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John Robert Colombo Page


Toronto 1918

James George and Brabara Wright 2004


JRC contributes some impressions of James George’s
90th Birthday Celebration in Toronto

It was 90 years ago to the day that James George was born in Toronto.
His father was a physician and he grew up in the city’s exclusive
Rosedale area of the city. He acquired an excellent, bilingual
education and was drawn to Ottawa, the nation’s capital, where in the
1950s and 1960s he became one of the country’s “mandarins,” to use the
term to describe those members of the Department of External Affairs
who clustered around Lester B. Pearson (who went on to receive the
Nobel Peace Prize and then serve with distinction as the country’s
Prime Minister). In Ottawa these men – there were a couple of women
too – were called “mandarins,” in Whitehall “boffins,” and in New
Delhi “bapus.”

James George himself served with distinction as Canadian High
Commissioner to India and Ambassador to Nepal. In India he became fast
friends with the present Dalai Lama. I could go on to fill out Jim’s
distinguished career in the Royal Canadian Navy and as a foreign
service officer, and as the author of a forthcoming book (on the
subject of meditation). But of more interest here is the fact that in
select circles he is recognized to be one of the senior statesmen in
the realm of consciousness studies. (In Canada his peers are film
producer Tom Daly of Ottawa and physicist Ravi Ravindra of Halifax.)
He has great experience in the Work and at any one time leads or
contributes to group activities in cities in Canada and the United
States and perhaps elsewhere as well.

The celebration was well organized by Jim’s vibrant and vigorous wife
Barbara Wright, who has a long record of contributing to the Work in
San Francisco and elsewhere. The party was held on Sunday afternoon,
September 14, 2008, the actual day of his birth ninety years earlier.
The venue was Toronto’s Arts & Letters Club, and its Great Hall was
strikingly illuminated with candles for the sixty or so invited guests
who came from various cities across the continent to be present. In
attendance were members of the immediate family, including children
and grandchildren, who spoke about Jim as pater familias.

My wife Ruth and I were privileged to be among the invited guests and
we mingled with ease among them. I would estimate that four-fifths of
the people present were connected with the Work. (At times I felt like
a Catholic in a congregation of Protestants – to employ a loose
comparison!) But it was also by and large a professional group, with
teachers, editors, publishers, musicians, lawyers, and even a former
U.S. college president and a world-famous theoretical physicist.

It was a private event, so it would be inappropriate to report in
detail on the proceedings, other than to state that Jim George, at
ninety – now Dr. George, as he had recently been awarded the degree of
Doctor of Sacred Letters – spoke very well. He talked without notes
for about fifteen minutes about the need for us to be fully conscious
human beings who live in the here and now as well as about the
ecological crisis facing the world at this period and at this place,
which he described as “the most exciting time” to be alive.

Jim’s speech was made following testimonies of how he had influenced
the lives of his children and grandchildren and many of the other
guests who were present. Toasts were proposed, a new poem read, a new
song was sung, the friendship rite of the Pacific North West was
performed, a Tibetan prayer over food was recited, a birthday cake was
sliced and served, and a Gurdjieff-de Hartmann hymn was movingly
played on the piano. I think Barbara Wright hit the right note when
she talked of love and its force and how Jim had inspired that emotion
in everyone he had ever met.

No point would be served in describing the heart-warming proceedings
in greater detail, but I will share with the readers of this blog the text of
my own contribution, which was perforce less personal than the other
contributions. It was delivered without notes, but there was a text.
Here it is.

Notes for a Brief Talk
To Mark the Occasion of the Celebration of James George’s 90th
Birthday, Arts & Letters Club, Toronto, Sunday, 14 September 2008

My name is John Robert Colombo and I have been what might be called “a
James George watcher” since the year 1961. That was the year I first heard
the name of the gentleman we have gathered here to honour. His name came
from the lips of a young poet named William Hawkins who was running a
series of poetry readings at a coffee house in Ottawa, called Le Hibou, where
I was invited to be a guest reader.

Hawkins discovered that we shared his interest in occultism, mysticism,
esotericism, and Eastern religions. I remember Bill telling me, “There’s this
guy right here in Ottawa, who’s crazy about Oriental ideas, and he’s high
up in the Department of External Affairs, and one of these days he’s
going to be appointed Canada’s Ambassador to India!”

I remember thinking, “Bill, you’re exaggerating, as usual, but there’s
probably some substance to what you’re saying, even if you can’t
distinguish between an Ambassador and a High Commissioner.” At the
time that was forgivable because Hawkins was preoccupied with writing
the lively poems that would appear in the book he published with so
memorable a title. That title is “Shoot Low, Sheriff, They’re Riding
Shetland Ponies!” Remember it: I will return to it.

I asked Bill a question: “What’s this impressive man’s name?” Poet
that he was, Hawkins replied with a spondee. Now a spondee is an
unusual poetic meter that consists of two equal and heavy stresses ( X
X ). I never forgot that spondee: “James George.” I filed it away for
future reference.

Since then my wife Ruth who is here with me and I have been “James
George watchers” and I have kept a file on the man. But for more than
forty years, James – or Jim, as I have learned to call him – has
preferred to be “watched” from a distance. Over the years I courted
him. But it was not until the dramatic appearance on the scene of his
dynamic wife, Barbara Wright, that Jim agreed to be “watched”
close-up, at least by Ruth and me.

Many of you know Jim and Barbara as family members or as close
personal friends. Ruth and I are not able to make that claim, but we
are second to none in our appreciation of the qualities of the couple,
even if from the sidelines, though it must be said that distance does
sometimes lend some perspective on quality. So I will take the liberty
of speaking frankly about the man, beginning with identifying a chief
characteristic and the greatest misfortune ever to befall him.

Jim had the very bad luck to be born and raised in Toronto’s up-scale
community of Rosedale. Had his karma been other than it is, he would
have been born eight hundred miles north of Rosedale, among the
Algonkian-speaking Indians of the Great Lakes Region. There, north of
Lake Superior, he would have been honoured and admitted to the
Midewiwin, the Great Medicine Society of the Ojibwa. He would have
been recognized as its Sachem; and as its Chief, it would have been
his obligation to perform the aboriginal ancestral rites. He would
have been privy to its cache of hereditary knowledge, secrets of the
past that Madame H.P. Blavatsky attempted to penetrate in 1851 on her
exploratory trip to Quebec City.

Had his karma been more positive than that, he would have been born
even farther north, a thousand miles north of the Great Lakes Region,
among the Inuit of Baffin Island. Here he would have been regarded as
a shaman, a practitioner of the arts of “shamanstvo” which are
associated the ancient tribes of Mongols around Lake Baikal, a UNESCO
World Heritage Site. As an anagok, he would have made ecstatic flights
into the upper atmosphere and been able to access the possibilities of
the future. Indeed, he might have embodied that reference to “an
Eskimo … one of the four contemporary initiated beings” that
Gurdjieff mentioned in passing in “Beelzebub’s Tales.”

Or, had he been born outside Canada, in a foreign country half-way
around the world, in Japan for instance, perhaps in Kyoto, he would
now bear the title “Living National Treasure.” This designation was
instituted by the Japanese government in 1950 to honour contributors
to culture of considerable importance to the present – and hence
eligible for special protection and support.

Instead, he had the ill-luck to be born or at least raised in
Rosedale, a few miles northeast of where we are congregating right
now. Actually, he did quite well for someone who was handicapped from
birth by being a Rosedalian!

There are some positive aspects to an upbringing in Rosedale. For
instance, he was able to receive a great, bilingual education;
associate with “mandarins” like Lester B. Pearson; travel widely;
marry and raise a family; establish a record of heroism with the Royal
Canadian Navy; represent the country as its High Commissioner in New
Delhi; become Ambassador to Nepal; study and work with various
Gurdjieff groups; write an important book on ecology; and meet Barbara
… and change his name.

Let me dwell on the latter achievement. His name was changed from a
spondee to an iamb. Readers of poetry will know what I mean: from the
spondee “heavy-heavy” ( X X ) to the iambic “light-heavy” (x X). The
spondee “JAMES GEORGE” is now the iamb “Jim GEORGE.”

But his bad luck is our good fortune, for we would not be in his
company on this happy occasion had he lived in the past on the tundra
of the North of Superior, or in the provisional future on the littoral
of Baffin Island, or in the shadow of the temples of the present-day
in Kyoto, Japan. So we can be here, with him, in Toronto, dwelling in
the present, and Barbara too, within the hallowed halls of the Arts &
Letters Club, to mark the ninety years of the fruitful and productive
life at home and abroad of this accomplished man … our High
Commissioner to the World of Values.

Let me conclude. I mentioned earlier the title of Bill Hawkins’s book:
“Shoot Low, Sheriff, They’re Riding Shetland Ponies!” With James
George – that spondee of spondees – now Jim George – that iambic
meter – we have to revise it to read: “Aim Very High, Ladies and
Gentleman, He’s Riding on a Camel!”

John Robert Colombo is a Toronto-based author and editor with a
special interest in consciousness studies. His forthcoming book of
occasional essays is titled “Whistle While You Work.”

P.S. An envelope posted when James George was three days old.



September 15, 2008 at 2:31 pm

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