Writers

Why For Pity Sake?

On the face of it my Dad was a numbers man.  He had a Bachelor of Commerce with Honours in Economics.  He started his career in journalism as a finance writer.  He even did a stint with a stockbroking firm before becoming a Finance Editor then a high ranking media executive whose knowledge of the commercial ins and outs of the newspaper business was unsurpassed in his time. He called my sisters and I Things 1, 2, 3 and 4, in a lid-dip to the Cat in the Hat's naughty little cohorts.  Can't say I blame him. Numbers are so much more logical and convenient than names - a way to bring order to the chaos that comes with having a bevy of little girls running amok in the house.

Keith McDonald HouseCome to think of it having four female progeny that quickly grew into teenagers may have been why he spent so much time at Queensland Newspapers' offices in Bowen Hills, Brisbane, poring over circulation figures, advertising revenues and costings for the installation of brand new computerised photo-typesetting systems.  Perhaps that's why they named the remodelled News Queensland building after him in 2012 - Keith McDonald House, no less!

However, my Dad defies definition by numbers alone.  He loved words and the elegant stringing together of same by artful writers - from poetry to intellectual discourse, Shakespeare to Dr Seuss, the Bible to the weekly Economist, both of which he read with intense concentration...often underlining the good bits.

And he didn't stop at words - he loved all the elements of good production, from cover design and mastheads, illustrations and registration of images on newsprint, to typesetting and the paper stock used for printing. He even marvelled at the print and distribution processes themselves, often parking his car at the farthest end of the old Bowen Hills building so he could make his way to his office via the loading docks and the printing presses. He chatted to drivers, print engineers, compositors and various other hands in the production chain, gaining an intimate knowledge of how things came together in newspaper production.

Dad's knowledge and depth of experience were much revered in the world of media. He rose from a humble finance writer to Chairman of Queensland Press, serving on the Boards of the Herald and Weekly Times and News Corporation, to name a few. Long after he had retired and his usual companion to News Corp events of note (my dear mother) had passed away, I accompanied Dad to a very grand farewell function in Melbourne for a Herald and Weekly Times colleague. By this time Dad was showing signs of the Parkinson's affliction he had been diagnosed with a few years earlier - quiet, laboured speech being the most obvious. After all the formalities of the evening were over, I saw my father seated at an empty table in between Rupert and Lachlan Murdoch, both of whom were leaning in to catch what he was saying.

I'm pretty sure the sight of these three huddled together caused my mouth to spontaneously fall open. I said proudly to some random who happened to be standing close by, "That's my Dad."

Growing up I wasn't really aware of this business grandeur. Keith McDonald was just my Dad, the one who read C.S. Lewis' The Chronicles of Narnia to me in their entirety, until I was old enough to read them again for myself. Many's the time we tried to outdo one another at remembering stanzas from T.S. Eliot's The Lovesong of J Alfred Prufrock - "Let us go then, you and I, when the evening is spread out against the sky like a patient etherized upon a table..."

My Dad was a font of sayings and witticisms, like the time he "smote the serpent" or in layman's terms, he took a stick to a carpet snake that reared up at him from its hidey hole in the garden around our pool. Or when he told my younger sister, who had a tendency to hang out with hooligans while at University, "If you fly with the crows, you get shot with the crows". He even laughed out loud when he heard Barry Humphries describe the meaning of the O.B.E. acronym, not as Order of the British Empire but as Other Buggers' Efforts. Having been bestowed with one of those himself in recent times, this play on words was very much to Dad's taste.

"For pity sake!" was one his perennials, usually said with a great deal of vigour. We heard it often while growing up - when something got broken, or someone crunched the gears during a driving lesson, or one of us was on the phone too long. When I was younger I didn't respond too well to this declaration but I look fondly on it now.

Keith Henry McDonald O.B.E., is the inspiration for this new venture, For Pity Sake Publishing, not just because he was a bloke with a talent for numbers, production efficiencies, revenues and profits, nor because he knew and had the respect of people in very high places. No - it's because under that pragmatic commercial carapace beat the heart of a true poet, a man who by osmosis instilled in my sisters and I a love of words and reading and the knowledge and delight that these things bring.

It's fitting that as my sisters and I gather to remember the November 30 date of our Dad's passing that I should be writing this blogpost and officially launching this venture in his name.  We 'dip our lid' to you, dear boy. What I wouldn't give to hear you say "for pity sake!" in your full voice, even in frustration, just one more time.

Above The Fold

Above The Fold has been almost three years in the making.   It has been written and rewritten, which my good friend Morris West would approve of. “Rewrite and then rewrite again,” has been the credo of other friends, like Bryce Courtenay, quite different from Morris, but both great storytellers. The book has had other titles, but in the end a clever cover expertly illustrates that it is about newspapers and a journalist. This is my twelfth novel in the past 18 years, autobiographical in places, more so than any other books, particularly in the opening chapters. But the delightful Claudia is pure fiction, and so is much of Luke Elliott’s life. I spent my summers on Sydney’s Northern Beaches, as did my main character, Luke. I wanted to be a journalist, but on being told by one newspaper of my choice that not even copy-boys were employed without a university degree, I took part time jobs like Luke did. Then we both became messenger boys at radio station 2GB, for it was part of the Macquarie Network and produced the most radio drama in Australia at the time. This influx of local drama was an accident of war. The flood of British and American programs had been halted as ships were engaged in carrying more urgent cargoes - food and munitions for embattled Britain; troops and reinforcements in American ships when Japan seemed about to invade us.

Like Luke, at 2GB I learnt how to write radio scripts. Then at eighteen my career was halted when I was called up, as he was. Both of us volunteered to go to Japan with the Occupation Force, and I saw the horror of Hiroshima, and its effect on a child like Kaito, whom we rescued from living in the streets.  That is the approximate time in my book where our lives took a different course. Luke joined the army newspaper in Tokyo and covered the war in Korea as a foreign correspondent.   I returned to Australia, went back to writing radio scripts until, with television imminent, I went to England with my wife and two young children for the next twenty years, writing television, feature films and stage plays.

Even though our lives took different directions, I thoroughly enjoyed writing about Luke. He is like an “alter-ego” which, according to the Oxford Dictionary, means he’s a close friend or alternative personality. Luke does the things I did, like living close to Chelsea in London, joining nuclear protests, as well as writing about Kaito, in my case for the Financial Review and The Guardian.

Luke also does some things that I might have done, such as writing about Evie Petrov. When we lived in Careel Bay near Avalon in Sydney’s north, we were situated around the corner from where Petrov and his wife had been kept in their safe house.

Above the Fold was enjoyable to write largely because of Luke Elliott’s character. We share so much in outlook that at times it felt like writing about myself.

The Grapes of Wrath

What some people find in religion a writer may find in his craft… a kind of breaking through to glory’ – Steinbeck, 1965 I’m an English and Writing student at Macquarie University, so as you can probably guess, I don’t have a lot of time for reading for pleasure. This means that when I eventually do pick up something to read for my own enjoyment, it had better be good.

Last term holidays, I read John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. From the first chapter, I was in love. Steinbeck’s style is something that I’ve tried to replicate in my own writing. His stories have a beautiful flow to them, and although they usually focus on more desperate and dismal times, he manages to find beauty within hardship.

The Grapes of Wrath is a realist novel which follows the story of the Joad family after their oldest son, Tom is released from prison and the family is driven from their Oklahoma home by drought, economic hardship, agricultural industry changes and bank foreclosures forcing tenant farmers out of work. The Joads pack their truck full of all their belongings and set off for California with dreams of orange picking and stable work.

However, as they get closer to their destination they meet more and more immigrants who tell tales about the lack of jobs, and the terrible working-conditions even if you were lucky enough to secure employment. These stories do nothing to stop the Joads, who keep making their way to California despite the problems they encounter along the way.

What I love most about this book is the way the family perseveres. It seems that every chapter something new has gone awry in their journey, but none the less, they push through and continue on their way, working together to make it to their version of the promised land.

This novel is tragically beautiful. It deals with death, depression and poverty. Steinbeck is able to create tragic situations, drawing the reader in so you share the desolate feelings of the characters. However, this book highlights the importance of family in these hard times, as the only way the Joads are able to keep going is because of the love they share for each other and their desire to save their family no matter what.

In short, this book is a classic which is certainly worth a read. It has the busy Uni student with a study reading list a mile long tick of approval!

Elizabeth Gilbert and other medicines

I've spoken before about my inability to disprove the idea that I am, in fact, a middle-aged to elderly woman instead of a hairy twenty-something man. I have another piece of damning evidence to submit to the court. Imagine this man, younger, skinnier, hairier, lost, listening to Eat, Pray, Love on audiobook on repeat while baking furiously for weeks. This is how I spent a not completely insignificant two or three months of my life, healing from a deadly severe bout of depression and a couple of damaging relationships. During that time Eat, Pray, Love proved to being the strongest piece of alchemy for my healing. Funny, poignant and honest, it led me out of the dark.

Cut to several years later, and I'm lying in bed with my fiancée, reading aloud from Committed. In the months leading up to our wedding, we'll read the entire thing together, from cover to cover, pausing in spots to reflect on the idea of 'marriage'. Is it necessary? Will it mean the same for us later on? Is this woman comfortable with marrying a man who listens to Eat, Pray, Love while baking? You know, the key questions.

In between these life altering moments stands two other works. The Last American Man was read shortly after Eat, Pray, Love, and was one of the first pieces of non-memoir non-fiction that made creative non-fiction one of my favourite forms of writing. Underestimated and uncelebrated, The Last American Man is a stunning portrayal of colonialism, masculinity and America.

At the other end is The Signature of All Things, proving that one author can straddle the fictional and non-fictional worlds with equal skill and zest. The Signature of All Things is a superbly written novel. It's a technical masterpiece.

Elizabeth Gilbert wrote all of these. There are few other contemporary living writers who have had as much effect over my writing and personal life. Perhaps most importantly, Elizabeth has illuminated the space between these lives, and gives voice to the downright weird, inexpressible but valuable connection between the two.

Tonight, I'm going to the Powerhouse to see her speak, on behalf of Brisbane Writers Festival, and I could not be more pleased. I've become all nostalgic for those days where I heard her voice in my ear, my clothes covered in flour, still in my pyjamas, nursing several oven burns on my fingers. It was an unpleasant time, but it's Elizabeth Gilbert who is in large part to thank for making it a positive experience. There is no nobler calling for an artist, I believe, than to be healer and entertainer both.

This article was originally posted on 05/03/2014 Blog - David Burton

Incivility is a bottom line issue

In Season 1 of The Newsroom, the latest series by Aaron Sorkin of West Wing fame, the uber-intelligent, talented, opinionated and really cranky anchor of the fictitious Newsnight, Will McAvoy (played by Emmy award winner Jeff Daniels), decides he's on a 'mission to civilise'. Ironically his attempts to appeal to the better nature of his targets are so offensive he cops a drink in the face the first two times he tries it! Apart from a bruised ego and some dry cleaning bills, Mr McAvoy's failure to be civil while delivering his message about civility really didn't cost him much. But what if you could put a dollar figure on how much rudeness and 'incivility' in the workplace actually costs?

That's precisely what business consultants and professors, Christine Pearson and Christine Porath have done in the their book The Cost of Bad Behaviour - How Incivility is Damaging Your Business and What to Do About It. Based on a decade of research they've come up with a model for calculating the dollar costs of incivility in the work place. And the costs aren't just confined to the obvious ones like the cost of staff turnover (although that's a biggy) and loss of customers through rude frontline staff.

The introduction on the dust cover of the book is compelling: "Now more than ever, tensions are running high at the office. But while managers everywhere are trying to cut costs and maximise productivity, chances are they're missing one potentially devastating expense: the high cost of bad behaviour."

The costing model is based on a case study of Cisco Systems calculated on hard data from Pearson and Porath's study into the incidence and previously obscure effects of incivility among 775 non-Cisco employees including:

  • 53 percent of employees surveyed lost work time worrying about the incident and future interactions with the offender.
  • 37 percent reported a weakened sense of commitment to their organisations.
  • 28 percent lost work time trying to avoid the offender.
  • 22 percent reduced their efforts at work.

Additionally a whopping 46 percent thought about changing jobs to get away from the offender, 12 percent actually did change jobs and 10 percent decreased the amount of time they spent at work.

Cisco estimated that one employee in a hundred would experience incivility at work in the course of a year - a total of 490 employees out of 49,000 at the time. Cisco consistently ranks in the top echelon of Fortune's 100 Best Companies to Work For so this conservative estimate of workplace incivility isn't misplaced. However, despite this, the dollar impacts were still considerable.

A baseline calculation of weakened commitment and time lost worrying about future interactions with offenders was US$2 million. Add in lost productivity and new hire costs for employees who actually did leave the company and it totals US$8 million. And that's before calculating reductions in effort at work, time spent avoiding work or the even more obscure secondary effects on those who've witnessed incivility towards colleagues or customers who've witnessed employees being rudely treated by their colleagues/superiors. You can easily see how, even in a very civil work environment like Cisco, these costs could mount up.

The authors' state in their preamble, "Serious costs associated with incivility existed in virtually every organisation that we studied. People who experienced incivility were affected deeply, and nearly everyone took action to get even." And they go on to say targets of incivility in the workplace - whether it came from above, from co-workers or subordinates - would intentionally lower their productivity, work to rule, lose respect for their managers and even leave their jobs. Despite this, few managers registered the fact that incivility could be very costly to the organisation, resulting in no tracking and no inclusion of costs in the profit and loss.

I was particularly interested in the chapter entitled Time Wounds All Heels: Even Offenders Lose. Pearson and Porath found that over the years they've been researching, across industries, a staggering 94 percent of targets get even with their offenders, citing many examples of retribution such as sabotaging a boss by not submitting a report on time or failing to pass on a vital message to a colleague. Some of these reactions can be subtle, covert and long term, bringing new meaning to the old saying, "Revenge is a dish best served cold". In addition the authors' state that offenders themselves also, over time, suffer losses to their reputation and eventually their career prospects.

All of this has a cost associated with it, for the organisation and most definitely the individuals involved - both targets and offenders alike. Thanks to this fascinating and practical book – the Cost of Bad Behaviour, these costs can now be measured.

And if you’d like some further, compelling reading on civility and more importantly, how to practice it, take a look at P.M. Forni’s little book Choosing Civility – The Twenty-five Rules of Considerate Conduct. It’s a keeper.