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.”

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TRANSLATING YVES BEAUCHEMIN

The Globe and Mail on  Saturday, December 29, contained a book review written by the thoughtful Russell Smith.  The review is of Yves Beauchemin’s latest novel, The Accidental Education of Jerome Lupien, translated by Wayne Grady.

The review is headed “An all-around disappointment”. The sub-heading reads “The translation of Quebecker Yves Beauchemin’s 2016 novel is full of cliches, clumsy language and implausible scenarios that would do well as a humourous cartoon.”

Naturally, I rushed to read it.

I should explain right away that I know and admire all of the people involved here, even the people at Anansi who published the book. I always read Russell Smith’s commentary on the literary scene with interest. As for Yves Beauchemin, I am a huge admirer. I have thrust “The Alley Cat”, his 1981 classic, upon hundreds of readers, and in my role as Publisher at M&S I have proudly published several of his later books.

My enthusiasm was such that before publishing “Charles The Bold”, I dragged Jane around the mean streets of east-end Montreal’s Rue Ontario area in freezing weather . It was in fact so cold that when we took shelter in a nearby church, the tears that sprang to our eyes from  the temperature change meant that we were instantly at home in the funeral party that we had accidentally joined . Jane was impressed — not favourably — that we were roaming the icy streets to follow the landmarks in the life “of a fictional character?” For Yves Beauchemin it was worth it. His Montreal is always a special place. What London was for Dickens, and Paris for Balzac, Montreal , in all its modern variety, is for Yves Beauchemin

As for Wayne Grady, my admiration for this walking compendium  of bookish virtues is hard to express. He is an excellent editor, an anthologist, a non-fiction writer, a novelist , a reviewer….and a superb translator. I had the pleasure of editing his translations of several Beauchemin books. I used to enjoy my role of editing Wayne’s translation so much that I would joke –sotto voce — that instead of being paid for the work, I would happily pay for the pleasure.

I should explain that while my spoken French is childish (my ears and lips limping along behind the conversation, trying to imagine the sounds in print) my translation of written French is good enough that many of my short translations have been published, without complaint.

When we published Yves, whom I got to know and like in person, my practice was always the same. I had read the book in French, to start the publishing process. When Wayne’s translation came in, I would read it, setting aside and ignoring the French original. Only when something seemed strange about the English manuscript would I go back to the original. And  invariably I would find myself saying, “Ah, I see the problem. This is very tricky to translate.” And almost invariably Wayne would have made the difficult choice — skilfully — between  an uneasy literal translation and a dangerously free one. My faith in Wayne’s superb translating abilities is such that if he were now to use the word “Gadzooks!”, I know it would represent an equivalent old French exclamation.

Translating the commonplace conversational cliches of a difficult hero like Jerome Lupien creates a special challenge. For Russell Smith, Wayne Grady’s translation fails the test here, falling back on cliches. To which I  say, for crying out loud, Wayne’s everyday language surely must establish the banal level of conversation, and thought, of our anti-hero Lucien. It works for me.

Many of Russell Smith’s criticisms in the review are fair. This is not Beauchemin at his best. But it’s still Beauchemin. I found myself once again happily immersed in the world of named streets, and coffee shops, and brasseries, and bookshops, and enjoying the reading very much. And for a loyal Quebecois like Yves to plunge into the shameful swamp of price-fixing in the construction industry there, which has been amply proved in official enquiries, must have been a painful journey. It is a world populated by shameless lobbyists like Jerome Lupien that richly deserves  bitter satirical treatment.

So why did an  astute reader like Russell Smith not get more out of the  book? I have one suggested answer, which is, you might say, political. When the struggle for Quebec’s future was going on, Yves Beauchemin was the President of the Union Des Ecrivains Quebecois and a vocal, hard-working leader in the fight for independence. He and I disagreed about this, but  I admired his passion, and his use of words, and ideas, to make his case.

Imagine, then, how such an idealist must feel today, now that his hopes for an independent Quebec, a country of his own, are almost gone. That, I suggest, is what makes this book fascinating.

For instance, in the middle of the book Jerome goes to a Thai restaurant near Cote des Neiges, eating his meal “until a familiar voice made him look around. To his left, in the middle of the room, Jacques Parizeau, the former Quebec premier, was sitting at a table with a man in his forties who looked perfectly at ease. That said, during his university days he’d often seen the famous politician having lunch in a local restaurant — alone, on one occasion, an ordinary citizen reading his newspaper.”

“Parizeau had been his father’s idol”. Jerome remembered how his father had said…”that man REALLY works for Quebec. We’d be our own country today if it wasn’t for those cheats who stole the referendum from us in 1995.”

The revealing Parizeau scene concludes: “As he ate, Jerome snuck furtive glances at the former politician. He’d aged and was bent over, his grey hair almost white, yet the familiar intelligent energy and aristocratic presence that, among journalists, earned him the nickname”Sir Jacques” still emanated from his eyes, face, and smallest gestures. Simply seeing him made one forget the sordid aspects of human nature.”

Do you see what I mean? This is a deeply important book for people who wonder about what former fighters for Quebec independence are now feeling. It doesn’t make for relaxed, easy satirical fiction. It’s more like a lament. A new Lament for a Lost Nation. See what you think.

 

WOLFVILLE AT THE DOOR

In ACROSS CANADA BY STORY I’ve written about an earlier Halifax visit when I wandered from The Waverley Inn down Morris Street to the Harbour. That bright summer day, ambitious anglers with baited lines were hauling in mackerel by the dozen. Our icy November visit was more likely to produce frostbite, so we stayed clear  of the water, and from the Inn set out early, straight for Wolfville.

The car wind-shield wipers were working well, you’ll be relieved to hear, and we knew the way to the Annapolis Valley, via Windsor. I’ve always given Windsor short shrift, just driving around it. I must confess that I’ve never ventured into the enterprising town that claims to be the cradle of hockey. We did the same on this occasion, although on the return trip the next morning, Windsor struck back. I had just told Jane to look north, to where the arm of the Minas Basin brought Fundy’s tidal waters very close, when within twenty feet — a healthy spit away — a gigantic bald eagle flew angrily alongside us, for a few dramatic seconds!

On our way to Wolfville that morning we were very conscious that our “Across Canada By Story” show was to be given at Acadia that afternoon. Apparently Friday evenings in the Fall are sacred at Acadia (football? parties?) and we were advised that student attendance would be minimal, unless we gave the show in the afternoon. So, based on the shrewd advice of our hostess, Professor Wanda Campbell, that is what we did.

The early start caused me to sacrifice a visit en route to the Acadian site at Grand Pre, although I tried to persuade Jane to turn right to see it. I even failed in my attempt to have us search for the “Elm Tree at Horton’s Landing” that my friend Alex Colville painted so memorably — and that in 1986 I put on the cover of Alice Munro’s book, THE PROGRESS OF LOVE, the very first Douglas Gibson Book. Worst of all, we didn’t get to visit my beloved Acadian dykes along the shore, which had inspired stories from Wolfville to Adventure Canada cruises in the Arctic, as my second book reveals.

Instead, we drove straight to The Blomidon Inn, on the near side of Wolfville. If you ever get the chance, go there. We were warmly welcomed at Reception, despite our early arrival , and I found myself presenting the Inn with a signed copy of my second book, which raves about the very traditional hostelry.  The lively owner told us about a meeting there of NATO’s Defence ministers that was hosted by Nova Scotia’s Peter MacKay. Apparently, after the formal meeting, when our friend was serving drinks, he spilled the wine all over the British Minister’s briefcase. When he dived towards the spill, planning to mop it up, the UK bodyguard seized his wrist in a death grip, saying (untruthfully) “No problem. The spill missed the Minister’s briefcase. Nothing to mop up.” End of story.

I learned from him that Mordecai Richler, no doubt on the way to visit his son Noah at Digby Neck, used to stay at the Inn, and smoke very pungent cigars in the open air. I could have identified Mordecai, even without the name. The aroma lingers.

We drove to the Acadia campus, and found our way to  The K.C. Irving Centre, the most beautiful space in any Canadian university I know. Interestingly, the heroic portrait of the founder shows him ringed by Irving factories, all blasting out smoky pollution as fast as possible. In the Centre we met the very efficient Wanda, and set up in good time for the show, where I encountered interested book-lovers from all over the Annapolis Valley. They included Terry Fallis’s father-in-law, whom Jane and I had met before. I even met a Newfoundlander from Woody Point!

When the show opened, I began with a tribute to Jen Knoch, my editor at ECW, my Toronto  publisher. Jen is a proud graduate of Acadia, and the Acadian faculty and students  were glad to hear that one of the best book editors in Canada was someone who had been a student just like them, just a few years earlier. Later, I heard that one of the students present said in wonder to a teacher, about me: “He knew everybody ! He must be really old!”

After the event, Jane and I sat and chatted about books and publishing with the fascinating Andrew Steeves, the Publisher of Gaspereau Press in Kentville. You may remember him as the publisher of the Giller Prize-winning book THE SENTIMENTALIST by Johanna Skibsrud that made waves in 2010. Andrew and I solved all the problems of the publishing world, you’ll be pleased to hear.

That evening Jane and I had a fine dinner at, of course, The Blomidon Inn. The next morning, the Saturday, we rose early, then blasted our way to the Halifax Airport. We had done six shows in seven days, and were able to fly to Toronto in time to attend the St. Andrew’s Ball at the Royal York Hotel that evening. There people asked innocently, “Been up to anything interesting recently?”

 

 

FLIRTING WITH DEATH ON THE WAY TO HALIFAX

We almost died.

The lazy rental car people almost killed us.

Here’s what happened. We woke up to find Antigonish in a deep freeze.  A foot of snow had fallen, and the schools were closed. At The Maritime Inn we fuelled up with a big breakfast, preparing for a long drive all the way to Halifax, where Alexander MacLeod awaited us. We wearily checked out of our hotel room (“I’ll bring the bags, while you clear the snow off the car”), then Jane drove carefully out of the snowy town.

We were on the main highway, driving cautiously, when a truck passed us, flinging lots of dirty snow on our windshield. Jane hit the wipers, which began to scrape noisily, and very messily, across the glass. She hit the button to squirt wiper fluid to clear the windshield….and NOTHING HAPPENED. We were driving blind, with only faint streaks of light across the solid streaks of frozen snow on the squeaking glass.

Whenever a car or truck passed us, the process repeated itself. Soon we knew to slow right down when we were passed, to stop the passing car throwing more junk on our windshield. But as we inched along, the highway had no turn-offs, kilometer after kilometer, minute after scary minute. Even pulling the car to the side, to rub clean snow on our blocked front windshield, was very risky. So we edged forward, noses to the smeared glass.

Eventually we did find a turn-off, and quickly rubbed fresh snow on the front, to let us see. At the first gas station we got the hood up, to find that the windshield fluid container had FROZEN SOLID. We bought some new fluid, guaranteed to operate at temperatures well below zero, and a tube of emergency winter fluid that opened up the frozen sprinklers on the hood. Then, still badly shaken, we went back on the Highway.

You’ll notice that I have not named the car company. Yet. When we returned the car eventually, and made our complaint, the cheerful man at the desk admitted that  they were “still transitioning” from summer grade wiper fluid to winter grade. In late November! In the frozen Maritimes! Which meant that to save a cent or two on summer-weight fluid, they were risking the lives of their customers.

Apart from all that, we drove without incident down 102 from Truro ( where in NO GREAT MISCHIEF a muttered Gaelic curse produces warm hospitality from an old Cape Breton householder) then across the main bridge to Halifax and all the way east on Barrington Street, to The Waverley Hotel. To relax , I took Jane around some of my old haunts in Halifax, including the lobby of The Lord Nelson Hotel. There, as I’ve told before, Don Harron (not in his Charlie Farquharson garb, but dolled up as “Valerie Rosedale”) was waiting for our Publicist to take him around the local media when an alert House Detective sternly told him to move on from the hotel’s lobby. Jane, in no danger of being asked to move on, although excessive shivering might have been misinterpreted as wild dancing, chose to stay inside while I sought out the Park Street site of Hugh MacLennan’s house, where as a boy he had experienced the 1917 Explosion.

True to his promise, Alexander picked us up at the Waverley ( a name that was to feature in my GREAT SCOTS show, when I discussed Sir Walter Scott’s influence on Joseph-Aubert de Gaspe’s great classic, Les Anciens Canadiens). He was still the same lively Alexander, a little greyer than I remembered, and it was great to be back in touch with the beloved MacLeod family. He set us up without fuss or delay at The Sobey Building at St. Mary’s.

And as the crowd rolled in, it contained many old friends. There was Graham Pilsworth, with Jamie and their book-selling daughter. When I spoke of Charles Gordon/Ralph Connor I mentioned the classic AT THE COTTAGE by my contemporary, Charles Gordon. And…TADA!…. the fine, funny illustrations were by Graham Pilsworth! (Applause).

Also present was James Houston’s son John, and his wife Bree. It was John who kindly introduced us to the Adventure Canada world ten years ago, and he’s a very good, Inuktitut-speaking, friend.

And, amazingly, fresh from her Biology-teaching role at St. Michael’s was Brenna, W.O. MITCHELL’S GRAND-DAUGHTER. When she introduced herself and we chatted beforehand, I couldn’t help telling her excitedly that she had her grandfather’s eyes.

After the show, after further chat and some book signing, Alexander and the mediaevalist, Stehanie Morely, swept us off to a late-night dinner at 2 Doors Down, on Barrington Street. Happy conversation surged around us, and good food zoomed into us, until it was time for us to part. I’m (mostly) glad to report that, unlike some nights at The Waverley, Oscar Wilde’s ghost did not put in an appearance.

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.

 

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.