I have an overactive imagination. I am inclined to spend a reasonable amount of time in my head, and if left to my own devices the head stuff can start to dominate. It is difficult to explain. My mind doesn’t easily brake once a story is let loose, whether it is someone else’s tale or just a notion toodling around in my head. If you’ve seen the film Miss Potter and recall how Beatrix would occasionally address her painted creations, it’s a little bit like that. Rest assured I have all my faculties. I’m just a vivid daydreamer, I guess. On the politically correct school reports I believe exist these days (my teacher-mother once told me she can’t say a student ‘doesn’t understand’ something as that may imply that they’re thick) this habit would be referred to as: Strong visualisation skills. If only I believed in all that The Secret rubbish.
I impart this weird personal information so that you know that when I say that every time I find myself in The Rocks in Sydney I think about what would happen if I turned a corner and found my modern self back in the ‘olden days’, you know that this is a fairly regular-type thought for me. Let me explain. One of my very favourite books is Playing Beatie Bow by Ruth Park. Published three decades ago it is set in one of the oldest (and thus was one of the most notorious and wretched) parts of Sydney. A teenage girl, Abigail, is transported back to the late 1800s where she is taken in by the Bow family. It is a historical drama where Abigail learns some of the things she’s struggling to realise (or is lacking from others) in her contemporary life—ideas of family, of self-reliance, of love. In Abigail’s time Beatie Bow is an urban legend, a scary woman named in a children’s game. Abigail ends up in the past after following the child Beatie who she spies observing at the edge of one of these games, through some kind of time slip.
The first time I read Playing Beatie Bow I finished the book, closed it, then promptly opened it and started all over again. I remember exactly the spot where I was sitting on my bedroom carpet. The novel seemed to have everything a 10 or 11-year-old girl needed (sorry, I can’t quite recall how old I was). In my teenage years I read it several times, and that is rare. I am not a re-reader. Too many books, not enough time… Perhaps I did it more when I was a young thing, before all the necessities of life got in the way.
Why I wanted to re-read this particular novel is hard to explain (and, to be honest, clearly remember) apart from saying that I really liked it and that Ruth Park was a Very Good writer (which is hardly worth the trouble of posting, is it?). What I do remember is being swept up in a story that I never wanted to end, of caring very deeply for the characters (even though the protagonist could be a spoiled brat), of falling in love with the boy Judah just as Abigail did. I suspect that the boy thing had a lot to do with my quick re-reading. I have very strong recollections of some very strong reactions to the romantic elements in this novel. There is a kiss on a rowboat that filled me with giddiness the first (second, third, fourth) time I read it. Perhaps it was just the bloom of adolescence. Perhaps it was just exquisite storytelling.
On the blooming adolescence, there is also a mention of eyebrow licking that bamboozled me at the time and I must say that I am yet to come across it in my adult life (well what I imagine was meant by it, anyway). It’s an odd thing to recall, I know, and it is merely the author describing some of Abigail’s previous innocent experiences with boys but it has always stayed with me. There are other, small (less odd) things I recall to this day: the lace of Abigail’s dress, a fire. It is not unusual for me to see or hear something even today which will make me think of Beatie Bow. Especially when I am wandering The Rocks.
I have always been fascinated by The Rocks in Sydney. Harbourside with its wharves and chandleries, its sandstone buildings, narrow laneways and secret staircases, tales of murders and other awful crimes, houses of booze and ill-repute, the cellar rooms where unsuspecting schmucks were shanghaied onto ships, cobbled streets, the garrison church, the oldest pub (where I almost lost Middlemarch last week), and the observatory on the hill watching over it all. Perhaps it’s my convict ancestry which informs my interest. Perhaps it’s just the living, breathing history of the place that appeals. I don’t think Playing Beatie Bow started it (I think it was my mother, who has a great historical knowledge, is a keen family historian and used to take us off on fabulous excursions to places like The Rocks as children) but my affection for this book certainly helped lock this area and its stories into a part of my being.
Ruth Park won many awards for Playing Beatie Bow, both in Australia and internationally. I am not alone in my love or admiration for it. It is still in print (with the same cover I might add) and in the mid eighties a successful TV series was made of it. I suspect watching the series prompted me to want to read the novel, or inspired my mother to give it to me. It doesn’t really matter how I got my hands on the book, just that I did.
Ruth Park died in December 2010.