Ionce asked a high-up man in British Rail if he could name the most frightening train journey in the UK. He didn’t hesitate. ‘The last train from Aberdeen to Glasgow on a Friday night,’ he said, before adding, with some emphasis, ‘via Dundee.’ In the heyday of the oil boom, many oil-rig workers, heading home after two weeks ‘on’, would pitch up for the journey about eight pints in, with a ‘carry-out’ – a bag full of drink – to help end the bevvy-hiatus they had suffered while in the middle of the North Sea. (My British Rail man said the conductors were usually too scared to ask for their tickets.) For a period in the 1970s and early 1980s, men who worked offshore enjoyed a certain rough-hewn glamour in their own communities. They had money. New cars. And they existed at a distance from their families, living semi-independent lives, travelling in helicopters and going on as if they were George Best in oilskins.
Forty years on, Tabitha Lasley was already working on a book about oil-rig workers when she first visited Aberdeen. She’d recently broken up with her boyfriend, a pothead in public relations. He’d had his uses, though, teaching her how to throw a punch and how to intensify her orgasms by pressing the soles of her feet together (who knew?). Not long after arriving in the Granite City on that initial research trip, she began seeing a good-looking, tattooed oil-rig worker from Stockton called Caden, who happened, as so many of them happen, to be married. He was an interviewee. They started sleeping together, and she got used to ‘the artificial chill of hotel rooms, the unyielding tension of the mattress. The practice of strapping two single beds together, tucking a sheet over the top and calling it a double.’
To be near him, and closer to the subject of the book she planned, she packed in her job at a magazine in London. (‘I wanted to see what men were like with no women around,’ she later tells one of the oil workers. ‘But you were around,’ he replies.) She found a flat in Aberdeen, a pricey rental overlooking a car park, with no sea view and sex workers hanging out at the end of the street. The new guy seemed pretty nearly worth it – ‘in certain respects, he was good in bed. He was generous with the duvet’ – and she instantly loved him the way you’d have to love someone to move to Aberdeen for them:
When I showered in the morning, I wrote Caden’s initials, then mine, in the condensation on the glass. CD. TL. Then I drew a circle around them, so they were bound together.
I put perfume of tuberose and amber in my hair. I waited four minutes exactly before answering his texts.
I slept in a T-shirt turned inside out for luck (and gave account to other superstitions: when a person appears in your dream, he went to sleep thinking of you; if a man is quiet, but talks quickly, it means he can keep secrets).
Daily, I drilled him on the worst-case scenario. Wipe your texts every time we talk. Leave your phone out where she can see it. No new clothes to go offshore, no smashing the gym before you leave. And if she does catch you, please don’t say it was just sex. But equally, don’t tell her I was special. She will ask if I’m prettier than her, if I’m younger than her, if I let you do the things to me she won’t let you do to her.
Like Goldilocks, she sampled everything, high on pills and changing her name to suit the occasion, entering spaces where nobody is quite who they are. Tinder, for instance. Despite the way she felt about this oil-rigger, she took to messing about with men devoted to messing about. (She writes very well about being off her face.) The inscrutable Caden, with his sharp features and his big arms, is an instantly recognisable type (though seldom caught on the page), a super-reckless creature of habit with nothing much in his head, a man who makes his bed every morning, irons everything and is a slave to the disastrous situation he built at home. For a certain period he turned his hopes on Lasley. ‘I hate you going out with other lads,’ he said to her.
‘It gives me a knot in my stomach.’
‘It’s only research.’
‘I was research. Look what happened there.’
She is strangely susceptible to guys who can seem worldly for seconds at a time, who flick away a cigarette as if it was nothing, who whistle with two fingers and can cut a deck of cards. She sees them in all their gym-haunting, laddish glory, the boys from Middlesbrough who live on egg and chips and get their kicks by arguing with their other halves on FaceTime, ‘writing boro boys on tour on the bathroom stalls in marker pen, as if they were still at school’.
It’s specious to look for a generation behind every new literary voice, but Lasley has none of the me-left-out anomie and I’m-so-complex victimhood of the Snapchat fraternity: there’s a fair bit of social experience, a fair bit of living, behind her habits, her insights and her speech. ‘My generation had been the last batch of girls who danced properly,’ she writes, ‘which is to say they wore trainers and made no attempt to look sexy.’ Such girls, we learned earlier, know how to tie their trainers so the knots can’t be seen, they know ‘how to tie a Berghaus in the middle so it still looked girly’. She once cared about 1990s garage music, bucket hats, Air Max and Converse – trainers again – and understands the special commonality and self-pity peculiar to Scousers like her. ‘Did you know that people from Glasgow and Liverpool have a natural affinity,’ she says at one point, high as a kookaburra and giving it the verbals as she walks down the road. ‘It’s the Irish in them. That’s why they talk quickly and take a lot of drugs. Big, poor, wet cities. The west coast trifecta. It produces a certain personality type.’ If many autofictionists are interior writers with all the lights on, mansions of subjective quirks, Lasley is the whole street, with a much more connected sense of other people. She takes for granted an unapologetic tone we used only to associate with male writers:
It was half-past one on a Tuesday afternoon, and I was already on my way to being drunk. I’d been circulating around this room for a few hours now, buying drinks, inviting confidences, like the tipsy hostess of a dour, exclusively male cocktail party. These three men, I thought, could be ranked in order of hostility … Girls are taught to respond to the subtlest social cues, to beat a retreat at the first hint of a furrowed brow or crossed arms; boys to develop a benign tone-deafness to the very same signals. They learn to brazen it out and keep talking, like a salesman on a doorstep, sensing a soft no. In order to do work like this – to latch onto strangers and coax conversation from them – I had to become a hybrid of sorts. The unthreatening looks of a woman. The impervious core of a man.
She may be in love, but she’s also on assignment, and the originality of the book lies in the way these states of being become inseparable. In a sense, she’s like the men she’s writing about, the oil workers who live two lives, one at home, one away, and her entanglements become vital to an understanding of offshore life. These men, with their absences, have a similar life to soldiers; it’s called Intermittent Husband Syndrome. Lasley writes that she came to see oil rigs as barracks: ‘all-male domains where anti-female paranoia flourished. Offshore, they swapped stories of grasping wives and scheming girlfriends, of women who “trapped” them with pregnancies.’ She digs deep into the world of these men and their industry, and shows how their institutionalised lives breed stereotypes that are bad for everyone. Many of them spend their lives simultaneously seeking commitment and disowning it. She is in the fortunate/unfortunate position of being able to observe this, as well as her own situation. ‘I was nobody’s wife,’ she writes, and there’s a world behind that. ‘I’d make a terrible mother,’ she later says to Caden. He isn’t the greatest of fathers, of course, but he has his ‘excuses’ (all men do). But what excuse does she have for living more than one life?
The North Sea rigs are old and rusty. Safety is an issue. Their maintenance is just as shoddy as the private affairs of the oil workers. Battered constantly by sea and storm, the structures are in constant need of repair, but most often they don’t get it. There’s an industry protocol known as TFA – Touch Fuck All – that guards against an attitude of ready compliance, in case preventative or remedial action should slow down or stop production, the ultimate no-no for greedy oil companies. And so the rigs live on dangerously in an era of eco warfare. The men, too, are deracinated, and Sea State reveals something of the inner lives of these lost beings. It’s strange to find such a mixture, and it’s devastatingly effective in this slow-paced, issue-facing memoir. People too seldom write about workplaces, their own or other people’s, and hardly ever about the impact such places have on the workers and the communities who depend on them.
People had started to worry about Lasley. She was crying a lot. She wasn’t eating. She went a bit mad when Caden turned his back on her. On one of her trips back to Aberdeen, someone gets on the train at Darlington, a man with a thick neck who used to be a boxer. Oh god, here we go, you think. She goes back with the ex-boxer to the bar of the hotel where he is staying. Turns out he was on Piper Alpha, the famous rig that caught fire, and, before that, on a rig near the Falklands. Such is the delicate intertwining of reportage and memoir, assignment and motive, you don’t really know whether Lasley is interested in the guy because of his job, or whether she’s, you know, interested. The two things are cut from the same psychic cloth: she wants to understand these men, their offshore lives, their habits and troubles, but she also needs to invest in her own offshore life, her own troubles and fantasies of an airborne rescue. The man, it turns out, is a powder keg, much like the platforms he works on; he’s also racist (‘Half the crew don’t speak fucking English’) and sexist (‘You’re a lass. Can’t let you pay for a drink’). Then we discover he murdered somebody. One minute you’re admiring her ability to drink with such charmers, then, before you know it, you’re really concerned for her; he’s steaming, and she leaves the pub and goes down the street with him, ‘using his bulk as a windbreak’.
How far would you go for a story? How far would you go to be a story? Lasley throws herself into her task with the kind of energy that rises from mania like steam. I never stopped admiring her, and the sentences just get better, but what the fuck? I once spent months in a house with Julian Assange for a story, and a week with the child jihadis of Kandahar, but I still wanted to give Lansley six months off for good behaviour. Thankfully, though, she dives back in after every round. ‘It was the last week in October,’ she writes, ‘the air thick with ghosts. A dense fog had settled over the city, every flight was grounded. The pubs full of restive men.’
She’d changed. ‘I stopped masturbating, and grew my pubic hair back (an exterior sign of an inward resolution, like a habit).’ She’d started wearing more make-up, bought some new perfume. And you realise that for all her chat and for all her encounters, she still misses Caden horribly, and this is a book about love as much as anything else. She misses him so much she is sick and work is the only thing she can face doing. ‘I led a noirish half-life,’ she writes, ‘getting up at twelve and going straight to the station, where I would take my first drink of the day. A better, braver person might have accosted these men sober.’ She has the skill, a Joan Didion kind of skill, of inflecting non-fiction material subjectively, a habit of assessing situations via her nervous system.
She listens to these workers while thinking about Caden. ‘My dream was of a chance meeting with people who knew him well, people on whose good opinion he relied. Then I could give my version of events, lure them over to my side.’ In a beautiful reversal, she has picked up the rig workers’ lingo, but she can hear what they conceal. ‘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 … You’re different to other birds: I believe women are more or less interchangeable.’ One of the men calls her nosy and supposes she would have to be (‘shy bairns get nae sweets’), but none of the men who barges in seems to understand that she will be the hero of her own book. (I almost wrote ‘novel’, because Sea State has all the presentness of fiction, as well as the exactitude of the non-fiction novel and the gleam of confession.) She finds out more and more about the oil industry and about masculinity, while mourning one man. She is a woman looking at men looking at women dealing with men. One reminds her ‘of a shipwrecked sailor, driven mad by dehydration. This is what men often fail to grasp about women. We are scared of them, especially when they drink.’
You can feel you have travelled full circle by the end of this book, a journey that locks you into a world and makes you feel its weight. No matter how true the story happens to be, Lansley is a ghost of her own experience, haunting the rooms in her mind where it did and didn’t happen. She conjures an industry and a place, but much more than that, she shows us the men themselves, and their relation to her, a mysterious tale of love and fear. The single thing we can know for sure, as she leaves the city, is that there must be a book, and only she can write it. ‘Though I’d only just extinguished mine,’ she writes, ‘I eyed his cigarette with envy. I was a person with too many vices. When I left Aberdeen, I’d cleanse myself of all of them.’