Reflecting on the Leacock Re-Tour

January 17, 2018

Leslie and I returned from the Re-Tour (Re-Tourned, as it were) exactly on schedule on December 9th, after 52 days plus previews, 12,800 kms, and 60 events. To cut a long story short, we did what we set out to do all according to plan, and if we perhaps did not prove that we can draw audiences the way Stephen Leacock did in 1936-37, we believe that our audiences had a good and interesting time, as we certainly did. We met a lot of people and saw a lot of country, and no one can deny that that is a very fine Canadian thing to have done in our sesquicentennial year.

2019 is Stephen Leacock’s sesquicentennial year, of his birth that is, and I have no doubt that the Stephen Leacock Project will think of something interesting to do then. Just what that might be remains to be seen.

As does the future of this blog. It will have a future. That is about all I can say at this stage. I have much to read and think before I will know.

Thank you for paying attention. Please stay tuned.

From Re-Tour to Re-Turn: Day 42

Tuesday, November 28th, 2017: Vancouver

Thoughts rattling around in my head before setting out for the Finale event at Green College. Stephen Leacock wrapped up his tour at UBC, and so will we.

No diminution of enthusiasm for the old buster, nor for talking about him, nor for performing his works. I wonder how many subjects would endure so well after 41 days on the road, plus previews, and 55 events. One more to go.

Such friendly and interested audiences, such wonderful hospitality.

About 7,200 kleacocks to get this far. The return journey will be more direct, adding about 4,800 more.

The outward journey was primarily about cities and events. The return will be mostly about space and distance. We have seen some of those too on the way out, but the focus was always on the next port of call and its events.

I am looking forward to the drive, all of it, be the weather what it may. Right now it looks not too bad at least for the first stage back to Edmonton. Then we’ll see.

Mountains, parkland, prairie, boreal forest and lakes, Lake Superior, the North Channel and Georgian Bay. Seven days driving if the weather holds, with four days for family in Edmonton.

It’s going to feel good to round the last turn at Hepworth and head north up the Peninsula. Home. Dog. Friends — two sadly departed since we left. Forest. Quiet. Winter coming. Routine.

So much to remember, so much to think about, so many new channels to explore.

Please stay tuned. This blog will become something different in the new year.

Day 23: Edmonton (Sherwood Park, in fact) and the Joy of Unsolved Riddles

November 10, 2017

People have been asking for the lyrics to Unsolved Riddles Forever! Here they are. I’ll put them on our web-site or make a page of them later on.

Unsolved Riddles Forever!
Lyrics by Paul W Conway
Tune: The Maple Leaf Forever
(Alexander Muir 1830-1906)

When Stephen Leacock looked across
The wide excursions of this land,
He could have seen an albatross
Hung out on every hand;
But instead he heard the songs of birds,
The dancing tunes of fiddles;
He laughed, sat down, and put in words
The Joy of Unsolved Riddles.

At Unsolved Riddles let us smile
And count them as a blessing,
We’ll keep our sense of humour while
We go on forever guessing.

But words are not the only thing
For this most confusing maze;
We need to laugh, we need to sing
As we fumble on our ways;
Our songs we need not complicate
With fancy tarradiddles,
Just good plain tunes to consummate
The Joy of Unsolved Riddles.

Then let us raise both glass and voice
As the wacky world we face,
And ease our throats while we rejoice
At the muddle we embrace;
We’ll take the best we can extract
From rights and lefts and middles,
And drink, and laugh, and learn to act
On the Joy of Unsolved Riddles.

We’ll grasp the nettle, meet our Fate,
However hot the griddles,
And never underestimate
The Joy of Unsolved Riddles.

May 7, 2017

Day 22: in Edmonton

Thursday, November 9th, 2017

We rolled in here right on schedule on Tuesday, enjoyed two events later that day and another yesterday, with two more today and then a day for more casual exploration.

Aside from continued progress through the Re-Tour according to plan, which is a very significant development indeed, the only significant development has been discovery of an article on Stephen Leacock in The Oxford Companion to Canadian Literature, copy of which in bookcase where we are staying.

The article is by Zailig Pollock, emeritus of Trent University, and is very interesting and useful. In particular Pollock emphasizes the tension between Leacock’s strong belief in “the continuing progress of humanity” (I would say both as an historic fact and a potential for the future), and his “essentially pessimistic vision of man in the modern industrial age”. I think Pollock has put his finger on what may be the ultimate Unsolved Riddle in the whole General Theory. We are internally compelled both to believe in the possibility of humane Progress and to cultivate those forces that work against it or at least render it ambiguous in all their multifarious ways.

I like also the insight in: “The most striking aspect of Leacock’s style is the illusion of a speaking voice, which is so strong in all his works.” We had a spirited discussion with a student at the University of Saskatchewan as to whether that voice (the narrator’s) in Sunshine Sketches is Leacock himself or a creation, self taking the latter position. More on that later, I am sure.

My only quibbles with Pollock’s conclusions are triggered first by his description of Sunshine Sketches as “a regional idyll portraying the essentially good-natured follies of Mariposa, a small Ontario town based on Orillia.” My doubts about that are amply shown elsewhere in these blogs, and will be expressed at length and in full in due course. I am much more in tune with Ed Jewinski’s moral ambiguity, fragmentation, incompleteness and inconclusiveness, turning Mariposa into a somewhat bleak but effective portrayal of pervasive Unsolved Riddles. Secondly, Pollock says that “Most readers of Leacock agree that his writing career shows little sign of development either intellectual or artistic.” I would suggest, and will prove I hope, that considerable development both ways is apparent from the 1903 thesis to the 1919 Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice, through Sunshine Sketches and Arcadian Adventures, and even beyond although at a slower pace.

More about all this in due time. We leave here on Saturday for Calgary, then Medicine Hat, then on to the Pacific Coast for the finales.

Day Seventeen, Saskatoon Day Two: A Day Off

Saturday, November 4th, 2017

The question of whether we would encounter snow on our travels has now been definitively answered: Yes. We thought the slushy trek across northwestern Ontario and eastern Manitoba might have been a one-off, but it was not. We had another hour of it between Winnipeg and Regina, otherwise clear sailing. Regina to Saskatoon was fine. But we awoke Friday to a good dump, which has continued into today. Traffic was moving slowly yesterday, and I, Paul, who write this, assume it is so today, although I have not been out. Leslie is now out there amongst it, whatever it is, but has not yet reported in.

We had two good events here yesterday, at the Frances Morrison Central and J.S Wood branches of the Saskatoon Public Library, in the afternoon and evening respectively — excellent turn-out both times considering the weather, good talking, good listening, good conversation, and the very best kind of support and hospitality from the hospital staff.

Our “Talk-and-Tell” events, newly invented for this Re-Tour, are beginning to gel. They are more lecture-y and less conversational than we had hoped, but that seems to be what the people want. Whichever Leacock we are presenting in the particular session, our notion that he is a good story seems to be proving out. We will therefore continue along the present lines until we begin to detect boredom.

We start out by describing the four Leacocks that we are toting along with us: the Leacock of Laughter, the Leacock of Unsolved Riddles, the Leacock who had the Interesting Life, and the Musical Leacock that he would not have recognized, not being particularly musical. In fact, as we always explain, we have so far found only one title in all the 1,500 pieces with “music” in the title, and that is “Why I Like Bad Music”, which we have not yet found. So we don’t know why.

Then we sing “The Ballad of Stephen Leacock”.

Then I talk, along whatever lines the topic of the day requires: Life Story, Unsolved Riddles, Historical, or Creative. When I think the audience has heard enough of my voice, I ask Leslie to read a Leacock story. Then I talk some more, usually briefly, because by now time is running out, we invite questions and usually get some, then we make our presentation to the community partner of the occasion.

We conclude by bringing back the musical Leacock, singing “Unsolved Riddles Forever”.

As for Leacock stories, suitable for these presentations, the pool is not large. We need pieces that are under 1,000 words, and Leacock, monster of verbosity that he was, likes to go on much longer. “My Financial Career” (900) always works well, as do:

Aristocratic Education (700 in our cut-down version); Boarding House Geometry (300); and The Country Hotel (600). “The Barber’s Outline of History” (1000) was a bit long.

We have performed our “A Field of Mariposies” concert several times now. It has form, structure, predictable length, and really, really good material from the longer Leacock repertoire, some of which we sing. The whole package works very well.

We have not had many calls for “A Garden of Mariposies” yet, although more are coming, including one tomorrow. The concert as originally planned runs an hour, but most hosts want something shorter, and we have been struggling a little to find a series that works. The most recent version, for the Canadian Club of Regina, strictly limited to 45 minutes, did the job in fine style. There we mixed pieces from “Garden” and “Field”, and the result was quite well balanced, maybe better even than the original “Garden”. No doubt we will continue to adapt and experiment for each individual event.

Leslie loves to tell in formal style, as in “My Financial Career” for example, and is growing more comfortable with the readings for “Talk-and-Tell”. She has been trained that reading is a bad expedient, but in this context it is the only way. I like best the singing pieces, and our two-handers. Between the two of us we can mix and match creatively.

As of last evening, when called upon to be specific, we were still say accurately where we are. Saskatoon, we said, and we were right. May we continue in the same for the next 24 days.

Excelsior! through snow and ice.

Re-Tour Day Sixteen: Saskatoon Day One

In my previous post I referred to Leacock as a literary figure. He was that, but much more. At our event yesterday afternoon in Regina we were asked if Canada had ever seen anyone like him, except himself of course. The concentrated ratiocination of twenty-four minds, including our own, failed to come up with a name.

We throw the question out to our readers. Can you think of anyone who said so much, in so many different ways, over such a wide field? We would be a rich country indeed if we had several of that stature.

Having stature in a particular time and place, memorable as that ought to be, does not of course mean that all opinions are worth retaining. As I have said before, and will say often, ideas evolve in a process of natural selection. We keep the best that has been said and thought and work to keep it alive. We throw out the bad stuff. We turn the middling stuff into works in progress. This is a natural, organic process, and closed-mindedness is to it what Agent Orange is to natural vegetation.

I myself completely reject Stephen Leacock’s ideas on race, and I view his views on women as amusing anachronisms, beyond which we have most emphatically progressed. But I love the quality of his mind, the mind that saw complex public affairs as Unsolved Riddles, that gloried in humour as a way to stay human in the face of dehumanizing forces and ideas, the mind that read so widely, and thought so broadly, and ranged so freely that it sometimes did not know itself, the mind that bathed itself in the spirited romance of the Canadian project, the mind that saw potential where others saw only barriers and difficulties, the mind of a truly humane human being.

The longest entry in the index of Leacock’s works (credit to Carl Spadoni for the Bibliography) concerns Education, and the terms of reference that he laid out for education, and higher education in particular, centre on the cultivation of Knowledge, Imagination, and Compassion. What could possibly be finer than that, or more compelling for the present and the future. There is no anachronism in that ideal whatsoever.

And what about the idea that “every child” should have the same opportunity to succeed, to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness? No anachronism there either.

And the Unsolved Riddle of poverty in the midst of plenty? We haven’t solved that one yet.

And so we continue our Re-Tour, re-tracing Stephen Leacock’s footsteps, talking about his ideas, performing his works so that people can laugh (although we make no claim to his talent), trundling our way onward through the snow, mile after mile, place after place, for over two weeks now, and almost four to go before the performances end and we head for home.


Re-Tour Day Thirteen, Regina Day One

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

We knew this Re-Tour would become its own saga. After the previews and five ports of call (we are in the midst of the fifth), we are beginning to see what that looks like. There remains the possibility, of course, that it will evolve differently, but here are the emerging strands:

Wonderful hospitality and conversations. We won’t mention people by name until we have permission, but they know who they are. Another one this morning at the Regina Public Library where we will talk-and-tell Thursday afternoon before moving on to Saskatoon.

Variable driving weather. We have travelled about 3200 kleacocks so far, with about 450 through the snow and then high winds from Sioux Lookout to Winnipeg, and perhaps another 80 yesterday as we passed Portage La Prairie on our way to Regina. Not bad for the time of year. The rest of the time the conditions have been excellent.

The Laughing Leacock, the one people know about if they recognize the name at all, still holds his charm. People who come to our concerts to hear him have gone away well amused.

The Thinking-and-Advocating Leacock, the one we would like people to discover and remember, is a totally different person. People are intrigued by him, there’s no doubt about that, once they hear. But in general they are not intrigued enough beforehand to come out. Attendance has been sparse at most of our talk-and-tell events, unless they were sponsored by an organization (such as an historical society) that people trust.

The Human Leacock, the man with his own story which is hot the stories and ideas he wrote (even when he was telling his own story — he is a singularly inaccurate teller of that) is proving as interesting to people as we hoped it would. But how can we get the word out so that people will know? By the time our presence has registered in the words of mouths we are gone. All the social media posts, web site posts, e-mails, etc. that were within our means, and all the work of our local partners, may not have been enough. We had neither funds nor time to do more, which is a pity.

Still, the Re-Tour will be what it will be. We will plant the seeds and nurture them well in the months and years ahead. This process, this organized quest to remember properly a great Canadian literary figure, is a worthy cause, not only with respect to him, but many others.

If we, in some meaningful collective sense, can forget Stephen Leacock, and remember him inaccurately in the little we do, then what else that matters in our history can we forget, or remember inaccurately? That is a sobering thought, because if Leacock is correct when he says that the past is included in the present, and if Sellar and Yeatman are correct when they say, somewhat jocularly, that “History is not what you thought, it is what you can remember”, then what are we if our memories are bad? If they are deliberately bad, because powers and influences around us want them to be bad, and we lack motivation to straighten them out?

Memory. Memory. Memory. That’s what this Re-Tour is becoming. Not only itself a remembrance, but a testimony to the need for remembrance.

One further note: When we are at home, in the midst of our “own quiet and measured existence” (Leacock), age does not impinge unduly, An expedition like this, more suited to younger constitutions, brings out the age. Leacock was sick for most of his tour. We understand why. We are not there yet, but we are feeling our age.

But never mind. Onward!

Re-Tour Day Twelve: Winnipeg to Regina

Monday, October 30, 2017

Back on the Prairies again, and all that goes with them, including great vistas of gently rolling country, huge fields, and blowing snow. The snow, however, was limited to the area around Portage La Prairie — something to do with the lakes, no doubt — but we simply drove through it with scarcely a bulge in the pulse. We who live in the land of real lake-effect snow, surrounded by giant lakes with real snow-power, are quite happy to take prairie lake-effect snow in stride.

We are aware, of course, that the prairie when riled has other tricks, and we may see them before we are done. But for the time being the prairie has done its bit and we have weathered it.

With only 575 kleacocks to drive, and a reservation waiting for us at the Hotel Saskatchewan when we got there, we drove relaxed and easy, taking our time. The road is four lanes and well maintained, the scenery is beautiful, and we had a good day.

The Hotel Saskatchewan, where Leacock stayed, turned out to be just right even in its renovated form (or maybe especially in its renovated form) and we have settled in for a pleasant stay, a little more luxurious than our customary, but most welcome.

We decided to splurge a little on supper, which we were able to do with the enthusiastic cooperation of the Copper Kettle Restaurant across the street.


Re-Tour Day Nine, Winnipeg Day Two

Friday, October 27th, 2017

One event today, in the evening, with the Winnipeg Storytelling Guild at the Strong Badger Coffeehouse. Most pleasant.

In the afternoon we enjoyed scintillating conversation with cousins Rae and Winston, yielding much to think about and follow up after the tour.

Winnipeg was a fabled place for Leacock, for family reasons, and the footprint remains. Follow-up on Ralph Connor, a Leacock contemporary, also clearly necessary. A man of his time, who wrote for his time, as Leacock did. Leacock also wrote for our time. Did Ralph Connor, or is his present obscurity justified? Leacock’s certainly is not.

Memory forever!