29 January 2014

Remembering John Buell: A Lot to Make Up For

A Lot to Make Up For
John Buell
Toronto: HarperCollins Canada, 1990

John Buell died last month. I know because a friend forwarded the obituary his family placed in The Gazette. The newspaper itself did nothing. The fourth estate, which in life never properly recognized the novelist, has been silent on Buell's passing.

Edmund Wilson, the great American critic, praised John Buell's novels. Forget him. Wilson knew nothing about Canadian literature. O Canada, the book he crafted for the centennial, is an embarrassing late career cash-in. And yet, for all his flailing, Bunny landed truth with Buell.

John Buell's novels came onto us in fits and starts. The first, The Pyx (1959) and Four Days (1962), were followed by a decade of silence; then came The Shrewsdale Exit (1972) and Playground (1976). A Lot to Make Up For, his fifth and final novel, broke an even longer silence. Short, yet complex, it centres on three damaged characters: Adele Symons, Stan Hagan, and Martin Lacey. Things come together. A single mother, Adele is cleaning houses in Quebec's Eastern Townships. Stan is searching for her, intent on righting past wrongs. Martin offers Stan room and board in exchange for help with his crops. Addiction plays a role in all three lives. Past addiction. A Lot to Make Up For is a story of recovery, redemption and restoration. Positive, it gives hope, yet there is no happy ending.

The words end, but not the story.

The Globe & Mail, 4 August 1990
Object: A 202-page hardcover in tan boards. The HarperCollins Canada edition is so similar to the American Farrar, Straus & Giroux that the author bio reads:

Access: Concordia University, the institution at which the author taught for thirty-seven years, does not have a copy.

More than decent copies of the Canadian first edition are available online for as little as eight dollars. The American first edition can be had for a buck. Neither HarperCollins Canada nor Farrar, Straus & Giroux went back for second printings.

In the autumn of 1991, HarperCollins Canada reissued the novel as a trade paperback. I've never seen a copy. A Lot to Make Up For is the alone amongst Buell's five novels in having not been translated.

"In lieu of flowers, please make a donation in John's name to the charity you support."

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27 January 2014

Brian Moore's Forgotten First Feature: Speculation and Scattered Thoughts on a Film I've Never Seen

As with the pseudonymously published novel on which it's based, the great Brian Moore laid no claim to Intent to Kill. His name does not feature in the credits. Fifty-five years after its release, there's no mention of Moore in the film's IMDb listing. Biographies of the man pay little or no attention to this screen adaptation, but I think it worthy if only because it was the first of his novels to be adapted for the screen. Just consider the wonderful stuff that followed: The Luck of Ginger Coffey, The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, Black Robe, The Statement.

Need more?

Well, Intent to Kill marked cinematographer Jack Cardiff's debut as a director, and Jimmy Sangster, he of Hammer Horror fame, wrote the screenplay. That's Sangster on the left discussing the script with Cardiff and producer Adrian Worker:

What's more, much of Intent to Kill was shot in Montreal at a time when few features were being made in Canada.

Trust the Brits to do it… and in wintertime.

The Gazette, 18 December 1958

All I've seen of Intent to Kill comes courtesy of this trailer, posted here last week:

It would seem that Sangster remained quite faithful to the book. Each scene in the trailer is just as it is in the novel. The only liberty comes in remaking American doctor Robert McLaurin as an Englishman, thus sparing us Richard Todd's attempt at a Boston accent. Down, down, down the list of credits, I see only three characters that don't appear in the novel: "Carol Freeman", "Carol's friend", and "Kathy". The first of these will be of some interest to readers of a certain a genre for being one of Jackie Collins' very few film roles.

Maybe I'm just distracted by the beauty of Betsy Drake, best remembered as Cary Grant's third wife.

Looking further, I see Sangster deviating from Moore's novel. This scene, with Richard Todd, Herbert Lom and siren Lisa Gastoni aboard a BOAC jet in Dorval, does not feature.

And here, in another scene not in the novel, Lom anticipates his role as Chief Inspector Charles Dreyfus in the Pink Panther franchise:

In the second volume of his autobiography, In Camera, Richard Todd dismisses Intent to Kill as "a stinker", but then he didn't want to do the film in the first place. The reviews I've been able to dig up are overwhelmingly positive. The only reason I've not seen Intent to Kill is that its DVD release is substandard. A pan and scan transfer of a CinemaScope film? One should never encourage such things.

Coincidence: Richard Todd was riding high when Intent to Kill was made, thanks largely to his role in The Sixth of June, based on the novel of the same name by Montrealer Lionel Shapiro.

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26 January 2014

'Oatmeal' for Robert Burns Day

The Burns Monument
Fredericton, New  Brunswick
'Oatmeal' by Mr John Steele of St John, New Brunswick
from Selections from Scottish Canadian Poets; Being a Collection of the Best Poetry Written by Scotsmen and Their Descendants in the Dominion of Canada
Toronto: Caledonian Society of Toronto, 1900
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20 January 2014

The View from My Desk

Much celebration these past few days after it was announced that my wife had won the adult category in  the annual Doors Open Ontario Art Contest. She submitted two paintings inspired by the event, the first being this glimpse of my study. It received an honourable mention. The second, and winning entry (below), is a cruet set she spotted on display at the St Marys Museum.

Now that the judges are done, voting has begun for the People's Choice Award. You can express your opinion at the bottom of this page. Anyone can vote. Exercise your franchise!

The winner will receive a $500 gift card for use at Ontario's finest spas. Living with me, you'll understand the appeal of a weekend getaway.

15 January 2014

Senator Linda Frum's McGill University Magazine (with a bit about The McGill Fortnightly Review)

In November 1926, F.R. Scott was called to the offices of McGill University principal Sir Arthur Currie. The man behind the great victory at Vimy Ridge had been shaken by the student's new McGill Fortnightly Review. Currie worried that the publication might harm the university's "esprit de corps", that it might adopt "dangerous doctrines", that it might descend into things "Bolsheviki". The principal suggested that the publication would benefit from a board of advisors, but Scott stood his ground. Such a body, he said, would send a message to students that they could not be trusted.

I wonder whether Linda Frum experienced anything similar after running afoul of the university three decades ago. Was then-principal David Johnson at all concerned about the politics espoused by her McGill University Magazine? Perhaps not, but administration did take dim view of Ms Frum's appropriation of the institution's name.

A very good account of the meeting between Scott and Currie is found in The Politics of the Imagination, Sandra Djwa's biography of the poet, lawyer, essayist, civil rights champion and Dean of McGill University Faculty of Law. Whether there was ever a meeting between Frum, now a Senator thanks to Stephen Harper, and Principal Johnson, now Governor General thanks to Stephen Harper, I cannot say. There is no biography of Linda Frum.

And why not?

It's been more than four years since the prime minister recognized her talents as a fundraiser for the Canadian Alliance and Conservative Party. Those of us with a literary bent see greater accomplishment in Linda Frum's Guide to Canadian Universities (1987, rev 1990), a work that might be considered alongside Scott's Social Reconstruction and the B.N.A. Act (1934), Civil Liberties and Canadian Federalism (1959), and Essays on the Constitution: Aspects of Canadian Law and Politics (1977).

In 1970, Scott declined the offer of a Senate appointment.

It goes without saying that we all look forward to Senator Frum's next book. Until then, we must be satisfied with rereading past work… which brings me, at long last, to the January/February 1984 edition of McGill University Magazine pictured above. Published four months after the first, we see signs of growth and great change. Where once were just two names – editor Linda Frum and publisher David Martin – the masthead now features fourteen, including graphic director "Jacques N. Gilles".

Never let it be said that the Magazine didn't attract francophones, or that it had no sense of humour*:

All kidding aside, what are we to make of David Martin's absence and the fact that the position of Publisher has been eliminated? Just who's in charge here? Where does the American Institute of Educational Affairs buck stop? How it is that fourteen contributors managed no more than six pieces over a two-month period?

Seems awfully unfair to Editor Frum, who is forced to carry much of the issue. She should not be blamed for botching her interviews with Allan Gotlieb and United States Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Canada James Medas. When reading the silly review of Uncommon Valor, the movie set in "Vietman", please remember that she had pages to fill. Signs of overwork are everywhere, even in the first sentences of her editorial:
Canada and Poland are both nations of about 25 million people**. They both neighbour one of the super-powers. Russia was invaded from Poland in 1812*** and 1941****; America was invaded from Canada in 1777***** and 1813******.
But for my self-imposed asterisk limit, I would quote more. Frum's point, which she does reach eventually, is that we Canadians are better off than the Poles. We should be less critical of Ronald Reagan, more critical of Pierre Trudeau, thank the Americans for our freedoms and… I don't know, apologize for returning fire in 1777 and 1813?

As I say, overwork.

She's in the Senate now.

She's earned her rest.

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* The words quoted, belonging to Linda Frum, reference Ronald Reagan's Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Lawrence Eagleburger, who in 1983 at a private gathering compared the prime minister's efforts to broker peace between East and West to "pot-induced behaviour by an erratic leftist.'' Not really the same thing, of course. Again, overwork.
** In 1984, the population of Canada was 25.6 million. The population of Poland at 36.9 million.
*** By France.
**** By Germany.
***** Countering an invasion by the Continental Army.
****** Countering an invasion by the American Army and various Militia.

13 January 2014

Milton Acorn, Music Promoter (Does Not Exist)

A signed copy of Milton Acorn's More Poems for People, purchased at Attic Books' annual Boxing Week sale. It wasn't until after returning home that I noticed these scrawls by Acorn and others on the inside back cover:

It's been over five years since we settled in Perth County, mere kilometres from Stratford, and yet the Perth County Conspiracy and the Black Swan Coffee House meant nothing to me. Time and geography are my only excuses. I was a seven-year-old living in suburban Montreal when Columbia Records was pushing the Conspiracy; I began drinking coffee at twenty-five.

Billboard, December 1970
Still, I can't explain how it is that I'd missed Milton Acorn's involvement all these years. The son of Charlottetown co-wrote several Perth County Conspiracy songs, many with singer turned actor Cedric Smith. That's a contemplative Smith on lower left-hand corner of The Island Means Minago, for which Acorn received the 1976 Governor General's Award for Poetry or Drama.

Like the great Mekons, the Perth County Conspiracy seems fairly designed to give Peter Frame nightmares. A band that was not really a band – or was it? – you'd almost think the line-up was dictated by weather, whim and gas money. The name, either the Perth Country Conspiracy or the Perth County Conspiracy (Does Not Exist), is a bit of a mindfuck, is it not?

Just as well that I knew nothing of the PCC/PCC (DNE) back in high school – my teenage, post-punk self would've sneered. My adult self enjoyed Kevin Courrier's excellent CBC Radio documentary, Dream Times: The Perth County Conspiracy… Does Not Exist.

Old man Busby recommends it most highly, along with "The Early Days of the Perth County Conspiracy", a detailed history by Swedish scholar of psychedelia Patrick Lundborg. Musician David Woodhead shares some pretty great photos here.

Was he ever a member of the band?

Who knows?

Was Acorn?

09 January 2014

The Hairdresser as Straight Man

The Happy Hairdresser
Nicholas Loupos
Richmond Hill, ON: Pocket, 1973
175 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
The Globe & Mail, 1 December 1973
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06 January 2014

Resolved to Reading Richard Rohmer

What does a well-travelled, physically fit, non-smoker with exemplary personal hygiene do as a New Year's resolution? I don't know about you but over the next twelve months I'm going to read every book in Richard Rohmer's bibliography. What else is there?

Joining me on this  journey are my old pals Chris Kelly and Stanley Whyte. We'll be writing about what we find, sharing observations and analyses, at Reading Richard Rohmer. You'll also find seemingly unrelated stuff about Ben Bova, bulldozer eating and the dearth of thrift store porn.

Why Rohmer, you ask? Why not, say, Arthur Hailey? Well, so much of Rohmer's writing, particularly his thrillers, has to do with the country's oil and gas resources. Pretty hot topic, right? Besides, Hailey wrote only ten books (and only Overload had anything to do with energy).

Remember, that's Reading Richard Rohmer.

Next year, Thomas B. Costain!

03 January 2014

No Nurture, Just Nature

A Splendid Sin
Grant Allen
London: F.V. White, 1898

Scandalous in its day, time and changing mores have rendered the shocking tame, laying bare a very weak plot. The soft centre is occupied by wealthy Englishman Hubert Egremont and his betrothed, Fede, Marchesa Tomabouni. What fiancée sees in fiancé is a bit of a mystery, though it may have something to do with physique and athletic ability. Handsome Hubert can climb mountains using only his bare hands, but you wouldn't want him at your dinner party. Upright, uptight and boorish, he fancies himself a physiologist and, at age twenty, a leading authority in all matters pertaining to heredity.

Hubert's is a privileged life built upon pedigree. Sadness lies only in that he never knew his father, Colonel Egremont; sustenance is found in stories that his sire was "one of the finest built-soldiers in the British army… a man to be proud of." And yet, Hubert wants more:
"I only wish I could ever have seen my own father. One would like to know what noble characteristics, what intellectual traits one has a chance of inheriting; for to a physiologist, of course, heredity's everything."
As if in answer to Hubert's wish, Papa reappears, seemingly from the grave, intruding on a pre-nuptial meeting of the Egremonts and Tomabounis in a fancy Swiss hotel. A "creature" – Allen uses the word thirty-one times – the elder Egremont is revealed as a bloated, vulgar, drunken villain with an uncanny ability to show up at the very worst time for all involved save himself. Physiologist Hubert is horrified. "I am what I hate", he tells himself. "I am, potentially, all that in my father revolts and disgusts me." He then runs to Mother, who relates an awful story of abuse she'd suffered as a child, culminating in forced marriage. Still, Hubert is unmoved:
"It was a dishonour to yourself and a wrong to me. Epilepsy, insanity, drunkenness, paralysis – how could you burden your son with such legacies as those, mother?… And even if you once married him, how could you continue to live with him? And how could you bring children of your own into the world for him – half his, half yours – hereditary drunkards, hereditary madmen?"
It's next off to newfound Father, so that he may "burst out bitterly": "How dare you reproduce your own vile image?"

Then it's back to Mother, to deliver another lecture: "Every woman is the guardian of her own purity. To live with a man she loathes is a dishonour and degradation to her own body."

I was enjoying that self-important prick Hubert's suffering, so was greatly disappointed when his mother rescues him from torment by revealing that Colonel is not his father, rather he is the result of an affair with an American poet now dead.

I shouldn't have been surprised; there was much talk of the poet, an intimate of Marchese Tomabouni, earlier in the book. Where Colonel Egremont is a creature, the poet is invariably described as a "Man" – who stands with Giuseppes Mazzini and Garibaldi in having "so deeply stirred the soul of Italy".

Of course, he also stirred something within Hubert's mother:
"He was beautiful and noble-hearted," Mrs Egremont went on – "a leader among men; a teacher and thinker; and there, in those glorious streets, among those glorious churches, he taught me new lessons – oh, Hubert, dare I say them? He taught me it was wrong for me to remain one day longer under the same roof with the husband whom I loathed – told me in almost the self-same words as those you used to-day, that in yielding myself up to a man I despised, I profaned and dishonoured my own body."
The poet, it seems, restored honour to Mrs Egromont's body:
"One evening at Venice," the mother continued, "he pressed me close to his heart – his great beautiful heart – oh, close, so close; and he cried aloud to me, in a sense I had never before realized, those beautiful words, 'Whom God hath joined, let not man put asunder.'"
A simple "Oh, God!" is a more common cry at such moments, but then he was a poet.

The climax of the book, the sixty-one pages that follow aren't really worth the effort. The reader is given reason to believe that the creature Colonel is hatching some sort of clever scheme, but this turns out to be nothing more than a simple break and enter in search of incriminating letters. Caught in the act, he goes mad.

"This collapse is final," Hubert informs those witnessing the pathetic sight. "I knew it was coming."

Oh, that Hubert! Every bit his father's son.

An excerpt from Hubert's 'Philosophy of Love':
With the savage, almost any one squaw is as good as another; he discriminates little between woman and woman. The rustic begins to demand, at least, physical beauty; higher cultivated types are progressively fastidious; they ask for something more than mere ordinary prettiness – they must have soul, and heart, and intelligence, and fancy.
A query: If the tale of the abuse Mrs Egremont suffered at the hands of her cruel mother are true, why is Hubert not concerned that he has inherited similar traits?

Object: A bulky hardcover numbering 244 pages, sixteen of which take the form of a publisher's catalogue. While F.V. White has no more Allens to offer, there are many worthwhile titles, including: Naughty Mrs Gordon by "Rita", Mrs Edward Kennard's Guide Book for Lady Cyclists, and a wealth of novels by John Strange Winter (pseud. Henrietta Eliza Vaughan Stannard).

The endpapers and back cover feature advertisements of a less literary kind.

Access: First published in 1896, the F.V. White edition enjoyed three printings. That same year, George Bell & Sons issued an edition for we in the colonies. It was last published in 1899 by New York publisher F.M. Buckles. So, how is it that this novel is so scarce? My copy, purchased last year from a Mancunian bookseller, is the only I've ever seen for sale. The lone copy listed on WorldCat is found in the Kingston-Frontenac Public Library, a few kilometres from the author's childhood home. Not even the British Library has a copy.

To those tempted by the offerings of print on demand vultures, I offer Nabu's cover for this tale of romance and revelation amongst the Swiss Alps.

Caveat emptor!

01 January 2014

Temperance Verse for New Year's Day

The Montreal Witness, 3 January 1894

It was 1894, ere the New Year's Day was o'er,
     Noble Temperance workers gave a telling vote;
"Prohibition right away," was the watchword of the day,
     For the country's weel they knew it would promote.

          Joy! Joy! Clear the way before us,
          High, high wave the banner o'er us.
          From Atlantic's dashing roar to the far Pacific shore
          Sound the joyous Temperance triumph evermore.

While the people's voice is heard be the whole Dominion stirred,
     Deal destruction both to Licence and Saloon;
Full two hundred thousand strong join the great triumphant song,
     Oh, the better time is surely coming soon!

          Joy! Joy! Clear the way before us,
          High, high wave the banner o'er us.
          From Atlantic's dashing roar to the far Pacific shore
          Sound the joyous Temperance triumph evermore.

By the tens of thousands dead, by the tears of living shed,
     We adjure you to secure the boon we seek!
For the rulers can't refuse if you all your ballots use.
     They must harken to the people when they speak.

          Joy! Joy! Clear the way before us,
          High, high wave the banner o'er us.
          From Atlantic's dashing roar to the far Pacific shore
          Sound the joyous Temperance triumph evermore.

Grateful then to gracious Heaven for the signal victory given
     We will never cease to work and plead for more:
Strong in union, toil and pray for the dawning of the day
     When the traffic shall be swept from every shore.

          Joy! Joy! Clear the way before us,
          High, high wave the banner o'er us.
          From Atlantic's dashing roar to the far Pacific shore
          Sound the joyous Temperance triumph evermore.

Words of joy – Joy! Joy! – from Archibald McKillop, "The Blind Bard of the Megantic", inspired by the successful, though entirely ineffective, Ontario Prohibition Plebiscite of 1 January 1894.

We twenty-first century Canadians know that rulers rarely "harken to the people when they speak."

Archibald McKillop
"The Blind Bard of Megantic"
 1824 - 1905
Author of
Rhymes for the Times
Temperance Odes and Miscellaneous Poems
The Flood of Death; or,  The Malt that Lay in the House that Jack Built
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