Archive for the ‘jobs’ Category

A varied practice

September 17, 2009


With the assistance of a very kind friend I have been tidying things up a bit in my office. Miscellaneous books have been herded into one alcove of the shelves.

Quite unintentionally, [honestly: despite the original version of this post which said “intentionally” – or at least the intention was not mine as I wasn’t doing the tidying] this produced the juxtaposition pictured above. I’m afraid I couldn’t help but blog it. Bills of exchange have a special fascination for me.

“A varied practice” is a bit of a two-edged phrase, often used in obituaries (“He had a varied practice.”) Perhaps “a wide-ranging practice” is kinder, even if it can still mean “anything he could get.” Not that I’ve had many requests in the b,b&s line, at least professionally speaking.

Work 11 – hard work, worst jobs.

November 4, 2007

During the break in my time as a solicitor when I went back to university for other studies and supported myself as a music teacher and law teacher, there would always come a time over the Christmas/summer vacation when money got really tight.  It was at this time that I took, for one day only in each case, the two hardest jobs I have done in my life.

Building site cleaner

I got this job from Xk, who at the time was running a contract cleaning business.  D had already worked for him a few times.  On each time, D would come home complaining about how lazy his fellow workers were.  They were mostly Filipinos.  There was an element of Chinese disdain for the lesser (and, in this mindset, laid back and lazy) South-East Asian peoples mixed up in D’s complaints.  Having given vent to these feelings, D would take to his bed and only very rarely would he make it out of bed the next day or back for the next day’s work.  So I should have been warned.

Our mission was to convert Harry M Miller’s “sub-penthouse” on level 41 of the then not-quite-complete Horizon Apartments in Darlinghurst from a building site to a state where he could hold, that very evening, a New Year’s Eve Party.  Various other building tradesmen were there putting finishing touches to plumbing and kitchen installations – not to a point of absolute completeness, but to a level of functionality which would permit the party to go ahead.  We just had to clean the place up.  The biggest part of this was to remove the building mess and polish up the still-rough concrete floor.  As we were doing this, other caterers and party-contractors were arriving to get things ready.  It was an impressive (and, given my economic fortunes at the time, depressing) display of what a rich man can have and what he can get done for him. The apartment was enormous – it occupied the whole floor, or at least the whole floor on the side with the city-ward view. Even Deborah Hutton turned up later in the day, and very glamorous she was too, close up.

I soon found myself joining in D’s scorn for my laid-back fellow workers.  They for their part good-naturedly joked about how D almost never came back for a second day.  For most of the day I worked the grinder – that is, something a bit like an electric floor polisher, but I also mopped and squeegeed the floor.  By about 4pm, our part was finished.

I was exhausted.  By the next day, I was a physical wreck.  I simply did not have the physical condition to work so hard for so long.  I now have a much more sympathetic view for manual labourers – you know, the ones who are proverbially said to be always leaning on their pickaxe or shovel.  The truth is, you have to pace yourself to that kind of work.  Sure, you can work hard in bursts, but it is not really possible to keep that sort of thing up for a whole day. I doubt if you could even if you were in condition for it.

Gay sauna attendant

I saw the ad for this job on one of my rare (honestly! well, you can believe me or not) visits to a well-known gay sauna in Sydney.  So the adjective in this case modifies “sauna” rather than “attendant.”  They were advertising for casual staff on New Year’s Eve.  I got the job.

I didn’t fit the usual mould of employees at this sauna.  Mostly, they were a local variant of gay bar staff.  They wore T-shirts and skimpy shorts.  In their own minds, and perhaps even truly, they were public figures on the gay “scene.”  They had a lot of attitude.  It was because they had to be seen at the big NYE dance party that the need for my engagement arose.

On my arrival, I was left in no doubt that I was not to presume that I was truly one of the elect.  This was obvious anyway, because none of their skimpy shorts would fit me: they eventually managed to find something larger though not in the standard style.  Together with my fellow casual employee, who was on an invalid pension and equally fell well short of the requisite standards of cuteness for the permanent staff, I was given my instructions: we were to collect, wash, dry and fold the towels.

We wore rubber gloves, for the obvious reason.  After about an hour and a half and much complaining, my fellow worker threw in the towel (sorry, this just came to me).  His financial need was evidently less than mine and the job was harder and far less glamorous than perhaps he had imagined.  I completed the 12-hour shift (with some breaks, to be sure) by myself – diligently gathering towels (handling them gingerly), piling them into the pair of washing machines and then putting them through the banks of clothes dryers before folding them ready for further use. 

It was hard work, even though not in quite the same way as the cleaning job.  It was pretty hot and steamy in there.  Mostly I just tired from being on my feet for so long.   Even so, there was a certain interest in seeing things from the other side of the counter.

As I cycled home in the early morning of the new year, I consoled myself that things could only improve in the year to come.  This was probably my worst job ever so far.

Jobs 10

October 29, 2007

Law Teacher

After 2-3 years as a solicitor, I had an early mid-life crisis and went back to university (again!) to study something totally different.  This was Quixotic but probably emotionally necessary at the time.

To support myself, I obtained part time work teaching law at various universities.  In my time I taught at Sydney, UNSW, UWS and UTS, though mostly at Sydney.

Most of this was casual teaching, either as a tutor (correct term: Associate Lecturer) or lecturer.  It wasn’t that difficult to obtain such work at the time.  Law schools were expanding, but they were doing this on the back of a lot of casual teachers, and it has always been easier to obtain university teaching posts in professional faculties where there are other real and paying jobs out there to be had for the adept.

The subject I taught the most was Contracts.  This was relatively easy, especially as, when I taught it at Sydney at least, I was teaching almost exactly the same course as I had relatively recently studied myself.  Contracts is a relatively “black-letter” subject, though not perhaps as black-letter as students like to think it is or they are usually led to expect.  “Black-letter,” for the unitiated, is a term which is used to describe law or ways of teaching law which concentrate on it as a body of positive rules, as opposed to approaches which concentrate, for example, on the merit or otherwise of those rules, or their effect in actual operation, or a whole range of other possibilities.

The other substantive subject I taught was Equity.  This was much harder, or at least was so for me.  I won’t even try to encapsulate here what Equity as a subject is about.  It is sometimes said that whereas law (such as contracts) has rules, Equity (almost always with the capital “E” because it is not the same as “equity” as commonly understood, notwithstanding the maxim: “Equity is equity”) has principles.  I have now come to the view that, whilst you need to learn Equity at law school, it is not really a subject which can be taught because it requires a lot of experience and (for hard cases, at least) an up-to-the-minute acquaintance with prevailing judicial temperament.

I also taught more than my share of legal foundations/introductory jurisprudence courses.  Mostly, and especially when taught before students had any acquaintance with any body of substantive law, these were in my opinion a bit of a waste of time other than as a process of legal acculturation.  Jurisprudence, like youth, is wasted on the young.

In all this time, the biggest joke to me was the respect I would receive when people learnt I was teaching at a university.  The job didn’t feel like that at all.  The one thing I was acutely conscious of was how hard it was for me, as a part-time and indeed casual teacher, to match the expertise of salaried teachers who were paid much more (even allowing for their commitment to research) and who had the comparative luxury of researching in and teaching the same syllabus (marginally adjusted) for year after year.

Compared to school teaching, discipline was no longer an issue and one had the luxury of teaching relatively capable students.  Even so, there was a noticeable difference as a group between UWS students (selected from the top 10% or so of school leavers) and Sydney and UNSW students (selected from the top 1% or so).

Four years later, I returned to practice as a solicitor.  I almost landed a permanent teaching job at this time, but one of the members of the selection committee had been one of my teachers at College of Law a few years previously.  As a sometime teacher, I had noticed that the class was transfixed by a terrible pizza-grease stain on his trousers – boredom and the general structure of College of Law had this infantilizing effect on us.  When he became aware that something was wrong and asked what it was, I told him.  It just goes to show you should never be too careful whom you offend: I was told that the selection committee had been evenly divided and I harbour a strong suspicion that, even if not consciously remembered, this slight swung the balance against me.

Once I was back in the profession, I soon found I had neither the time nor the energy (nor, financially, the incentive) to undertake part-time teaching work, and my teaching career shortly after came to an end.   

Jobs 9

October 21, 2007


When I finished my law degree, and after the requisite ordeal at College of Law, I was admitted as a solicitor.  I started work at the big law firm in the sky where I had previously been a summer clerk.

Altogether I worked for about 6 years as a solicitor, first at the big law firm, then, after a break for 4 years, for a small law firm for about a year, and then at the same big law firm again, but this time in another state on a big law case where I was contracted for the duration, though I ultimately went to the bar as the duration became increasingly protracted.  So one way round you could say I was a solicitor (though not always practising) for 10 years all up.

College of Law was a foretaste, not to say a forewarning, of what it would be like to be a solicitor. We sat around in classrooms pretending to buy and sell houses and businesses and to commence and settle personal injury claims and file for divorce, as well as writing pretend cheques and running pretend trust accounts and office accounts.

When non-lawyers think of law, they inevitably think first of criminal law, but most lawyers’ work does not (or should not!) involve crime. Crime aside, you can divide it into compliance work (filing returns with ASIC and the like), transactional work (contracts, conveyances and, in a sense, will drafting) and dispute resolution (at the pointy end, litigation).  A lot of it is about filling in forms.

Even with the most open-formed forms (wince! but I’m momentarily too lazy to negotiate a more elegant expression), the solicitor’s role is to marshall the relevant facts and the client’s instructions into categories which will be recognised appropriately when some subsequent legal mechanism is brought to bear on the contract or  will or statement of claim or whatever. Of course, it is always helpful when you fill in a form to know the rules according to which that form is going to be acted on, and that is where your legal training as a solicitor comes into play, though when you first start practice, the level of legal conceptualisation is not always very high.

Law firms are commercial enterprises.  Enter the bane of the employed solicitor’s life: the time sheet and the billable hour.  I was never good at this.  This was partly a matter of lacking the necessary good habits, but also because, conscious of the enormous hourly rate at which my labour was to be charged out to clients, I was constantly embarrassed at the amount of time it took me to do what I did.  Could it really be worth that much?  You have to get very tough-minded about this if you are going to make your way or a living in the law. 

In a law firm, the organisation is everything.  Letters are written in the first person plural (on behalf of the partners, even if there is only one of them) and signed in the name of the firm – in the big law firm, the office copy of the letter would indicate which partner (by number according to seniority) or senior associate (by initials) had actually signed the letter. 

We were firmly told by a senior partner that letters were to be signed “Yours faithfully” because we were faithfully carrying out the instructions of our client – which is not what the recipient of such a letter might have apprehended.

After rotations through various parts of the big law firm,  I settled into litigating, mostly on behalf of banks and other financial institutions against hapless defaulting borrowers for business loans, who had given security over either their homes or their farms and were facing the forced sale of these.  It was not a particularly gratifying job, though, owning nothing myself, I took a meagre fortification from being, in Julius-Caesar terms, a lean man.  

A high (or low) point of this was one evening when I went to the Henry IX bar at the Hilton Hotel to serve a Creditor’s Petition (the initiating process for sending someone bankrupt) on a man who was playing the squeeze-box in a band there.  This was necessary because he had frustrated all more regular attempts of service by refusing to acknowledge his identity to the process-server, whereas I knew who he was.  He was a stereotypically blarney-charming Irish man, but when I stepped up  to him at the end of a bracket and handed it to him, he went a ghastly grey.  – I wasn’t overcome by any pangs of remorse, because he had ripped quite a lot of people off in his time, but it was still a sobering moment.

On my last day at the end of my first stint in the big firm, a business man who had simply failed to respond at any point to demands for repayment was finally being evicted from his house.  I knew where the house was because it was on my childhood bus route from Gordon station to my home in West Pymble.  I was called to the phone from my farewell morning tea.  It was the private detective/commercial agent, who was in attendance to change the locks whilst the sheriff’s officers enforced the writ.  She put the beleagered debtor on the phone and he sought one final postponement: his elderly mother-in-law was ill, in fact she was in the bathroom right now.  I asked: “So she can walk, can she?”   The eviction went ahead. 

Surprisingly perhaps, that was the only sheriff-enforced eviction which I set in motion, though I do remember that prior to sending the jolly squeeze-box player bankrupt, the sheriffs were sent around in an attempt to execute the judgment against him.  They returned an inventory of the contents of the house, over which, not surprisingly, his wife also asserted a proprietary claim.  The inventory included 5 doonas.  Thenceforth my slogan became Carpe doonem – Seize the doonas!

As a matter of karma, I hope I made up for this when, at the small law firm, I later acted on behalf of the little man (or at least the farmer) against the banks.  If you couldn’t knock a quarter to a third of the debt with a good Contracts Review Act claim, you weren’t really trying, though this really only ever involved stripping out the banks’ profit component of the transaction.

At College of Law I was at first shocked at how long it took for legal cases to come to trial.  I now realise that this is in part because solicitors will typically have many cases to attend to, and there are many pieces of information which need to be assembled and little steps to be taken in each case.  The partner I worked for explained the secret of managing a litigious practice: always put the ball into the other person’s court. 

There is much more I could say about being a solicitor, though there is a limit on the anecdotal detail which I am free to disclose. 

Once, somehow, we (yes, “we”) at the big law firm were retained by some Indian diamond merchants who were embroiled in a dispute over some diamonds they had sent to Australia.  Their correspondence was delightfully old-world, typed on flimsy paper with an ancient typewriter, and on one occasion concluding with the wonderful phrase “Please do the needful and oblige.”  Comfortingly, they weren’t short of the necessaries themselves – they sent us the requested thousands of dollars to pay into trust on account of our anticipated costs twice.

For a brief moment, for complicated reasons to do with lease-back financing and stamp duty or other tax, I was the proud owner of a Tangara railway carriage. I then magnanimously gave it away by making an oral declaration of trust.   I may even now still be the legal owner.  Sometimes, late at night and rattling home with a train full of weary and mostly these days subcontinental office cleaners, I entertain myself with the thought that the carriage is mine before humbly and anonymously returning to my copy of MX magazine.

Jobs 8

October 18, 2007


My work as a musician obviously intersected with my work as a music teacher.  It falls here in my sequence of posts on jobs because of my stint in the production of The Barber of Seville whilst I was studying at the College of Law after I finished my law degree, which I have written about previously.  But what I want to write about here is my last paying gig.

On 12 April 2003 I accompanied the choir of the Malek Fahd school at a dinner of the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils which was attended and addressed by Mr Howard, the Prime Minister of Australia.

I got this gig through a former colleague who had become the music teacher at the school. Islamic education does not place a particularly high value on music – along with the visual (or at least representional) arts. It is probably fair to say that music (or at least secular music) is traditionally considered to be one of the sins of the flesh or closely associated with them. The school had to have a music department beause that was a syllabus requirement, and my friend was it. He had established a choir, mostly made up of year 7 and 8 students. (Incidentally, most classes and other activities in the school are run on a gender-separated basis: the choir was one of the few which was mixed.)

Initially, the dinner was to be held on Good Friday in the school hall which doubled as a gym. A grand piano was hired for this (the school only had an electric keyboard). Ultimately the date and venue were changed to the Saturday on the eve of Palm Sunday at the Sheraton on the Park Hotel in Elizabeth Street in the city.

All of this was very hush hush: because the Prime Minister was coming, security was involved, but more importantly, so was politics. Whilst the arrangements for the dinner were being made, Australia was taking part in the invasion of Iraq: Saddam Hussein’s statue was famously toppled on 9 April 2007. That military adventure had been objected to in the biggest demonstrations in Australia since the Vietnam war, and the spooks who surround the PM feared that his attendance at the dinner would also provoke more of the same. Consequently, the hotel was swarming with plainclothed security agents (you can recognise them by their earpieces and triangular lapel badges) and SWAT-team-type para-militarily clad police (about 50 discreetly hidden in the hotel basement). All of this was the usual self-glorifying overkill: there was no sign of any demonstration as I walked down from my office carrying my music.

Both sides in this encounter had something to prove. AFIC wanted to demonstrate its normality as a part of Australian society in the face of the usual anti-Muslim scares and waves of vilification; the PM wanted to justify himself and reach out to a not insignificant part of the electorate.

The choir’s choice of songs was part of this. These included “Botany Bay,” Click Go the Shears,” “Waltzing Matilda,” “I still call Australia Home” and “I am, you are, we are Australian.” Musically things were a bit scrappy: some of the boys’ voices had broken, and there was a penumbra of semi-pitched vocalisation which wandered up and down in parallel with the tune but without any precise relationship to it. Obviously there was a mix of non-English-speaking backgrounds, and my friend the choir master himself came to Australia from Eastern Europe. In the strophic songs the arrangement of syllables to fit the tune in the later verses was at times idiosyncratic and often diverse.

The kids were very enthusiastic, and not just because of the excitement of the occasion.   The impression of aspiration to dinky-di Aussieness given by the choice of repertoire was sincere: kids are sent to such as school, after all, by their parents, and whatever the sectarian atmosphere of the school, the kids didn’t seem much different from any other kids out Greenacre way.  Not that I go so far west very often myself.

After the songs were sung, the kids filed off the stage.  Mr Howard shook all their hands, as politicians love to do.  I sneaked off the other way to avoid this, but I needn’t have worried: Howard was only interested in sucking up to the kids and didn’t bother with the choirmaster and so presumably would likewise have given me a miss. 

Howard’s speech was classic “fistful of dollars” stuff: he reminded the audience that Islamic schools were great beneficiaries of his government’s generous approach to all private/sectarian education, and that is true: Malek Fahd school receives more than any other private school, at least in NSW (or so I recently read).  Ameer Ali (I think), the president of AFIC, responded with a speech which touched on the then topical foreign affairs matters.  It was a polite speech but a firm one: Islamic people were interested in seeing resolution not just of the Palestinian issue, but also in relation to Kashmir.  (That is of course where David Hicks first went: his then lawyer, Stephen Hopper, was also present at the dinner.)

The best music of the night was a year 7 or 8 boy who chanted from the Koran quite brilliantly, though I expect most who were there thought of it as Koran first and music a long long way second.

That was my last gig, and so the last tax year when I have been able to claim either a tax deduction or a GST input credit for having my piano tuned.

Jobs 7

October 10, 2007

Summer clerk

This is a rite of initiation really, or perhaps a recruitment exercise, rather than a job.

Summer clerks (once known affectionately as “Christmas beetles”) are generally taken on by law firms and other legal employers over the long vacation at the end of the penultimate year of their law degrees.  There is a complicated system in every state: usually, there is some arrangement designed to prevent firms jumping the gun, so that after applications and rounds of interviews (you can tell the interviewees because they turn up in their interview clobber) and sometimes even a few cocktail parties, there is the magic day when the offers arrive or not, as the case may be.

I applied to 5 employers.  I was knocked back by the Commonwealth DPP after an interview, even though I had won the prize for Criminal Law.  This was possibly because (embarrassingly) I didn’t know what a voire dire was (it means a trial within a trial to determine the admissibility of evidence, generally conducted, if there is a jury, in the absence of the jury).  I still think that was a rather silly question, because it was really just a matter of terminology: of course I knew the concept, but I didn’t know the term because at Sydney we didn’t do evidence as a subject until our final year.  One other firm didn’t even interview me, and a third knocked me back.

I was older than your average student, but my academic record was good: it pays to do well at the beginning of your law degree because summer clerks are chosen on the strength of their results before the final two years of their degree, and most summer clerks then get employment offers at the end of the next year.  I like to think that the clincher in my favour with one firm was my answer, when asked why I was studying law, that I liked to think of it as the first step in the long road back to West Pymble.  I was living in Petersham at the time.  In the end I chose that firm, where I knew more people (mostly from debating) and because they seemed more friendly.

That was probably a mistake.  The firm I knocked back was a bit higher in the legal pecking order.  I wasn’t really aware of the materiality of the distinction at the time, but it came back to bite me in the bum when I started work as a solicitor at the firm where I did my summer clerkship. If I had gone to the other firm, I would probably have received and accepted an offer there.  By this time the “recession we had to have” had begun.  The firm which I went to lowered the starting salaries of its recruits by $5,000 from the figure previously advised to us.  This was the same figure as the other firm had foreshadowed, but the other firm stuck to their word.  The deeper reason for this, I now believe, was because the other firm’s client base was just that bit better than that of the firm I went to and their financial position accordingly sounder.  The moral? – Just as in real estate, the vital thing about a prospective legal employer is “position position position.”

This was the first time I had come up against serious private sector wealth – the swishness affected by private schools or university colleges was nothing in comparison, and though government departments spend enormous amounts of money, this is generally widely distributed or externally applied, and you don’t get much of an impression of luxury.  The office was glamorous.  We were wined and dined luxuriously.  I was seduced by all this.

As I said, it was a recruitment and familiarisation exercise.  We weren’t really capable of and didn’t do much serious work.  I had my own brush with legal history when I attended a conference with a director of the by then terminally insolvent Bond Group(Alan Bond had been driven out by then) in relation to the group’s proposed Deed of Company Arrangement.  I can’t say I made any particular contributions.  All I can remember is that the deed was enormously long and complicated and was drafted in the old style without any commas and with even full stops few and far between other than at the end of paragraphs. 

One bit of real work we all had to do was Discovery.  Discovery is the process whereby parties to litigation are required to locate documents in their power and possession and disclose them (this is the relevant sense of “discover”) to the other parties, including by providing lists of those documents.  The lists so compiled also generally serve as an inventory of the available documentary material for the party giving discovery.  This is the bane of junior lawyers’ life.  We were all rostered on for stints of a few hours at a time to go to a room where the documents were provided to us.  Dictaphone in hand, we would then dictate a description of each document, such as:

“Letter dated [xxx] from [yyy] to enclosing [or attaching]:

(a)   copy letter [etc]………”

There was a bit of a scandal associated with this, because an enormous long-distance phone bill was run up from the room and this needed to be accounted for.  We all knew one of our number who was mounting a concerted campaign for an associateship at the High Court was responsible, but none of us dobbed him in and I don’t believe he owned up.  He went on to get the associateship and is now a high profile opinionator and legal academic.  I can’t say he ever seemed a very impressive person when I knew him, and I am afraid this just confirms my reservations about the sorts of people who get ahead in the world and how they get there.

Not everyone aspired to a summer clerkship.  Wealthier students were inclined to jet off to Europe for the long vacation.  They had cause to regret this later when the employment market tightened in the next year or so with the onset of the recession.

All of my cohort of summer clerks (I think about 15) were offered employment on graduation, and most of them accepted.  I think possibly only 1 or 2 of them, at the most, still work at the firm.

Jobs 6

October 9, 2007

Music Teacher

I became a music teacher because my headmaster was keen to ease me out as an English teacher, but also happy to retain my services in the music department, where I had a substantial extra-curricular involvement.  In private schools, your extra-curricular role could sometimes be almost as important as your classroom role. I was offered casual work and private music teaching work to enable me to put myself through law school.

The “job” had a number of components: I accompanied students for concerts and exams; I taught a number of students who were on music scholarships at the school; and I also had a number of private students.

When I finished my law degree, I relinquished the accompanying job, but I still had a few students, on scholarships, whom I taught after hours.  Even when I qualified as a solicitor, I still maintained this connexion.  The added benefit to me was that I could use the school’s facilities to practise, at a time when I didn’t even have a piano at my home.

After a few years as a solicitor, I had an early mid-life crisis and returned to music.  I increased my teaching commitments, though I couldn’t get the school-funded accompanying work back, as my successor was securely ensconced.

It may sound a bit tragic to say this, but, with only a few short-term exceptions, this was the most enjoyable “job” I have ever had.  All up, I did it for about 10 years, so it is also, on one view, my longest-lasting occupation.

Why was it so enjoyable?  First, I was lucky to have a number of gifted students.  I was teaching something I loved to students who, on the whole, were also keen on what they were doing.  The accompanying part of the “job” also allowed me to learn quite a lot of interesting repertoire, even allowing for the modest level of accomplishment at which some of it was performed (and I should include myself in this), and the generally unthankful task of playing orchestral reductions on the piano.  Secondly, because I mostly taught individuals and small groups, I was undogged by my bête noire, discipline.

It is true that, for all of the time that I was a music teacher, I was doing something else and was on the way to something else: it was neither my sole preoccupation nor my unremitting fate. It was remunerative for the hours I worked (though probably not if the practice was taken into account) at a level which enabled me to survive reasonably, though without ever accumulating any kind of surplus against my old age. I might have felt differently about this “job” if I had been doing it more or for longer.

In any event, there was a catch. I have called this a “job” precisely because it wasn’t really a job at all: I was a casual, self-employed sub-contractor. A new music director arrived who, for whatever reason (I have my own hypotheses, but I won’t go into them here) didn’t like me. I was deprived of work and new students. I suppose I could have fought against it, but by this time (in part because the process was gradual) I was earning more money as a law teacher, and it didn’t seem worth resisting. As my existing students finished school, my music teaching days came to an end.

Jobs 5

October 5, 2007

University student administration

In the summer after I finished work as a school teacher and started my law degree, I obtained temporary work at the University of Sydney in the office of the Faculty of Arts .  I’m a bit vague about this, but I think I also did some work for the Faculty of Science.  The next year, I again worked in admin, and this time I am pretty sure it was for the Faculty of Science.

These were seasonal jobs, to cope with the rush of post-exam and pre-enrolment business at the Faculties.  I think I was first introduced to them through H, with whom I had shared a house in 1987, and who had permanent work in one or other of these faculties (certainly, the Faculty of Science, on the second occasion).

I probably put H’s nose out of joint when the Secretary to the Faculty of Science gave acting higher duties to me, even though I was only a temporary employee.

I don’t know if I have anything very interesting to relate about these jobs: they didn’t last long, and their principal point of interest was the opportunity to see things from the other side of the counter.  Sure, you could look up your academic record and find out the marks (when I was first a student, you only learnt the grades) and there was some temptation to look up those of others.   A lot of our time was spent guiding students and potential students through the incredibly labyrinthine by-laws: these conversations could often be very protracted indeed, probably because I was being just too helpful.

In bureacratic terms, the university was its own little world: much smaller than the Departments of Administrative Services or the  Special Minister of State.  It was quite a nice place to work and a fair number of my fellow employees (and not just the temporary ones) were working their way through degrees.  By the second year I was there, corporatism was beginning to intrude: budgetary systems were being implemented which transformed the faculties into rudimentary business units, and the Dean of Science even had a “company car.”

Jobs 4

October 5, 2007

High School English Teacher

I have touched on my time in this job before.  This is a holding post for the sake of the sequence: even now, almost 20 years after, my travails as a teacher are not something I can revisit comfortably.

The one thing I can say with reasonable confidence is that my fellow English teachers were perhaps the greatest bunch of social misfits I have worked together with in my life. I mean this both positively and negatively. There was much scheming against a female head of English who had evidently been brought in to straighten things out. When she set up a creative writing magazine for the students, works were submitted under the assumed names of various students. One such piece (attributed to a boy in year 8 or 9) began:

“I love creative writing; it’s quite my favourite task
My muse forever haunts me – I never have to ask.
And when the craze is on me, I’ll write for hours on end
Plays, stories poetry – wheree’er my fancies tend.”

Other, more scurrilous rhymes were composed in late night drinking sessions after debating on Friday nights or parent-teacher nights.

One effect of teaching which I observed in myself is that, accustomed to parting the crowds in the playground with a purposive walk and a defensive scowl, I caught myself doing it in the world at large (though less effectively). I only really became a real person in the middle of the school holidays.

The thing I never really got used to as a teacher is the notion of fulfilling a public persona (which was inherently authoritarian) which was utterly divergent from my own private life. Now I have become more acclimatized to that public-private divide, which doesn’t only apply to teachers, or even to those in positions of authority.

Jobs 3

October 3, 2007

Public Servant

At the time I finished my Arts degree, taking the public service examination was one of those things you did.  Unless you were set on further study (apart from the Dip Ed or, for combined law students, the balance of the law degree, a rarity) there wasn’t really much else.  I sat the graduate entry exam, which the Commonwealth Public Service used to determine (along with other factors) its annual graduate intake of Assistant Research Officers (AROs).

I almost didn’t join up.  Two things clinched it: the determination of the relevant department in the face of my non-commital non-communicativeness (they even sent a telegram), and, more determinatively, the beginnings of a relationship with a friend who had accepted a post-grad scholarship at the Research School for the Social Sciences (RSSS) at the ANU.

I joined the decidedly unglamorous Department of Administrative Services.  This was a grab-bag of support functions brought together under the Secretary, Sir Peter Lawler.  The minister was Kevin Newman.  Later, the department split and I went into the Department of Special Minister of State, which constituted the more “white-collar” portions of the previous DAS.  Under the Labor Government, our minister was Mick Young and then, I think, Kim Beazley.

We AROs were treated quite well in many ways: there was quite a big effort made to provide us training, and we got up close to some quite interesting people.  We had monthly courses at a residential college at ANU, run by an ex-Jesuit, Michael Breen.  He was always trying to get us to do touchy-feely training things, and we were always giving him a hard time.  We were placed on “rotation” in various parts of the department.  Apparently, the securing of AROs was a matter of some status competition between the different divisions.  However, as with so many temporary training positions of this sort, the problem was that there was often not any real work available for us – often we were fobbed off with vanity projects and make-work of one sort or another.

There are others who read this blog who could give a more detailed account of being a public servant than I could.  It’s not a rare occupation, but it is difficult to sum up the elements of the mindset (which, in any event, is not homogenous).  A good starting point is probably Yes Minister, which started during the time I was in Canberra and was very popular.  Three little vignettes which come to mind, and which may represent an era now past are:

  • Tea ladies (though I don’t think they were in every division);
  • in the morning, a good half hour could be taken up by experienced staff members with a few cigarettes and the newspaper;
  • in the Protective Services Co-ordination Centre, my supervisor was a Cambridge graduate who had been shunted aside for some undisclosed misdemeanour in the past.  Everything was very genteel – it was “Mr [Marcellous] pls [do whatever].”  He was on the circulation list for the airmail editions of The Times and I borrowed his copies.  At meetings, attended by ASIO representatives (for some reason, always staunchly Presbyterian) another colleague would draw the curtains across the windows, in case some undisclosed hostile agent was checking the attendance or lip-reading with binoculars.

A year after I went to Canberra, my friend U also joined the same department.  She told me that the moment which gave her the most sinking feeling was the statement (I think in relation to Superannuation) that “normal retirement age is 65.”  Needless to say, neither of us lasted the distance.  Sydney people were the least likely to do so, because it was always too easy to head back up the road to Sydney for the weekend, which worked against settling down in Canberra.

As this suggests, much about my experience in the public service overlaps with my experience of living in Canberra, which I will probably say something about on another occasion.  Having only just moved out of home into the exciting (to me) inner city the year before, I don’t think I was ready to give up such excitement for the different pleasures of Canberra life.  After 2 years in Canberra, I took a scholarship back in Sydney.