Quebec City

Thanks to local friends like Neil Bissoondath I was lucky enough to be invited to the Quebec City InterNational authors event, an English-language event that takes place in the heart of the old city every spring. The organizer, Elizabeth Perreault, is so calm and efficient on e-mail that I was expecting a much older person than the fresh-faced young woman who greeted Jane and me.

She runs a top-class festival, too, with authors like Charles Foran, Emma Donoghue, and Guy Vanderhaeghe in attendance. We saw readings in two remarkable rooms in The Morrin Centre, in the heart of old Scottish Quebec. If you think I exaggerate there, The Morrin Centre (named after a Scottish doctor from the early 19th century) is on the Chaussée des Écossais, and is right opposite the old Scottish Church and the “Kirk Hall.”

Inside, the great hall of the Centre (housing The Literary and History Society)  is constructed on 19th century Scottish traditional lines, so that the electric light bulbs seem almost like an intrusion. The library is equally famous, with its wooden statue of Wolfe casting a dramatic arm from a corner of the two-story ranks of shelves. Louise Penny fans will be familiar with the setting, and after seeing Peter Dube talking about his books there, I learned that ancient authors from Charles Dickens to Mark Twain had given readings there.

After Guy Vanderhaeghe entertained us with tales of Western History in this Eastern city, I recalled for him that it was exactly 30 years earlier that he and I celebrated his Governor-General’s Award win for Man Descending in this city. The actual award was given in an ancient room in the Laval campus downtown, but Guy remembered that the evening dinner was held in the Royal 22 (the Van Doos) Regiment’s Mess room at the Citadelle, with the waiters in full red mess uniforms. I was in a daze of delight that evening because as the Publisher at Macmillan I was celebrating two Governor- General’s Awards that year, for Guy’s short stories and Christopher Moore’s superb history book, Louisbourg Portraits.

On the Sunday afternoon I gave my show in the grand old hall, introducing a Guy Vanderhaeghe anecdote from my book that doesn’t usually feature in my stage show. It’s the story of my edgy walk back into Saskatoon alongside a gigantic guy who had just exited a bar, running very fast, and who asked me, in a challenging way, “Are these women’s boots?”

The crowd seemed to like that story, and the rest, so that at the end they gave me a standing ovation. (Jane, I must report, far from leading this excellent development, said to Elizabeth Perreault, “Do I have to stand up?” If anyone wonders about my being a grounded sort of fellow, look no farther than this story for a reason.) But a standing ovation in Quebec City is something worth recording, if I can find a suitably capacious tombstone.

The rest of our visit was taken up with a wonderful dinner chez Bissoondath, and three days of strolling around old Quebec from our central base at the Hotel Clarendon.

One feature of the weekend involved a coincidence that no fiction writer would dare to attempt. In the appreciative crowd for Guy Vanderhaeghe was a nice fellow who proved to be the American consul-general, Peter O’Donohue. What led to his appointment here, we wondered. Well, he grew up in Connecticut and knew Quebec well. Where in Connecticut, Jane wondered, because she had an uncle and aunt in Norwalk. Norwalk! What were their names? The Finlaysons, my God, I practically grew up in their house!

It turned out that Jane and he had been at cousins’ weddings, and two of her cousins are going to stay with him at his amazing house overlooking the slide on Dufferin Terrace, near the Chateau Frontenac

The next day the coincidences continued, because our sight-seeing stroll took us past the magnificent Consulate just as his wife was in the doorway, greeting a friend. We ended up with a tour inside, and spent time gazing over the St. Lawrence from Levis to L’Ile D’Orleans. A magical view, and a magical weekend. And almost 20 more books sold!

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Montreal

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.

On the Robertston Davies Trail

The morning after the Arnprior show, Dave and Alison fed me kippers then took me on a sentimental journey to Renfrew. This was the town, sixty miles northwest of Ottawa, where Robertson Davies (born in 1913)  spent the years from 1919 to 1925.

The town (a little larger than its rival, Arnprior, to the east) had a huge influence on Davies during those formative years. As Judith Skelton Grant shows in her expert biography, Davies did not enjoy Renfrew, and he got his revenge with the portrait he painted of “Blairlogie” in What’s Bred in the Bone. “It thought of itself as a thriving town, and for its inhabitants the navel of the universe.” (The physical metaphor could, I suppose, have been worse.)

He wrote about its proud ignorance and its exclusivity (where newcomers were concerned), and commented on the three-layer cake of its inhabitants, with the Scots on top, followed by the French, then with the newer Polish immigrants at the bottom. Even at the age of 70, his feelings about Renfrew were so strong that he felt that he had to write “to get it out of my system.”

We began our tour with a visit to the McDougall Mill Museum, kindly opened for us specially by the very knowledgeable Mr. Gilchrist. The museum  building itself is hugely impressive, set beside a fast section of the Bonnechere River. Since Renfrew was at the heart of the timber trade, the museum is rich in examples of the tools of the trade involved in “hurling down the pine.” There are many photographs of the local bands that must have entertained young Rob Davies, and posters for the “O’Brien Opera House,” which we know he attended. For What’s Bred in the Bone he turned Senator O’Brien (who was in fact an important figure not only in the lumber trade, but also in the development of hockey, and the man behind The Renfrew Millionaires) into Senator McRory.

It was notable that the sports teams from the start of the century shown in team photos all featured Scottish and Irish names. By the 1950s there was a fair sprinkling of Polish names on the team.

We tried to trace the three Davies houses in Renfrew. Of the first house Judith Skelton Grant writes that “the Davieses were dismayed to find that the house . . . arranged for them was in the Polish section of town.” We found the house on Cross Avenue, and I roamed around outside, taking in the stark red-brick exterior. As if on cue a young man came out to check the mailbox just by the front door. I greeted him with my usual charm: “Hi there! Did you know that a famous author once lived in this house?”

“Huh?”

“Yeah, his name was Robertson Davies, a famous Canadian author. He lived right here when he was a boy, about a hundred years ago.”

If I’d told him that birds sometimes landed on the roof of his house his shrugging reaction would have been the same: “Whauuh,” followed by a determined return to the house and a slamming of the door.

We found the old site of the Renfrew Mercury office, where Davies sometimes helped his father (at the age of nine he even wrote a review of a local lecture, where a lady sang “very acceptably”). It is now a sporting goods store, right next door to the grand central post office on Raglan Street. We failed to find the second house, but did cross the dramatically  swaying suspension bridge that he crossed every morning to get to school. And we did find the dramatic final Davies House (now a Doctor’s Surgery) in the best part of town, marking the rise of the Davies family over those Renfrew years.

We did not knock on the doctor’s door. Although the woman who runs the sporting goods store had heard of him.