The national mourning in December for Jean Beliveau was extraordinary. It ran from the formal Memorial Mass in Montreal, attended by several Prime Ministers, all the way to a feature on him before a televised Maple Leafs game that silenced a raucous sports bar in the Beaches and had the fans getting reverently to their feet, their Leafs caps clutched in their hands.

But of course Jean Beliveau was extraordinary.

I was lucky enough to get to know him when at McClelland & Stewart we published his autobiography in 1994. Naturally, we planned a major author tour for him. It began in the West, and from Vancouver onwards the crowds were larger than we had ever seen. Every newspaper and TV and radio station was clamouring for interviews, and soon the whole event had taken on the dimensions of a Royal Tour. Signing books for the hundreds of admirers who had lined up to meet him made for very long days, city after city, and eventually Jean began to wear down.

Near exhaustion, he phoned from Winnipeg to ask for help. Typically, instead of brushing him off on the phone, our Chairman, Avie Bennett, flew out to give help in person. He and Jean decided that as the tour proceeded into the cities of the East, we should cut back on the original plans. We would cancel the media interviews, to allow him to concentrate on the massive signing sessions in the bookstores. That was a great relief to Jean. Problem solved.

After the weekend, however, Avie got a phone call from Jean. He said, “Elise has reminded me that I have never failed to do what I promised to do. So we should stick with our original plan. I’ll do the media interviews.” And he did. Brilliantly, with the dignity and the grace that were built into him.

It’s typical of Avie (and he and I were constantly in and out of each other’s nearby offices, so I knew him very well) that when he was briefly in Winnipeg that day, he was able to see another touring M&S author, Karen Kain, who was proudly promoting her memoir, Movement Never Lies. It was clear that the investment he made in our authors was worth it, even if publishing in Canada is such a tough business that the rewards tend not to be measured in dollars.

For similar reasons, he enjoyed his time as a part-owner of the Montreal Expos. He loves telling the story of strolling out of the stadium with two M&S authors on either side: Pierre Trudeau and Jean Beliveau. This allows him to set up the classic line: “Hey, who are those two guys with Avie Bennett?”

Another Jean Beliveau story:

Some years after we published his memoir Canada Post brought out a stamp in his honour. I happened to be visiting the great Montreal book event, the Salon Du Livre, and in my ramblings I came across a Canada Post booth, where Jean was signing for a crowd. They were lined up around the Hall, in their hundreds. I was standing there quietly, enjoying the sight of my old friend surrounded by admirers of all ages. I had no plan to intervene, since he was obviously very busy. But he paused in his signing, looked up, and saw me. And Jean Beliveau put down his pen, got up, came around the desk and across the aisle to greet me, shaking the hand of his “old friend Doug.” It was wonderful, and we had a warm conversation. But like a good publisher I was concerned about the delay we were causing for the people in the line-up, and I managed to move him back to the signing table.

During all this time, the people lined up showed absolutely no sign of irritation. If M. Beliveau wanted to get up and go to greet a friend, that was fine with them. But they looked at me with keen interest. I wasn’t a hockey player. So which NHL team, they wondered, did I own?

It’s too bad that Jean was never able to accept the invitation to be Canada’s Governor-General. He would have been a great, distinguished occupant of that role. And as we’ve seen, he knew all about Royal Tours.

A Fine New (Oh, All Right, Not So New) Book About Publishing

We all have authors we know about whose books we plan to read “some day.” That was the case for me with the English author Anthony Powell, who lived from 1905 to 2000, and is best known for his 12-volume series of novels entitled A Dance to the Music of Time.

This series remains a treat in store for me, because I took the Powell plunge by diving into his 1939 book What’s Become of Waring. It is a brilliant satire of the London world of book publishing, and it is very, very funny.

Our narrator is an editor for the old firm of Judkins and Judkins. “It was a small business with two partners, Hugh and Bernard Judkins, who were partners.” Hugh, the younger brother, joined the firm later, and “threw himself heart and soul into a profession which provided boundless scope for the intellectual fussing that he had found so congenial as a schoolmaster. . . .

“From the day that Hugh entered the office, Bernard, never over-addicted to optimism, became increasingly embittered. He dated from the period when a reasonable standard of honesty and good manners were the best that any writer could hope for from his publisher – and even these were hard enough to obtain. . . . ” |

I should interject here that Powell worked in the 1930s in the world of publishing, and his weary knowledge shines through every line.

“Bernard” our narrator tells us, in a book where every paragraph begs to be quoted “began to loathe books, so that it seemed that he had only entered the trade to take his revenge on them.” His life “became one long crusade against the printed word. Every work that appeared under the Judkins & Judkins colophon did so in the teeth of Bernard’s bitter opposition.”

As you can imagine, this makes life hard for our narrator as he tries to find books for his firm  to publish. His major, immediate problem is to find an acceptable author to write an authorized biography of the recently deceased travel writer, T.T. Waring, the big star on the Judkins list. The search does not go well. When finally, miraculously, a man named Hudson (a good chap, an officer in the Territorial Army with no writing experience) is accepted by both brothers, his research goes badly. It produces proof that the shadowy Waring plagiarized all of his most successful titles from hidden travel tales published in French and never translated.

This news does not go down well with Judkins and Judkins. But Hugh is philosophical about it because at this point he is so madly in love with a young journalist named Roberta Payne that he has signed up a collection of her newspaper articles, although he knows that the book will sell, in his editor’s words “no more than a dozen copies.”

And so it goes, in a book full of characters like the man whose face “had the open, appealing frankness of expression of those who live by their wits.” When another man, a general, leaves a house wearing an opera hat and a black overcoat, “He looked like an immensely distinguished conjuror.”

Powell’s women are equally memorable, such as Beryl, Hudson’s fiancé: “Like so many girls whose lot had been to lead dull lives, her manner implied that all men were her slaves.” Or Beryl’s sister Winefred “all teeth and badly cut brown hair,”  whose approach was “threatening” and who had a “goatish” laugh. When she went to a military ball “she said at the top of her lungs that she thought middle-aged men looked silly in short red coats and tight blue trousers.”

Powell reminds me of his contemporary Evelyn Waugh, but with a little less acid in the mix. (Waugh was, famously, such a nasty man in real life that he once gloatingly sat and ate the first banana his war-starved children had seen, as they sat drooling.) I can see why the critic V.S. Pritchett said, “Anthony Powell is our foremost comic writer. ” And from reading What’s Become of Waring, I can see why William Trevor, no less, wrote, “In his ability to capture and control the imagination of his readers through his characters, Mr. Powell is the most subtle writer now performing in English.” I’m glad that I finally caught up with him. I hope that you will, too.

A Remarkable Book Launch for a Remarkable Book

On March 18, I went to an event at Ryerson University to celebrate the launch of an important book just published by University of Toronto Press. The book is The Literary Legacy of the Macmillan Company of Canada: Making Books and Mapping Culture, and the author is Ruth Panofsky, who is a Professor in the Department of English at Ryerson.

Canadian book publishing has not been a subject well covered in our books. The striking exception is The Perilous Trade, by Roy MacSkimming (which I would praise, even if I had not published it at M&S). Now this fascinating new book by Ruth Panofsky turns a spotlight on this now-disappeared company that for 90 years, from its creation in 1905, was one of Canada’s most important publishers, arguably M&S’s main rival in the great work of creating Canadian Literature.

A warning and a disclaimer: I am hopelessly prejudiced in this matter, because I was Editorial Director and then Publisher at Macmillan from 1974 until I left to set up my own imprint at M&S in 1986. So I am delighted to see attention paid to this vitally important company, and in such a thorough and wide-ranging way as Ruth Panofsky has achieved.

A further disclaimer: Ruth, who interviewed me at length, has chosen to tell the sweeping story in six sections, each attached to a leading figure. The last such figure is me, in a section entitled “Editorial Coda 1974-1986: Douglas Maitland Gibson.” And the portrait painted of me is very, very kind. If I were to quote many of the last 30 pages you might accuse me of being conceited, instead of the true situation, where I am humbled. Here are the last two sentences in the book.

“Moreover, Gibson brought Macmillan’s publishing ethos to McClelland and Stewart where it touched his own imprint, Douglas Gibson Books. In the end, notwithstanding the company’s gradual demise and the eventual disappearance of its imprint, Macmillan’s legacy endured in Gibson’s lasting relationships with writers and the landmark books he edited – many by authors with former ties to the venerable Macmillan Company of Canada.”

What can I say?

Except thank you to Ruth Panofsky to devoting her attention to this now-vanished company, and to U of T Press for bringing it out so expertly, and for staging a launch party where the author and Quill & Quire’s Steven Beattie staged a discussion that was so lively that even retiring members of the audience (that would be me!) felt obliged to get involved. An interesting event, about an interesting book.