Sunday 1 November 2009

Dave Bidini on Al Purdy's house and the effort to preserve it

In Canada, looking for ghosts is a mug's game. You don't have to look far. Places disappear after getting rezoned into bigger places, losing their borders and their names. Old brick buildings mortared with history fall to developers. And the only public recognition of past lives comes whenever city council or its heritage wing can agree on the weight of a person, place or event. John Lennon played his first concert without The Beatles at Varsity Stadium in Toronto, and Errol Flynn died on the steps of the Hotel Vancouver, but you wouldn't have remembered these events if I hadn't just mentioned them. In an empty country without many people, the forgotten often outnumber those who have failed to remember them.

Ameliasburgh, Ont., just south of Belleville, has its ghosts, too, or rather, its ghost: poet Al Purdy, the Voice of the Land. Al lived here for most of his life, although he later divided his time between his hometown and Sydney, on Vancouver Island. The late poet was regarded as cantankerous and combative by those on the outside, but to friends and literary accomplices, his hide was never as rough as his reputation. Over the years, he was an encouraging and congenial host with a soft spot for poets and for any artist who ever tried.

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