As a child, I loved the Ladybird ‘People at Work’ series. I had the ones on the fireman, the policeman, the fisherman and the postman; and just one on a woman, The Nurse. Now, of course, they seem absurd. Women are doing all those ‘man’s’ jobs, and many more. So where do you go to find a men-only workplace? A monastery, maybe. Or an oil rig.
It’s not clear how Tabitha Lasley first fell in with riggers, but she was quickly enthralled. They are among the best paid blue-collar workers in the country — at the height of the North Sea oil boom even rig cleaners earned £300 a day — and they splash their money about like professional footballers on flashy clothes, state-of-the-art TVs, cocaine. ‘They were interesting. The sort of people you’d want at a house party, provided the house wasn’t yours.’
So when Lasley’s life imploded — she split with her boyfriend of five years; her laptop, carrying most of a book she’d written, was stolen — she decided to drill down. She wanted ‘to see what men are like with no women around’. Renting a dismal flat in the red-light district of Aberdeen, a city so icy in winter that even men wear gloves, she began to chat to riggers in flock-wallpapered bars as they shuttled on- and offshore. She recorded 103 interviews.
Why do the riggers speak to her? Because they’re bored, and she’s intriguing. In her early thirties, without a partner or children, she’s posh: she eats fish without a coat of batter, and buys rounds of drinks. She pops pills with the toughest of them.
Reading Lasley’s prose is like having a long conversation with someone highly intelligent, intuitive and more sensitive than she dares let on. Gradually, a picture of the riggers’ life emerges. Their offshore living quarters are so cramped as to drive them near crazy. When you have five men to a cabin, and ten to a bathroom, tiny courtesies loom large: ‘Wipe your spit off the taps when you clean your teeth; mop your piss off the toilet seat; rinse your stubble away.’
They work hard: 12-hour shifts for 21 days on the trot. Exhaustion begets mistakes. There are fires, chemical burns, wildly swinging loads. Rigs can and do sink. Explosions cause ripped-apart bulkheads and exposed wiring. If you touch an exposed wire ‘your hand will close around it and you’ll cling on convulsively until the voltage kills you’. More than 30 years on, the Piper Alpha disaster, in which 167 men died, and a fire raged for three weeks, still haunts them.
But the rigs’ greatest casualties are marriages. What the men call ‘Intermittent Husband Syndrome’ leads wives to stray. When the men get home, meantime, they need to decompress. They drink (not allowed offshore) and throw themselves into wild flings, ramming single beds together in cheap hotels, using burner phones, like on Line of Duty. ‘I fuck her the way I can’t fuck my wife,’ one confesses.
In a move that makes great copy, but is otherwise disastrous, Lasley shacks up with a rigger she calls ‘Caden’ — married, father of two. He likes Love Island and biographies of drug barons, and he’s good in bed. Somehow, his wife gets hold of Lasley’s mobile number, and bombards her with messages: ‘I no were u work. I can course u a lot of problems.’ Caden promises he’ll stay with her forever. Then he sets off to pick up his clothes and possessions, and never comes back.
At this point, Sea State morphs from a book about men to one about loneliness, and Lasley’s despair post-Caden makes for painful reading. She’s reached the age when her friends are not just marrying and having children, but getting divorced. Her mother dishes out desperate, deranged advice: she’s heard Robert Peston talking on the radio about how he lost his wife, and would like to marry again. She suggests Lasley find a way of contacting him. And all the while she’s stuck in Aberdeen, a rain-sodden city full of drifting shoals of itinerant workers. She’d describe herself as miles from home, but there’s no home to go back to.
Lasley is a really talented writer, but her book, for me, had one disappointment. I’ve spent many summers in the Scottish Highlands, staring out at the oil rigs scattered across the Cromarty Firth. I long to know what it’s like to be on one: what does the work actually involve? What is the chain of command? When the winter brings 90-mile-an-hour gales, what stops you falling off? But boarding a rig is — quite reasonably — not in Lasley’s remit. So, much though I admire this book, I’d love another, short and preferably illustrated. If Ladybird would add a latecomer — The Rigger — to the ‘People at Work’ series, I’d snap it up.