“The folly of Newfoundland’s grand colonial experiment”: The Great Eastern’s Oougubomba Saga (Season 4, Episodes 11, 13, and 14)

There’s a long history in Western literature—in all Western media, really—of using Africa to tell stories that are really about some aspect of the West. The Great Eastern, a Newfoundland-centric alt-history public radio satire (previously and previously), might seem an unlikely place to run into an example of that—but it exists. In the fictional version of Newfoundland The Great Eastern builds over its five years on the CBC, we learn about “Newfoundland’s disastrous colonial experiment,” its “brief twenty-year Age of Empire”—the fictional West African nation of Oougubomba, Newfoundland’s colony between 1926 and 1946. Yes, in the world of The Great Eastern, Newfoundland took a direct part in the “scramble for Africa.” We’re told that the Newfoundlanders administered Oougubomba in a fairly brutal fashion, enslaving the local populace, founding settlements like New Botwood and New Pouch Cove, clearing land for settlers from Upper Canada (so-called “Ontarikaans”) to establish plantations. Newfoundland’s interests in Oougubomba were defended by the King’s Own Jowls and Cavalancers (an insider reference to the Newfoundland folksong “The Kelligrew’s Soiree”—one of many that occur throughout these three episodes). The Newfoundlanders were violently expelled by a rebellion in 1946, and contemporary Oougubomba, as experienced through The Great Eastern, demonstrates a fascinating blend of cultures: part Newfoundland, part West African. Relations between the now-independent African state and its no-longer-independent former colonial master have improved. While “in some part of the interior there is still animosity towards the Newf,” for the most part, we’re told, Oougubombans “grin and bear it.”

There are two episodes of The Great Eastern that take place in Oougubomba, episodes 13 (listen) and 14 (listen) of Season 4. In addition to these, episode 11 (listen) serves as a kind of prelude to Oougubomba. Taken together, these three episodes may be the pinnacle of The Great Eastern‘s energy and ambition. These three episodes comprise a risky, complex, difficult-to-parse text.

I find it difficult to write about Oougubomba for all kinds of reasons—not least of all because I’m nervous about my ability to navigate the political minefield these episodes fearlessly zig-zag across. It’s not just that, though. I’m not certain what it is that these episodes are saying. They don’t sum up easily; they don’t constitute a monolithic statement. And that’s a good thing, a symptom of the show’s willingness to challenge authority and convention and its unwillingness to establish itself as a voice of authority or the inaugurator of new conventions. The Great Eastern sets out to do a lot of things, but it certainly doesn’t want to teachIt constantly turns to uncertainty. The Great Eastern builds its alternate universe as part of a disruptive project, and Oougubomba certainly contains disruptive potential.

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“‘How’s She Goin’, B’y?’ No More”: Season 1, Episode 5 of The Great Eastern

Welcome to the first of several posts this week, where I’ll be taking an indepth look at an exemplary episode of The Great Eastern (for my introduction to what The Great Eastern is and why you should care, see here).

Creating a richly textured semi-fictional world was one of The Great Eastern’s long-term projects. Many of its most memorable episodes were also atypical ones, ones that departed from the usual format to add whole new fictional territories to the show’s universe: big, bold experiments in world-building and character development. I’ll be talking about some of those memorable and atypical episodes in the next few days. Today, I’m arguing that such atypical standouts work best in the context created by the more ‘normal’ episodes that surround them — the episodes that don’t encompass new territory, but instead lovingly detail territory that’s already on the map. The atypical one-offs can be heard, enjoyed, and appreciated as stand-alone episodes, but their full richness comes from having a sense of the vast textual world of the BCN and The Great Eastern, the slow cumulative work of the ‘normal’ episodes.

With that in mind, I’ve decided to begin by introducing (or re-introducing) everyone to a few ‘typical’ episodes. These episodes contain many of the regular features which, to my mind, characterize The Great Eastern‘s creative and intellectual preoccupations and themes: things like literature, history, politics, and community. These regular segments include “Word Works,” the weekly review of new books and literary culture in Newfoundland; “In the Vault,” where we hear archival tape from the BCN’s storied past, curated and commented-upon by the inimitable Ish Lundrigan, the godfatherly Director of Radio at the BCN; the “At Issue” political panel, where the extreme left and right of Newfoundland debate the finer points of federal politics and global corporatism; and last, but perhaps most importantly of all, the short interstitial programming highlights, ads, community bulletins, and traffic alerts, each a pinhole view on the wider world of the BCN and the fictional (?) Newfoundland it existed in and reported on.

With that in mind, let’s embark on a discussion of an early ‘typical’ episode:

Season One, Episode Five (link)

In its first year, The Great Eastern was a summer replacement program with no promise of any future beyond that. Thus, there are only six episodes in this season (and that includes a New Year’s Eve special). They are each about an hour long (versus the half hour the show would become when adopted to the CBC’s regular schedule). These early episodes had most of the ideas and the players in place right from the get-go; it’s quite surprising how the show really hit the ground running, with few growing pains. Still, I think of the first two years as being of a different nature than the final three. The episodes that comprise these first two seasons are much more than prototypes, but they don’t quite resemble what would come later. The longer running time and the show’s uncertain future make these early episodes both a little more woolly and a little weirder.

This episode in particular quickly demonstrates all of that. After a greeting that feels subdued when compared to the hurricane force of later years, Paul Moth immediately drops the listener into the deep end. “This week, Newfoundland mourns the death of composer, essayist, sportsman, enigma Hugh Kuva.” Who is Hugh Kuva? Have you heard of him before? You haven’t? Well, that’s probably because The Great Eastern invented him.

A few months ago, I had the privilege of presenting The Great Eastern to a working group on fantasy literature and nationality here at the University of Toronto. I sent this episode (and a few others) to the group for them to hear. This episode in particular was confusing for many—they knew very little about Newfoundland, and the convincing impersonation of an earnest NPR/BBC/CBC2 documentary style gave the Hugh Kuva piece a near-perfect ‘aesthetic of truth’ which left some unable to determine which aspects were fiction and which were fact. Everything — down to the accent and diction of the voice actors, the piano music in the back, and so on — sounds trustworthy and ‘correct.’ The details of Kuva’s life, while extreme, were not totally implausible; Newfoundland is an odd place, peopled by odd characters, and outsiders tend to know almost nothing about the details and nature of that oddness.

Academia —most upper-and-middle-class culture in general, actually — is full of people who know how important it is to pretend to know this artist or that book when amongst one’s peers, even if the name is totally unfamiliar. For many, listening to public radio counts as being “amongst one’s peers.” To their credit, my University of Toronto colleagues never did this. But, in the wider world, I suspect The Great Eastern exploited this credulous tendency to sow the seeds of uncertainty; this is one of the show’s delights, in my eyes.

Also, early successes like this segment on Hugh Kuva demonstrate two of the strengths that would stay with The Great Eastern throughout its run: strong, naturalistic voice-acting and careful, creative production values. The Great Eastern understood the little aesthetic details that listeners use to immediately understand, without conscious thought, what kind of radio they are hearing — when and where is it from? What purpose is it serving? In this instance, every detail of the production is unmistakably that of earnest high-culture documentary radio.

Following the memorial to Kuva, Paul, the host, takes the listener down into the BCN vault. “In the Vault” is a regular segment on the show, from the very first episode to the very last. In it, Director of Radio and font of BCN lore Ish Lundrigan plays selected audio from the station’s history. This episode’s “In the Vault” is almost a perfect representative of the segment. We meet “Eric Vincent,” “the founder of the folk realism school of theatre” in Newfoundland, and hear clips from the 1954 radio adaptation of his play Ocean of Pain. Like Kuva, Eric Vincent and Ocean of Pain have no reality outside The Great Eastern, but, like Kuva, we are told of the deeply influential role Vincent’s “folk realism” had on Newfoundland arts and culture. 

We are treated to an archival recording of Ocean of Pain. Actors narrate their miserable experiences in a mournful, over-the-top Stage Oirish-Newfoundland accent as seagulls squawk incessantly in the background:

“O Dear Saviour, dat reminds Oy ’bout de toime me fadder was kilt in de freakish summer squall of T’irty-two. Moiy moiy moiy.”

In short order, all three characters are shot: “O Levi! You shot I!,” the female lead exclaims. “O Maid, dis is no way to live!,” Levi wails in response, turning the gun on himself. Lundrigan stops the tape. “You can see the influences – Dante, Joyce, and so on,” he remarks. He fast-forwards to a later scene in a hospital room, and the squawking seagulls are still there. There is yet more mournful dialogue in over-the-top fake accents, and, again, more unlucky gunshots.

But even as Ocean of Pain seems to mock Newfoundland for indulging an ethnic folk nationalism in love with the purity of its own suffering, The Great Eastern also fires a shot at literary criticism and its pretense to greater critical sophistication: “Vincent’s work reflects the collision between pre-Confederation Newfoundland and the 20th century. Some will adapt, and some won’t,” Lundrigan provides by way of critical gloss.

“It evokes a certain nausea,” Paul remarks. “I mean that in a positive sense,” he hastens to clarify.

From here, the episode segues into “Word Works,” another regular segment, continuing to build an edifice of fictionalized Newfoundland literary/intellectual culture, work begun both by the Hugh Kuva memorial and by the archival recording of Ocean of Pain heard “In the Vault.”

This edition of “Word Works” reviews the controversial “Writing Through Region” literary conference. This is obviously a reference to the famous-in-certain-circles “Writing Through Race” conference, held in June 1994 in Vancouver, whose organizers limited enrolment in workshop to “writers of colour and First Nations writers,” intending to create a temporary space of freedom from the need to “report” to the dominant culture. This “inspired a controversy that culminated in the federal government’s decision to remove [the conference’s] funding,” according to canlit.ca.

With panels like “Freeing the Bay Voice,” “Post-Bay Archetypes,” “EJ Pratt: Poet, or High Priest of Townism,” and “Deconstructing the Jig and the Politics of Desire,” The Great Eastern‘s “Writing Through Region” conference is likewise open only to “writers of Bay,” so as to create a space free from “townist” oppression and the appropriation of the “bay voice.” (Paul wonders how “Word Work”‘s host Kathleen Hanrahan, a seeming Townie, was able to attend; Kathleen clarifies that she is actually of “mixed region”).

The “Writing Through Region” conference takes as its subject the identity politics so en vogue in 1990s Canadian literary studies — identity politics that often over-simplified Newfoundland, failing to understand or engage with the complexities of its distinct culture, when it even noticed Newfoundland’s existence in the first place, or differentiated it from some nebulous ill-defined regional entity called “Atlantic” or “East Coast” culture. In the case of the “Writing Through Race” conference, Newfoundland is not spoken of, but, by its omission, is assumed to be part of the dominant/hegemonic culture, no different than white anglo-Ontario. The “Writing Through Region” conference explodes this uncritical move by taking as its subject the denigration and appropriation of traditional rural Newfoundland culture (“Bay”) by urban cosmopolitan outsiders (“Town”). Whereas mainstream real-world literary scholarship speaks of regionalism in terms of a monolithic “Atlantic” or “East Coast” region, The Great Eastern presents a Newfoundland that itself contains multiple regions existing in a state of tension with one another.

I will hasten to argue that the bay/town divide and the appropriation of rural Newfoundland is an actual phenomenon; books like The Shipping News and writers like Farley Mowat are named as cultural appropriators in the “Word Works” piece itself. And what was Ocean of Pain, immediately preceding this report on “writers of Bay” who are sick of literary misrepresentation, but an over-the-top satire of the same?

Listeners unfamiliar with the division of Newfoundland into “Bay” and “Town,” unfamiliar with the stereotypes and dominant narratives surrounding “bay people,” might think this segment sounds like crass mockery of anti-racist discourse and the important work identity politics can do. If you are familiar with these stereotypes, and with the divisions and fault lines that exist within Newfoundland,  you might think “if Newfoundland was bigger, more important, if it actually mattered to enough people, then such a conference absolutely would exist” — even if you recognize the silly and satirical dimensions of the piece at the same time (and it IS a very funny piece). The haiku read from Birch, Bark, Bamboo, for example, is both hilariously po-faced and completely contrary to the gushing “folk realism” satirized in Ocean of Pain:

I pull the trap

The trap is empty

I eat the trap

Allegedly, the CBC initially commissioned The Great Eastern expecting superficial, cheap ‘n’ easy “Newfie” jokes – “ethnic yuks,” as the creators of the show put it in the archival material. Early episodes like this one show how The Great Eastern was a different kind of beast entirely — and that it was not above mocking those same expectations. One reason why I’m so fond of this episode in particular is that its focus is so very literary and textual; almost all of it, even the disorienting audio collage of the final segment, is consciously and strategically creating a fictional (and at times ludicrous) literary culture, complete with a diverse array of its own texts, peopled by its own literati, where most perhaps expected (or wanted) little more than funny accents and drunken antics that would reinforce the subaltern “Newfie” stereotype.

“‘How’s she goin’ b’y?’ no more,” indeed.

The Great Eastern’s 20th Anniversary: Introduction

Twenty years and a few weeks ago, The Great Eastern (“Newfoundland’s cultural magazine”) began its short first season as a summer replacement program on CBC Radio’s national service. It remains one of the few instances in CBC Radio’s history where Newfoundland-specific content was given a regular national platform. This week, I figured I’d (belatedly) celebrate its 20th anniversary with a series of posts reviewing the best and most important episodes from its five year run (two years as a summer replacement show, three in regular rotation).

Where to begin? And just what is The Great Eastern, and why should you care?

The Great Eastern was a fictional Newfoundland arts and culture magazine, reporting on popular culture and literary, visual, and performance art as they existed in an alternate reality version of 1990s Newfoundland. The Great Eastern portrays a place that is no marginal backwater; its version of Newfoundland is on the cutting edge of the postmodern and the avant-garde, a place with a vibrant, garrulous, silly, robust artistic community that leaves stick-in-the-mud Canada in the dust.

The Great Eastern presents itself to listeners as the flagship program of the Broadcasting Corporation of Newfoundland (BCN), Newfoundland’s public broadcaster from the days before it joined Canada. In our world, the BCN was absorbed into the CBC in 1949, just as Newfoundland was absorbed into Canada. In the world of The Great Eastern, the BCN continued on as a separate entity – and, likewise, the show muddies the waters as to whether Newfoundland is part of Canada or not. According to The Great Eastern, in 1994 the CBC decided to syndicate the BCN’s broadcast of The Great Eastern. In reality, the show is a fiction, commissioned, recorded, and paid for by the CBC. But in the show’s universe, The Great Eastern long predates its 1994 CBC debut, having been produced and broadcast since the 1930s for this alternate reality Newfoundland – or rather, for its own alternate historical version of Newfoundland. Another of the show’s fixations is exploring the history of this alternate Newfoundland – from Newfoundland’s “colonial misadventure” in West Africa to the year William Shakespeare supposedly spent living in Ferryland (and the play he wrote while there). The Great Eastern is constantly rewriting history in strange and interesting ways, ways that often disrupt conventional narratives of Canadian history and culture.

Last year, I published an essay on The Great Eastern in the Newfoundland Quarterly. Edward Riche, author of Rare Birds (among many other things), was one of several writers/performers behind The Great Eastern (because of the show’s peculiar nature, no one who worked on it was ever directly credited on-air – the show’s pretense of being ‘real’ was airtight). He’s reproduced that article (with permission from the NQ) on his website. You can read it here (click the image of the first page and the whole .pdf will load) – it’s a good supplement to the brief introduction I’ve given here, I hope.

The Great Eastern‘s ratings were quite good, but it was never embraced by a CBC more accustomed to plodding, earnest fare – and in search of easy Newfie jokes, uncomplicated “ethnic yuks from the regions”, as the behind-the-scenes archival material puts it with understandable bitterness. When I read this archival material in the Centre for Newfoundland Studies, I got the sense that the CBC brass had no idea what they’d unleashed on the world, and were woefully ill-equipped (intellectually and materially) to deal with it properly. One poor bureaucratic creature likens it to the folksy and decidedly unironic Mom-and-maple-syrup Canadiana of The Vinyl Café! 

Although you run into fans who still remember and appreciate The Great Eastern‘s quixotic combination of quicksilver genius and deep ‘n’ bleak satire, no one really writes about it or talks about it much. It’s my aim to change that. One of my dissertation chapters (indeed, the one I’m trying to write at the moment) focuses on the show. It’s a challenge (literary critics aren’t really trained to write about radio, and The Great Eastern can be dizzying in its complexity), but a challenge worth meeting – I hope.

It’s possible to hear all the episodes (nearly 100) if you root around a bit on google. I’m going to refrain from directly linking to them here, because it’s a legal grey area (you can’t buy recordings of episodes, and they aren’t available anywhere on the CBC’s website, but CBC does own them, if only in the legal sense).  It would be a tragedy, in my eyes, should anything threaten or destroy this sole remaining access to these recordings. As far as I know, the semi-legal fan archive which I’m not linking to is literally the only way to access the strange, vital body of texts that was/is The Great Eastern – fitting (though depressing) enough, as the show implicitly argues, by its existence, that CBC’s national broadcasts do not reflect or include Newfoundland’s culture and history, and thus the existence of a shadowy, fictional-but-maybe-not second national public broadcaster just for us.

So prepare to tune your radio way down, past the left-hand border of the dial – tune into the alternate reality of the Broadcasting Corporation of Newfoundland, 520 on the longwave.