Not in the paper: In Croatia

Jaroslav and Damir as students in Croatia, before the political violence and deaths.

Dolac Marketplace in Zagreb

Another background story that has nothing to do with screamer headlines or weekly news in Newtown in 1978. It might be Jaroslav telling Harry about his life before he fled to Australia. Or his unspoken memories. We learn about him and his boyfriend Damir and their life as students in Zagreb, Croatia, before we and they are faced with the violence and deaths.

‘In Croatia’ was one of the first poems I wrote for the Voices, after Harry’s ‘Ultramarine’. Both were to make clear to myself and my readers what I understood or knew about each character and their reasons for living in Newtown. Both Jaro’s and Harry’s memory poems are about enforced endings and the need to make new lives.

When I wrote about Jaro’s life as a gay man in Mardi Gras festival part 1, I knew that living gay wasn’t something new for him. It was also clear that Jaro hadn’t stopped loving Damir. It’s going to be hard for him to move on. The ‘pretty Turkish boy’* might not be enough. (*Jaro meets this lad at one of the beats they both regularly visit. The boy develops a crush on him.)

‘In Croatia’ reads a bit like a fairy tale, one with dark edges. I wrote it as Jaro dictated it to me. Similarly, with ‘Ultramarine’, I watched Harry struggling with her painting, going onto the balcony for a cigarette, wrestling with the idea of finding work to pay the rent. I feel a responsibility to them and to the many people like them, to tell their stories as truthfully as possible.

A taste of ‘In Croatia’:

Eight hundred years of glorious history surrounded us

but what we sought was our future. We climbed

the ramparts, ran laughing up the cobbled streets,

cathedral and castle, churches and cafes;

the town was our territory, the river banks

our playground. That shining summer

we spent our days on the cusp of life and love

and death hiding behind people’s eyes

and in their words.

If we didn’t think about politics, if we read

and studied and laughed and danced and sang,

if we dreamed of love and drank beer and wine

and the sweet plum liqueur and picnicked

with our friends in the park by the river


Of course it gets darker and grimmer, with the bitter political infighting between government factions increasing in violence. Suddenly Jaro and his friend Marco are running in fear for their lives, bullets whistling past them, as Damir lies broken and dead in the ruins of a bombed bookshop.

Some of that infighting and violence spread to Australia in the 60s and 70s, as European migrants made new homes here, especially in Sydney and Melbourne. There were knife fights and occasional bombings resulting from tensions between former Croatians and Yugoslavs. By comparison, the recent political turmoil in Australia’s Federal Parliament, leading to the sudden removal of then current Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, was certainly violent and sudden, but fortunately bloodless.

“…if we didn’t think about politics, but who cannot help thinking about politics

when you are young and idealistic and your country is at war with itself

squabbling who were the patriots? who should run the country?

Read Newtown Voices

Clearly, I want you to read the poems in Newtown Voices yourself. These excerpts and backgrounders are teasers to get you wanting to know more, to become familiar with my friends Jaro and Harry, Buzz and Tom and their stories. I’ve been living with these people for 10 years; I want more people to get to know them and think about the social issues that faced people 40 years ago, and still face people today. Immigration is a big issue for many countries; so are homophobia, racism and prejudice, and there is always political agitation somewhere. Some things never seem to change, but the hope is that they evolve into better ways of dealing with thorny issues.

The photo

I didn’t have a relevant photo for a post about Croatia in the 1960s. Most of my pics are of streets and buildings and street art in Newtown, or of the harbourside areas within easy reach of my Inner West Sydney home. So I searched online and found this lovely recent shot of the Dolac marketplace in Zagreb. It’s probably not very different from how the marketplace might have looked in the 1960s.
Photo credit: Ivansmuk

If you enjoy these posts and would like to ask a question or comment, please do. I’d love to hear from you!

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



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


More on the Ed’s Rants

My favourite Ed’s rants

Ban Yellowcake

In an earlier post I wrote about the Editor’s impressive style when commenting on a topical issue in his patch. Tom refers to these comment pieces as ‘the Ed’s rants’.

Disappointingly, the Ed is choosy about targets for his thunder. No grand rant about the need to supply breakfast for hungry schoolchildren, nor about the Federal government withholding grant funding from a church providing activities for ‘latchkey kids’. No thunder about the shortage of local housing and how share house university students got the first pick of rental properties , nor of the way Aboriginal house hunters were consistently discriminated against.

Even the children sniffing petrol in the cemetery didn’t raise a rant, although the paper gave the situation thorough coverage.

No, the Ed saves his thunder for the big topics: corruption in the form of gambling mobsters using stand-over tactics to keep local councillors quiet, and the use of firebombing and murder to intimidate other criminals and citizens. Prostitution gets a surprisingly progressive serve. But, in my opinion, the Ed’s best rant is his response to the Yellowcake midnight runs.

So here are my favourite ‘rants’:

An Undercurrent of Corruption

In June 1978 the Ed started discussing rumours flying around of stand-over tactics, bashings, threats of bombings and murder from gambling mobsters (gambling was still illegal) and suggestions that hard drugs were part of the toxic mix. Because of the quite poetic rhythms in his comment piece ‘An Undercurrent of Corruption’, I rewrote it slightly to create a prose poem.

‘An undercurrent of corruption runs through Newtown and occasionally surfaces.

‘Allegations have been made about stand-over tactics, bashings, hard drugs, gambling, bomb threats even.

‘But nobody has come forward with hard evidence.

‘There are believed to be two statutory declarations in existence from people claiming to have been threatened and abused.

‘The Voice has not seen either declaration 

‘When approached to vouch for the story, several people said

‘they wouldn’t touch it with a forty-foot pole’.

‘Allegations have been made that people are afraid of intimidation.

‘We’ve been told if we pursue the story we’ll likely get a bomb through the window. 

‘It’s hard to penetrate Newtown’s wall of silence.’

His next rant went harder.

Root out the Crims

following the paper’s exposé on August 16 of the extent of illegal gambling in the Newtown–Marrickville area and mobsters’ stand-over tactics and violence, the Editor wrote a courageous comment piece.

Subtitled ‘Root out the Crims’, he wrote that the paper’s stories about illegal gambling ‘have caused some rumblings among the gambling fraternity. We have even heard of threats being issued.

‘There are some big operators operating around Newtown-Marrickville. They don’t like their activities being brought to light.

‘If the dogs are barking right, these people won’t stop at bombings and even murder.’

Then he makes the eminently common-sense suggestion that both prostitution and gambling should be legalised.

‘Let’s get one thing clear. The Voice isn’t opposed to gambling, as such, or even brothels.

As far as we’re concerned, it would be a hell of a lot better if both activities were legalised and properly regulated.

‘In fact, that’s the only way to get rid of the corruption that currently pervades the scene.

‘Why should these things be illegal in themselves?

‘Because of the insane nature of Australian gambling laws,

‘decent people are being turned into criminals.’


Now we come to my absolute favourite rant:

‘Why the Silence?’

Reportage of the mysterious convoys of trucks carrying yellowcake loads roaring through the streets of Newtown and Marrickville in the dead of night filled most of the July 12 front page, apart from small ads. In the centre column was the Comment, headed ‘Why Silence?’ in block capitals.

‘It reads like a James Bond thriller.

Uranium convoys roaring through the back streets of Newtown in the dead of night, using a series of different routes.

‘It’s all being done in secret, and nobody, but nobody, has been told a thing about it.

‘Except this isn’t fiction, and if things go wrong,
it is we who will pay the price.

‘The Federal Government and the AAEC want to flog off our uranium,
and intend to do it regardless of public opinion.

‘When stories like this come to light, it looks like they intend to do it regardless of public life. So concerned are they to avoid publicity and the resulting demonstrations, that they’re even keeping in the dark people who should know, if our homes are to be protected.

‘The fact is that no provision has been made in the event of an accident. No doubt the authorities will tell us the risks are minimal.

‘But with 250 such smashes in the US since 1971, that seems a pretty poor sort of argument.

‘And we already have our very own radioactive waste disposal problem at Hunters Hill—and that stuff has lain there for more than half a century. Now the residents have to move because of it.

‘Nobody is willing to admit responsibility for the uranium convoys racing through Marrickville streets late at night.

‘Nobody knows what will happen if there is an accident. All three levels of government simply refer enquiries back to each other.

‘It’s like an endless piece of string. What happens when that string breaks? Nobody knows.’


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

Disco Dynamo

that guy has nothing on Newtown’s Dancing
Dynamo! Terry Dickson looks like John Travolta and he dances better.

John Travolta Saturday Night Fever

Another little gem discovered trawling through the Guardian, learning about life in Newtown. Like Cathy’s Child, it was tucked on an inside page, next to articles about home renovation and caring for pets. I carefully copied it into my notebook, & tried (unsuccessfully) to copy the photo, too. Basically, it was the same pose as John Travolta, here, cutting his moves in Saturday Night Fever.

I rewrote the article to turn it into a prose poem, while still keeping the flavour of the journo’s breathless enthusiasm (real or hyped).

Disco Dynamo

The Dancing Machine from Las Vegas, currently at

Le Club in The Cross, has been the talk of Sydney.

But that guy has nothing on Newtown’s Dancing

Dynamo! Terry Dickson is just eighteen. He looks

like John Travolta and he dances better. He’s

laying them in the aisles at local discos. Besides

his good looks and his personality, he is without

doubt one of the finest dancers seen in Sydney

for many a long year and looks like becoming

the absolute heart-throb of every teeny-bopper

on the disco scene. Terry will be appearing again

at Newtown RSL Club every Thursday night, and

this week everyone who attends will receive an

autographed photo of this sensational new star.

Our very own Disco Dynamo will be judging the

Club’s Monster Disco this Thursday night. Great

prizes for the best dancers and the most original

moves. Don’t miss the One Man Dancing Machine!

This promo article gave me great material for picturing Harry and Tom having fun together at the disco, before Tom spoils everything. Harry was wearing Buzz’s white flares, a little stripy crop top, and her old high-heeled boots. She doesn’t say what Tom was wearing.

At the Disco

…We had a beaut time.

Tom’s a great dancer with a real feel

For the music, and I was really getting off

on the beats. It was huge fun. We came

second in one of the comps. In the break,

while the Dynamo was strutting his stuff,

Tom brought me a beer and some salted

peanuts. We make good team, you an me,

Then he puts his foot in it, being nasty about Jaro, and Harry runs out into the night crying.

This incident leads Harry to wonder why she hasn’t seen Jaro since their meal together in Harry’s flat some time ago(Spag Bol and Cheesecake). She fears she has offended him somehow and doesn’t know where to find him to apologise.

In a later post you will learn more about Harry and Jaro and their dark secrets.

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