Quebec City

Thanks to local friends like Neil Bissoondath I was lucky enough to be invited to the Quebec City InterNational authors event, an English-language event that takes place in the heart of the old city every spring. The organizer, Elizabeth Perreault, is so calm and efficient on e-mail that I was expecting a much older person than the fresh-faced young woman who greeted Jane and me.

She runs a top-class festival, too, with authors like Charles Foran, Emma Donoghue, and Guy Vanderhaeghe in attendance. We saw readings in two remarkable rooms in The Morrin Centre, in the heart of old Scottish Quebec. If you think I exaggerate there, The Morrin Centre (named after a Scottish doctor from the early 19th century) is on the Chaussée des Écossais, and is right opposite the old Scottish Church and the “Kirk Hall.”

Inside, the great hall of the Centre (housing The Literary and History Society)  is constructed on 19th century Scottish traditional lines, so that the electric light bulbs seem almost like an intrusion. The library is equally famous, with its wooden statue of Wolfe casting a dramatic arm from a corner of the two-story ranks of shelves. Louise Penny fans will be familiar with the setting, and after seeing Peter Dube talking about his books there, I learned that ancient authors from Charles Dickens to Mark Twain had given readings there.

After Guy Vanderhaeghe entertained us with tales of Western History in this Eastern city, I recalled for him that it was exactly 30 years earlier that he and I celebrated his Governor-General’s Award win for Man Descending in this city. The actual award was given in an ancient room in the Laval campus downtown, but Guy remembered that the evening dinner was held in the Royal 22 (the Van Doos) Regiment’s Mess room at the Citadelle, with the waiters in full red mess uniforms. I was in a daze of delight that evening because as the Publisher at Macmillan I was celebrating two Governor- General’s Awards that year, for Guy’s short stories and Christopher Moore’s superb history book, Louisbourg Portraits.

On the Sunday afternoon I gave my show in the grand old hall, introducing a Guy Vanderhaeghe anecdote from my book that doesn’t usually feature in my stage show. It’s the story of my edgy walk back into Saskatoon alongside a gigantic guy who had just exited a bar, running very fast, and who asked me, in a challenging way, “Are these women’s boots?”

The crowd seemed to like that story, and the rest, so that at the end they gave me a standing ovation. (Jane, I must report, far from leading this excellent development, said to Elizabeth Perreault, “Do I have to stand up?” If anyone wonders about my being a grounded sort of fellow, look no farther than this story for a reason.) But a standing ovation in Quebec City is something worth recording, if I can find a suitably capacious tombstone.

The rest of our visit was taken up with a wonderful dinner chez Bissoondath, and three days of strolling around old Quebec from our central base at the Hotel Clarendon.

One feature of the weekend involved a coincidence that no fiction writer would dare to attempt. In the appreciative crowd for Guy Vanderhaeghe was a nice fellow who proved to be the American consul-general, Peter O’Donohue. What led to his appointment here, we wondered. Well, he grew up in Connecticut and knew Quebec well. Where in Connecticut, Jane wondered, because she had an uncle and aunt in Norwalk. Norwalk! What were their names? The Finlaysons, my God, I practically grew up in their house!

It turned out that Jane and he had been at cousins’ weddings, and two of her cousins are going to stay with him at his amazing house overlooking the slide on Dufferin Terrace, near the Chateau Frontenac

The next day the coincidences continued, because our sight-seeing stroll took us past the magnificent Consulate just as his wife was in the doorway, greeting a friend. We ended up with a tour inside, and spent time gazing over the St. Lawrence from Levis to L’Ile D’Orleans. A magical view, and a magical weekend. And almost 20 more books sold!


The Al Purdy Show (Part Three)

So we came to the night of the show, February 6 at 7:30.

As the whip-cracking Director of the show, Laura McLeod was tough on all of us who were going to appear onstage, insisting on everyone showing up for sound checks at 6:15. This allowed us lots of time to mingle in the Koerner Hall Green Room, where I got to meet  Alex Gagliano, from Upper Canada College, the young man who was going to be reciting a Purdy poem from memory, on behalf of Scott Griffin’s poetry-promoting project. The room was loud with poets renewing old acquaintance, and there was an air of pleasure as well as the usual backstage excitement. We were all very glad to be part of this.


Photos courtesy John Degen

In my dual role, performer and front-of-house-greeter, I was able to roam among the audience in the drinks area, where I saw lots of friends, thanking them for coming, and pointing out the amazing silent auction items that Valerie Jacobs and her crew had spent much of the afternoon laying out. Later the Random House blogger for Hazlitt was to report that in the cocktail party crowd somebody pointed me out as “the bearded guy,” kindly describing me as “Al Purdy’s first publisher.” (Wrong! In fact, Sandra Campbell’s forthcoming biography of Lorne Pierce of Ryerson Press, Both Hands, establishes that this grand old man, usually associated with poets like Bliss Carman, Charles G.D. Roberts, and Duncan Campbell Scott, was actually Al’s first publisher, with a 1945 chapbook!) I even met Josh Knelman, who kindly recalled my days as a soccer coach for youngsters like him. Then I was able to join my family group (including my second cousin, Claire Caldwell, who as a young poet made the ideal guest) and enjoy the first half of the show.

Because I had seen the script, I knew the opening was going to be spectacular. With a black and white photograph of the A-frame filling the screen onstage, the house lights went down and Al Purdy’s voice filled the hall, reading the opening lines of “The Country North of Belleville.” After a few lines, the house lights slowly rose and Gordon Pinsent walked onstage. As Al’s voice faded away, Gordon seamlessly took up the poem with the words:

“Yet this is the country of defeat
Where Sisyphus rolls a big stone
Year after year up the ancient hills . . .”

Gordon finished the poem, to enraptured applause, and introduced the rest of the evening  as a “ literary barn-raising.”
And we were off.

Marni Jackson’s brilliant script was based around two principles. Everything should centre around Al and his poetry; and there should be constant variety on the stage. So Gordon Pinsent was followed by Gord Downie, the lead singer of The Tragically Hip, who read “At the Quinte Hotel” then sang a song and played guitar.

Steve Heighton turned the event into a fashion show by wearing one of Al’s distinctive shirts (and recommending other items at the Silent Auction) before reading “Necropsy of Love.”

It was time for a Greek Chorus, with Gillian Savigny, Leigh Kotsilides (no typecasting there!), and Moez Surani, led by Robert Priest. They sang and then produced a choral version of “In Search of Owen Roblin.” Then Robert introduced young Alex Gagliano, who recited “Thank God I’m Normal” with its ringing final line, “ Why — why the sonsabitches!”

Michael Enright then brought his CBC gravitas to the proceedings, telling us the story of Al Purdy’s life. Then, in the role of M.C., which he was to adopt increasingly, he introduced more music in the form of author-musician Dave Bidini, of The Rheostatics, here appearing along with Bidiniband and The Billie Hollies. bidiniband

That rousing musical interlude led to the 35-minute intermission, where two of Patrick White’s friends, reluctant attendees, were exulting that this Al Purdy was clearly “the coolest guy ever!”

Here my account of the evening becomes scattered, because after the intermission I was backstage throughout (except for my moment in the sun, when I got to talk about my role as Al’s publisher, to pay tribute . . . very briefly . . .  to George Goodwin and the organising committee — “You’ll find their names in the programme” — before praising Eurithe, and Jean Baird “with us tonight from Vancouver.” Then it was “on with the show,” and an introduction for Ken Babstock).

But from my perch in the Green Room, watching the fuzzy screen, or from the wings, I enjoyed the video produced by Brian D. Johnson, then Phil Hall and Karen Solie doing their duet reading of “Shall We Gather at the River,” George Elliott Clarke, as Toronto’s Poet Laureate, reading “In Cabbagetown,” and then the Skydiggers (Andy Maize, Josh Finlayson and Michael Johnstone), who filed off, brushing shoulders with me as the applause from their music still rang around the hall.

After Ken Babstock, Michael Enright brought Margaret Atwood onstage for a sit-down interview (hey, we haven’t had an interview yet!), which was great fun (as listeners to The Sunday Edition were to learn). It ended with Margaret reading “Wilderness Gothic.” Dennis Lee then talked briefly about Al and read “In My Grandfather’s Country,” which sounded even better from the wings, where the cast was assembling for the Finale, where George Bowering led us in “Say the Names,” with chosen poets hollering out “Lillooet” or “Nahanni” on cue.


For this finale, which turned into a curtain call, Michael Enright and I bracketed the poets ranged along the stage. Beside me was Gordon  Pinsent, whom I had telephoned so many months ago to ask if he would perhaps be interested in helping with this event we were planning. To be with him as the waves of applause . . . no, more than that, the waves of affection . . . came washing over us from the audience was unforgettable. Then in an unrehearsed way we waved to the audience and walked off, dazed and delighted.

Later, when I was able to leave all the happy handshaking backstage, the audience was still filing out, and were clearly delighted, saying very kind things.

And, after the nail-biting lead-up, we ended up selling over 700 tickets! In fact, we ran out of programmes, because we had to set the number of the print run a couple of days in advance, when printing 500 seemed sensible. And we made money, and Duncan Patterson’s plans to fix up the A-frame can now go forward.

And, yes, as I had predicted to the Metro Morning audience, it was the sort of once-in-a-lifetime event where others will say . . . “You were there?”

The Al Purdy Event (Part Two)

In the end, the fundraising event at Koerner Hall on February 6 was such a success that it’s worth celebrating the people who put it together. I’m reminded that a 19th century British Cabinet was once famously described as the Cabinet “of all the talents.” I think that the Al Purdy event organisers deserve the same description.

Let me say the names here: George Goodwin, our fearless (and tireless) Chair, a former McClelland & Stewart colleague now working for the Weston organization; his son Christopher Goodwin, a banker who knows a lot about fundraising and how to close a deal and how to represent a younger generation; Leslie Lester, the Executive Director & Managing Director of Soulpepper Theatre Company with many excellent contacts in the worlds of poetry and rock, and who knows how to go about putting on a good show; Don Oravec, who, before he was felled by ill health, as Executive Director of  The Writer’s Trust had learned all there was to know about fundraising for the literary world; Alexandra Manthorpe, a young lawyer, who could keep us all out of jail, and who stickhandled the purchase of the A-frame itself on just 10 days’ notice; Valerie Jacobs, the superhuman organiser who once ran my life at M&S, and who was now given the task of running the Silent Auction; Duncan Patterson, the young architect who had made detailed plans of exactly how the Purdy A-frame had to be repaired – and who had spent every summer of his life in Prince Edward County; Patrick White of the Globe and Mail, a son of Howard White, one of the founders of the movement to save the A-frame, along with Jean Baird (Jean and Howie were distant but very active members of our planning group); Marni Jackson, the author who can turn her hand to any writing task, including the creation of the script for this show that had such a marvellous flow that it was able to lull or startle the audience, as required, on the night. (Marni’s husband, Brian D. Johnson of Maclean’s fame, played a major role behind the scenes, acquiring amazing film footage and creating a tribute video to Al that appeared for the first time that night.)

Finally, this group of unpaid volunteers shrewdly hired Laura McLeod, a theatre professional, to make sure that the event happened, including such details as having tickets available at the box office, and having the cast show up on the night, knowing what was expected of them.

As those who were there know (and will happily tell you), we pulled it off. And it was indeed “all right on the night.”

But not before much nail-biting anguish. High drama, indeed. If you like a comfortable, predictable life, do not ever put on a one-night stand-alone show. Unless your show is an annual event, or part of a series, with a predictable – and contactable – audience, you are in for a testing time, a roller-coaster ride for your emotions.

To over-simplify:  if you can charge $200 for each ticket you will raise funds very fast, if you can sell them. By lowering the price of our tickets to $50.00 we were gambling that we could sell enough of them to cover our costs, plus . . . Although all of our artists, musicians and poets and actors alike, were generously donating their time, we found that renting a superb, central space like Koerner Hall (and heating it, not to mention having the stage lit, and having ushers etc., etc.) costs a lot of money, and we had to sell several hundred seats to break even. So for all of us, the two weeks up to the event were dominated by emails describing the Daily Ticket Sales, sent along by Laura McLeod.

They were terrifying. With roughly one week to go we had sold only about 200 tickets. We were going to lose lots of money on this fundraiser.

It was time for emergency action. Since people reacted well when they heard about the event (“That sounds great. When is it, again?”), the trick was to spread the word. Any way we could. Emails flew to surprised friends and professional contacts. Our committee worked their contacts in the media (“Hey, we’re in NOW!”). Eventually this led to fine things like an A-frame article in the Toronto Star (which neglected to mention the date and location of the fundraising event, requiring a sly Letter to the Editor, praising the piece and just happening to mention “Koerner Hall” and “Wednesday”).

Even better, CBC Radio came through, inviting me (an internal CBC document praised my ability to “yak”) to talk about the forthcoming show on Metro Morning on Tuesday. I stressed that I was just part of the organizing committee, but this message was embarrassingly elided at the end, so that it seemed that I was The Organising Principal.

The next morning I was on Ontario Today, urging people outside Toronto to come in for the show. I think some did come. Certainly as I mingled gratefully with the crowds I met lots of people who were Metro Morning listeners.

And we sold over 700 tickets! As for the show itself, watch for my next installment.