Today was the first time in about a week I woke up feeling anything like human. I’ve been laid low for the past few days with some gruesome combo of motion sickness and a wicked head cold. When I feel a filthy lurgey coming on, I like to wrap up, get horizontal and read a good book; a luxury I rarely allow myself enough time to enjoy when I’m feeling fighting fit. Some people like to match wines with food, I like to match sicknesses with books. Call me weird, I don’t care.
I partnered this particular lurgey with Vultures’ Picnic: In pursuit of Petroleum Pigs, Power Pirates and High-finance Carnivores by Greg Palast; an “all the president’s men” for Big Oil. I highly recommend it for anyone who enjoys a fairly thick tome of investigative journalism with a hint of the Gonzo thrown in to make the bitter facts more palpable. It is one of Joel (our Captain’s) favourites.
Thumbing through the book in my sickly stupor I thought of something I hadn’t thought about in years. It happened about the time that Big Oil came to my home in Scotland. We were an average family on an average wage in an average little town on the East coast of Scotland. I had seen two movies in my whole life; “Live and Let Die” and “Jaws”, that was two more than my best friend and neighbour Kenny Welsh. Kenny had been born with no neck because of that thalidomide drug. We were firm friends and went everywhere together. On Sunday’s we’d be taken on a drive in the country in my dad’s pride and joy; his aged Ford Cortina. We’d always finish off the trip with a stop at a road side fish smoking hut and buy some “Arbroath smokies” a deliciously salty snack of Haddock that has been preserved in buckets of salt and then smoked. “Nom Nom Nom”.
Legend has it that the fish store in nearby Auchtermithie (yes that’s a real place) caught fire one night and in the morning the locals discovered some of the salty preservation barrels had caught fire cooking the haddock inside. Much Nom Nom Noming ensued and the Arbroath Smokie was born. Me and Kenny sitting in the middle of the back seat of my dad’s Ford Cortina, my big brothers sitting at the window seats on each side to keep us safe, reeking of salty, smokey fish, these were innocent times.
Then the next year Kenny died, and my world changed. Big Oil came to town, and first it came with money.
When Big Oil arrives it comes with an agenda; get the locals drunk on money, lots of money. The notion of “lots” is relative. When the Oil companies came to Scotland “lots” of money meant enough to buy a new T.V. and to go along with it, to show you were really in the money, the height of modern technology - a Betamax video recorder. Everyone I knew whose dad worked on the rigs had a video recorder, and no one else. I was about eleven at the time and I remember going round to my friend’s house to watch the latest video nasty “Evil Dead” I thought it was Amazing! The next week we watched a bootleg copy of “A Clockwork Orange” with Arabic subtitles. What an education! There was a new world out there and I wanted in on it.
Now the thing that happened quite quickly was, with the kids at home watching video nasties, and the Dad’s away at work on the Rigs, the family unit fell apart. Dads would come off the Rigs, stressed from the dangers and from three weeks at sea, they’d get drunk for three weeks and then head back to work. Listening in to the chit chat at the mum’s coffee mornings (do people still do those?) I could tell that this wasn’t a single family’s problem, but it was rife across the town. Reading Palast’s book I realise that this experience wasn’t exclusive to Scotland, it seems to the big Oil’s M.O. Money and alcohol, and that’s before they spill any oil.
These days Auchtermithie is better known for her sick seas and the whales that get stranded on her beaches. The thalidomide drug has been banned and the pharma companies forced to pay out “lots” of money (read enough for a big T.V. and whatever the equivalent of a video recorder is these days) all due to the force of people power, but that doesn’t relieve Kenny’s mum’s pain any. And last year in the Scottish oil fields there were more than two hundred Oil Spills, that’s right, two hundred! but they don’t make the news any more, you need an apocalypse like the Exxon Valdez or a Deepwater Horizon to make the news these days.
What I’m getting at, I guess, if I’m getting at anything at all, is that we know we have it sweet in New Zealand, this place really deserves the moniker “God’s Own”. Let's keep it that way.
When Big Oil comes to town, it isn’t just the spills and the bad times you have to worry about, it’s the “good” times too.