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Manitoba History: Review: Rose Potvin (editor), Passion and Conviction: The Letters of Graham Spry

by Graham A. MacDonald
Canadian Parks Service, Calgary

Number 24, Autumn 1992

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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Rose Potvin, ed., Passion and Conviction: The Letters of Graham Spry. Regina, Canadian Plains Research Centre. 1992. 278 pp. ISBN 0-88977-070-0.

“It is very hard saving the soul of Canada.” - Graham Spry to Frank Scott, May, 1958

Graham Spry and Irene (nee Biss) on their wedding day, 30 June 1938.

The British poet W. H. Auden destroyed all of his letters, thus assuring that no would-be biographer would ever get his or her hands on them. His view appears to have been that whatever was in his personal letters was nobody else’s business! It is a view which can be respected, but it is, happily, not one which is shared by all who have made their mark on human society. The book under review is a case in point. Graham Spry, “that lobbyist extrordinaire” in J. L. Granatstein’s words, was according to Rose Potvin, “an inveterate writer” who obtained his first typewriter at age eight. The survival of a very large body of letters and memoirs, among other writings, was the factor which led Potvin, charged with preparing a biography of Spry, to alter the standard approach to such a task and select a “letters” format as the most appropriate way in which to tell his story.

Graham Spry was born in 1900 at St. Thomas, Ontario, and he died in Ottawa in 1983. The selection of letters presented here (supplemented by citations from other writings deposited in the National Archives of Canada), sheds a good deal of light on political and social conditions in Canada, Britain and elsewhere between World War I and 1983. The editor has ordered the letters in chronological sequences which allow the book to unfold as a life, but the price for this approach is a certain looseness of organization. Potvin follows where the letters lead. This reviewer might have preferred a plan which allowed for greater thematic treatment of the various aspects of Spry’s career, which is a genuinely interesting and important one in Canadian public life. The letters are, as a rule, of a high order in terms of substance and interest; but while the editor has been generous in the amount quoted, it is a book which would be better for being short, for there is an excess, in places, of material which is primarily of family interest. Having said that, for this reader the greatest difficulty arose in trying to put the book down. Spry is an extremely intriguing personality, and the uncompromising honesty of many of the letters, some which are at the level of “confession;” guarantees that this autobiography will not fall into that fatal category of the “discreet.”

The subject matter touched upon is vast: Spry is seldom at a loss for words and it is the crispness of his observations which gives literary, as well as historical value to these letters. The central topics involve domestic and international politics, economics, labour, public broadcasting, the arts, and the relations between English and French Canadians, the last mentioned being a subject of deep concern to Spry. The letters start with his reminiscences of World War I, his first great venture outside of Canada, and perhaps the one which set the tone for his incurable globe-trotting. A thorough-going Anglophile, Spry spent much of his life in England and abroad. It was only upon his retirement in 1967 from Saskatchewan House in London, England, that he became a relatively permanent fixture in Canada once again.

As the title suggests, Graham Spry was passionately involved in the world about him, His connections spread to an extraordinary range of characters great and small. Included were individuals such as Oxford philosopher Gilbert Ryle but also to total strangers whom he was prepared to grub-stake at the drop of a hat. Early in his academic career at the University of Manitoba, and again at Oxford between 1922 and 1925, he amassed contacts and friends, not from any obvious utilitarian purpose, but because he genuinely enjoyed the company of people. No one apparently, hit the dance floor faster than Graham Spry! Quick to volunteer, quick to make friends, and not lacking in confidence, Spry moved from early jobs in journalism to an appointment as Executive Director for the Association of Canadian Clubs in 1926. This was the job which allowed him to “see all of Canada and all walks of life through travel, meetings and conferences” (p. 45) It set the mark upon him for a life in politics of the backroom variety, and also prepared the ground for his major achievement, the post-1930 lobby effort which he mounted with the aid of Alan Plaunt and others in the Canadian Radio League, which led to the establishment of public broadcasting in Canada. The defence of public broadcasting was a cause which he picked up on several later occasions, particularly during the Diefenbaker and Pearson administrations, when erosion of the public mandate appeared to be underway.

In the aftermath of the great crash of 1929, Spry formulated a personal political disposition which placed him on the left. A founding member of the League for Social Reconstruction and the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, Spry nevertheless retained a vigorous individualism which always set him apart from the merely doctrinaire and which sometimes put him in conflict with his colleagues, for example members of the Ontario CCF leadership in the late 1930s. His exchange of letters with David Lewis in 1937 indicates both his ability to take well-founded criticism and his ability to judge the characters of those around him. It was through his involvement with the LSR that Spry met Irene Biss of the University of Toronto, another outstanding personality in Canadian letters and political economy. The two were married in England in 1938 and the mutually supportive and creative nature of the marriage shines through many of the post-1938 letters. [1]

It is his long letters from World War II London that will most engage the attention of some readers, begging comparison perhaps with the writings of that other notable diarist and war-time observer, Charles Ritchie. As a member of the Home Guard in London, Spry filled his letters to Canada with that ambiguous mixture of observations which has been noted in so many other participants of war, suggesting that “it was the best of times and the worst of times.”

Will you believe me that I like this London at War? I like it for the same reason that I like the urgency of snow beating on my face in a blizzard. There is something keen, observing, absorbing, yes urgent about the atmosphere.

This passage concentrates some of the elements which can be noticed throughout Spry’s long career. From the earliest of his letters to the last, Spry demonstrated an urge to be close to the action. While complaining much about his unemployability in Canada in the aftermath of the first great CCF push for power (in which Spry did not win a seat), one senses that he was often looking for excuses to go off hither and yon at the first opportunity. He admits to minor guilt pangs at consorting so frequently with the well-to-do or at working for international oil companies; but he wore these inconsistencies lightly, and being a devotee of the good life, settled into that pragmatism of the left made famous by the Fabians. It was indeed, his ability to suppress the doctrinaire which made him so effective as an orchestrator of causes, and only rarely did he burn his personal bridges. He was more likely to try and generalize a nasty situation rather than to employ personal attacks. As an example, in 1963, during one of his periodic defenses of public broadcasting, the technocratic side of his character was revealed in a letter to Tommy Douglas: “House of Commons Committees are ignorant, partisan and incompetent, and I am afraid I have to say this goes for all parties. The members are simply too busy to study highly complicated yet incomplete data and on the other hand, are terrified of saying anything that may upset their local private stations” (p. 229) Building alliances across party lines was his forte, and to do this one has to view politics in largely personal rather than party terms. There was always something to be done if the approach was made correctly, even towards the most unpromising opponent. Repeatedly in these letters one notices a Eugene Forsey or a Tommy Douglas seeking advice from Spry on the correct path to be followed or on matters of timing.

Reading these letters has a cumulative effect. While he chose to be a citizen of the world, he was never far from Canada. It is as though Spry, no matter where he was, had the capacity to act as a very durable prism through which most of the important aspects of Canadian experience passed. For a moment the light of that experience is refracted into one of the vivid colours of the spectrum. Suddenly the prism moves and another colour is reflected upon the wall, just as vividly as the previous one.

1. On the career of Irene Spry, readers may wish to consult Gerald Friesen, “Irene M. Spry: A Biographical Note” in Duncan Cameron, ed. Explorations in Canadian Economic History: Essays in Honour of Irene M. Spry. Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press, 1985, pp. 319-26.

Page revised: 11 April 2010

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