On the Robertston Davies Trail

The morning after the Arnprior show, Dave and Alison fed me kippers then took me on a sentimental journey to Renfrew. This was the town, sixty miles northwest of Ottawa, where Robertson Davies (born in 1913)  spent the years from 1919 to 1925.

The town (a little larger than its rival, Arnprior, to the east) had a huge influence on Davies during those formative years. As Judith Skelton Grant shows in her expert biography, Davies did not enjoy Renfrew, and he got his revenge with the portrait he painted of “Blairlogie” in What’s Bred in the Bone. “It thought of itself as a thriving town, and for its inhabitants the navel of the universe.” (The physical metaphor could, I suppose, have been worse.)

He wrote about its proud ignorance and its exclusivity (where newcomers were concerned), and commented on the three-layer cake of its inhabitants, with the Scots on top, followed by the French, then with the newer Polish immigrants at the bottom. Even at the age of 70, his feelings about Renfrew were so strong that he felt that he had to write “to get it out of my system.”

We began our tour with a visit to the McDougall Mill Museum, kindly opened for us specially by the very knowledgeable Mr. Gilchrist. The museum  building itself is hugely impressive, set beside a fast section of the Bonnechere River. Since Renfrew was at the heart of the timber trade, the museum is rich in examples of the tools of the trade involved in “hurling down the pine.” There are many photographs of the local bands that must have entertained young Rob Davies, and posters for the “O’Brien Opera House,” which we know he attended. For What’s Bred in the Bone he turned Senator O’Brien (who was in fact an important figure not only in the lumber trade, but also in the development of hockey, and the man behind The Renfrew Millionaires) into Senator McRory.

It was notable that the sports teams from the start of the century shown in team photos all featured Scottish and Irish names. By the 1950s there was a fair sprinkling of Polish names on the team.

We tried to trace the three Davies houses in Renfrew. Of the first house Judith Skelton Grant writes that “the Davieses were dismayed to find that the house . . . arranged for them was in the Polish section of town.” We found the house on Cross Avenue, and I roamed around outside, taking in the stark red-brick exterior. As if on cue a young man came out to check the mailbox just by the front door. I greeted him with my usual charm: “Hi there! Did you know that a famous author once lived in this house?”

“Huh?”

“Yeah, his name was Robertson Davies, a famous Canadian author. He lived right here when he was a boy, about a hundred years ago.”

If I’d told him that birds sometimes landed on the roof of his house his shrugging reaction would have been the same: “Whauuh,” followed by a determined return to the house and a slamming of the door.

We found the old site of the Renfrew Mercury office, where Davies sometimes helped his father (at the age of nine he even wrote a review of a local lecture, where a lady sang “very acceptably”). It is now a sporting goods store, right next door to the grand central post office on Raglan Street. We failed to find the second house, but did cross the dramatically  swaying suspension bridge that he crossed every morning to get to school. And we did find the dramatic final Davies House (now a Doctor’s Surgery) in the best part of town, marking the rise of the Davies family over those Renfrew years.

We did not knock on the doctor’s door. Although the woman who runs the sporting goods store had heard of him.

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Arnprior Is a Priority

The day after my time swanning around the Chateau Laurier as one of the Honoured Guests at Politics and the Pen, I was picked up at the hotel and whisked an hour west to Arnprior. The whiskers were my old friends David Lewis Stein and his wife, Alison. Dave is famous as the author (whom I’m proud to have published) and Toronto Star columnist who dressed like a Damon Runyon character, a fedora always perched on his head. He was also famous as the man who really knew Toronto city politics, inside out, and was the ultimate streetwise, big-city guy. And now he has retired to Arnprior, a little town of about 8,000 in the Ottawa Valley, where Alison’s family has ancient links.

How are they doing? Very well indeed, to judge from my happy stay with them at the big Victorian house that sits about 100 yards away from the distinctive Arnprior Museum, where Alison puts in volunteer time. About fifty yards down the main street is Gwen Storie’s bookstore.That evening the amazing Gwen and her staff rearranged the store to accommodate 40 paying customers ($15.00, including a delicious snack in the bakery next door) and I gave my show.

And we sold 26 copies! If you walk down the street in Arnprior, the odds that the first person you meet has a copy of my book at home are pretty good!

The more serious message is that a good local bookstore can act as an important community centre, and I’m glad to do all I can to help the Gwen Stories of this world.