30 November 2009

The Final Sigh

"The Heavenly Boy", read by Donald Winkler at the installation of the memorial plaque to John Glassco. The poet's last published verse, it appeared in the December 1980 issue of Saturday Night. Glassco died the following month.

24 November 2009

John Glassco Memorial Plaque

The plaque is cast.
Alloy Foundry, Merrickville, Ontario
20 November 2009

I do complain. Back in April I was going on and on about the dearth of historical plaques in this country, pointing – predictably – to a pub that now occupies what had once been John Glassco's pied-à-terre. Seven months later, with the Glassco centenary just weeks away, I'm pleased to report that a memorial plaque to the author will be installed at the city's St James the Apostle Anglican Church.

It's the most appropriate of locations, I think. St James the Apostle was the Glassco family church. On 19 September 1905, his parents were married there in an elaborate ceremony that was covered in the Montreal Daily Star. Glassco married both his wives, Elma Koolmer (1917-1971) and Marion McCormick (1924-2004), at St James, and it was at the church, on 2 February 1981, that his funeral was held.

The installation, which is open to all, will take place at 4:00 pm, Thursday, 26 November 2009.

St James the Apostle Anglican Church
1439 St Catherine Street West
Montreal, Quebec

20 November 2009

Love and Unhappiness

The Master Motive [À l’œuvre et à l’épreuve]
Laure Conan
[pseud. Marie-Louise-Félicité Angers;
Theresa A. Gethin, trans.]
St Louis: B. Herder, 1909
254 pages

This review now appears, revised and rewritten, in my new book:
The Dusty Bookcase:
A Journey Through Canada's
Forgotten, Neglected, and Suppressed Writing
Available at the very best bookstores and through

16 November 2009

A Tory Bodice-ripper?

Strange days, indeed. This past Wednesday, Remembrance Day, Linden MacIntyre received a well-deserved Giller Prize for The Bishop's Man. A day later, the novel's position as the country's most discussed book was lost to a 62-page government publication intended for prospective immigrants. The reviews of Discover Canada have been glowing:

"... a reasonable, balanced assessment of the national past."

"...a solid step toward a healthy, self-respecting Canadian nationalism we can all share."

"...a comparative bodice-ripper when stacked against its bland predecessor..."

I don't think Ivison really means Discover Canada is cheap or disposable or sexually-charged – and read nothing into his use of "stacked" with "bodice-ripper" – but he is very, very excited.

A newly minted Canadian himself, the National Post columnist cheers on Discover Canada as "yet another incremental step in the re-branding of Canada into a conservative country, full of people more inclined to vote Conservative." So, pay no attention to the participation of non-partisan bodies, ignore advisors like Andrew Cohen and John Ralston Saul, Discover Canada is the "Tory guide to a blue Canada". Why? Because it promotes "patriotism, pride in the armed forces and support for the rule of law" (in much the same way Ivison promotes American punctuation). These aren't Canadian values, the columnist tells us, they're Conservative values. Oh, and that maple leaf on the cover? That's not a Canadian symbol, but one that became Tory after a successful "hijacking".

And then, predictably, Ivison's off on another rant about the gun registry.

I can understand why the columnist so wants to claim
Discover Canada for his team; it may not be a bodice-ripper, but it's most certainly an improvement. Yes, Bloc MPs hate the thing, but that's just a job requirement; all the other parties are pretty well on board. The greatest criticism thus far comes from New Democrat Olivia Chow, who laments that the new guide doesn't recognize our UNESCO World Heritage sites.

This is not to say that there aren't greater flaws. Christopher Moore notes that there's no mention of First Nations rights and treaties, while Daniel Francis rightly claims that BC receives short shrift (and points out that not one of the 26 advisors comes from the province).

Much more modest, my own complaint deals with the
"Arts and Culture in Canada" section. It consumes little more than a page and, curiously, is dominated by sports, science and technology. Oh, there's paragraph on the visual arts, which mentions the Group of Seven, Emily Carr, les Automatistes, Jean-Paul Riopelle and Kenojuak Ashevak. Another paragraph on film and television boils everything down to Denys Arcand, Norman Jewison and Atom Egoyan. But what does Discover Canada have to tell prospective immigrants about our literary heritage?

The answer, in its entirety:

So there you have it: Canadian literature in fifteen or so words. I could make more of this, I suppose, but these guys and their fellow singers and songwriters didn't even get a sentence to call their own.

14 November 2009

RIP Joshua Slocum

Recognition this morning of Nova Scotia's Joshua Slocum, the first man to sail alone around the world. The mariner wrote about his adventure in the aptly titled Sailing Alone Around the World (1899), a travel classic still published around that same world, but not in his own country.

Slocum loved a good book and was a fervent reader, sometimes at his own peril. Here he is after departing the Cape of Good Hope on his good sloop the Spray:
The wind was from the southeast; this suited the Spray well, and she ran along steadily at her best speed, while I dipped into the new books given me at the cape, reading day and night. March 30 was for me a fast-day in honor of them. I read on, oblivious of hunger or wind or sea, thinking that all was going well, when suddenly a comber rolled over the stern and slopped saucily into the cabin, wetting the very book I was reading. Evidently it was time to put in a reef, that she might not wallow on her course.
It was one hundred years ago today that Slocum and the Spray set sail for the West Indies... and disappeared. Though an optimist, I don't expect we'll ever hear more from him. Slocum's end was probably pretty horrible – he never could be bothered to learn how to swim. No, much more pleasant to think that he simply drifted off while reading in bed.

12 November 2009

Reverend King's Great War Novelette

Going West
Basil King
New York: Harper & Brothers, 1919

First published as a short story in the September 1918 issue of Pictorial Review, 'America's Greatest Woman's Magazine', Going West has nothing of the inflated style of The Inner Shrine. This appears to be such a rushed piece of work. Sentences are clipped, yet repetitive, and characters appear as incomplete and airy as the ghostly figures on the dust jacket. In the opening pages of The Inner Shrine, King writes of a few tense hours; in Going West, he covers an entire life and geneology.

A great-great grandson of a Revolutionary War veteran, the grandson of a Civil War veteran, the son of a Spanish-American War veteran, Lester is a "genial, jovial soul" who, without reservation, heads off to fight the Hun in the Great War. What's termed "irresistible fate" brings him face to face with a blonde Bavarian who has blue eyes that dance "with a kind of bloodshot fire". Lester dodges, prances, leaps and weaves, stabbing the enemy with his bayonet, but gets his face "all bashed in" just the same. Both men die.

In death, Lester finds himself not in heaven, but Oberammergau (site, perhaps uncoincidentally, of the Passion Play). His companion is not Christ, but the man he killed. Together they look over a woman and two children in prayer - the dead German's family.

Lester, it seems, has lived a life in which his thoughts were limited to the physical world; and so, unlike his enlightened companion, he is unable to "whisper" to his loved ones. He has not yet learned that all is "a matter of thought, of consciousness." The German provides guidance:

When we've learned that everything exists in a great mind, that mind itself becomes a medium of intercourse. Give up the idea that people you love live in one sphere and you in another. We all live together in one great intelligence that understands all our needs. Meet your needs not by your own efforts, but by co-operation with that intelligence, and what you want will be done.
What, I wonder, did the Anglican Church of Canada think of its retired reverend? This is a Spiritualist's story, one in which non-believers are as sceptical about the New Testament as they are about Ouija boards, one in which the living draw strength through a blanket of protection and love laid upon them by the departed. Coming in the weeks leading up to the Armistice, it all must have been most welcome.

Object: Slim, printed on heavy paper, Going West is a very handsome little book. A portion of the dust jacket image, features the comrades united in death, serves as frontispiece. Removing the jacket reveals a rather elegant cover. Quite a contrast, it serves to remind that the author was a minister of the cloth.

Access: Library and Archives Canada fails where the Toronto Public Library succeeds. Less than half of our university libraries have the book – a sign, perhaps, that King had come to be seen as an American author. Buyers should keep in mind that King was quite popular... and the Basil King collector appears to be an extinct creature. Prices vary greatly. One crazy Connecticut bookseller is asking US$150 for a copy that is no better than those going for US$20. "Unusual to find a copy of this book in this condition [Very Good] with a DJ", claims another asking US$45. In truth, it's more unusual to find a Very Good copy without a dust jacket. Pay no more than US$20, dust jacket included.

08 November 2009

Remembering Peregrine Acland

Peregrine Palmer Acland

As Remembrance Day approaches thoughts turn to Peregrine Acland, whose Great War novel, All Else is Folly, I wrote about back in March. A very fine work, praised by Ford Madox Ford, Bertrand Russell, Frank Harris and our own war-time prime minister Sir Robert Borden, of all the out-of-print books read this past year, this is the one I would bring back. It remains a mystery to me that this novel has been so neglected.

One might make a similar statement regarding the author. Very little has been written about Acland, much of it sketchy and inaccurate. The biographical note that accompanies We Wasn't Pals, the Great War anthology edited by Barry Callaghan and Bruce Meyer, lists no dates of birth or death, and mistakes his only other book, the poem The Reveille of Romance, for a novel.

Once a newspaperman, Acland's own writing has him in Alberta working as a cowboy before the war – an unlikely occupation for a the son of the Deputy Minister of Labor. Greg Gatenby's remarkable Toronto: A Literary Guide, tells us that after the war Acland worked as an ad man in New York and Toronto, and was a member of Mackenzie King's private staff during the Second World War. A Torontonian, he died in the city of his birth, having lived the final years of his life in an apartment at 100 Gloucester Street.

I can't claim to have done any real research on Acland myself, though I did seek out his Attestation Paper – easily done through Library and Archives Canada. I've also come across a a smattering of wartime writing published in the Globe and Pearson's Magazine, along with the above photo, which was used in a McClelland and Stewart advert for All Else is Folly. The scarring almost certainly comes from the severe wounds he received during the Battle of the Somme, and is similar to that suffered by his protagonist Alec Falcon.

Acland was awarded the Military Cross; his "conspicuous bravery at the front" was reported in the dailies. The novel drawn from his experiences was published in three countries, received glowing reviews, and soon went out of print. What recognition has Acland received since? After the adverts for All Else is Folly had run, his name disappeared from the Globe and Mail, the newspaper for which he'd once worked; even his death went unreported. It's all so shameful, really.

Update: Field Punishment No. 1 reveals that the Globe and Mail did indeed report on Peregrine Acland's death, succeeding where this blog failed. Once again, it seems that I've been let down by the Globe and Mail search engine.

04 November 2009

Not Very Occult

The Inner Shrine: A Novel of Today
Anonymous [Basil King]
New York: Grosset & Dunlop, n.d.

On 28 July 1912, the New York Times published a letter from one Parker Mann of Nestlewood. Under the heading "WHO WROTE IT?", Mr Mann reports: "A friend has told me of a lady who gave her a most circumstantial account of the writing of 'The Inner Shrine' by the lady's uncle, a gentleman named Wilson. This gentleman, it seems, is now dead."

Coming four years after the novel first appeared in Harper's, the letter just added to a very large, ever-swirling mass of misinformation, speculation and rumour. From the start, the publisher played it all up, at one point announcing that no less than 34 names had been mentioned in print as the possible author. In the United States, The Inner Shrine became the biggest selling book of 1909.

I imagine publishers of The Calling would be envious.

Two weeks after Mann's letter, the truth was out – the anonymous novelist was not a man named Wilson, nor was it Edith Wharton or Henry James, but Basil King, a retired clergyman from Canada's Maritime provinces.

The reverend wasn't a complete unknown. Once a popular pastor, he'd turned to writing novels when his failing eyesight forced early retirement. The first three, published under his name, were well-received and had achieved modest sales, but nothing like that enjoyed by The Inner Shrine.

Well-crafted, if wordy, the novel is a drawing room drama of the sort familiar to readers of William Dean Howells (whose daughter, Mildred, was amongst those named as the author). Like the reverend's previous works, it focusses on matters moral; in this case the trials of a woman whose reputation is sullied by a boastful, self-centred aristocrat. Really, what it all comes down to is some guy saying he slept with a girl, when he didn't.

This was, of course, a different time; one in which stepping into a motor is to invite accident and these are words of woo: "I've become even more deeply conscious than I was before of the ineradicable nature of what I feel for you."

Ah, yes. There's also a minor scandale that devolopes when a suitor displays effrontery in touching a young lady's muff.

No ribald comments, please.

The Inner Shrine is an entertaining, if disappointing, read. King was known as a writer with a great interest in spiritualism, and so, I was expecting a good deal of weirdness. All starts off well, with a very strong first chapter in which a mother is kept awake by a seemingly inexplicable "presentiment of disaster".

She soon learns that her son is dead.

At a lighter moment, one character tells another of her belief that "there are forces at work here that you and I don't see."

"How very occult!" is the response.

Yet, there's otherwise no evidence of the reverend's interest in the otherworldly.

Or am I wrong? Could it be that the author had a preminition that his anonymity would be a big deal? The novel includes this brief passage, apropos of nothing:
Do you remember what Sir Walter Scott said, in the days when the authorship of Waverley was still a secret, to the indiscreet people who asked him if he had written it? 'No,' he answered 'but if I had I should give you the same reply.'
Oh, those indiscreet people... always so curious to know who wrote that book they so enjoyed.

Object: My copy, a Grosset & Dunlop reprint, owes its look to the 1909 Harper and Brothers first edition. Cheaper paper, black cover type instead of gold, it drops four of the eight plates, but has the advantage of some interesting adverts for other Grosset & Dunlop offerings. Much as I enjoyed The Inner Shrine, I can't help but think that these two would've been more fun:

Access: The time has come to take yet another swipe at the polluted world of POD publishing. I direct the back of my hand at booksellers who clutter the online used sites with "brand new" copies of public domain titles like The Inner Shrine. One English bookseller, located in Exeter, claims to have an inventory of 18 copies, published by the very fine firms of ReadHowYouWant, IndyPublish, Bibliobazar, 1st World Library, the Echo Press and two others that he seems unable to identify. Prices range from C$24 to C$84 – for the very same POD copies that can be purchased through Amazon for C$14 to C$36. I recommend the first edition, which is readily available in Very Good condition from more reputable sellers for as little as C$8.

01 November 2009

Meighen as Monster

Arthur Meighen wasn't such a bad looking fellow, and as depicted by the good folks at Crayola he appears quite harmless. Would that the same could be said about his statue, which is a frightening fixture, something akin to a permanent Halloween decoration.

This is Ottawa's reject. Commissioned at the same time as a statue of rival Mackenzie King, it was meant to stand with those of Macdonald and Laurier on Parliament Hill. King's is just north of the East Block, while Marcel Braitstein's statue of Meighen may be found 600 kilometres away in the corner of a small park on a minor street in the town of St Marys.

Why this is so is best explained in Ottawa Boy (General Store, 2000), the biography of Lloyd Francis. Here the late MP for Ottawa West recalls a 1968 visit to a Public Works warehouse to see these tributes:

The statue of Mackenze King was conventional and posed no problem. The one of Arthur Meighen was grotesque, with his arms spread and his face turned to the sky as if he were contemplating Armageddon. The plight of a Liberal minister of Public Works was clear: If he caused the statue to be erected, there would be an outcry, but if he did not, he would be accused of slighting the memory of a distinguished Conservative prime minister.
According to Francis, that Minister of Public Works, George James McIlraith, found a way out of the fix by seeking recommendations from senators Eugene Forsey, a Liberal, and Grattan O’Leary, a Progressive Conservative. Both advised against erecting the Meighen statue. None of this prevented John Diefenbaker from sounding off, describing the statue as "the greatest monstrosity ever produced – a mixture of Ichabod Crane and Daddy Longlegs." A bit over the top, but at the same time appropriate, given Meighen's early career as a schoolteacher.

Meighen's statue remained warehoused until 1987, when efforts of some dedicated locals brought it to town. I've yet to find a single person who cares for the thing. The elongated legs and bulbous face attract the most comment, but what I find disturbing are those hands... those hands... The hands of a murderer, I'd say.

Incidentally, the Crayola people have robbed Meighen of the last ten years of his life; he didn't die until 1960.

I have always argued against the use of colouring books as reference material.