After reviewing Bill Nelson’s book last week, despite not being familiar with his work from De Bop Deluxe onwards, this week it’s Alan Doyle. Not only did I not know who he was, but I’ve never heard of his band either.
Doyle is the singer and guitarist with Canadian folk supergroup Great Big Sea and he’s a Newfie — born and raised in Newfoundland. As his name suggests he’s of Irish descent and this means he grew up in a Canadian town separated by religion (in an amicable Canadian way), was surrounded by music from an early age and can tell a good tale. I heard him interviewed on Canadian radio and he was such a good talker that I bought the book.
He grew up in Petty Harbour, a poor town on the coast where fishing was the main income. He was really poor — no running water, no bathroom, make do and mend, and with heating oil often in short supply. (When their oil ran out, a family would go round to someone else’s house and have a dance).
It’s a book that’s never really actually about much, but when it’s finished you realise he’s told you a good tale of his small-town life; despite being poor his village was rich on larger-than-life characters.
His first job was on the wharf, cutting out cod tongues for fishermen, and he learned about life early, and met all the salty characters. These include the hard-as-nails man who shrugged off not only being impaled by a sizeable fishing hook but having his pacemaker fall out after a fishing accident, in both cases having to be forced to call for an ambulance.
The story moves on to Doyle doubting the religion he’s force fed, and descending into a dangerous cove to rescue some nudie mags. He starts touring with a relative’s band before moving to St John’s for a summer job, where he meets more musicians.
It’s an enjoyable read about small town life from a man who wanted to escape but now wishes his home town was more like it used to be. He’s a natural storyteller so the pace never really flags, though it’s more of an amble that a sprint. Fans of the late Pete McCarthy might enjoy it.
You could check out his music too — if he was English he’d be in a cult folk rock band (fiddle, bodhran, acoustic guitar), as opposed to a big band in Canada, where people wax sentimental about their roots. Ordinary Day is their big tune and it’s not bad; a lot of the other music is well played but a little clichéd for English ears.
It’s the kind of book you wish would hurry along while you’re reading it, and then wish there was more when you get to the end. If you buy it, take your time.