Thursday, 19 July 2012

CANADA MINUS FIFTY-FOUR DAYS: Pauline Fisk on Canada [the country] and ‘Canada’ [the book]

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.  


Katherine Langrish said...

Well I envy you if you can go to Nova Scotia! If it were me, I think I'd approach Canada via the historical angle. The Viking site at L'Anse aux Meadows, and the history of the Native Americans, and the French arrivals and then the Scottish - and the various alliances and battles.

I agree it's a huge country, and difficult to make sense of from a distance - but I'd love to go to Quebec and Montreal... I've been to Toronto several times as my sister used to live there. There's a lovely board walk along the shore, and it feels different from an American city - the French influence is quite obvious, and of course all the signs are dual language, and all the distances are in kilometres...

So I hope you have fun! I'll look forward to your blog! :)

Lynn said...

As a Torontonian now living in Germany, I found this a fascinating post.

It is hard to get one's head around "Canada" even for a Canadian. I think that's why most seem to identify strongly with the region they come from. The fact that most Canadians are relatively new to that land also affects the essence of what it means to be Canadian: it's a slightly amorphous thing, not like what it means to be British or German or just about anything else. And it's forever changing in the cities as the ethnic mix is in constant flux - making for a fascinating, dynamic identity, but a not-quite graspable one in its constant shape-shifting nature.

Don't be put off by those pictures of the Toronto skyline - one hardly ever sees the city like that, and then only from the islands - the city itself is made up of numerous neighbourhoods - each with its own very distinct character: Chinatown, Little Italy, Greektown where the signs are in English and the languages of the inhabitants and the food is incredible; The Annex with its Victorian Mansions and funky mix of university students and professors, artists and writers; Queen St. West with loads of art galleries and interesting pubs and restaurants...

British Columbia is gorgeous! The culture of the First Nations People is very strong there which I found fascinating and wish I could have spent more time there.

I'm with Katherine - envious if you get out East! I never made it to the East coast, but it's also supposed to be stunning with a fascinating regional culture and history.

I hadn't meant to go on like this - sorry! I do hope you have a good trip - full of adventure and discoveries. I look forward to reading more on your blog!

Pauline Fisk said...

Thank you, Katherine and Lynn. You've both given me things to think about. Canadian history is something I know little about. I must remedy that. And as most of my time will be spent in the east, your bits about fascinating regional culture and history, not to say anything of stunning landscape, are most encouraging.

I'm sure there will be a blog. I can't bear the idea of travelling without writing it all down. I'll probably do the same as with my Belize travels and have a Canada blog button on my website, so do look out for it. I'm not going until September but as and when I find things that are interesting, I'll probably throw them all in.

Penny Dolan said...

A post like this makes one want to start packing. So happy to hear you are off on another travel adventure. I'll look foward to your blog.

I wasn't in Canada long but one of my most magical memories is of swimming in a lake in the summer with all the mountains around. That, and all the warnings about bears the Canadians enjoy giving you. You'll have great time.

One thing I found odd was the pattern of place names. Here the language patterns of the names often indicate the local history - Viking names in the north etc. However, in Canada you see UK place names scattered almost randomly across the map - though presumably where settlers settled. Takes some getting used to.

Pauline Fisk said...

Penny - lake swimming sounds good to me. Just back from Pembrokeshire [see this coming Saturday's Authors Electric] where swimming definitely wasn't the order of the day - though it has been every other year, and I'm definitely missing it.

Lynn - thanks for your comments on the essence of being Canadian. It's just this sort of thing I want to hear. From now onwards, and throughout the trip, I'll be trying to get a better understanding of what 'being Canadian' is all about.

When I first moved to Shropshire, I arrived without roots. I was born in London and grew up there, but I never felt as if I belonged. Maybe my mother's alienation rubbed off on me - a Guernsey girl fleeing Hitler's army during the Second World War, she never felt at home in London, or indeed anywhere else. But thirty-five years after my arrival here, I now feel like a proud Salopian. It's living and breathing a place over time, I guess, that makes it yours - if you want it to of course And, as you're experiencing as a Torontonian in Germany, once you've got that it remains with you wherever you go.

MamaDragon said...

I'm a Canadian living in the UK. I love both countries, both are beautiful and dear to me in different ways. Those vast roads you talk about, they are long, and journeying through the praries on the trans-canada highway is dangerous. It will feel like driving through a day and half of the same flat open space, it is hard not to fall asleep. Also, it is difficult even when you are a local resident to know when and where the next petrol (gas) station is. The signs in rural Canada are non existent. If they were ever put up in the first place, a snow plow probably knocked them down. That said, have an amazing time. The country is beautiful, the bears are not nearly so mean, the people will welcome you with open arms, and there is lots to do. Do please visit BC. Everyone goes to Toronto, but don't by pass Vancouver, or better still go to Victoria! (Perhaps my west coast roots are showing.) I've lived in five different provinces, and each have something worth seeing. I am sure you will be happy to be home, as I am, when I return to the UK. There is so much unsung about the wonderfulness that is living here! Canadians love breakfast, it's a thing, so make sure to hit an IHOP, or TimHorton's while you are out there. There is many quick, but tasty breakfasts that I do miss. I could ramble all day, but if you want any local info, just email me. Places like Cultus lake, Whistler, or Harrison rarely get a mention in travel books, but are well wroth the journey.

Pauline Fisk said...

Mamadragon - thank you for this. Your enthusiasm is infectious. Yes, I will email you. And, come September, keep an eye on my website where I'll hopefully be sharing what I see and do, and what I make of it all.

Pauline Fisk said...

Mamadragon - I should have said I'll email you if you give me your address! Message me on my Pauline Fisk page on FB, and let's take it from there.

A. Colleen Jones said...

You will have an awesome time! I was born in Halifax, Nova Scotia, grew up in Winnipeg, and have lived in Toronto, Victoria, and Vancouver, and briefly in Kenora, Ste. Adele, and Comox, just to give you a few juucy place names to look up. Canada is vast but you have to look at it in pieces to not feel overwhelmed. I live in Ireland, so it's pretty tiny in comparison, but in both places, I tend to get familiar with where I am and then branch out bit by bit from there. I never saw a bear, but I did come close to stepping on a couple of skunks. Try not to get on the wrong side of them or any urban raccoons, and you'll be fine. Have a super trip. :)

Pauline Fisk said...


For any of you who want to follow my Canada blog, I've just set it up today [Monday 3rd Sept] on Seven days to go and I'll be off. In the meantime, I have an exhibition of weavings to prepare for, so it's a busy time.

PS. I like the 'look at it in pieces' advice, A. Colleen Jones. Originally meant to visit Halifax, but then realised how far away it was from where we're likely to be heading. Still struggling with the sense of space.