YOU DON'T have to read far into George Woodcock's voluminous writings - more than 100 titles to date - to discover that wherever his powerful intellect roams it is accompanied by a highly developed sense of moral purpose. The author of many fine travel books, biographies, histories, poetry collections, political analyses, and literary commentaries, Woodcock has too many literary accomplishments to list in detail here. But it's fair to say that one defining trait of his work is his intense interest in how societies organize themselves - how they distribute power and wealth and how they attempt to achieve justice. When I think of his travel books, for example, those carefully observed narratives of trips to Latin America and Asia, I think first of his abiding concern for the least privileged inhabitants of those places.
My own favourite among Woodcock's works is The Crystal Spirit (1966), his biography of George Orwell. There too the moral subtext shines through. Orwell, one of the most fiercely honest intellectuals of this century, distinguished himself as a man who stood against all the "smelly little orthodoxies" of his time. He was an apt subject for the equally clear-eyed Woodcock, whose own political views were just as honestly conceived - and just as unorthodox.
The work of both writers articulates a quest for some form of cooperative society that can prosper alongside untrammelled intellectual freedom. For many thinkers that's a complex theoretical puzzle. But for writers such as Orwell and Woodcock, it's also a bread-and-butter question that can't wait. Woodcock cares deeply about intellectual matters, about literature, interpretations of history, and politics, but his intellectual interests have always been rooted in a practical concern for real people in their untheoretical circumstances of everyday life.
So although I was surprised four years ago to get a call from Anne McClelland at the Writers' Development Trust asking if I'd sit on the jury of a new entity, the Woodcock Fund, the project quickly made sense once it was explained. George and his wife, Inge, had decided to establish an emergency fund for writers in crisis. They hoped to see it up and running as soon as possible To this end they planned to donate $12,000 a year out of their own modest resources, and to make the fund a beneficiary of their estates. The project seemed a fitting extension of the social and political themes Woodcock had expressed for years in his writing.
The idea seemed to me then - and does still - noble, a word I rarely find a use for. A charter committee of five was struck. The poet Dennis Lee, the novelist Eric Wright, the author Silver Donald Cameron, the CBC lawyer Edith Cody-Rice, and I worked to devise a philosophy and reliable operating procedures for the fund. That took some months, but we all felt we might be designing a major Canadian cultural institution, and we wanted to do it right. By early 1990 we were ready to offer assistance to writers.
The Woodcock Fund has found a home at the Writers' Development Trust, a registered charity already in the business of helping writers. Anne McClelland, executive director when we began, and Nancy Kroeker, executive director for the past three years, have provided vital administrative support as the fund has evolved. But in every other way our work is entirety separate from that of the WDT The fund's decisions are made by its own committee, and its annual income is supplied by the Woodcocks alone. Legal provision has been made for a separate endowment, and the Woodcocks' estate will fortify the Woodcock Fund, not the Writers' Development Trust.
There's one person who rarely gets her due in any discussion of the Woodcock Fund, and who may never, because she so dislikes publicity. But this venture wouldn't exist without the enthusiasm of Inge Woodcock. It was as much her idea as George's, and everyone should know that all beneficiaries of the Woodcock Fund, present and future, owe her, as well as George, a debt of gratitude.
Because writers apply to us in confidence, I can't publish the names of those the fund has helped. I can say, however, that we have awarded grants to 17 writers. The cheques aren't large, but we try to meet the most urgent needs as best we can. Serious illness, emotional collapse, and devastating fire damage are some of the more dramatic crises we've had to consider. Our criteria are simple: the applicant must be an established professional writer; he or she must be working on a book; and there must be a real financial crisis interrupting that work, the sort of emergency that one of our modest grants can either eliminate or at least allay for long enough to give the writer some useful breathing space. In some cases we've enabled writers to climb out of financial holes and finish their books. In other instances we've bought applicants a little oasis of time to allow them to sort through a crisis and find their own solutions.
The fund doesn't exist to give beginners a boost, nor to help retirees, but apart from that we favour no age group and no particular genre or literary philosophy. What's important is that applicants be active, serious writers fully committed to their craft. Everyone associated with the fund is especially pleased that two of our grantees have since published excellent books that have been nominated for respected national literary awards.
Andreas Schroeder and Loma Crozier accepted appointments to our jury after Dennis Lee left us about a year ago, and I think they and the other jurors would probably agree that the wrenching part of our work is having to reject needy applicants who don't meet the fund's criteria. Some hardships are simply too big for us to handle. A writer burdened by longterm debts, for example, isn't suffering from the sort of crisis the fund is designed to alleviate. Chronic problems, whether financial or medical, are beyond our modest means, but they are never easy to say no to.
These are tough times for many people in the arts. The fund has demonstrated a need and also shown an effective way of beginning to meet it. I say "beginning" because in almost every case we'd like to have given a larger grant to those down on their luck. Two or three months respite from financial distress is useful; four or five months would be that much better. And we'd like to be able to help more people.
This year we're committed to raising money for the fund's endowment so that we can enlarge our present trickle of grants. So - I'll bet you thought I'd never ask - I'll end with an appeal. One generous writer has already donated $ 1,000 to the fund. Would any of you librarians, editors, bookstore workers, publishers, teachers, professors, and energetic readers out there like to organize a fund-raiser for the Woodcock Fund in the coming year in your community? If you're interested in supporting the creation of literature, you'll never find a better cause. Or maybe you know someone who would like to write us a cheque - tax-deductible, of course. In these hungry times, when governments across the country are pulling back from arts funding, I urge you to give the Woodcock Fund some thought and maybe even some money.
If you want to help with fundraising or contact us for any other reason, please get in touch with a jury member or with Nancy Kroeker at the Writers' Development Trust, 24 Ryerson Ave., Suite 201, Toronto M5T 2P3.