Authors: David Ireland
Tags: #Fiction Classics
was born in 1927 on a kitchen table in Lakemba in south-western Sydney. He lived in many places and worked at many jobs, including greenskeeper, factory hand, and for an extended period in an oil refinery, before he became a full-time writer.
Ireland started out writing poetry and drama but then turned to fiction. His first novel,
The Chantic Bird
, was published in 1968. In the next decade he published five further novels, three of which won the Miles Franklin Award:
The Unknown Industrial Prisoner, The Glass Canoe
A Woman of the Future.
David Ireland was made a member of the Order of Australia in 1981. In 1985 he received the Australian Literature Society Gold Medal for
Archimedes and the Seagull
David Ireland lives in New South Wales.
is the author of
Heaven and Earth, Wings of the Kite-Hawk, Journeys to the Interior
The Red Highway
. He is the northern correspondent for the
ALSO BY DAVID IRELAND
The Chantic Bird
The Unknown Industrial Prisoner
A Woman of the Future
City of Women
Archimedes and the Seagle
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Copyright Â© David Ireland 1976
Introduction copyright Â© Nicolas Rothwell 2012
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First published by Macmillan Publishers Australia 1976
This edition published by The Text Publishing Company 2012
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Primary print ISBN: 9781921922411
Ebook ISBN: 9781921921021
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The most steadfast tradition of Australia's cultural establishment is its resolve to forget the recent past. If there are achievements, dishonour them; if there are masterworks, neglect them, consign them to some discreet scrapheap of obscurity. The past can make people uncomfortable: many of those who survive from that strange place know more than us; they have seen more; their perspectives, most alarmingly, are different, and cast doubt on the universal validity of our own.
Of course this phenomenon is pretty familiar everywhere. Writers, artists and dramatists routinely go into a reputation slump once dead, or once their urgent heyday is done. They seem somehow tainted by their time, caught up in its delusions, representative of trends and attitudes we incline in later, more enlightened, years to disparage or mock. Often these disappearances are permanent: the mid-grade and the modish fade away, and we never hear their names again; they become no more than pale references for historians, evidence of views and customs that would be unthinkable without the lengthy explaining notes of scholars.
Sometimes, though more rarely, those vanished names return, like comets swinging back into proximity with the sun, their magnitude increasing as their approach draws nearer and the tail of blazing light behind them lengthens across the sky. Is the time at hand for the reappearance of the Ireland comet? Can he be assigned a place in the thin firmament of fixed Australian literary stars?
The story of David Ireland's rise and eclipse is a tale from an earlier century, when literary romances were all dramatic elevations and giddying falls from grace. The writer was born in Sydney and raised in the city's north-west. He took a range of jobs that find echo in his books: as a greenkeeper, as a refinery worker. By 1968 he was a novelist with a work in print; in 1971 he published
The Unknown Industrial Prisoner
, a book that received the Miles Franklin Award, as, in 1976, did the book you now hold in your hands. This was the reputation peak. The books, and prizes and honours, kept on, for several years, and one can almost imagine an alternative time path in which Ireland's late saga,
, released to virtual silence in 1997, had a vast success and its author enjoyed an Indian summer of prestige and acclaim.
Almost. But no. Crack open the pages of
The Glass Canoe
, reader in waiting, and you'll see why. The book has traction. It pulls you in. It's the hard core. It's art, not entertainment; action, not plot. It's the lurking,
dark beast of fear and beauty at the heart of Australian life. It is all we know, and all we seek to put behind
us, and all that the literary world has struggled to evade and overcome. It has a geography, physical and social: it's what lies beyond the beach; beyond the shore; Australia beyond the line of coastal suburbs and their aspirations. The set-up is simple. Ireland works this way: he disdains surface marks of coherence, he has no time for the long forms of narrative. It's fragments, for him, snatched scenes, glimpses that show all.
This book is an anatomy: it tells the tale of The Southern Cross, a hotel, fairly clearly situated in Northmead, western Sydney, downwind of the Clyde refinery stacks, far from the city centre âwhere tall buildings stood, rich castles lit up all over like burning buildings with fire still feeding inside'. The hotel regulars are the book's cast. They drink, they brawl, they dream, they weep. The episodes are short; they stitch together; they make up a mosaic. The view those fragments build up is hard to bear. The world is empty; its routines revolve round alcohol, blood and sex.
Even for a reader of our time, replete as our environs are with images of sensual abandon and cinematic gore, the going is tough. Indeed it is almost unthinkable that a modern publisher would dare to send the
, stuffed as it is with words of sexism, with prejudice and with brutal, escalating, unending violence, out into the world of literary festivals and cultural promotion tours.
What did Ireland's contemporaries think, when they reviewed him and elevated his reputation, if briefly, to the skies? The quality of the writing spoke, of course, for itself. It was sinew, it was the feel of life. And in its quality of attack it had no competitors, just as it has none now. The context was also striking. The publication time was the twilight of Whitlam's Australia. The gilded paragon of Australian letters was Patrick
White, who had won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1973, and who published his sprawling, mythographic, moralising
A Fringe of Leaves
in the same year Ireland's slim
appearedâand it is an amusing thing to think of these two new releases in the bookshops, perhaps at Lesley McKay's in New South Head Road, Double Bay, competing for the shelf space, but needing to be kept apart for fear their utterly divergent worldviews might produce a spontaneous annihilation of the cosmos.
Critics were kind, if cautious. The venerable Douglas Stewart in the
felt Ireland had identified in the pub âthe last shaky refuge from industrialism'. The Penguin blurb suggested there was a degree of sardonic humour in the scenes of carnage and despair Ireland had sketched: âPerhaps it's all to be taken on a bent elbow with another swallow.' They were different times. Australians knew what Ireland was painting was there: you could still stroll down from your neat townhouse in Carlton or Edgecliff and wind up in a hotel where men with horizon eyes gazed at the race-screen and the aroma of stale beer hung like a sentence in the air. And of course you still can today, but those parts of Australia are now, for the most part, safely cordoned off, far from where books are read, and the books that once portrayed that other Australia are no longer seen as central to our literary life. Ireland's writing journey continued: the establishment moved on to other, gentler books, with attitudes that did more to polish the moral virtues of the reading class.
The inescapable suspicion forms that Ireland was admired, and celebrated, not just as the hard voice of the people but as the chronicler of that world's demise. And
The Glass Canoe
is cast as the tale of the old hotel's passing. Even in the early pages it looks to the narrator figure like an illuminated tomb, âa sort of past solidified in masonry'. The Southern Cross is on the verge of being rebuilt. Its regulars are the flotsam of history, the losers on the refuse heap. But was that Ireland's tilt? One reads
The Glass Canoe
today with very different eyes. What is permanent in the book stands out. It is the least judgemental of books. Ireland sees horror. He sees beauty. He casts them into poetry and sets them down. Where is this beauty? In looks and gestures. In the need for tribe and place. In League's awe and majesty, âwhen Danny's on the burst and swerves just before taking a pass from the half and that swerve takes him past a stiff-arm the ref didn't see and wouldn't have seen, and then he takes three stridesâ¦' Where is it? In life's bitter traps: âIn the street, at the lights, men were rotting in their cars, fighting nothing, only fearing; fearing crashes, fearing cops. Their blood whitened in fear and got thin.'
The book makes up a tapestry: many perspectives, many actors, their words, their breathing, the ways they mesh and move. The landscape, the sun and moon in the sky above the city, the gleam of the rainbow in fuel oil spilt on the pavement, the different kinds of grass blades in a greensward: fragments, a world of fragmentsâbut over it all, spread over it like the heavens, an authorial perspective. That perspective is the thing
that hits the reader most forcefully. Ireland is presenting, in his hotel, an Australia: an Australia now largely without literary voice. It is vernacular Australia, and it would be tempting, but not quite right, to see as its spokesman the articulate inebriate who steps up to the bar to speak from section to section, Alky Jack: âNever be ashamed of being an Australian,' he'd say. âThere's plenty just as bad as us in the world.' His audience looks around: the saloon's a shambles, dirt everywhere, smoke tooânow gone, its curtain never to be glimpsed again in a back bar's filtered light. Alky Jack resumes: âAnything can happen. We started off in chains, we do our best when we're not pushed, we pay back a good turn, say no to authority and upstarts, we're casual, we like makeshift things, we're ingenious, practical, self-reliant, good in emergencies, think we're as good as anyone in the world, and always sympathise with the underdog.'
It's not Ireland's simple view, and he subverts it in the book right awayâbut it's hard not to feel those words were written with a bit of love as well as a degree of irony. Hard not to feel that Australia is in your
hands when you hold this book. An old Australia, wild, and picaresque, one worth a few words, the words Ireland pronounces, almost like a blessing, as he ends his phantasmagoria, still, as in every sentence, at perfect pitch: âI went to the bar to get us a small fleet of glass canoes to take us where we wanted to go. I thought of the tribes across Australia, each with its waterhole, its patch of bar, its standing space, its beloved territory. It was a great life.' How resonant the past tense sounds, a deeper tense now, as we glance back today on this jewel in our literary tradition, long out of print. How much we have lost that still lives with us.