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ALUMNI QUARTERLY - winter 2008
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Big Hill, Little Hill, Jason Fowler, BMus'92, Great Big Music, 2000.

A lesson in just how good a guitar player Jason Fowler is. In 1997, he travelled to Winfield, Kansas, for the National Fingerpicking Championship -- the closest thing to the Olympics for acoustic guitar -- and took third place. He returned in 2000, and at the suggestion of one of his Toronto guitar students entered the flatpicking division of the championship, usually the domain of monster bluegrass pickers who practise furiously on their Martin dreadnaughts for much of their lives to rank at Winfield. Fowler captured third place there as well.

It follows then that Fowler's all-instrumental third CD is a bound to be a very special treat for the ears. (OK, it could have been an exercise in aimless, virtuoso guitar noodling, but he is not that kind of player.) Big Hill, Little Hill showcases Fowler's fingerstyle talents, for which he is primarily known, as well as his songwriting and arranging chops.

The CD's title is a translation of Irish harp master Turlough O'Carolan's "Shi Big, Shi Mhor," the drop-dead-gorgeous, opening track on the CD and additionally the cut chosen for Six Strings North of the Border from Borealis Records, a compilation of Canadian guitar music. While in the past Fowler has shown off blues, country and folk stylings, there is a Celtic tinge running through a number of the pieces on Big Hill, Little Hill, including the lilting adaption of Garnet Rogers's "Green Eyes." Other tunes are very modern, inhabiting the realm (if not the direct influence) of fingerstylists like Leo Kottke or Pierre Bensusan, such as "Oskar Versus the Spruce," "The Bight," and "Full Armoured Jousting." Fowler the composer also takes on the Impressionist tone of Claude Debussy in "Prelude in G Major." Though he is technically flawless and fluent in many styles and tunings (included in the notes for the guitar nuts among us), Fowler will also keep you riveted to your chair with pared down, harmonically simple, and extraordinarily beautiful material like "Tigerlily" and "Len's Song."

Big Hill, Little Hill is refreshing in the best sense of that word. Since it's an independent instrumental record, it will probably be hard to find as well, so try

Getting Started: A Memoir of the 1950s, McClelland & Stewart, 2001, $34.99, by William Weintraub, BA'47.

"Write," the boys would command at the end of each letter. And they did. William Weintraub's Getting Started: A Memoir of the 1950s chronicles a decade of correspondence between himself and the late Brian Moore and Mordecai Richler. It's a sentimental journey back to first novels and career footholds, and an entertaining record of the trio's mostly long-distance relationship.

Weintraub began his career as a reporter at the Montreal Gazette and The Weekend, a Saturday supplement that eventually spread to 41 Canadian newspapers. Like many aspiring authors of the time, he traveled to Europe where he continued to file stories for Canadian radio and Weekend. In the mid-'50s he settled in at Canada's National Film Board, eventually writing, directing, and producing more than 150 films.

Weintraub fills the gaps between the letters with tales of marriages and divorces, political events, and publishing aspirations. He recalls his freelancing past: trekking across the Alps to cover skiing competitions and criss-crossing Canada with a travelling carnival. Above all, Getting Started confirms the notion of the writer's life of that era as boozy and on-the-move. He and his friends (a group that included Mavis Gallant) flit from Montreal to Paris to London and back again, almost always, at least in the beginning, broke. Europe's struggling post-war economies meant life abroad was cheap. Still, they made sacrifices to scrounge a living wage, and sometimes wrote pulp under other names to finance serious writing. (In one letter Moore signs himself "Señor Hoore.") Richler's early letters are especially poignant. "Mordy," who Weintraub first encounters as an ambitious teenager in Paris, comes across as lippy, funny, and occasionally lump-in-the-throat sweet.

Most of Weintraub's anecdotes amuse, like his interview with Britain's wealthy Lady Docker over "truffles the size of your eyeball" and pink champagne, wherein he discovers that she's become the women's marble champion of the world. ("You need strong knuckles -- and lots of practice.")

But Weintraub also exposes his vulnerability. Drinking and depression coincided with his friends' burgeoning fame. Richler had fared more than well with The Acrobats and The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, while Moore's first novel, Judith Hearne, was widely hailed. Weintraub fretted that his articles and screenplays weren't significant literary efforts. When he shyly revealed to his friends that he had produced a manuscript for a satirical novel, Moore pronounced himself "pleased and delighted," then provided a scathing critique: "I found the second half much more confused than the first....Everything seemed overdone, but this time it was not so much a question of repetitiveness (it was repetitive, too) as much as a question of being unfunny." Weintraub was devastated, but concedes that the eventual success of Why Rock the Boat? "couldn't have happened without my swallowing Brian Moore's harsh medicine."

The book contains some fascinating bits of social history. For example, when Weintraub divorced in 1961, Catholic Quebec required that an Act of Parliament be passed in Ottawa to dissolve the marriage, a process that necessitated a false tale of adultery and a private detective's testimony.

It's fortunate that Weintraub kept all his friends' letters and made carbon copies of his own "to read in my old age to help me recall exactly how I had wasted my youth."

He has mined his youthful recollections successfully before in City Unique: Montreal Days and Nights in the 1940s and '50s. If his colleagues achieved literary greatness, Getting Started again delightfully proves that Weintraub achieved his own ambition, "to earn my living as a journalist and live an interesting -- perhaps a very interesting -- life."

Grounded in Eire, McGill-Queen's Press 2001, $34.95, by Ralph G. Keefer, BCL'80,LLB'80.

Stories of World War II continue to fascinate us 60 years later, and this is one of those stories: a very personal vignette written by a son about his dad, who as a 22-year-old McGill grad was a Canadian pilot seconded to the Royal Air Force. Ralph "Bobby" Keefer, BCom'40, was a true Canadian war hero, who for five years flew just about every Allied plane, commanded over 80 missions and was eventually awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC).

However, returning from one mission to Frankfurt in 1941, he and his crew were forced to bail out over southern Ireland, Eire. For violating neutral Ireland's airspace, they were interned in a camp in County Kildare.

There they were granted daily "parole" which enabled them to play golf, visit the local pubs, and meet the Anglo Irish "horsey set" (and their daughters!). They even a had a full bar in the officers' mess at the camp supplied by U.S., Canadian and British diplomats. Still, they actually worked hard on plans to escape, and Bob and his friend, Grant Fleming, succeeded. His best friend, Jack Calder, also "escaped" later on the ruse of depression and attempted suicide, having allegedly been spurned by the love of his life, a local Irish girl from a "good family."

The author, a prosecutor for the attorney general of British Columbia, says that his father had always wanted to write his memories of his experiences in Ireland (and have Peter O'Toole play him in the movie). He started work on a manuscript, but Alzheimer's began to set in, so his son Ralph decided to finish the book. He took a leave of absence to retrace his father's steps, confirm the memories and have the book published for his father.

Grounded in Eire has a little of everything: the fascination of WWII, romance, humour, history and tragedy. It is a good read, with lots of Irish military archival documents revealing the almost comic bureaucracy of neutral Ireland, plus a number of private letters. A fine holiday gift for those interested in WWII and anecdotes about Canadian participation.

Former Executive Director, McGill Alumni Association

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