My third novel…

has just been published on Kindle. It’s a magical mystery tour of Spain in the early 2000s, Moorish Spain between 550 and 1000AD with side trips along The Silk road and around and across America.

To give you a taste of this fascinating tale, I’m going to publish an excerpt.

And as we know is possible, Zyriab is at once standing outside Son Portals staring down at the Mediterranean and walking the streets of twelfth century Córdoba. All time is all time. 

The street beneath his feet is churned with mud and horse manure, the smell of sewage is over-powering. The people who pass him scurry by, their faces averted, their shoulders hunched with oppression. Their robes are dirty and ragged, when he catches their eyes fleetingly, they are full of fear and suspicion. The shade cloths hanging over the souk are torn and stained.

This is not my Córdoba. My Córdoba was swept and washed daily, there were street lamps on every corner hundreds of years before they appeared in the lands of the infidel. The people were bright of eye and eager as they went by on their daily business. Passers-by greeted each other with courtesy, with salaam or a shalom or a go with God. These people live in fear.

Zyriab has landed as he desired in the Córdoba of the Almohad dynasty, sometime during the reign of Abu Yusuf Yaqub al-Mansur (Yaqub I). This stern movement of  rigidly orthodox Muslims ­of Berber stock, was not too far removed in their beliefs from the Islamists of the late twentieth century. They were first invited to Andalucia by those Taifas* fighting a losing battle against the Christians. But when they saw the wealth and beauty of the land, they decided to stay and consolidate their rule: a brutal one.

When they first entered the city, they gave the Jewish and Christian citizens a choice: convert or ‘be freed of their toilsome existences.’ Under al-Mansur, they relented, and Jews were allowed to stay but forced to wear long black robes ­ – the dress worn by mourning Muslims. 

Zyriab walked the streets of Almohad Córdoba in despair and deep contemplation, remembering the city which was described by an anonymous author in the mid 13th Century as: ‘…the highest of the high, the furthest of the far…the home of the good and godly, the homeland of wisdom, its beginning and its end the home of right reasoning, the garden of the fruits of ideas…’ 

After some hours of aimless wandering, he realised where he had been heading, without even knowing. To the school of music that he had created on a street not far from the Grand Mesquita in Calle Albucasis. He turned a corner, and there it was. Neglected and dilapidated. The walls crumbling, the doors torn from their hinges. He walked towards this building that had once been the repository of his dreams, where he and his children had taught and been taught, from where the sound of voices in harmony, the lyrical cascading notes of the oud, the ratatatat of drums had burst out onto the street. All that was left was a faded sign, hanging by a nail on the front wall, swinging in the breeze. He could read it only because he knew what it said: 

Zyriab School of Music, Poetry and Harmony.

He picked his way across the shattered tiles and walked inside. A nest of swallows hung from a remaining archway. There was the cold stone smell of abandonment. 

All furniture, all rugs, all instruments, all signs that this was a place of learning yearning, gone. He kept walking towards the courtyard at the back of the building. And then he heard a sound. Faint, at first, but melodic. He quickened his pace and moved towards it.

As he walked out onto the courtyard, now mostly rubble, weeds pushing up through the cracks in the tiled surface where once orange and lemon trees grew, he saw him. An old man swathed in a brown cloak, a turban of the same colour on his head, softly playing a flute. Zyriab walked silently up behind this man and stood listening, for some minutes. The melody he was playing he recognised from his Córdoba, a fragment of an afternoon nawba, one that he had composed*. At least something remains.

“As-salaam‘alaykum Sayyid” he said quietly when the man had finished. He was not prepared for what happened next. The old man’s eyes widened with fear, he threw himself on the ground crawled towards Zyriab, groping for his feet

“Oh Sheikh, forgive me, I will not do it again. I promise that I will destroy this instrument of the devil. I was aroused by memories of the building. Forgive me, forgive me! I am but a worm in the presence of your greatness, by Allah!” 

Zyriab reached down and took the old man’s hands. Looking into his eyes he saw that he was blind. He pulled him gently to his feet.

“Brother, please stand. You have nothing to fear from me. I recognised the afternoon nawba you were playing. Please, stand.”

A look of relief came over the old man as he stared sightlessly ahead. He stood, then regained his position  leaning against the wall, slipping the little wooden flute into the sleeve of his cloak. His breathing slowed, and the colour flowed back this face.

“Tell me Brother, why this fear of music? Do you know that this building was, once, a school  of music?”

“Yes, and as a young man I was a pupil here. But the school has long gone, closed by Abu Yaqub Yusuf on his arrival in Córdoba.” He look quizzically at Zyriab. “Do you not know of these matters? Are you a stranger? You speak with the accent of Córdoba”

“Indeed I am from here, but I have been far away for a number of years. You must tell me what has come to pass in my absence.”

The old man drew his cloak around his shoulders and sat up in preparation for the telling of a tale.

“Ayah, where do I start? And before I do my brother, how can I be sure you are not one of them?”

“I swear by Allah that I have no connection with Abu Yaqub Yusuf or his compatriots.” The old man nodded, closed his eyes and lifted them to the heavens.

“O doves that haunt the arak and bin trees have pity! Do not double my woes by your lamentation!”

Zyriab was astonished. He had quoted Ibn Arabi! Zyriab added the second line:

“Have pity! Do not reveal by wailing and weeping, my hidden desires and my secret sorrows.” The old man sighed deeply.

“Now I will tell you. These godless God-fearers arrived in our city some 15 years past, and brought with them horror and hatred. Our Jewish brethren were threatened with death unless they foreswore their religion, as were the Nazarenes in our midst. Even the Almoravids before them had not been so harsh.”

“And this harshness extends to a hatred of music?”

“Sadly, yes. Whoever says that all music is prohibited, let him also claim that the songs of the birds are prohibited. Nowhere in the Q’uran, nor in the Hadith of the Prophet, peace be upon him,  can be found any passage prohibiting music.”

Zyriab looked down at the old man, now staring sightlessly towards the sky. He needed to find out more about this regime. Perhaps the old man could help him. 

“Tell me, how you did you come to be playing a nawba, alone and in secret, in the old school of music?”

“It has been a  long journey O Sheikh. I was born into a family of merchants in cloth. My family were regular travellers along the Silk Road in search of silk, spices, rugs and jade. Until I was twenty, I could not go with them on their travels. And so I studied Islam and music. While doing so I found Al-Ghazali and other Sufis and recognised the path I wished to take. And when I came to this school in its last days and learnt that its founder, Zyriab, had been a Sufi, I knew I had chosen well.”

“Indeed. The way of the Sufi is the true way of Islam. Tell me, what is your family?”

“I am of the Beni Hammúd, a distant branch of the family who ruled Córdoba not long past. I am Al-Kassim Hammúd.  My ancestor of the same name took  the name  Al-mámún. His rule was, by all  accounts, more moderate than today.”

An impressive family indeed thought Zyriab, and yes, more tolerant by far than these Almohads.  

“Al-Kassim, I must tell you my name. I am Abu l-Hasan ‘Ali ibn Nafi’. And now, please, tell me of your journeys along the Silk Road and how you came to lose your sight.”

“Abu l-Hasan, the two stories are intertwined like the jasmine on the orange tree. I will tell you my story.

Rivers on the Brink

Kim Harris

Kim Harris

We went to see Rivers on the Brink: Inside the Murray-Darling Basin at the SH Ervin Gallery. It was an interesting counterpoint to ‘Songlines: tracking the Seven Sisters’at the National Museum of Australia

Whereas Songlines presented an absorbing, beautiful and powerful vision from an Indigenous viewpoint, Rivers offered the story of the tragic and reprehensible destruction of the Murray-Darling river system – a microcosm of the destruction of the entire eco-system of the continent – from the viewpoint of European and Indigenous Australian artists.

It was a powerful and disturbing show. But you’ll see a lot more than beautiful and poignant works of art from such artists as Badger Bates, Eddy Harris, Kim Harris , Euan McLeod Ian Marr and many others. You’ll see two distinct and telling views of this country. In many, the anger and sorrow are palpable

As we got to the end of the exhibition, and having re-visited some of the most compelling images, I found myself asking the question: what’s the difference between the whitefella and blackfella artist in this show? I asked that question of my perceptive wife. She answered that the Indigenous art is a connection to place, and the European artists’ work is an observation of place. Nailed it.

As confronted and angered as the whitefella artists showed themselves to be at this wilful destruction, they were looking at it from the outside.

And this was corroborated by my reading the review of the show by Christopher Allen in the Weekend Australian Review. Now as much as you can damn and excoriate The Oz, it has always been excellent on Indigenous matters. Not this time.

Allen’s insensitive and unseeing review is illustrated by three paintings by whitefellas: not his choice I’m sure but certainly reflective of the content. The Indigenous artists in the show are covered, or rather dismissed, in two paragraphs.

His perspective is shown when he writes, gratuitously of having known one of the European artists (Ian Marr, one of the best European contributors) and his brother Ted since school, and having helped castrate lambs at the Marr Mount Murchison property: this without connecting the grazing of lambs or other livestock to the degradation of the river system.

Brian Harris

Brian Harris

 

Below, two statements, one form a blackfella artist and one from a whitefella, which summarise the issues

 

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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.

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By GLORIA NEWTON

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.

 

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