The Visit

(First published 3 November 2013)

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There is always a danger, when looking back over one’s childhood, of succumbing to nostalgia and remembering only the happy events – those joyful times that leave an indelible mark in our memories to cherish when we get old.

Growing up in Lochgelly during the 1960s and 1970s offered plenty of opportunities to add to the collection. A proud, working-class mining village set amongst the beautiful scenery of central Fife, perched high on its own little hill with panoramic views over the Braes towards the Meadows and Benarty and Lomond Hills, then out along the East Neuk before turning south over the Loch that gives the village its name. But it wasn’t all Utopian bliss. And sometimes the real horrors lie hidden for years.

Like many youngsters in the town, I enjoyed a number of jobs that would help supplement the weekly pocket money allowance from my father. Picking tatties down at Ernies, doing the shopping for elderly neighbours and bagging the monthly one-ton coal delivery at my grandparents. Grandad’s job as a blacksmith with the NCB came with regular extras, but my steady job was as a paper-boy with Dougie Dickson who ran the newsagent on the corner of Auchterderran Road. The early rise could be a real pain at times, especially if I had been reading under the covers the previous night or when the alarm sounds alongside a thunderous cacophony cascading down from the heavens onto the tiles above my head. But it was also a joy – walking into the sunrise down Auchterderran Road then over to Cooper Ha’, along Launcherhead Road and up the Auld Guige on a warm spring morning with the hedgerows teeming with birds before anyone else was up and about was a great place to cultivate a fertile imagination. Most of the time we just delivered the papers and magazines, but for a short time in 1973 we had to collect the money too, so on a Friday, after school, it was out with the bike and a bag of change and round the doors for a second time that day. We had a small rise from Dougie to compensate for the extra round, but the novelty and pay rise soon wore off and it became a chore.

A Friday collection round during November that year took a sinister turn. My ‘home leg’ was MacGregor Avenue, which used to look out over the Plantin (short for Plantation or Planting – which I have never been able to determine). I lived one street up in Stewart Crescent so I had only a few calls left when I turned the corner by the water tank that looked out over the second green on the golf course – and into the west end of the Avenue. A short way down I stopped to collect the paper money from a house, left my bike at the gate and walked the sort distance to the red door. I was about to knock when it opened and Mr King was waiting for me. He was a familiar figure – a regular on the golf course, he would often give the young boys some advice and coaching. Short, stocky with thick arms and legs – he looked like a celtic Gene Hackman. Whilst the coaching was always welcome, there was an edge to him and he had a quick temper and tongue and was never gracious when playing behind, always the first to shout “out the way” if he wanted to play through.

I hadn’t really spoken with him directly though and certainly never one to one, so I was a little apprehensive when he announced, “Come on in, I’ve got something for you.”

At a time when adults were to be respected and trusted it didn’t cross my mind to refuse, so I walked past him into the hallway as he closed the door behind me. Perhaps what unnerved me most was his attire – a short, grey, toweling dressing gown – and as he climbed the stairs I had a good view of his thick hairy calves. “I’ve seen you on the golf course” he said without looking back, “I’ve got some golf magazines for you, come on up..”

The layout of the house was the same as my own and he turned at the top of the stairs I realized he had gone into the front bedroom. His head appeared round the corner and he smiled and said “Come on – you can carry them down.”

When I reached the top of the stairs and turned around he was waiting by a dressing table just inside the doorway. There was a pile of black and white magazines on the table and he gestured towards them. “That’s them there” he said ‘you’ll get lots of good tips from them.” He picked them up and handed them to me, then he leant down and opened the top drawer of the dressing table and pulled out another magazine. This one was in colour and had a half-naked woman on the front cover. I recognised it from one of the top row collection Dougie had in the newsagent shop. “What dae you think of this?”

As I stared at it, he put it down on the table next to a vanity mirror and brush set – the same as my grandmother’s – then he reached round and grabbed me by the back of the neck. “Have you seen one of these before?” he asked, as he reached inside his dressing gown with his right hand and pulled out his semi-erect penis and started to stroke it.

I was transfixed with fear and couldn’t move – for a second or two – then I lurched back and broke his grip before turning and fleeing down the stairs and out the front door. When I was halfway down the garden path he shouted after me, “Tell anyone and I’ll fucking kill you.”

I was a long way down the road when I bumped into a friend of mine, also collecting paper money and I told him what had happened. “What are you gonna do?” he asked. “You going to tell your dad?”

“No way” I replied.

I had forgotten about this incident. Completely. If ever the topic of paedophillia came up, I would have an opinion, of course, just the same as anyone, but I would always qualify it be stating that I was very fortunate and hadn’t experienced anything remotely like it in my life. Like most, I find the practice abhorrent. Like most, in an abstract, detached way. Or so I thought.

One Friday evening in late may during 1998 I was visiting my parents after returning from London for the weekend. I parked my car outside their house at the foot of Boyd Place and started to gather my things. As I opened the door and looked up, an old man was walking towards me on the pavement and as he passed he looked down at me and our eyes met. In that instant a scene started playing in my head, just like a film – and immediately I was back in his bedroom twenty five years earlier. Again I was transfixed and couldn’t move but this time with shock rather than fear. As he walked past me he turned and glanced back and I sensed the look of recognition in his face.

I cannot clearly recall the next few moments but I remember my mother standing at the window looking out with a smile and waving and then I was walking down the road towards him. I pulled up a few paces behind, keeping up easily as he tried to increase his pace. I didn’t say anything for a minute or two – I was still engrossed at what I was seeing in my mind’s eye. Everything had such incredible clarity – as if it was occurring concurrently with the present time. Out of one eye I was watching an old man walking down a pavement and in the other he was standing over me, masturbating. It was the eyes that made the connection.

“You’re Jimmy King” I said. More of a statement than a question. “Do you know who I am?” I asked. “Of course you do.” I answered for him. “I’m your paper-boy – remember me?”

For the next five minutes until we reached his front door I kept at him, asking about what had happened that Friday in November; what he was doing. What he was thinking. He said nothing. Just kept on walking with a studied determination. By the time we reached his house in MacGregor Avenue he was exhausted and shaking like a leaf. “You just fucking keep away frae me.” He said as he reached his door. I had paused as I reached the gate, unwilling to cross the threshold into his garden; his space, again. I looked at him as he walked through the familiar red door and as he turned, I said to him, “If I find out you’ve did that to anyone else, I’ll be back.”

I couldn’t think of anything else to say. It was a bit pathetic, but it was the only thing I could pluck out of the thousands of other thoughts that were racing through my mind at that second. I did raise my voice a little though, which helped. As I walked away I could see another figure walking across the living room to the door. Someone else.

The remembrance of the incident shook me up for quite a few weeks. Let me be clear. The magnitude of the ‘abuse’ was nothing compared to what we know now after the likes of Savile and the explosion of serious sexual abuse cases that have flooded the media in recent times. I wasn’t hurt physically, merely witnessed at close quarters, the infallibility and weakness of the human spirit. A sordid act, for sure, but nothing physically harmful in the strictest sense. What troubled me most was that I had completely erased the memory in the intervening years and it had only returned – with incredible clarity – when visually triggered by a casual encounter with the protagonist. What else may I have hidden away?

Experiences like this are not that uncommon. Spontaneous recall or memory reinstatement often occurs from a trigger stimulation – smell, sound, sight of an entity closely associated with the original memory. With me, it was the look in his eyes.

After a few weeks I reconciled my thoughts a little and was reasonably content there were no other monsters hiding in the cupboards of my deep memory and soon I had largely relegated the experience to an occasional consideration and by and by, other things took over.

Two years later I was in Fife again, this time during May at a Sunday league football match in Cupar watching my two sons play in the last match of the season. It was pouring with rain as both teams chased a sodden ball en masse up and down the pitch to howls of encouragement from the watching parents. Sometime during the game, a woman came across to me and asked how I was. “Not seen you in years” she said and she started to tell me about her son who was playing in the same match. After a minute or two I interrupted her and confessed that I didn’t know who she was, giving the usual excuses of rapidly advancing senility and incompetence. She had been at the same primary school she explained – in the same class – and once she told me her name I could remember her fine. But not quite the same way as I had with the old man.

We were chatting for a good while when we got round to asking about our parents. “I don’t see mine anymore” she said, as a matter of fact. “Haven’t seen them since before I got married about nine years ago.”

“Why not?” I asked, always curious to hear the unusual.

“Well when I was about eight, my mum and dad got a job at Andrew Antennas but on different shifts. Sometime though they would get swapped over and I used to have to stay with my aunt and uncle if they were working nightshift together. When that happened I used to get raped by my uncle and that kept happening until I was about sixteen. When I was going to get married, I told my mum and dad what had happened because they were going to get invited to the wedding. I didnae want them there. But my mum and dad didnae believe me. Didnae want to believe me. So me and Brian did the wedding ourselves and nobody from my family came and I haven’t spoken them since.”

I was at a loss for words but managed to ask what happened to her uncle.
“Nothing” she said, “he’s still in Lochgelly.”

“You’re kidding” I replied. “Where about?”

“MacGregor Avenue….”

Long after the game had finished and the kids were sitting in the car I finished telling her about my encounter with her uncle all those years ago – and more recently. “What are you going to do?” she asked. I just shook my head in reply.
I didn’t return to London after the weekend, instead I stayed on in the Holiday Inn in Leslie for an extra night and sat up most of the night just thinking about what I had learned.

The following morning dawned cloudless and still – a beautiful day in prospect as I looked out over the ‘Cut’ – that long straight section of the River Leven that runs from the loch towards Auchmuir Bridge, on the road between Leslie and Lochgelly. I parked my car on the south side of Loch Leven and walked up Benarty from Vane Farm – the RSPB reserve – up the long incline to the top and as I reached the summit and Lochgelly came into view, I decided then what I was going to do.

An hour later I walked through the ‘close’ – the alleyway or gunnel, between the house with the red door and its neighbour on MacGregor Avenue. It was just after ten o’clock in the morning and most of the residents were in their back gardens making the most of the pleasant weather. On one side, a woman was hanging her washing whilst her husband was preparing the lawnmower. In the garden that concerned me stood Jimmy King, trimming some plants with secateurs in his hand. His wife was by the garden shed and it was she that saw me first. There was a cast iron and wooden garden seat at the back door and I sat down and waved her across.

“Can I help you?” she asked. “Yes, I think you can.” I replied and patted the seat beside me. She sat down and I introduced myself to her. “Do you remember me?” I asked. “I used to be your paper-boy many years ago. I lived just up in Stewart Crescent. Do you remember? My dad was the chiropodist.” I added as an afterthought. There was a vague look of recognition, but perhaps this was only out of politeness. She said nothing. I went only speaking quite slowly and slightly louder, “I was just wondering, Mrs. King, if you knew your husband was a paedophile and child abuser.” It was not the kind of question that would elicit a conversational response, but I did expect something back from her, but instead she just looked at me with a dread, a fear in her eyes that said everything. She knew. I told her what happened. Then I told her about her niece..

By now the neighbours had stopped and were listening and looked just as shell-shocked as the woman next to me. Jimmy came down towards us, brandishing the secateurs and shouting at me to get out. I waited until he was at arms length then with a calmness I didn’t know I possessed, I took the instrument from him quickly and grabbed him by the throat with my left hand all in one movement then lifted him off the ground.

He was an old man by then, probably late seventies but still quite stocky and muscular. He had worked on the railways and the golf had kept him in reasonable condition, but that morning, with my weaker arm, I managed to lift him clear of the ground then walked him down to the close on an outstretched arm, without even thinking about it. Once I got him there I held him up against the wall and came up close to his face. I could see his eyes reddening and beginning to roll and I realized then I was suffocating him and I squeezed ever so slightly harder. “How does it feel, Jimmy?” I asked “How does it feel to be on the receiving end for a change?”

I held him for a few seconds more then released by grip slightly and lowered him to the ground. In these few seconds I thought about what I was doing and quite calmly and detachedly I debated what I should do. I didn’t have an answer. Instead, I said to him very quietly, “I’m going to tell you something Jimmy. You won’t know when or where, but I’m going to come back for you. Maybe when you’re coming out from the golf course one night, maybe when you’re getting your messages or digging your garden. And I’m not sure yet what I’m going to do to you, but I am going to think of something quite memorable. Every night when you go to bed, and every morning when you wake up. I want you to think about that first and last. You got it?”

I dropped him and he fell to the ground and there was some shouting and some threats as I left and got into my car. As long as he lived then I was reasonably confident the police wouldn’t be involved. Not if Jimmy had anything to do with it.

I was left with a sense of disgust by the whole episode – not just for this man’s behavior and the trauma he had inflicted on one of my classmates from many years ago – but strangely enough for my own. Not the threats or the unpleasantness at the house that day, but in the few seconds that I had held him by the throat against the wall I realized then in that instant that that I was using that horrific power – of overpowering someone who is much weaker – in the same way that he had done against me, only without the sexual element – and that appalled me as much as anything else.

I never returned again to MacGregor Avenue and Jimmy King died a few years ago. I don’t know how. I do hope he thought about me from time to time – and his niece too – but sometimes these people just don’t. They have no conscience or guilt – or if they do, they keep it locked away somewhere deep in their innermost recesses. Like we all sometimes do with unpleasant memories. Just kept in a locked room waiting for something or someone to open the door.

On Demolishing Walls

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Almost three decades have passed since the Lockerbie disaster and we are still a long way from discovering what actually happened that dark December night, never mind who was responsible for the atrocity in the first place. Time itself is proving the greatest handicap as many of the individuals involved in the case have since died and we have to resign ourselves that we may never know the true version of events and ensure justice is carried out for the victims and their families, which will be little consolation to the likes of Dr Jim Swire who has campaigned relentlessly for a new independent investigation, but to little avail. In an interview some years ago, Dr Swire descried the “wall of silence” in the government and media whenever he tried raising the issue – a practice that has become increasingly fashionable in the intervening years.

A week after my 40th birthday I was working in St Albans for the NHS when news began to break of a tragedy in America. Two commercial airplanes had crashed into the Twin Towers in New York and hundreds of people were trapped at the top of the skyscrapers above the impact sites. At lunchtime, we were told that all clinics had been cancelled for the rest of the day and I headed back home to Birmingham and listened to the developing situation on the car radio. Like most people throughout the world I suppose, I spent the next 24 hours after I arrived, glued to the television set, not quite believing what my eyes were telling me. It seemed absolutely impossible that two enormous buildings could collapse so comprehensively when it appeared that the fires that had engulfed the skyscrapers following the impact had largely burned out. Yet collapse they did – at what seemed an incredible rate.

It is worth remembering that in 2001, the Internet was in its infancy. There was no Facebook; no YouTube and no live news sites. Although media coverage was extensive for many months afterwards, most of the focus was on the personal tragedies and the political developments as the USA geared up for retaliation. We were left in little doubt who the perpetrators were – nineteen Arab fundamentalists instructed by Osama Bin Laden – whose guilt was unquestionable following the 9/11 Commission Report a few years later. The case was simple; four planes were hijacked in mid-air, two were flown into WTC 1&2 in New York, one into the Pentagon and the other into a field near Shanksville PA, after passengers overpowered the hijackers in a courageous fight to the death.

In Manhattan, fires from the kerosene aircraft fuel weakened the steel structure of the buildings and caused the top section of the towers to fall onto the building below, where it caused a gravity-driven collapse, pulverising the entire structure into pile of dust and twisted metal with the loss of over three thousand lives. The destruction of each building took less than twelve seconds and it was the manner in which the towers fell that transfixed this individual, perhaps to the point where I failed to register anything else that day. Like the destruction of another New York skyscraper later that afternoon. At 5.20pm EDT, World Trade Center 7 also collapsed from fires caused by falling debris after the towers fell.

It seemed irrelevant at the time. No one was killed as the building had been cleared hours before. It just fitted into the pattern that day – damage from the airplane crashes caused fires, which weakened the building structures causing them to collapse. It was the only explanation offered at the time – and one that was subsequently confirmed by the 9/11 Commission Report and the NIST (National Institute for Standards and Technology) investigations some years later. It is a position that has been steadfastly adopted by every US administration and its allies ever since.

September 11th 2001 became the pretext for a “war on terror” that is still being exercised today – sixteen years later. The official explanation of what actually happened that fateful day does not, however, bear close scrutiny.

Modern hi-rise buildings don’t collapse from fires thankfully. That is not to say they are ‘safe’ places to be in an emergency – as Grenfell so tragically illustrated recently. But it is worth noting that the London building did not collapse, even after an intensive fire that raged for over 16 hours. Neither did the Torch skyscraper in Dubai, which caught fire for the second time just last week. Of course, neither building sustained an airplane crash – but then again neither did WTC 7.

NIST is the US government agency responsible for investigations following major structural failures in buildings and up until the 9/11 atrocity, enjoyed an exemplary reputation for diligence and accuracy. However its conclusions into the failures of the three Manhattan skyscrapers are incomprehensible.

On the twin towers, NIST claims that a weakening of the connecting floor trusses from the kerosene fires resulted in the top sections of both buildings becoming unstable causing them to crash down onto the top of the structure below. This gravity-driven collapse then pulverised the remaining buildings into a pile of dust to the point where only a few sections of the outer walls at concourse level remained standing – at most a couple of hundred feet.

Whilst this seemed plausible on first reading, the explanation for WTC 7 did not. NIST claimed that fires from office furniture had substantially weakened just one support column (of 58) and when this failed at 5.20pm, the entire building then collapsed. However, at a press conference following publication of their report, NIST admitted that they really weren’t quite sure how WTC 7 had collapsed in the way it did, but they were sticking to their story regardless.

In time, when the details of the Pentagon and Shankville incidents were released, even more doubts surfaced about the official explanation. We are asked to accept that both aircraft mostly vaporised after crashing with only a few fragments of fuselage recoverable from both sites. No passengers were identified at either site – not even through DNA analysis – as they too vaporised on impact.

If we are to believe the official position that a passenger aircraft can fly at 560mph a few feet above the ground whilst approaching one of the most secure buildings in the world, knock down five lamp-posts with its wings en route and can still manage to crash a neat twenty foot hole through reinforced walls, then I guess it’s fairly safe to assume than none of the passengers would survive the collision. But parts of them would – enough to conduct DNA analysis for identification – only in this instance, it appears not.

The same with Shankville, where Flight 93, immortalised by Holywood, crashed into a field before reaching its intended target. Here too, the aircraft and passengers were vaporised, leaving only a smoking crater and a handful of fuselage fragments for investigators to look at and scratch their heads.

Why is this impossible?

In every other aircraft tragedy, crash investigators and recue personnel have always managed to recover substantial parts of the aircraft – and passengers. Following Lockerie, much of Pan Am 103 was recovered over a huge radius in the Scottish Borders and painstakingly reconstructed for forensic examination in an aircraft hanger in England. Part of a timer circuit in the bomb that exploded that evening was recovered on a hillside many miles from Lockerbie and became of critical in the subsequent criminal trial in Camp Zeist as the manufacturer’s name and serial number were still readable. All of the passengers on the flight were recovered, some of the bodies remarkably unmarked, despite the rapid descent in an aircraft blown up at 34,000’ whilst travelling at over 500mph. The black box was intact. Nothing vaporised.

Even Malaysian Airlines MH17, which was destroyed by Bulk surface to air missile whist flying at 33,000’ over east Ukraine in July 2014 gave up its ghosts five months later, when Dutch forensic investigators announced on 5 December they had identified 294 out of the 298 passengers and crew that were on board after a major recovery operation in an extremely hostile environment. Much of the aircraft was recovered too. Little, if anything was vaporised.

Of course, there has been no explanation as to why the 9/11 airplanes and passengers simply vaporised leaving no trace behind. There can’t be as it would be even more ridiculously implausible that the reasons offered by NIST for the WTC 1,2&7 building collapse in New York.

As tragic as all those events were on 9/11, New York remains paramount in emotive recollection – not least because of the violent deaths of over three thousand innocent victims – and it is here where demands for Pandora’s Box to be finally prised open will become irresistible. Only now, a decade and half later, are all the long-term health implications for Manhattan citizens being fully understood and realised. Many of the conditions were triggered by the inhalation of the toxic dust cloud that enveloped lower east side following the collapse of the towers. What was in the dust that proved so debilitating and fatal to those that were exposed? Could it offer any clues why the buildings collapsed in the manner they did?

If Isaac Newton had been around today, then this mystery could have been solved at the outset. All he would have done was to direct our attention to his Third Law and say “go figure”!

Of course, I have no experience of building construction and regulation and can claim no authority in that field. I’m just a simple podiatrist, but the same Newtonian principles apply in my area of expertise and I would be grateful if you can permit me an analogy.

Imagine one of the athletes competing in the long-jump in London this weekend took his final attempt, but on landing, screamed in agony and was rushed off to hospital. On admission his legs are x-rayed and the films show multiple compound fractures of all lower extremity bones – femur, tibia, fibula and all foot bones and joints completely destroyed into small fragments.

If the radiologist’s report came back diagnosing “multiple compound fractures resulting from abnormal impact stress”, then it’s a fair assumption said radiologist would be facing a Fitness to Practice hearing by my old friends at the HCPC in the near future, not that it would solve much – but that diagnosis is simply not possible, unless there was some other pathology present like osteogenisis imperfecta (brittle bone disease) or extensive bone cancer. We can calculate the forces present in our bones and we can determine how much stress can be applied to these structures before a fracture occurs – but common-sense dictates that a healthy athlete doesn’t sustain that kind of injury doing something he has does on a regular basis unless his bones were badly diseased. Newton’s Third Law is again the applicable principle; for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.

Just as in the example of the athlete, it is perfectly possible to calculate the forces present in the WTC building collapse when the top section of the towers fell onto the structure below and from this, an accurate model of damage could be ascertained. But simply applying the principles of Newton’s Third Law renders such calculations unnecessary.

Much argument is focussed on whether kerosene fires could actually weaken steel support columns or floor trusses to the point where they failed completely – but let’s assume for a minute that they suffered the same fate as the aircraft and passengers and simply vaporised. Ten floors of both towers vanished instantly into thin air and the top sections plummeted down 120’ on top of the building below. Applying Newtonian physics to this scenario, one would reasonably expect a fair bit of destruction to occur to the top sections and the buildings below, crushing several floors equally in the impact. But the energy expanded in crushing these floors reduces the force in the falling block decelerating its descent until the resistance from the lower section halts its progress completely. Unless the top section of the building had a mass many times greater than the lower section, the very most that could have been destroyed in the collapse is half of the top section and a corresponding number of floors in the intact building below.

For the WTC buidings to collapse within a second of freefall speed, all three must have been compromised from the basement up. That means they were subjected to controlled demolitions – which doesn’t really square with anything our governments have told us. It doesn’t suit the narrative. But whatever was used to demolish those buildings it is likely that it has contributed to the toxicity of the dust breathed by all those who were present that day and now struggling with the consequences.

I don’t normally recommend YouTube for research, but this short video is worth a watch. Peter Ketcham was a senior NIST investigator and scientist until last August 2016, when he finally concluded his organisation was covering up a major crime and decided to speak out. He is just one of many courageous individuals who have decided the wall of silence must finally be broken.

Not before time.

Other bits and pieces..

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So there is other stuff going on in the world other than sore feet…although when you have the latter the former becomes insignificant, or so I’m told. But then, my feet are perfect!

I have a few other pastimes and once again I’ve been extremely fortunate to cross paths with some remarkable characters in all spheres, particularly where music is involved. The most recent ‘bright spark’ is a wee Mancunian who professes skills in writing, badminton and paying the guitar – and although he has a bit to learn in all three disciplines, there is already signs of promise and I’m sure you will be hearing and reading a great deal more of him in the years to come. Please pay him a lot of attention.

A few days after I wrote Mother Theresa I sang it to Steve outside his house when he was recovering from a desperate stag weekend in the Lakes. It was the Bank Holiday Monday and a few hours later the events in Manchester made it all seem irrelevant. Sometimes these things provoke a reaction that we all can ascribe to. If you’re a musician – and have a Mojo that’s in tune – you become a conduit. That’s why you should listen to him.

So, here’s a couple of videos of Manchester – please share them wide and far. Of course, just as in everything else – and as Isaac Newton observed in his third law, there is always an equal and opposite reaction – and the counter is below… Not that it is equal in any way… just a grumpy old man’s take on the same thing!

Manchester – Live @ Garstang Unplugged

Manchester – Steve Canavan – a tribute.

Believe

Over the Top

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Tommy Patterson was fifteen years old when he signed up for the Royal Scots in 1914 and packed his bags and headed off to join the ranks of the Royal Scots in France on the western front. He was a small but stocky built boy, two years a miner in the pit in the Wemyss Estate near Kirkcaldy since he left school at thirteen and no idea what he was heading into. He was one of the soldiers who took part one of the now famous Christmas Day football games in No Man’s Land near Contalmaison on the Somme, alongside some of the Heart of Midlothian players in McRae’s Battalion. The following autumn, Tommy was sent to La Boiselle to join the Manchester Boys – specialist labourers who had tunnelled the Manchester sewers over the previous decade and were tasked of digging access tunnels underneath the German lines, perhaps because of his stature or previous underground experience. He never said.

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The Lochnagar Crater was formed at 7.28am on Saturday, 1st July 1916 – the first day of the Battle of the Somme. It was created by the detonation of a huge mine placed beneath the German front lines and its aim was to destroy a formidable strongpoint called ‘Schwaben Höhe’.

Close to a British trench called Lochnagar Street, the tunnellers dug a shaft down about 90 feet deep into the chalk. They then excavated some 300 yards towards the German lines, placing 60,000 lbs (27 tons) of ammonal explosive in two large adjacent underground chambers 60 feet apart. Two minutes before the attack began, the mine was exploded, leaving the massive crater that we see today.

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The reason that it is so large was that the chambers were overcharged. This means that sufficient explosive was used to not just break the surface and form a crater but enough to cause spoil to fall in the surrounding fields and form a lip around the crater. The 15ft lip created protected the advancing troops from enfilade machine-gun fire from the nearby village of La Boisselle.

Debris was flung almost a mile into the air, as graphically recorded by Royal Flying Corps pilot Cecil Lewis in his superb book ‘Sagittarius Rising’

“The whole earth heaved and flared, a tremendous and magnificent column rose up into the sky. There was an ear-splitting roar, drowning all the guns, flinging the machine sideways in the repercussing air. The earth column rose higher and higher to almost 4,000 feet.”

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Tommy Patterson had been one of my first patients I treated after I graduated in 1983. He lived in a small cottage literally next door to a dilapidated clinic in Kirkcaldy where I started work – and he was a real character as anyone who can remember him would attest. He was difficult to understand as he had a speech impediment due to his hearing problems – as he was deafened – along with any other comrades who were within three miles of the detonation – from the shockwave. But he was also just ‘difficult’ and stood for no nonsense from anyone. He had his own stool in the corner of the lounge in the Penny Farthing where he would call for a drink most nights at tea time and if he discovered anyone siting on it when he arrived, a quick poke in their ribs with his stick soon dislodged the offender. He never kept any of his chiropody appointments and would usually just turn up in an afternoon, unannounced and wait his turn. After the traumatic experience of our initial consultation, I thought why not!

I got to know Tommy fairly well over the next five years and heard a few stories of his time in the war. Later in 1916 he was sent back after medical leave and became a dispatch runner near Aras, just seven miles north of La Boiselle and would sprint between the trenches taking messages back and forth from whoever thought they were running the show. I hadn’t studied history when I was at school or university and had a fairly limited knowledge of the Great War when I first encountered Tommy, but I was to gain a fairly unique education over the following years from an incredible personal perspective, His disdain and visceral hatred of authority forged from deeply held views of the officer and political class of the day that had sent so many young boys to their deaths and had shot them as deserters when they were to frightened and shocked to go over the top. Those that did survive the experience were consigned to a decade of poverty and squalor when they returned home just before the depression. I didn’t know that had happened and found it difficult to believe at first. I still find it difficult to understand today and I can well imagine the impact it would have on a terrified, shell-shocked boy as he struggled to make sense of it all.

I was just twenty-three when we first talked, seven years older than he would have been during the Somme Offensive. It made a lasting impression as you might guess.

I managed to visit Contalmaison and Aras as well as La Boiselle during my visit in 2013 and walked over the fields which are now beautifully sculpted holding a range of arables amidst picturesque rolling hills and forests, where a centaury ago it was carnage on an epic scale. It is unsurprising the land is so fertile now.

I was pleased to have made the visit and although Tommy had died nearly two decades previously, it produced an enlightened remembrance to many of his stories and somehow that gave me much comfort and a sense of something being complete, although I’m not sure why or what. I made a promise to myself to return to the Somme during the 100-year anniversary, which of course is today – and remember Tommy again. And all the rest.

Unfortunately, however, I didn’t make it.

Readers of this blog will have realised that the appeal against the conviction by the HCPC was held at Preston Crown Court yesterday on Wednesday (29th June). The verdict given by Judge Beech was to uphold the conviction and to reject the appeal. The written narrative is attached at the foot of this post. I wish I could say I was surprised, but that would be akin to claiming astonishment that Dracula had declined the vegetarian option at brunch. I will leave you to form your own opinion of the judgment but ask that you refrain from commenting at the moment as I do not wish to prejudice the chance of an appeal to the higher court or to be held in contempt by hosting a discussion blog that holds offensive or insulting remarks about the case or persons involved in the proceedings. Suffice to say I am not prepared to let the judgment stand without challenge, for obvious reasons. Regrettably, it also means I won’t be travelling across the channel for the commemoration of the Somme Offensive.

I’ve always thought that if you do something wrong, make a mistake or have an accident, it is always best to tell the truth, no matter how inconvenient or embarrassing it might be. If you don’t and then lie about it, then you are simply digging a hole for yourself and eventually, the truth will out.

I’m not sure how big the hole will be in this matter by the time the dust settles, but at this rate, it will certainly give Lochnagar a run for its money and will doubtless be a major tourist attraction in west London for years to come. Thankfully, this time, the casualties will not be innocent young men.

Crown Verdict

Lockerbie

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A few days before Christmas in 1988, I was driving south from Scotland heading down to London for an exhibition at the Design Council. I had left Kirkcaldy at the end of the afternoon surgery but had been held up on the Forth Bridge which was undergoing yet another unsuccessful attempt at resurfacing the carriageway – and as a result, it was just approaching 7pm when I pulled into the service station at Hillend to fill the car up for the long drive ahead. As I resumed my journey, the Archer’s theme tune started up and I put a cassette of John Martyn’s Solid Air on instead.

The drive through the Scottish Borders from Edinburgh is a glorious one. Following the south side of the Pentlands the A702 passes through some delightful countryside and villages with stunning views in every direction. Passing through Biggar you gain the main motorway south – the M74 at Abington – and this is the quickest route. I often branch off at West Linton and take the 701 down to Moffat and it is one of Scotland’s best drives – up to the head of the Tweed valley and over the Devil’s Beeftub then down the head of the Annan to Moffat and the motorway. That would be my preference on most days, but the weather that particular evening was not conducive to a jaunt across the high moors; heavy sleet showers pushed on by a stiff south-westerly lashed the windscreen on the Saab as I rounded the hill just up from the Hillend ski slope, so the car was pointed at Biggar and an hour later I was driving up the slip road to the M74 at Abington and had just set the cruise control, when I was met with another line of stationary traffic – and this one wasn’t moving.

The exhibition was the following day and I had a room booked in London that evening and had estimated an arrival time of between 11pm and midnight. That now looked improbable. A few minutes later, when I switched the radio back on, it became impossible.

At approximately the same time as I was filling the car with petrol on the outskirts of Edinburgh, a small explosive device in a Toshiba Cassette recorder detonated in the hold of a Pan Am 747 airliner at 31,000 feet above Lockerbie about 70 miles to the southwest. The rest, as you know, is history.

We were escorted south many hours later, skirting the crash site well to the west of the village and it was later in the day when I first saw the pictures on the television that the enormity of the incident finally became apparent. The sight of the enormous engine, embedded into the tarmac road and the houses ablaze with kerosene will remain with everyone who was around at the time and the worsening weather just added to the gloom and despair.

Over the following years, I followed reports of the disaster as much as I could. My generation had not experienced anything like this before and the mere concept of international terrorism affecting a small Scottish village was an anathema; an explanation or understanding was certainly needed. But the police investigation and subsequent trial in Holland almost twelve years later raised just as many questions as answers with obvious and perplexing contradictions in almost every aspect of the case. The Trial was held in Camp Zeist – an American Air Base in the Netherlands – but under Scottish legal jurisdiction. It was, in essence, the High Court sitting in Holland – and the entire proceedings were broadcast live on television. It was compulsive viewing and fascinating to watch how the trial unfolded and what logical processes are followed to establish the verdict. I was struck how familiar it appeared.

One aspect of my own day job is arriving at a diagnosis when a patient presents with a problem. Sometimes it’s fairly straightforward and the diagnosis is perfectly obvious, but occasionally it is more complicated than that and in these cases, you follow a logical methodology until you can make an accurate determination. Individuals who have suffered severe trauma and have undergone reconstructive or salvage surgery, may present in later years with conditions that have occurred as a result of either the trauma or surgery or both. Sometimes I am asked to determine which is more likely – no doubt to determine whether there is an exploitable liability for the referring agency – and you have to go through a process to get an answer. This involves taking a detailed history and conducting a comprehensive clinical examination then considering the evidence in context of the presenting complaint. Part of the evidence may be subjective – some objective. The clinical examination – or gathering of objective evidence – may include the use of investigative methods like X-Rays and Magnetic Imaging (MRI) or a pathology report – but once you have gathered all the material you are usually in a position to make an informed decision based on all the available evidence. If the evidence is inconclusive you may have to consider alternative or differential diagnoses then apply the evidence base to each to determine which is more probable. It’s good fun and makes the job something of a cross between Inspector Clouseau and Antiques Roadshow at times, which can never be a bad thing.

With some patients however, the process takes much longer. Occasionally someone may come in with a symptomatic condition – pain in a joint or a tendonitis, but you are unable to determine a cause. These conditions are referred to as idiopathic. However, over time, sometimes years, that individual may present with a variety of symptoms or conditions that appear to be unrelated and in themselves may not prove anything or lead you to a diagnosis, but gradually you may see a pattern building and when you bring the evidence together at the appropriate time you very often arrive at a conclusion that with hindsight, often explains many other symptoms and conditions that patient has displayed over the years that you may not have been aware. Advances in medical technology helps. With the advent of MRI we now know of a condition called bone marrow oedema (or osteopenia), which was hitherto unknown. This usually occurs on post-menopausal women and very often it is one of the bones in the foot that is affected and it can be quite debilitating for several months. We weren’t able to make a diagnosis until this type of imaging became available – it was just ‘idiopathic bone pain’.

The point of this is that the methodology used in arriving at a medical diagnosis is usually fairly robust and I could see similarities with the criminal process that was being televised every day from Holland. The available evidence is tested and examined and considered in the overall context of the charges before the court until a verdict – or diagnosis – can be reached by the Judge or the Jury. In the legal process – we already know what the diagnosis will be – either guilty or not guilty – and in Scotland, there is a third – not proven. That is the context in which the evidence is presented, examined and tested.

Of course it is all done with a great deal more pomp and ceremony than you would normally expect to find in my surgery and it can be quite confusing, especially the legal procedures and custom. Often the most important piece of evidence is something you thought inconsequential, which on its own may seem evidentially weak. But a skilled advocate will have identified the importance of that particular piece of evidence in relation to the others and when they pull it all together in their closing arguments, they hope it makes a strong enough case to convince the Judge. Lawyers call it the “cable analogy” – where single strands of wire that, individually, may be quite weak – but when pulled together make something very strong. It is the same methodology as we use when reaching a conclusive diagnosis in patients with complex and developing conditions.

However, there are some glaringly inherent weaknesses in court procedure that, thankfully, do not encumber clinical practice. For example, the only evidence the Prosecution will table is evidence that supports their case. The principal objective being to achieve a conviction, which is not quite the same thing as solving the crime – or reaching a conclusive diagnosis. Very often, it is the subjective evidence that sways the day – the powerful closing speech or a particular inference or conjecture during the examination of a witness – rather than objective evidence, such as forensic tests and corroboration.

The Lockerbie Trial was largely speculative and circumstantial. To the layman watching the live broadcast, a guilty verdict for either of the accused seemed highly improbable. One of the most important pieces of evidence – a tiny fragment of an electronic circuit board used in timers for detonating explosives – was recovered from a remote hill-side and was identified to have come from a Swiss electronics company owned by someone who had previously sold timing devices to the Libyans. It was a plausible argument, but to me seemed highly unlikely given the atrocious weather conditions that night and the vast area wreckage was scattered over. But anything is possible when you don’t know the truth.

This is neither a commentary about the Lockerbie Trial nor an opinion about the veracity of criminal procedure. It is simply an observation that something many of us witnessed has not yet been adequately and properly explained. Dr Jim Swire, who lost his daughter, Flora, in the disaster, sums it up perfectly when he said recently. “Our governments are not telling us the truth.” Being a medical practitioner, I assume he used his own methodology to reach that conclusion and I can see no reason to disagree. He is probably the most authoritative and knowledgeable voice on the case and yet remains convinced that the verdict is one of the worst miscarriages of justice ever to blight the Scottish legal system.

With Megrahi’s death almost four years ago, the prospect of an posthumous appeal against conviction and sentence seemed unlikely but Jim Swire and other relatives of the victims pushed the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission to appeal the verdict. Last week, on the 5th November – a night when the sky is ablaze with explosions – the SCCRC finally decided, with all the sagacious sensitivity of the civil service, to drop the case – and now we will never really know what or who is responsible for the events that night.

Three recent events reminded me of Lockerbie. The announcement by the SCCRC last week was one of them, but the other is a very touching documentary first shown on BBC Four three days earlier. It is about another man’s quest to find out the truth about what happened in the skies above Scotland that bleak December night. Ken Dorstein’s brother David was also on Pan Am 103 and he embarks on a remarkable journey to try and find the man responsible for his brother’s death. It’s worth a watch and you cannot feel anything but admiration for his determination, but I could not help but feel this was an attempt at revisionism as much as enlightenment.

The other reminder was, sadly, the sight of another crashed airliner in a desert in Egypt – in circumstances eerily reminiscent to that we have just discussed. The sight of the twisted fuselage and enormous engines embedded into the charred ground, all too familiar. What chance of the truth being uncovered here?

For me, Lockerbie and the likes of the Egyptian atrocity also illuminate another unsolved mystery – that of September 11th 2001 – where, even more curiously, the aircraft used in the Pentagon and Philadelphia incidents were deemed to have ‘vaporised’ on impact, leaving no traces of evidence behind. Having seen at first hand how robust jet engines are after falling from 31,000 feet into a tarmac road, I find that explanation highly implausible. And when you consider that a tiny fragment of an electronic circuit board could withstand a powerful explosion – and the inclement weather of a Scottish winter – sufficiently enough to be identified and used in evidence, how does a six-tonne Rolls Royce Turbofan jet engine simply disappear into thin air?

One day, we may reach a conclusive diagnosis for all these events and others. But only if we change the methodology of the investigation.