Remembering Chris Brookes

Remembering Chris Brookes

On April 10th, Running the Goat lost a dear friend with the sudden, accidental death of Chris Brookes. An internationally renowned, multi-award-winning, and highly revered radio producer, theatre director, and audio documentarian, Chris loved radio and soundscapes and storytelling. He devoted his life to changing the way we listen to, think about, and experience sound, and to celebrating and sharing the power of stories.

Chris was the creative genius behind all of Running the Goat’s audio books. With his beloved wife, musician Christina Smith (aka Battery Radio Orchestra), authors/narrators Andy Jones, Tom Dawe, and Kate Story, and sometimes also director Charlie Tomlinson, Chris brought those books to life with wit and brilliance and generous intellect, shaping new offerings that are themselves remarkable contributions to the literary and aural culture of Newfoundland and Labrador. These audio books embody the joyfulness that animated so much of Chris’s work, the curiosity, the compassion, the commitment to quality, the willingness to take risks, and the delight in fun—as well, of course, as his relentlessly generous support of other artists and their works.

Even before Chris began to produce our audio books, he was a great supporter and encourager of, and a believer in, the Goat. That belief was a gift I hold onto now, at a time of deep sadness. It’s a gift he offered to many artists over many years; I’m so grateful that the Goat and I figured among that multitude. Chris served on our unofficial advisory board—essentially friends gathering irregularly for a few glasses of wine to offer thoughts on past missteps and future paces. He was as excellent at offering encouragement as he was at enjoying wine.

Chris understood the important and very serious work of play. He delighted in the topsy turvy-ness of childhood; in the most important ways, he never grew up. He also loved to poke at authority figures, to question and challenge. He could be anarchic and a little bit outrageous. There’s a brilliant story about the pie-ing of a rather stuffy arts community member that I loved to hear. And what I wouldn’t give for a chance to have him spin out, one more time, the episode when King (then Prince) Charles unveiled a parking meter at Rawlins Cross—a hilarious true tale that made the man utterly human while still prodding ruthlessly at an obsolete colonial system. I also have particularly wonderful memories of a collaborative re-writing of an old Johnny Burke song as a protest about development on the St. John’s harbourfront. It’s amazing what a couple glasses of wine can result in—and, if one happens to own a printing press, well . . . .

One of Chris’s many award-winning audio documentaries was a deeply moving exploration of the loss of traditional knowledge as a result of the decline of Newfoundland’s cod fishery; it was structured around the figures of the traditional dance from which the press takes its name. I fondly remember a recording session in Jack Wells’ Twine Store, across the road from Chris and Christina’s house in the Outer Battery, when I had the pleasure of being one of the people whose dancing feet were recorded for the documentary, and the thrill of being part of that intricate and exhilarating social dance in a rather rickety wooden building extending out over the waters of St. John’s harbour.

Chris had a remarkable capacity for delight. His enthusiastic reports of his chickens’ egg laying . . . I miss them already. Endlessly inventive, he cobbled together the least-dumb-waiter in the city (operated by a drill motor—its distinctive whirr let you know that dishes heaped with delicious food were making their way from the first-floor kitchen to the dining room table on the second). I met that dumb waiter before I met the inventor, and my interest was definitely piqued.

He was passionate and engaging, and fiercely committed to Newfoundland and Labrador. Most importantly, he had (to quote L.M. Montgomery) “a genius for friendship” and a remarkable capacity for building community, for sharing his impassioned take on the world and his neighbourhood with anyone who came through his door. And many, many people crossed that wonderful threshold. You wouldn’t necessarily know who to expect at his and Christina’s dinner table, but you were guaranteed excellent conversation, great food, and challenging fun. I have cherished memories of welcoming the new year on the deck of their beautiful house in the Battery, as fireworks crackled in small displays on the hills that rim the harbour, ships’ horns sounding out in celebration, and the gulls rising up with them, pale against the night sky. Until the pandemic, Chris and Christina hosted one of the best parties of the year—every Old Christmas their home was filled with songs and tunes and stories and conversation and laughter, and people basking in their generous hospitality.

In the wake of the heartbreaking news of his death, I’m struck by how, even after he’s left us, Chris Brookes continues to build community. Over the past few days, I’ve heard from friends and acquaintances across the country and across the Atlantic—all of them reaching out to offer love and support, to share a memory, to connect again, in some cases after years, to honour this dear man that we loved. That we love. And will continue to love, and carry with us now, in our hearts, as we listen to the world with ears tuned by his legacy.

We at Running the Goat extend our deepest condolences to Christina Smith, the rest of Chris’s family, and his many friends and colleagues. It was a privilege to know him and to work with him, and a joy to call him a friend.

You can hear some of Chris’s marvellous audio documentaries here:

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