Nicola Barry

Category Archives: Health


Smoking and drinking during pregnancy

Drinking during pregnancy (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Drinking in Pregnancy

At times, it seems as if our society is obsessed with keeping children safe – from unsuitable adults, from paedophiles and from child abductors. Yet, in the case of women who drink while pregnant, there are very few people out there keen to protect those unborn babies. At long last, campaigners who want to make it a crime to drink excessively during pregnancy may be a step closer with a landmark case on the issue due to be heard by the Court of Appeal, in London. It will be argued that a six-year-old girl is the victim of a crime because she suffered brain damage when she was exposed to alcohol in the womb. Her mother was well aware of the risk involved. The case comes at the same time as 50 per cent rise in Foetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) over three years.

Hell is a drunk pregnant woman

Unfortunately, I know what I’m talking about. I was born drunk. My mother tippled her way right through pregnancy. She couldn’t face life without vodka, sherry, wine, you name it and her drinking devastated my childhood. My mother drank for as long as I can remember and everything that happened in our household was either a direct or indirect result of her drinking. Anything was allowed to happen. I was sexually assaulted by a joiner who worked in our house while my mother lay drunk in the next room. We were too ashamed to tell anyone. At the age of ten, I was confined to a wheelchair and had about 15 operations on each hip over the next nine years. It was then that I realised there was something wrong with my mother. She was told that her drinking during pregnancy was responsible for my disability and I think that only made her drink more. Whenever she leaned over me, to give me a bedpan or help me wash, I could smell alcohol. Occasionally, she’d swig from a bottle in the pantry; saying she couldn’t face any nursing tasks without her “wee cocktail”.

My poor mother spent her days drunk or drugged, or both. This was our secret as a family; the secret everybody around us shared but refused to acknowledge. That is why I believe shame is a far bigger sickness than alcoholism, especially here in respectable Scotland. Everything is hidden. The harm adults, parents, who drink to excess do to babies, children and young people is hidden as well. Hidden harm. My mother was also a doctor. She should have known better. She only practised briefly before she had children. She had been a brilliant, compassionate, witty woman who happened to fall under alcohol’s spell. Whenever she emerged from our house in Edinburgh, her bag bulging with empties, our neighbours looked away in disgust, as they did when she returned with a respectable purchase like a tin of soup on top of six clinking bottles of vodka. There were bottles everywhere in our house: in the wardrobe, in the cistern, inside boots and shoes. We didn’t dare have friends round: she was far too unpredictable. We lived in a bubble, cut off from the world by our own strangeness and unpredictability. It may not sound like it, but I loved my mother. It was just that I wanted her to be normal like other mothers, to bake scones, cook us meals when we came home. I could never understand why my father, also a doctor, didn’t stop her drinking. It took me years to understand that nobody stops anyone drinking. Years later, she fell downstairs and lay at the front door. When I got home from school, I thought she was dead. But she was just dead drunk. I was forever fishing her out of the bath when she couldn’t stand up, clearing up the vomit from her bed, watering down her secret supplies of drink when I thought she wasn’t looking. Her promises drove me mad. I wanted to strangle her because she kept swearing – on the Bible incidentally – she’d stop drinking and taking prescription drugs, yet she always started again.

Don’t get pregnant if you have to drink

When she died, I found her. She was lying on the floor in our respectable Murrayfield home, a mouse wandering about behind her, nibbling on bits of food she’d discarded when drunk. I remember how awkward her head looked – as if it had been screwed onto her body back to front. She lay on her right side, facing the door. She was wearing an old dressing gown, her arms were outstretched, mouth wide open; saliva on her chin. She had vomited on the floor, near where her bedside lamp had fallen. The bulb had burned a big hole in the carpet. She had choked to death. For years, I was eaten up with guilt and misery. Even though I did all I could to help her – I was haunted by the feeling I could have done more.

Then, I remember how much pain her drinking caused me. It may sound harsh but mothers who drink have to be held responsible for the damage they inflict. If you can’t stop drinking, don’t get pregnant.

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Preventive Medicine

Preventive Medicine Beats Picking up Pieces When It is Too Late

Doctor Rob Lawson has, almost singlehandedly, begun a revolution in healthcare which puts prevention fairly and squarely before cure.  While not all his patients are walking miracles, one man who had terminal cancer might well qualify. Two-and-a-half years ago, the survivor – whose name is protected by doctor-patient confidentiality – and who is a member at Core Health Centre, near Drem, East Lothian , presented to Rob after his consultant oncologist had predicted he had just weeks to live.
After a consultation with Dr Lawson and fuelled by a strong will to survive, he acknowledged the necessary changes to diet and lifestyle and has now recovered to the point where he is believed to be cancer-free.
What makes Core Health unique is its insistence on prevention and survival rather than the customary palliative care.
As clinical director, Dr Lawson is a man for whom the word driven might have been coined – he even ploughed all of his savings into the project. While he worked in nearby Haddington as an NHS GP for more than 30 years, he was always aware that at least 70 per cent of his patients presenting with high blood pressure, heart disease and Type 2 Diabetes could have avoided their conditions by making simple changes to their lifestyle.
Now Core Health is all about preventing premature, avoidable disability – even death – and about nurturing a longer, life and taking control of your health destiny.

At his clinic at the peaceful sanctuary of Prora Farm, Dr Lawson said: “I am a medical man with a passion for healthy living and for facilitating an extended quality of life for anyone. My mission is to help people engage with their health aspirations, thus ensuring a long life.”
Why did he invest all his savings on such a project?
“I have always known that we have a big problem in this country,” Dr Lawson said. “A conservative estimate is that 100 people in the UK die prematurely every day from avoidable diseases. These include obesity, heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, stress-related disorders, dementia and even iatrogenic disease (drug related deaths) caused by doctors like myself, however well intentioned they may be. These are diseases of the 21st century and are associated with unhealthy lifestyle behaviours which can be altered with just a bit of determination.”
At Core Health, which opened in the Autumn of 2012, patients are asked how they think their health will be in 10 years .
“Most people have never thought about it,” Dr Lawson said. “Nor have doctors thought about helping people take more control over their health.
“The results we can achieve are extraordinary. The difference here is not just in our approach but in our purpose. Being a doctor often means having to treat patients once it is too late. Instead, we are here to support and build health instead of just treating illness. Regardless of age or physical condition, we can help anyone find a healthier, happier life.”
And that is where I come in. Always a poor sleeper, I sampled 90 minutes at Core Health with one of Scotland’s top cognitive hypnotherapists, Tom Lawrence. The treatment he uses is designed to free patients from inhibiting thought patterns which have been accepted by the subconscious in the past and which now restrict current thinking and behaviour in some way.
Despite some initial scepticism, I was quickly impressed by Tom’s line of questioning, his insights and recommendations. He asked me about my self confidence and suggested ways to change a few negative ways of thinking. The first night, I slept like the proverbial log and have, slowly but surely, improved my sleep pattern ever since. I will be going back.
The 30 therapists at the centre examine three fundamental areas of each person’s health: nutrition, activity and previous medical care. They combine traditional and complementary medicine to deliver holistic health solutions. There are on tap physicians, registered dieticians, nutritionists, personal trainers, psychologists, a hypnotherapist-cum-acupuncturist, physiotherapists, a podiatrist as well as Yoga, Pilates and Tai Chi instructors.
Dr Lawson said: “We recognise that sometimes even small changes can be difficult and that they have to be sustained.


“Look,” he added and there was anger in his tone, “Scotland is a country with the lowest healthy life expectancy in Europe and the highest number of fat people. It is a country in which children develop diabetes then go on to have amputations in their twenties. It is a country in which some youngsters will not live to enjoy the healthy lifespan of their parents.
“Yet, politicians still prattle on about our so-called safe, effective, world class health care. Do they never ask themselves why no other country in the world has adopted our system of care?
“In fact, it is a curate’s egg of a service and the bit that matters – helping us when we are ill – is the bit we all value. The NHS should be re-named the NSS – the National Sickness Service.
“Generally, it is fair to say that if something is free it is undervalued or overused or both. My long experience as a servant in the NHS suggests both apply.”
Dr Lawson believes there has been a long-held expectation that the NHS will always cope: “It can’t and it won’t,” he said with emphasis.
“We need our citizens to take a long hard look at themselves and to then decide to avoid the need to use the service by taking responsibility for and managing better their own health.”
Like all pioneers, Dr Lawson is struggling to make potential investors see how crucial Core Health’s approach is to Scotland; to appreciate the disaster facing us.
“We need to eradicate the perception that the answer to all ills lies in a free pill,” he said. “As a matter of urgency, we need to embrace preventive and lifestyle medicine – the one proposed by Hippocrates 2,500 years ago.”
There are other attractions: the clinic plans to buy equipment such as a cancer mole scanner as well as re-open its shop and restaurant as an educational focus for healthy, enjoyable eating.
Dr Lawson said: “If we are innovative in this way, we might just slow the tsunami of 21st century diseases heading our way long enough to clamber up to the safety of higher, healthier ground. Now that really would be an achievement on anyone’s watch.”
Dr Lawson knows that the potential market is huge; that there is a definite shift in momentum towards self-managed health.
He added: “Some 60 per cent of those questioned in the latest Scottish Health Survey have at least three health risk behaviours and 98 per cent have at least one. It is painfully obvious where we are headed as a nation if we fail to take immediate action.”

























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AIDS Awareness

Aids Awareness is crucial to fighting infection

English: The Red ribbon is a symbol for solida...

The Red ribbon is a symbol for solidarity with HIV-positive people and those living with AIDS.


December 1st – which is World Aids Day – tends to disappear in a fog of complacency bound up in pretty red ribbons. Let’s face it, AIDS is the forgotten plague. We seem content to ignore one unsavoury little fact, namely that HIV is still a killer. In 2011, Aids killed more than 1million people globally. In our haste to save lives in Africa, we have turned a blind eye to the situation here in the UK. Worryingly, recent research revealed that more than half of us are ignorant of how HIV is transmitted. AIDS awareness is at an all time low and our – albeit generous – desire to help other countries has blinded us to the threat here at home. Many of you will remember the brilliant and graphic AIDS awareness advertising campaigns of the early Nineties, the falling icebergs, the grey tombstones, the myriad of scare tactics. Well, they worked. There was never any doubt back then that HIV was the deadly, silent threat perched on every bed post. These days, however, so many people are, singularly, failing to hear the safe sex message. You only have to look at the number of teenage pregnancies to see that. This is bad news, mainly because the prognosis for those people who are diagnosed has changed dramatically. Having HIV is no longer the death sentence of a quarter of a century ago. Now people live with HIV, even if it is thanks to a cocktail of drugs. Make no mistake: we are still facing an AIDS crisis. Tragically, the general public is cooling towards the subject, becoming complacent about what they will and won’t do in relationships. There has always been a tendency to see HIV as someone else’s problem: it’s the fault of gay men, druggies, Africans, anyone but us. The truth is HIV can be spread by men to women, women to men, men to men, mothers to babies, as well as by sharing needles and contaminated blood products.


Most important of all, especially to those affected by stigma, no amount of kissing, hugging, crying, sneezing, sharing crockery or sitting on lavatory seats can give you AIDS. Not even casual everyday contact with a carrier can do that. The only known effective transmitters of the virus are, let’s try to be honest for a moment, blood and semen. Drugs are a huge problem in this country, yet we continue to turn a blind eye to the misery and suffering caused to the families of addicts. It seems there are always people ready to protect children from unsuitable adults – from paedophiles and child abductors, but not from parents who abuse drugs. Experts say such children suffer a great deal of ‘hidden harm’, such as poverty, ill health, neglect, poor educational opportunities, abuse of various kinds and, later, homelessness, institutionalisation and the ever-present threat of HIV infection. While there have been great advances in the treatment of AIDS and HIV, studies have shown that a late diagnosis accounts for some 35 per cent of HIV-related deaths among adults in the UK, an unnecessary statistic. People are dying because they never knew they were ill in the first place. And when they did find out, it was too late to have effective treatment. AIDS itself doesn’t kill anybody as such. What happens is that HIV compromises the immune system, decimates the white blood cells – the body’s principal means of protecting itself from infection. And, as the cells are destroyed, AIDS-related infections take hold. Nevertheless, without a test, the virus can take years to manifest itself. Its long incubation period means it moves invisibly so a lot of people don’t know they have it. Saddest of all, our progress in providing drugs to people who suffer has not really been matched by any accompanying change of attitude towards those infected. I wrote about AIDS thirty years ago, when Edinburgh found itself right at the centre of the outbreak. By studying stored blood from drug users, researchers were able to pinpoint the start of the virus in Edinburgh to mid-1983, a predicament caused by addicts sharing needles in what they called shooting galleries. Outside Edinburgh, AIDS was often known as the gay plague. Some people saw it as the wrath of God or the end of the world; others even thought it was a plot by the KGB or CIA – anything but take responsibility.


Even now, in 2013, when it is everybody’s plague, some people still shy away from behaving responsibly where sex is concerned. Despite the increase in heterosexuals with HIV, most people allow themselves to be lulled into believing that AIDS is “dying out” – and the irony of those words will be lost on them. We need to work much harder on prevention, yet some charities and members of the medical profession are struggling to raise awareness. Few people take into account the huge effort made by gay men when AIDS became a problem back in the 80s. All over the world, homosexuals changed their lifestyles. And no, they were not to blame for the virus spreading. Have you ever heard of anyone being blamed for spreading flu? And yes, it is exactly the same. One day, historians will one day record that homosexuals were the heroes of the 80s and 90s. It was they who alerted the world to the disaster of AIDS, the disease which had already killed off thousands in Central Africa. These same historians will hopefully also record that thousands of lives could have been saved had heterosexuals also changed their ways. They will ask why straight people kept pontificating about the evils of homosexuality while failing to do anything about their own practices. This is not a good time to climb onto the moral high ground – because AIDS shows no favours, not to black or white, rich or poor, male or female.  AIDS could probably be eliminated within a generation or two, if everyone took the dreadful lessons of the past 30 years to heart. Of course, Africa matters. But the rest of the world needs to set standards so that we can all live safely. There are already too many people out there desperate to kill us off, terrorists and the like. Surely the last thing we want to do is aim a loaded gun at ourselves?


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Halloween Mental Patient

Severe Mental Illness

Severe Mental Illness (Photo credit: homelesshub)

Asda Halloween Mental Patient Outrage

Such outrage over the supermarket Asda selling a fancy-dress outfit featuring a character covered in blood as a”mental patient costume”.  Asda’s doomed prank was brandishing a meat cleaver and billed as a “mental patient fancy dress costume.” The outfit, designed to look like a blood-splattered straitjacket with ragged edges, was on sale for £20 through the store’s  clothing arm, George, has now been withdrawn.

A perfect case of people in glass houses not throwing stones if ever there was one. How many times have you looked askance at somebody in the past week? Perhaps they looked as if they were not quite right – one sandwich short of the full picnic, the lift didn’t go the whole way up. You know what I’m talking about. We have developed far too many slang words for mental illness: ‘Psychos, wierdos, nut-jobs. Try counting the number you pass on an average day. The result is very revealing. It says a lot about the person counting as well as those being counted. And you have to include every oddity you meet in this particular ‘mental’ tally: smelly street beggars, drunks staggering home, road-rage drivers, mothers screaming at tantrum-prone toddlers, stressed executives. The list goes on and on. After all, statistics dictate that one in five of us is potentially mentally ill.


Like it or not, in this country, most people are prejudiced against the mentally ill. You probably know someone who has been depressed lately or even been in a psychiatric hospital. How did you respond when you first heard the news? Did you back away, mutter a few words and quietly put the person to the back of your mind, at least until he or she was better? Even more revealing – how would you react if the house next door to yours was earmarked as a future home for long-stay patients coming out of hospital – in other words if community care were to come to your back yard. Of course, you thought the concept was brilliant when it was first mooted. It’s great to have people who have been institutionalised for years and years move out of hospital into a home of their own. Then you receive a letter saying they are going to move into the house next door to you. Hey, wait a minute, you thought. What will these neighbours be like? Will they start molesting my children? Will they turn the neighbourhood into a modern-day Bedlam with their mad shouting and screaming? Most important of all: will the value of my house plummet? So, you sign a petition. You tiptoe around it at first. You don’t want to be nasty and say you’d rather they didn’t live next door. That’s a bit much. So you couch it slightly differently. You say the area isn’t suitable for that sort of person – whatever that means. Guess what? You’re prejudiced. You’re discriminating against a group of people because they are ill. What business is it of yours who is moving in next door anyway?

I have never understood why so many organisations consult residents in a street about people who are mentally ill moving into the area. What has it got to do with anyone else? When I move house, I would dearly love to have a survey carried out of the people next door beforehand. Are they noisy? Do they have a stereo blaring all day and night? Do they drink a lot? It would be wonderful to know in advance. That way I wouldn’t waste money on an unsuitable house. But I can’t do that because it would be a travesty of human rights. That is the difference between physical and mental illness. You wouldn’t mind a man with a broken leg moving in next door. But a broken mind, no thanks.

At least Asda has had the decency to apologise and withdraw the Halloween outfit. In a statement on Wednesday evening, Asda, which is owned by US retail giant Walmart, said the sale had been a “completely unacceptable error”.

A step in the right direction.

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Naturism en France: Never mind les bollocks…

Repression is a state of which the British are particularly proud. We do so like to be prim and proper, so much so the phrase ‘No sex, please, we’re British,’ perfectly sums up our puritanical spirit. I mean – why would anyone in their right mind want to take off their clothes, especially in this freezing country, other than to get into bed or step into a hot bath? The relationship the Brits have with their bodies is an offshoot of our Puritanism. Any excuse to keep our clothes on is more to the point. We tend to think we look ghastly in the buff. We have been brainwashed into believing we don’t have big enough muscles, tight enough abs, that our breasts are too small or too big, and our backsides too flabby. Like it or not, most of us do look better with our clothes on, with bellies firmly inside the pants and the love handles concealed by thick belts. But naturism is growing in popularity.

Now, France’s Nudist Federation has begun a drive to spruce up the image of naturism, countering claims that naturists are only there to ogle each other. Naturists say going nude puts people in touch with their bodies, allows them to let it all hang out. As far as activities go, naturism is cheap and offers social interaction for everybody, regardless of who they are.


Feel free to get YOUR bits out!

In the interest of duty, I once bared all myself and have never really recovered from the shock. It happened, one not-so-sunny day on Inchmurrin Island on Loch Lomond. One cold drizzly day in October, I arrived on the island, without an umbrella. I considered that a bit superfluous. I was given a pep talk by an experienced naturist who told me that the first few minutes were the worst. “After that,” he said, “You’ll find you begin to relax. We’ve even got two tennis courts.” Well, the mind positively boggled. Leap about naked on a tennis court? No way. The first time I warmed to the naturists on Inchmurrin was when they decided it was too cold for us to take our clothes off. Joy. Unfortunately, this only meant my editor insisted I repeat the experience elsewhere, in the warmer climes of a swimming pool where the group met during the winter months for a sort of naturists’ happy hour.

Suffice it to say, baring all was one of the most unpleasant experiences I have ever had. One minute I was in the cubicle at the side of the pool, heart pounding against my heaving naked bosom, oh sorry, got a bit carried away there; the next I was standing starkers amid a sea of gawping strangers. Only they weren’t gawping. It was just my imagination. The first few minutes of revealing all is a bit like smashing your car into something. Your whole life flashes before your eyes. To be blunt, the absolute truth is that I wasn’t that worried about exposing my private parts. It was the bits in between I was worried about. How long could I hold my breath?

I eventually sat down among a group of naturists, trying desperately hard to look relaxed, as if I did this sort of thing all the time. I chatted to a friendly man beside me, taking great care to stare straight into his face, afraid my eyes would accidentally drop. This, I can assure you, is an exhausting pose to strike for any length of time. When I spoke, my voice came out all high pitched, like a neutered fairy. Horror of horrors, I suddenly let out a loud snorting noise and the charming man recoiled in fright. There was no way I was going to add to my humiliation by explaining that the effort of holding in my stomach had finally proved too much. God, the air tasted so good. Needless to say naturism was not for me. But each to their own.


Certainly the naked rambler, Steve Gough, was almost driven insane by prudes on his protest tour of Britain. He believes the laws prohibiting nudity in Britain are archaic. To say Steve met with resistance from the public is an understatement. At times it seems people actually sat and waited for him to come moseying into their town, starkers, just so they could phone the police and be offended. Mr Gough, from Hampshire, imagined he was blazing a trail against antiquated British indecency laws and establishment attitudes, wearing nothing but boots, hat and sunscreen; a flag poking out of the top of his rucksack reading “Freedom to be yourself”
Naturism is actually quite a serious pursuit, a way of life. It usually takes place in designated areas. In parts of America, where else, certain communities are naked all the time, everywhere, even in the supermarket. Imagine people’s bits hanging over the frozen food sections? A bit off-putting, I think. At least it’s understandable in places like Florida where the sun is visible most of the time. The sun tends to bring entire neighbourhoods out into their gardens. You have naked sun-worshippers in the all-together having drunken barbecues, bare men mowing their lawns and nudies driving their cars, their sweaty, naked thighs stuck to their hot leather seats.

But if other people want to strip off, why shouldn’t they? Just don’t ask me to join in.

Article focus: naturism


Health & Safety

The blight that is health & safety

You can't take pictures in here

You can’t take pictures in here (Photo credit: sardinista)

The phenomenon of overzealous Health & Safety officials is nothing new. It is not the modern blight we all make out it is, according to Dr Mike Esbester, of the University of Portsmouth, but is, in fact, a century old. He describes some of the early Health and Safety advice, with their exaggerated posed photographs, as “unintentionally hysterical”. One shows a man lying under the wheels of a train beneath the legend: “If you happen to slip”. Doh! We seem to have learned nothing in all that time and over-cautious is still the name of the game. The zeal of PC officials to protect us from life’s knocks and bruises, which previous bureaucrats took for granted, just makes them look stupid and petty.

A few years ago, the grand burghers of Dundee City Council, or, more precisely, the Education Department’s grandly titled advice and conciliation manager, forbad its schools from providing home-baking stalls at summer events. Given that baking of such a kind is usually to raise money for the school or provide the staff and pupils with much needed treats, the decision was cruel as well as fatuous. Every single edict from central or local government becomes more ludicrous than the last, proving that the Nanny State is not just some figment of your wildest imaginings but a grim reality. The Governments, of both Holyrood and Westminster, keep telling us we are a bunch of fat, lazy consumerists, who attempt to thrive on sugar, salt, fat, alcohol and wheeze-inducing smoke.

The Nanny State says that, as a nation, we eat so much we can barely get though our own front doors without a crowbar. Nanny offers little compassion and a scolding finger, the ubiquitous jabbing forefinger – even if the facts she keeps pointing out are somewhat obvious, such as sugar makes you fat and too many gins make you drunk. Nanny’s rules go on and on. You shouldn’t play conkers at school. Rugby is too tough for small boys. No pictures of children must ever be taken at the school panto. You name it, some idiot from health & safety has outlawed it. If home baking isn’t good enough for a school fun day how come it is good enough to eat round the kitchen table? Why has it not been banned across Dundee as a whole? Why have the supermarket shelves not all been cleared of flour, baking soda, currants and those dainty little paper cups in which the cakes are served?


It’s difficult to comprehend the mindset of a true jobsworth. It’s a term usually used to describe a council official or parking attendant; a person whose favourite line tends to be, “Its more than my job’s worth to let you off, mate,” while enforcing some petty regulation or other. They are always people with very little authority. In fact, being a jobsworth gives them the only power they are ever likely to enjoy in their dull little lives, which is why they relish every moment of it. In 2013, there are more jobsworths out there than ever; little people hell-bent on doing what they can to prevent Joe and Jill Public from being happy. So, what exactly is a jobsworth? He or she always has a pinched, suspicious face, sour nature, and an aptitude for refusing to contemplate stepping outside the rules by even a millimetre. The true jobsworth is one who knows the rules backwards, realises that there is plenty of flexibility and chooses not to use it.It is important to distinguish them from someone who really has no flexibility and would lose their job if they acted in a contradictory way.

Where did all this start? How did people ever begin sticking their noses into business which did not concern them? Local authority and government employees, people who say they are public servants, who are paid with our council and income taxes, seem to think they know what is best for us. And, that is what a nanny is for, isn’t it?

Before they invent their little rules, there is no consultation, no deliberation – just this hard-and-fast diktat which makes absolutely no sense to 99 per cent of the population it affects. Political correctness has become the bane of our lives. It would be better if we just stayed indoors, didn’t go anywhere or do anything. Everyone, especially, schoolchildren has to take risks. It is part and parcel of growing up. But biting into a home-made scone in the school playground? I can think of a better use for an oven than baking – and it involves the advice and conciliation manager.

That just takes the biscuit.

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Piper Alpha

Piper Alpha

Memorial in Hazlehead Park, to the victims of ...

Memorial in Hazlehead Park, to the victims of the 1988 Piper Alpha disaster. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For those who endured the agony of Piper Alpha, time has not turned out to be a great healer. It is 25 years since the massive oil rig exploded into the North Sea, 120 miles off the coast of Aberdeen and the scars are still visible. It was just before 10pm on July 6, 1988, when the primary pump in the processing area failed and the men in the control room started the back-up, not realising it was under maintenance. Gas escaped from the hole left by an absent valve and the back-up pump exploded. Twenty minutes later, heat from the fire ruptured the gas line, causing a major explosion. Several more followed.
The men had to make a terrifying choice, between remaining on the burning Piper Alpha oil platform or jumping six-storeys into the North Sea. Those who jumped and survived paid a very high price. Forced to wait for the rescue boats and helicopters, they managed to stay alive by treading water on the sea’s boiling surface. They survived by keeping their heads under the freezing water one minute, and above, in the smoke and flames, the next. For those still trapped on the platform, smoke and flames blocked all routes to the lifeboats. Many ran back to the accommodation area, believing it safe because it was a fair distance from the blaze. They escaped the heat and flames but not the choking smoke. Starved of oxygen, they ended up on the floor, holding wet rags over their mouths and faces, unaware that the accommodation block was slowly sliding into the sea.
A total of 167 men died. There were 60 survivors. For many of the latter, recollections of the day the sea caught fire have had ongoing repercussions. Apart from burns, the most serious injuries were psychological. Survivors were traumatised. For example, a survivor might be happily walking down the street, a car would backfire and he’d find himself curled up into a ball in a shop doorway. Many saw their dead friends floating past them, on fire. Afterwards, they would lie down at night to sleep and the same video would keep replaying in their heads; galling re-enactments of what they had experienced.
The rescue workers suffered as well. The young men on the trawlers were traumatised beyond belief. Support vessels like the Silver Pit, an old converted trawler normally bobbed around the rig, checking everything was alright, with nothing much happening. Suddenly, they had to fish 30 to 40 burning bodies out of the sea; a highly dangerous task since the platform was on fire and parts were falling off into the water. Some were awarded the George Medal for their bravery. Research carried out a decade after the tragedy revealed that more than 70 per cent of the survivors interviewed said they felt very guilty about having lived when others had perished. Some of these people went on to gamble with their lives, indulging in high-risk activity, subconsciously willing themselves dead.
Sadly, many of the dead were found in the galley, waiting for helicopters which were unable to land because of the fire and thick smoke. Eventually, about 100 terrified men gathered there. There was a further explosion, the rupture of the pipeline between Piper Alpha and the Frigg gas field. The nearby rescue boat disappeared in a fireball, killing two of the crew and six men who had already been recovered from the sea.
Occidental Petroleum, the operator of the platform, paid out £110 million to survivors and the families of victims. Lord Cullen’s Inquiry made 106 recommendations which have revolutionised the oil industry in relation to safety. Piper Alpha once stood proud, towering 100 feet above the roughest water in the North Sea.
The fires took a whole month to put out. Soon, there was nothing left, just a blackened wreck, most of it melted away into the sea, leaving nothing but lifelong scars in the souls of those who survived.


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