Review of Rufus by Bruce Hodding in B.C. Studies

Was this review in the Winter issue of BC Studies?

I think so – BC Studies sent this file to Granville Island, who passed it on to me. But the BC Studies website was not cooperating last time I looked. Anyway, here it it is: Rufus has finally entered the consciousness of historians! A great achievement.

Rufus - original design for book-cover

Colin Castle

Rufus: The Life of the Canadian Journalist who Interviewed Hitler

Vancouver: Granville Island Publishing, 2014. 304 pp. $19.95 paper

Bruce Hodding

Victoria

Colin Castle has undertaken a labour of love. The retired schoolteacher spent four years researching, transcribing, and writing the story of newspaperman Lukin “Rufus” Johnston. The self-described “history buff” (xvii) married Val Johnston, the granddaughter of Rufus, and inherited the family treasures: thirty years of family letters, seventeen years of Rufus’s personal diaries, and a reminiscence by Rufus’s son Derek Johnston. The result is a thick tome that commemorates this remarkable man, Rufus: The Life of the Canadian Journalist Who Interviewed Hitler.

Red-haired Rufus adopted his nickname after the ancient Anglo-Saxon King. He came to Canada from England in 1905, working his way across the country. In 1910 he engineered himself a job with the Vancouver Daily Province before moving on to the Cowichan Leader and subsequently to the Victoria Colonist. During this time he crossed paths with many influential people, including fellow newspaperman Hugh Savage, Premier Richard McBride, and writer and hunter Clive Phillipps-Wolley, who became one of three godparents to his son.

When the Great War broke out, Rufus did not immediately enlist because his wife was recovering from a serious operation. The next year he volunteered and was soon involved in many of the major battles fought by the Canadian Corps, including Vimy Ridge, Passchendaele, and Amiens. For a time he was in turn aide-de-camp to both General Arthur William Currie and General Sir Julian Byng, who later became Governor General of Canada. Rufus was also tasked with taking future prime minister Winston Churchill out to “show him the sights” at Vimy Ridge (93). Castle has successfully captured in this work the extraordinary talent Rufus had for meeting and befriending important people.

After the war, Rufus returned to both Vancouver and work as a journalist, where he helped secure the early careers of two important British Columbian writers: Bruce A. McKelvie and Bruce Hutchison. He also wrote a book about his home province, Beyond the Rockies: 3000 Miles by Trail and Canoe through Little Known British Columbia (1929),

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(the well-thumbed and much-treasured copy given by Rufus to his son Derek for his sixteenth birthday, 8 Feb 1929)

which is still used by British Columbian historians. In the 1930s, Rufus went to work in Europe as a foreign correspondent for the Canadian Southam News Agency. In Germany he began to write articles about the dangers of the Nazis and was working on a book to be called Germany Today when his life was cut short in 1933. Following many attempts, he had finally arranged a meeting with Adolf Hitler. Rufus pressed the German Chancellor on many tough issues, but as he was leaving, Gestapo founder Hermann Göring hissed at him: “You’re damned lucky to get out” (279). His words were portentous as Rufus filed his last report by phone but never made it back to England. He disappeared suspiciously while aboard ship and his body was never found.

Ultimately, Castle needs to be credited with preserving the story of this extraordinary character, whose depths will surely be further plumbed. For example, a search of the archival collections of the famous people Rufus befriended could reveal additional information on his influential career. In addition, scholars will certainly want to put Rufus into some sort of larger historical context. Patrick A. Dunae, Gentleman Emigrants: From the British Public Schools to the Canadian Frontier (1981), and J. F. Bosher, Vancouver Island in the Empire (2012) are two such sources that could frame Rufus’s life and provide a greater interpretive perspective. In fact, Bosher even references Rufus (211). Nonetheless, while further context would greatly augment Castle’s labours, this book stands as a valuable asset for anyone interested in the military, newspaper, or general history of British Columbia in the early twentieth century.

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