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In Memory of Val Clery
(This, like the preceding memoir by Douglas Marshall, is a speech spoken at Val Clery's memorial service.)

DEAR friends, friends of Val Clery,
This is a day to put aside grief. We have been lucky, exceptionally lucky, to have taken part in the life of Val Clery. We are here to celebrate that luck and be thankful for that life. A life, we may say, of singular charm and grandeur. Everyone here, I believe, can testify to the charm, which was not the meretricious charm of a salesman or a spellbinder, but that of virtue, virtue in the Roman sense of manly integrity and courage. Part of it was wit, which struck suddenly and was often cutting and sardonic. The things Val cared about passionately, things like literature and language, called it forth. He wanted Canadian literature to be as good as it should be, and he held passionately to that standard. Again, he wanted to keep the language clear and luminous too. Gerald Owen tells me, for example, that Val hated the expression "veggies"; he thought that any restaurant using the word in its menu should be closed down at once.
I spoke of the grandeur of Val's life. I think of him as a big man in every aspect, physically, yes, a mighty man of valour, but morally too, rugged and immoveable where his conscience was touched. It was for conscience' sake that he resigned from the CBC. It was for conscience' sake that he volunteered for service in the Second World War.
Born in Dublin in 1924 and raised there and thereabouts, Val was a member of the shrinking minority of southern Irish Protestants-shrinking in numbers, that is-bred to make his own moral decisions. It's true that he was also briefly a Roman Catholic, I forget why-probably for love of a woman.
As a conscious person in his teens, Val could see what Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy were doing to Europe. He could see that their evil works could only be resisted by military force. When Eamon De Valera opted for neutrality in that great conflict, Val took his own decision and joined the British army.
Northrop Frye remarks somewhere that we are free when what we ought to do and what we want to do are the same thing. That was the freedom Val chose and pursued. And since he had volunteered for the army, he felt he might as well volunteer for hazardous service and do the thing properly. He was posted to a commando unit in the Adriatic, that is, to shock troops who took on the hardest jobs of harassing and raiding the enemy. Commandos were picked for high standards of physical endurance and self-reliance. In their ranks one found poets and scholars as well as romantic hoodlums.
Some of us here will remember that the received military wisdom was "Never volunteer." Val believed on the contrary that the only way you could control your destiny was always to volunteer. In those times, many a decent Englishman and American felt the call of duty until he was in uniform. After that he served his cause in idleness with a clear conscience. Milton has said, "They also serve who only stand and wait." What was good enough for blind Milton was good enough for soldiers. But it was not good enough for an ardent Irish volunteer who knew what the enemy stood for and wanted to attack them.
I remember discussing his war service with Val. I said I was grateful for having been in the navy, which tended to incur fewer casualties than the army did. So Val, in polite contradiction, told me of a morning at sea off a Dalmatian island with a small group of commandos aboard a Royal Navy MGB. The soldiers were about to land and go into action when a German fighter-plane dived at them out of the sun and strafed the deck with heavy cannon fire. None of the soldiers was hit, but the skipper, first lieutenant, and several sailors were killed. Val himself survived many such actions. We are grateful that he was spared to live out his life to something like a normal span.
After the war he toured Ireland for two years with a puppet opera show. He spoke fondly of his travels in those far-off landscapes, those blue remembered hills, "the happy highways where he went and cannot come again." He came to know his countrymen intimately.
My knowledge of Val's broadcasting years is sketchy. In fact my knowledge of his whole life is sketchy. We had conversations, we did not conduct interviews, meeting at intervals, usually over food and drinks. I know that Val was a broadcaster in Ireland, in England with the BBC, and in Canada with CBC radio. He produced critical radio shows in Toronto, as I recall, and was the originator of the very successful CBC radio program, which is still flourishing, As It Happens. I recall that he once had to write to the Globe and Mail to correct an impression that Starowicz and Frum or some other CBC hotshot was claiming credit.
Val also scripted shows for television, including a fine one about bicycles. While working on this show he became fascinated by every aspect of bicycles, though I never saw him ride one.
He also was the founding editor of the review journal Books in Canada, which is still going strong and in good hands. It was part of his campaign for better standards and better books.
This week I checked the catalogues of the Metropolitan Reference Library, in which I found ten titles attributed to Val. I am sure that the list would be longer and more substantial if he had been able to give more time to his own work and less to improving the Canadian climate for the work of others. The books are these:
Two picture books about Canada published in 1972 and 1976; Promotion and Response, a media response survey in 1970; picture books, on Windows (1978) and Doors (1979); Canada from the Newsstands, an anthology of Canadian journalism (1978); a picture book on Dragons (1980); From the Kitchens of the World, a cookbook made in collaboration with Jack Jensen (1981), and a very important clue to character; and two volume of ghost stories, The Haunted Land (1983) and Ghost Stories of Canada (1985).
I was very taken with Val's essays on Doors and Windows. "Our windows," he wrote, "are a real measure of the openness and freedom with which we live now." Openness and freedom were important to him. He found something a little disquieting in the fact that people who worked in glass houses now favoured mirror glass. They could see out, but we couldn't see in. This seemed to betray corporate secretiveness. What is striking in the essay on Windows is that Val pretty well shuns images of ecclesiastical stained glass; no mediaeval glories for him. Like most of us who grew up in Ireland, he was heavily overdosed with church in childhood. He once told me he disliked churches and could not stand the sound of organs.
It was one of those revelations that Val used to deliver with a look of uncontainable glee. I'm sure that every one of us here has seen that look as he delivered some insight or witticism.
When I asked Val to autograph my copy of The Haunted Land, he wrote a brief epigraph, "Better Undead than Unread." I suggested that he was continuing a Dublin tradition of ghost stories, beginning with Maturin and continuing with Sheridan LeFanu and Bram Stoker. He had never read LeFanu (and I guess not many of us do). But the tradition is there and Dubliners are still addicted to tales of this kind.
The cookbook is important. Val was a skilled and imaginative cook who loved to make dinner for friends. He was an enjoyer and liked above all things to share his enjoyment.
Maybe this is the moment to recall that he loved beautiful, gifted women. Well, who doesn't? But I really believe Val had a special talent for love. He was deeply happy with Fiona Mee until she was so cruelly taken from him. He told me that the only differences Fiona and he ever had were about which of them should cook dinner. Each of them always wanted to do the honours.
Fiona was not the only love of his who died young. Val had his sorrows as he had his happy days. And they were harsh sorrows.
In recent years his health began to fail. There was a frightening time when he underwent dangerous surgery for double aortic aneurysms. Val was in a coma for days-nine days, I think-so that we were all in dread of losing him. In fact, as many of us recall, he recovered consciousness. Finding himself tied down like Gulliver in Lilliput with tubes and catheters and airways and intravenous drips he struggled to tear out these restraints and be free. It took five stalwart nurses and interns to subdue him, and then only by zapping him with a powerful sedative.
Not long after this I visited him in hospital, where I found him sitting on the edge of his bed, clothed and in his right mind. He was wearing a workman's shirt and pants with suspenders. When I asked how he felt, he gave me a smouldering look and said, "It's a hell of a way to give up smoking."
He did not give up his martinis, not just then at all events, and tried to take part in social life. Increasing deafness made it hard for him. And he did not stop working and commenting on the life around him.
One very important aspect of Val Clery's outlook was his strong dislike of nationalism. As it has been a major trend of our time, and in its resurgence sets the world in turmoil, Val was in almost permanent opposition to the intellectual fads of the past three decades in Canada. I remember his comment on newspaper statements by nationalists: "The natives are restless!" It seems to me quite natural that he should hate nationalism, having seen it come near to destroying his native land. And if we don't take care it may very well destroy his adopted country as well, this country to which he has given such honourable and unselfish service in the pursuit of literary excellence.
Val's stand against nationalism, and more especially the acerbic wit that was his weapon against its follies, gave many people the impression that he was a bitter person, a Canadian Thersites. The truth is, he was a kind and affectionate friend, a genial companion, and as warmhearted a man as you could find in this great land he made his own. We were lucky to have known him. We were lucky to have had his friendship.

Kildare Dobbs's first book of poems will be published by Mosaic Press. His most recent book is Smiles & Chukkers (Little Brown).


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