A Dirty Habit

By Elizabeth Godley

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Canada would have lost a very funny and acerbic writer if Eric Nicol, long-time columnist for the Province newspaper, had fulfilled his original plans to be a French teacher. But as luck would have it, during his years at the University of B.C., Eric began writing a humour column for The Ubyssey, the student newspaper, using the pen name “Jabez.”

Although he graduated in 1941 with an honours BA in French and later returned for an MA, topping that with a year of studies at the Sorbonne in Paris, he never did end up winging chalk at recalcitrant pupils or teaching them the subtleties of French pronunciation.

Instead, during a literary career that spans seven decades, Eric produced some 6,000 newspaper columns, several stage plays and scripts for radio and television, as well 35 books - three of them winners of the Stephen Leacock Award for humour.

Now 90, he published his most recent book in May (2010). Script Tease, subtitled “A wordsmith’s waxings on life and writings,” is a compendium of Eric’s quirky thoughts on the complexities of dangling participles and literary jargon, advice for anyone contemplating life as a scribe and musings on a plethora of other topics.

Why write another book at his age? As he puts it, “There was nobody to stop me.” Nor does he plan to give up writing. “It’s a dirty habit, and I just can’t quit.”

As far back as high school, Eric was scribbling. “I was an introvert,” he explains, and writing helped him survive adolescence. (To this day he avoids parties. “I'm either sitting there like a frog full of shot,” he told the Georgia Straight in 1989, “or I run off at the neck and then hate myself the next morning.”)

Even during his three years in the RCAF and his year in Paris, his jottings were published in two Vancouver newspapers, the News Herald and the Province. In the late 1940s, living in London, England, he wrote a radio comedy series for the BBC.

So it was no surprise that on his return to Vancouver in 1951, he was hired as a regular columnist with the Province, producing five columns a week (later three) until he retired in 1985.

While Eric is best known as a humourist, his work has not been confined to comedy. A column he wrote for the Province against capital punishment led to a citation for contempt of court and a trial that attracted attention across the country. His column about John F. Kennedy’s assassination was read into the U.S. Congressional Record. Another column about fluoridation caused an uproar.

He is surprisingly shy and modest for a man with such an impressive list of accomplishments. He was the first Vancouver playwright to have his work successfully produced by the Vancouver Playhouse. He has contributed magazine articles to a variety of publications, including Saturday Night and MacLeans, and several of his radio plays have been broadcast by the CBC.

One of his stage plays, A Minor Adjustment, was produced in New York City. He is the first living Canadian writer to be included in The Oxford Book of Humorous Prose and, in 1995, he was honoured with the first annual $5,000 George Woodcock Lifetime Achievement Award for an exemplary literary career in British Columbia.

Eric, who now suffers from mild Alzheimer’s, has three children and one grandson. Since he fell and fractured his coccyx some years ago, leading to a host of other medical problems, he lives in an intermediate care facility in Vancouver. Although he was told it was unlikely he would walk again, he tenaciously kept at it (Mary Razzell, his second wife, calls him “stubborn and very determined”) and still enjoys walking as much as possible.

Once an avid cyclist who put in at least 10 miles (16 km) a day, he is currently confined to an exercise bicycle. He enjoys his 10-minute workouts on the machine, and looks forward to a chat and perhaps a Scrabble game with Mary, a writer of several books for young adults. (Her first, Snow Apples, was a finalist for the 1984 Canada Council Award.)

Eric also continues to write, using a pencil and paper. He never was able to compose on a typewriter or computer, he says. Mary takes his handwritten notes and transcribes them into computers.

Eric agrees that aging is not for the faint of heart. Still, he says, with all its indignities, “it’s better than the alternative - age is just a number, and how you cope depends on your condition.”



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Showing 1 to 1 of 1 comments.

Good article about a great man. It would have been interesting if Elizabeth Godley had spoken with any of Eric Nicol's adult children, which would have given her the opportunity to correct some of the fictions masquerading as facts here.

Posted by Steven Brown | July 10, 2010 Report Violation

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