For an enthusiast of Canadian Literature, it is satisfying to remember the years of the late sixties and seventies, for they were our "golden years". The heady combination of Canada's Centennial in 1967 and the beginning of the Trudeau years released a wave of nationalism that transformed Canadian Studies. From being the orphan child of the English curriculum, Canadian Literature zoomed to a front and centre place, with students clamouring for more Canadian coverage, and schools across the country hastening to comply. It was the time of Tom Symons' Royal Commission investigation of the state of Canadian Studies across Canada, of the quick rise to prominence of Canadian poets and novelists, the formation of new presses, Coach House, Contact, Anansi and New Press among them, and the formation of lasting and important associations, especially the League of Canadian Poets and the Writers' Union of Canada. Every group and every movement was judged significant, talked and written about. Not least among them was the Tish movement of Vancouver, of which George Bowering was a charter member.
"Olsonites, we jokingly called ourselves. Olsonite was the brand name for a toilet seat, but we were confident enough about where we stood. We were a crew of young poets around 1961, who created what Canadian Literature professors would call The Tish Movement. As far as we could see, Charles Olson was the main U.S. American poet, as Pound and Williams had been before him."
A Magpie Life: Growing a Writer is a collection of articles, most of them printed before, at least in part, under seven headings: Alphabiography, Growing a Writer, Writing Baseball, The Sixties, Impersonating a Writer, Others, and What? Since the early sixties, Bowering's output has been both prolific and eclectic, some fifty publications in all, moving from poetry to fiction to criticism and history. "Reading is what I do with my life," he says, but writing is its product. His great gift is humour, the self-deprecating humour we associate with Leacock, the Leacock of My Financial Career, not the borderline satirist of Sunshine Sketches. Bowering is kind, and if pressed for one brief three-word description of the tone of all his work, "Kind and Funny" might do as well as well as any. Besides writing and reading, his lifelong obsession is baseball, both playing and watching, but always celebrating. In fact this whole collection could be called "Celebrating," for Bowering does, emphatically, celebrate all the richness of life and living.
"Alphabiography" begins with his marriage to Angela Luoma in 1962, and takes us through episodes in his life, from birth to the present, all told with a matter-of-fact appreciation of their variety and an affectionate nostalgia for those who populate his memories. In an age where it is unusual, to say the least, to pay tribute to parents and a happy childhood, it is pleasant to read of Ewart Bowering, his chemistry teacher father: "He was just my father, but now I have come to know and to admit that he was a kind of hero to me, a standard against which I measure my behavior." I admire that present tense. Born in 1935, his life has encompassed many occupations and many places, "I don't hang my hat. I put it on a shelf." But always the two passions that claimed him from the beginning, writing and baseball, have remained his steadfast polestars.
The series of short articles that make up "Writing baseball" have been written over his lifetime of loving the game and playing it, with a propensity to injuries and a stubborn will to disregard them that is astonishing and can only be really appreciated, I believe, by one who has grown up in a baseball family and who therefore recognizes the devotion of the true believer.
"I'm the oldest guy in my league now, and I always did run the bases like a sewing machine. But I make up in savvy what I don't have in acceleration. In February the trunk of my Volvo is already loaded down with bats and balls and gloves and Neat's foot Oil and batting gloves and baseball hats and a catcher's mask. Until it got broken, I even added a deck chair, one of the retirement presents my team buys me at the end of every season. No, no, I didn't say rocking chair."
Baseball lends itself to lifelong love affairs and gentle sentimentality. They are part of its mystique: "In baseball we don't talk about the long bomb and the safety blitz and sudden death. What do we want to do in the ball game? We want to get home....It is a dream come true. If the dream perishes (check out those Red Sox fans), there's another game tomorrow." Roger Angell of The New Yorker is probably the best-known baseball writer on the continent, but George Bowering is right there beside him when it comes to communicating the devotion of the long term addict.
In the sixties and indeed throughout his life, Bowering has been too busy practicing his many enthusiasms, jazz and art added to his constant writing, to engage in the various protests that marked many of his peers. He also had a wide-ranging teaching experience starting at U.B.C., but including Calgary, Simon Fraser, Sir George Williams and Western on his roster. He is blessedly free of the scorn with which numbers of young writers dismissed the source of their bread and butter, and outspokenly grateful to The Canada Council, whose existence, he says, is the reason the Winnipeg poets know who the Montreal poets are: "The country is five thousand miles long, but the poetry community is made up of people who know each other and see each other several times a year."
You will find enticing tidbits on many subjects in A Magpie Life, but by all means go on to more and more Bowering. You have the reader's luxury, an expansive list to choose fromůsome fifty-odd publications? Picking a favourite may be difficult, but by all means try Egotists and Autocrats, and enjoy the good-natured, hilariously funny skewering of the long list of our esteemed Prime Ministers. ň