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St. John's should put its spirit in a bottle

29 Sep 2011 by Guest Blogger in Culture and Entertainment
Region: Avalon

By Rod Allen
Times & Transcript
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We took a short trip with friends to Newfoundland this week and had the sort of memorable time that everyone talks about whenever they return to Moncton from a visit to St. John's, a city like no other in Canada.

Suffice to say we (well, at least the hardiest among our small party) wrapped it up with a night of sober consideration and serious discourse at O'Reilly's Pub on a Saturday night.

Gracing O'Reilly's stage that night were the Masterless Men, far and away a more soulful and boisterous Irish band than any you'll see in all the Maritimes even though the three provinces among them have produced some very good ones over the years. As an aside, I feel obliged to say the Masterless Men, while much caressed by the St. John's cognoscenti, are not considered by the natives necessarily to be the paragons of the genre; there are literally dozens of very fine Irish bands in the province.

In fact trolling the streets of St. John's for Irish music is something akin to walking the streets of Paris and finding some neglected little statue down some forgotten cul-de-sac; typically finer than any piece of public art that any city in Atlantic Canada, or the entire country for that matter, has ever produced.

Now as everyone knows, Saturday night is the craziest night of the week to be out on George Street.

Seriously, with the students just back to Memorial University (student population approaching 20,000, the largest university in Atlantic Canada), Saturday night on George makes Halloween night on Halifax's Spring Garden Road look like the annual Strawberry Tea at Thomas Williams House which, as everyone knows, is the prime event of Moncton's social season.

Now don't get me wrong, I'm certainly not wasting this space today to put down my beloved home town or even rival Halifax.

It's just worth noting that there is something special, intangible, nearly impossible to define about St. John's and in fact the entire Republic of Newfoundland (please consider the name apolitical in the context of this column, intended as an observation of Newfoundland as a separate entity from the official and in my opinion rather unwieldy-sounding Province of Newfoundland-and-Labrador).

Perhaps that oddness has something to do with living life large.

Indeed, with a metropolitan-area population of just 190,000 souls, St. John's just seems to express itself larger and louder than Halifax with its metro population exceeding 400,000.

Meanwhile, Metro Moncton (population 130,000) seems somehow to have adopted a little part of the St. John's model with its ability to put on big entertainment events and generally 'punch above its weight class' as the mayor likes to say. Yet there is something more to be learned from that city. More Monctonians should visit St. John's, soak up some of that Newfoundland soul, bottle it and bring it home.

Although it's quite possible the city is in fact defined by its country; maybe 'living life large' has a lot to do with being in a place that is 'larger than life.'

One of our travelling companions was born and raised in St. John's and like many a 'Townie' she has roots in the coves and capes and lonely islands that made up a much greater portion of the province's population before the fishing went all to hell.

Her family maintains the old homestead as a family cottage in a place called Long Beach, just a couple of miles from the Cape Race Light, which we visited on the final day of our trip.

The lighthouse is an exclamation mark on a desolate point of land where the visitor stands and looks out onto the open North Atlantic; next stop Ireland.

Behind you is a flat stretch of creek-cut bog stretching as far as the eye can see; a vast terrestrial ocean of boggy vegetation rising no more than a foot off the ground, for countless miles, interrupted only occasionally by little clumps of juniper-like evergreen which from the look of them are in fact strange, salt-stunted stands of spruce.

The entire vista is like Cape Jourimain writ large; much the same vegetation, the same rugged terrain, but made so vast here that it's like another land entirely, not of this planet at all.

The lighthouse makes that same statement. It is enormous compared to Jourimain's - even the English-made Fresnel lens is just a 10-times-larger version of the gorgeous one stolen from Jourimain's light and shipped to Borden when the bridge was being built.

And the Cape Race Light even beats Jourimain for sadness; there is a huge crack running up the entire length of its concrete flank, the lens is partly shrouded in cheap-looking blue plastic tarp, a warning sign advises the visitor to stay well clear of the crumbling sides.

Cape Race is famous of course, the site (despite having saved many others from a similar fate) of many a shipwreck and part of the tragic story about poorly telegraphed iceberg warnings that led to the destruction of the Titanic. Cape Race was the first land-based site to receive the distress call.

Any Monctonian, New Brunswicker or Maritimer who wants to develop a larger view of our home might want to consider a visit.