I died in 1988

nde-blog

 I AM not frightened of death… I have already died.

And it was beautiful.

My death all happened one bright day in May 1988…

“Tell me how it feels?”

It was my mother’s voice; there was no mistaking that. I struggled to say something but a dryness in my throat allowed only a smile.

She clenched my left hand.

Beyond her the ward clock reported 9.30.

I drifted back to sleep.

Sometime later I again opened my eyes.

Mother’s own eyes brightened and, as if from her mouth, I heard my father ask: “How is it son?”

I was surprised. I managed to reply: “Fine, but I can’t move.”

The ward clock betrayed 10.10.

“Is that all it is?” I asked looking up at the wall, knowing that I had been led to the operating table at 8.30am.

“It’s 10pm,” my father replied.

I gagged… why had I been out for more than 13 hours?

Over the next three days my parents, surgeons and nursing staff gradually outlined to me the most telling day of my life: a day when surgeons worked tirelessly to remove two thirds of my right lung and repair a damaged aortic artery.

It was an operation plagued with difficulty and twice they thought they had lost me. But working straight through, they never gave up and used finely honed skills to take away the cancer and repair my body.

So what of my own memories…

I recall being taken down to theatre that morning, laughing and joking with the trolley porter and nurse. Whether the personal euphoria was due to unreleased fear or the pre-med tablet I had been given some hour earlier, I will never know.

I also recall being administered the drugs to send me to sleep for the duration of the operation. Again, my memory is that of lightness and love.

I also have vague recollections of waking from the operation momentarily around 1pm that day, seeing my parents’ faces above me, and then coughing violently.

It was that cough that tore the stitching between my aortic artery and the remaining lobe of my right lung.

And within seconds my chest cavity began filling with blood as my lung collapsed and my heart went into overdrive.

I was enveloped by dazzling white light and warmth. Faces swirled above me and I looked down on my own prostate body on the hospital bed.

I was drifting.

Meanwhile, surgeons, doctors and nurses fought to save my life.

Apparently I died for 16 minutes and there was no pain, no fear, no despair.

Instead, it was a rebirth of life and spirit.

The physical aspects of my rebirth have been a boring gain in weight and seasonal hay fever, which I had never suffered from previously.

But the psychological changes have been manifest: no care for a career or future, dazzling vocal dreams, spiritual awakening, ESP and hours of deep thinking.

My own NDE (Near-Death Experience) changed me forever.

According to experts, such experiences may encompass a variety of sensations including detachment from the body, feelings of levitation, total serenity, security, warmth, the experience of absolute dissolution, and the presence of a light.

Neuroscience research suggests that an NDE is a subjective phenomenon resulting from “disturbed bodily multisensory integration” that occurs during life-threatening events.

NDEs are also a recognized part of some transcendental and religious beliefs in an afterlife, dating back to the ancient Egyptians and Greeks.

Natasha Tassell-Matamua of Massey University, New Zealand, says that 20 percent of cardiac arrest survivors and between four and nine percent of the general public are estimated to have had an NDE.

“Those reporting NDEs often describe a profound psychological event that is mystical, transcendental, or even spiritual in nature; where the boundaries between space, time, and normal perceptual awareness become blurred,” she says.

Some who have survived an NDE describe an “out-of-body” experience and have been able to accurately describe resuscitation efforts.

Others have described seeing a bright light at the end of a tunnel, strange and other-worldly landscapes, or claim to have seen their lives flash before their eyes.

Now it has all been brought amazingly to life by the magic of TV.

Netflix’s drama series The OA, is a dizzying tale of Near-Death Experiences and inter-dimensional travel seen through the eyes of a once blind woman.

The series follows Prairie – a woman who lost her sight as a child, went missing aged 21, and returned seven years later able to see again.

As the series progresses, Prairie tells the story of how she ran away from her adoptive family to find her Russian father, only to be captured and experimented on by a scientist obsessed with Near-Death Experiences.

She explains that along with her fellow captives, she was killed over and again in a drowning machine to induce NDEs.

Brit Marling, who plays Prairie and co-wrote the show, said she first came up with the idea after speaking to a young woman who had experienced an NDE.

“When she described her experience, I was really riveted by the idea,” she says.

“She described leaving her body and the sensation of being above herself. 

“All concerns and preoccupations went away and the only thing that remained in her mind was this question: ‘Did I tell the people I love enough how much I love them?’ 

“It became that simple. Then she rocketed back into her body. 

“When you meet this woman, she has a kind of vividness and self-possession and ferocity that’s uncanny. It seemed like she’s really in control of her life.”

Researchers have identified the common elements that define Near-Death Experiences.

Although the features of NDEs vary from one case to the next, common traits that have been reported by NDErs are:

  • A sense/awareness of being dead.
  • A sense of peace, well-being and painlessness. Positive emotions. A sense of removal from the world.
  • An out-of-body experience. A perception of one’s body from an outside position. Sometimes observing medical professionals performing resuscitation efforts.
  • A “tunnel experience” or entering a darkness. A sense of moving up, or through, a passageway or staircase.
  • A rapid movement toward and/or sudden immersion in a powerful light (or “Being of Light”) which communicates with the person.
  • An intense feeling of unconditional love and acceptance.
  • Encountering “Beings of Light”, “Beings dressed in white”, or similar. Also, the possibility of being reunited with deceased loved ones.
  • Receiving a life review, commonly referred to as “seeing one’s life flash before one’s eyes”.
  • Receiving knowledge about one’s life and the nature of the universe.
  • Approaching a border, or a decision by oneself or others to return to one’s body, often accompanied by a reluctance to return.
  • Suddenly finding oneself back inside one’s body.
  • Connection to the cultural beliefs held by the individual, which seem to dictate some of the phenomena experienced in the NDE and particularly the later interpretation thereof.

The NDE stages have been noted for their similarity to the so-called hero’s journey in literature. Kenneth Ring (1980) subdivided the NDE on a five-stage continuum:

  1. Peace
  2. Body separation
  3. Entering darkness
  4. Seeing the light
  5. Entering the light

He stated that 60 percent experienced stage 1 (feelings of peace and contentment), but only 10 percent experienced stage 5 (“entering the light”).

Instead, they reported dream-like or hallucinatory scenarios.

These mental experiences ranged from terrifying to blissful.

Others, however, experienced the opposite sensation, with 22 percent reporting “a feeling of peace or pleasantness”.

Heightened senses, a distorted perception of the passage of time and a feeling of disconnection from the body were also common sensations that survivors reported.

So are NDEs real and is there an after-life?

The Enlightenment was an intellectual movement which dominated the world of ideas in Europe in the 18th century.

It included a range of ideas centred on reason as the primary source of authority and legitimacy, and came to advance ideals like liberty, progress, tolerance, fraternity, constitutional government, and separation of church and state.

The Enlightenment was marked by an emphasis on the scientific method and reductionism along with increased questioning of religious orthodoxy – an attitude captured by the phrase Sapere aude, “Dare to know”.

Yet, despite this mass expansion of education and reasoning, a nine-year-old child in 21st century Britain acquired more knowledge in one term at school than the average person did during an entire lifetime in the 18th century.

My great grandmother was born in 1875 and died in 1970, aged 95.

During her lifetime she saw the first motor car, manned flight, the discovery of penicillin, the development of the Atom bomb, the first satellites, and even man landing on the moon.

But she died before HIV/Aids, microwave ovens, home computers, colour television, the Space Shuttle and the International Space Station, routine heart and lung transplants, cloning, cures for many cancers, CCTV, mobile phones and the internet.

Our knowledge is ever-expanding and whether you are a rationalist or existentialist, there is still so much about life and our universe which we have yet to understand.

But one thing is certain…I died, but now I am alive.

 

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Words for Friends #13

This is part of a new series of blogs entitled Words for Friends, in which I will try to acknowledge some people in my life for whom words of thanks are not nearly enough.

These living epitaphs to my true and lovely friends are published in a random order as fancy takes me.

#13 Ann

Ann is the type of friend who comes into your life just once.

We first met 30 years ago while I was in hospital undergoing radiotherapy, following surgery for a malignant cancer to my right shoulder.

It was in so many ways “true love”… for while my first wife visited me just twice in my 10 weeks (my cancer ensured our marriage, which was already on the rocks, was over) in Velindre Hospital, Cardiff; Ann was with me every day. She was my saving grace, and a real-life Angel.

As a nurse she tended my mundane daily needs and dressed the slowly healing flap and skin grafts, which the surgeons had used to repair my shoulder and back. She also treated the suppurating skin on my neck and shoulder, caused by the radiation burns, ensured I took painkillers and sleeping tablets, and listened quietly to my fears and growing angst about my uncertain future.

We maintained close contact after I left Velindre, and she visited me regularly, when I was readmitted to another Cardiff hospital in April 1988, after the cancer spread to my right lung.

At this time the oncologists gave me a 1 in 10 chance of surviving five years. Yet Ann stayed close by, checking on my welfare by letter and phone almost every week. Her love was immense.

When my marriage finally ended, Ann and I enjoyed an all-too-short romantic relationship. She regularly told me that my horrendously scarred body was “beautiful” and urged me to “keep living”.

But, when I moved to Scotland in the winter of 1990, the geographical distance between us (this was before the days of email and mobile phones) meant we lost touch.

Seemingly forever.

Then suddenly, 26 years later, and thanks to the blue and white monster called Facebook; we found each other again.

We now maintain touch and banter by email, as if time had stood still.

Life and relationships for both of us have moved on.

But, Ann is, and remains, one of my most important and lovely friends and I genuinely do, owe my life to her!

 

Death, Where is Thy Sting?

My death waits like an old roue’

So confident, I’ll go his way

Whistle to him and the passing time

My death waits like a Bible truth

At the funeral of my youth

Are we proud for that and the passing time?

My death waits like a witch at night

As surely as our love is right

Let’s not think about the passing time

But whatever lies behind the door

There is nothing much to do

Angel or devil, I don’t care

For in front of that door there is you

 

My death waits there among the leaves

In magician’s mysterious sleeves

Rabbits and dogs and the passing time

My death waits there among the flowers

Where the blackest shadows, blackest shadows cowers

Let’s pick lilacs for the passing time

My death waits there in a double bed

Sails of oblivion and my head

So pull up your sheets against the passing time

But whatever lies behind the door

There is nothing much to do

Angel or devil, I don’t care

For in front of that door there is You

(Jacques Brel)

 

THE death of my father hit me hard.

I held his hand and gazed into his eyes as he drew his last breath.

It is a moment in time that I will never forget.

It is now more than seven years since that moment.

My dad was part of me and I part of him in every way. He is never far from my thoughts and often inhabits my dreams.

He was not the perfect man, but he was my father and the best there ever was. He taught me so much about optimism, overcoming setbacks and being myself… and much more about living.

He left his mark on this Earth and, yes, he lived.

And then there was Andrea.

At 21, she was the sweetest and most funny girl I had ever met and we quickly became inseparable soul mates, while we both battled cancer together during the winter of 1987.

Racked in pain, with Ewing’s Sarcoma, a bone cancer – diagnosed while she was on a walking holiday in France – she knew her chances of survival were slim.

“But I’m going to fight it,” she urged, willing me to do the same. “I haven’t yet got my degree, I haven’t learned to drive… and I’m still a virgin.

“I want to live a bit before I die.”

She did.

But that did not dull the agony when three years later, in May 1990, our mutual friend David and I stood together and shared heart wrenching tears at her funeral.

For me, my memories of Andrea always remain, and has often been my driving force to live.

Her smile and her laughter as she beat me in a physiotherapy game of football in the hospital gym, where she was only allowed to use her right leg and I only my arm. At the end of the game we collapsed side by side on the floor guffawing at how silly all this was.

Then there was the Wednesday night visit to the local rugby club for a game of bingo and a half pint of beer. We walked slowly back to the hospital hostel at 10pm. She rested her head on my shoulder as we walked and suddenly whispered: “I love you Nic… we are going to win, aren’t we?”

I kissed her forehead and answered: “Of course we will.”

A year before her death I visited Andrea again in a hospital in Birmingham, where she had undergone a hip replacement operation in a last attempt by surgeons to remove the seat of her cancer.

I sat and clenched her right hand and looked into her sparkling eyes.

I giggled: “Hey, you’ve got freckles and hair!”

“Yes,” she answered, “I have been off chemotherapy for three months now to build up my strength for the op’.”

I had only known Andrea as a tall, underweight, pale-faced girl stooped under a horrendous NHS wig, which at times made her look like an extra in the Addams Family.

But now, holding her hand, this was how I was going to remember her.

I have faced the death of family and close friends quite a few times over the years.

The grief is always immeasurable, and in recent years some of those deaths were untimely and shocking.

And as I look at my ageing mum – still an inspiration at 85 years old – and in the mirror at myself, I realise that time never stands still.

I could have died a few times – twice from cancer, once in a high speed car crash and more recently from a vicious assault which left me minutes from the end.

But I am still here and age defines me.

As it does for all of us.

So we live our lives as constructively as we can, seeking happiness and pleasure, loving and caring, and at times grieving.

But always knowing that our own time is limited.

I recall two sets of lines from that wonderful movie Dead Poets Society.

The late Robin Williams, playing the role of school teacher John Keating, teaches his charges of the essence of life: “We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race.

“And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for… that you are here – that life exists, and identity; that the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse.

“That the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. What will your verse be?”

And later, turning to fading sepia school photos of students taken decades earlier, he reminds them of the passing time and the brevity of life: “They’re not that different from you, are they? Same haircuts. Full of hormones, just like you. Invincible, just like you feel.

“The world is their oyster. They believe they’re destined for great things, just like many of you, their eyes are full of hope, just like you. Did they wait until it was too late to make from their lives even one iota of what they were capable?

“Because, you see gentlemen, these boys are now fertilizing daffodils. But if you listen real close, you can hear them whisper their legacy to you. Go on, lean in. Listen, you hear it? Carpe – hear it? Carpe, carpe diem, seize the day boys, make your lives extraordinary.”

We should all make our own lives extraordinary.

But death is shocking.

And somehow when someone famous dies we immerse ourselves in a communal grief which is sometimes shared across the globe.

Yesterday, another celebrity and amazing musician,  Prince suddenly died. His body was found in a lift at his home in the Paisley Park Estate in the USA.

He was only 57 years-old, and the world began to mourn.

Some 20 years ago, I remember feeling a deep sadness when two of my musical heroes died.

Mick Ronson was a guitar virtuoso who succumbed to liver cancer in 1993, aged just 47. And former Small Faces bass player and singer songwriter Ronnie Lane died from MS in 1997, aged 51.

But these were the days before the internet, so my grief for them was private and personal.

But that was to change.

The death of pioneering rock musician Lou Reed in October 2013, hit me harder than I might have expected.

But this time I was able to share my grief through Facebook, Twitter and email.

And that grief was world-wide and genuine.

At 16 years-old I came to Lou Reed via David Bowie, or to be more exact, his 1971 album, Hunky Dory and the track Queen Bitch with its overt references to his former band The Velvet Underground.

So when his album Transformer was released in November that year I rushed out to buy it, without ever hearing a track.

Two weeks later I was the proud owner of a compilation LP called The Best of the Velvet Underground.

I became a lifetime fan of Lou Reed and rate his 1973 album Berlin and his 1989 album New York as two of the greatest rock albums ever produced by anyone. His later album Magic and Loss is, in my opinion, one of the most moving single pieces of music and poetry ever produced.

I mourned his death with real tears.

Tears shared by millions across the globe.

Just five months later, in March 2014, the death of my political hero Tony Benn, hit me even harder.

At the time he was the last truly great parliamentary socialist, and a man of courtesy, decency, principle, integrity and vision.

And he was a true hero of mine.

During my years as a newspaper journalist I was fortunate enough to interview Tony three times, and each interview was a joy.

And I have another reason for loving Tony Benn.

In 1994, 43 MPs signed an Early Day Motion in the House of Commons praising my year-long investigation into the link between the test firing of depleted uranium tank shells and local clusters of cancer.

The same tank shells provided a link to Gulf War Syndrome in the first Gulf War.

Some of my political heroes signed that EDM including Alan Simpson, Ken Livingstone and Dennis Skinner. But the sixth signature on that motion was Tony Benn. His name next to mine was like a personal shield of honour.

A treasure I will keep till my own grave.

Tony was true fighter for ordinary working people from the moment he was elected an MP in 1950.

Later in life he became a folk hero as well as a campaigner for a number of causes, particularly opposition to UK military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan and for the liberation of Palestine.

My grief for his passing was deep and I still often dig out YouTube videos of some of his amazing parliamentary speeches.

But I guess nothing prepared me for the morning of Monday 11 January this year.

I woke as usual at 6am and like millions of others across the world I was presented with news I never expected to happen: my musical hero David Bowie was dead.

I was stunned, heartbroken and gutted. I honestly thought David Bowie was immortal… he had been part of my life for 44 years.

He wasn’t just the Man Who Sold the World, he was an Earthling who pulled every one of us into the Quicksand of his thoughts and music.

Actor Simon Pegg tried to put his death into perspective, saying: “If you’re sad today, just remember the world is over 4 billion years old and you somehow managed to exist at the same time as David Bowie.”

Three months have now passed and a passing thought is just how many of Bowie’s sidemen and close musicians have also died: the aforementioned Mick Ronson, Trevor Bolder, Lou Reed, Luther Vandross, Ralph MacDonald, Sean Mayes and Steve Strange… what a heavenly band.

It now seems rare for a week to pass without a significant celebrity death being reported – from David Bowie in the second week of January, to actor Alan Rickman a week later, to comedian Victoria Wood and now Prince.

So is this wave of celebrity deaths the new normal?

The BBC’s obituary editor Nick Serpell today said that the number of significant deaths this year has been “phenomenal”.

Nick prepares obituaries for BBC television, radio and online, that run once a notable person’s death is confirmed.

The number of his obituaries used across BBC outlets in recent years has leaped considerably.

It’s a jump from only five between January and late March 2012 to a staggering 24 in the same period this year – an almost five-fold increase.

And that’s before counting some of the notable deaths in April, including American singer Merle Haggard, the former drug smuggler Howard Marks and this week’s two notable departures.

Here in the UK, the Daily Telegraph maintains a gallery of famous people who have died, and updates it throughout the year.

Up to this time in 2014, the number of those in the gallery was 38. By this time last year, the number of people in the gallery was 30. This year, the number is already 75.

At the beginning of every year, the website deathlist.net lists 50 celebrities it believes may pass away that year. In six of the last 10 years, two or fewer of its predictions had come true by this time – this year, five names have died so far.

So why has death’s sting become so much sharper?

There are a few reasons, explains Nick Serpell.

“People who started becoming famous in the 1960s are now entering their 70s and are starting to die,” he says.

“There are also more famous people than there used to be,” he says. “In my father or grandfather’s generation, the only famous people really were from cinema – there was no television.

“Then, if anybody wasn’t on TV, they weren’t famous.”

Many of those now dying belonged to the so-called baby-boom generation, born between 1946 and 1964, that saw a huge growth in population. In the US for example, the census bureau said that 76 million people in 2014 belonged to the baby boomer generation – some 23% of the population.

Here in the UK, people aged 65 or older make up almost 18% of the population – a 47% increase on forty years ago.

With more babies born into the baby-boom generation, it meant more went on to eventually become famous.

Now, those famous former babies, aged between 70 and 82, are dying.

The age-bracket 65 to 69 is the one, in England and Wales for example, where death rates really start to increase – some 14.2 per 1,000 men in that age bracket died in 2014, compared with 9.4 per 1,000 in the 60 to 64 age bracket.

Among the major deaths this year, many – including Prince (57), Alan Rickman (69), David Bowie (69) and Victoria Wood (62) – were baby-boomers.

Another factor that may play into the impression that more celebrities are dying is that we have heard of more celebrities than before.

“Over the past 10 years, social media has played a big part,” says Nick Serpell.

These days, it is far easier to hear news of whether anyone has died than at any time in the past.

“Over the next 10 years, these people will get into their 80s and it is going to continue at this level,” adds Nick Serpell.

“And that doesn’t count the surprise deaths, when people die that shouldn’t.”

My death waits like a Bible truth…

So pull up your sheets against the passing time

For whatever lies behind the door

There is nothing much to do

Angel or devil, I don’t care

For in front of that door there is You

 

Suppression of the Truth: Depleted Uranium – The Deadly Killer

DU tank

IT all began in September 1992, when as a newly ensconced chief reporter at the Galloway Gazette – a weekly newspaper in South West Scotland – I began investigating a report into high levels of radiation in the local waters of the Solway Firth.

At the time, the worrying measurements of Caesium 137 and Americium 241 – a decay product of Plutonium – were ascribed to radioactive waste from the Sellafield Nuclear Reprocessing Plant across the Firth in Cumbria.

Over the winter of 1992-93 I ran a small campaign in our newspaper to investigate these high levels of radioactivity in our sea water.

Then in February 1993 I stumbled across a report to Dumfries and Galloway Regional Council which claimed that the radiation from Sellafield could be responsible for “excess” incidences of leukaemia in our local area.

The report by medical consultant Dr James Chalmers said radiation exposure was of ‘particular concern’ to people in the region, because of the proximity of Sellafield and a nuclear power station at Chapelcross, near Dumfries.

“The main conclusion is that there appears to be a higher than expected incidence of acute leukaemia in Dumfries and Galloway,” he said.

“And some areas have markedly higher than expected incidences. These include areas where there is concern about high exposure to radiation – Kirkcudbright and Chapelcross. In some areas recorded incidences are twice the expected level for those areas.”

While the local Conservative MP Ian Lang gave public assurances that the “levels of radiation on the Galloway coast pose no threat to public health”, both the regional council and the four district councils demanded a closer investigation.

Like a terrier with a bone my journalistic mind kicked in, and I could scent an ongoing newspaper campaign.

By the end of the month, nuclear experts and spokespeople for Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace claimed that both BNFL (the operators of Sellafield) and the Government were “covering up” the true levels of local radiation and the risks to public health.

Dr Patrick Green – who had conducted detailed research for Friends of the Earth – said the Government testing of critical groups of local fish eaters had underplayed the levels of radiation uptake by more than half.

By April 1993, Alex Smith, the Labour Euro MP for South West Scotland was calling on Ian Lang (who was also the Secretary of State for Scotland) to speak out on the contamination from Sellafield.

My campaign into shedding light on the radiation threat to the Galloway coast ran and rumbled throughout the spring and summer of 1993 and by August it was receiving attention from local radio and Scottish national newspapers.

But nothing prepared me for what was to happen next.

Local resident Teresa Spurling, who was worried about the radiation levels in her local sands at Cumstoun, near Kirkcudbright, was one of many who contacted me.

Teresa, who lost her four-year-old daughter Alix with a rare combination of cancers 16 months earlier, was campaigning vigorously for more attention to be paid to the high levels of radiation in the area where her daughter once played.

She pointed accusingly at the contamination from Sellafield but also at the test firing of depleted uranium (DU) artillery shells into the sea from the MoD base at Dundrennan – some eight miles from her home.

“I have come to know so many children who have cancer along this stretch of coast,” she said, before showing me a list of local children who had died from cancer within the previous eight years.

My senses were heightened. Not only did I not realise that there was at MoD base at Dundrennan, but what the hell were they doing firing radioactive shells into the local coastal waters?

Quickly my campaign into a link between radioactive contamination of our coastline and cancer clusters took on a new dimension as we gradually managed to expose years of test firing of these DU shells into the Solway Firth and their link to local cancer clusters – particularly childhood leukaemia.

Public anger over what was perceived as a Government cover-up of the test firing grew by the week and fuelled dozens of questions in the House of Commons plus reports by the national press and BBC’s Panorama TV programme.

By late October the MoD had invited me and other journalists to visit the Dundrennan firing range. In an effort to placate the feral press we were briefed by smartly uniformed senior ranks that the DU shells posed no threat to health and everything was “above board”.

But this sugar-coated PR attempt was ruined in the afternoon when at a public briefing by Secretary of State for Defence Jonathan Aitken and his PPS Stephen Milligan, the public concern and blame was wholly turned on the “local press” (ie me). Mr Aitken said we were spinning lies and “No-one should believe the reports from this backwoods gutter press”.

In 1999, the same Jonathan Aitken was jailed for 18 months for perjury and lying about his arms dealing with Saudi Arabia. Stephen Milligan was found dead in his London flat in 1994. He was naked except for a pair of stockings and suspenders, with an electrical flex tied around his neck and a black bin liner over his head, with an orange in his mouth.

You couldn’t make it up!

My newspaper campaign accelerated in the New Year when a report for the magazine Red Act revealed that 10 per cent of US servicemen who served in the Gulf War had qualified for disability compensation after suffering medical symptoms attributed to exposure to depleted uranium (DU) tank and artillery shells. More than 1,600 American Gulf veterans had also died from similar symptoms.

The report stated: “Of 600,000 American soldiers sent to the Middle East to confront Saddam Hussein, more than 54,000 have qualified for disability compensation.”

Their symptoms included chronic fatigue, rashes, eye and ear infections, bleeding gums, facial paralysis, headaches, memory loss, muscle and joint pains, liver problems and cancer.

The report also referred to the MoD base at Dundrennan, where it said an estimated 4,000 DU shells had been fired into the Solway Firth.

It concluded: “The MoD plans to develop and fire new DU shells there, which will increase local toxic and radioactive contamination.”

The report “Depleted Uranium, Sick Soldiers and Dead Children” came just two weeks after a parliamentary statement by Defence Minister Jeremy Hanley confirmed that sizeable stocks of DU shells were held at the Dundrennan firing range.

“On 15th December 1993, 111 DU rounds were held at the Dundrennan range in anticipation of a number of trials,” he said.

His statement completely contradicted an earlier parliamentary answer by Mr Aitken, who in June 1993 said there were no stocks of Depleted Uranium shells at Dundrennan, “nor any future arisings expected”.

But, I was in for another shock.

Suddenly, and without any warning, I was given two major press awards for my work into the DU shell firings – the first was a Judges’ Special Award for Investigative Journalism.

Then I was informed that 41 MPs had signed an Early Day Motion (EDM) in the House of Commons praising my investigation (and that of a dear and late colleague at the Sunday Mail) into the link between DU shell firing and the serious risks to health – including cancer.

The EDM read: “That this House congratulates Nic Outterside, chief reporter of the Galloway Gazette, for his special award of the year ‘for his investigative journalism and individual tenacity’, and Angus Macleod of the Sunday Mail, for his ‘talent for disclosing stories in an aggressive and attacking writing style’ in winning the journalist and reporter of the year award in the Scottish Press Awards made on 26th April; notes that both reporters revealed the hidden dangers of depleted uranium shell tests at Ministry of Defence test ranges, and unveiled the links between vapourised depleted uranium dust and the Gulf War or Desert Storm syndrome; believes these Scottish reporters have properly publicised a problem of national and international importance as recognised by investigations in the United States Congress and the United Nations Compensation Committee; and reiterates its call for an urgent public inquiry.”

Some of my political heroes signed that EDM including Tony Benn, Alan Simpson, Ken Livingstone and Dennis Skinner. These names next to mine were like a personal shield of honour, and a vindication of 18 months of sometimes painstaking investigation.

In June 1994 I moved to Edinburgh and left my investigations into the Dundrennan cover-up behind.

But the story did not die.

Studies since 1994 showed that exposure to depleted uranium leads to cancers, birth defects, memory loss, damage to the immune system and neuro-psychotic disorders.

Yet the MoD still steadfastly claimed sine the first Gulf war that “DU does not pose a risk to health or the environment”.

This claim was undone when in 2004 it was revealed that the British Army told soldiers in Iraq that DU can cause ill-health.

An MoD card handed to troops on active service in the second Gulf War, in 2003-2005, read: “You have been deployed to a theatre where depleted uranium (DU) munitions have been used. DU is a weakly radioactive heavy metal which has the potential to cause ill-health. You may have been exposed to dust containing DU during your deployment.

“You are eligible for a urine test to measure uranium. If you wish to know more about having this test, you should consult your unit medical officer on return to your home base. Your medical officer can provide information about the health effects of DU.”

A UN sub-commission ruled that the use of DU breaches the Geneva Convention and the Genocide Convention. DU has also been blamed for the effects of Gulf War Syndrome among some 200,000 US troops.

It has led to birth defects in the children of veterans and Iraqis and is believed to be the cause of the “worrying number” of anophthalmos cases – babies born without eyes – in Iraq. A study of veterans showed 67% had children with severe illnesses, missing eyes, blood infections, respiratory problems and fused fingers.

Professor Doug Rokke, the ex-director of the Pentagon’s DU project and a former US Army colonel who was tasked by the US defence department to deal with DU after the first Gulf War, said: “The MoD card acknowledges the risks. It contradicts the position it has taken publicly – that there was no risk – in order to sustain the use of DU rounds and avoid liability.”

Dr Rokke attacked the US and UK for “contaminating the world” with DU munitions and said the issuing of the card meant that they had “a moral obligation to provide care for all those affected” and to clean up the environment in Iraq.

“DU is in residential areas in Iraq, troops are going by sites contaminated with it with no protective clothing or respiratory protection, and kids are playing in the same areas.”

He added: “What right does anyone have to throw radioactive poison around and then not clean it up or offer people medical care?” Dr Rokke said that the use of DU in Iraq should be deemed a war crime.

“This war was about weapons of mass destruction, but the US and UK were the only people using WMD – in the form of DU shells.”

Ray Bristow, trustee of the UK’s National Gulf Veterans and Families Association, said the MoD card “confirms what independent scientists have said for years”. Mr Bristow, 45, suffers from chromosomal abnormalities and conditions similar to those who survived the nuclear bomb in Hiroshima.

A former warrant officer in the medical corps in the first Gulf war, he is now only able to walk short distances with a walking frame and often has to use a wheelchair.

“While the card may have been issued to British troops we have to ask, ‘what about the Iraqi people?’ They are living among DU contamination. And what about the people in Dundrennan?

“The MoD line has always been that DU is safe – it has been caught out in a lie.”

Mr Bristow said some 29,000 British troops could be contaminated. He was found to have uranium in his system more than 100 times the safety limit. “I put on a uniform because I believe in democracy and freedom,” he said. “Now I can’t believe a word my government says.”

He also believed the discovery of the DU card will help affected troops sue for compensation. “Globally, this discovery is of huge significance.”

Chris Ballance, the Green MSP for the area, added: “DU is a weapon of mass destruction that must be banned.”

He said the MoD must remove the shells that had been fired into the Solway Firth and tell the people of Dundrennan about the risks.

Malcolm Hooper, emeritus professor of medicinal chemistry at Sunderland University and an expert on DU, said it was “administrative deception” for the MoD to claim DU was not a risk to health while issuing warnings to troops.

Dr Hooper, a Government adviser on DU, described the government’s behaviour as “a dreadful experiment … an obscenity … and a war crime against our own troops”.

 

Goodnight Legends, Goodnight

YOU know that feeling of a sudden realisation of something that had previously passed you by.

That flash of light, the road to Damascus experience, that “OMG how did I miss that?” feeling.

Well, one of those happened to me early this morning.

I was lying in bed, sipping a cup of tea, and ruminating on the death of David Bowie and the other famous artists who have passed away in the last few weeks. Lemmy, Alan Rickman, Dale (Buffin) Griffin and Glenn Frey all came to mind.

Then flash!

David Bowie passed from his Kether to his heavenly Malkuth just 10 short days ago…. and in that moment so passed one of the last musicians responsible for one of the most ground breaking musical albums of all time: Lou Reed’s 1972 release: Transformer.

To this day, Transformer is probably the most universally loved collection of songs Lou Reed recorded as a solo artist.

As with many classic albums, the stars were aligned for this one.

Unlike the tracks that made up his patchy self-titled debut, he didn’t have any material left over from the Velvet Underground days. This forced him to get to work writing.

And what songs these are.

The supposed ode to his drug habit, Perfect Day, only works because, no matter who the song is dedicated to, it is a beautiful ballad.

Then there is the epic, neon-drenched goodbye to his association with Andy Warhol and his factory acolytes, Walk on the Wild Side.  The proto punk swagger of Vicious, the gorgeous Satellite of Love, the snarky brass parp of New York Telephone Conversation and the quirky Goodnight Ladies: every track is a classic.

Of course, having his number one fan David Bowie, along with his guitarist Mick Ronson, trying out new production techniques didn’t hurt.

Forty-four years on, Transformer still sounds startlingly fresh, free from many of the clichés that taint other similarly minded records of the period. Their production work was so loaded that, were it not for the incredibly focused songs beneath, it might have been overbearing.

But with a solid base, the ornate arrangements help bring these songs to life, lending Reed’s music a broader palette.

Lou himself, by contrast, sounds as intimate as ever on the record’s more sedate tracks, crooning in a sensitive lilt that maintains his blissful, effortless cool.

But now the legends of that album have all gone.

The singer, guitarist and the man himself Lou Reed died from liver disease, aged 71, in 2013.

Former Spiders from Mars bassist and trumpet player, Trevor Bolder died from pancreatic cancer the same year, aged 62.

Guitarist, pianist and the album’s chief producer and arranger Mick Ronson died far too young from liver cancer, aged just 46, in 1993.

Sax player Ronnie Ross died in London in 1991 aged 58.

Drummer Barry De Souza also died in London in 2009.

Fellow drummer on the album Ritchie Dharma died in 2003.

And, of course, producer, backing vocalist, keyboards and acoustic guitarist David Bowie joined the ethereal band after succumbing to cancer on 10 January this year, aged 69.

Only ageing British bassist Herbie Flowers, 77, and engineer Ken Scott, 68, still survive from the original album line-up.

A good man can be measured by his friends, and Lou Reed certainly had some good ones on Transformer.

Goodnight legends, goodnight.

 

Broken Man Blues

The day you held my dick in your hand

Abused so hard I could not stand

A broken man

The day I made my great mistake

A blight from which I cannot awake

A broken man

 

The day the scalpel cut so deep

Nightmares have filled my deepest sleep

A broken man

The day you stole sweet Andrea’s life

And left behind pain, chaos and strife

A broken man

 

Meet me at the bottom, don’t lag behind

Bring me my boots and shoes

I sit blindly in your doorway

Playing my guitar slowly

And sing for you these broken man blues

 

The day you swallowed pills of disdain

And your stepfather shot out his own brain

A broken man

The day you cheated in our marriage bed

Then denied everything I had ever said

A broken man

 

The day you stole our daughters away

My life it faded to a deeper grey

A broken man

The day you lied with a poison tongue

More years of agony had just begun

A broken man

 

Meet me at the bottom, don’t lag behind

Bring me my boots and shoes

I sit blindly in your doorway

Playing my guitar slowly

And sing for you these broken man blues

 

 

The day you ran off with a married man

And left me homeless without a plan

A broken man

The day the plate cracked open my skull

The grey in my life then all turned dull

A broken man

 

The day the nervous breakdown came

Nothing would ever be the same

A broken man

The day I lost a lifetime career

I drowned the shame in wine and beer

A broken man

 

Meet me at the bottom, don’t lag behind

Bring me my boots and shoes

I sit blindly in your doorway

Playing my guitar slowly

And sing for you these broken man blues

 

The day my eldest wed his bride

It left me with no place to hide

A broken man

The day I collapsed in a forgotten heap

The drugs numbed me in a zombie sleep

A broken man

 

The day my last child went far away

Nothing in life was left to betray

A broken man

The day I left the town of lost souls

I stumbled into a welcome of city scrolls

A broken man

 

Meet me at the bottom, don’t lag behind

Bring me my boots and shoes

I sit blindly in your doorway

Playing my guitar slowly

And sing for you these broken man blues

 

The day you told me to go away and die

No-one was left to hear me cry

A broken man

The day I walked into the swirling sea

I hoped in vain you would hear my plea

A broken man

 

The day my sweet granddaughter was born

My life was then fully ripped and torn

A broken man

So I tremble shaking to hold onto a dream

That nothing is quite as it may seem

A broken man

 

Meet me at the bottom, don’t lag behind

Bring me my boots and shoes

I sit blindly in your doorway

Playing my guitar slowly

And sing for you these broken man blues

We were so much older then, we’re younger than that now

IT seems that time, life and death waits for no one.

Last Thursday I discovered that my former brother-in-law Dougie had died suddenly aged just 54. It was a total shock. I had not seen or spoken to Dougie for many years, since my former partner and I split, but he was a lovely man and the world is an emptier place now he is gone.

But nothing prepared me for a second similar shock today.

By sheer chance I found out that one of my oldest and dearest friends Gill Gilson had died last summer after a long battle with lung cancer. Gill was just 56.

We met at university (Bretton Hall College) and became the closest of friends. We were never romantically attached… we were just good mates and stayed in touch for many years after graduating. She sometimes came to stay and we would sit and laugh as we shared many student memories. If my mum reads this, I am sure she will remember Gill.

I also remember Gill giving me a lift home from Yorkshire to Sussex in her old Morris 1000 Traveller and eating cold bacon sandwiches which she had secreted wrapped in foil in her glove compartment. Memories are made of this.

We sadly lost contact about 15 years ago, due to my many house moves. I only found out today that she had stayed put at her dad’s old house in Holbrook in Suffolk. If only I had known I could have got back in touch before her untimely death.

Gill was a musician and a fabulous piano teacher. Her only weakness – and her charm – was she loved beer and I still remember the mornings I had to knock on her door to tell her to get to lectures because she had imbibed in a few too many jars the night before. “I should have been a man!” she once said, “Because I love drinking with you guys…. I have no time for all this airy fairy girl stuff!”

Gill just oozed fun, gentleness and companionship in everything she did.

Gill died on 22 July last year. Her death notice said she was “A much loved partner, daughter, sister, auntie, godmother, friend to so many and talented music teacher at Copleston High School” – not far from the same village where she grew up.

The head teacher at the school said this in a letter to parents: “She was an excellent accompanist, playing the piano for numerous Drama productions, Dance shows, Harvest Festivals, Carol Services and, of course, the Soirées.

“She accompanied pupils for their instrumental exams, spending hours with them patiently rehearsing, driving them to the exam centre, seeing them through the nervous wait before meeting the examiner, playing for the exam itself and bringing them back to school, via the bakers and a dough-nut!

“However, most pupils will remember Miss Gilson in the classroom. She was an excellent teacher – with the ability to get the point across with a mixture of strong discipline and fun. She knew her subjects well, drawing on a lifetime’s experience and education. She was also an excellent form tutor, having that knack of knowing exactly where to draw the line between firm discipline, and being the pupils’ friend.

“She showed considerable pride in her groups and, despite being absent from school through ill health for a considerable amount of time, they re-paid her with tremendous loyalty and affection.

“Teachers and pupils alike will remember her sense of fun, her no nonsense approach to life, her attention to detail, her ability to listen and her marvellous sense of humour. Gill taught literally thousands of pupils at Copleston and many have good reason to be grateful to her.

“Gill coped with her final illness with typical dignity and courage. She had decided that, given the choice, she would prefer to spend her last days in the hospice. She even planned her own funeral, and I have no doubt that she would have been pleased with how it went; a wonderful turnout for a wonderful person, who will be truly missed by so many.”

All I can add to that is: Cheers Gill, it was wonderful knowing you. I will raise a pint to you tonight.