“…And this scratched up guitar/ We can go far”: Gently weeping, Part II

To say my guitar is a shit guitar is no shame. I always knew it. I described it in the blurb for a poster advertising a showcase at the Ontario Conference of Folk Festivals as “his cheap acoustic guitar … that he used to patch through a distortion pedal and play drop-d punk tunes on in Nanaimo.”

Yet people would say, “for all that, it has a nice tone.” Yes, I would reply. Guitars like being played. And I played that thing every day. Wrote all my songs on it. Gigged on it, with a cheap pickup that slotted in the soundhole. One summer, as a university student in Ottawa, I took some of my tips money and bought a nice Senegalese djembe from the Ottawa Folklore Centre. That night, there was a wicked thunderstorm, and I was awoken from my sleep by a loud noise. Checked in the kitchen but nothing was obviously wrong. Shrugged it off. Next morning, shuffled into the living room, and there was my djembe, gaping open-mouthed at me with the skin head half off. I rushed it back to the shop, where they said, “Whoa – that shouldn’t have happened!” But while they were fixing it up, I did some thinking of my own. I told them to put it back on the floor once they’d repaired it and instead had them install a Fishman pickup in my guitar.Michael Munnik strumming his guitar and singing at the Branch, Kemptville

Now it was superb and useful. Big, bassy sound. No tone or volume controls on the pickup, but it was active. It made the guitar sound better than it had any right to. The action was incredibly high. I just got used to it. I liked to tell people it made me a better player because anything else was like butter in comparison, but I think that was not entirely true.

Who cares? It was my constant companion, my entry to a whole gamut of social circumstances. On the bus coming back from drama festivals. On the BC Ferry, amusing a group of elderly Chinese tourists. At Saturday night parties and Sunday morning church services. Campfires. I will not lie – that guitar, my strumming and my singing were ingredients in getting every girlfriend I ever had, including the one who’s now my wife. (“Play the song called ‘Katie Hay’!” said a visiting friend of hers from high school. I subbed her name into a stupid little song I’d written called “Beavertails”, and she laughed so hard she knocked my lamp over and broke it.) Continue reading

Gently weeping for my guitar, Part I

My guitar is dying.

Michael Munnik playing his original guitar at Zaphod BeeblebroxOkay, that’s drastic. It is ageing. Guitars can run and run for a long time, though even so they need love and attention from experienced and knowledgeable people. Wood is a living thing, moving and changing with heat, moisture, and atmospheric pressure, no to mention the occasional bump against a table or crash on stage when the strap suddenly gives way. By dint of their excellence or their expense, some guitars merit every upgrade and remedial intervention they are confronted with.

The implication of that last sentence is that my guitar doesn’t deserve to be made well. That is not what I’m saying. But you have to know a bit about my guitar to get this quandary in the right context.

I bought my guitar when I was 15, in Nanaimo, BC. My best friend and I had resolved to start a grunge band. He was excited to play bass and I, having become quite nutty about Eric Clapton’s unplugged rendition of “Layla”, wanted to play guitar. We started writing lyrics right away, then got to learning how to play these instruments. Ira’s dad had an old Yamaha acoustic about the house, so Ira could start learning right away while he saved up. I borrowed my minister’s spare acoustic (thanks, Glenn!) and got going as well. Starting, for whatever reason, with C. (I know the reason: it was the first chord they show you in Ernie Ball Teaches Guitar.) Painfully changing from C to G7 to play “Down in the Valley”.

I persevered, and after about five weeks, playing every day for an hour or more, I was able to change chords more or less at speed. Yes, I would go ahead with this. Ira, similarly mastering the fundamentals, got an electric bass and amp. My parents, unlike Ira’s, could not give me a financial boost because my older brother had already declared his own desire to play guitar: for him, the tipping point was Nirvana’s unplugged encore, “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” Our grandmother in Nova Scotia agreed to ship out Uncle Gary’s old guitar, which wasn’t very good and had a hard time staying in tune. Dan quickly got discouraged or lost interest, but it was still this mighty gorilla houseguest. My parents simply could not buy me a guitar when Dan had the hierarchical claim on a guitar that was in the house. No matter. I delivered newspapers, so I had some income. I continued to save, and by the winter, it was time to buy my own axe. Continue reading

What I’m reading this month – Oct 2019

I’m starting this blog with what I will be reading rather than what I’m currently reading, really  just for the visual imprint of the book cover. I am still working my way through the final of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, about which more in a moment, but the first picture I attach to the post is, typically, the one that gets to show itself on the social media previews. (I suppose I could learn how to control that element better, but I am not that motivated to learn how. I could do many things to amplify the visibility of this blog, like writing about Pizza Express on the day it’s trending on Twitter. But generally, I’m happier letting it find its own audience and then bitterly cursing the medium and the general public when it doesn’t.)

I digress.

My mother in law is visiting, and we took a drive up to the very just-so town of Hay-on-Wye last weekend.  Yes, there were pleasant coffee shops and charity shops and antique shops, but the real reason anyone goes there is the bookshops. We made our pilgrimage, and everybody got something interesting. It was really hard for the elder two children to choose, because of course saying yes to something means saying no to (many) other things. My choice was a bit easier: a very attractively covered copy of On Patagonia by Bruce Chatwin was on the newly arrived shelf, and that seemed the right sort of purchase. I even took its picture to get ready for writing this blog.

Cover of Olga Tokarczuk’s FlightsBut then the Nobel Prize for Literature happened. My wife and I had wondered a little bit ago whether this would be Margaret Atwood’s year. She’s been tipped before – around the time of the publication of The Blind Assassin, I believe – and now there’s all this renewed buzz. I also thought, though, that she shares some features with Kazuo Ishiguro and Alice Munro – not their love-child or anything, but exhibiting qualities from both camps in a way that might make a panel of jurists think “we’ve had that recently”. Continue reading

That’s not the Pizza Express way

I saw the news that Pizza Express is in trouble and at risk of folding. People have used the occasion to deal in some clunky humour, display their class credentials, or just relive memories.

My memories are of work. I was part of the inaugural staff at Pizza Express in St Andrews, Scotland, where my wife took her Master’s the first year that we were married. I had myself just graduated with a degree in journalism from Canada’s best programme, and I had over a year of work experience to boot as a reporter and chase producer for the national broadcaster, so I was pretty sure I could get some good work while she studied. Turns out the local rag for that corner of Fife was published out of Dundee, so I took the bus across the Silvery Tay and met with an editor. Tail between my legs, I returned with the knowledge that D.C. Thompson was something of a family firm and they weren’t really hiring.

How, then, to support ourselves when the Canadian dollar was two-fifty to the pound? Well, Pizza Express was opening a new resto, and they were hiring. Not only that, though they had plenty of applicants who were also students and therefore up for part-time work, there was a need for more stable full-time staff to keep the keel even. I had some waiting experience, so they took me. Sent me, of all places, to Dundee to train while the shop was getting finished.

J&G Innes Stationers, Church Street, St Andrews

Just across the street from Church Square and my employers, Pizza Express, was the stationers (my wife’s employers), which seems once upon a time to have been a possible media hub. Too bad. Photo by SwaloPhoto, found on flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0

Dundee and St Andrews Pizza Expresses were a study in contrasts. The company had lobbied hard and long to get a location in the Home of Golf: the town council was generally quite shy about chain shops coming in, but they’d finally cracked, and the firm had a good location on Church Square. Perfect for mums and dads taking their little Beauregards and Penelopes off to uni (though maybe a touch wrong for the celebratory graduation meal three years later… but I never got the chance to find out). The floor staff’s uniform was the typical polo shirt but black, with the logo embroidered in gold.

Dundee, however, was a real maverick. The manager had to twist the company’s arm to get permission to put in a fryer: if people couldn’t have a burger and chips, Dundee would not come, he said. They relented, but it was an odd fit. The manager had also, somehow, negotiated for bespoke music to play through the speakers rather than the PE-issued playlists. I enjoyed working with the people there, coming home tired on the last 99 bus with a pizza under my arm to share with my slumbering studying bride. I heard the resto closed a few years after we’d left; I wasn’t surprised. Continue reading

What I’m reading this month – Sept 2019

Last month, I predicted a very limited set of book review blogs this autumn, as I had chosen to embark on Elena Ferrante’s ambitious and ballyhooed series of novels about friends Lenù and Lila. Given the sheer amount of words, combined with the number of duties I also have to attend to in life – work, parenthood, marriage, sleeping, playing the odd open mic – I expected it would take me a while to get through.

The author on the train through France, reading Elena Ferrante’s novelNot so, dear reader. Her writing is vibrant and exciting, and My Brilliant Friend really pulled me along. I had, with a little neglect of other things, reached its end just before we embarked on our cross-continental holiday plans, so I was able to get started on the second novel as my vacation book. Long train journeys (made longer by my good friends at TGV, but that’s a story for another time) are a bit of artificial time; it’s not like real life at all, and it provided sufficient conditions that I’m now launched on Number Three, the appealingly titled Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay. Continue reading

What I’m reading this month – August 2019

I was rather shown up at the library a week or so ago. Went in with the kids to update them on their summer reading challenge (six books in six weeks) – get their stickers and wee prizes and whatnot. When signing them up, the librarian on duty invited me to sign up to. Yes, for adults as well: they don’t discriminate. There is no good reason not to sign up to read six books in six weeks, especially when you’re standing next to your six year old child, encouraging him to do the same thing. So I did it.

But when we were updating him (three books, at the time), I was only able to report that I’d finished one: Good Omens, by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman. The librarian chided me and urged me to get on with it, or no prizes for me. Well, that’s me telt. If I get more grief, I’ll just show them this blog.

Cover of Miriam Toews’s Women TalkingPratchett and Gaiman had muscled their way in on my plans to read this book – a new novel by one of Canada’s favourite flowers at the moment. Miriam Toews has been winning awards and CBC speaking spots since A Complicated Kindness – at least, that’s when she appeared on my radar. I know a certain set of CanLit book readers (likely a small slice of the audience for this particular blog, which doesn’t get much in the way of numbers) is waiting to ding a bell or have a drink when the word “Mennonite” first comes up in association with Toews (or maybe punch a journalist in the face… or maybe just a novelist), but it’s a hard association to avoid. She roots her fiction in the place from whence she springs, and her familiarity, her intense feelings for the tradition and community, and her complicated passion is I think no small part of what makes her fiction so good.

This one is no less rooted in the global Mennonite story, though it has plenty to say to a broader set of ears at the moment. It is a fictional rendering of a community dealing with events that really happened in a Mennonite community in Bolivia. The details are ghastly – fictional and real – and the easy themes to tag it with are violence, male domination, and female agency. Less sexily, it’s about family, loyalty, and fidelity to religiously founded ways of living. This is the kind of subject matter I have a lot of time for, and Toews includes it all fairly and well. Where Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (ding! or, drink! punch!) takes a pretty blunt portrayal of religion, Toews doesn’t think her women are stupid or misguided in giving space for scripture and theology in determining their actions, though the brutal conditions they live in are pretty much on a par with Atwood’s newly refreshed dystopia. Continue reading

Scenes from Islington North

The view from our flat on Tollington Way, HollowayI was hunting through an old diary for possible date confirmations of when I last applied for a particular fellowship – this is really uninteresting to everyone, including me, though it is a small detail in something that could be very interesting for me. And I came across this passage, during our family visit to London to attend a friend’s wedding. We took the opportunity to visit old haunts, including our stretch of Holloway near the North Library in Islington, and a small park nearby. For our kids – at the time 4 and 2 – a perfect park.

Here’s what I wrote:

(Interlude. Went to follow [Plum] in his stomping by the hill and came across a delightful Australian woman cutting grass with scissors. I tell her there’s a more effective way, but she’s snipping and bagging it for her guinea pig. “It’s lovely when it’s long. When I see it like this, I grab it, because when the council comes a long, they just butcher it.” So, not just a civic duty, then. “All the kids think I’m crazy when they see me.” But I bet their eyes just light up when you say “guinea pig”. [Beangirl] mentions Panda + Patch [guinea pigs of Edinburgh neighbours of ours] who, not being London pigs, have their own patch of grass to nibble. She asks if she can help; the woman says no. Her scissors squeak like a rodent. Do pigs squeak?)

(Found: at North Library: Usborne level 3 – Wuthering Heights, based on the novel by Emily Brontë.)

What I’m reading this month: July 2019

It’s been a tight couple of months on the reading front or, more precisely, the writing about reading front. Some urgent work tasks interposed, and the last thing I wanted to do was write recreationally after a fair bit of the professional kind. Some of it has turned out good – article has been accepted (hooray!) – and some of it may yet turn out good. Some of it was comments on other people’s writing: yes, it has been marking season, followed closely and urgently by the season of Exam Boards. But we’re through all that, and the only really big duty in front of me is the small matter of a conference I’ve organised that comes to town this week.

Cover of Annie Proulx’s Accordian CrimesReading becomes a bit of a luxury amidst that, but I did find time to make it through The Shipping News over the last little while. It’s one that had passed me by when it first came out, nor did I catch the film. Not Canadian literary fiction exactly, but in the ballpark – certainly in the right setting – so we feel a bit closer to that one. And after a recent tear on fiction in translation, it was time to return to something intended for my mother tongue.

Clearly, the right place to go afterwards was Accordion Crimes. I actually asked my wife which I should read (the “first” was implied), and she steered me to the Newfie tale. This one, she said, was bigger and sprawlier, harder to capture. Knowing my tastes, she suspected it might not be so much to my liking as a dedicated narrative to a contained story. Nonetheless, I am a musical guy, and it’s about accordions. I’d heard reviews of this one from when it came out that compelled me. So I picked it up, and now I’m nearly through it. Continue reading

Where there’s music and there’s people and they’re young and alive

Had quite a journey to the Yorkshire Dales last weekend. We were camping – meeting friends, old neighbours from Edinburgh. Something like “halfway”, though we all acknowledge that halfway between Edinburgh and Cardiff puts us somewhere around Leicester, which is not so interesting for camping. So we push a little further than they do. It’s okay; I like the north.

This weekend was a doozy. One can never fully predict the weather, but even so, early May bank holiday is still on the dicey side of “it’ll be fine”. But when you’re making plans over such distances that accommodate the schedules of two families of five, you have to just throw yourself in. Weather reports that speak of zero or one degree overnight temperatures must simply be met with additional wool things getting packed. Friends here told us we were mad, and if it had just been the five of us camping, we may indeed have cut bait.

Grim view of cloudy skies and traffic on the M5

“And if a ten-ton truck…” Katie Munnik’s grim shot from the M5

The temptation was stronger still driving up the M5 and M6, with ominous clouds that occasionally chucked heavy rain on our windshield. Our friends texted us from the road, in Dumfries and Galloway: snow.

Then there was the traffic – expected traffic of a Friday before the bank holiday weekend, with an added helping of bridge works in Birmingham. We were late, and our youngest was puking into the bucket.

The sky looked a bit more favourable by the time we left the M6 near Kendal. We weren’t that late, really: we had decided on a pub dinner that first night, since we’d be arriving after a day of school and driving and who knows what weather. Our friends booked a table at the pub just across the beck from our campsite for 8pm. Without the bridge works, it would have been fine, but at this point in the journey, it was just turning 8, and we had only 20 miles to go to Hawes (Hardraw, really, but it was too small to turn up on the signs).

“20 miles,” I said. “Not long til dinner, gang!” Continue reading

I knew where I was going; it wasn’t where I ended up

When I was a young warthog, I had the pleasure and privilege to help found my high school newspaper. Dover Bay Secondary School in Nanaimo, BC was a brand new high school, and I was to be among the first cohort to start there in Grade 8 and go all the way through to graduation. The school board had solicited a few keeners from the schools that would feed into the new place, along with the high schools from which kids in the catchment would be decanted, to form what was charmingly called the “ad hoc student council”. That was my first bit of work in setting up the school’s institutions. It resulted, mainly, in a very poorly attended dance in October.

But I also knew I wanted to do journalism, and I understood from Degrassi that this meant being on the school paper. So we needed to have one of those. And my Grade 8 English teacher, Ted McPherson (of “Old McPherson had some verbs, ee-yi-ee-yi-oh” fame) was willing to guide it. Cue legitimate reasons to skip classes every six weeks or so for the next five years.

The Bastion, iconic tower in downtown Nanaimo, in exaggerated blue light at night

All my high school photos are, like my comic collection, in my parents’ house, one ocean and thousands of miles away. So here’s an eerie crop of the Bastion that I took when I was back in Nanaimo last August.

Ted got back in touch with me and a couple of others back in December. It’s his last year teaching before he retires, and he wanted to take one more go at the paper. (It, like so many of the professional institutions it aspires to, including the Nanaimo Daily News, seems to have shut up shop somewhere along the line. I tell ya, you take your eyes off these things for just a minute…) And he invited me to write a guest column, which I did. I was happy to hear just a week or so ago that it was published, printed (!), and because distribution’s weird for these things, stapled to the bulletin board in the hallway. Probably E Wing. I can see it now.

Anyway, I didn’t want those hard-fought 470 words to be limited to that one audience, relevant though it may be. So here it is, doing that thing whereby print journalism migrates to some free blog in the hopes that exposure is sufficient.


It helps in life to know where you’re going.

When I arrived at Dover Bay in 1992 – a Grade 8 student in the school’s first year – I knew where I was going: journalism. I wanted to tell people’s stories. That’s why I helped start the brand-new paper, The Dover Bay Mirror, which I went on to edit from Grade 10.

Over those Dover Bay years, I refined the plan a little: I would study at Carleton University, in Ottawa, and I would go into radio – specifically, the CBC. 

And here’s the thing: it worked. I got the grades I needed, and with the Mirror, I got experience, and so I got a scholarship. Carleton’s journalism school cuts steeply from first to second year, but I made that cut and carried on to graduate with the Senate Medal for Achievement.

By that time, I was already working for CBC Radio. What started as a two-week internship at the end of third year became occasional on-call replacement work over the spring, which became full weeks of booked work over the summer. I knew where I was going, and I got there.

So why am I writing to you from Cardiff, Wales, in my office at the university’s department of religious studies?

Because although it helps to know where you’re going, that’s no guarantee of where you’ll end up.

I was casually employed at CBC for years. Ottawa was a great station, so I didn’t mind (much). The work was interesting, the people were fantastic, and this was what I always wanted to be doing. Then, just when I got an actual job there, CBC made hundreds of cuts across the corporation, and I was back where I started.

I chose to move to the UK, get a master’s degree, and see where it took me. Maybe back to journalism in Canada with some specialized skills. Instead, it took me to a PhD, a three-year contract, and now another three years. I’ve had to move with my family many times, but it’s been a rich life.

To get here, I’ve had to be resilient. Perhaps your teachers talk about “building resilience”, and in a tough world that’s getting tougher, it’s a good quality to have. As Diana Krall, Nanaimo-ite and student of Bryan Stovell, sings, 

Pick yourself up and
Dust yourself off and
Start all over again.

I knew where I was going, and it wasn’t where I ended up.Really, who’s to say I’ve ended up here? Life is long – I turn 40 this spring. That may seem old to you, but theres a lot of life ahead of me. Things can change again.

What helps me get through it is resilience, staying alert to my circumstances, and setting a direction, even if it’s not the path I continue on.