The Wisteria Diary – Dispatches from the retail front line


If we’re being completely honest, something was likely to go wrong at some stage. Comfortable lifestyles increasingly funded by debt, paid for by a work force with increasingly insecure employment, these are reasonable ingredients for an accident waiting to happen. And no economic model I’m aware of factors in pandemic. The fact that so much has collapsed in just a couple of weeks suggests the economy we’d long taken for granted was really more like a house of cards than a fortress, for many people at least. Not the least question will be what parts should we rebuild.


These are some of the many thoughts occurring to me this past week, as my wife and I watched all our various sources of income evaporate. The inescapable reality of a gig economy is that no gig equals no income.


The week was an inevitable process from the moment those Centrelink queues formed on Monday. It was just a matter of time. That time came on Friday, when the book shop we worked at had to close. The final card to fall for us.


Such are the strange times that that Friday call from the boss almost came as a relief. We’d already had the false alarm on Monday, when the confusion of announcements from governments Federal and State had many shops believing they were going into lockdown from that day’s close of business. Having spent the first two hours telling customers that was the case, an email arrived around 11am saying it wasn’t.


This was the beginning of a weird limbo.


Now I wouldn’t really criticize any government too much for struggling to keep up with current events. And let’s be honest, during seven years in office, this current Coalition government hasn’t exactly established a track record for getting ahead of any issue, let alone the biggest crisis since World War Two. So all things considered, they might have done a lot worse than they’ve managed so far. Then again, each day at present is a year, so ask me again tomorrow what I think.


But it’s been hard to see what they think they’re achieving by keeping most retail shops theoretically open. Consider the current predicament of retail workers. Public health warnings are screaming at you from every direction to stay at home. Yet the PM is saying every job is essential, so you’re trading. However, unless you work in a supermarket, or a few other select areas, your job has become unviable. Sales have fallen off a cliff, but given every customer encounter now carries an element of health risk you care less and less. You become acutely aware that most people lack the spatial awareness of Scott Pendlebury, and that coughing protocols are an unfathomable mystery for too many. You are now seriously wondering if your wage compensates for the anxiety. The uncertainty of no clear end point only adds to the stress.


As governments foreshadowed further shutdowns, most retail chains didn’t wait. Trading in these conditions for most means bleeding money daily. Down they went like dominos.


By Friday we’d entered George A. Romero territory at our centre. The sun was shining, but there was a Night of the Living Dead vibe (add a big dash of Dawn of the Dead – the one he set in a mall). More than half the shops had already shut, leaving the centre unusually dark. A group of teenagers seemed to be spoiling for trouble, emboldened by the lack of other shoppers. The usual lost soul regulars, for whom a shopping centre provides some tenuous form of social anchoring, looked even more bewildered than usual. I worry what might await them.


The only real activity was coming from the cleaners, who were working furiously to try and keep every surface regularly cleaned. It’s worth considering how many of the most crucial frontline tasks in this struggle have fallen to some of the most insecure and poorly paid workers.


So now, like so many, we sit at home and wait. A lot has happened very quickly, so we’ll take a bit of time to process that. As I type these words, I look out upon a large wisteria that runs along the north side of our house. It is impervious to the current drama. We have a yard to get around in, a garage for projects, and space in the house if we need it. Many are not so fortunate.


I’ll also have time to put down what comes to mind as we navigate the worrying days ahead. So don’t say I didn’t warn you.



Everyone will have their own stories from this time. We’d love it if you shared yours.




Our writers are independent contributors. The opinions expressed in their articles are their own. They are not the views, nor do they reflect the views, of Malarkey Publications.


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About John Butler

John Butler has fled the World's Most Liveable Car Park and now breathes the rarefied air of the Ballarat Plateau. For his sins, he has passed his 40th year as a Carlton member.


  1. Daryl Schramm says

    Thanks for posting. Fabulously written. The ironies are many. Hopefully some good will come of all this. Best wishes to all from one who is, at this stage, minimally impacted.

  2. Captures a lot of what most are feeling. AE & I have been well isolated for weeks. We are hoping that dog walking is covered by the Jobkeeper Allowance and that Shandy the 15yo Wonder Dog keeps us on.
    Reflecting on your intro para and footy parallels I wondered if it might be renamed “The House that Jack Built”.

  3. John Butler says

    Thanks, Daryl.

    PB, just keep listening to Shandy. Wisdom of the Ancients.

    And yes, a house of footy cards?

  4. Yvette Wroby says

    Thank you for your call out and story … get ready for a wedding story like no other in the weeks to come….

  5. Thanks JB. Salient observations.

    The essay from home is a cherished genre.

    I have admired some of its exponents over the years.

    I look forward to hearing more from your good self..

  6. John Butler says

    Yvette, I look forward to that story.

    Cheers, JTH. I’ll write as many as people can stand. :)

  7. Thanks for this, JB.
    The future is more unknown than ever before.

  8. Hey John
    Lucky that bookshop employees have someone articulate to write on their behalf.

  9. Ian Hauser says

    How come nobody has commented on the photo? I love the wisteria, JB. (The rest of the garden looks a treat, too. Who’s got the green fingers?) If you have to sit and look out at that for contemplation, then lucky man you! In the early 70s when I was a uni student in Adelaide, the house I lodged in was a huge, rambling stone bungalow at 1 Winchester Street, Highgate – now long gone. Across its front verandah there was a beautiful wisteria which I loved – yours looks like the same variety. Your gorgeous photo brings back a lot of memories.

  10. John Butler says

    Cheers, 6%. Best of luck to all who are still manning the counters.

    IJH, it doesn’t look quite like that at the moment. That’s the view around late September – early October. You have to allow for spring arriving a little later in Ballarat. But the leaves will soon start dropping to allow the winter sun. Yes, we are lucky.

    PS: we inherited the garden. It has survived the last 12 years, sometimes in spite of our efforts. We’re hoping to tap into that durability in the current circumstance. As we hope you all do.

  11. Colin Ritchie says

    Fab stuff JB! It will be interesting when this is all over to see if our leaders acknowledge the debt owed to, as you said, “some of the most insecure and poorly paid workers”…” who carried out many of the most crucial frontline tasks in this struggle”. Without them we would not/will not get through this unprecedented crisis that has befallen upon us. Hopefully, not only our leaders will acknowledge this fact but the greater population also will.

  12. Luke Reynolds says

    Well written JB. The uncertainty of what will happen in the next few weeks, let alone the next few months, make for a surreal existence.

    I haven’t left my place since last Wednesday. Enjoying the time with the kids. Plenty getting done in our garden. Books being read.

    All the best to you and Mrs JB!

  13. The stories from home will be fascinating.

    Who was it who said that progress is a comfortable disease?

    We got comfortable. Then bang!

  14. Earl O'Neill says

    Lovely piece of writing, John, thank you.
    Can’t say the same for wisteria. One of my least favourite plants. Trim and train it weekly and it should be okay.
    “Each day at present is a year” Indeed. There is a weird suspension of time and place. Being a gardener, I’m still working, driving along bizarrely quiet roads, through empty shopping strips and feeling like I’m three or four days ahead of myself.
    My great concern is the longterm social and economic effects.

  15. John Butler says

    Col and Luke, thanks.

    Dips, it doesn’t feel like we’ll run out of things to write about any time soon.

    Earl, when we had to replace the supporting timbers for the wisteria some years back, it was like wrestling with a bag full of anacondas trying to manage the bastard. So I get where you’re coming from. :)

    Everyone stay safe.

  16. Wisteria Lane? At least you’ve got all those Desperate Housewives to keep you company.

  17. John Butler says

    PB, I hadn’t given that show a thought in many a year. Been watching your old DVD or VHS?

  18. Paul Halstead says

    A great account John, again you’re wisdom belies the obvious, as we slip further toward Armageddon. On this occasion however, even the strong may not survive. The economy has bounced like a prevervable ball down the wing at old Princess Park, dodging, ducking, sliding, slipping all the way down to this. After celebrating mediocrity for a hundred years, who can we blame? …she’ll be right cobber… we can import LNG after all.
    The Wisteria is all telling, it revolves around seasons, and without football…Armageddon… God help us … and the poor, the front liners, the mortgagees, and yet the profiteers will move in.. buying up our farms … our carbon producing stocks of wealth distributed equally between us all.. lol… save for the old 3 forms of Government… consuming it like Vikings in York 866… there won’t be much left after Scomo empties the bucket, in bipartisan bliss, with each of the righteous states outdoing each other in fortressing.

    Where to next John? I guess we will continue to dream of another flag … I hope and pray we all survive it long enough to enjoy. Stay safe all… despite social distancing we do have each others always… Ps the Wisteria looks fantastic … that was a bloody big anaconda from memory!

  19. John Butler says

    Cheers Paul. On a roll tonight. :)

    Some interesting ideas you raise there. Some may well get a run.

    That bloody anaconda nearly did us both in. But I’m glad we kept it.

  20. Rick Kane says

    Good work JB, as usual. However, in this moment, observations are even more important, least they slip through our fingers like sand. I look forward to your musings and other Almanacers as we get through this together, hopefully a little more learned of who we are and more sceptical about false prophets like capitalism’s cheerleaders.


  21. Thanks for your thought JB. George A. Romero is a useful touchstone and I fear we may venture towards its parodic lovechild Shaun of the Dead too.

  22. John Butler says

    Mickey, I thought there was a chance George would have wandered onto your radar. :)

    Trucker, a lot going on. A pretty good time to sneak a few things through, if you were of politician of a certain mind.


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