Camperdown Cemetery

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.

Engraving of Thomas Mitchell from the Queensland Digital Library

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.

Martita Hunt and Tony Wager in Great Expectations (still from IMDB)

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.

9 responses to “Camperdown Cemetery

  1. Oh, how I loved My Place when I discovered it. I bought it for every child I knew…

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  2. I wandered through it six or seven years ago with popular historian mate (2GB or 2UE) Jim Haynes – who has written variously in this same way as you here. I am now wondering if I should revisit thinking some of my Gearside relatives might be there…Thanks for this. Nadia Wheatley’s My Place was seminal. Brilliant – and Donna Rawlins artwork beautiful.

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  3. Yes, that point is important – I’m sorry I didn’t pick up on your comment in the body of your essay. The Kangaroo Grass! I gave My Place – possibly around 10 copies with its publication – to families with children – the book has so much right across the age range. Nadia Wheatley – what a woman. I loved her book on the Great Depression – junior high level: The House on Eureka Street – evictions! Or Dancing in the Anzac Deli/Five Times Dizzy – her vast book on Charmian Clift – her book from Central Australia – Papunya School Book of Country and History – with partner/illustrator – Ken Searle! She is one Australian writer whom I truly respect and admire. (And just one month my senior!!!)

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  4. Pingback: Toby Fitch’s Sydney Spleen | Me fail? I fly!

  5. Jonathan: I’m returning to this comment page because towards the end of last year I discovered that my great x 2 grand-father Richard BAILEY (from Worthing in East Sussex b. mid-1820s – became a dairy and beef pioneer from the early 1860s in pre-colonial/colonial Fiji – was also buried (somewhere) within the churchyard (its earlier wider expanse I guess) in 1900 (having earlier purchased a plot before it became closed). I spent two afternoons wandering the present churchyard – reading every tombstone/vault still legible but did not find it. Nor did I find the markers for the Father of Australian Music – Isaac Nathan (b Canterbury Kent 1790-died – tram accident Sydney early 1860s) friend of Lord Byron – and progenitor of the significant musical McKerras family. And of a boy born to one of his sons and a Waluwarra woman in far north-west Qld in the latter 1880s – Byron Nathan – who became a mentor in the 1950s (in Boulia – south from Mt Isa) to the father of a friend of mine (fellow Aussie) made in Japan – who spoke of his father’s empathy with First Australians as a consequence of his friendship/guidance from Byron Nathan… (a person I think unknown to others in the 20th, 21st century – because when aged around five or six Byron’s parents were speared ton death [taboos broken] in 1894 – he was raised by pastoralists in the region) …

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