Travels In Canada & Canadian Literature

Mid October. Coming in to land at Halifax airport I see more trees in more colours than I've seen in my entire life before. Deciduous and coniferous all interspersed - that's what I wasn't expecting - so, in amongst the oranges and yellows and bright bright reds, there's all the while bright green. Ours just go brown, I don't know why.

I spend my first night in Canada on a beach in Nova Scotia, sitting round a bonfire till late with three complete strangers, looking out over the bay to Prince Edward Island, doing tequila slammers and drinking moonshine set alight on the base of up-turned coke cans. And then I take the once-a-day, six days a week train from Halifax out to New Brunswick, to spend a strange night with an old friend killing flies in a motel room on the edge of Fundy National Park in a place so parochial we can't get dinner because it's after 8pm, and then a day in Fredericton.

Fredericton is genteel. It has a river, a university, some government buildings and not a lot else. Except a horrible edge-of-town mall with a horrible chain-bookshop called Chapters that doesn't seem to have a biography section and where someone tries to give me a free Danielle Steele novel. I'm looking for contemporary Canadian things that, broadly, aren't by Douglas Coupland or Margaret Attwood. I'm looking to branch out, in other words, to break old habits. To explore both the country and its fiction whilst I'm here. That is, I have a long train journey next day; by long I mean 15 hours.

The Pornographer's Poem has a striking cover and is about a boy and a girl growing up in Vancouver and, one term, getting a really inspirational new teacher, who teaches maths, English, everything from the point of view of film studies. They analsye, they disuss, they write scripts, finally they film. Then she gets the sack for being black. But the two children are hooked and go on and edit and then finish their films; then they reach adolsescene and beyond, discover sex, combine their two interests and, aged sixteen or so, start making and distributing porn films, getting in with a rather bad lot along the way, not surprisingly. My train journey is almost entirely in the dark, and I've booked my own room, fully intending to sleep so I can arrive in Montreal next morning all shiny and nice, but somehow I wind up with the bedside light on till 4am, getting confused by passing into a new time-zone, and then watching the sun rise as we pull into town in the drizzle.

Another 3 hours out of Montreal is Quebec City, all stacked up on top of a hill, with a huge wide river below, captivating late afternoon autumn light and a decked cliffttop promenade... It's the first place I feel like a tourist, where I realise it's not just me who's decided to come and visit Canada in October; it's a place where I can stroll around, take photos, speak French, browse in gift shops... and sit in the grounds of the art-gallery reading The Roaring Girl, hugely varied and slightly uncomfortable short stories I'm sure I saw around in Britain a few years ago.

Ottowa, between Montreal and Toronto is quiet, leafy - but then everywhere in Canada is leafy - and calm. You could even call it dull. But there's a lovely old market area, and the parliament buildings are nice, in a millstone grit, Yorkshire sort of way. It reminds me a lot of Harrogate, where I grew up - a very nice town, but you wouldn't want to get stranded there for long. I have a cheap cold horrible room in a student part of town in a house of bedsits, run by a bloke from Leicester, but who used to live in Leeds The bathroom sits between two rooms, only I can't figure out how to lock the other-side out, and anyway it's so filthy I figure I'll saving washing for Toronto. I spend the evening huddled in bed fully clothed immersed in The Shipping News - a parting gift from my friend Michael back in Fredericton - and the night asleep in the thermals I bought specially for this trip because I was expecting it to be freezing cold outside not in.

Somehow, for ages I never quite grasped that The Shipping News, which I'd never got around to reading before, was by the same person who wrote Postcards. And reading it did nothing to convince me. I'd also never realised that she's Canadian. I remember Postcards as being mean - not as mean as The Close Range stories from last year, with their castrations and gay-bashing (if you can call murder bashing) and rapes and endless small-town ignorant just brutalness, but mean all the same. And, whilst The Shipping News contains its unpleasantnesses - someone selling their small children to a paedophile and child-rape, for instance - it's a very different animal. Set in Newfoundland, where there's snow and hardship, and where the people fish and drown and save each other and mind each other's children, it has a warmth, a sense of community, a sense of hope, that Close Range totally lacks. But I quite liked the lack.

In Ottowa's Rideau centre there's a reasonably good small bookshop where my attention is caught by A Good House by Bonnie Burnard, because the colours on the cover are nice, and she won some sort of a prize. Inside I discover a beautiful gentle family saga set in Ontario and covering about sixty years of growing up, marriage, divorce, death, friendships, relationships, sex and a circus. It's just very human somehow, very real, and kind of comforting. I find myself caring enormously about the characters for reasons I can't quite explain - perhaps because I'm travelling alone they become my holiday friends. I sit in a patch of warm sun by Lake Ontario on my first morning in Toronto watching the CN Tower slowly emerge out of the mist, only to disappear again seconds later, so immersed I can barely drag myself off to sight-see.

I come out of the Bata Shoe Museum a day or so later and realise the cloud has lifted so much that you can actually see the top of the Tower, and I figure it has to be worth going up, despite the still-grey day. And it is. On a perfect day, I could have seen for miles and miles, but I wouldn't have known what I was looking at. As it is, I get to look down on chimneys poking out of clouds, on the lake swathed in mist, and on a loan-man on a running track on the top of one of the skyscrapers. I've only been above cloud level in planes or up mountains before, and it's always pretty wonderful, but to be so in a building just leaves me speechless.

In another Chapters after, fighting off the urge for more Bonnie Burnard, I pick up some short stories by Guy Vanderhaeghe, which show me life through the eyes of small-boys, teenage-boys, thirty-something men, terminally-ill men, recently-widowed-men, and very old and senile men. He strays as far afield as Bloomsbury, but seems to make more sense at home on the farms and in the towns of Canada, describing family strife and punch-ups and fumbling teenage romance.

In the huge mall near Bay and Floor I browse in Indigo, which turns out to be by far the best bookshop I've found my whole time here. And staring at me is a new Douglas Coupland book. Not a novel, but a book about Vancouver. Ludicrously expensive, and it doesn't even look very good - in fact the sales assistant tries to talk me out of it - but I know if I go back to Britain without it, I'll regret it, and so I splash out anyway.

Down by the lake again next day, in fierce fierce cold but under a bright blue sky that fooled me into going out without a coat - I lasted about a minute before I went back for it - I spend my last hour in Toronto and in Canada reading about Vancouver, not in the Douglas Coupland, but in The Rough Guide. I'm saving Douglas for bedtime reading back home on cold winter evenings, curled up with red wine and the cat, planning new trips.

© Clare Wadd 2001


The Pornographer's Poem - Michael Turner
The Shipping News - E. Annie Proulx
The Roaring Girl - Greg Hollingshead
A Good House - Bonnie Burnard
Man Descending - Guy Vanderhaeghe
City Of Glass - Douglas Coupland's Vancouver