George Woodcock: A Man of Free Intelligence
by Alan Twigg
I began even as a boy to realize how wide the world can be for a man of free intelligence.
This conversation was conducted in 1994 by Alan Twigg. George Woodcock, founding editor of Canadian Literature, died in January of 1995. Canadian Literature is grateful to Alan Twigg for permission to present the interview here.
AT: What does it mean when you refer to yourself as an anarchist in the 1990s?
GW: It means, I suppose, a person for whom freedom is the most important thing – intellectual freedom and, as far as possible, physical freedom. You can be bound by physical things, as I am by certain sicknesses, but nevertheless you can within yourself, and that still be free to recognize that all initiatives really come from yourself if you don’t depend upon structures of government or structures of any kind. Structures are fine as long as they are controlled by the people who actually work within the structures, but they’re dicey even there.
AT: But how does that philosophy affect your life on a day-to-day level? In terms of the decisions you make and your behaviour?
GW: It doesn’t really mean a great deal of difference to a life. You live as you wish to do and if a job is oppressing, you leave it. I’ve done it on several occasions. I broke with the university. It’s a derogatory thing to say it’s a form of evasion, but you evade those unpleasant choices, you evade those situations in which you are insubordinate, you evade the situations that will offend your dignity.
AT: Can you count some specific examples as to how you would respond to something differently than many other people might? Besides rejecting the Order of Canada?
GW: My split with the university was over the fact that I had become involved with helping Tibetans in India. I went on a year’s leave to India and did quite a lot. I let a year pass and then I asked for a year’s unpaid leave. For some reason, the new president had decided that unpaid leave could only be granted through the decision of a council that consisted almost entirely of scientists, and of course they couldn’t understand my reasons for wanting to go so. They said no, no unpaid. So I immediately resigned. When you act dramatically in that way it often has a consequence that is very negative. I was editing Canadian Literature. I didn’t want to let Canadian Literature go, so they reached a nice compromise by which I received half a professor’s salary. I was allowed to wander where I could. Here is a case in which you search for your independence and allow something creative to come out of that.
AT: Your affinity with the Doukhobors has a long background. They may not see themselves strictly as anarchists, but there must be some affinity between your beliefs and theirs.
GW: Yes, my relationship with the Doukhobors is a very friendly one. Of course when I first started to work on the Doukhobors they were suspicious, as they are of all outsiders, because they have had a bad press, and that sort of thing, but once I got to know them I found that they were great friends. We had lived among them for short periods with great friendship, great understanding. It’s very hard to place them politically, because their leaders are quite prominent, but the whole theory behind the Doukhobor movement is that the leaders are the inspired spokesmen of the community and everything is decided at a meeting, which is partly a hymn, singing religious meeting, and partly a meeting to decide the practical affairs of the community. And so they do have this kind of basic anarchy and when the leader makes an announcement it’s always said he is expressing the will of the meeting – so they live in a curious kind of half world between anarchism and theocracy. I found it quite fascinating of course.
AT: You don’t fully accept the role of national government and yet you are willing to become the first writer to be accorded Freedom of the City. What is the difference between your attitudes to civic government and your attitudes to rational government?
GW: Well, I think there are all kinds of traditions involved here; first of all the Order of Canada is really a replica of something. We don’t allow people to be knights, to be knighted by the Queen of England, but we do allow them to become members of the Order of Canada. It even has the same phraseology as the English orders of knighthood, companions and this sort of thing. What I’m going to be given I gather is not the key to the city, which in many cities is the case. It’s the freedom medal, and for me freedom has always been associated traditionally within the city. If you think of the Greek city-states where they developed all the ideas of democracy, if you think of the medieval cities where the serf could flee from his lord’s estate, once he got through the gates he was a free man. This is an important tradition, the link between the idea of the city and the idea of freedom. That’s why I’ve accepted it.
AT: You have always been willing to write for a wide spectrum of publications. I don’t know of any writer who has been in some ways so indiscriminate, in terms of your openness to write for prestigious publications or very small publications. Is that something conscious on your part?
GW: It is really. I don’t believe in kicking away ladders. By that, I mean the ladders by which I ascended as a young writer, small magazines that didn’t pay anything, and that sort of thing. Now I am a writer who can command fairly good payments from magazines with large circulations, I very often refuse to write for them and still write sometimes for small magazines for nothing.
AT: You’ve written that creativity often comes out of early wounds, what were your early wounds? beyond the death of your father?
GW: My early wounds were the English school system among other things. It wasn’t merely the discipline, it was the ways in which boys got what was called the school spirit. In most English school it is a brutal kind of pro-sporty spirit that militates against the intellectual who is looked on as a weakling. I was unpopular at school just because I was an intellectual. I always answered all the questions off the top of my head but they nevertheless resented because of that.
AT: Most of your contemporaries flowered early. Many of them are largely forgotten whereas you have a different type of creativity which seems to be growing in power, literally decade by decade. Do you recognize that your creativity is actually quite abnormal?
GW: I suppose I’m led to do so by the fact of what happened to my contemporaries – people whom I’ve admired, people who I thought were ten times better than me when I was in my twenties and early thirties. I may have been right. They may have been that much better, but gradually the tortoise, or the bull if you’re going to use the Taurean symbol, marches forward slowly. I think what I am writing now is better than what they were writing when I admired them.
AT: Obviously George Orwell was and continues to be a major influence. What do you mean when you refer to him as your dear but difficult friend?
GW: I thought I called him my dear, dour George in one of my poems. Orwell was the sort of man who was full of grievances. He was very loyal. Once he got to know you, he was extremely loyal. He hated passionately and irrationally. I remember people who were really quite decent people who tagged along a bit with his bandwagon and our world was full of contempt and fury against them. I used to tolerate them because I thought they were benighted souls, and might somehow show the light, but Orwell didn’t. He just hated them with a bitter fury.
AT: And didn’t you first come into contact with him through a disagreement?
GW: Absolutely, yes. I got into a disagreement with him over something he’d said in the Partisan Review. I pointed out that after all he was a former police officer in Burma. He himself had been a pacifist one year before and this kind of thing. And so I wrote this down and Orwell wrote a furious reply. Then somehow or other, through an Indian writer named Mulk Raj Anand, he invited me to take part on his Indian program at the BBC. So I did and we were very formal. And then I was getting on a bus up at Hampstead one day. I was at Hampstead getting on top of a double-decker bus on the top deck and I saw a familiar crest of hair. It was Orwell. He turned and patted the seat beside him so I went up. He said, “Woodcock, Woodcock, we may have differences on paper but that doesn’t mean anything derogatory to our relationship as human beings.” And with that our friendship started. It was the most extraordinary kind of thing. Same thing happened with Stephen Spender.
AT: I’d like to bring up some other people that you’ve had closer relationships with. First of all the Shadbolts, Jack and Doris.
GW: Well, the Shadbolts really were very important. We wouldn’t be in Vancouver if it hadn’t been for the Shadbolts. We’d been living on Vancouver Island and getting pretty miserable, in a village on Vancouver Island that I needn’t name [Sooke] and we came over and Jack said to me, “Well, there’s a cabin in the bush outside, behind our house, maybe we can get you into that.” He tried and yes, the owners would let us go in. At that time, all Capitol Hill [in Burnaby] was practically forest. There were no houses. And it was wonderful living out there out in the forest, looking out over the harbour. That’s where we started off in Vancouver. Living together up on this hill, we became very close friends.
AT: And since then you have had more friends who were painters than writers, is that true?
GW: I really do, yes. I don’t have all that many friends who are writers. I know their problems, but I don’t know the problems of painters. I like to move among painters, mathematicians, psychologists, people who can tell me something.
AT: Another fellow came along and helped put some money in your pocket was Earle Birney.
GW: Earle Birney, yes. Earle that was an odd sort of relationship, stormy at the time, very stormy. Earle was a very bad-tempered man and a vain man, but nevertheless.
AT: He touched a lot of peoples’ lives .
GW: Well, he did and I think more than any other writer [in British Columbia]. Earle was the first writer in Canada that I knew. Earle actually came and visited me on Vancouver Island, when we were living in a trailer while we were building a house in 1949, the summer of 1949, so he was the first Canadian writer that I knew. He found out I was living there so he came over and later on he was partly instrumental in getting me an appointment to UBC. But there’s a side story to that because he had tried before; he had tried in 1953, and they all said, “No, no, he’s got no degree.” Then in 1954, the University of Washington offered me a post without a degree and so I went to the University of Washington and worked there for a year. Then they offered me a permanent post and I couldn’t take it because of U.S. immigration, which decided that I was, according to the details of the law, an anarchist and therefore inadmissible. So we fought that and failed. Then, surprisingly UBC came back and offered me a job. So I came to UBC without a degree, on my own conditions.
AT: And Earle Birney got you to UBC where you met Roy Daniells.
GW: Yes, it was Earle really. Earle and Roy had a very stormy relationship. Sometimes they’d work together, and they did in getting me into the university. One of the conditions, an implicit condition so that it was never written down, was that I would have a magazine to edit. Roy Daniells made sure of that, that I did have Canadian Literature to edit. So it was the two of them, between them that brought me to the place.
AT: And hence the birth of Canadian Literature, which you edited for 18 years. You got to know by mail most of the major Canadian writers. We obviously can’t talk about all of them but I’d like to mention a couple who have been important to you, not just as writers but as friends, like Margaret Laurence.
GW: Our friendship is [was] an odd kind of epistolary kind of friendship. The few years she was in Vancouver we didn’t know each other very well because I was away quite a lot of the time. I was away in Europe and so I really didn’t get to know her much in Vancouver. Then she left for England and we begin to write these long letters to each other. These continued and then at the end, of course, when she moved to Lakefield, there would be the late night phone calls, 2:00 am Lakefield time. She would go on for hours at a time. I was always anxious about the phone bill but she never rang collect. I don’t know what her bills were like.
AT: She’s a remarkably moving person for anyone who had anything to do with her. Do you think we fully understand who she was, has it been publicly recognized who she was?
GW: She was an extraordinarily vulnerable person, much more than her publisher guessed and sometimes you’d get that in these conversations. Someone would have died, it didn’t matter, you didn’t even know the person but Margaret would be emoting about it, genuinely moved, moved, moved to the bottom of her heart about this. She was a person with extraordinarily strong feelings, which I think may have had something to do with her final withdrawal from writing.
AT: Another person with whom you’ve corresponded extensively and developed a friendship is Al Purdy. Both of you are autodidacts. Self-taught men.
GW: Well, a lot of people find it a little strange we should be close friends, a rowdy poet and a cautious critic, as some people see me, and so that they think this is all that there can be, an incompatibility. But in fact that isn’t true because we have a great deal in common. A poverty-stricken childhood with a domineering mother, a period of scrounging around for any kind of job we could get, no university education but enormous erudition just by reading, reading, reading. Al is one of the most erudite people I know.
AT: Can you tell me what the relationship with Margaret Atwood is and why you continue to be close friends?
GW: Well, it’s a relationship of people who really emerged at the same time. When I started to publish Canadian Literature, Peggy was starting to publish her own poetry and novels. I was one of the first people to recognize, what was it called? The first novel?
AT: The Edible Woman
GW: Yes, I was one of the first to recognize The Edible Woman with a good review in The [Toronto] Star. She’s never quite forgotten that. Also, I used to call on Peggy as a critic. She’s a damn good critic, so she did quite a lot of work for Canadian Literature. This was in the past of course, but we still continue a kind of sporadic relationship, writing to each other every now and again. Everything I ask Peggy to do, such as report on a cause of mine, she regularly does without complaint. So there is a friendship there, an odd one, but a friendship.
AT: You’ve written books about Gabriel Dumont and Simon Gunanoot. Simon Gunanoot was on the run for 12 years. Now the city of Vancouver is officially acknowledging your importance as an outsider. It strikes me this is an interesting stage in your life, as if society is saying we recognize the importance of where you have been all this time. Do you see it that way?
GW: To an extent I do, because they’re making the outsider into an insider, aren’t they? Taking him into the city in the most intimate way they can.
AT: So you accept this quite consciously.
GW: Yes, consciously. Because I believe in that connection between freedom and the city.