Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Last Days of the Mill by Pete Hay and Tony Thorne

I bought myself a book the other day! Not something that happens very often. The soccer kids gave me a voucher as a thank you at the end of the season, so I went and grabbed a copy of Last Days of the Mill by Pete Hay and Tony Thorne, as it's just come out and I have heard people talking about it. I know both Pete and Tony slightly.

It's about the APPM pulp and paper mill in Burnie, the town where I grew up. (I mentioned it once before when it was the subject of a contemporary opera, for heavens sake) It was generally called the Pulp. Generations worked there alongside one another - grandparents, parents and kids. We were not a Pulp family, although I did have a brother-in-law working there during the dark days towards the end of the mill's life. It was a very unhappy place to work then.

APPM  was the big employer in town, and at the time I was in high school, it was still where the average Burnie lad could expect to spend his working life. My dad was a teacher, and so as a middle-class kid I didn't have as much to do with the place. It stank, and we would wind up the windows when we drove past it in summer. It had a cloying odour that somehow combined bacon with burnt sugar and burnt hair. I could rabbit on more about my recollections but this is a book review.

The book is a collection of stories based on interviews Pete Hay conducted with former mill workers. A lot of them talk about the strike that happened 20 years ago. It was a very nasty strike with a lot of militancy on both sides. Hardline union outsiders and hardline free-marketers on the company side decided to make it a test case, and the locals were caught in the middle having to choose to strike or scab. 

Pete Hay has tried to reflect the way working men of that generation speak, and I think he's done a good job. These are men with dignity and self-respect, who are quite eloquent in their way. Here is an example - this is from a time before OH&S had much real importance on the shop floor.

I went through th machine
Clean through. 13 April 1968.
Four operations.
That was no-one's fault but me own.
I seen a fault in th paper go through
and I look up t'see where th break was
and put th ticket in without watchin.
And through I went.
There wasn't guards and things like there was by th finish
but it were still my fault.
And th company looked after me –
brought me pay in, and when I was back fr skin grafts and that
someone frm th mill come in every week …

In the early days, although safety was pretty rough and ready, the company was very paternal, and looked after it's people. I remember the annual Christmas party for all the mill kids was a big thing in town, although we never went of course.

I really like this bit;

Now, a lot 'f th drives had carbon brushes
and they was bloody high maintenance.
Y'cleaned em with compressed air
'brush n blow' it was called,
shitty stuff, bastard 'f a job.
This bloke, he'd been on th brush n blow and he was filthy.
And here he was, sittin in th canteen eatin cream buns.
And he was black –
th only white on him was th tips 'f his fingers
where he'd been lickin the cream off …

I learned a lot about life at the Pulp from this book. Having grown up there, surrounded by people for whom the Pulp was their life, I suppose I have a deeper understanding of those people now.

I met Tony in about 1984, when he was taking a school holiday cartooning course at the Burnie Adult Ed. He is an amazingly talented illustrator and animator - I believe he worked on some of the Harry Potter films. He arranged to spend time drawing at the mill before it finally closed for good in June 2010. He was supposed to have 2 weeks but ended up having only four days, as different processes shut down forever around him. 

Tony, his father and grandfather all worked at the Pulp or on the docks shipping paper. Tony's mum Pam worked with my mum for years as paper artists. The works in the book are mostly digital prints - which I guess he has done from sketches using a graphics tablet. The 2nd image above is the exception, its a big watercolour wash/ink number. If you'd like to know more, the book has its' own blog here.

I think it's a real treasure of a book, and a model of how this sort of vernacular history ought to be done.


Tony Thorne said...

Hi Chris,
I just reread your strip in FLUSH.

Thanks for the review. Its means a lot to Pete and I. said...

Hi Tony! Well, it's a great book, you should be very proud. And as I said, if more history got done this way we'd all be much the richer for it.

I never did master cartooning - my drawings in FLUSH were pretty terrible but it wasn't a bad idea for a story.

All the best to you and Pete.