Wit And Wisdom

By Evelyn C White

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He's an unprecedented three-time winner of the Stephen Leacock Memorial Medal - Canada's highest honour for humour writers. But don't think life is just a barrel of belly laughs for Arthur Black.

Consider the dinner speech he delivered to a national forestry association. The hotel banquet room was filled with several hundred loggers, timber barons and assorted wood industry workers who earn their living from the continuous felling of trees. Text in hand, Arthur surveyed the landscape from the podium. He noted the rising tensions triggered by a logging controversy then raging on Salt Spring Island where the celebrated writer and CBC radio personality has lived since 1995.

"Nothing like having a marauder in your backyard to make you think of joining the National Rifle Association," Arthur joked, making clear his stance in support of the trees.

Then marshalling the intelligence, optimism and goodwill that are the hallmark of his writing, Arthur continued: "Can this situation be resolved? Of course it can. That's what we do as Canadians - we fix things. We may not be as debonair as the French, as flamboyant as the Italians or as forward as the Yanks, but by God, we know how to unclog a toilet, wash down a skunked-up dog or jump-start a jalopy at 40 below. A sane, equitable forest policy ought not to be beyond the reach of a country like Canada."

The audience response? A thundering standing ovation.

"I was terrified," says Arthur, 63, during a visit to the cozy waterfront home he shares with his long-time partner Lynne Raymond. "Folks who invite you to give dinner speeches don't want to be preached at. Still, I was compelled to speak my truth. I think the loggers appreciated my candour."

To be sure, Arthur's wit and wisdom garnered him legions of fans during his nearly 20-year stint as the signature host of the national CBC Radio show Basic Black. Arthur proudly describes the program as a "rollicking repository for oddballs." His eyes twinkle when he recalls "The Humline," a popular segment during which listeners phoned in and warbled a few lines (often mangled) of a song they wished to identify.

"Maybe it was a war song, a love song, a lullaby their mother cooed to them in the cradle," says Arthur. ""Humline" definitely touched a chord because people who otherwise never called would get on the horn and belt out a song. They needed to complete something, to renew a connection."

The son of a Toronto-area homemaker and a livestock salesman, Arthur learned early the value of making connections through words. Today the author of numerous books, his byline also graces a syndicated humour column that appears in more than a hundred newspapers across Canada. Still a force on radio, Arthur's lively commentary on All Points West airs from Victoria at 91.5 FM on alternate Thursdays between 5:30 p.m.-6:00 p.m.

"As the smallest kid in school, I got picked on a lot," he says. "I was born running. It helped enormously to develop a fast mouth."

Quick with a thought-provoking quip, Arthur cites as inspiration Charles Dickens and A Prairie Home Companion creator Garrison Keillor.

"Keillor is a master at making a point without ridiculing or humiliating people," Arthur says. "One can conduct humour without cruelty."

He also attributes his success to the insight he gained at a variety of jobs including door-to-door encyclopedia salesman, sheet-metal apprentice, cow wrangler and plumber's assistant. A seasoned traveller, he is well-versed in the universal foibles of humanity.

"When I was 16, I got a job on an oil tanker in Venezuela," he says. "I soaked up stuff all along the way. When I returned, I took a course in Radio and Television at Ryerson University. I learned to develop a timbre in my voice that sounds phony but works well for radio."

In a scenario that mirrors the "truth is stranger than fiction" thrust of his humour columns, Arthur worked as an agricultural reporter and host of a CBC poetry program before his landmark ascent to Basic Black. He later hosted the television shows Weird Homes and Weird Wheels on the Life Network.

White Rock literary agent Carolyn Swayze has represented Arthur since 1994. She notes that she was captivated from the start by the freewheeling writer of such titles as Pitch Black, Flash Black, and Black by Popular Demand.

"I had long been a fan of Basic Black," Carolyn says. "It was always entertaining. Arthur is a low-maintenance and affable author."

Harbour book publisher Howard White says he jumped at the chance to sign Arthur, whose recent release, Black Gold, was an immediate bestseller. "Some might say here's a celebrity trying to cash in on his stardust by writing books, but not so with Arthur," says Howard. "You might win one Leacock Medal by chance, but nobody wins three without having the goods. Arthur is a genuine talent."

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