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

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Contemplating aspects of the Contemplative Art

Communing with old Izaak Walton

Walking through either the garish sports sections of large department stores or visiting those hallowed specialty halls of genteel commerce devoted uniquely to providing for the puritan angling devotee, one can only be impressed and enraptured by the amazing variety of lures available to today’s fisherman. They range from finely-crafted, hand-painted, and hand-carved wooden plugs (as have been made for centuries and of which Izaak Walton makes mention in The Compleat Angler, his fine book which throws such wonderful glimpses on early seventeenth-century life in England ) to modern electronically-energized high-tech lures capable of emitting flashing lights and pulsating sound. Others range from shiny plastic diving plugs and whirling metal spoons of gold and silver, and nine-inch-long by two-inch-wide bright metal flashers for attaching to the line a good three feet ahead of the actual lure, to the most realistic rubbery replicas of insects, frogs and invertebrates.
In fact, add to these the varied jars, cans and packets of preserved and live organic baits, plastic bottles of salmon jelly, power baits, scents and attractants, and the modern angler seems to have as great a selection of fishing lures to choose from as there are different living fish in all the ponds, rivers and seas the world over.
Also available, and made by artificial-fly fishermen since days of yore, are swarms of delicately-built and wonderfully true replicas of the streamside insects observed to be the favourite foods of fishes. Alongside such works of art, as many of them are, there are also myriads of cheap and gaudy mass-manufactured flies that bear little of no resemblance in appearance to any to be found in the wonderful insect array of the natural piscatorial world. Nevertheless, it is still a moot point as to which flies, the genuine quality imitations (a colourful oxymoron if ever there was one) or the garish, false psychedelic creations, which result in attracting more fish.
I bring up this debatable point as I have taken fish with a motley assortment of artificial flies and lures, some violently overdressed in screaming colours, others worn down by long use and left with but the merest trace of dull, wispy feather remaining and even at rare times with just a bare hook stuck through the merest scrap of coloured or uncoloured cloth.
In fact for all the mystique and devotion of the dedicated fly-tiers associated with the art I would venture to advise that as good an artificial fly for sport fishing can be instantly produced, for practical purposes, by simply winding an inch or two of pipe-cleaner around the shank of a good (barbless) hook and using it as is, with no more ado. This is especially so considering the wide range of colours in which pipe cleaners come. Or did some few years ago. Some are even two-toned, with red or blue spots dotted along their lengths. And having a thin wire core makes their utilization a snap. There is no need for a fly-tying vise, reels of thread, scissors or snippers, and the other paraphernalia of the art. Just hold a hook in one hand and twist a piece of pipe cleaner around its shank with the other hand. An operation easily undertaken even at the lakeside with bare hands freezing in an arctic breeze. And that’s it. No need to tie it on or make it secure with fancy knots and whippings. Its wire core will stay put for a fortnight or a season of active and productive casting.
A couple of packets of pipe-cleaners together with a box of hooks and a small reel of monofilament should be in the emergency pack of every bush pilot and other person who ventures far into the wilderness. A twist of dark brown pipe cleaner mixed with a twist of yellow and hey presto—one has a fair imitation of a mutated wasp, bee or beetle. A double or triple twist produces such an eye-catching appearance of a fat, though admittedly outlandish, exotic, juicy, appetising and furry, gourmet fly, as to catch the attention of even the most educated game fish. Especially those fish who happen to be feeling adventurous or curious that day. Yes, I know. The method used or patterns obtained are not likely to be approved by the purists, but if the fish go for it —who really cares.
As an added bonus they, the pipe-cleaners —not the flies — can be used by real fishermen for actually cleaning their pipes. (Also, as I can well attest, for tying up tomato plants). I’m sure Izaak Walton, (1593 - 1683), author of that classic angling book: The Compleat Angler, published in 1653, would have spoken well of them if they’d been around in 1653. But, in his time, three hundred and fifty years ago, tobacco had only been in use in Europe for about seventy years. He probably used something just as cunning for cleaning out his clay pipes, (and tying up his tomatoes which were themselves a newish novelty of that era) and for making jury-rig streamside fishing lures. Anyway, Izaak Walton’s clay tobacco pipes, he records enjoying in those bygone days of yore, were reported to be so cheaply mass-produced as to be thrown away immediately they became chipped or too blocked to draw. Real fishermen probably set off for a day’s angling with half a dozen in their pockets. And of course, there would be piles of free clay pipes for their customers’ pleasure in the nice country taverns Walton seemed so happy to regularly visit between his hours of angling and dalliancing with buxom milkmaids by the riverside ( Yep! I really admire that man. A really Real Fisherman — and one whom I hope to meet up with to share a tankard or two, and perhaps scrounge some of his Elizabethan tobacco, when I reach that big riverside tavern up in the sky — a probability not too far distant now).
Note to self:
I must remember to take old Izaak some coloured pipe cleaners.

Note to all hands:
This blog contains several other yarns appertaining to fishing and angling from the Persian Gulf to the Canadian Arctic. They are stuck randomly and higgledy-piggledy throughout its meandering, undisciplined length.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

A Contemplative Puff of Smoke

Odd Musings on the Brave New World

Years ago, in the 1950s, when my work meant sailing away to Arctic regions for regular six-month spells, from May to November, to explore and chart remote and unknown seas and coastlines, there were two particularly pleasurable routines I religiously went through before boarding the train for the East Coast.
Firstly, I would visit several of the then many well-stocked tobacconist shops in Ottawa and buy enough wonderful Bulwark pipe tobacco, imported from England, to last me comfortably for the entire six months I would be far distant from any source of resupply.
Secondly, I would take myself to the Sparks Street branch of the very reputable Birks store, a pleasing emporium of luxury jewellery, china, haberdashery and top quality requisites for the carriage trade.
There, in a surround of excellence, I would seek out the one cut-price exception for merchandise amid all else offered. For, in a modest corner of the store, on the gentlemen’s vendibles counter, there stood a large glass bowl which contained two or three hundred pipes all heaped up together in wonderful disarray. These fine pipes were perfect in every respect, but deemed otherwise by purists, who considered them flawed owing to containing very minor marks, scratches, tiny pitting or other so-called deficiencies, many so minute as to be indiscernible even to a keen and practised eye.
Delving down into the magic bowl I would select a dozen or more of those excellent pipes, enough to well see me through my six months of living aboard a small, strengthened-for-ice, chartered sealing vessel. Days, weeks and months interspersed with the climbing of mountains, the tracking of meandering coastlines, all to be followed by weeks and months of fourteen-hour-long days, every day except Sundays, aboard rolling, pitching, 30-foot-long sounding launches while running long lines of echo-soundings to complete our hydrographic surveys.
Usually I needed a dozen pipes to see me through a northern season, because invariably, there was the odd pipe lost overboard, two or three others broken in a parka pocket when stretching to lean over the ship’s railing to hand down heavy equipment, and the odd one left forgotten on a rocky mountain top with little time or inclination to repeat a laborious climb for its retrieval.
Today of course, sixty years later, such past comforts for living are disapproved of and protested into near oblivion by the inanely bigoted, insipid, or politically-correct, whose concept of the good life is the scrutiny of their navels and the adoration of screaming obscene performers with their inevitable ear-splitting electronic guitars.
Cor! I feel so much better after letting that last paragraph out.
Ok! Ok! I’m just kidding. And remembering the freedom of olden days.
I think I’ll just wander outside to my little winter hideaway shelter on our back sun deck (I haven’t smoked inside the house for decades) and have my routine noonday glass or two of IPA, from the Wells Brewery in Bedford, plus a puff of Bulwark pipe tobacco, from The Black Swan Shoppe in Scarborough — both of England, and here, in my little Ottawa hideaway, I will continue my contemplative puzzling over the mysteries of life.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

A Wartime Crossing of the North Atlantic

Wonderful Food and Jolly Good Company

In May 1944 I was one of a contingent of 121 naval airmen destined for flying training in Canada. We were fortunate to board the handsome Royal Mail Steamer Mauretania, sailing from Liverpool in England to Boston in Massachusetts, the liner’s regular port of rapid wartime turnaround. From Boston we were to be transported by train to the personnel dispersal unit at Moncton, New Brunswick, .

We formed only a small fraction of the Mauretania's total complement of varied passengers.

Converted into a fast super-troop ship, as were her two massive sister ships, The Queen Mary and the Queen Elizabeth, the RMS Mauretania was capable, because her high speed provided such a safety factor, of sailing as an individual, steering a lone, erratic zigzag course that would prove extremely unpredictable to any lurking U-Boat that might come within torpedo range.

And, strangely enough, even though all Europe was still under occupation by Nazi Germany, there was a pronounced and relaxing holiday atmosphere on board. It was almost as if we were on a cruise in peacetime. This party spirit was engendered in some part by the fine sunny, calm weather, but in far greater part by the fact that one segment of the ship’s passengers consisted of several hundred gallant aircrew members of the United States 8th Army Air Force, who having miraculously survived the completion of their allotted number of missions in their Flying Fortresses and Liberators, were heading home on leave and well away from the war for some time.

Now actually homeward bound at a fast rate of knots, as they could easily verify by looking over the ship’s rail at the blue ocean water scudding by, not yet really believing that they had actually outlived and were, at least for some time, finished with their ghastly task, they were relieving their pent up, deep down innermost feelings of sickening fear.

So the gently rolling decks of the Mauretania were athrong with happy groups of young men in much uncaring disarray of uniform, soaking up the sunshine, smoking, rolling the dice for enormous jackpots but, most of all, just sitting around and getting used to the feeling and awareness of being alive, of being okay, and with the probability of being alive and okay tomorrow and next week and the week after.

When I told them my first ever flight in an aeroplane had been by courtesy of an American Eagle Squadron pilot three years before in 1941, they were delighted and all over me. To this day they remain in my memory as the most wholesome, carefree, and uninhibited generation of Americans that ever were or ever will be. They were the crème de la crème of what the US of A professes to be. I loved them. They, as the saying went then, were the “bee’s knees”.

Some of the groups of US airmen were quiet and small, around half-a-dozen or fewer. They tended to be more subdued and kept closer together. They would arrive on deck together, go below deck together, laugh together, fall silent together. Their eyes seldom rested for more than a brief instant on any one spot and they subconsciously tended to arrange their deck chairs so they could squint up into the sun and see unimpeded between each other. And though they always seemed to be searching individual sections of a far and high horizon, at sudden commotion or noises, they would instantly all turn their heads together. These small groups had flown together and brought back their dead and wounded together. They had watched together as their buddies’ bomber aircraft, flying next to them, and closed up tightly in the defensive box formation, had suddenly erupted into flaming fragments of intermingled metal parts and segments of human bodies. It would be a while before some of them would be fully content about going their own separate ways. Alone as they never had been before. Alone and not together.

Seemingly not so caring, other larger groups of differently tempered men, or of somewhat more fortunate experience, gambled away stacks of pound notes, dollar bills, IOUs, wrist watches, even real estate properties back home, anything of value. What was the worry. They had just won the biggest gamble ever. They were euphoric. They were headed home. To the good old United States. Unlike eight out of ten of their friends who had fallen from the heavenly heights of the German killing skies.

Those USAAF guys were so clean. Their uniforms, though casually worn, were smart and clean. Their faces were clean. Their language, all in all, was clean. Incredibly, most of all, despite their hitherto hopeless horizons, their outlook was clean. What a tragedy that so many of them, the overwhelming majority of their former comrades, were lost in the, clear, subzero, thin air of high altitudes. Lost flying during many long, drawn-out, freezing, confining hours of extreme peril—an insane orchestration of brilliant sunshine, widespread lethal and maiming frostbite, and blazing flesh-rending gunfire.

How sad, also, that after bailing out from stricken aircraft, so many of these young gentlemen, who only twenty-four hours before had been chatting with fresh-faced Women's Land Army girls in peaceful, civilized English country pubs, were to be stabbed and murdered with pitchforks by German farmers—and their wives—who had sig-heiled and applauded their beloved Adolf Hitler’s greedy endeavours to conquer and evilize the whole world.

For many of our 121 neophyte naval airmen, now following in reverse geographical direction the road these US army air corps survivors had taken two or three years before, even the North Atlantic’s early summer gentle swells meant a day or two of sea sickness. Down below our cramped quarters became quite unpleasant.

So when volunteers were called for to work in the butcher’s shop, Vincent Ramos, my oppo (the naval vernacular for a buddy), and I, went for the job. Vin was an adventurous and exuberant friend. His father had been a well-to-do Spanish sherry merchant who settled in the Cheshire Wirral and became a naturalized Englishman. After the war Vin stayed in the navy and became a Lieutenant-Commander in command of a naval vessel.

Vin and I didn’t regret volunteering to work our passage one bit. For the Mauritania's butcher’s shop, several decks down, proved to be a cheery place with a crowd of cheery men and lots of less-cheery animal carcasses. So while they prepared the meats for the several thousand people aboard, Vin and I were charged with sweeping up the showers of scraps that fell to the deck from the cutting tables and sluicing buckets of water around to wash the mix of blood and other matter down the scuppers. A simple, not too strenuous task. Except, of course, that the broad deck of the butcher’s shop in Mauretania heaved in ponderous and noticeable fashion in response to the long flat ocean swell coming in from abeam. This caused the flood of animal flotsam and jetsam swirling in the bloodstained water to slosh first to port, then to starboard. This called for playing a waiting game. Waiting for the tide of detritus to approach in unison with the ship’s rolling, quickly fishing out the bigger pieces of offal and pushing as much of its liquid component as possible down the scupper drains before the tide turned and it all flowed away. Fascinating as this version of limpid deck quoits was, our days in the butcher shop had real advantages. For down here, with the ship’s bakery close at hand, we dined with the crew in luxury and amazing plenty. We had bread and pastries not seen in Britain for years. We had roasts, steaks, bacon, eggs, butter, fruits and scads of other foods, all so scrimpily rationed at home.

And we were not worked all that hard. Filling up huge garbage cans with our harvests of skin, gristle and unmentionable animal parts, plus other accumulated rubbish, we would load them on trolleys, and go off with them for an hour or more, taking elevators up and down onto different deck levels in order to reach our goal — the Mauritania's stern where a chute was positioned for ejecting garbage into the sea. Yet once there, we would not dispose of our garbage, but would place the full cans nearby in special holding racks. There they would stay until sundown, when we would return and empty them down the chute. This was because of orders never to dump material overboard during daylight hours. This was a precaution against the chance passing of a U-Boat over our track some hours later. The trail of floating garbage might lead to the deduction of our course and our expected future position being radioed to another submarine ahead of us.

On many of these trips to the ship’s stern, Vin and I went to the upper decks to watch the Yank’s crap games, enjoy being part of their total camaraderie and listen enraptured to their descriptions of the warm receptions and delights we might expect to receive from the beautiful girls who, we were told, were in such wonderful overabundance all over the USA.

A couple of times, gas-filled balloons were released from the ship so the US Army Air Corps machine-gunners could practise and demonstrate their battle-honed skills. This was more for sport than a precaution against the remote expectation of any kind of aerial attack after the first day or two out at sea. But, with the threat from U-Boats far from over, for what was a more meaningful practice, a floating and smoking drogue was left drifting astern for the chief petty officer DEMS Royal Navy gunner and his three-man crew to shoot at. While everybody watched as the target was left further and further astern, the gunner appeared to show indifference as to its whereabouts. Standing with his back to the scene, he just wiped imaginary specks of dirt from the breech and shell casings. Then just about when all hands thought the practice had been abandoned, he uttered a few words of laconic command. The gun crew slammed in a round, quickly laid their elevation and aim, fired, repeated the procedure twice more in rapid succession, then at once resumed cleaning their gun. Casually, after some seconds, the gunner looked out to mid-horizon, as did we all, to watch as the shell bursts blended with the smoking target. After that the smoke disappeared—except for the faintest of whiffs. And there was no sign of the raft. The American airmen applauded with hand-clapping, cheers and shouts of: “Just a lucky shot! Bet you ten bucks you can’t do it again!”

Getting to and from the butcher’s shop to the ship’s stern with a heavy load on a trolley meant a lengthy journey along a labyrinth of passageways, and up and down many lifts or elevators. Vin and I usually returned to our allotted sleeping quarters fairly late at night. We were lucky in having commandeered the only steel built-in bunk. All our companions had to sling hammocks every night, but we had an upper and lower bunk which was fastened into a fairly secluded corner spot inset just inside the open hatchway. I slept in the lower bunk and Vin used the upper.

About three o’clock in the middle of one night, I woke up and became quite concerned upon noticing several inches of water flooding down the passageway, which was only a foot or two from my makeshift pillow. Also, there was quite a bit of smoke about. Looking into the flat, I saw that not only had all our hammock-dwelling companions disappeared, but most of their hammocks had gone as well. I banged on the bunk above me and called to Vin. His sleepy head looked over the edge of the bunk. I was glad to see he was still there. I was glad not to be alone in this strange situation, in the middle of the ocean in the middle of the night with water and smoke about, in the middle of a war. We were discussing what to do when someone came sloshing up the passageway through the water. We called to him and he stopped to tell us not to worry. The dry canteen on the deck above had caught fire. The smoke had woken all our people who had retreated to the clear air of an upper deck with their hammocks. We had been overlooked in our little nook. And the water coming down the companionway and along the passage was just the water from the fire hoses. It was all just about over, he said, so we might as well stay where we were. He went off down the passage. Relieved, we were about to go back to sleep when we noticed that floating down the ladderway from the deck above was a variety of objects. After bumping down the steps, they floated along the passageway past our doorway. By reaching out across the low coaming and without leaving my bunk, I could grab these items out of the water. As I picked them up I passed them up to Vin who dried them with our towels and stowed them away in our kitbags. We soon had a good haul of Hershey chocolate bars, boxes of lifesaver candies, hairbrush and comb sets in cellophane packets, a few cartons of cigarettes, and other oddments. After a while, the flow ceased so we went back to sleep. But we were able to give away chocolate bars and things to the deserving and obliging for several weeks after landing ashore.

When a couple of American patrol aircraft flew out of the sunset to meet us, we knew we were near the end of our sea trip. Our US Air Force passengers went mad waving to their compatriots as they flew past the ship so low that from our promenade decks we were looking down and into the planes.

The next morning we saw the Massachusetts’ coastline and within an hour or so, we were docking in Boston and getting our first look at the new world.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

A Long Dormant Financial Oversight


Wake up all Royal Navy ex-Petty Officer pilots and join me in protesting to the UK government and the Royal Navy about how badly we were exploited when we were flying on RNAS squadron No: 805, in 1945. Surely we are due large lumps of cash in compensation. There must be many sympathetic boards and commissions before whom we can successfully plead our long-tolerated and hidden grievance.

This gripe stems from watching footage of modern US aircraft carrier operations. All navy pilots today are two-ring lieutenants or above in rank and highly paid. Or Marine Majors and colonels. All raking in umpteen thousands of bucks every month.

Yet we poor Petty Officer navy pilots were fobbed off with what? As far as I remember it was 7/6d a day. Or it could have been a few peanuts more or less. Ok, anyway, plus just five or six bob a day as flying pay for a whopping total of perhaps 13/6d.

But for that we had to go round and round Machrihanish air space flying our powerful Seafire XVs, time after time, practising ADDLES (Advanced Dummy Deck Landings) in anticipation of imminently flying aboard our aircraft carrier and joining the Pacific Naval Fleet. So there we were up in the air all day, manoeuvring crabwise about thirty degrees sideways, letting down in long, low, flat and slow, labouring curves, so we

could peer out to port past the long engine cowling in order to keep the batsman and the white lines, marked out on the runway, all in shimmering view.

Keeping lots of power on in order to hang from the prop in a nose-up attitude meant banking round with the pilot’s head sticking out the cockpit and peering through an obscuring hot cloud of thick exhaust ejecta often composed of flame-spurting, eyebrow singeing, mixture-rich unburned gases which would violently ignite when coming out through the hot exhaust pipes.

Ok, so we did wear goggles, a helmet and oxygen mask but a scarf round the neck came in handy when those unburned mixture-rich gases went pop-bang-pop. It was a time for full flaps, full mixture, fully-fine pitch and full exaggerated use of wiggly controls gone extra sloppy through keeping the airspeed down so dangerously low, just above the stall. In all, a very unnatural and unseemly display of airmanship.

Ah, those were the days. There’s no life like it. But don’t let on, my lads. We need all the sympathy we can muster if we’re going to make our case for lots of lolly in recompense for our dedication. Think of it, many months of back pay—including 65 years of accumulated interest.

Yeah! So, Goff Parker of Coventry and Danny Bannatyne of the Isle of Arran, the only old 805 squadron comrades I'm still in touch with, here’s our case:

Lookit! Say we did ten addles a day. That’s 13/6d divided by ten, that’s about 1/6d an addle. What a bargain their Lordships of the Admiralty were getting. One and sixpence a go. Christ! Just about what a good seat in a movie cinema cost in those days. (and about 30 cents sixty-six years ago in 1944 Canada when a 5c bottle of pop suddenly jumped up to 6¢).

Yeah, I know our Seafire XVs only cost about £7,000 ($28,000) and today’s modern jets go for many millions each, and we did get our gasoline free, but still...

On top of that we had to keep all those lovely WRENS' girls happy and contented. Washing out piles of their undies every evening and making them special dainty gourmet meals. You know how fastidious the Wrens were, especially those in flying control.

So, all that work for what? Peanuts:

13/6d a day, £4-14s a week, £17-10-00 a month, £215-12-6 a year.

I dunno why we didn’t take strike action.

I should have started our compensation campaign for supplementing our past pittances when I spoke with, and smoked a pipe with, UK Prime Minister Harold Wilson when he visited the press club long years ago, in the 1970s.

Another opportunity lost.

Just call me a limey

A Claim to Fame

In Iraq, some time around 1950, finding that most of my teeth had mysteriously become loose, I left my hydrographic survey vessel El Ghar tied up alongside the mooring barges in Fao and hied up the nearly hundred miles to Basra to see a local Iraqi dentist. He looked at my teeth and said everything looked all right. They were just very loose.

So I went off to see my friend Doctor RD Maclean, an ex-wartime Royal Navy seagoing sawbones, who was now the Port of Basra’s Chief Medical Officer. He examined me, puzzled around a bit with his books, then slapped his hands in glee. Delightedly he reckoned I had the beginnings of scurvy, something he had never seen before. He told me I obviously had been ignoring vegetables in my diet and what I needed was a large dose of vitamin C.

But, incredibly, there was none available right then.

So I went back across the desert, south to Fao, went aboard my survey vessel,

El Ghar, and sailed off into the blue and there met one of Her Majesty’s sloops, either the Wren or the Wild Goose, and they gave me a a couple of tins of lime or lemonade powder. After drinking that for a couple of days all my teeth sprang back rigidly to attention as if they were expecting to be inspected by Chief Petty Officer Wilmot, the fearsome senior disciplinarian during my initial days as a cadet at HMS St. Vincent, in 1943.

So ever after that when anyone called me a ‘Limey’ I could state that, yes, that’s what I was, and probably the only living, classically-true, English-Canadian limey they would ever meet.