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

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Relaxing in our little isolated club

The Port Officers Shore Mess,

Fao, Iraq, circa 1948

Our fleet of five big, ocean-going suction-dredgers each had four deck officers and four engineer officers, for a fleet total of twenty European, mostly British, officers. So when all five dredgers were in port together, tied up to the mooring barges, we played a lot of snooker in the Fao POSM, our nice little club. Our version of snooker was called twenty-one because we used to add the white-spot billiard-ball to the table. It was a wild card item and was worth 21 points and made the game much more unpredictable than usual.

During the usual ten-day periods when the dredgers were thirty or more miles away out in the far outer reaches of the gulf or away to Bombay for boiler cleaning, the club was largely deserted. Apart from myself, the doctor, the communications officer and the odd visitor, the club was deserted.

Except for our remote compound's two most senior and elderly gentlemen: Mr Gray, the Dredging Superintendent, and Mr McKnight, the Workshop Manager. They sat together every evening at the same table in virtual silence in the big, empty, polished tiled hall.

These two strong silent bachelors lived together in the 'monastery', a nice bungalow so named because Mr Gray and McKnight had lived there in seclusion for a very long time. Abood, the barman kept a close watch on them as it was beneath their dignity or too tiring for them to call out to him. Or even look at him. One or the other would just lift a hand without even turning his head and at once two of the same drinks they’d been drinking for years would be placed before them. And unless something really out of the ordinary had taken place that day that small hand motion was their total communication to each other or anyone else. They had said it all long years ago. Pointless to repeat it. They just smoked their pipes and drank their drinks amid the quietness of the hot Iraqi night and thought their secret thoughts.

They remained silent and placid even when the ships were in and a dredger officer would wander woozily and noisily from the bar to their table and slap down the resignation he had just written out with a few choice words as to the reasons he was right now reneging on his contract and somehow getting up to Basra to get the next plane out.

Mr Gray would calmly murmur a few words of agreement to the complainant and put the resignation in his pocket. Sometimes, if the ultra humid Shurgi wind was particularly bad and had been blowing for some days, he would end up with a full handful of these scribbled signed notes by the end of the evening. I don’t know why a convenient resignation box had not been put up on the wall somewhere so that Mr Gray could be left in peaceful silence. Because nothing ever actually came of these performances. The aggrieved ones would sail off in their ships the next day and I expect at the same time old Gray just chucked them into the office waste paper basket.

Hal Roach, the chief engineer of one of the dredgers, was a true gentleman. Hal never used coarse language, was always neatly dressed and polite to everyone and had a small dog. He was interested in photography and puttered about in his large cabin, lit only by a low-wattage red light bulb, with developer and fixer. When Hal came into the club he came into the bar for a drink or two and then usually went over to Gray and McKnight’s table where he was welcomed as another silent partner. Invariably Hal’s little dog, relieved to be free and off the dredger for a while, would start running back and forth across the width of the hall. Skidding on the polished red tiles the little dog went from wall to wall to wall to wall for long exhausting periods. Hal would proudly follow his dog’s performance like a spectator at a slow-motion tennis match, his head turning slowly from side to side and only stopping to take a sip from his pink gin and soda mai or water. But after several gins Hal’s head movements and glazed eyes encountered difficulty in being synchronized with the frenzied movements of his back and forth racing dog. Slowly but surely the dog would get ahead of his eyes so that by the time Hal was looking at the wall on the left the dog had already been there, had now turned around, and was on his speedy way back. So Hal’s eyes would start tracking towards the right wall but by now the discrepancy in space time was even more enlarged and the dog would race to the left, pass through Hal’s laggard gaze which was just now returning to the wall on the right. After several more runs the dog would be a complete lap ahead of Hal’s eyes and so all would be in sync again for a brief moment. Then the whole business would start again. None of this seemed to bother old Gray and McKnight at all. Probably they never noticed it.

Sometimes, before he went out into the hall to sit with old Gray and McNight and watch his dog exercising, I enjoyed listening to Hal Roach’s list of the the many hundreds of the best pubs in Britain. I think he had been in every one of them.

Unfortunately, we lost dear old Hal for a while when he had to go to hospital up in Basra. One night after going back to his ship from the club he decided to do a bit of dark-room work and in the gloom mistook his glass beaker of developer or fixer for his glass of gin and drank some of it.

A year or two later, poor Hal wending his way up the steep wooden walkway up to his ship very late one night, disappeared over the side of the mooring barge into the Shatt. The noise of the splash awoke the nearby sleeping watchman but it was too late. There was a strong ebb tide running. Hal's body was fished out of the water several miles downriver a couple of days later.

One of the people my friend Dr. Maclean, the Port of Basra's Chief Medical Officer, had befriended was a fellow doctor who was a member of an Iraqi family which was very prominent during those years. This doctor’s prosperous relations were important in government, commerce, agriculture and most every other aspect of Iraqi life. So when doc McLean told me of a hunting party that was being arranged by this family with the ambassadors of Kuwait and some other countries as guests and said he and I were also invited I, John Ough, was happy to go along.

Our large caravan of vehicles set off across the desert north-east of Basra. After a couple of hours skirting the swamp areas and shooting a couple of gazelle we went further into the deep desert. One of those large station-wagon-bus-type vehicles took the lead with several men holding falcons sitting on the vehicle’s roof. I was amazed at their complete control of their birds of prey which they set off to fly about five hundred feet ahead of the lead bus and about 100 feet high in the air. If the column was about to change course to left or right the falconers had but to whistle and their birds would turn in the new direction before the vehicles did. Also they could call particular birds back to the bus for a rest while other birds took their place. Until then I had always understood that falcons could only be flown after being starved for a couple of days so that when they caught a prey they would stay with it until the falconer could recover his valuable hunting bird, or, if no prey was caught a piece of meat was swung on a piece of cord around the falconer’s head to entice the bird back. Therefore any particular falcon could only be flown once every two days or so.

In case we inadvertantly wandered into Persian territory and encountered an army patrol, our party leader had obtained a ‘to-whom-it-may-concern’ letter from the Iranian consul or ambassador explaining who, why and what we were doing out in their desert. They made the error of telling our guides about this letter who promptly took us miles away across the desert straight to an isolated Iranian army outpost. It was very scenic, biblical and ancient, built on a rise of ground and with mud walls about twenty feet high and thick. Over the massive gate of this lonely outpost of the Peacock Throne was pinioned not a peacock but a dead eagle with outstretched wings that must have been eight feet across.

The garrison inside this fort must have thought we were an invasion task force approaching because they closed the big gate and took up defensive positions atop the battlements. When our leaders asked to speak with the fort’s senior officer they were told by a sergeant that their officer was off somewhere for the day and that he, the sergeant was in charge. Unfortunately he couldn’t read or at any rate couldn’t get the sense of the letter our diplomats showed him. He said we were to remain where we were until his officer returned as we were now under arrest.

Well, we didn’t think anything of that but we were happy to hang around a while as the old fort was interesting to look at. On every hand the desert stretched absolutely featureless to the horizon twenty miles distant. Absolutely featureless. Flat. Not one stone atop another.

After a while we thought we’d be off. When we told the sergeant that he said he had a couple of trucks in the back of the fort with machine guns mounted upon them and if we went off he would chase us and fire on us.

Doc Maclean and I went wandering about in innocent fashion and not only saw no sign of a machine gun but came to the conclusion that the dozen Persian soldiers that had come out to gawk at us as we were gawking at them comprised the total establishment of that lonely outpost. We also reckoned our party not only had an advantage in numbers over the garrison but we had twice their fire power.

Our caravan was just about to drive away when a man atop the battlements called out that the officer was returning. After several minutes we saw a small cloud of dust a few miles off and as the sergeant was getting pitifully worried and tearful by now we waited until his officer, with a couple more soldiers, finally drove up in an American army leftover jeep. This young officer also was at a loss as to what his duty was but at least he could read and he made a few notes from the letter and asked if we would stay to coffee. Then someone gave him a small souvenir and we took off westwards.

Not long afterwards the falcons caught half a dozen turkey-bustards and then we stopped in the middle of that featureless desert to have a rather elaborate lunch spread out on the ground between two of our vehicles. A very large blanket spread from roof top to roof top made a welcome shade. And as is usual, within a few minutes a small band of wandering Arabs seemed to magically rise up from a hole in the sand to share our luncheon party. Maybe it was a desert but not a deserted desert. All in all, it was a pleasant little outing.

I was still a little naive when, with the El Ghar undergoing some repairs for a couple of weeks, I took over another survey vessel, the Kamala, which was usually engaged on river work between Abadan and Basra. I was sounding cross sections of the river when the body of a young girl floated past the ship. The Kamala crew showed some animated interest for a few moments but were surprised, if not amazed, when I told the serang to stop and pick up the body. I suppose they wondered what I wanted it for. I told the serang we would take it to the police post a few miles upriver so they could look into the matter.

At the police post a couple of crew members placed the girl on the little wharf and had some words with the policemen who appeared. The police looked strangely puzzled, then amused, shrugged their shoulders and kept pointing at the river, obviously saying that my men should chuck it back in. When I leaned out from over the bridge and called to my crew to get back aboard the police desisted from this un-Sherlock Holmes attitude and seemed more positive in manner. For the moment anyway. I suspect that soon after we disappeared up river that poor little body was tossed back in the water.

Every day and every night I was metaphorically and literally immersed in the tides. Apart from the constant soundings I took of the shipping channels and the whole surrounding area, I recorded the directions and speeds at differing depths of the tidal currents. Also I studied and made approximations with simple instruments of the amount of suspended silt being carried down the river and estuary. So the tides ruled my life. Especially my wake-up time. Because the global tidal wave is 50 minutes later each day the El Ghar would usually depart from Fao in cycles. One morning we would cast off at four o’clock, the next at five, then six and so on until about 10 o’clock when we would jump back to about four o’clock again. This enabled us to leave with the ebb, work most of the day on the flood and chase slack water up the river home to Fao. Then I would perhaps go to the office for an hour or plot my soundings on the bridge. But of course this routine was not routine. Weather, tankers aground, special assignments, religious observances, political disturbances, visiting VIPs and other odd visitors who wanted a trip down to salt water—all these would make my days varied and unpredictable.

Sixty Six Years Later

Friday, December 25, 2009

Charting Rankin Inlet 1954 and 1955

When the winds blew strong

After many weeks of meticulous work we had charted much of the inner part of the inlet in great detail. Now the MV Theron could leave the inner anchorage with complete safety as opposed to the perilous entrance between the hidden rocks we had been forced to undergo to find shelter amongst the islands upon our first arrival.

So to facilitate the work of extending our triangulation network and long lines of launch soundings seawards our mother vessel Theron moved east about thirty miles and anchored in the unprotected open seaway. With the ship anchored off Marble Island in such an exposed position, during the two or three gales which came with autumn, our launches would be hoisted aboard, secured onto their cradles and then we would steam eastwards directly into the storm-tossed open waters of Hudson Bay for six hours or more. Then with hove to lights shining brightly to guard against the remote off chance of some other unscheduled stray vessel also wandering that lonely expanse of sea, the Theron, with stopped engines, would be left to its own devices, to drift, and swing whichever whichway wind and wave decided.

All day and all night, maybe for two or three days, the vessel would wallow and lurch, twist and turn, roll and pitch, unchecked and unheeded. Yet, as far as I know, no one was ever seasick on the Theron.

While the ship swung around and danced to its lively tune some of us would recalculate and plot triangulation positions observed, others would play cards, yarn together or catch up on their sleep. And for exercise, Barrie Macdonald and I would pace in age-old naval fashion, back and forth across the width of the heaving upper bridge deck for an hour or more, conversing of everything and nothing. At mealtimes, Barrie would give us regular and original state-of-the-sea reports. He would float a cracker in his slopping soup bowl and note how long it took to capsize.

When the blow eased we would finally get under way again, heading west and with all eyes looking for the first glimpse of the coastline. Then, under an overcast sky, we would argue as to whether we needed to go north or south to find Marble Island and the Inlet. And so resume our work.

Charles Dickens was so right...

Oxford dictionary:

ass — donkey, stupid person


How utterly ridiculous laws can be seriously and ridiculously enforced is blindingly highlighted by the ridiculous policemen who pulled over a transport truck driver who, alone in his cab, was smoking a cigarette as he drove along in serenely-innocent solitude.

The charge:

Smoking (a legal substance) in the workplace.

He was subsequently fined more than $300 dollars.

He wasn’t driving a crowded school bus.

He was a solo haulage truck driver.

This Monty-Pythonesque comedy opens up a vista of further inane possibilities, including the prosecution of such hitherto-unfettered, freedom-loving citizens as the following:

1) The pastoral corn-cob-smoking writer of cultural masterpieces scribbling away in his lonely Thoreau-style woodland shack.

2) The landscape artist gazing out from his camping tent on a hilltop while capturing the perfect colours of a wilderness sunset.

3) The composer of poetry or music musing to herself in the remote upstairs garret of her private abode.

4) The philosopher meditatively puffing on his comforting pipe in his hermit’s hillside cave while pondering the mystical secrets of the universe.

5) The village blacksmith hammering red-hot metal by the open door of his roaring furnace.

6) The cod-jigging fisherperson resting in the draughty cabin of his/her rickety boat as s/he waits out the blow of a fierce wintry squall.

7) A solitary charcoal maker tending his fires.

8) The farmer in his tractor cab while plowing up his sixty-acre corn field.

9) A sexton digging a grave under the shelter of a tarpaulin rigged against the rain of a blustery day.

10) An Inuit skinning a seal in his igloo on Loks Land.

11) An egg farmer closeted away in her hen house tending a sick chicken during the long dark hours of an anxious night.

The list just goes on and on and on and on — affecting one of the most vital, most economically-and-culturally rich, and overall valuable segments of Canadian society.

Such an idiotic law as this may make all these dedicated and honest toilers forsake their satisfying creative careers and force them to reluctantly take the easy way out. Maybe even switching over to becoming politicians, lawyers, social activists, dreary public servants, television anchor persons, or grief counsellors.


Look here, I have to add, for the sake of any overly gullible readers, that my cartoon heading this item is purely fantasy. I’m sure all farmers are free to ride about in their tractor cabs totally free of harassment at all times so long as they constitute no danger to others on the Queen’s highways.

In my limited dealings with the police I have always found them to be the true protectors and friends of the public which we were rightly told they were eighty years ago as children in elementary school. That is basic to our civilization.

So I have a feeling that the truck driver incident must have another nuance we are missing. It has to be more the obtuseness of the law as laid down by loopy governmental zealots that is at fault rather than our uniformed finest.

In fact, for a very brief period as a Regulatory Petty Officer in charge of the Royal Navy Shore Patrol, I was some sort of overly benign policeman myself many decades ago. Never had the slightest iota of trouble with farmers on tractors.

In fact I had no trouble at all. All I did was lead my squad of four or five men, clad in parade-ground gaiters, webbing belts with their attachments, and wearing our official armbands, on a wandering leisurely evening patrol of my designated area. This mostly meant just going from pub to pub and having an unobtrusive peek in each at odd intervals until closing time. It was all very casual. There was nothing to do. I remember no incidents. Even the roughest of British pubs in 1946 were generally very peaceful places.

Then after closing time, as all the sailors seemed headed back towards their ships or the barrack blocks of their various shore establishments in good order, I would take my crew on one final patrol — to two or three of the pubs for ‘a final overview’.

This involved being invited inside by the publicans for a relaxing final inspection of the empty premises while watching the pub staff clearing and cleaning up in readiness for the following morning’s opening time, meanwhile accepting the ‘complimentary’ pints of ale proffered by the publican concerned.

Around midnight I’d lead my squad back to our main gate, report “All’s well” to the officer-of-the-watch, and dismiss the men.

A not too arduous, even quite pleasant duty, was over.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

A Holiday in Southern Iraq:

As close to the fabled Garden of Eden as you can get

Let’s hope Iraq will regain its former reputation for hospitality and its zesty and exquisite food? If efforts to institute a steady democracy of sorts does take root in Iraq then it bodes well for an increased proliferation of four-star restaurants, luxury hotels and exciting boat tours along the legendary rivers of ancient times:

the Euphrates, the Tigris and the Shatt-al-Arab,

All these activities will be especially enhanced if current attempts to bring the legendary marshlands of southern Iraq back into the ecological and economical balance for which they were so highly valued—before being evilly destroyed by a revengeful Saddam Hussein in 1991— are successful. For ever since the birth of our western civilization in this fabled region of Babylon and Ur, the extensive lake and marsh areas have played a major role in providing a variety of wonderful foodstuffs for the country’s culinary gurus and displaying a continuously unfolding panorama of fascinating waterfowl and other bird life.

Thanks to El Rooka, maybe not all is lost.

Because if only the Iraqis can get their act together, southern Iraq may well prove to be THE NEW DECADE’S potential tourist Hot Spot

For here, where the rich, nutrient laden-waters of the combined Euphrates, Tigris and Karun rivers flow swiftly and strongly into the deep blue salt waters at the head of the Persian Gulf, there is a treasure trove of sea food and water bird life.

Shrimp Galore


Much, Much More

Such as—-B-B-Q’d gazelle, duck samoosas, curries, monster-sized meat pies, fresh dates, chapatis, whole lambs-stuffed with whole chickens stuffed with spice-stuffed eggs, charcoal-broiled beef quarters, delicate fish, robust fish, curried fish, deep-fried locusts, wonderful shrimps and a variety of truly neanderthal-style, super-organic vegetables.

Exciting Things to see and do:

• Sinbad the Sailor’s Birthplace

• Biblical sites of Genesis

• Original Garden of Eden

• Old Turkish Empire Fortifications

• Search Basra’s Ancient Suq for Delicate Amara Silver Work,

Gold Slave-Girl bracelets and Jask Carpets

• Dine on Splendid and Exotic Foods





IT’S SIMPLICITY ITSELF — YOU SIMPLY BRING AS MANY HOLES AS YOU MAY REQUIRE WITH YOU AND JUST INSERT THEM INTO THE SAND WHEREVER YOU WANT TO PLAY THEM. (This can realistically be done as the desert surface in southern Iraq is firm and not so mushy and loose as are such sands as the Saharah).



If after some time, for some inexplicable reason, this ultimate golfing opportunity should pall then your Iraqi Dream Travel Vacation may take you close to the coastal waters of El Rooka. Here, one change of activity that may entice you is to set out for some fabulous salt water fishing. For in these waters of mixed fresh and salt one can catch four and five-feet-long, wonderfully-flavoured, Zubaidy fish, which are so named from the Arabic word, ‘zibid’, for butter. Because this prized specimen, one of the succulent pomfret family, not only has delicate yellow-tinged flesh but is imbued with the delightful taste of high-quality butter. In fact much smaller versons of this fish are sold for high prices around the world as ‘butterfish’.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Gentleman’s Literary Section

A rather belated review

of a really wonderful 62-year-old book:

Happily linking nostalgic memories of my active younger days with a still rampant and demanding carnal appetite I must confess to avidly and repeatedly assuaging my physical cravings by intently studying a well- illustrated 850-page book dealing in extreme detail with fullfilling the animal lust for life that has been uppermost in the minds of men, and women, since the very dawn of history.

This hefty, detailed tome, never far from tempting my salivating mind, lips and eyes, was published in 1948.

I refer naturally to:

Good Housekeeping’s Cookery Book.

For me this large volume is a never-ending read. Lyrically full of lauding for lard and suet and quite measurably non metric, it is always close to my hand, to be read almost daily for assistance in my culinary creations or just for purely innocent reading enjoyment. I have had it by my side for decades, during my five years aboard my small survey vessel in Iraq and the Persian Gulf, and then brought over to Canada from UK in 1953 for duty during my years in the Arctic. Today, as always, I am constantly consulting it between dark periods of musing on the state of the world and happily attending to my tankards of ale and tobacco pipes out on my sun deck.

For on every pristine page there is yet a metaphorically - scented reminder of times past, of former kitchen terminology and classical nomenclature for ingredients—all steeply reminiscent of wartime Britain. And all still valid, or even more so in practical terms, as when the pages were typeset by J.W. Vernon & Co. Ltd, St Albans, Hertfordshire, near London, long ago.

Scores of advertisements set throughout the book reflect the tenor of the times, remarking on still lingering wartime scarcities and shortages, but also hinting how increasing availability of materials now meant eager manufacturers could produce more of their wares for sale.

Example: back then in 1948, Geo. Fowler, Lee & Co., Ltd. offered their cooking wares thusly:

By Appointment

Suppliers of Fruit Preserving Appliances to H.M. King George VI.

(Wow! Look at that. I never knew before old KGVI was an avid DIY jam maker, or perhaps a pickled-onion hobbyist),

and stated in their advertisement that:

“Shortages, substitutes and waste make craftsmanship, efficiency and improvements more valued...”

Also in this wonderful book there are lots of classical Brand-Name ads for Oxo, custard powder, furniture polish, etc. Like the colourful one above by the Country Market people:

Yep, this ad epitomizes how well we knew how to live it up in those frugal days. Just get all togged up in your dinner jacket and black tie with your wife in her finest evening dress and jewellery, sit around the dining table with some of your well-to-do friends — and get stuck into a can of high-class peas.

But all-in-all this is the universal cook book, encompassing all other lesser cook books published prior to its issuance, all those since, and all those ensuing in future. It was and is the cookery book supreme.


The Exalted One Speaks

Is he paid by the word?

Barack Obama’s unnecessary and clumsy words

—as reported, December 18 Copenhagen:

“ will not be legally binding, but what it will do is allow for each country to show to the world what they are doing.”

(the underlinings denote my plebeian editing suggestions)

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Have a nice several months

Let’s not clutter up reality

In essence, for all the living organisms, sentient or otherwise, which by either boundless blessing, dictatorial decree or unknown chance, arbitrarily dwell upon our planet Earth, there are only two fundamentally distinct seasons experienced during the annual revolution around our nurturing parent star, the Sun

Those two seasons are: Summer and Winter. Caused by the fact that the earth’s rotational axis tilt, up to a maximum of nearly 24 degrees, leans either into or out of the sun’s warming rays, each for exactly half of our yearly journey around our star. This apportions either greater or lesser solar heat to either the northern or southern hemispheres in semi-annual turn.

Though the two astronomically precise switch-over points between these two leanings occur with split second timing, little else is discernible at the moments of change. Not for minutes, hours, days or sometimes even weeks on either side of these vital occurrences can any definite climatic variation, welcome or undesired, be discernible.

To smooth over these vague and random meteorological periods of uncertainty humans had to invent two other imprecise artificial but useful additional seasons: Spring and Autumn (Fall). Ungoverned by any planetary mathematical positioning they assuage the annoying and usually confused rubbing edges of the more distinctive and reliable Summer-Winter-seasons as they pass from one to the other, and provide pleasingly cultural inspiration to poetry, song, and romantic folklore.

Despite having some fuzzy astronomical definitions, the two handy and nebulous seasons of spring and autumn have sporadic and intermittent ever-changing fluffy edges which may stretch anywhere from mid-March to early June for Spring, and mid-September to mid-November for autumn. Possibly of some interest here, is that my own birthday falls on March 21st, which is regarded by most as the first day of spring. I hasten to add that this little informational snippet is inserted purely as an inconsequential aside and has no ulterior shadow of any other motive. (No, no, no! Really, you shouldn’t have. I just can’t’s quite uncalled for...and unprofessional...but, ok, if you insist...well just this once. So kind).

Anyway, as I was saying, the spring and fall seasons, ungoverned and untidy as they are, still remain essential in helping the good order of our unpredictable annual climatic events.

But there is one thick-headed, cackling band of brothers and sisters whose interpretations in this matter are illogical nonsense. They are the ever-bemused TV-radio-newspaper announcers, writers and editors who, unfailingly, four times every year, disclose to their audiences the same old trite and inaccurate news items they have used for decades and decades past.

“Oh,” they marvel, “look at this. We have frigidly cold weather with three feet of snow yet the official first day of winter is still 26 days away.”

Or they bleat triumphantly, “There is still sixteen days before summer starts officially and yet we have had a heat wave for three days. Quick!. Call Al Gore on the emergency line.”

Admittedly there is a marked temperature time lag which affects the change over from one to the other of the two seasons, much as a kettle of water experiences. But never, when they blithely pronounce the arrival of the ‘official’ start of summer do they remark that from then on the hours of daylight will be decreasing. Nor on the ‘official’ first day of winter do they note that from then on the hours of daylight will be increasing.

Well, these woolly-headed ignorant journalists might be excused their annoying utterances, but the final straw for me was to hear the same meaningless tripe coming from a usually knowledgeable senior meteorologist who hosts the national weather channel on TV.

Let’s leave such blooping utterances to Al Gore and his like.

Friday, December 11, 2009

A reader inquires

Questions appertaining to recent history as asked by enquiring Ough-Zone reader, Imshi Yellah:

Did the Japs tell Hitler they were about to attack Pearl Harbor?

Did Hitler and the Japs make any effort whatever to reduce their carbon footprints?

—did Churchill, Stalin, Mackenzie King, Roosevelt, Holocaust-ovens-boss Himmler, modest Battle of Britain winner Dowding, Bomber Harris, gawky egocentric interfering long streak of unmitigated gall de Gaulle, good old Harry S Truman, evil monster Mao Tse Tung, or super-luscious-heavyweight counterspy Rear Admiral Beatrice Fruitbottom ?

If not, why not?

Were they completely devoid of sensitivity for the environment?

How many of the above were awarded a Nobel Prize for something or other?

Dear faithful reader Imshi Yella:

Thank you for your perceptive probing inquiries, but how the heck would I know. Ask Al Bore, Sarah Fuzuki, David Palin, Whizzo Banana or some other such O-Fay personality or budding super-universe-friendly ayatollah.

Please write again when the urge smites you.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

London’s Liverpool Street Station

A warm, grimy, unforgettable scene of romance

During the 1940s, Liverpool Street Station epitomized Britain at war. Located at the extreme edge of the City of London—as the bustling square mile of the business district is known—Liverpool Street Station serves England's East Anglia and northeastern regions with trains running to such places as Southend-on-Sea (known to most Londoners as Southend-on-Mud), Clacton, Ipswich, Norwich and Cambridge. The station is also the terminus for a web of suburban commuter services.
The station, like much of the rest of wartime England at that time, was wall-to-wall with British, Canadian, Australian, New Zealand, Rhodesian, South African, Indian, Polish, Czechoslovakian, Norwegian and especially, United States military uniforms. With its blitz-battered, high-arched Victorian roofs of soot-smeared glass, rambling cobble-stoned approaches, echoing alleyways, and high connecting footbridges, stairways and galleries, all massively built of open iron work and stout wooden beams and planking, the old station was an unforgettable scene. Combined with shrilly urgent blasts of steam whistles from smoke-belching locomotives, the slamming of carriage doors, cries of busy porters, shouts, curses and laughter of soldiers, sailors and airmen from around the globe, it was a noisy, bustling place.
The silent white faces of loneliness left behind on suddenly deserted departure platforms and the heavy clump of army boots hurrying to meet the eager click-clacking of a young girl's wedge-soled shoes, would often be punctuated by the low thump of bombs aimed at the nearby Thames docks. All this, together with the general smoky, murkiness of the whole, gloomy, partially blacked-out scene, echoed the pathos, romance and adventure that has been part of all the wars that ever were or ever will be.

For the casual convivial and thirsty traveller in those far-off times, there were three points of interest regarding Liverpool Street Station.
Firstly, if arriving or departing by underground train, Liverpool Street tube station was noted (as was Sloane Square) for having a bar right on the platform. This meant one could lean up against it, glass in hand, right up until almost the very last moment before the carriage doors began to slide shut. Secondly, just across Bishopsgate, the street outside the station's east entrance, was Dirty Dick's. This ancient pub is reputed to have inspired Charles Dickens to write the Miss Havisham episode in Great Expectations. The pub earned its name from the legend that a former owner, after being devastated by the death of his sweetheart on the eve of the nuptials, vowed himself to everlasting celibacy, the wedding breakfast to remain for eternity in the room in which it had been set, and the rest of his tavern to perpetual neglect. Luckily, for the customers, by 1939, the essential items in the pub, like glasses, floor and toilets were kept in good order, but the cellar-bar's walls and ceiling were left begrimed and sporting such various gruesome objects as dead cats nailed to the rafters.

The third handy spot for alcoholic refreshment at Liverpool Street, apart from the usual station buffets, was a small tavern or tap room hidden away below one of the wide sets of stairs leading up to the long gallery to the Bishopsgate exit and the portals of the Great Eastern Hotel. It was also conveniently close to the broad set of wide stairs leading down to the cavernous gentlemen's underground toilet. A toilet so large that it could cater to the urgent needs of up to half a battalion of soldiery at the same time.
During the war years, this rough and ready station pub seemed not to have a name. It was just known as 'the pub under the stairs'. Yet it was a good spot, shabby but cozy. A nice handy place to drink good draught beer whilst keeping an eye on one's train standing at a nearby platform. With its sawdust-strewn floor and throngs of service people from around the world, I found it an attractive place to order a half pint of beer and note the shoulder flashes of the cosmopolitan and commonwealth soldiery. Just about to turn eighteen, I revelled in being of that company.

Revisiting Liverpool Street Station after a lapse of twenty years abroad, I noticed some changes. The bar on the underground tube station platform was still there but somewhat more unobtrusive.
Dirty Dick's was flourishing with a nice clean street-level bar and attractive lunchtime food counter. But downstairs in the cellar, all that could be seen from a hasty peek into a darkened interior packed with rockers and ear-splitting sound, was that it could still possibly be the same—in some ways.

The biggest shock was the little pub, 'the pub under the stairs', right in the station proper.
As I turned the corner after crossing the long elevated bridge leading over from the long-distance platforms, which gave an overall birds-eye view of many departure and arrival platforms, and where visiting groups of German schoolgirls were hoisting their knapsacks and taking their first look at London, I inwardly shrank with disappointment at the sight that met my gaze.
Where that little oasis of a pub had been there was nothing but a roughly-boarded up plywood shell.
I looked forlornly at it.
"How long", I asked a nearby porter, "has the pub been closed?"
"Just a couple of weeks, guv." he replied shortly, and walked off with his trolley.
I shed an unseen tear. But, I wasn't particularly devastated. There are other pubs galore in the City. But it did seem a shame that that special little place should have been closed down just weeks before I came back after so long a time away. My murky memories of Liverpool Street Station would never be the same.

Two years later business again took me back to Liverpool Street Station. I walked round the same corner as before and looked sadly over to the site of the old pub.
But! Alleluia! What on earth was that?

Lights! Brilliant brasswork! Gleaming shiny windows, artistically etched with motifs of fruit and grapes, and framed in rich cherry-wood! People holding handsome shiny gin and whisky glasses! Full pints of pumped up draught Bass ale on a polished, gleaming bar!
That railway porter I had spoken to on my last visit had omitted something important. Very important. The little pub had not been closed for good. Just for rebuilding. And what a wonderful job they had made of it—for a change!
Nor was that all. What was that overhead? Hanging near the foot of the long staircase leading up to the massive Great Eastern Hotel. It was a pub sign. With the pub’s name painted on it.
At last the little pub had a name.
I moved forward and looked up. I could see the sign plainly, now. It was a nice colourful painting of some apples. A painting of some apples and some pears.
That's it! Of course! Yes! And there was the name under the picture. What name could be better? What a perfect name for a little pub which has stood so long under those big wide stairs.
It was ideal.
“The Apples and Pears”
—the old Cockney rhyming slang for stairs!

Another long period of years passed before I again visited Liverpool Street Station. It was heartbreaking. The religious men with a twisted Cause, like that one I had met in the bar in Edmonton, Alberta, many years before in 1959, when I was returning from the wilds of Yukon, had done their stupid work.
After their senseless bomb had done its damage, the old station had been gutted and modernized. To a fault. It appeared more like a vast public sombre convenience than a romantic place of meeting and farewell. Its flat expanses of lightly coloured floors and walls, its unnatural fluorescent brightness, its paucity of alcoves, nooks, crannies, garbage containers and any other spots conducive for concealing deadly, and blatantly cowardly, packages, meant that though full of people it was devoid of its former vitality. Deprived of traditional human warmth by barbarian morons. Modern and artificial. Devoid of romance. Stark.
Because, the little pub under the stairs was gone for ever. Replaced by an impersonal modern bar beneath the hotel upstairs. A wide, cheerless, open-concept bar with no dangerous nooks or crannies and with little appeal,.
Bereft of romance.
And memories.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

A Delicate Instrument

Ah-ha! I can hear you all say. What do we have here?

Well, I have to admit I paid 150 smackeroos for it some twenty or more years ago, off an antique dealer’s odds-and-ends table during a sidewalk sale in Carlingwood shopping centre, in Ottawa.

And what it is, is a miniature little gem of a pocket current meter, deigned to measure the speed of the flow of rivers or streams. Being so compact it is well-suited for use by an intrepid wilderness explorer-surveyor. It is obviously, a home-or-handmade current meter. Who made it is a mystery. I’m hoping that by showing its photograph here I may gain a serendipitous insight into its origins.

I have assembled it and it works ok. It is very compact. The box, covered in very thin leather, measures only 9.5” x 4.25” x 1.5”.

The only written legend is the formula, dedicated to this particular instrument, and carefully hand-written in small letters in India ink on a paper glued into the lid of the wooden box which says:


n< v="0.213n"> 0.0689

n >4.3 v=0.548n

When n = number of revolutions of the propeller per sec.

“ v = water velocity in ft per second.

NÂș 1520 (stamped/engraved on frame and rotor)

Yep! She’s a beautiful little gem. In excellent condition. Should be in a museum.