from The Songlines (1987)

1951 caption: 'Dad's peaceful sun-bake on the sand of this Sydney Harbour swimming pool ends to the amusement of the rest of the family. In the background is the Manly Ferry jetty. Hundreds of thousands of workers and business and professional men and woman each week-day travel to and from the city by ferry.' (National Archives of Australia)

1951 caption: ‘Dad’s peaceful sun-bake on the sand of this Sydney Harbour swimming pool ends to the amusement of the rest of the family. In the background is the Manly Ferry jetty. Hundreds of thousands of workers and business and professional men and woman each week-day travel to and from the city by ferry.’ (National Archives of Australia)

In his ‘novel of ideas’, Bruce Chatwin draws on his studies of nomads: ‘Pascal, in one of his gloomier pensées, gave it as his opinion that all our miseries stemmed from a single cause: our inability to remain quietly in a room…Could it be, I wondered, that our need for distraction, our mania for the new, was, in essence, an instinctive migratory urge akin to that of birds in autumn?’ At one point he settles down in the Outback to go through his real-life notebooks on the subject, in which this is an entry:

Sydney Harbour

On the ferry back from Manly a little old lady heard me talking.

‘You’re English, aren’t you?’ she said, in an English North Country accent. ‘I can tell you’re English.’

‘I am.’

‘So am I!’

She was wearing thick, steel-framed spectacles and a nice felt hat with a wisp of blue net above the brim.

‘Are you visiting Sydney?’ I asked her.

‘Lord, love no!’ she said, ‘I’ve lived here since 1946. I came out to live with my son, but a very strange thing happened. By the time the ship got here, he’d died. Imagine! I’d given up my home in Doncaster, so I thought I might as well stay! So I asked my second son to come out and live with me. So he came out…emigrated…and do you know what?’

‘No.’

‘He died. He had a heart attack, and died’.

‘That’s terrible,’ I said.

‘I had a third son,’ she went on. ‘He was my favourite, but he died in the war. Dunkirk, you know! He was very brave. I had a letter from his officer. Very brave he was! He was on the deck…covered in blazing oil…and he threw himself into the sea. Oooh! He was a sheet of living flame!’

‘But that is terrible!’

‘But it’s a lovely day,’ she smiled. ‘Isn’t it a lovely day?’

It was a bright sunny day with high white clouds and a breeze coming in off the ocean. Some yachts were beating out towards The Heads, and other yachts were running under spinnaker. The old ferry ran before the whitecaps, towards the Opera House and the Bridge.

‘And it’s so lovely out at Manly!’ she said. ‘I loved to go out to Manly with my son…before he died! But I haven’t been for twenty years!’

‘But it’s so near,’ I said.

‘But I haven’t been out of the house for sixteen. I was blind, love! My eyes was covered with cataracts, and I couldn’t see a thing. The eye surgeon said it was hopeless, so I sat there. Think of it! Sixteen years in the dark! Then along comes this nice social worker the other week and says, “We’d better get those cataracts looked at.” And look at me now!’

I looked through the spectacles at a pair of twinkling – that is the word for them – twinkling blue eyes.

‘They took me to hospital,’ she said. ‘And they cut out the cataracts. And isn’t it lovely! I can see!’

‘Yes,’ I said. ‘It’s wonderful!’

‘It’s my first time out alone,’ she confided. ‘I didn’t tell a soul. I said to myself at breakfast, “It’s a lovely day. I’ll take the bus to Circular Quay, and go over on the ferry to Manly…just like we did in the old days.” I had a fish lunch. Oh, it was lovely!’

She hunched her shoulders mischievously, and giggled.

‘How old would you say I was?’ she asked.

‘I don’t know,’ I said. ‘Let me look at you. I’d say you were eighty.’

‘No. No. No,’ she laughed. ‘I’m ninety-three…and I can see!’

–Bruce Chatwin, English, 1940-1989

From The Bulletin (1900)

In its 28 April 1900 issue, The Bulletin interviewed my great-grandfather Larry Foley, last of the bare-knuckle boxing champions and later a leading trainer:

Larry Foley [on left] and bookmaker and boxing promoter Jack Thompson. (National Library of Australia)

Larry Foley [on left] and bookmaker and boxing promoter Jack Thompson. (National Library of Australia)


Master-puncher Laurence Foley, in collaboration with a well-known Sydney sporting journalist, is writing a book on the Art of Boxing – which will, no doubt, be called ‘My “Scrap” Book’, with the accent on the ‘scrap’. Larry is still a man of excellent physique, and could, with a few weeks’ training, get through a respectable battle – though it might not compare in vigor with those he fought 30 years ago against old-time champion ‘Sandy Ross’ –‘For Foley and the Green’ as the almost-forgotten ballad had it. Foley’s comfortable residence at Waverley, Sydney is frequently visited by the sporting cognoscenti from England and America, where the retired champion’s name is very well known, indeed, and it was to an American visitor who pilgrimaged to the shrine of St. Laurence, in company with a Bulletin man, that Foley unburdened himself recently – somewhat to the following effect:

Larry Foley boxing, Hunt, C. H. (Charles Henry), 187-? (National Library of Australia)

Larry Foley boxing, Hunt, C. H. (Charles Henry), 187-? (National Library of Australia)

…The Australian eats meat with a big – big – whatever letter meat commences with. It doesn’t matter what their occupation is, if they’re reared on meat they are natural fighters, and game. Of course, it’s better if they’ve got an Irish father – see what I mean – but a meat diet’s the principle thing. They used to tell a yarn about me trainin’ two holy bishops of the Church to spar, and that they had a habit of scrappin’ at my place. Well, it ain’t quite true; but couldn’t Archbishop Vaughan use ‘em! See what I mean! Down on my knees I went to his lordship on the wharf, when he was goin’ away, and, says he, ‘My blessin’ on you, Laurence.’ Then he added, ‘It’s one champion seein’ another off.’ Rest his soul! An’ one of my relations; he’s a priest, you know – a meat-fed priest. He’s up in Queensland now, an’ of course, out of respect for his holy office, he doesn’t go ‘lookin’ for it’, but, for a priest, he has a very dirty left and a good right – eye, toe, an’ hand all in line. We sent him to Ireland to make a priest of him. Jim Punch an’ me took out his passage. The shippin’-clerk looks at Tom an’ looks at me, an’ says, ‘Rowing man or pug?’ meanin’ my nephew, for there’s a discount of 20 per cent on professionals. ‘No’, says I, ‘the young feller’s a-goin’ into the church’…