Margaret Laurence Lecture by Graeme Gibson, June 28, 2011
“Truth is like the sun, its value depends wholly
upon our being at a correct distance away from it.
“… it is a fallacy that those who were present
can be trusted to know what happened.”
Rummaging in memory, which I’ve been doing rather a lot of recently, I found no sign before 1956 that I considered writing to be a way out. When the notion did surface I was in my second year at the University of Western Ontario – after having failed out of Military College -- and it had become clear that I was not going to distinguish myself as an Honours student in English and Philosophy. Indeed I’d begun to suspect I wouldn’t survive another semester at Western. Fortunately I was on the threshold of my third year and managed to avoid a “life” decision by escaping to the University of Edinburgh.
At the time I was joined at the hip with a young man in one of Mavis Gallant’s Paris stories who, “after numerous false starts was looking for an open road.” In such states of mind the possibility of being a writer -- without too much awkward thought about actually becoming one -- often looks like an open road. I dimly recall bits and pieces of crushingly bad writing from that time. However I did do one useful thing; I started a journal and beavered away at it for five years, actually growing up somewhat in the process.
My Edinburgh evasion was enhanced by the events unfolding in 1956/1957. We were deep in the Cold War, and one among many of its unsettling dramas was President Nasser’s decision to nationalize the Suez Canal -- in response to a significant provocation, it must be said -- which he did two months before I arrived in Southampton aboard the SS Columbia. Once I had settled into an Edinburgh Boarding House, the Hungarian revolt erupted. Six days later, with support from both France and the UK, Israel invaded Egypt. Everything was so highly charged, so much more dramatic than my life in South-western Ontario, that it occurred to me that I should be a journalist. If I’d had the money I’d have bought a trench coat like Humphrey Bogart’s, and tied the belt around my waist instead of using the buckle.
Fortunately I didn’t do that, but I began scribbling outraged rubbish when Soviet tanks entered Budapest to subdue the uprising. The BBC carried desperate appeals from beleaguered Hungarians and almost every day there were protests and demonstrations at the University and in the streets of Edinburgh. Tartan Tories, Marxists and Trots, Scottish Labour, Liberals and Scottish Nationalists all joined in the ferment.
The dark agitation of that time, and the sense that God knows what would happen, was an emotional and cultural revelation for me. And at least partially as a result, I began churning out personal impressionistic stuff in earnest.
Edinburgh itself, with its statues and monuments to writers such as Scott, Burns and Robert Louis Stevenson, contributed to that scribbling. The city had suffered very little modernization in the mid-fifties and the Old Town seemed its original self at night when sharp winds from Scandinavia burst all around us. My street was still lit by gaslight, and in the yellow fogs that drifted through the lanes and closes, I imagined Burke and Hare, Mister Hyde, even the tapping stick of the terrible Blind Pugh. I was haunted by a piper in ragged highland dress who played for drink on bitter evenings outside the pubs in Rose Street. And I became friends with a complex musician, an organist who entertained us by playing triumphantly in an empty church after the pubs had closed. He once said to me, “Gibson, you have an untidy mind.” As a gesture of appreciation for that observation, I gave his name to a character in one of my novels.
On January 13, 1957, after another supper of haggis and neeps in the basement dining room of Mrs Adam’s boarding house, the BBC broadcast a mesmerizing radio drama. It was Samuel Beckett’s “All That Fall,” which begins with a chorus of farmyard animal voices and the footsteps and then talk of old Maddy Rooney as she walks to the railway station to meet her husband Dan. Most other boarders drifted away but I was captivated. I had never encountered a voice that was anything like Beckett’s, nor had I read one either.
When I boarded the SS Fairsea for my return to Canada I was carrying two large British Post Office envelopes stuffed with my bits of prose. Late on a wild evening in the middle of the Atlantic I went alone to the pitching stern of the ship, and grabbing handfuls of paper from the envelopes, I hurled them into a black sea churning with froth from the ship’s propellers. That gesture was such a release that I like to think it was my first editorial decision. Perhaps it was, because I held back several pages that were written soon after hearing Beckett’s All That Fall. Oddly enough, these survivors would probably have slipped nicely into either of my first two books, Five Legs or Communion.
In November 1959, after failing my MA at Western, I arrived once again in Southampton, but this time with Shirley Warrington, who would become Shirley Gibson once her divorce was finalized. We knew it would proceed because I was the co-respondent.
It had been a confused and largely unproductive two years since I’d boarded the SS Fairsea for my return to Canada. I’d not written a word, except in the journal, and it was clear the time had come to set some psychic records straight, both for myself and others. I had to tell my own side of the story, but I couldn’t know what that story might be until I wrote the book I’d begun desperately dreaming about.
Before starting this somewhat alarming task I had to get a job and find somewhere for us to live. We were, as the saying goes, in the family way.
My younger brother, Alan, who was an unemployed actor, offered to put us up until we found our own place. His room was in a small house crouching beneath the Battersea Power Station. I had been assured there’d be little trouble finding work as a supply teacher in London, so we all expected our stay with him to be short-lived.
I applied by post to various regional education officers, as instructed, but received no response. It eventually began to look dire. Alan’s room had been a small parlour facing onto the sidewalk; behind the sliding door separating us from what had been the dinning room, a desolate Indian coughed cavernously; it went on and on and in time began to sound like death. Soon it was December, the house was cold and the kitchen full of bicycles: when I rubbed grease off a small notice by the kitchen sink, where we washed and brushed our teeth, I saw that it said, PLEASE LEAVE THIS KITCHEN AS YOU FOUND IT.
Alan finally moved in with his girlfriend, but our neighbour kept on coughing. We found ourselves relying on friends for courage and occasional loans. Bemoaning my fate over supper in “Diogenes,” a friend’s rented houseboat moored at Cheyne Walk, I was asked if I posted my letters from Battersea, which of course I did. “Well that’s it,” he said. “You don’t think they’re going to hire people who live in Battersea? You’ve got to send them all again, but from Kensington or Chelsea.” And he was right. I did as suggested, and was soon employed at a Secondary Modern school with 900 boys in Ladbroke Grove, and we moved into a garden flat (read basement) in Baron’s Court.
It was a tough school, one that had suffered the ugly race riots that shook Knotting Hill the previous year. The boys had all failed their 11 plus, which meant that most were waiting for the law to free them from school. Serious tensions and discipline problems remained: it became clear that I’d been hired not only because I was a big young man, and a dispensable Colonial, but I had recently earned my commission at the Royal Canadian School of Infantry.
The first time I turned my back on one class (and I’d avoided doing that for a couple of weeks) three kids threw something at me. I learned that the teacher I’d replaced had been driven from the school by boys throwing stones at him from ambush. When he got police protection the attacks stopped; once the protection left, the attacks resumed. He quit.
I came closest to trouble when I first entered a class of older boys, all of whom were shouting and leaping utterly out of control. When reasonable orders for quiet failed I bellowed SHUT UP! in my most authoritarian Parade Square voice. Few noticed, so I strategically threw one of the bigger miscreants against the wall. In a silence that followed one boy, obviously the barrack-room lawyer, said I could be fired for that. I agreed, then getting the boy’s name I wrote a note saying what I’d done, and that he appeared no worse off for the experience. After dating and signing it, I gave it to him and said he could do with it as he wished because I’d rather dig a big hole in the ground for a living than put up with their crap.
Those boys – including the one I’d pushed against the wall -- became my most enjoyable class. They’d long been bored silly, and humiliated, but they weren’t stupid. We once discussed Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Eve” as a death wish.
It was the despair and frustration in the teacher’s Common room that unsettled me most; what if I turned out like that? I volunteered for all recess and lunch-time supervision and nobody objected. Outside I got to know the kids and consequently avoided most of the confrontations other teachers endured.
Although the work was physically demanding and emotionally exhausting, we were enjoying London and our child, and I found myself beginning to write seriously for the first time in my life.
By early Spring I was teaching a group of thoroughly rewarding nine or ten year-olds in Kensington. When our son was born they sent me home with bundles of cards and gifts for baby. By that time I had written enough to want someone to look at it, someone I could trust. The logical choice was Eugene Benson. We’d been friends at University, and he was the only person I knew who had written a novel. It wasn’t publishable as it stood, but it was genuinely interesting. Anyway, he’d offered to look at what I was doing.
A month after I’d watched my eighty-some pages vanish into the Royal Mail the term ended, whereupon Shirley took Matthew back to Canada in an attempt to mollify his grandparents. London was expensive so I moved to a modest boarding house in Oxford and resumed my struggle with the book. A Swiss girl, who appeared from somewhere, was so impressed to discover I was a novelist that she persuaded her aunt in Zurich to let me and the family move – rent free -- into a Villa on the Cap-d’Antibes. “My aunt is paranoid about Arabs,” she told me. This was an unbelievable piece of luck because, what with an inheritance Shirley had just received, we would escape winter and I could work full-time on the book.
Eventually a registered package with my manuscript and Eugene’s notes arrived. There were ten pages of the latter, each with writing on both sides. I recall he’d used a ballpoint pen with blood-red ink, but that may be retrospective melodrama. It was a tough but remarkable and very courageous gift. In the midst of all kinds of encouragement and helpful suggestions, Gene said I’d clearly been working very hard, however he couldn’t find anything on the page that revealed why I was doing it. If you don’t find it important, he asked, who will? He also said he could only find a handful of sentences that suggested I had any talent whatsoever. Much later I assured him there were at least fifteen.
Despite dismay and spasms of self-pity, I was oddly comforted to discover that Eugene’s judgements hadn’t surprised me, that – not for the first or the last time -- I’d been fooling myself. In the event I returned earnestly to his letter. I soon bundled up the eighty-some pages and hid them in a trunk. Years later I pulled out his letter and that first desperate text and confirmed how fair and constructive Eugene had been. To this day I consider his among the most courageous and valuable gifts I have received as a writer.
Once we’d settled into the Villa’s servant’s quarters on the Cap d’Antibe it became clear I’d have to write outside the house, perhaps in a local sidewalk café like Ernest Hemingway. Which is what I did. Drinking coffee in spectacular weather until eleven or so, then moving on to beer or Pastis, I began to learn how to write.
I had accepted all of Eugene’s suggestions except his conviction that stream of consciousness was too ambitious for a beginner like myself. Without underestimating the difficulties, I knew that my characters, and the dramatic events in their lives, would have to be rendered through the atmosphere of their minds. It just wouldn’t work otherwise.
In order to take control of my prose I began by making the first sentence work exactly as I wanted, and then continue one sentence at a time until I had fashioned the first paragraph. I hovered over each paragraph until I knew that it served its purpose and I could do no more. I’d then write the first sentence in my next paragraph. And so it went, one page after the other, and very slowly indeed. In the evenings I’d make whatever small changes seemed necessary, and then compose a rough version of the sentence I planned to start with the next day.
Eugene had been right, of course; the absence of a conventional story line led me into numerous blind alleys. But I plugged away. Quite unexpectedly, one of the few decent essays I’d written at Western, “The Structure and Imagery of Milton’s Lycidas,” came back to reward me. Marrying what I’d learned from it with my pleasure in the way characters and situations offstage can be evoked by snatches of a theme in opera, especially Mimi’s in La Boheme, I gradually began to recognize and then more fully exploit the logic of what I ‘d been doing.
It was a slow and often frustrating business. By the time we left France I’d only managed twenty-five or thirty pages of what would become Five Legs almost eight years later. While there was significant editing done to the final manuscript those early pages remain largely as written.
Having mentioned my first literary admirer -- the Swiss girl who fortunately hadn’t read a word of my dreadful manuscript --- I will recount my first public appearance as an author. After beavering away for several months at the café I was approached by a fussy-looking woman in her forties who had taken to nodding and smiling at me. After awkward pleasantries she asked if I’d attend one of their literary soirées. I thanked her but declined. She urged me to change my mind. I thanked her with regrets. She went away but returned frequently with the same request. In desperation I agreed to join them on a specified date when we were sure to have left town.
By the time we unexpectedly extended our stay, I’d forgotten the dreaded soirée. One night the telephone rang. It was not a good moment. Shirley and I were having an old-fashioned argument and I had developed a fierce headache. It was the woman calling urgently about her soirée -- where was I? I had to come immediately. Quick-quick. Everyone was waiting. For some inexplicable reason I didn’t plead mortal illness or the recent death of a family member. Weakened by the argument and my headache, I set out into the night. As I followed her directions into the centre of town I began to fear this escapade would be worse than sherry and biscuits in somebody’s parlour. On top of that, I discovered I was still wearing my woolly slippers.
As I turned a corner into an ancient square I saw her gesticulating at the end of a promenade beneath formidable arches. Almost before I’d arrived she seized my arm, dragged me up stone stairs, yanked open a door and propelled me onstage. Blinding lights transformed my headache into a major event. “MAITENANT” she cried with evident relief, “DE CANADA, L’AUTEUR, GRAEME GIBSON.” I was dumfounded. There was a smattering of applause. Staring wildly into darkness behind the lights I heard my voice saying BONSOIR MESDAMES ET MESSIEURS! and then, after a long pause MESDAMES ET MESSIEURS, BONSOIR! BONSOIR… I then darted off stage, rushed down the stone stair case and trudged home. By the time I got there I was pleased with myself. It had been a narrow escape.
In Communion, a young man finds himself in a kitchen with a group of women who are languorously flushed with drink and rather intimidating. One asks him what he does best. He thinks for a moment, and then pointing to the back door says: “When the time comes, when it’s absolutely essential, I can walk from here to there. To the back door there.” One of the women says “Good. Not everybody knows that.” Obviously my experience in that blinding auditorium lies behind my young protagonist’s response.
When we returned to Toronto in the Spring of 1961, a University friend – one who had already purchased a Bentley -- hired me as a market researcher, one of those folk who went from door to door with questionnaires containing hidden agendas about soap or tinned vegetables. It was intriguing for a while, if only because an occasional house-wife, as they were then known, would behave in unexpectedly provocative ways.
My next piece of luck was to find a teaching job in the Ryerson Polytechnical Institute’s English Department. I was hired by Eric Wright, who twenty years later would have great success with his engaging Charlie Salter novels. While he didn’t appear to be writing at the time, he’d had stories in “The New Yorker,” and “Punch”, which made him the first published prose writer I’d met.
The early sixties were busy, melodramatic, and ominous: newspapers maintained their circulation with the Bay of Pigs Invasion and the Berlin Wall, with the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Space Race, which was parading national egos and gobbling money. Nuclear bomb tests blossomed on every side, and even Vietnam raised its head, with Kennedy sending in his first group of “advisors.” It isn’t surprising that many people I knew at the time had had at least one nuclear war dream.
Obviously there were other kinds of news stories as well, but most of us paid little attention to them. Some dealt with an alarming series of wildlife die-offs resulting from the commonplace spraying of chemicals such as DDT. In 1962, Rachel Carson’s iconic Silent Spring propelled these concerns to the surface. Symptomatically I was scarcely aware of its publication. Deep in a hard and seemingly endless struggle with my novel, I was dreaming of another kind of apocalypse and picketing the American and Soviet Consuls after each new testing of the Bomb. My imagination was seized by another book published that year, Gunter Grass’s The Tin Drum.
Ryerson was a fine place to teach, but with seventeen class hours a week I had little energy left for writing. By the end of 1963 I had asked for and received a year’s absence – without pay -- so I could finish the book in Mexico. As Shirley and I set off for Oaxaca in July, with two children now, I swore that if I hadn’t finished the book by the time we returned, I’d chuck it. That rash vow caused me considerable stress as the months and then years rolled by.
Once in Oaxaca we moved into a flat on the second floor of a large house with a garden through which two dangerous German police dogs roamed at night. From one window we saw the town, and from another the mountains. Apparently Frieda and D. H. Lawrence lived there while he was writing Mornings in Mexico. This struck me as a promising sign. On the other hand, Malcolm Lowry had his most terrifying visions in Oaxaca. I thought of him empathetically one night while a pack of feral dogs savagely attacked a burro. They were just out of sight around the corner and confronted with their terrible wild voices and the despairing cries of the burro, even the dogs in our garden fell silent.
The novel was far from finished when we returned to Toronto. I’d accomplished a great deal, but far too much remained and I knew that a return to full-time teaching would cripple my always precarious momentum.
Arnold Edinburgh suggested I try for a Canada Council Grant. He also persuaded Jack McClelland and Charles Israel, a fine film and radio dramatist, to support the application. It was successful, and by 1966, although back at Ryerson half-time, I was slowly writing my way towards the end.
On August 12, 1967, seven years after my obsessive sentence-by-sentence struggle began in the sidewalk café on the Cap d’Antibes, I wrote the last sentence of Five Legs. I don’t recall making changes before giving the ms to McClelland & Stewart, and I certainly didn’t re-read the text. Each type-written page remained in the chronological sequence in which it was written. It had been a long haul, and Shirley’s encouragement and faith throughout had been essential.
Apart from Eric, I’d still only met unpublished writers. There were a surprising number of us in haunts such as the King Cole Room (beer at 15 cents a glass) or the Pilot Tavern. The most convincing among them was Juan Butler, who went on to publish three novels before killing himself. However, when M&S began to include me in their legendary book launches I found myself in the heady world of real writers like Farley Mowat, Pierre Berton, and June Callwood. I began to feel I was on my way, especially since my second novel, Communion, was beginning to take shape.
After almost five months had passed without a word from M&S I began to fret. When I complained to Farley one afternoon in the Park Plaza bar he pointed across the room and said, “There’s Jack. Go get him.” Unwisely I did ask McClelland about my manuscript. I even pointed out that he’d had it for five months. He stared at me with his pale blue eyes and said I’d hear from them on Monday. The fellow sitting with him, who listened intently to this exchange, turned out to be a feature writer doing a profile of McClelland for Time magazine. I wasn’t surprised on the Monday to learn M&S would not be publishing my book.
In January I submitted it to MacMillan, Canada, who kept it for only two months. Early in the wait my editor – whose office kept shrinking, which I did not take to be a good sign -- told me in an elevator taking us to the same roof bar of the Park Plaza, that I’d have to marry the daughter of a French-Canadian Lumber baron so there would be enough paper for my book.
With refusals from a Canadian and an English publisher I turned to Doubleday. David Manuel and a young Doug Gibson did such a decent job of turning my book down that I experienced a spasm of triumph. “Graeme,” explained David Manuel over a fine lunch, “we’d love to publish your book but New York won’t let us. Branch Plants don’t do research.” It was almost as if they’d accepted the novel.
I recounted these stories in the Pilot Tavern, in the Embassy beer hall, and around countless kitchen tables. Perhaps to shut me up, Kildare Dobbs and George Jonas independently -- and within a week of each other -- suggested trying the House of Anansi, a publisher I’d not heard of before.
By the time I met Dennis Lee I must have been wild-eyed. We neither said much. I undoubtedly conveyed relief that he’d read the book, and hope that he’d like it. Perhaps I explained it was my only copy and I’d once spent several horrible days in a gigantic lost-luggage warehouse at the airport in Mexico City before finding my suitcase with the novel inside. Leaving him, I wandered off, mustering the old, almost reliable daydreams the best I could.
Many people, including me, have written about Dennis Lee’s quite remarkable role as an editor, so I won’t dwell on it here. It is enough to say that I discovered later that he’d feared Five Legs would bankrupt Anansi: not only was it a complicated stream-of-consciousness work, and their first novel, it was too long. The expense of publishing it meant they’d have to charge at least $2.50 for the paperback, and $6.50 for the cloth. Despite this Dennis went ahead and the book appeared in April, 1969. I don’t think any of us were prepared for what then happened.
I went out Friday at midnight for Bill French’s column in the Saturday Globe and Mail. Fumbling with the pages under a street-light’s brownish glow I found the review’s title: “A Glowing Anti-Puritanism in Sorrow.” It was a remarkable review: French had somehow caught and conveyed what I’d been trying to do. I almost wept with relief.
The first run of two thousand copies sold out within weeks and a second printing of twenty-five hundred appeared shortly after. I have no idea how many people actually read Five Legs; I have certainly come across copies in second hand stores that are suspiciously pristine. Be that as it may, the novel’s unexpected and unusual success undoubtedly contributed to Anansi’s growing publishing program.
Before Five Legs Anansi’s only fiction was Dave Godfrey’s intriguing Death Goes Better With Coca-Cola. In the two following years they produced two collections of stories and fifteen novels that included work by Austin Clarke, Matt Cohen, Marian Engel, and Roch Carrier. Two thirds of the seventeen titles were by new writers. According to the Canadian Encyclopaedia (on line), in 1969 Anansi produced a third of all novels published in English Canada.
Between 1968/71 Anansi’s list acquired poets such as Allen Ginsberg, George Bowering, Joe Rosenblatt, and Michael Ondaatje. They published George Grant’s Technology and Empire and Northrop Frye’s The Bush Garden. Published in 1968, Mark Satin’s Manual for Draft-Age Immigrants to Canada sold 65,000 copies, mostly by mail. That success highlighted the desperation of draft-age Americans.
Anansi was only one among many small presses that appeared in the late sixties. Notable among others were Quarry and Coach House in 1965, and Oberon in the following year; then came Anansi and Mel Hurtig in 1967, Sono Nis in 1968 and New Press in 1970. On the whole these were avante garde and/or nationalist houses that produced a remarkable range of significant, often challenging writing.
Much has been said about the renaissance, the enthusiasm and optimism that Anansi and other small publishers encouraged and represented. Most of it is true, or true enough, but there’s another, darker side to it. The fact is, it was often a hard, even tortuous and imperfect energy that we shared. Looking back at the injury of silence, the breakdown in egos and in marriages, the violence of suicide and Sonny Ladoo’s murder, and the often terrible but sometimes comic intensities, it is clear that much of what we collectively achieved was done at cost.
Nor did any of it happen in a vacuum. Anti-Vietnam war protests were fed by what we now call troop surges, by napalm and the bombing of Hanoi. Severe race riots broke out in Watts, Detroit, Cleveland and Newark. Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were murdered and in 1970 the Ohio National Guard’s massacre at Kent State University led to a nationwide Students strike in the U.S.
In Canada the Front de Libération de Québec’s kidnapped Richard Cross and murdered Pierre Laporte. This prompted Pierre Trudeau’s government to impose The War Measures Act in response to what was called a state of “apprehended insurrection.” The military was deployed in Quebec and a largely indiscriminate “rounding up” of Francophone Quebec intellectuals and artists followed. Few were charged with. Many of us felt that our generation lost its political innocence at that time.
Two months later the sale of Ryerson Press to an American publisher caused a modest but transformative Canadian revolution. Canadian publishers quickly formed an emergency committee to protest the sale, and a mixed group instigated by publisher James Lorimer marshalled a protest in front of the Ryerson Polytechnic Institute , which is now a University.
We arrived with a large American flag, a ladder, and prepared speeches of fiery outrage; to our astonishment the press awaited us. I clambered up the ladder, which leaned against the breast of Egerton Ryerson’s imposing statue, and draped Old Glory about his shoulders. We then sang “I’m a Yankee Doodle Dandy” and rushed home to watch ourselves on television.
To its credit the Ontario Progressive Conservative Government (and I emphasize the Progressive) struck a Royal Commission on Book Publishing, and appointed the inspired trio of Marsh Jeanneret, Dalton Camp, and Major General Richard Rohmer as Commissioners. One of them told writer and playwright Max Braithwaite they needed prose writers at their hearings. Max got a bunch of us together in his apartment where we agreed to try and be sensible.
Those present on stage at the hearings included June Callwood, Ian Adams, Marian Engel, Farley Mowat, Margaret Atwood, Gwen MacEwen, Fred Bodsworth, Dave Godfrey, and Max Braithwaite. There weren’t many in the audience so it didn’t take long to discover that Hugh Garner was sitting at the back of the hall. A self-proclaimed “One Man Trade Union,” Garner was a real writer, who had won a Governor-General Award in 1963. He could, however, be difficult. And he was. After condescending to the women he declared that writers didn’t need anyone else helping them out. Our presentation quickly turned into a melee.
Some of us retreated to lick our wounds in a beer parlour beneath the Park Plaza Hotel, where the idea of a prose writers organization took hold. A few of us began to talk, to plan, and eventually test the idea with others across the country.
Initial discussions took place in Marian Engel’s house in Toronto’s Annex. As Andreas Schroeder puts it, “we had some meetings on Marian Engel’s back porch. We did get a little tanked, it helped the optimism.
Our first public step was to invite a group of writers to a planning meeting in December 1972. The Ontario Arts Council’s visionary Ron Evans bankrolled that first conference. Ron had already provided money to retain Alma Lee, who joined us from Anansi on the tacit understanding she would become the Union’s Executive Director.
Six months later came a more formal conference at Neill-Wycik College in Toronto. About 80 of the 150 writers we invited managed to attend. After two days of discussions (chaired by poet and leading constitutional expert, Frank R. Scott), we agreed that a writers’ union should be officially formed.” Margaret Laurence was unanimously elected Interim Chair – albeit against her better judgement.
The Writers’ Union of Canada was founded November 3 in Ottawa’s National Arts Centre, with Marian Engel taking the Chair. Frank Scott again supervised the proceedings elegantly and with great patience. One of the reasons we weathered the Union’s more bizarre and unpleasant confrontations is that Frank Scott was our constitutional mentor, and Harold Horwood our Robert’s Rules of Order martinet.
An additional benefit from Frank Scott was his clear-eyed sense of what the Writers’ Union should not be.
THE CANADIAN AUTHORS MEET
Expansive puppets percolate self-unction
Beneath a portrait of the Prince of Wales.
Miss Crotchet's muse has somehow failed to function,
Yet she's a poetess. Beaming, she sails
From group to chattering group, with such a dear
Victorian saintliness, as is her fashion,
Greeting the other unknowns with a cheer—
Virgins of sixty who still write of passion.
The air is heavy with Canadian topics,
And Carman, Lampman, Roberts, Campbell, Scott,
Are measured for their faith and philanthropics,
Their zeal for God and King, their earnest thought.
The cakes are sweet, but sweeter is the feeling
That one is mixing with the literati;
It warms the old, and melts the most congealing.
Really, it is a most delightful party.
Shall we go round the mulberry bush, or shall
We gather at the river, or shall we
Appoint a Poet Laureate this fall,
Or shall we have another cup of tea?
O Canada, O Canada, O can
A day go by without new authors springing
To paint the native maple, and to plan
More ways to set the selfsame welkin ringing?
After Marian’s stint I became Chair in 1975. Our professional concerns were Public Lending Right, the development of a Standard Minimum Contract, the almost complete absence of Canadian writing in the schools, and a policy of vigorously lobbying governments about the specific problems facing writers and readers in Canada. However, since few writers in the early 70s knew more than a handful of their peers, our first substantial accomplishment was the focusing of a country-wide community of professional Anglophone book writers -- what Margaret Laurence called the Tribe.
During a National Council meeting in Vancouver the Province’s curriculum development officer told us that he’d love to see CanLit taught in the schools but there wasn’t any. Flabbergasted, National Council decided to establish a “Teacher’s and Writers Education Project.” Union members involved in the work agreed that our own books would not be included.
Five working groups were formed, one each in British Columbia, the Prairies, Ontario, Quebec and the Atlantic Provinces. The teachers, all of whom had taught Canadian Literature in high schools, represented different areas within their regions. Union members Andreas Schroeder, Terrence Heath, and Barry Dickson, along with translator Sheila Fischman and Geraldine Gaskin, acted as a co-ordinator of a group. Eve Zaremba , who joined the Union later, managed what soon became a complicated and expensive business.
Collectively they produced ten guidebooks with titles such as The North/Native Peoples; Coming of Age in Canada; Quebec Literature in Translation; and Women In Canadian Literature. Funds came from foundations, the Ontario Ministry of Education, teacher’s Unions, and other government agencies.
When we reported to the AGM there was an impassioned revolt because not all members had been included in the guides. A heated confrontation forced me to relinquish the Chair in order to argue the case on behalf of Council. We lost, as perhaps we should have, and were instructed to take the project elsewhere. This created a problem. We had raised and spent much money, and thirty-five teachers along with various members of the Union had donated months of their time to the project.
Under the circumstances we couldn’t simply hand the guides to a commercial outfit, so a few of us, notably David Young, Alma Lee, and myself, set out to establish the Writer’s Development Trust.
Had we not done so none of us would be here this evening.
Because David had a small trust of his own, he probably embodied the idea and had a sense of how we should proceed. Alma controlled us and the process with a solid hand, and I, well, I think I did a lot of enthusiastic talking about what fantastic things a Trust could do for writers: accommodation and/or support for indigent writers, for example, or translation funds, free beer and the Good Lord knows what else. We all did what we could to raise money. The Guides themselves eventually contributed; nobody seems to know how many were sold, but it was certainly over 40,000 copies, with most of them going to High School English teachers.
When David and I recently reminisced over a glass, he characterized the whole process as a cloud of smoke and mirrors, and it was all coming out of my mouth. This is flattering, but at best only partly true. There were a lot of mouths involved, far too many to mention here, and a lot of words. Perhaps none were more significant than a quotation from André Malraux that we used to inform and promote the Resource Guides: “The mind suggests the idea of a nation,” he said, “but what gives this idea its sentimental force is a community of dreams.”
We are still collectively working on those dreams, and also on that country.