The Unknown Industrial Prisoner, David Ireland

Feature Author 2019: David Ireland

The Unknown Industrial Prisoner

A few years ago, when I was just starting out in this business, I listed ten works I thought were contenders for the Great Australian Novel (here). The list holds up pretty well, Voss is still clearly no. 1. I need to make room for Benang and The Swan Book. And The Pea Pickers, I’m not sure what induced me to leave it out back then, I wouldn’t now. The big problem is just how long it is since I have read most of them, more than forty years in some cases, including The Unknown Industrial Prisoner (1971) which I see from the inscription “Happy Birthday, 1973, with lots of love from the Young Bride”, I got almost hot off the press.

It, as it happens, stands up very well to re-reading, though I’m sure I see things I didn’t see first time round, particularly Ireland’s problem with women. As I wrote earlier (here) David Ireland (1927- ) is a generation older than us boomers, he was in his forties before his first work was published and I think had been for most of the preceding years a blue collar worker, notably in the Silverwater (Sydney) oil refinery complex, the setting for this, his second, where he calls the complex ‘Clearwater’, on the ‘Eel’ River (Paramatta Eels football team. Get it?)

With hindsight I can see now that his politics are ‘Hansonite’: nationalistic, pro-worker and anti-union, the cry for help of a worker deep in the bowels of the system, hating the foreign owners who take all the benefit of his labour (all Ireland’s workers are he’s), hating the white collar parasites who have no knowledge of what his work entails, but on whose decisions he depends, hating that his ability to progress or even to remain employed is completely out of his own hands.

All the workers at Clearwater, at the refinery operated by the 100% foreign owned ‘Puroil’, are prisoners, prisoners of the system, bearing deep blue ankle scars genetically inherited from their shackled convict forbears.

… prisoners were allowed to drift jobless to the few large coastal cities from all over Australia as soon as they left school, to choose their place of detention… They weren’t compelled by others to apply to any one place of labour, but they understood that once accepted for detention their boss or commandant had power over them just as great and far more immediate than the government of the country.

‘The Unknown Industrial Prisoner’ is a slogan graffitied overnight on oil storage tanks, is the name of a work fashioned from twisted paper clips, is an artwork of roughly cut and welded metal displayed in a gallery to the loud acclaim of people who have never seen a scrap-metal yard.

The work is divided conventionally into chapters: 1. One Day in a Penal Colony, 2. Termitary [a termite mound housing the shiny bums, overlooking the refinery], 3. The Home Beautiful … But is broken up again into short, named sections of half, one or two pages. I think Ireland prefers (or maybe, is only able) to write this way, in short bursts, so his novels are collages of ideas and stories.

If the novel has a narrative arc at all, it is the actions and reactions of the workers (operators) as Puroil makes a series of blundering upgrades to the refinery to get it to the stage where it will run without operator involvement. The protagonists are the Samurai, a skilled operator and mostly willing worker; and the White Father, who maintains ‘the Home Beautiful’, a few shacks in the mangroves on an island within the refinery boundary, where a beer fridge and six prostitutes on rotation provide the workers with more comforts than they enjoy at home.

They are opposites in that the Samurai believes in the power of a job well-done, where the White Father believes life should be enjoyed right now. Another worker, the Glass Canoe (a name used as the title of a later Ireland novel), represents a third extreme. He is incompetent, but believes that if he works, studies and puts himself forward Puroil will recognise his devotion to the job and raise him to foreman. His decline into madness illustrates the futility of expecting bureaucracies to make rational or even informed decisions. Every decision made by every person within Puroil, except the better operators, and they are never recognised, is driven entirely by self interest.

Is this a post-modern novel? I don’t have enough theory to say. But it is beyond Social Realism. Philosophically it is Absurdist, a demonstration that meaning cannot be found in work, that the bureaucratic workplace is inherently irrational. (Prime Minister) Malcolm famously said at about this time, “Life wasn’t meant to be easy”. What he meant, and this is Ireland’s thesis, is “Life isn’t meant to be fair.”

There are dozens of supporting characters – the plant manager, the Wandering Jew, who is kidnapped late in the novel and taken to the Home Beautiful to meet his workers, gets drunk and joins in the dancing; Blue Hills whose wife the Samurai uses, because he can, but she does manage to take a small revenge; Two Pot Screamer, one of two operators writing a book (this book?); the Python, the Black Snake, the Brown Snake, shiny bums with power over the plant operators; and so on.

The operators sleep on the job, are led into dud agreements by the company union, drink, steal, lie or run with the prostitutes (the Sandpiper prefers doing it outside), make informed, ignorant and random adjustments to the plant causing chaos and constant pollution – in addition to the ongoing pollution of river and air that Puroil  pays to keep ‘hidden’.

This is a brilliant book; innovatively written; an insider’s account of the madness of large organizations; an account of modern slavery giving the lie to the myth of the independent, larrikin Australian worker.

 

David Ireland, The Unknown Industrial Prisoner, Angus & Robertson, 1971. My edition, A&R Classics, 1973.

Other reviews:

The Unknown Industrial Prisoner Lisa/ANZLL (here)
Burn I found intolerably racist and could not finish.
The Glass Canoe (here), Lisa/ANZLL (here)
A Woman of the Future (here) see Bonny Cassidy Sydney Review of Books (here)
City of Women (here)
The World Repair Video Game (here) Lisa/ANZLL (here)

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New York, Lily Brett

I’ve been down to Fremantle to see Kim (ReadingMatters) for coffee and beer a couple of times since she moved back to Australia. We have a connection, the obvious one, that we follow each other’s blogs, and the less obvious, that we are in WA and our parents are in Victoria. Last time, she gave me this book.

Lily Brett lives in Manhattan and her father, at the time of writing, in Melbourne, so that’s a connection too. Though I’m sure Kim gave me the book because she knows I enjoyed Lola Bensky.

New York is a slim volume of pieces, some trite, some whimsical, some sad, all the same length, around two and a half pages, maybe a thousand words, that feel like newspaper columns, casual, personal and beautifully crafted. Brett writes of Geoffrey, the man who cuts her hair:

This man is crucial to me. My hair is curly. it’s not easy to get curls to aim themselves in whimsical directions and attractive angles. To make curls look carefree requires a skilful hairdreser,

She might be writing about her writing.

The pieces, only tied together in that they are observations arising from Brett’s having lived in downtown New York for many years, all have the same rhythm so that if you read them one after another it begins to feel like the rise and fall of breathing.

A quick introductory sentence: “I feel bad about living so far away from my father”. A little story about something she sees or is feeling: “I worry that he is lonely in Australia. He is eighty-four. Most of his friends are dead.” A side-step into the general: “In New York, elderly parents are sometimes seen as a storage problem.” Then back to the particular:

I work at home. It would be impossible for me to concentrate with my father in the apartment. “Would Grandpa really disturb you?” my younger daughter, who’d love her grandfather to live in New York, asked me.

“He’d drive me nuts, very quickly,” I said. I paused. “I don’t want to ever hear you talking like that about me,” I said to her.

And a little sting in the tail:

“You won’t,” she said, “I’ll say it out of your hearing.”

Lily Brett, it is clear, writes always about Lily Brett. I’m not complaining. The best writing comes from deep within as the writer wrestles with his or her demons.  Look at DH Lawrence, Sartre, Gerald Murnane, Kim Scott. The problems their protagonists deal with are the problems they deal with. Writers who imagine themselves into situations, famously Lionel Shriver, or say, Peter Carey, may write very well, but they are mere story-tellers compared with the greats.

The great problem Brett’s writing revolves about is that her family was murdered by the Nazis before she was born. That she is alone in the world, not just an only child, born in 1946 in the shadow of Auschwitz, but without uncles and aunts, cousins or grandparents; her own parents often remote; her loving, ordinary husband and children never enough.

This is a light work, indeed Lola Bensky is a light work, but Brett’s New York is not the New York of Friends or even of Seinfeld. We are seeing through the eyes of a woman who feels every day the absence of family. She loves New York, is anxious when she is away, describes lovingly the everyday experiences of walking, shopping, apartment living, getting her hair cut. But this is also the New York where people take dogs to work because they can’t make connections with people; where Brett can’t offer to help the homeless couple living nearby because she might become involved; where Brett’s acquaintances don’t know her children, and her children don’t know them; where there is no-one who knows her father. A world where no-one has ever met, where she has never met, was never able to meet, her wider family.

I wonder if she writes of herself, or versions of herself, so that we can know her, so that she can feel known. Or known and not known. She tells a friend her father is worried about a prostate op. making him impotent.

“Well he’s certainly had his fair share of sex,” she says. I am surprised. She doesn’t know my father. I realise she is confusing my father with the father in my novels.

Maybe I am confusing the author with the Lily in these stories. But I don’t think so.

Brett, as a new New Yorker from Australia, tries very hard to fit in,

Trying to be American can be exhausting. I’ve practiced perkiness until I’m blue in the face. And still perkiness eludes me. It’s not my natural condition. Nor is friendliness …

She has speeded up her speech and ‘tried to tone down my Australian vowels’. Kim’s years in London have noticeably rounded hers, but I gather she’s doing lots of homework in her local (Clancy’s) and will soon be as nasal again as the rest of us.

 

Lily Brett, New York, Picador, Sydney, 2001

Kim’s review (here)

AWW Gen 3, Literary Prizes

Australian Women Writers Gen 3 Week 12-18 Jan. 2020

The Pea Pickers

Last year I wrote a post about Miles Franklin winning the 1936 Prior Prize with All That Swagger (here). I tried, largely unsuccessfully, to identify the prize winners in other years, especially as Eve Langley was a joint winner with two (unknown) others in 1940 when she so desperately needed the money.

In the course of setting up my Australian Women Writers Gen 3 page this week – so that you all have no excuses for not finding a book to review for AWW Gen 3 Week 12-18 Jan, 2020 – I thought that I would revisit my attempts to identify the winners, as the Prior, and its predecessor the Bulletin, were important literary prizes for a while during the Gen 3 period, 1919-1960, providing £100 to the winner, serialisation in the Bulletin, and subsequent publication.

After faffing around for a couple of hours, searching on ‘Prior’, on individual books, and on the ALS Gold Medal, I finally did the sensible thing and searched on ‘S.H. Prior  Memorial Prize’ and came up with a Wikipedia entry named exactly that (here). So now, below, you may see all the winners for the Bulletin/Prior, the ALS Gold Medal and the Miles Franklin up to 1960 (I don’t know what prizes were available to Australian authors before 1928, none probably).

The SH Prior site referenced a couple of newspaper articles, one in 1935 setting up the prize (here) which makes no mention of the Bulletin Prize it is replacing. And one in 1937 (here) saying no prize was being awarded and that the £100 would carry forward to the following year. As it happened, no prize was awarded in 1938 either, and in 1939 Miles Franklin won with a hastily knocked up essay about the biography she was writing on Joseph Furphy (here). This probably explains why there was £300 available in 1940 the year Eve Langley won. It turns out her co-winners were Kylie Tennant for The Battlers (not the 1941 winner as is often reported) and MH Ellis for his biography of Lachlan Macquarie (which had won the previous year but been disqualified for “insufficient documentation”).

Argus and SMH (Melbourne and Sydney newspapers) Prizes were awarded in 1946 but I can’t find any other mention of them. If you can help me out I’ll add them to the listings on the AWW Gen 3 page, which in its first iteration now sits proudly in the Menu bar above.

“Argus Prize” on Trove brings up singing, painting, cycling and school speech nights but no books, not even “Dusty”. “SMH Prize” works a little better. On 28 Jan 1947 the Communists were meeting to review The Harp in the South, KSP’s The Roaring Nineties and Eleanor Dark’s The Little Company (here). They don’t make political parties like that any more! And I should have remembered Clift and Johnston won with High Valley in 1948.

Bulletin/SH Prior Prize winners (here)

Bulletin
1929 M Barnard Eldershaw, A House is Built, KS Prichard, Coonardoo
1930 Vance Palmer, The Passage
1931
1932 Velia Ercole, No Escape
1933
1934
Prior
1935 Kylie Tennant, Tiburon
1936 Miles Franklin, All That Swagger
1937 not awarded
1938  ”   ”
1939 Miles Franklin & Kate Baker, Who Was Joseph Furphy?
1940 Eve Langley, The Pea Pickers, Kylie Tennant, The Battlers, MH Ellis, Lachlan Macquarie (biog.)
1941 not awarded
1942 Gavin S. Casey, It’s Harder for Girls
1943 not awarded
1944  ”   ”
1945 Douglas Stewart, The Fire on the Snow
1946 Brian James, Cookabundy Bridge
1946 Argus Prize: Frank Dalby Davidson, Dusty
1946
SMH Prize: Ruth Park, The Harp in the South
1947
1948 G Johnston & C Clift, High Valley

ALS Gold Medal winners (here) (ANZLL)

1928 Martin Boyd, The Montforts
1929 Henry Handel Richardson, Ultima Thule
1930 Vance Palmer, The Passage
1931 Frank Dalby Davidson, Man Shy
1932 Leonard Mann, Flesh in Armour
1933 Edith Lyttleton (writing as GB Lancaster), Pageant
1934 Eleanor Dark, Prelude to Christopher
1935 Winifred Burkett, Earth’s Quality
1936 Eleanor Dark, Return to Coolami
1937 Seaforth Mackenzie, The Young Desire It
1938 RD Fitzgerald, Moonlight Acre
1939 Xavier Herbert, Capricornia
1940 William Baylebridge, This Vital Flesh
1941 Patrick White, Happy Valley
1942 Kylie Tennant, The Battlers
1943
1944
1945
1946
1947
1948 Herz Bergner, Between Sky and Sea
1949 Percival Serle, Dictionary of Australian Biography
1950 Jon Cleary, Just Let Me Be
1951 Rex Ingamells, The Great South Land: An Epic Poem
1952 Tom Hungerford, The Ridge and the River
1953
1954 Mary Gilmore, Fourteen Men
1955 Patrick White, The Tree of Man
1956
1957 Martin Boyd, A Difficult Young Man
1958
1959 Randolph Stow, To the Islands

Mile Franklin Award Winners (here)

1957 Patrick White, Voss
1958 Randolph Stow, To the Islands
1959 Vance Palmer, The Big Fellow
1960 Elizabeth O’Conner, The Irishman

Jean & David

Journal: 035

Alla 2003 001

Another couple of weeks in Melbourne putting together a load home, another couple of weekends staying at mum’s. Week days at truckstops – Dandenong, Somerton, Sunshine, outer suburbs respectively south, north and west, reading, writing, talking sometimes, doing a couple of pickups and one day of local work delivering dead forklifts to the recyclers.

Mum has a new hip, was in a rehab hospital when I arrived, spent a few days in a real hospital, a few more days in rehab and then home in time for the weekend. We are both deaf, in a getting old sort of way, so conversation is a trial, especially when there’s background noise. But, surprisingly, I learned stuff I hadn’t heard before and if I don’t write it down what will happen to it, so here’s a story: Jean & David.


At the end of 1948 Jean was an awkward sixteen year old farm girl who wanted to be a teacher. Her father, Fred had left school at 13 to help out his widowed mother and older brother George on the family wheat, sheep farm in Victoria’s Mallee. As they got older and married, the original farm, of 5 one square mile (640 ac.) blocks, was divided up between them and their younger brother Bert.

There were sisters, my great aunts, Annie who told me she remembered the family’s original move from Maldon at the turn of the century, she and George and their parents in a flash sulky; Mavis who married a farmer; Alice, a lifelong teacher; and another boy, Jack, who stayed on at school, became an engineer and died in the War.

Annie married a farmer too but he died and she was back with her daughter Marjorie, living on the home farm, when I wrote ‘Educating Women‘ a few years ago. She moved to Melbourne, remarried late, bought an old farmhouse in (relatively inner) Surrey Hills, hawthorn brick with a slate roof, stables and beehives out the back, providing all us country rellos with a city base. I would lie in bed and listen to the clang, clang of the Wattle Park trams, and the buzz of Box Hill station in the distance.

Fred married (a different) Annie from a nearby farm, and they had daughters Lucy, Jean, Mavis, then, after gaps, boys Allan and Les. Those gaps were stillbirths, mourned by Grandma years later mum says now. I never knew. The girls went to school at their father’s old school, Tungie, a little weatherboard shed, in endless acres of wheat, sand, and mallee-bordered fences. One teacher and ten or twenty kids.

After Tungie, high school at Sea Lake Higher Elementary (K-10), Lucy was soon back on the farm, outside on the tractor mostly, but helping too with baby Les, and with the pigs, cows, chooks – farms were pretty self sufficient back then.

So 1948, 1949. Lumpy – her word, tall, big-boned, she never really made it past plump, and is tiny now in old age, Jean failed Geography in Leaving, had to do it again, and some other subjects. Social Studies where the new teacher, going on 22, tall, dark, handsome, up from Melbourne, helped her out with extra notes, while she was also part-time as a student teacher helping out with the littlies. By the summer break she and the Melbourne guy, David, both socially awkward, were going out.

May the following year, 1950, David and Jean were in Healesville, 250 miles away (400 km) on David’s motorbike – think poor, not cool – waiting for permission to marry. Their parents came, I don’t know how long they took. The impatient couple were married, spent the remainder of the year at a one teacher school at the furthest, opposite end of the state.

Another year, another school, Leonard’s Hill outside Daylesford. I was coming, a farmer drove Jean to hospital, David followed on motorbike. These were the days of wood stoves, cool safes, chip heaters, a little damp weatherboard house in a tiny community in a gloomy forest. The doctor recommended warmer, drier climes. Back to the Mallee.

Underbool. Fifty kids, two rooms, one teacher. The assistant was gone missing. Jean now 19 employed as ‘sewing mistress’, given the littlies again, a few months till the Inspector could produce a replacement, the last time in her life she was paid to work. William turning 1 then 2, left to run free, the school darling. I remember bits of it, crawling up the two or three stairs to Dad’s classroom, Dad facing me down the aisle and all the kids turning to look and laugh. I had always thought it was a memory from the next school, Bonnie Doon when I was 3, but Mum says no, that the kids told their parents nothing about school except ‘what William did’.

Wm, Underbool 1952

That’s it. I didn’t know Dad had (briefly) been Mum’s teacher and I didn’t know Mum had ever been paid to teach, beyond her months as a student teacher. I know bits and pieces about their wedding, Mum always unhappy about the photo of her in a fawn suit that hung in their bedroom. But the more I learn, the happier I am. Why is that, I wonder?

Since writing this, I am back in Melbourne again on another trip (and now back in Perth). I phoned Mum after I finished unloading, her rehab’s going ok. She left hospital early because Gee, my youngest was over for a visit, her kids variously with their other grandparents in north Qld and their aunty in Darwin. Gee’s in her thirties, the baby in the photo above is 68, but the baby in the photo above that is now 15. I’ve always enjoyed calculating Mum’s age as 18 years above mine (it’s 18 years and 50 weeks). She ran round the backyard pushing me and my mates on my new bike when I was six; did the same for my kids; only a few years ago she and Dad were conducting ‘old people’ on national park walks. I can’t imagine having grown up with old parents.

 

Recent audiobooks 

Julian Barnes (M, Eng), Flaubert’s Parrot (1984)
Alfred Bester (M, USA), The Stars My Destination (1956)
Philip K Dick (M, USA), Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said (1974)
Elizabeth Berg (F, USA), The Year of Pleasures (2006)
Fyodor Dostoevsky, (M, Rus), The Brothers Karamazov (1880)
Sergio Rodrigues, (M, Bra), Elza: The Girl (2008)
Jane Austen, (F, Eng), Northanger Abbey (1817)
Charlaine Harris (F, USA), Shakespeare’s Landlord (1996)

Currently reading

William Dick, A Bunch of Ratbags
Alice Nannup, When the Pelican Laughed
Lily Brett, New York
Jess White, Hearing Maude
David Ireland, The Unknown Industrial Prisoner

Hearing Maud, Jessica White

9781760800383.jpg

Have you read Brian Matthews’ Louisa? It begins, “Louisa Lawson (née Albury) was born on ..”. But this conventional start makes Matthews unhappy, he criticizes his typewriter, starts again.

I write, “Hearing Maud is the third work by Australian author Jessica White (1978- )”, and immediately think of Louisa. What to do? My ‘typewriter’ is an oldish pc with a 23 inch screen that was radical (and expensive) when I bought it, in 2008 I think, though the box has been updated since, sitting on the wooden kitchen table my paternal grandfather made for his wife, my Nana, in the early years of their marriage during the Depression.

… (how much easier it would be, I thought suddenly, if one could somehow step into that bland, printless expanse and leave behind the struggle with the black and compromising words), this sentence, anyway, reminded me forcibly of the problematic nature of biography and of this biography in particular. (Matthews)

Matthews’ problem is to construct a story from too little information. While Jess White’s, as in any memoir, is what information to hold back.

Jess is part of the furniture a familiar presence in this corner of the blogosphere, disability editor for the Australian Women Writers’ Challenge, a guest a couple of times on this blog (here, here, here), a fellow blogger (here), and an occasional correspondent as we attempt, unsuccessfully, to catch up for coffee.

Hearing Maud is her story. Though the Maud of the title is the daughter of Australian novelist Rosa Praed (1851-1935), the connection being their both being deaf. So should that be Non-hearing Maud (and Jess), or is it a plea for us to be hearing Maud who was brought up to speak and write but gradually lost the ability to do both as in adulthood she descended into madness. And, by extension, what is it that Jess wants us to hear from/about her.

Jess became deaf after an illness when she was four. She could already speak and retained some, limited hearing, so by concentrating, lip reading she could appear to be normal, or at the shy end of normal, and her parents made the decision that support at school and elocution lessons were a better option than learning to sign. I’m not sure that’s a decision Jess is happy with. But being publicly critical of parents you love, of anyone you love, comes with the memoir furniture so to speak.

It is easy to overlook that the other half of Jess’s name is White. Her grandfather was Patrick White’s father’s cousin (I think). David Marr, White’s biographer, is big on White’s background in the squattocracy –

The story of the Whites in Australia is the history of a fortune, a river of money that flowed through New South Wales … The Whites had hundreds of thousands of acres of the best land in Australia: in the Hunter Valley, across the Liverpool plains and up through New England.

That’s an unfair thing to apply to Jess, though I think she should have addressed it. Jess’s father shares a farm at Boggabri NSW with his brothers (a little north and west of the really fertile New England country) which he leaves while Jess is in high school, to concentrate on his landscape painting. I think though, Jess enjoys having the great novelist in her family tree as Rosa Praed had the poet Charles Harpur.

Praed too was born into the squattocracy. Her father was a Queensland grazier and politician (see Lady Bridget in the Never Never Land (here)). In 1872 she was married from Government House at St John’s Church of England, Brisbane, to Campbell Praed, younger son of an English banking and brewing family. Interestingly, White downplays this, to ‘Rosa Praed grew up in the Australian Bush’ (I paraphrase, I forgot to mark the quote).

The Campbell Praeds had a grazing property on Curtis Island, just off the coast north of Gladstone Qld. There they had a daughter, Maud, and a son but things went badly and they soon left to live permanently in England. Maud was probably made deaf by a serious ear infection, while only a few months old, on Curtis Island, for which Rosa was unable to obtain treatment.

In England, Maud is taught to speak. She seems intelligent, well educated and well-spoken. But Rosa holds her at a distance, sends her to boarding school, and when the marriage breaks up, replaces Maud with her new and permanent love, Nancy Hayward. Maud stays with her father, and when he dies, blames herself, has a breakdown and is institutionalised in Holloway Sanatorium, where she gradually loses the ability to communicate.

White uses the story of Rosa and Maud to talk about herself and her mother (and her father, brother and sister) and the lingering sadness of a stillborn brother.

I delved into the underworld through Rosa’s words and discovered a woman who used writing to eclipse the distance from Australia and express her enduring love for Nancy. Then I found her daughter, who showed me the terrible history and impact of oralism. Without Rosa, and without Maud, I would never have found myself: a partly deaf, partly hearing woman who travels between worlds, and whose travelling made her a writer.

Hearing Maud is a memoir which swirls around – from the illness which left Jess deaf, to the research in London which led to her interest in Rosa Praed, to her school days, to Maud and C19th treatments for deafness, oralism vs signing (the debate goes on (here)), to Jess’s loneliness, isolation, achievements and love life.

Near the end of the book, Jess’s sister Belle asks her “Is this book a cry for help?”. It’s a good question. Jess tells Belle, No. “I want people to know how hard I’ve worked – and how hard most people with disabilities have to work – to get where I am. I want them to hear Maud’s voice and to know that … deaf people are still expected to act like hearing people.”

At the end, Jess is learning to speak French, learning to sign (at last!), and has, after many false steps, a bloke. She is, for the time being anyway, at peace.

 

Jessica White, Hearing Maud, UWAP, Perth, 2019.

References:
Brian Matthews, Louisa, McPhee Gribble, Melbourne, 1987 (here)
David Marr, Patrick White: A Life, Random, Sydney, 1991
Other Reviews:
Lisa at ANZLL (here)

AWW Gen 3 Week

Australian Women Writers Gen 3 Week 12-18 Jan. 2020

Grace Cossington Smith
Artist: Grace Cossington Smith

Lisa (ANZLitLovers) wrote to me this week to enquire which writers we would be covering in Gen 3 Week, so she could get started with her reading. I was on my way home from a quick trip to Melbourne (for a change!) – I left Sat lunchtime and got home Fri night – so I thought it might be simplest, and I would have the time, to knock up a post giving the dates and a simple outline.

Gen 3 – and you know these are ‘my’ generations, though HM Green is in broad agreement – covers the period from the end of WWI to the beginning of the sixties.

Gen 1, from the beginnings of white settlement to 1890, began with letter writing and memoirs and graduated to ‘colour’ novels for the home (English) market. Women’s novels, for the best part of a century dismissed as “romances” by the literary establishment, displayed both a marked spirit of independence and a growing love for the Australian landscape (here).

Gen 2, 1890-1918, covers peak Bulletin – Federation, nationalism, and the birth of the Australian Legend, the anti-hero in the Bush and at War (here). For many Australian writers Gen 2 never ended. Women writers responded by making it clear that it wasn’t just men doing it hard, and so a Pioneer Legend was born as well, and it too lives on in popular fiction, coming to the fore from time to time when politicians are not trying to distract us and glorify themselves, with pointless wars.

Gen 3, 1919-1960, is the story of White Australians clustered in a few cities on the arable fringes of a hostile continent. We sent out explorers – Ion Idriess, Frank Clune, Ernestine Hill – to remind us just how hostile, how other, the Dead Centre really was, and their writing was tremendously popular, but the Literary writers of this generation, and the best of them were women, began to write the stories of ordinary men and women in the cities. Aboriginal Australians had their own myth, or rather we had a myth about them, that they were out there in the desert and that they were dying out. This comes up in Idriess and Hill and most particularly of course in Daisy Bates’ The Passing of the Aborigines (1938). But for the first time Aboriginals are pictured sympathetically and at length in fiction, most notably by Eleanor Dark, KS Prichard and Xavier Herbert.

There are two strands to Gen 3, ‘Social Realism’ and ‘Modernism’, though a third strand, Bush/Pioneering from Gen 2 never really goes away.

Realism began in France in the middle of the C19th as a reaction to Romanticism. The idea was to picture life ‘warts and all’, eg. Zola. This led to Social Realism, in the first half of the C20th, which depicts the harshness of working life in order to critique the forces giving rise to it, ” Social Realism aims to reveal tensions between an oppressive, hegemonic force, and its victims” (wiki). By contrast Socialist Realism, which was the mandated style for Communists around the same time, idealizes the (post-Revolution) Worker.

Modernism. Quotes are from The Literature Network (here):

The Modernist Period in English Literature occupied the years from shortly after the beginning of the twentieth century through roughly 1965. In broad terms, the period was marked by sudden and unexpected breaks with traditional ways of viewing and interacting with the world. Experimentation and individualism became virtues, where in the past they were often heartily discouraged. Modernism was set in motion, in one sense, through a series of cultural shocks. The first of these great shocks was the Great War … [A] central preoccupation of Modernism is with the inner self and consciousness. In contrast to the Romantic world view, the Modernist cares rather little for Nature, Being, or the overarching structures of history. Instead of progress and growth, the Modernist intelligentsia sees decay and a growing alienation of the individual. The machinery of modern society is perceived as impersonal, capitalist, and antagonistic to the artistic impulse.

I have left it till this point to consult HM Green A History of Australian Literature (1960, revised 1985). His Fourth Period (and remember he treats my Gen 1 as two Periods), 1923-1950, is titled ‘World Consciousness and Disillusion’. He writes that notwithstanding the Depression and WWII this “current” period – current when he was writing – is marked by the gradual accumulation of individual wealth. Ahhh remember when one working man could by the honest labour of a forty hour week purchase a modest house and support a wife and children.

The bible of this period is Drusilla Modjeska’s Exiles at Home: Australian Women Writers 1925-1945 (1981) and I must review it in time for the beginning of the Week. She writes,

Within a decade the novel had broken the orientation towards poetry and short fiction that had dominated Australian literature since the 1890s… The ten years between 1917 and 1927 saw the publication of only 27 novels as against 87 volumes of verse, whereas for the years 1928-1939, there were 106 novels and only 57 volumes of verse.

Modjeska goes on to note the pre-eminence of women writers during Gen 3, and quotes Nettie Palmer (1934):

A few years ago it would have been impossible to open a bookshop in Melbourne devoted to Australian books; this has now been done.

 I’m struggling to place the women whose writing is mostly within this period in their proper strands, but I’ll have a go and hope that incites you all to argue.

Modernism

Henry Handel Richardson (for Maurice Guest)
Christina Stead, see the Christina Stead page on ANZLL (here)
Eleanor Dark, my recent review of Waterway (here)
Eve Langley, The Pea Pickers and White Topee (here)
Elizabeth Harrower and Thea Astley began writing in the 1950s but if we consider them at all in Gen 3 let’s leave them till Gen 3 (part 2)

Social Realism

Katharine Susannah Prichard (Nathan Hobby)
Jean Devanny
Cusack & James, Come in Spinner (here)
Dymphna Cusack, Jungfrau (Whispering Gums)
Florence James
Catherine Edmonds, Caddie (here)
Kylie Tennant, Ride on Stranger (here)
Ruth Park, The Drums go Bang (here)
Mena Calthorpe, The Dye House (Whispering Gums)(ANZLitLovers)

Bush/Pioneering (and others)

Nettie Palmer, as friend and critic
Hilda Esson
M Barnard Eldershaw
Marjorie Barnard
Flora Eldershaw
Mary Durack
Henrietta Drake Brockman
Ernestine Hill (an unsatisfactory biog. here)
Jean Campbell
Velia Ercole
Helen Simpson
Gwen Harwood (I have her book of letters, Blessed City)
Charmian Clift

Ok. I hope that gives you enough to get on with. Apart from Modjeska, Nettie Palmer wrote a volume of criticism that covers this period, and Dale Spender’s Writing a New World does too.

Let me know who I’ve missed and who I’ve misclassified. I’ll publish reminders closer to the date. Now start reading!

When the Pelican Laughed, Alice Nannup

ANZ LitLovers Indigenous Literature Week

When the Pelican Laughed

Sue/Whispering Gums mentioned recently that she was thinking about writing about “As told to’s” and whether that is/was/might once have been an appropriate way to publish Indigenous stories. It certainly works for non-writing sports people.

Readers my age might recall from their schooldays I, the Aboriginal by Douglas Lockwood, as told to him by Alawa (Roper River, NT) man, Waipuldanya, aka Phillip Roberts. When I reviewed it (here) four years ago I expected to find it surrounded by a great deal of dismissive commentary, but in fact it seems to be regarded as a quite faithful account, although expressed in Lockwood’s fluent journalese.

The story around When the Pelican Laughed is slightly different in that it is more recent, 1992 rather than 1962, Marsh and Kinnane were working on an oral history project about Aboriginal women forced to work as servants, and Alice Nannup knew Kinnane’s (Indigenous) grandmother. But there is another, much greater difference, and that is that the words are all Alice’s.

‘You, Wari, you’re lucky to be with us, because you nearly got drowned one time.’ This is a story my mother told me about when I was very young. She told it to me in language.

For what it’s worth, my opinion is that it is important that oral histories be collected, but the author credited should be the teller not the writer. In this case all three are credited.

This book also brings up another much more important issue and one that Australians have nearly always swept under the carpet and that is, whether Aborigines were slaves. In The Great Australian Loneliness (1940) Ernestine Hill writes of pearling at Cossack (near Roebourne, south of Port Hedland and 1500 km north of Perth WA):

Nearly all the pearlers employed aboriginal divers… A bag of flour and a stick of tobacco bought a human life… From hundreds of miles inland the blacks were brought, men who had never seen the sea and now were to live and die in it. A dark sentence of history tells that when they refused to come voluntarily they were lassoed from horse-back, and dragged.

There was a form of agreement to be signed in Cossack… With a clumsy cross the natives signed their death warrants. Few of them lived longer than two years.

Alice Nannup, who was born in 1911, tells of her own position as a 19 year old on Ida Valley station 7 hours drive (maybe 200 km) from Leonora, itself a remote desert town 240 km north of Kalgoorlie in WA’s eastern goldfields (map).

Thinking back, I’d say Beeginup and Ida Valley were the two places where I was the most flat out. It was really terrible. All of us – Jess, Mary and myself – were just worked and worked. I was supposed to get five shillings a week there but they never paid me. They never paid any of us [and wherever she worked she almost never had days off].

This was on a ‘society’ property. “People would come from stations all around there, and the Bunning girls and Nellie Manford used to come up from Perth to have these big parties and play tennis.” Those were big names when I first came to Perth. Whether they still are I don’t know, though the companies bearing those names have been subsumed into others.

Alice was born on a station in WA’s north west, “Abydos Station, out from Port Hedland”. Her father was a small-scale cattleman, Tom Bassett though Alice didn’t find this out until after she had been removed to Perth as an 11 year old. Alice’s mother mostly worked for Bassett, though she moved around a bit.

My mother’s name was Ngulyi, that’s her Aborigine name… She was born on Pilbara Station, which is between Roebourne and Marble Bar and she belonged to the Yindjibarndi tribe. My mother spoke five languages as well as English – Nyamal, Palyku, Kariyarra, Ngarluma and Yindjibarndi. I spoke Kariyarra and Ngarluma the most, and, of course, English.

These languages belong to the Ngayarda group, around and inland of Roebourne, bordered to the south by the Yamaji, and to the east by the Martu, the northernmost of the Western Desert peoples (I learn as I go, so I hope I have this right. See a previous post (here)).

Wari (Alice) lived a quite happy life, an ordinary bush life with lots of cousins, at a time when all her people were station hands, until her mother was tricked into allowing a White family to take her south “to be educated” where they delivered her into the hands of the Chief Protector and she was held at Moore River, not educated at all, but made to work until she could be sent out into ‘service’.

Bassett came down and attempted to recover her, but he was soon thwarted from even visiting, and she never saw him or her mother again. This is where the question of slavery comes in. Of course Aborigines under the 1905 Act were not owned by individuals and so could not be bought and sold, but they were effectively ‘owned’ by the State. They had no freedom of movement; they had to work where they were told; if they were paid, it was a derisory amount, half of which was paid into an account held by the Chief Protector and which they could sometimes beg to be allowed to spend (on necessaries); and by Alice’s account they worked tremendously long hours, seven days a week. Late in her life, Alice discovers she had been the sole beneficiary of Basset’s will – £400 – but the money had been paid into an Aboriginal Affairs account, was lost, and they had made no attempt to tell of his death or of the earlier deaths of her mother and sister.

Alice mostly worked as a servant on farms, which involved both inside and outside work. The farms of course were all down south. The Chief Protector made sure that northerners only worked in the south and southerners only worked up north, to reduce the possibility of abscondment. Alice did in fact walk off Ida Valley and once picked up was able to resist any attempt to return her.

[A policeman] told us that Mr Neville had said we should go back to the station, and we should never have run away because it was dangerous. So we told the policeman how we were treated and that, and he said, ‘Well, I can’t force you, so you’ll have to come into Leonora.’

Here they found work until they were able to return to Perth. Alice knew Neville from having been a maid in his house, so she got him to give her a pass to go and work with a previous employer, but after only a few months, Neville wrote to her saying that Will, her boyfriend had the chance of a married position so she should return to Moore River, which was the only place he would allow Aborigines to be officially married.

They found work around Meekatharra but eventually settled at Geraldton, on the coast and began raising a large family through the Depression and WWII in a series of camps, shanties, reserves, and all too infrequently, reasonable houses, experiencing all the while both casual and official racism. Eventually she and Will split, I think Alice was a pretty forthright woman, and although she continues to live and eventually retire in Geraldton she is contacted by relatives in Roebourne and is able to reconnect and make peace with her past.

Towards the end of the book she is able to say,

… I had thirteen kids, they had forty children between them, and their kids have had forty six. So altogether that makes ninety nine. I have another great grandchild due in 1992 which will make it one hundred – and maybe I’ll get a telegram from the Queen.

Alice Nannup was a sober and abstemious woman. Originally C of E, she moved on when a South African vicar began discriminating against the Blacks in his congregation, and found a home with the Seventh Day Adventists. And if she didn’t get the material rewards she deserved for her tremendous hard work, she ended up secure in her culture and with an enviable network of family and friends.

 

Alice Nannup, Lauren Marsh, Stephen Kinnane, When the Pelican Laughed, Fremantle Arts Centre Press, Perth, 1992. Cover painting by Michael Francas (taken from a photo of Alice but with a background clearly of the country inland of Roebourne).

see also: My review of The Fringe Dwellers by Nene Gare (here), which is set in Geraldton. Gare’s husband worked in Aboriginal Housing, so Nannup knew him and was friends also with another Aboriginal woman working with Nene Gare on the book.