Artwork dug deep into my experiences in Oil construction work in the first half of the 1980s. The privations, struggles and losses encountered, were shared by thousands on and offshore. Injury and death were common and accepted as part of “the game”. Bad weather, eventful helicopter flights, heights and a general lack of health and safety all fed into the culture and attitude of those who persisted and endured. Friendships which would last a lifetime were forged, stories told and retold, a rich vein of subcultural material mined, a life unknown to most but unforgettable by those who built the steel cathedrals in the mud and dust storms of gigantic construction sites in the highlands of Scotland. These Art works, detailing actual events, were sometimes difficult for me to paint given the memories, but also somehow, closure. We now see the end of the age of oil, the ageing and passing of a generation whose skills and determination helped build an economy, but at the same time, aided climate change. Environmental factors are foremost now but it would be tragic if a passing culture were not somehow recorded.
For Okie, my friend
The Sinners Pilgrimage
Context: September 1985 Ninian Central Platform
Bended knee and bowed Heid, an audience with the control room
Hot work says I, Lloyds Inspectors due, the deck needs done
The Yank, spits tobacco juice, “Aint none today” !
Staring, an age, he says, “you still here Kimosabe”?
Precluded! gas again and again, lifeboats once
I thought I’d try because the gaffers hovering
Neurosis in a boilersuit, snarls, “McMillan, get it done, QUIETLY”
He’s tells me again, illegal like, hide the hot work or get binned, NRB’d, blackballed
No wages for no work, sub-contracted, indentured, I slink off conflicted, and sell my soul
An Epiphany of Steel
Sheltered from the Westerly at 300 hundred feet, a localised storm they said,
Screaming down the loch like a banshee, streamers of horizontal sleet above
On them, in them, entombed for weeks, confined space work it’s called, noise and fumes and sparks, senses numbed and useless, a cold so cold, I couldn’t tie a knot
Seen the attrition, the stoicism, the jokes of hard men and those other men, t men trying to be hard
I endured, though my Dad said “it’ll be the end o ye” it wasn’t of course, a beginning, an acorn or an embryonic relationship and a wakening, extremes, hardship, pain the things I’ve seen, we all saw
High wire acts, clowns as acrobats, our encores as leaps of faith, pipe to pipe, no harness, scaffolders like mad ants, their colony a behemoth
The juxtaposition, the Beallach na Ba and the Steel Cathedral, the Sheep and the lasers, Bogs and 18 inches of Mud onsite, dust storms lost boots hangovers fights and once, a card school, beyond my ken
Watercolours, pen and ink and poetry for me in the stoor of the place, the foremen who screamed “Move Mountains” and said to that guy Boyle “Ive seen more blood on a banana son” when he lost a finger. Suck it up mate.
And like the launches of my apprenticeship, that crucible, the halcyon days of home after the summer of 76 and the tonnage sliding into the loch, whisky, pipers, skippers’ wives in hats and for me, a boiler suit and city and guilds, every day was a school day, the promise of wisdom, journeymen, my time spent in blacksmithing and sheet metal and heavy plate
I couldn’t get enough, and offshore? Those structures we laboured on, the sunrises and sunsets and storms and calm and mad foremen and medivacs, NRBs, and belonging. Worth every minute, part of me forever, you never forget the epiphany.