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Vale Gordon Webb

December 10, 2014
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“A lot of ground has passed beneath my wheels.”

 – Gordon Webb

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As a teacher, you try to treat everyone in the class equally, but of course there are students of whom you become especially fond. Gordon was one of these.

New students were always astonished to learn that this bright-eyed, lively-witted gentleman was 86 years old. A keen cyclist, he’d only just switched from a pushbike to an electric model, in order to keep up with the younger members of his cycling club. It was his love of cycling that, indirectly, brought him to our writing class.

Gordon began by writing amusing stories about and for his cycling companions, exaggerated slightly for comic effect. He was a natural humourist and gifted observer of human nature, attributes that more than made up for his lack of formal education. Having left school in his teens, he worked on the docks, in factories, and later as an electrician – all of which became material for his stories.

He was able to take the vexing minutiae of daily life – a wayward dog, a recalcitrant umbrella, a children’s birthday party run amok – and extract the maximum absurdity from it, turning his own minor misfortunes into entertainment. Poetry, personal essays and stories poured from his word processor. He rarely missed a week and never stopped learning.

In the eighteen months we knew each other, Gordon instituted a system to determine which of his pieces had ‘been through the mill’ of my correcting pencil, and started bringing in revised work. It was deeply satisfying to watch his narrative style become more streamlined and his use of exclamation points considerably more restrained. It was even more exciting on the occasions he ventured out of the comic mode into the darker areas of his own life: the tragic early deaths of his son and of his brother, an airman in the Second World War. I consider the tender, reflective piece he recently wrote on the latter to be his best work, and only wish we’d had more time together to further develop his talents.

While he was ever receptive to suggestions about his own writing, on some topics Gordon was immovable. I never did convince him that free verse is proper poetry, or that swear-words are ever acceptable in literature, especially with ladies present. But any octogenarian has surely earned the right to be a little old-fashioned, and more than a little stubborn. In any case, we always disagreed in a spirit of perfect respect and courtesy, an attitude he demonstrated to everyone in our group.

It’s almost impossible to believe that Gordon is permanently gone from our classroom; workshops will never be the same. Meeting people like him is one of the privileges of teaching at a community house. Losing people like him is one of the costs.

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