The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Matthew Clay­field

t’s a rare pro­file of Syd­ney writer Louis Nowra that fails to men­tion his long-term pa­tron­age of the Old Fitzroy Ho­tel in Wool­loomooloo. It’s an easy jour­nal­is­tic go-to (and, as he re­veals at one point in Wool­loomooloo: A Bi­og­ra­phy, an easy guide- ally dis­abled niece, then left to starve dur­ing the course of five weeks in an up­stairs room of the man’s ho­tel, is only the most shock­ing of these.

The book is also a his­tory of the sub­urb’s re­sis­tance to those who would de­stroy it. Nowra’s chap­ter on the move­ment that top­pled Sid­ney Londish and his plans to de­velop Wool­loomooloo be­yond all recog­ni­tion in the 1970s is par­tic­u­larly rous­ing. “A sub­urb once no­to­ri­ous for crime, poverty and hope­less­ness had be­come an in­ter­na­tional yard­stick for com­mu­nity con­sul­ta­tion and plan­ning.” (When he and his wife, Mandy Sayer, meet Londish at an event, the old man tells them wist­fully: “I used to own Wool­loomooloo.”)

As solid as Nowra is on the city’s gnaw­ing class di­vide, and as ea­ger as he is to throw in his lot with the un­der­dog, he isn’t with­out his own bi­ases or above mak­ing the oc­ca­sional value judg­ment. He dis­misses vis­i­tors to Tam­worth’s Coun­try Mu­sic Fes­ti­val (where he is com­pet­ing for the ti­tle of Aus­tralia’s best pub song) as “mor­bidly obese … an im­age far re­moved from the cliche of lean and ab­stemious coun­try peo­ple”. Amer­i­can tourists are later vil­i­fied in much the same way: “White, and of re­tire­ment age, both men and women wear sex­less pas­tel clothes and new white sneak­ers. Many are over­weight and wad­dle from the bus.” Such pas­sages leave a bad taste.

But these are nig­gling con­cerns and mat­ter lit­tle when com­pared with the afore­men­tioned bi­ogra­phies of his fel­low drinkers. (This is noth­ing if not one of Aus­tralia’s great pub books.) The sto­ries are not all happy: one wor­ries about Ritchie, who be­comes vi­o­lent when he goes off his meds, and Nowra’s sense of be­trayal, when he tells the tale of a con­man who took the reg­u­lars for a ride, is pal­pa­ble.

Any­one who has been a reg­u­lar at a bar will know from the out­set that these sto­ries are par for the course in such wa­ter­ing holes. Any­one who has never been a reg­u­lar will, on read­ing of Christ­mas cel­e­bra­tions at the Old Fitzroy, at the very least find them­selves want­ing to be­come one. What’s clear is Nowra doesn’t like the peo­ple he’s writ­ing about here. He loves them.

Where does Nowra go from here? Af­ter Kings Cross and Wool­loomooloo, Dar­linghurst or Surry Hills would ap­pear to be the nat­u­ral next stop. But Surry Hills seems out of the way and the few men­tions of Dar­linghurst in these pages suggest Nowra isn’t a fan. Maybe he will leave it as a dip­tych, then? A book about what Syd­ney once was and one about what it still is?

In­deed, it’s the fact Wool­loomooloo still is that’s the book’s most im­por­tant mes­sage. At the end of his short his­tory of Si­cily, John Julius Nor­wich laments that “whereas an ac­count of a spe­cific pe­riod can be rounded to an el­e­gant close, one that takes as its sub­ject merely a given re­gion of the world must be brought to an ar­bi­trary end”.

Nowra has no such prob­lem here. Wool­loomooloo has never had much elegance, or in­deed any need of it, and an ar­bi­trary end­ing is in fact a vic­tory: Wool­loomooloo’s still here, you bas­tards, and will be for a while yet. is a journalist and au­thor.

Louis Nowra at the Old Fitzroy Ho­tel in East Syd­ney’s Wool­loomooloo

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