In the late 70s my family emigrated to Toronto and stayed for two years. In those days, downtown was notorious for its Sin Strip. Four blocks concentrated on Yonge between Gerrard and Dundas. They were loaded with strip joints, adult bookstores, rub ‘n’ tugs and movie theatres which, according to The Globe and Mail, made it one of the largest concentrations of sex-related businesses in North America.
When I was looking to write a coming of age novel, I returned to the streets of my youth. Neither a love letter to a city nor a celebration of the past, but instead, ‘a pressing need to set a narrative down,’ as the poet Peter Porter describes it. ‘To colonise a territory’.
In Stray Dogs, three teenagers’ fashion a familial bond that satisfies something in their lives that was not there before. But after getting mixed up with low level street crime, things go wrong and they deliver a rough justice that makes sense in a world that cares little for them.
The recreation of a half-remembered city, created with help from 8mm YouTube footage together with the sense that stone and place act as a kind of primitive tape machine.
The theory that traumatic events leave residual hauntings on the environment was originated by T C Lethbridge, the Keeper of Anglo-Saxon Antiquities in the University Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Cambridge. Lethbridge supposed history itself could be ‘recorded’ on to artefacts and even the ether.
Fanciful stuff, but those of us who wander around ancient sites and places of significance find that Lethbridge’s theories have a resonance that is hard to explain away—he idea that history and memory pervade the landscape, allowing us to plug into the mainframe of myth. For me this meant the enduring trauma of a city’s crime recorded onto inanimate objects and triggered by something that Charles Babbage called ‘place memory’.
Toronto is famed for its ethnic and cultural diversity. Most residents are the children of immigrants. My family was just another one of many from the British Isles that ended up in Canada during the mass exodus of the 1960s and 70s. That we ended up downtown proved to be both a culture shock and an adventure of sorts.
As a fourteen-year-old high school dropout working the streets and panhandling for small change, I feel like my own guardian angel must have been looking out for me, as about the same time in the same place, another immigrant kid from the Portuguese Quarter was selling flowers and shining shoes for 50 cents a time.
Emanuel Jaques was just twelve years old when he was lured on the promise of a $35 payday to move some camera equipment. But it was a trap. Instead, Emmanuel was sexually assaulted and murdered by three men before being wrapped up in a garbage bag and pushed into an air vent on the roof of a whorehouse.
The killers panicked and fled. The Toronto Star put out a missing child story. When Emanuel was eventually found and the details emerged there was public outcry. Street kids and runaways came forward to say they too had been drugged, tied up and abused at the same place.
Toronto the Good was traumatised. The city was plunged into something approaching psychic despair. Fifteen thousand marched. Innocents got blamed. Dancers and drag queens got targeted. People demanded action. They closed down the Strip.
There would be no coming of age for Emmanuel.
The migration of characters from the imagination to the page can often be found in the lived experience. Charles Dickens was a prolific walker and would visit crime scenes for inspiration. Rebecca Solnit points out that Dickens walked for multiple reasons, including metaphysical and investigative, famously using the ruins of St James Church and its gravestones for the opening of Great Expectations:
five little stone lozenges, each about a foot and a half long
which were arranged in a neat row beside their grave –
sacred to the memory of five little brothers
Having been a court journalist, Dickens spent more time than most staring into the abyss, and the cases he observed influenced his fiction. According to the scholar Rebecca Gower, Dickens’ killing of Nancy in Oliver Twist was based on the murder of Eliza Grimwood. Both were prostitutes and half-dressed before being dragged out of bed and forced to their knees. But unlike Eliza, Nancy was clubbed to death, splattering the room with blood and left so mutilated that a friend who identified the body ‘had to be led away in a straitjacket’.
If you think that’s gruesome, you should read Dickens’ original description [the very feet of the dog were bloody], a scene so shocking that some believed it led to his early death at fifty-eight.
Some crimes are so embedded in the national psyche they become almost mythic. You see it in the Jack the Ripper tours of London. A night walk in Whitechapel can look much the same as it did in Victoria’s day if you stick to the passageways and lanes that connect the main streets. The emotional landscape alive with ambiences. If you place your hands on the rocky surface of the brick walls they tell their own story. Limestone is the preferred medium. It being made up of skeletal fragments of marine organisms, or something like that.
Written off by some as the ghoulish indulgence of true crime day trippers, excursions such as The Helter Skelter tour in LA and the Murder Mystery Tour of San Francisco are increasingly popular and spun for the modern world to incorporate victimology. Perhaps one person’s overactive imagination is just another’s paranormal experience.
I’m still here, cry the voices from out of the living past.