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.

4 responses to “The book group’s Harp in the South

  1. When my Australian fiancee and I announced our engagement in the mid-Seventies, my future mother in law was less than enthusiastic. It emerged that she was worried about he daughter’s marrying an Irishman. Since we were both Catholics, there was clearly no religious element to this, so I was a bit puzzled. It wasn’t until some years later, having read The Harp In The South and Poor Man’s Orange, that I understood how someone born in the 1920s might have have perceived the Irish if the Surry Hills Irish were the predominant example of our race!

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    • That’s so interesting Stephen. It sounds like we’re roughly the same age, yet the idea that the irish were somehow undesirable was something I didn’t encounter until, really, I read Patrick White at University. But then I’m from north Queensland, and our parish priests were more often Irish than Australian.

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  2. I know that it’s almost a cliche, but rank hostility against the Irish is now the only acceptable racism in nice circles, including litterateurs. Just last year, the SMH ran a story about the bashing of an Irishman in Sydney. The headline was “Sydney’s Irish sobered by attacks”. Needless to say, the Darling Harbour soviet rejected my complaint that this headline perpetuated a racist stereotype.
    A number of years ago, I gave a talk to a Catholic girls high school about modern Irish politics. To illustrate the level of hostility towards the Irish among the intelligentia, I quoted from Frederic Raphael’s Heaven and Earth, in which an Irish woman (whose son was run down and killed by the British army) is described as being the “spitoon for her husband’s loins”. And that was written in 1985!
    I’m sure that Ruth Park (although I gather that she could be “formidable”) wasn’t particularly hostile to the Irish. Nevertheless, I think that she lays too much emphasis on the Irishness of her characters as an explanation for their failings and situation.

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  3. You know, the slur in that Herald headline went right past me, but you’re right, it was intended as a slur. I didn’t read Ruth Park as putting Irishness as an explanation, though. It was more a matter of identifynig them as a disadvantaged ethnic group. As I said, this wasn’t something I was aware of growing up in a predominantly Irish and Italian heritage Catholic community. Quite recently I was fascinated by Noel Ignatiev’s How the Irish Became White, which charts the progress of the Irish in the USA climbing out of the oppressed role to identify with the dominant culture as opposed to people of African heritage.

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