John W. Graham

My first visit to Newfoundland was dramatic. It was late May 1953 and our frigate, HMCS La Hulloise, stuffed with seasick officer cadets, sailed through the Narrows into St. John’s harbor. The Narrows are rightly named. 61 meters across and flanked by limestone cliffs. The entrance is tricky in fog, and depending on the season, fog is a regular feature.

Aerial View of Downtown St. Johns.1

Aerial View of St. John's

Once snug in the harbour, the first task was an inspection of the ship’s condensers –a system for extracting fresh water from salt water. La Hulloise was a WWII warship and some of its parts were brittle. The explosion of depth charges, rolled off the stern during an anti- submarine exercise, damaged several condensers, filleted unsuspecting fish, and confronted the captain with a dilemma: turn back to Halifax for repairs or carry on to England where the ship was to be part of the Canadian naval participation in Queen Elizabeth’s ‘Review of the Fleet’ following her coronation. Besides La Hulloise, the Canadian squadron comprised the aircraft carrier, HMCS Magnificent, two cruisers - Quebec and Ontario, Sioux, a Tribal Class destroyer, and d’Iberville, an ice breaker. (Canada had a serious navy in those days.) For any sailor with a sense of naval history this was a once in a lifetime event. Converging at Spithead, off Portsmouth, were the navies of the world - over 300 ships including one battleship, at least 15 submarines, a frigate from Thailand, a destroyer from Brazil, a cruiser from the Soviet Union and about thirty other foreign warships. Although option 2 would mean draconian rationing of fresh water, including that usually available for hygienic needs, the Captain’s choice was a foregone conclusion. On June 12, La Hulloise took station for Her Majesty’s review enveloped (as I recall) in a pungent green mist.

My next visit to St. John’s was this past September and was completed without hygienic incident. The occasion was a reunion celebrating the 75th anniversary of the founding of the UNTD, ‘University Naval Training Divisions’, the same RCN Reserve force that had placed me on board La Hulloise 65 years earlier – and nicknamed “the Untidies”.

The reunion was a great success. Beautifully organized and well lubricated, it was an opportunity for my wife, Judy, and I who didn’t know St. John’, to experience one of our country’s best located and most fascinating cities. Built around the harbour the old town climbs steeply up the flank of Signal Hill. Fortified in the mid 1600s against the French and pirates, it was the site of the reception in 1901 of the first transatlantic wireless transmission by Guglielmo Marconi.

For much of its long history, the residential area comprised small workman’s houses - drab grey as their wooden exteriors weathered. Despite the nightly sounds of revelry from the bars and seamen’s brothels of Water Street , and especially wreathed in fog, it must have been a cheerless sight. But then two things happened: much of the town, especially the hillside rows of wooden houses, burned in the terrible fire of 1892, the houses were rebuilt and eventually some bright sods on the city council, joined with equally bright residents, decided that a little paint would change everything. The result is the Jelly Bean Rows of houses which have lifted the appearance and mood of St. John’s. As now ordained by City regulations, no house in the designated areas can have the same colour as its neighbour on either side. They are amazingly cheery and the fashion has been copied in other parts of the island,

Water Street too has changed for the better. Much of the old architecture is preserved, but inside are restaurants, bars, boutiques, a mussels emporium, an oyster bar and other distractions which compete favourably in ambience and pizzazz with Queen St. W in Toronto or Granville Island in Vancouver.

Another highly beneficent influence has been home pride. From previous visits to the island’s North and East, my wife and I remember this pride of ownership. Even the most modest homes seemed to have been freshly painted – or clad with untarnished vnyll. Lawns were clear of debris and trimmed. That sense of home pride was very much alive in St. John’s – and so was a wry appreciation of the ridiculous, this and a sense of humour inherited from their forefathers who had an unusual gift for place names. A few samples will suffice: Blow Me Down, Come by Chance, Chimney Tickle, Cupids, Dildo, Heart’s Desire, Naked Man and Witless Bay. We found that humour bubbles to the surface easily in Newfoundlanders.

Seated with a group at a reunion lunch, we were told that our companions were all Newfoundlanders. I remarked in that case we would need an interpreter. Some (polite) laughter, but it was followed by an explanation that radio and TV had flattened out the traditional dialect. This was corrected to ‘dialects’ with the further explanation that in their grandparents day isolation in a fishing community meant that the dialect in one village might be almost unintelligible to villagers twenty kms away. In isolated fishing communities, virtually deprived of land communication, the mix of vocabulary and accents from Ireland, Wales, Cornwall, Devon, Somerset, Brittany, and France imparted an unusual and sometimes incomprehensible variety and richness to the spoken word. My cousin in Corner Brook has a Newfoundland Dictionary. Compiled by Story, Kirwin and Widdowson in 1982, it has 625 pages.

Following the reunion our plan was to travel to Corner Brook to visit the cousin and his wife. When we told Eileen, the delightful landlady of our B&B, that we going by bus to Corner Brook, she broke into laughter – telling us in effect that we were totally mad, but it might be all right “as long as you don’t mind sharing with a moose.”
The trip by bus took 10 hours with 15 stops. In fact, the scenery was lovely (most of it). Our fellow passengers were friendly and did not include a moose. We did see a road sign with a silhouette of the beast. It said “Watch for Moose” and had an authentic bullet hole through the head. The day closed with local Iceberg beer, brewed with glacial water over 25,000 years old (that’s what the label says.) The beer is very good –despite or because of its primordial plankton.