Leah McLaren

Toronto through the eyes of Leah McLaren

Leah McLaren might not be a permanent Toronto literary fixture anymore, now that she spends half her time in London, England. But, as a weekly columnist for the Globe and Mail, her signature take on everything from Canadian smugness and orthorexia (an obsession with healthy eating) to women's butt anxieties and the horrors of Hammer pants is delivered - with wit - to her die-hard Toronto fans.

Our beloved city doesn't always feature in her column in the Saturday Globe's Life/Style section, but Toronto is inescapable in McLaren's non-newspaper work. Her 2006 novel, The Continuity Girl, and her recent screenplay, Abroad (which aired as a feature-length film on CBC in March), each follow single Toronto thirty-somethings who flee the Big Smoke to work - and meet men - in London, much like McLaren did in real life. (Spoiler alert: she married a Canadian.)

Still a homeowner in the Trinity-Bellwoods Park area, McLaren frequents west-end staples such as Type Books and The Drake Hotel, and loves scoping out the fresh crop of restaurants, cafes, and bars that have sprouted in the neighbourhood since the last time she was home.

She's currently working on her second novel. Its setting? Toronto.

Where do you live when you're in Toronto?

I have a house near Bellwoods Park but I rented it out last fall so lately I've been staying with friends in the same area. I still consider it my neighbourhood.

What are the major differences between your Toronto neighbourhood and your London neighbourhood?

I live in Kensington, which is very up-market, full of nannies pushing prams and old men in tweed coats walking retired greyhounds. The houses are huge and covered in wisteria this time of year. I live in what's called a "mansion block" which isn't a mansion at all but Victorian apartment block. Like most up-market neighbourhoods it's a bit boring. But there are great parks and I'm a runner. Plus I got a good rental deal through a friend, which is always the deciding factor in London.

As for Bellwoods, it just keeps getting better. Everytime I go back there's some new cafe, restaurant or bookshop to explore.

What do you miss most about the city when you're abroad?

The way the park smells the first day the snow melts. Healthy take out from Fresh. Type bookstore. Cycling without fear of death.

Speaking of being abroad, you scripted a CBC TV movie called Abroad based on your experiences as a Canadian expat working and dating in London. What were the major differences that you found between dating and/or men in Toronto versus dating and/or men in London?

I married a Canadian in the end so maybe that says it all?

What kind of reaction do you generally get from Londoners when you tell them you're from Toronto?

People say, 'Oh wow, my cousin's family lives there. I've heard it's lovely." And I say, "What's you're cousin's name? I might know them." And they say, "Nah, you won't." And I say, "Lay it on me." And about a third of the time I do.

What is your ideal way to spend a day in Toronto (let's say it's summer and the weather is on our side)?

Run along the waterfront trail, puttering the garden, followed by impromptu drinks on my friends Dave and Pam's porch. They live across the park and I often drop by. That's another thing I miss about Toronto: Dropping by.

Are there differences between writing for a Canadian versus British audience?

In Britain you're encouraged to use a lot more adverbs and words like "rather," which in Canada would make you sound like a total ponce. Apart from that the main thing to remember is that Brits only really care about Britain and Canadians only really care about Canada.

Where's your favourite place to write in Toronto?

In the office on the second floor of my house. I know a lot of people who write at their kitchen table, but I don't believe in writing where you eat.

Do you have any plans to base a future novel or TV project in Toronto?

The novel I'm writing now is set partly in Toronto and partly in a fictional small town on the shore of Lake Ontario.

What do you think of when you think of Toronto. For example, I say Toronto, you say...?

Home. Then cold.

Would you ever permanently leave Toronto? Why or why not?

I never ask myself questions like that. Instead I see it more in terms of, I will live where ever it makes the most sense to live.

How has living in London changed your sense of style?

When I first got here I gorged on Top Shop and Primark, but as time goes on I find myself gravitating back to my old uniform of black, grey, jeans and sweaters, with the occasional cocktail frock for special occasions. As a rule, Londoners are much more fashion-forward than Torontonians. Living in the city seems to speed up the trend cycle. Your eye adjusts more quickly. I recently bought a vintage hat made of blue feathers for a wedding. That's something I'd never think of wearing in Toronto.

If you could transport one Toronto landmark to London, what would it be?

I'd plunk the Toronto Island right in the middle of the River Thames and move into the nicest cottage.

Where's your favourite place to meet your girlfriends for cocktails on a Friday night?

Every single Toronto girlfriend of mine has decided to have a baby in the past year (honestly, it's like they all got together and had a meeting while I was away) so drinking, when it happens, happens at their houses, before 9 pm. Having said that I did have a fantastic boozy lunch with a couple of friends on mat leave at the Drake cafe last year. Self employment means you can hang out with the yummy mummies!

If you could make one change that would improve the city, what would it be?

I'd fix the waterfront, which is a complete disaster as far as public access is concerned. Also the parks needs better tending. Living in London really shows you what an inspiring refuge great green spaces can be.


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