Theatre of Fish
Annie Proulx’s much acclaimed novel Shipping News won not only the 1993 National Book Award for Fiction but also the 1994 Pulitzer Prize. However, despite the author’s skillful manipulation of her disturbed subjects (child molestation, incest, serial adultery and retardation), what really comes across in the otherwise exemplary book is her obvious distaste for her characters and her location – Newfoundland . I sometimes felt a little uncomfortable reading the book.
Now, however, an exceptional piece of travel writing Theatre of Fish by John Gimlette gives a much more sympathetic but no less grim picture of the magnificent but bizarre coast of Newfoundland and Labrador.
What John Gimlette has done in this unveiling travelogue is to follow in the footsteps of his great grandfather Dr. Eliot Curwen, who spent the summer of 1893 in Newfoundland with Dr. Wilfred Grenfell. To all those who live there Newfoundland is known simply as “The Rock” and the “fish” in Gimlette’s book mean cod. The province literally owes its existence to fish. “ Newfoundland made its first appearance in European maps in 1436, as the lyrical ‘land of stockfish’. It remained a trade secret for the next sixty-one years. Then in 1497 Cabot made his historic, political ‘discovery’, and after that the fish rush was on.” It’s been a bloody struggle. Fish has been the prize (if not the catalyst) in some nine wars around Newfoundland and Labrador : six with France , two with America , and one with the Netherlands . Generally speaking it was the British who emerged with the fish.”
But this is not a story of fish, despite the book’s title, and even though cod would ascertain Newfoundland ’s fate. For nearly half the colony’s history, from 1633 to 1811, settlement was actively discouraged in favour of fish. The book is much more the story of the present day inhabitants of this rugged wilderness. Descended from last-hope Irishmen, outlaws, navy-deserters and fishermen from Jersey and Dorset , this exuberant breed, as the author points out, are a warm, salty, lawless and witty band of colonists.
Gimlette fears that Labradorians and Newfoundlanders will mistrust his book as the residents think it impossible for any foreigner to portray them accurately. But everywhere during Gimlette’s sometimes unbearably uncomfortable travels he was treated with “embarrassing kindness”. In fact he hopes residents will see through the pages a real admiration and affection. This is the great difference between the attitude of Gimlette’s book and Shipping News.
In the early years before Dominion and Confederation “a man could be a fish millionaire and not own a penny”. Fish was even used to pay school fees. It was indeed an ungainly economy. Even today, even though the cod has all but disappeared, and it is over fifty years since the colony joined Canada , the heritage of fish makes a powerful statement on the landscape. “Almost every community in Labrador or Newfoundland hangs over the ocean. There is a veritable air of impermanence about them.” Newfoundlanders are neither North American nor quite European.
John Gimlette sets out five literary Acts for his theatrical journey. The first “ St. John’s ”. The city burnt to the ground in the time of Grenfell and the current obstinate modern city was built on the charred remains of the 1892 fire. Few buildings survived the inferno and – broadly speaking – Gimlette found “a fishing fleet anchored to a hill”. He also warns that “a sense of hereditary failure seemed to stalk the city”. Gimlette’s second Act is “Planting Avalon”. He observes that its bog “is another case of good intentions cluttering the road to Hell”. The Avalon peninsula is the most southerly “Arctic” region in the world, the interior a featureless, untitled blank. Not very inviting. But Gimlette journeyed in his great grandfather’s footsteps to Cape Broyle – as far south as Curwen had reached –
and then even further south to Ferryland where he stayed in a cabin in the barrens, feasting on shipwreck dinners and breakfasts of “fish and brewis”: salt cod, onions, hard tack and scrunchions of fat-back pork. It was in Ferryland that Gimlette learnt the gruesome details of Father Hickey’s thirty-two charges of sexual abuse of children in 1988. This was followed by even more sordid revelations of the Christian brothers’ abuse of altar boys in Mount Cashel – a bad chapter in Newfoundland ’s history. But Amelia Earhart used this last lump of the Americas in 1932 to launch her flight to become the first woman to fly the Atlantic alone. Then she mysteriously disappeared somewhere over the Pacific five years later. Seal hunting was banned here too in 1987 – a ban that was lifted in 1995. It was a ban that couldn’t last. “Whatever the rights and wrongs the sealers had become fugitives.” Gimlette gives us a history lesson too: the battle for the cod fishing rights; Britain demanding the island back from the French; the Treaty of Utrecht; Captain James Cook’s arrival in Placentia in 1762; Sir Joseph Bank’s arrival in 1766 (he identified 340 plants and 91 birds and countless fish). Prince William (later William IV) spreading his fertile seed around Placentia for a year in 1786; and much later Churchill and President Roosevelt staying for three days in the early 1940’s hatching plans for what would eventually become the United Nations. Avalon was the heart and soul of the old colony.
Gimlette opens his third Act “North with the Floaters” when he returned to St. John’s the following summer. Several bars were offering nudity with their pies and beers. From the cliffs he saw the largest population of humpback whales in the world exploding in the water. It was impossible to count the spouts. An old whaler Gimlette met had spent 25 years killing whales and the next 30 wishing he hadn’t. The slaughter turned into factories. By 1900 Newfoundland was processing 1299 “finners” a year. Robert Reid built a railway across Newfoundland in exchange for a million acres of land and other concessions. It wasn’t a bad deal for Newfoundland . They got their railway. Gimlette headed for the northern coast following Curwen’s footsteps to Terra Nova. Even in June the ferry was not operating. Too much ice! Fish again was the main magnet in this unimaginably harsh country. By 1850 over 400 ships a year were setting out from the north coast of Newfoundland to sieve the Labrador Sea of its cod. By the end of the century there were 1400 schooners involved. Up in the Bonavista peninsula “everyone was slabbed in poverty”. No conversation until the stubble had sluiced away two Molson’s beers. “We’re all on the public tit.” Welfare. And when the caplin came in Gimlette witnessed “a furious congregation of men, whales, birds, dolphins and cod”. Then up to Trinity where he camped in a turnip patch in Glen Cove , and further up the coast to Lesleyville, Greensford and Musgrave Harbour where he learnt about Captain Samuel Blandford who wore seal-skin waistcoats with his morning suit. Legend has it that in twenty-one years Samuel hauled half a million seal pelts in from the Front.
It is often said that half of the lies told in Newfoundland are true but up as far north as the Change Islands people spoke with the voice of the Old World – probably because with no ferry they had been isolated until 1962. Gimlette drank screech with fishermen and stretched stories into the afternoon: the past, bird nesting, guns, unruly games like Pedley, Tiddley and Grump, but most of all survival. Icebergs all around and fishermen “chugging out there to hack off bits for their drinks”. Tilting, he discovered, was the other half of all the lies. He learnt of an amazing A. Frank Willie who could play six instruments at once, and sang like a fish. He met a sealer whose cat slept in the oven from Christmas through to Easter. They talked about the disappearance of the Beothuks – the original inhabitants - almost completely butchered by the “white man”. In the early 17 th century the Beothuk’s world started falling apart as fishermen arrived with guns. A hundred years later the Beothuks had become no more than occasional. The fishermen regarded the slaughter as merely a “vermin hunt”. A government report of 1768 stated “it is an inhumanity that sinks them far below the level of the savages”. The report is a catalogue of gruesome mutilation “of ‘squaws’ hacked down as they bared their breasts in supplication, of children bled to death and of a pregnant woman ripped open out of drunken curiosity”. By the time of the 1768 report the “white men” were in command of the rivers taking over a million pounds of salmon a year. By 1823 there were only a dozen or so Beothuks left.
Grand Falls was a different story. In 1904 Alfred Harmsworth – later Lord Northcliffe – bought over 2300 square miles of the surrounding forest to sustain his half-penny dreadful the Daily Mail. Grand Falls became a place commensurate with its product. Then the ice cleared and Gimlette left the north coast and followed his grandfather up through the Labrador Sea .
Act IV. Labrador , Newfoundlanders say, is “just a waste of space”. There was no work to the north, no future and no need to be there. The great new nickel mine at Voisey’s Bay seemed to produce more rancour than dirt. It was an area bigger than the British Isles . Only 30,000 people and all bogs and drinking. And grizzly bears. There were no railways or bridges. And an absence of trees. “God built the world in six days”, say Canadians, “and on the seventh he pelted Labrador with rocks.” Bjorn Herjulfson is supposed to have first brought back news of Labrador in the eleventh century; and then João Fernandes in 1508. But then it was Jacques Cartier, a Frenchman, almost a quarter of a century later, looking for the northwest passage, that gave the world its first descriptions. “Stones and horrible rocks …. I could not find one cartload of earth though I landed in many places.” Gimlette’s Labrador experiences are harrowing: tales of George Cartwright at the end of the 18 th century - the trapper, the trader, the government, the sexton and the priest; the Esquimaux, the mosquitoes, Great Caribou Island, Battle, and fish, fish, fish. Sheep might have flourished but the Esquimau dogs usually killed them; and did Robert E Peary reach the North Pole before his rival Cook in 1909? And black-flies! Men have been known to go mad for the flies. Dogs die. Moose have breakdowns, and lynx leap into rivers. Gimlette simply wanted to tear off his skin and run away. He ate cold blueberries and Battle cheese. But survived. In Black Tickle he learnt about Aunt Lucy and her cures for everything: “cobwebs for cuts, sunlight soap for constipation, porcupine grease for impetigo and redberries for colitis”. She could clean the blood with juniper. Up Harriston Inlet, Eskimo Bay , Goose Bay . More flies. More mosquitoes. Turnavik where there’s little else but lichen. Hovedale – still menaced by Esquimau dogs. People literally were afraid of being eaten by the dogs who defined not only the limits of the town but the way it looked. Polygamy was tolerated even as late as 1907. Then Sampo Bay and Nain – the most northerly of Labrador outposts. Brutally beautiful or beautifully brutal? Gimlette slipped away back to Newfoundland .
Act V – “Back via Old New France ”. Gimlette’s sensation of being edible soon began to fade. There were eight moose to the acre in the Great Northern Peninsula . Gimlette estimates that every other moose in Canada lived in Newfoundland . Moose pie every night! Labrador was only seventeen miles away across the straits. In St. Anthony there were Grenfell houses, Grenfell hospitals, Grenfell streets, and old sunken Grenfell wharves. Even Grenfell cloth! “Dr. Grenfell was a very good man” wrote H.G. Wells in Marriage, “but he made brandy dear, dear beyond the reach of the common man altogether on this coast.” However his orphanages reflected the best of his own childhood: bracing cold, freedom from shoes, and never a moment of idleness. Downtown in St. John’s there was a statue of Grenfell dressed as an Esquimau. Gimlette took a bus along The French Shore to Savage Cove and Corner Brook – grown fat on pulp from the Bowater mill. “People here’s too busy to bury the dead in winter” a gravedigger told Gimlette. “They waits for the thaw”. Port au Port. Then the long stretch straight from Port aux Basques to Burin known simply as the South Coast . It hasn’t been French since 1713. There wasn’t anywhere to stay so Gimlette camped in the mush. When a moose tripped over his guy-ropes, news of the incident preceded him all the way along the coast. “A way of life that had remained broadly unchanged for nearly four hundred years was now crumbling into extinction.” Rose Blanche, The Neck, and then the South Coast Steamer to the scattered outposts to the Burin peninsula – the last outpost of a one-time great empire.
Act VI: “Baby Bonus”: Newfoundland eventually sold out in exchange for monthly Baby Bonus cheques distributed to mothers for every new baby. At least there was money – or benefits. But first there was Sir Richard Squires, who was Prime Minister again in 1923. But he didn’t last ten years and was ousted by a mob. He was lucky to survive with his life. Whitehall reacted. Britain took over the debts in return for control. In the next sixteen years Newfoundland was ruled by civil servants. Newfoundlanders have never forgotten the shame. “We got what was good for us alright, but not much of what we wanted.” And then the war. Newfoundland was strategic. “It was no longer on the edge but in the middle of a huge military migration; over 2500 planes would pass through Goose Bay alone, and 10,000 ships through “Newfie John”. “Newfoundlanders loved the Americans, sometimes too much? We didn’t care, we all had work.” But then, after the war, who would replace the British lawyers? The answer was a pig-breeder from Gambo called Joey Smallwood. “He stank” – but as Premier he changed the history of Newfoundland . He discovered confederation and a union with Canada . In 1946 the new British socialist government backed Smallwood, and the opportunity to shed Newfoundland . First he held a referendum that failed: 69,400 votes against and 64,066 for confederation. And then a second in 1949 which many still consider a sham. Smallwood was accused of literally getting voters’ names off gravestones. But it wasn’t hard to vote for money: 78,323 in favour, and 71,334 against. On April Fool’s Day in 1949 Britain ’s oldest colony became Canada ’s newest Province. In St. John’s the flags flew at half mast. The nuns cried. "We’re more part of Europe than America ” the Irish told Gimlette. “ Union cost us the seal hunt” said the north-coast English. “And our cod”, said the fishermen. Fifty years on there is still vociferous dissent. But in 1949 Joey Smallwood won the election and was now in power, and he would remain there for the next twenty-five years, in an era where between 1954 and 1975 250 outports were closed down. “There was a purse for those who'd move.” Smallwood had wooed the people with Baby Bonus and then he enslaved them with patronage. This was now Canada – to be flourished and abused. Over fifty percent of the island’s gross product was in the hands of the government.
In a farewell coda Gimlette placed a good-bye call to Dr. Gracie Sparkes. “What will you call your book?” she asked. He told her. “Sure”, she said. “There’s been plenty of drama. But has it been a tragedy or a comedy?” This is something they’ve been fighting over for years.