Remembering Stuart McLean

Stuart McLean was once my boss. He was the Producer of the CBC radio show, Sunday Morning, from 1981 to 1983, and I was the programme’s weekly movie reviewer from ‘81 to ‘84.

It was a whirlwind environment, a little like a student newspaper, with excited, bright, young people dashing out on to Jarvis Street from the old red-brick building to record street noises for the final section of a profile that was already 95% “in the can”.  Stuart was right at home in the middle of the whirlwind, chatting, and laughing, and losing things, and encouraging the troops. He was, as everyone who saw him on-stage knows, a resolutely “aw-shucks” guy. Word filtered out that his cheerfully unrehearsed acceptance speeches, when his show won international awards, caused scowls at “The Kremlin”, the CBC headquarters.

Yet I know that he could be an inspiring leader. My contact with the show was through the superb Suanne Kelman (who fiercely taught me “how to breathe” on the air) and after 10 rigorous takes and re-takes of my 3-minute piece, I would go home before noon on Saturday. Once, my restful afternoon was marked by a phone call from Stuart.

“Doug, I’ve just heard your review for tomorrow’s show, and I wanted to tell you how great it is to have you doing your movie reviews for us.” Other compliments followed. And I swelled with pride and pleasure, and remembered the incident fondly, as you can see.

Some years later, I almost became his boss, or at least his Publisher. I had just started my own imprint at M&S and had lunch with Stuart to discuss his future, since at the time he was selling traffic barrier equipment, which was not the ideal road to success. Stuart had some interesting ideas for heading into the book world. I warmly encouraged him to develop his plans for a book. But I explained that I was busy bringing major authors who had already published with me to my new Douglas Gibson Books imprint. To be loyal to Avie Bennett, who had arranged my new home at M&S, I suggested that I would be glad to promote his new book idea to Adrienne Clarkson and her team at M&S. I did so, with enthusiasm…..and was astonished when later they turned him down. Fourteen Penguin titles, and more than a million book sales later……

The only figure I can compare Stuart with – as an author who became a beloved performer across the country… is W.O.Mitchell.  Stuart and he met through their mutual friend Peter Gzowski, and I know they hit it off right away. I like to think that W.O. spotted Stuart as a blood brother, another guy who loved travelling around and meeting ordinary Canadians in places large and small. I believe that W.O. knew by instinct that he would turn into a major storyteller. Certainly Stuart loved spending time with W.O., and was a good friend to him.

For instance, when we issued tapes of W.O.’s stage performances, it took me no time at all to persuade Stuart to contribute a fond Introduction to “An Evening With W.O. Mitchell”. He said “Hello, I’m Stuart McLean, and I’ve been a fan of W.O. Mitchell ever since I heard him read when I was in University. So I’m delighted to be part of this Tribute to W.O. Mitchell, the Writer and the Performer…”

After W.O. died, a fund-raiser for the Writers’ Trust featured an auction for one of his snuff-boxes. Stuart was a determined bidder until almost the end, when a very rich rival won. When the Mitchell family learned of Stuart’s disappointment, they sent him another of W.O.’s snuff-boxes. Orme Mitchell still remembers the touchingly grateful letter he received.

As for me, I stayed in touch with my old friend.  I remember disappointing him at The Royal York at a Bookseller’s Awards Ceremony where he was the MC. When I stepped up to the platform to accept an award won by Alice Munro, he said “Aww, it’s Doug”, in sinking tones. Once I was the MC at A Different Drummer Books event in Burlington, where by contrast I had fun at his expense.

The fun stopped when he fell ill with melanoma, although in our phone chat early in 2016 he was very upbeat, confident about the odds. When I called ten days ago, I spoke to Stuart’s son, Robbie, who told me that his father was sleeping. Two days before he died I left a fond message on his answering machine, a message into limbo from an old friend, who now knows that it’s always later than you think.

ETHICAL MATTERS AT MASSEY COLLEGE

Recently I attended an interesting literary event that raised some difficult questions. It was held at Massey College, in the University of Toronto, and the Upper Library was filled for a Book Club meeting. The regular Chair, my friend Charles Foran, was gadding about on the West Coast, so his wife Mary stepped in and handled the event with aplomb.
Our speaker, whom I won’t name, was talking about her recent book, which has been a considerable success. She spoke about the book’s genesis, and how she learned the skills of writing, and enjoyed the experience of working with an editor. Then, in the course of a long Q and A session , she went into troubling detail.
She told us that she had worked first with a freelance editor who was helpful in getting her manuscript into such good shape that she found a literary agent in Canada, who placed the book with a Canadian house. The author then worked on the book through the pre-publication process, until she had proofs to check.
At this point her agent was trying to sell the rights to the book to a number of US publishers. She sent out copies of the Canadian proofs to several interested New York houses and arranged to hold an auction for the rights, where, traditionally, the publisher bidding the most money in advance royalties will be the winner.
In this case, however, the editor on the case at Penguin became very excited about the book,and so creatively engaged with it, that she sent a TEN-PAGE letter full of detailed instructions about how the author could improve the book, by expanding this or compressing that, or switching this with that.
The author told us that this detailed editorial advice was so convincing, and so obviously good, that she excitedly worked through the entire weekend, rewriting the proofs of the book, to follow the Penguin editor’s suggestions.
Then her agent went ahead, presumably with the author’s approval, and sold the rights to the book to the highest bidder in the US — which was not Penguin.
There was distinct unease in the Massey room, not just, I think, among former editors and publishers. She was telling us that she eagerly took all of the Penguin editor’s work (freely offered, of course, with no formal quid pro quo) but then went off elsewhere, with a wave of the hand?
This didn’t seem right.
In my opinion there was an ethical way to handle this situation. In the circumstances, I think that her agent should have contacted all of the interested US companies that were involved in the auction, saying : “I must tell you that the auction has now changed. The book will be awarded to Penguin, although their respectable bid did not involve the highest amount of money. What made the Penguin offer the decisive winner was the fact that their editor invested a large amount of time in crafting a ten-page editorial letter that was so helpful to the author that she has now re-written the book to incorporate the changes suggested. We are thrilled that this editor understands the book so perfectly. As all of us in publishing know, that sort of enthusiastic editorial understanding is so rare that it should never be disregarded, and is of immense value.”
I believe that the other publishers would have accepted this, Penguin would have got the book, and justice would have been done. What do you think?

CHARLOTTE GRAY, THE SESQUICENTENNIAL, AND SASKATOON BERRIES

I’d like to recommend a fine new book, one that should appeal to anyone who enjoys this blog. The book is THE PROMISE OF CANADA by Charlotte Gray.  The sub-title ties it very clearly to our 1867-2017 Sesquicentennial. “150 Years — People And Ideas That Have Shaped Our Country”.

You may already know the book, because it has been widely and enthusiastically reviewed, and has become a best-seller, getting a head start on the many Sesquicentennial books that will mark 2017. That flying start reflects well on its publisher . It’s brought out by Phyllis Bruce Editions at Simon & Schuster Canada, another example of the success that thoughtful editorial imprints can bring to a publishing  world that often seems overly obsessed with shallow marketing of shallow books. It also reflects the respect that readers and reviewers have for Charlotte Gray, the author of nine previous  books.

I met Charlotte soon after she came to Canada in 1979. She had known my brother Peter in Britain, and he had told her to look up his big brother, who ran Macmillan’s publishing programme in Toronto, and might have useful advice for a young writer newly arrived in mysterious Canada. I remember our chat, where I advised her to write for Bob Fulford’s “Saturday Night”, and encouraged her in a general way. I wish I could claim that she owes her success to me…and I wish even more fervently that I had been smart enough to sign her up for the books that she was soon producing with great success.

As an immigrant to Canada Charlotte soon became aware of what a remarkable place we’ve inherited. One of her early books (Sisters in the Wilderness: The Lives of Susanna Moodie and Catharine Parr Traill) hints at her own experience as an English newcomer. Over time, as her knowledge grew, with fascinating months in Dawson City enlivening her Gold Diggers: Striking it Rich in the Klondike, she became a Canadian enthusiast, as every page of the new book shows.

A personal note: the very first page of The Promise of Canada, the end-papers, shows the start of the 1967 canoe race in the wake of the voyageurs, east from Alberta’s Rocky Mountain House all  the way to the finish line at Expo in Montreal. Paddling in the stern of the Manitoba canoe is none other than Don Starkell. That’s my friend Don , the author of both Paddle To The Amazon and then Paddle To The Arctic.

As you’d expect, Don’s Manitoba crew won the race, arriving in Montreal 104 days later, amidst cheers and sirens and fireworks. But there is a sad footnote, recorded in Paddle To The Amazon. Don had a sales job in Winnipeg, and knew that he would need time off  to paddle across the country in this national celebration. In his words:

“I asked for a leave of absence, and it was flatly denied.

“Why?” I remember asking my supervisor.

“We just can’t do that,” he said, and that was that.”

So Don quit his job , although money was tight. Oh yes, the name of his employer, so uninterested in this piece of unfolding Canadian history that it wouldn’t give a salesman a leave of absence to take part in it? The Canadian Pacific Railway.

 

And Saskatoon berries? My last blog attracted some attention by talking about the role of Saskatoon berries in the making of pemmican, the well-preserved, light, portable, food that fuelled the fur trade. What many people don’t realise is that the Saskatoon berry ( formally Amelanchier alnifolia,) includes 15 related species, and is found right across Canada. I once won an argument with a dismissive Albertan at a publishing event in Toronto, where “you don’t have any saskatoon berries ”  by nipping out and picking a few serviceberries on Bloor Street. The party-goers enjoyed them when I returned, even the surprised Albertan.

I’ve found them , and eaten them, in every province. Sometimes they’re “serviceberries”. Sometimes they’re “June-berries” in tribute to their early arrival. In his superb book about Nature in Nova Scotia, Dancing on the Shore, Harold Horwood waxes indignantly lyrical about them:

“How much better is the Newfoundland name chuckly pear! Serviceberry indeed! And how much uglier the American name, shadbush! But whatever you call them, their blooming is a high point of the year. At Annapolis there are several species, some of them small shrubs, others growing into trees twenty-five feet tall. When they bloom in mid-May the woods on every side are dressed in great veils of pink and white, for though all the flowers are white, some species have pink sepals, and leaves that are red when they first unfold. The great drift of blossoms fill every dark space along the edges of the woods. I have never seen any forest anywhere more beautiful with bloom than the Annapolis woodlands during the brief flowering of the chuckly pears.

“Later, the children will gather the fruit, almost live on it while it is at its peak, and perhaps I’ll even turn a gallon or so of the purple berries into wine….”

It’s notable that the very first English-speaking explorer of the Prairies noted the crunchy Saskatoon berry with approval. In June, 1690 Henry Kelsey left York Factory and headed West with some indigenous traders. In the words of The Canadian Encyclopedia, he “wintered at The Pas, Manitoba, before striking out on foot across the prairie, possibly as far as the Red Deer River.”

Incredibly, Kelsey wrote a large part of his report to his Hudson Bay Company superiors IN VERSE. Here he is in, we think, Eastern Saskatchewan:

” So far I have spoken concerning of the spoil

And now will accot. (give an account ) of that same Countrye soile

Which hither part is very thick of wood

Affords small nuts with little cherryes very good…”

And there you have it, a literary discovery! The very first review of the eating delights of the Saskatoon berry, from 1691. You read it here first.

 

THE RUNNING OF THE DEER

Having what you might call “an editorial mind” can be a blessing or a curse. Musing about the hidden meanings of well-known phrases can lead to surprises, or at least insomnia.
Consider, for example, the ubiquitous Christmas Carol, “The Holly and the Ivy”. The chorus begins.. “O, the rising of the sun, And the running of the deer. The playing of the merry organ, Sweet singing in the choir”.
All very pleasant, right? Perhaps especially the prancing and trotting of the little deer, some of which might even be agreeably red-nosed.
Except that the editorial mind recalls that in the Middle Ages — when “The Holly and the Ivy” was written — maintaining a reliable supply of food was difficult. Getting deer-meat on the table involved great dangers for ordinary, starving peasants, who would be killed if they dared to poach a deer from someone’s forest. As for the lordly forest-owners, to get their supply of venison they would occasionally organise a ” deer drive”. They would noisily “run” the startled deer, flushed out from their hiding places, towards a line of armed bowmen, who would then shoot them down and butcher them.
That was what “the running of the deer” involved. An interesting way to re-interpret a lovely, apparently innocent, old carol.
There was a Canadian equivalent, for many generations, in the buffalo hunt on the Prairies. Buffalo (or Bison, if you prefer) are huge, and fast. Until the local humans were able to use horses to keep up with them, or to invent fine bows and arrows to shoot them down, they had to rely on cunning to catch them and use them for food. So they invented what we cheerfully call “buffalo jumps”.
I’m happy that we’ve dropped the euphemisms by adopting the name Head Smashed-In Buffalo Jump for the Provincial Historic site near Fort Macleod in Alberta. I went there once with my friend Andy Russell, the historian and mountain man. Because I was with Andy, they let me go behind the scenes. We walked up the slight slope to the flat prairie, then turned, and got a buffalo’s eye view as we sauntered unsuspectingly towards the hidden cliff-top.
It was easy to imagine how successful the hidden “drivers” leaping out , yelling and waving blankets, must have been at keeping the snorting, stampeding herd going straight towards the hidden cliff edge, where the slight downward slope turned into a roaring plunge to death, and smashed in heads.
And of course, the butchering and skinning took the hard-working women many days, and with collected saskatoon berries produced the pemmican that opened up the West to the Fur Trade. But that, of course is another story… which takes us a long way from the Running of the Deer.

We are just waiting for our vegetarian grandchildren to arrive for Dinner. Merry Christmas

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.

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.

 

BILL MITCHELL IN THE CIRCUS

One of the best things about going to book festivals is the stories that come leaping out at you.

For instance, I often tell stories about my old friend W.O. Mitchell. Yet when I was in Windsor at the fine Festival there, I found myself chatting on-stage with the local writer/teacher/ man about the literary scene, Marty Gervais. He spoke happily about Bill Mitchell, who spent some years teaching at the University of Windsor, lured there by his friend Alistair MacLeod, who was glad to have the legendary Bill Mitchell added to the Windsor scene.

But Bill was always “a character”, and one year there was a problem with his residential plans. He was complaining about this one day to Marty and his wife. To their surprise they ended up inviting Bill to stay with them , and their three young boys.

It was a spectacular success. Bill, who had raised three youngsters with Merna, loved kids. He spent many happy evenings delighting the Gervais boys with conjuring tricks. Coins sprang out of ears, pieces of food disappeared into thin air, and the Gervais boys were entranced.

Then, Marty told us, Bill moved back to his home in Calgary. He was forgotten until one of Marty’s sons came rushing to his Dad, saying, “Bill’s on TV! He seems to have WRITTEN A BOOK!”

“Well, yes” said his Dad”That’s what he does>”

“Really?” said the Gervais boys.”We thought he was in the circus!”