A new biography tackles the passionate Farley Mowat
A new biography tackles the passionate Farley Mowat
By mid-1962, Farley Mowat’s literary career was essentially on hold, according to Farley (HarperCollins), by biographer James King. Mowat’s childhood and later combat experiences had left him with a “fragile sense of self,” King recounts, leading to drunken outbursts that strained relations with his wife, Claire. But that year, Farley, 41, and Claire, 29, passionate naturalists disgusted with industrial society, settled
in the Newfoundland outport of Burgeo. Even as his private life remained tumultuous, the stay in Burgeo revived Mowat’s writing. And it was there too that he witnessed the event that inspired A Whale for the Killing, one of his finest books.
IN JULY, 1962, Claire and Farley found themselves harbour-bound in Burgeo. When they mentioned to the friendly
locals that they were looking for a place to winter, they were whisked away to Messers Cove, an enclave of 14 families of fishermen at the western end of the village. Perched high on a granite boulder was a small white bungalow, whose windows looked south to the ocean. Having fallen in love with this part of Burgeo, Farley and Claire threw caution to the winds and bought the house. For both of them, an outport was the closest they could imagine to living a simple existence away from the crushing demands of the kind of modern life they both loathed.
Outsiders Claire and Farley were a source of endless curiosity for their neighbours, to whom they were as strange as zoo specimens or circus freaks. Farley became fascinated with his new community. Tongue in cheek, he wrote “We are also greatly enjoying the local citizenry. There is a wedding every week, sometimes two or three. The last four brides have been 14,14,13 and 15, respectively, and of these, all were pregnant. Nobody, but nobody, marries a woman until she has been tested and found capable. The baby bonus looms too large to admit of any other procedures. Come to think of it, nobody marries a woman—only little girls; Lolita is old stuff in Burgeo; Claire says she feels bloody well decrepit.”
That winter, Farley wrote one of his most celebrated books. A spoof and a potboiler Never Cry Wolf may be, but it also contains a passionate defence of the wolf, one of whose sources of food is mice. As he grew attuned to the wolves, Farley even prepared and ate concoctions made of mice—including souris à la crème, which, in addition to the rodents, consists of white flour, sowbelly, cloves and ethyl alcohol—and urinated to mark his boundary lines. Never Cry Wolf sold 300,000 copies in Canada and the U.S., making Farley a true celebrity in both countries. He became known—along with Rachel Carson, a great admirer of the book—as one of the truly great crusaders defending the integrity of the planet against government and corporate interests. He now became “Farley Mowat,” a latter-day prophet who railed against the rapid destruction of humanity’s bonds to animals, plants and the earth itself.
Fame and fortune did not still Farley’s personal demons. Claire set out the extent of the problem in a devastatingly honest letter to publisher Jack McClelland, when she intervened in a quarrel between the two men. “I want to tell you about an odd and unpleasant side of Farley’s character. He has the capacity, when he’s drunk, to be outrageously abusive, untruthful and cruel in what he says to those close to him. Whenever we return from a party at which Farley has managed to get drunk, he launches at me a tirade of abuses. He has vigorously accused me, on various occasions, of being childish, grossly selfish, incompetent, stupid, frigid, frivolous and joyless. I am none of these things. Some guys beat their wives. Others get the same kick from verbally beating them.
‘The bloodthirsty bastards of Burgeo who filled the fin whale full of lead will smart fora while. When I am finished, they will be charred’
Farley, when he’s sufficiently drunk, is not responsible for what he says.”
From childhood, Farley had fled from intimacy with others. This tendency may have been due to—or exacerbated by—the sense that he could never be quite good enough for his father. Farley might be able to accomplish many things, but would they ever be the right things? Consciously and unconsciously, this question haunted him. When drunk and thus uninhibited, his fears were unleashed and then voiced. In such moments, he pushed other people, such as Jack and Claire, away lest he should once again fail at being the person they wanted him to be.
BY EARLY 1967, Farley, struck by signs of creeping modernity in Burgeo, contemplated moving. But his farewell was speeded up when, on Jan. 20, a 70-foot-long female fin whale became trapped in a cove on the outskirts of Burgeo. Five plant workers began shooting at the whale with rifles on the following day. On the third day, when Farley and Claire were out watching bald eagles, more than 30 persons were using the whale for target practice while a large crowd watched from the shore. On the fifth day, two fishermen told the Mowats about the whale. All of a sudden, Farley was aware of a “conspiracy of silence;” before this, friends and neighbours had been “ready, not to say eager, to keep us informed of everything.” Immediately committed to saving the whale, Farley suddenly found himself at odds with his neighbours. Particularly bitter was his recollection of how he was shunned when he went to tend to the whale: “Some people averted their eyes as they passed our dory. I do not think this was because of any guilt they may have felt—and many of them did feel guilty— it was because I had shamed them... ” Although many villagers were sympathetic to the whale, they were horrified by
the unfavourable notice given to Burgeo by the outside world. Although the maiming of the whale stopped, she was badly infected by her wounds and died before antibiotics could be administered.
To his father, Farley summarized the sorry situation. “Be warned and do not ever take up with a fin whale. Nobody seems to gain much from the experience, although the bloodthirsty bastards of Burgeo who filled her full of lead will smart for a while. They have had a pretty good national roasting, and when I am finished, they will be charred. The whole affair has pretty well disgusted me with Burgeo. And, likewise, I think Burgeo has had about enough of me. So be it.”
The Mowats left the outport soon after, but the “charring” took five years to see print, not until Farley had digested and even dreamed about the experience. And when it came, in A Whale for the Killing, the white-hot rage he had felt at the time had cooled. In his re-creation of the first shots fired, Farley denounces the corrupting influences of the world “away”: “Although these men had been born on the Sou’west Coast, they had all spent years in Canada or the United States. Returning home, they had rejected the vocations of their fisherman forefathers and sought wage employment at the plant as mechanics, tradesmen and supervisors. They were modern men only too anxious to deny their outport heritage in favour of the manners and mores of 20th-century industrial society. The five men wasted no time. Some dropped to their knees, levering shells into their rifles. Others stood where they were and hurriedly took aim. The crash of rifle fire began to echo from the cliffs and, as an undertone, there came the flat, satisfying thunk of bullets striking home in the living flesh.”
For Farley, the tragedy of the whale was a deeply human one: “The whale was not alone in being trapped. We were all trapped with her. If the natural patterns of her life had been disrupted, then so had ours. She became a mirror in which we saw our own distempered faces, and they were ugly.” Once again, Farley believed, humankind had shown itself incapable of protecting the natural resources it claimed were entrusted to it.
Reprinted by permission ofHarperCollins Publishers Ltd.
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