by John Bolland
On the jacket blurb to his latest novel, The Black Eden, author Richard T. Kelly sketches out the jeopardy of his characters: “Over the passing years, they will discover that oil can overthrow relationships, turn friends into foes, and even put lives at risk.”
The Black Eden is a relationship-based story set during the earliest period of the North Sea oil & gas industry (essentially, 1960 until 1974). Oil is to be the stuff that dreams are made of and in exploring it, Kelly creates six token Scotsmen to be his tracer dyes – a son of the manse, the son of the ‘dominie’, two public schoolboys, the younger son of a successful trawler skipper and a crofter. Bucolic idylls are conjured, one on the Cromarty Firth, the other in the grandest of Edinburgh public schools – and press GO!
It’s a fankle of a novel and there is nothing wrong with that in the best traditions of socialist realism. I have enjoyed the exquisite frustration of wondering, in such novels, “Where the f*** is s/he going with this?” and have been very pleasantly surprised. But surprise is a key element of such a novel’s success, that and the world building that enfolds and situates the protagonists’ trajectories.
There are other recurrent characters in The Black Eden – the spiv from the village, a gang of ex-patriate oil-men, the families of the protagonists and some women, as wives, mothers, secretaries and sex workers – one even gets a go at being a point of view (but only one, and only once). The Black Eden is doomed bromance territory.
The quality of copy editing was a surprise, coming from an imprint like Faber – but the novel is primarily undermined by its loose and often anachronistic world building. The author gets his apology in as part of the author’s note: “I have taken great liberties with parts of the topography of Scotland – and one or two dramatic licenses, too, with regard to a number of its institutions and traditions – for which I beg the indulgence of any readers from that great nation.” Which is, of course, a measure of progress – I doubt if H. Rider Haggard would have felt the need to include a similar disclaimer in front of King Solomon’s Mines.
But for any reader familiar with Scotland in the second half of the 20th century – and especially with the North-East and the oil industry, there is an awful lot of indulgence to begged. Which leads a Scottish reader (such as myself) to wonder – to what extent readers beyond our ‘great nation’ will be misled.
It’s easier to decode Outlander (it involves time-travel) or Braveheart (Mel Gibson IS Australian) but nothing here indicates this is not a normal historical novel written by an author of some experience: except for the puzzling density of anachronism and the Potemkin landscapes.
Apart from the kail-yard tokenism of our six Scotsmen, the author takes ‘dramatic license’ with so many aspects of his imaginary world.
Religion – his soon-to-be seismographer complains “You’re forever forced to kneel before things you can’t know, things you can’t change.” Neither here nor in Kelly’s native Ulster was ‘kneeling’ much of a feature in the Reformed Kirk.
Technology – why would a semi-submersible rig be drilling when not ballasted down, with water sloshing over its pontoons?
The economy – things are hard for Killday Fisheries as they make their difficult transition. But the period the novel covers is during the peak years of the whitefish boom in the North Sea (the gadoid outburst, in technical terms).
Skippers and brokers were creaming it in in an atmosphere akin to the City of London in the 90s. Oil (when it came) was the cherry on the top and a necessary refuge when the fishers had wiped out their stocks (again). But these details undermine the narrative of ‘poor wee fishers, poor wee Scotland’.
And so, to the politics – for one of the key strands of the novel is separatist politics: Unionism, Nationalism and cronyism. The politics, of course, is played out by the boys from Fettes, haute-bourgeois Ally (Unionist) and scholarship Mark (Nationalist).
The obvious and appropriate tension is around “It’s Scotland’s Oil” as an SNP campaigning slogan – a problematic formula which continues to haunt the SNP in Government today. If “It’s Scotland’s Oil”, how come Rishi Sunak gets to approve Rosebank?
It feels like more dramatic license for Kelly to give Margo MacDonald’s Govan seat to one of his public schoolboys in 1973. Though rather than hanging in there after losing the seat in the next election, as MacDonald did, Mark slopes off back to Labour.
There are, of course, other contemporary political nuances (the fishers’ resistance to the Common Market, for example), which draw clear parallels with the current moment – the future of fossil fuel production, the continuing threat to Unionist interests of Scottish Nationalism (or just us being scunnered with Westminster politics), and the travesties and betrayals of Brexit.
Like Kelly, I was not working or living in Aberdeen during the period covered in the novel. He wasn’t born yet but I had a Granny in Govan (I can assure him there were no red-brick streets in Govan, just as the granite in Aberdeen is not black).
My first exposure to offshore oil & gas was on a dive ship in the Brent Field about 1981. We walked to the helicopter in ordinary clothes. The guys in ‘the bin’ did eight-hour bell-runs, four hours for each diver, twenty-four hours a day. There were no subsea wellheads or infield flowlines to speak of and no-one would operate a semi-sub that wasn’t ballasted down when not in transit.
Special pleading I admit – but in a recent interview with Books from Scotland (though The Black Eden is by an Anglo-Irish writer published by Faber), Kelly is quoted as saying “What I love about real-life historical-political subject matter is that it’s full of dilemmas – situations where people have to confront a really tough, conflicting choice between options, where there’s not one which is obviously correct.”
I take his point except that the situations in which his protagonists make their choices are not, evidently, the situations in which typical Scots found themselves in the early 1970s. Situations are simplified for dramatic purposes and the protagonists atypical. So whose dilemmas are they? Theirs? Ours?
In the same interview, Kelly acknowledges that “Extracting the crude oil from under the seabed, though, was incredibly hard, dirty, dangerous industrial labour” and that he was fascinated by the “Wild West aura”.
Yet his novel clings to board rooms and posh hotels – not the shanties of Nigg or the life-style dilemma of two-and-two rotas, the suicides, the racial and gender hierarchies or the mad-cap lifestyles of hyperbaric welders.
He re-quotes Brecht asserting that history plays provide the audience with “a piece of illuminated history” – but this is not The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui. The Black Eden is grounded in the make-believes of shallow appearances, curiously echoing the early 1970’s TV series The Troubleshooters (or the recent Amazon Prime eco-opera The Rig) in its flat fabulation. It simplifies and makes believable – if you are interested in such folk – but that simplification misdirects the reader from the dilemmas the oil industry confronted and continues to confront the Scottish Nation and the Union with.
As OPEC raises oil prices following the Yom Kippur War, Clay Paxton, the novel’s emblematic Texas oilman, advises that he was too long in the tooth to rely on political factors. Dramatic irony, perhaps? But it’s a truism beyond cliché in the oil & gas industry that war is good for business. Security of supply was always the elephant in the room – that and breaking the power of the NUM. Clay would know that even then.
The current high oil prices and the government’s current ‘dash for black’ reflect the same opportunism and contingency as in the early 1970s – but we understand the existential consequences far better. It does not do to simplify so much.
About our contributor
John Bolland is a poet, writer and artist based in the North East of Scotland. His poetry and short fiction have been widely published in journals and anthologies. He blends a lifelong commitment to writing with scientific training and first-hand experience of the international oil & gas industry. His latest poetry collection, Pibroch was published in 2022 by Red Squirrel Press. Find out more about John’s writing and other work here – http://aviewfromthelonggrass.com/