It was a terrible thing, Ray Guy would say, to have a reputation for being funny. “This satire business, that was one of the worst things that ever happened to me. I was certified funny. From then on, I had to be funny – people expected it. Twice the work for the same pay.”
But with his talent, it probably couldn’t be helped. A consummate wordsmith with an encyclopedic knowledge of all things Newfoundland, a pitch-perfect ear for dialogue and a rock-solid sense of place, he was an almost breathlessly good writer, and very, very funny.
Still, like all satirists, his wasn’t motivated by a desire to amuse so much as a quest for justice.
He always claimed his career came from simply being in the right place at the right time. When he graduated from Toronto’s Ryerson Polytechnical Institute and was hired by St. John’s-based The Evening Telegram in the early 1960s, first as a general reporter and then legislative reporter, the rival The Daily News had a column on the Newfoundland House of Assembly. So the Telegram needed one, too. Mr. Guy was given the assignment.
Premier Joseph Smallwood’s government held a huge majority. In fact, in Mr. Smallwood’s first six terms, he never faced more than eight opposition members. Documented accountability was in short supply, too. As Mr. Guy recalled, Hansard had not been published in seven years.
“I had this image in my mind that there was a seesaw with an 800-pound gorilla on one end of it, and a snivelling little youngster way up on the other end, so if you had a bit of weight, where would you put it?” he said in a Telegram interview in 2011.
Mr. Guy produced 1,200 words, five days a week. He became the unofficial opposition – and a household name. Many of his readers – and the paper had a circulation then of about 25,000 – can quote lines verbatim, just as they can sing a few lines from Ron Hynes’s Sonny’s Dream.
“His early mockery of Smallwood, when Smallwood had morphed into some grim parody of a premier, was fired by anger, lit by a dark outport genius and devastatingly powerful because it was done in an authentic Newfoundland voice,” Rex Murphy wrote in a Telegram tribute. “World-class journalistic battery that had people, every afternoon, literally, waiting in the small towns from Whitbourne to Burin for The Telegram to show up. That’s popularity, that’s writing.”
He was compared to great writers such as Jonathan Swift and James Joyce. “He is unsurpassed when he turns his sights on local life,” an earlier book reviewer noted, “[and] can most likely be given the lion’s share of credit for the failure of the Newfoundland electorate to re-elect Smallwood in 1972.”
But Mr. Guy was always self-effacing about his reputation. “Smallwood was so good at mounting a circus that all you had to do was be there,” he once told The Herald. And, as far as politics in Newfoundland went, plus ça change. … He felt that premier Frank Moores soon found any guidebooks to absolute power Mr. Smallwood had left behind, that Brian Tobin’s administration was “all engine and no brakes” and, when Danny Williams broke Mr. Smallwood’s record in popular vote, it was a kind of Smallwood redux.
“I always had this feeling when writing about all politics … that when it’s so lopsided, that if a newspaper or news organization has any weight whatsoever, it should automatically go to the other side,” he wrote.
Needless to say, this all raised some hackles.
“Got a dead cat in the mail once,” he told The Herald. “I still get a few dirty looks over the racks in the supermarket, but nobody kicks me in the shins on Water Street. I’ve made sort of a point, apart from being a social dud, not to fraternize with the people I write about. Sure we’re all decent human beings and kind to dogs and children, but I think I’ve kept some objectivity by not rubbing shoulders with these people. … It also made it easier … if you’re going to try and cut somebody’s throat you don’t want to know that their mother is dying of cancer or something. It kind of cramps your style a little bit.”
Still, there was drama. He was fired, or resigned from, The Telegram a half dozen times. He was the subject of letters to the editor and calls to radio and TV producers that expressed outrage and demanded his immediate removal. He was sued.