Supporting the Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour

Recently I learned that this Award was in grave danger of disappearing, because the money to keep it alive was shrinking. I knew that over the years the annual Prize had played a huge role in advancing the careers of some authors. I knew, too, that in a modern world of shrinking financial returns for writers the money won by the successful author is very useful . Just think……food, drink, warm clothes!

So, encouraged by the example of my friend Terry Fallis, I made a contribution.

Then, I realized that instead of just making a financial contribution I could tell a few stories about Leacock, the Award, and me. One thing led to another, and this week David Mallinson, in charge of the fund-raising drive, published my essay.

I’m attaching it here, for your pleasure:–


When I was a boy growing up in rainy Glasgow, inside the school library I came across the work of Stephen Leacock. His Nonsense Novels and Literary Lapses had me chortling, and wanting to learn more about this very funny writer. It turned out that he was a Canadian. Aha! Obviously Canadian writers were excellent. If I were to get the chance to visit Canada….

One thing led to another, and after St. Andrews I got a scholarship that took me to Yale. After that I got a Greyhound Bus pass that took me across America, so that I entered Canada off the ferry at Victoria. Heading east I spent many hours gazing out of the bus window at lakes and trees in Northern Ontario. Then fields and farms and maple trees appeared, and soon we were approaching a sunny little town of orange brick named Orillia. Wait a minute! Surely this was the place that Leacock had….. and of course it was, and in a sense I had arrived at the Canada I was seeking.

We got to stretch our legs there, and the sun was shining, and the little town did indeed look like a scene of “deep and unbroken peace” – although I knew that, in reality, the place was “a perfect hive of activity”.

Some months later, in March 1968, I got an editorial job in Toronto. The very first book I got to edit was, of course, a biography of Stephen Leacock.

That book, a serious study by Montreal’s David M. Legate, was not a candidate for the Stephen Leacock Award for Humour. But I have a weakness for publishing funny books, so over the years I have been involved with many celebrations of this important Award. The winning authors included Harry J. Boyle (who enjoyed being Mariposa’s Honorary Mayor, and who changed my life by introducing me to a Huron County friend named Alice Munro). There was Robert Thomas Allen (author of Children, Wives and Other Wildlife) who at the grand Dinner was delighted, but shy. Donald Jack (after winning the Leacock Award for both Three Cheers for Me and That’s Me in The Middle ) played up to the role of his character, Bartholomew Bandy, by dressing in a cocked hat. The irrepressible W.O. Mitchell misbehaved, and to my horror got into a public spat with a cousin.

I’ve been involved with publishing many former Leacock Award winners like Eric Nicol, Pierre Berton, and Robertson Davies. But perhaps the best story involves Terry Fallis. Terry, whom I knew as a friend, had self-published a funny book called The Best Laid Plans in 2007. But its future was very limited. Until Terry read that self-published books could be entered for the Leacock Award. So he entered, and won! This brought me into the picture very fast, and I went on to publish this hidden book, which has now sold over 100,000 copies!

So the Leacock Award continues to do very good work. It deserves our support.


If you would like to help the Leacock Award Fund-raising drive, use the link here, or copy it into your browser.

TRUE ROMANCE…..A final note, which you may know if you’ve followed my book, STORIES ABOUT STORYTELLERS. There I talk about how, having lured me to Canada, Leacock is apparently still hovering over me. In the summer of 2001 I went to Geneva Park, near Orillia, to give a speech to the Couchiching Conference on globalization and publishing, or something equally grand. At the conference was a member of the board named Jane Bartram, who was to my smitten eyes clearly The Most Fascinating Woman in the World. During the first evening’s sober political conversation I attracted her attention by recounting what I had learned that day about the rules of the Jumping Frog Competition at the Sutton Fair, Leacock territory in every sense. Our first date was a canoe ride together on Lake Couchiching, where we did not quite reach Leacock’s Old Brewery Bay on the opposite shore. But having brought me to Canada he was still obviously running my life. Jane and I were married within the year, and are still going strong, 19 years later .

Keep up the good work, Professor Leacock.





A Triumph at Ridgeway

On June 1, I had the honour of appearing at the very first Ridgeway Reads Literary Festival, held in the delightful little town just west of Fort Erie. It’s so attractive that it just might prove to be a southern bookend matching Niagara on the Lake at the other end of the Niagara Parkway. (And the Farmers’ Market offers great pies!)

For this inaugural event Mary Friesen and her Ridgeway team had put together a sparkling series of authors, including Charles Foran (Mordecai: The Life and Times), Andrew Westoll (of Taylor Prize-winning fame), Olive Senior (Dancing Lessons), Richard Wright (Clara Callan, etc.) David (D’Arcy McGee) Wilson, and Phil Hall, whose book Killdeer was up for this year’s Griffin Poetry Prize.

I had the pleasure of giving my show on the opening Friday night, introduced by Rhyming Barb, who concluded her vote of thanks by asking me for another “chapter,” because to provide it no one would be “apter.” Ogden Nash clearly did not live in vain.

We had to leave after Charlie Foran’s marvellous Saturday morning talk on my old sparring partner Mordecai (his letters to me would continue our duel more in sorrow than in anger, wearily beginning, “Gibson, Gibson”) because Jane had a high school reunion to attend in Cambridge. This meant that we missed the following wonderful event in Ridgeway, closely described by an anonymous observer very similar to my friend David Wilson.

Later on Saturday there was a formal unveiling of a mural celebrating the 1866 Battle of Ridgeway, against Fenian invaders from the south. A high point of the official speech (by, I believe, the Minister of Justice, Rob Nicholson) was when he praised the literary festival: “This is a wonderful event, with some of Canada’s best-known writers. One of them, who gave a most enjoyable talk last night on stories about storytellers, was [short pause] none other than [slightly longer pause] Doug Wilson.”

Several people in the crowd shouted out, “No, no, Doug Gibson.” But my triumphant role (as in “Fred Gibson”) was established once again.

Stephen Leacock was apparently directing the events around the formal unveiling of the mural. First, the procession to the mural was delayed because the two regiments involved in the original battle (or, more correctly, the original headlong retreat) were unable to agree on which of them should lead the way. The gallant men of the Queen’s Own Rifles stood firm against the equally determined soldiers from the 13th Hamilton Regiment. After a long stand-off (possibly longer than their appearance in the actual battle, before both regiments ran away) the Hamilton men picked up their marbles and went home.

My anonymous observer’s account continues: “Second, the Town Crier immediately led the parade through the back alleys of Ridgeway, without waiting for the dignitaries to arrive, and without paying any attention to the prescribed route along the main street; deaf to all cries to wait, he pressed on fearlessly and relentlessly.”

“Third, when the Queen’s Own and the dignitaries finally made it to the mural, it turned out that the cover over the mural had been tied down so tightly that it couldn’t be removed. Eventually, the ropes were cut,  and someone leaned out from the window above the mural to catch the cover as it billowed in the wind, and to haul it in like a ship’s sail.”

Where, I want to know, were the Knights of Pythias in all this?

Stories About Storytellers on stage: Stephen Leacock

Thanks to Candida Paltiel at Mining Stories Productions and her team, we’ll be featuring weekly snippets of Doug’s one-man stage show. In this week’s clip, we see Doug talking about Stephen Leacock.

For upcoming performances of Stories About Storytellers the show, head to the events page. For more on Stephen Leacock, see chapter 1 of Stories About Storytellers.

An excerpt on Stephen Leacock on the Canadian Encyclopedia blog

Get another peek inside Stories About Storytellers! Every Friday the Canadian Encyclopedia will be running an excerpt on a different Canadian icon. The second excerpt is from first chapter, on the only person Doug didn’t work with directly, but who had a big impact on his life nonetheless. To read the excerpt, head over to the Canadian Encyclopedia.