BY FERRY TO ST. F.X.

I’ve spoken and written proudly that as a Scottish immigrant with a unique sense of direction, in 1967 I came to Canada at Victoria off the Seattle ferry. Since then I’ve taken dozens of ferries in Canada, and enjoyed the experience every time. In fact, I find it very hard to come in off the deck when I sail, because exciting things are always happening, and killer whales or U-boats may surface at any second. This accounts for my alert pacing on ferries from Bonne Bay in Newfoundland all the way to Sandspit in Haida Gwaii.

The morning ferry trip from Wood Islands, near the south-eastern tip of PEI,  across to Caribou, Nova Scotia, was exciting. Who knew that PEI’s famous rich, red, earth actually stains the waters just off-shore? And because we were in sight of land all the way, we could constantly judge whether we were half-way, or three quarters of the way, and whether the swell of waves from the west  was mounting, or falling, or if we should head back down to our car below decks. Given the arc of our Maritimes journey, it was ideal to arrive by sea in Nova Scotia near Pictou, well on our way to Antigonish in the east.

But first there was the ugly business of passing the pulp mill at Pictou Landing. This mill, well protected by the political establishment, has caused immense problems, to the water, and to the fish and fishermen in Northumberland Strait. Also, believe it or not, to the world of Canadian books. In December last year, Joan Baxter’s very critical book, THE MILL , about the pulp mill’s sorry record of pollution, was due to be celebrated at a signing session in the New Glasgow Coles store. Pressure from the offended company, Northern Pulp, (and vague threats of trouble in the store) led to the invitation being withdrawn. A major setback for freedom of speech in Canada.

We drove on,  along the main Highway 104, past Stellarton. I remembered an earlier visit there, when I sought out the nearby site of the Westray Mine Disaster. The sorrow around the place where so many men died was omnipresent, almost dripping from the trees above my parked car.

The road east to Antigonish (emphasis on the “nish”) is wild and dramatic, with steep hills and valleys and mountains enlivening the view, and many of the east-bound cars on the road seeming to strain onward to Cape Breton. But we restrained ourselves, and turned in to Antigonish. After two previous visits, we remembered the drill very well: go down the hill past the University, turn right at Chisholm Park, then wind along Main Street until you reach our old home, The Maritime Inn.

There we had lunch, and were joined by our hostess, the remarkable Mary McGillivray. Mary, a vastly experienced teacher at St. F. X., kindly remembered me from a sad duty we performed together many years ago , when with Andy Wainwright  she and I spoke at the Halifax funeral for Malcolm Ross. Malcolm, you may recall, was the Dalhousie Professor who created The New Canadian Library for Jack McClelland. As the head of M&S I was very glad to fly east to speak about how nationally important Malcolm’s work had been, creating an accessible paperback line of our country’s great classic books. Mary recalled that this national message was important to the Halifax family that sad day.

Mary was the salvation of our visit to St. F.X. . Maternity leaves and other absences had left our visit uncertain, until Mary took charge. She took dramatic charge later that evening, too, setting us up with a fine crowd in the  Scotia Bank Lecture  Theatre, and introducing me very kindly. The audience included the pleasant woman whom we’d met at the Antigonish Museum downtown, where I’d not only recognised the uses of the old tools on display in the former railway station, in the past I’d actually once used them. Interestingly, the crowd included the fine man who had told me about Brian Mulroney’s fire-raising trick to win a debate. (I signed his copy of ACROSS CANADA BY STORY with reference to the page where I tell his story). More alarmingly, the Philosophy Department was represented by three keen-eyed professors who, as they had threatened, posed difficult questions. As promised, I’m still considering them.

Finally, Mary took us for dinner to a fine local restaurant, where I ran into the Art Gallery owner we had met in our earlier town tour, seeking out the work of my old friend Linda Johns, “the Bird Lady.” As a village boy I was right at home with this kind of coincidence, and Mary’s stories over dinner were constantly fascinating. But when she told the story that she had seen Brian Mulroney standing on the road, being shown the massive new building in his name, she said “I wondered if he was aware that he was stopping all the traffic, and everyone was looking at him?”

I laughed and laughed.

 

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THE ISLAND’S PREMIER ATTRACTION

When you drive in the Maritimes in late November, you take your chances. Snow and ice are likely to feature in the weather forecasts, and fingers remain cold and crossed. When we set out from Fredericton to head north to PEI, via Moncton, we knew that we — or rather, the heroic Jane, our driver– faced difficult times.

But we made it. This time, after my earlier visit to downtown Moncton ( where I saw Northrop Frye’s avuncular statue encourage young Library visitors —“Hello, Mr. Frye”— as recorded in ACROSS CANADA BY STORY) we avoided Moncton. We also ignored the Acadian shore, where my visit to Shediac in the midst of a Festival du Homard had once turned me into a fervent Acadian. Sadly, this meant, too, that we missed the David Adams Richards territory to the North and West, near the Miramichi. Resolutely, with tough driving in store, we headed straight for Port Elgin and the PEI bridge.

Crossing Confederation Bridge at any time of year is always thought-provoking, and I can report that the November Northumberland Strait waters looked very cold indeed. Then, safely landed on the Island, we drove admiringly through the well-populated land  (Farms! Barns! Fields!) east to Charlottetown.

We soon found the Dundee Arms Hotel, the subject of an earlier blog about Louis Armstrong. When Jane found our walk around downtown chilly, and returned to the warmth of our hotel, I continued to stroll through Canada’s history (“Ah , they’re fixing the famous Confederation Building, in time for the next tourist season”), and my own history.

I dreamily re-visited scenes from my earlier visits, including the Art Gallery event, when extra chairs had to be rushed in, and the restaurant Mavor’s, in Confederation Centre where the post-show dinner had taken place. That was where Professor Don Desserud told me the story of how young Jack Hodgins learned to read from studying comics in his Vancouver Island home, only to learn that the comics were in Finnish. Of course, my readers know that Jack had a huge impact in this distant province .  When I gave my STORIES ABOUT STORYTELLERS summer show in North Rustico ( in what is now The Watermark Theatre) our host, the excellent Duncan McIntosh, recommended that we dine at Maxine Delaney’s restaurant. Later, Maxine came to our show, and shyly revealed that she had chosen the name Delaney after, um, reading Spit Delaney’s Island, by my friend Jack!

The remarkable Richard Lemm was our PEI host. Richard and I have been friends for almost 50 years, ever since he worked for Bill Duthie’s remarkable bookstore in Vancouver. Then Richard’s always-interesting path took him to The Banff Centre, where he taught in the Creative Writing Course, alongside Alistair MacLeod and W.O. Mitchell.

You want stories? Just get Richard started, and you’re in for a fascinating time, all the way up to his continuing career as an enthusiastic Professor at UPEI. He’s such an active fellow that until recently he was a dashing figure on the basketball court. Now– just last week, in fact — he has accepted a brand-new knee, so who knows where his athletic talents will lead in the future. We all wish him well.

Richard not only speaks and writes engagingly about our literary figures, he organises author tours brilliantly, so he deserves credit as the creator of our Maritimes Tour.  He had arranged for our Charlottetown show at the Carriage House, run by the PEI Museum and Heritage Foundation. On a chilly night it produced a warm crowd of book-lovers. As usual, I tried to mingle with the audience (I use terrible lines like, “I’m Doug, I’ll be your waiter tonight,”) and I really enjoy the chance to meet and chat with them, breaking down the distance between them and the fancy-pants guy in the blazer on the stage. I like it, and I think they do, too.

As you can imagine, I didn’t rush over the role of Lucy Maud Montgomery in the show, although I might have spent more time boasting about my potato-growing youth in Ayrshire, where the potatoes are justly famous.

But I was delighted when, just after I was introduced by my very complimentary friend Richard, a member of the MacLauchlan clan quietly joined the GREAT SCOTS audience. It was Wade MacLauchlan, the Premier of the Province.

A CAPITAL TIME IN FREDERICTON

Before we left Saint John we had three notable experiences. First was the Santa Claus Parade, which I gather was not staged specially for us. But it was, in every sense, a traffic-stopper. Jane and I even saw the city’s historic  Fire Engine lumber out of the Fire Museum to join the parade, for its annual November outing in the fresh air.

Then we gave the show in the Library (formerly the Free Public Library), which had been  cleverly installed at the tourist-attracting central shopping complex, to draw foot traffic there. The Museum is right alongside, and you all know the impact it had on us. Our GREAT SCOTS show drew lots of fine people to the Library, many of whom had personal links with Scotland. Some even bought books, made available by UNB’s Andrea Kikuchi.

Finally, on our last morning we walked out on to the boardwalk beside the Hilton. Jane and I were alone there, gazing out at the Harbour, with the misty Bay of Fundy in the distance, when a tugboat chugged toward us. It was “Spitfire 3”, and had nothing under tow. To our amazement, right in front of us it suddenly put on a roaring display of power, spinning 360 degrees, creating a giant bow wave as it did a salt-water “spinarama”. Then it chugged placidly away, leaving us breathless. Ah, Saint John….if it’s not bikinis, it’s prancing tugboats!

The drive to Fredericton was a reminder how many trees line the roadsides in New Brunswick. Not fields. Trees.  When eventually we approached Fredericton, a slight confusion took us north across the river from downtown.  But how could we object to seeing the major thoroughfare named Gibson Street, and learning more about the 19th century industrialist “Boss Gibson”, who built lumber mills and cotton mills, and entire communities to serve them. Alexander Gibson sounds like a very worthy candidate to be a relative. My great-grandfather Robert, back in Kilmarnock, was in the tweed mill business, to good effect.

It was snowy and icy underfoot when we drove in to “Lower Town”, the affluent downtown of Fredericton, and found the “Carriage House Inn” on University Avenue, where John Ball had arranged a room for us. A word about John Ball. From 1981 to 1988 I taught at The Banff Centre. The summer course was called “The Banff Publishing Workshop”. In those days before internships or College courses in Publishing the Workshop took about 35 bright young people who thought they might be interested in Book Publishing as a career. Sometimes they were working at low-level jobs in publishing, and sometimes they were fresh out of university. Sometimes, like John Ball, they already worked in linked areas in publishing, and their employers liked the idea of giving them an over-all look at the industry. Then, who knew?

Well, John was a bright spark in the course (in 1985, I think) and learned, and contributed, a lot. But the academic world drew him in, and after a Ph.D. in Toronto, he married Lisa (another veteran from the extended publishing world) and moved to teach at UNB. And we managed to stay in touch, so as my Maritimes Tour began to take shape I contacted my old friend John. And, shazam, there we were at the Carriage House, just north of UNB,s main campus..

Our plan had been to spend our early hours at the Beaverbrook Art Gallery, justly famous across the country. Great idea. But not on a Monday, when the Gallery is shut as tight as your favourite simile. So Jane and I wandered around the city centre, enjoying the traditional provincial buildings, and speculating how much frantic activity was buzzing on behind the quiet facades, as the new Conservative Government came in.

We met John Ball (unchanged, except for a grey rinse to his hair) and he drove us up to Memorial Hall, where the show was to take place. I made myself scarce as Jane and John and his technical expert set up the show. I was busy wandering around inside the big hall, which dominates the university skyline as it looms over the city. It really is an impressive space, with recently restored stained-glass windows. Early generations of UNB graduates remember when the graduation ceremonies were held there.

After the set-up, Jane and I returned to our hotel room. Then, greatly daring, we trudged the icy streets back to the University, and slogged our way straight up the Hill to Memorial Hall…… breathing a little harder than usual. Jane, who tends to outstrip her walking partners in Toronto, who call her “Orkney woman!” out of respect, was less affected by the climb.

As people came in for my show, which this night was ACROSS CANADA BY STORY, I made a point of greeting them, and learning a little about them. Later, after the show , at a pleasant Q and A session, I was relieved that Desmond Pacey’s son forgave me for keeping my Maritime authors to the end.

UNB , of course, in the fullest sense is “Fiddlehead ” territory, and at the post-event supper at John and Lisa’s, it was great to spend time with Fiddlehead names that had made UNB into the impressive writing centre that it is.

But Jane and I were well aware of our drive all the way to PEI the next day, and slept well that night, dreaming of tugboats.

 

 

MY MARITIMES BOYHOOD…..IN SCOTLAND!

Our November tour of Maritimes universities began in Saint John.  That Saturday UNB kindly allowed us a day to recover from our flight, and from our room at the Hilton we went exploring the old city, the biggest in New Brunswick.

I was glad to show Jane the downtown church that features a codfish on its spire, in tribute to the huge importance of the mighty cod fishery to the city’s past. I also showed her the snow-covered patch in front of that same old Loyalist church.  There, on a mid-summer visit in broiling weather, I once watched two healthy young women in bikinis, sun-bathing shamelessly on the sacred grass. Behind them the minister of the church stood with his angry hands on his hips. Steam was rising from his ears as he ground his teeth, trying to work out what to do.

I had to leave before he reached a decision. I can report that he is no longer there, and the sun-bathers are gone.

I can also report that our visit to The New Brunswick Museum revealed that in the Scottish countryside I had a Maritimer’s boyhood. We had the Atlantic Ocean in common, of course. Our village was only 11 miles inland from the Ayrshire coast, and storms from the west sometimes speckled our windows with salt.

But the museum astonished me by revealing how little I had in common with my urban schoolmates in Glasgow. Our train journeys into the city were often delayed by snow, which we did not minimise as we reported in late to impatient teachers; if bears and wolves had been even a possibility, they would certainly have featured in our late reports.

But room after room in the Museum would have baffled my city friends, while reminding me very happily of my youth. My Dad was in the timber trade, which meant that, like most kids in New Brunswick, I grew up among saw-mills. I knew to shake hands cautiously with my father’s friends who worked in the mills; very few right hands contained five fingers.

In our house we burned nothing but wood. It was dumped in our field near the house in foot-long rounds, mostly hardwood, that had to be split into stove-lengths, and then stacked for drying. I spent hundreds of hours a year at this task, and was able to split over the left shoulder (slightly more accurate, thanks to the guiding right hand) and over the right (slightly more powerful, in a slashing way). Taught by my father, I used a 7-pound Splitting Axe……and there it was, in the New Brunswick Museum!

Not only did I grow up with an axe in my hand, and a spade, as I dug new potato patches in that field, my first job was working at a local dairy farm. And in the next New Brunswick Museum room was the very pitch-fork I used to turn over the drying hay, as it waited for the baler. The grandfather on the farm, old Mr. Young, ( who was born in the 19th century, and spoke pure Robert Burns) was suspicious of the mechanical baler, so preferred to take the reins of the horse pulling the hay-rake. As you can see, I was part of an ancient rural tradition.

My first job away from home was as a fishing “ghillie” at a hotel in the Highlands, taking rich tourists out in a boat rowed by outriggers to catch salmon in season. And there, to my surprise, was that very boat! Perhaps a foot or two longer than the one I rowed up and down Loch Awe, but undeniably the same construction, and the Museum  was rightly proud of the fine specimen they had on display.

Later, as the Museum devoted rooms to the Days of Sail, I realised that I knew about these old boats. When I was 16 I was invited by friends in the village to join a three-week charter of an old, 40-foot ketch. We sailed it from the Clyde all the way up the West Coast, until north of Skye we set  out across The Minch, to the dangerous Outer Hebrides. The weather was so unusually mild that after surveying many Standing Stones (with my theodylite I was helping Professor Alexander Thom re-write British History… or Pre-History ) we sailed out into The Atlantic.

Next stop Newfoundland! And just beyond that, Saint John.

When we stopped in at Barra Head, the lighthouse at the southern tip of the Outer Hebrides, they told us that they were the first boat under sail that they had seen in seven years! So, as you can see, I was right at home in the 19th century world of New Brunswick. If you think of me as a slick, urban figure, please think again.

A further link: as we roamed  the centre of  Saint John we walked around the central square, where statues commemorated historical figures like Leonard Tilley, who came up with the idea that Canada should be a “Dominion”. One statue was a surprise to me. Since my father’s mother was Janet Young, I was intrigued to find a large statue  dedicated to “YOUNG”, John Frederick Young, to be precise. Might he be a relative? A little research revealed that young John, a song-writer, died at the age of 18 in the sea near Saint John, trying to save a young boy from drowning.

I like to think that we may be related.

 

SATCHMO WAS BLACK IN CHARLOTTETOWN

We’re just back from a very enjoyable tour of the Maritimes, with six universities hosting six shows in seven hectic days. It was such fun that a detailed account of our 1,100 kilometres of driving (thanks, Jane!) through sun, rain, ice, sleet and snow to these warm academic havens will soon follow. Watch this space. (And watch for the delayed CBC Sunday Morning show about Hugh MacLennan in January.)

But first, a story that may shock you. By 1958, Louis Armstrong was world famous as a superb jazz artist. He had toured for thirty years, had appeared in many movies, and his trumpet and memorable vocals had inspired millions of music-lovers.

At home, however, as a black musician, raised in the South, he knew the sting of prejudice. As he put it, “I played in 99 million hotels I could never stay in.”

But then he came to Canada.

July 1958 saw him arrive in Charlottetown as “LOUIS ARMSTRONG AND HIS ALL-STARS in The Greatest Musical that ever hit PEI.”

The recent CBC radio description by Matt Rainnie tells us that the show played to “2,000 people at the sports arena on Fitzroy Street — about the same size as the one he had played the night before in Halifax.” All very good. Except when he and his band went to stay in The Charlottetown Hotel, there were complaints. Apparently some white guests (described to me as “Americans, possibly from the South”) objected to sharing the lobby and the elevators, and possibly the air, with “Negroes”.

And the hotel caved in, and moved the musicians out of the hotel!

This almost unbelievable incident was hushed up until recently, when the historian Jim Hornby brought it to light, and presented an apology on behalf of the city.

There was one mitigating factor, which we, staying in The Dundee Arms, were thrilled to hear about. Apparently Satchmo and his ejected colleagues were warmly welcomed at “The Dundee Apartment Hotel”. So warmly, and with such genuine enthusiasm, that when he learned that his hotel hostess, Lorette Perry, was having her birthday the next day, that morning the most famous trumpet in the world came blasting down the ornate stairs, playing “Happy Birthday To You.”

We got to know those stairs well, lugging our bags up and down, to and from our bedroom, and on our way to The Carriage House, where we gave our show, hosted by Richard Lemm of UPEI.

The coincidences continue. The Carriage House was where this summer Jim Hornby revealed the disappointing details about The Charlottetown Hotel, before apologising on behalf of the city. And before concluding with a rousing jazz concert by local artists!

My thanks to Jane’s cousin, Norman Finlayson (another cousin!) for his help in  researching this story.

LISTEN TO CBC RADIO’S SUNDAY MORNING TOMORROW, NOV 25

All going well, on Michael Enright’s fine programme tomorrow, you’ll be able to hear me talking about Hugh MacLennan.
It’s more than a casual chat. Young Michael is so good at what he does that his interview pushed me to declare things that I wasn’t aware that I knew. So not only will you hear me encouraging every listener to go and read THE WATCH THAT ENDS THE NIGHT, which I describe as Hugh’s very best book. You’ll also hear me reading aloud the paragraph from BAROMETER RISING that , I claim, created Canadian Literature.

If you find that idea intriguing , you might enjoy listening to Michael’s show tomorrow.

W.O.MITCHELL AT MABEL LAKE

We know that W.O., (1914-1998) the beloved author of Who Has Seen The Wind, and many other books and radio plays including Jake and The Kid, was a remarkable character. In fact my chapter on him in Stories About Storytellers has the sub-title “Character, and Creator of Characters.”

He and Merna were also creators of children, who have proved to be interesting  writers. The prime example is Orm, who with his wife Barbara wrote the fascinating two-part biography of his father. I proudly published them with Volume One simply called “W.O.”, and Volume Two grandly entitled “Mitchell”. But second son Hugh, a former teacher, has now come forward as a writer. Thanks to Alan Twigg’s B.C Bookworld, I came across an essay from Hugh that appears in a new book called Flowing Through Time: Stories of Kingfisher and Mabel Lake.

First, the location. Mabel Lake is in eastern B.C., just south of the Trans-Canada highway, near Enderby, north of Vernon. Its location made it easy for Albertans like W.O. (based in High River, then Calgary) to drive west into the mountains, through Banff,  find a spot for a cottage beside a lake, then build a summer retreat. That was what W.O. did in 1963, on Mabel Lake.

And that’s the subject of Hugh’s fond essay, called simply “The Mitchell Family at Mabel Lake”. But nothing to do with Bill was simple. As Hugh puts it, gently, “Summers at ‘the lake’ were pretty exciting. Life with W.O. Mitchell was never dull….”

For example, people on the lake used to honk for someone to come in a boat to the parking lot to bring them across to their cabin. Each cabin devised a ritual honk (short-short-long, for instance). On this occasion , Hugh tells us, “W.O. was up on the roof trying to finish mortaring  the chimney cap for the fireplace that he had built that summer. He was engrossed in the delicate finishing touches of the chimney cap with a small triangular trowel. Doing delicate finishing work on anything except writing was not one of his fortes.”

Hugh goes on:  “Across the river mouth , Mrs Van Fossen had just arrived from shopping in Enderby and started the ritual honking to get a ride to her cabin.”The honking went on and on. “Dad was just reaching inside the chimney cap to smooth out a grout line as Mrs. Van Fossen laid on the horn. Startled, W.O. dropped the little trowel down the chimney and it settled on top of the damper plate. He looked up and screamed across the river mouth, “Shit! Shit! Shit! Get off that God-damned horn!”

The crisis continued, producing a very memorable image. Hugh tells us: “He could not reach the trowel from inside the fireplace hearth, and thus it became another extended delicate operation to retrieve the trowel from inside the chimney USING HIS FISHING ROD (my emphasis). Mabel Lake cabin owners were not surprised to see W.O. Mitchell up on the roof fishing in his chimney”.

The stories go on, many dealing with W.O.’s fishing and boating adventures. One of them I heard him tell to my Publishing Workshop at The Banff Centre, around 1985. For reasons that made sense to him, W.O. was alone in his boat on the empty lake when spilled gasoline on his pants made it necessary for him to tinker with the engine stark naked. When he stood up and arched to ease his acing back, he found that a silent sailboat had drifted alongside him, full of pop-eyed sailors of both sexes. W.O. told us that he instantly called out. “What class is that boat?”

Hugh tells the story of how W.O.s love of a bargain let him down: “Dad was always exclaiming what a great deal he got. He paid $5.00 per 100 board feet for the 2×4 deck boards. It didn’t turn out to be such a great deal, as the deck boards started rotting out within five years and culminated in George McClelland, former Chief Superintendent of the RCMP, plunging through an especially rotten section of the deck, getting stuck up to his midriff.” George McClelland, Hugh recalls” wasn’t a small man….We had some difficulty extracting him.”

Great stories. Somehow they make W.O.’s stories about blowing up Grandpa in the outhouse seem less amazing. Just everyday stuff.

Many thanks for sharing all this, Hugh.