on June 10, 2012
Vancouver Noir, (2011) the latest oeuvre by Diane Purvey and John Belshaw sits on my bookshelf in a place of honour, alongside two other of my favourite books about Vancouver, Vanishing Vancouver, (1990) by Michael Kluckner and Vancouver, A Visual History, (1992) by Bruce Macdonald. These three books are very different in content and purpose, but they complement each other quite nicely.
What sets Purvey and Belshaw apart from the crowd, is that they are seasoned historians who know how to build a historical narrative, this time with the help of a large number of archival black and white photographs that especially give depth to the Noir aspect of their book. Vancouver Noir is all about the seedy side of Vancouver during the period, 1930 to 1960. It exposes the underside of life in Vancouver, an underside most people knew only by reading sensational stories in the local newspapers. Purvey and Belshaw could have written a 'straight-up' historical account of the Noir period in Vancouver but their narrative twists and turns through the vicissitudes of personal tragedy and change of fortune make it a highly 'human' account of the workings of a port city during a rather difficult stage in its development. They don't shy away from laying bare the corruption, racism, individual brutality, classicism and misogyny of the times. How entertaining to read! It's like being a voyeur in the boudoir of the city. Nothing is left covered.
Purvey and Belshaw write their book with the insight of long time residents and lovers of Vancouver, a city and time I share with them to some extent. I don't have the direct experience of Vancouver they do because I was raised in the French-Canadian community of Maillardville, now a part of the City of Coquitlam, just beyond Burnaby to the east of Vancouver while Vancouver is truly their home. Born in 1947, I was only 13 in 1960 when their Noir period comes to an end, but I did spend time at the Harlem Nocturne and other clubs in downtown Vancouver in the late 1960s. One of my favourite hangouts in the late 1960s was the Living Room Cabaret. BYOB. Because my brother-in-law was a used car dealer in Vancouver and I spent a lot of time with him, I got to tag along on some questionable escapades and partake of substances I will not discuss any further here for fear of self-incrimination. My father, who came to Vancouver in 1937 from Alberta and who worked on and off as a longshoreman on the docks in Vancouver told me stories of beatings, savagery and union busting on the Vancouver docks during the pre-war period and lasting well into the 1950s. He may have been embellishing his stories a little as he often did, but Vancouver Noir establishes their basic veracity.
Purvey and Belshaw know Vancouver and they know their history. Their narrative has a Noir flavour all of its own and as I read Vancouver Noir, I could not escape thinking about German Expressionist paintings of sleazy bars or the films Wings of Desire and A Streetcar Named Desire. Lots of desire there, the same kind of desire to be found in the pages of this scholarly yet accessible, entertaining and highly readable book. Anyone interested in cities, city life and the failings and triumphs of individuals, rich and poor needs to read this book.
on September 22, 2014
I grew up in Vancouver in the 1940s to 60s. So much of what I loved about Vancouver is touched on here and seems very familiar to me. Yet the book added a whole new context for me - dark and gritty, poverty and wealth, racially prejudiced and as real as you might expect of a large and rapidly growing seaport. On the edge of the rainforest, oriented to the south (USA) and east (the Orient) Vancouver was undergoing repeated waves of immigration both from other countries and from the interior of what was still primarily a resource based province of Canada. . As a kid, I saw events, and mostly the exciting and new caught my attention. Vancouver Noir has provided understanding of the longer flow of social and political events I didn't see as a child. Vancouver, it's prejudices and biases, social and political structures were not visible to me and might not have meant much even if they were.
Looking at the modern city of Vancouver, it may be hard to visualize Vancouver during its Noir period. But the old city is still there under all the glitz, and this book will reward anyone who is interested in what I still think of as my home town..