The novel thing about Canada
Sunday 24 May 1998
I don't think a country that has produced Pierre Trudeau, Leonard Cohen, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Oscar Peterson and, dare I say it, Greg Rusedski need feel it has failed to make an impact on the world, or that these contributions have gone unappreciated. And in one area at least, Canada is undoubtedly leading the way.
I was reminded of it last week when the novelist Carol Shields won the Orange prize for fiction, an achievement that highlighted the fact that if you want to get on in women's writing, Canada is now the place. British publishing houses, I gather, have begun prospecting in Canada in a big way. In August Granta will launch its new star, Shani Mootoo, a Vancouver- based first-time novelist who has already taken her own country by storm. She follows in the footsteps of Shields, who secured the Orange with her comic novel Larry's Party, and of poet and author Ann Michaels, whose Fugitive Pieces has sold 26,607 copies in Britain and is already a staple of reading groups around the country. Then there's the popular success of forensic scientist Kathy Reichs's Montreal mystery Deja Dead, which was published here by Heinemann in January and has already sold 18,858. Granta are so impressed by Mootoo's brand of Canadian magic-realism that it is taking the unprecedented step of publishing Cereus Blooms At Night in hardback. "We hardly publish anything in hardback," a spokeswoman told me, "and certainly not a first novel."
The confidence in Mootoo's fantastical world appears to be well-founded. Bookseller magazine's regular sample panel of industry specialists voted Cereus an unqualified hit. "Four out of six reviewers picked the book as one of the best of the new titles and several said they thought it was the best they had read all year," said Granta.
The novel tells the story of an old reclusive witch living on a fictional island called Lantanacamara, and Mootoo, who was born in Ireland but grew up in Trinidad, appears to have drawn on her tropical experience to create the lush environment of the book. She now spends most of her time in Vancouver and New York.
Her publisher in Canada, McClelland and Stewart, says she is already selling extremely well, "in the tens of thousands". Judy Mappin, a specialist in Canadian literature who has run the Double Hook bookshop since 1974, confirms Mootoo's burgeoning popularity in Canada. "She was just shortlisted for our Geller Prize," she said. But Mappin believes there are other Canadian women writers waiting in line - all with the potential to speak to an international audience: "Perhaps it is because Canada is full of more and more immigrants who eventually go back to their roots in their fiction."
Names to watch out for are Gail Anderson-Darget who wrote The Cure for Death by Lightning, and Jane Urquart. They will all have a long way to go, however, before they catch up with the real star of Canadian novelists, Margaret Atwood, whose Alias Grace has sold 20,574 copies in Britain this year.
I FOUND myself turning out for the London Review of Books XI last week in the annual grudge match against the Times Literary Supplement team. Trying to reverse last year's 5-1 defeat, we improved to the extent of only losing 4-2, but what saddened me more was to see the TLS gloating over the result in its pages ("as decisive as it was predictable", it reported somewhat unkindly), and failing to mention the dastardly tactics they deployed. Passing back to the hands of the goalkeeper was banned years ago, boys.
I'd like to stress that I was absent from the LRB's next outing, against the Jazz Cafe, which, when I saw the score - 16-13 to the musical maestros - made me wonder if they hadn't actually been playing rugby.
Plenty of room for nicknames
WITH THE death of Frank Sinatra, two of the great sobriquets pass into history: "The Voice" and "the Chairman of the Board": although, when I read that Sinatra was known as both of these things, I often ask myself: by whom? Did Sinatra fans themselves refer to him as The Voice? I suspect not. It's certainly true that such epithets catch on in the press, which is usually where they've originated. The nickname game set me wondering what titles remain unclaimed in the entertainment world. We've had "the King" (Elvis), "Duke" (John Wayne) and "the Boss" (Bruce Springsteen). Let me know who you think should be honoured in this way and what their title should be. You never know. We might even be able to get one or two to stick.
AT A slightly less exalted level, I took a detour into the dense jungle that is the London arts scene last week and came up against a strange creature called Micko Westmoreland. Micko is the model of a Nineties creative type, touring the clubs as a musician one moment, and the next disappearing off to Cannes in his role as a film actor. His new film, Velvet Goldmine, has already attracted quite a bit of publicity - not, I think it's fair to say, because Micko's in it, but because it stars Ewan McGregor and Eddie Izzard. After Boogie Nights and the John Travolta revival, Velvet Goldmine is another wallow in the Seventies, an era Micko says might have been thought of as "all cocaine, glitter and platforms, when in reality it was more to do with acne, snorkel duffel-coats and yellow polo-necks".
Micko seems half stuck in a time-warp and half at the cutting edge - a peculiarly contemporary dilemma, I feel. A self-styled proponent of "cyber-rockabilly", he cut a striking figure on stage last week with his Rickenbacker guitar and leather overcoat, and cheeks sucked in to give himself that David Bowie look of androgyny.
Of his new album, he said: "It's basically pop music with a heavy percussive element and a bent for melody. At the beginning of the album, there's just the sound of this analogue tape being rewound. It's like rewinding the past. It's not a play for authenticity, it's about incorporating genres and putting my own personality on to that."
Right you are, Micko.
Colloquialisms of a fruity Kiwi kind
AN INTERESTING doorstop-size tome arrived on my desk last week: the Oxford Dictionary of New Zealand English. I had always assumed that Kiwis spoke the same language as us, but apparently not. The most withering insult you can throw at Aucklanders ("perceived as brash loudmouths," says the dictionary) is "Rangitoto yank". If you want a word for weedy children, it's "skinnamalink". My favourite is the slang for dairy farmers: "cowspanker".
IN THE old days, pride used to be one of the seven deadlies. Now, everyone's at it: being proud about skin-colour, sexual preference, fur-type. Yep, the latest thing in the world of animal loving is a campaign, to be launched by Animal Aid on 2 June, called Animal Pride.
"It is," says Andrew Tyler, one of the organisers, "about animal-rights people coming out of the box marked 'weirdo' ... and declaring the pride we feel in our kinship with animals and the pride we feel in being part of the movement..." Expect to see owners strutting with their pets through Soho.
There could be gold in goals
AND then there's gambling, and the tens of millions that is expected to be bet on the World Cup. Last week I sought some tips from a man who should know: Jacques Black (ho-ho), author of a new book about spread- betting, Spread Betting to Win. Jacques thinks that the number of goals set will be too low. "If refs are tough, you could have 11 players against 10 or 9, and many more goals will be scored." So get buying.
THE audiotape revolution is entering a new phase, I see. Forget the great classics of literature as brought to life by Martin Jarvis or Juliet Stevenson. The era of self-help on audiotape is with us. I can see the logic. Busy people with lives that need overhauling are by definition too busy to read the books that might help them. Car journeys can now be learning experiences, with the lure of such titles as Great Answers to Tough Interview Questions, The A to Z of Mental Fitness, Instant Rapport, and How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk.
Personally, I think I'll stick to Mozart.
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