Arthur Johnston's life was limned by the contradictions and changes of post-Confederation Newfoundland. The Confederation debate forged his family's political bent just as his blacksmith father Charles' anvil had shoed the Ferryland horses. The industrial starts, stammers and stalls of the post-Confederation decades determined his career shifts, from an agricultural researcher in a province with a sparse agricultural field, to postings with a fisheries department administered by the detested federal government and destined to alienate him from the fishermen he'd once worked beside.
Through it all he expressed himself in a rich, unique, ironic sensibility that would fuel characters and dialogues in all his son Wayne Johnston's best-selling and award-winning writing. This happened quite overtly in the non-fiction Baltimore's Mansion, but also more subtly as in the words of Joseph Smallwood in The Colony of Unrequited Dreams and the wit of characters such as Sheilagh Fielding in The Custodian of Paradise. (Arthur Johnston often told people he was Sheilagh Fielding.)
He had a distinct way of putting things. For example, there was his disdain for the official moment of Confederation, which occurred "immediately before the expiration of March 31, 1949" - these words were inserted to avoid the derision of having it take place on April 1.
"They have no meaning," Wayne Johnston quotes his father as saying in The Old Lost Land of Newfoundland. "Imagine a second. Now imagine dividing that second in half. And all those halves in half, and so on and so on, for all eternity, and you will still have come no closer to anything that even approximates being 'immediately before the expiration of' anything, with the possible exception of your sanity."
The insistence on the empirical, the cadence of explanation, and the final droll twist, was typical.
In another instance, in late December, 1968, with the Newfoundland Railway about to be phased out in favour of a CN bus fleet, Arthur Johnston took Wayne on a 48-hour return cross-island train journey. He wanted to show Wayne how much of Newfoundland there was, away from the sea. Along the way he told stories about the Southern Cross and the Great Eastern, drank Royal Reserve Rye and ginger ale, and engaged in conversation with fellow riders, including his riposte to one man who opined that the buses were faster than the train and one must just as well face facts:
"Why must we just as well face facts? If we all faced facts there'd be no one left in Newfoundland. There's nothing in the facts to keep us here. Is this what we've become, a country of fact-facing bus-boomers?"
"If you go through all the books you'll find a character based on Dad," said Wayne Johnston. "Uncle Reg in Divine Ryans (no one ever noticed this was Dad's middle name); in Bobby O'Malley everyone assumes Ted O'Malley is Dad (the only thing is Agnes is not mom); Peter Prendergast, they all draw heavily on Dad."
Baltimore's Mansion was all about Arthur Johnston and the Johnston family. It was Arthur Johnston's favourite of his son's work; Wayne Johnston once said his father felt it "made up for" the sympathetic portrait of Smallwood found in Colony.
Arthur Johnston was one of four girls and three boys born to Charles and Mae (White) in Ferryland, about 60 kilometres south of St. John's. The deeply Catholic outport was fervently anti-Confederation. Charles was the blacksmith, as his father had been. (Among his duties were attending all the nearby weddings, as it was good luck to have a blacksmith at the ceremony.) Charles Johnston also fished, and as a boy, Arthur was out in the punt every second morning, putting in five hours works before school. In was arduous labour. On the water he was always sick, once, and he could remember wrestling with codfish half the size of his 10-year-old self. Throughout life he would frequently wake at 4 a.m.
After finishing school at Holy Trinity in Ferryland, in September, 1948, he took the train across the island and went away to the Nova Scotia Agricultural College in Truro. Charlie Johnston died in his forge in January, 1949. Arthur Johnston got the news in a telegram; he did not have the money to come home for the funeral. So, by tragic coincidence, he lost his father and his country during his year away.
He returned with a technical degree. There was not a huge demand for Newfoundland agriculture although he worked at the Experimental Farm near St. John's, assigned to identify and exploit Newfoundland's agricultural resources. But the island's bogs and barrens offered little potential for vegetables or pasture, and exports were limited to a very few products, such as blueberries.
So Mr. Johnston was transferred to the Fisheries Research Board of Canada Biological Station, "the Station" for short, on Water Street East in St. John's. This was the new age of the freezer trawlers, and Arthur Johnston could study their catch and tell when it was caught, and at what depth and temperature of water. He knew the Latin names of all the fish (cod was Gadus morrhua), the record weight for a cod (211½ pounds), and how to make a "flatfish face" to amuse his children. Two days a month were spent grading fish from plants by feel, smell and taste, a tiresome, sometimes sickening process. But he would still make feeds of cod tongues, or buy whole cod from off the wharf that he could weigh by hand and clean and fillet himself.
Then he became an inspector on the Belle Bay, working the south coast run to check fish plants in places such as Rencontre East and Gaultois. He was gone at least a week from his family, now in The Goulds, just outside of St. John's, after abiding briefly in the city. The work was isolating, both by its nature (storms could maroon them in an outport where food and shelter could be catch-as-catch-can) and psychologically. Federal government representatives were set off by their black parkas and yellow and blue badges, and they would sometimes order some cod dumped or a fish plant closed, rousing a community's ire.
He was still sick once each voyage. When he could, he quit the south coast run to work at Federal Fisheries lab in Pleasentville, where his duties included quality control. At 55 he retired, predicting the cod fishery was near its end. In 1992, he and his wife surprised everyone by moving to Alberta; they returned to Newfoundland six years later.
In another surprise, Mr. Johnston often phoned his son with story suggestions, sometimes outlandish, but his intercession with Baltimore's Mansion was eerily prescient. "In a weird synchronicity, the day I finished writing it, he called a few minutes later to suggest I write about me and him and Charlie," Wayne Johnston said. "I said, 'Dad, I just finished that book two minutes ago.'"
Arthur Reginald Johnston was born in Ferryland on Aug. 24, 1925. He died on Dec. 4, 2009, in St. John's, of congestive heart failure. He was 84. He leaves his wife Genevieve (née Everard), four sons, and two daughters.
Special to The Globe and Mail