Ruth Park: Writer whose work encompassed novels, scripts and children's stories

"Splinters of that tooth worked their way out of my gum for years."

So Ruth Park recalled a dentist's rudimentary extraction of a tooththat could have been saved were this not Depression-ridden New Zealand. In that sentence is all the economyof language and imaginative precision which animated her prolific, diverse writing across six decades. Able to turn from fiction to travelogue, scripts and children's stories, she had that listening ability vital for thecreation of character and dialogue. Her novels – notably the portrayalof Sydney's slum tenements in The Harp in the South series – teem with life, and death.

Born in New Zealand, she was the daughter of Melville and Christina. She partly attributed her relish of language to Melville's Irish roots ("the savage hero tales of his ancestral land"), tempered by her mother's Swedish practicality; moving a trucking business to the North Island brought privation, but Ruth revelled in King County's Maori life. "Between the ages of three and six I spent much of my life like a bear cub or possum, alone in the forest," she wrote. The Maori spirit was "never taken away from me by the frauds of civilisation".

Unlike some, she did not scorn the Catholic nuns who later encouraged her writing, even when her scholarship was beyond the family's means. Without books at home, and scant paper, she even wrote on the door. Naturally, she was jealous when her mother, after glimpsing Shaw, said, "he was a well-scrubbed old cockalorum, with frightful teeth." Asked how she saw the teeth, her mother replied, "it was when he shouted, 'Shoo!'"

Whenever Ruth had a stamp she sent a story to Auckland newspapers. She was encouraged by the novelist Eve Langley, and the nuns fostered a literary correspondence with another Australian, D'Arcy Niland. In 1940 Park briefly visited Sydney as a break from Auckland proof-reading and met up with Niland. "A romance it was, a skittering butterfly kind of exploratory companionship." Two years later, she returned – and married him. After a year's sheep-shearing, they moved into Sydney's Surry Hills tenements: a 9pm curfew on typing found them jotting ideas on each other's bodies in a narrow bed.

Park began to write for radio, with a young Peter Finch in one play; meanwhile, she wrote her first novel, The Harp in the South. This brought Miles Franklin's jealous hatred when, in 1948, it copped the Sydney Morning Herald's annual prize. The English publisher, in bed with a proof copy, immediately doubled the print run. Its hard-pressed family, scarcely eased by appalling lodgers, exist amid the tang of "leaking gas, and rats, and mouldering wallpaper which had soaked up the odours of a thousand meals." One woman gives "a look that would brand a pig", while from a book, Shakespeare's face was "staring out into the crowd which was so much like his own loud-voiced, unruly Elizabethan one."

This chronicle of conjugal delight and discord continued with Poor Man's Orange (1949) and, in 1985, the prequel Missus. Niland had also been busy; his best-known work was The Shiralee (1955), which was filmed by Ealing Studios and starred Finch. Radio work, however, sustained their fiction, while a fourth pregnancy yielded twins. In the mid-1960s they visited Europe, where the sight of St Peter's Basilica made her immediately abandon Catholicism; a San Francisco stop-over, however, brought the discovery of Zen, which saw her, slowly, through Niland's sudden death in 1967.

Finances were eased by transforming radio scripts into books about a muddle-headed wombat, inspired by her four-year-old daughter's remark, "I don't think there's anyone in the world I'm smarter than!" Out of the mouths of babes came royalty cheques. Not only will many of her novels, for adults and children, endure, but her memoirs – A Fence Around the Cuckoo (1992) and Fishing in the Styx (1993) – make the antipodes so much a part of the world that they are a one-woman continental drift.

Once, she met Sean Connery: her publisher had taken her to a Soho restaurant, where the Scottish actor joined them for coffee and described leaving the Navy with an ill-fitting demob suit; not missing a beat, Connery continued, "after I sold this suit to my father..." Read Ruth Park, and marvel. She missed nothing.

Ruth Park, writer: born 24 August 1917; married 1942 D'Arcy Niland (died 1967, five children); died 14 December 2010.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Voices
There will be a chance to bid for a rare example of the SAS Diary, collated by a former member of the regiment in the aftermath of World War II but only published – in a limited run of just 5,000 – in 2011
charity appealTime is running out to secure your favourite lot as our auction closes at 2pm tomorrow
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special
tv
News
Claudia Winkleman and co-host Tess Daly at the Strictly Come Dancing final
people
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
News
Elton John and David Furnish will marry on 21 December 2014
people
Sport
SPORT
News
people
Life and Style
A still from the 1939 film version of Margaret Mitchell's 'Gone with the Wind'
life
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Sport
Amir Khan is engaged in a broader battle than attempting to win a fight with Floyd Mayweather
boxing Exclusive: Amir Khan reveals plans to travel to Pakistan
News
Stacey Dooley was the only woman to be nominated in last month’s Grierson awards
mediaClare Balding and Davina McCall among those overlooked for Grierson awards
News
Twitchers see things differently, depending on their gender
scienceNew study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer
film
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Biggins as Mrs Smee in Peter Pan
theatreHow do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
News
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Austen Lloyd: Senior Private Client Solicitor

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: SURREY - An outstanding high level opportunity...

Austen Lloyd: Construction Solicitor - London

Very Competitive Salary : Austen Lloyd: NICHE CITY FIRM - We are making a disc...

Austen Lloyd: Construction Solicitor - London

Very Competitive Salary : Austen Lloyd: NICHE CITY FIRM - We are making a disc...

Recruitment Genius: Finance Director

£65000 - £80000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Finance Director required to jo...

Day In a Page

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'
Marian Keyes: The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment

Marian Keyes

The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef creates an Italian-inspired fish feast for Christmas Eve

Bill Granger's Christmas Eve fish feast

Bill's Italian friends introduced him to the Roman Catholic custom of a lavish fish supper on Christmas Eve. Here, he gives the tradition his own spin…
Liverpool vs Arsenal: Brendan Rodgers is fighting for his reputation

Rodgers fights for his reputation

Liverpool manager tries to stay on his feet despite waves of criticism
Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
Michael Calvin: Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick