My Murderer

Posted on July 23, 2014

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Butcher, baker, candlestick maker.  Is there a rhyme that includes “murderer”?  Perhaps not.  But I knew a murderer once, maybe the most reviled and notorious murderer in the community of Canadian letters, Roy Lowther.  He beat his wife—the poet Pat Lowther—to death with a hammer in the summer of 1975, and dumped her body in Furry Creek near Britannia Beach.

Literary headline:  Bad poet kills good poet in a fit of jealousy and pique.

That murderer.

Roy never got much sympathy from anybody, and it’s hard to see how he deserved any given so little evidence that he ever took responsibility for what he had done.

However, I met him before he was a murderer.  And though I saw him for the last time after he’d committed it, it was before his crime came out.  On that last occasion I lent him a book.

Our acquaintance began because Roy liked my poetry, which was kind of him, since I myself no longer do.  I submitted a poem to him that he published in Pegasus, the mimeographed literary organ of the Vancouver Writer’s Guild which he edited.  His enthusiastic acceptance letter for my poem was accompanied by an invitation to come down to a Guild meeting, third Thursday in January, there to collect and view my copy of the magazine.

Writer’s Guild meetings were held every third Thursday at the Pacific Press Building, then located at the south end of Granville Bridge.  There was a sculptural family group standing in front of the building—clothed except for the boy—which longtime residents of Vancouver may remember.

Roy was presiding over the Guild meeting when I arrived, sitting at the regal end of the table.  He was Secretary-Treasurer of the organization, meaning he was every officer rolled into one, editor and publisher of Pegasus and the chair of every meeting.  Roy began that first meeting by talking about the current issue of Pegasus, copies of which were sitting in a stack on the table in front of him, and this wonderful new poet from the West End whom he’d placed in a prominent location in the current issue.

Well, I did technically live in the West End, but the dive I lived in, the Hornby Hotel, long since torn down, was as much East-End and Skid Road in flavour and bad odour as any I have ever known.

And I was no poet, then or now, which is why I no longer write it.  But I was young, and the yellow walls of the Hornby Hotel had infected my brain with metre as well as angst, I guess.  Thankfully, though bad poets may sometimes commit crimes, bad poetry like poor fashion sense or uncalled for karaoke is not yet itself a crime.

I admit my poetry served me.  Dubious as it was, I met a lot of literary friends and acquaintances because of it, because of Roy, through the Writer’s Guild and its branch office at the Austin Hotel.  The Austin was where some thirsty literary remnants retired after the Writer’s Guild meeting was over, and where some continued to retire even after the Writer’s Guild was defunct.

Some of the beery discussions at the Austin concerned Roy, and I got some of my intelligence about him from the gossip at the corner table near the door where we often sat.  Not everyone was well-disposed towards him.

Most of us could agree that Roy liked to be in charge.  When he ran the meetings, I remember a strict ten minute rule for readings, which didn’t affect the poets much but sometimes meant that fiction writers risked having the ends of their stories cut off if they went on too long.  Too bad if your story ran to eleven minutes.  As an editor, he sometimes corrected your poetry or censored your bad language.  Even when later on he surrendered some of the Pegasus editing duties to others—a fiction editor and a poetry editor to take over from singular Roy—he couldn’t help inventing a new position—general editor—to keep his hand in and to sustain his right to second-guess the other editors (one of which, if you have to know, was me) even presuming to add his own comments and asides to editorials written by others.

Roy became Grand Vizier of the Vancouver Writer’s Guild on the identical principle of many small organizations, that those willing to do all the work get to be in charge.  He was our big fish.  We were his small pond.  But Roy’s ego was bigger and angrier than our organization could satisfy.

Roy had very particular ideas about art and literature.  He thought that Joni Mitchell’s latest albums of the mid-1970s had become too jazzy and bourgeois, for instance, as opposed to her more accessible earlier work.  I remember that from our last conversation together.  He liked working class poetry, rhymed would be good, which ordinary people could understand.  I think if Roy had been sitting in the audience at Newport that notorious day when Dylan went electric, he would have been hissing like a punctured tire.

He was a purist with a bad case of working class populism, and his purist attitude led to a truly epic case of working class entitlement.

Beware the purists for they shall be purer than thou.  Beware the martyrs for they shall feel entitled to martyr you too.

Outside of his personal relationship with his wife about which I can say nothing, one of Roy’s breaking points was surely what happened at the NDP convention.  Pat was invited by the organizers to give a reading on one particular evening, but she refused to do a reading with Roy in the line-up.  He was too amateur hour for her, reportedly.  So the organizers dumped Roy in favour of Pat.

Roy was furious, as you might imagine, but it went beyond personal insult in his mind; he regarded what had happened as an ideological betrayal.  In his assessment, his wife wrote bourgeois poetry.  Roy had devoted his life to ideologically correct literature.  Joe Hill versus TS Eliot, pistols at dawn.  Given that, how could the NDP give the stage to Pat Lowther in preference to him?  Who had more proletarian street-cred than he?  It was impossible for Roy to believe that his wife actually was a superior poet and that that was sufficient reason for people to choose her over him.

pat lowtherI met Pat only once.  She had nothing at all to do with the Vancouver Writer’s Guild, of course.   She called me over to meet her one time because she was looking for an Aboriginal poet for a reading that she’d been invited to give at a gallery opening—I suppose there was something Aboriginal about the opening—and my name had been mentioned.  As it happened, I couldn’t go because of a conflict of dates.  I had no business at the reading, anyway, so I can’t really regret that.

We had a little talk in her front room, in the house near Fraser Street which she still shared with Roy despite their already ongoing estrangement.  I had been in that house with Roy on different occasions, with Pat nowhere around.  Later in the year of our meeting, in a bedroom of that house, up a set of stairs visible from where I sat, she was to be murdered.

I have to admit that in those days I wasn’t among Roy Lowther’s detractors.  Some of the more cynical souls around me read his character much better than I did.  But Roy and I did have some literary disagreements, particularly towards the end of our acquaintance.  By then he was beginning to disapprove of the trend of my literary choices, although he continued to respect my writing in general.  But the one item he hated most of all, of all the things I’d written, was a product of my medieval phase, a story of a kind of demonic possession which climaxes an argument with a man murdering his wife.  By beating her over the head with a heavy object.

Roy loathed that story.

My medieval murder was written while Pat was still alive, perhaps a year before her own murder.  I’m sure that murder wasn’t contemplated by Roy yet.  Did he ever consider that he would end his life a murderer?  He was convicted of murder in the second degree because there was no evidence of planning, and the act itself was clearly a product of rage.

But something about my literary murder disturbed him anyway.  It wasn’t that the language of the story was too precious.  It wasn’t because the setting was too reminiscent of Poe.  It was the violence.  He made that clear.  And later on, when I found out that Roy had murdered Pat with a hammer, apparently in the midst of an argument, I couldn’t help but be doubly disturbed.

Was it just a coincidence?  Was there a relationship, even in the mind of Roy, was there a relationship between my story and the murder of Pat Lowther?  Perhaps my story bothered Roy because it brought him to dark places in his own psyche that he preferred not to visit in daylight.  Perhaps my story suggested something to that part of his mind.

Or maybe I’m making too much of myself, and he was just one of the many people who don’t like literary violence.

I’ve never really stopped wondering.

The murder of Pat Lowther took place in 1975.  I was starting university that fall, and I’d been accepted into a place in the Creative Writing Department where Pat was scheduled to begin teaching a class in poetry.  I wasn’t in her class but I expected to meet her there, and when she failed to turn up, everybody wondered what could have kept her away.  Roy reportedly said she’d gone off with her lover, whom, when her corpse was discovered, he also blamed for her murder.

I last saw Roy just before school began, perhaps the end of August or the beginning of September.  For a reason I can no longer recall, he dropped over to my basement room out near the university.  Perhaps something to do with my editing duties at Pegasus.  It was unusual for him to visit me.  I remember he had a kind of harassed and unhappy manner about him that afternoon, which hindsight can now attribute to the fact that he was already a murderer.  I didn’t even know at the time of his visit that Pat was missing.  Her body was not to be discovered—dumped at a creek near Britannia Beach—until sometime later that fall.

That last time I saw Roy, I talked to him about a new translation of Plautus that I’d found—actually funny, most translations weren’t funny—which I lent to him.  He seemed a little reluctant to take it.  He couldn’t really explain, could he, well, I’ve murdered my wife and I don’t know when I’ll find time to read it?  After the murder came out in the media and began engaging the gossip in the Creative Writing Department, it felt like a rather extreme excuse for not returning one’s copy of Plautus.

During his trial, Roy’s story was that he merely came upon his wife’s body, and he disposed of it and scrubbed down the blood-covered murder room because he knew that he’d be accused of her murder.  But most people were pretty clear that he did it, and when he was convicted and subsequently disappeared into the corrections system, he wasn’t missed.

But the circle I belonged to continued to be interested in him, and we were fortunate to gain some intelligence from the father of one of our acquaintances who happened to work in the prison where Roy was serving his sentence.  My acquaintance’s father had worked as a guard in prisons his entire life.  In his opinion (relayed through my acquaintance) Roy Lowther was “the most hardened criminal he had ever met.”

That hardness was the final product of Roy’s bitterness, I guess, a bitterness which I suspect made it impossible for him to take responsibility for the murder.  He died in prison before a decade had passed, before he even had chance of parole—despised by many and shunned even by his children.

When Roy went on trial for murder, the Writer’s Guild, so strongly associated with him, stopped meeting and was quickly declared dead, never, so far as I know, to be revived.  The meetings at the Austin—which Roy had never attended—continued for some years.   For all I know, forty years on, they continue still at another location, with one or two remaining members of the original cast joining new members to whom Roy and the Guild would only be stories.

Says an ancient of the ancient Austin coterie, Let me tell you about this murderer I once knew whose first offence was bad poetry….