Book Review: "From Bad to Verse . . . plus . . . Something in the Air", by John Scott Cowan

By: Susan W. Smith

Volume 16, Issue 10, October 2021
"It's just not possible to write serious stuff all the time. Starting with a monograph on defense policy in 1963, and with oodles of physiological research until 1986, and dozens of articles and chapters on many topics since then, there have been and continue to be, plenty of opportunities for me to be serious in my writing . . . But, every now and then, you've just got to have some fun. Sometimes that fun writing is done while sitting through a long meeting, writing doggerel in my notebook. I hold to a rather rigid notion of doggerel; to me, it almost always has to be rhyming couplets in iambic tetrameter. And it cannot be nonsense rhymes, but must tell a story of some sort . . . by John Scott Cowan, 2021

Thus begins the preface to "From Bad To Verse: Seriously unserious pieces, in verse and short story form, plus... Something in the Air: a short memoir of my first 22 years of flying."

Those of us who know John Scott Cowan, and who are familiar with his recent guest columns in the print magazine Ottawa Life, will smile as we read this preface, since we are familiar with his sage analysis of many current-day subjects. Those who know John, first as a medical researcher and then Vice-Rector (VP) at the University of Ottawa, or during his tenure as Vice Principal at Queen's University, will continue to smile (yes, I am one of those). And, I bet that those touched by his time as Principal at Kingston's Royal Military College (the military college of the Canadian Armed Forces), and now its Principal emeritus, also will recognize his wit and humour.

However you don't need to know the author to find a delightful array of verse accompanied by a description that explains exactly where and why the doggerel was written.

Cowan explains: "The first half of this slim volume consists of a considerable quantity of dubious verse and two short stories, most of it written for the amusement of close friends at various times from the 1970s to 2011."

Several doggerels were from 1989-1994 when John taught the labour relations component at the Senior University Administrators Course (SUAC) in Banff, AB, often providing a tribute aloud at the closing banquet. Others describe his medical students, a modern-day Italian history trip, and those honouring friends, family, and more.

My favourite doggerel is “Covidiots, and Their Cure". However, it is not short, nor should it be. To the delight of many, Ottawa Life published this online, so you can also read it there in its entirety.


`[Author's Note: I wrote this on June 27, 2021, as Canada's drive to get second dose of Covid-19 vaccines distributed was picking up steam, and it was first published in Ottawa Life Magazine on July 2, 2021. And first doses continued to roll out, but not quite as fast as hoped. While we have had uptake from a much higher percentage of the population than in most countries, there still remained a substantial group of folk, reluctant to get vaccinated, for a whole raft of very odd reasons. This piece was partly inspired by , W.H. Auden's poem, Under Which Lyre", published in 1946.]

Ideas make the world go 'round
But some ideas are not sound.
In days of yore it was hard work
To spread falsehoods to every jerk
Who can't tell shit from carrot cake
And cannot tell when something's fake.

It's gotten simpler recently,
As access to the web is free,
As anyone can trumpet views
That they disguise as real news.

Fact-checking is a fading art,
Because, to check before you start,
You need to know a bit about
The subject of the "fact" in doubt.

Continue here [to link to Ottawa Life] for the entire verse.

The second half is a memoir of John's exciting flying days from 1965 to 1985. He relates that he flew "some 6,000 hours" piloting more than 60 types of aircraft. One amusing paragraph describes taking his Mom for a flight. "Mom only flew with me once," he writes, "but she only waited about five years. I put her in the back seat of the Harvard and gave her a sightseeing tour from a small strip near Lake Simcoe. After a few geographical pointers from me over the intercom, she made her only remark aloft. She hit the mike switch on the throttle handle and snapped into the boom mike, "Cut the tour – just fly!"

No matter which section or which page you read, you will shake your head and say – This author is speaking directly to me, he made me think, and at the same time smile, and most of all - I was often caught off guard and burst out laughing.

Excerpts from "From Bad to Verse . . ." by John Scott Cowan

Author’s Note: These two small rhymes are my attempt to imagine two different participant views of the SUAC program of 1991 at the 8-day mark. As noted elsewhere, the program had long hours, often working participants from 8 AM to 9 PM (with breaks).

Up at seven, work till nine,
Do it again, time after time;
A rest was what I thought I’d get!
The SUAC staff must have a bet
On which of us, before the end
Will go completely round the bend.

A learning process quite unlike the others that I’ve seen:
We’re stuffed with food, breath thinned-out air, and talk ‘til we turn green.
The major consolation is that all the others who,
The first week, had such silly views, have thought the matter through.
And now sound almost sensible; it’s really great to see
That after many days of this, some do agree with me;
They really need excuses, though; one had the gall to say
That I had changed my views as well; I don’t see it that way!

Excerpt: from "Something in the Air: A short memoir of my first 22 years of flying"

Last paragraphs in Chapter 2, BEGINNING

The Chief Instructor at Central then was George Morewood. Easy-going, calm George. “George, “I’ve got 230 hours in the air, and two licenses. I don’t care how well I did on the tests, I still can’t fly. I’m not at ease in the air; every time a plane banks more than 45 degrees I still get tense, and I just don’t have the feel of the air. Maybe its my old fear of heights, or maybe I’m just not cut out of this.”
“Well, it might not be that complicated”. George was never big on complicated. “I’d guess the main reason you can’t fly yet is that we didn’t teach you yet. We taught you to drive an airplane. Almost nobody really wants to fly but now that I know you want to, I’ll teach you myself.”
And with that he did. We spent another 25 hours in the Canuck. Forced landing. Full spins. More forced landings. Hammerhead. More spins. Chandelles. Lazy eights. More spins, stopping on precise headings. Flying the plane with trim, doors and throttle only (pretending the stick and rudder were broken). Short landing. Steep approaches over trees. Short takeoffs. Maximum effort climbs over trees. Strong crosswinds. Low level visual navigation. And then all over again.
When I could chat calmly through a five-turn spin (left or right), and no attitude of the craft seemed unusual, and when the whole world was composed of places to land (some better than others), I finally felt at home in the air. I’ve had considerable instruction since, including aerobatics and formation flying, but none more valuable than those 25 hours. Other than paying my bill, all I could do for George was to help him with the math he was studying, so he could complete his Airline Transport Rating.”


In conclusion, I have some advice – for a weekend read for those who create/enjoy doggerel, for a pilot friend, or for those who just want to take full advantage of John Scott Cowan's sense of humour – buy this book! I promise that you will not be disappointed.

[Available at Novel Idea Bookstore, 156 Princess Street, Kingston, ON K7L 1B1; 613-546-9799, website. Also, online at]

By Susan W. Smith, Editor,

Posted in: Volume 16, Issue 10, October 2021, Book review

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