Words for Friends #14

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.

#14  Jayne

This July I took a long overdue holiday with my wife Gill, in my old haunt of Chichester, West Sussex.

Whenever returning home – as I still call Sussex – I always made a point of catching up with one of my oldest friends.

Jayne and I met as teenagers while nursing together way back in 1978.

But any hope I may have had of a romantic attachment disappeared quickly when on our second date, and after a couple of beers and an attempted snog, she told me she was gay and lived happily with her partner Julie.

She was the first openly lesbian woman I had ever met – in a time when personal sexuality was more closely guarded.

I was gobsmacked and in typical 1970s’ misogyny I said something like: “How can you be gay, you are too attractive?”

Horrid words, which ought to have choked me, there and then.

But, there was something deeper between us and instead of romance, we became lifelong friends.

Over the next 30 years on my each visit to Sussex, we would meet for a beer and swap stories about the directions our lives had travelled and how much weight we had both gained!

While my life and career took my all over the UK, Jayne remained my constant point of return.

This summer I had not seen Jayne for over 10 years, so this holiday visit was going to be an extra special catch-up.

But, before I set off for the drive down south, I cried myself empty, when I discovered that Jayne had died some 30 months earlier, aged just 56.

Her partner Julie was with her to the end.

Time, life and death waits for no one.

But my friendship and memories of Jayne will always remain.


Words for Friends #3

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

#3 Andrea

Throughout our lives we meet true soul mates and Andrea is one of my most precious.

We met in the most extraordinary of circumstances in the winter of 1987, while we were both recovering from cancer surgery. Racked in pain with bone cancer, and at just 20 years-old 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.”

My memories of Andrea always remain, and have often been my driving force to live.

Her laughter as she beat me in a physiotherapy game of football in the hospital gym. 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 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?” And then there was the rainy December day when she returned from a Christmas shopping trip in Cardiff city centre laden down with presents and a £300 hole in her Visa card. Her pleasure was manifest and her guilty laugh echoes now as I remember her.

A year before her death in 1990, 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 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… and I still do.

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.


Suppression of the Truth – Part 2: Gary Lineker and Radioactive Poison

Suppression of the Truth

Part 2: Gary Lineker and Radioactive Poison

IT was the summer of 1990.

Like many, I was held bedazzled as the Italia 90 World Cup unfolded on our TV screens, and England found football glory with David Platt, Gary Lineker and the irrepressible Paul (Gaza) Gascoigne.

Earlier that year I had moved to be a reporter on a busy weekly newspaper in North Wales, leaving behind four care free years working for glossy computer magazines.

So, I sat on the warm evening of Wednesday, 4 July in a large pub near Conwy, with my new pals from the paper to watch a truly memorable game of football on a large TV screen.

The semi-final of the World Cup: England versus West Germany.

It was a game you couldn’t miss. It was a passion.

We were a happy bunch as we forgot about work and chatted about football and whether Gascoigne was the answer to England’s lack of a creative midfield.

We drank beer, cheered loudly as Lineker scored, shouted obscenities when Gaza was booked and cried into our beer after we lost the game on penalties to the Germans.

More beer was consumed until we wended our ways home.

The next day was press day at my newspaper in nearby Llandudno Junction – the day our weekly work went to press… a hectic morning, followed by feet up and a chance to recharge batteries in the afternoon.

Nursing a hangover (in more ways than one), the morning flew by in a blur, and after a sandwich and a coffee I sat at my desk and began to write a list of stories and tasks for the following week.

The office was empty as the phone on the neighbouring desk suddenly rang.

Out of routine I picked up the call.

“Weekly News, Nic Outterside, can I help you?” I asked.

A woman’s voice answered: “Are you a reporter?”

“Yes,” I replied, and began to listen.

Within a minute the lady on the phone had me listening like I had never listened before, and scribbling notes like there was no tomorrow.

She explained nervously that she was a nurse and the local hospital and her husband had worked for the past 20 years at Trawsfynydd Nuclear Power station, situated some 36 miles away on the outskirts of Snowdonia National Park.

The previous evening her husband had planned to come home early to watch the World Cup semi-final and enjoy a few beers.

Instead, she explained, he had arrived home crying and handed to her an official letter he had received from his employers Magnox Ltd, which informed him that, following internal testing, his body had received more than 20 times the safe clinical level of radiation during his years working at the plant.

He was to be transferred to another part of the plant for his own health.

At this point the lady on the phone began to cry uncontrollably.

“I don’t know much about radiation or my husband’s job, but I do know two of his friends there have recently been diagnosed with cancer, and my husband has been having stomach pains and had bleeding from his bowels,” she stuttered.

She explained that she was terrified, as the letter her husband had brought home was marked “Confidential” and he had been told he and his work colleagues were bound by the Official Secrets Act.

“I can’t even tell you my name or where we live” she added, “Or we could both end up in prison.”

I sat gobsmacked by what I had heard.

But I knew that as a journalist I could not do anything with this news unless I had proof.

I gently informed the lady of my dilemma and suggested we could maybe meet somewhere neutral so I could see the letter for myself.

After a moment’s hesitation she agreed, and gave me the location of a bus shelter on the Penrhyn Road, some three miles from my office.

A meeting time of 4pm was made. I explained I would park near the bus shelter in my black Fiat Uno car.

And so my first “Deep Throat” liaison was arranged.

But as I put down the phone, something worried me… if this news and indeed the letter were bound by the Official Secrets Act (OSA), would that stop me revealing the information in our newspaper?

I knew a little about the OSA as my dad had signed it at least twice on contracts he worked on for the Ministry of Defence, but I needed to know more.

A quick phone call to a legal friend gave me the answer I needed.

“It is a sham and a lie,” he told me, “A frightener employed by the company to keep their workers quiet.

“While the technical data about the reactors may be deemed as being in the national security interest, the health of the reactor workers definitely is not.

“This is a civil nuclear fuel facility, not bloody Faslane,” he added.

I was relieved and thanked him.

Two hours later I sat nervously in my car, parked across the road from the arranged meeting place.

A few minutes passed and a lady in her early 50s, with dyed blonde hair and wearing a green coat walked up to the bus shelter.

She looked in the direction of my car. I caught her eye and beckoned her across the road.

She bent down and looked in my open car window.

“Mr Outterside?” she asked nervously.

Her eyes were red from crying as she opened the passenger door and sat next to me.

We started to chat about the sudden change of weather – it had begun to rain – as she hurriedly took a folded letter from her handbag.

“Here it is,” she whispered.

I tried to explain that the Official Secrets Act threat was bunkum, but quickly knew her fears did not allow her to believe me.

I read the letter from top to bottom – even glanced at her husband’s name and their address which gave me a bona fide – and scribbled a few notes in my note book.

I no longer have the technical data that was included in that letter, but I was quickly able to ascertain that this poor lady’s husband had indeed received something like 23 times the safe recognised level of radioactive contamination during his years working at Trawsfynydd.

Seven days later I made my first exclusive front page splash at my newspaper. The headline rang out: “Workers health fears over radioactive poisoning”.

I was delighted to break some news that the nuclear industry did not want to become public.

Inside I felt my first buzz as a proper journalist.

But, I also thought deeply about the man – and his colleagues – who had their lives ruined by their toxic work environment.

Some years later I discovered that the man had died in 1991, “after a long illness”.

Earlier this year (2015), it was reported that the now partially decommissioned Trawsfynydd Nuclear Power Station may be responsible for elevated levels of cancer found in communities downwind of it.

Research supervised by Dr Chris Busby, attached to the Latvian Academy of Sciences in Riga, showed the incidence of breast cancer was five times higher downwind from the power station than would have been expected.

Some other kinds of cancer were found at around double the expected rate.

Trawsfynydd is the only inland nuclear power station to have been built in the UK.

It has two “Magnox type CO2 cooled graphite moderated” reactors and is situated on a lake, Llyn Trawsfynydd, which acts as a cooling water source and is also a sink for radioactivity released from the plant.

A significant amount of radioactive material exists in the lake bed sediment.

The prevailing winds at the site are south westerly and more than 90% of those living downwind of the power station were surveyed by researchers working for Dr Busby.

The paper, published by Jacobs Journal of Epidemiology and Preventive Medicine, states: “Trawsfynydd is a ‘dirty’ nuclear power station. As it has carbon dioxide, gas-cooled graphite block reactors its releases to air are higher than most other types of nuclear reactor.

“In addition, all the liquid releases are discharged to the lake, where they have accumulated to the lake body sediment.

“Results show very clearly that the downwind population has suffered because of these exposures. This is most clear in breast cancer in the younger women below 60, where the rates were almost five times the expected.

“Additionally we see a doubling of risk in those who ate fish from Trawsfynydd lake, which supports the conclusion that it is mainly a nuclear power station effect that is being seen.”

Other forms of cancer showing elevated levels included prostate, leukaemia, mesothelioma and pancreas.

Altogether, 38 people in the area researched were diagnosed with cancer between 2003 and 2005, against an “expected” level of 19.5.

The report says: “These results are remarkable and relevant to political decisions about nuclear energy.”

Last month a spokesman for Magnox Ltd said: “Comment on the details of the study is a matter for experts in public health.

“However the radiation exposures of our workforce, and that of the general public, from authorised discharges from the nuclear industry, are well below the maximum levels authorised by independent regulatory bodies.

“The limits are set to ensure members of the public are properly protected.”

Dr Jill Meara, director of Public Health England’s Centre for Radiation, Chemical and Environmental Hazards (CRCE), said: “Identification of disease clusters are matters for local public health teams. If those teams needs specialist support, such as in radiation epidemiology, they can talk to CRCE for assistance.”