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A Cultural Life
by Joseph Sherman

I was reading a book of tributes to the late Peter Gzowski when the CCAG exhibition celebrating Marc Gallant’s tumultuous life opened. What price individuality? The much-loved Gzowski brought to the CBC—radio in particular—needed pith and broadcasting breadth. Gallant and others I know have done something akin for their Island—a Good Thing. Such characters—real characters—are permeated with telling flaws and are never angels, but something there is within them that is a tonic for where we root ourselves.

A real character: Eccentric. Iconoclast. Sheep-disturber. Any or all of the above at one time or another. Some of them burn and perish too soon. The best real characters are self-aggrandizing in measure, but serve their real communities in serving their shaggy egos. Sweet-natured doesn’t cut it. Talent does.

How does one measure the talent? Marc Gallant was a polished commercial artist and illustrator with a verve for unusual, sometimes wild, ideas, some of them arts-related, others relating to the environmental and the teleological. He travelled. It was his unsubtle passion for his own conception of an unspoiled PEI that garnered press attention and stormy response. He was dynamic and purposeful. Gzowski was brilliant at what he did, and I mean his personifying a coast-to-coast radio show, not his being the print journalist he was apprenticed to be. By sheer good fortune his intellect and interests combined with a voice and appearance that transmuted his testiness and impatience for a receptive audience. He struck a happy chord. His humble persona didn’t hurt. Gallant wasn’t modest and that may have hurt, but in repose he can be recognized as an endearing rogue enough of whose ideas made sense to a certain breed of Island cat.

One has to be grown up to recognize a real character as being useful; children tend to humour such people, or avoid them. Milton Acorn was a powerful poet and the price was real characterhood in extremis. He’d not hurt a fly or address a child unless doing so promised a poem. Milton was an uncalculated ranter. Gallant was a calculated ranter. Gzowski didn’t really rant.

Réshard Gool was a real character and constructively calculated. A political scientist, novelist, poet, and publisher, he was drawn to unconditionably motivated people and daredevils. His ideas were leftish, pro-Island, definitely pro-culture. He was tenacious. All real characters are tenacious.

Father Adrien Arsenault qualifies. He was a strong-willed artist and teacher with strong opinions. All real characters have opinions.

Some of us have strong opinions but will never be real characters. The best RCs are courageous, the aforesaid individuals being prime examples. Perhaps chutzpah has as much currency as courage. All of the above had chutzpah.

Real characters have to be good. Of course, goodness may seem relative, but it’s probably safe to say that, were we in the U.S., we’d easily be able to identify our heroes and antagonists by their choice of tribal animal token.

PEI’s most enduring and endearing real characters have had an abiding interest in its culture. No doubt if I hung out at the CDP my cast of RCs would sport different monikers. But whichever of the nine Muses we most admire, the appeal has always been with those opinionated individuals who’ve laboured and fought for ideas and creative tangibles. Real characters must produce real beneficiaries.

There are still some real characters left in service, but the years do take their toll. Twenty-five years ago my family landed on PEI, no one guessing how long our stay would be. (I don’t care to think of the real estate opportunities lost.) Ron Irving and Moncrieff Williamson saw to my meeting the first of several individuals who were revealed to be real characters. Had I appreciated the distinction then, I’d have thought: God spare us complacency and a dull life—long may they each wag a loaded finger.

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