Hello people, and welcome to 2013! My apologies for being so absent lately. It has been a combination of weariness/illness (the aftermath of The Dreaded Christmas Flu), and being on the road with no reliable internet access. But tonight I am feeling better than I have in quite a while, energized and (thanks largely to a great note I got today from my friend and indefatigable Queensborough-booster Elaine) all revved up about what this year is going to bring for Queensborough, and for Raymond and me and our life at the Manse. It is going to be a good year!
But first, some news from Hastings County that won’t be news to those of you who live there or keep tabs on it, but will perhaps be to others. It’s rather sad news, because it involves the end of not one but two historic buildings that have a certain place in the Canadian literary canon, thanks to poet Al Purdy. These places are none other than the Quinte Hotel – or should I say, the Quinte Hotels. One is – or rather, was – in Trenton, a small city in the southwestern corner of Hastings County (and for some unknown reason sometimes more associated with neighbouring Northumberland County); the other, currently in ruins and semi-demolished, is in Belleville, the Hastings County seat about 45 minutes due south of Queensborough. Both experienced devastating fires over the course of the past couple of months – first the Trenton Quinte (which in recent years has been a strip joint called the Sherwood Forest Inn; details on that fire here and here) and then, just before Christmas, the historic landmark building that was the Quinte Hotel (or, in more recent times, the “Hotel Quinte”) in the heart of Belleville; you can read about that one here and here and here.
If you know anything at all about Al Purdy you probably know At the Quinte Hotel, one of his most famous poems. “I am drinking/I am drinking beer with yellow flowers/in underground sunlight/and you can see that I am a sensitive man/And I notice that the bartender is a sensitive man too…” Gord Downie of the Tragically Hip did a video based on it and here it is (though I recommend fast-forwarding through the first couple of minutes and getting straight to the voice of Al reading the poem):
It kind of gets all gauzy in retrospect now, but if you grew up in rural Ontario in the middle part of the 20th century, you will probably have a good idea of what places like the Quinte Hotel were like in the days Al was drinking in them. In a small town or city, “the hotel” was a synonym for “the bar,” or better yet, to use a classic Canadian phrase, “the beer parlour.” These were generally three- or four-storey brick buildings that once had been real hotels, with respectable rooms for rent, and restaurants with fine meals served as well as bar service. But once there was no longer much call for hotel rooms or fine dining in Ontario’s small towns and cities, the proprietors of these establishments had to make ends meet any way they could, and that tended to be turning the ground floor into a large bar serving primarily draft beer (generally purchased in sets of two glasses, salt shaker on the side) primarily (especially in the unenlightened days before the late 1970s/early 1980s, when women were finally allowed in, for better or for worse) to men. (There would in the olden days be a separate room for “ladies and escorts” that was never particularly populated.) The food served in these beer parlours was mostly from giant jars of pickled eggs and preserved sausages on the counter; there would be a cigarette machine doling out Mark Tens and whatnot in exchange for a whole bunch of quarters in the corner of the room; and on Friday and Saturday nights, as likely as not, there would be live entertainment in the form of a band that might be half-decent and, then again, might not. The room would be always a haze of cigarette smoke, fights would be common, and if you happened to be there past closing time (when the lights went up, a ghastly – though eminently predictable – event immortalized in Leonard Cohen’s Closing Time) it was always entertaining to watch and listen as people outside the locked door tried to wheedle their way in for one last late-night drink.
Gee, I sound like I know what I’m talking about, don’t I?
Well, let me assure you that my experiences in old-fashioned Ontario beer parlours have nothing whatsoever to do with my growing-up-in-Queensborough years. They came when I was older and much less wise. But suffice to say that while I never darkened the door of the Quinte Hotel in Trenton or the Quinte Hotel in Belleville, I am perfectly aware of what those places were like. And since Al Purdy was very fond of beer, and of shooting the breeze, I am equally sure that many of his afternoons and maybe evenings were spent drinking beer at the Quinte Hotel, in whichever town he happened to be in.
It turns out it was the Quinte Hotel in Trenton he was referring to in his famous poem, though I’d be shocked if he hadn’t enjoyed the hospitality of the Belleville establishment as well. I remember that place (the Belleville one) in the 1960s and 1970s, when my family would visit Belleville (usually because my dad, the minister, was making pastoral calls on parishioners who were in the hospital there) because of the oval rotating red and white and blue sign proclaiming “Quinte Hotel” that was something of a landmark in the downtown (though damned if I can find a photo of it on Google – anybody?).
Anyway, these are fond memories, stinky tobacco-hazy beer parlours and all. But here is some news you need! The Al Purdy A-Frame Trust people, the good folks working to restore the humble A-frame house that Al and his hardy wife, Eurithe, built by hand in Prince Edward County and that was a home away from home for generations of Canadian writers, are holding a celebration and fundraising night this coming Feb. 6 (that’s a Wednesday) in Toronto. Details here, and you can order tickets here. Gord Downie will be there, as will Margaret Atwood, Gordon Pinsent and many others. Awesome things – like, say, books from Al’s own library – will be up for auction. And all for a good cause: remembering and celebrating and carrying on the legacy of your friend and mine, Al Purdy.
A sometime drinker at the Quinte Hotel.