GO LEAFS/LEAVES GO!

I grew up bilingual.

I’m not talking about my acquaintance with French, from my teenage years. No, in my wee Ayrshire village from the very start I was bilingual, speaking both a version of English that all of my readers would recognise, and the local broad Scottish idiom, now formally called “Lallans”.

On the local soccer field, “the fitba pitch”, I ran around imploring my 8-year team-mates to pass the ball to me with the urgent cry “Geesabaw! Geesabaw!” At home my mother would have been scandalised if I had introduced that language, with its array of improper words like “pish”and “shite”. So I was carefully bilingual at home and in the classroom, and very different in the schoolyard.

My mastery of Lallans came to play an important part in my literary life, and it can be argued that it brought me to Canada. Because I was in Ayrshire, the older people around me, especially the farmers, were speaking the language of Robert Burns. My first summer job was working on a local farm that was placed right beside Dunlop House, where Burns used to visit his patron, Mrs. Dunlop of Dunlop. The grandfather on the farm, “Auld Moneyacres” (like Tam o’ Shanter he was known by the name of his farm) spoke pure Burns. In the nearby Stewarton kirkyard my Young ancestors lay beside an uncle of Robert Burns.

So when I went on to study English at the University of St. Andrews I had an advantage when we studied the poetry of Robert Burns. My classmate from elsewhere, especially from England, tended to treat it  as a new language, like Chaucer’s Middle English. To me, it was just the language I had known in the village. Easy.

But I had never written in it. Then, in November in my final year, I started thinking that it would be nice to win a scholarship to go to somewhere interesting the next year. I learned about a sort of Rhodes Scholarship in reverse. It was open to contenders from each of the Scottish Universities, and a selected Scottish candidate from Oxford and Cambridge. The winner would receive a free year at the American university of his or her choice, thanks to the scholarship provided by the St. Andrew’s Society of the State of New York.

One scholarship would be given.

I looked at the requirements, and looked at my own qualifications. Thanks to my sporting and dramatic and newspaper deeds, not to mention my being President of the Student Union, I found that I ticked many of the required boxes.

But not any academic ones So I started to leaf through the list of annual University prizes. I found “The Sloan Prize, awarded for the best composition in Lallans”. A friendly professor advised me that an entry should run about 5,000 words, so that Christmas I cleared the decks at home, and on the dining room table, bolstered by dictionaries, I created a short story in Lallans.

You can see where this is going. There was a moment of horror when I learned that the Sloan Prize judge would be the Editor of The Scottish National Dictionary. But the Essay won The Sloan Prize. And it won in time for me to include it in my Scholarship application, ticking another important box.

I won the Scholarship, went to Yale, and after a year gaining my MA, came by Greyhound Bus to Canada, and never looked back.

But what about those Leafs? Thanks to my friend Donald Gillies, I recently read an edition of his magazine “Lallans”. It mentions the amazing fact that when the version of English spoken in Scotland began to be written, in formal print, the correct way to form the plural of the Scottish word for “wife” and ” life” and “leaf”, was simply to add the letter “s”.

Who knew? Generations of schoolteachers have decried the spelling as simply wrong. Now we’ve learned that the spelling”Leafs” is an official old Scottish plural.

Go Leafs Go!

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WHITE FANG IN SUNNY CALIFORNIA

Winter in Ontario — where, as John Kenneth Galbraith wrote,”The seasons are good and strong” — can try the patience. So this March we decided that a visit to California, to see our relatives who had just moved there was essential to family harmony. Flying to L.A., then driving up the coast to the Napa Valley, north of San Francisco, would be a great inconvenience, of course. But for family, we all have to make sacrifices. Right?

Our sacrifices included being ushered around L.A. by my cousin Doug Caldwell and his wife Judy McAlpine (both formerly of CBC). Their place in the hilly Silver Lake district (and L.A. is made up of many distinct parts of the city) gave us a view of the famed “Hollywood” sign, while allowing us easy access to the old downtown core . And we were whisked from Malibu to the Huntington Centre and its Desert Garden, to the Los Angeles Library and the Getty Centre, and so on, before we staggered off in a haze of delight.

And there was no ice to chip off the driveway. At any point.

The drive up the Central Valley around Bakersfield, where North America’s fruit and nut crops are grown, was long, but instructive. The miles of orange groves are dropping millions of oranges, left to rot, for want of Mexican pickers. President Trump seems to have turned his back on this California problem.

We spent happy times in the hills near Los Gatos with two old friends, then paid — yes, paid — for  a hotel room near Half Moon Bay. We spent one afternoon, then a morning, walking along the beach beside the booming surf. Because I have Scottish skin (my friend Matthew Swan, of Adventure Canada fame, claims that he can get sunburned from watching a night-time fireworks display) I soon got a robust, red, sunburn.

Then it was, ho, for the North, across the Golden Gate Bridge and up to Sonoma and Napa, where Jane’s brother Michael is now based, with his Saskatoon-raised wife, Jan. Joined by Jane’s brother Peter, and his wife Heather (down from Kelowna) we had a fine few days of family reunion. We may even make the sacrifice again next year.

But what about Jack London? To our surprise we learned that this man who made a reputation for his books about the Klondike, later bought a ranch near Napa. with his second wife, Charmian Kittredge. Near the town of Glen Ellen you can still visit that ranch, and learn all about the experiments he made, to improve on the old system of ruthlessly mining the soil, and then moving on. His new system involved contouring his vine plantations so that, like ancient Chinese plantations, they would last for many years. His attempts to grow cactus for cattle and pig feed were less successful, and his ranch is now regarded as a failure. But the old Publisher in me was pleased to see that his expenditures on the ranch led him to increase his requests to his luckless publishers for higher advances on his next book.

But of course, Jack London was at the time, thanks to THE CALL OF THE WILD and WHITE FANG, the most successful author in the English-speaking world. In the Napa Valley today we can visit the Jack London Park and the Jack London Museum and learn all about his farming life, about which I knew nothing.

TWO ANNOUNCEMENTS.

You can get a copy of my Podcast (a decade by decade look at Canada’s greatest storytellers from 1867 onward) ABSOLUTELY FREE if you are on i-tunes. Simply sign into your i-tunes account and go to podcasts, and then search douglasgibsonliterary talks. You can download it for free.

Also, you can get a copy of my NEW AUDIO BOOK by encouraging your local Library to stock it. You’ll find that they ask you to fill in a form, where you explain that ACROSS CANADA BY STORY is an Audio-book, that it’s available from ECW Press, that it came out in January, 2019, and that the ISBN Number is 9781773053776 .(You might want to take this form with you, unless your memory is remarkable.)

Then they’ll order it, and you’ll be able to listen to my 16 hours of reading, FREE. And I’ll be very grateful to you.

REACTIONS FROM CBC LISTENERS TO THE HUGH MACLENNAN CHAT

As you know, I used this blog to spread the word about my forthcoming chat with Michael Enright on The Sunday Edition. But I sat there nervously, listening to the show.

It seems that I was wrong to worry.  Lots of kind people got in touch with me to tell me that they enjoyed it. Sometimes they told me fascinating, moving things. One friend, for instance, really liked the positive spin I put on Hugh’s use of the term “Two Solitudes”. He said that he came from a family with a French-Canadian father and a mother whose language was English. At her funeral  he spoke about the successful touching of the two solitudes in the house where he grew up.

Others wrote about family memories involving The Watch That Ends The Night. One man proudly recalled that his father ran the Bookstore Launch for the book in Montreal in 1959. Another spoke excitedly of her recent discovery of a fine Dartmouth restaurant named The Watch That Ends The Night. Another wrote warmly about the book’s excellence, remembering especially the moonlit escape by canoe by young Jerome after his mother’s murder in the New Brunswick lumber camp. ( I recall when I put together the anthology, Hugh MacLennan’s Best, just after his death, that particular set piece leaped out of the book, although the book was full of very fine essay and novel selections).

As you know, greatly daring, I read aloud the passage in Barometer Rising where Hugh sees Canada, coast to coast, as if from outer space. My claim that this paragraph marked the start of Canadian Literature seems to have pleased a number of people. Many told me that they now had TWO books by Hugh MacLennan on their reading list.

The CBC people keep track of the impact of the programme. Before the show, the Toronto Reference Library had no “holds” on Hugh’s great novel. By Monday there were over 50  such eager requests. Even more today, maybe. It’s the perfect response to a show that’s intended to get people reading neglected books.

One of the other results was that people brought out their memories of Hugh the man. One woman contacted the programme with her memories of being a high school journalist who, with another over-awed colleague, were assigned to interview the great man, in 1962. Hugh was, of course, charming, and the interview went well. Afterwards he bought both of them a chocolate milk-shake. To this day, she says, milk-shakes make her think of Hugh MacLennan!

A West-Coast book trade friend recalled taking Hugh on a publicity tour. Hugh was concerned about my friend’s  limp, the result of weeks of lugging boxes of heavy books. The long-term implications worried Hugh so much that he insisted on taking my friend back to the Hotel Vancouver, showing him important back exercises, and even massaging his back. When he was in mid-massage, there was a knock at the door, and both the masseur and the patient roared with laughter at the gossip column possibilities of the massage.

Under Michael Enright’s shrewd direction of the conversation, I talked about how love was at the centre of Hugh’s great novel. But there was no chance to talk about Anne Coleman’s fine book about how friendly she and “Mr. MacLennan” became in her teenage years in North Hatley. She stresses that it was always “correct”, with nothing physical at any point. As an explanation, I’ve suggested that at the time Hugh was immersed in writing The Watch That Ends The Night, where one of the major characters is young Sally, who, like Anne, was a McGill undergraduate, and thus a very good model for Hugh to study.

Of course, people who have read ACROSS CANADA BY  STORY know that in Montreal I was approached by “Emily” who informed me that she was Hugh MacLennan’s daughter. The details of this proud love-child are in the book, and of the long affair Hugh apparently had with her mother. Fascinating.

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THIS SUNDAY ON CBC RADIO, AT 11 A.M.

Exciting news! Some time ago I sat down for an interview with my old friend , Michael Enright, in the “Sunday Morning” series about neglected classic Canadian books.

This Sunday, March 3 at 11. a.m. , or just after the news, you’ll be able to hear me talking about THE WATCH THAT ENDS THE NIGHT, the great 1959 novel by HUGH MACLENNAN.

As you’ll know from my chapter about Hugh in Stories About Storytellers, I believe that this is his best novel,  and I’m delighted to have the chance to persuade CBC listeners to read it….or to read it again! Michael  is, of course, a superb interviewer, and I recall being surprised by what he drew out of me, about this book, and about Hugh’s role in creating our own literature.

I’ll be listening with keen interest. I hope you will, too.

MY NEW AUDIBLE BOOK

Great news!
The fine folks at ECW have just launched a new edition of ACROSS CANADA BY STORY.
It’s an Audible version of the entire book, narrated by me!
When I have more time I’ll tell you what every actor already knows, that reading aloud for an audience, emphasizing THIS word, but pausing softly over that one, is demanding, exhausting work, sentence after sentence, page after page. But when the author is the one doing the reading. you can rest assured that the proper, intended emphasis is coming out. Very interesting, and sometimes surprising.
In this case the reading runs for 16 hours and 29 minutes, so the digital recording’s price of $34.99 is reasonable.
You can order the audible book — for yourself, or family, or friends who’d enjoy it — by contacting this site: https://www.kobo.com/us/en/audiobook/across-canada-by-story-2 .
I hope that you (and maybe your carload on long journeys) will enjoy it. Good listening!

CLAWS OF THE PANDA

As you know,in my blog I’ve been very pleased to talk about my old friend Jonathan Manthorpe’s new book about China and Canada. Well published by Marc Cote at Cormorant, it has shot on to the Toronto Star bestseller list — and has even gained a gold star for excellence in publication timing.

One of the book’s main themes is that Canadians have traditionally been naive in their approach to China.  Jonathan recommends a much tougher, more realistic approach in the future.

Which leads me to a story from forty years ago, when Canadian simple decency was almost lethal.

I  spent my publishing career concentrating on books and authors. As a sub-specialty, I got heavily  involved in Publishing Education, at the Banff Publishing Workshop, and then at the Simon Fraser Publishing  Programme. But I skimped in contributing to the politics of publishing. I recognise the importance of that work, and admire the public-spirited people who laboured nights and weekends in that area, but I avoided it.

Except for 1988, when I joined the Board of the ACP, the home-grown Canadian publishers’ association.

I remember a meeting held in Toronto right after the Tiananmen Square massacre. Like people around the Western world, the members of our Board were appalled. They wanted to do something helpful. They thought of our young Chinese friend, who had just spent a training year in  Canada, studying the ways of Canadian Publishers. After his own background years with the state publisher in China, he had proved to be a lively, helpful, and very welcome presence during his months in Canada, and he had made many good friends.

So, as decent Canadians, the Board was proposing to send him a letter of support. To a table full of enthusiastic nodding, the proponents spoke of a letter that would say, in effect : “We know you, we’ve worked alongside you, and we know how horrified you must be by what is going on in your country, and we want you to know that you have many friends in this country who are thinking of you now. This letter from the Association of Canadian Publishers comes with our best wishes, and our support.”

General satisfaction.

Then I spoke up. “You think you’re supporting him by sending him this nice, kind letter in a blue Canadian air mail envelope? You’re not supporting him, you’re fingering him, denouncing him. When this official letter comes in from Canada , it will be whisked away and added to his file. He may very well end up in prison, or even worse.”

No more nodding. Just general dismay. The letter was never sent.

I want to stress that these Board Members were all bright, intelligent people. This wasn’t a case of stupidity by stupid people. It was a case of idealistic Canadians simply being unable to imagine life in a totalitarian society where mail from abroad is intercepted, and foreign criticism of the country’s policy is unacceptable, associated with disloyalty.

When friends ask me what I did in the world of publishing administration I say: “Very little. But I may have helped save someone’s life.”

WARMING UP THE COLDEST CAPITAL IN THE WORLD

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.