TWO STORIES YOU NEED TO SEE

If you, my very literate friends, have the smug sense that things are much better here than south of the border, in President Trump’s America, two stories surfaced today that you should see. And think about.
The first is a story in the December 7 Globe and Mail, by Jessica Leeder headed “Pulp non-fiction debate divides Nova Scotia town.”
The opening paragraph sums up the story : “Nova Scotia-born author Joan Baxter was to spend last Saturday signing copies of her new book about a local pulp mill’s fraught environmental history in Pictou County when Northern Pulp drafted a letter to Coles and its parent company, Indigo Books & Music Inc.”
” Calling the journalistic take insulting and offensive, the letter warned the bookstore in New Glasgow, N.S., there would be consequences for the event…”
As a result of these threatened consequences, a spokeswoman for Indigo said that “a number of events leading up to the signing in New Glasgow led us to cancel” the planned event. The cancellation came , ostensibly, from concerns that customers’ “joyful and safe experience” in the store might be compromised.

So, there you have it. Big, local company turns on a local bookstore, encourages its employees to make trouble ( although the company spokeswoman told us that “employees were not encouraged to take any physical action in protest”) and Coles/ Indigo backs down, and the book signing event is off.

An important freedom of speech issue, I would say.

As it happens, I know New Glasgow, and I know Pictou, and the looming Indonesian-owned pulp mill that dominates the town, in every sense. They are such bad corporate citizens that local resident Paul Sobey (who knows something about responsible corporate citizenship) has lent his name to protests against their environmental actions, all duly recounted in my friend Silver Donald Cameron’s film”Defenders of the Dawn”.

The reconstructed version of “The Hector”, the ship that brought Scottish immigrants to Nova Scotia, behind picturesque bagpipers, lies opposite the mill. Sadly, The Hector is closed to the public, still awaiting refurbishment. If any Nova Scotia friends has good news here, I would be glad to hear it.

THE SECOND IMPORTANT STORY is to be found on the front page of The Toronto Star today. Ainslie Cruickshank’s story is headed: “Music teacher  sues board for defamation over song” The sub-heading reads: “School performance of folk song ‘Land of the Silver Birch’ leads to claims of racism and a lawsuit”.

The story opens: ” A Toronto music teacher is suing her principal, vice-principal and the public school board for defamation after the administrators sent an email to the school community apologizing that a well-known folk song — ”Land of the Silver Birch”–was performed at a school concert, calling it “inappropriate” and “racist”.”

The story is hard to summarise , so you might wish to read it for yourself. It’s especially hard for me to summarise , because THIS IS PERSONAL. In my latest show, taking us through Canadian Storytellers From 1867, decade by decade, I begin with a burst of popular Canadian music from the time. For the 1890s I proudly use “Land of the Silver Birch’, the lyrics written by Pauline Johnson in that decade, and sung by a more recent voice.

And here is what the geniuses behind that email “following concerns from parents about the song” said about Pauline Johnson’s poem. Emphasis mine :”WHILE ITS LYRICS ARE NOT OVERTLY RACIST…THE HISTORICAL CONTEXT OF THE SONG IS RACIST.”

How do I begin to deal with that? We can look at the song itself, familiar to generations of Canadian kids around campfires. They happily sang about “Blue lake and rocky shore”. Then many of them peered nervously into the darkness, hoping to catch a glimpse of a “mighty moose” wandering at will.

Great  stuff. A fine, historical folksong. I hope the kids sang it well at the concert.

But “racist”? This brings us to Pauline Johnson, whom I’m delighted to include in my show. She was born in Brantford, and went to high school there with my selected storyteller, Sara Jeannette Duncan. Later, when Sara became The Globe’s first woman writer ( protected by the male nom-de-plume”Garth Grafton”) she published an interview with her interesting friend Pauline. And “interesting” is an under-statement. Her father was a hereditary Mohawk chief, while her mother was English. Pauline drew on both sides of her inheritance. In time , she made her living with a literary act on-stage. In the first half, before the Intermission, she dressed and performed as a Mohawk princess, with poems like “The Song My Paddle Sings”. In the second half she became her mother’s very modern daughter.

Audiences far and wide loved it, as she toured North America and Europe . When she retired to the West Coast, her book Legends of Vancouver, became a great success. In 1913 her funeral in Vancouver was the largest in the city’s history.

“The historical context of the song is racist.” Utter nonsense. I’m proud to have it in my show.

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AHOY…DO YOU HAVE ANY BEER?

One of the great pleasures of my public appearances is that I often stumble across great stories about our authors. In Guelph, after my November 30 event introducing my new show GREAT SCOTS: CANADA’S FINEST STORYTELLERS WITH SCOTTISH LINKS, I was signing books when I met Neil Darroch. He told me about a childhood encounter with Farley Mowat.
When Neil was about 10 he was sailing one summer on the Ottawa River. More precisely, with their skipper, Julian Biggs, he and his father were in a race at the wide part of the river on the Lake of Two Mountains, at Hudson, Quebec. Jane and I know Hudson well, from our October show in the restored railway station theatre there, which will be the subject of a future blog.
The sailing around Hudson is still so good that the Montreal writer, my old friend Trevor Ferguson, was apparently lured to move there by its summer delights.
That summer, around 1970, young Neil was awaiting the start of the race, postponed due to light air. In his words :
“Aboard another sailboat about 100 feet away, a small, bearded fellow hailed us with the immortal words, “Ahoy! Do you have any beer?”
When my father Jim said yes, and politely offered him one, the bearded guy dived into the water, and swam to our boat. He clambered aboard. He was wearing shorts only. Very pale skin, pot belly and large beard. He looked like a pirate.
My father asked me if I knew who this man is? I replied no. My father said, “This is Farley Mowat. He is a writer!”
Mr. Mowat looked at me, scrubbed the top of my head with his hand, and said hello.
I don’t remember what was discussed between my father, our skipper, and Farley Mowat,although I assume it involved lack of wind, and the lack of beer on Mr. Mowat’s pal’s boat. I do remember that he downed a bottle quickly, thanked us, then dived off our boat, and swam back to the boat from which he came. I was left with a vivid impression of a real character. Someone who did not hesitate to do what was necessary at the moment, and damn the torpedos!
I have read most of Mr. Mowat’s works. A great writer!”

I’m sure that one of the books that Neil must have read was The Boat That Wouldn’t Float, which became a huge best-seller when it came out in 1969, just before this encounter. Yet from Neil we learn that Farley’s dicing with death among small boats had not put him off sailing for ever…….and the even more astonishing fact that his dangerous voyages with Jack McClelland around Newfoundland had been floated on a tide of rum, yet now he was content with a simple beer.
I have my own memories of Farley in those days, and he features in Across Canada By Story. The man who helped Farley select the Non-Floating Boat, was my Newfoundland author, Harold Horwood. Farley liked Harold, and would send in helpful quotes to advance Harold’s career. But because he hated the USA (he used to, famously, fire his shotgun at American planes flying overhead…high overhead) any letter from Farley to me at Doubleday Canada arrived in an envelope defaced by Farley’s indignant hand with comments about just how “Canadian” we were.
In my 2015 book you might like to read about the fun I had publishing him. As Neil Darroch says, he was a great writer.

AN EXCITING FALL….SOME HIGHLIGHTS

The tour that I’ve been advertising in my Blog has ended, until the New Year, so I’d like to bring you up to date with our adventures. Naturally, Jane ( my “techie’, and driver, and dresser, and und….well, let’s leave it there) and I had a fascinating time. We saw many interesting parts of the country, were befriended by socially engaged book-lovers, met lots of memorable authors, and gathered a number of shimmering stories.

The next few blogs will run through some of our best experiences.

Let me jump out of order to talk first about a moving experience in Knowlton, Quebec. We went to the Knowlton Festival in mid-October. Now, I know the Eastern Townships fairly well, because of my links with North Hatley, but I had never visited Knowlton. I knew that Paul Martin ( the former Prime Minister who once alarmed an Ottawa book launch with the news that “If Shakespeare had had Doug Gibson as his editor…..there would be no Shakespeare! All the best stuff cut, and left on the floor!”) had his country home there. In fact, the organisers in Knowlton had planned to hire him to insult me again, but unfortunately he and Sheila were out of the country.

So instead the clever people who run this English-language Book Festival in Quebec found an ideal man to introduce me. It was Gerald Potterton, who produced the National Film Board’s animated cartoon of Stephen Leacock’s story,”My Financial Career”, which played a large part in attracting me to Canada,as I tell in my first book, Stories About Storytellers.

The evening began with that cartoon, which is still very funny. And so is Gerald, born in 1931. Before introducing me, he told me privately that they had been considering a number of major Canadian stars to do the voice-over narration for the Leacock piece. But as a sort of place-holder they asked a guy in Winnipeg to read the piece, and he read it in one take, and it was perfect.

But before our evening event, in exploring Knowlton we came on the ancient Anglican church of St.Paul. And there, very  close to the entrance on the wall we found a Memorial Plaque to “Honor Heward Grafftey”, a woman who died in 1943.

And Hugh MacLennan sprang to mind.

In my chapter on Hugh I talk about how during his time as a teacher at Lower Canada College he befriended a boy in distress, who never forgot his kindness, and later defended the very old MacLennans. I kept that boy anonymous. But I can now reveal that it was Heward Grafftey.

What I wrote was this: “One boy, later a distinguished MP, told me that he was summoned to the headmaster’s study  and briskly informed that his mother had just died. Released into the school corridor, he stood there blinking in shock, until one of his teachers, Hugh MacLennan, came up, threw his arms around him, and held him fast, while the macho crowds flowed around them, gaping.”

It was in that little church in Knowlton that I realised that this had happened in 1943. And I thought about Hugh.

SEE MY NEW SHOW NEAR HOME THIS FALL

After Labour Day, we all change gear, and get serious about our lives. So, if you’re serious about seeing my show about our 150th Anniversary, here’s a list of places to see CANADA’S GREATEST STORYTELLERS/ LES GRANDS RACONTEURS CANADIENS 1867– 2017.
In chronological order:–
NOVA SCOTIA Cabot Trail Writers’ Festival Friday 29th September
ONTARIO Whitby, Durham Lifelong Learning Association Tuesday 3 October 2.00 pm
Eden Mills Literary Festival, Special Event, Friday 6 October, evening.
QUEBEC Knowlton Book Festival, Friday 13 October, evening.
Hudson Story Festival. , Tuesday 24 October, evening
ONTARIO Ottawa, Public Library Event (back in Ottawa by public demand!) held in the Woodside Hall , Dominion Chalmers Church, 355 Cooper Street, 7.00 pm.
Toronto, Lifelong Learning Group , Knox College, U.of T. Thursday Nov. 2, 2pm.
London, Book Festival, London Museum, Sunday Nov. 5, afternoon.
Kitchener, Public Library, Thursday Nov. 9, evening.
Toronto, Leaside Public Library, Tuesday Nov. 14, 2pm.

The list of events continues to grow, day by day. Look out, for instance, for possible events in Montreal and in Guelph.
In Spring 2018, the show will go on, and bookings are coming in…..all the way to Summer 2019!
I look forward to meeting you and your friends.

A GREAT HONOUR FOR MY FIRST BOOK

Here is what Terry  Fallis entered, at Kobo’s request, to celebrate Canada Day this year. Look at the authors he chose :– Robertson Davies, Mordecai Richler, Lucy Maud Montgomery, Donald Jack………and Douglas Gibson!
Read on.

5 books that say “Canada”

Posted by Terry Fallis June  30, 2017
Fallis Terry_2008_cr. Tim Fallis

1. The Fifth Business by Robertson Davies

Robertson Davies captures small town life in Canada as only one who grew up in several small towns could. With its gentle humour, brilliant sentences, and captivating storytelling, this, to me, is a supremely Canadian tale.

2. Solomon Gursky Was Here by Mordecai Richler

This fine novel tells the story of three generations of the Gursky family and cuts a broad swath through the country’s history and geography. Any story that includes a plane crash, rum-running, and the Franklin Expedition puts a check mark in the “Canadian” box.

3. Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery

Few stories capture the distinctly Canadian humour, tone, and sensibility as well as Anne of Green Gables. While the musical may now be more popular than the book, it’s well worth revisiting the L.M. Montgomery’s classic for a few laughs, a few tears and a dollop of national pride.

4. Three Cheers for Me by Donald Jack

If you want to read a hilarious novel that captures the Canadian role in the Great War through the eyes of an oblivious horse-faced farm boy from Eastern Ontario (and who doesn’t?), I give you Three Cheers for Me. Written by the three-time Leacock Medal winning Donald Jack, this is a comic masterpiece, and oh so Canadian.

5. Stories About Storytellers by Douglas Gibson

Canadian writers have played a profound role in shaping how we view our own country. The history of Canadian literature is a critical strand running through the history of Canada. Why not read about some wonderful Canadian storytellers in a fantastic book by Douglas Gibson, an editor and publisher who has worked with some of Canada’s most influential writers including Robertson Davies, Alice Munro, and W.O. Mitchell? You’ll thank me.

Terry Fallis is a Canadian author and two-time winner of the Stephen Leacock Memorial Medal for Humour, winning in 2008 for his debut novel, The Best Laid Plans, and in 2015 for No Relation. To date, all five of his published books have been shortlisted for the award.

COMMENTARY

You can imagine how thrilled I am to be in this company. I have strong links with all of the other four authors.

I edited many ROBERTSON DAVIES books, starting with World of Wonders, the third in the trilogy started by Fifth Business. It is, of course, a superb book, and features in my show about CANADA’S GREATEST STORYTELLERS.

I knew MORDECAI RICHLER well, although I never edited his work. He, too, features in my new STORYTELLERS show, where he and I feud as his weary letters begin  “Gibson, Gibson”. Much of the excellent Solomon Gursky book is set in Magog, around the corner from my beloved North Hatley in the Eastern Townships.

Like every Canadian publisher, I published several of LUCY MAUD MONTGOMERY’S books, including Anne of Green Gables,( with an “E”). I talk about her in the STORYTELLERS show, noting that it was her Emily of New Moon that set young Alice Munro off on a writing career.

DONALD JACK is a great hidden comic genius. He  brought out  Three Cheers For Me in 1962, and its Wodehousian treatment of Bartholomew Bandy’s adventures among the horrors of Flanders Fields raised many eyebrows. When he brought me a second volume in 1972 ( entitled That’s Me In The Middle), I reshuffled the new book and Three Cheers For Me, so that they became part of  a continuing series.  Don generously signed the 1972 edition of Three Cheers For Me  with the words “For the originator of The Bandy Papers, Douglas Gibson”, so you can imagine how pleased I was to find him included here by Terry.

As for DOUGLAS GIBSON, words fail. But if anyone reading this has not yet read Stories About Storytellers, I hope you’ll see if  you agree with Terry’s generous assessment.

THE ORDER OF CANADA………NOT BAD, EH?

Today, June 30, 2017, has been a special day in my life. The 99 new members of The Order of Canada listed in the press included Douglas Maitland Gibson.
I am very pleased, and humbled, and proud. I hope that you, as a reader of my blog, can share that pride.
Those who have received the Order know that there’s a long nomination procedure that can run for many months. I, quite properly, stayed aloof from the whole process. Jane, however, was very helpfully involved. My wife would be good at running a secret spy network.
Now may be the time to thank my chief Nominator, Marc Cote, known to all as the Publisher of Cormorant Books. Marc (who tells me that he has a very successful record as a sponsor), researched my biography and wrote persuasive letters on my behalf. He also arranged letters of support from ( I have just learned) three very impressive literary figures, Erna Paris, Jack Hodgins, and Guy Vanderhaeghe.
You can imagine how grateful I am to all of them.
I won’t repeat the Citation that came from Rideau Hall, but it certainly makes me sound like a very impressive figure. And it’s especially pleasing that I arrived in Canada (as a penniless Scottish immigrant, with straw in my hair) in a significant year….1967!
Now Jane and I are looking forward to the Ottawa ceremony, and the formal dinner, when mingling with the very distinguished group of other nominees seems certain to be great fun. And if Mike Myers happens to be in our group. I’ll ask him how on earth he came up with the name of his latest TV show character, Tommy Maitland.

In Memoriam: Avie Bennett (as published by PEN Canada)

By | June 15, 2017 at 12:36 pm | No comments | Blog | Tags: ,

Avie Bennett, publisher, philanthropist and dedicated supporter of PEN Canada, passed away on June 2, 2017. Douglas Gibson reflects on Bennett’s life, work and support of writers and freedom of expression.

In Memoriam: Avie Bennett

Douglas Gibson and Avie Bennett, M&S, McClelland & Stewart

Douglas Gibson and Avie Bennett. (Photo courtesy of Douglas Gibson)

Avie grew up in a Jewish family in a Toronto where he saw signs posted on beaches that were “Closed to Dogs and Jews.” That experience shaped him, and was part of what drew him to the world of publishing, with its central belief that good books can make the world a better place.

After making his fortune in the tough arena of Toronto real estate, he became helpfully involved in trying to save Jack McClelland’s indebted publishing company, McClelland & Stewart. In 1986, to his surprise he bought the legendary company. He liked to tell the story that having made this impulsive leap, he asked Jack what he should do now. Jack apparently suggested that he should try to hire the rival publisher of Macmillan of Canada, “young Doug Gibson”. He did so, giving me the first editorial imprint in Canada. Eighteen months years later, in September 1988, he hired me to take over as the publisher of M&S.

For the rest of his time as chairman and owner, until 2000, we worked side by side, spending countless hours together. This meant that I had a privileged view of Avie in action, and saw how his deepest beliefs affected the world of books.

For example, PEN members will be interested to hear that when Salman Rushdie’s controversial novel, The Satanic Verses, fell under a fatwa issued by the Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran in 1989, it produced a march of enraged Muslims in Toronto, chanting death threats against the author. Avie’s reaction was to propose an instant campaign of resistance, where M&S, and every publishing company in Canada, would defiantly display the controversial book at their reception desks. We were prepared not only to do so ourselves, but to organise a Canada-wide campaign, but when we approached the book’s publisher, Penguin, they pleaded with us not to do so, for the safety of all involved. I’m not sure that they were right.

In matters concerning freedom of speech, Avie was a solid defender of publishing freedoms, fighting against people like Conrad Black who were inclined to shut down embarrassing book investigations of their world. In the political arena, M&S was deliberately non-partisan, bringing out books by authors ranging from Pierre Trudeau to Brian Mulroney, and from Elizabeth May to Preston Manning. It was an ongoing demonstration of faith in the power of the classic belief that if you allow everyone to make their case in a careful, well-argued way, in the market-place of ideas the best case will win, eventually.

As a boss, Avie was outspoken and frank. He was part of the editorial meetings that I chaired, where new book ideas were floated, sometimes successfully (“Why don’t we approach John Crosbie to write a book?”) and sometimes not (too many examples to give any details, including books that went on to success elsewhere). All of the management books about encouraging employee suggestions would frown on outbursts from Avie along the lines of “That’s the stupidest book idea I’ve ever heard” but it was accepted by us because it was Avie – the same Avie who would reprimand a famous author, and threaten to cancel his publicity tour, for being rude to a young publicist.

The celebrity agent Michael Levine called Avie and me “The Odd Couple” because he was a very successful businessman, which I was not, he was Jewish while I sounded like an RCMP Corporal from Central Casting, he was a graduate from the School of Hard Knocks, while I was a fancy-pants literary guy who edited Robertson Davies, and he admired the finest liquor, while I was a prim tee-totaller. But we got along very well together, and published many fine books. I was proud to go to Sweden in 2013 with Avie as part of the group celebrating Alice Munro’s Nobel Prize. Despite all of his other achievements in many worlds that I have not been able to mention here, that event was a high point in the life of a great Canadian, Avie Bennett.

Douglas Gibson worked with Avie Bennett at M&S as the Publisher from 1988 to 2000, then as the President till 2004. After he left the company in 2007 he became an author, with Stories About Storytellers (2011) and Across Canada By Story (2015). He is now touring the country with a new stage show, Canada’s Greatest Storytellers  1867–2017.