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Douglas Fetherling - The Ballad of English Bill
by Douglas Fetherling

HARD AS IT IS FOR SOME OF his admirers to believe, Robin Skelton, the bard of Victoria, British Columbia, the person who, it sometimes seems, has been behind most of the interesting cultural activities in that city for the past three decades, will be turning 70 this December. I'd like to be the first in print with appropriate birthday wishes, but I fear I've been beaten out by our mutual friend Charles Lillard, another Victoria homme de lettres. Lillard is proprietor of one of the country's most active and useful (and least known) small presses, Reference West. It publishes, among other things, poetry chapbooks (two of them have won the coveted bpNichol Award) and a series of auto-bibliographies, in which authors list and properly describe, and then comment on, their own life's work. Skelton's auto-bibliography, called The Record of a Logophile, appeared in 1990. It enumerates some 125 separate titles -- poetry collections, translations, works of fiction, biography, and history, and scholarly books about J. M. Synge and some other writers of the Anglo-Irish Renaissance. One of the most physically appealing and hardest to find of all Skeltons is A Ballad of Billy Barker, published in 1965 by Charles Morriss, the Vancouver Island printer and designer whose style was so recognizable and is still so influential. Now Reference Press has made available an entirely new edition of A Ballad of Billy Barker -- has done so, I suspect, as a birthday homage to its author, but as a gift to the rest of us as well.

One of the unusual facts about Skelton's life as a poet has been his willingness to employ many different verse forms, ancient and contemporary. Lately, in fact, his desire to adapt from as many different cultures as possible has become a kind of benevolent obsession. A Ballad of Billy Barker is one of the earlier indications of this tendency.

As the title suggests, this is a fake ballad, owing its origins to the time when versifiers dashed into print so quickly with the story of some criminal's life that they would have copies of their poem for sale among the crowd that had assembled to watch the poor fellow's execution. The ballad, that is, had ceased being a folk song, but was still something that people with one foot in the oral tradition could memorize and pass on: the sort of thing that Robert W. Service, for all his abiding popularity, presumably thought he was writing but wasn't, at least not very well. And in the story of Billy Barker, of course, Skelton found the perfect subject for this kind of treatment.

Barker was the miner who lent his name to Barkerville, briefly the most populous town in British Columbia (and now one of the province's most popular tourist attractions). Indeed it was around his incredibly rich claim on Williams Creek that the town sprang into existence. Barker was an Englishman who had been in the California gold rush and then, like so many others, followed the excitement and gossip to the lower Fraser River Valley and later the Cariboo. Almost literally overnight he became very wealthy. Although he may not be the archetype of the lucky prospector who strikes it rich but dies broke, he certainly is one of the memorable examples. He sold his claim too soon and was too generous with what he'd already taken out, and he died in Victoria in 1894, broke and alone, at 77.

Skelton makes an excellent yam of it. I think rollicking would be a proper adjective to describe the poem if that didn't tend to obscure the craft at work in making the lines seem so simple:

The sea's a wicked country; its green hills lift and drown; but earth's a played-out working when you've thrown your money down. I worked as cook; I begged; I washed; my pans were grey with stone. It's curtains now for English Bill in Victoria Old Men's Home.

It's headstones now for English Bill....

Unfortunately, the new edition of Billy Barker, while it contains a fresh preface, fails to eradicate a major error in the original. Skelton perpetuates the idea that Barker was from Cornwall -- one of the untold thousands of Cousin Jacks, as they were called, to be found at all the major gold rushes starting with California in the 1849 and going on, hopping oceans and cultures, for the next 80 years or so.

I first became aware of the truth of the matter in 1989, in correspondence with Mrs. Dorothy Sweet of Victoria, who has made a long study of the influence of Cornish miners and their techniques on the mining industry worldwide. Her research (which she incorporated into the entry on Barker in Vol. XII of the Dictionary of Canadian

Biography, published in 1990) proved that Barker was actually from Cambridgeshire, not Cornwall. Mind you, the ballad form is not one that is, or should be, made claustro phobic by historical accuracy.

Douglas Fetherling's biography of A. Y. Jackson is forthcoming from Quarry Press.


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