Modern-day lags chained to the job
Peter Pierce on a masterpiece of Australian proletarian literature
IN 1928, the year after David Ireland was born, George Mackaness edited the anthology Australian Short Stories. The selections were drawn, he cheerily declared, from ‘‘ the cream of thousands of Australian stories typical of Australia and her ‘ makers’ ’’. Many of their titles focused on supposed distinctive national types. Here were The Half-Caste, The Drover’s Wife, The Parson’s Black Boy, The Emancipist, The Tramp.
The title of Ireland’s second novel, The Unknown Industrial Prisoner (1971), announced the discovery of another national type, hitherto unrecognised or without acclaim: the prisoner bound to have his individual identity suppressed by jailers, in this case the managers of the oil refinery on the shores of Botany Bay owned by the giant British-European Puroil Company.
Each element of Ireland’s title resonates. The workers are unknown, except to one another, and then they are known through a screen of nicknames, affectionate and abusive. They are deemed dispensable and unimportant, treated as though they are Men Without Qualities (the title of the seventh chapter). The cruel and newest manager, referred to as the Wandering Jew, muses: ‘‘ now individual man is detached from the earth, from others, even from basic life itself’’.
Worse, the men acquiesce in their own abjectness: ‘‘ the Sumpsucker knew that though they were tall, bronzed, rugged Australian individualists, more or less, they would end up doing exactly as they were told’’.
They are workers in an urban, industrial setting, not a rural, agricultural one. Thus their labour is of a kind that had seldom been depicted, let alone anatomised, in Australian literature.
Finally, they are prisoners. Notionally free to come or go, or not to work, they are selfimprisoned, whether by domestic demands, by habit or by fear of freedom. Figuratively, most of them bear ‘‘ the inch-wide residual scar of chains passed on from father to son, from ankle to ankle for half a dozen generations’’. Their many small acts of rebellion neither reform nor overthrow the system in which they toil.
The cover of a previous edition of the novel showed a detail from a Jeffrey Smart painting, Factory Staff, Erehwyna, in which workers huddle at the base of the towering fence of iron that encloses them. The Unknown Industrial Prisoner is, among much else, Ireland’s brilliant and eccentric intervention in the long history of Australian convict literature. He has diagnosed the pervasiveness of a prisoner’s habit of mind and a new kind of imprisonment for the modern era. The first chapter, One Day in a Penal Colony, makes a blunt announcement and analogy.
If each of the workers at Puroil — whether trade or clerical, blue collar or white — is an unknown industrial prisoner (despite glimpses of the lives outside that some of them lead), this is paradoxically reinforced by their bestowing of nicknames on each other, welcomed or not, that submerge their previous identities. These nicknames are metaphorical and particular, rather than literal and generic.
They can be endearing. The Good Shepherd is a kind and considerate boss, albeit hampered by his position. By contrast, and as their epithets uncompromisingly denote, the Python, Captain Bligh, the Black Snake and the Whispering Baritone are bosses of an altogether different stamp. Some nicknames, such as that of the would-be foreman the Sumpsucker, are plainly disparaging. Others are nostalgic and winsome. One of the prostitutes who works at the Home Beautiful, the refuge in the mangroves created for the prisoners by one of their own, the Great White Father, is known as the Old Lamplighter.
The rich mingle of other nicknames evokes worlds elsewhere: Glorious Devon, Two-Pot Screamer, Oliver Twist, Bomber Command, the Volga Boatman (who ferries beer and bodies to the Home Beautiful), Blue Hills, Far Away Places, the Wild Bull of the Pampas, Gunga Din. They refer to past times and other lands, speak at least of unrepressed memory and reverie within the fences of the refinery.
Nicknames are closely related to stereotypes: they may be hidden behind, lived up to and embraced, or allowed to diminish those to whom they have been fitted. The two main dissident characters in the novel do not object to the names that they go by within the confines of the refinery. The Great White Father actively resists the ethos of the company. The Samurai, whose name connotes his solitariness and power, does so philosophically.
They join a small band of literary troublemakers from this period that includes the titular antihero of Peter Mathers’s 1966 novel Trap and Monk O’Neill in Jack Hibberd’s 1972 monodrama A Stretch of the Imagination. The Great White Father is reconciled to the prisoners’ condition: ‘‘ we’re no one, just whites marooned in the East by history’’.
Born, he believes, ‘‘ from a dream of strong drink and several campfires’’, the Great White Father knows he is ‘‘ no frustrated missionary like the Samurai. He was teaching these poor wretches, trained to captivity, to make life bearable.’’ The Samurai takes a more pessimistic view: ‘‘ the place was full of personnel . . . and short on men’’.
Soon there will be fewer of either at Puroil. The refinery is in ‘‘ a transition stage’’ towards automation. Men are still needed during the change, which is bungled because of rundown inventory and demarcation disputes. Ireland, who worked in an oil refinery, observantly and no doubt disobediently, writes in acrid detail of backyard improvisations and the consequences when calamitous months-long shutdowns inevitably occur. String holding the governors, solenoid trips wired up, blocks of wood holding in key compressors by blocking mechanical trips, drop-shut gas valves jammed open with bits of wire, buckets and tins placed under oil drops on plants operating at high temperatures, contract labour brought in to do quick and slapdash maintenance jobs on equipment they’d never seen before just to keep the labour establishment figures down to the maximum prescribed from elsewhere. Cutting costs.
He spares no one. If management bears the heaviest indictment — ‘‘ just as silica-alumina was the catalyst in the company’s industrial production process, so hate was the catalyst in the company’s industrial relations process’’ — the unions are not excused. ‘‘ They’d never been to the plant to look at it. They lived off prisoners’ wages just as industry did. Their organisation was the same pyramidal hierarchy as Puroil.’’
Although it takes place in a disturbed and angry present of fruitless industrial anarchy and petty bureaucratic tyranny, Ireland’s novel brims with historical references and resonances. The refinery is located on ‘‘ the spot where Cook first stepped ashore, two hundred years before’’. That is, the east coast of the country was ‘‘ discovered’’ in 1770, at the site where the Caltex refinery at Kurnell (the basis for the Puroil plant) would be established. Within two decades of Cook’s visit the penal colony of Sydney would be proclaimed. Not far away ‘‘ the first Australian factory, at Parramatta, was a place of correction’’. The habits of servility, revenge and resentment abide into the modern era at Puroil.
The novel is also instinct with more recent history. Several characters are veterans of war who have exchanged one strict, if more dangerous, disciplinary regimen for another. The connection is explicitly made in the title of the 13th chapter, Tomb of the Unknown Industrial Prisoner. Others are refugees and migrants from post-war Europe: the Kraut; Herman the German; the Pole called the Plover-Lover; the Italian man (as yet without a nickname) who implores the Glass Canoe (a large and formidable man with a history of mental illness), ‘‘ Break the arm. I go hospital, get compensation. No work for six week, my wife sick, I look after. Please. Not be frightened.’’ In a novel replete with them, this is one of the bleakest scenes.
Ireland’s prose register is formidably capacious, his handling of it adroit. His ease with demotic speech has rarely been matched in Australian fiction, but this is also a novel full of literary and biblical allusions. He ventures arresting images: ‘‘ because of the magnification of their size and speech on the walls the shadows seemed to possess more life and vigour than the men who made them’’. The natural world around appears despoiled by Puroil: ‘‘ the sunset was magnificent, but it was butchered by a few malicious minutes, and fell in ruins to discoloured cloud’’.
Such eloquence prompted a reviewer in Britain’s The Times to praise the novel’s ‘‘ ferocious satire’’. Yet Ireland is no dour and programmatic social-realist decrier of industrial capitalism in a tradition that includes Judah Waten and Alan Marshall. As the Great White Father remarks, ‘‘ the whole world is Puroil Refinery, Termitary [the offices] and Grinding Works’’. Ireland is indicting institutional and personal cruelties, exposing the decay of the will to resist them, but the dissent in his book is more quietist than revolutionary, a counsel of resignation if not of despair.
The Unknown Industrial Prisoner is imbued with an exultant pessimism. There had been nothing like it in Australian literature before, and the only thing like it since was Ireland’s second great proletarian fiction, set in a pub in western Sydney: another microcosm of, or satirical counterpoint to, the world outside. This was The Glass Canoe (1976), and it, too, won the Miles Franklin Award.
Sydney’s Kurnell oil refinery and, below, David Ireland