Poetry and medicine intersect in Jane Davis’s latest novel, My Counterfeit Self. I’m delighted to welcome Jane back to my blog on publication day.
The main protagonist is Lucy Forrester, a political poet and activist. Anti-establishment all her life, she’s now horrified to find herself on the New Year’s Honours list. Her inclination is to turn it down. But what if it’s an opportunity…
When researching a cause for her rebel, author Jane Davis followed a thread from the first CND march from Trafalgar Square to Aldermaston, to the plight of Britain’s forgotten Atomic Veterans. Here is what she discovered.
“It is 1958, six years after American scientists disbanded the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission in Hiroshima, having completed their data-gathering on radiation sickness. It is a supposed time of peace. Imagine you are eighteen years old, shipped to Christmas Island on National Service. It is the furthest you have ever strayed from home.
Your job? To stand on an idyllic white sandy beach and observe as scientists detonate nuclear bombs in the Central Pacific. When the signal is given, you must turn away from the blast and cover your eyes with your hands. There is no protective clothing. As the flash goes off, you can see your veins, your skin tissue, your bones, and through it all, diamond white, a second sun. Searing heat builds inside, until you imagine that there is only one way it can end.
Around 22,000 servicemen were ordered to stand and observe. Some suffered radiation sickness immediately, and some died. For others, symptoms followed patterns seen in Hiroshima. They lost their appetites, ran high fevers, and their hair fell out in clumps. Some appeared well for decades before developing cancers and other rare diseases.
It was only over time, as dots were joined, that some veterans became convinced their illnesses and disabilities were caused by nuclear radiation. Their bid to be recognised by the European Court of Human Rights was denied in 1998, which said it had no jurisdiction in the case. Largely ignored, and dwindling in number, the veterans referred to themselves as ‘ghosts’.
Then, in 1999, researcher Sue Rabbitt Roff at the University of Dundee tracked down and surveyed 2,500 veterans and their children, reporting unusually high rates of infertility and birth defects. This was the trigger. The columnist Richard Stott (1943 – 2007) of the Sunday Mirror then launched his Justice for Nuke Vets campaign.
If I saw this reported in the news, I’m ashamed to say that I have no recollection of it. There were always more attention-grabbing headlines. But when researching my novel, it was obvious to me that this is a cause Lucy Forrester would have thrown herself behind.
The British government continued to insist on more proof. It wasn’t until 2007 that two scientific studies demonstrated clear links. They also estimated that genetic birth defects would last for 20 generations – in other words, 500 years.
As a result, 700 New Zealand and UK veterans launched a class action lawsuit against the British government claiming NZ $36 million in damages. But it had all happened 50 years ago. The Ministry of Defence countered with a statute of limitations defence.
Following a parliamentary inquiry in early 2008, the government agreed to fund new studies into veterans’ health, and to pay interim compensation of £4,000 each.
By the time I completed my research, the government had set aside £25million (£5million a year over five years) for an Aged Veterans’ Fund. But this wasn’t only for the surviving Atomic Veterans. Approximately two million veterans were qualified to apply. In addition to applications from individuals, the British Veterans’ Association (BNTVA), the premier charity representing those who have worked alongside radioactive material for the benefit of the nation, can apply for funding for projects such as respite care or counselling. Whilst any such services may benefit the families of the Atomic Veterans, once the remaining veterans die, all funding will cease. Without an admission of negligence from the MoD, there will be no help for the 20 generations.
Many Atomic Veterans are proud to have served their country. However, given that the risks of exposure to radiation were either known or reasonably foreseeable, they had every right to expect their government to take care of them if things went wrong. They couldn’t have imagined that the British government would introduce a higher burden of proof than other governments, so that their American counterparts received compensation while they did not. It should not be left to the Prime Minister of Fiji to step in and award each surviving veteran three thousand pounds, saying, ‘Fiji is not prepared to wait for Britain to do the right thing’.
With Trident firmly back in the headlines, I hope that it will rise to the surface once more.”
Jane Davis is the author of seven novels. Her debut, Half-truths and White Lies, won the Daily Mail First Novel Award, and The Bookseller featured her in their ‘One to Watch’ section. Six further novels have earned her a loyal fan base and wide-spread praise. Her 2016 novel, An Unknown Woman, won Writing Magazine’s Self-Published Book of the Year Award. Compulsion Reads describe her as ‘a phenomenal writer whose ability to create well-rounded characters that are easy to relate to feels effortless.’ Her favourite description of fiction is ‘made-up truth’.
When Jane is not writing, you may spot her disappearing up the side of a mountain with a camera in hand.
Anyone who signs up to Jane’s newsletter receives a free copy of her novel, I Stopped Time. Jane promises not to bombard subscribers with junk. She only issues a newsletter when she has something genuinely newsworthy to report.
My Counterfeit Self is published October 1, 2016, and available in paperback and ebook formats.