Prudence and Ron: a winning combination

Priscilla Tempest. Remember that name: you are going to be hearing more from this 20-something publicist for The Savoy hotel, given her tendency to be on the scene when dead bodies are found on the premises.

Priscilla is the protagonist of Death at the Savoy, a murder mystery co-authored by Ron Base and Prudence Emery. It is out this month from Douglas & McIntyre and readers are bound to be hooked. The second Priscilla Tempest mystery, Scandal at the Savoy, is already written and a third is underway.

An intrepid Canadian who lands herself a job as press liaison at London’s famous Savoy hotel in the 1960s, Priscilla was born out of Prudence Emery’s memoir Nanaimo Girl, published by Cormorant Books in 2020.

“Ron called me after he’d read Nanaimo Girl and said he thought the Savoy section could be the makings of a good mystery,” says Emery, sitting in her Victoria BC living-room. Base was a young freelance writer in the 1970s when Prudence used to call him up from various movie sets and offer him interviews with big stars. Later, he became the Toronto Star’s movie critic, took a turn in LA as a scriptwriter and began writing novels, publishing Magic Man with St. Martin’s Press in 2006.

Base, now author of a 13-book series featuring The Sanibel Sunset Detective (West-End Books), recalls how Nanaimo Girl’s adventures at the Savoy inspired him. “I had no idea Prudence led such a glamorous life during those five years [1968 to 1973] at the Savoy. I thought, plucky heroine working in the press office, celebrities, dead bodies in the hotel — that could really work.”

So he called and said, “How would you like to collaborate on a mystery novel with me?” On the other end of the line, Prudence wasn’t so sure. “My first instinct was to say no, because a murder mystery is not like a memoir where you have all the material; it takes a lot of imagination and cleverness to plot. But then I thought, well why not?”

And so Priscilla took shape (Prudence came up with the first name and Ron came up with Tempest), Ron imagining and plotting and Prudence verifying or suggesting details and plot twists. And so, with a little help from Zoom, two old pals have been co-writing a book while living 3,000 kilometres apart.

“Prudence and I always had a great rapport,” says Ron. “She dragged me all over the place: a snowbank in Barkerville with Rod Steiger (Klondike Fever); to Israel for the filming of It Rained All Night the Day I Left with Tony Curtis; and she got me kissed by Ann-Margret (Middle Age Crazy).

Collaboration, new to both authors, was a matter of rekindling their long-time rapport, says Base. “Prudence was the guardian of all things Savoy. Anything we couldn’t get squared away, Prudence had people who could help us. When it came to the Colonel Mustard-candlestick-in-the-library stuff, I knew what to do. But the original plot, and the idea of poisoning was hers.

“This became a great collaboration. I would send her pages and she would send them back. Basically it was a lot of fun and I never think of writing novels as fun.” No surprise that the Ponti company has optioned film and TV rights for Death at the Savoy and agent Bill Hanna has secured a two-book audiobook deal for the authors.

Most fun for the reader are the celebrity characters in Death at the Savoy, all of the real personages now dead. Noël Coward, who befriends Priscilla, plays a crucial role in the plot. Richard Burton makes drunken advances to Priscilla in the back of a Rolls Royce, in between drunken arguments with Elizabeth Taylor. Princess Margaret doesn’t actually make an appearance, but her assignations at the Savoy are crucial to the murder plot.

But, hey, no spoilers here. You’ll just have to buy the book.

Death at the Savoy; A Priscilla Tempest Mystery

By Ron Base and Prudence Emery

Douglas & McIntyre, $18.95

Photo of Prudence Emery by Sara Matthews; Ron Base photo by Katherine Lenhoff

The laureate of zoom and sway

There is a lot to be said for the spontaneity and unexpected intimacy of a live reading on Zoom, especially for fans of poet bill bissett. Yes, it would be better to be in the same room as bissett as he performs his poems, but in any conventional setting would we have had the chance to meet his beloved companion, the cat called boo boo? Not likely.

A live online bissett event on May 27, organized and hosted by University of Glasgow poet and lecturer Colin Herd, started at 8 a.m. for a listener on Vancouver Island. Joining in, we could see bill, in a white t-shirt stamped with the word “breth” and a green John Deere baseball cap, chatting casually with a Zoom attendee in a nearby frame.  The backdrop for his reading was a white wall hung with more than a dozen of bissett’s eye-poppingly colourful, symbolist canvases.

The location was, bissett told us, “a little house by the river” somewhere north of Toronto, where he’d gone with his cat just before the pandemic imposed self-isolation. bissett had been preparing for a big reading tour that was subsequently cancelled because of COVID-19. The paintings, small enough to pack for air travel, constitute his movable set.

Host Herd introduced the poet, whose oeuvre encompasses more than 60 books and innumerable drawings and paintings, as the “laureate of zoom and sway,” words that aptly anticipated bissett’s musical delivery. Reading poems from his 2019 book breth /th treez uv lunaria (Talonbooks) and from a suite he’s working on under the title Meditations from Gold Mountain, bissett, holding a sheaf of printed pages, launched into something akin to an oratorio.

Embedded in the sound/concrete poetry movement since his earliest published works in the 1960s, bissett is always advancing his unique, multi-faceted art form. This excerpt from a recent “pome” adheres to the bissett orthography:

whn what happns

n th day is continuing
n th day is continu
n th day is contin
n th day is cont
n th day is
n th day
n th
what he sd n what he sd n what he sd
n what he sd  n what he sd n what he
sd n what he sd n what he sd n what
he sd n he sd n he sd n he sd n he

But reading and listening to bissett’s work are two entirely different experiences. Chanting, humming, mouthing sounds like a jazz singer in scat mode, bissett brings the lyrics alive in unexpected ways. Segueing seamlessly from a recitative about “the bugs on the windshield” to a casual observation, “I haven’t lost my sense of humours,” this poet/painter is a marvel.

Forthright, genuine, alive in the moment, bissett at 80 is as vital and as vital to our culture as ever he was.

breth /th treez uv lunaria (Talonbooks, 2019)

Lovers in a dangerous time in China

A well constructed page-turner, Robert F. Delaney’s first novel is for Canadians watching the Huawei affair play out, a timely expose of what it’s like to operate in China as a North American, whether it be as a journalist, an investor or even a spy. The Wounded Muse, published in November 2018 by Mosaic Press, is a fiction based on Delaney’s experiences reporting business news for outlets including Dow Jones and Bloomberg from the mid-1990s.

Jake Bradley, born underprivileged to alcoholic parents in rural Kentucky, has advanced on the strength of his intelligence and gift for languages, to become a business reporter for Toeler News service in Beijing. Schooled in a provincial university, he is fluent in Mandarin, and leads a comfortable life as a plugged-in, semi-closeted gay man in the Chinese capital. He meets Qiang, a Chinese national who has been working in California’s Silicon Valley and has returned to his home country to document the rapid changes and resulting social displacement that has been going on in China with the ramping up of its economic growth and preparation for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. In helping Qiang with his video project, Jake falls hard for the Chinese man, and then Qiang suddenly disappears, presumably taken into detention for reasons no one can surmise.

A parallel love story concerns Dawei, a dishwasher in a hotel in Macau, who has drifted there from his poor village, Yongfu, in the far northeast province of Heilongjiang. Dawei meets Zhihong, a Beijing bureaucrat on a recreational visit to Macau, with his boss who runs a section of the government overseeing the film business. Zhihong, it turns out, is married, and after his under-the-bridge tryst with Dawei, quickly drops him. But Dawei, with little money to live on, follows Zhihong to Beijing and gets a job as a courier for a travel agency.

With a minimum of byzantine twists, the two plotlines intertwine as Jake encounters Dawei and befriends him and Zhihong is drawn into the Sun Qiang fiasco, working in an intelligence role in his ministry. Qiang’s sister Diane, employed by a European bank in Beijing, and his former husband Ben, a researcher at MIT in the Boston area, join Jake in trying to extract Qiang from detention. The action plays out in 2007 with flashbacks to 2004 and in between and forms a credible tale of intrigue and human rights abuses against a backdrop of China’s development as a super power, taking its place on the world stage.

Delaney’s prose is serviceable and he ratchets up the tension as Jake gets himself deeper and deeper into trouble, emotionally and politically, in his search for Qiang. He doesn’t spare the details when it comes to men grappling in secret, but the sex is not gratuitous and the dialogue only occasionally forced. In making the transition from journalism to fiction, Delaney has wisely stuck to what he knows and the result is an informative narrative of love and identity in dangerous times.

David W McFadden October 11, 1940 – June 6, 2018

Nowhere is it recorded what David McFadden’s first words were. But I’m willing to bet his earliest utterances would have been a wisecrack, a haiku or a rhyming couplet. McFadden’s inventiveness, his verbal agility and his wit were constants, no matter what challenges life threw at him.

I first met him in the mid-70s. As a cub reporter for the book trade journal Quill & Quire, I had taken it upon myself to write profiles of some big-name poets. McFadden lived in Hamilton, where he was born October 11, 1940. He and his wife Joan and their daughters Alison and Jenny lived in a tidy bungalow on the mountain. “I’ll meet you at the bus station,” Dave had said on the phone. Sure enough, he pulled up in a VW van – one that features in The Great Canadian Sonnet, a collaboration between McFadden and his artist friend Greg Curnoe – and drove me to his home.

Joan was at work and the girls were in school. McFadden, a pretty adept interviewer himself, gave an  impressive show-and-tell. He took me to the basement to show me where he worked: at a desk beside the big old furnace. He lived a quiet life. He was a good family man. The neighbours had no complaints, although at least one of them had asked whether Mr. McFadden was ever going to get a job.

As I recall (it seems I never actually wrote him up for Q&Q), his most recent collection of poetry at the time of our meeting was A Knight in Dried Plums, published by McClelland & Stewart. He was maybe 35 years old and this was his umpteenth publication. McFadden’s output was phenomenal. Poetry seemed to pour out of him and the small press books were notable for titles only Dave could have come up with: The Poem Poem (1967), Letters from the Earth to the Earth (1968), Poems Worth Knowing (1971), Intense Pleasure (1972), The Ova Yogas (1972), The Poet’s Progress (1977), The Saladmaker (1977), I Don’t Know (1978) and my favourite title, My Body Was Eaten by Dogs (1981).

Apart from the occasional arts council grant, teaching position (one at Notre Dame University in Nelson, BC) or writer-in-residence term, McFadden lived by writing alone. And like any creative writer in Canada, he was a poor scrivener. Quill & Quire was very lucky to get him as a columnist in the 1980s. In those distant days before email and the Internet, one communicated by telephone or written letter. As his editor, I delighted in our correspondence as much as the columns themselves. One continuing narrative I recall was about road trips taken by David, David, David and David – him and his friends with the same first name.

McFadden’s ventures into fiction began with the Great Canadian Sonnet, published by Coach House in 1974, but the books that brought him a wider readership than he’d had before — A Trip Around Lake Huron (1980), A Trip Around Lake Erie (1980) and A Trip Around Lake Ontario (1988) established McFadden in a prose genre all his own. The trip books were travelogues with a difference: notebook in his pocket, hands on the wheel, Dave/Dad let his tours take him wherever his imagination led him. The encounters he wrote about were real, but the narrative form was akin to fiction or memoir. Here’s entry 14 from A Trip Around Lake Huron:

“A year earlier I took my little family on a motoring trip from Point Pelee to Tobermory . . . We got lost in Sarnia. At one point we were parked on the side of the road in Point Edward, a Sarnia suburb . . .. parked in front of a church . . . . There was a sign out front saying that the Rev. Orlo Miller was the pastor. That was a coincidence of the first order because only a week earlier I’d been reading a book by the same Orlo Miller, The Day-Spring, all about pre-Columbian European influences on the Americas. I’d forgotten that Miller was a Point Edward clergyman.”

He then goes on to discuss the relative merits of a book by Miller on the Black Donnellys. This chatty, digressive style – where the digressions take centre stage – served McFadden well in a series of travel books he wrote, beginning with An Innocent in Ireland and continuing with the Innocent’s visits to Scotland, Newfoundland and Cuba.

Davey, as some of his friends called him, was one of the most learned persons I ever met. He had no post-secondary education, but he was a big reader and was skilled editorially; having worked as a proofreader at the Hamilton Spectator, he often helped out at press time at Coach House. He had a system for reading: he entered a list of books into his computer (he was an early adopter) and programmed the list to spit out titles at random to determine what he’d read next. His friends sometimes joined him in reading projects, but no one could keep up with McFadden. Just for fun, for instance, he’d re-read all of William Shakespeare’s plays. As a poet he practised his craft assiduously; he could easily define a trochee or a spondee. His mastery of meter is demonstrated in the 1987 book that earned him a Governor General’s Literary Award nomination, Gypsy Guitar; One Hundred Poems of Romance and Betrayal.

Living alone in Toronto in the 1990s, McFadden made do in some not very suitable accommodations. For a time, he lived in an office in a downtown building. The office served as bedroom and workspace. For his ablutions, there was the men’s washroom down the hall. The winters were harsh and by the early 2000s, the poet’s health began to fail.

In 2009 McFadden was invited to a party that changed his life for the better. There he met Merlin Homer, an artist and a widow who found her match in David. They married in 2011 and the smile on McFadden’s face in the wedding photos makes him look like the happiest man in the world. By now David had been diagnosed with two terminal diseases, lymphoma and a rare form of Alzheimer’s that causes aphasia. Even very common words might sometimes elude him. McFadden kept on writing. Merlin supported him all the way.

As Stuart Ross, his editor at Mansfield Press, points out, David simply adapted to his neurological reality. “The lines became shorter,” Ross told CBC Radio. Some quite remarkable books of poetry came out of this period in his life, including What’s the Score? (2012), which earned McFadden the 2013 Canadian Griffin Poetry Prize.

Here’s a poem from Shouting Your Name Down the Well; Tankas and Haiku, published by Mansfield in 2013:

On Government Street

Some con men try to sell me

Hare Krishna books.

“I’m already enlightened,”

I say. So they ask for cash.

David William McFadden will be missed by many, but with his words he is ever with us. He leaves his wife Merlin Homer, his brother Jack McFadden, his daughter Jenny, grandchildren Benny, Chloe and Amy, and great-granddaughter Lila.

Photo by Paul Orenstein


Austin C. Clarke 1931 – 2016

Austin Clarke has died. My family and I have lost a dear and constant friend. English literature has lost an unstoppable talent.

Clarke died of cancer in St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto on June 26. He would have been 85 on July 26. Born in the St. James parish of Barbados and sent to Combermere School, Austin Chesterfield Clarke, known as Tom, was a mother-raised boy who quickly excelled in school, earning top marks and outpacing his classmates as a barefoot runner and long jumper. At Harrison College, he was earmarked for the higher education, which for young Barbadian men at the time meant emigrating to the U.K. or the U.S. Clarke earned admission to the London School of Economics and to Oxford; he was also accepted into black universities in the U.S.

But at the Coleridge-Parry Secondary School for Boys where Clarke was teaching, he was denied study leave. When another teacher advised him to look into study in Canada, Clarke applied to McGill University and was admitted. But on the flight that took him to Montreal he had this niggling thought – why was he enrolling in a university in a French-speaking province? Clarke stayed on the plane and got off in Toronto, where he applied the next day to the University of Toronto. He became a student of Trinity College, where the stone buildings and student garb of suits and robes gave him the sensation of an Oxbridge life.

He lived in a UofT dormitory and paid his school fees through serving in the Trinity dining hall and working summer jobs that included faking experience to be hired by a land surveyor. On more than one occasion, for lack of a transit fare, he walked the distance from work in Scarborough to the St. George campus.

Clarke’s writing talent had been underplayed in Barbados, where he once said, “To be an artist at that time had the very sneaky, negative implication that you were gay. Men did not play with paint and pencils and did not write poetry.”

But he soon distinguished himself in Trinity College literary publications. He earned a prose prize of $30 on one occasion. By then he had proposed to Betty Reynolds, an accomplished nurse whom he’d met in his first summer in Toronto. The prize money bought a bottle of rum and mix to serve at their engagement party.

It was Betty, mother of his daughters Loretta and Janice, who made it possible for Austin to spend more time on writing. She went to work and he became a stay-at-home dad. But his early working years were tough times for a young father. He did the Christmas rush in the post office and other menial and morale-destroying tasks. He was a natural as a journalist though and bluffed his way into a job as a reporter in Timmins, Ontario, a long wintry train ride north.

Back in Toronto, Clarke parlayed his storytelling gifts into a freelance career. At the CBC he became a regular radio contributor, most notably landing an interview with Malcolm X in New York – after promising his producers he’d get a sit-down with James Baldwin. CBC literary producer Robert Weaver recognized Clarke’s talent and helped him get his first short stories published, but when Austin sent him a poem, Weaver advised him to “stick to prose.” His first book, The Survivors of the Crossing, published by McClelland & Stewart in 1964, was set in a sugar cane plantation just before Independence in Barbados. (Because Clarke felt he would appear too much a late bloomer with this first book, he pushed his birth date forward by three years.) Among Thistles and Thorns, his first story collection, came out the following year.

Clarke, inspired by Caribbean writers published before him, notably Sam Selvon and George Lamming, at first wrote the Barbadian experience. But soon he was carving out new territory for Canadian fiction, with stories of “Wessindindians” such as the immigrant in “The Motor Car”, whose big dream is to own a Ford Galaxie, or the title character in “The Green Hornet.”

It wasn’t until The Origin of Waves (M&S, 1997) that Clarke hit his stride as a novelist. The book, a chronicle of two Barbadian men on a walk through Toronto revisiting their shared memories, earned him Cuba’s Casa de las Américas prize. With The Polished Hoe (Thomas Allen, 2002), Clarke really captured the poetry of the Bajan dialect. It is a big sprawling tale from the times of slavery on forward, told through the eyes of an indelible woman protagonist, Mary-Mathilda. He won the 2002 Giller Prize, the Trillium Prize and the Regional Commonwealth Writer’s Prize for The Polished Hoe, which was translated into several languages and even won an award in Italian.

          It was only after 2002 that Clarke could earn a living off his writing alone. Up until then, he always needed a supplementary income. His early interest in the civil rights movement and African American life earned him spots at Duke University and Yale as a lecturer in the new field of Black Studies. Nothing if not adaptable  ̶  and self-inventive – Clarke turned to politics in the 1970s, running as a Progressive Conservative for an impossible-to-win provincial seat. He scored more votes in York South than any PC had earned before. Later he held appointments as a cultural attaché in the Barbadian embassy in Washington DC, then, in 1975, as general manager of the Caribbean Broadcasting Corporation’s Barbados station. His experience there gave him the material for The Prime Minister (General Publishing, 1977). Other positions, on the Ontario Film Review Board and on the federal Immigration and Refugee Board, brought the only dry spells in the life of this highly prolific author.

In the last years of his life, Clarke turned to poetry and proved Robert Weaver wrong. A long narrative poem published by Guernica in 2013, Where the Sun Shines Best, was nominated for a Governor General’s literary award. The valedictory poem is based on an incident in Moss Park, across the street from Clarke’s home in what he called “the ghetto” in which soldiers killed a homeless man.

From 2000 forward, the honours poured in. Clarke was admitted to the Order of Canada, the Order of Ontario, granted honorary doctorates by York University and three other universities and won many awards for his writing, including the 2015 Harbourfront Festival Prize. The honour that no doubt meant the most to him was his meeting with Queen Elizabeth after he won the Commonwealth prize. Judging from the photograph that hung in his living room, it was a moment that she enjoyed as much as he did.

Raconteur, host, excellent cook, a public speaker beyond compare, a generous literary mentor, Austin Clarke was many things to many people. His books and broadcasts ensure that he’ll be with us for a long time to come.

He is survived by Betty Clarke and their daughters Loretta and Janice, his daughters Darcy Ballantyne and Jordan Clarke, his Barbadian siblings and cousins and his many close friends in Canada and abroad.

Toronto Star photo by Colin McConnell



Hogging it: Rosenblatt and Callaghan

Stomachs UniteDrawing #11Chow DownDrawing #18

It’s anything but hogwash: an intellectual and artistic engagement between two CanLit titans entitled Hoggwash, because Joe Rosenblatt’s letters are addressed to James Hogg, Barry Callaghan’s alter ego and poetic protagonist. The release of the book, published by Exile Editions and subtitled The Callaghan and Rosenblatt Epistolary Convergence, is accompanied by an exhibition of Callaghan’s and Rosenblatt’s drawings and paintings on at the GN Studio in Oakville until May 11.

The works displayed on two walls at GN Studio are all new. (Those pieces reproduced in the book are no longer in the artists’ possession.)These pictures seem to converse across the room. Callaghan’s surrealistic, Dali-esque beings, all feet and lips and teeth, address Rosenblatt’s birds, cats, fish, dogs and other half-human creatures with much on their minds, and not all of it philosophic.

Hoggwash began with a proposal from Rosenblatt.  “Ten years ago I suggested to Barry that I would like to write to the leading protagonist in his epic poem, James Hogg and ask him a series of philosophical questions, pointed questions, as to the birth, or reincarnation of Hogg who emerges on an ice floe in Toronto Harbour and is set upon by thugs and crucified. Barry as Hogg would answer my questions, referring to our mutual friend Barry Callaghan.”

The epistles would also serve as a forum for the two authors’ thoughts on religion, philosophy, poetry and literature in general. The result (full disclosure; I acted as copy editor) is a unique Canadian literary document and a lively entertainment.

Callaghan sets the pace for Hoggwash in an opening Q&A with Rosenblatt, quoting liberally from Rosenblatt’s poetry. “You seem to me to be a blue angel, always in a delirium of poems and in this delirium you are, over and over again, born like death, with burning branches growing . . . .”

Rosenblatt describes himself as a “disillusioned romantic” and admits to a strange kind of voyeurism, the study of bees and their pollinating ways. Hogg is captured in a poem as a man living through “an endless winter of endless / nights, . . . sitting / squat hour after hour by a seal hole in the ice, / waiting for the snout of the seal . . . .” Hogg is in some ways the straight man to Rosenblatt’s remarks on Hogg’s musings about Martin Heidegger, God, the Virgin Mary and his Toronto subway Stations of the Cross. As for Callaghan, Hogg remarks, he “can be a bit of a gadabout and a rounder.”

This is not the first time either poet has emerged as a visual artist to be reckoned with. Writing about Callaghan’s Hogg works for an Ottawa exhibition, artist Vera Frenkel identified him as “a naturally skilled draughtsman.” Drawing and painting were something he did from an early age, prompting a poet visiting the Morley Callaghan household to ask what his son was to be, “poet or painter?”  But like Rosenblatt, Callaghan needs a theme and Hogg (the actual James Hogg immigrated to Upper Canada in 1824 from Glasgow) has provided him with lots of inspiration.

Among the Callaghan watercolours on display at GN, a large picture of limbs and lips locking, called “Hogg Remembers the All of their Love,” is a tender depiction of two lovers. Other paintings are more in-your-face, even sinister, such as “Hogg in Purgatory” or “Hogg Pursued by Devils in Hell.” These Hogg paintings are expressive in their jumble of body extremities and Janus-like visages of the earthly/heavenly polarities in Hogg’s thinking.

Drawing and painting is more of a constant pursuit for Rosenblatt, who has a solo show concurrently running at Yumart Gallery in Toronto. Making his artist’s statement, the poet says, “In my drawings personalities grow exactly like limbs . . . . Those creatures in my landscape carry my genetic material. . . . The drawing paper demands its form. It wants to be fed and craves for limbs. And perhaps a spiritual envelope called the soul.” At GN you can see in Rosenblatt’s black-and-white drawings accentuated with bright splotches of paint that the hand that draws the lines is the same one whence Rosenblatt’s thoughts proceed on paper. “Stomachs Unite” is a good illustration of the Stoma principle under discussion in Hoggwash. Other works, such as “Chow Down” and “Eat or Be Eaten” could be visual equivalents of his ripostes to Hogg.

There’s plenty of food for thought in Hoggwash, both the book and the art works; readers and viewers might well demand a sequel.

“Hoggwash: The Exhibition,” April 16 to May  11, gnstudio / contemporary art, 123 Lakeshore Road West, Oakville, ON

“Angels, Demons and Spirits,” works by Joe Rosenblatt, May 7 to 28 at Yumart Gallery,  401 Richmond St. West, Suite B20, Toronto, ON

Hoggwash: The Callaghan and Rosenblatt Epistolary Convergence, Exile Editions, 118 pages, $17.95 pbk.

Art work courtesy of the artists, from top: “Stomachs Unite”; “Compared to What,” Drawing #11; “Chow Down”; “Compared to What” Drawing #18



Urgent stories of refugees from an eye witness

Spur Festival

Various venues, Toronto

April 7 to 10, 2016

Not all the news from the frontlines of the international refugee crisis is bad. British journalist Ben Rawlence spent four years in a 25-year-old African refugee camp, becoming an eye witness to a humanitarian crisis that few have observed so closely. Dadaab, a camp in the middle of the north Kenyan desert accommodating an ever-growing population of Somali refugees, was where Rawlence uncovered stories that spell out the tragedy as well as the glimmers of hope for displaced people whose inadequate, temporary accommodations have become home.

Both an investigative journalist and a fine storyteller, Rawlence has an urgent message to relate, encompassed in City of Thorns: Nine Lives in the World’s Largest Refugee Camp (Picador).

“Guled grew up in Mogadishu, playing amid the wreckage of the American helicopters shot down in 1993, the year he was born,” said Rawlence, relating one of the stories in his book for a session of the Spur festival in Toronto.  In 2010 Guled, an orphan, was captured by Al-Shabaab operatives in his school classroom and wound up as a teen patroller for the terrorist organization, seeking out those who failed to observe fundamentalist restrictions and targeting them for whippings. Eventually he was able to escape his captors and make the 644-kilometre trek to Dadaab, an unfenced small city of five suburbs where everything is built of thorn tree branches and found materials. The camp is surrounded by a 90-kilometre stretch of waterless desert.

“It’s a city of sticks and mud,” he said, where because of its designation as a camp, the Kenyan government forbids the use of bricks and mortar or concrete or the construction of anything as permanent as proper toilets. Refugees are also forbidden employment.

Working out of the UN compound in Dadaab, Rawlence interviewed more than a hundred people, while gathering statistics and reporting on the larger story of refugees. The crisis has escalated since 9/11, he said. “In the past, large-scale repatriation occurred. Today, countries are accepting far fewer refugees.” Repatriation for the several generations of Somalis now living in Dadaab becomes an ever-receding dream; only possible if peace is established in their home country. The refugee population meanwhile has grown from 100,000 to nearly 500,000. And with all the attention focused on Syrians, these Africans fear they’ve been forgotten.

On the upside of the refugee experience, for people who think of their lives in the future tense, the camp provides education, empowerment for women, a democratic form of governance and a lively black-market economy. “It’s the biggest market between Nairobi and Mogadishu, generating an estimated $30 million a year in transactions.” If governments were to legitimize this activity, Rawlence said, they could benefit from tax income.

Spur Toronto, a festival of politics, art and ideas put on by the Literary Review of Canada and Diaspora Dialogues, continues Friday night with a talk-show format in which podcaster Vish Khanna hosts discussions with festival speakers and authors.  A panel on LGBT media activism, moderated by Susan Cole, takes place Saturday morning at Hart House. The festival runs through April 10. For times, venues and program details, go to

Susan Musgrave’s Haida Gwaii

A Taste of Haida Gwaii

Food Gathering and Feasting

at the Edge of the World

By Susan Musgrave


ISBN 978-1-77050-216-1

340 pages, $34.95 softcover


There are cookbooks to use, cookbooks to peruse, or cookbooks to dip into, but rare is the cookbook you would read from front to back. A Taste of Haida Gwaii is that volume.

A lifetime of wry observation, poetry, memories and images has gone into Susan Musgrave’s first cookbook, set mostly on the northern Graham Island of Haida Gawaii, in Masset, where Musgrave lives and operates the Copper Beech Guest House.

A leisurely, literary text combines travelogue, history, personal anecdotes, Haida culture, unique menus and all manner of flora and fauna in a cleverly designed book containing 90 recipes and numerous illustrations including glorious photographs and cartoonish drawings by Dejahlee Busch.

“I can’t say I was cut out to be an innkeeper. I feel uncomfortable most of the time, charging anyone for a place to lay their head,” writes Musgrave, an inventive chef and brilliant hostess. Her statement is buttressed with a quote from Hebrews 13.2 about “entertaining strangers.”

A reminiscence of Matt Cohen introduces kelp, its uses and the preparation of seaweed. “He had never seen kelp before (Matt hailed from Ontario) and was fascinated by something I had always taken for granted . . . Kelp and seaweed had always floated through the lines of my poetry—so much so that one English academic described me as having emerged from “the kelp school of poetry.”

Musgrave’s father features in a reminiscence about fishing. “Dad used to climb into the dinghy and row up Sansum Narrows between Salt Spring Island, where my great-grandfather had settled at Musgrave Landing . . . catch a couple of grilse for breakfast and fry them to a shade just past well done, filling the cabin with an oily fishy smoke, which made it hard for me to choke down my Coco Puffs. (For a definition of grilse see one of Musgrave’s entertaining footnotes.)

A section on Haida Gawaii berries makes reference to During My Time: Florence Edenshaw Davidson, A Haida Woman in which Davidson recollects how her mother picked berries and kept them fresh in a bentwood box. Musgrave follows up with instructions for making salmonberry jelly.

“Coitus Interruptus” is the heading over a section on Dungeness crabs, best gathered, says Musgrave on North Beach, in the summer months, at a “minus tide,” although a low tide will do.  The title refers to the technique used to net the crabs. “You nudge them in flagrante delicto out of the sand and scoop them up in your net. The male will cling to the smaller, luckier female, so now you have to separate them and toss the male into your tote, where he will soon be joined by other angry male whoppers who are just as unhappy at having been parted, involuntarily, from their squeeze of the day.”

Reading stories such as “Never Overcook an Octopus,” asides on unlikely topics (edible gold leaf), a compendium of edible wild mushrooms of Haida Gawaii and recipes such as “Thimbleberry Elderflower Liqueur Coulis,” one begins to suspect that Musgrave is drawing us to her island home through the ancient lure of good food and good company.

Above: Crabbing on Haida Gawaii. Photos by Michelle Furbacher, Lynda Osborne and Peter Sloan