Nicola Barry

Monthly Archives: May 2013

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60th Everest Anniversary

On the 60th Everest Anniversary, I recall the charms of Sir Edmund Hillary when I met him at home in New Zealand. 

60th Everest anniversary, image of statue of Sir Edmund Hillary

The statue of Sir Edmund Hillary permanently gazing towards New Zealand’s highest peak, en:Aoraki/Mount Cook

Few people have the privilege of being known around the world. Sir Edmund Hillary is such a man after his unprecedented ascent of Mount Everest, on 29 May 1953. It brought him a fame he could never have imagined.

Today’s Everest anniversary is special to me because I come from a family in which mountaineering was hailed as life’s greatest achievement. When I was a child, the name Sir Edmund Hillary was only uttered occasionally, in whispered, reverential tones, by my father.

Unlike now, when celebrities are two a penny, the 60s was a time when famous people earned their reputation. Heroes are known for their achievements, celebrities for their image. Heroes are made by history; celebrities are contemporary. Sir Edmund Hillary was a hero. He didn’t die climbing but had huge compassion for the families of those who do.

They say lightning doesn’t strike twice but there were two climbers in my family and both perished in the Scottish mountains, my father in 1979, my brother in 1982. Both were doctors in Edinburgh. A mountain fatality is brutally sudden. It leaves no sense of death as a journey, no time to pack your bags, say thank-you and goodbye. Bizarrely, the news of a mountain death creeps up on you imperceptibly. You see on TV that a climber has died – hear that phrase which still sends shivers down my spine: “no names until relatives have been informed” – you sense the awful inevitability, the fear in the pit of the stomach, the late-night knock on the door.

For years afterwards, I experienced slight resentment whenever I heard someone had fallen down a mountain and survived – incredulity that a stranger had managed to cheat death while two members of my own family had not. It was not a sentiment of which I was proud but it was there, all the same. Back in 1992, that torment prompted me to go to New Zealand to interview Sir Edmund Hillary in the vague hope he might be able shed some light on the questions which preoccupied me about climbing and climbers. Sir Edmund welcomed me into his stunning home overlooking Auckland Harbour. A mountain of a man, he was enthusiastic and courteous, rather like an over-large yet extremely affable Boy Scout. I will always remember him, in brown cords and baggy jumper, seated in his favourite armchair, surrounded by framed photographs of the Himalayas and New Zealand’s Southern Alps. He had intense blue eyes, set wide apart in a weather-beaten face and a wonderful smile.

Sir Edmund was very direct, almost blunt. He asked me whether I had been close to my father. When I said no, explaining he had been someone to whom intimacy was anathema, Sir Edmund said his relationship with his own father had been similar. He told me that, while he had never lost anyone on an expedition, in 1975, his cherished first wife Louise Rose, whom he married beneath an archway of ice axes in 1953, was killed in a plane crash near Kathmandu, with the couple’s youngest daughter, 16-year-old Belinda. He said he had lost the two people he loved most in the world – odd considering he also had a surviving son, Peter and daughter, Sarah.

We discussed the way the police arrive to break the bad news, how it is so hard to believe it is your door they are knocking on. In our case, the words uttered by the police both times were: “It’s Dr Barry. There’s been an accident.” It is almost 34 years since my father, Dr Claude Barry, set out with three of his friends to climb Cairn Toul, one of the highest peaks in the Cairngorms. On the descent, a friend noticed my father was out of sight and ran back. He found him seated oddly on a rock at the top, head thrown back and one eye open. He was dead. He got his wish which, he always said, was, “to go on the mountain”.

What I loved most about Sir Edmund was his desire to explain himself. He agreed mountaineering was utterly selfish but thought life was about seeking challenge and pushing oneself to the limit. My brother Richard felt the same way. He told me life was a balancing act between risk and caution, between bravery and daring, and that survival depended on striking the right balance. On February 15 1982, Richard finally lost that balance when he created his own avalanche on Ben Nevis and tumbled down 400 ft of snow and ice. That night, I knew my brother hadn’t returned to his flat and that four climbers had died in Glencoe. When the panda car came to a halt outside my door, there was no sound from the street – other than my own breathing as I answered the door. I have to say that the police excel at this kind of work. When one of the two officers said Richard had fallen to his death down an icy rock face on Ben Nevis, I was glad of the comfort of their presence. Then came the dark, it’s-not-fair, thoughts – all those people who fell twice the distance and survived with just a few broken bones.

Sir Edmund understood all this. He, the greatest climber of them all, did concede there was an element of escape in mountaineering, a process of pushing other people away, of risk-taking and selfishness. Nevertheless, he asked me not to think badly of climbers. Other people took risks, he said, like smokers, drinkers, people who drive too fast. Climbing was different, spiritual. Thanks to Sir Edmund, I smile now when I hear a climber has fallen and survived. And, I no longer hate Glencoe but, rather, recognise it as an awe-inspiring place, one which possesses a power I once dared to underestimate.


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Not-Sleeping Beauty does the Graveyard Shift

This blog is dedicated to my talented brother, Peter, who lives in Melbourne, Australia. (For his books, Google, We All Fall Down and I Hate Martin Amis Et Al.) Peter happens to be a fellow insomniac.

Sleeping Beauty: article on insomnia

Sleeping Beauty? Chance would be a fine thing!

Macbeth described sleep as that which “knits up the ravell’d sleave of care.” I prefer the description: sleep is a short course in death. I am a raving insomniac and have completely given up trying to sleep well.

My husband says spending the wee small hours with me is akin to a nightmare. Charming! Alastair is one of these irritating people who gets into bed, turns out the light and immediately – and I mean immediately – falls into a deep sleep.

On the rare occasions he stays awake, he says I drive him round the bend.

According to Alastair, a typical night with his beloved wife starts with the sounds of zips unfastening, followed by much rummaging through plastic bags, drawers being pulled open then shut; water running and face cream tops unscrewing. He is listening to me getting ready for bed and he can’t understand why it takes so long.

“What on earth are you doing?” he shouts.

“Nothing,” I reply. Half-an-hour later, there’s a loud crash. It’s the ironing board. I’ve opened it the wrong way. Later, there is always one final crash – the sound of me closing the window he has just opened. That always does it.

“What’s wrong with you?” he says. “It’s boiling in here.”

“I’m freezing,” I reply. “Why do you think I’m wearing bed socks?”

“There’s something wrong with you,” he whines. “Other men go to bed with women in sexy lingerie. I have to go to bed with someone who wears Army-surplus gear and climbing socks in case she needs to get up and work during the night.”

Another of my irritating nocturnal habits is that I like to have everything ready the night before. If I could brush my hair, get dressed and put on my coat for work the night before, I’d be blissfully happy. ‘Be prepared’ has always been my motto. I’d have made a great Boy Scout.

The trouble is that, on those rare occasions I do fall asleep, apparently, I talk nineteen to the dozen, grind my teeth, perform unpleasant and repetitive household chores like washing up and cleaning, sing, tell jokes and am generally a lot more entertaining than I could ever dream of being while awake.

When I finally get into bed, Alastair is always sound asleep. Although he doesn’t exactly snore, he does have a really annoying habit – he breathes. And I can hear him. I have to get up, go to my computer and write works of literary genius which no one ever reads.

I understand from research that snorers/heavy breathers run a high risk of a stroke. Not to mention a sock in the mouth or a good, firm boot up the jacksie.

I find this research hard to believe, frankly. If my experience of snorers/heavy breathers is anything to go by, they never seem to die at all. The really bad ones I have known lived a long, long time and snored right up to the bitter end.

The minute the noise starts you toss and turn fretfully before giving him a swift kick up the backside; an action which usually has the effect of abruptly stopping the noise. However, it also makes him turn over, dragging the entire duvet with him, leaving you snore-free, but with nothing but the rapid onset of hypothermia to look forward to.

Horror of horrors, he’s off into snore-mode again, only this time much, much louder. The first thought to enter your head is: “This one will have to go” then you remember, “Oh My God, I married him”.

My dog snores as well and, yes, he sleeps in our bedroom, in a basket on the floor. But Coll’s snore is gentle and rhythmic, a bit like a sparrow with mild flatulence. It’s not at all disruptive. He does a lot of lip-smacking as well and makes tiny squeaking noises, as if he’s dreaming of chasing rabbits.

What worries me is that experts say if you sleep badly, you will die early and that sleeping fewer than six hours a night is downright dangerous. So, I may not sleep well but, at least, I can be comforted by the fact that I am for an early ‘off’.

Oddly, experts have also noted that an association with early death has been seen in people sleeping more than nine hours a night. You can’t win.

They say modern society has seen a gradual reduction in the average amount of sleep people take because so many of us work longer hours. The trouble is, the more frenetic our society becomes, the more of a haven the bedroom and sleep become.

Believe me, there is nothing worse in this world than not being able to get off to sleep.


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School Exclusion

School exclusion is on the rise, but surely there has to be a better solution?

Apologies for the lengthy silence, readers: I am back and this time it’s personal…

Some local authorities are now working to reduce the practice of excluding pupils who misbehave. Not before time!

How did it ever come about that children who behave badly are excluded from school? What a ridiculous and drastic remedy – even for kids carrying weapons. image of bullying re school exclusion articleWhy are children always on the receiving end of society’s most draconian measures? The number of exclusions in UK schools has been on the rise in recent years. Now whose fault can that be? If it’s the parents’ fault then, no doubt, the politicians’ remedy is either to fine them or send them to prison. We’ve had that one before. If it’s the children’s fault, then they should be chucked out of the very school responsible for educating them.

When I was at school, if you behaved badly you were told off. If your behaviour became really bad, you were made to stand outside the door. That was enough. A large number of exclusions involved disobedience. Others are triggered by the verbal abuse of staff. Some pupils are excluded several times in the course of a year. According to my dictionary, the word ‘teacher’ means guide or adviser. There is a statutory duty to give a child an education. We all have to go to school, don’t we? Kids go to school to learn and I don’t just mean the three Rs. They need to learn how to be civilised, how to function as members of the human race. If a child is too disruptive to teach, modern teachers chuck the troublemakers, not just out of the classroom for the duration of the lesson but right out of the school, ruining their exam and career chances, however slim these might be. Let’s face it, low achieving and the spiral of failure can hardly be helped by complete exclusion. Many of these children who have been barred from school will end up being excluded from society as well – the failures of the future. It should be obvious to school staff that education is the principal weapon against social exclusion.

What would the world be like if we all decided to deal with out problems in this way? Wouldn’t most parents of difficult children give their eye teeth to be able to resolve their conflicts by chucking their children out on the street? So many families go through nightmares with children who are difficult and frequently violent. The situation is so bad that a Parentline equivalent to the one run by Childline had to be set up to help support them. We all know that bullying in schools is a huge problem. And carrying weapons in school is an extremely unpleasant sign of the times. But the harsh truth is that we all have to put up with aggressive, bullying people at work. Rudeness and abuse are not exclusive to the teaching profession, not by a long chalk. We are all at risk of the violent and misguided in our midst.

Doctors and nurses are routinely assaulted by drunks and drug addicts. Traffic wardens, the police, even the fire brigade are often attacked by irate members of the public. It would be very nice if we could all exclude our problems, shut them out and be done with it. But we can’t. We don’t. The number of exclusions in our schools is a national disgrace and teachers should learn to deal with young people in all their guises – or join another profession. A school is not supposed to be a refuge from society’s flotsam and jetsam. It’s not supposed to be a place where only goodie-goodies and swots are allowed to succeed. The highest number of exclusions occurs in areas where there are high levels of deprivation, such as Glasgow. In those places, teachers need to lead the way, not slam the door in the faces of those whose need for guidance is paramount.


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