Blog post

By Matthew Lamb

For much of the 1960s through to the 1980s the life and work of author Frank Moorhouse was synonymous with Balmain, Sydney. He was among the first of a young group of artists, filmmakers, writers, academics, and journalists that moved into the area in the 1960s. They congregated at local pubs, such as the Forth & Clyde Hotel on the corner of Troutan and Mort Streets, or later the Dry Dock Hotel on the corner of Cameron and College Streets. They would share meals at the Balmain Volunteer Restaurant on the corner of Waterview Street and Queens Place. At their peak, in the 1970s, Frances Kelly, an Australian journalist, wrote a piece about the burgeoning Australian literary scene for the French culture journal, Le Monde, referring to this cohort as ‘Le Ghetto de Balmain’.

They were drawn primarily to the cheap rents and close access to the city, and were only vaguely aware at the time that they were following in the footsteps of Nicol Drysdale Stenhouse and his coterie of literary bohemians who first occupied the area in the 1850s.

Frank Moorhouse had his own historical connection to Balmain. In 1885, Mary Caroline Yeates, 15 years old, the granddaughter of convicts, was sent to Balmain from Braidwood, to work as a house maid and cook. In 1894, still in Balmain, she married a local fireman named Thomas George Cutts. Soon after, he was transferred to Pyrmont. They had a daughter, born in 1901, named Purthanry Thanes Mary Cutts. In 1938, she became Frank’s mother.

By 1963, Frank had started living at various hotels and rental properties in Balmain, off and on for the next few decades. But even when he was not living in Balmain, he maintained a flat on Ewenton Street, which he kept as a writing studio and office. He called this his ‘base’. His early books, from Futility and Other Animals (1969) through to Forty-Seventeen (1988), were written, compiled, edited, and revised in that Ewenton Street studio. 

Frank’s Balmain experience is best represented by the Balmain Poetry and Prose Readings (under various monikers) which he organised with friends in the late 1960s into the early 1970s.  These events were held at different houses – including a boat shed on Wharf Street – with people bringing their own alcohol, cushions to sit on, and food for the shared table. Poets and writers would read their poems and short stories, works-in-progress, but they would also read the work of their friends or their favourite writers.

Source: Original flyers from the Balmain Poetry and Prose Readings Frank and others organised in the late 1960s/ early 1970s. Courtesy Matthew Lamb

These events were important for a few reasons. This was during a period when Australia operated under a very restrictive censorship regime. Many writers were unable to get particular works published because of this. These events allowed writers to circumvent censorship and find an audience. Frank also enjoyed the immediacy of the audience because he could get direct feedback while he was reading his stories aloud. He would then rewrite his stories accordingly, to tighten up the slack moments, and enhance the parts of the story which got the best reactions. He long believed that the Australian short story form was grounded in the colonial yarns and oral storytelling traditions of previous generations. Even as his content and themes addressed his contemporary world, he wanted to maintain and develop further those oral traditions.

The Balmain Poetry and Prose Readings was also where his friend, Michael Thornhill, first heard Frank reading a story, “The American Poet’s Visit”. Thornhill, an aspiring filmmaker, realised the story would make a good short film. This was the beginning of a fruitful collaboration which saw them working together over the next two decades on three short films, and two feature films. The final film they made together was The Everlasting Secret Family in 1988, based on a series of stories from Frank’s 1980 book of the same name.

Not long after making that film, Frank left Balmain for good.    

Frank is often portrayed in public as being a libertarian, flaunting convention and practicing various forms of hedonism and good living. There is some degree of truth in this. But as I was researching and writing the biography, Frank Moorhouse: Strange Paths, a more complicated picture emerged. Frank understood freedom as being a means toward making the world a better place, and not as an end in itself. He saw greater freedom as potentially leading to a greater degree of bewilderment and loneliness. Although he opposed the conventions of his day – especially around sexual and gender identity – he also thought that the point was to create new conventions within which such freedoms could be accommodated. In his personal life, he was often torn between the extremes of bohemia and domesticity. He was never entirely comfortable in either one.

 Born and raised in a small town (Nowra, NSW), he grew up bursting to get out. But once he got to Sydney, he felt overwhelmed. When he had acclimatised, however, he retreated to Wagga Wagga and Lockhart – marrying his high school sweetheart and becoming a small town newspaper editor – before returning to Sydney, ending the marriage, and starting over again. In the city, he criticised the small-mindedness and conservatism of the towns. From the towns, he criticised the parochialism of the city, the isolation of its denizens. In 1974, he delivered a lecture called “The Bush and the Laundromat”, with these polarities – between the bush and the Laundromat, the town and the city – representing this schism Frank himself straddled throughout his life. It had shaped his thinking and became a frequent theme in his writing. Various short stories were studies of contrast, figures from regional Australia not fitting in with urban social groups, or else urban figures from such social groups yearning for something beyond the city limits, to flee their unconventional lives, to find some emotional stability.

The importance of Balmain to Frank, particularly during the 1960s and 1970s, was that it provided him with a location where he felt closest to the best of both these worlds – the small town and the city – while mitigating the worst effects of each. He had cultivated a sense of community in Balmain, a village lifestyle, but one which allowed him enough freedom to be himself. The value of his Ewenton Street studio was that he could retreat there into solitude when he needed to, while also knowing his friends and support net-works were close by. Off the main street, accessible by a laneway of sorts between two houses, this property was hidden away, with a large back garden surrounded by trees.

The cover image from Frank Moorhouse: Strange Paths is of Frank in his backyard at Ewenton Street, during this period, where he would often write during the summer months. When even this became too claustrophobic he would travel back down to the South Coast of his youth and go camping and hiking – comforted by the fact he could always return to Balmain.   

With thanks to Matthew Lamb for this essay. Strange Paths – Frank Moorhouse by Matthew Lamb is published by Penguin Random House.

Publication date 28/11/23.

Copies available instore and online at Roaring Stories.