The man Bertrand Russell, Samuel Beckett, Anthony Burgess, Margaret Laurence, Pierre Berton and Farley Mowat have in common

KILDARE DOBBS January 1 1973


The man Bertrand Russell, Samuel Beckett, Anthony Burgess, Margaret Laurence, Pierre Berton and Farley Mowat have in common

KILDARE DOBBS January 1 1973


The man Bertrand Russell, Samuel Beckett, Anthony Burgess, Margaret Laurence, Pierre Berton and Farley Mowat have in common


In 1972 Bertrand Russell, the philosopher, mathematician and prototype protester, would have been 100 years old, and to mark his centenary McMaster University of Hamilton, Ontario, invited a large assemblage of illustrious intellectuals from all over the world, from Sir Alfred Ayer of Oxford to I. F. Stone of Washington. They came for four days in October — along with Russell’s widow, Edith, Lady Russell, and two of his children — to this small university in a steel town in a remote country because McMaster houses most of Russell’s papers in one great archive. And McMaster has those papers only because it also has as chief librarian, Will Ready, a man of prodigious will.

Back in the green Welsh years of his youth in one of CardiflPs Irish parishes, Will Ready, chief librarian of McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario, played wing forward for his Christian Brothers school team. Though 58 years have loosened the flesh on his five-foot-eight-inch frame, tugging it down toward the middle, scoring grooves on his fine bardic head, the hair still poetic in its luxuriance, hooding the grey eyes behind the glasses to an aspect of politic wariness, you can still see the deceptive build on him of the wing forward. A winger in Rugby Union football is an attacker and counterattacker, a spoiler of his opponents’ passing movements; as a forward, he specializes in boots and brute force, but he is not above grabbing the ball to run and weave with it like a halfback. If there’s something tricky to his physique so much the better: it throws defenders on the wrong foot.

So with Will Ready. As far down as the knees he’s built big; it’s only his shins that are short. He’d have been an ambiguous object to tackle, sawn off like that at the knees, and (to be Irish about it, since there’s a lot of Irish in the man) a hefty one, barring the weight. (.Barring The Weight is the title of one of Ready’s best short stories, about rugby.)

There’s still a lot of the wing forward about Will Ready, only now it’s the game of library acquisitions he plays — and with such dash and dazzle he’s the envy of the ivy league. With all their money and class, some grander and more famous universities in Canada and the United States than Ready’s little McMaster have lost out to him in the international scramble for the raw materials of scholarship.

There was the surprising case of the Bertrand Russell archive. Lord Russell had been at the centre of European intellectual life for fourscore years and more, a mathematical and literary genius who was the perfect type of English Whig, a friend of most of the great men of his time, a man who remembered clearly his grandfather, the Lord Russell of the Great Reform Bills on which British democracy was founded, and who, as a boy, had sat alone with Mr. Gladstone after dinner and heard him deliver the momentous remark: “This is very good port they have given me, but why have they given it to me in a sherry glass?” The private papers of Bertrand Russell are a treasury of documents that any archivist in the world would sell his soul for, if the devil ever dared to do business with such people. And Will Ready got them for McMaster.

It’s arguable that before 1968 no one outside Canada had ever heard of McMaster University, let alone the Ontario city of Hamilton which shelters it. No one, anyway, except those lucky heathen beyond the seas who had been called to salvation by missionaries trained in the former Baptist college. With the acquisition of the Russell archive in 1968 all that was changed. Hamilton, Ont., found itself on the world’s front pages. McMaster was now seen to be an international centre of learning.

The scholar who did more than any other to bring this about is Will Ready, the best mick who ever ran a library at a once Baptist school.

He’s no ordinary librarian. A shortstory writer who has won the Atlantic Monthly Award (1948), the Clarence Day Award (1963), the Thomas More Award ( 1961), a novelist (The Poor Hater) whose work was praised by the late Frank O’Connor, an essayist and critic who has written books on Russell and J. R. R. Tolkien, a trained historian whose doctoral thesis was to have been on

Thomas D’Arcy McGee but it turned into the novel instead, Ready was a wartime soldier till a wounded hand and leg sidetracked him into the British Army Education Corps in Italy. Who’s Who In Library Service lists his specialties as “acquisitions, administration, teaching.” An up-to-the-minute expert on information storage and retrieval classes him disapprovingly as “a bibliophile.”

There’s a fine 18th-century collection in the McMaster library that Ready captured in Naas, County Kildare, Ireland, in 1969, under the noses of the Irish dealers. They had been courting collector Barry Brown for years. Alerted by friends at Trinity College, Dublin, Ready arrived with a cheque in his pocket for £25,000 (about $67,500) and the pleasure of his own expansive company. Next day he took away the 11,000 or so books in a pantechnicon. He attended a banquet that evening in Dublin where he found himself surrounded by dealers. Just as word was breaking about the Barry Brown coup, Ready created a distraction and made his escape. He claims to have dropped a hint that the Vatican Library was up for sale.

Maybe he did, at that. But Ready is not a man to spoil a good story by puritanical adherence to facts. “The Vatican Library,” he muses, a dreamy look in his eye as he recalls that day. “Now that would be an acquisition to set a crown on a career, wouldn’t it?”

The voice is as deceptive as the build. There’s Welsh music in it and a jigger of Irish under the Oxford precision. His gift is to make you feel that he is exactly your sort of person; quite a trick when you happen to be a fallen Irish Protestant, one of a race Ready was brought up to regard as the enemy. “There’s not many of us left,” Ready offers, looking pensively into his John Jameson. “We’re a dying race. Tunes of glory. You don’t happen to have another drop of that stuff, do you?”

“I’ll give you a sup from the priest’s bottle.”

William Ready was born in Cardiff, Wales, on September 16, 1914, a cradle Catholic and a snob about it. A London theatre-ticket agent used to claim in his ads: “You want the best seats. We’ve got ’em.” That’s the position of British Catholics: dress circle and boxes are reserved for those born into the true church. Converts like Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh lack something.

Unlike some native Irish Catholic writers, James Joyce and Brian Moore among them, Ready was not turned off religion by the priests and brothers who taught him. “I hate fat priests and monsignori,” he says. “But I have not lost the faith any more than any of us.” He hears mass as often as he can, enduring the new ritual, guitars and hippie celecontinued on page 50•


WILL READY from page 38 brants with good humor, but he has not been to confession since a British army chaplain pronounced a general absolution before the Battle of Anzio. He chuckles. “That was for me.”

His Catholic identity is important to Ready and accounts for his special interest in such Catholic writers as Anthony Burgess (whose papers he secured for McMaster), J. F. Powers, Walker Percy, Muriel Spark and others.

He worked his way through the University of Wales as a library assistant in Cardiffs public libraries, graduating in history and literature in 1939, all the time exercising his body with rugby and his imagination with funerals. “There was some life about the funeral in the old days,” he wrote later on in a memoir titled Way Of A Wake, “horses with black plumes on their heads, pawing, stamping and snorting outside the church door, big black Flanders geldings and brood mares, while up on the boxes of the hearse and cabs the tophatted crepe-hung mutes dozed and whimpered awaiting the coming out of the coffin from the church on the shoulders of the mourners.” No sorrow to it at all, and whatever grief there was was soon drowned in beer.

The war took him to Palestine where he contrived, Irish as ever, to get himself commissioned in the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, after serving in the western desert as a sergeant in the Royal Artillery. With the “Skins” Ready spent three months in a fishing caique in Aegean waters during the Dodecanese campaign in 1943. He was with the infantry at Monte Cassino, and at Anzio was wounded in the left hand and right leg. “I can’t play the violin any more,” he complains. “Of course, I never could.”

In Italy he met Bessie Dyer, a Canadian nurse from Manitoba. He had himself seconded to the Canadian Army so that he could be near her. They married and ex-Staff Captain Ready, demobilized from military life in 1945, put in an enjoyable year at Balliol College, Oxford, where he picked up a postgraduate diploma in education and made many friends.

The diploma was a meal ticket. In 1946 the Readys came to Manitoba, where Will went to work teaching private school at St. John’s, Ravenscourt. Meanwhile he took his MA in western Canadian history at the University of Manitoba, wrote a column in the Winnipeg Tribune and articles for the Hudson’s Bay Company magazine The Beaver. He was writing fiction, too, publishing in The Saturday Evening Post and Atlantic.

Taking a postgraduate diploma in bibliography, archives and archival management, Ready began his career in university librarianship. Berkeley, Stan-

ford, Harvard, Rutgers, Wisconsin were among his universities. This wide knowledge of the academic world was not wasted on him. When it comes to acquisitions he knows the competition from the inside.

To some degree, it was knowledge of the competitors that gave Ready the gall to make his pitch for the Russell papers. His own explanation is slightly different. He had come to McMaster in 1966, having applied for the post of university librarian because it was in Canada. Vietnam and the draft had changed everything in the United States: “Bessie wanted Canada.” One Sunday in the fall of 1967 Ready, on a visit to the United Kingdom, was traveling by train from Oxford to Cardiff. Reading the Sunday papers, he came on a Sunday Times report that the Russell papers were for sale and would probably fetch a million pounds. “I suspect it was because I was still in a state of euphoria after the Balliol Society dinner the night before,” he told a reporter last year, “but I thought it would be rather nice to have those papers in Canada.”

No Balliol hangover ever inspired euphoria like that. Ready knew that the


University of Texas should be one of the richest and strongest contenders for the Russell archive; but he also knew that Russell had helped to indict Texas’ favorite son, President Lyndon Johnson, as a war criminal. Texas would be out of it. He had a feeling that MIT and Chicago would bid together to split the collection between them. But Russell wanted his papers kept together.

Certainly it was worth a try. In Canada, Cyrus Eaton, McMaster alumnus, admirer of Russell, promised the first $25,000. The Canada Council, on a joint appeal from all 14 universities of Ontario, agreed to give $150,000.

And so, on St. Stephen’s Day, 1967, Ready and Professor Brough Macpherson, the distinguished University of Toronto political scientist, arrived in London to inspect the archive. They confirmed its value. Now all McMaster lacked was enough cash — better than $500,000. (The actual price has never been disclosed.)

By February, 1968, a discouraged Ready had managed to raise $250,000. He had almost given up hope for the balance by the time he called for help on the Atkinson Charitable Foundation in Toronto. After a brief interview at his office in the university library, he came away jubilant, with a cheque for the balance of the money needed — an undisclosed amount in excess of $250,000.

Archives, quaintly, are measured in feet, and with 187 feet of Russell McMaster’s research centre for Russell studies is drawing a stream of scholarly visitors from all over the world.

But Russell’s are not the only papers Ready has brought to McMaster. There are 32 feet of Samuel Beckett, 20 inches of Anthony Burgess — including the original typescript of The Clockwork Orange — one foot of Margaret Laurence, 10 feet of John Coulter, as well as material from Pierre Berton, Farley Mowat, and others. In the Canadian poetry section there are six feet of John Robert Colombo and four feet of Doug Fetherling, who is still in his midtwenties.

“The largest and most rewarding Canadian archive in McMaster,” Ready unblushingly claims in a library publication, “is the Baptist Archive.” Its appeal is probably more limited than that of the Anglo-Irish collection or the Canadian Radical Archives, which include operational papers of the FLQ.

The collections do not always reflect the personal taste of the librarian. Ready’s own love is for poetry. Like all men who really love poetry and verse of all kinds, he has a special fondness for the worst as well as the best. He gives all the sonority of his Welsh vowels to the declamation of such tunes of glory as Henry Newbolt’s dreadful: “What will ye more of your guest and sometime friend?”/“Blood for our blood,” they said. Echoes of this kind of thing go rolling through his own prose — controlled, however, by the needs of the born storyteller. What holds your attention is his gusto. A kindly man who enjoys friends and family (the Readys have six children) he is not slow to take offense if the hour is late and the unwary host is tactless enough to offer coffee, with its deadly finality, instead of another glass. While there’s something left in the bottle there is surely nothing better to do than sit and talk, even if it’s between furtive catnaps.

Last fall Ready was off to a hill town in the south of Spain for a year’s sabbatical leave, full of plans for books, and with his eye on the Vatican Archives where he will be researching Canadiana.

“I’ve got three books going. One of them’s a marvelous fantasy novel, a rejection of the west as the land of opportunity. It’s a hell of a good story.”

And there will be more good stories where it came from.

What, finally, will be the scholarly fate of the papers of Will Ready himself? They must comprise a rewarding archive, casting light on the commercial side of genius.

“The Ready papers,” Professor Ready announces calmly, “will go to the highest bidder.” ■