peteg's blog

David Ireland: The Unknown Industrial Prisoner.

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Kindle. It's the late 1960s, beautiful Kurnell, Botany Bay, the Puroil refinery, ugly up close. When they're not at the Home Beautiful, being schooled by the Great White Father in living for today and not tomorrow, the men are taking notes for the Great Australian Novel that each will write after their release from industrial prison. This is David Ireland's, and was the first of his to win the Miles Franklin in 1971. (text publishing has reissued his early works, but not his later ones.)

The style is similar to the subsequent The Glass Canoe and so forth: mostly disjointed vignettes that riff on why and how the working man is bound to, and chafes, his corporate master. I would say that little has changed, but the baubles on offer to the natives (here industrial prisoners, captive to a European transnational oil enterprise) are shinier than ever. This somewhat attempts to do what George Orwell did for the mid-century in 1984 for Australia at a time by which everyone knew the joke: they unquestionably love their company.

The characters come thick and fast, and it's hard to track them all with only their nicknames to hang onto, some having a touch of Australiana disposability. The slang tends to the obsolete, and while Two Pot Screamer might be an ocker original, some cursory Googling suggests Humdinger is pure Americana. Beyond the blue gate of Puroil, the Yank welders are held in awe as they work effectively and efficiently due to being paid by the job and not the hour. Ireland looks almost wistfully to the U.S.A. and wonders what could have been. The inefficiencies at the plants are immediately familiar to anyone with experience of modern corporate Australia, despite their probable lack of Ireland-esque industrial chops. The prisoners engage in small-minded vindictive retribution that is provoked by small-minded short-term cost-control by management, such as not paying sick leave until and unless the injured party fronts the right office worker (here "white shirt"). The machinations around company-funded pensions — that the rate is tied to salary at retirement, and the period of employment is calculated to the day — make me think that superannuation might be fairer despite it being wide open to the financial markets. The results, as you would certainly expect, are chaotically catastrophic.

The Home Beautiful is the countervailing life force, tawdry, once powerful, now debilitated by easy access to credit; in other words, a bordello set amongst the mangroves, segregated by the Eel River from Puroil. Ireland uses it to explore prostitution (of the self-knowing but not golden-hearted kind), homosexuality, alcoholism, mental health, and to observe close-up that the prisoners would not know what to do with freedom if they had it. He charts the distintegration of the Unions (fully realised under Hawke et al in the 1980s) and shows that organized labour was never going to be a match for financial innovation, or men with military training ("they had no tradition of operators never doing tradesmen's work, they were used to working with tools and used to obeying orders without thought or question."). Religion is no help either, even if it causes some of the the men some pause, from time to time. Thievery is rampant.

The text is highly referential. There is much to enjoy, though I'm sure many would find it bleak; the dedication of a new plant to "The Unknown Industrial Prisoner" is completely apt. It tipped the balance towards his latest novel, which I ordered from Island Mag (out of Tasmania of all places) for the ridiculous price of $45.

Lisa Hill enjoyed it less than I did. She claims that times have changed, but goes on to observe the same deterioration in industrial relations as Ireland, and the fact that Australians (really, everyone) prefer to buy cheaper stuff and not bother too much with the politics. I think Ireland was right to think that the undereducated / less intelligent were headed for the industrial scrapheap; the new knowledge work employs fewer people to do more stuff and make more profit than ever before, as the lawyers will be learning in the next decade or so. (These issues were ambient; see, for instance, Barry Jones's classic cure for insomnia, Sleepers Wake! from the early 1980s.) What she calls cynicism I took to be Ireland's empathy for his fellow prisoner, expressed in the great Australian (OK, British) tradition of "characters" adopted by, for example, Henry Lawson. She's right that there is a lot of humour here. I would say that it has similar aims to Herbert's Capricornia, and if I ever get to it, Poor Fellow My Country.

Peter Pierce in his introduction pulls out the right quote: "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." — and oh yes, the hereditary scar on the ankle, itching madly.