Putting food on my family

August 9, 2015 in Freelance, Misc, On Writing


I was supposed to have started working on my book projects last month, but as of today I’ve still done jack squat. The excuse this time: making money.

I’ve always welcomed a bit of freelance work on the side as a supplement, though that aspect of my income has been sporadic at best. Some projects are great, while others are awful, and it’s usually hard to predict which before you agree to take it on. This year things have been more stable as I’ve built some repeat clientele and long-term collaborations, and last month everything suddenly exploded, especially towards the end of the month.

Just when I was getting in the mood to do some writing I was bombarded by five separate projects, all with relatively tight deadlines. The annoying thing is that some of them feed the work to you periodically and just when you think you’re done they send you more. And the shit clients tend to take forever to get back to you if you have a question, but when they need something from you they are always, without exception, in a massive hurry.

It’s frustrating especially because the state of the market is not great, and most of the time the clients can’t tell if your work is vastly superior than others, meaning it is difficult to charge what you deserve. And if you do charge what you deserve (at least by market standards) they’ll probably just go to someone else.

The problem is exacerbated by my analness. I just can’t stand when something is not up to par and just have to fix it, even when it doesn’t really concern me. Like this theatre production I was doing translations for had split the work between me and another freelancer, and just hours before opening night, they send me the “finished” slides so I can help fill in some of the blanks. And of course, I reviewed all the slides and saw how shit the translations were by the other freelancer, and I couldn’t help but fix them up along with all the other careless formatting by the production staff. They really appreciated it but I knew I wasn’t getting any more money. In fact, I had to chase them up for payment (which I hate doing but have had to do more than a few times).

I bitch, but when you get the opportunity to more than double your monthly income you just have to take it. As an eloquent leader once said, “I know how hard it is for you to put on your family.”

bush food

Besides, even when you add up the hours from my day job and the freelancing, I’m still working a lot less than I did as a lawyer. Plus I find the work relatively easy and stress free, so it’s a world of difference I’d gladly take any day of the week.

The onslaught is actually continuing but I hope things will slow down after this week so I can finally get to what I’ve been meaning to do all year. The good news is that I’ve been reviewing films like a trojan whenever I’ve been on public transport and have about 10 movie posts completed. I’ll release them gradually over the next week.

PS: Also looking to get back into reading after a long hiatus. Nothing gets me in the mood for writing like reading.

Book Review: “Adventures in Correspondentland” by Nick Bryant

January 7, 2012 in Book Reviews, Reviews

Here’s another book I read for a trade publication review.

Adventures in Correspondentland is written by BBC foreign correspondent Nick Bryant, who has been all around the world over the last 10-15 years, from London to Washington DC, Pakistan to India, Afghanistan to Guantanamo Bay, and finally, Sydney, his adopted home of the past five years (he married Aussie designer Fleur Wood).  He has also witnessed some of the defining moments of our time, including the death of Princess Diana, the impeachment of President Bill Clinton, 9/11 and the Boxing Day Tsunami.

Naturally, I was very excited about this book.  While not wanting to be a foreign correspondent (you really have to have a passion for on-call travel and frontline news), I was fascinated by the stories Bryant has to tell, the things he has seen and heard, the experiences he has had.  I had expected it to be a light-hearted, quirky, humorous kind of book (I mean, just take a look at the title and the cover), which has been described as “part memoir, part travelogue and part polemic”.

However, I was surprised by how relatively serious this book was for most of its 431 pages.  Of course, there were a lot of serious issues, from human rights abuses to mass deaths and child prostitution, but I expected a lighter, more fly-on-the-wall narrative strewn with funny vignettes.  There were a couple of good ones, such as when Clinton had to present a journalism award to the reporter who discovered the existence of Monic Lewinsky’s infamous “soiled” blue dress, or John Howard’s bewildered reaction when Bryant tried to speak to him after Howard’s crushing defeat to K-Rudd.

Bryant also came across as a little cynical, which is hard not to be when you’re a seasoned veteran of the news circuit.  But he does display an uncanny self-awareness of the emotional conflicts journalists often face, where a horrible human tragedy might simultaneously present the biggest break of their careers.  How does one feel or react?  Is it wrong to even feel a tiny sliver of exhilaration?  Those were the things I was most fascinated with.

Perhaps because it was part memoir, part travelogue and part polemic, there was a rather uneven tone for the first half of the book.  At times Bryant was an objective journalist reporting on events with little emotion, which made him bizarrely distant from the narrative, but at other times Bryant would suddenly become extremely personal and the story would become all about him.  It created a strange effect because Bryant is obviously a very articulate and skilled writer at the sentence level.

It wasn’t until Bryant settled in Australia that he seemed to settle down and became more comfortable with himself and his writing.  Or maybe it’s just because chronologically speaking, Australia is closest to the forefront of his memory.  Either way, Bryant’s single chapter on Australia was my highlight of the book.  From the death of Steven Irwin (which happened only days after he touched down) to the plight of Indigenous Australians to the day Kevin Rudd said “Sorry”, Bryant offers some absolutely fascinating insights into the Australian psyche.

As a Pom and a relative outsider, Bryant discusses the strange position Australia holds in the world, explores Australia’s undercurrent of racism and is not shy about serving up his unflattering opinion of K-Rudd, whom he describes as the “most singularly charmless of men: unpleasant, intellectually superior and seemingly devoid of lightness or humour.” (And this was before he became Prime Minister…remember the Kevin ’07 T-shirts?).  From Shane Warne to Kylie Minogue, from Pauline Hanson to Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott, everyone gets a little page time.

After the Australian chapter, Bryant brings all his experiences together and looks forward to the future, touching on the impact of technology on the news industry.  There is also a very personal postscript about the birth of Bryant’s first child and the latest world developments, including the death of Osama Bin Laden and the Japanese Tsunamis.  Interestingly, I found these three chapters to be the strongest of the book.

On the whole, an insightful and sporadically interesting read.  Not quite what I expected but I did learn a lot from it.

3 out of 5

Next Year’s Best Picture Oscar Frontrunner

March 9, 2011 in Blogging, Entertainment, Misc

Trailer courtesy of Jimmy Kimmel Live.

I would so pay to see this film.

Book Review: Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army by Jeremy Scahill

December 5, 2010 in Book Reviews

Before a friend of mine lent me Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army, I knew very little about the privatised military sector and how much it has come to dominate the world we live in.

Written by investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill, Blackwater is an epic expose of Blackwater USA, a private military company founded by right wing Christian evangelist Erik Prince.  Blackwater is one of the most powerful mercenary armies in the world, with billions of dollars of contracts with the US Government for “security” services provided in Afghanistan and Iraq.

I’ve been getting into non-fiction a lot more recently, so this is definitely a book I would recommend to those who have a fascination with the “war on terror” and questions why anyone would want to voluntarily go into a warzone to risk their lives and, for lack of a better term, so they can shoot people.  Blackwater is a frightening, chilling, and often infuriating account of how Blackwater USA began as a rural shooting range and developed into a powerful international force with enough firepower to take down entire countries by itself (not to mention a well-oiled money-making and publicity machine) — and something the US Government cannot operate without.

And according to Scahill, this is where the problem lies (or at least use to lie), because the Government’s dependence on private contractors means that companies like Blackwater USA can do whatever they want and operate above the law.  On the one hand, they are given immunity from prosecution back in the US because they are considered military, and as such, given the same constitutional protections.  But on the other hand, because they are a private company, they cannot be subject to court martials like members of the US Army — the worst that can happen for killing innocent civilians is losing their jobs.

This is the core of Scahill’s argument — when you put a bunch of macho, trigger-happy mercenaries in a foreign country with a heavy power imbalance and give them immunity from prosecution, atrocities are bound to happen.  And they have.

So of course, Scahill is determined to paint Blackwater USA as the bad guys.  The soldiers are depicted as steroid injecting, muscle bound Schwarzenegger clones dressed in khakis, wearing wraparound sunglasses and armed with massive guns that they are willing to discharge at the drop of a hat.  They are former high school bullies and adrenaline junkies that always want to be “where the action is”.

The businessmen and politicans behind the scenes are extremely wealthy and well-connected right wing Christian extremists who genuinely believe every word of the Bible is literal and the United States and George W Bush were chosen by God to lead Christianity over “barbaric” Islam — by killing all of them.  They are men who make fortunes by sending others into battle in the name of God, patriotism, liberation and democracy — but have no problem skimping on protective measures for the soldiers for the sake of the saving a buck.

Given the “so crazy it must be true” material, Blackwater is, as expected, a cracking good read.  Scahill’s research is broad, varied and meticulous, creating a volume that is encyclopaedic in scope.  The best parts of the book are where Scahill describes in gruesome and cinematic detail the two biggest incidents in Blackwater USA history — the ambush, death and mutilation of four Blackwater USA contractors in Fallujah that sparked its ascension to prominence, and the Nisour Square massacre that saw 17 civilians gunned down without provocation by Blackwater soldiers in Baghdad which led to Blackwater USA’s Iraqi licence being revoked.

The rest of the 500+ page book (with small font and surprisingly few paragraph breaks) is mainly exposition that covers just about everything you would possibly want to know about Blackwater USA.  Apart from how it began, how it rose to power and how it got to where it is today, Blackwater provides several lengthy biographical sketches of some of the company’s key figures, such as its founder Erik Prince and former CIA hotshot Cofer Black.  It also goes into Blackwater USA’s shady recruitment business in countries with questionable human rights records in South America, including soldiers that fought in America’s “dirty wars” and were involved in “death squads”.  One aspect many people probably don’t know about is Blackwater USA’s involvement in non-war ventures, such as after Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, the earthquakes in Haiti and in Dafur.  As Scahill suggests, these operations were all about money, even though Blackwater USA would make you believe that it was all about “stabilisation”, “peace” and “humanitarism”.

To me, while it was fascinating to read about all of these things, it did get a little tedious at times because there was simply too much information, especially in the second half where there was no clear progressive structure.  It was as though Scahill needed to throw in every single piece of information he uncovered about Blackwater USA, rather than picking out the most pertinent parts and sculpting it into a more compelling story.

The other thing I would have liked is a little more balance in the storytelling.  Scahill is consistently scathing in his portrayal of Blackwater USA — for good reason of course — but at times he came across as too cynical, too emotionally invested.  He was constantly pointing out the money Blackwater USA was making, the cronyism, and how the company continuously flouted the law — but surely Blackwater has done some good for the sake of doing good, and not merely for good publicity?  And even if we accept Blackwater USA as evil — what is a realistic solution?  What is the alternative?

These are the things I would have liked Scahill to explore more, but notwithstanding these criticisms, Blackwater is still a fascinating and insightful read that should appeal to enthusiasts and non-enthusiasts alike.

3.75 stars out of 5