The Maritimes and Me
By: Alex Preston
The award-winning British novelist on Brexit and why visiting the Maritimes changed his life. For the better.
Angus L. MacDonald Bridge, Halifax photograph by Rob Canning
Alex Preston is an award-winning British author and journalist who appears regularly on BBC television and radio. He writes for GQ, Harper's Bazaar and Town & Country Magazine as well as for the Observer's New Review. He teaches Creative Writing at the University of Kent and regular Guardian Masterclasses and is The Maritime Edit’s International correspondent.
Ever since Brexit – that great British collective self-immolation – adverts have been showing up in the feeds of my Instagram and Twitter accounts: sun-lit, clear-skied vistas, with the suggestion that I Move to Canada. It has all brought back memories of a wonderful summer, when we came to the Maritimes expecting to see our friends, and found a whole new way of life. And now that my country has suddenly seen a dramatic rightward shift in the Overton Window – the range of views perceived as acceptable in a society – it’s difficult to resist the prospect of selling up and shifting westwards to a place where Justin Trudeau casts his benevolent spell over politics, and there’s clean air, stunning scenery and… Moose Light.
I wrote recently in an article for The Observer about the purpose that the idea of Canada serves for the people of the United States. It’s always been a place of escape, a great benign openness at the top of America’s head. It has begun to attain a similar appeal for Brits whose reluctance to bow to the muddled will of the racists and Little-Englanders casts us as draft-dodgers, dissidents, ready to send ourselves into exile rather than live in a country so obsessed with past glories that it refuses to look forwards.
For those of us used to cramped European lives amid high grey buildings and angry commuters, there’s something giddily liberating in the thought of Canada’s endless rolling plains, the wild reaches of rugged shorelines, the endless forests. We arrived in Halifax in late-July and were immediately on the road, shooting up the 102 through rain and mist and the occasional clap of distant thunder. It was the summer that summer forgot, they said on the radio news (later we’d see a newspaper headline whose comment on the weather re-phrased the month as “Ju-lied”). We couldn’t have cared less, though. We were heading to see two of our dearest friends, who’d moved to the Maritimes with their young children. Every so often, when the fog lifted, we could see why – the landscape around us positively reeking of the good life.
After a fond reunion with our friends and their delicious children, we set off for St. Andrews by-the-Sea, an atmospheric old resort town that’s so close to the U.S. border you risk getting hit by stray bullets. We were staying at the Algonquin Resort, which loomed up at us through the mist. It was apparently the inspiration for Stephen King’s The Shining, and it was hard to resist a gothic shudder as we opened our windows onto the sound-deadening Fundy fog. The hotel is marvellous though – the staff a joy, the food exquisite and the indoor pool and water-slide a superb distraction.
St. Andrews by-the-Sea Photograph by Sean McGrath
After a stroll around the picturesque historical district of St. Andrews, whose houses have a Scandinavian feel as they slope down to the harbour, we decided to set off into the mist to hunt whales. I’d just finished re-reading Moby Dick and was full of nautical lore. We chose Fundy Tide Runners to lead us, and they proved a charming, well-informed bunch. The drab weather lifted as we set off into Passamaquoddy Bay, and through sparkling sunshine we watched a minke whale frolic, saw porpoises, seals, puffins, storm petrels, a bald eagle. The kids were in raptures, their parents even more so.
Our friends had moved to a large and light-filled house in Rothesay, overlooking the Kennebecasis, a river so wide that in England we’d call it an ocean. We spent several days with them as the next leg of our Canadian jaunt, enjoying everyday life in the Maritimes. There was something really special about this – to feel that we were locals living an authentic New Brunswick existence. Usually for tourists, there are barriers put up – either actual or psychological – between the traveller and the destination. Occasionally, we are allowed brief glimpses of local life, but these are usually mediated, unsatisfactory. Our days as Maritimers – picking wild blueberries, walking the rugged paths of the Irving Nature Park, kayaking on the river, out at a cabin in deep, pine-scented woods – they bore about them the patina of real life, but a real life of great beauty, tranquillity and charm.
The Prestons in Rothesay, New Brunswick
The weather lifted, and it was suddenly ferociously hot, as if the sun had been storing up its energy just to make sure that our stay in Rothesay was as memorable as possible. We visited Saint John, which was buzzing and metropolitan and full of dignified old buildings, and where we all developed an obsession with dulse. We ate ice-cream and excellent steaks and mind-blowing lobster. We went to see a comedian perform at a local vineyard, laughed until we were sobbing (even at the jokes which required local knowledge and passed straight over our heads), then drove home through a silent, starlit night.
The memory that will live longest, though, is of sitting out in front of our friends’ house, a Moose Light in hand, and watching the sun go down over the distant rolling hills, the river water in the foreground taking on the colours of the sunset. There were birds calling in the trees around us and the distant chirrup of crickets. With the children asleep upstairs dreaming of daring dives from pontoons, of speedboats and leaping whales, we felt a lifting of our spirits, as if they’d been washed clear by the clean air and wonderful food and good living. Even writing this now, I’m stymied as to why we don’t just up and move – all the potential hurdles seeming as nothing when compared to that light, that scenery, those friends.
Spyglass Hill, Kennebecasis Valley photograph by Jordan Mattie
We took a slow drive back to Halifax to catch our plane. Countryside that had seemed bleak and forbidding on our arrival now spoke to us of shaded dells, campfires, friendly locals. Skirting the Bay of Fundy we imagined whales in the blue-green depths, and it was all we could do not to stop and jump in. We drove up to Shediac for lunch, another stunning conspiracy of light and sea and sky. We visited the lobster museum, where we established intimate terms with creatures that we then ate in sumptuous rolls next-door. We walked along the tide-line after lunch, watching bald eagles fishing in the bay, and looking out towards Prince Edward Island glowing blue in the distant heat-haze. Already we had begun to make plans for the future, how we would come back, for longer next time, and explore PEI, living on lobster and dulse, enjoying a life of openness and beauty.
The Prestons in Shediac, New Brunswick
This is what we felt in the end – that we’d found a place where people knew how to live. Returning to London, which glowered greyly under an unvariegated sky, our memories of the Maritimes seemed technicolour, dream-like. Now for us, in a Britain that feels colder, more isolated, less kind in the wake of a vote that was a victory for narrow-mindedness and jingoism, Canada represents a possible life, a glorious exile. At the very least we will return often to the Maritimes, where the people, the landscape and the light are like nowhere else on earth.
Follow Alex on Twitter @ahmpreston
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