Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Phil Anwyl -- 'friend' to the end

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This is not something that I usually admit to, but I once, many years ago, owned (and wore) a green corduroy suit.It's not something I've thought about for a long time -- you can imagine why -- but I thought about it on Thursday when I heard the news that my friend Phil Anwyl had died. I thought about it because I was wearing that suit during a pivotal moment in my friendship with Phil. If I had worn something different that day, something different might have happened. You might say green corduroy changed my life.

We were standing at the bar at the Winnipeg Press Club, nothing unusual in itself, but that night was quiet and there was only Phil and I talking shop -- laying track from here to Weyburn, as we used to say. My wife of the moment had several days earlier thrown me out with nothing but a fine-tooth comb and that wretched suit. Having been told by a relative and close friend that there was room at his inn only for one night, I'd spent the rest of the time living in a downtown hotel better known for its cheap rates and gregarious guests wandering the halls at all hours than for any of its amenities.

As Phil waxed on about some war somewhere, I ordered another Scotch and the bartender said to me: So you've split up with your wife.

Why would you say that, I asked her?

Because you've been wearing the same clothes four days in a row, she replied.

Phil overheard, offered his condolences and asked me where I was staying. I told him. That's no good, he said. Why don't you stay with me?

There was no hesitation behind the invitation, it was absolutely as spontaneous and freely given as it was generous, and so I accepted.

I don't know if, in the months that followed when I was sleeping on his couch, Phil ever regretted having that last Scotch at the Press Club and extending that invitation, but if he did he never gave any indication of it.

My presence there every night must have been an inconvenience for him. He was the most enthusiastic, open and honest womanizer I have ever met. Sitting on the balcony with me late at night, drinks and cigars in hand, talking about everything that was going in the world -- he had an encyclopedic knowledge of world affairs -- could hardly have compensated for the occasional canoodling with the woman he fondly described as "the old boot next door" or any of the others that he came across in his travels, sparkling conversationalist though I am.

But he never complained, he never hinted that perhaps I should be looking for new quarters, he never even asked me to disappear for a few hours. He never charged me rent. At first I thought that was because he knew I couldn't afford much, but later I realized that it simply did not occur to him to charge a friend for a favour freely given. Phil Anwyl epitomized the generosity that is inherent in deep friendship.

What is most remarkable about all this is that I had never thought of Phil as being that good a friend. Certainly we were friends. We had worked together for several years, drunk together occasionally -- oh, all right, perhaps more than occasionally -- and even travelled together in France and Spain. He would wait uncomplainingly during the day outside the cathedrals that I liked to visit, I would go uncomplainingly at night to the fleshpots that he liked to frequent -- who do you think made the greater sacrifice?

But Phil was not on my list of people I thought I could go to if I were in trouble. So instead, he came to me.

"Friend" may be the biggest word in the English language and English is the only language that Phil spoke -- he prided himself on the fact that "Ooh la la! Droppez drawers" was the only thing he could say in French; I told you he was an unabashed womanizer.

Somewhere within the boundaries of the definition of the word "friend" you can find a corner or cranny for almost anyone you know whom you don't actively dislike, and that's what most of us do, give people places.

After that extraordinary invitation that Phil extended to the man in the crumpled green corduroy suit more than 30 years ago, however, I realized that he had a different visualization of friendship. It has neither nooks nor crannies nor corners. It was a circle that encompassed everyone without reservation. To leave it, you had to exclude yourself. He was a person who in his life defined friendship in a way most of us don't even understand.

Phil loved other things besides women -- and, indeed, he surprised everyone when he finally settled on just one woman who was with him till his death. But he also loved talking, eating and drinking. In one of those grim reminders that this is indeed a fallen world, in his last months these were denied to him by a variant of Parkinson's disease. He could neither talk nor eat nor drink and his face was frozen in what I believe is called the Parkinson's mask, expressionless except for the eyes.

The last time I saw him, I reminded him of an incident that happened to us in France, the details of which can't be repeated in a family newspaper. His eyes got brighter, I'll swear the tiniest tips of his lips curled up in an attempt at a smile. That's how I'll remember my friend: a glass of wine, a cigar and a lecture about the history of the Falklands War about to roll off his tongue.

tom.oleson@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 21, 2009 A16

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