On Tuesday morning, after a short meeting at Memorial U, I stopped by my friend Camilla’s office for a chat. We go back a long way—we began our distance education careers together in 1992; she in French, and I in physics and math. We always have a lot to talk about…one of the gifts of old friendships.
I was drawn to the sight of the water bottle she had on her desk. It was about 20 cm tall and completely filled with a mix of ice cubes and water. Despite the fact that the stacked ice cubes reached within only a cm or so from the bottom, only about a half cm of ice stood above the surface. I tapped and shook the bottle several times just to make sure things weren’t stuck. Nope. Each time the ice would slosh around and find an equilibrium position in which the vast majority of the cubes were submerged and just a small bit of the few at the top visible.
Knowing that her physics geek friend was doing what came naturally Camilla just laughed and retrieved the “Intensive Core French” manual from a nearby table and placed it before me. The cover showed an image of an iceberg taken both above and beneath the ocean. You could clearly see the same phenomenon although to a slightly less extent. A slightly higher proportion of the ice was above the water owing to the slightly increased density of the seawater as opposed to the fresh water in Camilla’s cup.
“There’s always a lot more beneath the surface than you see at first glance,” she said.
This morning, while doing some odds & ends and reflecting on a book I recently read, those words, and the image of the water bottle, came back.
Bill Rowe is a master storyteller. What’s more, he loves conversing with others. He’s made a life of it. He’s been, among other things, a world traveler, a Rhodes Scholar, a successful politician, a lobbyist, a talk show host and, for now, most importantly, an author. His eyes light up with pleasure whenever he engages others in conversation. You can’t fake that; not even one as used to dealing with the public as he is.
He doesn’t seem to mind it when complete strangers address him as, simply, “Bill.” This despite the significant impact he has had, and continues to have, on both the political and cultural landscape of the province. He is at-ease with others and does not mind responding to difficult questions. Unlike many others with similar backgrounds he’s not glib. Get serious and he will too.
He’s also a master of ‘coy,’ something people easily forget when he responds, respectfully and gently, to the easy familiarity that people seem to have with this person who has been a public persona longer than many have even been around. In most cultures it would be expected to refer to someone of his stature as “Sir,” or “Mr.” But not Bill Rowe. He is okay with strangers assuming first-name familiarity with him. Perhaps he even prefers it, who knows? He can be self-effacing, often freely discussing the many decisions he has made that he now regrets.
He has boundaries, though. Try and go pass them and you will find the conversation steered away. The place he didn’t want you to go? He’ll take you somewhere else, a place so enticing that you’ll blissfully forget the original destination.
Not many people can do that at all. Even fewer can do it as gracefully as he can.
I love to read and have been doing it since I can remember. There’s always at least one book on the go. Non-fiction is preferred but it’s not because of any dislike for fiction—far from it; a good story is a good time. My preference for non- is driven, rather, by an intense and always-present curiosity. There’s always ‘stuff’ to be interested in.
On Sunday I had four books in various stages of ‘in process.’ It’s good that way. Read a bit until you need to stop and think about it. Move on, for a while, until you’re ready to come back. Some books only last a few days, others much longer. It depends; each in its own time.
Some time that afternoon, while gadding about, I noticed Bill Rowe outside a local bookstore signing copies of his latest, “The Premiers—Joey and Frank: Greed, Power and Lust.” Since there was no one at the table at that point in time I walked over and pointed to the cover, specifically at the image of Joey Smallwood, NL’s first premier after confederation, “Power.” I pointed to the image of Frank Moores, the second premier, “Lust.” “Who’s Greed?”
He fixed his eyes upon me and smiled, waving his hand over the cover. “All three terms apply to both.”
“Would you write in it for me?” A sticker said it was already signed.
“What would you like it to say?” he replied, taking up a pen, opening it to the title page and looking expectantly at me.
“Oh, I don’t care. ‘Enjoy reading it, or something.’ Anything would be fine.”
We chatted for a few minutes. He mentioned that his work as a call-in show host was getting in the way of his writing. I asked what was coming next. “I will do more in that series. You know that they (Joey and Frank) are dead now, so I suppose I will have to wait for a few more to die off before I can do any more,” he joked. I laughed out loud. “Would you write that on the book?” I asked.
Then it happened…
Around three minutes later I walked away from a fascinating conversation with a truly interesting individual. He did not even have to say, “No!” to my request even though I knew, three minutes later, that there was no way he would ever commit to doing a thing like that for someone who he did not know from Adam.
That was skillful.
I didn’t get to start reading the book until the following evening. I began it while waiting for daughter to have her Monday dance class and was unable to put it down voluntarily. In fact, until I finally finished it at 8:34 PM Tuesday evening (The time is a known as my friend Val got a message as soon as the book was finished. Her Dad was equally enthralled with it) no work was done that wasn’t absolutely necessary. The dishes and laundry piled up. Better things were afoot.
The book plays out, more or less chronologically, as a series of anecdotes. During the period in which both were premier Bill Rowe, as it turns out, held a series of ringside seats. Not only was he in a position to observe, unobstructed, the day-to-day events and decisions that centered on the two individuals but also he had direct access to both, especially Joey. As you expect, given the expanse of time covered by this book and the level of access the author had, the book plays out somewhat like a biography—almost. Besides the expected number of intimate and privileged details, it contains quite a few surprises. Telling you would just plain spoil the fun…
…and rob Bill Rowe of the opportunity of telling what is, after all, his own story.
The book is only $22 CDN and is available from Flanker Press. Get your own copy if you want to find out what’s between the covers ‘cause you’ll find no spoilers here.
You should know this you this, at least: neither character comes off as either a saint or a villain. At various times, if you ignore the larger context, each can be seen in either light. Mostly, though, you are left with images of complex, flawed characters whose primary motivators are accurately described by the three words in the subtitle of the book.
But then, this morning, while thinking of what to write in this post there it was: the image of the ice in the drinking bottle again.
There are a couple of things about the book; it’s not that they don’t add up. No, it’s the opposite—they seem to come to more than the expected sum. In a couple of places the story sort of goes sideways; explores avenues that don’t quite fit in, at least on the surface. In addition, things sometimes pop up a bit unexpectedly. At least that’s how it seems to me.
It’s not that the book isn’t skillfully written. The author is a Rhodes Scholar after all! He’s experienced. He’s good at it. It’s not for lack of a good editor either—Flanker Press is not like that. No, it’s more likely that, whether deliberately or unconsciously, another story—possibly a much darker one—finds itself layered in there as well.
Perhaps this is wrong. When you look too hard you will convince yourself of the existence of patterns that are, in fact meaningless. It happens. Sometimes, though, when you take the time to look you find something new; something unexpected; something that hints of a story, still untold.
Of this you can be sure: Bill Rowe has more stories to tell. Whether or not he will, in the end, tell the one I have in mind is his own business. You should hope, though, that both he and you get the chance to outlive a few more premiers of our province. I, for one, am looking forward to the sequel.