2017 January: I first realised that I might be becoming slightly Canadian-ised when I glanced at the TV Weather Channel, saw that that the temperature stood at minus four degrees Celsius and quite genuinely thought: “Oh, that’s OK then, quite warm today.”
As a fun addition to the programme that morning they showed a film about a man throwing a saucepan filled with boiling water into the air and watching it freeze before it hit the ground. The weather girl smilingly added: “And hey kids, any of you trying this neat trick out there, you be good and careful with that boiling water.” Apparently this pastime was all the rage in Canadian primary schools.
The temperatures in Canada are so insane that at times you forget whether you are dealing with Celsius or Fahrenheit. My promoter on this latest trip, the splendid Sandy, said that he had visited Saskatchewan once when the ‘Feels Like’ factor had stood at minus 68.
I suppose coming to Canada to do a series of shows in January was asking for trouble. My arrival had been OK – walking out of Toronto Airport, the temperature had been a balmy minus three. However I was soon to receive a come-uppance.
Settling into my AIR B and B rented home, I retired to sleep off the jet lag. I woke at 2am to find that I was freezing. After checking the air-conditioning vent I found that there was no heat whatsoever emerging. Outside the window I spotted the downward drift of snowflakes. I roamed through the house – the whole place was ice-box cold. Filling a hot-water bottle and then piling every blanket I could find on top, I climbed back into bed. I dozed for a bit but the cold woke me again. I began to don reinforcements – firstly a T-shirt, then a shirt, then a pullover, then a waistcoat, then a jacket, then an overcoat, finally a parka jacket. Huddled beneath the blanket heap, I finally slept till morning.
Over breakfast I checked the TV – it was minus ten, with a ‘feel-like’ factor of minus 18. I ate a boiled egg in grim silence and shivered. The Canadians pride themselves on their ability to cope with the cold. Famously they boast that when Santa Claus abandons the North Pole, Canadians just pull down their ear flaps. When Americans start expiring from hypothermia in their homes, Canadians react by putting on another sweater and renting some extra videos. So when the landlady’s very Toronto brother emerged from the basement to ask what had happened to the heating, I felt some justification for complaint.
A few days later, I was still grumbling about that night to a member of the audience. She smiled and said: “Oh, you just had a three dog night”. Outside the name of an old rock group I had never heard this expression before. She explained that it meant that the night was so cold you had to bring not just one or two dogs, but a third dog into bed with you.
Sitting in a Starbucks adjacent to the theatre I was able to appreciate the effect that the fresh snow and tumbling temperatures had on the locals. It certainly had an effect on high street fashion. Everybody wore cumbersome boots, vast padded jackets, and two or three beanies on their heads; in fact, dressing very much like – and even aping the slow, slightly aimless gait of – the homeless. A city of lumbering Bruegel-sque tramps. Well, that is if Brueghel had painted his peasants wearing Lycra puffa jackets.
The fascinating thing about doing a one-man Wilde show in Toronto was that, for once, Oscar had himself visited the city. In 1882, he had been feted by the powers that were and had delivered two lectures to the inhabitants. He had liked Toronto calling it ‘a bright little town’. By and large, Toronto liked him too, the general opinion being that ‘he is not such a fool as he looks’.
Back in London I had thought that the best way to recreate Oscar’s tour here would be to track down all the places that he was known to have visited in the city. I set out to trace them via Wikipedia. It was a salutary experience.
While he was at Niagara Falls, he stayed at the Prospect House Hotel on the Canadian side. Although there are hotels still there named Prospect, unfortunately Wilde’s hotel was demolished soon afterwards.
Then on the 24th of May, he arrived in Toronto at the Grand Trunk Station. I found that this had been demolished in 1915, although it was re-built as the Union Station.
During his visit, he stayed at the Queens Hotel. This was later demolished. It was reborn as the Royal York Hotel.
On his first evening here he dined at the Toronto Club on York St. This was demolished soon afterwards and the current clubhouse re-opened in 1889.
On the 25th of May, Wilde visited the Canadian Institute of Art. The premises were on King Street West – however, a year later they were demolished and the Institute moved to a site now occupied by Ryerson University.
Later that day he was taken round the University of Toronto and admired its main building of University College. Although now restored, eight years later in 1890 this building was gutted by a devastating fire.
That night he gave his main lecture at the Grand Opera House on Adelaide Street West. This was demolished in 1927 and the site is now occupied by Scotia Plaza.
On the 27th of May, Wilde gave his second lecture at the Pavilion of the Horticultural Gardens. This was burnt down in 1902.
That evening he was entertained at Government House. In 1912, this was sold to the Canadian Pacific Railway and in 1915 it was demolished.
I think it is fair to say that the only structure left standing that Wilde would recognize from his visit would be Niagara Falls.
Oscar’s Toronto, of course, had been what was now called downtown. My patch was the less exclusive but still charming suburb of Leslieville. Previously a decayed, post-industrial area to the east of the city, since 2000 it had been transformed into a thoroughly pleasant neighbourhood. The main street was lined with independent and family-owned businesses – cafes, ice cream parlours, dress shops, cheese shops, tattoo parlours, nail bars, art galleries, pubs, a French bakery, and even a Chinese-run but thoroughly Anglophile fish and chip shop. The low-rise residential streets behind gave the place a tree-lined village atmosphere. It just felt a comfortable place to be.
However it was no longer cheap. It was surprising just how expensive Toronto had become. House prices matched those of London while even everyday items were considerably more costly – fruit especially (as during the winter it has to be flown in from less snow-bound climes). The local second hand shop advertised ‘All Objects under $10’ – a damn pricey version of the British ‘Pound Shop’.
The Red Sandcastle Theatre stood in the heart of Leslieville. It was a storefront venue that seated about sixty audience in three long rows on raised rostra. The dressing room was situated below and, belying the usual sadistic prison-cell nature of theatrical dressing rooms, was enormous, stretching the entire length of the theatre above. The command centre, box-office, and lighting bay were all housed on a raised dais just inside the street entrance. This also was the lair of the redoubtable leader of the Red Sandcastle, Rosemary Doyle.
The world of drama seems to have a knack of attracting courageous and charismatic women to create and nurture theatres. Such examples as Lady Gregory at the Abbey in Dublin, Lilian Baylis at the Old Vic in London, and Leonie Scott-Matthews at Pentameters in Hampstead spring to mind. Toronto was fortunate to possess just such a woman. The name of the theatre itself arose from her initials, RED stemming from Rosemary E. Doyle; while ‘Sandcastle’ derived from her Prospero-like observation that all drama productions are swept away by the tide of life. She was also direct, good fun and, despite her Canadian accent, as Irish as St Stephens Green.
Rosemary was the arrowhead in a formidable triumvirate. Much of the intellectual power of the team stemmed from Sandy Hart. Sandy had been raised in France and had become a first rate musician and composer – his knowledge and background helped to steer the focus of the Sandcastle. The third associate was Jennifer Watson. Rosemary told me that if I wanted to meet the classic Canadian, I need go no further than Jennifer. Indeed, she provided the dependability and the quiet friendly charm that seem to pervade the best of Canada. Together they provided a perfect partnership of skills and moods.
The only problem, at least on the first night, was myself. Above a basic level of competence, how a solo show goes is much a matter of luck. All seemed fine for half an hour, then I was struck by some imp of ill fortune and started fluffing lines. Not just the occasional one but almost all of them. It was like one of those actors’ nightmares that occasionally come true – walking out on stage and not remembering a single line is the classic one. Somehow I got through – having a question and answer session helped a lot – but all the same I dressed and went to the first night party in the pub next door with a heavy heart.
The Red Sandcastle trio however were in high spirits and seemed to think that nothing was wrong. Rosemary did remind me that my general expenses would have to be paid for out of the show takings. My position, she added, was rather akin to that of a Polish hooker working to pay off her travel debts to her Canadian pimp.
At some point in the evening I happened to mention the ‘Red Indians’. Jennifer stopped me:
“We don’t call them ‘Red Indians’ anymore. They are called ‘First Nation’.”
While I’m not instinctively a supporter of political correctness, on reflection I agreed with the new name. The only reason why they were called Red Indians in the first place was because Columbus thought he had discovered India. It was simply because the Europeans were crap at geography. Rather like people referring to the English as ‘Pink Africans’.
As usual with a run in the theatre, one soon falls into a routine and the roller-coaster of performance swoops up again in one’s favour. The following matinee was very good and the evening went tolerably well. My Toronto shows had settled down.
Each morning I headed to the nearby Starbucks for coffee, an egg sandwich, and to read a newspaper. Most local press stories had an engaging appeal. One such concerned a horse that had fallen through the ice in Alberta. For three hours, firstly a gentleman called Cody Scott, then his friends, then a man with a snow mobile, then a team of fire fighters, finally a troupe of Mounties, had struggled and eventually succeeded in rescuing the animal. “She kept sinking deeper and deeper – it was a fight with time” Cody Scott had commented.
Other stories were not so pleasant – the National Post seemed to be a viciously self-righteous paper. In his day, Oscar Wilde, although generally treated well by the Canadian press, had come in for a nasty attack by the Toronto Evening Telegraph. It taunted his perceived effeminacy by referring to him as ‘Miss Oscar Wilde’.
Despite such attacks, Oscar had received a fine reception from the then Prime Minister Sir John Macdonald. Although only two weeks away from a crucial general election, Macdonald found the time to take Oscar to dinner and then to take him to the Canadian House of Commons where he was allowed to sit beside the Speaker’s Chair.
I became interested in Oscar’s generous host and followed up his story. If ever a man could be described as Father of a Nation it would have to be Sir John Macdonald. Although he was not forced (in the manner of George Washington) to carve out his country in warfare, he had a vision of modern Canada and had the will to create it.
Born in Glasgow, Scotland, he emigrated to his adopted country with his family in 1820. He became the first official Prime Minister and held that position – with a five year lapse due to a financial scandal – from 1867 till 1891. During his tenure, he master-minded the Canadian-Pacific Railway (of which more later); he established a tariff wall to protect Canada’s nascent industries; and outstandingly he settled, more-or-less, the present frontiers of Canada.
In 1867, he managed to bring together the St Lawrence and Maritime provinces of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Quebec, and Ontario into a new Dominion of Canada. He followed this by absorbing the huge prairie lands of Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta into the new confederation. Then he added the further flung territories of Prince Edward Island and, most importantly, the Pacific province of British Columbia. Finally in 1880 he took over the Arctic territories of the Yukon, thus filling out the modern Canadian frontiers.
Amazingly he managed to achieve all this while being completely blotto most of the time. He admitted that there were many periods of his premiership of which he had no recall whatsoever. He had to be carried from the House of Commons on several occasions, and while negotiating the initial Confederation Treaty in London, he was seriously burned when he drunkenly set fire to the chair in which he was sleeping.
In 1878, the Marquis of Lorne was appointed as Governor-General of Canada. He and his wife Princess Louise (daughter of Queen Victoria) arrived by ship to take up their new position. Unfortunately they were delayed for several days at sea waiting for a storm to abate. Sir John, ready with a state reception, was similarly forced to wait and as usual whiled away the time on a gigantic binge. When the pair finally landed, Macdonald had such a ghastly hangover that he had to cancel the reception, claiming ‘lumbago problems’.
The new Governor-General then travelled on to Ottawa and the official residence of Rideau Hall. Their journey was undertaken in torrential rain and they arrived at the Hall thoroughly drenched. At the new official reception, Macdonald again got drunk and allegedly an incident occurred when he ‘took a liberty’ with Princess Louise. As Fathers of Nations go, he sounded a lot more fun than George Washington.
Next week on Tuesday, November 20th – Hanging around in Toronto.