By Cecilia Nasmith
Each town crier is as unique as his or her fingerprint, but Liam Cragg's version put him in the top five at the recent provincial competition as he represented Alnwick-Haldimand Township.
“I'm very pleased to come in fifth, out of about a dozen,” Cragg said in a recent interview.
Last month's Ontario Guild of Town Criers championship on Amherst Island was his second time at a provincial competition, he added, and he hopes to go to many more.
The rules are intriguing, he said. You author your own cries that cannot exceed the 100-to-125-word range – and they even define what constitutes a word.
“'Oyez' is a word,” he stated.
Judges score you on your entrance and exit, he continued. It must be prompt, and you must remain smoothly in character.
You are also judged on your so-called attention-getting device and how you use it (Cragg admits he has lost points in the past for excessive bell-ringing). Clanging schoolbells may be the most common, but he has seen a trumpet, a horn and even a silent device. When everyone saw the seven-foot-long talking stick carried by an Indigenous crier who wordlessly hoisted it horizontally over his head, Cragg reported, they instinctively went silent.
Clarity, projection and sustained volume matter, and so does content – adhering to the subject matter with a narrative that is appropriate, effective and smooth-flowing.
Points are subtracted if your voice cracks, if you leave an item onstage, if you deviate from the script (the judges will have received an advance copy and will be following along). And if you give a cry but have given the wrong script to the judges, that's a deal-breaker.
All are judged against what is called a benchmark crier, a non-competing guest crier who is given a score on a range of one to 10. For the Amherst Island event, a most entertaining gentleman from eastern Pennsylvania did the honours.
Pendulums swing, Cragg reflected, but the current trend is to incorporate humour to enhance the showmanship of the craft – in the content of the cry, the manner of its delivery or both. But it's a matter of balance.
“Where does entertainment stop and representation of your township begin?” he wondered.
He expects no respectable town crier would use such an approach for a civic function in front of his or her mayor. Any mayor, however, would appreciate what is called the home-town cry, which Cragg called “pretty much a 100-word advertisement for your township.” The Brantford crier, for example, worked in the fact that the telephone was developed there and that it's Wayne Gretzky's home town.
At the provincials, they had to give a market cry and a second cry based on either sheep or Loyalists (Loyalists because the area is rich in Loyalist history, and sheep because of the sponsor of the event). Because the competition coincided with the 70th-anniversary Amherst Island garden party, they asked for another cry based on gardens, gardeners or a garden party. Cragg adapted a Margaret Atwood quote he found in Uncle John's Bathroom Book of Canadiana.
“You never know where an inspiration is going to come from,” he allowed.
Cragg moved to Grafton in 2014 from Bracebridge, which is where he first encountered the discipline. The position of town crier is a municipal appointment that, ideally, is earned through what is known as public spectacle – a public competition. Bracebridge did that 18 years ago, and Cragg was one of the competitors.
Years later, when the Heritage Alnwick-Haldimand committee thought it would be nice to have a town crier in place by the Canada 150 year, the municipality decided there wasn't time for a proper competition and offered the job to him.
“I said, 'Give me a one-year appointment, and see if anyone complains or feels they might like to be one and maybe have a public competition,'” Cragg said.
Provincial competition is open to members of the Ontario Guild of Town Criers, and Cragg is always glad to go to such events for the simple reason that it helps him become a better crier.
Kingston crier Chris Whyman has been provincial champion three times and Canadian champion once, and has competed internationally as well – illustrating the opportunity one gets at these gatherings to learn from the best.
“It's very important to hobnob, see what's going on, meet with old friends, find out what direction is the discipline going in,” he said.
The organization holds its annual general meeting following the competition. Cragg has been elected to the board for a one-year term and is looking forward to the opportunity for input.
Every new town crier learns one surprising fact – there is no official town-crier uniform.
Cragg has seen everything from a slapdash sweatpants-tucked-into-knee-socks job to a Scottish theme with kilt and sash and a hat with the single feather that only a clan chieftain is allowed to wear. National Capital Region crier Daniel Richer dit LaFleche of the seven-foot talking stick (the only francophone and the only Indigenous crier competing this year) has dozens of outfits, ranging from traditional regalia to buckskins.
For his own livery (a term he far prefers to “costume”), Cragg researched the Guild Facebook page and realized some assembly would be required.
He found a pattern for his green gentleman's frock coat based on what a gentleman might wear in the 1780s, and enlisted the help of local nurse Laurie Sandziuk. She does costuming for the VOS Theatre group, and created a beautiful one with gold braid and vintage-looking metal buttons. Upon closer inspection, you will see the buttons come from a variety of sources, including Expo '67, his father Charles's Second World War uniform and his mother Carol's sewing basket.
Sandziuk also created the scarlet sash, which was just a matter of a visit to Fabricland to pick out a striking colour.
Tricorn hats are extremely hard to find, he learned from his research. He heard he might be able to find one in New England, but struck the jackpot in Tampa, Florida.
Home of the NFL team Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the city boasts shops with pirate regalia of all kinds, from low- to high-end. Cragg picked up a great hat there, as well as his brocade vest and pants.
A Scottish men's-wear place in Barrie is where the shirt came from, as well as a good pair of socks (which he has recently swapped out for men's compression socks from Shoppers Drug Mart).
The boots are motorcycle boots which have been modified by a local shoe repair shop.
That tricorn hat sports on its turned-up brim lapel pins from the township, Canada 150 and the William Street Brewery. The jaunty feathers come from birds on Cragg's farm – turkey tail and wing feathers, two pheasant feathers, and one from Romeo the Rooster.
He wanted a bell with a certain kind of ring. A friend from a consignment store in Bracebridge (called Worth Repeating) called him up when a shipment of school-yard bells came in. Cragg had him ring each one over the phone for him, picked the one he liked, and turned the phone over to his wife Becky to negotiate the purchase.
It's a lot to pack when he leaves for a competition, but he has found some criers go even further. Along with awards for the winner and the most humourous cry, this year's provincials offered an award for the best couple.
Competitors are invited to bring along a consort, he explained, and a number of them did show up with elaborately costumed companions.
When next year's provincials come around, count on Cragg to compete in that area as well.