From Shore to Shore

Waking up to a fine fall day at The Blomidon Inn in Wolfville is a perfect start. Roaming around the inn’s varied gardens is a very good way to ease into the day. But walking into the little town then drifting down to the dykes that created the Acadian settlement is another level of happiness.

In my book I talk about my fascination with the dyking system introduced by the early Acadian settlers. So you can imagine my delight in being able to walk along the top of the historic dykes that run very close to downtown Wolfville. A class of lucky young students from Acadia was being introduced to the natural wonders of the dykes, but I walked east, away from town, noticing that the fields walled off from the sea are still so rich that some of them are devoted to growing fine crops of corn. And the Fundy sands were still red, the waters of the Bay were still blue, and the great wedge of Blomidon still stretched into the bay, like a backdrop to an Alex Colville painting.

I had seen, but never visited, Cape Blomidon, but this was the day to fix that. I drove west, then turned right towards Blomidon and reached “The Look Off” (do locals shout warnings of “Look off!” rather than “Look out!”, I wonder?). From that height you can see much of the Annapolis Valley laid out before you with the “sleepy little town” of the Acadia school song in the middle distance, looking very fine.

I drove on to the Blomidon Park (although I was tempted to drop in on Ami McKay) and climbed down the steps to walk along the beach. I wasn’t exactly dancing on the shore, but it was a delight to get red Fundy sand on my shoes, and to dip a hand into the salt water. Then it was back to the idyllic town of Canning for a fine lunch, then ho, for Halifax, and my last event. Although I did load up on local apples, Gravensteins, at a roadside stand.

Alexander MacLeod is a well-established teacher at St. Mary’s University (as well as being my friend, and a fine fiction writer, with excellent bloodlines). He had kindly arranged for me to stay at The Waverley Hotel, east on Barrington Street in downtown Halifax. It was a revelation! A traditionally furnished old Victorian hotel, where Oscar Wilde once stayed (with no comments about his room’s wallpaper ever recorded). I warmly recommend it to all literary visitors.

As for St. Mary’s, Alexander drove me to the fine old campus and established me in the room where I performed my show to about 40 kindly people, including my old friend Harry Thurston, the notable writer about the natural world. Harry, I’m glad to say, later wrote that he found my show “entertaining and moving,” which was a pleasing combination.

The next day, after a pre-breakfast stroll down the hill to where early bird fishermen were hauling dozens ( “I’ve got about 40 in the bucket here, so far”) of mackerel out of the Atlantic-facing harbour, it was time to leave that particular shore, and fly back to Toronto. But I’ll be back.

Acadian Adventures of the Idle Rich

In Nova Scotia, all highways lead to Truro. Yet a Wolfville-bound traveller with time to spare and a love of the landscape can turn off the fast highway system at Truro and drift west along the Fundy shore, winding through little towns like the magically named Maitland. Gifted with that middle name (my mother was Jenny Maitland) I was excited to find that it is a little town laced with beautiful old houses, many now being restored.

I stopped at the local store to grab a sandwich, and casually asked how the place got its name. “It’s a native name,” I was told. My comment that this would be news to thousands of Scottish Maitlands made little impression. Could this be part of the weird intermingling of Scottish and Native history in Nova Scotia, where some believe that Glooscap was really a Scottish explorer named Sinclair? An enquiry for another time.

I drove happily on to Wolfville, pausing to notice that the incoming tide, off to the right, was racing in so fast that I could see sandbars disappearing every ten seconds.

Wolfville is a university town. Just as the ebb and flow of the Fundy tides rules the landscape, so the Acadia University year rules the town. During the academic year, when the 3,500 students transform the town, the movement of young people down from the slopes of the campus into the town is almost tidal. Driving along the main street I foolishly wondered what was causing the stop-and-go traffic. Then I realised that we were obviously between classes, and scores, even hundreds, of students were casually exerting their right to drift across the street, halting cars like mine. Not a bad traffic planning principle.

It is time to celebrate the Acadia school song. It goes:

Far above the dykes of Fundy
And its basin blue
Stands our glorious alma mater
Glorious to view.

Lift the chorus
Speed it onward
Sing it loud and clear
Hail to thee,
Acadia, hail to thee.

Far above the busy highway
And the sleepy town
Raised against the arch of heaven
Looks she proudly down.

They don’t write them like that today. I’d love to hear it sung.

I’m sorry to report that nobody serenaded me when I drove up the hill to the K.C. Irving Building to meet my gracious host, Andrea Schwenke Wyile. But before we went down to the basement theatre we paused to look in at the main hall, which is arguably the most welcoming space in any Canadian University I have seen. Almost worth going back to the world of classes and papers just to get to sit and read there, and think great thoughts.

Andrea (a specialist in books for children) was able to help me with the technical set-up, but the absence of security meant that we had to baby-sit the computer once it had been set up. Her gallant husband, Herb Wyile (author of the well-known book on Canadian historical fiction Speaking in the Past Tense, not to mention Anne of Tim Hortons) brought her food from home, and I was able to slip away to the Blomidon Inn to get into my “costume.”

As usual, before the start of the show I tried to greet my audience, mingling with them and welcoming them to what I hoped would be a good time. This evening before the show I was delighted to meet Terry Fallis’s in-laws, who live in Wolfville, and who were later pleased that I incorporated a tribute to Terry (“Saint, Little Red Hen, and Prizewinner”).

When the event started, things rapidly went downhill, because in introducing me Andrea laid great stress on the role of Jennifer Knoch, a recent and fondly remembered Acadia graduate, and the editor of my book.  I went on to repeat the tributes, so that many miles to the east Jen was blushing hotly for some reason unknown to her. The Acadia students, however, were visibly pleased by all this, as an inspiring example of good things happening to Acadia graduates just like them, and in the Q and A session I was able to reinforce this piece of inspiring news.

The show went well, the Q and A session was fun (including questions from some of Jen’s old teachers), and I signed a few books. Then I followed the line of least resistance down the hill and drove back through town to the grand old Blomidon Inn. It is such a traditional Victorian mansion that when I asked for a drink they directed me to a deserted drawing room, the Rose Room. There I sat sipping my colour-coordinated cranberry juice, and thinking that Wolfville is a fine place to be. Idle rich, indeed.

From the Sackville to Sackville

I gave my show at the theatre in the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia on a Saturday night, to an audience that included the veteran publisher Jim Lorimer and John Houston, the filmmaker son of my old igloo-dwelling friend James. Some old friends from my Speech at King’s College were there, too, and were polite about a sound system that had some problems. Books were sold, and signed.

The next day I went down to the Halifax waterfront, admiring the historic corvette, HMCS Sackville, that is tied up alongside as a floating museum. It’s a fine memorial to the Battle of the Atlantic that was largely fought out of Halifax and St. John’s, and the ship always draws me to it because in the 1970s I published the classic memoir of that war, The Corvette Navy, by James B. Lamb. These U-boat hunters were surprisingly small ships, and in mid-Atlantic they “rolled like pigs,”  but they won their part of the war.

Another reason for being on the waterfront is that it was the location for Halifax’s Word on the Street Festival. I roamed around the tented areas, visiting publishers’ booths and meeting old friends like Goose Lane’s Suzanne Alexander and Lesley Choyce of Pottersfield Press. But my main role was to be the host/interviewer for two author events. The first was with Ami McKay, author of The Birth House and, now, The Virgin Cure. Although the interview set-up had Ami and me arching like gospel singers at stand-up mikes at opposite sides of the stage, she is such an impressive performer that the interview/reading/Q & A went very well, and I was able at the end to escort her to a long signing queue.

Next it was Marina Endicott, talking about and reading from her new novel, The Little Shadows, which is terrific. In fact, I opened my interview with the words “Where have you been all my life?” She is precisely at that stage in a writer’s career when the prizes she has won and the nominations she has enjoyed are attracting readers to her work. For example, I admired The Little Shadows so much that I have since read her previous novel, Good to a Fault, with great pleasure. Both books are highly recommended.

Happily, Marina is as good a reader as she is a writer, and her time on stage flew by.

This was just as well, because I had to jump in my car and drive west all the way to Sackville, New Brunswick. I was to read at Mount Allison, at The Owens Gallery. Driving into Sackville, I encountered town and gown separation at its worst. Two young teenage girls at the town’s main crossroads had no idea where the Owens Gallery might be. It was perhaps four minutes walk along the very street we stood on.

The Marshlands Inn is the grand old Victorian hotel in town, where I had stayed on my previous visit (when, as my book describes, I became an Acadian), and it was there that I was picked up by Christl Verduyn, an old friend from her Trent university days, now on the Mount A. faculty. She and the student newspaper had done such a great job publicizing the Sunday evening event that we had 64 people in the audience, with some standing.

The show seemed to go down well, and I was especially pleased to meet long-range visitors from Moncton.

Afterwards, I was taken for dinner to Joey’s in downtown Sackville by  my friend Chris (of Sybertooth Inc., a gallant Sackville-based publisher that has picked up the Bandy Papers Series that I was proud to publish originally.) He and his wife drew me useful maps of how to explore the Tantramar marshes. The next morning, after wandering with my binoculars in town, I drove to High Marsh road, rambled across and through a covered bridge, then spotted a birdwatcher who confirmed that the dozens of little birds exploding into the air  around us were indeed migrating Savannah Sparrows.

It was time for me to migrate east to Wolfville, on the Bay of Fundy.

Stories About Storytellers Comes to the East Coast

Having already ranged all over Ontario, the Prairies, and the West Coast, Douglas Gibson is bringing his stage show to the Atlantic provinces at long last.

Between September 20rh and September 26th, he’ll be doing his stage show at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, Mount Allison University, Acadia University and St. Mary’s University. You can also catch him hosting Marina Endicott and Ami McKay at Halifax Word on the Street and giving the Flemming Lecture at King’s College.

For more information on dates and showtimes, head over to the events page.

Hugh MacLennan and the Women’s Soccer Bronze Medal

On Saturday, August 11, I performed my show at the annual Couchiching Conference. Jane and I met there 11 years ago when I was a visiting speaker (pronouncing great truths on globalization and publishing, I recall) and Jane was a hospitable member of the board, tasked with making visiting speakers feel welcome. We were married within the year.

The conference theme this year was The Arab Spring, and the implications for Canada. My Stories About Storytellers show was labelled as “And Now For Something Completely Different,” which was very accurate billing. But much of the Conference had dealt with the worrying situation facing the minority groups in many nations in the Arab world, and Hugh MacLennan provided an interesting link there.

I recalled for the audience that it was Hugh who made the point that Canada was formed from “defeated peoples.” Hugh listed The Loyalists, driven north after losing the American War of Independence, the French-Canadians after 1759, the waves of Highland Scots ejected after The Clearances, the Potato Famine Irish. Thereafter there were waves of defeated people from Europe, followed by more recent examples like Vietnamese Boat People, Ugandan Asians, victims of the Yugoslavian troubles, Tamil refugees, and on and on, not to mention our invaded aboriginal people.

I went on to suggest that if you were trying to create a society that was concerned about minorities, not just the triumphant majority, you couldn’t devise a more promising background than Canada’s.

As a punch line, to show how long-lasting this cultural heritage of support for gallant losers really is, I asked what other nation would be so proud of an Olympic bronze medal? Think about it. It was no accident that Christine Sinclair was selected as our flag-bearer. That bronze medal was the great event of the Olympics for most Canadians.

Hugh MacLennan would have been very pleased.

Sunshine Sketches of a Little Coast

For 30 years they have held a literary festival at Sechelt. That very first year I was glad to send Jack Hodgins (from his Lantzville home on Vancouver Island, right across the Strait of Georgia from the Sunshine Coast ) as one of the five authors attending. He had a wonderful time, and reported back with great enthusiasm.

Over the years, as the little festival grew into the established “Sunshine Coast Festival of the Written Arts,” in my role as Publisher I was pleased to send a steady stream of authors to this festival, assuring them that they would “have a great time.” They always did.

This year, in my new role of author, I got to see for myself. The hard-working Jane Davidson had secretly attended my performance at the Vancouver Writers’ Festival last October, and followed up with an invitation to attend the Sunshine Coast Festival that she runs.

So August saw Jane and me flying in to Vancouver, then dashing off to catch a seaplane that skimmed up the coast to land us at Sechelt. There we were met by Sally Quinn, a welcoming volunteer who identified herself brilliantly by displaying a copy of my book . . . always visible to an author’s eye at 100 paces. A quick tour of Sechelt took us to the Festival site, where we met Jane D. (astonishingly calm, given that over the next three days she would be receiving more than 20 performing authors from across the country, yea, even unto Michael Crummey’s Newfoundland, and Linden MacIntyre, fresh from Edinburgh). I also got to see the hall where all of the readings/performances take place. It is an all-wood open structure, the ceiling held up with tall pine poles, lending the air of a West-coast longhouse (crossed with a Cathedral, as one admirer put it). Ten seconds on the empty stage were enough to show me that this was a very special space, open yet intimate.

Since one of the strengths of this fine festival is that all events take place there, with no competing events at different venues, Jane and I were to spend many happy hours in the audience at that theatre over the weekend, enjoying the varied readings, Q and As., conversations, and performances. I’m happy to report that my own tightly scripted but apparently informal Stories About Storytellers show was reviewed by the local paper as “polished ramblings.” Aha!

Most of the time we sat with our host and hostess, the authors Sharon Brown and Andreas Schroeder, who live just outside Sechelt as “Roberts Creekers.” (Over time, we warned them, “Roberts Creakies” may apply.) We had the great good fortune to stay at the cabin down by the shore that Sharon and Andreas (whom I have published with great pleasure over the years) provide for lucky friends. And the blackberries! Words fail.

One of the high points of the festival is that at the end of each session, the great Hall is cleared, and everyone files out to drink, chat, or (usually) line up for the next session starting in 30 minutes. As a result, the placid queues along the Rhododendron-lined paths are a great place to meet old and new friends, and to chat about books and authors.

The local support for the festival is all you would hope for, and people are proud of what they have built up over the years. One retired man who sought me out to sign his copy of my book said it best. When I commented on what a great thing for the community this festival must be, he said, “This is why we moved here.”

A footnote: on Sunday Andreas took us for a quick tour of Gibsons, just to the south. For someone with my name, the place is a goldmine for delusions of grandeur. A quick tour reveals “Gibson’s Cinema,” “Gibson’s Curling Club,” “Gibson’s Swimming Pool” and so on and on. At the waterfront (near where The Beachcombers was filmed) is a statue of Captain George Gibson, who founded the town in the 1880s, rowing his produce down the coast to Vancouver. I posed proudly with my arm around his oilskin-clad shoulders, and felt right at home.

Praise from the Sunshine Coast

The Coast Reporter . . . Voice of the Sunshine Coast” recently ran a very nice report on this year’s superb Festival of the Written Arts at Sechelt under the heading “Making history — 30 Years of Festival.” The final paragraph reads,

“But it was the respect for history that dominated this 30th festival. It could be felt in the work of (Jane) Urquhart whose books turn on scenes from Canada’s past, and in the humorous anecdotes about Canadian literary giants, as told by editor Douglas Gibson. The polished ramblings of this career editor and publisher, more than any other speaker, reminded the audience of how this country’s literary tradition is still youthful, and how it has blossomed into adolescence over the last 30 years, completely in step with a festival that has proudly fostered its growth.”

Read the full article here.

In Praise of W.O.

For my third reading in Moose Jaw, I saw no obvious link to my fellow reader. This was a very good thing. Jalal Barzanji’s book, The Man in Blue Pajamas, is a prison memoir of his days in Saddam Hussein’s Baghdad, before he and his family finally managed to make it to Canada. Happily, I had no similar stories to write about. So after praising the PEN Canada help that brought Jamal to Edmonton, I simply chose to honour Saskatchewan’s own W.O. Mitchell, from Weyburn, just east of Moose Jaw. Any reading that includes a selection of stories about the unforgettable W.O. is bound to be popular. This selection from my chapter on “W.O.Mitchell: Character and Creator of Characters 1914-1997” was no exception.  People love to hear about this guy.

Later, after a Regina visit with our friends Karen and Trevor Herriot (the subject of a separate birding blog) Jane and I made a pilgrimage to Weyburn. Armed with information provided by Kam and Megan at the library, we walked the streets of the little town, which now has roughly 10,000 people. As everyone who has read Who Has Seen the Wind knows, when W.O. was a boy the open prairie lay just a couple of blocks north of his house, now close to the centre of town.

Thanks to the library’s leaflet we found the Mitchell residence at 319 Sixth Street. Nobody was at home, so we took photos and were giving up and leaving when a car drew up outside. It was Jamieson, the son of the household, who kindly invited us in and showed us around the ground floor. It was just as we had hoped — all maroon furniture against a base of old oak panels — befitting a grand 1903 house that was the best in town. Even the bevelled glass windows and doors in the book cases and the Art Nouveau metal light fixtures spoke to the deliberate standard of excellence from that time.

We also saw the Knox Presbyterian Church that the Mitchells attended, but we did not get to see the inside stained glass, “all grapes and bloody.” We peeked in at the ancient Royal Hotel (once opposite the now-gone Railway Station, although Railway Avenue remains), and visited his father’s grave in the cemetery just south of town.

I must confess that there was no sign of the cheeky gopher at the edge of the tombstone (“O.S. Mitchell. Loved by all who knew him”) that so offended young Brian/Bill when the family solemnly visited the grave.

The Weyburn Museum (the “Soo Line Museum”) contained many photos of the town from W.O.’s boyhood days (“the litmus years”) and one of his father, and of his pharmacy. We roamed the banks of the Little Souris River, in search of the famous swimming hole where W.O. and the other boys swam naked. We even saw some descendants of the cat-tails that provoked such naughty behaviour from some of Sadie Rossdance’s girls.

In the evening, having walked the streets to absorb W.O.’s Weyburn, I gave my show in the Weyburn Public Library to about 15 appreciative local people, including the local author, my friend, Joanne Bannatyne-Cugnet (A Prairie Alphabet). As usual the show ended with a tribute to W.O., and in Weyburn that seemed only right.

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.