Picture is of Gaspereau Mountain as taken from Stars Point Rd. near Port Williams, N.S. Photo: J.S. Scanned by: Bruce McNeil.
My year on the Witney Marquees.
When I graduated from high school in
the the Annapolis Valley in 1985 I went to live with my great
Aunt Joan Florey in England. My great aunt was a spinster of seventy-
something and lived with her two cats, in a crumbling Oxfordshire
farm house next door to my second cousin, Simon, who owned a Marquee
company which catered to upper-class social functions, garden
parties and weddings and so on. A1 Witney Marquees took Simon
Florey and his men all over England, erecting large circus tents
and in the mid-eighties was booming. To my family back in Canada,
Simon was a big success and a good mentor for a young, unstable
lad like me from rural Nova Scotia.
My parents and my aunt arranged for me to work for Simon because
they were worried that I was in too deep with my high school girlfriend,
L. Though L. was a gifted singer and won countless local song
pageants in the Annapolis Valley, she was, like me, plagued by
self-doubt and depression and we would talk for hours on the phone,
going nowhere. My parents were worried that I was going to get
L. pregnant and did not approve of the relationship, since it
was wrought with break-ups and reconciliations and was taking
over my eighteen year-old life. My father and mother had long
battles with me about ending the relationship but I was in love
with L. had few friends in high school and was unsure of my future.
Finally one night coming home from L.`s house deep in the Gaspereau
Valley at four in the morning I wrapped the family station wagen
around a telephone pole on the Wolfville Ridge Road. A month later
I deposited the second family car onto a school chums front lawn.
Though my father tried to hold the fort, he was struggling
with his three kids in the late eighties who were growing up fast.
My mother was in B.C. taking care of her father who was dying
of cancer. To top my adolescent struggles, I got the shit beat
out of me by a guy two grades lower than me in a school fight,
my final year at Horton District High School. Though the guy was
training to be a professional boxer, the episode had left a deep
scar in me, though the episode had endeared me to the most of
the people in the school. During the fight., L. jumped and clenched
onto the boxers back like a starfish. My brother took me to the
hospital and watched me through the night because I had a serious
When I first got to my aunts farm in Oxfordshire, my cousin
Simon, big as a house, with hands like coal shovels came by and
whisked me off to meet the lads at Witney Marquees. First I was
introduced to Martin 'Dobbo' Dobson, who had enormous biceps a
tight shirt and a wonky back and then Steve, 'Stinky Steve', who
had pasty white legs, wore tight Union Jack shorts, had bad breath
and teeth and who didn`t like to lift the bags of canvas much.
Then was Peter, who looked a bit like a British minder. He was
bald, with big arms and a gut and had a likeable goofy grin. Simon
called him Percy which he didn`t like much and I took a shining
to Percy right away cause he was like a father figure and he teased
me about the Canadian way I talked. Next was Gary, the foreman,
who everyone called Gaz. I liked Gaz because he was kind of cheesy,
liked girls and said that, the way I dressed, t-shirt and shorts,
was going to drive Simon`s wife crazy back at the house. Simon`s
wife Brenda, looked like Princess Di and I took that as a compliment.
As the year progressed L. would send me letters from the Annapolis
Valley and tell me about how much she missed me while I would
be working from six in the morning till eight or ten at night
driving with either Gaz or Percy all over the U.K. to erect the
marquees, which, even though I was a strong young kid, was a back-breaking
exercise. But I had a lot of fun with Percy and Gaz. I soon learned
how to stitch up the tents, pull the poles upright with the guys
and Percy would take me out to nights of amateur boxing and drinks.
After some time I learned how to drive the steel pins into the
ground with a sledge hammer without making mincemeat of British
people`s meticulously manicured grounds.
My Aunt, who has never married, is a character and I took to her after some time of getting used to her ways and started to call her A.J. She cooked in a cold, old-fashioned farm kitchen, with a scullery and she would always and frown refer to my cousin Simon, as 'that young devil', and say how he was over extending himself by driving a Mercedes and by using an unnecessary car phone.
Though the work was hard, I liked going onto various country
estates all over Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire and London and
seeing behind the scenes lives of royalty, government members,
embassy officials, etc. The job took us to Epson Derby, set-ups
for rock star weddings. Still I was homesick for my life in Nova
Scotia at times.
The English world was a different world and awe inspiring and
I soon started to pick up a slight bit of the clipped english
accent , become interested in snooker, the characters, Hurricane
Higgens, and English cricket`s biggest star, Ian Botham. Every
night I would come home and A.J. would have a meat pie for me,
cooked on the Aga and quiz me about my day, the gossip and so
on and then I would take a bath, collapse in bed. Sometimes at
two or three in the morning the phone would ring, and it would
be L. saying that she was missing me. A.J. would ask me about
the girl and say, 'don`t let that girl make a fool of you.' After
the first few months, I decided to start to write because I had
an idea in my head about becoming a writer.
After a few months of working the marquees and trying not to
think about that guy who had beat the shit out of me in high school,
I started to settle into the routine of working and travelling
all over England by day, hauling matting and canvas bags off the
lorry, aligning French doors, rolling out the matting pinning
it into place and then driving home and writing at night. The
letters from L. started to trickle and I started to notice that
I was beginning to feel like I was developing into my own person,
though my writing was shit, I was eighteen.
I liked talking to A.J. about the family life. She told me
stories about her life as a child. How my Grandfather had been
her first boyfriend, but had eventually gone for my grandmother
and not her. How my Great Grandfather had once been arrested on
his Oxfordshire farm and been accused of being a spy because there
were German POW`s working on the farm as laborers. How it had
all been a mistake and that there had been a letter of apology
from Churchill himself.
As the time passed, I felt myself start to become more confident
and more relaxed, in the company of my Great Aunt, who joked about
her important job as Church Warden, at Yelford Church, capacity
thirty or so. I liked he sense of humour and we got along great,
though the the difference was almost sixty years.
Towards the end of my summer working the marquees, a new lad, I think his name was Tim, came to work on the Marquees as well. He knew Simon from cricket and was a joky and nervous lad, who told everyone that Simon should have played for Oxford cause he would hit it miles. I avoided him because he flattered Simon a great deal but he set after me right away teasing me about my Canadian accent. I felt the old unease creep in again and he kept saying stuff like, "Hey John are you going to go to the can, now? Eat A CHOC o LATE bar?" He kept at it. Finally I turned around and looked him in the eye. I said, "You understand what I`m saying, right?" And he said, kinda taken aback. "Yeah." Then I said, "Then Get off my back, dink." And everyone, even Simon, went quiet. Then Simon laughed and said, "That`s what I like to see, Tim. True Florey Grit." And I felt a little bit like a man then.
John Stiles is the author of The Insolent Boy, and the filmmaker behind the smalls...er whatever. HIs first book of poetry, Scouts Are Cancelled, set in the Annapolis valley, is forthcoming from Insomniac Press. John`s favourite band is The Corb Lund Band. Look for a CD version of Scouts Are Cancelled coming soon. John believes in the writing talent of Paul Vermeersh, Jen Finlayson, Patrick Woodcock, Adam Levin, Michael Winter, Sheila Heti, Julie Roorda, Halli Villegas and many more though thinks that writers should generally avoid literary parties and should piss off about thinking they are more important than they are.