Just sometimes in life we come across quite extraordinary people … whose lives we learn about … Robert Service (1874 – 1958) is one of those … he spent a few years in Cowichan Bay, Vancouver Island in his early twenties … after leaving Scotland for new horizons …
We learn that this imaginative, day-dreaming child was already composing rhythmical verses at the age of 6 … appropriately a delightful child-like grace:
God bless the cakes and bless the jam;
Bless the cheese and the cold boiled ham:
Bless the scones Aunt Jeannie makes,
And saves us all from bellyaches. Amen
|Plain boiled ham - this though
looks rather good
Wonderful lives people lead … this six year old had been sent to live with his grandfather, a general store postmaster, and three maiden aunts in Kilwinning, Scotland – there were ten children, so perhaps understandably some got ‘farmed out’ …
|Highland Dancer swirling kilt
in the 21st C
… his mother, on her husband’s return from England, came to visit to find her son happily dressed in a kilt with nothing underneath … she took him back to Glasgow!
|Driving down towards Cowichan Bay
… as you can imagine he got bored, wanted to travel and at 21 in 1895, journeyed to Vancouver Island, where the family had relatives; he dreamt of becoming a Buffalo Bill type cowboy having read or seen the Wild West performances in England and Europe.
|Corfield Farm - c/o Cowichan Bay Museum Archives
He explored up and down the west coast … just subsisting … returning to the Island he took a job as a cowhand/store-keeper/ also tutor to the farmer’s sons … once again experiencing life to the full … garnering stories …
… it was an idyllic time … later he thought it was time wasted … but to earn a bit more in 1903 he returned to bank work in the capital Victoria … while continuing to write verses …
|Railway crossing the North Thomson
… very soon the bank sent him to Kamloops (a new railway transportation hub on the mainland) … from there he was sent to Whitehorse, Yukon – a prospectors stop-over on the way to Dawson City to test their luck in the Gold Rush ...
Still working for the bank, but in a frontier town where entertainment was always needed … Robert continued to write his verses or doggerel … entertaining the wide range of characters chasing their fortune in the frozen ranges.
|Sailing north to the Yukon
He was able to amass a collection of ballads, which he sent, to his father, now living in Toronto, asking him to have them printed up into a booklet, which he was going to give to friends in Whitehorse. He had covered the costs with a cheque …
The booklet true to its title was a self-starter … the foreman and printer recited the ballads while they worked; a salesman read the proofs and sold 1700 copies in advance orders … the publisher sent Robert’s cheque back and offered him a ten percent royalty contract for the book.
‘Songs of a Sourdough’ (sourdough – as is the bread starter stored in distinctive pouches by the old miners; and/or as a term for an experienced miner) …
|Paying with gold dust, Dawson City
Robert’s life was set – he found he fairly easily was able to draft his works … doggerel, ballads, novels, newspaper articles … making sure they would appeal to the ear and reflect to the eye … he had found his voice …
|His cabin in Dawson City - it is still there,
but tourists can only walk round
Coarse rolls of lining paper were hung up … where he copied out his verses using charcoal … refining them, pacing and repeating … until the words flowed.
I could write lots more about this fascinating man – who started life as a boy with no knickers under his kilt, who could write verses without having visited Dawson City … he listened to the miners, parodied their tales …
|Films were made,
verses quoted etc
He continued to live in the Yukon writing … but being able to travel went to see other parts of the world … WW1 commenced and he wanted to sign up – but due to varicose veins was rejected … he still wrote for newspapers … after the War he settled in Paris, married but moved to the USA west coast during WW2 …
|They holidayed and lived in Brittany
- which is where he is buried
They returned to France, with Robert living out his days as a wealthy gentleman, who at night transformed himself into a tramp, and together with his doorman, wandered the Parisian streets seeking inspiration …
That is Robert Service who loved the Yukon, honed his ‘voice’, wrote to entertain, whose words are forever embedded as wonderful ballads, doggerel stanzas, whimsical tales of the frozen north … the small child who could praise ‘cold boiled ham’ …
Some links: Wiki - Robert W Service
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