IN PRAISE OF JIM MUNRO

We all lost an important friend this week when Jim Munro died in Victoria. He was a major figure on Canada’s book scene for over 60 years, a fact that was recognised in 2014 when he received the Order of Canada for “his vital championship of countless Canadian writers and for his sustained community engagement.”

In 1963 he and his wife Alice moved from Vancouver to set up a bookstore in Victoria. They worked together in the store, and raised three daughters, a life well described in Sheila Munro’s memoir, Lives of Mothers and Daughters. In 1972, the Munros divorced, with Alice returning to Ontario to write, and Jim staying in Victoria to create the most beautiful bookstore in Canada. If that sounds like excessive praise, consider the fact that recently National Geographic Magazine ranked Munro’s books, in a former Royal Bank building at the heart of downtown’s Government Street, as the third best bookstore IN THE WORLD.

I was a frequent visitor. As my second book, Across Canada By Story, makes clear, I’ve always loved roaming around the country, meeting authors and people in the Canadian book world. Seeing Jim again was always a delight. I’d drop in to the store, chat with wise book people on staff like Dave Hill, then join Jim in the office tucked away just to the right of the front door, to discuss the book trade in general. As a Canadian Bookseller of the Year, more than once, he was heavily involved in bookselling issues (chains, Amazon, Canadian agencies,”Buying around”, e-books, and much else — we never got on to colouring books) and I always learned a lot from this cheery, bluff man (The under-used word “bluff” is precise, for this friendly, red-faced fellow with, latterly, a neat beard.)

The same pleasure applied to his visits to the annual Canadian Booksellers Association trade fair, summer events usually held in Toronto, when meeting with Jim and his team was always a highlight of a major event in the publishing calendar. Down through the years, as a shrewd local link with the publishing world, he sold untold millions of books to grateful readers. The cultural impact is hard to over-state.

Long after their divorce he remained a strong supporter of Alice’s writing, and as her editor and publisher I found myself receiving advice about this or that forthcoming book, its title, price, and its cover. Mostly, I seemed to be doing all right.

Through the years the Munro daughters kept their links with the store and its staff. When I was in Stockholm for the Nobel Prize Ceremony in 2014, Munro’s Books leapt into the Swedish limelight. Our Ambassador to Sweden, Kenneth MacCartney,  staged a splendid celebration at lunch, inviting many Swedish literary figures to this proud event for Canada, and — ahem– some of us made speeches about Alice, the author of The Love Of A Good Woman, and many other titles dealing with affairs of the heart. It was all very fine.

Yet one of the finest moments came when the Ambassador introduced his wife, Susan, and revealed that as a student in Victoria he had courted her, successfully, while she was working in Munro’s Books.

 

A NEW TORONTO SHOW

FREE, AT THE DEER PARK LIBRARY , ON ST.CLAIR AVENUE AT YONGE STREET, ON TUESDAY , DECEMBER 6 AT 2 pm.

 

BOB DYLAN AND LEONARD COHEN

I was disappointed to read that Bob Dylan has decided not to go to Stockholm to accept his Nobel Prize for Literature. This is a huge loss — for him. Anyone who has been fortunate enough to attend the Nobel Prize ceremonies knows what a pinnacle they represent. Attendance is so cherished that to get into the hall (all gentlemen wearing the de rigueur white tie and tails) you must present not only your ticket, with the specific seat number noted, but also YOUR PASSPORT, to prove that you are the person to whom the valuable ticket was issued.

Jane and I still remember every dreamy detail of our 2013 day there as part of the Alice Munro party. We also remember the sense that we were part of what I can only describe as “the world at its best”.

Now, with his unfortunate decision, Bob Dylan will miss all of that.

I suspect that, even at death’s door, Leonard Cohen would not have made that mistake.

I knew Leonard, a little, because when I was the Publisher at M&S, we published his new poetry books. In the process, I worked cordially with Leonard’s charming agent, who was secretly stealing all of his money. Ironically, this crime had the beneficial effect of forcing Leonard to revive his career, making him earn new money by going on tour again, and writing and performing fine new songs.

I have two memories of Leonard that may be worth sharing. First, when he was at McGill, he studied English with Hugh MacLennan. They liked each other, and became friends. Hugh told me that once in private conversation Leonard was explaining the opportunities opened by the new, open sexual freedoms among young people like him. The older Presbyterian was scandalised , and protested: “But Leonard, you remind me of a girl I knew back in Nova Scotia. She was called “Anytime Annie”!”

Leonard did not mend his ways, to the relief of many ladies down through the years.

Once, when he visited our Toronto office in what was a busy day of interviews, for lunch we brought in to the Boardroom some unglamorous sandwiches from Druxy’s downstairs. Leonard was perfectly happy, expecting absolutely no special treatment. He chatted happily with me and Avie Bennett and Ellen Seligman, about subjects ranging from Hugh MacLennan to how to get money from a bank machine in sketchy areas in LA. In such a situation, he explained, using an on-street machine was asking for trouble, making yourself a target. So what you looked for was a bank machine inside a small grocery store. There you cased the joint, apparently immersed in reading the ingredients of, say, a bottle of Pepsi.

Then, when the coast was clear, you drifted across to the machine, still apparently deep into your Pepsi scrolls, quickly punched in your banking needs, grabbed and concealed the cash, then escaped to the front of the store with your Pepsi purchase. Muggers were not interested in a man bearing a bottle of Pepsi.

In the mourning that followed Leonard’s death, I was pleased by how seriously our newspapers took his loss. The CBC, too, devoted important hours to paying tribute to him and his work. I found myself deeply moved by the message that he had sent to Marianne, his long-time lover, when she was dying in Norway this summer. His loving message ended with the words…”see you down the road.”

On Remembrance Day came my moment of revelation. Unlike Bob Dylan, I would argue, Leonard Cohen knew what was really important. When someone came to him asking if he would recite “In Flanders Fields”, he said yes. Many major musical stars would have laughed off the idea of reciting this poem from grade school , about the First World War, for Heaven’s sake, as hopelessly “uncool”.

Leonard read the poem aloud. As the CBC ended its broadcast of Remembrance Day with Leonard reading that poem, the fact that it was happening  in the week of his death was almost too much to bear. But most powerful of all was how brilliantly he read it. No tricks, nothing fancy, just a serious, perfect reading, by a poet who knew what really mattered.

I’m sorry that Stockholm will not see him.

BILL MITCHELL IN THE CIRCUS

One of the best things about going to book festivals is the stories that come leaping out at you.

For instance, I often tell stories about my old friend W.O. Mitchell. Yet when I was in Windsor at the fine Festival there, I found myself chatting on-stage with the local writer/teacher/ man about the literary scene, Marty Gervais. He spoke happily about Bill Mitchell, who spent some years teaching at the University of Windsor, lured there by his friend Alistair MacLeod, who was glad to have the legendary Bill Mitchell added to the Windsor scene.

But Bill was always “a character”, and one year there was a problem with his residential plans. He was complaining about this one day to Marty and his wife. To their surprise they ended up inviting Bill to stay with them , and their three young boys.

It was a spectacular success. Bill, who had raised three youngsters with Merna, loved kids. He spent many happy evenings delighting the Gervais boys with conjuring tricks. Coins sprang out of ears, pieces of food disappeared into thin air, and the Gervais boys were entranced.

Then, Marty told us, Bill moved back to his home in Calgary. He was forgotten until one of Marty’s sons came rushing to his Dad, saying, “Bill’s on TV! He seems to have WRITTEN A BOOK!”

“Well, yes” said his Dad”That’s what he does>”

“Really?” said the Gervais boys.”We thought he was in the circus!”

BOB DYLAN AND ALICE MUNRO

The recent decision to award this year’s Nobel Prize For Literature to Bob Dylan has, as they say, provoked some comment. Because Alice Munro won the same prize in 2013, and I was lucky enough to be part of the Stockholm festivities then, I found myself being asked earnestly for a comment on this surprising new development.
At the Gala for the Literary Review of Canada I drew myself up and said judiciously, with a straight face,”The times they are a-changing!”
In fact, when I heard from a distant radio that the Nobel Prize was going to “Dylan” for a confused moment I thought that it was a retro-active recognition of the literary excellence of Dylan Thomas, who was clearly not going gentle into that good night.
No such luck. But if excellence in writing lyrics is now Nobel-worthy, if posthumous awards became possible I would happily lead a campaign for the great Cole Porter, whose “You’re the Tops!” will never be topped.
But let us consider the links between Alice Munro and Bob Dylan. None of Alice’s work has, as far as we know, been adapted for Dylan’s songs, but “The Love of A Good Woman” must be a strong candidate. I’m sure my wise readers will have their own candidates. And “Sad-eyed Lady Of The Lowlands” might well apply to the former Alice Laidlaw.
You see, like Alice, Bob Dylan has strong links with Scotland. Let me explain.
You may be surprised to learn that this academic recognition for Bob Dylan did not come out of the blue. In 2004 the University of St. Andrews in Scotland awarded him an Honorary D. Litt. If you go to the University’s website, you can see Bob, formally attired, with his hair approximately brushed, posing beside sober academics at my old University. St. Andrews is Scotland’s oldest, and (according to recent surveys, and not just my opinion) best, university, so the honorary degree was clearly a step on the ladder towards the Nobel Prize.
There is a Canadian link here. When my Winnipeg friend Gordon Sinclair was showing me around the city a couple of years ago, he took me to the house where Neil Young grew up. Apparently, some years ago the house-holder was surprised to answer a knock at the door and find Bob Dylan standing there. He was keen to see around the house where his admired friend and fellow musician Neil grew up. Bob drifted politely around the house, then moved on. Like a rolling stone, some might say.
FORTHCOMING SHOWS:
I’ll be in Waterloo on Thursday 3 November, hosting a tribute to Edna Staebler at Wilfrid Laurier in the evening.
On Saturday 5 I’ll be at the WINDSOR BOOK FESTIVAL, at the Art Gallery at 3.00 pm.
on Sunday 6 I’ll be in London at the LONDON BOOK FESTIVAL at the Museum at 1.00pm.
Lots more events to come. But tell your friends about these.

DESERVED AND UNDESERVED PRAISE

My most recent blog was about the wide range of Alice Munro events that have been held around the world. I foolishly left out the recent hit of the Edinburgh Festival, “The View From Castle Rock.”

Alice’s admirers in Canada and beyond will recognise this as the title of her 2006 book, and the title of an individual story early in the collection. Now it has gained fame as a superb stage play, based on that story, and the others that begin the book (with its very agreeable Dedication).

My friend Elizabeth Ewan, who teaches Scottish history at The University of Guelph, tells me that the play was a huge success in Edinburgh, so popular that she was lucky to get a ticket from a shrewd friend who bought early. The combination of Scottish settings, from the Ettrick Valley just 50 miles south of Edinburgh, to the over-excited sighting of “America” just north of the Firth of Forth from the Edinburgh Castle rock, then on the voyage from Leith all the way to Canada, makes for a fine theatrical evening.

I hope that we will all get to see the play in Canada before too long.

 

I was at Guelph last weekend, celebrating the 30th anniversary of The Scottish Studies Department. For several years I have been involved with the Scottish Studies Foundation, which supports the Department financially.  In April this year I was proud to accept the Foundation’s annual Canadian Scot of the Year Award, which went to Alice Munro, to her great pleasure.

The moving spirit is a fine fellow named David Hunter, the Foundation’s Chair and hard-working promoter. After the event he told me a story too good not to be shared. He arrived from Glasgow in the early 1970’s, knowing almost nobody in Canada. But he looked up the name of an old friend in the Toronto phone book. The friend was excited to tell him that he was having a party that Saturday evening, at this Cabbagetown address. David promptly showed up, to find that it was wild, and noisy, and full of hip characters. When food arrived, the Chinese take-out cartons were put in one room, and people were directed to the chop suey and chow mein. The pizza must have been a counter-attraction, because only one other fellow joined David in the Chinese food room, and handshakes were exchanged.

“So, Jack”, said David, helping himself to the fried rice, “what do you do for a living?”

“Oh,” said Jack, “I’m in the acting game”, and they munched their Chinese food and had a good time.

It was only the next day that David saw a newspaper photo of his friend, under the heading “Jack Nicholson seen in Toronto.”

I have to report a very pleasant surprise. I’m always pleased to find my name cropping up because of the books I published. It’s different, but also pleasant, to be named for books that you did not publish, and that actually do not exist.

If you pick up the fine 2015 book of short stories, Chance Developments, by Alexander McCall Smith, you’re in for a predictably enjoyable experience. Sandy, as he’s known to his friends, is hypnotically effective, whether he’s writing about The Number 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency in Africa, or Isabel Dalhousie’s philosophical problems among her friends in Edinburgh, or anything else. He has taken his public readings to a new level, turning “Laughing  at Your Own Jokes” into a delightful new art form. The more he starts to chuckle at what he has written, the more his audience starts to laugh, until the event almost collapses in whooping, tear-shedding hilarity. Unforgettable.

So I’m thrilled that the fourth story in the six-story collection “Dear Ventriloquist” is set in Canada, and ends with an obituary from the Kingston Whig-Standard in July 1998. It speaks of Edward Beaulieu’s death, and refers admiringly to “his one and only book, The Future Lies In The Past, eventually published in Toronto by Douglas Gibson five years ago.”

 

FUTURE SHOWS

I’ll be presenting ACROSS CANADA BY STORY in Fergus, at The Grand Theatre on October 1 at 8.00 pm

Look out for details of my shows at Festivals in London on November 4, and Windsor on November 5, with many more to come!

 

NEWS ABOUT ALICE MUNRO

Alice may not be writing any more, but people are certainly writing about her – and creating events and works of art that celebrate her writing.

In FILM , for example, the famous Spanish director Pedro Almodovar has just brought out his first film in three years. Its title is “Julieta”, and it’s about mother-daughter tensions, based on three stories by Alice.

In MUSIC, the National Arts Centre in Ottawa recently enjoyed great success with a new piece inspired by Alice’s work.

In THEATRE, the Belfry Theatre in Victoria is hard at work on preparing a “word for word” stage version of two of Alice’s short stories. I’ve been involved (helpfully, I hope) in these preparations, and I’m sure that next Spring’s production will be fascinating, and may tour the country. These “word for word” presentations, half-way between a simple reading and a play with actors playing all the roles, are really a new art-form, and I find them fascinating.

In LITERARY FESTIVALS, early June saw The Alice Munro Literary Festival take place in Wingham and other parts of “Alice Munro Country”. A major feature of this year’s event was a fascinating talk by Professor Robert Thacker, where he dealt very generously with my role in bringing Alice’s work to the wider audience it deserved. I’m sorry I wasn’t there to light up the auditorium with my blushes. Next year, I hope.

In LITERARY GALAS , I’ve already mentioned Alice winning The Canadian Scot of The Year Award in May, where I represented Alice. I’ll have the same honorific role on October 13 when The Literary Review of Canada recognises a number of our greatest writers at a fund-raising gala dinner.

In THE UNIVERSITY WORLD, the great news is that Western University ( in Alice’s time there, it was “The University of Western Ontario”) has successfully completed its fund-raising for The Alice Munro Chair.  The first Professor will be chosen in due course, and announced with appropriate fanfare.

Not bad, eh?

 

MOOSE JAW MEMORIES

We’ve been travelling around, at the expense of the blog, but amassing a number of stories. In Moose Jaw, at the Saskatchewan Writers Festival, we knew that we would have a fine time. This was a return engagement, after a three year lapse, and the old gang of friends was there, wallowing in the pool at The Spa, or strolling through central Crescent Park, where a beaver put on a special evening cruise for us.
We had breakfast with Harold Johnson and Joan, whom we met three years ago, as authors on the same stage in the Library. In August Harold is bringing out what sounds like a very controversial book about the impact of alcohol on our indigenous people. As a Cree with a law degree from Harvard who works as a Crown in La Ronge, Harold  knows about the daily damage of booze to our society. The book is called FIREWATER, and will come from Bruce Walsh’s University of Regina Press. It seems certain to be a powerful book. Watch for it.

On Friday afternoon I gave my Across Canada By Story show in the Mae Wilson Theatre that I remembered with such affection. All went well, although this time there was no superb introduction by Bob Currie (whom I’d like to pack up in my bag, and take with me as my Travelling Introducer). Earlier, I had the pleasure of sharing a session with Bob reading his poetry this year.

I helped with one or two other events, once unofficially. I found Zarqa Nawaz, author of LAUGHING ALL THE WAY TO THE MOSQUE wandering aimlessly around the Library, when she was supposed to be the main lunch speaker. I led her there, and from the stage she told her interviewer, Angie Abdou, that this “nice man” had rescued her, and got her to the event on time. When the “nice man” was asked to identify himself, Angie laughingly suggested that following this particular nice man’s directions was usually good policy for any Canadian author.

On the final day of the Festival, events took a strange turn. I was on a five-author panel on humour, and the speaker before me was Zarqa. She was very keen to inform us all just how difficult it has been for her to find a market for her most recent piece of writing, a very thorough non-fiction study of labiaplasty. She spoke at some length about this, and the audience seemed to like it.

(There may be a link here with the romantic reticence in Saskatchewan that was satirised by singer Connie Kaldor in her Saturday concert at the Mae Wilson Theatre. She asked “Did you hear about the Prairie farmer who loved his wife so much that….. he almost told her?”)

Speaking for the first time, I followed Zarqa by thanking the organisers for inviting me to come to this superb festival. Then I noted, disapprovingly, that while inviting me to participate in the Humour panel, they had not even mentioned the word “labiaplasty”.

Not even once.

The ensuing discussion was amusing,and we all had a good time. Although Terry Fallis later suggested that I might have been wiser to avoid the issue of labiaplasty altogether. He said that I should have kept tight-lipped about it. I believe that was the term he used.