Sunday, January 16, 2011

In Memoriam: Robert Service

Robert Service is a prime example of a person who was in the right place at the right time; employed as a banker, as a young man he was posted by his employer - the Canadian Bank of Commerce - to the still-remote location of Whitehorse, in Canada's Yukon Territory. Subsequently he lived in a cabin on 8th Avenue in Dawson City.

PhotobucketThat the territory had recently been in the grips of a gold rush suited Service fine, and he set about crafting a series of poems which today are a part and parcel of Canada's national mythology. The Shooting of Dan McGrew and The Cremation of Sam McGee are just two of the works included in his first book, 1907's The Spell of the Yukon and Other Verses (published in England as The Songs of a Sourdough). He was often referred to as the 'Canadian Kipling', which was a greater compliment in those days than it is now.

By 1909 his books had made him enough money that Service was able quit his job, and thereafter he traveled the world, often as a newspaper correspondent; he never returned to the Yukon. In the period 1912-3 he covered the Balkan Wars for the Toronto Star. Despite his burgeoning wealth he dressed and lodged humbly.

During the First World War he worked as an ambulance driver for the Canadian Red Cross, which isn't exactly as cushy a job as it might sound, given that the roads in France were subject to shelling, and just as often rutted by rain; he was also a correspondent for the Canadian government during the war. His book Rhymes of a Red Cross Man, published in 1916, detailed his experiences.

Born on this day in 1874, Robert Service died in September 1958; his cabin in Dawson, long maintained by the IODE, was taken over by Parks Canada in 1971. Although visitors may not enter the building, they are able to peer into it, and in doing so, peer into that brief period of his life when Robert Service truly was 'the bard of the Klondike'.
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