Any Ordinary Day
Leigh Sales, Hamish Hamilton, 2018, ISBN 978-0-14-378996-3, 264pp
The author of this book is indeed the Leigh Sales who is the anchor of ABC’s 730 program. On that program she is a measured, thoughtful and objective presenter. There is much more, however, behind the ABC’s required façade. She does a podcast called Chats 10 Looks 3 with Annabelle Crabbe. I generally get this title the wrong way around and refer to it as Looks 10 Chats 3 which may mean that I should not be listening to it. This podcast is a little like being a fly on the wall when these two are catching up over a cup of coffee or a glass of wine. They slip from the profound to the profane, from the deep to the dark, from humour to hubris at lightning speed. They spend most of the time laughing, usually at one another. I like it because they talk about books and things they are watching on Netflix, and they seem to read and watch the same stuff that I do. You can also follow Chats 10 Looks 3 on Instagram and there’s a Facebook group, but you need to pass an exam to be a member.
You need to answer these questions if you want to join the Chats 10 Looks 3 Facebook community
According to Annabelle Crabbe on the most recent (27 October 2108) podcast, Sales’ book is exceeding all expectations of its sales figures. People, I gather, are buying this book in their hundreds, possibly thousands. Any Ordinary Day is a look at, as the front cover says, “what happens after the worst day of your life.” Sales is a journalist and, in some ways, reading this book is like reading a very long article in the weekend newspapers. Many years ago, on a media course I attended (at the ABC in Ultimo as it happens) it was impressed on me that people prefer to read bad news.
There’s a song by a band called BR549 called A Little Good News. Its lyric runs:
There's a local paper rolled up in a rubber band
One more sad story's one more than I can stand
Just once I'd like to see the headline say
Not much to print today, can't find nothing bad to say
Nobody robbed a liquor store on the lower part of town
Nobody OD'ed, nobody burned a single building down
Nobody fired a shot in anger, nobody had to die in vain
I sure could use a little good news today
If this is your idea of a wonderful world then Any Ordinary Day is not for you. It deals with the aftermath of catastrophes that happen to ordinary people. Perhaps you are like me and you don’t know what an ordinary person is. You agree with the person who said “I tried being normal once. It was the worst minute of my life.” Yet extraordinary things happen to ordinary, normal people. They were ordinary people who were hostages in the Lindt Café in December 2014. It is ordinary people who lose partners, sons and loved ones in circumstances that are anything but predictable. Of course, the probability that any of the dreadful events might happen to you is pretty low. Benjamin Disraeli was supposed by Mark Twain to have said that there are lies, damned lies and statistics. Sales points out that coincidence and probability are connected but need to be seen in context. One of the women in the Lindt Café siege had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. What’s the chance that you were diagnosed with MS and were in the Lindt Café siege? Sales tells us: it’s 1 in about 39 billion.
Later in the book she talks about Stuart Diver who was the only person to be pulled alive from the massive landslide at Thredbo in 1997. His wife was killed in that disaster; she was next to him when she was drowned by rising waters that did not reach him. That would exceed even the most basic definition of traumatic yet he survived and he married again and had a daughter. His second wife then died of breast cancer. Sales points out that losing “his first wife in a landslide was … [unusual] ... but it was sadly ordinary to lose his second to breast cancer." When Sales meets Diver he asks her “who's going to sign up to be the third Mrs Diver?" The answer is that anyone could and she would be at no greater risk for becoming the third Mrs Diver than she would have been by looking elsewhere for marital bliss. If I toss a coin 10 times and it comes up heads 10 times then the probability that the 11th toss is heads is still 50:50. The events are not connected, they are not dependent on one another.
But this is not a book about coincidence or probability. It’s a book about survival, about coping and coming to terms with shit. We all have shit to contend with in our lives; bad things happen. They may not be of the magnitude of being in the Lindt Café siege or having your partner murdered by his schizophrenic son but there is something to be learned from the people who go through these dreadful things and from the people who help them through. The point of Sales’ book is that there are lessons to be learned; there are tools that we can use. She writes about a priest called, amusingly, Steve Sinn. Sinn’s advice is, when dealing with people in shock, to remember that “it is not about you, it is about them.” Letting people talk seems to be important. It’s important to talk to the survivor or victim. Don’t avoid them; too many people avoid them when they want to talk. There are lessons here for us when we deal, as we nearly all have to, with a bereaved person. Ducking the issue is just the wrong thing to do.
You may be surprised to learn that there are academics who have researched the way we deal with traumatic events. I wasn’t surprised; someone somewhere will research almost anything, but I was intrigued about what might be learned. Sales tells me that “experts” (I am never sure what they are) have “forensically catalogued how people have changed in the aftermath of events as varied as terrorist attacks, earthquakes, the loss of children, plane crashes, sexual assaults, … cancer diagnoses, combat service and even a shipwreck.” (I am not quite sure why the shipwreck is prefaced with “even a”). One study says that people fall into one of three categories: those had found ways to make sense of their loss, those who felt their lives had changed negatively and those who thought their lives were neither better or worse. This may be obvious, but it is the first group that is by far the largest.
Sales notes that the “quest to find purpose in suffering is nothing new” and notes that it is not only organised religion that makes a thing about suffering. There is much great and secular literature that is based around a life-changing event that transforms a person. A quick reference to Christopher Booker’s The Seven Basic Plots (2004) bears this out. This simply means that bad stuff happens to people, some of that bad stuff is really really bad stuff. When it happens, people need to cope and they will cope in different ways. They’ll need help doing it. This book contains some pointers about what you can do in your everyday life when you are talking people with what I might call “everyday misfortunes.”
At one point Sales wonders about how the people who help people who have been through something horrific know what to do. She says, “I wish I had that sort of confidence and wisdom.” Journalism is about reporting on events that may be out of the ordinary. Some of those events mean you need to talk to broken or damaged or suffering people. She spoke to many such people in order to write this book. That requires some degree of confidence of wisdom. There is plenty of wisdom in this book. I just hope some of it has rubbed off on me. Read it: some of but may rub off on you too.