Once upon a time, more than 20 years ago, I was in Melbourne, Australia, working for a company that sold books door-to-door. I was living in a flat in St. Kilda with my workmates, a motley mix of foreigners — mostly Brits — and young, itinerant Australians. At 19, I was usually the youngest and the only Canadian on my teams (I did meet one other Canadian from Victoria, but he didn’t last long). I’d just met them but was expected to spend all my waking hours with them in a hyper-communal living arrangement. Not only were we sharing expenses via a kitty, buying groceries together and divvying up the housework, we were on a company mandate to spend all of our free time together to “bond” as salespeople. Those first six months in Australia working for two rival companies with nearly identical employee training programs and policies turned out to be some of the most absurd yet strangely rewarding months of my life, where I made friends I still have to this day. It’s also where I learned a great deal about myself, human nature, and more about Australian people than I could ever, ever want to know…
Even though all this time has passed, I still don’t talk much about the first six months in Australia because it was such a weird time, based in these isolated quasi-communes and living like we were in some kind of transient work cult. Today, we would be a reality show and we’d be making money from the weirdness. But back then it was a way of life, a situation that could only be possible in the pre-internet days on the gigantic island that is Australia, cut off from the rest of the world and where news came by traditional media like TV, radio, and print. We lived in a bubble. A fun bubble in a Willie Wonka sort of way, but a bubble nonetheless.
Due to the nature of the work, the places where we lived became a revolving door of people. Many of us were on short-term visas, mostly Working Holiday category, living out of bags and going where the wind took us. Teams were changing constantly. We’d basically given up our freedom in exchange for accommodation, being continuously on the road in the company of other young people, and the promise of well-paid commissions for hard work. We had few responsibilities like finding places to live, but we made a deal with the devil and had to abide by a slew of rules. We were associated with cults because communication with “outsiders” was virtually impossible: nobody had mobile phones, pay phone calls were expensive, and we were monitored to a degree that still disturbs me a bit when I think about it. Later, when I was still in Australia but working elsewhere, someone told me there was an exposé on television about these companies and their dodgy practices and I was in it, portrayed as a “victim”, but I never got to see it. Probably a good thing!
The terms of employment were such that the companies dictated our social lives. We were strongly discouraged — nay, forbidden — to make friends apart from our workmates who were already living with us, but at the same time it was verboten to sleep with each other because that would “fracture” the team. Which of course, as you can imagine, invited a lot of clandestine rule-breaking. As if that wasn’t enough drama, the learning curve for our jobs was very steep and not everyone in the teams got along. There were personality conflicts, sexual tension, and the type of behaviour you’d expect when a bunch of strangers are thrown together in close quarters. Everyone was far from home, we only had each other, and this compression bubble turned us into a de facto family — a very dysfunctional one at times. We ate together, worked together, went clubbing together, did everything together. Between the two companies, around Canberra and Melbourne, I spent six months in these roving bands of sales teams. It was like a portable, real-life version of Big Brother, with jobs but without the prize money.
I still think about some of those people from time to time, because of what we experienced together. I’ve reconnected with some later, in particular one friend who returned to England and set up in London. I’d met up with her a number of times over the years between living in Scotland and passing through London. Some people leave a strong impression, either for their personality or from something that happened. One individual I remember from those days was one of the funniest people I’d ever met, one of the few from that team whose name stuck in my head. I’ve often wondered over the years what he’d done since then and if he’d returned to Wales. I don’t know what possessed me to plug his name into the search bar today, but to my great surprise I found his name (a common one) in Amazon — by some crazy coincidence he’d just published a book about those very days in Australia!
Now, if you’d met anyone who’d worked for either of those two companies in Australia, you’d likely hear some variation of “I could write a book about those crazy times” passing their lips within five minutes. Because it’s true — even six months to a year of this nomadic and intense lifestyle could easily fill a book with outrageous stories, names changed of course. But here we are 20 years later and finally someone DID actually write a book about it, and it happens to be a guy I’d been wondering about all along. My curiosity got the better of me. I started reading some chapters of the book and indeed, he’s changed people’s names, but the stories are not exaggerated…
… and down the rabbit hole I went.