Douglas Coupland's Vancouver

Sailing past Canada House in Trafalgar Square, on the top of a double decker bus, I saw the banner draped across the building - Douglas Coupland. I knew that Coupland was a novelist but had no knowledge of his artistic activities. So I assumed that the Canadians had decided to fly Coupland in from his native Vancouver and just, well, have him hang out inside their splendid old colonial building. I debated going in and hanging out with him but the bus had sailed past, on its way to Piccadilly. And really, Coupland belongs in Vancouver.

Coupland belongs in West Vancouver to be precise. His seminal, "Generation X" may have taken place in the US but Coupland, who confesses these days to caring little for travel, is rooted in that bright, almost Californian, land of upmarket strip malls and luxury mansions on hills with stunning views that lies beyond the Lions Gate bridge - gazing sleepily across at downtown Vancouver.

Coupland's "jPod" had a recent outing as a series on Canadian tv. That story revolves around a group of video game programmers whose last names all begin with 'J'. They work in a 'pod' developing a game called 'BoardX'(and later 'Sprite Quest'). Coupland has been quoted as saying that the company they work for resembles but in no way is Electronic Arts - a video game company located in the Vancouver suburb of Burnaby.

But my favourite Coupland novel is "Eleanor Rigby". This one is a bit of a departure from his admittedly brilliant observations on our Google run planet. No other writer has understood and described our strange new cyber world better than Coupland. And with such rapidity. The man does not need to stand back and ponder a development. It happens and Coupland has it processed and ready to go.

"Eleanor Rigby" is the story of a very lonely woman,Liz Dunn, living in a dull little condo in, where else, West Van. Her life turns around when her deeply disturbed and terminally ill, illegitimate son who she had given up for adoption, returns to her life. For all his irony and detachment, Coupland has an almost naive sweetness in dealing with his character's emotional lives. Without saying too much, he gives his heroine a happy ending but not before leading his reader through one of the finest studies of modern loneliness that I've come across in a long time.

Changes at CBC Radio 2 - a postscript

And before all the anti-elitists check in, reminding me of the value of popular music, here's an exchange between conductor Daniel Barenboim and composer James McMillan during Barenboim's BBC Reith lectures. These are similar to the Massey lectures; Barenboim's theme was "Hearing - the neglected sense." You will see that Barenboim was left "gobsmacked" as we say in England, by the power of the following quote.

JAMES McMILLAN: Hello my name is James McMillan, I'm another composer. Recently the English musicologist Julian Johnson produced a fascinating book called Who Needs Classical Music? He implies that serious music has suffered in the face of the apparent triumph of the visual and the verbal, but also of what he would see as the banal and even the populist. And therefore my question is this -

"What is it about serious music that baffles and indeed in some cases offends the advocates of an ever increasingly ubiquitous, narrow, some might say debased popular culture? Is it its very ability to rise from the mundane? Is it the suggestion that there may be such a thing as a secret inner life which cannot be reduced to a rigorously enforced commonality, that there may be no such thing indeed as a closed universe?"


CBC Radio - everywhere music takes you - except to a secret inner life

The Slow, Painful Death of CBC Radio 2

When Shelley Solmes bid a muted farewell to her listeners on CBC's Here's to You back last autumn, I had a sense that the Radio 2 that I have come to love during my time in Canada was entering into terminal decline. Shelley represented all that was warm, funny and knowledgeable about this station. Along with Tom Allen and Rick Philips, she helped to complete this British visitor's classical music education. I knew my opera inside and out but classical music is another world entirely and in Britain had, for too long, been dominated by the gooey saccharin of Classic FM or Radio 3 which was showing that pretentious tendency of favouring Early Music or fast-forwarding to Stockhausen with a shudder of contempt for all the gorgeous stuff in between.

But my beloved Canadians took me travelling through a world of classical music as vast and varied as their own country. I did notice that they often featured 'cold-country' composers. I learned to love Sibelius, Mahler, Grieg, Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev and Shostakovitch in Canada - men, not surprisingly, from lands of mountains, forest and snow.

I also learned that Canada for all the immense space that its land mass takes up, is a small, cosy country where a grocer in Mahone Bay could share an opinion on a Bruckner symphony with the whole country through the simple act of sending an email to Shelley on "Here's to You."

When Tom Allen gave a charming, poignant account of Brahms' journey to Clara Schumann's funeral, I was so intrigued that I wrote to his show "Music and Company" for more information. Tom Allen took it upon himself to reply. Coming as I do from tiny, teeming far-less-friendly England, I was astonished at such personal service.

And now somebody called Jennifer McGuire has decided to turn this unique institution into a shopping mall. How can this be? How can you let this happen Canada? You have a national treasure here and you're letting them exchange it for some cheap bling from the dollar store.

I have a suggestion: Get some of the big guns of Canadian music to speak up. When the Royal Opera House management in London was making a monumental cock-up of keeping the place open during its renovation, Sir Colin Davis rallied pretty much all the world's great conductors in a letter and petition to The Times. That got their attention. Call on Zuckerman, Kent Nagano, Ben Heppner, Andrew Davis, Marjan Mosetich, Bramwell Tovey, Richard Margison, Gerald Finley (the man is getting rave reviews right now in London)Isobel Bayrakdarian - get them to get their American and European colleagues to speak up too. Canada is one of the few countries that still has a national radio network devoted to classical music.(And I agree with Russell Smith in the Globe and Mail that the term 'classical' is troublesome but time is short and this IS a blog.)Other nations envy you. Don't throw it away

The Ballad of the Sad Cafe

Writers write in cafes. There are cafes and writers to prove this – Hemingway in La Coupole in Montparnasse, Paris; Sartre over at the Deux Magots in St Germain. A little closer to our own times, Francis Ford Coppola took his typewriter into the Vesuvio café in San Francisco’s Italian North Beach neighbourhood and knocked out the script of The Godfather.

Cafes are appealing because they provide a sense of companionship without the demands of conversation. To the chair-bound, office-bound writer even the excuse of a walk to the corner coffee shop and a look at all the strange old human faces encountered along the way is like a small holiday from black words on white paper.

But these days cafes are too noisy to write anything more challenging than a shopping list. In London, I’ve fought and abandoned the battle of blaring music in more Café Costas, Coffee Republics and charming little neighbourhood coffee shops than I care to count. So when I learned of a peaceful place here in Vancouver, I cycled over, laptop precariously perched in my bicycle basket.

The café in question had opened up on a tree-lined street alongside a map shop, a pet shop, a thrift shop, a very posh restaurant, a cheaper Greek restaurant, two florists and an arthouse cinema. And, most important of all, right across from the ubiquitous Starbucks.

A glance across the street tells me Starbucks is full and my new café is virtually empty. The same glance tells me that Starbucks looks the same as it does everywhere else and that the newcomer looks just as good, just as cosy and colourful and even has a fireplace with a log fire glowing in the back wall.

The café is owned by a Chinese couple in their thirties. The wife takes my complicated order - a non-fat, decaf cappuccino with just a little foam- with great care and tells me that I can bring it back if I’m not happy with the results. Two more customers wander in. The café provides newspapers and magazines and comfortable armchairs that look out of the window onto the crowd thronging into Starbucks across the road.

I take my coffee and settle in by the fire. There is just the faintest classical music playing behind the crackle of burning logs. I write peacefully for about ten minutes, then look up in the hope that this kind couple’s establishment will have filled, or even gained one new client. It hasn’t. There’s a queue at the counter across the street at the establishment that I will no longer name.

Only one of the two earlier customers remains. He ordered the cheapest of coffees and is lingering over it in a corner. The wife comes out from behind the counter and approaches me. “I’ve made some cheesecake. Would you like some – compliments of the house?”
I don’t usually eat cake in the morning but don’t want to hurt her feelings so I accept but as I dig my fork into the cake, I notice that the gelatine hasn’t quite dissolved. It has settled in chewy lumps all through the cream cheese mixture. I wonder if I should tell her but she is in the other corner now, offering cake to the man whom I have come to think of as the lone, cheap customer.

If I leave the cake that too will hurt her feelings so I wrap it in my napkin and slip it into my bag. Now, despite the perfect peace, I am distracted from writing by the small family business that is unraveling into failure before my eyes. The husband is making small talk with that lone man, working hard at appearing genial and finding topics that interest his customer. The wife is arranging her cakes, gazing from time to time at the door but nobody comes in.

I’ve forgotten all thoughts of writing and am now preoccupied with that sad little array of cakes in the display case. Did the gelatine fail to melt in all of them? The chocolate caramel shortbread looks hopeful. Should I abandon all rules about sugar in the morning and order a slice just to encourage this kind, hard working, worried woman?

That’s a step too far for me but I do make a point of complimenting her on the peaceful music as she passes. “We like it too,” she says, but her gaze drifts back to the empty doorway

Soon I can linger no longer. The emptiness is starting to gnaw away at me. That writer’s impossible need for convivial, quiet company can’t be fulfilled here. I leave the café and head home for lunch.

A week later I find the moldy cake at the bottom of my cycle bag. I resolve to ride by the café each day, trying to believe that I will find it busy and bustling. Each day I find it as empty as the next. I want to walk across the street to the other place and ask all those disloyal locals why they flock to this banal American chain instead of supporting a small business. But I lack the courage for confrontations.

Then I come up with another solution. I will contact the woman who writes the restaurant column in the local paper and suggest that she write a feature on peaceful cafes, giving prominence to this one. But life intervenes, I myself have a feature to write, a friend visits from out of town and I want to take her to busy, bustling, positive places and the sad café gets forgotten.

Soon, I feel so guilty about what I now perceive to be my own failure in helping these people survive, that I can no longer cycle along that charming street. These days I make a detour along a parallel residential street. Then I'm gone, back in Europe for the winter. When I return to BC i in the spring, I ride a bus in from the airport. One glance tells me that the cafe wilted and died. An Indian restaurant has taken its place. The owner sits at a table by the window, studying his accounts and staring out at Starbucks where a line has formed at the counter.

Don McKellar's "Last Night" - a Canadian movie masterpiece

"Tell me something to make me love you", Sandra Oh implores Don McKellar's lonely, withdrawn widower in the 1999 movie, Last Night. They are young, attractive and alone together in his apartment. They are not lovers and given the premise of the film, we know that there is no chance of their becoming lovers. At this point in the movie, everyone on earth has a matter of minutes left to live. The world is about to end and, this being a Canadian movie, there is no chance of Bruce Willis appearing to halt the apocalypse.

I first saw "Last Night" just after the century turned - in the Gate Cinema in Notting Hill. I was alone. After I came out, I headed straight into the nearest bar and ordered a Margarita. I was deeply shaken but absurdly happy to be alive. "Life-enhancing" and "Life-affirming" have become New Age cliches. But this severely under-rated film deserves both epithets.

McKellar's film leads us through the last night on earth. We are in an un-named Toronto and enter the story in the early evening. McKellar will lead us through those last hours as his group of characters live out their final moments on a doomed planet. We are never told why the world is ending or just how it will end. There is a brief reference to social breakdown "When the government closed down," and a lurid sunlight shines relentlessy even as midnight approaches. Environmental catastrophe? War of the Worlds? We do not know and it doesn't matter.

But the ordinary people in this film do matter. McKellar plays Patrick, the repressed widower. At the opening of the film, he is headed to one of those obligatory family gatherings - a Christmas dinner with his family. But it is only Christmas for his mother who has chosen the traditional holiday as her ideal way of leaving the world. A pair of old aunts watch old home movies on the sofa, a turkey is roasted but Patrick insists on going home to be alone. He has recently lost a beloved wife; when your private world has come to an end, how much can you grieve for the end of everything and everybody?

As he makes his way through city streets, littered with trashed and abandoned cars, marauding looters and lost souls, he meets Sandra Oh. Where Patrick has lost love, Oh's character has recently found it- in a serenely happy second marriage. Whether he wants to or not, Patrick will be drawn, at this absolute last minute, back into life. Sandra is determined to die with her husband, out of cell phone reach across town. As an inane radio DJ counts down the world's final top one hundred, Sandra persuades Patrick to help her find her husband. Their quest brings them in contact with a handful of people - each with their own way of facing the end.

When I rented this film in Vancouver's Videomatica, a young staff member with tattoes and a stud in her tongue, told me that, for her, the last scene of this film is one of the most powerful in movies. She’s right. “Last Night” made me feel more urgent about and more in love with life than any other film of recent memory.

Hollywood North: Vancouver and Canada

At 2 o’clock in the morning I am lying awake in my London bed, jet-lagged after flying in from Vancouver. On the tv, Al Pacino is pursuing Robin Williams around a small Alaskan town in “Insomnia.” This sounds like an appropriate film for me so I settle in and, within seconds,find myself gazing at my friend Brian’s back yard, as Pacino scurries past it.Brian lives in Squamish, an hour north of Vancouver but I’m not surprised to be staring at his barbeque and deck. Canada has built an industry on pretending to be the USA. Two recent box-office hits, Capote and Brokeback Mountain made no secret of using Canada instead of the USA. Manitoba doubled for Kansas in “Capote” and Alberta for Wyoming in “Brokeback Mountain. In Spielberg’s “Catch Me If You Can,” Tom Hanks caught Leonardo di Caprio in a Quebec City that was masquerading as a French provincial town.

In his latest role as Governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger has been making some hostile noises about “Hollywood North.” He has been trying to lure film production back to his state. Over the last decade about 1500 Hollywood film and television productions used Canada as their location. Only a little knowledge of Canadian geography is needed to see how easily Toronto can double for New York – just don’t shoot the skyline – or Chicago as it did for years in the mountie series “Due South. British Columbia’s spectacular mix of mountains, beaches, forests and a big cosmopolitan city have allowed it to double for numerous hot and cold weather locations. The most famous is probably Vancouver’s Stanley Park and its years of pretending to be mysterious woods, ravines and clearings in “The X Files.”

Ever since Errol Flynn sailed into Vancouver on his yacht only to die of a heart attack back in 1950, the links between sensible Canada and the exuberant California film business have been strong. The main reason is, of course, money. For years a weak Canadian dollar and exorbitantly high union costs and complex work rules back in the States have made Canada a cheaper proposition. Now that the Canadian dollar is stronger, the Canadian Federal Government is topping up subsidies on tax credits in an attempt to keep the Americans coming.

Canada does have its own vibrant film industry. Independent directors like Atom Egoyan (“Where The Truth Lies” “The Sweet Hereafter” and David Cronenberg (“Crash”, “A History of Violence”) are obvious examples whereas not many people think of a mainstream director like Norman Jewison(“The Statement” “Only You” “Moonstruck”) as Canadian. One of the most extraordinarily moving and powerful films of the past five years was Quebecois, Deny Arcand’s “The Barbarian Invasions.” It won the 2003 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film and Best Original Screenplay. One of my top ten favourite films is Don McKellar’s bleakly funny “Last Night” – an account of the last night on earth set in McKellar’s home town of Toronto – playing itself for once.

The list of Canadian actors with a career in Hollywood is long and stretches from Christopher Plummer to Pamela Anderson by way of, among others,William Shatner, Dan Ackroyd, Donald Sutherland, Michael J. Fox, Rick Moranis, Mike Myers, Jim Carrey,and Kim Cattrall.

Meanwhile back in Vancouver, the Americans keep coming. I glimpsed Robin Williams cycling through my neighbourhood just last month. Goldie Hawn still owns a house in town. Actors continue to gather inthe peaceful, oak-panelled Gerard’s Bar in the Sutton Place Hotel on Burrard Street. Despite the rising Canadian dollar, I suspect the Terminator will have his work cut out bringing an end to this thriving industry.