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

Friday, December 30, 2011

The Aviso Grille, Beirut, December 1947

A Long Weekend on Hitler's Yacht
                    Christmas 1947

After taking passage on the maiden voyage of a freighter, the good ship M.V. Domino, from the Pool of London, via an adventurous stop over in Malta, and then finally leaving the ship in Beirut in company with Bob Martin, an elderly long time dockyard supervisor with the Basra Port Directorate who was returning from leave in UK, we were told by the local Cooks Travel Agency that because of an ongoing cholera epidemic Syria had closed its borders. 
So we were stranded. The Domino had sailed away. Our path to Baghdad via Damascus was closed. And before the era of computers and easy money transfers we were almost without money. We were, in the vernacular, DBS (Distressed British Seamen).

Fortunately, after an exchange of cable messages with Basra, the Thomas Cook Travel Agency’s Beirut agent fixed us up with a paid-for inexpensive hotel and said we should come into his office each morning to get the latest news on the border crossing situation and to receive a small amount of pocket-money. 
Our ancient hotel, though far from plush, was adequate for our needs.  Apart from a few Arab gentlemen Bob and I seemed to be the only guests . We were the only ones to ever use the dining room where we were served the same food every day.  Breakfast was a plate of fried eggs, baked beans and chappati-style bread. Both lunch and dinner consisted simply of rice topped with curry-flavoured baked beans and flat bread. And strong tea. That was it. But it was adequate. My bedroom was quite large and airy, and sparsely furnished with just a bed in one corner and diagonally across in another corner, a small wash hand basin with running water. 
Of much more imposing dimensions was the adjoining en suite bathroom. In fact, it was astonishingly huge. It must have been all of 30 feet by 20 feet. And, more astonishingly, in the exact centre of the room was a western style toilet or WC. 
It was the only object in that vast space. A lonesome toilet all alone, midway between the four walls of a windowless cavernous room which was otherwise completely empty. 
Sitting on that solitary throne engendered the kind of timid nervous insecurity as would undoubtedly be generated if one was forced to attend to one’s toilet in similar fashion in the middle of a deserted Trafalgar Square. It was the ideal setting for evoking a disciplined quiet contemplation of personal life, ruminating on the absolute indifference of the fickle finger of fate, probing the philosophical reasonings of being, and other disturbing mental exercises. Sitting there in the empty vastness of timeless space, all alone, one could not but be aware of one’s absolute insignificance in the majestic pattern of things. 
In comparison with my Beirut toilet sittings, the functioning of modern astronauts during their time on the international space station must be mundane. To such a toilet should all overbearing politicians and dastardly dictators be directed to sit every day for a calming hour or more of ego-resetting.

Each morning after Bob and I had visited the Cook Travel Agency to hear again that the Syrian frontier was still closed and had picked up our daily cash pittance, we would repair to a small cafe and order the single beer each, that was all we could afford. We would sit for an hour or two making our beer last. When we told the cafe’s Greek owner of our enforced economy due to the cholera outbreak, he was sympathy itself. This because just a few weeks previously, his young son had been successfully operated on by the doctors at the Beirut American University and he made us honorary stand-in recipients of his deep gratitude to the American medical profession by not only giving us a second beer free but placing saucers of shrimp and other delicacies before us. After all, he said, it was nearly Christmas.

In the evenings we always went to the Dug Out, an underground bar beneath the Select, an elderly, French-colonial-style hotel which faced the sea on the marine front boulevard. There we managed to eke out our single precious beer or, during the first few days we were stranded, maybe even a couple. 
There were two noticeable features of the Dug Out. The first was a veritable giant of a black man who walked among the tables selling oysters from a large tray he carried on his glistening bald head. 
The other feature of note was the night club’s toilet. Typical of the strong French influence left after years of colonial status the toilet was used communally by both men and women, with that part provided for men being just inside a curtained doorway and the women's cubicles being a few steps beyond. The trouble was that though the doorless entranceway was about three feet wide its privacy curtain was only a little more than two feet wide. Thus one had a choice, by pulling the meagre curtain rungs along their track, of putting on a floor show for the people sitting at tables on one side of the room or performing for those on the other side. Anyway, it made little difference how one positioned the curtain, because just as soon as one was surrendering modesty to the delayed and increasingly urgent demands of the occasion some lady or other female heading to the cubicles would wrench the curtain to one side, make no attempt to put it back in its inadequate place and leave the performer well open to the gaze of the whole room—left, right and centre. 
Probably this was all done on purpose to entertain some customers at the expense of others as I noticed that the management and musicians seemed never to use that toilet themselves. 
But it was in the Dug Out, on Christmas Eve, when Bob and I were sitting somewhat sadly nursing our single bottle of small holiday cheer amid the noisy festive groups all around us and resigning ourselves to a meagre Christmas of more rice and baked beans, that the fickle finger of fate pointed with a much needed stab of kindness in our direction. 
This particular fickle finger belonged to an elderly, brawny and rugged character with a loud and cheery voice. It brought itself alongside me and said loudly: ‘I remember you my lad, don’t you remember me. From HMS St. Vincent? ’ during the war?, it said. ‘You were a cadet and I was one of your petty officer drill instructors.’ 
And so he had been. And here he was with a group of other seafaring men—the British officers and petty officers of the Grille, Adolf Hitler’s ex-yacht and now owned by a Lebanese millionaire, a businessman who disliked the sea and was never aboard. 
When I introduced my old wartime drill instructor to Bob Martin, another fellow seafarer of similar advanced age, they hit it off straight away and when we told him of our penniless predicament and near DBS status he took us in generous hand. He bought us beers, and then took us over to his fellow officers. He was delighted to hear I had earned my wings in Canada after leaving St. Vincent and it was his captain who then insisted that we join the Grille for the holiday, starting at once as they were all set to go back on board for their big Christmas dinner which they were having at midnight. 

And so we did and there, aboard Hitler’s favourite yacht, Bob and I enjoyed a bounty of good cheer, wonderful food and a cabin for each  of us for two whole days of merry and continuous festivity. It was one of the most fortuitous encounters with fate I have ever had. God bless all the St. Vincent petty officers. And the yacht, Aviso Grille, in which Hitler had planned to sail, in exalted triumph, up the Thames to Buckingham Palace when, as in the expectation of the rest of the world, he had brought Britannia to her knees in 1940.

                        Hitler takes the salute from the Grille, 
                                      his favourite yacht.

After, Christmas, when we went back ashore, the people at the Thomas Cook Travel Agency gave us the good news that the Syrian border was now open again. 
The bus to take us to Damascus would be leaving in the morning to connect us with the big bus to carry us over the meandering, ever deviating and shifting track across the desert to Rutba and then on to Baghdad.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Sounding off about…

Personalizing Television

My addiction to tranquility all started off with baseball games on TV.   
It just had to.  They were just too noisy.
Because, unlike so many other faltering old folks, my hearing is still rather acute.  Maybe even exceptionally so.
So when watching baseball games, the extraneous noise emitted by overly raucous fans, especially those who beat drums or blow screechy whistles, added to the continuous drone of desultory commentary by presenters and their annoying, mostly dull, interviews with so-called knowledgeable guests — all these detracted from my following the action.  So, by using the mute button, baseball was watched in silence, unless umpires were discussing serious disputes.

Because television is nothing, if not primarily, a truly explicit visual medium.  Unlike radio which is a completely audio medium.
And though the two can be wonderfully combined on television and in film, oftentimes the audio part can become somewhat pointless. 
Like during weather forecasts where large eye-catching numbers, plainly depicting temperatures for various areas and cities, seemingly have to be accompanied by a human guide (with his or her bodily bulk awkwardly blocking from sight large portions of the weather map) needlessly pointing their finger to each number in turn while reciting orally the value displayed, almost as if it is really just an English lesson for teaching kindergarten children or newly arrived immigrants.

So like I said, my watching of television with the sound turned off all started with baseball games.
Then my habit progressed to instantly pressing the muting button upon seeing any stupid looking hairy lout clasping a guitar suddenly appearing on the screen.  Or whenever a vacant-looking pundit intruded with his or her presence.
Later it was when news announcers would breathlessly disclose that a politician had said such-and-such a thing, and then, as if to prove their point and veracity, having the screen immediately switch to a video recording of that very same politician mentioned actually saying that identical such-and-such a piece, exciting word for exciting word.

I also started silently watching segments of movies with the sound turned off leading me, I suppose, to mentally impose what each character was saying with words from my own imagination and which I fully and fondly imagined to be far more entertaining, hilarious, and apt, than those originally written by the Hollywood script writers.

So gradually my hours of watching television with the sound turned off increased in number and the variety of programs.  This was greatly helped by appreciating how often graphically super-imposed cut-lines, explanatory notes and identification titles were used on the screen.  These often provided most of the basic information required to gather the gist of the program in progress, and for rapid filtering of news reports for any items worthy of additional attention.
Self important union leaders, angrily slobbering their demands for their entitlements, would have their stupid blatherings muted in my presence, even as their priceless words left our earthly environment at dazzling speeds-of-light on their way in all directions to distant galaxies.
At other times in past years, for periods of several minutes, I would even watch Shania Twain singing away, but in complete silence — though admittedly fetchingly displayed and in full-action graphic form, yet quite undistracted by unnecessary audio.

An added bonus of silent baseball television, of course, is that it can be followed by all unilinguals, or even non-linguals, with equally enjoyable ease on either the English or French channels.  This also applies to many other TV programs on a variety of subjects.

Ultimately, I might also note that one may advance at times to sitting in front of a television enjoying both silence and a visually blank screen.  Having the power completely turned off can be a wonderfully soothing and thought provoking experience. 
Yep! Having no audio and no visuals can be very relaxing.
But visuals can be stimulating.  Especially, for instance, like looking through the oven window at a sizzling roast of beef.
Backed up of course with high definition ‘smellarama’.


Monday, November 21, 2011

Amazing stuff...

Whoever would have thought it…
Some important news items and scientific insights you             may possibly have missed…

    Meteorological Science Meeting report…

It also said it was likely - meaning a probability greater than 66 per cent - that heavy precipitation events would also increase over many parts of the planet, particularly in high latitudes and tropical regions, as well as in winter for northern mid-latitudes.

(Wow!  That pretty much covers the whole globe.  You wanna avoid the deluge?  Then best bet is: head for New Zealand, the Falklands, or southern Chile and Argentina).

  •  Health Report spokesperson…

What's amazing to me, as someone who has worked in a rehab centre, is this: Take people off their substance and, after detox, they quickly become upstanding citizens - considerate, responsible and good-natured.  Put them back on the drugs or alcohol and the madness begins anew.
  •   Government Project runs over budget
   •   International meeting agrees  
date for next                                                                                                                                                                      meeting.

      •  Health Canada advises…

        If you break a Compact Fluorescent Lamp, follow these directions for clean-up:

        •  Leave the room
Remove people and pets from the room and keep them out of the room during the clean-up process.
Avoid stepping on any broken glass.

•  Ventilation
Ventilate the room for at least 15 minutes prior to starting clean-up by opening windows and doors to the outdoors. This will ensure that mercury vapour levels are reduced before you start cleaning.

•  Clean-up Directions for Hard and Carpeted
Do not use a vacuum to clean up the initial breakage, as it will spread the mercury vapour and dust throughout the area and may contaminate the vacuum.
Wear disposable gloves, if available, to avoid direct contact with mercury and to prevent cuts.
Scoop or sweep up the broken pieces and debris with two pieces of stiff paper or cardboard.  Do not use a broom.
Use sticky tape, such as duct tape or masking tape, to pick up any remaining fine glass or powder.
Wipe the area with a damp paper towel, cloth or disposable wet wipe to remove any residual particles.
Place the broken glass and clean-up materials in a glass container with a tight fitting lid to further minimize the release of mercury vapour.

•  Carpeting - Steps to Take After the Initial Clean-up
If the rug is removable, take it outside, shake and air it out for as long as is practical.
The first time you vacuum on installed carpet after the clean-up, shut the door to the room or close off the area as much as possible and ventilate the room in which the lamp was broken by opening the windows and doors to the outside. When the vacuuming is done, remove the bag, wipe the vacuum with a damp paper towel, cloth or disposable wet wipe, and then place the vacuum bag and paper towel in a sealed plastic bag outside.  In the case of a canister vacuum, wipe the canister out with a wet paper towel and dispose of the towel as outlined above. Continue to ventilate the room for 15 minutes once the vacuuming is completed.

•  Disposal
Immediately place waste material outside of the building in a protected area away from children.

Dispose of the waste at a household hazardous waste location as soon as possible.  Check with local, provincial, or territorial authorities about the requirements for recycling and for the location of household hazardous waste depots or pick-up.
Do not dispose of the waste in your household trash.
For further information on disposal, please contact Environment Canada.

•    Washing 
               Wash your hands after storing and disposing of waste.

(There that’s simple enough isn’t it?  Aren’t we all lucky to have the useful convenience of CFLs included by government mandate in our modern mode for gracious living?)

Monday, November 7, 2011

Xmas Cheer…

 Let’s liven up the Christmas Holidays with more Canadian Pantomimes

Pantomime—the art or technique of conveying emotions, actions, feelings, etc., by gestures without (any believable) speech.

Luckily for my equanimity I quite enjoy nonsensical but clever children’s pantomimes.
Way back, in London, about 70 or 65 years ago, I can remember willingly going to see a Christmas pantomime or two, probably when accompanying one of my sisters when taking one or two of their children as a Christmas treat.
I also remember just a few years ago watching a rare but very good Canadian pantomime on TV, which starred Canada’s wonderful ballerina, Karin Kain, teamed up, incongruously, with ‘Onslow’ of the Brit TV show Keeping up Appearances.
‘Onslow’, I don’t know his real name, had packed houses of young Canadian children collapsing in merriment with the age-old simple chestnut presentations of British juvenile farce.  You know.  Where the awful villain or other evil character typically creeps up behind the clueless hero and the children call out excitedly to warn their jolly favorite of the danger...  
“There he is right behind you”.
 “No he’s not, I just looked and no one was there”.
 “He ran round the other way in front of you while you were looking behind you”.  
“Of course he didn’t.  There’s no one there”. 
“Oh, yes there is.  He’s right there, turn round the other way”
… and so it goes on and on, absolute nonsense but wonderfully absorbing for young humour-loving children.
And some others.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

History of the Middle East

Dateline: November 1, 2011
A brief rewrite of pertinent
Middle East history         

How the non-delivery of two formidable British dreadnoughts may well have led to the adventurous exploits of Lawrence of Arabia, the existence of Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and Trans Jordan, Egypt, a sovereign Saudi Arabia, and later greater control of the Persian Gulf by Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.

In 1914, as the war clouds grew ever darker across Europe, British shipyards were working to finish completion of two new massive Dreadnought battleships, together with some destroyers and patrol craft, that had been ordered by the Ottoman Empire to bolster its naval presence in the Black Sea
Turkey at that time, still edgy about threats from its powerful northern neighbour, Imperial Russia, which had a couple of decades before had waged war upon them and also during the Crimea War. Turkey was also now beset with unfriendly relations with Greece, another neighbour. 
So the Turkish Ottoman Empire was in a state of indecision as to which side — the French, British and Italian, or the military might of Germany-Austria — it should declare itself to be an ally.
With Russia seemingly preparing to oppose Germany, Turkey’s strongest intentions appeared to be with Germany and against Britain and France.

But when the two mighty dreadnought battleships ordered by the Turkish government were completed in August 1914, Winston Churchill, Britain’s First Lord of the Admiralty, rightly told the Turks that the deal was off.  The battleships would stay in Britain and be commissioned into the Royal Navy.
Thus Turkey firmly allied itself to Germany for the next four years of hostilities during the Great War.

This meant that the next one hundred years of Middle East history, which we have now witnessed, and events yet to unfold during the next few hundred years, were radically and violently altered from what might have been.
Because, unlikely though it was, if Turkey had received its fully-paid-for dreadnoughts from Britain, as agreed upon, it is slightly possible that the Ottoman Empire would have instead decided to become Britain’s ally, thus saving the costly bloodshed and chicanery involved in wrestling military control of Arabia, Mesopotamia, Palestine, Egypt and coastal regions of Libya, Tunisia and Algeria from out of Turkish and into the allies’ hands and influence. 
For the Ottoman Empire had occupied all those Middle Eastern regions for centuries.  From the Red Sea across Arabia to the top of the Persian Gulf and all the way down the gulf’s western coast to Oman and the Strait of Hormuz where the Turks had held sway since the middle ages.
In the event of a Turkish alliance with Britain there would have been no reason for the British Army in Egypt’s, fluently Arabic-speaking, enigmatic, Lt. Colonel Lawrence to don his flowing native robes and trek out into the desert to rouse the Arabian tribes into rebellion against the Turks and ease the way for a British army to win control of Jerusalem together with all the far-distant Arab lands so long dominated by the Ottoman Empire.
Nor would there have been need for a largely Indian British army to sail up into the Shatt-al-Arab at the north end of the Persian Gulf, invade Mesopotamia (largely known as 'Messpot' in British shorthand) and suffer terrible hardships on the way, from battling an extremely tough and cruel Turkish army.
Nor would the victorious allies in 1919 have been able to carve up the whole region into separate states, creating Syria and Lebanon for the French and with Palestine, Egypt and Iraq placed under British mandate which, though later peacefully rescinded, left meaningful British influence across the region including also most of the coastal sheikdoms of the Persian Gulf and also Iran itself strongly influenced by British policy until the mid 1950s.  All illustrated by the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, the Imperial Bank of Iran and the Middle East, and strong joint partnerships of USA-British regional oil exploration, development and facilities for global export.
In fact, if Turkey had chosen to join the Allies, It is possible that Imperial Russia, now a de facto ally with Turkey would not have given up fighting the Germans in 1917 nor experienced its tumultuous, politically earth-shaking, revolution.

In the mid-1950s the peace of Iraq under the rule of the young King Faisal and his prime minister, Nuri Said, was destroyed when, largely undermined by Soviet street propaganda, they and other members of ancient royal families were brutally massacred and their bodies hung from lamp posts in the streets of Baghdad and other cities by murderous mobs.
The way was then open for a succession of much harsher regimes to rise and fall.
Sadly, international harmony, both regionally and widespread, fell into the inane bedlam we have seen over the many decades past.

It seems that the Turkish government never received back the money it had paid Britain for building those dreadnoughts back in 1914.  But it has probably been recovered many times over by the flood of British tourists who have visited their country year after year over the past half-century.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

KK for GG

 No sooner do I make a promise (see end paragraph of my last blog) than I break it.
Though I do offer in excuse that though the petition I am now promoting is directly dependent on Prime Ministerial decision it is not really a political matter.  Like for example increasing retired (Tory) senators’ pensions, or building six giant aircraft carriers exclusively in Quebec shipyards, or even reinstituting the red duster as Canada’s national ensign.
No, what I am now urging the PM to do is, when the present excellent Governor-General, David Johnston’s present term in office is over, that this vice-regal honour which has been so blatantly scattered around indiscriminately for misguided vote-getting purposes in recent years, be offered to a person who is as unchallengeable genuinely pur laine Canadian as any other citizen living from the east to west coasts and national borders to Arctic coast.
And the first choice for that person, in my opinion, would be the gracious and talented Karin Kain, the wonderful ballerina, who presents a true reflection of those traditional and intrinsic Canadian values now helplessly under decay by interloping interests.  

Monday, October 10, 2011

A brief rare dip into my personal political musings…

During the many years I spent working, living and carousing with hard-headed competent seaman and airmen comrades, both afloat, in the air and ashore, in the Persian Gulf, India and high Arctic waters, my colleagues had one well-tested criterion for judging the true and ultimate worthiness of any individual.
Would we be fully confident, we asked ourselves, if we were embarking on a voyage destined to explore and sail right over the very edge of the world, if that person was to be our captain or other shipmate.
My companions, veterans of years spent surviving both wartime and natural perils of the sea, all swore by this standard attribute for verifying personal and professional acceptance.  

So there you have it everybody. For the next decade or more, using this ultimate assessment, there’s no need to go footling about considering the obscure details, lack of qualification, obvious unsuitability, faked charisma, and all the rest of the falsely required regalia of a future prime minister that has been demonstrated by so many recent candidates who have never actually done anything really practical in their lives, and who offer nothing but platitudes to further their selfish aspirations to perform as politicians supported by their usually equally ignorant support staff.
Luckily for the next several years there is the chance that Canadians could dispense with such fruitless evaluation of the newest crop of hopeless non-leaders, who no doubt are already planning how to mislead the Canadian populace. 

How does this fine opportunity to avoid such pointlessness present itself?  Because the most obvious choice for Prime Minister, that has ever presented itself during Canada’s 144 years of existence, is right before our very eyes.  I refer to:
 Chris Alexander, Canada’s 43-year-old previous Canadian Ambassador to Afghanistan and now Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of National Defence (to my mind the ministerial post he himself should already be holding in order to prepare him to be the future successor to Canada’s present, and quite satisfactory Prime Minister, Stephen Harper).

Despite having never met Chris Alexander I draw my unasked for, and quite presumptuous, impressions of him solely from the several times I have watched him in serious discussion on various television programs.  His direct, pertinent and often short sentences in reply to other speakers are delivered with firm confidence and seemingly genuine belief backed by solid knowledge and experience.  He delivers his words incisively and with the similar utter confidence, as does a Royal Navy Chief Petty Officer, small arms instructor, demonstrating the correct use of grenades during a World War Two Whale Island live-ammunition assault course. 

In all Chris Alexander appears to be the most intelligent politician seen for decades, anywhere.  Let’s hope he actually does have aspirations to become Canada’s future leader.  I reckon he might become the Steve Jobs of parliament or Ernest Shackleton of politics.  Certainly not a Layton, Trudeau, Joe Clark, Dion or even Iggy.

Would I be confident to sail over the edge of the world with him?  You betcha I would!

PS:  Look, I hope I haven’t embarrassed Chris Alexander with my thoughts.  No, of course not.  Just myself I suppose.  Anyway Mr. Alexander probably has no desire to sail right off the edge of the world.   
Which is quite sensible.  And after all, I’m much too old for that sort of thing now.  And probably my wife wouldn’t let me go even if I wanted to.
But I do hope our pleasant PM Harper and whoever else follows him make things turn out a little better.

That’s it.  No more political rants.  Promise.
Nor will I be running myself.  Promise.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

A Letter to old Squadron Pals

And now, look at this — out of a clear blue sky and just when I thought I might relax and concentrate on my innocent hobbies with peaceful tankard and pipe.  Now I am yet beholden to even more toil and service. 
My brief and modestly-extended flying career must needs be further extended it appears.  In fact it is my bounden duty.  This call comes in the form of this headline in newspapers of September 11th, 2011 —

“RCAF can’t train enough pilots: report”

It states that the air force needs 125 new pilots every year but airline companies attract too many in competition, etc.
So they’re “…enticing ex-service pilots to re-enlist to fill the gap...”

Well that’s it, innit?
With my record I just cannot refuse.
How about you other ex-WWII 805 squadron guys?  Should we all be together again?  Let’s meet in some low-down pub where we can furtively smoke our pipes at will and plan our proposals to the RCAF.
Will we insist on being provided with Seafire XVs?  Or at least the latest Spitfires.  None of those silly jet things.  Real aircraft. 

I’ve even had a bit of experience in this stuff…Viz:

During a brief 1949 interlude back home in UK, in between contracts with the Iraqi government when in charge of my 110-ton little survey vessel El Ghar with its crew of 20 Iraqis at the head of the Persian Gulf, I joined the RAF as a very casual spare time P2 reservist.  No uniform or anything, just show up whenever. So every now and then I’d take a London bus over to Hornchurch RAF air station and take a Tiger Moth for a jaunt around the skies over Essex.  Then take the bus back to Ilford, and stop in the Valentine public house at Gants Hill, for a few convivial pints with guys I knew who were still around.

Nine years later, in 1958, after five years sailing into the Arctic on six-month voyages of charting and mapping with the Canadian Hydrographic Service, and with the smouldering cold war threatening to heat up and burst into flame at any time, the Royal Canadian Air Force formed a spare-time flying program for ex-service pilots.  The intention was to allow such older people (I was then 31 years of age) to keep their flying skills alive so that in the event of war they would have a nucleus of flying instructors to build upon.  Passing the recruiting office in downtown Ottawa one day I went in and joined the program known as the Chipmunk scheme.
I was at once taken on and received a commission as a Flying Officer.  This was really ultra-informal.  Again no uniform or anything.  The two or three RCAF Chipmunks were looked after by the Ottawa Flying Club but kept separately just for the use of us Chipmunkers.  Though for the several times I popped into the place over those winter months I never met another fellow reservist.  Maybe I was the only one.
Ottawa airport was still quite a modest sort of place then.  The big passenger 707 and DC8 jets, requiring extra long and tough runways, were only just making their first appearances.  So the club aircraft shared the old runways with Vickers Vanguards and Viscounts and DC4s and stuff then in vogue.  But even those vintage turbo-prop commercial jobs seemed like big bullies from inside a tiny Chipmunk.  I remember once, while taxiing along the perimeter to the duty runway, suddenly having a Vanguard show up behind me.  Those commercial biggies taxied very fast and I was intimidated enough by the attitude of its crew looking disapprovingly down on me from their lofty cockpit high up on their dauntingly massive tricycle-undercart that I scampered well out of the way onto the grass just to be polite.
I had to.  If I’d increased my taxi speed to stay in front of the bugger I’d have become airborne.

Anyway, all this tied in well with a new interest.  Because talking with Bill Glenny, a good friend with whom and I’d spent many a convivial time in the southern fleshpots, and shared lots of flying adventures with up north, and who was now the government’s chief helicopter pilot, we had discussed the advantages of a hydrographer also being a helicopter pilot or a helicopter pilot also being a hydrographer.  In such a case a surveyor-pilot could fly another surveyor from the ship to one hilltop, leave him there to make his observations and fly himself to another hilltop, take his own observations and then fly back, pick up the other surveyor and proceed to the next two hilltops.  This would save all the wasted time when a pilot sat around on the hilltop waiting for the surveyor to finish his hour or two of observations.  It would raise the pilot from being just a glorified aerial taxi-driver.
Bill said that with my renewed RCAF spare-time flying I could easily get my commercial fixed-wing license and then he, Bill, using all the Department of Transport facilities he had at the airport, would teach me to fly a helicopter, during those days I could spare from my winter hydrographic office work, and then he himself would test me for my official license.  And of course, pass me. Thus the next season I would be a hydrographer-helicopter-pilot.
         We put this proposal into writing and I presented it to the Dominion Hydrographer.  He approved it and forwarded it to the Director of the Surveys and Mapping Branch who in turn sent it to the Deputy Minister who also approved it.  Things looked very good until the Treasury Board or Civil Service Commission turned it down by quoting from the rule book that there was no precedent for one person to hold two civil service classifications at the same time.  I appealed on the grounds that I would not want to have the designation of helicopter pilot but would just use my flying skills much as I used my ability to drive a jeep or motor launch or fill out crew paysheets to further my survey work.  All to no avail.  They blew me a raspberry and sent word down the chain of command that the subject was closed.  
As it was I spent many a stolen afternoon and a freezing Sunday morning driving out to the Ottawa Flying Club, pushing a little de Havilland Chipmunk from the hanger and doing aerobatics over the frozen Ottawa River. 
I was told to use Carp airport, a few miles to the west of Ottawa, for practicing circuits and bumps, but was cautioned to first make a couple of low passes along the runway to see where the potholes were.  They were very large potholes, which meant landings, and takeoffs were quite adventurously tortuous.  
I also noted the lakes where people were ice fishing.  Then later, after landing I would drive to those lakes and spend an hour fishing through a hole in the ice.
For enjoying myself like this I received pay of about ten dollars per flying hour.  This was too much for newly-elected Prime Minister Diefenbaker.  When he heard about it he cancelled the whole training scheme just as he did the wonderful Avro Arrow fighter plane project.  Well, I suppose he just had to look after his political well-being and go along with the American Bomarc program.  So I didn’t even get my commercial license.  I did have my private license, though.  It was endorsed for night flying.  It would have been suicide to have used it — I hadn’t done any instrument flying for a dozen years.

In the event, when the Chipmunk Scheme was terminated, being up north at that time for another long Arctic season. I was unaware of the fact.  So I was never  discharged from the RCAF or anything and so must still be a reserve officer.
For a couple of years I used my ID card to go shopping in the armed forces special markets on military bases.
And that was that.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

A Puzzling Pointless Pilgrimage?

What could possibly be the meaning of it all?

Monty Python is not the only human entity to repeatedly ponder this puzzling question during all recorded history.
Most people just take the easy way out and drift along zombie-like with unfounded religionist inanities and nebulous prayers.

For myself I ignore the whole business.  As far as I’m concerned it has nothing to do with me.  I had nothing to do with its possible creation and it is obviously a matter about which I was never consciously consulted by any genuine authority.  Therefore I deny all responsibility for any of it, nor feel reason to make comment on it.  Which of course is blatantly untrue in light of this I now write.
Thus, with such pointlessness being far beyond my comprehension or imagination, I find it best for me to disregard it completely.  So I just make the best of it all and play my insignificant part, smoothed along with quiet pints of real ale, some fine pipe tobacco, and enjoying the company of my fellow humans and the other pleasing forms of forms I find around me.

All the above pointless drivel regarding the pointlessness of live is pointless of course.  In fact, so pointless as to wonder why I should consider dwelling on it here in my usually more prosaic writings.
I only bring it up because I cannot forget the wonderful and vivid illustration of its pointlessness that was made into a movie a year or two ago.  When I watched that movie on TV the complete pointlessness of existence was starkly portrayed.  It was etched on my mind as never before.
 The film was ‘The March of the Penguins’.

Probably you have seen this enthralling movie.  It shows how every brutal winter a multitude of thousands of penguins march, in single file and in their awkwardly plodding style, inland from the icy coasts of Antarctica for scores of laborious miles over a desolate frozen wasteland of ice where the females of each pair lay a single egg with their only protection from howling extreme sub-zero winds is the close congregating of their bodies.
With no food available during their lengthy journey away from the coast they take it in turns to repeat their amazingly long treks waddling across the ice to feed in the sea until their final and joint return with their chick many winter months later.  This unchanging ritual of unchanging renewal by penguin populations goes on and on and on, year after year.
This film shows the absolute desolation of the penguins’ environment, and presents a most graphic portrayal of pointless life.   Its recording of such a bizarre phenomenon is a bewildering portrayal of what to the human mind appears to be the pinnacle of pointlessness.
Well, at least, so it does seem to my bewildered and withering intellect.

Brutally arresting, with the reality of the vast lifeless bleakness of the horizon-to-horizon ice sheet as a backdrop, the pathetic gatherings, year after year, of thousands of huddled penguins, starkly emphasises the seeming futility of it all.

I expect Monty Python has seen this movie many times over. 
And is as puzzled as ever before.


Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Attention all Hands

A Needless Profuseness of Entwining Palms

Health authorities rightfully blame our ingrained human physical necessity to constantly use our hands, when going about every aspect of daily life, as a prime route for transmitting disease from person to person.
So they encourage all hands to wash their hands any time they are at a loss for anything else to do.  Also entering health centres now usually means the mandatory squirting of antibacterial cleansing gloop on one’s hands.
So I reckon it’s high time that we should discourage the outmoded habit of people shaking hands all the time for little or no reason.
English-flavoured people, and I think also the Scottish and the Welsh, and maybe the Irish, way back when, (and I mean way back when, like when English people were actually called English), well all these people, I seem to remember, seldom used to shake hands. 
As I remember seven or more decades ago most Brits were quite informal in a civilized sort of way.  Whereas shaking hands was quite formal. 
But other people and many foreigners seemed to spend most of their days shaking each other's hands.  I suspect they still do. 
Shake hands a lot, I mean. 
In fact I know, through much travelling about, that some actually appear to get up at odd intervals during the night just to shake hands with one another. 
In the morning they religiously shake hands with everyone they know or don’t know.  In a group they repeat this performance even if they only leave the group for a few minutes to go to the toilet for a quick visit (where they probably take time to shake hands with all the other guys standing and sitting around in the bog).  Then they rejoin their group and shake hands again with everybody they left just a few minutes ago.   After, of course, one assumes, washing their hands.
A guy who sticks out his mitt directly you’re positioned face-to-face with him always strikes me as a guy who wants to sell you something — either material, ephemeral or morally questionable.
I mean when I meet a valued old shipmate, squadron mate, or actual blood brother, even after years of absence, I might give such a special guy a brief arm hug but seldom shake his hand.  That would be so formal he’d suspect I wanted to con him into something.
For example, I used to drink with Ron Power a couple of times a week for many years in the National Press Club.  He came from Ilford and we had gone to the same school in the 1930s.  Ron had spent a very long, adventurous and active war and we had a lot in common.  But I can never remember shaking his hand.  Same with many others now dead and gone.  Come to think of it, I cannot remember ever shaking hands with my wife.  Is that strange?  Of course I often hold her hands and enjoy other deeper intimacies, which definitely are not strange, but I’ve never shaken hands with her. 
I wonder if my personal quirk in being reticent regarding hand shaking is a social impediment?  In fact when some stranger, acquaintance, neighbour, politician or friend sticks out a hand to me it often takes me a while to fathom out what they’re doing.  Or want.  Then if I do react as others do, and pick it up, I forget how long to keep it grasped and tend to embarrassingly hang on to it for an inordinate length of time for no meaningful reason — all of which just compounds my initial hesitation, unease and surprise.
Though when I meet with lawyers, financial advisors and other approved professionals (but usually not doctors) it seems ok to shake their hands.
I wonder why?

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Daily life in the last surviving remnant of the British Raj, 1947-1952

Rats, dhows, and dates
— life aboard the El Ghar, my little Iraqi Survey Vessel.

After India was given its independence in 1947, the year in which the Jewel in the Crown was so awkwardly and hastily chiseled from its Imperial setting, there was one outlying and functional adjunct of the Royal British Raj that still continued working smoothly and peacefully for several more years.  This was the Basra Port Directorate in southern Iraq.
The Colonial Indian Government had long considered the extreme southern tip of Iraq, as also was the Kyber Pass leading down from Afghanistan, to be part of a vital first line of defence against any encroachment or invasion from possible Russian expansion.  So the Indian Government, which often acted surprisingly independently of the British government in London (even siding with the French against Westminster on one occasion) fostered much interest in the Basra area and the wide reaches of the Shatt-al-Arab river.

Following the British-Indian Army’s overthrow of the Turkish Empire’s 500-year-long occupation of Mesopotamia, in the opening years of the First World War, 1914-1918, the Port of Basra had operated as part of the British Mandate, formed in Paris during the 1919 Peace Conference under the auspices of the League of Nations.

Though in 1932 Britain persuaded the League to grant Iraq full independence as a royal kingdom under King Faisal, the directorate remained responsible for keeping the commerce of Iraq, and the flow of Iranian oil from Abadan steadily available for the sea-going tankers arriving in a steady stream from many nations around the globe. 
This was especially important as before the 1960s there was no hardened road across the desert between Baghdad and Syria or other Mediterranean country.  The only such travel was by infrequent desert buses across the sandy wastes following an ever shifting track marked out and constantly updated by empty oil drums every two or three miles.
So the port of Basra was of vital national importance.  Before the advent of air travel most all commerce and passengers arrived and departed by ships sailing up the Persian Gulf.

In the post-war years following 1945, British influence in Iraq, though militarily unobtrusive, was still diplomatically significant in the region.  It was quietly backed up by the presence of two semi-operational RAF stations, one near Baghdad, another near Basra, and also by the frequent courtesy visits of Royal Navy warships, which regularly patrolled the Sheikdoms of the Persian Gulf, displaying their White Ensigns.   

Thus the flavour of colonial India was ever present in Basra and especially in the tiny compound of Fao, nestled on the Shatt-al-Arab river shore amid the date palms that sheltered it from the nearby empty desert.  
In Basra, a few days staying at the notably luxurious rest house with its pleasant bar and fine dining room was always a festive occasion.  This holiday spirit was augmented by visits to the nearby luxurious Port Club not far down the road in Ma’gil, the pleasant residential area for the authority’s officials. 
Mainly because of the myriad little lights strung through the trees and bushes around the spacious club gardens with its swimming pools and tennis courts, it always seemed to be Christmas at the club.  And the long curving bar and sumptuous meals served in the spotless dining room were delights to enjoy.  Much of this sumptuous living was due to the meticulous professionalism and diplomatic competence of Mr John, the club’s Armenian manager.

Though it was a faithful remnant of colonial bureaucrats and office wallahs in their air-conditioned administrative quarters in the ornate Port Office Buildings up in Basra who dealt with the paperwork and diplomacy it was a smaller force of mainly wartime hardened British Merchant Navy officers stationed 75 miles down river in the tiny compound called Fao, who kept the ships coming in and the ships going out.
The main force of this prosaic operation consisted of five big seagoing suction dredgers, which operated at the head of the Persian Gulf.
There, where the Shatt-al-Arab, carrying the combined outflows of Iraq’s Euphrates and Tigris rivers, was massively swollen in springtime by water from melting winter snows in the far distant Persian mountains.  All these formed a torrent of outgoing silt-laden fresh waters, which confronted head on, the strong incoming tides of salt water of the Persian Gulf itself.  The result was huge deposits of silt that if left to natural forces would block the river’s entrance to any but the smallest of vessels.

The five tough sea-going dredgers, built in Scotland, and each manned by three deck officers, three engineer officers and scores of Iraqi crew members, spent continuous periods of ten days, or more, far out at sea, continuously sucking up the sea-bed silt washed down from the Shatt-al-Arab and keeping open the ever-changing shipping channels across the far reaches of the estuary, far off from the sight of land.
Periodically for a weekend, they would come up the river to tie up at Fao for two or three nights before heading back down to resume their lonely work at the head of the Gulf again.

At that time the little port of Fao consisted of a wooden wharf connected by a crane track to the workshops a few hundred feet inland. From the end of the wharf a chain of four massive iron barges was permanently anchored in a line parallel with the extremely muddy and soft silt shoreline. The dredgers and other large vessels tied up to the outsides of the barges and smaller craft like my El Ghar survey vessel tied up to their inshore sides.

In the compound onshore there was a marine workshop, a modest office for a small number of Iraqi draughtsmen and clerks, and a generator house. Half a dozen bungalows housed such people as the workshop manager, the electrical-radio engineer, the Cable and Wireless man, and their wives.  Others bungalows served the bachelors: the medical officer; the communications officer; and the overall boss—the Dredging Superintendent.  Also there were several dwellings for Iraqi office staff, a small hospital, a swimming pool, two tennis courts and, in the centre of everything a bare sandy football field for the local Iraqis. As relief there were patches of greenery and date palms.  There was also a thick mud-walled building, left over from the centuries-old Turkish era of the Ottoman Empire.  This housed the local Iraqi customs chief, his harem and his motley force of a dozen khaki-clad, rifle-toting, soldier-constables.

Most importantly, there was the club or Port Officers Shore Mess, a rather nice airy, high-standing, cool, building containing a polished red tiled hall about the size of a school gymnasium, a billiard room with snooker table, a small library and again most importantly, a bar. It was here that the dredger and other port officers intermittently congregated and where our special parties and dances were held.  Isolated as we were by the ninety miles of indistinct desert track stretching south from Basra, our club was the social centre of our tiny community.
Outside, through the compound gate, which was left permanently open to all, and all around and along the shore line, were scattered the spread-out serifa mud dwellings of the local inhabitants, interspersed with date palms, narrow irrigation ditches and a few rickety places of basic commerce.
Half a mile to the west, away from the river and the last date palms, the desert abruptly began.
Our small compound, of perhaps six acres in extent, populated with its sparse dozen and a half British residents, and distanced from contact with any other compatriots, was the ideal setting for an Agatha Christie mystery.   But any small intrigues that may have been present were either mild or tinged with good humour.  The unchanging lives for the compound’s dozen officials and a few wives and children were harmonious.  The swimming pool and tennis courts, books and a rare film show in the club, helped ease our placidly quiet lives.

In many ways Fao’s traditional close links with the newly defunct British Raj in India were apparent day by day.  Our dredgers would sail to Bombay for boiler cleaning when necessary, several local shopkeepers were Indian, many of our Iraqi crewmembers spoke Hindi or Punjabi, as did many of our Port Officers.  Our daily routine included being addressed as sahibs, burra sahibs, memsahibs, and noonday Tiffin-time chota pegs were followed by distinctly Indian curries with chappatis.
My crew members would accuse each other of being jungly if considered careless or ignorant, and most every day one of the British-India Steamship Lines’ passenger vessels, either the Dwarker, Dumra or Daressa, would pass up or down river, on their routine voyages between Basra and Bombay.  In fact there were still a dwindling number of travelers between India and Britain who took passage by ship from London to Beirut, then rode the big overland Nairn Transport Bus over the unstable and ever-changing track across the desert between Damascus and Baghdad, (roads were non-existent at that time) then by train to Basra and passage by BI liner down the gulf to Bombay.  Two or three years later burgeoning air travel would eclipse such romantic forms of travel.

Just down river from the jetty at Fao there would often be a score of deep-sea sailing dhows anchored just offshore. Some would be from far off Zanzibar, Malaya and other parts of the Persian Gulf and far distant parts of the Indian Ocean perimeter.  Many were larger in size than the vessels in which Columbus and other western explorers of old had made their epic voyages, and had crews of fifty or sixty men. These lateen-rigged sailing dhows showed distinct characteristics as to their place of origin especially in the shape of their bowsprits, which ranged from scimitar shapes to dauntingly two-fathom long painted phallic symbols.
Though some traded in general merchandise the main cargo they loaded in Fao consisted of tons of dates for which they would get high prices owing to their top-banana quality. This because their limited cargo tonnage would mean much of their load would be in good shape and not overly squashed. This was in like manner to the top layers of bananas, carried by freighters in other parts of the world, which are better preserved from damage by not having the weight of too many other tons piled on top of them—hence the term ‘top-banana’.

The crews of the dhows would often be many weeks at sea if hindered by adverse winds and storms and sometimes, while I was surveying the far offshore areas, we would see one flying a distress flag as it approached the estuary of the Shatt, or perhaps lying becalmed some miles off.  So we would give them a few gallons of fresh water and a sack of rice to last them until the flood tide would make and take them northwards up river.
When becalmed a dozen of their crew might man a long boat and tow their ship by pulling on the oars to the rhythm of a song and the haunting playing of a conch shell.
When they came ashore at Fao after so many hard weeks at sea I was intrigued at seeing the dhow captain and his senior officers saunter proudly up the wharf dressed in highly coloured ladies swagger coats, mostly tailored by New York garment factories. If out of fashion or miss-made in some way these cut-price slim-waisted coats would be shipped out east by their western manufacturers to find an eager market.
After an hour or two sitting in the coffee shop outside the compound gate, or doing whatever else they did for relaxation, these sea captains would return to their ships perhaps dangling a half-dozen small sardine-like fish from a string. Forbidden by religion from usurious dealings the dhows carried gold for buying and selling their cargoes.

Often through ignorance or because of bad visibility a dhow would anchor in the deep water of one of the shipping channels to wait for a favourable wind or time of the tide. But sometimes a loaded tanker was already traversing the narrow dredged channels on its way into deep water. In this case we would take the El Ghar alongside the dhow, make ourselves fast to it, and tow them to safer waters. And then often the knockader or captain would invite me and my serang, Ashoor Ahmed, to go on board for coffee. This was served during a rather elaborate little ceremony as we sat squatted down by the ship’s steering position upon the raised aftercastle. A young boy would come with a tray of little metal cups and a typical long, thin-spouted metal coffee pot nestled over his shoulder. He would hand one a cup to each and with a little twitch of his shoulder send a spurt of coffee that would unerringly land in the cup without a drop being spilled. A few little noisy sips and the tablespoonful of extremely bitter hot coffee would be gone whereupon another shoulder twitch by the serving boy would send a refill into one’s cup.
I soon found out that this sequence of events would go on and on despite my holding up my hands and making other gestures of ‘No thanks. No more coffee.’ Little spurts would continue to come my way until I learned to use the correct ‘no-more, thank you’ signal, which was to waggle the little cup from side to side.
Using my serang, Ashoor, as interpreter I would question the dhow captains about their navigation techniques, which were both surprisingly simple and yet puzzlingly involved at the same time. Passed down from fathers to sons over the many centuries they relied heavily on clearly seeing the night heavens during their deep-sea passages. But they also showed me their copies of British Admiralty charts and some showed me their sextants, all made by the Hughes factory in Barkingside where I had worked as a young teenager.
It was strange being there in such exotic circumstances and seeing the testing and error calibration certificate affixed to the inside of the lid of the sextant box, with the certifying signature of Mr. Perkins, the sextant shop manager at Hughes whom I had known, reproduced at the bottom. Often I would explain how that test sheet should be used, how to look after the instrument and how to adjust the index error. I could only do this because Ashoor had such a fine command of English.

One totally wrecked dhow aground on a mud bank had a dozen or more crazed rats running back and forth along its broken spars. I sent a couple of men to take off the ship’s wheel for me. I had some idea of using it as an ornament. But it somehow it disappeared, how I just don’t know. I found that strange because over the years I never lost anything else even though I was careless in leaving my things all over the place.
In the same way, even in Ashar, the oldest part of Basra, there was no fear of being mugged nor did any of the wives and daughters of port officers worry, even when out shopping alone. Iraq under the royal family of King Faisel, Prime Minister Nuri Said, and the Nakibs, was safer then than are our own cities today.

Rats abounded on our survey vessel. At night I used to balance empty tins on the angle-iron longeron that ran alongside my bunk so that any rat running along it would make a clatter and wake me up—and it was a common occurrence. I also had a stick by my pillow with which to rap on the double deckhead above my bunk. The rats’ constant scuffling and pattering up there would sometimes keep me awake but often a loud tattoo on the metal would quieten them down long enough for me to fall asleep.
Once a year we sailed up the river to Basra for our annual fumigation. With the El Ghar alongside the wharf all the crew were ordered off the ship to nearby accommodation for three days while I took myself off to the rest house and the amenities of the luxurious Port Club. Then the next morning the vessel was sealed up and the cyanide pumped in and left to poison everything for a day and a night.
The first time this happened the serang told me that during the first night all the rats left the ship. Then the night the ship was left open to air out the gas all the rats jumped back on board. The only rat caught was one which in the middle of the night was seen to be undecided as to whether to go in a cage-trap after the bait, or not. The serang said one of the lascars leaped out of bed and kicked it into the cage. After the fumigation the crew swept up several buckets of dead cockroaches from the underdecking and bilges. Then we sailed back down the river with a brand new certificate of fumigation attesting to our vessel being rat-free in my desk drawer. That night I was awoken by something heavy on the covering over my legs. I looked down into the eyes of the largest rat I had yet seen on the ship.

Sometimes before going ashore in the evening to our club in Fao I would bait a rattrap cage placed at the bottom of the ladderway leading down to my cabin. If the dredgers and tugs were all out at sea all would be extremely quiet along the mooring barges which were connected end-to-end by little wooden bridges as walkways. This deep silence was enhanced because as soon as our ship tied up to the farthest barge our vessel’s mistri, or engineer, would plug us into the shoreline's 220-volt current and switch off the ship’s 110-volt generator. So in the midnight silence as I walked back along the crane track and was yet still about four hundred feet from the El Ghar I would know if I had caught a rat. Because at the sound of my coming I would hear it starting to scream.
As I stepped from the first little wooden bridge onto the metal surface of the first massive iron barge my footsteps would echo eerily in the still night and resound from the surface of the fresh water stored below in each barge. And the trapped rat would scream louder. As I crossed the next little bridge onto the second barge the screams would become louder still and even louder as I crossed onto the third. When I trod down onto the fourth and last barge I would wonder why the terrible screams did not wake any of my crew who were sleeping on board, let alone the watchman, who as usual, was fast asleep at his post.
Then I would climb down my ladderway and see the frenzied rat with its mouth a bloody mess from trying to bite through the cage and its droppings and urine fouling the deck. Then I would grasp the rope tied to the top of the cage and climb back up the ladderway and carefully cross the upper deck to the ship’s side and lower the screaming cage into the water and at last listen once more to the blessed silence of the night.
Then. Leaving the trap well submerged, I would bend the rope to the ship’s rail with a clove hitch and go back down the ladderway once more, step over the mess where the trap had been, and get into my bunk. And fall asleep.
For this night at least, for an hour or two, after the screaming of my victim, the rest of the rats would lie quiet and subdued.