Famous artists and the lure of lush Thirroul

Ashley Hay: ‘‘In my work, landscape is indivisible from the characters.’’
Ashley Hay: ‘‘In my work, landscape is indivisible from the characters.’’

There's something about Thirroul and the landscape of the northern suburbs that keeps artists coming back.

First - and perhaps most famously - it was the British writer, D. H. Lawrence, who wrote his only Australian novel, Kangaroo, during a short stay over the winter months of 1922.

For a few months, he and his wife, Frieda, settled into a cottage named "Wyewurk", one of the first houses in Australia constructed in the Californian bungalow style.

While sitting on the verandah, overlooking the Pacific, Lawrence wrote that:

"The sea talked and talked all the time, in its disintegrative, elemental language. And at last it talked its way into Somers's soul, and he forgot the world again, the babel. The simplicity came back, and with it the inward peace."

Later came painters Brett Whiteley, who famously died in a Thirroul motel room of a heroin overdose in 1992, and fellow artist Garry Shead.

Two decades earlier, the pair had briefly visited Lawrence's house and painted a diptych, Portrait of D. H. Lawrence, now owned by the University of Western Australia.

Shead later settled at Bundeena and made Thirroul and the escarpment the centrepiece for his famous Kangaroo series.

Then there is the painter, Paul Ryan, a Thirroul native who paints the landscape around him, including a series of controversial paintings dealing with European settlement and Aboriginal displacement.

In No Country for Dreaming, he depicted fancily dressed British colonials and sexually subjugated, naked Aborigines.

The final, haunting canvas of the series shows the dark escarpment as seen from the beach, with a single strand of smoke, the only remaining sign of indigenous life.

Now, that narrow strip of land between the mountain and the sea has provided inspiration for another artist, this time writer Ashley Hay.

In her latest book, The Railwayman's Wife, Hay writes about three characters who are trying to pick up their lives after the end of World War II.

The central character, Anika Lachlan, works at the Railway Institute Library after her husband, Mac, is killed in a shunting accident after surviving the war.

It is in the library that she meets the other two central characters: a poet named Roy McKinnon who falls in love with her and a doctor, Frank Draper, who is haunted by his inability to save the lives of many in the liberated concentration camps.

Although now based in Brisbane, Hay grew up in Austinmer and often returns to visit her parents there.

Both her grandparents lived in Thirroul, one came for the railway and the other the mine.

Hay's grandfather, Jock, was killed in a shunting accident in the early 1950s and her grandmother, Nathalia, was given the job of librarian at the Railway Institute as part of her compensation.

Although the library had closed by the time Hay was old enough to read, she returned as an adult to hear her father give a historical talk in the building.

"When he was talking about it and a train went past, I realised how amazing it was that they gave her this job to do but it put her absolutely in the way of the sound of what killed her husband," Hay said.

"It interested me to think about how you would accommodate that and work with that.

"It must have been a very confrontational thing for her."

But the railway forms more than simply a means of an accidental death that gives rise to the novel.

"Part of what I love about the landscape is that you have the ocean, this tiny little plain of land and then the escarpment," Hay said.

"If you look at this place from the air, you have this one silver line tracing itself through.

"The railway was people's livelihood, a point of connection. There is a nice metaphor for a story to be able to put people on and off trains."

Growing up in the area, Hay was keenly aware of Lawrence and his presence - albeit brief - made her believe that it was possible to become a writer.

"It became really clear to me that the Lawrence book was a good touchstone for Ani, a good way for her to navigate the space," Hay said.

"The thing I loved about Kangaroo was that you had this sense that you were living in the unwritten part of the book, that the book was still going on around you.

"I wanted to give her an awareness of the book and the heightened sense of living in its landscape."

Although Hay is adamant that her book is fiction - and that the Thirroul she depicts is imaginary - she is too much a journalist (a former Bulletin staffer and now freelancer) to simply invent the place.

Like Lawrence, she writes about that train journey through bush and tunnels from Sydney, reeling off the station names: Coalcliff, Scarborough, Wombarra, Austinmer, Thirroul.

She writes about the wooden pilons of the old jetty that used to jut into the ocean at Sandon Point; the ice-cream factory at Corrimal; the effigies of Hitler burnt during the war; two billiard halls; a wine saloon; a rubber factory; the glass roundhouse in Thirroul's railway yards.

There is a more prosaic explanation for this geographical accuracy too, that the novel formed a part of a doctoral thesis in creative writing, and that her research formed part of the final project.

So, like Kangaroo, the book is rooted in something real but its story is from the imagination.

"I didn't want to write a history, a memoir or a family book," Hay said.

"I wanted to make something up but I wanted it to feel genuine.

"I had access to my parents' memories but what I realised I must have been doing is accreting little pieces of stories."

Landscape and character cannot be divided in Hay's world.

Her previous novel, The Body in the Clouds, focuses on Sydney Harbour Bridge.

Her next book is about the river city of Brisbane, where she now lives.

"I hope it's real enough and I hope the people here don't mind that I have written about it.

"I really think this place is an amazing landscape and wanted to spend some time putting a story in that landscape."

Given that the book opens with one character introducing Thirroul as the "most beautiful place in the world", it is unlikely that the residents will begrudge providing inspiration to another work of art.

I Cut a Clearing in the Land – the haunting last canvas in Paul Ryan’s No Country for Dreaming.

I Cut a Clearing in the Land – the haunting last canvas in Paul Ryan’s No Country for Dreaming.

D.H. Lawrence recalls Thirroul visit

‘‘The train jogged on, stopping at every little station.

They were near the coast, but for a long time the sea was not in sight. The land grew steeper – dark, straight hills like cliffs, masked in sombre trees.

And then the first plume of colliery smoke among the trees of the hill-face. But they were little collieries, for the most part, where the men just walked into the face of the hill down a tunnel, and they hardly disfigured the land at all.

Then the train came out on the sea – lovely bays with sand and grass and trees, sloping up towards the sudden hills that were like a wall.

There were bungalows dotted in most of the bays. Then suddenly more collieries, and quite a large settlement of bungalows.

From the train they looked down on many pale-grey zinc roofs, sprinkled about like a great camp, close together, yet none touching, and getting thinner towards the sea.’’

– D.H Lawrence describes the train journey from Sydney to Thirroul, in Kangaroo.