I first met Farley at a McClelland & Stewart fall book launch in the 1980s. He was wearing a kilt and I went up to him and remarked that he was wearing a Sutherland tartan. Nonsense, he said. He was wearing the Mowat Modern. The Sutherland has a field of deeper blue. A common error, he said. He wanted to know why I was familiar with the Sutherland tartan in the first place. It was my mother’s family tartan, which I wore for a number of years taking highland dance lessons. He was genuinely engaged and did not dismiss me for being mistaken on my opening gambit.
When Farley Mowat came into the studio, every sense was heightened. I never knew what I was in for, except that it would surprise, whether it was a funny story about the history of what is worn over and under a kilt or a sustained cri de coeur about Canada’s stuck-in-glue lethargy on matters environmental. It helped to have a dram of something standing by, especially if it was an early morning interview. It never clouded him or stopped him from using words like evanescent, for instance, to describe the fading firmness of cottonwood fluff as bedding when he was out camping as a boy.
He wrote books that made me want to read them. I could hear his voice. I still have a dog in my life because of reading The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be when I was a kid. And No Birds Sang is as fine and devastating a memoir of the Second World War as they come. I will miss his passion. He was a character, and characters in CanLit are evanescent.
Shelagh Rogers hosts CBC Radio’s The Next Chapter.