The George Street Festival in St. John’s, Newfoundland, is mostly about excess. There’s live music, to be sure, but the success of the weeklong festival every summer has more to do, I think, with that giddy sinful feeling we get in North America when we’re allowed to drink on the street.
Actually, it would be safe to say that George Street, a narrow, cobblestoned lane of drinking establishments, is mostly about excess any time of the year. But what else would you expect from a place that is widely reported to have more bars and pubs per square foot than any other place in North America? For tourists (and tourists make up the bulk of the Festival attendees), the experience of getting smashed on George Street is intimately associated with the experience of visiting St. John’s, and by extension, Newfoundland.
On Sunday, the fourth of six festival nights this year, George Street was pretty quiet. The lineup wasn’t as attractive as it had been, and one can assume that the folks who’d come out for the big Saturday night were still nursing hangovers. But the show went on, and by 11 p.m., traffic was picking up. Maybe 100 people stood directly in front of the stage watching a man in a yellow rain slicker. They all took a shot together. And then, excitedly, they all lined up to kiss a large frozen cod.
Large is relative in this case—cod can come pretty big—but this is no minnow we’re talking about. Its back arched; its eyes bulged. The fish was at least four feet long.
The people kissed the cod with everything from chaste pecks to elaborately outstretched tongues. Everyone got proof. Kiss. Flash. Kiss. Flash. Like the brides and grooms at those 100-couple weddings in Korea, the tourists in attendance had just been joined in a mass ceremony. Not into holy matrimony, but into the Royal Order of Screechers. They had been screeched-in.
“I’m an honorary Newfoundlander now,” one crowed.
As a transplant to the rocky island of Newfoundland, I realized quickly that I was what the locals call a “Come From Away.” This isn’t Manhattan; you can’t just claim the island for your own. If you’re not a native Newfoundlander, you’re a CFA, and with very few exceptions you’re likely to stay a CFA for life, or until you move back home.
The more I learn, the more I struggle with the idea that all it takes is a little ritual to make someone, anyone, an honorary Newfoundlander.
When people ask how I came to live here, I usually say that I followed a woman. At this, my questioners tend to nod sagely, sometimes offering observations about the Newfoundland women. They’re more surprised when I explain that my wife, Emily, is from the U.S. too—but when I say that we came so she could study seabirds at the university (there’s only one), that makes perfect sense to them. The cliffs, islands, and shallow waters of Newfoundland are one of the major breeding and feeding grounds in the North Atlantic. In any given year, 40 million sea birds might be found on the Grand Banks.
We’ve been here a couple of years now, and while we have found good community and nice friends, we’re probably not going to stay. The health care is great, but thinking long-term, it would be nice to end up close to family, in a place where winter ends before June and cheddar cheese isn’t orange.
Still, we’ve tried hard to figure this place out, and I’ve learned enough to write and argue with confidence about local history and politics. But the more I learn, the more I struggle with the idea that all it takes is a little ritual to make someone, anyone, an honorary Newfoundlander. Which is how, uninitiated and two years into my life in the East-northeast, I started digging into what is easily the oddest initiation rite I have ever come across.
It will help to know that Newfoundland is a large island, one half of the Canadian province called Newfoundland and Labrador.
There’s conclusive evidence that the Vikings visited Newfoundland around the year 1000, and there are some suggestions that Basque whalers might have been working off the Labrador coast before Columbus made his well-publicized explorations, but it is safe to say that European habitation really took off in the 16th century, and only increased from that point on. The cod fished off Newfoundland and Labrador has a place in the history of global commerce, but it was in the middle of the 20th century that Newfoundland rose to a new level of geopolitical importance, as the gateway between North American and Europe in the first age of air travel. During World War II, more than 115,000 American and Canadian troops were stationed here, and the economy, for the first time in a long time, boomed. It is around this time that “Newfie” came into common usage, a friendly if patronizing name coined by the Americans. Unlike the moldering bunkers that still dot the island’s cliffs, the word is still very much in use today.
Newfoundland and Labrador became a Canadian province in 1949, and, rich in fish but poor by any other metric, “Newfies” came to occupy the place of the bumbling fool, the butt-end of Canadian jokes. Today, Newfoundland is poor in fish (the “two-year” moratorium on commercial cod fishery has been in place since 1992), but rich in offshore oil, and as such is currently one of three “Have” provinces in Canada. This is an official designation.
Be that as it may, much of the wealth is concentrated around the capital, St. John’s, and there has been a steady movement toward urban centers. Rural Newfoundland, made up largely of those picturesque outport communities highlighted so successfully in ad breaks during the Vancouver Olympics, has sunk into a cycle of low fertility and out-migration, with many adults taking jobs out on the rigs or in the Alberta tar sands.
It’s a funny sort of place. The provincial government ran a $750 million surplus this year but the city of St. John’s can’t get it together to plow the sidewalks. Call-in radio is the dominant media, and I’ve sat with people who’ve told me about what so-and-so said on “Open Line” as though the two were old friends, even though they might live a good 10 hours apart. In early December, Ocean Choice International, one of the biggest fish producers in the region and among the largest private-sector employers in the province, announced it was closing fish plants in Marystown and Port Union—putting more than 400 people out of work.
But, with independent auditors saying that OCI had lost $10 million operating those plants over the past three years, it’s hard to blame the company. Government protection and union mandates have made supporting much of the local fishing industry prohibitively expensive.
Newfoundland is often called simply “the rock,” and though the metaphor is unintended, it’s a hard place, too. More than anything, things are changing. With all the wealth creation of the last decade, it’s easy to forget that many island communities didn’t get power lines until the ’60s. On the west coast, dog sleds were used into the ’70s as a primary mode of wintertime transportation. There’s a tangible sense of nostalgia for simpler times, never mind that they were lean times.
Even now, with new wealth and opportunities available, life on the island is hard. It’s not easy to get more than 10 weeks of fishing with all the restrictions, and that means that if you’re going to be working on the water, you’re going to be counting on your unemployment money for the rest of the year.
Before we came, Emily and I read The Boat Who Wouldn’t Float by Farley Mowat (it would be some time before we realized that his stance in Sea of Slaughter had made him a persona non grata in our new home) and it was in this account of his arrival in Newfoundland that we first learned we were moving to a rum-drinking place. Mowatt’s story was of the ’60s, but rum is still a staple, though it seems to be losing out, like so many good things, to the encroachment of American light beers.
And as a staple, Screech is the rum to buy. When he was here, Mowatt reported that:
Screech is a drink peculiar to Newfoundland. In times gone by, it was made by pouring boiling water into empty rum barrels to dissolve whatever rummish remains might have lingered there. Molasses and yeast were added to the black, resultant fluid, and this mixture was allowed to ferment for a decent length of time before it was distilled. Sometimes it was aged for a few days in a jar containing a plug of nigger-twist chewing tobacco.
However the old ways have given way to the new, and Screech is now a different beast. It is the worst conceivable quality of Caribbean rum, bottled by the Newfoundland government under the Screech label, and sold to poor devils who have no great desire to continue living.
The Newfoundland and Laborador Liquor Corp., the very same government body to which Mowat makes reference, makes no mention of any earlier version of Screech in its official literature. According to the NLC, it was during the friendly wartime occupation that a visiting serviceman took a swig of the strong stuff proffered by a welcoming local. The Yank let out a wild yell, and when people came asking about the noise, says the company, “The taciturn Newf who had answered the door replied simply, ‘The screech? ‘Tis the rum, me son.’“
The story is probably apocryphal, but tradition is second cousin to myth. The screech-in, the grand initiation rite of Newfie heritage, didn’t exist in any verifiable form until more than 20 years later.
Roger Bill, who’s written a doctoral dissertation on the subject, credits Fred Walsh as one of the main founders of the invented tradition.
Walsh was the entertainment and business manager of the Country Club, the largest nightclub in St. John’s in the mid-1970s, and it was under his direction around that time that the “Screech Club” was formed as a gimmick to attract tourists.
In the early photos of the Screech Club, the officiants are garbed not as fishermen, but as naval officers, in dress uniforms and tricorns. Though others were instrumental in the creation of the club, Bill says that both the uniforms and the details of the ceremony point to Walsh, who had worked his way up to managing the officer’s club at the American naval base at Argentia, near where the Newfoundland ferry still docks. Coming into daily contact with naval men, Walsh would have been familiar with the equatorial “Crossing the Line” ceremony, to which the screech-in shares more than a passing resemblance.
Newfoundland is often called simply "the rock," and though the metaphor is unintended, it's a hard place, too.
“He had a flair for staging stuff,” says Bill. “And he also had an intimate relationship with people from away.”
Around the same time, Merle Vokey found himself in a tight spot hosting an annual regional teachers’ conference. For years, he had been celebrated for doing a music and comedy variety show for talent night, but on the year the conference came to Newfoundland, his performing partners had either moved away or left the profession.
In the face of high expectations, says his son Keith, Vokey “decided to create a ceremony under the premise that [the conference attendees] would all become honorary Newfoundlanders.” He called it a screech-in, says the younger Vokey, drawing linguistic cues from other happenings of the times: love-ins, sit-ins, and the like. This ceremony begot others, the NLC saw an opportunity, and by the time Keith Vokey adapted it in his own career as a Master Screecher, the screech-in was tradition.
Vokey, who, if you take the metaphor far enough could be called brother to the tradition, performs his duties on the second floor of Christian’s Pub, near the end of George Street, not quite as far down as the strip clubs. The room is hot and loud, and on the night I attended, the heat and the booze made the room feel very close.
Halfway through a song, the jukebox cuts out, and then the music starts again—Great Big Sea singing “The Old Black Rum”—and Vokey comes out dressed in full wet-weather gear, slapping his hand with a tiny canoe paddle, speaking faster than should be possible, and hardly taking a breath.
He’s singing a cappella, blasting it out into the now quiet room, just hitting the identifiable bits of local favorites—and people start clapping along.
I’m a Newfoundlander born and bred and I’ll be one till I die,
I’m proud to be an islander and here’s the reason why:
I’m free as the wind and the waves that wash the sand,
There’s no place I would rather be than here in Newfoundland.
There’s a short silence as the clapping fades, and then, “Hear ye, Hear ye,” he proceeds to fall into something akin to a one-man crosstalk routine—vaudeville in a sou’wester. And then he teaches the room a song or two, warming them up. Eventually, he comes to the ritual.
The thing about visiting Newfoundland, he explains, is that folks back home are going to ask about it.
“So they’re going to have one question for you, and that is: ‘Is ye a screecher?’ And to this there is only one correct response which is: ‘Indeed I is, me ol’ cock, and long may your big jib draw.”
He has to go over it a couple times, because the first time, as is traditional, he swallows the sentence and spits it out in a single compound word, like an auctioneer fresh back from a year’s fishing.
“She’s looking at me like I’m saying some kind of dirty word,” he says of one patron. “But cock actually comes from the English word ‘cockney,’ which means to be good buddies.”
Vokey has called his performance folk theater, but sometimes he refers to it as “guerrilla theater,” which makes it seem like an ambush. “It’s just really about entertaining people, making them laugh,” he says. It’s also about “taking the measure of a person —put this person under a slight amount of pressure that’s meant in good fun and see how they handle that.”
He singles a young man and a young woman, strangers, out of the crowd, and has them stand in the center of the room.
“Now, take her by the hand, son,” he says. “The is the most romantic moment of your life. Take her by the hand and say….” Even looking back to the tape recording, it’s impossible to understand what the young man was supposed to say. They laugh. The room laughs. The ritual goes on.
As a happening, the performance falls somewhere between a pageant and a pledge. It is a wholly unholy communion.
After the introduction comes the bologna. Bologna has played no part in my life here, but its place in the Newfoundland mythology is indisputable. Moose were introduced in 1904 as a game animal, and there were small caribou herds, but tinned meat would have been a revelation for outport life. At Christian’s, under Vokey’s supervision, people eat their portions on toothpicks shaped like swords.
Vokey goes around the room, and all of the screechers state their name and origin. They get down on their knees, and they kiss the cod. Then comes the screech, and then the certificates.
Just before he finishes, Vokey invokes a kind of catechism, starting with the already-established question: “Are ye screechers?”
Some stumble over themselves trying to remember the response, others just shout, “Yes!” One drunkish gentleman gleefully bellows, “Cock!”
“All right, b’ys,” says Vokey, “we’re going down to the B-level test, and the thing I have to tell you about the B-level test is this: The answer to every question is ‘yes.’“ And then, talking fast again, Vokey starts firing off questions, rehashing the steps of the ritual, verifying that, for the moment at least, everyone can remember what they’ve done over the evening. This time, everybody passes. But before they get their certificates, Vokey gives them one last instruction:
“Well, b’ys, all I got to be saying is when you leaves the island, whoever it is you’re talking to, don’t be talking about goofie Newfies, please!”
The certificates are important. They are “the proof that you’ve had the experience,” says Bill. “You come here, you get your certificate with your name on that says you’re now a member of the tribe.”
The certificates were also, at one point, the source of some consternation. In the spring of ‘89, Clyde Wells, a vocal critic of the screech-in, became Newfoundland’s premier and found, to his dismay, that his predecessor had actually been signing the certificates, granting tourists membership in the “Royal Order of Screechers.” All the certificates in the office were shredded, and they haven’t been signed by a government official since.
Around that time, people started talking about banning the practice, about how it was demeaning to the great people of the province, making them look like backward baymen who couldn’t talk straight; Newfies in the most pejorative sense.
Remember that Vokey lives in town, and makes his living as a performer. He has no call for wearing oilskins other than his gig at the bar, and the same can be said for pretty much every other screech-in officiant in the province. It is these assumptions, nay, these fabrications, of outport culture that some find offensive. There’s a debate about cultural authenticity that’s been simmering for years, but the screech-in remains popular in blithe disregard of any wider conversation.
Today, every conference held here, every cruise ship full of tourists, every bus group, has the chance to get screeched-in. It is a ritual ubiquitous enough that when I’ve asked participants why they wanted to pledge, I have been met with blank stares. Getting screeched-in is so much a part of the visit to Newfoundland that it is assumed.
You can get screeched-in in St. John’s or anywhere else that tourists are found, from Trepassey to Straitsview. If the screech-in is theater, as Vokey says, it’s certainly the most proliferant production the island has ever seen. But despite the ritual’s incredible success, or perhaps because of it, the details of the screech-in vary to a wide degree. Every ceremony includes the drinking of screech, the kissing of something unpleasant or embarrassing, the call-and-response of question and answer. But beyond this, anything is game. Bars talk about their screech-ins as though they were proprietary secrets, like a margarita recipe. Secrets to which thousands are privy on a yearly basis. In a way, this speaks to the strength of the tradition. It has been adopted, adapted, and administered for so long and in so many bars that there is no one true screech-in.
I should probably have gotten screeched-in when I moved here. It usually happens, even if you don’t want it to—someone finds out you’re from away and strong-arms you into it. But working from home and lacking any kind of casual social circle, I didn’t go out with groups at first, and by the time I did, I’d been here long enough that no one was thinking about screech-ins.
I’m in the minority here. Lots of people, maybe half a million, have taken the plunge. Vokey says he’s probably screeched-in more than 30,000 of them. Hulk Hogan got screeched-in. So did the members of Rush. Conan O’Brien even got screeched-in on his old show, though there wasn’t any cod-kissing involved. Which is too bad really; if anyone could have hammed up kissing a cod, it’s Conan.
Talking to one bar owner, I asked if it didn’t seem strange to be granting strangers honorary Newfoundlander status so freely. He frowned.
“It’s only a bit of fun,” he said. “Just a bit of fun for the tourists.”
A couple months ago I attended another screech-in, this one different than the others. It was held at four in the afternoon, on the last day of a waste-management conference. People wearing badges on lanyards were milling around the convention center, not really looking at the booths anymore. It was a nice-jeans-but-scuffed-up-sneakers kind of crowd.
At four o’clock, Sheila Williams, playing her character, Ruby Brace, stood up on a little platform and addressed the group that had assembled in front of a small stage. She was dressed like a grandmother, gray hair curled tight, and proceeded to go through a ceremony more admonishing than insistent. There were some stale jokes, some bologna stories, and bite-sized pieces of real bologna, too. At the end, everyone lined up and kissed the cod that had been sitting on ice under a folding table.
Every conference held here, every cruise ship full of tourists, every bus group, has the chance to get screeched-in. It is a ritual ubiquitous enough that when I've asked participants why they wanted to pledge, I have been met with blank stares.
Williams’s is the “official” screech-in, as sanctioned by the NLC. Her performance was good, a different take on an established tradition, and a mix of real history with fancy. But the whole event just seemed limp, obligatory; one woman seemed thrilled, but almost everyone else could just as easily have been waiting for the dentist.
And ultimately, that’s why I don’t think I’ll be getting screeched-in. I have no aversion to fish kissing, not more than your normal person, anyway. And I don’t judge the tradition; there’s nothing wrong with manufactured traditions. Nor do I begrudge the initiation rite—as any student of introductory anthropology (or freshman pledge) can tell you, those are important—but I don’t think I want to be inducted into the tribe, and I certainly don’t want to do it because “that’s what you do.”
I’ve been here long enough that there’s no way I want to be seen as a tourist—but at the same time I have no interest in seriously pledging myself to this place. If home is where you hang your toothbrush, Newfoundland is it, but as much as I’ve enjoyed our sojourn here, it’s just that, a temporary thing.
When people ask where I’m from, I’ll just keep telling them that I’m from away. And then, following the script, we’ll get down to the serious business of talking about the weather.