Sunday, March 22, 2009

In the Land of the Midnight Sun

There are strange things done in the midnight sun
By the men who moil for gold
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
That would make your blood run cold

This book belonged to my father. I found it recently while cleaning out the storage closet. It's a gorgeous 1911 edition ... thick creamy pages and decal edges.

Robert Service was born in England, raised in Scotland, farmed in Duncan, British Columbia, banked in Victoria, drifted in California, wrote in Whitehorse, married in Paris, hid in Vancouver, died in Brittany and was buried in Monte Carlo. He dedicated this book to "C.M." I wonder who that was.

In San Francisco, he drank in seedy bars, got into street fights and was virtually in the gutter. Desperate for money, he took a labouring job that required him to move to Los Angeles, only to find that he was a strikebreaker. That didn't bother him, but the back-breaking work on a tunnel and the danger he faced to life and limb made him quit. He drifted from job to job as a dishwasher, a sandwich-board man and an orange picker. An ad he had put in the paper seemed to be his answer - a resident handyman was required in a high-class establishment. Eagerly, he took the job and moved in. It was a brothel.

After more wandering in Mexico, Utah, Texas, Arizona, Nevada and Colorado, he returned to Vancouver Island, having been away for 18 months. He prospered in Victoria. While working at the Canadian Bank of Commerce, he was leafing through the bank's ledger one day and spotted the name of a customer - Sam McGee. Perfect! Using the name of the unsuspecting gentleman, he published the ballad that, along with several others, propelled him to fame and fortune.

He served as an ambulance driver in the First World War, then settled in France.

At the outbreak of the Second World War, he became a wanted man by the Nazis for mocking Hitler, but managed to escape to Vancouver in 1940 with his wife, Germaine, whom he had married in Paris in 1913.

His biographer, Enid Mallory, wrote, "Words were his lifelong passion ... he could make them dance, shiver with cold or choke with loneliness and despair ... but they danced their best on the wide white stage of the Canadian North."

No comments: