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.

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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.

GREAT UNIVERSITIES

I’ve written briefly about the recent Writers’ Union Conference, but I’ve jumped over the main attraction…… its Halifax setting. Every day I slipped away from the indoor Conference sessions to stroll around the city, which I love.

Every area reminded me of early, happy times with Halifax authors. The ancient St. Paul’s Church (prefabricated in Boston, then shipped north to be erected in Halifax when the city was founded in 1749 as a sort of northern New England outpost ) reminded me of Charles Ritchie. My friend Charles was the diplomat and diarist (The Siren Years) whose Almon great-grandfather , a distinguished Halifax doctor, is warmly remembered in a plaque in the very old Church at the heart of the old city. And Charles, despite his globe-trotting career, remained a Halifax-based Anglican all of his life.

Opposite the Public Gardens, I saw again the site of the house where Hugh MacLennan had lived at the time of the 1917 Explosion. I had joined the noble but failed lobbying attempt to preserve Hugh’s house as a historic writing centre. And of course it was in his first novel, Barometer Rising, that Hugh described the explosion with great power. As I recently told Michael Enright on CBC radio, in that novel Hugh also made the setting of the sun over Halifax an excuse to scan our country, like a satellite, from coast to coast, deliberately creating a national literature.

And the Citadel, which I always associate with the famous photograph of Hugh (the Dalhousie student who won a Rhodes Scholarship) looking out to sea, is still there, dominating the city.

My usual visit on the waterfront to tour the corvette Sackville (I proudly published Jim Lamb’s classic memoir, The Corvette Navy) was not possible this year, with the famous ship in dry dock, disappointing thousands of potential visitors. But I toured the waterfront very thoroughly, including a visit to Pier 21, which always impresses me, as another lucky Canadian immigrant.

I took a brief trip to see The Lord Nelson Hotel .There my author Don Harron, teetering on high heels in the lobby, preparing for  a day touring as “Valerie Rosedale”, was once gruffly moved on by a suspicious house detective. I dropped in to see the excellent local bookstore, just across Spring Garden Road, then walked  through the dramatic Dalhousie campus. It was the perfect day for it…….Graduation Day! The streets were full of proud graduates in red gowns, floating alongside beaming parents…. and shuffling younger siblings, pleased , but uncertain of their role.

It was a great day at a great university.

Which brings me to another university. This weekend the Guardian  newspaper published its annual survey of Britain’s best universities. Traditionally , the top two universities in that eagerly-read survey are Oxford and Cambridge.

This year, however, the ranking of the universities, with everything from academic standards to student enjoyment carefully calibrated, was :—

1 Cambridge

2 St. Andrews

3 Oxford

Those of us who went to St. Andrews were not surprised. Since it was founded in 1413, in its mediaeval city jutting east into the North Sea, Scotland’s oldest university has become used to providing students with an interesting and enjoyable education. In fact, every year, in the Guardian listing St. Andrews tops the British list for “Student enjoyment.”

No surprises there for me, a proud graduate of the class of 1966.

 

OH DEAR, IN FORD’S ONTARIO EVERYTHING GOES WRONG

Keen readers of my last blog will have noticed an error in the first paragraph. I write there about a mysterious book entitled THE WORLD ACCORDING TO GARTH.

In my career I actually had an author widely known as “Garth” but this was not a reference to the notable Mr. Drabinsky. It was a simple, stupid mistake on my part. As millions of people around the world know, the correct book title is THE WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP.

Indeed, I have introduced John Irving with the words…..”Crusoe……Copperfield….. Gatsby…….Garp…….” to establish the huge impact on our culture that his book has had. But in today’s Ontario, mistakes happen everywhere. My apologies.

GO LEAFS/LEAVES GO!

I grew up bilingual.

I’m not talking about my acquaintance with French, from my teenage years. No, in my wee Ayrshire village from the very start I was bilingual, speaking both a version of English that all of my readers would recognise, and the local broad Scottish idiom, now formally called “Lallans”.

On the local soccer field, “the fitba pitch”, I ran around imploring my 8-year team-mates to pass the ball to me with the urgent cry “Geesabaw! Geesabaw!” At home my mother would have been scandalised if I had introduced that language, with its array of improper words like “pish”and “shite”. So I was carefully bilingual at home and in the classroom, and very different in the schoolyard.

My mastery of Lallans came to play an important part in my literary life, and it can be argued that it brought me to Canada. Because I was in Ayrshire, the older people around me, especially the farmers, were speaking the language of Robert Burns. My first summer job was working on a local farm that was placed right beside Dunlop House, where Burns used to visit his patron, Mrs. Dunlop of Dunlop. The grandfather on the farm, “Auld Moneyacres” (like Tam o’ Shanter he was known by the name of his farm) spoke pure Burns. In the nearby Stewarton kirkyard my Young ancestors lay beside an uncle of Robert Burns.

So when I went on to study English at the University of St. Andrews I had an advantage when we studied the poetry of Robert Burns. My classmate from elsewhere, especially from England, tended to treat it  as a new language, like Chaucer’s Middle English. To me, it was just the language I had known in the village. Easy.

But I had never written in it. Then, in November in my final year, I started thinking that it would be nice to win a scholarship to go to somewhere interesting the next year. I learned about a sort of Rhodes Scholarship in reverse. It was open to contenders from each of the Scottish Universities, and a selected Scottish candidate from Oxford and Cambridge. The winner would receive a free year at the American university of his or her choice, thanks to the scholarship provided by the St. Andrew’s Society of the State of New York.

One scholarship would be given.

I looked at the requirements, and looked at my own qualifications. Thanks to my sporting and dramatic and newspaper deeds, not to mention my being President of the Student Union, I found that I ticked many of the required boxes.

But not any academic ones So I started to leaf through the list of annual University prizes. I found “The Sloan Prize, awarded for the best composition in Lallans”. A friendly professor advised me that an entry should run about 5,000 words, so that Christmas I cleared the decks at home, and on the dining room table, bolstered by dictionaries, I created a short story in Lallans.

You can see where this is going. There was a moment of horror when I learned that the Sloan Prize judge would be the Editor of The Scottish National Dictionary. But the Essay won The Sloan Prize. And it won in time for me to include it in my Scholarship application, ticking another important box.

I won the Scholarship, went to Yale, and after a year gaining my MA, came by Greyhound Bus to Canada, and never looked back.

But what about those Leafs? Thanks to my friend Donald Gillies, I recently read an edition of his magazine “Lallans”. It mentions the amazing fact that when the version of English spoken in Scotland began to be written, in formal print, the correct way to form the plural of the Scottish word for “wife” and ” life” and “leaf”, was simply to add the letter “s”.

Who knew? Generations of schoolteachers have decried the spelling as simply wrong. Now we’ve learned that the spelling”Leafs” is an official old Scottish plural.

Go Leafs Go!

THIS SUNDAY ON CBC RADIO, AT 11 A.M.

Exciting news! Some time ago I sat down for an interview with my old friend , Michael Enright, in the “Sunday Morning” series about neglected classic Canadian books.

This Sunday, March 3 at 11. a.m. , or just after the news, you’ll be able to hear me talking about THE WATCH THAT ENDS THE NIGHT, the great 1959 novel by HUGH MACLENNAN.

As you’ll know from my chapter about Hugh in Stories About Storytellers, I believe that this is his best novel,  and I’m delighted to have the chance to persuade CBC listeners to read it….or to read it again! Michael  is, of course, a superb interviewer, and I recall being surprised by what he drew out of me, about this book, and about Hugh’s role in creating our own literature.

I’ll be listening with keen interest. I hope you will, too.

WARMING UP THE COLDEST CAPITAL IN THE WORLD

Ottawa is famous as the world’s coldest capital city, and the group of rowdy Russians in the Lord Elgin Hotel bar seemed right at home . When we were there on January 21, it was the coldest day of the winter here. So cold that TV and radio were warning people “DON’T GO OUT! STAY IN THIS EVENING!”
We knew that over 100 people had booked seats for our GREAT SCOTS show (about fine Canadian fiction writers down through the decades from 1867 with links to Scotland) to be staged at the Arts Court Theatre. But how many of them would defy the elements — and the terrifying storm of warnings from the media — and dare to show up?
To our delight, over 80 brave souls came to the theatre, and there was an instant sense of community. It was as if the fact that we had all trudged, or driven anxiously, through the bitter winds (the media had warned about wind chill of around minus 40) had made us all proud members of the same club. Unity through adversity!
Of course, we lost some good people, some of them apologizing for their “wuss” like withdrawal. And I was sorry to lose the older lady who had promised to ask me about Farley Mowat, whom she had known back in the original Mowat lands, where the visiting Farley, apparently, was a skilful peat-cutting man.
Finding our theatre was a challenge. When we came on another hall for an audience in the Ottawa Art Gallery building and shyly mentioned that we were about to give a show, the waiting technician swept Jane off. She was well on the way to having our show up on the screen when it emerged that the techie was waiting to set up another speaker, with an interesting talk about architecture. (We had to miss it because we were otherwise engaged — although it turned out that I knew a friendly man in the audience.) The main impact of our leaving the false-start theatre was that in the process Jane left her gloves and her toque. and in Ottawa that night their absence was serious.
Our group was in every sense a warm gathering. The two sponsoring groups — the Ottawa Public Library (Romaine Honey) and the Ottawa Scottish Society (Heather Theoret) — had worked hard to spread the word, and to arrange for a kind introduction for me. I began, of course, by talking enthusiastically about the people around us, some of whom were old friends, and even relatives. As usual, I found myself delivering a new, slightly different show. Perhaps the most interesting addition (for me) was adding to my Mavis Gallant piece. Here, for example, is what the narrator, Scots-Canadian Jean Duncan , wrote in the novella, ITS IMAGE ON THE MIRROR:

“My mother, presiding over covered vegetable dishes, received the passed-along plate on which my father had placed a dry slice of salmon loaf. The vegetable dish covers were removed to reveal creamed carrots, and mashed potatoes piled like a volcano, with a pat of salty butter melting inside the crater. The ritual of mealtime mattered more to us than the food. None of the women in our family could cook, and we felt that women who worried about what they were to eat or serve were wanting in character.”

Ah, Mavis! And ah, Bill Weintraub, who selected that great quote for City Unique, his excellent book on Montreal, which I was proud to publish.
At the end we had a lively Q and A session. Among the questioners was the old newsman, Hugh Winsor, who posed an interesting question about my work with non-fiction authors. I’m still kicking myself for failing to wind up with a lively summary of my work with Trudeau, Mulroney, and Martin, who famously said “Let me tell you what it was like being edited by Doug Gibson. If Shakespeare had been edited by Doug Gibson, there would be no Shakespeare! All the best stuff cut, and on the floor!”
At the end I signed copies of both of my books for the fine people at Perfect Books, and with 20 copies sold it was a good evening for them. And Jane and I got to see lots of old friends before fighting our way back to the Lord Elgin, sharing my gloves.