Searching in the past for that indefinable something

Denison Street Darlinghurst

Darlinghurst 1924 from the Demolition Books

I think we’ve all done it as some stage and not especially in the past – spent time looking for something, not knowing what that something is! What exactly am I looking for, we ask ourselves. We stop for a moment, think about it and then begin again none the wiser.

I’m searching in Sydney’s way back past for either an old house that has been turned into a block of flats or perhaps a particular row of terrace houses. I’ve been gazing at photographs of the old villas of Darlinghurst at this wonderful website, My Darlinghurst. I’ve also been looking at certain streets, especially Darlinghurst Road. The City of Sydney Archives are great for that purpose, particularly the demolition books. I stumbled on their existence when I was looking for cafes in 1924. (I still need a small one in Pitt Street.) I will shortly begin searching the 1,866 Darlinghurst images here.  I should surface in a week or so.

My search for the perfect flat for Raye Reynolds my doomed artist is starting to get frustrating but I know what the problem is – I want not just her flat but something of the street as well. Maybe just down the road is the Kings theatre, or a park where she goes sketching or a cafe where she scrapes together the money for a pot of tea. So I know I’m looking for a flat plus something else. I’m hunting for a detail that will help fix the flat in the reader’s mind. Maybe its a massive frangipani tree out the front. Now that’s a thought! Or maybe something else.

I wasn’t sure what that indefinable something was when I was researching the Ambassadors Cafe late last year. See this post. I knew I was spending too much time researching but my writing was stalled. I found out where the cafe was, what it looked like and the band that played there in in early 1924 (the last detail I didn’t even end up using). The very last thing I found out before the scene almost wrote itself was that there were private rooms off the main dining area! Private saloons! I put my six characters in the private room. Even worked out who sat where. There were introductions as a few didn’t know each other. They sat down at the oval table, began to talk and the chapter was away!

Think of me as I disappear in the demolition books. I’m sure I’ll come back with something interesting!

 

Waiting for Eleanor Dark

Slow Dawning by Eleanor DarkI‘ve been doing that for quite a while now for two very different reasons but I had better start at the beginning. I first discovered that I really wanted to read Eleanor Dark‘s first novel way back in the early 1990s. I was researching my third manuscript set between the wars and as the tone of the times (as I like to think of it) is always very important to me I generally try and read at least a few books written during the time that I am researching. By then I had read Prelude to Christopher and thought it marvellous so I was quite interested in reading Eleanor Dark’s very first novel. I can’t recall the exact details but it became obvious that there were limited copies available and I think I had to either try and buy a copy online (which I never attempted) or read the book at the Mitchell Library. Also impossible with a young child and a very unsympathetic husband.

Life moved on. For me there was a divorce and a move up the coast, a World War II novel (Tomaree), a contemporary novel (Crossing Paths: the BookCrossing Novel) and then a manuscript set during World War I (The Grey Silk Purse). As research for that book I thought I would finally attempt to read Slow Dawning and this is when the waiting really began.

In July 2011 whilst researching transport during WWI, I requested Slow Dawning along with another book. I did this online during the week to make sure both books would be available for me after I got off the Newcastle train and arrived at the Mitchell Library in Sydney. On arrival I was told that Eleanor wasn’t there. I said I requested it. The staff nicely informed me there was a delay of about half an hour. She couldn’t be quickly located.

By the time the book turned up I was deep in my other research and only gave the novel a cursory glance. I was still at this stage thinking I could read it in several sittings or just glance through it and dismiss it (particularly after what Eleanor Dark’s biographer had written about the book). I did neither. I decided I really wanted to read it but wasn’t sure how I could achieve this as I knew by 2011 that the book couldn’t be bought online. Surprisingly no second hand book shop on the net had it available for sale (and still doesn’t). I reluctantly returned the book and thought I would have a look at it again next time I was at the Mitchell and hopefully not as busy.

On Saturday, 26 January this year I arrived off the train, keen to have another look at Slow Dawning. It was my main focus this time. I went to the desk to pick the book up and they told me it wasn’t there and would take  a while for them to find it. I said this had happened last time and why couldn’t it be ready when I put a special request in for it? They didn’t know. I was frustrated and beginning to wonder why this book AND ONLY THIS BOOK kept me waiting. It arrived and I began to read Slow Dawning. Because of the delay in arriving I didn’t have much time with the book and was now more determined than ever to read it.

I took it to the front counter and asked if I could photocopy the book. They said yes and calculated the cost – approximately $30. Being a starving artist I didn’t have the money to spare that weekend but promised myself I would be back in a few months to finally read Eleanor Dark’s first novel. What a mission!

On Saturday 1st June I had an awful trip down on the train, missed my connection and had a wait at Gordon station. By the time I arrived at the Mitchell I was already very frazzled and precious time had again gotten away from me. I went to the front counter to pick up the book (as before ordered online for a quick pickup) and was told AGAIN the book wasn’t there! They couldn’t locate it. WELL… you can imagine what sort of mood I was in! I made a fuss (as much of a fuss as anyone can make in the hallowed rooms of the Mitchell Library). I was asked if I wanted to make a complaint. I said yes I did, mainly, I explained because obviously there was something wrong with the cataloguing of this particular book. I filled out the form (still haven’t heard anything back) and waited.

Finally after about thirty five minutes of twiddling my thumbs the book was in my hands and I went into the photocopying room to carefully copy each page. I began by putting twenty dollars on my card to do the photocopying with and the machine just ate my money. By this time I was practically in tears! The Library staff must have thought I was mad but eventually the money was allocated to my card and I spent over half an hour photocopying each page. Finally I was able to read Eleanor Dark’s first novel. Here is my review:

Slow Dawning by Eleanor Dark

I have the book but I’m still not happy! I recently downloaded for free Betty Wayside by Louis Stone. This novel is from 1915 and is quite dated now but anyone can read it. The same should apply to Slow Dawning. In my opinion it has been forgotten because both the author and her biographer dismissed it as a potboiler. I argue that it is much more that that. I believe Eleanor Dark had serious intentions for this book but with the long delay in publication and the fact that sales were disappointing, she dismissed it as a potboiler to cover her disappointment. What serious novelist with literary aspirations sets out to write her first novel purely for money, particularly a book with a prophetic paragraph such as this:

“It was in this way that she had seen her fellow-women. They would climb at last, she dreamed, to a height where they would perform not only the artistic or intellectual work to which their natures inclined, but the normal functions of wifehood and motherhood as well – carrying a double burden as only they were privileged to carry it. A terrible fight, and a slow one, but epic in its magnificence. Generations it would take, and thousands of women would be the most bitter enemies of their own sex.”

No, I really think Dark had fairly high hopes for this first of her babies, especially when you consider her next novel Prelude to Christopher. You DO NOT as a writer, I believe, intend to write a potboiler as your first published work and then write something of such high standing as Prelude to Christopher as your second.

But the waiting for Eleanor is not over. This book should be made available for the general public to read. It is the first book, a very enjoyable novel, of one of Australia’s major writers. It should be accessible to all and the cataloguing problem needs to be fixed. Hopefully, something will be done about this sad state of affairs and Slow Dawning will eventually be available for everyone to read.

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.

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.

I hate Microfilm readers!

Firstly, I can never feed the film on and get it started. It takes me forever. I am not very co-ordinated and as I struggle with the stupid reel I feel like I’m back at school. Secondly I need the print quite large so I spend my time going up and down each page so I don’t miss anything. And guess what? After half an hour of winding and bobbing up and down I’m suffering from motion sickness. So, not surprisingly, I only lasted an hour reading the October and November issues of the Newcastle Sun, 1917 yesterday morning but found a lot to giggle over.

One of my favourite things is something called Men and Women Personal Paragraphs with snippets of information such as: “Mr and Mrs Penny returned to Newcastle from Inverell today.” Or try this one: “Mr and Mrs  P Gordon Campbell of Mayfield are spending a short holiday in Inverell.” Good to know!

And then there are strange ads for weird things like Fishers Phospherine, the Misses Tidey and Tinsley selling hats, Parisian Designed Frocks. Yes please. (Actually they didn’t look bad). There was a Mme Petrona in the movie The Panther Woman which sounds like it might give Sex and the City a run for its money and a news item entitled “Twice married woman thought husband dead.” I suppose she thought it was worth a try!

By this time I’m totally over the dreaded microfilm readers and haven’t found any ads for two cafes I know existed in Newcastle in 1922 – Tyrrells and Mitchisons. No more torturing myself on the reader. Instead next Saturday I’m going to do some research old style. I’m going to be flipping through newspaper clipping books, turning the pages leisurely and not listening to the crank of a microfilm reader.

Thank God for the snippers club at the Newcastle Family History Society at Lambton. They are a group of enterprising women who meet, chat and patiently snip out domestic and miscellaneous newspaper articles from the Newcastle Morning Herald and other local papers. Yes, I’m going there next Saturday morning and you might not hear from me again for weeks. After all I went there two years ago looking for the New Moon Dance Club who hosted the 1930 New Year’s Eve Dance Party at the Trades Hall in Newcastle and instead stumbled upon an article about a lost silver purse that inspired my current work in progress!

Lost in Time

People don’t change over the years but the environment they live in does. When Ishobel Ross, a cook from the Isle of Skye, arrives in London in July 1916 it is amazing how much she gets up to in the city without a car! She is sightseeing – taking in the theatre, a trip to Aldershot, shopping at Selfridges, visits to St Pauls, Marble Arch, and tea at Fullers. The list goes on and I’m exhausted reading it. Finally on the 29th she writes “Got word today (from the Scottish Women’s Hospitals) to report at Victoria Station on Tuesday morning.”

Got word? How? Obviously not by SMS or mobile call but I’m left pondering the alternative. Did the SWH ring Ishobel at her hotel? Send a telegram? From my research into the Twenties in Sydney it is amazing to someone from the 21st century how often they got mail in the early part of the last century: twice in the metropolitan area and for a time a delivery on Saturday which beggars belief. Telegrams too seem to arrive very quickly, including the dreaded ones from the War Office – “We regret to inform you…”

Did the SWH send a boy running through the streets of London with a message? Who knows? There is, of course no way of knowing now. As they say “you had to be there.”  And taking that line of thought I can imagine a 22nd century historian possibly stumbling over emails, letters, the odd diary, containing such lines as: “Met this great guy last night. Too good to be true so I googled him.”

Google may be around for another 100 years. Or it may be lost in time in the way of “got word” and “shanks pony” – a term my Mine Manager/diarist great-great grandfather Richard Pope frequently used in the 1880s. “Took ‘shanks pony’ into Silverton from Broken Hill.” A special breed of horse you are wondering? No, it means to walk. So there you are, you were way off course just as I maybe off course when I speculate on Ishobel’s “got word”.

The past is another country. They definitely do things differently there.

Virginia Woolf and I

We go back years! I first came to her writing because of A Room of One’s Own. I read it (like most women do) when embarking on my writing career. It was actually very sound advice and when I came to buy my first home as a single woman I was going to have that study if it killed me! I got the study at Eleebana and I now have one in my new home but not enough bookshelves I’m afraid. I now have boxes and boxes of books in the garage but I have somewhere to write besides my favourite cafe.

Last week I discovered that Virginia Woolf not only gives good advice but can be relied on in regards to the weather. A few weeks ago I started writing a new chapter entitled The News (all of my chapters have titles instead of numbers) and when describing the weather wrote: “It was cold but sunny.”  A very hopeful statement on my part I thought having lived through a London winter so I made a mental note to somehow check the actual weather for the 15 December 1917 later on. A few days after this I discovered there were actually two bombing raids in London that month which had me reeling in a orgy of research; as you do when an unexpected real life event turns up that puts a new twist on your writing.

After finding a marvellous book on the WWI blitz by Ian Castle http://books.google.com.au/books/about/London_1917_18.html?id=siHifpXFa6kC&redir_esc=y I looked up which library held the first volume of Virginia’s diaries (not for loan) and at Newcastle Library I sat and read her first words for the 15 December 1917: “A cold but sunny day.” Thank you Virginia!

And another thank you for an account of the first of the bombing raids on 6th December which helped me to bring my character’s account to life. According to Virginia’s diaries she was awakened by L to a most instant sense of guns. “As if one’s faculties jumped up fully dressed.” She goes on with a very vivid diary entry for the morning’s events.

As I said, Virginia and I go way back and I’ve now gone back further with her as I have begun to read her very first novel Melymbrosia written in 1912. http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/741136.Melymbrosia

London, December 1917

As a single woman in 2012 I often look around and wonder where all the single men of my age are. I should not complain! Imagine living in the UK, the US or Australia during the last year or two of World War I (or any major conflict for that matter) and every day seeing maimed and disfigured young men back from fighting; trying desperately to adjust to their new lives as invalids. If you were in your early twenties during those years it was highly probable that you would remain single - so many future husbands lying in cemeteries in Europe instead of alive and well and looking to the future.

In my manuscript The Grey Silk Purse Phyllis has just encountered, in a Sloane Square cafe, one such disfigured young man:

‘When I glanced towards the young man his face took my breath away. It was ravaged beyond belief. One eye appeared to be sewn shut and part of his face from his left forehead down was gone. In that instant I also noticed that his nose looked strange and his lips were shiny and bulbous.’

My character manages to stay calm. I don’t think I would have been able to. During the latter stages of WWI young men such as these were given new faces at The Tin Noses Shop as the Tommies called it – the real name being Masks for Facial Disfigurement Department at the 3rd London General Hospital. There was also some marvellous work being done at Sidcup by pioneer plastic surgeon Harold Gillies  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harold_Gillies and during WWII Archibald McIndoe, Gillies cousin http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Archibald_McIndoe who worked for the Royal Air Force and  operated on badly burned aircrew.

During WWII my English aunt who was a WREN was stationed near the hospital where McIndoe operated and was instructed to smile and not flinch when she encountered the aircrew wandering the grounds, recuperating after their operations.This memory of hers relayed to me is the inspiration of the scene I just completed today – art immitating life.

The World’s Worst Travel Agent

Yes, that’s me when it comes to moving my main character from A to B, ie England to Salonika during the last few days of 1917 to early 1918. Should I have her spend most of the travel time on board say, a French liner/hospital ship with the possibility of it being attacked by a submarine? During one week in April of 1917 55 ships were sunk in the Mediterranean. So maybe not…

Or then I can have her going overland to Le Havre, Rome, Taranto and then by ship via Corfu to Salonika but where did she stay on the way? On board the train or in small hotels? The mind wanders and at this rate she’ll never get there! She is stamping her foot in frustration and I’m dithering around like a maiden aunt. But then of course I know what is ahead of her: driving an ambulance along a torturous road with men crying out in pain in the back, freezing cold such she has never known in Australia, horrible sights that no-one should have to witness and young orderlies, VADs and nurses did witness, sometimes for years, more often than not working incredible hours that would compromise their health in later life. Yes, it’s all ahead of my Miss Summerville and I’m petrified for her. No wonder I am delaying sending her to Macedonia.

In fact I’m quite nervous about the writing of her Serbian diary. How did the real women live through it all? I am in awe of  women such as Sister Alice Kitchen who served through the whole of the war, Sister Ross-King who was awarded a Military medal for her bravery on the night of the 22nd July when her Casualty Clearing Station was bombed. And the wonderful dressing station sister Agnes Dorothy Kerr. Even just your average nurse who often worked up to 18 hours a day, particularly when  a convoy of wounded men arrived! They deserve to be remembered.
http://www.theage.com.au/news/opinion/lets-remember-the-bravery-of-thousands-of-australian-nurses/2007/04/23/1177180564828.html?page=fullpage

Now it’s back to getting my girl over there and into action. I know she is going to be fearless!