Last night, I watched an ABC TV interview with the Australian artist John Olsen. Like me, he was born in Newcastle, although he grew up in Bondi, Sydney and then the bush. When asked about his childhood he replied, 'I am a child of the sun'. I understood what he meant. The sun here in Australia is a state of mind, permeating everything, especially memory. Even on an overcast winter's day, we know the sun will be back soon, inextricably linked to who and what we are.
The sun, or lack of it, is also preoccupation in my adopted home too. No one likes talking about the weather more than the Brits. I’ve been hearing about the fabled summer of 1976 since I first relocated to the UK thirty years ago. That particular summer haunts British popular culture, cropping up time and again, especially in literature. On my last visit back to Aus in November, I read, Essie Fox's, The Last Days of Leda Grey, partly set during that summer under, ‘the scorched white glare of skies above…’. This time, I'm reading Joanna Cannon's, The Trouble with Goats and Sheep, set in a suburban England where, 'there was nowhere to escape the heat. It was there every day when we awoke, persistent and unbroken, and hanging in the air like an unfinished argument.' The sun associated with the UK heatwave of ’76, suggests a hint of menace and oppression, depicting a Britain, set apart and different to the usual rain riddled narrative.
Under a different sun, last Friday, back in Newcastle, N.S.W, surrounded by family and friends we gave my Dad a great send off. I said a few words - they seemed to make sense. We said our goodbye’s. After the funeral, my husband, grown-up kids and I stayed on for a day or two. So much has changed and yet so much is the same; the perennial golden sand, the cobalt sky, the vivid jade-green ocean. It's no longer the blue collar, industrial town it was.
I followed the ghost of myself all around town, pointing out places and telling stories about the long last past to my increasingly disinterested family. There was something elemental and poignant about revisiting the haunts of my childhood - swimming in the same ocean, listening to the boom of the surf from bed at night. I loved having my 18 year old daughter with me. She’s the age I was when I left. Watching her, all shiny and new, reminded me of what it is to be that age. I remember the bleakness of town back then and the lack of opportunity for young women. I'm glad it has changed.
The morning we left I wandered around in the sunshine and took some last minute photos. A boy strolled by, familiar even though a stranger. He reminded me of a local boy I once knew. Long sun bleached hair, suntanned, barefoot, faded jeans. I watched him, this spirit of the past, walking from his van, enamel coffee cup in hand, to check out the surf. Another boy, sandy haired and sleep drenched, emerged from the van and joined the first. They stood squinting into the sun, talking surf language and assessing the swell flecked with board riders. This being 2017, I thought there’d be more girls out there in the water. I spotted a few over the weekend which is a few more than in my day. Some things change, some things don't.
I hope one of these days to finish one of my fiction projects set in Newcastle in the 70’s. The stories get muddied by memory and I abandon them. Maybe it’s a matter of form and finding the best way to approach the material. Perhaps I should think about it from a historical fiction perspective. Help may be at hand! I’m really looking forward to being back home in London soon for our Writing Historical Fiction Salon with Essie Fox and Emma Darwin. If anyone can bring the past to life, it’s Essie and Emma. Hope to see you at The Tea House Theatre Cafe on the 27th March.