Supporting the Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour

Recently I learned that this Award was in grave danger of disappearing, because the money to keep it alive was shrinking. I knew that over the years the annual Prize had played a huge role in advancing the careers of some authors. I knew, too, that in a modern world of shrinking financial returns for writers the money won by the successful author is very useful . Just think……food, drink, warm clothes!

So, encouraged by the example of my friend Terry Fallis, I made a contribution.

Then, I realized that instead of just making a financial contribution I could tell a few stories about Leacock, the Award, and me. One thing led to another, and this week David Mallinson, in charge of the fund-raising drive, published my essay.

I’m attaching it here, for your pleasure:–

STEPHEN LEACOCK CHANGED MY LIFE

When I was a boy growing up in rainy Glasgow, inside the school library I came across the work of Stephen Leacock. His Nonsense Novels and Literary Lapses had me chortling, and wanting to learn more about this very funny writer. It turned out that he was a Canadian. Aha! Obviously Canadian writers were excellent. If I were to get the chance to visit Canada….

One thing led to another, and after St. Andrews I got a scholarship that took me to Yale. After that I got a Greyhound Bus pass that took me across America, so that I entered Canada off the ferry at Victoria. Heading east I spent many hours gazing out of the bus window at lakes and trees in Northern Ontario. Then fields and farms and maple trees appeared, and soon we were approaching a sunny little town of orange brick named Orillia. Wait a minute! Surely this was the place that Leacock had….. and of course it was, and in a sense I had arrived at the Canada I was seeking.

We got to stretch our legs there, and the sun was shining, and the little town did indeed look like a scene of “deep and unbroken peace” – although I knew that, in reality, the place was “a perfect hive of activity”.

Some months later, in March 1968, I got an editorial job in Toronto. The very first book I got to edit was, of course, a biography of Stephen Leacock.

That book, a serious study by Montreal’s David M. Legate, was not a candidate for the Stephen Leacock Award for Humour. But I have a weakness for publishing funny books, so over the years I have been involved with many celebrations of this important Award. The winning authors included Harry J. Boyle (who enjoyed being Mariposa’s Honorary Mayor, and who changed my life by introducing me to a Huron County friend named Alice Munro). There was Robert Thomas Allen (author of Children, Wives and Other Wildlife) who at the grand Dinner was delighted, but shy. Donald Jack (after winning the Leacock Award for both Three Cheers for Me and That’s Me in The Middle ) played up to the role of his character, Bartholomew Bandy, by dressing in a cocked hat. The irrepressible W.O. Mitchell misbehaved, and to my horror got into a public spat with a cousin.

I’ve been involved with publishing many former Leacock Award winners like Eric Nicol, Pierre Berton, and Robertson Davies. But perhaps the best story involves Terry Fallis. Terry, whom I knew as a friend, had self-published a funny book called The Best Laid Plans in 2007. But its future was very limited. Until Terry read that self-published books could be entered for the Leacock Award. So he entered, and won! This brought me into the picture very fast, and I went on to publish this hidden book, which has now sold over 100,000 copies!

So the Leacock Award continues to do very good work. It deserves our support.

 

If you would like to help the Leacock Award Fund-raising drive, use the link here, or copy it into your browser.

https://fundrazr.com/campaigns/Leacock_Medal/pay?utm_campaign=story-update&utm_medium=email&utm_source=09-2020

TRUE ROMANCE…..A final note, which you may know if you’ve followed my book, STORIES ABOUT STORYTELLERS. There I talk about how, having lured me to Canada, Leacock is apparently still hovering over me. In the summer of 2001 I went to Geneva Park, near Orillia, to give a speech to the Couchiching Conference on globalization and publishing, or something equally grand. At the conference was a member of the board named Jane Bartram, who was to my smitten eyes clearly The Most Fascinating Woman in the World. During the first evening’s sober political conversation I attracted her attention by recounting what I had learned that day about the rules of the Jumping Frog Competition at the Sutton Fair, Leacock territory in every sense. Our first date was a canoe ride together on Lake Couchiching, where we did not quite reach Leacock’s Old Brewery Bay on the opposite shore. But having brought me to Canada he was still obviously running my life. Jane and I were married within the year, and are still going strong, 19 years later .

Keep up the good work, Professor Leacock.

 

 

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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.

W.O.MITCHELL AT MABEL LAKE

We know that W.O., (1914-1998) the beloved author of Who Has Seen The Wind, and many other books and radio plays including Jake and The Kid, was a remarkable character. In fact my chapter on him in Stories About Storytellers has the sub-title “Character, and Creator of Characters.”

He and Merna were also creators of children, who have proved to be interesting  writers. The prime example is Orm, who with his wife Barbara wrote the fascinating two-part biography of his father. I proudly published them with Volume One simply called “W.O.”, and Volume Two grandly entitled “Mitchell”. But second son Hugh, a former teacher, has now come forward as a writer. Thanks to Alan Twigg’s B.C Bookworld, I came across an essay from Hugh that appears in a new book called Flowing Through Time: Stories of Kingfisher and Mabel Lake.

First, the location. Mabel Lake is in eastern B.C., just south of the Trans-Canada highway, near Enderby, north of Vernon. Its location made it easy for Albertans like W.O. (based in High River, then Calgary) to drive west into the mountains, through Banff,  find a spot for a cottage beside a lake, then build a summer retreat. That was what W.O. did in 1963, on Mabel Lake.

And that’s the subject of Hugh’s fond essay, called simply “The Mitchell Family at Mabel Lake”. But nothing to do with Bill was simple. As Hugh puts it, gently, “Summers at ‘the lake’ were pretty exciting. Life with W.O. Mitchell was never dull….”

For example, people on the lake used to honk for someone to come in a boat to the parking lot to bring them across to their cabin. Each cabin devised a ritual honk (short-short-long, for instance). On this occasion , Hugh tells us, “W.O. was up on the roof trying to finish mortaring  the chimney cap for the fireplace that he had built that summer. He was engrossed in the delicate finishing touches of the chimney cap with a small triangular trowel. Doing delicate finishing work on anything except writing was not one of his fortes.”

Hugh goes on:  “Across the river mouth , Mrs Van Fossen had just arrived from shopping in Enderby and started the ritual honking to get a ride to her cabin.”The honking went on and on. “Dad was just reaching inside the chimney cap to smooth out a grout line as Mrs. Van Fossen laid on the horn. Startled, W.O. dropped the little trowel down the chimney and it settled on top of the damper plate. He looked up and screamed across the river mouth, “Shit! Shit! Shit! Get off that God-damned horn!”

The crisis continued, producing a very memorable image. Hugh tells us: “He could not reach the trowel from inside the fireplace hearth, and thus it became another extended delicate operation to retrieve the trowel from inside the chimney USING HIS FISHING ROD (my emphasis). Mabel Lake cabin owners were not surprised to see W.O. Mitchell up on the roof fishing in his chimney”.

The stories go on, many dealing with W.O.’s fishing and boating adventures. One of them I heard him tell to my Publishing Workshop at The Banff Centre, around 1985. For reasons that made sense to him, W.O. was alone in his boat on the empty lake when spilled gasoline on his pants made it necessary for him to tinker with the engine stark naked. When he stood up and arched to ease his acing back, he found that a silent sailboat had drifted alongside him, full of pop-eyed sailors of both sexes. W.O. told us that he instantly called out. “What class is that boat?”

Hugh tells the story of how W.O.s love of a bargain let him down: “Dad was always exclaiming what a great deal he got. He paid $5.00 per 100 board feet for the 2×4 deck boards. It didn’t turn out to be such a great deal, as the deck boards started rotting out within five years and culminated in George McClelland, former Chief Superintendent of the RCMP, plunging through an especially rotten section of the deck, getting stuck up to his midriff.” George McClelland, Hugh recalls” wasn’t a small man….We had some difficulty extracting him.”

Great stories. Somehow they make W.O.’s stories about blowing up Grandpa in the outhouse seem less amazing. Just everyday stuff.

Many thanks for sharing all this, Hugh.