George Woodcock (Obituary)

Woodcock, who was born in Winnipeg but went to England with his parents as an infant and did not return to this country until he was in his late 30s, had two job titles, both of which invited ongoing confusion. First, he was a man of letters.
Woodcock, who was born in Winnipeg but went to England with his parents as an infant and did not return to this country until he was in his late 30s, had two job titles, both of which invited ongoing confusion. First, he was a man of letters.


Woodcock, George

Woodcock, George (Obituary)

George Woodcock would smile patiently whenever people demanded to know how many books he had written or edited over the years. The Vancouver-based author did not like the question, because he thought the answer (somewhere between 125 and 150) made literary work sound like an athletic competition rather than an approach to life. But the fact that he produced so much in so many different forms - criticism, history, travel, politics, poetry and biography, including The Crystal Spirit, his 1966 classic on George Orwell - forever left him open to public misconception. When he died last weekend of complications arising from a heart condition, still writing at 82, he was a revered Great Canadian whose passing was reported on front pages and on the national television news. But many who mourned still misunderstood his significance.

Woodcock, who was born in Winnipeg but went to England with his parents as an infant and did not return to this country until he was in his late 30s, had two job titles, both of which invited ongoing confusion. First, he was a man of letters. Some use the term as a rank when actually it refers to a certain type (not grade) of writer. The man (or woman) of letters is one in command of many different literary genres who uses them all to work and rework his (or her) basic ideas for various audiences. Second, Woodcock was an anarchist, but most definitely not as the word is used by police and others - not someone who promotes violence or destructive lawlessness. Woodcock preferred the term "philosophical anarchist" to emphasize his belief that society works best when small groups of people, at the regional, local or even neighborhood level, organize themselves for some immediate purpose without getting tangled up in the lethal red tape of government.

His kind of anarchism was also the basis of his charitable activities. Much of the profit from his books went to three foundations that he established with his wife, Ingeborg - one to aid refugees driven out of Tibet by the Chinese Communists, another to build medical and sanitary facilities in an especially impoverished part of northern India, a third to assist Canadian writers, particularly young ones, during financial emergencies. He worked as hard for his friends as for his causes.

He preached the politics not of the left or the right but of the dignity of free individuals who, he insisted, could lead organically useful lives if not thwarted by authority. He believed in staying small and avoiding impersonal institutions; his life was an example of how great things can be accomplished by one person working away steadfastly.

Woodcock attended no university, and slaved for 10 years as an obscure railway clerk while building a place for himself in the cutthroat literary world of London. During the Second World War, he performed farm labor as a conscientious objector and worked on a pacifist periodical. Then, in 1949, he and his wife - they never had children - decided to start anew in Canada.

He became an inexhaustible champion of other Canadian writers, male and female equally, particularly those much younger than himself. In 1959 Woodcock helped to found the quarterly journal Canadian Literature, the first of its kind. He was proud of his carpentry skills, which were modest, and of his martinis, which were potent. He spoke in the beautifully modulated accent of the Welsh border country where he grew up. He liked Marx Brothers movies (seeing Groucho as a fellow anarchist) and favored tattersall plaid shirts and knit ties.

At dinner, his conversation might range from arts patronage in 15th-century Germany to the iconography of the wild roses on Hornby Island as distinct from that of the B.C. mainland. But when he talked so wonderfully, it was always with a joyous sense that he was sharing information, not pontificating. Then, after dinner (until advancing years and mounting infirmities made him into a morning person), he would make his excuses and shut himself up in his small office to write (on a portable manual typewriter) until three or four in the morning.

Thus, while the rest of Canada slept, he urged all of us to be better people. His best argument was his own example of lifelong learning and selflessness.

Maclean's February 13, 1995


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