Howard White

Leacock winner says his humour's accidental like Vander Zalm's

To spend an hour or so with Howard White you wouldn't think of him as funny. Sincere, perhaps. Pleasant. Concerned.

With varied skills, he's a writer and book publisher from British Columbia. He knows about log booms and the mysteries of tides, the history of abandoned Indian villages and just the other week was; out clearing a wooded lot with a bulldozer.

He's the provincial New Democratic Party candidate for Powell River-Sunshine Coast. And he's this year's winner of the Stephen Leacock Award for Humour.

But truly, he's not a man for a belly laugh. Hardly a rib tickler.

"This has got me worried," White said woefully, visiting Toronto before last Saturday's award ceremony at the Sundial Inn in Orillia. "A lot of people who know me don't think I'm funny.

"I wonder if I'm really up to this? Now people expect me to be funny. They're waiting for the big laugh and I've never been able to remember a joke for more than five minutes."

Naturally, he was curious about the judges who chose his book, Writing in the Rain, published by his own Harbour Publishing, as this year's winner. The Leacock award committee won't say who the judges are, other than they include literary and newspaper people, university professors, librarians, anyone, says committee chairman Jean Dickson, who appreciates good humour.

White was in Orillia for 24 hours last Saturday and his head was spinning at the end of the receptions and speeches and the great fuss that everyone made: "The town was quite keyed up for this award. They take it quite seriously. About 250 people came for the banquet and there were 17 speakers all telling jokes."

All but the winner, that is. "Up to this point," White said at the banquet, "my comic method has been like Bill Vander Zalm's, somewhat accidental."

There are amusing chapters in Writing in the Rain. But even the 'funny' story of how he eagerly turned away from his word processor to steer a truck full of fetid fish guts along a coastal highway for $200 and, the thrill of doing real work didn't seem all that funny to him until he read it aloud at the Sechelt Writers Festival. The audience was laughing. "They were killing themselves laughing."

White, 46, grew up in here today gone tomorrow logging camps and noname communities of British Columbia's rainforest: His first years of schooling were done by correspondence. His mother got him through Grade 1 by doing his courses in a couple of afternoons, printing the answers in her left hand.

"I sometimes wonder about the stereotype images of working people, that loggers were illiterate. Many of the loggers I knew were, well read, they loved to recite poetry, a lot even wrote their own ballads.

"I grew up thinking that writing was not that freakish an occupation - though I seldom saw a book. My parents belonged to the Book of the Month Club and Dad read Steinbeck to us at night. There was no Mother Goose."

Outdoor work and outdoor people have always attracted him. And a gap in his front teeth is the imprint of a logging accident when a five pound steel ball smashed into his face 25 years ago.

Even after a few years at the University of British Columbia; he continued working in the bush in oilfields gold mines and building dams.

And all along he took notes, rain sodden jottings of the crusty characters he worked with real working people, who were rarely the subject of literature.This is where the writing has always been for me, wedged uneasily between the world of gravel logs, ringing phone and the other, equally demanding world inside," he writes in the preface to Writing in the Rain.

Despite all this note taking, White published other people long before his own the first of these was the immensely popular Raincoast Chronicles of which he is editor.

They are a series of histories and reminiscences, "failed homesteads on the northern islands where wild cattle still roamed the beaches eating seaweed" and are bestsellers in British Columbia, with 50,000 of the early volumes in print and 20,000 of the later.

"It took me a long time to do my own writing - I guess I've been an underconfident writer," White says. "I always put own writing aside to publish other people. l was not being charitable, I was trying to prove that the, west coast existed, that it was a legitimate subject.

Its been the local non-fiction; the arcane knowledge of the rugged coves and windswept island bays and the people who settled there, all history within recent memory, that have kept Harbour Publishing afloat and paid for the Pender Harbour house that is home to White, his wife Mary and their two sons.

White is part owner of a family construction business, from which his father, now 77, retired this year. Until five years ago White worked regularly on backhoes and bulldozers.

"I still miss outdoor work and have a sneaking suspicion that what I do is not a legitimate way to earn a living. Someday all this paper shuffling will be found out and I'll have to get my hands dirty again," he says.

-Leslie Scrivener, Toronto Star