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.
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.
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: