From 1981 to 1984 I provided weekly film reviews for the CBC Radio programme “Sunday Morning”. During much of that time the Executive Producer was Stuart McLean, bound for later glory. My Producer was the heroic Suanne Kelman, who steered me through many gasping, spluttering takes.
Here (with family names added) is one example:
Since “Never Cry Wolf” is that rare and wonderful thing, a family movie, I took along the Gibson Girls, aged 6 (Katie), 8 (Meg), and 37 (Sally). Happily, the outing was a success, marred only by the loud enquiry addressed to your discreet reviewer , “Daddy , why are you writing things down?” And despite my notes , my critical thunder was stolen by the 8-year old, who really enjoyed it, especially the mountains and the wolves, but felt that it didn’t add up to a real movie.
Like The Right Stuff, the other Wolfe movie around, the film suffers from the lack of a traditional plot. It’s based, of course, on Farley Mowat’s non-fiction classic, although the period has shifted from the late Forties to more modern times. And the setting has gone West — from the Barren Lands way north of Churchill, Manitoba, to the well-treed country on the B.C. border just south of Whitehorse, where the scenery is glorious. In fact the camera lingers so lovingly on the lakes and lichen and lonely Lawren Harris hills that I kept expecting John and Janet Foster to appear.
It’s a beautiful film — and it catches the spirit, and the humour, of Farley’s book. The voice-over by the Mowat character reveals the same terror when he’s dumped by bush plane in the snowy middle of nowhere — encircled by crates of Ottawa requisition forms, and equally useless lightbulbs — with instructions to follow wolves. This hero is hilariously unheroic, whether he’s hiding under a canoe to escape from what he thinks are wolves, or cowering in his tent as a real wolf prowls around ready to huff and puff and blow his house down.
And the theme of both book and film, of course, is that our nursery rhyme view of wolves is wrong. So we watch our boy timidly learning to co-exist with his wolf neighbours, even marking out his territory, wolf-style, fuelled by 27 cups of tea. In time he becomes very fond of the wolves, playing the buffoon (as well as the bassoon) for them, giving them names, and watching with pleasure as the romping cubs discover that Dad has a tail for the pulling.
There are other scenes certain to delight young audiences, including the famous mice-eating incident, whereby hangs a tale…… of happy shrieks of “Oooh, that’s gross!” Other crowd-pleasers have our boy showing his “bare bum” — presumably an in-joke of which the famously kilted Mr. Mowat is the butt. Add a death-defying flight through the mountains and a scary fall through lake ice and you’ve got lots of the right stuff.
That being so, it’s too bad that the film drags a bit towards the end as it tries to show not just a change of seasons but a change of mind, as the hero comes to love the North, and despise so-called “civilisation” — a process that’s not so easy to show on film. But thanks to wonderful camera work and a witty performance by Charles Martin Smith as Mowat, all of the Gibsons can promise you — if you’ll excuse the gallant pun — a Farley good time.
In Toronto this is Doug Gibson for Sunday Morning.
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.
As my faithful followers know, Jane and I travel all over Canada, and beyond, giving my stage shows about authors. But these are , for many of you, glimpses of distant pleasures.
Not this time.
If you live within striking distance of Toronto I have very good news for you. ON TUESDAY, SEPTEMBER 10, AT THE TORONTO REFERENCE LIBRARY, AT YONGE JUST NORTH OF BLOOR, I’ll be giving my ACROSS CANADA BY STORY show, from 6.30 to 8.00
It will be in the BEETON ROOM, at the back of the Main Floor. There will be a Q. and A. session at the end, with the usual range of challenging questions. My books will be available for sale, and legible signatures will be offered.
And attendance is absolutely FREE. Come along, and bring your book-loving friends. Marching bands are optional.
This marks the start of a busy fall touring season. The very next morning I’ll be at The Faculty Club, presenting GREAT SCOTS to Senior College and its very bright people, including my authors Max and Monique Nemni.
Then, on SATURDAY 14 I’ll be just outside Montreal, presenting GREAT SCOTS at the POINTE CLAIRE LIBRARY, 100 Douglas-Shand Avenue at 11.45. It’s part of a major Scottish event, which sounds like great fun.
Later, we’ll be in PRINCE EDWARD COUNTY, on WEDNESDAY 17, at the WELLINGTON LIBRARY, giving GREAT SCOTS at 6pm. This is a fund-raiser for the Library, where I’m very glad to lend a hand.
Finally, to round out a busy month, we’ll give GREAT SCOTS in Toronto at a free show in Hazelton Place, where I remember visiting my old friends Avie Bennett, Reed Scowen, and Eric Koch. Reed is still with us, but Jane and I miss Eric, who claimed that it was his invitation to me to speak at a Couchiching Conference that led to me meeting Jane , and vice versa, in 2001. Eric would take full credit for everything that ensued by claiming, loudly, “You owe it all to me!”
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.
After over 200 stage shows Jane and I have had a quiet spring…….until now.
On JULY 4, at 6.30 we’ll be presenting the Toronto Launch of our GREAT SCOTS show. It’s about the fine Canadian Fiction Writers From 1867 Onward, Who Have Links To Scotland, from 1867 To Today.
The show, containing bursts of music and great author portraits by Anthony Jenkins, will be in The Henry Learning Theatre on the Third Floor of THE TORONTO REFERENCE LIBRARY, on Yonge Street just north of Bloor.
Jane and I have travelled widely giving this show, from Guelph to Ottawa, to Montreal, Quebec City, and around the Maritimes, including Saint John, Charlottetown, Antigonish, Halifax, and Wolfville. Later we’ll be in Pointe Claire (September) and in Vancouver in October, and other places.
But this is, as I say, the Toronto Launch, and it’s ABSOLUTELY FREE. I hope that you can come along and have a good time, bringing lots of friends. There will be a Q and A, and books will be sold , and signed.
We look forward to seeing you!
In ACROSS CANADA BY STORY, I talk frankly about an18th-century man named Amherst.
I note that Amherst Island, near Kingston, “is named after the British military officer Sir Jeffery Amherst, who played a distinguished role in the capture of Quebec in 1760. Sadly, he was also a genocidal thug. In the long history of broken promises that marked the dealings between white invaders in Canada and the Native people they replaced, nothing was so terrible as the germ warfare that Amherst proposed to introduce around Fort Detroit in 1763 by giving local Indians a gift of smallpox-infected blankets, hoping, in his own words, to “extirpate” them.”
After he left Canada in 1763 to return to England, his military successes overshadowed his genocidal experiments. Unfortunately his devalued name now marks three fine communities. Amherst, near the New Brunswick border, is cheerfully described as “a gateway to Nova Scotia”, and any traveller in the Maritimes will agree that all roads seem to lead to it. Amherstburg, on the Detroit River near Lake Erie, is a small Ontario town originally laid out by Loyalists. And Amherst Island is a fine, thriving Island set in Lake Ontario just west of Kingston.
In Montreal, however, it was decided to remove the man’s name from the city. Montreal, of course, has a mixed record when it comes to changing street names. Some time ago the city embarrassed itself by re-naming the old “Mountain Street” as “La Rue de la Montagne”. This would have been fine if “Mountain Street” had been named after the prominent geographical feature that dominates the landscape there. In fact it was named in honour of the Englishman Jacob Mountain, who in 1793 was appointed Anglican bishop of the new diocese of Quebec.
In this case, however, Montreal got it right. The name “Amherst” no longer appears on the city’s street map. It has been replaced by the Mohawk word “Atateken”. Choosing a Mohawk replacement is very clever. What makes it ideal is that the word means “Brotherhood”.
So well done, Montreal, welcome “Rue Atateken”, and congratulations to Mayor Valerie Plante for realising that this was an important ceremony to attend.
Now we turn our attention to Halifax. When I was at the Writers’ Union AGM there, I strolled east to see what had happened at the park just outside the Westin Hotel Nova Scotian. That little park used to be dominated by a statue of Amherst. Amid much controversy the city had decided to remove it.
I went along to see what had replaced it.
The answer is…. nothing. We now have a park with a central place for a statue……and absolutely nothing there, and nothing to explain why there is this empty space. Maybe the people in Halifax should be talking to their friends in Montreal.
On Tuesday, June 17, The Toronto Star ran a huge photograph of me.
It took up most of page 3.
I expect that future Gibson biographers may find their initial excitement tempered by the fact that the fine photograph contains hundreds of thousands of other people. It is also the reverse of a closeup, since the photographer was high in a helicopter when he snapped the shot, dangling above the crowd at University Avenue and Queen Street. We were all waiting for the Toronto Raptors to parade past us in triumph.
I took up my place at the south-east corner of University and Queen around 11 o’clock. Surrounded by eager Torontonians of all sorts– including an amazing number of babies and little kids in strollers (“You may not remember it, but you were there! Wow, we weren’t going to let you miss that!”) — I began to wait. And wait. And wait.
Finally, close to 3 o’clock, the heroes who had scaled the traffic lights at the intersection began to wave excitedly, telling us that the parade was in sight. When it finally inched its way up University Avenue, three things became clear. First, the Raptors players, who had been waving to cheering crowds since 10 o’clock, were exhausted. Second, the forest of raised arms holding smartphones to record the moment for posterity had only for a moment the look of a Nazi rally….it was nothing political, you just, you know, like, need to take photos of big things in your life, whether they are an awesome pizza dish, or the passing of the local NBA champions. And third, although the parade was due to arrive at City Hall at 1 o’clock, nobody seemed to mind all of the hours spent waiting……this was a great Toronto event for all of us, and we were full of smiles and high fives and dazed happiness.
Because I had plenty of time to gaze across the intersection to its north-west corner, I thought a lot about The Campbell House Museum there. That old classical red-brick Palladian mansion has played a large role in the Gibson family. It has also been hugely important for Toronto.
Originally, the house was built in 1822, in the town that was then called York. The owners, William Campbell and his Nova Scotian wife Hannah , were important members of the legal establishment of little York. In fact, in 1825 William became the Chief justice of Upper Canada. The usual boring life story about a successful lawyer, you say?
Read on .
William was born in the Highlands of Scotland in 1758. As a Caithness boy he was almost certainly a Gaelic speaker. After dabbling in the study of the law, he joined a Highland regiment, and was soon shipped off to America, to fight in the Revolutionary War. He was caught up in the surrender at Yorktown, and jailed. In due course he sailed north as a United Empire Loyalist to Nova Scotia. In Guysborough he resumed his legal studies, married the daughter of a successful fisherman, and did this and that to survive. During this time he rose to become the Attorney General of Cape Breton Island. But his other public posts, leading this group and owning that mine, led to his being suspended from his role as a Councillor, because his behaviour had become “so violent, so disrespectful and indecorous”.
What can you do with such a man?
After Campbell had spent some time in London pleading his case, in 1811 the irritated government (involving a promising young man named Robert Peel) solved the problem by shipping him off to Upper Canada, as a judge. And here he stayed, in 1825 becoming the sixth Chief Justice of Upper Canada.
He and Hannah took great pride in their fine house, where they enjoyed entertaining the growing town’s leading citizens.Then, after he had been knighted, Sir William Campbell died in 1834.
Over the next 150 years the old Campbell house, at the corner of Adelaide and Frederick, went through hard times, as the area around it was converted to warehouses and parking lots. Soon the owner was threatening to destroy it . Tearing down our oldest mansions in the 1950s and 60s was so common that the fine architectural historian , Eric Arthur (author of No Mean City) sadly predicted that very soon no buildings from the 19th century would be found anywhere in Toronto.
The Campbell House changed all that. Learning of the threat to the old building , a group of angels, prosaically known as The Advocates’ Society, stepped in. With the assistance of gigantic maintenance trucks from the Toronto Transit Commission, the old house was carefully lifted aboard, then inched through Toronto’s streets . After a six-hour journey of just over 1.5 kilometres the house had reached the current site at University and Queen, where it was slowly, carefully, winched down, into its prepared place.
And there it remains.
I mentioned that it has played a large role in my family. I was there, watching the painstaking moving of the house, alongside my City Planner wife, Sally, that exciting day in March 1972. We, and the thousands who came to see old York resurrected in downtown Toronto, sensed that, as the Campbell House Museum now proudly notes, “the preservation of the house was an important turning point in architectural preservation in Toronto.”
But the Campbell House wasn’t finished with the Gibson family. When my younger daughter, Katie, was in high school, she got an excellent summer job as a guide at the House. Dressed as a Victorian servant, she would take tourists around the house,explaining what went on in this room, then demurely suggesting that we should all move upstairs into that bedroom. I joined one tour group and became a Mischievous Dad, After Katie had talked about the bedroom where the twelve of us stood, I pointed to a china object peeping out from under the bed and asked, “What’s that?”
“A chamber pot.” said Katie, calmly. Everyone looked at the idiot in the room.
Score one for Katie.
Score two happened in 2014 when Katie chose to get married in Campbell House. A very happy day.