The title of my brief address to you is The Aldergrabber and the Bubble-treader. If you are puzzled by this title hang on and in a few minutes I hope to make it clear to you.
It is an awesome feeling standing on this stage gazing into a sea of faces filled with joy, expectation and triumph. For you – and for me – this day, today, will be tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow’s memory – a proud day and an unforgettable moment in our lives.
I have had a long attachment to this university having come here as a student at the age of 17. At that time the campus was situated on Parade Street in old St. John’s. Memorial was a strange place in those days. All students and faculty wore long, black gowns which made us look like a community of batmen flitting around the campus in our flowing robes. I remember one notable professor who wore an Oxfordian gown which the years had tattered, torn and discoloured with its globs of green and splotches of yellow. It was quite a sight but he wore this aged garment ever so proudly. With his reading glasses suspended across the bridge of his nose and his pipe between his teeth he was an inspiring sight. He spoke with an English upper-class accent – which was totally incomprehensible to me (at the time) – and he was a formidable figure as witnessed by the hundred or more students who sat in the lecture theatre in complete silence as he mumbled through his lectures. I learned to love the man and many years later I became a close friend and colleague.
I want to go back for a moment and give you a little of my background. I was conceived in the winter of ’37 in a log house – our winter home – in the bottom of Bay de Vieux and born the following summer on Fox Island where my family worked in the salt fish industry. In 1942 – while the War was on – father put us all in his fishing dory and we steamed up the shore to make our home in Burgeo. New technology had replaced the salt fish trade with the fresh fish one – the days of fish flakes, splitting, curing and drying fish in the sun were over. Our large kitchen in Burgeo where we ate, did our homework by the kerosene light was like a theatre. It was a gathering place for fishermen, lighthouse keepers, sailors and hunters who told their tales, sang their songs, jumped to the floor to dance their jigs and royally entertained us. Many of these men and women had never seen the inside of a classroom and they would often joke about their lack of formal education. “I got as far in the book as where Jack hove out a stick for his dog to fetch but I didn’t wait to see if he brought it back to shore.”
As storytellers and songsters they were brilliant and creative and they used a language rich in metaphor and imagery. They were also very adept at explaining the creative process. I remember one night following the singing of a beautiful new song I asked the lighthouse keeper who created it and sang it if he would make me a copy. I passed him my scribbler and pencil to do so. A painful look filled his face. “I wish I could, my b’y, but I can neither read nor write.” Whereupon I said: “If you can’t read or write, how can you make up songs?” To which he replied: “I makes them up in me head – and sings them from me heart.” A more beautiful and apt definition of folklore cannot be found.
My love for the Sou’ West Coast and my upbringing there is best summed up by the poet Robert Hayman who in 1628 wrote the following poem:
The Aire in Newfound-land is wholesome, good;
The Fire, as sweet as any made of wood;
The Waters, very rich, both salt and fresh;
The Earth more rich, you know it is no lesse.
Where all are good, Fire, Water, Earth, and Aire
What man made of these foure would not live there?
As a young man I came to Memorial speaking a dialect whose roots are found in the West Country of England but I learned, to my astonishment, that my Sou’ West Coast English was not appropriate or acceptable if I wished to pursue my studies to be a teacher. My quaint speech such as “I’ll get the dory narder and take ‘er into the lund” might have been acceptable in Shakespeare’s time but was not acceptable at Memorial in my time. I was somewhat disillusioned and dismayed by this confrontation of cultures but I soon learned of an undertaking by some distinguished professors at Memorial that in time would make a lasting impact on me, personally, and on the culture of Newfoundland and Labrador generally.
That undertaking had to do with our legacy of language. My use of the word ‘lund’ in “get the dory narder and take ‘er into the lund” did not go unnoticed by these keen scholars who had taken on the monumental task of creating a dictionary of Newfoundland English. “Lund” as it turned out – although incomprehensible to some at the time – was/is a perfectly respectable word and like thousands of other beautiful words that came from our outports it was in danger of extinction until the DNE (Dictionary of Newfoundland English) came along.
There is no scholarly work that has done more to enhance, preserve and dignify the culture of this place than the DNE. And full credit must go to this institution which supported these outstanding scholars (Kirwin, Story and Widdowson) and their research during the 25 years it took to create this significant book.
When the DNE was published in 1982 it made national news. Some – foolishly – thought it a joke. Others – with more insight – sought it out for guidance. A foreign doctor practicing in Clarenville called me and said he required copies as soon as possible. A woman, he said, had come to him with a bad back and when he asked her how it happened she said: “Well, Doctor, I sloused to the left as I was gettin’ in the boat and me back went squish.” Both words “sloused” and “squish” are found in the DNE – “Sloused” meaning heaving from side to side as water in a boat; while “squish” is defined as “being out of alignment.” This woman had given the doctor a clear, precise and accurate description of her ailment in a language that was hers – and is ours.
Kirwin, Story and Widdowson knew the limitations of their work. Our legacy of language is a goldmine which they could barely tap. The great treasure troves of beautiful words and potent expressions will lie there, perhaps forever. My experience with those who were disgruntled with the DNE is best summarized by a conversation I had with a man from Central Newfoundland. He had worked in the logging camps and had been involved in dangerous work on the Badger River. With disappointment on his face he said to me: “I see that ‘aldergrabber’ and ‘bubble-treader’ didn’t make the book.” I said “No b’y I don’t think they did but I don’t know the words. Perhaps you could explain them to me.”
“Well”, he says, “work on the drive is always dangerous especially when there’s a jam and you have to break the logs loose. You never know when it’s going to happen. But whatever the case it brings out two kinds of men. One is the fellow who is careful, steady and conservative and stays close to the shore so that when the jam breaks he can reach for the alders and pull himself in. We calls him the ‘aldergrabber.’ Now the other kind of man is different altogether. He’s carefree, wild and nimble and out in the middle of the jam, far from the shore with nothing to hold onto. And when she breaks he gets to shore – somehow – by dancing on the bubbles I s’pose. So we calls him the ‘bubble-treader.’ Now shouldn’t they be in the DNE?” I confess, I had to agree.
The old Memorial on Parade Street was unique, intimate and confined. Its focus was clear – academic excellence was its goal. At one time – not so long ago – five of my former classmates were presidents of various universities in Canada. In other fields too MUN graduates have excelled as is evident on this stage today. The new campus that I came back to in the late ‘60s and where I taught in the ‘70s was a sprawling institution. But it was a very invigorating environment as the arts were moving into high gear.
In Memorial’s English Department we had the likes of Ted Russell, Art Scamell, Michael Cook, Al Pittman, Tom Dawe, just to name a few, all of whom have contributed significantly to the literary prowess of our province. We were, in the early ‘70s, on the cusp of the renaissance. In one of my classes was a student by the name of Wayne Johnston; in another Ron Hynes. Wayne’s novels are translated into various languages while Ron’s songs are as popular in Ireland as they are at home.
“Bliss was it in that dawn
To be alive;
But to be young
Was very heaven.”
The music and literature that had its roots in the renaissance of the ‘70s have grown and blossomed. The arts have given us pride in our place and a keen awareness of our identity as a unique people in Labrador and Newfoundland. As the fellow from up the Southern Shore said to me when I told him I was from the Sou’ West Coast: “A scarce breed, Sir. A scarce breed.”
Blessed as we are with brilliant writers, musicians and artists of many talents it seems to me that it is the duty of an institution – such as this one – to ensure that our students get the opportunity to read and study the literature from and about this place and to be exposed to the arts, generally in whatever form they appear.
When I first came to Memorial I noticed its motto: Provehito in altum – Launch into the deep. Thus being from a sea faring background, I’ve always thought of the university as being like a ship taking its precious cargo of knowledge to the people who are its owners. But the captain and crew – as on any ship – must be free to steer a steady and a safe course. They cannot be directed by the landsmen on the shore for that would be a foolish and dangerous thing to do. “On such a full sea are we now afloat and we must take the current when it serves or lose our Ventures.”
And you young graduates, you too must launch into the deep and whether you follow the philosophy of the “aldergrabber” or the “bubble-treader” you must always keep in mind this noble institution, this great university, that set you on your voyage – “to strive, to seek, to find, but never to yield.”