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

Christopher Hawtree
Saturday 12 March 2011 01:00

"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.

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