A warped sense of humour took me right back in time

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The Independent Online
YESTERDAY I called Canada a split-personality nation and you were probably thinking, 'Yeah, yeah, the French and English thing, we all know about that', but no, I didn't mean that. I wasn't thinking about that at all.

I was thinking about the time I turned on a car radio last week near Toronto, and the announcer said: 'And now, from London, the panel game - Many A Slip]'

That's funny, I thought. I don't think the BBC has had that particular programme on for years and years.

'And here to introduce this week's guests is your chairman, Roy Plomley]'

That was odd, too. Roy Plomley is dead. He has been dead for a long time, ever since - well, ever since they tried and failed to find someone who could do Desert Island Discs as well as he could. Why was he still chairing quiz games in Canada?

I soon found out. It was because all the contestants were dead, too. David Nixon, Richard Murdoch, Lady Isobel Barnett - all of them more or less recently deceased. Yet here they were, entertaining Canada fit to bust. Was there some time warp involved?

There is more evidence of a time warp on the main road into Toronto, where there stands a large poster that reads: 'The King's Banquet] The original Toronto medieval feast] Now in its 15th year]'

You might navely think, as I thought at first, that this shows the Canadians have a thin grasp of history, but I am now coming round to the theory that all it shows is that they have a welcomely warped sense of humour, as in the greeting cards shop where I found the following three subject categories side by side: Loss of a Mother, Loss of a Father, Thanks for Dinner.

More evidence for a special sense of humour comes from a small news stall opposite Union Station in downtown Toronto. The news stall is in exactly the place where you might expect tourists or out-of-towners to ask for directions. Which is presumably why the news vendor has this notice on display: 'Information. Do not ask here for information. If we knew anything, we wouldn't be here.'

Anxious to meet the author of such a notice, I stop and buy a Toronto Globe and Mail. He sells me one and goes back to listening to his Hank Williams tapes.

'You like country music?' I ask.

'I like old music,' he corrects me. 'Can't stand this new stuff.'

I kind of agree with him there, especially as I am on my way to the O'Keefe Centre, a large theatre complex, to see the National Ballet of Canada's production of Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker. It is a traditional Christmas thing, this, as traditional as the pantomime at Bath that I am missing, which is Dick Whittington with Ian Botham, and I have to say that although Tchaikovsky's music is as good as ever, the Canadian production of Nutcracker seems to me (and to everyone else in our party, young and old) to be as dreary, uninventive and yawn-a-minute as the fifth day of a heavily drawn Test match. It is the only ballet I have seen that I think would have been immeasurably improved by the appearance of Ian Botham swinging a bat.

So a picture is beginning to emerge of Canada. It is a place where medieval banquets began 15 years ago. A place where dead people appear on quiz games. A place where nobody dares change what Tchaikovsky did, where information is too valuable to give out, and where denture clinics have a sign outside that reads: 'We care about your smile.' (I forgot to mention that before, but they do.) It is, in fact, engagingly warped.

For instance, there is a heated correspondence going on in the Toronto Globe and Mail at the moment about whether soccer is the dullest game in the world. Some people think so, pointing to the (rather doubtful) statistic that the average World Cup produces more deaths than goals.

Others take a different view, including the writer who sent a letter to the paper on Monday to urge people who didn't like soccer not to watch it: 'Do I complain about padded, obese sissies in the National Football League who wouldn't last two minutes in an Australian Rules Football game, and who have to have time-outs to decide what to do next?

'Do I complain about overpaid, out-of-condition Blue Jays sitting on their plump backsides for half a game, gaining exercise by grabbing their crotches and spitting on the expensive Astroturf in the clinical, climate-controlled taxpayer-subsidised Skydome?

'Of course I don't . . .'

Excellent stuff. And it's all about a game that the Canadians to all intents and purposes do not even play. But as I think I may have said, they are a delightfully mixed-up nation.

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