The Glass Canoe

2 August 2023

By: Centre For The Australian Way Of Life

David Ireland, 1976

David Ireland’s Miles Franklin winning novel The Glass Canoe (1976) occupies a unique space in the IPA’s Australian Canon. It depicts an Australian way of life that has now all but vanished: It is a Shakespearean vision of white, male, working class, post-WWII Australia. Perhaps because of this, it experienced from its first edition a peripatetic rise and fall, from to literary eminence to obscurity, remaining out of print for thirty years until a new edition by Text Publishing appeared in 2012.

The Glass Canoe is set almost entirely in a working-class pub – The Southern Cross – located in a slightly fictionalised version of Northmead, a suburb on the western outskirts of Sydney. Alcohol, blood, sex, and death punctuate the interminable days and nights of the clientele who are known, affectionately, as ‘the tribe’. We view these characters through the eyes of Lance, or Meat Man as he is known (due to the endowment of a readily guessed part of his anatomy) and they appear in vignettes, each with a heading and usually only one or two pages long. The tribe is a long moniker-laden cast with names like ‘Alky Jack’ and ‘The King’ and the novel takes the form of a mosaic, with the short sub-headed chapters organised seemingly at random. The effect is that the members of the tribe stand out like pictures of people in a photo album who, as we become familiar with their names and faces, are revealed as rich and complex characters.

Ireland was a pioneer of the practice of jotting down sketches of scenes and images onto playing-sized cards, then arranging and rearranging them on the floor, their order uncertain. The final effect of this process is that the novel shatters narrative expectations of chronology or linearity, giving an exhilarating sense of scope and plurality. Nevertheless, it maintains its coherence as it moves inexorably towards its end all the while insisting that society teems with individualities – an outright challenge to the gentrifying wider world. Narrow, mono, and blokey, like The Southern Cross, the book is like the pub: ‘a whale on its side in an uneven sea, listening to ocean music; in its belly is a tribe of Jonah’s’.

And in The Cross and Ireland’s novel, life may be ‘poor, nasty, brutish, and short’ but it is not solitary. In the old world The Cross had been an institution with its customs ‘stronger than laws of parents, priests and peers’ but now ‘on the back wall where the clock is, above the pool tables, there’s a crack in the bricks…it points at the clock like a finger’. The pub has a geography; physical, social, and within it lurks the dark beast of fear and beauty at the heart of Australian life: ‘And now and then, as they drank deeply, they saw in the bottom of the glass, not the face of the man they knew, but the monster within that was waiting and all too willing to be released’. The Cross is a home; a refuge from the world, from the traffic running past it into some future. It is a ‘sort of past solidified in masonry’, ‘a deflated football that ought to be blown up’ and for the tribe it is a tomb but an illuminated one, a light in the darkness, THE SOUTHERN CROSS spelt out in reverent neon, and it is where life is. It is where men commit themselves to frail glasses ‘some days floating calmly out onto broad reaches of water between sympathetic shores and willows and friends and waving picnickers on the bank, and other days whipping dangerously round a sudden bend toward nervous shallows and sharp aggressive rocks’. It is a life that is all the tribe knows, and is all that the literary world sought to evade and overcome.

While unfashionable now, Ireland’s contemporaries knew what he was painting, and he was admired and celebrated as the hard voice of a working people as well as the chronicler of that world’s demise. The writing was, as it is now, unrivalled in its quality of attack and feel for life. Notable critic Douglas Stewart considered the novel ‘a flash of inspired vision with great verve and menace’, writing in The National Times that Ireland had identified the pub as ‘the last shaky refuge of industrialism’. As Nicolas Rothwell points out in his 2012 introduction, this was a time when 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’. But it was also a changing time, with divisions of class appearing side by side in the major cities, and Rothwell wryly observes that Patrick White published his ‘moralising’ A Fringe of Leaves in the same year Ireland’s slim Canoe appeared. He entertains the amusing thought of these two incongruous novels competing for shelf space ‘perhaps at Lesley McKay’s in Double Bay’ but needing to be kept apart for fear their utterly divergent worldviews ‘might produce a spontaneous annihilation of the cosmos’.

We might ask where we are now? Where the cosmopolitan self-image of modern Australia leaves the old working-class culture that sustained life from the early days in the rocks, through to Balmain and Collingwood, through to the gentrification of the inner cities in the 80s and 90s, and now to places like Redfern. Are the parts of Australia that we see in Ireland’s novel so changed? Or now safely cordoned off far from where books are read, and the books that once portrayed that type of Australia no longer seen as central to our literary life? The 100-year-old pub ‘The Redfern’ was recently restored to its former glory, no doubt with a blown up Rabbitohs footy on the mantle behind the bar. A copy of The Glass Canoe would be suitable reading there over a schooner, to remember where we came from. And although it might be a $12 craft beer we drink, we can still reflect on the working-class Australian values depicted so masterfully in the novel: mateship, comradery, and the egalitarian spirt. Wherever we are we can think with Keg ‘of the tribes across Australia each with its waterhole, its patch of bar, its standing space, its beloved territory. It was a great life.’

This commentary was written by Lana Starkey, Future Leader at the Institute of Public Affairs.