(This essay is adapted from a speech given at the memorial service for Val Clery, on October the 5th.)
I was lucky enough to have Val Clery as a friend for more than thirty years. For the first twenty or so of those years, I always had a hard time remembering that Val was fifteen years my senior, give or take a summer. In body and mind, he seemed to have the energy and vitality of J. P. Donleavy's Sebastian Dangerfield, the wild ginger man. We worked together, argued together, caroused together as equals, man to man, shot for shot, with me often fading first.
We first met in London in the early 1960s. Val was a radio producer for the CBC bureau there, a man of letters, and a former commando who had fought in Yugoslavia. Val was posted to CBC Toronto in 1965 and I came back a few months later to work for Maclean's. I didn't see much of him for the next five years but I certainly heard about him. Richard Lubbock, who worked with him in those years, sent me this note recently:
"Val really did originate the As It Happens format all by himself, no matter what Margaret Lyons or Mark Starowicz or Doug Ward might say. And Val always stressed that it was the first of the phone-out shows. People didn't call AIH. AIH called them.
"The show originally went on the air for six-and-a-half whole hours on Monday evenings and stayed on the air in two-hour chunks throughout the night, adding new, breaking material as it went along. Everyone (including me) stayed there all night till we closed the second hour on the West Coast.
"It was only Val's extreme hard work, stubbornness, and perfectionism that got the show on the air at all, because he stretched the technology at the time to its limit. They did the first few shows with the Bell engineers on hand, and phone wires rigged loosely around the studio. It was all so hairy that the chief technician committed suicide after the first few shows."
I was able to witness Val's creative powers myself in early 1971. At the firm insistence of our former employers, we had both returned to our first love: freelance writing. But Val had a plan. A hare-brained plan, to be sure, but enough of a raft to keep our hopes afloat. We would save the Canadian book industry and put Canadian literature on the world map by launching a national book review magazine.
What Val didn't have was money, not a red cent, to put into the project. That worried me a lot. I'd had a small windfall and at one point I wanted to put in some money myself. Val kindly talked me out of it, which wasn't too hard. Don't worry about it, he said. Fortune favours the brave. Things will work out. Yeah.
But amazingly, they did work out. Within a month or so we had a monk's cell of an office, a desk, a phone number, and an answering machine. We had been incorporated as a limited company. A name had been chosen, a nerve-racking task, and reviews commissioned. Seed money had been provided, I think by the Ontario Arts Council, and the OAC and the Canada Council had promised more funding if we hung in. A printer had been found and cajoled into acting as our banker. A crazy distribution system had been devised, a scheme whereby you could pick Books in Canada up free at bookstores across the country. Uh-huh. Or you could pay $9.95 a year to have it personally delivered to your doorstep by a Crown employee. Hmmm. It had everybody scratching their heads but it did provide the circulation to give us some credibility with advertisers.
And in May 1971, we came out with our introductory issue. The cover was a review by Dave Godfrey of Mordecai Richler's Saint Urbain's Horseman. Inside there was a profile of Robertson Davies, many times reprinted since, and reviews by Al Purdy, Alden Nowlan, Hugh Garner, and Doug Fetherling. Six more issues followed that year.
Some months later, Ontario's Royal Commission on Book Publishing, revealing its meanness of spirit and its superficiality, called Books in Canada "inbred, with its limited and consequently repetitive cast of contributors." Let me introduce you to some of the persons in that limited and repetitive cast, all of whom contributed to the first seven issues of Books in Canada: Norman Depoe, Marian Engel, Frederick Nossal, Morris Wolfe, Dennis Lee, Robert Markle, George Woodcock, Jack Batten, Marjorie Harris, Gerald Levitch, Richard Lubbock, Margaret Laurence, Jane Rule, bp nichol, Leo Simpson, Patrick McFadden, Tom Marshall, Fraser Sutherland, Donald Jack, Robin Mathews, Greg Curnoe, Michael Ondaatje, Peter Desbarats, and Rudy Wiebe. Oh, and I forgot a couple. Barbara Frum and somebody called Margaret Atwood.
Five people founded Books in Canada, each investing $11 for some strange reason. So our initial and final capitalization was just $55. We all helped to create it. But the person who did most of the work by far, often working eighteen-hour days, was Val Clery.
Val showed me that you really can create something out of nothing if you've got the guts-and God and everyone here knows, Val Clery had guts. He also showed me that if you passionately believe in something, don't be typically Canadian and shy about it. Proclaim your beliefs and, if possible, practise them.
Here are some of the things Val passionately believed, often in his own words: that Canadian books weren't getting anything like enough shelf space in Canadian stores and review space in Canadian publications; that Canadian writers, because of historical economic circumstances, were uniquely denied the encouragement, the response, and the reward that is essential to the growth of diverse literary quality. That most full-time writers-this is pure Val-wrote in a condition of chronic financial impairment, which obliged them (and their dependents) to hobble raggedly from one book to the next (when there is a next), aided sporadically by the crutch of a Canada Council grant. That most substantial Canadian publishers used the excuse that they were emissaries of international culture to dignify their profitable role as importers. That even the then newer publishing houses, depending on a shoestring of national zeal and grants, had inherited the fatal belief that the major function of a publisher is producing new titles-not realizing that when a book arrives at their warehouse their work has just begun. And that Canadian society as a whole was far too polite and needed to be shaken up by a healthy dose of irreverence. "Kicking against the pricks" was his private term for it.
Val acted on those beliefs by proclaiming that Books in Canada was a radical and biased magazine. It was radical in the sense that it would try to go to the root of Canada's publishing crisis. And it was biased in favour of Canadian books, Canadian writers, and Canadian readers. He also published several irreverent reviews that demolished cultural shibboleths and pricked puffed-up literary reputations. The Ontario royal commissioners accused us of "author assassination". "Produce the bodies," Val demanded. The hopes and talents of more Canadian authors were killed off by the inadequacies of Canadian publishing, he said, than by our reviewers.
He also made sure Books in Canada had its own irreverence. This usually took the form of punny heads, which became a signature of the magazine. A review of a history of the Château Frontenac, for example, was headed "Me and my Château". For a book called Paternalistic Capitalism by Andreas Papandreou, "Papa and Mammon". For a freshwater fishing guide, "For Happier Hookers". For a picture book about West Coast totem poles, "Haida Ways". And for a book on contraception, "Fore Ploys".
None of this means to suggest Val was a paragon. He was a difficult and often impossible man to work with. Perfectionists usually are. And his main failing as a magazine editor was a casual attitude to deadlines and publication frequencies. We were supposed to be a monthly. But for some reason we produced two issues in December 1971. And our celebrated April-May-June issue in 1973 is, quite properly, a collector's item. One issue was held up because Val had mislaid his briefcase, containing all of the copy. We panicked but Val was unfazed. It would come to him, he said. And sure enough, a week later he remembered he had forgotten to collect it from a Canadian Tire store's checkroom.
Apart from bankruptcy, Val always warned that there are two dangerous reefs that could sink Books in Canada. One was to abandon the tough critical standards we were founded to establish, to retreat into that cosy pre-1970 world where pals routinely reviewed pals and the worst that could be said of any book was that it was "not bad, for Canada." The other was to be captured by the creative-writing establishment and become just another literary magazine, forever examining theories of fiction and poetry. To exclude Canada's many works of non-fiction, he said, where the fascinating story of where we had come from, where we were going, and how we should get there was being played out, would be to commit intellectual suicide.
As owners and editors changed, Books in Canada sometimes seemed to steer perilously close to one or other of those reefs. But fortunately it never hit them. And as an informed and disinterested observer, I can report that it is now firmly on the course Val Clery set twenty-five years ago.
Douglas Marshall is the science and environment editor of the Toronto Star. He was the first managing editor and the second editor of Books in Canada.