The principality of Gzowski

His Country In The Morning was more than a radio program; it was a land where grandmothers played Black Jack, separatists joined the RCMP and housewives lived through February by studying the nature of doorknobs


When I grow up I want to be Paul Hiebert. Paul Hiebert is the creator and biographer of Sarah Binks, the Sweet Songstress of Saskatchewan, and the winner of the first Stephen Leacock Award. That’s all I knew about him before I got to meet him through the CBC radio program I worked on for three years. This Country In The Morning. One day a bunch of us from the program were talking about how much we enjoyed the deliberately bad poetry Professor Hiebert had written years before, and wondering what had become of him. We found him in Carman, Manitoba, where he has retired after a long career of teaching chemistry at the University of Manitoba. We called him and I talked to him on the air, about Sarah and other things. He told me that he’d started to write bad poetry because, as a young academic, he’d found that he didn’t have the right kind of small talk for faculty parties. So he created Sarah, and started quoting her — deadpan —to his colleagues.

Sarah grew on him, and eventually he put together a “critical” book about her and her works. The manuscript made the rounds of a few publishers (being rejected by, among other people, a New York editor who wasn’t quite sure whether Sarah — this mythical writer of hilariously lousy poetry of the Canadian Prairies — was quite “major” enough to be the subject of a full-length book), until Oxford University Press finally saw the point and brought out his small Canadian masterpiece.

I kind of fell in love with Professor Hiebert in my first conversation with him, but it wasn’t until later that someone told me he had written another book as well. That book is called Tower In Siloum, and it is a religious work. It is the study of a man in search of God, and in it I found that the man I had known as a satirist, whom his students had known as a chemist, was also one of the wisest and most gentle-minded men I have ever read.

On my way to becoming Paul Hiebert, I’d like to be W. O. Mitchell. Bill

Mitchell is the creator of Jake And The Kid, the author of, most recently, The Vanishing Point, and before that the book that I think is the best ever written about the Canadian Prairies. Who Has Seen The Wind? But he chews cigarettes. Well, he used to chew them. Now he sniffs snuff. He also chews up phonies. I remember one morning when he came in to visit the program; he’d seen something on CBC television the night before that had annoyed him, and he used a phrase that has stuck permanently in my mind. The program he’d seen had been one of those CBC attempts to describe things Cultural. It had been, said Bill Mitchell, “rarified nightingale piss.” There is no RNP about Bill Mitchell.

There are a lot of other people I got to know because of This Country In The Morning. There is no way that Í can capture everything that program meant to me or to the people who made it, who included not only its staff and its contributors but its listeners, too. Nor can I properly convey such moments as the time I was talking to two nice old men in Fredericton about the lore of the fiddlehead fern and I asked them how high a fiddlehead could grow. The man to whom I’d directed the question said . . . well, he didn’t say anything. He looked me straight in the eye and he held his hand about a foot above the studio table. He knew how high they grew, but did the listener? I loved it.

I think, now', if I were asked why This Country In The Morning worked, my answer would be about as eloquent as the man who knew the height of fiddleheads. It worked because a lot of people, some of whom hated each other and some of whom loved each other (and the permutations were not always constant), cared about it. People in other units around the CBC used to call us “the family,” and although the nickname was not born in a flattering w'ay — it originated, I think, about the time of the Manson murders — it was a hard one to dispute. What drew us together was the program. In contrast to some other places I’ve worked with a tight sense

of common purpose, we spent virtually no time away from the office together. We had no model. I think that was one of the reasons for our success. We weren’t the Canadian Esquire, or the Canadian Merv Grifßn Show. We weren’t the Canadian Goon Show or the Canadian Pravda. We were This Country In The Morning — a radio program of conversation, puzzles, games, essays, recipes, advice, music, nostalgia, contests, skits, arguments and emotions. Were we trying to keep the country together? People kept asking me that. The best answer I could think of was no. Alex Frame, the executive producer, once said that to do that a rope would be better than a radio program.

We were, I think, a daily event. Our mood could be changed by anything from an interoffice argument to the weather, or by the fact that someone on the program was feeling horny — w'hich is how, incidentally, we decided one morning in late February to start collecting signs of spring. Furthermore, w'e were live — or at least what broadcasters call “live on tape.” Wherever we were coming from — and in three years we originated from nearly three dozen places from St. John’s to Tuktoyaktuk — we had to be on the network at 9.13 a.m. Atlantic time — or 9.43 a.m. in Newfoundland, which is an exception to everything. (The world will end at midnight tonight; 12.30 in Newfoundland.) What I said live to the Maritimes was recorded in Toronto and rebroadcast an hour later, then recorded in Winnipeg and so on, so that eveiyone, so to speak, heard the same thing at the same hour.

On one of the few occasions we took advantage of the fact that we could, in fact, edit what went live to the Maritimes and change it for the rest of the country, wre weren’t too happy we’d done so. There was, I confess, a difference between the way all of us talked away from the microphone and the way

This article is from Peter Gzowski’s Book About This Country In The Morning, published bv Hurtig Publishers.

I talked on it. I swear. In private, in fact.

I talk more like a third baseman than a literary critic (although in my baseball career lately I have been playing third base more like a literary critic than a third baseman). About as naughty as I got on the air was to talk about “doggy do,” and at that I was reading a letter. There was one occasion, though, when things got out of control.

Three artists were on the show. We'd asked them to come on — this was one of our more profound ideas — and talk about how they’d paint the federal election. One of them used the phrase: “the whole fucking thing.” That phrase went live to the Maritimes. We thought we might edit it out for the rest of the country. So someone made a note of the precise secofid at which the phrase had occurred. and someone else, while we were doing our second hour live, went down to what the CBC calls, with Big Brotherish overtones, “Master Control,” and tried to bleep it. Bleeping, live, involves riding a key called a “tone key.” “Tone” is the'horrible noise you hear, for example, giving the time signal. But one of the things you learn if you work in radio is that tape stretches. Forty-seven minutes broadcast to the Maritimes may be nearly 48 when it reaches BC. In any case, whether it was reflexes, tapestretch or an error in marking the time, the producer in Master Control was just a pulsebeat too late. So what the rest of the country heard was not what the artist had said but this: “the whole fucking bleeeeeeeeeeeeep . . .” And I couldn't help wondering about the people who must have said to themselves: “Holy Nelly, if they left that in, what on earth did they bleep?”

I don't think I’ll ever be Paul Hiebert or W. O. Mitchell. I started too late. But I do know that the time I spent on This Country In The Morning changed me. I don’t mean in the magazine-article sense of “How Pot Saved My Marriage” or “How I Found God By Growing Tomatoes,” but both publicly and privately I am not the same person Alex Frame hired to host the CBC’s new three-hour morning radio show in 1971. I have certainly changed in my attitudes toward my profession, my country, and myself.

There are, and I think some of this material proves it, more literate, wise, even brilliant Canadians who have never been paid a cent for what they've written than there are copies of books sold by some people I once considered in a class by themselves.

About my country. I don’t know how to express what I’ve learned. Awe? Incredulity? I don't know. I can’t express it. I guess between October 5, 1971, and June 28, 1974, I learned how little I understood of everything.

Grandmother played the pinball machine

Grandparents smell — usually nicely of lavender or violets, but occasionally just of age. They remind people of smells, too, of the smell of fudge bubbling, of cakes baking, of old English rose gardens, or the woods of the northern fall. Of pipe tobacco and rainy Sunday afternoons. That was one of the things — or at least the recollection of it and the strength of that recollection — that surprised me about the entries in a contest to define the word grandparent.

The first prize went to Patricia Murphy of Halifax for having a grandparent 1 would like to have known. Patricia wrote:

“What is a grandmother?

“A grandmother is someone with white hair and dainty, wrinkled hands, who smells of lavender — only my Granny rinsed her hair with henna, had talon-like fingernails painted blood-red, and smelled of strong tobacco.

“A grandmother is someone who dresses all in black or in pale Liberty prints — only my Granny alternated between blue jeans and bold-patterned dresses topped with chunky plastic jewelry in fluorescent colors.

“A grandmother is someone who

spends her time knitting sweaters and making soup — only my Granny spent her time building her own house and going fishing.

“A grandmother is someone who

takes children for special outings to the zoo or the museum — only my Granny took us to drive-in movies to see Diabolique and to the penny arcade to play the pinball machines.

“A grandmother is someone who

loves to tell stories, filled with fairy princesses and wicked ogres — only my Granny’s stories came from her favorite magazines. True Crime and Real Detective.

“A grandmother is someone who likes to remember how different things were when she was young, with horses instead of cars and long skirts for even little girls — only my Granny remembered how they used to make bathtub gin and go dancing in the speakeasies.

“A grandmother is someone who has firm ideas on how young ladies should behave, like crossing legs at the ankles, never shouting, and always wearing a hat to go downtown — only my Granny insisted that girls should be as good as boys at everything, even if it meant beating up my boy cousin.

“A grandmother is someone who teaches children how to make cookies and play Old Maid — only my Granny taught us how to roll cigarettes and play

Black Jack and Twenty-one.

“A grandmother is someone with oldfashioned views on raising children, like eating oatmeal and bread pudding and going to bed early — only my Granny fed us on fried chicken and Coke, and encouraged us to stay up watching horror movies with her until three in the morning (so we’d all sleep late).”

Naughtiness, incidentally, was something a lot of people enjoyed about their own grandparents. Take another winner, Doreen Wilson, from Burlington, Ontario:

“Grandparents stuff you with cake and pop.

“They buy you a red balloon and if it breaks they buy you another. They argue over whose nose you’ve got, his or hers.

“They like your pet snake and don’t scream at it like your mother does. But they still won’t let it sleep in your bed. But they think it might be fun to put it in your parents’ bed.

“They can lie even better than you can. They buy you a chocolate milk-

shake before dinner and then say they didn’t and the reason you aren't eating dinner is because you’re likely ‘coming down with that bug .that’s going round.’

“They tell everyone that you sing better than Anne Murray or Gordie Lightfoot.

“You learn some things from grandfathers and other things from grandmothers.

“Grandfathers light matches on the seat of their pants. They keep Playboy under the bed and say ‘don't tell the old lady.’ They teach you new swearwords when they’re looking for their glasses. They say man’s greatest achievement is the miniskirt. They tell stories about the time they worked in the mines and helped lay track for the CPR and made gin in the bathtub. They call your father ‘a damn fool’ when you let slip that he lost 50 bucks at the races and you and him go to the track and he loses $100 and he nicks your thumb and his a bit with an old jackknife, and you let the blood mingle and you swear that you’ll never breathe a word of it to a living soul or God will strike you dead and boy, you believe it.

“Grandmothers teach you other things. They never make you eat burnt cookies like your mother does or tell you that the burnt bit puts hair on your chest. Grandmothers win lots of bingo prizes. They tell you you’re the spittin’ image of a favorite brother who was drowned fishing and then get real mad at grandfather who said ‘he drowned cause he was too drunk to swim and even if he’d made it to shore the RCMP were waitin’ to pick him up.’ Grandmothers put their arms around people and hug them. Even eats. They are the only ones I ever saw kiss an old cat. Grandmothers believe that storks bring babies. That’s because in the olden days they didn’t get sex education at school. If you even say the word sex their faces turn purple as a plum. When you try to tell them about eggs and sperms they run into the kitchen and start banging the pots and pans around and say they have to bake a pie and what’s the world coming to.”

Another prizewinner was Susan Maclean of Annapolis Royal, Nova Scotia, who wrote this simple paragraph that perhaps tells it all:

“Grandmother: she lies in the old brass bed, day after day with her large old quilt pulled up around her. There’s a pee-pot on the hardwood floor beside her bed. Grandmother smiles as she tells you stories of her childhood days and the fun she had. Like the dying fire in her old stone fireplace that was once roaring and flashing with color, Grandmother will go.”

The Apprenticeship of Victoria Veiygood

After Lister Sinclair and Robert Fulford talked on the air one morning about whether there already was, or whether there ever would be, or whether it even mattered to anyone if there was such a thing as The Great Canadian Novel, I challenged our listeners to write plot outlines for what they thought such a work might contain. I liked this one from Alison Gordon of Ottawa.

“The story takes place on a CPR transcontinental passenger train in late February. The characters are thus cleverly introduced each time the train stops, and unwieldy ones can be conveniently dumped in the same fashion once they have served their purpose. The main characters are, in the order of their appearance:

“VICTORIA VERYGOOD: a buxom 18year-old Nova Scotian student nurse with slightly protruding front teeth and an industrious nature. She is going to Vancouver to study advanced occupational therapy. (Her brother, Victor, an auto mechanic with rippling muscles, gets on the train with her to protect her virtue, but, conveniently, is only going as far as Toronto, where he has an appointment with Don Shebib.)

“MARGUERITA MEADOWS: a 38-yearold American female supremacist anthropologist of Spanish descent, who has been studying Eskimo social customs in northern Quebec. Six months in the wilds has left her —■ a practising bisexual nymphomaniac — strong, healthy and horny.

“JEAN-CLAUDE JOSEPH MARIE HENRI PIERRE MACPHERSON FORTIER: a 23year-old separatist poet and rock singer on the run from the law and the irate Westmount parents of a 14-year-old girl whom he impregnated as a political gesture. He is attracted to Victoria for political reasons at first . . .

“HARRY ‘BLADES’ DRAB: a 52-year-old BC MP and ex-professional hockey player on his way back to his constituency. He spends the first part of the trip locked in his private drawing room, sending out periodically for spruce beer and salmon-salad sandwiches, until forced to relate to the others through dramatic circumstances.

“Each, in his separate compartment, they hurtle toward their destiny. The first 413 pages are spent in flashbacks, establishing the identities of the characters and reviewing Canadian history, and in brief dining-car encounters with other, minor, characters. (A priest, traveling from Rivière du Loup to his new parish in St. Boniface; a stockbroker from Toronto; a troupe of acrobats and

freaks who missed the circus train; an elderly drug commissioner who shares his roomette with pot-smoking 16-yearold twin sisters and a performing dog.)

“Suddenly, between Sault Ste. Marie and Thunder Bay, the train stops, and the passengers are turned out into the snowy dusk. Parliament has finallygranted its permission for the CPR to discontinue passenger service. A CPR executive, who has been flown in, makes a moving speech, and the train moves off slowly, tooting a mournful farewell.

“The final 746 pages of the book deal with the attempts of the passengers to make their way to civilization. Many perish in the attempt, and their bodies

Save the sanity of the nation's housewives

Thi>4etter from Jean McKay of London, Ontario, reached us late in January, when the Canadian spirit is at its lowest, and contained a list of ideas for combating the February Funk. She suggested that we collect the ideas of other listeners and turn them into a book called Save the Sanity of the Nation’s Housewives. We didn't get around to that but Jean’s suggestions are guaranteed to lift the pall from a bleak winter day:

“1. Rummage around in your camping box and find a pot that’s still black on the outside from a campfire. Put it on the stove with a little water in it and smell it as it warms up. It’ll take you right back to mid-August. If you’re so well organized that you don’t have a black pot in your camping box, then you probably don’t have any trouble with February either.

“2. Make a list of 25 things you can do in February that an Eskimo housewife can’t do. For example:

a) Dump the kids at the library storyhour.

b) Pack everybody in the car and go to the A & W.

c) Go and hear the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra.

are eaten by the survivors. (There’s a lot of good wilderness lore in here, which makes it a handy book to take on a camping trip.)

“Finally, only three make it to Capreol as spring comes to northern Ontario. Jean-Claude and Victoria, married by the priest (just before he died) in the bush, and Marguerita Meadows. She found true love with Harry, who died of exposure in the previous chapter. She is softer, somehow, and more feminine, because she knows that in the quickening stillness of her hitherto barren womb she carries his child. Jean-Claude joins the RCMP, and is decorated by Her Majesty for heroism and courage.”

“3. Get on the bus nearest your house and ride it to the end of the line and back. Take along a sandwich.

“4. Put something exciting in your bath water. Bubbles, or an essence, or blue food coloring.

“5. Make a list of all the people you had crushes on in high school.

“6. Start looking at doorknobs. Remember all the doorknobs in all the places you’ve ever lived in. Check the doorknob on every door you go through.' Make a chart of them. Try to discover w'hich style of knob is most popular.

“7. Buy a new tablecloth, and flowers.

“8. Look in the paper and find a function you’d never attend in a million years. Go to it. If you like chamber music, go to a roller derby. If you’re a junior hockey freak, try a meeting of the local historical society.

“9. Go to the public library and ask to look at the L.ife magazines for 1953.

“10. Buy an old table lamp from the Salvation Army. Glue macaroni, old buttons and beer-bottle caps all over it. Paint it. Take its picture. Take it back to the Salvation Army. Put the picture you took of it in a frame, and give it to your husband for Valentine’s Day.”^