Friday, September 06, 2019

Desmond Morton (1938-2019) RIP

I have never meant this to be an obituary blog, but in recent years I seem to have been documenting a growing list of my elders and mentors.  Olive Dickason, Michael Bliss, Craig Brown, Ramsay Cook, John Thompson.... Now Desmond Morton, who has been ill for a while, has died in Montreal at 81,

He came from a military family, descended from ur-Canadian general William Otter and son of another general, and he followed that tradition at Royal Military College.  He used to tell new professors of a military course called Instructional Techniques where the teacher said, "When you write on the blackboard, how do you write on the blackboard?" and all the cadets had to roar out in unison: "F-ing big, sir!" Useful information, he thought.  Soon however, he took a U-turn and became a history professor, activist, and NDP campaigner -- though he never lost his interest in military history.

Des was an early advocate for my first book, Louisbourg Portraits, and not long after it appeared he, as a Dean at U of T Mississauga, tried to get me hired for the history department there. I was not sure I wanted the job, but naively thought Dean Morton could make it happen. Why he was equally naive, I don't really understand -- there were already scads of underemployed Ph.Ds knocking around and big walls against idiosyncratic outside-the-box hirings. Maybe in recompense for that fiasco, he recommended me to Grolier Canada, then an educational publisher, and I did quite a bit of work for them,

Des once said he thought he published too much -- as an old journalist, he couldn't resist the call when someone asked him to write something, and he had a nicely jaundiced attitude to book promos, marketing, and prizes. But his military- and journalism-based habits sustained a formidable work ethic, and he published over forty books, and a slew of commentary.  And not filler either: a lot of major military and social histories in there, a much republished history of Canada, and a chapter in the Illustrated History of Canada too.
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