1950 Leacock Medal Winner
· Earle Birney was regarded one of Canada's great writers and literary figures independent of his Leacock Medal winning novel Turvey. He was a Ph.D. educated poet and professor of literature who established Canada's first university program in Creative Writing at UBC and who won the Governor General's medal for his poetry twice. He wrote 21 books of poetry and published collections of stories, essays, and criticism as well as editing books. Turvey, the humorous novel, was an anomaly in his career and a diversion. But it was very personal.
· As a poet and academic, Birney might appear to have little in common with the Grade 9 educated, simple worker and soldierTurvey. But Birney, like his hero, was raised in the B.C. Interior on a farm, had a lot of different work experiences and shifted around. In fact, Birney started studies in chemical engineering, and he dabbled in Trotskyite politics before his career solidified.
· Despite his entrenchment in academia and his age - thirty-five - when the war broke out, Birney signed up and served as one of those personnel officers and evaluators mocked by Turvey's story. Like Turvey, Birney travelled to England and on to Europe during the war, but he also, again like Turvey, missed the worst that the war offered up, by serving as an army administrator.
· Even though Birney was not scarred by battlefield or concentration camp memories, he was haunted by the vision of the army of simple, patriotic, and ill-equipped young men that passed before him on the way to "the sharp end" and on the way back to civilian life. All of the Turveys and those who made up Turvey.
· There is, in fact, a character named Smith who appears at both ends of the book in the personnel administration role. At one point, Birney slips from the third person narrative into the first person when describing Smith’s reaction to Turvey.
· Turvey, the character, was presaged by Birney’s satirical correspondence to friends during the war. In one letter, he, for example, describes another soldier as “athletically inclined only in respect to ... nose-picking.” (308)
· The family name Turvey is known in British Columbia, but Birney probably did not take it from anyone in particular for his book. He had been known to use the expression “topsy-turvey” for disorder or confusion, and his character was called Topsy as a nickname.
|Multi-Leacock Medal Winner Eric Nicol on Turvey|
· Three-time Leacock Medal winner Eric Nicol was one of Birney’s students at UBC in the 1940s. Birney also taught Canadian luminaries such as E.J. Pratt, Al Purdy, Irving Layton, and Leonard Cohen. Birney and Nicol corresponded and kept in touch for many years.
· Birney dedicated Turvey to jointly to friends, the Einar Neilsons, whose place on Bowen Island near Vancouver was where he wrote the book, and to one of his own professors, Garnett Sedgewick, who passed away shortly before the book was published.
· Don Harron, Canadian writer, comedian, and actor known for the character Charlie Farquharson, adapted Turvey for a stage production, which opened in 1958. Harron was a war veteran.
· While some records relevant to Birney’s life can be found in other holdings, the University of Toronto Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library stands out with tens of thousands of files, personal items, and records donated to the university by Birney. These records include a cancelled cheque in the amount of $243.15 from Stephen Leacock for a donation to Upper Canada College in 1934.
· In 1955, on a trip to Montreal, Birney went to McGill to examine Stephen Leacock’s papers, just over a decade after the writer’s death. He discovered unpublished Leacock manuscripts, letters, and other materials there, and he had hoped, at the time, to edit the Leacock material for publication.
· Birney was a big fan of the prior Leacock Medal Winning book, Sarah Binks, the fake literary memoir of an outrageously inept Canadian poetess. Showing a solid sense of humor and ability to laugh at himself, Birney used the name of one of Sarah’s worst works, Spreading Time, as the title of his own literary memoir.
· Turvey was considered a great success by Canadian standards, selling out is first printing within three weeks and the second over the next six months. But despite this success and the 1950 Leacock Medal, Turvey was not the literary highlight of the year for Birney. His greatest “thrill” came from playing host to Dylan Thomas when the Welsh poet visited Vancouver and UBC that year.
Turvey swears at me-#$!@! off !
Turvey swears at me-#$!@! off !