Chris Simpson

Semper letteris mandate

Greg Gatenby’s new book reveals I’m being stalked by Barbara Gowdy

Greg Gatenby is best known for two things. The first is turning the Harbourfront Author Festival into a literary equivalent of the Toronto Film Festival: except instead of Alec Baldwin we get Michael Ondaatje, Kim Basinger is replaced by Barbara Gowdy, and Richard Gere gives way to Timothy Findlay. The second thing for which he’s known is pissing off other organizers of author readings.

With the publication of Toronto: A Literary Guide (in which he tracks down every residence, however short term, of every writer who has ever set foot in the city over the past hundred years or more), he will now also be known for something else — severe invasion of privacy.

Not that this is a bad thing.

On the contrary, despite its questionable premise that we would be interested in knowing where, for instance, Tomson Highway lived from 1979 to 1982 (1333 Queen Street East), the fact is Toronto: A Literary Guide is almost impossible to put down.

Partly this is because, gosh darn it, we actually are interested. Especially since it is virtually impossible to walk anywhere in the city without winding up next to the past residence of a famous writer. (The research he put into this is simply incomprehensible.) And since the book is organized into neighbourhoods, the first thing most people do is check out their own to see who used to live nearby.

The answer, you’ll generally find, is Barbara Gowdy.

For instance, when I first moved to Toronto in 1972, I lived at 77 Wellesley Street East. Had I hung around I could have been neighbours with Barbara Gowdy who moved into 64 Wellesley four years later. But by 1974 I had moved to Sherbourne and Wellesley where I lived until 1975, just two years before Barbara Gowdy moved in around the corner at 435 Sherbourne. During most of this period I spent a great deal of time in a coffee shop at 99 Gloucester Street, which later moved across the street to 96. I stopped going in 1975, just one year before Barbara Gowdy moved into 67 Gloucester.

The inspiration for his book came about, as many of our inspirations do, while having dinner with Morley Callaghan. During the course of the dinner, Callaghan casually mentioned having “shared a reminiscence with William Butler Yeats during one of Yeats’s visits to Toronto.” While most of us would have been applauding Callaghan for managing to mention a meeting with Yeats “casually,” Gatenby, probably more used to Callaghan than we would be, was struck by something else. “I was stunned to learn from Morley that Yeats had been to Toronto not once, twice, or thrice — but four times.” This, combined with his long-standing grudge against the Canadian education system (for making him spend two years on the American Civil War, and none on Canadian history), led Gatenby to research and write Toronto: A Literary Guide.

So where did Yeats hang out in Toronto?

He lectured, and presumably stayed, at 100 Front Street West, which would have been the Royal York Hotel had it been built at the time. Since it wasn’t, however, Yeats had to make do with the Queen’s Hotel which occupied that location until it was razed after Yeats’ visit. He also spoke twice at the University of Toronto: once at the old Physics Building on King’s Circle, also razed since, and again at Hart House which, despite the Yeats Curse, is still standing. His final visit, Gatenby tells us, was at the Eaton Auditorium on November 23, 1932 and occasioned some censure from The Telegram when he accidentally left the stage before the playing of God Save the King.

When in Toronto, Yeats never missed the chance to drop in on his cousin, Norah Mary Holland, a poet in her own right who lived at 22 Rainsford Road until she died in 1925. To mark her death the Globe ran a story under the headline “Frail Singer of Fairy Songs Passes Smiling To Her Rest,” and apparently no one objected.

Another famous Irish writer who spent time in Toronto was Brendan Behan who, in Gatenby’s words, “had one of the longest dry spells of his life: a fortnight’s worth of alcohol-free days in the [Sunnyside Clinic].” This was back in March of 1961 and Behan was in town for his jazz musical which was premiering at the O’Keefe Centre (that would be the “Hummingbird” now). Gatenby tells us that Behan “was obviously inebriated at the opening performance and even more obnoxiously drunk afterwards in the nightclubs from which he was bounced. Back in his room at the Royal York Hotel, he demanded more drink, but the hotel refused to meet his request.” He was arrested for assaulting the house detective dispatched to calm him down. (Which reminds me, Dermot Healy, author of Sudden Times, will be reading at this year’s Harbourfront Author Festival. Not that I am suggesting any connection — as far as I know Healy never actually assaulted a house detective during his last visit.)

Gatenby’s book is compelling because it functions on so many levels in such a simple and unassuming fashion. It is an exhaustively researched work of history. It is an unequaled source of literary gossip. It is a celebration of Toronto. And it is a guidebook for weekend outings.

There are 63 chapters, or tours, with a map at the top of each. The text gives clear instructions leading the reader through the area, pointing out the various locations, and telling stories about each. All street names and addresses are printed in bold, making it easy to scan your own neighbourhood in a matter of minutes. And looking up particular authors is easy with the name index at the end of the book.

“I hope to surprise you,” says Gatenby in his introduction, “with stories of passion, corruption, greed, and generosity involving the famous and the yet-to-be-famous.” He succeeds, but the real surprise comes in the pure readability of the work. This is one of the few books that everyone in Toronto should own.

Even organizers of other author readings.

Originally published in Celtic Curmudgeon: Arts & Entertainment Review, 1999
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