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book review

William Whitehead

A somewhat tall man of some bulk, with brown hair and eyes, a big smile, and often wearing a pen on a cord around his neck, William Whitehead lived with his partner, novelist Timothy Irving Frederick Findley (Tiff) for more than 40 years, until the latter's death, missing only one of Tiff 's public appearances in all that time. While Tiff was delivering an anti-censorship talk to a large gathering of librarians, Whitehead was locked away in a sound booth recording the narration for one of the numerous CBC radio or TV documentaries (such as The Nature of Things, Dieppe and The National Dream) that won him awards and large audiences.

His prairie upbringing included some interesting relatives: Great Uncle George, "with his booming sense of humour and bristling military moustache"; Great Aunt Eleanor, "with her mannishly short silver hair and pin-striped suits worn with shirt and tie; and her live-in companion, Great Aunt Ted, a very quiet woman whose name was actually Edwina."

Whitehead earned two degrees in biology from the University of Saskatchewan before he moved to Ontario to become an actor, met Finley, and eventually became a documentary writer and producer.

Now, at 81, he has published his first book, a memoir that shows him to be an expert raconteur of genial and sometimes naughty wit, cordial heart and conversational informality. Words to Live By uses its author's life story "sparingly," in much the same way his family once used a Christmas tree: "as a framework upon which to hang favourite decorations." His decorations take the form of anecdotes and stories of "linguistic misunderstandings, those trammelled moments that can be highly comical, sometimes farcical and, occasionally, truly embarrassing" – and of which he has been "a collector, a perpetrator, and, to be truthful, an addict."

His addiction may account for the memoir's quirky chronology, autobiographical gaps and thin details about literature and theatre, two of Whitehead's great passions. But these flaws are subsumed by his focus on the dangers and traps of using or misusing language. In Cannington, Ont., where Tiff and Whitehead had a large farm (Stone Orchard) shared with two dogs and 36 cats, parents finally won the right to have sex education discussed as part of the curriculum, only to have the local newspaper blare: Cannington High School To Feature Oral Sex Education, suggesting pornography where there was none.

Whitehead supplies a rich stock of puns, spoonerisms and comic anecdotes (a delightfully naughty one by the late, great William Hutt). The point is not simply diversion but evidence of the treachery of words. Once, as president of the Student Christian Movement, he meant to triumphantly assure his audience that if it performed certain deeds, they would "fill your soul with hope!" Alas, what came out was this Spoonerism: "It will fill your hole with soap!" Pandemonium broke out, while he concluded the service as best he could and resigned from the presidency.

Further hilarity comes from foreign words. Whitehead relates how, while rushing to advise a truck-driver to back slowly into his and Tiff's terraced property in France, he foolishly substituted enculez for reculez. The joke was on Whitehead, for, instead of urging the driver to "Back up," he was asking him to submit to anal sex.

Whitehead is warm, wise and quite wonderful. He has known important cultural figures (many of whom pop up in anecdotes), and he and Tiff (of whom he writes with tender affection) supported worthy humanitarian causes. I just wish he had gone more deeply into his life story, especially with Tiff. But who am I to question his contentment or sense of a closure?

Keith Garebian is completing a biography of William Hutt.