OUT OF OBSCURITY:
A PROFILE OF B.J. GRANT,
ONE OF NEW BRUNSWICK'S MOST PROLIFIC WRITERS
Anne Marie Beattie
|How did one of New Brunswick's sons become lost in obscurity? Here are recollections of the man by two of his closest friends.In death as in life, he was sensational, staging a party at the Lord Beaverbrook Hotel for thirty of his closest friends, reserving a suite of rooms for the wake, reservations for the out of Towner's and a bathtub full of booze on ice.... as his executor had been instructed.|
Barry John Grant was a noted author, researcher, teacher, speech writer, indexer, lexicographer, art collector, traveller, boozer and author of four bestsellers in New Brunswick. How had this man experienced so much in a lifetime, the last decade of which was spent in a wheelchair?
Barry Grant ("BJ '' to his friends) died as he had lived, unconventionally. He came sliding under the feet of the Grim Reaper, breathless, a bottle in one hand, a smoke in the other, exultant, undefeated and hollering "It was a helluva ride!"
Barry Grant came from humble parentage. Born to Jordan Grant and Evaleen McCray in 1927, this learned individual left high school in grade 11 to work in the woods. After a season of woods work he returned to Oromocto, enrolled at Fredericton High School, graduated and went on to earn an Arts degree at the University of New Brunswick.
UNB was to be a defining factor in his life, as time and again he turned to a solid foundation to launch the work that defined his spirit. Barry Grant was a man who thrived on research and spent some of his happiest hours making plans for writing a Dictionary of English Canadian Slang and Colloquialisms. The dictionary never came to fruition.
Barry entered the teaching profession in a country school his first year, Taymouth in his second, and his third when he scored a teaching position at Rothesay High School in 1959. Grant formed a timeless friendship, one that continued past the boundaries of death.
A pair of his former grade 11 students from the late 1950's, Sheila Stanley and Ken Moore, agreed to be interviewed for this article. It is through the eyes of these two former students of Grant's that one may come to know this eccentric man who was enamoured of New Brunswick history.
It was June 1962 and a sweeping liberal victory saw the Honourable Louis Robichaud take office. A young Minster of Youth and Welfare, William "Bill" Duffie, an old friend of Barry's, hired him as a speech writer.
In the fall of 1962 Grant married Sheila Stanley, his former student, despite being sixteen years her senior. Their friend, Ken Moore was an usher at their wedding. Despite his loquacious talents and his penchant for the written word, Barry resigned from the Civil Service and he and Sheila moved to London, England where he took a job teaching in Enfield, North London at a Secondary Modern School. A year later they are back in Canada where Barry accepted a position teaching at Meductic, an historic village on the shores of the St. John river.
One may determine throughout Grant's story that teaching was never to be his final game. By the fall of 1966 Barry and Sheila are back in Fredericton and Barry has accepted a position as news writer for CFNB Radio
To this day, Sheila has a deep and abiding respect for her former spouse, but as all too many women before have learned, life with an alcoholic is a roller coaster. The ups and downs of marital life, his neglect of family and employment obligations, and his bouts of drinking, followed by depression were taking its toll on a young woman. In 1967 Sheila decided to leave the marriage.
With no job and his mind ever tapping out new ideas of how to spread the printed word, Barry began his research for a book he planned on entitling, 'Dictionary of English Canadian Slang and Colloquialisms' and soon moved to his parents' home in Oromocto. mdash&Sheila, in assessing that period
On her own, Sheila accepted a position at Creaghan's department store and took a small apartment. Having heard from Barry of their situation Ken spent more and more time with his former classmate. They were married in 1969 and, following a year of graduate study at the University of Western Ontario, he went to work as a reference librarian at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton.
Ken and Sheila lost contact with Grant for a period of three years. It was during this time that he began a pattern of reading, indexing and research interspersed with bouts of drinking.
He was always writing and always conceiving new ways to get published. During this time he churned out part of a manuscript, using a dialect. About the same time he became interested in the Benny Swim case, one of New Brunswick's most famous hangings. Ironically the story, by another writer, was featured in the Telegraph Journal's Reader (Hanged Twice), July 24, 2004.He had support in his writing endeavours from his old friend Judge Charlie Tweeddale, a bachelor who matched Grant in eccentricity and verbal ability. Long debates between the pair were held forth at one of Oromocto's restaurants, lovingly monikered, "The Gag and Puke".
Charlie influenced Grant and he in turn influenced both Sheila and Ken in exploring their own spirituality, which led them both to the Unitarian Church. Grant was not drawn to the same doors as, by this time, he was a confirmed atheist.By the mid-1970s, as Sheila so graciously framed it, "Barry began to feel the need for an income". The Moores came to his assistance. Ken spoke on his behalf to the chief librarian at the Harriet Irving Library and Grant was offered the position of indexer in the Archives Department.
Of all the jobs Grant had undertaken this one fit him and his personality traits. Left alone for large parts of the day, among the stacks of the revered Library, he became lost in his true love - reading. His job was to index collections like the Winslow Papers and The Royal Gazette. He set to this task, using three by five index cards, documenting words, stories, and in particular, the first usage of a word appearing in print.
His years of research and indexing paid in spades. In the eighties BJ pumped out three books, Six for the Hangman, (1983), When Rum Was King (1984) and Fit to Print, (1987). Fortunately the fledgling Fiddlehead Poetry Books which became Goose Lane Editions, recognized the value of someone whose diligence and literary contribution to New Brunswick research is, perhaps, unsurpassed today. During that time he suffered continuously from painfully bad circulation which ultimately saw the amputation of his left leg just above the knee and left him in a wheelchair.
Julie Scriver, Art Director at Goose Lane Editions, tells of the printing conditions of the time, "We were working from Peter's (Peter Thomas, then-publisher) garden shed at the time. In speaking of B.J. Grant's success, she shows exemplary memory in saying, " The popularity of his books , When Rum Was King and Six For the Hangman, was an extraordinary development for the press, and far surpassed Peter Thomas's expectations . " Striving for accuracy," she states apologetically, "I can't quite recall just how many thousand copies of Six for the Hangman sold, but I know it was many, and," she added, " very significant for Fiddlehead Poetry Books and Goose Lane Editions."
Barry Grant died in March of 1993. The Evil That Men Do was published posthumously in 1993 by his executor. His death, like everything in his life, was chaotic. Diagnosed with cancer of the esophagus and refusing chemo and radiation treatments, he chose instead to carry on as best he could with the assistance of friends. To surrender himself to hospital authorities would be to give up his beloved pipe and Vermouth.
While vacationing in Florida, the Moores received word that Barry had died. Returning, they learned the devastating news that Barry had succumbed to the ravages of terminal illness coupled with a fatal combination of booze and pills.His will, left in the capable hands of his executor, Malcolm Somerville, was the antithesis of how he had managed his life. Organized, decisive, methodical, he left explicit instructions for a wake to be held in April - respectful of travel on N.B. roads in the spring of the year. In death as in life, he was sensational, staging a party at the lord Beaverbrook Hotel for thirty of his closest friends, leaving money to reserve a suite of rooms for the wake, for rooms for the out-of-towners and a bathtub full of booze on ice as his executor had been instructed. Barry Grant partied before the noun became a verb. Was he a brilliant man lost to the ravages and excesses of the bottle? Or could it be that he was a man who lived his life in a manner of which many are envious? A man who lived life on his terms, obstinate, free-wheeling, free-spirited, living life to the fullest and leaving a legacy to the literature of Atlantic Canada.
* * *For this in-depth interview the author would like to thank Sheila Moore and Kenneth Moore currently residing on their wooded estate outside of Fredericton. The author was graciously welcomed into the couple's home, served an elegant dinner on a porch overlooking the verdant growth of lawn and forest, and regaled with their memories of a man who taught them to think for themselves and embrace life to the fullest.
Anne Marie Beattie , a native of New Brunswick , was a former regular contributor to the Telegraph Journal Reader . In those august pages she received publication of over a dozen of her stories, always profiling an exotic personage of New Brunswick's past. She is currently at work on her new book Penobscot Woman, the first of the Penobscot Trilogy. She lives in Ontario with her husband , Jim, surrounded by her children and grandchildren.