Will Ferguson’s Canada

THE CITY ON A ROCK

St. John's is a great place to sink your teeth into

July 21 2003
Will Ferguson’s Canada

THE CITY ON A ROCK

St. John's is a great place to sink your teeth into

July 21 2003

THE CITY ON A ROCK

Will Ferguson’s Canada

St. John's is a great place to sink your teeth into

St. John’s is gnawing on my bones. I usually carry a small notebook when I travel, just to jot things down: place names, addresses, snippets of conversation, that sort of thing. These scribbled asides can be difficult enough to decipher later on, but in this case—after a night on the town in the Newfoundland capital—I had absolutely no idea what this note to myself meant. “St.John’s is gnawing on my bones.” I didn’t remember writing it, and it didn’t even look like my handwriting, though this may have had something to do with the amount of screech I swallowed. (Note: one does not “drink” screech, and one certainly does not “imbibe” screech; one swallows it, hard, the way one might choke back cod liver oil. Or lighter fluid.)

And so it is with St. John’s itself. You can’t take it in with tiny sips; you have to choke it back, you have to swig it down. You have to wheeze about and stagger. The oldest city in North America, perched on the easternmost edge of the continent, St. John’s has been described as “the world’s largest fishing village,” and the description is apt.

In St.John’s, the houses tumble uphill, if such a thing is possible, and the entire placedle streets, the squares, the alleyways—seems to have been laid out without the aid of a ruler and possibly while under the influence of screech. From Hill O’Chips to Mile Zero, from Water Street to the colourful homes lined

up on Jellybean Row: the city is full of angles that don’t quite add up.

I once won a bet with a Newfoundland colleague who insisted that St. John’s is— all empirical evidence to the contrary—a fairly orderly sort of place and easy enough to get around. Ha! In response, I threw down a challenge: “Show me one intersection anywhere downtown where two streets actually meet at right angles.” So off we went, up and down, this way and that, but every intersection we came upon had some strange kink to it, some odd twist or arbitrary waywardness about it.

Exhibit A: the map I picked up at the city’s tourist office includes the following tips on navigating some of St. John’s more notorious intersections—and I quote: Queen’s Road/Gower Street & Church Hill Area: “Just pray & hope you’re going the right way.” Cavendish Square/Hotel Newfoundland: “Pass thru unscathed and you’ve passed the Nfld. drivers test!” And this is the map they give out to visitors, mind you.

St. John’s is, as the Irish say, “a great place to get lost in.” Wander around long enough, though, and you will eventually end up at the harbour as surely as water flows downhill. Great ships lie tethered, bleeding rust into the bay, and rising and falling on slow exhalations of water. From the pier, the bay looks like a landlocked lake, the Narrows

sealed off by perspective and distance. The very air tastes of salt.

As evening settled in layers of blue, I followed the crowds to George Street, a single city block wedged tight with pubs. The tourist board likes to call it a “continuous carnival in the heart of Old St. John’s.” If nothing else, it is arguably the rowdiest street in Canada, spilling out with loud laughing crowds, raucous music and open invitation barroom brawls.

In one particularly seedy pub, I was adopted by a work crew from Portugal Cove who took an immediate, almost antagonistic liking to me. “You’re from Alberta, you say? I have a cousin in Fort McMurray, maybe you know him.” (.Everybody in Newfoundland has a cousin in Fort McMurray.) The crew from Portugal Cove tormented me with screech and second-hand smoke, as they regaled me with tales of how their families were so poor “back when” that all they could afford to eat was lobsters. This was not the first time I had heard this. Apparently, half the population of Newfoundland has subsisted on lobster at some point or other. Memo to Newfoundlanders: we have all heard the story about how your mom/dad/cousins/uncles/in-laws used to be so poor they had to eat lobster. It’s a good story, but we’ve heard it. Please find another.

I eventually stumbled out of the pub with

my eyes red and head pounding as though fresh from a pummelling. The next morning, I woke to a hangover of apocalyptic proportions and cryptic notes scratched to myself in an increasingly incoherent scrawl. “St. John’s is gnawing on my bones.”

Blame it on the screech, that aptly named rum of which Newfoundlanders are so inexplicably fond. But if nothing else, my night on George Street inspired the sommelier in me: “How to describe the national drink of Newfoundland? Revolting, and yet terrible. Horrible, and yet appalling. Vile and yet, at the same time, dreadful.” One could make similar pronouncements about seal flipper pie, I suppose, though I imagine you would have to throw some “really, very trulys” into the mix.

Lorraine McGrath and Leslie Thomas of the Avalon Convention & Visitors Bureau had decided to treat me to flipper pie at Chucky’s Restaurant, though I noticed, with mild consternation, that when we got there they stuck with the fish and chips. “Go ahead,” they urged. “Seal flipper pie. It’s a Newfoundland tradition.”

Seal flipper pie is the sort of food that is eaten almost exclusively on a dare, kind of like prairie oysters or 7-Eleven hot dogs. The meat is oily, dark and fishy. It is not the sort of thing you want to face when you have a hangover.

I did like the cod tongues, though. They were quite tender and tasty. “So,” I asked. “Which part of the fish are these taken from5” This was, apparently, high on the List of Dumb Things Mainlanders Ask.

“You’re talking about the cod tongues?” Lorraine said.

“That’s right.”

“You’re asking me which part of the cod the cod tongues come from?”

“Yes.”

“They come from the tongues,” she said.

Oh. Of course. “I thought it was a metaphor, or something,” I said, feeling a wee bit foolish. Heck, I didn’t even know codfish had tongues.

Nor was it the first time I felt foolish when it came to fish. On my first trip to St. John’s, I remember mulling over the menu at a small fish-and-chips shop. I was curious as to whether the various platters listed involved different kinds of fish. Were some haddock, some cod, some flounder? But that’s not how my question came out. “Excuse me,” I said. “But can you tell what the

difference is between a large fish and chips and a small fish and chips?”

The entire place went quiet. The owner looked at me with a wry half-smile and then, speaking slowly in the manner one might address an especially dim-witted child, he said, “Well, b’y. Generally speakin’, da large fish ’n’ chips is slightly bigger dan da small fish ’n’ chips.”

I can hear the laughter ringing in my ears even now. (And as I later discovered, in Newfoundland “fish” means cod, plain and simple. The two words are interchangeable.) After the seal flipper and cod tongues, Lorraine and Leslie offered to take me up Signal Hill, the high knot of rock that dominates St. John’s harbour. It is a site that is both geologically and historically significant. It is

ST. JOHN’S is like a boozy uncle who crashes into your life every couple of years and then charges off, leaving a trail of tall tales and laughter

also where the youth of St.John’s sometimes go to neck. “They go for the view,” said Leslie. “Even in the fog.”

It was a windy but clear day when we drove up to the top, with no fog or amorously entwined couples in sight. Along the way, we passed the cold water depths of Deadman’s Pond, a site of early military executions. “They say it’s bottomless,” Leslie piped up from the back seat, her voice sunny and sweet. “There were men who drowned in it. Their bodies never surfaced.”

It sounds like a bit of leg-pulling folklore, but I believe it. I believe it in the same way that I can easily imagine plunging headfirst

into St.John’s, disappearing into its narrow alleys and never surfacing again.

At the top of Signal Hill sits the lonely landmark of Cabot Tower, a solid, squat, Gothic-revival structure built back in 1900. Most of the tower’s sandstone blocks were originally taken from the Hill itself. It was near Cabot Tower, in an old hospital now gone, that Marconi received the world’s first transatlantic wireless message in the winter of 1901. As a cold Atlantic rain strafed the heights outside, Marconi warmed himself with a cup of hot cocoa ... and listened. Through the static came the staccato clicks of Morse code for the letter “S”: three dots repeated again and again, sent around the curvature of the earth from a base in England, 3,500 km and an ocean away. In Marconi’s own words, “Distance had been overcome.” It was a moment that would revolutionize human communications.

Marconi described the heights of Signal Hill as “a lofty eminence overlooking the port and forming a natural bulwark which protects it from the fury of the Atlantic winds.” It was, in its way, a Gibraltar of the New World. As a key defensive position, Signal Hill was also where the last battle in North America was fought between France and Great Britain, in 1762. It was here that the dream of New France ended once and for all. Three years after the fall of Quebec, French forces captured St. John’s in a desperate attempt to use the city as a bargaining chip, something to be traded for in the post-war negotiations. But following a mistshrouded battle for Signal Hill and a bombardment of French positions by the British, the French hold was broken forever.

At Signal Hill, the cliffs plunge directly into the sea. Only a narrow gap cuts through the headlands, allowing ships to squeeze into the protected waters of St. John’s harbour. Approaching the Narrows from the outside, vessels are confronted with a solid wall of rock until almost the last minute, when the entrance finally comes into view: just 275 m at its mouth, and soon closing to a mere 90 m. Ships have to earn St. John’s, threading their way past submerged rocks and hidden shoals.

A 19th-century traveller compared entering St. John’s harbour to sailing through a mountain pass and coming into a “mighty Coliseum.” So much history has passed through that narrow gap. The first fishing fleets—Basque, French, English and Spanish—

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had long sought safe harbour here when, in 1583, the hotheaded English explorer Sir Humphrey Gilbert appeared on the scene with his rough crew of reformed pirates. Gilbert laid claim to the entire harbour and its surrounding area in the name of Queen Elizabeth I.

He then sailed off on board a tiny frigate named the Squirrel only to get caught in a fierce gale off the Azores. His last words, heard on an accompanying vessel and called out in defiance of the seas, have echoed across the centuries. “We are as near to Heaven by sea as by land!” Gilbert may have gone down with the ship, but his legacy lived on. England had staked a claim in the New World, and Newfoundland would be her first overseas colony. In a very real sense, the British Empire was born right here, in this harbour, through these Narrows.

So much history. So much heartbreak. St. John’s narrow passage has been the site of so many shipwrecks and drownings that you almost expect the water to be a stew of flotsam and corpses. Steamers have collided with schooners. Schooners have rammed into sailboats. Tugboats have driven over dories. A German submarine fired torpedoes at its ships, sharks have been snagged in it, icebergs have blocked it. Irish rebels have been hung from its heights, and pirates have prowled its waters. There is even a resident mermaid, though, this being St.John’s, it is no demure lass but rather a roaring girl with seaweed-like hair who climbs aboard rowboats and has to be beaten back with oars.

From Signal Hill, the entire vista spreads out before you: the sudden cliffs, the dramatic headlands, the narrow passage, the inner harbour. The winds are constant and the footing is unsure, but the view is beyond compare. Can you miss a place before you have even left? If you can, that is how I felt.

I am homesick for St. John’s, and it isn’t even my home. I miss the city and I think of it often, the way one wonders about a boozy uncle who comes crashing into your life every couple of years and then charges off, leaving a trail of tall tales and laughter in his wake. It is a good city, this fishing village on the eastern edge of North America. It gnaws on you. li1]

Will Ferguson is the author of Bastards & Boneheads: Canada’s Glorious Leaders Past and Present. For more on Ferguson, visit his Web site at www.willferguson.ca.