I met William Burroughs once. It was during my magical year in Paris (sigh). I’d read in Libération that morning that the legendary icon of the Beats would be at the City of Light’s annual Salon du Livre at the Grand Palais. I thought ‘what the hell’, and went down to catch a glimpse of the famous man, who had been such a part of the Kerouac/Ginsberg Beat generation of writers. In On the Road, the book that changed my life, Burroughs appears as Old Bull Lee. An insatiable consumer of drugs, Burroughs fatally shot his wife during a crazed William Tell re-enactment in Mexico, hung out in Tangiers where the less said about his proclivity for underage boys the better, and found time to write such underground classics as Junkie and Naked Lunch, turned into a movie by the strange David Cronenberg. (My parents actually had a copy of Naked Lunch, which neither they nor I ever read…well, as a randy teenager, I did thumb through the book looking for naughty bits. I was disappointed.)

The more he aged and mellowed, however, the more Burroughs was celebrated. By the time the Salon du Livre rolled around, he was 76. Heading up the stairs of the Grand Palais, I spotted an old guy in a trench coat also heading for the entrance. He was alone. Could it be, I wondered. “Excuse me, are you William Burroughs, by any chance?” In a gentle voice, he politely replied that indeed he was. I said it was an honour to meet him and shook his hand. He was very nice about the whole thing. So I then asked: “Do you sign autographs?” Yes, he did. I had a small poster advertising the Salon du Livre. He took my pen and signed it. I knew I should have asked him about Kerouac, but heck, his appearance was so unexpected that I was just kind of awestruck. A bit later, I went by his book table, surrounded by a gaggle of gawkers. I didn’t join them. I’d already had my William Burroughs moment.

Of course, Mick Jagger once met him, too.

Rolling Stones & Jagger, Mick & Burroughs, William S. & Warhol,

This memory came flooding back last weekend, as I took in the penultimate day of the remarkable collection of Allen Ginsberg photos on display at North Vancouver’s Presentation House. Starting in 1953 when Ginsberg bought a used Kodak for 13 bucks, his homespun photos provide a wonderfully intimate look at the Beats both before and after they were famous. Kerouac, Burroughs, their wild, tragic muse Neal Cassady, Gregory Corso, and of course, Ginsberg, himself. There were many other photos from Ginsberg’s life after the heyday of the Beats, but for me, fascinated by this small group of literary earth-shakers for so long, they paled compared to what I really wanted to see.

As I wandered through the exhibition, I was reminded once again, of course, what unhappy fates so many of them had. Kerouac, bloated, alcoholic and railing at the hippies, left us at 47. Cassady, featured in On the Road as the unforgettable Dean Moriarty, died a sad death four days short of his 42nd birthday, passed out by some railway tracks in Mexico. Ginsberg was just 71 when he succumbed to liver cancer. Burroughs, who ingested more drugs of more variety than East German swimmers and Lance Armstrong combined, was the grand exception. The Keith Richard of the Beats, he survived to 83.

Here are some of the photos I particularly liked, re-snapped by my trusty iPhone.

I love this shot of a young, vibrant Neal Cassady, under a San Francisco movie marquee advertising The Wild One. He’s with his girlfriend at the time, the troubled Natalie Jackson. She later committed suicide.


Hard to top this photo of Jack Kerouac, in Tangiers, 1957. A good-looking fellow, wasn’t he?


And here he is just seven years later, the last time he visited Ginsberg’s New York apartment, “yawning with mortal horror,” as Ginsberg wrote in his caption.

IMG_2570There’s something of looming tragedy in this photo of a manic Neal Cassady, who famously drove the bus for Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters across Amerika, ingesting acid all the way, at the rural retreat of LSD guru/advocate Timothy Leary. That’s Leary, also grinning away.


And just for literary history buffs, this is the desk in his small San Francisco apartment, where Allen Ginsberg wrote his epic, transformative poem, Howl, in the summer of 1955 (the year “da Bums” finally won the World Series), while listening much of the time to Bach (on vinyl!).

IMG_2562 (2)

There were also photos of Carl Solomon, the mental patient who inspired Howl, Ginsberg’s father in his final days, an impossibly hunky Neal Cassady, showing just why everyone, both the Beats and women, were perpetually in love with him, a dinner at the dacha of well-known Russian poet Yvgeny Yevtushenko, plus, of all people, Jello Biafra, leader and founder of the much-loved, outrageous punk group, Dead Kennedys. And on and on. A great show.

I further appreciated the exhibition’s recall of the fabled Vancouver Poetry Conference in 1963, a month-long summer gathering at UBC, attended by Ginsberg and other tradition-shattering poets such as Denise Levertov, Robert Creeley, Charles Olson and Robert Duncan. Well-known locals Fred Wah, recently Canada’s poet laureate, and some baseball playing young fella named George Bowering were also there.


As l left North Vancouver for the overseas trip back to Vancouver, there was a jaunt to my step, privileged to have been transported, through these and many other evocative photographs, back to the world of the Beats, for all its sorrows and unhappy endings. They changed the world.


IMG_4788 Like many, I presume, I have a love-hate relationship with the big box Chapters bookstore downtown at Robson and Howe. Stocking the main floor with almost everything BUT books, bringing in the flag-waving American Girl franchise to what is supposed to be a Canadian bookstore, and, worst of all, the shameful relegation of books by local and B.C. authors to a shelf way at the back on the third floor with a title “Local interest” do not exactly warm the cockles of my heart.

On the other hand, it’s the only bookstore that isn’t a used bookstore in downtown Vancouver, it has lots of natural light, and I buy lots of books there. Plus, of course, so-called “bricks-and-mortar” stores fend off the increasingly worrisome dominance of the book trade by the new robber baron of our age, Amazon. So I was not a happy reader to discover that Chapters’ Robson store will be closing to the public at the end of May, driven out by sky-high rent brought on by Nordstrom’s coming mega-store across the street. The big bucks are in retail, not, alas, in books.

Unless Chapters is able to find a new location in short order, this will leave Canada’s third largest city without a downtown bookstore, a development that would speak volumes about where our strange, soulless society is heading. Just what Vancouver needs, another Sport Chek.

Luckily, perhaps, we have Heather Reisman, the boss lady of Indigo, which owns the Chapters chain. (More on that, later). Still a professed book believer, she came to Vancouver this week to scout out locations for a new bookstore in the ‘hood. And (insert blare of trumpets here) she held a public meeting at the store Monday night to bring us up to date on her company’s plans and actually listen to us store-users.

I was more impressed by this corporate mogul than I expected to be. With no fanfare or introduction, Reisman simply walked up the front and began talking to us. She provided information, personably answered questions and even asked our opinions about stuff, no matter how unlikely our raised or lowered hands would factor into the company’s cold, hard decision-making. In turn, we were polite, friendly and inquisitive, as only life-long book buyers can be. Okay, there were a few cranky questions (guilty, my lord…), but not many. IMG_4790 Here are some of the things we learned. All quotes are Reisman’s, unless indicated.

  1. The current Chapters store is 53,000 sq. ft. “That’s a bigger store than we need.” The third floor was added by Chapters in an effort to head off Indigo’s charge into the bookstore business. When Indigo prevailed and took over Chapters, they were stuck with the excess space. “What we need is 30,000 sq. ft….While the rent was sustainable, we could sustain that amount of space, but they doubled the rent.” Goodbye, Chapters on Robson.
  2. Indigo is committed to opening a new bookstore downtown. In the meantime, the company would like to find temporary space, while searching for a permanent location. Reisman said one spot they looked at was the second floor of a new office/retail building nearing completion at Thurlow and Alberni. Dismissive at first glance, Reisman said IMG_4802 she was having second thoughts. When people said they wouldn’t mind the extra walk, she observed: “We gotta re-look at that…We could be there a month after we close.” She said they also looked at another location she would not identify. Why does Indigo want a new space so quickly? “The notion of leaving you without a bookstore in downtown Vancouver is concerning to us.”
  3. Reisman was positive about her company’s future. “Indigo is growing. We are hugely committed to the business. We are not looking to close stores.” She agreed physical bookstores have challenges, but pointed out that e-reading has leveled off (17%) and some former e-readers are beginning to buy physical books, again. At the same time, young adult readership is “exploding”. On the down side, although Indigo’s online business is growing, so too, of course, is Amazon’s. She derided a fellow in the audience who said he came to Chapters to browse, then went home to order the books he liked online. “If you browse here and buy elsewhere, that hurts our ability to keep bricks and mortar stores….If you buy more online, then we are in trouble.”
  1. Yes, there are lots of other products for sale at Indigo bookstores. “It’s not exactly a bookstore anymore…but it is still the centre of what we do. I love to be surrounded by books, but we want to extend products for the consumer.” The add-on formula is working, Reisman said. “It’s why we’re doing better. We need other products to enrich us.” She avowed: “We are a passionate bookstore. We do not want the bricks and mortar stores to go away.”
  2. Nor is all gloom and doom. Business at the company’s physical bookstores had single digit grown last year. Its online business had double digit growth. “We’ve had a nice kind of growth.”
  3. If you prefer the name Chapters to Indigo, you will soon be out of luck. Reisman said they kept the name on stores bought up by Indigo “because some people love their Chapters.” But now: “Slowly and surely, we are going to change all the names to Indigo.”
  4. Odds and ends: Indigo is looking to enhance its in-store rewards program. Toys in bookstores? “We are one of the few toy stores downtown, and we are very committed to our toy stores.” Does Reisman really read all those books that become “Heather’s picks”? “Yes! I read them all. My picks are books I have read and loved like crazy. Magazines? “Sales have gone down a bit, but we’re starting to do better. We’re holding our own.”
  5. Image 22AND NOW THE BIG ONE! Yours truly, modest co-author of the best-selling, prize-winning tale of the Dave Barrett government, The Art of the Impossible, complained about the lack of prominence Chapters gives to local and B.C. authors. “If you can find them, they are way at the back of the third floor, categorized as ‘Local Interest’. Is that acceptable?” Surprisingly, Reisman agreed this was bad. She noticed the same thing in another of her bookstores. “For sure, we have to look at that.” I’m not holding my breath, but it was something.

Finally, here’s a take on the pending closure of Chapters on Robson by the “alternative” folks at Rabble, who celebrate independent bookstores, though comparing the two is really apples and oranges. Long may both survive.


Image 11

Paul St. Pierre, B.C.’s superb chronicler of the beautiful Chilcotin and its all-too-human characters, passed away last July. But friends and family waited until Sunday, the weekend of Mexico’s Day of the Dead, to formally say goodbye to the former Vancouver Sun columnist, Liberal MP, gifted writer and, in the words of publisher Scott McIntyre, “accomplished shit-disturber.”

The timing was no accident, clearly a request from the man, himself, who considered Mexico a second home. He particularly relished that country’s Day of the Dead (Nov. 1), an annual holiday set aside for prayers, cemetery visits and celebration of the deceased, replete with ubiquitous, symbolic skulls. No doubt, it appealed to St. Pierre’s life-long love of the off-beat.

So Mexican snacks, a mariachi band and, yes, skulls, were prominent at the packed gathering inside the historic community hall in Fort Langley, where St. Pierre lived for many years. Even some of the goodies depicted those good old skulls, complete with gleaming eyes. It was a good, relaxed, shambling event, of a kind the guest of honour would certainly have enjoyed, if he happened to be peering in from the nearby cemetery, where his gravestone is inscribed: “This was not my idea.”

Since St. Pierre lived past the age of 90, few contemporaries were there to “tell lies” about their old friend, except for 95-10070812year old Ron Rose, who knew him well from their many years at the Vancouver Sun. The ageless “Ramblin’ Rose” brought the house down with his well-delivered tales of life in the outdoors with his irascible companion. After describing one long weekend of hunting and fishing misadventures at St. Pierre’s tumbledown Chilcotin cabin, with only whiskey and canned salmon for nourishment, Rose concluded: “We drove all night back to Vancouver. After a couple of hundred miles, I noticed he wasn’t talking. I asked if he was mad at me. ‘Shut up,’ he said. ‘Can’t you tell I’m writing my column?’”

On another occasion, St. Pierre, with his freshly-earned pilot’s licence, offered to fly Rose from Victoria to Vancouver in a little Cessna for Thanksgiving. The confident new pilot told Rose the flight was a snap. “Paul said it was all right to fly across the strait if you climbed until you reached the middle, so you could coast back either way if the engine quit.”

Said Rose: “We survived one scrape after another by dint of the indomitable cussedness that made  him unique. He was just what he seemed, and you couldn’t ask for a rougher diamond.”

We learned other things about Paul St. Pierre.

As he grew older, he took to calling libraries to see if they still stocked his books. When he phoned the library in his hometown of Halifax, he was pleased to find they did have a few Paul St. Pierre books on their shelves. He then asked what they knew about the author. “Oh, he’s dead,” the librarian replied.

He was never one to mince words. A Fort Langley writer recalled her first volume of verse being reviewed by the eminent St. Pierre in the local paper. “It was a scathing review, the worst I’ve ever had,” she said. Many years later, she hadn’t quite forgiven him, but she looked at things differently. “He made me realize writers need a tough skin. I learned something. So today, I thank him for that bad review.”

Mischief was no stranger to the great, man. We heard of a single mom with a couple of kids who was enamoured of his writing. A friend took her favourite book to St. Pierre and asked him to sign it. She explained how much her friend loved his books, and that she was a single mother. After asking her friend’s name, he wrote in the book: “Dear Mary Lou. Thank you for that beautiful weekend in Vegas. Paul St. Pierre.”

In his latter years, St. Pierre used a motorized scooter to get around. Notorious for driving as fast as he wanted, regardless of the speed limit, he asked a nephew to tinker with his scooter. “Make it go faster,” he ordered. He liked going to Wal-Mart and “accidentally” running into store displays, knocking them askew.

The same writer whose poetry St. Pierre had reviled also noted that a year or two before he died, he showed up at a public meeting in a wheelchair to oppose the three-storey Coulter Berry building proposed for Fort Langley’s historic downtown. “The character of Fort Langley will be gone,” he told the meeting. “We really need a three-storey store like we need a cholera outbreak.” Said the women: “He was an activist in his local community to the end.”

Then, as the rain pelted down outside, the band began to play. After that, the sombrero-topped Mariachi members led a damp, musical procession from the community hall to the cemetery a block away. Despite the rain, about 50 mourners/celebrants gathered around Paul St. Pierre’s grave in the deepening, late afternoon gloom. They placed candles, they remembered, they drank tequila, they went home. And It was good.

(if you want to learn more about this great writer from a long-ago era, read Tom Hawthorn’s fine Globe and Mail obit here)

Image 1(this photo courtesy of Chester Grant)


Image 9 In 1997, Rebecca Mead moved from New York Magazine to The New Yorker. You know, the best magazine in all the world, with the most stacks of unread copies in all the world to prove it. Because, of course, copies of The New Yorker pile up in so many homes of those who subscribe as a profound tribute to the publication. Each issue is so dense with incisive reviews and intensely delicious features, not to mention its bevy of hilarious cartoons and other tidbits, that it can take weeks in a busy life to get through a single issue. Hence, copies accumulate dust waiting to be read. One of these days I’ll get to that March 3, 2008 issue, which I just noticed has Nancy Franklin weighing in on a new TV drama, Breaking Bad. I peeked. “Breaking Bad is very well done, but it has a bleakness that seems to be manufactured for no good reason,” she writes. “I don’t feel won over by the show.” Wonder how she feels now. Incidentally, as another aside, Franklin wrote one of my favourite pieces of all time, on former big band singer Jo Stafford.

(Get on with it – ed.) Okay, back to Rebecca Mead. She was here for the Vancouver Writers’ Festival to talk about her book, My Life in Middlemarch, inspired by George Eliot’s much-loved Victorian novel described by interviewer Bill Richardson as a novel that could badly use a few car chases. ”If ever a movie will never star Vin Diesel…”

But Mead also chatted a bit about life as a staff writer at The New Yorker. Noting her move from New York Magazine to The New Yorker, she observed: “That ‘er’ at the end made all the difference.” For one thing, given The New Yorker’s prestige, people almost always called her back, something that was forever hit and miss at New York. “It gives you such access to fascinating people.”

The atmosphere at The New Yorker, said Mead, is “so nice and genteel. You hear all these lovely, quiet conversations behind closed doors… ….[And] you’re not required to do anything you really don’t want to do.” She likened her arrival to her entry to Oxford, after growing up in a bit of a backwater. “Suddenly, there were all these really intelligent people, focused on doing intelligent things.” Mead described editor David Remnick as relentless in pursuing matters that interest him. “He is very much engaged in the world.”

Her most recent long feature was a profile of the controversial British classics scholar, Mary Beard, whom she much enjoyed getting to know. Mead said she’s grateful to have left behind her old desire, fired at New York Magazine, to write critically of people, an aspect of her earlier writing that she attributed to her relative youth. It’s easier to write critical, edgy articles when you’re younger, she said. “I’m weary of that kind of heartlessness.”

At The New Yorker, she much prefers to engage with “someone I love and admire. I’m looking for the good in the world, not for a cheap way to bring someone down, although that still has a place in the world.”

One more thing. Mead is not a fan of journalism courses. She said her decision to study journalism at New York University was a mistake. “You only learn by doing something you’re told to do, and getting paid for at the end of it…..sorry, journalism professors.”

Then, it was on to Middlemarch and Mead’s book detailing how George Eliot and her massive tome, considered by some the greatest English novel, has impacted on her own life. She still re-reads it every five years or so. Mead reflected on how her own attitudes to the main characters and the plot, itself, have changed as she has grown older. She’s gone from thinking of the novel, at 17, as a love story, to a treatise on what makes a good marriage, to a sobering consideration of one’s place in the world. She is also much more sympathetic to the odious Casaubon and his scholastic failures. Unknown-3Meanwhile, she has found similarities with the author in her own life. George Eliot also loved to eviscerate people when she was young. “She was venting her own frustration with the world on the people she wrote about. Then [like me] she grew out of it.” More interestingly, George Eliot famously co-habited with intellectual George Henry Lewes and considered him her husband, despite the fact that Lewes remained officially married to the mother of his three sons. Eliot helped care for his sons and was close to Unknown-5them. The name of Rebecca Mead’s husband is also George, and he, too, has three sons from a previous marriage that Mead has helped raise. How odd is that?

As an added bonus, in a discussion on whether the world of email and Twitter has doomed insights into authors’ lives that were previously revealed in letters, we learned that the scarily-intellectual Susan Sontag once sent an email with the subject line: “Wassup”. All in all, with Rebecca Mead’s pleasant English accent, candour and succinct observations, augmented by the ever witty and erudite Bill Richardson, the session flew by. It was certainly worth missing the Canucks that night.




This is the way it happens, sometimes. On Saturday, I was out at Fort Langley, browsing through some shelves of used books at one of the community’s myriad antique stores, when I came across a few books by Paul St. Pierre. I leafed through them, trying to remember which ones I had purchased long ago, when his books were a staple in so many British Columbia homes. I hadn’t thought about the long-time Vancouver Sun columnist and sublime chronicler of the Chilcotin for years. I found myself wondering how he was doing, only to learn a few days later that Paul St. Pierre died the very next day in, yes, Fort Langley. Eerie.

He left behind a rich collection of beautiful prose that brought to life the vast, sprawling landscape of the sparsely-populated Cariboo-Chilcotin region of B.C., its rugged ranchers and First Nations people. From his books and columns, you got the feeling that no one ever said more than a few words at a time up there, and even those sparse sentences were uttered only around a pot-bellied stove or a fence post. But there was no shortage of colourful characters and gently unfolding stories. They were a natural for movies and CBC TV series, one of which first brought to prominence the legendary Chief Dan George.

However, I most remember Paul St. Pierre from his many years at the Vancouver Sun. It’s hard to imagine today, with the product that now arrives on our doorstep, that there existed a time when the Sun had the best roster of daily columnists in Canada, perhaps North America. There was Allan Fotheringham at the peak of his powers, Jack Wasserman — so much more than a nightclub prowler, the far-out, enviro-hippy Bob Hunter, essential Jim Taylor and lovely Jim Kearney in sports, and, if you liked Marjorie Nichols, she was there, too.

And there was Paul St. Pierre. Somehow, St. Pierre engineered one of the best columnist gigs ever. The Sun trusted him to almost never come into the office, while allowing him to write whatever he pleased about an area and people he loved. I’m not sure how his expenses worked, but he managed to wangle trips to his winter retreat in Mexico, too. Of course, Sun readers were the winners. Paul St. Pierre may never have written a prosaic column, in his life. No slouch with the pen, himself, Sun veteran Doug Sagi calls St. Pierre the finest writer to ever grace the newspaper, and his short story, Dry Storm, a Canadian classic to be compared with Hemingway, Twain “or any of them”. Highly-esteemed political columnist Les Leyne recalls tearing open bundles of the Vancouver Sun so he could read Paul St. Pierre’s column, before heading out on his paper route. There’s also this from the ageless Ron Rose, who went to work at the Vancouver Sun in the late 1930’s, never left, retired in 1985, and is still going strong at 94. Rose recounted these stories about the one-of-a-kind Paul St. Pierre on the occasion of his 80th birthday. They are also a reminder that newspapering was once fun, even away from the job.

As a young scribe at the Sun, I was too intimidated by St. Pierre’s stature to say much to him during his rare forays into the office. It was also unclear whether he was happy to be back at the paper, after being bounced in 1972 by the same Coast-Chilcotin voters, who had elected him as a Liberal MP during the Trudeau sweep of 1968. But I vividly recall his elegant shock of white hair, imposing sideburns, glasses dangling from a string as he strode imperiously through the newsroom, smoking one of those thin cigarillo things, and a face lined with character that spoke volumes about someone who knew how to live, while enjoying ever minute of it.

Paul St. Pierre (1923-2014), RIP. In the words of Doug Sagi: “Read and remember him.”


(Vancouver Sun photo)

For those unfamiliar with his legacy, this YouTube vignette is excellent.

And here is John Mackie’s piece in Tuesday’s Vancouver Sun:



I really enjoyed this blast from the past: Jack Kerouac’s glimpse of night-time New York City in it’s hip, cool, jazz heyday. Such a time.




It is hardly a tragedy when someone dies after a long, fulfilling life at the age of 91. But nonetheless, the thought that Mavis Gallant has passed away brings sadness, nevertheless. Though minus the high public profile of other celebrated Canadian women writers such as Alice Munro, Margaret Atwood and Margaret Laurence, all of whom she influenced, Gallant was one of our best. And she experienced so much — from reporting for the old Montreal Standard, jaunty beret in place, to the glamour of Paris, where she mentored the young, rambunctious Mordecai Richler then a fixture of the city’s brasseries, to her front-row seat during the fierce student uprising that virtually took over Paris during the summer of 1968, to her continued, meticulous writing that brought her the Governor General’s literary award in 1982, and made her a Companion of the Order of Canada 10 years later.

Yet Gallant was off the beaten track for many Canadians. In part, that was because she lived most of her life in dreamy Paris, so there was little national literary buzz about her. As well, her forté was the short story, which, Alice Munro notwithstanding, is not generally a road to fame. At her death, however, there was a flood of appreciation from writers and critics for her long writing career, not least of which from the none-too-shabby Michael Ondaatje. “I just adored her writing,” he told the Globe and Mail in an email. “Hers are the great stories of our time. So subtle, dangerous, hilarious. The full human condition. My hero.” American writer Joyce Carol Oates suggested the Nobel Prize awarded recently to Munro could easily have been shared by the two Canadian masters of the short story.

She wrote of outsiders, immigrants trying to cope and societal change. Many of her stories were set in Europe, but she was ever a Canadian, never losing touch with her home and native land. She often quoted with approval Robertson Davies’ succinct comment, during yet another Quebec referendum debate: “Canada is not a country you love. it’s a country you worry about.”

I can’t profess to having read oodles of her short stories, preferring the more accessible, crafted work of Alice Munro, but those I did read had a remarkable clarity and reality about them. And whenever she wrote about Paris in The New Yorker, I lapped it up. Gallant, who left Montreal to try and survive as a writer in Paris while still in her twenties, once said no other city appreciates writers quite as much as the City of Light. “I found for the first time in my life a society where you could say you’re a writer and not be asked for three months’ rent in advance.”

In 1990, I was lucky enough to spend a wonderful, magical afternoon with Mavis Gallant in the heart of her beloved Montparnasse. I was preparing a CBC radio documentary on “the changing face of Paris”, and Gallant agreed to be interviewed. When she suggested we meet on the outdoor terrace of the storied Dôme Café, one-time haunt of Hemingway, Capa, Picasso, Anaïs Nin et al, I was thrilled. Here was I, talking to a famous writer at Le Dôme! And Gallant loved to talk. She was a natural and easy conversationalist, without a trace of writerly airs, her lively mind darting from topic to topic. It was so much fun.


When news came of her death, I thought immediately of that grand day of long ago. After a surprisingly brief rummage through the legendary Mickle archives, I came up with the tape and gave it a listen on my ancient, wheezing tape deck. We sounded like old friends.

Gallant was surprisingly unsentimental about Paris, sharing none of my far-away romanticism for my favourite city in all the world. I kept trying to get her to agree with my thesis: wasn’t it a shame that Paris was losing its neighbourhood charms to fast food joints and garish modernity? She would have none of it. “I don’t like the bourgeois sentimental vision, that other people are supposed to live in slums because they’re attractive,” Gallant declared. “The picturesque slum is not my idea of how people ought to live. I think Paris has changed for the better.” However, she did profess a loathing for the notorious Tour Montparnasse, a garish black office tower plunked down in the middle of the low-rise arrondisement.

She also rebuffed my nostalgia for the good old days, honed by my long love affair with expatriate Paris of the 1920s, entranced by Hemingway’s fetching tales of how it was. “I don’t think Paris is being ruined,” said Gallant. “When I first came here, the city was rather dirty. You see the soft beige, sandstone colour on a lot of buildings? All that had been blackened by soot, since the turn of the century. Now it’s been cleaned, and the light is extraordinary.

“I have arguments with Canadians over this, because they like the grime,” she continued, over the café hum and clinking of cups and saucers. “But this is Paris as it was built. Suddenly we see those grand old buildings the way they were. That gives one much more a sense of history than a foot of grime.”

I finally hit the motherlode, when I asked her to describe the historic area where we were sitting, surrounded by other of the renowned cafès of Montparnasse. This was the clip I used for my documentary.

“Across the street, there’s been no change at all. That cinema has always been there. La Rotonde has always been there, of course. The Select has always been there. This café has always been here. Those two or three shops between here and La Coupole have always been there. The stationer, the tobacconist, that news agent across the street. They’ve always been there, too. So, you can’t say Paris has all been changed.”

Hearing those grand old cafés enumerated with such familiarity by Mavis Gallant, whilst gazing out at them from Le Dôme, itself, was a moment I’ve never forgotten.

RIP, Ms. Gallant. We’ll always have Paris.


Sandra Martin’s elegant obituary in the Globe and Mail:

And a recent Ideas segment on The Four Seasons of Mavis Gallant: