Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Muddle-Headed Wombat Playing Beatie Bow in the South

Shortly after hearing of the death of Ruth Park in December last year I was browsing the bookshelves in a very small second hand store. Tucked in willy nilly on the non-fiction shelf was a battered and well-loved copy of The Harp in the South. Apt, I thought.

Playing Beatie Bow was a real favourite of mine growing up, and though I've never heard the radio serial of The Muddle-Headed Wombat, I do adore the books. But somehow I had never before read The Harp.

Noticing that this particular copy was highlighted, underlined and scribbled all over just made me want it more. And for all of one dollar I purchased my little piece of Ms Park's legacy.

Ms Park is one of several great New Zealanders whom Australia has claimed for our own, but once you've read The Harp you just can't imagine her as anything but Aussie, through and through.

The book tells the touching and occasionally uncomfortable story of the Darcy family, living in Sydney's Surry Hills slum in roughly the same year in which the book was written, 1948. Mumma, Hughie, their daughters Roie and Dolour and a cast of colourful secondary characters (including my personal favourite, Grandma) live among the grog shops, brothels, factories and run-down lodging houses of Surry Hills, facing the challenge of poverty and hardship. Hughie is an alcoholic, Roie is a sensitive soul, Dolour is a dreamer and Mumma is an out and out broad, but you grow to love them all.

Having lived for a time in Sydney's Redfern, I knew the streets and locations in the book fairly well (the ones that aren't either made up or long gone, that is). Except that they are now full of million dollar properties owned by WASPs and yuppies, which just goes to show how much things can change in 50 years. What shows that things really don't change is that some aspects of life in the book are still evident in Sydney today - they have just moved a bit further out of the city centre. Sometimes, in my mind, the book was really set in parts of Redfern today, and life for many seems fairly similar.

I love the description of the house at number Twelve-and-a-Half Plymouth Street, where the Darcys live:
It was the oldest in Plymouth Street, a cranky brown house, with a blistered green door, and a step worn into dimples and hollows that collected the rain in little pools in which Roie and Dolour, when little, had always expected to find frogs.
There were many houses like Twelve-and-a-Half, smelling of leaking gas, and rats, and mouldering wallpaper which has soaked up the odours of a thousand meals. The stairs were very dark and steep, and built on a slant as though the architect were drunk, so that from the top landing you couldn't see the bottom.
On the top landing hung a globe, very high up, so that the tenants could not steal it. It was as small as a star and as yellow as a lemon.
It makes me long to live once again in a cranky brown house.

Though the book is most definitely an ensemble piece, it seems like one of those stories that would inspire everyone who reads it to have a favourite, a character whose story they follow most closely. The scribbler in my copy is clearly a Roie fan, and he or she annotates every step of the changes in Roie's character. But equally, I think the story of Mumma constantly searching for her lost son, Thady, is one of the most touching, and Hughie's ups and downs are incredibly moving. I really want to now read Missus, the prequel that tells the story of these Darcy parents. However, I think my personal favourite in the Darcy family is Dolour, with the saddest sweetest name I think I've ever heard. Also known (to herself) as St Anne of the Seven Dolours, I feel like Dolour gets a short shrift at the end of the book (spoiler alert!) when she falls in love for the first time and is suddenly snapped out of her dream world. Although, that said, her dream world does live on in a different way, as hers is a love that is 'pure and fairylike and as useless as the love of knights and ladies in antique ballads', so all is not lost!

But, as I said before, you just can't beat Grandma for comedy value. This character is so beautifully realised that I really feel like I know her, and want to know more about her life before this book.

I just have to end with a section from the book that says it all for me, really. When Sisters Theophilus and Beatrix from Dolour's school have come to visit an unwell Roie, they have an interesting encounter...
'Grandma! Oh gosh! Oh jeepers!' wailed Dolour, pelting down the stairs, for she was fully convinced that Grandma in her hearty hospitality, had climbed straight out of bed and gone to welcome the Sisters in her old flanelette nightdress and faded pink cardigan with no elbows in it. But Grandma had made a determined effort to get dressed. Her legs were bare, and she wore old flapping slippers spotted with candle-grease, but she had put on her best dress, and over it 'me tippet'. The fur collar stuck up with ridiculous pomp around Grandma's uncombed head, but the expression on her face was warm and delighted, and there was no doubt that Grandma was really glad to see the Sisters. In face of Mumma's anguished gestures, she drew them into the disordered kitchen, from which the volcanic upheaval of the bedroom could be seen.
They sat down, smiling, on the rickety kitchen stairs.
'You must pardon my mother,' babbled Mumma. 'She's not very well. She...'
'Ah, hold yer tongue, darling,' broke in Grandma determinedly. Sister Theophilus patted her veiny old hand.
'It's lovely to hear a real Irish voice again,' she smiled. 'I haven't heard the real brogue since my father died.'
Grandma was delighted. She flashed a look of aggravating mischief at poor Mumma. 'And what was his name, if I may be so bold as to ask a Sister?' she inquired, with every confidence of being answered. Sister Theophilus blushed and confessed: 'Matthew Nolan. He came from Kerry in, ... I think 1880.'
'God be praised,' exclaimed Grandma, lifting her hands to heaven. 'If that wasn't the year I came out meself. Matthew Nolan! He didn't come out on the Fair Isle did he?'
'No, the Stratford I believe.'
'Ah, I came out on the Fair Isle. Matthew Nolan. I once knew some Nolans on a farm. Outside Tralee, it was.'
'But I had an uncle near Tralee,' exclaimed Sister Theophilus, delightedly. 'The farm was called Knock-na-gree.'
'Glory be!' marvelled Grandma. 'So it was. There was one by the name of Michael, I think.'
'My Uncle Michael!' Sister Theophilus looked at Grandma with shining eyes. 'I often heard my Dad speak of him. What was he like, Mrs - ?'
'Mrs Kilker. Oh, he was a fine man, with black hair that stood up like a wall. A real, elegant Irish face, and blue eyes like glass marbles.'
'My father had eyes like that,' said Sister Theophilus dreamily.
She extended a hand, and Grandma bobbed in what Dolour thought must be a curtsy. Then the nuns went. As soon as they had gone, Mumma fell into a chair and fanned herself with her apron. 'Ah, bless them, they're nice, but me heart's racing fit to burst. Run up and see how Roie is, there's a good girl.'
As Dolour disappeared, she turned to Grandma: 'A fine one you are, Ma, coming out in that terrible rig and talking so forward to the Sisters.'
Grandma pulled up the collar of her tippet like a proud old parrot.
'Yer only jealous, dearie, 'cause I made meself felt.
Mumma gazed at her in admiration. 'You certainly did that. There's no beating the Irish, no mistake. But wasn't it the strangest thing, you knowing her uncle?'
'Uncle me foot!' scoffed Grandma, wetting her finger and rubbing at a spot on her black dress. 'Uncle me foot! I only used the brain God kindly gave me.'
'You mean to say ... you mean to say you didn't know him?' gasped Mumma in horror. 'You unnatural old liar.'
'It was a lucky guess and me own reasoning,' confessed Grandma, her filmy blue eyes dancing. 'But it sure gave the poor locked-up soul pleasure, so there was justification in it.'
'You're a wicked old article,' stormed Mumma, 'but I don't believe it. You described him as if you'd seen him with yer own eyes, and it was right, too.'
'Oh, that,' jeered Grandma. 'All Irishmen look alike. I just described your dadda, that's all. God rest his ashes. And now, help me back to bed, will yer, darlin', because me legs are aching, something cruel, and I need a pipeful.'

No comments:

Post a Comment