Among the dead

Over Easter we lost two old Idler magazine contributors, & one drinking companion. On Holy Saturday, David Dooley died, age 91: emeritus English professor in St Michael’s College. He was active to nearly the end in pro-life causes, & the Catholic Civil Rights League. He once wrote a few book reviews for the Idler. I first met him, back then a quarterish century ago, when he was already facing the university’s compulsory retirement requirement, enforced the more strictly in the humanities because modern universities were finding themselves seriously overstaffed in such departments, no longer in consumer demand. By now I should think their problem has been resolved.

A real professor, & Dooley was certainly one of those, comes into his own around age sixty-five. That is when he has amassed sufficient learning to begin teaching in earnest, as Dooley explained. He was a fighter by disposition, a good old-fashioned Irish Catlick scrapper, who was doing his best in a hopelessly lost cause. He was from the glory era at St Mike’s — when it had J.M. Cameron, Tom Langan, John Kelly, & many more; had Étienne Gilson & his Pontifical Institute; had Marshall McLuhan & his Media Studies; had the finest humanities library in the Province — not the biggest, but the most carefully chosen, book by book, & extensive archival holdings such as the Newman papers, heroically obtained. Today that campus is largely a waste of valuable downtown parking space. It has ceased to be a Catholic institution except in some obscure, nominal sense, & the Basilian Fathers who once provided impressive spiritual guidance have long since gone over to the other side. In my humble but fierce opinion.

Dooley was of the vintage that fought against the merger of St Mike’s into the University of Toronto. He understood why it was a lost cause. The staff who voted on this nasty question were willing to surrender all their independence, together with their Catholic identity, in return for an approximately 5 percent raise in their salaries, that would bring them into line with pay levels in the larger bureaucracy. They were openly bought, & they went cheaply: in a word, prostitutes. Dooley knew every historical detail of the once-proud St Michael’s University, built with the pennies of old Irish widows so their grandchildren could receive a superb education, & stand tall in this Protestant town; so that Catholics could have a cultivated clergy, ornaments to the Church. It was the splendid product of sacrifices over several generations, not least from faculty once ill-paid. All gone in the end for a contract settlement, for an extra 5 percent & the promise of better sports facilities.

God bless this man, God bless his spirit. A lot of people didn’t like him, he was a fusty old dog. This is just why I loved him, & his knowledge of English literature made him (even when I was just an Anglican) the sort of man to drink sherry with. He was one of the few I could entrust to review a book, who would actually read it; an interpreter of 20th-century “EngLit” who could supply so much by knowing its antecedents, by knowing the classics its authors knew. And thus, seldom welcome in the pages of the more fashionable reviews, where theory prevails & men like that are marked as “plodders.”

I remember him over at my house (I once lived in a house) scanning my bookshelves. He took down a volume of the first Keynes edition of Sir Thomas Browne, which had library markings in it.

“Did you steal this book?” he asked forthrightly.

“No, I bought the set for a couple of dollars in a library sale. You will find the discard stamp on the back endpaper.”

“O Lord, oh my blessed Lord,” was his observation. For yes, this was the sort of literature modern libraries were dumping. He said he would be happier had I stolen it.


“RIP Kildare Dobbs, the greatest & quietest of raconteurs,” as Richard Lubbock (the Idler‘s old Chief Cosmological Correspondent, now himself mid-eighties & nursing-homed) tweeted on Monday. That Kildare, in his ninetieth year, would die on April Fool’s Day, was of a piece with the rest of his life. It was his last gently mischievous wink.

One had to see Kildare’s eyes to follow his anecdotes, for his voice was so provocatively soft. The light in them provided important clues to the narrative. You had to sit very close, stare, & hope others in the room would shut up. For every anecdote was worth hearing, & most of them were side-splitting funny. Yet as the telling continued, the voice would become softer still. We see the result when these anecdotes are repeated among Kildare’s old friends: no two versions ever quite agree.

I asked him once what he’d done for a living when he first washed up in Canada (around 1953). He’d found a job teaching in some “godforsaken” two-room schoolhouse in northern Ontario, beyond Sudbury I think. He wasn’t at all suited to it, & his students were soon out of control. But the old man commanding the other classroom had all his charges smartly in order, & Kildare often wondered how that was done. He could never meet this colleague, who disappeared instantly at the end of each school day; till finally he spotted him in the town’s hotel bar. It turned out the man was an alcoholic, & could have been found any evening in there.

Searching for some way to endear himself to this frosty superior, young Kildare confessed that he had problems with class discipline, & had been deeply impressed by the punctiliously correct behaviour of every pupil in the other room. “How do you do it? How do you get them to behave?”

“I hate the little bastards. And they know it.”

That will have to do as a Kildare Dobbs anecdote. He collected stories everywhere. Some people become magnets for the memorable, because they put themselves consistently in harm’s way; though I doubt Kildare would ever have been so crass as to ruin a good tale with excessive fact-checking. He was a connoisseur of corruption & hypocrisy; a diligent observer of how the world really works, & people get what they want. He was delighted to discover a new swindle. He earned his living through much of his life as a travel writer, with frequent excursions to exotic places in search of “local colour.” He had a gift for discovering high life in the low places, & vice versa. Every artist needs patrons, & in his case, the patrons found were first-class hotels, airlines, & travel agencies. Knowing he would actually be read, such sponsors endured his little eccentricities, & let him live off the fat of the land.

He was also a poet, & among my regrets, the Idler went down before we could publish a selection of his hendecasyllables. (They have since appeared in a book, The Eleventh Hour.) This is a reasonably obscure, classical, quantitative measure, nearly impossible to manage in English. (I know because I’ve tried.) Developed in ancient Alexandria, it takes the sapphic, essentially lyric rhythm, & extends it towards narrative — floating it, as it were, on the air. Kildare daringly rejected the standard models, to turn the measure back again, towards lyric. To my knowledge, no one had ever tried this before, in English. Somehow Kildare, with the ear of an Alfred Lord Tennyson, pulled it off: made hendecasyllables sound natural, almost conversational in English, while restoring the sapphic clip. I still have the manuscript marked with typesetting instructions, somewhere in the High Doganate. If I could find it I would give an example.

The 17th-century Thomas Browne was mentioned above, famed as a model for English prose style. Kildare was — & I mean this — the best prose writer of his generation in English, up here in America’s mad attic. By some genetic freak, his nearest rival was his cousin, John Muggeridge (son of Kitty, née Dobbs, the wife of Malcolm Muggeridge). John was as infallible, except, one could seldom extract copy from him, for all one’s pleading & begging. He’d think too much about what he ought to say. But Kildare was spot on deadline. Neither ever constructed a sentence that a subeditor could improve. (Not to say the idiots didn’t try.) It must be something in the water from the River Liffey: from that Ireland entirely within the Pale. It makes prose perfect, immortal. Indeed, the day Kildare made a spelling error, our whole office rejoiced.

I gave Kildare a very poorly-paid, extended regular column in the Idler, entitled “The Rambler.” It was an opportunity for him to write memoirs of his travels, without having to acknowledge sponsors, or take much care over fine little points that might offend them. Happily for me, he leapt at opportunities like that, doing his best work for the smallest sums.

We used to use Dobbs copy at the Idler in training some of our younger writers. I recall telling a certain fellow, now an august media pundit, but then an over-ambitious subliterate nobody of twenty-two, to read Kildare’s columns through again & again with only one thing in mind: where he had placed his commas. For they were a guide to his “perfect pitch” — the musical (as opposed to quasi-logical) pauses that prose rhythm requires, to achieve sublimity. A beautiful bird, or flowering plant in nature, is seen to be lovely at first glance. Yet it is only when it is examined that one begins to appreciate how lovely, how intricately & how exquisitely the whole creature is designed; what a universe of incredible detail has gone into the unified overall effect. That is when we see where God has placed the commas.

Kildare was a patient artist, making his way in our impatient world. And this he did artfully, presenting himself as a rogue, dropping hints that he was not to be trusted, that he was selfish & conniving. Typical was the profession of love remembered by the wife who survives him. (His third wife, but a love-match that endured.) “It has been my experience that beautiful women usually have unworthy men in their lives,” he wrote to the young painter, Linda Kooluris. “I want you to know I’m as worthless as the next.”

This irony was the reverse of modern: Kildare was not really such a rogue (notwithstanding the shocking & self-deprecating anecdotes), nor the coward he professed to be (witness military medals). He was extremely reliable, & secretly generous in a reckless, uncalculating way. He was, in fact, a gentle man, with real empathy for human suffering: a genuine carrier of other’s pain. The eyes, once again, told much, for he could laugh merrily at the bloody farce of it all, tell jokes in the darkest black humour, but in his eyes the wince could be seen.

Christian he was not. He loved the outward artifice of religion, by which he was inwardly puzzled. I got from him good-natured mockery for my own entry into the Catholic Church, during his 80th birthday party (combined, in a pub, with John Muggeridge’s 70th). To him, dogmatic certainty was the normal cause of bloodshed & uncharity, of which he’d seen enough in his youth. He was Japanese in his religious disposition: a faith inexplicably transformed into an aloof aestheticism, a cherry-blossom exhalation upon the transience of things.

Nor was he in any sense a political “conservative,” except perhaps in my intensely apolitical sense. He despised the doctrinaire proponents of “economic freedom,” just as he despised Marxists & all other ideologues. But he loved the thing itself: the buy & sell. He would explain that for real capitalism, one must go to the bazaars of the East, for what we have in the West is only stage-show competition, fake at every level.

Canadian letters had no better friend. Kildare Dobbs, the immigrant, quietly “discovered” a great deal of fine Canadian writing that had been overlooked; quietly ignored what was coarse & over-celebrated. He played a major, mostly unacknowledged role in the “gardening” of our literature, both in the backrooms of publishing (at Macmillan’s of Canada in the 1950s, in the founding of the Tamarack Review & at the magazine Saturday Night in the 1960s), & later in the foreground, as genial advocate in newspapers & broadcasting.

Thus he fully deserved the Order of Canada he finally received, in January. (Immobilized by his congestive heart, & a hundred other ailments, Kildare could not visit Ottawa to receive it. So our governor-general, the Right Honourable David Johnston, came to him, delivering it in person to his Toronto apartment.) They give these things out by the hundred each year; two or three are often quite deserved.


Selwyn Owen died Tuesday. He was one of a pub table of drinking buddies, who have been meeting Tuesdays since well back in the last century. We are all defunct artists of one kind or another, from the convenor down — Paul Young, before his retirement the last skilled drawing master at the Ontario College of Art (since renamed to increase its pretension). Selwyn was only in his sixties. He made his way as a realtor, while secretly persisting as an abstract painter. Others at the table retired from art more completely, at an early age, becoming bank managers, storekeepers, office workers, lawyers, lexicographers, whatever; I can remember most from when they were giddy young aspiring poets & artists, before “reality” set in. Selwyn’s kids came to work with him in the real estate business; he found some happiness there. He ended up withered on a hospital bed, in the unspeakable final stage of Lou Gehrig’s disease. A granddaughter “checked in” to the planet at East General, just as Selwyn was “checking out.” That was, he said when he could last speak, what he was still living for: to see that little girl if he could, perhaps hold her in his dying arms.

I did not know him so well, for I am among the least regular of the regulars at that table; but did know him for a modest & kindly, thoughtful man, who gave little glimpses into a sensibility that was amazingly colourful, behind an outward reserve. He could articulate connexions between visual art & music, that struck me as brilliant. Few have the gift of listening as well as speaking, & Selwyn was one of those, staying remorselessly on topic. A Londoner by birth, another Canadian by immigration, he discarded the accent but retained the manners of a well-bred Englishman. Not all artists are buffoons.