Wednesday 3 November 2021

1990 Toronto


I sit in Tim Hortons, a fast-food place alongside the CN Tower.  It is empty but for me.  I have a huge coffee, a blueberry muffin and an apple muffin.  Melancholy rock plays.  The sun is bright and hot, the air clear and freezing.  Beside me, waiting, stands the huge CN Tower, concrete rearing up greyly.  It opens at 10; it is now 9.30am.

An unusual start to this journal: no Gatwick thoughts, nothing of the flight, of yesterday, yet.  But this is an unusual trip in itself.  I am staying with family.  After Greece, I must confess I had some qualms about this kind of thing.  No Gatwick thoughts partly because I don't want to get trapped into re-enacting past trips – and novels, even.  Of the flight – in a 767 – I will only say how short it seemed, how tiny this world is getting.  Things were exacerbated by a phone call on Sunday: mother ringing.  Since I spoke to her on Saturday (in the UK), speaking to her again felt as if we were only a few miles apart – a feeling aided by the excellent telecoms.

Saturday night was spent in.  The drive from the airport (the latter rather crowded and pandemoniacal) gave a great view of the city.  The house is beautifully situated by the lake.  An interesting, contrapuntal house, rooms and staircases everywhere.  My bedroom smells of pine – reminds me of my childhood home.  I sleep on a sofa bed, happily, like a stone [blueberry muffin – dough soft and stained purple like a bruise, an edible contusion].

Sunday spent with friends of the family.  We went out to their country pad, calling in on the McMaster Gallery on the way.  Good display of works by the "Group of Seven" – the defining artists of Canadians' self-imagining.  Exclusively (almost) landscapes.  The best definitely Thomson: a thick, almost impasto style, very intense response to the season, the rocks and the trees.  Others more derivative, especially of French Impressionists, and of Thomson.  Other displays were of Native American art – some quite delicate – and of Inuit – good stuff.  Nice setting amid pines, with windows opening out onto views quite cognate with many of the images.

Then on to the friends.  Their pad – in four acres – looking quite small from the outside, but it has four bedrooms.  It is all designer decorated inside – interesting use of striated colours – à la Seurat.  Very effective – and presumably expensive too.  Simple but good fare for lunch, served on an impeccably stylish country dining table with dried flowers, chunky glasses, elegant plates etc.  A stroll out to the adjacent church and graveyard, spoilt only by me putting my foot in it – literally.  Bloody dogs…

A drive back through the dusk showed Toronto at its best – as it does for many North American cities.  Contrariwise, driving in daylight the land is flat and dull.  North America does not connect: there is too much space.  Darkness joins things up, leaving only the million lights like galaxies.

Sunday morning I was up at 6am, and read Saturday's multi-part newspaper from cover to cover.  Incredibly parochial, ultimately rather trivial.  Journalism rather poor, design messy (ditto for the "City Limits" of Toronto).  What did emerge was how Canada was stuck in a slough: the land of opportunity was in recession, the economy screwed, and big political problems – especially re Quebec – brewing.  One interesting thing the bloke said on Sunday was how the verticalisation of Canada across to the US was taking precedence over the horizontal nationalism – hence Quebec. 

I woke at 6.30am today, then came into town.  Brilliant weather.  Walked around for hours, and now await the opening of the tower to get my bearings.  As ever, the skyscrapers look stunning in this weather, all glinting glass against the hard sky.

I am now at the observation level, facing north.  How can you do justice to these kind of experiences, ones which have no real equals?  Below me (sic), mid-town is spread out.  Steam emerges from their roofs like cotton wool (and from grills in the street – à la New York.)  Up to the space deck.  Interesting that even though you can lean out over space – over glass – it is not as vertiginous as you would expect.  Clearly it has to do with security, not just height – hence some people's fear of even ladders.  On the glass: "laminated riot shields: burglary resisting glass".  Looking down on the main floor: the roof the points of the compass marked.  And two men trolling around.

However, some pain (and sweaty palms) induced on the lower deck, looking down the concrete faces.  I think this is because there are steel ropes starting here and visibly going all the way, which means you can relate to the distance.  Yikes.

Back on earth.  I am now in the Boulevard Café on Harbord Street – Peruvian.  After the CN Tower, to Roy Thomson Hall for a ticket to tonight's concert – Toronto Mendelssohn Choir (Ralph Vaughan Williams' Dona Nobis Pacem, couple of Canadian pieces).  Slow service – computers again [fish chowder has arrived – great smell.  Yup, was utterly delicious – picante.]

Then a long walk in the perfect walking weather – bracing air, warm sunshine.  Out along Queen Street, towards Chinatown.  Bustly.  Up to Grange Park – autumnal mood.  Then past the Art Gallery – with one of the chunkiest Moores I've ever seen – truly monumental – up to the university, along College Street, up to here.  Quiet tired, warm (especially with the soup now). [Great salsa in the background; quiet, intimate restaurant – really cute little waitress – Peruvian]. Tamal verde nice, but not so good as the soup.  Lovely buzz here now.  This is my idea of a hol.  It is interesting how Toronto reminds me of Boston – especially last night when we drove through the city on the way back.  Toronto looked good then.

Well, big gap.  I'm now in the Roy Thomson Hall, having been back to the house.  After lunch, out along to Honest Ed's emporium – wild.  Inside, totally over the top – mirrors, lights – and wisecracks out of Christmas crackers.  I notice that most of the clientele are lower class and ethnic, and that some of the goods are made in Romania…

Then along Bloor Street, very picturesque.  Subway: rather dull but cheap – very tiny subway cars.  Along to the "World's Largest Bookshop" – stuff I must buy.  Walk down to St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts, visiting Mazzoleni Hall along the way – little doing.  St. Lawrence also rather quiet.  It seems there isn't a BAC/ICA/Almeida centre with bustle.  Out to the New Front Street – checking the opera (Monteverdi's "Poppea"), then a street car (cheap at $1.20) to "home".  Wine and snatched meal, cab (Indian driver – preferred Brits running India) to Roy Thomson Hall.  Quite nice inside.  Old people here.  

Inside the hall – very sober – greys everywhere, very spacious.  A design fault – very wide one of the seats, the middle ones of which are attainable only from the sides.  Wonderful glass reflector mushrooms à la Royal Albert Hall – but (sensibly) transparent.  And reflective: so in each a top-down view of the orchestra – looking like ants on a watchglass.  Toronto-Mendelssohn Choir (remember that Prom?) neatly turned out in grey and DJs.  Everyone with poppies (Remembrance Sunday soon).  Interesting programme: ex-Latvians Arvids Purvs and Imants Raminsh, plus Vaughan Williams.  Still very few attractive women.  Pretty full hall, especially for a Monday.


The cafeteria, Royal Ontario Museum.  Disaster, disasters at work – you turn your back for a moment…

Last night quite nice.  I nodded off for a while in the first half – rather characterless modal sub-Britten pieces.  Vaughan-Williams rather better – and the choir rather punchier – but still surprisingly lacking in electricity.  Odd start: five military chaps marched on and stood throughout the performance.

Long, full ride in a street car, then transferring to the subway.  Not too much walking today: my knee and hip (right) are playing up.  Having looked long and hard for a Thai restaurant (which I found) in Elm Street, I decided instead to try Csardes – Hungarian – instead.  Thai is too common an experience for me.  Cold cherry soup, pork goulash.  Former with whole cherries, cinnamon and lemon.  Taking the subway here, I'm vaguely aware of my name being called.  I ignore it, of course, but turn later to see the bloke I met on Sunday.  Excellent pork and sauerkraut goulash: rich, creamy and spicy.  Now trying palacsinta – apricot crêpe, and Hungarian coffee.

On to the Royal Ontario Museum, working through galleries of ancient civilisations; of evolution; of space.  The latter particularly impressive: I suddenly felt the full presence of those other planets, and of our kindred to them.  As ever, the whole business of stargazing got to me.  Frightening.  Lots of schoolparties – and indeed the place felt like an extension to school.

Then I walked up round Yorkville – nothing much here – then subway down to here.  Toronto just does connect sadly.  And it is so small.  Meeting the only Torontonian I know in the subway only seemed to confirm this.


The days are getting stranger and fragmented here – perhaps a reflection of the city and my reaction to it.  In to the city, then on to Druxy's ("my withers unwrung" springs to mind for no reason.)

Yesterday.  After my meal to the bookshop, where I buy some jazz books – Hentoff and Schuller.  Then back, and out for a quick meal before the opera.  Talking to the waitress afterwards, I find out that she lived for a while in Kingston, in London.  Strange: Toronto feels like Kingston writ large.

To the Canadian Opera Company, to see Monteverdi's "Poppea" (in English).  Small, intimate space with excellent acoustics.  Singers variable, but generally better than I expected.  A long (three hours) performance.  Quite raunchy – nice symbolism at the end for the great duet: Poppea bends down and blows out a ring of candles…

From Druxy's down to the City Hall.  The ice-levelling machine  is out on the skating rink. Unusual job. Then in to the Municipal Library reading a few Canadian mags – the Toronto mag quite good.  Nice ideas: best of (100s), and also "My Favourite Street".  Then up to Art Gallery of Ontario, a short wait for opening (at 11am – why?), then in.  Home, basically.  It is such a relief to find texture, depth, racination.  Walking in to the Impressionists hall is like diving into a cool bath of colour.  The sights, the names, the intent.  Wonderful.  Makes me long for Europe.  Then upstairs to "Group of Seven" – I still think Thomson was the best.  Other stuff quite good, though.  Also here is one of my fave Chagalls – "Over Vitebsk".  It always sends a shiver down my spine – it seems to capture that lost world of ancient Jewish Russia.  I hear Prokofiev's "Overture on Jewish Themes".

This trip has such light and dark in it; I wonder what I will do tomorrow?

Interesting hearing the French Canadian – very rough clipped – not musical a la Paris.  I am in the At Gallery of Ontario restaurant, having eaten avocado and crab, waiting for grilled salmon.  Reminds me very much of Boston's Museum of Fine Arts – same blue-rinse set, same type of menu.  Along to the Moores – a huge cool roomful of them – just like the Himalayas out of Kashmir.  Looking back along the main gallery, everything so still – only the people moving.  Amazing collection – mostly of original plasters given by Henry Moore himself.  The off-white reveals the organic nature of the forms – huge, gnarled bones.  Also in a side cabinet a collection of natural bits and bobs – homologous with his work.

Another exhibit: Durer – which speaks very directly to me with all its signs and symbols.  Plus a Victorian Canadian artist, colonising Canada with images.  A quick look round other parts – revisiting the yummy Utrillo "Maison de Berlioz", then round to the Grange – the original gallery.  Where I am greeted by a little old lady dressed up in servants' clothes – as all of the attendants are.  Quite nice – real  fires burning, real bread baked in the kitchen.  Do you like visiting old buildings? One asked me – ha!

I am now sitting beside the boardwalk at The Beaches, ancient joggers pounding by.  The lake – I was going to say "sea" – rolls in.  It reminds me of Venice, California, and Bali near Alit's Beach Bungalows.  The sun low to my right, brilliant clear sky.  Leaves everywhere.  Very peaceful.  Back to my home here, where two bedders are in full flow.  Call me unreasonable, but not only do I dislike the quotidian acts, but I hate seeing them done by others.  I flee to buy several newspapers – Globe, Star, Sun and mags.

Out to Tarragon Theatre to see "Lion in the Streets".  Alas, another unassigned show, which means I must get there early – about 7.30pm – and so no proper dinner.  After a pleasant chat with my Iranian taxi driver, I am early.  I decide to get a take-out pizza.  15 minutes becomes 25.  I eat hurriedly, burn my tongue, and am disgruntled.  Ah, life.  Theatre is typically fringe, lots of young people.


November, huh?  In a café at the corner of Bay and Edward, planning to go to a concert.  Orange and date muffin (reminds me of Christchurch Art Centre).  General poppy muzak in the background – I realise how it lacks that deep melancholy of Greek music – that I heard in my own melancholy travelling around Euboea.

Theatre last night was most enjoyable – even though the play itself was unsatisfactory and rather unachieved.  There was some good acting – and this is always a joy.  I hope that I too will write plays – I must start ramping up my intake.  Then last night's has got me fizzing with ideas.  

Lovely walking weather now.  CN Tower occasionally lost in clouds – a salutary reminder of its height.  Wandering here, looking in cafés and restaurants, I never feel – as I do all the time in New York – that something is happening, that matters of great import are being hatched or decided.  This is Toronto.

In front of me, a red-haired mannequin, moves its repetitive way, advertising the baking.  I am reminded of "The Language of Cranes"...and of Sacks' "Seeing Voices".  To Holy Trinity Church where the St Lawrence (ha!) String Quartet is playing, with baritone Braun, Coulthard, Ravel and Faure.  The church typical Victorian Gothic – Morris ceiling, wood everywhere – makes it feel like a village hall – or Aldeburgh's Jubilee Hall.  Strange, my mirror image across the aisle (I am second row back) is also scribbling away in a notebook – perhaps saying that I am scribbling away...Audience mostly geriatric.  Music making OK – acoustics too hard, echo too obfuscating.  Coulthard vaguely modal and old-fashioned, Ravel a little heavy, Fauré nice – beautiful stuff, complementing Verlaine's outpourings well.

Eat in the café downstairs.  Nice, old-world atmosphere – reminds me of St Alban's Cathedral café,  even though it looks nothing like.  I suppose it is the small city feeling – à la Kingston – these are the homologues (why do I keep using this word? - I know where I got it – the Evolution section of Royal Ontario Museum).  Situation of church interesting: hemmed in on all sides by huge office blocks – like Trinity in New York at Wall Street.

I sit in the Café of the Bay, that is, the Hudson's Bay Company – still going after all these years.  Now a mega emporium – reminds me of Macy's – it nonetheless possesses a continuity which is surprising.
Very pleasant – though I've done little today – partly because we should have jazz this evening.  I started the Hentoff book yesterday – excellent.  I feel that I'm really going to get into it.

[The cycle ride to Hatshepsut: was it really only nine months ago?  What a holiday – one that this, for all its interesting aspects, threw sharply into relief in terms of density of incident.  I just hope I can capture part of it.  And San Francisco – the hotel lobby – was I really there six months ago?  What a busy bee I have been – and a lucky one too.]

Looking at this book, it is clear that I have been shirking somewhat – nothing like the cascades of words.  But it has been very pleasant – though a pity that work has been blowing up at home.  Everyone seems terribly well-brought up here: they all have this irresistible urge to take back their crockery (ah! Grantchester, no more, no more…).

On the Boardwalk, out on a jetty (Zattere), looking back west.  A fuzzy, orange sun rolling down towards the Torontonian minaret of the CN Tower.  I hope they build that even bigger one in the Midlands…


At my Toronto "home", a routine - so beloved by me abroad – beginning to emerge.  Up, coffee, toast, apricot marmalade, read the papers.  The latter seem to me a crucial windows on the world they report on.  Out to Bathurst Street, to look at the Factory Theatre.  Back through the garment district, up Spadina Avenue (where we ate yesterday), then along Dundas Street to the Art Gallery of Ontario for coffee and muffin. 

Last night was good.  To a Chinese restaurant for buckets of hot and sour, then fine chicken, beef and prawns, then to "Top of the Senator", a jazz club on Victoria Street.  Long room, nice atmosphere – and, mirabile dictu, some attractive young women.  There with family until about 11pm.  Star turn Molly Johnson, sultry Billy Holiday type – best when belting – though inappropriately when dining so – "Summertime".  Combo (quintet) rather hard-driven – I already feel drawn into jazz.  Have announced that I have four years to master it.  We shall see.  Certainly I aim to visit a jazz club in London.

Round the galleries, re-informing.  Then down to Honest Ed's restaurants – if only to re-pay him for his salvation of the Old Vic.  The Italian looks dull, the seafood closed, so in to "Old" Ed's.  Looks a bit like an old run-down Dublin pub from the outside.  Inside is both spectacularly over the top, and quite full, many business people.  Mirrors; Tiffany lamps, coloured glass, singed portraits of minor (a few major – Patrick Macnee, no less, and B. B. King) stars – and everywhere red – screaming scarlet.  Gilt candelabra.  Food uninspired – monotonous stuff, but with better ambience.  Reminds me of that stop I made in the deep south of New Zealand, past Fox Glacier.  What a hol and a half; and only a year ago.  

Along to Spadina Avenue, then down to the waterfront.  No sense of either: the scale all wrong – huge flats rearing up, cut off from the city.  Incongruously, a US Naval ship (on the lake? Why?).  Happen upon the Power Plant, contemporary art place.  Pick up probably the most pretentious and incomprehensible blurb I have ever seen (on Tunga – Brazilian).  For example: "The paradox, however, is that there is no actual duality here, but rather a unique statement articulating the complexity of living in a world of dominant codes yet one where there is also fragmentation." Blimey.  It's this kind of thing gets pseuds bad names.  The work itself is daft but nice: using thousands of magnets to produce a metallic fungus – covered in iron filings at one point – like hairy sea anemones.  [Reminds me of the music machine when I was trapped in Hawaii – if only because of its amusing singularity.]

Ever one for symmetry, up to the CN Tower (upper deck closed because of high winds).  Interesting to see the same sight as Monday, but overlaid now with knowledge.  I recognise the places I've been to, the structure of the city.

On the way to the gallery, a group of young women with camera, mike and intent to interview.  "May I ask you a question?" one asks.  Trapped, I say: "You can try".  And ask she does: "What are you waiting for?"  Is god trying to tell me something?  I make the only possible response: "Godot?"  She clearly has no idea what I am talking about.  I pass on, a ship crossing in the night…

Back home, then out to the Factory Theatre – rather like Tarragon, Fringey, very busy, young, even – yes again – attractive women.  Stivell-like stuff in the background.  Large spacious hall, comfortable seats.  The play: "The Arab's Mouth" by Anne-Marie MacDonald.  I hope there are no Islamic fundamentalists around.


Still no wiser about yesterday's play – OK, "1001 Nights" – but "mouth"?


Whoops – not much written yesterday – for reasons that will be explained.  So, to return to "The Arab's Mouth" – enjoyable, though far too long (a third off would have made it a third better).  It changed tone rather abruptly – light to begin with, rather more serious at the end.  Also, various strands were not clear to me – one of the problems with drama is that you cannot go back and re-read – it has to be obvious the first time, and to most people.  This could be a problem for me.  Nice theatre, though, young crowd.

So to Saturday.  Overslept (through the alarm – aargh), then up and along to St Lawrence Market to shop for the evening meal – huge prawns, obscene steaks, and buckets of fruit.  Wine: white Zinfandel and Californian Cabernet Sauvignon.  Yum-mee.  Bacon sarnie at the market – lovely soft bread, sweet meat (stuff like this makes me glad I'm carnivorous).  Lovely morning – archetypal yuppy stuff.

Then along to Dundas to buy some Inuit stone carving.  Quite nice stuff – very tactile, crying out to be felt – but this is a dangerous game to start playing – you need plenty of dosh to do it.  Most interesting thing for me is the Inuit script.  Looks like logical propositions.  A chart shows how 15 or so basic shapes are rotated through 90 degrees according to the vowel sound of the syllable they represent.  Neat.

Finally on the road, first to Niagara-on-the-Lake.  The drive dull except for the view over Hamilton, a huge Pittsburgh-like steelworks dominating the skyline with its jaggednesses (and the right, on the way back, this looks like the opening of "Blade Runner").   Niagara-on-the-Lake pretty, tending to twee.  Looking like Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Then to Niagara itself, some way away.  I am not very impressed: no huge roar of an angry, primitive god.  The drop really quite short – about 100 feet – so no sense of huge careening masses.  Staring down into the water, going over in a barrel looks eminently survivable.  We go down behind the falls – what larks.  We are given bright yellow plastic (biodegradable) sou'westers, which sussurate noisily.  The hundreds of tourists look like some strange masonic lodge in their ritual robes.  Lovely smell of damp rock.  To the end, then standing sprayed by the water.  A vertiginous sight as the sheets of whiteness fall like powder, the eye drawn instantly down and down.  It feels like being in an eternally ascending lift.  Back and then out to the observation terrace.  Interesting effect watching a segment of water fall and shatter from top to bottom.  Still no thunder, no god.

A CD of Mozart we hear on tape in the car – Lucia Popp soaring in "Il re Pastore" (with violin obbligato), and Zaide – must get to know it.  Home to mega eats, and a very pleasant evening.  Up this morning at 6am, trying to pull back my clock a little (I shall be dead on Monday – and what a week ahead – HP Awards, OS Show, Munich…)

Long, lazy day.  A 6 km run along the boardwalk.  Lunch, and then out to the airport.  After take-off, the standard necklace below me, the CN Tower glinting like a stick insect in the night...

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