The Killer at the Door
The Wheeler Centre recently hosted an event in our series, ‘The Late, Great…’, on Ruth Park. Today, as we publish the video/podcast, Marion Halligan reminds us we must preserve the legacy of Ruth Park, and other pioneers of Australian writing.
“One boiling day I was writing in my garret when the murderer knocked on the door below.”
This is the opening sentence of Ruth Park’s second volume of autobiography, Fishing in the Styx. She goes on to describe the murderers who lived in the vicinity, including “the rabbity women who had done in their newborns but got off on a plea of insanity. In those days of the second World War it was widely believed that women who had just delivered could reasonably be expected to be off their heads.” It’s a bit of a worry for the pregnant Ruth. “I was outa me mind,” the women say. “All me milk went to the brain. I suppose it curdles.”
The murderer knocking at the door runs a few girls but is mainly an enforcer, the most feared underworld figure in Sydney. He has come to inquire, courteously, if Ruth’s landlady can put a few stitches in the torn lining of his coat pocket.
This keeps you turning the pages. It is full of energy, is funny, and wonderfully black - like a lot of Park’s writing. She began as a journalist and was on her way from New Zealand to a job in San Francisco when the bombing of Pearl Harbour put a stop to Pacific travel. So she went to Sydney instead and married D’Arcy Niland, another writer. They resolved they would make their livings by writing, a near-impossible task then, as it is today. But they managed it, by putting their heads down and just doing it. Not for them the luxury of sitting in despair in front of a blank sheet or suffering the anguish of writer’s block. Park sat at the ironing board, with children underfoot, at the kitchen table with the onions and the carrots, churning out anything and everything. Articles, plays, radio scripts (more than 5000), serials, children’s programs. When, after the war, the Sydney Morning Herald offered a £2000 prize for a novel, Park knew she had two subjects: journalism and the slums of Surry Hills where she was living. She was afraid she might be sued for libel if she wrote about journalism, so that left the slums.
When The Harp in the South (1948) won the prize it was a scandal. I was a small child at the time, and I remember it. The problem seemed to be a woman writing about such things, and one from New Zealand at that. Drunkenness, wife beatings, abortions, prostitution, sly grog, all the life of the streets about her, not from a judgmental point of view but as an inmate, the details intimate, comical, forgivable. Slums? said authorities, there are no slums in Sydney, and then proceeded to clear them away and move people out west, which filled her with guilt. The priest of her church preached a sermon against the novel, saying that the Virgin Mary in her lifetime would never have stooped to write a book of any kind, let alone one published in the Herald.
Park made her dream of living by writing a reality. The Harp in the South has never been out of print. She has won a Miles Franklin and an Age Book of the Year for non-fiction. The Muddle Headed Wombat was a long running and beloved radio serial. Playing Beattie Bow has been devoured by generations of children, in print and on screen.
Park was 93 when she died in 2010. She spent her life spellbinding her readers with her story-telling. We need to make sure we are the grateful heirs of her legacy, something we are not always good at in this country. When writers get old we tend to forget them, and when they die they pass from our consciousness. Park showed us our world as it was, and we must not forget either the writer or her subjects.