Maybe because in Calgary the pace of development is so accelerated, there is little time for nostalgia and not much more for looking forward. Tributes were made during WordFeast, the Festival’s opening night fundraiser, to Creative Director Anne Green’s stepping down after fifteen successful years at the helm, but neither she nor Jane Urquhart and the others who praised her were excessively wistful. Affectionate and admiring, certainly, but superfluous sentimentality is not the Albertan way, especially when there is a job to be done. Calgarians take great satisfaction in achievements already made, and maybe it is the certainty that there is some other project around the corner that stops tears from flowing—as I’d expected to have been the case with Anne’s departure. It’s not about being stoic, it’s that leaving a job is not ‘retirement’. Alberta is a province of unceasing activity and its psyche and worldview reflect that.
On the Wednesday night, when the lobby of the Vertigo Theatre packed out as usual—how pleasing it is to WordFest’s appreciative constituency out and buying books—there was a party for patrons (with excellent grub provided by the River Café), but again the mood was entirely festive, Anne Green’s family in attendance as usual. Properly managing an ascendancy is, of course, one of the greatest challenges facing any organization, and the quiet and sure presence in the wings of new Director Jo Steffens, a Calgarian who has returned home to the city after many years working in the literary community in New York, indicated that the festival remains in good hands.
On Saturday night, according to custom, WordFest decamped from the Palliser Hotel for The Banff Centre and the mountains, where remembrance of another kind was made. In the Margaret Greenham Theatre, musician-cum-author Dave Bidini, also a columnist for the National Post, Peter Oliva, Jane Urquhart, Greystone Books’ publisher Rob Sanders and short film-maker Judith Keenan took to the stage with Paul Quarrington’s band, the Pork Belly Futures, to remember the much beloved Toronto author who spent a lot of time in the mountains—he was an avid fisher—and with WordFest, and who died at an unfairly early age on January 21st of this year.
Quarrington, aside from being extraordinarily prolific, had an extraordinarily easy manner so that, were you a good friend or merely more of a professional colleague, as I was, one felt oneself a chum anyway. Quarrington contributed a discussion to a book and a radio series I wrote about Canada, some five years ago, about the idea of the ravine in the consciousness of a bunch of notable writers who’d grown up in Don Mills, one of Canada’s first planned communities. He was easy and witty, as usual, and though I have no reason for knowing if this was the case, I like to think that talking about the ravine (and particularly as a quasi-menacing childhood place) with Lawrence Hill and Barbara Gowdy and myself may have in some way contributed to his having written his Giller-longlisted novel, The Ravine, afterwards. That’s the kind of guy he was. Working hard, in a good mood, and so companionable and self-effacing that anybody around him also wanted a little piece of him, a hand in what seemed like his better version of the writing life. Or musician’s, or gambler’s or fisher’s life, for that matter.
About the family, the day-to-day was not quite so smooth, though those closest to him did not stop loving or caring for him or being cared for by him either. That’s why I don’t think it’s betraying him at all to share just how that ineffable sense of humour accompanied him even into his darkest moments. I was reliably told by a colleague if his that after the friend he was out with did not like the cough she was hearing and insisted Paul go to the hospital to have it checked out, he learned that he had stage four lung cancer.
“Well, I guess that takes care of my commitment issues,” said Paul.
Hearing Dave Bidini and the pair’s band, The Pork Belly Futures play, was particularly moving, especially when it came to Bidini’s setting of a poem of Paul’s to music, a little of which is attached here as a video. You have to know that Bidini still feels his pal’s absence deeply, no matter the quality of his own guard of humour. Paul hangs over his buddies like a spectre, good-natured mostly, but nevertheless there—as when a piece of Judith Keenan video from her documentary based on Paul’s last book, the posthumously published memoir Cigar Box Banjo to interrupt the night’s proceedings almost willfully.
It was a rich near-culmination of a super WordFest, perhaps one of the best. And it’s something to attend the evening showcases at the Vertigo Studio theatre or on the Saturday to wander the paths and the buildings of the Banff Centre, haven for the arts, and to see pass Alice Kuipers and Yann Martel, Joan Thomas, Drew Hayden Taylor, Katherine Govier, Emma Donoghue, Alison Pick, Paolo Giordano and this year’s scores of other extraordinary talents. It’s a rich seam, the literary one, and in Calgary and Banff, this year, it was mined on both the domestic and international fronts—again. Tonight, Sunday night, Anne Green will be fêted, and I hope that she rides the wave of affection that has been evident but understated throughout WordFest 2010 as far as it will take her.
Well done, Anne—and Anne-Nicole and Mary and Amanda and Don and all the rest of WordFest’s terrific staff and volunteers. And, too, a big welcome to Jo. Here’s to 2011.
– Noah Richler, WordFest’s Official Festival Blogger
Noah Richler is a writer and broadcaster. His book, This is My Country, What’s Yours? A Literary Atlas of Canada won the 2007 B.C. Award for Canadian Non-Fiction. He blogs for WordFest and his column,“The Writing Life,” appears here and on roverarts.com.