Happy fourth birthday, Woolamaloo!
Yes, friends, today marks the fourth anniversary of the Woolamaloo Gazette, the blog they couldn’t hang, a blog with a mouth too big to shut (a mouth so big it still spews out words even when having its own foot in said mouth, which happens on occassion). Well, the fourth anniversary of this incarnation, for although the 7th of April 2003 saw the commencement of the Woolamaloo blog, the Gazette goes back to the early 90s, the name a homage to the University of Woolamaloo from Monty Python (also a track by Jean Michel Jarre and a real place in Australia). I’ve always been outspoken and an opinionated bugger (commenting on my firing a couple of years back Neil Gaiman commented he thought I was opinionated, but in the good way, which I took as a huge compliment and a real morale boost when I really needed it), right back to school where I spent years on the Academy’s debating team (nope, didn’t win them all, but I won a lot more than I lost) and when I was introduced to email in the 90s at college the opinionated bugger met Communications Technology and saw that It Was Good.
In ’91 only a few faculties had email and the web didn’t exist – it was the internet, mostly text, lots of discussion forums which I signed up for, mostly chatting to folks in other universities round the globe, debating, discussing, chatting, swapping jokes. Very soon I was sending out emails of spoof newspaper articles to friends, lampooning public figures, trends and satirising the hell out of stories in the news that were bugging me. To my surprise people liked them; in fact some folks who weren’t receiving them asked to be added to the list, others already on the list were forwarding it to their friends – my first taste of the interconnected nature of the net came when a friend told me she had forwarded it to her friend, who forwarded it to her husband in the US Air Force (there is nowhere the subversive Woolamaloo cannot go!) who forwarded it to a bunch of friends on more bases round the world.
By the 2000s I was still doing the Woolamaloo emails, but my good mate Ariel, then a fellow bookseller (I think we first got in touch when he was editing the Guide to SF for a certain book supermarket who we don’t mention here these days, but this was back when it was still a real bookstore and professional booksellers like us were encouraged to work on literature guides like this). Ariel kept saying I should do them in blog form, especially since the blog would allow me to do other things too as the fancy struck me. Some other friends were blogging by then, so with Ariel’s help (thanks, mate) we set up the new blog and a new era in cheeky and opinionated nonsense began in April 2003 with me having a go at the war in Iraq and pastiching the SARs outbreak that was the End Of The World plague in vogue at that time (later I would post that for a laugh I would stand next to Asian tourists in the shop and pretend to sneeze while SARs was going about, just to watch their startled reaction. At my firing they even brought that up and asked, do you think that is funny, what would a customer reading that think? Yes, I did think it was mildly amusing, it was what we advanced beings with A Sense Of Humour call A Joke. They didn’t, but since they ended up being publically humiliated for what they did I’d say I came out on top there).
I found I loved the blog form – I did indeed still post pastiches of news stories (or sometimes just a rant I needed to get out), but other things leaked in – unsurprisingly discussing books and authors and movies (at this point I was submitting a ton of reviews to the Alien Online, edited by Ariel), but I was adding in poetry, photographs, life in Edinburgh and, well, just everything really – life, love, cats, chocolate and whisky; the fun stuff and the stuff that hurt like hell. And work. Work got mentioned a few times (relatively few compared to the amount of other stuff and far outweighed by the amount pushing books and authors and reading events) and the worse the job became as the company turned into a Professional Retailer rather than a Bookseller (and struggled with sales and profits and higher staff turnover at the same time – connected?) and they seemed unwilling to listen to the opinions of experienced staff the blog became a place to let off a little steam. Several years later they suddenly pretended to be grossly offended at this and fired me (it would later turn out that senior management had known about it long before this and weren’t bothered – in fact they asked me to help set up a brand new branch from scratch. Later they would suddenly ‘discover’ it – well, I suspect a certain vindictive person did – and it was used against me.)
Of course, by firing me they removed any obligation I had to be relatively quiet on the subject; Cory Doctorow and the Boing Boing guys picked up on it and splattered it all over the web, as did the online journals while Ariel and my fellow reviewers on the Alien Online organised support – the mainstream media picked it up from there and within a couple of days the Guardian and Scotsman had me posing for photographs for an article (right outside the old bookstore, much to the amusement of some of the staff who hadn’t been told much of what had happened) and a rapid snowball effect took place that utterly surprised me – four radio spots in one day at one point, asked to do interviews for radio shows in Ireland and New York, enquiries from journalists in France, Norway, Italy, Germany, clippings of the story being sent by folks from as far afield as Chile and Australia, it was simply amazing. I think the fact that a bookstore, which has always professed to stand for freedom of speech (without which there is no booktrade) would try to gag a staff member this way really infuriated a lot of folks. I still get approached by media types from time to time even now.
The amount of emails I had from people all over was a huge morale boost when I was seriously down and a reminder, again, of how connected web users are on a global scale (and again, thanks to everyone who took time to write to me offering support and also emailing their disgust to the Bookstore Which Shall Not Be Named, I really can’t tell you just how much the support of so many folks, mostly total stranger, meant to me when I really needed it). That was something my former employers didn’t realise, they thought they were the Big Company and they could do what they wanted to One Little Guy; boy did that blow up in their faces (and deservedly so). Amazingly some companies continue to repeat this mistake, still not cottoned on to the interconnected nature of the web.
Another front was opened up when some of the many writers I had worked with over the years also came to my defence, publically damning the former employers for their actions and pointing out just how much work I had done to promote books over the years. Highly embarrassing to be the biggest bookstore in the nation and find some of the bestselling authors in the country decrying you in public (Richard Morgan’s incredibly eloquent open letter, Ken MacLeod and Iain Banks and others writing letters to the press, Charlie Stross standing up for me on his blog and more). I’ve spent years promoting good writers and books and I can’t tell you how good it felt to realise that a lot of those authors remembered that support and were willing to step forward to help me when I needed it; so much support from friends and strangers had the oddest effect, it made you feel ten feet tall and at the same time so damned humble that people would do this for you.
It had a happy ending though – the appeal hearing, ironically held in the new branch I had helped to create (as I gleefully pointed out), turned out in my favour. They still didn’t like me mentioning work on the blog but agreed they had rather over-reacted. By this time FPI had read about all of this and I’d been approached by them because they wanted someone to work on their online business who would also be into the books and graphic novels they were selling, rather than just treating it as a job. And in the supreme irony I pitched the idea of a blog for the company to compliment the major webstore and they liked it; now the FPI blog has grown far bigger, gets hits from round the world and I still get to promote good books, graphic novels and authors (thanks, Kenny!) from interviewing big names to helping push the new small press guys (who in turn mention us and so that interconnected thing all still goes round and we all win from it). And I’m still blogging on the Woolamaloo as well; blogging for personal reasons and blogging at work too (god, but that still makes me giggle after all that happened, that part of my job is running a blog) and no intention of stopping (I should probably say thanks to Former Employers because their short-sighted attack turned a little-heard of site into one read by far, far more folks, so well done! I award you the Shot Yourself In The Foot Award!). Another nice spin off is my union, the RBA, a smaller union, got some good publicity (well deserved) from this and picked up a raft of new members on the back of it (actually they told me they go someone in touch the very night I posted links to them on the blog).
I intend to go on being a cheeky and irreverent bugger and the Woolamaloo is an intrinsic part of that; a friend who is heavily into Second Life was asking why I didn’t join him there. I pointed out that the blog (and Flog and Flickr) were already a second life for me and I can’t imagine not doing it. So yes, I fully intend to go on lampooning hypocritical public figures, pastiching events, talking about good books, quoting poetry when I feel like it and, well, basically talking about whatever the hell I want to, when I want to, because it is my (and every other person’s) right to damned well do just that and winning that case makes me feel like doing it all the more. So happy anniversary to my sometimes troubled child, the Woolamaloo Gazette, the blog they couldn’t hang.