With his essential debut The Death of Holden: the End of an Australian Dream, freelance journalist Royce Kurmelovs reports the important stories of those most affected by the death of car manufacturing.
Royce Kurmelovs grew up in Salisbury Park, a few kilometres south of Elizabeth and its Holden plant, which until recently employed 1600 workers and rolled 335 cars out of its factory every day. Kurmelovs has a family connection to the plant as his grandfather worked at Holden for a year-and-a-half when he migrated to Australia.
“It was a building block,” Kurmelovs says of the Holden plant that will close next year. “It was how you started a new life. It was how you got some money to get your stuff together to go do something else. And a lot of people stayed.”
Originally an essay as part of a Kill Your Darlings mentorship program with Gideon Haigh, Kurmelovs expanded the essay to a book for Hachette. He was attracted to cover the closure of Holden because it was the biggest story going around.
Kurmelovs, who writes for the BBC, Al Jazeera, The Guardian and Vice, became a freelance journalist because “every serious job I applied for I’d been knocked back from at some point”.
“I thought, ‘Well ‘I’m ambitious and arrogant enough, so I am going to try and do it anyway’,” he says. “It’s been a steep learning curve. And it’s hard. Being a freelancer is hard – especially when you’re coming into it without established connections and experience in the newsroom. To build up that business and knowledge-base is a difficult thing but that’s the direction it’s going, that’s the direction media is taking. A lot of kids are getting advised now: ‘Go freelance for a few years, get the experience and then get a job’.”
This is different from the traditional journalistic route, which was study (or get a cadetship), intern and then secure a staff job before branching out. But the advantage of being a freelancer is that Kurmelovs is able to cover stories that appeal to him. He has built a reputation for covering intriguing stories with an edge.
“I think people are interesting,” he says. “I have an affinity for the outsider and the underdog.”
The young journalist is attracted to telling stories about people who often don’t have a voice in the media and, due to being a freelancer, is able to write yarns that he probably wouldn’t have the freedom to do if he was a staff writer.
“The trade-off is that I get to choose the stories I want to work on,” he says. “And sometimes they can be really great, powerful and intense stories that you would never normally get up. But you basically know there’s no money in your account at the end of the week if you don’t work. At the end of the day, it’s that same economic problem we’re facing, which is the same problem a lot of people in the car industry will be facing when they transition into this casualised, informal and insecure environment that we’re living in.”
A theme of Death of Holden is the transition to this casual economy, and the uncertainty workers who relied on stable full-time jobs in manufacturing will face. This is a theme that isn’t relegated to the northern suburbs of Adelaide but also other southern Australian areas where car manufacturing will be put down: Geelong and Broadmeadows. Kurmelovs doesn’t predict the future in Death of Holden, rather he recounts the political and business decisions that got us to this point and, more importantly, tells the stories of the many workers across the country who face an uncertain future.
“In writing the book I made the conscious decision to report all the rumour and speculation of people in these various blue collar jobs, because if you want to get a look at the mindset of what people are thinking at this point in time, that’s part of it. It may not turn out to be true. A lot of people are speculating: what’s going to happen to the land of Holden? What’s going to happen to the shipyards when they close? What are the companies going to do? When’s the next layoff coming? Living with that uncertainty is hard.”
Kurmelovs didn’t himself want to speculate in the book as predicting the future is “more astrology than science”.
“I would like to think we will pull through, and we probably will, everything is cyclical. There have been downturns before but in the meantime there’s a human crust to that inbetween. That’s what I wanted to write about, because that’s what matters: recording the stories of people who otherwise get ignored, who get written off, ‘It’s fine, it’s a natural change in the economy’. Well, these people deserve their stories told, too.”
Royce Kurmelovs, The Death of Holden: The End of an Australian Dream (Hachette)