Theatre of Fish: Travels Through Newfoundland and Labrador

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9780099453253: Theatre of Fish: Travels Through Newfoundland and Labrador

An extraordinary journey across the magnificent, delinquent coast of Newfoundland and Labrador.

John Gimlette’s journey across this harsh and awesome landscape, the eastern extreme of the Americas, broadly mirrors that of Dr Eliot Curwen, his great-grandfather, who spent a summer there as a doctor in 1893, and who was witness to some of the most beautiful ice and cruelest poverty in the British Empire. Using Curwen’s extraordinarily frank journal, John Gimlette revisits the places his great-grandfather encountered and along the way explores his own links with this harsh, often brutal, land.

At the heart of the book however, are the “outporters,” the present-day inhabitants of these shores. Descended from last-hope Irishmen, outlaws, navy deserters and fishermen from Jersey and Dorset, these outporters are a warm, salty, witty and exuberant breed. They often speak with the accent and idioms of the original colonists, sometimes Shakespearean, sometimes just plain impenetrable. Theirs is a bizarre story; of houses (or “saltboxes”) that can be dragged across land or floated over the sea; of eating habits inherited from seventeenth-century sailors (salt beef, rum pease-pudding and molasses;) of Labradorians sealed in ice from October to June; of fishing villages that produced a diva to sing with Verdi; and of their own illicit, impromptu dramatics, the Mummers.

This part-history-part-travelogue exploration of Newfoundland and Labrador’s coast and culture by a well-established travel writer is a glorious read to be enjoyed by both armchair tourist, and anyone contemplating a visit to Canada’s far-eastern shores.
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About the Author:

John Gimlette is a well-established travel writer, having won the Shiva Naipaul Memorial Prize and the Wanderlust Travel Writing Award. When not traveling, he practices as a barrister in London.
From the Hardcover edition.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

I’ve suddenly realised that every one of my visits to St John’s began and ended with The Narrows.
This channel, no wider than a shout, linked the harbour to the sea. The gap through which it passed was like a crack in a sky full of granite. As fissures go, it was simply mesmerising. The whole city faced it, as if watching a door ajar. Out there was weather, the Old World, shades of darkness and ice. In here, life had a more turquoise texture, and smelt of potatoes and fresh-cut pine. As a natural portal, it had defined the beginning and end of journeys for centuries. These were the most easterly rocks of the Americas and the beginning — or end — of the New World. The French, when Newfoundland was briefly theirs, had called it Le Goulet — The Throat — a name that was nicely sinister and functionally perfect. From its place in the hills, St John’s watched, waiting to see who’d sail in next.

I often found myself plodding round the harbour, responding to some primordial urge to be uphill, up in the rocks. First, I would climb through The Batteries, several layers of Victorian artillery; Inner, Outer, Middle, Upper, Lower. These old dug-outs had long been colonised by eccentrics, people living in driftwood cottages and flotsam. I always imagined that their proximity to the wild, gnashing sea had left them a little distracted. Their homes dangled over the black froth and they themselves were given to some curly pronouncements: ‘Inteligence not Educasion!’ said a sign, or
‘CANADA = NEWFOUNDLAND’S NEWEST COLONY

Every now and then — and most dramatically in 1959 — the walls of The Narrows crumbled, crushed these dwellings and swept them out to sea. When that happened, the Battery people reacted as all Newfoundlanders did in times of wrecked homes; they simply went out into the woods and cut themselves new ones.

As I climbed higher, the broader picture emerged. St John’s just about filled the foreground. Although I would become very fond of this city of planks and ship’s paint, it told terrible lies about its age and size. It was not, as it claimed, the oldest city in North America (for that was to overlook — among others — Mexico City) nor had its population ever reached much beyond 100,000. But it behaved like a capital and, from up here, I could see two cathedrals, a Supreme Court and a miniature government.

Beyond St John’s, I fancied that I could see into the heart of the island. This was, of course, an absurd thought; Newfoundland is the size of Ohio or England. All I was looking at were the soggy hinterlands — the barrens — where Johnsmen went on week-ends for boil-ups, gunning and perhaps a little grassing.

If I turned and faced the other way, up the great gulley, I could see the draggers running for home, each beneath a helix of seabirds. In winter, the horizon would be speckled with ice and, in summer, a crease of brilliant blue. Had I been here on 9th July 1882 — on the cusp of Spring — I might have spotted the Albert. She was picking her way through the last knobs of ice, Grenfell on the fore-deck, troubled by the smell of burning.


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