I discovered Ruth Park’s Companion Guide to Sydney in a Sydney second-hand bookshop in 1980. Published in 1973, it was already out of print, probably because it evokes a Sydney that no longer existed. In the early 1970s, Park writes, ‘Sydney was beginning to pull itself to pieces, the air was full of fearful noise, the sky of dust … And the terrible sound of the rock pick tirelessly pecking away at Sydney’s sandstone foundations was over all.’
The same sense of a bygone era pervades Fishing in the Styx, the second volume of Ruth Park’s autobiography. It opens in 1942, the year Park emigrated to Sydney from New Zealand, arguably the worst year in Australia’s history. Sydney, with its dim-outs and riots, was suffering a terrible housing shortage. Surry Hills (in which Ruth Park was to set The Harp in the South and Poor Man’s Orange) was ‘a queer, disreputable little village’ full of rats, criminals, and children who disposed of stray kittens by throwing them out of top windows. Kings Cross, on the other hand, was the artists’ quarter, crowded with long-haired and impoverished European refugees, who introduced real coffee to the dim little cafes.