Thursday 16 January 2020

The Dyehouse | Mena Calthorpe #AWW

Written with unerring skill and insight, The Dyehouse is a masterly portrait of postwar Australia, when industrial work was radically transformed by new technologies and society changed with it. Mena Calthorpe—who herself worked in a textile factory—takes us inside this world, vividly bringing to life the people of an inner-Sydney company in the mid-1950s: the bosses, middlemen and underlings; their dramatic struggles and their loves.

The inner-city Sydney suburb of Macdonaldtown is the setting for Calthorpe's story about workers in a fictitious textile dyeing factory in 1956. And as Fiona McFarlane reminds us early on in her Introduction: The Art of Work, 'Calthorpe was a socialist, and it's impossible to read The Dyehouse without noticing its political commitment.' This might make for a dry, earnest sort of story in some hands, but Calthorpe is also a humanist. Her characters come alive in a convincing, sympathetic manner. Therefore, this becomes a story about everyday people and how they approach a working life. What it means to them, how it affects them, financially, physically and emotionally and the conditions and expectations that are placed on them by society, religion, family and friends.

Image Source
Every strata of the factory is covered. We meet the bosses, the managers, the office staff, the workers and the cleaners. We see them at work and at home. Calthorpe gives us insights into their thoughts and emotional states. We see their poverty, their dreams and hopes, their despair, fear and pride.

Reading this with a modern sensibility, it comes as a shock to be reminded of times gone by when one's working life was so inflexible and all-encompassing. The days were long, the work was hard, often physically demanding, and the weeks were even longer. It was a time when the worker had almost no rights and no recourse for compensation, compassion or simple leave. A time where all the power was on the side of the bosses, who were more concerned about the bottom line, than the daily lives or well-being of their workers.

This example of the 1950's class and gender divide also reminds us that times may change, but
human nature doesn't. The double standards that applied back then are different now, less obvious perhaps, but they still exist for those who want to see them.

The idea that all progress is good and that growth is inevitable still dictates the way we approach work and our economy. Technology, change, economic rationalisation and personal advancement at the expense of others still divides the bosses from the workers; the haves from the have-nots. Modern worker's may have more rights and avenues for compensation, but loss of work is still the financial and psychological devastation today as it was for Hughie.

I'm extremely grateful that Text Classics rediscovered this lost story about a time and place in Sydney that is now also lost. The old slum terraces may still exist, but they are slums no longer. The occasional smoke stack may still grace the horizon of many an inner-city skyline, but they are now ensconced in modern refurbished, re-purposed renovations. An aesthetic reminder of our industrial past surrounded by coffee shops, restaurants and modern art.

The Dyehouse was a perfect example for Bill @The Australian Legend - Gen III - 1919-1960 - reading week. This era of Australian literature is defined by social realism and modernism. Social Realism 'depicts the harshness of working life in order to critique the forces giving rise to it....By contrast Socialist Realism, which was the mandated style for Communists around the same time, idealises the (post-Revolution) Worker' (wikipedia). Modernism focuses on the decay and alienation of the individual, in direct opposition to the earlier Romanticism that embraced an idealised version of progress and growth, love of Nature, beauty and imagination.

Oliver, the new vat worker, sums up this disconnect between worker and boss, reality versus idealisation, when he says,
'We ain't got much. But some of these bastards want to strip us down. Maybe after a while they get to feeling that we aren't built like them either. Where they've got lungs and heart and guts, and blood in their veins, maybe we've got wheels and gears and cogs. Maybe they don't mean to be bad. We're just not human. Not in the way they are. They'd strip us down, all right. And mainly we let them.
King St, Newtown 1950's - note the chimney stacks at the end of the street.

Philomena (Mena) Ivy Bright Calthorpe was born in 1905 in Goulburn, NSW. Her father was a droving contractor and Catholic. Her mother was a Protestant. It's hard to imagine now, how disturbing and unusual that was considered at the time.

After school, Mena taught in small country schools for a decade before marrying Bill Calthorpe, a sheep farmer from Yass. His family were forced to sell the farm in 1933, so Mena and Bill moved to Paddington to start up a shop. It was unsuccessful. Mena joined the Communist Party in 1933 while Bill became involved in the trade union movement. Mena worked in various office jobs, including in a textile factory, and wrote in her spare time.

She left the Communist party a few years later because she couldn't afford the cost of being an organiser and joined her local Caringbah branch of the Labor Party instead. Another factor for joining the Caringbar branch was B. A. Santamaria's Catholic faction, the Groupers. They were also based in Caringbar. They actively opposed Communist involvement in the trade union movement and Mena actively opposed them! (I would be keen to read her second book, The Defectors (1969) that goes into branch and trade union politics.)

She joined a writers group which included Katharine Susannah Prichard, Sally Bannister and Dorothy Corke. Mena also attended meetings of the Fellowship of Australian Writers with Dymphna & Mary Cusack and Florence James.

The Dyehouse was the first of three novels. Mena died in Sutherland, Sydney in 1996.

It might be easier for the boy,” Barney thought. “Sixteen or seventeen years is a long time. And the future could be different. Yes, a man could bank on that. The future would not be the same.”

“I’d like to have a lot to give you, Patty. A new house in one of the outer suburbs. Lovely clothes. We haven’t got much. All our lives we’ll be working and just trying to hang on to what we have. Blokes with money will make more and more. People like us will make it for them. And all the time we’ll be lucky if we can just hang on.”

Time has been kinder to The Dyehouse, than some of the reviewers of the time. R.R. from the Canberra Times | Formula Story set in Factory Scene | 16 Sept 1961 | said,
Yet the book is badly overwritten and pretentious. It needs ruthless pruning of its "literary" passages. Even moderate editing out of such schoolgirl words as "clatter," "click clack," and "tic tac," which jangle irritatingly through it, would improve it immensely.

The numerous vulgarities are forced and unnatural.
She has considerable skill as a writer, her great strength appears to be story construction. When she stops fascinating herself with her own clever prose, throws away her thesaurus, and gets down to telling a story simply, economically, and honestly she may well be a force to be reckoned with on the Australian literary scene.

Thankfully, Fiona MacFarlane is able to see the value of Calthorpe's 'restrained lyricism' and the 'playful attention to sound' when referring to these same aspects of the writing. As for the vulgarities, I have to assume that they referred to all the 'old bastards' and 'poor bastards' littered throughout the worker's dialogue. Unnatural perhaps, insofar as these curses have been watered down by Mena so as not to really offend the reading public!

It's hard to believe that this Miles Franklin Award shortlisted book and author could have been forgotten or overlooked for so long.

Sali Herman (1898 - 1993)
The Women Of Paddington, 1950
Favourite Quote:
Past Redfern, where they changed, the cottages with their little squares of gardens flashed past. The backs of the houses faced the railway lines. The sun beat on the sloping roofs of rust-marked corrugated iron, slates or grimy tile. Between the paling fences rose a medley of of clotheslines. Choko vines screened verandahs and outhouses with their cool green. Pumpkins were ripening on the tops of skillion roofs, their green skins flecked with yellow and orange.

  • Shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Award 1961
  • 100th book in the Text Classics series


  1. An interesting and informative review. I really enjoyed it, and not just because you tie it into the themes of AWW Gen 3 Week, but your obvious feeling for this part of inner Sydney, which is also obvious in the illustrations you chose. Inner city factories, and women workers, were probably the least like likely to benefit from Trade Unions which may have been at their peak in the 1950s. We had it easy, coming after, though sweatshops persisted for decades, particularly for migrant women. But as you say, the bad times are with us again.

    1. Thanks Bill. I'm extremely grateful for your Gen3 week for bringing this book to the top of my TBR finally. I loved seeing Sydney as it was and a way of life vaguely familiar but distant enough to almost feel like a foreign land.

      The bosses once again have it over the worker, but this time through the casualisation of the work force combined with stagnant wage growth and low interest rates, that makes it easier for the boss to buy another investment property but leaves the worker struggling to pay the rent.

  2. Wow. What an interesting review, as Bill mentions.

  3. I loved this book too Brona - it's exciting to come across a new Aussie author isn't it. How could that Canberra Times reviewer not recognise the class of that writing. I remember really liking it - I love writing that has such a sense of sound to it.

    1. Yes, I really enjoyed the rhythm and sound of Calthorpe's writing too. I'm curious to know if she continued with that style in her other 2 books, or if she experimented with different styles.

      I did wonder if there was a gender bias going on with the CT reviewer. I read the review in the newspaper on Trove and the review underneath, for a swash-buckling adventure story that I had never heard of (book or author) but written by a man got a RAVE review.

  4. Ok, so where did my comment go? So irritating. Just said that I really like it too, and can't understand that CT reviewer who did not "get" the writing and the importance of its sound.

    1. I moderate ALL my comments now Sue, as the spammers have gone ballistic. So your comments sit in my half-way box until I okay them :-)

  5. I've never had much luck commenting here, but I'm going to try once more because those photos really do the book alive, and the painting really is evocative of the era.
    Thanks for reminding me what a great novel this one is.


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