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Humorist Eric Nicol wrote more than 30 books and several plays. (The Canadian Press/The Canadian Press)
Humorist Eric Nicol wrote more than 30 books and several plays. (The Canadian Press/The Canadian Press)


Eric Nicol: Vancouver humorist, columnist, novelist Add to ...

The wordsmith Eric Nicol delighted, bemused and titillated readers with a prolific outpouring of light essays.

Nicol, who died on Feb. 2 in Vancouver at the age of 91, wrote radio plays and stage comedies, gaining a national audience with 41 books, the last of these published by the nonagenarian just last year. The title carries a typical Nicol pun: Script Tease.

In a seven-year span, three of Nicol's volumes - The Roving I (1951), Shall We Join the Ladies? (1956), and Girdle Me a Globe (1958) - won Stephen Leacock Memorial Medals for Humour.

A shy man who was as witty in person as on the page, he claimed not to smoke or drink or chase women - but looked forward to doing so once the royalties began rolling in.

Celebrated by critics, he felt his readers regarded humour as "a low calling."

"In the eyes of Canadians," he wrote, "writing humour is like an illicit love affair: It is excusable provided you don't make a habit of it, or accept payment for what you have done."

Much of his prodigious output first saw publication in newspapers, including the Vancouver Sun, the News-Herald, and, especially, The Province. By his own count, he produced more than 6,000 columns on an unforgiving daily deadline.

The columns were sparked by brief news items, chance encounters on the street or whimsies of his imagination.

His own failures at sport and a mortifying inability to navigate the treacherous waters of social situations gave his prose an everyman appeal. He was self-deprecating and never mean-spirited, except perhaps when describing his own physical attributes. In his telling, a nose resembling a Roman aqueduct dividing small eyes "softened by their fine old leather pouches."

But a sense of humour that earned a wide audience in the 1950s could become to seem dated as the decades past.

Despite his great loyalty to the Province (he worked without a contract and refused to holiday lest editors replace him), he was dismissed from its pages in 1986 without fanfare. Many believed he deserved better.

Nicol's career included a Broadway flop, an infamous literary hoax, and a conviction and fine for being in contempt of court.

In typical fashion, he described failure as "the sugar of life: the more lumps you take, the sweeter you are."

Eric Patrick Nicol was born on Dec. 28, 1919, in Kingston, the son of Amelia Mannock and William Nicol. The family moved to Vancouver when he was young, lived briefly in Nelson, B.C., and then returned to the coast.

Days after Nicol graduated from Lord Byng High School during the Depression, his father announced he had lost his job with a brokerage firm. He soon after left to explore the possibility of opening a motor court in England. His mother took a part-time job as a clerk in a dress shop, while Eric earned tips as a golf caddy.

His summer earnings, as well as a modest bursary, allowed him to enter classes at the University of British Columbia. On day, he slipped into the empty offices of the student newspaper to submit an anonymous contribution to a long-running satirical column called Chang Suey, which lampooned campus figures through the misadventures of a fictional Chinese detective.

In time, his identity was discovered. A senior editor of the Ubyssey offered the student a column of his own. It was to be called The Mummery and the bashful writer also received a Biblical pseudonym in Jabez, Hebrew for "he who gives pain." The column and the byline were the brainstorm of a brash, confident Yukoner named Pierre Berton.

Nicol was delighted.

"If the two most satisfying sounds that a man can evoke from a woman are the moan of ecstasy and the hoot of laughter, I went for the giggle," Nicol wrote in Anything for a Laugh, a 1998 memoir. "For starters."

He continued his studies in French, as well as making regular contributions to the student newspaper, even as he realized his time in the campus officers training corps would soon force him into uniform on a more permanent basis.

After graduating with honours in French in 1941, Nicol joined a ground crew of the Royal Canadian Air Force, which afforded him time to produce scripts for such radio variety shows as Command Performance.

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