Fighter pilot, Royal Navy 1945, Hydrographer Iraq 1947-52 India 1952-53, Canadian Hydrographic Arctic explorer 1953-1960, Writer-producer Canadian National Film Board 1961-72, Freelance journalist, audio-visual producer 1972-2009, National Press Club of Canada 1961 - 2006

Saturday, June 13, 2009


Paul Anka’s lovely Canadian Diana

and a magical memory of the Good Old Days

—in a peaceful Iraq

Eight years before Paul Anka’s Diana topped the popular song lists, I myself fell under the spell of another alluring female of the same name.

Sixty years ago Iraq was far more civilized and peaceful than it is today. It was there in the far south where the murky effluent of the Shatt-al-Arab river meets the clear, blue, sea water of the Persian Gulf, that I myself began a love affair with Diana, a girl from Baghdad.

At the time I was in charge of the Basra Port Directorate’s S.V. El Ghar, a 110-ton survey vessel. And luckily, the night I first tasted my new love, our vessel was tied up alongside in the tiny port of Fao. With most of my Iraqi crew off home for the night, I was free to indulge myself with Diana in my cabin, unobserved.

Though my first encounter with that delicate young girl was fraught with some danger I was later to dally in her company in perfect tranquility for many a night, and quite a few mornings during the next few years. I shared her favours, quite happily and usually quite amicably, with many another seafaring gentleman or expatriate European. And, if the truth can now be told, even occasionally in company with prim, fair-skinned young ladies who also succumbed to her charms.

Iraq is a somewhat mystical land where strange things happen and where the yearnings and cravings of the human spirit are assuaged as best they may. In this particular case the dominant factor would be considered quite pedestrian by many.

It was the supply of beer. Extremely erratic.

Sure, beer came up the Gulf to Basra by ship from Europe and elsewhere but there was little chance of developing any sort of brand loyalty. Variety, long droughts and flash floods were the norm in the Port Officers Shore Mess, our little club in Fao. Most of the beer that came our way was innocuous Danish, Dutch and second-rate British export beer. So apart from getting aboard some of the better-stocked Royal Fleet Auxiliaries and other well-found vessels and making private deals, the beer situation was often bleak.

Then excitement reigned. The Iraq Times newspaper was publishing full-page advertisements. They told of a brewery being established in Baghdad. Two European brewmasters were arriving to take charge. The beer would soon be marketed throughout Iraq. So one evening, when we tied up alongside our little port of Fao and heard that the new Iraqi beer was now available I sent my cook ashore to buy some.

I was delighted to see the bottles were labelled: DIANA. This I thought augured well. A famous beer in Egypt had been named STELLA and another girl's name had been used for a very acceptable beer brewed in Palestine. A third liquid girl to cherish would be welcome. So that evening I took Diana to my cabin and sampled her. Maybe to excess. She seduced me very easily.

But as we slipped our lines early next morning and headed down the Shatt-al-Arab to deep water, I saw the screaming headlines in my copy of the Iraq Times:



I was shocked. I went down to my cabin. I surveyed the several empty bottles. I peered at my eyes in the mirror. Then I read the full story. The trouble, it said, was caused by faulty bottle-washing equipment and a lack of standardized bottles. I could understand that. Hardly two of my dozen empties were the same shape. Just an assortment of large bottles similar to those to be seen standing in the doorways of local Iraqi mud-houses —and used to store kerosene for cooking stoves.

I went back up on the bridge. As the day passed I was pleased to note that my eyesight was not dimming, my stomach digested its noonday curry and paralysis did not set in. But, I remembered. Last night. Diana. She had left rather a marked aftertaste. And now that I thought of it —a definite kerosene aftertaste.

The next week another announcement appeared in the Iraq Times: Diana was now approved. Soon, in nice new, clean, custom-made bottles, Diana was being enjoyed by all hands. Her purity was certified by the health authorities. Our Iraqi Diana’s praises were well worth singing about.

All who enjoyed her attested to that.


Cutting across the top of Baffin Bay the powerful Canadian government icebreaker, d’Iberville, entered Lancaster Sound and anchored outside Resolute harbour amid ice floes in the early morning of August 16, 1956.

After breakfast I took a helicopter to Griffith Island some miles away to make some theodolite observations. Left alone on the high point of the cliff edge, the cold north wind made observing difficult and after a while the features I was looking for through the instrument’s telescope merged atmospherically into invisibility. However, things closer to hand were very visible including a polar bear making his way along the ice-bound island shoreline. As he approached my position I looked in vain for the returning helicopter but realized it would be an hour or two before I could hope to be picked up. The d’Iberville had but a short time in Resolute and lots to do before setting off for Eureka in the highest regions of the High Arctic.. With the harbour ice interfering with boat traffic the ship’s two helicopters would be very busy ferrying people between the base and ship.

The situation made me keenly interested in the bear’s movements. Intensely interested. I comforted myself with the fact that I was a couple of hundred feet up from the sea ice and if I hid behind the pile of rocks I had used as a survey marker I probably wouldn’t be seen. Anyway it was common knowledge that polar bears are only interested in seals and other marine life. It was knowledge as common as that about wolves. The common knowledge with which I had comforted myself the previous year, in 1955, when alone amid the Arctic barrens, I had found wolf tracks imprinted upon the footprints I myself had left freshly imprinted along the shores of a desolate lake.

All the same, in spite of my educated and sophisticared outlook, I was glad that I was downwind of the polar bear. If he got a whiff of my delectability he might forego his usual diet for once and might even be bothered to climb up the steep slope to inspect me more closely. I comforted myself with the thought that if he did track me down he would probably realize his mistake after the first couple of mouthfuls, feel embarrassed, and leave me alone to go off looking for real seals. Quickly I checked to see if I was wearing any sealskin apparel. Even the slightest scent was enough for a bear. I remembered the old saying about a leaf falling from a tree in the forest. The eagle saw it fall, the deer heard it fall, and the bear smelt it fall. But there were no trees around here, either for shedding leaves or for climbing up in panic. Just expanses of bare bear terrain. So, flat on my face, peeking over the edge of the rise of land I followed the bear’s meandering progress. Every few moments he stopped to sniff the breeze from seaward. Eventually, like the well-behaved, normal bear he was, he wandered away down the coast.

Flying back in the helicopter later I couldn’t see him at all, though we searched around for several minutes.

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