Saturday, September 30, 2006

David Helwig's The Names of Things

While in England a couple of weeks ago, I finished reading writer and editor David Helwig's memoir, The Names of Things (Erin ON: The Porcupine's Quill, Inc., 2006). A fascinating look at a writer's life, he moves through the University of Toronto in the 1950s, writing about Ed Lacey, Henry Beissel and John Robert Columbo, to theatre in Peterborough with Timothy Findley, Gordon Pinsent, Jackie Burroughs and Bill Davis, the infamous "cigarette smoking man" of the X-Files, to Kingston of the 1960s and the "world of little magazines with Tom Marshall and Michael Ondaatje," writing of his experiences with Don Bailey, as well as, eventually, Steven Heighton, Margaret Atwood, Matt Cohen and a whole slew of others. He moves through his time in England, to Toronto, and points further, including a trip to China, before ending up on Prince Edward Island. The late poet John Newlove used to refer to himself as living "an accidental life," and parts of this memoir read about the same, where one circumstance leads into so many other things, whether his daughter, the writer Maggie Helwig being born in England instead of in Canada, to finding himself teaching at Queen's University, or later working for the CBC, or to ending up with his partner Judy on Prince Edward Island.

Almost always the second question any writer is asked is, where do the books come from? And Helwig answers these questions by not focusing on them, and working in other directions instead, coming to the writing only when it is necessary to come to the writing, moving instead through experiences and relationships he has had with others (and a fascinating lot they are, as Helwig writes them), while still including some of the sparks that led to his enormous productivity as a poet, fiction writer and editor. Still, through the memoir, Helwig sprinkles poems through the text here and there, very sparingly, when it seems appropriate; I have always preferred David Helwig the novelist to David Helwig the poet, but the poems do enlighten and enliven what is even an already engaging text, but more as interesting asides than anything that really push the text further. Some of the sections that are most engaging are the ones in which he writes about his family history, including a section he writes about his maternal grandmother, and learning about the circumstance of his mother's birth. As he writes:
My impression of my grandmother is still the one I developed in early childhood, a sense of kindness, of acceptance, of easy laughter. She was always a small woman, and as she got older, an inherited disease bent and bowed her legs and made her smaller, though she never had to struggle with the grotesque barrel staves on which some of her older brothers and sisters hobbled around. (It startles me now, in this world of modern nutrition and medicine that I took for granted that my mother's aunts and uncles should be half-crippled, distorted, dwarfish figures.)

I thought of my grandmother as a small, kind, warm, rather plain woman. Yet in her wedding photograph, she looks very pretty. No doubt some of that is youth and happiness. That photograph is in an album of ancient pictures of members of her family, an album full of the flavour of Victorian England, where she was born and raised. There are photos entwined in a lithograph of English roses and decorated with a little scene of boats near the shore that might be an illustration to David Copperfield. Built into the back cover of the album is a music box that plays two little marches with a metallic carnival gaiety. Many of the figures are anonymous: an old woman in her bonnet and a long dress of a spotted material, sitting straight in the photographer's upholstered chair, her arm across a carved table; a young man in his best suit standing in front of a blank background, one hand on his hip, the other leaning on a small table where his bowler hat waits complacently. A few are labeled: Mr and Mrs Pickles, Mrs Maud Morris and Edgar, Vinnie, Uncle Will's first wife, died in childbirth. A pop-eyed little boy sits on a wooden horse. A blurred photograph of a young woman in mid-Victorian dress. On the back is the photographer's label, Smith, 33 Park Lane, Leeds. […]

It was one of those remarks in which a certain meanness of spirit has garbed itself in the robes of charity, and behind it lay a story my mother told me when I was seventeen or eighteen, one dark winter afternoon. What she told me was the story of her own illegitimate birth. The man I had always known as my grandfather wasn't my mother's father. My grandmother, in her teens, had fallen in love with a married man who wrote poetry and played the double bass and sometimes preached in the spiritualist chapel she attended. When she found herself pregnant, they went away together to Somerset, where my mother was born, in that house on Taunton Road I must assume. On the birth certificate, the man is described as a printer, the two of them as husband and wife. Later he went back to his wife and two sons, and my grandmother emigrated to Canada. My mother was five years old when my grandmother married David Abbott, who was younger than she was and had been her father's apprentice.
As potentially "shocking" as this might be, anyone working in genealogy already knows that these stories are far more common than people might think; the rarity for Helwig comes in the facts that he was told the story in the first place, was willing to do more research in the matter, and then write it down for the rest of us to read. Every family has an interesting series of stories, and I appreciate Helwig giving us his, along with what they mean to him, and the rest of his life. What makes this memoir is that Helwig writes of all of his selves, from lover, husband, father, son, grandson, writer, editor, carpenter, actor and what else makes up the whole of a life, instead of limiting it to stories of his "writing" life. This is the story of his life, so far, with so many writers and actors and others written about that there should have been an index at the back of the book. Another interesting insight Helwig shares is into Oberon Press's Michael Macklem, a publishing house that Helwig was involved with early on, and that has managed for decades to be extremely active and almost completely invisible at the same time (they currently have offices about three blocks away from where I write this):
Michael Macklem was, and is, a fiercely driven man, who has always approached the world as a battle in which every day a few inches may be gained or, more likely, lost. Comprehensible I suppose: when he was born, because an older brother had been found dead in his crib, the thymus gland swollen, Michael was given massive doses of x-rays to shrink the thymus gland, and these affected the thyroid nearby so that he was until adolescence, in his own words, 'a fat little porker'. (The doctors expected the therapy to make him impotent. It didn’t.) As a small boy, he was brutalized by bullies at Upper Canada College. His mother was a clever and formidable woman who, left a widow with two young sons, married a rather shy lawyer and, after the crib death, gave birth to one final son, Michael. While Michael was pleased to assert that his father, whose business included a lot of money-lending, never foreclosed a mortgage during the Depression, the man understood money and he made quite a lot of it – though I believe they were people of means even in earlier generations. This has allowed Michael to run Oberon for more than thirty-five years without ever paying himself or Anne a salary – that's a gift to Canadian writing, as I calculate it,
of well over a million dollars.
As an aside, later on, while continuing to write on Macklem, Helwig adds:
He was attacked by pirates on Lake Muskoka.

Only Michael could be attacked by pirates on Lake Muskoka.
So much of his life he chalks up to luck, downplaying his own skill and talent, but it's difficult to downplay the luck of geography and birth, and the opportunities that came through the explosions of Canadian Literature that he was not only there for, but an important part of. As he writes at the beginning of chapter six:
The smartest thing I ever did was to get myself born in 1938. What that meant was that I was just a few years ahead of the baby boom that came along after the war, my own more thinly populated generation catching most trends on the way up. I left high school in 1956 and only six years later I had a full-time teaching job at Queen's University. I had never intended to be an academic, or wished to, but I was married at twenty-one and a father at twenty-three, so when the job offers began to arrive – I was in England, with a wife and a child and no money – it was impossible to turn them down.
This is a highly compelling and highly satisfying memoir that gives as much information about Helwig as there probably is, much of it in the way of him deflecting the focus off himself and onto others. If I were to list the books that David Helwig has published, there would be little space for anything else; there is much for Helwig to be immodest about. Still, the strength of this three hundred page document comes from the fact that this is a memoir by a quiet, modest and engaged writer, with some sixty-odd years of experience behind him. Whether you care for his writing or not, I would almost call this essential reading; a "writing life" that focuses on the life.

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