Stuart McLean brought his popular CBC radio show Vinyl Café to Almonte for a taping this July. The show started with this lovely essay about our town. Listen to the full broadcast.
No advice for writers offers more truth, in one brief sentence, than Ed Strunk’s 17th rule as set down in his revered handbook for writers, The Elements of Style:
Omit needless words.
Three short words, that might be all one needs to know about good writing.
Of Rule 17, E.B. White, himself a master of brevity, once sadly noted that he had spent a lifetime omitting needless words, and kept finding so many, among the words he had written, still crying out for omission.
Now, writers are intrigued by concise writing.
And why is that?
Well. First things first. As Ed Strunk says, concise writing is vigorous. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines, and a machine no unnecessary parts.
Well that’s true.
But there is something else at play.
And that is the power of things left unspoken. Unspoken things call our imaginations into play. We can’t help ourselves. Tell me a story about a pretty girl waving from a balcony and I start wondering about the cut of her hair and dress.
We are beguiled by the unseen. We are enchanted by the unknown.
A wrapped present.
A glimpse of stocking.
Poets know this.
So do fan dancers.
We are all seekers of secrets.
We all love a good rumour.
And that is why I fell in love with Almonte the moment I arrived.
I came on a Sunday evening some weeks ago. A summer Sunday.
I arrived just as the sun left. I walked over to Mill Street – which for those of you listening at home – is the main street here in Almonte, Ontario. This pretty little village some 50 odd kilometers to the south and west of Ottawa. And it was while I stood there at the top of Mill that my heart went boom.
Why? What happened? Well. Your main street is as perfect as a sentence written by Andy White.
Allow me to parse it.
Most main streets are complex, compound sentences. They go on and on and on, and rely on every manner of conjunctions. Neither their beginnings nor endings are clear. They struggle up, and then peter out in wastelands of car dealerships and big box stores. Mill street starts at Bridge Street and ends three hundred odd metres along at Almonte Street. And there is nary a car dealership, nor box store from beginning to end.
That is: Mill Street follows the 17th rule.
It has the vigor of brevity.
It also has the allure of mystery.
Because unlike all the other Main streets that I can think of, Mill Street falls down a hill. And not only that. Before it travels hardly a commas distance, it curves like a comma – in the European way. So when you stand at the top of the street, as I did that Sunday evening, and you see it falling gracefully away, it disappears from your view, like a bending river – and the thing that comes to mind … or the thing that came to mine … is … what’s around the corner? And, as soon as you think that, you are doomed. Because you have to find out. And so off you set, with a spring in your step. For what is more joyful than a man with a mystery to solve.
And so I set off, to learn Mill Street has more than brevity and mystery to recommend it.
First off: the solemnity of clay.
The majority of the buildings on Mill Street are brick.
Mill is a hodge podge of two and three story storefronts: antique stores and cafes, banks, and a bakery, and a bookstore, and then … oh my … a street you can’t see from the top … the surprise of Little Bridge Street, interjecting like a subordinate clause, and joining the downhill flow of things just as Mill curves, the confluence of the two creates a tiny parkette where sits a bronze statue you hadn’t noticed either – a man holding a ball … James Nasmith is he … born and raised here in town, went to McGill, and then to Springfield, Massacheusetts to work at the YMCA; where he was tasked one winter, to come up with something to occupy a rowdy bunch of boys, and he invented basketball. Tiddely pom.
And just when the wonder of that and the solemnity of the brick, is beginning to feel too perfect … you look up and see the generous second floor balconies dangling off every second building, and there’s the lady on the balcony waving at you and your little dog, just like in the story. And just like in the story you wave back, admiring the airy curves and the curlicues of the woodwork as much as her cut of her dress , the cut of her hair and the mysterious door to her main street apartment.
Mill is the best kind of street: curving and mysterious. A street that has had years to find itself. A street that sprung from dreams rather than schemes, slowly emerging brick by brick from the aspirations of the many rather than the stroke of some planner’s pen.
The curve was surely the curve of a path in some day gone by. The street we are walking down surely following the footsteps of some old soul as they struggled up in those days before were balconies for ladies to wave from.
And then, of course, there’s the river! The Mississippi River of all things – and the weir and the waterfalls and the old mills and the old mill ponds. There were six woolen mills here at the height of things and a foundry and a grist mill.
The mills are gone and the train line is gone but you can still see where the rails ghost through town and you can buy an apartment in one of the mills if that is your pleasure. And the bell still rings all the same, every hour, from the clock in the tower on the old town hall.
If you walked along the river instead of down the street you will come upon the bench of the minister and his wife. It is made of an old griststone. And you’ll sit on it. Why not? And watch the water, and you will see that the river, just like the street you would have fallen in love with, disappears in a froth as it goes over the falls and falls out of view. It’s all the same wherever you go here. Follow the water or follow the road, they both will ask you to solve the puzzle of where they are going, where they have been.
And if you follow, one or the other, you’ll learn this one last thing.
That this town has been known by many names over the years. Sheppard’s Falls and Shipman’s Mills, Ramsayville, and Waterford. Until the Canadian post office was called into existence and the postmen summoned the town and told them there was already another Waterford, and this one would have to change its name again.
This was in the mid 1800s. When Juan Almonté was a Mexican general. A soldier who had distinguished himself in the border skirmishes between Mexico and the United States. General Almonté was also a diplomat of some repute. Almonte – the town, this town – is the only town in Canada that I know named after a Mexican general.
Honored in those days by the citizens of Waterford who, when called to re-name this little community, cast their skeptical eyes south at American territorial ambitions, and chose to salute someone who had stood up in opposition.
Almonté would become Almonte.
Talk about omitting needless words.