A few weeks ago, I made a rare visit to a one-time favourite tavern of mine called The Ship Inn, or Dirty Dick’s as it was initially called when I first began my daily visitations to a bar conveniently located next door to The Evening Telegram, its proximity causing many a reporter, especially me, to drool while vigorously tapping out the last story of the day, knowing multiple cold beers were beckoning from just across the alley.
Back then, however, in the ’70s, and early ’80s, when The Ship Inn became simply “The Ship,” it was much more than just a watering hole for Telegram reporters.
The Ship, in fact, was also considered by many as the unofficial headquarters for a generation of musicians, writers, actors and others of that creative ilk taking on the world and rejuvenating the magnificent culture of Newfoundland that had somehow lost its way after Confederation. And inherent in that cause was a goal to beat into oblivion the Canadian stereotype of the stunned “Newfie.”
This most recent trip I took to The Ship was not beer-soaked, an unusual but timely dose of common sense and a couple of flirtations with The Grim Reaper having convinced me some years ago that my alcohol-fuelled lifestyle was having dramatic and traumatic repercussions.
No, this was a sensible venture to the bar, an opportunity to see my nephew, Nicholas Coultas-Clark, display his prowess on the drums.
But I, and other family members, got an extra treat that night as we found ourselves mesmerized by the special talents of singer and songwriter Ian Foster. And I was taken by one song in particular.
I could go on and on about Foster’s immense skills as a writer and performer (and, of course, brag about the fact that Nick showed us once again why he seems to have entered the world banging a set of drum sticks on his mother’s tummy). Suffice to say that both young men are part of a generation who do not require greybeards like me to validate their contribution to Newfoundland music.
But what I’ll remember most from that couple of hours at The Ship was a song written and performed by Foster, a profound reaction to occasional incidents of maliciousness or stupidity, or both, that he has encountered while touring Canada.
On stage that night, he gave us a couple of examples: in Saint John, New Brunswick, a woman congratulated him on his beautiful music and then suddenly blurted: “I had expected a toothless Newfie singing ‘I’s the b’y’.” In Montreal, an obviously well-educated, articulate man nearly gushed as he told Ian how much he admired his work. But, in a quite serious tone, he added: “So you’re from Newfoundland, eh?” After Foster nodded, the man said: “Bet you couldn’t wait to get the hell out of there.”
And there have been other obnoxious confrontations as well.
Many of us have been subjected on occasion to the “newfie thing” while travelling on the Mainland over the years, and reacted in our own way. In my case, I usually responded with a nasty spiel, invariably sprinkled with expletives.
In Foster’s case, he took the high road and wrote a song called “A Message from the Island.” You’d almost have to hear Ian singing the song to appreciate its full impact. But the words alone deliver an educational jolt.
I’m gonna tell you a few things
You may find hard to believe
I grew up with running water
And access to TV.
And I’ve never fished from a fishing boat
Although I love the sea
Just a couple of things you should know about me.
I don’t play the fiddle
And I don’t drink everyday
These are all my original teeth
And I pay my own way
So don’t ask me for an Irish song
Because they’ve all been overplayed
It’s not the music I come from anyway.
The island’s in my blood
I’m its biggest fan
But it’s a private love
That so few understand
And I’m not what you expected
Since you don’t’ expect very much
I’m just her to put you and reality
Back in touch.
I’ve got a university education
I’ve probably read more than you
It’s funny you think we’re awkward
It’s such an awkward sort of view.
Or that we all just mess around
We were probably making fun of you
Just a couple more things I hate to tell you are true.
People ask me “where’s your accent?”
And I try to be polite
Even when they can’t pronounce Newfoundland right.
And on Canada day when you celebrate
We mourn those who died selflessly
At Beaumont Hamel, so we can all love in this land of the free.
We were all born orphans here
We were all born without love
So we learned how to love ourselves
We learned how to rise above.
Don’t take this as patriotism
Or the words of a bitter man
I just know who I am.
During a subsequent conversation with Ian, we both agreed the ignorance and repulsiveness about which he sings is reflected by a (thankfully) miniscule number of Canadians. Nevertheless, as I told him, these mindless caricatures of Newfoundlanders still exist. And they should never be ignored (nor, for that matter, should the patronizing routine of the “good little friendly Newf” with “no price tags on his doors” be ignored either).
The time for turning the other cheek is long gone.
It’s a lesson Ian Foster has certainly learned at a young age.
Bob Wakeham has spent more than 30 years as a
journalist in Newfoundland and Labrador. He can be reached by email at email@example.com.