The poet of Woolloomooloo

Don Walker


We’re here to talk about two things: Louis Nowra, one of our finest writers, and Woolloomooloo, which he’s documented in his new book.

I first came across Louis’ name in an unconventional way.

In the eighties a music publisher in Sydney had the bright idea of asking famous authors and poets to try writing some song lyrics, thinking he would take these lyrics to songwriters, and they’d turn them into songs. As a young songwriter I was handed half a dozen pages of this stuff. They were written by some of the biggest names in literature at the time, and I didn’t recognise any of them. Some of the writing was good, but none of it was useable, except for one page, which had two sets of song lyrics on it, and they were very good, and the name at the bottom of the page was Louis Nowra.

At that time my sister Brenda had just begun a job teaching literature at the University of Western Australia, and she was writing books and they were being published, so next time I was talking to her I said ‘Who’s Louis Nowra?’

She said ‘He’s a playwright.’

I said ‘Is he any good?’

She said ‘He’s the best. In fact’ she said after a pause, ‘he’s the only playwright worth bothering about in this country right now.’

Fast forward three decades to a month ago. My twenty-one-year-old daughter, a student, is home on a break from university. I’m on the phone to a mate in the music industry, discussing what I’ll need to be doing in March, and I tell him I’m launching Louis Nowra’s new book. 

‘Who’s that?’ says the mate on the phone.

In the background my daughter says ‘Holy shit! Louis Nowra! Awesome!’

So Louis’ name carries weight in that part of the population that follows good writing.

The highest praise I can give any author is that within a couple of lines you forget that you’re reading a book, and within a couple of lines of Louis’ book here I found myself in Louis’ mind, looking through Louis’ eyes as he walks the streets of Woolloomooloo, meeting the people he meets, learning the things that Louis has learned, always from the embarkation point of this pub, and the community of humans that gather here.

Louis is too good a writer to distract the reader or break the spell by showing off on every page, but he has all the skills, all the chops. Somewhere in the first few chapters I found myself looking from Louis’ eyes through the curtain of a passion-fruit vine into a vacant allotment, at a scarecrow he had spotted there. Louis says the scarecrow looks like a crucified farmer, and I think, that’s pretty good, now I know what my sister and my daughter were talking about, Louis doesn’t have to bow to anyone.

This book covers every street in this valley, and every decade in the valley’s long history, telling us who lived where, what they did, and the stories of those who live here now.

Sooner or later I want to meet Woolley, but in Louis’ book I feel like I know him already. He’s one of those people who below any official level makes things work, heals and knits together the injuries to the fabric of a community. There are always one or two people like that anywhere you go where people know each other and care.

Louis takes us through the owners of the original farm in the valley, and the single decade when it went from farmland to dense housing. This may have been our first residential suburb. It was almost immediately our first slum.

The book is packed with incidents and tales, both now and historic. In the historic chapters the real people and the street level dramas of Woolloomooloo are piled one after another, because there are a lot of stories to tell and while Louis gives each its measure he doesn’t allow us to be bored.

The one that flattened me the most was the fate of Lizzie Phillips, on the tenth of September 1883. I’m not going to tell it here, Louis tells it straight and better than I could recount, but anyone who has a daughter, or who even ever cared about a woman or a human being, is going to feel the same way.

One of the first the first chapters I read was the one about Ayesha. I’ve never had more than a nodding acquaintance with Ayesha, but she’s graced the environment in which I lived, both at the top and the bottom of Roslyn Street, for forty years. It was only recently, when I was wandering through Woolloomooloo with a photographer mate, and we came across Ayesha sitting outside the Old Fitzroy here, that I realised there’s been some kind of profound shift, if Ayesha is taking her afternoon refreshment at this place and not the Piccolo Bar.

Ayesha and her friends were pioneers, and Louis you talk in this book about the unwritten book they deserve, and you’re one of the few people I can think of who could do it justice.

What can I say about Woolloomooloo?

The general consensus is that Woolloomooloo runs from the Cathedral in the West, to the Victoria Street escarpment in the East. From William Street in the South, to Russell Crow’s balcony in the North.

Two generations of my family sailed from the Finger Wharf to war, and for most of them the Woolloomooloo waterfront was the last they trod of their home.

I’ve always loved Sydney. This is our oldest city, on this continent. It wasn’t built by idealists, and there’s a thread of jaded cynicism that runs deep through the foundations of the place. Other cities have what they like to see as culture. We have Johnny Garfield.

Woolloomooloo, as Louis points out, was never given a shopping centre, but it’s among our oldest and most pungent suburbs. There is no glamour here, as glamour is normally conceived. No-one piles into a car in Blacktown on a Saturday night to head to Woolloomooloo. If you do finish off your Saturday night here, it’s because you’ve made a terrible mistake.

But Woolloomooloo has its songs, and they’re older than all the other songs. They sound like Ireland and Georgian England and the sea. 

And Woolloomooloo has had its poets.

And now it has one more.

This is a great book Louis. Beautifully written. You’ve performed a service for us all. In a hundred years, when someone looks at documenting Woolloomooloo again, the first place they’ll come is this book, to find out what Woolloomooloo was like now.

* * *

Louis Nowra’s book Woolloomooloo is out now from NewSouth. This is an edited version of Don Walker’s speech at the launch of the book at the Old Fitzroy Hotel, Woolloomooloo, in March 2017.