severely wounded and he’d suffered injuries of one sort and another. He no longer enjoyed facing the privations that he had faced before.

EH: And yet he didn’t seem to have any other alternatives that he wanted any better, did he?

GW: No, he didn’t. He didn’t seem to have anything else in mind. And he certainly hated being at home with his family in England. He got out of there as quickly as he decently could.

EH: I get the impression that he was a very aimless man, that he didn’t have any set purpose, that he just wandered wherever he sort of found himself. He just sort of stumbled along.

GW: He seems to have wanted to do that, to improvise his life, just let it unfold as it went. I suppose one of the most resolute things he did was when he happened to be in Fort Norman and heard news of the outbreak of the war in nineteen-fourteen, he just went straight outside and joined up. He didn’t join up in Edmonton or Calgary as he might have done. He went east and stopped to see Douglas and then went on to Montreal. And in fact got to England and on to France as quickly as possible that way. I don’t know what he imagined was going to happen but there were a good number of Englishmen in West Canada at that time, and I’m told that the recruiting station was just crowded with them. As soon as the war broke out they wanted to get back to England, they wanted to get into the army.

EH: This other aimlessness, though, do you agree with that? What I was saying?

GW: I agree that he was aimless? Yes. He didn’t like planning things, or looking forward at all. And even when sometimes when he was committed to something as with the Bullock journey. Bullock didn’t really know until Hornby arrived, I think some weeks late, whether he was ever going to turn up or not.

EH: When you were saying that you thought this aimlessness was – reflected the land itself, that it had something to do with – with just the way he wanted to live with the land. Can you explain that?

GW: I think it did. I think he had a feeling of the- of the land as being a living organism, both very complex and very vulnerable, and that he wanted in some way to be merged with that life. He told Douglas on more than one occasion that he wanted to live like an Indian. He wanted to, take things as they turned up. He didn’t mind taking the Douglases down to Coppermine River which he knew was a sort of lark. They wanted to go there, and he knew it, he’d take them. But he didn’t like the idea of making definite plans to get to a certain place at a certain time.

EH: Do you admire that?

GW: Yes, I do. I admire anyone who’s prepared to face the risks that are involved in that. It’s infuriating for everyone else, of course. But, I think there is something admirable about it.

EH: Have you been following the current developments on Northern land? Up here.

GW: Yes, I—

EH: Political developments.

GW: I’ve been following it as closely as I reasonably can, and find much of it extremely disquieting. The willingness to run the risk of destroying whole sections of the country and the outer islands and the sea for the sake of a few millions of barrels of oil, that are probably overestimated for the purposes of the argument. I don’t know what the alternative to that is, but there must be some sane and civilized alternative to that.

EH: So the decision to drill in Beaufort is not one you feel is a happy decision?

GW: No, I feel very unhappy about that. More so because I have a very high regard for Beaufort, after whom the sea is named.