AN ASTONISHING STORY ABOUT HUGH MACLENNAN

As you know from Stories About Storytellers I’ve long had a huge admiration for Hugh MacLennan. There’s a whole chapter in that book about him, full of admiring stories, showing how this man bestrode Canadian culture, carving a trail for other writers. You’ll recall that he won three Governor-General’s Awards for Fiction, but — just as important — also two for Non-Fiction, thanks to his wide-ranging essays.

My new book will have a chapter on him.  While most of the chapters are centred on a Province (“Saskatchewan!” or “The Coasts of B.C.”) his is simply “Hugh MacLennan’s Canada”. As you’d expect, it deals with Halifax, and Montreal, and Quebec City, and Sherbrooke and his beloved Eastern Townships, including North Hatley, where he died in 1990.

But since Hugh was also the author of The Colour of Canada, and The Rivers of Canada (where as a young editor I played a role as a minor tributary) for this book of Literary Tourism  I have him take us right across the country, to the roaring Fraser in the West, and the mighty Mackenzie in the north. His love of the country comes through in every line he wrote.

He was such a major Canadian figure that he was often called up for national assignments. In 1958 the country was facing a General Election, with two leaders who  were not well known, Lester Pearson and John Diefenbaker (who had just won an unexpected minority). To allow people to get to know them better Maclean’s magazine selected Hugh to be one of a panel of three interviewers, with Pierre Berton as the Chair.

The interview with Diefenbaker did not go well . Here is how Pierre Berton described it in his memoir, My Times :  “When the interview ended and the prime minister left, I looked at Hugh MacLennan, who was clearly badly shaken by the encounter.   “The thought of that man being prime minister…” he kept saying. Suddenly he hurried to the washroom and threw up.”

There are other, much more surprising revelations about Hugh in the book.

Marching to the Beat of a Different Drummer in Burlington

This was the last pre-Christmas show, and in several ways it was the biggest.

Ian Elliot at A Different Drummer Books had bravely booked the new Burlington Arts Centre (recently opened by Stephen Harper, and then filled in its main space by Sarah McLachlan). Even more bravely, he had asked me to do the full 90-minute version of the show.

The hall (the smaller of the two) was so new that the sound guys were still finding out which system worked. This delayed the start, meaning that the crowd was kept in the lobby, outside the closed theatre doors. I took the chance to go out and roam around, explaining that there was just a brief technical hitch, and we’d be starting soon. The best part was that I was able to meet lots of old friends and colleagues and to make some new ones, so when the show started I felt at home.

In the end 125 people showed up to fill the place, paying $10.00 for the privilege. Best of all, Ian reported that a staff usher on duty, who had been disgruntled at not being assigned the (very expensive) Sarah McLachlan show, felt compensated, at least partly.

People in the audience seemed to like it, with an enthusiastic minority giving me a standing ovation . . . or perhaps their legs were cramping after 90 minutes. I was delighted when Ian reported that one man told him, “I had no idea what to expect of the evening . . . but, God, he was good!” I’m going to retire now.

South to Windsor

Jane and I drove to Windsor for a double-billed event: a publishing panel at 2:00 p.m., followed by the one-man show (60-minute version) at 4:00. So after a long drive we were proud of our timing when we checked in at our hotel at 12:00. Only to learn that the Writers Festival folks had been calling the hotel in a panic. Didn’t I know that the show had been moved forward . . . to 11:30?

Well, no. So in horror I learned that 60 people had sat there eagerly awaiting me, to go away disappointed, with the news that my event would run later (against a popular already scheduled 4 o’clock event). We got about half of them back, but it was an embarrassing case of broken telephone.

The publishing panel, with Jack David (my publisher, and thus a model of wisdom in all things), Alana Wilcox from Coach House, and Jack Illingworth from the Literary Press Group, and me, was led by local publisher Dan Wells. I’m not sure that we left our audience feeling joyful optimism about where publishing is headed, but we spoke truth to lack of power.

My show was notable for being conducted in a fine Group of Seven Gallery. I had to apologize to a gallery visitor as we put up the screen in front of an especially fine MacDonald landscape, while he peered around it. And we filled the seats available, with Alistair MacLeod arriving late (he was involved with the rival event) just in time to miss my properly admiring account of his work. But as he came in, I said, “Oh, I’m going to have to stop saying rude things about Alistair . . . he’s just come into the room.”

Martin Deck, who runs the university bookstore, gave me a fine introduction, and vote of thanks, and I rushed off to sign lots of books (“Best Windsor wishes”).

On the way back the next day we took a side trip to Point Pelee. The birds were otherwise engaged, but I got to dip my toe in the water at the very southernmost inch of Canada’s mainland. Nearby teenagers were amused by this Tip Dip.

— Douglas Gibson

A Stop at Brock

I was delighted to be a keynote speaker at Brock’s Annual Two Days of Canada conference. I gave the full 90-minute show, punctuated by my ripping off a malfunctioning lapel mic and shouting my way through whenever I strayed from the mic behind the podium. There is a rule that no mic works immediately when you’re setting up, or consistently, when you are set up. So adaptability is not just a virtue, but a necessity. But a stage show with the performer tethered behind a podium is a reduced version of the real thing.

I was kindly looked after by my faculty hosts, Scott and Marian, and stunned by a case of extraordinary academic memory retention. One fine man kindly remembered a talk on Hugh MacLennan that I gave nineteen years ago!
A high point for me came from the name of the room where I performed: Pond Inlet. There I was, recreating a polar bear attack in a room (almost as far south as Niagara Falls) entitled Pond Inlet, with the room’s nameplate using English, French, and Inuktitut.

Signing books afterwards allowed me to chat with Shelley Martin, of the Brock bookstore, who is a veteran who has worked with most of the authors in my book. My book signing is getting better. When in doubt, I  write “Best wishes.” The encouraging slogan “Good reading!” can sound awfully close to boasting, a description rather than an exhortation.

— Douglas Gibson

New frontiers not far from home . . .

Though this Dispatches section will have tales of the Adventures of Douglas Gibson all across our fine country, for a new author, there are adventures to be had at home as well as abroad. Our intrepid author headed to his local Book City, and after locating his book (defying the Murphy’s Law that governs such things), Doug signed a few, and afterward took the time to write a note to the manager about his new experience:

Greetings,

Although you don’t know it, you have just played a major role in the transformation of your friend Doug Gibson, editor and publisher, into Doug Gibson, typical author.

This morning my wife and I went into your Danforth store. We found 5 copies of my book and I carried one to Hanna at the front desk (in case I needed proof, I suppose, if challenged) and shyly confessed that I was . . . ahem . . . the author of this book, and . . . er . . . um . . . would she like me to sign the copies in the store?

She responded very kindly, and stood by with “Autographed” stickers, while I adorned the books with a signature that she generously described as “cool.”

Then, after buying another, different book, Jane and I exited. It was my very first in-store signing, and a frontier has definitely been crossed.

— Douglas Gibson

A few words on Word on the Street

Toronto’s Word on the Street. Great weather means an attendance ten times the rain-swept version. Queen’s Park looks perfect with crowds of adults and kids and dogs  and tents, prompting the question: why doesn’t the city make more frequent use of this fine, central park?

A series of “firsts” for me. The very first public  reading from my book, and it takes place in a tent labelled (are you ready?) “Vibrant Voices Of Ontario.” The tent is flatteringly full, and Stuart Woods of Quill & Quire introduces me efficiently. I explain that my book is a series of profiles of authors that I edited, but that I’ve chosen to read the book’s Epilogue, “What Happens After My Book Is Published?”, which consists of the Awful Warnings I used to give to first-time authors. As usual, most of the crowd laughs happily at the examples of Murphy’s Law in action – and authors and publishers shake their heads in  sad recognition.

The second “first” is that, after a “Q and A session,” I am led to the “Authors Signing Tent.” There I shyly sign seven (maybe even eight!) copies, and find myself guiltily resenting the pals who stand at the front of the line to chat, not buy. As the line-up disappears I have time to notice that within twenty metres is the superb black  statue of my old friend Al Purdy, characteristically in a relaxed sitting pose, his hair drooping to the very life. I published him at M&S and, in addition to routine, in-office chats, we became friends after I went out to High Park to support him at a sweltering outdoor reading. Backstage, I remember, he was really glad to see me, and we both were bathed in sweat. I hope that the campaign run by Jean Baird to try to preserve his A-frame house in Prince Edward County is going well. I should have done more to help.

There’s still time though, and efforts to save the house continue. On November 23, Margaret Atwood is giving a special presentation at Picton’s Regent Theatre. Her provocatively titled presentation “Bulldozing the Mind: The Assault on Cultural and Rural Heritage” follows a reception with Ms. Atwood at Books & Company featuring County food and wine. More details can be found here.

— Douglas Gibson