“You see how it is. We are back to square one, to pod auger days. A few rich, a great whack of poor, and nobody in between.”
— Ray Guy, The Telegram, Nov. 30, 1997
I hold the ill-fated distinction of having been Ray Guy’s last editor at The Telegram; The Sunday Telegram, to be exact.
“Editor Sixtus” he called me in a pointed parting note — a dog-eared, wrinkled faxed letter I have kept for 15 years because it was my only correspondence with him beyond exchanges about minor tweaks to his column. Let’s face it, Ray Guy, a master of the language, didn’t have much need of an editor. A lawyer, yes. A censor? Sometimes. But an editor, no.
“Excuse mah language, li’l lady,” he wrote to me, before proceeding to tear a colorful strip off of one of my higher-ups. (As if women who work at newspapers don’t employ the same kind of — um — robust language as men). I can still hear him do the southern accent.
The best part of being Ray Guy’s editor was not that it posed any grammatical or literary challenge for someone who enjoys working with words, but that it meant I got to read his columns before anyone else.
Looking back on them now, you realize just how rapier-sharp his pen was. How poisonous, if you were on the receiving end. (I’m pleased I never was).
There was not a lot of preamble with Ray — a characteristic of his writing I particularly admired.
“The Tobin administration is a class-A slime machine,” he wrote in one column.
Gee. No ambiguity there. In comparison, political commentators of late have been quite kind.
But it wasn’t just politicians he saved his venom for. Anyone or any group could be a target if he felt they exuded hypocrisy or — worse, I suspect, as far as he was concerned — apathy.
“There are, roughly, about 200 happy people in Newfoundland today,” he wrote in the same column as the one in which he reduced then premier Brian Tobin to a pool of unctuous ooze.
“I say ‘roughly,’ because I have no figures for the deeply religious, the heavily medicated and the blissfully ignorant among us. That would leave about a half a million of us who must range from the slightly ticked to the downright suicidal.”
Classic Ray. Classic sharp-witted observation.
Re-reading his 1990s work for The Telegram, I am amazed at just how no-holds-barred he was — not that he’d necessarily like the comparison to John Crosbie.
Of the Tobin administration’s penchant for making policy decisions based on polls, he wrote: “Mob rule with the mob jerked around by the mass-media moguls. A government that was all engine and no brakes ... an electronic Stalin.
“All the trappings of the hard-won and exquisitely complicated parliamentary system swept away. All the checks and balances, the Loyal Opposition, the polling booth, the alternative groups waiting in the wings, all discussion, dissension, debate, sober second thought, any thought …”
It’s not that Ray was the only commentator who made shrewd observations, of course. But it was his unique take on things that resonated with so many people, and stuck with them.
It’s a rare wordsmith who can wield black humour with as much skill as Ray did.
Reading this bit about the deplorable waiting lines in an Emergency department in St. John’s, my outburst of laughter at the sauciness of the language is quickly followed by empathy for the man’s desperate situation, and an appreciation for how apt Ray’s description was:
“Buddy with the placards who flopped over in the hospital waiting room last week proved … some health care in Newfoundland is desperate. …”
Thankfully, that episode ended well that day.
“Chummy with the ticker trouble didn’t snuff it. He survived to tell the tale,” Ray wrote.
His grasp of the language and his deft mix of classical references with Newfoundland vernacular was one of his greatest gifts — his gift, and his to us.
Ray was many things — hilarious, self-deprecating, bitter at times, shy, sometimes frustrated with the way provincial politics and media coverage seemed to take one step forward and two steps back.
But above all, as a writer, he was a clear-eyed observer and an unflinching, indomitable messenger.
I lament when I hear people say we will never see or read his kind again.
Because the truth is, his legacy is greater than that.
He has inspired and will live on in the work of commentators for generations to come with his determination to speak the truth, his tendency to eschew sacred cows and his love of wordplay.
My sincere condolences to those who loved him.
We were lucky to have him in our midst — a sharp and shining, probing light, he left nothing to the shadows.
Pam Frampton is a columnist and The Telegram’s associate managing editor.
She can be reached by email