I recently spent a peaceful hour or so in Camperdown Cemetery with the Emerging Artist and the Granddaughter. We played among the buttress roots of the giant fig. We rode a scooter on the rough tracks among one of Sydney’s few surviving patch of pre-colonisation grasses. We sat on the ledge of a tombstone whose inscription had been eroded to illegibility, and ate sandwiches.
I can’t think of another place in my life that is so filled with stories. I don’t mean that it’s filled with memories, though that’s true too. I mean it’s a place that calls to mind stories that are out there in the world, written, performed, become part of culture.
There’s surely more to this place than I know, but here’s a list.
Thomas Mitchell, an early surveyor-general in the colony of New South Wales is buried there. I don’t suppose many people these days have read his Three Expeditions into the Interior of Eastern Australia, but I have. My lasting impressions from that long-ago reading are of his descriptions of countryside in south-eastern Australia as resembling an English gentleman’s estate (descriptions that Bruce Pascoe draws on in Dark Emu), and of his accounts of brutal violence against Aboriginal people who, as we now know, were responsible for the beauty of that land.
Also buried there is Eliza Donithorne, believed to be a model for Miss Havisham in Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations. I was 12 when I read Great Expectations, having been swept away by David Lean’s 1947 movie. My visits to the cemetery are haunted by a time-blurred image of Martita Hunt (I had to look up the actor’s name) in her wedding dress among the cobwebs waiting for the bridegroom who will never come.
The tree among whose roots we played is the tree from Nadia Wheatley and Donna Rawlins’s brilliant picture book My Place. A series of children, each a decade further back in time, claims that tree as their own until in the last spreads, just before the arrival of the colonisers, the child says (from memory), ‘I belong to this place.’ I remember first reading the book with the not-yet-Emerging Artist on the floor in the children’s section of Gleebooks, both of us thrilled by the way the text communicated so much Australian social history and especially by the splendour of the tree in the final spread.
Then there’s Colleen Z Burke, who seems o have spent a lot of time in the cemetery with her children and grandchildren. It’s a frequent presence in her poems. Here’s a spread from Wildlife in Newtown (1994; my blog post here; right click on the image for a bigger version):
And Fiona Wright, a couple of generations younger than Colleen Burke, has also written beautifully about eating a sandwich while leaning against a tombstone. I wrote about that poem here. Come to think of it, though they are very different poets, both Fiona Wright and Colleen Burke seem to have given similar gifts to readers who live around Newtown, of filling the air with words. I heard recently that the thing that makes humans so successful as a species (so far) isn’t that we’re more intelligent than others, but that we communicate with each other. These poets help us to hear at least a little of what the environment is saying to us.
[Added later: The grave of Eliza Donnithorne and the magnificent fig tree feature strongly I Am Susannah (1987), a book for young people by Australian national treasure Libby Gleeson.]
I imagine that having literary allusions whirling around you isn’t anything special if you live in New York City or London, or in the Lake Country, or St Petersburg, etc. But it’s a pleasure worth noting for me in Marrickville-Enmore-Newtown.