BONNIE CLYDE ROSE ON BONNE BAY

One high point of the Woody Point adventure was when my old publishing friend, Clyde Rose, emerged from the gloom of the darkened theatre at The Merchant House to greet me before my show. Clyde was the publisher of Breakwater Books in St. John’s for what seemed like many generations, and his daughter Rebecca carries it on today.

Clyde now lives in Woody Point, and he kindly took me and Jane out for a mid-day cruise around Bonne Bay on his small boat, which he handled with easy skill –- even if he failed to find the bald-headed eagle near Norris Point for us!

We recalled grand old publishing times, including two stories involving the great Newfoundland humorist, Ray Guy, who died just a few months ago.

Clyde once proudly published a Ray Guy book with a title that was designed to mystify anyone outside Newfoundland. The title was You May Know Them as Sea Urchins, Ma’am.

Every Newfoundlander, however, was delighted by this internal joke. They all knew that the local term for “sea urchins” was “whore’s eggs.”

I remember vividly the time that Ray pulled off a great practical joke in, I think, The Canadian magazine. It involved the cleverest case of bilingual swearing I ever saw. In a solemn look at Newfoundland heraldry, Ray pointed out that the seal in the central position of the official coat of arms was lying horizontally, in what is known in heraldry as a “volant” or “flying” position. Since a seal is known in French as “un phoque” alert readers (but, perhaps, not the editors) sensed that mischief was afoot.

Ray went on to note that this “volant” position gave rise to the official French-language motto of Newfoundland, “Je ne donne pas un phoque volant.”

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Montreal Coincidence

In July I gave my show at a Westmount residence for seniors named Place Kensington. It’s a fine, lively place (or Place) and the residents include two authors of mine, the charming Ted Phillips and my friend William Weintraub, the author of City Unique. Bill Weintraub is also famous for the  classic novel Why Rock The Boat?  and I proudly edited his last novel , Crazy about Lili,  providing  it with a very funny cover illustration by the wonderful Anthony Jenkins, whose path was later to cross mine, as my readers know.

In the course of my show, when I was talking  about James Houston going into the North, an older man in the audience asked me, “When was this?”

“In 1948,” I replied.

“Yes, that sounds about right.”

He went on to explain that he was setting up his medical practice around then, and had wandered into the Canadian Handicrafts Guild shop, and had come across a very fine portrait of a young woman (in those days a young “Eskimo” woman) in full sealskin traditional outfit. He stood there admiring this piece of finely drawn art that revealed another world, far from Montreal. Then another customer, a young dark-haired man, came and stood beside him, looking over his shoulder at the drawing.

“Do you like it?” the stranger asked.

“Yes, I do,” said the young doctor, “but I’m just setting up my medical practice, and I’m sure I can’t afford it.”

“Can you afford $50?” asked the man.

“Yes,” said the surprised doctor, and James Houston made the deal with him right there and then, remarking that this was the first of his Northern drawings that he had ever sold.

The doctor told us that he still had James Houston’s drawing, after all these years. And I told the audience that we had all been part of the sort of coincidence that weaves its web around us every day, in unexpected ways.

Later that evening Jane and I had dinner in Old Montreal, celebrating the coincidence that had brought us together at The Couchiching Conference, so that exactly 11 years earlier we had got married.

Quebec City

Thanks to local friends like Neil Bissoondath I was lucky enough to be invited to the Quebec City InterNational authors event, an English-language event that takes place in the heart of the old city every spring. The organizer, Elizabeth Perreault, is so calm and efficient on e-mail that I was expecting a much older person than the fresh-faced young woman who greeted Jane and me.

She runs a top-class festival, too, with authors like Charles Foran, Emma Donoghue, and Guy Vanderhaeghe in attendance. We saw readings in two remarkable rooms in The Morrin Centre, in the heart of old Scottish Quebec. If you think I exaggerate there, The Morrin Centre (named after a Scottish doctor from the early 19th century) is on the Chaussée des Écossais, and is right opposite the old Scottish Church and the “Kirk Hall.”

Inside, the great hall of the Centre (housing The Literary and History Society)  is constructed on 19th century Scottish traditional lines, so that the electric light bulbs seem almost like an intrusion. The library is equally famous, with its wooden statue of Wolfe casting a dramatic arm from a corner of the two-story ranks of shelves. Louise Penny fans will be familiar with the setting, and after seeing Peter Dube talking about his books there, I learned that ancient authors from Charles Dickens to Mark Twain had given readings there.

After Guy Vanderhaeghe entertained us with tales of Western History in this Eastern city, I recalled for him that it was exactly 30 years earlier that he and I celebrated his Governor-General’s Award win for Man Descending in this city. The actual award was given in an ancient room in the Laval campus downtown, but Guy remembered that the evening dinner was held in the Royal 22 (the Van Doos) Regiment’s Mess room at the Citadelle, with the waiters in full red mess uniforms. I was in a daze of delight that evening because as the Publisher at Macmillan I was celebrating two Governor- General’s Awards that year, for Guy’s short stories and Christopher Moore’s superb history book, Louisbourg Portraits.

On the Sunday afternoon I gave my show in the grand old hall, introducing a Guy Vanderhaeghe anecdote from my book that doesn’t usually feature in my stage show. It’s the story of my edgy walk back into Saskatoon alongside a gigantic guy who had just exited a bar, running very fast, and who asked me, in a challenging way, “Are these women’s boots?”

The crowd seemed to like that story, and the rest, so that at the end they gave me a standing ovation. (Jane, I must report, far from leading this excellent development, said to Elizabeth Perreault, “Do I have to stand up?” If anyone wonders about my being a grounded sort of fellow, look no farther than this story for a reason.) But a standing ovation in Quebec City is something worth recording, if I can find a suitably capacious tombstone.

The rest of our visit was taken up with a wonderful dinner chez Bissoondath, and three days of strolling around old Quebec from our central base at the Hotel Clarendon.

One feature of the weekend involved a coincidence that no fiction writer would dare to attempt. In the appreciative crowd for Guy Vanderhaeghe was a nice fellow who proved to be the American consul-general, Peter O’Donohue. What led to his appointment here, we wondered. Well, he grew up in Connecticut and knew Quebec well. Where in Connecticut, Jane wondered, because she had an uncle and aunt in Norwalk. Norwalk! What were their names? The Finlaysons, my God, I practically grew up in their house!

It turned out that Jane and he had been at cousins’ weddings, and two of her cousins are going to stay with him at his amazing house overlooking the slide on Dufferin Terrace, near the Chateau Frontenac

The next day the coincidences continued, because our sight-seeing stroll took us past the magnificent Consulate just as his wife was in the doorway, greeting a friend. We ended up with a tour inside, and spent time gazing over the St. Lawrence from Levis to L’Ile D’Orleans. A magical view, and a magical weekend. And almost 20 more books sold!

Montreal

The Atwater Library is based in the former Mechanic’s Institute building, which means that it has an impressive background in social democratic movements that believe that education and advancement should not be restricted by class. Even today the building houses writers organisations and other fine, progressive but penny-pinched groups.

I enjoyed my tour around with the Newfoundland-born Librarian, Lynn Verge, then watched 60 or so literary types assemble for my talk/show, including authors like Mark Abley and George Tombs, and my old historian friend Desmond Morton. Also there was my fellow-publisher Simon Dardick (who confirmed sympathising with my attempt to cut Mavis Gallant’s speech short, which led to the famous jacket quote “I’ll kill him! — surely a first in the history of jacket blurbs). It was a show where I whizzed through all of the Tony Jenkins caricatures then asked the crowd who they’d like to hear stories about. The requests came thick and fast, including a tricky question from my hostess, Pat Webster, who asked if I edited political memoirs differently from other books. Very interesting. Good questions make you think hard.

What was special about this show was that I had lots of Montreal scenes to recall, and a remarkable new James Houston story to tell. In the train from Toronto I was near Cornwall when I was puzzling over  how best to talk about Jim’s Montreal connections. I happened to look out of the train window, and saw strings of geese heading north. At first there were just three or four v-shaped groups heading north, then ten then twenty, then fifty, sixty, then hundreds. Soon there were scores of thousands of geese filling the skies, all heading north to James Houston’s Arctic. I looked around the train, and nobody else seemed to be aware of the miracle that was filling the skies above us.

At the end of the show we sold about 20 books, which leaves a few potential readers in Montreal still to be tapped. I shall return.

In the evening I filled a major gap in my all-Canadian education by attending, with Norman Webster, my very first Habs’ home game. They won!

The skies above the train on the way back to Toronto were empty.

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.”

Gibson’s Stage Show Returns to Toronto

After around 50 performances, in places from Haida Gwaii to Halifax, Douglas Gibson’s Stories About Storytellers stage show is returning for a rare midtown Toronto performance. On Tuesday, May 7th at 7:30 p.m., Doug will be bringing his memoir to life at the Heliconian Club (35 Hazelton Ave.). For tickets, call 416-922-3618.

Update: This show is now sold out. Watch the events page for more Toronto shows.

Douglas Gibson at Toronto’s Metropolitan United Church

On Sunday 20, January, the Metropolitan United Church in Toronto (at the heart of downtown, at Church and Queen ) will be hosting Doug Gibson’s show immediately after the lunch that follows the Sunday Service given by the Reverend Malcolm Sinclair.

The church service begins at 11:00, the lunch is held around 12:30, and the show will run from roughly 12:45 until 2:00. All are welcome.

Books will be available for sale and for autographing.

After more than 40 shows around Canada from coast to coast, this will be one of Doug’s rare public appearances in Toronto.

“Apart from the incident, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you like the show?”

It was around 1960, and I was an irreverent kid in high school. Part of the irreverence involved me and a friend in writing comedy sketches for our (very traditional) school pantomime. So I paid keen attention to what was happening in the world of jokes.
In America Mort Sahl was happening, and a great revolution was producing the very first “sick joke” . . . which you can see above. When I first heard it,  I had the “watcher of the skies / when some new planet swims into his ken” feeling — as P.G.Wodehouse, a very different type of humourist, once put it, to describe a sense of discovery of something totally new. The Lincoln joke showed that suddenly nothing was out of bounds. There were no things that you “just couldn’t joke about.” Not anymore.

I rode the new wave enthusiastically. Even in my first university year at St. Andrews, I was involved in writing and performing comedy sketches with a group of friends. There was no money involved, but we got free tickets to the fancy, formal Balls for which we provided the half-time entertainment. By the second year I was the MC of an occasional student night-club in an empty church hall. For reasons hidden in the mists of time we called it GAP (too bad there was no copyright on the commercial use of the title we invented) and although we didn’t bother with a liquor licence, we drew packed crowds to dance and enjoy the music and the unforgettably witty sketches. (We even drew unruly crowds at the door, but that, and the fight with a head-butting sailor, is another story.)

These were the days when “That Was the Week That Was” ruled BBC  TV on Saturday night, and satire was a big part of what we wrote and performed. Sick jokes made an occasional appearance: I remember one “bedtime story for little ones,” read by a leering uncle figure. It was a variant on the traditional story of Greyfriars Bobby, the little dog that charmed all of Edinburgh by his daily trips to sit sadly at his master’s grave. Our variant, I’m sorry to say, involved Bobby (a bone-loving little dog) in seeking daily sustenance at the grave. The howls of outrage as the implications dawned on the crowd were very pleasing to us.

Later in that second year I had a minor role in a real stage performance (Ionesco’s The Leader) which involved me in shouting, “The leader, the leader” very loudly and excitedly. The director was a student friend, Alan Strachan, who in later life went on to be the famous head of The Greenwich Theatre in London. Alan formed a group of us — four men and two women – to produce a comedy revue, a little like “Beyond the Fringe.” We took over the town theatre, The Byre, for a week of evening performances. We even ran matinees of “Six After Eight” on Wednesday and Saturday, when the show proved to be a hit.

I wrote and performed  and even sang! One of the high points was when I appeared, front and centre, to produce a Malcolm-Muggeridge-style lecture on “Trends in Humour.” I told the audience that “Satire has come and gone. Now, many experts in the field are predicting that the new trend will be slapstick.” Before I could continue, a bare arm reached around the curtain and smashed a large cream pie into my face. Blackout and delighted laughter! I had to be led, blinded by banana cream, off-stage by a kind stage manager. Even in the dressing room as I gasped to clear my face to breathe again, I could hear the audience still laughing.

When people who see the current stage show Stories About Storytellers ask if I’ve done much stage work in the past, I tend to say, “Not really, but I did a little back in university.” Now all of the interest in the new movie about Lincoln has brought back memories of the impact of that original Mrs. Lincoln joke. Lincoln may have been involved in things like waging the American Civil War, and freeing the slaves. But, as you can see, he had a continuing role in what we might call my dramatic life.

Alice Munro Is Not Often Associated with Disappointment

As many of you will know, this year’s Toronto International Festival of Authors was supposed to feature an appearance by Alice Munro on October 19. To be more precise, it was supposed to be an on-stage conversation between Alice and me. All of the tickets were sold, the media were panting, the excitement was building . . . and then Alice’s health meant that we had to cancel it.

I tried very hard to make it possible.

But there were warnings. For example, Alice was unable to come, as planned, to my stage show at the Blyth Festival on September 28th.  And can you imagine my anticipated pleasure at presenting my section on “ALICE MUNRO: Not Bad Short Story Writer,” in Blyth, the heart of Alice Munro Country, with Alice herself in the audience?

Blyth, I should explain, played a major role in Alice’s life. Her father, Robert Laidlaw, was born on a Blyth farm, went to school there, and eventually set up his  trap-line along Blyth Creek, to augment his role as a young Huron County farm boy. He went after muskrats, weasels, mink and even foxes, which led him to his life raising foxes for their fur, in nearby Wingham, where Alice grew up.

Alice, too, has strong links with the Blyth Festival Theatre. In the 1990s (as Robert Thacker recounts in his classic biography, Alice Munro: Writing Her Lives) she acted in two theatrical fundraisers there. In her words, quoted by an interviewing journalist, “In one  play – both of them were murder mysteries – I was an aging but still sexually voracious professor of English . . . And in another I played a lady writer who comes into the library and demands to know if any of her books are available. I loved it.”

Thacker continues, “When the journalist asked her why she would do this since she was well known for avoiding publicity connected with her writing, Munro’s response was interesting. “Well, that’s because I have to be me,” she says to explain her dislike of such self-promotion. “With acting, I love the mask.”

It was at a Blyth Theatre fundraising chicken supper that Alice played the mischievous waitressing role recounted by Val Ross in my book, and repeated in my stage show . . . the one that Alice was unable to attend.

But our Alice Munro Country weekend didn’t end after the show, which later featured a very interesting and informative panel discussion of Alice’s work. After spending the night with friends in Stratford, we headed back west to attend an event in Alice’s honour at the Wingham Golf Club, where the winners of a local writing competition were celebrated. The former Bayfield bookseller, Mary Wolfe, gave a fine account of Alice and her work, and Jane and I returned to spend the night at the Ben Miller Inn, on the Maitland River (always a source of unearned pride to a man with my middle name).

Later that week, to leave no stone unturned, I headed back from Toronto to Huron County to chat with Alice, to see if there was any way to salvage the Harbourfront event. I drove west from Stratford, on Highway 8, the old Huron Line that the settlers followed. As usual I found myself contentedly ticking off the familiar towns . . . Sebringville, Mitchell, Dublin (celebrated in my book for the realism of the settlers who named the majestic local waterway, “the Liffey Drain”), Seaforth, Clinton (Alice’s town, though tourists seeking directions to her house will encounter a veil of protective ignorance) and Goderich, where we were to meet for lunch.

I had not seen Goderich since last summer’s tornado tore through, and was shocked by the damage. When Alice and Gerry met me for lunch at the restaurant at the top of the hill going down to the Goderich harbour, I noted that Baillie’s, the restaurant on the “square” where Alice usually liked to meet friends, and where her books were displayed, had been wiped out, almost as if it had been the target of the storm. Alice chose to consider the gloomy possibility that this was the sign of a jealous God at work.

So she was her usual amusing self, but it soon became clear that all of my plans to make her Toronto stage appearance as undemanding — and as untiring — as possible for this 81-year-old were simply not going to work. So we had a nice lunch, and both of her arms remained untwisted. When we hugged goodbye, she noted fondly that we had been through “some interesting times over the years.” I was able to reply that I didn’t regret a moment of those, let’s see, 35 years.

But I do regret the Harbourfront show that we never gave. Speaking selfishly, it would have been a type of pinnacle for me. Speaking for the audience, and for Alice Munro admirers everywhere, I’m convinced it would have been a very memorable evening.