TWO STORIES YOU NEED TO SEE

If you, my very literate friends, have the smug sense that things are much better here than south of the border, in President Trump’s America, two stories surfaced today that you should see. And think about.
The first is a story in the December 7 Globe and Mail, by Jessica Leeder headed “Pulp non-fiction debate divides Nova Scotia town.”
The opening paragraph sums up the story : “Nova Scotia-born author Joan Baxter was to spend last Saturday signing copies of her new book about a local pulp mill’s fraught environmental history in Pictou County when Northern Pulp drafted a letter to Coles and its parent company, Indigo Books & Music Inc.”
” Calling the journalistic take insulting and offensive, the letter warned the bookstore in New Glasgow, N.S., there would be consequences for the event…”
As a result of these threatened consequences, a spokeswoman for Indigo said that “a number of events leading up to the signing in New Glasgow led us to cancel” the planned event. The cancellation came , ostensibly, from concerns that customers’ “joyful and safe experience” in the store might be compromised.

So, there you have it. Big, local company turns on a local bookstore, encourages its employees to make trouble ( although the company spokeswoman told us that “employees were not encouraged to take any physical action in protest”) and Coles/ Indigo backs down, and the book signing event is off.

An important freedom of speech issue, I would say.

As it happens, I know New Glasgow, and I know Pictou, and the looming Indonesian-owned pulp mill that dominates the town, in every sense. They are such bad corporate citizens that local resident Paul Sobey (who knows something about responsible corporate citizenship) has lent his name to protests against their environmental actions, all duly recounted in my friend Silver Donald Cameron’s film”Defenders of the Dawn”.

The reconstructed version of “The Hector”, the ship that brought Scottish immigrants to Nova Scotia, behind picturesque bagpipers, lies opposite the mill. Sadly, The Hector is closed to the public, still awaiting refurbishment. If any Nova Scotia friends has good news here, I would be glad to hear it.

THE SECOND IMPORTANT STORY is to be found on the front page of The Toronto Star today. Ainslie Cruickshank’s story is headed: “Music teacher  sues board for defamation over song” The sub-heading reads: “School performance of folk song ‘Land of the Silver Birch’ leads to claims of racism and a lawsuit”.

The story opens: ” A Toronto music teacher is suing her principal, vice-principal and the public school board for defamation after the administrators sent an email to the school community apologizing that a well-known folk song — ”Land of the Silver Birch”–was performed at a school concert, calling it “inappropriate” and “racist”.”

The story is hard to summarise , so you might wish to read it for yourself. It’s especially hard for me to summarise , because THIS IS PERSONAL. In my latest show, taking us through Canadian Storytellers From 1867, decade by decade, I begin with a burst of popular Canadian music from the time. For the 1890s I proudly use “Land of the Silver Birch’, the lyrics written by Pauline Johnson in that decade, and sung by a more recent voice.

And here is what the geniuses behind that email “following concerns from parents about the song” said about Pauline Johnson’s poem. Emphasis mine :”WHILE ITS LYRICS ARE NOT OVERTLY RACIST…THE HISTORICAL CONTEXT OF THE SONG IS RACIST.”

How do I begin to deal with that? We can look at the song itself, familiar to generations of Canadian kids around campfires. They happily sang about “Blue lake and rocky shore”. Then many of them peered nervously into the darkness, hoping to catch a glimpse of a “mighty moose” wandering at will.

Great  stuff. A fine, historical folksong. I hope the kids sang it well at the concert.

But “racist”? This brings us to Pauline Johnson, whom I’m delighted to include in my show. She was born in Brantford, and went to high school there with my selected storyteller, Sara Jeannette Duncan. Later, when Sara became The Globe’s first woman writer ( protected by the male nom-de-plume”Garth Grafton”) she published an interview with her interesting friend Pauline. And “interesting” is an under-statement. Her father was a hereditary Mohawk chief, while her mother was English. Pauline drew on both sides of her inheritance. In time , she made her living with a literary act on-stage. In the first half, before the Intermission, she dressed and performed as a Mohawk princess, with poems like “The Song My Paddle Sings”. In the second half she became her mother’s very modern daughter.

Audiences far and wide loved it, as she toured North America and Europe . When she retired to the West Coast, her book Legends of Vancouver, became a great success. In 1913 her funeral in Vancouver was the largest in the city’s history.

“The historical context of the song is racist.” Utter nonsense. I’m proud to have it in my show.

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AHOY…DO YOU HAVE ANY BEER?

One of the great pleasures of my public appearances is that I often stumble across great stories about our authors. In Guelph, after my November 30 event introducing my new show GREAT SCOTS: CANADA’S FINEST STORYTELLERS WITH SCOTTISH LINKS, I was signing books when I met Neil Darroch. He told me about a childhood encounter with Farley Mowat.
When Neil was about 10 he was sailing one summer on the Ottawa River. More precisely, with their skipper, Julian Biggs, he and his father were in a race at the wide part of the river on the Lake of Two Mountains, at Hudson, Quebec. Jane and I know Hudson well, from our October show in the restored railway station theatre there, which will be the subject of a future blog.
The sailing around Hudson is still so good that the Montreal writer, my old friend Trevor Ferguson, was apparently lured to move there by its summer delights.
That summer, around 1970, young Neil was awaiting the start of the race, postponed due to light air. In his words :
“Aboard another sailboat about 100 feet away, a small, bearded fellow hailed us with the immortal words, “Ahoy! Do you have any beer?”
When my father Jim said yes, and politely offered him one, the bearded guy dived into the water, and swam to our boat. He clambered aboard. He was wearing shorts only. Very pale skin, pot belly and large beard. He looked like a pirate.
My father asked me if I knew who this man is? I replied no. My father said, “This is Farley Mowat. He is a writer!”
Mr. Mowat looked at me, scrubbed the top of my head with his hand, and said hello.
I don’t remember what was discussed between my father, our skipper, and Farley Mowat,although I assume it involved lack of wind, and the lack of beer on Mr. Mowat’s pal’s boat. I do remember that he downed a bottle quickly, thanked us, then dived off our boat, and swam back to the boat from which he came. I was left with a vivid impression of a real character. Someone who did not hesitate to do what was necessary at the moment, and damn the torpedos!
I have read most of Mr. Mowat’s works. A great writer!”

I’m sure that one of the books that Neil must have read was The Boat That Wouldn’t Float, which became a huge best-seller when it came out in 1969, just before this encounter. Yet from Neil we learn that Farley’s dicing with death among small boats had not put him off sailing for ever…….and the even more astonishing fact that his dangerous voyages with Jack McClelland around Newfoundland had been floated on a tide of rum, yet now he was content with a simple beer.
I have my own memories of Farley in those days, and he features in Across Canada By Story. The man who helped Farley select the Non-Floating Boat, was my Newfoundland author, Harold Horwood. Farley liked Harold, and would send in helpful quotes to advance Harold’s career. But because he hated the USA (he used to, famously, fire his shotgun at American planes flying overhead…high overhead) any letter from Farley to me at Doubleday Canada arrived in an envelope defaced by Farley’s indignant hand with comments about just how “Canadian” we were.
In my 2015 book you might like to read about the fun I had publishing him. As Neil Darroch says, he was a great writer.

AN EXCITING FALL….SOME HIGHLIGHTS

The tour that I’ve been advertising in my Blog has ended, until the New Year, so I’d like to bring you up to date with our adventures. Naturally, Jane ( my “techie’, and driver, and dresser, and und….well, let’s leave it there) and I had a fascinating time. We saw many interesting parts of the country, were befriended by socially engaged book-lovers, met lots of memorable authors, and gathered a number of shimmering stories.

The next few blogs will run through some of our best experiences.

Let me jump out of order to talk first about a moving experience in Knowlton, Quebec. We went to the Knowlton Festival in mid-October. Now, I know the Eastern Townships fairly well, because of my links with North Hatley, but I had never visited Knowlton. I knew that Paul Martin ( the former Prime Minister who once alarmed an Ottawa book launch with the news that “If Shakespeare had had Doug Gibson as his editor…..there would be no Shakespeare! All the best stuff cut, and left on the floor!”) had his country home there. In fact, the organisers in Knowlton had planned to hire him to insult me again, but unfortunately he and Sheila were out of the country.

So instead the clever people who run this English-language Book Festival in Quebec found an ideal man to introduce me. It was Gerald Potterton, who produced the National Film Board’s animated cartoon of Stephen Leacock’s story,”My Financial Career”, which played a large part in attracting me to Canada,as I tell in my first book, Stories About Storytellers.

The evening began with that cartoon, which is still very funny. And so is Gerald, born in 1931. Before introducing me, he told me privately that they had been considering a number of major Canadian stars to do the voice-over narration for the Leacock piece. But as a sort of place-holder they asked a guy in Winnipeg to read the piece, and he read it in one take, and it was perfect.

But before our evening event, in exploring Knowlton we came on the ancient Anglican church of St.Paul. And there, very  close to the entrance on the wall we found a Memorial Plaque to “Honor Heward Grafftey”, a woman who died in 1943.

And Hugh MacLennan sprang to mind.

In my chapter on Hugh I talk about how during his time as a teacher at Lower Canada College he befriended a boy in distress, who never forgot his kindness, and later defended the very old MacLennans. I kept that boy anonymous. But I can now reveal that it was Heward Grafftey.

What I wrote was this: “One boy, later a distinguished MP, told me that he was summoned to the headmaster’s study  and briskly informed that his mother had just died. Released into the school corridor, he stood there blinking in shock, until one of his teachers, Hugh MacLennan, came up, threw his arms around him, and held him fast, while the macho crowds flowed around them, gaping.”

It was in that little church in Knowlton that I realised that this had happened in 1943. And I thought about Hugh.

SEE MY NEW SHOW NEAR HOME THIS FALL

After Labour Day, we all change gear, and get serious about our lives. So, if you’re serious about seeing my show about our 150th Anniversary, here’s a list of places to see CANADA’S GREATEST STORYTELLERS/ LES GRANDS RACONTEURS CANADIENS 1867– 2017.
In chronological order:–
NOVA SCOTIA Cabot Trail Writers’ Festival Friday 29th September
ONTARIO Whitby, Durham Lifelong Learning Association Tuesday 3 October 2.00 pm
Eden Mills Literary Festival, Special Event, Friday 6 October, evening.
QUEBEC Knowlton Book Festival, Friday 13 October, evening.
Hudson Story Festival. , Tuesday 24 October, evening
ONTARIO Ottawa, Public Library Event (back in Ottawa by public demand!) held in the Woodside Hall , Dominion Chalmers Church, 355 Cooper Street, 7.00 pm.
Toronto, Lifelong Learning Group , Knox College, U.of T. Thursday Nov. 2, 2pm.
London, Book Festival, London Museum, Sunday Nov. 5, afternoon.
Kitchener, Public Library, Thursday Nov. 9, evening.
Toronto, Leaside Public Library, Tuesday Nov. 14, 2pm.

The list of events continues to grow, day by day. Look out, for instance, for possible events in Montreal and in Guelph.
In Spring 2018, the show will go on, and bookings are coming in…..all the way to Summer 2019!
I look forward to meeting you and your friends.

THE ORDER OF CANADA………NOT BAD, EH?

Today, June 30, 2017, has been a special day in my life. The 99 new members of The Order of Canada listed in the press included Douglas Maitland Gibson.
I am very pleased, and humbled, and proud. I hope that you, as a reader of my blog, can share that pride.
Those who have received the Order know that there’s a long nomination procedure that can run for many months. I, quite properly, stayed aloof from the whole process. Jane, however, was very helpfully involved. My wife would be good at running a secret spy network.
Now may be the time to thank my chief Nominator, Marc Cote, known to all as the Publisher of Cormorant Books. Marc (who tells me that he has a very successful record as a sponsor), researched my biography and wrote persuasive letters on my behalf. He also arranged letters of support from ( I have just learned) three very impressive literary figures, Erna Paris, Jack Hodgins, and Guy Vanderhaeghe.
You can imagine how grateful I am to all of them.
I won’t repeat the Citation that came from Rideau Hall, but it certainly makes me sound like a very impressive figure. And it’s especially pleasing that I arrived in Canada (as a penniless Scottish immigrant, with straw in my hair) in a significant year….1967!
Now Jane and I are looking forward to the Ottawa ceremony, and the formal dinner, when mingling with the very distinguished group of other nominees seems certain to be great fun. And if Mike Myers happens to be in our group. I’ll ask him how on earth he came up with the name of his latest TV show character, Tommy Maitland.

In Memoriam: Avie Bennett (as published by PEN Canada)

By | June 15, 2017 at 12:36 pm | No comments | Blog | Tags: ,

Avie Bennett, publisher, philanthropist and dedicated supporter of PEN Canada, passed away on June 2, 2017. Douglas Gibson reflects on Bennett’s life, work and support of writers and freedom of expression.

In Memoriam: Avie Bennett

Douglas Gibson and Avie Bennett, M&S, McClelland & Stewart

Douglas Gibson and Avie Bennett. (Photo courtesy of Douglas Gibson)

Avie grew up in a Jewish family in a Toronto where he saw signs posted on beaches that were “Closed to Dogs and Jews.” That experience shaped him, and was part of what drew him to the world of publishing, with its central belief that good books can make the world a better place.

After making his fortune in the tough arena of Toronto real estate, he became helpfully involved in trying to save Jack McClelland’s indebted publishing company, McClelland & Stewart. In 1986, to his surprise he bought the legendary company. He liked to tell the story that having made this impulsive leap, he asked Jack what he should do now. Jack apparently suggested that he should try to hire the rival publisher of Macmillan of Canada, “young Doug Gibson”. He did so, giving me the first editorial imprint in Canada. Eighteen months years later, in September 1988, he hired me to take over as the publisher of M&S.

For the rest of his time as chairman and owner, until 2000, we worked side by side, spending countless hours together. This meant that I had a privileged view of Avie in action, and saw how his deepest beliefs affected the world of books.

For example, PEN members will be interested to hear that when Salman Rushdie’s controversial novel, The Satanic Verses, fell under a fatwa issued by the Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran in 1989, it produced a march of enraged Muslims in Toronto, chanting death threats against the author. Avie’s reaction was to propose an instant campaign of resistance, where M&S, and every publishing company in Canada, would defiantly display the controversial book at their reception desks. We were prepared not only to do so ourselves, but to organise a Canada-wide campaign, but when we approached the book’s publisher, Penguin, they pleaded with us not to do so, for the safety of all involved. I’m not sure that they were right.

In matters concerning freedom of speech, Avie was a solid defender of publishing freedoms, fighting against people like Conrad Black who were inclined to shut down embarrassing book investigations of their world. In the political arena, M&S was deliberately non-partisan, bringing out books by authors ranging from Pierre Trudeau to Brian Mulroney, and from Elizabeth May to Preston Manning. It was an ongoing demonstration of faith in the power of the classic belief that if you allow everyone to make their case in a careful, well-argued way, in the market-place of ideas the best case will win, eventually.

As a boss, Avie was outspoken and frank. He was part of the editorial meetings that I chaired, where new book ideas were floated, sometimes successfully (“Why don’t we approach John Crosbie to write a book?”) and sometimes not (too many examples to give any details, including books that went on to success elsewhere). All of the management books about encouraging employee suggestions would frown on outbursts from Avie along the lines of “That’s the stupidest book idea I’ve ever heard” but it was accepted by us because it was Avie – the same Avie who would reprimand a famous author, and threaten to cancel his publicity tour, for being rude to a young publicist.

The celebrity agent Michael Levine called Avie and me “The Odd Couple” because he was a very successful businessman, which I was not, he was Jewish while I sounded like an RCMP Corporal from Central Casting, he was a graduate from the School of Hard Knocks, while I was a fancy-pants literary guy who edited Robertson Davies, and he admired the finest liquor, while I was a prim tee-totaller. But we got along very well together, and published many fine books. I was proud to go to Sweden in 2013 with Avie as part of the group celebrating Alice Munro’s Nobel Prize. Despite all of his other achievements in many worlds that I have not been able to mention here, that event was a high point in the life of a great Canadian, Avie Bennett.

Douglas Gibson worked with Avie Bennett at M&S as the Publisher from 1988 to 2000, then as the President till 2004. After he left the company in 2007 he became an author, with Stories About Storytellers (2011) and Across Canada By Story (2015). He is now touring the country with a new stage show, Canada’s Greatest Storytellers  1867–2017.

Remembering Stuart McLean

Stuart McLean was once my boss. He was the Producer of the CBC radio show, Sunday Morning, from 1981 to 1983, and I was the programme’s weekly movie reviewer from ‘81 to ‘84.

It was a whirlwind environment, a little like a student newspaper, with excited, bright, young people dashing out on to Jarvis Street from the old red-brick building to record street noises for the final section of a profile that was already 95% “in the can”.  Stuart was right at home in the middle of the whirlwind, chatting, and laughing, and losing things, and encouraging the troops. He was, as everyone who saw him on-stage knows, a resolutely “aw-shucks” guy. Word filtered out that his cheerfully unrehearsed acceptance speeches, when his show won international awards, caused scowls at “The Kremlin”, the CBC headquarters.

Yet I know that he could be an inspiring leader. My contact with the show was through the superb Suanne Kelman (who fiercely taught me “how to breathe” on the air) and after 10 rigorous takes and re-takes of my 3-minute piece, I would go home before noon on Saturday. Once, my restful afternoon was marked by a phone call from Stuart.

“Doug, I’ve just heard your review for tomorrow’s show, and I wanted to tell you how great it is to have you doing your movie reviews for us.” Other compliments followed. And I swelled with pride and pleasure, and remembered the incident fondly, as you can see.

Some years later, I almost became his boss, or at least his Publisher. I had just started my own imprint at M&S and had lunch with Stuart to discuss his future, since at the time he was selling traffic barrier equipment, which was not the ideal road to success. Stuart had some interesting ideas for heading into the book world. I warmly encouraged him to develop his plans for a book. But I explained that I was busy bringing major authors who had already published with me to my new Douglas Gibson Books imprint. To be loyal to Avie Bennett, who had arranged my new home at M&S, I suggested that I would be glad to promote his new book idea to Adrienne Clarkson and her team at M&S. I did so, with enthusiasm…..and was astonished when later they turned him down. Fourteen Penguin titles, and more than a million book sales later……

The only figure I can compare Stuart with – as an author who became a beloved performer across the country… is W.O.Mitchell.  Stuart and he met through their mutual friend Peter Gzowski, and I know they hit it off right away. I like to think that W.O. spotted Stuart as a blood brother, another guy who loved travelling around and meeting ordinary Canadians in places large and small. I believe that W.O. knew by instinct that he would turn into a major storyteller. Certainly Stuart loved spending time with W.O., and was a good friend to him.

For instance, when we issued tapes of W.O.’s stage performances, it took me no time at all to persuade Stuart to contribute a fond Introduction to “An Evening With W.O. Mitchell”. He said “Hello, I’m Stuart McLean, and I’ve been a fan of W.O. Mitchell ever since I heard him read when I was in University. So I’m delighted to be part of this Tribute to W.O. Mitchell, the Writer and the Performer…”

After W.O. died, a fund-raiser for the Writers’ Trust featured an auction for one of his snuff-boxes. Stuart was a determined bidder until almost the end, when a very rich rival won. When the Mitchell family learned of Stuart’s disappointment, they sent him another of W.O.’s snuff-boxes. Orme Mitchell still remembers the touchingly grateful letter he received.

As for me, I stayed in touch with my old friend.  I remember disappointing him at The Royal York at a Bookseller’s Awards Ceremony where he was the MC. When I stepped up to the platform to accept an award won by Alice Munro, he said “Aww, it’s Doug”, in sinking tones. Once I was the MC at A Different Drummer Books event in Burlington, where by contrast I had fun at his expense.

The fun stopped when he fell ill with melanoma, although in our phone chat early in 2016 he was very upbeat, confident about the odds. When I called ten days ago, I spoke to Stuart’s son, Robbie, who told me that his father was sleeping. Two days before he died I left a fond message on his answering machine, a message into limbo from an old friend, who now knows that it’s always later than you think.