Tabitha Lasley’s new memoir is built upon a flawed premise. When she explains her plan to travel to Aberdeen and talk with offshore workers to discover “what men are like with no women around,” her editor points out “you’ll be around.” One of the men Lasley interviews responds to the same explanation of the project in the same way. Everyone, it seems, sees the contradictions. When Lasley talks to men in the bars and strip clubs they haunt between work and home, her presence alters their conversations and behavior. She never sets foot on an oil rig. Despite this, Sea State is compelling, thoughtful, and often moving. It is about masculinity and the ways in which men interact with one another, but it is also about class, about the relations between men and women, and about desire. The result is perhaps a better, more personal book than the one Lasley set out to write, offering particularly perceptive discussions around disappointment and loss, whether it be the loss of industries or the loss of love and the illusions that sustain it.
When Lasley begins her first interview with a group of men in a hotel bar, she emphasizes her position as a researcher by drawing their attention to the conventions of fieldwork, the fact that “I have to tell you I’m taping you.” The statement suggests a critical distance from her subjects. This does not last long. A few hours later, she leaves with Caden, the married offshore worker who set up the meeting. The story of their relationship dominates the text and informs her understanding of the industry in which he works. This does not mean the book is restricted to the local and personal; Lasley is well-informed about both the history of the North Sea platforms and the risks of the international labor market through which many of the men circulate, which include “[h]ostage-taking in Libya, piracy in West Africa, insurgents in Iraq, ice floes in Arctic Russia.” It does mean she is emotionally as well as intellectually invested; the workers on the rigs, vulnerable to “blowouts, fires, asphyxiating condensate, chemical burns, heavy machinery, swinging loads” include the man she has fallen in love with. It also means she is particularly attentive to the psychological impact of offshore work, which bifurcates lives. As one man puts it, “[y]ou’ve got your rig head and your home head.” Depression is even more common than accidents and the story of the man who “filled his pockets with tools and threw himself off a rig” is repeated again and again. Everyone has a different explanation but nobody seems surprised.
Lasley’s desire for Caden is both inexplicable and convincing. As Sea State recognizes, irrationality is the defining characteristic of love, which demands the “temporary cessation of critical faculties.” It is “a chemical spell strong enough to scramble the moral compass” rather than, as internet dating sites claim, the product of compatibility. Lasley and Caden have almost no shared interests. She has “never met a person so easily bored, or harder to occupy”; his only discernible passion is for shopping. Their conversation is limited, not least because he has “no principles or politics to speak of.” Even sex emphasizes rather than resolves the distance between them; it is “clumsy and disorganized.” Despite this, she struggles to imagine being without him. This is not merely because she is convinced that in allowing him to “dismantle his marriage, abandon his family” she is “running up a debt we’d never settle”—there is a visceral bond that neither needs nor admits explanation. She may find herself avoiding sex but, falling asleep with him, feels his body has been “modeled to my exact specifications.” When he leaves, unraveling under a barrage of furious calls and texts from his estranged wife, she is devastated. She throws herself into her work and drinking, but it does not help, or does not help enough. She is “sick, only he had the serum, and he wasn’t going to give it to me.”
As Lasley notes, oil extraction is “one of the last avenues of blue-collar opportunity” in Britain, “one of the few sectors open to working-class men—outside of sport—that still pay well.” The people she talks and drinks with, largely drawn from the “despised boroughs and voided northern towns” devastated by Thatcherism, are remnants of an almost lost world of skilled industrial employment. Their position is increasingly precarious. By the end of the text, men are being recruited, not to increase production, but to “dismantle the platforms, plug the wells, and ship the parts off piecemeal.” Sea State is, amongst other things, a work of salvage ethnography. Lasley is not sentimental about the industry or those it employs, but she firmly rejects the increasingly widespread image of working-class men as a homogeneous, inherently reactionary group it is acceptable or even laudable to despise. She recognizes the destructive consequences of “all-male domains where antifemale paranoia flourished” but does not see the problems of masculinity as peculiar to those who work with their hands. Few of the people she interviews are as unattractive as Adam, her middle-class ex-boyfriend who goes through her phone and notebooks when jealous and disapproves of her watching ITV because he sees it as too northern.
To her great credit, Lasley allows offshore workers to speak for themselves, revealing their strengths as well as their flaws. When they are not talking about women, they are often charismatic, articulate in describing the challenges of their workplaces and worried “for their futures, for their families.” They deserve to be heard. Lasley took the trouble to listen to them, and the result is a fascinating, thoughtful, and affecting memoir.
by Tabitha Lasley
Published on December 07, 2021
Ben Clarke is Associate Professor of English at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro. He is the author of "Orwell in Context," co-author of "Understanding Richard Hoggart", and co-editor of "Working-Class Writing." He is currently editing the "Routledge Companion to Working-Class Literature."