From the Chapter 25: "Only the Fire Matters", an account of our trip to Greece in May, 1985. Several journalists accompanied us, along with a film crew from the National Film Board for Don Winkler's documentary. Lucinda is Lucinda Vardey, Irving's literary agent.
“...The one regret I have after the trip is the article that appeared in
Saturday Night’s Back Page section,” Jeff told me. “Here I’d been on this
wonderful trip and wanted to have something to show Lucinda.” His
article covered the launch of Where Burning Sappho Loved, held at the
Vorres Museum just outside Athens and hosted by Ian Vorres himself.
There were well-heeled guests, Greek dignitaries, and Canadian expats,
including Montreal poet and hellenophile David Solway and our
cultural ambassador, the bespectacled, bow-tied Jean-Pierre Gamby.
I wore a white linen skirt, mismatched with a cotton clearance-bin
Geoffrey Beene jacket, and an azure silk blouse in tribute to our Greek
hosts. Irving was not easy to dress, and he was rough on clothes, so
we made do. I wish his shoes had been of better quality, his pants and
jacket a bit fresher, but his personality was such that only philistines
noticed the quality of his clothes, or lack thereof.
Vibrant blue skies turned violet at dusk as whitewashed walls exhaled
the day’s heat into the great open-air atrium. Under a waning
moon and the film crew’s spotlights, we took in the stunning gardens
and museum with artwork covering four thousand years of Greek history,
relished exquisite finger-foods, sipped wine, mingled, and simply
basked in the beauty of it all. Our host, who could have stepped from
a GQ magazine, stood up on a low wall and graced us with kind words
about his guest and the book. Irving then clambered up and spoke
briefly, with customary gusto.
In short, a splendid evening. Richardson’s account, unfortunately,
displeased Saturday Night’s editors. Their euphemism was “edgy.” As in, it
wasn’t “edgy” enough. After numerous rewrites, and despite the author’s
intent, what came out was a send-up of our cultural ambassador. True,
Gamby had been a bit bureaucratic, uptight, yes, but he did not deserve
ridicule. The editors were happy, though, as Saturday Night once again
avoided publishing a positive story about Irving Layton. Could chronic
chicanery like this be at least partly responsible for his lambasting
of “Canucky shmucks”? Lucinda looked for the positives: at least they
hadn’t mocked Irving outright, just ignored the salient points of his
ever-growing success. “In hindsight, I wish I’d stood up to the editors,”
Richardson said, but being young and wanting to have his name on that
Back Page column was important and very understandable. “Irving,” he
remembered, “was larger than life, but more of a contained presence, if
that makes sense. I’d expected something else,” he said, pausing as he cast
about for the best adjective. “Authentic! That’s it, he was authentic. …"
Thumbnail photo: Irving and me in our backyard on Monkland Ave., Montreal, c. mid-1980s. Photo by Sam Tata.