Tag Archives: Delia Falconer

The book group’s Harp in the South

Ruth Park, The Harp in the South (1948, Penguin 2009)

Dedicated followers of this blog will recall that our Book Group’s last title was Delia Falconer’s Sydney. That book quotes liberally from Ruth Park’s writing about this city from the middle of last century. One guy was keen to have Park’s Companion Guide to Sydney as our next title, but the general feeling was that we didn’t want another book about Sydney (Jan Morris’s Sydney was rejected for the same reason). The Harp in the South – a novel set in Sydney – was proposed as a compromise, and rejected on the night, but when the next day the papers were full of news that Ruth Park had died we ditched our first choice.

Before the meeting: I loved this book. I believe it was written with the passionate aim of calling attention to the lives of the poor in Sydney’s inner suburbs. That documentary impulse means that 60+ years later it’s full of fascinating historical detail: the shape of Australian coins in the 1940s, the way garbage was collected in Surry Hills (dumped from household rubbish bins onto a big sheet of hessian laid out in the street), how the poor celebrated New Year’s Eve (with a bonfire built from the neighbourhood’s rubbish), ways of thinking about sexual morality, sexual politics, Aboriginality, cultural diversity (yes, in the 1940s that we’re always being told were totally monocultural). I don’t mean to imply that my interest was purely anthropological-historical: the woman who was to give the world the Muddleheaded Wombat knew how to create solid human characters and spin a gripping yarn. In the late 1940s the book caused upset by insisting that its slum-dwelling characters be taken seriously, and that unpalatable facts of life such as abortion be acknowledged. The subject matter is no longer shocking, but some of the characters’ resigned acceptance of, say, a touch of domestic violence or callous racism can still wring a reader’s withers.

We follow the  lives of the Darcy family: overweight Mumma who holds everything together, Hughie who has given up on life and seasons his stoicism with alcohol, teenage Roie and her younger sister Dolour. Roie’s two romantic relationships – one disastrous, the other redemptive – constitute the backbone of the plot. Her febrile panic as she finds true love is wonderfully realised. The young Ruth Park was well up to the challenge of writing about sex without what has come to be known as  explicit language. There’s a brilliant example in the account of Roie’s wedding night. Roie is frightened. She eventually gets into bed and Charlie, her new husband, comes out of the shower, drying his tousled hair:

He looked down at her.
‘Are you scared of seeing me with my clothes off?’
‘A little bit.’
He dropped the rest of his garments on the floor. He was slender and shapely and tawny-skinned. His neck rose out of his shoulders like a short pillar of bronze; his dark head was beautifully set on it. He looked at her without any selfconsciousness, without any shyness or embarrassment in his golden eyes.
‘I’m just like other men.’

That seems bland enough, but then, if you’re me, you realise that Roie has seen Charlie’s head and neck a thousand times, she’s just been swimming with him so she knows what his body looks like. You realise we’re meant to see through the chaste language here and understand that Roie is actually looking at a different short pillar with a dark head on it, and finding what she sees to be beautiful.

At that moment, I fell in love with Ruth Park.

After the meeting: Sadly, a sudden intense flu-ish infection meant I didn’t go to the meeting last night. The official report, just to hand, said: ‘Mostly approved of Harp in the South, as much for its historical flavour as for its literary qualities. Then a deep discussion about whether men are afraid of other men.’ So I didn’t get to see whether my reading of that wedding-night passage would be dismissed as peremptorily as my finding a coded reference to Aboriginal massacre in The Tree of Man.

Delia Falconer’s Sydney and the Book Group

Delia Falconer, Sydney (2010)

I don’t have a lot of time for blogging just now – a wedding this Saturday and the small matter of moving house by mid January are adding significantly to the seasonal distraction load. I’ve barely finished this book ahead tonight’s Book Group meeting. But I’ll stick to my usual Before and After format.

Before the meeting: This is a brilliant book. Delia Falconer combines colonial history, personal reminiscence, reflections on recent headlines (Bogle and Chandler, Anita Cobby, the Cronulla riots, Abe Saffron …), literary discussion (mainly of Patrick White), physical description (especially of  jacarandas), gossip about and from her friends (including a couple of unforgettably seedy images), and any number of other elements in an eminently readable and erudite extended essay. It may at times strain for effect (‘the light is unquestionably Sydney’s,’ she writes of a scene in the movie Bliss, ‘saturating, and warm, but also muted and inconstant’), the effect is generally worth the strain. She makes room for many other voices – William Dawes (Kate Grenville’s fiction about him, The Lieutenant, is tactfully not mentioned), Ruth Park, and many others, including eccentric photographer-clergymen, eloquent diarists and letter-writers.

The book is frankly personal, and by implication invites readers to reflect on their own experience of the city. I first visited Sydney in the 1950s with my parents, and remember seeing Arthur Stace’s ‘Eternity’ chalked on the kerb at Hyde park. I’ve lived here since 1967, the year I turned 20 and Delia Falconer had her first birthday. Where she lived on th lower north shore and then in student houses in Newtown and thereabouts. I lived in Dundas for three years and then moved to the inner west – Glebe, Leichhardt, Annandale, interrupted by a couple of years in lower Paddington. There’s plenty of overlap, but I don’t think my shared house days were ever as disgusting as she makes hers out to have been. I love her sense that Sydney is a city with something unacknowledged always pressing for recognition. Her discussion of the interplay of hedonism and wowserism is as good as any I’ve read. I’m persuaded by her reading in Kenneth Slessor’s ‘Five Bells’ a displaced sense of the dispossession of the Eora people.

After the meeting:
We had an animated discussion. Only one of the seven of us was born in Sydney, and he was born in the inner west more than 10 years before Delia Falconer, but we’ve all lived here for decades, and a good bit of the evening was taken up with shared reminiscence. The book doesn’t mention Bea Miles, gives the Push only a passing glance, doesn’t talk about theatres past and present, or the Depression – but it didn’t need to. One of us had put his name down for a walk in the Tank Stream after reading about it; another had done the walk and recommended it. We spent a lot of time reminding each other of bits we’d particularly liked, and generally agreed it was an excellent choice for the Group. The White Cockatoo in Petersham likewise met with general approval as the venue for our end of year meeting, though our appetites weren’t equal to the gigantic helpings of food.