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Himself through others

David Watmough's new memoir shares juicy tidbits from Vancouver's gay literary salon

CANDID MEMORIES. Now in his 80s, Vancouver-based author David Watmough has penned his memoirs in a unique way: telling not only his own story but stories of the people he has known. Credit: XTRA WEST FILES

David Watmough’s memoir, Myself Through Others, offers a generous glimpse at what life was like in a time when gay was an adjective ascribed to a nice dress or garden.

Born in London in 1926, Watmough was promptly moved to Cornwall where he grew up “fetching water from a well, with no electricity or telephone and a wad of torn up newspaper on a rusty nail that served as toilet paper.”

Watmough began his career early, eking out a living as a journalist at 17.

By the time he met Floyd, his partner of 55 years and counting, Watmough was a published novelist working as a freelancer in Paris. Floyd was a student at the Sorbonne.

Watmough often attended the Anglican Church’s social night for young folks but on that night he remembers feeling somewhat reluctant to go. A friend thought otherwise. “I think there’s someone here for you,” the friend said, urging him to attend.

He went to the event and that was “when the violins started playing,” Watmough exults from his home in Delta.

The two were, of course, unable to marry and while they could now, Watmough muses that there is nothing personal to be gained from it at this point. If he entered into wedlock now, “it would be more of a publicity stunt for the gay and lesbian community.”

As he says this, it sounds like the idea both delights and saddens him. He pauses for a moment and states how grateful he is for having had such a great life partner. “We’ve had our ups and downs,” he adds (as though he needs to excuse his own blessing), “but we’re human and that’s what the human experience is all about.”

Two years later after they first met, the two travelled to Vancouver, where Watmough describes the feeling of that first arrival as thinking, “this could be home.”

It was a rainy Sunday and everything was closed but they walked around and happened upon the CBC. Watmough commented that if it was anything like the BBC, he would like to be involved. He has freelanced for the CBC ever since.

That was how he met Robert Patchell, whose influence encouraged him to stay in Vancouver.

Now in his eighth decade, Watmough has penned his memoirs in a unique way. Myself Through Others is his story but it’s also a series of profiles of people he has known. As it turns out —and Watmough claims this is purely the coincidence of friendship —it is also a bit of a ‘who’s who’ of Canadian literature, featuring his relationships with Margaret Atwood, Margaret Lawrence, Jane Rule, Carol Shields and even Tennessee Williams.

The project started about 10 years ago when Watmough’s friend urged him “to write down the stories that he had previously thought of as mere chit-chat.”

In the introduction, he states that he has lost track of the difference between fact and fiction, having “raided my life so often and so extensively on behalf of my fiction that not only am I unsure now what is fact and what is invention but also the skeletal remains are altogether resistant to my probing.”

The material on his pages are therefore vivid memories of lively encounters —much as many of us remember. The book is a testament to the idea that we all inform and impact each other.

Fans of Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast might also enjoy Myself Through Others because of the storytelling similarity. Watmough recounts stories about dinner parties and political debates and what he refers to as “the Rule-Sonthoff phenomenon,” namely that Jane Rule and her partner Helen Sonthoff “provided Vancouver with the closest thing to a literary salon that it has ever known.”

This memoir takes readers right to these juicy tidbits and rare behind-the-scenes footage.

As with many memoirs —and Watmough’s in particular —the characters he portrays hearken back to a time that will be unfamiliar to most of his readers.

Watmough’s sexual awakening is a poignant example. He is indebted to a man “who today would doubtless receive a lengthy prison term as a pedophile.”

This same man utters the kinds of racist profanities that make today’s readers squirm (if not boycott), yet Watmough does not edit him. He is intent on portraying what was, as opposed to what might have been nice, and for that he deserves immense credit.

“There are very few men or women who can be characterized as truly good or really evil,” he observes.

This sentiment is reflected in his portrayals of folks he has known. Some come across better than others but there is no mistaking that Watmough is a keen observer and, having outlasted almost everyone in the book, is finally able to be candid.