The Sea’s Salty Spray


1880s map of St. John’s, Newfoundland

From The American Scholar:

My first teaching job carried me straight from the RAF and England to St. John’s, Newfoundland, when I was but 27. I still find my first impressions to be the overpowering ones: of fog or knocking sea. The town seemed nothing like the Oldest City in North America. It clutched and clung to the rocks like snails—perhaps the mist might have dissolved it or the sea gnawed it down. From the air it looked precarious; from the sea, as I sneaked in through the Narrows, as sheer a pair of nautical jaws as one could wish for a landfall, the effect was altogether different: still the shantytown with much rust and much gesticulating new paint, but also the settled center of a kind of commerce, silver oil tanks glittering in whatever sun there was. The harbor had the slack gape of a transatlantic Cardiff or Merseyside in miniature.

I was fortunate in my arrival because the rain was pouring. From the first I could catch a sight of the genius of the island, this place that has icebergs in June. It all looked Finnish, perfunctory, and sparse. Miles and miles of timber hemmed in smallish areas of shaggy rock. Settlements seemed few, roads fewer. After a swift ride through streets of sad houses, all wooden and flimsy, I was dropped off at Circular Road, where lodgings had been arranged for me. I did not know it, but I was on the threshold of a revelation—a symbol was to be vouchsafed for me.

Here was another house badly in need of paint, but the garden was neat and groomed. There was a cropped hedge, a lawn; I felt just a small bit at home as I trudged down the path. I rang. There appeared a timid little maid who, as I later found out, had a strident voice and keened dirges all day. I was led in through a door of stained glass that offered some Boy Blue idyll. Then I was in the museum: all around me were glass cases full of tattered taxidermy. Birds indignant in arrested flight leered at me from near the ceiling. A large engraving of a dying ox stared me in the face. The furniture was mostly of cast iron, especially the hallstand, a vast edifice of consummate ingenuity. This was festooned with furs, sticks, scarves, and old ladies’ hats. On the right was a sanctum, the door just a little open so that its air of dusty disuse could filter out into the hall. The floor was madly polished, the family prints were arranged altarwise on a little table, and several frail chairs seemed to be straining forward, as if to emulate the strength and purpose of the old toasting forks and spits that stood against the walls. I gazed, appalled.

Then my landlady-to-be emerged from the gloom: an old woman with a lively face and plenty of salty spirit. At once I was sat down to tea and currant cake.

“My Newfoundland”, Paul West, The American Scholar