“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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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.