Malcolm got there – Sydney Airport of a Monday afternoon. We took him to our central locations – the University Gallery, the B&B and North Sydney to his hotel. Then, after two or three days whirling around in the Great Book Bus, I extract Malcolm from the hotel to whirl him around a little bit more. We walk past the reception desk and Malcolm stops and asks the receptionist ‘Can you tell me where I am, please?’ She answered with the air of one who has heard this question before and was neither all that surprised by it nor willing to admit it might be a normal question. Then she slipped me A Glance indicating a willingness to report me for kidnapping.
By this time, the rest of us had been working our way around our traveller bewilderments for a little while under the guidance and direction of our principal guardian angel, Michele MacDonald, curator of the Cape Breton University Gallery and, unlike some curators one has met, a person who does things, useful things. I used to think the way to recognise a curator was to find the person whose back begins to ache when pictures have to be moved or anything heavier than a wineglass needs to be lifted.
One of Michele’s unusual skills is the ability to do watchful phone conversations. It take a while to realise this is what she’s doing. When you’re there with her you can see the mercury rising and falling while she decides whether to sympathise with your trouble or tell you to grow up. From a few thousand miles away you just have to guess and wait there until she decides whether a gruffaw would be better than an attentive silence, or maybe a silence followed by a gruffaw or maybe just a little silent incredulity. She does two-word emails as well. And she goes the extra fifty miles out of her way to look after you.
We met her and her husband at a place she reckoned we could not possibly get lost finding. We found it by almost missing it, noticing it, stopping suddenly, turning back and floundering around for a while in our vast van – an awful lot of un-Canadian behaviour to cram inside a few moments. Michele was there, led us to our Bed & Breakfast, passed on a few bottles of wine and a pot of turkey soup and left us discretely to deal with our own exhaustion and incomer bewilderment in peace.
Then we met her in her University lair. At first we didn’t understand what we were looking at. When you enter her gallery it sort of slides off to the right and vanishes around a corner. It doesn’t do much rectangular business, confronts you with very few right angles or blatant spaces and, unusually, what you notice first is the pictures. There they all were, glowing away quietly. We looked around for the ones that usually get put in the wrong places and they were all in right places; then for our favourite ones and found they were all in friendly company; and the silly ones were put in their place, still being silly but also structurally useful. And it all looked new. Malcolm and I went around looking for Joanne Breen’s piece and couldn’t find it for a minute because the whole thing looked familiarly new. It was wonderful, worth any journey. We tried to explain to Michele how wonderful she was to have done this. I think she gave us a considered silence and one reason for writing about all this is to prove that we meant it and to tell other people about it too.
After that, the rest felt easy, more or less. Murdo gave a very fine lecture on Gaelic Art and this, we realised, was the missing link. We’d been doing shows and readings, films and all kinds of workshop stuff but no lectures. And, I realised, the lecture is a sort of art form and maybe one that doggedly brilliant Scots like Murdo are particularly good at – no flourishes, no verbal shennanigans, just facts and concepts laid out appropriately and attractively. In future, there will be lectures (by Murdo of course).
We listened – ‘we’ by now also included Louis de Paor and Aonghas MacNeacail, the poets, both of whom would be performing in various ways, some unpredictable – there would be children. Louis stepped straight in and spellbound a crowd of young ones by weaving great stories all around them – Cúchullain, Christy Ring and Séan Ó Tuama’s poem – until the children hardly knew which enchanted them the most, the tales, the poem, the picture or just Louis standing there and weaving away. He even got his picure in the paper, but then Louis always gets his picture in the paper.
Next evening Aonghas did something similar to the intelligensia of Cape Breton at the opening of the exhibition. This was a stately but relaxed affair. There was music by Lucy and Stewart MacNeill, just the two of them, very skilled, very appropriate and I think the very first time I’ve ever heard event-music so well done that it was interesting.
We had been told, in what I later realised was carefully worded code, that this event was to be special. I paid no particular attention. Openings are openings – essential for some reason but of no general human importance, part of the trouble the visual arts have with ceremony.
I should have known once Paula McNeil entered the story. Paula does essential moneywork for the University but she’s really a Svengali of occasions, a dramaturge of otherwise undramatic events. She sent us an outline for the evening that one of the great script doctors would have been proud of – a descriptive list of who would say what and when, for how long and to what effect, how to enter, how to exit. It was professional, encouraging and courteously definite, just like Paula.
Even so, when Lewis MacKinnon stood up to introduce everything, we still sat there and suspected nothing out of the ordinary, even when Lewis sang in his extraordinary voice. He must has started out with what our Molly called a Bass-Barreltone – one of my teachers used to say if you throw a brick out the window you’ll hit a baritone. But Lewis has discovered his own real voice under the baritone camoflage and the result is profoundly authentic – honest and real, as though the kitchen door of the usual folk style were thrown open and the real music blown in like a fresh wind.
Then the Principal, Dr Harker, a friendly, tall man who admitted to being ‘A Brit’ but seemed to like us, stood up and mentioned tales of how the Malagawatch Church had been transferred by mountain-moving Scottish Nova Scotians across a lake and how the University had inaugrated a Fellowship named for this practical, Quixotic achievement; and that they were making Malcolm the third person to be awarded the fellowship.
Nobody tried to knock Malcolm down with a feather, but it would have been possible for a moment or two I think. And the rest of us were pretty gobsmacked as well. It took at least a few minutes for us to feel that the University had dignified us all and the whole Great Book project in its own particular and generous way. Sometimes when the Great Book goes on we feel like valued vagabonds, useful but temporary. This time we felt like citizens and were very grateful for it as well as for the surreptitious courtesy of the way the University, Paula, Michele and everybody else at the University did it.
After all that, all we had to do was have adventures. This wasn’t difficult. Going around in our bus was an adventure every day. We had a hetherophony of accents, voices, ways of going about the business of talking. It wasn’t just the accents. I suppose you’d often get many accents converging even when everybody seems to come from the same place – though the idea of coming from the same place would, in Ireland, be difficult to get general agreement on.
We had between us only three nations but it sounded like many more. Scotland may be to blame, or maybe my own misunderstandings of Scotland. Anyway, Louis and I – from opposite extremes of Ireland but nevertheless Irish – can talk to each other even though the musics of Cork and Dublin talk are not obviously complementary. We do mostly short metrical feet in Dublin and you’ll usually find a strong downbeat close to the beginning of a Dublin sentence and the sounds go down and down as the words go on. In Cork, they go in for an indefinite number of delicate upbeats; their dying fall happens at the summit of the sentence’s tessitura
But we’ve been doing talking duets for quite a while (Dubs and Corks) and we know how to make it work; and how to make it not work when necessary (it happens). Maybe not enough work has been done in Scotland. Island people have been talking to themselves for ages; Edinburghers talk to their servants and bank managers; Glasgow people do interactive monlogues at bus stops.
Anyway, our Ship of Ideolects (a gigantic red motor by Dodge) managed itself the way Charles Ives managed the Pandora’s Box of noises his music was made of. Over a soundscape of hushed strings (Aonghas in the morning) a lonely muted trumpet would keen enigmatically (Murdo); a one-woman marching band would enter stage left (Katy once breakfast was served) and oomph-pah its way up the main street of the conversation. A plangent psalm (Malcolm before noon) would quieten everything down in rebellious reverence. A piece of improvising footwork (Louis, who listens) would result in some general cacophonous toomfooolery. Then we’d reach the University and have to behave for Michele and Laura Schneider- not their fault; they usually had ranks and files of children for us to try to talk to usefully and some exotic students (our exoticism thresholds were low; we found Nova Scotia exotic and the more Scottish it was, the more exotic it seemed).
A continous problem was Malcom in his newly elevated condition, particularly in relation to the weather and his head. The fellowship did not, as all fellowships should, involve ermine, coronets, robes or headgear of any kind. So the next few days had a strong undercurrent of a quest for a Malcolm hat worthy of his new station in life.