Thursday, 10 July 2008

Robert Service

On Christian Road you can find a blue plaque marking the birthplace of Robert Service. Service was born on January 16th 1874, his father a bank cashier and his mother the daughter of a rich distillery family. At the age of five his parents sent him to live with his Scottish grandfather. He composed his first poem at the age of six and subsequently went on to become the highest earning poet of all time and it is often claimed that he was the most widely read poet of the twentieth century.

After being educated in Scotland he decided to move to Canada where he spent the next few years drifting from place to place and job to job until he eventually went into banking with the Canadian Bank of Commerce in Victoria in 1903. The following year he was transferred to the Yukon Territory. It was there that he started writing poems about the Klondike gold rush, inspired by the places he saw, the people he met and the tales he heard. In 1907 his first book of poems “Songs of a Sourdough” began life as a 100 book print run to be given to friends and relatives. Such was its success it was reprinted fifteen times before the end of the year and by 1940 had sold over three million copies and earned half a million dollars in royalties. He has been called the Bard of the Yukon and the Canadian Kipling.
One of the best-known poems in the book is “The Shooting of Dan McGrew” which captures the atmosphere of the gold rush and the characters involved in it. This is the opening verse:

The Shooting of Dan McGrew

A bunch of the boys were whooping it up in the Malamute saloon;The kid that handles the music-box was hitting a jag-time tune;Back of the bar, in a solo game, sat Dangerous Dan McGrew,And watching his luck was his light-o'-love, the lady that's known as Lou.When out of the night, which was fifty below, and into the din and glare,There stumbled a miner fresh from the creeks, dog-dirty, and loaded for bear.He looked like a man with a foot in the grave and scarcely the strength of a louse,Yet he tilted a poke of dust on the bar, and he called for drinks for the house.There was none could place the stranger's face, though we searched ourselves for a clue;But we drank his health, and the last to drink was Dangerous Dan McGrew.

There are many who will decry this poetry and dispute its value, but there is no doubt that it has been read and enjoyed by many who would not give T S Eliot or John Milton a second glance.

In 1909 Service was rich enough to resign from the bank and write full time. He departed for Europe as a war correspondent in the Balkans before settling in Paris in 1913 and marrying a French girl. During WW1 he was a war correspondent, ambulance driver and finally attached to the Canadian Expeditionary Force. He lived in France for the rest of his life apart from a spell in Hollywood in the 1920’s when some of his poems and novels were made into films and also during WW2 when he made his acting debut in 1942 in “The Spoilers” with John Wayne and Randolph Scott. In a scene with Marlene Dietrich he played himself 40 years younger.
Returning to France after the war this native of Broadgate lived in Brittany and on the Riviera until his extraordinary life ended on September 11th 1958.

With thanks to Mike Cracknell

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