For a Canadian author, being invited to attend the Writers at Woody Point event in August is the equivalent of winning the Nobel Prize. It has been running for 10 years now, and has attracted a galaxy of literary stars “from away,” like Michael Ondaatje, Richard Ford, Alexander McCall Smith, Linda Spalding, Elizabeth Hay and Will Ferguson, bolstered by major talents from Newfoundland such as Lisa Moore, Wayne Johnson, Michael Crummey, Michael Winter and many more.
It all started when Stephen Brunt, the well-known Toronto-based sportswriter, had the idea that outsiders would love to discover Woody Point, his idyllic summer home. The tiny community of about 700 lies half-way up the long west coast of Newfoundland, surrounded by Gros Morne National Park — a little like an east-coast Banff, without the fudge shops. The sort of sweeping views of fiords and mountains that you get in those clever ads from the Newfoundland Tourism folks lie all around the little town, and the open waters of the Gulf are just around the corner, as Jane and I found when we borrowed kayaks from our friends Peter and Robert early one morning.
Gros Morne, of course, is a World Heritage site. Its high, orange Tablelands (amazingly, derived from the ocean floor thrust upward) were what proved the revolutionary Continental Drift theories of Toronto’s Tuzo Wilson and Newfoundland’s own “Hank” Williams.
Two minor notes: Tuzo Wilson and I were once guests at a small dinner party given by Brenda and Robertson Davies; like most great scientists he had wide-ranging interests. Second, in the course of my five days at Woody Point I went on a guided hike at The Tablelands. Part of the attraction was a reading by the poet Don MacKay, a keen geologist, and also an outdoor performance by the energetic fiddler Kelly Russell; he amazed me by revealing that Hank Williams was a fine fiddler too.
A key moment in the history of the writers’ festival was when Stephen Brunt’s local crew (including his wife of undetermined ethnic heritage, Jeanie MacFarlane) persuaded the marvellous Shelagh Rogers to get involved. Now she is the voice of the Festival, introducing all of the main events at the grand old Heritage Theatre. She even conducts live, on-stage interviews for her CBC show, The Next Chapter. Her talk with Greg Malone, author of Don’t Tell The Newfoundlanders will make astonishing listening for anyone who, like me, believed that Newfoundland joined Canada gratefully, after an honest vote.
The writers’ events run morning, noon and night. My own show began at 11 at night, followed by some more music, by Pamela Morgan and Sandy Johnston. (Later, Shelagh announced Pamela as “Pamela Anderson,” which led to many jokes.) Often the first readings were at 9:30 in the morning, and the nature walks and other events through the day kept us hopping, and sometimes missing readings that clashed with our chosen event. Saturday morning started with a Church Hall fund-raising breakfast for the local firemen, and the Saturday and Sunday evenings ended with a big dance at the local Legion.
We were staying within earshot of all this, at a central B and B named “Aunt Jane’s”. How could we resist? Will Ferguson was there, too, and others came and went.
A key part of understanding the lure of Woody Point is realising that you are part of the community. People who elsewhere might be strangers come up to you on the street and chat. Fishermen and carpenters (I’ll try not to be too Biblical) reveal that they were at your show, and enjoyed it, but have a question about Brian Mulroney. Going for dinner produces comments and questions from the staff, and paying your bill involves a long conversation. Village life! That’s what I grew up with in Scotland. I loved every minute of it. And the organizers like Gary Noel made everything easy for us.
At the start of my show I told the audience that my book contains the line “I never met a Newfoundlander I didn’t like.” I hoped that none of them would take that as a challenge, and none did. So the record is still unblemished.
The usual unbelievable coincidences occurred. After my show a woman from the Cypress Hills district in Saskatchewan came up to tell me that when she was growing up she knew my cowboy author, R.D. Symons. She was even able to tell me what happened to his son, Gerry, ranching on another frontier in Colombia.
And when we had dinner with the multi-talented Des Walsh and his lady, Ruth, he told me that he had known Harold Horwood well, even attending the rebel school called Animal Farm that Harold established, in the teeth of fierce St. John’s police pressure. He could even do a fine imitation (like all schoolboys) of his teacher, Harold, throwing back his long-haired head.
A final Newfoundland story. At the Legion bar I met a fine man who had enjoyed my show. When he told me his name was Young, I got excited, telling him about my father’s mother in Scotland, Jessie Young. He cut short my speculation about our being related by telling me that family research had showed that his family were pirates … and had stolen the law-abiding name of Young!
I never met a Newfoundlander I didn’t like.