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Globe and Mail columnist Elizabeth Renzetti. (Randy Quan For The Globe and Mail)
Globe and Mail columnist Elizabeth Renzetti. (Randy Quan For The Globe and Mail)

Farley Mowat said what he meant, and loudly Add to ...

In 1998, I went to interview Farley Mowat at his house in Port Hope, Ont., and he greeted me carrying a tumbler of pale pink liquid. Pale pink, mind you: Not the deep ruby of a genteel, downtown cranberry-and-vodka, but the delicate blush of a drink that was mostly the good stuff, with a drop of juice in there for respectability.

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Or am I misremembering? Embellishing? Was it perhaps just a normal cocktail that’s grown in my imagination to match the size of the personality of the man holding it? I like to think that Mr. Mowat, if he were still here with us, would shrug and say, “Who cares? Does it make a better story?” As he liked to say, loudly and in public, “Fornicate the facts!” Except he didn’t use the word “fornicate,” because he did not work for a family newspaper.

So there he was, 77 years old, as small as a minute (as my grandmother would say) and as big as all outdoors, holding a family-sized cocktail and asking: “Would you like one?” That was not a multiple-choice question, and he went off to make me a beverage. Only one man has ever made me a stiffer drink, and I married him.

You may think that all writers are topers who like to get drunk with their journalist inquisitors, but it’s not the case. Mostly, they are clever but circumspect, understandably afraid of saying the wrong thing and being flayed with the knife of public indignation. Not Mr. Mowat, who was the last of his tribe, merry, mischievous, outspoken and possessing a quality that Sicilians call menefreghismo, or not giving a damn.

Of course, he did give a damn: About the critics who said he was a fabulist, a Paul Bunyan of the Arctic, who stretched the truth till it squealed. I was there to interview him about his latest book, The Farfarers, in which he proposed that the Albans, a hardy race of walrus-hunting Scots, were the first Europeans to reach North America. This theory was greeted with polite silence in the halls of science.

The fact that it was woven out of thin historical cloth did not stop the book becoming a bestseller, as most of Mr. Mowat’s previous 30-some books had. Some people grumbled about the scholarship, but there was no Twitter to grind his claims to dust, no army of bloggers waiting to pounce on any inauthentic account. That was just 16 years ago, but it feels quaintly antique; we tended to let demi-truths pass by in those days. It’s a more binary time now: We are bounded in a landscape of ones and zeros.

And that landscape is filled with public figures who are quieter, less interesting and often meaner (but only in private). Mr. Mowat was “a shy man who often pretended to be otherwise,” his biographer James King wrote. What a performance that resulted in! Here was a man who would flip up his kilt and fling off his underpants, and who once asked the king of Norway if he needed a court jester. “I have plenty of those around me,” the king replied.

I went to visit him, quaking at the prospect of meeting the man who’d written two of my favourite childhood books, Lost in the Barrens and The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be (which was almost called Puberty on the Prairie, if you can imagine). I wanted to ask him about the persona he’d created, this Rumpelstiltskin of CanLit. And he had a fascinating answer, which involved the marketing skills of his friend, publisher and co-bon vivant Jack McClelland: “I think we were having one of our liquid lunches, and we reeled back toward the office. Jack said, ‘You have to present an image.’ So I listened and I worked out my image: a kilt-wearing, swaggering, mooning, drinking Farley Mowat. It was always a cardboard cutout, and it was very useful. I could carry it in front of me, and be my own self behind it. I don’t need it any more.”

I’ve often wondered, in these days following his death, whether it was cartoon Farley or real Farley who made the inflammatory statement calling the seal hunt “a holocaust,” and wrote an entire book about the brutality of his Newfoundland neighbours using a dying whale for target practice. Real Farley, I suspect.

Journalists knew he was one of the few you could rely on for a good quote, a real quote that sounded as if it came from a real person, not an algorithm produced by a team of bureaucrats in Gatineau. We’ve lost one of the last giants who said what he meant, loudly.

A week before he died, the CBC phoned him with the news that WiFi would be introduced into some national parks. “It is a disastrous, quite stupid, idiotic concept, and should be eliminated immediately,” he said, adding that parks exist to preserve nature. “Human beings should be kept out of them as much as possible.” I can hear him saying that, which makes me glad. Because the rest, sadly, is silence.

Follow on Twitter: @lizrenzetti

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