Like Douglas Coupland, Charles Montgomery is a gifted zeitgeist interpreter who has an instinct for a distinctive turn-of-phrase; a social scientist who can mix a broth of serious ideas with an entertaining style; a card-carrying internationalist who is nonetheless distinctly a product of Vancouver. Montgomery's rise behind Coupland's jet stream (behind McLuhan's jet stream?) borders on meteoric.

Tracing the paths and voyages taken by his great-grandfather who was the Bishop of Tasmania in 1892, Charles Montgomery of Vancouver has explored the South Pacific and published an account of his journey and his exploration of how Christian missionaries affected the region in The Last Heathen: Encounters with Ghosts and Ancestors in Melanesia. (D&M, $24.95, 2004).

The Last Heathen received the $25,000 Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction at a luncheon at the Windsor Arms Hotel in Toronto as well as the Hubert Evans Non-Fiction Prize at the BC Book Prizes gala in Vancouver. At the latter event, Montgomery thanked his publisher Scott McIntyre, his editor Saeko Usukawa and his friend and fellow writer Michael Scott who advised him he ought to write the book. Previously Montgomery had concentrated on magazine articles, winning numerous awards.

When The Last Heathen was published from England by Fourth Estate, its title was changed to The Shark God: Encounters with Myth and Magic in the South Pacific. It was favourably reviewed in the Guardian in 2006 by Kevin Rushby.

Charles Montgomery next gained international exposure, such as coverage in The New York Times and The Guardian, with his marvelous, globetrotting investigation, Happy City: Transforming our lives through urban design (Random House 2014), aptly described by one reviewer as, "an eye-opening, pleasurable, utterly necessary tour through the best and worst neighborhoods of our urbanized world.";

According to Montgomery, by 2030, there will be five billion urbanites on the planet. So how can they expect to find happiness? Montgomery has provided an intelligently rendered potpourri of personal observations, research and digested data that germinate a vision worthy of David Suzuki, who has recommended it. The upbeat promo states, "The happy city, the green city, and the low-carbon city are the same place, and we can all help build it.";

If Vancouverites think their mayor Gregor Robinson is a bicycle zealout, they ought to read Montgomery's chapter about Bogotá's mountain bike-riding mayor Enrique Peáalosa. He didn't declare war on drugs, we are told, Peáalosa declared war on cars. And people love him for it. Evidently Gregor could use some Spanish lessons.

Along the way we get to learn stuff.

"If one was to judge by sheer wealth,"; he writes, "the last half-century should have been an ecstatically happy time for people in the US and other rich nations such as Canada, Japan and Great Britain. And yet the boom decades of the late 20th century were not accompanied by a boom in well-being. The British got richer by more than 40% between 1993 and 2012, but the rate of psychiatric disorders and neuroses grew...

"...A couple of University of Zurich economists, Bruno Frey and Alois Stutzer, compared German commuters' estimation of the time it took them to get to work with their answers to the standard wellbeing question, "How satisfied are you with your life, all things considered?"

"Their finding was seemingly straightforward: the longer the drive, the less happy people were. Before you dismiss this as numbingly obvious, keep in mind that they were testing not for drive satisfaction, but for life satisfaction. People were choosing commutes that made their entire lives worse. Stutzer and Frey found that a person with a one-hour commute has to earn 40% more money to be as satisfied with life as someone who walks to the office. On the other hand, for a single person, exchanging a long commute for a short walk to work has the same effect on happiness as finding a new love.";

Dubbed an urban experimentalist, Montgomery has examined how cities have positive or negative impacts on human happiness with a particular focus on Vancouver.

"Here is the remarkable paradox:," he writes, "the more crowded Vancouver gets, the more people want to live there and the higher the city has risen on international surveys ranking the world's best place to live...Unlike their counterparts in many other cities, Vancouver's municipal planners enjoy broad discretionary power when considering new development."

Well, some could say the paradox could be explained mainly because Vancouver is filling up with more and more rich people, squeezing average Joes and Jills into the suburbs as the lowly commuters, while rich people demand their tasteful coffee shops and high class amenities. Meanwhile Montgomery is getting attention from the New York Times for some fairly commonsensical views. "Green space in cities shouldn't be considered an optional luxury,"; Montgomery concludes. "It is a crucial part of a healthy human habitat.";

Born in 1968, Montgomery spent much of his formative years on a Vancouver Island farm. Influenced by the writing of Malcolm Lowry, Bruce Chatwin, Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra and Paul William Roberts, he has been a member of a loose affiliation of Vancouver-based collective of literary journalists who explore contemporary issues around the world.

Interviewed by Vancouver magazine at age 36, he said, "I feel like I have an affinity for queer culture, which is edgy, bent, broken, different--rather than gay culture, which has become a new ghettoized normal."

Among his numerous awards is a Citation of Merit from the Canadian Meteorological and Oceanographic Society for outstanding contribution towards public understanding of climate change science.

He lives in East Vancouver and Mexico City.


The Last Heathen: Encounters with Ghosts and Ancestors in Melanesia. (D&M 2004)

Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design (Doubleday 2013) $29.95 978-0-385-66912-2

[Alan Twigg / BCBW 2013] "Travel" "Religion"