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.

To Montreal, Still Asleep

To get from Ottawa to Montreal on a  Sunday morning for brunch (after an evening event) requires you to catch a 5:45 a.m. flight. No comment.

Fortunately the Paragraphe Books and Brunch event at the Sheraton was well worth a little lost sleep. I spoke last, after David Gilmour (who was mysteriously unable to join the rest of us at the Authors’ Table), then David A. Wilson (who ended his talk about his book on D’Arcy McGee with a penny-whistle rendering of a lament for his death) then Kathy Dobson, the author of With a Closed Fist (about growing up tough in “the Point”). I talked about three Montreal authors in my book, Hugh MacLennan, Mavis Gallant, and Pierre Trudeau, who almost killed me right outside the doors of the Sheraton. The audience liked that idea.

After a chat with my friend Simon Dardick, who runs Véhicule Press, I went off to Le Salon du Livre. This extraordinary exhibition of Quebec literary culture attracts hundreds of thousands over a long November weekend. They line up, pay an entrance fee, then roam around to look at publisher’s booths, where they pay full price for any book that catches their eye. There may, or may not, be an author on hand to sign their copy, but the sense of literary excitement is palpable.

Attendance should be compulsory for all Toronto publishers. I used to attend as often as possible, and this year I was hosted by my old friend, Rene Bonenfant, who chairs the event. I also saw my one of my favourite authors, Yves Beauchemin, who signed a copy of his new novel to me, telling me to “keep on going!” And I met a number of publishing friends, including  Erwan Leseul, who had just launched the French edition of Trudeau Transformed, the book by Max and Monique Nemni that I published in English. I was delighted to find that the authors, in the French edition, had described me as “un editeur chevronné.”

I had a drink with Linda Leith (whose friendly Globe review of my book noted that we had never even had a drink together, which I was glad to fix) then took off for the West island to spend the night with Mark and Annie Abley. The next day Mark kindly took me to my radio interview with Tommy Schnurmacher at CJAD, a force in English-speaking Montreal. Storytelling works well on radio.

Then it was time for a nostalgic visit to the Chateau Versailles, where Hugh MacLennan delivered his last manuscript to me. I traced his path back to the apartment on Summerhill where he lived for so many years, then followed the walk he loved, along Sherbrooke Street to the McGill Gates. After a fine lunch with Pat and Norman Webster, it was time to take the fancy new airport bus and return to the bosom of my family.

— Douglas Gibson