Jane Christmas is a regular at Canadian Writers Abroad, which is a great thing, because I love her sense of humour. We’ve met in person, in London, but I don’t remember how I found her in the first place. In any case, she is a good example of one of the reasons that I started Canadian Writers Abroad: to build a sense of community among those of us scattered around the world. Her most recent book, Open House: A Life in Thirty-Two Moves, was published by HarperCollins in 2020. She writes about trying to promote her book during the pandemic in Crowning the Virus. Below are her answers to her three questions.
CWA: Where were you ten years ago?
Christmas: It is curious how we end up in the places of our dreams. England had held me in its thrall since childhood. First it was nursery rhymes, then the romance of castles and knights, and onward to its history, fashion, music. Bubbling through it all was the literature. So enamoured was I of England that I knew intuitively that one day I would live there. In 2011, when Canadian Writers Abroad launched, I was jettisoning my life in Hamilton, Ont. to launch myself as a Canadian writer abroad. I had married an Englishman and it was decided we would live in his homeland, not mine.
The dining table was piled with Home Office application forms, documentation. On the fridge, magnets held an extensive check list. My condo looked like a medieval Italian town with boxes stacked into small towers—some destined for family, friends, churches, and Value Village; the rest to be shipped overseas. Why I thought Canadian furniture could fit the tight proportions of an English house is anyone’s guess. But those who have moved—and I’ve done this 32 times—can attest to the succour of personal possessions. They anchor you on days when it all feels a bit untethered. There was guilt about this transatlantic move: I was leaving adult children, an elderly mother, and irreplaceable friends. Moving out of Canada felt like treason. There was also the matter of my age: 57. Some felt I was reckless to relinquish my OHIP benefits.
It has not been reckless, but it has been rocky. Some of it relates to age, but there is much to be said about relocating later in life: it keeps you on your toes, observant, adaptable.
CWA: How has living abroad affected your writing career?
Christmas: This is the place to write. England’s vast literary pedigree, its worship of language and writing, confronts you each morning. Twelve daily newspapers, each thick with seriously good writing, inventive vocabulary, metaphors, adjectives, and turns of phrase. Periodicals, too. Even those not dedicated to language display a high level of writing. Books and authors are featured everywhere—at festivals, in journalism, advertising, media, ocean cruises, cooking shows. Last year, 202 million books were sold in the UK, the equivalent to about three sold to every man, woman, and child. The sheer abundance of writing courses, too, is astonishing. Thanks to Zoom, many of these now draw global participation. I recommend Arvon, both its workshops and author talks with the likes of William Boyd, Bernardine Evaristo, Sebastian Faulks. In England, there is no escaping the writing life. Almost by osmosis one’s writing improves. I certainly feel it with my own work.
CWA: What tip would you share with a writer considering a move abroad?
Christmas: So, here’s the lowdown. The first practicality is money. You need a hefty income to survive on these shores, or a spouse with one. Freelance work does not come easy. They hire their own here; your Canadian creds mean diddly. Aside from commissioned work tied to the promotion of my book, I have had scant paid work.
However, I did not come in search of work. I came to write. While the writing environment is rich and robust, life itself is shocking. Forget The Crown and Escape to the Country, real British life is closer to Ted Lasso with its depiction of sweary, rude, argumentative Brits. That is the England I experience. Folks are crusty and angry because life is miserable. Poverty is rife, more so post Brexit and Covid. Racism, misogyny, sexism, xenophobia, classism, chauvinism. The full English.
Here’s another fact of British life: the Brits are not friendly. To the visitor they are delightful and helpful, not so much to immigrants. Canadians are not immune. Speak in a meeting or a public place and watch the lips curl. Your suggestions and opinions subvert the concept of British supremacy. I’ve been told, “Go back to where you came from.” And I get it. This tiny island is crammed. Nothing works, the social fabric is threadbare. Everyone feels ignored and cheated. There is a lot of pain here. That “green and pleasant land” Blake wrote of remains green but not “pleasant.” With a population of 68 million it’s obvious the drawbridge should have been raised at 45 million. If I felt guilty about leaving Canada, I now feel guilty about living in the UK.
Maybe it will reach breaking point and my Indefinite Leave to Remain card will be revoked. I will not take offence, but I would be sad to leave. I am at home in my unbelongingness, if that makes sense. Habits and routines, the thrust of life, have slipped under my skin. It keeps me curious.
- Review of Open House by Debra Martens, Finding the Perfect Home.
- Review of And Then There Were Nuns by Isabel Huggan, Get Thee to a Nunnery.
- Even the bio of Jane Christmas is amusing, or you could head into her Chit-Chat for more.
- CBC link to her conversation with Shelagh Rogers.
- Published ten years ago on January 12, 2012: Sara Jeannette Duncan.
Open House: A Life in Thirty-two Moves (HarperCollins) is the newest memoir from bestselling author Jane Christmas. Born in Toronto, ripened in Hamilton, she is now maturing somewhat gracefully in England. Her previous publications include And Then There Were Nuns (2013), which was shortlisted for the Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour. Her journey memoirs include Incontinent on the Continent: My Mother, Her Walker, and our Grand Tour of Italy (2009), and What the Pyschic Told the Pilgrim: A Midlife Misadventure on Spain’s Camino de Santiago de Compostela (2007). The book that started it all is The Pelee Project: One Woman’s Escape from Urban Madness (2002).
I came here in 1992, aged 30 and on my own, and fortunately never felt any of what Jane experienced at all. I got a job within months and they were happy to train me on the job, unlike back in Canada. I became a valued member of staff and stayed for 10 years at that job. The second job I had was much the same; they even said, when I quit to write full-time, that I could come back any time. No one ever has said ‘go back’ in 30 years (And it can work the other way too, I worked with an English guy who grew up in Canada from about age 6–he was told to ‘go back’ at school in Canada. He is now permanently back in the UK.) I won’t comment on the rest because I would never negate someone’s experiences…however, I experienced much of what Jane says she experiences in the UK while living in Victoria–a different kind of classism (at my school, the ‘rich kids’ were always prioritised), an attitude of ‘never complain, it’s probably all your fault’, sexism–‘don’t have a boyfriend; what’s wrong with you?’ Funnily enough, I recently stumbled over an old workmate from Canada and her husband, both authors-living down in Devon, not so terribly far from me.
I am not acquainted with Jane Christmas’ work but now I’d like to be.
I am a huge fan of Jane Christmas, ever since I read What the Pyschic Told the Pilgrim: A Midlife Misadventure on Spain’s Camino de Santiago de Compostela. She may be partly responsible for my moving to Spain. I am living amongst British ex-pats and am finding the same thing here so I understand. But in spite of it, I love them.
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