Early Calgary's boozy bad boy

Wherein we emulate Bob Edwards to teach you bastards about Bob Edwards
Darcy Muenchrath

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Bob Edwards Award Gala
Fairmont Palliser Hotel
Thursday, November 8

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We are greatly depressed that an apparent abundance of our fellow citizens have never been blessed to know the writings of the late, great Bob Edwards. If there was a thing such as justice in this great city (without the need for the proper coinage to purchase it), those who don’t know of this Calgary precursor to the great gonzo journalists of the ’60s would be strung up and berated by their more enlightened counterparts. And what a show it would be.

Never heard of Bob? Well, for shame. He was the editor and, more often than not, the sole writer of the long-defunct Calgary Eye Opener, a feisty (semi) weekly rag, depending on his drinking, that caused no end of problems for its proprietor and those who found themselves in its crosshairs. Prime ministers, great corporations, aldermanic wannabes, ne’er-do-wells, grafters and other journalists all got their comeuppance in Bob’s pages. Think you can besmirch the innocence of a fair young lady? Think again ya scoundrel! Off to the printer it goes. Think you can roll into town and sell Calgarians a bridge? That’s Bob sitting on the stool at the hotel bar. Blamo! Your name in print. What’s that? You want advertorial for a gift? Be careful what you wish for. Yawp! Call Bob a drunk, a dope fiend and a squelcher of debts? Whoa ho! He’ll berate you to the grave and beyond. Damned right.

Of course, not all of what Bob wrote was true — that was his beauty. He made up social announcements (“Miss Myra Jennings has gone east to visit friends. We always thought something would come of that picnic to the lake last summer.”). He made up lasting characters (see Peter J. McGonigle, the shady, hapless fictional editor of the fictional Midnapore Gazette, or the fictional squelcher Albert Buzzard-Cholomondeley who penned letters to his father asking for money). And when there wasn’t news, or one of his favourite targets hadn’t done anything wrong, he would skewer them with non-news (“Not a life was lost or a buggy smashed at the CPR crossing last week”).

Bob, or Uncle Bob to his readers, was a satirist, a spewer of opinions, a muckraker, a boozer of the highest degree, a fearless editor and, for a brief time before his death, an independent MLA in the Alberta legislature. He was a larger-than-life character who used his fame (he was read across Canada) to shed light in darkened places, whether they be public offices or his own struggles with alcohol.

A WEE BIT OF HISTORY

Bob was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, orphaned at a young age, and raised by aunts. Despite his disdain for fancy education, or at least many of the people with fancy educations (“An educated fool is more foolish than an ignorant one”), Bob attended a posh private school at St. Andrew’s and studied at Glasgow University, but to his undying credit he failed to graduate (there is some disagreement over his university years, with some alleging he never got up to so much high-falutin’ nonsense). He departed for warmer climes and landed in Milan before striking out for France.

The continent proved unsuccessful, or perhaps unfulfilling, or perhaps too filling, for Bob. He set out for the wild lands of the United States, at one point owning an Idaho farm with his brother, before wandering the country. “The only really useful knowledge we possess today has been obtained while knocking about the continent and the United States — broke,” he wrote.

He eventually brought that knowledge to Canada, settling in Wetaskiwin, of all places, where he established the Wetaskiwin Free Lance paper, already displaying his irascible wit. After that escapade, he established the Alberta Sun in Leduc, then moved back to Wetaskiwin and published the Wetaskiwin Breeze before finally starting the Eye Opener in High River in 1902.

Now, if you go in for rumour — and when it comes to Bob, we most certainly do — he was chased out of High River for running afoul of the methodist minister, calling him a “misfit man of God.” Needless to say, he soon found the confines of our southerly neighbour perhaps a little to confining after that, and he packed up and moved his nascent publication to Calgary. There it remained until his death in 1922.

Of course, he accomplished many other noteworthy things aside from his constant chipping away at Calgary society. Uncle Bob managed to get himself elected to the Alberta legislature, largely on the promise of overturning some aspects of prohibition — Bob wanted whisky to remain banned, but he wanted a five-cent glass of beer, damn it.

THE MAN, THE FOLLOWING

Bob was a popular man in his day. His splendid local rag was read across the country and, according to the Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online, had a circulation in 1908 of 18,500 copies. In 1906, Bob gloated that the Eye Opener had a circulation of 10,000 and “reaches and is read by about 40,000 people.” Regardless of numbers, there’s no doubt that he was a kind of celebrity in his day and he greatly relished his (in)famy.

Although the boozer was said to be quite shy in his daily life, his pages are stuffed with bragging, taunting and self-congratulation. He would tell tales of criminals facing the gallows with a smile on their face because they had just read a particularly witty bit of writing in his paper. He would regularly apologize for not publishing the paper after being, ahem, sick, or to make amends for the quality of a given issue: “The editor of this paper has been laid up by a severe illness for the past five weeks and is far from himself yet. Readers of this paper are therefore asked to overlook the shortcomings of this exceedingly bum issue.” On these occasions it often meant he was on a bender, or trying to dry out.

But with fame, and with his fearless style, Bob also engendered his fair share of enemies, and didn’t waste a damned minute in shifting from lighthearted raconteur, to fiercely aggressive attacker. He was banned from CPR trains, at one point banned from having his paper distributed in the mail, and he was sued twice.

When the editor of the Calgary Daily News, the dastardly Daniel McGillicuddy, penned a letter in his paper denouncing Bob as a “‘four flusher,’ a ‘tin-horn’ and a ‘Welcher,’ where poker debts are concerned,” that pushed Bob over the edge. He sued for libel and won, but was also censured by the jury and warned that if he didn’t clean up his act, his paper should be “suppressed.”

Needless to say, our man didn’t take it lying down, berating McGillicuddy relentlessly and not stopping even after the libeller was in the grave. When the Daily News shut down, Bob was all over it. “The old hypocrite, of course, was not fitted to conduct a newspaper, but was admirably equipped to run an obscene and libelling sheet for shameful purposes,” he wrote in 1910. Two years later, when McGillicuddy died, he was as angry as ever. “Hell got a new settler last week,” he wrote.

SOCIAL CONSCIENCE

We must here admit to feeling a bit guilty. We’ve painted Uncle Bob with a harsh brush, perhaps focusing too much on his dark side. It’s not the full story, and for that we are heartily remorseful. Bob wasn’t just a boozer. He wasn’t just vindictive. He wasn’t just funny. He tackled the issues of the day and showed a social conscience that was lacking in many others during Calgary’s early days.

His favourite rallying cry was against government graft. The man could not, would not, tolerate public officials on the take, and he felt free to call them out on any perception of it. But he also stood up for the poor, railed against the abhorrent conditions of Calgary’s new prison and condemned the mayor of Vancouver for authorizing excessive force against strikers. On the Calgary prison, he wrote: “The aggregation of so-called Christians — or bunch of rummies, whichever you prefer — whom you elected to run this city, are busy constructing a stronghold of police tyranny and cruelty compared with which the Bastille and the Black Hole of Calcutta were joy palaces.” Whoa ho!

He warned his readers of shady land speculators and bellowed loud and far about the inequitable treatment in local hospitals, appearing an early advocated of our universal health care system. “As the General Hospital has been run, it is little more than a hotel for sick people — rich sick people. There has been a place for paupers, but for the great mass of self-respecting people who will not accept charity and yet cannot afford to pay fees of $14 to $35 per week (which is about 60 per cent of the population), no accommodation is available,” he wrote in 1918.

THE PRESENT

As we said before, Bob isn’t as well-known as he should be. Sure there’s a school named after him, there’s a building at the Mayland Heights SAIT campus named after him, the CBC Calgary morning radio show throws him a nudge and, as you can read on this page, there’s an annual award given out in his honour, but it’s largely his name that catches the eye, rather than his writing.

But he has his acolytes. This writer, for one. We know for a fact that former Fast Forward Weekly staff writer Jeremy Klazsus is mightily chuffed by the old man’s writing. And then there’s Mr. Smutty. Remember him? For longtime readers of this rag, the name ought to be familiar and we’ll leave it at that. Anyway, his real name is James Martin and he edited a collection of Bob’s writing that we relied upon heavily in this article called Irresponsible Freaks, Highball Guzzlers & Unabashed Grafters. You should probably read it.

“I always knew the name, as most Calgarians probably do... and in my basement there was my grandfather’s copy of Grant MacEwan’s Eye Opener Bob with a bunch of other books that as a kid always looked really boring,” says Martin, who now calls Montreal home.

“I was an arrogant 20-something and this thing that I’d always dismissed as dull and not worth reading without having read it, was actually worth reading.”

Martin’s book collects a great many highlights from Bob’s career and, for the first time, prints the full text of his one speech in the legislature as an independent MLA. “The reason why whisky — good, bad or indifferent — finds such a ready sale, is due entirely to the inaccessibility of beer,” he lamented.

Researching Bob, however, was difficult. “There are many missing issues of the Eye Opener, or we think missing. One of the frustrating things about researching him is because he was a drinker and a binger, that he didn’t pay a lot of attention to the numbers that he put on the newspaper, so it’s actually hard to know if there are missing editions, or just because sometimes he’d give something the same number, two consecutive issues, (if) he skipped one but there wasn’t actually a missing issue.”

His mystery years while cavorting in the U.S. are also hard to pin down, but that’s really just part of the charm and part of the mystery for those who still cherish Bob’s writing. It sets him up as another of Calgary’s tall tales, of which we are a fan.

We’ve tried to emulate him a bit here (he always used “we” in case you’re wondering), but have largely failed and ask forgiveness for our terrible lack of skill. And there are others that take up the mantle, for better or for worse. The Sun’s Rick Bell comes to mind. Hell, the Dinger (does anyone call him that anymore?) even ran for mayor, as Martin points out. We like to think that Fast Forward Weekly is a muckraking weekly in the Eye Opener’s spirit, but that might be giving us too much credit.

One thing is for sure: this city needs to be more aware of a pioneering writer who pushed societal bounds well past their breaking point at a time when supplication was more the norm. He suffered for his craft. He suffered from the bottle. But in the end, he gave us a history of troublemaking that we should all be proud to call our own. Yawp!

 

 


Comments: 3

Drew Anderson wrote:

If anyone is interested in James Martin's book, send me an email at danderson@ffwd.greatwest.ca. It might be hard to come by and Martin has made a generous offer of shipping you one for free if you pay the postage.

on Nov 8th, 2012 at 11:24am Report Abuse

Sally wrote:

Also, the public library has 6 copies (including an ebook edition) of James Martin's book

http://bit.ly/WHf9Yj

and the Eye Opener can be read online here, in all its outrageous glory:

http://ourfutureourpast.ca/newspapr/brwsindx.asp?code=nlx

on Nov 8th, 2012 at 1:36pm Report Abuse

Drew Anderson wrote:

Awesome, thanks Sally.

on Nov 8th, 2012 at 2pm Report Abuse


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