Ottawa is famous as the world’s coldest capital city, and the group of rowdy Russians in the Lord Elgin Hotel bar seemed right at home . When we were there on January 21, it was the coldest day of the winter here. So cold that TV and radio were warning people “DON’T GO OUT! STAY IN THIS EVENING!”
We knew that over 100 people had booked seats for our GREAT SCOTS show (about fine Canadian fiction writers down through the decades from 1867 with links to Scotland) to be staged at the Arts Court Theatre. But how many of them would defy the elements — and the terrifying storm of warnings from the media — and dare to show up?
To our delight, over 80 brave souls came to the theatre, and there was an instant sense of community. It was as if the fact that we had all trudged, or driven anxiously, through the bitter winds (the media had warned about wind chill of around minus 40) had made us all proud members of the same club. Unity through adversity!
Of course, we lost some good people, some of them apologizing for their “wuss” like withdrawal. And I was sorry to lose the older lady who had promised to ask me about Farley Mowat, whom she had known back in the original Mowat lands, where the visiting Farley, apparently, was a skilful peat-cutting man.
Finding our theatre was a challenge. When we came on another hall for an audience in the Ottawa Art Gallery building and shyly mentioned that we were about to give a show, the waiting technician swept Jane off. She was well on the way to having our show up on the screen when it emerged that the techie was waiting to set up another speaker, with an interesting talk about architecture. (We had to miss it because we were otherwise engaged — although it turned out that I knew a friendly man in the audience.) The main impact of our leaving the false-start theatre was that in the process Jane left her gloves and her toque. and in Ottawa that night their absence was serious.
Our group was in every sense a warm gathering. The two sponsoring groups — the Ottawa Public Library (Romaine Honey) and the Ottawa Scottish Society (Heather Theoret) — had worked hard to spread the word, and to arrange for a kind introduction for me. I began, of course, by talking enthusiastically about the people around us, some of whom were old friends, and even relatives. As usual, I found myself delivering a new, slightly different show. Perhaps the most interesting addition (for me) was adding to my Mavis Gallant piece. Here, for example, is what the narrator, Scots-Canadian Jean Duncan , wrote in the novella, ITS IMAGE ON THE MIRROR:
“My mother, presiding over covered vegetable dishes, received the passed-along plate on which my father had placed a dry slice of salmon loaf. The vegetable dish covers were removed to reveal creamed carrots, and mashed potatoes piled like a volcano, with a pat of salty butter melting inside the crater. The ritual of mealtime mattered more to us than the food. None of the women in our family could cook, and we felt that women who worried about what they were to eat or serve were wanting in character.”
Ah, Mavis! And ah, Bill Weintraub, who selected that great quote for City Unique, his excellent book on Montreal, which I was proud to publish.
At the end we had a lively Q and A session. Among the questioners was the old newsman, Hugh Winsor, who posed an interesting question about my work with non-fiction authors. I’m still kicking myself for failing to wind up with a lively summary of my work with Trudeau, Mulroney, and Martin, who famously said “Let me tell you what it was like being edited by Doug Gibson. If Shakespeare had been edited by Doug Gibson, there would be no Shakespeare! All the best stuff cut, and on the floor!”
At the end I signed copies of both of my books for the fine people at Perfect Books, and with 20 copies sold it was a good evening for them. And Jane and I got to see lots of old friends before fighting our way back to the Lord Elgin, sharing my gloves.