I would like to start this blog by acknowledging the people in Aberdeen who are responsible for our street art and the visuals featured within this piece. These people have made it possible for me to start expanding my criminological and sociological imagination thanks to their creativity in our home; I hope that paying closer attention to “unlikely places” will mean that those unknowns will feel acknowledged and less alienated. I would also like to say thanks to Dr Colin Atkinson and Dr Erin Sanders-McDonagh – two academics (and friends) who have been generously supportive of me in recent years, and who have inspired me to explore the power of visual and sensory methods in research. Many thanks also to Dr Kate Herrity for giving me the platform to write and discuss partial findings and interpretations of my fieldwork, and for having thoughtful conversations with me on sensory criminology.
My first sensory experience of the sea comes from my childhood living in Larne, a seaport and industrial market town on the east coast of County Antrim, Northern Ireland. As a child, I loved to run over the grassy hill at the back of my house and listen to the boats’ horns, watching them glide in and out: I wanted to know what it would feel like to be on one. Little did I know that, one day these moments of curiosity would become a reality, and vital for my family’s safety. When I was eight-years old, I was on one of those boats, escaping, with my mother and brother, from my father’s domestic abuse. We travelled to Stranraer, a town in South West Scotland, and then caught the train up to Aberdeen, where a social worker was waiting to drive us to a women’s refuge in Aberdeenshire.
I will never forget the journey, leaving to start a new life in Scotland, with a mixture of feelings of overwhelming fear, excitement and sea sickness. Whenever my mother and I have reflected on the journey, she apologises that I became unwell. It acts as a trigger stemming from the guilt she still holds for staying with my father as long as she did, trying to change his abusive behaviour. Some mild nausea did not phase me, even as a child. I was on one of the boats I had watched with joy. But most of all, I felt a great sense that we were going to be safer. It is for this reason that I have a comforting, yet reflective, relationship with the sea; watching and listening to the movement of the waves is the ocean’s way of confirming to me that we got away.
When I meet people who are from Northern Ireland and they ask me where I am from, their facial expressions and body language give a lot away. This is not to convey any great love of Larne: “Christ almighty, you’re not really from that rough shithole, are you?” I shrug it off, as it is not as if I personally hold many treasured memories from my birth home, although our next door neighbour was a friend to my mother and a lifeline to us when my father was especially violent and we needed to get out of our house. However, it is the same stigmatised reaction that I get when I tell people I mainly grew up in the North East of Scotland, in Aberdeenshire and in Aberdeen City. That chilly, wet, mean, rich, oil-dominant place that is far away from everywhere else – ‘the Granite City’, as it is commonly known, because of the presiding urban city-scape of locally quarried grey granite.
Admittedly, I have had my own depressing thoughts of Aberdeen. This is not because I believe we live constantly under a hovering ‘Aber-doom’ cloud of grey in the complete absence of bright spells, but because it creates my own frustrations, witnessing and experiencing the impact that the oil and gas sectors’ volatile nature of production and price can have on people’s livelihoods and declining living environments. It denotes the historic discrimination and ongoing survival of working-class fishing communities and our stark social divisions, inequalities and crime. It cuts deeply amongst people living here that we endure great vulnerability as Europe’s oil capital. No area in Scotland is immune to poverty from a decade of UK Government austerity measures, but Aberdonians do ask the question, “Where has all the oil money gone?”
An Illuminating and important spotlight on Aberdeen’s poverty was televised last year, on ‘Darren McGarvey’s Scotland series. It was a relief for locals to witness, on screen that our social challenges were being given national attention, rather than them being drowned in a sea of oil and material wealth. My only criticism is that people living in the North-East barely have a voice to talk for themselves about these challenges at a national level in Scotland. This must now change as we go forward, experiencing another identity as an energy transition environment.
A new appetite for multi-sensory exploration
In thinking about the potential for criminology/sociology research in the North-East, back in July, I attended an arts-based socially-distanced ‘sensory sea-sound walk’ to explore the acoustic environment (facilitated by researcher Maja Zećo and supported by the ‘Look Again Aberdeen’ organisation). The walk started off at the South Bank of the River Dee, going past Torry and in and around part of Aberdeen harbour
To give a brief context, Torry, which sits opposite the harbour and within Aberdeen city, is an area and community historically based around fishing and boat building, although over the years it has become more of a hub for the oil and gas giants. For better or for worse, Torry is always firmly on the table for discussion due to the area’s deprivation and social stigma that live beside the undeniably diverse and rich community spirit. The industrialised harbour site, once host to the largest fish market in Europe, is acknowledged by some as an urban gift, due to its inner city presence and accessibility, including a claim to fame in the Guinness Book of World Records as the oldest existing business in the UK. However, the harbour site can be viewed with more nuanced local realities; for example, it is an industrial space where onlookers can watch boats pass by against the backdrop of towering oil tanks whilst eating a bag of chips. However, be sure to prepare for battle with the criminally-aggressive and renowned oversized Aberdeen seagulls about to flock around you.
The focus of the walk was to savour the aesthetic pleasures of listening by examining sounds which we do not normally pay attention to, as well as different volumes and textures, and the relationship between quiet, industrial, and residential zones. Although genuinely curious and keen to participate in the walk, carrying my notebook, pen, fully-charged phone and wearing my face mask, I didn’t expect to experience as many visual, sensory and therapeutic stimuli as I did. This forced me to confront my own problematic relationship with the physical environment, which has led to a level of disengagement. In other words, it became apparent to me that I had neglected to fully register what was so close and right in front of me. The walk gave me a bitter sweet taste; on the one hand, I became revitalised after setting aside my inner frustrations of structural struggle and oppression, but equally I felt guilty because I thought I was making a considerable effort to ensure I was witnessing and acknowledging it – it being the good, the bad and the damn right beautiful and ugly. It is true that the usual urban and industrial suspects were out in force that day: the gulls shrieking alongside the stretch of constant traffic through the city centre, as if they were in competition with one another to make the most noise. Also present were the inescapable odours of fish and other pollutant pongs as a reminder of the atmospheric harm and dominance that comes with the territory of living in such an industrial environment. The group came together at the end to discuss how our personal identities contribute to our experience of listening to places, including the need for multisensory engagement, incorporating histories and memories situated in place.
What was an hour and half’s worth of walking evolved into several weeks of my own independent fieldwork, revisiting the area, looking at the visuals on the streets and abandoned buildings with an appetite to feel, see and listen more. I was also able to visualise the expansion of the urban trail through Torry, with the end point being the site for the new £350 million Aberdeen South expansion project, which will accommodate larger vessels being used in a range of industries, including cruises, as part of addressing the downturn of the oil. Directly opposite the area will also lie a soon-to-be-constructed new multi-million-pound clean energy park (Energy Transition Zone). A campaign group is now in battle with the oil elites to prevent them from taking away the last green space in Torry – St Fittick’s Park. Is history repeating itself again? In an opinion piece I wrote for a national newspaper, entitled ‘Brexit, coronavirus, oil, and the struggles of Scotland’s North-East’, I urged that any current and future developments to address deindustrialisation and economic renewal in the form of a speedier transition from oil and gas to a sustainable renewable energy future could only be deemed ‘just’ if they were driven by a humane agenda. Indeed, we must reflect and learn from our past mistakes, which are rooted in greed and sit beside unforgiveable misfortune, otherwise we have missed the point entirely. There should be no fast flowing free pass to claim success and the future title of “Energy Capital of Europe”. Any risk of harm caused by the unjust exercising of elite power in the pursuit of creating an “energy pot of gold” which exacerbates or causes the persistence of social inequality and environmental harm must be monitored and scrutinised, but also documented. It is for this reason that expanding the criminological and sociological lens in the North-East (green criminology for environmental concern and crime, as one example) would be timely, as it would restore the critical eye in the hope that people’s voices will be strengthened and human lived experiences will become conceptualised over the transition. Such an expansion would also fill a major geographical gap in Scotland in a region which is part of the global phenomenon of deindustrialisation politics – that, for me, is the transition gold at the end of the rainbow. It’s time to swap the ‘shithole’ insults for sensory ethnographic methods to inspire inclusive, therapeutic and collaborative conversations for researching home, belonging and atmosphere
Fieldwork Findings and Interpretations
‘Stuck’: Humorous stickers but hazardous industries
Situated directly opposite the harbour, the imposing cartoon smiley sticker is funny, playful, but it also feels sinister. The smile of the emoji, popular for evoking positivity of the human experience, is trying its best not to be distracted by the toxic eye, representing the hazardous nuclear waste dripping down—but how long? Do we need to keep just smiling despite the harm?
Close to harbour boats and in the midst of intense noise construction (hammering and drills), this pirate skull sticker armed with crossed swords, gave me an immediate sharp focus for thinking about the dangers associated with our major industries of fishing and oil in the North East, the more unfortunate realities for people working on the sea—rough working conditions and risks to health and life. The sticker gave me a clear message of deadly troubled waters
Separate but linked: ‘Go Fuck yourself; it’s Scotland’s oil!’—the politics of Scottish independence
There is a strong sense of political support depicted through a large number of ‘YES’ for independence stickers on the streets all around Torry and the harbour, next to the North Sea oil. This provided me with moments of reflection, some of which evoked worries, doubts and insecurities about our future, our homes, how we feel living here and our contribution to the debate on Scottish independence. Aberdonians feel tension on this subject, particularly in relation to their industries, economic policies and Brexit. Although one sticker exhibits a fresh and bold-looking sense of freedom, the profanity sticker below, even though distinct, provides a connection and an example of local discussion on the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) and the UK government, for instance, the issue related to where the oil money is being distributed. The sticker suggests uprising, frustration and a possible message ‘It’s Scotland’s oil’, which was a political slogan used by the SNP in the ‘70s to build its economic case for an independent Scotland. Both stickers inspire an honest change.
Sweet smell of surprise: a rebellious weed!
This weed took my sense of smell to another direction while I was walking down Sinclair Road. Through the harsh stench of fish and industrial smoke, at either side of me, it offered me a powerful sweet fragrance as if it was trying to be noticed and offering a few moments of relief from the background of strong competing smells. The weed is high enough to cover the background of tall tanks, so I could catch a glimpse of the natural world tangling through hard and tough industrial fencing. It is a rebellious weed that is making a bold statement by climbing high. Because it really wants to be seen, it provides me an inner comfort as well as a feeling of confirmation that exploring the area was an important and necessary experience—we should always have a closer look at the most unlikely places and look out for nature —for inspiration.
Words of accuracy: tanks labelled ‘slops’
When I saw the word ‘slops’ on these tanks, it felt accurate as it depicted my own images of liquid: overflowing, spillage and other industrial harms, including the harm from oil. In my research, I had found that ‘slop oil’ needs careful management since it contains water, oil and a mixture of waste products. Slop oil can cause dangerous environmental hazards and costly storage problems. It is a serious burden not only for oil companies and governments but also for communities. Moreover, it is a reminder of the burden Torry has been ‘gifted’ by the oil industry. Yet, the liquid is stored in front of the community waiting to be dealt with.
The sun still shines on fishes: community strength in Torry
Although Torry has largely been cleared to make way for the oil boom, there are still some small fishing businesses left. Although most of the fishing sector now operates from Fraserburgh and Peterhead. This mural on a fish factory that sits directly across the River Dee gave me the perception of the community—keeping oneself above the dark shadows. The sun still shines on fishes, giving them a needed spotlight. Although vulnerability has made deep inroads, some strength has still survived, preventing from falling into dark shadows beneath and pushing to move on. It depicts a sense of closeness, resilience and hope. Torry has a long-standing social stigma attached to its deprivation, poverty and crime, particularly drug-related crime. It shows why dark spots of Torry’s history should not be swept aside, along with its social challenges.
Abandoned, but with character intact: double-handed peace amid neglect
When walking back from the new harbour expansion site to the centre of Torry, I walked past this abandoned warehouse which bore several graffiti writings. What brought an instant smile on my face was a double peace sign and cheeky hat on the corner wall of this unoccupied building. To me, the double hand gesture symbolising peace is not there to represent victory but a higher form of resistance against being abandoned, sitting on a skateboard representing activity and movement. The top hat symbolises an upstanding presence. So, perhaps the place is empty but not completely abandoned.
Crashing waves of construction: the comforting sea but the unknown future
This picture represents the first visit to the new Aberdeen Harbour Expansion site. The sea has always been of comfort to me in several ways—particularly for the fact that it has helped to bring me and my family to safety. I will always want to be as close as I can to the sea in the future. However, the experience of watching the developments at the new Harbour Expansion site is disturbing. It is miserable to listen to the crashing sound of the waves in a bleak background and the noises of the machine bringing along the worries of the unknown. The known is what will be physically present here from the expansion, but the unknown is how this will impact people and their living environments—who will benefit? My own experience of moving to the North-East is interconnected with my concern for people and the environment in the North-East. Although it is more fearful and strongly reflective experience to confront the construction atmosphere, it needs to be faced. We cannot allow the decisions about our future and industrial decline to be made by a small number of wealthy men at the top. The time is now to take ownership.