Not in the papers: Harry

Who is Harry?

 

Church St corner

Much of the action and crime that I turned into poems for Newtown Voices came from news stories of the time —that is, they were real. To carry them I brought in four characters: Tom, the smartarse (know-it-all) journalist (‘reporter’, as we were called then);

Harry (Harriet), struggling artist, divorced young woman from Launceston, Tasmania;

Harry’s friend Buzz (Bridget), anarchist, social justice warrior (‘do-gooder’, ‘pain in the arse’), motor mechanic, lesbian.

Jaroslav: Harry’s Croatian friend (‘boyfriend’, Tom calls him disparagingly). Harry doesn’t realise Jaro is gay, and wishes he’d make a move on her.

All four represent parts of my personality, or of people I’ve known well.

Offstage is Rod, Harry’s ex, who we meet towards the end. Rod’s based on someone I knew, but I’ve exaggerated his personality (apologies to the original Rod.)

I used my people to comment on the real stories, as well as showing a bit of day-to-day life in Newie back in the 70s.

These are not inventions

[A word about ‘creative writing’: although these characters aren’t ‘real’, I did not make them up! I didn’t sit down with a notepad and list the types of people I needed:

  • 1 lesbian
  • 1 gay man
  • 1 journalist
  • 1 stand in for me.

The joy I’ve found in writing poetry and fiction is that I don’t need to invent characters. I might do some research later to get vital details right, but each one speaks to me — in my head — in their own distinctive voices. It’s as if they’ve been waiting for me to pay attention to them, and finally I’m listening.]

Now I’ve got the explanations out of the way,| I’ll focus on Harry.

Who is Harry?

It’s only at the end of the Voices that we learn Harry’s backstory and the pain she’s been carrying.

Harry is the character most like me, although physically she’s nothing like me: she’s tall and slim with striking red hair and green eyes. Like me, she left her home town and state after an unhappy event, and decided to try a new life in Newtown, Sydney. Like me, she loves the friendly feel and sense of community in ‘Newie’, the mix of people, the old buildings*, the little shops still operated by people who opened them after they arrived as immigrants in the 60s and 70s.

I came to Newie 20 years later, but all that was still waiting for me. Definitely daggy (Aussie slang for ‘scruffy’, ‘run-down’, ‘dirty’), it was a special place then, and while much changed now (‘gentrified’), it’s still a special place. My mentor, Montreal Poetry Prize winning poet Mark Tredinnick described Newtown Voices as “a memoir and a love ballad for a place and a time: Newtown, in the skirts of a city to which the wider world was arriving fast.”

So, for those who haven’t yet read the Voices and met my people, what can I tell you about Harry? A struggling artist, she has a flat above a shop in King Street,*

and teaches art two nights a week at WEA (Workers Education) to pay the rent.

In ‘At the WEA’, she says

I can’t believe I conned them

the staff at WEA, that I could teach as well

as paint. So let’s see how this works. Two

nights a week I teach people how to do what

I struggle to achieve the rest of my week—

create something good from my daily grind.

People who might have some talent (whatever

that means), or not. Either they’ve got something inside
and it’ll come out, or they haven’t.

I can’t bloody put into them

what they haven’t already got.

A new person in a new place trying to reinvent herself, Harry is lonely until she meets Jaro at Sydney’s Art Gallery of NSW, and Buzz at the WEA Christmas party. Jaro is gentle and courteous and rather reserved. Also trying to reinvent himself, he doesn’t give much away, but enjoys talking about Australian art with Harry.

Buzz is the complete opposite: full of fun and strong opinions. She and Harry have a drunken evening together and become friends. Harry often invites Buzz over for a meal, knowing that living in a squat makes it difficult for her to eat properly or to have a shower or wash her clothes. Harry cares about her friends.

Buzz introduces Harry to Tom at the disco. Tom is immediately attracted to her (once he realises Harry’s not ‘another lezzo’), and takes her to a swank Greek restaurant the following week. Harry likes the attention, but is cool about Tom because of his smartarse attitude. She goes with him a week later down to a daggy area in South King St to check out a little Greek café-milkbar that Tom suspects is a gambling den. There’s a bit of drama and blood is spilt (much to Tom’s satisfaction). Harry is distressed (also to Tom’s satisfaction).

We follow Harry and her relationships with Buzz, Jaro and Tom, and at the end, she and Jaro reveal the truths behind their griefs, and why each of them is living in Newie. Even though I wrote down their stories, I still get a bit teary, for they are still real to me, still living in my head.

* This block of shops built in 1902 on King Street is a photo I took in 2005, while I was living in Newie. The buildings are still there, (repainted), and like most of the others I photographed, are still in use. I pictured Harry’s flat being above one of these shops.

More about Jaro, Buzz and Tom in later posts.

You can read more about Newtown Voices, about me, and where to buy the book at newtownvoices

 

Those Bolshie Tin Shed Girls

It wasn’t only the girls who were bolshie!

Sexy photographer in jeans shirt with old camera

Another story that has no connection with the Guardian, but has a strong connection to Newtown and the social changes happening throughout the 1970s. The Tin Sheds were the workshops and art rooms of Sydney University’s Art Department, and were literally tin sheds, rough and ready structures.

[For those unfamiliar with the word, bolshie (also spelt bolshy) may refer to a Bolshevik, but is more commonly used colloquially for obstinate, difficult, strong-willed.  (https://www.macquariedictionary.com.au/features/word/search/?word=bolshie&search_word_type=Dictionary.)

It’s similar to feisty, which Macquarie defines as showing courage and independence; high-spirited. (https://www.macquariedictionary.com.au/features/word/search/?word=feisty&search_word_type=Dictionary.) ]

Buzz introduces Harry to these arty young women in her poem, ‘Tin Shed Girls’ with the line “There’s some bolshie girls at the Tin Sheds, Harry, the kind I like.”

She starts telling us about the innovative approaches these young women were taking in their art, but digresses into a lesbian daydream, the girls being not just bolshie but hot.

“I was walking behind one yesterday. She wore tight

jeans I couldn’t take my eyes off. Sweet round

cheeks like warm peaches. I followed her

for three blocks before she turned

down a side-street. Anyhow,

as well as bein hot chicks an anarchists

an feminists, these girls—an the guys

they hang out with—all artists—run

fabulous gigs, well, they do ripper posters

for discos an fundraisers for battered women*

an shelters an anti-war demos.”

[*The term “battered women” referred to women suffering under domestic violence. It was dropped after a politician suggested “battered women” sounded like “battered fish”–ie- fish in batter, ready for frying.]

WAM: the Women Activist Artists

Buzz describes some of the in-your-face approaches these young women artists took:

“They’re challengin the system with their WAM—that’s

Women’s Art Movement . . . They’re not doin arty-farty

stuffy elitist art, they’re reclaimin traditional women’s stuff—crochet an

embroidery, doilies—sounds poncy but it isn’t

cos it’s political, stuff about women’s place

in the social fabric; how women’s work is undervalued,

devalued. How the personal is political. Good stuff, eh!

Gone but not forgotten

Living in Newtown, I’d heard about the Tin Sheds art workshops, but nothing definite. I understood some contemporary artists of the 80s and 90s in Sydney—male and female—were products of the Tin Sheds. Not all the women students reworked traditional female handicrafts. Some were printmakers, others were photographers, potters, metalworkers, and painters.

I knew roughly where the Sheds were in City Road, opposite Victoria Park, but never got around to looking for them. Then I spent a year in Katoomba, up in the Blue Mountains. When I came back, the Sheds were gone, demolished, replaced with a modern functional building for the university’s Faculty of Architecture, Design and Planning. The only remnant, ghost, the new gallery’s name:

Tin Sheds ghost

Working on Newtown Voices, I knew I needed to include the Tin Shed Girls, not only for their creative approach to art and politics, but because they were also active in early pro-gay and lesbian protests and consciousness raising activities. As a lesbian anarchist, Buzz would naturally know some of them. I needed to know them too, so Buzz could speak through my voice, using her own words.

Under a Hot Tin Roof

I did what research I could online about the Tin Sheds, and discovered a book had been published about studying and working there: Under a Hot Tin Roof. It was out of print, and only available in the State Library of NSW’s reference collection. I bothered the friendly and helpful curator at the Tin Sheds Gallery, and he chased up the very last unsold copy of the book, which I promptly bought. It’s a fabulous work of social history, with interviews and photos from original students, and many photos of their works.

Under a Hot Tin Roof covers nearly 40 years from the late 1960s when the old World War 2 sheds (used by CSIRO during the 1940s and 50s) were hastily converted into art workshops, with uncovered spaces between the spartan buildings.

Sadly, I don’t have any photos of the Sheds, but there are evocative B&W pics from the 1970s & early 80s in the book as well as vivid descriptions from former students.

The Sheds were “ . . . a group of old tin sheds with nothing whatsoever to offer in the way of comfort to the occupants. Hot in summer and icy in winter, they are referred to by various users as a sweatbox, a safe haven, a hidey-hole, a vital off-beat meeting place, a factory space for producing work, and a home.”

[Kenyon, Therese: Under a Hot Tin Roof

Art, Passion and Politics at the Tin Sheds Art Workshop, p 25

State Library of New South Wales Press 1995

ISBN 0 7305 8933 1]

In the photos they look like old garden sheds. The antithesis of classrooms and lecture halls. It’s easy to see why the progressive art and music teachers adapted them as workshops for teaching the philosophies and practicalities of their arts.

Squatting’s the Go

It’s also easy to understand why some male students created temporary homes from the underground spaces between the sheds. It wasn’t only the girls who were bolshie! Squatting was a risky but economical way for people to make a home. Buzz lived with five or six others in an anarchist squat—an abandoned two-storey warehouse-workshop on the edge of Hollis Park in Wilson St (close to the toilets visited by Jaro).

Coincidentally, the Sheds were in the old industrial and residential suburb of Darlington, which the university was expanding into during the 60s and 70s. Buzz tells us more about squatting and homelessness in her angry rant against the university’s expansion into her home suburb. We’ll hear from her later, in a post on ‘The Yowie’.

You can read more about Newtown Voices, about me, and where to buy the book at newtownvoices