Articles

...and now, a few words from

With unquenchable eloquence and sharp Welsh wit Leonard Walter Brockington speaks to, around and occasionally for the nation in times of crisis, joy or sorrow. Other times he talks just for the love of it

ERIC HUTTON April 15 1953
Articles

...and now, a few words from

With unquenchable eloquence and sharp Welsh wit Leonard Walter Brockington speaks to, around and occasionally for the nation in times of crisis, joy or sorrow. Other times he talks just for the love of it

ERIC HUTTON April 15 1953

...and now, a few words from

With unquenchable eloquence and sharp Welsh wit Leonard Walter Brockington speaks to, around and occasionally for the nation in times of crisis, joy or sorrow. Other times he talks just for the love of it

ERIC HUTTON

FROM time to time a group of Toronto residents foregather at what might he described as an intellectual stag party. Present are eminent, men of many professions, all notably fluent and, in convivial company, willing to talk and talk and talk. Until, that is, one Leonard Brockington puts in an appearance. What happens then has been described in some awe by one of the regulars:

“A tall stooped figure walks in and growls a cordial greeting to everyone Brockington is one of those rare people who can growl cordially and chooses a comfortable chair in a strategic location. For perhaps twenty minutes he lets the conversation flow around him. Then he intercepts a topic, any topic, and takes over. For an hour or more after that anyone who speaks is interrupting. But nobody seems to mind, because when Brockington holds the floor it’s not so much a monologue as high-level oratory in a conversational tone.”

A friend of Brockington’s, William Rowan, recently recalled the first time they met. “Brockington spent most of the evening in a dissertation on birds — quite a learned talk it was,” said Rowan, who is professor of biology at the University of Alberta and one of the world’s leading authorities on bird life. “I honestly believe,” he added, “that Brockington knows enough about everything under the sun to hold his own with an expert on any subject.” But Brockington is more than a willing and able speaker. His private discourses are a mere busman’s holiday from his major avocation as Canada’s Orator Laureate. To Canadians Brockington is the perennial voice of the nation, heard on national and international radio networks in time of war crisis and in time of victory; when royalty visits; when a king dies or a prince is horn or a monarch crowned; on the festival days of Robbie Burns of Scotland, St. George of England and especially St. David of Wales; on Dominion Day and Empire Day and Armistice Day, and at the honoring of illustrious Canadians like William Lyon Mackenzie and William Osler. In her darkest hour Britain borrowed Brockington to speak courage to the nation, and in turn loaned his eloquence to Australia and New Zealand. Brockington has practically a permanent assignment as chief speaker at the annual conclaves of the Canadian Bar Association, the American Bar Association and American Bankers’ Association, and is doggedly working his way through the major American colleges as a commencement speaker. Lincoln’s birthday seldom passes without a Brockington address to one or another Lincoln group in the United States.

Strangely enough, one of Brockington’s lesser occupations calls for concentrated listening— he has handled dozens of labor arbitrations with remarkable success, a recent one being the serious dispute between the Toronto Transportation Commission and its employees. Last January he took on an even trickier assignment when the United Nations appointed him chairman of a special appeals hoard set up to hear the cases of American employees of the UN accused of disloyalty.

Brockington is unique among celebrities because his recognition by the public is based almost wholly on oratory. His fellows of the orotund phrase who come readily to mind Winston Churchill, William Jennings Bryan, Clarence Darrow, Sir Henry

Irving, John Bright, Cicero — all employed eloquence as an aid to politics, law or play-acting. Brockington is a lawyer who never made a memorable plea in court, a theatre executive who has never appeared professionally before the footlights. His political leanings if any are so private that no fewer than three political parties have at one time or another asked him to contest elections on their behalf, but he has never run for public office.

There ar.e other strange contradictions in Brockington’s oraihTical career. Many Canadians believe he receives high fees for talking over the radio and addressing distinguished gatherings the truth is that he has never been paid for a speech. On the contrary, oratory has cost him money. His very first attempt cost him money, in fact.

Forty years ago in Edmonton, to eke out an inadequate salary as a newspaper reporter, he undertook to hire himself out as an after-dinner singer at. banquets and soirees. Being a Welshman he was, of course, horn with a voice of commercial calibre. And his singing engagements reached alarming proportions. Alarming because it was no part of the Brockington plan to become a professional singer. He wanted to he a lawyer, and nights when he wasn’t singing or covering an assignment he was studying law hooks. So he made a costly decision: he would sing gratis at any gathering— provided he was allowed to make a speech too.

“And that,” says Brockington, “was the beginning and end of my professional career on the platform.”

On the other hand it is paradoxically true that everything of any importance that has happened to Brockington in his career has been the result of making a speech. He began by literally orating his way into the University of Alberta after mere scholarship had failed to gain him admittance.

He arrived in Edmonton from Cardiff in 1912 with eight dollars in his pocket and found that a railway building boom had just passed beyond the city, leaving it swollen with unemployed. Intent on becoming a lawyer, and faced with the necessity of earning a living, he applied for a job in a lawyer’s office. He was accepted.

“But there will he no pay, of course,” the lawyer added casually.

That lawyer is now Chief Justice O’Connor of Alberta, a close friend of Brockington. “We often laugh about our first meeting,” Brockington said recently, “perhaps a little hollowly on my part.”

Brockington next tried to finance a University of Alberta law course by offering to correct Latin papers— he had resigned as classics master of a Lancashire grammar school to emigrate to Canada — hut university president H. M. Tory vetoed the idea (hut made amends twenty-four years later when he conferred an honorary LLD on Brockington for being an honor and a credit to the university). Down to his last dollar, Brockington signed on as an axe-man with the Edmonton and British Colum hia Railway to clear trees at Athabaska Landing. But when he went to his rooming house to collect his duffle hag there was a note pinned on his luggagean offer of a job with the Strathcona Plain Dealer, a suburban newspaper. The joh made Brockington practically the entire staff of the paper, al twelve dollars a week.

One night he was covering a banquet of the Builders’ Association of Canada, an affair at which many toasts were offered. The reporter assigned to reply to the toast to the Press was snoring peacefully under the table when his turn came. Someone nudged Brockington, who arose and delivered an extemporaneous speech of great eloquence and considerable length.

Next morning he was visited in the Plain Dealer office by a bearded gentleman of great dignity, who had made the journey for the sole purpose of informing Brockington how pleasant it was, and how all too rare in frontier Edmonton, “to hear a young man who has something to say and knows how to say it.” The bearded man turned out to he Professor E. K. Broadus, professor of English at the University of Alberta. The two men had a long talk, sitting before the Plain Dealer’s roaring stove “fed by unsold copies of the paper,” Brockington recalls, “and therefore never short of fuel.”

As a result of this friendship, horn of admiration for a Brockington speech, the fledgling newspaperman was granted an extraordinary privilege by the university: he was enrolled as a law student hut permitted to study in his spare time without attending lectures.

The Plain Dealer soon failed and Brockington got a joh as assistant to the city commissioners of Edmonton. It was during his civic career that Jie made his first and last political speech. It was on behalf of a friend who was running for alderman. The candidate happened to he unpopular with Mayor William Thomas Henry of Edmonton, who thereupon summoned Brockington before him on Christmas live and fired him.

“On what grounds?” demanded Brockington.

“Economy,” replied the mayor.

“Financial or political?” Brockington shot hack. But it was one occasion on which his wit did not give him the last word. “Take your pick,” said Henry. “You’re fired in either case.”

Theatre executive Brockington is rarely photographed. His persuasive voice may be Canada’s best known but he’s never been paid to speak.

Brockington’s Edmonton phase ended there. He got a job as clerk in the Land Titles office at Calgary, continued his extramural study of law with the University of Alberta, and was accepted as a legal apprentice by Richard Bedford Bennett, later prime minister of Canada. The dignified Bennett did not always approve of his less inhibited junior associate. One day a roughly dressed cattleman who had some legal dealings with Brockington wandered into Bennett’s law suite, poked his whiskery face into Bennett’s private office, peered at the senior partner, and shook his head.

“No,” he said, “you’re not the--

I’m looking for. I want that ---who

looks like a Highland cattle.” Bennett unhesitatingly directed the caller to Brockington’s office.

Brockington graduated from law school with high honors, in spite of his unorthodox training. His brilliance in law, added to his unusual ability as a speaker, seemed to be the ingredients of a Canadian counterpart of Clarence Darrow. And Brockington undoubtedly would have become famed as a “great mouthpiece” but for one circumstance. In 1924, when he was in his early thirties, he was severely stricken by arthritis. It was a long, slow and often painful illness, which was to bend his tall figure and leave him partially crippled. So, instead of becoming a courtroom lawyer, Brockington settled down to a career as city solicitor of Calgary.

During more than a decade in this post Brockington polished and practiced his oratory. By the early Thirties he was recognized as the peer of Alberta’s two other great public speakers, Michael Clark, of Red Deer, an Irish type of speechifier, and the late Judge Augustus Morrison, an orator in the classical tradition. Some of Brockington’s quips are still remembered and quoted by his western admirers twenty years later. At a banquet given by the Red Deer Chamber of Commerce Brockington was low man in a long roster of speakers which included Premier John Edward Brownlee. Each speaker in turn was heckled by a somewhat intoxicated member of the audience who enquired loudly and at frequent intervals: “Why?”

When Brockington started to speak and received his first “why?” he paused and looked at the heckler. Then he said slowly and clearly, “If the gentleman who is so full of whys were as wise as he is full, he would return to that silence from which he ought never to have emerged.” There was no further interruption.

In 1932 Brockington got what would be called in show business his “big break.” It was, of course, a speech that did it. And, as in the case of the bibulous Edmonton reporter in need of a stand-in, this performance too was unprepared and unrehearsed. At the president’s banquet at the Canadian Bar Association’s annual convention, held in Calgary that year, the arrangements committee found itself at the last moment lacking a proposer for the vote of thanks. Brockington was called upon at the last moment and did a typical job of felicitating the president, who happened to be a prominent nonpolitical Quebec City lawyer named Louis St. Laurent. Brockington was promptly booked as chief speaker for the association’s 1933 gathering in Ottawa.

When the time came Brockington was broke. He and other Calgary civic employees had recently taken a severe salary cut. But a captive audience of the nation’s leading lawyers in the nation’s capital was something no true orator could resist. He borrowed the last money available on his already heavily nicked life insurance and set out for Ottawa, confiding to a friend, “I feel as though I were taking the last crust out of the mouths of my family and casting it upon the waters.” But the return was to be more than tenfold. In the Ottawa audience was Prime Minister Mackenzie King, who privately earmarked Brockington for future reference. En route home Brockington stopped off in Winnipeg to address the fiftieth anniversary celebration of the Royal Winnipeg Regiment. A man who heard that speech recalled recently that a number of Winnipeg’s leading citizens “listened as though they were hearing human speech for the first time.”

Next day a group of Winnipeg wheat tycoons went into a huddle and decided, in the typical western spirit of intercity rivalry: “We can’t let this man bury himself in Calgary.” Brockington was invited to become general counsel of the North West Grain Dealers’ Association—in effect, spokesman for the Canadian Wheat industry. He moved to Winnipeg in 1935.

The next year Brockington, bound for the American Bar Association convention in Boston as guest speaker, stopped off in Halifax where the Canadian Bar Association was meeting. He was asked to “say a few words” — with typical result. Soon afterward he was named chairman of the young Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

For the first time the Brockington habit of punctuating steps in his career by making a speech was publicly noted. Norman McLeod commented in the Toronto Mail and Empire: “It was

his speech at the recent dinner of the Canadian Bar Association in Halifax that, all unknown to Mr. Brockington, convinced Federal Government officials that he was the man for whom they were looking to take over the CBC.” At the same time the Toronto Star rated the new national figure as “the premier after-dinner speaker of the continent, a man of wide culture, infinite wit and kindly humor.”

The chairmanship of the CBC at that time paid only a modest honorarium, but it occupied about a quarter of Brockington’s time. When his first three-year term was completed his Winnipeg employers suggested that he decide between them and the CBC. Brockington resigned from the CBC, but was not to remain long away from Ottawa. At the outbreak of World War II Prime Minister King asked him to become “the invaluable counselor of myself and the cabinet in the preparation of important documents.”

Nowadays Brockington tends to pass lightly over his two years in Ottawa, but there is little doubt they were not the happiest of his life. The job he was supposed to do for the Prime Minister was never clarified to the satisfaction of both. Brockington thought his powers of oratory were in demand to rally the country to war and to record the high points in Canada’s wartime achievements. King, to judge by his own comment—“I thought I was getting a cart horse, but I found I got a race horse”— expected Brockington to be a sort of general factotum.

Brockington had already decided to resign from his vague Ottawa assignment when, in late 1941, he was yet again invited to address the American Bar Association. With, of course, the usual result—only more so this time. Sir Norman Birkett, the eminent British jurist, read a copy of the speech and straightway went to Brendan Bracken, Churchill’s Minister of Information, and Lord Cranbourne, the Dominions secretary.

“Here,” said Birkett, “is the man we need as a morale weapon.” The two cabinet ministers agreed and Brockington was invited to go to England as “adviser to the Empire Division of the British Ministry of Information.” ’The next four years of Brockington’s life can only be described as hectic.

Past fifty, physically handicapped and illhe had recently been informed he had diabetes—Brockington literally plunged into the war. To gather firsthand material for his broadcasts to Britain and the Commonwealth he wangled his way right into the front lines. He flew in submarine hunts over the Bay of Biscay with the Coastal Command; he was aboard the Canadian destroyer Sioux at the D-Day landings.

One naval officer, doubtful of Brockington’s right to be there at all, and horrified at his “out of dress” uniform consisting of a midshipman’s jacket, lieutenant’s cap and seaman’s boots, asked worriedly: “What would the

enemy say if they captured you?” Brockington replied: “They’d put

Good Night!

Departing guests who block the door,

'Then chew the rag and chew—

/ think that about nothing they A re making much adieu.

MARY ALKUS

my picture into magazines, newspapers and newsreels and caption it: ‘If you want to know the depths to which the Royal Navy has sunk, look at this typical Canadian sailor.’ ”

He got into the front lines in France, Italy, Belgium and Germany. He flew over them in light observation planes. He spent some time with Montgomery in his headquarters and sat beside General Patton and Marshal Zukov at the triumphal march of Russian and Allied soldiers in Berlin. On a trip to Australia and New Zealand he met General Douglas MacArthur and made sixty-four speeches and broadcasts in four months, including at least one puolic address in each state and provincial capital. His speeches, according to Australian listeners, “revealed a technique entirely new to Australia . . . an episodic method of drawing on a rich store of experience, spiced with humor.”

England gave Brockington two of the highest honors it can bestow on a lawyer and a gentleman. He was made an honorary bencher of the Inner Temple, a position shared with only one other Canadian, Louis St. Laurent. He was elected to the ultra-exclusive Athenaeum Club— an honor he prizes only slightly less than his membership in the Ranchmen’s Club of Calgary.

When the King’s birthday honors list of 1943 was published the Glasgow Sunday Post complained that it should have included Brockington “for broadcasts that have done more to unite the Dominion with the Old Country than a whole series of Ottawa Conferences. He has won his way into our hearts by his understanding of the common folk.” The Times rectified that omission, however, by giving Brockington the greatest honor within its power: it printed on its editorial page for the first and last time the full text of a

broadcast —a broadcast by Brockington on Britain’s sacrifices to build and maintain an all-out war effort.

The most important speech Brockington ever made, as far as his personal | business is concerned, was to an audience of one. During his association with Brendan Bracken in London, Brockington once mentioned that he thought Pilgrim’s Progress should be made into a movie.

“Why don’t you tell that to Arthur Rank?” Bracken suggested. Rank was just beginning to put English movie-making and distribution on a big-time basis. Brockington visited Rank and launched into an impassioned argument for putt ing Pilgrim’s Progress j on film. He enlarged on the magnificent j dialogue, the scenic possibilities and the dramatic story line of endurance j and exaltation. The picture, he added, ! would give British movies great prestige in Canada and help open up the Canadian market.

Rank, quick to appraise and decide, turned a blind eye on Pilgrim’s Progress and a bright one on Brockington’s enthusiasm. “How,” asked Rank, “would you like to survey the Canadian situation for me and estimate the chances of success of an Odeon chain of theatres?”

Brockington still thinks Pilgrim’s Progress would make a great movie. But he accepted Rank’s assignment and helped organize the theatre chain which has become the second largest in Canada and which set the pattern for other Rank expansion outside England. Rank calls Brockington “the father of my overseas enterprises.” With the organization of Odeon Theatres in Canada, Brockington became a director and vice-president, and when the president, J. Earl Lawson, died two years ago Brockington succeeded him.

Busier today than he has ever been before in an unusually full life Brockington can accept only a small fraction of the bids he receives to make speeches. Just what a Brockington speech conj sists of is difficult to describe-especially without the aid of the chief ingredient, | the measured musical voice which has | become so familiar to Canadians, and to others, as Canada’s chief voice. ! Brockington himself is at a loss (o ¡ describe his own speeches. “All I j know,” he says, “is that I try to have ! a beginning and an end and see that j the middle moves logically from one j to the other.”

The British Broadcasting Corporation some time ago provided its speakers and would-be speakers with a recipe for good radio technique by citing Brockington’s “ability to create a visual image in the first two sentences.”

“So that’s what I do, is it?” Brockington commented.

The only truly predictable feature of a Brockington speech is that if is sure to contain from one to a dozen quotations of verse. This is a dual legacy from his father and grandfather.

The latter was a Birmingham goldbeater of modest education who nevertheless managed to learn long passages of Shakespeare by heart. His father, I who left the Midlands to become a Cardiff schoolteacher and married a Welsh girl who spoke the native • language, taught all his seven children poetry and enunciation at an early age. j Leonard Brockington graduated from i University College of South Wales at Í nineteen. His first job was as English j and classics master at Cowley Grammar i School. Bui he was restless, and wanted to be either a barrister or a journalist.

Then, in 1912, when he was twentyfour, Brockington decided to emigrate to Canada. He bade farewell to his j parents and his six brothers and sisters I with the stout assurance that he would be “back in six years with a fortune.” As it turned out he next saw England thirty years later.

Brockington might well have become a Maritime newspaperman or a Montreal lawyer; he carried letters of introduction to a Moncton editor and to the principal of McGill University. But on the boat he met a young Irishman who was going to Edmonton. Brockington had never heard of the place but, on an impulse, he said, “Why, that’s where I’m going, too.”

Brockington has spoken before so many hundreds of audiences that he seldom travels by plane across Canada, by train into the United States, or on one of his frequent trans-Atlantic flights—he has made forty in the past ten years—without being recognized by a fellow passenger. He attributes this modestly to the fact that his physical appearance is not easily forgotten. And indeed that’s true, since his great bent height, still-red hair and piercing eye are memorable. But it is a curious fact that Brockington’s acquaintances dating back up to forty years can remember anecdotes concerning him in greatest detail.

One such friend is Joseph W. Adair, a cheerful and convivial Edmontonian who is still irrepressibly active at seventy-five. In 1914 when Brockington was making less than a hundred dollars a month as a city-hall employee, and had recently married Agnes MacKenzie, a Cardiff schoolmate whom he had persuaded to come to Canada, Adair was publishing a weekly giveaway newspaper. He offered Brockington ten dollars a week to write a column, the contents of which could be “anything, so long as it fills up space.” Brockington took him at his word.

One week, lacking material and with the column a few lines short, Brockington’s eye fell on the advertisements which two Edmonton merchants, named Diamond and Crystal respectively, ran regularly on opposite pages. Brockington filled his column with this significant thought: “Every Diamond is a Crystal, but not every Crystal is a Diamond.”

On publication day Brockington was in the newspaper office when Mr. Crystal entered with blood in his eye. “Who wrote that thing about Diamonds and Crystals?” he demanded ominously.

“Oh, yes,” said Brockington, “splendid publicity, eh? Mr. Diamond was very pleased. He is going to double his advertising space.”

Crystal, who had come in to cancel his advertisement, stared. “So Diamond is doubling his space? Well, I’m going to double mine too.”

Brockington became a familiar figure in the colorful frontier city. Edmonton had no lack of characters, including a couple of bona-fide Italian counts, a Polish baron and assorted remittance men from noble, or at least aristocratic, English families. But Brockington’s appearance, easy manner and ready speech stood out in any crowd. H. R. Milner, now president of the Edmonton Gas Company, who came to Edmonton a year before Brockington and became his lifelong friend, recalls his early envy of the swashbuckling Brockington. “I was tied down to a desk,” said Milner,

! “while he seemed to go everywhere, and be welcome everywhere.”

A Calgary friend of Brockington’s recalls that “even when his illness was at its height, Brockington never lost his sparkle.”

One day he was sitting in the lobby of Calgary’s Palliser Hotel when a man, mistaking him for a partner of the Calgary law firm of Short, Cross and Biggar, slapped him resoundingly across his back.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” said the man when

Brockington turned around abruptly. “I thought you were Biggar.”

“No, dammit,” snapped Brockington, “I’m Short and Cross.”

In the depth of the depression Calgary’s mayor and civic officials held a series of meetings to discuss the problem of unemployment relief. One day in the midst of such a meeting a Calgary newspaperman quietly opened the door of the meeting room and pushed something in. The newspaperman was Chief Buffalo Childe Long Lance, one of the strangest characters ever to inhabit the west. The Indian journalist doubled as an unofficial spokesman for the unemployed.

What Long Lance pushed into the room was nothing more than an alarm clock wrapped in a handkerchief. But it ticked ominously, and the city fathers had recently received threatening anonymous letters—so the meeting broke up hurriedly. Two officials leaped through a window without the formality of opening it and crashed through the roof of a greenhouse en route to the ground. Brockington pulled a cabinet of ancient civic reports over him. Later he observed sagaciously, “I always knew there must be some use for old municipal documents.”

Brockington, honorary member of two Indian tribes, tried to save the newspaper job of his blood brother, Long Lance. But the Indian extrovert had played one prank too many, and he departed. Long Lance went on to a movie career in Hollywood and was killed in a shooting affray in the film capital.

Brockington’s brief tenure of the CBC chairmanship in the early stage of national radio yielded at least one important principle. That was his decision that air time on the CBC network could not be sold to individuals or organizations for the expression of partisan opinions. The issue arose when the Leadership League, a political “ginger group” organized in Toronto by the late George McCullagh, publisher of the Globe and Mail, applied for network time, was turned down, and raised such a row that the matter ended up before a parliamentary committee on broadcasting.

In his testimony before the committee Brockington contended that one of the ideals of the CBC was to keep network radio in Canada free from the domination of wealth. “If time on the CBC can be bought at

fifty dollars a minute for the expression of controversial opinion,” Brockington declared, “then ‘free air’ is just a sign outside a service station. It means that a wealthy industry with labor troubles could tell its story without reply from a hard-pressed union—and, of course, a prosperous union might do the same to a struggling employer. The political party with the richest war chest would have an unfair advantage in an election campaign.”

The committee sided with Brockington and the long-range result was the present CBC policy of free air time to political parties and both-sides debates of controversial subjects.

In his two years as Mackenzie King’s assistant, Brockington paid the penalty of his ready wit by becoming a sort of male Dorothy Parker—just about any edged and pointed remark going the rounds was attributed to him. A number of sharp exchanges between himself and the prime minister were reported, but Brockington’s disclaimer today is: “I didn’t say them, and if I did I said them in private.”

The only comment he admits making on his Ottawa period was at a luncheon of the Ottawa Women’s Press Club. One of the members, seeking to clarify the confusion regarding Brockington’s role, asked him: “Is it true that you are keeping the Chronicles of Canada?”

“No,” replied Brockington drily, “apparently the Book of Kings.”

Actually, Brockington says, he never quarreled with King. During his last illness the prime minister asked Brockington to visit him and made him his confidential lawyer and adviser. Brockington helped King make his will, and became one of his trustees. King asked Brockington to be one of his pallbearers and left a deathbed message of hope that Brockington would make him the subject of a memorial speech. Brockington fulfilled both requests. When it was learned that a woman spiritualist medium in London was writing a book showing proof that King was a convinced spiritualist, Brockington visited her and tried to dissuade her from the project.

He found, however, that she was delighted with her plans for the book and would not listen to his pleas. When a friend asked Brockington what success he had had in his mission he replied with a grim pun: “Never before have I felt so inclined to strike a happy medium.” *