Elling Lien chats with Andy Jones about rare cheese, a changing Newfoundland, and Uncle Val
Who is Uncle Val?
Uncle Val is a character I started in 1978, I based him on a friend of mine named Francis Colbert. Francis was from Job’s Cove in Conception Bay, and he was a reciter. He wrote his own recitations and also did all the standard recitations like “Lobster Salad” and “Saint Patrick at the Gate” and all those ones in the folk festivals.
…But what Uncle Val does is he writes letters to his friend Jack, who lives in the town where he came from. Uncle Val comes into St. John’s for an eye operation and then he ends up having to stay with his daughter Margaret and his son-in-law Bernard and their children Jimmy and Kimmy. And he’s not very happy. He wants to be back in the town he’s from, which I never did name. He’s unhappy in St. John’s and he kind of hates St. John’s. So really, it’s all about St. John’s, because I don’t know anything about the outports. It’s all about suburban St. John’s, cause that’s my roots. I grew up in the back of town here.
And there are stories. I started them in 1978 and … probably the last one I wrote was for the Badger Benefit a couple of years ago.
Anyways, as I did these characters I was asked to do more to flesh out the story. So there is a whole story – a very simple story in the end – that Uncle Val comes to St. John’s, doesn’t like it, then after awhile he kind of does like it. And then another baby is born to his daughter and son-in-law. He’s only in his early 70s and he’s in pretty good shape, his eyes are getting better, and he ends up becoming the babysitter.
So he has this whole experience with babies which his generation of men never had. He’d never changed a diaper of course, and all of a sudden he’s doing everything for Bradley, the new baby.
How close is Uncle Val’s story to your own?
I used everything I knew about the suburbs myself. In fact, the poster that’s around, with the poodles – that house was around when I was growing up. That house was on my paper route when I was a kid. I went back to look at it and it’s the same as it was when I was a kid. It hasn’t changed. I always pictured that was where he lived when I started writing the story.
My father was at about Uncle Val’s age at that point, and I based most of the medical things on his situation. So every week I was doing Uncle Val and I’d go visit my father. I’ve credited him as a writer because he really did give me lots and lots of ideas. Turns of phrase.
He’d tell me things and I’d say, “Okay, I’m using that for Uncle Val this week,” and he’d say “Go ahead! Do what you want!”
There’s a story I got from Francis [Colbert]. I remember him telling me how he used to row out to his nets before he had an engine in his boat. Engines were around then – I guess it was the early 20s – but eventually he got a boat, and I remember him saying “it was great being able to do that, but I much preferred when I got an engine.” That always stuck with me.
What is it about his character that attracted you?
It was really funny because I met another guy from the community who also imitated him. He met me one day and he came to my house in my backyard and we did dueling Francis Colbert imitations.
[Colbert] was a very, very, very nice fellow for one thing. He was extremely quiet and he seemed like, when you met him, he wouldn’t be able to perform that well because he’s quiet and demure. But he was quite a strong performer when he got on a stage. He had all the old gestures and the old style of recitation down. He wrote a great piece called “The Ballad of Job’s Cove Rock”, which is the story of him and two other fisherman and who almost get lost written like “The Cremation of Sam McGee,” that kind of meter, like Robert Service’s poetry. I got to know Francis, spend a lot of time with him, know his stories…
What do you think of the place of Newfoundland culture within Canada? How has it changed since the 70s when Newfoundland nationalism started becoming important again?
In terms of the arts – when you consider Codco, This Hour Has 22 Minutes, Rick Mercer, Christopher Pratt, the artists, the musicians – all of these things have had quite an influence, far beyond what you would expect from a province that makes up only 2% of the country’s population. Think of Barrie, Ontario, which hasn’t had quite the same effect on Canada that Newfoundland has…
The sad end of the tale, however, is that rural Newfoundland is devastated. The thing that was the lifeblood of the culture, and our lifeblood as artists, and the thing we were most interested in – the storytelling and the dance and the music, and all that stuff we really dug into in the 70s isn’t [there]… New people, new music.
But the fact of the matter is that no one really cares about it now. Certainly Danny Williams’ government doesn’t seem to really care about it, which is too bad because I’m sure he could do anything that he wants if he put his mind to it. So this is the end to the story in a way, although I can’t get into that too much in the show. But I do want to talk about that. What we thought we were doing when we started off.
What did you think you were doing?
I thought that’s what we were doing. Trying to say we have this incredible culture here. First of all we have to make sure we’re really proud of it because there is also this incredible inferiority complex that was always in Newfoundland and we were always told to stop talking that way. Like when the Jesuits came, the way they treated our culture was so devastating. Constantly being told you are old fashioned, “get rid if this,” “burn that old church,” “beat that old church down that’s over in that resettled community,” hundreds and hundreds of stories where we were shamed.
So we were really going “no – we’ve got to stop from going that direction” We had to pull it back, which I think has happened in Newfoundland in many ways. So that’s the first thing. The second thing is to say to Canada: “okay you guys, we joined Canada. We brought in the fishery, we brought in mining, hydro power – all that kind of stuff… But we also brought in this most amazing, incredible culture which we can’t believe ourselves is so incredible. The more we study it the more we find the more rich it is. But we want to tell you guys about it so you know you got something out of it.” And influence that culture through our culture and hopefully, in the kind of Quebec model, it would translate into political power. We were very political in those days. To make Newfoundland a ‘have’ province and not be the poor cousin collecting crumbs. But then of course we had to live our lives, so we weren’t thinking like this all the time … so the storytelling, the recitations, which we did do in school ourselves – that’s what we concentrated on, and I concentrated a lot on. And comedy, telling Newfoundland stories. In everything we ever did…
I think the word “Newfoundland” has appeared a million times in my work. I’m sure in Barrie, Ontario, “Ontario” is not even said once. So it’s totally different. That’s what I thought we were doing. Those things: showing pride in ourselves and having it translate into something politically.
How important is theatre for us?
I don’t know. Is it of any importance at all, except in the “monk” sense – hidden in the monastery keeping something going? It certainly is the place where everyone in film and TV gets their training. Much of the film industry here was influenced by theatre. For example, one of the odd things is that here in Newfoundland all of the early films were dramatic, while on the mainland they were documentaries.
I just don’t know how theatre is imporant except that in the larger sense the creative minds are working amongst each other, helping each other. But I guess it’s a matter of debate how important the theatre is. I hate to say it. I love it so much. It is a fantastic thing and there is nothing else like it. It’s like saying we make a certain type of cheese in a certain cove of Newfoundland and then saying, “Well, there’s lots and lots of cheese around!” But if you’re interested in making the world an interesting place, then you’ve got to keep making that cheese! It comes down to that.
We’re a unique cheese?
Unique cheese! [laughing] The unique cheese theory is good.
When I was kid, in the suburbs, I was always worrying about the fishery. Do kids in Ontario worry about the Auto Pact? And you have that thing about everyone representing Newfoundland so you have Smallwood saying “Every time a Newfoundlander does anything he represents Newfoundland. Every time a Newfoundlander does something stupid, Newfoundland has done something stupid. And Labrador has also done something stupid. And of course, immediately, the federal government will see this, they’ll send in a colonial government, cancel the government through a series of mass deportations and reduce the province to a staff of 10 with a weather office in St. John’s which will eventually be moved to Halifax. So for God’s sake, do a good job on stage tonight Andy!!!”
If you’re doing a show on the mainland as a Newfoundlander it’s like, “Don’t fuck up!” There is always that kind of pressure on you. I remember one summer in Montreal, doing a French course… When it came time to say where you were from I kind of blushed because I knew there were Newfie jokes in the paper there. We were like, what the hell is this? I’d never felt like that before but I thought I’d better watch my step because they’re expecting me to do something stupid. And people in those days, if you said you were from Newfoundland they would laugh. That was a big thing. It was funny! That Newfoundland was a funny place to be from.
But that’s all changed now.
An Evening with Uncle Val, written and performed by Andy Jones, directed by Lois Brown, opens at the LSPU Hall Tues. Nov 21 and runs until Sat. Nov 25. For Ticket info call 753-4531, $15/$12