Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Great storyteller William Whitehead tells them all

  • Print

Words to Live By

A Memoir

By William Whitehead

Cormorant Books, 248 pages, $30

READING Toronto TV writer William Whitehead's memoir feels like being at a dinner party that's been crashed by a great storyteller. It's enjoyable until you realize he's not going to stop before he has told every joke in his repertoire.

Whitehead was the 40-year partner of the late novelist Timothy Findley, or the lesser-known half of one of Canada's most famous gay power couples.

Words to Live By strings together anecdotes and stories that cover the arc of Whitehead's 80-plus years. For those looking for some of the secrets into the private life of Findley, who died in 2002 at age 71, there's not much here.

Findley (known to his friends and fans as Tiff) barely appears in the book's first half, except in a rather interesting aside about his and Whitehead's sex life or, more accurately, lack of one.

While the couple's relationship was happy and genuine, Whitehead writes, they were not sexually compatible and consistently had independent affairs.

But as fits the conversational tone throughout, Whitehead writes, "Let's talk about something else."

A longtime writer of CBC-TV's The Nature of Things, among other documentaries, Whitehead delights in wordplay. He loves the slight misunderstandings that can occur when someone mishears something or when someone tries to communicate in another language and isn't quite up to the task.

This book often feels like it would be better (and funnier) if the stories were read aloud, as in the passage where three immigrant construction workers discuss a foreman's plight who has just discovered that his wife can't bear him any children.

"Yes," declared one, "she is inconceivable." "No," said the next. "She is impregnable." The third piped up, triumphantly, "Idiots! She is unbearable!"

Whitehead begins with his childhood in Regina and follows with his efforts to become a scientific researcher. He doesn't so much fail as a scientist as lose interest.

When the story does finally shift to include Tiff, the couple's relationship is blossoming at the same time as Canadian culture. Both men begin as actors. Whitehead eventually turns to documentary writing and Findley gravitates to play and novel writing. Among his 11 novels were the Governor General's Award-winner The Wars, Famous Last Words and Not Wanted on the Voyage.

The memoir's soul belongs to the couple's years of domestic bliss at Stone Orchard, their legendary Carrington, Ont., retreat. Tiff and Whitehead blend in admirably in conservative rural Ontario, where the locals even competed to have their sons hired to work on their farm.

One of Whitehead's funniest stories is about a mouse living in their dishwasher that Whitehead brings out when some Jehovah's Witnesses visit.

In the last few years of Tiff's life, the couple lived in a cliffside bungalow in Cotignac, France. Here, the narrative really engages. Whitehead writes with more passion and less folksy charm, as friends from all over the world visit.

The misadventures they have in trying to figure out French food and culture are genuinely fun and funny.

Tiff's decline was gradual, and Whitehead's account of their parting is as sweet as it is sad.

In the end, Whitehead is content to gloss across the surface of his life, laughing at himself as much as the world along the way. Many of his stories contain quiet truths, but while they may elicit the occasional chuckle, they produce almost as many groans.

One can't help but wonder, too, how Findley would have regarded this book. His skill as a storyteller is in no danger of being overshadowed by that of his longer living partner's.

Greg Klassen is a Winnipeg arts marketer, publicist and writer. He and his longtime partner married this summer.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 3, 2012 J9

Fact Check

Fact Check

Have you found an error, or know of something we’ve missed in one of our stories?
Please use the form below and let us know.

* Required
  • Please post the headline of the story or the title of the video with the error.

  • Please post exactly what was wrong with the story.

  • Please indicate your source for the correct information.

  • Yes


  • This will only be used to contact you if we have a question about your submission, it will not be used to identify you or be published.

  • Cancel

Having problems with the form?

Contact Us Directly
  • Print

You can comment on most stories on You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

You can comment on most stories on You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

Have Your Say

New to commenting? Check out our Frequently Asked Questions.

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscribers only. why?

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press Subscribers only. why?

The Winnipeg Free Press does not necessarily endorse any of the views posted. By submitting your comment, you agree to our Terms and Conditions. These terms were revised effective April 16, 2010.


Make text: Larger | Smaller


Jets vs. Ducks Game 2 promo

View more like this

Photo Store Gallery

  • PHIL.HOSSACK@FREEPRESS.MB.CA 101130-Winnipeg Free Press Columns of light reach skyward to the stars above Sanford Mb Tuesday night. The effect is produced by streetlights refracting through ice crystals suspended in the air on humid winter nights. Stand Up.....
  • Geese fly in the morning light over Selkirk Ave Wednesday morning- Day 22– June 13, 2012   (JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)

View More Gallery Photos


Do you agree with the sale of the Canadian Wheat Board to foreign companies?

View Results

View Related Story

Ads by Google