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

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!

A Bunch of Ratbags, William Dick

Image result for bunch of ratbags dick

One of the joys of watching Romper Stomper (Russell Crowe’s first movie), is the locations, around (Melbourne inner suburb) Footscray and particularly the freight rail line that crosses the Maribyrnong River and disappears under Bunbury St by the old Brown & Mitchell Transport depot to come out past Footscray station.

Footscray is a suburb of industry and workers cottages, of football team the doggies and of the big tech now Victoria University of Technology. Over the years I’ve delivered livestock from Newmarket to its various (long-gone) abattoirs, driven backwards and forwards through it when Footscray Road was Melbourne’s main transport hub, had jobs there, walked and eaten and banked there, way back then and more recently during all the years it was son Lou’s home base.

So I was looking forward to this 1965 novel of bodgies and widgies in Melbourne’s western suburbs, a working class bildungsroman, by an author for whom this was lived experience. William Dick (1937- ) grew up in Footscray in real poverty but worked his way out through a trade apprenticeship and a gradually developing career as a writer. By 1985 when this edition was published he had written two more novels and been to Stanford on a writing scholarship. I couldn’t find any more and a blogger I’ve linked to below who went to Footscray Tech in the 1960s concurs, but is able to identify many of the locations, including the protagonist’s (the author’s?) home.

By 1966 when our family moved (temporarily) to Melbourne, Bodgies (and Widgies, their female counterparts) had morphed into Rockers and the rival gangs were Sharpies, Mods and Stylists. Rockers followed Johnny O’Keefe, Mods Normie Rowe, and Stylists the Easybeats. Sharpies, I don’t know. They had short, short hair and wore wide tartan pants. They were rough. Working class kids who spent a fortune on clothes, on looking sharp, according to stories in the Sun. Dick spends a lot of time for a tough guy on descriptions of his clothes, and on the constant subtle changes of fashion. The Sharpies in his day, a decade earlier, were wannabe Bodgies but I think that by class and by attitude they ended up the real heirs of the Bodgies and the Rockers just got the hair and the music.

If an author says a book is a novel, then it’s a novel, and if it seems discontinuous then we look for connections. A Bunch of Ratbags reads as memoir, episodes in the life of, with the names, including the suburb, fictionalized to protect the innocent. The continuity is Terry Cooke growing from 8 to 18 and from petty thief to roughneck to good citizen.

And a warning: his attitude about violence to women is pretty blasé, though he redeems himself a little at the end, in his own eyes anyway, by stopping his mates gang raping a girl (though not till after they’ve bashed her).

The writing itself is disappointing, middlebrow, so that the slang when it’s used sounds false, almost parodic. The only similar book I know, Wild Cat Falling by Mudrooroo, sounds much more authentic. Dick writes like a journalist embedded in a gang, and feels the need to explain everything to us squares.

Cooke lives with his mother and father and younger sister in a falling down 3 BR single story weatherboard backing onto to the rail line. His father is variously a meat worker and an ironworker, doesn’t drink but gambles compulsively, a hoarder of things and animals – chooks, dogs, geese, lambs –  a tyrant in his own little kngdom, a wife beater and a child beater. Cooke hates him and loves him.

– I just had to accept it, that my father liked to belt me up once in a while and that was that. After all, we were only normal people, and if every kid in Goodway murdered his old man after he got belted up, then there would have been no men left in Goodway at all.

As a youngster Terry has a range of little money making schemes, collecting bottles for refunds at the footy, salvaging woodscraps from the rail trucks carting firewood, selling newspapers, stealing.

When he starts at Footscray Goodway Tech he realises he’ll need to join a gang for protection and gradually becomes a little stand-over merchant in his own right. It is typical that when he discovers girls at 13 or 14 his first instinct (and his second and third) is to share, to take her into the toilets and to invite two or three of his mates to follow – he says he only does this with girls who want to “give it away”.

And so he makes his way through school, mostly in with the dumb kids, though sometimes showing enough promise to be put in with kids actually learning stuff; concentrating on his mates, fighting, edging his way into the local Bodgie gang based around the Oasis milk bar (just think Happy Days). At the end of four years, so aged about 16, he leaves, starts at the meatworks on good money but is made to realise that long term he’ll be better off with a trade and so is apprenticed to a furniture maker, alongside some big guys in the Bodgies.

From there it’s vandalism, sex, crime, drinking, gang fights, run-ins with police … and clothes –

The bodgie style had changed from jeans and so on to the new uniform of everything Junior Navy in colour – pants, shirts and socks. Cardigans were still the re-bob style. We now wore one-button, full-drape patch-pocket sports coats, but only the very light colours such as off-white, oatmeal, light blue or powder blue, with black shoes, suede or leather.

He graduates to captain of his own section of the gang. Bill Haley explodes onto the screen and then live at Festival Hall. He begins to get the shakes, headaches and diahorrea. Gets a steady girl who doesn’t do it. Seeks treatment. And slowly gets older and makes his way out of the system.

No, I didn’t like it particularly. Of course I loved that it was (more or less) my time, my home turf, but as a novel it was just a list of events, some of them unintentionally distasteful, with no tension, cardboard cutout supporting characters and very little character development even for Terry.

 

William Dick, A Bunch of Ratbags, first pub. 1965, Penguin 1984. Adapted as a stage musical (here)

Review by Footscray boy, blogger Rob Manderson (here)

 

Blakwork, Alison Whittaker

ANZ LitLovers Indigenous Literature Week

Blakwork - Base Image

I am not a poetry reader let alone reviewer and I only bought this book, a year or so ago, because I was in my local bookstore and the book’s from Broome, WA based indigenous publisher Magabala, and so I assumed it was West Australian. In fact Alison Whittaker “is a Gomeroi multitasker from the floodplains of Gunnedah [NSW]. She is a Fulbright scholar, and a poet and essayist …”.

BlakWorks then languished on my bedside table until I was reminded by Brona’s review of the poem A Love like Dorothea’s (here including a video of a reading by the author) to give it another try. I wasn’t really thinking about who Dorothea was when I started to read and so it hit me like a punch. The assertion Whittaker is making here, I think, is that our love for this land we have so recently occupied alienates the people who have been its custodians for the last 60 millenia. Our love leaves no room for their love. No quote, it would decrease the impact of you reading/listening to it yourself.

The book is divided into 15 sections: whitework, bloodwork, storywork … through to newwork, blakwork; each with about half a dozen poems. Whitework commences with the poem blakwork which tells us that it is a full time job dealing with white guilt: “Indentured blakwork, something like:/nine to five, forgiv-/-ing you.”

I won’t pretend I understood all, or even half, of what I read. Some of the poems are concrete, that is their structure is part of the poem; at least a couple are short essays but here, in a book of poems, we must be aware of the shape, the sound of words as well as of meaning; a number render legalese into poetry to provide a commentary on Indigenous people’s experience of the Australian legal system; and some (I think!) are about other stuff, not just Black-White relations.

Some I like without knowing why: “… so many blaks/How could I name them all?/Inner city arty blak/Remote yet so connected blak/Welfare woman villain blak …” (bpm); or “Indigine, slip through the world Aboriginally this is your line, as your parents will prepare/you so too will you prepare yourself so too will you repair you …” (badblak).

One, ethnomathematics, struck me with a dose of that white guilt. A few words (numbers) dotted across the page: “one, one   /halfhalfhalf …/threequarters/fiveeighths”. Pretty clear what it’s referring to.

There are a few poems which are commentaries on white man’s law. Two or three are ‘simply’  lists of the most common phrases in the judges’ decsion. So, the skeleton of the common law is extracted from the Mabo decision; and exhibit tab is from the inquest into the death of Ms Dhu [who died in a police cell in Port Hedland WA in 2014, while being held for unpaid fines (here)] –

Exhibit 2 tab
The custody system
XXXX Dhu’s temperature
The police vehicle
Lock up procedure

Another, An Act, plays with white legalese: “This Act is the Binaal Bunma-li, Warra-y Act 2018 …  Definitions:/… Binaal Bunma-li: to soothe or settle down/…/Regulations: such as determined by Elders through Country/…. “.

Some is more or less what you would expect, family stories in the section the abattoir; a complaint that a Black woman has been white-washed out of the Thunderbolt [bushranger] legend; an ode to her schoolmates, for feral girls:

‘O, youse feral girls,’
Twisting hands, dancing to warrambul like they’re crossing fingers,
twisting Kmart bras under Big Dub singlets.
They got that
sacred patchwork of precedence–legging thighs follow panty lines,
topograph their overcourse–goad softly little babs to sleep
goad firecourse to wake
goad Centrelink, its cards and monies, from the settler state.

And out of the blue, the section, the centre appears to be a dystopian short story in blank verse:

Bounced through a low-hanging satellite that competes with the atmosphere like I compete with the pedestrians, the Centre for Mob Futures is being rebuilt. Far from here, out desert ways, I’ve reported on its programmers quick to plug its many hostile haemorrhages and rework its paper scaffolds. An archive of drives all buzzing with unsteady fans and unlabelled wires. (futures. excellence.)

Access to the centre is guarded by an AI which determines Aboriginality by yarning, and demands that it be made a cup of tea (blak captcha). In a virtual outback-

… totally unsupervised by mission managers –old and new alike–mob frolicked, philosophised, borned art, and built technologies… In the Centre, a place spinning imprecisely through the sky and broadcasting to a supercomputer in the desert … (virtualisation).

It fails, I think (the project, not the poem).

As I slipped back past the belly-touching AI into the real meatland, all sparse and beige-hot and withering, the Centre’s satellite lost its signal. It shut down. (the last project).

You know I’m an SF/dystopian fan and it’s interesting that Whittaker, Ellen van Neerven and Claire Coleman, to name the most obvious, are all, sometimes anyway, in that space (pun unintended, and indeed unnoticed until about the fourth re-reading).

All the poems require contemplation, more than I have given them at this reading, and I recommend you follow Brona, both in reading one poem at a time, and literally, to see what she has to say about them. And if you’re really serious you could read the review below from the Sydney Review of books. (I haven’t, not yet anyway).

Melanie, did I like it? Not enough to rush out and buy more, but nor did I dislike it, it was interesting.

 

Alison Whittaker, BlakWork, Magabala Books, Broome WA, 2018

Jeanine Leane, Ultima Thule: BlakWork by Alison Whittaker, Sydney Review of Books, 5 Feb 2019 (here)

For further reading of Indigenous authors see –
my Aboriginal Australia page (here) – there’s a list of all my reviews at the bottom.
Lisa’a ANZLL Indigenous Literature Reading List (here)