The Canada Trip

This summer, Jane (my “techie”– though no tattoos so far) and I are going to be travelling widely to give my show in various parts of Canada. As usual, I’m preparing by consulting the 1997 classic, The Canada Trip, by Charles Gordon.  

  You may know him as a former writer for The Ottawa Citizen, or a witty columnist for Maclean’s. Even better, you may know him as the author of the classic At The Cottage and the follow-up Still At The Cottage. His other books include an affectionate satire on life in Ottawa (The Governor General’s Bunny Hop), The Grim Pig, a novel based on the newspaper world , and Canada’s answer to the wave of hyperbolic self-improvement books from the U.S.A., brilliantly entitled  How To Be Not Too Bad. All of them reveal Charles as a man with a finely understated style that is a delight to read, and a dry sense of humour so Canadian that  it deserves to occupy our seat at the United Nations.

   In the summer of 1996 he and his wife Nancy (known in the book, to her slight irritation, as “The Business Manager”) set out from Ottawa in the family car to drive across Canada and back. The result is a wonderful book that shows what typical travellers will find as they enjoy the trip. It is not an earnest “Whither Canada?” book, as much as a “Whither the moose?” or even a “Whither the washroom?” book, and we are all grateful for it. Check it out.

  I am especially grateful for what my old friend Charles wrote about me in his Acknowledgements:  “My publisher, editor, and fellow Scot, Doug Gibson, was as encouraging as always on this, our fourth project together. In his editing,  Doug consistently amazed me with his knowledge of what is where in Canada. Many times he was able to tell me that I could not have been looking at what I thought I was looking at from a given spot – a sunset, a mountain, an ocean – because I was facing the wrong way. This invariably sent me back to my map collection and invariably forced me to conclude he was right – except maybe for once in Saskatoon.” (Ah, Saskatoon, where the reliable old north-south Idylwyld Freeway treacherously turns east, south of the river.)

   Jane and I will have a chance to expand our knowledge of the country as we roam around with my show, this summer. Maybe we’ll meet you along the way. It should be fun.


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.

Politics and the Pen

For 16 years now, the Writers’ Development Trust has been running a fundraising dinner at Ottawa’s Chateau Laurier Hotel, under the title Politics and the Pen. The theory is that if you offer people the chance to sit at a table with a politician (designated with a medal on a gold ribbon) and a writer (ditto, but with a green ribbon), they will gladly turn out for a good meal in aid of a good cause. The theory really works. This year 500 formally dressed men and women filled the Chateau’s main banquet room, and the Trust raised about $300,000 to distribute among deserving writerly causes.

I’ve attended many of these Ottawa dinners in the past. My book (you know the title) tells the story of how I was assigned to the central table of Prime Minister Paul Martin (whom I had not met) on the grounds that “Oh, Doug can talk with anyone.”

In those days I always attended in my role as publisher of many politically engaged books. Sometimes my role was a triumphant one, as when the Shaughnessy Cohen Award presented at the dinner went to Young Trudeau, by my authors Max and Monique Nemni.

This year I did double duty, because I was the proud Publisher of the Nemnis’ Trudeau Transformed, also nominated for the award. But my special pride was to attend this year as an author, with my green ribbon around my neck. I’m afraid that I was so proud of my new honorary status that I flaunted my medal and ribbon shamelessly to other writing friends . . . Richard Gwyn (this year’s winner), Max and Monique, Denise Chong, Terry Fallis, Graham Fraser, Jeffrey Simpson, Taras Grescoe, George Tombs (translator and author), Ray Robertson, Charlotte Gray, John Ibbitson, Paul Wells, and many, many more.

As for the politicians, our table was graced by my old journalist friend Peter Kent, and in the pre-dinner melee I chatted with old friends like Bob and Arlene Rae, and new friends like Tom Mulcair, Megan Leslie of Halifax (“Do I know Silver Donald Cameron? You should see the sign he puts up on the Arm”) and Peggy Nash (“Your daughter is one of my constituents”) amid others of all parties, all on their best behaviour. A pleasant and inspiring evening.

By way of contrast, I had a sharp dose of reality when I walked that afternoon down Sussex Drive to the site of the old Nicholas Hoare bookshop. It used to be a fine, elegant store, so well-placed and so spacious that I selected it regularly for launch parties and readings for books by important Ottawa authors like Jeffrey Simpson and Graham Fraser. On my retirement Jane and I even held a farewell soiree there for our literary friends.

Now the store is closed, for ever, with a sharply worded sign on the door explaining that the landlord, the National Capital Commission(!) had killed it by demanding a 73% rent increase.

Peering through the streaked windows, I could see that all of the elegant shelves had been pulled down and tossed into a splintered heap, with stray chairs riding on top of the jagged pile.

Is there anything sadder than a deserted, shuttered bookstore?

To Ottawa, Once Again

A very different trip, this time, from the literary pleasures of the Writers’ Festival. Here I had two missions. First, to deliver a (very speculative) speech to a group assembled at the U. of Ottawa by the Canadian Conference of The Arts (a pro-arts lobby group that I volunteered for in the mid-’80s). The Exec. Director, Alain Pineau, spoke about the situation for Quebec publishers, and I talked about the scene in English Canada, for publishers and writers, and the dangers of prediction. To stress the uncertain climate I quoted both the Book of Proverbs (“the movement of a lizard on a rock”) and October’s Vanity Fair (“half of New York’s publishing companies will be out of business within five years.”) About a dozen of my books were sold, perhaps as a result of panic buying.

The second speech wrapped up the ACSUS Conference, of teachers of Canadian Studies at U.S. universities, with over 500 people in attendance. I roamed around the sessions for a couple of days (intervening once to say that, no, I didn’t believe that Canadian newspapers would systematically decide not to review a novel because it was critical of the oil industry). I then learned that, plenary or no plenary, it is not good to be the final Saturday speaker at a four-day conference. So my host-interviewer Robert Thacker and I simply moved down from the remote speaker’s platform onstage and produced a very informal session at floor-level for the die-hards remaining, some of whom had found copies in Ottawa bookstores for me to sign. Best of all, the session allowed me to spend time with Bob Thacker, the world’s greatest authority on Alice Munro, and her biographer, and a man very complimentary about my book – which benefits greatly from his work on the amazing Alice.

— Douglas Gibson

A fine place, Ottawa

A Sunday afternoon in a Presbyterian church is not normally my idea of a time and place for fun, but Sean Wilson’s successful Ottawa festival has made the church hall at Lisgar and Elgin a fine centre for literary events.

I followed a lively debate about Israel between two authors with widely differing views, and was delighted to see that my audience included authors like Charles Gordon and Denise Chong, political actors whom I published like Eddie Goldenberg, political columnists/friends like John Ivison and Jeffrey Simpson, and many old friends.

Although the podium could not be moved onstage (which left me strolling about at audience level, in front of the stage) the show seemed to go well, and my old bookselling friend David Dolan proceeded to sell out of all 25 copies he had ordered for the signing. Signed copies are a verifiable measure of success, very welcome in a world of vague compliments.

Much better than vague compliments were the comments on the blog of Ottawa’s Nigel Beale, who tells people to “run” to see my show, going on to compare it to performances by “Stephen Leacock. Charles Dickens even.” If you don’t believe it, see for yourself. I think I can state that this is the first and last time that I‘ll be compared to Charles Dickens, but I’m enjoying the moment.

The perceptive Nigel, who interviewed me later, liked the book, too. A fine place, Ottawa.

— Douglas Gibson