Before Alan Doyle ever belonged to Great Big Sea, one of Canada's greatest folk-rock bands, he belonged to Petty Harbour. Or, to put it in Petty Harbour terms, "Alan Doyle is belong to Petty Harbour." The tiny town where Alan grew up was just off a beautiful protected harbour, hanging off a cliff on the eastern edge of Newfoundland. While most of Canada knows Newfoundland as one of Canada's 10 provinces, many of the people of Petty Harbour think of Canada as a faraway place and still recall the day when "Canada joined Newfoundland" in 1949.
Alan writes about his childhood and his experience growing up in Petty Harbour in his new book Where I Belong (Doubleday, $32.95). One might call Petty Harbour quaint, but that would underestimate it. Though the town of Alan's childhood is old-fashioned and humble, it's also mythical in its timelessness and filled with unbelievable people and stories.
Alan begins the book with a bit of a warning for those who might be skeptical: "In Newfoundland, truth really is stranger than fiction."
He tells stories of cutting fish tongues as a boy, stories of growing up in a 600-square-foot house (for a time with no plumbing) and stories of kids getting thrown into the freezing cold wharf. Yet he doesn't spend a word complaining.
When I have the chance to ask him about the place where he grew up, he says, in his thick Newfoundland accent, "It was a fantasy camp for a little boy."
Despite living in a pint-sized house with a family of six, wearing hand-me-down clothes and having no vehicle, Alan grew up happy. "It didn't occur to me that our lot in life wasn't awesome. It never dawned on me because I was having a good time," he explains.
That glass-half-full perspective is something he attributes to his Newfie background. "I'm so thrilled that Newfoundlanders take hardship as a cue to have an awesome time," says Alan. In his book he writes about his folks having out-of-oil parties on those winter evenings when they had run out of fuel to heat the house. They would take the door off the hinges of an electric oven, then invite friends and family over to celebrate, warming themselves with body heat, alcohol and the oven.
Though Alan doesn't have to worry about running out of oil these days, he still doesn't pass up any small disaster to throw a party. "A couple years ago there was a big power outage. A bunch of people came over to my place and I lit the fireplace. What a laugh," he recalls.
Anecdotes like this quickly turn into lore when told in Alan's voice. His way with storytelling is evident throughout the book and throughout his music. But he doesn't take the credit. "Newfoundlanders by race are storytellers. Many of us are songwriters too," he says. "You record the history of your town, of your life, of your family, of your party, not in any academic way but in an entertaining way. That's how it's always done where I'm from."
You get the feeling that Alan never left the place he was from; he only took it with him. He didn't leave the island until he was almost 20, and the first place he flew to was London, England. "I just remember sitting there, having my mind blown watching all of these people come and go," he says. "I wanted to randomly grab someone and go, ‘Excuse me, where are you going? What are you doing?' I just couldn't believe that many people passing each other every day." Since then, he's had the opportunity to travel to all kinds of places he never dreamed of, when touring with Great Big Sea.
Today Petty Harbour stands exactly as it did, only entirely different—the way every place from childhood does. "Physically it's identical," says Alan. "The bridge might be newer, but the river still goes down the middle of the town and there's still a store over here and a store over there." But the fishing village is giving way to tourism—an aquarium, a zipline, a restaurant. "It was just an incredible time that's kind of lost now a little bit, because of some of the fisheries and what it used to be."
Alan now lives in St. John's with his wife and eight-year-old son. His parents moved to St. John's too about five years ago, and they and his brother and sister live just down the road. Though they're no longer living in the house where hundreds of tall but true tales were born, the town is still full of Doyles, says Alan.
Alan returns to Petty Harbour a few times a year, often to play music for local concerts. Though he laments the fact that his son, Henry, will never get a Petty Harbour childhood, Alan does take him back to visit the place where he grew up. Henry loves the tiny town with no sidewalks, where you can run around, throw rocks and do things that little boys do. And you can bet that one day he'll love the stories his daddy tells about that little place called Petty Harbour.