Will Self: PsychoGeography

Blair’s rich project
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The Independent Online

I expect you've been wondering where Tony Blair is. No? How quickly we forget – how speedily we excise. The past decade has been rewritten by Peter Benchley at the behest of a Hollywood mogul: "Pete," he snapped, "I want Jaws, but without the shark."

Yes, where is Blair? Surely he must be at an undisclosed location in the Middle East, hunkered down in a air-conditioned bunker, coolly knocking some hot, hard heads together. "I say to you," he's doubtless saying, "that we've got to have some consensus here." Ehud Olmert, Mahmoud Abbas, Khaled Meshal, Presidents Mubarak, Asad and Ahmadinejad – these are tough characters, they've threaded their way through some of the most dangerous political labyrinths in the world, yet they'll still hearken to the wise words of this minor Scottish public school and Oxford alumnus, won't they?

Shorn of the apparatus of state, I feel confident that TB's diplomatic footwork will be still niftier, his intellect even sharper. He's not the type of ex-premier to hole up in an off-season resort town and dictate his content-free memoirs to a compliant ghost writer, now is he? I mean, the next thing you'll be saying is that he isn't in the Middle East, doing his Armageddon-solving shtick, at all. You'd have him on the North American lecture tour, wouldn't you? Hoofing it for corporate wankers, by bursting out of a cake in a pinstripe one-piece in order to pay off his fat mortgage.

Well, you're right. Funny place Canada; the people are painfully nice. They speak with these very distinctive accents: that sound like the sonic form of a foam-rubber coating, beneath which is a steely core of Presbyterian certainty. The landscape is wide and tan – don't think 70mm, think 140mm. Wide, and thin too – something like 90 per cent of the population is concentrated within a 3,000-mile long, 100-mile-wide strip along the border with the US. So, a wide, thin place where Michael Ignatieff – who we last remember as a silky-toned egghead on arts chat shows in the last millennium – has reinvented himself as the Deputy Leader of the Liberal Party.

This is a little bizarre, somewhat as if Mark Lawson, the potato-headed doyenne of Radio 4 cultural commentary, were to become the angry god of an obscure Amerindian tribe. Sometimes I wish he would. But then Canada is a land of contrasts, the birthplace of Leonard Cohen – and Conrad Black. The old gag – what's the difference between Canada and yoghurt? Answer: yoghurt is a live culture – is more than a little unfair. Better to think of Canada as a Manichean realm, but unlike the US, it isn't that the Canadians see the rest of the world as rigidly divided between good and evil, it's that their painful politeness extends even to reflective self-consciousness. Would you mind telling us – they enquire of themselves – if we're up to anything, like, bad?

The central government, eager to keep the secessionists in a slumberous state, allows the mining of asbestos in Quebec to continue unabated. Asbestos that's then carted off to India and all points east, to be mixed into cement and turned into roofing materials, that when broken up sends fibres deep within the lungs of slum dwellers. Now, that's not nice. Any more than the open-cast mining of Alberta's tar sands is nice. Yes, up there in Alberta, the Canadians – one of the first signatories of the Kyoto Protocol, are hard at it, grubbing up thousands of square miles of boreal forest, and the very earth beneath it, so that they can then extract the layers of tar sands from which – by laborious and energy-intensive methods – crude oil can be refined.

Great lakes of toxic tailings leak into rivers, the musk ox lies down with the polar bear – and expires. Diggers and trucks that make ordinary diggers and trucks look like Dinky toys, back and fill in pits six miles wide, it's all about as far from niceness, from politeness, as can possibly be imagined. Still, at least Ed Stelmach, the Premier of Alberta, is on the case. When I was in Canada a couple of weeks ago, the news that he'd hiked the royalties payable by the oil companies to $1.8bn (about £915m) had Canada in a tizzy (the Canadian version of high anxiety). There were those who said that he was creating a dreadful grizzly bear of a stock market, but luckily there is a wise man on hand to help him hold to his course.

Yup, you guessed it, our very own TB, who was on hand to tell Stelmach to "stay the course". These were Blair's precise words; he was in Calgary to pay off his fat mortgage by bursting out of a cake in a pinstripe one-piece – sorry, I mean give a lecture. Meanwhile, where the devil was Michael Ignatieff? Why, in the Middle East, of course, participating in peace talks. Now that's nice – isn't it?

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