(Sandstone Press, 2011); pbk, £7.99
“On a wind lashed coast in the far north a group of men assemble on a construction site. The Ness and Struie Drainage Project will dominate their lives for the next few months as they toil through the daylight hours and into the night, endure hardship and conflict and –mostly- survive.” So begins the blurb for Site Works, a book which will suck the reader in as surely as the mud that cakes the hillside where the construction work takes place. Site Works is, indeed, a most unusual and compelling read.
Before turning to writing, Robert Davidson, founder and editor of Sandstone Press, was a civil engineer, and Site Works is a tribute to the unsung working man, obliged to labour outside in all weathers for very little reward. Here is a world where cost-cutting and number crunching threaten to make craftsmanship and pride a thing of the past; the land of “no-respect” where decency is devalued and lives put at risk by endless corner-cutting.
Davidson has a poet’s touch when it comes to description. In his hands, the construction site takes on a life of its own, defining the characters of the men who try to shape it. The tunnellers, for example, are described as the strongest of men: “It’s a tightness they have, especially across the shoulders and the front of the chest and in the thighs. It seems to hold them together. And they come as a type; don’t speak much. It’s the noise. Tunnelling doesn’t lend itself to conversation, so they hold their thoughts in.”
The author gives us a real insight into the thoughts of not just the tunnellers, but the managers, builders, plant drivers and labourers who make up the work force. These are men who have issues with (ex)wives, alcohol, old age; who try to be good fathers and good friends; who fight the weather, the daylight and each other, while existing in a constant state of anxiety threatened as they are with the possibility of injury or of being made unemployed in the near future.
The large cast of characters does, at times, become confusing. Although the narrative structure is cleverly book-ended by an unnamed ‘master builder’ who utters wise words in the first person, the remainder of the novel is written in the third person. Each chapter loosely assigned to an individual: the crane driver, the trainee engineer, the Agent and so on. At times, the narrative seems to struggle under the sheer weight of numbers. Davidson offers us some complex and intriguing personalities only to whisk them away as others jump in to claim our attention. That said, the drainage project is a group effort, so this is perhaps unavoidable.
Some criticism has been levelled at the way the techinical jargon hinders the narrative flow , but in a story such as this it would be counterintuitive to separate the men from their work. These are men defined by their skills, and even if the reader doesn’t know a cofferdam from a wayleave, it’s not important. The author has painstakingly constructed, or rather re-constructed, a world with which few of us are familiar, or usually care about. It is a revealing insight into what it takes to maintain the infrastructure that we take for granted. The last word goes to the Master Builder: “Wet clay climbs your legs and drops into your wellies. Turn your socks down over the tops and they get clarted with mud. I have bald rings round my calves where it rubs. My feet are filthy all the time. Wellies with steel toe caps freeze your toes and the steel cuts in when you walk. The teachers and the office workers don’t know.”