Carol Shields asks some interesting questions

October 10, 1997

What’s it like to be a man at the end of the 20th century? Carol Shields had no idea. So she put the question to a variety of men she knew—her husband Don, her friends (she doesn’t have many who are men, she says), teaching colleagues, acquaintances from her busy life as a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and University of Winnipeg chancellor and English professor. Continue reading

Martin Amis, man of extremes


October 25, 1989

Writing about sex is something Martin Amis is famous for, but he calls it a writing challenge. Few modern writers, he says, do sex “without embarrassing us slightly.” Even Updike he finds slightly embarrassing. “Lawrence is full of it—again, embarrassing to me.”

What makes him really squirm is “when I think the writer is actually getting into what turns him on—I think you lose universality and it becomes rather pathetic. They let you look where you don’t want to see.” Mind you, people do tend to think that writers have lived through the sexual experiences they describe, which makes him afraid that “people think I must be weirder than I am.”

He’s lively and quick in conversation, with a smart wit built on shared references and shared humour. In his writing, he says, he enjoys “heading toward the cartoon and the caricature. I like extremes rather than complexities and subtleties. It suits the way I write.”

He has a Swiftian mercilessness to his satire, but thinks the term “disgust” is too strong to describe the moral stance that shines like a beacon through his work. “All writers are basically keen on life, otherwise they wouldn’t be in the business of putting it down on paper … and putting it down means celebrating it, in my case through vicious laughter.”


The Mark diaries


October 24, 1991

WINNIPEG: Mark[1] told me today he was HIV positive. We were in his car; he was giving me a ride to a radio interview about the Evy book[2]. We stopped at a gas station so he could fill up, but when he got back into the car he didn’t start it, he just kept us sitting there beside the pumps. “I just got some bad news,” he said. “Though you probably guessed.” It was a quarter to nine: the morning rush was still on, and people in the gas line were honking. I had no idea what he was talking about. Continue reading

Hugh Hanson Davidson: evergreen


Composer, arts activist, arts patron, philanthropist, music advisor, music critic,  traveller, raconteur, spiritual seeker. Born May 27, 1930, in Montreal, died Victoria, B.C. July 14, 2014, of complications following heart surgery, aged 84.


The qualities that people loved about Hugh were his generosity, his gregariousness and his gratitude for the joys of a life in art. They spilled onto you as a kind of blessing: he was the genial uncle who could always make you feel better. Uncle Hugh, not just to the family, but to us all. He was always happy to do what he could to increase the store of beauty and goodness in the world. Continue reading

A beer with Ronnie Biggs

In the late fall of 1994 I was in Rio de Janeiro for a meeting of the International Federation of Food, Wine and Travel Writers—a junket, really, largely financed by the Brazilian tourist authorities. Of the 60 or so people at the conference only a handful were real journalists (as opposed to people who write about restaurants and travel) and none of them were there to do any serious digging—not that the Brazilian tourist authorities would have encouraged it, though they did set up a press meeting with the local police chiefs, who gave us the usual warnings about sensible conduct on the beach.

 In terms of stories, I wasn’t really interested in the food, wine and travel angles. You can only digest so many meals and attend so many receptions. I was more interested in the underside of the place (the local criminals call tourists filet mignon). One afternoon a writer from LA and I took a taxi into the favela that was the main drugs pipeline out of Colombia, and I let it be known that I’d be interested in meeting Ronnie Biggs, the Great Train Robber who was in hiding in Rio from British justice, if anyone knew where he might be.

I thought it was a long shot, but on the day I was due to go home someone drove up beside me as I was walking in the street beside my hotel and slipped me a piece of paper bearing a phone number. When I called it, Ronnie himself answered. “Sure, come on over,” he said. 

The nervous taxi driver insisted on dropping me a few streets away from the actual address, a twisting, cobbled street in a village-style neighborhood of Rio called Santa Teresa, and I found the house with the help of a passing local who asked if I was looking for “Mr. Biggie.” Mr. Biggie was taking a nap when I knocked, and answered the door in a green singlet and khaki shorts, his long, silver hair pulled back in a ponytail. Here’s my diary entry. Continue reading

Mavor Moore: made in Canada


January 6, 2007: VICTORIA, B.C.: We gathered here today to say goodbye to Mavor Moore, who died just before Christmas. I was privileged to be one of the people he wanted to speak. When his wife Sandra asked me for a title for my little talk, I sent back a note saying: what about “From Thaw to flood: defrosting the soul of a cold country”? She e-mailed back: “Cool.” Continue reading

Cage and Cunningham: radical questions

March 31, 1983: John Cage at 70 has a remarkably youthful, relatively unlined face. He keeps his hair dark (or perhaps it has always stayed that way): just a touch of grey at the temples. He has an engaging laugh. His brown eyes sparkle with the pleasure of whatever has struck him as funny (it’s usually an absurdity) and his mouth opens and this big, exultant grin happens. Continue reading

Edouard Lock: showman or shaman?

A presentation to the Royal Society of CanadaNational Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, November 19, 2004

© Max Wyman

In the late 20th and early 21st century, dance has been shaped by a few great artists with the vision and the audacity to exploit and explore the possibilities of the artform in a new fashion. Two of them have spent their careers working in Europe: Pina Bausch, who is German and works in the area of neo-expressionist theatrical modernism, and William Forsythe, an American also working in Germany, whose interests lie in expanding the expressive potential of classical ballet. A third is Canadian: Edouard Lock. Continue reading

Ron Longstaffe: savouring the aha moment


July 7, 2003: Ron Longstaffe died of cancer at the end of May after a horrendous hospitalization following a femur fracture that happened when he was putting on a leg-brace. He was 69, which is not much of an age these days. He was an uncommon man, not least the way in which he straddled the worlds of business, politics and the arts with such ease.

Continue reading

Confessions of a lovesick schoolboy

My teenage years, the 1950s, were spent at the all-boys Wellingborough Grammar School, in Northamptonshire, England. More than half a century later, in the spring of 2016, I was asked to contribute some reminiscences for presentation to the 50th anniversary reunion of the nearby County High School for Girls. Here is what I sent.

You girls! I look at your school photos now, and they conjure a different age: you were sweet, wonderful, mysterious beings, in those pastel-coloured summer dresses and those little white socks. In the spring, London Road and the Broadway bus stops after school looked like clusters of butterflies … Continue reading

Jeffrey Archer: doing his best

August 21, 1991: Jeffrey Archer is as vigorous and combative—and funny—as they come. He plays his upper-class enthusiasm and superiority with enormous aplomb. We’re supposed to be talking about his new book, As The Crow Flies. He won’t give me an answer when I ask him to describe himself, but when I question his son’s assessment of him as “romantic” he agrees whole-heartedly. Continue reading

Bill Reid: reluctant figurehead

Some days, Bill Reid’s Parkinson’s is so bad he can’t get anything done. This cool November day in 1984 is one of his good days. I pick him up at his apartment on Point Grey Road and drive him to his studio on Granville Island, where he shows me his current work. “There are so many things I have to do, and so many people are after me for this and that, that I decided to hell with all of them, I’ll make a frog.” Continue reading

Milton Wong: doing good by stealth

Milton Wong and I were born in the same year, and lived most of our lives in the same city, yet we didn’t have more than a passing acquaintance until we were into our mid-50s. Do I regret that now, or do I see it as a necessary progression toward the meeting that really initiated our friendship? I hover. We had both been on a lifelong journey to discover what interested and motivated us most. Perhaps we needed to wait until we had reached a tentative conclusion or two and were ready to talk. Continue reading

Gordon Smith: modest master

September 24, 1997: Midway through a new painting, Gordon Smith will often buzz his wife Marion from his studio and ask her to step across the courtyard of their West Vancouver home to give her opinion of the work in progress. “And she comes and she doesn’t say anything, then she says, ‘Oh, I haven’t got  my right glasses,’ and I think oh, God, and I say, ‘Get your right glasses,’ and she says well, and I know then—well—that it’s not right. It’s terrible.” Continue reading

Tennessee Williams comes to dinner


October 14, 1980: Tennessee Williams comes to the house for dinner. Roger Hodgman, who is directing the Vancouver Playhouse production of Williams’ late play The Red devil Battery Sign, brings him. With them come Williams’s current West End young man-companion and a perky student actress from UBC Roger seems to be currently dating (Roger’s wife Helen, the novelist, has left him for another woman, and she and her girlfriend, Barbara, who are soon to move to Australia, were round here recently for a riotous night of drinking—jaunty Australian reds that they brought with them—and hot-tubbing under the lodge-pole pines). Floyd St. Clair and David Watmough complete tonight’s group. Continue reading

George Woodcock, gentle anarchist


May 28, 1989: What a marvellous spirit George Woodcock is: insatiably curious, incurably anarchist, unstoppably generous. It’s a pleasure to have been part of his Canada-India Village Aid Society and to get to know him a little better.

His writings just pour out: 80 books and counting. He has that rare knack of making complexities accessible, of speaking clearly and engagingly without ever talking down. Continue reading

A gift for Mrs. Thatcher

November 17, 1987: LONDON: To 10 Downing Street, to deliver a gift from my hairdresser Derek to Mrs. Thatcher. When she came to Vancouver last month for the heads of commonwealth conference Derek was brought in to deal with her hair. He washed it with her leaning over the bath in her hotel room. In an interview in The Province he was quoted as saying she had hair like steel wool. Embarrassed by his gaffe he has asked me to hand-deliver an apology and a package of photos while we’re here. Continue reading

Kinky Friedman’s guitar pick

November 21, 1997: As a memento of our meeting Kinky Friedman gives me an autographed guitar pick, cut from tortoise-shell-patterned plastic. It’s a souvenir of his sometime career as a country singer, founder of the Texas Jewboys (“the only thing Texans and Jews have in common is that they both like to wear their hats indoors”) and composer of such classics as They Ain’t Making Jews Like Jesus Any More, Asshole from El Paso and Get Your Biscuits in the Oven and Your Buns in the Bed. Continue reading

Allen Ginsberg likes my tie

May 1, 1985: Allen Ginsberg peers closer, intrigued by the pattern on my tie. He’s under the impression that it’s marijuana leaves, and the idea clearly pleases him. It’s not. It’s some kind of innocuous autumn design. But the idea that I’d greet the guru of the dope generation wearing appropriate clothing gets us off to a warm start. Bushy greying beard, the collar of his white shirt buttoned down over a narrow striped tie, pens and glasses-case making the shirt’s breast pocket bulge, he’s here to do a reading and some workshops at Hollyhock, the new-age retreat on Cortes Island.

Warmth, individualism and the honest statement of the human heart are the topics we talk about over the abundant food and drink at the communal table at Warren Tallman’s house, and the conversation blossoms in the early afternoon into an all-too-sane attack on the iniquities of neo-conservatism and the vast power of the military-industrial arm.

Ginsberg is a quiet, generous man. His conversation is playful, filled with irony. But he can be serious as well. He used to say he wanted to save America’s soul. Today he amends that. What he wants to do is “uplift America’s spirit.” He doesn’t really believe, he says, in “the permanent entity of a soul. But there is a spirit, from the Latin animus, a breath, and there is inspiration, unobstructed breath. And it would be interesting to open up America’s breath, inspire America.” To what, exactly? “To a sense of majesty, of patience, generosity, friendliness, sensitivity.”

On the table is a copy of his new Collected Poems. How do you achieve all these things through poetry? It’s a tough task, he agrees. “So you formulate individualistic art. Lay your heart bare. Do what Whitman asked for: claim candour. You get your message across by revealing an actual human heart instead of an institutional art. Having a good heart, finally, is what’s important. If the ship has sunk and there’s only a lifeboat left, what are you going to do, despair, or run for the raft?”


‘When will the Beatle bubble burst?’

I’d been writing about the entertainment business in London for less than a year when the Beatle boom began. The editor of the magazine I was working for asked me to take a look at the new group and tell him what I thought. I watched them on the live national variety show, Sunday Night at the London Palladium, and wasn’t impressed. Those suits, those haircuts, that name—“They’ll never make it,” I told him. “Can’t sing. Stupid name. Won’t last.” “Don’t you believe it,” he said. “They’re going to be important. Spend some time getting to know them.” Continue reading

Sharing a secret with Rostropovich

February 12, 1975: I’m sitting waiting in the back of Mstislav Rostropovich’s limo when he arrives in town for his recital this week, and as we drive to his downtown hotel he tells me he has decided he will go into exile rather than return to the Soviet Union when his current two-year international travel permit expires next year. I’m the first journalist he has spoken with this frankly. I have a world exclusive. Continue reading

Tea and cakes with Martha Graham

November 18, 1974:

You hesitate to ask Martha Graham how old she is, but it’s 82 or 83, and she didn’t stop dancing until a couple of years ago—and then only reluctantly, forced to by the pressures of health and age.We drink tea and eat chocolate cakes. She is a marvellous person to be with, immensely alive, consumed by a sense of wonder. She fills the room with enthusiasm. “It is still unbelievable to me that I can’t dance,” she says. “I believe, well, I will dance tomorrow. Sometimes I wake up in the middle of a dream about dancing.” Continue reading