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.

DOES HIS OWN STUNTS

After my London fall from grace, I asked my blog-readers (blogistas?) for ideas about how best to turn this mishap to my commercial advantage.

So far, the best suggestion has come from the High Commission’s own Scott Proudfoot. He suggests that I should boast that, unlike many Hollywood A-listers, “Gibson does his own stunts.”

Debra Martens came up with a witty headline about “falling for the love of books.” She tells me that she’s working on the contrast between me swan-diving to the floor, while in Trafalgar Square outside Horatio Nelson turns his back in statuesque disgust.

 

HOW TO SEE THE SHOW

I’ll be giving performances of ACROSS CANADA BY STORY in May.

IN TORONTO, at THE BEACHES LIBRARY, on Queen Street, on Thursday May 12 at 7.00

IN STRATFORD, at The CITY HALL AUDITORIUM, as part of Springworks, on Saturday May 14 at noon.  AND on Tuesday May 17 at 8pm.

IN TORONTO, at THE RICHVIEW LIBRARY, 1806  Islington, on Thursday May 26  at 6.00.

IN ELORA, at THE ELORA FESTIVAL, a 20-minute version in The Aboyne Hall, from 1-to 4.00

At all of these events, books will be sold, and signed!

 

MORE TO COME, IN SUMMER AND BEYOND

DISASTER IN LONDON’S WEST END

Since I started performing on-stage versions of my books, I’ve been to many surprising places. With STORIES ABOUT STORYTELLERS I went from coast (Queen Charlotte City, Haida Gwaii) to coast (Woody Point, Newfoundland) to coast (Ungava Bay, on an Adventure Canada cruise ship, in July 2015). Over 100 Canadian performances, so far!

Outside Canada, I took the show to Mexico, and to China, with performances in Beijing and Shanghai.

Now, with the new show based on the fall 2015 book. ACROSS CANADA BY STORY: A Coast-to-Coast Literary Adventure, I’ve started to roam around Canada. So far, I’ve given about 20 shows, in every province west of New Brunswick. Many, many more to come. Watch this space….or invite me to your theatre, library, bookstore, or club!

But in April I opened up new territory, by giving the show in Scotland and in England. The Scottish show was in St. Andrews, my alma mater. I was there to celebrate my 50th anniversary of graduation. I gave the show in the Byre Theatre, to a small but appreciative audience that seemed interested to learn about our major Canadian authors.

A side note: the Byre Theatre played a role in my life, perhaps preparing me for the performing life. In 1964, I and five friends under Alan Strachan took over The Byre for a week, to put on an original satirical review, a little like “Beyond The Fringe”. A high point occurred in the middle of the show when I stepped out beyond the closed stage curtains. In an annoyingly mincing voice I posed as a theatre authority, saying:  “Trends in humour are ever-changing. Satire has come and gone. Now many experts in the field are predicting that the new popular trend could well be….Slapstick!” Whereupon a bare arm flew out between the stage curtains and smashed a large custard pie into my face.

Blackout.

And the bare-armed Stage Manager then led me, blinded and gasping, back to my dressing room, where towels awaited me. As I finished mopping my face, more than thirty seconds later, they were still laughing. Give the audience what they want… And seeing me getting a creamy pie smashed into my face certainly seemed to hit a new theatrical record for total audience delight, every night of the week. It was good training for a Publisher.

There were no custard pies in evidence when I gave the show on April 19 in Canada House, in Trafalgar Square. The High Commission people treated me very well, and Scott Proudfoot introduced me graciously to the 70 people assembled in the grand MacKenzie King room. The stage, about two feet high, was bare, to allow me to roam around, retreating where necessary to the screen at the back, to point out details of Anthony Jenkins’ caricatures, or of the maps as we moved across the country. It was all very fine, and Nelson was standing unconcerned on his column outside the window when BANG, I fell off the stage.

It wasn’t just a little trip off the back. It was a full swan-dive, so that I landed on my shoulder and head, legs in the air. The screen went blank, people screamed, and Jane and Scott stormed across the stage to pick me up, and dust me off, and restore the shattered slide-changer that had suffered in the fall.

Miraculously, I was not hurt, and was able to carry on, and even to enjoy the excellent dinner that the High Commission staged in my honour in the MacDonald room. But since Trafalgar Square is definitely in London’s West End, a theatrical Mecca, I hope that someone can come up with a selling line about this incident that I can use to promote my show.

Any ideas?

For an objective account of my fall please read the blog of Debra Martens, spouse of Scott Proudfoot.

https://canadianwritersabroad.com/2016/04/27/falling-for-love-of-books/

IN PRAISE OF ELLEN SELIGMAN, COLLEAGUE AND FRIEND

Ellen and I were colleagues at McClelland & Stewart for almost twenty years. When I became the Publisher in 1988, Ellen was the Editorial Director for Fiction. She was already a legend who had been at M&S for over a decade, and had established herself over that time as a superb editor who specialised in fiction.

My main role in this area, in fact, was simply to clear the way for Ellen to work her magic with the authors whose trust and affection she had earned. Their names, and their prize-winning books, are too well known to bear repeating here. It is the heartfelt tributes from these bereaved authors that speak most tellingly to the great qualities of Ellen Seligman.

An extra dimension was her superb eye for talent. At any Sales Conference when Ellen began to use her expressive hands as she wove her tale about a new writer (perhaps a poet named Anne Michaels who had just written a wonderful first novel), the Sales Force and the entire Marketing Team would sit up and pay very close attention, to their great benefit.

I have written elsewhere that I hoped that Ellen might some day write the inside story of her creative dealings with so many famous and grateful authors. Sadly, it seems that this will not happen. We have all been deprived of a fascinating book by her untimely death.

ON THE ROAD AGAIN

One of the joys of touring around, giving one of my shows, is that I get to meet and mingle with people who love books……..sometimes even my books!

Sometimes the conversations are very surprising, coming straight out of history. For instance, a couple of weeks ago I was at Leaside Library, and I was talking about Grey Owl, and the success of his shows that the Noble Red Man gave on-stage in Europe and North America. A man in the front row burst out, “I SAW HIM! In Sudbury, eighty years ago! I was a kid, and I was taken to see the famous Grey Owl. It was amazing”

Amazing, indeed, since Grey Owl died in 1938. But when I spoke to him later, Doug Gardner told me he was about 8 years old, around 1936, when he went to St. Anne’s Hall in Sudbury, the big local auditorium for major events. He remembers being astounded, and very impressed, by the man in buckskins on stage.

More recently, at the Shaw-College Library, I was talking about my Windsor visit to grab the manuscript from Alistair MacLeod when a fan in the front row couldn’t contain herself. “A HOME INVASION!” she shouted out, excitedly.

I was in Whitby this week and met a woman when I signed her book. She was more restrained at my event, but later wrote in an email that she knew all about Michael Ondaatje’s romantic adventures at Bishop’s. “My sister-in-law told me the campus fairly hummed with the scandal!”

FUTURE SHOWS YOU MIGHT WANT TO SEE

Toronto: Wednesday, March 30, 2016   Writers’ Trust Lunch…….Women’s Art Association, 23 Prince Arthur 1.30—3:00pm

Nanaimo: Thursday April 7, 2016 U.V.I. Gustafson Lecture, 7:00pm

Quebec City:  Sunday, April 10, 2016 Festival, Morrin Centre, Brunch

Scotland:  St. Andrews, Sunday, April 1, 2016, ACROSS CANADA BY STORY. The Byre Theatre, 7:00 pm

England:  London, Tuesday April 19, 2016. Canada House, Trafalgar Square, ACROSS CANADA BY STORY 6:00pm Show, 7:00 pm Reception. Please tell all your friends to register with the Canadian High Commission!

Many more shows to come, in Toronto, and beyond.

GEORGE JONAS

In 1977 I published By Persons Unknown: The Strange Death of Christine Demeter, written by George Jonas and Barbara Amiel. From the outset, the collaboration of the husband and wife team was, let’s say, interesting. Both of them were highly talented, highly opinionated, and determined to produce an excellent book, so their standards were very high. If collaborating on a book puts pressure on any pair of authors, the pressure increases immensely if the authors are a married couple. I was fascinated to watch their outspoken relationship play out, often in my office,with George drawling cynical conclusions that usually ended the debate.
The book developed a very exciting momentum, as the superb chapters came in. Finally, in my role as editor I felt able to begin my copy on the back of the published book with the words, “In future years this book will be seen as a classic.” This is what happened, as the book won an Edgar Award,and provoked comparisons with Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. It established both Barbara Amiel and George Jonas as major authors.
This joint success did not save their marriage. Courteously, they came to my office to tell me this news in person. I reacted, as most of us would, by flailing around, telling them how sorry I was to hear it, and offering to do anything I could to help them. George dryly suggested that it would be very nice if I could help with the laundry.
Later I saw George in action as a CBC Director. After the success of Alligator Pie, the children’s book by Dennis Lee illustrated by Frank Newfeld, a new book by the Lee-Newfeld team was obviously a big story. Big enough certainly, for me to arrange a launch party one afternoon at the old Boys and Girls House Library on St. George Street, with scores of excited nine-year-olds in attendance. And big enough for the CBC to send a camera crew to cover it, under George Jonas’s direction.
Since the new book was called Garbage Delight I had arranged for a City garbage truck (you would be amazed what a life in publishing involves) to deliver Dennis, hanging on to the back, in overalls, and the similarly-clad Frank in the truck beside the driver.
We had fifty kids on the sidewalk jumping up and down outside the Library, and George and I were set up with his cameras when I signalled that the truck should start, and come down busy St. George Street, to pull in at the cleared space beside the crowd of kids, and George’s cameras.
As the truck approached, the kids (and publishers) cheered loudly. Then the truck simply ….kept on going.
Something had gone wrong with Frank’s directions to the driver, who drove on a full fifty yards beyond the kids and the cameras. I tried to retrieve the situation by getting the kids to run to greet the  now-bickering authors, but it was not a huge success.
George was philosophical. As the crowd disappeared into the library, he said.”Can we run that through again?”
A fine, witty man. I was glad to count him as a friend.

AN EXCITING START TO THE NEW YEAR AT KINGSTON

Faithful readers will understand that my constant travels this Fall have delayed my blogging activities. So far, I’ve given performances of the new show, based on ACROSS CANADA BY STORY: a Coast-to-Coast Literary Adventure, in every province west of New Brunswick.
But right now, the exciting news is about Ontario, and specifically Kingston.
You may recall that Elizabeth Dowdeswell, the Lieutenant Governor, heard about my new book, and decided to launch it in her official Chambers at Queen’s Park. I have warm memories of the whole event, especially of my grandchildren sitting comfortably on the carpet while the speeches went on. Even better, in her speech the Lieutenant Governor revealed that she had read my book, and liked it, calling me “the cartographer of Canadian Literature.”
It got even better.
She liked my province-by-province account of our book world so much that she decided to send the book as her official Christmas Gift to all of the country’s Lieutenant Governors, and to the Governor General.
It gets even better. This New Year’s Day, there will be an Official Levee at the Grand Theatre in Kingston, starting at 1p.m.…….and I have been invited to attend!
I’ll bring along some copies of my books, in the hope that I may sell some. And I may even meet some friends, perhaps including you. I’ll be the bearded guy in the blue blazer with a distinctive orange tie!

EDDIE GREENSPAN AND THE COUCHICHING GALA

The death in December of the celebrated Toronto lawyer, Eddie Greenspan, produced many fond and admiring recollections. Here is another one.

But first, a little background information. I am on the Board of the Couchiching Conference, a worthy group that encourages discussions of topics of public interest, especially at the annual August Conference beside, yes, Lake Couchiching. In fact, with Heather Keachie I co-chaired last year’s conference on Sport.

Running a public-interest group like this costs money, so we do lots of fund-raising. One of our most effective methods is the Couchiching Gala in Spring, where members of the public can get a fine meal, and choose to sit at a table hosted by one specific celebrity guest. At Archaeo Restaurant in April 2014 among many interesting possible table companions was Eddie Greenspan, widely recognised as Canada’s leading defence lawyer. Jane and I signed up for an evening of Eddie’s table talk, along with five fortunate others.

I had an extra role. As a Couch Board member, I was asked to “host” the table, in effect to direct the discussion, to make sure that Eddie held the floor, and to keep the table centred on one conversation. I was not a bad choice for the role. Leaving aside the question of natural assertiveness (some might use words like “rude”), I was a friend of Eddie’s. We had met way back in the 1970s, when I edited By Persons Unknown: The Strange Death of Christine Demeter, written by George Jonas and Barbara Amiel. The 1977 account of what was then the longest murder trial in Canadian history was a huge commercial success, won prizes for its authors, and was useful to my career as a trouble-making non-fiction editor.

Much more important, the Demeter trial brought the junior defence Counsel, Eddie Greenspan, into the limelight, until he eclipsed the famous defence lead, Joe Pomerant. It was clear to everyone around the headline-making trial that a legal star had just been born.

I met Eddie behind the scenes in those days, and was impressed by this comfortably-built man with a thick head of hair and a very direct look. I especially liked his natural style, which included the straightforward use of simple language. This is a gift not universally shared, as we were reminded when Eddie later took on the case of Conrad Black. Sadly, the verbose Conrad proved to be a poor loser when he went to jail, and his attack on the performance of his chosen counsel, Eddie Greenspan, prompted Eddie to write a wry defence in the newspaper, where he noted that it is not unknown for people in jail to blame their lawyers.

Because of our link, I once took the chance to see Eddie in action in court. It was not an especially important case, except to Gordon Allan, Eddie’s client, who had been accused of murder. I went along for Eddie’s summing up. He said, in effect : “Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, we’ve been here for many days, and we’ve heard many confusing suggestions about what happened on the day of this sad event. Let me try to explain to you what really happened….” And he went on, very simply, with no courtroom theatrics, no fancy oratory, just kindly explaining it all.

When he had finished, and we broke for lunch, it was obvious that Eddie’s client was going to be found not guilty. And he was.

I began our evening conversation by recalling that trial, and Eddie described the details well. Then we were off, ranging across his cases over the years, from Demeter to Black, and dealing with wider issues such as the wisdom of juries against the errors of judges, and the whole issue of his successful fight against capital punishment. It was all frank and witty, and such a constant source of information that I had to interrupt to allow him to snatch a bite to eat. At the end of the evening, Eddie slipped off into the night, after I had ushered him to the door, trying to express the deep gratitude of all of us at the table.

I saw him again in November, when once again Eddie was slipping away from another legal-book event. We hailed each other, I clapped his arm, but we did not have the chance to chat. The Couch Gala remains a vivid memory, however, of the unforgettable Eddie Greenspan.

ABOUT THE YOUNG POET, CLAIRE CALDWELL

In Scotland, my mother had a first cousin called Douglas Caldwell. (I may even have been named after him, since we had no previous Dougs in the family). After service in the Navy in the Second World War he disappeared, sailing for parts unknown.  More than thirty years later he got in touch, to reveal that he now lived in Canada, in Toronto,  the city that was now my home.

Even better, he revealed that he had three children , including a son named Doug, who was a Producer at CBC Radio, where I did free-lance things. It turned out that I and Doug and his wife Judy McAlpine, also a CBC Producer, had lots of friends in common. Exciting contact was made among these unknown cousins, and their children, and our lives were enriched as our families expanded.

That’s why in November Jane and I were delighted to have our house provide the setting for a launch party for a new book of poetry by Doug and Judy’s amazing daughter Claire. INVASIVE SPECIES is her first book, but followers of the poetry scene in Canada already know her as the 2013 winner of the Malahat Review’s Long Poem Prize. She is a credit to McGill, where she got her B.A., and to Guelph, where she earned her MFA.

As for the poetry (which inspired the National Post to single her out as an important new voice) let me just quote from the first verse of  “Bear Safety” (which Claire read aloud on our staircase):

Bears could be anywhere

 

On the subway at rush hour.

Between couch cushions.

In the drawer with dull pencils

and batteries and nothing

you need. In the eavestrough.

On a soccer field

during a lightning storm.

In the pocket of your dirty jeans,

your unlaced sneakers.

Run a hand under the sheets

before bedtime. Bears prefer to sleep

on Egyptian cotton.

They can usually tell if it’s cheap……..

 

INVASIVE SPECIES is published by Buckrider Books, an imprint of Wolsak and Wynn Publishers.

On Rob Ford and Alice Munro

On Saturday, November 17 the Globe and Mail asked several “prominent Canadians” to comment on Rob Ford. Here is what Doug had to say, looking at the disgraced Mayor through the prism of Alice Munro.

It’s sad that just weeks after Alice Munro brought Canada to the admiring attention of the world, Rob Ford is dragging us all down. As a storyteller he lacks Alice’s variety; everything is based on denial (“I wasn’t there,” “I didn’t do it”), and even Alice wouldn’t invent a character who is so unbelievable, in every sense.
But her titles alone explain much of the Ford story: Something I’ve Been Meaning To Tell You (about that crack question); Friend of My Youth (they’re not gangsters, they’re good guys); Open Secrets (nothing more to hide, honest); Who Do You Think You Are?(why should I stay away from your parade?); The Love of a Good Woman (keep my wife out of this, from now on).
As he runs out of people to lie to, let’s hope that he finally takes up the suggestion in another Alice Munro title — Runaway. That would be Too Much Happiness.