A CAUTIONARY TALE

Today I heard a story on CBC radio about a Canadian shocked to find Nazi war memorabilia for sale in a shop in this country.
It reminded me of an incident at the Frankfurt Book Fair in 1981. That year at Macmillan we had just published a fine non-fiction book by John Melady about German P.O.W.s in Canada in the Second World War. The title of this well-researched book was ESCAPE FROM CANADA.
I have many German friends, and once spent a high-school month in Hamburg, so decided that in my role as Publisher I should become a salesman, selling the German Rights to this book.
To do the job properly, I decided to get out of the usual English-language Frankfurt Hall (crowded with Canadian, British, American, and the other Publishers from around the world who liked to deal with major books translated from English). Instead, worriedly trying to recall my rusty German, I stepped into the very large Hall for German publishers.
I roamed around, looking for the sort of publisher who specialized in military books, like John Melady’s. In about the 40th Aisle, I found one. and when I stumbled into my introduction, the German Publisher manning the busy booth swept me into a conversation in fluent English,. He courteously agreed to consider our book, and gave me his card.
“But”, he exclaimed, with great enthusiasm, “we have a book for you! And it is being translated into English already!”
He produced a large hardcover book that was full of text and illustrations, and handed it to me.
Then he was called away to look after another urgent matter, leaving me gaping at the book in my hands. It was called the German equivalent of “The S.S.– A Celebration”
I leafed through it, shuddering, to make sure that I was not missing a shrewd satire. But no, it was an admiring look at the SS forces who had played a decisive role in the war. Instead of “decisive”, some citizens in a dozen European countries that had endured Nazi Occupation would use words like “ruthless” and “shameful”. Or given the cheerful approach of the German publisher, perhaps the correct word is “shameless”.
I remember vividly one photo from The Russian Front. A visibly terrified old woman was holding a large pitcher of milk, preparing to pour it out for five or six laughing young blond members of the Master Race; as they lined up they still had their rifles on their shoulders and broad smiles on their faces. The caption — and the gorge rises as I recall it — was, in German, “Once a mother…’
My command of the language was not up to the situation. Nor was my command of my own temper: this man really thought that I would want to publish this book, and that my fellow-Canadians would want to buy it.
My protest was mute. Instead of politely returning the loathsome book, I simply dropped it, BANG, on the floor in the middle of the booth. Then I walked away.

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REMEMBERING CHARLIE RUSSELL , AND TOM WOLFE

CHARLIE RUSSELL, who died on May 7 in Calgary, grew up in the shadow of the Rockies. His father was Andy Russell, the unforgettable mountain man who was my friend. I once tried to sum up Andy’s life by saying that he had been “a trapper, cowboy, bronco-buster, trail guide, grizzly hunter, nature photographer and film-maker, lecturer, and fighter for the environment.”
His books, including Grizzly Country, Horns In The High Country, The High West. The Rockies, along with the later books that I published (The Canadian Cowboy, The Life of a River, and Memoirs of a Mountain Man) were hugely successful.
They meant that young Charlie and his brothers grew up on horseback , roaming through the Rockies from near Waterton Lakes through into B.C.. On foot, they were at home in the mountains. “My boys grew up able to climb like mountain goats”, Andy records in one of his books, with an alarming photo to prove it.
Charlie, naturally, drifted into the same sort of life, mixing ranching in the foothills with escorting tourists through wild, high places. And he became fascinated by grizzly bears.
He inherited that interest from Andy. I remember once visiting ” The Hawk’s Nest”. the Russell ranch in Alberta south of Pincher Creek, near Waterton. As we looked east , away from the Rockies, we could see three ( no, four!) grizzlies coming in our direction. Andy was not worried. In his life, by standing firm and “talking to” advancing bears that were charging– planning to kill him — he had faced down 23 grizzly charges.
Charlie developed great respect for grizzlies, and decided to get to know them better.
A trip with his father and his brother Dick to study , and to make a documentary about, a white sub-species of black bears on the BC coast on Princess Royal Island led to an astonishing discovery. They could never get near to any bear…..unless they left their guns behind. Charlie told The Edmonton Journal that eventually “The three of us came to the conclusion that the bears could sense that we were not a threat, that somehow they realized that without a gun, we would do them no harm.”
Charlie’s curiosity, and his belief that even grizzly bears were natural friends to humans led him in search of bears unspoiled by harsh contact with hunters. He found them in Russia, in the eastern Pacific section called Kamchatka. After much negotiation with Russian authorities, in 1996 Charlie flew in with his home-built plane, accompanied by his partner, the photographer Maureen Enns.
The result was a remarkable 2002 book, GRIZZLY HEART: Living Without Fear Among The Brown Bears Of Kamchatka. It was laced with photos of Charlie swimming with a bear friend. or walking with them, or fly fishing with a bear at his shoulder,watching, waiting eagerly for a fish to bite.
The New York Times wrote that “His conclusion that bears were not naturally hostile to people earned him enemies among hunters…..”
He once told an Australian newspaper “A lot of it is because the hunting culture needs to promote an animal so fearful that people can feel brave about killing it.”
The Kamchatka experiment ended with hunters breaking in while Charlie was back in Canada, and slaughtering the bears who had become his friends.
A personal note: When Jane and I stayed at The Hawk’s Nest a few years ago, we were charmed to find that friendship was still being extended by Charlie and his brother John and his wife Valerie to nearby bears. Outside the house was a bird bath. Right beside it was a bear bath. When we tip-toed out in the morning we were disappointed (and relieved) to find that no bear was there, relaxing happily in the big bath!

TOM WOLFE was another friend who died recently. His death in New York received a lot of attention, which is appropriate, because through his own writing, and his editing of important books like The New Journalism, he had a huge impact on writing and writers in many countries.
I knew him a little , and admired him a lot. I especially liked his work on Marshall McLuhan (“What If He’s Right?”). I’ve enjoyed telling the story of Marshall being taken to a strip club by mischief-inspired friends who wanted to see how this devoutly Catholic scholar would react. Tom reported that Marshall gazed at the spectacle thoughtfully, and then said “Ah, yes. She’s wearing us!”
Once I took Tom out for a speaking engagement at York University, York had been constructed in the 1960s at the very edge of Toronto, so was surrounded by a very bare landscape.
Tom gazed out at it and said, mildly, in the Southern accent that he retained even after his Ph.D. years at Yale, “It’s kind of like Brasilia, isn’t it?”

A NICE SURPRISE AT INDIGO

This week Jane and I were roaming around an Indigo store, just before seeing”The Post”, at a nearby theatre. Around 1980 I spent three years as a Movie Reviewer for “Sunday Morning” on CBC Radio. I was very lucky to have a guy named Stuart Maclean as our Producer, and the superb Suanne Kelman as my dictator in the booth. She not only made sound editorial decisions, she taught me how to BREATHE on the air. The CBC desperately needs her back, to stop regular reporters slurping up gallons of oxygen at the end of every sentence. In some cases they sound as if they’ve just emerged from a very deep dive, and are fighting for life.
And nobody seems to be teaching them how to talk on the air, like, (dare I say it?) professionals.
Bring back Suanne Kelman!
This introduces the fact that I’m recommending “The Post” to you, dear reader, because it is an excellent piece of work. The pacing of the movie, where Meryl Streep slowly grows in confidence as Katherine Graham, is beautifully done, and in the role of Ben Bradlee Tom Hanks is very fine. Speaking as an old movie reviewer, I think you’ll enjoy this film.
As we roamed around Indigo, Jane had the idea of looking up my first book, STORIES ABOUT STORYTELLERS. When we did so,the electronic screen hurt my feelings, by saying that no copies of this 2011 book were in stock in this particular branch.
BUT there was a review available. A bright reviewer named David Nichols (whom I do not know, I’m sorry to say) wrote this:–
OUR MARVELOUS LITERARY HERITAGE
“Gibson unfolds a beautiful expression of Canada’s literary heritage in a heartwarming, perspicaceous, witty and inspiring adventure about the fascinating lives of Canadian authors and their work. This masterpiece will open your eyes to the wonders and magnitude of Canadian literature. If ever a book should be placed on the curriculum of our schools right across the country, this is it. It is a beautiful expression of Canada’s literary beauty and Mr. Gibson’s love of Canada. I have never wanted a book not to end so badly.”
And I, Mr. Nichols, have never been so sorry to see a review end. Many,many thanks for your kind FIVE STAR REVIEW. “A masterpiece”,indeed.

TWO STORIES YOU NEED TO SEE

If you, my very literate friends, have the smug sense that things are much better here than south of the border, in President Trump’s America, two stories surfaced today that you should see. And think about.
The first is a story in the December 7 Globe and Mail, by Jessica Leeder headed “Pulp non-fiction debate divides Nova Scotia town.”
The opening paragraph sums up the story : “Nova Scotia-born author Joan Baxter was to spend last Saturday signing copies of her new book about a local pulp mill’s fraught environmental history in Pictou County when Northern Pulp drafted a letter to Coles and its parent company, Indigo Books & Music Inc.”
” Calling the journalistic take insulting and offensive, the letter warned the bookstore in New Glasgow, N.S., there would be consequences for the event…”
As a result of these threatened consequences, a spokeswoman for Indigo said that “a number of events leading up to the signing in New Glasgow led us to cancel” the planned event. The cancellation came , ostensibly, from concerns that customers’ “joyful and safe experience” in the store might be compromised.

So, there you have it. Big, local company turns on a local bookstore, encourages its employees to make trouble ( although the company spokeswoman told us that “employees were not encouraged to take any physical action in protest”) and Coles/ Indigo backs down, and the book signing event is off.

An important freedom of speech issue, I would say.

As it happens, I know New Glasgow, and I know Pictou, and the looming Indonesian-owned pulp mill that dominates the town, in every sense. They are such bad corporate citizens that local resident Paul Sobey (who knows something about responsible corporate citizenship) has lent his name to protests against their environmental actions, all duly recounted in my friend Silver Donald Cameron’s film”Defenders of the Dawn”.

The reconstructed version of “The Hector”, the ship that brought Scottish immigrants to Nova Scotia, behind picturesque bagpipers, lies opposite the mill. Sadly, The Hector is closed to the public, still awaiting refurbishment. If any Nova Scotia friends has good news here, I would be glad to hear it.

THE SECOND IMPORTANT STORY is to be found on the front page of The Toronto Star today. Ainslie Cruickshank’s story is headed: “Music teacher  sues board for defamation over song” The sub-heading reads: “School performance of folk song ‘Land of the Silver Birch’ leads to claims of racism and a lawsuit”.

The story opens: ” A Toronto music teacher is suing her principal, vice-principal and the public school board for defamation after the administrators sent an email to the school community apologizing that a well-known folk song — ”Land of the Silver Birch”–was performed at a school concert, calling it “inappropriate” and “racist”.”

The story is hard to summarise , so you might wish to read it for yourself. It’s especially hard for me to summarise , because THIS IS PERSONAL. In my latest show, taking us through Canadian Storytellers From 1867, decade by decade, I begin with a burst of popular Canadian music from the time. For the 1890s I proudly use “Land of the Silver Birch’, the lyrics written by Pauline Johnson in that decade, and sung by a more recent voice.

And here is what the geniuses behind that email “following concerns from parents about the song” said about Pauline Johnson’s poem. Emphasis mine :”WHILE ITS LYRICS ARE NOT OVERTLY RACIST…THE HISTORICAL CONTEXT OF THE SONG IS RACIST.”

How do I begin to deal with that? We can look at the song itself, familiar to generations of Canadian kids around campfires. They happily sang about “Blue lake and rocky shore”. Then many of them peered nervously into the darkness, hoping to catch a glimpse of a “mighty moose” wandering at will.

Great  stuff. A fine, historical folksong. I hope the kids sang it well at the concert.

But “racist”? This brings us to Pauline Johnson, whom I’m delighted to include in my show. She was born in Brantford, and went to high school there with my selected storyteller, Sara Jeannette Duncan. Later, when Sara became The Globe’s first woman writer ( protected by the male nom-de-plume”Garth Grafton”) she published an interview with her interesting friend Pauline. And “interesting” is an under-statement. Her father was a hereditary Mohawk chief, while her mother was English. Pauline drew on both sides of her inheritance. In time , she made her living with a literary act on-stage. In the first half, before the Intermission, she dressed and performed as a Mohawk princess, with poems like “The Song My Paddle Sings”. In the second half she became her mother’s very modern daughter.

Audiences far and wide loved it, as she toured North America and Europe . When she retired to the West Coast, her book Legends of Vancouver, became a great success. In 1913 her funeral in Vancouver was the largest in the city’s history.

“The historical context of the song is racist.” Utter nonsense. I’m proud to have it in my show.

AHOY…DO YOU HAVE ANY BEER?

One of the great pleasures of my public appearances is that I often stumble across great stories about our authors. In Guelph, after my November 30 event introducing my new show GREAT SCOTS: CANADA’S FINEST STORYTELLERS WITH SCOTTISH LINKS, I was signing books when I met Neil Darroch. He told me about a childhood encounter with Farley Mowat.
When Neil was about 10 he was sailing one summer on the Ottawa River. More precisely, with their skipper, Julian Biggs, he and his father were in a race at the wide part of the river on the Lake of Two Mountains, at Hudson, Quebec. Jane and I know Hudson well, from our October show in the restored railway station theatre there, which will be the subject of a future blog.
The sailing around Hudson is still so good that the Montreal writer, my old friend Trevor Ferguson, was apparently lured to move there by its summer delights.
That summer, around 1970, young Neil was awaiting the start of the race, postponed due to light air. In his words :
“Aboard another sailboat about 100 feet away, a small, bearded fellow hailed us with the immortal words, “Ahoy! Do you have any beer?”
When my father Jim said yes, and politely offered him one, the bearded guy dived into the water, and swam to our boat. He clambered aboard. He was wearing shorts only. Very pale skin, pot belly and large beard. He looked like a pirate.
My father asked me if I knew who this man is? I replied no. My father said, “This is Farley Mowat. He is a writer!”
Mr. Mowat looked at me, scrubbed the top of my head with his hand, and said hello.
I don’t remember what was discussed between my father, our skipper, and Farley Mowat,although I assume it involved lack of wind, and the lack of beer on Mr. Mowat’s pal’s boat. I do remember that he downed a bottle quickly, thanked us, then dived off our boat, and swam back to the boat from which he came. I was left with a vivid impression of a real character. Someone who did not hesitate to do what was necessary at the moment, and damn the torpedos!
I have read most of Mr. Mowat’s works. A great writer!”

I’m sure that one of the books that Neil must have read was The Boat That Wouldn’t Float, which became a huge best-seller when it came out in 1969, just before this encounter. Yet from Neil we learn that Farley’s dicing with death among small boats had not put him off sailing for ever…….and the even more astonishing fact that his dangerous voyages with Jack McClelland around Newfoundland had been floated on a tide of rum, yet now he was content with a simple beer.
I have my own memories of Farley in those days, and he features in Across Canada By Story. The man who helped Farley select the Non-Floating Boat, was my Newfoundland author, Harold Horwood. Farley liked Harold, and would send in helpful quotes to advance Harold’s career. But because he hated the USA (he used to, famously, fire his shotgun at American planes flying overhead…high overhead) any letter from Farley to me at Doubleday Canada arrived in an envelope defaced by Farley’s indignant hand with comments about just how “Canadian” we were.
In my 2015 book you might like to read about the fun I had publishing him. As Neil Darroch says, he was a great writer.

OPTIONS FOR MY NEW SHOW

First, of course, an affectionate word about AVIE BENNETT, who passed away four days ago. Jane and I were in Vancouver when the Toronto Star tracked me down for a phone interview about Avie in Stanley Park.  It was strangely appropriate for a man who took the M&S description, “The Canadian Publishers”, so seriously.

I was glad that The Star devoted a front-page story to Avie’s life and death. My own recollections of working daily with him as the Publisher of McClelland & Stewart when he was the Chairman , from 1988 till 2000, are vivid and proud. The Star story ended with my recollection of my May 23 show at the Lieutenant Governor’s Chambers in Queen’s Park. I had  begun by thanking everyone for coming, recognising my 10 year-old nephew Alistair (who leapt to his feet with unrestrained enthusiasm), and then noting the presence of 89-year old Avie, who was there on a walker , with the help of his friend Bill Ross. It had taken him a great deal of trouble and determination to come to my show, to support me, and I spoke briefly about his role in supporting Canadian writers.

Without prompting, the audience burst into warm applause. Avie was delighted.

He died ten days later, after this final triumphant public appearance.

I’ll be writing a fuller appreciation later.

 

Now that I’ve given my Sesquicentennial shows celebrating ” CANADA’S GREATEST STORYTELLERS / LES PLUS GRANDS RACONTEURS CANADIENS  1867 — 2017″  in various places, a few options have emerged.

OPTION ONE: The full show, with an Intermission when we reach 1967. This is the show I have given in Ottawa on April 29,  and (in more polished form) at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver on May 31. This is also the form chosen by a number of Literary Festivals across the country for the next few months.

The next such event, running almost two hours, including the Intermission, will be on the roof of Ontario, where so many rivers start, at FLESHERTON on JUNE 9, at 7pm.  Tickets are still available. Contact museum@greyhighlands  for details about the show in the Kineplex.

OPTION TWO: A condensed 50-minute version of the show, concentrating on the modern era, from 1967 to the present. This is the version that I gave at The Lieutenant Governor’s Queen’s Park Chambers. Susan Swan the novelist was in the audience, and kindly called it ” a witty historical medley of Canadian writerly talent…How fortunate Canada is that you are doing your show across the country. If only there were more Doug Gibsons going out in the world to tell it about our great literary tradition, our wonderful history of writers and writing.”

OPTION THREE: The first 100 Years, from 1867 to 1967.  This version, running one hour, has already been chosen by some Ontario groups. In every case, of course, I deal with our major writers in English and in French, and the show is enlivened by bursts of Canadian music, and the work of other Canadian artists from the time. And always, of course, I speak about the author against the background caricature by the brilliant Anthony Jenkins.

I’m still building a National Tour. Please let any interested group (Library/Bookstore/Museum/ Community) know about the shows we can bring to them. Contact me at doug1929@rogers.com

THE NEW SHOW IS BEING LAUNCHED…MAYBE NEAR YOU!

At last, I’m able to give some news about my new 2017 show “CANADA’S GREATEST STORYTELLERS/ LES GRANDS RACONTEURS CANADIENS  1867–2017”

We held an Open Dress Rehearsal for it at our local Toronto Library, at Deer Park, on Saturday April 22. About 30 brave people showed up, and gave very useful comments.  To incorporate them, Jane and I have amended the very comprehensive show — with lots of music, and scores of fine Canadian works of art over the full 150 years . I’m happy to report that people in the audience stayed for the whole show, which runs for almost two hours, including the 10-minute Intermission, which comes when we arrive at 1967!

Nobody lobbed any over-ripe fruit, or shouted abuse. One audience member, impressed by my inclusion of our greatest novelists in French, came up and made my day by congratulating me en Francais!

The volleys of tomatoes may come in OTTAWA this SATURDAY , APRIL 29, when we launch the show at The Ottawa Book Festival. To be precise, the Launch is at 4.00 p.m., not in The National Library (as was originally planned) but in CHRIST CHURCH CATHEDRAL, ON SPARKS STREET. ( The grand setting seems to have been always  in the cards: during the show Leonard Cohen sings “Hallelujah” . My friend Charles Gordon, mindful of my acrobatic disaster in London’s Canada House, has admonished me “Don’t fall off the altar!”)

If you live near Ottawa , or have friends who do, please come along. We’re hoping for a full house, and much laughter.

THEN ,  TORONTO.

First, on MONDAY , MAY 8, there will be a Private Show at the ARTS AND LETTERS CLUB, built around the Dinner that begins at 6.15. If you have friends who are members, now’s your chance.

Then on Tuesday 23, The Lieutenant Governor,Elizabeth Dowdeswell , will be holding a Toronto Launch in her OFFICIAL CHAMBERS for the new show. Details are still being worked out. Please let me know if you’d like to be invited to that afternoon/evening event.

Then VANCOUVER.

On WEDNESDAY, MAY 31, I’ll be giving the show at THE S.F.U. HARBOUR CENTRE DOWNTOWN, starting at 7.00pm. Please tell your Vancouver friends.

Then, as word spreads about this remarkable “show in a box” that Jane and I hope to take to every community that’s interested, we’ll be on our travels.
Please think about any organisation or group that might like to invite us, and suggest it to them.

Good luck to us all!