WE HAVE LOST a great Canadian story teller but we have his stories to keep the memory of him fresh, forever.
I’m talking, of course, about Stuart McLean, the man who became a part of our Sundays, every Sunday, with his Vinyl Café. A little music, a really good story, and always time for stories from readers, too.
When he was on the road, he had a unique and insightful way of describing the town that was hosting him, poking a little fun but always complimentary and capturing the essence of the place.
His best story? No contest — Dave Cooks the Turkey. It’s not everyone’s favourite. When the question has come up in the past some people have told me they got tired of hearing it year after year but, to me, it never got old, any time of year. That story was every bit as much a Christmas tradition as ‘Fireside Al’ Maitland reading the Gift of the Magi.
The turkey story, you’ll recall, was not without its own small controversy, generated by a few bird lovers who protested that it condoned turkey abuse.
In truth, though, it is a real funny story and, like all his stories, touching and warm.
McLean wrote other classic Christmas stories, all of them good, but none as good as the one about the turkey, maybe because it defined so well the follies of his favourite characters Dave and Morley, Sam and Stephanie and, of course, the Turlingtons.
In an editorial rant against the CBC a half dozen years ago, I admitted that without the likes of Rex Murphy and Stuart McLean, life wouldn’t be worth living.
It’s more than his humour that marks McLean as a fine teller of stories. As many are pointing out, he always saw the good in people. And he was just so Canadian. I think we’d all like to feel we’re a bit like the folks from the Vinyl Café.
Sitting in front of a microphone or on a stage telling stories shouldn’t have succeeded as entertainment, but it did. McLean took over from the likes of Stephen Leacock (in fact, he won the Leacock Award three times) and Eric Nicol, and carried the torch magnificently.
But, to me, even more than his stories, the single thing that shows what a fine person he was, is a phone conversation he had with a teenaged boy several years ago. It was one of those phone calls where he’d pick a random number and call it and talk to whoever answered.
In this one, the only person at home was the teen, who happened to be going through a rough time. It could have been awkward and embarrassing, and McLean could have moved on to a different call. Instead, he talked at length with the kid and made him feel better, and when McLean invited him to come see one of his shows and meet up, the young man was genuinely thrilled.
I’ve only heard that conversation a couple of times, but it’s the kind of thing that brings tears to your eyes. I can find no reference to it, or copy of it, at this writing, but maybe you remember it, too. I’d like to hear it again.
One of the books I found under the tree this past December was Vinyl Café Turns the Page. I’ve been saving it until I finished off a few others, and I’ll read it now with some sadness but I know he’ll make me laugh, too.
Stuart McLean had many more stories to tell; now we’ll never get to hear or read them. Though he felt it would be somehow cheating listeners to air repeats, I hope CBC will resume carrying the Vinyl Café with the ones he did write. Sundays woudn’t be the same without him.