I was entering some dummy citations into a social networked text sharing project on the weekend.
Serendipitously I chose the genre of historical fiction and ended up reflecting on some of the more memorable books I have enjoyed. At the top of that list is the memoirs of Bartholomew Wolfe Bandy by Donald Jack. This multi-volume series was very deservedly awarded the Stephen Leacock Award for humour on three occasions. This is all the more appropriate given the very Leacockian style of the Bandy papers themselves.
If you have not ever been exposed to Bandy, I can not recommend these books enough. They are superb examples of the comedic novelist’s art down the line of P.G Wodehouse, Evelyn Waugh and George Macdonald Fraser. Set in early twentieth century Ontario, B.W. Bandy, the hero is an Ottawa valley farm boy who heads off to fight in the First World War. He meets real life notables along the way, enjoys some of the most brilliantly told adventures and despite the comedic delivery actually teaches much about Canadian history. These novels demonstrate the close connection between literature and history – the enduring importance and beauty of a tale well told.
As I reflected on the enormous enjoyment that these novels have brought to me, and many of my compatriots, I remain deeply struck by Donald Jack’s talent. He was able to relate very poignant and real events using mirth that ultimately captures the human experience.
Those that have read these stories I am sure will not easily forget the muck encrusted face that terrified William Lyon Mackenzie King when it appeared in the window of his private railcar while stranded in the fog on Long Island, let alone Bandy hooking the Prime Minister on the pontoon of the Bandyplane prototype as he landed on the lake at Kingsmere.
Jack had a unique ability to deliver comedy in that deadpan manner that raised the level of amusement to a new high. I could go on at length about my recollections of Bandy, but instead I would like to end with an excerpt from the first volume of the series, where young Bandy joins the Canadian Expeditionary Force and heads off to Europe. He is placed in charge of a platoon and we find him training a colourful crew on Salisbury Plain in England. Bandy assumes his authority (despite his own experience or natural ability with typical officiousness). By the way, as I typed this passage in, I was typing through tears of amusement despite the fact that I have read this passage countless times over the past couple decades. Cheers.
“One day on the grenade range I had a narrow escape. I was in charge of a small party of bombers. One of them was a thin sallow man from Toronto called Soapes. I had been a bit uneasy about him from the start, since he had been showing signs of fright at the thought of hurling a live bomb.
We were in a small sandbagged enclosure five or so feet below ground level, and well protected from the blasts by a parapet of more sandbags. I gave everyone careful instructions, repeated them three times slowly, and threw the first bomb myself before handling the the second bomb to Squires.
Squires, in spite of a bad habit of clattering his false teeth together like a riveting gun, had shown himself to be reliable. He got rid of the grenade with credible alacrity.
The next soldier, Private Barbara, began badly by releasing the spring clip in the pit before throwing the bomb. Unfortunately, of all persons it had to fly at, it chose Private Soapes; and in trying to catch it he somehow managed to entangle it in his trouser pocket. For some reason Soapes immediately go the idea that the spring arm was the bomb itself. He gave a terrified scream and tried to tear the piece of metal out o his pocket. It caught in the lining of his trousers, and although it tore a large hole, it remained stuck. Whereupon, still screaming at the top of his voice, he started to remove his trousers. Under different circumstances I would probably have congratulated him on his quick thinking.
Meanwhile, unnerved by the shrieks of Soapes, the rest of the men had made a concerted rush for the narrow, double-bagged entrance. But there they had managed to wedge themselves so firmly that not one of them was able to get through. By now they were al shouting, as well as kicking, biting, scratching, and elbowing in their frenzy to get away from the trousers.
In the middle of this, I suddenly noticed Private Barbara staring stupidly at the antics of Private Soapes, who indeed presented an absurd site, hoping around on one leg with hi trousers half off and screaming like a stuck pig. Private Barbara had not moved a muscle since the spring arm had flown at Soapes. There was a distinctly unpleasant sensation in my stomach when I realized that Barbara was still holding the bomb, and that it was smoking. When it smokes, its due to go off.
I opened my mouth to shout a warning to Barbara, but discovered to my surprise that my mouth was already open and that I was already shouting. Now Barbara noticed the smoking grenade still in his hand. His expression changed; he could not have looked more surprised had he found himself holding a haddock.
I snatched the grenade from him. Luckily his fingers were slack – I could not see myself spending half a minute prying the thing loose otherwise – and heaved it over the parapet. Simultaneously, another object flew up and followed it over the sandbags. It was Private Soapes’ trousers.” Donald Jack, Three Cheers for Me, McClleland and Stewart, 1962, pp.26-7.