Inveterate talker to strange people

So Ruth Park describes herself and found it very useful in writing a guide book to Sydney, a city with which she has had “a long love affair”

My mother, Gloria Newton, was a journalist, working at various times for The Daily Mirror, The Daily Telegraph (Packer’s not Murdoch’s) and until she died in 1976, The Australian Women’s Weekly.

Because she covered royal visits, I tended to dismiss her as a light journalist – never to her face but in my own mind

And then a friend found and sent me this wonderful and gently  nuanced interview with one of my favourite writers, Ruth Park, about on of my favourite books, Park’s Companion Guide to Sydney

So  in order to pay penance for under-valuing my mother’s writing, I am re-publishing it (it was first in the AWW) on a platform she would never have dreamed of.

My apologies for the cheesy photo, but it is the best I have, the brown marks on it are foxing. What it does do is to illustrate my mother’s one of my mother’s beautifully tailored suits, how I remember her best. And probably where I got my love of good cloth from.



RUTH PARK, a gentle softly-spoken woman, roamed the streets of Sydney dressed in a shabby pantsuit or simple dress clutching a dilapidated shopping bag from which protruded the crest of a bunch of celery.

Thus blending into the background, she would stop a passer-by to inquire, with genuine interest in her voice, about a certain street, a certain name.

She always used the excuse of trying to find her “grandad’s” old house.

Mostly she stopped elderly men who were only too happy to recall the history of their particular district, to ask if her “grandad” had told her of the eviction riots of such and such a time, or when the town hall burned down.

For this was the best approach, this celebrated author decided, to garner the information she needed for the book she had been asked to compile, “The Companion Guide to Sydney.”

“I don’t blame myself for telling a big whopper. I found the old gentlemen enjoyed chatting about their districts.

“I didn’t use a notebook; that would have made them stiff and suspicious. The whole natural flow, the spontaneity would have been lost. No. I’d listen and then hurry to the nearest bus seat to record it all.”


Hers is an unusual guide book. In some 200,000 words, it describes not only the interesting places that make up the city of Sydney, but tells their history, right back to 1778 “when Captain Phillip raised the flag for England.”

To get the necessary information Ruth Park traversed the 670 square miles that is Sydney, mostly by foot. “I found this was the only way. Of course I took a train to, say, Bankstown, and occasionally I’d pick up a taxi. The drivers were most helpful.  “One pointed out a patch of green near Sydney Technical College where the gallows once stood. He told me some hair-raising tales about that spot.

“I’m an inveterate talker to strange people. I find they give me the most interesting conversations of all.”

Ruth Park, who made up a famous writing team with her late husband, D’Arcy Niland. said she had been overjoyed when given the opportunity to write the guide book.

“But faced with it. I knew I hadn’t the faintest idea how to go about it.

“I think I solved it when I went down to the Blackwattle Bay area, which is full of shipyards, where the men are dressed in pants and singlets. I had on a smart pantsuit and I didn’t fit in. I was a curiosity and stood out.

“I went home, changed into a simple frock, put a bunch of celery in a shopping bag and, so armed, went back where I found a wonderful place and so many interesting things to write about.

“It was all part of the Lyndhurst estate.  Surgeon Bowman lived in that beautiful old home. He married one of John Macarthur’s daughters.

“Oh, there I go again. The children won’t go out with me any more. When they did there were continual yelps of ‘Oh, Mum, not again!’”

Ruth Park’s gentle manner is deceptive.  When you notice the penetrating, intelligent eyes, you sense the sharp mind behind them.  And there is her wonderful ability to bring even the simplest anecdote so alive that it forms a picture in your mind.

This she attributes to a solitary childhood in New Zealand, and to her father.  She doesn’t remember other children until she was eight and sent to school.  She and her mother accompanied her father, an engineer who planned roads and bridges, into the most desolate parts of New Zealand.

“We must have returned to civilisation now and then, but I don’t recall it. All I remember is millions of trees. My father was a natural story-teller and any inclination I ever had towards writing, or how to tell a successful anecdote, I owe to him.  “Such a childhood sometimes creates a certain temperament.

“You are left alone and you have to develop your imagination. I remember I used to play out all those old stories my father told me, and I had to make them real.”

The guide book, which took 12 months to research and nearly the same time to write, is Ruth Park’s farewell to Sydney.

Ruth, who has five children, including talented twins, Kilmeny and Deborah Niland, who combine writing and illustrating children’s books and travel stories, is leaving in February to live in a house she is building on Norfolk Island.

“It will be a squatty little house in about five acres of native bush and I’ll be able to write things I haven’t been able to afford to write for years.

“I want to go back to novels. I haven’t written one for ten years. One can live on the smell of an oily rag on Norfolk, so my work won’t have to be popular fiction.

“What did the children say about my decision?

“At first there was general shock — ‘But, Mum, children are supposed to leave home, not mothers.” Eventually they became keen and have been wonderfully helpful. I suppose they have recognised the marvellous thing of having Mum out of their hair permanently.”

Apart from the twins, the youngest of the family, there is Patrick, “married to a lovely English girl, Margaret, and working with the ABC music department, Anne, a librarian, with whom I’m now living, and Rory, who works with plasma physics.”

In 1968, a year after her husband died, Ruth took the twins, then 16, and Patrick to London. “He had to do his musical training and I thought I’d let the girls finish their art education there”

London proved to be therapeutic for me. We arrived with about $400 in the kitty, but it all turned out very well.

“Having little money kept me on my toes, I had a couple of plays to do with the BBC and I sub-edited the last novel my husband wrote. It was a huge manuscript, about a foot high, and a period story which had to be thoroughly checked.

“When I saw the girls were doing well, I left them there with Patrick and came back to sell our old family home, a Gothic brick mansion at Balgowlah.

“It doesn’t mean that I didn’t have lots of panics when I came back. I even used to wake at night and think, what have I done?  But it worked out very well.

“I used to worry once because as a mother I didn’t have that coo-nesty feeling. When my children were babies, I would have fought for them like a tigress. But when they grew up, they became so interesting.

“The house seemed always full of lovely young people, giving out their sorrows, their happiness, stories, games. To me, my children were young friends who happened to be living with me.

“I remember I asked them not so long ago if they felt they might have done better with a different sort of mother. I had a wonderful answer — ‘Have you lost your marbles?’

“Looking at them at a birthday party the other night, I thought how lucky I was to have such an intelligent group, eager to face life. D’Arcy would have enjoyed them so much. He got so much pleasure out of them, but then, he was accustomed to children, having had brothers and sisters.”

“D’Arcy and I were a team”

Ruth met D’Arcy Niland when she was on a holiday in Sydney. She corresponded with him for two years before coming back to marry him.

She led a wandering life with her young husband for a while, working in opal mines, cooking for shearers. D’Arcy loved the outback, and later, when they settled in Balgowlah, he would often take off to the bush for a period.

His book “The Shiralee,” about a swagman and his four-year-old daughter.  was based on his experiences as a wanderer.  Ruth also used the experiences of their early years of poverty writing the award-winning novel, “The Harp in the South,” and its sequel, “Poor Man’s Orange,” about an Irish-descended family.

“It was after the war. We were terribly poor, trying to earn a living by freelancing, and there was a housing shortage. We went to Surry Hills which was then not at all a smart place to live in. There were grog shops, brothels.

“I went there full of prejudices, a stiff-necked New Zealander. And it was there that I began to grow up.

“I am still happy I had that experience.  There you were up against a lot of hardship and forced to face the fact that the people who lived there, poor and ragged, were better humans than you.

“We were there two years. Anne was born there. Later, when we left and I found myself becoming too academic-minded, I’d go back for a while.”

Ruth said she and her husband were just about to celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary when he died suddenly.

“We had bought the champagne,” she said softly. “I am so glad I knew him.  D’Arcy and I were a team. We lived in each other’s pockets. We were mutual encouragers, critics, stimulators. I miss an old, intimate friend.

“I didn’t regret his going because he had the blessing of not being ill. We were always worried about being incapacitated. He was active, loved life, and was always lots of fun.

“We worked together in the same room, but we had a firm agreement that neither of us looked at each other’s work until it was in print.

“If D’Arcy had read one of my manuscripts before I had finished and said such and such a character hadn’t come through, I would have lost faith in that character and wouldn’t have finished the book.

“Even today I don’t really feel satisfied until I receive some accolade, some good review.”

When Ruth, who, for the past few years, has been writing articles, writing and reviewing children’s books, leaves for Norfolk Island she will be taking her three poodles, “old” Milo, “little” Prisca and “a sad little person,” Edward Bear.

“I have had a long love affair with Sydney.



Ruth Park, from an obituary that described her has “Sydney’s Dickens.


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