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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
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
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.