Later I flew to Shanghai, where I gave the show in the Canadian Consulate. It was gratifying, and fun, although only a very small proportion of China’s 1.3 billion population were able to attend.
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.”
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.