Memoir as a genre is similar to but divergent from autobiography: stories from a life, as opposed to the story of a life is one way to differentiate them. Memoirs are very popular these days — among many other examples Cheryl Strayed’s “Wild” and Jeannette Walls’ “The Glass Castle” are both fantastic reads, and have been adapted for film — but they’re not a recent phenomenon. I had presumed they emerged with the late 17th-century dawning from the Age of Enlightenment, but they date back to ancient Greece and Rome. The late 20th century’s contribution to the field was a jump in memoirs from “ordinary” people, as opposed to a lauded Roman general or the 1st Earl of Shaftesbury or what have you.
Speaking as an (occasional) obituary writer, this is a promising and appropriate trend. Few people are “ordinary,” if by that you mean “boring” and not just “not famous,” and the major human adventures are the ones that happen to us all. Most people are really interested in their own family history but one ancestor’s words can also speak to a much broader audience. Consider “The Abbie Table,” which actor Andy Jones and a bunch of visual artists, including Gerald Squires, inscribed with the writing of Abbie Ellis Whiffen, about “Growing Up, In the Cove.” It’s a cultural artifact, educational resource, and suite of engaging vignettes three planks wide. (“The Abbie Table” has been installed at various cultural sites and is available for display in schools.)
Dedicated to his grandchildren, Adrian Payne’s “Life on the Great Northern Peninsula” is a combination of memory – chapters include “Growing Up Near My Grandparents” — and his personal philosophy and thought — “Procrastination is one of the dirtiest words in the English language. I just don’t like it ... Don’t get trapped into putting off until tomorrow what you can do today. People will pick up on that very quickly.”
He’s also forthright about his politics: “After the Second World War, when the British had no further use for Newfoundland, the British Government scammed and conspired with Canada behind our backs for years to keep Newfoundland from joining America.” His take on the UI/EI system is also individual and suggestive.
It begins in the 1940s (although dips back further for certain family lore) and its environs include Cow Head, Hawke’s Bay and sites along the Long Range Mountains. There are vivid recountings: Payne and his brother Harold killing a gull for Sunday dinner, to maternal pride; tuning into The Woodland Echoes Friday night broadcasts from CBC in Corner Book; underscoring the everyday hazards of life at sea with the misadventure on the “Annie Mae.”
Payne also details his various work including hunting, logging, and lobster fishing, solo: “My father knit all my lobster heads, which was an enormous help to me. I built seventy-five lobster traps, and I picked up a few old traps that had been driven ashore by last year’s storms ... Most established fishermen had a shareman who earned twenty-five per cent of the gross income. But with all the expense I had, that twenty-five per cent would be needed to pay my bills, so I opted to fish alone. I wasn’t going to get an experienced fisherman anyway, because they all had their own boats and gear. I would have to learn the hard way.”
Which doesn’t daunt him. From his early boyhood, Payne was always at labour and learning new skills. That’s the way he likes it. “Much of the appeal of rural Newfoundland lay in the freedom of being your own boss ... You never got bored.”
Smokeroom on The Kyle
written by Ted Russell, illustrated by Tara Fleming
$14.95 18 pages
This tale, one of Ted Russell’s best known, which is saying something, originated on CBC radio: “The Chronicles of Uncle Mose” was a regular feature on the (then) “Fishermen’s Broadcast.” (This is where Jones’ wonderful Uncle Val also began, “The Broadcast” proving itself a seminal radio program in more ways than one —and Jones a difficult artist to avoid referencing in this column, apparently.)
Tall are the tales that fishermen tell when summer’s work is done
Of fish they’ve caught and birds they’ve shot, and crazy risks they’ve run.
But never did fishermen tell a tale so tall by half a mile as Grampa Walcott told one night in the smokeroom on the Kyle.
The artwork by Tara Fleming is light-hearted, attractive, a descriptive interplay with the lively folksy prose:
Me, I was just a bedlamer, a fishin’ with me dad,
And prospects for the summer were lookin’ awful bad.
The caplin scull was over, it hadn’t been too bright,
And here was August come and gone, and not a squid in sight.
A short glossary of terms is included at the end.
Joan Sullivan is editor of Newfoundland Quarterly magazine. She reviews both fiction and non-fiction for The Telegram. Her column returns