Later I flew to Shanghai, where I gave the show in the Canadian Consulate. It was gratifying, and fun, although only a very small proportion of China’s 1.3 billion population were able to attend.
As of April 2014, Stories About Storytellers is available as a paperback! This new edition includes a new chapter on Terry Fallis, an account of Alice Munro’s Nobel Prize win, and a print version of the Storytellers Book Club, which debuted on this site.
The paperback version is available at all the usual retailers, including your local independent, Indigo, and Amazon.ca. It’s also available from the man himself, as he continues to tour Canada with Stories About Storytellers, the show, this year. Stay tuned for more engagement dates!
My two Stratford shows – in the grand old City Hall building, right downtown, near the Avon theatre – were inspiring for me. The school show on Friday afternoon drew a crowd of adult friends, including Geoff Hancock , the former editor of Canadian Fiction (and photographer of Mavis Gallant), who now runs a B&B in Stratford, and the Stratford Festival’s David Prosser. But the main audience was a large group of high-school kids brought in by bus.
I was able to speak briefly about their home town to the kids from Exeter – home of the unique breed of all-white squirrels, and of the famous family of my Toronto friend John MacNaughton, who died a few months ago.
I was, however, able to speak at much greater length to the Grade 12 kids from Clinton. This, of course, is the town where Alice Munro lives, and I was able to suggest to them how amazingly lucky they were to live in the same place as a world-famous writer who was putting their town on the literary map of the world, an internationally famous figure they might meet on the way to the Post Office. I talked about how her stories were set among people like their neighbours, and explained how famous Alice (“the living writer most likely to be read in 100 years time”, according to The Atlantic magazine) really was.
The next day word filtered back from a teacher that conversation among the kids on the bus home included the comment that this was the first time they had “ever felt proud about coming from Clinton”.
The next night’s show (part of Stratford’s Springworks Festival ) was for adults, and went fine. The sound man, who had worked at The Banff Centre and fallen under W.O. Mitchell’s spell, was hit hard by my final story about the unforgettable W.O.. After the show, our hosts, Lucille Roch and Warren Holmes, held a reception for us, and as we entered they kindly led a round of applause. It was a pleasant surreal moment (“I’m being applauded as I walk into a friend’s house!”), but it was nothing compared to the news of the impact on the kids from Clinton.
In his role as official representative of Hugh MacLennan for this year’s Canada Reads competition, Doug has created a playlist he thinks complements Two Solitudes. You can listen to the songs and hear him talk about his selections on Shift with Tom Allen here.
On Tuesday, January 14th, I went to the funeral of Brenda Davies. It was held in the University of Toronto’s Trinity College Chapel, where in 1995 the funeral of her husband, Robertson Davies, also took place.
That earlier funeral was a major national event, and I held the role of Honorary Pallbearer. It was a bitterly cold December day, I recall, and we were required to stand outside by the hearse for what seemed a very long time, while sotto voce comments were made about freezing funerals causing further losses. I, foolishly, was wearing only a raincoat, and the bitter experience led me to buy a fine warm, formal overcoat, which has seen many funerals since. This piece of sartorial history came to my mind as I solemnly put on that coat to attend Brenda’s funeral.
We all owe her a great debt. Ever since the day in 1940 when she, a young Australian, married Rob, a young Canadian, in besieged London, they were a full partnership. Not only did they raise three daughters together, Brenda brought her organising talents as a stage manager to their many stages in life. So she ran their household in Toronto when Rob worked at Saturday Night, then organised their lives in Peterborough when he was the editor of the Examiner (and thus a major local figure), then adapted to the role of chatelaine at Massey College when her husband became its founding Master, and later ran their lives in retirement in mid-town Toronto and at their country place in Caledon.
Throughout all this, she was the organising principle in his life. She was the driver in the family, and in more ways than those merely involving automobiles. Her great contribution was to clear the decks for Robertson Davies to get on with the intellectual, creative work that has enriched us all.
There seemed to be a general awareness of this at the affectionate but formal funeral, which filled the large Chapel, with many in attendance wearing the Massey College gown as a special gesture of respect. In my pew (as we sang “Guide me, O Thou Great Jehovah” to the grand old Welsh tune “Cwm Rhondda”), I was struck by memories of her kindness to me over the years, at Massey, at their mid-town apartment, and at the Caledon retreat, where I was a guest even after Rob’s death. Her kindness stretched to very near the present: when my book came out, she described my chapter on her husband saying “Douglas Gibson has written an excellent account of Robertson Davies as the clever, witty, wise man that he was.”
He was indeed. And we shall never know exactly how much he owed to his wife, the remarkable Brenda Davies.
Most Canadians were aware of the death of one of our greatest artists in the dark, early days of the new year. Some of our writers did a good job of explaining her importance, notably Sandra Martin in her obituary in the Globe and Mail. It made the appalling point that after Kenojuak was shipped south from Baffin Island to a TB sanatorium, she returned to find that her young daughters had died in her absence. And Patrick White added a fond, rueful account of his brush with greatness.
Sarah Milroy, also in the Globe, paid a fine tribute, summarizing Kenojuak’s career in this way: “She was one of the first of the Inuit artists, born and reared on the land, to enter into the experiment of art making at Cape Dorset, and one of the most talented. Her famous work The Enchanted Owl was replicated on postage stamps in 1970. In 1982, she was made a Companion of the Order of Canada.” Later, Milroy writes of an encounter with the old lady, now in a wheelchair, at the AGO: “her countenance that day was radiant with astonishment and a kind of elfin glee. While she never expected such success, she enjoyed every bit of it.”
“Elfin glee” is very good. That certainly catches the beaming old lady I got to know a little on Baffin Island. This was because my friend James Houston was the man who discovered Kenojuak’s talent, and encouraged her to turn it from sealskin bag decoration to making prints. It was James Houston (and a chapter in my book is devoted to this remarkable man “Artist, Author, Hunter, and Igloo Dweller”) who not only set up the trade in Inuit sculpture but went to Japan to learn the trade of print-making at the feet of an old master, so that he could go back to the Arctic to introduce print-making at the Cape Dorset artists’ co-op.
And Kenojuak was his star pupil. Our Hokusai, you might say, if you were to follow the Japanese theme.
In that chapter I talk about how fortunate I was to be invited by Adventure Canada to join a cruise that was intended to follow the travels of James Houston. The cruise (along the south shore of Baffin Island), took me for the first time to the North that I had published such exciting books about, but never seen. On board ship, alongside James’s widow, Alice, and his sons John and Sam, Jane and I met “celebrities like Kenojuak Ashevak, the most famous Inuit artist of all, a beaming, tiny elder whom I got to know despite a language barrier.”
I was able to make myself useful, providing an arm when we had to walk over rough ground, on occasions such as the time that we assembled at the base of some striking red cliffs just outside Cape Dorset to scatter Jim’s ashes.
Earlier, I had been present in the historic Cape Dorset artist’s studio, when Kenojuak (then aged almost 80) entered, throwing off her parka, and heading straight for a drawing board. Sitting before it she seized a pen and with bold strokes began to draw wide sweeping lines with her left hand. I was amazed by swift, unhesitating way she drew what would soon be a new print, right before our very eyes.
Later, as my book records,
when I saw John’s film about his father, I was fascinated to see Jim talk about the fast, confident way Kenojuak’s left hand moves as she draws. Jim asked her about that, and she told him that she just follows “a little blue line” ahead of her pen.
“A little blue line!” Jim snorts. “I wish I had a little blue line would do that for me!”
At the end of the cruise, on our last morning I suggested through friendly gestures to my new friend that we should swap our Adventure Canada name tags. Kenojuak laughed happily at the idea, and the swap was made. I suspect she did not keep mine as carefully as I have kept the “Kenojuak Ashevak” name tag that sits on our mantelpiece, not far from one of her magnificent prints. It’s like having a calling card from Claude Monet.
When the news of her death came to us, that name tag received much thoughtful, affectionate handling, often as I stood in front of my recent December birthday present from Jane. It is “Filigreed Raven” a stonecut from Cape Dorset in 2012, one of the very last prints created by Kenojuak.
In this recurring feature, we’re sharing tips for editors from the desk of Douglas Gibson. Good for those starting out or old hands who need a reminder, these guidelines form an engaging guide for sharp-eyed wordsmiths.
Tip # 31 Choosing A Title
Often an editor will find herself/himself involved in choosing the perfect title for a book. Sometimes this will be controversial. Sometimes the controversial choice will be the right one.
A case in point is Alison Wearing’s new book Confessions Of A Fairy’s Daughter: Growing Up With A Gay Dad. Many people will recoil from this title. But the chances are that they will not want to read the book, excellent though it is. So the title serves as fair warning for potential readers.
Tip #29: Partial to Partial
Because the adjective “partial” implies “fond of” or even “biased towards,” the adverb “partially” should not be used as a synonym for “partly.”
In fact, “partly” should be the editor’s choice every time, unless bias is specifically involved, and implied. So, no more buildings “partially destroyed” by a great wind, please.
On Sunday 20, January, the Metropolitan United Church in Toronto (at the heart of downtown, at Church and Queen ) will be hosting Doug Gibson’s show immediately after the lunch that follows the Sunday Service given by the Reverend Malcolm Sinclair.
The church service begins at 11:00, the lunch is held around 12:30, and the show will run from roughly 12:45 until 2:00. All are welcome.
Books will be available for sale and for autographing.
After more than 40 shows around Canada from coast to coast, this will be one of Doug’s rare public appearances in Toronto.