From 1981 to 1984 I provided weekly film reviews for the CBC Radio programme “Sunday Morning”. During much of that time the Executive Producer was Stuart McLean, bound for later glory. My Producer was the heroic Suanne Kelman, who steered me through many gasping, spluttering takes.
Here (with family names added) is one example:
Since “Never Cry Wolf” is that rare and wonderful thing, a family movie, I took along the Gibson Girls, aged 6 (Katie), 8 (Meg), and 37 (Sally). Happily, the outing was a success, marred only by the loud enquiry addressed to your discreet reviewer , “Daddy , why are you writing things down?” And despite my notes , my critical thunder was stolen by the 8-year old, who really enjoyed it, especially the mountains and the wolves, but felt that it didn’t add up to a real movie.
Like The Right Stuff, the other Wolfe movie around, the film suffers from the lack of a traditional plot. It’s based, of course, on Farley Mowat’s non-fiction classic, although the period has shifted from the late Forties to more modern times. And the setting has gone West — from the Barren Lands way north of Churchill, Manitoba, to the well-treed country on the B.C. border just south of Whitehorse, where the scenery is glorious. In fact the camera lingers so lovingly on the lakes and lichen and lonely Lawren Harris hills that I kept expecting John and Janet Foster to appear.
It’s a beautiful film — and it catches the spirit, and the humour, of Farley’s book. The voice-over by the Mowat character reveals the same terror when he’s dumped by bush plane in the snowy middle of nowhere — encircled by crates of Ottawa requisition forms, and equally useless lightbulbs — with instructions to follow wolves. This hero is hilariously unheroic, whether he’s hiding under a canoe to escape from what he thinks are wolves, or cowering in his tent as a real wolf prowls around ready to huff and puff and blow his house down.
And the theme of both book and film, of course, is that our nursery rhyme view of wolves is wrong. So we watch our boy timidly learning to co-exist with his wolf neighbours, even marking out his territory, wolf-style, fuelled by 27 cups of tea. In time he becomes very fond of the wolves, playing the buffoon (as well as the bassoon) for them, giving them names, and watching with pleasure as the romping cubs discover that Dad has a tail for the pulling.
There are other scenes certain to delight young audiences, including the famous mice-eating incident, whereby hangs a tale…… of happy shrieks of “Oooh, that’s gross!” Other crowd-pleasers have our boy showing his “bare bum” — presumably an in-joke of which the famously kilted Mr. Mowat is the butt. Add a death-defying flight through the mountains and a scary fall through lake ice and you’ve got lots of the right stuff.
That being so, it’s too bad that the film drags a bit towards the end as it tries to show not just a change of seasons but a change of mind, as the hero comes to love the North, and despise so-called “civilisation” — a process that’s not so easy to show on film. But thanks to wonderful camera work and a witty performance by Charles Martin Smith as Mowat, all of the Gibsons can promise you — if you’ll excuse the gallant pun — a Farley good time.
In Toronto this is Doug Gibson for Sunday Morning.
On Thursday 19 December, listeners to CBC Radio’s “As It Happens” had a special treat. To help celebrate the time of year, the programme played Les Carlson’s fine reading of the story that Alistair wrote in 1977.
You can hear it on the CBC’s As It Happens website.
Or you can read it in the richly illustrated little book that I published with great pride in 2004. It is entitled “To Every Thing There Is A Season : A Cape Breton Christmas Story”.
The story is simple, seen through the eyes of an eleven-year-old boy. As an adult he remembers the way things were back home on the west coast of Cape Breton. The time was the 1940s, but the hens and the cows and the pigs and the sheep and the horse made it seem ancient. The family of six children excitedly waits for Christmas and two-year-old Kenneth, who liked Halloween a lot, asks, “Who are you going to dress up as at Christmas? I think I’ll be a snowman.” They wait especially for their oldest brother, Neil, working on “the Lake boats” in Ontario, who sends intriguing packages of “clothes” back for Christmas.
Will he arrive in time? Will the narrator be thought old enough to stay up late on Christmas Eve, to join in the adult gift-wrapping role of helping Santa Claus?
The story is simple, short and sweet, but with a foretaste of sorrow, as the biblical title reminds us. Not a word is out of place. Alistair MacLeod’s writing is like a long poem that begs to be read aloud.
Matching and enhancing the story are twenty-five glorious black-and-white illustrations by Cape Breton’s Peter Rankin, a relative of Alistair’s. They make this book a thing of beauty in every way, one that deserves a place in every Canadian home that values a traditional Christmas.
A FINAL THOUGHT
My dear friend Alistair died in April 2014. I have written about him in my books Stories About Storytellers, and Across Canada By Story . In fact that 2014 book ends with a toast to Alistair that I gritted out through tears at a Writers’ Union event that summer. The church at Broad Cove (which appears on the cover of this Christmas book, drawn by Peter Rankin), was where Alistair’s funeral took place.
On the last page of Across Canada By Story, I write:
“I heard that there were many tears at his funeral in Broad Cove, Cape Breton. In fact his cousin Kevin, a pallbearer, told me that he wept so copiously that a Cape Breton neighbour was highly impressed. “Kevin,” she said, “when I die, I want you at my funeral.”
Laughter and tears.”
I experienced both of them when I heard the reading on the radio, and rushed to re-read the classic book.
My faithful followers know that I roam around the country, delighted to meet and chat with them. Good news now for my West-Coast friends.
On Saturday afternoon I’ll be giving the “2019 St. Andrews and Caledonian Lecture for Simon Fraser University.”
My host is Dr. Kim McCullough, who promises “an afternoon of Scottish literary delights”. The afternoon starts at 2.00 with a talk by Kaitlyn MacInnis, followed by selections by the famous Vancouver Gaelic Choir.
Then at some point after 3.00 I begin the grand lecture GREAT SCOTS: Canadian Fiction Writers With Links To Scotland, From 1867 To Today.
There will be a Q and A session, and refreshments will be served, amidst much chatter.
I hope to see you (or your Vancouver book-loving friends) there.
All of this is FREE.
In downtown Vancouver, at the SFU Harbour Centre, Labbatt Hall, Room 1700.
I’m looking forward to it very much…..and have some special Vancouver stories to tell!
Graeme Gibson was not a relative, but he was a friend for about 50 years. He was a notably kind man. I remember in 1973 my father died , very suddenly, in Scotland. My wife and I went downtown to arrange a flight to Scotland (in those days travel agents were involved) and at Yonge and Bloor we came across Graeme on the street,
I was in shock, and the story of my father’s death at 73 was soon blurted out.
Graeme was deeply sympathetic, and very helpful, in a way that I remember to this day.
A more recent, amusing link with Graeme. Just a week before his death I happened to give my “Great Scots” show to Senior College at the U. of T.. Its President is Harold Atwood, Before the show he told me that Graeme was so proud of his Scottish roots that a recent test of his ancestry had revealed, to his great satisfaction, that he didn’t “have a single drop of English blood!”
Certainly at formal events he and I were proud to wear the Buchanan tartan, celebrating the clan to which all Gibsons belong.
We should celebrate the fact that just a few weeks ago the University of Cape Breton, inspired by Silver Donald Cameron and the new Farley Mowat Chair, gave Graeme an honorary degree for his work for the environment.
We will miss him.
As my faithful followers know, Jane and I travel all over Canada, and beyond, giving my stage shows about authors. But these are , for many of you, glimpses of distant pleasures.
Not this time.
If you live within striking distance of Toronto I have very good news for you. ON TUESDAY, SEPTEMBER 10, AT THE TORONTO REFERENCE LIBRARY, AT YONGE JUST NORTH OF BLOOR, I’ll be giving my ACROSS CANADA BY STORY show, from 6.30 to 8.00
It will be in the BEETON ROOM, at the back of the Main Floor. There will be a Q. and A. session at the end, with the usual range of challenging questions. My books will be available for sale, and legible signatures will be offered.
And attendance is absolutely FREE. Come along, and bring your book-loving friends. Marching bands are optional.
This marks the start of a busy fall touring season. The very next morning I’ll be at The Faculty Club, presenting GREAT SCOTS to Senior College and its very bright people, including my authors Max and Monique Nemni.
Then, on SATURDAY 14 I’ll be just outside Montreal, presenting GREAT SCOTS at the POINTE CLAIRE LIBRARY, 100 Douglas-Shand Avenue at 11.45. It’s part of a major Scottish event, which sounds like great fun.
Later, we’ll be in PRINCE EDWARD COUNTY, on WEDNESDAY 17, at the WELLINGTON LIBRARY, giving GREAT SCOTS at 6pm. This is a fund-raiser for the Library, where I’m very glad to lend a hand.
Finally, to round out a busy month, we’ll give GREAT SCOTS in Toronto at a free show in Hazelton Place, where I remember visiting my old friends Avie Bennett, Reed Scowen, and Eric Koch. Reed is still with us, but Jane and I miss Eric, who claimed that it was his invitation to me to speak at a Couchiching Conference that led to me meeting Jane , and vice versa, in 2001. Eric would take full credit for everything that ensued by claiming, loudly, “You owe it all to me!”
My apologies for an absence for much of July. We were on our travels, enjoying a family wedding in Scotland, a few days with a friend in Holland, and then some time in Berlin.
Here are brief accounts of all three countries that may be of interest to my faithful readers. In Scotland, for instance, I showed my grandchildren around the tiny wee village where I grew up. Dunlop (the proper pronunciation emphasizes the-LOP, to distinguish that particular Ayrshire village from all of the other Scottish place names that begin with “Dun…” , meaning “fort”) at its biggest was a wee place of about 800 people, when all the dairy farmers were in town. I tried to emphasise to my Toronto grandchildren that this was a whole community, where everyone knew everyone else.
Alistair (12) only really got the full significance when I showed him the house where I became a professional digger of gardens (good training for an editor) under the professional instruction of Jimmy Dalziel, the local grave-digger.
“You knew the grave-digger?” Wow!
Anyone growing up in a stratified Toronto suburb is bound to be startled by this information about a full community, where, as I told them, I knew everyone in every house…..and they all knew me, which made bad behaviour a very risky project. (“Yer faither’ll hear aboot this!” And he did.)
Our time in the Netherlands was spent in Friesland, in the north, beside the North Sea. When I studied English a million years ago at St. Andrews, we were taught that the flow towards the English language went from German to Dutch then to Friesian, before making the leap west to Anglo-Saxon. To my amazement, when I asked a young friend to count to twenty in Friesian, the “Eins-zwei-drei’ pattern indeed took a major shift towards English .
In the Middle Ages the trade between Scotland and Holland was so sturdy that to this day Scottish East-Coast towns are full of old cottages roofed with orange Dutch tiles. Apparently they went west as ballast on ships destined to head back to Holland laden with sheep and wool. The result was when I saw the familiar roofs, and fishing boats in Harlingen, everything was very familiar, like a fishing town in Fife. Except, as I complained, the sea was on the wrong side!
As we know in Canada, the long list of publishers listed as “Penguin , Random House, etcetera, etcetera, McClelland & Stewart, etcetera “goes on and on. It’s hard to forget just how powerful the ultimate owner, Bertelsmann, really is. I was reminded of this power when we were in the middle of a “Hop-On, Hop-Off Bus Tour “of the main sights in Berlin.
When the bus turned on to the famous old street of Unter Den Linden the English-language commentary said. in effect, “And now we come to Unter Den Linden, And the first grand building on the left is the centre of the great Bertelsmann empire. It has been here for many years, and it’s very significant that this great publishing house continues to…”
So there you are. Even a tour bus in Berlin is aware of the huge power of Bertelsmann, and broadcasts it proudly.