Lawrence Bird

I remember that, as a child, I had a different accent from the other kids, even after my family had been here a few years. I tried to change my accent, and use the right words. Which is strange, because actually there were tons of people in our neighbourhood whose families had come from elsewhere. Almost all of them in fact. We lived in the suburbs, in a little bungalow. All of the houses were pretty similar, though each tried to be a bit different. We were all new. The family on one side had a latin accent, full of life and street smarts. On the other side our neighbours had a middle-eastern accent, laughing and somehow canny. Our accent was British – not the same thing at all, though we liked our neighbours and shared a lot with them.

Almost no-one had a history of more than one generation there; and in fact that was as far back as the neighbourhood went: it literally hadn’t existed 20 years before.

At the time each of the houses was quite exposed, set back in a line along the street… kind of naked except for some little trees like sticks along the road. Many years later I read in a famous book about how suburbs were like military camps, each house totally open to the street except for the thin walls – just as flimsy as a tent, and not really belonging there. Strangely, one of the fathers next door had been a soldier, a tank driver before he came to this country. I wonder what he would have thought of that book.

Later we moved from the suburbs to an older neighbourhood in the centre of the city. This was a big shock. Our (new) house there was much older than our (old) house had been. And it was surrounded by huge trees; they shaded the whole neighbourhood. The street we had left had seemed completely open to the sky. This neighbourhood was much darker overall. For the first time I realized that there were people in this city who didn’t have much money at all; and I was going to be living really close to them.

The irony was that for many of these people, their families had been living in Canada a very long time, basically forever. And they were stuck in the centre of the city, like us, for better or worse – they didn’t have the money to live in those camps around the city.

Since I grew up I’ve lived in a lot of other houses all over the world. Most of these were much, much older than the first house I grew up in – some of them were centuries old. Most of them seemed to belong where they were, they were rooted in place. But for me, each of them is kind of built on top of that first house. It seems the inverse of the way things should really be. It’s like heavy things resting on light, solid on flimsy; buildings upside down or cities inside out. It’s a strange foundation for a country. It often works, but there’s always a bit of uneasiness to it.

Recently I went back to look at my first house. It was still there. It didn’t seem to have changed at all. What had changed was the neighbourhood. All those little, stick-like trees, they were now really tall, and their branches met across the street, that had once been wide open to the sky. This really surprised me. The neighbourhood had become old. Each of the houses was shaded, enclosed; they actually almost seemed to belong. All of them were darker now.