Last week I went to Austin Clarke’s funeral in St. James Cathedral. A fine, formal event where the white-gloved pall-bearers included the hefty Barry Callaghan, somehow reminding me of his wispy father Morley; also my old friend Patrick Crean ( we dated girls in the same family in the Sixties) who was latterly Austin’s editor for The Polished Hoe, and other books; and above all Cecil Foster, the well-known writer.
At the end of the service (one of the few in the Cathedral to involve Bob Marley’s songs, plus a reading from Austin’s latest novel, More, which mentions the bells of St. James), I made a bee-line for Cecil. I thanked him for urging me to visit Austin, who was in poor health. Of course I had meant to visit Austin, whom I’ve known for over forty years as a figure on the Toronto scene, and whose novel, The Origin of Waves, I published. But, although full of good intentions (you may recognise this situation in your own life) I had never got around to it. Cecil’s urging me to go to see him, soon, did the trick. I visited Austin at home just two months before he died, and just days before St. Michael’s Hospital claimed him for the last time.
Austin was clearly very ill, but he knew me, and our fond visit went very well. So well that his young relative Alan, who was with us at the Shuter Street house, greeted me at the funeral, and told me how much Austin had enjoyed our time together. Then he invited me back to the family gathering after the funeral, where I met many old friends, and we shared stories about Austin, not all of them involving rum.
Some weeks earlier Gordie Howe passed away. Our newspapers and magazines were full of tributes to this man that scores of writers called our greatest player. Yet many of the tributes (especially Stephen Smith’s fine hockey blog) dealt with Gordie’s Jekyll and Hyde personality, where this big, charming Saskatchewan boy off the ice, when he put on skates and picked up his surgeon’s stick, turned into an on-ice assassin.
I knew Gordie. I knew, and liked, the good Gordie when I published After The Applause, Gordie and Colleen’s book, written by Charles Wilkins. And during that time, I was hip-checked by Gordie Howe!
Let me explain.Famously, Gordie used to get bigger in the dressing room. The more clothes he took off, the more his long muscles seemed to emerge. I can attest to just how solid he was. We were at a publishing cocktail party and big Gordie secretly came up on my blind side, then smilingly stepped into me with a gentle hip check. I staggered across the room. It was like having a building move into you.
JULY ENGAGEMENTS FOR THE ACROSS CANADA BY STORY SHOW
MOOSE JAW…..Saskatchewan Writers’ Festival
The Mae Wilson Theatre. Friday July 15, 4.00 – 5.00
TORONTO……..Classical Pursuits, with Ann Kirkland (Members only)
Victoria College Dining Hall. Tuesday 19, 7.00-8.00
OTTAWA VALLEY…..Bonnechere Authors Festival
St. James Church, Eganville, Wednesday, 27 July 7.00—8.30
EASTERN TOWNSHIPS…..The Piggery Theatre, North Hatley, Quebec.
Sunday Evening, 31 July.