Volume 1 of Ruth Park’s autobiography, A fence around the cuckoo, covers the period of her life up to when she lands in Australia to marry D’Arcy Niland. Not being sure, perhaps, that there’d be a sequel, Park concludes with:
We lived together for twenty-five years less five weeks. We had many fiery disagreements but no quarrels, a great deal of shared and companionable literary work, and much love and constancy. Most of all I like to remember laughter.
That autobiography was published in 1992. The drums go bang, written collaboratively by Park and Niland, was published in 1956 and covers the first five or so of these years to just after the publication in 1947 of The harp in the south.
The first thing that struck me was its point of view: it slips astonishingly between third person and first person plural, sometimes in the middle of a paragraph. And then the penny dropped, its collaborative nature. When they are talking about one of them, Tiger (Ruth’s nickname) or Evans (D’Arcy’s), third person is used, but when they are talking about them together, first person plural is used. Here is an example about their delayed honeymoon:
We didn’t mind the delay. Tiger was crazy to see Sydney, and besides she wasn’t too keen on going away to the Blue Mountains with a strange man. While Evans was away at the Railway she went around the city on her own …
Once you work out what’s going on, it works very well. However, to understand this particular paragraph, and the “strange man” comment you’ll need to read their story for yourself, as I want to move on to other things. Suffice it to say that this comment, while containing an element of truth, given the way their relationship developed, is also an example of their light, self-deprecating humour. As Park said in her autobiography, “most of all I like to remember laughter”.
The drums go bang is a short and often funny book, but it manages to cover a lot, including their struggles to find accommodation in 1940s Sydney when accommodation was scarce, their decision to go freelance and the resultant struggle to survive, their work in the outback, two pregnancies, their lives in Surry Hills and other Sydney suburbs, and their relationships with a wonderful cast of characters. The aspects which interested me most were of course Surry Hills, because it inspired The harp in the south, the writing life, and the writing itself, which provides such an insight into their skills.
Although they tell it with such humour, Park and Niland are very clear about how difficult the freelance life is. For most of the five years covered by the book they live a hand-to-mouth existence, experiencing poverty at close hand. However, there’s also good advice here for would-be writers. For example, early in the book, Tiger expresses frustration at Evans’s belief that a good story will sell regardless, but even this is told with humour:
He was convinced that if the story were good it must sell. He bailed up an amiable Salvation Army major and tried to persuade him that “The Other Side of Love” was just what was needed for the War Cry. He submitted “The Menace of Money” to the Business Man’s Monthly, and a sentimental animal story to the house magazine at the Abattoirs.
They share their Minor Carta, their manifesto for writers who wish to make a living writing. Its eight articles include some hard learnt truths, such as that you have to “write anything and everything”, you cannot afford to be “snobbish” about your art, and you can’t let rejection slips get you down. They talk about the variability of payment systems for freelance work, unscrupulous writing schools, and the importance of marketing, of needing to “shape it to fit”. They write articles, songs, short stories, radio plays, children’s radio, comedy sketches, and more – anything that might bring in a cheque (and they do it sharing one old typewriter.)
I’d love to share more about their lives, and particularly the characters in it, like Evans’ brother Young Gus, the generous freelance publisher Mr Virtue, and colourful relations like Aunt Nibblestones and Uncle Looshus, but I want to get onto something that is most relevant to Bill’s AWW Gen 3 Week, their time in Surry Hills and how it inspired The harp in the south. Initially scared by “the place, with its brawling, shrieking life”, abusive drunks and fighting prostitutes, Park started to adapt, and
… began to study the people for what they were, and not what they did. Their true kindness, their generosity and charity filled her with shame. They were so much more genuinely loveable than she had given them credit for being, and she began to understand how the incredible congestion of their lives, the rabbit-warren houses, the inescapable dirt of an area which is built around the big factory chimneys all contributed to their innately lawless, conventionless attitude towards life. She began to understand that in such a place dirt ceases to become important, morals are often impracticable, and privacy is an impossibility.
As it turned out, though, The harp in the south was written, almost, you could say, accidentally. In New Zealand for some needed R&R after the birth of their second child, they are sent a clipping by Uncle Looshus which announces a Sydney Morning Herald competition for a novel, short story and poem. Park tries to convince Niland to write a novel but he refuses, saying he only writes short stories, and tells her to have a go. So, she does, and of course Surry Hills is her inspiration:
… she felt she understood them. She certainly liked them, mostly because in the midst of all their dirt and poverty and fecklessness they contrived to be happy.
She wrote down a sentence that seemed to sum up their philosophy: “I was thinking of how lucky we are”.
That sentence, the last line in the book, was the key that opened the door. From then on the story grew by itself.
This book, published serially in 1947 to both acclaim and vituperation, has become a classic of Australian social realism, albeit, as Paul Genoni says, “tempered with romanticism”. The same could be said of this delightful memoir.
Ruth Park and D’Arcy Niland
The drums go bang!
Illustrated by Phil Taylor
Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1956