Novel takes readers back to Kingston’s early days

Posted on Oct 3, 2015 | 0 comments

By Wayne Grady for the Kingston Whig-Standard

KINGSTON — The gathering at the Queen’s Inn, on Brock Street, was lively and boisterous. It was after 10 p.m. on Friday, and spirits were freely flowing. The clinking of glasses and the shouted greetings echoed off the stone walls and reverberated among the stout wooden rafters. Suddenly, the front door burst open and two ill-clad ruffians ran into the room, elbowed their way noisily through the crowd, and hid behind the bar. Within minutes the front door clanged open again, and a man known only as Biscuit dashed into the room and asked loudly if anyone had seen the desperadoes escaping from impressment into His Majesty’s service. No one spoke: Biscuit cursed and ran out of the tavern into the night.

The scene took place a little over a week ago, during the pre-launch for Morgan Wade’s book, Bottle and Glass, but it was in fact an enactment from the first chapter of his book, which takes place in 1815 in the Rode and Shackle, a tavern located in Cornwall, in northern England, where the novel begins.

The narrative follows the fortunes (or misfortunes) of the cousins, Merit and Jeremy, who are pressed into the Royal Navy during the War of 1812, and at war’s end find themselves stranded in the remote colonial town of Kingston, a rough-and-tumble collection of limestone buildings that seem to consist mainly of taverns. We follow their travels, and their stories, as they lurch from one bar to the next — the chapter headings are taken from the 23 taverns and hotels that existed in early Kingston, including Ferguson’s Tavern in Barriefield; the Old King’s Head on Market Square; Franklin’s Tavern on Montreal Road; Mother Cook’s, where the gin was sometimes flavoured with turpentine; the O.K. Tavern, named after its proprietor, Owen Kennedy; Old Sam’s, which served hot bohea toddies laced with brandy, cloves, honey and a stick of cinnamon; and the intriguingly named Violin, Bottle, and Glass, an establishment located at the corner of Bagot and Brock streets, “a few short steps,” says Morgan, “from the Queen’s Inn, which didn’t open until 1839.”

Bottle and Glass is, as one reviewer has remarked, “a tantalizing work of fiction anchored in careful historical research.” The historical accuracy is important, and Morgan is careful to acknowledge the aid of local historians Brian Osborne from Queen’s University and Maj. John Grodzinski from RMC, “for their invaluable historical critiques,” as well as that of Heather Home, of the Queen’s Archives, for her help in finding the original location of the Violin, Bottle, and Glass.

“I originally wanted to write a work of historical fiction set in Fort Henry,” says Morgan, who moved to Kingston with his wife in 2001 after studying at Toronto’s Humber College with novelist Matthew Helm. Morgan’s first novel, The Last Stoic, was long-listed for the 2012 ReLit Awards. “I imagined what it must have been like for a young, raw recruit to be here, thousands of miles from home, stuck in this cold, damp, forbidding place, fighting off an American attack on Kingston.”

Unfortunately, as Morgan soon discovered, the Americans never attacked Fort Henry, “so that ended that.”

Still, he remained intrigued by the dynamism that existed in Kingston between 1812 and 1841, when the city became the first capital of the united Canadas, and he determined to write a novel about it. “I didn’t know a lot about the details when I started,” he says, “but the history is so fascinating, so full of remarkable people and stories. My focus was not so much on the question of nation-building as it was on the individual characters who actually did the clearing of the land, the patrolling of the lakes, and the brawling in the taverns.”

There is plenty of the latter. “Served with something strong, dark and tasty,” wrote that same reviewer, “the novel also functions as an analysis of the role of alcohol in the social history of colonialism.” Indeed, it was a tavern culture that his characters Merit and Jeremy found here when they disembarked from the HMS St. Lawrence. With so many pubs around, they must have contributed a great deal to the town’s tax revenue, and were important meeting places for orators and auditors alike.

It was this notion of a rake’s progress through the drinking establishments of Kingston that convinced Theatre Kingston artistic producer Brett Christopher that Bottle and Glass would make a fine basis for a work of site-specific theatre.

“As we began to look for programming for next summer’s Kick & Push Festival,” says Brett Christopher, who in real life bears a striking resemblance to Biscuit, “Bottle and Glass leapt out as perfect source material for a Theatre Kingston production that celebrates the city and its unique heritage.” As a result, Christopher has commissioned Morgan to work on an adaptation of his novel for the stage, for a production “that will be produced in a series of Kingston bars next summer.” The idea is that the audience will follow the actors from tavern to pub to bar, as they are pursued through town by police, creditors, fellow escapees and officers in His Majesty’s Service, all of whom combine to provide a vivid sense of Kingston and the times.

“Since Bottle and Glass takes place in and out of dozens of historic Kingston taverns,” says Morgan, “it seems a perfect fit. I’m very excited about the possibilities, and can’t wait to get started on the adaptation.”

The original Violin, Bottle and Glass, also known as Poncet’s Inn, advertised that it presented “a grand display of new curiosities which has never failed in giving general satisfaction to all competent judges,” with “upwards of 200 extraordinary feats performed, never paralleled in Upper Canada.”

It is gone now, replaced, perhaps significantly, by a bank.

“I’d love it if it were still around,” says Morgan, “or if it re-opened. I’d be a regular customer.”

Wayne Grady would not have been unfamiliar with several of the establishments mentioned in this column.

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