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Opinion

On tour in Canada, Robin Ince has 'finally succumbed to Covid'

Quarantined with Covid in Canada, Robin Ince finds himself alone with thousands of people as he contemplates the comfort of home baking, and the poignancy of a sweet shop window

Do not disturb sign

Image: picspree on freeimages.com

I am one of those people who makes their bed and washes the cups when staying in a hotel because it seems rude not to. I am “that sort” of middle-class person. I have stayed in hotels that are posh enough to have a “turn-down service”, something I have never understood – the idea that it is difficult for the fortunate to get into bed unless someone has made the sheets easier to access is bizarre to me. 

There will be no one to make my bed or turn my sheet in Edmonton as I have put the Do Not Disturb sign up. One day after landing, I thought I’d better stick a swab up my nose and it seems that I have finally succumbed to Covid. I am fortunate. I am merely a little wheezy and tired, which I would be anyway having travelled for 16 hours. But how will I perform my parts of the show? I shift furniture around and turn my hotel room into a makeshift studio. My physical appearances will now be replaced with me as a vast disembodied head on a screen like the Wizard of Oz. 

I read voraciously in my comfortable incarceration. Fortunately, I stocked up from The Wee Book Inn before I knew I had succumbed. I have a second-hand copy of William Burroughs’ The Soft Machine, once the property of Edmonton’s Pride Centre. The Pride Centre has existed for over 50 years and provides a “welcoming space where people of all attractions, identities and expressions can be themselves, find support, meet new people, and be part of a caring community”. I love second-hand books that have some of the story of where they have been left in the pages. 

Each night I am alone and also with thousands of people. The audiences of Edmonton, Calgary and Vancouver sound ecstatic and I am sad to not be with them, but happy I can still be part of it. The printers of Edmonton, Vivid Print, leave a comfort parcel at my hotel door. They have visited the bakery, distillery and bookshop down their avenue and created delight. I put on socks from the local hockey team, the Oilers, immediately and tuck into a bun and some Leonard Cohen poetry. The poetry book also contains a trace of who has been there before, a polaroid of feet resting on a dashboard that became their bookmark.

There’s particular sweetness in the box of baked goods as it includes a Nanaimo biscuit. I know these as Christmas biscuits – my grandmother made them every Christmas, then my mother did, and now my sister does. They are chocolate oatmeal base, with custard icing, then topped off with melted chocolate. They are famous in Canada, but I do not know where my grandmother picked up the recipe. Sadly, that story has been lost in the soil now. The biscuit is comforting, though it also brings back thoughts of three generations of women and the battles they had to fight. Food is often where the memories lie. My mother loved sweet treats – Turkish Delight and fudge in particular, and whenever I holiday and look in the sweet shop windows by the seaside I think of her.

I wrote this on the first summer holiday after she died.

The fudge in the window
was spur for a memory
Cut cubes behind glass
Wasps dipping & licking
No need to go in now
I can leave the shop be.

Last time we bought some,
They slumped in that paper bag
to the left of your chair
Lumping back to a single candy mass 
in the sunlight
Once never forgetful over sweet treats
You barely touched them now
The bag still full when you were gone.
No purchase needed,
But I’ll browse a while anyway
Maybe a quarter of clotted cream
Shame to leave empty-handed.

What shop window will reflect me
when I’m gone? 

Outside, I hear a wedding – two men are getting married surrounded by applauding loved ones. It is good to be reminded that the community the Pride Centre has been fighting for over so many decades is interlocked, hand in hand, outside my window. 

Bibliomaniac by Robin Ince is out now (Atlantic Books, £16.99)

Robin Ince is a broadcaster and author

Bibliomaniac: An Obsessive’s Tour of the Bookshops of Britain by Robin Ince is out now (Atlantic Books, £16.99). You can buy it from The Big Issue shop on Bookshop.org, which helps to support The Big Issue and independent bookshops.

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income.

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