First and final warning: The time I nearly got fired for doing my job

Recently, whilst browsing an old folder on an external hard drive, I came across a copy of a warning letter I received – my first and only one to date – almost 10 years ago.

I had completely forgotten about it, even though at the time it set off a boiling and bubbling rage inside me.

I received the warning three years into a stint at a publishing company in Sydney where I was then the managing editor of two mortgage broking titles.

first snippet

Up until then it had been a largely enjoyable job (and I still have mostly fond memories).

I ran a small team of reporters and there was a good collegiate atmosphere among fellow editors and journalists.

I did a fair bit of the writing and also penned a popular industry gossip column called Insider that put a satirical slant on some of the more colourful aspects of what was then a largely unregulated and lively industry.

Then one winter’s morning in early June it came as a great shock to be called into a meeting without any prior warning to be hauled over the coals and threatened with the sack.

Perhaps because I was so shocked and angry,  I don’t remember what was specifically said at the meeting.

The letter, which I had scanned and saved for some reason, filled in the blanks.

Beginning with a “first and final warning” management expressed its disappointment at my “editorial approach” on a “few recent occasions”.

In particular, there were concerns about two stories I had written in the Insider section “that explicitly criticised Westpac for poor customer service. These had been withdrawn at the last-minute”.

Similarly a reader’s letter which criticised St. George Bank “an advertiser” was pulled whilst another article which was critical of the Commonwealth Bank was altered lest it upset an “advertiser/sponsor”.

The last example related to PLAN Australia, a mortgage aggregator now part of National Australia Bank that advertised heavily in both publications.

The then CEO (with whom I’d had a good relationship with till then) complained to management after his company ranked poorly in a survey of them and their competitors.

Such was the outrage of this particular CEO that both the managing director and sales director had to fly to Melbourne to “smooth things over”.

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I suspect that it was after this trip, which I was entirely unaware of, that it was decided that I be set straight. Up untl then, no issues had been raised about how I put together the publications, or my management style.

The warning letter made the point a number of times that it was part of my role to “drive” or “fulfil” the “commercial objectives” of the publications.

As an editor and not a publisher or salesman, I understood this to mean to put together a quality publication that everyone in the industry read – not just dollop out flattering articles about advertisers.

In the past, there had been some tension between my somewhat idealistic notion that editorial and sales remain independent and the company view that advertising in the papers gave you a kind of protected status in its publications.

My view was that the publications attracted advertisers if they were well read and influential, not just by publishing fluff and drivel.

Perhaps there was some middle ground I didn’t see, but it was still greatly disappointing to me that the company had chosen not to defend a long-standing editor, but instead take the side of prickly banks and mortgage firms with their bulging cheque books.

In light of the Royal Commission finding into the financial services industry and the conduct of the banks, perhaps it is not that surprising that these financial institutions believed a bulging cheque book washed away all sins, an attitude that was seemingly not discouraged by my employer.

The outcome of both the verbal and written warning was that I was told to find “new angles and approaches” to stories or in some cases “avoid them entirely” (if presumably they were of a negative nature and involved an advertiser).

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To add insult to injury, my end of year bonus scheme which in the past had been based on meeting all my deadlines, something entirely within my control, was changed to one based on both publication’s hitting their “six monthly sales targets’ – a metric over which I had absolutely no control.

Surprisingly (well maybe not, I needed a pay cheque) I stuck around until March the following year,  when I left the company to go traveling with my wife, after we got married in January.

It’s interesting looking back on that day almost 10 years later in light of how my career has progressed, especially the last five-and-a half years, writing for a national newspaper (The Australian Financial Review), where editorial independence is taken for granted  – where journalists write stories and sales people sell ads. I believe that is the way it should be, in all cases. Publications that break that golden rule should disclose it to their readers, and not claim to be independent and objective reporters and observers..

The warning letter also triggered another memory.

In early 2011, back from a year travelling around the world and almost broke, I  was earnestly looking for full-time employment.

I put in a myriad of job applications for journalism roles, and was lucky enough to secure a few interviews including one with the publisher of an adventure magazine.

The interview was in one of those trendy converted warehouse in South Melbourne with the magazine’s publishers – an equally trendy man and woman duo.

I didn’t get the job – perhaps the publishers sensed I wasn’t really that enthusiastic about reporting on cross-country skiing  – but what I remember most vividly was a question I was asked.

It went something like this: Was I comfortable with the fact that the cover of the magazine was chosen, not by the editor or publisher, but by an advertiser?

Desperate for a job, I said I was, but my insides twisted into knots at the thought that this consumer magazine was essentially glorified advertorial, without of course telling paying readers that.

Looking back I am grateful I was never offered the role. I am also glad I stuck to my guns at my earlier role and tried to always report accurately and independently.

Hopefully readers appreciated it too.

 

Serial, The Teacher’s Pet, Dirty John and Phoebe’s Fall: reviewing the best True Crime podcasts

The recent arrest of Chris Dawson charged with the murder of his former wife Lyn in 1982, not only re-opened Australia’s most famous cold case, but shone the spotlight on arguably the most successful of the podcast genres: true crime.

Indeed were it not for the investigative podcast The Teacher’s Pet, written and narrated by The Australian journalist Hedley Thomas, the arrest of the former rugby league star nearly 38 years after his wife vanished from Sydney’s Northern Beaches, might never have happened.

Not only did the podcast re-open public interest in the case, but it also unearthed fresh evidence that helped the NSW Director of Public Prosecutions finally lay murder charges and pave the way for what may very well be the trial of the century, at least in Australia anyway, when it kicks off sometime in 2020.

Podcasts have certainly subverted the true crime genre, which had been dominated for decades by journalistic books, documentaries and movies.

For me, from my early twenties, it was true crime books that provided a way into the darkly fascinating minds of the criminally deranged.

I think this interest started with London’s Jack The Ripper (I read The Complete Jack The Ripper by Donald Rumbelow in about 1994 after going on Rumbelow’s grisly Whitechapel Tour), and then expanded into literary crime classics like 10 Rillington Place by Ludovic Kennedy (about the London serial killer John Christie), Killing for Company by Brian Masters (about London necrophile Dennis Nilsen), The Stranger Beside Me by Anne Rule (about her former friend, the American serial killer Ted Bundy) and of course, In Cold Blood by Truman Capote, plus many, many more.

(This interest was supported by my reading of Detective Crime fiction including many Ian Rankin novels featuring his beer loving Edinburgh detective John Rebus.)

This is undoubtedly a gross generalisation, but I still think a well-written true crime book stands head and shoulders above any podcast.

But I have also found myself drawn to this new form of true crime storytelling, which when done well offers a potent and highly addictive mix of entertainment, storytelling, investigation and information.

Having recently finished listening to The Teacher’s Pet (I enjoyed a pleasing email exchange with Hedley Thomas), and having listened to a whole bunch of them, this is how I would rank them from best to least favourite:

  1. Dirty John

dirty-john-crime-podcastProduced by the LA Times and written and narrated by Pulitzer Prize-nominated journalist Christopher Goffard, Dirty John is the most polished, thrilling, insightful and entertaining true crime podcast (actually any genre) I have listened to so far.  To briefly summarise the plot, it investigates a charming, but violent con-artist called John Neeham who wormed himself into the life of a wealthy but lonely Los Angeles interior designer, Debra Newell posing as a successful surgeon. The script is punchy, the story of love, deception, denial and cunning beautifully told, the cast of characters fascinating and the ending shocking . Best of all, Dirty John runs to just six intense episodes of between 36 and 47 minutes so there’s no unnecessary waffling. Every minute is filled with intrigue.  Such has been the success of Dirty John that it was made into a TV series starring Hollywood star Eric Bana while Christopher Goffard has gone on a world tour about the podcast. I cannot recommend this podcast more highly.

Rating: 5 stars

2. Serial (Season 1)

serial podcastMuch of the foundations for the success of True Crime podcasts is owed to the first season of Serial, which aired in 2014. The first blockbuster true crime podcast, Serial examined the 1999 Baltimore murder of high school student Hae Min Lee and the conviction of her football jock boyfriend Adnan Syed. The podcast was created and hosted by Sarah Koenig and Julie Snyder of This American Life, one of the most syndicated radio shows in the world. The Serial hosts interviewed the key people associated with the case (friends, witnesses, dodgy characters) and created plausible doubt regarding Syed’s conviction and helped win him a retrial. Koenig and Snyder are consummate story tellers and their passion for the case made it a hit. Season 2 of Serial was dreadfully boring (I didn’t even last one full episode) and the third season is apparently even worse. But the first season is among the best of the genre.

Rating: 4.5 stars

3. Phoebe’s Fall

phoebe-s-fallWritten and narrated by The Age journalists Richard Baker and Michael Bachelard, Phoebe’s Fall investigated the perplexing 2010 death of 24-year-old Melbourne woman Phoebe Handsjuk, whose body was found at the bottom of a garbage chute of a luxury apartment tower. Both Baker and Bachelard are renowned investigative journalists and they drew on all their experience to examine the circumstances of this bizarre and tragic case including whether it was even possible for someone to lower themselves into a narrow chute (the coroner ruled death by accident) and whether it was more likely Handsjuk was pushed. Apart from uncovering new evidence, Phoebe’s Fall is also extremely polished, yet also has a gonzo-style journalism feel to it as the hosts head out into the field to test out their theories. Each episode is as long as it needs to be and there’s no waffling on by the hosts.

Rating: 4 stars

4. The Teacher’s Pet

whooshkaa-podcast-imageReaders of this post may be surprised that I ranked The Teacher’s Pet below the other three given its huge global success (27 million or so downloads), the fact that it won the Gold Walkley, the most prestigious prize in Australian journalism and the heaps of new evidence it uncovered that led to the arrest recently of Chris Dawson, charged with the murder of his wife. Taken in its entirety, it is a brilliant investigation and deserves all the accolades it has received and I highly recommend it. But my biggest issue is its rambling nature and the lengthy episodes (some over 2 hours). There is far too much unnecessary stuff (pointless telephone conversations etc.) and I believe the podcast would have been even better with some severe editing. It felt like a bit of a marathon getting through it all especially the final few episodes, which for me took away some of its gloss and power.

Rating: 3.5 stars

5. Sword & Scale

sword and scaleThis bi-weekly American podcast is hugely popular, but suffers from a bombastic host (Mike Boudet) who has a tendency to sensationalize everything in an overly obvious attempt to keep listeners in suspense and who makes himself the star of the podcast rather than the cases themselves. The episodes are also overly long and unlike the aforementioned podcasts is not really an investigative show, but retells macabre and interesting cases. These criticism aside, it’s still a pretty entertaining podcast and well produced.

Rating: 3 stars

6. Casefile

casefileReaders of this blog will know my history with the anonymous (or not so anonymous) host of this Australian podcast, which has become a huge international hit.  Setting aside my own personal squabble, I’ve ranked Casefile at the bottom because it is not an investigative podcast in any real sense, but merely retells famous as well as more obscure true crime cases with a creepy voiced narrator and eerie ambient music. In my opinion the success of this podcast outweighs its content, which at times feels like nothing more than a reading out loud of a Wikipedia entry. No doubt millions of fans will disagree. Readers are better off reading a true crime book.

Rating: 2.5 stars

A note to readers: I would love to know of other true crime podcasts to listen to. Please send me your suggestions.

 

 

The tyranny of the smartphone (and how I learnt to overcome it)

xperia_X2_Women_talking_on_phone_5There’s an ominous warning at my children’s aquatic centre in Gisborne, where they go for swimming lessons once a week.

Two photographs displayed side by side on a sign below the lifeguard’s station show a young child swimming happily underwater and next to the child a photo of a mobile phone.

The message under the gleefully swimming child reads “MAKE SURE YOU FOCUS ON THIS”, and under the mobile phone “NOT THIS”.

Ironically,  many of the intended recipients of this warning – parents who bring their children to swim at the centre – pay little attention to it because they’re so busy tapping away on their mobile devices.

It can take less than a minute for a child to drown – about how long it takes to read and reply to a text message or open a couple of apps.

I don’t of course take a high and mighty position on this worrying evolutionary behaviour – were it not for the fact that I swim with my kids when they have their lessons, I too might be at risk of doing the very same thing.

Indeed, up until relatively recently, I would say I was as addicted to my smartphone as anyone else.

Not only my wife, but my kids would notice my compulsion with constantly checking my phone for messages, or news, or fresh tweets.

In the 24 hour news cycle, amid the constant updates on social media as people share the minutiae of their lives or spout opinions on every possible topic of the day, the smartphone is the gift that keeps on giving.

Or should I say curse?

What kind of a society have we created whereby two people, in a seemingly loving relationship, can sit across from one another in a restaurant and not say a single word to each other, but instead have their heads glued to a little screen, their fingers typing away.

How we cling to our phones like safety blankets to shake off the boredom of living.

It’s the first thing anyone seems to do when they having nothing to do: they pull out their smartphone and start tapping away. I see it when I wait for my train in the mornings, and on the one hour train journey into work.

I see people scrolling through Facebook feeds whilst waiting at traffic lights and often incredibly, while they are driving their cars as they glance down into their laps.

One can only wonder how many people walk into traffic, trip over objects, fall down hills or end up in all sorts of embarrassing accidents because they were distracted by their phones. 

It must be in the millions every day.  According to statistics portal Statista, the number of smartphone users around the world has risen to 2.5 billion out of a global population of 7.7 billion (almost one in three people) and will hit 2.9 billion by 2020.

I remember well what happened in 2013 to a tourist visiting Melbourne who plunged off a pier into the icy waters of Port Phillip Bay whilst looking at Facebook on her phone. She was rescued by police, still clutching that very device.

I also found this viral video clip of a guy in downtown Oklahoma who stood and was bitten by a snake he stepped on, which he failed to notice – whilst texting on his phone.

There are many more examples you can find online.

No doubt such an embarrassing fate awaited me until, one day, whilst with my kids in the park, my attention constantly darting to my phone, an idea popped into my head from the cosmos.

The idea was this: I would abandon my iPhone and buy one of those old-style flip phones they market to older people with the big buttons (or I’d just buy one on eBay), and then the only things I would use my phone for – or could use it for -would be to make and receive phone calls and send text messages.

It would be like going back to a more simpler time, without the distraction of constant updates, when I could focus on the here and now, be with my family in body and mind, not just an empty vessel.

I almost leapt out of the metaphorical bath screaming “Eureka” at my brilliant plan – before reality set in.

What about the app I used to check the train timetable? What about the personal hotspot I used to connect to the internet to work whilst on the train?

And what – shock, gasp, horror – would I do without Google Maps to navigate my way to children’s parties, restaurants, meetings?

Turns out life would actually be a lot harder without my smartphone. And so I abandoned the idea.

But then, my wife – who has a knack for coming up with good ideas I seem incapable of considering – suggested I delete all the apps I didn’t need and keep only those that served a purpose.

And that’s exactly what I did. I deleted all my social media apps – Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn. All my news apps – the ABC, BBC, Guardian – and all the other digital distractions I could do without.

That was about a month ago. I’ve survived the terminal event.

It hasn’t stopped me from still reaching for my phone for no reason other than to check for some new information, but with nothing much on their anymore, I tend to just put it away and the habit appears to be dissipating.

Am I smelling the proverbial roses a bit more now? Yes I’d say so. Do I notice things more like the country scenery that passes by me on the train? Yes. I do. And am I more present, actually listening to what my wife and kids have to say and actually responding in a meaningful way. I think so.

So  comrades, join the revolution and delete a few apps

Forget about what silly thought bubble someone is spouting on their Twitter feed about a topic they no nothing about, and rejoin the present world of the here and now a bit more.  It’s surprisingly nice.

 

Good, bad or just bizarre: some thoughts on social media

1217linkedinSocial media can be a force for good – think the #metoo campaign by women who have been victims of sexual harassment and abuse in the entertainment industry and how that has exposed decades of predatory behaviour by actors, directors, writers and entertainers.

Think too of someone like Behrouz Boochani, the Iranian journalist trapped on Manus Island who has been able to tell the real story of what has gone on in that Australian-made hell hole using Twitter and his smart phone.

Social media can also make us laugh, inform us, warn us and of course foster connections with people from all around the world.

But think also of its insidousness, how false information can be spread through Twitter and Facebook (the Russian influence on the 2016 US presidential election campaign is but one recent example) and other platforms, how people can be bullied, trolled and harassed. Social shaming can ruin lives, (read Jon Ronson’s excellent book, ‘So you have been publicly shamed’) and lead to suicide or violence towards others. A Tweet or Facebook post can be deleted but everything lives on in the archives of the internet – just ask Justine Sacco.

And think of all that Donald Trump tweeting! That surely can’t be a good thing for the progress of mankind.

 

Social media can also be…well just bizarre.

Take my birthday for example. I turned 44 just over a week ago. I didn’t make a fuss about it as that is my preference and expected only a small, but intimate celebration with my wife and kids (accompanied by pizza, beer and cake!) and a few phone calls from family and close friends. I didn’t tell people at work and nobody said anything. I was perfectly happy with that arrangement

But of course, we enter our birth dates into our social media profiles and so the almost 2000 people I am connected with on business social media platform LinkedIn (I used it a lot) got an alert to say it was my birthday.

And the greetings came flooding in from people I have never met or interacted with except to accept their connection request (I have trouble saying no), and from all corners of the globe.

Mostly it was just a generic “Happy Birthday” greeting, occasionally it was personalised with “Have a great day!” but it made me wonder why these people, who basically did not know me, felt they needed to wish me a happy birthday. I certainly don’t wish strangers on happy birthday, even when they pop up on my LinkedIn page.

But it got even more bizarre, because I felt this irrational obligation to thank every single person who had wished me a Happy Birthday, regardless of who they were (of course among the greetings were people I do know and interact with), where they lived or what they did.

And so I spent a good part of my day constantly replying to Happy Birthday messages on LinkedIn as they came in thanking Surya in Delhi, India, Siergiej in London, Orit on the NSW Far North Coast and Rui in Southport, Queensland. By the end of the day I’d received 40 or more birthday greetings. I’d never been more “popular”.

But why were these people sending me birthday greetings? Do you they send them to everyone they are connected with on LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook? Or was I considered special in some way?

(Ironically, some friends and family who I expected to hear from never contacted me, not even through social media.)

It makes me wonder just how much of our lives we spend on social media thumbing through our Twitter and LinkedIn accounts, checking up on people on Facebook or Instagram? Surely it can now be measured – like sleep – in years lost from our lives.

But while sleep is necessary to function properly – we would literally go crazy and die if we did not sleep for a long period of time, I doubt whether endlessly checking our myriad social media accounts really adds much to the human experience, one that is becoming increasingly disconnected from the real world.

Cheap goods, expensive real estate and the end of the Chinese economic miracle

bargain storeIt always amazed me how cheap products are in the numerous ‘Bargain’ shops on our busy high street in the cosmopolitan Melbourne suburb I live in.

Just how can you sell pots and pans, knives, gardening utensils and art supplies for just a few dollars and still make a profit?

The answer of course is: Made in China.

The mass industrialisation of China over the last few decades fuelled by a massive inflow of cheap migrant labor from rural villages has created the huge factories (and sweat shops) that produce all these products so incredibly cheaply.

This urbanisation of China has created its 1.3 million Chinese millionaires (projected to reach 2.3 million by 2020) and millions more middle-class Chinese that have helped fuel Australia’s biggest ever housing construction boom as well as push up the prices of prestige real estate in best suburbs of Sydney and Melbourne.

As a property journalist I have reported first hand on this huge wave of Chinese money being spent on Australian real estate and there is of course the many tales of money being flown into the country on private jets to pay in hard cash for multi-million dollar luxury property.

foreign investment in Australia real estate

But it’s these two extremes: mass production of cheap goods and aspirational wealthy and middle-classes that urbanisation has created that have combined, hand-in-glove, to bring about the end of the Chinese miracle and which rightly has Australian economists and global economists so jittery.

How has this happened: well the answer lies in a something called the ‘Lewis turning point’ (named after economist W. Arthur Lewis): a term used in economic development to describe a point at which surplus rural labor reaches a financial zero: in other words when productivity gains starts going backwards.

This is essentially what has happened in China: the wave of cheaper labour that propelled its extraordinary growth for decades  is coming to an end.

China’s population is ageing so there are fewer young workers to carry out the unskilled work plus, with urbanisation many young Chinese people don’t want to work on a factory line for a tiny wage: they want the fruits of economic prosperity – easy, high paying jobs with benefits.

Also impacting on China has been a drop in global demand for its goods, over production and other countries like Vietnam, India and Bangladesh being able to produce them more cheaply.

The end result: factory wages have doubled in the past 7 years, company profits have tumbled and many manufacturers are now looking to shift their factories from China to places like Vietnam  and India, which are much further down the economic development scale, and where they can employ people on much lower wages.

An excellent 15 minute video prepared by the Financial Times tells the story of how China is changing through the eyes of two people:

  • Yang Zonghou, a migrant worker from Hunan province who lost his job in a Japanese toy factory when it closed down last year and is now considering returning to his local village and family.
  • Ha Van Huy, a 28-year-old Vietnamese man who worked illegally for a while in a Chinese factory sewing the fabric layers for headphones and earning twice the salary he earned in Vietnam.

It seemed almost too incredible to fathom that Chinese factories are willing to employ illegal labour from Vietnam but this is indeed happening as “factories that powered the country’s growth for decades are being squeezed by a shortage of workers, rising wages and falling prices” the FT.com video shows.

As Yang Zhanghou explains, whereas in the past Chinese workers were happy to work hard and earn whatever they could, and send a bit back to their families, now  everyone wants easy jobs with benefits.

The factories won’t employ him because he is too old while at the same time the he says the villages are filling up with young people who are “choosing to be at home”.

So where does this leave countries like Australia: staring down the proverbial barrel.

This has already unfolded in the resources slowdown, which was fuelled by China’s previously insatiable demand for raw materials like iron ore, copper and aluminium which drove up commodity prices and generated record profits for Australia mining companies.

With the slowing Chinese economy, demand for these commodities has fallen – and so to have commodity prices as oversupply has set in. In February, the world’s biggest mining company, Australia’s BHP Billiton posted a $7.84 billion loss in its interim results.

Luckily a big drop in the Australian dollar has resurrected sectors like tourism, property and education, though all of them have become increasingly reliant on China’s emerging middle class to fuel their growth.

The FT.com documentary ends by warning that if the slowdown continues, it could force the whole world into a fresh economic crisis.

“If that does not happen, rising labour costs mean consumers will have to pay more for everything…Made in China.”

That of course could spell the end of the Bargain stores on my local shopping strip with their cheap goods.

But it seems an infinitely better option than a world-wide financial crisis.

My Orwellian odyssey: a descent into the fiction of George Orwell

George_Orwell_press_photoAs it happened, I was in the midst of reading “Burmese Days”, George Orwell’s very fine first novel about imperialism and prejudice set within a rural Burmese village during British rule, when the plans for “Operation Fortitude” were made public.

The press release, issued by Australian Border Force on the morning of Friday, August 28 detailed a sinister operation planned in Melbourne over the coming weekend when ABF officers would be patrolling the streets, scrutinizing everyone coming into the city centre and targeting “everything from anti-social behaviour to outstanding warrants”.

coming up for airMost ominously and invoking the dystopian world of Orwell’s 1984 with its constant surveillance and suspicion, the press release said that “ABF officers will be positioned at various locations around the CBD speaking with any individual we cross paths with.”

As the outrage at this trampling of individual rights (and suspicions of racial profiling) grew louder and louder, it seemed  everyone from Booker prize-winning novelist Richard Flanagan to protestors at hastily arranged gatherings were referencing Orwell or using the adjective ‘Orwellian’ to describe the planned paramilitary-style operation.

burmese daysGripped by it all, I finished reading Burmese Days and proceeded to re-read my tattered copy of Orwell’s Coming up for Air (1939) featuring my favourite Orwell anti-hero, the rotund, bald, bowler-hatted insurance salesman George Bowling who as the bomber planes fly overhead, casting shadows over London and bringing with them portents of the approaching descent into worldwide destruction and death, reminisces about his carefree youth and plans a return his countryside home town of Lower Binfield to seek out a legendary fishing spot.

keep the aspidstraNext up, I re-read Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936) – also a tattered paperback on my bookshelf – about the idealistic London poet Gordon Comstock (brilliantly played by Richard E. Grant in the film version, A Merry War), who has forsaken a promising career as a copywriter in an advertising firm in order to escape the moneying world and all its artistic-destroying influences to write something that matters. We find Comstock virtually starving in his bleak bed sit in a men’s lodging house scrawling away at an epic poem he can’t seem to finish while bemoaning his poverty, which has ironically become an even greater destructive force to his writing than a well paid job as well as to his relationships and his sanity.

animal farmAfter that, I dived straight into Animal Farm (1945), Orwell’s political fairy tale about the failings of socialism set among the world of animals who overthrow their human masters only to become slaves under the control of the intelligent, cunning pigs who are “more equal than others”.

Finally, I ended my Orwellian odyssey with 1984 (written in 1949), Orwell’s dystopian masterpiece set in a futuristic London of enormous windowless government buildings, squalid tenements, always watching’ telescreens’ and posters of ‘Big Brother’, where timid revolutionary Winston Smith, an employee in the Ministry of Truth and his lover, Julie, battle the belligerent totalitarian state, its thought police, doublespeak ideology and hunger for eternal power.

1984_by_alcook-d4z39dhSo what was my Orwellian journey like?

Melancholic and depressing give the current state of the world.

As described in 1984 and Animal Farm, the loss of individual freedoms has occurred even in democratic countries like Australia, the USA and the UK, with their gag orders against speaking out against refugee abuse, surveillance and collection of meta-data and secret actions of spy agencies like the NSA and ASIO.

Imperialism and prejudice is alive and well

As in Burmese Days, which sets its modernistic central character,  35-year-old teak merchant John Flory against the bigotry within the walls of European Club, we find ourselves in an quasi-imperialist world where the richest, most powerful countries continue to oppress minority populations, invade sovereign countries at will and turn a blind eye to the consequences: thousands of displaced refugees.

“After all, natives were natives – interesting, no doubt, but finally only a ‘subject’ people, an inferior people, an inferior people with black faces” – from Burmese Days

Secondly, invigorating and wondrous. Orwell’s writing sparkles, glows and comes alive as you read it and follow the adventures and exploits of his characters. His manages to address weighty and universal themes by creating engaging characters, brilliantly plotted storylines and living, breathing places. He is a master craftsman, who true to his famous rules for writing knows that a few, carefully chosen words, expertly put together, can create vivid scenes that leaps out of the page:

In the deadly glare of the neon lights the pavements were densely crowded. Gordon threaded his way, a small shabby figure, with a pale face and unkempt hair – From Keep the Aspidistra Flying

Then there are his characters. I found myself happily inside the head of all of them, even the ones that are on the surface, unlovable like fat, unhappy George Bowling whom we find on the very first page of Coming Up for Air, locked in the bathroom of his home on a dreary London housing estate, plotting his escape from his wife and kids on a “beastly January morning”. After all, who doesn’t yearn – now and then – for a return to their youth, to a time when they were carefree and without adult responsibilities?

Similarly, I identified with the idealism of malnourished and unwashed poet Gordon Comstock in Keep the Aspidistra Flying, with his rallying against “money, money, always money” encapsulated in his distaste for the catchy slogans that hang from windswept, tattered advertising boards outside the secondhand bookshop he works in.

No doubt Gordon would find our advertising-saturated world with its sponsored content and brand placement even more nauseating as he would the greedy capitalism and worship of money that defines success today.

And then there is John Flory, the lonely, lost colonialist searching for companionship in Burmese Days who sees skin colour as a mystery to be explored and celebrated, but set against a world of cunning corruption and prejudice. One of the most tragic of Orwell’s characters, he is also one of his most loveable and most admirable.

Orwellian, as we understand it.

And then there is the sheer devastating power of 1984 and Animal Farm, whose much-discussed and debated themes of tyranny, oppression and the crushing of individualism find their reflection in the darker  actions of governments with their ‘Operation Fortitudes’, metadata laws and secrecy and in mega-corporations like Facebook and Google, now the most powerful players in the world of news, information and personal data.

Indeed, it is no surprise, that as I finished reading these five novels, I read also a review of anew theatrical version of 1984 running in Melbourne and the seemingly never ending articles about Orwell and the Orwellian – though I confess that Coming Up for Air and Keep the Aspidistra Flying are my two favourites.

Read them all!

play about 1984

How to fix Woolworths: what the overpaid executives won’t find in their spreadsheets

wooliesAustralia’s biggest retailer, supermarket group Woolworths, is floundering.

It’s share price and market value is down almost 30 per cent since April last year, sales are stagnating and profits are forecast to fall 35 per cent over the six months to December.

The Woolworths business is in a mess, while its competitors Coles and Aldi continue to perform strongly and steal market share.

No doubt, Woolworths is spending millions on expensive reviews and turning to its overpaid executives for answers. But I think – judging by their latest announcement – they have probably missed the point entirely.

Scouring the seven page ASX release, I found plenty of the usual management jargon like “customer metrics” and “change programs” but not a single mention of the word “quality”.

As a regular Woolworths shopper, this says a lot, but is hardly surprising.

We buy most of our groceries at Woolworths, not out of any sense of loyalty or because we like shopping there, but simply because its convenient – there is a grocery store literally up the road from our house.

When we have the time, we prefer shopping at a nearby supermarket extravaganza called La Manna, with its funky cafe, ice-cream and dessert bars and amazing selection of fresh and exotic produce.

Indeed, the demise of Woolworths is a perfect example of having too much market power and becoming utterley complacent.

  1. The real problem is quality.

My biggest gripe is with the many crappy products sold in my local Woolworths. Often they are dressed up as bargains, but what they really are, are over-priced duds.

Many people may have laughed at the story about the Woolworths scissors that needed a pair of scissors to open the packet but  that’s just the top of the iceberg I reckon.

There were a lot of mandarin pips. A lot!

There were a lot of mandarin pips. A lot!

From the packet of mandarins I bought recently infested with so many pips they were inedible to the book-reading light I returned three times because it didn’t work, my general feeling is that finding savings, rather than providing quality products is the overriding motto at Woolies.

Not surprising “value perception” rather than “real quality” is considered a key customer metric in the latest bit of corporate spin.

  1. Stop confusing customers

labels

I have been caught out on many occasions thinking I have bought a discounted item only to pay more at the till. This is because price labels often don’t relate to the items above them. I am certain this is a deliberate strategy. Another one is promoting items with bright labels, when there is no discount. This is highly annoying. And cutting the price by 10 or 20 cents on an item is just an insult to shoppers.

3. Keep stores properly stocked

Perhaps I am being pedantic, but I am always a bit gob smacked when I stroll up and down the aisles only to find the store has run out of such staples as skim milk and brown rice. How is this possible for a company with access to the best supply chain technology and automated ordering software in the world?

4. Make shopping a bit more interesting.

If only Woolies were a bit more like Aldi...

If only Woolies were a bit more like Aldi…

Woolworths could learn a thing or two from German supermarket giant Aldi, which mixes up the standard grocery items with strange and exotic products that change from week to week. You never know what you will find in an Aldi, but in Woolworths its the same boring stuff, week in and week out.

5. The new rewards program sucks

Woolworths new rewards program is a badly thought out idea and feels like a bit of a fraud. The newly introduced scheme does not pay out loyalty discounts on items immediately as it did in the past. Instead you accumulate them on your rewards card until they reach a certain value.

So instead of immediately getting a bit of reduction in your bill, you have to make multiple visits to the store to get anything back. Whichever marketing genius came up with this idea, should be sacked or at least forced to eat some of those pip-infested mandarins.

So, those are just a couple of ideas for whoever replaces Grant O’Brien as Woolworths CEO.

And here’s another tip for those overpaid Woolies executives. Forget the high-powered meetings, power point presentations and slick marketing campaigns. Get out of your wood-panelled boardrooms and take a stroll instead down some of the aisles of your supermarkets to get the real picture.

And stop and have a word with some of your shoppers, you might learn a thing or two.

Note: I have made changes to this story. The original version made comments about my local Woolworths supermarket staff. This was wrong and I apologise. The problem is with its management.