Sea State

Tabitha Lasley,

4th Estate, £14.99

Review by Nick Major

Some writers will do anything for a story. Those willing to risk it all often turn out to be the best. At the beginning of Tabitha Lasley’s memoir, she is a London-based journalist with a semblance of a secure life. By the end, she’s penniless, living in a grim “backwater” of northern England, and working in a fish-and-chip shop. One can’t help but think it was all worth it. Sea State has its flaws, but this portrait of North Sea oil riggers is well-crafted, full of surprises and oddly entrancing.

After giving up her London-life, Lasley moves to a shabby flat in Aberdeen. The city is immediately disregarded. It’s either “a staid and venal town that only cared for oil” or “rich and dull”. In Lasley’s defence, she is there to do one thing: inhabit the lives of oil workers and those she meets seem also to care nothing for the city. It’s just a stopover on their way home, a place to get drunk in and forget. Lasley rents a flat on a dark street with prostitutes on the corner: she moves between here and the pub.

Her modus operandi is to hang around in bars recording drunk interviews with labourers. It’s never exactly clear why she’s so interested in the oil industry per se, other than it is “one of the last avenues of blue-collar opportunity in this country, one of the few sectors open to working-class men – outside of sport – that still pays well”. One of her aims is to “see what men are like with no women around”.

“But you’ll be around,” her editor says. It’s a prescient comment. In her first interview, she hooks up with someone she calls Caden, a married man from Stockton. It’s the start of a strange affair that lasts for months.

The boom-and-bust cycle of the oil industry is mirrored by that of the workers themselves. They spend their wages as soon as they get them (sometimes before), mostly on cars, booze, clothes, tattoos, gym memberships and cocaine. Lasley finds them “interesting”, possibly because they are a vector back to her youth, “the sort of people you’d want at a house party”. Having said that, after the affair she realises the source of her infatuation with Caden is elusive: “he was like water”, a person with no personality, “principles, or politics to speak of”. Well, that was clear from the beginning.

The oil workers’ nihilistic lifestyle may be connected to the unrewarding nature of their jobs. Working on rigs is punishing, lonely and dangerous. A story circulates of a man who once filled his pockets with spanners and threw himself in the North Sea. One of her interviewees tells her: “You’re working on a floating bomb … that’s just waiting for an ignition source.” Safety is often compromised for profit: “the S in safety is a dollar sign”. The industry is also clearly past its peak. There will be no return to the heydays of the 1970s and 1980s. In part, Lasley’s book examines the impact this slow death is having on people who once relied on oil to fuel their lives.

Her voice is refreshing, stripped of all the trepidation and political niceties of modern culture. She is candid, unashamed and witty. She can also hold her own in a pub full of tough drunk men. No mean feat. Near the end, however, she walks down a dark side-street with a man who has confessed to killing someone and you start to wonder about her sanity. But it highlights the principal subject of this fine, courageous book, summed up in the epigraph, a line from Shakespeare: “Sigh no more, ladies, sigh no more, / Men were deceivers ever/ One foot in sea and one on shore /To one thing constant never.”