Now's probably not the time to admit I was once a shop steward on a Melbourne building site. But I can unequivocally state that I was never involved in any underhand dealings. Indeed, the only time I even tried to shut the site down (strong winds, scissor lifts and power lines are unhappy bedfellows), the building contractor politely requested I "f… off or I'll punch yer f….. head in". Acceding to this gentleman's demand, I bid a retreat to the smoko shed where my co-workers derided me in equally colourful terms.
I mention this only because I've been swapping stories with Melbourne-based writer, stand-up comic, engineer and former mining site worker Xavier Toby, who's in Perth for Fringe World and to promote his new book, Mining My Own Business, at the 2014 Perth Writers Festival.
"One of the funniest things I heard," says Toby, who spent six months last year working on a Queensland mining site and started blogging about it, "was at (the site's) Christmas party: 'If she s… in a corner, I'd guard it.' I thought that was amazing and I wrote it down straight away."
That was one of Toby's colleagues singing the praises of a comely maiden of his acquaintance. It's representative of much of the material which has successfully made the transition from blog to book.
My personal favourite in the book is this exchange between Toby and Dale, his immediate superior:
"'Engineering's a degree in problem solving, so even if you don't remember something, what it teaches you is how to find out,' I explain. 'So you're telling me that instead of learning how to dig trenches and fix dunnies by digging trenches and fixing dunnies, it's better to just have a good think about it?' Dale throws a pen at me. 'Sounds like a bull…. excuse for sinking p... and trying to slip it into chicks who read.'"
Mining My Own Business is a hilarious and critical, though not unsympathetic, look at the FIFO life and its attendant joys and miseries. In its slimmed-down form, it's also a one-hour stand-up show which, along with the comedy walking tour When We Were Idiots, Toby is performing as part of Fringe World.
"I do see myself as a writer first and a stand-up comedian second," he says as we sit outside a cafe in Perth's Cultural Centre. "The comedy is a great way to get my writing out there. It gets you writing much tighter, and you know straight away whether you're funny or not. The feedback is very honest."
There are necessarily differences between the show and the book. "The show is very structured," Toby says. "I want to take people on a journey, basically a typical day on the mining site. So I had to pick just one storyline from the book to fit it into an hour. Miners will definitely get it; but so will non-miners."
Toby, who grew up in Williamstown and studied mechanical engineering and English at the University of Melbourne before later doing a Masters in Creative Media at RMIT, says the book, like the show, is "a little critical but more reflecting what life's actually like for these guys".
"I did pull out all the entertaining stuff," he says. "A lot of the time the guys missed the humour in it. For the most part they toil away all day, drink and smoke at the end, wake up and do it all again.
"And being away from their families for so long, they often miss all the milestones in their children's lives. They're providing for their families but look at the sacrifices they have to make. That's why they're paid so much."
Toby's parents always read to him as a child, and he started writing short stories from a young age.
He's justifiably proud of his first published book - the writing is taut and funny, its narrative arc artfully constructed so that, despite its factual basis and episodic nature, it reads almost as a novel - and a sequel is already on the way.
"I was aware the book had to be broadly appealing, something that somebody on a mining site could enjoy as much as somebody more into literature," he says. "So it's easy to read but there's a bit of depth and rhythm there, too. Interviewing every sentence, making sure every word is doing its job - that's what I call it. And (live) comedy definitely helps with that."
At the moment, life's good for Toby. He's having a great time in Perth - "the city has a cultural vibrancy and the level of energy here is amazing" - but there will come a time when he will want to slow down and focus more on writing, his first love.
"I'm effectively based in Melbourne. I'm away all the time," he says. "I do my writing on the road, I do the tours, the circuits. It's really about getting as much stage time as possible, because the more you get the better you get. But yeah, I eventually want to do more writing and less stand-up."
In some ways, Toby owes his current success to his erstwhile colleagues. As Dale says on the back cover of Mining My Own Business, "Why not do a comedy show about something funny? You should do a show about this. The mine. That'd be way funnier than politics and all that other s… you bang on about."