ANNE OF GREEN GABLES AND THE DEATH OF ‘GILBERT BLYTHE’

statements_524456 Social media reaction to the unexpected death this month of Canadian actor Jonathan Crombie, who so memorably played Gilbert Blythe in Anne of Green Gables, came almost entirely from the distaff side. Not too many guys were fans of the movie, I guess. Well, I’m a fan. A big one.

Like many of my gender, it seems, I was originally pretty dismissive of the whole Anne of Green Gables thing. Who cares about the adventures of some spunky 11-year old orphan girl in turn-of-the-20th century Prince Edward Island? She hates her red hair. Boo hoo. Bring on Anna Karenina.

But my mind was changed when I went to what I had hoped would be a party at a friend’s house, only to discover all the women heading into the TV room to watch Anne of Green Gables. Thinking they couldn’t possibly be serious, I tried cracking a few jokes. They told me to be quiet. So I reluctantly sat down to watch, too. Of course, much to my surprise, once I parked my prejudices by the door, I was charmed. No violence, except for Anne smashing her slate over poor Gilbert’s head, no sex, no deafening sound effects. Just a tender, perfectly made movie, with a superb cast.

Could anyone have been better than Megan Follows as Anne Shirley, Colleen Dewhurst as Marilla and Richard Farnsworth as dear Matthew, the loveliest man on the face of the earth? Then, there was Jonathan Crombie as Gilbert Blythe, the sweet-natured soul tortured by his love for the spirited but flinty Anne. Opinion was divided. He didn’t fit everyone’s idea of Gilbert from the book, and at times, he did appear a bit awkward on screen, a tad too old for the part (18 when the movie was filmed). Others found him perfect. Over time, however, since this is a movie that effortlessly absorbs repeated viewings, even those of us who were at first reluctant have grown to cherish him, too, along with everything else about this fine Canadian film. Anne-07 There’s much to be said for a movie that tells a good story, that’s well-acted and gently escapist enough to let you forget about that increasingly bad old world outside. It’s also unapologetically Canadian, in the good sense of that fine word. So, if you’re like I used to be and still dismissive of Anne of Green Gables, now’s the time to give it a whirl, surrender to its charm, and mourn Jonathan Crombie. He was 48, but forever young as Gilbert Blythe.

Here is a full length obituary of Crombie from Saturday’s Globe and Mail: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/arts/television/dreamy-gilbert-blythe-actor-jonathan-crombie-loved-the-stage/article24124077/

And this is an excellent piece from the Guardian that praises the character Gilbert Blythe as superior to many other rejected mail suitors in literature : http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/apr/24/jonathan-crombie-dead-gilbert-blythe-novel-anne-of-green-gables

P.S. A sequel, Anne of Avonlea, was pretty fair, as sequels go, but the less said about Anne of Green Gables: The Continuing Story the better. Anne and Gilbert don’t belong on the battlefields of World War One.

A further personal postscript. My aunt loved Anne of Green Gables and Canada’s most famous author, Lucy Maud Montgomery, her entire life. She read all the Anne and Avonlea books. Having grown up on a farm in the Fraser Valley, the bucolic splendor of Montgomery’s PEI gave her nothing but pleasure. As noted above, I kind of sniffed at this “defect” in my beloved Auntie Gret with that knowing smugness of someone pleased with himself for being into “serious” literature. Don’t need no stinkin’ girlie stuff! But was won over by the movie.

UnknownMy mother, a high school English teacher, was slow to warm to Anne of Green Gables, too. But my aunt’s view had prevailed  by the time she compiled her pioneering textbook in 1973 with the pulsating title, Canadian Literature, Two Centuries in Prose. Believe it or not, this was the first book designed to introduce high school and college students to our own country’s literature in one distinct volume. And she did not hesitate to include an excerpt from Anne of Green Gables, defending it as far more than a “children’s classic”, with its universal Cinderella theme (Jane Eyre, Pygmalion) and particularly Canadian motif of nostalgia for a world of peace and protection.

Later, we all shared the joys of the long-running, spin-off CBC series, Road to Avonlea, that introduced us to the remarkable Sarah Polley. The series also featured fine Canadian actors R.H. Thompson, Cedric Smith, Lally Cadeau, and of course, the late Jackie Burroughs as the indomitable Aunt Hetty. Sure, it wasn’t The Sopranos or The X-Files, or anything like that, but it was well-made, entertainment that everyone in our diverse family could enjoy. We were in China, my brother’s family was in Thunder Bay, Auntie Gret was in Burnaby, and my mom and sister were in good old Newmarket. Watching it made us all feel together, despite our vast separations. There’s a lot to be said for that. (My brother’s step-daughter loved Sarah Polley in the series. When she heard that young Sarah lived with her father in Aurora, just south of Newmarket, she and my sister ferretted out her address to say ‘hi’, but no one was home.)

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Yet the author who created all this enchantment, Lucy Maud Montgomery, had such a sad personal life, herself. She made an unfortunate, late marriage to a minister who suffered from deteriorating mental health. Despite the world-wide fame of Anne of Green Gables, such were the times that Montgomery loyally followed her husband to his modest church posting in Uxbridge, not that far from Newmarket. Their two children disappointed her. Acutely lonely and battling her own depression, she tried to escape by churning out more and more Anne-style books set in Prince Edward Island. They sold well, but there was only one Anne of Green Gables.

Years after she died in 1942, her personal journals were published. They sold well, attracting many new readers with her Unknownfrank, adult descriptions of her struggles with life and the hardships of being a woman, long before feminism. My mother and my aunt read every word. When Auntie Gret came east for a visit, she and her sister went prowling around the wilds of Kettleby and mighty Zephyr, looking for the manse where Lucy Maud lived with her difficult husband. Sort of like us younger folk searching out Dylan landmarks in Hibbing.

When my aunt was forced to move into an assisted-care facility, she took only one book with her. It was, of course, her life-long companion, Anne of Green Gables.

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THE BEAT WENT ON….IN NORTH VANCOUVER

I met William Burroughs once. It was during my magical year in Paris (sigh). I’d read in Libération that morning that the legendary icon of the Beats would be at the City of Light’s annual Salon du Livre at the Grand Palais. I thought ‘what the hell’, and went down to catch a glimpse of the famous man, who had been such a part of the Kerouac/Ginsberg Beat generation of writers. In On the Road, the book that changed my life, Burroughs appears as Old Bull Lee. An insatiable consumer of drugs, Burroughs fatally shot his wife during a crazed William Tell re-enactment in Mexico, hung out in Tangiers where the less said about his proclivity for underage boys the better, and found time to write such underground classics as Junkie and Naked Lunch, turned into a movie by the strange David Cronenberg. (My parents actually had a copy of Naked Lunch, which neither they nor I ever read…well, as a randy teenager, I did thumb through the book looking for naughty bits. I was disappointed.)

The more he aged and mellowed, however, the more Burroughs was celebrated. By the time the Salon du Livre rolled around, he was 76. Heading up the stairs of the Grand Palais, I spotted an old guy in a trench coat also heading for the entrance. He was alone. Could it be, I wondered. “Excuse me, are you William Burroughs, by any chance?” In a gentle voice, he politely replied that indeed he was. I said it was an honour to meet him and shook his hand. He was very nice about the whole thing. So I then asked: “Do you sign autographs?” Yes, he did. I had a small poster advertising the Salon du Livre. He took my pen and signed it. I knew I should have asked him about Kerouac, but heck, his appearance was so unexpected that I was just kind of awestruck. A bit later, I went by his book table, surrounded by a gaggle of gawkers. I didn’t join them. I’d already had my William Burroughs moment.

Of course, Mick Jagger once met him, too.

Rolling Stones & Jagger, Mick & Burroughs, William S. & Warhol,

This memory came flooding back last weekend, as I took in the penultimate day of the remarkable collection of Allen Ginsberg photos on display at North Vancouver’s Presentation House. Starting in 1953 when Ginsberg bought a used Kodak for 13 bucks, his homespun photos provide a wonderfully intimate look at the Beats both before and after they were famous. Kerouac, Burroughs, their wild, tragic muse Neal Cassady, Gregory Corso, and of course, Ginsberg, himself. There were many other photos from Ginsberg’s life after the heyday of the Beats, but for me, fascinated by this small group of literary earth-shakers for so long, they paled compared to what I really wanted to see.

As I wandered through the exhibition, I was reminded once again, of course, what unhappy fates so many of them had. Kerouac, bloated, alcoholic and railing at the hippies, left us at 47. Cassady, featured in On the Road as the unforgettable Dean Moriarty, died a sad death four days short of his 42nd birthday, passed out by some railway tracks in Mexico. Ginsberg was just 71 when he succumbed to liver cancer. Burroughs, who ingested more drugs of more variety than East German swimmers and Lance Armstrong combined, was the grand exception. The Keith Richard of the Beats, he survived to 83.

Here are some of the photos I particularly liked, re-snapped by my trusty iPhone.

I love this shot of a young, vibrant Neal Cassady, under a San Francisco movie marquee advertising The Wild One. He’s with his girlfriend at the time, the troubled Natalie Jackson. She later committed suicide.

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Hard to top this photo of Jack Kerouac, in Tangiers, 1957. A good-looking fellow, wasn’t he?

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And here he is just seven years later, the last time he visited Ginsberg’s New York apartment, “yawning with mortal horror,” as Ginsberg wrote in his caption.

IMG_2570There’s something of looming tragedy in this photo of a manic Neal Cassady, who famously drove the bus for Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters across Amerika, ingesting acid all the way, at the rural retreat of LSD guru/advocate Timothy Leary. That’s Leary, also grinning away.

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And just for literary history buffs, this is the desk in his small San Francisco apartment, where Allen Ginsberg wrote his epic, transformative poem, Howl, in the summer of 1955 (the year “da Bums” finally won the World Series), while listening much of the time to Bach (on vinyl!).

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There were also photos of Carl Solomon, the mental patient who inspired Howl, Ginsberg’s father in his final days, an impossibly hunky Neal Cassady, showing just why everyone, both the Beats and women, were perpetually in love with him, a dinner at the dacha of well-known Russian poet Yvgeny Yevtushenko, plus, of all people, Jello Biafra, leader and founder of the much-loved, outrageous punk group, Dead Kennedys. And on and on. A great show.

I further appreciated the exhibition’s recall of the fabled Vancouver Poetry Conference in 1963, a month-long summer gathering at UBC, attended by Ginsberg and other tradition-shattering poets such as Denise Levertov, Robert Creeley, Charles Olson and Robert Duncan. Well-known locals Fred Wah, recently Canada’s poet laureate, and some baseball playing young fella named George Bowering were also there.

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As l left North Vancouver for the overseas trip back to Vancouver, there was a jaunt to my step, privileged to have been transported, through these and many other evocative photographs, back to the world of the Beats, for all its sorrows and unhappy endings. They changed the world.

WHEN TOURS GO BAD….

Destination: sweet, verdant, diminutive, demilitarized Costa Rica. I hadn’t been for more than 30 years, when being an 500px-Congo11independent traveller meant a toughened bum from endless bumps on jarring, ramshackle buses. But the sight of a storied DC-3 drifting over the hills and swooping down on the tiny, deserted runway of Quepos to carry us back to San José was worth every ache and pain. I felt like Errol Flynn in one of those jungle movies. That was then.

There were no DC-3’s or local buses on this trip. Since some friends were coming along, we opted for a package tour, organized by a British adventure tour company. It was far from luxury, but it exacted a good chunk of change, nevertheless, and promised access to top sites, exotic birds, and beach. Not everything went well. I like a good whine when I know about. (Rest assured i loved the trip, just having fun with the stuff that went wrong. Not to be taken too seriously.…)

  1. Black Top cab to the airport didn’t arrive for 25 minutes. When unapologetic driver finally showed up, he refused to take us to the airport! “It’s the end of my shift,” he said. Unbelievable. We called another taxi and still made our flight. But never again, Black Top.
  1. We were booked into the Tournon Hotel, on the fringes of a dodgy area of San José. I soon thought of it as the Tournoff Hotel. Cheerless. Sad, intermittent shower. Far worse was the din after dark. Just outside our room, cars and motorcycles roared by all night. Sleep, perchance to toss and turn.
  2. On night number two, the wee small hours were even noisier. Traffic streaming by. Then the sound of an accident. Bang! Angry voices. Arguments. Shouting. Not long afterwards: “Pow!” Gunshot? Blown tire? We didn’t check. More yelling. The overnight symphony was capped by earsplitting music from someone’s “ghetto blaster” at 4 a.m. At least we had something to talk about over our pretty-awful breakfast of ice-cold camembert served with broken crackers.
  3. As we gathered to board our mini-bus for the outlying charms of Costa Rica, we discovered the tour company couldn’t count. There weren’t the 12 voyagers on the company’s list, but 16 of us. Head-scratching by the tour guide, delays, repacking of luggage on the roof instead of inside the mini-bus. Full-up seating. Oh well, they were only out by 33 per cent. Math is hard.
  4. By the time we left, it was raining. Hard. Off we went to Poas Volcano, still active and featuring one of the largest craters in the world, plus a pristine crater lake. This is what we saw.

P1100351Here’s our happy group, actually chilled, besides being wet and miserable. The tropics, you say? P1100349 6. Overnight at La Fortuna. Because of the numbers snafu, our room was at the back of the rather nice motel, our only view one of whitewashed walls. Because chairs were put outside all those rooms facing the lush, tropical vegetation fronting the motel, we had chairs, too, for a delightful view of the wall, 10 feet away. 7. Next day we hiked a trail for a view of the spectacular, coned Arenal Volcano, which erupted in 1968 after hundreds of years of dormancy, destroying three villages and killing 87 people. One of Costa Rica’s most iconic images was enshrouded in thick clouds. This was as much of it as we saw.

  1. P11004608. After a long, afternoon drive over some devilish, “oh my god” roads, we crawled into the marvellous rainforest area of Monteverde. The rain stopped. There was even a rainbow. Our reward? Demotion from the two-star lodgings listed on our agenda into the rustic, one star, Jardines Hotel. No explanation. The sign was not encouraging.
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Ours was fine, but rooms for some others in our group were so bad – windowless, containing bunk beds and not much else –alternative accommodation had to be found for them in town. Forceful, overnight winds rattled the more rickety rooms, blowing one person’s medical bag, complete with her diabetes kit, off the sink counter into the toilet bowl.

  1. Still tired, still grumpy, we travelled to our morning destination, the justly-celebrated Monteverde Rainforest. The tour company’s local agents failed to forward our pre-paid entrance fees, forcing us to fork out $17 from our own pockets. We did get the money back – the morning of our departure.
  2. Foregoing the adventuresome Zip Line, we opted for the more sedate Cloud Walk featuring hanging bridges through the tops of the rain forest. By the end, we were drenched by the driving, persistent rain. “Well, they do call it a rain forest,” a sodden somebody said. (Disclosure: despite the downpour, we loved every moment of it. Really a marvellous part of the world.)
  3. 11081094_10155325325155137_7716737726139166047_nDespite all the ballyhoo and those hundreds of postcards of colourful amphibians,  we saw no frogs. Not one.

Oh, all right. Even I can’t winge forever about a trip to a place as beautiful as Costa Rica. We saw many, truly wonderful birds, lots of wild monkeys, a three-toed sloth, an anteater, iguanas, crocodiles and a zillion vultures. The beaches, which we hit after the rainforest, were fabulous, and the living was easy. It’s always nice to be in a country with a national public health system and no army. “Pura Vida.” But next time, no tour company. Our way home was eased by the magical appearance of the world’s first rock video: Bob Dylan doing Subterranean Homesick Blues  (with Allan Ginsberg in the background), amid the humdrum dining atmosphere of the LA International Airport. “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows…” P1100970