MACLEAN’S INTERVIEWS

FARLEY MOWAT

March 1 1968
MACLEAN’S INTERVIEWS

FARLEY MOWAT

March 1 1968

FARLEY MOWAT

MACLEAN’S INTERVIEWS

In 1952, a 31-year-old amateur biologist from Saskatoon published a book called People of the Deer and shocked the country. It was an alarming exposé of the hardships that white civilization had inflicted on Canada’s Eskimos. The book was a major achievement, and it instantly established its author, Farley Mowat, as an important Canadian writer, a controversialist, a naturalist, an ethnologist, a public scold and an interesting man. There have been more than a dozen books since then, and all of them have enlarged Mowat’s reputation and his income; this year, his broadcasting, royalties and advances will probably earn him around $45,000. Today Mowat and his second wife Clare, who have spent the past five years in Burgeo, Newfoundland, live in a 90-year-old house just off the main street in Port Hope, Ontario. With its booklined bathroom, its antique organ, its marble fireplace and its multiple guest rooms, it’s the kind of house that manages to be spacious and cozy at the same time; guests have been known to linger for six weeks. This Maclean’s Interview was conducted over a snowbound weekend in January by Managing Editor Alexander Ross. There were frequent interruptions: the secretary of the plumbers’ union dropped in for a chat and a few tots of rum, and so did the United Church minister and his new baby. And Mowat had to keep excusing himself to go down to the harbor and pump out his constantly leaking boat. In between, he talked about Canada, literature, women, mankind, politics, sailing, money and Farley Mowat. But somehow — as befits a naturalist — he always returned to the subject of animals, and what we can learn from them:

Maclean’s: You once told me. Farley, that you thought dolphins were more intelligent than human beings. Why?

Mowat: It’s not something I know, it’s something I hope — something that I believe. It’s an article of faith.

1 feel there has to be some form of sentient life which is more able, more capable, more intelligent than we are. Because if 1 could not believe that, it would be absolutely hopeless. You sec, the dolphin is one of the few animals, maybe the only animal that’s ever existed, that doesn’t have to live with fear as a constant companion. Theoretically, without the necessity of earning a living, the necessity of defending himself, the necessity of constructing things, he ought to turn into just—blubber. His brain should shrink and become a pea. And yet something very strange has happened here. These animals have a higher brain capacity than we have. In terms of wave ratios and so on, their brains are fantastically developed. They have more synapses than we have. And these things aren’t vestigial organs. They work. The only conclusion one can draw from this is that they use their brain. Well, how do they use their brain? The only answer I can find is that they use it for purely intellectual pursuits. We can’t talk to them yet, but we have lots of experimental evidence to indicate that they have a marvelously complex and adequate means of communication. I suspect very strongly that they use their brain in terms of intellectual attainments that are advanced so far beyond ours, that we could no more understand them than a rat can understand Marshall McLuhan.

Maclean’s: If they’re so clever,

why don’t they control the earth? Mowat: The idea of controlling things is a strictly human concept. It’s quite conceivable that this has never entered their minds. You see, they don’t need to control anything. They have a perfect environment. There’s no need for them to he aggressive, no need for them to be power conscious, or power hungry.

Maclean’s: I can’t understand why you are so optimistic about dolphins and other animals and so pessimistic about man as a species. Mowat: Man has been one of the best-endowed of all forms of life up to now, but man’s whole essence is based on violent, vicious competition. He is the most aggressive form of life the world has ever known. But I suspect that pure aggression, no matter how it is formalized—and man has formalized it now in a thousand ways—may be a dead end. Our aggression has got us so far ahead of the other forms of life that we’re now in a position to destroy them all, including ourselves.

Maclean’s: Do you think man will be replaced by another species? Mowat: I don’t think it, I know it. Anybody who’s got any brains at all, who knows anything about biology, who has ever looked at the history of life, knows that every species is replaced. There's nothing permanent about a form of life. The only sure thing about any form of life is that it is going to be replaced.

Maclean’s: So instead of believing in God, you believe in dolphins. Mowat: I believe in life. Okay, that’s a very vague kind of statement to make, you can iaugh like hell. But I do. I have a very deep and abiding and sustaining faith in

life and it's the only thing that keeps me from committing suicide. Maclean’s: 1 think you have more faith in animals than you do in people.

Mowat: I don't distinguish be-

tween them. There is no essential distinction between any kind of animal and us. We are an animal too. There is animality and that's all there is — that’s life!

Maclean’s: Let’s stop talking about mankind and start talking about a man named Farley Mowat. Are you aggressive?

Mowat: Yes, I’m aggressive be-

cause I’m a man. I’m a human animal and therefore I'm a mass of aggression. I'm learning very slowly and very tediously and with terrible pain and agony that if I want to be anything else than this,

I have to suppress the fact that I’m aggressive.

Maclean’s: What’s the meanest, most aggressive thing you’ve ever done?

Mowat: That would be hard to say. Practically everything I do is mean, is foul, in the sense that it has to be done at somebody else’s expense. That makes me a typical human being.

Maclean’s: For instance?

Mowat: Well, I'm a cannibal. I’m an eater. I eat everybody I know. My women—you know, the people that I really love—I love them, but most of the time I’m eating them. I just can’t live with them in terms of absolute harmony, giving of myself, or just loving. I’ve got to eat all the time, I’ve got to chew them out, I’ve got to prove to them that they’re wrong, they’re inadequate, they just aren’t what they ought to be. I'm an eater! Oh hell — I can’t describe it, you know what I mean. / continued on page 64

continued on page 64

FARLEY MOWAT continued from page 9

“You WASPs aren’t Canadians—you’re imitation Americans”

Maclean’s: Okay, we’ve established that you’re an cater. You’re also a writer. Tell me about being a famous writer. Are you proud of ail the books you’ve written?

Mowat: I’m not ashamed of anything I’ve written—wait, yes, I am ashamed of one book, a juvenile called The Riddle of the Viking Grave or something: I can't even remember what the name was. It’s a lousy book, a really bad piece of work. But the rest of them I’m not ashamed of.

They’re all good books.

It’s like building a privy.

I haven’t built a privy yet that anybody’s going to sit on the seat and fall into (he hole — and that’s all you need. But I haven’t written any great books either. I have erected no monuments to Farley Mowat, and there was a time when 1 wanted to do that very badly.

Maclean’s: But y o u’rc widely recognized as a writer. How come?

Mowat: Because I’ve never consciously written a phony book. I say consciously, because unconsciously I’ve been guilty ...

Maclean’s: ... of self-promotion.

Mowat: Yes, you’re bloody well right. As you’re probably aware, there are two me’s — the guy who likes books and lives in that world, and the other guy who sells Farley Mowat — the fellow who takes his pants down in public.

Maclean’s: As a matter of fact, I want to question you about that very thing.

On three separate occasions, I’ve seen you come to parties wearing a kilt, and at some point in the evening you pull down your underwear . . .

Mowat: Roll it up in a ball and throw it in somebody’s face .. .

Maclean’s: That’s right.

Why? You always seem to pick the most frigid, shockable girl at the party to pull that trick on. What’s going on?

Mowat: Well, initially it was a need to shock, to substantiate my own ego, to reinforce my own evaluation of myself. I don't need that any more, but 1 still do it because it’s amusing, it’s an entertainment, it’s great fun to upset somebody who’s been living in a box all his life. Maybe it’s cruel — 1 hope it isn’t, because 1 don’t believe I’m a cruel man. Or maybe it’s boredom, too — you know, I get awfully bored with people as they are.

Maclean’s: Sounds lonely . . .

Mowat: I feel terribly naked and isolated as a human being, feeling my species is going to die out through its own efforts. But if you can somehow

learn to feel that you’re not isolated, that we're part of a whole stream of life, then it’s not so frightening. It ceases to be important whether we disappear as a species.

Maclean’s: You talk about this isolation of human beings. Can't friends, can’t women, can't religion, can’t anything alleviate that?

Mowat: No. Human contact with an-

other individual is only a transient alleviation because we've lost something that other forms of life have. We’ve lost the ability to maintain the bond between individuals as an immutable fact until death do us part—we use the phrase, but it doesn't mean anything. But a number of other forms of life can do this, you know. Many forms of geese do this.

Maclean’s: How do geese compare to your present marriage?

Mowat: Well, my present marriage, I would say, is better than average. It

seems to me that if a male and a female can survive one another for eight years without the love or attraction between them being permuted into active dislike or hatred, they are lucky. Maclean’s: How did you meet Clare? Mowat: I met her in St. Pierre one summer eight years ago. I was sailing the Happy Adventure and it was sinking as usual, so I hauled it up on

the docks for repairs. There was a little grey mouse who parked herself some distance from my boat and started sketching. While she was doing this, she was sexually attacked by the shipyard dog, a great big massive semi-Newfoundland type, so she sort of frantically abandoned her easel and climbed up some scaffolding. She was treed. I was watching all this and it was amusing, but after a while I began to realize that she was getting a bit frantic, so I went and gave the doa a boot and off he went. So Clare

crawled down from the scaffolding and she seemed kind of sad, so 1 invited her to come aboard and have a drink. So she came aboard and had a drink and—pow!—it happened. Just like that! It happens with geese, it happens with rats, it happens with lemmings, it happens with practically all the higher forms of life. This can happen, and it can happen in just the same strange inexplicable manner with other animals as it does with man. A goose can go around admiring a gander for one, two, three, four, five years even, and nothing happens. And again a gander can light in a flock of grey geese and one of the geese in this flock can suddenly — pow! — the two of them are just bang, like that. Anyway, that’s what happened to me. Maclean’s: Farley, you’re the only Canadian I know who’s aggressively patriotic. So here’s a hypothetical question: if the Americans invaded Canada, would you fight?

Mowat: Would 1! I'd fight “to the verrrrrrrry death.” I’ve been through one war. I was scared all the way through it, and the one thing I want to avoid for the rest of my life is a war with anybody. The only situation I can think of that would send me out with a gun to risk my neck is if the Americans were to invade this country. And then I would go gladly. I’d be like an old-fashioned Greek. I would die almost happily — physically fighting Yanks invading my country. Maclean’s: How many of your countrymen do you think would be marching with you?

Mowat: I think quite a number of French Canadians would. I think that a fair number of Indians and Eskimos might conceivably, but the situation would have to be very specific.

Maclean’s: What about us WASPs?

Mowat: Not a goddam one of you.

Maclean’s: You’re probably right. But why? Mowat: Well, I don’t think you’re Canadians. I don’t think there are very many Canadians in this country. I think most of you are pseudo-Canadians. You’re imitation Americans — would - be Americans. You defend the indefensible. No matter what the Americans do to us, you will find that the largest percentage of Canadians will somehow find an excuse for it. Nobody ever stands up to the Yanks in this country. My feeling is largely predicated on the belief that American society is becoming extremely evil. Therefore, I want no part of it.

Maclean’s: Do you think Canadian society is any better?

Mowat: No, not really.

Maclean’s: Then what’s the difference?

Mowat:. I think that if it wasn’t intimately associated with American society it might not be as bad. Maclean’s: I think you’re being excessively anti-American and extremely negative. Now what are the positive values you’re defending?

Mowat: This is a pretty standard question. The assumption is that one cannot defend oneself against something which you consider evil without being positive. My feeling about the U.S. is that it’s an evil situation, that its influence on us is evil, that it’s destroying us, it’s corrupting us, it’s rotting us. 1 don’t have to be positive about this. I can be purely negative. Maclean’s: The only other Canadian I’ve met who talks this way is your father Angus. Was he a big influence on you?

Mowat: Sure, but he’s never tried to push me into anything. He always encouraged me to make my own decisions. An example: when I was four years old—we were living on a boat called Stout Fellow and we always had porridge for breakfast — Angus one morning set the porridge on the table and between his bowl and mine he set a bottle of rum. He looked me in the eye and he said, “Farley, you are four years old and you have reached the age of decision. You may now decide for yourself whether you want brown sugar on your porridge or rum.” And I said, “Daddy, I am my father's son”—and reached for the rum, naturally. Angus had another effect on me, too. He wanted to be a writer, desperately, and he wrote two novels. But he realized he was never going to be as good as he wanted to be, so he just said “that's it” and never wrote another book. That somehow made me feel 1 was dutybound to carry on.

Maclean’s: How famous are you? Mowat: A writer never knows how well he’s known. This requires an outside observer. But I’m becoming quite well known in Russia, apparently. Three of my books have been translated there, and sold maybe 150.000 copies. They’ve written articles

about me, and somebody wrote me the other day and said I’d been the subject of an hour-long TV documentary that was seen by something like 25 million people. This is a startling thought. You know, when I got to Irkutsk last year a guy came up in a restaurant and introduced himself, speaking moderately good English, and produced a cardboard-covered copy of a Reader's Digest condensation of The Dog Who Wouldn't Be. It was beautifully bound by himself,

and he said, “You are Farley Mowat? Would you mind autographing this for me?” Here I am right in the centre of Siberia. I thought my guides had staged this, but they swore they didn't know this guy from a hole in the ground.

Maclean’s: You seem to be in pretty tight with the Russians.

Mowat: Well, I like them. Almost everything I know about the Russians as individuals, I like. And I’m not concerned with politics at all. 1 oper-

ate at about 50 percent higher intellectual and emotional activity when I'm with Russians than when I'm with Canadians. And that’s a sweeping generalization. The first time l really got to know the Russians was at the embassy in Ottawa. I went to apply for a visa and the ambassador, Ivan Shpedko. invited Clare and Angus and me to dinner. We got drinking and talking, and got so chummy that my father decided that Ivan should be inducted into the Mowat clan. So he

gave the ambassador his kilt. Ivan is a huge fellow and the kilt only came halfway around — and I swapped my kilt for the first - secretary’s striped trousers. Then we went out to the balcony. It faces out on Charlotte Street, and across the street is an old Victorian house that’s been shuttered up and vacant for years. It’s generally assumed to be an RCMP observation post. So I proceeded to play the pipes by holding my nose, banging on my throat and roaring. Angus instructed our new recruits in marching to the pipes, and we all paraded around and around this balcony. Every time we came opposite Charlotte Street, Angus would give an “About face! Eyes right! Thumbs up!” Then we Canadians would all thumb our noses at the Mounties. Now I make a point of waving at that vacant house every time I go to Ottawa. I want the RCMP to know just what I’m doing. In fact, Pm thinking of writing them a personal security report on myself once a month.

Maclean’s: Tell us about the five years you and Clare spent in the little Newfoundland outport of Burgeo. You left Burgeo on rather bad terms, didn’t you?

Mowat: No, I was on bad terms with some of the people, because of the worldwide fuss I raised when they started using that trapped whale for target practice. But that was really a side issue, because while I was there I’d become very involved in the life of the people, and became very much their defender against what I thought were the obnoxious, atrocious ways in which they were treated by the local Establishment.

Maclean’s: People really came to you for help?

Mowat: I used to write letters for them until they were coming out of my ears. For instance, about 12 families came from other outports that had been closed by the government, and they settled on a little island that was separated from the town by about 150 feet of water. They’d been promised a bridge and all the services, but once they were there they got nothing—no bridge, no water, no road, no electricity. The kids, about 40 of them, were missing school in the winter because it was too dangerous to row across. I raised hell locally and, when that didn’t work, I went to see Joey Smallwood. Joey said okay, and that’s how the people of Smalls Island got their bridge, got their water, got their electricity. Joey was trying to buy me, of course. That bridge was a gift to me.

Maclean’s: Why did Smallwood give it to you?

Mowat: Well, he recognizes that I’m the kind of guy it’s better for a politician to have as a friend than as an enemy. Not that I can ever do him any serious harm, but if you can buy a guy off cheaply enough, why put up with having him as a thorn in your side? It was as simple as that. And also, of course, he wanted me to write his biography.

Maclean’s: Why didn’t you? That would have been a good book.

Mowat: No, it would have been a very bad book, because I couldn’t

have told the truth. Smallwood had a special ceremonial dinner for me at Memorial University. All the elite of St. John’s were there. He sent a helicopter down to Burgeo to pick up Clare and me, and Joey gave us a fantastic banquet and a terrifically laudatory speech. After the banquet I went up to see him in his office a couple of times on invitation, and it gradually came out that what he wanted was his biography. I told him I’d do it—but only after he was dead. Our relationship was never the same after that.

Maclean’s: Will you ever go back to Burgeo?

Mowat: I'll go back. I’ve kept my house there. The only reason I left was to recover my perspective. I’m going to write a book about the people of Burgeo, and to do that I had to get away from the subject for a while. It’s going to be a very sad book, because what it’s going to do is chronicle the death and disillusionment of one of the last small holdouts of strong, independent men of adversity: the collapse of their pride and their world.

Maclean’s: What about the people of adversity you’ve already written about —the Indians and the Eskimos? Are they disappearing, too?

Mowat: This is a terrible thing to admit, but I may have done more damage to the Eskimos than all of the people I insulted and attacked so ferociously in my early days. When I first went to the Arctic and first saw Eskimos, I was so appalled by the conditions under which they lived and by the moral brutality with which they were being treated by us that I had to do something about it. So I fought this great battle to destroy the influence of the missions, the Hudson’s Bay Company and the RCMP—the Old

Orders of the North, I called them. In so doing, I opened the door for the government to move in. Almost single-handedly, I’m responsible for the terrific growth of the Department of Northern Affairs in terms of Eskimo administration. Now it’s become an empire in its own right. Maclean’s: It sounds rather arrogant to say that you were personally responsible for the partial withdrawal of the existing power structure in the north. How could you possibly manage that?

Mowat: I achieved it by writing two books and 100 articles and radio and TV programs. I called this project Operation Eskimo, and it ran for three years. I didn t bring about the changes personally, but 1 stirred up the pot to the point that changes had to take place. After 1953 the government saw to it that no Eskimo died of malnutrition and that the medical services were improved and nobody froze to death. But they turned the whole of the Canadian Arctic into a charity ward. The effect upon the people of the north was as deleterious as outright starvation and neglect.

Maclean’s: What is it, exactly, that you admire about these people?

Mowat: I admire the fact that they’ve risen above aggression. They’re not fighting anything. They’re not in conflict with the world around them, with their environment. They’re in' harmony with it. We do the reverse. We try to dissociate ourselves from the environment which has given us birth, so we become aliens. They don’t' They re natural men in the best sense of the term. What this means is that they have a kind of special inner cer tainty and personal pride. They never have to question themselves, they never have to turn around and look themselves in the eye and say, “Who are you? Are you any good? Or are vou ^a niece of dirt drifting through life?” This never crosses their minds. We do this all the time. We waste half our waking hours in pointless selfanalysis. These people don’t have to, because they know what they are. Thev know that they’re competent human beings—human animals if you want—and their competence is never in doubt. I envy them. I guess this is why I write about them so much. Because I envy them. They are the most enviable people in the world and they are fast disappearing and this breaks my heart. ★