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.


Ways of getting wet

This is an old story which I recently found. Laura is now an adult.



(South Bondi Board Club members pose for a Women’s Weekly article about the new ‘hot dog’ style of surfboard in 1958. L to R: Scott Dillon, Bluey Mayes, Andy Cochran, Rod Cartlidge, Barry Ross, Des Price. Photo: Ernie Nutt)

“Let’s go swimming” I suggested to eight year old Laura during the summer holidays. “Yeah” she replied ardently (aren’t eight year olds ardent?), “let’s.” That’s how I found myself in this cavernous post-modernist hell, reading Allan Bennett’s Writing Home, squeezed miserably between a plump Muslim woman in a white broderie anglaise dress and headscarf work over curiously chic opaque white stockings and a Chinese family with bulging hampers cracking watermelon seeds.

It’s a bit like reading a menu, and seeing roast chicken, and the mind’s eye and palate filling with a crisp plump bird stuffed with sweet butter and herbs, surrounded by perfectly roast potatoes and melting onions, and what arrives is a scraggy leg with two flowerlets of attenuated broccoli. When I said “go swimming” I meant the beach, yellow sand, foaming surf, glittering sunshine. She meant an indoor pool. If you want an indication of just how the world has changed in 30 years, look at the change in the meaning of the word ‘swimming’.

I grew up in Double Bay, and swam at Redleaf Pool or Nielsen Park, surfed at Bondi and Tamarama. I body surfed – never took to the board, I was a sailor and the two didn’t, somehow, mix – I alternated between those two beaches, depending on the wave. But very early on in my beach days, it was always Bondi. I’d catch the 365 from Double Bay – a double decker of course – and get off in Campbell Parade, hop down across the blistering asphalt to the south end of the beach, rubber fins and towel, zinc cream plastered across my nose.

I go so far back I remember Bluey Mayes being the hero of the beach with his long Okanui board. I can still see him standing, muscles bulging, tattoos rippling, balancing the long board, about twice his length, on its tail, whether waiting to dive in or just attracting attention, I never knew. Whatever, he got it. We worshipped him, us young surfers. Most of my mates went on to ride boards and formed the Windansea surf club (Max Bowman, the late Kevin “Head” Brennan, Brian “Squeaker” Morris) a purist surfing club designed to distance themselves from the old fashioned silly hat wearing do-gooders at the Bondi Surf Lifesaving Club.



(Windansea Surf Club, undated, uncaptioned)

We’d jump off the rocks at the South Bondi Pool, and swim out to catch the really great waves there, peeling off just before we got eaten by the jagged rocks. Or else we’d surf the long sliders off the point at Tamarama.

On really good days at Bondi, I remember the surf as being huge. We had a technique with dumpers which required you to shoot through the face and free fall down it, slapping the water when you hit bottom and then rolling up into a ball as the huge wave of water thumped down on you. You had to be able to hold your breath. We learnt how to ride the left and right breaks, when to pull off the wave, and when to take it all the way. Out of the water, there was the life.


When I was very young it was Vallis’ milk bar, where we’d sip milk shakes in aluminium canisters, leer at young girls, then pad up to the fish shop for potato scallops – I can’t remember but I think we used to take the scallops into Vallis’. It was a great milk bar, with pinballs and dark wood veneer booths. We never did any good with the girls – we were too young, and they were after the older surf club members. Bluey did OK.

Later I remember hitching to Bondi and home again, along O’Sullivan Road and New South Head Road, getting out at the ABC Milk Bar where the bottle shop is today. I remember a lift one day with a bloke who was selling plums bottled in brandy. He’d been eating more than he sold, and we polished off two bottles on the long slow drive home.

By then I was lunching at the Astra Hotel, now an old people’s home. The Astra pies were famous and we’d have a schooner of beer and a pie for lunch before heading back into the surf. By then some of us had cars and we might even drive to Bronte in somebody’s old Veedub.

That was the beach. Burning sand. Pounding waves. Salt stretched skin. Peeling noses. Yeah, and sometimes bluebottles and always sharks. At the back of the mind.

And then there was just plain swimming. And for me that meant training at Redleaf Pool for the annual school sports day at North Sydney Olympic Pool (about the only time I ever crossed the bridge). I swam competitively at school, and used to train at the same times as Murray Rose. I never knew him he was a fair bit older but we did laps together. Rose was a vegetarian, a bit radical back then in the 50s It was whispered he lived on seaweed.


(Redleaf is now known as Murray Rose Pool: when I was very young I remember seeing him there: A blonde god)

The other attraction to us boys at Redleaf was Irene van der Bellen. She was a Dutch girl with intense blue eyes and long blonde hair and very mean parents. Well, they must have been. She was still wearing the thin blue cotton Speedo one piece at 15 she’d probably first got when she was 12. And it was bulging out and getting thinner and Irene bulged out and got rounder. We used to lie around the boardwalk around the pool (on our stomachs) just waiting for Irene van der Bellen to get out of the pool and walk up to the changing sheds, wishing we were towels.

I remember we found out where she lived, and Archie Cooper and me went around to her place one night and sang “Goodnight Irene” outside her window until her father threatened to call the police. I wonder where she is now? Did she realise what a ruckus her old blue cotton Speedo used to cause? Maybe it wasn’t her mean parents who squeezed her into the old one every year.

There was a tuckshop at Redleaf and it sold those open jam pies with mock cream piped around the top of the crust. Whatever happened to them? You can still get pineapple doughnuts and Neinish tarts but those jam pies have gone the way of the Bondi tram.

Redleaf was seaweed and dark green water and lying under the plane trees and the long walk up the stairs home. My mother told me she used to take me there as a baby, but I don’t remember.

That summer holiday when I realised that swimming for Laura meant an indoor pool, I suggested we go to the Olympic Aquatic Centre at Homebush Bay. Surely it couldn’t be worse than the pool at Willoughby the school sent her to. I was wrong. It was wet hell on earth.

There’s a postscript to this story. When Laura grew up, she became a very keen board surfer. Couldn’t imagine swimming in anything but the ocean.  



The Naked Lunch


This was originally published as a review in the Saturday Sydney Morning Herald. But I had to persuade the women sub editors to let it through. Only by arguing that it was not in favour of such places, but was merely reporting their existence and the kind of food they served did I prevail. Sadly such places – Twin Peeks one – still operate today. 

Where did your husband have lunch today? Was he served by young ladies in lingerie? Did he pay one of them to remove her brassiere, sit on his lap, and feed him flummery?

There are now at least six of these what are now known as “lingerie restaurants” in Sydney. One woman even spoke to me of the “lingerie restaurant industry”. This is not exactly a new development. Blokes have sat around tables being served by scantily clad women and perving on dancing girls after lunch for quite some time now. Salome is probably the best known of the early lingerie waitresses, Tête de Jean Baptiste her most famous dish.

A feminist friend dismissed such places as “just another manifestation of male power” and “symbolic of male ‘ownership’ of women.” I’d say she was right. But the blokes at the lunches that I went to didn’t look capable of or desirous of such analysis. They just wanted to eat, drink, and look at women with few, if any, clothes on.

I also spoke to Lindal Lee Arnold (who, incidentally, has a BA in Economics and Behavioural Science from Macquarie University), managing director of LA girls, who supplies lingerie models for places like The Pitts in Pitt Street, and Maurizio’s at Wetherill Park. Here, the waitresses are dressed, but after lunch there is a parade of young girls wearing lingerie. Ms Arnold has a different perspective on this phenomenon – in her view “it’s total exploitation of the men – we charge them $50 each to see a parade. If the girls are getting well paid, surely it’s the customer being exploited.”

For my first experience of such male exploitation, I went to Twiggy’s, which is in a terrace in Woolloomooloo. The door is locked, you ring the bell, a little door behind a grille is pulled back, and if you pass muster, you’re ushered into a dingy room which looks like a 60s bistro. White tablecloths, solid wooden chairs, and drapes closed tight to keep out the light and prying eyes.

Surrealistically, all the tables are occupied by fully clothed men being served by young women in brassieres, G strings, garter belts, and high heels. The men look like husbands: fathers, grandfathers and uncles. At Twiggy’s it was mostly lower middle management, with a couple of Ralph Lauren striped shirt and bracers types from the money market.

At first, the atmosphere was subdued and nervous. Fascinating was that, although these men were quite patently here for the young women, they didn’t look at them. While orders were being taken, their eyes never left the waitress’s face. Later, one told me “they won’t look at us when we’re looking at them.”

The food is served with indecent haste to make way for the “entertainment”: three strippers. At Twiggy’s the first was one of the waitresses, and then two outsiders – there is now a lingerie lunch circuit for strippers. The food was more than perfunctory – which I’d been expecting – less than polished, but certainly professional. The menu is limited – four entrees and four mains, but again, no one was seen to complain.

Smoked salmon with a good house made horseradish – acceptably gritty and pungent; a chicken salad of juicy little chunks of grilled chicken on a bed of mizuna and mignonette studded with slivers of grilled red and green capsicum; a lamb loin of good quality, but overcooked and accompanied by a flowerlet of broccoli: neither restaurant was big on veggies. The short wine list yielded a Yarra Ridge Chardonnay and a ’91 Kalimna.

Cinders is a different story. Opulent, men’s clubby, with balloon back chairs, delft blue and rust red rooms, glass-fronted bookcases, and young ladies in collars and cuffs with transparent black mini skirts and white waistcoats which were discarded progressively through lunch. Here it’s senior management doing the ogling, MDs, CEOs and the like. That’s the way manager Alison Brooks likes it. At Twiggy’s it’s “Hi guys”, at Cinders it’s “good afternoon gentlemen.”

The real surprise at Cinders was the seriously good food. A superb mushroom soup with Thai flavours; delicious duck livers on corn cakes served with reduced pan juices; I was warned by a chef friend against saying that the tenderloin steak was the best I’d had in Sydney for yonks, so I won’t. The wine list was more intriguing than Twiggy’s, and even the desserts weren’t bad, although we did serve ourselves.

Later, I spoke to a senior executive who freely admitted to taking his clients regularly to Cinders. His explanation was that it was “a sort of a male thing, a bit like going to the football”, that he took the same clients to the opera – “horses for courses” – and when asked whether or not he felt that he was displaying primitive male sexist attitudes, replied, indignantly, “no, I don’t buy into this feminist argument. If there were a restaurant where men stripped off, women would go there.” There is. They do.

And finally, what of the waitresses themselves? Penelope (not her real name) began working nights as a topless waitress to supplement her income from a cosmetics company, and finally gave up her day job to work as a lingerie waitress. She doesn’t mind the job, but there are downsides. Firstly, there’s the disruption to her social life “I’m with men all day, I have to be nice to them and some of them are so awful, the last thing you feel like is men after work.”

Since Penelope has been working as a lingerie waitress, “none of the girls have ever been out with a guy from the restaurant – they can’t even touch us – if someone does grab you they’re thrown out.” It does bother her that they “have the audacity to give me their business card and ask me out when I’m being paid to sit on their knee.”

On the whole, as far as Penelope is concerned, it’s not a bad job. “We’re really well paid (about $16/20 an hour plus “megatips”), you don’t have to take your panties off – it’s just like what you’d wear at the beach.”

Amanda (her real name), the self styled “foreperson” at Twiggy’s, who described herself as never having been a “clothes kind of person”, told me that she “would love to do exactly what these men are doing, not because of equality, but because I’d love to see guys walk around in next to nothing and eat nice food.”

What does it all mean? Let me offer the bullfight analogy. I went to my first bullfight expecting to hate it and loved it. This worried me enormously, and made me feel very guilty. I thought about it at length and came to the conclusion that, although I should have evolved beyond the primitive blood lust that the bullfight had unleashed in me, I hadn’t.

Well, the men who frequent lingerie restaurants (regulars go fortnightly) should have evolved beyond enjoying being served lunch by scantily clad women – but they haven’t. And as long as they haven’t, there’ll be people out there, men and women, exploiters or exploited, to take their money. At least they’re eating well.


(Both places offer food at a fixed price of $55.00 plus drinks, the average spend is around $120 a head.)