Tibetans in Exile

The Dalai Lama and the Woodcocks  (Ronsdale Press 2009)

tibetans in exileGeorge and Ingeborg Woodcock met the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala, India, in 1961, and founded a humanitarian aid society that is still going strong, after more than 300 projects in the Himalayas and southern India. Tibetans in Exile: The Dalai Lama & The Woodocks reveals the hitherto unknown private lives of this extraordinary couple, interviews their friends and recounts ongoing efforts to assist Tibetans in Canada and Asia.

She was a Buddhist. He was an anarchist. Together Ingeborg and George Woodcock were a tag team of activists-you and me against the world-who called each other “Darling,” drank a lot of martinis, worked exceedingly hard and were mutually dedicated to helping others.

“They’re so close,” observed Joan Symons, George Woodcock’s secretary for Canadian Literature magazine, “that when one of them breathes out, the other one breathes in.” Even though they founded three still-functioning charitable initiatives and have affected the lives of millions of people, the world knows precious little about them as a couple.

George Woodcock was Canada’s most prolific and remarkable man of letters. Variously described as “Canada’s Tolstoy,” “quite possibly the most civilized man in Canada,” and “a kind of John Stuart Mill of dedication to intellectual excellence and the cause of human liberty,” he arrived from England in 1949 to build a cabin in Sooke, British Columbia, with his German-born wife Ingeborg.

The story of how George Woodcock wrote and edited 150 books has been well told in a 1988 biography by George Fetherling but this biography does not investigate Ingeborg’s role in the Woodcocks’ highly unusual marriage and the couple’s inspirational role in creating two charities that have outlived them both.

I knew the Woodcocks-but not well. I was on their periphery towards the end of their lives. Like most of their friends, I “owe” them. They bequeathed me their no-nonsense car (a Toyota Tercel) and all the signed editions in their extensive library including, most significantly, George’s rare, signed first edition of George Orwell’s Animal Farm. I sometimes keep it under my keyboard as I type. The Woodcocks have disappeared but they definitely have not gone away.

George and Ingeborg Woodcock did not have children, ostensibly by choice, so they adopted strays and cultivated friendships. In doing so, they were both extraordinarily generous and uncannily selective. They cemented loyalties by lending their house to people whenever they went away on their many research trips. Nearly everyone who looked after their cats ended up on the board of directors of either TRAS or CIVA.

Neither was an angel or saint. George could hold a grudge. And, in some respects, Inge could be a bully. Both were secretive. Although they operated their voteless meetings on anarchistic principles, it was their way or the highway. They never suffered fools gladly. They were semi-nocturnal. They believed in ghosts. And they were really interesting people.