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?”

 

 

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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.

BY FERRY TO ST. F.X.

I’ve spoken and written proudly that as a Scottish immigrant with a unique sense of direction, in 1967 I came to Canada at Victoria off the Seattle ferry. Since then I’ve taken dozens of ferries in Canada, and enjoyed the experience every time. In fact, I find it very hard to come in off the deck when I sail, because exciting things are always happening, and killer whales or U-boats may surface at any second. This accounts for my alert pacing on ferries from Bonne Bay in Newfoundland all the way to Sandspit in Haida Gwaii.

The morning ferry trip from Wood Islands, near the south-eastern tip of PEI,  across to Caribou, Nova Scotia, was exciting. Who knew that PEI’s famous rich, red, earth actually stains the waters just off-shore? And because we were in sight of land all the way, we could constantly judge whether we were half-way, or three quarters of the way, and whether the swell of waves from the west  was mounting, or falling, or if we should head back down to our car below decks. Given the arc of our Maritimes journey, it was ideal to arrive by sea in Nova Scotia near Pictou, well on our way to Antigonish in the east.

But first there was the ugly business of passing the pulp mill at Pictou Landing. This mill, well protected by the political establishment, has caused immense problems, to the water, and to the fish and fishermen in Northumberland Strait. Also, believe it or not, to the world of Canadian books. In December last year, Joan Baxter’s very critical book, THE MILL , about the pulp mill’s sorry record of pollution, was due to be celebrated at a signing session in the New Glasgow Coles store. Pressure from the offended company, Northern Pulp, (and vague threats of trouble in the store) led to the invitation being withdrawn. A major setback for freedom of speech in Canada.

We drove on,  along the main Highway 104, past Stellarton. I remembered an earlier visit there, when I sought out the nearby site of the Westray Mine Disaster. The sorrow around the place where so many men died was omnipresent, almost dripping from the trees above my parked car.

The road east to Antigonish (emphasis on the “nish”) is wild and dramatic, with steep hills and valleys and mountains enlivening the view, and many of the east-bound cars on the road seeming to strain onward to Cape Breton. But we restrained ourselves, and turned in to Antigonish. After two previous visits, we remembered the drill very well: go down the hill past the University, turn right at Chisholm Park, then wind along Main Street until you reach our old home, The Maritime Inn.

There we had lunch, and were joined by our hostess, the remarkable Mary McGillivray. Mary, a vastly experienced teacher at St. F. X., kindly remembered me from a sad duty we performed together many years ago , when with Andy Wainwright  she and I spoke at the Halifax funeral for Malcolm Ross. Malcolm, you may recall, was the Dalhousie Professor who created The New Canadian Library for Jack McClelland. As the head of M&S I was very glad to fly east to speak about how nationally important Malcolm’s work had been, creating an accessible paperback line of our country’s great classic books. Mary recalled that this national message was important to the Halifax family that sad day.

Mary was the salvation of our visit to St. F.X. . Maternity leaves and other absences had left our visit uncertain, until Mary took charge. She took dramatic charge later that evening, too, setting us up with a fine crowd in the  Scotia Bank Lecture  Theatre, and introducing me very kindly. The audience included the pleasant woman whom we’d met at the Antigonish Museum downtown, where I’d not only recognised the uses of the old tools on display in the former railway station, in the past I’d actually once used them. Interestingly, the crowd included the fine man who had told me about Brian Mulroney’s fire-raising trick to win a debate. (I signed his copy of ACROSS CANADA BY STORY with reference to the page where I tell his story). More alarmingly, the Philosophy Department was represented by three keen-eyed professors who, as they had threatened, posed difficult questions. As promised, I’m still considering them.

Finally, Mary took us for dinner to a fine local restaurant, where I ran into the Art Gallery owner we had met in our earlier town tour, seeking out the work of my old friend Linda Johns, “the Bird Lady.” As a village boy I was right at home with this kind of coincidence, and Mary’s stories over dinner were constantly fascinating. But when she told the story that she had seen Brian Mulroney standing on the road, being shown the massive new building in his name, she said “I wondered if he was aware that he was stopping all the traffic, and everyone was looking at him?”

I laughed and laughed.

 

THE ISLAND’S PREMIER ATTRACTION

When you drive in the Maritimes in late November, you take your chances. Snow and ice are likely to feature in the weather forecasts, and fingers remain cold and crossed. When we set out from Fredericton to head north to PEI, via Moncton, we knew that we — or rather, the heroic Jane, our driver– faced difficult times.

But we made it. This time, after my earlier visit to downtown Moncton ( where I saw Northrop Frye’s avuncular statue encourage young Library visitors —“Hello, Mr. Frye”— as recorded in ACROSS CANADA BY STORY) we avoided Moncton. We also ignored the Acadian shore, where my visit to Shediac in the midst of a Festival du Homard had once turned me into a fervent Acadian. Sadly, this meant, too, that we missed the David Adams Richards territory to the North and West, near the Miramichi. Resolutely, with tough driving in store, we headed straight for Port Elgin and the PEI bridge.

Crossing Confederation Bridge at any time of year is always thought-provoking, and I can report that the November Northumberland Strait waters looked very cold indeed. Then, safely landed on the Island, we drove admiringly through the well-populated land  (Farms! Barns! Fields!) east to Charlottetown.

We soon found the Dundee Arms Hotel, the subject of an earlier blog about Louis Armstrong. When Jane found our walk around downtown chilly, and returned to the warmth of our hotel, I continued to stroll through Canada’s history (“Ah , they’re fixing the famous Confederation Building, in time for the next tourist season”), and my own history.

I dreamily re-visited scenes from my earlier visits, including the Art Gallery event, when extra chairs had to be rushed in, and the restaurant Mavor’s, in Confederation Centre where the post-show dinner had taken place. That was where Professor Don Desserud told me the story of how young Jack Hodgins learned to read from studying comics in his Vancouver Island home, only to learn that the comics were in Finnish. Of course, my readers know that Jack had a huge impact in this distant province .  When I gave my STORIES ABOUT STORYTELLERS summer show in North Rustico ( in what is now The Watermark Theatre) our host, the excellent Duncan McIntosh, recommended that we dine at Maxine Delaney’s restaurant. Later, Maxine came to our show, and shyly revealed that she had chosen the name Delaney after, um, reading Spit Delaney’s Island, by my friend Jack!

The remarkable Richard Lemm was our PEI host. Richard and I have been friends for almost 50 years, ever since he worked for Bill Duthie’s remarkable bookstore in Vancouver. Then Richard’s always-interesting path took him to The Banff Centre, where he taught in the Creative Writing Course, alongside Alistair MacLeod and W.O. Mitchell.

You want stories? Just get Richard started, and you’re in for a fascinating time, all the way up to his continuing career as an enthusiastic Professor at UPEI. He’s such an active fellow that until recently he was a dashing figure on the basketball court. Now– just last week, in fact — he has accepted a brand-new knee, so who knows where his athletic talents will lead in the future. We all wish him well.

Richard not only speaks and writes engagingly about our literary figures, he organises author tours brilliantly, so he deserves credit as the creator of our Maritimes Tour.  He had arranged for our Charlottetown show at the Carriage House, run by the PEI Museum and Heritage Foundation. On a chilly night it produced a warm crowd of book-lovers. As usual, I tried to mingle with the audience (I use terrible lines like, “I’m Doug, I’ll be your waiter tonight,”) and I really enjoy the chance to meet and chat with them, breaking down the distance between them and the fancy-pants guy in the blazer on the stage. I like it, and I think they do, too.

As you can imagine, I didn’t rush over the role of Lucy Maud Montgomery in the show, although I might have spent more time boasting about my potato-growing youth in Ayrshire, where the potatoes are justly famous.

But I was delighted when, just after I was introduced by my very complimentary friend Richard, a member of the MacLauchlan clan quietly joined the GREAT SCOTS audience. It was Wade MacLauchlan, the Premier of the Province.

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.

Announcing A New Show At Niagara-on-the-Lake

For many years the legendary Toronto musician Atis Bankas has run the summer festival of Music Niagara, in the historic town of Niagara-on-the-Lake. To my surprise and delight, Atis recently saw one of my shows and said, “Let’s turn it into a musical!”

So, on Tuesday, August 7, at 7.30 in The Market Room, in the Court House Theatre in the centre of Niagara-on-the-Lake, you can see an exciting new version of “150 Years of Canadian Literature”.

Instead of the usual power-point show, where authors from each decade are introduced with a very short burst of recorded music, in this show I’ll be joined on-stage by the distinguished pianist Daisy Leung. We’ll still have works of Canadian art appearing on the screen, and I’ll still talk about the selected authors against the brilliant caricatures by Anthony Jenkins. But there will be lots of music, ranging from Quebec folk-tunes to Glenn Gould’s Goldberg Variations, and we’ll hear the versatile Daisy playing everything from Oscar Peterson to Leonard Cohen.

It should be fun. I’d be delighted if you could arrange to come for an evening in the former capital of Upper Canada, and enjoy what Daisy and I create…..and I promise not to dance!

Please tell your friends. The more, the merrier.

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.