Our Good Friend to the North

Our Good Friend to the North

Michael Jackson tangles with the border guards at the lands of the lost
Picking up a yellow cab in Detroit seemed a good idea. As my photographer colleague Ian loaded his equipment into the trunk, the cabbie recalled the time a passenger left an expensive camera on the back seat.He had just dropped the passenger at a pedestrianised mall. Grabbing the camera, the driver jumped out of the cab, spotted his passenger in the distance, and gave chase. The passenger didn’t recognise him.“He saw this black man chasing him, and ran like hell until he’d lost me. He thought I was going to mug him.”The cabbie’s roar of laughter came from somewhere deep in his survival mechanism. As I left his cab, I tried to tip him with a spare bottle from my suitcase. A particularly fine bourbon. He turned out to be a Baptist, dammit.Swapping countries by cab is a good idea up to a point. Up to the border, in this case. North Americans of the US persuasion often insult Canada by being unsure about its location. They know, from Reader’s Digest, that it is “Our Good Friend to the North”, but where? Part of the Michigan peninsula, perhaps? Confusingly, from Detroit, you drive south to Canada.We Brits were the problem. The border guard saw Ian’s aluminium boxes and decided that the pair of us were planning to settle in Canada illegally and set up a photographic studio. I told them we were working on a look. “On what?” On whisky. Apparently that sounded unlikely. Then they saw the samples of bourbon that had been pressed on us in Kentucky. They decided we were smuggling. How could they think this? Across the border lay Windsor, home of Canadian Club.They even had trouble with the name Ian. He said it was Scottish. The anglophone areas of Canada were almost entirely settled by Scots, but none called Ian, apparently.The officers at the border contrived to have difficulty with Scottishness. Then I saw the huge picture on the wall: the Duke of Edinburgh with the Queen. I pointed to it.“The city of which he is Duke is the capital of Scotland.” Canada and Australia are the only two countries that have ever hesitated to admit me. Perhaps it is because I have found Canadian whisky and Australian beer insufficiently exciting. In other matters, I have respected local sensitivities. In Montreal, I hired a driver for the day. I briefed him, doing my best with the local language. Eventually, he could take no more.“Stop speaking French,” he pleaded. I told him that I was merely trying to be courteous. “Thanks … but I’m a Navajo,” he spluttered.At the time, I was researching the first edition of The World Guide to Whisky. In the Canadian chapter, I discussed the roles of the various ethnicities in the country’s contribution to the culture of drink, and used the phrase “Scottish Canadian”. When I sent the text to my publisher in Toronto, she sharply told me there was no such thing as a Scottish Canadian.“For the Americans to have mislaid Canada is a misfortune,” I replied. “For Canada to have lost its Scottish heritage looks like carelessness.”That was two decades ago. I have visited the country countless times since, without any difficulties.I made a trip recently, researching a new edition of The World Guide. Once again, I found myself in Detroit, and once again with a photographer called Ian, though a different one.Canadian Club sent a car to collect us. This time, we took the bridge, but it made no difference. At the border, we were detained and asked why I could not find a suitable photographer within Canada. After a tense discussion, a face-saving formula was found:“Your photographer is called Ian. Obviously, you need to maintain continuity in your update.”This time, I obtained undeniable proof of the existence of Scottish Canadians. I met several of this allegedly rare species, in Nova Scotia.Obvious place, I suppose. They sing Scottish songs and make a floral, herbal, estery malt whisky, Glen Breton. As far as I can remember, they speak Navajo.
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