Tribute - Ray Guy: marvellous maverick

Rex Murphy
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Goodbye Ray.   

  Very sad to see him go. He was, along with Ted Russell — a pairing with which I am certain he would be pleased to find himself — the finest artist of the genuine Newfoundland idiom that we have produced.

To say the same another way, Ray had a great gift of writing that came straight out of “Newfoundland talk,” that mix of wild phrase, razor irony and hard humour that is purely our own.

Better than any other person, either professional writer or comedian, Ray Guy took the turns and tone of Newfoundland speech, and made it into an art form.

He had from the beginning of his column-writing days — those days when Smallwood was the crazed anvil, and Ray’s Telegram column one hell of a hammer — an unsurpassed reputation for clever, mordant and extremely funny (that last, so rare a gift in any columnist, anywhere on the whole North American continent) writing. He was never (praise God that made Ray proud) either in his writing or his persona, that dread stooge, the stage Newfoundlander — all fake “come all ye’s” and “by da Lard Jasuses.”

His gift, however, was a greater thing than just lacerating Joey Smallwood and subsequent politicians in prose of great fury and fun. The Moores’ columns are distinctly under appreciated subset of the Guy oeuvre (he would scorn that “oeuvre.”). Incidentally, while most of us can rage, and many of us are funny, Ray Guy mastered their artful fusion.

In many, many columns he went into a region altogether more rare — that of bona fide prose artist. Let serve, but two quick-to-mind examples: his invention of that wondrous harridan of the Witless Bay Barrens, Aunt Cissy Roach, or the scattered slices of memoir he united under the classic rubric “Juvenile Out-harbour Delights.” Aunt Cissy was like a creature that had escaped from a novel. The columns of “Juvenile Out-harbour Delights” were some of the finest memoir writing Newfoundland has produced.

Both these deserve a permanent place in the writings about Newfoundland.

Lots of folks try to carry off the Newfoundland manner in print, and almost all fail. Ray Guy wore all the brilliant sarcasm, high invention and artful scorn of that manner in his very being. His early mockery of Smallwood, when Smallwood had morphed into some grim parody of a premier, was fired by anger, lit by dark outport genius and devastatingly powerful because it was done in an authentic Newfoundland voice. World-class journalistic battery that had people, every afternoon, literally, waiting in the small towns from Whitbourne to Burin for The Telegram to show up. That’s popularity, that’s writing.

Ray was, as I have already hinted, more an essayist (though strangely not always marked down as such) than that much lesser creature, a mere commentator/columnist. He had that outsider’s view of things which most Newfoundlanders instinctively hold as their own.

He stayed aloof from groups and factions — was, never, thank God, part of the arts crowd. He had a generous and unfailing cynicism about all political endeavour, whether stimulated by the suffocating high earnestness of infantile “good causes” or the ratty ambitions of run-of-the-mill politicians.

It was very good to see in latter years that his columns were re-collected and given a second lease, in “Ray Guy: The Smallwood Years” (Boulder Publications) and “That Far Greater Bay” (Flanker Press). There was great relish the second time around for his early virtuoso scourgings of Joey and his pets, the pen portraits of the political class, the great brisk lashings he administered to the busybodies and frauds (your Greenpeacers, wildlife cultists, Vancouver anthropologists who saw themselves as spawn of Gaia, etc.) who littered our dear landscape trying to save the infinitely pullulating seals, and lecturing us on “respect for nature.”

Ray was not just a good writer, he was a great writer, gifted with marvellous fluency, a pitch-perfect ear, phrase-making ability of the keenest order. Who has forgotten his description of St. John’s art scene as “the elephant graveyard of radical chic”? For that phrase alone he should be served tea and something stronger with Mark Twain — with whom, in whatever printing house of the afterworld both now share, he will find himself perfectly at ease, with a smile as sly as the devil and a quip brighter than a hundred harps.

He was a quite marvellous Newfoundlander.

I pass on to Kathie and their two daughters, Rachel and Anne, very deep condolences.

Rex Murphy is host of “Cross Country Checkup” and is a regular contributor to TV’s “The National.” A published author, he also writes book reviews, commentaries and a weekly column for the National Post.

Organizations: North American, Witless Bay Barrens, The Telegram Boulder Publications Flanker Press National Post

Geographic location: Newfoundland, Whitbourne, Burin Far Greater Bay Vancouver

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Recent comments

  • Gloria
    May 19, 2013 - 05:39

    Thank you...wonderful tribute!

  • canadafirstaid
    May 18, 2013 - 19:22

    I never met Ray. But, I read every word he wrote from when I was in High School to when he stopped writing. Nobody could nail down exactly any situation political, funny or sad, real or make believe, etc. better then Ray. He made every word he wrote worth reading. RIP Ray from cfa

  • bj
    May 18, 2013 - 16:14

    I chatted with Ray a couple of times at the porthole on water street when i finished work,mostly about JRS.Iromically ,in hindsite ,many decakes later I regard Joey as the best premier we ever had.

  • Trudy Veitch
    May 18, 2013 - 16:10

    Hope this tribute and his passing will re-introduce his genius to the world!

  • marilee pittman
    May 18, 2013 - 11:04

    Well said Rex, another of our great orators.

  • Winston
    May 18, 2013 - 10:59

    One can see, in this piece, the difference between a good writer and the Great Guy. Yet, it's sad to see such praise coming after Ray's passing. If Ray had been from the USA, there would have been honorary dinners in praise of his body of work, while he still lived. Here in Nfld the great ones, and few they are, just fade away. Too many of the younger generation know little of Guy's contribution to make our province better and our government and institutions more accountable. When at times all seemed so desperate, with no hope, he gave us hope with his insight and words of wisdom, in a way to make us laugh. The Great Guy,a true genius. Look at the photo here, a Mona Lisa type smile, is it not? A great photo.

  • R.O.Kieley
    May 18, 2013 - 10:18

    "Ray was not just a good writer, he was a great writer". Well said from a genuine wordster who's cutting commentaries on "The National" are revered coast to coast.

  • gerry
    May 18, 2013 - 10:06

    Rest in peace Mr Guy. A ture Newfoundland icon has passed...

  • Minnie Vallis
    May 18, 2013 - 09:28

    Ray Guy should be kept as an icon by our education dept of NL..Truly one of the finest..RIP great man

  • Brian Miller
    May 18, 2013 - 08:54

    Thanks Rex, a fitting remembrance. Ray Guy was a man who could see through the constant fog of bull shit and fancy dress which surrounds so many of us, especially those among us to whom we give more credit than they are due, politicians and celebrities of all sorts. When we have people paying homage to Joe Smallwood, Frank Moores, Frank Duffy, Pamela Wallen, Stephen Harper (extend the list as you like), and their related institutions we need a scatter fellow with a good nose who is not fooled by the perfume of power and influence. A person who also has the ability to help the rest of us get the scent of what is really there. We'll miss you Ray.