AS A BOY, MY MEMORY IS DIM. BUT FOR A WHILE I TALKED TO HIM. MY GRANDPA WILLY, PLANTING SUNFLOWER SEEDS, TOGETHER, IN SILENCE DISCUSSING HIS DEEDS.
There was one tale that still rings true, of how he met a wandering crew and whilst in Wellington, an incredible man, and this is the tale that I remember from them.
Cold, dark heroism from a world before, highlighted again for all to adore.
The story of Harry McNish and the meeting with my Grandfather, in Wellington, New Zealand, and to share his tales, is the reason that this book exists.
Cold Courage is the story of many, so brave, and how they made it to Cove Cave. On the James Caird on which they came, Shackleton, Worsley, Crean and Wild, Mrs. Chippy is among the remembered names.
From the Clyde Shipyards to the Antarctic shores, Harry McNish made sure of the chores. The tale of a carpenter out at sea, the story of a group of men and what could have been.
This is a tale that I hope you like, a story of great men and I hope you can, memorialize this from a different age and take it to now and to a different page.
These were great heroes in a different age and let this script set the stage.
1929, Port Wellington, New Zealand
12.15 PM: WILLY MITCHELL SENIOR WAS SEEKING A WAY OUT OF GLASGOW AND TO DISTANT SHORES, on his journey of discovery, in New Zealand, he happened upon a homeless man seemingly living rough in the Port of Wellington. Asking for food, and for support, and a fellow Scotsman, Willy Senior, my Grandfather, invited the man in to join him for food and a pint.
They walked the short distance to The Thistle Inn, opened sixty years earlier, on the corner, Mulgrave Street, across from the port, originally Port Nicholson.
Dressed all in white with the distinctive thistle above and the wooden double doors leading into the wooden interior, floor and seating. The pair sat in the corner by the fire, the two Scotsmen suddenly felt back at home. At different levels, at different times of their lives, they both missed home, one more documented than the other.
Willy knew that this man was a person of interest. He knew that this man had a story to tell. He knew that he wanted to spend some time and listen in exchange for a beer or two, some nice warm food and some company. He had been on this journey alone for a while and it was obvious by looking at the homeless man that he had been too.
As they had walked from the port, many had nodded, winked, passed a coin to his new-found friend, Harry McNish.
“Quite the celebrity round here?”
“Aye son. I guess you’re right, sure enough,” He smiled and winked as they took a sip of their first beers.
Willy, dressed in his Stewart Christie & Co, Magee, tweed, three-piece suit, pocket deck watch that his father had given him, Church’s shoes and flat cap. This was the suit he had worn for his wedding ten years earlier, to his wee rose, Margaret Watson, now Maggie Mitchell.
The daughter of a Fruitier, Willy was considered by her father beneath their social ranking, as on Willy’s return from France, after the war, he found himself a job on The Clyde, in the dockyards, steel toe caps and flat caps. They managed to get over their social differences and married at the Gorbals Parish Church in fine glory. One bairn later and another on the way, Willy wanted to get out and find a new life for them.
Harry was dressed in what looked like a British Royal Navy issue peacoat, sailors’ pants, scarf and woolen hat pulled over his white hair atop of his weathered face. The face of a sailor, an adventurer, an explorer.
“To Mrs. Chippy.” Harry announced and raised his glass and a sip of beer.
“Mrs. Chippy.” Willy echoed somewhat bemused.
“Who’s Mrs. Chippy?” Willy asked.
“An old friend of mine son, an old friend.”
The Thistle had a group of a dozen sailors, seemingly just arrived from Australia with their Aussie drawl and their loud beer songs catching the ear and the amusement of Harry as he listened, he watched, and he smiled with a faint glint in his eye.
“Are you an ex-sailor yourself Harry?”
“Aye, you could say that son. A sailor of sorts in times lang gan.”
“What’s your story?” Asked Harry.
“Trying to find a new hame, a new job, family at hame and all.” Pointing to the Wellington Evening Post stuffed in his suit pocket.
“Aye lad, it’s worth a try getting out of that hell hole in Glasgee.”
The waitress arrived at the table with the list of Thistle delights, and they both opted for the Mince n Tatties. An old Glasgow favorite and two more pints of Hancock’s Bitter.
“I’m looking for work and a place to live.”
“I escaped in 14. What sort of work?”
“Worked on the Clyde for a while after I came back from France.”
“I was like you, looking for an escape, got a newspaper, London Times, answered one of those ads.”
“What, like a job ad?”
“Aye, of sorts. Low pay, high danger, no guarantees of return. That sort of thing.”
‘What sort of job was it?”
Harry paused for a moment, took a sip of his beer and looked Willy Senior in the eye, trying to work out if he could trust this young Glaswegian before him.
“Which yard did yer work in?” probed Harry.
“And what’s yer name son?”
“William. William Mitchell. And yers?”
“Harry, Harry McNish.”
The unlikely pair, the young man with ambitions and the old sailor shook hands.
“Nice to meet you William Mitchell.”
“Nice to meet you Harry McNish.”
The waitress arrived with the Mince n Tatties. Stewed minced beef and onions, over peppered to add a bite, fluffy mashed potatoes dolloped on the side. Fork and a spoon and a round of white, buttered bread, perfect.
An apparently local patron of The Thistle walked in, looked straight from work, at the Port and dobbed his merchant seaman’s hat in the direction of Harry and moments later, two more Hancock’s appeared before the pair.
Harry looked up, raised his glass, “Cheers Archie.” He shouted to the other end of the bar. “To Mrs. Chippy.”
“Mrs. Chippy.” Came the response from Archie.
“So, who the fuck is Mrs. Chippy?” Asked Willy Senior.
Harry McNish looked at Willy with a frown. Willy looked back and wondered his error.
“Son. There is no need to curse. The English language has plenty of room for maneuver to avoid the fucks and the cunts and the bollocks.”
Willy looked at Harry and nodded.
“My cat.” Harry looked at Willy as though it was the dumbest question.
“Oh OK.” Willy took a forkful of the meat and potatoes.
“So, where’s the cat now?”
Harry looked at him again, “He’s dead.” Again, Willy felt that somehow, he should have known that answer.
“Well that’s a different story. We thought she was a she until we found out that he was a he! And by that time, it was too late, at least according to Shacks.”
“So, what about this job?”
“Well what was it?”
Harry took a moment to digest his last forkful.
“Sailing to the South Pole.”
Willy looked at him in awe. He had remembered the heroes of the arctic expeditions, Captain Scott, William Bruce, Amundson, Shackleton and the race of the South Pole. He connected the reference to Shacks.
“So, what happened to Mrs. Chippy?”
Harry looked at Willy once more. His eyes lit up like saucers, frantic, like a mad man, for a moment, “He shot my fucking cat!” he announced at the top of his voice for all the bar to hear.
Folks in the bar looked around as Harry calmed down as quickly as he had reacted. Not often had they ever heard Harry curse.
McNish took another mouthful of his meal. It was obvious this was a very sore point for Harry and Willy wouldn’t mention it again, unless he did of course, which apart from his toasts, he never did.
Cold Courage relates back to Willy Mitchell's grandfathers meeting with Harry McNish in Wellington, New Zealand and in exchange for a hot meal and a pint or two, he told his story of The Endurance.
Flipping through the London Times, McNish had come across a classified advertisement for the crew to join a ship's journey to the Antarctic and on to the South Pole. It warned of low wages and high danger and at forty, he decided that he wanted a taste of adventure and set off to London to meet the rest of the newly recruited crew.
On 6th August 1914, The Endurance set sail from Plymouth, England on its way to Buenos Aires, Argentina and meet with the entire 28-man crew.
This is a tale of the great age of exploration and the extraordinary journey that these men endured, not only in Antarctica but upon their return to England amidst the Great War and their legendary lives thereafter.
This is the story of Harry McNish and although set in a different era, continues the ARGUS series and a homage to those brave men and women who go to extraordinary lengths to achieve their goals.
About the Author
Willy Mitchell was born in Glasgow, Scotland. He spent a lot of time in bars as a kid growing up, in his youth and into adulthood. He always appreciated the stories. Some true, some imagination and some delusional. But these stories are true. Willy Mitchell was there!
A shipyard worker, he headed down from Scotland to Yorkshire with his family to work in the steel mills of Yorkshire. He retired and turned to writing some of the tales that he had listened to over all those years and focused on bringing those stories to life.