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.

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“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.

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.