Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Never let a chance go by...

Well, here I am living in Newcastle, NSW. Why have the Surfer and I crossed the ditch? Basically, so I can write a series of novels set in Sydney in the late 1820s. I thought about trying to do it from New Zealand, but it’s a big project involving a lot of research, and moving to Australia made more sense than endless transTasman flights and expensive accommodation bills.

We chose Newcastle because it’s a lot cheaper and less hectic to live in than Sydney, and it only takes 2½ hours on the train to travel down to the big smoke. There’s a good university here with a great library, and various other pluses. We’ve been here now for nine months, and I feel like I’m finally settling in. We live in one of those apartments with a lift and a balcony and an arrangement where visitors have to buzz to be let in, which is all a bit strange because I’m used to living in proper houses with garden paths, clothes lines and lawns. Not that we ever mowed ours. I miss New Zealand, though, and my family, friends and my cat, Albert. But I talk to him on skype regularly.

Newcastle is a bit of a patchwork city, lots of what used to be small villages now joined together and spreading out down the coast, but each little nucleus still retains its own character. The port is seriously busy and has a sort of industrial beauty about it, and every day you can see the coal ships waiting in line out to sea. And in the space of about two square kilometers in the city centre you can move through precincts that go from trendy to shabby chic to just shabby, then derelict right next to luxuriously modern. Hunter Street, the city proper’s main drag, is famous. It’s mentioned in ‘The Newcastle Song’ from the 1970s, which some readers might recall. You know, the one about the blokes sitting eight abreast in the front seat of a hot FJ Holden with chrome-plated grease nipples and twin overhead foxtails pulling up outside the Parthenon milk bar looking for sheilas? The chorus goes, ‘Don’t you ever let a chance go by, oh Lord, don’t you ever let a chance go by.’ We looked for the Parthenon milk bar, but apparently it’s long gone.

Here’s a random list of some pros and cons of living in Newcastle and Australia in general, from a Kiwi perspective, naturally:

Good things: fantastic old architecture; beautiful beaches and scenery; interesting and cute furry animals; good public transport (more on that in a later blog); shoes I only ever saw in magazines at home; tremendous public generosity in times of disaster; loads of antique shops; cheap electricity and petrol; bats that fly every night; good coffee and amazing cakes; an absolute wealth of accessible historical archives; vibrant markets every weekend, etc.  

A baby wombat at the Australian
Reptile Park. Cute, eh?
Church of Christ, Newcastle.

Not quite so good things: disgustingly huge spiders; 40+ degree summer days with 90% humidity; weird traffic controls, like four stop signs at four-way intersections and no one knows who should go first; REALLY loud cicadas and frogs in the summer; shopping trolleys that ONLY go sideways; not enough cats; endless ads on the telly for insurance; what appears to be a deliberate refusal to televise Warriors games; banks with hideous fees and computer systems that crash regularly; etc. Australian readers can feel free to say if you don’t like it, go home.

But the reason I’m in Australia is not to eat cakes, run away from spiders and bang trolleys into parked cars at the supermarket - it’s to write four new books. So every time I blog, which will be every couple of weeks or so, I’ll be telling you a bit about my Australian travels – or ‘travails’ as a friend amusingly put it – and how the new book is going and what I’m currently researching. So here’s a quick introduction:      

The Research

The novel I’m currently working on is the first in a series of four based around four main characters, loosely inspired by several of my own convict ancestors, one of whom was transported to Australia on the Lady Julian(a). For a very lively and fascinating account of that voyage, read The Floating Brothel by Sian Rees. My characters are named Friday Woolfe, aged 18 and a prostitute (and, no, she doesn’t have a heart of gold); Sarah Morgan, 17, an unemployed apprentice jeweller and semi-professional thief; Harriet Clarke, 17, a skilled sempstress; and Rachel Winter, 15, daughter of small landowners in Guildford. The first book – working title Behind the Sun – begins in 1828 in London where the girls are all arrested for various crimes and incarcerated in ghastly Newgate prison before being transported to New South Wales.

They voyage to Australia on a fictional convict ship I’ve called the Isla, which I’ve based on descriptions of real convict transports and the Endeavour replica whose home base is the Australian National Maritime Museum at Darling Harbour in Sydney. The Endeavour of course wasn’t a convict ship, but going aboard gave me a good idea of how crowded everything is above deck on a tall ship and the claustrophobic conditions below deck, though I understand Cook’s ship was even more cramped than normal, because of his large crew. Imagine living like that for months on end!

On the voyage my girls meet Bella Jackson, another convict – wealthy, charismatic and extremely powerful – who becomes Friday’s arch-enemy throughout the series. They also meet Gabriel Keegan, a fee-paying gentleman passenger travelling to New South Wales to take up a government position, who will have a devastating impact on all their lives.  

So far the girls have just arrived in Sydney, and I’ve been doing loads of research into the Parramatta Female Factory, where virtually all female convicts transported to New South Wales stayed before they were sent out on assigned service. 

Newgate Prison

Deck of Endeavour replica,
 Australian National Maritime Museum.