THE BOOK OF NEGROES AND THE ROLE OF SCOTS

Like so many readers around the world I was deeply moved by Lawrence Hill’s 2007 work, The Book of Negroes. Although it is supposedly fiction, this book of “memoirs” set down around 1800 by the former slave Aminata Diallo is very clearly based on bitter reality, and on a great deal of scholarly research by my friend Lawrence Hill. A great Canadian literary success story about an international tragedy.

But I had a stronger reaction than many readers. As someone born and educated in Scotland, I had no idea of the huge role played by Scots in the Slave Trade. Or of the huge role that the economics of the Slave Trade exerted on Scottish life,   and continued to do so long after the formal slave trade became illegal. In many parts of the Western world, (such as Jamaica and the U.S. southern states), slaves remained valuable “chattels” and their owners expected to be compensated for their “loss” when the slaves were freed. Scots, I find, were not shy about seeking compensation in these areas, to the tune of what would today amount to many millions of dollars.

I have spent some time recently learning about these matters with the help of the distinguished Glasgow University historian, Dr. Stephen Mullen. He has researched this area very extensively. Recently he brought the results uncomfortably close to me when he delivered a Lecture on the subject at my old school, Glasgow Academy, (an old school, indeed, which was founded in 1843). The role of what we might call the “slave-based economy” on Scottish life is something that scholars like Dr. Mullen are investigating. We look forward to many future revelations.

I’m struck, for instance, by the astonishing fact that Glasgow’s central Buchanan Street (where my mother used to buy my Glasgow Academy school uniform) is named after a slave owner. And that the Tobacco Trade, and the Sugar Trade, and the Cotton Trade, all important to western Scotland, were each based on slave labour.  Dr. Mullen tells me to look out for a book next year from the Royal Historical Society on The Glasgow Sugar Aristocracy.

And Lawrence Hill’s book? The embarrassing Scottish incidents build up, from the news that a Scot named Armstrong played golf, with a wooden ball, at his Sierra Leone Banca Island slaving station. But the truly terrible moment is when young Aminata is branded. The “O” on her skin is for Richard Oswald, a Scot from Auchincruive, in Ayrshire This lies very near the land that Robert Burns was planning to leave in order to help to run a plantation in Jamaica, when he was saved by the publication success of his first book. The line from “Scots Wha Hae” that sneers “Wha sae base tae be a slave” would have ranked high in hypocrisy if Burns had spent time with a whip in his hand, striding around slave plantations.

 

AN AMAZING BUSH PILOT STORY FROM HUGH MACLENNAN

My last blog about Jake McDonald taking me to  meet some bush pilots has attracted some interest. In ACROSS CANADA  BY STORY I gave the learned opinion that “every successful Canadian non-fiction book must involve stories about bears, wolves, hockey players, and bush pilots”.

Hugh MacLennan knew this. He won two Governor-General’s awards for his non-fiction (plus three for his books of fiction), and paid careful attention to Canada’s North, and to the bush pilots who fly the freezing skies there.

I quote the following story by Hugh:…..

“When winter comes to this region, it does not come slowly, it strikes with a crack. I met a veteran of many years on the Mackenzie who told me that he once escaped having to spend an entire long winter in Aklavik by a matter of a minute. His was the last plane out, and as he stood on one of the pontoons filling his tank with gas, he suddenly noted ice forming on the water. He threw the can away, jumped into the pilot’s seat without even taking the time to screw on the cap of the gas tank, gunned the plane, and took off. The thin ice was crackling about the pontoons before he became airborne, and as he made his circle to head south he saw the pack ice thrusting in, and the lagoon from which he had risen turn opaque as though the frost had cast a wand over it.”

 

THE EDUCATION OF EVERETT RICHARDSON, BY SILVER DONALD CAMERON

I was thrilled to read the up-dated version of this classic Canadian book  (just re-issued), not least because it seems that a young kid in publishing named Doug Gibson helped the author in some way. I’ll take any credit that’s going, because what Donald Cameron (there was no “Silver” in those hills, in those days) went on to produce was something really new — a serious look from the water level at a little, local strike in Canso that grew to shut down work, and set people marching all across Nova Scotia in 1970-71.
It’s clear that what drew him to research and write this book was a deep anger at the sight of the old Nova Scotia power system at work, encouraging a provincial judge, incredibly, to sentence hard-working fishermen in Canso to go to jail, because they chose to show that they were not slaves by tying up their boats and going on strike.
Yet although he writes with deep sympathy for  the working men and women involved (people we get to know very well) he’s determined to be fair to the other side, which means we follow the infuriating ups and downs of the negotiations.
The result is a superb piece of reporting that makes THE EDUCATION OF EVERETT RICHARDSON one of the great books of our times — well worth a new generation of readers.

ALISTAIR MacLEOD’S CHRISTMAS STORY, “TO EVERY THING THERE IS A SEASON”

On Thursday 19 December, listeners to CBC Radio’s “As It Happens” had a special treat. To help celebrate the time of year, the programme played Les Carlson’s fine reading of the story that Alistair wrote in 1977.
You can hear it on the CBC’s As It Happens website.
Or you can read it in the richly illustrated little book that I published with great pride in 2004. It is entitled “To Every Thing There Is A Season : A Cape Breton Christmas Story”.

The story is simple, seen through the eyes of an eleven-year-old boy. As an adult he remembers the way things were back home on the west coast of Cape Breton. The time was the 1940s, but the hens and the cows and the pigs and the sheep and the horse made it seem ancient. The family of six children excitedly waits for Christmas and two-year-old Kenneth, who liked Halloween a lot, asks, “Who are you going to dress up as at Christmas? I think I’ll be a snowman.” They wait especially for their oldest brother, Neil, working on “the Lake boats” in Ontario, who sends intriguing packages of “clothes” back for Christmas.

Will he arrive in time? Will the narrator be thought old enough to stay up late on Christmas Eve, to join in the adult gift-wrapping role of helping Santa Claus?

The story is simple, short and sweet, but with a foretaste of sorrow, as the biblical title reminds us. Not a word is out of place. Alistair MacLeod’s writing is like a long poem that begs to be read aloud.

Matching and enhancing the story are twenty-five glorious black-and-white illustrations by Cape Breton’s Peter Rankin, a relative of Alistair’s. They make this book a thing of beauty in every way, one that deserves a place in every Canadian home that values a traditional Christmas.

A FINAL THOUGHT

My dear friend Alistair died in April 2014. I have written about him in my books  Stories About Storytellers, and Across Canada By Story . In fact that 2014 book ends with a toast to Alistair that I gritted out through tears at a Writers’ Union event that summer. The church at Broad Cove (which appears on the cover of this Christmas book, drawn by Peter Rankin), was where Alistair’s funeral took place.
On the last page of Across Canada By Story, I write:

“I heard that there were many tears at his funeral in Broad Cove, Cape Breton. In fact his cousin Kevin, a pallbearer, told me that he wept so copiously that a Cape Breton neighbour was highly impressed. “Kevin,” she said, “when I die, I want you at my funeral.”

Laughter and tears.”

I experienced both of them when I heard the reading on the radio, and rushed to re-read the classic book.

 

 

 

A NEW SHOW IN VANCOUVER, ON SATURDAY 26, OCTOBER

My faithful followers know that I roam around the country, delighted to meet and chat with them. Good news now for my West-Coast friends.
On Saturday afternoon I’ll be giving the “2019 St. Andrews and Caledonian Lecture for Simon Fraser University.”
My host is Dr. Kim McCullough, who promises “an afternoon of Scottish literary delights”. The afternoon starts at 2.00 with a talk by Kaitlyn MacInnis, followed by selections by the famous Vancouver Gaelic Choir.
Then at some point after 3.00 I begin the grand lecture GREAT SCOTS: Canadian Fiction Writers With Links To Scotland, From 1867 To Today.
There will be a Q and A session, and refreshments will be served, amidst much chatter.
I hope to see you (or your Vancouver book-loving friends) there.
All of this is FREE.
WHERE?
In downtown Vancouver, at the SFU Harbour Centre, Labbatt Hall, Room 1700.
I’m looking forward to it very much…..and have some special Vancouver stories to tell!

REMEMBERING GRAEME GIBSON

Graeme Gibson was not a relative, but he was a friend for about 50 years. He was a notably kind man. I remember in 1973 my father died , very suddenly, in Scotland. My wife and I went downtown to arrange a flight to Scotland (in those days travel agents were involved) and at Yonge and Bloor we came across Graeme on the street,
I was in shock, and the story of my father’s death at 73 was soon blurted out.
Graeme was deeply sympathetic, and very helpful, in a way that I remember to this day.

A more recent, amusing link with Graeme. Just a week before his death I happened to give my “Great Scots” show to Senior College at the U. of T.. Its President is Harold Atwood, Before the show he told me that Graeme was so proud of his Scottish roots that a recent test of his ancestry had revealed, to his great satisfaction, that he didn’t “have a single drop of English blood!”
Certainly at formal events he and I were proud to wear the Buchanan tartan, celebrating the clan to which all Gibsons belong.
We should celebrate the fact that just a few weeks ago the University of Cape Breton, inspired by Silver Donald Cameron and the new Farley Mowat Chair, gave Graeme an honorary degree for his work for the environment.

We will miss him.

THEY’RE EVERYWHERE!

My apologies for an absence for much of July. We were on our travels, enjoying a family wedding in Scotland, a few days with a friend in Holland, and then some time in Berlin.
Here are brief accounts of all three countries that may be of interest to my faithful readers. In Scotland, for instance, I showed my grandchildren around the tiny wee village where I grew up. Dunlop (the proper pronunciation emphasizes the-LOP, to distinguish that particular Ayrshire village from all of the other Scottish place names that begin with “Dun…” , meaning “fort”) at its biggest was a wee place of about 800 people, when all the dairy farmers were in town. I tried to emphasise to my Toronto grandchildren that this was a whole community, where everyone knew everyone else.
Alistair (12) only really got the full significance when I showed him the house where I became a professional digger of gardens (good training for an editor) under the professional instruction of Jimmy Dalziel, the local grave-digger.
“You knew the grave-digger?” Wow!
Anyone growing up in a stratified Toronto suburb is bound to be startled by this information about a full community, where, as I told them, I knew everyone in every house…..and they all knew me, which made bad behaviour a very risky project. (“Yer faither’ll hear aboot this!” And he did.)

Our time in the Netherlands was spent in Friesland, in the north, beside the North Sea. When I studied English a million years ago at St. Andrews, we were taught that the flow towards the English language went from German to Dutch then to Friesian, before making the leap west to Anglo-Saxon. To my amazement, when I asked a young friend to count to twenty in Friesian, the “Eins-zwei-drei’ pattern indeed took a major shift towards English .
In the Middle Ages the trade between Scotland and Holland was so sturdy that to this day Scottish East-Coast towns are full of old cottages roofed with orange Dutch tiles. Apparently they went west as ballast on ships destined to head back to Holland laden with sheep and wool. The result was when I saw the familiar roofs, and fishing boats in Harlingen, everything was very familiar, like a fishing town in Fife. Except, as I complained, the sea was on the wrong side!

As we know in Canada, the long list of publishers listed as “Penguin , Random House, etcetera, etcetera, McClelland & Stewart, etcetera “goes on and on. It’s hard to forget just how powerful the ultimate owner, Bertelsmann, really is. I was reminded of this power when we were in the middle of a “Hop-On, Hop-Off Bus Tour “of the main sights in Berlin.
When the bus turned on to the famous old street of Unter Den Linden the English-language commentary said. in effect, “And now we come to Unter Den Linden, And the first grand building on the left is the centre of the great Bertelsmann empire. It has been here for many years, and it’s very significant that this great publishing house continues to…”
So there you are. Even a tour bus in Berlin is aware of the huge power of Bertelsmann, and broadcasts it proudly.