A miscellany

Meanderings on propaganda, Greenland, and war remains

Published on May 5, 2014
The 220-foot Kyle, now the subject of some concern as it reaches an apparently critical stage of deterioration in Harbour Grace. The vessel is shown in this undated postcard (possibly the early 1950s) at Carbonear. Passengers, lumber, kegs, and bales of hay are to be seen on the wharf. The vessel came out from The Old Country in 1913. It should perhaps have been buried at sea last year, on the occasion of its cententary. — From as postcard courtesy of Gary Grant

An old American flag-waving film was used as a filler on Turner Classic Movies during the Easter weekend. The film, made during the Second World War not only shows men and women in uniform marching behind an assortment of wind-flapping banners, saluting and smiling, but it also does a fast rewind of American history. I was especially interested in the part where highly decorated aboriginals peered out from behind trees as a party of Vikings came ashore in a furtive and threatening manner. We learned from the narrative that these new visitors had dubbed America “Vinland.” Maybe. U.S. history, apparently, was a matter of dismissing all challenges, this one included. There was no suggestion of doubt in the wartime propaganda film. But in this historic event they were to lose out. No one paid any attention to us here in Newfoundland and Labrador when we said that some of our berries could be described as grapes — especially if what the Norse visitors found was the squash berry (Viburnum edule). But we found something better than berries. We found conclusive evidence on our island that the Norse had actually been here. We are the only place in the New World (so far) where the wandering Norse left a calling card.

A little acknowledgment

Last summer’s edition of Lapham’s Quarterly (editor, Lewis Lapham, b.1935) chose The Sea as its theme. Each of the quarterly’s issues is dedicated to a single subject that is then explored in any number of directions. Each issue runs to just over 220 pages. One extract in The Sea is credited to “The Saga of the Greenlanders.” In it they are leaving wherever it was in the New World they had over-wintered: “When spring came, they made the ship ready and set sail. Leif named the land for its natural features and called it Vinland. They headed out to sea and had favourable winds, until they came in sight of Greenland and the mountains under its glaciers.” In the credit at the end, Lapham notes, “it is believed that the woodland area where they made landfall was somewhere in eastern or northeastern Canada; there is archaeological evidence of settlements from around 1000 in present-day Newfoundland.” That woodland area had been named Markland. As the passage out from Vinland is described, it would seem to be directly northwest to Greenland. If they had come out from what is now New England (“New Vinland?”) and proceeded north-westerly, the trip would have been much, much longer than it sounds. But then, in this, few arguments are watertight.


It doesn’t help the hunt

When swimmer Lynne Cox entered the (usually) turbulent water of the Bering Strait in the summer of 1987 and swam from North America (Alaska) to the Asian/European continent (Russia), she covered something like 5.5 miles. This was not because of the actual distance, but because currents imposed a convoluted course upon her. She noted during the event that seals would occasionally pop up and gaze quizzically at her. Seals, if I may judge from photographs, can do that. They have that cute puppy-like face. This, sad to say, works against us when we try to argue for a hunt. View Cox today, via Google.


A war, graphically

If we need to offset the chance that recruitment might glorify war and gloss over its horrors, there’s a book that could be called up.

In 2009 DK Publishers (Dorling Kindersley Ltd.) issued an exceptionally good edition of its work, “World War I.” The first North American edition of this work was marketed six years previously. The most recent version is a 335-page, soft-cover, large (8.5 x 10-in.) format and it is profusely illustrated. If you want to learn about the 1914-18 war, I believe that you would have to read several books to do better than you would with this one. Although it was published five years ago, my copy was bought at Costco Christmas past. Last time I checked it was still available on Amazon — you’ll need to put in the author’s name, H.P. Willmott, and/or DK — as there are many books on the First World War.

The reality of war is defined (in my view, at least) by one picture in particular. It is a photograph captioned, “Lying as he fell.” It shows the remains of a German soldier, killed in the British 1916 assault on Beaumont Hamel which occurred about five months after the horrendous encounter of our soldiers there. As the caption says, the remains are in fact, lying exactly as he died — legs up, one arm across his neck as if he was reaching to shield his face. I do not know how long after death the soldier was photographed. But in the picture he is a skeleton in a uniform.

And this wording is included: “Trench rats grew fat on a diet of human flesh.”


 We are mentioned, too

A section at the back of the above book, called In Memoriam, lists on-site memorials to the battles of the First World War, and monuments and memorials elsewhere. Ours between Duckworth and Water Streets is listed. The monument’s statues are described and the following phrase is included — “opened on July 1, 1924 by none other than Field Marshal Douglas Haig” … I think I detect in that “none other” the fact that some would consider it ironic that one who contributed perhaps as much as the Germans to our death toll should open a site in remembrance.

Painting in Greenland

Rockwell Kent, of Brigus and spy fame, embarked upon a sailing adventure at one time aboard a 33-foot vessel with two companions. Greenland was their destination, from the Hudson River, via Nova Scotia and Labrador. They lost the boat in a Greenland fiord. Dragging its anchor, its deep keel became wedged in rocks and then, with wave action, it performed like the hammer of Thor, except it was wood upon granite. Bert Riggs, in a March 2001 column for this paper, noted that Kent (1882-1971) is considered one of the most accomplished American painters of the first half of the 20th century. Here is a clipping from Kent’s book (“N by E”) about that voyage. He is at Greenland, spending solitary time in the frigid wilderness with his painting gear always at hand:

“One day as I sat at work I heard a gunshot and looking up saw two kayaks and a umiak (or woman’s boat) filled with people approaching my camp from the direction of the mouth of the fiord. A few minutes brought them close to shore where I had gone to greet them. I invited them all up to the tent, and tentwards, after shaking hands all around, we went. It was a rainy afternoon so we all gathered under the canvas; and the guests — three men, four women and several children — squatted about expectantly while the kettle came to a boil. In little time we were all drinking hot coffee with lots of sugar in it and eating rye bread spread extremely thick with butter. There was plenty of laughter, and in that I joined, but of the conversation I could understand no word.”