A NEW SHOW: 150 YEARS OF GREAT CANADIAN STORYTELLERS . . . 1867–2017

A new stage performance by DOUGLAS GIBSON, announced here first, to my faithful blog friends!

From coast to coast to coast (Ungava Bay, aboard an Adventure Canada cruise ship!) former publisher Douglas Gibson has given over 160 performances of the dramatized versions of his first two books. Against the backdrop of the brilliant author caricatures by Anthony Jenkins (of Alice Munro, Robertson Davies, Pierre Trudeau, and many others), he has told behind-the-scenes stories about the men and women he got to know well.

Internationally, he has taken his show celebrating Canadian authors to London (where he fell off the Canada House stage, a West-End triumph) to Beijing, to Mexico, and beyond.

Now he has created a new show – again with the help of Anthony Jenkins – to celebrate our greatest storytellers  since Confederation….English, French, and Indigenous. People in many Canadian communities may think that staging  the show is a fine way to celebrate our Sesquicentennial.

The power-point show follows our history decade by decade. Each decade begins with a burst of Canadian music from the time. On screen we see a familiar photo of the decade (“Ah, yes,that was the time of the Klondike Gold Rush”), and then several iconic pieces of Canadian art, by people like Cornelius Krieghoff, or Lawren Harris, or Mary Pratt.  Then the burst of music stops, and the caricature of the chosen author appears, and fascinating (boiling his moccasins?) stories about the chosen author and his or her best book are excitingly told (in front of a train?)

Usually, in each decade only one novelist in French and one in English will be chosen. This means that the show will be controversial (“How could you leave out X from the 1980s?”), but Doug Gibson will be happy to provoke spirited debate about our best authors. And while the show will be in English, everything on the screen, such as book titles and the names of the translation (“Kamouraska and Kamouraska, you say?”) will be bilingual. We all may learn more about our greatest authors, including the epic Haida storyteller, Skaay.

To learn more about booking the show,which will run from May-December 2017, please consult www.douglasgibsonbooks.com, or contact Jane Gibson at jane1929@rogers.com ,or phone 416 489 1929.

Please spread the news.

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 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.

MOOSE JAW MEMORIES

We’ve been travelling around, at the expense of the blog, but amassing a number of stories. In Moose Jaw, at the Saskatchewan Writers Festival, we knew that we would have a fine time. This was a return engagement, after a three year lapse, and the old gang of friends was there, wallowing in the pool at The Spa, or strolling through central Crescent Park, where a beaver put on a special evening cruise for us.
We had breakfast with Harold Johnson and Joan, whom we met three years ago, as authors on the same stage in the Library. In August Harold is bringing out what sounds like a very controversial book about the impact of alcohol on our indigenous people. As a Cree with a law degree from Harvard who works as a Crown in La Ronge, Harold  knows about the daily damage of booze to our society. The book is called FIREWATER, and will come from Bruce Walsh’s University of Regina Press. It seems certain to be a powerful book. Watch for it.

On Friday afternoon I gave my Across Canada By Story show in the Mae Wilson Theatre that I remembered with such affection. All went well, although this time there was no superb introduction by Bob Currie (whom I’d like to pack up in my bag, and take with me as my Travelling Introducer). Earlier, I had the pleasure of sharing a session with Bob reading his poetry this year.

I helped with one or two other events, once unofficially. I found Zarqa Nawaz, author of LAUGHING ALL THE WAY TO THE MOSQUE wandering aimlessly around the Library, when she was supposed to be the main lunch speaker. I led her there, and from the stage she told her interviewer, Angie Abdou, that this “nice man” had rescued her, and got her to the event on time. When the “nice man” was asked to identify himself, Angie laughingly suggested that following this particular nice man’s directions was usually good policy for any Canadian author.

On the final day of the Festival, events took a strange turn. I was on a five-author panel on humour, and the speaker before me was Zarqa. She was very keen to inform us all just how difficult it has been for her to find a market for her most recent piece of writing, a very thorough non-fiction study of labiaplasty. She spoke at some length about this, and the audience seemed to like it.

(There may be a link here with the romantic reticence in Saskatchewan that was satirised by singer Connie Kaldor in her Saturday concert at the Mae Wilson Theatre. She asked “Did you hear about the Prairie farmer who loved his wife so much that….. he almost told her?”)

Speaking for the first time, I followed Zarqa by thanking the organisers for inviting me to come to this superb festival. Then I noted, disapprovingly, that while inviting me to participate in the Humour panel, they had not even mentioned the word “labiaplasty”.

Not even once.

The ensuing discussion was amusing,and we all had a good time. Although Terry Fallis later suggested that I might have been wiser to avoid the issue of labiaplasty altogether. He said that I should have kept tight-lipped about it. I believe that was the term he used.

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.

KING OF THE ROAD

When I fell off the stage in Canada House, I did so in the Mackenzie King Room. Another example of how links with this former Prime Minister keep cropping up in my life.

In ACROSS CANADA BY STORY I tell about how, long before my own days at Macmillan, the sober bachelor’s visit to the Macmillan of Canada’s building on Toronto’s Bond Street went terribly wrong. The Prime Minister expressed the wish to pay his respects to the nearby house that had belonged to his grandfather, William Lyon Mackenzie. His appalled assistants, and their Macmillan hosts, were aware that the house had fallen on hard times, and was now a brothel.

As the portly Prime Minister stood reverently on the sidewalk outside, one of the ladies inside spotted him, and mistook his quiet reverence for bourgeois hesitation. Throwing up the window, she vigorously invited him to step inside, giving some very explicit promises of the pleasures that awaited him there. The Prime Ministerial party departed at high speed.

Later that old house was restored, and became the fine museum that it is today. That was where we at Macmillan mischievously launched the 1976 book, A VERY DOUBLE LIFE by C.P.Stacey. This astonishing history drew on the recently published secret diaries kept by Mackenzie King. These diaries revealed, beyond question, that this man, who held the post of Canada’s Prime Minister longer than anyone else, was deeply crazy. In the restrained words of The Canadian Encyclopedia (1988): “Recent revelations show that this apparently proper and colourless man was a spiritualist, in frequent contact with his mother and other dead relatives and friends.” To speak plainly, this Prime Minister, in charge of Canada throughout the Second World War, was a crazy man, who consulted his dead mother before making vital national decisions that would cost lives.

Yet this very eccentric side remained a closely held secret. Most Canadians were astonished when the Diaries, and Stacey’s book full of damning excerpts, revealed the truth.

But surely, for this secret to be held so successfully, he must have kept his beliefs totally secret in Ottawa? Right?

Wrong.

We switch to Gananoque, where, thanks to Debra Davis, on 29 April, I went to visit The Literary Festival, now in its second year. (I recommend it, without question).And, as usual, in telling stories, I received some. A woman in the audience later introduced herself as a member of the Norman Rogers family, and told me that Norman had been one of Mackenzie King’s closest advisers, and a member of his War Cabinet. In fact, in 1939, this former Professor turned Kingston MP became the Minister of National Defence. The next year, he died in a plane crash.

Naturally, his funeral was a major national event, and Prime Minister King was there, with the Cabinet. To console the grieving Rogers family, King sought them out, to assure them that Norman was just fine, and very happy in Heaven. He, the Prime Minister, had recently chatted with him, and was pleased to report that everything was fine with good old Norman.

The family was amazed to hear the Prime Minister talking openly in this way, but they kept the story secret, like all the stories of King and his mother’s portrait, and his respect for the opinions of his dead dog, little Pat. But the story lived on.

I’ll think of this story every time I go near the Kingston Airport, The Norman Rogers Airport, one of the few instances of an airport named after a man killed in a plane crash.

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/