My time away, as most holidays tend to do, already feels like it was far too long ago. As I finish writing this, storms are battering Melbourne commuters and I keep peeking out the window in hope that I will be spared. It seems very unlikely. While I was in Brisbane, Sydney and Newcastle I was treated to the weather the central east coast is known for: warm, humid, slightly tropical, very liveable. It was perfect weather for exploring new cities and places, spending time with friends and lying under a tree at a park with a book. As wonderful as this all was - and it really was - sometimes being away is the best way to reconnect you to home.
There’s nothing more well-worn and annoying than the Sydney vs Melbourne debate and I certainly love spending time in Sydney and with my wonderful friends who call the city home, but this time Sydney overwhelmed me. The noise and antagonism of all that traffic, the overconfidence, the sleekness, the polishedness: it all became a bit much. What I love about Melbourne is the inherent dirtiness: the inner north, the part of Melbourne I call home and hold dear, is a place of bed-hair, untucked shirts, sweaty bike riders and scarves haphazardly thrown on as a shield from the wind. It’s a heavily populated area but the roads simply aren’t built for a large number of cars. People here jump on trams, ride or walk. We’re more likely to work close to home and to spend our time here, rather than in the city. My partner and I are surrounded by friends in this part of the world and it often feels like living in a small town, but with really good cafes. This is what I miss when I’m away, this sense of home I have in Melbourne.
Reading A Harp In The South I saw that before Sydney became gentrified and with it the real estate astronomically expensive, inner city areas like Surry Hills were little villages where communities lived, worked, drank, fought, gossiped and supported each other. The Surry Hills that Ruth Park portrays is not one that many would chose to live in however, the ghettoisation and poverty is vivid and true. As I lay reading in the room where I was staying in Surry Hills a few weeks ago, listening to Sydney roar past just centimetres away, it felt unrecognisable from the Surry Hills that Park portrays.
A Harp In The South joined my to-read pile after this wonderful Wheeler Centre event last year where author Alice Pung told the audience why A Harp In The South had spoken so clearly to her as a young reader, and how it spoke of her experience as a young migrant in Melbourne’s inner suburb of Footscray. How the book spoke of broad themes that still rattle Australians today - race, class, gender, religion - all within a love story, with a family that speaks in big, brash Australian colloquialisms and amongst Park’s beautiful and evocative descriptions of the Australian landscape.
A Harp In The South centres around the Darcy’s, an Irish-Australian family living in the inner-city slums of Surry Hills. The mother is distraught after her only son is snatched from her before the story begins, and is haunted by his loss. The father is an alcoholic gambler, down on his luck, but who is ultimately redeemed for his nurturing love of his family. The younger of the two daughters, Dolour, is a complicated young woman, struggling to throw off the shackles of her Catholic upbringing and forge her own beliefs. We see this with clarity and emotion when the eldest daughter, Rowena, falls pregnant out of wedlock, much to the shame of her sister. It’s this element of the story where Park’s writing packs the most punch. Rowena’s shame and fear is so heightened that she is relieved when she miscarries. She says:
“You don’t know what it’s like being a woman. Everyone’s got it in for you, even God.”
There is also an incredibly powerful and confronting exploration of race in A Harp In The South, no more so because of the source of Rowena’s redemption: her marriage to an Indigenous man. But the racism from the Darcy’s and their neighbours is not limited by colour: Italians, Chinese and German migrants are all subjected to horrific jibes and stereotypes, while the Darcy’s themselves are subject to intolerance by the protestant boarder residing upstairs. What is most disturbing is that this all sits within a hierarchy of ‘Australianness’. So that when Mrs Darcy expresses her horror of her daughter being with a man of Indigenous descent:
‘It’s because there’s nigger in him, Hughie. I’m scare of it, and no mistake.’
Hughie said defiantly: ‘It’s better than Chink. It’s real Australian and no matter how bad it is, there’s none better.’
A Harp In The South was certainly not an easy read, but an incredibly fulfilling one. It speaks of an Australia that is incredibly different to the one of today, but also reminds us how little has changed. The racism here is confronting, but if only because it puts in writing what is heard on the street all too often still today, and what is written in to law by our government through constant discrimination of those who are seeking a home here. Over the weekend I read this piece in The Saturday Paper, a letter from a mother detained on Nauru, part of the government’s systemic persecution of those deemed not Australian enough for this country. A stark reminder of just how horrific Australia’s immigration policies are, and that our government is still fighting for this idea of ‘Australianness’ or pureness, which many thought was a thing of the past. We may have come a long way since A Harp In The South in some respects, but we have a bloody long way to go too.
Last week in my post for Haruki Murakami’s Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgraimage, I also spoke about two non-fiction titles I read while away: Ronnie Scott’s Salad Days and Erik Jensen’s Acute Misfortune: The Life and Death of Adam Cullen. To finish off the holiday reading report are two more titles, both dealing heavily with identity, so well-matched to A Harp In The South.
They say you should write about what you know, and it’s clear Rachel Tresize knows Wales. The evocative language, landscapes and characters in her first short story collection Fresh Apples are all inexplicably tied to the country Tresize calls home and beautifully crafted. I came across Rachel Tresize during her recent visit to Australia for the Melbourne Writers’ Festival, as part of the events celebrating 100 years since the birth of Dylan Thomas, and this was a wonderful introduction to her writing. While the occasional metaphor felt laboured, there were also some real gems here too: perhaps a young writer honing her craft, she shows plenty of promise in this early work that I’m eager to seek her latest release, Cosmic Latte.
On Christmas Eve, 1974, Cyclone Tracy destroyed the city of Darwin, killed seventy-one people and left Australia stunned. Sophie Cunningham uses Warning: The Story of Cyclone Tracy not only to retrace the steps of the cyclone and those who endured it’s wrath, but also to carefully give a voice to those who have been missing from previous recountings of the time. Warning is meticulously researched using archives and interviews, but Cunningham’s real connection with readers lies in her ability to tell the story with the clarity of an outsider, without shying away from the emotion of the survivors. Warning also tells of a broader conversation about Australian identity, particularly in times of crisis. In Dorothy Porter’s country “of ragged mountain ranges, of droughts and flooding rains”, our extreme weather can bring out the irrational and extreme in both the survivors and the authorities; overly-pragmatic policies that in turn bring out simmering prejudices. Here Cunningham powerfully uses Cyclone Tracy not only used as a reminder of where we have succeeded and failed in the past, but shows us how it has echoed throughout our reactions to more recent floods and bush fires. In a country already seeing the effects of climate change - which will only exacerbate as we fail to prepare ourselves - Cunningham warns us not to forget the memories of Tracy, and in doing so, ignore the dangers that lie ahead. It is an extraordinary work that has deservedly been long listed for the highest achievement in long form Australian journalism, a Walkley Book Award.
Sometimes when you’re travelling you crave simplicity. One morning in Newcastle I went out for breakfast with a friend who looked at the menu and said “I just really, really want bircher muesli.” I laughed because I knew exactly what she meant. You wouldn’t eat big, rich breakfasts every morning at home, but yet sometimes we find ourselves doing just that when we’re away. Sometimes, you just need bircher muesli. At home, I mixed these two recipes from Cook Republic and Poh Ling Yeow to make my own. It’s really easy to throw together and is best done the night before, making it a very friendly recipe for running out the door in the morning to get to work. I make mine with juice, but you can also make it with milk or yoghurt if you prefer something creamier, or perhaps when the weather is cooler. To make my version, mix one cup of rolled oats with one-quarter of a cup each of sunflower seeds, pepitas, roughly chopped almonds and dried cranberries with half a teaspoon of cinnamon. Grate in one large apple and then mix in to the dry ingredients along with the juice of two oranges. Make sure there is enough juice to cover the apple to ensure it doesn’t brown. I used blood oranges because they’re in season, cheap and I absolutely adore them, but normal oranges or three-quarters of a cup of bottled orange or apple juice would work just as well. Keep in the fridge overnight to make sure everything soaks together and develops flavour. In the morning, serve with a large spoonful of natural yoghurt and berries or other fruits. You could add a bit of honey on top too but I prefer it quite tart. Either way, it’s a little bit of home no matter where you find yourself eating breakfast.
Leaving bustling Sydney behind for the slower, kinder Newcastle, I took a three hour train that reminded me of the romance of traveling by rail. As we hugged the central coast of New South Wales and made our way through the stunning Hunter region, I couldn't help but longingly look out the window and day dream. Which is also what I wanted to do after seeing these beautiful photos to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of Japan’s bullet train the Shinkansen. The photos, sourced by The Guardian’s Witness app, show that no matter how modern and sleek trains become, the beauty and romance of this means of travel never leaves.