Saturday, 19 January 2013

Random Passage Postcards

Random Island 4Random Passage is a novel by author Bernice Morgan and published by Breakwater Books. Set in colonial Newfoundland, the book follows the lives of the people at Cape Random, a small Newfoundland community. I never heard of the book until I saw the TV mini-series, which starred Star Trek's Colm Meaney. The series also starred several Newfoundlanders, including Mary Walsh and Andy Jones, but I confess it was the improbability of a show about a Newfoundland outport with a Star Trek connection that drew me to watch the series.

The producers of the show had a challenge: where do you create a set that has no visible signs of modern living? There are a lot of places like that in Newfoundland, except that they need a road nearby so as to be able to ship people and gear in. That is a bit harder to find: no traces of modernity, yet it must be close at hand! Fortunately, they found such a place in a small cove just next to New Bonaventure, which is where many of the scenes for the Shipping News were shot. After production on Random Passage wound up, the Cape Random Trust took over the site and opened it up to visitors.

The living conditions in the outports in the 1800's, as depicted in the show, certainly looked pretty rough. However, seeing something on a TV screen and seeing it in person is very different. Scale, for one thing, is distorted. When I went to Trinity this summer, I decided to stop in and see what it was like in person.

It was raining and foggy on the day I went to visit. Not unusual weather for Newfoundland, even if it would make for precarious photography. Fortunately, the wind was abnormally absent. The actual site is down the road a ways from the tea room where you buy entrance tickets.

The entrance to the site proper is marked by a wooden arch that was not part of the television series.

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The gardens in Random Passage looked like pretty much every Newfoundland garden I've seen, although I admit that the scarecrow was unique.

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Once past the garden, and everything else was different. When Newfoundlanders built their timber houses, they used moss to chink the gaps between the log poles. I can't imagine that it was very warm and the drafts must have been severe. Still, it would have been better than staying outdoors.

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Not all of the structures were made from logs. Some used sawn planks, although rooves varied between split logs and sod. There were no proper chimneys; just a hole in the roof surrounded by wood.

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The wharf, flake, and stage were all wood, but the wood was from split logs. There is a good reason for the sign next to the wharf: it is indeed slippery when wet. I can't imagine hauling loads of fish around while walking on that wet wood, and it would have been wet most of the time.

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The inside of the stage was pretty dark. For light, there was a window cut out of the logs, with no glass filling it in, and the doorway.

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In the office, there was glass in the window. The desk was set right under the window to provide light to read by.

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Churches in the 1800's were often the most spectacular of any community's buildings. The church in Random Passage was certainly better built than the other buildings, but I wouldn't call it spectacular. It did have a good view of the graveyard, though.

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The one house that was more like the outport homes I was used to was the one built for Frank and Ida Norris, who were well off when compared to the story's other characters. The house is largely empty of props but we went inside to get out of the rain. There was one period piece, a Victorian camel-back settee, that afforded an opportunity to take a portrait of our tour guide, Dora.

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As with many of my visits to places around the province, this one had a couple of deviations from the usual tour script. The first was my encounter with a small bird with a broken wing. It looked like a young tern to me. Dora's son came by and took it home to care for it until it got better. The bird's mother, circling and squawking overhead, was not impressed.

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The second was a demonstration of the device hanging on the side of one of the homes.

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It is a water hoop and is used for carrying water from the well. As someone who has had to carry water in from a well, I can appreciate the ingenuity of this device to keep the buckets from slopping water all over the place.

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Edit, January 21, 2012
A friend of mine was curious about the photo above with the office window and the open book. She wasn't sure if it was my photography that skewed the image or if the construction was the cause. Well, the construction of these buildings was very rough indeed and while the following photographs don't meet my normal quality standards, which is why I didn't include them in the first place, they do give you a great idea of how hardscrabble the living conditions were back then.

Here you can see the dirt floor and the lack of inside doors. The beds are close to the open fireplace for warmth at night as the fire dies and the stones are the only thing radiating heat. If you look closely, you will see the light shining down from the open roof above the fireplace.

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The beds are pretty basic, as are the clothes laid out on one of them.

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Almost everything is made from materials at hand.

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An exception to the "use what is at hand" rule would be the windows. They would have been made elsewhere. Putting them into the wall was not an exercise in precision carpentry.

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If you are ever near Trinity, I'd recommend taking a couple of hours to go see the Random Passage set and take a quick trip back in time. I think you will come away with a better appreciation for the comforts we have available to us today.

Many of my images from Newfoundland are available to purchase as fine art prints from my web gallery.

If you would like to read some of my other posts about Newfoundland, click here and use the "Older" and "Newer" links at the bottom to scroll through the posts.

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