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Sumner Locke Elliott’s portrait of Kings Cross and Sydney’s class divides is a classic worth revisiting.

My mother was a wonderful snob. ‘You know Macleay Street, of course,’ I overheard her say once, giving directions to our Potts Point apartment. (I love the ‘of course’.) We lived in a block called Manar, halfway down on the right, in a flat that had recently belonged to Sydney Ure Smith, the late artist/publisher/patron. The writer Murray Bail lives there now. Well, the street was grand certainly, but in those days, about 1949, the side streets to the west immediately declined into the shabby and thence into the downright slummy.

Rockwell Crescent, the home of the principal character in Water Under the Bridge, was just as Elliott describes it at the time of the novel: seedy and poverty-stricken. So was Victoria Street a block away. My mother would refer to dreadful people, and if my brother and I were not actually forbidden to go there, we were certainly discouraged, or perhaps just frightened. One place we were forbidden to approach was a coffee shop called the Arabian, where a witch lived. Something to do with a conductor called Eugene Goossens, and a poet called Greenlees — there were ‘wicked’ paintings on the walls.  We didn’t really understand, but there was a lot of grown-up whispering.

I have known Elliott’s name for years, and have felt vaguely ashamed that I had never read him. I remember seeing the film Careful, He Might Hear You but all I recall is Wendy Hughes and a ferry disaster.  Water Under the Bridge (first published in 1977) made me realise what a good writer Elliott is. Over a forty-year time span the characters remain believable as they mature and the plot is absorbing. The structure (for the most part) satisfies, and it’s fun to be able to identify from little internal references where we are geographically.

The story is framed, book-ended, by two great pyrotechnical displays that celebrate significant inaugurations in Sydney’s history — those of the Harbour Bridge in 1932 and of the Opera House in 1973 — and a secondary character keeps us abreast of the forty years of intervening events via her occasional letters to her friend down the South Coast.

For me, the most interesting character is an (eventually detestable) inadequate called Archie Ewers. We meet him at the start as a guest of the rich-but-vulgar Mazzinis in their Point Piper splendour, for a Harbour Bridge and Fireworks do. (How does a boy from Bankstown get to be there? His mum is the laundress, and Mrs Mazzini has included the staff in her invitations.)  Poor Archie is all too conscious of his social and educational inadequacies, which he tries to mask under a ridiculous sub-Wodehousian web of bantering, paraphrasing verbiage. He never ‘has the opinion’, he ‘opines’. His destructive malice is frightful, but he gets his comeuppance at the end. (Rather too neatly, in my opinion — Elliot is tying up loose ends.)

The party serves to introduce us to most of the characters, and to hint at an as-yet- unspecified disaster to come. We meet the sad, lonely young Flagg sisters from Mosman, always the recipients of dutifully-issued invitations, always pathetically grateful, always viewed by others as a bit odd, hopeless at light conversation, usually late for things. Their lives are dominated by the necessity of caring for their poor dotty old Dadda, their embarrassment.

Another guest at the Mazzini’s party is the protagonist, Neil Atkins, who wants to be an actor (and eventually becomes one). He’s the one who lives in shabby Rockwell Crescent with his adoptive mother, the ex-showgirl Shasta. Their touching relationship is one of bickering love. Shasta is a great character — ‘common’ but retaining her pride, fond of a tipple, given to reminiscing about her showgirl glory days, sometimes exploding into wild unreasonable rages with Neil, with the world. Neil himself, by the end a distinguished actor, is unsatisfactorily characterless (though he recognises this in himself). I couldn’t feel him as I could most of the others.

At the party we also meet the Mazzini children, young adults: Carrie, elegant, sophisticated and emotionally ‘damaged’, whom Neil comes to love; her sister Honor, pragmatic and sensible; and their brother Ben, an ordinary young man, interested in ordinary Australian things, who has hidden, and frightening, depths.

The junior reporter assigned by her paper’s Social Editor to cover the Mazzini’s party is a gentle, compassionate girl called Maggie McGhee, who loves Neil more than he loves her. She is a rock, steadfast and loyal, one of only two ‘good’ characters in the book. The other goody is Don Brandywine, a big, ordinary matey Aussie, who eventually falls victim to the vile envious malice of Archie Ewers.

The characters are so well depicted that one gets to understand the workings of their minds without any apparent effort on the author’s part. Rich girl Carrie Mazzini would drive anybody crazy with her constant flight from responsibility or committal; maddeningly vague while being totally selfish and demanding.

Elliott has the skill of shifting from venue to venue in a single paragraph, not causing confusion but rather delighted surprise. He describes a dull mother and daughter:  ‘Two minds without a single thought’. He rather overdoes the ‘common’ pronunciation of the lesser people. And at other times he gets a bit above himself with his vocabulary; what in the name of God is a ‘diacritical hat’? Or ‘atavistic graciousness’?

But stylistically the book is good, and the occasional ‘poetical’ passages are sometimes almost reminiscent of Patrick White. Anybody who knows Sydney and loves the Cross as I do will enjoy Water Under the Bridge.

Sumner Locke Elliott Water Under the Bridge, Picador 1997, PB, 367pp. Out of print, no RRP available. You might like to try second-hand booksellers.

To see if this book is available from Newtown Library, click here.

Tony Bremner was born in Sydney and now lives in London, where he is a composer and arranger.