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, May 29, 2009

The Impolite Murres of Digges Islands

The Impolite Murres of Digges Islands

In 1954, I was aboard the MV Theron, a tough little steel, Norwegian-built sealing vessel, strengthened for work in ice and chartered by the Canadian Hydrographic Service to survey offshore areas of the Labrador Coast and the, at that time, unmapped area of Rankin Inlet, Hudson Bay.

Close to the south shore where the western end of Hudson Strait, becomes Hudson Bay, are the Digges Islands. Steeply cliffed on all sides, these islands are home to a proliferation of Thick-Billed Murres.

At the time of our vessel’s visit thousands upon thousands of the birds ranged along the miles of bare cliff ledges where they were nesting.

The high-walled islands themselves were imposing enough but with a myriad murres making a cacophony of sound, and their constant swooping down and back up from the water, the tens of thousands of seabirds was an awesome sight.

Armed with a camera, I climbed cautiously up the rock face to eventually arrive eyeball-to-eyeball with a dozen birds. The murres make no nest but just lay their single egg on the crowded flat rock ledges. To ward off my intrusion they ganged up together in a concerted defensive stratagem of a repulsive nature. As I stood on a narrow lower ledge my head was level with their nesting ledge. At once they formed a defensive circle around their eggs as did old-time pioneer wagons to repel an Indian or Zulu attack. Or rather, perhaps, more similarly, like a herd of musk-oxen in their shoulder-to-shoulder defensive ring.

But with one important difference. Instead of facing outwards to the enemy like musk-oxen, the murres faced inwards and presented their cocked rear ends. Cocked rear ends with the crucial tail feathers somehow laid back and open. This threatening gesture reminded me of the Persian gunboat that had pointed its guns at me each morning three years previously —but again with an important difference. The murres actually fired their weaponry. From a distance of only three feet in a low and flat trajectory. Another difference was that instead of the defenders remaining stationary and the attackers circling around them, the roles were reversed. I, the interloper, had to remain immobile while the defenders shuffled around so that each in turn could face, or rather about-face, me in order to aim their rear ends directly at the enemy—and fire. For me there was no stepping back out of range. My ledge was only a couple of feet wide and four feet long and there was a long drop down to the water below. All I could do was cover my head with my parka hood as best I could, put on my sunglasses, and plan my perilous retreat.

The onslaught continued for many long minutes because as each murre in turn loosed off its salvo it kept its place in the circle and somehow, while shuffling sideways, managed to reload so that, upon completing a full circle and its turn on the firing line was come again, it was also ready to discharge another fishy projectile. But, after several rotations of the defensive circle I noticed that strain as they might their firepower was fast weakening and becoming more and more just a symbolic gesture. Then having taken some photographs I carefully climbed down from the now very slippery ledge, wondering how best I could clean my soiled parka and camera. It was a difficult task. For a day or two as the Theron sailed across the north end of Hudson Bay, I was perforce to become a man who somehow stood apart from the common throng.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

My Pilot's Watch


A few days after getting back to Daedalus, my demob number came up and I was released from the navy. While handing in my flying clothing, I mentioned to the petty officer storekeeper that though I didn’t mind handing over my flying boots, helmet and goggles, I was quite sad to have to say goodbye to my pilot’s watch. He commiserated with me—at length. And with deep sympathy. He shook his head sadly as he told me that all they did with returned watches was to hammer them to pieces, remove the jewels, and throw the rest away. It was a crime, he said. But, he shrugged his shoulders and said I just had to hand it over as it had a special number engraved on the back. However, he brightened upon suddenly remembering an afterthought. He speculated that maybe, for a very modest consideration, he could perhaps oblige me with a brand new watch that might still be around somewhere. It was one of the very latest, he said. If he could find it. He poked around under his counter. Successfully. I had to concur with him on how fortunate and serendipitous an event it was. And I agreed that it was a very nice watch. The best.
It still ticks merrily away sixty five years later.

Polar Bear covered in Seal blood

It was past midnight as the powerful Canadian icebreaker d’Iberville crushed through the ten-foot-thick sea-ice of the Arctic Archipelago. But here, on the top of the world at north latitude 80 degrees, there was still enough light to see the huge polar bear. He had obviously just finished eating a seal. A very big seal by the look of the bloodstained surface of the ice hummock upon which he was lying. And a big seal by his sleepy non-reaction to the loud screeching and scraping made by our approaching ship’s two-and-a-half-inch-thick steel bow plates as they rasped aside hunks of ice as big as double-decker buses.
That two-tone bear, snow-white on top with blood-red underparts, was relaxing in exquisite post-prandial tranquillity. So, as I saw Captain Caron reach over to the whistle handle to give a sudden blast to startle the Arctic stillness and get the bear up and moving, I raised my hand in polite protest and shook my head. The captain, shrugged, smiled, and desisted from his usual practice upon seeing a bear and came over to the port side of the bridge next to me. We were now within a few hundred feet of the somnolent bear and it looked as if we would pass within little more than thirty yards of him. Yet still he didn’t move. Just raised his head a little and looked at the ship’s massive bulk through glazed, uncomprehending eyes. He must have eaten a giant of a seal.
As we passed by, the captain and I engaged the bear in an eye-to-eye exchange through our binoculars. We could make out every detail of the bear and his bloodstained coat and surroundings. The staring contest went on for several long seconds. We won. He blinked first. And for the second and third times, also. That massive meal had left him totally bereft of any antagonism or interest in anything in his field of vision, direct or peripheral.

1935 collectible

In my school days, in the school playground, during periods of warm, dry weather, it was the cigarette card season that provided the most fun of the fair, the most hoopla, and the most noisy roll-up-and-see-the-great-big-so-and-so type of showmanship.
The cigarette cards produced by the major tobacco companies were all of a standard size and weight. Thus they could all be used against one another in straight competition and creative trickery.
The most popular way of manipulating a cigarette card in competition was by flicking it through the air, launched from between curved fingers that straightened out at the final one-thousandth of a second to impart direction and impetus. The pride, skill and prowess in performing this action was used to entice juvenile punters into games and contests by dozens of young, shrill entrepreneurs.
At the height of the season, scores of ground level fun-fair-type stalls of great and small ingenuity were established around the outside walls of the main school building down a narrow part of the playground protected from the winds by the big bicycle shed. Here, competitors were encouraged to try and flick their cards into specially chalked rectangles and circles, cover certain cards already in place on the ground with their own, fly through suspended rings and other obstacles or knock over carefully balanced objects. It was all very simple. If you won, you took possession of the stall owner’s bait cards; if you lost, he would take your flicked card. But every stall was different and cleverly thought-up new games, old favourites and the loud calls and tempting enticements from stall owners to drum up business all added to the fun and games. When the school bell sounded, cardboard game accessories, coloured sticks of chalk, wads of cards won by hard work or trickery, and other impedimenta of the trade were gathered up into paper bags ready for the next session at playtime or dinner hour.
The cards themselves were highly educational. One numbered card of a usual set of fifty was enclosed in every packet of cigarettes. They showed a picture of the subject on the front with written information on the back on subjects as diverse as civil aircraft, film stars, birds, inventions, historical figures and flowers. For a penny, the cigarette makers would provide an attractive album in which to paste them. Some such completed collections and albums are of considerable value today.
So at that time, no discarded empty cigarette packet was left unexamined by a passing boy or girl. No smoker on top of a London bus was left unasked if he had a card to give away and the precious cards were constantly swapped and bartered to make up the highly-desired completed sets.
But though these cards held their fascination and intrinsic collecting value the whole year through, their playground season would eventually come to an end and something like marbles would overtake them.

Hollywood Movie interrupted by the wind

The head of the gulf was blown by two winds.  One was the Shamal  from the north, which though often dusty with desert sand and hot in summer, was dry and bearable.  The other wind, the Shurgi , came up the gulf from the south and was terribly humid and made everyone irritable and often caused attacks of prickly-heat.  I remember one night sitting with a group of a dozen other limp and clammy people disinterestedly watching an outdoor cinema show as the turgid stifling shurgi  blew.  Suddenly one of the women said: I felt the Shamal!    At once everyone turned their heads to the north and stood up.  Another person said:  I just felt it, too!  Then another and another.  In a few moments everyone felt it.  At once the movie was forgotten.  People started talking happily with each other, we all moved over to the club bar.  Where morose silence had suffocated all interest just moments before, cheerfulness now abounded.  

And that is how quickly the wind did change from south to north.  And how quickly sultry misery changed to cheerful dryness.

Rankin Inlet

Among other geographical features, in 1954 -55 as a senior hydrographer aboard the chartered sealer MV Theron, I delineated, charted and named, this group of islands lying off the southeast corner of Rankin Inlet, Hudson Bay. Until then that area was only rudimentarily mapped and quite unpopulated. They are called the Mirage Islands.

A London Tavern of Ancient Note

Just after World War Two, in the years 1946 and 1947, my London office was on Fenchurch Street, one of the most ancient thoroughfares in the centre of the City. That’s not the city of Greater London. Just the City. Period. Because still today, as for centuries past, that is the name which refers to the heart of the financial and business centre of Britain.

In fact, Londoners, when taking a taxi outside Buckingham Palace (or inside it for that matter) or when hailing a taxi circling the statue of Eros in Piccadilly Circus—both places considered by most people as being the centre of London—when those people tell the cabbie to take them to the City, they mean they are headed for the original site of the ancient Roman town of Londinium, which is about two miles further east, near the Tower of London. During the centuries following the withdrawal of Caesar’s Legions this historic square mile was continually overbuilt one city atop another to eventuually become the crowded medieval City of London proper and the nucleus of today’s vital hub of finance and commerce.

The bounds of this city within a city extend westerly from Aldgate Pump in the east, past London Bridge, St. Paul’s Cathedral, the Bank of England, the Mansion House and Ludgate Hill, to the Law Courts and Fleet Street, Its other dimension runs north from the Thames to the length of London Wall, a well-known Roman remains.

It was here, sixty three years ago, that one of my favourite places in the City, was a cosy tavern where full pints of honest ale and superb hot and cold edibles were readily available. It was the ancient Tiger Tavern (or according to some, the erstwhile Ye Tygre Taverne) right across from the main gate of the Tower of London itself.

Inside this compact little tavern at lunchtime, a chef would carry a tray of raw meats and delicacies—goose legs, chops, cuts of venison, sea trout, live lobsters—over to prospective diners, mostly ubiquitous so-called city-gents, for close-up scrutiny so that they might select the actual savoury morsel they wished to have broiled to their order. Moreover the pub was especially renowned for delicious ultra-fresh seafood included in its profferings. This was due no doubt to the Tiger then being but a scant quarter of a mile distant from London’s bustling Billingsgate fish market before it was removed eastwards to the modern Canary Wharf developments.

The little, tucked-away facings of the old Tiger tavern fronted directly onto the sinister cobblestoned square which in earlier centuries had been the place of public execution for many of the aristocratic and political prisoners held inside the grim walls of the adjacent nine-hundred-year-old Tower of London.

Yet, incongruously, according to a popular belief so trusted that it was fully acted upon every day, at some time in history that one-acre-square of cobbles had long ago been designated, by royal decree no less, as a place for no-holds-barred, blatant, free public speech. So thinking ourselves securely immune from any risk of being dragged across the road and thrown into the Tower’s dungeons for participating in treasonable disturbances, my two business colleagues and I, before going into the Tiger, often listened to outrageous advocates of sedition, revolution, republicanism, and personal mayhem. This was all intermingled with eccentric extolling of shocking philosophies, weird religions, devious aspects of sexual activity—plus any other deep thinkings that might occupy the minds of free-born English men and women in that immediate post-war era.

The most notable, fearless, and regular Tower Hill speaker, who took the legendary treason-immunity clause as guaranteed gospel to its ultimate reaches, was a very disreputable-looking and vociferous gentleman we all called ‘Old Proverbs’. This on account of his frequent pauses in mid saliva-spluttering speech to say he had an old proverb somewhere about his person, to bolster that particular point in his argument. Whereupon he delved into one of the voluminous pockets of his tattered overcoat to bring out sheaves of scrawled wisdom. He would pick out a shabby, creased and dirty document, loudly read out its words of enrichment, then after using his coat sleeve to wipe off most of his spittle he would refile the bespattered paper in one of his big secretarial pockets for use another day.

One of his most seditious themes which he took to extreme lengths was his rant about how ‘they’ had betrothed our lovely young princess and heir to the throne to some rotten, greasy Greek (this was in 1947). No good could come of this he goaded his large audience, just you wait and see. Well, now we have. And it appears to have turned out more or less preferable to many other royal marital adventures that followed.

All in all, the oddballs who appeared at Speakers Corner far to the west in Hyde Park on Sundays, were tame in comparison to those on Tower Hill during the workaday week. Other attractions on the Hill were acrobats, strong men, escape artists, tricksters, revolutionaries, et al.

And though it was in the nearby Cheshire Cheese under the railway bridge in Crutched Friars, near Pepys Street, (a tavern not to be confused with the quasi-tourist trap Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese along Fleet Street), where we would sometimes see Old Proverbs counting the well-earned coins his audience had dropped into his hat, it was the venerable Tiger tavern that was our big attraction.

This lovely little pub was literally within spitting distance of where Old Proverbs sputtered away at his hodgepodge audience gathered outside on the old execution ground.

Dating back hundreds of years, the Tiger was all low black beams of ancient oak thick with the musty stench of history and authentic Elizabethan spilled beer. An observation that rings literally true considering it is on record that Good Queen Bess herself patronized the place as a young princess after being released from her two months of imprisonment in the Tower in 1554. And it has been said that later on both Charles, the First and the Second, were sometime visitors.

Yet there were no boasting signs or plaques, either inside or outside the pub, which other establishments used to attract customers. The Tiger had no need to bring such attention to these past honours. Because in the Tiger it was so generally and unquestionably accepted that such visits had indeed occurred. It was just considered an established normal part of the Tiger’s role during England’s fairly recent history.

This atmosphere was advanced by the presence as often as not of half-a-dozen or so amateur historians gathered together in one corner or other of the pub where a measure of the conversation would be of past kings and queens, executions—and in particular—unassuming references regarding the notables who had been patrons over the centuries of the very pub in which we were now drinking.

These history-conscious City gentlemen, young and old, added a precious and wide perspective to the venerable Tiger pub

Dressed uniformly and sartorially-perfect in pin-striped trousers and black jackets or smartly-cut dark business suits, they were of course, all bowler-hatted, and impeccably shirted-and-tied—even during the warmest summer days. They were perfectly in tune with the tavern’s pleasing, and somehow muted hubbub. A soft civilized background murmur of quiet conversation which echoed the serious business of serving over-filled pints of ale, pink-gins and whisky-sodas in the grand old pub.

The Tiger tavern’s origins dated way back to 1500. So probably, around the period when Queen Elizabeth made her initial youthful visits, those noted navigators and sea-dogs, Sir Walter Raleigh, Sir Francis Drake and Sir Martin Frobisher quaffed many a tankard in the Tiger. Sir Walter, at least, is reported to have made numerous low-profile visits to the pub. His visits had to be low profile one supposes. Because, remarkably, they actually took place during his twelve years of imprisonment in the Bloody Tower before he was finally executed.

These remarkable stolen hours of conviviality for Sir Raleigh were facilitated by means of a secret underground passage that ran for a matter of 120 yards from inside the Tower, under the road and the cobble stones of the Tower Hill execution site, before coming up in the Tiger’s cellars. This route was also reportedly followed at least once by the then young Princess Elizabeth during her own two-month incarceration. This commendable, understandable and I expect very enjoyable royal pub session took place only four years before Elizabeth became queen.

During those romantic decades other fabled historical figures probably mingled at the Tiger’s tables. a company which particularly and momentously included William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe—the two most distinguished of the several famous Elizabethan writers.

Attestation regarding these most illustrious figures as being among past customers to the tavern was provided matter-of-factly by Colonel Mountjoy-ffoulkes. This cultured gentleman, about 50 years old in 1946 had at that time, in keeping with my colleagues and myself, just recently stepped out of wartime uniform to return to civilian life. Colonel Mountjoy, was very proud of his full double-barreled name (mainly because it sported the age-old and very rare English double-ff spelling denoting a capital letter) and directed the fortunes of his nearby family-owned commodity business with offices in Mincing Lane. The business also owned an adjacent strong-smelling granary warehouse housing all the different magic ingredients required by the brewing and baking industries. In fact, back then, a walk through the maze of narrow streets, passages and alleys in that part of the City meant inhaling a tantalizing, almost overpowering, mix of rich odours produced by the many variations of grains, cereals and seeds, which in Britain go collectively under the generic title of corn, all stored thereabouts. It was in that traditional locality, around Mark Lane and St. Mary Axe, where the Corn Exchange had conducted its unvarying business through the centuries.

On one occasion Colonel Mountjoy brought his elderly father to the Tiger tavern. As a young man this older Mr Mountjoy-ffoulkes had been a regularTiger customer for several years before General (Chinese) Gordon was murdered at Khartoum in 1885. He had also witnessed the Tiger’s 1893 renovation. And harking back to an even earlier generation, old Mr Mountjoy affirmed that his own father, had also been a Tiger customer reaching as far back in time as the era of the Napoleonic wars. He said his father had often spoken to him of the legendary visits to the tavern by Mr Shakespeare (the term by which both the Mountjoys referred to the bard). He, grandfather Mountjoy, had affirmed to his son, the old Mr Mountjoy, that Shakespeare’s reputed visits to the Tiger 200 years before his own, were held to be a tacit matter of historical fact by all the Tiger’s customers during and before the reign of Queen Victoria.

Envisaging jovial meetings in the Tiger between historical notables through the decade immediately following the Elizabethan-Stuart divide of 1603 could well have included such others as a very young Izaak Walton, author of the enduring 1653 classic, The Compleat Angler. In earlier years Walton had also published several other biographical and religious literary works and was only thirty years Shakespear’s junior so perhaps they conversed as writer to writer in the Tiger.

This is very feasible as during his last couple of decades or more of life, Shakespeare, beginning just after 1588—the year in which the Spanish Armada was defeated—is said to have lodged and bought houses in several places in London and was a frequent visitor to many taverns including the Boar’s Head in Eastcheap, the Pimlico in Hoxton, the Mitre in Fleet Street, the Devil’s Tavern in Wapping, the Anchor Hill on Bankside and the Mermaid in Bread Street.

And most notably, he lived for some time in Southwark, (pronounced Suthark by modern Londoners) on the south bank of the River Thames. There he was close to the Globe Theatre in which as a leading dramatist he not only had an obvious professional interest but also a substantial financial stake. Also, living in Southwark, Shakespeare was conveniently adjacent to the southern end of London Bridge, the sole bridge spanning the river at that time, and the only means for crossing the Thames other than using one of the hundreds of small ferry row-boats.

It takes little imagination to picture Shakespeare browsing among the many bookshops that are known to have been located amid the scores of other shops, mills, multistory wooden houses and market stalls built right upon and across the full 350-yard span of that old London Bridge, before it was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666.

The northern, City end of the bridge, was lined up with Fish Street, so it was situated a little further east and downriver than subsequent London Bridges. From here the Tiger pub on Tower Hill was only 500 yards away. So, in pleasant retrospect, one can imagine the great playwright, after having breakfast in one of the taverns in Southwark, strolling across the bridge, pausing to browse in the bookshops, then taking a brisk ten-minute walk towards the Tower and into the Tiger for a glass of wine or, more likely, a tankard or two of ale.

And on some of those very same days a youthful Izaak Walton bent on visiting the same congenial destination, might also have been strolling the mile or so from his London place of abode in the vicinity of St. Paul’s.

All of which, for those of us like myself who are anglers, leads to a happy thought: Izaak Walton, who lived the first ten years of his life under the last of the Tudors, can therefore be legitimately included among the renowned writers of the Elizabethan era.

And another delightful thought: Maybe at that same time, in that same famous public house, one or two of my own family forbears drank pints of dark Elizabethan ale, smoked rich Virginian tobacco in ornamental clay pipes and relished dishes of fresh, fresh shellfish taken in the early morning from the lower reaches of the historic River Thames. They may even have discussed—both with Shakespeare and Izaak Walton himself—the merits, pro and con, of using a ten-foot-long fishing pole as against employing, a rod with nearly twice that reach, as was then often the practice.

Elizabethan Tiger patrons could have feasted on broiled salmon to their stomachs’ fullest content at what was then, most likely, give-away prices. Because at that time London had a human population far less in numbers—around 400,000 souls—than had the Thames with its thriving salmon population. For eons before the first Romans arrived and sent back reports of the bounty of fine fish there was to be had for the taking all along the river, and even up until the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries (a time when many labourers wanted a stipulation in their work contracts that they were to be fed salmon no more than three days a week), the exquisite Thames-run Atlantic Salmon was a bountiful source of cheap food. Then neglect and filthy garbage and sewage habits completely eradicated these wonderful fish from London’s river. Sadly, salmon were no longer to again enter Thames water until the last couple of decades of our own most recent century after new enlightened clean-up measures were taken in the 1970s. Then, miraculously, some were to return, albeit in small numbers only.

When the Tiger was extensively rebuilt in 1893 the secret tunnel under the road from the Tower was disclosed and was finally blocked off. During that reconstruction one can surmise that much of the original oak framing, panelling, fittings and furniture were retained and recycled. This would have preserved that wonderful musty Tudor smell I so relished in 1946 and 1947.

Though the nearby Tower of London itself took a direct hit from a German high explosive bomb, the ancient pub escaped destruction during the London Blitz. It was the second notable time it had narrowly escaped destruction. In 1666 the Tiger just missed obliteration by the Great Fire of London, and though probably singed on its fringes became a welcome part of the temporary market that was set up on Tower Hill to help meet the stricken city’s urgent needs.

But during a visit from Canada, three hundred and ten years after it had survived the great fire, and probably half a millennium since it was initially built, I was aghast to see this wonderful long-lived haven had been torn down and an awful modern monstrosity built to take its place. Right across from William the Conqueror’s tourist-crowded Tower of London.

I wept. Surely if such sacrilege had been done in the reign of Good Queen Bess she would have had the perpetrators’ heads chopped off. Their heads rolling over the cobblestones just a few yards away from the Tiger’s front door to spurt pools of dark arterial blood in fitting, vivid penance. And appropriately right there in the middle of the Tower Hill courtyard where so many of the Royal Blood and aristocratic elite, accused of much lesser crimes, like alleged treason and other simple transgressions against the crown, met that inexorable fate after long months and years confinement in the Tower. But certainly not for crimes as heinous as destroying the Tiger tavern.

Going to work in the ancient square mile of the City of London business district was full of interest. Every morning, as they still do today, around half a million people poured into the ancient centre of bustle and business. They arrived by bus, trolley-bus, commuter train and underground railway. Floods of people arrived at London Bridge Station from innumerable trains, then crossed over London Bridge on foot from the south side of the Thames, while thousands more came from outlying suburban areas to the north, east and west. But by seven o’clock in the evening all was quiet, the hordes had gone home to suburbia and the streets were practically deserted. So most City pubs and restaurants closed up shop when their last customers, making their way homeward, disappeared down into the tube stations or, as many of them did, headed west for the continuing night life of the West End—the Strand, Piccadilly, Mayfair, Chelsea, and Knightsbridge. For the rest of the night the City was sparsely inhabited, peopled only by office cleaners, stalwart constables of the City of London’s own police force treading their silent patrol beats, and a few late workers and lonely caretakers.

But down near the Tower and the river’s edge, the old Tiger tavern during its last two decades of existence, remained as it had ever been for generations of London’s ladies and gentlemen: An inviting haven of traditional hospitality and living history.

Three Flying Men in a Stringbag

One morning, when flying my Seafire XV and approaching the airfield, I saw a Fairey Swordfish torpedo bomber chugging upwind towards the circuit at a ground-speed all of seventy knots. As I passed them by, I saw that the Stringbag, as the old biplane was affectionately called, had bicycles strapped on either side of the fuselage and its three occupants, waving casually to me, were grouped together in very close and matey proximity as if they were holidaymakers sharing a dodge-'em car at the Southend-on-Mud fun fair.

By the time they had landed and taxied up to our flight line, I was standing outside the flight room with everyone else to see who were these people with so much time on their hands that they could meander about the sky at will in an elderly Stringbag. Maybe a trio of ancient admirals. Perhaps a clique of unemployed commodores. Possibly a cluster of senior captains.

Instead they appeared as one venerable chief and two grizzled three-badge, long-service, petty officers. Unhitching their bicycles with the aid of some ground crew, they mounted up and rode over to the hangars where they were greeted warmly by some of our older petty officers. Later in the mess, they were having rum sippers with some old pals from prewar years. And some time even later that afternoon, we saw them weave back to their aeroplane and get their bikes made fast. Then they climbed aboard and went zig-zagging off, as is proper in a tail-wheel-equipped single-engined aircraft, down the perimeter strip. Then instead of turning onto the runway, no doubt deep in conversation, they went straight ahead and actually slowly traversed the whole circumference of the airfield before arriving once again at the duty runway. This time they waited for their green light from the control truck, then opened up their engine to roar along the runway and wobble up into the air. With heads bobbing animatedly together, they disappeared into the blue to only they knew where.

Sticking my Nose into Iran’s Muddy Shoreline

Sixty years ago I became an Iraqi civil servant. At that time the wide silt-laden waters of the Shatt-al Arab ran smoothly enough. The Iraqis under the young King Faisal, and the Iranians under their Shah, cooperated smoothly enough in getting Persian oil pumped into the tankers that constantly berthed alongside at Abadan, the Iranian oil terminal, thirty miles upriver.

The Persians filled up the tankers and left the task of getting them safely away to deep water to the directors of the Port of Basra, another thirty miles upstream on the Iraqi side of the river.

The Port of Basra also supplied the harbour masters who manouvered the large tankers alongside when empty and who took them off when full. The pilots, who took them down river until they were in the blue waters at the head of the Persian Gulf, were also all Iraqis. And the port maintained five large ocean-going suction dredgers that worked day and night keeping the shipping channels open.

The port authority also employed me. I was in charge of a small Iraqi hydrographic survey vessel, and its 20-man Iraqi crew. The El Ghar, was 110 tons, 98-feet-long, and was built in Bombay in 1916.

My job, between the years 1947-1952 was the constant daily checking of the depths, tidal currents and other concerns affecting the outer reaches of the Shatt-al-Arab estuary and its shifting mud banks and shipping channels. This included constantly poking the nose of my vessel right into the eastern banks of the river and the broad estuary silt deposits on the Iranian side to complete my charting operations. No bother then. At that time it was seemingly and unofficially agreed that Iraq’s responsibility extended right across the river to the eastern Iranian shoreline, as far as the high water mark of the highest spring tides. Thus just about taking in the whole waterway in fact. Officially, the international dividing line was the Thalweg, the German name first bestowed on the line traditional dividing the River Danube. It is the line connecting the points along the river bed that are the fastest flowing or deepest.

But in practice, to produce accurate shipping charts, I needed to run my lines of sounding right up and onto the Iranian shoreline.

This arrangement went along fairly smoothly.

Until May 1951 when Muhammad Mossadegh, became the Iranian Prime Minister.

For years there had been political rumblings in Iran by nationalist-communist groups who for some reason figured that Iranian oil profits should go to Iranians rather than international oil companies. This philosophy was not fully compatible with the usually passive, and profitable, British role as world peacekeepers which had been successfully operating for so many years.

Mr Mossadegh, began his prime ministership by giving the Shah such a hard time that he eventually fled for his life to Switzerland.

Then Mossedegh nationalized Iran’s oil industry and its exporting facilities. So, internationally, things became a little tense. Looking across the river from the little mud village and compound of Fao (now called Faw) on the Iraqi side, we few officers of the Port of Basra could see the night-time camp fires of Iranian army units gathered together over on the Persian side of the river. We often suspected them of not having our best interests at heart.

This sense of viewing the sharp end of a scimitar at uncomfortably close proximity was magnified for my small crew aboard El Ghar by the fact that a Persian gunboat had stationed itself at the entrance to the Shatt al Arab just a couple of cables off the shipping channel. As we steamed by twice a day taking our navigational soundings they made a great show of following our passage with their machine guns and oerlikcon cannon. Pointing them at us, rudely and on purpose. This even though we were very particular in dipping our Iraqi ensign to them in accordance with international etiquette. My personal equanimity was not helped by my serang, Ashoor Ahmed, shaking his head each time we passed and mournfully allowing that one day, sahib, they drop big droppings on us.

As the tension built up and ricocheted back and forth across the river the Iranians in the oil city of Abadan, 30 miles upriver, turned off all the oil supply lines to Iraq, which caused much inconvenience to the operations of the Port of Basra, another thirty miles up river. However in so doing there was one small-diameter secondary pipeline the Persians somehow overlooked and which continued pumping a minor but valuable supply of the black stuff up to Basra. Realizing that the good news would eventually get back to the Abadan bad guys about this oversight the authorities in Basra were feverishly filling any sort of container they could find that would hold some of the precious liquid. I imagine even Keep Hot teapots and sporting trophy cups were being filled with oil as well as any Iraq army goblets awarded for bravery on the march across the northern desert to ingloriously miss out on the futile war against Israel in 1948.

One day, shortly after the El Ghar had steamed past the Iranian gunboat, my serang, looking ahead through his binoculars said in a subdued voice that another gunboat was coming our way and now we would really be in trouble. I took up my own binoculars and saw just the top hamper of a hull-down vessel appearing over the glassy horizon. And behind it another mast just appearing. And then even another. Wow, I thought, they were coming up very fast as was evident by the distinct, high-speed and clean-cut ‘bone-in-the-teeth’ of the first vessel which was now fully visible.

At once I told the serang to go 180 degrees about at full speed. The serang said, it’s no good sahib, El Ghar too slow to run away. I replied, don’t worry, Ashoor, those ships have tripod masts, they’re British destroyers. Three of them. I just want to turn around to see what our friendly Persian gunboat is going to do when they see them.

The serang with a big smile turned us about and we plodded along at our full emergency eleven knots, a couple of hundred feet west of the deep Inner Bar channel. Within a few minutes the three CH-class destroyers zipped past us. I could read their names as we dipped our ensign to them: Chieftain, Chevron and another I forget.

Through my glasses I watched the Iranian gunboat. Men ran out to their gun positions. Wow! There was going to be a battle. But no. They were hastily pulling tarpaulin covers over their guns. Then their crew lined up on deck and their ensign dipped in respect and, as the destroyers flashed past, their officers saluted.

As we in the old El Ghar slowly came up past them they even dipped their ensign in reply to ours. And just to test them I told the serang to go about and pass by again. And then twice more before we set course offshore to the areas I was charting that day.

The destroyers would have arrived off Abadan within a couple of hours to the great relief of the several tanker crews of varied nationality who had been stranded alongside there for some time. Some very nasty incidents had occurred—notably a report that one young Scandinavian apprentice caught by the mob had suffered severed hands.

Also I should imagine the sudden appearance of those RN ships would have eased the worries of the group of Harbour Masters and their families who lived directly opposite Abadan at Harmaq.

At that time, in 1951, the whole situation was very unpredictable. Some people even thought the Persian army might come across the Shatt al Arab and invade Iraq.

A major result of all the confusion was that a large fleet of multinational tankers became anchored 30 miles offshore in the international waters of pilot station. Fifty or so empty tankers which had been heading for Abadan to load oil before the crisis worsened. They were now stuck in enforced and undecided idleness. Some stayed swinging around their anchors for days, then weeks. Some received orders from their owners and disappeared, headed for other destinations. Some went off for a day or two and then returned as the news and rumours changed from very negative to more positive. But most just swung around at anchor, awaiting international developments.

A lot of money was being lost.

My daily routine was completely upset. The captain of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary Arndale , a tanker, signalled me that he was in need of some medical attention so I went alongside his ship and picked him up for passage up to Fao and our Iraqi physician. The next day, after he had spent an evening in our little club, I took him back to his ship. A pleasant task when I was invited to go down to the ship’s storeroom and pick out a few bottles. That storeroom was akin to a large liquor store. It was a wonder they had any capacity left to carry their cargo of oil.

A few days later when I was close to the pilot station I saw that our massive collection of inactive tankers had been joined by a very businesslike-looking warship, the light cruiser HMS Euryalus. She was several miles away but signalled me, asking if I could come alongside. I did not want to go all the way out there because due to the crisis I was running short of fuel and wanted to save some oil for the following day’s charting work. However, the cruiser repeated its request so I told the serang to comply. One of the cruiser’s officers came down a ladder to speak with me. Upon learning that I was British he said the Commodore would like to speak with me so I went aboard and was offered refreshment. The commodore showed me a blue canvas bag which he said he would like to have delivered to the RAF station at Shu’aiba. He asked if I could take it up to Basra. I said going all the way up to Basra would take all night and use up most of my fuel supply. But I would gladly take it to Fao, I said, so why not radio the RAF to send a vehicle down to Fao across the desert and pick it up from me? The eminence thought that a good idea. Then I said that recently I had been harassed by an Iranian speed boat with machine guns that kept circling around El Ghar as I ran my lines of soundings along the channels. What if I was boarded? Was there anything sensitive in the bag? Could they be enclosed in a waterproof container? He pondered this for a while. I said such a bag alone could not be jettisoned over the side as it would float for quite some time. Unless of course it was weighted down with a chunk of scrap metal inside. The commodore agreed to that. Then he asked me if I would come out to the cruiser again the next day if everything went all right as he would have a sack of ship’s mail they wanted sent back to UK via the RAF. I told him I was very short of fuel and there was no more at Fao. He called one of his ship’s engineering officers who asked me what sort of fuel I needed. They used the same gas-oil for the cruiser’s motor boats and launches. They put a hose across to El Ghar and filled our tanks. I mentioned that my crew would enjoy a few presents of bottles of sherbet and other goodies and that was graciously done, too. After another gin and some lunch we let go from Euryalus and headed up the dredged channels for Fao

I placed the navy’s official blue bag at the very stern of the El Ghar and alongside it some ship’s ordinary garbage. Then I stationed a man there with instructions to chuck them over the side only upon an order from me. As we went up the Rooka , the main shipping channel, our friendly neighbourhood armed Iranian speed boat came out to circle us and threaten us with their machine guns. The serang shook his head and said, Sahib, they know we have been with the big navy ship out there and are angry with us. I sat by the radio ready to call Fao if they started anything, not that anyone could have helped us if they did. Thankfully, after a dozen circles they headed off northeast to their base.

The next day we went out to pilot station and steered through the fifty anchored tankers, but Euryalus looked strangely changed in appearance. No wonder. During the night she had departed and another, larger cruiser, HMS Mauritius, was lying there.

She also signalled me to come alongside where I met another eminence, this time an admiral. I was again wined and dined and given a heavy mailbag to take back to Fao to be picked up by the RAF.

One of the cruisers actually went up through the channels to Abadan for a brief show of strength. Though the massive warship was very long for the sharp bends in our channels they had so much engine power that I think they could have safely churned their way without damage through a couple of feet or more of the soft silt bottom with little loss of control or speed.

Then abruptly everything became less critical. International dickerings and manoeuvrings calmed things down. The naval vessels disappeared, the idle tankers upanchored and went up river to Abadan to load and the oil taps going to Basra were turned back on.

For myself, I had done pretty well out of it all. I had gained a goodly array of bottled spirits, cans of Danish bacon, Dutch butter and much other stuff very xscarce at that time.

And I could go back to fearlessly poking my nose, well, the El-Ghar’s bows, into the Iranian shoreline just as often as I thought necessary.

And ignoring the Thalweg.

And now:

Wow! It's Amazing!

Here is an item with nothing to do with me, folks, but which, as an observer of the natural world I cannot fail to recommend to readers:

If you enjoy stunning wildlife photography, especially bird life, just go to,
which will bring up a vast portfolio of superb images served up with visual perfection and technical exactness.
It really is a truly amazing photographic collection of such extreme clarity that it will surpass all the others you may have studied.
Go on. Believe me, take a look at it.
—John Ough