Posted by: Gregoryno6 | November 30, 2014

There are times when every day is a ham sandwich day. But then…

I drove out of Melbourne in 1990 – headed west, destination Perth. The eastern states of Australia were still suffering the recession triggered by the stock market crash of 1987. Western Australia, by most accounts, was still doing well. Little did I suspect as I motored across the Nullarbor Plain that the recession was tailing me. It followed along, just out of sight below the horizon.
I idled. I cruised at my leisure through Esperance and Albany in the southwest. Recession left me to holiday and rolled on down the main highway to the City of Lights. When I did finally arrive in Perth, around the end of October, the recession was well established and ready to greet me. The economy was going down and businesses were shutting their doors. Recession was having a ball as it partied hard all over town.
None of this was factored into my plan.It was, admittedly, a very simple plan. I was going to find a job and a place to live and build a new life in the west. I’d worked in a bookstore for a while, and after five years in a factory I wanted to return to that. But work in bookstores wasn’t easy to find. Actually work of any sort wasn’t easy to find. Crummy economy aside, I was an eastern stater. The old folks of Perth had a name for my tribe – t’othersiders. They muttered it with a mixture of irritation and contempt. To put it plain, I was as popular as a ham sandwich at a bar mitzvah.
It took a couple of months before I found my first job. I stood on a street corner one day a week, handing out a free newspaper. It wasn’t exactly loaded with glowing career prospects, but it helped to pay the rent. My first full time job was in a chicken processing factory in Osborne Park. I stayed there about nine months… but it was a lot longer than that before I could eat poultry without flashbacks. Raw pink carcasses hanging from a chain
Conditions remained tough. I still had faint hopes of re-entering the book trade when I left the poultry behind, but they were snuffed once more. Without much idea of what to expect I approached a labour hire firm. That was how I’d landed the chicken job after all – but more factory work didn’t appeal. I tried my chances with a different firm. They were only a couple of years old, local rather than international, and keen to teach the big players a lesson or two. It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
I stayed four years with that agency, and they were among the best years of my working life. The boss kept standards high. Appearance, punctuality, and performance all counted. The challenge was there to prove yourself every day. The agency employed two types of workers: you were either a gun or a dud. Duds didn’t last. I was soon considered a gun. I felt a distinct flush of pride when I learnt that clients had started asking for me by name.
Several client firms offered me full time positions. I turned them down and tried not to smile when I did it. I was getting steady work through the agency – a full forty hour week more often than not. And I was getting variety, too. I handled gold nuggets at the Perth Mint. I threw 40kg bags of dog food on pallets in stinking summer heat. I worked in warehouses all over the city. Car parts, soft drinks, telephone books, hardware. There were plenty of short odd assignments – most of them I’ve forgotten, but I did have a driving job for a while. I chauffeured a Telstra technician north and south of the city while he measured the strength of mobile phone signals. He was a Malaysian guy who was frankly besotted with one very Western cuisine. ‘Keep look out for KFC! Nearly lunch!’
The early ’90s were a boom time for casual workers in this city. Companies were still cautious about hiring full-timers. And there were very few labour hire firms operating in Perth in 1990. At a guess, I would say no more than a dozen. Five years later there was hundreds. (That’s not a guess, by the way, but a comment from someone inside the industry.) Clients began playing agencies off against each other, angling for the lowest price. Work began to dry up. And as employers began to feel confident about taking on full time staff, the ongoing casual jobs dried up. I’d cut myself a cosy niche as a roaming worker – a go-anywhere, do-anything man for hire. But the man for hire wasn’t needed so much any more. I became a regular employee again, working in office supplies as a storeman/driver/dogsbody.
Later I went back to agency work, and held an important warehouse position for more than a year. It’s easy to become indispensable – just be good at the job that nobody else wants. Again, I was invited – more than once – to join the firm. Again, I declined. It wasn’t the happiest of work environments; I wasn’t sorry when they asked me to start training my replacement.


Some time ago I decided to make a career change. Most of my jobs have included recordkeeping functions of one type or another – filing, archiving, just finding an invoice in the computer. I found I was pretty good at it, and I liked it. When I quit the old job in February I anticipated no serious problems. I’d link up with an agency, prove my worth, and in short order I’d have the job I wanted. Been through all this before, right?
Yes. Well…
Maybe it’s an age issue. Maybe I seem unsuitable because of my background. A storeman in a trade outlet wants an office job? Next candidate, please! Or maybe it’s just plain old lack of relevant experience. But this time around not even the agencies were interested. The ham sandwich days had returned.
With no paid work coming my way, I reluctantly considered the option of unpaid work, ie, volunteering. ‘Reluctantly’, because I’ve been a part of volunteer organisations in the past. I found mountainous egos and Byzantine depths of intriguing. On the other hand, volunteering offered me a chance to gain useful experience. I would at least be showing Centrelink that I wasn’t a dole-bludging couch potato. With fingers crossed I put my name in with a couple of organisations. I can’t deny that my resolve wavered a little when an arts organisation replied.
Isn’t it great when your expectations are thwarted in a good way?
Musica Viva is Australia’s oldest independent professional performing arts organisation. Its Music In Schools program has been taking performers and ensemble acts into the classroom for more than thirty years. As School Liaison I’ve been reaching out to schools all over Western Australia – major metropolitan schools, remote country schools of a few dozen pupils. MV’s Perth office is small, with just two or three employees and a couple of volunteers, but everyone is helpful. And prima donnas are conspicuously absent. Nobody is ever too busy to say thank you.
The side benefits of this role have been unusual to say the least. In return for out of hours assistance I’ve had a seat for performances by the Borodin Quartet and young violin maestro Ray Chen. But most memorable so far has been meeting the Billy Joel Band. Mister J’s musical support, in Perth for a benefit concert, agreed to participate in a schools masterclass organised by MV. They offered advice and encouragement and bucketloads of enthusiasm. The students picked up on it and their performance immediately showed extra punch. The band had a similar effect on me. After a long fallow period in my fractal adventures I set to and produced a couple of very satisfying pieces. Mrs Hill’s Mandala was one; here’s another.

My Lover Stands On Golden Sands

My Lover Stands On Golden Sands.

There was a considerable amount of GIMP work involved in the mandala, but this image just came out as is. It puts me in mind of boats on a rather agitated sea – strangely, in spite of that, I find it rather calming. The title is a song reference – can anyone name the source? (I know it, but I’m not telling.)
Thanks to everyone at Musica Viva – right from the moment I walked in, you’ve made me feel like a part of the team. Thanks also to the Billy Joel Band and the music students for the creative spark they shared. Extra special thanks to the band, in fact – seeing the results on my side, they did conceivably take a serious risk when we all shook hands. I’ve been worried that they might have suffered a concomitant negative transfer. But the benefit concert went well, and there were no shock horror headlines over the reviews.
God damn! I knew how this guitar works just yesterday!



  1. I vividly remember 1987 and though I didn’t know that it crawled over Australia I can vouch for the accuracy of your descriptions. Out here it was like Perth; nobody believed it because they didn’t want to; it was going to be different, the young snot-nosed traders were telling everyone right through the end of December. .It hit us in February 1998.

    • Once it got rolling, just about everything that happened made it worse. With the stock market down, the money went to real estate. House prices hit ridiculous highs and then kept on climbing. And people kept paying – which is to say that the lenders went on lending. A bizarre competition in which the prize was paying more than the other guy, not less. Another crash was inevitable. Cue stories of families cast out into the street, their home suddenly devalued by thirty, fifty, sixty percent. Driven by greed or panic they mortgaged their arses and were lucky to still have their arses when they walked away. Not much sympathy, just a hope they found themselves better financial advice afterward.
      Victoria was under a Labor government of financially incompetents (but I repeat myself…) who had spent the 80s trying to prove they had more business savvy than everyone else. Guess how that turned out! Most of the other states suffered the same affliction. In Canberra the government buggered the wool industry by maintaining a floor price that bore no relation to real world conditions. The Australian Wool Corporation accumulated thousands of bales of wool that nobody overseas wanted to buy.
      On a less grim note, Kerry Packer bought his television network back from Alan Bond at a fraction of the price Bond had paid for it. Last I heard, Packer was still the only man who’d made money out of dealing with Bondy…

      • Please I am not saying it yet but I am looking at the signs every day. The sudden big drop in Oil is a strange one. A massive correction in Property and share values may be just ahead of us now. Everything is too skew and distorted to keep going up.

        On 11/30/14, The mind is an unexplored country.

        • I won’t say you’re wrong. The old bubble is hardly popped before the new one takes shape.

  2. Sorry: last date should be Feb. 1988

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