Thursday, August 27, 2009
Sunday, August 23, 2009
Michael Coren, it seems, grew up in Ilford, northeast London, just two or three streets away from where my own family lived — but thirty years earlier than his.
Michael Coren’s one-hour show on CTS TV each weekday evening is well worth watching if you like to follow compact trios and quartets of mostly intelligent people discussing, often heatedly and with conflicting views, all manner of topical subjects and news items. The free format and often somewhat disorderly, or humorous, segments of Coren’s show are far distant from the usual rehearsed, guarded and politically correct-muzzled, soppy pabulum, served up by other more rigidly controlled television programs.
On the Michael Coren show, which is somewhat prosaically called the Michael Coren show, spades are usually called spades, rather than being obliquely referred to as manufactured implements designed to furthering the aims of CANADA’S MINISTER OF AGRICULTURE or for being leaned upon by striking union members.
Coren is very adept, it seems to me, in selecting panellists well-suited to contributing interest to the discussions on his show.
Contributing interest in two ways.
Because included among the intelligent professionals, journalists and other purveyors of common sense are the cunningly interspersed, usually well-spoken others who, probably and unknowingly, are implanted around the discussion table to act as narrow-minded straight-men, oops, sorry straight-persons (ok, in fact, especially as straight persons), similar to the role always played by one member of the old-style comedian duos.
I suspect they are mainly included on the show to engender and provoke the majority of the TV audience to helpless indignation and also to invoke entertaining unbelieving grimaces of incredulity from the more sober and clearer-thinking panellists, among whom of course, Coren reigns, debatably, supreme.
As dogmatic as he is, on certain matters, Michael Coren would probably sit well on the bench of the Spanish Inquisition, if it should ever be revived.
Michael holds great store in his panel guests having written books. Perhaps I should send him a copy of my book: Crumbs! A large portion of it describes life in Ilford during the thirties and, later on, the war years. The secretary of the Ilford historical society, for instance, wrote me to say he had no idea that the PDSA field near our family house, was turned into an antiaircraft gun site during the blitz, and later into a maximum security camp for German POWS, followed later by a Monty-Pythonish, always a wide-open-gate-type, camp for Italian POWS.
While I’m on the subject I think I’ll append some of the reviews of Crumbs! from a decade ago, why not.
The first reviews of Crumbs!
(crumbs ‹ expr. surprise or dismay [euphem. for Christ] -Oxford Dictionary ) when it first appeared in 1999
This is the first of three autobiographical books detailing the interesting life of National Press Club member John Ough (pronounced O as in dough). Told in the same laid-back fashion he uses while savouring his English beer and pipe tobacco in the club's bar, this entertaining book is mostly a series of short anecdotes. They tell of his childhood in prewar London (Ilford)... early teen years during the German Blitz...flying training in Canada prior to becoming a fighter pilot with No: 805 Fleet Air Arm Squadron... and naval life while waiting to be demobilized in 1946.
The next book, soon to be ready for publication, tells how at age 21, from 1947-1952, John became the officer-in-charge of an Iraqi hydrographic survey vessel operating at the head of the Persian Gulf... plus other adventures in India and Scotland before arriving back in Canada in 1953 to spend seven years exploring the Arctic aboard rugged little chartered sealers and Canadian and US icebreakers. During this period he personally discovered, delineated and named several hitherto unknown geographical features.
Another book recounts the later years, 1961-1972, he spent as a staff writer-producer with the National Film Board of Canada.
Crumbs! is written with a light touch and is a fun read...any page proves interesting and entertaining.
National Press Club of Canada (summer 1999 issue)
This rather self-effacing title is apt for a vivid recounting of 1930s schooldays, a young teenager's experiences during the London Blitz... later flying training in wartime Canada and subsequent service with a Royal Navy fighter squadron (Seafires)...I found the book full of interest.
Ken West, editor, Fleet Air Arm Aircrew News
Johnny O as he is known to his many friends in Ottawa is the author of the new book Crumbs! a varied collection of light-hearted and fascinating stories...
Now along comes John Ough to bring forth old memories of the days of our youth...I found it very much a light, thought-provoking read
Jack Western J.P., CTM, ATM, Pastor
Bomber Command Association Canada Inc.
We hope to read more of his life in immediate post-war London and his humorous and intriguing exploits... as a
hydrographer in the Persian Gulf, India, UK, and exploring the Canadian Arctic....
David Moilliet, editor, Soundings,
Naval Officers Association of Canada
Alexander D. Gregor, Director of the Centre for Higher Education Research and Development at the University of Manitoba.
This book presents a light-hearted look at:
- Elementary school life in England during the 1930s
- Pre-Second World War suburban London
- The German Blitz
- A young teenager's role in the essential war effort
- Life in the band of the Ilford Wing of the Air Training Corps
- Basic training in the Fleet Air Arm of 1943
- Flying training in Canada
- Flying a Seafire XV as a petty officer on a front line fighter squadron ready for the Pacific war
- Royal Navy life while awaiting demobilization at the age of twenty.
- Flashback memories of Arctic voyages and tropical sailings.
Crumbs! remembers this century's darkest decades with the wide-eyed wonder of the youth that author, John Ough, was. It spins a tale with charm and wit, and eases the horrors of war through humour and a sense of hope. From early schooling in London's North End, to mailboy at an aeronautical instruments firm, to enlistment as a pilot in the Royal Navy during World War II, John Ough ponders the "fickle finger of fate" as it guides him safely through the Blitz, across the North Atlantic to training in Canada, and back to England in time for war's end. A truly engaging book.
Pancake making can be ‘A Piece of Cake!’
...or pie, or savoury, or dinner, or whatever ...
... because the happy result of mixing together equal quantities of plain and whole-wheat flour, plus a tablespoon of baking powder, a splash of olive oil, with enough milk and an egg or two, is the basis of producing all manner of good stuff for breakfast or snacks — either savoury, sweet, or magically combined or embedded together.
Of course, the most basic use of a pancake mix, one having the consistency of stiffish molasses, is by simply using it to make a dozen or so pancakes. This operation is a piece of cake. Just heat oil in a firm and solid frying pan, then drop extra-large tablespoonfuls of the mixture into the hot fat, adjacent to each other, to make sturdy round pancakes the size of a pint beer tankard’s bottom, a hockey puck, or a doily — depending on which day-to-day image instantly leaps to mind and is best suited to your personal lifestyle.
Such pancakes, doused liberally with pure maple syrup, are excellent as they come out of the pan but, if embedded with pieces of fried bacon and partly cooked in bacon fat, or accompanied by well-browned sausages, form a really substantial meal.
And for special scrumptiousness, make Spam fritters. Yes, that’s right. Fritters. Fritters made with spam. Yes, Spam! SPAM, SPAM, SPAM — the spiced ham that helped win World War II. Spam comes in a nice clean tin from which it is easily coaxed to emerge whole as a neat rectangular block with nice rounded corners which, when cut into 1/8th or 1/4 inch-thick slices are just the right size to be delicately held with small kitchen tongs for dipping into the pancake mix and then for gently placing each slice into a different corner of a frying pan. Coated all over with the batter, the embedded spam slices, now hidden within the batter, can be readily turned over for the delicious cooking of both sides.
Served, glistening with pure maple syrup, they are a heavenly and substantial breakfast meal.
Children love them.
And so do I.
Wednesday, August 19, 2009
The Valentine Public House,
Gants Hill, 1943-1950
When I went home on wartime leave to Ilford, I usually spent lunch times in a pub called the Valentine. The Valentine was big, bright, airy, comfortable, civilised and cheerfully respectable, and stood in its own grounds. It was just about the best of our three or four locals. and lay about twelve underground tube stations east of Oxford Circus on the Central Line at a place called Gants Hill.
During the war, the trains didn't run along the tube that far. The last mile or two of subway tunnel, which had only just been completed before the sirens sounded for the first time, had been taken over as an underground factory for making special navigational instruments or something.
So the Valentine, newly built and close to a hub of suburban activity, was really going strong. And had been that way all during the war.
Every lunchtime, every evening, they were three and four deep around the long curved bar in the lounge and they were packed in through the adjoining saloon bar and sit-down lounges, too. The place pulsated. Nobody cared about the air-raid sirens, people smoked away as if it was good for them, and everyone drank away their overtime or flying pay as if August 1945 was never going to come.
Over the end of the bar in the lounge, from a small discreet nail in the mahogany panelling, hung the leave book. When you came on leave, and into the Valentine, the first thing you did after saying hello to the girls behind the bar and ordering a pint was to take down the leave book and look at the last few entries. There was a column for your name, another for the time you were on leave and another to note down the days and times you expected to be in the Valentine, right near the leave book, having a drink. In this way you could meet any old friends who also happened to be on leave at the same time as you. It worked very well. I daresay you'd have met almost as many drinking pals without the help of the leave book, but all the same it was a cheerful sort of thing to do and it gave some purpose to your first day of leave’s lunchtime to go into the lounge and sign the book.
The crowd in the Val was pretty good too. Lots of uniforms of course, both male and female, plenty of regulars who were always around, some from the underground aircraft factory, I guess, and then those other types in uniform who always seemed to be on leave—must have been sent home on 'indefinite' soon after being kitted out and then somehow forgotten by their orderly rooms!
The lounge group was a good bunch. Saturday lunch there'd be a real crowd, what with all the weekend-leave mob up from the south coast naval depots and home-county army camps. If the weather was sunny, there would be quite a few pretty girls in white shorts holding tennis racquets who had been playing all morning on the park courts just along the road. As well, there were always plenty of what we considered smartly dressed women.
It was pleasant all right. Everyone had a story to tell—a true one that happened only last week when he was co-piloting with old Knackers Johnson or out with the adjutant in Nether Wallop. And there was lots of world news to discuss and rumours to pass on.
The crowd in the lounge, where everyone mostly stood tall with just a few girls sitting on leather-topped stools, was rather a horsy bunch, I suppose. Nobody had a horse, of course, but most had at least a part interest in a tank, jeep, aircraft or motorbike and many did a bit of skeet shooting when the weather was clamped down for flying. So we felt happy about chaps in civvies wearing silk scarves knotted inside open-necked shirts and growing moustaches and laughing loudly. And it was fun. Even for those smart-looking friends who were in crack rifle regiments and had such quiet, aloof pride in marching about everywhere at a much faster pace than anyone else.
Then your leave would be over and it was time for hearty goodbyes.
Tuesday, August 18, 2009
East India Arms public house,
Old Mr Lerner, and the ‘Branch Line’
on Fenchurch Street in 1946
In 1946, the London offices of Henry Hughes & Sons, makers of aeronautical and marine navigational and scientific instruments, were housed in two or three buildings on the south side of Fenchurch Street in the heart of the City of London, the then financial heart of the then British Empire.
The administrative offices of the company’s Overseas Department were situated on the three or four stories above a street-level Greek Restaurant. Just fifty yards from our office building, the sidewalk-pedestrian pavement widened out considerably and curved around the corner of a wonderful city pub named the East India Arms. This delightful, amply stocked, stand-up, old-time City pub, with its sawdust-strewn floor and fine ales, was always well-attended by impeccably shirted-and-tied city gents in their pinstriped trousers, bowler hats and dark jackets. Often among them would be merchant navy officers taking their master mariner ticket examinations at the nearby nautical academy. Though in civilian clothes, they were easily recognizable by their fine Board-of-Trade raincoats. The pub itself was not equipped with a gentlemen's’ toilet because just outside, set into the wide pedestrian paving was a well-maintained and groomed underground public municipal toilet.
Whenever the presence of a member of our company's’ staff was urgently required, but he was found to be absent from the office, the girl at the telephone switchboard was told to seek him through the ‘Branch Line’. This was a direct line to the East India Arms’ bar.
Following on from my young teenage years at the firm’s Huson Works factory in Barkingside during the early years of the war, 1940-43, as related in my book, Crumbs!, I still found myself designated to carry out strange little work-related assignments.
One pleasant task the Overseas Department management would give me every two or three weeks concerned Mr Lerner, an elderly White Russian who was employed as the firm’s translator. Proficient in many European languages (Spanish was especially important for our South American activities), plus Chinese and, naturally, Russian, and several other tongues, he worked alone in a dingy topmost garret of the Overseas Department’s offices above the Greek restaurant. Often enough I would go and visit him and listen to some of his tales of the 1917 revolution in Russia, his years of exile in China, and his eventual adventurous wartime journey into Britain.
Every now and then Mr Lerner would lay down his pen and halt his invaluable translation work and just sit brooding or threatening to resign and depart. He would be offered an increase in salary, a better office, or more time off —none of these things interested him.
So I would be called in by the firm’s top management. I would be given a generous handful of money and told to take old Mr Lerner out to lunch. Then I would climb the stairs, sit with him for a while, listen to a story or two, and show my genuine interest in the curios he had hidden amidst the ancient half-eaten sandwiches and pickles in his desk drawers. Then, around eleven o’clock I would casually mention that I was off to have lunch and did he feel like coming with me. Just as casually Mr Lerner would say, well yes, he would, and down the stairs we would tread to the street, slowly walk a couple of dozen paces along the sidewalk and enter the ‘branch line’, the East India Arms. And for an hour or two, or three, as I drank my beer Mr Lerner would order a touch of this and a touch of that and as he sipped away he would tell me exactly how that particular fortified drink or liqueur was made, where and why it was made and how it differed from country to country. Not only was Mr Lerner an amazing linguist he was a walking world encyclopaedia specializing in alcoholic delicacies.
His scathing remarks and diatribes against all political activities and prominent persons the world over would have earned him a fervid following if he had ever bothered to mount a soapbox on Tower Hill or Hyde Park Corner. Though I never learned anything really concrete of his background or experiences I sensed that they had been terribly horrific and extraordinary.
After these little noonday outings old Mr Lerner would seem to be content for another while. And on many other days, even when not on official entertainment duty, I would often climb the stairs to visit him of my own volition. On those trips I made sure to carry large rolls of plans or other things to show him that I was not headed for lunch and had just come up simply to chat or, more likely, listen awhile.
Sunday, August 16, 2009
A 1947 journey from Beirut to Baghdad
From Beirut we went up and through the scenic Lebanese mountains and crossed over into Damascus, Syria, by an ordinary bus. There we were transferred into one of the vehicles, owned by the famed Nairn Transport Company, which were specially built for long passages across a roadless desert. These well-built coaches, even then in 1947, sixty three years ago, were large and comfortably air-conditioned coaches and pulled in tractor-trailer fashion by a mechanical horse as they were then known.
This much-needed shuttle service between Damascus and Baghdad had been started thirty years before by two Australian soldiers when they were demobilized at the end of the Great War in 1918. Three decades later it was still the only civilized and sure way to cross the desert. Because at that time there were no real roads, just an ever-changing wandering track through the wind-swept dunes. It was marked out by old empty oil drums every mile or so. Who shifted the oil drum markers to guide drivers onto the firmest ground from other parts getting covered under soft sand, I don’t know. Maybe it was partly through the efforts of passing travellers who wanted the best route for themselves on their return journey. Or more probably the Nairn company employed people at the never-ending task.
After two or three hours of travel across the desolate wastes a band of mounted soldiers of the Jordan Arab Legion appeared seemingly from nowhere, whooping and yelling and waving their weapons. Our bus came to a halt as they whirled around us on their galloping horses and camels, making a wild and awesome spectacle. Yet I remember nobody taking photographs or ciné-film footage—the tourist age had not then yet reached the wilder parts of the world, nobody on the bus was simply a tourist and video-cameras were still decades off in the future.
Who was on the bus among its varied passengers as it weaved its erratic course across the sandy wastes, sitting next to me, was an Iraqi army colonel. When he found out I had been flying Seafires, the Royal Navy’s version of Spitfires, only a little more than two years before, he became a one-man propaganda machine in trying to get me to volunteer for the Iraqi airforce. This because Iraq had acquired some Spitfires in preparation for the war that was obviously coming against Israel—which country had itself acquired some Spitfires. The Iraqi colonel made much of the pure gold coin daily bounty and sterling salary I would receive for such services. But I told him I was hardly likely to change jobs before even reporting in to the Port of Basra where I was due to take charge of a small Iraqi hydrographic survey vessel. He would fix everything up, he said, pilots were of the utmost importance to the kingdom. Superseding all other requirements.
I managed to evade his intense urging for another hour or two until the bus arrived at the midway point of our journey and we swept into the heart of downtown Rutba, the only semblance of habitation in the desert since we had left Damascus.
Stopped in front of the dozen huts and tents that composed not only Rutba’s town centre but all its suburbs and extremities as well, the two dozen passengers got out and walked about to stretch their legs and view from ground level the utter natural desolation that stretched away to the horizon on every side.
The handful of Arabs who composed not only the town council but also the entire metropolitan population had a very rudimentary refreshment counter set up in one hut where they tempted the travellers with a few pre-war oddments of candies and murky glasses of silt-laden coloured sugar water.
While walking outside I was taken by surprise, in the sudden manner I was to get used to later on, by a small band of Bedouins bristling with daggers appearing before me, as if by magic. They seemed to rise up from out of the very sand in front of me. Their leader, very tall and lithe under his flowing cloak fixed his penetrating hawk like steel-blue eyes upon mine. And I do mean hawk like. And I do mean penetrating. His eyes went straight through mine, through my skull bone, into the centre of my brain, and out the other side. If anyone had been standing behind me that gaze of his would have passed right through them, too. I blinked first without any show of moral resistance and quickly retreated to the safety of the bus interior. When the Saddam Hussain-look-alike Iraqi colonel got back on the bus I told him I had definitely made up my mind about his job offer. It was thanks but no, no, No thanks. Not for the biggest gold clock in Christendom or Muslimdom would I fly one of his air force spitfires. I was so emphatic about my refusal that the colonel asked what had made up my mind so unequivocally. I just pointed out the bus window to where stood old hawk eyes and his merry band of brigands. The colonel made a little facial gesture of understanding. He knew what I was thinking. I was envisaging a forced landing in those empty sandy wastes and seeing old neighbourly steel-blue-eyes and his intimates rising up from out of the sand to greet me in age-old desert fashion.
I expect that these days, now that it is situated on a jumble of busy paved highways, Rutba has grown considerably in size and probably sports its own nuclear-weapons factory, luxury hotels, fast-food take-out emporiums, a Mercedes limousine show room or two and several computer-electronics emporiums. I doubt whether they still need old Seafire pilots?
Saturday, August 15, 2009
Over the years I spent many pleasant hours at the National Press Club bar with Ron Power who at that time, among other activities, organized the popular New Year’s Eve lobster dinners and club dances. He also, coincidentally, in the 1930s had attended St. Peter & Paul’s School in our hometown of Ilford, northeast London just a couple of years before I did myself.
He also dangerously borrowed a page from the book of Scotland’s Robert the Bruce. Like Robert sitting in his cave and gaining courage from watching a spider trying time after time to climb up the wall Ron, after being taken prisoner by German paratroopers landing on the Italian-held Aegean Island of Leros in 1943, was not dispirited by his first attempts at escape being followed by recapture. In all Ron escaped seven times. Though he himself says he only escaped once, as the first six soon ended in recapture after varying periods of roaming wartime Germany and Austria. Once he and a couple of others had actually reached the Swiss frontier but the Swiss border guards had fired on them and chased them away. Another escapade was when the road ahead was blocked by a couple of SS men. Ron and his Australian pal, Jim White, went behind a house and stole a long ladder. They each took one end and put it over their shoulders, just like in oldtime comedy movies, and carried it casually past the sentries who took no notice of them. One of his getaways was from the Salzburg Gestapo punishment camp.
Before his year and a half as a POW, Ron Power was a private in the pre-war army in Palestine and one of the battered defenders who endured the 3,600 enemy air raids during the siege of Malta. Also for a period he was a member of the amazingly adventurous Long Range Desert Group (LRDG), a compact hard-hitting mobile army within an army that sent small units on secret missions deep into the Libyan desert, skirting to the south of the German Afrika Corps and then attacking them in daring hit and run raids from the rear.
For a soldier Ron Power managed to get into quite a lot of salt water by having three ships sunk beneath him, including the destroyer HMS Intrepid.
He had landed safely on Leros from Intrepid about September 16 1943. However, a few days later he went back aboard, in Leros harbour, to pick up some books. Suddenly several Junkers 88s dove out of a clear sky and attacked the ship. Ron was blown over the side by a near miss but managed to get ashore as the destroyer was sunk by more bombs.
While in Malta, in early 1942, the SS Essex limped into the Grand Harbour. She had been badly damaged by enemy action but tied up under her own steam. Ron was in a working party unloading the ship when it was attacked by dive bombers, with one bomb going right down the funnel and causing much damage and loss of life. Ron was lucky to get up topsides and ashore. As the ship lay on the bottom its deck was above water and they continued unloading its precious supplies.
Ron Power left Malta for the Middle East in June 1943 and his ship hit a mine off Bardia. Ron was in the heads washing and as the alarm buzzer sounded the watertight door closed. He told me that at that moment he really thought he was doomed. But for some reason the doors momentarily opened again and he managed to scramble through just before the doors closed behind him. Though damaged his ship continued with the convoy and arrived at Alexandria two days later.
As German POW number: 114479, Ron had to work at various jobs from the several camps in which he was put after his breakouts.. During one winter he was clearing the streetcar tracks of ice in Munich, and at another time he worked in the garden of Willy Messerschmitt, the famous aircraft designer. He said that as Herr Messerschmitt left his front door to get in his limousine the prisoners would talk loudly together, as they looked studiously and intently down at the ground they were digging, and say such things as: Yeah! Those old Messerschmitts, they’re not much good. The Spitfire, though, that’s a real good one. And the Hurricane, that’s another good one.
One Sunday he was in a working party sent to work in a brewery damaged in an air raid. When picked up by their truck they and their guards drove inebriatedly through the streets of Munich, loudly singing British army songs, accompanied on their truck by a piano they had borrowed from the brewery’s canteen. Sadly, their guards were sent to the eastern front as punishment. The prisoners had to return the piano and every day for a month were locked up, without clothes, after work.
Ron said that during one bad air raid he was next to some German officers in a shelter who said to him that their raids on London were doing much more damage than the RAF was causing Germany. Ron said he agreed. He said he’d had a letter from his mother only last week in which she complained that one of their house windows had got a terrible crack in it, at least three inches long.
In one prison a wire fence separated him from a German army post-office. One night he climbed over and opened some packages and stole some food. At dawn all the prisoners were paraded to be searched. The commandant said the thief would be shot. When the guards searched Ron they felt things in his pockets and exclaimed: Ha! They felt in his pockets and drew out their contents. Ah! they snorted in disgust, Coalen! It was just a few pieces of coal Ron had scrounged from somewhere. They threw it on the ground and passed on to the next prisoner. All the time, inside the lining of his coat, Ron was hiding the stolen food.
Ron Power said that though they were always hungry it was nothing like conditions in a nearby camp for Russian prisoners. They were so starved that when, during a riot, the Germans set a couple of dogs on them the unfortunate animals were torn apart and eaten.
But perhaps his best story was during one escape with an Australian and a Polish fellow. They had picked up a Opel limousine and were driving through Austria. Ron was in the back seat and was looking at the maps in a pre-war multi-lingual Baedeker tourist travel guide he had found in the map holder. He read part of it out to his companions. It says, here, he said, if you are ever in the area of these scenic lakes it is well worth taking the time to make a little detour to view their beauty as one never knows if one might ever be back in the region. So they decided to do so. They made the detour and did a little sightseeing.
But Ron says that in later years he was often gripped with fear at his senseless audaciousness during those days. Especially, an instance when he argued with a Gestapo general who told him he wasn’t working hard enough. How close was I to being shot, he wonders. He also remembers being with some fellow escapees on a railway station when they saw some Gestapo men coming along, looking at everyone’s papers. His friends panicked and ran across the railway lines and were shot.
I never knew until Ron told me that as a working party POW he was paid a wage by the Germans. Paltry as that wage had been I helped him write, tongue-in-cheek, to the German Embassy in Ottawa in 1996 to see if he was entitled to a German pension. It didn’t work.
When he was first captured in Leros, Ron said it was strictly Hollywood scripted. He had been on high ground with a Bren machine gun shooting Germans as they emerged from their JU 52s. But minutes later a very large parachutist had him covered and was repeating that corny old movie line: ‘For you the War is over!’ A prediction, which in Ron’s case, was to prove somewhat in error.
Friday, August 14, 2009
I first met Doug Shenstone in 1959 when he was a senior technical editor in Ottawa, and with whom I was to become very friendly during the following years. Doug was a real down-to-earth office-worker pen-pusher. He was also about six foot two inches tall and in good shape.
In August, 1942, as a orderly-room staff-sergeant in the Canadian Royal Hamilton Light Infantry stationed in England, Doug, at the advanced age of 34, (his young comrades called him ‘Grandpa”) had volunteered to carry not only his Sten gun and grenades up the stony beaches of Dieppe, but also his battalion’s typewriter. All the time under murderous fire blazing from the German defenders ensconced safely in their cliff top pillboxes and fortifications.
Doug’s task on that terrible day was to establish a battalion headquarters office in a church, near the expected soon-to-be-captured casino, across the road from the sea wall. Unfortunately, very few Canadians managed to get over the seawall alive and so Doug spent six hours fighting and dodging around in the very centre of the confusion and ghastly carnage.
He eventually did reach the church but realized his battalion officers had obviously been lost in the fray and so were incapable of keeping the planned rendezvous. So Doug, despite his triumphant and perilous delivery of his trusty typewriter, was unable to even signal the cookhouse, as to how many to expect for breakfast the next day. He certainly was in no position to relay any messages of glorious victory to boneheaded Lord Louis Mountbatten.
Doug earned a Mentioned-in-Dispatches that day. I never did ask him if he himself wrote that particular dispatch. Or any other. He abandoned his typewriter when trying to make his way back down to the beach. And I suppose he delivered his own dispatches, if any, by his own bloody hands when he was one of the very few lucky ones to actually get back to England. I seem to remember, when we were somewhat mellowed one Sunday morning, Doug telling me that having finally abandoned his typewriter for his sten gun, he asked the soldier next to him to pass him a fresh magazine. He reached out to take it from the other man’s extended arm but in that instant his comrades hand erupted into a bloody mess, hit by an enemy bullet.
I was always impressed, and puzzled, by the positive and optimistic thinking of his army superiors who decided a typewriter would be worth its lugging up that awful foreshore. The Dieppe beach is just a mass of egg-and-apple-sized rounded stones that afford little traction. Running army boots would just react as if in a foot-deep coating of lumpy molasses—as might be encountered in some horrendous nightmare. So the Canadians, heavy and wet from jumping into the sea from their landing craft, desperately trying to run uphill against a hail of bullets and shrapnel whilst lugging mortars mounted on bicycle-wheel carts that tipped over on the loose pebbles, and hampered by many other impediments, meant many valuable lives wastefully thrown away.
Thirty years later, when I visited Dieppe with a friend, Guy Robillard an ex-infantry-officer of the ‘Van Doos’—Royal 22e Régiment, and a veteran of Korea—I myself tried running up that same beach carrying nothing more than a small camera. It was like struggling to get out of a quicksand.
Just along the coast, at Puit, we stood at the water’s edge and looked up to the old German gun positions on the high cliffs that straddled and overlooked every part of the landing area. My eyes filled with angry tears as I imagined those loyal soldiers scrambling helplessly in disarray for a brief minute or two of horrendous ordeal before they were cut down and stilled forever.
That a few Canadians did get into the town proper was borne stark witness by a small unofficial plaque of simple remembrance near an old-fashioned, above ground, sidewalk pissoir. Standing modestly close by the big cathedral, it says, in French, that it was on that spot that two Canadian soldiers, who had taken momentary refuge in that flimsy mens’ public convenience, had been killed by a hail of German fire as they emerged in desperation from its thin cover.
As Guy and I examined the little monument some of the local people who lived on the other side of that narrow street told us that from their house windows across the way they had actually seen this tragedy happen. And they proudly said, forcefully, it was they themselves, they who lived there and had watched those brave men die—it was they who had paid to have that beautiful little plaque of commemoration made and erected. With their own money. It was nothing to do with the French government, they insisted. It was theirs. It was their street, their memory, and their tribute to their two Canadian soldiers.
I have Kodachrome slides (which I have had digitized) of that little memorial—shown here. But not of the little pissoir, (of whose primary intended humanitarian purpose Guy and I had taken proper advantage before noticing the monument). Strangely, and to my constant regret, though the little pissoir, full of bullet holes, was still standing there, I failed to photograph it. I just didn’t and cannot fathom why I did not. An inexcusable error. Or at least, if I did take photos, I cannot find them today. So far. I’ve got lots of pix of the town, beach and war graves,
I think Dieppe was a prime example to my mind, of how one should never wage war. That is, never attack the enemy where he appears to be strongest. In fact, I myself favour the advice given by a legendary American baseball manager to his team’s batters: ‘Hit it where they ain’t.’ I mean, what happens, usually? The enemy stacks up all his forces, mounts his machine guns and artillery in a superior position and then invites his opponents to come right in front of him and attack, full on towards his gun barrels so he can mow them all down. And the other side, believing that it takes two to tango, politely complies. Their generals blithely accept the invitation to have their troops massacred. Why don’t they go a bit to the left or right and attack? Or wait a bit. Postpone the attack. I know they say the best form of defence is attack but I think they’ve got it back to front. More likely it should read, the best form of attack is defence. Look at the Battle of Britain, for fine example.
One has only to read the citations accompanying the posthumous awards of honour for extreme bravery shown by combat heroes: “...Corporal Bloggs pressed home his attack against overwhelming odds...” for example. My thinking is to press home the attack against underwhelming odds. Ok, you get no VC but afterwards you do get to go in quiet pubs and have nice friendly pints of beer. I was always thankful to be in a single-seat fighter aeroplane and therefore somewhat in charge of my own destiny if it should ever loom up in full reality.
Douglas Shenstone, was discharged at war’s end as a sergeant-major. He became a well-know pewter craftsmen in later years and I enjoyed visiting him and his wife, Doris. I would watch him pewtering away in his little workshop in his quiet riverside garden on the banks of the Rideau River. And sharing a peaceful drink or two.
Thursday, August 13, 2009
Let’s hear it for Harry S (for nothing) Truman
and the Atom Bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki
Many of Mr Truman’s outspoken critics should carefully examine their own, and their spouse’s, family histories to make sure they are not guilty of verbally committing a sort of backdated suicide. Dreaming up their own baffled existence. Wishing for their own premature euthanasia, in fact.
Because the expected massive Allied casualties that Mr Truman averted by using the A-Bomb would have meant very many fewer weddings a year or two later. This would have resulted in hundreds of thousands fewer offspring in the years that followed — children, grandchildren and now great-grandchildren — to ever come into existence at all, let alone grow up to righteously debate the non-existent ethics of the issue.
Do you understand? It’s your very existence that was at stake.
Look, if your grandfather had been one of the thousands and thousands of Americans and Allied soldiers, sailors and airmen who would have been killed by a fanatic and frantic Japanese military (that actually believed their Emperor was a God) if President Harry S Truman had not ordered the atom bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki to end the Pacific war, then you yourself would not have been born. And thus you would be unable today to prate stupid intonations of how wicked your forbears were.
And, of course, there would have been many more Japanese killed. Also there would be a lot fewer consumers around to spend millions of dollars and pounds on buying post-war Japanese cameras, televisions, videotape-recorders and automobiles.
Tuesday, August 11, 2009
The control officer who regulated the passage of Abadan and Basra-bound vessels up and down the channels leading into the Shatt-al-Arab river, during the years 1947-51, was Captain Broad. With a crew of Iraqi radio operators and seamen he lived aboard the Control Vessel which was an old, nineteenth-century-vintage naval vessel named the Alert. This once-proud ship, formerly HMS Alert, was the namesake of another similar former 17-gun steam sloop. That ship, together with HMS Discovery, another veteran of arctic exploration, had formed the British Arctic Expedition of 1875-76. Alert wintered alone at Cape Sheridan at 82° 25’ on the northernmost tip of Ellesmere Island. And there she bestowed her name on the site where decades later the famous Canadian weather station, and later cold-war secret electronic listening post, Alert, was established. Today, it is the farthest north land settlement on earth.
I dimly believe hearing that the Alert’s ships’ bell, which I often gently rang and admired when passing it by, somehow found its way up to the Ellesmere weather station after the vessel foundered or was scrapped by some awful Baghdad dictator after my time in Iraq.
Master Mariner, Captain Broad, the shipping Control Officer, was a likeable fellow and had been out in Iraq so long and was so fluent in the local Arabic that everybody just called him Ali.
Ali Broad was somewhat cut off from everyone as Alert was permanently anchored several miles offshore and the crew’s only link to shore was by motor boat with Fao, our small settlement far up the Shatt-al-Arab river, which weather permitting brought weekly or so supplies and periodic relief crews out to the ship. But Ali didn’t seem to mind his isolation too much. He hardly ever left his ship unless ordered to do so for a rare meeting or some other such official business. For month after month except for my own once a week or so irregular visits, or an occasional visit by a tug or other small vessel, Ali kept his own company.
The only place in Captain Ali Broad’s broad captain’s cabin below the quarterdeck where I could stand fully upright was in the very centre where there was a skylight let up into the heavy wooden decking. Otherwise the cabin it was roomy enough, taking up the full width of the after part of the ship.
So sometimes when much of my charting work was done I would take the El-Ghar alongside Alert and tie up to her so I could clamber up and over to her deck where Ali would be waiting. He would lead the way down the narrow ladderways and into his cabin, which in times past many a famous arctic explorer had probably visited. Then with whisky in hand I would listen to Ali’s tales for an hour or two. Sometimes he would voice misgivings as to the durability of his ancient vessel, saying how she had seemed to strain in that blow the other night. And he would look around at his cabin bulkheads as if to command them to toughen up a bit and not let him down. But very often it was tales of the bad times before the war during the depression when master mariners and chief officers had a hard time getting a berth on a ship and even then at very low salaries.
Ali would recount that for one desolate period he had left off waiting about in marine offices for non-existent appointments and had taken a shore job—selling Kensitas cigarettes. The sales gimmick he was instructed to employ when going door-to-door to promote the product’s freshness was to ask the housewife or whoever opened the door if he could borrow half a bucket or basin of water. Then he would take a packet of cellophane-sealed Kensitas and dunk it in the water. After a few minutes of sales talk regarding the air and watertight packaging involved he would take the packet out of the water shake it clear of droplets, open it up and proffer it to the house person and say: Have a Kensitas.
So, Ali would caution me, don’t throw away a good job when you have one, you don’t want to end up selling cigarettes door-to-door. He followed his own advice so well that he was loath to order too many stores for his personal use in case some administrator in an air-conditioned office up in Basra would find fault with him.
But others of his more interesting stories were of the sea and long and involved. So long in fact that when the time came for me to leave him, Ali would follow me up the ladderway and along the deck without pause in his story. I would climb down Alert’s side, clamber over onto the El Ghar, go up the ladder to my bridge, lean out the starboard windows on a level with Alert’s main deck, and still Ali would not have paused in his narration. I would listen attentively for another few minutes as Ali leaned over his ship’s heavy bulwarks so that our heads were only a yard apart. Then I would signal behind my back for the serang to cast off. And as we slowly drifted off with the gap between the two vessels ever widening there would still be no pause in Ali’s voice. No goodbyes, just the current yarn fading away as Ali’s voice got fainter and fainter. A few days later when next I went visiting Alert the procedure would be re-enacted in reverse sequence. As we approached, Ali would be leaning over his ship’s side and faintly I would hear him picking up his story from where he had apparently finally left off. Down off my bridge I would go and clamber up to his main deck and Ali would again lead the way to his cabin chatting away from episode to episode.
Then one day, when I happened to mention theTitanic, Ali told me a fascinating story. It was back in the First World War, he said. He was an apprentice, getting in his seatime in order to go for his third-mate’s ticket. They were in convoy and one of the bridge officers was instructing him on the vagaries of the magnetic compass. The officer told him to be very careful about allowing anything made of iron or steel to be placed close to the binnacle, which housed the ship’s steering compass. It might only deflect the compass needle a degree or two, he said, but it could have grave consequences, he said. Like what happened to theTitanic just four years ago, he said. How could that be, asked Ali? Well, said his teacher, a friend of his, who had survived the 1912 disaster with the iceberg, had told him that just about two minutes before the collision, a steward had brought a tray of coffee and biscuits up onto the bridge for the watchkeeping officers. The tray had been placed on a small table just a foot to the starboard side of the binnacle. Though the china mugs and silver coffee pot were non-magnetic, the tray they rested on was of sturdy ferrous metal construction. That, said Ali’s teaching officer, would have been enough to deflect the compass a degree or more in a clockwise direction. Thus the quartermaster at the helm would have moved the ship’s wheel about three spokes in the same direction to keep the Titanic’s heading against the compass’s lubber line and on the ordered course.
Even today, when ship’s have steady gyro compasses, such an infinitesimal change of course would go unnoticed,. But, small as it was, that error would mean that in a distance of one nautical mile, a little more than 6,000 feet, the ship would be 100 feet off the track it would have followed if that tiny deviation had not occurred. Depending on whether the deviation took the ship 100 feet one way, or the other, it would mean the Titanic either hitting the iceberg a full blow or missing it entirely.
Not even vessels as big as the Titanic can be steered to an accuracy of a single degree. The quartermaster just constantly corrects the ordered heading as the ship’s head is pushed off by wave and wind. But the average heading still follows closely the intended track.
So, said Ali’s instructor, think about it. If only the steward had put the coffee tray table on the port side of the binnacle, Titanic would have still sailed perilously close to, yet also well clear of, that famous berg. Or also, of course, if only the coffee had arrived two minutes and one nautical mile later.
When he had finished the story, Ali and I sat silently in Alert’s wooden-walled cabin and mused for a while on just how one tiny, chaotic event can effect the awesome writings of the Fickle Finger of Fate.
Then on one visit things were much different. When we got to his cabin Ali showed me how with hammer and saw and some odd pieces of lumber he was enlarging his bed. His wife, Emma, was coming out to visit him for a couple of months and live aboard the ship with him. But Ali, I said, why build an addition to your bed. Just send an order for a bigger bed to the stores in Basra. But Ali’s traumatic recollections of selling cigarettes was still too strong. He kept on with his do-it-yourself bed addition.
When nice Mrs Broad arrived on board with Ali I often passed by Alert thinking how much better it all was for Ali at his lonely outpost. And I still visited on occasion. But at other times, if I saw a particular tugboat already alongside, I tried to sneak past Alert unseen. Some hopes. I was a wanted man. There was no way I could pass by unless we shut down the radio and everybody looked out only to port so as to ignore messages in flashing morse code or the waving of flags. Because I knew that now with the tug master on board Alert there were three avid bridge players over there, three avid and frustrated bridge players in the middle of nowhere—looking for a fourth. Me.
Whether I was a lousy bridge player because I didn’t like the game or whether I didn’t like the game because I was a lousy player I don’t know. But I sat for many an hour trying my best, avoiding reproachful looks from my poor partner and then an additional hour or more listening to the postmortems.
A year or two later when Alert creaked and cracked more ominously than ever before when the wind blew strong, Ali and his crew and equipment were moved on shore to Fao and into a newly built control station. And Ali and his wife lived nearby in a fine bungalow where, thankfully, they had 24-hour access to several much better bridge players than me.
Whatever really happened to the old Alert, I do not know. And today I also often wonder what really happened to the the ships’s big brass bell. As is the custom with ship’s bells it was adorned with the vessel’s name and kept well polished by Ali’s crew. When Alert was finally and sadly broken up, how fitting it would have been if that fine bell could have been rescued and sent up to Canada’s remote Arctic weather station as a historical timekeeper in that hush-hush base’s amazingly plush cafeteria-recreation hall these sixty years later.
Those initial NPC premises on the second-storey were reached by a steep flight of stairs that took many a rotund and elderly member of the fourth estate, like W.Q. (Bill) Ketchum of the old Ottawa Journal, a certain amount of effort to overcome on their way up to the bar, but often provided a rapid gravity-assisted exit for some overindulging members when leaving for home in the early hours of the morning.
Sometime before Christmas 1961 the club moved to new and larger quarters over the Connaught Restaurant on the edge of Confederation Square between Sparks and Queen streets and facing the War Memorial. There we club members had the use of both the second and the third stories, complete with, not just one, but two flights of steep stairs, thus enabling traditional entry and exit modes to be continued at double the rate. This was partly due to the upper floor, designated as the games room, also being blessed with a bar, supplementing the main bar on the second floor with its good view over the Square and with a rope-operated dumbwaiter in one corner. This could be used to send down written or shouted food orders directly to the restaurant’s kitchen far below, allowing prepared hot and cold dishes to be hoisted up to the peckish members on high.
At this time, the manager of the club was an ex-army officer, Sam Grinham, until he departed to the West Indies and bought the Abbeyville Hotel in Barbados, which became a sort of affiliate of the club for vacationing members. Sam Grinham's serendipitous replacement, Major John (Mick) Spooner, was soon to have a marked and beneficial effect on the club.
During those years the accommodation on Confederation (Confusion) Square worked very well but as Canada’s centennial approached in 1967, the press club, importantly and with burgeoning membership, became the National Press Club of Canada and moved to its prestigious quarters in the National Press Building at 150 Wellington Street, facing the West Block of Parliament. And again importantly, the new manager, Mick Spooner, an ex-army major of extreme competence, sartorial exactitude and traditional decorum was appointed to look after and police, enforce and facilitate all the codes, wants, needs, transgressions, administrations and ups and downs required of and by the 700-800 members and their many guests, most of whom were very regular, even avid, visitors to and users of the club’s facilities.
The club also now had a fine new logo designed by Tony Goodson to decorate club letterheads, newsletters, neckties, matchbooks, lighters, pieces of pottery and other official club artefacts. In the bar the panelled walls sported large morse-code motifs in honour of some old time reporters who were veterans of the telegraph and then among our membership. Also the metal masthead nameplates of many letterpress national newspapers were honourably affixed to the walls.
Adding to the overall appeal was palatial new furniture, a games room, and well-appointed kitchen and dining facilities. With all this ambience the conservatively resplendent new National Press Club of Canada was bursting with convivial custom, business and entertainment functions, professional fellowship and serious discussion. For many happy years the overall club decor displayed an impressive mixture of restrained and civilized opulence, tradition and maturity.
In fact, the long, polished oaken bar became the hub of the then known universe. Every noontime members and their guests, diplomatic and embassy staffers, visiting celebrities, members of parliament, were three-or-more deep along its length, and Louis Quinn, the club’s long-time barman, assisted by John Boschetti, Yves, Denny, and various other stewards, in their time, were kept very busy at their task of succouring the frenzied masses. It was busy, busy, busy. Even mid-afternoon numbers in the club were a match for some of the most lively peak days of later years. Brisk evening attendance, stretching into the small hours of the next morning, was common during the week and invariable at weekends.
For years, Louis Quinn and various assistant barmen had to cope not only with the daily noontime rush, and the busy afternoon and evening throngs, but also popular late night business. This meant that around three o’clock in the morning, in the years before the advent of computerized cash tills, it was usually Louis who was to be seen licking a pencil and totting up his considerable cash accounts. Invariably despite this late hour, as soon as there were less than half a dozen customers in the club, Louis would telephone his wife who would drive down to the club to take him home. It was also actually Mrs Quinn who did the accounting. Without her help, it would have taken Louis until dawn to finish the task.
But often when I entered the club around midnight, after being engaged elsewhere, Louis would call his wife and say : ‘It’s ok, dear, Mr Ough has just come in. You can go to bed.’
Because when the club finally did shut down I would help Louis get his cash straightened out, then I would drive him home to the large blue, curved apartment block, adjacent to Carlingwood Shopping Centre, where he lived. And every night as we sailed along the River Parkway, it was always the same request he made of me—to sing to him, several times over, his favourite song: Red Sails in the Sunset.
The dining room, serving meals of acclaimed renown and equally as well patronized as the bar, had several sittings daily and catered to a number of special events and functions with an economy of staff with astonishing facility.
With Major Spooner as manager and Louis as head barman, the area behind the bar was strictly reserved for the bar stewards. No members were allowed there except executives during official inspections. The only administrative staff member ever to be seen behind that sacred holy of holies was the manager. This was for one very simple reason—there were no other administration or office staff. In fact the club’s only office space was a small corner closet with hardly any more room than that required to swing out a filing cabinet drawer and allow Mick and one other person to peruse its contents. Because Mick, without computers or any subsidiary staff, alone amid the very large membership, engendering a busy and active club, ran the whole pulsating caboodle on his own. All records and financial accountings were recorded in Mick’s small, precise and beautiful hand writing in blue ink. I often wonder what Spooner would have thought of the sobering sight in later years of deserted noonday bars with more office staff and sub-managers behind the bar helping themselves to soft drinks, coffee, ice-cubes and sundries, than actual members in front of the bar. In fact, often when entering the club I’d pass a dozen staff members and only six club members. Harping further on the subject I was surprised when one noon hour a club member left the bar to drop off something in the office and was frustrated to find it closed while all the staff were out to lunch at the same time. A most strange state of affairs. Also I can remember a bartender complaining to a member of the executive that he disliked being on night duty as the only people in the club during the later hours were people who drank and talked long and loudly. The executive officer said he’d see if they could make a more stringent rule to get those few annoying customers off the premises at an earlier hour. I tried to explain that club members became club members and paid their annual dues for just that very purpose—in order to have a non-commercial private place to go where they could freely meet their colleagues and yack it up— not to support a semiretirement home for employees.
I asked another member why all this had become so and he replied I had to realize that now there were unions.
However, in fact, the old NPC activity was not all bar centred. There were excellent facilities. Apart from the consistent fine dining and drinking services there was the library, private meeting rooms, celebrity breakfasts, gala evenings, dancing, concerts, light-hearted and serious events, snooker and shuffleboard tournaments, comfy newspaper and magazine reading areas, much cameraderie and bonhomie and last but not least the handy downtown salutary service to be had from easily accessible clean toilet facilities complete with DIY shoe-shining—a convenience not always readily available in our modern society.
Soon after we moved to Wellington Street, Charlie Bruyère, being the oldest surviving member of the club since its beginnings circa 1926, was awarded the club’s first Life Membership. In a fit of bonhomie and light-headedness engendered by Canada’s Centennial, the club stipulated that along with the innate glory of dues-free life membership the recipient would also be blessed with free bar service until death should part the honoured one’s lips from the bottle. So Charlie became the first truly free-drinking journalist in the Ottawa press club. He also became the last. It had to be that way or risk the club going prematurely bankrupt by 35-years. Because, though physically size-challenged, Charlie not only increased his personal intake with remarkable fortitude but also boosted his personal popularity by telling his many new-found drinking partners that this round was on him—with abandoned frequency.
Just about the most popular weekly event at the club was Century Club Night each Friday evening. The club was packed for the drawing of liquid and other various and hilarious prizes for the tickets sold, followed by lots of separate and communal partying. Especially bon vivre was the wonderfully cheerful group mainly composed of the Franco-Ontarian staff of Ottawa’s Le Droit daily newspaper and nearby Québec radio stations, visiting members of the Montreal Press Club, and many of their wives and friends. Of special note I remember Moe Joanisse, Chick Allard, Paul Dubois—renowned cops-and-robber reporter for the old Montreal Star, and others.
Many years ago a probably frustrated visiting journalist wrote a story in which she reported that the sexual tension in the press club could be cut with a knife. Blimey! Some tension! Some knife! That’s not only making mountains out of molehills but like making the tension engendered by a thin, dried-up, two-inch elastic band into an international nuclear stand-off. Obviously, having both men and women in the same club, certain liaisons might sometimes be forged within the membership but certainly not so all-pervasive as suggested. And certainly any such abundance of sexual tension would be quickly deflated by the thought of someone going around the club cutting it with a knife. Of course some members might bring special friends to the club and perhaps show their affection at times, but apart from a few very illustrious guest persons so momentarily engaged, making it of national gossipy interest, it was no more prevalent than in any other place of relaxation.
Those last three words do remind me of one particular isolated incident. Between the first and second floors there was a toilet in the stairwell. Being in a secluded backwater of the building it was little used during the time I usually skipped the elevator and ran up or down those back stairs during my comings and goings. But I did intrude into a scene of flagrant lust between a club member engaged in intimate correspondence with a comely young lady bent over the wash-hand-basins. Their sexual tension was of such magnitude that after a quick glance at me in the mirror to, I suspect, verify I was not an armed intruder, I was completely, and somewhat insultingly, ignored. So I discreetly turned my back to attend to my own equally urgent but more solemn requirement at the urinals. The other two certainly appeared to have more aplomb between them than I did myself. Not a word passed between us even as I hurriedly gave my hands the briefest of washes. It was all accepted as off the record and I quickly left with quite undried hands.
Another item of some note concerning the men’s upper washroom was that for a period the partly open window of the men’s toilet afforded certain female employees of the then adjacent insurance company a view of the goings on at the last urinal of the row of four. Whoever it was, in a moral fit of non-peek, who complained enough to get a full frosted-glass replacement installed and thus a modest veil drawn over members’ varying-sized idiosyncrasies and peccadilloes, is unknown.
But all in all the club’s decorum was seldom in question. Even when the club held a special meeting in 1971 to affirmatively decide the question of welcoming women into the club as full members. Highlights of the meeting were the wonderful and witty chairmanship of Judge J-P Beaulne, and the entry into the club, in order to cast his vote while in a medical cast, of the CBC’s John Drewery. Having broken his leg or ankle just a few days previously he was gloriously carried into the club on a stretcher. Then there was the tussle dear old Ben Malkin, of the Ottawa Citizen, had with a TV cameraman, to whose coverage he objected. Ben forgot he had a full glass of beer in his hand, the contents of which ended up all over the camera and its operator.
Up until that time women had only been allowed into the club as guests after three o’clock in the afternoon. Soon after the club benefited not only from the influence of a fully participating female presence but from their increased membership dues and custom.
Manager Mick Spooner managed his managing so efficiently that he usually managed to do all other aspects of his comprehensive managing and still make frequent immaculate managerial appearances around the club and long bar. He was noted for his imperious and steely-eyed approaches to strange and unaccompanied faces to ask them quietly to excuse him, sir or madam, but: Are you a member? The Major also made short work of people dressed in scruffy fashion in contravention of the dress-code as laid down in the club rules and at that time largely adhered to. If he were alive today, and the club still functioning, I can imagine him going up to some people at the bar and asking whether they were members or if they were the workmen sent in by Public Works to fix the blocked toilet. With Mick as manager, correct in manner and impeccable in appearance as he was, there was no need for a club bouncer. Mick had won his share of British Army boxing titles. He was also reputed to have earned his nickname of Mick by his time served in Ireland during the troubles of long ago. And of even more renown, it was also said that he had served as a military hangman on several occasions. I remember him relating to me how, when he first joined the army during the Great War, they still learned the drill to: Form squares to receive cavalry. Note that. Not to repel cavalry—but to receive cavalry. Shades of Waterloo!
I once heard the Major answer the telephone and say: ‘No, madam, I’m sorry, that gentleman is not here in the club at present.’ Then after a pause: ‘Madam, I don’t care if you are not his wife. That member is still not present in the club!’ On another occasion Mick motioned me off with his eyebrows when I was a little too forthright in intimating to British Prime Minister Harold Wilson, sipping his Campari on the rocks, that his indifference to building a fleet of aircraft-carriers for the Royal Navy was not the best attitude to have. At the time I was just hoping to do my old shipmates a favour. All the same, I took Mick’s unspoken advice and went back to innocuously discussing, comparing and sharing tobacco brands with my illustrious fellow pipe-smoker.
Of particular essence to the club was CBC Television’s top reporter, raspy-voiced Norman DePoe. Travelling with him to the Churchill rocket range in Air Force Two, pre-opening days at Expo 67, sessions in the club bar and meetings in local watering holes —interrupted by Norman’s disappearance for the odd half an hour to appear, miraculously sober as a judge (well some judges) on the national news—are hilarious memories I cherish today.
When we moved to our elegant 150 Wellington Street quarters the traditional marathon poker games were carried over from the former club premises. These games, or schools, usually started on Friday afternoons and went on through the weekend hours without pause. Sometimes they seemed to last for days with players departing and returning, having a snooze on one of the sofas, and playing over staggered hours. Often a barman would be paid from the kitty to stay through the night and next early morning to attend to the players wants. Notable participants included Dillon O’Leary, who had learned his card-skills playing with cops in New York and was the son of the illustrious Senator Gratton O’Leary. and Ottawa Journal publisher; Bill Olson, owner of Dominion Wide Photographs and the Broken Cue billiard halls; Bert Plimer, the wide-roving cameraman who was so often teamed up with Southam News Services and CTV’s star newsman, Bruce Phillips, before that gentleman, and former club president, became Canada’s Privacy Commissioner; Rudi Wolf, a busy cameraman for CBC; Jim Thompson, Olson’s manager and a talented club guest chef during impromptu Sunday morning business-cum-party get togethers of the executive; Scotty (‘Fingers’) Morrison—so called on account of his piano playing efforts, and many others.
Another sometime player at the table and at the piano who was good company was Paul Gormly. And who can forget-panama-hatted Mark McClung, son of the famous Nellie, or Ron Collister, from Beatle Town,
Though not a poker player myself (those bizarre bridge sessions while listening to the creaking timbers aboard the rotting wooden hulk of the old HMS Alert, moored way out to sea at the head of the Persian Gulf in 1948, did me in forever as regards card games—see my Captain Ali Broad yarn elsewhere in this blog) when in the club I often joined in playing darts for rounds of drinks—unless Bill Olson or Bert Plimer were playing as they could usually beat me. Thus for my first couple of weeks in the old club on Sparks Street I hardly bought myself a beer. But often these dart games would escalate to unwise proportions with some players winning enough money to go off on vacation for a while at the expense of others. There is also a story of one poker player who won so much he went off to the Caribbean for a couple of days before returning to resume playing in the same still-continuing game.
David Kirk was tall, spare, and a gentleman. Calm, polite, humorous and well spoken, he delicately rolled his own cigarettes, as required, with dignified aplomb while sipping his inevitable very, very dry, dry martinis. Often in the evenings his wife of many decades, Elsie, would be at his side. Their combined wit and good humour lent a pleasing sophistication to the club bar. One evening when they entered the club bar they announced that they had a very important and momentous personal occasion to celebrate and share with their friends. That very same day they reported reverently, for the first time since their wedding day so many years ago, they had made a special ceremonial visit together to the liquor store. And there they had purchased a fresh bottle of vermouth. Only the second bottle of its kind they could recollect owning during the long years of their marriage.
The Kirks were indeed true aficionados of the dry martini .
For many years the most prestigious event on the Ottawa social calendar was the National Press Club of Canada’s Annual Ball. Held in the early springtime in the Chateau Laurier ballroom it was a elegant affair of tuxedos, special dinner menus, artistic decorations and themes, dancing to the best orchestras and a head table including Governors-General, prime ministers and other notables. Door prizes of new cars, luxury vacation trips and other donated items gave an air of luxury and opulence. It was a great occasion for a club member to invite his friends from other professions and walks of life to — a really notable occasion. A real bash. Tables for eight were vied for months ahead of the event. Grandeur was the game.
Charlie Bruyère, now long gone to the big press club in the sky, remembered that the first press club ball was held in 1928 in the Sparks Street Tea Rooms of the Murphy Gamble department store. It was attended by all club members and 150 leading municipal figures of the day. The next year 200 notables were in attendance. In the next few years the venue was changed to the Chateau Laurier with such amazing success that in 1933 a newspaper reported that :
Great and near-great, diplomat and politician, soldier and civilian, the flower of the Capital’s social circles and pick of her intelligentsia, have foregathered under the auspices of the Ottawa Press Club at these functions sponsored and conducted by this growing association of the journalistic fraternity.
Part and parcel of the ball was the annual production of the club’s magazine—Dateline : Canada. This glossy publication contained stories, mostly light-hearted, written by NPC members, politicians and other newsmakers and reporters, and was adorned with photographs, cartoons and other oddments. Dateline:Canada was produced with a deadline of the evening of the ball where it was handed out to all attendees with a package of other goodies upon leaving the ballroom. The magazine was also distributed in the club that same evening where a shadow evening of hilarity was usually underway.
Another wonderful part and parcel of the ball was the morning-after Wake-Up Party in the club premises, hosted by Shell Canada. This no-holds-barred bash was a fine array of buffet-food-tables, several free free-flowing bars and an overflowing crush of people many of whom, still tuxedoed and ball-gowned, arrived in fine spirit with the first blush of dawn from the Chateau. This festivity which rivalled the actual ball in distinction and gaiety lasted as long as need be, was open to all club members and their guests and was an unashamedly blatant public relations caper that reached the pinnacle of popularity.
Whether such largess actually ever resulted in undeserved favourable media coverage for the donor company providing all this good cheer is a mute point. As also is the fact that the club occupied premises courtesy of a rather desirable leasing agreement with a federal government department. Did the Minister of Public Works Canada and his department get undeserved credits, or excuses for wrong doings, by club members in their reporting? I think not. They and their seniors who direct the news and decide on the final productions are too intelligent and ethical to be overly swayed by a few cheese titbits, beers and knickknacks.
Sadly, around 1976 and despite now having many women members, the club had its balls cut off. This nutty decision was obviously quite idiotic and seemed to be the work of just a few people who would have made excellent militant union leaders of the most gratingly objectionable kind if only they had worked for the post office or some auto-manufacturer. When the abolitionists’ suggestion first raised its stupid head I remember sitting there at the table, cross-legged, telling the executive that if we weren’t already happily possessed of annual press balls we would be sitting around at that very moment painfully trying to create some and how stupid it was to throw out such highly successful and cherished items. But the socialistic emasculators had their way, saying that the balls were too high-class, pricey and ostentatious for poor little scrawny working people like low-life journalists to attend and that they were overly supported by commercial institutions. They said we should instead have some sort of casual blue-jean-and-sneakers attired bean-supper in some nondescript cheap hall or on the club premises. So poof went our balls and also poof went the balls’ accompanying Dateline : Canada, the club’s glossy annual magazine. That book had not only repeatedly paid for itself through advertising, but ended up with a thousand or two dollars of profit left over to put into the club’s coffers and provide a journalistic scholarship for a budding student.
The first Dateline with which I myself was associated was the issue of 1967, Canada’s Centennial Year and the year we moved into our Wellington Street quarters. There had been Datelines since 1961, when the first one was edited by Greg Connolly, the Citizen’s man on the Hill. At that time the executive would choose a Dateline committee, consisting of a chairman, editor, treasurer, advertising salesman, layout artist, etc, etc. The 1967 editor, John McLean of Canadian Press, the Toronto Star and the Citizen, asked me to be the photo editor. The next year the executive asked me to be the editor and I accepted on condition that the only other person on the book would be Jo Pearson, who was not only a formidable reaper of advertising revenue but a gifted artist-layout-printing and overall publication person. Jo’s real name was Gordon but everyone called him Jo because that’s what he called everyone else. The reason for this he explained was that he could never remember anyone’s name so he called all and sundry of both sexes, Jo. This practice he bestowed on even the various so-called journalistic representatives of Pravda, Novosti Press and other diplomatic officials from the Soviet Embassy where Jo worked on various publications. So in return he himself was universally called Jo. Having just Jo and myself producing Dateline meant that we didn’t have to call several other members of a formal committee to arrange a meeting every time we decided to change some paltry item. According to the masthead we did have a sleeping chairman, that issue of 1968, but I cannot remember him at all. After that, with Jo’s masterly help, just he and I, practically alone, produced Dateline for the years 1968, 69, 70, 71 and 72. Later I assisted in some small way with a couple of the following issues. Then the book was swallowed up in the black hole of puritanical socialism.
Other victims of that same goody-goody morality revolution was the horse-racing and other riotous and gripping games that shamefully took place on certain convivial evenings in the club. The rolling of oversized dice sent the large brightly-painted, wooden cut-out horses down the length of the club to the finish post where the cheering backers of the winning horses would be rewarded with holiday weekends, expensive household appliances, gift certificates, champagne and liqueurs and other choice items of dastardly and despicable commercial-advertising give-aways. It was a relief to all when we were finally liberated from those restraining fetters and could look at each other with guilt-free, if lacklustre, eyes and concentrate on other equally fascinating aspects of union fellowship.
For years the Governor-General invited the club executive and a picked sampling of the members to a skating party on the outdoor rink at Government House which was followed by a good cheer supper inside.
But there was another club activity which though considered very unmanly by some, managed to evade the reformer’s zeal by taking place in secret during the darkness of the early hours, well ahead of the sluggard rising of any critics of its morality or purpose. In fact, the half-dozen or so participants who met together in hushed furtiveness, well before dawn, kept themselves cunningly hidden while indulging collectively in their covert pleasure. It was an almost silent experience, the only utterances from the partners being low abbreviated exclamations of surprise, pleasure or disappointment and answered by nearby companions by small grunts of assent, dissent or gratification. In fact while still wrapped in the mystery of the remaining minutes of predawn darkness these fellow club members sat brazenly close together in automobiles with the windows uncaringly wide open, blatantly entranced.
Now, with the passing of several decades, I feel I can safely reveal three names of those who met in such secret tryst: Bert Plimer, Cliff Buckman and Jack Lusher. Besides this trio of stalwarts and myself there were two or three other club members intermittently possessed of this minority tendency and desire—the urge to listen to the spectacular chorus of bird song and chatter in the predawn of a fine spring morning. Yes! We were the club’s bird-watching group who, armed with binoculars, sandwiches and whisky bottles would haunt the remote glades and marshes of South March, North Gower and the Gatineau. One noted member was John Bird of the, I believe, Financial Post. As there was also another John Bird with the Canadian Press and both were members of the Parliamentary Press Gallery we usually referred to our fellow ornithological enthusiast as John Bird-Bird.
Other members met together regularly to practise for the annual golf tournament and club groups were organized for lively visits to see Montreal Expos baseball games and to tour the club’s facilities and meet the players.
The first time Gordon Lomar, who used to write the Below the Hill column in the Ottawa Journal (a very popular and animated column later ably inherited by Dave Brown in the Citizen), introduced me to his brother, Don, I also met Don’s wife, Tux. After a few minutes of surreptitiously eyeing each other, both Tux and I simultaneously shouted: ‘Southampton Harbour Board’. We had just suddenly remembered where we had met almost twenty years before. Tux had been a Wren in Commander MacMillan’s office after participating in hydrographic work in connection with the D-Day invasion fleets of 1944. Her husband, ex-naval officer, Don, had spent a hazardous and venturesome war split between being a bomb-disposal expert and making frequent daring night-time hit-and-run raids to annoy and disrupt German coastal defence targets across the English Channel using high-speed motor-torpedo-boats.
As a matter of fact the press club abounded in members with very active war records. Apart from those who had been war correspondents, such as Charles Lynch and Peter Stursberg, there were many others who had been active on the sharp and sticky side of the conflict. John Drewery of the CBC, in Bomber Command; Colonel Stirton, a renowned army action-photographer; infantrymen and others like Larry Macdonald, Jack Lusher; and J-P Beaulne, Doug Mason, Mark Rattan and many others who had sailed the seas, stormed the battlements or flown the air spaces of the Second World War. Thus gaining valuable experience of the true basics of life which was later to stand them in good journalistic stead.
Some of which was extremely practical as exemplified by Noel Taylor of the Ottawa Citizen. Upon entry to the signals section of the navy, he was taught touch-typing by daily sessions of sitting with his hands and keyboard hidden under a mask whilst copying out exercise texts.
Today one muted remnant of the old club consists of a score of ex-members forming the St. George and the Flagon luncheon club which meets one day each month in a shopping mall restaurant.
This club within a club was long a feature of the old NPC but I was never attracted to join it. Colonel Pat Ryan (who, like myself, had flown Seafires back in WWII) once persuaded me to attend one of their meetings which were accommodated in the library, adjacent to the large dining room that was a feature of the enlarged club that extended the NPC premises and added a large dining room-cum-dance floor (and another bar) stretching from Sparks Street to Wellington Street, sometime around 1975. I think, At the meeting I briefly attended, Pat arose from his seat at the big lunch table and started to introduce me to the other fellows as a potential new member of their club within a club. I interrupted him to say that these introductions were quite unnecessary as I’d known all those present for years.
So, with the St. George and the Flagoneers all fixated on their wine drinking and me having trouble ordering beer from the distant bar, plus having no incentive to listen to jokes and speeches, and completely unexcited by the sight of an array of my brainwashed fellow club members eating diced carrots and such, I never returned to St. George and his gang. I reverted to my usual northwest corner of the upstairs bar again.
For anybody interested, among the Flagoneers who still meet in mall restaurants for hamburgers, and I expect, diced carrots or something, are, again I believe, Dave Brown, Don and Gordon Lomer, Peter Fleming—the NPC’s noted musical virtuoso on piano and vibes, Noel Taylor, Charles Morrow, David Molliette,
My own personal NPC activity has morphed into summertime daily noonday sessions with a two-litre bottle of Wells India Pale Ale from England accompanied by a few puffs on my pipe while sitting out on my extended sundeck in the shade of a very large maple tree. At times I have been joined by a couple of other ex-members. In winter my midday happy hour or two (quite unattended by anyone else) is spent in the garden shed or on a tarpaulin-shielded small section of the deck wearing enough clothing to make me resemble Michelin Man. This because it is several decades since I last smoked a pipe inside the house.
For the first few years after the club was forced into a no-smoking phase of sobriety the games room was given a new door together with the role of an illicit smoking room. Though this was very divisive of the dwindling club membership it resulted in one pleasing aspect: many interesting new faces and characters appeared as refugees from places like the CBC building across Sparks Street, prominent staffers and other inmates of Parliament Hill, visiting newsmen from distant cities and lands and many others loath to readily give up their errant, wicked, ways.
Note: I expect I will have future additions and corrections to this screed so I will welcome comments, etc, by readers. Just stick your say in the comment box. Thank you and Cheers—John Ough