The Ones Nobody Knows: The Bandy Papers

I first encountered Bartholomew Bandy, Canadian hero of World War I and all-round dashing figure of the twentieth century, in the mid-eighties. I was reading a lot of military fiction then, and the cover, here, with biplanes and a promise of comedy and a Canadian perspective on the Great War was more than enough to pull me in. I found Three Cheers For Me in a used bookstore, of course, as the books had been out of print for a decade or so when I first got hooked, but I continued to prowl used bookstores across Calgary, searching for further tales of the redoubtable Bandy.

I believe Donald Jack is the man who introduced me to the word "redoubtable", actually. Not to mention "obviate", and probably "spifflicated", too. The over-the-top drinking binge parties Jack describes in these books have always been the standard I've held my own partying up to. Nobody's ever actually fired a handgun at copulating insects at one of our parties, however, so there's room to grow, there.

Interesting that Jack -- a Brit who emigrated to Canada after World War II -- should come to write a series with such a dedicatedly Canadian bent on history. Bandy considered Canadianess at length throughout these books, and while he may be somewhat atypical, there's no doubt he represents some of the fundamental qualities of the Canadian character.

And it's not all that flattering. Bandy is self-righteous, deceitful, annoyingly smug, and lacks the ability to see himself and his own foolishness clearly.

Oh sure, he's courageous enough, when physical danger nears, but he cowers in the face of the powerful and is as enthusiastic a bootlicker as one could imagine. He's quite thoroughly despicable at times.

Hm. Maybe the lack of popularity of these books isn't so hard to explain.

But no. There's thrilling aerial combat, romance, the great sweep of history, and some of the funniest stuff I've ever read in my entire life. It doesn't matter how many times I read the bit where Bandy tries to replace Louise's dress; I'm helpless with giggles every time. These books deserve a vast audience, inside or outside of Canada.

Of course, being Canadian, most Canadians will be suspicious of the idea that a story about Canadians would be entertaining. Canadian content, until very recently, was a "genre" that we imbibed of the same way one partakes of cod liver oil -- for good of one's long-term health, and possibly, to demonstrate one's strength of will. I don't remember enjoying a single episode of The Beachcombers, but my family dutifully watched it every weekend. I think perhaps that's why we weren't a very religious family -- my parents felt they'd discharged their spiritual duties by enduring another half-hour of Bruno Gerussi and Molly's Reach.

This attitude does seem to be changing. Slowly, of course, for we Canadians change nothing quickly, but recently the idea that Canadian television might have qualities beyond easing digestion seems less far-fetched. I recently got laughed at in a bar for suggesting that it might be ENTERTAINING, but still, there are signs of progress.

The Bandy Papers might one day be seen as an early salvo in the battle to establish the idea that Canadian stories can be entertaining. Jack might be seen as a visionary who, as early as 1962 dared to attempt writing an adventure novel about a Canadian. And succeeded, in point of fact.

Briefly: Bartholomew Bandy of Beamington, Ontario, goes off to fight in World War I, survives the trenches but infuriates his commanding officer so much that he is promoted to the Royal Flying Corps (where his life expectancy is only a few weeks), and promptly becomes one of the great aces of the war, simultaneously creating so many enemies among the military and political establishment that his career shifts are measured in hours. So many memorable characters are encountered in the course of these tales that it's something of an accomplishment that Bandy himself manages to stand out as he does.

Much hilarity ensues, and much savagery as well, for Jack is writing out of a profound anger towards the powerful who sacrificed so many lives for so little gain. As the books proceed, the shells Bandy inhabits in order to manage his internal fury get stripped away and yet the comedy never goes away. He never loses his wry sense of the absurdity of all this fuss and bother, even when he is helpless in his efforts to placate and soothe the worst of the fussers and the botherers.

As is typical in these sorts of historical satires, Bandy ends up in numerous historically significant events, including the Irish uprisings (due to a mistake in navigation), the German advance of 1918 (Bandy defeats two tanks with the help of a Bicycle Brigade), the Russian Revolution (he steals Trotsky's pastries), Prohibition, and the birth of modern cinema. He trades quips with Dorothy Parker and terrorizes William MacKenzie King (and is in fact responsible for the collapse of his government in 1925).

He seduces and is seduced, rejects and is rejected. There is little rhyme or reason to who ends up his allies and who his enemies; by no means is it clear that "sensible" people like him and fools do not. And yet he is deeply charismatic, especially to the reader. This is probably because of his honesty to us. While he is willing to fib outrageously to others, with his readers, Bandy shows a respect for the truth even when it is uncomfortable or unflattering -- and although he often undermines his own efforts at self-deprecation with a mock self-righteousness, Jack always seems to find just the right tone that will let us know that Bandy takes himself no more seriously than he takes anything else in the world.

These books were a huge influence on me. Jack's episodic storytelling, his delightfully droll tone and the notes of lunacy he throws in are all techniques I strive for in my own writing. I wish I had his knack for nutty, believable characters, but well, you've gotta have something to aim for, right?

Donald Jack died in 2003, at the age of 79. He wrote the final Bandy book, Stalin vs Me, in the last decade of his life, more than thirty years after he'd begun the saga of Bartholomew Bandy. I am immensely grateful to him for his efforts, as they have brought me more joy over the past twenty years than I could have expected from that aging, yellowed volume I first picked up in a Calgary used bookstore.