Friday, 13 September 2013

How to be happy though radioactive?

BOOK REVIEW: Sellafield Stories: Life with Britain’s first nuclear plant, edited by Hunter Davies, London, Constable, 2012,  304 pp. ,  £9.99 (paperback), ISBN 978-1-7803-3299-4.                                     [Library shelf-mark (London) 621.483]

[Today’s related news story: “Nuclear plants 'do not raise child cancer risk'”]
Although the funding for the local history project of which Sellafield Stories is the published result derived from the winding-up of British Nuclear Fuels Limited (BNFL), readers are assured of its independent stance. The aim was to record the experiences and views of ‘ordinary people’ in West Cumbria in relation to the notorious nuclear complex on their doorstep. Respondents were largely self-selected after local publicity. then an attempt was made to widen representation by seeking out others. (The original sound archive with 100 interviewees is on-line at In the book’s 36 selections from the interviews a certain imbalance, perhaps unavoidable, nevertheless persists: for one thing, thirty are from men’s voices and only seven from women (one interviewed jointly with her husband). Just one (female) anti-nuclear-power protestor is included.

Since most have been employed at Sellafield and none has moved away from its vicinity (or been put off by the BNFL connection) it is no surprise that few express opposition to nuclear power as such, despite often forthright criticism of how the plant was run, especially in the early years when it was known as Windscale. Lack of health-and-safety awareness in the bad old days, affecting workers perhaps more than the environment, is a recurring theme, as is the obsession with secrecy. The shock of the 1957 fire with the subsequent fear of contamination it engendered reverberates in many testimonies.

The transcripts are grouped in chronological sections with brief historical notes on each period, highlighting key changes. This is particularly useful in view of the editorial decision not to correct factual errors and failures of memory but to let authentic voices be heard, enhanced by a phonetic rendering of the local dialect in places. Speakers are not anonymous; photographs are supplied, and biographical details elicited. Some are clearly more used to presenting and justifying their opinions than others, scientists and managers being less inclined to admit to negative feelings or ambivalence.

Evidently many workers feel a certain need for self-justification, given the levels of protest directed at Sellafield over the years. Protestors come in for a fair amount of hostility, once to the extent of asking why police didn’t shoot them (‘We were told not to’, came the reply) even though ‘Some of them were nice enough’ (p.285). Elements of the anti-nuclear argument nevertheless got through from time to time, especially with regard to environmental pollution and the dangers of radiation. Chernobyl had a noticeable impact (Fukushima was yet to come). Several speakers allude to the debate over the incidence of leukaemia clusters  in the vicinity of nuclear installations, one going so far as to admit responsibility: ‘... [W]e caused that.’ (p.80) Another source of unease is the knowledge of military involvement: ‘Sellafield was described as the atomic bomb factory.’ (p.135) One man insists that he refused to work on anything to do with nuclear weapons.

Latterly, the problem of nuclear waste inevitably looms large. There have been numerous reminders since the book’s publication that its menace will not go away. In October 2012, according to the BBC, the National Audit Office found: an ‘intolerable risk’ posed by hazardous waste stored at Sellafield; failure to develop a long-term plan for waste; and costs of decommissioning spiralling out of control. Local residents may have been reassured to hear that ‘Operator Sellafield Ltd, said it welcomed the report's findings and was "making improvements"’ (<> . Accessed 9-11-12) .

It is salutary to be reminded of the human factor in detail and variety, as distinct from humanity as an abstraction, not only in history but in the continuing energy debate. While the occasionally startling inside information on the nuclear industry contained in this book may need checking, it provides a rare collection of insights into what it is like to work there or live in its shadow, and into how life-choices can entail a commitment to its continuation. For those who would like to see different choices made in future, and an end to such commitment, it is worth attending to these stories and trying to understand the mentalities behind them.

[November 2012. May be published in Medicine, Conflict & Survival and should be/become available at]

pp.23-34 ‘I heard about the S fire, the one in 1957… We’d better not say anything because it’s so-and-so’s livelihood. So sometimes you kept quiet, but you know, you were scared stiff really… I know nothing whatsoever about the scientific side of it… But really, I’d rather it hadn’t come…’

p.29 ‘… what they do with the waste. That worries me… I don’t know, I’m not scientific…’
p.37 ‘I could always tell when my husband had been irradiated… his hair was standing on end when he came home!’

p. 95 ‘… you nivver believed anything the government or the police ever telt you … # It was Greenpeace that catched Sellafield putting stuff oot.’ 
p. 97 ‘They always used to say, if anybody ivver mentions nuclear energy, you can put a third down to truth, a third down to lies, and a third down to bullshit…’

p.193 ‘What bedevilled Sellafield in those days was a sort of MoS/MoD mentality… It was tacitly acknowledged it was a dangerous plant and so we’ll put it somewhere out of the way so it affects as few people as possible.’
‘[Locals] turn a blind eye to the faults… too much.’

An older related story, the 1984 Black Report:


Monday, 9 September 2013

An Island Community and a World at War

            Around the Peat-Fire
, by Calum Smith (Edinburgh, Birlinn, 2001; "Anthology" Edition [with additional essays] 2010), is a memoir which crosses boundaries between personal, local and national history, illuminating all three. First published when its author was nearly 90, it is the story of and stories from the first three decades of his life, almost all of which he spent on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides.
Obviously it was not only in the Western Isles that the early twentieth century brought massive changes in the way of life, but there were specific local features: transition in Calum's case linguistically and culturally as well as physically and geographically, from a Gaelic-speaking home and early environment in the west of the island, to the English-medium education system and the predominantly English-speaking town of Stornoway, and other zones of interaction with the wider world. Constrained by pressure on the land and the complications of tenure and inheritance, the crofting family moved to the outskirts of Stornoway, and eventually into it. He conveys the reality of rural poverty, along with the mitigating circumstances that made it bearable, such as the freedom of the open air, the network of mutual support, and the informal entertainments. For some education was the route to a different life, but after a spell at Glasgow University Calum, having turned down a chance to be a Labour candidate, returned to Lewis and spent some time doing odd jobs while 'unemployed' like so many of his contemporaries and fellow islanders - the depression hit hard, exacerbated by the post-war decline of the formerly flourishing herring fishing industry - ending up in the late 1930s as an employee of the local Labour Exchange, the 'Burroo' (Bureau of Employment).
He does not speak for others, but having good verbal recall enables the reader to 'hear' them speaking for themselves in quotations, often at some length, almost as if taking their turn to hold the floor or ‘yarn’ at a ceilidh. There are some areas of reticence: we do not have explicit pronouncements on issues like gender relations, for example, but have the means through his observation to draw certain inferences, one being the clear demarcation of tasks combined with shared responsibilities within a strongly patriarchal society that was nevertheless more nuanced in this respect than might be assumed. It was part of the writer's aim to celebrate and commemorate the people and places he had known (including some who did not survive very long to record their own testimony – several allusions to young men are tagged with a note of how they died in the Second World War), during that past time which he was conscious, as he wrote, of being one of the few to remember.
That he succeeded well is perhaps best illustrated by the book’s favourable reception, not just in terms of sales and reviews, but through the many appreciative letters he received from readers - Lewis men and women, their descendants, and people from other parts of the world in whom it had aroused often emotional reactions and recollections. More formal recognition was forthcoming too, especially in the glowing short review in the West Highland Free Press (28 December 2001) by Roger Hutchinson, who later paid it the tribute of referring to it repeatedly throughout one of his own books, The Soap Man (Edinburgh, Birlinn, 2003), to illustrate his narrative as a recurring motif, i.e. what was happening to an island family during the period he was describing. One of the things that most impressed Roger Hutchinson about Around the Peat-fire was the third chapter, dealing with the shipwreck of the Iolaire on New Year's Day 1919.

View of Stornoway from the Iolaire memorial site, Holm
Though often spoken of as 'remote' or even 'on the edge of the world' the island’s inhabitants were far from isolated as regards world events. In more prosperous times there had been frequent contacts with Scandinavia, Russia and North America through the herring industry, which involved large-scale processing as well as catching the fish, while young Lewiswomen made up a substantial proportion of the seasonally migrant 'herring girls' who worked in ports around the Scottish and English coasts, as far away as Yarmouth. Calum's mother started work on the fish at the age of 14, and it was in Fraserburgh, north of Aberdeen, that she married Murdo Smith from a closely neighbouring village on the west coast of Lewis, who was one of the crew on a fishing boat there while she was working on the quay gutting herring. His (Calum's) eventual father-in-law, meanwhile, was on the other side of the fish-curing business, in a family firm (Flett’s) that would have employed women like his mother, until the business collapsed along with so many others in the 1920s and ‘30s.
There is a long tradition too of association between poverty-driven recruitment to the armed forces and the island. Casualties in the First World War were heavy: according to the Scottish historian T C Smout, from a population of 29,500 on the island, 6700 had joined the forces, and 1151 had died, about 17% of recruits. Many of them were in the Royal Naval Reserve (RNR), a popular choice of affiliation on Lewis because of the retainer it paid to those who joined, as described on pp.26-27 of the book. But the casualties did not end on 11 November 1918. On January 1st 1919, in the early hours of the morning, H.M.Yacht Iolaire struck rocks, the 'Beasts of Holm', near the entrance to Stornoway harbour, and sank with the loss of 205 men. Most of those on board were RNR ratings going home to villages around the island after years of war service. Among them was of Calum Smith's uncle John, who was not one of the 75 survivors. In the commemorative booklet on the disaster, Sea Sorrow, published by the Stornoway Gazette in 1959, he is listed as the first of nine from the village of Shawbost: John Smith, Deck hand, R.N.R., 11 South. The list of names shows between 1 and 23 lost from each of 35 villages, and the town, grouped in 4 parishes.
As well as expressing the shared sense of shock and grief, the Town Council two days later demanded the strictest investigation into all circumstances. The Admiralty found "Nothing to account for the disaster" in its initial Court of Enquiry; there were rumours, a desire for some sort of explanation, eventually a public enquiry. Although no-one was blamed, the situation prior to embarkation was described by James Shaw Grant, Editor of the Gazette in the mid 20th century, (Hub of My Universe, p.92) as a 'familiar story of chaos' at Kyle of Lochalsh, the mainland port, such as had occurred previously at the time of island servicemen's return from the Boer War, when the lack of organisation had led to protests. At the end of 1918 neither the Admiralty nor the War Office had made adequate provision for the numbers to be transported across the Minch. Some soldiers and civilians were carried on the regular ferry, the Sheila, which made the crossing safely, but the naval ratings were put on to the Iolaire, parent ship of Stornoway naval base, which had never previously entered that harbour in darkness.
It may scarcely be possible to exaggerate the impact of the tragedy at the time, with such pervasive bereavement, but the effect on second and third generations is more problematic. Apart from a poem of two, there was little obvious cultural or physical memorial in the immediate aftermath of  the tragedy, although as in so many other places a large war memorial for 1914-18 was erected on a hill overlooking the town - and of course there were gravestones. Certainly the Iolaire was not forgotten in the intervening years, but direct references to it were rather rare: to ‘place’ someone, e.g. 'His grandfather was drowned on the Iolaire', or when there was a question of going to the beach near the wreck site. The first specific monument was set up in 1959, and a plaque was added nearby in 2002 (in a ceremony including phrases that may have come from a reading of this book).
Historiography of the event remained scarce. It was possible for in-depth studies of communities on Lewis from an 'anthropological'; or 'ethnographical' perspective (admittedly not history per se), like those by Judith Ennew and Susan Parman, to make little or no reference to it. Apart from the Gazette publication, the first substantial historical account was Norman Malcolm Macdonald's Call Na h’Iolaire, 1978 (the main narrative is in Gaelic, with a useful shorter outline in English). The same author included the disaster as one of the themes running through his novel Portrona (2000). Nowadays indeed it seems to be a necessary point of reference in any book with a Lewis setting, whether fictional like The Dark Ship by Anne Macleod (2002), the third novel in PeterMay’s trilogy, or non-fiction documentary like Children of the Black House by Calum Ferguson (2003). Of course it is also an integral and inescapable part of the now flourishing local 'heritage industry', and it is featured on a number of websites.
It might be worth considering how this process of remembering and adjusting over decades compares with collective memory of other events in other places, perhaps in one instructive comparison would be with the massive explosion at Halifax, Nova Scotia, in December 1917. There may be a question too of how such intensely local, specific trauma fits with the shared experience of world war.
To return to the title and the book, the Iolaire is a significant chapter but does not dominate either the mood or the content of this collection of memories as a whole. It is with the outbreak of the Second World War that the author concludes: 'Never again would things be the same for any of us.' (p.167)   He was adamant that he had no wish to write about the Second World War, although he had a few anecdotes from his time in the Navy (like many others he signed on ‘HO’ - Hostilities Only), and numerous characters to remember in conversation.

Cover of the 2010 edition
Although this is attractively produced, a number of mostly minor errors escaped the proof-reading process. Since Calum Smith was always insistent on correct usage, they are noted below:

Page       [errors remaining/added 2010]       correction                                             reason   
22           casulaties                                               casualties                                               typo
89           could [...] got to school                       could [...] go [or get] to school          typo       
131         lan mo chinn                                         lann mo ceann                        ceann = head, lann = full up (rhyming)
172         foresight that […] doing for       foresight – that […] doing – for    [with no dashes sense is spoiled]
194 (and 222)       Oh ghia, sgadan saillte!       Oh ghea, sgadan saillt!                        as originally written/published
204         ‘new day’                                               ‘a new day’                                            as originally written/published
207         poll mònadh                                          poll-mònadh                                         as originally written/published
216         a vague Glasgowegian                        a vague Glaswegian                             correct term, as original    
220         said “the men of the village (population 600)...” and so on            extra <,said> added after ‘600’)
220-1     quadrupled – or divided, by four,    quadrupled – or divided by four,   extra comma spoils sense
222         sgaddan saillte –  salted herring       sgadan saillt –  salt herring                as originally written/published
222         -aich  (after 'Leòdhasach') should be in Italics to match                              font
222         Land of Eternal Youth                          Land of (Eternal) Youth         ‘eternal' is not in the Gaelic


Monument to the men lost on the Iolaire

Iolaire memorial plaque on stone at Holm

The “Beasts of Holm” on which the ship foundered

Thursday, 5 September 2013

70 Years Ago: The other Gruinard story

When anthrax hit the mainland

A lesser-known episode within the decades-long contamination of Gruinard Island by anthrax as a result of biological weapons research is the appearance of anthrax on the Scottish mainland in 1943 and the subsequent payment of compensation to owners of animals that had died. For a time there was a sort of legend about this compensation being paid ‘by return’ as soon as it was claimed. In fact those in charge did not exactly rush to the cash-box, as a Ministry of Agriculture (MAF) file, declassified in 1999, shows. (National Archives reference MAF 287/9, Outbreak of anthrax in Ross and Cromarty: claims for compensation, 1943-1968.) In 1968 the Ministry of Defence denied that it could find any record of compensation.

Tam Dalyell MP in New Scientist, 20 April 2002, p.51 quoted the then Minister for Veterans’ Affairs at the MoD as saying “that archives now in the public domain show that following the tests there was an anthrax outbreak on the mainland which was said to be caused by an infected sheep being washed away from Gruinard. Between September 1942 and March 1943, seven cattle, two horses, three cats and between 30 and 50 sheep died on the nearby mainland, he added. However, the Ministry of Agriculture said that only two of these deaths were caused by anthrax.”

The news of the dead animals was communicated to the ministry by Mr A C Urquhart, Divisional Inspector for Animal Health, on 28 February 1943. The death of a heifer a week previously had been reported to the police as suspected anthrax, and in the previous year a carcase of a breed and origin “unknown locally” had been washed up in an inlet off Gruinard Bay. Local rumour suggested experiments of great secrecy going on, involving “poison gas dropped from aeroplanes”.

Dr Paul Fildes, leading the research, considered the business unfortunate, and the rumours important, but thought that if he sent a party to explore the mainland beaches “the whole thing would get out”. Instead he suggested locals might be asked to collect dead animals and birds and have them sent to Porton. If they had come from the island, he reckoned “our grave [of sheep used in the experiments] must have been disturbed by the winter storms”.

A Ministry of Agriculture Area Inspector sent to investigate confirmed that at least three sheep had been washed up the previous September, of which two had gone back out to sea. In his view deaths might quite probably recommence unless action was taken.

A cover story would be needed if there was to be an official response to formal claims for compensation. Enter Mr Fish, describing himself as a security office, who gave the line: to ascribe the anthrax’s origin to one sheep, which it was to be said had been traced to a Greek ship. The utmost secrecy as to the actual source of the sheep was essential, Fish explained, to prevent news of the Gruinard experiments reaching Germany. Fildes approved this “ingenious solution”, by which the payment of compensation of a little over £300 would be presented as a charge on the Greek government, to be settled between the two allies after the war.

Others were more sceptical. In a memo of 24 April 1943 from the Animal Health Division in Dingwall, Urquhart reported that the Greek ship story had gone down with the natives as well as could be expected. Personally he took a dim view, repeating that Gruinard was “too close” even though “you may get away with it this time”. He added his opinion that in spite of what the department concerned said, it was anthrax spore infection.

A meeting of ministry representatives with the Treasury in May came round to the idea of an “ex gratia” payment, while in a feat of double-think, MAF also took the view that compensation was properly payable as the trouble had arisen through the direct agency of HM Government and probably as a result of carelessness in the part of its agents. At the same time they agreed with Fildes about the need to avoid any disclosure of the nature of operations on the island, so that it would be preferable to pay via another Department, to avoid setting a precedent. The possibility of recurring outbreaks was a difficulty. The Minister of Information was against further payments in the event of more deaths. He thought the Greek ship story feasible, as it had already gained some credence, but the Treasury rejected it, although they could suggest no alternative other than to pay up and shut up about why.

After further discussion it was settled that the Ministry of Supply should make money available via a Scottish Office representative making a personal visit, and getting a receipt in full settlement from each crofter. Officials would accept the view that the trouble was in some way related to war conditions, and that it was made on account of the death of the animals. They would continue to monitor the situation and would arrange vaccination of animals.

Nevertheless, in September 1943 Urquhart found anthrax again confirmed in a dead heifer. He reckoned no clue to the origin of the infection could be found other than the Centre At Gruinard. In early October the owner claimed for the animal he had lost. Meanwhile men from the ministry met Fildes, who had admitted that while there was some doubt about activities on Gruinard being again responsible, it was the most plausible explanation. Eventually a letter was sent on 10 July 1944 stating that no compensation was being offered, but payment was being made with reference to the death of the animal. An envelope in the file contains a certificate of infection with anthrax.

Serious concerns were emerging. Apprehensively MAF enquired of Fildes whether he intended to initiate more experiments but were told the idea had been abandoned in favour of future collaboration with Canada and the USA, if more such work was needed. In June 1945 Fildes admitted to the War Cabinet Inter-Services Sub-Committee that Gruinard Island was very heavily infected, and would not be fit to restore for normal purposes for very long time, at least 30 years – an underestimate, as it turned out. He himself “hoped to be out of the subject in a few weeks”, having “no idea how to clean the island up”. MAF was to be consulted on any necessary action to prevent it being “a menace to the mainland”.

In July 1966 the Director of Microbiological Research at Porton was estimating that it would take 100 years to decontaminate the island – fortunately, this turned out to be an overestimate.

here is the full article as submitted to Medicine, Conflict & Survival

Gruinard Island nestles close to the mainland,
Aultbea, Laide and Isle Martin 

Sunday, 1 September 2013

Resistance to militarism continued, 1963

After National Service ended (the last conscript was demobbed from the British armed forces in 1963), the focus of anti-militarism changed in the direction of subverting the recruiting efforts of the state, and trying to persuade those who had already been lured in to see through the propaganda.

Letter and leaflet references: RON01519, RON01520, RON01521

The letter-writer (whose name and address have been trimmed from this image) was not being excessively paranoid in emphasising the risk involved in publishing and distributing such material. “Sedition” and “incitement of troops to disaffection” were taken very seriously.