1951 The Roving I by Eric Nicol

          Lesson 5

          Finding your own “moveable feast”


***Graphic 010 (book cover)


As a teen in 1960s Ontario, I fantasized that some heavenly intervention might allow me to pass high school French so I could go off to Paris and hang out with someone who might be named Collette, Michèle, or something like that. Ernest Hemingway’s death, image, and aftermath loomed large in pop culture and in young male minds at that time.

          He told us, “If you’re lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you,” adding that celebrated comment: “for Paris is a moveable feast.”[1]

          Paris was not in the cards for me. Instead, I moved to Vancouver, where I had relatives, a place at Simon Fraser University, and my own experiences. They eventually led me to meet writer Eric Nicol and to spend an afternoon at his Point Grey home.[2] For these and other reasons, Nicol’s book The Roving I, the first of three to win the Leacock Medal for him, mixed Paris and Vancouver together in my mind.

          In this 1951 medal winner, Nicol tells of ordinary things: a visit to the library, a ride on a train, and a walk through city streets. There’s not much interaction with other people. Yet the book holds your interest because those streets run through Paris, and the train takes you across the French countryside. Nicol wrote the book during his time as a graduate student at the Sorbonne in the late 1940s. He assembled The Roving I as a travel narrative aimed at a Canadian audience, drawing it from the columns that helped pay his expenses in the City of Light. Eric Nicol’s later books also repackaged newspaper columns, but those collections often lacked any unifying theme. The Roving I had the story-like framework of his year in Paris, and this makes it an easier read.


***Graphic 011 (author)


          Thousands of Canadians around Nicol’s age had seen Europe the hard way a few years earlier; Nicol, however, passed his military service in Ottawa offices, and having been “spared the hostilities,” he could ride on the postwar wave that regarded Paris with a smile. Nicol, with his master’s degree in French literature from UBC, had genuine affection for Parisian life, and this shows, too.

          The tone of the book and many of its observations may seem quaint in an Internet world. Yet some passages could have been written yesterday, and pretty much all of it remains funny. This is because Nicol describes the walks through the streets of the everyday with weird words and silly detail--as he did on his day at the bibliothèque: “A little man saved from midgetdom only by his bowler. With hands resting on his behind, he fluffs out the wings of his swallowtail coat (circa 1885), like a nervous blowfly.”[3]

          Nicol’s inclination to elaborate on the ordinary while skating over the elaborate sparkles in his description of a side trip to Florence. In it, he devotes two and a half pages to the process of eating spaghetti and only a paragraph to the Uffizi. He not only elevates mundane events with his descriptions, but manages to generate stories of things that never happened--like an imagined date with a woman who might have been named “Collette,” had she shown up. Nicol never fully explains the decision to leave the Sorbonne before completing his doctorate, but he felt lonely. He laments not having someone with whom to share his Paris experience.

          What Hemingway meant by “moveable feast,” of course, was that the 1920s Paris of artists, writers, and poets was his personal foundation: the learning, the relationships, and the experiences that he would feed upon for the rest of his life. Nicol, at the age of thirty, had passed out of the young-man stage (his Collette imaginings notwithstanding) when he attended university in Paris. As a published author and veteran journalist, he had already found his comic voice and decided that British Columbia would be his touchstone.

          This meant that Nicol brought his own moveable feast[4] to Paris and to the book that allowed him to share those Sorbonne days with thousands of Canadians, including one living in Ottawa who still feasts on young-man thoughts of Vancouver from time to time.


Writing Exercise

In a paragraph, explain why Sudbury, Ontario, is your “moveable feast.”


[1] The quote, attributed to Hemingway by his biographer, A.E. Hotchner, and slapped on the cover of a post-suicide collection, now strikes me as too cute or rehearsed to be authentic conversation, but the connotation makes sense.
[2] I interviewed him for Vancouver radio station CJVB in 1978. Nicol (1919–2011) lived in that same house from 1957 to the end of his life.

[3] This excerpt was also highlighted by Michael Nolan in “Eric Nicol,” in Dictionary of Literary Biography, vol. 362, Canadian Literary Humorists, ed. Paul Matthew St. Pierre (Detroit: Gale, 2011). Anyone interested in substantive bios of humour writers should access the St. Pierre collection.
[4] On the subject of moveable feasts, the ever-modest Nicol said, “In the feast of life, I have been a digestive biscuit.” Allen Twigg, “Tribute to Eric Nicol,” BC Bookworld, Spring 2011, 17–18.

1950 Turvey by Earle Birney

Lesson 4

How one word can change a book


***Graphic 008 (book cover)


In my dentist’s office one morning in the fall of 2012, while I fumbled with my earphones, the female computer voice on my e-reader blurted out a loud stream of F-word[1] swearing. It made a lasting impression on those around me, and the hygienists and office staff still talk about it over a year later. My audio version of the picaresque novel Turvey, like my 1976 hardcover copy, bears the word “unexpurgated” in the title. This means that, unlike the version that won the Leacock Medal in 1950, it has lots of “F words.”

          When the publisher, McClelland and Stewart (M&S), reviewed Earle Birney’s original manuscript, it feared negative reviews and reader reaction to the “army talk,” references to “bodily functions,” and words that the late-1940s editors picked out as “vulgar.”[2] The boss, Jack McClelland, pushed for milder language, believing that the prevailing Canadian sensibilities would not tolerate F-word swearing.

          Birney fought back saying he would rather produce a dirty-talking piece of reality than an expurgated bestseller. There was a standoff. The B.C. writer and World War II veteran, still burning over military bureaucracy, wanted to satirize this aspect of war while that memory was hot, and he knew that the book would have to sound authentic to resonate with soldiers.


***Graphic 009 (author)


          As evidenced by the different versions of Turvey, Birney lost the standoff with McClelland. He knew that he wouldn’t get the swear words by the church-based Ryerson Press, his usual publisher and the one that handled his poetry, and had been worn down by rejections from foreign publishers who thought his book was too Canadian or conversely that it didn’t have enough “Mounties, trappers, and pious habitants,”[3] Birney acquiesced and accepted the F-word deletions. M&S produced its sanitized Turvey in 1949, and this clean version won the Leacock Medal a year later.

          Even with the swearing lifted out, Turvey probably had a ring of authenticity. Before the end of the book, the fighting leaves some characters with horrible wounds while others suffer disease and a few die. It is, after all, a war story.

          Yet it’s also seriously funny.

          The reason the humour survives the story’s frame lies in the personality of protagonist Private Thomas Leadbeater Turvey. Turvey embodies all the Canadian soldiers who signed up with naive intentions and little idea of what they had ahead of them.

          His story borders on farce. But the detail and characters make it all seem just plausible. Turvey comes from a small town, Skookum Falls, in the interior of British Columbia. Like his creator, Birney, he identifies with B.C. totally, and aside from a general desire to defeat fascism, Turvey wants nothing more than to serve with his best friend Mac Macgillicuddy in a B.C. regiment, the Kootenay Highlanders. Turvey’s quest to get transferred and to get to the “sharp end” of military service provides the drama and drive to the story.

          The humour breaks out of Turvey’s misfortunes along the way. Sometimes he suffers bad luck, but more often he creates his own problems through gullibility and his interest in the opposite sex. Accident-prone, simple-minded, and light on education and commitment, Turvey does not excel at military life.

          By the end of the book, the army has tried him out as a driver, a batman, a guard, a courier, and in many other jobs. Although he finally makes it across the English Channel, he arrives in Europe well after D-Day and on the heels of the fighting. Turvey never sees what most in the World War II military called “real action.”

          Being one step removed from the horror, Turvey’s enthusiasm seems almost reasonable, and this makes it possible to laugh at individual incidents. His path takes him into a minefield after a night at an English pub, into a confrontation with his own jacket which he mistakes for a German paratrooper, and into prison for making too much noise with female companions while AWOL.

          Despite the misadventure, Turvey seems heroic in facing the real object of the satire, the institutions, and the administration that surround him. The book takes aim, in particular, at the army’s human resource systems and IQ-style evaluations that initially rank Turvey as subpar and almost subhuman. The book concludes with him scoring extremely high after years of repeated test-taking practice.

          It takes skill to find humour in grim situations, and even greater skill to make it genuine when editors pluck real-world vocabulary out of the mouths of your characters. Birney achieves his desired effect in the expurgated Turvey without the swearing by filling the army-talk conversations with subjects like alcohol, venereal disease, and the brass. He also made sure that war still bled into the story through a smattering of second-hand accounts.

          This helped to make Turvey a window on a soldier’s life in one postwar era. In another one, the book was also bolstered by Birney’s original wording.

          Canadian society changed over the next quarter century, and in the post-Vietnam, post-Woodstock, post-Lenny Bruce, George Carlin, National Lampoon, M.A.S.H. world, M&S decided the time was right to dust off the original manuscript and send the swearing out into the world in the “unexpurgated” version of Turvey that I bought and read. My hardcover book sits in a slick Robert-Crumb-Keep-on-Truckin’-type jacket that reminds me of seventies-style subversion.

          In this unexpurgated text, Birney, the poet, made creative use of the four-letter words. They rarely appear in the same combinations. By my count, he uses F*** in five different ways: “What the F***,”“Flying F***,” “F*** you,” “I’m F***-ed,” and “F***-ing”. A harsh C word appears twice in novel combinations: “those ****s back in Ottawa,” and “that ****-faced sergeant.” And Birney injects the bodily function-related S*** as follows: “Holy S***,” “Sunday S***,” “The S*** of the commandant,” “S***-faced turkeys,” “Up S*** creek,” “that recruitin’ S***,” “Horse S***,” “Have to sweat S***,” “Pinch of coon- S***,”and “S***-brown battle dress.”[4] In 1949, Jack McClelland blocked the publication of these phrases and stopped a book that could have pushed the Canadian humour envelope. But, from the perspective of a bookselling businessman, he may have been right about his market.

          The expurgated Turvey, even with the swear words lifted out, still ran into trouble and drew criticism for its language. In this environment, the Leacock Medal judges might have easily passed over my seemingly crude, but more authentic 1976 swearing-filled version of Turvey if it had been available for the medal competition in 1950. Over six decades later, publications like The New York Times still fuss over the word in print and people like me still resort to prissy asterisks and the term “F-word” to represent it.

          But I know that Turvey would have been a better book and could have had more impact if left “unexpurgated,” and I am glad that the publisher eventually issued it in this format. I am also glad that this was the version I read--except for that one day in my dentist’s office.


Writing Exercise

Describe a group of soldiers raging about the brass in the aftermath of a firefight without using swear words or mentioning foul language.


[1] The word ends in u-c-k.
[2] My main resource for stories around the publication of Turvey is the comprehensive Earle Birney: A Life, by Elspeth Cameron (Toronto: Viking, 1994); see p. 320 in particular.
[3] Cameron, Earle Birney: A Life, p. 329.
[4] One word, however, popular in many military circumstances, did not survive even into the liberated 1976 version of Turvey, and, according to Birney, was there in the first manuscript submitted to McClelland and Stewart in the 1940s (Earl Birney Collection, Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, University of Toronto). That word was “C***-sucker.”

1949 Truthfully Yours by Angéline Hango

Lesson 3

They may think you’re funny for the wrong reasons


***Graphic 006 (book cover)


“When drunk, papa often struck maman . . . And he would swear and push furniture around, and want to fight everybody,” Angéline Hango tells us in the opening pages of her Leacock Medal winner, Truthfully Yours.

          In this book, a memoir, Hango describes the childhood embarrassments, hurts, and instability flowing from her father’s alcoholism and her mother’s struggle to cope in small-town Quebec.

          I wasn’t shocked to learn that the author first submitted the book under a pseudonym and that she didn’t consider it to be particularly funny when she wrote it in 1948. She penned it as catharsis, and the award for humour that came a year later surprised her. Hango was forty-four at that time. For this project, I contacted her son Roy in Vermont, and he told me that his mother appreciated the Leacock honour, but did not regard herself as a humorist or a professional writer of any kind. Though she lived to the age of ninety,[1] Hango never wrote anything for publication after the Leacock Medal.[2] In fact, two decades passed before she would even look at her medal-winning book again, reread it, and, for the first time, laugh.[3]

          The “Truthfully” in the book’s title refers to Hango’s pledge to break from her lifelong habit of “fibbing” about her family, a practice she refines in school, social settings, and eventually the workplace.

          Although a capable chef and salesman when sober, her father keeps his income on a soft footing and destabilizes the family with his drinking. Hango and her younger sister go off to a convent school for protection from the disturbances at home. Maman works tirelessly and thanklessly as a seamstress to finance their education and board.

          At the nunnery school, the two girls learn English, music, and more, but feel out of place among the better-dressed, upper-class students. They lie in order to fit in. Later, the book tells of unwanted advances from older men and more “fibs.”

          “So, where was the humour?” you ask.

          Some commentators suggest that 1940s readers found their amusement in material that is “a touch politically incorrect by today’s standards,”[4] this being the 1940s stereotype of alcoholic, illiterate, and superstitious backwoods French Canadians, and, more generally, the seemingly comic presentation of an abusive circumstance.

          For this distortion, the publisher, Oxford University Press, bears some responsibility. It sprinkled cheery cartoons throughout the book and branded the story as a “riotous” and “revealing” picture of “life in rural French Canada,” with characters of unsurpassed ignorance in “the business world.” As for the bumpy parts of Hango’s early life, the original book jacket makes only light and vague mention of the author’s “odd” and embarrassing relatives.


***Graphic 007 (author)


          Oxford took other liberties, saying, without any stipulation, that Truthfully Yours described “many, many love affairs involving every man she [Hango] met from the doorman at the department store to each and every one of her sister’s beaux”[5] when those “love affairs” are, in the actual text, clearly awkward encounters or imagined events presented by Hango to show her susceptibility to infatuation.

          Hango may have unintentionally contributed to this portrayal of French Canadian life by intertwining the edgier elements of her story with reminiscences on her ancestry, her religion, and traditions such as Christmas Eve réveillon. She also slips into caricature when talking of life as an unmarried “old maid” at the age of twenty-one and in describing her very Québécoise mother.

          “Whenever we made her try to pronounce words in English, she would twist her face all up, as if a person had to wear a different face to speak a different tongue,” the author says. “The sounds that came out did not resemble any language.”

          Okay. That and some other parts might be funny.

          Hango tells us that her convent cohorts “had a vague notion that anybody that lived in the States was fabulously rich or immensely interesting.” With this presumption, she cites “the States” as her home to ensure that her schoolyard tormentors are “simply awed into silence.” Pondering the art of fibbing, Hango says when a man catches you in a lie, he “would just take it for granted that he misunderstood . . . or that he remembered incorrectly” but “not a female, she will pin you down.”

          If the task of the humorist is to tell the truth with affection, Hango makes a creditable addition to the list of Leacock medallists because of her sense of irony, forgiving take on her family, and decision to speak truthfully. I liked Truthfully Yours, but I’m amused most because the book was mistakenly celebrated as a comic take on French Canadian life when first published and now it can be regarded as politically incorrect by those who wrongly assume that intention.[6]

          It illustrates the limitations of literary criticism,[7] and that makes me laugh.

Writing Exercise

In five hundred words, explain why children must always tell the truth and adults must lie.


[1] Roy A. Hango, email to DBD April 17, 2013.
[2] She was, however, working on a manuscript about travel in Morocco at the time of her death from a stroke in 1995.
[3] Sheila McCook, “Optimism Helps Writers,” Ottawa Citizen, Jan. 21, 1970, p.45
[4] AbeBooks, book description written by bookseller (Finefinds Collection Management, Kaslo, BC, Canada), http://www.abebooks.com (accessed October 15, 2012).
[5] Angéline Hango, Truthfully Yours (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1948)--from the book jacket.
[6] Angéline Hango was born on February 2, 1905, and baptized Marie Rose Angéline Roy in Quebec. She first distributed the manuscript for Truthfully Yours under the pseudonym Angéline Bleuets and won the $500 Oxford–Crowell Award with this name. She had married John Raymond Hango in 1932 in Arvida. After his death, she remarried, assuming the surname Hango–Burke. She died on November 9, 1995, in Montreal.
[7] For a thoughtful and interesting examination of the book in isolation of those perceptions, read Bina Freiwald, “The Interpellated Subject Lies Back: Angéline Hango’s Truthfully Yours,” Essays on Canadian Writing 58 (1996): 36–59. In an email to DBD, October 10, 2012, Bina Freiwald stated, “my essay . . . was part of my research on Canadian women’s autobiographical writing, with the emphasis on the text.”

1948 Sarah Binks by Paul Hiebert


          Lesson 2

Sometimes the packaging is everything


Sometimes the Packaging is Everything

The bookshelf at home holds a first-edition, first-printing copy of the 1948 Leacock Medal winner, Sarah Binks, which I bought from a used-book store in Winnipeg. The store considered it a treasured “old friend”[1] and sent it to me inside two layers of packaging.

          The book bears the signature of the author, Paul Hiebert,[2] but I “treasure” it because of another scribble on the front page: the names of the original owners, Don and Helen Penner, a Manitoba couple who changed laws and affected the practice of medicine in Canada. In their seventies, the Penners packed up their books and other possessions to pass a decade of retirement helping hospitals in Africa.[3]

          This story wrapped around my book gives it value.

          In the same way, Sarah Binks, a poetry collection packaged in a biography-style narrative, has value because of the premise wrapped around it.

          It always surprises me a little when I meet people who have never heard of Sarah Binks. Canadian humour circles celebrate her as “iconic,” in a way that doesn’t abuse the word too much. Canada Reads short-listed Sarah in 2003 with Will Ferguson as her advocate,[4] and humorist Charles Gordon says the book comes as close as anything to being the “quintessentially Canadian” work, stressing that it’s also “damned funny.”[5]

          The humour flows from knowing that we come close to being as unsophisticated as the book suggests, but not quite. Some non-Canadian readers miss the joke and regard Sarah as a serious study, and that’s pretty funny, too.

          Like all great satire, Sarah Binks invites interpretation. You could even say the book, a pretend life history that mocks literary awards, won the Leacock Medal for Humour for making fun of the Leacock Medal for Humour.

          The imaginary Sarah writes bad poetry, lots of it, and this ability to produce quantity over quality brings her the peculiar Wheat Pool Medal and fictional fame in her native province. Among “the highest awards . . . ever . . . bestowed upon one of Saskatchewan’s Daughters” and the “highest award in the bestowal of Saskatchewan people,”[6] the Wheat Pool Medal recognizes increased production in unspecified fields and, like crop planting, does so through a rotational system.

          You might laugh at some of Sarah’s award-winning bad poetry in isolation, but that over-the-top, gushing account of her modest life experience amplifies the humour. As the biographer, Hiebert tells us earnestly that Sarah’s literary influences include the hired man and a neighbor, Mathilda, the least cross-eyed of the Schwantzhacker sisters. He reports with admiration that the Horse-Breeders Gazette and other farm publications profiled her poems and that an agricultural fair honoured her work with the presentation of a horse thermometer. Sarah would die tragically trying to take her own temperature with the poetry prize.

***Graphic 005 (author)

          So, at least a few people noticed the irony when Sarah, the book, won the new and not-yet-acclaimed literary award, the Leacock Medal, in 1948.

          Hiebert was the kind of person who would have recognized and appreciated it, too.

          He understood convolution. An academic and a chemistry researcher, Hiebert won the Governor General’s Medal in 1924 for his science.[7] This might lead you to think that his spoof on poetry and the arts was the condescension of a hard scientist. But, before his shift to chemistry, Hiebert studied literature and ultimately earned an M.A. in the arcane field of Gothic and Teutonic philology. He knew the subject of his satire well, and I believe the book had an edge because Hiebert had a specific target in mind, even though he did not want to overtly ridicule any individual.[8]

          Although Sarah directs its lampoon more broadly on the field of literary criticism, it covers other terrain, from prairie politics and the cultural charms of early twentieth-century Canada to the drama of adolescent introspection. Hiebert also calls on many writing tricks, including slapstick notions like geology-based poetry and names like Chief Buffalo Chip, Colonel MacSqueamish, Rosalind Drool, Professor Marrowfat, and Windheaver, the politician. 

          Sarah’s odes to pigs, skunks, and farm-based love jerk around, change voice, and ooze conceited sounds from every pore. But they usually rhyme, and they follow a metrical structure much of the time; and short of reprinting whole poems along with Hiebert’s laudatory packaging, I would struggle to describe precisely how and why Sarah’s poems are so “damned funny.”

          So maybe I should be charitable to those who read the book as the story of a real poetess. But one reason I treasure the copy on my shelf comes from thinking that Don and Helen Penner got the joke and, like the early Leacock Medal judges and other Canadians, might have been laughing at themselves, too.


Writing Exercise

Write the worst four-line poem you possibly can and then explain why it is the best bit of verse ever written.





[1] Burton Lysecki Books, Osborne Street, email to DBD October 18, 2012.
[2] One of the best resources on what is termed “Binksiana” is the University of Saskatchewan Paul Hiebert Digital Fonds--http://library2.usask.ca/hiebert/node/7 An example of the resources here include Hiebert’s modest letter committing his personal material to the university in the imagined native province of his heroine.
[3] Dr. Donald W. Penner, a professor at the University of Manitoba when Sarah Binks was published, became one of “Canada’s foremost pathologists and a pioneer in blood alcohol research.” Helen helped design quality assurance and control programs for the College of American Pathologists.
[4] CBC, “Book Profile: Sarah Binks,” http://www.cbc.ca/books/booksandauthors/2010/08/sarah-binks.html accessed September 29, 2013.
[5] Charles Gordon, afterword to Sarah Binks, by Paul Hiebert (New Canadian Library edition, 2010).
[6] The version used for most of these references is Paul Hiebert, Sarah Binks (London: Geoffrey Cumberlege / Oxford University Press, 1947).
[7] He got his B.A. at the University of Manitoba (1916) and M.A. at Toronto (1917). I was inspired to learn that he did his Governor General’s Award work as a Fellow of the National Research Council of Canada, my employer. We are imaginary colleagues (as per the National Research Council Report on Scholarships and Fellowships 1932: Hiebert, Paul. G., M.Sc. McGill 1922, Ph.D., 1924. NRC Bursary 1922–23, Fellowship 1923–24).
[8] I am convinced that Sarah was modelled in part on E. Pauline Johnson, the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Canadian poetess of mixed aboriginal-European ancestry. Hiebert is quoted, however, as saying that Sarah was not a reflection of any single person.

1947 Ojibway Melody by Harry Symons

          Lesson 1

          Be careful how you judge a sixty-eight-year-old book


***Graphic 002 (book cover)


The two-storey, nineteenth-century manor sits in a leafy, established part of Peterborough. I’m glad that I didn’t know about the house before I entered it. Learning within its walls convinced me that I was on to something.

          “He used to live here; in fact, I bought the house from him,” my host said in reference to a famous former inhabitant.

          The cordial speaker, Professor Tom Symons, shared this morsel and some funny stories as we discussed my interest in the Leacock Medal books. Symons and his wife, Christine, had invited me to their home for lemon cake and a cup of tea. My wife and I made the trip from Ottawa in early 2013 not to see the house, not to hear about its past, and not to eat. Michèle came along because she likes road trips, and I came to learn more about Tom’s father, Harry Lutz Symons, the author of Ojibway Melody: Stories of Georgian Bay, the 1947 Leacock Medal book. Little has been published about Harry, and I wanted access to the family archives at Trent University.

          All I knew for sure about Harry Symons was that he loved his cottage near Pointe-au-Baril on Georgian Bay and saw it as his sanctuary.[1] With Ojibway Melody, he tried to share it, guiding us around the islands, pointing out the good fishing spots, and describing the locals. The book can leave you with the feel of a warm handshake, a pat on the back, and a canoe ride on sparkling waters.

          Given Stephen Leacock’s association with Ontario cottage country, the 1947 medal judges probably felt that this book made a fitting first winner of the award established in Leacock’s honour. Yet it struck me, initially, as a puzzle.

          The writing seems like stream of consciousness, nothing like the one-liners, jokes, or comic stories that we consume as humour today. Ojibway Melody[2] merrily pours out a medley: hunting trips; the legend of Turtle Rock; the whisky barrel that gave Pointe-au-Baril its name; the crow “Black Lucy”; the rookery of lake birds; and Regatta Day, “with all its fun, and laughter, and excitement, and crowds, and ice cream, and pop, and noise.”

          At times, the book reads like a transcription of musings over events just as they unfolded, like this unedited bit of narration: “. . . for a while. But hold on a moment. Perhaps that was . . .  it might just possibly have been . . . well YOU know . . .”

          Harry Symons shifts the verb tense and the perspective of the narrator regularly.[3] The only consistency comes from his affection for “the local focal”: boats and fishing. Canoes, inboards, outboards, and row boats. Pike, lunge and bass. Early in the book, you might think Symons wrote it to celebrate the Ojibway Hotel.[4] But then he talks of the hotel with caution, saying he did not lust for places where “ties and collars” were the norm. Harry says that if such a lifestyle ever takes over Georgian Bay, the area will have “lost its savour and . . . the ageless rocks will arise in all their dignity and crumble into dust.”

          When I read this passage, I started to understand. It sounded like something I had heard others say when I was young and was the kind of thing my own father would have thought. I began to regard Harry Symons as my own dad counselling me raconteur-style to slow down and lighten up a bit.

          Harry praised simple pleasures: “First we swing our feet out of bed, and dangle them over the side, and keep our toes off the floor just in case it is cold. Then we yawn a good deal and grumble, and flex our arms, and wish we were back in bed . . . And quite often we just do give up and crawl back in again . . .” 


***Graphic 003 (author)


          This kind of talk humoured my father’s generation because it was struggling with the strains of careers, family, and a changing society. In the 1940s, Canadians also wanted to think about things other than war. Ojibway Melody, though written in 1944 and 1945, met that need. It only mentions the World War II context in a vague reference to “the labour shortage in wartime.” The incongruity of this book exists, not in the text alone, but between its dark background and cheery content.

          Harry Symons[5] had special reason to block out the violence and seek refuge in the boats and fishing around Georgian Bay.

          Born in Toronto in 1893, Harry loved physical exertion and the outdoors. He even quarterbacked for the Toronto Argonauts, served as captain of a varsity football team, and sailed competitively. He spent summers on a survey crew, camping and hiking through the wilderness around Georgian Bay. The beauty of the forests and the waters fixed in his head and would turn out to be important to his psyche and survival.

          When World War I broke out in 1914, Harry Symons left school and joined the army to serve on the front lines in Europe, where his mind clenched onto images of the islands around the Bay. In August 1916, he transferred to the Royal Flying Corps and the cockpit of a Sopwith Camel. Harry survived, scoring enough kills to place him in the “Ace” category. Yet he never talked much about the war, and after his death in 1961, aviation historians described his exploits as “unknown to all but the most diligent researchers.”[6]

          The future Leacock medallist did not consider the wartime heroics nearly as important as his post-plane-crash stay in an English hospital. That’s where he met a nurse named Dorothy.[7] After he returned to Canada with Dorothy at his side, he bought the Georgian Bay cottage “Yoctangee,” put the war behind him, pursued a career in real estate and insurance, and started a family that would eventually include Tom and seven other children.

          Tom Symons[8] had talked to me on the phone and had sent me some records as well as having invited me to his Peterborough home, which I learned, only after taking off my boots and sitting down, carries formal designation as Marchbanks House, a historic site and former home of novelist Robertson Davies. Davies wrote his Leacock Medal-winning novel in this house. W.O. Mitchell and others also honoured by the Leacock prize regularly visited the place and sat in the chair that held my butt that early 2013 afternoon. Tom, who also showed me the artist’s cast for the first Leacock Medal,[9] told me all this to encourage me in my project. He wanted, in particular, to share the story of his dad’s book Ojibway Melody and the impact it has had on the academic study of Canada.

          “The book ... means a great deal to me. I often think of it because it gives me answers when I am considering things--it helps as a compass when I have difficult chores from time to time,” said Tom Symons. “First of all, it reads the way my father talked, and I enjoy that. I can hear his voice, but I also hear his respect and his concern for others. The book is all about it--between the lines sometimes.”

          He was touched, in particular, by his father’s empathy for the Ojibway people.

          “That chapter is superb,” said the author’s son, now well into his eighties. “I was raised with that concern, and I am sure that that is one of the reasons Trent was the first university in Canada to have a department of Native studies.”

          Tom Symons, the first president of that university and a founder of the field of Canadian Studies, served as chair of the 1970s national commission on the subject of Canada.[10] The commission’s 1976 report, To Know Ourselves,[11] set out the road map for the subsequent study of Canada and the promotion of Canadians as a people that mix sensitivity with conviction, qualities that Symons saw in his dad’s book Ojibway Melody.

          “My interest in the rapport between French and English people is drawn from the book,” said Tom. “You sometimes don’t recognize the deeper values of the author because it is written so amiably, but the book is a touchstone for me and the things I value.”

          This conversation convinced me that every Canadian could benefit from a trip to the cottage described in the first Leacock Medal-winning book and, again, made me think that I might be on to something with this project.

          It also gave me hope that a person who, like Ojibway Melody, is over sixty years old and a little tattered on the edges might still have something worthwhile to say about Canadian humour.



Writing Exercise

In the voice of a former fishing guide from Georgian Bay, describe your first day at work as a stockbroker on Bay Street in 1987.

[1] Harry Symons was a vice-president with Confederation Life in charge of real estate holdings in Toronto and liked to get away from the pressures of the city.
[2] Symons held the full copyright on the book. The first edition of Ojibway Melody carried the marks of Copp Clark Co. and Ambassador Books; the former did the printing and the latter was Harry’s distributor.
[3] He uses the third person perspective in the first and last chapters (“The Advance Party” and “The Rearguard”) and more often the royal first person plural (“we rocked on our toes”) after initiating his story with “I.”
[4] The landmark Ojibway Hotel endures to this day in the form of a clubhouse and community centre.
[5] Personal papers that include the original typed manuscript of Ojibway Melody can be accessed with prior permission at Trent University Archives, Trent University, Peterborough, Ontario, Thomas H.B. Symons Fonds, 1929–99 Accession number 01–003 (box 4 folder 6).
[6] H. Creagen, “H.L. Symons--Ace & Author,” Canadian Aviation Historical Society Journal, Vol. 2, No. 4 (Winter 1964), 113.
[7] The convalescent hospital was established by Harry’s future father-in-law, the wealthy Canadian lawyer and businessman William Perkins Bull. Other patients at the centre during this period included decorated pilot Billy Bishop and future Governor General Georges Vanier.
[8] For more on Harry’s son, see Ralph Heintzman, ed., Tom Symons: A Canadian Life (Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press, 2011), which featured contributions from many Canadian politicians, writers, and scholars.
[9] Harry Symons’s family has possession of sculptor Emanuel Hahn’s original casts of Stephen Leacock’s face in profile and the Sunshine and Mosquito back used to mint the Leacock medals.
[10] Tom Symons, born May 30, 1929, also served as chair of the Ontario Heritage Trust, the Ontario Human Rights Commission, and the Historic Sites and Monuments Board.
[11] The history of Canadian Studies and the Commission are outlined in the Canadian Encyclopedia (online)--Canadian Studies--author S. McMullin http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.com/articles/canadian-studies accessed September 28, 2013.