Arts and Culture

No Suckers Please, We're Leacock Lovers

With a funny book to share with Canada, Burgess heads to make-or-break Orillia.

By Steve Burgess 29 Jul 2011 | TheTyee.ca

Steve Burgess writes about film and travel, really anything he wants it seems, for the Tyee. His new memoir Who Killed Mom? was excerpted in The Tyee here.

At the Leacock Festival in Orillia, Ontario, they used to sell souvenir lollipops. Each red, yellow, or green sucker was made in the image of Stephen Leacock, Canada's most revered humourist. "But we had to stop," an organizer told me. "Making suckers that looked like Leacock, we should have known what people would call them."

An ingenious mix of sex and marketing, if only accidental. And these days a writers' event can use any little promotional goose it can get. There aren't a lot of summer festivals left that devote themselves entirely to the written word, and the annual Leacock gathering is surely one of the country's most genial literary attractions. Readings are held outdoors by the shores of Lake Couchiching, a few metres from the Leacock Museum. The festival has a throwback feel worthy of its titular scribe. Invited to this year's version to read from my book Who Killed Mom? I was introduced to a happy little fraternity intent on fostering a sense of community among Canadian writers, wise-cracking or otherwise.

Roll on big Twain

Orillia is a town of roughly 30,000 that can offer visitors a couple of lakes, the Leacock Museum, streets walked upon by a young Gordon Lightfoot, the Mariposa Folk Festival, 2,500 slot machines, and the likes of Hall & Oates or Lionel Richie live onstage almost every week. But nearby Casino Rama notwithstanding, the centre of Orillia remains defiantly quaint. There's even an old fashioned adult video store downtown. In the era of Internet porn that's just as retro as a giant pickle barrel at the general store.

The Leacock Festival is not officially connected to the Leacock Medal, awarded every spring to the book judged to be the nation's most amusing. But both are connected to some degree with Orillia's Leacock Museum, and all help to keep alive the reputation of the man whose life here inspired Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town. The fact that Leacock's name has been consistently celebrated, in Canada at least, seems a particular accomplishment now that every witty turn-of-the-century remark is automatically chalked up to Mark Twain.

Canadian writers still toil in the dark shadow of Twain -- although these days it's Shania. Her chart-topping memoir From This Moment On has humbled the literary competition this year. But then, it has been boosted by promotional opportunities unavailable to those unable to rock man's shirts and short skirts, or colour their hair and do what they dare. The rest of us are left to scramble for what exposure we can get in the outer darkness, far from the warming couch of Oprah. An invitation to the Leacock Festival may not promise huge crowds. But it's a chance to join a circle of Canadian writers and people who truly love books. It offers a cherished opportunity to read at length to audiences who have come for that express purpose, rather than for a free buffet at which an author will drone on in the background like a bluebottle fly at a picnic. And no one will ask you to play Man, I Feel Like a Woman, although they probably wouldn't object if you got the urge.

Canadian content

Friday's event drew about 75 attendees to the outdoor tent on a pleasant evening a blessed 10 degrees cooler than the equatorial conditions then suffocating Toronto. Upon reaching the tent audience members were invited to take advantage of free cans of Off! Stray clouds of repellent wafted over tables full of wine glasses and beer cups, creating a summer cocktail familiar to countless other lake shore gatherings around the country.

Canada Reads and Leacock Medal winner Terry Fallis hosted Friday evening. Readers included Trevor Cole, author of the 2011 Leacock Medal-winning Practical Jean, and Charlie Watkins reading from his very entertaining 2008 memoir In the Land of Long Fingernails. Certain themes emerged in the readings, notably death and Scottish accents -- Canadian literary staples both.

After the readings some drifted over to the table where I sat with my dad and my sister Lynn, both central characters in Who Killed Mom? One by one, they asked me to sign their copies. Then they pushed their books over to Lynn and Dad for their signatures too. Only in Orillia was my family saga actually signed by the family. It fit the mood of the evening.

Author/philosopher/fly fisher Mark Kingwell conducted Happy Hour readings on Saturday, accompanied by free pizza. Like Fallis, Kingwell is a repeat participant at the festival, the return appearances speaking to a warm, clubby atmosphere that extends to the regular attendees. "I've felt welcomed and supported since the first time I came here," Trevor Cole told me. 
At the close of the Happy Hour readings Kingwell squeezed in some Leacock material -- a piece from "Back to the Bush" about his prowess in writing bogus promotional pamphlets for sad little fishing holes:

"The limpid waters of Lake Owatawetness (the name, according to the old Indian legends of the place, signifies, The Mirror of the Almighty) abound with every known variety of fish. Near to its surface, so close that the angler may reach out his hand and stroke them, schools of pike, pickerel, mackerel, doggerel, and chickerel jostle one another in the water. They rise instantaneously to the bait and swim gratefully ashore holding it in their mouths..."

"Nor is Lake Owatawetness merely an Angler's Paradise... After midnight hunters who so desire it can be chased through the woods, for any distance and at any speed they select, by jaguars, panthers, cougars, tigers, and jackals whose ferocity is reputed to be such that they will tear the breeches off a man with their teeth in their eagerness to sink their fangs in his palpitating flesh. Hunters, attention! Do not miss such attractions as these!"

"I have seen men -- quiet, reputable, well-shaved men -- reading that pamphlet of mine in the rotundas of hotels, with their eyes blazing with excitement. I think it is the jaguar attraction that hits them the hardest, because I notice them rub themselves sympathetically with their hands while they read."

Leacock got the most laughs of the day. That may be an annual tradition too.  [Tyee]

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