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Somewhere between pretence and reality

I'M not really one for discussions on the nature of reality.

It doesn't matter whether reality is a construct of the collective subconscious.

We may well be nothing more than the product of someone else's fevered imagination - but I'm still going to have to go to work on Monday morning, and that's all the reality I need.

The concept of what is real and what is imagined met its Waterloo at Huddersfield Sports Centre last weekend.

The event was Exercise Ivor, a simulated major rail incident in which a fire on a train in Huddersfield Station created casualties.

The exercise, named, one assumes, after the children's TV programme, was to test the emergency services' response to a real local disaster.

I was recruited as one of the train passengers, as were 100 or so other "survivors", many of them family and friends of Kirklees employees.

After a briefing (and more of this later) we were bussed to the Sports Centre, which had been decked out as a survivors' "rest area".

Everybody had been given identities and "problems".

Mine were that Uncle Alfred and Aunt Sally were waiting for me on Manchester Piccadilly Station.

Could you tell them not to worry and to go home?

I was also supposed to be one of those people who never stop asking questions.

What's happened? Was it a bomb? How many have been killed and injured? Where are the police? When can I go home?

Now here's where it gets confusing.

For all practical purposes, I am a journalist. No, I am, really.

So in all innocence, I go up to an official.

You can tell they're officials because they have coloured tabards (police, WRVS, Salvation Army, Care Team, St John Ambulance, Kirklees Council, Red Cross) and a lot of them have clipboards.

These are officially officials, even though the "incident" is fake.

"Hi, I'm John Avison from the Examiner, and I'm thinking of doing a feature on -"

"Are you a reporter?"

"In a manner of speaking, yes. I'm thinking of writing a column -"

"This is a rest room for survivors. I think you ought to leave. I'm not authorised to speak to the Press."

"No, probably not in a real incident. But I'm just asking, you know, between the two of us -"

"I'm sure a press release will be available."

And with that, her emergency persona intact, she turned and left.

When photographer colleague Paul Welch turned up, he was shown the "rest area" but was turned away from a "quarantine area".

If you need to be reminded, Paul is a real photographer, and the quarantined area was pretend.

Whatever was going on in there might have made a great picture for the Examiner.

Bandages, tomato ketchup, police vigorously interviewing a terrorist suspect, that sort of thing.

But the officials had been given a role, and they were going to stick to it, no matter what.

I met the person who had been given the role of a journalist who had been a passenger on the train.

"There's a TV personality who was a passenger," she whispered. "I think that that's her over there, but she's being protected by her personal assistant.

"Also, that man over there is blind and he's been separated from his guide dog.

"They're all human interest stories. If I don't get them, my editor will have my guts for garters."

You don't HAVE an editor. I, on the other hand, do. A real editor, last time I looked.

You are NOT Alice, and this is NOT Wonderland.

By this time I was starting to feel a little hysterical.

Perhaps I really had been in a train disaster, and in attempt to hide from the trauma I was just pretending to be an Examiner journalist.

The salvation was the real - free - food provided by catering manager Sharon Swift and her staff.

It kept body and soul together.

Perhaps I should have been more aware of the code words that had been thoughtfully provided to escape the fact/fantasy trap.

They were No Duff ("I'm not kidding - this is a real heart attack") and End X ("OK guys, time to go home. Yes: to where you really live").

But unfortunately, I missed this bit of the briefing.

A Red Cross worker hijacked me and my car to get her to the survivors' centre on time.

For her, this was the real emergency.
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Copyright 2007 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Publication:Huddersfield Daily Examiner (Huddersfield, England)
Date:May 17, 2007
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