Admittedly, I have lost track of the number of times I’ve sat in a dim and cavernous church sanctuary such as this one, furiously scribbling notes in the attempt to keep up with Atwood’s quiet cleverness. This Tuesday evening, along with a large audience in the Christ Church Cathedral, I was treated to a delightful mix of William Shakespeare and Margaret Atwood.
Interestingly, this evening marked not only an enjoyable event from a Writers Festival favourite, but also the announcement of this year’s winner of the Governor General’s Literary Award, Madeleine Thien. Additionally, this year marks the 80th anniversary of the Governor General’s Literary Awards, and the 30th anniversary of the Public Lending Right Program. Appropriately so, Canada Council’s Peter Schneider opened the event with a gracious tribute and commitment to literature in our nation.
Shortly thereafter, attendees were presented with a most apropos introduction to a discussion of Atwood’s most recent publication, Hag-Seed: a rousing reading from the original Shakespearean text of The Tempest. As anyone with even rudimentary knowledge of Shakespeare will know, the work of the Bard is best understood when watched and heard rather than read, and this certainly was true of the Prospero/Caliban reading from Walter Borden and Keith Barker.
It is worth mentioning that because Hag-Seed takes place primarily in a correctional facility, Atwood’s rousing reading selection left me attempting to imagine Margaret Atwood quasi-rapping among a group of burly prisoners. Surprisingly, this wasn’t a terribly hard task after all. Once Atwood completed her own Shakespearean performance of sorts, Susan Coyne engaged Atwood in a phenomenal discussion of her history with Shakespeare and how that manifested itself through her retelling of The Tempest.
Hag-Seed is part of the Hogarth Shakespeare series, which offers additional retellings of The Taming of the Shrew, The Winter’s Tale and Merchant of Venice. As such, it was only logical to consider how Atwood came to Shakespeare in the first place. Interestingly, she recounts her first experience of Shakespeare being Lawrence Olivier’s Henry V, a result of her parents being unable to find a babysitter. Similarly, when Atwood herself wanted to see a production of Hamlet and was without appropriate childcare, she brought along her daughter and daughter’s friend and tasked them with counting character deaths.
One of Atwood’s standout moments from this evening’s event was her response to a question on how to educate teachers on instructing their high school students how to write. She made reference to Wattpad, an anonymous online platform where authors can get positive peer feedback while maintaining a nom de plume. Having been a high school teacher myself at one point, Atwood’s advice rings true: the fear of ridicule and criticism is an immense barrier to young writers.
This evening’s event was yet another reminder that Margaret Atwood has become no less than a national treasure. If her diverse canon of work isn’t sufficient proof for Atwood’s talent, her wit, charm and ability to pull off gas station skeleton gloves should certainly suffice.
Family Matters was about more than just family, and there were a lot of ‘matters’ to be discussed on October 24th, in one of Christ Church Cathedral’s halls. Carleton University’s Susan Birkwood began the evening by clarifying how we could interpret the title of the event: a couple of different ways, really. We could walk away with ‘the matters, noun’ to be discussed, or the ‘mattering’ of it all, as the word also works as a vague yet powerful verb. The Ottawa Coalition to End Violence Against Women was at the event in support, and the hosts all acknowledged the potential weight of the subjects to be discussed. Matters, indeed.
The speakers included Zoe Whittall, whose latest book The Best Kind of People has been shortlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize and was recently named Indigo’s best book of 2016; Katherena Vermette who was shortlisted for the Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction and the Rogers Trust Fiction Prize with her latest novel The Break ; and David Bergen, who was longlisted for the Giller Prize with his latest work Stranger . All three made for an incredibly accomplished and talented line up of writers on the stage at the event.
Each of the authors started off by reading an excerpt from their respective works. Whittall’s revealed the inciting action that would send the family of George Woodbury into disarray as a result of his sexual misconduct at a prestigious private school. Vermette brought us inside the wintry world of one of the many characters in The Break – Cheryl, a mother and grandmother, caught in the mystery and suspense of an act of despicable violence that has stricken her family. Bergen brought us along on Íso’s journey, traveling across the United States-Mexico border, with an unlikely companion to deal with during her high-stakes flight from Guatemala.
As Susan Birkwood noted, all of the readings had notes of unfamiliarity, tiredness, and an unclear version of what constituted “home.” Birkwood provided thought-provoking and in-depth questions throughout the evening, offering her own commentary and thoughts about the books and their themes.
With Whittall’s talk, it was the ‘mattering’ of it all that struck a chord with me. Whittall spoke about how she took inspiration for her book from an Ottawa support group for women who chose to remain in relationships with their spouses who had committed sexual crimes. These women are often incredibly stigmatized for the actions of their partners, and people cease to see them as human beings with choices to make, emotions to feel and consequences to face.
Additionally, in Whittall’s book, George Woodbury’s 17-year old daughter has to navigate questions of consent, as a teenager would, but to a greater degree due to her father’s actions. How do you learn trust, consent, attraction and pleasure when your own father has ruined these things for other young women?
Vermette spoke about how the concept of home and place tied into The Break. Her novel, which takes place in the North end Winnipeg, never specifically mentions the city by name, however all of the characters have names inspired by Winnipeg street names and historical figures tied to Manitoba’s capital, making the city a recognizable “everyplace.” Vermette’s novel also broaches the topic of home in a way that looks at how violence from inside and outside the home can affect a family. “Home is the best place to run away from,” Vermette mused as she talked about the family dysfunctions that can contribute, and stem from, that familiar sort of violence.
Bergen’s novel Stranger seemed to deal with the concepts of home and family more metaphorically: how can someone feel belonging when they don’t speak the same language as others around them? What if your concept of home and family is tied to one person, and that person leaves?
Stranger’s character Íso started off as an immigrant or refugee when Bergen first imagined her, but her existence became more complex as he wrote. Íso demonstrates disparities of affluence and poverty, tradition and modernity, inertia and volatility.
Stephen Brockwell introduced the session by briefly recalling the long tradition in western culture of writing about war. There was agreement among the panelists that in more recent times, Pat Barker's powerful Regeneration trilogy (about WWI) stands out as a powerful example for many fictionalized treatments of war. Personalizing war in battle, delving into emotions, violence, hatred as an element of struggle are essential components. For Stephen, all three writers captured the personal impact of war brilliantly. Stephen, himself a highly respected poet, emphasized the exquisitely high quality of the language used in three novels, their intricate description of minute details, the visceral evocation of the physical environment.
Introducing the three authors one by one, Stephen summarized their impressive resumes to date:
Deni Ellis Béchard is a Canadian/American writer, journalist and photographer, a winner of the Commonwealth Writers' Prize for Vandal Love (2007). For his new novel, Into the Sun, spending time in Kabul was essential for him to be able to write, grounding him in the reality of time and space. In fact the visualization of war has been a vital aspect for his writing. "We are conditioned by our experiences". Kabul, the place, comes to life in intricate ways.
Kevin Patterson, is a Canadian medical doctor and writer. His short story collection, Country of Cold , won the Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize in 2003. In 2007 he worked for some time as a medic in Kandahar. His new novel, News from the Red Desert, takes the reader into the centre of the complexities of the Afghanistan war, beginning in 2001, when many thought the war was all but over.
Peter Behrens is a Canadian/American novelist, screenwriter and short story writer. His debut novel, The Law of Dreams , won the 2006 Governor General's Award for English fiction. His new novel, Carry Me, takes a longer, more historical view of the impact of war on civilians. His novel is complex in structure and wide ranging in the themes it addresses. While there is a love story of sorts at the centre, the novel is much more - a story of relationships, about grief and loss, about hanging on to dreams in the face of tragedy. The novel moves in and out of timelines, starting with World War I. and leading up to 1938. A central narrative strand is complemented by historical (mostly fictional) documents that slowly reveal the backstory to the central protagonist, a young man, growing up between the wars, without much understanding of the complex realities around him.
A very lively discussion ensued among the panelists, touching on a wide range of topics from the balance between research and writing to the importance of photographs as a means for grounding the author in the realities of the story. The three authors agreed that most research ahead of writing was essential. Each has his own approach to it, yet all agreed that authenticity is achieved when it comes from experiencing the place and the people, otherwise writing is a challenge or even impossible. Photography can help in terms of recalling mood and texture, provide details that give the reader a sense of the place.
Were there any parts that you enjoyed writing? asked Stephen. For Deni it was a difficult book to write. The theme of masculinity and male violence as a means for redemption is so false and it was important to convey the futility of violence. Writing about war and violence is very different from film, where violence is often portrayed as beautiful to watch. The reality of war is chaos. It is about malice and difficult to romanticize. For Peter the challenge was different as the events of WWI and the lead up to WII are well known. But he enjoyed writing about the (brief) period of foreboding and optimism up to 1914. Kevin wonders about how our experiences today shape our vision of war, so different from the times of Pat Barker, still considered the most powerful novels about war.
“Homophobia is uncomfortable,” opened Jeremy Dias, host of the Own Self be True panel. Discomfort proved to be a running theme for all three LGBTQ writers; Gwen Benaway, Vivek Shraya, and Ivan Coyote each shared stories about the ongoing process of finding comfort – or perhaps becoming comfortable with discomfort – in bodies, in language, in spaces, in history.
The first writer to speak was Gwen Benaway, who sarcastically remarked “You always send a racialized trans woman out front!” This wit, levity, and gravity informed the tone of her reading, weaving humour with bold and, occasionally, dark realities. Benaway shared from her forthcoming poetry collection Passages , which uses the Great Lakes to organize a meditation on Indigeneity, girlhood, and transition. The connection is perfect; Benaway’s poetry gently lilts and rolls, sweeping you along with its beauty. Yet it can also jolt you unexpectedly with its force. Benaway’s performance concluded with a prayer to honour her “second girlhood,” and a poem entitled “Goes On,” exploring the relationship between gender, bodies, and being Indigenous. It was a beautiful benediction to a quiet yet powerful performance.
Vivek Shraya launched into her performance without an introduction. Reciting from her newly published collection of poetry even this page is white, Shraya emoted through words, body, and music. Shraya moved quickly between poems, each one different in timbre and tone, but all peppered with punchy diction. Throughout each of her poems, Shraya omits pronouns and articles, leaving her speech abrupt and disjointed – exactly how we should feel about the race card (“The Truth About the Race Card”) and alienating others who challenge our otherness (“Raji”). Shraya finished her reading with an homage to the black women who shaped the music of her memories – in an outlandishly fun and impressive performance, Shraya sang a poem composed of lines from a long list of chart-topping black women singers. It was an extraordinary finale to an exceptional sharing of herself.
The panel concluded with the wonderful work of Ivan Coyote. From his new book Tomboy Survival Guide , Coyote read a letter he received from a mother whose son was in transition. Her son was struggling, and she wanted to know how to be a better parent, and if things ever got any easier. Coyote’s response was impeccably measured, alternating between humour and raw honesty. Coyote writes of his relationship with his mother, and how in a moment where she reveals an understanding of the fluidity of gender, he cannot contain or measure his love for her. He speaks about his father, and how he has slowly become a stranger to him. Coyote’s reading showed compassion and patience for those who do not know him as he is, and a great hope for the young man who is figuring out that he is not trapped in his own body. Cotoye’s reading was striking and poignant, and the room moved through laughter and tears as he shared his stylistically beautiful words.
The Own Self Be True panel provided an evening that challenged the audience to constantly check their own prejudices, revealed the complexity and richness of intersectionality, and presented discomfort as a space to grow and change. It was an evening of beautiful words and great hope.
Where are we going? It’s a question often asked by authors and readers alike. The question of what the future holds in light of today’s ever-changing world was clearly on both Michael Helm and M. G. Vassanjis’ minds in writing their latest books. Michael Helm and M.G. Vassanji both expressed that in their new novels they explore something new that is a different in style from their previous works.
Helm’s new novel After James consists of three sections. The first could be categorized as a gothic horror, the second a detective story and the third an apocalyptic tale all wrapped up in one intriguing novel. The three stories are distinct, but also interrelated, and it is up to the reader to find the links that unite the stories.
Host Peter Schneider asked Helm about incorporating high and low elements in his work. High elements have a little more substance, but low elements are likely to sell. Helm talked about how the literature market has become saturated by popular stories and he wanted to write narrative fiction. Narrative fiction either takes you out of the world, or makes you see it in a new way, he said. “I really love language that has layering to it; where there’s more than one thing that’s going on,” he said. His work is humorous, and there are elements of a good detective novel in it, but there’s always a deeper meaning to the events that are happening.
The conversation turned to the blurring of the lines between real and unreal. In an age with continually advancing technology things like genetic technology blur the line that used to exists between reality and fantasy. What tomorrow brings is inevitably linked to the role of technology in today’s world as man finds himself capable of things that previous generations would have called impossible. Reality itself has become increasingly fantastical as people discover they are capable of things that have only ever been possible in the imagination.
“Fourteen hundred years ago the universe appeared in time, but no predictability,” said Helm. The question of the unpredictably of life is a prevalent theme within the novel. Helm quoted T. E. Home saying that man is, “organized and liable to revert to chaos at any moment.” This inevitably leads to the question, what’s happening next?
“It’s midnight, the lion is out. . .” Vassanji read from his new novel, Nostalgia . Nostalgia is a piece of speculative fiction set in the world of the future. A patient comes to see Dr. Frank Sina with symptoms of nostalgia. “The past does not catch up with us, but sometimes it does because why had he come to see me? Dr. Sina asks himself. He begins to notice hints of his past in his own life and seeks to find out what they mean.
Set in Toronto, Nostalgia has striking similarities to Helm’s novel. Set in Toronto, Nostalgia takes place in a real world setting, but is mixed with elements of the fantastic. Both worlds contain elements of the fantastical, but are close enough to reality that the reader can imagine them happening in the real world.
“Suppose one was able to forget the past,” said Vassanji. Would that be a good thing? Sometimes forgetting the past seems desirable. “The world would be a nicer place,” he said. In Nostalgia, Vassanji creates a world where people have overcome mortality. They always have the appearance of youth and beauty regardless of age at the cost of forgetting the past.
Can you go back? Is it desirable? These questions immediately bring to my mind the question I often asked myself reading Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell, is it not the past that keeps us connected to the present and the future? As Nostalgia shows, a future that is utterly disconnected from the past is lacking something crucial.
Skilled storytellers as well as cultural critics, the author’s novels and conversation were extremely interesting. In the excerpt Helm read from his novel, I was particularly aware of his attention to structure as he created three distinct stories, all with an underlying theme, and the many details that bring together the work into a single work of art. For Vassanji, I was struck by his strong narrative voice. As a Canadian who was born and raised in Africa, you could hear the influence of other cultures in his writing style. Both authors weave bigger questions into the plots of their novels while retaining their own unique narrative style.
Heading over to the Manx Pub to listen to some poetry made me nervous. I had never gone before. I was worried about being underdressed, about not knowing the etiquette, and if it would be enjoyable. But I was excited to learn, and to finally experience Ottawa's poetry community.
The venue was a bit hidden, tucked away on the side of an apartment, like a hobbit’s home but filled with ales and poetry. Inside, the lights were shining off the copper plated tables. There were many carpets and cartoon drawings which brought you to a foreign, fun new world. It was a packed house, but the only sounds came from the poets Sue Sinclair and Matthew Sweeney. I think we all appreciated the effort the staff put into keeping the Manx pub a quiet atmosphere.
With a background in stand-up, I understand that rhythm, pausing and voice intonations are all necessary to get ideas across, which is why I was very excited to watch how poems were going to unfold. Sue Sinclair went deeply into the poem and gave a slower delivery, asking questions about our bodies, being alive, beauty and the purpose of art. Every one of her poems was incredibly interesting.
Matthew Sweeney’s poems involved mortality, guilt, horses, elephants and dogs. It had a very fun, seemingly informal style. He would add banter in between his poems and a younger man would answer back comically. Matt may have been a bit tipsy talking but it only made him more adorable and enjoyable. He would give long, detailed explanations about his youth and Ireland to give the listeners a better understanding. I was surprised that the poems were not welcomed with applause but with hums. I thought this was very interesting and added to the atmosphere. Although the event was more formal than anticipated, I did not feel out of place. Nobody noticed me; we were all so focused on the words and its subtext. I had a great time and am excited to go again.
Noah Richler, the political outsider turned New Democratic Party (NDP) candidate, enters a nursing home on a sunny weekend afternoon in Toronto—St. Paul's. A women looks up at him from her wheelchair and says, “I like Harper. I’ll vote for you.” In that moment of pavement pounding in the middle of the campaign, Richler wondered why seniors with memory loss (enough to conflate former Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the local NDP candidate) are able to vote while teenagers cannot.
Richler, son of Mordecai, was no ordinary candidate -- he was not content to pass from one voter interaction to another without reflecting on the process in which he was engaged. Political enthusiasts can be thankful that despite his election loss in 2015, Richler is back in front of the microphone to examine his experience -- a campaign whose autonomy, he admits, would likely not have been possible in a party with greater discipline than the NDP.
Sunday afternoon’s Writersfest programme paired up the neophyte Richler with the epitome of political backroom veterans, John Laschinger, for a discussion on their respective new books, The Candidate: Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, and Campaign Confessions. John Geddes, Maclean’s Ottawa bureau chief, as moderator, likened the pairing of authors to “putting unlike animals together” on the ark. And indeed there were some sparks between them -- such as when Laschinger, a campaign manager for more than four decades -- said that the characteristics and performance of an individual candidate counts for just 6% of the outcome of the election (with the remaining plurality attributed to the performance of the party leader in the final three weeks of the campaign).
Whereas Michael Ignatieff, in Fire and Ashes: Success and Failure in Politics, aimed to reach young people with an interest in politics in order to encourage them not to make the same mistakes he believes he made, Richler does not appear to have a compelling agenda to advance civic engagement. His cynicism tends to overshadow all else, though he is genuine in his appreciation for the volunteers and supporters who hardly knew him and yet devoted their time and/or money to his campaign.
I found Richler to be most engaging when vividly describing the idiosyncrasies of the campaign trail, such as when he compared (in his mind, of course) his unkempt canvassers -- “they’re my gang; I’d have no other” -- to those of the Liberals, with their sunny ambitiousness and “thick hair.” He said he tried to use humour, rather than fear or negativity, to reach unengaged voters.
Laschinger, meanwhile, distills his vast campaign experience -- from Toronto to Kyrgyzstan -- to offer a few lessons for aspiring politicians, such as the importance of keeping expectations low so that the candidate may exceed them (and thus, the importance of not lowering expectations for one’s opponents such that they may wildly exceed them, as the former government did to Justin Trudeau last year.)
Laschinger is full of stories of backroom antics and colourful personalities, and yet his methods are highly quantitative. When the percentage of voters eager for change in government reaches 60%, the incumbents can pack their bags, he says. He offers a few tricks of the trade, such as the value of broadcasting negative ads against one’s own candidate in order to make him or her better known, as Laschinger did during David Miller’s mayoral campaign in Toronto. Laschinger isn’t all spin and tactics though. His work is guided by respect for each man and woman who puts their name forward as a candidate for public office. Perhaps his most important insight was that he spends the majority of his time as campaign manager listening -- “God gave me one mouth and two ears” -- to volunteers, supporters, critics, and so forth.
Richler is similarly invested in the people -- rather than the Twitter identities -- who commit themselves to a campaign and to the democratic process. As a candidate, he says, “you have to believe you can win” and you must be able to tell each volunteer sincerely that their and your collective efforts were worthwhile. Participation matters, to borrow Laschinger’s favourite phrase, and candidates play a vital role in energizing participation in Canada’s democratic process.
Nearly a quarter-century since the 1961 publication of The Death and Life of Great American Cities , Jane Jacobs, an adoptive Torontonian, remains relevant as ever. This is particularly the case as urbanization has continued apace the world over. At a packed room on a dreary Saturday afternoon, the Writers Fest hosted Robert Kanigel and Nathan Storring in conversation with CBC Ottawa’s Joanne Chianello. Kanigel’s latest is a fresh biography of Jane entitled Eyes on the Street, and Storring is the c0-editor of a new volume of unpublished shorter works of Jane, Vital Little Plans. Much like her nineteenth century namesake, Jacobs is readily recognizable by her given name.
Kanigel, who has published a well-regarded biography of the prodigious Indian mathematician Ramanujan, recounted reading a review of his latest book where the verdict was that a reader could learn more about Jane from reading Death and Life. He added with sincerity that he takes “no umbrage” at this judgment. His hope is that others will be spurred to turn to Jane’s primary works, as she still possesses a voice that is striking for its fearless clarity, and a prose that is “a pleasure to read.” While much of Jane’s ideas have the currency of fashion today, Kanigel stressed how novel they seemed in an era where the automobile was king (we haven’t moved the needle much farther, still). It was Jane’s dichotomy of ‘foot people’ and ‘car people’ that helped her analyze the ills of city planning bereft of boots on the ground.
Storring took the podium and spoke about the life of Jane following 1961, and shed a lot of light on her personal challenges as she often felt activism took her away from writing. I especially found convincing, Storring’s detailed deficiencies of “big plans.” When it comes to urban landscapes, they are inherently wrong-headed. It also has the double fault of being denuded of grace, glazing the eyes with its “visual boredom.” Jane, rightly we can argue, made the case of little plans over big ones; subsidiarity over centralization. We get parts of this in Soviet era architecture—during a recent visit to Poland, I found the baroque beauty of Kraków far more alluring than the remnants of the forgettable Communist years.
Chianello deftly handled the conversation with both Kanigel and Storring, who having just met before their festival slot had started, had natural chemistry in talking about their favourite subject. It was encouraging to hear of the struggles of the bullish young Jane in school (she turned out quite alright!) Jane was no accident (nor a slouch). She learnt her craft in the world of niche journalism. One of her previous roles saw her act as propogandist for the American government. She wrote about various features of American life. It was interesting to hear of her having written a piece on slums—an act of self-critical truth-telling that would have been verboten in U.S.S.R., and itself demonstrating liberties that only existed outside totalitarianism. It was clear from the conversation that Jane saw a hidden order of things and was able to meticulously record how things were.
I kept thinking of the fact that in an era where we are once again flirting with rising violent crime in a few of our continent’s metropolises (see: Chicago), Jacobs voice is needed. Despite being the bane of urban life since the industrial era, reaching an illustrative apogee perhaps in 1960s-80s New York, Jacobs’ vision and endurance proves that lawlessness need not be the salient feature of city life. She was able, to paraphrase Kanigel, to show that “city life can be a good life.” Different from a rustic or suburban setting, but endued with a vitality that is inimitable anyplace else. The final charm was the evident love that both men had for their protagonist, to the point of their wives’ accommodation of Jane, “the other woman.” Following the afternoon, it was easy to predict that Jane Jacobs will continue to be relevant to our concerns for a very long time yet.
Intriguing, funny and sometimes morally questionable characters can bring a book from good to great. Authors Jowita Bydlowska,
Mary Morrissy and David Szalay are all prime examples of this notion. The October 22nd Character Studies evening at Christ Church Cathedral gave audiences an insightful peek into these authors’ creative processes for writing interesting characters that are sure to captivate readers.
Mary Morrissy’s reading unveiled two characters whose inner monologues were beyond charming in their humanness. Her refreshing and funny insight into the anxieties and thoughts of her characters reminded audiences of their own awkward and anxious feelings when running into an old lover or friend. Morrissy captures the mind of us all in quaint but intuitive stories about suburban life.
Jowita Bydlowska’s character Guy is without empathy and has great potential to be hated; nevertheless, this draws audiences into Guy’s web of emotional atrocities in a desperate need to know if he will get what’s coming to him or learn a valuable life lesson. Bydlowska writes a character that readers will love to hate.
David Szalay’s reading of his oldest character captures the discouraging frailty of age, which so many of his readers may experience or fear. Szalay understands the frustrations of aging, bringing the difficulty of everyday tasks to the forefront of the story. What was once so easy and natural is now filled with fear and caution.
All three authors are “masters of character” said the evening’s host Rhonda Douglas. While these characters may not be the most likeable or moral, an issue none of the authors concerned themselves with, they are interesting. Morrissy, Bydlowska and Szalay all agreed that they write not for likeability, but for truth of character. They write books they themselves would like to read. Such stories have a way of building naturally around good characters.
Douglas made the observation that all three books require the reader to actively participate. The audience and Douglas agreed that this is an indication of a well-written story. The author’s question panel discussed the challenges of writing uncensored characters and the backlash that could be projected onto the author. However, the evening concluded with the idea that an author must do the character justice despite the nature of that character. To censor a character would be unjust to both the character and the reader. Morrissy, Bodlowska and Szalay skilfully unveil their characters while allowing the readers to bring their own faults to the story, thus allowing readers to find kinship despite moral faults. Douglas summed up the three works well by noting that the characters in each story are “profoundly moving in surprising ways.”
With the publication of Sharp Wits & Busy Pens: The Role of the Parliamentary Press Gallery Over the Years, we're all a little wiser to the storied history of Canada's national press gallery. Written and edited as a volunteer effort of the gallery as a whole, the book marks the sesquicentennial of the journalists' arrival on the Hill, back when the new Parliament Buildings were being used for official "Province of Canada" business.
Journalists and book contributors Josh Wingrove, Manon Cornellier and Hélène Buzzetti, in conversation with Hill Times publisher Jim Creskey, shared an honest look at the organization's boozy, boys'-club history and reflected on the positive changes over the years.
1. Journalists were basically embedded in Centre Block
According to Josh, in the early days the government and press were "hand in glove." The press gallery takes its name from the prime viewing area allotted journalists in the House of Commons, but the journalists' original working room, called the "hot room," was also in Centre Block. This in itself didn't pose a problem, but journalists also working as government staff sure did. When an opposition party member complained about the practice, John A. Macdonald defended it as a way to support the newspapers that supported the government.
Journalists also had unprecedented access. Whereas Stephen Harper was able to circumvent journalists by announcing his cabinet lineup on Twitter, early journalists on the Hill would demand an audience with the Prime Minister at practically any time and not be refused.
2. Bro culture extended far past the hot room
The press gallery has been a boys club for most of its history. Despite having some female members (who fought hard to be there) the Press Gallery dinner was only opened to women for Canada's centennial in 1967, but this didn't last. In his address, the press gallery president made it clear that this was the first -- and last -- time he'd be welcoming ladies and gentlemen. Today, Hélène and Manon have both had a chance to make their own presidential remarks at the dinner.
In a special contribution to the book, Kim Campbell shared what it was like to be covered by the gallery as a woman. It wasn't pretty. She was told she didn't look or sound like a Prime Minister. At the same time, reporters outside the Ottawa bubble were much more open. This was a mere 23 years ago.
3. They knew the lethal effects of booze and baseball
By now it's local Ottawa lore that booze flowed like ink in the hot room, even during Ontario's extended prohibition. The "blind pig," or undercover bar, only closed in 1999. The reporters would work late nights, filing stories over the din of senators, ministers and MPs who congregated to drink in the back. The fire marshal only ignored the atrocious overcrowding in the room because of the scotch with his name on it every time he came by. Adding to the lore, former blind-pig stable Dow beer went out of business after 20 people (no press or politicians that we know of) died from high levels of cobalt sulphate in the Quebec brew.
You can't mention booze without baseball, and the historic camaraderie between press and politicians extends to sports leagues. Today the official games continue, but a 20-year hiatus occurred when MP Lionel Conacher died on the field. He was hit in the head with a ball in the second inning and dropped dead in the sixth. His family mercifully declared the cause of death a heart attack, not wanting to burden the player who threw the ball.
If Sharp Wits & Busy Pens is anywhere as lively as the journalists behind it, it's a 150 year history not to be missed.