Literary Guy

Ian Jack

  • A North Sea Journey by A. Alvarez
    Hodder, 191 pp, £9.95, May 1986, ISBN 0 340 37347 4

Readers of the old Eagle may remember that educative comic’s colourful centre-spread, where every week the latest triumphs of British technology (this was the new Elizabethan age) would be dissected for the enlightenment of British boyhood (girls read the Girl). The cutaway drawing, the arrow and the numbered part explained the workings of the jet engine or the diesel locomotive, or how Hunt’s expedition scaled Everest with oxygen masks and Kendal mint cake. The Eagle believed in the future – Dan Dare was on the cover – but when, a decade or so later, its brilliant tradition of pictorial explanation was revived by newspapers such as the Sunday Times, neither technology nor the future looked quite so good. ‘How things work’ had become ‘why things went wrong.’ Arrows usually pointed to defective parts. Today, when scientific achievement is questioned more often than celebrated, an accident like Chernobyl can produce diagrams which resemble the sky over Crecy.

In the best parts of this book, A. Alvarez writes with the spirit of the old Eagle. He goes offshore to the North Sea oilfields to marvel and to explain. The intention is admirable: bold men and ingenious machinery have tapped oil reserves which keep Britain solvent. The story looks promising: the bold men and the ingenious machinery are sometimes rocked by gales and pounded by hostile seas – a classic man v. the elements situation – and in Alvarez we have a high-quality writer on hand to make it all vivid and memorable. And why not? Perhaps literature and literary people have grown too bored and cynical about technological advance, like lazy men locked into bad marriages who reap the benefits of domesticity and then moan on about the wife in the pub. Alvarez himself seems almost over-conscious of this neglect, and spends too much time justifying and elaborating his decision, as a literary person, to write about non-literary things.

He is a poet and critic, the author of books on suicide and gambling. He has dabbled in both. Writers, he says, deal in doubt, ‘the cracks in the fabric and points of weakness where character shows through, and whatever confidence they have comes from their precarious control of the medium. So going offshore brought me face to face with a different way of thinking as well as with a different world.’ An oil worker tells him that in the North Sea they are dealing ‘with real things and facing large risks’. Alvarez says that this ‘to a desk-bound writer was the most irresistible of siren calls’.

Before he leaves his desk at the London base-camp, he packs his luggage with a few thoughts, the philosophical equivalent of Kendal mint cake, which will see him through the trip. A quotation from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry prefaces the text. ‘The notion of looking at life has always been hateful to me. What am I if I am not a participant? In order to be I must participate.’ Equally dubious stuff follows in the introduction. Alvarez says he has always been ‘fascinated by hostile environments’: and the dust-jacket says he climbed, ‘at 56 in bad weather’, the Old Man of Hoy, a vertical and sea-bound Scottish rock which looks not unlike an oil rig. The sea scares him when it doesn’t bore him, and he supposes that ‘it was precisely because the North Sea gave me the jitters that I was fascinated by the oil fields up there in the northern sector, where colonies of people worked all the year round in unspeakable weather. It seemed not just another technical accomplishment but a kind of mystery.’ He draws a parallel with space exploration. Like spacecraft, the oil rigs ‘exist slightly beyond the level of our imagination and our attention’. Like space, the North Sea has still to find its muse. Astronauts go up and come down ‘talking in the same cramped polysyllabic clichés they might use if they had been to Topeka, Kansas. Not one of them has yet described what it looks and feels like out there.’

High expectations are aroused by talk like this. Will Alvarez take Saint-Exupéry’s precept to heart and work, anonymously, on a rig for six months – participatory journalism in the style of George Plimpton? Or will he set off by small boat and sail from rig to rig (‘Ahoy there, your muse wishes to come on board’) as the word ‘journey’ in the title might imply? Will there be storms? Will Alvarez come close to the edge of life? Will the journey be ‘internal’? Will his ‘kind of mystery’ become less mysterious? No, none of these. What happens instead is what happens to any journalist or film-maker who wants to describe the North Sea oil business. Alvarez puts himself in the hands of the Shell oil company who send him off to look at a rig and an exploration vessel and who then check the facts in his manuscript. He spends a total of two weeks on the North Sea during the months of March and June 1983, and an unspecified (but probably short) time in Aberdeen and Shetland. In between, he has some fact-finding sessions at company headquarters in London.

Storms perversely refuse to blow. The North Sea stays as flat and blue as the summer Aegean. The chief elements of oil-rig life are revealed to be hard work and exhaustion: ‘The cycle is monotonous and unforgiving; up at five, eat, work, eat, work, eat ... by the end of it no one has the energy for anything more taxing than a game of billiards or a film before bed. The atmosphere in the rest area is friendly but drained.’ No shipwrecks, nobody drowned – in fact, nothing to laugh at at all. Alvarez, however, has freighted his ‘journey’ with significance and meaning. How, in the face of so much elemental dullness, can it be sustained? It can’t. Alvarez quickly ditches his philosophic baggage and tries the more obvious journalistic route. The central mystery which bugged him earlier on is replaced by ‘the mysterious and impressive ... ingenuity, perseverance and sheer hard work that have made the North Sea oil province possible’. Unfortunately, Alvarez is a writer rather than a journalist. He is, as he says himself, a ‘literary guy’ who has been commissioned by that most literary of magazines, the New Yorker, to write the series of pieces which make up the book. Now the New Yorker is not the Sunday Times, far less the old Eagle. Neither arrows nor drawings of parts, working or defective, have ever darkened its pages. It passionately believes in quantities of words, and pays a dollar for each of them, but has yet to come to terms with anything more pictorial than a cartoon. Readers must pursue New Yorker pieces through chasms of advertisements and across the frozen wastes of Manhattan jokes, trappers on the scent of the byline which will be revealed only when the last sentence has ended. True, the book does have maps on the endpapers and some inappropriately delicate pencil drawings interspersed through the text: but words do the work, and sometimes the work is hard. A less confident talent would have panicked. A journalist would certainly have seen that two weeks offshore in good weather as a Shell guest are not the makings of a book, though you might get 6000 words out of it. The journalist would have dug around, made more telephone calls, widened his brief to explore the political repercussions of oil on Scotland, talked to a few dissident oilmen. He might have wondered why oil companies won’t allow trade-union representation on the rigs; or if Norway has paced the exploitation of oil rather better than Britain. He might have enjoyed useful hours getting drunk (or seeming to) with roustabouts during their days on shore – ‘on the beach’, in oil-rig language. He might have spent time with their wives and families. He might have gone to one of those sad towns in Lowland Scotland – Greenock, say, or Methil – where oil-rig construction has come and gone, the withered last hope for an industrial future. But it all takes time and energy.

I write as a journalist, and perhaps journalists are not the kindest critics of near-journalism by non-journalists. Still, it has to be said: Alvarez makes a little material go a very long way and the quality of the writing isn’t always enough to keep the project afloat. There are some fine patches: a fascinating chapter on divers and diving, a wistful and funny account of his first experience on the North Sea as an amateur deckhand on an old steam drifter in 1947. And, as you might expect from a poet, he can weld together a vivid metaphor. Helicopters curtsey like ballerinas when they take off, and land as ‘gently as if the deck were lined with porcelain’. Gas-flares spout from the rigs like ‘a waving banner of fire’, ‘a ponytail of flame’, ‘a great flowing rag of flame’, ‘a chivalric pennon of flame flapping the fog’. Sometimes the similes don’t come off: pipes are stacked ‘like rusty candy in a jar’. Sometimes the author forgets he has used them before: the Shetland islands are twice described as shaped like a dagger pointing south at the mainland. Sometimes they are tired: a control room looks ‘like the flight deck of Battlestar Galactica’.

Much of the time, however, his prose stretches out before you like the North Sea on a becalmed and overcast winter afternoon. It doesn’t invite. You don’t want to jump in. As a traveller, Alvarez is no Naipaul or Theroux. He is too patient, too kind, too earnest a questioner, too much in awe of helicopter pilots and men in hard-hats. He treats everybody well. He was probably a pleasure to meet – Shell must think the world of him. But he is rather a bore on the printed page. How must he seem, he wonders with suspect humility, to the macho types whom he has intruded among? He decides that he is ‘grey-faced and grey-haired, with a notebook in one hand, a pen in the other, and a tape-recorder sticking out of the pocket of his brand-new overalls’. (Nothing to be ashamed of there, Al. Put some Condor in your pipe and stick out your chest. How many of these guys have climbed the Old Man of Hoy, aged 56 and in bad weather?)

A pity about that tape-recorder. He would have done better to have left it behind, or at least taken lessons in its use from Studs Terkel. Far too many people are allowed to describe what they do (complicated) or what they think (not always interesting) at far too great a length in what looks like a careful rearrangement of their own words. We don’t get to know many people on this journey, but by golly we do get to hear them. Alvarez, acting as a kind of literary pavement artist, does a lightning portrait of each (‘tall, thin-lipped with straggly grey hair and a gaunt face’, ‘lank grey hair, grey stubble on his chin and a broad Scots accent’) and then lets them rip for paragraph after paragraph. Even more painfully, he tries to get their accent right. Nobody, probably, should attempt a phonetic reproduction of the Aberdeen dialect, a foreign language even to fellow Scots. But our Al up from London has a go. ‘I’m gaein’ to try to spend muir time wi’ the wife,’ says an old Aberdeen industrialist. He may said something like that, but can Alvarez be trusted when his notions of something as celebrated as music-hall Geordie are so offbeam? Here is how he transcribes two Geordies conversing in the canteen. They are ‘heavyset men with grey, drained faces’ – Alvarez is obsessed with greyness. One has a bandaged hand.

  ‘Does tha food want cutting up?’

  ‘Nay, I’ll manage ... I gotter see t’quack again tomorrer. Maybe he’ll send me back to t’beach.’

Eee and I’ll be thraiped right gradely, the Blaydon Races must have been run in Barnsley. It’s a small point, but an accumulation of such small points leads to the conclusion that Alvarez, in this book at least, is a poor observer and delineator of people. He is actually much more at home, and infinitely more interesting, in the world of scientific, mechanical and logistical fact. How, in every year, Shell’s northern fields consume 66,948 tons of pipes, 2.5 million eggs, 1015 gallons of tomato ketchup and 970 miles of toilet paper. Why flying a helicopter is so difficult. How the mud takes two hours to travel up the 2.5 miles of pipe from the drilling bit to the surface. The fact that the rigs stand as high as the Eiffel Tower on patches of mud and sand named after face-lifted American womanhood: Thelma, Terri, Beryl are the wives of oilmen.

But perhaps Alvarez deserves credit for not ducking his mission as explainer. Few writers, or writers in the sense of literary guys, are brave enough these days to take on technology. Few, in fact, have ever been: Dickens, Zola and Kipling may have been fascinated by the steam engine, but they remained content to use it as a metaphor (speed, sex, Calvinist predestination). The reader of Dombey, La Bête Humaine and ‘MacAndrew’s Hymn’ learns little about thermodynamics. Alvarez strives and succeeds with much more complicated machinery, though the effort can produce sentences such as: ‘To prevent the rest of the pipe from dropping down the hole, they harness into the space between its protruding ends and the rotary table on the drilling floor a linked ring of jointed and tapered narrow wedges with steel octopus-sucker pads on the inner surfaces.’ Arrows, please.

As for Alvarez’s ‘kind of mystery’, it is best forgotten. Oil wells were sunk in the North Sea because technology made them feasible and the price of oil made them profitable. Men work there because the money is good and Methil and Greenock no longer provide jobs. Sometimes the work is dangerous, but the men eat well and sleep comfortably. No women or alcohol are allowed, but the men spend every second week at home. The whole business is less mysterious than Chernobyl or Sellafield, and much less mysterious than why 56-year-old literary guys want to climb the Old Man of Hoy in bad weather.