‘Crude Britannia was a road trip to explore deindustrialisation and climate breakdown’
It took us five years to produce Crude Britannia even though we had both spent decades reporting or working around the basic subject matter.
We thought it would be completed within 24 months and fortunately the publisher was lenient around the deadline. So why did it take so long to produce a book which was finally launched on May 20? The basic reason is the project – looking at how oil has influenced British politics, economics and culture since the Second World War – was wildly ambitious in retrospect.
We were determined it would be based on original material – rather than cobbled together out of thousands of previous articles I had done for The Guardian or James [Marriott] had written for the Platform arts and campaign group he works in.
We wanted 100 per cent original interviews with people who had been personally involved in – or affected by – the industry.
We wanted the book to reflect the key places where oil had solidly placed its footprint in the way of research centres or refineries, plants or pipelines.
This meant soaking up the atmosphere in the Thames Estuary, South Wales, Merseyside and North East Scotland.
Crude Britannia is a kind of road trip – both a physical journey to those places but also an intellectual journey into the whys and wherefores of fossil fuels.
We were sleuths for the reader. So which was Sherlock Holmes and which Dr Watson, somebody jokingly asked me. “Both Sherlocks,” I claimed – but the action certainly took place well away from Baker Street.
And while the book is apparently about oil, it is really about Britain. We are interested in showing how the country has changed over the last 70 years through the lens of the energy sector.
How important was oil in the British colonial history of Nigeria, Iran and Libya?
Was oil used as a weapon to defeat the National Union of Mineworkers in the infamous pit battles with the Thatcher government?
Has the revolving door between politicians and petroleum executives had an impact on the UK’s willingness to embrace renewable power?
But the first question most people have asked about this book is more prosaic: why two rather than one person writing it? And why James Marriott as a co-author?
Largely because both of us wanted to write this actual book.
James came to oil as an artist and environmental campaigner and had already written three books around the subject.
I was someone who reported on business, industry and oil – latterly as energy editor of The Guardian. My only foray into long form writing was an ebook for The Guardian on the Arctic which I wrote on a three-month Press Fellowship at Wolfson College here.
Did we fall out? Of course we did, but only temporarily and we have become good friends despite it all.
We are a team and we partly wanted to work together because we both believe in the cult of collectivism over individuality.
So who did what? Well, one of us would write a draft and hand it to the other to edit. James has a background in history (he studied at Robinson College here) and did much background reading and writing around that while I did the interviewing and excavated more of the contemporary material.
We set up extensive field trips together where we visited existing oil infrastructure or industrial energy archaeology.
We talked to local people involved in the industry whether oil company bosses such as Lord Browne, former chief executive of BP, or Ben van Beurden, the current head of Shell, or petroleum scientists, technicians and refinery workers.
We also talked to renewable energy entrepreneurs, trade unionists, climate activists and politicians like Michael Heseltine and Rebecca Long-Bailey whose lives or work intersected with oil.
And Crude Britannia has a soundtrack. We met musicians like Wilko Johnson (of Dr Feelgood) at the Cambridge Corn Exchange who had been inspired by oil installations around Canvey Island in Essex.
We explored how and why documentaries and films such as Oil City Confidential and Local Hero were made.
We have a shared love of music and music showed us how oil had entered our desires and daily lives – from cars to vinyl. The soundtrack was also an important tool to leaven an otherwise serious book about contemporary Britain, about deindustrialisation and the climate emergency.
The last is a difficult story to tell. We conclude that whatever the claimed aspirations of the ministerial or corporate world, the key to preventing the destruction of the climate is people power.
Unless James, myself and you, dear reader, change our lifestyles while campaigning loudly for urgent action, we are in trouble.
Most books like to end happily – in fact most publishers demand it but publisher Pluto Press kindly left it up to us.
There is nothing defeatist or miserabilist about our conclusions – or the way we tell the story. We had a lot of laughs and hopefully the reader will share some of them too.
We see climate action and humour as key parts of a survival strategy.
Even so Crude Britannia, with its five-year gestation period, very nearly wiped the smile off my face.
- Crude Britannia: How Oil Shaped a Nation by Terry Macalister and James Marriott was published by Pluto Press in hardback at £20 on May 20, 2021.