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DAEL ALLISON

Review: Last Days of the Mill, by Pete Hay and Tony Thorne

Forty Degrees South, Hobart, 2012


Two Tasmanians return to the north-west country which raised them. They converge on Burnie, a coastal town dominated physically and symbolically by the giant carcass of the paper mill, locally dubbed ‘The Pulp’.

Artist and animator Tony Thorne did his first drawings on Burnie Bond brought home from the mill by his grandfather. Thorne worked there too, on summer breaks from Art School in Hobart. For poet, environmentalist, academic and self-confessed larrikin Pete Hay this is the country of his bones and political inclinations. Hay, one of Tasmania’s most significant social thinkers, champions all that is good about the island he calls an outrigger.

Armed with poetry, paint and ink they have come to collaborate. To create a tribute to the community that supported and grew with the mill over 73 years. Thorne goes into the vast, emptying mill, visually recording the shut-down of a once dynamic hub of industry. Hay sits with retired and redundant workers, recording their words over a cuppa. Reminiscences ranging from introspection to bravado flow like stories at a wake.

Last Days of the Mill contains ten long narratives which Hay calls monologues. He says they are found poems, and his scaffolding of the words gives them cadence. They are vivid, visual, with the air of a Caravaggio painting—layers of experience, humour, regret, resentment and empathy creating a chiaroscuro of memory and event. The poetry of the humanity of the mill juxtaposes convincingly against Thorne’s stark, industrial images.

The first of the monologues, 'Clean as a Peeled Egg', opens with the brimstone whiff of economic rationalism. A dividing of loyalties portends the strife to come.

People was bein put off.
Me brother come home and he said,
they’ve offered me a job.
I said what job is it,
and he said, yours.

Moving determinedly to the 1992 strike at the mill, ‘th biggie’, the poem sets a pattern of industrial unrest and loyalties and betrayals, that echoes in subsequent monologues. This is a book about feisty independence and standing up to the bosses. About the ethos of loyalty, fairness and egalitarianism, and how the industrial standoffs of the 1980s and 90s shook that ethos to its core. It is also a story of the Burnie community and the north-west region and how the strike impacted:

Some’f th older ones’ll never get over it –
th scars are there today.
It pulled the town in half.

Voice is critical. Hay creates a language that crosses txtspk with vernacular, vowels dropped in that close-lipped way of speaking Australians developed to keep out the flies. Persuading even the most reticent to open up he unfolds their memories in the authentic voice of Tasmanian working men and women. Hay says the stories and observations are often composite, but each voice belongs to one real person.

‘We was a Pulp family frm way back’ is a common refrain. For many the factories were all they knew: ‘there was nine’f us kids and we was all there, th old man, too, / so our lives was all about that mill.’ Here was a working community, the bosses largely benevolent, jobs and lives predictable.

In my day th union was invisible.
Y’paid yr dues and then y’forgot about it.
The old Pulp was good to us,
with the dentists and the health scheme and that.

But economic rationalism and the inevitability of modern production demands brought change. New owners ‘junked the old family stuff … / th kids’ Christmas party and th piss-up at th three week shut …’. The profile of the workforce changed radically:

… in come that CSS line and 80 people jus walked out th gate,
them jobs gone jus like that –
now it’s all cut and packed by one machine
where once there was guillotiners, sorters, distributors …

It was a time of developing cynicism. Hay makes clear through the voices how the fabric of loyalty was rent. Although the workers struck for conditions and pay, their grievance was just as much about trust, respect, and the undermining of the mill community. When profit became more important than people, when the rug of mutuality was pulled from underfoot, the old ties of company loyalty were broken. ‘It’s push, push, push now. / They want th paper out, and out, and out’.

Hay offers multiple perspectives of the ’92 strike: male and female workers, bosses and scabs, unworldly simplicity and political grit. Here are the alienated and bewildered, the user and the used, the cynical, self-righteous and smug. Some bowed to harsh economic reality, or greed: ‘House and car, th luxury’f me pay packet, / I weren’t givin that up.’ Others walked out, putting jobs and friendships on the line.

It affected me relationship with them blokes very seriously,
shit yair, especially Albert – like, he was me good mate,
but he was a scab, y’know?
I hated it – he didn’t need t’be.

As a writer with a strong feminist sensibility, Hay brings into this blokey world a powerful sense of the female contribution, offering viewpoints of both the women at home and those who worked at the mill, many of whom joined the picket.

Me missus didn’t like it at all, and there was a few sheilas
who wasn’t too keen. So a lot had pressure at home.
But there was lots’f sheilas turned out, too. Shit yair.
Some very vocal sheilas, y’know.

As tensions escalated to violence, stories emerge of benevolent police, the strong protecting the weak, death threats, families bearing the brunt:

and I said t’Barb, if they start comin through th door
fire th first round and it’ll make a lot’f noise,
but th next one y’aim straight at th guts and y’pull th trigger –
she’d’f done it, too.

Hay sketches character deftly. The poems are populated with identities with names like Pablo and Owly, Razor, Brenda and old Mrs. Gardam. Food is also part of the rich melange of the picketers’ world: ‘The veggie factory over Spreyton give us these bags’f corn. / Mrs. Gardam had swedes. Edna brought a huge bloody trifle.’ The lammies, swiss rolls and cream sponges donated to sustain the picketers supplanted by the stink of wild duck and wallaby as the strike dragged on.

The stories highlight a history of camaraderie: ‘the good thing was getting t’know the blokes y’worked with – / nothing better fr that than a strike.’ Hay foregrounds a community where difference could be tolerated: ‘Me brother was on th picket, y’know? / Over there on th other side’f the fence frm me’. There was even sympathy for some of the replacement workers, often virtually unemployable, who came in the simple hope of a job:

Sad thing is, most’f em left soon after she was goin again anyway,
like, there was horrible stuff bein done to em –
they’d get their bags pissed in, their cars totalled.
Th company used em and spat em out.

All points of view are those of the local, the insider. Like his subjects Hay has no time for ‘th out-of-towner, them bloody blow-ins’. While the ‘ninjas’, hired thugs brought in to cause trouble on the picket, were universally hated: ‘Them no-hope ring-ins, they was th ones always wantin a fight’, the severest derogation is reserved for the politicians who used the strike for self advantage.

Pablo’s still got th Eureka flag
with all th signatures’f those cunts
who used th strike t’get a political career out’f it.

Last Days of the Mill explores not only the strikes, but the industry, including exploitation and ignorance. Women employed as counters spending their days kneeling on little rubber mats (’And y’had t’ask t’go t’th lavvy’). Men who finished each shift covered in pulp, or worse, dust from the asbestos putty used to patch the machines.

Talk about abominable snowmen –
they couldn’t even see each other fr the white cloud.
Shittiest, cruddiest job in th mill, and no masks, no gloves.
One fitter was tellin me two’f th prentices frm his year
have died’f asbestosis.

Here is oral history, filled with the nuances of passion, friendship, betrayal, injustice, and regret. There is humour—stories of pranks and accidents and wrongs, both self inflicted and imposed—as well as powerful nostalgia:

I was th glue.
I run th beer raffles, collected th footy tippin.
It got a bit addictive t’be honest.
I used t’get up at five and pick up Irish and old Pablo at th corner,
and it was like yr life fr ages, y’know. I didn’t want it t’end.

Here is belief in the power of the worker, and a fight for conditions that today are enshrined in industrial law as a right: ‘We struck a lot, tryin t’get super.’ While the voices are pragmatic, sometimes cynical:

I was lookin at it then as th golden goose –
Y’don’t gut th golden goose, do yuh –y’jus keep getting eggs.
Four weeks redundancy fr every year – that’s a good condition

the sense of disillusion is palpable: ‘We all thought we was there t’save our jobs, / but I reckon we was used to some degree’. Ultimately it was a battle of the giants.

Th unions was playin the game jus like th company.
It’s a dance, I thought, and its bein conducted by the powers that be
over on the mainland. A test t’see how strong the unions are,
and that’s what both sides wanted t’know.

Hay’s monologues potently conjure the end of not only an industry but an era. After years of cut-backs and restructuring, the redundancy of its workers infected the mill itself.

In his notes ending the book Hay discusses his attempts to ‘find a literary means of replicating the rhythms and patterns of vernacular speech’, particularly strong Tasmanian speech. He rejects utterly the snobbishness which dismisses the expressive power of the vernacular, saying the workers he interviewed ‘were skilled communicators, their vocabularies large and vividly deployed, their recourse to metaphor and simile marvellously inventive.’ He uses the acronyms the workers used and some, along with occasional references, could do with an explanatory note. But these monologues are not intended as a history but poetry, and like Thorne’s artworks they are a portrait.

Tony Thorne’s illustrations go beyond well observed, workmanlike renderings of interiors, workers and machinery. They capture the mill’s death throes: the unaccustomed quiet, the accumulating grit, equipment becoming obsolete, metal preparing for rust—there will be no market for old paper-making machines in a world moving away from the use of paper. Even the artist makes digital prints. These, and his pen and wash drawings, are lineal, rigid, images caught out of time like an old snapshot. Exactly the sort of illustration to nudge an old worker to say, ‘Yair, that’s it! That’s how she was’.

Last Days of the Mill records a vision of an industry we may not see the like of again. It is both a significant accomplishment and a brave venture: art and poetry produced in a weighty tome in the days when more and more readers are making the change to swiping screens embedded in lightweight plastic. But Hay and Thorne have chosen their vehicle well. This is a volume that sits reassuringly in the lap, or opens wide on a table for poring over, absorbing a way of life and work that is fast disappearing. It is a book which superbly achieves its makers’ aim: to valorise the mill community of Tasmania’s north-west.