In 1936, in the first weeks of the Spanish Civil War, fourteen-year-old Ronald Rodriguez Lawrence, a boy of English-Spanish parentage, helped lead a squad of Loyalist troops through the sewers of Barcelona. They emerged out of a manhole cover near the statue of Columbus that stands close to the Barcelona waterfront. A gunfight ensued with invading Fascist troops, supporters of General Francisco Franco who was about to overthrow the country’s Republican government. Lawrence “killed a man with a bullet that went into his head and knocked his helmet off.” He would later write of “a cruel, evil war that laid the groundwork for World War II thanks to the stupidity of French and British politicians who at that time preferred fascism to what they thought would be Marxist communism if the Republic should defeat the rightists.”
In a long and productive life Ron Lawrence fought in two wars, worked as a journalist across Canada, authored thirty books, and fathered two children. I became a friend when we worked together at the Toronto Telegram. Ron went on to become the outstanding Canadian nature writer of the 20th century, not as well-known as Farley Mowat, or that other charlatan of the wilderness, Grey Owl (Archie Belaney), but assuredly the most faithful recorder of life and death among the denizens of our forests and streams.
Ron Lawrence died in 2003, sadly from complications of Alzheimer’s disease. My rich memories of times spent with Ron were reawakened when Sharon, his widow, re-published several of his works as e-books on Amazon. I downloaded The Ghost Walker, his tale of a winter spent in British Columbia’s Selkirk mountains, tracking a mountain lion. It can be ordered here.
Ron’s meditations on trekking into the Goldstream River valley, building a shack from the remnants of a mine works, enduring blizzards and accidents while collecting fresh evidence on the life of the elusive cougar, make for rewarding reading for anyone who appreciates and wishes to know more of the life of our Canadian wilderness.
The book reminded me of so many aspects of Ron’s life that I went looking for his autobiography, The Green Trees Beyond, which I found here (on Abe Books).
Ron had told me the essential facts of his life — his birth at sea in 1921 aboard a British vessel returning from South Africa, his birth registry by his Spanish mother, the fact he’d been a young soldier in the Spanish loyalist Army and had later been in World War II, and some of his adventures as a homesteader in northwestern Ontario.
In common with most veterans, Ron never spoke of his wartime experiences. I had to read The Green Trees Beyond to find out that he’d escaped over the Pyrenees into France at the end of the Spanish Civil War and going to England, had joined the British Army at the outbreak of World War II.
Ron was part of the British Expeditionary Force that narrowly escaped entrapment at Dunkirk. “I took to the water and managed to reach a rescue vessel. It turned out to be a seagoing barge that had once carried coal. More and more men came aboard, filling the hold. Would we get the hell out of there in one piece?”
Ron fell asleep, and awoke as the barge docked in Dover. His next sea voyage came when his tank regiment was convoyed to Alexandria in Egypt. Months of tank fighting in the desert led to the defeat of General Rommel’s Afrika Corps. Ron landed on the beach in Normandy on D-Day, June 6, 1944. The next day, his unit liberated Bayeux, the town where General de Gaulle made his first speech on his return to France as leader of the Free French. I wish I’d known of Ron’s connection with Bayeux when I visited there while researching my book on de Gaulle, The Paris Game.
The experience of death in wartime came early to Ron. When he lost his schoolmate Gallorte in that first action in Barcelona, an older man told him, “You will see many dead … but you must learn not to grieve. There’s no room for grief in war. Be angry instead, but never allow anger to become rage. Your anger must be cold, like steel.”
In his memoir, Ron tells us that it took an animal, a badly abused, part-wolf dog, Yukon, to teach him love. I don’t think he was ever really comfortable among his own species, notwithstanding the fact that he gained loyal friends and enjoyed, to my personal knowledge, happy years with two women — his second wife Joan who died in his arms, and Sharon, his last and perhaps most satisfying relationship.
Having witnessed the depredations of mankind first hand, who would not prefer the company of creatures of nature who kill only from necessity — the need to survive — and never from lust, greed, or hate?
The title of Ron’s memoir, The Green Trees Beyond is a metaphor for the Canadian wilderness. He writes of throwing his last symbols of British life, his black umbrella and his homburg, into the ocean as the liner that brought him across the Atlantic reached Newfoundland waters. Entering the Gulf of St. Lawrence, he is mesmerized by “the serried ranks of spruces that marched along with the boat on both banks of the spectacular waterway.'” He knows he will never be entirely free of his war demons, but that he will be able to “subjugate them by immersing myself, not symbolically but in fact, in the reality of the green trees beyond.”
At a time when our environment needs protection more than it ever did, I hope the re-publication of Ron Lawrence’s books will open the doorway for a new generation to the life that still endures among the green trees of Canada.
If you haven’t paid attention to the United Nations report on climate change, now might be a good time to start.The report, issued March 31, tells us the impact of climate change is already being seen around the globe, and bigger effects are on the way.
The UN warns that the increase in emissions of greenhouse gases is having serious effects on our planet. As one example, Arctic sea ice is melting faster than ever. The consequences of global warming include extreme weather events (how about that winter, eh!), displacement of populations, food shortages, and economic shocks in wealthy as well as poor nations.
“If the world doesn’t do anything about mitigating the emissions of greenhouse gases and the extent of climate change continues to increase, then the very social stability of human systems could be at stake,” said Rajendra Pachauri, chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
The next step for the panel is to determine what steps have to be taken to head off a calamitous warming.
Warnings like these seem to come in a group. Only days before the release of the UN report, NASA put out a document containing an even more ominous forecast.
A team of NASA-funded mathematicians looked at various scenarios for the future of mankind. It came to the conclusion that the collapse of civilization is inevitable unless “major policy changes” are made to control population growth and reduce the gap between rich and poor societies.
It might be possible to dismiss the NASA warning as a speculative pondering of what might happen if we continue to eat up the earth’s resources at present rates. We’ll be reduced, says NASA, to grubbing for roots in about five hundred years.
The UN report needs to be taken more seriously. Ian Bruce, a spokesman for the David Suzuki Foundation, puts it this way:
“Climate change is more than just an environmental issue. This is an economic and security issue that will impact everyone from the biggest cities to the smallest towns.”
If you look closely, you can see a link between the UN warning and NASA’s prophesying about a collapse of civilization.
The linkage is our world’s constant diminution of its natural environment. Humans have been tampering with the balance of nature since the emergence of Homo sapiens 200,000 years ago. The real crunch started about 12,000 years ago when man first domesticated animals and took up a sedentary life style.
J.B. McKinnon explores this theme in his book, The Once and Future World: Nature As It Was, As It Is, As it Could Be.
McKinnon, the Canadian who came up with the idea of the 100-Mile Diet, thinks it unlikely that disasters such as those predicted by NASA “will convince us to change our relationship with the natural world.”
“Our own ancestors handed down a degraded globe,” he writes, “and we accepted that inheritance as the normal state of things. As our parents and grandparents did before us, we go about our lives in the midst of an ecological catastrophe that is well underway.”
McKinnon makes the case that from the earliest ages of mankind’s dominance over other species, we have reduced the genetic pool of earth’s inhabitants, until today we retain only around ten per cent of the original species. And in every age, he observes, we take it as normal the condition that we inherit. As a result, we accept the plundering of our forefathers and continue in much the sane path whether it be the near disappearance of cod stocks off Canada’s Atlantic coast, the loss of bison on the western plains, the decimation of the whale population , or the extinction of the passenger pigeon and other species.
It’s worth quoting from McKinnon in any discussion of climate change because he appears to offer a solution to the precariousness of today’s world. He calls it “rewilding,” in the words of environmentalist David Foreman “to make a place wild again.”
What he means, I think, is that we will have to withdraw from certain regions that have never been suitable for human habitation. The deserts of Nevada, the high forests of British Columbia, or the boreal forests of northern Russia. Accept that they belong to the sand turtle, the grizzly bear, or the Siberian tiger.
The linkage between rewilding and climate change is that we are more likely to deal with both challenges through economic circumstance rather than through any conscious decision to protect wildlife or reduce our reliance on fossil fuels.
It’s unlikely we’ll ever voluntarily shift to the low-carbon economy that we must adopt if we are to head off the most severe consequences of global warming. Nor will we find the solution in politics. The more likely outcome is that economics — aided by science, with more sustainable methods of energy conversion — will do it for us.
Only when Las Vegas can no longer afford to bring water to the desert and the cost of oil forces millions of internal combustion engines off the roads, will we move screaming and kicking into the sustainable society that survival demands. That day can probably be measured by the span of two lifetimes — that of our grandchildren, if not our children.
So get ready for $5.00 a litre gasoline and water so expensive you’ll fill in your lawn. You’ll be saving the world.
Political power and control of the media often go together. It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Newspapers, the “fourth estate” (after Lords, the Commons, and the Clergy in medieval British society), were supposed to be advocates for the people, defenders of common rights. It was the job of the press, wrote American humorist F.P. Dunne, to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”
In Canadian history, the combination of George Brown and the Toronto Globe ranks high on the list of media power brokers. Brown used the Globe to advance the interests of his Reform party before and after Confederation. Earlier, in Nova Scotia, Joseph Howe used his Novascotian to champion better terms for his province in the Canadian federation. After winning them, he served Prime Minister John A. Macdonald as a cabinet minister. He oversaw arrangements to bring Manitoba into Canada.
That’s a bit of background to help us look at Pierre-Karl Peladeau, whose nomination by the Party Quebecois in the current Quebec election (voting day April 7) has stirred a lot of interest.
Peladeau owns a controlling interest in the massive media conglomerate, Quebecor. The business was started by his father with a scruffy tabloid sheet, le Journal de Montreal, but has since grown to include the biggest newspaper chain in Canada – Sun Media.
Peladeau’s appearance beside PQ leader Pauline Marois electrified the campaign when he gave a clenched fist salute as he called for Quebec to become independent. He later said the outburst indicated his “passion” in life, both for Quebec and for his company which controls an estimated forty per cent of Quebec media outlets, including cable.
For a few days, Mme. Marois was talking up sovereignty, blithering on about “no borders, no tolls” but a Quebec passport and a seat for Quebec on the board of the Bank of Canada.
Suddenly, PQ fortunes took a nose dive, confirming that Quebeckers not only don ‘t want separation, they don’t even want a referendum on separation. Unless the PQ somehow manages to reverse the tide, the election is likely to produce a majority victory for the Quebec Liberal party. It now leads in the polls, raising the question of whether Peladeau can even win his own seat. The worst outcome for him might be to win personally, but then to have to serve in the Opposition. The potential upside for PKP in this scenario is that a PQ defeat would spell the political end for Pauline Marois.
This would open up a leadership contest, adding yet more irony to this strange melange. Peladeau, who is famous for having locked out workers at his companies, is well-known for his right-wing views. How will that fit with the social democratic, left-wing core of the party?
The Peladeau story illustrates once again how the combination of power and media can produce unintended consequences.
The all-time model for media megalomania as a root cause of power lust must lie in the life of William Randolph Hearst, the American media giant of the early and mid-twentieth century. It was always Hearst’s ambition to become President, a lust well documented in Kenneth Whyte’s biography, The Uncrowned King. Heart’s life was also brilliantly magnified in Orsen Welles’ classic film, Citizen Kane.
As noted above, Peladeau is not the first lord of the press to seek high political office. John Bassett, publisher of the old Toronto Telegram, ran for Parliament, unsuccessfully, in 1962. The only Canadian Prime Minister to have been a newspaper owner was Mackenzie Bowell (1894-1896), publisher of the small provincial daily in Ontario, the Belleville Intelligencer.
We mustn’t forget Conrad Black, the modern exemplar of the status-hungry media baron. He importuned British PM Maggie Thatcher to the point of winning a Lordship — Lord Black of Crossharbour — and a seat in the House of Lords which the disgraced former newspaper titan still holds. (He’s been stripped of his Order of Canada). Nor does Back any longer control the newspaper empire he built out of the old Southam family chain, nor the National Post, which he launched.
Pierre-Karl Peladeau has said that if elected, he’ll put his stake in Quebecor in a blind trust. Fair enough. But he’ll continue to profit from press properties across Canada — the country from which he so passionately wishes to separate himself. Then again, as Peladeau himself has said, “that’s just business.”
Not so long ago, Canadians who were feeling inundated by American culture were constantly being reminded of the importance of “telling our own stories.”
The message became a key tool in the kit of Canadian film and literary organizations. The media picked up on it, and the theme has since been showing up in newspaper columns and broadcast talks.
Typical was the campaign of the Friends of Canadian Broadcasting, an outfit that is strong for the CBC and other public broadcasting. It launched an Internet campaign more than ten years ago – TellCanadianStories.ca – to push the idea that Canadian stories were being neglected on our airwaves.
The message evolved as Canadian film and literature matured, but never really went away. A London Free Press columnist, Greg van Morsel, recently summed it up this way:
“It took tireless authors who knew they had the write stuff, from the late Robertson Davies to the legendary Margaret Atwood. It took trailblazing Canadian publishers, like the late Jack McCLelland, willing to take chances on homegrown talent. Academics, too, had to be willing to teach CanLit and governments willing to invest in telling our own stories.”
A half century ago, the number of successful Canadian novelists could be counted on one hand, such as Morley Callaghan and Mazo de la Roche. Both won international reputations. La Roche, in fact, won the Atlantic Monthly $10,000 novel of the year award for Jalna in 1928 — a huge sum for the time. A bit of a 1920s Downton Abbey, it tells the story of a Canadian family, the Whiteoaks, in plot and narrative that had universal appeal.
Since their time, television spawned a People’s History and today, shows such as Little House on the Prairie, Murdoch Mysteries, Republic of Doyle and Saving Hope are regular fixtures on major networks and abroad. In France, I was told that “Inspect-air Murdoch” is a favourite even if he “never knows what to say to Julia.”
Today, despite cutbacks at the CBC and an uncertain book publishing industry trying to adjust to the switch from print to online reading, we’ve never been stronger at telling our own stories.
What’s changed is that Canadian writers are no longer constrained to write about only Canadian things. We’re free to cast our interests around the world.
A crop of immigrant novelists has blended experiences of their native countries with Canadian life, ranging from Yann Martel to Rawi Hage. We’re seeing the same trend in non-fiction. Three of the five short-listed titles in this year’s RBC Taylor Prize built on content from outside Canada.
Thomas King won the Taylor Prize and the B..C. Non-Fiction prize for his widely-acclaimed The Inconvenient Indian, which casts a North American context for his look at what has happened to the aboriginal population of this continent since the arrival of Europeans.
Graeme Smith won a major prize for The Dogs Are Eating Them Now, a searing examination of what’s gone right and wrong in Afghanistan. Margaret Macmillan, in The War That Ended Peace, has produced yet another page-turning account of the First World War, its causes and its outcomes. J.B. MacKinnon gives us a global picture of the stresses facing our environment in The Once and Future World.
Modris Ecksteins added further lustre to his reputation with Solar Dance: Genius, Forgery and the Crisis of Truth in the Modern Age. John Valiant used a Siberian setting for his suspenseful examination of man vs. nature in The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival.
In recent new fiction , J.L. Witterick has written a compelling (and controversial) novel on the Holocaust, My Mother’s Secret, about a Catholic Polish woman who saved Jews from the concentration camps.
The appearance of more Canadian books on global subjects – reflecting the willingness of Canadian publishers to go to subjects beyond our borders – is one of the brighter signs of Canada’s newly found maturity. We’ve told our own stories to ourselves. Now we’re telling the world’s stories to both ourselves and the world.
I recently heard Mark Medley of the National Post say that he receives four or five family memoirs a week, sent in with hopes of obtaining a review. There’s little prospect of this happening, considering that major newspapers receive several hundred books each week, each sent in with the hope of gaining mention.
I didn’t have reviews in mind when I began work on mt family memoir, which I call Lives of My Fathers.
My intention, like that of other family memoirists, was to create something my children would enjoy, and hopefully pass along to their children.
I’d started work on my family tree in the 1990s. I had taped an oral history from my father about 1980 but otherwise,I knew next to nothing about his or my mother’s ancestors. That left me little to start with. I began by posting a question on a roots web site, telling what I knew from my father, Percy Argyle — his birth in Derbyshire, England, First World War service, and emigration to Canada.
That began an incredible chain of contacts, enabling me finally to trace my father’s line back to the Rev. Richard Orgell (17th century spelling for Argyle), who became the Vicar of Lullington in the Church of England. I found his graduation from Oxford University in 1599 and his subsequent ordainment on a Church of England web site.I heard from Argyles across Britain and Canada and in the U.S., Australia, and New Zealand. All were very helpful. One sent me copies of letters written by a young Harry Argyle, a coal miner who died in a mine accident in South Africa during the gold rush of the 1880s. I travelled to England and met with cousins Sonia Smith, Patrick Smith, and Chris Argyle.
I had less luck in tracing my mother’s family.I was able to establish her birth in Yorkshire as Katherine Connor but I could find nothing on her Irish antecedents. So in writing my memoir I naturally chose to focus on my father’s side of the family tree.
When you set out to write a memoir you have a few choices. You can write the stark details of the types of events that used to go into family Bibles – births, marriages, deaths, with little narrative development. Or you can fill in the blanks with what is definitely known about your people — what they did, where they worked, the challenges they would have faced.
I wanted to do more than that. I decided to regard the information I had turned up as nothing more than a skeleton. I would use my imagination to put flesh on the bones — to write Lives of My Fathers as if I were writing a novel. It would be true to all the hard facts, but I would draw on my imagination to create scenes and dialogue and maintain the narrative. All the while, I hoped, remaining authentic to the experiences they would have had.
I thought about the Australian writer, Kate Grenville, who set out to write a memoir of her grandfather. She decided his story would be better told as a novel. For that reason, she changed his name and wrote what was entirely a work of fiction. Her events and characters are all adapted from the actual historical record.
I decided to use her model, but not to change the names. The Argyles of my historical records would become the Argyles of Lives of My Fathers. their stories based on things that really happened.
This meant doing a lot of research beyond the family tree. As there is a legend in my family that our origins were in Scotland, and that two brothers had travelled south to Derbyshire in the English Midlands on a religious pilgrimage, I decided to work that into my memoir.
But what about their origins? Again, I tapped into my research to imagine how the first Gaelic arrivals from Ireland would have settled on the west coast of Scotland. Argyle, I learned, means “coast of the Gaels” in Gaelic.
My memoir is broken into four “books.” The first, entirely fictional, tells the story of a mythical Rothan who settles in the Argyle district of Scotland in the sixth century. Hundreds of years later, two descendants set out for England, seeking to become priests. One is burned at the stake for heresy. The other establishes the family line in Derbyshire.
The second book is about Richard Argyle the vicar of Lullington and Erasmus Argyle. the lord of Heage Hall. Thomas Argyle, the first to own this once great estate, has survived the Great Fire of London, just as his father has lived through the English Civil War that saw the execution of King Charles I.
The third book tells the tale of Edward Argyle who journeys to Australia on a leaky ship, becomes a “squatter king” with thousand of acres under his control, and sires a future premier of the Australian state of Victoria — Sir Stanley Argyle.
The last book begins with William Argyle and his widow Catherine, who becomes a rag and bone collector to keep her family from starvation in 19th century England. I draw on census records that show her giving such an occupation, and later becoming a shop owner before her son, my grandfather John Argyle establishes a tinsmithing business with his brother Thomas. After their business is done in by cheap imports of pots and pans from Germany, John sends his family, including my fifteen-year-old father, to Canada.
I end the memoir with my father’s service in the First World War, in which he takes part in the battles of Vimy Ridge and Passchendaele.
With true events like these, I had no difficulty building scenes and dialogue that I believe give a true reflection of their lives.
I found myself with far more material than I could use. One branch of the Argyles converted to the Mormon faith and sailed to America. Joseph Argyle led his pregnant wife and several children across the plains in the first “hand cart” trek of the Mormons to Utah. Many of his descendants live there today. After writing several chapters about Joseph and the Mormons, I decided not to use them — it was all too much. Even without their story, the book I had printed through blurb.ca runs to 344 pages. If you’re so inclined, you can download an e-copy of my book here.
There are easier ways, of course, to write a family memoir. I hope you’ll write one for your family. Understanding our origins helps us to better understand ourselves.
Guest blog by Barry Francis
If it had been left to the mainstream media, the conspiracy surrounding the assassination of John Kennedy and the massive cover up that followed might never have been revealed. It has taken the unheralded, and often ridiculed, research efforts of citizens like Mark Lane, James Hepburn, Josiah Thompson, David Lifton, Dick Russell and Jim Marrs, not to mention New Orleans DA James Garrison, among others to expose the monstrous evil behind America’s first and only coup d’état. The mysterious deaths of many who knew too much underscores the courage and determination of these citizen-patriots who set out to expose the convenient fabrications of the Warren Commission.
Now, the name Peter Janney, son of a career CIA operative, can be added to this distinguished list. Janney’s landmark book Mary’s Mosaic exposes the facts behind and reasons for the assassination of Kennedy’s lover Mary Pinchot Meyer. The book is exhaustively researched and beautifully written – aided by the fact that Janney personally knew Mary, her family members and many other principals in the case.
Janney gained access to the papers and notes of author Leo Damore (author of Senatorial Privilege) whose planned book on the Mary Meyer murder was never published due to his mysterious suicide. Damore had obtained a copy of Mary’s diary and had identified her killer.
Mary Meyer was a beautiful, intelligent society woman, artist and mother. She was also a confidant, friend and lover of John Kennedy. At the time of her death she was divorced from Cord Meyer, a former peace activist who had gone over to the dark side with the CIA. She was brutally executed as she took her morning jog along the towpath alongside the Potomac river in Washington DC, just 11 months after the Kennedy assassination.
Reminiscent of the Kennedy assassination, within minutes a poor black “patsy” (Ray Crump) was identified and charged with her murder – despite little or no evidence of his guilt. The CIA’s fingerprints are all over this narrative and in fact the whole book. Fortunately, for Crump, the brilliant efforts of defense attorney Dovey Roundtree poked holes in the State’s case and got him acquitted. Rountree took the case pro-bono and financed expenses out of her own pocket. On his release, Crump gave her $1 in payment, representing two-thirds of his entire worth.
Janney outlines the lives and relationship of the ill-fated lovers whose paths first intersected as students during the 1930s and led to a serious partnership in the 1960s. He weaves the story of Mary’s life, loves and death through the geopolitical events of this period and shows the interconnection of those events.
Unfortunately for Mary, she was outspoken – a definite no-no for a CIA wife. She was also dabbling in drugs, including LSD, with JFK, Timothy Leary and the wives of important Washington power brokers and kept a diary covering her relationship with Kennedy (described as the “Hope Diamond” of the Kennedy assassination) and the “mosaic” she had put together on the assassination. In short, she knew too much and was liable to talk.
The book reads like a fiction thriller and contains a great deal of interesting information, some of which has not been published elsewhere, including:
• the name of Mary’s alleged CIA killer – William L. Mitchell;
• Mary’s brother-in-law, Ben Bradley, helped facilitate the cover up of Mary’s death and the subsequent disappearance of her diary;
• Mary’s role in, and support of, Kennedy’s bold peace initiatives with the Soviets;
• the suggestion that the CIA may have purposely brought down Gary Powers U2 spy plane in 1960 to scuttle President Eisenhower’s peace summit with Chairman Khrushchev;
• First hand information that, in April 1963, Vice-President Lyndon Johnson asked that he be given greater Secret Service security protection than the President (suggesting pre-knowledge of the assassination plot);
• JFK’s comment to his secretary Evelyn Lincoln three days before the assassination that his choice for running mate in 1964 “would not be Johnson;”
• The 1964 Moscow mission of Bill Walton on behalf of Bobby Kennedy to convey the Kennedy family’s true feelings about the assassination conspiracy and Bobby’s future plans to KGB man Georgi Bolshkov; and
• the publication of an editorial by former president Truman that appeared in the first edition of the Washington Post in December 1963 just one month after the assassination arguing, in effect, that the CIA was out of control and must be reigned in and restricted to its original mandate of intelligence gathering ─ rather than carrying out covert operations and making foreign policy. The piece indirectly implied that the CIA may have had something to do with the assassination. Shockingly, this important editorial was dropped from subsequent editions of the Post and was never picked up by any other media outlet.
Thankfully, Janney is not satisfied with simply telling Mary’s story and exposing the events surrounding her death. In a post script, he outlines his plans to campaign for a reopening of the Mary Meyer murder investigation which would compel the chief suspect in Mary’s murder to testify under oath. Let’s hope he’s successful, Mary deserves at least this much!
In 1920, the poet Ezra Pound moved from London to Paris to “save American letters from premature suicide and decomposition.” In 2012, is there someone who will move to Toronto to save Canadian letters from a similar fate?
The question arises in the wake of two developments that are disturbing to Canadian writers and independent book publishers: The slide toward bankruptcy of the leading independent Canadian publisher, Douglas & McIntyre, and the merger of two of the world’s largest publishers, Penguin and Random House into a single entity owned by Germany’s Bertelsmann & Company.
Vancouver-based D&M, facing a debt load of $6 million, has taken the first step to file for bankruptcy protection. The prospects of finding an independent buyer to pick up this debt, or of working out a settlement of a few cents on the dollar with creditors, are slim, in my opinion. Sadly, the company’s creditors include many writers, one of whom is owed more than $50,000 in unpaid royalties.
Penguin and Random House have operated competitively in Canada for many years. They’ve been prestigious outlets for many Canadian writers, while also distributing in Canada the lists of their parent companies. Together, they own 40 per cent of the Canadian book market.
The worry is that the merger, even if it leaves the imprints standing, is likely to result in the publication of fewer books by Canadian authors.
The merger also raises serious questions about Canada’s existing policy on foreign investment in the book publishing industry. The Harper government is known to favor a more open approach to foreign investment generally. Its a fundamental of conservative thinking that such investment creates jobs and stimulates the economy. That’s why the test for a foreign buyer — in every other industry — is to show that the transaction will bring a “net benefit” to Canada.
That’s not the case of the cultural industries. They were intentionally left out of the U.S.-Canada free trade agreement, and its follow=-up, NAFTA. Too important to allow the sector to be swallowed up by foreign buyers, the thinking went. But now, there’s growing pressure to allow foreign publishers — like U.S.-based Simon & Schuster — to buy out or set up their own Canadian publishing companies.
Then came the Internet, and behemoths like Amazon, offering instant access to book buyers all over the globe, including Canada. A turning point may have come when Ottawa allowed Amazon to set up its own distribution centre in Mississauga, Ont., to better serve Canadian buyers.
While more book buying shifted to the Internet, the advent of the e-reader further undercut traditional book stores, especially the dwindling number of independent book dealers. The Chapters-Indigo chain fought back with its own online presence, and by launching its own e-reader, Kobo, since sold off to a major buyer.
As a consequence of all of this, you’ve got observers like The Globe and Mail’s John Barber declaring that the “phoenix (of Canadian publishing) is now officially extinct.”
Consolidation at both the publishing and the retail levels is nothing new — every other industry has gone through it in the past few decades. The economics that drive monopoly practices — low profitability and stagnant sales — are even more obvious in book publishing than in, say yoga making or hardware retailing.
For authors and publishers, three realities are clear:
- People seem to be reading less, distracted as they are by social media and web surfing.
- The shift to e-reading shouldn’t hurt that much – authors are still needed to create the content.
- The printed book is still the basis of literary life – the indispensable building block for public recognition , author success, and publisher survival.
So how do we avoid suicide and decomposition in Canadian letters?
Writers will write and readers will read. How to connect the two is the question. The Awards programs — Giller, Writers’ Trust , BC Non-Fiction, Taylor — are fantastic because in additional to their cash value, they draw attention to the winners and boost sales. It’s great to see the Giller go to an unconventional choice, Will Ferguson’s thriller 419. But the key, I think, is more effective promotion and marketing by publishers. Too many books are published unheralded, shipped off to the stores unaccompanied, and little or nothing is done by the publisher to make the public aware of their existence. Publishers are leaning too much on authors to do this job. This has to change. Readers have to be made aware of a book before they’ll buy it.
No book should be published unless the publisher (and the author) have a clear, effective, and unique marketing plan to support it. It’s not just a matter of dollars. Example: My recent book, Joey Smallwood: Schemer and Dreamer, has joined the hundreds of other biographies on the book shelves, without any extraordinary effort being made by the publisher, Dundurn, to sell it. Memorial University in St. John’s might have been talked into putting on a seminar on the Smallwood legacy – a reappraisal of his life, 21 years after his death. Every book has something unique about it, and that uniqueness needs to be better exploited.
An online voice, Andrew Losowsky of the Huffington Post, recently asked why is it that we like to take books on vacation? Because “we read to be transported away from ourselves.” Adds Losowsky: “A great book is the very definition of a de-stress tool. It says, ‘Let me take you away from this for a while,’ and then, like a mystical masseuse for the mind, it does so.”
And don’t people need this now, more than ever?
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