Sunday, 31 July 2016

The Amphibious Suburb of St. John’s

The Amphibious Suburb of St. John’s
By W. Lacey Amy
From Collier’s magazine, January 20 1912.
Down on the Battery, Where Cod Flakes, Goats, and Children Make the Cliff Sides Picturesque
  
The Battery is that quaint suburb of St. John’s, in that oldest colony of the Empire, a scene of cod flakes and children and goats and rugged climbs, of intricate traceries, of flake-covered paths and stairways in the rock, of an undecided roadway, belligerently obstructed by houses in all degrees of whiteness, of odors and flies.
Newfoundland is synonymous with cod; and to adver­tise this fact its leading city has leased its front yard to the cod fishermen. To be sure, nothing but a fisher­man and a goat could make use of a mountainside of rock that seemed to give no foothold, but under the con­ditions that developed after the former had established himself, the evidences of wall-like rock are hidden under marvelously constructed flakes that push back into the mountain and totter precariously at the front on poles that appear to be kept up by faith and a tradition that they cannot fall.
The Real City
You enter St. John’s by what is modestly called the Narrows; and the first thing—and the second and the third, and so on—you see is not a city-crowned hill and a steeple-broken sky line, but a rugged mountain of rock with its foot hidden behind a wonderful, disjointed, unreasoning tangle of poles, up and down and across, with perhaps the peep of a house corner or gable window. At first glance it is ugly in its malformation and untidi­ness. At second glance it reveals enough to be interest­ing; and when you cut out one of the stereotyped trips of St. John’s and struggle through the entrance to the Battery road you begin to feel that at last you have come to the real city.
Fishermen have always had an attraction for me, and when I inquired where I could get in touch with them, I was invariably directed to Quidi Vidi, Newfoundland’s show fishing village. Nobody in St. John’s thought of the Battery. Probably some artist or litterateur has di­lated learnedly upon the quaintness and beauty of Quidi Vidi, and it is more inconvenient to reach; and no one with a name has found the obscure street entrance to the Battery. But I had dutifully climbed Signal Hill, had “done” Quidi Vidi, Topsail, the dry-dock, the golf links, etc., in recognition of what was demanded of the tourist; and still no one had steered me into the Battery.
So one morning—the day after the Re­gatta—I started off by myself with noth­ing in view but the Battery. And I found it—of which fact I have reason to be proud, for the entrance to the only street it possesses is at the end of a dirty fish wharf, close to the water. It has no point­ing finger or signboard; rather everything, including the police-court records, tends to direct one elsewhere. A weather-browned house standing at an angle that must have been haphazard forms one side of the en­trance. About five feet away is the corner of an equally unsightly fence, streaking off at a slant that is as irresponsible as the house wall. It looks like the acciden­tal provision for an entrance to the only door in that house, but a wheeled vehicle of some sort had squeezed through and I took chances and dived apologetically between the corners. Had I been hailed I would have retreated precipitately; but beyond the first turn there were indubitable evidences of a general passage of human feet and I felt less lone-some in my trespass.
Up a slight slope, down another, and up again, and I was in the midst of the flakes, beside, and overhead. Every available nook was flake covered, and the houses had to be satisfied with second choice. Children swarmed around me—also flies, both characteristic of the Battery.
Much of the roadway ran beneath the flakes, and from the side ran more flakes out over the water. A group of children burst up seemingly out of the flakes themselves, and then, upon closer investigation, I discovered that down there was a network of paths, with steps cut in the rock, assisted here and there by a crude bit of woodwork. Gates swung in the center of steep stairways, either to keep the babies out of the water or to designate the limits of a squatter’s domain. And down there was the real life of the place. Fishermen half-heartedly climbed down the stagings and cleaned their boats a hundred feet below where I stood gazing through a network of poles and drying fish.
Women and children dodged backward and forward across the narrow openings through which I looked, call­ing to each other of the stranger that had broken into their seclusion. Two little girls came toiling up the countless stairs to where I stood, opening and closing the gates as they grew larger and larger in approach, I stepped back and placed my camera, calling to them to stay where they were so that the picture would catch them.
“Does it cost nothing?” asked the larger of the girls.
I laughed in sympathy with the mild joke, as I thought it.
“There was an Eyetalian at the races yesterday charged twenty cents to take yer picture.” she ex­plained, gratified with the abundance of my philan­thropy in doing it for nothing. Then I remembered to have seen a foreigner at the Regatta races with one of those cannonlike affairs by which he supplied a tintype for twenty cents.
The End of the Road
Of a Sudden the road came to an end and I was forced to struggle up a steep path that disappeared around the face of the cliff over the water’s edge. I had remembered that beyond, nearer the mouth of the Nar­rows, was another stretch of fishing town, and this was the only path that could lead to it. A man from the city sauntered out on one of the highest stages and pro­ceeded to undress, and I climbed down with some awe of him who would leap from that height into the icy water of the deep harbor. He leaped calmly enough, and again, and then hustled into his warm clothes. Feeling cooler in sympathy, I reached the path again, only to find that it ended abruptly in a sheer cliff edge. The closest investigation failed to reveal any way of reaching the village beyond, and I climbed downward to look under the stages and cod flakes to see the life more intimately.
It was dark down there, and cool and damp, and fishy and mysterious. The fishermen stood out at the edges of the stages in sunlight, working at their boats, or cleaning out their fish houses; and out of the darkness children and women would come to draw water and to exchange a word of banter with the men. Clothing was drying wherever the sun could reach, trousers and smocks and sweaters and mitts that had been soaked with the spray of the fishing boats; the house washing flaunted up above in the streaming sunlight. At each staging a boat lay tied, or a sculling fisherman would push the nose of a boat into an empty place, and after tying it clamber up the ten feet of poles to the level above.
Again in the upper path I passed back, looking for a way up the cliff to reach the village beyond. Two girls lay outstretched near a spring that bubbled from the rock, waiting for their pitchers to fill, while I took my life in my hands and plowed up a field of loose rock that needed only a glance to roll on to the water below. A hundred feet up I reached a path, and, walking around, came in full view of the scene I was after. But still another dangerous climb to a higher level was neces­sary to place me on the path that led down to the flakes just within the Narrows.
The Fisherman’s Request
Down in the roadway a fisherman besought a picture of his cod flakes and wife (the order is his), and to get it I was forced to pass through a fish house that still retained many evidences of the last catch. Across a rickety pole staging I stumbled, and down the irregu­lar ladder of poles to a boat waiting below. And the woman, with a baby in her arms, came out on the flakes twenty-five feet above the staging, and stood on its very edge, with a straight drop of thirty-five feet to the water below.
“I can’t get anyone to come over here to take the pic­ture,” he remarked. “I’ve never had a picture of them before.” And he waved his arm at the flakes rather than at the family above.
He rowed me around the harbor, slouching in the stern of the boat and sculling, as is the custom of the fishermen, but putting up a small sail whenever our direction made the use of the slight breeze possible. And he talked of the fishing, and the ambition that lived with him always of owning a gasoline engine to put in his fishing boat so that he would not be dependent upon the uncertain wind for reaching and leaving the fishing grounds.
“You don’t know of anything in your country, do you?" he asked somewhat piti­fully, as if every traveler must carry a few loose positions in his pocket suitable for a man whose life for generations had opened each year with the preparation of the net or tackle, and ended with the delivery of the last quintal of cod.

Later I met the rest of the dissatisfied returning at noon from their work in the city. Already there was a change in their faces from the new contact with life, and to me it was not very pleasant. Dreamy desire had given place to frank discontent. The scanty, unconcerned attire of the fish­erman was replaced by the mixture that denotes a pocket unable to keep up with the ambitions. The slow, loose saunter of the lifelong fisherman was gone and had come the definite, peevish step of commerce. My last impression of the Battery, as I brushed through between the corner of the drab house and the corner of the untidy fence, was less agreeable than the first. But before I left I turned to the utmost plank of the near-by wharf and looked again into the life under the flakes, and saw the children play­ing up and down the half-hidden paths, flashing in and out through the streaks of sunlight.

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As an armed forces brat, we lived in Rockcliff (Ottawa), Namao (Edmonton), Southport (Portage La Prairie), Manitoba, and Dad retired to St. Margaret's Bay, NS.
Working with the Federal Govenment for 25 years, Canadian Hydrographic Service, mostly. Now married to Gail Kelly, with two grown children, Luke and Denyse. Retired to my woodlot at Stillwater Lake, NS, on the rainy days I study the life and work of A. Hyatt Verrill 1871-1954.