RODDY DOYLE AND THE BANFF ELK

I was pleased to see that the lead review in Sunday’s New York Times was a new collection of stories, Life Without Children, by Ireland’s Roddy Doyle. Roddy and I became friends after he toured Canada to promote an earlier book, and visited Calgary and Banff when I was hanging around, a friendly Publisher trying to be a helpful Canadian host. I often did things like this, once stepping in to help an under-manned Calgary Authors Festival event, where I got to introduce three authors, including the remarkable James Houston. He stole the show with his opening line from the stage, “I’m a REALLY old guy! And I’ve had a hell of an interesting life!” (In the general celebration afterwards, one young woman noticed how much fun I was having, as a Publisher. She asked a shrewd question; “How do I get to do what you do?” I hope she made it.)

In one of my books I tell the story of how Roddy’s visit to the Banff Festival coincided with rutting season for the elk who roamed around the Banff Centre for the Arts, where we were all staying. I had been there a few years previously, also at rutting time.

There had been an incident.

Guy Vanderhaeghe, the brilliant novelist from Saskatoon, had come out after breakfast in the cafeteria, to find a male elk blocking the way to his residence up the hill. The elk looked frisky, so Guy, a sensible man, decided to wait until the elk and his harem moved on. Unfortunately, a young woman came out of the cafeteria and headed straight up the hill. Guy, a polite man, not inclined to issue instructions to strangers , suggested that, um, it might be smart to wait until the elk drifted away.

The woman was not impressed. “I will walk wherever I please”, she said, and began to march up the hill.

In Guy’s words, “She ended up behind a tree”. She was now keenly aware that the huge elk’s antlers, and its sharp hooves, were dangerous weapons. As Guy tells it, in order to help he took out a white handkerchief and started to wave it at the elk. Shyly.

Enter Robert Kroetsch, in Banff as a poetry instructor. Surprisingly, his poetic skills gave him the confidence to stride straight at the elk, shooing it away. The trapped woman scuttled off, not pausing to thank Bob Kroetsch or Guy Vanderhaeghe, or his white hankie.

Now, years later, Roddy Doyle was in Banff in the Fall. Rutting time is accompanied by very serious annual warnings about the dangers. Like me Roddy was staying at the Banff Centre, and we made sure that he took the elk warnings seriously. Roddy, a small, neat man (whom I later saw on a visit to Dublin, along with Colm Toibin, whose 2021 novel, The Magician, I warmly recommend) was very surprised by this threat. This was new to him, he explained to his Banff Centre audience, in his North-Dublin accent. He was prepared for most of the hazards facing a touring author, but these had never before included “the danger of being focked by an elk.”

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Claude Aubry’s Agouhanna

Fifty years ago, in Spring 1972, I published a book about a young Indigenous boy, growing up in Canada “just before the coming of the white man”. It was intended to attract young readers, before the age of 12, and, at 79 illustrated pages, sold for $4.50.

Brave days!

And it was a brave book, because young Agouhanna was , as I recall from a phrase we used to promote the book, “the little Indian who was afraid”. He was terrified of the wild forest, its noise and its silences, and as a chief’s son, he was not naturally inclined to pass leadership tests with ease. Yet as a boy who would not eat meat out of respect for other living creatures he was determined to become a man without violence or warfare.

Of course, this was a book written about native life by a white man, which raises questions in our minds today . But it was written in French, a fact that gave me great pride, although I had little to do with the fine translator, Harvey Swados, or the illustrator, Julie Brinckloe. The author was the amazing Claude Aubry.

Claude was a proud Francophone. born in Morin Heights in the Laurentians in 1914. As a country boy he had to walk three kilometres through field and forest to get to school. He was a good scholar, and in due course got his B.A. from the University of Montreal. As a bilingual student with impressive knowledge of English he got his B.L.S. from McGill, and became a major figure in the Library world, eventually becoming the Director of the Ottawa Public Library and of the Eastern Ontario Regional Library System.

And he wrote! Two of his books, The King of the Thousand Islands and The Christmas Wolf, won major Canadian prizes. Meanwhile, besides Agouhanna, with its sympathetic look at another culture, he gave us all the remarkable book The Magic Fiddler and Other Legends of French Canada.

I knew him well. Somehow Claude and I developed such a friendship that distinguished publishing events would find their cocktail parties disturbed by the white-haired Claude and the long-haired Doug, sneaking around other guests, firing imaginary pistols at each other. We were both good at it, as I recall. And he was a delightful man. I’m happy to pay a tribute to him now.

An Interesting Interview with Douglas Gibson

Please see the link below, which reveals a long, and very unusual, interview with people in Edinburgh who run a site dedicated to publishing in Scotland. They conducted a very thorough interview with me, where I talk at some length about my Scottish background, and then my career in Canada.

By the way, Anthony Jenkins and I have just completed a new book, GREAT SCOTS: Major Canadian Author with Links to Scotland…….By Douglas Gibson, illustrated by Anthony Jenkins.

The search is now on for a Publisher to take on these 35 interesting writers, from Sir Alexander MacKenzie all the way through John Galt to John Buchan/Lord Tweedsmuir and Lucy Maud Montgomery and Alistair MacLeod all the way to Alice Munro, and beyond!

Publishing in Canada: Interview with Douglas Gibson

Celebrating Alice Munro’s 90th Birthday

Today’s Not-so Deliberate Mistake. Alice was born, of course, in 1931, not 1921, as I foolishly wrote here.

Douglas Gibson

On Saturday, July 10, 2021, Alice Munro will turn 90. Since she is , so far, Canada’s only Nobel Prizewinner for Literature, this will be an occasion for the country to mark with pride.

In 1921 The Wingham Advance-Times announced the birth: “Laidlaw – In Wingham General Hospital on Friday, July 10th, to Mr. and Mrs. R.E. Laidlaw, a daughter, Alice Ann.” From that simple beginning in Huron County, Ontario, Alice Laidlaw went on to a career that involved meeting and marrying a man at Western named Jim Munro. In time he became a bookseller in Victoria, with his wife Alice working in the bookstore, while producing three fine daughters and, oh yes, writing short stories on the side.

Those short stories proved to be the beginning of a major literary career, so that one important magazine, The Atlantic, stated with confidence in 2001 that “Alice Munro is the living…

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Celebrating Alice Munro’s 90th Birthday

On Saturday, July 10, 2021, Alice Munro will turn 90. Since she is , so far, Canada’s only Nobel Prizewinner for Literature, this will be an occasion for the country to mark with pride.

In 1921 The Wingham Advance-Times announced the birth: “Laidlaw – In Wingham General Hospital on Friday, July 10th, to Mr. and Mrs. R.E. Laidlaw, a daughter, Alice Ann.” From that simple beginning in Huron County, Ontario, Alice Laidlaw went on to a career that involved meeting and marrying a man at Western named Jim Munro. In time he became a bookseller in Victoria, with his wife Alice working in the bookstore, while producing three fine daughters and, oh yes, writing short stories on the side.

Those short stories proved to be the beginning of a major literary career, so that one important magazine, The Atlantic, stated with confidence in 2001 that “Alice Munro is the living writer most likely to be read in a hundred years’ time.”

Consider the list of books that she has produced over her career– all of them, please note, collections of short stories, although one of them, Lives of Girls and Women, 1971, was inaccurately presented as a novel, because of the publishing world’s belief in those days that “short stories don’t sell”. Alice Munro helped to change that.

In order of publication Alice Munro’s books are, Dance of the Happy Shades, Lives of Girls and Women, Something I’ve been Meaning to Tell You, Who Do You Think You Are? (published outside Canada with the inferior title The Beggar Maid), The Moons of Jupiter, The Progress of Love, Friend of My Youth, Open Secrets, Selected Stories, The Love of a Good Woman, Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage, Runaway, and The View from Castle Rock. An astonishing record.

Now, sadly, Alice is not writing any new material. Instead she is living quietly at home in small town, Ontario, and is avoiding any further public engagements. But her stories live on, and her millions of admirers, like me, (and I was lucky enough to work with her from Who Do You Think You Are? onward until The View from Castle Rock) will wish to celebrate her long life.

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!