A Montreal Coincidence

In July I gave my show at a Westmount residence for seniors named Place Kensington. It’s a fine, lively place (or Place) and the residents include two authors of mine, the charming Ted Phillips and my friend William Weintraub, the author of City Unique. Bill Weintraub is also famous for the  classic novel Why Rock The Boat?  and I proudly edited his last novel , Crazy about Lili,  providing  it with a very funny cover illustration by the wonderful Anthony Jenkins, whose path was later to cross mine, as my readers know.

In the course of my show, when I was talking  about James Houston going into the North, an older man in the audience asked me, “When was this?”

“In 1948,” I replied.

“Yes, that sounds about right.”

He went on to explain that he was setting up his medical practice around then, and had wandered into the Canadian Handicrafts Guild shop, and had come across a very fine portrait of a young woman (in those days a young “Eskimo” woman) in full sealskin traditional outfit. He stood there admiring this piece of finely drawn art that revealed another world, far from Montreal. Then another customer, a young dark-haired man, came and stood beside him, looking over his shoulder at the drawing.

“Do you like it?” the stranger asked.

“Yes, I do,” said the young doctor, “but I’m just setting up my medical practice, and I’m sure I can’t afford it.”

“Can you afford $50?” asked the man.

“Yes,” said the surprised doctor, and James Houston made the deal with him right there and then, remarking that this was the first of his Northern drawings that he had ever sold.

The doctor told us that he still had James Houston’s drawing, after all these years. And I told the audience that we had all been part of the sort of coincidence that weaves its web around us every day, in unexpected ways.

Later that evening Jane and I had dinner in Old Montreal, celebrating the coincidence that had brought us together at The Couchiching Conference, so that exactly 11 years earlier we had got married.



The Atwater Library is based in the former Mechanic’s Institute building, which means that it has an impressive background in social democratic movements that believe that education and advancement should not be restricted by class. Even today the building houses writers organisations and other fine, progressive but penny-pinched groups.

I enjoyed my tour around with the Newfoundland-born Librarian, Lynn Verge, then watched 60 or so literary types assemble for my talk/show, including authors like Mark Abley and George Tombs, and my old historian friend Desmond Morton. Also there was my fellow-publisher Simon Dardick (who confirmed sympathising with my attempt to cut Mavis Gallant’s speech short, which led to the famous jacket quote “I’ll kill him! — surely a first in the history of jacket blurbs). It was a show where I whizzed through all of the Tony Jenkins caricatures then asked the crowd who they’d like to hear stories about. The requests came thick and fast, including a tricky question from my hostess, Pat Webster, who asked if I edited political memoirs differently from other books. Very interesting. Good questions make you think hard.

What was special about this show was that I had lots of Montreal scenes to recall, and a remarkable new James Houston story to tell. In the train from Toronto I was near Cornwall when I was puzzling over  how best to talk about Jim’s Montreal connections. I happened to look out of the train window, and saw strings of geese heading north. At first there were just three or four v-shaped groups heading north, then ten then twenty, then fifty, sixty, then hundreds. Soon there were scores of thousands of geese filling the skies, all heading north to James Houston’s Arctic. I looked around the train, and nobody else seemed to be aware of the miracle that was filling the skies above us.

At the end of the show we sold about 20 books, which leaves a few potential readers in Montreal still to be tapped. I shall return.

In the evening I filled a major gap in my all-Canadian education by attending, with Norman Webster, my very first Habs’ home game. They won!

The skies above the train on the way back to Toronto were empty.

Kenojuak Ashevak (1927—2013) . . . In Memoriam

Most Canadians were aware of the death of one of our greatest artists in the dark, early days of the new year. Some of our writers did a good job of explaining her importance, notably Sandra Martin in her obituary in the Globe and Mail. It made the appalling point that after Kenojuak was shipped south from Baffin Island to a TB sanatorium, she returned to find that her young daughters had died in her absence. And Patrick White added a fond, rueful account of his brush with greatness.

Sarah Milroy, also in the Globe, paid a fine tribute, summarizing Kenojuak’s career in this way: “She was one of the first of the Inuit artists, born and reared on the land, to enter into the experiment of art making at Cape Dorset, and one of the most talented. Her famous work The Enchanted Owl was replicated on postage stamps in 1970. In 1982, she was made a Companion of the Order of Canada.” Later, Milroy writes of an encounter with the old lady, now in a wheelchair, at the AGO: “her countenance that day was radiant with astonishment and a kind of elfin glee. While she never expected such success, she enjoyed every bit of it.”

“Elfin glee” is very good. That certainly catches the beaming old lady I got to know a little on Baffin Island. This was because my friend James Houston was the man who discovered Kenojuak’s talent, and encouraged her to turn it from sealskin bag decoration to making prints. It was James Houston (and a chapter in my book is devoted to this remarkable man “Artist, Author, Hunter, and Igloo Dweller”) who not only set up the trade in Inuit sculpture but went to Japan to learn the trade of print-making at the feet of an old master, so that he could go back to the Arctic to introduce print-making at the Cape Dorset artists’ co-op.

And Kenojuak was his star pupil. Our Hokusai, you might say, if you were to follow the Japanese theme.

In that chapter I talk about how fortunate I was to be invited by Adventure Canada to join  a cruise that was intended to follow the travels of James Houston. The cruise (along the south shore of Baffin Island), took me for the first time to the North that I had published such exciting books about, but never seen. On board ship, alongside James’s widow, Alice, and his sons John and Sam, Jane and I met “celebrities like Kenojuak Ashevak, the most famous Inuit artist of all, a beaming, tiny elder whom I got to know despite a language barrier.”

I was able to make myself useful, providing an arm when we had to walk over rough ground, on occasions such as the time that we assembled at the base of some striking red cliffs just outside Cape Dorset to scatter Jim’s ashes.

Earlier, I had been present in the historic Cape Dorset artist’s studio, when Kenojuak (then aged almost 80) entered, throwing off her parka, and heading straight for a drawing board. Sitting before it she seized a pen and with bold strokes began to draw wide sweeping lines with her left hand. I was amazed by swift, unhesitating way she drew what would soon be a new print, right before our very eyes.

Later, as my book records,

when I saw John’s film about his father, I was fascinated to see Jim talk about the fast, confident way Kenojuak’s left hand moves as she draws. Jim asked her about that, and she told him that she just follows “a little blue line” ahead of her pen.

“A little blue line!” Jim snorts. “I wish I had a little blue line would do that for me!”

At the end of the cruise, on our last morning I suggested through friendly gestures to my new friend that we should swap our Adventure Canada name tags. Kenojuak laughed happily at the idea, and the swap was made. I suspect she did not keep mine as carefully as I have kept  the “Kenojuak Ashevak” name tag that sits on our mantelpiece, not far from one of her magnificent prints. It’s like having a calling card from Claude Monet.

When the news of her death came to us, that name tag received much thoughtful, affectionate handling, often as I stood in front of my recent December birthday present from Jane. It is “Filigreed Raven” a stonecut from Cape Dorset in 2012, one of the very last prints created by Kenojuak.

A Mile in an Author’s Shoes

Anyone who takes writers and writing seriously has the same thought when visiting a famous author’s house: what would it be like to sit  at the desk where the author did his or her work? How would it affect your own writing?

I had the chance to experiment with this, in a minor way, when Jane and I stayed in August at Bridge Cottage, the former Haida Gwaii summer home of my friend, the author, artist, and man of many talents, James Houston. The conditions were scientifically perfect, since James wrote in the early morning (check), in the summer months (check), by hand (check), and – above all – at the desk in the writing cabin that was constructed for him for that very purpose.

Obviously this piece of writing that you are reading is no “Kublai Khan,” but at this precise moment in its creation a Person From Porlock arrived to interrupt my writing. This person had every right to do so, since he was the unique Noel Wotten, the man who built the writing cabin for his friend Jim. This was in 1981, as the plaque outside, for “Hideaway Studio,” makes clear.

I have now resumed my experiment a full day later, after Noel took us fishing at Port Clements, further up the island. He is a noted expert at fly fishing, having cast weightless flies great distances on salmon rivers around the world, landing the fly gently on the ripple most likely to provide shelter for a lurking fish. I notice, too, that after the fly has landed, Noel leans eagerly forward, manipulating the coils of line in his left hand, imagining the fish just beneath the tempting fly. Far from being just a skilful mechanical exercise – cast, float the fly, swing it back, cast again – it’s an act of faith and imagination, making fleeting  contact with that other world that lies beneath the surface.

These thoughts are, just possibly, channelled by the lingering spirit of the man who sat here writing. Often, as in the third volume of his memoirs, Hideaway, he wrote about fishing. He openly admitted that his addiction to salmon fishing was what brought him to the Queen Charlottes and to Bridge Cottage and the river Tlell in the first place. He wrote Hideaway, which I had the pleasure of editing and publishing, right here. And, in the same way as he did, I have just found myself getting  up from his seat to check on the river.

The river dominates every moment we are here, only an underhand stone’s throw from its banks. Unless you are asleep, or deliberately turning your back on it and ignoring it, you always know which way the tide is running — upstream, or down the five kilometres to the salt water of Hecate Strait — and how high it has climbed against the bridge timbers, or how low it has fallen. The river dominates the view, decides our activities, and turns any thoughtful resident into a water creature.

Another interruption has left me with an extraordinary river moment. When the salmon are running, as they are now, all eyes are on the surface of the river, looking for the circle in the water that may precede a silver leap. So even tiny circles in the water catch the eye. Standing to watch them, I was like a dog on point as I saw five or six circles appear. Then the entire surface of the water was pocked with hundreds of such circles, a miracle of teeming fish. Until I realised that a cloudburst had just arrived, and that these circles came courtesy of raindrops from above, not fish from below. I wonder what the fish make of it all, when the ceiling of their world turns black, and full of noise, and fresh, cold water.

Clearly I had learned one of the great lessons of sitting at a writer’s desk. When you are there, you are in the same surrounding world. And if you are open to distraction, your distractions will be the same as his.

Saskatchewan Birding with Trevor Herriot

I once was given a private tour behind the scenes in Parliament by Erik Spicer, the Parliamentary Librarian. On another occasion James Houston took me and some others through a special exhibition of Inuit art, recalling when he watched this piece being sculpted, and what his sculptor friend was chatting about as he worked on that other piece over there.

You have the same “behind the scenes” feeling when you set out with Trevor Herriot to look at birds in Saskatchewan. Trevor is not only a wonderful writer about nature, as well as many other things, as readers of his books know well. He is also an expert bird-watcher, so good that he has run a Regina radio show that helps callers to identify birds that they have stumbled across “with a yellow neck at the back.”

His own keen ears can identify different types of sparrow calls at a hundred paces, and his long-range camera skills are remarkable. I knew this because a couple of years ago he took me out from Regina to do some birding near Last Mountain Lake, and it was a very memorable morning.

So when Trevor suggested that Jane and I (who were staying in Regina with him and Karen and the family) head south with him and his birding friend Bob Luterbach to see what we could find en route to Weyburn, we were delighted.

It is as if the word spreads through the bird community that “Hey, Trevor Herriot’s here!” and they flock (so to speak) to see and be seen by this great celebrity birdwatcher. If you think that’s unlikely, look at the list birds we saw that morning, aided by the fact that a lush Prairie summer has lured uncommon visitors north from the parched American Plains states.

We saw White-faced Ibis (as in Egyptian pyramid art), Burrowing Owls (now endangered), Black Terns at the sloughs (and one angry Forster’s Tern), Baird’s Sparrow, Grasshopper Sparrow, Lark Bunting, Bobolink (with a yellow neck at the back), Chestnut-collared Longspur, and an amazing range of exhibitionist Bitterns, normally heard but never seen. All of these were first-time sightings for me and Jane.

Of course we also enjoyed watching Swainson’s and Red-tailed Hawks, not to mention the usual Mallards and Eared Grebes on the sloughs, the usual gangs of Redwinged Blackbirds and Cedar Waxwings, and a lone Upland Sandpiper. Wonderful!

Gibson Does a Striptease on Stage

When I found myself paired with Vancouver’s John Vaillant (author of The Golden Spruce and The Tiger) I chose to read from my chapter devoted to James Houston. After Jim’s great deeds in the North, he fell in love with a cottage in Haida Gwaii, where I visited him. My book goes on to talk about the Haida people, and mentions the appalling story of the golden spruce, their magical tree that was felled by a crazed logger-crusader. I then praise The Golden Spruce, wishing that I had had the chance to publish it, and calling it “One That Got Away.”

Reading that passage, of course, made a fine segue into John’s reading  Then he revealed that, although he never met James Houston, while he worked on The Golden Spruce (set on the West Coast), for some reason he became fascinated by the distant Inuit art of the far North, and immersed himself in it.

Earlier, when I was talking about James’s key role in spreading Inuit art (“No James Houston, no Inuit art!” as one museum director put it) I was able to demonstrate how Inuit art is now everywhere. As I read, I slyly unbuttoned my long-sleeved white shirt, and opened it wide to reveal – ta-da! – that I was wearing a T-shirt devoted to the The Enchanted Owl, the 1960 print by Kenojuak that became a Canadian postage stamp ten years later.

“And now,” I said, pulling my shirt apart and thrusting out my owl-covered chest, “Inuit art is everywhere!”

I’ve never had such applause for a striptease act before. Something to work on?

Barnstorming, Day 3: Guelph

The London morning starts with a visit to “the oldest brick house in London,” now occupied by our friends Robert Collins and Mary Lake. Not only did they take our gang to dinner last night, they bought 10 copies of my book, and I’m delighted to spend much of the morning signing them. Then a London lunch with friends and relatives Judy and Peter Castle, before we hit the trail to Guelph.

First destination was the University Art Gallery, where Judy Nasby, knowing of my James Houston-inspired love of Inuit Art, took us around a behind the scenes Inuit display. An interesting gallery.

Downtown we park near The Book Shelf, and Jane starts the set-up with Dan, who runs the show there. I return from the car with the computer hearing Jane’s voice saying, “One, two, three, testing, testing . . . ” She really is into the “techie”( even the “roadie”) role!

The theatre setting there is in the upstairs café, and the stage is about two paces wide. But I am now an old pro, Dan is very helpful on the sound system and the show goes on, in front of an audience that includes Daniel, son of Alistair MacLeod (and I claimed that I had to tone down my criticism of his father, due to his presence); Jacquie, daughter of Max and Monique Nemni;  J.R. Tim Struthers, the critic; and Stephen Henighan (ditto, and an interesting writer on the publishing world, as I’m pleased to tell him). Above all, the crowd of perhaps 50 includes my old friend, the distinguished editor Jonathan Webb, who writes an unexpected review of the show that pleases me a lot. I’m especially amused by his description of me as a “self-deprecating, self-assured Scot.”

The Guelph evening ended with kind words from Dan and a fine dinner in the café, courtesy of my old friend Doug Minett. And so, back home, arriving just before midnight.

This bookselling business is hard work.

— Douglas Gibson

An excerpt on James Houston on the Canadian Encyclopedia blog

Treat yourself to a little more Stories About Storytellers at the Canadian Encyclopedia blog. This week, Doug presents James Houston, “the most interesting group of people you will ever meet.” To read the excerpt, head over to the Canadian Encyclopedia.

(Have you missed the previous excerpts? You can still read the selections on W.O. Mitchell, Morley CallaghanPaul Martin, Barry Broadfoot, Brian Mulroney, Mavis Gallant, Robertson Davies, Alistair MacLeod, Pierre TrudeauStephen Leacock and Alice Munro.)