Sunday, September 28, 2008

Winnipeg Service for Dad

Friday evening Dad's friends in Winnipeg held a service for him. It was at the Ukranian Labour Temple in the north end and the Opera Chorus and the Labour Choir, both of which he sang in for years, sang. A number of his friends spoke. Our dear friend, Peter Usher, had this to say about Dad:

Paul Phillips’ memorial – 26 September 2008

Our friendship took root in a few years in Vancouver in the mid-60s. We met at the Folk Song Circle, and we soon found we shared a love of singing, particularly in the British tradition; the songs of Ewan McColl and Bert Lloyd (notably sea shanties which Paul could bellow out with the best), along with Phil and Hilda Thomas’ discovery and setting to music the lyrics of BC working people. We had lots of music parties, which were conversation through singing, often at Paul and Donna’s flat in Kitsilano where a lot of us lived. These parties were fueled by enthusiastic music, lively talk, Paul’s home-made beer, all under the gaze, from a poster, of a female Swedish athlete completing a long jump with the message “look what socialism did for Sweden.” It didn’t take long for us to find we also shared a passion and commitment to democratic socialism and political action, inspired by such figures as Tommy Douglas and the great Welsh socialist, Nye Bevan, much influenced by the fact that both of us had spent time in Britain.

In those few years together in BC we forged a friendship that, despite living thousands of miles apart ever afterwards, deepened and strengthened. Such was the bond among the four of us that, for a time, we agreed that should through sudden misfortune our own children be orphaned, the other couple would become their guardians. Shortly after I moved east, Paul sent me a copy of No Power Greater, which he inscribed “Remembering the many hours of song, talk, and intellectual discourse”. That book, still remembered and appreciated by many, was an inspiration to me of how an academic could contribute to the struggle. Our conversations and common concerns came to encompass the political economy of the hinterland, property and markets, free trade, the direction of the NDP, and in its early days, the latest issue of Canadian Dimension.

Fortunately for me, my work often took me to Vancouver and later to Winnipeg, so that we continued those many hours of song, talk, and intellectual discourse -- at the house on Oak Street, at the A frame at Oakbank, and at the house on Machray. In the years my son was growing up in Winnipeg, I always had a place to stay when I came here, and I am eternally grateful to Paul and Donna for putting me up so frequently in those days – good food (often Donna’s Chinese food), good drink, good song, good talk, good company. Those evenings invariably ended with a session of darts in the basement – our talents being equally mediocre, we were evenly matched.

And the music parties continued, often well-attended. One particular occasion at someone’s house here in Winnipeg in the mid-70s stands out in my mind. It followed, as I recall, the founding meeting of the Public Petroleum Action Committee of Canada (perhaps some of you were there). The singing went on for hours, fuelled again by much beer. It sounded great at the time and people seemed to like it, but it’s probably just as well it was never taped for posterity.

What I came to appreciate about Paul over the years was that he was a man of keen working class sensibilities with a drive for knowledge, learning, and its practical application to human well-being. It is sometimes said of economists that they know the price of everything and the value of nothing. This was most certainly not true of Paul. His values and his intellectual work were driven by his passion for social justice and well-being. He was an idealist but not an ideologue. He was not one to select the facts to fit the theory, but was always prepared to confront uncomfortable truths squarely and in a practical way.

Here was a man small of stature but also of extraordinary vigour. His musical tastes were broad – he sang in the opera, the Welsh choir, and the labour choir. He was physically active – polo, golf, sailing – but these were not the solo pursuits of the weekend warrior, they were just another way of doing things with other people. Paul always seemed to know how to balance work with so much else – music, play, travel, and community events such as the Winnipeg Folk Festival, as well as his family. As a secular socialist he was at first bemused by his daughter Erin’s religious conviction, yet I think he came to appreciate that social science and political action do not invariably provide all the answers and explanations that we seek in life.

He understood the working man’s pride in craft, which he carried into his own life as an artisan in wood and soil, evident especially in the environment that he and Donna created at their place in Vernon after his retirement. He honoured the past and had an eye for the future. He was the first of my friends to get a computer – an Osborne if any of you remember this machine, with a tiny screen that you had to scroll not only up and down but side to side to view the page. I learned a lot about living from Paul, not by his instruction, but by his example.

Unfortunately we saw little of each other after he and Donna moved to Vernon, although we always exchanged musical gifts. Yet as I contemplated the events and issues unfolding over the last decade I often asked myself, what would Paul have to say about that? We might not always have agreed, but his thoughts would certainly have enlightened me. So when Donna told me he was ill, I resolved to visit. Sadly, by the time I arrived, the planned music party was not to be. Yet even in his last days he was keen for us to catch up with each other again, and we talked and sang. Engaged to the end, he came to the breakfast table and asked Nicky about the news, and albeit with difficulty on his part, we talked about both his recent column for the Vernon newspaper, my current work, and questions of sustainability, living standards and social well-being.

There is no such thing as a good death, but the manner of our dying can signify a good and virtuous life. In his last days, Paul was surrounded by family and friends, their love and support of him obvious. His daughters applied their special capabilities to care for him in body and spirit, and he accepted that with dignity and grace. They are a tribute to him and Donna. And so in the end Paul also taught me about dying.

One of the joys of very close friendships is that no matter how long you are apart, the conversation is so easily and effortlessly resumed upon meeting again. The pain of a close one dying is that the conversation suddenly and permanently ends. But the memories do not. I will remember Paul’s personality and friendship always, and will remain always grateful for both.

Peter J. Usher

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