Stephen McGinty: A night to remember

The poster for the film that tells the story of the Piper Alpha disaster in the North Sea on 6 July, 1988. Picture: Contributed

The poster for the film that tells the story of the Piper Alpha disaster in the North Sea on 6 July, 1988. Picture: Contributed

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ORSON Welles, or so I once read, only ever attended one premiere during his long cinematic career.

After the glamour and success of Citizen Kane each successive film was more troubled and delayed than the last and the red carpet receded into the distance.

If so, it’s comforting to think that after attending on Thursday night the Edinburgh International Film Festival for the world premiere of Fire In The Night, a documentary about the Piper Alpha disaster which was based on my book, that I’m now on par with the great director. John Huston once said that the EIFF was the only festival “worth a damn” and as Auld Reekie seemed to offering up a delightful balmy heat, and as we listened to the audience’s generous applause, who was I to disagree?

I can’t deny what a thrill it was to attend a screening at the Filmhouse on Lothian Road, to which as a teenager I would regularly make a pilgrimage from the west for the chance to see an old classic on the big screen, and to be greeted with a poster of your own movie. (For those who missed my article in last week’s art section, I helped develop the film, which is brilliantly directed by Anthony Wonke.)

There were so many memorable moments. Enjoying a drink with the survivors who took part at a BBC Scotland and STV-sponsored reception at the Sheraton Hotel. Having our photographs taken outside the cinema with the poster. After years of failing to wangle an invitation to the Newsnight Review, finally having Kirsty Wark turn round and ask me a question (and, for that matter, those of the rest of the panel, Michael McAvoy, head of documentaries from STV, Ewan Angus, commissioning editor from BBC Scotland and Anthony Wonke.) Yet perhaps the most important was the audible sniffles and quiet sobs that confirmed that we had touched the audience.

At the Q&A after the screening the panel was asked where each of us were when we first heard the news about Piper Alpha. I was on work experience at the Evening Times in Glasgow. The week had been busy and exciting, but when I arrived at nine o’clock on the morning after, the news room was rushing to pull together the first edition. I’d actually forgotten about that crucial week, when as a fifth year pupil from St Andrew’s High School in Clydebank, I first saw where I wanted to spend my working life: in newspapers.

Eighteen years later, it was in a different newspaper office that I decided to write a book on the disaster. After writing two previous books I’d been looking around for a new subject when I noted that the 20th anniversary of Piper Alpha was coming up in 2008. Was there a book to be written? I went up to the library in The Scotsman’s offices in Edinburgh and asked for the packets of old newspaper clippings on the disaster. As a copy boy I’d spent two and a half years fetching packets such as these for reporters in the days before the internet and digital databases brought everything instantly to hand.

I’d developed a fondness for these worn, torn and yellowing packets on every subject under the largely absent Scottish sun and when researching liked to haul them out. I remember flicking from one carefully folded newspaper clipping to another, unfolding them and spreading them out on to the desk to see what they revealed.

It was clearly a hugely complicated story about a distant offshore world. My only connection had been a cousin who worked on the rigs and, for a while, picked up duty free packets of King Edward cigars for my dad.

When researching a book, I’m always looking for a key that can unlock the story, a foothold that will allow me a leg up, an image that helps me see what the story is about. I found it somewhere in those cuts, for it was there that I met Bob Ballantyne.

In a newspaper interview he talked about how, when he realised that something was wrong, he headed back to his cabin to fetch a book. Unaware of how serious the situation would become, he assumed he and the other workers would be helicoptered off to Norway or Shetland or spend hours bobbing back to Aberdeen in a boat, and if so, what right-minded person would want to be without a book? The book he collected and stuck in the pocket of his rubber survival suit was Candide by Voltaire.

In the few seconds it took to read those inky, yellow lines I knew I had to write the book. I couldn’t yet relate to the machinery, the condensate pumps, the flanges, the Permission-To-Work (PTW) slips, all the grim mechanics of the tragedy, but I could relate to the niggling anxiety caused by being book-less, and the comfort to be found in a worn, dog-eared paperback. The book was also a surprise, but then again why shouldn’t an electrician read Voltaire? Ballantyne, as I later learned, was a trade unionist whose appetite for knowledge was first whetted by the works of Karl Marx and the speeches of John Maclean.

Life for a union man offshore in the 1970s and 1980s wasn’t easy. While porn mags were read openly, union literature was furtive and to be hidden. After years of leading protests and fighting for worker rights and, as a consequence, been repeatedly served with an NRB certificate (Not Required Back) Ballantyne had eased off and wanted a quieter, and more financially secure, life. While on Piper Alpha, which he first joined in February, 1987, he used his few hours off to study for an Open University degree in Enlightenment studies.

The copy of Voltaire’s Candide accompanied Ballantyne as he fought to find a way off Piper Alpha. It was by his side as clung to the boat bumper and steeled himself to swim away from the rig but into oil-slicked water that threatened to ignite at any second.

Ballantyne escaped from Piper Alpha but was felled by cancer a number of years later. The minister read an extract from that same salt-stained copy of Candide at his graveside. I learned Bob’s story and was able to incorporate it into the book as he’d participated in Aberdeen University’s oral history project, Oil Lives. It’s online and I’d encourage anyone interested to look it up.

I’m sorry I never met him and I’m curious about what he would have made of the documentary. It is now seven years since I started researching the book, four years since I started developing the documentary and now I feel my active relationship with Piper Alpha has come to a natural end. A new campaign, Pound For The Piper, looks set to raise £1 million to ensure the memorial statue and rose gardens in Aberdeen are adequately tended and repaired in perpetuity and Anthony Wonke’s marvellous documentary will educate and, I’m sure, move to tears a new generation entirely unaware of what happened at 10pm on the evening of 6 July, 1988.

The greatest concern about the film is how the families of those 167 men who never came home will view it, if, indeed, they can bring themselves to watch. I’m not sure if I could if the circumstances were different. Yet last Friday night I received a call from Molly Pearston, who lost her son, Robert, on Piper. I had last spoken to her in December when she was unwell and felt unable to take part in the film, but now, much improved, she was phoning to say how delighted she was that the film was finished, that a broadcast date was set (Tuesday 9 July on BBC 2) and that a new generation would learn what had happened 110 miles offshore on that terrible night.

As we left the cinema after the screening, I looked at the advertising posters outside and saw that Fire In The Night had already been replaced by The Bling Ring. Moments like Thursday night are fleeting and meant to be savoured, but later that evening I couldn’t help but think of all the moments those who did not survive had lost and those of their families.

At this time in Scotland’s history, a new spotlight is being shone on oil production and the riches that it can bring to the nation, but as I’ve spent the last seven years examining, let us hope never again at such a terrible cost.

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