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Voyage Through the Past Century

By Rolf Knight

Review By John Belshaw

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 183 Autumn 2014  | p. 165-68

First, a disclaimer: I am not now, nor have I ever been related to Cyril Belshaw. This is pertinent because Cyril — a distinguished University of British Columbia academic whose international notoriety is, shall we say, complicated — gets slapped twice in this book. In Rolf Knight’s mind, no doubt, Cyril has it coming. In Rolf Knight’s memoirs, so does just about everyone else he encounters.

Published privately a generation ago, Voyage Through the Past Century had a limited readership; New Star decided to publish it anew and with a fresh preface. There are evidently no significant revisions to the original text.

Born in British Columbia to German parents who emigrated in the late 1920s, Knight spent his early years in work camps along the coast and then in the East End of Vancouver, his family holding on precariously to the lowest rung of the working class ladder. Knight put in his time at school, laboured at menial and unsatisfying jobs in camps himself throughout the Interior (from which he nevertheless gained much considerable pride and self-identity), studied at UBC and Columbia with a spell in Nigeria in between, did fieldwork among the James Bay Cree and among the campesinos of Colombia’s Cauca Valley, took up university posts at Manitoba, Simon Fraser, and Toronto, abandoned a tenured position in the early 1970s, and spent the years thereafter driving cab, fishing, and writing a prodigious amount. It’s that last bit that has earned him a lasting reputation among scholars because it includes truly impressive studies like Indians at Work and biographies with a strong oral history slant. As one of the few scholars ploughing a deep furrow in British Columbia’s labour history in the late twentieth century, he has been much appreciated and, yes, honoured — with a Candian Historical Association gong in 1992.

What a surprise to find, then, such an intensely bitter and judgmental personality in these pages. The accounts of life in Africa, the north, and South America are hugely readable and evidence of an alert and inquisitive mind; much of the rest is not. We are all capable of being callow youths but in our later years we might recall over-fast assessments of others with a measure of embarrassment. Somehow a conscience of this kind does not prick Knight, nor does it manifestly alarm New Star. Allies and enemies alike come in for rebukes. Cyril is in good company.

Steaming across the north Atlantic, a young Rolf Knight finds himself sharing a third-class table with the anthropologist Diamond Jenness, whose book, The Indians of Canada, Knight describes as “monumentally boring.” The dagger twists: “Hopefully when I was an anthropologist I never appeared to others the way he did” (67). The dinner hours must have simply flown by. Kitimat and other industrial towns are “deadening” (65). His high school classmates are “cornpone gobblers,” the principal a “vindictive bastard,” and fellow Britannia grad, David Barrett, “the Beggar King of Coquitlam” (48, 50). Canada is a “Quisling-led bum boy” to America (4). Winnipeg is unbearable, his students at the University of Manitoba “naively conservative,” and the campus radicals “squalid” and “self-serving” (250). SFU archaeologists, namely Roy Carlson, thrive under President Pauline Jewitt, having “developed an unsuspected talent for media hype and grant getting — a talent which became the hallmark of scholarship” (265). Jewitt-era faculty hires are “a luxurious crop of tin-horn gurus, shell game philosophes, and academic slush hunters sniffing out whatever fashions were marketable….” (266). Meanwhile, the SFU martyrs of ‘68 “could never afterward find teaching positions in even the scruffiest colleges in [the] province” (263-4). Such a loss for British Columbia’s scruffy colleges!

Knight doesn’t hang around for the purges. He lights out for Toronto, where he teaches gifted graduate students (over whose work he fawns). As regards his undergraduate teaching at the Scarborough campus, that “was not so much a job as a penance.” The (presumably suburban, maybe even working-class) students are marked by “know-nothingism” and “baseless pride” (269). In his post-academia days, Knight hooks up with a small crowd of ear-benders holding court at Burnaby’s Admiral Pub. Of one, Knight says “none of his accounts of sailing into South Pacific ports during the 1940s and 1950s were interesting” (286). That’s a supremely uncharitable thing to say of a drinking buddy. Read this recollection of Knight’s school days: “It is to our great discredit that we put up with all this prison mentality, this parish pump authoritarianism which pervaded school life, and did little more than grumble about it amongst ourselves. My main solution was to stay away from school as much as possible” (33). Work in the word “phony” and try not to think of Holden Caulfield.

How is one to account for this? Knight tells us that his memories begin in an isolated logging camp where he is the only child, “a mascot, almost as smart as a dog in some ways” (9). Nearing the age of six he encounters other children for the first time and discovers that his peer-level social skills are weak (14). At school he is quickly picked out by the “local satraps” for conspicuous displays of atheism and anti-royalism. The Knights were poor and poverty breeds its own resentments and discontents. He has a strong relationship with his mother but not, evidently, with his muscular father. Knight was unafraid of hard work but always seemed to get the wrong job. By eighteen, however, he was entitled to sneer at soft-handed undergraduates and professors. Any combination of these factors might explain a personality of towering self-righteousness, but I’m not a psychologist. If I were, I would surely point to one other interesting feature.

There are three voices here. There is Knight’s inside voice that occasionally chirps in with a question, pushes along imaginary dialogue, and even engages the author in argument. The second, the most attractive of the trio, is his socio-anthropological self, the participant-observer who has a keen ear for the patois. The principal authorial voice, however, is that of the cranky militant. Sometimes it is what Private Eye readers would call “spartist.” Frequently it is what Orwell would call atrocious, to wit: “New York’s landlordocracy wasn’t going to await the coming of some kitchen cabinet Nero” (187). Clearly much of what this voice announces can be described as “polemical.” Knight does so himself, late in the book (266).

“I suppose,” says Knight, reflecting on a career as a writer (about which we learn not a lot), “that wanting one’s books to be reviewed honestly and favourably is simple vanity” (303). Still more passive-aggression, I fear. Besides, honesty and favour come out of different spigots. Knight presents himself in this book and in everything else he has written as an advocate for workers’ movements, common people’s rights, and liberty in thought and action. His memoirs, however, reveal a man whose company on a barricade it might be prudent to avoid. Knight’s contribution to several fields has been substantial and he is to be lauded for that. But in a life marked by seismic changes, one that took him from bush camp through East End poverty, from an unimpressive Grade 12 to a PhD, from British Columbia to Columbia to Colombia, from a tenured gig at the nation’s biggest university to self-imposed unemployment and then the accolades of his peers, from poverty to – yes — privilege … such an interesting voyage merits greater satisfaction and kindness from the author. The reader might then follow suit.

Voyage Through the Past Century
By Rolf Knight 
Vancouver: New Star Books, 2013. pp. 314, illus. $24.95 paper