“Let me tell you what it’s like to be edited by Doug Gibson. If he’d edited Shakespeare, there’d be no Shakespeare, it’d all be on the floor.”
On the evening of 20 April 2016, a brave Mr. Gibson stood on the platform in the salle of Canada House in Trafalgar Square trying to make an audience of Scots laugh. Douglas Gibson — raconteur, editor, and publisher — came to Canada from Scotland, via Yale, in 1967. Landing a job in Toronto, he worked his way up in the publishing world, to edit the books of Canada’s greats. By 1986 he had moved from Macmillan to McClelland and Stewart to start his own imprint, Douglas Gibson Books.
Fittingly, his performance “Across Canada by Story: A Coast-to-Coast Literary Adventure,” began with humorist Stephen Leacock, whose books Gibson found at his high school library. While at St Andrews University, Gibson saw an NFB short based on a Leacock story, “My Financial Career” (Gerald Potterton 1962), which made him want to visit the country that made this sort of thing possible.
Moments after Gibson informed us he would be moving around the stage, and soon after he’d shown us a slide of himself, drawn by illustrator Anthony Jenkins, on a map of Canada, there was a boom and the screen went black. Shocked silence as all eyes stared forward. No, not a bomb, not an exploding slide projector — Douglas Gibson had fallen off the back of the stage. The gap between stage and wall was just wide enough to accommodate him.
When he stood up, the entire room exhaled. His wife Jane checked him over and dusted him off, someone straightened his tie and microphone, and he stepped over to the podium and resumed where he’d left off. A little shakily at first, but soon enough his tales of Canada’s great authors made us, and him, relax. A master storyteller, he turned the incident into a joke that repeated throughout his performance like a jazz riff. For example, when talking about Jack Hodgins, he said, “Terrible things happen to nice guys — like falling off the stage.”
Afterwards, I admiringly told him I was impressed by how he picked himself up and carried on with his performance. He smiled and shrugged and said, “Well I couldn’t very well do it lying down.”
Gibson’s show drew on his book promotion tours for Across Canada by Story (ECW Press 2015) and the earlier Stories About Storytellers (ECW Press 2011). This particular performance was given to raise funds for a new Canada Room at the University of St Andrews, which will be a rehearsal space for theatre, music and so on. The Scotch flavoured audience came not only from St Andrews alumni but also included people from Gibson’s youth in Dunlop, Scotland, as well as family, friends and all round admirers.
Douglas Gibson did make his audience laugh, but he also made the world of Canadian Literature sound fascinating, which is a much needed boost for a literature that many dismiss as boringly about nature or at best Gothic rural. Indeed, I saw people in the audience jotting down names and titles as Gibson’s talk made its way around Canada by regions created by Gibson, such as Alice Munro Country. He told anecdotes about authors from CanLit’s early days (Margaret Laurence, Gabrielle Roy, Robertson Davies, Hugh MacLennan), established writers such as Farley Mowat, Margaret Atwood, Alistair MacLeod, and Guy Vanderhaege, who received much praise, and the more contemporary David Adams Richards and Will Ferguson. Including in his talk the people whose books he’d edited enabled him to tell funny stories about Pierre Trudeau, Bob Hunter (Greenpeace) and Brian Mulroney. He imitated Paul Martin saying, “Let me tell you what it’s like to be edited by Doug Gibson. If he’d edited Shakespeare, there’d be no Shakespeare, it’d all be on the floor.”
Some of the stories were compelling rather than funny, such as his theory that Gabrielle Roy died of anxiety provoked by the forthcoming publication of a book about her by Roy’s elder sister, a less successful and perhaps bitter writer. When talking about James Houston, somehow a dog having its underbelly unzipped by a polar bear came into it. (The dog lived.) This last story is not in the books.
Is it funny to take your life into your hands to follow Pierre Trudeau across four lanes of moving traffic on René Lévesque Boulevard in Montreal? To be accused of conducting a “home invasion” to pry a manuscript from the revising fingers of Alistair MacCleod? Gibson makes it so.
In fact, the Canadian sense of humour itself came into his storytelling. He recalled a conversation with Margaret Atwood (“hugely impressive person with a terrific sense of humour”) at a reading at the National Library in Ottawa. Before the reading she told him about the enthusiastic responses of American audiences during her publicity tour, and how “you don’t get that in Canada.” After her reading, he approached her and said, “That was … not bad.” Her disappointed reply was, “Oh, Doug, I was hoping for “not bad at all.”*
Well, I’d go so far as to say that Gibson’s show was quite good.
- *Several of the anecdotes told that night can be found in one of the two books. This Atwood one can be found in Stories About Storytellers, in Chapter 9: Jack Hodgins. Of the two books, I preferred Stories About Storytellers.
- Douglas Gibson will be performing “Across Canada by Story” on 17 May 2016 in Stratford at the Spring Works Festival 2016.
- St Andrews and the Canada Room funding.
- Video Clip of Douglas Gibson talking about Pierre Trudeau.
- My Financial Career, Gerald Potteron, 1962, NFB animated film.