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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My New Book Club

We all know how important the avid readers who belong to informal book clubs are to the world of books.

I’m doing something new for them. I’ve produced a Storyteller’s Book Club where I deal with five classic Canadian books, and provide 20 Discussion Points about each one of them for the club members.

What’s special here is the I edited all the books I discuss. Well, with one exception. I didn’t edit Hugh MacLennan’s great novel The Watch That Ends the Night, but I did edit books by my friend Hugh, which allows me to talk about how I might have edited the book. As for the others, I can take the club members behind the scenes with Alice Munro, Mavis Gallant, Robertson Davies and Alistair MacLeod.

Check it out at on the Storytellers Book Club page.

Stratford and Me

I’m getting more and more excited  about my show at the Stratford City Hall on Saturday, May 11, at 8 p.m.

It’s part of the famous SpringWorks festival, and I’ll also be giving a special show for schools on the Friday afternoon. This has set me wondering just how well a young audience will react to stories from behind the scenes in the world of books, a world that alarmists warn is increasingly remote from their own world. Maybe a Harry Potter comparison or two would be helpful . . . especially the story of idiot publishers turning down J.K. Rowling’s first Harry Potter manuscript!

I’m spending some time recalling my own Stratford connections. As a publisher I was proud to bring out the official  Festival history, Stratford: The First Thirty Years by John Pettigrew and Jamie Portman in 1985. That handsome two-volume edition was published by me at Macmillan of Canada, with a Foreword by Robertson Davies. I note with pleasure that he dated his Foreword “March 1, St. David’s Day,” and we, sparing no expense, ran his distinctive signature in blue ink. I forget why blue was regarded as the ideal colour for the signature of this avid supporter of the festival from its earliest years. Blue?

Later, the link between Robertson Davies and the festival was made clear, in the saddest of settings. Along with John Fraser, RD’s successor as the Master of Massey College, I was involved in arranging the Celebration of the Life of Robertson Davies at Convocation Hall in Toronto in 1995. I asked Richard Monette, then the Artistic Director of the Stratford Festival, to join the group of speakers paying tribute to the Master’s life, and Richard did a superb job, speaking of RD as a Stratford supporter, and as a man of the theatre. That memorable evening had two other speakers with Stratford links: Timothy Findley, a festival alumnus, and Jane Urquhart, for many years a Stratford resident.

Like most Ontarians I have warm memories of many fine visits to Stratford, usually theatrical, but sometimes involving visits to friends like Geoff Hancock, Lynn Schellenberg, or Lucille Roch. I have even met Alice Munro for lunch there. But usually my meetings with Alice were at her home in Clinton or in Goderich. This meant that to follow the old Huron Line I would take a right turn at Stratford City Hall, and head west into Alice Munro Country. It’s appropriate that the building I used as my landmark for that turn to visit Alice will now house my show, with its tribute to Alice and her achievements . . . although the caricature of Alice bears the mischievous subtitle  “Not Bad Short Story Writer.”

Remembering Brenda Davies

On Tuesday, January 14th, I went to the funeral of Brenda Davies. It was held in the University of Toronto’s Trinity College Chapel, where in 1995 the funeral of her husband, Robertson Davies, also took place.

That earlier funeral was a major national event, and I held the role of Honorary Pallbearer. It was a bitterly cold December day, I recall, and we were required to stand outside by the hearse for what seemed a very long time, while sotto voce comments were made about freezing funerals causing further losses. I, foolishly, was wearing only a raincoat, and the bitter experience led me to buy a fine warm, formal overcoat, which has seen many funerals since. This piece of sartorial history came to my mind as I solemnly put on that coat to attend Brenda’s funeral.

We all owe her a great debt. Ever since the day in 1940 when she, a young Australian, married Rob, a young Canadian, in besieged London, they were a full partnership. Not only did they raise three daughters together, Brenda brought her organising talents as a stage manager to their many stages in life. So she ran their household in Toronto when Rob worked at Saturday Night, then organised their lives in Peterborough when he was the editor of the Examiner (and thus a major local figure), then adapted to the role of chatelaine at Massey College when her husband became its founding Master, and later ran their lives in retirement in mid-town Toronto and at their country place in Caledon.

Throughout all this, she was the organising principle in his life. She was the driver in the family, and in more ways than those merely involving automobiles. Her great contribution was to clear the decks for Robertson Davies to get on with the intellectual, creative work that has enriched us all.

There seemed to be a general awareness of this at the affectionate but formal funeral, which filled the large Chapel, with many in attendance wearing the Massey College gown as a special gesture of respect. In my pew (as we sang “Guide me, O Thou Great Jehovah” to the grand old Welsh tune “Cwm Rhondda”), I was struck by memories of her kindness to me over the years, at Massey, at their mid-town apartment, and at the Caledon retreat, where I was a guest even after Rob’s death. Her kindness stretched to very near the present: when my book came out, she described my chapter on her husband saying “Douglas Gibson has written an excellent account of Robertson Davies as the clever, witty, wise man that he was.”

He was indeed. And we shall never know exactly how much he owed to his wife, the remarkable Brenda Davies.

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.

January

Since Rabbie Burns Day falls on January 25, this is a big Scottish month. And since I grew up in Burns Country (Ayrshire) in Scotland, speaking the language, I’m kept pretty busy going around making speeches at Burns Suppers in Toronto, Hamilton, and Montreal (even once being re-imported to Scotland to do so). My Translation of “The Address to the Haggis” into modern Canadian has made me thousands of dollars, and over the years has become semi-official, so that it is featured at the annual event staged at home by Margaret Atwood and Graeme (no relation) Gibson.

This year I did my stuff at a Scottish Studies fundraiser at The Granite Club (scandalizing the audience by revealing a Burns link with the slave trade). On the day itself I marched around the Burns statue in Allan Gardens with 20 other kilted eccentrics (at the pub afterwards, a “warm up event” in the fullest sense) I concluded the “Toast to the Lassies” with the story of the lovestruck John Kenneth Galbraith, the farm girl who was the object of his affections, and the cow. It’s in my chapter on Robertson Davies, who loved the story.

An excerpt on Robertson Davies on the Canadian Encyclopedia blog

The Canadian Encyclopedia has more Stories About Storytellers for you this Friday. In this week’s excerpt of the Robertson Davies chapter, find out more about the man behind the formidable beard. To read the excerpt, head over to the Canadian Encyclopedia.

(Have you missed the previous excerpts? You can still read the selections on Alistair MacLeod, Pierre TrudeauStephen Leacock and Alice Munro.)