A SENSE OF PLACE
Call him Gaffer. It’s Newfoundland for young boy. Like Ishmael in Moby Dick, the eponymous hero of Kevin Major’s powerful new novel, to be launched aboard the sailing ship Matthew on July 3, has no last name. When we meet him, he is an outport teenager, tormented by the death of his father in the 1982 Ocean Ranger oil rig disaster. Endlessly, he roams the shoreline. One day, Gaffer lathers himself with seal fat, and heads far out to sea. By mysterious alchemy, he is transformed into an amphibian creature that can swim as tirelessly as a codfish, as well as back and forth across the boundaries of time. Once, he gets caught in the net of a foreign trawler. He encounters Brigitte Bardot protesting the 1977 seal hunt, and time-travels further back, to encounter Cabot. He goes forward to the middle of the 21st century to see Newfoundland, entirely bereft of its fishery, turned into a gigantic theme park. Partly a fairy tale, partly a polemic, Major’s ninth novel—now 47, he lives in St. John’s and is best-known for young adult fiction—surprises even its author. “I’m not sure where the idea came from,” he says. “But I think I wrote it out of a sense of betrayal about the destruction of the fishery.”
Amphibianism is also the theme of Patrick Kavanagh’s brilliant first novel,
Gaff Topsails, published last summer and already a cult success. It is a lyrical tale, with overtones of James Joyce’s Ulysses, about a single day in the life of a small Irish-Catholic outport, as it would have been on June 24,1948, just before Newfoundland joined Confederation. Kavanagh’s prose is full of the lilt of Newfoundland voices, and his knowledge of the nooks and crannies « of Newfoundland folklore is profound. 1 Remarkably, he wrote most of it while living in Beijing in the midg 1990s, having left home two decades « earlier to work around the world for
CUSO and Amnesty International.
“Everything I ever wanted to say
about Newfoundland is there,” says Kavanagh, who is 46, and now lives in Ottawa. For him, the landwash—the
Newfoundland word for that mysterious, evanescent space between high and low tide—is the repository for all that really matters about the island. ‘This is the crucible of our civilization,” he says. “In 500 years of history, hardly anyone went inland. Instead, they belonged to both land and water, and so did everything else in the pattern of their lives—squid, capelin, fish
flakes, icebergs, even the Newfoundland dog, with its webbed feet.” Sense of place, fierce and overpowering, suffuses the work of all Newfoundland artists, from the elegiac paintings of Christopher Pratt to the in-your-face wit of the gang behind the hit TV comedy series This Hour Has 22 Minutes. Amphibianism, though, is a new frame into which to fit Newfoundland scenery and stories. Some are painting it. “When I first came to Newfoundland, I realized I was in a society far more different from the rest of Canada than Quebec is,” observes Ontario painter John Hartman, 47, who, in the way things happen in Newfoundland, I met over dinner at Major’s house. “The sea here is as important as the land.” The product of his perception is an exuberant series of what he calls “narrative landscapes,” depicting craggy distant outports, that sold out last month at Toronto’s Mira Godard Gallery. Often, the swirling greens and browns and reds and whites in Hartman’s work make it hard to tell where land leaves off and sea begins. Amphibianism turns up again in the cool, minimalist photographic installations of St. John’s artist Marlene Creates, recently shown at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection in Kleinburg, Ont. Creates, 45, explores the landwash like a cartographer, charting the interdependence of weather and tide and human settlement.
Sandra Gwyn, who was born in St. John’s, is a freelance magazine journalist and author who now lives in Toronto.
The explonding arts scene in Newfoundland is quirky kinetic and passionate
Amphibianism was one of my discoveries when Maclean’s assigned me to go down to St. John’s, where I was born, to write this piece. It fascinated me as a new imagery that Newfoundland artists, consciously or unconsciously, are using to make a statement about the death of that quintessential landwash industry, the inshore cod fishery. It fascinated me because it was so different from those aspects of Newfoundland art that other Canadians are familiar with, the impeccable professionalism of the island’s best-known painters Christopher and Mary Pratt, the raucous satire of Mary Walsh, aka
Marg Delahunty, and the rest of the 22 Minutes quartet, and the raspy eloquence of CBC personality Rex Murphy.
Most of all, amphibianism fascinated me because it was yet another illustration of the flamboyant life force that exists in Newfoundland. Back in 1976, when it was all just beginning, when there were only the Pratts, and a few other painters, and Codeo, the comedy troupe that would eventually give birth to 22 Minutes, plus an agitprop theatre collective called The Mummers and the folk-rock band Figgy Duff, I wrote an article for Saturday Night magazine called “The Newfoundland Renaissance,” about “the miraculous and exciting flowering of art and theatre on Canada’s poor bald rock.” After celebrating the scene, I built an escape hatch: “Can these flowers endure?”
Such a lack of perception. Such an abysmal lack of nerve. Today, there are flowers growing in every crack and crevice. “Think of Venice during the Renaissance,” says Mary Dalton, a professor of English at Memorial University and also a poet who has written a wickedly funny poem on Margaret Atwood’s maladroit remark about adding Newfoundland to her Alias Grace book tour last fall because “they need cheering up.” Notes Dalton: “The harbor is our Grand Canal, and we’re exactly the same size as Venice was then. There’s the same creative ferment, the same combination of isolation and cosmopolitanism, the same intimate connections between people.”
Artists are mining a rich culturalleagcy
Absurd and extravagant, perhaps. Yet Dalton has a point, because there is so much stuff going on here, because there is so much fizz in the air—despite all the economic gloom and doom, or perhaps because of it—and also because there is a cockiness now, a surging sense that art in all its aspects, and of the highest order, can be produced here.
A more down-to-earth comparison is Glasgow. Like Newfoundland, the gritty old city on the Clyde has lost its organizing principle: all the shipyards are shuttered now. Yet Glasgow deserved its designation as European Cultural Capital in 1992, and it continues in a state of artistic vigor. Glaswegian style is remarkably like Newfoundland’s: raunchy, rowdy, bursting out with reckless energy. Like Newfoundland, it is peopled by a homogenous tribe, where everyone not only knows everyone else but loves them, or loathes them.
The thought about Glasgow came to me while I was talking to St. John’s novelist Bernice Morgan. The catalyst for much contemporary art in Toronto, I had remarked, was diversity, and more particularly, multicolored diversity. “Our substitute is class,” she came back instantly. “I write out of blind anger, anger about colonialism, anger about what religion did to us, anger that my grandfather once had to go cap in hand to someone else’s grandfather.”
The finest expression of Morgan’s anger is a rivetting epic novel, Random Passage, nominated last year for Ireland’s top literary award, that gives fictional form to Newfoundland’s history, from early settlement to the collapse of the fishery. Its sequel, Waiting for Time, won the 1995 Canadian Authors Association prize.
“No one had ever told us what we were really like, how we created a society out of nothing,”
Morgan, 61, said passionately. “I had to write it so I could read it.”
Class, history, tribalism, disasters at sea and on the ice, the political betrayals and the economic failures, the Irish wit and verbal pyrotechnics, the intimacy of relationships within extended families, the lowering climate, the stark landscape, the wild seas, and the everchanging landwash in between them. Is it any wonder that Canada’s liveliest, spikiest, most creative arts scene should be here, in Canada’s poorest city, way out on the eastern edge of North America?
The best place to get into the action is the LSPU Hall Theatre, a green clapboard saltbox perched halfway up the steep hill that overlooks the harbor. Once it was the headquarters of the Longshoreman’s Protective Union. Now, in the description of Andy Jones, one of the original members of Codeo, it is “Newfoundland’s National Theatre,” a 200-seat, artist-run collective that produces one of the highest percentages of Canadian work in the country, nearly all of it written in Newfoundland. The best is collected in a handsome new anthology, Stars in the Sky Morning. “The Hall,” as everyone calls it, is also a metaphor for everything that has happened in the province’s renaissance since I looked in 20 years ago: how it has put down roots; how, after a lot of heartbreak and anger and even fistfights, those first wild creative impulses have matured into a flourishing, although still financially undernourished, tradition. At the
LSPU in the early 1980s, with shows like Makin’ Time with the Yanks, about wartime St. John’s, and Terras de Baccalieu, about the Portuguese White Fleet, Walsh moved beyond acting into writing and directing.
A decade later, Greg Thomey honed his rubber-faced style, and Rick Mercer spoke his first coruscating monologues. Both are now stars of 22 Minutes. There is a third generation at the Hall, including a troupe christened Artistic Fraud that recently put on a gay musical romance. ‘This new crowd is so much more confident than we were,” says Walsh, 45. ‘They’re doing shows much more urban and sophisticated than anything we dreamt of. Yet when I watch them I get this big lump in my throat. It’s like all that heartbreak was worth it. It’s like we’ve created a continuum.”
The keystone of that continuum is Andy Jones, brother to Cathy, al-
so of 22 Minutes. The week I was there, Jones, now 49 and re-ensconced in St. John’s after a three-year Toronto sabbatical during which he produced and toured his hit one-man show about midlife crisis, Still Alive, was premièring his latest show, King O’Fun. It’s a hoot: all of Chekhov’s plays get condensed into three minutes, a rooster becomes a bishop, and Jones dances the eight parts of the Newfoundland Lancers all by himself. Yet there were moments when the show became something deeper, a reflection on the nature of life itself. Jones, like all great comedians, is a serious man with “a grave mission to be funny,” in the deft phrase of St. John’s critic Paul Rowe.
Later, I catch up with Jones, and remind him that long ago, he had told me: “We’re going to turn St. John’s into the comedy centre for North America.” Andy, I say, your crowd has just about done it. “I was young then,” he replies ruefully. “I’m older and wiser now.” There have been, he reflects, some terrible times: the death from AIDS of much-loved Codeo colleague Tommy Sexton; the slump he himself went into after quitting Codeo on principle, when the CBC refused to show a sketch about homosexual priests that prefigured all the revelations about beatings and sodomy at Mount Cashel. (Eventually, it did get on the air.) “It’s one thing to be doing what you love doing,” he says. “It’s another to have the light and power man at your door, threatening to cut you off.”
Then Jones’s mood shifts abruptly. He starts talking about a new show he is writing for CBC Radio called The Modern World Explained. He quickly shifts to the local buzz that has suddenly developed about a new series, Dooley Gardens, starring himself and Walsh, which Mary Sexton, Tommy’s sister, is producing for the CBC network. There is also a millennium film called The Extraordinary Visitor, about St.
John the Baptist coming to St. John’s, due to start shooting in August. By now, Jones is reeling off names and projects so fast that my ballpoint can scarcely keep up. “It’s exponential,” he says. “There’s nothing like it anywhere else in Canada. I did a show last winter with 20—that’s right, 20—young comedians. Kids in high schools are putting on Andy Jones: ‘It’s one all our old Codeo shows and they’re also writing their own stuff.” Jones pauses and slows the pace. “If I’d ever thought when I was in high school, yearning to be an actor, that I’d be living in St. John’s, my face on screens on the mainland, putting on a show about the human condition, watching a whole new generation of talent growing up, I guess I’d have thought I was in heaven.”
If there is truly a heaven, Newfoundland artists agree, the late George Story is smiling down. This tall, elegant professor of English at Memorial, who died in 1994 at 66, is patron saint of the Newfoundland renaissance. Like painter Christopher Pratt, he demonstrated to Newfoundlanders that it was possible to stay on the island and be excellent. A Rhodes Scholar and an expert on Erasmus, Story came home in 1954 as a fledgling lecturer. It was like entering a new Dark Age, he once told me. In the early post-Confederation era, the idea of taking Newfoundland’s rich oral culture seriously seemed ludicrous. Outport students were required to learn to speak “Etobicoke” English, he recalled. “We were hell-bent on throwing the whole of our heritage out the window,” he said angrily.
Almost single-handedly, Story changed all that. Newfoundland’s language became his magnificent obsession. His crowning work—it took 20 years—was the Dictionary of Newfoundland English, published in 1982, a superb work of scholarship that is also an affirmation of Newfoundland itself. American novelist E. Annie Proulx is the first to say that she could never have written The Shipping News without it. Andy Jones dipped into it while brewing King OEun, found the word whizgigging, which means little kids whispering and giggling—as in, “stop your whizgigging”— and built the whole show around it.
Story put his mark on generations of students: Rex Murphy, Patrick Kavanagh, came-from-away John Fraser, who went on to become editor of Saturday Night and is now master at the University of Toronto’s Massey College, Jones and fellow actor Greg Malone. To find Story’s monument in St. John’s, just look around. There is the LSPU Hall, Memorial’s vibrant English department and its sparky Centre for Newfoundland Studies, as well as the literary magazine TickleAce, one of the liveliest in the country. Above all, Story’s valedictory is the poster put out by the Newfoundland and Labrador Arts Council, of which he was the first chairman. It declares: “It is our creative ability that ensures our survival as a recognizable people and culture, and enables us also to contribute to the enrichment of the nation of which we form a distinctive part.” Kids, dogs, a big salt fish casserole with lots of tomatoes and garlic: up at Walsh’s rambling 1830s house on Pennywell Road, the cultural progeny of George Story gather for Sunday brunch. The energy is palpable. Singer and balladeer Ron Hynes tells film-maker
Rosemary House about his new CD, Face to the Gale. She tells him about the portrait of St. John’s she is shooting for the National Film Board of Canada. Broadcasters Maijorie Doyle and Ed Riche—she hosts a CBC classical music show, and he co-writes the zany Saturday morning hit The Great Eastern—talk about how great it is to be on the national network and still be able to live in St. John’s.
I scribble notes on all this, and then move out to the deck to listen to a couple of young writers, Michael Winter and Lisa Moore, who have both recently published well-reviewed collections of short stories. They are of the new generation, Canadians as much as Newfoundlanders. They are not into amphibianism, or Newfoundland history, or politics. Their stories are urban and postmodern. Both have spent time out at Banff, at writers’ workshops. Yet neither has any intention of living anyplace else. “It’s the sense of being connected,” says Moore. “I feel very lucky to be writing in a place where my grandparents lived, where my parents were born, where I grew up.” Adds Winter: “I can compete with my peers anywhere. But the thing is, there are just so many great stories here.”
I fly back to Toronto in a state of exhilaration, thinking maybe it’s high time that I too went home for good. Yet other thoughts nag me, ones that I cannot suppress. For all the brave hopes of Voisey’s Bay and Hibernia, Newfoundland’s economic future looks incomparably bleaker than in the 1970s. The population is declining. Above all, the fishery that created this quirky and passionate little society, and for centuries sustained it, is still Newfoundland’s sustaining myth, and its soul. When the Rock has lost its soul, can the flowers bloom? Few Newfoundland artists want to talk about this. ‘We cried when the moratorium came in,” says Walsh. “Now, I think we’re living in denial." Adds Jones: We’ve gotta be doing something here. We can’t all be actors.” He talks about a bitter epiphany that came to him last summer at the annual theatre festival at Trinity, while watching a revival of the late Michael Cook’s 1970s play The Head, Guts and Soundbone Dance, performed in a fishing shed. “It seemed like some awful kind of travesty,” Jones says. “Here we were watching a play about fishing, in a place where there was no more fishing.” He goes on to brood about the “commodification of the culture,” the arts dumbed down into tourist attractions, outports turned into theme parks, as Kevin Major prefigures in Gaffer.
While writing this piece, I too have an epiphany. It happens when I drive out to the McMichael gallery to look at Marlene Creates’s exhibition. The work I am most drawn to is titled We Live in Optimism. It consists of an outline map of Newfoundland and Labrador, on which Creates has inked in the names of selected outports. All, I realize, have cheerful, life-affirming names: Fortune, Heart’s Content, Bread and Butter Point, Happy Adventure, and my favorite, Little Heart’s Ease. “This place was settled with optimism,” writes Creates in the catalogue. We still live here and we have to live in optimism.” □