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.

 

REACTIONS FROM CBC LISTENERS TO THE HUGH MACLENNAN CHAT

As you know, I used this blog to spread the word about my forthcoming chat with Michael Enright on The Sunday Edition. But I sat there nervously, listening to the show.

It seems that I was wrong to worry.  Lots of kind people got in touch with me to tell me that they enjoyed it. Sometimes they told me fascinating, moving things. One friend, for instance, really liked the positive spin I put on Hugh’s use of the term “Two Solitudes”. He said that he came from a family with a French-Canadian father and a mother whose language was English. At her funeral  he spoke about the successful touching of the two solitudes in the house where he grew up.

Others wrote about family memories involving The Watch That Ends The Night. One man proudly recalled that his father ran the Bookstore Launch for the book in Montreal in 1959. Another spoke excitedly of her recent discovery of a fine Dartmouth restaurant named The Watch That Ends The Night. Another wrote warmly about the book’s excellence, remembering especially the moonlit escape by canoe by young Jerome after his mother’s murder in the New Brunswick lumber camp. ( I recall when I put together the anthology, Hugh MacLennan’s Best, just after his death, that particular set piece leaped out of the book, although the book was full of very fine essay and novel selections).

As you know, greatly daring, I read aloud the passage in Barometer Rising where Hugh sees Canada, coast to coast, as if from outer space. My claim that this paragraph marked the start of Canadian Literature seems to have pleased a number of people. Many told me that they now had TWO books by Hugh MacLennan on their reading list.

The CBC people keep track of the impact of the programme. Before the show, the Toronto Reference Library had no “holds” on Hugh’s great novel. By Monday there were over 50  such eager requests. Even more today, maybe. It’s the perfect response to a show that’s intended to get people reading neglected books.

One of the other results was that people brought out their memories of Hugh the man. One woman contacted the programme with her memories of being a high school journalist who, with another over-awed colleague, were assigned to interview the great man, in 1962. Hugh was, of course, charming, and the interview went well. Afterwards he bought both of them a chocolate milk-shake. To this day, she says, milk-shakes make her think of Hugh MacLennan!

A West-Coast book trade friend recalled taking Hugh on a publicity tour. Hugh was concerned about my friend’s  limp, the result of weeks of lugging boxes of heavy books. The long-term implications worried Hugh so much that he insisted on taking my friend back to the Hotel Vancouver, showing him important back exercises, and even massaging his back. When he was in mid-massage, there was a knock at the door, and both the masseur and the patient roared with laughter at the gossip column possibilities of the massage.

Under Michael Enright’s shrewd direction of the conversation, I talked about how love was at the centre of Hugh’s great novel. But there was no chance to talk about Anne Coleman’s fine book about how friendly she and “Mr. MacLennan” became in her teenage years in North Hatley. She stresses that it was always “correct”, with nothing physical at any point. As an explanation, I’ve suggested that at the time Hugh was immersed in writing The Watch That Ends The Night, where one of the major characters is young Sally, who, like Anne, was a McGill undergraduate, and thus a very good model for Hugh to study.

Of course, people who have read ACROSS CANADA BY  STORY know that in Montreal I was approached by “Emily” who informed me that she was Hugh MacLennan’s daughter. The details of this proud love-child are in the book, and of the long affair Hugh apparently had with her mother. Fascinating.

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