Pacific Rim Review of Books

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Imagining David Watmough

Review by Jan Drabek

Myself Through Others – Memoirs. David Watmough. Dundurn..
Geraldine. David Watmough. Ekstasis Editions.

Editorial note: Thirty years ago, David Watmough rewrote the rules on what fiction could discuss in Canada. Still writing in his eighties, and with two new books and a first collection of sonnets forthcoming, his place is secure as a wise, compassionate elder of the nation’s literary tribe. Retired ambassador Jan Drabek, a regular contributor to PRRB, offers his thoughts on Watmough’s late career achievements.

David Watmough, an octogenarian living in Tsawwassen, British Columbia, is the author of some seventeen books, mostly of fiction. With Myself Through Others, he weighs in with another genre: descriptions of encounters ranging from Stephen Spender to Premier P.E. Trudeau, on the way stopping to chat with W.H. Auden, T.S. Eliot and Graham Greene.

For this West Coast writer of particular interest were his chats with Robin Skelton, Carol Shield and Jane Rule – all personalities who figured prominently in the birth of British Columbia literary awareness during the 1970s and the consequent birth of organizations such as the B.C. Branch of the Writers’ Union of Canada and the Federation of British Columbia Writers.

It’s important to note that Watmough is gay. Also, that his life-long relationship with his partner has lasted over half a century, a record which beats many of the greatest heterosexual love stories. This should be mentioned right at the onset because some of the early encounters seemed to have been either through or due to his homosexuality.

One reviewer of this book rather dismissed it as an exercise in name-dropping, To my mind she may have missed its essential, central point, which is already evident in its title. While most memoirs have the author as their central character, this one doesn’t. Despite it, we still find out more about Watmough himself than one would expect.

He explains why the volume is not a true biography: “I have raided my life so often and so extensively on behalf of my fiction that not only am I unsure now what is a fact and what is invention but also the skeletal remains are altogether resistant to my probing.”

To me, there are three main qualities to this work. The first has to do with Watmough’s keen observation of his characters, interspersing broad strokes with fine details, in the end emerging with an amazingly clear portrait nearly every time. Whether it’s his quick departure from a lunch in Victoria when he discovers his mercifully unnamed hostess is a crypto-Nazi, his observing of the Ready family’s trademark of leprechaun ears, or the dying Raymond Chandler proposing to hire him, we see each scene as precisely as if it were a digital camera image.

Then there is Watmough’s keen awareness of place. The first encounters take place in Cornwall, where we are confronted with a plethora of characters which, were it not for differing accents, could roam any countryside. Anywhere.

This is where Watmough’s keen ear for local dialect comes in, helping to paint each encounter so well; whether it’s Cornwall, New York, San Francisco or Vancouver. Perhaps it has something to do with his explanation that as both an ardent Cornishman and proud Canadian “unlike some North American emigrants I am happy with a prefix.”

It’s Watmough’s style that wraps this book into a highly palatable literary fare. Granted that one may have to look up words like “decanal” and “plangent” and that the commas between his numerous clauses call for frequent shifting of attention, but that’s the price to pay for prose which offers uncommon literary satisfaction.

While highly readable there are occasional factual question marks. By the late 1930s most people in his London neighbourhood may have owned cars and telephones, but Watmough’s claim that they also “received regular television programming from the BBC,” sounds a bit like a tall tale. Not so, it turns out. A quick check with Wikipedia brings out the proud British truth that they were indeed pioneers in this endeavour.

But definitely incredible is the story of his meeting Eleanor Roosevelt while she was at a United Nations meeting in London in the fall of 1945 and sending best wishes to her husband.

FDR had died in March of that year.

On a note of different tenor, in the steady flood of dreary puerile and middle-aged navel gazing and whining, which to such a large extent constitutes contemporary literature, Watmough’s novel Geraldine is welcome relief. Inevitably the character of the ageing Geraldine will be compared with Margaret Laurence’s superb Morag in The Stone Angel, but there are significant differences. After all it’s been 44 years since the Stone Angel was first published.

First of all, Geraldine is much older than Morag was – she is almost 97. It’s an age that in Margaret Laurence’s time would have usually signalled a doddering human wreck at best, incapable of much coherent thought or normal movement. In ours, Geraldine’s physical condition may be nothing to write home about, but her mental one certainly is.

Perhaps more importantly, while Morag was certainly an uncommonly straight thinker, she was essentially an uneducated woman, desperately fighting for her dignity in a world she understood less and less. A sympathetic character indeed, but nowhere near as fascinating as the worldly Geraldine, who has a PhD in science and should have one in Weltanschauung.

Geraldine has the world pegged for what it is and knows exactly what she wants from it. There is no confusion. Coming to the end of her life, she is also largely successful in arranging her perfect exit from it.

If this aspect of the novel does not ring quite true, everything else does. Once again the issue of homosexuality plays a significant role here, as Watmough confronts Geraldine with a gay grandson, whose partner plays the important role of her biographer. This is a neatly placed device that allows the author to tell us about Geraldine’s colourful past and that, in turn, expose us to her strong feminist views.

Mind you, not excessively so. Geraldine has fought a fair fight to rise to the top in her profession. In the course of the book we are also quite unobtrusively presented with the contemporary Vancouver social scene. Geraldine’ biographer is Chinese who, while in many ways thoroughly integrated into the Canadian culture, is also adding to it from his own. There is a Serbian apartment manager with a chip on his shoulder, Geraldine’s straight-laced son and her granddaughter whose incessant phone calls get on Geraldine’s nerves and who has “earned further degrees of contempt by spattering her speech with references to Lord Jesus and the joyous space He was occupying in her life”.

Geraldine’s best friend is the seventyish Deborah, in age nearer to Morag, though she too is nothing like her. As Geraldine’s trusted and highly-valued adviser, Deborah is a retired professional, enjoying life while fully independent in thought and action.

And it is to her that Geraldine rather succinctly explains what seems to be everyone else’s problem: “The trouble is, Debby, that the rest of the world has NOT come to terms with leaving it. In spite of a lot of jabber about death being as natural as birth people either don’t believe in death for a minute other than as a dire misfortune – or they don’t think about it all!”

But it would be a mistake to suppose that Watmough’s novel is overly preoccupied with death. As Geraldine says, it is a natural phenomenon that – certainly at her age – one should never try to ignore. Probably in the same way that after preparing a great dinner the chef should take care that he leaves the kitchen clean and orderly. One doesn’t always succeed and occasionally he is called away in the middle of all the preparations, but it’s important that a grand effort is made in that direction.

Don’t know if David Watmough would put it that way, but that’s the message I got from this well-written book by the old master of fiction.

A frequent contributor to PRRB, Jan Drabek is a retired ambassador and has twice served as president of the Federation of B.C. Writers. His most recent work is His Doubtful Excellency.