Jane Austen Comes to My Show in Haida Gwaii

Haida Gwaii is the sort of place where unusual things happen sooner or later. I made my third visit to the island right after the Sunshine Coast events, flying from Vancouver to the magnificently named Sandspit airport. The bus took us to the ferry, then on to Graham Island, and to Queen Charlotte City, where we were dropped off right at the door of the auto shop that was fixing the car we were to use. No problem. Within minutes we had taken the island’s main road north to Tlell, and settled in to Bridge Cottage, right beside the famous fishing river.

The plan was to spend our days trying to outwit salmon, with the help of cunningly tied fishing flies and barbless hooks. Every morning our friend Noel Wotten would appear at the door (at 8 a.m., then 7:30, then 7:00) and would lead us to places where we stood thigh-deep in water and cast our flies for fish. Our casting was highly satisfactory in every respect, except that of actually catching fish that we could retain. Coho, our desired targets, were leaping around us, but we caught only cutthroat-trout or sculpin. But Jane and I had mastered the key to fly fishing, which is the zen-like point that catching fish doesn’t really matter. That’s just an agreeable by-product of a wonderful time spent as part of the river, absorbing the sounds and sights. Twice a shadow on the water made me look up, to see a giant bald eagle flying low overhead, using the river as a highway through the tall cedar, and spruce, and hemlock trees that Emily Carr knew so well.

Thanks to smart work by some local friends, a show was arranged for me in Queen Charlotte City on Wednesday evening. We went with our friend Noel (who brought his mouth organ along for the drive back . . . “Four Strong Winds,” “Summer Wages,” and much else) and found the Legion Hall, which doubles as the Anglican Church. Presumably “Onward Christian Soldiers” is a popular hymn there.

The show drew 42 interested people. The best moment came when I was walking around, greeting people as they came in and found a seat. I shook hands with one lady in her 60s and introduced myself. “Hello,” she responded “I’m Jane Austen.”

“I’m very pleased to meet you, thank you for co–” I said, then gaped at her. She confirmed that, yes, that was her name, and told me that an over-awed teenage girl once asked her to sign a copy of Pride and Prejudice.

It was a very literary evening. When my hosts presented me with a gift book with a title in the Haida language I asked for someone who could translate it and teach me how to pronounce it. They called over a nice man in the crowd called Angus Wilson.

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.

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.

Saskatchewan Birding with Trevor Herriot

I once was given a private tour behind the scenes in Parliament by Erik Spicer, the Parliamentary Librarian. On another occasion James Houston took me and some others through a special exhibition of Inuit art, recalling when he watched this piece being sculpted, and what his sculptor friend was chatting about as he worked on that other piece over there.

You have the same “behind the scenes” feeling when you set out with Trevor Herriot to look at birds in Saskatchewan. Trevor is not only a wonderful writer about nature, as well as many other things, as readers of his books know well. He is also an expert bird-watcher, so good that he has run a Regina radio show that helps callers to identify birds that they have stumbled across “with a yellow neck at the back.”

His own keen ears can identify different types of sparrow calls at a hundred paces, and his long-range camera skills are remarkable. I knew this because a couple of years ago he took me out from Regina to do some birding near Last Mountain Lake, and it was a very memorable morning.

So when Trevor suggested that Jane and I (who were staying in Regina with him and Karen and the family) head south with him and his birding friend Bob Luterbach to see what we could find en route to Weyburn, we were delighted.

It is as if the word spreads through the bird community that “Hey, Trevor Herriot’s here!” and they flock (so to speak) to see and be seen by this great celebrity birdwatcher. If you think that’s unlikely, look at the list birds we saw that morning, aided by the fact that a lush Prairie summer has lured uncommon visitors north from the parched American Plains states.

We saw White-faced Ibis (as in Egyptian pyramid art), Burrowing Owls (now endangered), Black Terns at the sloughs (and one angry Forster’s Tern), Baird’s Sparrow, Grasshopper Sparrow, Lark Bunting, Bobolink (with a yellow neck at the back), Chestnut-collared Longspur, and an amazing range of exhibitionist Bitterns, normally heard but never seen. All of these were first-time sightings for me and Jane.

Of course we also enjoyed watching Swainson’s and Red-tailed Hawks, not to mention the usual Mallards and Eared Grebes on the sloughs, the usual gangs of Redwinged Blackbirds and Cedar Waxwings, and a lone Upland Sandpiper. Wonderful!

Gibson Does a Striptease on Stage

When I found myself paired with Vancouver’s John Vaillant (author of The Golden Spruce and The Tiger) I chose to read from my chapter devoted to James Houston. After Jim’s great deeds in the North, he fell in love with a cottage in Haida Gwaii, where I visited him. My book goes on to talk about the Haida people, and mentions the appalling story of the golden spruce, their magical tree that was felled by a crazed logger-crusader. I then praise The Golden Spruce, wishing that I had had the chance to publish it, and calling it “One That Got Away.”

Reading that passage, of course, made a fine segue into John’s reading  Then he revealed that, although he never met James Houston, while he worked on The Golden Spruce (set on the West Coast), for some reason he became fascinated by the distant Inuit art of the far North, and immersed himself in it.

Earlier, when I was talking about James’s key role in spreading Inuit art (“No James Houston, no Inuit art!” as one museum director put it) I was able to demonstrate how Inuit art is now everywhere. As I read, I slyly unbuttoned my long-sleeved white shirt, and opened it wide to reveal – ta-da! – that I was wearing a T-shirt devoted to the The Enchanted Owl, the 1960 print by Kenojuak that became a Canadian postage stamp ten years later.

“And now,” I said, pulling my shirt apart and thrusting out my owl-covered chest, “Inuit art is everywhere!”

I’ve never had such applause for a striptease act before. Something to work on?

The Mae Wilson Theatre in Moose Jaw

Saturday was a busy day for me, with two readings (James Houston, then W.O. Mitchell) in the morning, then the show at the Mae Wilson Theatre on Main Street. This is a grand old Edwardian Theatre, with all the elaborate plaster trimmings, where touring performers like Sir Harry Lauder have appeared down through the ages.

I did my show (with the help of Eric the soundman, and Shane looking after the lights — and Jane up there in the booth) against a truly massive screen, perhaps 15 feet by 30 feet, which meant that the author caricatures were clear to everyone in the 300 person audience.

The audience was set up by a very generous introduction by the local author Bob Currie, and was notable for the fact that the gallant Jane, who knows the show very well, managed to handle the slide changes perfectly, so that the audience thought that my casual hand gestures automatically changed the screen.

One new part of the show was a special surprise for my good friend Terry Fallis, author of The Best-Laid Plans. I had got the splendid Tony Jenkins to do a caricature of Terry, knowing that he would be at Moose Jaw, although he had seen my show before.  (Terry is that kind of friend). I gave his picture the sub-title “Saint, Little Red Hen, and Prizewinner” and explained each part of the sub-title as Terry gurgled and blushed in the audience at his unexpected appearance in mid-show.

The audience seemed to like the show, and gave me a standing ovation. Later we had a Q and A session (“Did you have any authors you really didn’t like working with?” “They’re not in the book.”) A good day’s work, worth a relaxing spell in the Spa pool.

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.

A Triumph at Ridgeway

On June 1, I had the honour of appearing at the very first Ridgeway Reads Literary Festival, held in the delightful little town just west of Fort Erie. It’s so attractive that it just might prove to be a southern bookend matching Niagara on the Lake at the other end of the Niagara Parkway. (And the Farmers’ Market offers great pies!)

For this inaugural event Mary Friesen and her Ridgeway team had put together a sparkling series of authors, including Charles Foran (Mordecai: The Life and Times), Andrew Westoll (of Taylor Prize-winning fame), Olive Senior (Dancing Lessons), Richard Wright (Clara Callan, etc.) David (D’Arcy McGee) Wilson, and Phil Hall, whose book Killdeer was up for this year’s Griffin Poetry Prize.

I had the pleasure of giving my show on the opening Friday night, introduced by Rhyming Barb, who concluded her vote of thanks by asking me for another “chapter,” because to provide it no one would be “apter.” Ogden Nash clearly did not live in vain.

We had to leave after Charlie Foran’s marvellous Saturday morning talk on my old sparring partner Mordecai (his letters to me would continue our duel more in sorrow than in anger, wearily beginning, “Gibson, Gibson”) because Jane had a high school reunion to attend in Cambridge. This meant that we missed the following wonderful event in Ridgeway, closely described by an anonymous observer very similar to my friend David Wilson.

Later on Saturday there was a formal unveiling of a mural celebrating the 1866 Battle of Ridgeway, against Fenian invaders from the south. A high point of the official speech (by, I believe, the Minister of Justice, Rob Nicholson) was when he praised the literary festival: “This is a wonderful event, with some of Canada’s best-known writers. One of them, who gave a most enjoyable talk last night on stories about storytellers, was [short pause] none other than [slightly longer pause] Doug Wilson.”

Several people in the crowd shouted out, “No, no, Doug Gibson.” But my triumphant role (as in “Fred Gibson”) was established once again.

Stephen Leacock was apparently directing the events around the formal unveiling of the mural. First, the procession to the mural was delayed because the two regiments involved in the original battle (or, more correctly, the original headlong retreat) were unable to agree on which of them should lead the way. The gallant men of the Queen’s Own Rifles stood firm against the equally determined soldiers from the 13th Hamilton Regiment. After a long stand-off (possibly longer than their appearance in the actual battle, before both regiments ran away) the Hamilton men picked up their marbles and went home.

My anonymous observer’s account continues: “Second, the Town Crier immediately led the parade through the back alleys of Ridgeway, without waiting for the dignitaries to arrive, and without paying any attention to the prescribed route along the main street; deaf to all cries to wait, he pressed on fearlessly and relentlessly.”

“Third, when the Queen’s Own and the dignitaries finally made it to the mural, it turned out that the cover over the mural had been tied down so tightly that it couldn’t be removed. Eventually, the ropes were cut,  and someone leaned out from the window above the mural to catch the cover as it billowed in the wind, and to haul it in like a ship’s sail.”

Where, I want to know, were the Knights of Pythias in all this?

Publisher and Author as a Golfing Authority

On Saturday, May 5, I travelled east of Toronto to Whitby, to speak at a well-attended local Ontario Writers’ Conference. The setting was the Deer Creek Golf Club.

I was there to give a lunch-time talk to the 175 people at the conference, and was wearing my “Publisher’s Uniform.” (As a publisher I always instructed my authors that on the promotion trail they should look like their book cover photo, wearing the same clothes, hairstyle/beard, and so on. So when I’m appearing as “author” I wear the blue blazer, grey flannels, white button-down shirt, and striped tie that the unflattering Tony Jenkins caught on the book jacket.)

As you would expect, this was a much more formal outfit than that worn by the dozens of golfers who were enjoying the Deer Creek sunshine.

When I left the conference to roam around the tees before the lunch, my outfit led to a misunderstanding. I was silently standing there, watching people teeing off (in the interested manner of someone who grew up playing golf), when on two occasions, members eager to start the round mistook this well-dressed authority figure as the Official Starter. They were polite Asian Canadians, and they came up to me, bowed, and presented me with their official Starter’s Card.

I explained that I was just a spectator, and withdrew before there were any more misunderstandings. But the possibilities for mischief (“Sure, go ahead. I’m sure you’ll miss the players just in front . . . they’re further off than they look”) have stayed with me.

There may even be the start of a murder mystery plot. And a title . . . Drive, He Said.