Monday, July 28, 2008

Austin Clarke's Bajan Birthday BBQ

Summer. Leacock Summer Festival, Orillia. The writer himself, Austin Chesterfield Clarke. Earlier in the day at Bala, I had something of a literary relapse. It started with one of the cottage summer weeklies you find in bright boxes on the street. The Bala Triathlon had come and gone by eleven o'clock, as I read the one line event over a rare and excellent double espresso at Olivers almost in the laundromat. Archers on bicycles fording a river? I'll never know. Nothing much else, the Wet T Shirt Night at The Kee, tomorrow or Roller Skating Monday, Ball Hockey Tuesday, Bala Lions Dance Saturday, and the oddest news and features in the paper, like "Inflationary trend dominates bond market future" or "Bracebridge firm fined $1,500 for aggregate pit operating without licence". One piece of real cottage news: "All I can say about this summer so far is that it has been buggy and wet. . ." writes Peter Sutherland elsewhere in the Muskoka Treasury. At least it was hot and dry, rain only threatening on the patio. Looking through the tabloid for what else I missed, of course, the Leacock Summer Festival, about a half hour down the overcrowded, way too fast and nasty narrow and harrowing Hwy 11, the trucker's favorite. Watch out for deer and bikers and the OPP. The wind nearly tottered my cardboard coffee cup. I suppose I should have stayed safely at home, or on the beach with the dogs frisking about, in contravention of beach rules posted, but then dogs aren't noted for any sort of literary sense. Nearby on the patio cement, I noted another from the clan of canines to confirm my uneasy thoughts. In-ev-ita--boo-ull, this big mutt might have wined, but well enough leashed to restrain any idea of a fortuitous double-pawed leap into my lap. About to roam further into Bala, I caught myself in time. One more go through the where was it article in dreary past tense. Opened Tuesday, and it's Sunday, a 6 day event. Which Tuesday? Is it too much ink spilled, is it overly verbose to add some Arabic numerals? MT published when? July 24, no year, no page numbers, and what blasted day was that, in 2008 wasn't it? I needed a calendar to calm me down, something solid and familiar I could trust. It always happens with a strange juxtaposition of events. Prickly heat in combination with a lack of journalistic common sense bordering on journalistic misdemeanors. I made the calculations, on my fingers, going backwards and forwards to double check them. Maybe I was in luck. Perhaps this spell of missed and misspent opportunities that seemed to dog me every weekend for years, was finally about to break? A closing gala barbecue, what, afternoon? Evening? Lunch? With whom besides Mr Clarke, but of course the Giller Prize Winner, so readable enough, writers often more interesting than their work, quite opposite to actors. All ego or not enough loose change in their conversation to talk about anything other than other VIPs, like name-dropping asides to their entourage in tow. An exception though for Film Festivals, the crowds, the glamour and film fanatics who know how to gush or be cerebral. Not exactly like that at literary readings. Subdued, humming at best. But for a writer, absolutely an exciting prospect, literary people, a bar and BBQ. Though would any be there after the Hwy 11 ordeal and other delays, like where exactly was this BBQ? Orillia, a vast metropolis to the uninitiated. The MT was sure to get a snappy Letter to the Editor, even if they no longer published any. I would see to that at least, especially after I arrived and no one was to be found except myself. Or in the other noteworthy case, an unhappily misfiring literary boondoggle, which should not have been newsworthy of even a Page Zero. Perhaps it was all part of a premonition I was having? Something seemed to be transforming about me, a subtle alteration of consciousness perhaps, like a chameleon changing colors, though that no doubt was due to the empty tube of SPF-30 still in the glove compartment. Finally, it struck me. I was having a literary relapse. I had to go to Orillia or else.

An uneventful arrival, except for 3 conflicting versions of what had happened, or might happen and where Austin's Birthday BBQ might be, if it hadn't happened, from friendly natives of Orillia who all agreed that I had missed the Leacock Sidewalk Sale yesterday. Down a long winding path along the lake, more the smooth asphalt bicycle or rollerblading variety, to Old Brewery Bay, maybe a 15 minute walk from the dock and past entire Chinese families 3 generations strong, fishing excitedly along a promising stretch of 18 inch sandy beach. To Museum Road, though no one mentioned it, the obvious dirction to Leacock House and Leacock Museum past Leacock Point Estates, barely estatical, and the Job Fair yesterday at the giant long-term care facility, and on and down to the lake again after being mislead by a sign pointing left, away from Museum Rd, now more the half hour walk with misdirections. But worthwhile with the sky clearing and a friendly bit of sunshine sparkling off the water. Though you could drive and get lost too, but not in any sort of charming way.

In luck at last. A tent extending to near Old Brewery Bay from the visitors' center and restaurant, was overflowing with literary personages. A stately columned mansion across the drive, Leacock's splendid home he'd had built 80 years ago. People weren't eating yet, a good sign I was in time. The excitement mounted. In the back of my mind I thought I might run into Patrick Crean, the distinguished Publisher and Editor of Thomas Allen & Son, where I had recently submitted my novel, Up On Seven Dollars. Hadn't heard back yet, but it was still early. The wheels were turning, but would they engage? Wasn't that Jane Urquhart in white? But having had to go through the preliminaries, like purchasing a ticket and staking out the last possible desirable seat under the tent instead of the stuffier main dining room, she was gone. But I'd found a friendly long table and the good humor was contagious. Dinner ready, a long line formed instantly for the buffet, presided over by our chef and host, Austin Clarke in dreadlocks. I nodded appreciatively, plenty of jerk chicken and roasted pork tenderloin, plus the earlier rum punch. A mellow evening on the way. After the food and a warm official welcoming from the Stephen Leacock Museum people and the Barbados Tourism Board, partners in the event, Austin took charge. If his wordless manner was engaging, the long stride in his words and pauses awoke a magical sense of time past, of the days of storytellers and balladeers, the accents Bajan, from his island of Barbados. Though he had been away a long long time from his ancient roots and the tropical sun, he might have arrived only the other day to tell us a bit about drawing breath and living life in a gentler way.

Leacock Summer Festival,
Orillia, Ontario, Canada,

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Art In The Park

Summer, Harper Pottery, Parry Sound. This is the potter himself, Jonathan Harper. Every summer, about 50 artists and artisans descend on Market Square, by the old firehall and the new library, to show us their stuff. Fairs like Art in the Park, in some of the bigger towns throughout cottage country, are about the best place for something special to hang on the living room wall or put on your table. There are some remarkable finds like Harper Pottery, really stiking, moving and beautiful. A lot though is crafts and knick-knacks granny and the kids might like, a garage sale of new junk, or better hand-made, sometimes quite special, geegaws. Sunday painters also show up with a mixed collection of the good, bad and the ugly. But there's plenty of solid work you'd be happy to find. Since the higher end arts and crafts are mostly sold by art galleries and pricey shops, the show and sale prices at these events tend to be a bargain. And with the economy stagnant for years now, prices haven't gone up much either. Jonathan says that what's hurting is cheap and recently better quality pottery from China, aimed at his clientele and even copying the designs of artisanal pottery, knockoffs like of Gucci, now swamping the artisans too. Next time you're thinking of crockery, look for the real thing from your local potters. The quality, esthetic and collectable value only costs a few dollars more. Contact Jonathan at Harper Pottery in Waterdown, Ontario at (905) 690-0049.

Ivan Trotter works in Toronto, but tours the fairs in summer. Painting professionally for the last 15 years, he now concentrates on French and Italian motifs, which sell better than Spanish or Greek scenes, with Canadian and American too familiar over here to be sought after much. That light and color he sees in the lush landscapes of Europe, also suits water-based acrylics he uses now instead of oils and turps, a health hazard endured by many old painters. It always surprises me in modern art how much an artist's work can vary from picture to picture, never mind from year to year. Many don't seem to find a groove or a style which could make them popular and collectable. Contact Ivan Trotter at

Stoney Creek Woodturning. For John Van Kessel, a hobby became a second carreer after he retired from education in London, Ontario. He has the knack of a true professional, whose work speaks fondly of the woods he uses. You might think he wanderers the forests, but through connections in his town, he manages to find most of his wood from trees that have been cleared from city streets. Since he was a high school principal, I couldn't resist asking him what he's seen happening over the years with kids themselves. "Worst than they've ever been and better than they've ever been. More mature and socially conscious or completely out of control." No surprises, more or less what I thought. Contact John at Stoney Creek Woodturning, in London, Ontario at

Brigitte Nowak works in Toronto. But she's had solid connections with Parry Sound for 50 years, coming up every summer to her family's cottage. She's seen the big transitions in country life, lately she comments, "Like the BMW's and their high-profile people who like to spend their money." Meaning further south especially around Port Carling, where her work sells well at an art gallery. Here it's still mostly pickups and SUVs, but she does agree, "Parry Sound is special, a Frontier Town mentality," she says, (Gateway to the North-- you get that in tourist brochures) "with much the same feeling as Yellowknife." That's about as far north as you ever want to go. Brigitte wasn't kidding. She knows Yellowknife. I do sort of, after several hours of Margaritas in Mexico with this hard-drinking gal from Yellowknife. ¡Viva México! By the way, I'd like to say hi to all my friends in Puerto Vallarta, Guadalajara and San Miguel. ¡No perderéis Guanajuato! And to thousands more new friends over there who read this blog, I was pleasantly surprised to find out recently. ¡Hola muchachos y gracias, todos! Anyway Brigitte's work has a wide range beyond country landscapes which she didn't bring along. Contact Brigitte or see more on her website