Image: GM Holden/National Museum of Australia

Image: GM Holden/National Museum of Australia

Royce Kurmelovs is an Adelaide-based independent journalist and writer whose work has been published by the BBC, Al Jazeera English, VICE, The Guardian, Crikey and various other publications. Royce grew up in Salisbury, South Australia, and now lives in Adelaide’s west.

His new book The Death of Holden (Hachette Australia) is a work of reportage that explores the sudden collapse of Australia’s automotive industry. With the last Ford Falcon rolling off the production line this month, and the Holden factory set to close in 2017, The Death of Holden is about the people who make and drive the cars; it’s about sustaining industry in Australia; it’s about communities of workers and what happens when the work dries up.

At the recent National Young Writers’ Festival in Newcastle, NSW – itself a town that has gone through rapid change as the result of the loss of industry – I spoke with Royce about the book, deindustrialisation, and what it means for a generation of working-class Australians.

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Your book came out of an essay that you wrote as one of the winners of the Kill Your Darlings–Copyright Agency Investigative Journalism Mentorship in 2014. How did that essay end up being turned into a full-length book?

It’s going to be a really annoying answer, but chance! It was literally the biggest story going where I lived, and when you’re young and arrogant and trying to understand the world around you, you see this thing happening and say, alright, well, this is it – and KYD were good enough to give it to me. And then one day I happened to be at the Salisbury Writers Festival, which really punches above its weight, and every year they have a pitch session, where you go and meet publishers. I went in there, and I just said ‘Hi, I’m Royce, I’m a freelance journo, I wrote this thing about the end of Holden, do you think anyone would be interested in this? Do I need to get an agent?’ And Sophie [Hamley, from Hachette] asked for the first part of the piece, she read it on the plane back, and she asked for the rest of it and took it to get acquired, and I was pretty surprised by the whole situation.

The story I wrote for KYD was very narrow – it looks primarily at Adelaide’s north, and that’s a part of the world that doesn’t get much coverage – the only time you can get a camera or a journalist out there is if something goes wrong. So how do we make this bigger, what is going on here? If this event is going to be as profound as I think it’s going to be, what are the consequences of that? And so I didn’t just look at South Australia but also Victoria, across entire southern Australia where manufacturing dominated. I mean, it happened in Newcastle, where we’re sitting right now. But here, the actual buildup to that was over twenty years before the steelworks closed in 1999, and Wollongong had its own struggles as well. There was a lot of fear. Julianne Schultz wrote a book called Steel City Blues, and it was the first time someone had written about what happens when an industry shuts down in a town in Australia.

What makes it different now is the fact that you’ve got an entire industry capable of taking raw steel and turning it into a functioning car in the space of six hours or so, gone overnight. And when that goes, a lot of people are going to hurt. A lot of people take a purely economic look at these places – they say who cares, it’s just making cars, they’re heavily subsidised – and then they get kind of a bit further and say oh, there’s too many unions, it’s environmental, it’s mostly men. But these things were also social institutions that allowed people to get a better life, get a better place in the world. And it was often the first stop for new migrants – if you arrived in this country and you needed a job quick, you’d get a job in a factory. To be blunt, it’s shit work, but good pay. 

That’s what I see as the threat in this… we’re trading off the ethic of hard work for the hustle.

It’s amazing, everyone complained ‘Oh, people at Holden were getting paid so much’ – well, yeah, someone’s got to be getting paid so much. We all celebrate when people go to work on, like, a gas field or an oil rig, or even in a mine somewhere and get paid six figures, but when you’re getting paid a steady wage to do hard work, suddenly it’s a problem. And that’s what I see as the threat in this – I say at the end, we’re trading off the ethic of hard work for the hustle.

Sam Wallman did a great comic for SBS a few months ago about the car industry, and its importance to new immigrants as somewhere to get a foothold in society. Something that both you and Wallman discuss is this idea of ‘I’m doing this so that my kids don’t have to.’ I think that’s an interesting attitude that seems to be quite common across these sorts of places. 

Yeah, that’s the thing with working class areas – my father was a concreter, then became a truck driver, then was an earthmover. And the attitude was, ‘I’m doing this so you don’t have to work with your hands, you get to work with your brain in a cushy office somewhere, and then you are the hope.’ Take that away, you’ve got a lot of angry young men, who know things are fucked but don’t know why. 

And there’s not necessarily a structure for them to get out of that. 

And that plays out in different ways, depending on what intersection you put across it. If you’ve got a young migrant, they’re going to be experiencing the world in a different way to a young black man, say, with a funny-sounding name. They’re going to face a different kind of discrimination, that amplifies that frustration. But when I hung out with a lot of these men, they turned around and said ‘Look, having kids is one of the greatest things I’ve ever done.’ They see it as something good they’ve done in the world. Their lives may not be going great, but at least they have kids. And so part of the book was looking at that dynamic, looking at how, if you put different intersections over it, how people react.

That’s something that struck me about the book – as much as it is a book about industry and economics and about cars and manufacturing, it’s a book about what it is to be an Australian man, how men define themselves through what they do. Obviously women play a crucial role in the story as well, but these are men who you may not necessarily expect to open up about things which in some cases are quite personal, quite intimate. How did you get them to tell you their stories?

Once you talk to people, once you get involved and they get to know who you are and what you’re doing, people do talk to you, people do want to share, and they’re interested in talking about themselves. It’s just a matter of going there, and if someone offers you coffee or tea, you take it, you have a beer with someone, you get to know them. Because at the end of the day you’re writing about people, and you do your best to be respectful, and worry about their lives in a way that’s human. And being human isn’t easy – it’s messy, we all screw up, all you can do is the best you can. It’s a cliche, but a good one. And at the end that’s what I tried to do, I tried to sketch the lives of these people. 

Throughout the book, there’s a real sense of decisions being made elsewhere affecting life on the ground – really, the lives of these communities are in the hands of someone on the other side of the world. 

Adelaide is battered by globalisation. And examining how that plays out in everyday people’s lives is interesting for that reason, because people don’t make the connection between some board sitting in London, Detroit or wherever, making decisions about my life and my kids’ lives. Culturally these places are birthrights – and that’s what brings it back to Holden. Holden was the symbol of Australia, this was the Australian Car, it was what we built. And also now in the decline, it’s also a symbol of those things, of what everyone’s experiencing. And that’s why it’s significant – it’s the first domino in the chain, the way I see it. 

Your new piece in KYD Issue 27, ‘Australian Rust’, is about Whyalla, and about the uncertain future of the Arrium steelworks. Do you think there are parallels there between what’s happening there and in the car industry?

Absolutely – it’s all part of the same event. This thing is bigger than just the car industry, and this is what people were saying to me when I was researching the book. In isolation this may not be devastating, but it puts people in a very weakened position, so if there’s a big shock, or something else happens, it amplifies and it amplifies. You’ve got 200,000 people across Salisbury and Elizabeth, about to experience what happens when you close down a massive factory, plus Whyalla, which is kind of on a knife’s edge, it’s been up for administration, no-one quite knows what’s going to happen. So long as there’s that question mark there, the town’s going to have to work out what the fuck they’re going to do.

And together, this creates a bigger phenomenon, of deindustrialisation – and people get caught up in this. There’s a human toll to that. And the saddest thing for me is a lot of people tend to just brush it off. They say, you know, these places were big, dirty industry, they were very sexist – they may have been all that – but there’s nothing good to replace it. People say there are alternatives, they point to food, wine and tourism, but that benefits a very narrow section of the population.

This thing is bigger than just the car industry… it amplifies and it amplifies.

You look around a lot of the plans for these places, their plan for what happens when X closes is to open an art gallery, rely on tourism. It’s great that you want to do arts and tourism – but arts funding is being cut across the board, and if everyone’s got an art gallery and tourism, what makes it special?

What is it that attracts you to writing about the death of industry, and its impact on towns? Do you think it’s to do with growing up in that area and being exposed to that, or is it something else? 

It’s lots of things – it’s growing up in that area, and knowing that when this thing closes, people I grew up with are going to be living through it. You’ve got to keep in mind the bigger picture – these are the same kind of events that led to the creation of Trump and Brexit. One Nation’s got re-elected across mining communities that have taken a dive. So we’re already seeing that play out. And me telling that story in a compelling way, one that isn’t just confined to a 25-second headline, or a 20-word lede is important – it’s important for journalism, and also for Australia, because this is a social experiment. What’s going to happen to places like Geelong and Broadmeadows and Elizabeth is not quite known, and so how they ride it out is probably going to end up being studied by very well-paid academics for years. But I just happened to be in the right place and the right time to watch it happen. And I take that responsibility seriously, to the people I’m writing about, because it’s their story. And they’re stories that need to be told – we can’t just write about the winners. We’ve also got to write about people who are on the receiving end of some very big, bad decisions. 

We have 4 copies of The Death of Holden to give away to KYD subscribers, thanks to Hachette Australia. To enter, send your name and mailing address to [email protected] with the subject line ‘Holden’ before 5pm AEDT Friday 4 November.

The Death of Holden is available now at Readings.