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James Bream: Piper Alpha memorial redesign can prompt grief and be a good thing at the same time

Sunset over the original Piper Alpha Memorial Garden at Hazlehead, Aberdeen (Photo: Colin Rennie/DC Thomson)
Sunset over the original Piper Alpha Memorial Garden at Hazlehead, Aberdeen (Photo: Colin Rennie/DC Thomson)

I’ve written about losing loved ones before from a very personal point of view, and the all-consuming and varied impact it can have on us.

The whole experience has been brought back to the fore of my mind after a couple of recent events, including seeing someone who is clearly hurting from the loss of a loved one, and attending an event with the Pound for Piper Trust.

Although my parents never worked in the oil industry, I have memories of the Piper Alpha disaster. I recall the news and, unfortunately, the memory of international visitors coming to deal with the immediate aftermath. These memories feel quite vivid, given the time that has passed.

It’s brutal losing people you love. Losing someone when they have gone to do their job and don’t come home must be even harder.

The north-east is home to its share of high-risk industries, including farming, fishing and the offshore sector. While each of these sectors and their regulators make great efforts to enhance safety, terrible events still happen. That is unacceptable, and each one must teach us, influence change and, most of all, never be forgotten.

The remembrance theme is why I chose to write this piece, a column as far from jokes and economics (my usual fare) as you can get.

Expansive new designs that make space for people and activities

The Pound for Piper Memorial Trust is currently seeking to raise £500,000 for a redesign of the North Sea Memorial Gardens.

During the launch, the trustees noted that it was hoped industry would fund the project. I believe this to be a relatively insignificant amount of money, given current cash flow within the industry.

However, there are other reasons I believe this is an important project and fundraising exercise. My views are very personal.

The memorial gardens, pictured in 2021 (Photo: Kami Thomson/DC Thomson)

Firstly, the gardens mean something particular to me, just as they mean something to other people. To me, they represent a chance to remember those lost at Piper Alpha, but also others, too, including those from other sectors.

In addition, I believe the initiative allows those who understand little about the north-east to have a place to learn. The new designs are expansive and allow universal access and a quality space for many people and activities.

It’s also my view, and has been for some time, that – apart from many wealthy people – the city lacks a physical sign of the oil and gas industry. I wonder what will exist in 50 years to remind us of what was good and that which has challenged us since 1970.

I am no gardener, but the sustainable garden design appears to have longevity, and I’d expect it to outlast my lifetime still in decent shape. In part, this is thanks to the physical design, but also due to the nature of the maintenance required.

It’s important to say that a memorial garden for the North Sea is not what should be the legacy of the oil and gas sector in Aberdeen, but it is a material start.

Grief is deeply personal

After I agreed to write on this topic, and as I write, I also cannot help but think about those who do not agree with the redevelopment. It would be completely disrespectful for me to ignore the fact that people have publicly voiced their opposition. I wouldn’t even attempt to summarise their dismay.

Unfortunately, we can only sometimes understand, or think we understand, how another party can feel

There is no way to easily reconcile the distance between parties that agree and disagree on change, even when they hold so much in common. Of course, dialogue is and will be important, but it may not bring parties together.

For an outsider like me, it’s too easy to say we have in common the hurt and trauma of losing a loved one, because grief is a deeply personal matter which we can never convey properly to others. Unfortunately, we can only sometimes understand, or think we understand, how another party can feel.

I personally wish good luck to the Pound for Piper trustees and their campaign, because of what the sentiment and concept means to me. However, unlike economics, we cannot trade off or balance utility; grief is real, and doing nothing or doing something will hurt, on this occasion.

James Bream is CEO of Aberdeen-based Katoni Engineering and chair of DYW North East

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