The day nuclear power came to Sizewell
You can take the girl out of Suffolk but you can’t take Suffolk out of the girl. Stories inspired by her home county have been floating around former Look East broadcaster Boni Sones’s head for years. Now she’s sharing them. She spoke to Steven Russell
BONI Sones was eight when the bulldozers and cranes came. They changed forever the face of the coast and heathland where she played, scraping away more than 200 acres of scrub and grass to build a nuclear power station. Not that it put paid to youthful pursuits, for the construction site became an unofficial adventure zone for children from the tiny fishing hamlet of Sizewell and the scattered houses around. “As kids, we used to break into the site by burrowing under the fence and climbing the crane and so on. It was just an extension of our playground,” she confesses of the early 1960s.
Not surprisingly, the magnox reactors had a major impact on the lives of the communities in and around Leiston. “The power station definitely gave a sense of menace,” says Boni. “If you think, as eight-year-olds, we were having to practise emergency evacuation procedures . . . It went from being an idyllic childhood to something that had menace in it. I used to think ‘Where would we be safe, then, if it blew up?’”
She laughs now about those drills. “It sounds ridiculous. How do you evacuate from a nuclear explosion?! There was a point we were supposed to assemble at, so practising involved walking to that point. As if! But this is where you get the self-deprecation and humour in the stories people would tell in those days. It created great laughter: because we could work out that evacuation really wasn’t going to help at all.”
So you weren’t going to have the wool pulled over your eyes by officialdom . . .
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“That’s right. In Suffolk, we don’t like the word ‘authority’! So we do what we‘re asked, but we form our own values. We do it at our own speed and in our own way. You might think we’re on board, but really we’re doing something completely different!”
Memories of Sizewell are captured in the two books of short stories just published by the writer and broadcaster, whose career spans 30 years in print, radio and television journalism. The autobiographical episodes, and a 20,096-word lyrical poem, draw mainly on a childhood when the world was very different to today. “They are ‘oral’ stories, or in Suffolk we call them ‘yarns’ told over the kitchen table over the years, one to the other, as a form of entertainment and a therapy for our troubles.”
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Boni adds: “Two Mermaids Together is a collection of my writing as portraits. These short stories are portraits of my loves, my children, my friends, and my passions: paintings and stories. Clearly the themes are much the same as in The Mermaid’s Tale, reflecting my love of landscape, the seashore, and the oral story. My writing draws on these visual images that formed me as I grew up . . .”
They “explore my family, my friends, the hometown . . . They are what I grew up with; the sound of the human voice over the knitting needles, the sound of the stories being told, the twists in the tales, and the adventures of the day, the love of the yellow harvest and the endeavour to put food on the table to give us the very best.
“In truth often nothing much happens, because in Suffolk we don’t want it to. We don’t warm to the word ‘new’ or ‘global’. Standing in the field and staring at the sky is good enough for us.”
The stories celebrate an era in which people were proud of their skills – skills that were important for daily survival. Hence, you can walk through the cemeteries and find inscriptions such as “Jack the fisherman”. That’s what was integral to him and was how he wanted to be remembered. In these consumerist days of “buy, use and discard”, the stories remind us of the cleverness of men who retired to their garden sheds to make and mend. And they honour the women of previous generations, whose lives were hard and physical, who “gut the chickens and bury the dead”.
They all lived in a spot on the edge of the earth where the power of the sea and the elements made them feel very vulnerable – a threat Boni notices in the paintings of artist Maggi Hambling.
“You’re always dicing with death on the east coast. Spring tides were something you feared. With those wild winds in February and March, you might have to leave in a hurry.
“My mother could tell you where the wind was blowing in the morning. It was the wind that fired the range, and without heat and fire you couldn’t cook anything. The first thing I woke to was my parents saying ‘Which way is the wind blowing today?’ It wasn’t until the stories came out that I realised there was a musicality to all of that – that they used their senses and intuition for survival.
“I’m rather proud I’ve given a voice to country people. We fathom out; we work out.”
The workers’ cottages in which folk lived didn’t have electricity in the early 1960s – and, amazingly, they didn’t have it when Sizewell A started humming, either. “We got on the front page of the Daily Mirror, holding our oil lamps,” says Boni. “It was only out of embarrassment that they finally brought electricity to Sizewell!”
Then, “we put away the flat irons, the Tilley lamps, the copper and the weekly tin baths and turned on our television sets to watch Dixon of Dock Green like the rest of Britain. The 70 signatures my mother Miriam got to stop Sizewell ‘A’ coming had been a dismal failure. I had ridden round as a passenger on the seat of her bike, helping her to rally support. All the villagers signed, but now nuclear energy supplied us too”.
The plant also brought jobs – “Even Granddad Jo, long since retired and just about able to ride his bike still, ended up as night watchman”. Quirky Aunt Marlene, she of the beehive hair-do and Vespa scooter, answered the phones and was prone to greet bewildered callers with Hello, Sizewell maternity hospital. “Every morning on the switchboard she feigned a new identity and the possibility for wrong numbers grew as she added hitherto unheard of buildings to Sizewell village.”
Boni was one of five sisters. Her father was an estate worker for the Ogilvie family that owned much of the land thereabouts – painting, decorating and taking care of odd jobs. Home was 3 White Cottages, near Sizewell Hall – now a Christian conference centre. With dad a man of ingenuity, and mum a fabulous cook, “there was always activity in our house; something was always being made or mended in the shed; something was always being cooked”. Later, her parents ran the Cliff House caravan site for the Ogilvies.
After Leiston secondary modern – “at school I always sat looking out of the window and daydreamed, and couldn’t wait to get outside” – she studied politics and public administration at Leicester polytechnic before graduating in the mid 1970s and becoming a journalist.
Boni was here, at the EADT, until the early 1980s. “We had an editor called Don Simpson, who met me in the corridor two weeks into my time with the EADT and asked ‘How are you getting on, Boni?’ and I said ‘I’m bored, Mr Simpson.’ He said ‘You were born and brought up in Sizewell; you can be our nuclear energy correspondent.’ I started by going to London and having to interview all these top scientists and translate my shorthand and feeling terrified!”
She moved to the Cheltenham Journal, raising Tanya, Jenna and Guy, and then came back to East Anglia. Boni was spotted by BBC Radio Cambridgeshire, did a broadcast conversion course, and worked for the radio station and Look East. She became political editor for the region and, after the 1997 election, helped establish BBC News 24.
Nowadays Boni, 56, lives in the Cambridge area. She’s executive producer of Women’s Parliamentary Radio and runs her own media, communications and training organisation.
She’s a passionate advocate of traditional journalism, “where you get something interesting because you sit and listen to people, rather than say ‘You did this wrong, didn’t you?!’ – and try to get some kind of false confession. It should be about going to someone because you’re ready to say ‘Well, look; did this happen? Your side of the story . . .’ I think journalism without nuance, and journalism without going to both sides of the story, lets down society.”
Her own words – those stories that had been swirling in her head and were jotted down over the years – began to come together a year or so ago when she attended a friend’s funeral and emotions came to the fore. The time for action had dawned and she resolved to publish them.
Some had been aired in an Anglia Television documentary called A Dream for Sizewell. It showed how the power station changed a landscape and the lives of a rural community, and was shortlisted for a 2001 Royal Television Society award. Now the tales have been corralled.
“I left Suffolk physically; I didn’t leave psychologically,” Boni reflects. “Were these stories a device for the psychological leaving . . . ? I suspect they are. If anybody knew me even a few years ago, they’d see my car was always pointed towards Suffolk. Wherever I was, I’d always leg it back.”
• Two Mermaids Together and The Mermaid’s Tale can be viewed and downloaded via www.wpradio.co.uk while traditional hard copies can be bought through the website, at The Aldeburgh Bookshop and at Heffers in Cambridge for �7.50 each.
Boni’s writing launched Women’s Parliamentary Radio’s books section, which encourages first-time authors. It’s also brought out BBC Look East presenter Amanda Goodman’s debut novel Finding Grace.
Amanda says: “It’s a tough book about a tough subject, women who lose their children at birth, but I feel it is of its time and should appeal to many women who recognise the injustice that women back in the 1960s felt when babies born to them were not given a proper burial if they died at birth or soon after.”
CLOSE to Boni Sones’s heart is Women’s Parliamentary Radio, the web-based “channel” she started and which this year celebrates its fourth birthday. It features interviews with politicians of all parties that can be listened to online or downloaded as podcasts.
It’s an initiative that followed her book Women in Parliament: The New Suffragettes, published by Methuen. This told the story of the female politicians labelled “Blair’s Babes” when 101 Labour women swept into Parliament in 1997, and made the shortlist for the 2005 Orwell Prize in Journalism.
“Because they’d been so vilified by the media, I thought I’d get myself and some of my friends in journalism to ask them their side of the story: what they thought of being there; had they achieved anything?
“I wanted to communicate on behalf of them – because everybody was saying they were rubbish and I didn’t feel they were. I thought they were an important visual image and represented a lot in terms of diversity,” explains Boni, who the night before talking to ealife gave a reading from the book at The Tricycle Theatre in Kilburn. The theatre is having a Women, Power and Politics season. Ten WPR interviews can be heard on headphones along one wall of an exhibition.
After Women in Parliament was published, Boni realised that, in the digital age, one didn’t actually need a broadcasting licence or radio station in order to broadcast.
“Instead of putting an idea up to the BBC and waiting two years for the commissioning process to say, probably, ‘No’, I could go out and do this thing myself.
“We were having a presentation on how this would probably work – in a committee room in Westminster – and, 10 minutes into the presentation, in walks Harriet Harman and half the women in the Cabinet, stayed for six minutes and said ‘Go and do it.’” So she did.
WPR is essentially run on a shoestring. Boni – awarded an OBE in the 2009 New Year honours for services to broadcasting and public relations – devotes one or two days a week to her baby, with journalist mates helping out as and when.
She’s pretty optimistic about the future influence of women in politics.
“I don’t think David Cameron could have put more women in his Cabinet than he’s got, because to be in the Cabinet requires experience. What’s important is that women serve their apprenticeship and work their way up. Overpromoting people doesn’t benefit anyone.”
A Sizewell childhood
THE large Ogilvie houses in Sizewell offered daily employment to the estate workers. The Ness house, The Dower House, Sizewell Hall. The Ogilvies didn’t live in all of them; the fortunes of the houses ebbed and waned as death duties were paid off and people moved in and out. We lived in the small workers’ cottages on the Common and we children never for one minute wanted to be anywhere else! We had freedom as few could know it. The common land, the fields and the woods were ours to roam and we the servants were glad of our masters.
“Bert Sones, he’s an honest man” – and I the third daughter of Bert was endowed with a dignity through HIS sheer industry and honesty. We spoke to those in the large houses as we passed by, but we the servants could take advantage of them anytime we chose... We swung in THEIR trees, built dens with THEIR bracken, strode across THEIR pixie pond, picked and smelled and marvelled at THEIR rhododendrons and hid THEIR pheasants and game under our coats as we happened to notice them on our walk home. To say nothing of dragging home on Christmas Eve THEIR fur trees. We walked and whistled, biked and strode across THEIR lanes and paths but WE had the freedom of this most beautiful landscape and lifestyle too.
• Extract from Boni Sones’s The Mermaid’s Tale