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'It was the best of times; it was the worst of times'


The opening lines of Charles Dickens' Tale of Two Cities might well refer to events at The Beaches Heritage Centre in Eastport a week ago. Those events include The Winterset in Summer Literary Festival held annually on the Eastport Peninsula to showcase and celebrate Newfoundland and Labrador writing and writers. This year for the first time, the night before the Festival, a concert was held entitled "Averill Baker and Friends" featuring the world-renowned Gander pianist. The concert was a benefit for the Beaches Library, an independent venture re-opened a year ago and thriving due to the imagination, ingenuity and hard work of its volunteers and the generosity of the residents in the seven communities on the Eastport Peninsula as well as the visitors who migrate here annually.

Neither here nor there - The opening lines of Charles Dickens' Tale of Two Cities might well refer to events at The Beaches Heritage Centre in Eastport a week ago.

Those events include The Winterset in Summer Literary Festival held annually on the Eastport Peninsula to showcase and celebrate Newfoundland and Labrador writing and writers. This year for the first time, the night before the Festival, a concert was held entitled "Averill Baker and Friends" featuring the world-renowned Gander pianist. The concert was a benefit for the Beaches Library, an independent venture re-opened a year ago and thriving due to the imagination, ingenuity and hard work of its volunteers and the generosity of the residents in the seven communities on the Eastport Peninsula as well as the visitors who migrate here annually.

Ms. Baker, who recently turned professional after a stellar amateur career appeared for no fee. Many were turned away from the packed house, and the funds raised will be most welcome to continue filling the shelves of the library.

There was a buoyant feeling in the air. People pulling together to lift ourselves up by our own bootstraps, a welcome throwback to the traditional spirit of rural Newfoundland and very likely a necessary flash forward too, given the evident disregard of the Williams administration for the needs of those outside the overpass.

The concert was wonderful. It featured many well-known local musicians but also protégés of Ms. Baker, eight-year old-violinist Charlotte Butt, dramatic monologuist Jane Soucy, age 11, and the Vatcher Girls. Named, not for shared family, but for the street where they live in Gander, these four girls were discovered by Averill Baker as they sang and danced on her lawn in time with the music while she practiced her piano, the notes drifting out the window to the surrounding neighbourhood. She invited the girls in, got to know them, and worked with them to develop their 11 and 12 year old voices into the beautiful sound that filled the theatre in the first half of the concert.

After the intermission, we were treated to Averill alone, playing Schubert, Brahms and Gershwin which the petite pianist rendered with jaw-dropping speed and dexterity from pianissimo to fortissimo earning two standing ovations. Her mastery is utterly inspiring.

Almost as inspiring as her generosity of spirit.

That same generosity of spirit is celebrated in the event that began the next day. The Winterset Award was founded by Richard Gwyn to honour the memory of his late wife, Sandra Fraser Gwyn, a native-born Newfoundlander and award-winning writer herself. Sandra rarely missed a chance throughout her life to give a hand to aspiring artists of all disciplines, from this province.

The Winterset in Summer Festival continues that important work. The presentations over the three days showcased emerging and established writing talents. It is a chance for writers to express themselves beyond the printed page, and by answering questions from the audience, encourage potential authors. There is frequently insight to be gained by all members of the audience when an author replies to a question that is really in search of an answer.

Things work less well when an audience member stands up to make a speech.

On Saturday night, Michael Enright hosted the keynote panel featuring the Winterset Award Winner for 2008 Kathleen Winter and the runners-up Paul Rowe and George Rose. Enright demonstrated why he is so highly esteemed as an interviewer by making a coherent presentation of three very different books, subjects and writers.

Then came the questions from the audience. At first Michael Enright seemed to achieve the near impossible, managing the questions and picking out points in the answers so that neither the author of the whimsical short stories nor the historical novel was left out of a discussion concerning the encyclopaedic history of the North Atlantic Fishery.

Then, from the second row of the theatre, our Lieutenant-Governor, the Honourable John C. Crosbie, got to his feet.

What followed was a rambling monologue with no hint that it was leading to a question. The speech, because that is what it was, shuffled and stumbled aimlessly from one unrelated topic to another, every now and again pausing as if to draw a conclusion before staggering off in a new direction. Very early on, his voice too low to reach the listeners, he was offered a microphone. "Don't give him a mike, it will only encourage him," grumbled someone. With the microphone in hand, the Lietenant-Governor's voice filled the hall. A number of audience members walked out to make room for it.

The oration continued for something like 10 minutes without any discernible thread emerging from the tangled chaos. Throughout, the three Winterset finalists who were supposed to be the centre of attention sat slack-jawed and gob-smacked, perhaps inspired by Paul Rowe's book title "The Silent Time."

Some of the topics touched on by his Honour: how Crosbie and Sheila Copps were good buddies now; how he isn't a sexist; what a fine journalist Michael Enright is; that Newfoundland men, not women, should make more babies to counter out-migration; that Newfoundlanders and Labradorians are misunderstood; we had to kill or be killed; the early settlers relied on the advice of the Beothuks.

"And then we killed them," muttered a voice from the back of the theatre.

We are falsely accused of being brutal seal killers. Did I mention that Michael Enright is a very fine journalist? And do you know why the cod moratorium had to be called? The whole fish business is just Politics.

And do you know what politicians are?

Here his Honour, the Lieutenant-Governor, possibly forgetting momentarily that he was speaking of the profession he had practiced for the bulk of his working life answered his own question. He employed the commonly used term for bovine excrement, not suitable for a family newspaper, nor come to think of it, for an occasion to honour the accomplishments of our best writers.

As people filed out of the theater I overheard a number of scraps of conversation. More than one suggested that the job of Lieutenant-Governor should be abolished.

I don't agree.

Keep the position, but fill it with a good candidate. I could recommend one. She lives on Vatcher Place in Gander. The house with the piano music drifting out the windows and the young girls dancing and singing on the lawn.

pickersgill@mac.com

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