Supporting the Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour

Recently I learned that this Award was in grave danger of disappearing, because the money to keep it alive was shrinking. I knew that over the years the annual Prize had played a huge role in advancing the careers of some authors. I knew, too, that in a modern world of shrinking financial returns for writers the money won by the successful author is very useful . Just think……food, drink, warm clothes!

So, encouraged by the example of my friend Terry Fallis, I made a contribution.

Then, I realized that instead of just making a financial contribution I could tell a few stories about Leacock, the Award, and me. One thing led to another, and this week David Mallinson, in charge of the fund-raising drive, published my essay.

I’m attaching it here, for your pleasure:–

STEPHEN LEACOCK CHANGED MY LIFE

When I was a boy growing up in rainy Glasgow, inside the school library I came across the work of Stephen Leacock. His Nonsense Novels and Literary Lapses had me chortling, and wanting to learn more about this very funny writer. It turned out that he was a Canadian. Aha! Obviously Canadian writers were excellent. If I were to get the chance to visit Canada….

One thing led to another, and after St. Andrews I got a scholarship that took me to Yale. After that I got a Greyhound Bus pass that took me across America, so that I entered Canada off the ferry at Victoria. Heading east I spent many hours gazing out of the bus window at lakes and trees in Northern Ontario. Then fields and farms and maple trees appeared, and soon we were approaching a sunny little town of orange brick named Orillia. Wait a minute! Surely this was the place that Leacock had….. and of course it was, and in a sense I had arrived at the Canada I was seeking.

We got to stretch our legs there, and the sun was shining, and the little town did indeed look like a scene of “deep and unbroken peace” – although I knew that, in reality, the place was “a perfect hive of activity”.

Some months later, in March 1968, I got an editorial job in Toronto. The very first book I got to edit was, of course, a biography of Stephen Leacock.

That book, a serious study by Montreal’s David M. Legate, was not a candidate for the Stephen Leacock Award for Humour. But I have a weakness for publishing funny books, so over the years I have been involved with many celebrations of this important Award. The winning authors included Harry J. Boyle (who enjoyed being Mariposa’s Honorary Mayor, and who changed my life by introducing me to a Huron County friend named Alice Munro). There was Robert Thomas Allen (author of Children, Wives and Other Wildlife) who at the grand Dinner was delighted, but shy. Donald Jack (after winning the Leacock Award for both Three Cheers for Me and That’s Me in The Middle ) played up to the role of his character, Bartholomew Bandy, by dressing in a cocked hat. The irrepressible W.O. Mitchell misbehaved, and to my horror got into a public spat with a cousin.

I’ve been involved with publishing many former Leacock Award winners like Eric Nicol, Pierre Berton, and Robertson Davies. But perhaps the best story involves Terry Fallis. Terry, whom I knew as a friend, had self-published a funny book called The Best Laid Plans in 2007. But its future was very limited. Until Terry read that self-published books could be entered for the Leacock Award. So he entered, and won! This brought me into the picture very fast, and I went on to publish this hidden book, which has now sold over 100,000 copies!

So the Leacock Award continues to do very good work. It deserves our support.

 

If you would like to help the Leacock Award Fund-raising drive, use the link here, or copy it into your browser.

https://fundrazr.com/campaigns/Leacock_Medal/pay?utm_campaign=story-update&utm_medium=email&utm_source=09-2020

TRUE ROMANCE…..A final note, which you may know if you’ve followed my book, STORIES ABOUT STORYTELLERS. There I talk about how, having lured me to Canada, Leacock is apparently still hovering over me. In the summer of 2001 I went to Geneva Park, near Orillia, to give a speech to the Couchiching Conference on globalization and publishing, or something equally grand. At the conference was a member of the board named Jane Bartram, who was to my smitten eyes clearly The Most Fascinating Woman in the World. During the first evening’s sober political conversation I attracted her attention by recounting what I had learned that day about the rules of the Jumping Frog Competition at the Sutton Fair, Leacock territory in every sense. Our first date was a canoe ride together on Lake Couchiching, where we did not quite reach Leacock’s Old Brewery Bay on the opposite shore. But having brought me to Canada he was still obviously running my life. Jane and I were married within the year, and are still going strong, 19 years later .

Keep up the good work, Professor Leacock.

 

 

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GOLD RUSH, A JUST-PUBLISHED BOOK OF POETRY BY CLAIRE CALDWELL

These are difficult days for all of us. Imagine how hard it must be for a young author to bring out a new book. And for the gallant publisher, in this case Invisible Books, trying to give an exciting new book a virtual launch on April 1, 2020, into a world we barely recognise.

I’m glad to play my part in beating an enthusiastic drum, or ten, because I know Claire Caldwell and her work very well. She is a cousin of mine! Her grandfather, Douglas Caldwell (after whom I was named) was my mother’s first cousin. Her father, Doug Caldwell, and her mother Judy McAlpine, both CBC Radio stalwarts in their day, are good friends. And right now they’re bursting their britches with pride at Claire’s new book.

GOLD RUSH is an 80-page collection of poems. The publisher’s catalogue description is intriguing. You can read the entire description at the website invisiblepublishing.com/product/gold-rush . It begins: “From the Klondike to an all-girls summer camp to the frontier of outer space, GOLD RUSH explores what it means to be a settler woman in the wilderness.” The description ends: “Whether they’re trekking the Chilkoot Trail, exploring the frontiers of their own bodies and desires, or navigating an unstable, unfamiliar climate, the girls and women in these poems are pioneers — in all the complexities contained by the term.”

Obviously, I’m too much of a cheerleader to be totally reliable guide to the quality of Claire’s poems. So let’s turn to JOHN IRVING:    “A salute to Neil Young’s enduring prophecy “mother nature on the run”, but it’s scarier now — it’s not the 1970s. Claire Caldwell is an environmental doomsayer, but she’s also a comedic, antic storyteller, and she’s great at dark endings. Wilderness women are her storytellers; they speak with the melancholy of country music. “One day, I vanished,” says one. Another says, “To wear the moon like a breast.” From actresses fording a river: “Applause had softened us.” Nothing soft about these poems.”

Thank you, John Irving.

ABOUT CLAIRE CALDWELL. Claire is a children’s book editor at Annick Press (another fine reason to give her our support, an editor who writes!). She is also a kids’ writing workshop facilitator. Her debut poetry collection Invasive Species (Wolsak and Wynn) was named one of The National Post’s top 5 poetry books of 2014. Claire, who spent many of her early years in the Yukon, was a 2016 writer in residence at the Berton House in Dawson City, Yukon. She was the 2013 winner of The Malahat Review’s Long Poem Prize. She has a BA from McGill, and an MFA from the University of Guelph.

THE BOOK OF NEGROES AND THE ROLE OF SCOTS

Like so many readers around the world I was deeply moved by Lawrence Hill’s 2007 work, The Book of Negroes. Although it is supposedly fiction, this book of “memoirs” set down around 1800 by the former slave Aminata Diallo is very clearly based on bitter reality, and on a great deal of scholarly research by my friend Lawrence Hill. A great Canadian literary success story about an international tragedy.

But I had a stronger reaction than many readers. As someone born and educated in Scotland, I had no idea of the huge role played by Scots in the Slave Trade. Or of the huge role that the economics of the Slave Trade exerted on Scottish life,   and continued to do so long after the formal slave trade became illegal. In many parts of the Western world, (such as Jamaica and the U.S. southern states), slaves remained valuable “chattels” and their owners expected to be compensated for their “loss” when the slaves were freed. Scots, I find, were not shy about seeking compensation in these areas, to the tune of what would today amount to many millions of dollars.

I have spent some time recently learning about these matters with the help of the distinguished Glasgow University historian, Dr. Stephen Mullen. He has researched this area very extensively. Recently he brought the results uncomfortably close to me when he delivered a Lecture on the subject at my old school, Glasgow Academy, (an old school, indeed, which was founded in 1843). The role of what we might call the “slave-based economy” on Scottish life is something that scholars like Dr. Mullen are investigating. We look forward to many future revelations.

I’m struck, for instance, by the astonishing fact that Glasgow’s central Buchanan Street (where my mother used to buy my Glasgow Academy school uniform) is named after a slave owner. And that the Tobacco Trade, and the Sugar Trade, and the Cotton Trade, all important to western Scotland, were each based on slave labour.  Dr. Mullen tells me to look out for a book next year from the Royal Historical Society on The Glasgow Sugar Aristocracy.

And Lawrence Hill’s book? The embarrassing Scottish incidents build up, from the news that a Scot named Armstrong played golf, with a wooden ball, at his Sierra Leone Banca Island slaving station. But the truly terrible moment is when young Aminata is branded. The “O” on her skin is for Richard Oswald, a Scot from Auchincruive, in Ayrshire This lies very near the land that Robert Burns was planning to leave in order to help to run a plantation in Jamaica, when he was saved by the publication success of his first book. The line from “Scots Wha Hae” that sneers “Wha sae base tae be a slave” would have ranked high in hypocrisy if Burns had spent time with a whip in his hand, striding around slave plantations.

 

AN AMAZING BUSH PILOT STORY FROM HUGH MACLENNAN

My last blog about Jake McDonald taking me to  meet some bush pilots has attracted some interest. In ACROSS CANADA  BY STORY I gave the learned opinion that “every successful Canadian non-fiction book must involve stories about bears, wolves, hockey players, and bush pilots”.

Hugh MacLennan knew this. He won two Governor-General’s awards for his non-fiction (plus three for his books of fiction), and paid careful attention to Canada’s North, and to the bush pilots who fly the freezing skies there.

I quote the following story by Hugh:…..

“When winter comes to this region, it does not come slowly, it strikes with a crack. I met a veteran of many years on the Mackenzie who told me that he once escaped having to spend an entire long winter in Aklavik by a matter of a minute. His was the last plane out, and as he stood on one of the pontoons filling his tank with gas, he suddenly noted ice forming on the water. He threw the can away, jumped into the pilot’s seat without even taking the time to screw on the cap of the gas tank, gunned the plane, and took off. The thin ice was crackling about the pontoons before he became airborne, and as he made his circle to head south he saw the pack ice thrusting in, and the lagoon from which he had risen turn opaque as though the frost had cast a wand over it.”

 

STRENGTH IN NUMBERS

For Toronto friends, I’m happy to spread the word about an intriguing new show at the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, on the south-east corner of the fortified Robarts Library. It is STRENGTH IN NUMBERS: The CanLit Community. It will be open to the public until May 1.

The fascinating Catalogue is designed  by Stan Bevington, and printed by his Coach House Press (with more detail about the Goluska typeface than a casual reader might expect: “Goluska is sturdier and the x-height is larger than Electra.” Now you know.)

But the exhibition, on two floors, provides hours of happy roaming for true admirers of Canadian writing, from The Confederation Poets to George Elliott Clarke. There is simply too much, and too many display cases full of astonishing tidbits, for me to suggest a route for a set tour. Just wander around, peering into the cases, admiring the author photos, or reading about Mazo De La Roche’s Jalna series, with over 11 million copies sold, or Lucy Maud confessing that she’s sick of writing about Anne with an E. Or enjoy the letter from Robertson Davies to the popular novelist Arthur Hailey (Hotel, and Airport) sympathising with him over the savagery poured over his work by jealous reviewers.

I spent a very happy time there on the opening night on Friday January 31. I especially enjoyed meeting the two Librarians who designed the show, choosing from the University Library’s wealth of original literary documents.  Natalya Rattan was appealingly modest about her fine work, but John Shoesmith reminded me that I had turned him down for a job at M&S (allowing him to escape a life of penury , working in publishing). He seems to have forgiven me.

I did meet a number of old friends, including a woman who still remembers me as her daughter’s soccer coach from almost 40  years ago. And I was delighted to read a promotional blurb about the excellence of CanLit that names the following authors……Robertson Davies, Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje and Mavis Gallant….all of whom (modest cough) I proudly published.

SAD NEWS FROM WINNIPEG

My good friend Gordon Sinclair (who wrote for me the fine book about the police murder of the native leader J.J. Harper, COWBOYS AND INDIANS) contacted me yesterday to tell me that Jake McDonald had died in a fall in Mexico.

Jake was one of the bravest men I ever knew. His refusal to let his terrible spine deformities impede his life as a writer was truly inspiring. He wrote hundreds of fine articles in places like Canadian Geographic, the Globe, and The Beaver. He also created many books, the best-known being his HOUSEBOAT CHRONICLES. As the title implies, this man moved around the country, by hook or by crook, and inspired his many friends to get out there and live.

I remember one visit to Winnipeg, as the M&S Publisher, where Jake proudly drove me north to Selkirk. There he showed me the airport  that was used by bush pilots heading north. We wandered happily around, clambering into bush planes where you could see where the dogs went, and where their sled was stowed. We chatted eagerly with the determined pilots, hearing low-key tales of adventures in the North that almost defied belief. But the pilots were happy to talk with us, because they really liked Jake, who could chat with anyone.

And I was lucky enough to be the guy with Jake.

We’ll miss him.

THE EDUCATION OF EVERETT RICHARDSON, BY SILVER DONALD CAMERON

I was thrilled to read the up-dated version of this classic Canadian book  (just re-issued), not least because it seems that a young kid in publishing named Doug Gibson helped the author in some way. I’ll take any credit that’s going, because what Donald Cameron (there was no “Silver” in those hills, in those days) went on to produce was something really new — a serious look from the water level at a little, local strike in Canso that grew to shut down work, and set people marching all across Nova Scotia in 1970-71.
It’s clear that what drew him to research and write this book was a deep anger at the sight of the old Nova Scotia power system at work, encouraging a provincial judge, incredibly, to sentence hard-working fishermen in Canso to go to jail, because they chose to show that they were not slaves by tying up their boats and going on strike.
Yet although he writes with deep sympathy for  the working men and women involved (people we get to know very well) he’s determined to be fair to the other side, which means we follow the infuriating ups and downs of the negotiations.
The result is a superb piece of reporting that makes THE EDUCATION OF EVERETT RICHARDSON one of the great books of our times — well worth a new generation of readers.

MOVIE REVIEW: “NEVER CRY WOLF” November 1983

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.

ALISTAIR MacLEOD’S CHRISTMAS STORY, “TO EVERY THING THERE IS A SEASON”

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.

 

 

 

A NEW SHOW IN VANCOUVER, ON SATURDAY 26, OCTOBER

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.
WHERE?
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!

REMEMBERING GRAEME GIBSON

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.