Moving back home can be tricky. Here’s an example of how.
I used to be the editor of an English language business magazine in Beijing. I’d studied English at university and always longed to be a writer, but you know how it goes. All the sweet media jobs go to Oxbridge types. But China, where I’d landed up in my mid twenties, is one of the few countries where demand for English writing skills outstrips supply, and I’d got a start when teaching English there. I was good at it, and worked my way up from freelancing to being managing editor of a business magazine. I loved it; in fact I felt my whole life had been leading up to it: I was able to bring in so much of my reading and references. I loved meeting and interviewing interesting people, and attending events like Start Up Weekends and Argentinean wine promotions. I had staff — a shifting group of interns, along with regular columnists and an assistant editor; I had expenses, I had a budget (although both were tiny). I revamped the magazine and website, and generally enjoyed the exercise of will. It was all good, but in 2013 the magazine folded (long story), and the Beijing pollution was beyond horrible (imagine smoking a cigar up each nostril — that’s how it felt on bad days). It was time to leave. I had got married and had a young daughter, so family concerns were important. And being slowly poisoned kind of puts you off a place.
The deal for UK visas for your spouse is (or was then, in 2013) that you have to have a job lined up paying over £18,600, or failing that to have earned that amount in a year, or in a shorter time if the job pays more. I shot out CVs like the bastard lovechild of diarrheic printer and a Tasmanian Devil, but of course everyone needed to see me in person. When I managed to get four second interviews arranged, I decided to take my chances, go back, and bring my family once I was earning. I was blithely confident I’d get something.
But having been in China for so long, I’d forgotten how in the UK there are like zillions of applicants for zero-hours jobs shoveling shit, whereas in China, even with its growth slowing from 10% to 6% a year, there are more opportunities than good staff. Especially for those who can speak English. I had therefore become accustomed to being in demand. I was thus aghast when two of the interviews I’d lined up melted away. One said “We’ve had to deprioritize this position” (whatever that meant) and the other refused to respond for three weeks until I berated them by email (at which point I was suddenly told I really had been in the running for the job, but wasn’t now). The other two failed me for whatever reasons after the interviews.
So I had come home and had nothing. My money ran out and I had to move to my mother’s house on northern Scotland. I applied and applied and applied, and applied, and applied: recruitment agents did call, but somehow it never quite worked out. I got first interviews, even second interviews, but always somehow fell short. Roles were “put on hold”; agents suddenly stopped replying (even when I angrily demanded a response, though of course this didn’t help matters); I might meet all the requirements, but there was always someone who was a better fit… It was enraging. I had been someone (or had thought I was), but now I was no-one again. To help me get interviews I used a friend’s address to pretend I was in London, thinking it would me seem local and available. So when I got an interview I had to take the Megabus from Aberdeen to London, then get changed into my suit in the toilets in Victoria, sometimes while people were shitting nearby. It was hugely depressing.
After six months of this I thought FUCK THIS and applied for two jobs in Beijing again. I just could not stand being separated from my family any more. Both, comically, offered me the gig, and I was just away to choose which one, when an uncle swooped in with an idea. George was the Offshore Installation Manager on an oil rig — the head man, the boss. I come from just north of Aberdeen where oil is the only game in town. Every guy wants in on it. The salaries can be amazing. Twenty year-old lads can earn £50,000, guys in their early thirties six figures, depending where they work — former Soviet republics and the Gulf paying most. My younger brother and nephew were already getting on in the industry. George said he could get me a job on the painting crew, which would earn enough to get my family over. I’d hated the idea of returning to Beijing, tail between legs, so in lieu of anything else I accepted. The job paid £33,000 a year, as an entry-level post. I had no idea how I would fit in — me, the editor, the literary intellectual, the bookworm, the mechanical illiterate who still hadn’t learned how to drive — but figured, how hard could it be? I had no qualms about hard work, had got on okay when I’d worked in factories during student summer holidays, and I still often drank in working-class pubs. I thought I’d be fine.
First I had to do my week’s offshore survival training, a pre-requisite. The course is crushingly dull, verbatim learning and assessment, except for the practical stuff. For one day you are in a swimming pool simulating a helicopter escape. (With good reason: three fatal crashes in the past two years had concentrated the minds of even the government). The ‘helicopter’ was just a chassis, with seats and seatbelts for ten people as with a real helicopter, which could be lowered into a large swimming pool. First you sat in the ‘helicopter’ in the water, and unbuckled yourself and got out the open front. Easy. Then you sat in it, and were lowered into the water, unclipped yourself, and got out. Not bad. Then it was lowered into the water while you were in it and you had to push out a window to your side, unclip yourself, and swim to safety. This wasn’t very pleasant. Then — worst of all — it was lowered into the water then turned upside down, and you had to unclip yourself, push out the window and swim to safety. This was fucking unpleasant. Although there are divers either side in case anything goes wrong, panic grips you. When turned upside down, I couldn’t push out the window, and freaked out. This set off some final effort from me, and I managed to at last bash it out and swim to freedom. Fortunately one of the other guys was feeling the strain. His nerve had cracked. He was a young Geordie, blonde and skinny. (We’d nicknamed him “Joey Essex”). “Howay man, this is fookin shite this! Ah dern’t think ah can do this…” Someone doing worse than you always makes you feel better. But it’s really an unpleasant experience and it makes you aware of the dangers. You don’t get that sweet oil money for nothing.
George felt it best that we didn’t work around the same time (the shifts are staggered, so there were men arriving and departing three days out of seven), so in February 2014 I reported for duty at the helicopter admin alone, ignorant and fearful. Heli admin is like a big airport departure lounge, with close-watched announcement monitors, discarded newspapers and tension, though here everyone would prefer their flight to be cancelled. (Which is far more likely if there’s any bad weather). Unlike air flights, everyone watches the safety instructions keenly. Even though it’s the same video every time, nobody talks, nobody jokes. Everyone knows a chopper could go down.
Flying by helicopter is noisy and uncomfortable but boring, once you’re used to it, but the first time is nerve-racking. It feels so precarious, far from the smooth solid speed of the airliner. Soon we reached the rig. It looked like some grimy grey industrial plant. That’s all an oilrig is: a big fucking factory in the middle of the sea with some accommodation blocks, and a derrick (the big mast for drills to thrust into the sea bed). Some are bigger, some smaller, but that’s essentially it. I was on a small one, used for concreting up empty oil wells. It could hold about 100 men. I was assigned a shared cabin, like nearly everyone else, a room smaller than a university dorm, with a bunkbed, shower/toilet, TV, and chest of drawers. I was shown the bootroom, where there were dozens of lockers and you got changed into your protective gear before going outside — you always had a wear a hardhat, gloves, glasses, steel-toe capped boots, and boiler suit. The bootroom combined as a coffeeshack, where you had your tea breaks. These, I would come to learn, were of enormous importance in the day-to-day routine of the rig. As a non-smoker I was assigned a locker in the non-smoking bootroom. I only stuck my head in the smoking bootroom a few times: it seemed to have cancer dripping from its tar-smeared walls, vast brimming ashtrays piled high and smoke like Bradford City stadium disaster giving it a certain fugue. It was revolting. The non-smoking room, on the other hand, was known as “the gay bar”.
Paul, the paint foreman, was a stereotypical rough diamond Mackem, a guy of about 50 who loved Rush and Sunderland Athletic. George liked him and had put me on his team. There was also Grant, a young lad of about 25 who’d himself recently got a job as a painter, having been in but disliking the Merchant Navy. He was affable but of limited interest. Painting wasn’t too hard in theory — you prepared the area for painting by needlegunning off any rust or sanding down the surface with an electric sander, or even sandpapering tough-to-reach areas, then washed it down with thinners then painted it. Big areas could be spray painted, smaller ones done by roller or brush. You also had to put up scaffolding to get to some of these parts. (Which is a trade in itself).
It sounded easy in theory but in practice I had no fucking idea what I was doing. I constantly missed bits, broke things, dropped things, made a mess, got things wrong, misunderstood. If there was a way of fucking something up, I’d find it. I tried, but I was not a careful, methodical, enthusiastic guy. I endured every shift and counted down until it ended. Then there were the tea breaks. Hours were strictly regimented: you started at 6am, had a half-hour break at 9am, had an hour for lunch from noon, then had another half-hour break at 3pm before knocking off at 6pm. (“In-betweenies” were also allowed in times of hard graft). I found it ridiculous that grown men had their working hours policed in that way, but that’s how manual labour goes. Only nice jobs (like magazine editors) get to decide when they come in, when they go for a break and when they finish. Otherwise you’re waiting for permission.
Coffee breaks were the main socializing framework. Grant and I were newbies, and therefore eyed with suspicion. The older hands in the tearoom considered it their domain and conducted little power plays of astonishing pettiness. One guy, who styled himself on Russell Crowe in Romper Stomper and plainly thought himself The Big Man, refused to talk to me. Ever. (They knew how I’d got the job). One older guy acted like he was the godfather of the group and made a great show of supervising the makings of the teas and coffees (except for me and Grant). He was about 60 years old and behaved like a girl in high school. They sat in the teashack and conducted advanced character assassination and bitchy slander, albeit with “fuck” and “cunt” in every second word. I considered saying my maxim, “If you smell shite everywhere, it’s probably from your shoe”, but decided not to, perhaps wisely. To begin with I’d made a bit of a show of trying to be outgoing, thinking my background might interest them, at least in terms of its contrast and difference, but the doubtful looks and passive hostility showed me I’d made a mistake. I should have sat quietly and waited to earn my stripes from the others, as Grant did. After a few trips the older guy made a great show of saying that Grant had been there a while and should be part of the “coffee club”. I was excluded, like in some David Attenborough documentary on the social hierarchies of south Pacific sea lions. Part of me though it hilarious, but I could not help feel the bruise of exclusion.
You’ve probably imagined that oilriggers are the salt of the earth and look after their own and have hearts of gold under those gruff exteriors. “North sea tigers” is the nickname. This is bullshit. Offshore guys are as variable as any other industry. Some you like, some you detest, and some you have little feeling for one way or another. Wee Jimmy was a fat short guy with a mind like a ferret and a vocabulary consisting entirely of vulgarities. Bryan was a tedious indolent Geordie, a man so lazy that all he did at work was complain, when he could stir himself to do even that. Bob was a large cart-horse of a man, pleasant and unassuming like Samwise Gamgee. Tony was a grown up cheeky wee ned. James was a decent young man, mildly affable to everyone so that you didn’t know if he even liked you. Big Jim was a large jovial Catholic Glaswegian of unerring stereotypicality. Phil was an off-the-wall Geordie given to lunatic flights of verbal fancy, who had a black belt in karate. Nicky was a bland generic guy, who seemed utterly oblivious to the tearoom social shenanigans. The younger lads, with their expensive clothes and footballers hairstyles, constantly had their balls busted by the older guys. Hierarchy and rank were ruthlessly enforced. I wondered how much they were even conscious of what they were doing.
Initially I had hopes that I could get on in the rigs. There was good money for the taking and you got half your working life off. Maybe I could work offshore and write on my time off? But by my second trip it had become a living nightmare. The ugliness of the environment, with its harsh industrial setting and grim weather, the ridiculous social policing, the dreary but exhausting monotony of the work, and the certainty that I was dreadful at it, pissed me off something rotten. Worse still, there was no escape. You finished a shift, had dinner (surrounded by the same teashack arseholes, plus the smoking shack guys), had an hour to yourself in your cabin, an hour or two in the TV lounge (surrounded by the same teashack arseholes — I would watch a film on my laptop, headphones ruthlessly in place), then had to go to bed — in a cabin I shared with Grant. There was no escape. “Climbing Up The Walls” by Radiohead played constantly in my head as we worked, with its raging claustrophobia and feeling of spiraling doom — yep, it was that bad. There was no escape. It is unrelenting: if you have a shit day in the office you know the weekend is not far off, and you have your family to return to that evening, but on the rigs you might have nineteen consecutive days ahead, with only the teashack trolls for company. There was no escape.
Of course, everyone counts down the days. “Long to go?” is the single most commonly asked question: the answers are always precise, almost to the hour. It’s also grimly, desperately hard to be separated from your family and friends. Communication systems have improved a lot — most rigs have WiFi, so there’s less agitated queuing for the phones — but everyone feels the pain of separation. Older hands, who remember the dark pre-WiFi days, sometimes grumble that coffee breaks have been ruined by people spending their time head down in their phone, ruining the banter and camaraderie. Everyone else is deeply thankful that they can keep in touch relatively easily. Times when the WiFi goes down, however, are truly awful. You try and roll with it, but it eats you up inside. Now not only is there no escape, there are now no emollient messages to get you through the daily grind. The ghosts of family time lost stalk the rig. Similarly, there’s a mild euphoria about finishing your trip. The last work day is “chopper’s eve”, when you can’t stop yourself smiling, and everyone else hates your guts.
In the end, some can hack it, some can’t. I couldn’t. As soon as my wife got her visa (after I’d endured six excruciating months offshore), I was out of the rig as fast as an old fat-ass wolfing down a bacon roll. Nothing could get me back.