The Drums Go Bang, Ruth Park and D’Arcy Niland

WP_20150904_007The Drums Go Bang (1956) is a memoir of the first five years of marriage of Australian writers D’Arcy Niland (1917-67) and Ruth Park (1917-2010, and yes I know she was raised across the ditch). I was brought to rereading it by Lithe Lianas who in a comment on Whispering Gum’s recent post on Australian literary autobiographies suggested that Niland had benefitted from Park’s support but not vice versa. My feeling, supported by the picture above, is that this was mostly not the case.

Certainly, Park adopted the role of homemaker and Niland, initially at least felt obliged to be the breadwinner, but they were both unstoppable writers and both would write well into the night (or in Niland’s case when he was on night shift, into the day). And they were both supportive of the other’s writing to the extent of sometimes typing each other’s manuscripts on their shared typewriter.

On a trip working through north west NSW Park felt able to move and live independently while Niland and his brother were shearing and when babies came along it seems to me that Niland pitched in to the full extent possible with feeding and caring. But then I’m an old guy who benefitted for many years from a homemaker wife and I would think that wouldn’t I?

The authors don’t say, but Park came to Sydney and married Niland in 1942, that is, at the height of WWII. Oddly enough, Drums mostly reads like one of Park’s depression era novels, the war doesn’t get a look in and so nor does that fact that Niland was unfit for service (heart problems I think). I have read Park’s more recent biography Fishing in the Styx (1993) but wasn’t able to put my hands on a copy while writing this review. My memory is that some of the facts were different, particularly about their mostly long-distance courtship, certainly Drums was written with the emphasis on humour.

Briefly, Park and Niland marry. At a time of extreme housing shortage they find squalid accommodation in a divided up house in Kings Cross. Niland is working on the railways as a lumper but tosses it in when Park persuades him that they can make their living as full time writers and they quit their house, store their meagre goods with an aunty and head bush, taking the train to “Gilla Gilla” (Moree, NSW).

After breakfast we went out to inspect Gilla Gilla. Tiger [Park] kept squeaking, “Oooh look!” and staring fascinated at the groups of human statuary on street corners. They were blackfellows, silent and sad, with wrinkled clothes, no socks and unlaced boots. Their black, bloodshot gaze slid away as we approached, half shy, half furtive.

Then over the wooden planks that spanned the Jacky River comes a horseman. Park records the moment in her journal,

Her first real Australian
Her first real Australian

Here for the first time I saw the real Australian, a tall, lean, darkly brown fellow with a face strongly akin to Kingsford Smith’s. His teeth are tobacco stained but strong, his eyes blue, squinty and kind, surrounded by a network of sun wrinkles.

They go out to the shearers’ accommodation at the shed where the boys have work. Park stays on for a while then gets work in town as secretary for a long distance taxi driver before hitching a lift further west to the Lightning Ridge opal fields where the boys eventually catch up with her. She’s pregnant, they move back to Sydney, write short stories, radio plays, colour pieces, anything that might sell, walk their manuscripts all over town, making sales just often enough to keep skin and bone together.

Don’t get me wrong, I have loved this book since I first got it as a school boy, but Park has always struck me as a bit right wing, especially when compared with her contemporaries like Kylie Tennant for instance, who also wrote depression-era novels. Here she describes her fellows in Surrey Hills after a stint working in a food shop,

From the little ham-‘n’-beef she learnt one important thing – laziness is the ruling vice of the slums. The women spent twice as much on ready-cooked foods as they were able to afford. They would hang over their gates half the day yarning, and then at half past four scurry up to the shop and buy some miserable makeshift meal of sliced sausage, tomatoes and bread. Much of their apparent poverty was based on laziness alone; they were too lazy to wash, too lazy to cook, too lazy to do anything but just go on living [perhaps she thought if the poor had some get up and go they could top themselves and relieve the housing shortage].

At the end of the period covered by this book Park enters and wins a competition sponsored by the Sydney Morning Herald with her novel of Surrey Hills people The Harp in the South (1948) and we know that the desperate poverty of this stage of their life is behind them. A few years later Niland also achieves success with The Shiralee (1955).

Illustrations by Ruth Park


Ruth Park & D’arcy Niland, The Drums Go Bang, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1956

13 thoughts on “The Drums Go Bang, Ruth Park and D’Arcy Niland

  1. Hahaha, Bill, how we bloggers set each off on little journeys. I shall tell Lithe Lianas to come look at this. I went to a second hand bookshop last week. They didn’t have Drums go bang so I came home with the selected letters of Nettie and Vance Palmer instead! I plan to post on bits and pieces of that soon …


    • (working late tonight) hope LL fires another shot, I don’t mind a stoush.
      I read the Palmer letters a while ago, Nettie held the Austn literary community together almost single handed.


      • Oh yes, I know. I read many years ago about, for example what a mentor and supporter she was, for people like Marjorie Barnard etc. and of course of literature in general. I love to read her writings on literature.

        As for LL, you never know, though unfortunately she doesn’t have her copy of the book any more so may not be able to properly defend!


  2. I misled WG as I find that The Drums survived my recent book shelf culling program. However, time is in short supply at present so I won’t be re-reading it just yet. Thanks for refreshing my memory – I had forgotten about their country ‘adventures’ but well remember the triumph of the publication of ‘The Harp in the South’. I also remember their hand to mouth existence survived with humour and sheer doggedness and sustained to a large extent by Nolan’s journalism, I think, as well as Park’s many and varied articles. I do retain the impression, though, that she was the driving force in the partnership but maybe Nolan’s health had something to do with that. My own belief is that she is the better writer but then she did have a longer life in which to do it. Hers was a remarkable mind that could create the families in The Harp and ‘Poor Man’s Orange’ and also produce the adventures of the Muddleheaded Wombat. Sorry – not much of a stoush in all that?


  3. LL, thanks for taking the trouble to look me up and reply, and sorry about ‘stoush’ that was just me being defensive about sticking up for the guy. Drums go bang is one of my favourite books, probably because I just about memorised it when I was a boy. I’m not otherwise a big fan of Park but she and Niland seem to have done pretty well considering the times and their Catholicism.


  4. By all means stick up for the guy – because I’ll stick up for the gal; maybe I am a biased 50s feminist when gals really did need sticking up for.

    BTW If you enjoy family memoirs (not necessarily literary) you may enjoy ‘Cheaper by the Dozen’ by ? ? Galbraith (a US writer) – can’t look up the name as it is one book that did go out in my great book cull – very entertaining, written about 1951.


  5. My mother knew Park and Niland in Sydney during the war and I read her copy of Drums in the sixties. On the title page was written, “To Margot from Tiger”. By the way, “Surrey Hills” should be “Surry Hills”.


    • Thanks for reading and commenting. I had a treasured early copy of Drums too, but I gave it to a friend up Moree way for the connections to their shearing adventures. and that was the last I saw of it. But an inscribed copy, how lucky are you. Sorry about Surrey – it’s the Melbourne in me.


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