A Year Old Column

When local real estate mogul Charlie Oliver announced that, instead of running for the Tory leadership, he was going to sponsor a think tank to tackle the intractable problems facing Newfoundland and Labrador some joked a barrel was a more apt vessel in which to ferment local ideas. Certainly, to meet Heritage guidelines, the container should be made of wood.  Rather than a National Think Tank we need a Notional Puncheon.

It’s a capital idea.  Boom or no we remain a tiny and isolated population.  It’s difficult to float challenging ideas in so small and close-knit a community.  Say things people don’t want to hear and you will come face to face with someone you’ve offended within the week. You don’t anymore hear the expression; “Wouldn’t say “shit “if his mouth was full of it” because it’s sort of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Having a Notional Puncheon increases the odds of getting bad news before it’s too late.

So I provide a short list of things that you cannot say in town as inaugural talking points for the institute or tank or tub or whatever it ends up being called.

-the future price of commodities (including energy) cannot be predicted with accuracy

-despite ceaseless crowing to the contrary Newfoundlanders don’t actually much care for and so do not in any meaningful way support their own arts and culture

-a solution to both the unfunded pension liability and the skyrocketing cost of health care is to have people die sooner by denying them life-extending care at some threshold age.

-a significant cause of soaring health care costs is profiteering

-it’s not viable to provide ferry service to everyone who wants it

-as we come to define the nation as a place to conduct business (as opposed to a place of which we are citizens) corporate taxation has to contribute much more than 8% to the revenue side.

-asphalt does not work as a road surfacing material in our climate

-Big Oil owns and/or influences many politicians and most news media in Canada

-MBAs make a company more profitable, less fun and shorter lived.

-there’s a surfeit of hockey.

-few defenders of CBC television can actually bear to watch it

-how is it Newfoundlanders are so self-congratulatory and yet in constant need of approbation from the crowd on the mainland?

– forget Blackouts ’94 and 2014 the real worry is Starve-Out 20XX as we only have seven days food supply on the island.

– St. John’s City Council doesn’t grasp some central concepts of urban development because some members are too stunned.

The vessel is going to have to be enormous to accommodate the deep thinking required to address our problems.  I doubt we any longer have the coopers capable of fashioning such a thing from staves.  Maybe it should be made of reinforced fiberglass or some newfangled composite. The way things have been going we’ll end up buying a used think tank from a Scandinavian country and shipping it over here to find it only takes Danish ideas.

From the archives

el Dorado article preview

El Dorado Journal of Medicine – April 1, 1987




ABSTRACT. Observations by a number of Psychiatrists suggest that the process of film montage or editing contributes to the development of psychosis in practitioners. The disorder is degenerative. Preliminary study results indicate that the severity of the with the duration and nature of exposure to montage. Recovery is as yet recorded only in those groups where the disorder has been detected in the early stages of development. In groups where the development of the disorder has gone unchecked and film editing has continued there has been no response to treatment. Observations of control groups and examinations of case histories suggest that factors related to narrative structure (or its absence) may bear full responsibility for the development of the disorder. Groups with limited exposure to montage have responded well to the Richler-Porter narrative therapy. A panel concludes that the Richler-Porter therapy is the most viable treatment alternative, offering the most hopeful prognosis. The panel calls for the close monitoring of those in the higher risk groups.

An unusually high rate of psychosis has always been noted fl.in the population of Newfoundland, Canada. It has been generally accepted that the prevalence of psychotic disorders on the fog bound island was the result of readily identifiable environmental factors (poor diet, limited exposure to sunlight, isolation,  chronic alcoholism) and hereditary factors (see El Dorado Journal of Medicine, June 12, 1979: FAMILY SWIM AT THE GENE POOL).

This view first came into question in 1982 when Dr. Heinrich Richler noted that societies with a strong oral tradition had an uncommonly high rate of psychotic disorder. Richler travelled to Newfoundland and undertook an exhaustive study of the population in an attempt to establish causality. Richler relied heavily on accounts of psychotic behaviour by the indigenous population. These accounts were recorded and published under the title LOTS OF FOOLISH ONES ‘ROUND HERE. An excerpt follows:

Dr. Richler: You suggested that Heber’s behavior was unusual.
Mrs. Fudge: They was all foolish.
Dr. Richler: The entire Noseworthy family?
Mrs. Fudge: Yes, the lot of ’em. I suspects they got it from their father. We called he Foolish Ned. Their mother now, he was right sensible like, never carrying on. But Ned was always tellin’ the biggest kind of lies, ‘specially to youngsters or any stunned enough to believe he.
Dr. Richter: He was a compulsive liar?
Mrs. Fudge: Not lies like you’re sayin’ now, but stories, and they only for badness.

Only for badness or because of madness? Dr. Richler felt that the compulsive construction and relation of fictional narratives might in some way be linked to Dementia. Richler related these thoughts to Dr. Cameron Porter in St. John’s who, at the time, had several patients in his care who shared an experience in the film medium. Dr. Porter suggested that Richler observe filmmakers in the editing process, where narrative structure was frequently manipulated, in the hope of identifying the development of symptoms. Richter’s subsequent observations were the first step on the road to a clear understanding of the disorder. He noted,

Subject D.N. would quickly become agitated if he perceived even a minor flaw in the continuity of time and/or space in a motion picture sequence. The unedited film offered no promise of resolution for the material he required was not in evidence. Futilely he would attempt to correct the perceived flaw by; manipulating the order of the dialogue, inserting non-relevant photographic material (he called these “cut-aways”), planning to insert new dialogue where there was no record of that dialogue, and so on. The process disturbed his perception of chronology and he freely exchanged the terms “before ‘and “after”. As his frustration increased there was a clear change in his behaviour. He began issuing obscenities and made violent references to the material such as “I’ll cut the head right off that!” and “I’ll kill that in the mix”. Convinced that he could find no resolution he abruptly suggested that we should become intoxicated whereupon the solution to the narrative problem would come to us as in a dream or visionary experience.

Richler saw immediate evidence that prolonged episodes of motion picture montage resulted in more discontinuous narratives in the films themselves. It appeared that the duration and nature of exposure to montage had a direct link to the seriousness of the disorder.

In one extreme case the subject had been editing the same film for almost ten years. His mental condition was widely reported to have deteriorated considerably over this period. The film narrative which finally emerged from this process was disjointed and absurd. The narrative had no proper chronology, with events from the past present and probable future being fused into a singular time frame that clear1y existed only in the filmmaker’s greatly troubled mind. When I brought this to his attention he rambled incoherently about “levels of reality” and his own search for meaning. He said, “I have to prove that I exist”. The filmmaker saw his ten year effort as a personal odyssey with himself as mythical hero. In as sad a case as I have ever studied the filmmaker had plainly mistaken chaos for order, order for chaos. He had abandoned reality and truly gone completely insane.

Control Group Results

After reviewing a number of such cases and working closely with Dr. Porter and his wards, Richler more firmly established the cause of the disorder (by this time termed Cinedementia or Kinodementia) through closely monitored exposure in control groups.

Group A were asked to edit a short sequence in which an enraged man kills his wife’s pet ermine. They were given two working days to assemble the sequence. Richler recorded subtle changes in behaviour and moderate anxiety in this group. Three days after the experience the group’s behaviour returned to normal.

Group B were asked to edit a longer sequence in which an enraged man, recalling his expulsion from Rumania kills his wife’s pet ermine and is later tormented by visions of the dead creature.1 They were given five working days to assemble this sequence. Richler recorded considerable changes in behaviour and extreme anxiety in this group. Violence was reported from one subject. The marked change in behaviour was attributed to the increased complexity of the narrative. The anxiety was the product of the difficult decision making process. Subjects had to decide whether to present the information in chronological order, with Rumania first, then the murder of the ermine and finally the vision; or to “flash-back” to the Romanian past as the man killed the ermine (again followed by the vision); or to begin with the vision and then seek out its roots by returning to the ermine’s death and Rumania. One subject became so distressed that she had to be removed from the experiment after two days. Her roughly edited sequence suggested that the enraged man murdered the ermine and was expelled from Rumania for having done so by the victims gigantic parent (as presented in the dream sequence).

Group C were asked to edit a still longer sequence in which an enraged man, recalling his expulsion from Romania, kills his wife with her own pet ermine during the stage performance of the scenario edited by Group B. A medical ethics committee halted this experiment fearing irreparable consequences for the subjects.

Therapeutic Regimes

Convinced the cause of Cinedementia had been identified Richler, in concert with Dr. Porter, set about developing a therapeutic regime for those suffering from the disorder. The treatment demands that the patients first limit daily activity to a bare minimum and at regular intervals relate their activities to a second party. Should they report events or emotions out of chronological order or with embellishment they are subjected to painful electric shocks from.electrodes attached to their fingers and eyelids. Gradually the environment of the patient is enriched and the demands for objective recall increased. In the final stages of the treatment patients arc deliberately exposed to unlikely occurrences such as bleeding electrical outlets, exploding food, talking furniture and so on. If the patient relates these events without trying to establish a rationale or causality the treatment is judged to have been successful and the patient is released from care. If three months after the termination of treatment the patients imagination appears hopelessly stifled one can say, in all fairness, that he or she has been cured.

1. The vision was photographically realized by employing miniature sets which created the illusion of a gigantic, threatening ermine. The original, unedited motion pictures for the experiment were produced and directed by Dr. Cameron Porter .

Tree hugger


A Wild Pitch

Pitch Cover

G: A Television Movie [PDF]

One is forever “pitching” film and television projects.  Only a portion get developed into scripts and fewer still get made. This orphaned project is interesting for a couple of reasons.  Firstly, it was received in all quarters with the enthusiasm usually reserved for anthrax.  The producers shopping it (I’ve excised their names from the document) were told that it couldn’t be made given Canada’s current political climate. I believe that was unwarranted paranoia. I seriously doubt the man is paying that much attention.  My motivation was aesthetic and practical not political; it seemed to me the events surrounding the G20 Summit in Toronto were a rare case of some genuine intrigue and action in a Canadian setting so obvious source material.

And curiously, the main character in this Toronto, 2010 set tale makes an appearance in my forthcoming  St. John’s, 2013 set novel, “Today I Learned It Was You”.  So it wasn’t a complete waste of time.




Flattering attention from one of the new generation of whip-smart scholars.  He gets it.




The Great Nautical Machine On Which I Shipped


The Great Eastern

[Newfoundland Quarterly, Volume 106, Number 2]

Creatively taxing over long hours but the show was perhaps the most rewarding professional experience of my career. Worked with a team who were “just tremendous”.

Playing the Black–Scholes Equation for laughs

Several years ago I pitched the National Film Board a documentary about the concept of risk. I was curious to learn how those credit default swaps and other “financial instruments of mass destruction” worked and how the parceling and trading of risk, the quantification of that most qualitative assessment, could have brought down capitalism as it was then known.  I learned a lot of other interesting things in the course of my research, mostly to do with how the human mind weighs, compares and so often misapprehend risks.  I thought I’d come up with a crafty way to convey some rather abstract stuff but the Film Board passed. I called it “Kild by Severral Accidents” a phrase I took from a 17th century London “Death Table”.


A couple of years later I was commissioned by Donna Butt of Rising Tide Theater to write a play for the annual festival they hold in Trinity.  I promised something fun, fast and frothy, a comedy for the summer.  Two couples find themselves in a Bed and Breakfast, in a town not unlike Trinity, with one partner of each having had a one night stand with the other years earlier.  The characters were dealing with the risk of being exposed and it came to me that they work in that very field. So now the Black-Scholes Equation

is mentioned in the course of some funny business around the Bay.

Great cast being skillfully directed by Charlie Tomlinson. It’s gonna be a grand show, I’m grateful to Donna Butt for giving me the opportunity to write it.

It opens Thursday, June 20 and is called “The Pillow Trade”,  which has nothing to do with risk but much to do with cross-dressing J. Edgar Hoover and the F.B.I., you have to go see it to understand why.

You Had To Be There

Not in the habit of providing free content to the CBC but it was David Cochrane asking,

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Smart, young Drew Brown was excellent company but made me feel old for having lived through much of what is the historical record for him.   I think you can explain the Peckford era in Newfoundland, as for the Moores years, you had to be there,


Addendum:  The Monday after the Friday broadcast Premier Kathy Dunderdale gave a speech to the St. John’s Board of Trade which gave every indication she had listened to the radio broadcast. 

Ray Guy

Ray Guy, the great Newfoundland writer, has died.  Spent a few insane nights drinking in his company back when Mary Walsh was running a branch of the El Farolito on Pennywell Road.  Here is a review I wrote of one his books,

That Far Greater Bay

Before the original, 1976, publication of That Far Greater Bay there was consensus that its author was Newfoundland’s best journalist and, while they were and are admittedly few, among its leading literary stylists.  On reissue by Flanker Press the same holds true. Though he publishes less frequently he remains our great satirist.  And all now agree that Mark Twain could fairly be said to be the United States’ Ray Guy.

The newspaper and magazine pieces collected here were sagely edited by Eric Norman. If you haven’t read them for a time you will have forgotten their concision.  The lushness of the language (it is a word worshipper who tells of “the fructivity at Clarenville”), and the courage of the thought makes them larger in memory.  They were crafted with a newspaperman’s discipline. Lesser bay-born commentators aim Guy high but are too pompous and prolix to pull it off.  This stuff is short and sharp, and funny, terrifically funny. There are those on whom Guy grated, but even they must concede that the man is an astonishingly good and original writer.

Read more


I have a  piece in Macleans about seal cookery.