Munroe Scott

Excerpts From Always An Updraft: a writer remembers

Munroe Scott

From Chapter 1: A Briefing

Let's be honest. I'm not writing this, nor are you reading it, because either of us has any illusions about my being some icon of CanLit, or CanFilm, or any of the other Cans. I'm just a survivor.... I've seldom regretted being freelance, and I recommend it, not so much as a way of making a living, but as a state of being. Maybe some younger dreamers out there will read and take heart. Throw off the yoke of corporate drudgery and strike out into the creative unknown. Of course, the unknown they will face is not the same as the one that faced me. So rapid is the pace of change that my account should be taken for what it is, not a guide book for the present but personal recollections of a bygone era.

If you're still with me, let's go journeying.


From Chapter 11: Africa

Our arrival is greeted with friendly enthusiasm and the kudu horn invitation becomes even more persistent. Soon the village is dancing, and before long we are dancing too. I am not a dancer ... but here it is not a matter of being a dancer, one must dance. The feet dance, the soul dances. The drums demand it.




soap stone carving

From Chapter 13: The Strange World of Rankin Inlet

We plunge down a narrow, tunnel-like snow corridor into Daniel's house. This is not an igloo, it is a one-room frame house that just happens to be totally covered with snow. Daniel, a round-faced, smiling man with an open and direct manner, seems very pleased to show us carvings. I negotiate for one that stands about eight inches high and depicts a hunter striding along dragging an enormous sea otter over his shoulder...

After I have closed my bargain with Daniel he retreats into a corner and roots around in a deep dunnage bag. I have no idea what he is doing but while he's doing it I ask Ralph for some advice.

"Would it be all right for me to ask Daniel to step outside for a picture?"

Although I am carrying a 35mm Asahi Pentax camera I don't have flash gear with me. There is also another problem. "I don't want to intrude," I explain. "I don't know how he feels about pictures."

While I am engaged in making sure I don't commit any cultural indiscretions Daniel has been tossing things out of his seemingly bottomless dunnage bag. Apparently he finds what he wants, because he resurfaces, comes across the room, puts the soapstone hunter in my hand, and pushes me gently backwards into a corner. He then backs away about ten feet and, using a state-of-the art flash camera, takes my picture. I've got my trophy, for cash, and now Daniel has his, for free.


From Chapter 14: On the Rim of Tomorrow

The years go by. Taiwan holds democratic elections that abandon the fiction that the parliamentarians represent mainland ridings, Korea's economic vibrancy earns it the nickname "the sleeping tiger," Japan is one of the world's leading commercial powers, and the People's Republic of China resumes control of Hong Kong. In the global marketplace, Tomorrow has arrived.

But what I trust will never change is faith in the calming wisdom of the Taoist scholar, the meaning of the sacrifice made by the Buddhist butcher god, and the hope implicit in the figure of the lovely Goddess of Mercy rising from a flower rooted in mud. For more than forty years the two gods and the scholar have had a place of honour in my home, where they remind me that their people have thought of my people as barbarians.


Munroe and Ian Fleming

From Chapter 17: From James Bond to Bell Island

Mr. Fleming is an easy man to talk to. He and I perch casually on the deep windowsill and the interview goes along quite nicely. Once, when I ask about some obscure point, he says, "My, you have read my work, haven't you." If he only knew....

A small songbird lands between us on the windowsill and twitters away. Mr. Fleming gently acknowledges its presence, which is a nice touch from a man whose fictional hero is usually up to his eyebrows in blood, broads, and booze. He explains that he's very fond of birds and that he named his hero, the guy with the licence to kill, after the author of his favourite bird books. He has, however, never met James Bond the bird lover....

Before long the inevitable happens. Paul's camera jams. It's not the cameraman's fault. These things happen to documentary crews—an occupational hazard....

This time no sooner has the camera stopped than we hear the doorbell, and in a moment the maid comes in.

"Mr. Fleming, sir, there's a man asking for you. He says his name is James Bond."

Yes. It is James Bond. The real James Bond. The ornithologist James Bond.


From Chapter 20: Drama at the CBC

A good case can be made that Canadiana is being selectively preserved according to the preconceptions and misconceptions of bureaucrats who have their roots elsewhere. As Canadian icons, the fictitious and highly irrelevant Whiteoaks are in, but the Redcoats and farmers from the National Archives are out. ...

One day a rueful CBC employee tells me, privately, that a confidential internal memo from on high has ordered TV drama producers not to commission any scripts that don't have the potential for sale in the United States. If this is true it is a travesty of the first order, a negation of the noble aim of telling Canadian stories to Canadians, and it is also an insult to American viewers. It is an insult that spreads throughout the Canadian entertainment film industry. The Brits carved their way into the global film world after the Second World War by being very British. The Australians won international acclaim by being themselves. We Canadians camouflage our cities, change our street names, subvert our stories, and generally sell our birthright in order to slide incognito into the American market. Eventually, of course, as accountants and investors take over the reins of internationally co-produced films, the rot becomes more widespread, but it is Canadians who are leading the way to cultural suicide.


From Chapter 21: Centennial Year

As the ceremony begins, the brother and sister are carried from the house into the quadrangle. They are seated on canopied litters carried at shoulder height. Their costumes are vibrant with golds and reds and they wear helmet-like crowns. To the uninitiated, like myself, it has all the appearance of a royal wedding. The couple step from the litters to a raised platform, where a priest presides.

The priest's function is to release potentially evil spirits from the supplicants' bodies. He does this by using a chisel and a hammer to knock the corners off their front teeth. This is a "tooth-filing" ceremony!

Suddenly I am back to another reality.

It is little more than a year and a half since Bali and much of the rest of Indonesia was running with blood. There was fear at the time of a Communist coup. Communism, by definition, is atheist. Modern Indonesia is founded on five principles, of which the first and foremost is "Belief in God." A mere eighteen months ago, when the army was taking over during the anti-communist struggle, religion and politics became dangerous bedfellows. It was a sentence of death not to have a religion.


From Chapter 24: Making Up Diefenbaker

This first morning of filming I'm very tense. So is the Chief. Wilf's camera has just begun to roll when I realize the Chief is perspiring. I call "cut," and move forward with a kleenex. As I reach out to dab his brow, he skewers me with his blue gimlet eyes. Those eyes are famous in Canada from coast to coast. They have enthralled fans, impaled jurors, terrified recalcitrant backbenchers, and intimidated cabinet ministers. Now those eyes have me full in their scopes.

"You did that Pearson thing," he says.

I freeze, hand outstretched, kleenex almost touching his forehead.

"You did that Pearson thing."

It's not a question. Could it be an accusation? Those eyes have me pinned like a butterfly to cork. Perhaps the Chief did not approve of my editorial decisions. "Thing" is not a nice word.

No, there's more. "You did that Pearson thing," he has just said, and there can be no doubt he is referring to Mike's TV memoirs, First Person Singular, but now he continues. "Who was he talking to? Down a well?"

I am standing here, frozen, with a kleenex in my extended hand, and he is sticking a knife into my heart. He is demolishing my proudest achievement, an entire memoirs series crafted without the intrusion of either a host or a "voice of God" narrator.

Apparently Mr. Diefenbaker had been not impressed. "Who was he talking to? Down a well?"

I have no answer to either "the Pearson thing" or to this.

I unfreeze, decide to ignore the question, and simply ask, "May I touch you?" The Chief laughs. I dab the sweat from his brow and filming gets underway. But he is a mischievous devil and I know it. His timing is impeccable. He has waited for just the right moment to let me know that he knows all about me and that I had damned well better use a different technique when I structure his memoirs.



Taj Mahal

From Chapter 29: Global Glimpses Along the McClure Trail

Finally, weary with a surfeit of crowded buses, appalling public sanitary facilities, questionable "fast" food, and magnificent architecture, we sit on a low stone fence to await departure time. We are surrounded, as usual and as everywhere, by vendors, all extolling, exhorting, pleading. We wave them off and they go. All but one. He is a somewhat nondescript-looking fellow in his twenties with a fist full of equally nondescript souvenirs. Ian and I have an agreement not to burden ourselves with junk souvenirs, anywhere—not even in front of Agra Fort or the Taj Mahal. I tell the vendor to desist.

He refuses to go. He keeps thrusting his wares at us. He exhorts us in nasal, whining pidgin English to buy his supposedly charm-laden bric-a-brac. He insists, he importunes, he pesters. Ian asks him to go. I order him to go. Later I find out from Bob McClure that there are Hindi swear words that let vendors know you mean what you say, but unfortunately our missionary contacts have not seen fit to educate us. Finally, in weary desperation, I shake my fist under the guy's nose and, lacking Hindi, use some Anglo-Saxon.

The fellow's face relaxes into a smile. He perches on the wall beside us.

"I say, where are you chaps from?" The pidgin English has miraculously been replaced by what strikes me as Brahmin-Oxford.

We tell him who we are and why we are in India, and he tells us that he is attending university, what he is studying, and what he hopes to do. I offer to buy a souvenir. "You don't want this junk," he says.

We visit for the remaining minutes before our bus arrives. We wish him good luck and he wishes us bon voyage. As we take our seats we hear a familiar, somewhat nasal, downtrodden, whining voice exhorting boarding passengers to buy charm-laden souvenirs. If I am learning anything in life it is that few things in this round world are exactly what they appear to be.


From Chapter 34: The Age of Aquarius

Why have we as a nation learned to idolize Bethune, who was in China for 21 months, while we know nothing at all about a whole host of Canadians who devoted their lives to China?

McClure's own father went to China in 1888. He not only founded a hospital but taught an entire generation of Chinese doctors. He translated medical texts into Chinese and laid foundations in pathology that Chinese doctors are building upon to this day. Dr. William McClure? Who's he?

And what Canadian ever heard of Dr. James Menzies, Dr. Percy Leslie, Drs. Gordon and Ernest Struthers, Dr. Mary Grant Atak, Dr. Helen Craw Mitchell? The list can go on and on and on.

Bob McClure is a writer's dream because he enjoyed adventure. The Age of the Warlords, the Second Revolution, the Sino-Japanese War, the Civil War, the rise of Communism, all provided a gung-ho surgeon with enough adventure for a lifetime.

But Dr. Richard Brown, a Canadian Anglican, was no slouch when it came to adventure. Battle-field surgery or night time ventures through Japanese lines, it was all breakfast and dinner to Dick Brown. He even worked for several months in the Shansi caves with Bethune. Ever hear of Dick Brown?

Here in Canada, Bethune made an enormous contribution to thoracic surgery and to the treatment of TB. In Spain he made an indelible mark in the area of battlefield blood transfusions. Every time we go to a mobile blood clinic we are indebted to Bethune.

But we idolize him for his 21 months in China!

Those months were heroic, and he died of them, but in the epic story of Canadian doctors in China they were a mere blip in a paragraph ... but history means nothing to us.

...We Canadians are an insecure people who still have to be told by others what is good, or admirable, or heroic and who, by and large, have surrendered our own values and judgement. We have even given others the mandate to create our heroes. We are victims of self inflicted amnesia, dedicated to the betrayal of our past.



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