The impact of nuclear testing on wellbeing, ageing, and identity within the British Nuclear Test Veteran community.
This doctoral research, undertaken in 2017-2021, by Dr Amy Prescott explored the role of cultural, community, leisure and physical activities on quality of life among British veterans. The primary aim was to understand the complex ways cultural, physical, and/or leisure activities create meaning which may contribute to improving overall health and wellbeing. To do this, twenty-nine members of the community were recruited over two phases of life-history interviews. For context, a life history is the telling/recounting of a string of events; it speaks to a turning point in one’s life. Reflecting on the past provides an opportunity to relate events to social contexts and weave personal experiences within the wider social fabric.
Importantly, these experiences and events are not understood as some timeless phenomenon, but are deeply located in time and space. Given the lack of academic knowledge of the BNTV community, it was pertinent that important experiences be captured and explored. The first round of interviews was conducted over the telephone, while the second round was mainly conducted in the homes of the participants in the summer of 2019.
After a period of extensive immersion in the data (listening and relistening to the audio recordings, transcribing them, re-reading), it became clear that the words of the BNTV community had to be shared through storytelling. Sitting in the middle of the fact and fiction continuum is creative nonfiction (CNF); this method is described as being based on real people and capturing the real events described during the interview process. Using CNF allows articulation of the BNTVs’ experiences and the deeper meanings they had attached to them; overall, showing the reader the meaning of these experiences rather than just telling them.
Three stories were developed and titled: An Unlikely Meeting, In Sickness and in Health, and Age is Just a Number.
Our work showcases the value of CNF for challenging the concept of truth and understanding lived experiences of marginalised groups. We argue that CNF provides a rigorous and systematic method for the creation of authentic stories which may have never been voiced before.
Summaries of the three Creative non-fiction stories
An Unlikely Meeting
On most days, usually around midday, Henry ventures into a café on a busy high street to read the newspaper, have a cup of tea, and eat a slice of lemon cake – his favourite. Today is the day that he decides to wear his blazer with the BNTVA emblem sewn on. He’s never worn it there before. The café’s owner, John, spots this and immediately recognises it. John informs Henry that every day at 1 o’clock, another British nuclear test veteran, Sam, comes into the café for a coffee and a piece of cake. In this story, two strangers meet by chance and engage in hours of conversation about their experiences of being part of the nuclear testing programme sixty years ago and life in the forces, love and loss, their ageing bodies, loneliness and feeling like outsiders. Over tea and cake, one national serviceman and one naval officer put the world to rights.
Listen to the story here: https://chrc4veterans.uk/wp-content/uploads/2022/10/AN_UNLIKELY_MEETING_V4.mp4
In Sickness and in Health
Life for Bernard and Gladys is difficult. Four years ago, Bernard lost his ability to walk, drive, and enjoy his retirement. He lost his independence. Every day he feels like a burden on his wife for having to taking care of him. In sickness and health, that’s what Gladys reminds him. He, at this point, feels as though he’s just existing. He blames the radiation he was exposed to while being part of the nuclear tests, yet the government are not interested in helping. Gladys too, is struggling. Not having any help is isolating and the constant lifting and pushing causes her body to ache. Enough is enough, she thinks. Gladys makes an appointment for Bernard to see the local doctor, not that the NHS care, he says. At the same time, in the same GP surgery, Muriel, visits her doctor for a routine check-up. The conversation quickly turns to the passing of her veteran husband, causing the doctor to ask her, have you ever felt lonely? Muriel does feel lonely, but how will having a hobby help?
Listen to the story here: https://chrc4veterans.uk/wp-content/uploads/2022/10/IN_SICKNESS_AND_IN_HEALTH_V4.mp4
Age is Just a Number
In Little Hamwell, a quaint countryside village, Percy and Dawn are key members of the community. For thirty years, they owned and run the post office – Percy was also the village postman. They then decided to sell it, retire, and spend more time together. That was the plan anyway. Instead, they have both never been busier; they do village transport for the older members of the village, set up and organize church events, visit people in care homes…their list of jobs is endless! As Dawn would say, why sit indoors, watch TV and moan at each other? Just as they are setting up the church hall for the Monday group exercise, bingo, and gardening club, they meet Jean. Jean has only lived in Little Hamwell for a month; she had moved there to be closer to her daughter after her husband died last year. Although her daughter wanted her to move so she wouldn’t be alone, Jean now has no one in the village she knows. Percy and Dawn can’t wait to show her that keeping busy and making new acquaintances will be more important than ever.
Listen to the story here: https://chrc4veterans.uk/wp-content/uploads/2022/10/AGE_IS_JUST_A_NUMBER_V4.mp4
From story to audio drama: creating impact
The three creative non-fiction stories became the foundation for the creation of three audio dramas as a medium for sharing the lived experiences of leisure, community, personal relationships, loneliness, and physical activity in later life.
Through collaboration with Squeaky Pedal (a multi-award-winning independent film production company), Alex Perry (scriptwriter), Julie Whittaker (CHRC centre manager), and members of the Brunel Older People’s Reference Group (BORG), three dramas were scripted and recorded in May 2022. In the style of ‘The Archers’, each drama features three to four characters and focuses on a specific community issue. These are available to listen to on the CHRC website https://chrc4veterans.uk/knowledge-hub/11656-2/.
Over the summer of 2022, Amy attended and presented at three academic conferences. Amy’s presentations featured playing the audio dramas to gauge the response from scholars working in a range of disciplines. The feedback received was overwhelmingly positive; moreover, many left the sessions with an understanding of a group they had not come across before.