Thursday, 29 September 2011

How I became a Fighting Fantasy Writer - Part 1

Upon graduating from university in 1981 I landed a job with a seismographic company as a computer operator. This company had a couple of old Raytheon RDS706s to process raw seismic data from the field, which would arrive as dusty boxes of 200ft reels of digital tape. This raw data would be compiled onto 2400 foot reels and then processed on the same RDS706s. This was a mind-bogglingly slow process. It would probably take an afternoon today, but back then the tape would inch along, the reel moving about 1 rpm and requiring replacement only every few hours at most. The net result of this was that, as a computer operator whose job it was to change the tapes at any time of night or day -- and not much else -- I had a lot of free time in which to write, as well as being paid quite handsomely for a first job. I started work on my first novel, some rubbish about the invasion of East Timor by the Indonesians, thankfully lost.
For some reason I gave up this dream job to move to Canberra, the national capital, to become an Assistant Research Officer (ARO) with the Australian Bureau of Statistics. An ARO was an underpaid type of graduate clerk. I dimly recall reasoning (insanely) that this move represented more of a 'career' than being a computer operator, despite slashing my salary in half.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics, crouched out there in Belconnen, seven loathsome architectural-award-winning turds of concrete draped across the hill (I'm pleased to see that it now lies half demolished - check it out on Google Earth at 35d 14' 30.33 S; 149d 04' 10.94" E). By what failure of imagination did I not see that entering this vile bureaucratic labyrinth - literal and metaphorical - would cause me nothing but misery? I at least should have had some intimation on that first day as I walked past open plan cubicles where busy Bureau personnel sat reading their newspapers, drinking their tea, or stood leaning in small groups against partitions talking earnestly about the rugby or flexitime or...

At my desk as part of a two man team in "Industrial Classification" we worked on assisting industrialists work their way through the (apparently incessant) paperwork we sent them demanding to know how many and which type of widgets they made. It was my happy task to work on important questions that might arise:

"Aeroplane spark plugs: do they come under 616.5, Aeroplane spare parts or 157.13, automotive spare parts, spark plugs?"

[Shrugs from my dear leader at the other desk, stimulating me to wade through piles of un-indexed bound folders looking for some clue before eventually making the answer up].

"Fruit drinks: Mixed berries: do they come under 444.11, fruit juice, mixed citrus, or 444.13, fruit juice, berry?"

And then, of course, there was the important "doing nothing": long hours of gazing blankly at the partition. Is it too soon to get another cup of tea? Can I think of a reason to walk somewhere? Where would I go? This building is in the middle of nowhere. Is it really only 30 seconds since I last looked at my watch? Long periods of anti-time came into being where the clock would simply stop moving, the second hand frozen rigidly at 3 seconds to 12, promising a salvation that never seemed to come. Then, backwards it would move, 4... 5... Oh, god, will this never end!

Unfortunately, the employment situation in Australia in those days for arts graduates was not great, and it took me a long time and a couple of collapsed lungs (another story) before I finally decided that I preferred anything to the Bureau.  So after a year I quit the ABS and headed back to South Australia and unemployment, thoroughly repulsed by the prospect of the lifetime of tedious wage slavery offered by the Australian Public Service. I wanted to work for myself, to build something, create something. At the time I just didn't know what.