By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
January 25, 2010
Paul Quarrington came to Vancouver Island to make music, to read from his works, and, as often as he could, to fish.
For an excursion on the Cowichan River, he dressed in the layers of the winter fisherman, stuffing himself into neoprene chest waders as sleek as the steelhead whose acquaintance he tried to make.
The Cowichan’s flow in March explains its reputation for treachery, as it is both swifter and deeper than appearance. The river surprised Mr. Quarrington, who was more accustomed to what he called the “staid civility” of angling in his native Ontario.
“Steelheaders are forever emerging from rivers wearing expressions of dazed ecstasy,” he wrote in his 2003 book, “From the Far Side of the River,” “as if what they just experienced was part baptism, part roller-coaster ride.”
Mr. Quarrington died of lung cancer at his Toronto home on Thursday, a passing that has provoked many heartfelt tributes. His bereaved friends have written about him “singing with angels,” or watching hockey “on high with Teeder Kennedy.” On Saturday, “Hockey Night in Canada” honoured the author of the humourous hockey novel “King Leary” with a three-minute montage of great plays interspersed with quotations from his writing.
For the most part unstated has been his connection to British Columbia.
Born in Toronto and raised in the comfortable neighbourhood of Don Mills, he won respect and accolades for his varied talents. He wrote poetry and journalism and screenplays and novels, most notably “Whale Music,” which won the Governor General’s Award. He played guitar for the Porkbelly Futures and, earlier, bass for Joe Hall and the Continental Drift. He even co-wrote and performed a top-charting single in 1980 with “Baby and the Blues.”
While his home and his roots were centred in Toronto, his book publisher is based in Vancouver and his record label is based in Victoria.
In May, Greystone Books will release Mr. Quarrington’s “Cigar Box Banjo,” a memoir completed in the months after his diagnosis and shortly before his death.
How often did he get to Vancouver Island?
“Whenever he could,” said Michael Burke, 58, the impresario of Cordova Bay Records.
The two first met at Milneford Junior High in Don Mills when Mr. Burke, a Grade 9 clarinet player in the school band, played behind a Grade 7 student on whom fell the unwanted responsibility to narrate a piece called “Little Bop Riding Hood.” His first reaction: “This kid has got balls. This is what star quality is.”
Many years later, in 1998, Mr. Burke helped organize a Paul Quarrington Festival in Victoria. The Roxy CineGog showed “Whale Music,” the terrific dramatic comedy based on his novel, while the Ocean radio station aired “Baby and the Blues.” Kaleidoscope Theatre performed Mr. Quarrington’s “The Invention of Poetry,” while the author himself gave several readings.
His earlier visits to the city earned him rave notices in the Times Colonist newspaper, though he was as likely to appear in the fishing column as on the arts page.
“He loved to fish,” Mr. Burke said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if he fished in his bathtub.”
Mr. Burke, 58, recently helped organize the Quarrington Arts Society, a charitable foundation that will award prizes to artists showing achievement in more than once discipline.
The founders have come up with an unlikely trophy in homage to the society’s namesake. It includes a three-dimensional musical note and a quotation mark attached to a base resembling a film canister.
Mr. Burke’s label handles the Porkbelly Futures, a country blues outfit whose witty lyrics reflected Mr. Quarrington’s comic take on life. In what would be Mr. Quarrington’s final performance on Vancouver Island, the band played The Queen’s Pub in Nanaimo in November, 2008. After the show, the old friends got together to tell tall stories and swap lies for hours on end.
“He wanted to get back out here,” Mr. Burke said. “He viewed it as an untouched wilderness.”
The singer-songwriter Wyckham Porteous, who is also in the Cordova Bay Records stable, was so moved by Mr. Quarrington’s dignified handling of his death sentence that he wrote a song about him. He got to play it for his subject, gently crying while singing. The song has yet to be recorded for release.
CHURCHILL CALLS: A small, shivering crowd of 75 gathered at the Mayors Grove in Beacon Hill Park yesterday afternoon, among them former NDP premier Dan Miller and former Social Credit attorney-general Brian Smith. Supported by the , the annual event toasts the memory of the man who rallied his people against Nazi aggression.
Les Leyne, a newspaper columnist, played host to the gathering, held, coincidentally, on his birthday, while the author Chris Gainor once again reprised his role as the British Bulldog in felt hat, trenchcoat, and an eponymous stogie.
The celebration takes place in front of a hawthorn tree planted during Sir Winston’s visit to the city on Sept. 6, 1929.
The tradition at the event is to make a toast with an inexpensive German sparkling wine, which, thanks to Churchill’s defiance, is a libation of choice and not coercion.