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Interview with George Woodcock

Alan Twigg and George WoodcockQ: You and your wife Ingeborg co-founded the Tibetan Refugee Society in the early Sixties after meeting the Dali Lama in Dharamsala. Then you had a private audience with the Dali Lama when he came to Vancouver. Can you tell me about your relationship with him?

WOODCOCK: I find it very hard to analyze. We’re very warm and close to each other. He regards [us] in a very friendly way because we were one of the first people that sought him out and saw what his problems were and started to work on them. He fled in 1959 and we went in ‘61. We had a long talk in Dharamsala and we promised to come back and do something. And we did it. I heard a lot of people promised to do things and never did, but we did. And I think he’s treasured that.

Q: So what you did was to establish a relief agency, which sent money directly to the people who needed it?

WOODCOCK: Yes. A non-governmental agency. We are only patrons in that now. We’ve withdrawn and we are involved in another society we founded that deals with people in India, mainly tribes people, people whose ways of lives are being destroyed by modern development, by deforestation, by this kind of thing. And so it’s a different group of people [Canada India Village Aid Society]. We deal directly, agency to agency. We have managed to create a small working anarchist affiliation group. No vote is ever taken. We arrive at every decision by consensus argued through and it’s become an extraordinary kind of thing.

Q: The Red Cross is definitely not involved. You have purposefully tried to set up an anarchist framework?

WOODCOCK: Yes, an anarchist framework it is essentially.

Q: So anarchism can be a practical model.

WOODCOCK: Yes, it’s an example. Here we do move on consensus. We don’t move on ordinary democratic majority decisions. We don’t have any of that.

Q: Your partner in all of these remarkable undertakings is your wife, Ingeborg, who I know likes to shy away from the public limelight as far as possible…

WOODCOCK: Indeed she does.

Q: So forgive me, Ingeborg, but I’d like you to speak very briefly how she has been important as a partner in your career and in your undertakings.

WOODCOCK: Well, she’s been a wonderful partner for me in my career. She cares for me in sickness and all that kind of thing. She gives me ideas which I sometimes badly need and. on the other hand, with the organizations, she is a superb organizer. I am the ideologue of the group and she is the organizer. Not so much lately, but in the beginning she was.

Q: And you met one another in England in the 1940s?


Q: When I read through your two volumes of autobiography thus far and I read through your books of poetry it strikes me that there is a great deal more revealed in your emotions in your poetry, would you say that is true?

WOODCOCK: Yes, I would. But then you see people only read what they want to read. Because I am not primarily recognized as a poet, they don’t read my poems. They read my other stuff. They’d learn a lot more stuff if they read my poems.

Q: Well, along those lines I conclude that one of the most influential people in your life as an artist was the anarchist Marie Louise Berneri. You were also a friend of her husband, who was a publisher. Could you tell me a little bit about who she was?

WOODCOCK: Mary Louise Berneri was the daughter of a very famous Italian anarchist, a professor who had to flee from Italy for his beliefs and who was slaughtered by the communists in Spain. She was an admirable person, very beautiful and intellectually extraordinarily bright. In a sense she was the chief personal influence bringing me towards anarchism.

Q: During the war, her husband was charged with sedition.

WOODCOCK: She was, too.

Q: But there was some English law that says a husband and wife can not be tried for the same crime…is that correct?

WOODCOCK: Yes, and so she was let off, which annoyed her thoroughly. Nevertheless she and I carried on the whole operation of the anarchist press until the others came out.

Q: Right, and for a time you had to go underground in England, but that was not the type of underground that people usually associate with the term. You were relatively free to function. Is that correct?

WOODCOCK: Yes, that’s correct.

Q: Surely that experience would influence your life-long anarchism, being essentially an outlaw.

WOODCOCK: Yes, actually it did. Of course I do have the outsider mentality. That’s why I welcome the development these days of the underground economy and that sort of thing. This is the kind of world I like.Q: What does it mean when you refer to yourself as an anarchist in the 1990s?

WOODCOCK: 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 still be free to recognize 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.

Q: But how does that philosophy affect your life on a day-to day-level? in terms of the decisions you make and your behavior?

WOODCOCK: 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.

Q: 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?

WOODCOCK: 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.

Q: 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.

WOODCOCK: 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.

Q: After you wrote your book The Doukhobors with Ivan Avakumovic, I understand they offered a house to you.

WOODCOCK: They offered to build a house for me in Grand Forks where I could live for the rest of my life for nothing. They call me the Canadian Tolstoy. I didn’t want to Tolstoy living among his admirers. I would probably have no privacy at all. So I decided against it.

Q: In the same way that you had to break with the University of British Columbia because they felt they owned you, the Doukhobors might feel they owned you as well.

WOODCOCK: Right. Yes.

Q: 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 national government?

WOODCOCK: 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 with 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.

Q: It’s also in synch with your whole career as a freelancer.


Q: You have sold your pen to many places but never to one place for very long.

WOODCOCK: Quite. And never to a political party.

Q: 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?

WOODCOCK: 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 which didn’t pay anything, and that sort of thing. Now I am a writer who can command fairly good payment from magazines with large circulations, I very often refuse to write for them and still write sometimes for the little magazines for nothing.

Q: People around the world think you are remarkable for having written 120 or 150 or God knows how many books. Let’s briefly deal with that. This is a question that pops into many people’s minds. What accounts for that remarkable output? Are you programmed to keep the wolf from the door after so many years of being a freelancer? Are you simply a very hard worker? Or have you succeeded in cloning yourself in your basement?

WOODCOCK: I suppose a very hard worker. That’s really it. I think any writer could do the same as I did, except that if everyone did it would be too much competition.

Q: What strikes me as more remarkable is that you’ve been able to sustain an outsider perspective for so many decades. You have not been taken in by the mainstream. That is actually more remarkable than writing 120 books. What accounts for that endurance and that stubbornness to remain outside for so long?

George WoodcockWOODCOCK: Partly I suppose my Welsh ancestry, partly the fact that I am a Taurian. All sorts of things come together.

Q: I don’t think the astrological Taurian one is an acceptable answer, you are going to have to dig deeper.

WOODCOCK: I think one of the basic things in my life is the death of my father who died young. He was a man of enormous talent, particularly musical talents, but he never had the chance to develop them. I think that after he died I was impelled by the idea of completing that life in my life.

Q: Does it matter to you that your father named you after George Meredith?

WOODCOCK: Well, that shows the kind of atmosphere in the family, the way the family influences on me were going.

Q: You’ve written that creativity often comes out of early wounds, what were your early wounds? beyond the death of your father?

WOODCOCK: My early wounds were the English school system among other things. It wasn’t merely the discipline, it was the ways in which the boys got what was called the school spirit. In most English schools 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 me because of that.

Q: You’ve also written that school has given you the negative gift of time. What did you mean by that?

WOODCOCK: The negative gift of time, did I say that?

Q: Yup.

WOODCOCK: I suppose it gave me time to hesitate and time to decide who I

Q: Your relations with your father were obviously respectful but your relationship with your mother was more fractious. What type of woman was she?

WOODCOCK: She was a woman, when I look back, of great high principles and that was her trouble. She carried those into all kinds of literal interpretations, so that you are forced to be a liar by her and her demands.

Q: Well it sounds like you must have [nonetheless] inherited, somewhat, her principled nature.

WOODCOCK: Yes, I’d agree, I agree.

Q: And do you feel that you have a paid a price, perhaps even on an emotional level, for having these philosophical standards and these principles?

WOODCOCK: I don’t know whether you’d call it a price. I would say at the end of my life that I’ve probably paid a price but that I’ve been paid back.

Q: In ‘The Outlaw Exonerated’, your poem about Simon Gunanoot, the Gitskan native outlaw, you write ‘and wisdom is sadness before it is joy’. That sounds to me what you just referred to. In order to write ‘and wisdom is sadness before it is joy’ one can only, I think, write that line from deep personal experience.

WOODCOCK: I do, yes.

Q: So you are at the joy stage now.

WOODCOCK: I am at the joy stage now, but…

Q: How long did the sadness stage last?

WOODCOCK: I don’t know. That’s in the command of others, shall we say.

Q: 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?

WOODCOCK: I suppose I’m lead 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.

Q: There aren’t many people such as yourself who write increasingly as they get older.

WOODCOCK: Very few.

Q: Most people produce one or two good works, usually maybe in the middle of their life. We’re into the 1990s and you are still steadily producing often three or four books a year.

WOODCOCK: Some are reprints…

Q: Some are reprints, this is true. But it’s still unusual way to approach the end of one’s writing career, to be more prolific than ever.

WOODCOCK: Well, it’s a happy way really because one doesn’t experience so much of the boredom and frustration as the person who gradually creates less and less must do. I look at some of the older writers and I think, my God, what must their lives be waiting for the spark.

Q: 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?

WOODCOCK: 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.

Q: And didn’t you first come into contact with him through a disagreement?

WOODCOCK: 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’d seen me come across the street. 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.

Q: When you left England for various reasons, you weren’t able to say good-bye to him…

WOODCOCK: He was in a sanitarium by then.

Q: So is George Orwell still with you today as an influence?

WOODCOCK: I think he is. I remember Herbert Read saying to me once… now, of course, he, too, is dead… but Herbert said, “Whenever I reach a decision these days I feel Orwell’s ghost admonishing me over my shoulder.” This was the effect he had on people. You thought about him and even after he was dead you began to judge your actions by his standards. Orwell was very eccentric.

Q: Do you ever have Orwell’s ghost over your shoulder and he tells you something and you tell him to go away?

WOODCOCK: Well, he never peered over my shoulder as he did over Read’s but nevertheless I’ve thought about him.

Q: I’d like to bring up some other people that you’ve had closer relationships with. First of all the Shadbolts, Jack and Doris.

WOODCOCK: 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, on 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.

Q: And since then you have had more friends who were painters than writers, is that true?

WOODCOCK: 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.

Q: Another fellow came along and helped put some money in your pocket was Earle Birney.

WOODCOCK: 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…

Q: He touched a lot of peoples’ lives.

WOODCOCK: 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 ‘54, 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 onto to UBC without a degree, on my own conditions.

Q: And Earle Birney got you to UBC where you met Roy Daniels…

WOODCOCK: Yes, it was 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 Daniels 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.

Q: 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… Margaret Laurence.

WOODCOCK: Margaret Laurence, yes. 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 began 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 a.m. 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.

Q: 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?

WOODCOCK: 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, and she was a person with extraordinary strong feelings which I think may have had something to do with her final withdrawal from writing.

Q: Another person with whom you’ve corresponded extensively and developed a friendship is Al Purdy. Both of you are autodidacts. Self-taught men.

WOODCOCK: 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.

Q: Perhaps self-teaching takes you longer to find yourself but when you do get there, you’re stronger for having taught the lessons yourself.

WOODCOCK: I think you are. I think if you look at the great self-taught men of literature, Joseph Conrad for instance… He ran around all the university-educated men of his time.

Q: Hardy?

WOODCOCK: [Thomas] Hardy, yes, Arnold Bennet. A whole lot of them.

Q: Can you tell me what the relationship with Margaret Atwood is and why you continue to be close friends?

WOODCOCK: 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?

Q: The Edible Woman.

WOODCOCK: Yes. I was one of the first people 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.

Q: 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?

WOODCOCK: 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.

Q: So you are accepting this quite consciously.

WOODCOCK: Yes, consciously. Because I believe in that connection between
freedom and the city.

Q: Right. The third and final volume of your autobiography is forthcoming. What’s the title and what are we going to find in it?

WOODCOCK: The title is Walking Through the Valley, meaning walking near to death, the valley of the shadow. It’s a summing up in a sense. It’s an account of the things I’ve done in the last 15 years, but it’s also a reflection on life as a whole. I say a lot about the process of autobiography and what I think writing a biography does to you, and how it does change your perspective. You realize your life in fact, as you conceive it, is a great fiction. Writing an autobiography is in a way elucidating the fiction.

Q: You also have a new book of poetry coming out, The Cherry Tree on Cherry Street. Could explain the title?

WOODCOCK: The title refers to the cherry tree in my garden. Once the street where I live [McCleery Street] was called Cherry Street.

Q: What lies ahead, what are you working on?

WOODCOCK: I’m working on a novel. I wrote three novels in the past and destroyed them because I thought they were no good. That turned me into quite a good literary critic, because I knew what faults to look for. Then I decided to write a novel quite recently which was based on a film script. Like all writers I got involved in a peripheral way in the film industry and found that they do pay quite well for things they never use. I decided to take one these plots and turn it into a novel. I’ve been using all kinds of experimental techniques on it so I don’t know what it’s going to come out [as] in the end.

Q: It seems to be the last type of book that you haven’t published.

WOODCOCK: It is, yes. I’ve published plays. I’ve published everything else.

Q: And you’re also translating some Proust.

WOODCOCK: Yes. A lot of writers like Nabokov complain about the translations. It was translated during the 1920s and it followed the English idiom of translations. It was very sentimental, Elizabethan sentimental. The very title of course, Remembrances of Things Past, has nothing to do with the real title, which is Search for Lost Time. So I decided it was time to do a new one.