Urban Slave and Walking on Aire – Andy Owens (An e-book; Netgalley & Kindle)

I liked these pieces, two separate stories that I would describe as “observational humor.” I admit I signed on for what I figured would be the British version of Barbara Ehrenreich’s “Nickel and Dimed: On Not Getting by in America,” and while the social commentary is there, it’s not the point of Urban Slave, the first of the two stories. Andy “Owens with an s” offers with one sketch after another of minimum wage and pre-minimum wage temporary jobs that far surpass Ehrennreich in one key respect: He needed these jobs. He was not going undercover to get the lowdown on subsistence pay for work so bad you just walk out and hope you can still receive your government benefits. This was Owens’ life –and if the reader does not simultaneously laugh out loud, feel a bit angry and come away vowing to never, ever give the lowest tier of people in an inevitably snake-ridden hierarchy less than utmost respect– well, you are not a good and decent person. Imagine spending years repeatedly doing some version of the first paying job you ever got, arriving on time, treating each task conscientiously, and alternatively being tossed out midway through the day because you aren’t meeting the productions standards or being selected to be trained for a manager’s job, where you are expected to forget you were the managee only a short time before and become mean. Seriously: he makes it funny. I have one huge quibble with Urban Slave: It’s the name. Coming from the USA, I did not expect this to be a book by a white guy who “just” worked minimum wage jobs for too long. It’s offensive to me to use the word slave this way. Just saying. That name should go. “Slave” isn’t a funny word or reference. As to “Walking on Aire,” a travelogue covering a period when the author walked the seventy-miles length of the Aire River, one of Yorkshire’s “lesser-known” rivers, it took a while longer to get engaged, and then it was great. The Aire traverses through publically accessible rural fields, small villages, bucolic scene, then suddenly turns through well-guarded private land. It can be a fence away from an industrial complex or pass through a field of cows, with a sign warning, “‘If the cows become agitated by your dog and chase or crowd around you, let the dog off the lead – don’t risk getting hurt by protecting it. The cows should follow the dog which will be able to outrun them, leaving you to continue along the path.” Because the author notices and is amused by and shares this stuff with us that we never wrote down or snapped in a photo his writing is fun and makes me laugh. It’s like we’re in on a huge series of inside jokes. I also think Owens’ use of other writers’ travelogues works well, particularly those of Victorian-era African traveler Mary Kingsley, which Owens cites as being authentic to his traipse through Yorkshire to good effect. His commentary on people he meets or simply observes is priceless and plenty self-deprecating, from the woman on the train with whom he has a silent conversation about why he’s madly writing things down, to the men in a pub who will not accept he’s a Yorkshire native “with that accent,” to the guy who claims to know his way to a nearby town because of a map that shows everything, as he takes them past the same old parked caravan more than once. “Walking on Aire” inspires one to do the same with our versions of the Aire we can find under our noses. One of mine is the “inky stinky Codorus,” in my former hometown. As a teenager doing a cleanup, we pulled out whole refrigerators, yet further out in the countryside, we swam and boated in it. So, read this book because it’s well written, good humor, says out loud all kinds of quirky things we generally keep quiet, and is just highly readable and relatable. I’m just as glad it was humor. I needed that!

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