Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Short Story: “Passing the Needles”

Don’t prick me with a needle. There’s no need to wake me. I finally get it.

For years a rare print hung in my basement - in poor light, and definitely under-appreciated. Only last week did I place it upon the fireplace mantel (while my wife wasn’t looking) and subsequently discover its real value.

[“Cunard Line, Canadian Services, circa 1920s”]

My father gave it to me at least 20 years ago and one friend of mine loved it so much (“Love at first sight,” he told me) he stole it from my house one evening - as a joke - and once caught tried to make me swear to make him the beneficiary of the print in my will. I told him ‘No’, feeling it must be worth something. 

[“Heading west passed The Needles”]

Resting upon the mantel, the ‘two-stacker’ appears to be travelling west toward my dining room, and while researching the print’s title (‘PASSING THE NEEDLES’) I learned the Cunard ship is in fact travelling west into the English Channel from the north side of the Isle of Wight, UK. It’s very likely heading toward the Atlantic Ocean, destined for Halifax or Montreal, Canada.

And I feel now, having learned more about The Needles and the Isle of Wight, and more about my father’s adventures during World War II, I know why my father immediately felt connected to it when he first saw it inside the train station in his home town.

My father began work at the Norwich Co-op in the west end of Norwich (situated near the station) in the late 1930s or early 1940s at about twenty years of age, and retired from the job in the mid-1970s. During that time he took one leave of absence, from 1941 to 1945, and travelled to many unsettling parts of the world with the Royal Canadian Navy Volunteer Reserve (RCNVR).  

 ["Norwich Co-op fire, 1989.”: photo by V. Whitcroft]

After the train station closed he asked someone if he could have it, and shortly thereafter received it. To my knowledge, no money changed hands. And, as far as I can recall, shortly after he gave it to me I stripped off several coats of white paint from the frame, exposed the words ‘Cunard Line,’ felt it might be worth a few dollars someday, and hung it - none too proudly, I suppose - in my basement.

(A Cunard match book came with it, and according to the internet the match book is worth about 6 pounds 50p, whatever that is).

Once I’d placed the print upon my living room mantel I asked myself, “What prompted him to think he must have it?” And since that day I’ve discovered there may be several answers.

In 1942, while with the RCNVR, father sailed from a training base in Scotland to Southhampton, England on the Ennerdale. Between Milford Haven, Wales and Cowes, Isle of Wight the ship was attacked by German planes. 

About the attack my father writes the following:

     “Eight German JU 88s came from the east, took position in the sun and attacked us from the stern. It was perhaps between eight and nine o’clock because I had undressed and climbed into my hammock next to Stoker Fred Alston. When the Klaxon went everybody hit the deck and tried to dress, and being the largest ship, we knew we were in for it.” (pg 19, “DAD, WELL DONE”: Navy Memoirs of Doug Harrison)

While scrambling to find his socks and sweater, father might have thought back to the words told him by one of the ship’s crew a day or two earlier. “I wish we weren’t going on this ship, matey,” said the crew member, and when father asked why he was told, “‘cause we got a bloody basinful last time!”

In his memoirs father adds, “we got our basinful this time too.” 

He also writes the following:

     “I got my socks on, put my sweater on backwards and got the suspenders on my pants caught on the oil valves. I was hurrying like hell and nearly strangled myself - scared to death. They needed an extra gunner so L. Campbell of London, Ontario (later to die of wounds suffered at Dieppe) said, “Let me at him.” 

     “The bombs came - and close. They really bounced us around. The gun crew on the foc’sle of the ship was knocked clear off the gun by the concussion and fell but were only bruised. 

     “The attack was short and sweet but it seemed an eternity. A near miss had buckled our plates and we lost all our drinking water. I ventured out on deck immediately and picked up bomb shrapnel as big as your fist. I noticed the deck was covered with mud from the sea bottom. I kept the shrapnel as a souvenir along with many other items I had but, alas, they were all lost in Egypt.

     “We arrived at Cowe [sic] the next day with everyone happy to be alive and still shaking. It indeed had been a basinful. Incidentally, two German 88s were shot down. Norm Mitchison of Niagara Falls was credited with two planes shot down during the course of the war; one at Dieppe and one at Sicily. Both were low flying bombers. His weapon was a strip Lewis .303. (pg. 19 - 20, “DAD, WELL DONE”)

Having read father’s story carefully I wouldn’t be surprised if somewhere in the Niagara Falls area there is a member of Norm Mitchison’s family with a replica of ‘a strip Lewis .303’ hanging over a fireplace. (Okay, maybe not over the fireplace, but in a handy spot where it could be pointed out to others while a story was told about it.)

["The Needles are pieces of chalk cliff, Isle of Wight"]

I also would not be surprised by the story my father could tell - if he was here - about ‘Passing The Needles’ and what it meant to him when he saw it hanging inside a train station in his hometown several years after the war had ended.

The print would have surely reminded him of the time he reached safety after experiencing his first air attack. He would likely have saluted each of The Needles in turn as they came into view, and at the same time felt ever so happy to see dry land, and friendly, well-protected land, as the Isle of Wight was home to a Polish destroyer (at Cowes) in 1942.

As well, the print of The Needles, situated in the English Channel, would serve as a reminder of so many other events and adventures he’d experienced (directly and indirectly) on or near the shores of the channel during his time overseas. 

For example:

The loss of friends at Dieppe, 1942

Training at HMS Westcliff, at Southend-On-Sea, 1942

The voyage through the Channel to North Africa, 1942

His friendship with Gracie Purvis of Croydon, Southend-On Sea, 1942

The Top-Hat Pub and many more, Southend-On Sea and London, 1942 and 1943

The voyage through the Channel to South Africa, 1943

The voyage through the Channel to and from Sicily and Italy, 1943

I think finding and bringing home the Cunard print was a good deed on my father’s part. Though he lost shrapnel and his other war-time souvenirs in Egypt, he perhaps found a fitting replacement a hundred steps away from his peacetime workplace.

The print not only looks ‘smashing’ atop my mantel, it infuses life into many of father’s 70-year-old adventures and subsequent stories as well. And some of them I finally understand. 
[Photos by GH]


The Needles are the western most point of the Isle of Wight and are a series of chalk stacks which protrude into the sea at the end of which is a lighthouse. Nearby is Alum Bay, which is home of the famous coloured sand... The sea around the Needles was notorious for shipwrecks. The first lighthouse was built in 1785 on top of the downs, the current one during from the 1850's. Photo and more information @ Alum Bay and The Needles.


Please click here to read another story connected to the Isle of Wight

Please click here to read another story connected to Dad’s Navy Days

Monday, November 5, 2012

Short Story: Gord’s Top Ten - "Canadian Railroad Trilogy"

Don’t mess with the navvies

Many years ago for Christmas my older son compiled some of my favourite songs onto a CD. "Canadian Railroad Trilogy" by Gord Lightfoot starts it off, and because the CD is in my workshop and this is birdhouse-building season, I listen to the song almost everyday. I never tire of it. After a ‘shed night’ (def.: when friends and I sip ‘Pepsis’ for an hour or two in my shop) I’ll listen to it, sometimes repeatedly, while I put chairs away and sweep peanuts off the floor. 

Here are some of my favourite lines:

We are the navvies who work upon the railway
Swinging our hammers in the bright blazing sun
Living on stew and drinking bad whiskey
Bending our backs til the long days are done.

We are the navvies who work upon the railway
Swinging our hammers in the bright blazing sun
Laying down track and building the bridges
Bending our backs til the railroad is done.

(Listen to the full 1967 version here)

In my mind it is a magnificent song from beginning to end. It takes me across Canada upon iron rails and a fine melody. And all along the way I see and hear and feel the work done by the navvies with their heavy, swingin’ hammers.

At wikipedia I read the following:

The "Canadian Railroad Trilogy" is a song by Gordon Lightfoot that describes the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway. This song was commissioned by the CBC for a special broadcast on January 1, 1967, to start Canada's Centennial year... In the first section, the song picks up speed like a locomotive building up a head of steam.

While Lightfoot's song echoes the optimism of the railroad age, it also chronicles the cost in sweat and blood of building "an iron road runnin' from the sea to the sea." The slow middle section of the song is especially poignant, vividly describing the efforts and sorrows of the nameless and forgotten navvies whose manual labour actually built the railway. (Wikipedia)

 [“Canadian Prairies fly by, April 2012”: Photo by GH]

[“Sunset on the Prairies”: Photo by GH]

And who are the navvies? Here is what I know.

In my own experience I’ve only come across the word once in the many books I’ve read over my lifetime, and I discovered it recently (thus the posts about it) in a book entitled ‘The Day We Went to War’.

I read the following:

Those in the civilian army of the Air Raid Precautions responsible for enforcing the blackout, especially air-raid wardens with their cry ‘Put that light out!’, soon became targets for the public’s pent-up fury and frustration (e.g., re black-outs... A Bradford navvy was of the opinion that ‘Three quid a week’s too much for just playing cards and such-like for them buggers... And if they say  they’ve homes to keep and they’ve themselves to feed, I’d make them live in barracks.’ (pg. 334 - 335)

Well, there you go. Don’t mess with the navvies, eh.

More information isn’t hard to find. 

For example: 

A "navvy" depicted in Ford Madox Brown’s painting ‘Work Navvy’ is a shorter form of navigator (UK) or navigational engineer (USA) and is particularly applied to describe the manual labourers working on major civil engineering projects. The term was coined in the late 18th century in Britain when numerous canals were being built, which were also sometimes known as "navigations", or "eternal navigations", intended to last forever. (

[“We are the navvies... swingin’ our hammers”: Canadian Encyclopedia]

As well, the Canadian Encyclopedia serves as another source of information about navvies: 

Almost every leading figure connected with the building of the CPR has been immortalized in a Canadian place-name... The top dogs had mountain peaks named for them or in the case of Cornelius Van Horne, a whole mountain range. But what about the men who actually built the railway? Where are their names recorded, except on tombstones along the way?

The railway navvies were a mixed lot. Charles Peyton who walked down one stretch of track looking for work saw a band of Italians at one spot and a team of Englishmen a few kilometers later. He met a scholar who could speak and write Greek, a surgeon from Montreal and a pastor from Chicago. Generally, though, Peyton found the men to be a rough lot with ill manners and disagreeable mouths. They were there for the $2.00 to $2.50 a day, which was good pay for the time. [The Canadian Encyclopedia]

And yesterday a friend dropped off - unbeknownst to him, in such a timely fashion - a copy of The Rocky Mountaineer Mile Post. I quickly learned that some navvies (from China, by way of the USA) worked for half price and worked in extremely dangerous conditions, as can be seen in the last line of the highlighted paragraph below.

The last line of Lightfoot’s song pays tribute to the navvies, and, as of yet, I don’t know of another song that does.

"Canadian Railroad Trilogy" is inGord’s Top Ten’ for many reasons, and now you know some of them.

[“Sunset on the Prairies”: Photo by GH]


Perhaps you know of another song that mentions the navvies. Please let me know.  

Please click here to read another short story