Banker Poet Feature ImageSam McGee's Cabin, Whitehorse. Photo by Mandelbrot
Robert Service, once the wealthiest author in Paris, died in 1958, but there he was outside the window of the Café Kathmandu
When the well-known poet Robert Service appeared on the sidewalk outside the Café Kathmandu on a Friday evening last summer, he had been dead for more than fifty years; those who recognized him or, as they said later, thought they recognized him, presumed that the man they recognized must have been someone who bore a likeness to the “real” Robert Service, who was not real at all or at least not real any longer since the death of Robert Service in 1958, but the man seen outside the Café Kathmandu that evening surely could not share in the authorship of “The Shooting of Dan McGrew,” “The Cremation of Sam McGee” or any of the well-loved verses written or composed by the Robert Service who died in 1958 on the 11th of September.
We were sitting at the window table in the Café Kathmandu, my companion and I, eating Bhende Chili chicken, prawns Jhingey Maachhaa and green salad dressed with miso when we saw or recognized Robert Service for ourselves on the sidewalk, only a few feet away on the other side of the glass, leafing through a copy of the Georgia Straight with his wife or girlfriend at his side, a younger woman with straw-coloured hair, who rested a hand on his forearm and leaned toward him as she studied the newspaper. The Georgia Straight restaurant critic had assigned a Golden Plate to the Café Kathmandu in the Asian Cuisine category, and it occurred to us that Robert Service and his wife or girlfriend might be reading the reviewer’s opinion of the Café Kathmandu before deciding whether or not to enter.
The two of them remained on the sidewalk for some time; so long in fact that we stopped noticing them, and would have forgotten them entirely had they not eventually stepped right up next to us and peered over our heads into the Café Kathmandu through the window, only inches away from us, to which a menu had been taped offering passersby in the second person your chance to discover authentic Nepali food for the first time: Choilaa, your choice of tender shredded chicken or pork simmered with a distinctively Kathmandu-style spice mix with lemon, garlic, onion and fresh coriander; Aaloo achaar, chilled sesame-lemon potato salad flavoured with Himalayan peppercorns and fenugreek; Bhutuwaa, your choice of goat, chicken or tofu marinated in savoury spices and pan fried; Bhatmaas, toasted soybeans, quick-fried with fresh ginger, garlic and chili garnished with fresh coriander; Momo, steamed dumplings with savoury fillings of vegetable or pork, served with tomato and cilantro chutney; Kothay, golden fried dumplings, crunchy on the outside, succulent filling on the inside, with your choice of vegetable or pork, served with tomato and cilantro chutney; and as I mentioned, Bhende Chili, which my companion and I order every time we visit the Café Kathmandu, our choice of savoury marinated chicken or tofu cubes (we always choose the chicken), sautéed with onions and green and red peppers, along with Jhingey Maachhaa, fat prawns rolled in spices and sautéed with garlic.
But neither Robert Service nor his wife or girlfriend paid any attention to the menu taped to the window glass; they continued instead to peer in over the top of the menu and over our heads into the depths of the Café Kathmandu. Seeing Robert Service close up and from slightly below the chin, a view not duplicated in the many portraits of Robert Service that can be found on the internet, we were certain that he couldn’t be anyone other than the Robert Service, the most successful, if not the greatest, of the Banker Poets and the only one of the Ambulance Poets known to have liberated a town in the First World War: a short, wiry man in pale trousers and a creamy shirt tucked in at the waist. He carried a fanny pack or belly bag slung on a wide belt over his shoulder in the insouciant way that men in photographs similarly dressed in the 1920s might sling a cardigan sweater casually over a shoulder. His hair was combed straight back to reveal the narrow forehead and the widow’s peak, and the mischievous look, a “gleam” that never left his eyes even in photographs taken in his old age, in a perfect oval face, the long, straight nose with the slightest swelling at the tip; you could say that he was almost a smug-looking man, a man with the look of someone who maintained himself at a degree of removal; he had always been the quintessential observer of himself, a role that he played throughout his career and his life, which became the same thing for him after the success of Songs of a Sourdough, and Ballads of a Cheechako, two slim volumes, the royalties on which amounted to five times his salary at the Imperial Bank of Commerce in Dawson City, and soon made him reputedly the wealthiest author living in Paris, France, according to an item on Wikipedia that says he liked to dress as a working man and walk the streets, blending in and observing everything around him.
My companion and I did not comment on these or any aspects of the life or career of Robert Service while he and his wife or girlfriend continued to peer into the Café Kathmandu over our heads; we seemed to have made a silent pact to ignore him, and her, if possible, in order to preserve our so-called personal space at the window table at the Café Kathmandu, where we had been regular customers and well known to the proprietor since shortly after he opened the place five years ago on this section of Commercial Drive badly in need of a clean well-lighted place with interesting good food such as that listed in the menu taped to the glass above our heads.
We were thinking these or other thoughts when Robert Service strode directly into the Café Kathmandu through the front door, having turned away from the window, we presumed, without our noticing, leaving his wife or girlfriend waiting on the sidewalk by the still open front door, and at just this moment the proprietor of the Café Kathmandu came out from the kitchen carrying a jug of water; he paused at the counter as Robert Service approached jauntily with one hand thrust out in a jaunty manner; the word jaunty comes to mind as the term that Robert Service often applied to himself in both of his autobiographies: “jauntily I walked,” he might write, as he might as often write, “gladly the sun smiled”; he was undaunted all his life by the pathetic fallacy, often conjoined to the inverted predicate favoured by editors at Time magazine: “resplendent were leaf and blade,” he once wrote, “a jocund wind trumpeted.” When my companion and I looked over again, Robert Service was entering the men’s washroom; moments later we were deep in conversation. When we looked up there was no sign of either of them, inside the Café Kathmandu or out on the sidewalk, and neither my companion nor I have seen Robert Service or his wife or girlfriend since.
The proprietor of the Café Kathmandu had never heard of Robert Service, he said, when he came by our table with the water jug and I informed him of the identity of his illustrious visitor. Furthermore, he said when I pressed him, he had never heard “The Cremation of Sam McGee,” “The Shooting of Dan McGrew” or “The Call of the Yukon.” I recited a few well-known lines to test his cultural memory— there are strange things done in the midnight sun by the men who moil for gold, a bunch of the boys were whooping it up in the Malamute Saloon—but nothing rang a bell with the proprietor of the Café Kathmandu, who had been a citizen for more than a decade and was a well-read man familiar with the works of Margaret Laurence, Alice Munro and Mordecai Richler; the first Canadian books he read, he had told me once, were biographies of Louis Riel and William Lyon Mackenzie, and Stanley Ryerson’s Marxist history of Canada.
Later in the week I dropped in at the Café Kathmandu with a recording of Johnny Cash reciting “The Cremation of Sam McGee.” I would have thought that Robert Service was mandatory reading for new citizens, I said to my friend the proprietor, and explained that whereas other, better-known Banker Poets such as T.S. Eliot and Walter de la Mare achieved a certain literary status, Robert Service achieved great wealth and enormous fame; two of his poems became Hollywood movies, and he played himself in The Spoilers, with John Wayne and Marlene Dietrich, as Robert Service, a poet sitting in a saloon in Alaska, at work on a poem, as he explains in the movie to Marlene Dietrich, the madam of the saloon, about a lady who’s known as Lou, and in the movie it is Marlene Dietrich who gives the poem its famous title, “The Shooting of Dan McGrew.” None of the other Ambulance Poets, I said to the proprietor of the Café Kathmandu, of whom there were so many—Ernest Hemingway, John Dos Passos, e.e. cummings, Harry Crosby, Dashiell Hammett, et al.—ever liberated a town, as Robert Service liberated the town of Lille, France, in 1917. There is no question that Robert Service led a charmed life: he was able to pop off three or four poems at a time during a stroll in the countryside; he wrote his autobiography twice, and in the second one he had the opportunity of describing himself writing the first one.
I had chosen the Johnny Cash recital of “The Cremation of Sam McGee” for its celebrity lustre, despite the cowardly revision that Johnny Cash makes in the second line, when he says toil for gold rather than moil for gold, a point of difference outside the scope of my discussion with my friend the proprietor of the Café Kathmandu, who, I admit, was not impressed by “The Cremation of Sam McGee” although he was suitably impressed to hear the voice of Johnny Cash reciting it accompanied so to speak by the large photographs of the mountains of Nepal that decorate the walls of the Café Kathmandu. I don’t understand this poem, he said: it invokes the midnight sun in the first line and then tells a story that could only happen in the darkness of winter. I admitted that this was a weakness in the poem that I had detected in childhood but learned quickly to overlook. Aha, said my friend the proprietor of the Café Kathmandu, there you have it! I told him that Robert Service had taken the name Sam McGee from a man who lived in Whitehorse in 1905. When the poem became famous around the world, so did the real Sam McGee, who was haunted for the rest of his life by the story of his demise and cremation on the shore of Lac Labarge.
In 1903, Robert Service fell in love with Constance MacLean, the daughter of the first mayor of Vancouver, the man who established the city treasury by fining the operators of bawdy houses twenty dollars each. Constance MacLean spurned the advances of Robert Service and is unnamed in both of his autobiographies, but the first poem sold by Robert Service, to Munsey’s Magazine in New York, which earned him five dollars, names her five times in six stanzas describing her entrance at a country dance. The poem opens with a rancher who chewed his supper in a cheerful sort of way, and murmured, There’s a dance on for tonight, and closes, as do many of the works of Robert Service, with an envoi:
And their hearts will ever beat a sad refrain For the one thing they can’t forget, the One they’ll e’er regret, The dancing, fair, entrancing Miss Maclean.
A photograph of Robert Service liberating the town of Lille, France, and another of Robert Service posing with Marlene Dietrich can be seen in Robert Service: Under the Spell of the Yukon, by Enid Mallory (Heritage House).