2 Nov

I’ve been in noisy-gritty-never-goes-to-sleep Redfern, in a flat on a fifth floor in a building with cracked ceilings and surprising roof gardens – palms in pots, a fraying rattan fence, string washing lines, liquorice allsort pegs. An alleyway separates the building from the stone walls of the Uniting Church of Tonga whose bells may be heard faintly on Sundays. The alley is a good place to dump things – one day a pile of stained mattresses, another, black bags of bread, any number of bottles, and occasionally people use it as a pissoir – very public but who cares? It leads to a bare square of sandy grass with two swings, a slide, a lot of needles and condoms and a powerline much loved by pigeons – the concrete below is a Jackson Pollock splatter painting. The apartment block is between two motorways – one’s Regent and the other Wyndham, and all day long and all through the night cars race, trucks roar and sirens shriek.

Every time I come to Redfern and watch the traffic outside the train station, I think of Robin Hyde. In 1926 when she was just twenty, she went to Sydney because she was pregnant and unmarried. She was then Iris Wilkinson, and a highly regarded journalist at the Dominion despite her youth. She wore a wedding ring which fooled few, and initially lived in a boarding house in Redfern because it was cheap and because she liked the name. But Sydney was hard for her with its stiff palms and few open spaces – people had curious faces, the houses were dark and purple. She was of course handicapped by her painful limp – the public reason for her journey to Australia was to see a specialist about her knee, so crossing a Sydney street even in 1926 would have been terrifying: ‘an orgy of cowardice; exhaustion when you reach the far side. It’s impossible to imagine her loneliness and sorrow. Her mother had accused her of being a harlot; neither she nor Frederick Hyde, her baby’s father, had loved each other, and she was convinced that either she or her child would die. Even so, she trailed around Sydney shops buying baby clothes. And so it was: They let me see him, though not to hold him, after he was dead. I wonder if death gave him his white sweetness…He was very dark, the little face I touched was warm…They wouldn’t let me see him again – morphine and sleep instead… She wrote of the awful red soil of Sydney, like an open wound and how he seemed so small to be left in so great a place. In fact, she could never remember where her baby was buried.


C. R. H.


Life said, ‘No blossom can eclipse

The white bud of his tiny lips,

And so I love these flower-hands

Whose petals never shall enclose

I shall not tint their palms with rose.

In gardens of the lovelier lands

My snowdrop-child shall find the sun,

His little feet shall learn to run

On rose-white ways, where by no thorn

May baby tenderness be born.

The initials stood for Christopher Robin Hyde – the name she subsequently used as her writing name.

I’ve come to Sydney to see and hold my children, two of whom and a grand-daughter live in Redfern – in the flat on the fifth floor – and the others bike-rides away. They live their busy lives high about the traffic’s roar which they stopped hearing ages ago; indeed they make a lot of noise themselves – scooters, tricycles and bikes are crowded into their living room beside the linen cupboard or behind the sofa; they play music and sing and dance – all the things you do with a four-year-old with a parade of fast changing identities.  Dusty Redfern Park is not too far away but sometimes it’s easier for the flat to be a racing rink, a circus, or a jungle.

The shops downstairs and around the corner are a haphazard heap of outlets selling blankets, ‘mink’ duvets, mattresses, kettles and heaters. There are repair and alterations shops, a bottle shop run by a Korean family with four children whose ages range from toddler to teenager. They’re all in the shop in the evenings watching the news, doing their homework and selling wine. When I buy two bottles of red on special, the mother tells me I’ve got good taste – the wine is very good – she’s tried it. There’s a baker who makes his bread from organic flour which arrives several times a week in huge sacks which lie about his tiny shop like dusty whales; a man from Ponsonby who’d like to be in Newtown but can’t afford the rent, so uses the space beside the Redfern Work and Income office as his kitchen to prepare for the weekend markets.  He used to be a chef but broke his wrist lifting skillets and anyway got sick of the stress, so now he’s a butcher who makes his own sausages. He hasn’t been back to New Zealand for at least five years – Who’s in charge there now? I heard they’re trying to sell something off – hope the Maori bros stop them. He’s Tongan, and after his father died, his mother decided she’d had enough so went back to Tonga. He hasn’t been back there for twelve years either but hey guess who bought my mum’s house? My sister – awesome eh cos you gotta have some place you call home and I could always go back there if I wanted to but right now I got me an Aussie girl friend and I can do more here…but man, the rules, the regulations, and bro, the corruption. He gives one of my daughters pork bones for her puppy – he likes dogs – the bag of bones is huge; he wants her to bring the puppy next time she comes.

Even the check-out operator at the tired old IGA knows they’re New Zealanders and likes to talk rugby with them with varying degrees of success.  They know their next door neighbours – one of the boys comes from Havelock North – well enough to ask for a can opener, or to mind Alfie the puppy while they go walking in the Blue Mountains. Alfie got himself on Facebook – playdate with Alfie – showing him burrowing into a bag.

They buy coffee from Coffee Tea and Me in Redfern St, a slit in a wall with bike seats cemented to the pavement or rusty steel chairs which burn in the unshaded sun. Coffee Tea and Me is near the Aboriginal Health Centre and on Tuesdays there are long queues. Nothing about Redfern is gentle or peaceful – if you can hear birds over the strum of the city, they clang like cutlery, and when I perch on a bike seat watch the people, some of them walk so slowly with bent heads.

But there’s a lot going on. Next to the empty shops – quite a few – is a community of retro-furnishing shops run by people called Frank or Elvis or Mitch and Kim. Their hours seem to be irregular – you might feel like nipping along to look at a stupendous Biedermeier ward-robe only to find the door padlocked by a huge chain.

The Biedermeier is a great surprise the day I spot it, its Viennese formality a contrast to the lighter Scandinavian-influenced furniture that fills these shops. The wardrobe, two chairs, a table and a pair of bedside tables huddle together behind a roped-off elevated corner. The furniture reminds me of immigrants who never quite fit – I’ve known people like the Biedermeier wardrobe – solid, considered, nostalgic men and women who maintain cellularly-imprinted rituals as scrupulous and delicate as the patterns of inlaid wood on the ward-robes’ doors. I’ve heard laments for how it used to be, memories that stretch back to where they once belonged – to what Edmund de Waal has called a Mitteleuropa narrative of loss. Leaving remains a crisis for every migrant because everything about their identity, their place, their culture and their beliefs are tossed up and flung down as they try to adjust to their new country.

My godparents came to New Zealand after the war. They grew the best strawberries and tomatoes in their short spray-infested lives but they never left Hastings in forty years – never went to Wellington, never went across Cook Strait.

Biedermeier furniture was originally simple with little ornamentation – a bit like English Georgian furniture. It was made of local woods – cherry, oak or ash rather than imported mahogany, and it was commissioned by an aspiring, increasingly well-educated middle class with enough money to develop a particular philosophy about their houses – one that extolled refinement and a certain restrained  Gemütlichkeit – cosiness or intimacy.

Schubert was a perfect Biedermeier composer – his music is so intimate – you can imagine a group of friends gathering in a sitting room to listen to more musical friends perform die schöne Müllerin – the song cycle of the lovelorn wanderer for the miller’s daughter whose eye alights instead on the hunter and causes the wanderer to throw himself into the brook. This music is intensely personal – Schubert, plump, poor and syphilitic, never experienced love, knew only longing and loss, and the wanderer’s delight at finding work at the mill and seeing the girl, but never speaking to her, must have had roots in his own heart.

Die schöne Müllerin was his response to poems by Wilhelm Müller and indeed these came about because Müller was a member of a group of Viennese friends who met regularly at the house of a Viennese civil servant to perform plays and sing. One such play was based on Goethe’s der Edelknabe und die Müllerin. The group took characters from the story and wrote or improvised their own poems.  Because of his name, Müller was given the miller’s part. He became so engrossed in his character he expanded his initial poems into a cycle of seventy-six which tells the story of lost love from the miller’s point of view. These were eventually published in 1821 and were intended to be accompanied by music, but Müller died never knowing that Schubert read his work and in response produced his two great song cycles – Die schöne Müllerin and Die Winter Reise. In Die schöne Müllerin the piano does so much more than accompany the singer: it becomes the mill, the flowers and woods, the stream the miller walks beside – and eventually dies in – as well as commenting, or echoing the miller’s emotional turmoil until finally soothing him to eternal sleep. It’s a wondrous ending – the rocking rhythm of the music echoes, perhaps, the movement of the water flowing over the miller, but the words draw the listener up to a clear sky – despite everything – and Schubert endured, he never despairs:

Gute Nacht, gute Nacht!                            Good night, good night!

Bis alles wacht      …                                    Till everything wakes …

Der Vollmond steigt,                                 The full moon is rising,

Der Nebel weicht,                                       The mist retreats,

Und der Himmel da droben,                   And the sky above – how wide it is!

wie ist er so weit.


I can only listen to this music. Mark Padmore said he heard it for the first time when he was fourteen but didn’t have the ‘courage’ to sing it until he was forty and that since then he’s spent hours rehearsing, performing and thinking about the songs which still remain ‘elusive and unknowable.’ I don’t know them well but walking, water, woods and the moon, to name but the simplest, most obvious things are all things I love, and who hasn’t been rejected and felt alon

The woman who owns the shop comes from Hoxton. She watches me looking at the furniture and says she will only sell to someone who will buy the entire collection. It has been huddled in the corner for many years.

Mitch is an American in a leather jacket and a new blue tooth in his ear. He likes to sit outside his shop on one of his restored Parker chairs talking to his blue tooth and waving as you walk past. He was once a social worker. Kim used to be a booking agent. She often went into Frank’s shop which she thought was full of junk but she liked Frank, and when she lost her job she asked Frank if she could work for him. I didn’t know a thing about furniture – Frank told me everything and in the beginning I thought this sixties stuff was nothing. Now I know that a Wegner chair is the chair man’s chair, you know what I mean? She is tall and blonde and wears large woollen shawls. One day Mitch came into Frank’s shop. He fancied me so I made him buy something. And until last week we lived over the shop but we’ve just moved into one of those new highrises – you know the ones on the corner where they’re still drilling – so nice – you should get one.

My daughter smiles and says she’s happy where she is. We go home and meet her friend who’s doing a PhD on fashion blogging. She also has a slot on a local radio station in which she talks about language.  The word for the week is vagazzle…


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Steph Matuku

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