I first visited Canada in 1977. At Toronto Airport my father was questioned at length about the bottle of whisky he was carrying.
I first visited Canada in 1977. At Toronto Airport my father was questioned at length about the bottle of whisky he was carrying. This caused him considerable glee, and as we cabbed into town he lectured me about the Presbyterian foibles of this Greater Hibernia. The last time he'd been near Canada, Dad met his Uncle Melville on the bridge across Niagara Falls: "I came from the USA and handed him a bottle of whisky, which he then took back to the Canadian side. In those days you had to get a liquor licence which only entitled you to buy one or two bottles a month," Dad chuckled indulgently. "Uncle Melville's requirements were a little larger."
This was an understatement; Uncle Melville was a raving alcoholic who'd been despatched to Canada in the 1920s as a remittance man. Family legend had it that after his ship had steamed up the St Lawrence and was about to dock, Uncle Melville came on deck and saw a large hoarding which proclaimed "Canada Dry". He retreated hurriedly to his cabin and tried to stowaway for the return journey, but was winkled out and put ashore.
Dad had his whisky, I had copies of the Sex Pistols' single "Pretty Vacant", which had just come out. The picture sleeve depicted two coaches, the destination boards of which read "NOTHING" and "NOWHERE". I thought this the very acme of Situationist cool (in truth, I still think this the very acme of Situationist cool), and in carrying it across the Atlantic I placed myself in the vanguard of a punk movement which I felt certain was about to engulf the globe. The last thing I wanted was to be marooned in suburban Toronto for a month, while Dad discoursed with his friend who was a Great Canadian Philosopher. To be so near the USA but so far, struck me as the ultimate travel disaster.
Actually, it wasn't too bad. The Great Canadian Philosopher's family were rambunctious and accommodating. I took the bus into Toronto and sold my Sex Pistols singles at a 400 per cent mark-up. Then I hung out in the new Eaton Centre, a cutting-edge shopping mall. Thirty-odd years ago its voluminous atria and aerial walkways were something of a revelation. It was here that I also bought my first ever disposable cigarette lighter, a gadget that seemed utterly futuristic.
Nevertheless, it was impossible to spend much time in Toronto without being conscious of its mammoth inferiority complex. The combination of Canadian self-deprecation and a grid-pattern of lethal regularity made for a city that felt as much like a simulacrum of somewhere else as it did itself. In the ensuing decades this othercityness hasn't been helped by the way the municipality hires out the downtown area to film crews so that it can double for Manhattan, or indeed just about any other large American city where the costs of location filming would be prohibitive.
After a month I left Dad and flew to Montreal where my brother was teaching at the university. He was renting a rather louche apartment from a colleague who was on sabbatical. I say louche, because every single horizontal surface was covered in thick, white shagpile (this was the 1970s). The owner also indulged in distinctly Grecian pursuits - I know this, because on the morning after my arrival, my brother came pirouetting into the room where I was sleeping, buck naked and screaming "I've got bloody crabs!" It transpired that the pubic lice had been contracted from the floor covering.
But that's Montreal for you. I've been back to Toronto numerous times in the ensuing years, and developed a mild fondness for it. The last time I was in town I asked a late-night stroller if he knew where there was an ATM in the vicinity. "It's catty-corner!" My distinctly dishevelled interlocutor shouted, and when I looked bemused, he pointed diagonally across the intersection. I pondered the derivation of this expression for some time, and concluded that it must refer to the way a cat will pace around an enclosed space (like Toronto). But driven, eventually, to the OED, I discovered that it derives from the French quatre, and refers to a rhomboidal set.
Recently my friend Mike, who lives in Toronto, sent me details of a project called "Psychogeography", whereby strollers in the city find numbers posted on signs, then text them to a control centre, and so receive "murmurs" on their mobile phones. These are little, first-person narratives about the districts they're wandering through, which hopefully will deconstruct the city. The originators of this project concede that it isn't exactly an original idea, which is big of them. In my experience psychogeographers are a peculiarly catty and possessive bunch. I know I am. Frankly, I wonder if the "murmur" idea ever would have got going without that lanky youth importing the Sex Pistols singles all those years ago.
By Will Self
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