Author Tags: Downtown Eastside, Fiction, Gold, Journalism, Literary Criticism, Literary Landmarks, Poetry, Travel
LITERARY LOCATION: Sylvia Hotel, 1154 Gilford Street, on English Bay near Stanley Park, Vancouver
Probably the consistently best-known haunt for literary types in Vancouver since the 1960s has been the ivy-clad Sylvia Hotel where literati (including Malcolm Lowry, Earle Birney and legendary M&S publisher Jack McClelland) have chosen to imbibe and stay. Built in 1911, "The Sylvia" is one of the places that Fetherling, who has lived nearby in Vancouver's West End since 2000, can frequently be found in earnest conversation. In 2010 he published The Sylvia Hotel Poems.
George Fetherling writes:
"The Sylvia Hotel is a cherished eight-storey Vancouver landmark that might, in general terms, be compared to the Chelsea in New York or the Chateau Marmont in Hollywood. That is to say, writers, visual artists and musicians, both local and visiting, and indeed many other people working in various cultural trades, have long done their drinking there, or their sleeping, or both. It is located in the West End, which is sometimes called Canada’s most densely populated neighbourhood, and is bounded by Gilford Street (where the main entrance is), Pendrell Street and Beach Avenue. The last of these takes its name from English Bay Beach, which is directly opposite the hotel. The beach can be viewed from the big windows in the Sylvia’s storied bar, which in 1954 became the first American-style cocktail lounge in Vancouver and which some patrons treat as though it were their office or house of worship.
"Like so many of the city’s most comfortable buildings, the hotel was built in 1911, the year that the great Vancouver real estate bubble was about to burst, as British capital was redirected to other opportunities. Originally it was a bloc of flats called the Sylvia Court Apartments, named for the owner’s young daughter, Sylvia Goldstein, who lived until 2002, aged 102 (whereupon the flag on the roof was flown at half staff). In 1936, during the Depression, it was made into an apartment-hotel. Only during the Second World War, when it was a haunt of merchant seamen, was it carved up into more or less standard hotel rooms. There are 120 of them in all, including a few that are actually small suites and the two so-called coffin rooms, which are tiny spaces left over when the floor space was reapportioned. It is an independent family-owned hotel and most certainly not a subscriber to any chain aesthetic. The property has been husbanded carefully. It is, however, proudly old-fashioned, resolutely more economical than most hotels that are larger, and indescribably cozy, in a bohemian sort of way. Its policy of accepting dogs as guests probably helps account for the patronage of numerous middle-class English couples of mature years. They coexist uneasily with the artists and journalists who cause them to wander about looking slightly perplexed.
"The bar was one of the last spots visited in the life of Errol Flynn, who died in a West End apartment in 1959."
Nobody has ever attempted a literary life balanced between Toronto and Vancouver so assiduously and exhaustively as George Fetherling, as evidenced by his engaging and enlightening journal of meetings, dreams and observations in The Writing Life: Journals 1975-2005 (McGill-Queen’s 2013). The sheer survivalism of The Artist Formerly Known As Doug Fetherling deserves some kind of medal. His literary model George Woodcock figures prominently throughout, dead or alive. It appears from this journal there isn’t anyone in the Canadian writing game that Fetherling hasn’t met. His shrewd assessments are as frequently generous as they are prickly, but there is an overall patina of civilized restraint that makes this collection pleasing.
Born on January 1, 1949, erudite and prolific George Fetherling is one of Canada's foremost men of letters. He has also always been something of a odd duck, as he freely admits in his frank memoirs. "Sometimes I joke that I'm an Elizabethan who's had the misfortune to be alive during the reign of the wrong Elizabeth," he has said. Fetherling has nonetheless thrived or survived in Canadian literary circles since his arrival in Canada from the U.S. in the 1960s.
In 1967 he became the first employee of House of Anansi Press after he moved to Toronto from New York in 1966. His thrice-published memoir of the Sixties, Travels by Night, recalls the birth of modern Canadian publishing during a rising tide of nationalism as well as characters from that era such as Margaret Atwood, Allen Ginsberg and Marshall McLuhan, to name only a few.
Variously described as "brilliant and eccentric" and "an urban legend," Fetherling has written and edited more than 50 books in a wide variety of genres including travel, poetry, fiction, film, politics, memoir, history and criticism. Also a visual artist, he was literary editor of the Kingston Whig-Standard (1988-1992) and has been associated with a variety of other publications including the Toronto Star, Quill & Quire, Saturday Night and Canadian Art. He has been writer-in-residence at Queen’s University, the University of New Brunswick and other institutions. At one time he taught journalism and urban planning at Ryerson University.
Widely travelled and mostly self-educated, he published as “Douglas Fetherling” until 1999 when he began using his middle name instead, explaining that he had reached the age his father, George, was when he died and felt the need to make “a little tribute to him.” He later wrote a long poem memorializing his father: Singer, An Elegy (2004).
In 2000. Fetherling moved to British Columbia to work as a book page columnist for The Vancouver Sun. An energetic freelancer for countless publications, he served as president of the Federation of B.C. Writers, donating a rustic cabin in the Interior, near Horsefly, for use by Federation members, but the initiative was short-lived. In 2005, Fetherling was writer-in-residence at Massey College in Toronto as well as a fellow of the Chumir Foundation for Ethics in Leadership. He continues to operate his own independent publishing imprint, Subway Books, from Vancouver.
George Fetherling has published fiction that includes The File on Arthur Moss (1994), a Kafkaesque first novel about a journalist covering the Vietnam War, and a second novel, Jericho (2005), mainly set in Vancouver’s Downtown, Strathcona and Downtown Eastside neighbourhoods, with flashbacks to one character’s past in the seedy parts of Windsor/Detroit, plus escapades in the B.C. Interior. [See review below]. Among his many noteworthy titles are The Book of Assassins (2001) and the first and only biography of George Woodcock entitled The Gentle Anarchist (1998), since re-issued by his own imprint.
Editor A.F. Moritz has favoured the political/public poems of George Fetherling to his therapeutic/restorative poems for Plans Deranged by Time: The Poetry of George Fetherling (Wilfrid Laurier 2012), a representative selection from twelve books since the late 1960s. After referencing Kenneth Rexroth and George Woodcock as inspirational outsiders, Fetherling concludes in an afterword, “At some point in this process, it seems to me, I ceased writing to myself, or speaking to others through a thin veil, and started to address the reader more directly in a different tongue and in a spirit of fellowship, born of the realization that we’re all in this joyous mess together.”
In 2016 George Fetherling became the Head of the the Writers Union of Canada, the leading organization that works on behalf of the country's authors.
Review of the author's work by BC Studies:
The Gentle Anarchist: A Life of George Woodcock
Tbe Writing Life: Journals 1975-2005 (McGill-Queen's 2013) $37.95 978-0-7735-4114-6
Indochina Now and Then (Dundurn 2012) $24.99 978-1554884254
Plans Deranged by Time: The Poetry of George Fetherling (Wilfrid Laurier 2012) edited by A.F. Moritz. $16.95 978-1-55458-631-8
Walt Whitman's Secret (Knopf, 2010). Novel. $32 978-0-679-31223-9
The Sylvia Hotel Poems (Thornhill, Ontario: Quattro Books, 2010). Poetry. $14.95 978-0-9810186-9-0
River of Gold: The Fraser & Cariboo Gold Rushes (Heritage House, 2008). $19.95
Jericho (Random House, 2005) $32.95, 0-679-31222-6
Singer, An Elegy (Anvil Press, 2004)
One Russia, Two Chinas (Beach Holme, 2004)
Three Pagodas Pass: A Roundabout Journey to Burma (Subway, 2002)
The Vintage Book of Canadian Memoirs (Vintage Canada, 2001). Editor.
The Book of Assassins (Random House, 2001; Vintage Canada, 2005)
Madagascar: Poems and Translations (Black Moss Press, 2000)
Jive Talk: George Fetherling in Interviews and Documents (Broken Jaw Press, 2000), edited by Joe Blades.
Running Away to Sea: Round the World on a Tramp Freighter (McClelland & Stewart, 1998)
The Gentle Anarchist: A Life of George Woodcock (Douglas & McIntyre, 1998; Subway Books, 2005)
Way Down Deep in the Belly of the Beast: A Memoir of the Seventies (Lester, 1996)
The Other China: Journeys Around Taiwan (Arsenal Pulp, 1995)
The Rise of the Canadian Newspaper (Oxford University Press, 1995)
The File on Arthur Moss (Lester, 1994; Subway Books, 2005)
Travels By Night: A Memoir of the Sixties (Lester, 1994; McArthur, 2000; Quattro 2014)
Selected Poems (Arsenal Pulp, 1994)
Year of the Horse: A Journey Through Russia and China (Stoddart, 1991)
The Dreams of Ancient Peoples (ECW Press, 1991)
The Broadview Book of Canadian Anecdotes (Broadview, 1990). Editor.
Rites of Alienation (Quarry, 1989)
The Gold Crusades: A Social History of the Gold Rushes, 1849-1929 (Macmillan, 1988; revised, University of Toronto Press, 1997)
The Crowded Darkness (Quarry, 1988)
Documents in Canadian Film (Broadview, 1988). Editor.
Documents in Canadian Art (Broadview, 1987) Editor.
Moving Towards the Vertical Horizon (Toronto: Subway, 1986)
The Blue Notebook: Reports on Canadian Culture (Mosaic, 1985)
Variorum: New Poems and Old 1965-1985 (Hounslow, 1985)
A George Woodcock Reader (Deneau, 1980). Editor
Gold Diggers of 1929 (Macmillan, 1979, John Wiley, 2004)
The Five Lives of Ben Hecht (Lester & Orpen Dennys, 1977)
George Fetherling and his Work (Toronto: Tightrope, 2005). Essays and selections edited by Linda Rogers
Mayor's Literary Arts Award, Vancouver, 2012
D.Litt honoris causa, St. Mary’s University, Halifax, 1997.
Harbourfront Festival Prize “for substantial contribution to Canadian literature”, 1995.
Shortlisted for Trillium Award for Travels By Night, 1994.
Asia-Pacific Foundation Fellow in China, 1990.
[Alan Twigg / BCBW 2016] "Travel" "Literary Criticism" "Fiction" "Poetry" "Journalism" "Downtown Eastside" "Gold" "Classic"
Three Pagodas Pass: A Roundabout Journey to Burma (Subway/UTP $19.95)
George Fetherling has some of the derring-do of his mentor, George Woodcock, who took it as a matter of pride to be able to write about anything, but whereas Woodcock was frequently funny in person and mostly dry in print, Fetherling is the reverse.
“Burmese politics,” Fetherling writes in Three Pagodas Pass: A Roundabout Journey to Burma (Subway/UTP $19.95), “is the most complicated subject I know that actually doesn’t involve math.” His self-educating memoir is part of an informal series that will include a follow-up based on his recent jaunt to Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.
“Burma is a terrifying example of the present state of world affairs in the post-cold war era, because it combines the worst features of the excesses of communism and the excesses of the marketplace.
“The country is under martial law. Citizens who speak out against the junta, or might do so, are routinely imprisoned and tortured. Tens of thousands of Burmese are taken into indentured servitude to work on government building projects.
“Admittedly there is a fine line between corvée and slavery. What’s practiced in Burma involves chains and is known by the old Asian euphemism porterage. Some civilians are used as human land-mine detectors.”
The murderous junta that was known as SLORC (State Law and Order Restoration Council) had a U.S. P. R. firm devise a less ugly name, the State Peace and Development Council, but the despair of their police state named ‘Myanmar’ remains. There aren’t any known oil reserves to interest the so-called free world. Fetherling links ignorance and horror in the Chatwinesque, 20th century tradition of the loner who de-romanticizes his subjects.
Another B.C. writer, Karen Connelly, has long been at work on a book to be based on her more intimate knowledge of the country, concerned more directly with people and human rights. Meanwhile Fetherling’s overview is heartfelt, entertaining and wide-ranging, coincidental with the release of his travel memoir, One Russia, Two Chinas (Beach Holme $22.95). Next publishing stop: Indo-China. Pagodas 0-9687163-2-6; One Russia 0-88878-433-3 (2003)
[Spring 2003 BCBW]
One Russia, Two Chinas
A travel narrative written over the course of ten years, One Russia, Two Chinas is about change and resistance to change in the postmodern world. In 1991, when the Soviet Union was about to morph into the Russian Federation, George Fetherling found himself in Moscow. He both marched with the workers in the last-ever Communist May Day parade and observed, at ground level, the new Russia’s love of the marketplace.
Fetherling then went overland to China. His entry point was Beijing, which at that moment was girding itself for the first anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre. Later that same year he journeyed to Taiwan, then in its final days as a dictatorship. He returned there mid-decade when the "Other China" had become a democracy, in order to note the differences—and similarities.
This is old-fashioned travel writing, with vivid prose, bizarre characters, and crystallizing descriptions. But it’s also a valuable document that freezes some important world events for close inspection.
6 X 9 Trade paperback 256 pp ISBN 0-88878-433-3 $22.95 CDN $18.95 US
Jericho (Random House, 2005)
In his second novel Jericho (Random House, $32.95), released earlier this year, George Fetherling introduces an unconventional and mostly hopeless love triangle between an over-the-hill marijuana dealer named Bishop, a rural Alberta ingénue-cum-hairdresser named Beth and a lesbian social worker named Theresa who is in permanent rebellion against her upbringing as a Dutch Catholic.
Beth is supposedly searching for her father on skid row, but that doesn’t enter much into the story. She basically finds the unscrupulous Bishop instead. The character of Bishop, a minor league Manson figure, is the most riveting aspect of Fetherling’s frequently brilliant narrative that is divided haphazardly between the three characters in alternating segments of varying lengths.
Bishop is an alluring crackpot who can rationalize just about anything, the sort of brash person who sees a pregnant woman on a bus and tells her not to worry, he can help deliver her child in an emergency. Physically he resembles the drummer in Fleetwood Mac, balding on top, long haired, a petty criminal, a petty guru.
Raised by his grandfather in the fictional district of Snaketown in Windsor, Bishop is the son of a prostitute. A degenerate and a manipulator, he has nonetheless been blessed with an astonishing knack for saying bizarre but strangely poetic nonsense.
In an interview Fetherling has said this novel emerged from a line he wrote for a rejected Toronto Life article about a gang murder in the 1930s: “When I finally caught up with Cappy Smith, he was down in Chinatown, winding his watch.”
This line appears on page 77, followed by about 50 pages of background material for Bishop that reads like a major chunk of a different novel parachuted into Jericho for lack of a demanding editor. If the detour back to Snaketown is something of a wrong turn, one can seldom find fault with the boldness of the writing.
“There is simply no one more Protestant,” he writes, “than a Vancouver lesbian in her thirties, living in some tasteful condo with her lover and her houseplants, close to the amenities.”
That title Jericho doesn’t refer to the Jericho Beach area of Vancouver; it’s a biblical reference pertaining to Bishop’s hideaway in the B.C. bush, north of Alexis Creek, off a logging road, between Williams Lake and Bella Coola. The threesome ultimately heads for the hills in a stolen postal van that they paint green.
It’s not the story that counts so much as Fetherling’s writing. Unfortunately we don’t get to see or learn about exactly how the psycho-babbling Theresa decided to join Bishop’s mostly ridiculous rampage. We are left to presume she jumped aboard because she has the hots for Beth and she hopes to protect her from Bishop’s megalomania.
This is a very funny book most of the time, with strikingly original asides and social commentary, but ultimately it’s more Dostoevsky than Dickens. There is something brave about careening towards the darkness, whether it’s done via sexuality, outlaw behaviour or writing, and Fetherling’s ability to dispense with his critical mindset in favour of an exploratory one will be surprising to anyone who has perceived him as primarily a brainy person, abstracted on high.
Jericho is risky and alive, and memorable in the long run for its presentation of a remarkable archetype. For anyone familiar with the underpinnings of West Coast culture, it’s possible to view “Bishop” as one more weirdly deluded messianic figure in a rich tradition of mavericks and cult leaders who have cultivated egocentric madness in B.C.
[Alan Twigg, 2005]
George Fetherling and his Work (2005)
If pay is low, so are standards. So most book reviewing is biased, or else bordering on self-advertisement. Linda Rogers’s nifty George Fetherling and his Work (Toronto: Tightrope $14.95) has gathered a variety of articles and appreciations of Fetherling that reveal, among other things, how the country’s most prolific reviewer goes about his craft. “I honestly try to be nicer to everybody else than they are to me,” he once said. “Not out of altruism, out of purely selfish motives of making myself feel better. And some people, by their nastiness, make it much easier for me to be nicer to them than they are to me.” Fetherling fans in Rogers’ compilation include John Burns, George Elliott Clarke, W.H. New, Brian Busby and Rhonda Batchelor (who recalls why her late husband Charles sent Fetherling his gold pan, “dented from long use and nicely oxidized,” before he died.) 0-9738645-1-6
Walt Whitman’s Secret by George Fetherling (Random House $34)
from Joan Givner
Walt Whitman, often considered the greatest American poet of the nineteenth century, had many secrets in his life.
In his novel Walt Whitman’s Secret, George Fetherling covers not only the life of “the good gray poet” but also the conspiracy against Abraham Lincoln, the president’s assassination at Ford’s Theatre, and the flight and death of the assassin, John Wilkes Booth.
It is at the intersection of these story lines that the secret of the book’s title is uncovered. But I won’t divulge it here.
Along the way, Fetherling skillfully introduces Whitman’s relationship with the semiliterate railroad worker, Pete Doyle; the female paramours he hinted at, and the existence of some children born out of wedlock. (The latter turned out to be as illusionary as the fake butterfly poised on Whitman’s finger in the famous “butterfly” photograph).
All these provide tantalizing red herrings before Fetherling makes the final shocking revelation. The conclusion he contrives to the mystery component of his novel will be deeply satisfying to readers addicted to page-turning thrillers.
Lytton Strachey, the eminent Victorian biographer, famously said, “each person carries his secret within him, and the biographer is the one who has the gift of discerning what it is.” Accordingly, Fetherling frames his narrative by making it a first person account by Horace Traubel, who in real life was Whitman’s spiritual son and the author of a nine-volume account (published between 1905 and 1996) of Whitman’s last years. In the novel, it is he who solves the mystery that Whitman carries within him.
Traubel, the son of a German-born, secular Jewish immigrant, was a self-educated printer and journalist. He was the poet’s constant companion at the end of his life, tirelessly recording his sayings, and collecting documentation and memorabilia for use in his book. Fetherling recreates Traubel’s life and meshes it with that of the poet as Traubel struggles to understand Whitman and to understand the nature of his own involvement. “The point I am trying to make,” Traubel says, “in my rushed and yet long-winded way is that I don’t know why exactly I am writing all this. As you see, I have many imperfections as an author.”
The person Traubel addresses so directly is the Toronto-based feminist, socialist, and Whitman devotee, Flora MacDonald Denison, whom he calls his “lady of the jury.” By using this manner of address, Fetherling gives the novel a Canadian slant and emphasizes Whitman’s connection to Canada. This, in spite of the fact that Whitman had “a two-sided relationship with Canada.” He revered the majesty of the geographical Canada and its native population, but remained convinced it was not a democracy like the United States. And he had a deep dislike for Queen Victoria and her ministers.
Flora Denison organized a retreat dedicated to Whitman’s ideals at Bon Echo, a provincial park near Kaladar. After his death, she constructed there a memorial to him that exists to this day. Nor was she the only Canadian in Whitman’s inner circle (he preferred the colloquial term “gang”). The poet was briefly a patient of Dr. William Osler, on one of the doctor’s visits from Montreal to Philadelphia. For a much longer time he was attended by Richard Maurice Bucke, a psychiatrist and superintendent of the provincial “insane asylum” in London. It is to Bucke that Traubel turns in the novel for an understanding of Whitman’s homosexuality or, in the parlance of the day, “uranianism.”
Fetherling appends to the end of the text, some comments on his technique, describing his book as “the reverse of a non-fiction novel, in that it is fiction that exploits the same conventions of non-fiction.” Yet, this complex novel deserves more than a few explanatory words banished to the acknowledgment section. One convention of non-fiction he might well have exploited is the preface, in which biographers traditionally situate their work in the context of others on the same subject, and set out the theoretical underpinnings. (Fetherling used this convention to good purpose in his own biography of George Woodcock).
After acknowledging several secondary sources he has used, Fetherling expresses regret that, because his book deploys the “liberties, conjectures, transpositions and imaginative untruths” of fiction, “it will be of no interest or use whatever to Whitman scholars.” This oddly negative verdict is quite unfounded.
The relationship between biographer and subject is of perennial interest. It has been endlessly explored by psychoanalysts, scholars, and by the biographers themselves. Nor has the topic been exhausted, in spite of being trivialized in numerous works of fiction. It is to this exploratory tradition that Fetherling’s novel belongs and it is far from trivial, in spite of the murder-mystery component.
Although a biography is, by definition, one life seen through the lens of another, it is by no means a one-way transaction. If the biographers’ experiences subjectively modify the lives they record, their own lives are no less influenced and changed by the process. The complicated biographer/ subject relationship is often filial, obsessive, erotically tinged, and marked by strange affinities. The fictional weaving together of Traubel’s autobiography and Whitman’s biography is a deft way of probing the political, temperamental, and educational affinities between the two men. It also illustrates the changes wrought upon the personal life of Traubel and, by implication, of any biographer.
Thus, although Traubel’s idiom belongs to an earlier era, and gives the novel a more leisurely pace than current readers are conditioned to expect, its appeal is fairly wide-ranging. It includes students of Walt Whitman, of Canadian literature, and students of biography.
Fetherling acknowledges key sources that include With Walt Whitman in Camden by Horace Traubel, published in nine volumes between 1905 and 1996; Walt Whitman, A Gay Life by Gary Schmidgall and Walt Whitman: The Song of Himself by Jerome Loving (1999).
Travels by Night
Travels by Night is very much a book of its time. This defect may also help account for its surprising (to me, in fact, almost miraculous) longevity. In his famous work Enemies of Promise, the English critic Cyril Connelly speculated about how difficult it would be to publish a novel that would still be alive in both the marketplace and its readers’ hearts once a whole decade had gone by. As though unwittingly proving the point, his only novel, The Rock Pool, failed that particular test spectacularly. Of course there are limitless exceptions to Connelly’s statement; they’re called classics. Travels by Night is not a classic and it’s certainly not a novel, though its language and structure have certain novelistic qualities. This Quattro Books edition is the fourth appearance of a story that, alone among my books, has been uninterruptedly read, taught, cited, debated and denounced for 20 years.
The tale of how Travels came into being is told in piecemeal fashion in a much more recent work, The Writing Life: Journals 1975?2005, which I rely on here for my summary. In the late 1980s, two decades after moving to Toronto from New York, I was working as a literary journalist in Kingston, Ontario. My life was in a troubled period and I conceived the idea of writing a memoir for both relaxation and therapy. Few people anywhere, certainly no one in Kingston, knew that I had grown up in violent poverty in the lower reaches of the old industrial culture that was quickly dying. Or if they did, they were too polite to remind me to my face. I wanted to show how my early life, as described in the first two chapters, led, logically, inexorably and yet implausibly, to my life in Canada, the subject of the final three parts. Many memoirists and autobiographers who grew up someplace other than where they grew old have tried to paper over the big seismic fault that runs through their narratives. The results are not always convincing. I took the opposite tack, emphasizing the shift by showing how stark and sudden it was.
In purely literary terms, I had this temporal matter in mind all along once I began drafting Travels in Kingston and finished it later, in the early 1990s, in Toronto. But my attempt to reinforce the kind of structural seam that runs through bifurcated life stories turned out to have a disadvantage, in that many readers seemed to believe that I was writing a political manifesto. The book was and is nothing of the sort, but rather an account of a young fellow trying to find his true home, one that happened not to be the place he was born.
When I had finished, a literary agent I knew first seemed enthusiastic about the manuscript in the abstract but did an about-face after starting to read it. She stopped by my home in the middle of the night, leaving the bundle on my front porch, like an abandoned infant, along with a note stating that representing the work would ruin her business. Something similar happened with a prominent Toronto publisher who specialized in high-end non-fiction. At the beginning she was very encouraging. But after seeing the finished pages, she stridently changed her mind, telling me that she wouldn’t publish such a piece of trash even if it came with a hundred per cent subsidy. I imagine she must have been offended by the fact that the book mentions sex, as seems to me perfectly normal in a memoir of youth. She may also have been horrified to learn that I had never attended Queen’s University or McGill and that I may not have believed that the Vietnam War had been a noble crusade. Other Canadian-owned publishers declined politely while the big American-owned houses, for their part, turned it down smartly, one after another, even though in the two most important cases the Canadian editorial executives in charge later went out of their way to praise it in private. The orphan finally found a home in 1994 with Malcom Lester, a brave independent Canadian publisher, and shot to No. 2 on the Globe and Mail’s bestseller list.
It received a good many reviews, several of them almost rapturous, it seemed to me. David Macfarlane, for example, called it “a wonderful book […] by a man who, for most of his life, has been thinking about what makes good writing, and it shows.” Philip Marchand wrote of it as “everything a memoir should be—revealing, witty, erudite, beautifully written. Of more literary weight than the vast majority of novels.” Robert Fulford understood how it captured for reflection and study the most creative period in Toronto culture; he was kind enough to call it “a work of literature [and] a valuable work of history as well.” It did so well, I suppose, because people liked reading about Margaret Atwood, Dennis Lee, Gwendolyn MacEwen and other figures, and recalling events associated with the early days of Canada’s literary renaissance—or hearing about notorious Rochdale College or the rise of Queen Street West hipness. In short, Travels seemed to speak directly to a certain generation. But it was controversial because it was perhaps the first such full-throated memoir of the arts scene and certainly the first one to deal candidly with people’s personal lives. Because of such frankness and sheer unexpectedness, as well as because of my background, it provoked unintended controversy. There was a spontaneous protest when it didn’t get shortlisted for one award or another—and then again when it did.
Only with this Quattro edition have I had the opportunity to expand a number of scenes, shorten a few that needed shortening, and make other emendations, such as correcting small errors. To do this of course I had to read the text again. I found it an odd experience, in my mid-sixties, to look back at what I wrote in my mid-forties about events that took place mostly during my adolescent and teenage years—indeed to look back on a time that now seems downright historical. Doing so has taught me a lesson about style. I wrote the book quite carefully but was at some pains to make it conversational, with word choices and sentence patterns that deliberately mimicked the way I normally speak, almost as though I were dictating my own story to myself. Time has changed everything else about me but I still recognize the way I spoke. The effect is a little like shaking hands with one’s ghost.