Last Saturday I bought the novel ‘Canada’ by Richard Ford. I’d seen the book around, read a couple of reviews, happened to be going to Canada myself in the autumn – a country I’d never visited and knew nothing about – and thought I’d give it a go.
There’s something, isn’t there, about discovering a new author, especially one for the ‘Favourites’ list. People talk about remembering where they were when Kennedy died, or men landed on the moon or the first airplane ploughed into the twin towers. But it’s the first time I realized a particular book or author was wonderful that I remember.
Like A. A. Milne, at the age of nine, and Alan Garner’s ‘Weirdstone’ scaring me senseless. Then Tolkien, read beneath the bedcovers at night, and Emily Bronte [who I’d have given anything to be, in order to have written ‘Wuthering Heights’].
Then, later, there was Graham Greene, whose writing seemed so effortless, followed by Ella Maillart, crossing China with Peter Fleming, brother [of sorts] of James Bond. Then, in no particular order, Annie Dillard, Flannery O’Connor, Ray Carver, Marilyn Robinson, Richard McFarlane, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and on and on until only last month I read my first short story by the American writer, Linda McCulloch Moore, and got so excited because it was good.
Electric. That’s what these moments of discovery are. And it’s not only [in fact rarely] the sorts of books and authors making media waves that have this effect on me. It’s the ones I stumble across all by myself, blundering from book to book in pursuit of something precious and mysterious, which is impossible to explain.
Having said all that, it’s not authors I want to write about this month. It’s not even Richard Ford or his novel ‘Canada’. It’s Canada itself.
The country, I mean.
For a while now I’ve been sensing the need of a new adventure, and to get back on the road. Needing a new landscape and to shake myself up. Never though - not in a million years - would I have thought that Canada might be that adventure. It wasn’t anywhere I particularly knew. Wasn’t anywhere I ever thought about. Wasn’t any of the countries that left me tingling at the mention of its name.
But suddenly the dates are fixed, the plane tickets bought and here I am, googling websites on national parks, choosing between Rough Guides and even buying ‘Canada’ by Richard Ford. This is serious stuff. It isn’t just some idea I find myself thinking about in my idle moments. It’s an actual event waiting to happen. It could even be the shake-up I’ve been hoping for.
But why Canada? Looking at the thickness of my Rough Guide, I ask myself the same question. Because it’s there? No, that won’t do. Because my husband has family in Canada? That won’t do either - by which, I mean, of course it’ll do; families are important, they make all the difference to our lives.
But, I’d like to think that as well as family links there are other reasons for this trip. After all, this is the country of one of the Great Train Journeys of the World. It’s the home of the Rocky Mountains and the Trans-Canada Highway. It has the mighty Hudson Bay, and Nova Scotia, and not only black bears and grizzlies, but polar bears too. And the Northern Lights. Mustn’t forget them. And then there are all those great cities that my husband’s going on about –Toronto, Quebec, Montreal and all the rest.
So why aren’t I more excited? I’m a person who loves travelling, discovering new places, not knowing what’s round the next corner. And this is a big country - it’s going to have enough corners even for me. There are endless possibilities waiting to be discovered. So what’s the matter with me?
I think it’s the bigness of Canada that’s the matter with me. When we touch down at Toronto airport, the Rocky Mountains will still be just about as far away as Toronto is from the UK. Even getting from the airport to my husband’s relatives [a blink of a distance on my map] means traveling for miles. And that’s just Toronto and its outskirts. Factor in the vastness of Ontario, then add in the rest of Canada, and you’re talking about seriously big.
I hail from Shropshire - a rural county rich with open space, so it’s not as if I’m unaccustomed to a sense of wilderness. But from the eerie wilds of Whixall Moss to the gaunt rocks of the Stiperstones, Shropshire can be encompassed in a single day. Even thinking about Canada gives me vertigo. And my reading doesn’t help in this respect. Here, from Richard Ford’s ‘Canada’: ‘There was no feeling, once the hills disappeared behind us, of a findable middle point from which other points could draw a reference. A person could easily get lost or go crazy here, since the middle was everywhere and everything at once.’
That’s what I’m afraid of. How am I supposed to get my head round a country that’s so big that, depending on my choice of transport, it could take weeks to cross? The Rough Guide really isn’t helping here. It’s making me want to go here and here and here, but places that look close on the map are hundreds of miles apart. Not only that, but what’s this grid all about – all these ruler-straight roads running in parallel lines across my map?
These aren’t urban roads, I realize checking the scale. They’re twenty, thirty miles apart with nothing but wilderness in between. Endless miles of ramrod roads - and what does driving straight for hundreds of miles do to your head? Also, what if, when you reach your destination, you don’t like it, or the pub is shut, or the building you’d hoped to see is in another town and you’ve made a mistake? Given the scale of this map, you can’t just hop back into your car and pootle down the road to the next town.
What’s it like living in a country comprised of long straight roads? I’ve always nurtured the theory that the twisting, turning nature of Shropshire’s roads has formed my character in some way. That I’m smarter because of them. That they keep me on my toes. That I’m livelier, readier for surprises, more open to change and to things not being what they seem.
But by that token what do straight roads do to the brain? Do they imprison, or does the open highway liberate? Do they iron out the kinks, or does everybody end up - as Richard Ford has it -‘getting lost or going crazy’. I understand, of course, that if you live in a big country, it’s quicker to get where you’re going if you have straight roads. But once you’ve driven on them for thousands of miles, what’s the long-term effect?
It’s not that I’ve got anything against the idea of bigness, especially when it comes to wilderness. Getting my head round the idea of what we in England call ‘the countryside’ existing on a grand scale is truly exhilarating. But roads on a grand scale? Not so sure about that. And if Canada’s roads are big, what are its cities going to be like?
My husband is an architect. He’s been going on about a book on Toronto published by Phaidon Press. I haven’t seen it myself, but I’ve been Google-imaging Toronto and find myself unmoved by what I’ve found. Every photo is the same – skyscrapers/stretch of water/tower at dawn; skyscrapers/stretch of water/tower during daylight hours; skyscrapers/stretch of water/tower lit up at night. A lot of skyscrapers. There may be more to Toronto, but I haven’t seen it yet, and one thing’s for sure - I don’t want to spend weeks within sniffing distance of a truly wild wilderness full of bears, beavers and moose only to never see it because my time was spent in the sorts of cities that impress architects and the editors at Phaidon Press.
What I want, wherever we go - city or wilderness alike - is to get a feel for Canada. That’s what drives me now, researching on the internet. But I haven’t even scraped the surface yet. I go down to my local Waterstones. What makes Canada different to America? Does it have a culture and identity that is specifically its own? These are things I want to know, but the shelves are almost bare of books on Canada. There are ones on China, America, Russia, India, Africa, the Arctic, the Antarctic – all the other major countries in the world. But where are the travellers’ tales on Canada? Has anybody written them? If so, why aren’t they here? What’s Waterstones got against Canada, I ask myself.
I comb the other bookshops in my town, but all I can find is the Rough Guide I’ve already bought, and Richard Ford’s novel. Yes, back to that again.
I’m now sitting in bed with a bowl of ice cream. My husband has taken charge of the Rough Guide, and I’m engaged in a delicate balancing act between my laptop and the Richard Ford novel. The fly-leaf describes it as a ‘visionary novel of vast landscapes, complex identities and fragile humanity, which questions the fine line between the normal and the extraordinary and the moments that haunt our settled view of the world.’ This sounds a bit extravagant, but my appetite’s whetted all the same. The fly-leaf also describes Canada [the country, not the book] as: ‘a landscape of rescue and abandonment; a new world of secrets and upheavals.’ I begin to get excited. Things are nosing in the direction I’ve been waiting for. Never mind the novel - this could just be what I want from Canada itself.
If you have knowledge or experience of this second largest country in the world, do let me know. I’d love to hear from you. And if this post turns into a Canada blog [as I suspect it might] look out for it on my website, where I’ll share my adventures with you, and my discoveries too - including what I make of Richard Ford’s book.