Ray Guy captures the voice of the Newfoundland outports
Not just a b’y from the bay
Ray Guy captures the voice of the Newfoundland outports
There was a time in Arnold’s Cove when the young Ray Guy, in the predawn stillness of his bedroom, could hear his whole world awake. Through uninsulated walls came the clunk of oars in wooden oarlocks as fishermen and their sons started their day. Bailing cans splashed as the small engines coughed to life, and the “chunkchunk-chunk” of the boats plowing across the harbor and out into Placentia Bay roused the rest of the hamlet to another day. That was before the big government wharf brought a constant hum of boat traffic; before Joey Smallwood’s resettlement policies swelled the population; before electric lights replaced the kerosene lamps that were wreathed every Christmas in evergreen boughs and tissue-paper roses;before Arnold’s Cove was Canadian.
Guy no longer lives in the cove, which has charted a rough and rapid passage into the 20th century in the 42 years since his birth. It’s now a prosperous town of 1,500, just 10 km from that blighted symbol of the new Newfoundland, the bankrupt Come-By-Chance oil refinery. Guy went forth with indelible memories of the sounds and scenes of his birthplace, and multiplied—father to two young daughters and to a body of writing that has captured the startling humor and vitality of Newfoundland’s outports. It was his stinging political columns in the St. John’s Evening Telegram that first made his name. The third volume of his outport writings, Beneficial Vapours, due off the press any day, should strengthen a more enduring reputation as the portraitist of a people.
Life today for the former scourge of the House of Assembly has taken a
slower, more domestic turn—from the frenetic pace of newspaper deadlines to the relative leisure of a monthly column for Atlantic Insight magazine, from reclusive bachelorhood to contented absorption in family life. Seldom comfortable without a cigarette, Guy rummages through his large, lived-in St. John’s house, littered with Sesame Street toys, for the essential pack. “My God, it’s true,” he mutters in a characteristic aside. “The brain does go before the liver.” The slightly sad cast to his features, marked by the down-andaway corners of his mouth and eyes, is made for poker-faced throwaway lines. He is under five-feet, eight inches tall, a tad overweight and gives little thought to his appearance. “When I first saw what I had to work with I gave it up for a bad job,” he once wrote. His matterof-fact cadence quickens when talk turns to politics, and memories of Smallwood still inspire him to mimicry: “There I was [in England], Mr. Speaker. Dukes to right of me, princes to left of me. Me, little Joey from Gambo.” There’s still a sense of marvel, though little malice, at what he sees as the outlandishness of his first and greatest adversary. Guy too reveals flashes of the dramatic; there seems to be a performer within, not quite sure if it wants out.
For all that, Guy has a reserved nature, in contrast to the firebrand who once enraged and entertained 25,000 readers a day. In a province where, until very recently, journalists have packed their snowballs with rocks, Guy dispensed with the snow altogether. And he pitched from high on what he called the “glorious heights of scurrility and vituperation long established in Newfoundland.” In a fundamental sense, his
political attacks were rooted in his outport upbringing. The coastal settlements were too poor, and life was too hard for outporters to permit violence among themselves. Instead, aggression was released and retribution paid through artful insults. The livelier ones were passed down in stories with all the attendant color and humor of a vital oral tradition. Guy was at the receiving end of generations of such tales, told by an uncle who could trace community and family history through the decades. But in other senses he was an outsider to his own culture. With parents who kept books around the house and subscribed to such magaoi»es*as Boy ’s Own Annual, Guy and his sister grew up reading in a settlement where most people dropped out of school by Grade 8. He helped out at the family’s general store while most other boys were on fishing boats. He survived a “rugged” elementary schooling, largely because of the encouragement of a few teachers.
The first lesson he learned at Memorial University in class-conscious “Sin John’s,” where he arrived in 1957, an uncle’s hand-me-down suits in tow, was that baymen were hicks. After two miserable years there he escaped to the egalitarian halls of Toronto’s Ryerson Poly technical Institute to study journalism for three years and to discover “restaurants that didn’t close for lunch.” Back in St. John’s in 1963 he was hired by The Evening Telegram as a feature writer. In 1968, a year after he won a National Newspaper Award for feature writing, he was given a formidable chunk of page 3 to fill five days a week. In those days, interest centred on the dwindling power of Joey Smallwood, and the independently owned Telegram was a rallying point for his detractors. Recalls John Fraser, a Telegram reporter who later became the Toronto Globe and Mail’s man in Peking: “The excitement of Guy’s column was incredible. People would hang around outside The Evening Telegram waiting for the paper so they could read them.”
Guy saw Smallwood as a petty tyrant (“that bag of corruption and deceit,” or “our leader, the loving father, Papa Doc or President-for-life Smallwood”) who spread fear and trampled the island’s delicate social fabric in his pell-mell scramble for economic development. “It was so disgusting to see people bootlicking up to him,” Guy recalls with heat. “People were almost afraid to talk politics for fear of costing a brother or cousin their job.” He recalls being “genuinely shocked” when Smallwood once suggested to newsmen, off the record, that fishermen would likely cheat on a government insurance scheme. Guy attacked Smallwood’s powerful grip on the system—a mastery that historian Peter Neary has compared to Third
World countries. “The key to Ray Guy,” says Fraser, “is that above all he’s a moralist. The reason for the vehemence in his political attacks is because he does have a conception of what decency is.” If he was shy, Guy was not timid. Once while Smallwood was denouncing him in the house, he rushed around flushing all the toilets in easy hearing distance of the chamber, as a suggestive squelch. “Joey threatened to sit on me until my tongue hung out a foot,” Guy recalls with a chuckle. “So that was a bit thrilling, you know.” Smallwood says he has read most of Guy’s columns, and finds them “exceptionally witty, although untrue.”
The anthologies of his columns on the outports reveal a warmer, deeply humane side. The first book, You May Know Them as Sea Urchins, Ma’am (1975), is a national best seller, and
That Far Greater Bay won the Stephen Leacock award in 1977. George Story, a literary scholar and a Newfoundlander, says his outport writing “rings absolutely true. He’s captured a very distinct Newfoundland voice through the idiom.” Guy’s outport idiom has a distinct rhythm: “Absolutely sinful it is and too much of a good thing to be wholesome,” he writes about the enjoyment youngsters get out of August’s balmy weather. An old person receives a color photograph from a relative: “Tis some sweet snap. All done out in colors, you know.” But Guy breaks away from that idiom commonly, as when he reflects on his utilitarian religious training: “if you turn on the tap and let the water run while you sing the first two choruses of Onward. Christian Soldiers it is cold enough at the end of that time to go into your drop of scotch.” Guy’s anthologies have found a key niche in the literature of Newfoundland’s self-examination. Guy, however, takes pains to separate himself from the chauvinistic aspects of the cultural resurgence of the past decade: “I came along just before this nostalgia thing really got going.” He takes a dim view of the stridency of the “professional New-
foundlanders” who affect accents and wear rough sweaters to cocktail parties. “Even a native son has got to think twice these days before he questions the desperate sort of patriotism that has given us the lightest air, the hardest rocks and the wettest water in the world.”
Guy’s sketches are not sentimental, but he prefers not to dwell on the darker aspects. “You must remember that these things were written to entertain,” he explains. “It isn’t a balanced picture of Newfoundland, but why the hell make it a point to go on about beriberi and burst appendixes and lost-atseas?”It crops up occasionally, in his mention of the rural schools, where students were “doomed for life ... as surely as if parts of their brains had been removed by surgery,” or of his two brothers lost in childbirth (“that was
about average back then, I suppose”). Gordon Pinsent, the Newfoundlandborn writer and actor, sees in Guy’s positive emphasis “the one area where in fact he does show himself in his love for the country.”
In 1977, two years after Guy quit the Telegram to take up free-lancing, he was lured away to play the part of Jack House in Up at Ours, a television miniseries written by Gordon Pinsent for the CBC. Chronically dishevelled, House sits by a window reading comics and commenting caustically on the passing scene, a rougher character than Guy himself. Says producer Kevin O’Connell: “It seems this character he’s been allowed to hide behind has allowed him to come out a bit, and now he’s more outgoing.” Guy, however, is not charging ahead with a career: “I do tend to drift a lot. Whatever’s put on my plate I’ll eat it.” Meanwhile, his past lives for him in the anthologies, and lives for the students who will read them in Newfoundland schools. The books may be the next best thing to an oral tradition for people who never had a chance to hear Arnold’s Cove bestirring itself early on a morning before all the changes began.
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