Plus: how a writing career can sneak up on a person ...
The barrister and the bizarre: Award-winning British travel writer John Gimlette finds Newfoundland and Labrador rich in odd characters
By SARAH HAMPSON
Saturday, March 26, 2005 Page R3
'You don't need to travel among cannibals to find something interesting. I really think it's there under our noses," says the man in the room, hunched forward in his chair, elbows on the table, as he pushes his rounded spectacles with a delicate-looking index finger to the bridge of his nose.
It's just another day in downtown Toronto, in the beige offices of Random House. And look who has washed up, all scrubbed clean and jacketed and polite, on the shores of this corporate sterility.
Here is a balding, diminutive travel writer who has been called "a historian of the absurd." John Gimlette speaks in a British accent as proper as port after dinner. When he's not travelling to the far corners of the globe, searching for eccentricity, he is wearing black robes and a wig of white horsehair in London's legal courts. Cambridge-educated and 42 years old, he practises as a barrister, specializing in medical law. He also paints landscapes.
To write his book, his second, he moved among those fish-obsessed people, Newfoundlanders and Labradorians. Theatre of Fish: Travels through Newfoundland and Labrador, takes readers on a journey through the past and the present, stopping for people and places that piqued Gimlette's interest.
We could call him a tourist of hardship, for this is a book that is as bleak as it is comic.
Is Gimlette an imperial British type who came to collect odd stories in the colonies?
Well, not quite. As Gimlette himself says, the beauty of travelling (even to a boardroom, it turns out) and meeting people is that the experience "totally defies stereotypes."
With a wrinkle of thoughtfulness in his brow, Gimlette describes his interest in the province, eruditely, as "quite ancestral." His great-grandfather, Dr. Eliot Curwen, travelled to Labrador in 1893 as a medical missionary to care for fishermen and natives. In his book, Gimlette traces his great-grandfather's journey and dips into his thick journals and collection of photographs to recover interesting parts of the past. It is the organizing principle of his journey.
Since childhood, Newfoundland and Labrador have been calling him, he says. "As a family, we looked through those photographs many times," he recalls. But there was another connection. Curwen was part of an expedition led by Dr. Wilfred Grenfell, a member of a family that had been proprietors of a dreadful-sounding British boarding school Gimlette attended as a boy called Mostyn House. Grenfell's loot from his travels in Labrador in the late 1800s adorns the interior of the school to this day. Gimlette has never been back since he graduated. He didn't want to dull the potency of his childhood memories, that included, he writes, "matty bears in the billiard room, spears around the swimming pool and herds of dusty moose heads watching me force down my slop."
It was only a matter of time until he set out to see that strange land himself.
First though, Gimlette had to think of himself as a travel writer. Travelling was in his blood -- there was not only his maternal great-grandfather, but also, on his father's side, several military surgeons who travelled extensively in Asia. Writing was also in his genes -- George Gimlette's history of the Nepali royal family is still printed in India today and John D. Gimlette's Malay Poisons and Charm Cures, published in 1915, is still considered a Bible of toxins. But this 21st-century Gimlette always thought "that success and fame happen to other people."
Not until 1997, when he spotted an announcement in the London Underground for the Shiva Naipaul Memorial Prize competition (for travel writing), did he consider he might be good enough as a writer. (Hey, there's no telling what epiphanies can happen on London's tube, which takes you on a journey into another, deeper, world.) The next day, Gimlette, drawing from extensive personal journals he kept from his travels 20 years before, wrote about Paraguay, where he had spent some time during his gap year in 1982 between high school and university.
He rushed Pink Pigs in Paraguay across town to meet the midnight deadline. His story won the competition and was published later that same year in The Spectator. The next year, Gimlette won the Wanderlust travel-writing competition. He began writing travel features in magazines and newspapers, and in 2003 published a book about his South American adventure, At the Tomb of the Inflatable Pig: Travels in Paraguay.
Three years ago, at Easter time, he travelled to St. John's and the Avalon Peninsula for the first time in his life "to work out whether this [book] was possible and whether it would be of interest to me," he explains. "And I absolutely loved it. I came back full of stories of people who dragged their houses across land and sea. And this amazing food that people ate. And this Shakespearean argot that people speak in certain parts of the island. I had no doubts that this was a place that I wanted to definitely write about next," he says with the enthusiasm of an anthropologist who has come across a previously unknown civilization.
He returned in the summer for three months. Part of his process of travel writing is to have "total immersion in a place before arriving there," he says. For six months to a year before he steps foot in a foreign country, he reads local newspapers on-line, books on the subject and documents in libraries. "The idea of this is that when I get to somewhere like Newfoundland and Labrador, I know roughly what I'm looking at so one's not looking at it from a position of total ignorance."
Theatre of Fish is peopled with odd characters, both historical and very much alive, who make walk-on appearances in a book rich with bizarre incident and anecdotes. There's Bernadette McFie, Irish and working-class, who teaches Gimlette a lesson or two about Newfoundland pride and distrust of mainland Canada. There's a cameo by John Crosbie, Minister of Fish, as Gimlette dubs him, who speaks about the disappearance of the cod. We meet a farmer in Glen Cove, where Gimlette slept under the stars in an old turnip patch when he couldn't find lodging in the booked-out Trinity, a town of much pride to Newfoundland tourism bureaucrats -- it was where the film adaptation of Annie Proulx's novel The Shipping News, starring Kevin Spacey, was shot -- but which Gimlette found "ersatz." The farmer was far more interesting. Gimlette, who likes to travel "close to the ground," had breakfast with him every morning in his "creaking parlour" full of books about war.
In Gimlette's book, we learn about Amelia Earhart's stopover in Harbour Grace; the sexual adventures of Prince William, later William IV, who in 1786 bedded every lady and wench in Placentia; a mezzo-soprano, Marie Toulinguet, who gained international fame as "the Nightingale of the North" in the early 1900s, until her voice gave out and she returned home to end her days insane and drunk.
There is much here that even a Canadian will find interesting and new. But it is also very sad, especially the section on Labrador, in which Gimlette travels from one desolate outport to another, encountering the tragedies of the native communities destroyed by suicide and alcohol.
"So much of Newfoundland's and Labrador's story is optimistic beginnings and then it all sort of ends rather sadly," Gimlette offers. "And of course, the big story is fish itself and that ends sadly."
His outsider perspective, which gives him a critical distance to write the tragicomedy of The Rock and its sidekick, Labrador, is not without a sense of guilt. I ask him about being detached in a land of bad endings. He is not the writer of the play, but an observer of its inherent theatricality, feeling sometimes bemused, sometimes sorrowful at the spectacle before him.
"As a travel writer, every now and then, you do sit back and have a pang of conscience and say, 'Well, should I be enjoying this? I am not entitled to be writing about this,' " Gimlette replies. "You have to get over that, because if you don't, you can't write honestly."
So, will British readers feel some imperial guilt? "There may be some of that," he hedges with the seriousness of a lawyer. "But Britain has a lot to be guilty about, and a lot to be proud about, all around the world, and we also perhaps feel a bit weary about being guilty and actually would rather just get on with things and go to the next stage.
"[Besides,] Newfoundland and Labrador don't really need my sympathy or British sympathy. They're very good at looking after themselves."
It is just this kind of stiff-upper-lip judgment, juxtaposed with his open curiosity, that makes Gimlette -- who is married to BBC television presenter Jayne Constantinis and has a four-month-old daughter, Lucy -- an interesting character. He not only lives a dual life with his parallel jobs as lawyer and writer, he wavers between each personality type. He likes his double life, he tells me. "As a lawyer, you just follow the rails, as it were, whereas travel writing makes demands on the imagination."
He feels that Canada is rich in characters and interesting places. "I'm really puzzled by the self-imposed inferiority complex," he says as a final comment on the country. "I just don't see it."