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In many ways 2007 was a gamechanger. It was my job to help keep children safe, but toys became so hazardous we nearly had to cancel Christmas. It was also the year I began writing my first novel.
That year I represented Australia at the first ever consumer product safety conference in China – a momentous occasion. It was a major event in international relations and I was honoured to participate.
2007 was later dubbed The Year of the Recall. Many children’s products were recalled worldwide – for risk of poisoning, ingesting very strong magnets and other serious hazards. Lead was detected in big name toys from well-known brands – even Thomas the Tank Engine toys – and people all around the world were on alert. Product safety was suddenly huge news.
The blame game was rife. ‘It’s all the poor quality control in Chinese factories’, they cried. Investigations subsequently revealed that equally to blame were the product design and material specifications, including from some big brand US companies.
For the Beijing conference, the United States sent the head of its Consumer Product Safety Commission, Chairman Nancy Nord, to speak and to hold meetings with her Chinese counterparts.
Just ducking out . . .
While in Beijing, a few of us, including Nancy Nord, were keen to take the opportunity to eat at the most famous Peking Duck restaurant in the city. My Canadian colleague, Sandra, called to reserve a table, but was told no they don’t take bookings.
The following day, the China Daily newspaper featured Nancy Nord on its front cover. Sandra tried the restaurant again and yes, they would be pleased to take a booking for the Nord party. Six o’clock that evening.
At the end of proceedings, nine of us readied ourselves to head out to the restaurant. We met at the hotel taxi rank, but it was then peak hour and raining. It was a long wait and we enjoyed a deal of camaraderie within the queue, but we began to get concerned we might miss our booking. Locals kindly allowed us to go ahead of them.
Eventually, we left in three different cabs. Nancy and her chief of staff were in the first cab, along with another American colleague, Bob. I was with Sandra and her boss, Charles. The third cab carried Jan from Brussels, and two more Americans. We’d been told the restaurant was close-by, but after twenty minutes in traffic it was already six o’clock. We had to hope the others had arrived and the restaurant would hold the table. Charles called the only mobile number he had and was told by Jan that they had yet to arrive.
At six forty we pulled in to the restaurant. Our driver was much relieved to have at last delivered his passengers. The third of our cabs was there too, but one of them came over and explained they’d been inside and this wasn’t the right restaurant. They had nonetheless been told that a table was available and had decided to stay. We were concerned that Nancy and her companions would be waiting. So we set off again.
It was after seven when we finally arrived at the right place. But no, none of the others had arrived. And no, the table was no longer available. ‘Please wait at the bar and maybe a table would become free . . . after four other parties are accommodated’.
We were starving by this stage, but we bought a round of drinks – just pleased to be out of the cab, the traffic and the rain.
Fifteen minutes in, with no movement in the queue, we were talking about abandoning our Peking Duck Mission in favour of hotel room service. And then we heard ‘Hey what are you guys doing here?’ It wasn’t any of the other six in our party, but another group from our conference, with whom we’d been chatting in the taxi queue. They’d been for drinks elsewhere and were all set to take up their dinner reservation in a private room – at this, the best Peking Duck restaurant in Beijing.
‘Well, enjoy’, we said.
And then they invited us to join them. So we ended up seated at a table with six new friends and were wined and dined in the best possible way. The food was exquisite and the service exemplary. And our new friends even picked up the tab on their corporate account. A truly memorable night.
The cab ride back to the hotel took five minutes. It seems all nine of our original party could have walked to the restaurant in the first place. It was only the next day when we learned that Nancy’s trio had ended up at a third restaurant. They thought they were in the right place and wondered where we all were, but had a lovely dinner nonetheless.
A global toy crisis
A few months after the Beijing conference, President George W Bush and President Hu Jintao met in Sydney at the APEC heads of government meeting. In their bilateral meeting they discussed religious freedom, human rights, global warming and . . . toy safety. Product safety had truly been elevated.
In Australia, there were calls to immediately ban all toys with excessive amounts of lead. The media, politicians and agency executives were all pushing for urgent action. But, the problem of bans that take immediate effect is that retailers have no way of knowing whether products already on their shelves are compliant.
It was likely that the vast majority of toys and other products in stores contained no lead at all. The challenge, though, was being able to prove it. And retailers and their suppliers risk heavy penalties if they’re caught selling banned goods. If a strict ban was imposed late in the year, we were facing the prospect of there being no toys for Santa’s helpers to buy in time for Christmas. It would have been a very lean and miserable Christmas for the children of Australia.
It was my job and that of my colleagues to try to strike a balance. It took a lot of negotiation, but we eventually came up with a way to target only the main product risks and deferred implementing broader requirements til the new year. Christmas was saved.
Before all this happened, consumer product safety had been run on a very limited budget. But now everyone had suddenly become experts, with opinions on how it should all work. Product safety is always a balance between protecting people from injury and allowing the retail market to operate effectively. It’s also an area where emotive arguments are often made, which can upset the balance. My small team and I were performing acrobatics daily, trying to manage every new issue that emerged. It was exhausting.
Becoming a writer
So it was in 2007, after the China trip that I began creative writing. I was finishing my travel journal at home one evening and enjoying the writing process. I thought perhaps I’d try my hand at some creative writing and decided to go with something familiar to start off – a travel story.
I roughed out a storyline and just put fingers to keyboard. I intended it as a short story, but soon realised it was more of a long-form style. And so, my Melbourne winter nights became occupied with creative writing. With work being so demanding for the last six months of the year, I absorbed myself completely in the writing when I got home each night. The intensity of my day job meant I couldn’t even work long hours. So, despite never holding an ambition to write, I became prolific and by December I’d written 40,000 words.
I deliberately avoided any learning on how to write fiction. I just wanted to write freely with no pressure. I loved imagining places and events, choosing the words and creating dialogue. Being able to sit on the couch (with new wireless wifi) meant I could surf the internet for details of places I wanted to describe. I even wove some of my own past travel experiences into the story.
Writing is clearly a source of relaxation for me and a creative outlet when other demands are pressing. I can truly recommend it.
After The Year of The Recall, product safety all around the world, but especially in Australia and the United States was afforded significantly more status and resources.
After 2008, work got less hectic. I worked with the government agency until 2012, when I left and started my own product safety business, Product Safety Solutions (Australia). It was only in the late 2010s that I resolved to finish off the book and then self-publish. It’s fantastic to have finally completed that special project. My novel is Cherry Blossom Footsteps, published under my nom de plume, Gail Holloway.