Alex Philip: Whistler pioneer and budding Western writer

The recent Whistler Readers and Writers Festival has inspired me to write about Whistler's very own pioneer author: Alex Philip.

Along with his wife Myrtle, Alex owned the Rainbow Lodge. As there was no ski hill in Whistler at that time, Rainbow Lodge was predominately a summer destination. Alex would find himself with quite a lot of time on his hands during the winter months and writing was the perfect way to fill it.

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Alex was a big fan of westerns, which of course was a very popular genre in the early 20th century. He wrote three novels in total, all of them westerns and all set in the wilds of British Columbia.

The books are certainly of their time, and to today's audience seem outdated.

Women are weak and in need of gallant men, racial stereotypes abound, and the heroes enjoy unrealistically favourable outcomes at the end of the books. However, during the 1920s and '30s they were very well received. Reviewers described the books as "stirring" and "exciting", although even at the time it was acknowledged that it wasn't high art - just a "jolly good yarn".

His first novel, The Crimson West (1925) was so popular that it was made into a movie. It was filmed in B.C., and is believed to have been the first "talking movie" made in Canada.

Unfortunately, we will probably never get the chance to see the film. In the past the Museum made great efforts to try to trace it and the path led to a fire in Victoria. "The Crimson Paradise" (as the movie was known) is probably lost forever.

Perhaps most valuable in Alex Philip's books are his descriptions of the landscape. They reveal a true passion for nature and Alex's belief that there was great value in leaving cities to explore the great outdoors. I will leave you with some examples from The Painted Cliff" (1927).

"The day was waning. The sun blazed low through an ice-filled notch in the valley ramparts, the sides of the mountains darkened into purple shadows, while above the sky was resplendent with vivid orange hues."

"Peter thought of the desperate dirty cities, of the sooty air brooding above the buildings and dusty pavements. Surely it was difficult to keep one's soul clean there. Here in the great outdoors it was easy. He felt he could stay in this valley forever. Here one could live with no great physical effort or mental strain, far from the harrowing influences of the conventional struggle for existence."

Sarah Drewery is executive director of the Whistler Museum.

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