Running the Rapids: A Writer's Life

by Kildare Dobbs
240 pages,
ISBN: 1550025945

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Kildare Dobbs, Scribbler
by Eric Miller

The versatile Kildare Dobbs, who was born in 1923, chose to give his memoir Running the Rapids the subtitle of "A Writer's Life". Dobbs's authorial struggles and successes are impressive, but it is more illuminating to ponder the possible significations of the phrase "running the rapids". Dobbs's swift prose seats the reader in a canoe, as the memoirist manages, with the economy of retrospection, to steer around unanticipated rocks in the midst of history's profuse foam and spray. One gift this memoirist bestows on an audience is the succinct celebration of both bad and good luck, in the medium of consistently good prose. Misfortune itself becomes an object of aesthetic pleasure, something fortuitously or laboriously overcome. Like all worthy autobiographies, Running the Rapids feels impersonal to the degree that the predicaments and pleasures it describes assume an exemplary, even an allegorical dimension. I was repeatedly confronted by the strangeness of human life as I absorbed Dobbs's experiences. Moreover, the range of his acquaintances, which included the likes of Mordecai Richler, Northrop Frye, and Anne Wilkinson, stimulated and sustained a less refined curiosity.
Dobbs was born in India and raised in Ireland. He served in the Second World War. Something intensely funny and horrible about human fate emerges from Dobbs's 1942 adventures on Atlantic convoy duty in a destroyer beset by a tempest:

"Someone said, 'Shit, it could be worse.' And at once it did become worse. Word came from the bridge that we were to turn to and break up everything made of wood in the messdecks and flats. We were running out of fuel. Unless the engines could be kept going we would be at the mercy of breaking seas. The chief engineer and chief engine-room artificer were adapting the boiler-room furnaces for firewood. As a backup, the captain had a plan to sew together our hammocks and rig a jury sail . . . We set to work wrecking our living space. There was no talk, by the way, of breaking up the wardroom panelling. Our firewood kept the engines going for a few hours."
This passage deftly mingles comedy, dread, and ingenuity. The imperilled ship is cannibalized yet distinctions of rank are preserved, and the age of sail direly threatens to re-emerge. Just as evocative is Dobbs's epitomizing image of Britain at war:

"When I think about that time, though, I do not dwell so much on storms and air-raids as on insomniac visions of dimly lit English railway stations. Couples saying goodbye in the blue lamplight, faces ghastly with fatigue, drafts of servicemen and women lugging kitbags as they stumble in search of their trains. Daylight comes in through broken glass, steam hisses with smells of hot oil and sulphur, the big, black steam-engines pulsing, with now and then a little shriek of whistles as a train pulls out. Nagging posters say, 'Is your journey really necessary?' and 'Careless talk costs lives.'"

The narrative of this whole vivid period is succeeded by Dobbs's equally vivid sojourn in Tanganyika. In Africa, Dobbs at first taught in a school. Then he became a magistrate. His duties brought him to conclusions like George Orwell's:

"I learned that if capital punishment were imposed, I would be in charge. I read instructions on how to build a scaffold with a trap, how to indent for a special rope from the Crown Agents and to what vote it should be charged, and finally a table of weights and drops . . . So this, I thought, was what imperial rule came down to . . . I thought about it as I walked in the bush. I looked into the clear sky, not a cloud in sight. But nearby men were slaughtering a steer and silently the heavy vultures appeared, to circle over the death. The death-birds were always there . . . 'The sleep of reason begets monsters.'"

Dobbs's personal experiences in Africa had a decidedly monstrous side. He was literally imprisoned by the system that he served-on poor pretexts, having to do with the possession of ivory, "the king's property". Yet, although he was the victim of a miscarriage of justice, Dobbs characteristically enumerates the kindnesses he encountered: "Sir Theodore Pike, Governor of Somaliland, wrote to tell me not to think of myself as a criminal. I had never met Sir Theodore . . . My friend Adam, Chief of the Hehe, came to see me . . . The Liwali came to learn my precise name so that I could be prayed for in the Mosque. There was also a note from a leading Ismaeli in Dar es Salaam assuring me that he was with me 'whole and sole' and was petitioning the governor on my behalf." Toward the conclusion of his book, Dobbs recounts how he beguiles his insomnia by the meticulous forgiveness of all who have harmed him in the past; the District Commissioner who incarcerated him, however, still proves to be a recalcitrant object of this touching exercise in vigilant clemency.
His spell in prison is, I conjecture, the formative event in Dobbs's life, infusing him with surplus doses of ambition, suspicion, and kindness. It influenced even his reception in Canada, once he had immigrated. A tawdry gossip once informed the formidable novelist Ethel Wilson that Dobbs had been a "jailbird". Wilson may have been dismayed by the information, but in recognition of his writerly talent she surmounted her social prejudice. Her unease about his past and her final subordination of such pinched unease testify to both Wilson's snobbery and her magnanimity, the latter quality happily prevailing. Recalling his later promotion at Saturday Night magazine, Dobbs reflects, "I did see that being an editor was making me drift toward power and self-importance again. I did not agree with Lionel Trilling that power was what everyone wanted. My African experience taught me more about power and responsibility than a New York critic could know. I did not want it. I wanted to be an outsider-and my nemesis was that I became one."
Yet this outsider knew many of Canada's notables. Harold Towne, Donald Creighton, Brian Moore, Mazo de la Roche, Morley Callaghan, Alice Munro, Jay Macpherson, Vincent Massey, Marshall McLuhan, John Polanyi, and Bernard Ostry all appear in Running the Rapids. Dobbs's fame penetrated to the household in which I was raised. His 1970 collaboration with the illustrator Ronald Searle-a facetious history of the Hudson's Bay Company called The Great Fur Opera-was a book that, as a child, I wondered over. In fact, this book introduced me to both a grand passage of North American history and the charismatic King Charles II, "a merry monarch, scandalous and poor." I remain grateful. It is moving to see reproduced in Running the Rapids Ronald Searle's caricature of Kildare Dobbs as a Restoration "scribbler". Although Dobbs's memoir considerably augments my knowledge of him, the firmest image I retain of the author is of this quill-wielding, stool-perched, voluminous-wigged, intent, and apparently indefatigable figure.

Eric Miller's book of poetry In the Scaffolding appeared in 2005. His volume of prose, The Reservoir, is forthcoming. He teaches at the University of Victoria.

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