Needham Trivia and High School Sit-In
When I was a teenager, we all knew about the Globe and Mail columnist Richard J. Needham because he had caused a disturbance down the road at Whitby’s Henry Street High.[i]
In 1967, the year Needham won the Leacock Medal for Humour, he made news in our area not because of his award or his writing, but because of his address to the Henry Street “School Spirit Week” assembly. He told three hundred fresh faces in the gym that he was in favour of “freedom of drink, freedom of sex, voluntary education and the abolishment of all laws except those restraining murder and property damage.”[ii]
Needham told the assembly that “Sex, liquor and gambling laws are not worth observing and I break them every chance I get” adding that “The only way to change them is to refuse to obey them.” The next day the students staged a sit-in protest, and we wanted to read newspapers for the first time.[iii]
In life and in his writing, Richard J. Needham seemed unrestrained.
He could serve up one joke, one bit of nonsense, one sardonic shot after another after another after another for pages and pages as he did throughout most of his 1967 medal book Needham’s Inferno. Whereas other humorists take a breather once in a while and devote several passages to deliver a bit of incongruity, Needham jumps from one sentence to the next without letting up.
In a single paragraph, he lists close to a dozen purposely irritating methods used to deliver columns to his editor: “carved on tree in High Park, engraved on the head of a pin, signalled with flags from a flotilla in the lake ... spelled out by a circus elephant ... rhythmic clanking .. through the radiators in Morse code ... 200-foot totem pole... (squirrels) each with a fortune cookie between its teeth ... in Sanskrit or maybe Australian.” Even when not being funny in a specific way, he peppers his stories with gibberish and nonsense names like “Fifi Farenheit,” “Claude Hopper,” “Earnest Consideration,” “Alice Aforethought,” and his own alter ego, the booze-loving “Rudolph J. Needleberry.”
In his Globe and Mail columns and this collection, he kept readers on edge with an energetic silliness that was biting and unique. For no particular reason beyond irreverence, he maligned his newspaper with epithets like “The Mop and Pail” and “The Goat and Snail” that struck a chord, stuck, and persist to today. In reference to the Managing Editor,[iv] the man who gave Needham his column, the writer throws out adjectives like “solitary, nasty, brutish, and short” adding that “when he pollutes the waters of Lake Simcoe with his presence, he is often mistaken for a snapping turtle.”
Needham was not just flame-thrower ruthless, but sometimes crude and often lecherous. Many ruminations poked across the boundaries of what is politically correct. His columns, as captured in Inferno, were a reflection of those other times. They echoed the Mad Men sexism and sexual revolution in derisive commentaries on the Toronto dating scene and the presumed female obsession with finding a “first-class man.”
Of a woman who lowered her standards, Needham describes her desperations by telling us that “She went out with men who wore hats, men who wore rimless spectacles, and ... who wore sharply pointed shoes with paper-thin soles ... who read Zane Grey ... who carefully studied and added up the restaurant bill ... who took her to Fort York (and) the Royal Ontario Museum ... who sucked Clorets just before they kissed ... who put their correct names and addresses on LCBO purchase slips ...” and other similarly flawed beings.
Needham was not a struggling single person using humour in frustration. With a long marriage, grown children, and grandchildren, he was looking at the singles scene with the same detached amusement he applied to politics, business, and especially his own profession.
In a Faustian tale, he makes a pact with the Devil and then reveals that “Daily newspaper columnists don’t have any souls.” He makes you feel sorry for poor naïve Satan.
If Needham’s Inferno ended around the hundred-page mark, it could be filed away as a string of comical, but random thoughts and quotable, but disconnected comments. But the book shifts into sub-collections of a different sort with essays on issues like education. Here, he hints at the libertarian themes that would characterize his later life in a satire that predicts an institution to fight obesity called the Food Control Board of Ontario (FCBO).
The most striking parts of the last half of Inferno explore morality and ethics. Needham was from the generation of newspaper reporters who entered the field with little formal education and came up in an apprenticeship way. For many journalists of the time, reading was limited to the materials of their trade. But Needham seems comfortable referencing Plato, Cervantes, Melville, Faulkner, Balzac, Flaubert, Goethe, and particularly Albert Camus on writing (“Art is the distance that time gives to suffering”) as well as characters and concepts from opera and theatre.
There is a depth to his madness that’s easier to feel than to explain. It stings, cries political reform, and philosophizes. And it’s sweetly silly. It pushes the definition of Canadian humour well beyond kindly contemplation.
It would be hard to officially place Richard J. Needham on a platform above Leacock Medalists like W.O. Mitchell, Mordecai Richler, and Robertson Davies or to hold him up as exemplary of Canadian sensibilities.
But when I’m all alone and thinking of nothing in particular, it’s Needham, Needhamisms and “School Spirit Week” at Henry Street High that pop into my mind most often, cause my head to shake, and make me laugh.
[i] “Principal feels strike sparked by Needham,” Globe and Mail, Friday April 28, 1967, p. 51
[ii] Editorial in The Youth’s Instructor (The Seventh Day Adventists) Sept 19, 1967, p.5, Trends by Walter T. Crandall
[iii] I attended high school in Port Perry about 30 km away.
[iv] A future Senator (Richard J. Doyle)