Obituary

Eric Nicol: Vancouver humorist, columnist, novelist

Special to The Globe and Mail

Humorist Eric Nicol wrote more than 30 books and several plays. (The Canadian Press/The Canadian Press)

The wordsmith Eric Nicol delighted, bemused and titillated readers with a prolific outpouring of light essays.

Nicol, who died on Feb. 2 in Vancouver at the age of 91, wrote radio plays and stage comedies, gaining a national audience with 41 books, the last of these published by the nonagenarian just last year. The title carries a typical Nicol pun: Script Tease.

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In a seven-year span, three of Nicol's volumes - The Roving I (1951), Shall We Join the Ladies? (1956), and Girdle Me a Globe (1958) - won Stephen Leacock Memorial Medals for Humour.

A shy man who was as witty in person as on the page, he claimed not to smoke or drink or chase women - but looked forward to doing so once the royalties began rolling in.

Celebrated by critics, he felt his readers regarded humour as "a low calling."

"In the eyes of Canadians," he wrote, "writing humour is like an illicit love affair: It is excusable provided you don't make a habit of it, or accept payment for what you have done."

Much of his prodigious output first saw publication in newspapers, including the Vancouver Sun, the News-Herald, and, especially, The Province. By his own count, he produced more than 6,000 columns on an unforgiving daily deadline.

The columns were sparked by brief news items, chance encounters on the street or whimsies of his imagination.

His own failures at sport and a mortifying inability to navigate the treacherous waters of social situations gave his prose an everyman appeal. He was self-deprecating and never mean-spirited, except perhaps when describing his own physical attributes. In his telling, a nose resembling a Roman aqueduct dividing small eyes "softened by their fine old leather pouches."

But a sense of humour that earned a wide audience in the 1950s could become to seem dated as the decades past.

Despite his great loyalty to the Province (he worked without a contract and refused to holiday lest editors replace him), he was dismissed from its pages in 1986 without fanfare. Many believed he deserved better.

Nicol's career included a Broadway flop, an infamous literary hoax, and a conviction and fine for being in contempt of court.

In typical fashion, he described failure as "the sugar of life: the more lumps you take, the sweeter you are."

Eric Patrick Nicol was born on Dec. 28, 1919, in Kingston, the son of Amelia Mannock and William Nicol. The family moved to Vancouver when he was young, lived briefly in Nelson, B.C., and then returned to the coast.

Days after Nicol graduated from Lord Byng High School during the Depression, his father announced he had lost his job with a brokerage firm. He soon after left to explore the possibility of opening a motor court in England. His mother took a part-time job as a clerk in a dress shop, while Eric earned tips as a golf caddy.

His summer earnings, as well as a modest bursary, allowed him to enter classes at the University of British Columbia. On day, he slipped into the empty offices of the student newspaper to submit an anonymous contribution to a long-running satirical column called Chang Suey, which lampooned campus figures through the misadventures of a fictional Chinese detective.

In time, his identity was discovered. A senior editor of the Ubyssey offered the student a column of his own. It was to be called The Mummery and the bashful writer also received a Biblical pseudonym in Jabez, Hebrew for "he who gives pain." The column and the byline were the brainstorm of a brash, confident Yukoner named Pierre Berton.

Nicol was delighted.

"If the two most satisfying sounds that a man can evoke from a woman are the moan of ecstasy and the hoot of laughter, I went for the giggle," Nicol wrote in Anything for a Laugh, a 1998 memoir. "For starters."

He continued his studies in French, as well as making regular contributions to the student newspaper, even as he realized his time in the campus officers training corps would soon force him into uniform on a more permanent basis.

After graduating with honours in French in 1941, Nicol joined a ground crew of the Royal Canadian Air Force, which afforded him time to produce scripts for such radio variety shows as Command Performance.

Having escaped hostilities, he resumed his studies at the Sorbonne after the war. A $10 fee for each column published back home afforded him a week's dining in Paris restaurants.

A collection of his articles was published as Twice Over Lightly by the Ryerson Press in 1947. His long-time house was owned by the United Church, somewhat restricting his more ribald wordplay. "I couldn't get away with even a single entendre," he complained.

An offer to write variety sketches for the BBC led him to abandon his studies, as he prepared scripts for Leave Your Name and Number and, later, Breakfast with Braden, the latter produced by Pat Dixon, an eccentric who would later be responsible for producing the madcap Goon Show.

Back home in Vancouver, Nicol sometimes took time for a more serious examination of the events of the day. In 1954, William Gash, 19, was convicted of murder in the bludgeoning death of 45-year-old Frank Pitsch, whose body was found on the 13th fairway of a local golf course. Both men made a meagre living by hunting lost golf balls.

After the conviction, Nicol wrote an allegory in which he confesses his guilt before God for his responsibility as an "unwilling accomplice" in the execution of young Gash. As a piece of writing, it was a scathing critique of capital punishment. Alas, Mr. Justice J.V. Clyne found the column to be "exaggerated and heavy-handed" and, more importantly, contemptuous of the Gash jurors, who were described as being "the twelve persons who planned the murder." The judge fined the newspaper $2,500 and Nicol $250 for contempt.

As it turned out, the killer's sentence was commuted to life imprisonment six days before his scheduled execution.

More painful to Nicol was the attempt to bring to Broadway his stage play Like Father, Like Fun, which enjoyed success in his hometown. The effort was plagued from the start, including a need to change the title to the less memorable A Minor Adjustment. Meanwhile, the acerbic comic Don Rickles, whom Nicol thought perfect for his play, withdrew from the production.

The plot featured a lumber baron conniving to have one of his mistresses seduce his son so as to remove from the scene the chaste but unwelcome girl next door. It was not well received.

Clive Barnes of the New York Times called it a "non-play about non-people … as flat as Holland and as sparkling as mud … an opaque mediocrity, harmless and witless." The comedy opened at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre on Oct. 6, 1967. It closed on Oct. 7.

The lesson learned by the author: "I and Abraham Lincoln should have stayed out of the theatre."

The unhappy experience led Nicol to write a book titled A Scar is Born. And he kept producing stage plays, including The Fourth Monkey, about a playwright retreating to a bucolic island, and Pillar of Sand. "The reviews were mixed," he said of the latter, "bad and terrible." Another comedy, about the crusty British Columbia newspaper proprietor Ma Murray, opened in Kamloops with the aged and ailing subject in attendance. In the midst of the opening-night production, she demanded from the balcony, in a voice heard throughout the theatre, "Who are these people and what are they doing?" It brought down the house.

Always eager for mischief, Nicol was prodded by the publisher Douglas Gibson to create a fictitious account of the true-life misadventures of Francis Dickens, the son of Charles, who served without distinction in the mounted police. Presented as a series of frontier letters by the hapless policeman edited by Nicol, the novel succeeded in convincing several reviewers as to their authenticity. (The hoax was aided by a respected university archivist posing with yellowed documents, ostensibly the letters, but in fact aged laundry lists from a steamship company.) The brilliant opening line should have given away the game to all but the most credulous: "It was not the best of times, it was not the worst of times, it was Ottawa."

Dickens of the Mounted was a runaway bestseller.

After his long run at the Province ended without ceremony, Nicol continued to produce books at a regular pace.

In 1995, he was named the inaugural winner of the George Woodcock Lifetime Achievement Award for an exemplary literary career in B.C. This was followed by his being invested into the Order of Canada, which recognized his using humour to address serious issues, such as racism and capital punishment.

"Writers never retire," he once said, "they just die."

He leaves his second wife, Mary Razzell, and a stepdaughter, as well as a son and two daughters from his first marriage to Myrl Heselton. He also leaves a grandson.