Friday, May 16, 2014

LAWRENCE EARL - the Anglo-Canadian Writer who began life as a Saint John Jew - Part 2

by Ronald J. Jack

The Battle of Baltinglass, recorded in Dublin, 1950
In 1950 Patrick Leo Maguire, an Irish radio personality, wrote a hit folk song under the pseudonym Sylvester Gaffney. Entitled THE BATTLE OF BALTINGLASS, the single was released on a 45 RPM disc and it was in part the inspiration for the Lawrence Earl book ofhe same title. The song lyrics read like a pop-culture scrapbook from the Cold War, and aremore zany than the Lawrence Earl prose which won the 1953 Leacock Medal for Humour

by Sylvester Gaffney, Dublin 1950

(Air: The South Down Militia)

O, the G.P.O. in Dublin will go down in history,
'Twas there the glorious fight was made that set our country free,
But from Aughrim down to Boland's Mills there's nothing could surpass,
The siege of the sub Post Office in the Town of Baltinglass,

There were Bren-guns and Sten-guns and whippet tanks galore,
The battle raging up and down from pub to general store:
Between the Vintner and the Cook the pot was quite upset,
And the Minister swore this Irish stew was the worst he ever 'et.

The job of sub-postmaster or mistress, as might be,
Is not exactly one that leads to wealth and luxury:
But Korea was a picnic and Tobruk was just a pup
To the row the day the linesmen came to take the cable up.

Now all the countryside joined in, the lowly and the great;
There were elephant-guns from Poona, and pikes from '98.
But the Cossacks came from Dublin, and the Irish Navy too,
And poor cook, she burnt her fingers on this wretched Irish stew.

There were gremlins from the Kremlin, and little men from Mars
Complete with flying saucers and hats festooned with stars.
There were rocket-firing, jet propelled, atomic flying boats,
And Commandos from the G.P.O. in their oul' tarpaulin coats.

The linesmen made a dash to open up the cable trench
They opened up the sewer instead, Lord save us! what a stench
A gentleman in jodhpurs swore, "By Jove, they're using gas"
"The next will be an atom bomb on peaceful Baltinglass."

Now the case has gone to U.N.O. and we're waiting for the day,
When Truman, Attlee and McBride will come along and say
"Get back behind your parallel, drop atom bombs and gas,
"And respect the bound'ries and the laws of Sov'reign Baltinglass.


Sixty years ago a book reviewer chose to list the names of Canadian authors who spent “most of their time in the United States” but he also noted that “New Brunswick author Lawrence Earl and the young Montreal writer Mordecai Richler are finding their destinies in old London”. The differences among our writers were often more than geographic. Earl and Richler for example, were both Canadian born Jews, but while Richler expertly tilled the rich ethnic soil of Jewish religion, traditions and culture which rooted him and produced some of the truly great Canadian novels of his century, Earl chose the adventure genre and ignored the streets and characters of his youth.  In Saint John he learned the camera arts, but memories of his native city never inspired the writing man.  The result?  Lawrence Earl is frequently mis-identified by those who consult his early non-fiction, and the novels he produced for Canadian readers are seldom encountered.

Lawrence Earl photographed in London, circa 1954

After the success of YANGTSE INCIDENT Lawrence Earl immediately sought another book project.  He was in luck! JOHN BULL magazine assigned him to cover a fascinating story in Ireland that had already been immortalized by a folk song recorded in Dublin. It was called THE BATTLE OF BALTINGLASS.  Sensing that he was mining valuable ore, Earl signed another contract with his publisher George Harrap.  Baltinglass was, in 1950, a village of some 800 souls, located quite near Dublin.  Its tiny sub-post office doubled as an agency for paying government fees and telephone bills. The job was a valuable sinecure. When the position was re-allocated the resulting furor came close to igniting open sectarian violence.   In his book of the same title Lawrence Earl stuck to his preferred style of peppering prose with carefully fabricated dialogue.  In the Preface he wrote “Because it is not fiction I lacked the happy licence of the novelist who arranges his facts to suit the plot, who can plumb the minds of his characters, enter locked doors, and eavesdrop on deep secrets.” 

The Battle of Baltinglass, Lawrence Earl - 1952 book review

Without a doubt, "Baltinglass" is Earl's finest book.  Although I sought in vain any trace evidence of the author's New Brunswick education or influences in the novel, I must note that the principle action of the story takes place on Mill Street and Main Street in the village of Baltinglass. It is merely a coincidence that there was a Mill Street - Main Street junction in Saint John, N.B. where  Earl grew up.  There is no way of knowing if Mr. Earl smiled when he stood on the corner of Mill and Main in distant Ireland, but I would like to believe he had a 'moment'.

In creative style as in the use of elastic veracity, Lawrence Earl’s non-fiction was very much in step with fellow Canadian author Farley Mowat, and indeed both writers were in the 1950s relying on ARGOSY and other popular “Men’s magazines” of the era, to establish an American reader base.

ARGOSY magazine, September 1954 - Crocodile Killer
Lawrence Earl's third book, CROCODILE FEVER,
was condensed for the Sept. 1954 ARGOSY magazine.

A very serviceable description of events in Baltinglass is provided in a review published in Australia in 1952 (below).  I like the reviewer’s conclusion that – “Mr. Earl’s book is as Irish as shamrocks, and a manual for agitators.” Harrap sold the Canadian rights to publisher Clarke Irwin who marketed the book as a work of humour. As a result in 1953 Lawrence Earl was awarded the coveted Leacock Medal.  His third work of non-fiction, CROCODILE FEVER: A True Story of Adventure, appeared in 1954. It described the career of a successful croc-hunter. In the U.S. it was  published as RIVER OF EYES (a better title)  and condensed for ARGOSY magazine.  
RIVER OF EYES, by Lawrence Earl, his third work of non-fiction
CROCODILE FEVER was published in the U.S. as  RIVER OF EYES.

At the risk of being caught at large in the cape and mask of a pedantic outlaw, I have to point out that by assuming a purely Anglo-Canadian identity, and eschewing opportunities to draw from his family heritage, Lawrence Earl avoided a contribution to the important body of Jewish Canadian writing we now study in our schools. He was a part of that community and yet apart. If I didn't care about New Brunswick history I would not quibble about gaps in its literature. It is not so bad that some Canadian writers get Earl facts wrong -  for example R.B. Fleming in his recent biography of Peter Gzowski,  labelled YANGSTE INCIDENT "his novel". Worse are the writers who frequently refer to Earl as "a British journalist" or some variant phrase, but it is entirely Earl's doing. He was creator of his own identity.  (NOTE: If Earl did write any memoir piece for the Saint John newspaper, I would like to learn of it.)

Though he was still living and working in London, Earl’s first novel THE FROZEN JUNGLE, [1956] was written for the Canadian market. His subject, the dramatic tale of survival after a plane crash in Labrador, made total sense for the time period. In fact the tale was literally ripped from the pages of the newspapers. Ottawa and Washington were pouring millions of dollars and many thousands of workers into the North, rushing completion of the chain of distant early warning radars known as the DEW LINE. During a twelve-month period, eighteen of 81 civilian aircraft working under contract to military project sites crashed in the North.  

Just as his early non-fiction had been promoted in JOHN BULL magazine, Earl’s first novel was serialized in Canada. It appeared over four weeks in 1956, supported by a dozen drawings prepared by a WEEKEND magazine illustrator.  WEEKEND was published in Montreal, and was descended from the STANDARD Photo News, where Earl got his start as a young newsman. (see Part 1)  It is claimed that in the mid-1950s he took up writing books full time, but in fact he was still doing freelance journalism and editing, while his photographs were still being purchased by magazines.
THE FROZEN JUNGLE - Lawrence Earl, Bantam paperback cover
THE FROZEN JUNGLE, a tale of lust and survival
set in Labrador, was published by Harrap in 1956.

By the 1960s the Earl's were dividing their time between London and Toronto, but they lived almost five decades as Londoners. Mr. Earl completed two more Canadian novels, the last a thriller published in 1969.  In old age he finally moved back to New Brunswick, accompanied by his journalist wife Jane Armstrong.  They took up residence at Driftwood Cottage, the Wiezel's old summer home at Grand Bay  on the St. John River, where he could relax with his Glenfiddich and his collection of fishing tackle.  In 1999 Lawrence Earl received an honorary doctorate from U.N.B. which acknowledged a lifetime in letters.   He died in 2005 at the age of 89  and his burial was in Shaarei Zedek, the Jewish section of Fernhill Cemetery in Saint John. 

THE STREET, St. Urbain Street and Mordecai Richler

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