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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.”