‘The worst was a really explicit centre-fold they used as a dart board...’ – Edinburgh author Fiona Erskine
Author Fiona Erskine knows what it’s like to be a woman in a man's world. At the age of 21, her first job out of university threw her into the locker room ‘pin-up’ culture of an 80’s dockland working environment.
Over the last 10 years, the engineer turned author has been recalling memories of her early days at the SAI works in Leith docks for her latest novel, Phosphate Rocks.
Having just finished studying at Cambridge University, the factory floor of the fertiliser maker was indeed a culture shock, she admits.
"But I remember being captivated by the factory and finding it fascinating," she adds, explaining, "I was the only female, other than a receptionist and the canteen staff, but in terms of the engineers and shift workers, everyone was male and, in those days, there was a culture of pin-ups, everybody had a naked picture on their locker door. It was before the time management would say, 'This isn't appropriate for work, guys.'
"They would put up with what was seen as 'laddish culture' but the worst pin-up was in the workshop, a really explicit centrefold they used as a dart board. So it wasn't only embarrassing but had been mutilated... that was the final straw. In fact, when another female joined the company, we got together and said we'd like it taken down. Afterwards, a lot of the men came up to thank us and say they'd hated it too but were too embarrassed to complain as they would be called all sorts of names."
With a guilty chuckle, Fiona, 59, admits she was briefly tempted to get a pin-up of her own, but didn't.
She says, "I learned early on that with things like swearing, the men would be terribly embarrassed if they swore in front of me. Now swearing doesn't bother me but I learned as long as you pretend, it creates a fourth wall. That was more useful because instead of telling you that the 'f***ing pump is knackered,' you might actually get some proper technical information from them. It was the same with the centrefolds, if I'd put a Playgirl picture on my desk, it would have become a competition, and accelerated the war."
Described as ‘a death in ten objects’, Phosphate Rocks allowed Fiona to spend the best part of a decade remembering her five years working at SAI, where the novel is set. The last plant of its kind to operate in Scotland, the Leith operation closed in 1991 having reached its peak, unloading phosphates from around the world in 1984.
In her third novel, which follows The Chemical Detective and The Chemical Reaction, as the old chemical works are demolished a body, long deceased and encrusted in phosphate rock, is discovered. Seated at a card table he has ten objects laid out before him... but who is he, how did he die and what is the significance of the objects?
A mix of science and anecdote, layered and interconnected stories, Phosphate Rocks explores how a workforce operate technology they don’t understand, the skill of ‘unskilled’ work and what happens to those left-behind as manufacturing work disappears east.
Though fictional, the book unfolds through the eyes of a very real person, John Gibson, the man appointed to baby-sit the young Fiona when she first arrived on the factory floor, and if that name is familiar to long-time Evening News readers, Fiona reveals that the 89-year-old Leither, born in Bowling Green Street in 1931, was named after his uncle John, who was father of our very own John Gibson, making them cousins.
Born and raised in the New Town, Fiona came to SAI direct from studying at Cambridge, having been schooled at St Hilary's Primary and James Gillespie's Secondary. She recalls, "John was appointed my baby-sitter although I didn't think I needed him. A lot of the guys were ex-services and extremely well behaved, I think they thought I was more delicate than I am. However, while giving me a baby-sitter was perhaps misguided, for me it was fantastic. Can you imagine? You're new and you've got someone with 30 years experience who has got your back. He would take me aside and give me advice. He was very old school and while I wouldn't say I was ever going to adopt all of John Gibson's philosophy on life, it was extremely useful when I knew nothing."
When the mother of two had the idea to anchor her book around him, she concedes asking his permission was a nerve-wracking moment. "I was scared of offending him because he is such a quirky character. When I asked him if I could put him at the heart of the book he was delighted and said, 'Do whatever you like.' That was liberating, up until then it was just a series of sketches of things I'd remembered, with him telling the story, it just flowed."
Now with 40 years experience in international manufacturing as an engineer, Fiona's path in life was inspired by a couple of teachers at James Gillespie’s, a stint of work experience that would never be green lit today and her parents.
"I had a fantastic chemistry teacher called Alan Leslie, he was a huge influence, a really gifted teacher and a fantastic human being, and Meg Luckins, my Russian and history teacher was another great influence," she says, adding, "Both my parents were scientists and I did work experience at 15 out at the BP oil refinery; they gave me a bicycle and let me cycle around the refinery taking samples, that wouldn't happen nowadays but, for me, it was heaven. I knew then I definitely wanted to be a chemical engineer. I should also admit my father was head of Chemical Engineering at Edinburgh University, but I like to think my choice wasn't entirely influenced by my dad."
Holding a copy of Phosphate Rocks, she adds, "It's so exciting to have the book in my hands and also slightly surprising because it was my lovely husband, Jonathan - who was my boyfriend way back then – who had to persuade me to keep going when I thought it was too quirky a story, filled with too much of my own happy memories to be of any interest to anyone else."
Tomorrow: Read the first in a series of extracts from Phosphate Rocks, by Fiona Erskine