LONDON, ONTARIO – Among his many other qualities and accomplishments – he was a bit of a genius, a writer and editor, a father of three, a husband of two, a friend of dozens and dozens, an autodidact, a master archivist, a breathtakingly blunt facer of hard truths, a perfectionist, a two-time university dropout, an actor in the days of London Little Theatre, an avaricious reader, the Master of the Games at every Nihilist Picnic, a chain smoker, a cineaste and manager of the Kinotek series of screenings at the old Central Library, a radio broadcaster and host of Moondog’s Rock and Roll House Party, a fiercely independent soul, and all-round polymath – Bob McKenzie could also be a maddeningly stubborn cuss.
Shortly before his imminent death from lung cancer at the age of 75, he let his loved ones know that he didn’t want a funeral or memorial service of any kind. I was all for disregarding that proscription when he died precisely two years ago today but I could hardly hijack his body and rent out one of the parlours at Millard George Funeral Home and host a ceremony of my own devising. But twenty-four mute months down the line, I refuse to be stifled any longer and wish to pay tribute to a man who did much to inform my sense of London’s place in the cultural universe from the very dawning of my own consciousness about such things.
It was in mooching my way through my older brothers’ stash of 20 Cents magazines (which, after its erratic beginnings, McKenzie in his mid-20s edited and managed through its most flourishing period) that I came to know of that whole network of London artists and writers and musicians and eccentrics of every stripe who had made the Forest City such a creative hotbed in the 1960s and 70s. If there was one particular hallmark of the London art scene at that time it was independence; a refusal to kowtow to the dictates of any other recognized art centre and instead dig in to what was closest to hand and celebrate and explore what was here.
For a talented, lucky and hardworking few, that could be parlayed into something like a sustaining career. For others such as McKenzie it did not. Though he almost always had a sensible and prosaic job on the side which kept food on his table – management positions at London Motor Products or Maclean Hunter TV – McKenzie made sure to keep as much time clear as he could to pursue the kind of work that fascinated him the most. I don’t think anyone did more locally to chronicle and showcase the work of all kinds of London artists.
I first met McKenzie in 1973 when I became the dishwasher or ‘plongeur’ at the Auberge du Petit Prince, London’s first five-star restaurant which specialized in French-Canadian cuisine. McKenzie was then going out with the Auberge’s chef, Ginette Bisaillon, who, with wine steward Robin Askew, designed and operated the place. Dishwashing is a notoriously grim job in most restaurants but there were certain compensations at the Auberge that made it surprisingly agreeable. With a single dining room containing seven tables and hosting only two two-hour sittings per evening, the plongeur was very rarely run off his feet. I always brought books in with me and spent most of my not-so-arduous shifts sitting cross-legged on the counter next to my trusty Hobart dishwashing machine engrossed in my reading. In addition to a whole slew of other books, I made it through the better part of Will and Ariel Durant’s 11–volume History of Civilization sitting on that counter.
Most nights after the second sitting, we were invited to load up a plate with a bit of this and some of that and take it through to the dining room where artist friends of Ginette and Robin would frequently drop by, eating and chatting into the wee hours. I first got to meet virtually all of the members of the Nihilist Spasm Band in this way and fondly remember their front man (and McKenzie’s best friend) Bill Exley reciting large swaths of Wordsworth in his stentorian voice. Some nights they would hang up a big sheet on the wall and McKenzie would privately screen whatever movie he’d featured at that week’s Kinotek at the Library. One I remember with particular pleasure – my introduction to a classic which became one of my lifetime favourites – was Destry Rides Again.
In the late 80s and into the 90s Bob joined forces with Nida Home Doherty in producing another first rate arts journal – this one slightly less London-centric – Site / Sound to which I regularly contributed. I didn’t really know Bob well until his last few years when I was editing The London Yodeller to which he became a contributor in the spring of 2014. Bob originally hated the name of our newspaper. He thought it sounded goofy but was reconciled to it when he saw the reaction he got from the security personnel at the London Court House when he told them he was there to cover Mayor Joe Fontana's trial for fraud on behalf of The London Yodeller.
Though his column was called 1,000 Words or Less, after his first couple submissions, Bob’s articles rarely clocked in at less than 2,000 words. Sometimes he’d go into a snit when I had to give his latest opus a haircut or had to hold it back for a few issues until I could find the necessary space. Once he fired off an intemperate letter to our publisher about what a ramshackle dog and pony show we were operating here. But always, eventually, usually sooner than later – with his tail between his legs and perhaps an apology for losing his cool – he’d come to his senses and remember that this was the work that gave his life its deepest meaning and would find a way to climb off his high horse of dudgeon and pitch in once more.
And then in the spring of 2016, his health started to fail and he had to bow out as a regular contributor. In May he dropped a copy of Cue for Treason off at my house after I’d written a column about re-reading another old novel that used to be taught in London high schools, Moonfleet, and being mightily surprised at what a thumping good read it was. His last piece for The Yodeller was a memorial piece about his good friend, London artist Bernice Vincent. Then in late June, we exchanged our final letters.
Monday, June 27, 2016, 11:33 a.m.
Hello Herman –
I have begun working on my next (probably last) article but I don’t know yet if I will be able to finish it. I certainly intend to try.
By now I expect you have heard through the grapevine that I have stage four lung cancer which has spread to the spleen and liver and I am therefore not long for this world. So far I’m not all that sick – just weary and weak, which I’m told is a side effect of the radiation treatment I have been receiving. There is no possibility of a cure. The best I can hope for is that the radiation might slow the growth of the cancer and give me a little more time above the grass.
Tuesday, June 28, 2016, 12:09 a.m.
Dear Bob –
Good God, I am rattled and distressed by your note. I knew things weren’t looking great on the health front (that droopy eyeball giving you grief for more than a year and then your voice crapping out) but I was mostly distributing Yodellers while Bill [Exley] was passing along the latest medical updates to Kirtley at [the Exleys] 50th anniversary party and so missed all the details. This could have been a denial strategy on my part as an imbiber of ten or twelve smokes a day myself, allowing me to blithely assume that you’d find some way to stubbornly plough ahead for a good few years yet. It almost seems indecent to talk about deadlines and the exigencies of publishing our little rag in the face of the big ‘D’. So let’s just say, do whatever you can, Bob. Do whatever you want to and as you’re able and unless it really sucks, we’ll find a home for it.
So I guess this is the time to say final things . . .
I was delighted when you latched onto The Yodeller from the very first issue, sending along your suggestions and admonishments and letters and eventually articles. You could be a seriously overbearing pill to work with (I like to think I developed a little editorial muscle in learning how to confront you face-on when you were being a bully) but I always wanted your voice in the paper. In your writing, you never led with your ego (unlike a lot of our younger puppies), your material was beautifully organized and sometimes – I’m thinking of the World War II pieces [one each on the Eastern and Western theatres of war] – could be miraculously yet lucidly compressed. Your facts were always right and your grammar and punctuation were perfect.
I think the only time I ever pitched you a topic was earlier this spring with the memorial piece on Bernice [Vincent] because I knew nobody else was half so qualified to strike the note that needed to be struck. As a general rule, I never had to worry that you’d go barking up the same tree as any other columnist and at a time when everybody else at the paper was racing to dump on Joe Fontana, I loved that you gave him a chance to make his slightly preposterous case [that he hadn’t committed fraud in getting the taxpayer to pony up for private expenses related to a wedding reception].
Perhaps just as important as your literary qualities for a traditionalist and a thorough-going Londoner such as myself, was the link you embodied to the golden age of Curnoe and Chambers and 20 Cents magazine and Regionalism’s first dawning. Not only were you there, but you played your part in giving it all definition and you remembered it all so vividly and faithfully. I know that time has rolled along in its vexing, detail-erasing way and the cast of characters has mostly changed but on our best days, I hope The Yodeller is seen to be linked in some significant sense to what you achieved with 20 Cents and Site / Sound in terms of capturing something unique and valuable about London.
If, in your final days, you should feel a need to re-read Cue for Treason, send up a flare and I’ll return it to you. (I still haven’t re-read it.) Whether you want it or not, I intend to add you to my almost-daily prayers in the hope that you will be comforted and strengthened as you face the dreadful prospect before you. And any more earthbound missives that you might care to send my way will be gratefully and thoughtfully received.
Thanks for everything, Bob.
Tuesday, June 28, 2016, 4:07 p.m.
I am so touched by your very kind words that ironically, considering your compliments on my writing ability, I have to say that words fail me in attempting to express my gratitude.
As for Cue for Treason, please keep it as a gift – though I will continue to scan The Yodeller for your views on the book once you get around to reading it.
I still hope to be able to complete the piece that I’m writing for the next issue. I have an article in mind for December which fortunately can be written in advance, and also a rather quirky item to be published posthumously. If the radiation docs and the chemo docs can keep me going for a while longer, maybe I can write some other articles as well, although at the moment I have no definite topics in mind beyond the three mentioned above.
Friends and relatives have complimented me on my writing in a rather perfunctory, though probably well-intentioned, way from time to time. But what you have written, coming from someone I have always respected as a genuinely professional writer and editor, is the highest praise I could ever hope to receive. Not that I don’t deserve it, because, of course, everything you have said is perfectly true.
A couple weeks after that exchange of letters, The London Yodeller took a summer holiday from which we never really returned, except for an online-only issue that September, so I never did see any of those final columns Bob hoped to write. (Publisher Bruce Monck still hopes to revive the much-missed organ; a resurrection to be devoutly desired.) I have placed Bob’s badly battered copy of Cue for Treason in my queue for reading over Christmas and I know that reflecting on Bob’s premature passing played no small part in my decision early this year to trade in my cigarettes for an only one-sixteenth-as-dangerous vaping device.
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