Well, I haven’t blogged in a while. Been kind of busy and preoccupied with finishing the novel. And also with wrestling my demons. It’s an ongoing fight. Sometimes I think I’m winning, other times, I’m not quite so sure.
Another reason I’ve been busy is I’m on my holidays with the family in Canada. And this kind of goes hand in hand with my struggle right now.
Ok, so I love Canada. I’ve been here many times, albeit only to Ontario. The first time I visited was in 1985. A lovely relative offered to be my sponsor if I wanted to make the move across the ocean more permanent. I was 17. I had a boyfriend back home. I was shy. I was pretty sure I had my life mapped out.
What do we really know at 17? (OK, so don’t answer that if you are 17. And if you are 17, what are you doing reading a middle-aged blog?)
I knew Hamlet pretty well. And I knew the words to the back catalogue of Wham!. (Yes, an exclamation mark was required there.) I knew how to dance en pointe (that’s on your tippy toes in excruciatingly painful ballet shoes). I knew how to make peppermint ice, a decent cup of tea, and how to bowl overarm.
I also knew about the pain of loss and life thereafter. I knew that one day your father could be there, the next he could be gone. Forever. In the most painful way of rejection.
However, I didn’t know that I had choices. I didn’t know about risk-taking. I didn’t know about stepping out of the boat.
If I knew then what I know now, what would I have done? Would I have taken that chance and gone to Canada?
I don’t know. But this is what did happen: The boyfriend (still a virtual friend in case he’s reading this) didn’t last forever. I left home. I went to university, the first woman in my family. I got an English degree and a major episode of depression. I lost a cousin and an aunt. I got engaged. I graduated. I got married.
But, all the time…. this feeling that my life hadn’t yet started.
Was it a restlessness, a knowledge that life is transient, temporary, a gift on loan to us? Was it just me? Was it my genes?
To put it plainly, why did my daddy drive off in a car, leaving his wife and three kids behind? Why did he fix a hose to his exhaust and breathe in those poisonous fumes that made him sleep forever?
We don’t know. No note. No definitive reason. Just conjecture.
I was ten when he died. I never knew his parents. His dad died back in the 50s of some tropical disease. His mother died of cancer when I was a baby. Her mother had died in childbirth when she and her twin were just six years old. There’s no one to ask if there is a genetic link there somewhere. All I can do is try to fill in the gaps. Which is what a writer does when she makes up stories. She asks ‘what if?’
So I ask myself, on the weekend that I become the exact age my father was when he died, ‘what if?’. What if I had gone to Canada after leaving school? What if I had gone to a university in Toronto and studied anthropology? What if I had got a job in a museum and had a special interest in the elders of the First Nations of Canada? What if I had got married to a red-blooded Canadian and become a hockey mom?
As someone once said to me (actually the same lovely relative who offered to sponsor me back in the day), life is about how you react to the decisions you make. Well, I am reacting right now. I am alone in a hotel room in downtown Toronto. I am wondering if I should hitch a ride out to Saskatchewan? Trek up to see those Northern Lights. Fly to the moon.
Or what if I just went to bed with my usual sleeping pill and slept the sleep of the dead. No dreams. No nightmares. Just numbness.
Well, I’d wake up tomorrow and wash and dress and eat and go about my everyday ordinary life. And I’d try to make it work, this life I have. For my family and those I care about. For my dad. My ancestors.
And yes, if you are reading this and wondering, what the heck is going on in Sophie’s brain? Well, it’s pretty much what goes on in Sophie’s brain everyday. Only I’m allowing myself this indulgence of speaking out online as this is a momentous weekend.
As somebody else once said, tomorrow is another day. I don’t know what life has in store for me but I guess I will just have to step out of the boat.
I’m at Toronto Pearson airport, having spent the week in southern Ontario in the Niagara region. I’ve been to Canada several times, and this was my third visit to Niagara. But this trip was different. I came as more than a tourist. I came as a writer, trying to see things I never noticed before, digging deeper and looking closer.
So first… Niagara Falls is a mad mix of powerful nature and man-made tackiness. The falls take your breath away, every time you look at them. They change according to the light, the wind, the time of year. But the aggressive beauty is constant. The skyscraper hotels, noisy garish tourist attractions, chain restaurants and Casino clash with this wonder of the world in a way that you either love or hate. I kind of love it. It’s like Blackpool on acid. Marilyn Monroe in the film Niagara captures the darker, seamier side of Niagara Falls in the classic 1953 film. Niagara launched her into superstardom and ever since she has been an icon of the last century, the beautiful, fragile women, used by the men who flocked around her. There’s nothing fragile about the falls, but they do lure us in…
Secondly… the history. I got to thinking about what is must have been like to be the first people to discover the thundering waters. We don’t really learn much about Canadian history in school in Britain. Maybe because we have so much of our own to handle. But I was fascinated by the War of 1812. Basically this was a war between America and Britain over Canada (which wasn’t yet Canada). Maybe it’s not part of our national consciousness because it was considered a sideshow to the main grabber of attention, the Napoleonic Wars. But it was a key war in Canadian history. What really impressed me is the part a young girl played. There are myths and legends about Laura Secord but it is generally believed that she heard somehow of an impending American attack at Niagara on the British troops. Laura walked twenty miles over rough terrain to warn the British Commander. The result was that the British and the Mohawk contingent were prepared and defeated the Americans.
And thirdly, I love ice wine! Niagara is famous for its wine but the Canadians keep it for themselves. And who can blame them? I went on a winery tour and did some tasting. Some of it was amazing, some of it was like nothing I have ever drunk. One of the Sauvignon Blancs smelt and tasted of cat pee but this was more than made up for by the ice wine. It’s incredibly expensive (because of the way it is harvested, when the temperature hits about -10 degrees) and it explodes with a whole range of flavours and sensations in your mouth. If you ever get the chance to try it, then do…
So just a few thoughts… I’m sad to be leaving this vast country behind as it grabs you by the heart and grips your imagination. But it’s back to dear old Blighty…
Au revoir, Canada…
I’m just back from a fortnight in Canada during which time my debut novel The Generation Game was officially published.
I’ve been to Canada several times over the last twenty-odd years and it has a special place in my heart. The vastness of it, the friendly people, the beauty, the bustle, Tim Horton’s. A country of extremes. And big, big, bigness.
I first went as a 17 year old to southern Ontario – the Falls were spectacular and the welcome huge. A kind relative offered to sponsor me so I could move out there but I wasn’t brave enough to take that big step over the ocean.
Canada has stayed at the edge of my vision, just out of reach, but never far from my mind so when I wrote The Generation Game it was easy to put in a chapter set in Toronto. Soon after I finished the first draft, my husband booked a week’s (surprise) holiday in the Great White North for my fortieth birthday. It was an amazing coincidence to be back in the land of my dreams.
We went back the following year with our kids who fell in love with the place – of course. And now we’ve had our follow-up family visit and although we packed a lot in, we only saw a tiny fraction of the country. But what we saw and experienced was awesome (true Canadian word). My first Mountie in Ottawa. A visit to the emergency in a Montreal Hospital (never to be repeated, I hope). Lunch in the CN Tower revolving restaurant on a completely fog-bound day. A swim in a deserted lake in probably the most beautiful place in the world.
This worked really well as they each took on the voice of a spouse in a marriage put on hold for ten months due to a work separation. I recommend it.
Then as a parting gift to myself I bought the book How to be a Canadian by Will and Ian Ferguson. It’s hilarious.
So as I prepare for the exciting world of interviews and book signings, I will try and plot my next novel so that it will be at least part set in Canada – then I’ll have to go back for research.
I first visited Niagara when I was seventeen, back in the day, the summer of 85. I returned there for my fortieth with my husband and again two years ago with the kids. We’re going back to Canada again this summer but there’s no trip to Niagara as we are planning to go to Montreal and Ottawa (like Wills and Kate) as well as Toronto, and an idyllic lakeside cottage belonging to family cousins. I feel a little sad as it is such an awesome sight, even with all the tackiness tacked on to it.
I hear that tourism has dropped there leading to talk of bringing back the tightrope walkers that used to lure tourists in their droves before such dare-devil attempts were outlawed.
Would this tempt me back? Or the honeymooners? I’m not sure, but I would like to return in winter where the spectacle takes on another look entirely.
I have a chapter in my forthcoming novel (The Generation Game for those of you who haven’t heard me mention it) set in Canada where my characters do exactly this.
But for us it will be the heat of summer. Air-conditioning and cool showers. Lunch in the revolving restaurent of the CN Tower, breakfast at Cora, doughnuts and coffee at Tim Hortons, white-water rafting on the Ottawa River, shopping, swimming, chilling in the mountains. Even practising our French in Quebec. Can’t wait.