PEN Canada’s April 2019 gala tribute to Graeme Gibson, co-founder of PEN Canada in 1984, president of PEN Canada 1987-89.
Tributes to Graeme Gibson from PEN Canada from former PEN Presidents
“I had never met anyone so interested in ideas–he was continually discovering new authors, new music, new ways of living.”
Graeme Gibson was the most memorable of the students I met at the University of Western Ontario when I was studying there for a master’s degree in 1957. An undergraduate in his final year, he was a striking man, about six foot four inches in height, with a beard that outdid Hemingway’s. He was the son of a much-decorated war officer, Brigadier Gibson–Graeme himself had been an infantry officer before entering university. His mother was a very beautiful Australian with a great interest in the arts which may have accounted for Graeme deserting a military career for what turned out to be a life time spent in promoting Canadian writing and publishing.
I had never met anyone so interested in ideas–he was continually discovering new authors, new music, new ways of living. In my own mind I christened him the Prince of Enthusiasms and was always delighted to be caught up in his newest fervour over a book or a piece of music or a newly-made friend. We acted in theatrical pieces together–Pirandello’s Henry IV and Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist where we played the two Puritan preachers, Graeme as Tribulation Wholesome and I as Ananias (what wonderful names). Two years after I left Western a mutual friend died and Graeme found the theme that began his career as a writer and led to the publication of his wonderful novel Five Legs and his extraordinary contribution to Canada’s cultural life. We were friends for more than sixty years. Ave atque vale.
– Eugene Benson
Co-founder, joint-President 1984–85
“Many of us looked to him as the very model of an effective leader, someone who was always in it for the greater good rather than for the glory”
Graeme Gibson was a driving force behind so many of the country’s literary institutions, and PEN Canada was no exception. During my years on the PEN board we often turned to him both for institutional memory and for guidance in charting our way forward, and I think many of us looked to him as the very model of an effective leader, someone who was always in it for the greater good rather than for the glory. When my own name came up for the PEN presidency and I balked at the prospect of taking on such a responsibility, it was Graeme, finally, who turned me, not only by his encouragement but by his example, how eloquently it spoke to the importance of running our leg so the baton doesn’t get dropped.
– Nino Ricci
“He brought people together at PEN, at the Writer’s Union, the Writers Trust and other organizations, not to burnish his own image, but for the common good.”
The commitment he showed to the literary community grew, I think, out of deep and genuine fellow feeling. Long before I knew him well enough to expect any sort of attention or kindness from him, he sent me a note of commiseration over a particularly nasty review I had received, quoting a line from one of his own nasty reviews and letting me know that this, too, would pass. This sort of generosity, already rare in the world, has become a bit rarer now with Graeme’s passing.
He was tall like a northern pine, but he was never solitary. He brought people together at PEN, at the Writer’s Union, the Writers Trust and other organizations, not to burnish his own image, but for the common good. In his quiet way, Graeme was somebody you could trust on difficult ethical issues. That’s the way he lived his own life, supporting causes like conservation, the right to die and, especially for this organization, the right to speak and to be heard. We are the better for having had him in our midst.
– Sandra Martin
“He was a big figure – big in stature, big in personality, big in ideas, big in vision.”
Graeme Gibson’s public achievements are widely and rightly lauded. He was a champion of the Canadian literary community, a relentless advocate for freedom of expression, a novelist, a fervent environmentalist, a writer of enchanting books about birds and beasts. He was a big figure – big in stature, big in personality, big in ideas, big in vision.
But, most importantly, the private Graeme was a mensch, a kind and gentle man with the rare gift of friendship. He was excellent company, always entertaining and almost always good-humoured (he could get his knickers in a twist on some sensitive subjects), with strong and interesting opinions about many things. For some years he and I had lunch every now and again, usually in the Gallery Grill at Hart House. Typically I arrived first. Shortly afterwards I would see his imposing and slightly eccentric figure looming up as he came down the corridor towards the restaurant. It was good to see him. Then we would eat and drink and laugh and talk. We last had lunch together this past May. Graeme’s dementia was taking its toll. But he was as wonderful, as much fun, as ever. Goodbye, Graeme. I smile as I remember you.
– Philip Slayton