An oil and gas worker and a poet – two things that aren’t usually associated with one another.
But for Sid Ozalid, who spent time with BP, Shell and Total during his career, the industry allowed him to pursue his passion for silliness.
“I moved to Aberdeen when I was around seven, and by the time it came to leaving school, oil and gas was happening and it was the natural thing to step in to,” he said.
“I went into the industry at 16 in 1976, and worked for BP in the drilling office. I did a lot of drilling office jobs for a number of years, and ended up working for Shell, where I moved into safety.
“I was contracted quite often so during my career I’ve worked for McDermott, Oceaneering, Total – a number of different oil companies.”
The Clash, The Specials and Simple Minds
Sid, real name Doug Cairns, began writing poetry at a very early age. Heavily dyslexic, he struggled at school, but writing “silly poetry” became a real outlet for his creativity.
He said: “I started performing when I was around 18 years old. There weren’t poetry gigs and there weren’t comedy gigs, but there were musical gigs, so I used to go and support bands. That was when I first started getting noticed.”
He would go on to support a number of iconic bands, including legendary punks The Clash, ska revivalists The Specials and Scottish stadium rockers Simple Minds.
As he gained more and more recognition for his work, aided by frequent performances at the Edinburgh Fringe, Sid was keen to try and turn his comedy and poetry into a full-time career.
Working in oil paid the bills
And while he did used to make “quite good money out or performing”, it wasn’t as regular as the cash he received for working in oil and gas.
He said: “I found the bills tended to be very regular, and the poetry and performance was less regular. I always had a day job, and at one time I did make a fair sum from entertainment.
“The first house I ever bought, I paid a third of it with cash that I had earned from performing.
“The extras were always there, but it didn’t take me too long to realise that I wasn’t going to make lots of money unless I made it very big.”
While he opted not to pursue poetry as a full-time job, Sid was always performing in his spare time, and had notable success with book, Mr Elastic Brain: The Life and Poems of Sid Ozalid.
Released in 2011, it went into the Amazon top 10 list and remained there for a number of months, peaking at number two.
‘People did find it a bit strange at first’
Though it’s perhaps a dated view, oil and gas doesn’t tend to be the domain of poets, particularly those in the punk scene, and Sid says “people did find it a bit strange at first”.
He said: “People have an image of a punk, but I wasn’t a punk poet. I was a poet who liked punk. I was just being very silly and some did find it odd. It didn’t bother me because I worked very hard.
“Even when I had a radio show, I remember when I worked for Shell they asked ‘are you going to run away and join the circus?’. I had to explain to them there’s just not the same money, or regularity of money, in the circus as there is in oil and gas, which was also allowing me to develop myself as a person.”
He added: “I worked in the Netherlands for a while and had a global role, so I would travel a lot to conferences and do safety and leadership work. I used to train people how to facilitate and how to train.
“The skills I learnt from my days performing were a big help. I was able to engage an audience so naturally I moved in to doing training presentations and conferences in the oil and gas industry.”
Brunei and his injury
After having children, Sid decided he didn’t want to keep travelling and so he and his family moved to Brunei where he worked for Shell.
It was while living in the South East Asian country, around four years ago, that the father-of-five suffered a life changing injury in the most innocuous of circumstances.
“It was self-inflicted, which I think is ironic given I was responsible for people’s safety in Brunei,” Sid joked.
“I managed to bang my head in my own car whilst it was stationary in my driveway through a bit of tomfoolery, which tends to be the root cause of a lot of accidents.
“I’d been in Australia for two weeks and my car seat had been raised and I hadn’t realised. When I came home from work my three young boys were waving and I thought, as you do, I’ll star jump out of my car to wave back. But instead of being six inches of space between my head and the roof, there wer a couple of centimeters, and I knocked myself unconscious.
“I had three weeks of severe headaches and regular trips to the doctor, and then I collapsed one day and had to go to hospital and couldn’t walk or talk.”
That was his last day working for Shell, and Sid was forced to take early retirement from the oil giant,
He spent most subsequent days at home sleeping and disorientated while doctors tried to work out what was wrong.
“I knew what word I wanted to say, but I couldn’t say it. And I knew which body part I wanted to move, but I couldn’t move it,” he explained.
A long recovery
Eventually he travelled to Singapore to get expert assessments, and begun rehabilitation.
At this time he struggled to step over an object the height of a matchbox and was only able to function for an hour or so a day.
Sid said: “I’d have to liken it to a battery on your mobile phone that is past its sell by date, and it won’t hold its charge. When you go to use it, the battery drains very quickly. The energy in my brain was so low, I had to rest and charge it all the time. But it slowly improved.”
Faced with little choice due to being unable to work, Sid and his family moved back to Aberdeen in 2019.
Since then he has been building himself back up, and poetry, and particularly repetition, has been a key part of that.
“Who I was before had disappeared, so I had to come up with a new way of doing things, and I had to programme in new norms. Poetry really helped me with that because it was my writing and I had it all recorded, but I couldn’t remember any of it.
“I realised that although I couldn’t function very well and I had to be looked after, having very silly thoughts was still very easy for me, so I tapped into that and begun to develop skills that were lying dormant in my brain.”
44 gigs for 44 years
Having come on leaps and bounds since his injury, Sid decided to set himself the goal for 2022 of performing 44 gigs to celebrate his 44th year of performing.
All but one of those gigs has now been completed, with the finale pencilled in for September 30 at Spin in Aberdeen.
“I wanted it to be at Spin,” he said, “because it was the first place I performed after my injury. My wife took me there, I had my book with me, she helped me up on stage, and I read a couple of poems. I was very shaky and completed overwhelmed when people laughed and clapped. I still had a problem with processing information, but every time I went it got easier.”
Permission to be silly
On what’s next once he has ticked off the 44th gig, Sid has a simple answer – “I’m just going to carry on.”
“I started doing some gigs in schools before lockdown. They were really enjoyable and I got a real buzz out of doing it. I met some dyslexic kids who were really switched on to what I was doing and it was really helping them. That’s what I needed when I was young and didn’t get.”
“I want to help children be who they truly are, and give them permission to be silly, while also having something to be proud of at the end of it.”
And in a world that can seem increasingly dark and gloomy, perhaps what we all need is to be silly every once in a while.
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