Wednesday, 12 February 2014

Stories with Stuart McLean

     Everything with Stuart McLean involves an adventure. He's the type of individual that I strive to be, a storyteller. A wizard of spoken or written word, a man that can make you learn about yourself by reading his tales of others. Back in 2010, I remember walking through a Shopper's Drug Mart before work and having a book cover catch my eye. It depicted a crow writing in an book with his beak, with an open ink bottle to the side. I figured I may as well buy it and check it out for my shift, but didn't expect that four years later, the author would be the first name featured on the second year of my own literary journey, an adventure of (almost faithfully), learning and sharing the stories of those around me in Canada. But as I said, everything with Stuart McLean involves an adventure, a tale. Including the story of how our phone call with each other came to be.
     I was sitting in the loft like upstairs of my co-workers house, with some music blaring (it may have been Harry Connick Jr, but I could be wrong) and good food was being digested. Christmas was fast on its way, and the staff of the newspaper The Sputnik from Wilfird Laurier's Brantford campus was taking a well-deserved break with the last issue of the term off to the presses. We were all getting ready for the exciting "non-denominational gift exchange", as we all jokingly referred to it since some of us didn't participate in Christmas, and felt Secret Santa needed a new title for the day. Some really cool gifts were exchanged, and I was getting very excited to see what I would get. When I eagerly ripped off the wrapping paper during my turn, I tried to best to hide my initial concern. It was just a red notebook, and a pen. Now, feel free to judge me, but with all the cool gifts going around, I was hoping for something a little cooler than a notebook, not that there's anything wrong with them. Then as I was smiling and thanking whomever my gift-giver was, someone suggested I open it. Upon doing so, I found a note on the first page, it read;

     "In my first year of journalism, I did a radio project about the magic of storytelling over the airwaves. It was this very project that gave me my first 'celebrity' interview- an interview that I still very proud of today. It was Stuart McLean, from CBC radio's 'The Vinyl Cafe'. [...] To me, Stuart is one of the most influential voices of Canada. I pulled some strings, and Stuart is excited to be a part of Canadian Stories. Tell [them] it's a Christmas present from me- [they'll] understand."

     Knowing how much this meant to my boss Layla, who gave me the gift, sincerely touched me. She was willing to share one of her proudest moments with me, so I felt the pressure to make it all is was worth. With that, at noon on a Monday, I picked up my phone, and called the home of CBC's Stuart McLean.

A smiling Stuart McLean 
Photo retrieved from

     As I've said twice now, everything with Stuart is a story, including how his family first came to Canada. As Stuart told me, he's "a true Canadian, born of the snow". Unlike many tales I've heard of new beginnings, snow was the drawing factor for Stuart's Australian parents to settle in Quebec, with a pit stop in England. I heard a story of life after war, with Stuart's father trying to find employment. He began at a English firm with a branch out of Australia, before moving to the main office a continent away. While there, he befriended the owner of the company and began to form an almost father/ son like relationship, which I've learned weren't uncommon with the fractured families resulting from the Second World War. Stuart's father found great success during his time in England, and was offered the chance to form a new branch in one of three possible countries; New York City, New York, Montreal, Canada, or Johannesburg, South Africa. The choice seemed obvious, the aspiring business man and his young wife would move to Canada, for new beginnings, a new family, and skiing. Resulting in one of the most iconic Canadian literary figures. 
    An iconic figure who, as it were, didn't enjoy academics very much. As a child, Stuart would go to his room after supper as he was told to do to 'do his homework'. With his textbooks sprawled on his desk, a drawer was casually left open. You wouldn't find the expected comic books or Hardy Boys series his fellow students were enraptured by, but the tales of young journalist Ken Holt who would go around the world with his friend Sandy Allen solving mysteries. Whenever his mom would enter to check on her son, he would causally lean his hip on the drawer, closing it and hiding the book, while at the same time making it look like he was leaning over his work, heavily involved. With a slight chuckle, Stuart hinted that the tales of Ken may have been what drove his journalistic pursuits. With a sigh, I wished I was as smart as that as I kid so I could get away with things.
     It wasn't books that were his love though, it was radio. In his most definitive answer of our interview, Stuart proudly told me how from day one he was "in love with radio." He would sit down and listen to the "Dave Boxer Show", catching some of the new pop songs of the month, and when it got dark outside, he would try to pick up stations from Boston, New York, such as WKBK when "the radio waves were bouncing around the atmosphere" in the hopes of hearing that good old American rock n' roll.

Stuart with a collection of books.
Photo retrieved from

     In a powerful foreshadow, the tales of journalistic detective Ken Holt and the global radio waves soon meshed together in the late 1970s, when Stuart was in his late twenties. Landing a job with CBC's Radio One, Stuart soon became a well known name from his time on the very successful program "Sunday Morning". Referring to himself and his co-workers as "foreign correspondents of days gone by", he shared tales with me of young writers who would be standing in the Toronto airport ready to travel the world, with "a handful of money in our hands and a briefcase of research", prepared to interview "everything that moved" to provide a Sunday show sharing with the listeners all that's happened around the world that week. It was here that he learned the technical side of writing, but it was in his next radio journey that he found something much more important, his voice. 
     Starting in the mid-1980s, Stuart began working on the popular program "Morningside" with famed Canadian radio host Peter Gzowski. Gzowski, who has been estimated to have conducted over 25000 interviews really got to know people, understand who they were, a skill Stuart found too. It was during his time at Morningside that McLean would meet another individual that would change the course of his life, a man by the name of David. Together with David, they would soon conceptualize one of the most well-known Canadian literary characters. They would create an average guy named Dave, who owned a independent record store called "The Vinyl Cafe". Little did Stuart know, he had just conceptualized a character that would be loved by millions.
     The Vinyl Cafe started off as a replacement show for the summer, a program that could be added in during the time slots of radio hosts who were on vacation. The driving agenda for Stuart was to provide the best show he could for the next week, and somehow top what he had done on the previous show. Tales of observation, self-discovery, familial bonds and simplicity in the complex were heard by those sitting by their radios or driving around to wherever they may be heading. With no idea as to what people thought of his program, he continued when he could, and even tried a live show after his third season. Ambition driven, they made both the radio program a success, and the live shows too. The result? A spot on the network with a weekly show. Not to mention several international tours, several best-sellers and over a million books sold. As Stuart told me, "It was a bit of an unplanned journey. We never sat down and said 'Okay, here's what we're going to do, we're going to conquer the world'". I guess some of the best ideas are the spontaneous ones.

Stuart relaxing over a meal.
Photo retrieved from

     In 2011, with years of the Vinyl Cafe under his belt, Stuart was named an Officer of the Order of Canada. The official citation for his award stated the following;

     "Author, journalist and humorist, Stuart McLean has been informing and entertaining Canadians for more than 30 years. Host of the popular radio series "The Vinyl Cafe," he engages his audience with timeless stories that resonate both at home and abroad, showcasing small communities and the talents of local musicians. He is a warmly regarded mentor to aspiring journalists and a generous supporter of community and charitable causes, particularly those aiding abused and underprivileged women and children."

     For someone who spent so many years stressing the beautiful aspects of our country, and really trying to explain what made 'us', 'us', and why that was so special, I asked what this distinction meant to him. With a proud sigh, he told me it was a confirmation. A confirmation that at least somebody thought he was on the right track in his ideas, at least one person believed that the path he was taking in life was a successful one. As he said, a confirmation that at least someone thought his compass was "pointing true North". With that compass pointing him North, he has no idea what he'll run into the future along the way. He doesn't want to plan for the future, whatever happens, happens. He's still being driven by those early ambitions- providing the best show he can, and making it better than the week before. With pride, he told me The Vinyl Cafe will probably be referred to his life's work. It means a lot to him, and affects his life in and out.
     With that, I said goodbye to Stuart, and thanked him for our time together. I could see what Layla meant, and was glad she could help me out. Stuart told me "we Canadians need each other", but sort of left it at that, leaving me to wonder what he meant. There were a million possibilities, but I feel even the simple gesture of Layla giving me this conversation as a gift, and Stuart agreeing to it, is a sign of how when we do need each other, we're there for each other.
      Turning around, I grabbed that book I bought so many years ago, and realized I had left a page marked with a folded (clean) tissue. Odd, as I never leave books marked in anyway, and after years of journeys and years of moves, it managed to remain marked. It was a story called "Maynard Helmer", about a man named the same. Maynard was referred to in the story as "a fixture in the village", a person that everyone couldn't help but knowing.
     I feel it's safe to say that Stuart McLean is the same for Canada.

Stuart McLean
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