Gregory Clark’s 1965 Leacock Medal book describes bloody, plodding conflict in the two world wars. Its title, War Stories, is not misleading. But collectively, these stories also describe a different battle. The one to stay sane amidst the insane and to maintain a sense of humour. I hope to never have the face-to-face familiarity with war that Gregory Clark had. But like all of humanity and its peculiar subset of aspiring writers, I have had my brushes with sadness and have my own interest in Clark’s example.
Books about war often take one of two approaches: the close-up, soldier’s eye view of death and ruin or the sanitized view from aloft of military strategists.
But Clark, a decorated Vimy Ridge officer in the First World War and an embedded correspondent throughout almost all of the Second, speaks as a veteran soldier who also has the journalist’s capacity to analyze and observe.[i] The combination gave him the inclination to look at the absurdities of war with sensitivity.
The book draws its material from Clark’s feature articles in Weekend Magazine.[ii] In the “War Stories,” the difficult subject matter and the magazine format were merged into a refined technique. Almost all of the pieces were either heart-wrenching stories with a lighter twist at the end or a humorous episode punctuated with a reminder of war.
Clark details a mob attack on a French woman “collaborator” who had been involved with a German soldier. Then his story jumps ahead to the day years later when “The German boy came back and married her.” The sad tale of an old Italian woman who was ostracized as a witch in her bombed out village transforms when she is revealed to be the protector of escaping Allied P.O.W.’s.
In a story with a lighter core, Clark, a fly-fishing fanatic, describes the day he spent casting in the streams in southern England. He realizes that these streams were those celebrated in the iconic book Where the Bright Waters Meet. Clark was standing in the middle of his personal heaven. The day ends with a supper of fresh fish and talk of the book.
But that’s not the end of this story. One last sentence adds a typical Clark twist: “The order presently came; and the young men piled into their lorries; and we went on down to the sea.” It was 1944. The men were off to Normandy and “the Sausage Machine.”
Gregory Clark was in his fifties during the Second World War, and he could have easily avoided the grimness that time around. He had done his part in 1916 at Sanctuary Wood. In that battle, his battalion dropped from 22 officers and 680 men to 3 officers and 78 men in just two days of fighting. Four months later, with reinforcements, the same battalion lost another 1,000 men at the Somme. But he returned to the battles a few decades later and worked the World War II frontlines only coming home after the death of James Murray Clark of the Regina Rifle Regiment in 1944.
Somehow Clark emerged from the wars, the loss of his son, and later personal tragedies with the capacity to hold onto those thoughts of fly-fishing, to focus on smiling faces, to care for others, and to celebrate the softer side to the end of his own life. The answer may lie in the journalist-soldier ability to stand back and observe even though you still feel.
This may be, more than any technical writing tricks, the greatest lesson Greg Clark’s War Stories offers to those of us who hope to write, persevere, and keep a sense of humour in the wake of our own inevitable heartbreaks and setbacks.[iii]
The War-Zone Comm Officer - A Parody
[i] Born in Toronto on September 25, 1892, Clark died in the city on February 3, 1977. He worked for the Toronto Star from 1911 to 1947. His father was the editor-in-chief of the Star. His great-nephew is broadcaster Tom Clark.
[ii] For many years, Clark’s columns featured art work by his fishing buddy, cartoonist Jimmie Frise. In 1947 Clark and Frise joined the Montreal Standard (later becoming the Weekend Magazine) as a team, but Frise died the next year at the age of 57. Afterward, Clark's stories were illustrated by Duncan MacPherson.
[iii] For a thorough biography check out - The Life & Times of Greg Clark: Canada’s Favourite Story Teller(1981) by Jock Carroll