FARLEY MOWAT, PROPHET

by Silver Donald Cameron

First published in Atlantic Insight, 1979
Reprinted in Sterling Silver (1994)

THE WORM OF FEAR IS TURNING in Farley Mowat's guts, melting his knees into jelly, making him ready to scream. Around him stretches a featureless, nightmare landscape of stinking mud, fog, smoke and overcast. The air reeks of cordite, sweat and pu-trescent flesh. After three years of war, Mowat is ready to break.

The scene is somewhere south of Ortona, Italy. It is Christmas Day, 1943, and Farley Mowat is 22 years old. He has written about that campaign in The Regiment (1955). But that book was a history. What did it feel like, that terrible time? What did it do to men's minds and spirits? This fall, Mowat tells that wrenching, private story in And No Birds Sang. It's an occasion: his first complete book of new work since A Whale for the Killing in 1972. It's been, he grimaces, a long dry spell. Cornered by hyenas of the mind.

What's he like, this most celebrated of our storytellers?

Around the corner of my old cottage, one summer evening, came a smiling, curiously tentative reddish beard surmounted by a pair of merry eyes.

"Oho!" I said. "It's Farley Mowat!"

"That's who," he said. "How are things?"

I had known he was around. At first I discounted the rumour he was buying a place across the bay from mine. The rumour persisted. The local realtor who sold Farley the place had been sworn to secrecy. As a result, the story made CBC radio. Farley's arrival was imminent. Months went by. Farley was impending. More months. Farley was still impending. Farley was in the Magdalens, in Manitoba, in Ontario. Farley was impending.

The hell he was. I relaxed- The last thing I want is an influx of writers and artists and Deep Thinkers into my corner of Cape Breton. Why share paradise? I have problems enough already, without having to deal diplomatically with prima donnas and dipsomaniacs.

"That's precisely why I came here," said Farley, plunking a bottle of Lemon Hart on the kitchen table. "There's hardly any place left. On the other side of Cape Breton, it's all Winnebagos heading for the Cabot Trail. When I first went to the Magdalens, you never saw a tourist. Last year, there were over a hundred thousand. A hundred thousand! I had tour buses stopping at my gate. This is the home of Farley Mowat, the famous author. Can you imagine it?"

I can imagine it.

"We've taken serious measures. We don't live in the house here, you know. Oh, no! We live in a travel trailer elsewhere on the property. We don't answer the phone. But you know what happened the other day? I just happened to be at the house washing some dishes, which we do once a day. And the phone rang. Like a fool, I answered it. You know who it was?"

I hate to think.

"The Globe and Mail. The bloody Globe and Mail! How the hell they got hold of the phone number I'll never know. By the way, I'll write it down for you."

"Farley, isn't that sort of a contradiction? You come down here to get away from all that, and the first thing you do is seek out the only other full-time writer for miles and give him your unlisted phone number."

"I'm not hiding from you, I'm hiding from the bloody tour buses!"

He was full of questions. How long had we lived here? Were the people mostly Acadians? How did they make their livings? How did they react to having a writer in the village? Did I still have my schooner? An attractive, humorous bit of a man, full of stories and passionate opinions, puffing sporadically on a huge briar, helping himself to the occasional cigarette, radiating good will. Emboldened, Margo confessed she once wrote him a fan letter after reading People of the Deer in a college course. She deplored the way the book had been dismantled and ransacked. And Farley wrote a personal reply.

"Good for me!" Farley grinned. "What'd I say?"

"You said, 'Keep fighting the bastards, they'll never win.'"

"Good for me again!"

At the end of the evening, Margo wondered whether he'd like to sleep away the Lemon Hart, but no, said Farley, he was all right.

"Look," he declared, his square body framed in the doorway, "I'm really glad I came here tonight."

"So are we."

"I wasn't sure what kind of reception I'd get, you know."

"What?"

"Well, younger guys who are struggling along, you know, and I've made it, I don't ever have to write another word. That's why Claire didn't come. We've had some nasty experiences...."

No doubt. No doubt.

 

OVER THE NEXT TWO YEARS, I saw at least three Farley Mowats. No doubt there are more.

Farley In Public is the famous bad boy of Canadian letters: the rum-drinking hell-raiser who rampages into the homes of CBC executives at three in the morning, demanding drink and women; the kilted Roaring Boy who offers his bare bum to the sedate citizens of Orillia, Ontario; the quarrelsome eccentric who makes headlines by being bounced from motels in places like Pic-ton, Ontario, for disorderly opinions about the owner's ancestry. Farley In Public is compounded of lechery, exhibitionism, fish gurry and raw caribou meat. He misbehaves on television, terrorizes bureaucrats, makes the stuffy get sniffy and suggests that the snotty get stuffed. The Only Living Farley Mowat in Captivity and, emphatically, Not Housebroken.

Farley In The Books is the inventor of a form I call the "mowat." A mowat is not exactly fiction, not exactly fact. It follows Mowat's Maxim: "Never let the facts stand in the way of the truth." A mowat is personal experience trimmed and shaped to convey something true and important about the lives of whales and wolves, the destruction of native people, the skill and courage of those who live by the sea. Farley In The Books is a powerful historian, a successful anthologist, a prize-winning humorist, and the author of four excellent novels for young people. Farley In The Books is a spacious, droll, rebellious spirit.

Farley In Private is astute, irreverent and generous. This Farley virtually gives an outboard motorboat to a young neighbour. Farley In Private doesn't drink at all when he's working. "Times like this," observes a rural friend, "Farley looks like he's drinkin' but there's no bubbles in the bottle." Farley In Private belongs to the NDP in three provinces, and gives it time and money. He loves dogs, boats and northern countries. He's a reliable friend. And Farley In Private, I sense, is subject to moods of black despair.

Farley In Public has been deliberately created by Farley In Private to serve the professional needs of Farley In The Books. We all know Farley In Public because he was created to be known. "I have an image of you," I told him. "This funny little kilted rapscallion is dancing and carrying on, paralysed drunk in public places. But he's made out of cardboard. You're standing a couple of yards behind him, pushing him in front of you with a long stick, and smiling quietly to yourself as you watch him drawing all the attention, like a lightening rod."

Farley smiled, those blue eyes twinkling.

"That's pretty close."

"And it's a way of having fame and eluding it, too."

Farley nodded. Fame is a strange thing. For Canadian writers, selling in a market flooded with American and British books, fame is an absolute necessity. The happy few who live on their royalties are adept not only at writing marketable books, but also at marketing them. Here's Templeton on radio, Berton on TV, Charlie Farquharson tickling the Rotary Club, Dennis Lee chant-ing with children. W.O. Mitchell addresses a convention while Margaret Atwood reads at a college. Authors lead a life rather like that of a politician. Farley In Public is a master of the art. Heading out on my first publicity tour, I asked his advice.

"Don't talk about your book," he insisted. "The book is death'. Be outrageous, tell stories, insult the interviewer. Hold your audience. If you deliver a good show, the interviewer's going to be eager to have you back. Talking about the book makes you sound like a cheap promoter. But if you just come across as an interesting person, people will buy the book because they want to know more about you."

Really?

"Absolutely! Refuse to talk about the book!"

It works. Almost every Canadian knows a story about Farley In Public. And in bookstore after bookstore, whole racks are devoted to prominent displays of his work. His publisher's representative in the Maritimes once told me that he owes his job to Mowat. Without Mowat's sales, the Maritimes wouldn't warrant a full-time rep.

But Farley In Public will eventually vanish. A century from now, only Farley In The Books will remain. Farley has written or edited 25 volumes since People of the Deer appeared in 1951. Most of them inhabit a kind of no-man's-land of literature where journalism, scholarship, fiction and autobiography interchange and overlap. Farley's craft fuses them into seamless mowats.

 

FARLEY IN THE BOOKS describes himself as a "saga man"-a storyteller like the anonymous authors of the Norse sagas, who preserve the heroic and poignant experiences of the tribe, creating the mythology which holds the tribe together. He is openly nostalgic for tribal life, with its web of conventions and values so deeply ingrained that they needed no enforcement. Inevitably, he travels beyond the reach of regulation and bureaucracy, always seeking people who sustain this lusty natural anarchy.

Institutions and bureaucracy thus seem to Farley contemptible warts on the shapely bum of humanity; he is, he remarks, "in favour of anything that takes the mickey out of duly constituted authority." Here, indeed, is one of Farley's great themes: the conflict between rigid authorities and the infinitely subtle shades of human practice. No law requires the oldest, most enfeebled Inuk to offer himself as food when starvation threatens; all the Inuit understand the reasons for such terrible sacrifices, and the old one can hardly imagine disobedience to a tradition so brutally realistic. But the white authorities have laws designed not for Inuit life, but for the wildernesses of Toronto and Montreal. When the two collide, the result is inevitably tragic.

Hence, too, the profound sorrow of Mowat's work. Despite his award-winning humour, he is fundamentally a conservative man, in the root sense of the word, and thus, like all conservatives, a sad and angry man. His books are either bitter laments, or celebrations of a heroism which no longer meets with honour. He celebrates nameless heroes, men and women and other animals who confront death and do what they have to do in the teeth of their own mortality: the native people, the deep sea tugboat men, the Vikings, the Atlantic fishermen, the trappers, the infantrymen of Ontario.

"Mankind," Farley said in his first book, is "the only living thing that could deliberately bring down a world in senseless slaughter." He was reacting in sick horror to his war experience. But war is only the most spectacular of civilized man's barbarities. Equally destructive is what Mowat calls "the bitch goddess of technical progress," the goddess of a species which disregards the truth that man lives on the land, by the land, from the land.

Farley In The Books finds his true ancestors in the Old Testament. "For leaders of this people cause them to err, and they that are led of them are destroyed," rages the prophet Isaiah. "The earth is utterly broken down; and it shall fall, and not rise again."

In the end, Farley In The Books is writing about the most grand and terrible theme one can imagine: the end of humanity. He is the prophet of nature's revenge. "1 have heard an oracle," rages the prophet Mowat. "If we who have brought such massive discord and such wasting sickness to this planet cannot bring an end to our blind orgy of destruction, then, most surely, shall we perish from the earth."

Farley In Private is Farley In The Books, and a good deal more beside. He is a great-great-nephew of Oliver Mowat, a Father of Confederation. He is the father of Sandy Mowat, a merry, elfin young man who recently stood for Parliament in the Toronto Rosedale riding as candidate for the Apathetic Party. "Sandy's theory," Farley explained solemnly, "is that there are more apathetic voters than there are Liberals, Conservatives and New Democrats put together."

Farley In Private lives with his second wife, Claire, generally in Port Hope, Ontario, or in Cape Breton. For several years, they have shared their lives with two black water dogs, Edward and Lily-named, I suspect, for the Mowats' old friends, Their Excellencies The Schreyers. Last year Lily had a litter of pups, which were so fetching-well, now there are three water dogs living with the Mowats.

Claire met Farley in St. Pierre, during the long string of misadventures chronicled in The Boat Who Wouldn't Float. Ever since, she has been part of his migratory life, living in Burgeo, Newfoundland, in Ontario and the Magdalen Islands; in Manitoba, where Farley briefly served the Schreyer government as an adviser on northern development; in Iceland and Siberia and....

"We're an aberrant species," he continues. "We're like a cancer in nature. And writers, my friend, are an aberration within the aberration. Writers don't belong anywhere. You can live a hundred years in this village and love it with all your soul, and you'll never belong. You have this insane compulsion to write things down and to tell the truth, and sooner or later you're bound to write down truths that the people around you can't stand. And they'll wheel on you and destroy you."

Farley speaks here from an open wound. One night he talked about it, about how the Mowats lived seven years in Burgeo, and how they loved the place. About the petty tyrannies, and the closeness of people, and the unexpected eloquence and kindnesses. About Claire's notes on how things changed when the tele- phone came in. And then Farley got involved with the whale that came ashore, and brought the whale to the world's attention. But some of the younger men thought it sporting to shoot it, and when it died, the outside world condemned all the people of Burgeo as savages.

And Burgeo, stung, turned on Farley the publicist.

"Do you have any idea how it feels," asked Farley, very quietly, "to have your closest friends, people you've known and loved for years, turn away and refuse to speak to you when they meet you on the street?

"You don't belong here!" Farley cried, seeing in me the romantic refugee he once was himself, willing me not to repeat his terrible misconception. "You'll never belong here! And don't you ever forget that, because someday it's going to happen to you!"

Occasionally I glimpse other Farleys, ones I will never really know. Farley, the devoted but difficult husband, for instance. Claire is a perceptive and lovely woman who might well have had an outstanding career as a writer or artist. Instead she has usually been seen as an adjunct of Farley-a difficult role for someone with her own pride and her own imperatives. She keeps extensive journals, which Farley plunders mercilessly, and for some time she has been working on a book of her own. But-Mrs. Farley Mowat? They like and trust each other. But there must be days....

Farley, the son. Angus Mowat was a leathery, whiskery, opinionated Scot, a great librarian, a formidable outdoorsman. He sailed all his life-even, miraculously, in Saskatchewan. He scorned mediocrity, championed good library service and, when well into old age, set up housekeeping with a woman thirty years his junior. Farley blew into my workshop one January night with his adopted brother John, a full-blooded Mohawk transmuted into an Ontario banker. Farley is "amazed at the quality of the workmanship" of the boat I'm working on, but I know its many flaws: gaping joints, poor finishing, sags in the varnish.

"Nobody's ever going to notice those but you," scoffed Far-ley. "Hell, nobody's even going to be able to see half of them. That bit along the keel is going to be under the floorboards."

"I know, I know, but...."

"Yeah, sure, you know it's there," Farley snorted. "Who does he sound like, John? Haven't you heard this crap before?"

"Yeah," John grinned, running a finger over the wood. "He sounds just exactly like Angus."

Al Purdy wrote a poem about the loving care with which Angus rebuilt a 60-year-old boat on the Bay of Quinte. Once. I asked Farley why he didn't write novels. "My father wanted me to be a novelist in the style of Conrad," he said bluntly, "but that wasn't my route. He was always disappointed in me because I wouldn't-couldn't-do that."

Farley may be the dominant prose writer in the country. His books sell briskly in New York and Moscow. To many of his countrymen, Farley Mowat is the only Canadian writer known by name.

"My father was always disappointed in me."

I felt a flush of anger at Angus. And yet, all the same, if a man had to choose a father he could do worse.

Farley sits at the kitchen table, reading aloud the final pages of the new book. The book germinated when he ran across his own letters from overseas and thought he might write a wry and astringent mowat about youth and maturity. Instead it proved to be a ravaging study of fear. Glasses low on his nose, he reads too quickly, shy about his work and its reception. But the images of the pounded, churned Italian countryside, the slithering tanks and ruined men, the worm of fear: These are so strong, so vivid, that they overmaster even the author's anxiety. As the last words hang in the air, Farley is crying. He's not alone.

"Well, kids," Farley says, with false heartiness, "I guess my long drought is over."

Welcome back, saga man.

Farley suffers from Canada's small-minded resentment of flamboyance and achievement, but some of us know his worth. "From the day I first met Farley back in 1956, he's been my closest friend," says novelist Harold Horwood, "I have the greatest respect and affection for him on every level, as a man and an artist and a public figure whose public stances have been right all along the line."

His public stances. The essential Farley Mowat is the saga man and prophet, Canada's Cassandra. Nature never loses: That's the truth. And that truth is what Farley Mowat's life is all about. He sits at the kitchen table, the sunlight glinting in his coppery beard, staring sombrely out over the green land and the glittering sea. His sidelit face could be chiselled from stone. "Nobody who watches the way human beings behave can possibly doubt it," he concludes. "We're going to destroy ourselves and our environment. And the world will be better for our going."

 

This article is also featured in Silver Donald Cameron's book, Sterling Silver.


Back to Articles and Essays