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Obituary: Duncan McWhirter

Duncan McWhirter, a Winnipeg-born Canadian who worked on Reuters World Desk in London from 1964 to 1968, died in Vancouver on 20 July, aged 75, after a stroke and a succession of complications.

In addition to being a journalist of wide experience, McWhirter was a novelist, short-story writer and cartoonist. His cosmopolitan lifestyle took him to continental Europe, North Africa and Latin America between long residential stretches in London’s Islington district and diverse parts of western Canada.

Through his mother, Duncan was half Icelandic and Reykjavik featured both on his international itinerary and his fiction. His novels include such Canadian settings as Winnipeg, too, and the rugged northern Ontario region of Thunder Bay, where he spent part of his youth.

McWhirter received a rousing educational boost at the University of Toronto. He graduated with an honours degree in English and Modern History after studying under such mentors as Canada’s most provocative historian, Donald Creighton.

His news agency career started with stints in 1962-64 at The Canadian Press in Toronto and Montreal. As a CP man myself, I first met him in the latter news cauldron. There I helped him cover an event even rowdier than the Quebec separatist furore of the time – the 1964 invasion of Montreal by The Beatles. We were both left all-shook-up by this searing experience.

The adventurous McWhirter, by this time privately crafting an assortment of hard-edge short stories, headed for Swinging London in 1964 and landed a sub-editor’s post at Reuters. His four years there were ones of all-round World Desk service together with enjoyment of the period’s mellow social scene in both Fleet Street and Islington to the north. Islington had yet to descend into gentrification and McWhirter led me, as a visitor from Montreal, on fascinating rounds of the earthy local pub circuit from his raffish Essex Road flat next door to a funeral parlour. Plainly, his environs were a rich and raucous feeding ground for this droll observer’s evolving interest in fiction-writing.

Having left Reuters in 1968, he took up globe-trotting along with spells of work as a writer and cartoonist for papers in western Canada.

Back in London, he spent time on a smaller news agency and performed journalistic duties for British Columbia’s busy office in the UK capital.

It was there that he encountered the legendary leader of the Canadian Pacific province, WAC Bennett, later telling of how the visiting “Wacky” loudly insisted on being addressed as Prime Minister of BC rather than by his official designation as a Premier.

By 1979, McWhirter had gone to the Overseas Press Section of the British government’s Central Office of Information, where he stayed until his return to Canada in 1998.

He’d met his wife, Jody, in Victoria, BC, in 1976 while doing research on aboriginal Indian land claims for the provincial government - another instance of his versatility and a useful outlet for his university training in historical investigation.

It wasn’t till 2000 that Duncan the novelist was published for the first time. Trafford of Victoria issued White Houses, the story of a torturous love relationship that unfolded against backdrops ranging from Morocco and Iceland to the American enclave of Point Roberts, bizarrely located within British Columbia’s territorial spectrum. Evident all through White Houses and two later McWhirter novels published by Trafford - The Paper-Boy and The Girl in the Grass - was a born travel-writer’s skill for evoking weird, far-away settings and a Graham Greene-like gift for magnifying the plight of the forlorn loners who swarm in the modern city’s seedy barrens.

One of my most memorable jaunts with Duncan was a trip to the haunting shoreline near Vancouver once inhabited by the English novelist Malcolm Lowry, of Under the Volcano fame. As a poet, Lowry spoke of finding no path forward for the world’s rootless outsiders, there being only “a river in spate/Where drowning forms, downswept, gesticulate.”

In recent years, Duncan and Jody lived in a handsome central Vancouver apartment, where he was working on successors to his first three novels when taken to hospital in May.

All through our friendship, Dunc often addressed me, with mischievous jocularity, as “Fo”, a legacy from the Montreal days when erratic teletype operators somehow mangled my byline of Cy Fox into Cy Sox, C. Fox, Cy Cox or a nice oriental variant, Cy Fo. I won’t soon forget that unique McWhirter salutation, “Hello, Fo!” ■