George Woodcock: A Biography
“I began even as a boy to realize how wide the world can be for a man of free intelligence.” – G.W.
George Woodcock’s father Arthur Woodcock was a music-oriented second son and would-be writer who rebelled against his conservative, Shropshire coal merchant father to pursue the arts. Rejecting an offer of partnership in the family coal business, he left for Canada in 1907, via Liverpool and New York, and took a train from Montreal to Manitoba. In Winnipeg he met the vaudevillian Charlie Chaplin and took various jobs, eventually becoming a bookkeeper/accountant for the Canadian Northern Railway.
Obliged to send for his betrothed, Margaret Gertrude Lewis, a dour milliner’s apprentice, he married her in May of 1911, but the union was never happy. When their only child was born on May 8, 1912, in Winnipeg’s Grace Hospital, she disallowed her husband’s inclination to call the boy George Meredith Woodcock, in honour of one of his favourite novelists, and so for the rest of his life George Woodcock would enjoy carrying an invisible middle name, one that connected him to the spirit of his adventurous father, and distanced him from his undemonstrative mother. “I suppose I am a man whose psychic arrangement is Jungian rather than Freudian,” he once wrote. “I loved my father and always disliked my mother.”
One Manitoba winter on Portage Avenue was one too many for Margaret Woodcock who took their only child back to England in the spring of 1913, but it would be sufficient for George Woodcock to one day leave England—as his father had done—to claim his Canadian birthright. After Arthur Woodcock acquiesced to his father’s offer of a junior partnership and dutifully reunited with his family in England, he led a mostly dreary and sickly existence.
Prior to his death of Bright’s disease at age 44 in 1926, he instilled in his sympathetic son a shared dream of going further west in Canada. “An extrovert who turned inward with misfortune is how I see him,” George Woodcock wrote. The son not only revered the father; George Woodcock was inspired to succeed in Canada to recompense his father’s failures and dashed ambitions.
George Woodcock was raised in various Shropshire and Thames Valley towns within a literate, impoverished family. At school he was particularly averse to sports. The Depression prevented him from continuing his formal schooling as he would have liked. George Woodcock ended his formal schooling in 1928. His coal merchant grandfather offered to pay his tuition for Cambridge on the one condition that he would become an Anglican clergyman.
Like his father before him, Woodcock rejected his grandfather’s coercive assistance. Instead he became mired for eleven unhappy years in a futureless job for Great Western Railway as a clerk at Paddington Station, a prisoner of timetables, like his father before him.
If there was a turning point in George Woodcock’s life, other than returning to Canada, it was reading William Morris’ socialist writings on the train to and from work. With access to books and anarchist circles afforded to him by a German exile named Charles Lahr, proprietor of Blue Moon Bookshop, Woodcock became a devotee of the British philosopher, Herbert Read, and joined a circle of friendships with young `progressives’ such as George Orwell (Eric Blair), V.S. Pritchett, W.H. Auden, Stephen Spender and Malcolm Muggeridge. He also fraternized and drank with Dylan Thomas and established some lifelong friendships with the likes of Alex Comfort and Julian Symons. All the while he participated in the political ferment of the 1930s by contributing to various literary and anarchist periodicals.
Instead Woodcock used a trust fund established for him by his grandfather to try his hand at making his living as a fulltime writer in London, mainly by establishing and editing NOW (1940–1947), an eclectic mix of anarchist, pacifist and anti-Soviet socialist commentaries. He was also co-editor of War Commentary.
As he endured a precarious and frugal ‘underground’ existence, Woodcock became increasingly infatuated by a beautiful Italian anarchist in London, Marie Louise Berneri, who was married. She was the daughter of a recently martyred Italian anarchist named Camillo Berneri. Marie Louise, her husband and two others were charged with causing disaffection among the troops by denouncing the war effort in print. The offending handbill for which they were arrested was allegedly typed on George Woodcock’s typewriter. His lifelong sympathies for outlaws such the Métis military leader Gabriel Dumont, Gandhi, the Dalai Lama and Gitksan fugitive Simon Gun-an-Noot partially arose from these war-time experiences as a dissident.
George Woodcock (left) with Mulk Raj Anand, George Orwell, William Empson, Herbert Read and Edmund Blunden
After the war George Woodcock married Ingeborg Linzer Roskelly, a like-minded German-born member of the Berneri circle, and obtained a Canadian passport. In 1949, he and ‘Inge’ left behind his uncomfortable niche in the London literary scene in order to emulate Doukhobor pacifists who had sought freedom in Canada. The Doukhobors had been encouraged and subsidized by Tolstoy near the turn of the century.
“I realized that the Doukhobors were something more than nudist shovellers of snow when I began to read Tolstoy and Kropotkin,” he later wrote, “who regarded them as admirable peasant radicals and Nature’s anarchists.” More specifically, the Woodcocks were directly influenced to start anew on the West Coast of Canada by a young Canadian anarchist in London, Doug Worthington, and as a boy George Woodcock had been impressed by depictions of Western Canada that he’d found in a Frederick Niven novel called The Lost Cabin Mine. Coming to Canada also entailed a revival of his father’s doomed idealism.
The nearest Doukhobour settlement was at Hilliers, near Parksville. Not suited for subsistence farming, George Woodcock tried to eke out a living by shovelling manure and contributing to CBC and some periodicals. With the crucial assistance of Earle Birney, Woodcock came to Vancouver to lecture at UBC, where he would later teach both English and French literature. He had never attended university in England and liked to refer to himself in later years as an `autodidact’, someone who is self-taught, giving rise to his affinity and correspondence with poet Al Purdy. One night in 1951 Woodcock was at a party when someone passed along the news that George Orwell (Eric Blair) had died. It was a shock. It was as if a bridge had been removed behind them.
In 1952, Woodcock published the first of his many books pertaining to British Columbia, a travelogue called Ravens and Prophets: An Account of Journeys in British Columbia, Alberta and Southern Alaska. He would publish The Doukhobors (with Ivan Avakumovic, 1968), Victoria (with Ingeborg Woodcock, 1971), Amor De Cosmos: Journalist and Reformer (1975), Peoples of the Coast: The Indians of the Pacific Northwest (1977), A Picture History of British Columbia (1980), British Columbia: A Celebration (1983), The University of British Columbia: A Souvenir (1986) and British Columbia: A History of the Province (1990).
In 1955 Woodcock was barred from continuing a teaching job at the University of Washington in Seattle when he was denied an immigration visa due to his connections to a 1944 anarchist pamphlet, Anarchy of Chaos. As an alien who had advocated “opposition to all organized government,” Woodcock was banned from United States entry by the McCarran Act in the wake of McCarthyism. His vigorous lobbying efforts to overturn the decision were to no avail. He was rescued from his predicament with a teaching post from the Extension Department of UBC in January, 1956.
That year he increased his affiliations with CBC and befriended the essayist, conservationist and lay magistrate Roderick Haig-Brown of Campbell River. He later wrote, “For Rod strikes me as one of the wisest men I have known, and sometimes, when I have committed some gross verbal irresponsibility, I see his ghost rising to admonish me with a quiet, smiling remark between puffs on the pipe that was rarely away from his mouth.”
In 1959, Woodcock accepted the part-time position of founding editor of Canadian Literature, the first periodical to be entirely devoted to Canadian writing. He did not instigate the publication that he edited until 1977, as is sometimes assumed. Canadian Literature was created largely under the auspices of Roy Daniells, head of the UBC English department. Woodcock’s role would lead to a deep schism with the university many years later when he went to sell his personal papers.
UBC took the position that all papers pertaining to Woodcock’s tenure at Canadian Literature were not saleable because they had been derived from his UBC employment. Woodcock had resigned his Associate Professor status in 1963 to concentrate on writing, but the university had retained his services as an independent editor for the publication. Greatly disappointed, Woodcock sold most of his literary papers to Queen’s University in Ontario. Only after his death were some of his books and personal effects, including his typewriter, donated to UBC Special Collections. George Woodcock edited 73 issues of Canadian Literature. W.H. New edited 72 issues after him.
Although something of a workhouse-hermit in his later years, Woodcock developed an extensive range of contacts among writers and other artists, particularly visual artists in Vancouver such as Jack Shadbolt, Toni Onley, Gordon Smith, Joe Plaskett, Jack Wise, Pat O’Hara and Roz Marshall. In particular, the Woodcocks were close friends with Jack and Doris Shadbolt. Neither couple had children so they often spent Christmases together. The Shadbolts had provided the Woodcocks with a roof over their heads in Burnaby in the early 1950s.
The Woodcocks also enjoyed an abiding friendship with the Dalai Lama after they had taken it upon themselves to visit the Tibetan leader in Dharamsala shortly after he had fled Tibet in 1959. This liaison arose from a chance and fortuitous meeting with the Dalai Lama’s niece in India. Upon seeing the wretched conditions faced by the fleeing Tibetans in northern India, the Woodcocks created the Tibetan Refugees Aid Society [TRAS], a mainly volunteer-administered, Vancouver-based agency that has continued to provide support for Tibetans outside of Tibet for more than a half-century.
Consequently, when Ingeborg Woodcock was ill in the 1990s, the Dalai Lama assigned his personal physician to administer to her needs. The Woodcocks and the Dalai Lama met privately when he visited Vancouver in 1993, and the Dalai Lama was making arrangements to see Ingeborg Woodcock a second time in 2004, prior to her death in December of 2003.
Ingeborg Woodcock, who maintained a Buddhist perspective, was an enormous directional influence on her husband, mainly as a severe-minded compass. Whereas George Woodcock, like every writer, could be fuelled by vanity and ego, she cautioned him to respond to higher purposes. To this end, George Woodcock chose not to vote, believing the world should be managed by non-profit organizations.
Together they supervised a writing contest for charity that resulted in the anthology, The Dry Wells of India (1989). Woodcock credited her as being a terrific organizer. Together the Woodcocks pioneered at least two significant and ongoing philanthropic organizations, Canada India Village Aid (CIVA) and the Woodcock Trust, a fund they created in 1989, in conjunction with the Writers Development Trust, in order to supply emergency support to Canadian writers in need. From 1989 to 2003 the ongoing fund paid out $346,000 to 94 authors.
The Woodcocks were involved in countless ‘garage sale’ events through the decades to sell excess belongings, particularly books. In 1981, the Woodcocks and a few like-minded individuals and friends also started CIVA to chiefly help build wells in India. All funds raised, including more than $200,000 in royalties from a travel collection edited by Keath Fraser called Bad Trips, are matched by the Canadian government. With as little hierarchical structure as possible, and no paid staff, CIVA continues to effectively and earnestly provide grassroots aid, largely coordinated by Woodcock co-executor Sarah McAlpine, who formerly took classes from Woodcock at UBC. “The Woodcocks are very compassionate towards little people without a voice,” McAlpine told Douglas Todd of the Vancouver Sun.
The Fund reportedly stood to benefit upon the sale of the Woodcock’s property in the fashionable district of Kerrisdale after Ingeborg Woodcock moved into a senior’s care facility. For more than 40 years the Woodcocks had lived in an old Craftsman-style cottage at 6429 McCleery Street, formerly called Cherry Street. Woodcock was particularly fond of an ancient cherry tree in their backyard, likening it to Malcolm Lowry’s relationship with his beloved pier in Deep Cove. The Woodcocks once made arrangements to meet the Lowrys, their cross-town literary counterparts, in a downtown lounge but the authors mostly ignored each other, leaving their wives to manage forced conversation. After Lowry died, Woodcock was not averse to editing a reprint of Malcolm Lowry: The Man and his Work (1971).
Photo by Yukiko Onley
Greetings were sent by the likes of Julian Symons, Ursula Le Guin, Jan Morris, Timothy Findley, Mel Hurtig, Svend Robinson, the spokesperson for the Doukhobors in Canada and a representative of the Dalai Lama. The B.C. Minister of Culture, Bill Barlee, addressed the B.C. Legislature on May 6th and invited all MLAs to join in recognizing George Woodcock’s achievements. A two-day symposium was held at Simon Fraser University, May 6–7, to examine George Woodcock’s career. The Bau-Xi Art Gallery hosted an exhibit of original art honouring George Woodcock.
More than 1300 people attended a celebratory gathering at the Vancouver Law Courts, on May 7th that included an unprecedented display of 152 different titles bearing George Woodcock’s name, making it one of the largest exhibitions of books by one living author. The Mayor of Vancouver attended and proclaimed George Woodcock Day. In a speech read on his behalf by Margaret Atwood, Woodcock recognized how the climate for literature had changed since his coastal arrival.
“When I reached Vancouver at the beginning of the 1950s, one could count on one’s fingers the serious writers here: Earle Birney, Dorothy Livesay, Ethel Wilson, Roderick Haig-Brown, Hubert Evans and a few younger people. There was virtually no publishing going on locally, and the one literary magazine was Alan Crawley’s historic Contemporary Verse. Now, as tonight’s gathering gives witness, there are hundreds and hundreds of writers working west of the Great Divide, there are scores of local publishing houses, large and small, and there are dozens of literary magazines, some of them of national and international importance…I think the conjunction of the literary arts and the concept and practice of freedom is an essential one; in fact, I believe it is the key to my own work, which has always moved between the poles of imagination and liberty.”
CBC Radio’s Peter Gzowski devoted one half-hour of Morningside to the Woodcock celebration on May 11, 1994. Lilia D’Acres and the West Coast Book Prize Society established a fund for donations to help establish a George Woodcock Centre for Arts and Intellectual Freedom in Vancouver. More than $20,000 was raised for the fund by B.C. BookWorld. When a heritage building couldn’t be obtained for a Woodcock Centre, all monies raised were donated to the University of British Columbia to establish a permanent George Woodcock exhibit and the George Woodcock Canadian Literature and Intellectual Freedom Endowment Fund. In 1992 Macleans magazine recognized George Woodcock as one of the country’s ten most significant citizens.
Woodcock remained indefatigable, attempting to realize his long-held ambition to complete a new translation of Swann’s Way, the first volume of Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, and also working on a novel. After George Woodcock died at home on January 28, 1995, Ingeborg Woodcock undertook retyping the manuscript of the Proust translation, possibly completing some of it on her own, but it was never published. Woodcock wrote and edited more than 140 books. The exact number has been difficult to determine.
Biographer Don Stewart listed “145 freestanding books and pamphlets.” Antiquarian bookseller Don Stewart of Vancouver has compiled the most comprehensive list of Woodcock’s overall work after purchasing Woodcock’s valuable collection of anarchist publications from the estate.
His works include The Centre Cannot Hold (London: Routledge, 1943), Selected Poems (Toronto: Clarke, Irwin, 1967), Notes on Visitations: Poems, 1936–1975 (Toronto, Anansi, 1975), Anima, or, Swann Grown Old: a Cycle of Poems (Coatsworth, Ont.: Black Moss P, 1977), The Kestrel, and Other Poems of Past and Present (Sunderland: Ceolfrith P, 1978), The Mountain Rad: Poems (Fredericton, N.B.: Fiddlehead Poetry Books, 1980), Collected Poems (Victoria, B.C.: Sono Nis P, 1983), Tolstoy at Yasnaya Polyana & Other Poems (Kingston, Ont.: Quarry P, 1991) and The Cherry Tree on Cherry Street: and Other Poems (Kingston, Ont.: Quarry P, 1994).
George Woodcock took it as a matter of professional pride that he could write a book on almost any subject that required his services. His omnivorous intelligence led to an invitation from Mel Hurtig in 1974 to edit Hurtig’s then-proposed Canadian Encyclopedia, an invitation that Woodcock reluctantly declined. His first important book was a biography of William Goldwin (1946), followed by the first book-length study of England’s first professional female novelist, The Incomparable Aphra: A Life of Mrs. Aphra Behn (1948).
History, travel, biography, literary criticism, politics and poetry were his main subject areas. He was ideologically and temperamentally in favour of writing for small and obscure publications. He once wrote, “The really independent writer, by the very exercise of his function, represents a revolutionary force.” It has proved impossible to trace and compile all the freelance articles he published. He was known to use the pseudonym Anthony Appenzell.
For several years he contributed an As I Please column to the Georgia Straight and later served as the poetry columnist for BC BookWorld. George Woodcock once cited his Welsh ancestry and his Taurian astrological status as reasons for being able to operate outside the mainstream for so long, aside from his anarchist principles.
His oft-reprinted Anarchism (1962) remains a standard history of libertarian movements, readable and important for the way Woodcock demystifies anarchism and views it as constructive. Co-authored with fellow UBC professor Ivan Avakumovic, his fair-minded The Doukhobors (1968) is the definitive study of the Doukhobors in Canada.
The agrarian sect was so relieved to finally have their story told with some depth of understanding that Woodcock was offered a permanent place of residence in the Kootenays if he wished to live among them. His studies of the 18th century `revolutionist’ William Godwin, Oscar Wilde, Aldous Huxley, Mahatma Gandhi, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Aphra Behn, Peter Kropotkin and the Trappist Thomas Merton (who Woodcock never met) are less well-known than his biography of his dear but difficult friend, George Orwell, The Crystal Spirit, that earned him a Governor-General’s Award in 1967.
Woodcock liked to say he rejected honours bestowed by governments but he was willing to accept juried awards and grants determined by his peers. In fact, he accepted three Canada Council travel grants (1961, 1963, 1965), a Canada Council Killam Fellowship (1970–71, a Canadian Government Overseas Fellowship (1957–58) and Canada Council Senior Arts Award.
He also won a Molson Prize in 1973 and a Canadian Authors Association Award in 1989. He twice won the UBC Medal for Popular Biography (1971, 1975). He enthusiastically accepted Free Man status from the City of Vancouver, linking the roots of the word civitas to the development of freedom.
Preferring not to be known too well, the sometimes prickly George Woodcock published three works of autobiography. The first was Letter to the Past: An Autobiography (1982), mainly about his life in England. It was followed by Beyond the Mountains: An Autobiography (1987) and Walking Through the Valley (1994). George Fetherling, writing under the name Douglas Fetherling, produced the only book-length biography of Woodcock to date, The Gentle Anarchist (Douglas & McIntyre 1998; Subway Books 2003). A CBC-aired half-hour television documentary, George Woodcock: Anarchist of Cherry Street, was made in 1994 by director/producer Tom Shandel, one of Canada’s foremost documentary filmmakers, and interviewer/producer Alan Twigg.
Possibly the most generous and inspiring description of George Woodcock was offered by his oldest friend, Julian Symons, in 1994. “I know of nobody who has been of more generous help to others, or has pursued good ends in life more unswervingly.”
The proceeds from the sale of the Woodcocks’ home on McCleery Street in Vancouver went toward establishing a $2 million endowment that provides aid to working writers struggling to complete projects during times of unforeseen financial hardship. The Woodcock Fund was established in 1989. The Writers' Trust of Canada, formerly known as the Writers Development Trust, received $1 million from the Woodcock estate in 2005, followed by $876,000 in 2006, and a final installment of $683 in 2009. These bequests, overseen by estate executor Sarah McAlpine, constitute one of the largest private donations to the literary arts in Canada, if not the largest.
Between its activation in 2005 and 2009, the Woodcock Fund dispersed approximately $100,000 per year, providing a total of $642,000 to 147 writers who applied. To be eligible, the writer must be working on a book that, without the grant, would be imperiled or abandoned, and the writer must have already published a minimum of two works, as well as face a financial crisis that exceeds the ongoing, chronic problem of making a living. The fund chiefly serves writers of fiction, poetry, plays and creative non-fiction.
In 2007, British Columbia's lifetime achievement award for an outstanding literary career in British Columbia was renamed the George Woodcock Lifetime Achievement Award. Each year a new recipient of the George Woodcock Lifetime Achievement Award receives a cash prize and a marble plaque honouring the winner is added to the Writers' Walk -- or Woodcock Walk -- outside the main entrance of the Vancouver Public Library on Georgia Street. Visit www.georgewoodcock.com for details.
Possibly the most generous and inspiring description of George Woodcock was offered by his oldest friend, Julian Symons, in 1994. “I know of nobody who has been of more generous help to others, or has pursued good ends in life more unswervingly.” In 2006, the proceeds from the sale of the Woodcock’s home on McCleery Street in Vancouver went to the Woodcock Fund of the Writers Trust of Canada to provide emergency assistance to established Canadian writers. This bequest of more than one million dollars from the Woodcock estate was one of the largest donations of its kind to the literary arts in Canada, if not the largest.
(Note: some of the longer paragraphs have been broken up to enable easy monitor reading)