Monday, April 25, 2016

Peter Gzowski and the planet

Last week I mentioned a beautiful video on YouTube of the earth, expanding to take in the entire universe and then compressing into our smallest atoms. My friend Lesley Humphrey sent me the link. Thank you!

And here, FYI, is my nearly 20-year old Globe article about Peter Gzowski at the end of his career, posted because you'll read in the previous post about his producer Hal Wake's interview with Elly Danica, mentioned in the piece.
Globe and Mail, Feb. 17, 1997

I miss him already and he hasn't even gone yet, although they say he'll soon disappear. Until now, even after long absences, he has always come back. How can this country survive in the morning if Peter Gzowski vanishes for good? Every day his voice floats out to claim us, like a ribbon held by a teacher leading school children on an excursion. We listeners are all holding on to the coast-to-coast ribbon of Gzowski's voice.

Yet I had many Gzowski-free years – when I was studying, or at work early, or working at night and sleeping in.  I heard people talking about various interviews and issues from the show, but I wasn't listening.

Then there were the years when his program was a lifeline. From the highly-charged stimulation of my work, I moved into the domestic cocoon of a stay-at-home mother of one and then two small children. It's a hard transition from one kind of satisfaction to another, and although I was exactly where I wanted to be, there were days when the isolation inside the walls of the house made me nutty. But I was never alone, even when the children were asleep, because an intelligent, courteous man spent the whole morning talking to me. By noon I had managed to accomplish a few things perhaps, a load of laundry or dishes, picking up toys, getting dressed, but all the time I'd been absorbed in interesting, sometimes unforgettable, conversation.

I was working in the kitchen the morning Peter interviewed a soft-voiced Prairie woman who had just put out a book of poetry. Her name was Elly Danica; the book, called "Don't – A Woman's Word", was about her nightmare childhood during which, she told us, she was sexually abused, for years, by her father and his friends. This was before adults had started to speak publicly about the secret horrors of childhood. I had to stop and sit down, to be able to comprehend what she was saying; my mind kept repeating, "Her father? And his friends?" As her steady voice told its tale, I was so devastated I could hardly move, and wondered if everyone listening across the country was as heartsick as I. It felt like all of Canada discovering the reality of child sexual abuse right then, all together.

I have never forgotten, either, the joyful interview with the couple who had been surprised with a pregnancy when the wife was 49. Holding their one-year old whom they had brought with them, they talked about getting all the baby things they'd bought for their grandchildren back for their own baby, about facing old age and mortality with a young child. The baby started to babble into the microphone, and the grownups shut up to listen. From the stillness of the studio came a long series of musical gurgles, a much-loved baby singing his song. Then Peter laughed, "Hundreds of thousands of Canadians are listening to baby talk."

With Gzowski, even listening to baby talk, I wasn't only a housewife in her kitchen, I was a citizen of a vast country of fascinating, brave, quirky, opinionated, hilarious, literate, talented, world-traveling citizens. Through the years, though he doesn't know it, Gzowski interviewed me, too – about my scintillating life, my fabulous children, my hopes for the future.

I know he isn't perfect. Sometimes he's gruff, sometimes unctuous, too ready to please; points that are important but perhaps not pleasant slip by. Or he's too polite to people I detest, or not polite enough to people I admire. He must have done thousands of interviews, though, over his years at the microphone, yet I have never heard a single major gaffe. He must have made one, but I didn't notice.

What is it that makes him special, that makes his replacements, charming as they are, not quite Peter? They're so much younger than he is, for one thing; they've experienced so much less. Peter has been there, done that. He's relaxed, warm and open, his humour self-deprecating and generous; he makes his guests comfortably welcome while probing their lives. His style, the same with heads of state or with village bird watchers, is intimate, down-home, as if all those strangers, one after another, come to sit in his kitchen while he pours coffee and slices his special banana bread.

Yet for all his seeming effortlessness, he's a superb craftsman, alert and well-prepared; he shapes interviews, bringing people back to missed topics, picking up loose ends. He even manages an ending for most of the talks, a wrap-up flourish or a laugh line. In the U.S., this would need to be a big moment, because the prime concern of the network is selling the advertising space that follows. Here, Peter's finales lead to a nice piece of music, and then Peter again, more coffee, more banana bread.

How reassuringly Canadian that this far-flung population is united by a single radio personality, like the CPR. And what a Canadian personality. Not a right-wing blowhard, like those so popular on the radio south of us, or a man of any political stripe whatsoever – in fact, what are Gzowski's politics? Who is Peter Gzowski anyway? We know that his clothes are rumpled, he wasn't a hit on TV, he plays golf, he still smokes. Otherwise, when you consider that the man is as ubiquitous as any Canadian politician or entertainer, we know remarkably little about him.

I see Peter as the ideal small-town barber. You sit in his chair and jabber away, and he listens and asks questions, and you talk some more. And at the end, he whips off the cape and you look in the mirror, and you're the same person, only better – sharper, funnier, more knowledgeable, more in touch. Don't leave us, Peter. Let us sit in your chair while you make us look better, while you make us look at each other. How can we join this country in the morning, from sea to shining sea, without you? 


  1. Wow. That was a beautiful tribute to Peter Gzowski, Beth.


  2. Thank you, Juliet. He was a treasure for the country and we miss him.