Calgary through the eyes of writers
It’s 1983, and the city is in a deep economic slump. Toronto writer, Barry Callaghan arrives to search the city’s soul. He scavenges for stories at the city’s edges. The prostitute stroll on 2nd Avenue. A gay bar on 17th Avenue called Dick’s. The hockey arena on the Tsuut’ina reserve. In the Devonian Gardens, he reads John Ballem’s 1981 novel, Alberta Alone. This best-selling political thriller is the only fiction he can find set in Calgary. He meets Ballem in his law office on the 36th floor of the Scotia Centre. Disturbed by the “fierce violence” he senses in the city, Callaghan asks Ballem, “If you were writing a love story in Calgary and were looking for the image of tenderness, where would you locate two lovers in this city?” Ballem’s suggestions (a ranch outside of town, an office tower, the Glenbow Museum) are not what the Toronto novelist has in mind. On a cool, clear morning, Callaghan takes a ride in a hot-air balloon. High above the city, he finds what he is looking for.
The tall glass-and-concrete towers of the city caught the sun below a band of dun-coloured smog, a city in contention with itself: caustic and yet courtly, prickly and yet polite and pliable, and impervious to collapse. There is a strange vacancy at the core of the city, and a money-meanness that goes with it – but around the edges, people are filled with an often loony love of life, a celebration of the self, a desire to be someone, to create themselves, to exist in the imagination. As the chef served pears with coffee and Grand Marnier, as the silence over the city filled me with ease and wellbeing, I thought, “Why not here, in this balloon, in a moment of blessing close to the morning sun, begin a love story?”
Barry Callaghan, “After the Fall: A Sadness at the Heart of Calgary,” Saturday Night (November, 1983)