Lighting the neon

It’s the last night of our stay in Toronto and we’ve elected to stay in the Gladstone Hotel, a former-flophouse, now-boutique hotel in the hipstery, artsy West Queen West district whose rooms are individually designed by artists. Ours is pink and baby blue. It has a pewter ceiling and a giant purple mirror, stencilled ferns and furniture that looks like it’s been adapted from bits of the old hotel’s lobby. Most importantly, it has a neon tubed grill outside the window, which will look amazing when it lights up. We’re sure of it. We’re just waiting for it to happen.

We’ve been in Toronto for nine days and on the whole we’ve had a pretty amazing time. During our first week, being fussed over and guided around our wonderful host, we saw and did a whole bunch of neat things. We saw a horror-themed burlesque show in a tiny art gallery. We ate churros in Kensington Market. We enjoyed a promenade monologue performance in the famous Honest Ed’s department store based on stories of real employees (and we cringed at the Glasgow accent in one of the segments). We watched the excellent You’ve Been Trumped documentary at the Bloor Cinema and talked to the producer afterwards.  Then we returned later that night to find it packed and jumping for Rocky Horror (I may have added to my list of things I never thought I’d do by appearing on stage a bit (I may also have been wearing a batman mask)).

We made full use of the excellent public transport network. Nevertheless, we got rained on, incessantly. We ate grilled corn cobs with chilli spices and lime. We hung out with a beloved and much missed friend from back home and we happened upon a John Taylor (from Duran Duran) book launch, but went to watch Cloud Atlas instead. We had a beer and a toffee apple in a really friendly drag bar. We discovered a cabaret show called Doc Wuthergloom’s Haunted Medicine Show which combined vaudeville, puppetry, close-up magic and storytelling (with a narrative thread neatly woven from the offcuts of Lovecraft and Poe). We went to see Rocky Horror again, this time on stage and with a supremely impressive disregard for ANY of the normal conventions of the show, as well as some dazzlingly good musical set-pieces.

We got caught in the flailing last lash-out of Hurricane Sandy. Trees and power lines down, a whole lot of wind. We got soaked again.

On Halloween we watched our host nipping out to work dressed as Pikachu. They take the season very seriously here. Later, when we drank Caesars and then went out to listen to a man dressed as Prince play requests in a bar, she was still dressed as Pikachu. The requests were expertly and humorously delivered. He played Brian Wilson by Barenaked Ladies for me. We got a bit drunk. On the way home we got wet again.

Toronto is a big old city. It has a lot of corporate stuff. Lots of discount stores and functional, utilitarian things. But in the corners it has a marvellous knack for invention and creativity and fun.

It was all going so well. Then it was time to go up to the World Fantasy Convention, billed as being in Toronto, but actually being in Richmond Hill: a desolate Ballardian concrete wilderness miles (and a VERY expensive cab ride) from anywhere. Now, I’m not complaining. I love WFC. I got to go to some wonderful panels and readings (really enjoyed the discussions on Translation and The Changeling this year, and I was very grateful to be invited to talk music and fiction with Charles De Lint, Robert Eldridge and Patrick Nieisen Hayden). I got to peruse a book room filled with really interesting titles that I simply wouldn’t come across elsewhere. And I got to catch up with some of my best, but furthest-flung friends. Particularly great this year to see Jeff and Ann, and Holly, all of whom I love dearly. Beer, coffee, chat, books (so many books – look out for Karin Tidbeck’s Jagannath and Holly Phillips’s At The Edge Of Waking), parties (how good was the Cheeky Frawg party!), impromptu meals (Korean BBQ!), and the other stuff you’re not expecting (been listing in the room here to a CD by Ron Hawkins, given to me in the dealer’s room by the most excellent Danny McGrath).

It’s all good. But out there in the blasted wastes of Richmond Hill, it just felt a bit…isolated. In an after-the-apocalypse kind of way. I walked for an hour and half through mall after mall of little Chinese shops trying to buy some fresh food to put in our hotel room fridge. The bidey-in went even further and almost didn’t get back again. There were lots of restaurants around, but many were closed. This was not the kind of place that is built for European tourists who don’t have cars. It didn’t rain as much but it did scour some of the joy from our souls.

So that was why we decided to check out a day early and return to the city. It meant missing the awards ceremony. And I’m gutted we did because this years WFA’s were a brilliant selection – particularly, super thrilled that Lavie’s incredible Osama won the best novel prize, that John Coulthart was recognised for his art work and that the Vandermeers again got the recognition they MORE than deserved for The Weird. And we missed out on the traditionally relaxed Sunday night kickback session when you can actually talk to people without having to dash away to do something else. So, it’s a pity, but I’m glad we’re here. Together. Rounding of our holiday the way we started it, in an environment of inspiration and art, daring and opportunist adventure.

It’s dark now, and we’re wondering why the neon hasn’t lit yet. So we take matters into own hands and, on investigation, discover that the switch is hidden behind the curtain. Suddenly the room has the glamour of a 40s noir movie. We both grin. It’s beautiful and it’s frivolous. And we love it. Like we love Toronto.

Like I love WFC for being the neon in the northern wilderness, just for a few days.

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