STRATFORD, CLINTON, AND ALICE MUNRO

ALICE MUNRO 1931– Not Bad Short Story Writer

ALICE MUNRO 1931– Not Bad Short Story Writer

My two Stratford shows – in the grand old City Hall building, right downtown, near the Avon theatre – were inspiring for me. The school show on Friday afternoon drew a crowd of adult friends, including Geoff Hancock , the former editor of Canadian Fiction (and photographer of Mavis Gallant), who now runs a B&B in Stratford, and the Stratford Festival’s David Prosser. But the main audience was a large group of high-school kids brought in by bus.

I was able to speak briefly about their home town to the kids from Exeter – home of the unique breed of all-white squirrels, and of the famous family of my Toronto  friend John MacNaughton, who died a few months ago.

I was, however, able to speak at much greater length to the Grade 12 kids from Clinton. This, of course, is the town where Alice Munro lives, and I was able to suggest to them how amazingly lucky they were to live in the same place as a world-famous writer who was putting their town on the literary map of the world, an internationally famous figure they might meet on the way to the Post Office. I talked about how her stories were set among people like their neighbours, and explained how famous Alice (“the living writer most likely to be read in 100 years time”, according to The Atlantic magazine) really was.

The next day word filtered back from a teacher that conversation among the kids on the bus home included the comment that this was the first time they had “ever felt proud about coming from Clinton”.

The next night’s show (part of Stratford’s Springworks Festival ) was for adults, and went fine. The sound man, who had worked at The Banff Centre and fallen under W.O. Mitchell’s spell, was hit hard by my final story about the unforgettable W.O.. After the show, our hosts, Lucille Roch and Warren Holmes, held a reception for us, and as we entered they kindly led a round of applause. It was a pleasant surreal moment (“I’m being applauded as I walk into a friend’s house!”), but it was nothing compared to the news of the impact on the kids from Clinton.

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.”