REPLACING AMHERST

In ACROSS CANADA BY STORY, I talk frankly about an18th-century man named Amherst.

I note that Amherst Island, near Kingston, “is named after the British military officer Sir Jeffery Amherst, who played a distinguished role in the capture of Quebec in 1760. Sadly, he was also a genocidal thug. In the long history of broken promises that marked the dealings between white invaders in Canada and the Native people they replaced, nothing was so terrible as the germ warfare that Amherst proposed to introduce around Fort Detroit in 1763 by giving local Indians a gift of smallpox-infected blankets, hoping, in his own words, to “extirpate” them.”

After he left Canada in 1763 to return to England, his military successes overshadowed his genocidal experiments. Unfortunately his devalued name now marks three fine communities. Amherst, near the New Brunswick border, is cheerfully described as “a gateway to Nova Scotia”, and any traveller in the Maritimes will agree that all roads seem to lead to it. Amherstburg, on the Detroit River near Lake Erie, is a small Ontario town originally laid out by Loyalists. And Amherst Island is a fine, thriving Island set in Lake Ontario just west of Kingston.

In Montreal, however, it was decided to remove the man’s name from the city. Montreal, of course, has a mixed record when it comes to changing street names. Some time ago the city embarrassed itself by re-naming the old “Mountain Street” as “La Rue de la Montagne”. This would have been fine if “Mountain Street” had been named after the prominent geographical feature that dominates the landscape there. In fact it was named in honour of the Englishman Jacob Mountain, who in 1793 was appointed Anglican bishop of the new diocese of Quebec.

Dommage.

In this case, however, Montreal got it right. The name “Amherst” no longer appears on the city’s street map. It has been replaced by the Mohawk word  “Atateken”. Choosing a Mohawk replacement is very clever. What makes it ideal is that the word means “Brotherhood”.

So well done, Montreal,  welcome “Rue Atateken”, and congratulations to Mayor Valerie Plante for realising that this was an important ceremony to attend.

Now we turn our attention to Halifax. When I was at the Writers’ Union AGM there, I strolled east to see what had happened at the park just outside the Westin Hotel Nova Scotian. That little park used to be dominated by a statue of Amherst. Amid much controversy the city had decided to remove it.

I went along to see what had replaced it.

The answer is…. nothing. We now have a park with a central place for a statue……and absolutely nothing there, and nothing to explain why there is this empty space. Maybe the people in Halifax should be talking to their friends in Montreal.

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TORONTO RAPTURES

On Tuesday, June 17, The Toronto Star ran a huge photograph of me.

It took up most of page 3.

I expect that future Gibson biographers may find their initial excitement tempered by the fact that the fine photograph contains hundreds of thousands of other people.  It is also the reverse of a closeup, since the photographer was high in a helicopter when he snapped the shot, dangling above the crowd at University Avenue and Queen Street. We were all waiting for the Toronto Raptors to parade past us in triumph.

I took up my place at the south-east corner of University and Queen around 11 o’clock. Surrounded by eager Torontonians of all sorts– including an amazing number of babies and little kids in strollers (“You may not remember it, but you were there! Wow, we weren’t going to let you miss that!”) — I began to wait. And wait. And wait.

Finally, close to 3 o’clock, the heroes who had scaled the traffic lights at the intersection began to wave excitedly, telling us that the parade was in sight. When it finally inched its way up University Avenue, three things became clear. First, the Raptors players, who  had been waving to cheering crowds since 10 o’clock, were exhausted. Second, the forest of raised arms holding smartphones to record the moment for posterity had only for a moment the look of a Nazi rally….it was nothing political, you just, you know, like, need to take photos of big things in your life, whether they are an awesome  pizza dish, or the passing of the local NBA champions. And third, although the parade was due to arrive at City Hall at 1 o’clock, nobody seemed to mind all of the hours spent waiting……this was a great Toronto event for all of us, and we were full of smiles and high fives and dazed happiness.

Because I had plenty of time to gaze across the intersection to its north-west corner, I thought a lot about The Campbell House Museum there. That old classical red-brick Palladian mansion has played a large role in the Gibson family. It has also been hugely important for Toronto.

Originally, the house was built in 1822, in the town that was then called York. The owners, William Campbell and his Nova Scotian wife Hannah , were important members of the legal establishment of little York. In fact, in 1825 William became the Chief justice of Upper Canada. The usual boring life story about a successful lawyer, you say?

Read on .

William was born in the Highlands of Scotland in 1758. As a Caithness boy he was almost certainly a Gaelic speaker. After dabbling in the study of the law, he joined a Highland regiment, and was soon shipped off to America, to fight in the Revolutionary War. He was caught up in the surrender at Yorktown, and jailed. In due course he sailed north as a United Empire Loyalist to Nova Scotia.  In Guysborough he resumed his legal studies, married the daughter of a successful fisherman, and did this and that to survive. During this time he rose to become the Attorney General of Cape Breton Island. But his other public posts, leading this group and owning that mine, led to his being suspended from his role as a Councillor, because his behaviour had become “so violent, so disrespectful and indecorous”.

What can you do with such a man?

After Campbell had spent some time in London pleading his case, in 1811 the irritated government (involving a promising young man named Robert Peel) solved the problem by shipping him off to Upper Canada, as a judge. And here he stayed, in 1825 becoming the sixth Chief Justice of Upper Canada.

He and Hannah took great pride in their fine house, where they enjoyed entertaining the growing town’s leading citizens.Then, after he had been knighted, Sir William Campbell died in 1834.

Over the next 150 years the old Campbell house, at the corner of Adelaide and Frederick, went through hard times, as the area around it was converted to warehouses and parking lots. Soon the owner was threatening to destroy it . Tearing down our oldest mansions in the 1950s and 60s was so common that the fine architectural historian , Eric Arthur (author of No Mean City) sadly predicted that very soon no buildings from the 19th century would be found anywhere in Toronto.

The Campbell House changed all that. Learning of the threat to the old building , a group of angels, prosaically known as The Advocates’ Society, stepped in. With the assistance of gigantic maintenance trucks from the Toronto Transit Commission, the old house was carefully lifted aboard, then inched through Toronto’s streets . After a six-hour journey of just over 1.5 kilometres the house had reached the current site at University and Queen, where it was slowly, carefully, winched down, into its prepared place.

And there it remains.

I mentioned that it has played a large role in my family. I was there, watching the painstaking moving of the house, alongside my City Planner wife, Sally, that exciting day in March 1972. We, and the thousands who came to see old York resurrected in downtown Toronto, sensed that, as the Campbell House Museum now proudly notes, “the preservation of the house was an important turning point in architectural preservation in Toronto.”

But the Campbell House wasn’t finished with the Gibson family. When my younger daughter, Katie, was in high school, she got an excellent summer job as a guide at the House. Dressed as a Victorian servant, she would take tourists around the house,explaining what went on in this room, then demurely suggesting that we should all move upstairs into that bedroom. I joined one tour group and became a Mischievous Dad,  After Katie had talked about the bedroom where the twelve of us stood, I pointed to a china object peeping out from under the bed and asked, “What’s that?”

“A chamber pot.” said Katie, calmly. Everyone looked at the idiot in the room.

Score one for Katie.

Score two happened in 2014 when Katie chose to get married in Campbell House. A very happy day.

 

 

GREAT UNIVERSITIES

I’ve written briefly about the recent Writers’ Union Conference, but I’ve jumped over the main attraction…… its Halifax setting. Every day I slipped away from the indoor Conference sessions to stroll around the city, which I love.

Every area reminded me of early, happy times with Halifax authors. The ancient St. Paul’s Church (prefabricated in Boston, then shipped north to be erected in Halifax when the city was founded in 1749 as a sort of northern New England outpost ) reminded me of Charles Ritchie. My friend Charles was the diplomat and diarist (The Siren Years) whose Almon great-grandfather , a distinguished Halifax doctor, is warmly remembered in a plaque in the very old Church at the heart of the old city. And Charles, despite his globe-trotting career, remained a Halifax-based Anglican all of his life.

Opposite the Public Gardens, I saw again the site of the house where Hugh MacLennan had lived at the time of the 1917 Explosion. I had joined the noble but failed lobbying attempt to preserve Hugh’s house as a historic writing centre. And of course it was in his first novel, Barometer Rising, that Hugh described the explosion with great power. As I recently told Michael Enright on CBC radio, in that novel Hugh also made the setting of the sun over Halifax an excuse to scan our country, like a satellite, from coast to coast, deliberately creating a national literature.

And the Citadel, which I always associate with the famous photograph of Hugh (the Dalhousie student who won a Rhodes Scholarship) looking out to sea, is still there, dominating the city.

My usual visit on the waterfront to tour the corvette Sackville (I proudly published Jim Lamb’s classic memoir, The Corvette Navy) was not possible this year, with the famous ship in dry dock, disappointing thousands of potential visitors. But I toured the waterfront very thoroughly, including a visit to Pier 21, which always impresses me, as another lucky Canadian immigrant.

I took a brief trip to see The Lord Nelson Hotel .There my author Don Harron, teetering on high heels in the lobby, preparing for  a day touring as “Valerie Rosedale”, was once gruffly moved on by a suspicious house detective. I dropped in to see the excellent local bookstore, just across Spring Garden Road, then walked  through the dramatic Dalhousie campus. It was the perfect day for it…….Graduation Day! The streets were full of proud graduates in red gowns, floating alongside beaming parents…. and shuffling younger siblings, pleased , but uncertain of their role.

It was a great day at a great university.

Which brings me to another university. This weekend the Guardian  newspaper published its annual survey of Britain’s best universities. Traditionally , the top two universities in that eagerly-read survey are Oxford and Cambridge.

This year, however, the ranking of the universities, with everything from academic standards to student enjoyment carefully calibrated, was :—

1 Cambridge

2 St. Andrews

3 Oxford

Those of us who went to St. Andrews were not surprised. Since it was founded in 1413, in its mediaeval city jutting east into the North Sea, Scotland’s oldest university has become used to providing students with an interesting and enjoyable education. In fact, every year, in the Guardian listing St. Andrews tops the British list for “Student enjoyment.”

No surprises there for me, a proud graduate of the class of 1966.

 

NEITHER TWUC NOR TWADE, EXCEPT WITH REAL WRITERS

The Writers’ Union of Canada is known as TWUC to its friends, so that a recent enthusiastic President, the maternal Doris Heffron, was affectionately described as a “Mother-TWUCKER”.  At the start of June I was at the TWUC AGM in Halifax.

I was delighted to be there, because the annual event gives me a chance to meet up with old friends, gathered from across the country. In fact, when I was a publisher, I tried to attend the annual Conference. I would hang around the public events, happy to meet my authors, and equally keen to meet authors who were new to me. Incredibly, other publishers rarely followed suit, leaving the field to me.

After I was made an Honorary Member of the Union (presumably someone said, wearily, “He’s always hanging around, why don’t we just make him a member?”) I found it an inspiration to earn my membership by actually writing a book, and becoming a real writer.

The big event at this year’s AGM was voting on how to define that difficult term, “a real writer”.

In the old days, TWUC wanted to set itself apart from the Canadian Authors Association. That group of would-be writers was heavily satirized by F.R. Scott in his poem, “The Canadian Authors Meet.” Although many of its members were friends of mine, especially George Hardy and John Gillese from Edmonton, few of the “authors” had actually published any books. To set a clear division between these amateurs and real, working professionals, the Writers’ Union from the start insisted that its members must be published authors. In other words, authors whose books had been selected, then published, by a commercial publishing house

So it remained, with the laws laid down by people like Pierre Berton and June Callwood and Harold Horwood faithfully observed, year after year. Then the publishing world began to change. Self-publishing became an option. Then self-publishing became very popular. Very, very popular.

And, of course, some of the authors who wrote these self-published books, began to object to the fact that their self-published books — no matter how many of them they wrote, or how popular they proved to be — would never qualify them to join TWUC.

TWUC, meanwhile, was keenly aware of how many potential members were being turned away. So a Committee was struck to square the circle by finding a way of judging the quality of self-published authors so that good ones could join the Union, while bad ones were excluded.

Very tricky, as you can imagine. But the Committee worked hard to produce a points system, where worthy authors could win admission to the Union. That was the central vote at the AGM.

As a former publisher I felt disqualified from voting to restrict the membership to authors who had won a publisher’s approval. And after serious debate, including a wise intervention by Doris Heffron, the new system was unanimously approved.

Sadly, many of my greatest friends in the Union didn’t make it to Halifax. Andreas Schroeder, the man who in Brian Mulroney’s day crafted and fought through the Public Lending Right legislation that brings money to Canadian authors thanks to their books in Canadian public libraries, stayed back in Roberts Creek on BC’s Sunshine Coast. Silver Donald Cameron, despite his Nova Scotia base, was too busy at Cape Breton University to attend. I spoke to both of them by phone, reprimanding them for their absence. Both were full of regrets, but unable to attend.

And so it went, with many old friends absent. It was, however, a great joy to spend time with old friends like Harry Thurston; if you ever want to see hundreds of semi-palmated plovers wheeling in formation around your head, Harry’s your man. From Harry’s territory, on the boundary between Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, is a long way to Nelson in the BC mountains, but my pal Anne De Grace was from there, spreading good stories about the Kootenays. And among the dozens of authors I got to know was Joan Levy Earle, originally from Cornwall, Ontario. I was very pleased to learn that her book of local history, The Legacy of C.W. Kyte, included the story about Mr. Kyte that is brilliantly told in John Gray’s publishing memoir, Fun Tomorrow.

I edited that book, and still love the story about how John was a small boy in 1911 when his neighbour, the bookseller Mr. Kyte, got the first private car in Cornwall. He received it with a blanket over the hood, from the livery stable. Then, after brief driving instructions, he set off, with John and many runalong small boys cheering lustily. When Mr. Kite returned from driving around the block, he seemed worried, but everyone continued to cheer.

After a few hours the small boys had all been put to bed, but Mr. Kyte continued to drive in aimless circles.

His brief driving lesson had not included instructions on how to stop the car…..until eventually it ran out of gas, far out of town, leaving him with a long walk home.

Our stories will never run out of gas.

 

 

 

 

OH DEAR, IN FORD’S ONTARIO EVERYTHING GOES WRONG

Keen readers of my last blog will have noticed an error in the first paragraph. I write there about a mysterious book entitled THE WORLD ACCORDING TO GARTH.

In my career I actually had an author widely known as “Garth” but this was not a reference to the notable Mr. Drabinsky. It was a simple, stupid mistake on my part. As millions of people around the world know, the correct book title is THE WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP.

Indeed, I have introduced John Irving with the words…..”Crusoe……Copperfield….. Gatsby…….Garp…….” to establish the huge impact on our culture that his book has had. But in today’s Ontario, mistakes happen everywhere. My apologies.

ANOTHER BOOK FOR WALKING THROUGH

Last month I walked through the Toronto scenes in John Irving’s novel, A PRAYER FOR OWEN MEANY. Later, I was in touch with John . To be precise, I introduced him at a Toronto event where he talked revealingly about writing, and adjusting to the changes in his life created by the success of THE WORLD ACCORDING TO GARTH. It was fascinating.

In the course of all this I learned about an Irving novel that I had somehow missed, LAST NIGHT IN TWISTED RIVER. It came out in 2009. It begins in New Hampshire on a wild river drive, with logs swirling downstream topped by nimble loggers : “The young Canadian, who could not have been more than fifteen, had hesitated too long. For a frozen moment, his feet had stopped moving on the floating logs in the basin above the river bend; he’d slipped entirely underwater before anyone could grab his outstretched hand…..”

That tragic death among the “river drivers” begins this book, in Coos County, New Hampshire, in 1954. For five decades we follow a mean and murderous cop who is determined to track down two men, a father and son, that he wants to kill. They change their names and flee, but he stays on their trail. They flee to Boston in 1967, to Windham County, Vermont, in 1983, then to Toronto, in 2000.

In Toronto they settle in Rosedale, on Cluny Avenue, while the aged father works in a restaurant nearby. The son, meanwhile, has become a novelist, and he writes in a room with a view north to the historic railway tower that now marks the Summerhill Liquor Store, outside which so many of my readers wait, panting, as the sun rises. Rosedale is an interesting bit player in the book, as is the restaurant where the father plies his trade, behind the scenes.

Then, after a return to New Hampshire, in 2005, the last section of the book takes us to Georgian Bay. Pointe au Baril Station is the setting, and we learn from the descriptions of the roads on land and the islands out in the Bay, that John (a regular summer visitor) knows the area well. My hardcover edition is graced by a back cover photo of John, taken by one of his children, on the rocks beside what is clearly Georgian Bay.

So this is only partly a book that you can walk through. Swimming through it is also an option.

 

HOW WATTPAD IS TURNING THE PAGE ON PUBLISHING

That was the headline for a provocative article by Carly Lewis in the Globe and Mail on Saturday May 4.

I read it with fascination, and much surprise.

I realise that my lifetime role as a “gatekeeper” in Canadian book publishing leaves me poorly qualified to understand the newest ways of getting a manuscript accepted for publication. To make matters worse, as a white, male, Anglo-Celtic editor, I was (and am) far from the diverse ideal that is valued today. But I realise that the system we devised in the old days was far from ideal, even indefensible. Unsolicited manuscripts that came in by mail out of the blue from optimistic authors rose in a toppling tower in the publisher’s office. It was rudely known as “the slush pile”. When eventually resentful editors tackled the pile before it collapsed and smothered them, the reading conditions were very bad. The pressure to reject this manuscript and move on to the next, then the next,  meant that few manuscripts got the relaxed, respectful attention they deserved, and terrible mistakes were made.

To be personal, you could stock an interesting library with fine books that were eventually published with success, after I had stupidly rejected them.

So I was keenly interested to learn about what Wattpad was doing to simplify — and improve– the complex  process of getting published. The Globe article promised that “Wattpad’s significance is in its mutiny, waged against the gatekeepers” (pause for a Gibson cringe, although I never heard the term during all of my years of gatekeeping) “of literary homogeneity first as an online library, and now as a physical force in  the book-buying market.”

I was reading eagerly when I came on this paragraph, about why Wattpad (“an online and mobile platform for amateur , unagented writing”) is entering the physical book market, because it is ” not only logical from a revenue standpoint, but necessary in the company’s quest to highlight voices often excluded from the industry. Plus, with a fanatically engaged user base, the platform’s most promising stories rise to prominence without staff having to spelunk a slush pile.”

Wow! How is that possible? Avoiding the slush pile is a fine thing, but how can you do it?

The next sentence tells all. “Wattpad’s machine learning intelligence, which evaluates content based on an algorithm, user data and elemental qualities such as grammar, does that for them.”

Hold on. Please read that sentence again. Unless you believe that the word “algorithm’ equals “miracle” the sentence makes no sense. And it would be interesting to learn more…..much more… about these “elemental qualities”.

But I think we can make an educated guess about what the algorithm is doing here. It is, I suspect, set up to find new book proposals that are EXACTLY LIKE OLD BOOK PROPOSALS, where the books have gone on to success in the marketplace. If that is indeed the case, all of the fine talk about avoiding “literary homogeneity” is just nonsense.

The troublesome fact is that truly fine books are original, and unique. Algorithms are unlikely to be able to help here. Unless, of course, the new Wattpad system comes with a magic wand.