New territories and old histories.

We were guided towards Kensingston market. It reminded me of Brixton. But the fish tacos were a new experience. That was lunch. We would eat in, this evening, so we’d invest in a steak of beef, of known provenance, to share. The butcher was in no hurry and laid out the choices of meat, hung for 40 days. Now, if you want to try Ontarian wine to go with it… And what are you guys doing over here anyway. I know a Scots accent when I hear it.lake1

So a conversation started. We exchanged emails and met up, of an evening, two couples, sipping beers and swapping the cultural notes of visitors and locals.  I had another email from Sara Hunt (Saraband), who is going to publish my first novel, later this year. A great friend of her partner is a professor of social anthropology in Toronto. We braved icy rain, between connections, to reach a suburb. Then we were welcomed into tea and talk of islands. Daniel is from St Helena. He also makes films. He told us of his plan to document the lives of the hundred men who left their home island to work in South African mines.

I thought of the Hebrideans, on two year contracts, gone to the whaling in South Georgia and sending money home in the 1950s and 60s. The present generation, with so many working offshore, banking money to build the big house on the family croft.

But the real echo was the loss of more than two hundred of the fit men from Lewis and Harris, returning from the First World War on the doomed Iolaire. The hundred men, lost to St Helena, did not all perish but loss is loss to a fragile island social structure.

Another e mail arrived from my Toronto cousins. We tried to determine when we had all met last. As in all stories, the different versions did not exactly match. I introduced my wife and she was immediately welcomed into the family stories. We were taken out to breakfast. In the space of a couple of hours, lifetimes flew past us.

The way family stories and stories of love collide with histories gone out of all control reminds me of the work of Anne Michaels, who lives in Toronto. Her novel The Winter Vault is on a similar scale to the expanses of geography and time in Fugitive Pieces. You can take the events in because of the intimacy of the human relationships, also studied, in close up. I took time to look at some poems, available on line. They have similar qualities:

I’m on my way in town again. I’ll be looking for the book that gathers both her collections.

Remembering that this blog form is like a diary, I’m also sharing some poems-in-progress. They may change or they may not. They might be kept. They might not.

Toronto conversations


Graham the butcher is a wine-writer.

He’s writing a novel about a wine-writer

but it’s not like Sideways.

I told him I used to be a coastguard.

I’m writing a novel about a guy who

used to be a coastguard but it’s not about me.


Graham’s grandpa discovered the separations

that sorted the colour in Ladybird books.

My grandpa came to Toronto as a teamster.

His family had their trunks packed, to join him

but it was Willum came back across the pond,

homesick for Doric. Mind, my Toronto cousins said,

he’d been a prisoner of war, after gas.

He came home to ‘my dearest Mary Jane’.

Shovelled coal, killed moles,

grew grapes, like goosegogs, under glass.


We sip Syrah, grown across the great lake.

See the twinkle of development, from dark.

Watch cyan seep into a monochrome dawn.

My grandma sent her eldest daughter out

from the nine in two rented rooms

taking her place in

a city growing tall.

All these layers in

simple separations.



It’s the inscriptions on the backs of cards,

the ones that fall from mounts and frames.

It’s the scribbles, tight to the edges

of printed matter.


A story known to others

is told at the waterside café

over sweetcure Canadian back

and eggs, over easy.


Willum broke out from a wrecked Morris Minor.

He walked to find help for the two still trapped.

That’s what did the damage

to his own internal organs.


After they gave in

Mary Jane lost her own will.

Simple as that.

She lingered long enough

to meet the eyes

of her Toronto daughter.

Scarborough Bluffs, the lakeside of Lake Ontario, suburbs of Toronto
Scarborough Bluffs, the lakeside of Lake Ontario, suburbs of Toronto


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