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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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 :—
2 St. Andrews
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.
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.