Sydney’s Lost Cafes

Ambassadors Cafe

There are quite a few that are hiding from me. Images I’m talking about. After a few weeks of dogged research I have finally unearthed the photo above courtesy of Mike Sutcliffe’s article from This Australia 1986. I know the writing is small but according to the ad “Delightful hot supper from 10 o’clock…dancing until 1am…Order drinks before 6pm.”

Now that last is a vital piece of information – the ridiculous six o’clock closing which, of course, bred the sly grog shops and the illegal sale of liquor at many locations, including The Ambassadors. I have just this week finished writing about a raid on the cafe and have now turned my attention to other cafes in the area.

Jack Lindsay, Norman Lindsay’s son, writes of Mockbells: “I sat over my eked-out coffee and dozed amid the pseuod-moorish decorations almost obliterated by smoke, age, damp and their own insignificance.” I know from my research that there were a few over the years. One in Castlereagh Street (possibly Jack’s). Another in the Imperial Arcade in 1902. In 1897 a Mockbells cafe had a general meeting of the Society of Artists. That’s the earliest mention I have found. The latest is 1948 in an article: “Mockbell’s, Ltd., has agreed to sell six of the company’s seven city restaurants to a new company to be called Mockbell’s Pty. Ltd.” And after that they disappear. As for pictures? I haven’t found one! If anyone has any I would love to see them.

I have also been unable to find several other cafe/restaurants of Sydney in 1921-1926 that Jack writes about. There is the Cambridge, the Hungarian cafe, the Moana, the Roma and Burt’s Milk Bar. I have also not been able to unearth a picture of Amendola’s wine bar in Wilmott Street which later became Cafe La Boheme. Or Pelligrini’s. I’m still hopeful about these last two. And will post again if I find any of the cafes mentioned.

If however you are looking for a Sydney cafe frequented twenty odd years later by bohemians – journalists, writers and artists – well you are in luck! Below is one of many wonderful photos of the Lincoln Coffee House 1948-1951.

Jean Grenet and Mrs Barry at the Lincoln Coffee HouseThis image is courtesy of the State Library of New South Wales on Flickr. If you know of any photos of the above cafes and restaurants of Sydney in the Twenties, I would love to hear from you. Here’s hoping!

Digging deep into Sydney’s past

Excavation_at_York_Street_northBasement and underground station deep actually! Did you know that under The Strand Arcade was the Ambassador’s Cafe? It was opened in late 1923 and the cafe was in the newspapers off and on throughout 1924 because of the illegal sale of liquor. You can imagine me jumping for joy when I discovered this. In point of fact this last week I’ve been seriously thinking of changing the opening chapter to January 1924 instead of October. Maybe even have my main character Sarah visiting the cafe on that fateful night in February. Just a thought…

At the moment I’ve written only four and half pages. This is the first novel that I have actually started without doing at least several months research beforehand, which is why I’m in a bit of a pickle. Very early on I was planning a garden party to be hosted at Sarah’s house in October with her controlling mother in her element and Sarah dodging as many eligible and boring bachelors as she can. But I’m guessing that not many garden parties in the twenties would have been hosted in the middle of summer. If I go ahead with the change in timeframe to accommodate all those lovely police raids I will have to forfeit the garden party.

I am now stuck wondering what social event the mother could organise in January – if any at all! You see this is just one of the many challenges historical writers face when they are recreating the past as accurately as they can. Challenges surface, more research is needed and then you stumble on an interesting fact that can trigger a scene, an event, even a very important location in the storyline.

I stumbled on the Scottish Women’s Hospitals in 2010 and what those women achieved during WWI ended up being a major theme in The Grey Silk Purse. In Paris Next Week, my new manuscript, my theme is the lost generation of the twenties – the frenetic surface glitter of their lives which I believe was a actually a psychological recreation to the great losses of WWI. How I can depict that aspect of history and still create an enjoyable novel is the task I’ve set myself, as well of course as getting to know Sydney in 1924.

It’s early days yet but I already know that Hyde Park was a mess from construction of St James Station so I can’t have Sarah and her beau conducting a romantic walk there. The very famous Australian restauranteur Azzalin Orlando Romano worked at the Ambassador’s cafe before opening his own restaurant. There was a police raid on Maxine’s – a dance hall in 1924 (another scene in Paris Next Week very possibly) and according to Jack Lindsay there was at least one coffee shop called Mockbells but more details are proving elusive. Something called The Blues was the new dance craze and there was a Hungarian cafe in Castlereagh Street. Heady stuff! This is where I long for the Tardis to just nip back to 1924. Oh to scout around and be a fly on the wall! I can only hope to do Sydney in 1924 justice.

Stay tuned.

Doing a newspaper interview

Debbie Robson's studyI have been very lucky in that I have now been interviewed several times regarding my books. So far three interviews for Tomaree (including a magazine interview) and two interviews for Crossing Paths. One of those was a TV interview and the other was conducted at Swansea at my “bottle” launch which was a lot of fun.

Last week I was interviewed by the delightful Georgia Osland and I must say that although she was the youngest of the reporters, she was wonderfully efficient. I threw a lot of facts at her in regards to my writing career and she deftly weaved them into a coherent article.

Here is the newspaper interview in The Star

I owe this latest interview to my involvement in the Local Writers Showcase this Saturday 31st August at Warners Bay Performing Arts Centre where eighteen writers will talk and/or read from their work.

Here is the list of writers involved:
11.00am Welcome from Lake Mac FAW Linda Visman, President LMFAW
11.10 Official opening by Greg Piper, MLA, Member for Lake Macquarie
11.20 Group presentation with: Magdalena Ball Poetry; Fiction; Non-fiction; Jaye Ford Psychological thrillers; Judy Johnson Poetry; verse novel; novel; Beryl Mullard Local History
12.15pm LUNCH BREAK
12.35 Rina Robinson Short story, Poetry
12.40 Lachlan Ness (Tony Lang) Non-fiction: Memoir & stories
12.55 Kaz Delaney (Kerri Lane) Young Adult Fiction
1.15 Carol Wylde-Browne/ Claire Shields Wangi Sailing Club Local History
1.30 Carol Heuchan Poetry & Performance
1.50 Jean Kent Poetry
2.10 Jan Mitchell Biography & Memoir
2.20 Debbie Robson Fiction – historical & contemp.
2.40 Christina Batey Young Adult Fiction
2.50 Linda Visman Young Adult Fiction
3.00 Karen Davey-Phillip Non-fiction: Raising children
3.15 Linda Brooks Non-fiction, Fiction (children’s & adults), Publishing
3.40 Elizabeth Horwitz Getting started in Writing
3.55 Close and thanks Linda Visman

It should be a wonderful day! Come along if you are in the Newcastle/Lake Macquarie area.

Message in a bottle

Message in a bottle found in Maine

In January 2011 I released 20 bottles into the ocean with flyers advertising my book Crossing Paths: the BookCrossing Novel. 10 bottles (mainly wine bottles) were released at Newcastle breakwater and ten bottles at Swansea channel. More details are on my webpage http://www.tomareebook.com/crossing_paths.html including a plea to contact me should any bottles turn up.

Last month, out of the blue, I received an email from Meredith in Maine asking me if the bottle above was mine. I knew immediately that it wasn’t because below is what was enclosed in my bottles:

crossing paths DL artwork 1

My next thought, of course, was who did release the bottle? It was found in the Bayside area of Northport, Maine and the message reads in capitals:

GENE – I THINK OF YOU OFTEN .. AND REMEMBER YOUR SMILE AND LAUGHTER!
DEBBIE

From the photo you can see that the sand is quite a lot lighter than the beach sand from Maine. Meredith thinks that it may have come from Cape Cod or the Virginia area. Maybe even Australia! I would love to find out. Please contact me if you know where it may have come from or even if you are the Debbie who released the bottle. Here’s hoping we can meet. One Debbie to another! My fingers are crossed!! Please pass this message on if you can.

Coping with the rejection of your manuscript

GallianoYep, that’s what I’m doing. I’m back on the merry-go-round. Just received my first rejection for my current manuscript The Grey Silk Purse. And already resorted to drink! One bourbon and coke down and the Galliano pictured to go! Coping mechanism No. 1. Have a drink. That’s one strategy and being very generous of spirit, although down (but not beaten) I am going to offer some more.

2. Adopt a mantra. I submitted my first piece of writing way back in 1981 but it wasn’t until sometime after 1996 when I watched The Cable Guy and Carey said those marvellous words “Allrightee then!” that I adopted a mantra. I still repeat those eloquent words to myself on being rejected. I find they are very helpful, being such a mix of frustration and, dare I say, bloody-mindedness, that they sum up my feelings exactly and are very soothing.

3. Begin another project. As readers of this blog will know that’s what I’ve already done. I tell you, Paris is looking pretty good at the moment! I’d rather be writing about it than trying to work out where to send my manuscript next. But then maybe that’s why I still haven’t found a mainstream publisher for my novels. I tend to submit a handful of times and then retreat into a hole – generally the world of the first half of the 20th century. Each one of us has our own coping mechanisms, I guess, but obviously breaking through does require perhaps that one last gasp of air – that garganturan lunge to the finish line. Maybe I’m still ambling. How are you going?

4. Whinge to friends. This is a good one. Twitter and facebook friends are excellent. You can’t see them looking around for a means of escape and only those that feel like lending a friendly ear will respond to your tweets and posts.

5. Regroup. I do find that after a rejection (at least in the early stages of submitting) I am pushed back to have another look at the manuscript. This is my method of regrouping. After yesterday’s rejection I read for the 101st time, the crucial first page. I decided again, that yes, the manuscript did need a prologue but I slashed a few sentences. They were phrases that I had hesitated over previously. They are gone now and the first page is much cleaner.

6. Do not speculate! I’ve done it in the past, you know: “Oh why didn’t they accept my manuscript? Was it because of this, or that or maybe…etc. etc.” Don’t! It is a complete waste of time. Put your frustrated energy into something else. Maybe an idea for a co-operative, start up a meeting of like-minded friends or go to a workshop. Catch up with relatives or see a movie or a play. Anything is better than beating yourself up about it.

These are just a few suggestion. I hope they help. If you are wandering around in the wilderness, like I am, I would love to hear yours!

Beginning the long journey of writing a new novel

Paris Next WeekYes, I know, I’ve just finished my manuscript The Grey Silk Purse and have made my first submission but I’m nervous. As a diversionary tactic I’m researching a new novel. I even have a title – Paris Next Week.

I’m at the absolute beginning which is always exciting. I have a vague idea about the plot and I have the two main locations – Sydney and Paris in the 1920s. I’ve just picked up my first book to read. It is Women, the Arts, and the 1920s in Paris and New York edited by Kenneth W. Wheeler and Virginia Lee Lussier and even after a quick glance it looks like the perfect ticket. The ship hasn’t docked yet but I already have a list of books to take on the voyage and some of these books may even help determine aspects of characterisation and plot.

That’s the fun of researching. You read to learn about something new. It may be Serbia in 1917, Port Stephens in 1942, England in the middle ages and as you find out more information you often stumble across an amazing fact that alters your writing completely.

Originally at the very start of The Grey Silk Purse I had a vague idea that my main character would be a nurse in Salonika, although something nagged at me that this profession wouldn’t suit my Miss Summerville. I began reading about the Australian nurses working there during WWI and discovered that other Australian nurses were working in Serbia, of all places! When the Australian troops were sent to France a lot of our girls were sent to the little known Macedonian Front. I began to read about Serbia in earnest and very quickly stumbled upon the wonderful Olive Kelso King who drove an ambulance. That was more like it. This is what my girl would have been doing!

Through reading I discovered not only the beautiful and very important location Lake Ostrovo for my novel but what my character did during the last year of the war. I read six memoirs of women involved in the Scottish Women’s Hospital and I drew from their knowledge to set the scenes for the most crucial chapters in the book – the why and wherefore of life in a field hospital. I can’t imagine the completed manuscript without all these facts now common knowledge to me. I don’t reveal them all of course but they are crucial to a lot of decisions I made (or my character makes) during the course of her war work.

I now have an even greater admiration for the women who were involved in this terrible conflict. We often talk about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. We can now see that returned soldiers from all major offensives were victims but how did the women cope? We know the men either ended up in asylums or drank excessively after both world wars but what happened to the VADs, the ambulance drivers and the nurses when they returned to civilisation? That question is the driving force of the novel and it’s one I really couldn’t have asked without at least the basic facts behind me. So happy research reading. You’ll never know what you may stumble upon!

Casting the characters in your novel

Miriam Margoyles at the Newcastle Writers Festival

Miriam Margoyles at the Newcastle Writers Festival

Do you, I’m wondering? I’d love to find out what other writers do. I’ve written six novels now. Three are as yet unpublished and I’m starting the rounds next month for my sixth. Strangely though, I’ve only ever cast one of my novels with “real” actors as opposed to descriptions in my head and on the page. Why is that?

I’m not sure except to say that the only one I have cast, is set in contemporary times – 2004 to be exact and I don’t think that is a co-incidence. In Crossing Paths there are eight main characters and they all have approximately 20,000 words each, which is a lot of “air” time. My main character Jane Townsend is the beautiful but fragile Rose Byrne. I just couldn’t imagine anyone else playing the role although she is in her thirties now whilst my Jane remains (in the inimical way of fictional characters) still in her twenties. John Cusack is Jeremy Braithwaite. No-one else will do and the same goes for the psychic medium and retired librarian Ruth Moon. She is none other than the indefatigable Miriam Margoyles who was part of Newcastle’s inaugural Writer’s Festival and did a brilliant and very entertaining Catherine de Bourgh for the discussion panel (see pic above) celebrating 200 wonderful years of Pride and Prejudice.

When you are picking actors to play your characters I think it is essential to aim high. Don’t bother with B grade, inexperienced actors. Grab the stars and that’s just what I did for my characters, particularly Mary Darling. Mary has just changed her surname and decided to run her family home on Vancouver Island as a B & B at the start of Crossing Paths. She is an excellent cook and the perfect person to run a B & B – she just doesn’t know it yet as she is lacking self confidence. Now I know Meryl Streep likes a challenge. Here’s one for her! Play a woman who is shy and seriously lacking in self confidence! Not sure I’ve ever seen her do that!

In Cornwall a gay, New Age writer is looking for love and I pretty much envisioned Rupert Penryn-Jones in the role of Jonathan Fairlight. His widowed mother and new bookcrosser Daphne is not one of the eight main characters but I’m sure Helen Mirren would have fun with the role, particularly with her new friend Miriam Margoyles aka Ruth. Have they ever acted together? I don’t think so.

Now the last three characters I didn’t actually cast but that was because suitable actors, I believe, are in abundance for those three roles. A pretty Greek actress who has rudimentary English for Eleni, a sophisticated French actor in his late fifties for Pascal, a French biographer. And lastly a good looking, enigmatic African American actor in his thirties for Russell, a Boston bookshop owner. Too easy!

As for my other novels – my first I don’t think it entered my head to chose actors. It was enough to actually be writing. My second unpublished novel was peopled mainly with my ancestors so it was kind of impossible to make casting decisions. As it was I used my family tree to create the extensive family histories of both the Kittos and the Wearnes and as a result I have messed up my knowledge of actual facts. I’m no longer an expert on our family on my father’s side! Fact and fiction has been irreparably combined in my mind.

For my third unpublished book I was dealing with two sisters from two different times . Both sets of sisters – one beautiful and one plain were inspired by a photo of two sisters from the thirties and with these real women in my head, there was no way my mind was going to make the leap to actors. And I think that’s as it should be.

Likewise my first published novel, Tomaree was also inspired by real people so apart from studying the physical appearance of a real US Serviceman and creating a character around some aspects of him and making my female character a redhead, no one came to mind!

For my last novel, the recently completed manuscript of The Grey Silk Purse no actors have put up their hands. I’m of the belief too that it is often a good thing (particularly when the past is concerned) to let the reader reconstruct the appearance of characters. I’ve had a lively discussion on the subject with Matthew Ward of Mary Celeste Press as to the pros and cons of putting a real person’s face on the cover of a book. If there is no face, the reader can choose a suitable actor if they want to. Or they can decide on a full description in their head (from a few details supplied by me). Either works but it is fun as a writer (when it does happen) to play along with a real life actor, give them exciting action and dialogue and watch a novel spring to life with their help!

Finding the right historical details

magnifying glassI‘ve always believed, as the cliche says, that the devil is in the details. I love to seek out little known facts that can’t be found in historical accounts, newspapers and non-fiction works. Whilst writing my book Tomaree I interviewed upwards of 100 elderly people on their experiences of living during WWII. Most of them loved to chat and I wish now that I had had the time to talk to them about their whole lives, rather than just aspects of it. But unfortunately I was a single Mum working part time and I could only spend a few hours every fortnight or so up at Port Stephens where the novel was set.

Some of the stories I heard still resonate – the elderly lady whose mother, in the first years of the last decade, used to drive her pony and trap filled with home grown products from Anna Bay to Stockton, along a stretch of sand at low tide. Sometimes she got caught with the rising tide and a neighbour would have to mind my interviewee. Some time around the 1920s, I think, the sandbar was washed away after a massive storm and then the locals had to travel the long way around to Stockton or Newcastle after that.

There was also another Port Stephens resident who, as a young boy, remembered the American soldiers giving him money for ice-cream. I asked why and he told me it was because they hated all our small change, the threepennies, halfpennies etc that used to weigh down their pockets. “Here kid, go buy yourself an ice-cream.” You won’t find this fact in most non-fiction accounts of WWII involving Americans serving in England and Australia but some elderly people will remember that that’s what they often did.

As a novelist who is very interested in details such as these, I spend quite a lot of time hunting down such facts to make the past come alive. Interviewing people who have been there is a wonderful source of gems – such as a friend of mine’s uncle, a Rat of Tobruk, (he must be one of the last) who acquired a camera by trading with an Italian prisoner of war. When he got the film developed there were pictures of Rommel and his men. A case of truth being stranger than fiction.

I have sent my friend Gina, an oral historian in training, off with a list of questions. Not many of course as her uncle is 93 but I’m hoping she can get a few things down so his memories won’t be lost forever. This is one of the reasons I have started Starving in a Garret a collaborative workspace and sanctuary. One of the things I want to achieve is to find people interested in being oral historians and point them in the right direction. Recently a much loved GP died, I’m not positive but I’m guessing that most of the stories he could have told about being a doctor in Newcastle in the middle of the last century, have died with him.

I’m hoping to work towards building a team of oral historians that can interview people and compile a list of their memories of the local area (as well as details of their life of course) that can be donated to the local studies unit of their closest library. Memoirs and local histories are being written right now but I’m sure that there are wonderful, elderly people out there who are slipping through the net. I’m posting this blog to Starving in a Garret as well so please check there for progress on this project.

My Five Favourite Books of All Time

RelojDespertadorActually I shouldn’t say of all time. More appropriately I should say that this choice is from this point in time, late March 2013! Mary Tod tagged me in her post
Mary Tod, a writer of history
and this is my response. The list is not in order that the books were read and except for No. 1, not in order of importance. The 2nd to 5th books shuffle themselves around according to my current mood as do my top 20.

Sophie’s Choice by William Styron
I first read this dark, tormented work in late1985, early 1986 and was overwhelmed. It was like nothing I had read at that time. I remember it as a vacuum of words that just sucked me into the book. It was inexorable in its hold on me. When I finished the novel I was devastated by the “choice” that Sophie does make; something that I didn’t fully understand until well after the last page. Afterwards all I could think about was writing to the author and telling him that I was so inspired by the book that I wanted to finally try my hand at a novel. The trouble was I had no idea how to start the letter. And then in the January the Challenger disaster occurred. I wrote with commiserations and then praise for his book. Unbelievably William Styron wrote back with a letter that I still treasure. This book will always remain my No. 1 because it is why I write novels.

To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis
This book is so much fun. I just loved the time slips, the what ifs and the clutter of Victorian England all rolled into one. Although it is a very long book, I actually read most of it the day of the Newcastle Floods in June 2007. We were without power for over twenty four hours and with no electricity I spent most of the day at a nearby hotel reading it. The flood and To Say Nothing of the Dog are now inseparable in my mind!

Man in the Dark by Paul Auster
This review is mine from Bookcrossing. The book had such a profound effect on me that I started a bookring. The book was read by 14 people from around the world and travelled for a year – one of my most successful bookrings. It is a poignant, unforgettable novel.

Atonement by Ian McEwan
What a wonderful book! The prose is very dense encompassing almost minute by minute details for the characters involved but when the final confrontation is reached the effect is devastating. We know exactly what each character has gone through in the intervening time. I love the twist at the end and didn’t see it coming. The movie was an amazing adaptation.

The Human Stain by Philip Roth
This is my review from Goodreads. I have featured this book before in my blog and it will probably pop up again. It’s a perfect example of why I love to read! Now back to the
Australian Women Writer’s Challenge!

On Losing a Dear Friend

photoFrom the moment I started writing in the early 80s, talking to elderly people has been a very enjoyable part of my writing life. The first person I remember interviewing was a friend of the family of my first boyfriend. I was now a married woman (not to the first boyfriend) and beginning a novel that was later abandoned. From memory she was very interesting to talk to. (Her name escapes me now.) She had grown up in an old log cabin somewhere in the sticks and as a middle aged woman had written parodies of the romantic short stories featured in the Woman’s Day and the Woman’s Weekly at that time. The stories were actually accepted much to her amusement. I can’t remember her name but after our short interview I didn’t see her again.

In late 1982 or early 1983 I interviewed two wonderful WWI soldiers living in a retirement village in Collaroy.  One of them was a veritable minefield and I still have the notes I took from speaking with him. He was a sniper and told me some fascinating details not found in any history books. One interesting fact that concerned soldiers digging in under fire I actually used in my long short story The Running Lady published in Reveille in 1988.

In 2002 I was very lucky to be able to interview many elderly residents of Nelson Bay and Shoal Bay in regards to the US soldiers stationed there during WW2. At one stage I was driving up there once a fortnight to speak to someone about those fascinating times and I was always made to feel welcome. I think they enjoyed talking to me and I definitely enjoyed listening to them, including among many Mrs Blanch and Mrs Norburn.

In January 2010 I came up with the idea for a new novel and almost immediately I decided to set the novel, with the working title of The Grey Silk Purse, in Mayfield. I was unemployed for the first few weeks of that year and I spent a lot of time walking the streets and taking photos of beautiful old houses. I was also doing a lot of research on the net about the history of Mayfield. Two names repeatedly came up – Vera Deacon and Helen Marshall. I contacted Gionni di Gravio, the archivist at Newcastle University and asked him if it was okay to contact both of them. He said yes and told me where they lived.

I didn’t record the date I first rang Helen Marshall but we hit it off immediately and from May 2010 on I saw her quite regularly. I would visit her beautiful home in Elizabeth Street and mercilessly ask her questions. She loved talking about the old Mayfield and she would describe walks she went on with her father. I loved hearing about Mayfield as it was in the 30s and 40s and her memory was prodigious.

On one occasion she helped me map out a walk my character took near Platts Channel. She described in great detail a gate that led into the property of Argyle House (later the Murray Dwyer Orphanage). I explained what my character was doing. Helen described the gate for me, the latch and that there was lantana nearby. She could still remember the smell of the lantana. When I mentioned which way my heroine was walking home – up the steep slope by the side of the property to reach Bull Street – Helen told me that my heroine wouldn’t be opening the gate if she was going that way. I asked why and Helen explained that you only needed to open the gate to walk through the property if you were walking along by the channel. I was astonished that she could remember so much about a gate from around 1933 or so! I said as much and we had a good old laugh.

She also had very detailed memories of Waratah House which her father sketched before it was pulled down. On one of my visits Helen helped me mark out a map of the land near Platts Channel choosing the approximate location of Argyle House, Waratah House, the potteries, the ponds, the wheat field, a well and the dairy. (Not an easy feat with Industrial Drive and extensive industry transforming the landscape.)

Another day we actually designed the garden of the fictional house Summerville in Crebert Street. I still have the sketch in her hand. We also had some lovely talks over the Greg Ray books and an excellent book about the Middle East campaign of WWI. But apart from all this we were the best of friends. She wasn’t just an elderly lady with a fund of knowledge. She was someone that I knew I would have been life long best friends with in a parallel universe. As it was I only had less than three years to have lovely chats with Helen but I valued my time with her. I now miss her terribly.  Her quick wit and her kindness were a joy to me and I know it will take me quite some time to get used to the loss of her friendship. I can still hear her saying happily: “You clever girl!” or “You are devious!” when I explained some plot intricacies in my writing. I know she enjoyed our talks and I definitely did. I’m so grateful that I knew her, if only for a short time.