George Woodcock & Robin Skelton
April 02nd, 2008
I’ve known scores of BC writers over the decades, and two of them influenced me greatly, though perhaps less in what or how they wrote than in the way they functioned as writers within society.
George Woodcock came to BC from London when he was in his late thirties and went on to an astoundingly productive career as critic, historian, poet, editor, political philosopher and paterfamilias. He died in 1995. I later wrote a biography of him, The Gentle Anarchist, which is my own favourite of the books I have published (but absolutely no one else’s evidently).
Robin Skelton, who was also English, came to the province in 1963 at about the same age as Woodcock did. He was as cosmopolitan as George but less worldly, almost wholly involved in his own poetry, along with teaching and a few non-competitive scholarly pursuits such as Ango-Irish literature. George was a parental figure—a model—whereas Robin was a mentor. He was outgoing where George was shy, and worked hard to make cultural activity happen all round him—which is to say, in Victoria, where he sort of presided over everything.
George wrote far more books than even Robin did, which is saying something indeed, but Robin organised more readings, lectures and art exhibitions. He got young writers into print and out of trouble. He dissuaded more talented people from suicide and wrote them more grant references than anyone else of his day. He died exactly 10 years ago, and the Malahat Review, the quarterly he founded at the University of Victoria, has just come out with a memorial issue. I was pleased to be asked to contribute to it—and startled to realise that this is my first appearance in its pages. For under Robin’s editorship, it was a wildly international journal, publishing only a small group of Canadians (those with some toehold of a reputation in other countries) among the galaxy of East European controversialists and Latin American fabulists whom only Robin ever seemed to have heard of, much less published in English.
By contrast, Woodcock of course was interested in Canada foremost. His own journal, significantly, was Canadian Literature, published at UBC. Or as he often said, he was a Vancouverite first, a British Columbian second, a Canadian third. The order was a reflection of his lifelong anarchism, which people in Britain, at least those who weren’t anarchists themselves, found somewhat naïve if not downright risible, the way many over here found his dog-like devotion to the Dalai Lama, which originated with his strong-willed (not to say thoroughly impossible) wife, Ingeborg.
George was of Anglo-Welsh ancestry, as reflected in the fact that he sounded English but looked Welsh. In fact, he closely resembled the actor Desmond Llewelyn, who played Q in the early James Bond films. Robin was a northerner, a Yorkshireman, the sort people in the south consider a bit rough round the edges, and he looked—well, he looked like no one else alive. He made sure of that. He was a practising witch (he disliked the term warlock, considering it sexist). Incredulous people have vouchsafed to me that he had genuine powers as a healer. His actual witchcraft I’m not qualified to judge. The Globe and Mail once ran an enormous photo on the front page showing him outside the Peace Tower in Ottawa where he was casting a spell to drive out the GST.
“Sometimes it works,” he said sheepishly, “and sometimes it doesn’t.”
The Wicca faith was to him as anarchism was to George. He sported large rings on all eight fingers; one of them contained a secret compartment (for poison or a potion?). He wore thick black-framed glasses, kept his grey hair touching his shoulders and sported a beard, a somewhat wiry and greying one, that almost touched his belly. And he always dressed in black. He once told me, without any irony whatever, that young anglo flight attendants on Air Canada—those wishing to get ahead in the organisation by displaying initiative—automatically served him the kosher meal. George by contrast shied away from any sign of personal eccentricity except the eccentricity of looking far too normal all the time. I never saw him without a necktie. No one did. The frontispiece photo in my biography shows him panning for gold, unshaven, but wearing a tie and wing-tips.
George was born in Winnipeg but was his parents took him and themselves back to Britain in failure when he was only a few months old. He was considered a promising young poet in the 1930s and early 1940s but the poetic urge got subsumed into other types of writing once he returned to Canada after the Second World War. He did, however, resume writing poetry in the 1970s, working in a discernibly Canadian form of it that would be incomprehensible to his old English self. His most famous book, still in print, is Anarchism: A History of Libertarian Ideas and Movements, followed by The Crystal Spirit, a critical memoir of his friend George Orwell. As he aged, more and more of his books were on specific Canadian topics. A couple of these, The Doukhobors and Gabriel Dumont, still exercise a hold on people’s imaginations. He published about 150 books in all, most of them (though not the most famous ones) after a severe heart attack in 1966, when he was 54, concentrated his mind wonderfully.
None of Robin’s books is well known, though Memoirs of a Literary Blockhead perhaps deserves to be. He wrote quite a lot of other prose as well, but laboured mostly in the eternal twilight of poets and poetry. Over the years, he published several selected and even collected volumes. As death from diabetes and a weakening heart approached, he was working on a manuscript of new poems called Facing the Light, which is being published just now, another gesture to mark the anniversary of his passing.
The two men had even less in common that I’ve made it sound, but what they did share is that which I find most important about them. They believed in writing as the finest work of the individual consciousness, and they were not dissuaded by harsh criticism the way people who are less brave might be. They kept themselves alive by their pens so as to use those pens to produce all the things they felt they had to write. In the rush to do so, however, they never turned their backs on the community of writers and readers. On the contrary. They stayed current with the young. They were always engagé. They gave far more than they took, rejecting any suggestion that they were setting an example. To them, doing good was just another thing one did and tried to do well.
Essay Date: 2007