Can I say right now just to get one thing clear! This is not a memoir. None of the events that occur in the story ever happened, to me or to anyone else. The girls and the teachers in The Golden Day are not portraits of real people, but strange mixtures of memory, interpretation and mostly sheer imagination. The missing teacher, Miss Renshaw, is a complete figment.
The story is told from the point of view of the eleven little girls, who spend their days under the protection of an almost entirely female private educational institution in inner-city Sydney in the late 1960s, at a time of overwhelming social changes both embraced and rejected by the various adults about them.
I was not at a primary school like the one in the novel in the 1960s, although I did attend such a school in high school in the 1970s, which is when the novel finishes. (The excerpt from the HSC in the book is from an exam paper that I somehow managed to keep in a box from that time.)
My memories of school at that time are inextricably linked with the school’s inner-city location, in contrast to the more respectable suburban surroundings of other Sydney private schools. Darlinghurst in the 1960s and 70s was not the domain of professional people with mortgages and an interest in Victorian architecture, but was famous for crime, corruption, poverty, prostitution, political controversy and counter-culture.
Here’s an evocative description of the area which I found on a blog devoted to memories of Sydney:
“In the late '60s Oxford Street became akin to Haight-Ashby with hippies wandering up and down, blues and jug band music drifting from the numerous wine bars and pubs. One could detect the scent of stained leather wafting from Frank's Cafe, Indian clothing, trinkets and paraphenalia were displayed for purchase in import stores…”
This is the world of The Golden Day. Typically we girls got off the bus at Taylor Square in our blue uniforms and blue bags, and made our way down Forbes Street, past the courthouse, the old gaol, the Christian Science Reading Room, and the various sleepy or otherwise semi-conscious inhabitants of equally semi-derelict terraces, till we reached the safety of the school grounds.
|the author reading a more modern school|
I think the seed of The Golden Day began to grow then, at least in my unconscious mind. It got a further push some years later when I saw Charles Blackman’s wonderful Floating Schoolgirl in the National Gallery in Canberra. It’s a painting of a surreal schoolgirl in hat and tunic floating above the city in the darkness - the flying child may be frightened, but she’s also brimming with the joy of a secret life.
Perhaps the novel can best be described as a creatively re-imagined version of my own schooldays, a response to the experience of school, like a dream thirty years later. I feel relieved somehow to have written it. It’s a kind of a tribute, to the girls, the teachers, the parents, and the school itself and whatever makes up a school - stone, glass, wood, trees, paths, clouds of memories and the sounds of the footsteps of the future.
In The Golden Day the little girls watch, wonder, respond, change and grow – and then they’re gone, forever. This element of the story, I suppose, is at least partly autobiographical! But as I say, you can take it from me - all of our teachers came home safe and sound in the end …
Ursula has now written over 30 books for children and young adults, winning the NSW, Victorian, South Australian and Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards. She lives in Sydney with her husband and three children. The Golden Day is published by Allen & Unwin, April 2011.