Beyond the Blue Mountains: An Autobiography|
by George Woodcock
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|Scenes from a life
by I.M. Owen
George Woodcock is a compound of contradictions. Look at him, and you see a sober, comfortable, matter-of-fact sort of person, just the man to have edited a respectable mainstream literary quarterly for 18 years. Yon don't see the poet: he looks no more like a poet than - well, Raymond Souster. And you certainly don't see the anarchist: he looks no more like a devotee of a romantic lost cause than - well, Jacques Parizeau.
He is fully aware of the contradictions in his nature, and accounts for them by a fact I never suspected until I read Letter to the Past, the first volume of his autobiography. I'd known that he was born in Winnipeg and grew up by the Thames, but not that his roots were entirely is Shropshire, the quintessential county of the Welsh Marches, where everybody is English and Welsh simultaneously and where, as Housman's "Shropshire Lad" says, "They cease not fighting, east and west, / On the marches of my breast." With Woodcock this isn't a matter of mere genetics: his school holidays - the important part of real life for a child - were always spent with his grandparents in Shropshire.
Beyond the Blue Mountains begins at the moment in 1949 when George and Inge Woodcock arrived on Vancouver Island with their life savings of $500, plus $1,000 borrowed from Dwight Macdonald. Fresh from the heart of literary London, they bought an acre of ground for $200, sad he proceeded to build a house, having "never done carpentry more complicated than putting up a bookshelf." The house was more of a success than their scheme of supporting themselves by truck gardening, for which George Woodcock had some qualification, having done it sporadically as a conscientious objector during the war. It netted them $10 the first year. The book ends with the 75 yearold author contemplating a new translation.of Proust. That seems like a hate-brained scheme too; but, like the first one, it will probably have good results eventually. At the end of the first volume Woodcock predicted that this one would be "quite other than tire present book; perhaps less narrative in form, perhaps less attached to the protagonist and more concerned with his world and time and worlds beyond, and certainly more reflective." It hasn't worked out quite that way. There are brief reflective passages on the world and time and even worlds beyond. but mostly it is narrative - it has to be. There's so much activity to be recorded: the innumerable books produced through unthinkably long working hours (as many editors know, he apparently hasn't had time to change his typowriter ribbon since 1949); the wideranging travels; and of course his role as godfather of Canadian letters.
This last aspect of his career, though, isn't treated as fully as might have been expected. There really isn't very much about his work as editor of Canadian Literature. I suspect that for him founding and editing the quarterly was a job that needed to be done, and he did it well; but essentially it was a job, not an enthusiasm. Something similar shows, for me, in his own literary criticism. Good as it is, it's not except when he's writing about a close friend like Onvell - in his normal vigorous, lively style. The prose plods, as it never does when he is writing about his real enthusiasms, such as wild flowers.
Where this book excels is as a handy brief compendium of Woodcock's travel writing, starting with the account of an excursion to a Doukhobor community in northern Vancouver Island, first published in Tamarack as "Encounter with an Archangel," which appears here only slightly revised; and going on through all the travels further afield on which he has already written books or film scripts.
There's a tantalizing omission. It may be vaguely recalled that in 1974 a story appeared in Northern Journey that was potentially libellous of Margaret Atwood and John Glassco. Woodcock mediated the ensuing dispute, and he tells the story, beginning on page 266 and breaking off in mid-sentence at the bottom of page 267. The next page is numbered 270, and starts a new chapter.
I suspect another omission, though this one doesn't show up so glaringly in the pagination. The chapter called "Medals and Men" certainly contains men - and women but not a single medal. Rather suspiciously, it ends with a full-length page, though not in mid-sentence.
A final complaint: this volume, unlike Letter to the Past, has no index. 'this is hard on a reviewer who can never bring himself to make notes as he reads.