24 May 2011

A tourist in her own land

Lisa Moore writes fiction for a living.

For some inexplicable reason, someone thinks this qualifies her to write some special appreciations of  the world as it actually is, offered up as anything but fiction.

Like her 2005 documentary that compared Iceland and Newfoundland in Hard Rock and Water.  She based the piece on the simple – and simply preposterous – construction “Iceland = independent = prosperous/Newfoundland = not independent = not prosperous”. 

The whole idea was ludicrous well before events within three years of her documentary proved Moore’s thesis spectacularly wrong.  But that did not stop her from scaring up a few bucks to make the thing. Nor did it stop the Duckworth Street cognoscenti from flocking to see it and talk about its deep insights at the pubs and coffee shops they usually habituate.


Moore is back again six years later, assessing this thing she calls Newfoundland, in an article featured on the cover of the May 2011 issue of The Walrus.  You can also find it on line:  “Notes from Newfoundland”.

Write what you know, they say.  So not surprisingly, Moore starts with the fiction early on.  Like the second paragraph:  “Everywhere you go these days, people are talking about Danny Williams’ abrupt departure from the office of premier and what it means for the province.”

For maybe like a couple of weeks last fall, people talked about Danny. Outside the handful of fan clubbers who always thought Danny’s arse, Newfoundland’s soul and the best place for their lips were the same thing, people wondered why he ran off so suddenly.  Once they got beyond that bit of gossip, they had other things to worry about out.  Like Canadian Idol or Dancing with the Stars or hockey.

But what Williams’ departure meant for the province?

Puhleese. 

By the time the Old Man finally frigged off permanently from the political landscape more than a few people were relieved.  Political spec, such as it was, quickly turned not to deeply philosophical notions but to who would wind up running the show.  By the end of December, Williams was headed for the same abyss that swallows all former demigods and demagogues once called Premier.

One sentence of fiction is hardly enough, so Moore quickly adds another:
A certain kind of economic growth has followed the thriving oil industry, and the signing of an agreement for hydroelectric development of the Lower Churchill River, a drawn-out negotiation that ended with a profitable arrangement for Newfoundland, unlike with the much-lamented Upper Churchill, given away for a song by Joey Smallwood in the late 1960s.
An agreement not even unveiled in its draft form, let alone final form and already Moore has blessed it as perfection. Long, drawn-out negotiation?  18 months, much of it trying desperately to find how much to give Emera to make it sign on seems hardly protracted as these sorts of things go.  But then again odds are Moore had no idea when she wrote those words what negotiation about the Lower Churchill she meant.

Such matters are trifling.  Silly parsing, some might call it, that interferes with understanding the simple narrative.

Let us not forget Moore’s comparison to the “Upper Churchill.”  The term means she was referring not to the real Churchill Falls but the fictional account that forms the basis of the popular political myth to which all local political commentators genuflect the way the superstitiously religious types cross off the crows.

The oil industry growth is something Moore describes fairly well and accurately:
The oil boom has changed circumstances dramatically, bringing an unprecedented spike in property values. Expats in places like Fort McMurray, who found themselves priced out of the Alberta housing market five to ten years ago, are now buying retirement homes back in Newfoundland. Meanwhile, rent in downtown St. John’s has soared, making it difficult for single parents, students, and other low-income tenants to find adequate housing.
As you read Moore’s article you realise very quickly that she has no sense that the economic boom she describes is very much focused to a small portion of the province. That fits neatly, though, since Moore is offering a very narrow perspective.  She makes the fundamental mistake of assuming that what she sees in her limited circle is the whole. Beyond the overpass, the limit of Moore’s perception figuratively and literally, “the fog obliterates the stunted trees, the ponds, and the giant, lichen-mottled boulders of the barrens…” and just about anything else. And so Moore simply assumes that all the fog-bound are the same as those who surround her.

They are all Newfoundlanders, so therefore they must all be the same. Yes, and all trout do live in trees.
Moore quotes a few people, some immigrants and some ex-pats come back from away, on their impressions of the place these days.  But her view of anything else, anything out beyond the legendary limit of the townie imagination, seems to come solely from her husband, sociologist Steve Crocker. 

Her approach creates some unintentionally humorous results.

Moore criticises the tourism commercials developed during Williams’ tenure for their artificial portrayal of the province:  “It’s a branded Newfoundland and  Labrador, quaint and pleasantly out of sync” presumably with reality as Moore perceives it.

Moore then contrasts this with what she presents as a “revival” of mummering.

She quotes a local folklorist on the subject:
“Tradition is always in a state of evolution,” Jarvis said. “Intangible cultural heritage is constantly being reinvented in small communities, giving an old tradition like mummering new meaning and new life.”
But the mummers Moore describes aren’t in small communities.  They are part of an appropriation of a rural tradition by urbanites like Moore and her circle. The townies take stuff they read in books and use bits of this and fragments of that to replicate what they imagine mummering used to be. The imbue their creations with meaning, interpretation, and a backstory.

But it is not real.

The whole thing is invention.

It is the same phenomenon as we have seen in other parts of the world where a society moves from a predominantly rural basis to one that is more industrial, professional, and urban.  Local elites create a cultural Jurassic Park to live in.  The end result is not a dinosaur or even a dinosaur that has gone through the constant reinvention Jarvis mentioned.  The end result is something entirely fabricated in much the same way as people imagined that the bones of dinosaurs they found actually belonged to a species of flying lizards that breathed fire.

The people who used to go from house to house dressed up to hide their identities and engaging in a bit of fun at Christmas now head to Florida or gather around the wide-screen television.  The jannies no longer serve a purpose and so they are gone just as surely as thrummed mittens or dories. 

In the world of fog out beyond the overpass, the world Moores is entirely disconnected from, there is no resurgence of interest in mummering. Few people in very few communities scattered around the island have carried on the old ways and fewer still have taken it up.  They do not observe their culture as Moore, her husband, and their social circle do. They live it.  They do not fret over their identity.  That is something for the small community of pseudo-intellectuals in Sin Jawns that Moore relies on for her source material.  In the world where mummering once thrived, what mummering means has already been settled.

Ultimately, what Lisa Moore presents to Walrus readers is a classic townie caricature of what Newfoundland is.  She gives an early 21st century make-over to the old condescending fairy tale that “enjoyed a brief but fiery resurgence in the 1970s” and that now gets brushed off again in a new guise:
Newfoundlanders were born knowing how to build a boat, or fillet a fish with a few economical flicks of the wrist, dance the goat, play the fiddle, or produce a recitation.
Moores reduces the entire place, its people, and their cultures – has she not heard of Labrador at all – to a single word:  quaint.  She renders them as over-coloured and ultimately as sterile as the tourism ads she finds so off-putting. She reduces her imaginary characters to little more than cliché. She gives them a genocidal disaster – the cod moratorium  - and invests it with the power of apocalyptical comets to obliterate all cultural life worthy of the name.  

Her source for the stuff beyond the overpass is no more insightful.  Danny Williams and his use of Newfoundland nationalism supposedly counts for much.  Williams supposedly turned nationalism into what Crocker refers to as mainstream political discourse.  But unlike the 1980s when Brian Peckford relied on nationalist rhetoric, Williams supposedly “measured progress in financial terms”.  That parallels the difference between Williams and Peckford although Moore doesn't really explain what that is.  For some equally inexplicable reason, Crocker thinks that Peckford’s use of nationalism was “oppositional” while Williams’ was not.  What those terms mean is anyone’s guess but they certainly sound impressive.

Moore and Crocker are right in that Williams was never a man of the ordinary people, despite the mythology created around him.  What Moore and Crocker miss, though, is something far more substantial. 

Williams’ nationalism is very much the xenophobic, angry nationalism that appealed strongly to the people who see the land beyond the overpass as fog-shrouded and its people as quaint.  His diatribes against Quebec and Quebeckers toward the end of his tenure were just another version of the anti-Canadian, anti-Confederate rhetoric that he started his political career with or the anti-corporation language he used on Abitibi or the oil companies.

Contrast the sort of polemic that typified Danny Williams’ nationalism with the story of Lanier Phillips, the African-American sailor rescued along with his shipmates when their small convoy foundered on the Burin peninsula in the early years of the Second World War.

Phillips’ story is already a key feature of local nationalist lore. Predictably, Moore trots it outs as evidence of what this place and its people are all about: a welcoming nature, easygoing and open to outsiders. Arguably it is, and in that one section Moore hits on one enduring characteristic of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians.  She also hits on another characteristic -  the adventurous, practical sense of getting on with things  - typified by her researcher and her baker.

But that is purely by accident.  

No one who genuinely appreciates this place and its people could conflate the world of fog – where Phillips literally came ashore – with the land of fear and insecurity of Williams’ era nationalism. The people who head out into the world, head high, as they have done for centuries and who meet all comers with confidence are not the same ones who see conspiracy and perfidy in every foreign accent.  The people who believe that “we are a dying race” are not the people who looked on a black man and saw nothing but a human being in distress.

No one could confuse the imagined world Moore creates with the place in which Newfoundlanders and Labradorians actually live.  Anyone who reads Lisa Moore’s article seeking insight into the whole of this province will be sorely disappointed. 

But if they want to understand one small bit of it, then there can be no better source than to read the accidental insights of a tourist in her own land.

- srbp -