Working on big issues

FOR A COUPLE of years in the mid-1990s, I worked out of an office overlooking Times Square. Sounds of the midtown-Manhattan traffic, many floors below, were screened out by huge windows, which, when it grew dark, offered spectacular views of the neon advertising signs and the lights of the fast-flowing canyons of traffic. Not infrequently, I abandoned all pretence of work. I'd just sit there at my desk, gazing out at the view, knowing that this couldn't and wouldn't last, and that I'd never again have such an extravagant office.

I was right.

Even before my term was up as New York correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, the bean-counters had grown restless and the downsizing began. The operation moved to a less scenic location a few blocks from Grand Central Station. At street level there was a pizza shop; depending on the wind and quirks of the building's air-conditioning, we'd often get a blast of capricciosa or pepperoni late in the day. Yet still it was not exactly a hardship posting – how could it be with the stone lions outside the New York Public Library or the squirrels of Central Park within easy walking distance?

Now it's not unusual for my working days to begin with a minute or two spent brushing mouse shit off my desk, though I sometimes have to delay this while I twiddle with the bare light bulb above to get it to stay on. I work in a bluestone building that dates from the mid-nineteenth century: it's a heritage building and lovely to look at (from outside), but it often seems that much of the building's wiring and plumbing is only slightly more recent than its foundations. I know all about the plumbing: a toilet, used by many people, is next to my office. The computer I sit at is elderly and regularly shuts down without warning. Oh yes – the building has no air-conditioning, which makes working conditions interesting in the extremes of summer and winter.

Nevertheless, I feel more at home as editor of The Big Issue, the fortnightly magazine sold on streets around Australia by marginalised people, than I did for much of my time working in the mainstream media.

Part of the reason for this lies in the flip response I developed for those who ask me what it's like to go from somewhere like The Age – where I was on staff for eighteen years, on and off – to The Big Issue. ‘Well,' I reply, ‘you meet a better class of people.'

That usually prompts a snigger, but there's also some truth in it. One problem I had working for Fairfax was an unsettling suspicion that my labour was helping to make some fairly ordinary types even wealthier or more prominent. (The appalling Conrad Black was my putative boss for a bizarre period in the 1990s.) At The Big Issue, I mix daily with the people who sell the magazine: people who are or have been homeless; people battling substance-abuse problems; people with mental illness; people doing it tough for all kinds of reasons, including disability. They are people, across the country, who buy the magazine for $2.50 per copy from our offices or outlets like The Body Shop, then go out to try to sell them for $5.

But the magazine doesn't just represent money for the vendors. I realised that early in my time as editor, which began in November 2006, when I asked a Melbourne vendor how many magazines he hoped to sell that day. ‘Eight,' he replied. I quickly did the maths: the cover-price was then $4; eight sales meant a profit of $16, enough for cigarettes and not much more. But those eight magazines gave this bloke a sense of purpose and, importantly, something to do with his time. Days drag when you're unemployed. Those eight magazines represented a goal, which is why few workers ever look more pleased with themselves than a vendor who has sold his last magazine for the day. And it is work. Try it sometime: stand in a public place trying to interest passers-by in something you're selling – especially when everyone's feeling squeezed and daily papers are given away for free.

There are all kinds of reasons why people end up selling The Big Issue. It's often described as the magazine sold by homeless people. That's simplistic. Only some sleep rough. I don't know where most of the vendors (the vast majority of whom are men) spend their nights, nor is it my business to pry. But I generally only have to chat to a vendor for a few minutes to get a sense of why they are selling the magazine rather than doing something else. Most would struggle to hold down a ‘regular' job, which is why The Big Issue is so important: it offers employment to those who would otherwise be jobless. Some vendors are quite entrepreneurial: they have sales spiels and put on a show for prospective customers. Their income can reflect their salesmanship. Others do little more than stand or sit with the magazine on display. They are the ones I admire the most. And they are used to being ignored. People, especially in cities, are good at not seeing things. They stream past a vendor with that blinkered look that says ‘I'm not sure what you're selling, but I don't want any.' The biggest frustration, both for vendors and all of us working on the magazine, is that the Australian edition has existed for close to thirteen years now and yet too many people still aren't sure what it is. I hear myself saying all the time: ‘No, it's not a greenie magazine.' (Or a leftie magazine. Or a union magazine. Certainly not the Scientologists' magazine.) It's simply a lively, general-interest magazine that exists to help those who sell it – a task that's becoming harder rather than easier.


LATE LAST YEAR, when the world's 'global financial crisis' crept into common use, someone said to me, ‘Well, your blokes aren't going to be affected, are they?' When I asked what he meant, he continued: ‘Well, the magazine sellers don't have mortgages; don't have super funds; don't have share portfolios going backwards. They're insulated from all this, aren't they?' No they're not. They've been hit, like everyone else. In 2007, we set records for magazine sales; last year, figures started to dip. End-of-year sales picked up again (the Christmas spirit is not dead), but this year will be tough. Our sales are influenced by everything from bad weather to public-transport problems and holidays, but it seems clear that many people who, twelve months ago, would hand over $5 for a magazine without a second thought are now hanging on to it. Everyone, in different ways, is feeling the pinch, including our vendors. It wouldn't surprise me if some of the same people who, not long ago, walked past vendors without a second glance will have to consider the magazine as an employment option one day. It's happening already: tough times can make the unimaginable worth considering.

I didn't become aware of The Big Issue myself until I returned to Australia from New York in September 1998. (The first edition had hit the Melbourne streets two years earlier.) From my first encounter, it struck me as a brilliantly simple and practical idea: a magazine that directly helped those who sold it. I started buying copies whenever I saw a vendor, though often I'd hand over the coins in the same way I might give money to a busker or beggar: it was essentially a feel-good purchase, and I might only skim the magazine later. When I did read it, however, I'd often be impressed by the content: this was a magazine with personality and presence. I learned a little more about it; visited the bluestone office (donated, rent-free, by the Wesley Mission) to write a newspaper article on a literacy program being run for vendors and friends. This was an outfit with a clear sense of purpose.

But it wasn't until some years later, in 2003, that I actually got involved – after I'd finally left my staff position at The Age. There were several reasons for this, and only in retrospect is it apparent that I was wrestling with the notion of work, and what I really wanted to do. At the time, the most obvious reason for walking away from a secure, well-paid job was a delayed case of foreign correspondent's syndrome: after being out of the country for several years, reporting on stories like a US presidential campaign, it can be hard to feel engaged by domestic politics and events. There was also a sense of covering the same events again and again, of measuring out my life with Melbourne Cups or Australian Opens. I wasn't even sure that I wanted to be a journalist any longer.

I was fascinated by the career arc of a feature-writer I'd admired as a teenager in the 1970s, when I first started to get interested in papers. With great style, this bloke rode the wave of the so-called ‘new journalism', then walked away from it all and moved to the country to try life as a restaurateur. Later I read a story in which someone asked him why he'd done this. His answer? ‘I didn't want to keep asking people questions.' That was how I felt in 2003. There was another factor, too: my second novel had just been published, sparking a (short-lived) burst of interest. I was attending literary festivals not as a reporter but, rather, a guest. I was done with journalism; I was going to be an author.

Well, not just an author. I wrote a letter to The Big Issue, saying I'd always admired the publication and its purpose, and could I help? In response, the editor called. She'd be pleased to have me contribute some pieces, she said, but did I appreciate that they paid crap? That was fine; I wasn't doing it for the money. A little later, when I was contributing fortnightly columns for the magazine, I visited the office to meet her. I arrived on time at the bluestone building, announced myself and waited. Then waited some more. This was odd. I became conscious of a muffled banging from somewhere above. A young woman came down from upstairs, with an expression that seemed like a mixture of amusement and embarrassment. Sorry, I was told, the editor was locked inside the toilet. Seems she'd popped in for a quick visit before coming down to see me, only to have the door handle fall off. All that banging had been her trying to attract attention so she could get out.

Six years on, that visit seems like the perfect introduction to life at The Big Issue. Now I'm the editor, I sit in a small room next to that toilet, and I regularly tell people that I'd love to have them contribute some pieces, but did they appreciate that we pay crap? Six years ago, I wouldn't have anticipated this. After all, wasn't I going to be an author? Yes I was, until I discovered, predictably, that it wasn't as easy as it looks.

Other things were going on, too: my father, who'd already been in a nursing home for several years, inexorably slipped further down the ghastly slippery-dip of dementia. When I'd visit him I'd leave in despair; when I didn't visit I'd feel guilty. In between visits (or non-visits) I'd struggle with the next book, which had become a problem-child. In the scheme of things, spending too much time on my own talking only to the dog was not very healthy. My father's death in mid-2005 marked an end-point for all kinds of things, not least those incessant visits.

When it was all over, my sister and I looked at each other and asked: what did people do with their weekends? Suddenly I had more time. One thing I did with it was get more involved with The Big Issue and its people. I started going in once a fortnight to assist with proofreading, went along to Wednesday-afternoon soccer sessions, where my role was to prove to the motley mob who attended that none of them was the worst player on the pitch. No, that was me. Over time, I realised I was gravitating to the ‘Ish' and its people; there was something there – commitment, idealism, a sense of fun – I'd often found missing in mainstream journalism.

I was doing some of that again, too. I'd reconciled myself to the idea that journalism was essentially my trade. Some people are plumbers. Others are nurses. My trade was journalism, and there were worse things to do. Having wondered, in 2003, if I'd done my final interview, I headed out again with a notebook and tape-recorder for a magazine feature. Despite some early misgivings, it wasn't so bad. I felt like a footballer who'd missed a season with a bung knee and then found he quite liked being out on the field again, chasing a kick. Meanwhile, I'd also started volunteering.

IT WAS PLANNED as a one-off excursion on a weekend morning, nothing more. I took my youngest son to the Collingwood children's farm, just a few kilometres from Melbourne's business centre. For many city kids it's their only chance to see sheep and cows and goats. Parents like it too: for a couple of hours they can pretend they're in the country. Our outing went okay, though Gus had seen quite enough animals after an hour or two. Before we left, though, and without much thought, I'd scribbled down some details under a notice headed Volunteers Wanted. Then I followed it up and went along for an introductory session. They made it clear they wanted a degree of commitment, not just blow-ins who wouldn't show up again after a session or two. I nominated Friday afternoons as my preferred time: seemed like a good way to end a working week after too much time sitting at a desk.

So I became a part-time farmer. I helped weed the veggie garden; I shovelled shit, working my way around paddocks with a wheelbarrow; I bottle-fed newborn lambs; I learned to milk a cow (badly). After I'd been there for a while I was accepted, trusted with keys and a bit more responsibility. I enjoyed myself, coming home filthy but pleasantly tired.

The fact that I was earning nothing for my labour didn't bother me. On the contrary, it was immensely liberating not to be putting a monetary value on my time. Occasionally, my different worlds overlapped. I was doing some freelance pieces for The Age; one afternoon, a section editor rang to discuss an assignment while I was in a paddock. He said his piece, paused, then asked: ‘Can I hear sheep?' Yep, I replied. I couldn't tell if he'd put down the phone envying my outdoor life or just shake his head sadly and tell my former colleagues that, clearly, I'd lost it.

Then, one afternoon, my duties changed dramatically. I was checking in with the woman who normally gave me my weekly task when another staff member came by, obviously looking for someone. Seeing me there, waiting, she asked if I had any problem working with disabled people. Not at all, I replied, though I wasn't sure what I was letting myself in for. I had been vaguely aware of a group that came on Friday afternoons: people in wheelchairs, a couple of Down syndrome blokes, others with callipers or walking frames and one big, noisy fellow who charged around a lot. They were all there for supervised outings, but our paths had rarely crossed – until then, when my Fridays became Afternoons With Paul.

Paul was, of course, the big, noisy fellow who charged around a lot. My job was to be his minder: to work with him closely, ensure he didn't get into trouble (given half a chance he'd slip away, find a kitchen and scoff whole jars of sugar or instant coffee) and, most importantly, tire him out a bit. A few hours of physical labour in the afternoon would make him more docile in the evening. So we chopped trees together, dug out roots, attacked huge compost-heaps with shovels. And all the while Paul would ask about the timing of afternoon tea. Same as last week, I'd reply. ‘Four bloody o'clock.' Then he'd ask me again. A grown man, heavier than me, he was like a big kid. And we became a team. I'd hear him calling out my name when the group arrived and made their way down the driveway, Paul pushing one of the wheelchairs none too gently in his eagerness to start work.

It wasn't the sort of thing I'd ever planned. But I was surprised how satisfying it was. I learned that the last thing these people wanted was sympathy. They'd much rather laugh than be patronised or pitied. I'd joke with one guy about his Elvis sunnies; abuse another about his choice of football scarf; grew complicit with Paul in some of his minor crimes. (I told him one day that the supervisors would never believe his insistence that he hadn't got at the staff Nescafé, because there was a bloody great coffee ring around his mouth. Then I helped him wipe it off.)

My time at the farm – especially time spent with Paul and his mates – turned out to be perfect preparation for working with Big Issue vendors, with their myriad problems. Ironically, I had to give up one to do the other. I left the farm on my last Friday afternoon with considerable pangs, some of which were eased later when I learned that Paul, whom I was sure would miss me, apparently adapted remarkably quickly to my absence. Within weeks he was singing out ‘Julia!' just as eagerly as he'd ever called my name.

Now that Barack Obama has emphasised the importance of ‘community service' – one of his last acts before becoming president was to help paint a homeless shelter – my own experience as a volunteer seems significant.


MY CONTRIBUTION TO the farm was minor: one afternoon a week only goes so far. But that time helped shape some of my thoughts about work. In retrospect, much of that period between leaving The Agein 2003 and starting as editor of The Big Issue late in 2006, with my father's death falling in between, was spent doing some hard thinking about what I really wanted to do. Working for nothing at the farm, or as a fortnightly proofreader for the magazine, made it easier to go backwards (in terms of salary) when I took on the editor's job. That wasn't hard; after all, if money was what mattered most, I would never have left The Age. Staying somewhere just for the pay has always struck me as a slow death. It dismays me that several of my former colleagues, who couldn't call themselves happy in their jobs, have accepted this as their fate.

Looking back on a career path distinguished by several detours and a dead-end or two, it is clear that I've always been ambivalent about the nature of full-time work. And I've never been as concerned about pay as I probably should have been. Earning buckets of money has never been a priority. In fact, it has always seemed to me that huge salaries come at a high cost. It's simple: if someone is paying you ridiculous sums of money, they have the right to believe that they have bought you.

The summer of 1977-78, before I started at The Age, was spent as a labourer/ beach-bum in Mallacoota, near the Victoria-NSW border. I was helping a bloke who ran some holiday flats and did some abalone-diving. In return for odd jobs, supplemented by shifts at the local abalone processing plant, I had free board in a tiny caravan without wheels at the back of his property. For transport, I had a bicycle; for clothes, I needed nothing more than tee-shirt, shorts and thongs.

This was my life when a message was relayed via my employer: ring The Age. I made the call from a public phone in Mallacoota's main street. I was being offered a coveted cadetship – on the strength of cuttings I'd sent in from the uni paper. But I guessed that the personnel manager on the other end of the line could sense my ambivalence when I learned that suit and tie would be required. ‘I suppose that means I have to wear shoes, too,' I said. He thought that was a fine joke, so I decided it was wise not to let on I hadn't worn shoes for months. Standing in that phone box, with my bike leaning against it, I understood that my life was about to change dramatically, most likely forever. I was going to enter the workforce.

I got used to it. Sort of. Then again, after two and a half years I took a year's leave of absence to travel overseas, the sort of thing I possibly should have done before starting a uni course in which I really had no interest. Less than five years after coming back from overseas – having, by then, learned a truth of corporate life, that to advance you often have to leave – I quit and went to work somewhere else.

Down the track a little way, after marriage and fatherhood, I went part time – first to look after a child, then for good when I realised I preferred working from home to working in an office. And that's how it's been for much of my time since. Let's just say that over thirty-one years I've only once stayed long enough to earn long-service leave.

It may also be significant that my first day back from that long-service leave was the day I quit for good. A bit of perspective can be a very dangerous thing. I returned to my old desk, looked around, and at once it was perfectly clear: I didn't want to be there any more. I recall another moment of epiphany. This was in the US, I'm guessing around 1997. I was in transit in one of the huge hub airports, possibly Chicago, rushing from Gate 17 to Gate 53B. Suddenly I stopped and looked around, and was horrified by what I saw. There were hundreds and hundreds of people looking just like me: hurrying, hassled, with an overnight-bag on one shoulder, laptop on the other, and worried looks on their faces. This was no way to live your life. And it probably explains why, after I returned to Australia and a well-meaning editor tried to enthuse me with the prospect of further travel, that I told him I didn't want to go anywhere for a while. You see so much more when you're sitting still.

One last moment of lucidity – this time from my early days at The Age. I was waiting at the lifts. A door opened; a small group of people came out and shuffled away silently. When I commented on their lack of animation and the greyness of them all, I was told that these were members of the ‘25-Year Club' – long-serving staff members who'd been upstairs enjoying one of the perks of club membership, an annual sherry with the managing director. They seemed such a dispirited bunch that I resolved never to stay in one place long enough to earn twenty-five-year drinks.

As things have panned out, I've never been in danger of that. And I suspect fewer and fewer people ever get there. Once it was commonplace for people to stay in one place for much of their working lives; for a journalist to start as a copy-boy or girl and then, many years later, make it to editor or the ranks of senior management. Now it's expected that people will chop and change jobs and the concept of corporate loyalty seems as quaint as telex machines. These days, staff are more likely to be offered redundancy than invited upstairs for sherry. I know, too, that if a job application hit my desk from someone who'd been in the one place even for ten or fifteen years I might admire their steadfastness, but I'd also be asking questions about their lack of initiative and imagination.

ONE THING WAS clear to me from the earliest days at The Big Issue: I was there because I wanted to be. Being an editor is like being a footy coach. You can be sacked any time. It's an occupational hazard. If it happens to me, I'll simply move along. Then again, I may well run out of gas before anyone comes into my tiny office with some bad news. The same things that make the job challenging – the magazine being understaffed and under-resourced – can also make it exhausting. But there's something very satisfying and rewarding in working with people who could probably be earning more money elsewhere and are there, at least in part, out of affinity to a cause. I've never heard less whingeing in a workplace, which is ironic considering that the people often have more reason than most to complain. Maybe this is because there are usually vendors around the place to remind us that, in the scheme of things, a lack of flywire on an open windows or a flaky PC is really pretty small beer.

Others in our building have more to do with vendors and their welfare than me. I chat with many of the vendors, but my main role, plain and simple, is to ensure that a new magazine is ready every fortnight. My job is to give them something to sell. That's their job. And most are proud to do it. These people who have battled all kinds of demons in their lives have work, and something to do with their days. That's no small thing.

They are not always appreciative of our efforts. One morning, popping out for a coffee, I said ‘hi' to one of the more cantankerous vendors and was dumped on in response. Well, I thought, walking away, this sucks. But I also recall another occasion, when a conversation with a different Big Issue veteran ended with him saying, quite softly, ‘Thanks for what you're doing for us.' Those few words were more satisfying than any sherry upstairs with the MD. And can make mouse shit seem like nothing much at all.

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