"What is your profession?" he was asked.
"I'm a poet and a philosopher."
The interviewer seemed unsatisfied.
"Is that all you do?"
"I'm also a writer."
"A writer? Hmmm." That seemed to have a better effect. "What kind of writing?"
"I'm keeping a journal, among other projects."
"Oh.... Are you sure you have no other vocation?"
Pocketman pondered for a moment. Should he tell him he was an anarchist? A social psychologist? Or, as an Indian friend described him, a sannyasi-- a Hindu holy man, or a homeless medicant? Should he say that he sold posters of himself in pubs and coffee houses?"
--Don Bell, Pocketman 31.
"If I hung around McDonald's for twenty years, would that make me a legend?
--anonymous teenage girl, on Roy.
"If I die today, I would die fulfilled"
People around London, Ontario certainly recognize Roy McDonald, and a sizable percentage could tell you his name. Press them, and you'll likely hear a mixture of fact, rumour, and local lore. Roy attracts suburban myths, which declare him both eccentric millionaire and homeless street person. In truth, he's neither. McDonald is a local wanderer and a published poet. He has been the subject of both a play and a novel. He's a truly odd fringe celebrity, "the first of the hippies and the last of his line," according to local folkie Wayne Morris. Outside of London, he's better known among Canadian writers and artists than to the general public.
Visitors often stare. McDonald has been growing his beard for decades; he claims his was the longest, so far as he could see, at the 1969 Woodstock Music and Art Fair.1 His clothes frequently fall into disrepair, and he's not above mending his pants with duct tape. He decorates his jacket with buttons: political badges, funny slogans, irrelevant icons. His looks lead many to decide he is a street person; he's been thrown off the University of Western Ontario campus by security, perhaps unaware that his books reside in that institution's main library.
Roy was born on June 4, 1937, in London's Victoria Hospital. He always had a gift for writing, but little tolerance for institutions, and he never completed high school. He made a mark while a student, however, and was once removed from class for protesting the bowdlerized version of Hamlet then in use. He became interested in the beat generation in the 1950s, and their work heavily influences his own writing. He once met with beat legend Allen Ginsberg.
In the 1960s, he became politically active. He participated in a number of political actions, including the 1963 march led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.. At an anti-Vietnam War rally in Ottawa, the wind blew his sign away, and he was left carrying a cross-shaped wooden construction. Some believed he was making a religious statement. He claims he didn't want to litter.
McDonald drank heavily in the 60s and 70s, and used marijuana. He wandered a good deal, living in the United States, and Toronto and Montreal. Some youths tried to set his beard on fire when he was drunk in the 1970s; it's one of several factors in his eventual decision to abandon alcohol and drugs at that decades's end. In the 1980s, he returned to his native London and began busking with a local folk singer, Wayne Morris. McDonald has talent as a poet; his singing abilities are less widely praised. Nevertheless, Roy always seem to collect change and occasional hugs from the crowds leaving local hotspots, Friday and Saturday nights. He has also helped calm any number of inebriated altercations.
Roy McDonald has been writing and reading poetry since his youth, but his first books were not published until the late 1970s. In 1978, the newly-founded Ergo Press published Living: A London Journal by Roy McDonald, which recounts the events of a week in his urban-nomadic life, and his reflections on those events. A year later, McDonald's lengthy, pun-filled poem, The Answer Questioned, appeared as a chapbook. It has gone through a number of printings; it makes a popular gift in the area because, it's funny and, hey, it's Roy.
McDonald has become known apart from his writing. He was the subject of a hip 70s poster, Roy resting blissfully beneath a tree. Though not as big a seller as, say, Tanya Chalkin's The Kiss in 2003, the image was once a somewhat familiar sight. McDonald once sold copies he'd received at pubs and coffee houses; his supply sold out, and he found himself in need of work. London-based Ergo has also marketed a poster which carries McDonald's personal definitions of a journal. A number of Canadian artists have used him as a model; he has been both a nature spirit and Merlin.
He's been a fictitious character. Don Bell, winner of the Stephen Leacock Award, published a fragmented, fictionalized account of McDonald's inebriated Montreal life, Pocketman, in 1979. In 2000, playwright Jason Rip wrote Beard: A Few Moments in the Life of Roy McDonald. London's Grand Theatre staged a successful production.
McDonald has been a regular at London events since his return to his home town. He not only performs his poetry and tells his stories, but he encourages others to, as well. He spends a good portion of his time in coffee shops, parks, and, predictably, a local McDonald's. Consequently, he knows a good portion of the city, and enthusiastically introduces them to each other, citing points which one might find interesting about the other. He inevitably asks me to tell the story of how, needing a last-minute masquerade costume, I wore a Santa Claus beard and assorted badges and went as Roy McDonald.
He has a house, but lives there simply. Local publisher Win Schell (Winston George to fans of 1970s Canadian folk music) finally helped McDonald reactivate the indoor plumbing in 2001. Books are among the few luxuries in which he indulges, and he owns thousands.
McDonald's health has been inconsistent; he has suffered from asthma since childhood, and an attack nearly killed him in 1999. As of this writing, he remains a familiar sight in southwestern Ontario, an occasional reader at literary nights, a busker on weekends, avuncular eccentric of downtown London.
UPDATE: I last spoke with Roy in the summer of 2017. He looked his age. He said he performed less often, because the people downtown preferred to stare at their cells. He was found dead in his home, February 21, 2018, having presumably died sometime during the previous night, in his sleep, at the age of 80.
His books can be ordered online from www.ergobooks.com
1. The long braided tail has since broken off, alas, though he still has the most visible, bushy part of the beard.
Don Bell. Pocketman. Toronto: Dorset, 1979.
Jim Chapman. Talk of the Town (radio broadcast). Monday, May 29, 2002.
Dennis Kucheraway. "Roy McDonald's journal shares a week of his life in London." The London Free Press.
Roy McDonald. Living: A London Journal by Roy McDonald. London: Ergo, 1978.
The Answer Questioned (1979). London: Ergo, 1999.
Wayne Morris. "Roy McDonald's Birthday Song."
Matt Pearson. "A Conversation with Roy McDonald." The UWO Gazette Thurs. Nov. 30 2000. A1
Jason Rip. Beard: A Few Moments in the Life of Roy McDonald..
Brian Talbot. "Still 'living' after all these years." The UWO Gazette. December 1979.
The man himself.