A few years ago, Gavin Barrett left his house to head to his office — both places in Toronto Beaches — when a refuse truck hammered by with a sound and fury that awoke his sense-memory and led him to pen a new poem. “When the whale: a conversation” opens with these lines:

How did your day begin?

Waiting for the morning bus,
garbage truck rattle shakes me from screen.
Fat-bellied sow style, muck stinkspittle
thread of garbage drool slavering out its arse end
sweet high perfume of rot, living things dying,
dead things crawling with life
the whiff knocks me back

to when the whale
came and lay dead on our shore
news brought first to nose
by that quick messenger. Stench.
Magnetic to vulture, crow, gull and boy.”

That stinking, rotting whale of Gavin’s memory lay on the shores of the Arabian Sea in his hometown, Bombay (now Mumbai). Born in 1967 of Anglo-Indian and Goan East African parentage, he emigrated to Canada in 1996 after living and working in Hong Kong for over five years. I first met Gavin over a beer at the Imperial Pub when attending a Canadian Authors – Toronto event: a screening of Kenneth Branagh’s film about William Shakespeare, All Is True. When Co-Presidents Lee Parpart and Jeannie Fong Garrard resurrected Authors – Toronto they reached out to Gavin to be on the Advisory Board. Since then, he and I have gotten to know one another a little, Gavin attending my Zoom launch for my first novel, Fair, and me attending his Zoom launch for his first book of poetry, Understan. (I assume my use of “Zoom launch” attests, for readers, the Covid 19 pandemic timing of publication for both.)

I know to make sense of this man’s life for the reader I need to start at the beginning — or, really, before his beginning, the life of his parents and grandparents — and yet it is difficult for me to fight the urge of jumping into the immediacy of Gavin Barrett today, the richness of his language as evident in those lines of poetry, the success of his advertising partnership, Barrett and Welsh, not only financially but in its mandate that evolved into creating a multicultural marketing agency to speak to Canada’s diverse population, and Gavin’s combining of all that to launch The Tartan Turban Secret Readings, a series hosted in the evenings to utilize the firm’s office space and create a platform for Black, Indigenous and People of Colour writers to read aloud their works. It is difficult not to immediately describe recent conversations where his language flows like his hair and his word choices seem as mischievous as his salt and pepper beard (though Gavin would surely admit to more salt than pepper these days). Yet, I shall resist all that and take you back, first to Goa, India.

Do you know Goa? Do you know India? The history of it all, British and Portuguese colonialism with its Christian roots — Catholic and Protestant — and the bureaucratic necessities of early multinational corporate dynasties like the British East India Company creating vast needs for administrative employees, along with the immense civil service? Now an Indian state on the southwestern coast next to the Arabian Sea, Goa was a Portuguese colony from 1510 to 1961. According to Gavin, many Goans were educated in English as well as Portuguese, and to the British they were ideal employees in the corporations and civil service, not just in India but in other colonies throughout the Empire. Gavin’s maternal grandfather was such an employee, an administrator for a coffee and tea plantation in Kenya, who went back to Goa to find his bride. Amusingly, though they married in Goa, his grandparents waited until their return to Africa before having their wedding photos taken.

Gavin’s maternal grandparents, circa 1930. Although their wedding took place in Goa, they did not have their official wedding photos taken until much later when they returned to Kenya.

They had five children, four girls and one boy, with Gavin’s mom, Lorna, the youngest. All the children were born in Africa except, of course, the boy. Patriarchal blessings meant mother had to return to Goa to give birth to their only son.

Lorna was educated in Kenya until the age of 15 and on finishing her secondary and pre-university credentials, went to University of Bombay’s all-girls Sophia College, before moving on to St. Xavier’s College to complete her B.A. in English Literature.

On the ship travelling from Africa to Bombay she met her future husband, Horace, who was the ship’s purser, nine years her senior. Horace’s family are Anglo-Indian going back seven generations. Gavin’s paternal grandfather was mixed race and his grandmother was a white Anglo-Scot, born in India to Anglican missionaries, converting to Catholicism when she married Gavin’s grandfather. As Gavin told me, “Anglo-Indians have a special status in India”. Indeed, the constitution guarantees the rights of communities and religious and linguistic minorities, with Anglo-Indians permitted to maintain their own schools with instruction in English. 

After marriage, his father continued his career as a sailor, spending over thirty years as a merchant marine while his mother gave birth to and raised three boys: Gavin the oldest, with younger brothers Nigel and Russell. To speak to Gavin of his mother is to hear a son imbued with immense pride with a woman who, while raising three boys, “completed at least three Master’s degrees that I know of: an MA in Literature, an MPhil, and another in Linguistics.” When his mother was doing her MA in Literature she’d bring her notes home and Gavin would write them out, beginning his own focused education on English Literature, writing poetry from a young age. At the end of Understan, Gavin begins his acknowledgements first with thanks to his mother:

“I owe life and literature to my mother, Lorna, without whom I might never have written at all. She taught me to read and so to write, and was always my promoter, critic, and friend. I am grateful for the love of words I walk within…”.

A long time ago in Colombo, Ceylon (now named Sri Lanka). Gavin with his mother, Lorna, father, Horace, and new baby brother, Nigel.

That close relationship, like all intense relationships, has many dimensions and the last poem of his collection, “My father the sailor, in his 80s”, reveals one aspect with these lines:

“…she drifted
in the sea of your absences. Did you know
she made me her anchor?
It nearly drowned me. A heavy burden for a child.”

When I explored these lines with Gavin, this reflection of his mother in this poem of his father, he said: “She saw me as mature for my age and leaned on my maturity and native intelligence. I was automatically ‘the man of the house’ and it was a joyful burden — a privilege and honour – to share her burdens and to hear her speak frankly of her fears and dreams for herself, for the family. But yes, because I was a child, it was also often overwhelming and hard to bear and I feared for her heart and how much she cared.”

When it came time, Gavin also attended St. Xavier and those few years proved to underpin his life. At seventeen, he began dating Leah, a young woman he’d met in junior college — they’ve been together ever since, marrying in 1989. Despite his passion for literature, he chose to major in economics, pragmatist as well as poet: “I was trying to be clear-eyed, practical, knowing I needed to make a living.” Nonetheless, he felt “unsuited to it”, detesting subjects such as statistics and econometrics, though these skills helped him later in life when he formed his own company. I challenged Gavin’s dismissal of his economic studies, pointing out his entrepreneurial success, but he rebutted emphatically: “My success has been entirely about being creative.” You see, his creativity, his writing, and not his economic degree landed him his first job at twenty years old as a sales manager for a pharmaceutical company. In those days, large Indian companies communicated with their sales reps across the country by writing letters. Gavin could write a letter! After work, in the evenings, he went back to school to obtain his MA in English Literature.

The poet never diminished within the external pragmatist. During this time of adult formation, falling in love with Leah, learning career-building skills, he took a major stride with his poetry. “Unbroken. Remembering the Bombay Poetry Circle” is a short piece Gavin published on his website describing a late afternoon in 1986 (he would have been 19) when “a dozen or so young men and women took the broad and dusty wooden stairs to a large, dim room…. Bare tube lights hanging from a high ceiling backlit the distinctive silver halo of Nissim Ezekiel’s hair. There was a solitary chair, and Nissim sat on it. The rest of us, poets every one, sat on the floor, in a circle, ready to share our work. The first meeting of the Bombay Poetry Circle was in session. We each distributed a poem.”

This was no slapdash writers circle but one led by a leading figure of Anglo-Indian literature. Upon his death in 2004, The Guardian wrote “Nissim Ezekiel, who has died aged 79, was the father of post-independence Indian verse in English.” And Gavin recognized this master at the end of Understan: “Nissim Ezekiel praised me and published me and made me fear my own work less and love it more.” In that same poetry circle was a young man also mentored and championed by Nissim: Ranjit Hoskoté. When I did a little online research of Ranjit Hoskoté I discovered he’d served as the principal art critic for The Times of India, Bombay, and as the curator of the first-ever professionally curated national pavilion of India at the Venice Biennale. When I followed up with Gavin he said, “Ranjit went on to become India’s preeminent art and culture critic and probably its most successful poet writing in English today. He is still a friend and a champion of my work and he is one of the few people I shared the manuscript of Understan with, before it was published. Until Understan, Ranjit was single-handedly responsible for the majority of my work being published.”

Twenty-year-old Gavin — sales manager, poet, engaged to be married —  still had the full support of that caring mother who helped chart his course without him realizing it. “Advertising happened to me,” he says, “I fell into it.” Lorna had spotted a short story contest, one established by a marketing company as a way to recruit talent and, unbeknown to Gavin, she entered one of his stories. He received a letter out of the blue inviting him to a “copy test”. Interested only by the company’s promise of a complimentary fine lunch he decided to attend, impressed the recruiters and was hired as a copywriter. Thus began his life-long advertising career.

Leah and Gavin have been together since they were teenagers.

When he and Leah married in 1989 they honeymooned in Hong Kong and promised themselves they’d return, which they did two years later when Gavin accepted an advertising position there. Both daughters, Faith and April, were born in those Hong Kong years although April was only three months old when the family moved to Canada. Leah’s sister had already emigrated to Toronto and, Gavin said, “when your wife wants to stay close to family by following her sister, you follow your wife.” The family relocated in Toronto in 1996 and Gavin reestablished his advertising career where he helped get a prime minister elected: “In Canada, even before I was allowed to become a citizen, I was responsible for the campaign creative for one of two ad campaigns that led to the 2000 election of Jean Chretien as prime minister. Vickers and Benson, the agency I worked for was the agency of record for the Liberal Party and I was a member of Red Leaf, the powerful Liberal ‘campaign agency’ then co-chaired by John Rae and John Hayter. I remained a member of Red Leaf for many years after, through the Martin-Dion-Ignatieff era.”

Despite lofty assignments and great success, Gavin was never admitted to the boardroom other than to make presentations where he “tired of being the only person who looked like me.” He knew he had the talent to be in the boardroom as a decision-maker and came to believe “the only way to achieve the level of success I deserved was to create it.” Working in agencies, he had formed a creative partnership with Mike Welsh — Gavin the writer, Mike the art director — and Gavin convinced Mike they could do it alone. They founded Barrett and Welsh in 2002, starting from scratch, taking no clients with them, going full scale in 2003. Today they employ 15 people and have evolved into a multi-cultural marketing agency, providing creative for a wide-ranging group of clients (TD Bank, Allstate, Brampton Transit) to reach their clients increasingly diverse customer base.

Gavin’s advertising career has produced numerous memorable moments, including those that are terrifying and those of unexpected cultural impacts. For terrifying, there is the time where, as his corporate bio for Barrett and Welsh mentions, he “pissed off a crowd in Lagos.” When I asked Gavin to explain, he said the incident occurred because of the sight of their white cameraman during a time in 2007 when he’d taken on a project in Nigeria for the World Bank and Lagos Metropolitan Area Transport Authority.

Gavin, in the middle, with some of the production crew members and their security detail. (Hint: the security members hold the automatic weapons.) On the far right is Lagos movie star and director Tarila Thompson, who headed the location crew and saved the day.

“I was writer-director for a mini-doc for the World Bank on how developing public transportation infrastructure is a poverty alleviation/eradication strategy and a pathway to prosperity. After a day filming Lagos street life, protected by the governor’s personal security detail, we dropped them off and headed back to the hotel but were caught in gridlock — ironically, one of the reasons for the project. Our cameraman, ever the opportunist, stuck his camera out the crew coach window and began filming the scene. Where there is poverty there’s anger and there’s a lot of anger directed towards the West/Global North for its interference in Nigerian politics, its propping up of corruption in exchange for access to Nigeria’s vast oilfields and the continued presence of widespread poverty despite the resource wealth of the country. A white/Western camera crew is a reminder of all of that, as well as the high likelihood that the outcome is usually yet more bad press for Nigeria. Crowds become mobs very quickly; the cameraman and I (I was just behind him) were spat on, we hit the floor of the bus as a precaution in case of gunfire, and the crowd began rocking our minibus — usually a precursor to it being turned over. Our Lagos production crew (one of them was a Lagos movie star) saved the day. They got off the bus and remonstrated with the crowd and somehow disbanded them.”

As for cultural impact, try this implausible story: while still a young man in India, Gavin’s copy for his first major advertising campaign engaged no less a famous author than novelist John Irving (The World According to Garp, Cider House Rules, A Prayer for Owen Meaney). The campaign Gavin worked on was for Close Up toothpaste and he cleverly turned “mouthwash” and “toothpaste” into verbs. “Do you mouthwash when you toothpaste?” appeared on large billboards and caught Irving’s eye. In Son of a Circus, his novel set in Canada and India, Irving quoted the ad slogan as a cornerstone for one of his character’s rants about the degradation of the use of language in India. How’s that for drawing attention to your work as a young copywriter! Almost a quarter-century after the novel’s publication, Gavin approached John Irving in Toronto during an author’s event at Harbourfront where the novelist was blown away to meet the person who had actually written that advertising copy.

The autographed book. Incredible that a young copywriter’s first major line would make it into a John Irving novel.
Seated is John Irving. Gavin is left and Mayank Bhatt is right.

Despite the energy he put into his working career, his love and celebration of all things literary continued. That love and celebration extends to reaching out and assisting others. Gavin, who has enjoyed support from people such as Nissim Ezekiel and Ranjit Hoskoté, in turn offers his support. One of those people is Mayank Bhatt who immigrated to Canada in 2008 and had his first novel, Belief, published in 2016. For a number of years Mayank published a blog, “Generally About Books” and he wrote this about Gavin:

“He is that guy every newcomer from India with some experience in media goes to meet in the hope of making the right connection and to get a career start.

“He didn’t belie his reputation. He informed me of the Indo-Canada Chamber of Commerce job that I eventually got (my first real job in Canada).

“Gavin has since become a dear friend, applauding every small milestone of my life in Canada, cheering every small achievement, egging me on to go a step further. He has always been there for me, a quiet but strong presence.”

When Gavin wanted to make use of the Barrett and Welsh after-business-hours office space to support other writers, he approached Mayank and together they created the “Tartan Turban Secret Reading Series”. Launched in 2017 to mark Canada’s 150th anniversary, “The Readings celebrate and support Canadian writers with a special focus on those who self-identify as Black, Indigenous or People Of Colour, who have few such platforms…”. According to its website, along with supporting writers early in their careers, the Series has also featured writers that include “Governor General Award winners, Giller Prize shortlisted authors, CBC poetry prizewinners, and novelists with books on the New York Times’, Globe and Mail’s and CBC’s best books lists.”

And what of Gavin’s own poetry? In that same blog, published in 2017, Mayank said about Gavin: “Inexplicably, he prefers to remain in the shadows, and hide his awesome talent as a poet, for which he has a well-established reputation in India.”

A great part of Gavin’s “hiding his awesome talent” was, he told me, that with over 200 poems he “simply had too many poems and had not the distance to fashion a book from them”. Fittingly, it was Mayank, perhaps in reaction to his own reference to Gavin remaining in the shadows, who helped his friend by introducing him to Fraser Sutherland. I personally never met Fraser, a poet, editor and critic who died in March of this year, but he had a great, if sometimes fearsome reputation in Canada. As Lee Parpart tweeted on news of his death, “One of Fraser Sutherland’s superpowers was telling the truth, even when it could make for awkward moments at poetry parties. He modelled a fearless clarity that anyone writing about poetry would do well to emulate.” 

Family photo at the Grand Canyon, 2015. L to R: April, Leah, Gavin, Faith.

When I asked Gavin about his experience working with him he responded, “Fraser was the editor who guided me through the thorn bushes and mangrove forest that my own words had become to me and on that journey we became friends…. It was a great relief to me to have my poetry validated — enthusiastically approved in fact — by someone as brutally honest as Fraser. He helped by identifying the poems that should go into the manuscript and suggested minor but, to me, critical edits.”

So it was that in 2020 Understan was published. The title utilizes the suffix “stan” (as in Pakistan, Afghanistan), which means “place of” or literally “where one stands”. This poetry collection is of place as well as of love, family, religion, spirituality and memory. It is place that caught my attention in this collection, the surrounding environment, both natural and urban, where sometimes the natural clashes with the urban — his poem “Pickering” — where sometimes natural can be extreme — his poem “Deccan” — where sometimes it can be beautiful, contemplative, reflective — poems “The weal of birds” and “Feeder”. One day I wrote an email to Gavin to explore that with him and also to question why, of all the places his poems are set, there is nothing regarding Hong Kong. His reply about the lack of Hong Kong poems was simply that many were written but none included in this collection. Of my overall question regarding writing about environments, his response — expansive, graceful, rhapsodic — flowed with his qualities as a writer, as a lover of language. And remember, this was but an email response to an email question!

“India is extremely natural and raw even in the places where it is fully built. Perhaps it’s the fecundity of the tropics? If you think only of teeming human life in a city like Mumbai, you have not yet run across the teeming insect retinue that accompanies it with the assiduity of camp followers in pursuit of an army on the march. Even a massive built-up city like Bombay gave me, as a boy, green parrots overwhelming the leaves of the peepal tree outside my window, the pleasure of elephants tethered by my gate when the circus came to town, cobras (caged, thank Shiva) I could tickle with a feather, koels, crow pheasants, snakes we hunted, bugs of iridescent glory, geckos eyeing me upside down from the ceiling above my upper bunk bed, clicking their disapproval at my choice of reading material. Hong Kong is brutally concrete. Weirdly though, most of its 7 million inhabitants occupy just 15% of the territory and most of it is green — but very few people discover this unless you shove yourself out of the Blade Runner zone and explore its wet forested peaks and islands and their secret bays and coves. This I would do as much as possible, rising to the glorious silence at the top of Victoria Peak to stroll in indolent stupor through the clammy moist hand of the rainforest until I realized I was not listening to silence at all but the muted roar of one of the greatest cities in the world, thickened by a soup of fungal humidity and sweetened by the breeze. In the tropics, everything smells strongly, as though it is growing or dying. Canada is gloriously minimalist by comparison — all vast prairie and snowdrift and massive open expanse of sky and the odd disgruntled bear chasing after a YouTuber and the smell of freshly mowed lawns. I love it but I would equally have loved to be here at a time when there was more buffalo dung everywhere. Is Canada polite, even at its wildest? Mind you, neither bear nor cobra would tolerate such rambling questions. In short I am very drawn to environments and am more changed by — or wonder at — them, than I think I am changed by time.”

The Tartan Turban Secret Readings. Is Gavin reading a poem, telling a story, holding court, or just having fun? My guess: all of the above.

That is the language of Gavin Barrett, as often in conversation as in writing. This man who celebrates so many others is to be celebrated himself and I urge any lover of poetry to look up his first collection. (Follow this link to his publisher’s website.) Will there be another? Yes. Fraser Sutherland left Gavin with notes on all those poems not included, so he is near ready to go to a publisher for his second book. He continues to write new poems but is not nearly as prolific as in his youth, maybe six to ten new poems a year. And he wants to publish fiction, perhaps a collection of short stories first, then a novel. He has been working on a collection of short stories for many years.

As for life outside his writing, he has no idea how long he will continue in the advertising business. His desire is to turn all of his writing away from marketing and toward his art, but there are a myriad of possibilities to that end, all leading no doubt to a reduced role in the firm. How and how long remain unknown to him. He and Leah are now empty nesters, with oldest daughter Faith working for the Peel Board of Education and living in the Toronto neighbourhood of High Park, and the youngest, April, in Montreal doing social media for a gaming company. Both daughters are also writers. In his immediate future, Gavin wants to travel home to India as soon as the pandemic restraints allow. His mother died a number of years ago but his father is still alive, now 87, and suffered a broken hip. Though the family has live-in caregivers to assist, the burden of overall care falls to his two brothers and Gavin says he needs to go and “take his share of the care”.

Living a life of creativity and taking care of his share — I can think of no better way to summarize Gavin Barrett.

Next up is John Overall, a former colleague I first met when he joined Union Gas in 2000 and has since become a good friend. Back in the 70s, after graduating from engineering school, John’s first job took him took him to the Arctic, on the edge of the Beaufort Sea, where he faced down a polar bear. Self-titled as a “professional sceptic”, this engineer worked in labs such as the Canadian Gas Research Institute investigating new technologies, helping to develop more efficient space heating and water heating appliances, and serving on various bodies regarding codes and regulations — that is when not rebuilding short-wave radios, antique motorcycles and crappy British sports cars.

I hope you come back.

About Ed Seaward

Ed Seaward is the author of a number of short stories and screenplays, including Mother Daughter Happiness, which was a finalist at the 2019 Pasadena International Film Festival…

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