Wayne Johnston: No foreign novelist is more relevant to Scotland

Newfoundland. No matter how hard I try, I can’t pronounce it the way the locals do, the way Wayne Johnston does, with the accent on the “land” not the “new” or the “found”.
Wayne Johnston. Picture: ContributedWayne Johnston. Picture: Contributed
Wayne Johnston. Picture: Contributed

Oddly, for a faraway place of which I knew nothing before I started reading his books, it matters. Bear with me and I’ll try to explain why. Who knows – I might even be able to make the case why I think he is the most relevant foreign novelist for Scottish readers right now.

For me, it all began with the first chapter in Johnston’s memoir, Baltimore’s Mansion, where he writes about his grandfather watching an iceberg hundreds of feet high and shaped like the Virgin Mary, drifting down past Newfoundland’s capital, St John’s. This happened in 1905, when his grandfather was 12. They called it the Virgin Berg, and as it drifted past the port, most of its fishing boats came out. The fishermen could see all the details: Mary’s face, her hands, her cowl, the folds in her robe, all godly white and sculpted by wind and ice.

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This all happened on the feast of St John the Baptist, the saint after whom the city was named. If you were Catholic, like Wayne Johnston’s grandfather, here was monumental proof that God was on your side, this ice statue bigger than the city’s cathedral. Close up, the fishermen saw torrents of meltwater flowing down from the Virgin’s face and shoulders, and collected it in barrels. The Johnstons house was blessed with some of it.

Look at the map, at the land the Virgin Berg floated past. The easternmost part of Newfoundland, where the Johnstons lived – the easternmost part of North America itself – is called the Avalon Peninsula. As a child, Wayne Johnston read in Morte d’Arthur that Avalon was an island paradise in the western seas where the heroes went when they died. When he was young, every time his family approached the narrow strip of land that connected it to the larger island, it always grew foggy. They never crossed over.

“The Isthmus of Avalon. The isthmus. It was the edge of the known world and looked it. The word itself evoked the place. Or the place had inspired the word. Like the word, the isthmus seemed to have been fashioned out of mist, a sibilant, lisping mist, an “I” with “mist on either side.”

At this stage, we’re only six pages into the book. Already, we know that we’re in the hands of a more than competent writer, and we might well be intrigued by the place he is writing about. Certainly there’s an otherness about it – I’ve never even seen an iceberg, let alone one shaped like the Virgin Mary – and yet it too is an English-speaking island in the North Atlantic where, until 1980, the Union Jack still flew as the provincial flag. There’s something else too: because this memoir is centred on his father and grandfather as much as on himself, it has a compellingly elegiac feel to it rather than the “look at me” insistence of most autobiographies. The most important thing that happens in the book has already happened. In 1948, seven years before Wayne Johnston was born, Newfoundland voted against independence in a referendum. Remind you of anything?

The Johnstons had always been against the union with Canada. Grandfather Charlie, a blacksmith, wouldn’t even have the name of Joey Smallwood, the politician who pushed it through by only the narrowest of margins, mentioned in his house. Wayne’s father, Arthur, made a point of flying the Pink, White and Green – Newfoundland’s unofficial flag – outside their house, decades after independence was lost. Wayne himself has the flag tattooed on his upper right arm. Pink for the rose of England, white for the Saltire’s cross, green for Ireland. Underneath, just one word: Clio, for the Greek goddess of history.

When he was 11, Wayne’s father took him on the long railway journey across the island. He wanted to show him the world beyond the isthmus of Avalon, the island’s central core, where no man had ever settled, or ever would, where trains could sometimes disappear in snowdrifts for days on end. There, on that 24-hour journey from St John’s to Port aux Basques, he showed his son the untamed vastness of the nation that had never been, the raging beauty of a country whose independence was, he believed, stolen from beneath their feet.

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It’s this sense of loss – or if not always loss, at least wondering what might have been – that powers the best of Johnston’s fiction just as surely as the train taking Wayne and his father across to Port aux Basques. On that journey, that elegiac note deepens still further: a month after they made it, the railway would be no more, yet another increasingly distant marker of an old, lost land. The earliest of those markers is what gives the memoir – one of the finest I’ve read – its title: Baltimore’s Mansion, built in the 1620s by English colonists, was abandoned after Lord Baltimore spent a winter there in 1628-9. “From the middest [middle] of October, to the middest of May there is a sadd face of wynter upon all this land,” he wrote. It was “ so intolerable cold as it is hardly to be endured … my howse [house] hath beene an hospital all this wynter.”

And yet, and yet… For all the hardships of Newfoundland life – or, perhaps, because of them, because so much has been invested in wrenching a living out of such a harshly beautiful land and its dangerous surrounding seas – the island leaves its mark deep in the hearts of those who live there, and even those who leave. Here is a land which, as Johnston writes, has “a beauty so elusive, so tantalisingly suggestive of something you could not quite put into words that it would drive you mad and, however much you loved it, make you want to get away from it and recall it from some city and content yourself with knowing it was there”.

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That quote is from The Colony of Unrequited Dreams, the novel Johnstone wrote in 1998. Before then, he had written four relatively small-scale novels, all set in Newfoundland, starting with The Story of Bobby O’Malley (1986). They had been successful, well reviewed, won him awards, and one of them – The Divine Ryans (1989) – was even made into a film starting Pete Postlethwaite. He was, the Canadian critics agreed, a young writer to watch, but few outside the country had heard of him.

That changed with Colony. “I had moved to Toronto,” he tells me, “and I was wondering whether it had been a mistake, whether I should write about Toronto now or what my next book should be about given that I had already left Newfoundland and written about my family. Presumptuous as it sounds, I decided with this next book I would set out to write the Great Newfoundland Novel – to write a book that would contain the whole of Newfoundland history, all the competing myths about the place, everything about Newfoundlanders’ view of themselves.”

He succeeded spectacularly. As Calvin Trilling wrote in the Globe and Mail, “It might be the great American novel – except that it’s set in Newfoundland”. Epic, involving, brilliantly imagined, it brings the whole island and its history to life in a way that nothing had ever done before.

Originally, Johnston says, he’d toyed with writing the story as non-fiction, aiming to write a book that would do for Newfoundland what Robert Hughes’s The Fatal Shore had done for Australia. But the papers were in such a mess at the British Museum and so much had been lost to fire at home that he realised it simply couldn’t be done. Still, in those 19th-century histories of Newfoundland he’d started reading, he’d noticed how their authors would forever wonder about what kind of place the country would be in the future. That in turn made him think back to his father. Newfoundland nationalism, Arthur Johnston always told his son, was “the last, just cause”. Time to start writing it into life.

“I started as it were auditioning figures from Newfoundland history. And the name that kept coming up again and again was Joey Smallwood. There was simply no-one else who had such an influence on the place.”

Joey Smallwood (1900-1991) is, in Scottish terms, the polar opposite of Alex Salmond. Instead of leading his North Atlantic country to independence from London rule, he led it into union with Canada in two referendums in 1948. After that, he became Newfoundland’s premier until – get this – 1972: twice as long as Mrs Thatcher was in power in Britain.

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To make the novel work, Johnston had get inside the mind of this politician whom his whole family hated so passionately. Smallwood, the poor, desperately thin, socialist agitator in St John’s and then New York. Smallwood, the union activist who walked the 600-mile length of the island’s railways to sign up the maintenance workers against a threatened pay cut. Smallwood, the fishermen’s union organiser, journalist and politician, who would sail into the tiniest, most isolated hamlets on the “old lost land”, for subscriptions, stories or votes. Although these days we in Scotland might think of Newfoundland as automatically Canadian, when Smallwood began his campaign – as, come to that, when Salmond began his – the odds were firmly against him. “The referendum was only won by the Canadian side by just 7,000 votes, with most people voting for pragmatic reasons. If it hadn’t been for economic considerations, I reckon 80-90 per cent of Newfoundlanders would have preferred to remain independent.

“For years, my father would hold forth about what was lost when we joined Canada in 1949,” says Johnston. “People didn’t talk about it for a long time. At school, even in the 1960s, we didn’t know we were Canadians. It was a kind of secret. It took a while – and is still taking a while – for Newfoundlanders to feel comfortable about being grafted onto the Canadian tree.”

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These days, Johnston describes himself as a Newfoundland patriot but not a separatist. He got the tattoo of the flag of the country that never was, he says, in memory of his father’s ideals more than his own. “Independence now is a subcurrent,” he says. “There aren’t any political candidates calling for it, but you hear talk like that all the time. If you drive through St John’s today, you’ll see the Pink, White and Green flying in quite a few places. It’s there as a token gesture of protest.”

Culturally, would Newfoundland have been different if Smallwood had been defeated in 1948? “I think independence would have brought about a sense of self-confidence much sooner. For a long while, there was a sense that we needed outside approval for how we saw ourselves and wrote about ourselves.” Against that, the comparison Newfoundlanders often make is with Iceland: yes, protecting their own fisheries might appeal, but being part of Canada meant they were spared Iceland’s economic collapse. Ironically, Johnston notes, the oil and gas boom fuelling Newfoundland’s current economic prosperity seems to be having the effect of making its writers turn back to write about the island’s impoverished past.

It would be wrong to look at Johnston’s novels entirely through a Scottish perspective, fascinated though we might be by the notion of an independence debate in a country that often describes itself as England’s oldest colony overseas. There’s far more to them than that, and in any case the link with the US is at least as important in both Johnston’s latest novel, A World Elsewhere and his superlative 2003 novel, The Navigator of New York.

Yet even here, we find the same kind of questions being dealt with as those that gnaw away at Scottish cultural identity. In Lanark Alasdair Gray famously had Thaw point out that nobody appreciated the magnificence of Glasgow because, unlike Florence, Paris, London and New York, it wasn’t the subject of paintings, novels, history books and films. “Imaginatively Glasgow exists as a music-hall song and a few bad novels,” he points out. “That’s all we’ve given to the world outside. It’s all we’ve given to ourselves.”

Compare that with young Devlin Stead in The Navigator of New York looking out at the Atlantic from Signal Hill above St John’s. “They don’t know we’re here,” his aunt tells him. “We know we’re here. We know all about them. But they don’t know we’re here …” Who? he asks. “People elsewhere, she said; the people we know about from reading books and magazines; the people on whose life we modelled ours, like whom we ate and dressed, like whose houses our own were furnished and whose pastimes we pursued.”

In Johnston’s fiction, that feeling of living in an overlooked culture is pervasive. In The Colony of Unrequited Dreams, the young Joey Smallwood is taught how to draw a perfect map of England. His teachers mock Newfoundland as “the Elba of the North Atlantic”. Where, he is asked, is the Newfoundland Keats. Where is its Tennyson or its Shelley?

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Faced with such scorn, Johnston’s Joey Smallwood decides he will write a book that will do for Newfoundland what War and Peace has done for Russia. He will be the country’s prime minister and it will be “one of the great small nations of the earth” (and yes, how many times have you heard Scotland described like that too?). He’ll write a two-volume history of the island. He will celebrate it in radio broadcasts where he will become known as “the Barrelman” (nothing to do with his size: the barrelman is another term for a ship’s lookout). He will campaign for the biggest project he can think of for Newfoundland: union with Canada.

Already, I hope, you can see what Johnston is doing here. The Colony of Unrequited Dreams will be that book that creates the Newfoundland of the imagination, where even those of us who have never seen icebergs floating past St Johns can travel to in our minds and feel at home in. It will be, as he originally planned when thinking about Hughes’s The Fatal Shore, shot through with history – the twist being that the history will be not only the fictionalised biography of Smallwood but two other kinds too: excepts from a real history of the island and a wonderfully sardonic and fictional history composed by Smallwood’s wonderful, sardonic and completely fictional unrequited lifetime love, Sheilagh Fielding.

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Ah, Fielding. She is a superb character, a sassy cross between Katherine Hepburn and Dorothy Parker, always back-answering Smallwood even though she is just as obsessed by him as he is by her. Yet that obsession always takes second place to her independence, never flowering into romance because she just won’t let it. In real life, she would be too hot to handle, with her addictions, her steely satirical journalism, her larger-than-life character, her pin-sharp put-downs: on the page, she is absolutely irresistible.

She is also totally made up. “I wrote one version of Colony of Unrequited Dreams that didn’t have Fielding in it,” says Johnston. “I didn’t like it. Because Smallwood was larger than life, the book was like a ship that was listing to one side. I wondered who else I could use, I toyed with the idea of using a political opponent, but that didn’t interest me. I realised it had to be an outsider with even fewer chances of getting ahead than Smallwood – so she had to be a woman. Her willingness to send up Newfoundland in a parodic way while at the same time carrying a brightly burning torch for the place makes her intriguing.”

So when Smallwood talks about Newfoundland as one of the great small nations of the world, Fielding picks up on his use of the phrase and picks it apart. Here’s Johnston’s Smallwood musing about that:

“She quoted me as having said that the Telegram was one of the great small papers of the world. She reported, accurately, that I had pledged to make the newly established Memorial University one of the great small universities of the world. She said I said that the Long Range Mountains were among the great small mountains in the world, that the Churchill Falls was among the great small wonders of the world, and that the Humber River was among the great small rivers of the world.

“She wrote: ‘In one of the great small hours of the morning, it occurred to me that our forests were among the great small woods in the world as is our premier one of the great Smallwoods in the world, not to mention one of the great small Smallwoods in the world, for which we ought to reward him with one of the great small dogs in the world, a Pekingese perhaps.’”

That sparkling rill of wordplay is another constant in Johnston’s work. Maybe it’s not as important as those big themes of identity I mentioned earlier. Maybe it’s not as arresting as his immense, twisting, Dickensian plots that I haven’t even been able to do justice to (just go and read The Navigator of New York and find out for yourself). Maybe it’s not as involving as his wonderful way of writing from within character. To find all those ingredients together at the same time, though, is to realise one is reading a truly great writer, the secular equivalent to watching the Virgin Berg float by.

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He is speaking at the Ullapool Book festival tomorrow. I hope he feels as much at home in our own great small country as his novels make us feel at home in his.

• Wayne Johnston’s latest novel is A World Elsewhere (Cape, £17.99). He is at the Ullapool Book Festival tomorrow at 11:45am, tickets £7.

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