Politics and the Pen

For 16 years now, the Writers’ Development Trust has been running a fundraising dinner at Ottawa’s Chateau Laurier Hotel, under the title Politics and the Pen. The theory is that if you offer people the chance to sit at a table with a politician (designated with a medal on a gold ribbon) and a writer (ditto, but with a green ribbon), they will gladly turn out for a good meal in aid of a good cause. The theory really works. This year 500 formally dressed men and women filled the Chateau’s main banquet room, and the Trust raised about $300,000 to distribute among deserving writerly causes.

I’ve attended many of these Ottawa dinners in the past. My book (you know the title) tells the story of how I was assigned to the central table of Prime Minister Paul Martin (whom I had not met) on the grounds that “Oh, Doug can talk with anyone.”

In those days I always attended in my role as publisher of many politically engaged books. Sometimes my role was a triumphant one, as when the Shaughnessy Cohen Award presented at the dinner went to Young Trudeau, by my authors Max and Monique Nemni.

This year I did double duty, because I was the proud Publisher of the Nemnis’ Trudeau Transformed, also nominated for the award. But my special pride was to attend this year as an author, with my green ribbon around my neck. I’m afraid that I was so proud of my new honorary status that I flaunted my medal and ribbon shamelessly to other writing friends . . . Richard Gwyn (this year’s winner), Max and Monique, Denise Chong, Terry Fallis, Graham Fraser, Jeffrey Simpson, Taras Grescoe, George Tombs (translator and author), Ray Robertson, Charlotte Gray, John Ibbitson, Paul Wells, and many, many more.

As for the politicians, our table was graced by my old journalist friend Peter Kent, and in the pre-dinner melee I chatted with old friends like Bob and Arlene Rae, and new friends like Tom Mulcair, Megan Leslie of Halifax (“Do I know Silver Donald Cameron? You should see the sign he puts up on the Arm”) and Peggy Nash (“Your daughter is one of my constituents”) amid others of all parties, all on their best behaviour. A pleasant and inspiring evening.

By way of contrast, I had a sharp dose of reality when I walked that afternoon down Sussex Drive to the site of the old Nicholas Hoare bookshop. It used to be a fine, elegant store, so well-placed and so spacious that I selected it regularly for launch parties and readings for books by important Ottawa authors like Jeffrey Simpson and Graham Fraser. On my retirement Jane and I even held a farewell soiree there for our literary friends.

Now the store is closed, for ever, with a sharply worded sign on the door explaining that the landlord, the National Capital Commission(!) had killed it by demanding a 73% rent increase.

Peering through the streaked windows, I could see that all of the elegant shelves had been pulled down and tossed into a splintered heap, with stray chairs riding on top of the jagged pile.

Is there anything sadder than a deserted, shuttered bookstore?