Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 21, 2013

The Unknown Industrial Prisoner (1971), by David Ireland

The Unknown Industrial PrisonerLibrarians have an invidious job, trying to allocate some books to the Subjects Catalogue. I really feel for whoever had to deal with David Ireland’s The Unknown Industrial Prisoner and eventually assigned it to these subject headings:
  • Manufacturing workers
  • Death
  • Working class
  • Economic development
  • Alienation

Well, yes, I can see why these subjects were assigned, but they are not really what the book is about.   The Unknown Industrial Prisoner won the Miles Franklin Award in 1971 and I posted the opening lines of the novel here.   It’s such a bitter and angry book that the word alienation seems inadequate to describe its concerns.  Alienation today conjures up images of sulky adolescents lounging about in shopping malls instead of going to school, it just doesn’t begin to scour the depths of angst in Ireland’s novel.  It’s the polarisation of society that interests Ireland: the brutal, amoral industrial world that traps the workers into imprisonment, a world which (he thinks) is invisible to complacent Australia.

I’m calling it a novel, but it doesn’t always seem like one.  There are extremely short episodes instead of chapters, and the writing style seems mostly (though not always) more like journalism than literary.  The multiple characters are all named, in that sly Australian way, to reflect aspects of their personality.  These include, for example, Two Pot Screamer, Doctor Death, the Volga Boatman and Calamity Jane the nurse, and the central characters The Great White Father, the Glass Canoe, the Samurai, Far Away Places and the Wandering Jew.  (He isn’t Jewish, so the moniker is anti-Semitic.)  Some of these monikers are apt but others are a bit opaque – perhaps the allusions derive from the vanished pub world that Ireland evoked in The Glass Canoe (see my review).  Or perhaps it’s because I’m a woman not privy to the secret language of men.   But it wasn’t just trying to decode the names that made The Unknown Industrial Prisoner a challenge.  Far from it.

Truth be told, I made heavy weather of this book.  I might not have pressed on if not for my ambition to read all the Miles Franklin winners. This novel speaks of a time when the rhetoric that surrounds industrial relations was very different,  framed always by ideas about Them and Us, Exploitation of the Workers, Parasitic Multinationals and the aspirational Solidarity Forever.  Rightly or wrongly, things have changed.  Hardly anybody in Australia belongs to a union now, and most unions achieve very little.  (The inordinate length of time and level of disruption to schools that my union requires to achieve a pitiful pay rise is a recent case in point.)  Australians get peeved when their own factories close down under competitive globalisation, but they’re only too happy to buy cheap cars, TVs and clothing from China where the workers are treated much worse than anything evoked in Ireland’s novel.

Presciently, The Unknown Industrial Prisoner describes the manner in which the power of unions was reined in, and how workers learned to compete for a contracting number of jobs as automation and computerisation took hold.  But clever as this prophecy is, Ireland never foresaw the information age and the benefits of the internet.  For him, it’s all bad news, and he had no faith in education for the less intelligent.  The uneducated were all going to be either unemployed or exploited.  The idea of rapprochement between management and workers is a lost cause, exemplified in the ‘kidnapping’ of the Wandering Jew so that he can rub shoulders with the workers at the party.   There is rough justice of a sort, but it’s hit-and-miss, and with few exceptions, everyone is out for themselves.

Well, there were times early in the novel when I wearied of reading about workers continually framed by the metaphor of prisoner trapped and brutalised by a heartless system.  And the heavy-handed cynicism palled.

IN AND OUT      When there was a dispute at the cracker about the safety at the top firing platform of the vertical draught boilers, where men had to manhandle forty pound gas guns at shoulder height under pressure on a narrow platform with a hip-high railing suspended over nothing, the Glass Canoe saw his chance of improving his position.  A clear stand against his fellow prisoners might make the management favour him when they handed out the next dustcoats.

First he agitated to have the Union represented on the Safety Council.  The company splashed the Administration and visitor area with free safety notices distributed by the State Government but would baulk at any more positive or costly action on the plant.  The Union had withdrawn its members, who after all manned the plants, so the remaining members were office bodies who never went near an oil-splashed vertical steel ladder or a slippery grating a hundred feet up at three in the morning in the pouring rain, and who didn’t know what a manway was.

He succeeded in this, and got himself elected operator’s representative.  The men working the plants had one representative, the rest were other trades, white collar men, drivers, storemen, clerks.

‘In the name of Christ, what are we?’ pleaded the Glass Canoe passionately.  The Wandering Jew made no objection to this intrusion of the Christian religion.  He only attended the Safety meetings every three months.

‘Are we children, that we can’t trust ourselves to look where we’re going?  Do we have to be hemmed in by barbed wire and railings everywhere we go? I can understand the attitude of operators who want this work done, but I can’t sympathize with it.  It’s childish, and expensive.’

They were impressed by his concern for cutting cost.  The thing went to a vote among office workers, draughtsmen and storemen and majority rule established that the top landing was safe.

The operators’ Union got nasty and withdrew again from the Council.  This freed the Glass Canoe from having to attend meetings. Most of the time they were not represented: majority rule came up with such ridiculous decisions that all they could do was resign in protest.  There was no one outside Puroil to appeal to.   (p. 60-61)

The Glass Canoe (it’s a reference to this man seeing the world through his beer glass) is a nasty piece of work, but the didacticism  that intrudes in this passage is typical, and it’s a long book at 379 pages (in my A&R Australian Classics edition).  It took no time at all for me to become fed up with Home Beautiful, an illicit offshoot of the plant in the mangroves down by the river.  It functions as a leisure centre, where an assortment of whores service on an industrial scale the men who go down there on their breaks or whenever they can skive off.  These sequences are like the pub scenes in The Glass Canoe, with dialogue featuring what passes for wit amongst uneducated men i.e. boring, sexist, inane ‘conversation’ focussed on one-upmanship, penile smut and fantasies of sexual prowess.

‘That reminds me,’ said the Great White Father, ‘of a time when I was in bed with the wife of a friend of mine, when all of a sudden, just on the vinegar stroke, I heard her husband’s car come up the drive.’  He had their attention. ‘My luck held.  His nearside front wheel came off just as he put the brake on.  He changed the wheel then and there and I had time to have a shower and get dressed and wait outside the bedroom window for him to come inside so he wouldn’t see me leaving.  What do you think he did?  I was still outside the window when he raced right in – she was still naked in bed – threw the covers off her and started to kiss passionately what I’d just left.  He thought she was waiting naked for him and it inflamed him. You should have seen him go to town!  Tied in knots on the bed, wriggling like snakes, sweaty skins slapping and sticking.  I had to leave.’ (p. 84)

And yet …

And yet there are parts of this novel which made me laugh out loud.  The Wandering Jew is an aspirational branch manager.  He fancies himself on the world board of Puroil, and his management courses have taught him that ‘the expression of the face was significant’.  He has been issued with ‘a set of company masks for the purpose of setting his expressions in approved patterns.‘  He takes out his ‘Convincing Worry-Earnest Application mask’ and presses it into his features – where it will stay in place all day because part of his preparation for the job has included the injection of plastic putty into his bloodstream to ‘help him retain whatever shape was moulded on him’.  He would like to emulate an admired predecessor who was appointed to the London board, a man trusted by the workers, one remembered fondly ‘as a man remembers a favourite schoolmaster’.  Alas the Wandering Jew scrutinises the workers from on high with binoculars, and he has a spy too, called the Whispering Baritone, so this last ambition seems unlikely to be realised.  (p. 116-7)

The occasional post-modern flourish got my attention.  Very occasionally the narrator makes his presence felt in the first person, and at one stage the reader is enjoined to make a judgement:

Dear Reader, please read the sentence again.  It is apparent that we can’t rely on the Whispering Baritone or The Good Shepherd to comment further.  The Baritone is shuffling papers as a sign he has finished talking; the Shepherd is taking his time, not going to be hurried. After all, he has to do the dirty work.

Did you read it? Isn’t it nicely put?  (p. 201)

There’s another literary flourish I’ve not come across before: a preface near the end of the book.  No, it’s not an afterword, it’s tucked into Chapter 25.  Here Ireland explains that he set out to deconstruct and then reconstruct ‘a mosaic of one kind of human life’ but he admits to failure:

Well, friend, I have not succeeded in putting back together those I have taken apart, for they are split, divided, fragmented, as I am split up and divided between page and character, speech and event, intention and performance. (p. 374)

As the book proceeds, the reader realises that the sheer volume of explosions, fires, work-related injuries, floods and leaks are bound to end in catastrophe.  The causes are various: inflexible rules preventing timely action, injuries escalating into major disability because of unnecessary delays in providing medical care and/or failure to report the accident for fear of getting the sack; equipment designed for Europe not being suitable for Sydney’s hot climate; cost-cutting on maintenance; and the hiring of cheap, incompetent labourers and sacking the most experienced.  There’s a lot of this, and to my mind, some of it might have been gently edited away without obscuring Ireland’s theme.

The parade of events is built up like a carnival of freaks, losers and showmen, and since the plant is an oil refinery, it’s not hard to guess what’s going to happen.  But the way Ireland builds the tension is brilliant: all the accumulated human tragedies fester into a gangrenous disaster.   In the chapter called Saboteurs, Ireland lists a catalogue of petty revenges – all taken independently, but whose cumulative effect is like Dante’s inferno.

Sydney still has an oil terminal, and they still have accidents there

There’s much more to this novel than I have attempted here, but it’s not going to appeal to all tastes.  As with The Glass Canoe I suspect that it may have much greater appeal amongst male readers.

Author: David Ireland
Title: The Unknown Industrial Prisoner
Publisher: Angus and Robertson Australian Classics, 1971
ISBN:  0207122679 / 9780207122675, hbk., 387 pages
Source: Personal library.

Text Publishing have reissued this novel in their Text Classics series, available from

Fishpond: The Unknown Industrial Prisoner (Text Classics)


  1. Just because the unions have pretty much lost out in both the United States and Australia doesn’t mean we should think any more highly of those greedy billionaires who live off their workers while not providing a living wage for their employees. Then they try to promote with their money the worst form of totalitarian governments in their countries. Losing unions has been a giant step backward for most of the people of these countries despite the bureaucracy before.

    I am currently reading a ‘Text Classic’ which you recommended, “The Watchtower” by Elizabeth Harrower. It is a fine book. Wish there were something like ‘Text Classic’ in the US,.


    • I think it’s appalling that we in the west happily consume goods made under workhouse conditions in developing countries. We could be using our global purchasing power to boycott companies that exploit their workers but instead most people just buy, buy, buy. Governments around the world could gang up to thwart the tax avoidance economy too, but there’s no sign of that happening either.
      I’m glad you’re enjoying The Watchtower, I’ve got another one by her called The Long Prospect on my TBR , if you can get hold of it.


  2. Great review Lisa. I am reminded of ‘Bobbin Up’ by Dorothy Hewett, although hers was somewhat more subtle I suspect. I’m also thinking of good old Dickens (the monikers, the ‘them and us’ theme and something else indescribable). I particularly love your intro about the problem of categorising a book like this.


    • I remember reading Bobbin Up too, it was published by Vintage in a series featuring women writers?
      And oh yes, Dickens, of course, why didn’t I think of that??


  3. A wild, infuriating, impressive mongrel of a novel. Excellent review, Lisa. I must say, though, that I thought Ireland pulled a narrative-in-fragments off better in The Glass Canoe – perhaps because it was on a considerably smaller scale?

    All the same, I’m looking forward to reading Woman of the Future, thought by some to be Ireland’s magnum opus.


    • Well, I have Woman of the Future on my TBR too, though I think I might have a little break first so that I come to it fresh:)
      I love your description of TUIP as a mongrel novel!


  4. Terrific review, Lisa, of a book that I’ve had on the shelf for a long time but not got round to reading. I don’t know that your review exactly encourages me to do so- it sounds all rather didactic and very 1970-ish, and yet eerily prescient as well. I wonder if its reception of the Miles Franklin prize in 1971 reflected the political climate of the time that was to result in change of government (at last!) the following year?


    • It’s a difficult book to review, Janine. I didn’t want to put anyone off it, but at the same time, it wasn’t until I was well into it that I began to see just how clever it was.
      It is a ‘political’ book, and whatever the intention was, it does read now as if it’s meant to ‘teach us a lesson’, but at the same time, it is a powerful evocation of a point in time and it exposes a world that most of us would know very little about. I think it would be invaluable for any historian interested in this period, that’s for sure.
      And the last part, building up to the climax, is gripping.


  5. […] at ANZLL struggles to like Ireland but her reviews of The Unknown Industrial Prisoner and The Glass Canoe are well worth […]


  6. […] have both his Miles Franklin winners on the TBR:  The Unknown Industrial Prisoner (update, read my review) and A Woman of the Future.  I’ll get to them soon, I […]


  7. […] Unknown Industrial Prisoner Lisa/ANZLL (here) Burn I found intolerably racist and could not finish. The Glass Canoe Lisa/ANZLL (here) A Woman of […]


  8. […] Unknown Industrial Prisoner Lisa/ANZLL (here) Burn I found intolerably racist and could not finish. The Glass Canoe (here), Lisa/ANZLL (here) A […]


  9. […] shelf on Goodreads (here) David Ireland (here) The Unknown Industrial Prisoner (here) Lisa/ANZLL (here) Burn I found intolerably racist and could not finish. John writes: I am of the opinion that […]


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