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.

 

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.

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.

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.

WALKING THROUGH AN EXCELLENT READ

I’ve just had an experience that I can recommend to you . I was in the middle of reading a fine novel when I realised that its local setting meant that I could stroll through its pages.  I’ve just done so today…a fine brisk day, good for a walk in the fresh air… and I found that the walk enriched my reading, when I returned home to finish the book.

The book in question is A PRAYER FOR OWEN MEANY by John Irving…..or, as Owen himself would put it, “BY JOHN IRVING”. Of course I’ve read, and enjoyed, other books by John. But  as you know, we all have gaps in our reading.  Somehow I had never  read this  book, although it was on our shelves. It was time to change that. So I opened this book from 1989 ( aha! I was only one year into my new role as Publisher at M&S, so I had other things on my mind!)  with the keenest interest.

As I settled into this very unusual novel, I learned a lot about its setting in New Hampshire.  Small-town Gravesend in northern New Hampshire is described in great detail, almost snowflake by snowflake, house by house, shingle by shingle. As the group of kids around our narrator and his friend Owen ages, we go from scene by scene classroom activity (and literally scene by scene Nativity plays) to summer jobs that involve work in the woods, or in the local granite quarries, or to Hester the Molester waitressing in local dining spots where lobster is a specialty.

Then , to our surprise, Canada comes into the picture.

The book’s narrator, John Wheelwright, is notable for two things. First, his protective love of his tiny friend Owen Meany, an astonishing character with a larger than life voice, personality, and brain. Second, his political conscience. John is a member of the generation scarred by the Vietnam War. So scarred that although an amputated finger leaves him unfit for the U.S. draft, after he leaves university he feels obliged to leave his country in disgust, and move to Canada.

To Toronto. As the lengthy plot moves forward, the main activity continues to centre on Owen  and John and New  Hampshire. But whenever we move to John’s present life, we roam around a specific part of Toronto. So that’s what I decided to do. I put down the unfinished book, and became an Owen Meany tourist.

I walked to Avenue Road and St. Clair, heading north to Upper Canada College. I looked with interest up the  driveway, studying the buildings, remembering that John had compared them to the Gravesend private school where Owen and he spent their young lives. Then, impressed by the rich history on the  plaque outside U.C.C., I walked west. After  four blocks of elegant Forest Hill neighbourhood houses I came to Bishop Strachan School. It is, famously, the female equivalent of the boys-only U.C.C.. In the book it is the school where John Wheelwright becomes a teacher of English. His discussion of that role allows him to speak warmly of the writers he most admires, from Thomas Hardy to Robertson Davies and Alice Munro.

I did not enter the good, grey, Gothic walls of B.S.S., (“Hi, can I look at a classroom like the one that John Irving’s character would have taught in?” seemed an unpromising approach) but I did walk two blocks north to get a sense of the school. And I did recall that John Irving’s wife, the former Canadian Publisher, Janet Turnbull Irving, (now a notable tennis player) had attended B.S.S. as a literary teenager, so John did have inside knowledge of the place.

In the novel Owen , and his friend John, care deeply about God and the mysteries of religion. So it’s appropriate that in Toronto John Wheelwright falls in love with the gentle charms of the building due west of Bishop Strachan, the old Grace Church on the Hill. I slipped into the church and relaxed in a pew. gazing around me with slow pleasure.  Very soon, I had come up with a rule for this new programme for literary walks: it should — perhaps must — include a spell spent sitting in a church, or other religious space. Doing nothing but looking around, and thinking.

A slow tour of the stained glass windows, and the monuments, revealed, yet again, how the First World War obliterated  a whole generation of young Canadians. Twenty-year-olds who should have been sunning themselves in Toronto parks were chewed up by a war machine they could not even have imagined. I thought of what R.H.Thompson’s brilliant work to remember those millions of lost First World War lives had achieved, and how proud I had been to help him.

A final, personal look at the lives lost in that war from that little church. I always look for possible relatives. Yes, there was one Gibson, one Young and one Thomson.

A slow walk out of the Church led to Russell Hill Road, along which John Wheelwright would walk every day, to and from his classes. I trudged thoughtfully south to St. Clair, noticing the new houses that have been recently inserted, but enjoying the traditional homes that John Wheelwright would have passed. Then, with a turn at St. Clair, past the Timothy Eaton United Church, I walked east twenty minutes to reach home.

There a lively book awaited me, greatly enriched by my walking tour.

Try the idea!

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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