MARSHALLING NEW FACTS ABOUT McLUHAN

In Across Canada By Story I spend some time discussing my links with Marshall McLuhan and Northrop Frye. Today I learned some interesting new facts about both of them. This was courtesy of an intriguing new Exhibition on McLuhan in the St. Michael’s College Library at the University of Toronto ….which happens to located on “Marshall McLuhan Way”.

The well-known facts about Marshall are all there, including the unfamiliar news that at first he published as “Herbert Marshall McLuhan”. We  are reminded that he first produced the phrase “the medium is the message” at a conference for radio broadcasters in Vancouver as early as 1957, and that The Gutenberg Galaxy  came out in 1962, winning the Governor-General’s Prize (from  a jury chaired by Northrop Frye) and establishing his reputation, so that in a few years the San Francisco Chronicle was calling him “the hottest academic property around”.

By  1967 his fame had spread so that the Toronto Star called him “Toronto’s most influential and controversial celebrity.” From 1965 t0 1969 in the US alone, interviews with him ran in Harpers, Newsweek, The New York Times, Life, Fortune, Esquire, Look, TV Guide, McCalls, Glamour, Vogue, Family Circle, Mademoiselle, the Saturday Evening Post , and in Playboy.

Ah, yes, Playboy…. the magazine full of airbrushed naked women who occasionally caught the passing eyes of teenaged boys who really bought the magazine “for the articles”. After Playboy ran their 1968 piece on Marshall (labelled “a candid conversation with the high priest of popcult and metaphysician of media”), Marshall wrote to Jack Kessie, the Managing Editor. The letter, on display in the Exhibition, was pure McLuhan. He assured Mr. Kessie that “nudity is not realism.Compared to the clad figure, nudity is sculpture. Clothing is an anti-environment, a kind of weaponry, providing an enclosed space that is pictorial rather than sculptural….'”

To reassure Playboy’s head man further, he went on “Of course, basic human sex attraction is olfactory, not photo-factory, hence the playful harmlessness and natural innocence of your pictures.” Perhaps we can assume that before Mr. Kessie went home to be greeted by his sweet-smelling wife, he considered raising the price of ads for perfumes in the magazine.

I have written about how Marshall and Northrop Frye (that’s Herman Northrop Frye) were two very large fish in a fairly small Toronto pond. They were wary of each other and tried to avoid giving offence, working together as U. of T. English Department colleagues. They were, I argue in the book, friendly rivals. Yet in the Exhibition there is a 1971 letter about Marshall from Frye  that hints at the strain. Ronald S. Berman, the Chair of the National Endowment For The Humanities had written to Frye from Washington asking if he would recommend McLuhan to give a major speech.

In part Frye’s letter reads…”and I think he would do a very good job for you, assuming that he took the assignment seriously and wrote out his speech beforehand. He makes a deliberate technique of uttering what he calls “probes”, or challenges to the imagination, which to many people sound like simply irresponsible statements, and his habit of regarding the whole of culture as a gigantic allegory of his own view is growing on him.”

At the end of the letter, Frye’s irritation at having been lured into these frank statements seems to me flick out, like a dragon’s tongue. See what you think..” If you invited him to give the lecture you would, I think, be taking something of a risk, but I think you ought to take a risk, like everybody else, and not hedge your bets by enquiries of this kind.

Yours sincerely”

From the Exhibition I walked for five minutes to re-visit Marshall’s old Centre For Culture and Technology, at 39A Queen’s Park Crescent. It still reminds me of Tom Wolfe’s famous phrase “an unused Newfoundland fishing shack” and I was unable to get inside, to remind me of visits to see Marshall there. But I was able to clamber through the undisturbed snow, to peer through the window inside the room that launched a thousand probes.

Advertisements

IN PRAISE OF JIM MUNRO

We all lost an important friend this week when Jim Munro died in Victoria. He was a major figure on Canada’s book scene for over 60 years, a fact that was recognised in 2014 when he received the Order of Canada for “his vital championship of countless Canadian writers and for his sustained community engagement.”

In 1963 he and his wife Alice moved from Vancouver to set up a bookstore in Victoria. They worked together in the store, and raised three daughters, a life well described in Sheila Munro’s memoir, Lives of Mothers and Daughters. In 1972, the Munros divorced, with Alice returning to Ontario to write, and Jim staying in Victoria to create the most beautiful bookstore in Canada. If that sounds like excessive praise, consider the fact that recently National Geographic Magazine ranked Munro’s books, in a former Royal Bank building at the heart of downtown’s Government Street, as the third best bookstore IN THE WORLD.

I was a frequent visitor. As my second book, Across Canada By Story, makes clear, I’ve always loved roaming around the country, meeting authors and people in the Canadian book world. Seeing Jim again was always a delight. I’d drop in to the store, chat with wise book people on staff like Dave Hill, then join Jim in the office tucked away just to the right of the front door, to discuss the book trade in general. As a Canadian Bookseller of the Year, more than once, he was heavily involved in bookselling issues (chains, Amazon, Canadian agencies,”Buying around”, e-books, and much else — we never got on to colouring books) and I always learned a lot from this cheery, bluff man (The under-used word “bluff” is precise, for this friendly, red-faced fellow with, latterly, a neat beard.)

The same pleasure applied to his visits to the annual Canadian Booksellers Association trade fair, summer events usually held in Toronto, when meeting with Jim and his team was always a highlight of a major event in the publishing calendar. Down through the years, as a shrewd local link with the publishing world, he sold untold millions of books to grateful readers. The cultural impact is hard to over-state.

Long after their divorce he remained a strong supporter of Alice’s writing, and as her editor and publisher I found myself receiving advice about this or that forthcoming book, its title, price, and its cover. Mostly, I seemed to be doing all right.

Through the years the Munro daughters kept their links with the store and its staff. When I was in Stockholm for the Nobel Prize Ceremony in 2014, Munro’s Books leapt into the Swedish limelight. Our Ambassador to Sweden, Kenneth MacCartney,  staged a splendid celebration at lunch, inviting many Swedish literary figures to this proud event for Canada, and — ahem– some of us made speeches about Alice, the author of The Love Of A Good Woman, and many other titles dealing with affairs of the heart. It was all very fine.

Yet one of the finest moments came when the Ambassador introduced his wife, Susan, and revealed that as a student in Victoria he had courted her, successfully, while she was working in Munro’s Books.

 

A NEW TORONTO SHOW

FREE, AT THE DEER PARK LIBRARY , ON ST.CLAIR AVENUE AT YONGE STREET, ON TUESDAY , DECEMBER 6 AT 2 pm.

 

BOB DYLAN AND LEONARD COHEN

I was disappointed to read that Bob Dylan has decided not to go to Stockholm to accept his Nobel Prize for Literature. This is a huge loss — for him. Anyone who has been fortunate enough to attend the Nobel Prize ceremonies knows what a pinnacle they represent. Attendance is so cherished that to get into the hall (all gentlemen wearing the de rigueur white tie and tails) you must present not only your ticket, with the specific seat number noted, but also YOUR PASSPORT, to prove that you are the person to whom the valuable ticket was issued.

Jane and I still remember every dreamy detail of our 2013 day there as part of the Alice Munro party. We also remember the sense that we were part of what I can only describe as “the world at its best”.

Now, with his unfortunate decision, Bob Dylan will miss all of that.

I suspect that, even at death’s door, Leonard Cohen would not have made that mistake.

I knew Leonard, a little, because when I was the Publisher at M&S, we published his new poetry books. In the process, I worked cordially with Leonard’s charming agent, who was secretly stealing all of his money. Ironically, this crime had the beneficial effect of forcing Leonard to revive his career, making him earn new money by going on tour again, and writing and performing fine new songs.

I have two memories of Leonard that may be worth sharing. First, when he was at McGill, he studied English with Hugh MacLennan. They liked each other, and became friends. Hugh told me that once in private conversation Leonard was explaining the opportunities opened by the new, open sexual freedoms among young people like him. The older Presbyterian was scandalised , and protested: “But Leonard, you remind me of a girl I knew back in Nova Scotia. She was called “Anytime Annie”!”

Leonard did not mend his ways, to the relief of many ladies down through the years.

Once, when he visited our Toronto office in what was a busy day of interviews, for lunch we brought in to the Boardroom some unglamorous sandwiches from Druxy’s downstairs. Leonard was perfectly happy, expecting absolutely no special treatment. He chatted happily with me and Avie Bennett and Ellen Seligman, about subjects ranging from Hugh MacLennan to how to get money from a bank machine in sketchy areas in LA. In such a situation, he explained, using an on-street machine was asking for trouble, making yourself a target. So what you looked for was a bank machine inside a small grocery store. There you cased the joint, apparently immersed in reading the ingredients of, say, a bottle of Pepsi.

Then, when the coast was clear, you drifted across to the machine, still apparently deep into your Pepsi scrolls, quickly punched in your banking needs, grabbed and concealed the cash, then escaped to the front of the store with your Pepsi purchase. Muggers were not interested in a man bearing a bottle of Pepsi.

In the mourning that followed Leonard’s death, I was pleased by how seriously our newspapers took his loss. The CBC, too, devoted important hours to paying tribute to him and his work. I found myself deeply moved by the message that he had sent to Marianne, his long-time lover, when she was dying in Norway this summer. His loving message ended with the words…”see you down the road.”

On Remembrance Day came my moment of revelation. Unlike Bob Dylan, I would argue, Leonard Cohen knew what was really important. When someone came to him asking if he would recite “In Flanders Fields”, he said yes. Many major musical stars would have laughed off the idea of reciting this poem from grade school , about the First World War, for Heaven’s sake, as hopelessly “uncool”.

Leonard read the poem aloud. As the CBC ended its broadcast of Remembrance Day with Leonard reading that poem, the fact that it was happening  in the week of his death was almost too much to bear. But most powerful of all was how brilliantly he read it. No tricks, nothing fancy, just a serious, perfect reading, by a poet who knew what really mattered.

I’m sorry that Stockholm will not see him.

BOB DYLAN AND ALICE MUNRO

The recent decision to award this year’s Nobel Prize For Literature to Bob Dylan has, as they say, provoked some comment. Because Alice Munro won the same prize in 2013, and I was lucky enough to be part of the Stockholm festivities then, I found myself being asked earnestly for a comment on this surprising new development.
At the Gala for the Literary Review of Canada I drew myself up and said judiciously, with a straight face,”The times they are a-changing!”
In fact, when I heard from a distant radio that the Nobel Prize was going to “Dylan” for a confused moment I thought that it was a retro-active recognition of the literary excellence of Dylan Thomas, who was clearly not going gentle into that good night.
No such luck. But if excellence in writing lyrics is now Nobel-worthy, if posthumous awards became possible I would happily lead a campaign for the great Cole Porter, whose “You’re the Tops!” will never be topped.
But let us consider the links between Alice Munro and Bob Dylan. None of Alice’s work has, as far as we know, been adapted for Dylan’s songs, but “The Love of A Good Woman” must be a strong candidate. I’m sure my wise readers will have their own candidates. And “Sad-eyed Lady Of The Lowlands” might well apply to the former Alice Laidlaw.
You see, like Alice, Bob Dylan has strong links with Scotland. Let me explain.
You may be surprised to learn that this academic recognition for Bob Dylan did not come out of the blue. In 2004 the University of St. Andrews in Scotland awarded him an Honorary D. Litt. If you go to the University’s website, you can see Bob, formally attired, with his hair approximately brushed, posing beside sober academics at my old University. St. Andrews is Scotland’s oldest, and (according to recent surveys, and not just my opinion) best, university, so the honorary degree was clearly a step on the ladder towards the Nobel Prize.
There is a Canadian link here. When my Winnipeg friend Gordon Sinclair was showing me around the city a couple of years ago, he took me to the house where Neil Young grew up. Apparently, some years ago the house-holder was surprised to answer a knock at the door and find Bob Dylan standing there. He was keen to see around the house where his admired friend and fellow musician Neil grew up. Bob drifted politely around the house, then moved on. Like a rolling stone, some might say.
FORTHCOMING SHOWS:
I’ll be in Waterloo on Thursday 3 November, hosting a tribute to Edna Staebler at Wilfrid Laurier in the evening.
On Saturday 5 I’ll be at the WINDSOR BOOK FESTIVAL, at the Art Gallery at 3.00 pm.
on Sunday 6 I’ll be in London at the LONDON BOOK FESTIVAL at the Museum at 1.00pm.
Lots more events to come. But tell your friends about these.

NEWS ABOUT ALICE MUNRO

Alice may not be writing any more, but people are certainly writing about her – and creating events and works of art that celebrate her writing.

In FILM , for example, the famous Spanish director Pedro Almodovar has just brought out his first film in three years. Its title is “Julieta”, and it’s about mother-daughter tensions, based on three stories by Alice.

In MUSIC, the National Arts Centre in Ottawa recently enjoyed great success with a new piece inspired by Alice’s work.

In THEATRE, the Belfry Theatre in Victoria is hard at work on preparing a “word for word” stage version of two of Alice’s short stories. I’ve been involved (helpfully, I hope) in these preparations, and I’m sure that next Spring’s production will be fascinating, and may tour the country. These “word for word” presentations, half-way between a simple reading and a play with actors playing all the roles, are really a new art-form, and I find them fascinating.

In LITERARY FESTIVALS, early June saw The Alice Munro Literary Festival take place in Wingham and other parts of “Alice Munro Country”. A major feature of this year’s event was a fascinating talk by Professor Robert Thacker, where he dealt very generously with my role in bringing Alice’s work to the wider audience it deserved. I’m sorry I wasn’t there to light up the auditorium with my blushes. Next year, I hope.

In LITERARY GALAS , I’ve already mentioned Alice winning The Canadian Scot of The Year Award in May, where I represented Alice. I’ll have the same honorific role on October 13 when The Literary Review of Canada recognises a number of our greatest writers at a fund-raising gala dinner.

In THE UNIVERSITY WORLD, the great news is that Western University ( in Alice’s time there, it was “The University of Western Ontario”) has successfully completed its fund-raising for The Alice Munro Chair.  The first Professor will be chosen in due course, and announced with appropriate fanfare.

Not bad, eh?

 

LOVE ALL – A TENNIS CONUNDRUM

Like so many Canadians, I cheered along as Milos Raonic fought back for famous victories against David Goffin of Belgium, and Roger Federer of Switzerland. This was a wonderful thing for Canada…a Canadian in the Men’s Final at Wimbledon. Surely this was something for all of us to get behind, cheering him on.

Except for this: his opponent in the Final was Andy Murray of Scotland.

I was born into a keen tennis-playing family in Scotland. I was good enough that I was on the local Men’s Team at 14, and my father and I never lost a set all season, as our fit young opponents vacillated between picking on the old guy, or targeting the little kid. So after I came to Canada in 1967, as my own minor tennis career  came to an end, I watched Andy Murray’s career take off, and supported him keenly – although watching him was never a truly relaxing experience.

He played a part in my own career as a writer. In 2008 he made it to the Final of the U.S. Open in Forest Hills, his first Grand Slam Final. I happened to be in Scotland, staying with my brother’s family near Stirling, just south of Dunblane, Andy Murray’s home town. Shazam! It was time for a piece of enterprise reporting. I contacted the Globe and Mail and asked if they would like a Special Correspondent’s Report on watching the New York Final in Andy Murray’s home town.

They liked the idea. I grabbed a quick sandwich, while my young nephew watched in disbelief (“You’re just going to go there and write about it for the newspaper?”), and drove to Dunblane. Quick questions on the street revealed that the tennis match would be shown at The Dunblane Community Centre. I found it, found the organizer, and shamelessly introduced myself with the words “I represent the Globe and Mail newspaper in Toronto”. In turn, she introduced me around in the crowd, to friends of the Murray family. I knew that all would be well when one old gentleman gave me the quote “Win or lose, to me Andy will always be just a wee laddie from Dunblane.” (Punching the air is not an appropriate response from a note-taking reporter).

Well, Andy didn’t win that day, but The Globe and Mail’s readers got a fine feature from an unexpected tennis correspondent. If you don’t believe it, you could look it up, from September 2008.

So Andy Murray and I go back a long way. Supporting Milos against him was going to be very hard. It was indeed, as my title suggests, a real tennis conundrum. How should a patriotic Canadian born in Scotland handle this culture clash?

In the end, I decided that since both Scottish and Canadian cultures are, let’s say “anti-triumphalist”, my most appropriate position was to support, and root for, the player who lost in the end.

So go, Milos!

AUSTIN CLARKE AND GORDIE HOWE

Last week I went to Austin Clarke’s funeral in St. James Cathedral. A fine, formal event where the white-gloved pall-bearers included the hefty Barry Callaghan, somehow reminding me of his wispy father Morley; also my old friend Patrick Crean ( we dated girls in the same family in the Sixties) who was latterly Austin’s editor for The Polished Hoe, and other books; and above all Cecil Foster, the well-known writer.

At the end of the service (one of the few in the Cathedral to involve Bob Marley’s songs, plus a reading from Austin’s latest novel, More, which mentions the bells of St. James), I made a bee-line for Cecil. I thanked him for urging me to visit Austin, who was in poor health. Of course I had meant to visit Austin, whom I’ve known for over forty years as a figure on the Toronto scene, and whose novel, The Origin of Waves, I published. But, although full of good intentions (you may recognise this situation in your own life) I had never got around to it. Cecil’s urging me to go to see him, soon, did the trick. I visited Austin at home just two months before he died, and just days before St. Michael’s Hospital claimed him for the last time.

Austin was clearly very ill, but he knew me, and our fond visit went very well. So well that his young relative Alan, who was with us at the Shuter Street house, greeted me at the funeral, and told me how much Austin had enjoyed our time together. Then he invited me back to the family gathering after the funeral, where I met many old friends, and we shared stories about Austin, not all of them involving rum.

Some weeks earlier Gordie Howe passed away. Our newspapers and magazines were full of tributes to this man that scores of writers called our greatest player. Yet many of the tributes (especially Stephen Smith’s fine hockey blog) dealt with Gordie’s Jekyll and Hyde personality, where this big, charming Saskatchewan boy off the ice, when he put on skates and picked up his surgeon’s stick, turned into an on-ice assassin.

I knew Gordie. I knew, and liked, the good Gordie when I published After The Applause, Gordie and Colleen’s book, written by Charles Wilkins. And during that time, I was hip-checked by Gordie Howe!

Let me explain.Famously, Gordie used to get bigger in the dressing room. The more clothes he took off, the more his long muscles seemed to emerge. I can attest to just how solid he was. We were at a publishing cocktail party and big Gordie secretly came up on my blind side, then smilingly stepped into me with a gentle hip check. I staggered across the room. It was like having a building move into you.

 

JULY ENGAGEMENTS FOR THE ACROSS CANADA BY STORY SHOW

MOOSE JAW…..Saskatchewan Writers’ Festival

The Mae Wilson Theatre. Friday July 15, 4.00 – 5.00

TORONTO……..Classical Pursuits, with Ann Kirkland (Members only)

Victoria College Dining Hall. Tuesday 19,  7.00-8.00

OTTAWA VALLEY…..Bonnechere Authors Festival

St. James Church, Eganville, Wednesday, 27 July 7.00—8.30

EASTERN TOWNSHIPS…..The Piggery Theatre, North Hatley, Quebec.

Sunday Evening, 31 July.