Most years we spend six weeks camping in our RV, half of that in June and half in September to avoid the crowds. This year June was a bust due to the uncertainties of the pandemic, but we managed three weeks this fall in Duck Mountain Park. It was cold and it rained most of the time, but we had a half-dozen good days and the wildlife was co-operative. Despite the ugly weather I had a stack of good books at hand so I was a reasonably happy camper. I also came back with a 20,000 word jump on a new novel which will be a good base to build on through the coming winter.
I haven’t blogged in months. Shameful, I know, but I haven’t been idle. I’ve been putting the final touches on a new novel, and I’ve been reading a ton, especially since the damn virus forced us to stay in the house. And that is my apologetic, ham-handed segue to this blog.
Considerations of available space require that I constantly cull the books on my shelves. Favorite authors enjoy their allotted space where they’ve always been, but there is one section of my small library where the shelves are always full to overflowing with novels that I reach for often, novels that have sustained me particularly during these troubled stay-at-home times.
Irish writers have always bent my ear in a happy way. In terms of popularity by national origin, their books run a close second to those of Canadian writers, which I consider to be among the finest in the world.
Lately, I’ve been on an Irish literature binge, reading and re-reading the likes of Sebastian Barry, John Banville, Claire Keegan, Anne Enright, Seamus Deane, John F. Deane, Roddy Doyle, and of course, James Joyce (though I confess I have not yet conquered “Ulysses”). This is, of necessity, a partial list of fine Irish authors, as any attempt at a complete list would comprise many pages.
Irish culture has a rich tradition of storytelling. Seanchai (shan-a-key) were traditional tellers of tales who recited ancient stories to small crowds gathered for the sole purpose of hearing them. They were entertainers, keepers of Irish myths, folklore, legends, and history, and they were highly prized for their talent. Perhaps the greatest of them all was Eamon Kelly. Check him out on Youtube. Sadly, he passed away in 2001.
The Emerald Isle’s rich cultural history and troubled past are reflected in its stories and can be consistently relied on to transport the reader of Irish novels to that beautiful country. Of all the literature of all the countries in the world, the stories of Ireland raise armchair traveling to high art.
Normally we’re not technophiles. We have laptops but we have no cell phones, no microwave, no “smart” devices of any kind. But I bought Jenine a robot vacuum cleaner for Christmas. Despite the fact that it was a decidedly less than romantic gift, she loves it. She calls it Sparky. That ‘s the good news. The bad news is it’s creeping me out.
Sparky’s micro-chipped innards send it buzzing around the house on a hunt for dirt and dog hair from our two mutts, literally mapping the floorplan in its quest to boldly go where no vacuum (at least no self-propelled vacuum) has gone before. The dogs view him (note pronoun used – a case of technomorphizing) with suspicion and stay well out of his path, not an easy task as he scurries around the house, often seemingly at random, trying to cope with Jenine’s penchant for rearranging the furniture.
He seeks to enter every nook and cranny and to devour every dust bunny under the furniture. He is so insistently meticulous about baseboards that I expect to start finding the odd one missing, carried off to Sparky’s secret lair somewhere. Sometimes the little bugger sneaks up on me when I’m reading and nudges my foot. “Excuse me, I need to get by.” I have to sit and read while Sparky works, if only to stop myself from following him around and talking to him. “Don’t go in there, stupid, you’ll get stuck.”
It’s always a relief when he returns to his docking station and plugs himself in to recharge. At least I don’t have to feed and water him, though it would be nice if I could let him outside to empty himself discreetly in a far corner of the yard.
I hate to say it, but Sparky is one of the family now.
There are few things I enjoy more than pawing through shelves, tables or boxes full of used books. I love used book stores, thrift stores with a used book section, and book fairs for charities. I am drawn to such places like a moth to a lamp. It’s a form of treasure hunting for me.
But, sometimes shopping for used books makes me sad. I get discouraged when it becomes painfully evident that books have so little value to so many people these days that they are often virtually thrown away. I’ve seen them sold by the pound, by volume (fill a shopping bag for $5). It’s all better than a trip to the landfill, I suppose, but still a bit disheartening. I’m happy enough to be able to fill my own shelves within the constraints of my book buying budget, but it is distressing to see wonderful novels, classic works of literature, useful reference books, and well-written works of non-fiction stacked in disorder at fire sale prices.
Case in point – the book pictured here is a like-new copy of Traditions & Encounters recently acquired at a thrift store for 25 cents. The new retail price of this magnificent book is $150 . Who thought so little of this wonderful book that it was tossed aside and sold for the merest fraction of its worth?
Perhaps within that thought lies the answer to my question. The true worth of a book, like that of a work of art, is determined by its beholder, its reader. The worth of a book simply does not equate to its monetary value. I’ll have to be content with that notion for now.
Ever get a song stuck in your head, a lyric repeating over and over, sometimes lasting for days? I’ve been waking up most mornings lately to the nasal twang of Stompin’ Tom Connors singing the chorus of “The Hockey Song”:
Oh the good ol’ Hockey Game Is the best game you can name And the best game you can name Is the good ol’ hockey game
At least it rhymes, right? Stompin’ Tom was a maritime icon of Canadian country music in the last decades of the previous century. He was famous for more than The Hockey Song, having written and performed also the fondly remembered Bud The Spud and Sudbury Saturday Night. He wrote more than 300 songs and released four dozen albums – in Canada. That ain’t chicken feed.
As these lyrics echoed in my skull, morning and night, they got me thinking about our national game. Really? you say, imagine that.
Growing up on the prairies we were urged to learn to walk so that we could learn to skate, skates and hockey sticks being among our first gifts under the Christmas tree. Hockey indeed was our game, and we played it as kids with a rare passion on frozen creeks and ponds, outdoor rinks on empty lots flooded with an accomodating neighbour’s garden hose and eventually, as PeeWees in community arenas.
We played in mismatched, ill-fitting gear, much of it bought oversized so that it would last several seasons, and the rest of it too small because we’d had it too long and couldn’t afford to replace it. Some of us stuffed Eaton’s catalogs in our hockey socks and held them in place with stretched sealer rings from Mom’s canning jars and electrician’s tape pinched from Dad’s tool box. Broken sticks were cobbled together with Elmer’s Glue, wood screws and yards of tape. The lucky ones among us had a logo sweater.
The Leafs and the Habs were our teams in what was then a six team National Hockey League. Our good Canadian boys (as Don Cherry fondly called them) played against the “other” teams across the line in New York, Boston, Detroit and Chicago, and our boys filled most of their rosters then too. We idolized our favourites, bought bubble gum to get the hockey cards and dreamed of one day turning pro.
The opening bars of the theme music for Hockey Night In Canada stirred our blood on Saturday nights as we gathered in front of the television set to listen to Foster Hewitt’s play-by-play and his never to be forgotten, “He shoots, he scores!” The next day we hummed the music while we cleared snow from the ice with homemade wooden scrapers and snow shovels. No Zambonis back then.
There were other hockey songs, notably a couple by The Tragically Hip and of course, Clear The Track, Here Comes Shack by Del Barber & The No Regretzskys which paid homage to the great Leafs’ wildman, Eddie Shack. There was also a tune called I Want To Drive The Zamboni by – wait for it – The Zambonis (a one-hit wonder, I’m guessing). But no one spoke more eloquently for our game than Stompin’ Tom:
Hello out there, we’re on the air, it’s “Hockey Night” tonight. Tensions grows the whistle blows, and the puck goes down the ice. The goalie jumps, and the players bump, and the fans all go insane. Someone roars, “Bobby scores!” at the good ol’ Hockey Game.
Jenine told me the other day, while we sat on the deck watching a hummingbird at the feeder, that when she was a young girl growing up in Walla Walla, Warshington (that’s how people from there say it), her babysitter dated Kurt Russell, a handsome lad who went on to become a Mouseketeer, a major Hollywood star, and the long time paramour of Goldie Hawn.
After I gently accused her of name dropping, my competitive spirit raised its ugly head and I dropped a name of my own. I told her the story, true in every particular, of how I met an American icon whose star has always burned bright in the hearts of countless millions across the continent. A man who will be remembered long after Kurt Russell is forgotten. Indeed, a man whose legend has already survived intact for many decades since his passing.
In the early 1970’s I was hurrying through the lobby of a new hotel in Grande Prairie, Alberta, late for a service club luncheon in one of its meeting rooms. A diminutive man dressed in white occupied a comfortable chair by a large window. As I turned to look and then to realize who he was, I did a physical double-take worthy of Curly of the Three Stooges. This caused the little man to chuckle. He waved me over, rose from his chair and extended his hand. I shook it. I shook the hand of Colonel Harlan Saunders of Kentucky Fried Chicken fame.
“Yes,” he said in a soft southern drawl. “It’s really me,” and he waved me into another chair beside him where we chatted for an all too brief moment before a young man in sunglasses appeared and hustled him outside into a waiting car.
The Colonel, as the world knows him, was a true gentleman of the first water. I remember him, his immaculate dress, his snow-white garb, goatee and hair interrupted only by black framed glasses, a neatly tied black string tie and black shoes polished to a mirror shine. I remember that he spoke softly and with a smile and that he avoided too much eye contact as if he was shy or feared giving offense. I knew that he had sold his business to a Kentucky politician. He told me he was under a personal services contract to appear at grand openings of new KFC franchises across North America (including the one then recently opened in Grande Prairie) and he confided that in his opinion the gravy wasn’t as good as it used to be.
KFC, the thinned-down name of what used to be, much more accurately, Kentucky Fried Chicken, remains one of my guilty pleasures. I indulge myself every other month or so and when I do I always think fondly of the man whose image graced the side of the bucket.
Colonel Harlan Saunders is the biggest celebrity I’ve ever met – but perhaps I’ve lived a sheltered life.
Then she told me she has also met Robert Conrad (The Wild Wild West) and that Adam West (TV’s Batman) was from Walla Walla and she was snarky about it. I pointed out to her that these lesser luminaries were not in the same league as the Colonel. Not even close.
In Act II, Scene II of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Juliet
asks Romeo, “What’s in a name?” In the case of those star-crossed lovers the
answer was murder and mayhem as their feuding families had at each other in an
Italian version of the Hatfields and McCoys. In my case, the answer is that it’s
just plain annoying.
My full name is John Gregg Norman; John after my father, so
I was compelled to go by my second name to avoid being called Junior. Oddly, my
mother and sister were similarly afflicted and were also called by their second
names. Perhaps there is a family curse that I don’t know about.
To compound the problem with my name, John, Gregg, and
Norman can all be used as both Christian names and surnames. I get called
Norman Gregg a lot and I’m still called John by people in positions of
authority and telephone solicitors. We won’t get into what I call them.
I had always been given to understand that I was named Gregg
from the title of a typing and shorthand manual my mother studied as a young
woman, though when she was in her 90’s she let slip that when she was a girl there
was a hot young British pilot training at an airbase near the family farm who
had that name. I know what you’re thinking, but no, I was born several years
after the flyboy was long gone and my mother, whose parents had immigrated from
England, was far too proper for anything beyond a wistful look over the fence
in any event.
While I was growing up at home, I was called Buster by my
dad for reasons which remain a mystery. Buster sounds kind of rough and ready,
but I was a bookish little bugger. Perhaps it was just wishful thinking on Dad’s
part. My friends back home called me Norm. Happily, that was long before George
Wendt so brilliantly portrayed Norm, the chubby barfly on the hit TV series, Cheers.
My mother, my sister, and my teachers were the only ones who called me Gregg
and then only when they were mad at me. To everyone else in town I was known as
Johnny Norman’s boy. Nowadays, on my rare trips back to my home town, I’m
referred to simply as Rae’s brother (Rae is my sister).
My name is spelled with a double g on the tail end.
That’s how it appeared on the cover of the typing manual. But that wasn’t
enough to avoid the confusion and embarrassment of sharing both my Christian
name and surname with Australian golf star, Greg (one g) Norman who was popular
during the later part of the last century. I played golf too, but there came a
day when I played in a Pro-Am tournament and was getting ready to tee off to start
the first round. Each golfer was announced by name over the public address
system. There were titters and guffaws from the gallery as I stepped onto the
tee box, but that was nothing compared to what followed when I promptly shanked
my drive into the trees. My foray into the world of golf was short-lived.
During a good portion of my adult life, thinking to avoid
confusion, I dubbed myself J. Gregg Norman, with business cards and letterhead
to match, only to find out many years later after I’d gone back to using plain
old Gregg that my family thought it was pretentious as hell.
If all of that wasn’t bad enough, I inadvertently created my
Facebook page in the name of Gregg Norman Author which has caused at least one
wag to ask if Author was my surname.
So, you can call me John or Gregg or Norman or any
combination thereof and I will answer promptly, if not happily.
Johnny Cash lamented in a hit song about being a boy named
Sue. He didn’t know how lucky he was.
I’ve now been a Facebooker for a couple of months, a
certified page-pushing member of a social medium I once decried as a totally
bogus alternate reality for people with nothing else to do.
And now, well… mea culpa. I humbly apologize,
especially to the scores of people who have friended me in very short order and
who have made me feel like a complete heel for doubting the value of their
Having lived in relative isolation for the last decade, I am
not unhappy having so many people to listen to or speak to (when I feel like
it, of course) without having to buy drinks for any of them. I leap out of bed
each morning, and while the coffee brews and I organize my pens and notebooks
for the day’s writing effort, I scroll down to see what’s up with the old and
new friends to whom I’ve connected. It’s a pleasant piece of my day.
But with a platform on Facebook come some awful
responsibilities – like realizing that declining a friend request or having one
of my requests declined or ignored can be hurtful, or like learning (from my
wife, who is a Facebook veteran and who is all-knowing about such things) how
to wield the power of unfollowing or snoozing otherwise well-meaning folks who
insist on showing me every single dog and cat up for adoption in rural Alabama,
or folks who fancy themselves as political pundits when we already have far too
many of them.
Perhaps the best thing about my Facebook experience has been
the discovery that so many people still have a great sense of humor. Every day
there is a joke, a photo or a video that makes me smile, sometimes laugh out
loud. It’s a welcome relief from the news of the main stream media, a
brightness in what otherwise might be a darker day.
One of the first people I connected with, a
writer/environmentalist I hadn’t had contact with in many years, welcomed me to
the Facebook fold and said he hoped that I would be able to manage my presence
there better than he did. After two months of reading all of his posts, I think
he manages his Facebook page with enviable style and compassion.
As for me, I suppose I manage and I do enjoy it, though I
cringe when my good wife gives me one of those ‘I told you so’ looks
from the other side of the breakfast table.
I still haven’t decided whether I am evolving or devolving,
but I’m having fun with it. Maybe an old dog can’t learn new tricks – but he
can learn to roll over.
I’ll never forget the first time I read that the Ku Klux Klan once boasted having 40,000 members in Saskatchewan. Having been born and raised there, it was like a punch in the gut. Ultimately, it lead to the writing of my second novel, “A Gift Of Scars”. Subsequent research confirmed that while the numbers may have been somewhat exaggerated, there were indeed many thousands of KKK members in Saskatchewan and elsewhere in Canada. The phenomenon was relatively short-lived, occurring mostly in the late 1920’s, but it was significant enough to have influenced the outcome of at least one provincial election.
Writing historical fiction necessarily involves a great deal of research, and therein lies quicksand for the novelist. Repetition of too many facts, excessive adherence to the details of events, or refusing to “What if” beyond the boundaries of empirical data may result in a dry story. A writer of fiction must always remember that plot and characters are proprietary and can therefore be treated with a writer’s liberties. That is why an Author’s Note attached to a work of historical fiction will often explain that certain historical data has been altered to suit the narrative. A historical novel should not be intended to re-write history but rather to bring it to life in an exciting and entertaining way. Stated as an appropriate cliché, “Don’t let the facts get in the way of a good story”.
It is when the writer goes beyond the inescapable facts and events of history that the story in the novel is born. It is by asking, “What if….”, that plot and characters are created. It is cynical to say that there are no new stories to tell. Historical fiction is not simply an attempt at a Hollywood remake. It is as much about the fiction as it is about the history.
History often exerts a tremendous power of suggestion, which is why we can always learn something from it.