Ray Guy: a fan’s farewell

Photo courtesy of Greg Locke

By Susan Newhook

A tiny preface: King's journalism grad and St. John's Telegram reporter Daniel McEachern (@TelegramDaniel) tweeted on Wednesday:

Photo courtesy of Greg Locke

By Susan Newhook

A tiny preface: King's journalism grad and St. John's Telegram reporter Daniel McEachern (@TelegramDaniel) tweeted on Wednesday:

This obit is laden with Ray Guy quotes -not (just) in a shameless attempt to steal a better writer's best lines, but also as footnoted teasers, for Daniel and other journalist- readers who didn't have the chance to know him or his work. 

At some point in the early 1990s I was a finalist for a journalism award. I didn't win, but I consoled myself with the fact that Ray Guy had been up for an award too, in another category, and he hadn't won either. So, my feeble logic went, for one night I was swimming in the same pool as one of my journalism heroes.  That was one of the few ways in which most writers could talk themselves into a class with Ray Guy, who died in St. John's on Tuesday night at 74.

Guy wrote about life and politics in Newfoundland and Labrador with a unique mix of the sharpest pen and the fondest eye, maybe ever. He won a National Newspaper Award, a Leacock Award, membership in the Canadian News Hall of Fame, and an honorary degree from Memorial University.  The honours marked not just the role of his biting St. John's Evening Telegram newspaper columns of the 1960s and early 70s in bringing down the autocratic regime of Premier Joey Smallwood , but also his part in defining Newfoundland culture as we know it today.

As a print columnist, radio and TV commentator, playwright and sometime actor, he gave his readers and audiences "a glimpse inside the Newfoundland soul that no one else had," as his colleague and friend Bob Wakeham put it. As a journalist, Guy held politicians' feet to the fire for 45 years. He didn't let voters off the hook either.  I looked everywhere this week for a Guy column I clipped a while back: it eviscerated twenty-first-century Newfoundlanders and Labradorians for supporting what he saw as Danny Williams' demagoguery, with the same bubbling anger and razor-sharp language he had directed at voters in the days of Smallwood.

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His intense focus on Newfoundland life didn't always translate for mainland Canadians unfamiliar with the province's politics and culture, but he was a popular columnist for the Halifax-based Atlantic Insight magazine (now defunct) in the 1980s. "Ray's writing was wonderfully artful, angry and insightful all at the same time," Insight’s managing editor Stephen Kimber remembered in an email interview. Readers "who didn't always 'get' the nuances or local references couldn't help but be sucked in anyway by his larger-than-life writing. We only wished we had our own Ray Guy in Nova Scotia."

There wasn't much Guy wouldn't mock.  He had little patience with outsiders' or locals' overly romantic visions of the province's history and culture, but a ferocious attachment to the real thing. He might not have accepted the term 'nationalist' but he was in the vanguard of a change in how Newfoundlanders saw themselves.

Part of the first generation in Newfoundland history with ready access to post-secondary education, Guy graduated from Ryerson’s journalism school in 1963. He started out as a reporter with the St. John’s Evening Telegram, but before long he was cranking out a column most weekdays, eviscerating the province's politics and politicians in ways that left readers awed, laughing, and/or livid.  

He went at his job with a wide range of weapons tucked into his typewriter, not least of which was a rich command of language that one admirer rightly called Joycean. There was the direct approach, starting with the lede: "It apparently takes more gall than the House of Assembly can collectively muster to tell J.R. Smallwood he's wrong"[i]; and there was venom: "(Smallwood) has the same gift, on a smaller scale, that Adolf Hitler had… The fancy name for this gift is 'charisma'".[ii]

There was even the biblical: "(Smallwood) ascended into the heavens and sitteth up front in first class: Yea, even as he passeth over the Kingdom of Joe he looketh down as from an mighty cloud and…spake thus: Behold, O ye congregation of hangers on; we passeth hence over an exceeding stunned people…let stunnedness pass from the Kingdom of Joe and we shall all be undone, even like unto a draft of gutted haddocks."[iii]

He didn't leave out the voters who put up with politicians' shenanigans, either: "It is left to mainland observers to be shocked, to wonder what kind of people we are to be so inured to corruption that we can grin, empty-faced, in the teeth of it." [iv]

When rookie Telegram reporter Bob Wakeham met him in 1972, Guy was "a rock star…I was intimidated. I thought, my God, this is Ray Guy!" but the two soon became friends, not least because "he was shyer than I was."

"He was a tremendous writer. He had a way with a turn of phrase the rest of us would just drool over." Wakeham says most of it came slowly: "He would start off with a real stream-of-consciousness piece, everything that was crossing his mind on a particular issue," and then start over on his old typewriter. The fourth draft was usually the one that made the paper: "Three (columns) would be brilliant and a fourth would be really, really good. He had an incredible batting average."

Guy wasn't born Canadian – in April 1939, Confederation was still 10 years away for Newfoundland.  He grew up in Arnold’s Cove, a tiny fishing community whose population doubled to more than 1,000 in the 1960s when it was designated a 'growth centre' under the government's resettlement program.  Outside his political writing, his sketches of an outport childhood, with its "Juvenile Outharbour Delights" would lead some readers to think he was much older.

As he began life as a freelancer in the mid-70s, Guy was already "a cult figure", as Sandra Gwyn called him. But away from his typewriter, he was intensely shy. After leaving the Telegram, he started writing political commentaries for the CBC Radio morning show, handing them to an announcer – he wouldn't read them on air.  Eventually, though, he became the 'star boarder' on a regional CBC-TV comedy series and a star commentator on the suppertime news, where his old Telegram crony Wakeham was now executive producer.       

Until just this spring, when he announced his retirement from writing, the columns kept coming in various papers and magazines –  fewer in recent years, but still flaring with eloquent rage when he felt it was called for.  I wonder what he would say to see his life celebrated and his passing mourned on Facebook and Twitter.  Maybe he would wave it all off in his trademark way- as he told one interviewer, it was all "for the sake of putting shoes on the children's feet — and a bottle of gin in the cupboard."[v]

Ray Guy's Wikipedia entry describes him as a humorist. He was so much more than that, but his irreverent humour was central to his voice, and to his success in making it heard. As he put it in the foreword to one collection of his columns, he started out in "interesting times, but frustrating, too. Especially for a journalist. All public records were either destroyed or under lock and key. Somewhere early on I decided that the only course was to, perhaps, giggle the bastards to death." [vi]

Now there's a lesson for you.

[i] Kathryn Welbourn, editor, Ray Guy: The Smallwood Years (Portugal Cove-St. Philip's NL: Boulder Publications, 2008), page 53.

[ii] The Smallwood Years, 110.

[iii] Eric Norman, editor, You May Know Them As Sea Urchins, Ma'am (St. John's, NL: Breakwater Books, 1975), 85.

[iv] The Smallwood Years, 186.

[v] John Gushue,"Newfoundland satirist Ray Guy dies at 74," http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/newfoundland-labrador/story/2013/05/14/nl-ray-guy-obituary-514.html  

[vi] The Smallwood Years, vi.

Susan Newhook teaches journalism at the University of King's College in Halifax . She started reading Ray Guy when she was twelve. She is working on a book about history and culture in Newfoundland during the 1960s. She is also a friend of the Housser-Guy family.

Correction: Ray Guy was born in 1939. We regret the error.