North Hatley is a very special place in Quebec’s Eastern Townships, near Sherbrooke. If you don’t know it, try to arrange a visit. If you can afford to stay at Hovey Manor, take the chance. If, however, you’re invited to stay with Pat and Norman Webster at their house on Lake Massawippi just beyond Hovey Manor, cancel all appointments and head off there as fast as you can, because you’re in for a wonderful time.
North Hatley played a large part in my life, since I married into a summer family, and Sally and I spent many happy summers in North Hatley (and winter visits to ski cross-country), and her family’s lakeside cottage is still there. As my readers know, that was where I first met another cottager named Hugh MacLennan.
So when Pat Webster suggested that I contact the Piggery Theatre (and you’ll never guess what the building was before it became a theatre) to offer to give my show, I was delighted. After a few phone conversations with Ruth McKinven, representing the little theatre, we were all set.
I stupidly failed to specify the sort of equipment that my show would require, but this is a rural community where everyone helps out in an emergency just before a show. Miraculously, a screen came from here, a projector was picked up from there, and we started just 20 minutes late. The old Piggery held about 100 people, in comfortable seats, and the show seemed to go well, with Alison Pick commenting that the contents had really changed since she saw it in Moose Jaw. I had made special local changes to deal with Hugh MacLennan and the North Hatley book, I’ll Tell You A Secret by Anne Coleman about her teenage infatuation with “Mr. MacLennan”. I even produced a literary reason why Hugh, immersed in writing The Watch That Ends The Night, might be eager to spend so much time with this teenaged girl.
After the show I received a remarkable email from an old friend, Michael Ogilvie, who had been in the audience. He had been struck by my story about Hugh’s funeral at the McGill Chapel, and wanted me to know how that had come about. My book records how McGill stupidly removed from his office this iconic teacher who had been with them since 1951. Hugh left feeling hurt, and relations between him and his wife Tota and McGill were badly strained.
When Hugh died in 1990, however, Michael Ogilvie realised that his aged aunt, Tota, was in no condition to organise a funeral for her late husband. He himself was flying off to the Maritimes, but he knew that this was a crisis. So although he had never met David Johnstone, the Principal of McGill… and now Canada’s very popular Governor General… at Dorval Airport he looked up his home phone number and called him at 6.30 in the morning, introducing himself to the surprised female family member who answered the phone as “Hugh MacLennan’s nephew.”
David Johnstone came to the phone (think pyjamas, and a bathrobe) and cut short a possibly complicated conversation with the breathtakingly wise and generous words “I assume you’re calling, Michael, to give us a chance to bring Hugh home….”
Michael was very grateful, and McGill proceeded to organise the whole fine event in the Birks Chapel, from the string quartet playing Hugh’s favourite music, to the four speakers honoured to be asked to talk about his life, including the most grateful of all, his Publisher.
We are very lucky to have a Governor General like David Johnstone.