Part 1: A work in progress
June 1, 2013
“WHY should I let the toad work/Squat on my life?” English poet Phillip Larkin demanded, and then carried right on working, even though he was one of the few poets who could have survived on his poetry alone.
I’ve often wondered why and surmise that he feared that if he ever gave up work – he was head of Hull University’s library – he would spend his days trapped in the glare of blank pages.
There’s something to be said for the time snatched from the daily grind of work. How precious are weekends, public holidays and the occasional sickie, especially if you’re not sick. How much we detest work – until we suddenly don’t have any.
I’ve thought a lot about work recently. The same week Ford announced it would close and lay off some 2000 workers in Geelong and Broadmeadows, the newspaper company I work for decided to close down 10 newspapers, including mine.
Like the car workers, we weren’t surprised but we were shocked. Our company has been making big losses, as the internet wreaks havoc on the advertising revenue stream that used to fund news gathering. Thousands of Australian journalists have lost their jobs in the past few years.
So yes, we knew it was probably coming, and still it rocked us, as does the death of someone even when you know they’re dying. We kept waiting for a miracle and it never happened.
I felt sorry for me, and even sorrier for my younger colleagues, whose dreams are ended just a year or two after they started.
Of course we’re not the first to find our craft disappearing: coopers, weavers, blacksmiths, tailors, typesetters have all been here. Is the end of newspapers any more tragic than the end of wooden barrels or hand-woven linen? Probably not, much as we might miss the pleasures of breakfast with the paper spread in front of us.
Does it matter if journalism disappears? That’s a different question. Specialist and local websites like this one are part of the answer but they will reach increasingly fragmented audiences. There is strength in diversity but not if the twain never meets or understands what interests the other.
When “news” is written by enthusiastic amateurs more interested in opinions than facts then we’re in trouble. And yes, I know this is just my opinion.
Good journalism takes training and experience and time, and that all takes money. All eyes now are on Rupert Murdoch; if that crafty old devil can’t find a way to pay for journalism in the new order then no one can.
But back to work. My friends who have given up work are almost universally happier. Without the daily grind, they discover new interests. They look rested. They shed years.
How many people, including me, have said “If only I won Tattslotto …” But I know so many of the greatest pleasures in my life have been forced on me because I had to earn a living. So much yin and and so much yang.
I hate getting up in the dark, but I loved watching the sun rise behind the Bass hills as I drove to work.
I hated the three hours a day I spent commuting between Wonthaggi and Dandenong, but I loved some of the sights: the cows appearing eerily out of the misty fields on cold autumn mornings; the storm clouds rolling across Western Port; the wedge tailed eagles riding the draughts over the Blackwood hills.
There were weeks where I barely registered the drive because I was so deeply engrossed in an audio book: Great Expectations (again), Engleby, Be Near Me, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Crime and Punishment, To the Lighthouse … sometimes I reached work or home too soon and sat in the car to finish the chapter.
Other days when I was transported by music or poetry to which I would never have been able to give the same undivided attention at home.
My last job has been my longest – not quite five years – and one of my most pleasurable. I found myself in a seedy, run-down office full of eccentrics and has-beens (I am one of them) who still had a respect for the craft of journalism.
After years of editing, I went back to reporting and rediscovered its joys: the adrenalin rush of breaking news (we file daily to our websites); the phone call that produces an unexpected scoop; the interviewee who lingers in your mind; the struggle to interpret a story for your readers; the collaboration with other reporters, photographers, designers and subeditors; the impossibility of filling a big paper; the satisfaction when you did.
Of course, not all of it was good. You could take it easy, and still fill the paper, and sometimes I did, but there was no pleasure in it. I always knew when I’d had a good working week because I finished it deeply exhausted, often barely able to drive home.
Most people have long since left the sinking ship of journalism and learned another trade. It’s only the most stubborn – or those who found themselves unemployable in any other field – who’ve held on, hoping for a miracle.
The editions we work on in the week ahead will be our last. Some of my younger workmates cried when they heard. And then we went back to our desks and carried on working. Not for the company and probably not even for our readers, if the truth be told. We carried on working for ourselves.
Part 2: Surplus to requirements
June 16, 2013
THE humiliations of redundancy start early. Our company has arranged “career counselling” for those they are discarding. An hour after being sacked, I’m called for my session with two beautiful, tanned, blonde, young things in corporate clobber of short black skirt and jacket. Their office is at 101 Collins Street. God knows what they make of our office, an old shed in a car park in an industrial area of Dandenong, surrounded by LPG tanks, toxic tips and glue factories. Come to think of it, God knows what they make of us old hacks. They’re so nice I want to hit them.
Chelsea: “Blah, blah ... opportunities ... blah, blah … chance to reassess ... blah, blah ... career goals …”
Me, interrupting: “There’s a complication. I'm 57.”
Chelsea doesn’t miss a beat. “That's perfect! That's exactly the sort of experience employers are looking for!"
I laugh. It’s only later I think I should have said: "Name them."
They give me a work book so I can “think creatively about my career development”. The first assignment is to write what I would like my colleagues to say about me at my retirement function. The second is to write a “personal vision statement”. I chuck it in the bin.
I decide to write my own work book. So this will be an occasional diary charting what it’s like to be thrown back into the job market in late middle age. I’m hoping that if I own up to the rejections and humiliations, they won’t hurt.
My experience is far from unique. It seems that everyone I talk to has lost their job at some stage, or is hanging on by the fingertips. Several Bass Coast Post readers have written to say redundancy led them to new opportunities and horizons, but I know of people who never found another job or purpose in life and who are now bitter and depressed. Who knows which camp I’ll fall into. At the moment I’m sad for the loss of my newspaper and the very good friends I’ve made at work, but I’m also looking forward to a new adventure.
We’ve known for some time that 10 out of 11 of our newspapers will close but it wasn’t until Tuesday that we learned who would stay and who would go. Thirty-two people will lose their jobs: 19 journalists, 10 production staff and three sales consultants. The sacked sales staff are escorted off the premises, like child molesters. Nothing personal. In the sales world, paranoia rules: sales consultants are only as good as their client lists.
The journalists are less crucial to the business and so they are sacked more gently. We’re given two weeks’ notice, which means two more editions to put out. Five journalists have survived the cull and they look more stricken than the rest of us.
As a union delegate, I’ve known for several weeks that I won’t survive. Three times the city-based editorial boss has said, looking meaningfully at me, that she wants to focus on “the rising stars”. So I’m amused to see a 72-year-old subeditor is among the chosen few. They’re obviously hoping he’ll die in harness so they won’t have to pay him out for decades of service, but I don’t like their chances: he still plays cricket and looks set for a century.
The news of our demise spreads quickly in newspaper circles. A rival journalist, a friend, calls to tell me Leader has a vacancy for a reporter in the area I now cover. Like a pokies addict giving it one more desperate whirl, I email the editor to see if they’re hiring. No, she replies, kindly but firmly, no doubt drowning in a deluge of similar queries.
I’m quite relieved. In fact I have a cunning plan. While my colleagues are seeking “real” jobs, I’m going to look for the jobs that no one else wants to do. I can’t be a waitress because I don’t like people but surely things still need to be cleaned or stacked. At my age, it’s not as if it’s a life sentence.
I mention my plan to a couple of subeditors. Sridhar, a gentle and erudite Indian, shakes his head sadly. It’s hard to get a cleaning job, he says. Two of the big companies have gone broke. And he’s heard that more than 6000 people applied for the 350 jobs at the new Costco store in Ringwood.
The evening of our sackings, I see John, the contract cleaner, who’s just arrived for work. When he asks me how things are going, I say “Not so good. Thirty-two people got the sack.” His mind immediately cuts to the chase: how it will affect him. I reassure him – the office will stay open and it will still need to be cleaned.
A former councillor calls me to commiserate. He lost his job in January and warns me that it’s tough out there. I know. For the past two years, I’ve been covering the Cranbourne area where thousands of people live in a netherworld of short-term, on-call factory and “hospitality” jobs, interspersed by periods on the Newstart allowance. Often as they approach three months in a job, when they will have the right to ask for a permanent job, the boss tells them not to come in because there’s no more work.
Two days after the sackings, John, the cleaner, tells me he finishes next Friday, the same day as us. I laugh because I think it’s a joke but it’s not. With so few people left, his boss can manage the cleaning himself.
So that’s the trickle-down effect the economists keep talking about. My cleaning job is looking more remote.
Part 3: Nice work if you can get it
MY FIRST job rejection slip arrives via email the day before I actually finish work. I’ve applied to be a casual administration officer at the Bass Coast Council but I haven’t even scored an interview.
I don’t take it personally. In a small town, getting a council job is like winning Tatts. Of course I could have done the job but so could plenty
A man from the gas company arrives to mark the route of a new gas connection to a cottage that I rent out. He’s in his late 50s and whinges from the minute he arrives. “I’m not going in there!” he says, indicating the tenant’s Jack Russell. I assume he’s joking but he’s not. I say I’ll hold the dog and he enters reluctantly and glares at the house.
I expect the meter to go where the current connection is for bottled gas but it’s not that easy. He says it can’t go within a metre of a window or a flue, which rules out the side of the house. And it can’t go on the front of the house because it’s not allowed under a verandah. “There’s nowhere it can bloody go,” he says.
I suggest the back of the house, near the kitchen. He tries to find a reason it can’t go there, then gives up. “Put it where you bloody want. What do I care? I won’t be around.”
“Are you retiring?” I ask, thinking it’s about time the cantankerous old bastard called it a day.
“I’ve been sacked,” he snaps. “Thirty-four years and I’ve been bloody sacked. It’s my last day.”
"Join the club,” I say. “I’ve just been sacked too.”
But there’s no reciprocal fellow feeling. His loss is still too raw for him.
At least he makes the all-important mark on the wall before he stomps off angrily.
My reaction to losing my own job has surprised me. I’m walking in the city when I burst into tears. What the hell! It was only a job. There are others, or maybe not. Either way, I won’t die of it.
It takes me a while to locate the source of my grief: the faces of my former workmates flash before me. We were comrades in arms, each week labouring to put out 11 newspapers when a thousand things could go wrong, and did. Every week, against the odds, we pulled it off. You become so close to the people you work with. Of course I can meet up with them again, but our common purpose has gone. It’s a big chunk of your life to lose in one hit.
Once I’ve identified what it is I’ve lost, I feel a bit better. I’ve decided to go away on a road trip into country NSW to wean myself off the work treadmill. I have a vague idea of finding a small town with a “Help Wanted” sign in one window and “Room to Let” in another.
On a bleak Saturday, I book into one of two cabins at the Bombala caravan park, on the banks of the river. It’s about 5 degrees and there’s a cold mist. Apart from me, there are two men and a dog staying there. One of the men is the manager, Dale, who lives in a caravan with the little dog, which he tries to conceal. He keeps the park spotless. A visitors’ book is filled with compliments from regulars, although even they steer clear of the place in the middle of winter.
I ask Dale if he’s from Bombala and he says no, he came down from north Queensland for the climate. He used to be a sandblaster and his lungs are shot.
“The climate’s much better down here,” he says. “I’ve gone from 40 per cent to 60 per cent lung function. Plus I’ve given up the booze. I was just sitting round looking at four walls up there. Running this place gives me something to do.”
Something to do ... a purpose. As if I need reminding how much we all need that.
I drive randomly, navigating via the back roads to places with names I like: Bombala, Junee, Stockinbingal, Cootamundra, Crookwell, Bundanoon, Tomboy, Jinglemoney. The gorgeous old towns, with their grand courthouses and town halls and multiple pubs, impress me at first. They make Wonthaggi seem so temporary. But then I start to notice all the people sitting in the empty Kozy Kafes, the Patchwork Palaces, the Krazy Krafts, waiting for customers. Those grand old buildings can be a trap. At least I’ll never be tempted by a burnished copper shopfront to start up a Twinkletoes Fairy Shoppe in Wonthaggi.
At Junee, I book into the Commercial Hotel, opposite the railway station. It’s $35 a night. The barmaid warns me it’s a bit rough but I’ve seen worse. The best things are a huge verandah running along the western side outside the bedrooms, capturing the sun, and the haunting sound of the freight trains through the night. But once the sun goes down it’s desperately cold because there’s no heating in the huge, draughty old rooms.
In the residents’ kitchen, I get talking to William. Like Dale, he came down from north Queensland and he’s wearing three jumpers and a beanie to cope with the cold. He’s in his mid-40s, squat, with a low centre of gravity. He used to be a weight lifter. He went to a couple of world championships, ran gyms for a while – good ones, he says – made a bit of money, sold the gyms.
Then he got into furniture removals. They used to do two house shifts a day. It was exhausting and he loved it. “You were that stuffed. You’d have something to eat and crawl into bed. And the next day you’d wake up good as gold.”
He had a job all set up in Junee. A week after he got here, his back went. That was two months ago and he hasn’t worked since. He’s on the waiting list at Wagga for an operation to repair three slipped discs but it could be eight months’ wait. The specialist reckons he’ll be right once he has the operation, but he’ll never be able to be a furniture removalist again, or do anything very physical.
The room only costs $100 a week so he can manage. He’s bought a heater for his room. He’s reading lots of books. Every now and then he goes for a drive to one of the little towns nearby. But he’s always worked and he’s going round the bend.
“I’ve got to learn to think differently! I have to find a different way to work.” He sounds determined.
“Me too,” I say. I explain that the newspaper industry is dying. “I have to learn to think differently too.”
We end up talking about whether we mightn’t have become a bit one-track-minded about our jobs. The trouble, we agree, comes when you love what you’re doing.
“Yeah,” William says, “but we were lucky, eh. Some people never have that.”
We shake hands and wish each other well. I should have taken his phone number. I’d like to know how he goes.
I arrive in Oberon on the day the town is celebrating its 150th anniversary. At the Royal Hotel, I meet a morose concrete tank maker who’s driven six hours from Albury-Wodonga for the market. “Waste of time,” he says. “No one was buying.”
Now he and his mate, who sells sunglasses, have to wait around for another five days for the Mudgee field day. It’s cheaper to stay than drive home and come back, but in the middle of winter the days stretch boringly ahead. He’s drinking a tinny, the first of many for the evening, while his mate cooks dinner in the residents’ kitchen: steak, boiled potatoes and a salad.
Steve’s been making concrete tanks since he was 17. Now he’s 56 and at the top of his game. “I’m like a chef. I use only the very best ingredients in the concrete. Not like some of them,” he scowls. “They cut corners and then the tanks leak. They ruin it for the rest of us.”
I ask why anyone would buy a concrete tank when plastic and steel tanks are so much cheaper. “Because of all the chemicals in the plastic tanks,” he says. “That’s why the gay community’s so big.”
I think I’ve misheard and ask him to repeat it. I haven’t misheard at all. “I’d get shot if I told you what I know,” he says darkly. But then he tells me anyway. The plastic tanks leach female hormones and turn regular blokes queer. For a moment I savour the thought of all those grizzled old farmers finding themselves inexplicably attracted to the bloke next door. Steve says he’s spoken to a university lecturer who’s got the proof about the gay thing in black and white, but of course there’s a conspiracy of silence about it.
“This aluminium can’ll probably give me Alzheimer’s,” he mutters, “but I’d rather have that.”
I suddenly see that Steve and I are much the same: him rabbiting on about the dangers of plastic tanks; me whinging about the demise of newspapers. But tanks will still be made, just different ones. And journalism will still be done, just differently. Steve and I had better get used to it.
“I think you need to learn a new trade,” I say. “And so do I.”
I decide to turn around. Home is calling. It’s time to get on with things.
Part 4: It takes a village to find a job
July 16, 2013
ABOUT six weeks after I lose my job, I finally see what I’ve been looking for, on the window of a little Brunswick Street café. “HELP WANTED: Dishwasher/kitchen hand. Three days a week. Apply within.”
Perfect. It could have been written for me. It’s lunchtime and I can see they’re busy so I come back about 4pm. When I walk in the staff are cleaning up. “We’re closed,” says the young woman at the counter.
“I’ve come about the dishwashing job,” I say. The woman stares at me. She doesn’t say anything and I can’t read her expression. “I like washing dishes,” I reassure her.
There are two young men, one at the stove and one at a sink, and they’re looking at me oddly too. “Three days is good for me,” I say. I’m the only one talking. “What?” I want to ask. “What’s wrong?”
Finally the woman speaks. “Email us a CV,” she says.
A CV to wash dishes? I bow out, defeated. It’s only as I’m walking down the street that I realise what’s wrong. They didn’t just want someone to wash the dishes and peel the carrots. This is Brunswick Street. The hipster staff, even the ones washing dishes, are part of the brand, and I’m too old. They think I’m a bag lady.
In my mind I hear the voice of my niece, Megan, like most 18-year-olds an authority on degrees of un-cool. She’s shaking her head and saying, “Shame, Aunty! Shame!”
It’s a reminder that I need to be realistic. It’s the reason I haven’t applied for any jobs in journalism. There are too few jobs and too many hundreds of hungry applicants. The thought of trying to compete with them for a job is too depressing. Instead I’ve decided to do an aged care course, even though I’m old enough to live in one of those “retirement villages” marketed at the “over-55s”. At least old people are a growth industry. Not much chance of being made redundant.
And then, reader, I found a job, or rather a Bass Coast Post reader found a job for me. In fact Post readers found three jobs for me. It turns out they were much better at finding me a job than I was.
Rosemary Loughnan emails me to tell me the editor of the Warragul Gazette, a friend of hers, is looking for someone to cover for a maternity leave for a year. Rosemary has mentioned my name to her.
The same week, Robin Dzedins emails to tell me she’s mentioned my name to a senior reporter on an independent group of papers on the Mornington Peninsula. Their papers are booming, thanks to the demise of the group of papers I worked on. We talk, and there are good prospects of work once they work out where they’re going.
The following week, Pauline Wilkinson calls me to say the Cranbourne plant nursery where she works is taking on people and she’s put in a word for me.
Suddenly, just as I was growing anxious, the wheels are turning. There’s an old expression: “It takes a village to raise a child.” After my experience, I reckon it sometimes takes a village to find a job. Thank you, Rosemary, Robin and Pauline, and to the others who contacted me with suggestions.
I go to Warragul to meet the Gazette editor, Carolyn Turner. It’s a family-owned paper, one of the few independents left in Australia. We discuss the job – some subbing, some layout, some reporting. “Editorial shares the layout with the production staff,” Carolyn says. “Otherwise we would have had to lay off people.”
I laugh in disbelief. A small family-owned group feels it has a responsibility to its long-serving employees! Remarkable indeed in an age when newspapers all over the world are sacking employees in their thousands.
I’ve thought a lot about work over the past couple of months, what it means and why we do it, apart from the obvious answer of needing to earn a living. I’ve just finished reading the memoirs of the writer, publisher and political activist Leonard Woolf. In the final volume, which he wrote in the 1960s when he was in his late 80s, he added up all the hours he had put into work in his lifetime, much of it detailed committee and policy work for the Labour Party, and assessed it at around 200,000. And then he commented that all the work he had done so conscientiously in the causes of world peace and ending poverty had made not the slightest bit of difference to the progress of the world.
He said this not in a spirit of depression but in a spirit of wisdom. We shouldn’t kid ourselves that what we do matters but it still has some value.
I like the structure of work: the having to get up and go, the difference between work days and weekends. I like the democracy of the workplace, being thrown into close association with people I would never have met otherwise and perhaps wouldn’t have liked if I had, the friendships and the creativity engendered by the exchange of ideas. I love the collaboration of a good workplace and the buzz of deadlines.
I start my new job on the Warragul Gazette in a couple of weeks. Now that my days of idleness are numbered, I can’t help noticing how precious they are.