Lari Don is one of my best discoveries of 2013. A storyteller and award winning author, with a range of books to her name which includes picture books, early readers and novels (her 20th book in just six years of writing will be published later this year), I discovered her when researching children’s authors who feature Orkney in their work.
M and I are currently working our way through Lari’s First Aid for Fairies Series, full of magic and music and set in contemporary Scotland, whilst as a whole family we’ve really enjoyed her newest book, a collection of retellings of Scottish myths, entitled Breaking the Spell.
We’ve being doing lots of “playing by the book” inspired by Lari’s work, but it mostly involves pretending to be dragons and centaurs and running around the garden singing, so I haven’t got photos to share with you. But what I do have, is an interview with Lari; I hope it will inspire you to seek out her books and discover her for yourself.
Playing by the book: Would you tell me a little bit about Breaking the Spell – how you chose the stories for inclusion, for example?
Lari Don: I was very lucky – Frances Lincoln [the publisher] gave me a free hand, and I chose my favourites! But I know and love dozens of Scottish stories, so even with the aim of sharing my favourite legends and folktales, I had to make a few strategic decisions.
I was keen to mix lesser known stories with stories which are better known. I love the story of Tam Linn, the boy stolen by the fairies who grows into a fairy knight then is rescued by a brave girl called Janet, and I’ve used it as inspiration for several of my novels, so I really wanted to include that. I’m delighted that Tam Linn is the title story of the book (because Janet breaks the spell…) It’s probably one of the best known Scottish fairy tales.
Selkies. An illustration by Cate James, for Breaking the Spell. Used with permission.
Other stories often associated with Scottish folklore are the shapechanger stories of selkies and kelpies, but I’ve never really connected with the best known selkie story about the selkie wife – a seal who becomes a woman when she comes on shore, but can’t change back because a fisherman steals her sealskin, then forces her to marry him. So instead of telling that story, I’ve told a story that happens AFTER that story, about a child of a selkie and a fisherman. It’s a bit dark and gory, but then lots of old stories are! And the kelpie story I tell in Breaking the Spell is absolutely original, because it’s based on a family story from my mum’s childhood on Skye.
Then, with those well-known Scottish magical creatures – fairies, selkies, kelpies – represented, I could start looking at less well-known Scottish stories, like the Celtic hero Cuchullin learning from a female warrior on Skye, the Witch of Lochlann trying to burn down Scotland’s forests, and a crofter who steals a monster’s baby… creating what I hope is a mix of familiar and surprising.
Lari Don loves the story of Tam Linn so much, she name her cat Tam Linn!
Playing by the book: What stories “got away” and couldn’t be included?
Lari Don: Well, I love Viking stories, and with groups of older children I often retell a bit of the Viking Orkneyinga saga from the point of view of the invaded (and victorious) Scots. But we decided not to put that story in this collection because it is (loosely) based on historical record, rather than pure legend. I may tell it somewhere else some time!
Playing by the book: Ooh, so are there are plans for another collection?
Lari Don: Another collection? Well, I’d love to, but I’ll have to wait to be asked…
Cate James and Lari Don signing books at this year’s Edinburgh Book Festival
Playing by the book: I’d like to explore a little the differences between oral storytelling and writing books; I would imagine for a storyteller it can feel strange choosing a single version of a story to set down in black and white. What does it feel like to you?
Lari Don: I do find writing retellings and collections of myths and legends very different from writing my own original fiction. I never retell a traditional story in print that I haven’t told to an audience, and when I’m working up a story to tell it out loud, I might make very sketchy notes, but I don’t ever write it down in full. I just work out how the story makes sense to me, let it come to life in my head, then tell it as I see it to the audience.
So… when I come to write that story for a collection, it’s a bit like taking dictation from myself. I just type the story as I tell it to myself. It then needs a few tweaks to make it work on paper, but it is essentially the story I tell out loud. And though I do change stories over time as I tell them (quite a lot sometimes, depending on the audience, and also on new things I might learn about the stories), what I’m keen to discover over the next few months is whether I still feel I can change and play with a story once it’s been put down in print. I do hope it won’t change my relationship with these stories. I don’t think it will though – I retold Tam Linn at a preview of Breaking the Spell at the Edinburgh Book Festival, and I loved it as much as ever, and felt myself inside the story as much as ever.
This feeling of knowing the story before I write it is very different from my fiction writing, where I work out the story as I go along and don’t know what’s going to happen at the end until I’ve written my way there. So though my adventure novels are often inspired by the legends I love, I write them in a totally different way.
Playing by the book: I loved reading how when you are doing storytelling sessions in school you invite children to tell you other variants of the story you are telling, and also the scene in First aid for fairies where Yann and Helen tell the same story but from different points of view. Have you ever considered writing a pair of books which tell the same story but from different perspectives?
Lari Don: I have not yet told competing versions of a story, but I wouldn’t have a problem doing that, as I genuinely believe there is no one right version of a story!
But yes, that scene in First Aid for Fairies where they argue about the two versions of Tam Linn (from the human and the fairy points of view) is very much a dramatic distillation of my attitude to stories. I’ve done the same sort of thing when I tell a Viking invasion story from the Scottish point of view rather than the way the Norse saga writers told it. There are so many ways a story can be told, and the storyteller, the audience and the atmosphere on any particular day are all vital parts of that alchemy. And I don’t think there is a wrong way to tell a story. We all do it differently, and that’s fine!
Playing by the book: What are your favourite aspects of storytelling versus writing? What are the most challenging aspects of each?
Lari Don: My favourite thing about storytelling in the traditional sense, ie the standing up (or sitting on the floor) and telling an old story to an audience, is the most fundamental thing about storytelling. Sharing a story, keeping it alive, and passing it on to people who may tell it, share it and pass it on in their turn. Also I love the sense of being part of a tradition, the connection to tellers who have told these stories before. And I don’t think that connection is broken by a desire to retell a story in your own and different way.
And the other best thing about live storytelling is instant feedback from an audience. There is nothing like the moment of silence you get at the most dramatic bit of a story, when everyone is holding their breath, waiting to see what happens next!
Lari Don at a recent storytelling event
My favourite bits about writing would take a novel to describe. But briefly – making it up, getting to know the characters, and living inside the story.
The challenges of storytelling are also the fun bits: the research to find the right stories, getting the story right in your head and in your voice (I tell a new story to cuddly toys, usually a squirrel and a dragon, until the story is strong enough to tell a live audience) and then finding the right stories to tell a specific audience – which often means changing plans at the last minute when you see who you have sitting in front of you.
The challenges of writing are different. Finding the peace and quiet to think, finding the time to do an idea justice, choosing which of many ideas to bring to life first. But when you finish a book and believe you have done the best you can with it, it’s a great feeling!
An illustration by Cate James, from ‘Breaking the Spell’. Used with permission.
Playing by the book: I imagine that having the skills and passion of an oral storyteller must be so helpful when it comes to doing author events…
Lari Don: I think being comfortable performing and talking about stories is really helpful when it comes to promoting books, and I do enjoy it. You can’t really know what children find exciting or dramatic or emotional or funny until you actually tell them stories, read them passages, and chat to them about their own stories and writing. So while I try very hard not to use children’s ideas in my own writing (I’d rather they turned those ideas into stories themselves) I do find working in schools and libraries and at book festivals very inspiring. I might love a story, but it doesn’t come alive when I tell it, then it clearly doesn’t work (in that form) with kids. But if I tell a story and the hall is silent, and when I finish the hands fly up with questions and ideas, then I know it works. Those are the stories that made it into Breaking the Spell!
And that works for fiction writing too. I often read out drafts to kids (usually whatever I was writing on the train to the event) and get feedback. Kids are wonderfully honest!
Lari Don at the recent Tidelines Book Festival
Playing by the book: What’s the best (/strangest) question you’ve ever been asked at an author event?
Lari Don: There are quite a lot, but probably the most surprising and hardest to answer was when I was asked which of my own children I would feed to a monster (if forced, like the characters in the dragon story I’d just told, to choose one.) I didn’t feel able to give a definitive answer to that question, instead I threw it open to general philosophical debate.
Playing by the book: Ha! That was cleverly done
How do you create a working balance between actual writing and promotion (ie author events)?
Lari Don: I love this question. If you ever find the author who has got that balance right, I’d love to hear how they do it! I reckon I juggle four things: Writing, which I love. Events with kids, which I also love, and which may take time and energy but also repay me in inspiration, and in time to write and think and read while travelling. Online promotion, which I often enjoy (hello booklovers out there!) but which does seem to take up an expanding amount of time. And I’m also a mum, so I occasionally try to spend time with my own kids. It often feels like I have four full-time jobs, and that I’m not giving quite enough time to any of them. But I know that most writers (and most working mums!) feel the same… However I am passionate about stories, about writing them and sharing them, which makes being a kids’ writer, with all its pressures and contradictions, the best job in the world for me.
Playing by the book: I’ve read you love editing and I’m intrigued by this – I think quite a lot of writers, especially early in their career, find editing terribly difficult – as if it is throwing away lots of hard work. What do you love about editing? And how does this effect your relationship with your editors at your publishers?
Lari Don: Ah. I do love editing. And I think it’s because of how I write. Especially when I’m writing adventure books, the fiction that I base on Scottish magic and landscape, I really do just make it up as I go along. I work out the plot and the characters’ reactions and the dialogue and the resolution as I go. I just point the characters in the direction of a problem, put lots of obstacles in their way, and follow along with them to see what happens. It is a wonderfully exciting way to write, but fairly chaotic.
So when I reach the end of the story I have usually written a long journey with many winding detours, and I have to go back and slash it to bits. I have to turn a meandering stroll into a sharp pacy adventure. And that can mean losing thousands or even tens of thousands of words. (I gather that writers who plan don’t have to do this! But do they have has much fun on the way?) I think of editing as finding the story in among all the words. It is really satisfying, especially when everything joins up and makes sense, and particularly when I know I have written something original that I could simply not have planned, because it grew organically out of the characters’ journey.
I also enjoy the final edit, when I am making sure that I am telling the story (shorter and tighter as it now is) in the best possible words. I get very nitpicky at that point and will read the same sentence a dozen times or more until I’m happy.
None of this feels like throwing away hard work. It feels like refining and perfecting, and making all the hard work shine.
And I have no idea how this affects my relationship with editors, because it’s the only way I know how to do it. I do love working with editors though, because a good editor tends to ask awkward questions about the plot, and I find answering those questions always makes the book stronger.
An illustration by Cate James from ‘Breaking the Spell’. Used with permission.
Playing by the book: Although pace and plot are what drives your stories, setting is clearly incredibly important too (even if _scene setting_ isn’t something you enjoy: you’ve previously said, “I haven’t got a lot of patience with scene-setting“).
Genuine locations all over Scotland feature in your books, a device I think can really pull readers and listeners in, making the story even more real in their heads and hearts. I’m rather envious of you being able to use research as an “excuse” to explore Scotland. What do you love about your country and where is your favourite place in Scotland?
Lari Don: These are such challenging questions – you’ve clearly done your research! It is a contradiction, isn’t it? Setting is so important to my writing, because all my novels and most of the stories in Breaking the Spell are set in very specific geographical areas; yet I don’t like wasting my time or the readers’ time with lots of flowery description.
It was easy in Breaking the Spell, because I could trust Cate James’ illustrations to create the forests and mountains… But in the novels, it is more of a contradiction. What I usually say to kids who feel they ought to spend the first three paragraphs of any story describing the scenery and weather before getting to any exciting action (especially when someone has asked them to ‘set the scene’) is that I tend to describe scenery only while my characters are being chased through it! (That’s not completely true, but it’s a good goal to aim for!)
What do I love about Scotland? What does anyone love about their home? I love so many things about Scotland… The fact that the landscape looks great even in the rain has to be one of the main things. And Scotland has produced lots of very magical stories, which may grow out of our historical mix of cultures and influences, and I feel very lucky to be surrounded by so much inspiration.
Lari Don at Smoo Cave, Sutherland, Scotland.
Deciding on my favourite place in Scotland is not hard at all. When I researched Storm Singing, an adventure novel based in cliffs and caves in the north of Scotland, I spent a freezing cold February weekend in the county of Sutherland, in the very far north west of Scotland. I wrote notes on snow-covered beaches, wearing two pairs of gloves. (So my notes were almost unreadable when I got home.) And I fell in love with the area, with the silence and the emptiness and the amazing rocks. I’ve been back to Sutherland on holiday every year since. Many of my books and stories are set in bits of Scotland I already loved (three of the Breaking the Spell stories are set on or near Skye for example, and First Aid for Fairies takes a trip up to Orkney) but Sutherland is somewhere I discovered because I was setting a book there, and I will always be grateful to the local seal legends for that!
Playing by the book: So, given the love of landscape, what about the language? Do you ever write in Scots?
Lari Don: Not often. Like many people, as a child, I spoke one language in the playground and learnt to write another in the classroom, and so while I can speak Scots, I naturally write in English. Many of the words I use in telling stories out loud are Scots, but when I come to write them down, I can’t help translating into English. I’m not really sure how I feel about that habit. It does lose a bit of the flavour of the language, but it also makes the stories more accessible outside Scotland! I fought off that tendency to write ‘proper’ in one of the stories in Breaking the Spell though – there’s a rhyme in Whuppity Stoorie which is written exactly as I speak it. I wonder how many readers will understand every word of it? But so long as readers get the jist of it, that will be fine for keeping the story rolling along!
Playing by the book: And now one last, very different question. You were involved in student politics, and then used to work for the SNP – what are your thoughts on the independence refendum?
Lari Don: I am a little bit involved in the referendum campaign – mainly as someone campaigning on doorsteps in my local area, when I can. But I also recently took part in a debate at the Edinburgh Book Festival about young voters and the referendum campaign (the Scottish government has voted to allow 16 and 17 year olds the right to vote on Scotland’s future.) And I am campaigning for Yes, for an independent Scotland.
However my desire for independence has nothing to do with my love of Scotland’s landscape and magical legends, and far more to do with my hopes for Scotland’s future. I am a strong believer in self-determination, and that definitely does affect what I write. I believe that children in books should solve their own problems without adults appearing at the last minute to sort things out, and that girls in fairy tales should defeat their own dragons without waiting for a prince to turn up and save them. On the same basis, I think that a small country with its own resources should be able to solve its own problems and build its own future, and not have to rely on a 300 year old political union which can never democratically represent us. (But I also believe very strongly in choice, and will be delighted if lots of young people debate the issues, get involved and turn out to vote – however they vote!)
Playing by the book: Thank you, Lari, it’s been a pleasure interviewing you.
Lari Don: What wonderful questions! Thank you very much!
Find out more about Lari on her website: http://www.laridon.co.uk
Read Lari’s child-friendly writing blog at http://www.laridon.co.uk/blog/
Follow Lari on Twitter @LariDonWriter
Find Lari on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/laridonwriter
By James Ker-Lindsay
There has rarely been a more interesting time to study secession. It is not just that the number of separatist movements appears to be growing, particularly in Europe, it is the fact that the international debate on the rights of people to determine their future, and pursue independence, seems to be on the verge of a many change. The calm debate over Scotland’s future, which builds on Canada’s approach towards Quebec, is a testament to the fact that a peaceful and democratic debate over separatism is possible. It may yet be the case that other European governments choose to adopt a similar approach; the most obvious cases being Spain and Belgium towards Catalonia and Flanders.
However, for the meanwhile, the British and Canadian examples remain very much the exception rather than the rule. In most cases, states still do everything possible to prevent parts of their territory from breaking away, often using force if necessary.
It is hardly surprising that most states have a deep aversion to secession. In part, this is driven by a sense of geographical and symbolic identity. A state has an image of itself, and the geographic boundaries of the state are seared onto the consciousness of the citizenry. For example, from an early age school pupils draw maps of their country. But the quest to preserve the borders of a country is rooted in a range of other factors. In some cases, the territory seeking to break away may hold mineral wealth, or historical and cultural riches. Sometimes secession is opposed because of fears that if one area is allowed to go its own way, other will follow.
For the most part, states are aided in their campaign to tackle separatism by international law and norms of international politics. While much has been made of the right to self-determination, the reality is that its application is extremely limited. Outside the context of decolonisation, this idea has almost always taken a backseat to the principle of the territorial integrity of states. This gives a country fighting a secessionist movement a massive advantage. Other countries rarely want to be seen to break ranks and recognise a state that has unilaterally seceded.
When a decision is taken to recognise unilateral declarations of independence, it is usually done by a state with close ethnic, political or strategic ties to the breakaway territory.Turkey’s recognition of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus and Russia’s recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia are obvious examples. Even when other factors shape the decision, as happened in the case of Kosovo, which has been recognised by the United States and most of the European Union, considerable effort has been made by recognising states to present this as a unique case that should be seen as sitting outside of the accepted boundaries of established practice.
However, states facing a secessionist challenge cannot afford to be complacent. While there is a deep aversion to secession, there is always the danger that the passage of time will lead to the gradual acceptance of the situation on the ground. It is therefore important to wage a concerted campaign to reinforce a claim to sovereignty over the territory and prevent countries from recognising – or merely even unofficially engaging with – the breakaway territory.
At the same time, international organisations are also crucial battlegrounds. Membership of the United Nations, for example, has come to be seen as the ultimate proof that a state has been accepted by the wider international community. To a lesser extent, participation in other international and regional bodies, and even in sporting and cultural activities, can send the same message concerning international acceptance.
The British government’s decision to accept a referendum over Scotland’s future is still a rather unusual approach to the question of secession. Governments rarely accept the democratic right of a group of people living within its borders to pursue the creation of a new state. In most cases, the central authority seeks to keep the state together; and in doing so choosing to fight what can often be a prolonged campaign to prevent recognition or legitimisation by the wider international community.
James Ker-Lindsay is Eurobank EFG Senior Research Fellow on the Politics of South East Europe at the European Institute, London School of Economics and Political Science. He is the author of The Foreign Policy of Counter Secession: Preventing the Recognition of Contested States (2012) and The Cyprus Problem: What Everyone Needs to Know (2011), and a number of other books on conflict, peace and security in the Balkans and Eastern Mediterranean.
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30 November is St Andrew’s Day, but who was St Andrew? The apostle and patron saint of Scotland, Andrew was a fisherman from Capernaum in Galilee. He is rather a mysterious figure, and you can read more about him in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. St Andrew’s Day is well-established and widely celebrated by Scots around the world. To mark the occasion, we have selected quotations from some of Scotland’s most treasured wordsmiths, using the bestselling Oxford Dictionary of Quotations and the Little Oxford Dictionary of Quotations.
There are few more impressive sights in the world than a Scotsman on the make.
J. M. Barrie 1860-1937 Scottish writer
From the lone shielding of the misty island
Mountains divide us, and the waste of seas –
Yet still the blood is strong, the heart is Highland,
And we in dreams behold the Hebrides!
John Galt 1779-1839 Scottish writer
O Caledonia! Stern and wild,
Meet nurse for a poetic child!
Sir Walter Scott 1771-1832 Scottish novelist
O flower of Scotland, when will we see your like again,
that fought and died for your wee bit hill and glen
and stood against him, proud Edward’s army,
and sent him homeward tae think again.
Roy Williamson 1936-90 Scottish folksinger and musician
I love a lassie, a bonnie, bonnie lassie,
She’s as pure as the lily in the dell.
She’s as sweet as the heather, the bonnie bloomin’ heather –
Mary, ma Scotch Bluebell.
Harry Lauder 1870-1950 Scottish music-hall entertainer
My poems should be Clyde-built, crude and sure,
With images of those dole-deployed
To honour the indomitable Reds,
Clydesiders of slant steel and angled cranes;
A poetry of nuts and bolts, born, bred,
Embattled by the Clyde, tight and impure.
Douglas Dunn 1942– Scottish poet
Who owns this landscape?
The millionaire who bought it or
the poacher staggering downhill in the early morning
with a deer on his back?
Norman McCaig 1910–96 Scottish poet
The Little Oxford Dictionary of Quotations fifth edition was published in October this year and is edited by Susan Ratcliffe. The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations seventh edition was published in 2009 to celebrate its 70th year. The ODQ is edited by Elizabeth Knowles.
The Oxford DNB online has made the above-linked lives free to access for a limited time. The ODNB is freely available via public libraries across the UK. Libraries offer ‘remote access’ allowing members to log-on to the complete dictionary, for free, from home (or any other computer) twenty-four hours a day. In addition to 58,000 life stories, the ODNB offers a free, twice monthly biography podcast with over 130 life stories now available. You can also sign up for Life of the Day, a topical biography delivered to your inbox, or follow @ODNB on Twitter for people in the news.
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My first offshore rig job was on the Piper Alpha. I didn’t know it at the time but the Piper was one of the biggest, oldest, most profitable production platforms in the British sector of the North Sea. I emerged onto the helideck from my first chopper ride with the wide-eyed feeling you tried to hide on your first trip offshore. I had time to dump my duffel bag in the cabin they assigned me, get some pairs of coveralls, a bag of gloves. It wasn’t a normal crew change. I was replacing a guy who got hurt and medivacced off the night before. I started a twelve-hour shift with a crew of three other roustabouts and the crane driver, Kenny. I was bunking in with Kenny for an unknown reason. Normally, the four roustabouts, alternating twelve hour shifts, shared cabins with their opposite numbers. Mine was a bottom bunk in a room of crane drivers. Kenny was the boss of the crane drivers. I was replacing a guy on his crew, so we slept and worked at the same time. My first job, on my first shift as a roustabout, was dumping fifty-five gallon drums of radioactive shale into the sea. I watched the roughnecks shovel the shale into a drum on the drill floor. In addition to their usual coveralls, they wore outer suits which looked like rubber. It was supposed to be protection against the radioactivity in the rock that was coming out of the hole. Because of the work on the drill floor, the protective suits were shredded and torn, hanging off the roughnecks in strips. There was an engineer running up and down the catwalk with a crackling Geiger counter. Roughnecks, in the smoke room, joked about watching their appendages fall off. The smoke room provided breaks in the twelve hour shifts, scenes of laughter, boredom and rage. When you were new, they tested you. They tried to scare you, probe you, disturb you, wind you up. Then they sat back, chuckled at your reaction. The Scots were masters at this. It seemed to be a racially imbedded talent. All done in good humour, anything for a laugh. During one of those breaks, soaked in mud and oil from relieving the roughnecks, I listened to one the veterans talk. He looked around the steel room, at the walls. “You could put your fist through the legs of this old piece of shit. If there’s ever gonna be a disaster in the North Sea, it’ll be on this old piece of shit” I didn’t think much about it at the time. I laughed like everyone else. There were moments in the next years when I did think about it, though. His words came back to me on other rigs, as I was getting cozy in a bunk. Exhaustion, food, a hot shower, warm inside; outside, a gale blowing between the Shetlands and Norway. Nights like that, I remembered, had a shiver, as sleep descended. Was it just another trick to scare a green hand? The old guy who said it, didn’t laugh. By the time the crane brought the first drum down from the drill floor, I had been told what to do by the man I relieved. When the crane driver lowered the drum, I gave him a signal to stop at the right spot so I could tip it over the rail, while he held the weight. As I tipped the first few drums of shale over the side, I was thinking about the wisdom of dumping radioactive rocks into the North Sea. Who would believe me onshore, who would care? There was no point in complaining. This was the job I’d tried so hard to get. What choice did I have? Pack my bags and wait for the next flight on the helideck? So when the drums of radioactive shale descended from the sky, seawater pouring out of holes in the sides, I dumped the grey, flat pieces, hoping they wouldn’t poison anything. The Piper Alpha, like most platforms, had big cranes on opposite sides of the deck. The deck held all the pipe and equipment needed on the drill floor. Almost everything brought on board was moved by container. Supply ships filled the deck with steel containers which had to be stacked on top of each other, for lack of space. The roustabouts, one with a radio on the same the frequency as the crane driver, landed the containers and pipe. The crane driver moved back and forth between the cranes, depending upon the load, where he had to pick it up, where he had to land it. A night shift, on deck, in a North Sea gale, wasn’t a good time to discover that Kenny was near sighted. The remarks weren’t made by the other roustabouts, as I suspected, to try to scare me. In the black and white shadows of the big, swaying lights, in the horizontal rain, it was an unwelcome revelation. Kenny’s cranes lifted tons of steel from the decks of bobbing sea going tugs, up over the sides of the platform, across containers of different heights. They said that it was his perspective which was bad. On those stormy nights, when it was hard to see and he was tired, the best tactics were to find the spot the container was supposed to go, do your best to signal him, get out of the way. You always looked around for an escape route, in case he didn’t see you. Your greasy rain suit and slipping boots didn’t help when you were being chased across the container tops by steel boxes, in high winds. What could you do about a crane driver with bad eye sight? Everyone knew about it, but no one seemed to care. Kenny was Kenny. He was a fixture, no one had been killed or crushed yet. During my time offshore with Kenny and the boys I did little except eat, sleep and shower when we weren’t working. On occasion, I lay half asleep in my bunk, while Kenny did business with visitors from all parts of the rig. I had long ago given up trying to sort out the dialects of the British Isles. Many of the thousands of offshore workers were from Northern England and Scotland. The money to be made on the rigs, for fishermen who were risking much more, for no guaranteed income, drew the coastal Scots like flies. Since they were sailors to begin with, they knew about ropes, knots, shackles, hard graft in the rottenest weather. It was understood that they would prefer to fish rather than this, but their fishery was in trouble, they had families. The oil business, like the British army, was happy to recruit there, because they knew the value of the workers. The industrial cities of Britain all sent men to work offshore. There were men from the islands and from small farm villages. There were ex military men as well as merchant mariners driven off their decks by containers. When you mixed in some Aussies and Kiwis, you came close to Babylon when they all spoke fast, at once. Many of Kenny’s conversations took place while I was in the cabin but were unintelligible to me, though I heard them. The language was impossible to understand. Kenny, was a partner with another crane driver in a pornographic video scam. He got videos for the rig. Probably he was selling them to individuals, as well. I laid in my bunk, reading, when a conversation about videos took place. It was business talk with a group of guys, about a week after I arrived. By then, Kenny judged me to be safe to have around. He knew that I was only there till the end of the hitch, I’d probably never be back. On this old rig, the crews were pretty well set. The company had a seniority list they’d use if the injured man didn’t return. As they left the cabin, one guy told me to keep my mouth shut by zipping his lip. I nodded. He left with a smile. What was I going to say about it? I had enough problems surviving the twelve hour shifts. We were a hundred ninety kilometres northeast of Aberdeen in the North Sea. Like dumping the shale into the ocean, it seemed a necessary compromise. I did the job, kept my mouth shut, in return for good money and experience offshore. The first step in working offshore was to get experience. It was the first thing they asked when you applied for a job. When you had worked offshore once, you were ahead of the game. There were piles of applications for the jobs on each company’s desk. It was the classic catch - 22. The Piper had two theatres. There was a regular theatre, with comfortable movie type seating, where they showed contemporary movies. They even had a guy outside the theatre with a request sheet on a clipboard. If you wanted to request a movie, they’d try to get it. The other theatre, with the same interior, was strictly for porn. Kenny had a connection, through the supply ships, to Denmark, where they manufacture a lot of porn. He got every kind of porn. I tried the porn theatre one night. I didn’t like it. There were forty or fifty guys sitting together with their hands in the pockets of their accommodation coveralls, watching endless sex videos. Living for two weeks with three hundred men was bad enough. That just made it worse. I went to bed. Kenny and his boys were busy. To supplement the porn enterprise, they were stealing from the containers. Word was, there were cartons of cigarettes and booze stashed all over the rig. As the roustabouts and crane driver landed containers on the deck, they tried to place the ones for the galley as close to the accommodation as possible. There was even a small deck outside the back door of the galley where some containers could be landed. That was supposed to be the end of the roustabouts’ and crane drivers’ dealings with those containers. Certain sealed containers were locked by Customs and Excise. They were opened only by the galley boss, emptied into the galley by the stewards. There was no drinking allowed offshore but at Christmas each man was allowed one beer and a cigar. It varied from company to company, rig to rig. Who knew what the bosses got shipped in? Teetotallers became very popular around Christmas time, offshore. The Christmas I was there, Kenny’s gang, the other crane driver and some roustabouts, managed to land the special containers at night, break into them, steal the booze and cigarettes. They had a system of ripping off the containers, stashing the goods, blaming it on the cooks and stewards. I didn’t know anything about it at the time. It could have happened on a shift when I was working. There were jobs all over the rig to which Kenny could have assigned me to get me out of the way. There were no fire drills when I was there. No one knew if the evacuation procedures would work. The platform kept pumping oil, one hundred twenty thousand barrels a day, everybody made good money, the company was happy. The British government collected five hundred million pounds a year, in revenues, from the Piper Alpha. When my hitch ended on the Piper, I took the taxi from the heliport to the warm Aberdeen pubs to have a drink with the boys, say our goodbyes. I met one of them, a few years later, in Aberdeen. He had left the Piper, was working on another rig, like myself. He told me that the police had finally raided the platform, searched lockers and the rest of the rig from top to bottom, found all kinds of contraband including a working homebrew still. Some guys lost their jobs, some were charged. I assumed Kenny would have been fired. But, sometimes, guys like him never get caught. Even if he did get run off of the Piper, it might have saved his life. A few years later, I was in Ottawa, trying to deal with my mother’s Alzheimer’s. It was a major change after what I’d been doing for the past twenty years. I picked up the paper outside of the apartment we shared. The headline read, ‘153 missing in rig disaster’. Two hundred, twenty-seven men, including construction workers, were working the night shift or in their bunks. The ones inside the accommodation, near the centre of the platform, were killed immediately by the explosion and shaft of fire, which sucked up all the oxygen. The ones working their shift up on deck, were lucky. One survivor said, “It was a case of over the side or die there”. They jumped seventy metres into the heaving, black North Sea. Some were rescued. The emergency procedures didn’t work, nor did the lifeboats. As for the spark which ignited the leaking gas, a welder’s torch was suggested, but it could just as easily have been a guy having a smoke where he wasn’t supposed to. Some of the men I worked with were on the Piper, that night. There were stewards, cooks, office workers, even a few roustabouts, who were lifers on the platforms. They said goodbye to families and friends, went off to work for two weeks at a time, for their whole working lives. Two weeks off every month beat a nine to five. The money was good, there were no expenses at work except tobacco and toothpaste. Your bed was made, your laundry done, there was good food, all you could eat every day, prepared by professional chefs. Many guys got addicted to it. They couldn’t work any other way. The longer you did it, the harder it was to leave. Those crews packed their bags for that two week trip in the summer of 1988, said their goodbyes, never came back. The final count was 164 dead.