Tribute - Ray Guy: marvellous maverick

Published on May 18, 2013

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.