Taissumani, May 23
Meeting Farley Mowat
I met Farley Mowat, who died two weeks ago at 92, only a few times. The first was quite memorable.
It was in the spring of 1974, my last year of teaching in Arctic Bay. In that year the most interesting teachers’ conference of all time took place in Iqaluit — interesting because the guest speakers were Canadian writers Farley Mowat and W. O. Mitchell, and their publisher Jack McClelland of the McClelland and Stewart publishing house.
A teachers’ conference in those days served two purposes. The first, of course, was to allow teachers an opportunity to meet with their colleagues and share new and interesting pedagogical ideas in the interest of getting inspiration for the rest of the school year and their careers.
The second was social — to let off steam and attend a few parties — and it was extremely important in those days when the communities outside the regional centres were truly isolated, with no television, unpredictable radio, and infrequent air service.
I knew that this would be good conference when I heard that Farley had asked his old acquaintance, Ross Peyton, an entrepreneur in Pangnirtung and a close friend of mine, to come out to the conference to see him. Ross had never been one to turn down an invitation to a party.
Meeting Farley socially was easier than I had expected. One day after conference sessions, Bert Rose (then a teacher, and then and now a well-known northerner) and I decided we should visit the man.
We found out what apartment in the eight-storey high-rise he was staying in, so we went to the main door and pushed the appropriate buzzer. A voice emanated from the intercom, informing us that the bloody speaker didn’t work in his room, so don’t bother saying anything because he wouldn’t be able to hear us.
The voice went on to add that, since he couldn’t hear us, he had no way of knowing who we were but, regardless, whoever we were, we should come up for a drink.
So up we went. We knocked at the door and were greeted there by a quite short bearded man whom we recognized as Farley. Memory fades over time — I remember him as being stark naked, but Bert remembers him as being clad in a towel.
Stark naked makes for a better story –— something Farley always appreciated — but Bert will be reading this and Farley won’t so he was either scantily clad or unclad.
He looked up at us from the doorway and said — well, I don’t know who you big buggers are, but I guess you’re the fellows I just invited up for a drink. So come on in.
Farley explained his state of undress by telling us that he was just about to have a shower. He offered no explanation at all for the presence of a decidedly embarrassed, though fully clad, woman uncomfortably sitting on the sofa in the living room.
Referring only to his desire for a shower, Farley said we needn’t worry, that he would leave the bathroom door open so we could hear him, as he intended to entertain us with some east coast folk songs while he showered.
He invited us to pour ourselves some rum. As we stood at the table to pour the much-appreciated libations, Farley inserted himself between us to top up his own glass. Craning his neck upwards to see Bert and me – we’re both about six feet, five inches – the elfin man cackled, “Stop fucking towering.”
And with that he disappeared with a glass of rum, definitely naked this time, into the shower.
We waited, making small-talk with the still-embarrassed young lady in the living room — she had known him only a few minutes longer than we had —and had a wonderful rum-soaked visit with him when he eventually emerged from the shower, his own drink much diluted.
I saw Farley a few more times over the years. Each time was enjoyable, although none would compare with the bizarreness of that initial meeting.
Next week — a more serious look at what Farley Mowat meant for the Canadian north.