March 22, 2021

Twenty years ago, I covered a Ukip conference for a progressive newspaper. There I met an extraordinary man: a posh, faintly repellent, 50-year-old pulp novelist who dressed like Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes. He was moonlighting as a press officer for Ukip, which meant he spent a lot of time on the telephone soothing the leader “Roger”.

We spent the night together in my hotel room; the day after we held hands in the gallery. He was raging and touching, and I lived with him for an autumn in Totnes. I left him on Boxing Day when his requests that I attend an orgy with him became too insistent and I found photographs of an almost nude woman on bedding I had bought for him on the dressing table. My friend named him Count Fuckula, and that was that.

None of this made it into the Ukip piece, but I am not Tabitha Lasley, the author of Sea State, an investigation into the oil industry which segues into an unhappy love affair. I am none of the brilliant women who would once have been novelists — fiction protects men from women, and women from themselves — but who are today writing subjective non-fiction. Lamorna Ash’s Deep, Salt, Clear, a story of working with Newlyn fishermen; Tamsin Calidas’s I am an Island, a story of living as a crofter in the Hebrides; Catrina Davies’s Homesick, a story of living in a shed near Lands’ End which is also a cold indictment, quite literally, of the housing crisis.

If I were, I might have written a piece in which I compared my discovery of Count Fuckula’s body to my discovery of Ukip; I might have compared his personal alienation — he was an alcoholic — to his quest for personal sovereignty. No, it would have been a book about an Electra complex — Electra in Ukip — but I was not skilled enough to write it and I didn’t want to know why I loved him. I might have written a self-hating piece on the love affair for a newspaper. They will take this sort of material from female journalists — and only from female journalists. It’s easy to sell your one note trauma. But these new books are not at all self-hating. There is too much voice in them.

Sea State is not a book about the men on the oil rigs, just as Deep, Salt, Clear is not really about fishermen, and Homesick is only superficially about a home. They are books about seeking. Sea State is Lasley’s state, and she succeeds: the story is hers, not theirs. It is theft really, audacious theft, the taking of men’s spaces as they have always taken ours. Lasley takes their bodies too. She leaves London her worthless lover (the first of two we meet) for Aberdeen “a Gulf state, a desert caliphate”.

She seeks working-class men with two lives: onshore and off. (Ash has a similar curiosity for men “always on the verge of falling”.) That is what obsesses Lasley because that is what she has. Towards the end of the book, she says that she is emotionally dependent on cocaine: “My mordant companion these twenty years.”

Her journalistic practices are dishonest and effective. She accosts workers in bars and clubs; she gives false names and false back stories; she is called a whore, repeatedly, about which she is sanguine and aggressive both; she walks with a man who says he is a murderer and offers to kill her lover for her. There is no need: she will do it, and with ink.

She sleeps with her first interviewee, a man of extraordinary emptiness called Caden, and they create a fantasy life as she researches his nothingness, intruded on by his furious wife and his furious emptiness. She describes her breast selfies, and her orgasms, but, in the end, it is all thwarted by Caden’s greed. He will keep a wife he doesn’t love rather than pay her alimony, and this is just one of Lasley’s superb and possibly unconscious metaphors: the oil industry is about greed and that is perfectly expressed by her description of Caden furiously ironing his expensive clothes, which, a wrecked family and an appearance in his lover’s memoir aside, is the only visible product of his double life.

When I read Sea State, I was disturbed by it, enough to ask myself why. Why was I obsessing about Lasley’s real book about the oil industry, the one without her in it? The one she would have written in the 1990s, when I became a journalist, if she had been sanctioned to do so? The one a man might write, with less observation — he would not have seen Caden ironing — but with more detail on the oil industry? (When writing about working class men, middle-class men often sound as if they are meeting another species. They sound stunned.)

Why was I angered by her strange combination of vulnerability and toughness? I suspect it was recognition — we have all been pleasing for access, and nude is pleasing — though she went further than I ever did, in print at least. Sea State is an honest account of how she got her story, when the fashion is to reach for a synthetic poise that is wholly invented. Few writers will say, as Lasley does: “I’d taken him for an adult because he made a lot of money, but he was like me.”

This genre is disturbing because of its newness, its tidal masochism and sometimes its cruelty — when a female writer has a voice, it can say anything. It is an incursion into masculine places by women who lose no femininity to get there. Their vulnerability — their smallness — is explicit, yet they are bold and they are not ashamed. It is all dangerous work. The Brontës published pseudonymously for a reason. Jane Eyre is barely fiction, and nowadays it wouldn’t be. It would be a book about the working conditions of governesses with discursions on tuberculosis, masturbation and psychosis.

Only Lasley writes her explicit sexual passions — Ash likes words, Calidas sheep, and Davies the sea — but the female voice is everywhere: women take space and form in the world. Ash gilds fish with poetry in an almost religious experience learning, “I will have to acknowledge that not only am I not a woman of the sea, but that I am not a woman of Cornwall either.” Davies makes herself a home on the edge of England, and she manages to keep it. Calidas, though she is intimidated by local men who abuse her, will not leave the Hebrides. Some wish she would. She was accused of colonialism, which I am pleased to call hysterical: she bought a small farm.

This is a hail of female voices who know they can write anything. When I began to write, you could not be yourself, unless men first sanctioned it. I was full of smiles. I like to think that Lasley does not smile at the men in Aberdeen. I like to think she does not have to.