Friday, May 26, 2017

Dunrobin Castle is the most politically incorrect edifice in the UK

Here we have the splendiferous Dunrobin Castle, the most politically incorrect edifice in all of the United Kingdom. In the early to mid-1800s, the Duke and Duchess of Sutherland ordered (though they did not personally orchestrate) the infamous Sutherland Clearances. This entailed forcibly evicting thousands of tenant farmers from the lands of their forefathers. Many of those driven from their modest crofts settled eventually in Canada. A few miles north of Dunrobin, at a coastal town called Helmsdale, we find a statue, The Emigrants,
commemorating those who fled to Canada -- a monument endlessly appealing to photographers. An identical statue is situated in Winnipeg, where it is called The Selkirk Settlers. Yes, this is the same doubling phenomenon that occurred with the iconic statue of Robert the Bruce on his horse -- one copy in Scotland, another in Calgary, Alberta.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Rambling around Scottish Highlands? Canada is always in your face

Here we have the church at Kildonan, Scotland, in the heart of the Highlands. Most of the Selkirk settlers who emigrated to the Red River Settlement in Canada in 1812 and 1813 had attended this church. Among those who sailed to Churchill, Manitoba, was George Bannerman, a great-grandfather of once-prime minister John Diefenbaker.  In 1968, Diefenbaker journeyed here and unveiled a plaque on the church in memory of Bannerman and "all the Selkirk settlers from Kildonan." It's a modest plaque on the wall to the right in this photo. And it is just one of many links connecting Scotland and Canada. Presto! Below we discover a second. In the early 1800s,
George Simpson, later the "little emperor" who served as governor of the Hudson's Bay Company, went to school on the ground floor of this edifice in the heart of Dingwall. A bastard "both by birth and by persuasion," as Peter C. Newman once observed, Simpson lived in the flat on the second floor with his uncle and his cousin, Thomas Simpson. After he grew up, Thomas joined his older cousin in the HBC, but then came to a bad end.  I've written about that here and there.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Is Tim Hortons secretly planning to help launch Dead Reckoning?

When I wrote "Let's invite Scotland to join Canada," I did not think to add "in making Tim Hortons coffee the national beverage." OK, let's say in making it third behind whisky and Irn-Bru. Anyway, I was delighted to see that, halfway through this yarn, which announces Tim's arrival in Glasgow, The Scotsman makes the connection. And that got me thinking. My forthcoming book, Dead Reckoning: The Untold Story of the Northwest Passage, also links Canada and Scotland. It highlights the contributions of Canada's indigenous peoples and Scottish-Orcadian explorer John Rae. You see where I'm going with this? Tim Hortons should get behind Dead Reckoning. The book launches in September, which leaves plenty of time to organize a publicity
campaign. I can see book displays popping up in every Tim Hortons across Canada . . . and also in Glasgow. No, wait! Why not around the world? At last count, we're looking at 4,613 restaurants in nine countries! Come to think of it, Tim's is probably all over this. Probably, they're keeping their plans secret, with a view to jumping out of cyberspace shouting, "Surprise! We're getting behind your new book!" Makes sense, right?

Thursday, May 18, 2017

John Rae Centre will celebrate Orkney, the Arctic, and the Inuit

I do love this image created by Orcadian photographer James Grieve. He has combined photos of the Stromness statue of explorer John Rae and the Hall of Clestrain, where Rae was born in 1813. Having visited the Hall a few times over the years, I still most vividly remember the first time, in 1998, when the building was in rougher shape and Orcadians were just beginning their long struggle to restore the landmark edifice to its original splendour. In 2013, this initiative gained impetus with the formation of the John Rae Society. The Society is bent on turning the Hall into a John Rae Centre celebrating the links between Orkney, the Canadian Arctic, and John Rae's Inuit and First Nations allies. OK, I may have mentioned this once or twice. But those just discovering Rae might enjoy reading about when the Society purchased the Hall or the unveiling of the National Commemorative Plaque, or look, here's an Open Letter to the Explorer on His Birthday.  A more comprehensive narrative is coming in September, when HarperCollins Canada publishes Dead Reckoning: The Untold Story of the Northwest Passage. Meanwhile, to achieve its objective, the John Rae Society has launched a Go Fund Me campaign. Turn the Hall of Clestrain into a John Rae Centre? All I can say is YES!

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Creative nonfiction workshop is coming to U of T in July

So on the left we see the image that accompanies my all-time, second-most- popular blog posting: The night Leonard Cohen taught me that Magic Is Alive. And you know how some people can't get over their own jokes? I still find this one pretty funny: 'Obscure' Canadian writer declines to don kilt for CTV appearance. My all-time greatest hit? That would be this puppy: Let's invite Scotland to join Canada. 
All this is by way of announcing my intensive, week-long, narrative nonfiction workshop at the University of Toronto. Hey, best to have some idea of what you're up against. So here we are again, all good to go starting July 10 as part of the Summer Writing School.  I do ask for submissions (up to 1,500 words) so we can hit the ground running. Below, we find a nutshell description and an image of the official "me." Dr. Jekyll. We do have a good time. And I do believe that this workshop can move you forward. Click here for an official rendition. And come on down! 
Meanwhile, here's that nutshell description: Anyone looking for today's most exciting writing should check out Narrative Non-Fiction, an emerging genre in which writers apply literary techniques to factual narrative. This course will orient writers within the genre, which includes both personal streams (memoir, autobiography, travelogue) and impersonal ones (true-crime writing, biography, historical narrative, immersion reporting). The workshop focuses on craft, and will include lectures, discussions, exercises, and workshopping student writing.
You have to register before submitting material.  Please submit a story--maximum 1,500 words. 
Note:  these pieces will be uploaded so that students can read each other's work before the start of the course.
Required Textbook: The Art of Fact: A Historical Anthology of Literary Journalism by Kevin Kerrane and Ben Yagoda, ISBN-13: 978-0684846309--available at the U of T Bookstore.

Monday, May 8, 2017

Blast from the past (1985): Atwood talks about The Handmaid's Tale

Wow, three decades and change: whoosh! Where did those 32 years go? Back in 1985, when Margaret Atwood published The Handmaid's Tale, I interviewed her and wrote as follows. . . . then included the piece in Canada's Undeclared War: Fighting Words from the Literary Trenches.

Call it "a feminist 1984" and Margaret Atwood won't argue. But she describes the novel as "a female Clockwork Orange." The Handmaid's Tale is "not science fiction in the usual sense," Atwood said. "It doesn't have spaceships or trips to Mars. But it is speculative fiction."
Like Brave New World by Aldous Huxley or Woman On The Edge Of Time by Marge Piercy, it belongs "to a long tradition of utopias—although in the 20th century, the vision is much bleaker and utopias have become dystopias."
While writing The Handmaid's Tale, Atwood was "very conscious" of this tradition, which began in the 16th century with Sir Thomas More's Utopia and includes Samuel Butler's classic Erewhon.
During the 1960s, when she was a graduate student at Harvard, Atwood studied the 19th century intensely "and a lot of utopias were written then."
Born in 1939, Atwood is widely regarded as the pre-eminent Canadian author of her generation. She has published fiction, criticism and poetry, and her works include The Edible Woman, Power Politics, Surfacing, Survival, Lady Oracle, Life Before Man and Bodily Harm.
Has her work become increasingly political?
Atwood resists the idea. She long ago defined politics as "who does what to whom"—that definition appears again in The Handmaid's Tale—and insists that all her works are political. "Survival was a very political book," she said in a telephone interview from Toronto. "But so was Edible Woman. It all depends on your focus."
"It isn't true that the novel is not a political form," she said. The genre "has gone through occasional periods of privatism, but it has also been used throughout the ages for social comment." To an Irishman, even the supremely detached James Joyce was politi­cal, Atwood said. And British novelist D.H. Lawrence, the high priest of love, was "very class-oriented."
In Canada, Rudy Wiebe has explored the politics of Indians and Mennonites, and Mordecai Richler writes "very, very pointed social satire." The Quebec novel has always been politically engaged.
"The world is getting more explicitly political," Atwood said. "It's no longer possible for us to live only in our private lives. We can't exist in that exclusively personal world anymore."
Set in the near future, The Handmaid's Tale "is an extrapolation of present trends," she said. "It's set in the U.S. partly because I lived there for four years, but also because trends happen there first. Here in Canada, we don't see the structure. We're too cautious, too egalitarian."
The effects of pollution, for example, "are having an impact on the birth rate right now," Atwood said. "And it's going to lead to a situation such as the one I describe."
The Handmaid's Tale, however, is "as much about the past as about the present," she said. "There's nothing in it that hasn't actually happened somewhere. Polygamy? Check out the Mormon Church. Public hangings? They were standard in the 19th century."
Atwood got the idea for the novel in 1981. She spent one year "actively writing it" in three different places—West Berlin, Toronto and Alabama. The book's title recalls The Canterbury Tales and so pays subtle homage to Geoffrey Chaucer. But it alludes mainly to the Bible, in which handmaids are described as bearing children for their mistresses.
Of the 12 tribes of Israel fathered by Jacob, Atwood said, eight came from children born to his wives, and four from those born to their hand­maids. One of her novel's three epigraphs is taken from Genesis, where Rachel says to Jacob: "Behold my maid Bilhah, go in unto her; and she shall bear upon my knees, that I may also have children by her."
Atwood chose, as her first-person narrator, a new-age handmaid. This young woman has been re-educated, and her job, her sole function, is to bear a child for her "commander." To this end, she is stringently controlled and kept ignorant of the world around her.
"I wanted to work with a single person who was part of the society, and see how much I could tell through that person," Atwood said. "When you're unable to read, it's very hard to know what's going on."

Sunday, April 30, 2017

50 Canadians Who Changed the World: this really happened!

Hard to believe that four years have passed since we boarded a west-bound train called The Canadian in Toronto. We were celebrating 50 Canadians Who Changed the World – both the book and the individuals so designated, most of whom are alive and thriving -- by following in the tracks of those who linked this nation from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific. We called this endeavor The VIA-Rail, Cross-Canada, Ocean-to-Ocean, Book-Tour Extravaganza.
Faithful readers of this blog (hi, mom!) will know that Our Hero made stops in Winnipeg, Saskatoon, Calgary, Canmore, Banff, and Jasper. After enduring many hardships and overcoming countless obstacles (ahem), he reached Vancouver, made his way to English Bay and, carrying a copy of his new book (which paints a vivid portrait of cutting-edge Canada, if I do say so myself), waded into the Pacific Ocean.
Then came the second leg of the train journey, traveling on VIA-Rail’s “Ocean”: Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal, Halifax. One afternoon, acting on the advice of locals, and assisted by a trio of volunteers, Our Hero made his way to Point Pleasant Park. There, despite a steady rain and a rocky shoreline that would have deterred a less intrepid author, he waded into the Atlantic Ocean, thus accomplishing his declared objective: ocean-to-ocean.  He was tempted to build a cairn, but decided to wait until he next visited the third ocean.
Of those I wrote about in this book, let's see. Sheila Watt-Cloutier has since published a bestseller called The Right to be Cold. Naomi Klein is preparing to launch a new book, No is Not Enough, in which she argues that Trump is extreme . . . but not a Martian. And Leonard Cohen has left the building. You know he would want us to party on!
(Pix by Sheena Fraser McGoogan)