May 29, 2012

by English Muse

Morning passengers leave the Manly ferry with wharves and Harbour Bridge in the background, Circular Quay, ca. 1946-1949 by Australian Geographical Society

Good morning! (Or good evening depending on your neck of the woods). This is Naomi Bulger again, bringing you another little literary dispatch from Australia.

I was back in my hometown of Sydney, Australia, a couple of weeks ago. I wanted to spend time with my family and friends before my little baby was born (in a matter of weeks, yikes!) and I was grounded for a while.

First stop was morning tea with my parents. We went to Surry Hills, where I lived for years before I moved to New York.

Surry Hills is one of those places that has faced a fundamental shift in personality, more than once. A hundred years ago, it was the most dangerous part of Sydney, full of razor gangs and brothels and sly-grog joints. In Ruth Park’s famous novel The Harp in the South, she conjured up the Surry Hills of the 1940s, then a slum, and the downtrodden yet vibrant families that populated its old streets.

Salvation Army - Surry Hills Sunday morning service in street, Sept 1949, from Series 02: Sydney people & streets, 1948-1950, photographed by Brian Bird

Left: Old age pensioner in Surry Hills alley with stick, Aug 1949, from Series 02: Sydney people & streets, 1948-1950, photographed by Brian Bird. Right: Martin Rubenstein and Kathleen Gorham, dancers in the J.C. Williamson / Borovansky Ballet production of Gay Rosalinda, 1946 / photographer Hal Williams

Capitol Theatre, 17 November 1944, by Sam Hood

This is a glorious, rambunctious novel about love and poverty and family and dreams. Have you read it? Here is a scene from the New Year bonfire, an illegal fire built on a street corner, just out of reach of the trams. “The authorities always forbade it, and nobody ever took any notice of what they said, but went on lighting New Year bonfires just the same.” This year’s bonfire was the biggest Surry Hills had ever seen.

“Suddenly there was a glad roar in the distance, and, startled, they looked up. Tommy, with glistening eyes, cried: ‘It’s on!’ They forgot everything and pelted down towards the bonfire…

“A second later there was a yellow glare, as some old books which Mrs Siciliano had saturated with grease and kerosene caught the flame. Whoosh! A ragged blue tongue of fire spurted high into the air, and everyone sprang back and surveyed it with awed excitement.

“‘Bravo! Bravo!’ yelled Jacky Siciliano, and he kissed his wife with pride because she had thought of the kerosene. And all the black-haired little Siciliano brats danced gipsy-like around the bonfire, yelling shrilly.

“Roie looked awed at the rose-red tower of flame, and the little hyacinth-blue sparks that showed and vanished. A ruby glow was cast over every face, the good and the wicked, the old and the young – old women with their hair rosy with reflected light; little goblin children, dirty and hungry, with bony brows and big, shining eyes; even babies with grubby wrinkled faces, blinking painfully in the glare. Dolour jumped up and down with hysterical excitement. The old year hovered around them; he was like a shadow vanishing bit by bit under an onslaught of light; all his fears and terrors, his failures and monotonies seemed now something soon to be tossed away on the stream of time, to be forgotten for ever. Dolour did not feel this; she was only glad that she was one year older than this time last year; that she was almost fourteen, and not a child any longer, and soon would be freed from school and allowed to go to work.”

Today, models, artists and designers walk those same streets, which are now filled with top restaurants and wine bars; organic cafes; vintage and designer fashion; and boutique books, stationery, music and furniture design stores.

"The Women" Co. girls on Tamarama beach, 2 February 1939 / photographer Sam Hood

ANZAC Day - celebration drinks, marching down Pitt Street, April 1950, from Series 02: Sydney people & streets, 1948-1950, photographed by Brian Bird

St Patrick's Day sports at Showground, March 1940, by Sam Hood

Outdoor dancers, schoolgirls in Botanic Gardens, Sept 1949, from Series 02: Sydney people & streets, 1948-1950, photographed by Brian Bird

It was kind of poignant to be back in Surry Hills after living overseas and interstate, to be in a place that was at once as familiar as any home I’ve had and yet now, with the passing of just four short years, had changed yet again and was not ‘me’ any more.

Have you ever revisited ‘home’ and found it had grown up without you? Or is it you that has grown out of your home?

All Sydney archive photos from the State Library of NSW photostream on Flickr, no known copyright.

ps. To give you some perspective, these photographs were taken from my apartment in Surry Hills, in 2006:

The terrace houses that Park's characters would have lived in are still there and, while many have been renovated into seven-figure homes, these across the road from me are probably not much changed from the Hills' slum days

Looking west across Surry Hills and into the heart of Sydney. That tiny spire on the horizon on the left is the Anzac Bridge. The top of Sydney Tower is on the right.

This entry was posted on Tuesday, May 29th, 2012 at 6:00 pm. It is filed under Books, Travel. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.

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4 Responses to “Antipodean dispatch: The Harp in the South”

  1. thea says:

    I live in Sydney and will probably have to move to San Fran for my husband’s work and that is my fear if I’m honest… coming back home to a home that is no longer mine… an odd feeling isn’t it? That said though, I think that ‘home’ very much becomes a rhythm and tapestry of your experiences and the places you’ve grown, lived and worked… Home is something you carry with you in your heart. Surry Hills will be your home as much as NY, if you lived there you would tune back into its rhythms… your heart and the people you love is what make it so… don’t you think?

    • Naomi Bulger says:

      I absolutely agree Thea, although I think you said this a lot better than I have! It’s like that song that’s been doing the rounds, Home is “Wherever I’m with You,” which is so true for me that Mr B and I used it on our wedding video last year, given that we moved four states in 12 months.

  2. What incredible photographs!

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