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This suffocating indebtedness (along with the fear of terrorism) is the closets the UK population comes to having a collective identity. We hold our breath while a few oligarchs suck in the oxygen, even though we’re supposedly “all in it together” (“it’s up to all of us”).

Today’s author is described on the Zer0 Books website as having previously worked as a “cappuccino frother, data enterer, trainee teacher, cashier, mail sorter, jobseeker, factory drone, warehouse operative, writer, street sweeper, audio tester and care worker“. In my time jaunting around the world between different temp jobs I have ticked off at one time or another almost every single one of the same ‘career paths’, with the exception of trainee teacher and care worker. I think my parents between them held down five jobs in total. I have already had double that number of positions over the past fifteen years or so.

Of course in the 90’s this was described as the bright future of my generation, employees having won the opportunity to change their careers multiple times, upskill, diversify and so on. The idea of long service pensions, health care contributions and emergency leave already seems like a mirage.

Southwood’s discussion as regards the relationship between employees and ‘their’, jobs advances through a series of stages, opening with a critical assessment of worker rights in society – where the notion of a trade, or a job with any sense of ownership has been deconstructed in favour of continual movement between jobs, or the imminent loss of work, a state defined here as ‘precarity‘ – before engaging the reader with the personal perspective of the author as regards living on a meagre wage, having to pay off large amounts of debt and the dissolution of unemployment assistance from the state. As such Non-Stop Inertia is no theoretical academic treatise that remains at a remove from the material. Southwood presents himself as a case-study of how this modern form of personal insecurity is all-pervasive and psychologically detrimental.

At one point Southwood bemusedly comments that writing this book may affect his future job prospects, but then of course there is little likelihood that the jargon-spouting temp agency recruiters he has to meet with will have read it.

The current digital age has produced what is wittily described here as ‘cultural stagflation‘ – continuous stimulation, with no genuine possibility of action. Twenty-first century popular media is designed to titillate and excite, but not engage or challenge. Similarly the workplace is a site of constant activity, but little chance of any sense of achievement. Instead workers are encouraged to compete for positions that will soon be outsourced – “Predictable income, savings, the fixed category of “occupation”: all belong to another historical world.” In an insidious inversion of existentialist psychology employees are told that they must choose their futures, even as their options become increasingly limited – the individual has become a function of profit.

Southwood’s experience as a temp overlap with his having to apply for jobseeker’s allowance. He describes how the Tory government of the early 1990’s redefined the job exchange as a despiriting, compulsory process of constant assessment, one which in turn become increasingly precarious. The era of New Labour continued to carry the ball, increasingly limiting the concept of British social welfare. In the media crime and sundry social malaises are blamed on families who remain on the dole – with the attendant counter-point that working families can barely make ends meet rarely addressed.

Another strand of discussion is how trade unionism and worker’s rights generally are being undercut. The concept of the ‘Virtual Assistant‘, is introduced, in effect an out-of-office P.A. who must compete for assignments from his/her ‘clients’, but has little to no rights. If the V.A. is unable to work, whether it be due to maternity leave, or illness, a competitor simply takes their place. Once again, to be able to work from home is sold as the greatest form of freedom, whereas Southwood observes it as being completely unsupported and unguaranteed employment. The Virtual Assistant is the epitome of temping culture, which threatens to erode the capacity of trade unions to represent their members. After all, if employees can be replaced by short-term workers, the unions have not only lost members, they are unable establish representation.

Rounding off this incisive and intelligently paced critique, Southwood addresses various methods of resisting the debilitating effects of job insecurity. This jack of all trades can now add ‘author’, to his C.V.

With thanks to Zer0 Books for my review copy.

 

The Camino is full of strange and wonderful experiences, and this is just another one of these moments. I’m not known as someone who bestows blessings on strangers, or one who appreciates poorly made timber products for that matter. But here in Spain, these things become so much more than just superficial. Somehow I catch the emotion behind what I see, the true spirit behind the words, and in this case, the actions, and it seems to make all the difference. Things become vibrant and the world becomes alive.

The second time I came to Australia, I thought of it as my great adventure. I had travelled around the world in pursuit of a relationship, leaving family, friends and employment behind. It was a big risk. So when my relationship with Stephanie continued to grow from strength to strength and I had successfully established myself in Sydney, I really thought that risk had paid off quite nicely.

Then two friends of mine announced that they were climbing to Mount Everest base camp. Suddenly my grand adventure seemed little more than a exchange of one homogenous environment for another, my lifestyle just a generic middle-class wage-slave existence in a metropolitan city.

One of the great pleasures of writing this blog is that occasionally I get to share in someone else’s adventure, read their thoughts and feelings while undertaking incredible challenges.

Brad Kyle explains in the book’s opening the circuitous journey taken by the eventual inspiration that led to him setting off along the Camino trail in Spain. Initially he learned of the pilgrimage trail from an anonymous girl one summers day in London, who introduced him to Paulo Coelho‘s The Pilgrimage. Following the death of his father eight years later, Kyle is reminded of that happy evening when he encounters a second book – Shirley MacLaine’s The Camino – A Journey of the Spirit, which finally sets him on the path to Santiago.

Between jobs, feeling adrift and in possession of some savings, Kyle flies from Melbourne to London and then across the water to the eventual starting point Saint Jean Pied de Port. Suddenly conscious that he may well be unprepared for the road ahead – the foul weather, steep terrain, blisters! – he also becomes acutely aware of just how alone he is, having set himself the challenge of marching across two countries over a period of five weeks.

Physical discomfort and the vagaries of hostel curfews aside, Kyle soon begins to get the hang of life on the pilgrim trail. Initial fleeting encounters with fellow travellers soon grow into genuine relationships. The spectacular scenery and encounters with some local animals – at one point Kyle gives a silent thank you to Dr. Harry for his advice on greeting horses – soon dwarfs the aches and pains. There are even stirrings of romance. In effect, this is a story of one man’s rediscovery of what makes life worth living.

Kyle describes his journey in a very personable and thoughtful manner. Often his reminiscences are grounded in terms that can be easily understood. For example he has a tendency of comparing certain experiences to popular films, such as Finding Nemo, Men in Black and Amelie.

In fact the style of writing here is deeply personal, with the emotions described obviously keenly felt. At times it reads much like an attempt by Bill Bryson to rewrite Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther. The travelogue has moved on from overtly literary fare designed for the consumption of 19th century high class salons, evolving into personal accounts leavened with a lot of humour. I had a strong sense of familiarity while reading Memoirs of a Pilgrim – it felt as intimate as reading a friend’s blog on some far-flung adventure.

This is a touching, heart-felt and engaging story of an incredible journey through a timeless landscape.

With thanks to the author for my review copy.

‘Catholics are indoctrinated from their childhood that priests take the place of Jesus Christ and are to be obeyed at all costs, and never questioned or criticized.’ A church that puts its children from this early age under the spiritual control of its priests, representatives of God to whom they are unflinchingly obedient, has the most stringent of duties to guard against the exploitation of that obedience to do them harm. That duty includes the duty of handing over those reasonably suspected of child sex abuse to the secular authorities for trial and, if convicted, for punishment. It is this duty that Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, a.k.a. Benedict XVI, has for the past thirty years adamantly refused to accept.

Last month the Irish Times reported that two German lawyers, Christian Sailer and Gert-Joachim Hetzel, had submitted charges of crimes against humanity naming Pope Benedict XVI to the International Criminal Court. The document accuses the pontiff of preventing members of the Catholic church from using contraceptives, and hence stopping the spread of HIV, as well as the systematic cover-up of the abuse of children.

I wonder if the lawyers read this book by Geoffrey Robertson, which given its subtitle ‘Vatican Accountabilty for Human Rights Abuse‘, sets out to explain the legal protections and privileges enjoyed by the Catholic Church and the Holy See. ‘Privilege’, is quite an appropriate word, given its etymology in old French: ‘private law’. As it happens, news of the book’s publication was greeted with vociferous defence of the head of the Church by sites such as Protect The Pope, which states that a commentator for the site had refuted many of Geoffrey Robertson’s misguided accusations and erroneous legal conclusions in his legal analysis, ‘A Worldwide Conspiracy? (sic).

Not only does Robertson’s account identify the extent of the horrific crimes against children in the care of Catholic priests across the world, it also seeks to define what is meant by canon law, as well as the Vatican’s status as a nation state and non-member of the U.N., which grants various protections. As a QC, Robertson concentrates on identifying what liability for the crimes committed by priests the Church is responsible for. He argues that the abuse of children is both a crime and a violation of tort law. Given the global occurence of these offences, it falls to the Church to defend itself in a court of international law for crimes against humanity. As Robertson points out, Vatican representatives at the U.N. have repeatedly used their position to lobby against the spread of equal rights for men and women, as well as efforts to combat the HIV virus in third world countries. That it enjoys such a privileged position – one denied to any other religion, charity, or human rights organisation – is due to a treaty signed with Mussolini for their mutual benefit in 1929 is just another piece of uncomfortable history for the Church to ignore. It is also, Robertson claims, a very tenuous basis for the Vatican’s statehood.

The contempt of the Catholic Church for accounts of child-sex abuses in the media, described variously as ‘an American problem’, or a conspiracy mounted by homosexuals, or Jewish newspapers, or even as Pope Benedict memorably phrased it ‘petty gossip’, shows just how much the institution itself is an enclave that sets itself apart from the rest of the world. Hence the importance placed on canon law and the secrecy with which the Vatican protects its findings on the rates of child molestation occurences. Pope Benedict even went so far as to congratulate Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyas for hiding an abuser from the police. The testimonies of bishops responsible for the conduct of priests in their diocese through inquiries in the States, or from the Murphy Report in Ireland, reveal a disastrous combination of gross ignorance in some instances and the willingness to ‘smuggle’, paedophile priests across state lines, or even internationally, in others.

It was actually through commentary on the Murphy Report featured on Irish satirical site Bock the Robber that I discovered that my own parish priest in Rathcoole, Fr. Noel Reynolds, had been identified as a paedophile long before being appointed to the village I grew up in.  Proof of the efficacy of canon law.

Geoffrey Robertson has written a powerful indictment of the Church’s policy of obfuscation, outlining a series of legal arguments that define the case against the institution and the flimsy pretexts of its defence.

One of the reasons the rich get richer, the poor get poorer, and the middle class struggles in debt is because the subject of money is taught at home, not in school. Most of us learn about money from our parents. So what can a poor parent tell their child about money? They simply say “Stay in school and study hard.” The child may graduate with excellent grades but with a poor person’s financial programming and mind-set. It was learned while the child was young.

Yesterday my friend Dan and I were approached outside of Central Station in Sydney by two college students. They asked if we were free to answer a few questions on record. We agreed and they asked us a series of questions alluding to the earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand. At first I could not understand why our replies were exciting the two so much. Each question was a variation of the same one, whether we would holiday in New Zealand due to a cheap economy following the earthquake. We answered that we would, in order to help the business and community in New Zealand recover.

When the interview was concluded one of the students said “if only we could get ten more like you”. Turns out most people were stating that they would visit New Zealand purely because of the cheap air-fares.

Rich Dad Poor Dad is not just a single book explaining the importance of financial awareness. It has blossomed into a mini-industry, a franchise managed by co-authors Kiyosaki and Lechter. However, all I knew about this book before this afternoon was that Will Smith really admires it.

‘cough’ Occasionally I have watched an episode of Oprah.

The book opens with an introduction from Lechter, explaining how she met Kiyosaki, a guru of finances and entrepreneurship skills. Confusingly the book’s opening, and much of the novel, features extended dialogue sequences with teenagers and children speaking in quite a verbose manner. This confuses me as the whole style of Rich Dad Poor Dad is to present a series of educational fables, supposedly drawn from ordinary life and yet the ‘characters’, speak in this stilted prose.

Kiyosaki is the ‘son’, of this rich dad – a mentor figure who instructs him in the finer points of capitalism – and the poor dad – who is his biological father, financially crippled due to his public servant mentality. The one father-figure advises pragmatic individualism, the other reliance upon the state, or pension funds, or health care. When presented with a choice between which philosophy he will adopt, Kiyosaki of course opts for the ‘rich dad’. He learns the value of a good day’s work; that schools do not educate students to become dynamic leaders, but unimaginative employees; that the most important thing in life is to learn how to make money work for you and not the other way around.

When Kiyosaki’s biography approaches the present day, rich dad drops out of the story. We learn that his own father was eventually fired from his government job and embraced trade unionism itself, but died with personal debts. ‘Rich dad’, created a vast business empire, which he then passed on to his son. Kiyosaki explains how he has become a public speaker and an educator, attacking the archaic educational systems in public schools for failing to prepare students to cope with the real world.

I was left immensely conflicted by this book. On the one hand I absolutely agree that schools should teach more to students about balancing cheque books and managing debts. On the other this ‘rich dad’, figure seems like a hybrid of Uncle Tom and John Galt. Government is depicted as the source of all evil and taxes a conspiracy theory designed to exploit the middle classes and the poor. In effect the poor dad is a straw man for Kiyosaki’s argument, a target for a series of rebuttals to any residual socialist principles in the American bureaucratic system.

I am a former art student and tax worker. I imagine Kiyosaki would have me burned at the stake.

This book suffers from the same blinkered perspective as A Colossal Failure of Common Sense. The world desperately does not need more ‘Bill Gateses’, more rich dads. It needs folk who are dedicated to the principles of a shared society if we are all to survive. The corporations had their shot with a deregulated world economy. It crashed. Lesson learned – if only.

A false dichotomy of greed.

This was not the war I had been training for all my life. I suddenly felt hurt, betrayed by my own body. It was going to take another two weeks before I did cry, and in an airplane toilet thousands of feet above the ground my reality finally crashed. But at least I was alone and no-one saw it happen.

When I was sixteen I had a medical scare, one that has left me worried about my health ever since. Men’s health, particularly when it comes to testicular cancer, is something of a public taboo. Many of the issues go undiscussed, often due to attendant fears of a failure of machismo.

As a result I jumped at the opportunity to read this book.

A serving officer in the Australian army, Carr presents as the epitome of the traditional Ocker. As a young man he loved his beer, meeting girls and playing rugby. Having been a somewhat tubby child, Carr grew to become determined to shape his body into a stronger and fitter form. Then at the age of twenty-five, it turned against him. Diagnosed with testicular cancer, Carr’s shock caused him to turn to what he knew: the discipline and training he had gained through the army.

Taking sick leave from the army, Carr underwent a number of different operations to battle the cancer, which had aggressively spread to the rest of his body. Steeling himself mentally, the soldier envisioned the tumorous masses as invading enemy forces. With the doctors as his generals, he agreed to their plan of action and trusted to a positive attitude to get him through the debilitating chemotherapy bombardment of his rebelling body.

In fact, Carr’s humour is a welcome aspect to this book, droll and self-deprecating throughout. To spare the embarassment of some of those he crossed paths with, especially the attending physicians, nicknames are dispensed liberally throughout, such as Dr. Honey, Dr. Chocolate-Love, Dr. Non-Caucasian. That last one represents the start of Carr reassessing a number of assumptions he has made in his life. He even comes to explore alternate methods of treatment following extensive surgery, including meditation, organic foods, Taoism and Qigong exercises.

It is the army that remains Carr’s home, a constant source of discipline and, perhaps most importantly, excellent medical and financial support during the years of his cancer treatment. When he is deployed to military operations in both Afghanistan and Iraq, Carr witnesses a frightening externalisation of the chaos that his body has been fighting against for seven years.

I was concerned that the military jargon and analogies would be overwrought in this book, but in fact Carr’s method of relating his experiences is excellent, interpreting the battle against his cancer in terms he is not only familiar with, but able to use to give genuine insight. One telling moment in the book is when he is given a gift of Lance Armstrong‘s biography of his own fight against cancer. Carr is suddenly forced to face the enormity of what he is up against and is devastated. I have not read Armstrong’s book, but I found the positivity, humour and humanity of this ordinary soldier’s tale inspiring.

This is a gripping and honest book, that is full of hope. An excellent read.

Wendy has no hesitation in saying that the highlight of her career so far is winning a gold medal at the Atlanta Olympic Games in 1996. There are, however, two tales within this amazing story. The first is the fairy tale of the young woman who rides her pony club horse at the Olympics and wins a gold medal. The second is the tale of Wendy breaking her leg nine weeks out from the Olympic Games. Thanks to grit, determination, and a metal plate and several screws keeping her leg together she still rode at the Olympic Games and won the gold medal. Put the two tales together and you have a story worthy of an Oscar.

One thing that struck me after I came to Australia was how much pride the country takes in its deserving athletes. Partly this made an impression on me, because growing up I was not aware of much of a sports culture in my country. Yes everyone I knew was mad about soccer, but these were English clubs they were supporting. Also the money simply was not available for proper sporting facilities for hopeful Olympians. Saying that though, I did grow up in the same town as Michelle Smith, Rathcool. I even caught the same bus to school as equestrian Cian O’Connor.

So often it appears as if the spectacle of sporting events, seemingly always occuring in some stadium in a foreign land, causes us to forget that these are ordinary people, from ordinary places, which was why I enjoyed the personal perspectives offered by An Eventful Life: Life Stories of Eventing Champions.

In her opening foreward publisher Debbie Higgs asserts that [this] is not just a book for fans of equestrian sports – it is a book for anyone interested in how people with extraordinary talent and perseverance can become Olympic champions. This for me is the real heart of the book. Too often the careers of sportsmen are forced into a global historical narrative. This book instead concentrates on the personal.

Alison Duthie presents a series of journalistic profiles of several Australian Olympians. A welcome addition to the selection of sportspeople is young up-and-comer Emma Scott. The book’s appendix lists an impressive selection of appearances by Scott on the equestrian circuit since 2007. The other professional horse-riders who partake of eventing have already experienced a whole series of highs and lows across the world. Emma Scott’s story has not yet truly begun.

The book’s subjects are Megan Jones, Sonja Johnson, Shane Rose, Wendy Schaeffer and Stuart Tinney. Collectively they can hold claim to an incredible assortment of medals and prizes. We learn how each of them first came to the sport, often with the generous help of family members and friends, as well as the experiences they shared with the horses that carried them to victory. One of the book’s strengths is that the relationship between horse and rider is emphasised through the testimonies of these athletes. They speak of them as animal friends, or even colleagues of a kind, but never dismissively as ‘beasts’.

The level of dedication and determination required by the sport can also bring a dangerous cost with it. The quote I chose to open this piece gives an example of the extraordinary lengths Wendy Schaeffer was willing to go to in order to attend the Olympics despite serious injury. Shane Rose had to undergo major reconstructive surgery after he was struck in the face by a horse. While escaping injury himself, Stuart Tinney’s horse Jeepster leaped into the crowd of onlookers at Badminton in 1999. That all of these athletes would continue on despite the harships and occasional mishaps of a life in professional sports shows just how dedicated they are to equestrianism. Many have even become trainers of the next generation themselves.

Writer Alison Duthie herself trained in the sport and her familiarity helps convey the personal stories told here with an added degree of insight. There is even a wonderful collection of photographs included at the end of each chapter, illustrating the careers of these men and women. The tone of the book is both warm and enthusiastic, enough to encourage the interest of anyone, regardless of their interest in the field.

Well told, insightful and fascinating. A genuine treat.

With thanks to Palmer Higgs Publishing.

Suddenly I realized something: in spirit, I was very much like my father. By inclination I was not a true perma-bear, but I was nonetheless a bear. Or perhaps I was a vulture; that’s a slightly different breed, but much the same, one of God’s creatures that can smell death when it’s in the air.

One truism that drives me up the wall, is the oft-repeated claim that no one saw the GFC coming. No one knew that it was a bubble. No one could foresee that unregulated banking and trading of bonds could go wrong.

What absolute bunkum. My favourite story is Queen Elizabeth’s visit to the London School of Economics in November 2008, when she demanded to know how the crash could have happened? A panel of economists responded with a letter that admitted many had seen the crisis on the horizon, but they had been ignored.

A Colossal Failure of Common Sense: The Inside Story of the Collapse of Lehman Brothers by the company‘s vice president Lawrence G. McDonald and Patrick Robinson offers an inside perspective of the events that led to this global firm’s Chapter 11 filing. Lehman’s is another phantom of the GFC, whose collapse much like that of Enron and Worldcom, represented very visible signs of the tenuousness of the market.

McDonald discusses his own life before Lehman’s at length. A product of a broken home, his dad was himself a successful businessman who chose golf over his wife and five children. McDonald credits his own success to an aptitude for hard graft, determination and having not been inculcated by the Ivy League business school mentality. At one point he favorably quotes similar sentiments from Michael Douglas’ character in Wall Street.

The book also discusses the dotcom bubble which preceded the turn of the century. McDonald was one of the founders of ConvertBond.com, which purported to represent the future of business trading – entirely online, with a far more accurate, up to the minute assessments of bonds. He claims his partner Steve Seefeld had a greater understanding of computer programming than anyone in the United States, with the exception of Bill Gates. The two were young turks on the business scene, intimidating the established business experts with their new-fangled approach to trading and aided in their promotional blitz by the recruiting of reporter Kate Bohner.

McDonald eventually made his way to Lehman’s after ConvertBond.com was bought out by Morgan Stanley. He takes the opportunity to discuss the Enron scandal briefly, before discussing the regime at his new firm, identifying CEO Richard S. Fuld as an ivory tower figure, supported by a patsy Chief Operating Officer Joseph M. Gregory. Their blinkered perspective, as well as the signing of a repeal of Glass-Steagall by President Clinton, combined to end the reign of Lehman’s on Wall Street.

The subtitle The Inside Story of the Collapse of Lehman Brothers should be understood as a very literal description of the book. Readers expecting an objective assessment of the economic crash should look elsewhere. This topic needs a Rajiv Chandrasekaran to give a proper account of what happened. Instead of addressing the realities of the GFC for ordinary people, McDonald indulges in long-form autobiography. The brief asides on the extent of the crash feel insincere. There is also an overreliance on military metaphors, perhaps a holdover from co-writer Patrick Robinson’s naval fiction.

What emerges from this account is an unintended vision of a Wall Street enclave of self-mythologizing traders, which explains how the scope of greed revealed became so staggering. It occured to me that what precipitated the Global Financial Crisis should not be referred to as ‘white-collar crime’, despite the embezzling, fraud and theft. ‘Crime’, presumes the possibility of being caught.

This is a dull, long-winded and disappointing reflection on one of the most devastating events in economic history.

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