SUBURBAN LOVE SONG
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