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 It has been replaced by the Mohawk word  “Atateken”.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.

GREAT UNIVERSITIES

I’ve written briefly about the recent Writers’ Union Conference, but I’ve jumped over the main attraction…… its Halifax setting. Every day I slipped away from the indoor Conference sessions to stroll around the city, which I love.

Every area reminded me of early, happy times with Halifax authors. The ancient St. Paul’s Church (prefabricated in Boston, then shipped north to be erected in Halifax when the city was founded in 1749 as a sort of northern New England outpost ) reminded me of Charles Ritchie. My friend Charles was the diplomat and diarist (The Siren Years) whose Almon great-grandfather , a distinguished Halifax doctor, is warmly remembered in a plaque in the very old Church at the heart of the old city. And Charles, despite his globe-trotting career, remained a Halifax-based Anglican all of his life.

Opposite the Public Gardens, I saw again the site of the house where Hugh MacLennan had lived at the time of the 1917 Explosion. I had joined the noble but failed lobbying attempt to preserve Hugh’s house as a historic writing centre. And of course it was in his first novel, Barometer Rising, that Hugh described the explosion with great power. As I recently told Michael Enright on CBC radio, in that novel Hugh also made the setting of the sun over Halifax an excuse to scan our country, like a satellite, from coast to coast, deliberately creating a national literature.

And the Citadel, which I always associate with the famous photograph of Hugh (the Dalhousie student who won a Rhodes Scholarship) looking out to sea, is still there, dominating the city.

My usual visit on the waterfront to tour the corvette Sackville (I proudly published Jim Lamb’s classic memoir, The Corvette Navy) was not possible this year, with the famous ship in dry dock, disappointing thousands of potential visitors. But I toured the waterfront very thoroughly, including a visit to Pier 21, which always impresses me, as another lucky Canadian immigrant.

I took a brief trip to see The Lord Nelson Hotel .There my author Don Harron, teetering on high heels in the lobby, preparing for  a day touring as “Valerie Rosedale”, was once gruffly moved on by a suspicious house detective. I dropped in to see the excellent local bookstore, just across Spring Garden Road, then walked  through the dramatic Dalhousie campus. It was the perfect day for it…….Graduation Day! The streets were full of proud graduates in red gowns, floating alongside beaming parents…. and shuffling younger siblings, pleased , but uncertain of their role.

It was a great day at a great university.

Which brings me to another university. This weekend the Guardian  newspaper published its annual survey of Britain’s best universities. Traditionally , the top two universities in that eagerly-read survey are Oxford and Cambridge.

This year, however, the ranking of the universities, with everything from academic standards to student enjoyment carefully calibrated, was :—

1 Cambridge

2 St. Andrews

3 Oxford

Those of us who went to St. Andrews were not surprised. Since it was founded in 1413, in its mediaeval city jutting east into the North Sea, Scotland’s oldest university has become used to providing students with an interesting and enjoyable education. In fact, every year, in the Guardian listing St. Andrews tops the British list for “Student enjoyment.”

No surprises there for me, a proud graduate of the class of 1966.

 

NEITHER TWUC NOR TWADE, EXCEPT WITH REAL WRITERS

The Writers’ Union of Canada is known as TWUC to its friends, so that a recent enthusiastic President, the maternal Doris Heffron, was affectionately described as a “Mother-TWUCKER”.  At the start of June I was at the TWUC AGM in Halifax.

I was delighted to be there, because the annual event gives me a chance to meet up with old friends, gathered from across the country. In fact, when I was a publisher, I tried to attend the annual Conference. I would hang around the public events, happy to meet my authors, and equally keen to meet authors who were new to me. Incredibly, other publishers rarely followed suit, leaving the field to me.

After I was made an Honorary Member of the Union (presumably someone said, wearily, “He’s always hanging around, why don’t we just make him a member?”) I found it an inspiration to earn my membership by actually writing a book, and becoming a real writer.

The big event at this year’s AGM was voting on how to define that difficult term, “a real writer”.

In the old days, TWUC wanted to set itself apart from the Canadian Authors Association. That group of would-be writers was heavily satirized by F.R. Scott in his poem, “The Canadian Authors Meet.” Although many of its members were friends of mine, especially George Hardy and John Gillese from Edmonton, few of the “authors” had actually published any books. To set a clear division between these amateurs and real, working professionals, the Writers’ Union from the start insisted that its members must be published authors. In other words, authors whose books had been selected, then published, by a commercial publishing house

So it remained, with the laws laid down by people like Pierre Berton and June Callwood and Harold Horwood faithfully observed, year after year. Then the publishing world began to change. Self-publishing became an option. Then self-publishing became very popular. Very, very popular.

And, of course, some of the authors who wrote these self-published books, began to object to the fact that their self-published books — no matter how many of them they wrote, or how popular they proved to be — would never qualify them to join TWUC.

TWUC, meanwhile, was keenly aware of how many potential members were being turned away. So a Committee was struck to square the circle by finding a way of judging the quality of self-published authors so that good ones could join the Union, while bad ones were excluded.

Very tricky, as you can imagine. But the Committee worked hard to produce a points system, where worthy authors could win admission to the Union. That was the central vote at the AGM.

As a former publisher I felt disqualified from voting to restrict the membership to authors who had won a publisher’s approval. And after serious debate, including a wise intervention by Doris Heffron, the new system was unanimously approved.

Sadly, many of my greatest friends in the Union didn’t make it to Halifax. Andreas Schroeder, the man who in Brian Mulroney’s day crafted and fought through the Public Lending Right legislation that brings money to Canadian authors thanks to their books in Canadian public libraries, stayed back in Roberts Creek on BC’s Sunshine Coast. Silver Donald Cameron, despite his Nova Scotia base, was too busy at Cape Breton University to attend. I spoke to both of them by phone, reprimanding them for their absence. Both were full of regrets, but unable to attend.

And so it went, with many old friends absent. It was, however, a great joy to spend time with old friends like Harry Thurston; if you ever want to see hundreds of semi-palmated plovers wheeling in formation around your head, Harry’s your man. From Harry’s territory, on the boundary between Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, is a long way to Nelson in the BC mountains, but my pal Anne De Grace was from there, spreading good stories about the Kootenays. And among the dozens of authors I got to know was Joan Levy Earle, originally from Cornwall, Ontario. I was very pleased to learn that her book of local history, The Legacy of C.W. Kyte, included the story about Mr. Kyte that is brilliantly told in John Gray’s publishing memoir, Fun Tomorrow.

I edited that book, and still love the story about how John was a small boy in 1911 when his neighbour, the bookseller Mr. Kyte, got the first private car in Cornwall. He received it with a blanket over the hood, from the livery stable. Then, after brief driving instructions, he set off, with John and many runalong small boys cheering lustily. When Mr. Kite returned from driving around the block, he seemed worried, but everyone continued to cheer.

After a few hours the small boys had all been put to bed, but Mr. Kyte continued to drive in aimless circles.

His brief driving lesson had not included instructions on how to stop the car…..until eventually it ran out of gas, far out of town, leaving him with a long walk home.

Our stories will never run out of gas.

 

 

 

 

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.