Describe your latest project.
My new book Dream City: Vancouver and the Global Imagination is an exploration part skeptical, part admiring of Vancouver's emerging urban form, and why this is attracting so much attention across North America. I am captivated by my subject matter. As I write in the book, Vancouver is a city of desire. It is a courtesan, teasing inhabitants and visitors alike with its seductive allures and obvious charms. But how did we get here, and is the attention deserved? And what lessons might Vancouver suggest (good and bad) for all those cities that now look to it as the new poster child of urbanism in North America?
I have been writing about my adoptive city ever since arriving here from Cape Town via London twenty years ago. Back then, Vancouver was just emerging from provincial obscurity into global awareness as it hosted the Expo 1986 World's Fair. In the twenty years since, it has been rapidly transforming itself in a willed seduction of the global imagination, with its ongoing experiments in contemporary city-making. Vancouver is reinventing itself in hyper-real time. The trick for me has been to stop things long enough to chronicle and decode this transformation. While the book may be finished, I have a feeling the project is not complete.
What inspires you to sit down and write?
I write best about what I observe. This in turn means working hard at being an acute, objective observer of whatever physical environment I find myself in, and using all one's critical faculties, including the instinct for irony. I find it easier to keep this up when that environment is new to me, in other words when I am traveling, but the real and much harder trick is to live one's everyday life as a permanent witness to the mysteries and ironies of the quotidian. A state of intelligent skepticism is critical to my ability to write.
Describe your favorite childhood teacher and how that teacher influenced you.
Miss Hilary Timmins took me under her wing in Grade 3 and, to my undying gratitude, detected a rough diamond where those who had gone before her saw just a lump of obstreperous coal. Her unshakable convictions about how to do things properly and insistence on rigorous inquiry left an indelible mark on me. Miss Timmins had the most mellifluous English accent and a velvet-soft voice, which I think made history seem very real to me, or at least the heroic Anglo-Saxon history that she preferred and which I could not get enough of. She also smelled lovely, in what I later came to recognize as an English rose sort of way, and I fell in love with her generosity of spirit and innate sense of intelligence. This of course inspired me to much greater heights which in turn meant I received much higher marks, which naturally endeared me to her ever more. We both cried at the end of the year when it came time to say goodbye, and I knelt and kissed her hand as I had learned knights once did to fair ladies. Miss Timmins was my fair lady.
Chess or video games?
I sometimes play chess with my eleven-year-old son, and when he beats me it is sobering. Video games strike me as neural pornography.
What do you do for relaxation?
Go birdwatching or work in the garden.
What was your favorite book as a kid?
The Famous Five series by the now politically incorrect Enid Blyton.
If you could be reincarnated for one day to live the life of any scientist or writer, who would you choose and why?
Maybe Bill Bryson, who seems to effortlessly combine the two with no loss of his trademark humor, and seems to be having a ball doing it. Or perhaps Henry Miller, who turned his obsessions and fascinations into compelling literature, and had apparently great sex along the way.
What was your best subject in high school? Your worst?
Best: Geography (for which I won the Geography Trophy matriculation prize).
Worst: Latin (which I dropped after one year of consecutively worse marks).
What are some of the things you'd like your computer to do that it cannot now do?
Compensate for my techno-peasant limitations, by self-correcting when I inadvertently trip it up.
Describe the best museum of science and/or industry you've ever visited and what made it great.
The Powerhouse Museum in Sydney, Australia, is pretty amazing, with everything from locomotives and space travel to rock music and interactive games, and it has the perfect setting (a former power station).
Which country do you believe currently leads the world in science and technology? In ten years?
The United States' entrepreneurial creativity still seems unmatched globally, but watch out for India and especially China in coming years. They invented fireworks, remember.