Visiting my cousin, Jared, in Seattle late last year, I found myself pitched into the full, mesmerising insanity of the US Presidential election campaign. Given the proximity of Washington State to British Columbia, there were lots of nervous jokes among my cousin’s die-hard Democrat friends about emigration. Then, half-way through my visit, Jared found himself unexpectedly called into work and announced that he’d booked me a couple of cheap, off-season nights in Victoria, the capital of Vancouver Island – only a short ferry ride away via Puget Sound.
‘They’ve got great whale watching trips,’ he said. ‘You’ve always wanted to do that, haven’t you? And anyway I can’t leave you at home with Trump on the news all day, you’ll go mad. Check out a bit of Canada. You can be like an advance guard.’
In 1908, Rudyard Kipling likened Victoria it to ‘Brighton Pavilion with the Himalayas as a backdrop’. The city has long been advertised as a portion of southern England, scooped up and transplanted to the Pacific Northwest. But this fails to prepare you for the irreducible weirdness of the place. It isn’t really much like England; but it isn’t much like anywhere else either.
It has its origins in the mid-19th century dispute between the UK and the US for ownership of the Pacific Northwest. James Douglas, of the Hudson’s Bay Company, travelled to the southern tip of Vancouver Island in 1843 to establish a trading outpost he named Fort Victoria. Not long after its birth, the 1858 Fraser River Gold Rush brought boisterous prosperity. Numerous stores sprang up to equip the prospectors heading north while bars and brothels dedicated themselves to the task of thawing out those who had successfully returned.
Victoria continued to flourish until the Great Depression. In stepped George Warren. Having always detected an Anglicised quality in Victoria, he proposed that the city should market itself thus. The execution of this strategy was hugely successful. But its rationale was somewhat compromised by the fact that Warren had never been to England and had only a dim awareness of what the real thing was supposed to look like. This, I believe, is the reason for the oddness – the inescapable sense of things slightly askew – that haunts the place.
Early on my second morning I turned up at the – yes – Prince of Whales whale watching company. My fellow passengers and I clambered into our Zodiac power boat. Once we were out of the harbour the Zodiac began to pick up speed, its rigid hull slapping the waves. Shivering in the brinish, hurtling air, we headed south, through the Straits of Juan de Fuca to the San Juan Islands.
Among the San Juans we saw Steller’s sea lions basking on the rocks and reeking of torpor, as if their lives consisted solely of the hour just after a huge meal. Conversely, Daw porpoises streaked alongside us, leaped out of the water and did everything short of tossing a freshly caught fish into the lap of each passenger. But the undisputed stars were the Orcas. Just when we were losing hope of seeing any, our guide spotted a small pod of transients. They broke the surface in unison, emitting geysers of spray, their tall dorsal fins carving through the water. Unhurried, majestic, they looked as if they were on their way to the ultimate black and white ball.
When I got back to Seattle, Jared asked me what I thought of Victoria. ‘A bit weird in some ways,’ I said. ‘But definitely a nice option if the worst comes to the worst.’
‘Oh, don’t worry,’ he replied. ‘It won’t come to that.’
David McAlpine Cunningham’s fiction has appeared in the London Magazine and his novel for teenagers, CloudWorld, was published by Faber & Faber