It’s a hot day. Stinking hot. We’re going to reach 38 degrees according to the Bureau of Meteorology, but it sounds even hotter in Farenheit – 100. So after a stint of early gardening, I am lying low for the day and devoting myself to paperwork, reading and maybe a DVD in the afternoon.
The paperwork is completing applications for passports. We (self, husband, son) are going to Canada for three weeks in May. Right now in Toronto, it’s 2 degrees (but brrr! according the website, it feels like -4) and there are scattered flurries. That would be snow, I guess. Would they like to swap? I have been to Canada before. When I arrived in Montreal in late March 1991, I thought I had never been so cold in my life, and I promised never to complain about Castlemaine’s winters ever again. It was Spring, so I thought it would be spring-like there – but no, there was still snow lying around in dirty drifts in the city, and out in the country there were Christmas-card landscapes and frozen lakes and rivers with great chunks of ice breaking up and slowly drifting along. I remember I had an odd, anxious feeling as we drove through the bare blackened forests and it was only when I realised that they reminded me of the aftermath of fires that I understood why. I travelled right across the country from Maritime Provinces Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island in the east to Vancouver on the Pacific coast; through the Rockies, into the prairies, up to the frozen sea of Hudson’s Bay and to the Queen Charlotte Islands close to Alaska – in fact, I’ve probably seen more of Canada than I have of Australia. Why Canada? In 1991 I was at a bit of a loose end. I had some money, I wanted to go overseas and I had a friend I could stay with in Montreal.
And I’d had a big crush on Canadian literature since the later 1970s. It started when I picked up a hardcover copy of Lady Oracle by Margaret Attwood on sale in Readings in Carlton. I was entranced. After that, I read everything of hers that I could get my hands on – including her criticism and her poetry. We fit together like a hook and eye. A fish hook. An open eye is still stuck there uncomfortably in my mind and I can’t get it out. I really was a fan – I even went to an Age Literary Lunch at one of the posh Melbourne hotels in the late 1980’s. She was a tiny, frizzy haired lady with a soft and drawling voice…how could someone so nice manufacture such grenades from words? I don’t buy everything she writes any more – I think Alias Grace was the last I read with great pleasure – but reading Margaret Attwood was certainly one of the formative writerly experiences.
More Canadians. A bit later I was introduced to the short stories of Alice Munro and really fell in love. Under the spell of Lives of Girls and Women and The Beggar-Maid I wrote a highly imitative suite of stories about growing up in a small country town. Reading, writing; that’s the way I learned to write. I don’t think it’s a bad way. It’s like the way art students used to copy the masters. I still read the odd Munro short story; she’s the master, still. Though I can’t read too many at the one time without feeling that alife is just intolerably sad.
And – this is where I go from the sublime to the ridiculous – we come to Anne of Green Gables by L. M. Montgomery. When I was in the Maritimes, I simply had to do the Prince Edward Island pilgrimage along with a whole lot of sentimental middle aged ladies (mainly American) and a gaggle of Japanese girls. I’d seen the TV series starring Colleen Dewhurst as Marilla and as Anne, the excellent Megan Follows, so I expected the the island to be very beautiful, and it was. In fact, I went so far as to go on the Anne of Green Gables bus tour; just me and the driver and three giggly Japanese girls. But Anne of Green Gables: The Musical was a step too far. The children and teenagers were not played by juveniles but by adults so a cast of particularly short actors had been assembled. The effect was oddly creepy. Actually, very creepy, with these short but mature actors all being so determinedly cutesy and child-like. There was a bomb scare mid-performance, a perfect opportunity to slip away, but I sat it out. The Anne books aren’t on my regular roster of comfort books but I have re-read from time to time another of her series, the Emily books. I think I read somewhere that L. M. Montgomery actually preferred Emily. Both Emily and Anne were aspiring writers, but Montogomery let Emily really get to be a famous author, whereas she made Anne unselfishly realise she was no genius, marry Gilbert and have heaps of children. My favourite Montgomerys are not in either of these series. They are both tear-jerkers of the first magnitude – I dare anyone to read A Tangled Web (for example: uncle kills kitten belonging to orphan; orphan found by lonely spinster sobbing on his mother’s grave etc etc) without blubbing. And The Blue Castle has it all – plain spinster with terminal illness breaks out of her stultifying family circle, nurses local bad girl till she dies, then marries fascinating mystery man who lives in a (very nice) shack in the woods… and lives happily ever after! It turns out she’s not ill and he’s rich. Wonderful. And actually, with its pine woods and lakes and mountain breezes, The Blue Castle might be good hot day reading. I’ll give it a go.