Stratford and Me

I’m getting more and more excited  about my show at the Stratford City Hall on Saturday, May 11, at 8 p.m.

It’s part of the famous SpringWorks festival, and I’ll also be giving a special show for schools on the Friday afternoon. This has set me wondering just how well a young audience will react to stories from behind the scenes in the world of books, a world that alarmists warn is increasingly remote from their own world. Maybe a Harry Potter comparison or two would be helpful . . . especially the story of idiot publishers turning down J.K. Rowling’s first Harry Potter manuscript!

I’m spending some time recalling my own Stratford connections. As a publisher I was proud to bring out the official  Festival history, Stratford: The First Thirty Years by John Pettigrew and Jamie Portman in 1985. That handsome two-volume edition was published by me at Macmillan of Canada, with a Foreword by Robertson Davies. I note with pleasure that he dated his Foreword “March 1, St. David’s Day,” and we, sparing no expense, ran his distinctive signature in blue ink. I forget why blue was regarded as the ideal colour for the signature of this avid supporter of the festival from its earliest years. Blue?

Later, the link between Robertson Davies and the festival was made clear, in the saddest of settings. Along with John Fraser, RD’s successor as the Master of Massey College, I was involved in arranging the Celebration of the Life of Robertson Davies at Convocation Hall in Toronto in 1995. I asked Richard Monette, then the Artistic Director of the Stratford Festival, to join the group of speakers paying tribute to the Master’s life, and Richard did a superb job, speaking of RD as a Stratford supporter, and as a man of the theatre. That memorable evening had two other speakers with Stratford links: Timothy Findley, a festival alumnus, and Jane Urquhart, for many years a Stratford resident.

Like most Ontarians I have warm memories of many fine visits to Stratford, usually theatrical, but sometimes involving visits to friends like Geoff Hancock, Lynn Schellenberg, or Lucille Roch. I have even met Alice Munro for lunch there. But usually my meetings with Alice were at her home in Clinton or in Goderich. This meant that to follow the old Huron Line I would take a right turn at Stratford City Hall, and head west into Alice Munro Country. It’s appropriate that the building I used as my landmark for that turn to visit Alice will now house my show, with its tribute to Alice and her achievements . . . although the caricature of Alice bears the mischievous subtitle  “Not Bad Short Story Writer.”

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Gibson’s Stage Show Returns to Toronto

After around 50 performances, in places from Haida Gwaii to Halifax, Douglas Gibson’s Stories About Storytellers stage show is returning for a rare midtown Toronto performance. On Tuesday, May 7th at 7:30 p.m., Doug will be bringing his memoir to life at the Heliconian Club (35 Hazelton Ave.). For tickets, call 416-922-3618.

Update: This show is now sold out. Watch the events page for more Toronto shows.

Politics and the Pen

For many years now the Writers’ Development Trust has sponsored a very successful fundraising event in Ottawa. The March dinner at The Chateau Laurier is now a fixture on the Ottawa social scene, with guests promised that their table will feature both a politician and an author.

In the past I used to attend the dinner as a Publisher. In fact, my book tells the story that I first met Sheila and Paul Martin when I was placed at the Prime Minister’s table because an organizer had said, “Oh, Doug can talk to anyone.” And I always had a good time, especially when my authors (such as Max and Monique Nemni) were winning the evening’s big award, The Shaughnessy Cohen prize.

After my book came out, however, I was upgraded, and became An Author. This meant that I was invited to attend, free, flown to Ottawa, and very well cossetted at the dinner, where all authors are issued a medal and a colourful ribbon (green last year, red this year) to hang the medal around the neck like a Nobel Prizewinner. It’s all very good fun, and an excellent cause.

Before the dinner I had the perfect Ottawa afternoon. First I met with Sean Wilson, who runs the Ottawa Book Festival. It’s a very successful series that helped me a lot. In the Fall of 2011, when my book was just days old, and I had hardly started to tour my show, Sean took a chance on the stage show, and we were both relieved when it worked out well — and we sold out of every copy of my book. The future seems bright for his festival, although arts programming is never easy.

Next I spent a fascinating half hour at the office of my old friend Jeffrey Simpson, of the Globe and Mail. He’s always full of  interesting ideas (the man’s a columnist, after all!) but he’s also a fascinating witness to major changes in the Canadian Book business. He has produced non-fiction best-sellers about Canadian public issues in the 1980s, the 1990s, the 2000s, and right up until last year, when his book about our medical system hit the stands.

He tells me that everything has changed from the “magic carpet” days when your publisher would whisk you around the country from city to city, from one book talk show to the next. Now it’s up to the author to behave as his or her own publicist (he used the adjective “brazen”) and he estimated that of the 40 or so public appearances/speeches he made to promote his new book, he personally arranged 75% of them. He and I were excitedly confirming each other’s findings that the new world out there demands ever more active author involvement in promotion — although I can’t promise a one-man stage show from Jeff Simpson in the near future.

My final stop was at the CBC building, where my wife’s niece, Amy Castle, the Producer of the daily TV show, Power and Politics, invited me to sit in on the control room. Fascinating!

Everyone knows about the number of screens up there at the front of the room, and the constant directions to switch to this camera or this piece of film, but the instant typing of the links for the host  on the teleprompter, and the guy at the front choosing which tweets to add as crawlers to the screen were new to me. I was supposed to be quiet and anonymous – my desired state, of course – but when a Liberal backbencher was introduced and there was loud uncertainty in the room about the spelling of her first name, I was able to announce “Kirsty” very decisively; she’s a friend.

After that it was time to rush to the Chateau Laurier and don my 48-year-old dinner jacket, plus medal, and mingle. I suspect that few guests were able to range as widely on the political spectrum, chatting with old friends from Ed Broadbent to Preston Manning. Among the authors I enjoyed chatting with at the loud cocktail party were Lisa Moore (fresh from her victory in Canada Reads), Lawrence Martin, Paul Wells, and David Miller (who is a good enough friend that I have never raised the name Rob Ford in his presence). And I later was able to tell Justin Trudeau stories about his father that he had never heard, including my “Trivial Pursuit” moment, when he almost killed me. (It’s in the Trudeau chapter.)

At our table I had a very good time, but did not shine. In my role as Author, I went around the table to meet my companions. I found myself sitting beside a very pleasant woman named Diana, who spoke with an English accent. Because we had just established that our neighbours were Swiss diplomats, and since she had mentioned that she was moving back to England very soon, I asked her if she, too, was in the diplomatic service. Not exactly, she replied, she was moving to England because her husband had just been appointed the new Governor of the Bank of England.

Nice work, Doug.

The Al Purdy Event (Part One)

I published Al Purdy, which meant that I knew him a little, and liked him a lot. He was a larger than life character, in every sense. As Publisher of McClelland & Stewart I had issued standing orders that whenever authors came to visit our office, I wanted to see them;  this was to establish, on all sides, the key importance of our authors to our company. When he breezed into our corridors, a big, loud, informal figure (he was one of the few people able to shamble even while sitting down), he brought a breath of fresh, country air with him. We knew he was there. In The Al Purdy A-frame Anthology I wrote of those visits . . .  “the office corridors seemed to course with energy when he came in, and I felt that people went about their business with extra pleasure because of his presence.”

In my own book I deal with him only in passing. I write about a scorching encounter we both had when we flew too close to the Russian Sun King, Yevgeny Yevtushenko. That was at a famous Toronto Harbourfront event, and Al and I both had our wings singed.

But I remember another very hot encounter when Al was reading at the outdoor Shakespeare in the Park stage in Toronto’s High Park. It was the middle of summer, and even as darkness fell over the crowds sitting on blankets on the grassy slopes in front of the stage, it was sweltering, very hot and very humid. Al sweated his way through a grand reading, to great applause. When I went up to him at the end, he was as pleased and surprised to see me as if I had just swum Lake Ontario to get there. I think that before that sweaty evening he’d seen me as an uptight, tie-and-blazer-wearing publishing type, a representative of the bourgeois urban values that were, let’s say, not a feature of his own irreverent, unbuttoned life.

So a few years ago I was glad to be able to lend moral support when Jean Baird in Vancouver, an old friend of Al and Eurithe, along with Howard White, the fine West Coast publisher who brought out Al’s last books, started a movement to save the old A-frame house in Ameliasburgh. My support, I should stress, was mostly moral, supplying a brief quote for The A-frame Anthology, with no active involvement.

When my old friend George Goodwin (who had left the banking world to join M&S largely because of his love of poetry) told me early in 2012 that he was forming a committee to try to raise funds for the Purdy A-frame, I was very glad to sign up. Throughout the summer and fall we met over lunch, to plan our fundraising strategy. The challenge was clear: the trick was to come up with an interesting event in Toronto that would cost very little but would draw a very large crowd that would pay lots of money to attend, and go home happy.

But what sort of event? Where? When? And charging how much? Charging $200 per head raises money very fast – but it’s not a good idea if that high price draws only 20% of the crowd who would have come for a price of $50. How do you decide these things? And how does the price affect the programme, and the expectations of the audience?

Our group (whom I’ll celebrate later, in a further blog) soon hit on Koerner Hall as the perfect venue, because of its location, its excellence as a hall, and its association with poetry, thanks to Scott Griffin’s very successful Griffin Prize events there. (And Scott, I should note, was one of the generous donors to our event.)

But the question remained, what sort of event? At several lunch meetings (including one where we realised that a Fall 2012 event was simply too hard to plan and carry out in a crowded, onrushing season, and decided on February 2013 as the best time) we thrashed it out, based on the availability of various figures named Enright or Pinsent, and various poets and musicians, all of whom were eager to contribute their talents, if their schedules allowed. Right from the start we had decided to build the event around Al Purdy’s poetry, while providing lots of variety on-stage. This, we were determined, was going to be a very special show.

(TO BE CONTINUED . . .)

Douglas Gibson at Toronto’s Metropolitan United Church

On Sunday 20, January, the Metropolitan United Church in Toronto (at the heart of downtown, at Church and Queen ) will be hosting Doug Gibson’s show immediately after the lunch that follows the Sunday Service given by the Reverend Malcolm Sinclair.

The church service begins at 11:00, the lunch is held around 12:30, and the show will run from roughly 12:45 until 2:00. All are welcome.

Books will be available for sale and for autographing.

After more than 40 shows around Canada from coast to coast, this will be one of Doug’s rare public appearances in Toronto.

The Al Purdy Show in Toronto

Al Purdy For months a group based in Toronto has been building on the work started by Jean Baird and Howard White in B.C. to preserve Al Purdy’s historic A-Frame house in Prince Edward County. Thanks to Jean and Howie’s inspired work over the years, the building has recently been bought. Now it’s up to us to save it and  restore it so that it can be used as a literary centre.

Hence the February 6 fundraiser at Koerner Hall. I’m part of the local committee, chaired by George Goodwin, and involving the talents of Marni Jackson, Leslie Lester, Christopher Goodwin, Alexandra Manthorpe, Patrick White, Don Oravec, Duncan Patterson, and Valerie Jacobs. The event itself is being organized by the excellent Laura McLeod.

I’ll be appearing on-stage in a modest role in what looks like being a great and memorable event, an affectionate celebration of Al Purdy, whom I knew well, and published with pride.

Now read on and buy your tickets while you can . . . and spread the word!

 

THE TRAGICALLY HIP’S GORD DOWNIE
TO APPEAR AT AL PURDY TRIBUTE

“When Al Purdy died, among the stuff in the newspapers was
his answer to this same question:
‘I write like a spider spins webs and much for the same reason,
to support my existence.’ I really liked that.”
— Gord Downie

For immediate release

TORONTO, ON  (January 9, 2013) The Al Purdy A-Frame Association announced today that Gord Downie, Canadian poet and lead singer of The Tragically Hip, will be appearing in the THE AL PURDY SHOW on February 6.

Downie considers Al Purdy an important influence as a poet and lyricist.  In addition to Gord’s performance, the show will include readings from Margaret Atwood, Ken Babstock, George Bowering, George Elliot Clarke, Michael Enright, Phil Hall, Steven Heighton, Dennis Lee, Gordon Pinsent, Robert Priest and Karen Solie, as well as musical guests, Bidiniband with The Billie Hollies, and The Skydiggers.

Proceeds from the evening will support the Al Purdy A-Frame Association’s efforts to conserve the late poet’s home and to maintain it as an educational resource and a place for writers to come together and work for years to come.  The show will take place at Koerner Hall — The TELUS Centre for Performance and Learning — 273 Bloor Street West in Toronto at 7:30 pm. Ticket prices range between $25.00 and $50.00.

“This event is a true celebration of one of the most popular and important Canadian poets of the 20th century,” said Jean Baird, President of the Association. “Al loved hanging out with people, talking about poetry and having a good time. We want the evening to capture this spirit. Plus, we have some nifty surprises planned.”

Al Purdy and his partner Eurithe began building the A-Frame cabin on the shores of Roblin Lake, in Prince Edward County, in 1957.  It was here that Purdy came into his own as a poet, and the A-Frame became a gathering place for many of the writers who would shape Canadian literature.  Over their 43 years at the A-Frame, Al and Eurithe hosted Margaret Laurence, Milton Acorn, Michael Ondaatje, Margaret Atwood and hundreds of others in the writing and arts community. The menu usually included spaghetti, and lots of Al’s wild-grape wine.

“This event will be very exciting for Purdy fans,” said Jean Baird. “For the first time, Eurithe Purdy has donated books and other items from Al’s personal collection for auction.”

These include Purdy’s signed and numbered editions from his own extensive library, rare first editions by other poets, and original artwork from Leonard Cohen.  Book-lovers, mark your calendars!

In October 2012, using donated funds, The Al Purdy A-Frame Association, a national non-profit organization, acquired the property.  As part of its mandate to promote Canadian literature and Canadian writers, the Association’s first goal is to preserve the home as an educational resource and a work retreat for future generations of writers.

Tickets can be purchased by calling 416-408-0208 or by visiting alpurdy.ca

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For further information:
Laura McLeod
Producer
647-631-6000
lschatzker@gmail.com