Fiction

THE MAN WHO CONQUERED DAVY CROCKETT

Ridiculous, Augustus decided — all this caterwauling about some obscure fur-hatted foreigner. History was crawling with Canadians who out-Crocketted Crockett in every way. Riel maybe, or old Sir John A.? Then he had it. Of course . . . King—of the Wild Frontier!

JOHN GRAY December 24 1955
Fiction

THE MAN WHO CONQUERED DAVY CROCKETT

Ridiculous, Augustus decided — all this caterwauling about some obscure fur-hatted foreigner. History was crawling with Canadians who out-Crocketted Crockett in every way. Riel maybe, or old Sir John A.? Then he had it. Of course . . . King—of the Wild Frontier!

JOHN GRAY December 24 1955

THE MAN WHO CONQUERED DAVY CROCKETT

Ridiculous, Augustus decided — all this caterwauling about some obscure fur-hatted foreigner. History was crawling with Canadians who out-Crocketted Crockett in every way. Riel maybe, or old Sir John A.? Then he had it. Of course . . . King—of the Wild Frontier!

JOHN GRAY

AUGUSTUS MACPHERSON paced the floor of his one-room flat, a measured seven steps between the door, which opened on the corridor, and the window, which looked out into a dark light well. To his left was an iron bedstead, to his right a washstand, a table containing a small electric plate, and a cupboard. Jammed against the wall to the left of the door was a bureau, and above the bureau hung an old mirror which was rendered almost useless by an ancient yellow crack that staggered from the top left-hand corner to the bottom right.

The wallpaper near the ceiling had peeled slightly and a few tatters hung untidily. It was an old wallpaper, yellow with age, the pattern—a geometric design in four colors—long since faded into a brackish dirtcovered background. From the ceiling hung a long cord, dangling one bare hundred-watt bulb which cast a harsh glare around the room.

Under the window was a small table. On the table was a typewriter and in the typewriter was a fresh, blank sheet of paper. Each time Augustus reached the window he stared at the paper for a moment, a look of utter despair on his face, a look of pain, an aspect of literary defeat, a look he saw distorted in the mirror every time he retraced his seven steps toward the door.

At twenty-six Augustus had, in seven furious years of activity, written three novels (all unpublished), seven plays (all unproduced), and so many short stories that he had long lost count. In the past eighteen months he had also written four TV plays. He was not able to tell whether this medium was his métier or not since his scripts had been in the hands of the CBC for only eight months and as he knew, one couldn’t expect the CBC to make up its mind overnight.

Yet with this body of work behind him, Augustus was beginning to feel that he had served his apprenticeship. During the past six months the nagging thought that he might have chosen the wrong vocation had occasionally intruded itself into his consciousness. Augustus, well versed in the pogrom of pessimism, rigidly suppressed such heresy. And dreamed.

He dreamed (in one recurring episode) that he became the chairman of the Board of Governors of the CBC and swept through that august monster like a temperate former president of the National Association of Radio and Television Broadcasters. He had visions of cupboards full of old manuscripts coming suddenly to light, manuscripts sparkling with wit, clashing with drama, heavy with satire, covered in dust, being cleaned from the basement vaults of a dozen CBC establishments across the country by a squad of former producers whose job it now was to re-read them and write précis of their plots in French, or in English, as the case might be.

In another dream Augustus was touched by the hand of fame, a miracle that always happened more or less in the following way. Augustus would package up his latest novel and send it to a publisher where it wou’. ' languish for several weeks, unnoticed and unread. Finally it would come into the hands of a perceptive reader who would be overwhelmed by it and would rush to recommend it to an editor. Stunned, the editor would go to the managing director who, while agreeing that it had some merit, would advise caution. Nevertheless, a small first edition of three thousand copies would be ordered in the hopes of encouraging a writer of undoubted talent.

The next step inevitably came with a confusing rush in Augustus’ dream: publication, controversy, the three thousand copies gone by noon the day the book hit the retail market, a new Continued on page 26

Continued on page 26

The Man Who Conquered Davy Crockett

CONTINUED FROM PAGE 9

edition, book clubs clamoring at the door, movie rights, TV rights, reprint rights, first world serialization, second world serialization, translations in Scandinavia and in Spain, plaudits in the Antipodes, a nasty notice in the Globe and Mail, and money. A flood of money. So much money that it lost its meaning. Heaps of it. Money for travel. Money for clothes. Money for women. Good, old-fashioned 'dollars swamping him.

From this surge of corruption Augustus invariably arose like the phoenix, unchanged and purified, his purpose undaunted, his craft surer in its security, his name firmly embedded in the critical analyses of the next four or five decades. From triumph to triumph he went, until finally he ended by being appointed to the Senate (at an age when he could still enjoy the small honorarium) which he graced with an easy charm, an urbane demeanor, and a deep headline-catching wisdom.

Ultimately, hunger would force Augustus back to the present and he would sit once more in front of his weary Underwood and pursue fame in his plodding, practical, patient way. He sold iust enough short stories to keep from starving. And he refused to give up.

A certain natural sanguinity kept his spirit buoyant, but in spite of this there were moments of fierce depression, when the English language assumed the proportions of a monster, when Augustus read the want ads to check no more than that -what kind of jobs he might be thrust into, when the world went black around him and gloom like a London fog stopped up his imagination. Then he would pace the floor, cursing the stupidity of the age, the narrowness of publishers and editors who couldn’t recognize a genius when they saw one, the impossibility of living up to an ideal without compromise or retreat.

IT WAS a hot day in July. The city had for three weeks baked in an unnatural sun which seeped into every corner and cranny and left even the masonry sweating. Augustus would have liked to get out of the city but he had no place to go, and no money to go even if there were someone or somewhere he could flee to. He stopped for longer than usual in front of the window, staring at the blank sheet of paper in the silent typewriter, when from a room on the other side of the well he heard a radio playing. Augustus had been so steeped in his own gloom that he had shut out the cacophony that oozed and floated in through the open window: the radio was very loud however and cut across the confusion of noises from the tenement with all the authority of a fishwife:

“Daaaaaavvvy, Daaaavvvyy Crockett King of the WILD fronteeeer ...”

Augustus raised his head and looked out the window in the direction of the wail. Ordinarily he would have shut the noise out of his mind but he listened to the words climbing crazily, feverishly, out of the boiling light well. He wondered how much money Crockett would make for its owners. The diversion caught him and he sat down at the table letting his thoughts wander. It was too bad, he thought, that in Canada we should have to soak up that American trash; how much

better if we could soak up some good Canadian culture. Even trashy culture. Surely the history books must be crawling with Canadians who had outCrocketted Crockett in every way. Augustus picked up a pencil and began listing the qualities of a hero—a Canadian hero. Fearlessness, integrity, modesty, drama, guts, obscurity, bilinguality.

Maybe the last isn’t so important, Augustus thought. He began making a list of names.

Louis Riel

Laura Secord

Governor Simcoe

Madeleine de Verehères

Edward Beattie

The pencil slowed down, then stopped. Augustus realized he didn’t have his mind in the right channels. He was getting too far from the point. It might he all very well for the Americans to dig up some obscure crook no one had ever heard of and make him a hero but that wasn’t good enough for Canada. The obscurity angle was worth playing up—but not too much. The main trouble was that the Americans were digging down to the secondary and tertiary levels of heroes now because they worked against a broad background of national figures. The Lincolns, Jacksons, Jeffersons, Franklins—these had no equivalent in Canada. It was quite impossible to have a Canadian Crockett because there was nothing to put it into perspective. The problem was more fundamental; one had to confine oneself to the first rank, to deal only with the top, to go right to the head men.

The pencil began to move again.

Sir John A. (drank, problem not insuperable)

Laurier (intellectual, definitely out)

Van Horne (too obscure )

Mackenzie ???

Mackenzie King ! ! ! !

Augustus paused in a moment of creative contemplation. He knew the feeling, like a prospector who after seven years of lonely rock chipping in the bush suddenly uncovers a surface vein of pure gold, who knows that the weary search is ended, that fate has led him to his fortune. Things may happen to cheat him of his luck but at that first moment of discovery the whole spirit is suspended in grace; he is a creature apart, a being blessed in the sight of God and man and himself, a moment in time that is unique. Augustus tasted the feeling. He liked it.

And then the fit was upon him. Years before Augustus had written poetry, or more correctly, doggerel, and realizing that he had no real talent in that direction, had given up. But the writing of poetry, even bad poetry, had taught him the elements of versification, of metre and of rhyme. The typewriter was in his way and he picked it up and almost flung it onto the bed. He took a small pile of paper and began with the pencil to outline The Ballade of Willie King. This was the sort of thing people would understand.

Willie, Willie Lyon, Lyon Mackenzie King . . .

His biographical knowledge of the great statesman was fitful but he did not let it deter him. The salient points were clear: an impeccable ancestry, an idealist, pragmatic, ruthless, obscure— ah, there it was. Not the obscurity of name, but the obscurity of person, the internal privacy respected throughout a long and eventful career, facts that would have ruined him had they been widely known, the conspiracy of silence. A rebel, a radical, a liberal, a Liberal. Augustus stopped. Not too much politics. More romance.

The friend who had drowned. Animals. The ruins—there it was again,

those ruins—he built a symbol of Canada in the verdant hills of Gatineau. Was that quite right? Well, he’d think it out later. Anyway, Hutchison probably had it all worked out. And the spiritualism. That would need to be delicately handled. Hut another symbol: a knowledge beyond knowledge. Long service. The emergence of the country as a nation under his leadership. What a hero he’d make.

For several hours the pencil blackened the pages. The light well outside the window grew muggy with the approaching evening, then dark, but Augustus toiled on, adding the stanzas together with loving care, seeking the correct words, the precise scan, changing, revising, immortalizing Mackenzie King for millions to whom he was still only a name. Augustus did not take the thoughts off the top of his head, he dug for them. He sought those images that would outline boldly the genius, the consummate skill, the artistry of the man.

Only one thing was really lacking in the data: King had died quietly, in honorable retirement after a lifetime of service, before he could embalm his experience in a series of memoirs. It should have been more dramatic than that. Still. Augustus had to admit, his was the Canadian way, not ostentatious, nor flamboyant, nor too publicly sentimental. Respectable. Solid. Understandable. Hut it would have been more considerate of him to have had his hoots on. Augustus surmounted the obstacle.

At last he finished. He needed nowonly to have the tune he had sketched out properly written down and arranged. Peter would do that. Couldn’t O Canada be worked into the final chorus—just a line or so, a hint of it. He jotted a note on the margin of the fair copy he had made in pencil. He read it over, not without pride.

The Ballade of Willie King

Born of a family of rebels bold.

The staunchest fighters in the times of old.

Men who braved their neighbors’ scorn so cold.

And saved the country from being sold.

Willie, Willie Lyon. Lyon Mackenzie King.

When he lost his friend his grief was gall:

He would have much preferred to leave it all

And lose hisself in the scholar’s hall.

But he listened instead to his country’s call.

Willie. Willie Lyon. Lyon Mackenzie King.

He went off to Parliament and served a spell

Patching up the government and laws as well.

Took over Ottawa so I've heard tell

And made his opponents’ life a living hell.

Willie. Willie Lyon. Lyon Mackenzie King.

He fought single handed through the King-Byng war;

Was mean to Meighen (Bennett was a bore);

And while he was handling this tricky chore

He did become a legend forevermore.

Willie. Willie Lyon. Lyon Mackenzie King.

When he came home his politickin’ done

He walked through his ruins in the settin' sun.

Chatting with shades beyond the final gun—

Friendly souls who had fought and won.

Willie, Willie Lyon, Lyon Mackenzie King.

His land is biggest, and his land is blest

From Corner Brook to high Crow’s Nest,

He’s out front of us all endurin’ the test.

Pursuin’ his legend right into the West.

Willie, Willie Lyon. Lyon Mackenzie King.

Augustus was exhausted. He was also hungry. He looked at the bleak little cupboard that held his supplies, and sighed. His wallet contained only four dollars and sixty-seven cents, not enough to get him through the rest of the week and also buy a restaurant meal. Perhaps it was a long shot—he could kill two birds with one stone. He took a dime from the wallet and went down to the end of the hall to the pay phone. In a moment he had settled his business. Peter sounded interested. And Peter always had lots of food around; it was that kind of thing that made friends valuable. Half an hour later he rang Peter’s bell.

PETER FIELDING was a practical musician who, since he was unable to make a living playing the tuba, had taken employment with one of the larger soap companies where he made a respectable salary and had excellent prospects. Peter’s real ambition was to become a composer, and he spent most of his leisure composing. His one trouble was that he had very little leisure so that the sum total of his work was small. Hut it had quality.

Peter had food. He seemed quite interested when Augustus outlined to him the genesis of The Ballade of Willie King.

"It sounds like fun,” Peter said when he had read the lyric. "Maybe you can get Winter Freeze to put it in their next show.” Winter Freeze was a perennial musical revue that spoofed Toronto and the Canadians in general.

When Augustus finally went home that evening he found that depression was gone. He took the typewriter from the bed and sat down and wrote a new chapter of Rise! Torontonians, a regional novel with a universal message

then engaging his attention. It was dawn by the time he dropped into his bed and slipped into a dreamless sleep.

Winter Freeze did like The Ballade of Willie King, and indeed, it was the outstanding number of that year’s production. A week or so after it opened a recording company plugging a new Canadian singer, twelve-year-old Gerald Sanderson (who in spite of the fact that he was spending his third year in grade six had already proved that his voice—which sounded as if he were chewing a raw potato, not derivative, but earthy was a comer), approached Augustus about his song. Negotiations were already under way when two complementary, but separate, things happened .

While it has been said of the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada that it has lost touch with the broad mass of the People, it nevertheless contains an unusually high number of astute and perceptive young men who, though they may lack political vision, are sufficiently men-of-the-world to know a good thing when they hear it. It happened that two of these men were present at the opening night of Winter Freeze. While they enjoyed the song they recognized it for what it was: Liberal propaganda.

"They get in everywhere,” said the first to the second.

"Damned clever,” replied the second.

"That thing just might catch on,” said the first. "The tune is very good.”

"Quite possible,” said the second.

"Something should be done about it.”

"Whata you gonna do, write a counter Willie King — The Ballade of Georgie Drew?”

"No. 1 don’t think that’s quite the way. But it might be possible to take it out of circulation.”

"Out of circulation? King’s dead. I don’t see the point.”

"He’s dead, but he won’t lie down. His soul and his party—goes marching on. Now if we could buy up the copyright to that song . .

There was quite a bit of argument within the party but newspaper reports that Gerald Sanderson might record

The Ballade brought matters to a head.

It was pointed out that it was after all just a song and even if it became popular it would—as songs do—die out. "In six months,” said one elderly gentleman, "nobody’ll even know the bloody thing ever existed.”

But there was apprehension. It was the kind of spark that could undo a lot of good work that the parliamentary group had accomplished in recent months. Several party stalwarts preferred to spend money—if money was to be spent—on a good Sir John A. Macdonald ballad. But the old guard was voted down and the upshot was that a private individual, having absolutely no connection with the party, was delegated to approach Augustus with an offer to buy the copyright.

On the other side of the fence the newspaper reports produced a remarkably analogous reaction. Its motives and its methods, however, were different. The argument boiled down to whether or not The Ballade of Willie King was good propaganda or bad. It may be that the once-vibrant arteries of the public relations men of the Liberal Party are beginning to stiffen with age, or it may be that the party is becoming nervous and sensitive to undue public interest in its affairs —and its heroes but the consensus was that it was bad propaganda. It was decided to dispatch someone, preferably someone with no official connection with the party, to approach Augustus to see if the song couldn t be quietly laid in limbo.

THE Conservatives got there first.

Their representative, a svelte young bond salesman named Mordecai Johnson, arrived at a propitious moment. Augustus had just received in the mail three items of bad news: none of his TV scripts had turned out to be acceptable, not, as the letter explained, because they didn’t show ability, but because it didn’t seem possible to fit them into the schedule; the manuscript of Rist;! Torontonians was returned from a publisher with a form letter; and the Lugubrious History of Walter Corn, the best short tragedy Augustus had ever written, was returned by the Family Farmer, the last resort on Augustus’ long list of possible markets.

Johnson was not aware of his advantage or he might have got what he wanted more cheaply.

"I’m very impressed with The Ballade of Willie King,” he said to Augustus, "and I think I know what should be done with it. I don’t feel however that I could do much without complete control of the copyright.”

"You mean,” said Augustus, "you want to buy it?”

"Ah . . . yes.”

Augustus Macpherson is not a mean man. Yet he had been for so long on the verge of poverty that his senses were razor keen where money was concerned. And Johnson was badly chosen. He exuded an aura of money, which was not unusual considering his profession, but was unfortunate under the circumstances. His ruddy cheeks and King Street clothes, respectively well-nourished and flawlessly cut, gave him completely away. While it is true he did not himself possess a great deal of money it was quite obvious that he was in constant contact with it and was the agent of those who made its manipulation a lifework. Augustus summed up his thoughts succinctly. "How much?” he said.

"Well,” said Johnson, "how much would you take for it?”

Augustus rolled his eyes and moaned. The moan was a distinct cry of pain; he gave Johnson the impression that he was undergoing a great struggle

which resulted in direct, physical discomfort, somewhat as if he were being garro ted. It unnerved the man.

"The party ...” Johnson said. Augustus nailed him with a look. Johnson, with a great effort, pulled himself together. "That is to say,” he went on, "/was thinking about five . . .”

"Five,” Augustus wailed. "Mr. Johnson. Years of my lifeblood went into that work—years. It isn’t the money: I don’t care about the money. But the Canadian artist is always undervalued, always underpaid. He sweats to bring forth his art and then is offered

a towel to dry himself with. We’re wasting each other’s time.”

"It could perhaps be raised to seventy-five hundred,” Johnson said.

"Seventy-five hundred,” Augustus said rather slowly, letting the syllables drool off his tongue. An earthly light, came into his eyes. "Make it ten thousand and you have a deal.”

"That’s a lot of money,” Johnson said.

Augustus shrugged his shoulders and walked over to the window. "It’s a matter of principle,” he said. "I prefer round figures.”

Johnson thought for a moment, then pulled out of his briefcase some papers and a cheque book.

"If you’ll just sign these papers. Mr. Macpherson, i’ll make out the cheque.” When the two men had finished, Augustus felt flushed and offered Johnson a cup of tea. The other declined, regretfully, saying he had an appointment.

"Tell me, Mr. Johnson,” Augustus said, "what do you plan to do with The Ballade?”

"It will never be performed again.” Johnson said in the doorway.

"I beg your pardon?” Augustus said,

clutching his cheque. "I don’t understand.”

"It isn’t necessary,” Johnson said. "Good-by.”

IT WAS not until two days later that the Liberal representative, Henry Smith, arrived. He treated his mission as a trust and approached the point deviously and delicately, weaving himself into the picture only as a frieze, an inconsequential decoration.

It had come to his attention that Augustus had written an amusing and excellent song. But it had also come to his attention that the song was causing great pain in Certain Quarters, not because they ' did not enjoy its obvious merits, but because they were concerned that it might endanger the National Unity. They had wondered, only as a speculation Augustus was to understand, if it would be possible to remove the song from circulation. Permanently. Forever. Bury it. Kill it.

Augustus was slightly confused. He stalled. It would, he agreed, probably be possible to do just what Mr. Smith wanted, but the obvious personal inconvenience of such a course . . . Smith agreed that it would be an imposition to ask an author to lay aside his work hut suggested that some compensation could be arranged. Mr. Macpherson was a writer?

"Yes.”

"Writers need leisure, time to work.” "Money to afford the leisure to work.”

"Yes, of course. There’s always a place for a good writer in Canada. My Friends are aware of the writer’s problem. It might he possible to find the kind of job ...”

Augustus winced and made a face like a prune.

". . . Don’t misunderstand me, Mr. Macpherson; when I say a job I mean a position which would provide you with the necessary leisure to continue your writing. I believe there are a few openings to which We could guide you. You understand, of course, that there is nothing official about this, but I am told it would be possible to get you into the CBC. I believe there is just the joh there that might suit you reading scripts submitted to the television department ...”

"The Liberals!” Augustus breathed. "I beg your pardon?” Smith said.

"I say it sounds like a very liberal offer,” Augustus said.

They managed, after three interviews and much talk, to come to an understanding. Augustus took employment with the CBC which did not prove arduous and left him time to pursue his career as a novelist, playwright, poet and songwriter. Rise! Torontonians was accepted hy a British publisher and quickly, for reasons that remain obscure, reached the best-seller lists and will soon be published in Canada. Augustus’ second song, The Ballade of Laura Secord, while there have been ugly rumors of a commercial tie-up (which unfortunately have not been denied), is selling well. And it is generally agreed among critics that his latest TV play, A Moment in Mimico -a sequel to Vital Vancouver —is about the best thing of its kind yet seen on the CBC.

There is no doubt that The Ballade of Willie King was a turning point. Augustus’ luck changed and the propulsion has been steadily upward. As Augustus himself explained in a recent, admittedly obscure essay in The University of Toronto Quarterly: ". . . The Canadian writer need not despair of support in a country that provides the richest untapped historical resevoir (sic) in the New World. It is a question of method . . . We are on the verge of great things ...” ★