THE POINT OF WOODY POINT

For a Canadian author, being invited to attend the Writers at Woody Point event in August is the equivalent of winning the Nobel Prize. It has been running for 10 years now, and has attracted a galaxy of literary stars “from away,” like Michael Ondaatje, Richard Ford, Alexander McCall Smith, Linda Spalding, Elizabeth Hay and Will Ferguson, bolstered by major talents from Newfoundland such as Lisa Moore, Wayne Johnson, Michael Crummey, Michael Winter and many more.

It all started when Stephen Brunt, the well-known Toronto-based sportswriter, had the idea that outsiders would love to discover Woody Point, his idyllic summer home. The tiny community of about 700 lies half-way up the long west coast of Newfoundland, surrounded by Gros Morne National Park — a little like an east-coast Banff, without the fudge shops. The sort of sweeping views of fiords and mountains that you get in those clever ads from the Newfoundland Tourism folks lie all around the little town, and the open waters of the Gulf are just around the corner, as Jane and I found when we borrowed kayaks from our friends Peter and Robert early one morning.

Gros Morne, of course, is a World Heritage site. Its high, orange Tablelands (amazingly, derived from the ocean floor thrust upward) were what proved the revolutionary Continental Drift theories of Toronto’s Tuzo Wilson and Newfoundland’s own “Hank” Williams.

Two minor notes: Tuzo Wilson and I were once guests at a small dinner party given by Brenda and Robertson Davies; like most great scientists he had wide-ranging interests. Second, in the course of my five days at Woody Point I went on a guided hike at The Tablelands. Part of the attraction was a reading by the poet Don MacKay, a keen geologist, and also an outdoor performance by the energetic fiddler Kelly Russell; he amazed me by revealing that Hank Williams was a fine fiddler too.

A key moment in the history of the writers’ festival was when Stephen Brunt’s local crew (including his wife of undetermined ethnic heritage, Jeanie MacFarlane) persuaded the marvellous Shelagh Rogers to get involved. Now she is the voice of the Festival, introducing all of the main events at the grand old Heritage Theatre. She even conducts live, on-stage interviews for her CBC show, The Next Chapter. Her talk with Greg Malone, author of Don’t Tell The Newfoundlanders will make astonishing listening for anyone who, like me, believed that Newfoundland joined Canada gratefully, after an honest vote.

The writers’ events run morning, noon and night. My own show began at 11 at night, followed by some more music, by Pamela Morgan and Sandy Johnston. (Later, Shelagh announced Pamela as “Pamela Anderson,” which led to many jokes.) Often the first readings were at 9:30 in the morning, and the nature walks and other events through the day kept us hopping, and sometimes missing readings that clashed with our chosen event. Saturday morning started with a Church Hall fund-raising breakfast for the local firemen, and the Saturday and Sunday evenings ended with a big dance at the local Legion.

We were staying within earshot of all this, at a central B and B named “Aunt Jane’s”. How could we resist? Will Ferguson was there, too, and others came and went.

A key part of understanding the lure of Woody Point is realising that you are part of the community. People who elsewhere might be strangers come up to you on the street and chat. Fishermen and carpenters (I’ll try not to be too Biblical) reveal that they were at your show, and enjoyed it, but have a question about Brian Mulroney.  Going for dinner produces comments and questions from the staff, and paying your bill involves a long conversation. Village life! That’s what I grew up with in Scotland. I loved every minute of it. And the organizers like Gary Noel made everything easy for us.

At the start of my show I told the audience that my book contains the line “I never met a Newfoundlander I didn’t like.” I hoped that none of them would take that as a challenge, and none did. So the record is still unblemished.

The usual unbelievable coincidences occurred. After my show a woman from the Cypress Hills district in Saskatchewan came up to tell me that when she was growing up she knew my cowboy author, R.D. Symons. She was even able to tell me what happened to his son, Gerry, ranching on another frontier in Colombia.

And when we had dinner with the multi-talented Des Walsh and his lady, Ruth, he told me that he had known Harold Horwood well, even attending the rebel school called Animal Farm that Harold established, in the teeth of fierce St. John’s police pressure. He could even do a fine imitation (like all schoolboys) of his teacher, Harold, throwing back his long-haired head.

A final Newfoundland story. At the Legion bar I met a fine man who had enjoyed my show. When he told me his name was Young, I got excited, telling him about my father’s mother in Scotland, Jessie Young. He cut short my speculation about our being related by telling me that family research had showed that his family were pirates … and had stolen the law-abiding name of Young!

I never met a Newfoundlander I didn’t like.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Moose Jaw Encounters

The Saskatchewan Festival of Words has been held in Moose Jaw for 16 years now, but this was the first year that I was able to attend. Right away I saw why my authors had always enjoyed it so much.

Invited authors/performers are housed at the downtown Spa hotel, built around some natural hot springs full of healing waters. We found that every day had to involve at least one wallow in the soothingly warm pool on the top floor, where people sunbathe then swim, drink cool water, then repeat the dose. I was right at home because the little café beside the pool was named the Morningside Room, recognising the fact that Peter Gzowski (a sentimental graduate of the Moose Jaw Times-Herald) chose to stage his last Morningside broadcast from the hotel, and a photo of my friend Peter hangs on the café wall.

The festival itself is set a short walk away, in the library and the at gallery on the edge of Crescent Park. This is Moose Jaw’s central park (and indeed its Central Park) and is a fine blend of beauty and endless, active variety, which we explored every day.

I gave three readings, adapting my chosen excerpt to fit in with my co-reader. For example, matched with Harold Johnson, a truly impressive Cree-speaker who is a Crown Prosecutor in Laronge and has a Master’s Law Degree from Harvard, I chose to read about Saskatchewan’s own R.D. Symons, my very first author.

I was so impressed by Harold that I bought a copy of his novel, Charlie Muskrat. The trouble with literary festivals is that you hear so many fine readings that you end up buying lots of books. An occupational hazard.

Stories About Storytellers Companion Reading (#7)

Many early readers of Stories About Storytellers have remarked that they finish reading it only to rush to pick up one of the other books Doug has so lovingly described. So to make it easier, this recurring feature revisits some of those books and reminds you why they’re worth a read. Last time, we revisited The Game by Ken Dryden, and this we’re featuring . . .

Where the Wagon Led: One Man’s Memories of the Cowboy’s Life in the Old West, by R.D. Symons (1973)

The success of War Horse, both the movie and the play, reminds me that my very first author, R.D. Symons, wrote about his experiences with horses at the front in the First World War. Here is what he wrote in Where the Wagon Led: One Man’s Memories of the Cowboy’s Life in the Old West: “A lot of horses couldn’t take the shock of high explosive shells, and we’d often find one dead after a bombardment, without a scratch on him. One early morning when I went to the transport horse lines I found the colonel’s mount – a good horse, too – dead as mutton, and the nearest shell had exploded over a hundred yards away. I suppose his heart had just stopped with the fright.”

And later . . .  “Yet the smell of our own horses, live horses, always had a steadying effect on me. It somehow seemed to make a sense of sanity in a world otherwise quite mad. I’d often linger at the horse lines after evening ‘stables’ just to talk to our wagon teams and get the mingled smell of horses and hay and oats as the nags munched away. Sometimes the transport sergeant would stick around, too. He had been a cowboy in Alberta, and we’d talk about horses, and it was he who said one night, as a star shell burst over German lines. ‘Gee, don’t that look like the shooting stars we used to watch on night herd!’”

Bob Symons writes of a cavalry charge that he saw close up, when Australian Cavalry went at the German lines “at full gallop, and with drawn swords”:
“It wasn’t long before we saw the boys, still with drawn swords, herding a bunch of prisoners in our direction. . . .
“The way was now open for our infantry, and we soon moved forward, doing what we could for the cavalry casualties till the stretcher-bearers got into action. When a couple of our Canadian boys stopped to put a field dressing on one young chap, the only thing he said to them was ‘Is my horse all right, mate?’ They didn’t know, but someone said, ‘He sure is, Digger.'”

For Doug’s tales of R.D. Symons see 43-50 of Stories About Storytellers.

An excerpt on R.D. Symons on the Canadian Encyclopedia blog

Your weekly dose of Stories About Storytellers continues at the Canadian Encyclopedia blog. This week, Doug tells tales of R.D. Symons, a real Canadian cowboy, and the first author Doug discovered, edited, and published. To read the excerpt, head over to the Canadian Encyclopedia.

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