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

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Bartholomews’ Bomb

Late one dark evening in 1940, during the Nazi blitz on London, a few incendiaries were scattered around our residential area. Most fell harmlessly out on the roadways or in people’s back gardens where they were quickly smothered by residents using small bags of sand. As the raiders failed to follow up with any high-explosive, all seemed quiet as I, then a young teenager, walked homewards up our road.

But as I came up to where my friend, Ronnie Bartholomew, lived, I saw a line of people going up the garden path and in through the open front door. Wondering what sort of a party this might be, especially as the Bartholomews, though the kindest of people, were hardly the party-giving type, I took my place in line and soon realized that I was the only one empty handed—the only one with no gift for the hostess. Because, as I went in through the front door and the blackout curtain, I saw that all incoming guests were handing over a small sandbag to Mrs Bartholomew who then passed it on to Mr Bartholomew who went halfway up the stairs and passed it on to my friend Ronnie who disappeared the remainder of the way upstairs with the gift.

Meanwhile, Mrs B. was greeting each newcomer with remarks on the weather, how it was so long since she had last seen them, asking about their families and to please come into the living room and have some tea, coffee or cocoa. Upon seeing me, Mrs B. said Ronnie was upstairs and to go right on up. Upstairs, I saw a stepladder set up in the hallway under the entrance to the attic and Ronnie's feet on the top rung, with his upper body inside the attic. Some spots of blood on the ladder added interest to the scene. Ronnie came down the ladder, said hello and invited me to go up the ladder and see Leslie, his older brother. He then went downstairs again.

I went up the ladder and all was explained. Leslie had several little sandbags on the attic floor with an incendiary bomb burning away on top of them. The shovel with which he had scooped the bomb onto the sandbags was nearby. Overhead was the hole in the roof where the bomb had crashed through the tiles. As Ronnie handed him yet another bag, he piled it with several others on top of the bomb. The blood I had noticed before was from a small cut in his hand made when using a penknife to cut a bag open to sprinkle loose sand down between the cracks. By this time, the poor little German bomb had no chance whatever of carrying out its intended tactical task of burning down the Bartholomew’s house. It was the most smothered little bomb in Britain. The greatest danger now was that the attic floor might give way under the weight of so many generously donated small sandbags, thereby perhaps smothering in turn the merry-making donors at the tea party now in full swing on the ground floor below.

All in all, it was probably one of the most successful social gatherings that was ever held in the normally much more sedate atmosphere of the Bartholomews' house.

computer graphics and ink sketches

John Ough

Friday, September 25, 2009

IRAQ, 1947 - 1952

Large rats, large dhows, and large fat dates

— life aboard the Iraqi Survey Vessel,

El Ghar.

The five big seagoing suction dredgers operating at the head of the Persian Gulf spent a week or ten days, or more, out at sea sucking up the sea-bed silt washed down from the Shatt-al-Arab and then sailing over to Abdullah Point to dump their spoil. Then usually for a weekend they would come up the river to tie up at Fao for two or three nights before heading back down to the head of the Gulf again.

At that time the 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 shoreline. The dredgers and other large vessels tied up to the outsides of the barges and smaller craft like the El Ghar tied up to their inshore sides.

In the compound onshore there was the large marine workshop, the administration office and the generator house. There were half a dozen bungalows for such people as the works manager and the electrical-radio engineer and their wives; and the bachelors: the medical officer; the communications officer; and the overall boss—the Dredging Superintendent or DS. There was also a modest office building for the small number of Iraqi administrators, draughtsmen and clerks. Around about were the various dwellings of senior Iraqi office staff, a small hospital, a swimming pool, a couple of tennis courts and in the centre of everything a sandy football field. As well there was quite a lot of greenery and date palms.

Importantly, there was the club or Port Officers Shore Mess, a rather nice looking, high-standing, cool, building containing a polished red tiled hall about the size of a school gymnasium, a billiard room with a very good snooker table, a small library and again importantly, a bar. It was here that the dredger and other port vessel officers intermittently congregated and where special parties and dances were held. It was the social centre of our small community, isolated as we were by ninety miles of desert track from Basra to the north..

Outside, through the always open compound gate, and all around and along the shore line was the actual spread-out village of Fao, with serifa, mud dwellings and a few minor places of commerce.

Half a mile to the west, away from the river through the date palms, the desert abruptly began.

Just down river from Fao there would often be several dozen deep-sea dhows anchored. Some would be from far off Zanzibar, Malaya and other parts of the Indian Ocean perimeter. They were of a size larger than the vessels in which Columbus and other western explorers 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 they 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 many other tons piled up on top of them—hence the term ‘top-banana’.

The crews of the dhows would often be many weeks at sea, hindered by adverse winds and storms and sometimes we would see one flying a distress flag as it approached the estuary of the Shatt or laying 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 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 conch shell.

When they came ashore at Fao after so many hard weeks at sea I was intrigued at seeing the 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 mis-made in some way these cut-price slim-waisted coats would be shipped out east by their 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 on its way up or down. In this case we would go 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 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 and with a little twitch of his shoulder a spurt of coffee would unerringly land in the cup without a drop 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 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 deep sea passages. But they also showed me their copies of 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. Of course I could only do this because Ashoor had such a fine command of English.

One totally wrecked dhow aground on a mudbank had a dozen or more crazed rats running back and forth along its broken spars. But 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 disappeared, to where 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 things all over the place.

In the same way, even in Ashar, the old part of Basra, there was no fear of being mugged nor did any of the wives and daughters of port officers 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 ship. 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 in 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 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. 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 the rat trap cage at the bottom of the ladderway leading down to my cabin. If the dredgers and tugs were all out at sea all would be 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 the 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 still about four hundred feet from the El Ghar I would know if I had caught a rat. Because I would hear it starting to scream at the sound of my coming.

As I stepped from the first little wooden bridge onto the metal surface of the first massive 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 fast asleep, as usual, 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.


wd u b wrrid abt wot qv migt thnk?

One-hundred-year-old pen and ink letters, written by Winston Churchill to and from his friends and colleagues, show that the abbreviated-thumb-text-messaging styles utilized by today's teenagers on their cellphones, so often to the despair of their teachers, appear to be nothing new.

Churchill and his high-titled relations and cronies, highly skilled and educated in the literary arts as they were, liberally spattered their correspondence to each other with such timesaving abbreviations as:

cd —could; wd—would; vy —very; and w/o—without; even Brit—British; and many other like fragments of shorthand.

So even in the most exalted enclaves of precious literacy, when exchanging simple and informal messages, language just ain’t immune to lazy timesaving shortcuts.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Computer art and sketches —John Ough

Monday, September 14, 2009

A Fly-fisherman's Utopia

Font size

I explore the alluring wilderness of a northern coast,

enjoy fly-fishing in brilliant sunshine alongside an iceberg,

and pay homage to the most beautiful fish in the world.

In the early hours of a fine sunny Sunday morning in the early summer of 1954 our research vessel lay peacefully anchored amid the scattered coastal islands scattered off the northern Labrador coast.

After a week or two of charting the offshore waters of central Labrador our expedition now awaited the ice fields ahead to open up sufficiently to allow us to round Cape Chidley, pass west of the Button Islands, then through Hudson Strait and across the northern part of the Bay to the, at that time totally unpopulated and pristine, region of Rankin Inlet.

Though our ship, the M.V. Theron, was well suited to its role as a compact Arctic research vessel it was in fact a small, sturdy, ice-strengthened sealing vessel built of steel, and on annual charter to the Canadian Hydrographic Service.

Cradled on the Theron’s foredeck were three hydrographic sounding launches, each equipped with a depth-recording echo sounder. During charting operations each launch was manned by two surveyors and four seamen.

On that lovely Sunday morning, a day which was to become especially memorable for me, nobody then aboard the Theron, including myself, knew that we were headed for a very special place — the Mirage Islands. This because at that time those islands did not exist in name, nor had they yet been mapped, nor were they to be so for another three months—before I myself would discover them and delineate and position their shores, and, chart in detail their surrounding waters. Then, a year later, after formal approval by the Canadian Board on Geographical Names, this magical group of low-lying islands would be officially christened with the name I chose for them—the name that still appears on modern maps and charts of northern Canada

But for the present, on that particular bright Sunday morning, of which I write, I was intrigued only by the lonely northern Labrador coast which lay half a mile away. Studying the view in detail through my binoculars from the ship’s upper deck made me eager to land ashore and explore its wild, tumbling streams with my fly rod in hand. Less than an hour later in company with the ship’s young chief engineer, a good companion and fellow keen angler, I landed ashore at the mouth of a broad-running river.

But truly contemplative sport fishing being by nature a personal affair my fellow angler and I soon parted company. After pulling our dory high up the rock-strewn beach we each wandered away intent on secret and solitary exploration. For myself I moved off in the warm sunshine along the remote and completely uninhabited shoreline in a southerly direction.

Half way around a protruding bend in the coastline, as I made my way along the shore, my attention was taken by several arctic terns wheeling and diving in frenzied flight. Looking at them through my binoculars I was unable to see the object of their excitement still hidden by yet another jiggle in the coastline.

My curiosity heightened when through my glasses I saw an osprey dive down among the wheeling terns. Not only was it a rare sighting of a fish-hunting osprey at a location well north of its normal range, but an osprey in the company of terns? And why were they all engaged in that one particular spot along a lonely northern shore?

A few minutes later, as I made my way along the beach the puzzle was solved by a dramatic revelation. For here I came across a slender but active little stream. It was fast flowing down the beach from a thicket of dense spruce trees. At the ocean’s edge its fresh waters met and then gently overrode the salt seawater of the gradually rising tide. The resulting interacting rivulets, sparkling in the sun, presented an enticing and, for the angler irresistible, setting.

But what was most extraordinary about the scene was the fact that just offshore, in but a few fathoms of water, was what was left of a bungalow-sized bergy bit—a miniature iceberg fully hard aground in shoal water. To add to this fascinating happening, that small weathered remnant of a once mighty iceberg still retained a long and broad wafer-like tongue of smooth, flat ice stretching inshore a hundred feet or more. In appearance that ice-block-built bungalow was as if fronted by its own pristine white lawn of translucent green-edged ice. Intriguingly, its flat surface was gently washed over by but a single foot of turquoise-tinted seawater. It was a dazzling tableau rendered in a most extraordinary mixture of natural colours.

It was towards the edges of the barely sunken wafer of ice that the terns were concentrating their attention. Performing the aerobatics and sudden turns in direction for which the species are so known—and probably for which, unwittingly, so aptly named. Observing their occasional quick snatch at the water’s upper few inches I again brought my binoculars into play and was fascinated to see that shoals of very small fish were swarming along the edge of the ice-tongue. Occasionally they could be seen swimming across and over the top of the ice, there to glitter silvery in the bright sunshine. At these times their numbers seemed to miraculously double in an instant on account of each fish having its ultra-sharp black shadow projected in silhouette onto the pure white screen of ice so closely below.

The nearest and thinnest edge of the ice tongue was hardly half a dozen feet from the stony beach over which the small freshwater stream ran down so merrily. As I moved forward I could see that the circumstances of this mixing of fresh and salt waters, combined with the presence of the solitary stranded piece of polished ice was a compelling source of attraction for a variety of fishes, large and small.

By now either because of my disturbing presence or having taken their fill the terns had departed. And of the wandering osprey there was no sign. But fish were still there in plenty. Now, at close range, I was amazed at the many species and sizes I could plainly see.

The small fish which had been the target of the terns I reasoned to be capelin. But also I saw cod, large and fat from also feasting on the same abundance, and one or two other slimmer streamlined fish I thought to be mackerel.

Of most importance I saw several salmon. Those kings and queens of fishes had been drawn to the river’s sweet outflow and the coolness of the shiny bergy bit as much as by the swarms of capelin. It was probably the same story for the odd whitefish I could see. Incongruously one solitary flounder made its flat undulating way through the shallow water atop the brilliant and barely submerged flat ice sheet, the flounder’s dark upper sides making it extremely and dangerously conspicuous.

It must have been the allure of warm sunshine on the water surface juxtaposed with icy layers underneath that beguiled this diverse collection of fish life to mingle together in one magical place of pristine congress. It was as if a fine display of marine fish life was presented in brilliant, captivating, live action over some supernaturally-produced observational light-table, producing an encyclopaedic life-sized diorama of cold-water fish life. As if, perhaps, a museum showcase had been spiritually designed and created.

Especially enticing amid all this wonderful abundance were a dozen or two beautiful speckled, or brook, trout. Of differing sizes they also sported different background hues to their coloured markings. Some had evidently been out to sea for a week or two or longer and had taken on a distinctive silvery tinge. Others, just arrived down from the freshness of the nearby stream and the high inland lakes, were typically coloured with darkly mottled upper parts and sides speckled with lustrous halos of blue surrounding brilliant red and orange spots.

It was the sight of those most lovely of chars, as such they truly are, that finally tempted me to set up my lightweight bamboo rod and cast a brightly-coloured, silver-shanked fly out over the foreshore to alight just inches inside the blue and white spectrum of the ice edge. With the aberration of time so often experienced in such situations, I saw as if in slow motion, but in reality very swiftly, the black shadow of one of the larger brook trout advance to meet the much smaller speck of shadow cast by my fly. As the two shadows met I gave a gentle twitch to my rod and he was on. Off he went away from me, streaking across the smooth ice tongue, twisting and turning and so indistinct against the sparkling sunlit ice sheet that it was just his sharp-edged shadow I played until he went off to one side into deeper water. After some minutes I had him back over the ice sheet and finally coaxed him to the gleaming stones and pebbles at my feet. I gazed at him in admiration and respect for a few moments, then gave him slack, With a toss of his head he loosened the barbless fly in his mouth and spat it out. Carefully, I displaced several of the larger pebbles upon which he rested until he could fully regain his upright posture and slowly he made his way into deeper water. Whereupon, untouched by my hands during the whole episode of our encounter, he sped away in a flash, leaving but a colourful memory in his wake. I imagined him hiding down below, shaking his head to recover his wits and wondering at the meaning of it all. Exactly as I was doing myself, sitting on a small boulder on the shore, meditating and smoking a pipe of tobacco. Just as that classical angler of all time, Izaak Walton, reports he himself had so often done three-hundred years before me, sitting and smoking his clay pipe on the banks of the River Lee just north of London, during the troubled times of England’s only civil war and during Oliver Cromwell’s turgid years of boring Commonwealth.

But I thought, complacently to myself, I was at least one up on old Izaak Walton. Sitting there on my rock, fifty-five years ago, on the lonely Labrador coast in 1954, on that fine day of which I write, it was then 300 years since Izaak Walton had written his wonderful treatise, The Compleat Angler, concerning his reflections on the ‘Contemplative Man’s Recreation'. Because I thought, a little smugly, old Izaak, unlike myself, had never had a chance to angle for and admire the beautiful speckled or brook trout. After all they are only truly native to north-eastern North America waters.

Especially those of eastern Canada.

And Izaak Walton had angled only in England.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Daily Life — Shatt-Al-Arab IRAQ 1947-52

How sixty years ago I sometimes plumbed Iraq’s murky depths by age-old methods, and was refreshed by riding the deep blue waters.

One rather primitive state-of-the-art technique we used when we discovered that a portion of the shipping channel was filling in and needed immediate attention by one of the dredgers, was making blueprints of the area concerned by the aid of solar power. I would plot the soundings a few minutes after we had run them and have them copied on a piece of tracing paper. Then we would cut off a piece of blueprint paper to fit in a compact glass enclosed frame which measured about eight inches by twenty four. On top of this we would place the similar-sized tracing, close down the glass top and place it in the sunshine for a few minutes. Then the blueprint paper would be immersed in a half-bucket of water until the image of the sounding figures appeared. Then it was dried, rolled up and tied with a string to a half-pound piece of scrap metal. Then we would steer an opposite course to the chosen slow moving dredger and as we passed within thirty feet of it one of my crew would hurl the weight, with the blue-print-attached, onto the dredger’s deck. Thus we had almost instant graphic communication despite not having modern fax-machines.

There was the odd day that the wonderful MSXXI echo sounder was not really so wonderful and like most temperamental electronic things refused to function. At such times I had to retreat back to the 19th century way of doing things and we sounded by leadlines swung in the classical tradition of the sea by a leadsman standing on a sounding platform on either side of the El Ghar’s bridge. First one then the other leadsman, assisted by a lascar on the deck below in retrieving the heavy lead after each cast, would swing his stranded wire sounding line, weighted by the hefty piece of lead, well ahead of the ship and as it touched bottom he would sing out the depth indicated by the small pieces of coloured bunting affixed to the wire every eighth of a fathom. As there are six feet in a fathom that meant there was a marker every nine inches along the line. By noting whether it was a little under or a little above the surface of the water the depth of the sounding could be estimated to within an accuracy of three inches. Well, theoretically, that is. On a very calm day. On a hard bottom. In still water. If there wasn’t a swell with a wave length longer than twice the dimensions of the survey vessel. Also, with a uniform horizontal motion of the water from sea bed to surface. Providing the wire was straight up and down when the leadsman called his cast.

Obviously we could never have all these conditions satisfied. The bottom of the estuary was so soft that when a pile driver initially drove down a beacon component it would go into the seabed ten feet at one blow. Unfortunately it would at once spring back nine feet 11 inches. Thus it was evident that the lead would go a foot or more into the mhutti below before the leadsman could feel any sort of bottom. And we thought there was only one brief period during the flood tide that a good vertical sounding could be taken. At other times in thirty feet of water we could see that the warm, salt-water, flood tide was making on the surface while below the fresher, relatively less dense, but silt-laden river water, ebbed and flowed in the opposite direction . Or sometimes vice versa. Hence the sounding wire would be bent or slanted. But none of it was that critical really as the soft bottom was easy on the touchings of big ships and this ability of large vessels, even with their foot or so of squat when going at speed, to churn through the muddy bottom would actually help maintain the channel when the ebb tide was strong and immediately washed the churned up mud out to deeper water.

So for hour after hour, while manually leadlining we would make our stately progress at a slow speed just a knot or two faster than, but always along with, the tide and listen to and record the melodious and monotonous soundings of the fathoms as they were called out in Arabic: Arbaa wa sebbaat athman, nargus (four and seven-eighths with the mark just under the water surface) from the port side, to be followed ten seconds or so later from the starboard side by Khamsa, sayid (five with the mark a little above the water).

But most days the echo-sounder was in good working order and strongly recorded its veritable electronic profile of the soft seabed beneath us. Then we could sound at full speed and give the leadsmen so much rest from that part of their duties that it was a wonder they didn’t forget their numbers. And though the recorded echo trace was very fuzzy, owing to the soft mud having such poor reflecting qualities for the accoustic pulses, it was possible to determine a criterion for accepting the depth at which suspended mud gave way to a more dense layer that could be construed as a sea bed. And also as we reached the outer limits of our normal area of operations and the flat lands of Iraq and Iran had long disappeared from view, there on the electronic echo trace, emerging from below a fathom or two of mud would be the hard dense shape of an underlying firm formation. Gradually as we went south the razor-sharp outline of the rock would be seen to rise higher and higher in relation to the falling level of mud until the two traces met and the fuzzy upper surface gave way to a proper and distinct deep-sea, foreign-going, bottom. Thus the echo-sounder electronically marked in graphic, unwitting, display the boundary, measured in centuries, or millenniums, of the time elapsed in years, of the amount of river mud deposited since Sindbad the Sailor’s lifetime until my own. And here, at that refreshing boundary, several miles from land, where the brown river water met the deep-blue, salt sea water, the division between them was sometimes so distinct that the stern of the 98-foot-long El Ghar was in one colour of water and the bow in another.

And here also, at the limits of where my work was officially done I would nevertheless often order the El Ghar on and on into the deeper blue waters for no real purpose but just so I could feel the ship’s entrancing motion as she lifted gracefully to the long ocean swell and I could watch the echo-sounder graph as the bold clean bottom trace finally dropped off the edge of the wet, iodine-saturated, electrical recording paper.

Then we would be deep in the magic of profound waters and to attest to the truth of it a dozen porpoises would urge us on like seductive sirens of old, leaping and running ahead of the ship with the spray from their glistening bodies flashing in the sunlight.

After this invigorating dalliance, during which even the now higher-riding El Ghar herself seemed to rejoice in having her hull washed in the clear blue saline, we would eventually have to turn about and head back to the turmoil of the Shatt al Arab and its troubled and murky waters.

Going the 80 miles up to Basra for an infrequent weekend from Fao was always something of a holiday event. The usual and quickest way for the dozen or so shore-based port directorate personnel stationed in Fao was to take a bus that cut across the desert along an indistinct track often several miles from the sparse shade and green of the river-bank-hugging date palm plantations. In summer it was important to take drinking water along in case of breakdown as there were several stories of passengers in past times having to drink the unappetising contents of their vehicle’s radiator before they were missed and rescued.

The port also had a rather ramshackle motor boat that ran a shuttle service of sorts up and down the river. But it was a long, smelly and noisy trip and seldom used by port officers. I did go up in that boat one very hot night and it not only broke down for a while but the crew had forgotten to bring water along. I got so thirsty that I couldn’t stop myself from leaning over and scooping up some of the dubious water straight from the river. When I say dubious I mean dubious. I mean almost putrid. I mean really putrid. Up river there were several million inhabitants who use the Tigris, Euphrates, Karun and Shatt al Arab rivers as their communal toilet. And have done so since time began. However, nobody can fight real thirst. Its immediacy transcends any finickyness. And anyway, on the El Ghar we drank the same river water all the time, though we did run it slowly through a big ceramic cone-shaped Persian Hub whic h was equipped with filter candles inside. This was purely a way (Oh! boy, is that ever a class-one oxymoron) of keeping the water somewhat cooled through evaporation and also somewhat cosmetically clear of silt and the larger pieces of effluence. It surely didn’t do much in the way of hygiene.

The most pleasant way of going up to Basra for me was either in my own El Ghar or aboard one of the big suction dredgers when they had reason to go up river. A few days staying at the notably luxurious rest house with half a dozen vacationing dredger officers was always a festive occasion. This holiday spirit was augmented by our lengthy visits to the oppulent 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 and swimming pools 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 often diplomatic competence of Mr John, the club’s Armenian manager.

At times we would go a couple of miles to Ashar, the old town of Basra, and visit the suk and examine and barter for pieces of delicate inlaid Amara work in silver and gold and other items of interest and varying desirability. Three or four times when I was in Basra with the El Ghar, my serang, Ashhor Ahmed, and Abood Assiad, Moosa Sagar, Hassan, the chief engineer, and one or two others of my crew and myself would go into a café or some such place together and have a beer or two. And it was a very happy time and I discovered that our senses of humour and ways of looking at the world were basically much the same. They were deeply interested during those relaxed times in hearing of what life was like in Europe and North America and I saw how incomprehensible it was for them to visualize what I was describing. This was before any television had come their way. All they had seen were a few western movies full of puzzling scenes of domestic bickering and unintelligible cultural relationships.

On occasion I was invited by senior port officials to dinner parties in their large and sprawling bungalows. It was all very pleasant but somewhat tedious with a dozen or more other guests sitting for several hours at a decorated long table and being served course after course of fine food. Then I would melt away to the Port Club to meet my dredger friends.

Whenever I have been on a beer salary I never aspired to champagne and during the times I have had the fortune to be on a modest champagne salary I have been lucky enough to stay inclined to beer tastes. I’m sure Charles Dicken's Mr Micawber would fully approve of that.

There was an old saying in Fao that if you once tasted the waters of the Shatt-al-Arab you would return to taste them again. As it turned out I did so myself. Water was a very important commodity in the region. Kuwait, already rich from oil was just beginning experiments to desalinate sea water but they still employed a couple of medium-sized tankers whose sole task was to come up the river to load fresh water. Bellams, the local small boats, also were seen paddling up river past Fao on the last of the flood tide. As soon as the ebb was away the single occupant of the boat could be seen making a few further paddle strokes up river, then putting a hand in the river and tasting the water, making another few strokes of the paddle, tasting again and then finally, when the water was unsalted enough he would bail in reverse, filling his boat with water until he had barely enough freeboard left to float. Then sitting in his boat amid his load of water he would make off down river to little settlements farther to the south. Perhaps even to Kuwait, I suppose.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009


Heavenly Herring and Splendid Skate

The Pathetic Ignorance Regarding Canadian Seafood Cuisine

Before joining the government icebreaker d’Iberville to voyage up to the high arctic in 1956, I remember standing on a dockside in the Iles de Madeleine, in 1956, looking down to where local fishermen had hauled in a massive net full of fine herring, all in super condition and fat with succulent roe. I asked one of the fellows how much he wanted for half-a-dozen, as fresh herring fried in butter can rival even brook trout for flavour. He asked me what I wanted them for and I said to eat of course. He laughed and called down to his mates in French that here was a man who actually ate herrings. They all went into fits of merriment at the very idea and started throwing herrings high into the air to rain down beside me onto the dock. I gathered up as many as I could carry and went back along the wharf to the hydrographic ship I was temporarily serving on, the ex-minesweeper, CGS Kapuskasing, for an unexpected feast.

All those island fishermen did with the herring they caught was use it, or sell it, for lobster bait. Or fertilizer for farmers. A lot of it went over to Portugal and Spain for that same purpose—some of it carried there by my old ship the MV Theron.

One morning, before heading up to the arctic again in 1957, while running lines of soundings off the coast of Guysborough County, Nova Scotia, a thick fog came down around us. As the shore disappeared from view we had to stop work. As we lay there, some miles offshore in the gentle swell, the fog became denser until visibility was barely a hundred feet. My crew said such a fog can last all day. One of them, who lived and fished locally, suggested we go into nearby Goldboro harbour as he had an aunt there who would give us coffee and scones. That sounds good, I replied but how will we get there in this fog. No trouble said the seaman taking over the wheel from the coxun. And off he took us at half-speed. As we neared the shore he stopped the engine every few minutes and listened to the surf around the reefs. Then off he would go for another few minutes. Suddenly, I was startled as a ghostly shape loomed up in front of our launch and the engine went full astern. The frightening obstacle was the end of the wharf in Goldboro harbour.

After having our coffee with the aunt the fog had cleared somewhat. On the wharf a dozen fishermen were standing around looking at a massive skate someone had landed. It was enormous and enough to feed fifty Friday-night customers at any London fish-and-chip shop. All the fishermen on the wharf that morning agreed it was the biggest skate they’d ever seen. Then abruptly, two men put their boat hooks under it and heaved it into the water. It went down into the deeps. Why did you do that, I asked? It’s just a trash fish, they said, no use to anyone. When I told them what a valuable an eating fish it was they looked at me as if I was a mad cannibalistic alien. At least we could have measured it for the record book. Fortunately, for skate lovers like myself, but not for the skate population in general, in the last three years or so fresh skate wings, the main and edible part of the fish, have appeared for sale on the fish counters of many supermarkets.

A few years earlier, ever since going to Iraq in 1947, I had been an enthusiast for the fish my crew of the El Ghar so often caught in the salt water at the edge of the outer estuary. I also wondered at how the local small fishing boats seemed to be so few in number. Whether the fish samples I passed around to the residents of and visitors to Fao, or my fishy culinary dissertations in the club’s bar had any triggering effect, I don’t know. But interestingly, the Iraq Government and Port of Basra announced that an experimental program was to take place to find out if a commercial fishery was viable at the head of the gulf. To this end a Belgian trawler was chartered to come out from Europe.

When the trawler arrived with its jolly Belgian skipper and his plump wife, their vessel was renamed the Zubaidy, after the fine fish, a pomfret, of that name. Such upright flat fish, which range from very small to quite massive, I have recently seen on Canadian fish counters. They are often called butter fish owing to their having a delicate buttery taste. The Arabic word for butter is zibid—hence their Iraqi name.

So when the Zubaidy sailed off into the blue waters at the head of the Persian Gulf our small band of residents in the Fao compound were all agog to see what their first trip to sea would bring. We were delighted when old Belgy came back from his first trip and showed us some nice skate or ray he had taken. We couldn’t have any, though, as all his first catch was required for study in assessing the potential for a fishery. However his cheerful little wife made wonderful boullabaisse fish soup from oddments of other fish species. Then orders were given to the skipper that any skate taken was to be thrown back into the sea. It was considered unclean by Islamic teachings. Well, everyone knows that the unprepossessing body parts of a skate or ray are inedible. But the wings are very good eating and considered upper class in the fish hierarchy even though British trawlermen, because of its suggestive undersides, have a fanciful and indelicate colloquial name for that particular fish. So ever after the Belgian skipper had to be very circumspect in keeping a few hidden away to give out to his new-found fish loving friends in Fao. This experiment lasted about three months and then the trawler’s contract was up and they sailed back to the North Sea.

Sometimes while running our echo-sounding lines off Canada's Atlantic shoreline with the motor-launch, around noon, my crew would ask me if I’d like a lobster for lunch. Then they would make over to some lobster pots, pull them up and take out the lobsters. The first time this happened I was aghast. Stealing lobsters from someone else’s traps was like cattle rustling in the old wild west. We could be lynched. But this was done with a difference. After taking out the lobsters a couple of dollar bills were stuck on the bait spike, fresh bait was put on top and the trap lowered back into the water. The trap owner, I was assured, would be more than pleased with the two dollars—especially if other lobsters attracted by the new bait were in the trap. They showed me how the lobsters enter the baited part of the trap and then always pass through to the other half of the trap called the bedroom. They also demonstrated how to gently stroke a lobster’s back so it would swoon in ecstasy and fall into a trance as if hypnotized. I in turn showed them that the best embellishment for any kind of shellfish was a simple mixture of pepper and salt in a saucer of malt vinegar, not the melted butter so commonly used in Canada.

There is an amazing difference in different regions and cultures of opinion about what fishes are good and desirable and which are trash. Years ago, in southern Nova Scotia, some coastal townspeople complained about all the herring being dumped at the local land disposal site which caused a terrible smell that drifted over their homes. Those herrings had been caught by the hundreds of thousands so that the females could be stripped of their egg-roe for the lucrative Japanese market. The remainder of the female fish-bodies together with all the sadly untouched perfect male herrings were dumped in the garbage tip. Ironically, in Europe, the soft male roe or milt is more highly prized than the female egg-roe and the minor amounts of it imported into North America in small tins for sale in North America are very expensive.

I wrote a letter about this terrible Nova Scotian waste of a valuable resource to the federal government fisheries minister and received a fatuous reply. Hardly surprising considering from whom it came. Anyway, I believe that particular case of indiscriminate dumping of the fish on land was mostly stopped. But that remedial action was not very remedial. From then on the fishermen just dumped all the unwanted dead herring (about 95 per cent of their original total catch) back into the sea as they went out to sea on their way to haul in many more tons destined to again be largely wasted. Of course, now we all cry crocodile tears for these poor misguided and wasteful dunderheads of the sea at the tricks cruel nature has played on them by depleting the fish stocks. With the help of the seals, that is. Well, if you’re soft, greedy and stupid you have to blame something or other for your idiocy. But I’ve never been able to fathom out how, many hundreds of years ago, when there was no commercial seal hunting taking place and seals must have been enormously prolific, why the ocean then could still manage to teem with cod and other valuable fish.

Any day now I expect to read headlines reporting an inexplicable disappearance of the herring stocks off the east coast.

Just a couple of years ago I was often blessed by finding frozen herrings, with soft roe, fairly well intact in fish in overall pretty good shape, in what was then our local Loeb grocery store, here in Ottawa. Reasonably priced, about two out of a package of three would be in good enough shape to make a decent breakfast. Over the months they not only appeared in the freezer department much less frequently but when they did sporadically appear they were usually mangled and squashed as if run over by a truck. They got worse and worse in condition until they were unfit for any type of culinary rescue. Then Loeb changed their name to Metro and even that useless supply became zero. Not even the most mangled specimens of wanton wastage was available. Not even for cat owners or perhaps avid gardeners’ fertilizing purposes.

It's not just good enough, Metro people. Give us sophisticated herring lovers a break. Get your fish suppliers to provide you, and subsequently us, with at least a modicum of decently cared for, dignified, frozen ripe herrings that we can enjoy, despite being a thousand miles from the ocean potion.

So, other more luckier fish-loving patrons, if ever you get the choice of cooking some fresh herring roe jump at it. Pick the soft milt from the male fish, rather than the egg roe from the females. Both are excellent but the soft roe has a definite edge in scrumptiousness.

Dry them, then fry them gently in butter, just as they are or lightly dredged in wholewheat flour. Assemble them atop hot buttered toast, sprinkle with pepper and salt and malt vinegar, then indulge yourself in this heavenly sea food.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

The Battle that saved the Civilized World

How Herr Hitler, in 1940, came close to implementing Kaiser Wilhelm II’s 1903 Plan Three, code number 5951, for a 1914 surprise attack on America.

Excerpts from diplomatic reports sent to Washington by United States Ambassador to Britain, Joseph Kennedy, in the summer of 1940:

“...I don’t believe the British can withstand a German invasion...they will invade the island whenever they please...the Germans will be in London by mid-August...the English people are completely ignorant of what the real dangers are...there will be a dictated peace with Hitler getting the British navy...then we will find ourselves in a terrible mess...”

How a gallant band of Canadian fighter pilots helped Britain thwart Hitler’s plan to fulfil the Kaiser’s 1903 plan of global conquest.

How the Royal Air Force, under the calm direction and guidance of Air Marshals Hugh Dowding and Keith Park saved civilization —everybody’s civilization

—including YOUR civilization

In 1903 the Picklelhaube-spike-helmeted German Kaiser had a secret plan to attack America and gain world domination. It was thwarted by involvement in the 1914 landwar. But how forty years later, resurrected by Hitler, it would probably have succeeded if it had not been frustrated by Canadian and other Commonwealth fighter pilots who won the 1940 Battle of Britain. Thus emphasizing the essential, unassailable truth, underlying Winston Churchill’s famous words:

“Never in the field of Human Conflict has so much been owed by so many to so few.”

For if the 1940 Battle of Britain had been lost Hitler’s follow-up on the Kaiser’s 1903 plan to attack America would have finally succeeded.

Germany’s 1903 PLAN THREE attack on America

At the same time as he was in England attending the funeral of his grandmother, Queen Victoria of Great Britain in 1901, the German Kaiser, Wilhelm II, was already planning to make the burgeoning and united Germany of the Second Reich the foremost power in the world. Content for the time being with the apparent political stability of Europe and confident in possessing the world’s most powerful military land force, the Kaiser looked further afield and concentrated on plans for expanding his overseas empire.

An agreement with Turkey gave the Kaiser the go ahead to build a railway all the way from Berlin, via Turkey, and Baghdad, to Basra on the north coast of the Persian Gulf. This would provide a maritime gateway to India and the far Orient where Germany already had colonies.

These global ambitions called for the building of a much more massive navy to augment Germany’s already formidable battle fleet. Firstly, this was to counteract and then overwhelm the maritime mastery held by Britain’s Royal Navy.

But, secondly, the Kaiser also felt threatened by the growing sea power of the United States of America. Especially in the Pacific where Germany possessed several strategic colonies—and intended to gain many more.

For this reason the Kaiser decided to make ready an operational plan to assert German power in the western hemisphere in order to gain freedom of action in the eastern hemisphere—in the far east and across the Pacific.

Germany’s Plan Three, with a code number 5951, called for a strategic assault on ‘Amerika’. This daring plan included the armed annexation (as soon as it came into operation after its expected completion date of 1914) of the vital Panama canal. German control of the canal would allow the Kaiser’s battleships quick and easy access to the Pacific Ocean and the far east while preventing such passage to vessels of other nations. Incredibly this daring operation was to be coupled with a simultaneous invasion by a large army to capture Boston. At the same time a heavy bombardment of New York by a fleet of sixty large warships was expected to produce such total panic and civil submission, as to force the United States to agree to not interfere with the ensuing global expansion of the German Empire. Also the Mexican government was to be encouraged to invade the USA from the south.

This plan might well have succeeded considering that aerial support was not then such a vital factor. In fact even in 1917 when the USA joined the Allies in World War One they had no worthwhile military aircraft of their own and had to use British and French machines.

Amazingly ambitious as this German assault plan appears today, it was cancelled only when the sudden, and unexpected, flare up of the massive 1914 European land war meant the vast expansion of the German navy had to be curtailed in favour of the more vital strengthening of the German army.

Thus in 1914 the Kaiser’s assault on America was abandoned.

Or maybe, by fickle fate, it was just postponed.

Because twenty seven years later, in 1941, when another newly-arisen, iron-strong German Reich appeared under yet another supreme dictator, a fateful second chance of successfully carrying out the forty-year-old Plan Three presented itself.

For then Adolf Hitler had become the master of France and most of the rest of western Europe. He shared the autocratic Kaiser’s dislike for democracy and visions of global conquest and also a hatred for Jews. And by his dazzling blitzkrieg victories Hitler had set the stage for Wilhelm II’s ambitious Plan Three to come very close to actual implementation

But it was not to be. The greedy dream for world conquest by the Kaiser and Adolf Hitler was thwarted by a most wonderful and marvellous show of ‘wizards—the show put on by 2000 Rolls-Royce ‘Merlin’ aero engines and a select band of 3000 aerial knights, including Canadians, who saved not only Britain and Canada but also the United States and all the other earthly civilizations of that time.

Because though this vital miracle is called the Battle of Britain it should rightfully be known as the Battle of the Free World.

For it was then that British, Canadian, Australian, New Zealand and other allied pilots flying the Hurricanes and Spitfires of the Royal Air Force, powered by their fabled Merlin engines, confounded the enemies of democracy who were intent on subjugating the entire world..

Today, historians continue to argue as to which battle of World War Two was the most crucial in winning final victory for the allies. But it is glaringly obvious that the air battle fought high up in the sunny summer skies over southern England in 1940 was the most vital of all. For without that victory by the RAF’s Fighter Command all the other significant battles that followed in following years, and are so massively documented: Stalingrad, Midway, the Atlantic, the Coral Sea, the Normandy D-Day landings—all these would not even have had the opportunity to take place had Britain been invaded, defeated and rapidly subdued.

Without doubt, if Britain had fallen in July or August of 1940, Germany’s powerful ally, Japan, would have taken full and immediate advantage of the opportunity to attack the United States. Its surprise attack on Pearl Harbour would have taken place just as already planned—but one whole vital year earlier—in 1940 instead of December 1941. This earlier attack would have caught the Americans in an even more unprepared state, and doubly by surprise, than they actually were in 1941. In all probability the attack would have caught the aircraft carriers of the US Navy defencelessly at peaceful rest in Pearl Harbour, as opposed to the extremely lucky circumstance in 1941 when by chance they were safely far out to sea.

An earlier Japanese attack in 1940, would have in turn provoked both Hitler and Mussolini to declare war on the United States nearly that same one whole year earlier. The probable destruction of US aircraft carriers at Pearl Harbour would have left the United States crippled, and suddenly beset by enemies on both east and west coasts. And alone—to face the combined might of four of the world’s most powerful navies.

For with its main ally, Great Britain and its navy in defeated disarray, with its British ports and dockyards occupied by Germany, the eastern seaboard of North America would have been utterly infested with packs of U-boats capable of protecting a powerful multi-surface fleet comprised of not only German and Italian, but also French, and possibly even some captured British, battleships and battle-cruisers. For in 1940, the German, Italian and French fleets were at full strength. The later offensive operations by the Royal Navy had not yet weakened the German, Italian, and Vichy navies. This combined force of axis capital ships in 1941 would have been capable of wreaking terrible bombardments upon Halifax, Boston, New York, and other North American coastal cities. Such fears were held by Joseph Kennedy, the United States ambassador to Britain in 1940, when he wrote in his reports that if Hitler gained control of Royal Navy ships the USA would be in very serious trouble.

And at this point, as Japan, practically unopposed, swiftly occupied all significant parts of Asia and Australasia, the full might of the German armies, with the Luftwaffe’s massive air superiority strengthened in material and morale by having not lost the Battle of Britain, and boosted enormously by new production, would have simultaneously easily overrun Russia in double-quick time. Alternatively, that operation could have been postponed for a year or two, meanwhile placating Stalin with the German-Russian non-aggression pact already in existence.

In addition, a Nazi-occupied Britain would have given the US no air bases or fortified staging ground for a later invasion of Europe, nor the time needed for developing the atomic bomb. In contrast, the Nazis would have had control of all European industrial and munition production without suffering the delays caused by bombing raids of the United States Air Corps, the RAF and RCAF. Also, with new launch pads constructed in western Ireland, an invigorated German V2 rocket program could well have become rapidly operational and the bombardment of the USA with devastating, ultrasonic missiles capable of transatlantic assault, could have started as early as 1942.

Little imagination is needed to see that within just one or two years after a blitz-quick German invasion of Britain, and before the sleeping giant composed of America and Canada could fully awaken and embark upon its amazing all-out war effort, the whole world could have entered a new dark age of cruel domination by Nazi and Japanese invaders.

This is why the few who still remember will conduct their ceremonies and again give thanks to ‘the special few’ this September.

Note: next year, 2010, will be the seventieth anniversary of the fight to save world civilization. A portion of which battle, as a fourteen-year-old teenager, I witnessed taking place in the skies above our back garden in northeast London.