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!

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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.

TRANSLATING YVES BEAUCHEMIN

The Globe and Mail on  Saturday, December 29, contained a book review written by the thoughtful Russell Smith.  The review is of Yves Beauchemin’s latest novel, The Accidental Education of Jerome Lupien, translated by Wayne Grady.

The review is headed “An all-around disappointment”. The sub-heading reads “The translation of Quebecker Yves Beauchemin’s 2016 novel is full of cliches, clumsy language and implausible scenarios that would do well as a humourous cartoon.”

Naturally, I rushed to read it.

I should explain right away that I know and admire all of the people involved here, even the people at Anansi who published the book. I always read Russell Smith’s commentary on the literary scene with interest. As for Yves Beauchemin, I am a huge admirer. I have thrust “The Alley Cat”, his 1981 classic, upon hundreds of readers, and in my role as Publisher at M&S I have proudly published several of his later books.

My enthusiasm was such that before publishing “Charles The Bold”, I dragged Jane around the mean streets of east-end Montreal’s Rue Ontario area in freezing weather . It was in fact so cold that when we took shelter in a nearby church, the tears that sprang to our eyes from  the temperature change meant that we were instantly at home in the funeral party that we had accidentally joined . Jane was impressed — not favourably — that we were roaming the icy streets to follow the landmarks in the life “of a fictional character?” For Yves Beauchemin it was worth it. His Montreal is always a special place. What London was for Dickens, and Paris for Balzac, Montreal , in all its modern variety, is for Yves Beauchemin

As for Wayne Grady, my admiration for this walking compendium  of bookish virtues is hard to express. He is an excellent editor, an anthologist, a non-fiction writer, a novelist , a reviewer….and a superb translator. I had the pleasure of editing his translations of several Beauchemin books. I used to enjoy my role of editing Wayne’s translation so much that I would joke –sotto voce — that instead of being paid for the work, I would happily pay for the pleasure.

I should explain that while my spoken French is childish (my ears and lips limping along behind the conversation, trying to imagine the sounds in print) my translation of written French is good enough that many of my short translations have been published, without complaint.

When we published Yves, whom I got to know and like in person, my practice was always the same. I had read the book in French, to start the publishing process. When Wayne’s translation came in, I would read it, setting aside and ignoring the French original. Only when something seemed strange about the English manuscript would I go back to the original. And  invariably I would find myself saying, “Ah, I see the problem. This is very tricky to translate.” And almost invariably Wayne would have made the difficult choice — skilfully — between  an uneasy literal translation and a dangerously free one. My faith in Wayne’s superb translating abilities is such that if he were now to use the word “Gadzooks!”, I know it would represent an equivalent old French exclamation.

Translating the commonplace conversational cliches of a difficult hero like Jerome Lupien creates a special challenge. For Russell Smith, Wayne Grady’s translation fails the test here, falling back on cliches. To which I  say, for crying out loud, Wayne’s everyday language surely must establish the banal level of conversation, and thought, of our anti-hero Lucien. It works for me.

Many of Russell Smith’s criticisms in the review are fair. This is not Beauchemin at his best. But it’s still Beauchemin. I found myself once again happily immersed in the world of named streets, and coffee shops, and brasseries, and bookshops, and enjoying the reading very much. And for a loyal Quebecois like Yves to plunge into the shameful swamp of price-fixing in the construction industry there, which has been amply proved in official enquiries, must have been a painful journey. It is a world populated by shameless lobbyists like Jerome Lupien that richly deserves  bitter satirical treatment.

So why did an  astute reader like Russell Smith not get more out of the  book? I have one suggested answer, which is, you might say, political. When the struggle for Quebec’s future was going on, Yves Beauchemin was the President of the Union Des Ecrivains Quebecois and a vocal, hard-working leader in the fight for independence. He and I disagreed about this, but  I admired his passion, and his use of words, and ideas, to make his case.

Imagine, then, how such an idealist must feel today, now that his hopes for an independent Quebec, a country of his own, are almost gone. That, I suggest, is what makes this book fascinating.

For instance, in the middle of the book Jerome goes to a Thai restaurant near Cote des Neiges, eating his meal “until a familiar voice made him look around. To his left, in the middle of the room, Jacques Parizeau, the former Quebec premier, was sitting at a table with a man in his forties who looked perfectly at ease. That said, during his university days he’d often seen the famous politician having lunch in a local restaurant — alone, on one occasion, an ordinary citizen reading his newspaper.”

“Parizeau had been his father’s idol”. Jerome remembered how his father had said…”that man REALLY works for Quebec. We’d be our own country today if it wasn’t for those cheats who stole the referendum from us in 1995.”

The revealing Parizeau scene concludes: “As he ate, Jerome snuck furtive glances at the former politician. He’d aged and was bent over, his grey hair almost white, yet the familiar intelligent energy and aristocratic presence that, among journalists, earned him the nickname”Sir Jacques” still emanated from his eyes, face, and smallest gestures. Simply seeing him made one forget the sordid aspects of human nature.”

Do you see what I mean? This is a deeply important book for people who wonder about what former fighters for Quebec independence are now feeling. It doesn’t make for relaxed, easy satirical fiction. It’s more like a lament. A new Lament for a Lost Nation. See what you think.

 

EXCITING VOICES FROM THE PAST

One of the best things about the Christmas /Holiday season is that memories from the past swim up. Sometimes they even swim to the surface in the mailbox, or on the phone
Three examples: I’m always delighted to hear from authors I used to publish. If they’re calling me for advice, I’m even more delighted.
Last week I heard from MARK JACCARD, in Vancouver. Mark is a Professor at SFU and one of the world’s great experts on Climate Change. Ten years ago Douglas Gibson Books at M&S brought out HOT AIR, the interesting text about the new topic that he co-authored with Jeffrey Simpson, and Nic Rivers. Now, of course, the topic of climate change has , some might say, heated up (my apologies), and Mark feels that he has more to contribute.
I was able to give him publishing advice that struck him as sound. I look forward to a fine new book, in due course.
My second example is JOHN SAWATSKY. It was in 1987 that DG Books published THE INSIDERS: Government , Business, And The Lobbyists. Before then John had become famous as an investigative reporter in Ottawa, with MEN IN THE SHADOWS, FOR SERVICES RENDERED, and GOUZENKO. Since then he has gained further fame with his Macfarlane, Walter and Ross biography, MULRONEY: The Politics of Ambition. (In that book he puts forward the interesting thesis, among many others, that we should see Brian Mulroney as essentially a French-Canadian with an Irish name. Interesting, as John Sawatsky always is.)
In recent years John has been out of the book business, working at a very high level at ESPN, in TV. Now, however,as a resounding phone call out of the blue from my old friend this week told me, he is back at work on a book about his decades of research on the art of the interview. He is now a world authority on interviews of all sorts, and John is carefully crafting a major international book about it.
Watch this space!
Finally, with much less waiting time involved, there’s the case of JONATHAN MANTHORPE. I was a beardless boy when I published THE POWER AND THE TORIES in 1974, and that book by Jonathan, The Globe & Mail’s Queen’s Park correspondent, was a huge success. Since then we’ve remained friends, as Jonathan moved West and produced thousands of articles and several books. When he approached me for advice about a controversial book about China that was scaring off potential Canadian Publishers, I didn’t hesitate. I put him in touch with the fearless Mark Cote, at Cormorant Books. As expected, the ebullient Mark was not frightened off by the controversial topic of our ally China doing alarming things in Canada , and to Canadians, and recent events and headlines have, as we all know, made the new book very important.
I’m very happy to recommend CLAWS OF THE PANDA: Beijing’s Campaign of Influence and Intimidation in Canada. I’m excitedly reading my advance copy. Grab yours in the stores next week!
And enjoy your contacts with old friends over the holidays.

FLIRTING WITH DEATH ON THE WAY TO HALIFAX

We almost died.

The lazy rental car people almost killed us.

Here’s what happened. We woke up to find Antigonish in a deep freeze.  A foot of snow had fallen, and the schools were closed. At The Maritime Inn we fuelled up with a big breakfast, preparing for a long drive all the way to Halifax, where Alexander MacLeod awaited us. We wearily checked out of our hotel room (“I’ll bring the bags, while you clear the snow off the car”), then Jane drove carefully out of the snowy town.

We were on the main highway, driving cautiously, when a truck passed us, flinging lots of dirty snow on our windshield. Jane hit the wipers, which began to scrape noisily, and very messily, across the glass. She hit the button to squirt wiper fluid to clear the windshield….and NOTHING HAPPENED. We were driving blind, with only faint streaks of light across the solid streaks of frozen snow on the squeaking glass.

Whenever a car or truck passed us, the process repeated itself. Soon we knew to slow right down when we were passed, to stop the passing car throwing more junk on our windshield. But as we inched along, the highway had no turn-offs, kilometer after kilometer, minute after scary minute. Even pulling the car to the side, to rub clean snow on our blocked front windshield, was very risky. So we edged forward, noses to the smeared glass.

Eventually we did find a turn-off, and quickly rubbed fresh snow on the front, to let us see. At the first gas station we got the hood up, to find that the windshield fluid container had FROZEN SOLID. We bought some new fluid, guaranteed to operate at temperatures well below zero, and a tube of emergency winter fluid that opened up the frozen sprinklers on the hood. Then, still badly shaken, we went back on the Highway.

You’ll notice that I have not named the car company. Yet. When we returned the car eventually, and made our complaint, the cheerful man at the desk admitted that  they were “still transitioning” from summer grade wiper fluid to winter grade. In late November! In the frozen Maritimes! Which meant that to save a cent or two on summer-weight fluid, they were risking the lives of their customers.

Apart from all that, we drove without incident down 102 from Truro ( where in NO GREAT MISCHIEF a muttered Gaelic curse produces warm hospitality from an old Cape Breton householder) then across the main bridge to Halifax and all the way east on Barrington Street, to The Waverley Hotel. To relax , I took Jane around some of my old haunts in Halifax, including the lobby of The Lord Nelson Hotel. There, as I’ve told before, Don Harron (not in his Charlie Farquharson garb, but dolled up as “Valerie Rosedale”) was waiting for our Publicist to take him around the local media when an alert House Detective sternly told him to move on from the hotel’s lobby. Jane, in no danger of being asked to move on, although excessive shivering might have been misinterpreted as wild dancing, chose to stay inside while I sought out the Park Street site of Hugh MacLennan’s house, where as a boy he had experienced the 1917 Explosion.

True to his promise, Alexander picked us up at the Waverley ( a name that was to feature in my GREAT SCOTS show, when I discussed Sir Walter Scott’s influence on Joseph-Aubert de Gaspe’s great classic, Les Anciens Canadiens). He was still the same lively Alexander, a little greyer than I remembered, and it was great to be back in touch with the beloved MacLeod family. He set us up without fuss or delay at The Sobey Building at St. Mary’s.

And as the crowd rolled in, it contained many old friends. There was Graham Pilsworth, with Jamie and their book-selling daughter. When I spoke of Charles Gordon/Ralph Connor I mentioned the classic AT THE COTTAGE by my contemporary, Charles Gordon. And…TADA!…. the fine, funny illustrations were by Graham Pilsworth! (Applause).

Also present was James Houston’s son John, and his wife Bree. It was John who kindly introduced us to the Adventure Canada world ten years ago, and he’s a very good, Inuktitut-speaking, friend.

And, amazingly, fresh from her Biology-teaching role at St. Michael’s was Brenna, W.O. MITCHELL’S GRAND-DAUGHTER. When she introduced herself and we chatted beforehand, I couldn’t help telling her excitedly that she had her grandfather’s eyes.

After the show, after further chat and some book signing, Alexander and the mediaevalist, Stehanie Morely, swept us off to a late-night dinner at 2 Doors Down, on Barrington Street. Happy conversation surged around us, and good food zoomed into us, until it was time for us to part. I’m (mostly) glad to report that, unlike some nights at The Waverley, Oscar Wilde’s ghost did not put in an appearance.

A CAPITAL TIME IN FREDERICTON

Before we left Saint John we had three notable experiences. First was the Santa Claus Parade, which I gather was not staged specially for us. But it was, in every sense, a traffic-stopper. Jane and I even saw the city’s historic  Fire Engine lumber out of the Fire Museum to join the parade, for its annual November outing in the fresh air.

Then we gave the show in the Library (formerly the Free Public Library), which had been  cleverly installed at the tourist-attracting central shopping complex, to draw foot traffic there. The Museum is right alongside, and you all know the impact it had on us. Our GREAT SCOTS show drew lots of fine people to the Library, many of whom had personal links with Scotland. Some even bought books, made available by UNB’s Andrea Kikuchi.

Finally, on our last morning we walked out on to the boardwalk beside the Hilton. Jane and I were alone there, gazing out at the Harbour, with the misty Bay of Fundy in the distance, when a tugboat chugged toward us. It was “Spitfire 3”, and had nothing under tow. To our amazement, right in front of us it suddenly put on a roaring display of power, spinning 360 degrees, creating a giant bow wave as it did a salt-water “spinarama”. Then it chugged placidly away, leaving us breathless. Ah, Saint John….if it’s not bikinis, it’s prancing tugboats!

The drive to Fredericton was a reminder how many trees line the roadsides in New Brunswick. Not fields. Trees.  When eventually we approached Fredericton, a slight confusion took us north across the river from downtown.  But how could we object to seeing the major thoroughfare named Gibson Street, and learning more about the 19th century industrialist “Boss Gibson”, who built lumber mills and cotton mills, and entire communities to serve them. Alexander Gibson sounds like a very worthy candidate to be a relative. My great-grandfather Robert, back in Kilmarnock, was in the tweed mill business, to good effect.

It was snowy and icy underfoot when we drove in to “Lower Town”, the affluent downtown of Fredericton, and found the “Carriage House Inn” on University Avenue, where John Ball had arranged a room for us. A word about John Ball. From 1981 to 1988 I taught at The Banff Centre. The summer course was called “The Banff Publishing Workshop”. In those days before internships or College courses in Publishing the Workshop took about 35 bright young people who thought they might be interested in Book Publishing as a career. Sometimes they were working at low-level jobs in publishing, and sometimes they were fresh out of university. Sometimes, like John Ball, they already worked in linked areas in publishing, and their employers liked the idea of giving them an over-all look at the industry. Then, who knew?

Well, John was a bright spark in the course (in 1985, I think) and learned, and contributed, a lot. But the academic world drew him in, and after a Ph.D. in Toronto, he married Lisa (another veteran from the extended publishing world) and moved to teach at UNB. And we managed to stay in touch, so as my Maritimes Tour began to take shape I contacted my old friend John. And, shazam, there we were at the Carriage House, just north of UNB,s main campus..

Our plan had been to spend our early hours at the Beaverbrook Art Gallery, justly famous across the country. Great idea. But not on a Monday, when the Gallery is shut as tight as your favourite simile. So Jane and I wandered around the city centre, enjoying the traditional provincial buildings, and speculating how much frantic activity was buzzing on behind the quiet facades, as the new Conservative Government came in.

We met John Ball (unchanged, except for a grey rinse to his hair) and he drove us up to Memorial Hall, where the show was to take place. I made myself scarce as Jane and John and his technical expert set up the show. I was busy wandering around inside the big hall, which dominates the university skyline as it looms over the city. It really is an impressive space, with recently restored stained-glass windows. Early generations of UNB graduates remember when the graduation ceremonies were held there.

After the set-up, Jane and I returned to our hotel room. Then, greatly daring, we trudged the icy streets back to the University, and slogged our way straight up the Hill to Memorial Hall…… breathing a little harder than usual. Jane, who tends to outstrip her walking partners in Toronto, who call her “Orkney woman!” out of respect, was less affected by the climb.

As people came in for my show, which this night was ACROSS CANADA BY STORY, I made a point of greeting them, and learning a little about them. Later, after the show , at a pleasant Q and A session, I was relieved that Desmond Pacey’s son forgave me for keeping my Maritime authors to the end.

UNB , of course, in the fullest sense is “Fiddlehead ” territory, and at the post-event supper at John and Lisa’s, it was great to spend time with Fiddlehead names that had made UNB into the impressive writing centre that it is.

But Jane and I were well aware of our drive all the way to PEI the next day, and slept well that night, dreaming of tugboats.