I often liken Eric Nicol’s writing to chocolates. I find sweet pleasure in his sense of fun, his sometimes weird sense of humour, and his ability to look at the ordinary in unusual ways. His newspaper columns were always a treat.
In his second Leacock Medal winning book, Shall We Join the Ladies, he showed off this skill for making the mundane amusing and for adding life to a variety of subjects from the colour of a shirt and the average height of men to the new phenomenon of surgical sex changes behind the title of the book.In talking about the simple matter of ways to get warm, for example, he notes that “women are wonderful, money is more so, but there is really nothing like central heating” and “I put on so many socks people thought I had elephantiasis”.
But like a box of treats, a cluster can be a bit much if consumed all at once without pause. For this reason, I find collections of his columns and essays to be almost overpowering despite my appreciation for the individual pieces of wit. I am more at ease in books with the ebb and flow of a story and paced humour or at least an overriding theme that whisks the chocolate into a cake greater than the sum of the chips.Of the three Leacock Medal-winning books written by Eric Nicol, two are held together by the theme of international travel. The first, The Roving I, recounts Nicol’s experiences in Europe during his time as a graduate student at the Sorbonne in Paris, and the third book, Girdle Me a Globe, is ostensibly a experienced-based compilation of travel tips for globe trotters. But this winner in the middle, Shall We join the Ladies, is a bit different. It is a series of outwardly disconnected stories, and, at times, seems like that overwhelming box of partitioned little sweets.
If any theme could be ascribed to the book, it might be “anti-Travel.” For two reasons. One is that many of the stories are detached from any real need for a sense of place. They are celebrations of routine tasks like buying a shoe or minor adventures like riding a bike. While Nicol sometimes cites locations, they are less than secondary to the transcendent silliness and sense of the absurd that would be Nicol’s essential experience and manner no matter where he was.The other reason that this probably would not strike the reader as “Travel Writing” is the initially subtle and ultimately blatant homage to home. For Nicol, home was and would always be Vancouver, British Columbia, and you bit by bit realize this is where he likes to be most of the time as you work through his stories and recognize them as commemorations of the joys of his home. His anti-Travel theme is evident, for example, when talking about his vacation plans: “I think I’ll spend most of my holiday at a quiet little place I know, near to the beach, tennis courts, golf course, yet handy to the city and serving first-rate victuals. You guess it: home.” The early 1950s “Stay-cation.”
He also hints at his love of life in Canada in his proposal for a Canadian flag. It all culminates in the final chapter that sets out his reasons for wanting to stay in Vancouver and build a creative career in British Columbia when so many colleagues suggest that success can only be achieved abroad or at the very least in the east. ”For a writer, such a plan indicates a sorry lack of ambition.” His essential argument is that Vancouver has so much potential, will be great, and he wants to be part of it.At the same time, he also says he does want to see the world even though his trips “from Vancouver can never be more than that of the yo-yo that flies forth from the hand for the joy of whizzing straight back to it” explaining that he hoped “to see the world in a series of zips out and zips back, so that the graph of my voyages will look like a lie detector with the hiccups.”
Yet Shall We Join the Ladies may, in the end, be about travel. In order to travel, you have to be leaving someplace behind, someplace that gives you a framework to evaluate the new places, and someplace to address your observations and accounts when writing about your travels. You cannot say you are travelling unless you have someplace other to call home. Nicol seemed to know that better than most people and even many travel writers.This may be the nugget in the chocolates.