Paul Quarrington remembered

When I think about Paul Quarrington, I think of water. He fished, he swam, and he did crazy polar dips in January in Lake Ontario. He loved hockey and would nab time on downtown rinks after midnight. And sometimes, he had a little branch water in his single malt.

At the end of September, he spent about ten days on the water with an Adventure Canada ship excursion around the northern shoulder of Labrador then down to Newfoundland. There were about 100 passengers and Paul was among the staff. The focus of the trip was music and writing (it was billed as The Labrador Arts Float). And among the travelers were the authors Alistair MacLeod and Bill Lishman (yes, Father Goose) and the publisher Douglas Gibson.

The musicians on board included Tom Barlow and Daniel Payne. But the person who brought music and writing together was Paul Quarrington, Governor General’s Award winning novelist, Champion of Canada Reads on the CBC, screenwriter (the movie Perfectly Normal—a gem), singer-songwriter (his band Porkbelly Futures and earlier Joe Hall and the Continental Drift).

Paul Quarrington fishing in Saglet, Labrador

He was also, because it was a passion, there to fish. And one morning, he got duded up in his chest waders and nerdy multi-pocketed vest and slipped away from the ship, onto the land and then into an inland lake.

It was autumn and the foliage proclaimed the season, with bands of brilliant oranges and yellows running down the Torngat mountains and then bending back into the lake to create a chevron effect (see picture).

The plunk of Paul’s first cast was the only sound for, I would wager, hundreds of miles. He didn’t catch anything. But that wasn’t the point. It was the stillness, the solitude and the silence.

Paul made a lot more noise on board the ship. He played music till long after midnight and would still be up for a 7:15 staff meeting the next morning. He never missed one. He was dealing with stage four lung cancer. And anyone who read the paper or listened to the radio knew it. But if you didn’t know, you would never have guessed it.

In an email sent just before we left for Labrador, he wrote “they did some procedure that has me breathing easier, and I still appear to be the well-stuffed overly hale fellow that joined you in the frigid waters of Lake Ontario in January, so i can’t believe they’re rushing me out anytime soon.” And he was going to get every bit of juice out of his time left.

One night, well—one morning, at 1:30, we sailed into the most spectacular dancing skies. It was only our second night on board and the northern lights put on a grand show. A dozen shades of green ghosting through the sky. A little crimson as well, in shapes moving as gracefully as Karen Kain. We paged passengers to leave their berths and come out to the upper deck to see the display. Paul was about the fifth person up. Afterwards, indoors in the Lounge, he picked up his guitar and sang his song “All the Stars”:

“When it seems too much to deal with / When I feel like heading to the bars / Then I head outside just after midnight and I see all the stars/ All the stars /All the stars.” He had written that song just after he was diagnosed, in May 2009. It was an incredible accompaniment to the northern lights.

One morning, Paul gave a talk about using the first person singular in writing. By way of illustration, he performed his story “The Conversion”. “The Conversion” is about a husband and wife in a Tim Horton’s. The wife goes into the washroom and on the floor is a religious tract. She picks it up, reads it and decides she is going to give her life to the Lord. Her husband is thrown off kilter by this. And Paul takes us into his life—hockey nights, cards on Wednesday with the boys and so on. It’s a story with a lot of humour and there is a realization of a buried love, lost in years of the quotidien. In the end, the husband does convert—not to any religion—but to his wife.

As Paul is reciting it (from memory) he is playing guitar interludes that set a mood or move the story along. When finished, no one could do anything for a full minute. Then there was loving applause and many teared-up eyes. We had been given such a gift—a gift of grace—from a sensitive musician, a exquisitely precise writer and a compassionate man.

In December, there was a tribute to Paul at The Harp, a bar in Port Credit. Paul performed a set with, by now, the “hose in his nose”—the tubes from his oxygen tank. He sang “All the Stars” and “Gotta love a Train”. But he wrote me the next day that his favourite moment was “during the song “Sweet Child of Mine” performed by the Corktown Ukulele Jam girls, there was a clutch of Adventure Canada people dancing–with such delight and happiness, well, you know, that’s what it’s all about.”

It’s been a few days now—almost a week—since Paul Quarrington died. And the shock of his sudden death (yes, I know we knew the cancer was terminal. And on this very site, you can see Paul Quarrington in a panel discussion and he has those tubes from the oxygen tank in his nose. I know all this and yet…) well, it should be better absorbed by now than it is. I feel as though something fell out of the sky.

Paul Quarrington and Shelagh Rogers

But Paul wouldn’t want that. He’d suggest drinking some good single malt. Or a swim in Lake Ontario. Or getting together at the Dora Keogh and listening to music. I suggest listening to his music and reading his wonderful novels. And maybe wearing a Hawaiian shirt.

And then go and howl at the moon.

Shelagh Rogers is the host of The Next Chapter on CBC Radio and a good friend of the late Paul Quarrington.

Photo credits: Elizabeth (Biz) Agnew.

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  1. avatar
    lynne 27 January, 2010 at 16:45

    Thank you for such a beautiful, stirring, piece. Reading this took me back to Paul and the PorkBellys at the Haliburton Forest Festival, where he combined his words and music and took everyone present, on a magic carpet ride. All the stars…all the stars…

  2. avatar
    Judith Keenan 27 January, 2010 at 21:51

    Thank you Shelagh, for giving us such insight of the man, the artist, and my friend. Its a lovely companion story to the ones he told of being on the ship, with you, with the folks at Walrus magazine, with the passengers that were so willing and eager to participate in the range of his talents. You know, he worked so hard to get invited on the cruise, jumping in a frigid lake in the middle of winter for goodness sake – he said he would not have survived the plunge were it not for the Shelagh Rogers hug bestowed upon him after.

  3. avatar
    Carolyn Bennett 28 January, 2010 at 09:50

    Thank you, Shelagh for sharing this beautiful piece. I worked with Paul briefly on the animated show “Chilly Beach” and I feel so privileged to have known him.

    This is a very touching eulogy. I am sorry for your loss and Canadian literature’s loss.

  4. avatar
    natasha aziz 29 January, 2010 at 12:23

    thank you mullsy for this gorgeous piece. i am moved to tears, and also loving life so much right now. a wonderful tribute to such an inspiring man.

  5. avatar
    Anne Menzies 3 February, 2010 at 22:14

    I am deeply moved. This was so beautifully expressive of Paul. I was privileged to share time with him on the ‘Arts Float’. I had no idea he was ill until the last day. Such a gift he gave us all by sharing with warm words, smiles, laughs and music a truly wonderful sense of what is important about living life well. I will not forget him.

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