The footsteps of the Sorbonne trio

In his book Newfoundland’s Believe It or Not! Jack Fitzgerald relates a great hoax that in the 1930s rocked two continents with laughter. You can either go out and buy this book, or read the story here!

In 1933 in Paris, the Chamber of Deputies, the name given to several parliamentary bodies in France in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, spent weeks discussing debts owed the United States by European countries as a result of World War I. Public attention too was focussed on the issue.

Each member of the Chamber contributed to the discussion. Three students at the Sorbonne, the historical house of the former University of Paris, were convinced that some of the Deputies knew absolutely nothing about the States or, indeed, the Western Hemisphere. The trio determined to prove the ignorance of contemporary politicians.

A few days later, 72 members of the Chamber received a professionally typewritten letter. The letterhead read: Paris Branch, Ethnical Defence League of Newfoundlanders and Guatemalans, New York, Headquarters, 43 Seventy-Second Street, N.W. 2.”

The letter began with an appeal to President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

“You know that two States of the Republic of the United States are deprived of a majority of the privileges enjoyed by the other 42,” the authors of the letter declared.

“They are the States of Newfoundland and Guatemala,” they continued. “Newfoundland, as you know, is inhabited by two million people of Spanish origin who still speak Spanish since Cortes[-Real] conquered the country from the Incas; while the Guatemalans speak Portuguese from the time Don Pedro of Syracuse conquered the country in 1456.

“As just one example of injustice, these two States are represented in the United States Senate by only one Senator, whereas others, such as New York, have 12.”

The remainder of the letter was a similar mix of fact and fiction.

The most outrageous result of the hoax was that nine of the 72 Deputies who had received the letter responded to the nonexistent Ethnical Defence League of Newfoundlanders and Guatemalans, promising their undying support for the cause!

As one would expect, once the story got out, the two continents convulsed with laughter. The incident may not be the hoax of that century, as some would claim, but it deserves honourable mention in the history of good-natured deception.

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Bill Rowe’s report card on the premiers

Bill Rowe is a veritable book-writing machine! His literary output is prodigious.

Pick the genre of your choice: fiction, collected columns, political memoir, public policy, history… There’s something in his oeuvre for every reading taste.

I haven’t yet finished reading his 2015 book, The True Confessions of a Badly Misunderstood Dog, as much as I want to. I am a shameless dog lover, who has laughed and wept over my pets. I once read John Grogan’s Marley & Me, but my eyes were blinded by tears, and I vowed to never again read such a heartbreaker. After having lost two dogs, can I bear reading what I think might be another tearjerker about a four-legged animal?

But I can and do read about two-legged animals, especially those of the political stripe. Bill Rowe is my favourite guide to recent politics in Newfoundland and Labrador. He whetted my appetite with titles like Danny William: The War With Ottawa, Danny Williams: Please Come Back, The Premiers Joey and Frank, No Punches Pulled: The Premiers Peckford, Wells, & Tobin, and now…

The Worst and Best of the Premiers and Some We Never Had is, as the subtitle suggests, “a political report card.”

How should Newfoundland and Labrador’s political leaders during the nearly seventy years of Confederation be graded? Bill set for himself a demanding assignment, grading some forty-two individuals who led the various Parties into a provincial general election, ranging from a high of 85% (a tie between Joseph Smallwood and John Crosbie) to a low of 20% (a tie between Jim Higgins and Gus Duffy).

While Bill strove for objectivity – is objectivity even possible? – the marks he assigned reflect his personal likes and dislikes. Readers will quibble with some of his grades.

As I read, I wondered about where on the scale between 0% to 100% Bill himself would be placed. Lo and betide, when I reached page 77, I read these words, “if I had qualified for a ranking here, I would have placed myself, based on the gap between what I had aspired to achieve and what I actually achieved, at the lower end of the scale.”

I would give Bill full marks for writing the way he did, with what he calls his “brutal frankness” and “‘warts and all’ approach.” Admittedly, it may not help him to, in the words of Dale Carnegie, “win friends and influence people,” especially those about whom he writes, but it makes for entertaining and thoughtful reading.

Following a trip I won to Russia in 1978, I spent a nostalgic hour viewing Peter Ustinov’s Leningrad. Later, William Casselman, writing in Macleans, stated, “This is the Leningrad of Peter Ustinov. Not mine, not yours perhaps, but his alone – quirky, flawed, riveting.” I don’t know about the quirky and flawed part, but Bill’s book is definitely riveting.

The Worst and Best of the Premiers and Some We Never Had is published by Flanker Press.

How Ya Gettin’ On?

Some writers are so well known, they don’t have to use their real name. Case in point: Snook, aka Pete Soucy. The title of his book: How Ya Gettin’ On? Snook Writes About Stuff.

Snook is no stranger to Newfoundlanders and Labradorians. He has hosted his own talk show on VOCM. He has also hosted his own CBC variety series. He has released several videos, CDs and DVDs. And this is only part of the stuff he’s been doing for over twenty-five years.

I’m partial to NTV’s evening news coverage. Sometimes, when I’m in another part of the house, I hear the unmistakable voice of the fast-talkin’ Snook, “Howyagettinon?” I rush to the TV, to hear what words of wisdom he will pass on to viewers. I am rarely if ever disappointed. He’s one of a kind. And, as he might say, “Tank God for dat!”

Snook may not have made it to the cover of Atlantic Books Today, as he has The Newfoundland Herald, but he has made it to back of the literary magazine. There, he describes himself as “a proper downtown, St. John’s, Newfoundland ‘Corner Boy,’ ” who mostly just hangs around, “shootin’ the breeze.”

He blames – uh, credits – Mother Nature for making him the way he is, “forever looking for a light, a laugh, and a milder mood.”

How Ya Gettin’ On? is a compilation of weekly columns which originally appeared in The Newfoundland Herald. Such compilations don’t always work, but this one does, as it reflects a year in the thinking of one of the province’s funniest guys. There’s no doubt about it: Snook has a wicked sense of humour.

In the dedication of his book, he makes reference to his high school principal, Mr. Mullett, who always declared that he would “Never do nudding, never be no one, and always be proper useless.” The clincher is when Snook asks rhetorically, “Where’s your book to, Mullett?” I wouldn’t want to be Mr. Mullett today!

“The world is magic,” Snook suggests, “and writing just might be the best of it.”

If you decide to read Snook’s book, to be forewarned is to be forearmed: Be ready to experience some aching belly laughs.
As Snook would say, “Right on.”

How Ya Gettin’ On? Snook Writes About Stuff is published by Flanker Press.