The following makes me sound like I’m the kind of person who has elaborate liquid lunches at restaurants with fellow bloggers, but after a recent a liquid lunch with a fellow blogger we ended up in a bookstore and she casually recommended a book she’d discovered somewhere online.
We’re both big readers, though I maybe somewhat smaller actually (you can see if you can keep up with her pace at Life in A Cold Climate). Given how much literary ground the two of us jointly cover, it’s almost rare to find something neither of us has read before. I realise immediately what a preposterous statement this was, and it is not to be read that we’d think we’ve read everything in the world, just lots of stuff that makes it to the smallish selections of English books in a non-English speaking country. The book Sea State was something she’d not read, and I took her recommendation and read it.
Lifestyle journalist Tabitha Lasley decided to write a feature, or eventually maybe a book, about the men who work on oil-rigs that cross between Norway and Scotland. She wanted to see what men are like when there are no women around: how did they behave offshore; what was their relationship with their families when they were back? So she moved to Aberdeen with the plan to get safety clearance to be able to study her subjects also offshore.
She didn’t set foot on an oil rig while in Aberdeen, but instead plunged into a gut-wrenching relationship with a married rig worker, and pretty much broke every other journalistic rule by drinking and taking drugs with her subjects as she was interviewing them, sometimes faking her own identity.
Whatever methods Lasley used, her part memoir, part portrait Sea State is kind of astonishing. As a study about the impacts of sudden emergence of high-salaried jobs and with them an entirely new social class in the traditionally not wealthy city of Aberdeen it is spot on – the accents, the observations are meticulous. Aberdeen Princess Syndrome. That’s what locals called it. A congenital condition, passed from father to daughter, as most mutations are. Daddy was big in oil, so boyfriends had to be too. Late-stage symptoms included Longchamp bags, swinging tails of pastel-coloured hair, and a delicate hauteur when dealing with men in bars. … Aberdeen was like a Gulf state, a desert caliphate. Women were rarely seen out alone after dark. It was full of itinerant workers, miles from home and lonely. … When men complained about the Aberdeen Princesses, they were really complaining about the city’s character: close, money-minded, austere. These girls localised their discontent, gave it a name.
As a student in Scotland, I had a Norwegian flatmate who cleaned oil rigs as a summer job. It was such a lucrative gig that she didn’t have to work during the terms following stints on the rig. This was basically all the information I had about life on oil rigs before I read Sea State – and this was not a topic I was particularly looking to further educate myself on. But then again, this book was not really about teaching the reader about technicalities of oil drilling. People compared Norway to a drug dealer who fastidiously eschews his own product. The country exported huge amounts of crude, yet relied on green energy itself. Over the water, they called it ‘oljeeventyr’ – the oil fairy tale – and it really was. A million Krone in the bank for every citizen, rigs that looked like hotels, fields with names like Troll, Valhall, Frigg. … Consider our own North Sea story, a sorry tale of Thatcherite profligacy. We didn’t save our windfall. We earned it and burned it. On what, no one seems sure. Fifty years since the first well was drilled, and we have nothing to show for our oil. And they say socialists don’t know how to manage money.
The subject matter of the book obviously makes it impossible not to include social and political observations, which are to the point and often funny. Yet the glue that keeps the story together and really becomes the story is Lasley’s relationship that melts down, one colossal red flag after another. I was amused at her account when things had already soured with Caden, as she described the fussy eater that he was, the list of food he didn’t like, including, but not limited to: fish, apart from fish in batter; seafood; cheese; pâté; egg yolks; tofu; black pudding; chorizo; hummus; cucumber; peas; cream; cream-based sauces; porridge; gherkins; olives; yogurt; avocado; coffee; wine.
Lasley interviewed over 130 rig workers for her book, and it shows in many conclusions. Herewith my favourite, as she’d cracked the code (married/divorced) rig workers used when describing their circumstances:
My ex is crazy: I treat women poorly.
My ex is controlling: I am a cheat.
My ex is bitter: I am incapable of linking cause and effect.
My ex took me for everything I had: she received an amount commensurate with her contribution to our marriage.
My ex won’t let me see the kids, though I pay through the nose: I think maintenance payments ought to work like a VIP concert ticket, where you buy access to the performer, irrespective of my failings as a parent.
You’re different to other birds: I believe women are more or less interchangeable.
I realise I am not making a very coherent case for reading this book, but I really enjoyed its at times laconic, at times heartbreaking take on relationships that happen in irregular circumstances. Many of the book’s relationship patterns and related lexicon transcend to other fields as well: think anything where the (usually) husband travels a lot (politics, business, music/performing arts). Lasley is very raw and honest, funny and intelligent. If you want contemporary reading to take your mind off the skyrocketing energy prices this winter, consider Sea State.
All quotes in cursive are from Sea State.