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Remembering Eric Nicol

September 16th, 2012

Death be not loud: A Tribute to Eric Nicol

The turnout for a memorial mass in honour of Eric Nicol on February 6, buy just four days after his death at age 91, was embarrassingly small for someone who had significant stature as a writer for six decades.

It was held in a modest Catholic church in the Dunbar neighbourhood of Vancouver, presided over by a Franciscan who deemed that anyone who is a writer is necessarily a contemplative, and all contemplatives are within the realm of God.
Nicol was a self-avowed agnostic.
Precious little in the service referred to Nicol as a person and the importance of his literary career was barely mentioned beyond a letter from his Alberta-based illustrator.

Laymen who knew Eric were only invited to speak at a tea ’n’ sandwiches reception afterwards.

Despite severe back pain, veteran sportswriter Jim Taylor attended from West Vancouver to give some appreciation of Eric as a writer, and Norman Young (a retired UBC professor) was also present as someone who knew the bigger picture, but by then the humourless mass had unintentionally served as a sobering reminder of how fleeting “literary fame” can be.

Jack Knox’s column in the Times Colonist on February 6 was a welcome antidote. “Nicol wasn’t just good,” he wrote. “He was good for a long time, like Gordie Howe… He was a smart writer with an Everyman quality, finding humour in mundane life. Witty without being mean, he always seemed to have a cheerful sense of the absurd.

In short, Eric Nicol cranked out 6,000 columns for The Province between 1951 and 1986; as well as 39 books, countless radio scripts, stageplays and magazine articles. One of his plays was produced on Broadway. He wrote two successful radio series for the BBC and he became the first living Canadian writer to be included in The Oxford Book of Humorous Prose.

He won the Leacock Medal for Humour three times. In 1995, he became the first recipient of the George Woodcock Lifetime Achievement Award to recognize an outstanding literary career in British Columbia.

Eric Nicol wrote prodigiously and chronically. His last book, Scriptease (2010), was written while he had Alzheimer’s.

He was good for a long time.

According to Eric Patrick Nicol—born on December 28, 1919 in Kingston, Ontario, the son of William Nicol and Amelia Mannock Nicol—in 1921 he “almost immediately persuaded his parents to flee a fierce winter in favour of a farmhouse on Kingsway,” in British Columbia. He would later describe the province as “a body of land surrounded by envy.”

After a brief period in Nelson, the family relocated to Point Grey where Nicol began writing stories at Lord Byng High School. While pursuing an arts degree at UBC in 1941, Nicol wrote for the The Ubyssey newspaper under the pen name of Jabez.

Nicol served with the RCAF in W.W. II, during which he started writing occasional columns for the Vancouver News Herald and The Province. As Jabez, he published his first book, Says We (1943), a collection of columns by himself and the once-legendary Vancouver journalist Jack Scott.
While he was in the RCAF, Nicol wrote comedy skits that were performed to entertain the armed forces. At war’s end, he returned to UBC for his M.A. in French Studies (’48), then spent one year in doctoral studies at the Sorbonne. He moved to London, England, to write a radio comedy series for Bernard Braden and Barbara Kelly of the BBC from 1950-51.

During this period, while writing alongside Frank Muir and Denis Norden, Nicol bought a car and lived it up a little, renting a swanky apartment. Naively, he had not understood that he must pay taxes on his earnings.
And so he skedaddled back to Vancouver, where he became a regular columnist with The Province in 1951.

During 40 years of writing for
The Province, Nicol claimed he never had a contract, he never took a holiday and he never missed a deadline. He feared that if he went on vacation, he might lose his job.

For most of his life, Nicol lived in the same house he purchased in 1957, near UBC. After being at any gathering for about fifteen or twenty minutes, he invariably whispered to his companion, “Let’s get out of here.”

Avoidance of parties was akin to avoidance of embarrassment. “I’m either sitting there like a frog full of shot,” he told the Georgia Straight in 1989, “or I run off at the neck and then hate myself the next morning.”
It was easier to let his characters speak. Nicol was the first Vancouver playwright to have his work successfully produced by the Vancouver Playhouse. His best-known play, Like Father, Like Fun (1966), concerned a crass lumber baron’s attempt to contrive his son’s initiation to sex. After it was unsuccessfully staged in New York under the title A Minor Adjustment (1967), Nicol rebounded with The Fourth Monkey (1968) about a failed playwright who takes refuge on the Gulf Islands.

Nicol’s play for the National Theatre in Ottawa, Pillar of Sand (1973), was set in fifth century Constantinople and examined civilization’s decline. “The reviews were mixed,” he said, “bad and terrible.” Other plays are Regulus; Beware the Quickly Who; The Clam Made a Face; a Joy Coghill vehicle, Ma! (1981), about once-legendary B.C.
newspaperwoman Margaret ‘Ma’ Murray; and his cryptic Free At Last.

One of Nicol’s more audacious works was Dickens of the Mounted: The Astounding Long-Lost Letters of Inspector F. Dickens NWMP 1874–1886 (1989), in which he devilishly invented correspondence from the son of Charles Dickens.This fictional work was taken for fact by many readers and some media outlets.
In his amusing but shrewd memoir Anything for a Laugh (1998), Nicol’s viewpoints are invariably witty, unfailingly original and occasionally downright odd. “I can take pride in nothing,” he writes. “It’s a sort of low-grade humility.”

Although he was an inveterate
punster, Eric Nicol did not wish to be pegged as simply a humourist. Seldom cited among Nicol’s best books is the still-serviceable history of his city, Vancouver (1970).

Apolitical but wary of authority, he was proud that his column on the assassination of John F. Kennedy was read into The Congressional Record. If prodded, he liked to recall that one of his Province columns against capital punishment resulted in a citation for contempt and a trial that attracted national interest.

Beset by family troubles, Nicol shocked his readership by producing something serious, Letters to My Son, a book based on Lord Chesterfield’s famous tome to his wayward son. “Although life is a box of chocolates according to Forrest Gump,” Nicol wrote, “what they expected to get from me was a soft centre. Instead they bit into a sourball. I felt badly about this. I had violated one of the first rules of surviving as a writer: continue to give your readers what they have learned to expect from you. If you are Stephen King, you give them horror, book after book. Margaret Atwood, feminist turmoil. Farley Mowat, a torrid love affair with wolves, whales, whatever the Maritimers are slaughtering as a surrogate for having a team in the National Hockey League.”

A self-avowed commercial writer, Nicol frequently described his politics as “anarchist in theory, liberal in practice.” In public, he seemed downright conservative, even prudish. In 1962, Nicol quipped that he did not smoke, drink, play cards or run around with women—but he hoped to do so if royalties came pouring in.

As a self-avowed ‘devout determinist,’ an agnostic ‘hooked on antique principles,’ Nicol was determined not to change with the times. After 35 years, the droll punster was retired by Pacific Press at age 65. After that he wrote one column per week, reduced to one column per month, then zilch.
“The print humourist is an endangered species,” he wrote. “Every year I expect to receive a Canadian Wildlife Federation calendar with my picture on it.”

Eric Nicol had three children from his first wife Myrl Mary Helen Heselton. In 1986 he married author Mary Razzell, with whom he lived in the same Point Grey home he had purchased in 1957. Although he once described himself as “pretty well retired from everything except breathing,” Nicol teamed with cartoonist Peter Whalley for Canadian Politics Unplugged in 2003 and released a “palsied opus” about aging in 2005. But he couldn’t stop joking.

Self-deprecating to a fault (“In the feast of life, I have been a digestive biscuit”) and not prone to self-mythololgizing, Nicol accumulated the wisdom of the jester.

Just before he died, he joked once more to Mary, his steadfast supporter, “Let’s get out of here.”

Eric Nicol died at 9:19 a.m. on February 2, 2011, at the Louis Brier Home and Hospital in Vancouver.

Somewhere near the middle of
Frank Davey’s new book on the origins of the TISH writing movement at UBC, When TISH Happens (ECW), Davey states that when he was growing up in Abbotsford in the 1950s, there were only three living B.C. writers that anyone knew existed: Roderick Haig-Brown, Earle Birney and Eric Nicol. That held true for the early sixties, too.

But from the Age of Pun to the Age of Rap, tastes in humour radically changed. Nicol’s gentlemanly wit began to seem anachronistic.

By the time Nicol was forced into retirement from the newspaper game, he was given a laptop computer as a present from Pacific Press.

Nicol, according to Jim Taylor, always wrote using a pencil.

Essay Date: 2011

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