Tuesday, 12 February 2019

Robert Service … “Bard of the North” …


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 …

 
c 1905 - aged 31

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!





He was forever reading books, particularly poetry … Burns, Shakespeare, Browning … on leaving school early he apprenticed with the Bank of Scotland … where due to inactivity he developed his craft of writing and “selling verses” …





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
River, Kamloops
… 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 …





A collection
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’ …






Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters Inspirational Stories


64 comments:

David Gascoigne said...

Robert Service is kegendary in Canada and his verse is oft repeated. The renowned Canadian historical author Pierre Berton was a devotee of Service and mentioned him often. I was unaware that he ended his life in France.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

He was certainly well-traveled. That probably helped him conjure up tales.

John Holton said...

Loved the part about him coming home in a kilt with nothing underneath and his mother sending him back to Scotland. (Actually, it was the Highland dancer that caught my eye; looks like she's doing the Highland Fling.) I always heard a lot about Service, but don't think I've read anything by him. Poetry's not really my thing...

Anabel Marsh said...

Interesting! I’ve heard of Robert Servic3 but didn’t know anything about him.

Chatty Crone said...

I have never heard of him - but what an interesting man. He was a dreamer and what is nice was able to live out some of it - that is what is great about some people's lives you know?

Liz A. said...

Too bad he's not a more famous writer. But a fascinating life.l

Starting Over, Accepting Changes - Maybe said...

What an interesting man who lived a very full life.

L. Diane Wolfe said...

He was prepared to pay for that first book and then they ended up paying him. Nice.

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

@ David - I gather he is legendary in Canada ... but I'd never come across him - til I was almost leaving: but am glad I found him. His life is interesting ...

... I found some friends here today who had come across him - which was gratifying to know ...

@ Alex - he obviously just had the right brain ... and I'm sure his imagination helped hugely ... he was a great listener too I gather ...

@ John - I know that made me laugh .. being home with nothing underneath his kilt. Glad I put the highland dancer in - or rather her kilt. He was prodigious in his output ... mostly verse, but all sorts ...

@ Anabel - he's from your part of the world ... I hope you can get a chance to check him out in Kilenny ...

@ Sandie - he seems to have had a great life and used his talents to the full ...

@ Liz - I think he probably is ... but is not considered as a serious writer so where light works are required his works will fit the bill ...

@ Arleen - he certainly lived life to the full ... and enjoyed being in the frozen north ...

@ Diane - he was already making money while working in Whitehorse - but the poem collection really set the money rolling in ...

Cheers to you - and hope some ofyou get a chance to check out his poems at a later stage - Hilary

Elephant's Child said...

It sounds as if he most certainly 'lived his life to the full', which is wonderful to read about. His writing success is lovely too. I suspect a lot of authors were (and are) a tad jealous.
Thanks Hilary. I hope your life is also going well.

Out on the prairie said...

a man close to my heart, what a wonderful tale to share.

Yamini MacLean said...

Hari OM
Kilwenny I don't know... Kilwinning, perhaps? Not an author I am familiar with. Time to go searching! Thanks for telling us about him. YAM xx

Rhodesia said...

Interesting man and good looking as well. Cheers Diane

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

@ EC - he lived through his mind, yet was entrepreneurial enough to get out there and do things. I think you might be right ... I'm sure a lot of authors would be jealous of his 'immediate' success - yet he was always writing, testing his work and submitting his verses ...

Life is coming together - many thanks ...

@ Steve - yes I can imagine he'd have a few other admirers too - re his writing ...

@ Yam - you're right - thank you: I changed it to Kilwinning. I think you'll enjoy his poems ... easy to read ... I hope you'll enjoy it ...

Cheers and lovely to see you - Hilary

Marja said...

I loved this story What an interesting life and he lived in beautiful places, that farm, the cabin, Paris It loos he was at six already a star. I going to look for his work straight away

Nick Wilford said...

Definitely an eventful life! Sounds like he had a restless spirit. Like the best writers.

Fil said...

Interesting man - the spirit of adventure produced so many amazing artists in those days. Thanks for introducing him to us Hilary. WE have friends living in Kilwinning - I wonder is he remembered or celebrated there. Cheers for now . Fil x

Sandra Cox said...

What a fascinating man!

Botanist said...

Love the little verse he wrote as a child. So innocent and natural.

Mark Noce said...

Looks like beautiful places to be inspired :)

Jz said...

Very interesting man!
People just don't seem to get to live those kinds of adventures anymore - more's the pity.

sage said...

I have read lots of his poetry, but never knew he started out in Scotland or much of his history. Thanks.

www.thepulpitandthepen.com

Joanne said...

Quite a man with such a backstory. (Good looking too)

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

@ Diane - he was good looking wasn't he ... as well as that interesting life ...

@ Marja - that's great to know you will be looking at some of his work (verses, novels etc) ... He certainly was very happy with his cabin in Dawson - even when he'd left the bank ... the cold didn't seem to worry him. While his time on the farm in Cowichan Bay must have been idyllic ... it's so pretty there ... enjoy reading some of his work ...

@ Nick - yes the restless spirit was there ... yet his imagination could 'see' the places before he visited from listening to the tales of the old miners ...

@ Fil - yes they had nothing to lose ... when they set out to wherever their wanderlust led them. It looks like he's known in Kilwinning ... but I'm not sure how much will be found about him - I'm sure in recent years more will have been done to remember him as a great balladeer ... though his 'stories' were mostly Canadian driven ...

@ Sandra - I loved finding out about him ...

@ Ian - isn't the Grace delightful ... and so true!

@ Mark - he listened to the tales of the wizened miners, and told their stories set in the frozen wastes of the Yukon ...

@ Jz - I'm sure there are people now who have similar lives ... eg the refugees, under extremely difficult circumstances - but it's great to be able to read about life as it was, so easily, in the doggerel stanzas he wrote ..

@ Sage - well I'm delighted to have been able to give you a bit more about his background ...

@ Joanne - he certainly has had an interesting life, which he took full advantage of through his interpretation of the tales he heard. Yes - good looking too ...

Thanks so much - I hope you enjoy reading some of his poems ... cheers Hilary

John "By Stargoose And Hanglands" said...

Who knew that working in a bank could lead to such an interesting life?

Jo-Anne's Ramblings said...

I have never heard of him but he does sound like and interesting man

Lisa said...

I've never heard of Robert Service until this post! What a life he had. I wonder if he had any children? What a way to hone your craft, by living such a full life even if he didn't think so at the time.

Anonymous said...

I had never heard of Robert Service and wow, what a truly interesting guy he must have been in person.

I can only imagine what going down the pub with him must have been like and the stories he obviously shared.

(And thank you for sharing, Hilary:)

Lisa said...

I found this while looking him up to see if he had children! He had a daughter, who had a daughter...
https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/north/robert-service-biography-penned-by-great-granddaughter-1.3013272

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

@ John - yes ... lots of time to think and jot notes down - the poems following when he was away from the bank ... those were the days.

@ Jo-Anne - he must have been fascinating to listen to ... all his stories and no doubt spoken very eloquently ...


@ Lisa - he did have one child - as you've since discovered ... while his wife who was much younger, lived on til she was over 100 ...

Living in France and marrying a French woman has obviously helped keep us from knowing much more about him ... but it's so good to know that there is a biography out about his life - which would be great to be able to read in English when it is transcribed ...

@ Mark - he must have had tales to tell ... and was obviously a great raconteur ... even if he was parodying others. I can see you'd have loved time with him down the pub - slightly colder in the Yukon than Spain or Ireland!

@ Lisa - thanks for this link ... and see my reply above

Cheers to you all - seems like Robert Service is garnering some new admirers - he certainly will stay in my imagination ... Hilary

Jo said...

That's interesting Hilary, not heard of him before, but he really enjoyed life by the sound of it. Amazing he got his cheque back. A lot of writers today would like that to happen to them.

bazza said...

Certainly a great life but not, I think, a great poet!
CLICK HERE for Bazza’s repeatedly risible Blog ‘To Discover Ice’

Sandra Cox said...

That verse is fun and the fact that he was only six when he wrote it...wow.

Andrea Ostapovitch said...

I am definitely going to have to look further into this. I only know of " The Cremarion of Sam McGee" which I studied in high school. I think it's time for a heavier dose. I had no idea of this poet's origins. Wonderful article this morning. Thank you so much.
Have a great week,
Andrea

Jacqui Murray said...

This is a perfect example of why we must let kids follow their passion. It took me a while but I got there. I'm not sure some of our current crop of helicopter moms ever will!

Mike@Bit About Britain said...

Absolutely fascinating, Hilary. I'm sorry to say that I had never heard of Robert Service, but what an interesting life; it would make a good film!

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

@ Jo - well he was so successful - that imprint went to something over 30 impressions ... he made a lot of money from that first print ... and then his others. Yes I'm sure lots of authors would be happy to have a tenth of his success ...

@ Bazza - that seems to be the consensus ... but honestly so many love those sorts of verses - I know I do!!

@ Sandra - amazing at how talented he was - even as a child ...

@ Andrea - fascinating that you studied 'The Cremation of Sam McGee' poem ... if I'd done that I might have been more interested in poetry. Great that you'll look out for him and read more about him and more poems ... he led an interesting life ...

@ Jacqui - yes I couldn't agree more ... but you have to have the passion and desire to achieve - some of us do, some don't ... your helicopter Moms ... questionable - as you say ...

@ Mike - I agree, I thought that ... he had some of his novels turned into films - silent ones ... and they showed how the Yukon was in those early days ... so perhaps someday someone will make a film about him ...

Thanks so much everyone - I'm delighted Robert Service is getting better known ... more so as he opens the door to the Yukon of the Klondike Gold Rush era ... he tells us so much - cheers Hilary

Debbie D. said...

What a talented man! Sorry to say, I hadn't heard of Robert Service before (either that or I'd forgotten). Shameful, since I am Canadian, and all. Isn't it normal to wear nothing under a kilt? That's what I heard, anyway. ☺ Thanks for sharing this interesting biography, Hilary.

Sherry Ellis said...

Sounds like he had a fascinating life.

Lenny Lee said...

i'll never forget the lines, "pitched on his head and pumped full of lead, was dangerous Dan McGrew." my mom was a big fan of poetry and Robert Service was one of her favorites. she liked to read his work out loud.she liked the way he took you to the Yukon with his words. i just listened to Dangerous Dan Mcgrew recited by Robert Service himself. i felt like i was right there in the saloon. the descriptions are fantastic and down to earth real. listen to the bard of the Yukon recite this poem at:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zESPCjTN-6k thanks for such a cool post and a nice reminder of my mom.

Keith's Ramblings said...

I knew a little about Robert Service and his work, but not the story that lay behind - until today! Thank you, Hilary.

AJ Sterkel said...

Robert Service is one of my favorite poets! I actually memorized a few of his poems when I was a teenager. I don’t think I remember them anymore.

Aj @ Read All The Things!

D Biswas said...

Never knew about this Robert Service--thanks for sharing such an interesting life story. Am off to check out his work.

Inger said...

I love that childhood poem. I now must find some of the grownup ones to read. Thanks again for pointing me in an interesting direction.

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

@ Debbie - just glad I've jogged your Canadian memory re Robert Service - he was definitely more connected with British Columbia and the Yukon (western Canada) ... but hope you'll look him out at some stage. Ha ha ... I've no idea - and haven't travelled on a Scottish elevator to find out?! Glad you enjoyed this snippet into his life ...

@ Sherry - it does doesn't it ... I left a lot out ...

@ Lenny - another one of your wonderful comments. How fantastic that I've posted something that has reminded you so much about your Mama.

I listened to Robert Service reading his Dan McGrew poem ... the voice doesn't seem to match the suave person we see in the photo!! ... but I think he was pretty old when the recording was made. Yet I can quite see what you're saying about how he transports you back to that era, and his intonation with his words. I thoroughly enjoyed it ... and also then listened to Johnny Cash reading The Cremation of Sam McGee ... they are wonderful tales ....

@ Great Keith ... I hadn't heard of him - but am so pleased I found out more about him ... and am reminding us all that he's got these fun doggerel stories to tell us ...

@ AJ - that's brilliant to know - perhaps this will lead you to relearn them and then look up others.

I can quite see why you, as a teenager, remembered these - much as I did of the British Flanders and Swann comedic verses ... as I posted in June 2011 their 'Mud, Mud Glorious Mud - Hippotamus song' ... the words roll on ...

@ Damyanti - he's fun to listen to isn't he ... easy, but so descriptive ...

@ Inger - that's great you enjoyed the Grace ... from a child aged six - so appropriate 'save us from bellyaches'!! I'm sure you'll enjoy his works ... and especially the descriptions of the Yukon - the harshness of the winter ...

Thanks so much to you all - and Lenny - thanks for putting up the YouTube link ... it was such fun to listen to ... and I'm delighted Robert Service has sent many of you off to look him up - cheers Hilary

A Heron's View said...

I doubt wether you would call him a Bard if you knew what an old time bard was :-) They were the lowest grade of the Filidh, rhymesters who were uneducated and disabled poor people often forced by their clan chiefs into becoming "bards" a word in the Old Irish Language that was spelt as Bhaird and pronounced as Vard: 'bh' being a V sound in O. I. further corrupted by the English language to bard.

Susan Flett Swiderski said...

He led a full and fascinating life, didn't he?

Evidently, it isn't unusual for Scots to wear nothing under those kilts. I found a delightful picture of a gentleman in a kilted marching bagpipe band on a windy day... :) Enough of his arse is showing to make it obvious that his knickers remained at home.

Cheers! Have a super weekend.

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

@ Mel - that's the way he is described and how he's thought of in Canada ... but thanks for highlighting the Old Irish aspects ...

@ Susan - he certainly turned his hands to things and let us see how life was lived through his eyes, while he was working on the farm in Cowichan Bay, or in the bank in Whitehorse.

Do you know ... I've no idea whether Scots wear underwear under their kilts ... I'm sure I should know - but because of the innuendo I've never been 100% sure ... but how funny you happened to see that gentleman in his altogether ... thank you for enlightening us!!

Cheers to one and all - enjoy the weekend - Hilary

Susan Flett Swiderski said...

I have a feeling some Scots wear undies and some don't. :)

Lynda Dietz said...

What a fascinating man! I can't imagine being sent away from home (for whatever reason) at age six, and yet so many of these families did exactly that when they had a lot of children.

Thanks for another insightful and interesting post, Hilary.

Victor S E Moubarak said...

Amazing person and life.

God bless.

Vallypee said...

Fascinating as always Hilary. It’s rare these days for children to be sent away from home so early although I suppose the private Prep schools still exist. I’d never heard of RS before. I shall now investigate. I always enjoy uour posts for what I can learn!

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

@ Susan - ah - thank you for the update!! I can't say I'll be rushing to look ... and I don't know anyone who wears a kilt ... but may across someone!

@ Lynda - I think in those days ... it was the way of life - particularly with a grandfather and three maiden aunts and his siblings who went with him ... he was obviously already lost in his own world of words and I suspect thrived - glad you enjoyed the post ...

@ Victor - thank you ...

@ Val - yes private schools still exist ... which are now used for children of parents who are posted overseas, or come from overseas countries ...

I'm delighted you'll be looking up Robert Service to see more of his work and life - he is fascinating ...

Thanks so much to you all - good to see you - cheers Hilary

Denise Covey said...

Hi Hilary! What a fascinating man! I'd never heard of him before. Now I'll get hold of some of his verse. Prolific is one word for him. Love his publication journey!

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Denise - good to see you back after your travels; so glad you're going to look him up - his tales really do express that 'rough' life - the drinking men and their mugs of ale, the frozen earth and tough times. His way to publication is great fun to read - he did well ... cheers Hilary

Nilanjana Bose said...

The Cremation of Sam McGee - my favourite among his poems. His sense of rhythm was flawless!

Susan Gourley/Kelley said...

What an adventurer. He was so brave to seek out new things and take chances. He must have looked back on a life well-lived.

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

@ Nila - it's fascinating to read how many of you know about Robert Service - I only came across him when I was over in the local area ... but having read some of his poems - they are so wonderful ... and am so pleased this has brought back memories for you ...

@ Susan - I think those were the days ... people were dissatisfied and stories must have come back of opportunities to be taken ... so I guess it was relatively 'common place' - but as you say he took a risk but found his feet ... and definitely had a life well lived. Thankfully for us - as we have his poems ...

Cheers to you both and thanks for being here ... Hilary

Juliet Batten said...

What an interesting man. I love his childhood ditty! and the story about the kilt is so funny. Thanks Hilary. I'm catching up after many weekends away from good broadband.

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Juliet - good to see you and I know you've had time out at the bach - lucky woman ... looks to be such a lovely place. So glad you enjoyed the post - the story about the kilt ... while his work is a great read - true to the time and area. Cheers to you and the family - Hilary

Susan B said...

What an interesting character ! Thank you Hilary for sharing this. I had never heard of Robert Service. I’ll definitely have a look at his poetry.

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Thanks Susan - he tells the Yukon like it was ... one can feel the cold, the ravaged land ... and it was an interesting post to write up about his life ... cheers Hilary

DMS said...

What an interesting story. His path to publication is so unique and different from what happens today. I loved reading about his life and how his pamphlet turned into so much more. Thanks for the introduction. :)
~Jess

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Jess - I was delighted to find out about him ... his poems and life story are just so interesting. So pleased you enjoyed the post ... and yes the way he turned his pamphlets into a lucrative life-style ... his poems and illustrations ring so true of those times ... thanks for coming by - cheers Hilary