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.

 

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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.

THIS WEEK’S TORONTO SHOW, AND A QUEBEC CITY SURPRISE

First, the surprise in Quebec. For a third time we were received at the magnificent Morrin Centre in the heart of old Quebec , by the incomparable team of Barry and Elizabeth.
The GREAT SCOTS show featured many surprising Canadian Fiction Writers , including Philippe-Joseph Aubert de Gaspe. This author of the first great Canadian novel in French, Les Anciens Canadiens, was imprisoned for debt IN THE CELLS IN THE MORRIN CENTRE BUILDING. We visited the ancient cells, and marvelled at his languishing there for over three years, able to see his family house across the street.
Before his debts caught up to him, he led a charmed life as a Seigneur in Quebec. You can roam around the old city, finding places where he once lived, like the Maison Jaquet, now the site of the traditional restaurant (where Guy Vanderhaeghe and I once dined) appropriately named “Les Anciens Canadiens”.

In the audience that day was a man from B.C. who mentioned that, like me, he had family links with Ayrshire. As I signed books and chatted, it became clear that he was a great-grandson of Robert Dunsmuir. My book , Across Canada By Story, pays tribute to the huge impact of Robert Dunsmuir on Vancouver Island:
“Logging and fishing were the staples of life everywhere on the Island. In Nanaimo there was something else. Robert Dunsmuir, as Scot from just outside Kilmarnock, was born in 1825, around the same time as my scary (“It says here you broke your leg!”) Kilmarnock great-grandfather, Robert. Who knows what they put in the water there in those days (although the town did produce Johnny Walker whisky. But we have fatherless Robert Gibson creating a tweed mill, and Robert Dunsmuir, a miner, coming to Vancouver Island, discovering a coal seam north of Nanaimo and creating a mining empire. He was another scary man. In the restrained words of The Canadian Encyclopedia: “His disregard for safety, and his employment of cheap Asian labour and disallowance of unions made him unpopular with labour.” The coal tradition lingers in Nanaimo with colourful place names like “Jingle Pot Road”.

IN TORONTO ON THURSDAY, MAY 17 AT 1.30. I’ll be giving a show at the MILES NADAL CENTRE AT BLOOR AND SPADINA. It’s based on the show I gave at Queen’s Park for the Lieutenant Governor, Elizabeth Dowdeswell, and will concentrate on our GREAT CANADIAN STORYTELLERS FROM 1967 TO TODAY.
I hope that you can come along, and say hello after the show.

NEW SHOWS, POSSIBLY NEAR YOU

I’m happy to announce three shows, in three different places, in the next three weeks. Maybe some will be convenient for you to come and attend, or to alert local friends , to come and have a good time
1. DUNDAS, Ontario, will mark the re-opening of its fine new Library, at 18 Ogilvie Street ON SATURDAY APRIL 28.
My “ACROSS CANADA BY STORY” show will start there at 1.00 p.m., complete with bursts of music, and interesting coast to coast travels. And more than a few fine author stories.
2. QUEBEC CITY, Quebec, will feature my newest show, which is also based around the superb author sketches by Anthony Jenkins. That show is “GREAT SCOTS: Canadian Fiction Writers with Links to Scotland,. It will run at THE MORRIN CENTRE, on the Chaussee des Ecossais (of course) ON TUESDAY MAY 8 AT 8.00 pm. This show has met with success in Guelph and in Montreal, so we’re looking forward to our third return visit to the fine Festival crowd in Quebec.
3. TORONTO, Ontario. We’ll be giving a 65-minute version of the 150 YEAR ANNIVERSARY SHOW. This version, very similar to what we gave for the Lieutenant Governor, Elizabeth Dowdeswell, in her Chambers in May 2017.Although I cover the 150 years, this shorter version will concentrate on “CANADA’S GREATEST STORYTELLERS, FROM 1967 TO THE PRESENT”. Again, the music, iconic works of art, and the fine caricatures by Anthony Jenkins, make this a very lively show. You and your friends can see it at THE MILES NADAL CENTRE, at Bloor and Spadina, ON THURSDAY, MAY 17 at 1.30 pm.
We have other shows lined up for later, so Jane and I hope to see you at some point. But these are the the ones closest on the horizon.
A FINAL NOTE. these days I’m busy going to a recording studio, to read aloud a Audible Book Version of ACROSS CANADA BY STORY. I’m very pleased to do it, and am working hard. But I must confess that reading aloud the story of my last visit to Alistair MacLeod in hospital was too much for me. The recording engineer, the expert Bobby, says that he can patch it together for me.

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

A NEW SHOW: 150 YEARS OF GREAT CANADIAN STORYTELLERS . . . 1867–2017

A new stage performance by DOUGLAS GIBSON, announced here first, to my faithful blog friends!

From coast to coast to coast (Ungava Bay, aboard an Adventure Canada cruise ship!) former publisher Douglas Gibson has given over 160 performances of the dramatized versions of his first two books. Against the backdrop of the brilliant author caricatures by Anthony Jenkins (of Alice Munro, Robertson Davies, Pierre Trudeau, and many others), he has told behind-the-scenes stories about the men and women he got to know well.

Internationally, he has taken his show celebrating Canadian authors to London (where he fell off the Canada House stage, a West-End triumph) to Beijing, to Mexico, and beyond.

Now he has created a new show – again with the help of Anthony Jenkins – to celebrate our greatest storytellers  since Confederation….English, French, and Indigenous. People in many Canadian communities may think that staging  the show is a fine way to celebrate our Sesquicentennial.

The power-point show follows our history decade by decade. Each decade begins with a burst of Canadian music from the time. On screen we see a familiar photo of the decade (“Ah, yes,that was the time of the Klondike Gold Rush”), and then several iconic pieces of Canadian art, by people like Cornelius Krieghoff, or Lawren Harris, or Mary Pratt.  Then the burst of music stops, and the caricature of the chosen author appears, and fascinating (boiling his moccasins?) stories about the chosen author and his or her best book are excitingly told (in front of a train?)

Usually, in each decade only one novelist in French and one in English will be chosen. This means that the show will be controversial (“How could you leave out X from the 1980s?”), but Doug Gibson will be happy to provoke spirited debate about our best authors. And while the show will be in English, everything on the screen, such as book titles and the names of the translation (“Kamouraska and Kamouraska, you say?”) will be bilingual. We all may learn more about our greatest authors, including the epic Haida storyteller, Skaay.

To learn more about booking the show,which will run from May-December 2017, please consult www.douglasgibsonbooks.com, or contact Jane Gibson at jane1929@rogers.com ,or phone 416 489 1929.

Please spread the news.