From Shore to Shore

Waking up to a fine fall day at The Blomidon Inn in Wolfville is a perfect start. Roaming around the inn’s varied gardens is a very good way to ease into the day. But walking into the little town then drifting down to the dykes that created the Acadian settlement is another level of happiness.

In my book I talk about my fascination with the dyking system introduced by the early Acadian settlers. So you can imagine my delight in being able to walk along the top of the historic dykes that run very close to downtown Wolfville. A class of lucky young students from Acadia was being introduced to the natural wonders of the dykes, but I walked east, away from town, noticing that the fields walled off from the sea are still so rich that some of them are devoted to growing fine crops of corn. And the Fundy sands were still red, the waters of the Bay were still blue, and the great wedge of Blomidon still stretched into the bay, like a backdrop to an Alex Colville painting.

I had seen, but never visited, Cape Blomidon, but this was the day to fix that. I drove west, then turned right towards Blomidon and reached “The Look Off” (do locals shout warnings of “Look off!” rather than “Look out!”, I wonder?). From that height you can see much of the Annapolis Valley laid out before you with the “sleepy little town” of the Acadia school song in the middle distance, looking very fine.

I drove on to the Blomidon Park (although I was tempted to drop in on Ami McKay) and climbed down the steps to walk along the beach. I wasn’t exactly dancing on the shore, but it was a delight to get red Fundy sand on my shoes, and to dip a hand into the salt water. Then it was back to the idyllic town of Canning for a fine lunch, then ho, for Halifax, and my last event. Although I did load up on local apples, Gravensteins, at a roadside stand.

Alexander MacLeod is a well-established teacher at St. Mary’s University (as well as being my friend, and a fine fiction writer, with excellent bloodlines). He had kindly arranged for me to stay at The Waverley Hotel, east on Barrington Street in downtown Halifax. It was a revelation! A traditionally furnished old Victorian hotel, where Oscar Wilde once stayed (with no comments about his room’s wallpaper ever recorded). I warmly recommend it to all literary visitors.

As for St. Mary’s, Alexander drove me to the fine old campus and established me in the room where I performed my show to about 40 kindly people, including my old friend Harry Thurston, the notable writer about the natural world. Harry, I’m glad to say, later wrote that he found my show “entertaining and moving,” which was a pleasing combination.

The next day, after a pre-breakfast stroll down the hill to where early bird fishermen were hauling dozens ( “I’ve got about 40 in the bucket here, so far”) of mackerel out of the Atlantic-facing harbour, it was time to leave that particular shore, and fly back to Toronto. But I’ll be back.

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From the Sackville to Sackville

I gave my show at the theatre in the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia on a Saturday night, to an audience that included the veteran publisher Jim Lorimer and John Houston, the filmmaker son of my old igloo-dwelling friend James. Some old friends from my Speech at King’s College were there, too, and were polite about a sound system that had some problems. Books were sold, and signed.

The next day I went down to the Halifax waterfront, admiring the historic corvette, HMCS Sackville, that is tied up alongside as a floating museum. It’s a fine memorial to the Battle of the Atlantic that was largely fought out of Halifax and St. John’s, and the ship always draws me to it because in the 1970s I published the classic memoir of that war, The Corvette Navy, by James B. Lamb. These U-boat hunters were surprisingly small ships, and in mid-Atlantic they “rolled like pigs,”  but they won their part of the war.

Another reason for being on the waterfront is that it was the location for Halifax’s Word on the Street Festival. I roamed around the tented areas, visiting publishers’ booths and meeting old friends like Goose Lane’s Suzanne Alexander and Lesley Choyce of Pottersfield Press. But my main role was to be the host/interviewer for two author events. The first was with Ami McKay, author of The Birth House and, now, The Virgin Cure. Although the interview set-up had Ami and me arching like gospel singers at stand-up mikes at opposite sides of the stage, she is such an impressive performer that the interview/reading/Q & A went very well, and I was able at the end to escort her to a long signing queue.

Next it was Marina Endicott, talking about and reading from her new novel, The Little Shadows, which is terrific. In fact, I opened my interview with the words “Where have you been all my life?” She is precisely at that stage in a writer’s career when the prizes she has won and the nominations she has enjoyed are attracting readers to her work. For example, I admired The Little Shadows so much that I have since read her previous novel, Good to a Fault, with great pleasure. Both books are highly recommended.

Happily, Marina is as good a reader as she is a writer, and her time on stage flew by.

This was just as well, because I had to jump in my car and drive west all the way to Sackville, New Brunswick. I was to read at Mount Allison, at The Owens Gallery. Driving into Sackville, I encountered town and gown separation at its worst. Two young teenage girls at the town’s main crossroads had no idea where the Owens Gallery might be. It was perhaps four minutes walk along the very street we stood on.

The Marshlands Inn is the grand old Victorian hotel in town, where I had stayed on my previous visit (when, as my book describes, I became an Acadian), and it was there that I was picked up by Christl Verduyn, an old friend from her Trent university days, now on the Mount A. faculty. She and the student newspaper had done such a great job publicizing the Sunday evening event that we had 64 people in the audience, with some standing.

The show seemed to go down well, and I was especially pleased to meet long-range visitors from Moncton.

Afterwards, I was taken for dinner to Joey’s in downtown Sackville by  my friend Chris (of Sybertooth Inc., a gallant Sackville-based publisher that has picked up the Bandy Papers Series that I was proud to publish originally.) He and his wife drew me useful maps of how to explore the Tantramar marshes. The next morning, after wandering with my binoculars in town, I drove to High Marsh road, rambled across and through a covered bridge, then spotted a birdwatcher who confirmed that the dozens of little birds exploding into the air  around us were indeed migrating Savannah Sparrows.

It was time for me to migrate east to Wolfville, on the Bay of Fundy.

The King’s Speech

I was very pleased to be invited to give the annual Flemming Lecture at King’s College, Halifax. Naturally, as I worked on this speech, it became known around the house as “The King’s Speech.”

The title I chose was “WITH A PINCH OF GENIUS: A Recipe to Produce Great Authors.” My starting point was the “Own the Podium” plan, which holds that choosing young athletes and pouring lots of money into their development will produce lots of world-class figures who will win lots of Olympic medals. I wondered what a parallel program to produce lots of world-class Canadian writers would look like.

It was a mischievous concept from the first, of course, but it led me into some interesting places. The trick, I find, to producing an interesting talk (or essay) is to set out to discover what you really think about an issue. With luck, the revelations will surprise the reader as much as they surprise you, and you’ll both be better for it.

For instance I started out to see how encouraging Canada is for its writers, in terms of providing readers. The news here is terrible. The 2008 TD-Canada Trust survey of literacy found that 50% of the adult population has trouble reading. Let me repeat that; half of Canadian adults have trouble reading. Since nobody who regards reading as a decoding problem is going to buy books, our authors are like wheat farmers growing their crops for a population where 50% are celiacs, unable to enjoy their wares.

I won’t repeat the whole 45-minute speech here, but the people like Roy MacSkimming and Rowly Lorimer and my friends at the Canada Council came up with an interesting response to my questions. In a roundabout, shuffling sort of Canadian way, we have already come up with a successful “own the podium” kind of program for our writers, and it has worked remarkably well, with many of our current writers renowned around the world, by surname alone. The trick now is not to throw it away. In fact, one of them suggested, we’ve done such a good job on the “supply” side, that for our authors’ sake we now need to work on “demand.”

Very interesting.

I enjoyed my time at the podium (but why do young people cluster at the farthest corners of a lecture hall?) and  enjoyed it best when I could get out beyond the podium to handle the lively Question and Answer session with the 50 or so bibliophiles in the audience.

Afterwards, thanks to the fine people at the King’s Bookstore (working in the tradition of James Rivington, who opened Canada’s first English bookstore in Halifax in 1761) I was able to sign some copies of my book, before going off to dinner with Bryan Flemming himself, and some lively friends.

I spent the night at the Lord Nelson Hotel, celebrated in my book as the place where an alert House Detective saw something fishy in Don Harron, dressed to do book promotion for me as Valerie Rosedale, and told him sternly to move along.

Stories About Storytellers Comes to the East Coast

Having already ranged all over Ontario, the Prairies, and the West Coast, Douglas Gibson is bringing his stage show to the Atlantic provinces at long last.

Between September 20rh and September 26th, he’ll be doing his stage show at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, Mount Allison University, Acadia University and St. Mary’s University. You can also catch him hosting Marina Endicott and Ami McKay at Halifax Word on the Street and giving the Flemming Lecture at King’s College.

For more information on dates and showtimes, head over to the events page.