Earle Birney, the most influential writer in Vancouver during the 1950s and 1960s, concluded his satirical poem “Can. Lit.” (1947), with “no Whitman wanted / it’s by our lack of ghosts / we’re haunted.”
These twenty-five demarcations are an attempt to generate some ghosts. Vancouver is a city with a particularly vibrant literary culture; twenty-five designated sites is only a beginning.
No. 1 Al Purdy
LOCATION: at the foot of Woodland Drive in East Vancouver (between East Hastings and East Pender Streets).
Here poet Al Purdy worked parttime for P. Burns & Co., a meat processing plant and stockyards business (slaughterhouse) built in 1906 and demolished in 1969. His experiences at the plant are included in the poem Piling Blood (1984). Much earlier, Al Purdy had ridden the rails to Vancouver from Ontario. He later developed important friendships with Vancouver-based writers Earle Birney, Margaret Laurence and George Woodcock. The industrial and working class history of the DTES is reflected in this memoir/poem set in an area that has long housed workers and the unemployed in SROs.
And the blood smell clung to me
clung to clothes and body
sickly and sweet
and I heard the screams
of dying cattle
and I wrote no poems
there were no poems
to exclude the screams
which boarded the streetcar
and travelled with me
till I reached home
turned on the record player
in the last century
heard Beethoven weeping
EXTRA: Dominic Burns, brother of Patrick Burns of the meat-packing empire, built a slaughterhouse in 1906/07 in Vancouver. It was torn down in 1969. The man in charge of the demolition said it was the toughest building to destroy he had ever seen. The brick walls were 36 cm (14 inches) thick. Patrick Burns was a Canadian rancher, meat packer, businessman, senator and philanthropist. A self-made man, he built one of the world's largest integrated meat-packing empires, P. Burns & Co., becoming one of the wealthiest Canadians of his time.
No. 2 Malcolm Lowry
LOCATION: Haywood Bandstand, 1755 Beach Avenue @ Bidwell Street
Malcolm Lowry felt chronically estranged from Vancouver and abhorred its antiquated liquor laws. In his Under the Volcano, the most famous novel ever written in British Columbia, he offhandedly refers to Vancouver as a place “where they eat sausage meals from which you expect the Union Jack to appear at any minute.” During his fourteen years in the Lower Mainland, mainly in North Vancouver, he briefly resided at three West End locations resulting in this poem, Lament in the Pacific Northwest.
They are taking down the beautiful houses once built with loving hands
But still the old bandstand stands where no band stands
With clawbars they have gone to work on the poor lovely houses above the sands
At their callous work of eviction that no human law countermands
Callously at their work of heartbreak that no civic heart understands
In this pompous and joyless city of police moral perfection and one man stands
Where you are brutally thrown out of beer parlors for standing where no man stands
Where the pigeons roam free and the police listen to each pigeon’s demands
And they are taking down the beautiful homes once with loving hands
But still the old bandstand stands where no band stands.
EXTRA: A few steps from English Bay and the seawall in Vancouver’s West End is the Edwardian-like Alexandra Park. One of its landmarks is the Haywood Bandstand, a 1988 restoration of the original 1914 Queen Anne heritage structure. Developed around the turn of the 20th Century, this green space was originally known as English Bay Park. On July 26, 1911 the park was renamed Alexandra after Queen Alexandra, Britain’s King Edward VII’s consort. The bandstand was first built in 1914. Lowry’s poem uses the bandstand as a symbol for the joyless, Puritanism of Vancouver in the 1940s.
No. 3 Ethel Wilson
LOCATION: Kensington Place, Beach Avenue at Nicola Street
Born in 1888, Ethel Wilson was Vancouver’s most respected novelist for several decades. In 1921 she married Dr. Wallace Wilson and they lived here in Kensington Place, Apartment 42, where she encouraged upcoming writers Margaret Laurence and Alice Munro. In her autobiographical story, The Innocent Traveller (1949), Wilson celebrates lifeguard Joe Fortes and his swimming lessons for children at English Bay, the poet Pauline Johnson and Siwash Rock in Stanley Park. She later lived in an apartment on Point Grey Road. Wilson spent her final eight years in the Arbutus Nursing Home where she died in 1980. B.C.’s top fiction award is named in her honour [The Ethel Wilson Prize for Fiction]. Her two best-known novels are Hetty Dorval and Swamp Angel.
No. 4 D.M. Fraser
LOCATION: 4394 Main Street
D.M. Fraser lived above Morris’ Second Hand Store at this location in an apartment dubbed the Vancouver Least Cultural Centre (a parody of the Vancouver East Cultural Centre, a popular venue for theatre and music). Fraser’s friends often gathered here for private literary readings. He became a semi-legendary, semi-underground figure – the brilliant, soft-spoken, alcoholic writer who spent much of his time in seedy bars, writing late-night, sentimental reveries – during an era when some of his essays appeared in the Georgia Straight under the editorship of Bob Mercer. Escaping as far west as he could from the conservatism of his Nova Scotian upbringing, Fraser became a vital component of the Pulp Press collective that has given rise to Arsenal Pulp Press, the Three-Day Novel Contest and Geist magazine. Class Warfare (1974) and The Voice of Emma Sachs (1982) are his two major books.
No. 5 Joy Kogawa
LOCATION: Livestock Buildings, PNE Grounds
After the bombing of Pearl Harbour, Japanese-Canadian citizens were gathered and temporarily housed here by provincial authorities prior to the confiscation of their property and internment in B.C.’s interior towns during World War II. Joy Kogawa, born Joy Nozonie Nokayama in Vancouver in 1935, later wrote her novel, Obasan (1981), the most famous book about the incarceration. It recalls how the resolute endurance of the narrator’s aunt, “Obasan,” protected the narrator as a little girl in a camp at Slocan. The first writer to present the story of the Japanese-Canadian evacuation en masse was Hubert Evans with his drama No More Islands (1942). Joy Kogawa House is preserved in south Vancouver at 1450 West 64th Avenue.
No. 6 Peter Trower
LOCATION: Alcazar Hotel, corner of Dunsmuir & Homer
Peter Trower, one of B.C.’s finest poets, drank here often in the 1960s with Milton Acorn and John Newlove when the Alcazar Hotel was a favoured hangout of writers and students from the nearby Vancouver School of Art. Trower lived in the Alcazar on numerous occasions during the period when he was a logger. The Alcazar opened in 1913 and was demolished seventy years later. Peter Trower wrote Alcazar Requiem (1983). This is a segment:
Wind whitecapping the inlet-
rain like a whipping string-
Sea-Bus bucking and dipping-
behind us -the Alcazar, dead as a doornail.
Landmark of brick and lumber
soon to be sundered and tumbled
in a rattle of empty rooms
all of the ghosts going down in a heap.
The bar where we tippled and quipped
safe in our roles and phases
in a circus of empty chairs
the clowns are gone with a vanishing giggle.
No. 7 George Bowering
LOCATION: Cecil Hotel, 1336 Granville Street
As the closest pub to UBC, the Cecil Hotel at this location attracted a literary crowd in the Sixties, many of whom were associated with the TISH poetry movement promulgated by professor Warren Tallman. Most noteworthy was George Bowering, who later became the first Poet Laureate of Canada. “Well, there was the early Sixties crowd of college guys,” Bowering recalls. “Then there was the late Sixties to late Seventies crowd of writers and hangers-on, and it was known across the country that we started on pub night about 10 pm, when the kids left. One night even Susan Musgrave came, and she tipped over a glass of beer and we told her the convention was that she had to buy a round. And that night we had five tables lined up. But we told her we were only kidding. Roy Kiyooka would come. Gladys Hindmarch. Dwight Gardiner. Brian Fisher. George Stanley. Brian Fawcett. Peter Huse. Stan Persky. Gill Collins. Mike Barnholden. Gerry Gilbert always snuck his own food in. Maxine Gadd.” TISH member Dan McLeod devised the name for the newspaper he now owns, Georgia Straight, over beers at the Cecil with Michael Morris and Glen Lewis in 1967. The Cecil Hotel closed in 2010 after 101 years of operation, having evolved into a strip club in the mid-1970s.
NO. 8 Douglas Coupland
LOCATION: former Vancouver Magazine headquarters, Richards & Davie
In 1987, Douglas Coupland had a solo sculpture show at the Vancouver Art Gallery called Floating World and he began describing his own 'twentysomething' generation for Vancouver magazine, an urban lifestyles magazine edited by Malcolm Parry, at this location. Having written a few Budget Gourmet reviews for the Vancouver Sun, Coupland worked for Western Living magazine as a staff writer before his stint with soon-to-be-defunct Vista magazine where he revisited the realm of his magazine article on Gen-X as a comic strip. Coupland was subsequently contracted to write a non-fiction 'handbook' on Generation X. Eventually Coupland went to Palm Springs and completed his breakthrough novel Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture, rejected by 15 Canadian publishers and 14 American publishers before it appeared in March of 1991.
EXTRA: It is often erroneously suggested the Coupland took the term Generation X from a Billy Idol song. Untrue. “The name comes from Paul Fussell’s book Class from the 1980s,” Coupland says, “where he postulates the existence of an 'X Class' at the book’s end. I think I've said this hundreds of times since 1991 but I think it takes too long to say and people write the wrong thing.” On 6/30/2014, Doug Coupland also wrote to Alan Twigg: “The old Vancouver magazine offices were at the corner of Richards and Davie. I started working there a few months after Vancouver's sex laws changed, and Vanmag's corner suddenly became the de facto tranny corner — sex workers are quite territorial. In the middle of the day I'd be working, and then someone out the window in a curb-length fox coat would open its flaps and would show me panties. My studio then was down the street on Hamilton, and at 5:00 tumbleweeds would blow through, and the neighbourhood became a ghost town. My studio space ended up, 25 years later, becoming the cigar smoking room at Cioppino's. I guess the point of all of this is remembering what Yaletown used to be like compared to now. Driving through it in 2014 feels like I’m on another planet. I'm not nostalgic for the way it once was -- it was interesting but dumpy -- but I am a bit nostalgic for an era when change in Vancouver wasn't so massive and so fast. We're one of the few cities left on Earth that has yet to become what it will ultimately be. This is liberating and adventurous, but I like remembering the ghosts, too.”
NO. 9 W.P. Kinsella
LOCATION: Former residence, #1607, 1188 Howe & Davie
W.P. (Bill) Kinsella lived here in a condominium in the late-1990s. His short story called Shoeless Joe Jackson Comes to Iowa was the basis for his novel, Shoeless Joe, which, in turn, became the basis for the 1989 Kevin Costner movie Field of Dreams. He is credited with giving the world the phrase, “Build it and they will come.” In fact, the phrase in the movie is, "If you build it, he will come." Kinsella often ate at the nearby A-1 Café on Granville and he liked to hang out at the Vancouver Public Library where he wrote parts of several books. Kinsella had three one-act plays produced at the Waterfront Theatre on Granville Island while he was living in White Rock: Thrill of the Grass, The Night Manny Mota Tied the Record and The Valley of the Schmoon, circa 1988.
NO. 10 Lee Maracle
LOCATION: False Creek (aka Snauq), beneath the Burrard Bridge
In her story ‘Goodbye Snauq’ which appeared in West Coast Line in 2008, Lee Maracle recalls the area that is now mis-identified as False Creek in Vancouver. While incorporating the lamentations of Chief Khahtsahlanho, who decried the loss of First Nations land and food supplies to real estate appropriation and pollution, Maracle writes, “Khahtsahlano dreamed of being buried at Snauq. I dream of living here.” Born in 1950 and raised on the North Shore mudflats, Lee Maracle, of Salish and Cree ancestry, is a member of the Stó:lo First Nation. She became one of the first Aboriginal writers in Canada to publish fiction with her groundbreaking synthesis of autobiography and fiction, Bobbi Lee, Indian Rebel (1975).
EXTRA: "If you are Aboriginal,” she has said, “you'll face what has happened to you and find some way to reconcile yourself to it, and if you are not Native you will face what was done to us and find some way to reconcile yourself to it personally. I think that's what story does anyway. That's what my hope is."
NO. 11 Wayson Choy
LOCATION: Former headquarters of the Jin Wah Sing Musical Association, West Pender, beside Chinese Times (Jin Wah has since relocated to 434 Columbia Street, Vancouver, BC V6A 2R8)
Wayson Choy emerged foremost among Chinese Canadian fiction writers for his novel The Jade Peony (1995), an inter-generational saga about an immigrant family, the Chens, during the Depression. Born in Vancouver in 1939, Choy was the only son of two working parents. He was cared for in a variety of Chinese Canadian households in the Strathcona neighbourhood, dreaming of becoming a cowboy. He grew up being told his absent father was a cook on a Canadian Pacific ship. Choy often attended Chinese opera with his mother and became the first Chinese Canadian to enrol in a creative writing course (taught by Earle Birney) at UBC. There he began writing a short story set in Vancouver’s Chinatown that turned into his best-known novel, The Jade Peony, some 30 years later. The Jade Peony won both the City of Vancouver Book Award and the Trillium Award in Ontario.
NO. 12 Emily Carr
LOCATION: Emily Carr School of Art
In 1942, B.C.’s most revered artist, Emily Carr, became one of the first of two British Columbians to win the nation’s foremost literary prize, a Governor General’s Award, for her collection of nineteen “Indian” stories, Klee Wyck, written “for the pure joy of reliving and travelling among the places and people I love.” With the assistance of Ira Dilworth, regional head of CBC, her debut was to be called Stories in Cedar but it was changed to Klee Wyck, a named accorded to her in Ucluelet on a sketching expedition—meaning ‘Laughing One.’ Published when Carr was sixty-nine, her first printing of 2,500 copies sold out. Also in 1942, Anne Marriott of B.C. won the Governor General’s Award for poetry.
NO. 13 Eric Nicol
LOCATION: Walk of Fame, Vancouver Public Library Square
In 1995, humourist Eric Nicol fittingly became the first writer to have a plaque of B.C. marble installed in the Walk of Fame to commemorate winners of the annual George Woodcock Lifetime Achievement Award for an outstanding literary career in B.C. A Province columnist for five decades, Nicol received three Stephen Leacock Medals for Humour for his books; he became the first living Canadian writer to be included in The Oxford Book of Humorous Prose; and he was the first Vancouver playwright to have his work produced by the Vancouver Playhouse, as well as on Broadway in New York. A shy man, he lived for more than fifty years in the same house on 26th Avenue, near UBC.
NO. 14 Margaret Atwood
LOCATION: 3886 West 11th Avenue
One of Canada’s foremost authors, Margaret Atwood, lived here in 1964-1965 while working as a lecturer at UBC. “It was a wonderful breakthrough year for me,” she has recalled. “In it, I finished writing The Circle Game and wrote all of the draft of The Edible Woman... The people who gave me the most support were [writer] Jane Rule and [English professor] Helen Sonthoff… I loved the entire year and the only reason I didn’t stay was that I felt I had to go back and complete the work for my Ph.D or I would always be an academic floorscrubber.” Margaret Atwood returned to Ontario and has since published more than forty books.
NO. 15 Rudyard Kipling
LOCATION: Corner of Pender and Homer
The most enthusiastic reception for any writer in Vancouver was accorded to Rudyard Kipling when he addressed an overflow audience of 500 people at the Acland-Hood Hall, aka Pender Hall, on October 7, 1907. Women were not invited to the newly-founded Canadian Club event. The racist Kipling compared Vancouver to the head of an army bravely passing through the mountains “to secure a stable Western civilization facing the Eastern sea.” Kipling had been so pleased with Vancouver and its prospects that he had purchased a lot in the Mt. Pleasant area on his wedding tour with Carrie Kipling, prior to embarking for Japan on his first visit to Vancouver in 1892, only to later discover many years later he had been swindled.
NO. 16 Al Neil
LOCATION: 2514 Watson Street, around the corner from Main & Broadway
This was the location of The Cellar, founded in 1956, as Vancouver’s foremost jazz venue, where be-bop legend Al Neil fronted the house band, meeting and playing with some of North America’s top jazz musicians. His best-known book, Changes (1975), recalls four years as a musician, artist and junkie on the mean streets of town from 1958 to 1962. Venerated as “one of Vancouver’s bona fide underground warriors, a man with a following and a hermit’s mystique,” Vancouver-born Al Neil has been the subject of a documentary film by David Rimmer, a book by music critic Alex Varty and a one-man show at the Vancouver Art Gallery in 1972. Neil grew up near Main & Broadway and never got over his horrific WW II memories of landing on Normandy Beach at age twenty. Although “the ceaseless nagging of invisible ghosts,” led him to drug addiction, he endured, giving infrequent but memorable performances at the Western Front.
EXTRA: “If you play to the Creator,” Al Neil said, “you don’t need an audience. That’s the way I’ve conducted my life. I’ve never expected anything.”
NO. 17 George Woodcock
LOCATION: 6429 McCleery Street
Self-described as “a British Columbian by choice, a Canadian by birth,” the England-educated anarchist George Woodcock was B.C.’s most prodigious man of letters. Here he lived as “a man of free intelligence” from 1959 to 1995 with his wife Ingeborg, raising funds for two charities they founded, Tibetan Refugee Aid Society and Canada India Village Aid, while writing and editing approximately 150 books. Here, as well, Woodcock edited Canadian Literature, the first publication entirely devoted to Canadian books. A friend and biographer of George Orwell, Woodcock became the first author to receive Freedom of the City from Vancouver City Council. After their deaths, the Woodcock’s little house was demolished in order to generate their bequest of almost $2.3 million to the Writers Trust of Canada to support writers in distress.