Mod­ern-day lags chained to the job

Peter Pierce on a mas­ter­piece of Aus­tralian pro­le­tar­ian lit­er­a­ture

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Peter Pierce

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

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