Do More Than Pop In to The Pop-up Globe

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On Saturday, I experienced a delightful day – a magical memory day to treasure.

A belated birthday treat from my daughters, Anne and MaryJane, planned months ago, came to fruition as we enjoyed a matinee performance of Othello, at the Pop-up Globe Theatre, an exciting addition to Melbourne’s thriving arts scene.

This full-scale working replica of Shakespeare’s Second Globe Theatre started to ‘pop up’ in July in the newly christened Shakespeare Gardens adjacent to the Sydney Myer Music Bowl.

A huge thank you to Victoria’s Andrews Government, a great supporter of art and culture for enticing this fantastic enterprise to Melbourne. It is an outstanding success. The season, which started on September 21 to finish November 12, has been extended to January 12, 2018.

This mirrors the success of its New Zealand origins, when it opened in Auckland in 2016 and celebrated attendances of 100,000, including 20,000 school students.

The second season in Auckland garnered 100,000 attendees too and public calls for it to be a permanent feature. Thank goodness they had already committed to coming to Melbourne!

program pop up theatre

 

The Pop-up Globe Theatre Company Making History

If you buy the program, you can read all about the history of the venture, the original Globe and The Second Globe Theatre, the research involved, the director’s interpretation of the four plays performed (Othello, As You Like It, Henry V, Much Ado About Nothing), profiles of the actors, and details of the production team, including costuming and choreography.

My love affair with Shakespeare began at Croydon High School, where I was fortunate to be taught by Dr Saffin. How a public high school managed to retain a Doctor of Literature and respected writer is a mystery but under his influence, Shakespeare’s plays not only made sense but inspired me to want to write.

It doesn’t take much imagination for me to be back in the classroom in 1970, mesmerised as Dr Saffin acted out scenes from the plays we were studying at the time: Hamlet and The Tempest. He taught me English Expression as well as English literature so I had a double dose of Shakespeare in the classes with Macbeth studied too.

Dr Saffin had a bad stutter and warned students not to sit in the front desks or they’d get sprayed but miraculously when he was ‘in character’ his stutter disappeared.

He not only nurtured my love of Shakespeare but made me sit an exam run by the Melbourne Shakespeare Society at Melbourne University. I can’t remember the actual exam (blocked out no doubt because I always suffered horrible anxiety and exam nerves) but I do remember the announcement of the results and prize-giving.

Mum, who always had a profound faith in my academic ability insisted that the ‘only reason’ I came second was the judge was biased towards boys.

‘I don’t think so, Mum. What makes you say that?’

‘I just know the way the world works.’

My ever-loyal Mum, sounding like an embittered women’s liberationist yet she never read Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch just published that year.

Dr Saffin told me I did well against the mainly private school and elite public school entries but somehow I felt I let both Mum and him down.

However, I loved the prize, a book I’d never have been able to afford and a resource that has proved invaluable over the years for writing and research and my love for Shakespeare has never diminished!

The Play’s The Thing – Shakespeare On Stage A Must

In 1970, I saw Shakespeare’s The Tempest performed at a Melbourne theatre with the cast dressed in black with minimum props and no scenery. We were to concentrate on the words and actions of the actors.

I’ve lost count of the number of versions of Hamlet I’ve seen.  The latest being the broadcast of the National Theatre with Benedict Cumberbatch in the title role. And of course, ‘that Scottish play’, Macbeth I’ve seen performed, and Much Ado About Nothing set in the 1920s.

When John was alive, we honoured our mutual love of Shakespeare by attending the Bell Shakespeare productions, his favourite being Henry V.

Bell Shakespeare set their version in the WW1 trenches where the St. Crispen’s Day Speech certainly kept its relevance.

Bell set Coriolanus in the time of the rise of Mussolini – again an ideal modern day choice to discuss Shakespeare’s recurring themes of war, power, loyalty and leadership.

The girls were very young when first exposed to Shakespeare but have never forgotten the spectacles and understood the storylines, if not the dialogue. I think that’s why they were so keen to experience the Pop-up Globe.

 

I will wear my heart upon my sleeve For Othello

I’ve seen or studied many of Shakespeare’s plays but Saturday was the first I’d seen Othello on stage and loved the amazing, energetic, and entertaining performance by an outstanding cast.

O beware, my Lord, of jealousy. / It is the green-eyed monster which doth mock / The meat it feeds on.”

Witness Shakespeare’s ultimate psychological thriller in Pop-up Globe’s production of Othello. Take a journey into the diseased mind of the noble Moor as he’s consumed by ‘the green-eyed monster’; jealousy. The twists and turns in this powerful and dark production will have you on the edge of your seat.

An electric current of joy bound the girls and me as we sat enthralled. We laughed, sighed, held our breaths and teetered on the verge of tears to the thrilling performances and interpretation of a storyline showing the terrible consequences of jealousy and the despair malevolent envy fosters.

Director, Ben Naylor has incorporated the background of the original production and subsequent productions in colonial New Zealand to hint at ‘a darker side to the history of this play about otherness in a colonial context. ‘

Naylor explains that Othello was the first play to be written under King James’ patronage so Shakespeare recognised the King’s ‘interests in the manifestations of worldly evil and the operations of the Devil…’

And now: as nationalism and its attendant demons – racism and xenophobia – again insinuate themselves into mainstream political discourse worldwide, and as the choices of individuals and societies continue to be driven by envy and jealousy, the play asks us once more to confront the lies that sound like truth.

Oh, yes!

This is why I love Shakespeare and why he is still studied and always relevant. He writes about the human condition and explores our behaviour and relationships. His plays are timeless and can be transplanted into modern settings, appropriated, and adapted into novels and movies.

… one that loved not wisely but too well

The International Day of the Girl Child celebrated this week brings into focus issues raised by Shakespeare all those centuries ago. The two main female characters: Desdemona and Emilia are powerless against the physical, emotional and financial control their husbands exercise. The women are friends, even although one is the mistress, the other the servant, however, they live by different moral codes.

This production does not shy away from depicting domestic violence or the consequences of drunkenness and other violence. And society’s hypocrisy.

We witness how those in power enable the subjugation of women and the double standards of so many regarding ideas of ‘womanhood’.

 ‘Thou weigh’st thy words before thou givest them breath…’

All of Shakespeare’s plays you read or watch remind you of how much our language and culture owes to this playwright. Some of the words and ideas may not have been his original thought but because of the popularity of his plays the phrases are embedded in our language, adding to the nuances of English.

No wonder many ESL students have difficulty understanding some of our expressions.

I’ve already highlighted some of the quotes from Othello but list some more cultural references. These may have been altered over the centuries but nonetheless, have Shakespearean roots:

jealousy; It is the green-ey’d monster,

…Jealousy is a monster that gives birth to itself.

… Heaven is my judge, I will wear my heart upon my sleeve

my heart is turn’d to stone

Of one that loved not wisely but too well;

… T’is neither here nor there.

To mourn a mischief that is past and gone is the next way to draw new mischief on.

Men in rage strike those that wish them best.

Our bodies are our gardens, to which our wills are gardeners:

...he that filches from me my good name, Robs me of that which not enriches him, And makes me poor indeed…

When devils do the worst sins, they first put on the pretence of goodness and innocence…

To be poor but content is actually to be quite rich. But you can have endless riches and still be as poor as anyone if you are always afraid of losing your riches.” 

Pop-up Globe Better Than Expected

In London recently, I missed going to The Globe – I did but see it passing by – from a ferry on the Thames, so attending the Pop-up Globe a dream come true. In fact, if the attendant manning the merchandise stall is to be believed the Pop-up Globe is more authentic than the one in London. (Read all about it in that valuable program guide I mentioned.)

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The Pop-up Globe is intimate with a variety of seating options and despite my failing hearing, I only missed a few words but none of the meaning or action.

No matter where you sit or stand in the Pop-up Globe theatre you will be no more than 15 metres from the stage. So wherever you choose you’ll be close to the action.

Pop-up Globe is based on staging of the second Globe theatre as much as possible. There are two large structural pillars situated on the stage and because the actors play in 360 degrees, it is likely that no matter where you sit or stand your view may be slightly restricted or you may miss a line or two!

The action on stage moves quickly so no matter where you are situated you might see and hear something completely different from someone on the other side of the stage.

Apparently, A, B, C Reserve tickets are comfortable backed seats. The girls’ budget bought D Reserve tickets, which are a combination of comfortable backed seats and backless wooden benches with cushions.

We had a good view but sat on wooden benches with cushions already showing signs of too many bums on seats, so if you need to sit super comfortably perhaps take your own cushion.

The cheapest tickets are Groundling tickets in a standing only area, where sitting is not permitted for safety reasons. Nor are any bags and these have to be checked into the cloakroom.

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The play goes for two and a half hours with a short interval.

This is around the same length of time that most performances took 400 years ago. We know this because in Romeo and Juliet, the Prologue mentions the ‘two hours traffic of our stage’.

If you decide to be a Groundling you will be close to the action and actors, which may not compensate for having to stand for a long time.

One young man in a blue denim shirt fascinated me as he pressed so close to the stage he could have been welded to it. Immobile, his nose level with the stage floor, he would have heard every intake of breath, felt the vibration of footsteps, and even seen the hairs in the actor’s nose!

However, he moved with lightning speed when Othello stabbed himself and the fake blood spurted skywards and outwards like lava from a volcano. Outside after the play, there were several people with telltale red spots in their hair, on their face and clothes. The price paid for being close to the action.

Groundlings on either side of the path and stairway to the stage experienced a similar spattering and in some cases drenching when Roderigo appeared ‘from the sea’ spluttering and spitting like a whale (a very funny scene).

Roderigo regurgitated the largest amount of water I’ve ever seen anyone hold in their mouth, albeit done with aplomb and excellent timing.

Fortunately, no one in the audience replicated disgruntled tomato throwers from Shakespeare’s time despite Pop-up Globe’s authenticity.

Groundlings are ‘the pits’ for the common folk but there are Royal Rooms on the Pop-up Globe stage. I could see the occupants of these clearly.

Each accommodates up to six guests. Seats can be booked individually, as a romantic room for two or as a private room for a larger group. “All sixteen seats can be booked as a perfect option for entertaining clients or friends.”

Perhaps some corporates will see this as a unique Christmas outing – if they have a large expense account!

Royal Room bookings include a complimentary premium hamper and a
season programme per person. But it’s not cheap to copy Elizabeth or James 1st, the two monarchs most closely associated with Shakespeare. ($304.67 per seat.)

Othello is one of Shakespeare’s greatest psychological thrillers. In a theatre of war, a great general is brought down by the power of his own love and the prejudice of others.

Othello forces us to confront a timeless fear: does the Devil move among us? Racism, jealousy and envy conspire in Shakespeare’s dark tragedy, in this full production inspired by the Jacobean period, performed by a specially-formed international ensemble in spectacular bespoke costumes.

The Pop-up Globe Queen’s Company is Pop-up Globe’s resident mixed company of male and female actors and musicians, working with world experts to bring you the shock of the old: the effect of Shakespeare’s plays performed in the space for which they were written.

 

The stagecraft of this production is magnificent, as are the costumes and the final scenes are awesome. The main character is Othello, but it is Iago, the villain, who if not present in every scene, makes his presence felt.

The themes of love, appearance and reality, jealousy, revenge, prejudice and despair, exposed and explored in the final dramatic scenes.

When Iago’s villainy is revealed and he is ‘strung up’ the whole theatre is shocked. There is a collective holding of breath and I felt the tension from Anne and Mary Jane, and I’m sure all of us prayed the workmanship and health and safety guidelines met expectations.

Iago was carefully pulled up towards a hole in the ceiling, his arms outstretched crucifixion style, not just symbolically, but to ensure the hoist went smoothly. Smoke allowed a mystic disappearance into ‘the heavens’ and when he was ‘resurrected’ in the final scene he was helped out of a trapdoor in the floor as if brought back from ‘hell’!

The wonderfully choreographed dance of all the cast at the end a triumphant celebratory ‘haka -like’ tribute. Regan Taylor is a great Othello incorporating his experience of innovative Maori theatre, Te Ao Maori in his performance.

The actors used all of the space and opportunities to engage the audience – even acknowledging those ‘in the gods’, the privileged Royal Boxes, as well as the groundlings.

scene 5

Shakespeare must be seen and heard to be appreciated. A play on stage, more than the screen, relies on dialogue and how the actors use the stage, props, their bodies and voices.

In Saturday’s performance, there were no weak links and even the ignominious cast members with titles ‘officer’ and ‘soldier’ contributed unforgettable performances as they immersed themselves in the roles.

The range of experience and talent of the actors helps make this production such a success and I can honestly say it’s the best Shakespearean experience I’ve had.

The season has been extended so perhaps if I hint loud enough I might manage a ticket to another play in this marvellous company’s repertoire.  Afterall, Christmas is on the horizon!

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A walk through the Queen Victoria Gardens, lunch at the National Gallery.

Then a fun and successful attempt to negotiate the maze at the House of Mirrors added to my birthday treat.  I would probably still be wandering but the girls got us out in 10 minutes.

On the way home to Anne’s flat for a cuppa and to pick up MaryJane’s car, we walked through the Alma Park.

As we delighted in spring buds, blooming flowers, lush greenery and numerous friendly dogs being walked by their owners, we reflected on the tragedy of gentle, spiritual Desdemona and anguished Othello.

We were glad of the durability of Shakespeare, but more importantly our strong loving bond.

What a perfect day.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Walking the Neighbourhood – Friendship, Familiarity, Foolishness – Fun and Fitness a Bonus!

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I try and factor a routine walk every day, and feel lucky to have a walking buddy for the times when I’m not with one of my daughters and Aurora, our dog.

Walking helps keep me fit. I stay connected to what’s happening in the neighbourhood. As well as the comforting silence of companionship on our walks, there can be sharing of confidences, chat, and laughter.

Jillian is a writer too and puts up with my exclamations and snapping photos, also random commentary, and imaginative ramblings on everything from unusual-shaped trees,  abandoned furniture (it’s hard rubbish collection at the moment), unsightly redevelopment, gorgeous gardens (ain’t Spring wonderful), beautiful cloud formations, and politics (where do you start or finish?).

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Last year, I volunteered for a project at the Arts Centre, where ‘The Walking Neighbourhood’ brought adults and children together to look at the importance of walking to help understand your community and society through the eyes of children.

The world, beyond community and comfort zones, is often a sad place and it takes an effort not to absorb the doom and gloom, particularly enormous tragedies like the recent shootings in Las Vegas, the massive hurricanes, earthquakes and threatened volcano eruptions, and neverending wars.

The 24-hour news cycle and the portability and pervasiveness of social media constant reminders that make switching off difficult.

But for sanity’s sake, switch off we must, and walking the neighbourhood does it for me. It’s my equivalent of meditation, helps free the mind, and encourages staying connected to a place I love, even if I do see changes that I don’t like…

I appreciate the beauty, bump into friends and acquaintances and get ideas for writing.

  • Note to self, finish that mystery novel set on Mordi Creek!
  • Thank you, Ellie, my past student who ran towards me smiling and with open arms when I met her a couple of days ago.
  • How I love the cacophony of twittering birds each night settling to nest in the palm trees lining Main Street – a signature sound of Mordialloc!

modi creek - boat

The last few days we’ve walked down to the foreshore and along by Mordialloc Creek and experienced Melbourne’s famous ‘four seasons in a day’ – every day!

When I walk, I often automatically step over the cracks in the pavement, shortening or lengthening my stride, sometimes giving a little hop.

Why?

It’s a throwback to childhood and proof of how a combination of words, ideas and a catchy tune is effective and retained by reader, viewer or listener – ‘the audience’.

I remember following the leader or pretending to play hopscotch (called ‘beds’ in Scotland) and chanting, “Step on a crack, break your mother’s back.” Perhaps adding other rhymes like, “Step on a line, break your mother’s spine.”

(oh yes, definitely, gender stereotyping and/or misogyny at work in the 50s!) In fact, if you want to read an academic explanation of the rhyme, here is a link! 

However, it may still require you to think for yourself, do your own research and dig deeper! Maybe even question this interpretation. For many childhood rhymes, there is a host of meanings or historical reasons put forward, most still subject to debate.

The most logical for this one is that in the days of cobblestones and poorly made roads you’d get covered in mud or rubbish if you weren’t careful where you walked. This gave mothers extra washing. 

In the days of hand washing or communal laundry facilities, bending over a washing tub or river could certainly be back-breaking work. The rhyme a strong commonsense message for children not to trip and create extra dirty clothes for mothers.

Or maybe avoiding stepping on the cracks, was just another superstition like avoiding walking under a ladder. Superstition and Education, a book published in 1905 suggests stepping on a crack brings bad luck or missing out on a nice surprise at home – or even more disconcerting as superstitions go,  returning home to a nasty surprise.

After A.A. Milne published his poem “Lines and Squares,” kids decided you’d be chased by bears if you stepped on a crack, but like all childish chants, I doubt anyone in the UK ever took it seriously… 

… yet, some days I still avoid the cracks and find the rhyme from childhood is playing in a loop. Jillian admitted, she too has the occasional urge to play ‘don’t step on the cracks’ and feels a sense of achievement if she makes her destination unscathed!

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Don’t Step On The Cracks
Mairi Neil

Don’t step on the cracks
when you walk along,
Don’t step on the cracks,
I hear my childhood song…

Bad luck will come and make you feel sad,
If you step on the cracks, the Devil’ll be glad!

He’ll steal your happiness
everything will go wrong,
Don’t step on the cracks
insists the childish song…

Not stepping on the cracks silly, I know
but my childhood memory still tells me so!

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Some days there’s a lot happening – and not all of it is cause for celebration…!

This morning I woke to the whine of a chainsaw – again – and wondered which block was being cleared for redevelopment.

Which house liveable yesterday is now transformed into a building site? I didn’t have far to walk – just around the corner into Powlett Street.

This house, probably only 20 years old. It had a wonderful garden mixture of trees, shrubs and flowers, black wrought iron fence, tiled verandah, oak doors, a gem in the street …

… reduced to rubble; to be replaced by nondescript townhouses – as many as the developer can squeeze on the corner block.

Empty for some time, it was sad to see windows deliberately smashed, roof tiles heaved into shattered lumps and doors and garden trashed – to ensure I suppose that squatters didn’t move in, or perish the thought scavengers may try to salvage some of the tiles, bricks and wooden frames.

Apparently, nowadays it costs more to recycle and reuse – bash and trash the norm.

John and I renovated our old Edwardian house with recycled and secondhand materials because that was all we could afford. Our journey valuable (and fun), teaching us to be innovative, imaginative, and thrifty. We upskilled and adapted plans to save money, lived within our means, and all the time considered the character of our home and respected our neighbours.

renovating important

On another of my walks, I met a friend in nearby Eurythmic Street. After being retrenched from her job, she and her almost-retired husband decided to ‘cash in’ on the high city house prices and move to the country.

She was astounded when the buyer said he proposed to develop her weatherboard home and ‘average’ sized block and build 7 double-storey townhouses!

Melbourne is growing and the increasing population need somewhere to live, but some suburbs (including Mordialloc) are bearing the brunt of this growth because we live in an area controlled by a council too pro-development, or other councils are refusing to play their part in the State Government’s overall plan for Melbourne.

In my opinion, the City of Kingston, in the last few years has let the residents down as certain councillors cared for their own interests or political affiliations rather than the wellbeing of the residents.

For too many years we’ve had to fight for height restrictions, a limit on backyard density – even struggled to maintain the Green Wedge and some local parks.

When John and I arrived here in 1984, the first public meeting we attended was to stop the rezoning of our street to allow 4-storey development – conflicted visions about what residents and authorities want has been around a long time!

After that meeting, the Council was forced to accept a 2-storey limit, but with various changes of government at state and local level, the area is now earmarked for high-density development.

We are within what is classed as ‘an activity node’! And 3 or 4 storeys are probably not out of the question depending on the overall height.

As evidenced by some of the ugly new buildings, the loss of heritage ‘old Mordialloc’ and the craftsmanship and quality materials of bygone days, has led to streets crowded with traffic.

We could definitely do with a planning department with a better long-term vision regarding aesthetics and quality of life for residents.

 

The big changes occurring at the other end of Albert Street have taken many people by surprise. A string of 3-storey units being built alongside the railway line where a timber yard and other light industrial sites used to be is turning out to be a huge development.

This involves the construction of huge concrete baffle walls, but I doubt that will stop the noise or vibration from the goods trains that ply the line to Hastings. The concrete walls are monstrous and ugly and can be seen from the pier as you look up from Mordialloc Creek.

Spot the irony:

The developer’s sign reads A Celebration of Mordialloc ” a suburb rich in history“!

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Do we laugh or cry at the absurdity?

A lot of Mordialloc’s history is disappearing along with houses and traditional backyard with Hill’s Hoist. Our links to horse-breeding and racing reduced to a statue and occasional sign and many don’t know about the market gardens and our fast disappearing arable land.

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Let’s hope the quality of life people expect when they move bayside doesn’t disappear too.

  • Where are all the cars going to park?
  • How long are people prepared to wait at intersections?
  • Are we ready to adjust to the increased noise levels?

I discovered this old poem I wrote when I first started Readings By The Bay on Sunday afternoons.

The Day Of The Trees (1995)
Mairi Neil

I read about trees today,
they made headlines in the newspaper.
Rainforest areas in South America
are being cleared at the rate of
a football field a minute.

I heard about trees today,
they made the news on the radio.
Greenies stopped loggers
destroying unique species of possum
in our native forest in Gippsland

I discussed trees today with a neighbour,
they made the nightly news on television.
The Premier ordered hundreds of trees
to be chopped and cleared to make way
for a Grand Prix at Albert Park.

Trees are even in the local news.
Council workers trim the trees
along the nature strips in nearby streets.
The electricity wires must be protected
No Bushfires for Victoria!

I hear the scream of dying trees,
as cruel chainsaw teeth bite deep.
I close my eyes, but can’t close my ears.
Persistent wailing and spluttering,
grumbling, howling and whining.

The sap seeps slowly at first,
oozes thicker, spurting and sticky
covering the wicked teeth
but failing to clog and stop
the cuts slicing deeper into flesh.

Trees made the news today,
but many people didn’t notice.
These givers of life, providers of shelter,
courageous ancient sentinels
abused, and destroyed once again.

Trees grow towards the sun
while roots remain firmly planted.
An example to us all –
reach for the sky but remain
grounded. Attached to this earth.

We ignore their example and
ultimately it will be our loss.
Taken for granted, more than a news item
trees should be appreciated and valued
We can reach for the sky together.

I wake up each morning and look across the road and can see and hear the magpies and noisy miners in conversation planning their day in the giant gum trees. Depending on the season, they might be joined by wattlebirds and lorikeets or a couple of vocal r avens.

In the evening possums hitch a ride on the electricity wires and visit me.

Imagine the shock when after workers for the Level Crossing Removal Authority trimmed the trees a few days ago, private tree loppers returned today and systematically removed the remainder of the majestic gums from the garden of the house adjacent to the railway line!

We need improved public transport and I’m glad level crossings are being removed. I have no objection to Sky Rail, but the price paid can still be upsetting. Our actions impact on others – sometimes people we don’t even know!

 

By the end of the afternoon, as I walked out to meet Jillian, the trees were gone.

trees gone

I hope most of the wonderful trees I see on my walk will remain to delight for years to come – not only for me, but for the birds, and other creatures that rely on them.

I intend to enjoy and respect their presence, and continue to record their changing shape and seasonal finery.

Thank goodness I have the foreshore and over the years, we have resisted two attempts from Windows by The Bay restaurant to expand.  It is sad that vigilance is necessary. The battle over sacrificing foreshore vegetation to widen Beach Road a running sore that polarised residents and no doubt there will be other conflicts as people’s visions differ of what makes a liveable and sustainable environment.

I hope to remain healthy enough to enjoy my walks and continue to be inspired and know despite changes, I am blessed to live here. This photograph, looking back from Parkdale towards Mordialloc taken ten years ago.

The sea a constant – wild and unpredictable, calming and healing – who knows what the next wave will bring ashore?

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‘I Am Not Your Negro’ Not to be Missed!

i am not your ego sign front

On Sunday, September 24, I was privileged to attend ACMI for a screening of Raoul Peck’s documentary I Am Not Your Negro and the Q & A session afterwards, which featured former Kansas State Senator Donald Betts Jr and American history professor Michael Ondaatje.

A big thank you to my daughter MaryJane for buying the tickets online when the sessions were announced because tickets sold out very quickly!

The guests discussed race politics and resistance from the civil rights era to present day America and with questions from the audience, this included politics of race in Australia and our inglorious colonial past.

i am not your negro sign back

I’m not surprised the screenings were sold out at the recent Melbourne International Film Festival, or the doco was nominated for an Academy Award – it has already won several gongs at various film festivals.

Director Raoul Peck took ten years to make this and his meticulous research, editing and execution are obvious and flawless – also gut-wrenching.

The raw footage of civil rights demonstrations, lynchings, and the aftermath of murders will have you shaking your head in horror, disgust, and disbelief – yet many in the theatre, including myself, lived through what we saw on screen.

I’ve seen other documentaries and movies, braced myself for scenes Selma showcased, and yet I wasn’t prepared for the naked violence, still felt emotionally drained and traumatised that racism and all its ugliness is so endemic – and then came the anger and despair about lack of progress, or progressing too slowly for me to see change in my lifetime.

Thank goodness that alongside the screenings, ACMI will present ‘a series of thought-provoking events discussing race relations, resistance and identity in modern Australia’.

As Baldwin said, “History is not past but present.”

In the light of debates over the date of Australia Day, acknowledging the truth of colonial settlement, the horrific recent deaths of Aboriginal people (Elijah Doughty and Ms Dhu recent atrocities), high-profile cases and deaths in custody of indigenous Australians, and the entrenched inequity of our justice system, this country has many conversations and corrections long overdue!

The Black Rights Matter Movement resonates here.

People hold up banners at a Black Lives Matter rally in Sydney on July 16, 2016.Peter Parks / Getty Images         https://www.buzzfeed.com/susiearmitage/2016-was-the-year-black-lives-matter-went-global?utm_term=.bkdRGwN8KL#.eoY365ADMk

Connecting the 60s Civil Rights Movement to #BlackLivesMatter

I Am Not Your Negro brings to life Remember This House, the unfinished manuscript of American novelist and intellectual James Baldwin. He started to write the book to reflect on his belief the history of the American Negro is the history of America sharing his personal experience of racism as considered through the lens of civil rights leaders, Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. Prominent American leaders all murdered within a few years of each other.  Leaders who put their lives on the line in their 20s; leaders who didn’t live beyond 40 years of age!

Baldwin wrote 30 pages and yet, as this documentary, narrated by Samuel L. Jackson, shows, his insights into the history of racism in the United States is much-needed today and should act as a call to action against injustice in modern America and beyond.

White Supremacy is ugly and brutal, and an appalling indictment of humanity. Unfortunately, with the election of Donald Trump as President white supremacists and their supporters have crawled from under their rocks and become more visible and vocal than at any other time this century.

The controversy around sportspeople protesting the unlawful killing by police revealed by #blacklivesmatter and Trump’s labelling those kneeling or linking arms while the American National anthem plays, as unpatriotic, shows the profound and deeply rooted racism Baldwin confronted and challenged, is alive and well.

There is a growing black middle-class and increased wealthy African-American ‘elites,’ but despite some markers of progress, 30% of African-Americans still live in poverty. America grew from slavery, segregation, and subjugation of its citizens and still lock people of colour up in record numbers.

In fact, former Kansas State Senator Donald Betts Jr explained that although he managed to stop racial profiling in Kansas, it exists in many states and unfortunately much of the racism in the USA is also now directed at Latinos, stirred up of course, by Trump’s insistence for that Mexican wall!

Betts asked us to imagine being black in America today, driving your car and seeing the flashing lights of a police car ordering you to stop. What goes through your mind?

Have you your insurance documents, registration papers, your licence?

The police officer approaches your car, points a flashlight in your face, searches the car interior, orders to see your identification.

Do you wind the window down straight away? Do you reach for the glovebox…

US police have already killed more than 100 people this year and overwhelmingly they have been black or native Americans.

 “Never before has Baldwin’s voice been so needed, so powerful, so radical, so visionary”

Director Raoul Peck

james baldwin book covers

Baldwin returned to the United States and became involved in the Civil Rights Movement because he felt obligated to do more than writing from afar.  The three men depicted in the struggle for civil rights are very different and chose different methods to achieve their goals. Baldwin was close to them all and when he describes where he was and how he was told about each of their deaths his grief is palpable.

Several scenes from the documentary will be forever etched in my mind:

The Evil of Segregation

The 1957 footage of a howling white mob pursuing Elizabeth Eckford, as the fifteen-year-old walked into school. She was the first African American to enter a high school desegregated by court order. What courage, what stamina, what poise!

James Baldwin and Lorraine Hansberry were with a group of activists who had a meeting with Bobby Kennedy and begged him or his brother JFK to walk with Elizabeth or at least appoint someone of high-profile from the Federal Government to go with her that first day to show that they were committed to desegregation and also to protect the teenager.

Bobby Kennedy’s response?  He refused, didn’t think it necessary… what a terrible price black Americans pay for the spinelessness of those in authority.

The idea of white supremacy rests simply on the fact that white men are the creators of civilization… and are therefore civilization’s guardians and defenders. Thus it was impossible for Americans to accept the black man as one of themselves, for to do so was to jeopardize their status as white men…

Police Brutality and Rodney King

The footage of a group of LA police officers viciously beating and kicking Rodney King for a traffic violation shocked the world. I was a young mother in 1992 and remember the horror and revulsion at the news bulletin. Yet the four police officers caught and identified on camera were later acquitted – no wonder LA erupted with anger and people rioted.

Baldwin – A Colonial Writer Who Explored His Heritage

I first encountered African American writer James Baldwin, at Croydon High School in the 1960s. His novels, essays and short stories a profound influence when newspapers and television screens of Melbourne were dominated by news of the Civil Rights Movement in America and the Vietnam War.

Baldwin made the political personal and explored questions of identity.

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His essays probed the psychic history of the United States along with his inner self. What language would his ancestors speak? How could he ever know when slaves were stripped of their identity? Who would want to accept the identity given to him by white society – that of worthlessness and inferiority?

When your identity is taken you are psychologically crushed and fear stifles your growth.

The most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.

Steve Biko

Baldwin explored spirituality (particularly organised religion and the Pentecostal church), and the complex social and psychological pressures of being black in a racist America – a country he left, to escape the inter-racial tension, homophobia and demands of his social situation.

‘I’ll tell you this, though, if you don’t feel at home at home, you never really feel at home… you don’t live where you’re happy or, for that matter, unhappy: you do your best to live where you can work.

He escaped the social tenor of the United States in 1948 by moving to Paris, using funds from a Rosenwald Foundation fellowship. This journey abroad was fundamental to Baldwin’s development as an author and self-realization, which included both an acceptance of his heritage and an admittance of his bisexuality.

“Once I found myself on the other side of the ocean, I could see where I came from very clearly, and I could see that I carried myself, which is my home, with me. You can never escape that. I am the grandson of a slave, and I am a writer. I must deal with both.”

Go Tell It On The Mountain was published 1953, the year I was born; Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone, published the year Martin Luther King was assassinated, and Baldwin’s acclaimed critical essays, Notes of a Native Son first published 1955.

These books opened my eyes to conflict (racial, gender, domestic, internal), pain (physical and emotional), anguish, poverty, injustice, and intolerance — mostly an alien world to me, yet Baldwin’s storytelling influenced my lifelong commitment to social justice and to give ordinary people a voice by writing about them and encouraging them to tell their stories.   

He also made me realise it is important we tell our own stories. 

The story of my childhood is the usual bleak fantasy… I certainly would not consider living it again… One writes out of one thing only – one’s own experience. Everything depends on how relentlessly one forces from this experience the last drop, sweet or bitter, it can possibly give…being a Negro writer… I was, in effect, prohibited from examining my own experience too closely by the tremendous demands and the very real dangers of my social situation…I think all theories are suspect, that the finest principles may have to be modified, or may even be pulverized by the demands of life, and that one must find, therefore, one’s own moral center and move through the world hoping that this center will guide one aright…

But it is part of the business of the writer – as I see it – to examine attitudes, to go beneath the surface, to tap the source…

James Baldwin

Born in 1924 to parents who were part of the Diaspora of the descendants of freed slaves who moved north seeking work and a better life, Baldwin chronicles the Black American experience and much of his writing is autobiographical.

‘The nationality of any literature is, at least partly, determined by the language in which it is produced.

Baldwin was the first Black writer I read as opposed to reading novels about Black Americans. (A Patch of Blue and To Kill A Mockingbird two that spring to mind.)

One of the difficulties about being a Negro writer… is that the Negro problem is written about so widely… It is not only written about so widely; it is written about so badly… the past will remain horrible for exactly as long as we refuse to assess it honestly…

Focusing on the personal and interior of black life, he accepted he was part of the Western literary canon:

Be it also remembered that America was a British colony, that I was born in the English language have a British name, and speak as the descendant of the slave of a subject.”

His novels embody startling realism bringing Harlem and the black experience vividly to life.  They touch the heart with emotion while stimulating the mind with a narrative style reminiscent of Dickens, symbolism, and excoriating vision of racism in America.

Moving through time from the rural  South to the northern ghetto, starkly contrasting the attitudes of two generations of an embattled family, Go Tell It On The Mountain is an unsurpassed portrayal of human beings caught up in a dramatic struggle and of a society confronting inevitable change.

However, Baldwin did not feel that his speeches and essays were producing social change. The assassinations of three of his associates, Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X, shattered his remaining hopes for racial reconciliation and his disillusionment is obvious in the documentary.

Don’t Let Them Divide And Conquer

During the Q and A, former Senator Donald Betts Jr talked about his lived experience of the change Baldwin foresaw.

Born in Wichita, Kansas, his political career began in his early 20s when he was elected president of the Multicultural Student Association becoming the first African-American student body president in the University’s history.

Inspired by Barack Obama, he ran for the Kansas State House of Representatives for the Democrats leading a grassroots campaign to better serve and address the needs of his community. Elected at the age of 24, Betts steered a number of successful campaigns to decrease community incarceration rates by setting up a rehabilitation program for first-time drug offenders.

In 2004, he was sworn in as a Kansas State Senator, the youngest Senator serving in the history of Kansas. There was only one other black senator – David Haley, the nephew of the author, Alex Haley, who wrote Roots and started a worldwide interest in genealogy. he told Donald they had to stick together, refuse to be separated by seating and although only two they were powerful.

Donald now lives in Melbourne and is a frequent guest commentator on the ABC, and other local Australian media outlets.

 

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Continuing the discussion after the screening

 

Australians can learn from this documentary; it will help to understand the current crises around race in the USA and help with perspective as well as context.

We need to confront our colonial past and the unfairness of the present. The silence of the white majority regarding indigenous rights, black deaths in custody, and government policies like the Northern Territory intervention, is appalling.

Why don’t we have a treaty? Why hasn’t there been Constitutional reform?

There is irrefutable evidence of institutional and culturally embedded racism. A recent report shows 1 in 5 Australians experienced racism and the rise of One Nation and increase of support for neo-nazi patriot groups should concern us all.

Much of racism is subtle – read this report in our local paper this week:

newspaper clipping Mordialloc robbery

An “African” is mentioned but not the nationality or ethnicity of the teenagers who robbed the shop earlier. Where’s the consistency? And unless a more detailed description, where’s the relevance?

We need to raise it up, we need to fight and to shout, but we also need to bring it down, to talk and to listen in order to make change”

Donald Betts Junior

A good first step is to read Australian indigenous writers – and we have many – from the past (personal favourites  Jack Davis and Oodgeroo Noonuccal ) and also the present.
James Baldwin said: Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.
Listening to and reading others imperative – and then
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A Magical Evening With Mem – A Real Gem!

Two books by Mem Fox.jpg

When an invitation from our local federal member, Mark Dreyfus QC appeared in a Facebook newsfeed, I didn’t hesitate and replied straight away. 

It was no ordinary invite from a politician. Not a party political event or publicising an election campaign, but a delightful opportunity to meet and greet and have a Q&A with Australian writer and children’s author, Mem Fox.

Wow! (Said with the expression of a groupie.)

Convenient because it was happening at Doyles Hotel, Mordialloc – and exciting – there are few families in Australia who haven’t heard of Possum Magican iconic picture storybook, which still sells today!

When I congratulated Mark on the event he gave all credit to his electorate officer,  Jacob Chacko who works in his Mordialloc office. Well done, Jacob who also did a great job as the emcee that evening.

 

Few Australian homes would not have one of Mem’s books on a shelf – she’s written over 40, and more than half are international bestsellers. 

For those wishing to write children’s books, the advice on Mem’s website, an excellent resource, but perhaps her best advice delivered that evening was for would-be writers to envisage the target audience sitting on the floor in front of them.

If the children fidget with their shoelaces, stare out the window or start being naughty your story needs editing and revising!

Remember you are writing for children today, not writing a book you read as a child, nor writing a book to be read by adults because they think that’s what children should read!

 

the crowd for Mem Fox
an eager crowd – mainly women but also some men

 

My daughters are 31 and 28 years old now and treasure many of the books from childhood, especially Mem’s. Like so many in the audience (almost 300) I cheerfully queued to have my daughters’ books signed and have a chat.

 

Mem is a writer I admire for her books, but also her views on social justice, evident in her latest picture storybook, I’m Australian Too. A book she wrote to celebrate Australia’s incredible multicultural heritage and which sold out in its first three months (March-May 2017) and has been reprinted.

I love the recommended readership for the book – for readers aged 0-95.

book-im-australian-too-cover.jpg

Ambassador for Literacy

Mem is also ‘an educationalist specialising in literacy,’ and although retired, she was Associate Professor of Literacy Studies at Flinders University, South Australia, where she taught teachers for 24 years. 

She now spends most of her time writing presentations urging parents, teachers, and others to read aloud to children aged between 0-5, and she travels the world doing it. We were lucky to have in her Isaacs on her current tour travelling Australia promoting literacy and the importance of reading.

We should also thank Melinda Shelley of 123Read2Me who is currently collecting children’s books to give to those kids who don’t have them. I think she was the one who invited Mem to visit Victoria.

If you have quality children’s books in good condition please drop them off at The Lions Club Opportunity Shop in Mordialloc Main Street and Melinda will find them a good home.

Mark and Mem.jpg

In her talk and answers to questions from Mark and the audience, Mem was entertaining (she did study drama) along with giving good advice about writing and teaching literacy.

Although born in Melbourne, Mem grew up in Africa, attended drama school in England, and returned to Australia in 1970, aged 22. Along came marriage and motherhood and attending university as a mature age student in her early thirties.

She studied children’s literature at Flinders University and during that course, she wrote the first draft of her first book: Possum Magic, as an assignment. Mem said she was inspired to write a book about Australia for Australian children because at that time books were either from the USA or UK, or written like those books.

Possum Magic was rejected nine times over five years because it was ‘too Australian’!

It went on to become (and continues to be, to this day) the best-selling children’s book in Australia, with nearly 5 million copies sold. In 2004 its 21st birthday was celebrated with parties and events in thousands of schools and other places around Australia, and a new re-designed edition was launched. The colours of the original film of the illustrations were fading because it had been reprinted so many times. They now look gorgeous again.

Mem Fox

Mem explained the inspiration for some of her other books. There was one she wrote in her head, sitting daily beside her grandson’s incubator when he was born prematurely and struggled to survive. She focused on his perfect fingers and toes and ears. She read to him too and recounting this story she urged mothers to read to children in their womb – it is never too early to read to children.

We laughed when she said she was thrilled her grandson had perfect ears because she had one ear bigger than the other and it juts out.

I loved this anecdote because I have the same affliction. When we chatted afterwards I whispered to her that I shared the imperfection regarding ears and her passion for writing and teaching, just wish I had her talent! We laughed together – and she has a raucous laugh!

Mem confessed she preferred teaching because the writing was a nightmare!

And that I could empathise with too! As do many writers.

dr seuss quote

Her latest book begged to be written because travelling around Australia, she realised the majority of people living here are welcoming and fair-minded yet it is the strident minority of people like Pauline Hanson who seem to dictate the heartless and cruel policies of successive governments against asylum seekers and refugees.

The loud, shrill voices encouraged politicians in our major political parties to act in shameful, illegal ways.  Many people are shocked and say ‘not in our name’ yet because the major parties have similar policies, the human rights abuses continue.

She let Mark Dreyfus know that she was disappointed in the federal ALP policy and he diplomatically asked another question.

The Responsibility of Writers With a Social Conscience

 I happen to have a loud voice myself—I’ve just woken up to the fact—and am now determined to use it, to drown out the others if I can, on behalf of the rest of us.

Mem Fox

 I’m Australian Too, takes Mem back to where she started: her passion for Australia. She hopes it will spark spirited discussions about ‘Australian-ness’, create an awareness of Australian immigration over the centuries, and begin to calm what she says is the appalling rising racism in this country.

There have been amazing positive responses, especially from schools and community centres:

We were so excited to read your book to our wonderfully diverse community of children at the service, who in turn were delighted to finally see and hear their culture represented so beautifully in the book, including the refugees and families seeking asylum, which are often forgotten…

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Mem recounted how she had personal experience of feeling ‘the other’ when she lived in Africa (Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe) where the authorities pulled her out of a local school because she was white and forced her to attend a European school, where she was bullied and laughed at for ‘speaking like an African’.

Fast forward to February this year (2017)  when she attended a conference in America a few weeks after Donald Trump was inaugurated as President and was challenged by Border Control Officers

I was interrogated as if I were some kind of prisoner, in a holding room, in full public view and hearing of everyone in the room—and was kept standing throughout, imagine because I was earning an honorarium from the conference. The Border Control patrol officer said I was ‘working’ and had come in on the wrong visa. He was wrong, as it turned out. I was right. I knew I was right. It was my 117th visit to the USA, after all.

I am ageing and white, innocent and educated, and I speak English fluently. Imagine what happened to the others in the room, including an old Iranian woman in a mauve cardigan, in her 80s, in a wheelchair. I heard and observed everything. We all did…

… the irony of my book being about welcoming immigrants …

… my story has snowballed to include the airing of stories of the many others who have suffered similarly disgraceful treatment by immigration officers makes me proud, even though my telling of the story was neither brave nor purposeful, simply an accident of timing. The focus is where it should be, but the question remains: if this can happen to me as an ageing, educated, articulate, white English speaker, what on earth happens to those who aren’t like me?

What indeed?

Writing For Children Involves Lots of Reading – Especially Other Writers!

students learning by the River Don, Inverurie, Aberdeen

Listening to Mem talk about her teaching, her understanding of children and the deep love and interaction she has with her daughter and grandson was delightful and insightful.

Write from the compost of your own life, feelings, experiences, hopes, joys, disappointments, and so on. If you do that, the reader will be able to connect with your story because it will be based on the authenticity of universal understandings.

She talked about her favourite writers and the importance of learning the craft of writing by appreciating the talent of other writers.

Currently, she was reading Elizabeth Harrower’s novels reprinted by Text Publishing. “Marvellous stories, wonderful writing … check her out…’

She reads a lot of books while travelling around Australia – real books, not digital. If going overseas for a length of time then she’ll have her Kindle because it is convenient and light, but always print books are the first preference.

As an educator, she begged young mums not to put a screen in front of young children or encourage reading on an iPad. The visceral experience of reading a print book with a young child can never be replicated by swiping a screen!

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All evening Mem stayed on message: read, read, read – widely and carefully – but don’t forget to support Australian writers and tell modern Australia’s stories. Read to learn as many different ways of using language as possible. (She praised Indian writers who in her opinion, wrote the most grammatically correct English today!)

Write, write, write but know your audience, if writing for children make sure you have the rhythm right, not necessarily to rhyme, but the perfect placement of syllables in a sentence or in verse.

And remember you are telling a story that children can identify with – a little boy who was born in Lebanon shouted for joy when he heard Mem mention “his” birth country in I’m Australian Too.

The free evening was billed as 6.30pm (for 7.00pm start) – 8.30pm. It was closer to 10.00pm when I walked home. I met up with several people I knew from being a school mum (primary and secondary school) and made new acquaintances standing in line waiting to talk with a sociable and chatty Mem who was more than generous with her time.

She signed books yet did not sell one, or have any to sell – this was not a marketing exercise or sales pitch, yet I’m sure she could have sold a box of books to the adoring crowd!

The vibrant atmosphere abuzz with joy, the sharing of stories of when we first read Possum Magic, what other books are favourites, and how thrilling to meet the author in person and have books rather than sport lauded as an Aussie success story.

I left Doyles clutching my signed treasures, satisfied and smiling and laughed aloud because someone had added sunglasses to the horse statue out the front decorated for the up and coming Spring Carnival…

horse outside Doyles

I wonder what stories he/she can tell.

 

Seeking Inner Peace in Outer Mongolia

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I freely admit to not being in harmony with my spirit for a long time.

I find Maya Angelou inspiring but whether experiencing delayed and complicated grief or just burn-out, a growing melancholy is difficult to shake off and so I am an expert in masking how I feel. Last year, the pretence life was okay became harder to mask.

I felt broken; fatigued and shattered.

How to fix broken me a difficult conundrum, but not new.

All my life I’ve been accused of over-thinking, being too sensitive, too serious, caring too much. Even primary school teachers wrote “highly strung” in reports when personality assessments sat beside grades.

Weary, disillusioned and disappointed in myself I wondered is it just coming to terms with ageing, or is existing rather than living going to be the norm?

Were the fast approaching ‘twilight years’ affecting me as they did my father who often recited the cynic’s song:

Twas always thus since childhood’s hour, I’ve seen my fondest hopes decay, I never loved a bird nor flower, than the darned thing died or flew away!”

The Physical and Metaphysical

There were physical aspects to how broken I felt.

I visited my oncologist because I wanted to come off Tamoxifen. Her reaction to my complaints about joint pain, rashes, and palpitations, “it’s not just cancer, you’ve never got over losing John…” and while writing a script for anti-depressants,  “I’ll give you these but I know you probably won’t take them…”

She was right about the pills – I didn’t fill the prescription, particularly after researching the possible side effects, mirroring some of the symptoms, which motivated me to make the appointment!

Symptoms I believed from Tamoxifen, the drug keeping my breast cancer under control.

She was also right about my grief for husband John, who I loved passionately and miss every day, but conflating that with the visceral effects of Tamoxifen didn’t help my anxiety.

When I left the specialist’s rooms that day, instead of catching the bus, I walked for an hour, my mind in overdrive and future uncertain.

Decisions to make.

To ignore the prescription for anti-depressants and also come off Tamoxifen. (And when the most worrying physical symptoms disappeared, I was vindicated!)

But what to do about the cloud of depression shadowing me most of my life and now threatening thunderstorm proportions?

Throwing myself into work whether paid or volunteer often an effective distraction. I’ve always been a great believer in focusing and helping others as a way of minimising personal problems.

It sometimes works, but deep down distraction is the right word. Also, it’s a solution that’s often temporary.

Peter Sarstedt in his hit song of the ’60s sang:

But where do you go to my lovely
When you’re alone in your bed
Tell me the thoughts that surround you
I want to look inside your head

No one would want to look inside my head – not even me! Where is the off button?!

The 24hour news cycle and social media with its emphasis on tragedies take a toll on heart and soul too. There are always external factors as well as internal factors feeding melancholia and as a person interested in politics and social justice I know the constant barrage has made it worse.

Going Travelling instead of Going to Pieces

Active solution?

By planning a holiday to places on my bucket list, I hoped travelling and a rest from the everyday would give time to think and heal.

I sent an email to Flower Travel, Trans Siberian journey specialists, plus emails to friends and relatives overseas in the UK, a place not visited in 20 years. I decided to travel where I’d never been and tour Orkney and Shetland.

“The discipline of writing something down is the first step toward making it happen.”

Lee Iacocca

I plundered superannuation and took a term off from teaching…

As a solo traveller, there would be plenty of time for soul-searching, especially visiting Mongolia and Siberia, places as different from my lifestyle as the proverbial ‘chalk and cheese’!

Day Two In Mongolia

I’m scheduled to stay in a traditional ger at Buuviet Ger Camp, Terelj National Park, 65 kilometres northeast of Ulaanbaatar.

The ideal opportunity, at the beginning of my travels, to start that soul searching and a walk at dusk provides time to be quiet and still.

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Dusk in the Ger Camp

“The National Park Gorkhi-Terelj includes the southern Khentil mountain range. Terelj is one of the protected areas most frequently visited. It offers naturally beautiful scenery, interesting rock formations and is covered by forests, wetlands and alpine tundra…”

entrance to campsign to camp

The Buuviet Ger Camp is open all year round and the information listed facilities to include:  220 V electricity, deep well artesian water, 70 gers with guest beds for overnight stay, 16-bed winter houses, ger restaurant with seating for 60 and information ger with Mongolian national games, modern bar in a ger, souvenir shop, fully equipped restrooms (summer only) and an outside BBQ and bar – not the isolated wilderness some may think!

However, I’m not the first and won’t be the last traveller to discover a discrepancy in what is advertised and reality, but I didn’t mind. In fact, the experience probably more authentic because of it. I wasn’t looking for “Glamping” as one travel site described: 

Go glamping

Sleeping in a rough-and-ready Mongolian ger is a quintessential grassland experience, but a growing number of tour operators are establishing sustainable, nomad-run ger camps that target the posh adventurer with innovative luxuries. Nomadic Journeys operates ger camps at pristine wilderness sites that feature heated eco-showers, hand-painted beds with thick yak’s wool blankets, and even a sauna ger. For the truly adventurous, they’ll open up an airstrip and fly people into the great Mongolian void – 365 degrees of pristine emptiness, and it’s all yours.

The spacious and comfortable ger was cosy and I eventually settled to sleep… although that was a long time coming…

Staring at the shadows from the starlight shining through the roof, I relived the minutiae of the day, tortured myself with past imperfect scenarios, tried to imagine perfect scenarios…

… the wee hours never easy for what my mother called ‘an overactive brain‘. Nighttime rarely a relief from the busyness of the day.

The silence in the ger “deafening’! There are none of the sounds I’m used to – machinery, cars, trains, footsteps on pavements, crickets, pigeons cooing, sirens, dogs barking….

At times the wind whistles through the roof but I could be the only person on earth although the faint buzz of security cameras and an outside light just discernible. Once I heard distant barking – dogs warning of wolves?

But there was no insect noises or hum of an electricity generator. The ger cocoon the perfect place for ‘endless musings and ramblings, recriminations and replayed conversations.’

The writing ‘mojo’ I hoped to rekindle struggled to appear, and energy absent, but regrets, remorse, resentment, recriminations, fears, fantasies, grief and even giggles took their turn before I gradually dropped off to sleep!

When we arrived at the camp, snow still lay on the ground. The weather of the last few days just beginning to allow for maintenance and preparation for the spring and summer tourist season.

Being the only guest, I understood why the electricity (stored in batteries) was not switched on, and the ‘fully equipped restrooms” still shrouded and protected from winter.

It was pleasing to see signs explaining efforts to marry environmental awareness with tourism.

A love of travel motivates me, but I readily admit it’s a privilege and carry first world guilt about my environmental footprint.

Cultivating an attitude of neutrality, I consider most people to have good intentions, are not out to be bad or destructive.  The majority are kind and helpful and so I do my best to be trusting, suppress suspicion and hesitation, and extend friendship.

There are myriad cultural and ethnic stereotypes promoted in movies, comedy routines, novels, and plays. Lazy writers thrive on stereotypes and cliches and the success of soap operas and pulp fiction show there is a market. But I hope to absorb and capture the vibrant and fascinating Mongolia that has stunned me, albeit with only two days of experience.

I prefer to take people as I find them and form opinions based on personal experience and observation.

A large sign explained Buuviet Camp’s mission to be an “eco-camp”:

Idopt a tree

Buuveit camp of Tsolmon Travel LLC was nominated and certified as the first “Eco Camp” today we are working to bring you close to nature by developing beautiful garden at our camp.

Goal:

  • save and preserve the endangered species of plants, trees and shrubbery
  • increase the number by replanting
  • provide botanical education

Our garden is dedicated to the collection, cultivation and display of wide range of plants from Gorkhi Terelj National park and Khan Khentii Protected Area.

Thousand Trees Every YEAR
Please join our effort to give back to the nature by planting trees and flowers any help would be appreciated
For more info please ask the camp manager.

I saw the area mapped out for a vegetable and fruit garden, still empty of growth because of winter.  However, Jemina, my host excited at seeing a tiny shoot of green and bent down to examine it.  New growth means his horses and cattle will have more feed. 

Traditionally, Mongolian nomads raise five species of livestock known as the five muzzles or snouts: horses, cows or yaks, sheep, goats, and camels. Reindeer are raised by the Tsaatan people who live in the northwest areas around the lake Khovsgol bordering Russian Siberia. 

A life of wrestling with the vagaries of the seasons evident on Jemina’s face, skin, and wiry body. This vast almost limitless space, a tough place in winter.

first sign pf spring

I saw living proof that Mongolia is one of the least densely populated countries on earth when standing in the centre of camp:

  • no sight or sound of another person,
  • a panorama of unfolding pastures, dusty paddocks,
  • and hilly peaks draped with snow.

A wonderful gift to experience, I’m in awe at this wilderness and appreciate the lifestyle enjoyed in Mordialloc.

Ada had been worried and apologetic about some facilities being closed. But why would I mind using the squat toilet on the edge of the site, or top and tailing at the wash basin rigged to be fed by a bucket of water?

I thought of an old Monty Python skit ( Four Yorkshiremen) – these facilities luxury indeed compared to how some people have to live, without shelter, clean water or decent food!

Because of the nomadic lifestyle and the climate, Mongolians have always played a variety of games and are skilful horse riders.  I saw where outdoor games could be played but had to make do reading about the cultural heritage developed over many centuries to suit nomadic life.

Likewise, the restaurant and other communal buildings, BBQ and bar remained closed for my one night, but I could imagine the delight of tourists in peak season.

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After a wander around and peeking in windows, I’m sure would-be guests during peak tourist season could consider it ‘glamping’!

Looking at my notebook, I read “has it only been a day since I flew into Mongolia?”

“I don’t know where I’m going, but I’m on my way.”

Carl Sagan

An Awakening of the Land – and Me…
Mairi Neil

From the plane, I spy brown, dry earth
and undulating hills
peaks dotted with snow
the iced mountains and streaked steppes
like shattered shards of glass
nomadic houses – gers
could be iced buns or polka dots
instead of circles of civilisation
and isolation

The plane manoeuvres around mountains
and patchwork dark green shadows
forest in a land famous for no trees
Thick cloud envelops
accompanied by an ominous grunt…
the landing gear drops
we hover over mountains
panda seat display announces
two degrees on the ground

river tributaries appear
flowing free
or perhaps just melting snow
as isolated gers multiply
blend to suburbs of Ulaanbaatar…

A long straight highway glimpsed
high-rise buildings glint in sunlight
seat upright, seat belt fastened
alert and nervous
I anticipate the adventure ahead…

 

me with hosts at ger camp
Jemina and daughter Aruna run the Buuviet Ger Camp

Notes By Candlelight…1

Tonight I’m in a ger – the only guest in the village because winter is not quite over. Aruna and her father Jemina run the place. Although only 22 years old, Aruna is extremely competent. She had to step up when her mother died 6 years ago. Her father is 59. An older brother and sister have moved away with their own families.

Aruna told me she has a pony, also books and television as relaxation and entertainment. She writes in her journal. Like young people everywhere she has a mobile phone and loves the Internet.

Our conversations stilted and difficult because of the language barrier. How I wished we could communicate better – I’d love to know what she reads and writes… and of her dreams for the future.

I can imagine how busy it will be in the summer – a lot of work for a young woman. I feel guilty at a fleeting moment of regret that the new washing and toilet facilities are not operational. No luxury hotel comforts for me. Not even electricity in the ger because it’s not worth connecting the battery for just one guest.

On the plus side, I’m experiencing a more traditional lifestyle as I read by candlelight, use the squat toilet, and sponge myself down at the tiny sink with water from a bucket!

I told Heidi at Flower Travel I wasn’t “precious” so in modern day vernacular I’m “sucking it up”!

When we migrated to Australia in 1962, the house we rented for four years had no septic tank or sewer. We trekked down to the bottom of the backyard day or night and used the ridiculously named “dry toilet” or dunny in Aussie vernacular. (My father and brothers often peeing in the bushes or ‘by the lemon tree’!)

The pan emptied each week by the “night man,” who actually came during the day. And what a grump he was too, but with such a “shit” job, no wonder!

My Aussie Childhood
Mairi Neil

I grew up at Croydon
when the bush was thick around,
milk and bread delivered
to a tuneful clip-clop sound

kookaburras laughed and swooped
to steal our pet cat’s food
it wasn’t Snappy Tom, of course
but ‘roo meat, raw and good.

Streets were mainly dirt tracks,
collection of potholes and clay,
most people walked or cycled
and strangers said, ‘G’day!’

Our weatherboard house peeled
paint – the tin roof leaked too,
verandahs sagged under honeysuckle,
rooms added as the family grew.

Mosquito nets caused claustrophobia,
possums peered down chimneys three
but the dunny banished down the back,
the most terrifying memory, for me.

Electricity only brightened inside,
so torch or candle had to suffice,
night noises from shadows in bushes,
and the smelly dunny – not nice!

The path to the toilet lined with trees
growing tall to seek the sun
but in the scary, dark cloak of night
branches became arms from which to run.

But during the day, our block was heaven
definitely a children’s Adventureland
blue tongues, geckos, tadpoles, and frogs
all shared my world so grand.

A snake was the greatest danger
or a bull ant bite on the toe,
a rule carefree wonderful time –
my rose-coloured glasses show!

Notes By Candlelight…2

More often than not it was outside squat toilets when I visited communes and factories and some tourist attractions in China in 1979 – the unforgettable smell of human waste reminiscent of the latrines we dug at girl guide camps.

That ‘farmyard’ smell triggers many memories just as staring at the flickering candle flame does!

Sipping a cup of Nerada tea I’ve brought from Australia I wonder how many others have sat in this ger?

The teabags and a tube of Vegemite brought along as emergency rations. A cup of tea does wonders and Vegemite on bread or cracker biscuits as good as a meal!

Deep breaths and I imagine the eucalypts in the garden at Mordialloc, the sweet smell of Mary Jane’s favourite incense that permeates the hall, the smoothness of Aurora’s fur as she cuddles me each night.

Will this trip invigorate me or just emphasise my aloneness – or make me lonely ?

A big drawback of solo travel – not having someone to talk over the day’s experiences – the joys, upsets… the wonder.

My first published poem in the form of a bookmark resulted from a writing workshop where the teacher lit a candle in the centre of the table and told us to pause, reflect and write…

is it just tiredness or feeling overwhelmed that is blocking inspiration tonight?

There were several hours to walk and explore the camp and beyond. I discovered a prayer site of shaman ritual. Shamanism deeply rooted in nomadic Mongolia and lives happily with Buddhism. You often see the circles and cairns where rituals have taken or will take place and memorial stupas.

People ask to be healed, for good crops or to do well in an exam or job interview – many reasons to thank the gods – and ask for guidance from ancestors.

Buddhism and Shamanism coexist in Mongolia and are often interconnected. 

Stalin’s purges led to religious orders being decimated. At the time 25% of the male population were Buddhist priests so you can see why he considered them a threat and you can also understand why people clung to shamanism. 

In the solitude, I felt relaxed, daylight drifted away as a veil of serenity fell.  I discovered a spiritual sanctuary amidst ancient stones. I could be sitting in an empty church – sitting quietly in contemplation without sermons or fuss.

The rocks materialising into shapes –  eyes, faces, figures – as if ancient folk still live.

Three monks in their cowls with heads bent in prayer, a mother, and her child, a grandparent squatting with a child leaning on his shoulder; animals too – crouching, lying, poised and cowed.

Who comes here? Is the discarded bottle Jemina’s? Is this where he comes to grieve? Or do people gather for spiritual salvation? 

Secret cavities leading to where? Did Mankind begin here? Do ancient souls still hover?

I see brown open landscape, miles of emptiness
I hear the cry of a crow – a kite circles
I smell aromatic herbs and woodsmoke
I taste the tang of unfamiliar meat sauces from dinner
I touch textured rock scarred by time and weather

I imagine the endless universe… the circle of life

ger camp from hill.jpg

There are only two faces to existence – birth and death –
and life survives them both, just so sunrise and sunset
are not essentially different:
it all depends on whether one is facing east or west.

Joy Mills, Release into Light

Nature called…

The toilet was far enough away to be disconcerting in the dark even although I had a torch.

There were holes and uneven ground caused by the marmots coming out of hibernation and despite knowing I was the only one booked into the camp, a walk across open land amongst shadows and the silhouettes of buildings, conjured the fearful (although unfounded) sensation that people were watching, perhaps even wishing me harm! 

Imagination a curse at times and never more so in a strange place in the dark.

No wonder I took Ada’s suggestion and snuck behind the tent and peed – it was about 3 or 4 am, absolutely freezing, the only sound my stream of urine scalding and steaming tufts of dead grass and melting thick frost.

Of course, I did have a middle-class moment – what if Jemina was up and about? But that was fleeting and made me smile at my own ridiculous thoughts.

What about ticks?

Ada told me a story about her friend being bitten on the head and contracting Lyme Disease. It was tick season and according to Ada, they love the wind and your hair, but will also go up your leg.  I dutifully wore hat, scarf, and boots when outside.

Fear made me check the bedclothes and the wheels of my luggage – just in case!  When a fly got through the door with me, I watched where it flew as if an enemy ready to attack. What a relief to see it leave via the circular gap in the roof dome. 

No windows in the ger but starlight, moonlight, sunlight, first light, all through the hole in the roof for the chimney.

And what about wolves? The wolf pelt in the corner of the office a stark reminder they exist.

wolf pelt

Jemina crept into the ger at midnight trying not to wake me, his torch flickering as he fed the fire with coal. He must have watched for smoke or lack of – and his timing spot on. (Ada had warned me Jemina would need to stoke the fire when we had an explanatory tour of the place before she returned to the city.)

This is bizarre, I thought as I watched his silhouette from the comfort of the bed. What will the girls think when I tell them I agreed that a man who couldn’t communicate with me, could come into my unlocked bedroom in the middle of the night, albeit to stoke the fire. (Another middle-class, western moment?)

The torchlight bright and blinding and Jemina’s face masked with a scarf against the bitter cold as he concentrated on his duties. Hunkering in front of the fire, fiddling with fuel to encourage flames, poking and rearranging with expertise. The wood stirred, flared and crackled to life.

There’s a talent to lighting a fire and heating a stove. Mum had it. So did Dad, although no surprise there because he was a fireman and later steam train driver. Not much Dad didn’t know about fires. Maybe he taught Mum, but since she was brought up on a farm in Northern Ireland where creating heat for cooking an important element in the skillset for country living, perhaps their expertise mutual.

In the modern world, push-button electric, gas or oil heaters ensure generations have no idea how to make or regulate a wood or coal fire.

  • Before John and I renovated our home in Mordialloc, the only hot water came from a wood-burning Raeburn stove. Every weekend John sat for hours in the shed chopping enough kindling for me to use during the week. When Anne came along, it was easier to boil kettles for her baby baths. I recall the joy of instant hot water when a gas hot water service installed.
  • I  remember my parents spreading a newspaper over the fireplace in Scotland to block out air (except for what came down the chimney or ‘lum’ as we called it) until kindling caught. I can see and smell sandalwood tapers used to light the fire – a present from a childless aunt who could afford to travel to exotic places.
  • Images of the coal man surface – heaving and emptying a large hessian bag full of coal into a bunker next to the kitchen. The smell of lanolin, the pink barrier cream Mum massaged into her hands for protection before she handled the coal, and set the fire.

As I skipped down memory lane, Jemina gave the fire his complete attention, but when he realised I was awake, he mimed that he’d return at 2.00am.

Earlier in the evening, the inside of the ger became unpleasantly hot – the coal and wood heater did too good a job in the well-insulated, enclosed space so I mimed to Jemina not to bother returning; I’d be warm enough.

He nodded, and before leaving placed a bucket near my bed.  I assumed it was to pee in if needed.

Jemina crab-walked to the door and braved the cold. I hoped, he understood I didn’t want to be disturbed at 2.00 am. The door of the ger tiny, and crouching definitely the best way to get in and out or earn a bump on the head like me when I forgot to duck coming back in after my peeing expedition!

The fire nearly out so I rekindled the flames and added more wood. I wonder if Jemina is watching for smoke from his ger…

A traditional yurt (from the Turkic languages) or ger (Mongolian) is a portable, round tent covered with skins or felt and used as a dwelling by nomads in the steppes of Central Asia.

Traditional gers consist of an expanding wooden circular frame carrying a felt cover. The felt is made from the wool of sheep, goat or yak and the timber, to make the external structure, is obtained by trade because of the absence of suitable trees on the steppes.

Gers traditionally did not have solid doors. These fitted as camps have grown and the people don’t move as often. Traditional doors were heavy carpets or appliquéd quilts.

ger door

A Visit With A Nomadic Family

Earlier in the day, there was a quick stop with a traditional nomadic family: Mum, her son, and daughter-in-law, plus two kids of 6 and 7. A brother was visiting with his two children and another relative and her children. 

The place packed. Everyone, apart from our hostess, sitting along one side of the room while Ada, Bemba and myself, sit on the other.

A washing machine is churning because it is Sunday, the day they wash their clothes. In between entertaining us, the mother hassles the children for dirty clothes – well I assume that’s what she is saying as they search under chairs and behind boxes and produce items of clothing. The domestic tasks of parenting and managing a household universal – no translation needed!

It’s ingenious the way the ger is built, to be collapsed and packed up at least four times a year. Sometimes they only move 20-25 kilometres, other times 50 – 100 kilometres, depending on where the family’s cattle and horses graze.

This family has horses and display medals they’ve won at Naadam, the great summer festival in July.

They are Buddhist and a shrine sits next to a giant flat-screen TV, the children and some adults engrossed watching Shaun The Sheep!

A traditional musical instrument with horse handle proudly displayed, although no one plays. It sits beside a traditional saddle and ancient costume of hat and whip. They are important symbols to show pride in Mongolian culture and heritage and have been passed down through the family.

musical instrument horse handle

The various ‘sides’ of the ger are designated: woman’s area – kitchen gear (what a surprise!), a symbolic or ornamental area, sleeping area, bathing and washing area.

Gers may look the same from the outside but like our homes are different inside – this one elaborate and heavily furnished. Bright carpets insulate the walls as well as woven hangings.

As an honoured guest, I’m given milky tea swirled in a large steel basin. Milk drained – I have no idea if it was from a horse, yak, cow, goat or sheep. They use whatever is available and make milk, cream, butter, cheese, and yoghurt.

 sweet tea in ger

I ate little round shaped bites like doughnuts, the other plate is dried yoghurt, tasty but so hard you need strong teeth. A sweet/salty butter treat. Mixing salt and sugar common here. The children suck on slices of dried butter as if icy poles.

The tea an acquired taste – sweet – and leaving an aftertaste. Since teenage, I’ve preferred unsweetened black tea and because Ada knew what to expect she asked the hostess to pour only half a cup for me. 

Not wanting to offend, I drink the tea and taste everything offered. Taking food with an acquired taste, not something I cheerfully volunteer for. I’m not an adventurous eater and rarely eat out, rather I eat to live, not live to eat and never watch cooking shows currently popular on television.

There were plenty of smiles and friendly looks and my visit is an income stream for the family, especially in winter when there are not a lot of alternatives.

When they settle in an area like the National Park there is a government school closer to town and the children board there. When I visited, it was the week of school holidays a time when lots of families visit each other. (Not that different from us really.)

To the Mongols, the family unit is everything.

Having to communicate through Ada limiting and because it was a special and busy family day, I felt like an intruder and didn’t want to subject our hostess with twenty questions.

The children too interested in the television to care about visitors, but one woman (family, neighbour?) never took her eyes off me for the half hour or so of our visit. Her intense stare disconcerting and when we left, I could hear daughter, Mary Jane’s voice, “Well, that was awkward!

On reflection, despite the generous hospitality, it was indeed! Perhaps a group visiting makes the dynamics different or maybe I just wasn’t prepared for all the distractions under one roof – this is where having a separate room for guests may have advantages.

Getting to know someone and being invited to their home different to this organised visit. I remember experiencing the same embarrassed reaction after a visit to a commune in China. It just seemed a discourteous intrusion – maybe if it had been a longer visit, more relaxed and we could communicate better I wouldn’t feel so bad.

However, in the morning, all negative feelings disappeared as I lay in bed trying to identify sounds –

Dawn

‘Peeho, peeho’ the call of a bird?
Persistent and guttural like a pigeon but not ‘coo coo’
Silence after 30 seconds.
A soft whish, swish – flapping?
A peek outside –
an eagle or kite swooping, catching breakfast
an unlucky marmot fails to escape
a magical Mongolian moment I won’t forget!

Despite a disturbed night and strange bed, I feel relaxed… a step towards serenity and inner peace?

Wistful Wandering and Poetic Pondering – Words Wile The Time Away.

Cairns August 2017.jpeg

Travelling to and from work by train is often my writing time or time to pause, observe and reflect on life.

My notebook full of ideas scrawled as one line reminders or thoughts detailed in partial stories or poems (some may say doggerel).

I write down ideas for prompts for the class – like examining our hands – physically, emotionally, and historically.

Most people will be surprised how many stories they can write about their own hands (or the hands of family or friends). Hands change as you age and activities or abilities can increase or decrease.

Hands
Mairi Neil 2017

These hands fumble now
where they once achieved with ease
buttons now boulders,
zips an effort,
Velcro fasteners? Oh, yes, please!

What are those raised veins saying –
the lumpy knuckles too
wedding ring too tight, abandoned
more than the veins are blue.

In the past, skin smooth and soft
and these hands were strong
a past of music, craft, and toddlers
weakness didn’t belong…

These hands feeble now
where once they achieved with ease
piano, guitar, sewing, knitting…
house renovations a breeze

Scarred from work and accidents
sun damaged and skin dry
weakened grip and suspect skill
they’ve earned a rest, I sigh.

But wait, these hands still toil
a means to feed my passion
pens replaced with keypad
writing never out of fashion.

These trusted hands a part of me
what stories they can tell
Ignoring arthritic pain and age
I’ll write a memoir to sell!

Mairi-Neil-2-Mums-large-print-bible.jpg

I’ve written about my mother’s hands for the Women’s Memoir website, USA and took a photograph of her holding a large print Bible because her Christian faith sustained her throughout her life especially in times of grief.

When my Dad was dying, I sat by his bedside holding his hands and reflecting on all the jobs he’d done since entering the workforce, but particularly those taken to improve our lives when we migrated to Australia from Scotland.

Inspiration and Triggers Everywhere

I’m interested in politics, current affairs, and world events. In this era of 24-hour news cycle and social media, it’s difficult to switch off. 

Some days worse than others, some topics too hard to ignore – especially regarding Donald Trump, who so often dominates the headlines.

trumpUAe

That Wall To be Built
Mairi Neil 2017

Humpty Trumpfy wanted a wall
keep Mexicans out, his rallying call
all the white supremacists and the KKK
crawled from under their rocks to have a say.

The Grand ol’ Master, David Duke
his supporters parading as men
marched into Charlottesville one day
but were chased back out again.

Humpty Trumpfy got a bigly shock
even supporters did their block
appalled to see racist rhetoric at work
and their POTUS such a dumb jerk

Humpty Trumpfy wants adulation
each media mention a celebration
his leadership skills account for naught
allegiances intimidated or they’re bought

Humpty Trumpfy will have a great fall
decent people will dismantle the wall
the empty slogans  filling empty heads
disappear from our screens like The Walking Dead

 

Pigeon 2 Bentleigh Station.jpg
This pigeon poised and alert at Bentleigh Station

We take things for granted on a daily basis, always with the assumption that whenever we need something, it will be there. Sometimes we don’t notice small changes, only the dramatic ones.

The number of apartments, townhouses, and units being built has changed the demographics of Mordialloc where I’ve lived for 33 years.

One of the many Real Estate Agents who rings regularly trying to convince me to sell up said there has been a 60% increase in young couples and families buying into the area. They have moved here because of the charm of Mordialloc’s seaside village atmosphere – ironically the removal of stand alone houses and the increased density of development has put that charm under threat!

C’est la vie…

My negative feelings about the “over” development of Mordialloc remind me of a song by Joni Mitchell, one of my favourite artists:

Big Yellow Taxi

They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot
With a pink hotel, a boutique
And a swinging hot spot
Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got
Till it’s gone
They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot

They took all the trees
And put them in a tree museum
And they charged all the people
A dollar and a half to see ’em
Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got
Till it’s gone
They paved paradise
And they put up a parking lot

Hey farmer farmer
Put away that D.D.T. now
Give me spots on my apples
But leave me the birds and the bees
Please
Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got
Till it’s gone
They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot

Late last night
I heard the screen door slam
And a big yellow taxi
Took away my old man
Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got
Till it’s gone
They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot

Songwriters: MITCHELL, JONI
Big Yellow Taxi lyrics © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC, Crazy Crow Music / Siquomb Music Publishing

tiger mural mordi station.jpg
mural near Mordi Station

When I returned recently from travelling overseas, I noticed a new mural on a wall in the carpark behind the dentist I visit in Main Street Mordialloc. I mentioned the colourful art work to my daughter,

“When did that go up?”

“Not, sure.”

“What was there before?”

“I think it was cartoon characters of the 90s,” MaryJane said, but neither of us really sure, yet we walk along the path to the railway station almost daily!

Maybe we’ll remember this artwork if it changes… or maybe not. Taking things and people for granted, a common failure too many of us have and the saying, ‘you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone,’ sadly true.

Live In The Moment Good Advice Too

 

download
C. × crocosmiiflora hybrid an invasive introduced species in Australia

Thankfully, I enjoy my job teaching creative writing because like the train travel, I have the opportunity to write. Whatever topic I plan for my students, I set myself.

On Tuesday afternoon at Godfrey Street, Bentleigh last week, a student Lena suddenly pointed out the window. We turned to watch a beautiful Noisy Miner land on a clump of Crocosmia.

noisy minor 2

The lesson reminded students to think about the power of metaphor and simile to improve their writing, particularly poetry.

I worked on a poem started on the train and then added part two, attempting to incorporate the lesson using the wonderful inspiration provided by our visitor.

Poetry in motion and fun too!

A Tuesday in August
Mairi Neil 2017

Morning

A spring-like day
warm sun is out
after hiding for awhile
she’s come out to play
to make us laugh and smile.

A new mural at Mordi Station
catches the eyes of passersby
painted while I’ve been away
A tiger feisty and bright
no room for blues today.

I load some Myki Money
before the train arrives
slip coins into the slot
train’s on time, a win
a happy day my lot!

It is indeed a wonderful world
dear Satchmo got it right
when a warm sun shines
the uplifting joy spreads
to banish worry lines.

Redolent roses perfume paths
camellias bud and delight
enjoy each moment of warmth
‘cos too soon, it will be night.

Afternoon

With a swoop, you arrive
an empty vessel needing a refill
balancing on trembling bells

to sup on nectar deliciously sweet
a  sight not to be missed
a pleasant distraction and inspiration

A Noisy Miner unusually silent
obedient child obeying the Golden Rule –
don’t speak with your mouth full!

Sucking goodness from crocosmia
a lubrication for daily performances
through welcome orange straws

an opera singer turned acrobat
pausing for tasty lunch on the wing
unaware of the Paparazzi nearby.

Wikipedia has information about both the invasive plant and the bird but please see comment below from friend and mentor in all things Aussie Bush to set the record straight in:

Crocosmias are grown worldwide, and more than 400 cultivars have been produced. Some hybrids have become invasive species, especially C. × crocosmiiflora hybrids, which are invasive in the UK, New Zealand, the American Pacific Northwest, and probably elsewhere.

The Noisy Miner feeds on nectar, fruit and insects. In keeping with its highly social nature, the Noisy Miner usually feeds in large groups.

Perhaps there’s a story behind our lone (lonely?) bird – I’ll leave that for you to compose!

Happy writing –

Chinggis Khaan – A Fascinating Leader Loved and Revered

chinggis khaan statue again copy.jpeg

Day Two – Chinggis Khaan Equestrian Statue and Museum Complex

The drive to the outskirts of the city and beyond revealed the vastness of the country and scenes confirming western assumptions. Miles of dusty, brown and sandy soil, hills and distant mountains bare of greenery after winter snows.

There were horses, goats, sheep, yaks and cattle grazing – all chewing pasture I couldn’t see from the car! Individual gers and clusters in camps dotted the landscape – at last, the something different I’d hoped for.

bird of prey copy.jpeg

Chinggis Khaan a revered leader in the past and today. He and his sons ruled during the ‘Great Khan’ period in 13 and 14 centuries. The 40-metre statue built to honour his achievements, not only for Mongolia but his extensive empire, which influenced half of the known world. 

The visitor complex is 10 metres tall with 36 columns representing the 36 Khans from Chinggis to Ligdan Khaan and designed by sculptor D Erdenebileg and architect J Enkhjargal, it was erected in 2008.

It is the world’s tallest equestrian statue and has the certificate to prove it!

tallest equestrian statue chinggis kahn

On horseback, Chinggis Khaan faces east towards his birthplace, holding the golden whip, which according to legend he found on the bank of the Tuul River at Tsonjin Boldog, the site of the monument. It is 54 kilometres east of Ulaanbaatar and a must-see for anyone visiting Mongolia.

Chinggis Khaan or who we, in the West, refer to as Ghengis Khan was an impressive leader and achiever. I had no idea the Mongolian Empire extended to almost half the world. So many ethnic groups, cultures and religions under the Mongolian umbrella.

Art, Culture, Traditional Craftsmanship On Display

Cultural influences from Turkey, Hungary, Persia, China and beyond were peacefully incorporated. Gifts to the world from his era include games such as chess, knuckles (bones), the precursor of puzzles like the Rubik Cube (invented 1974 by a Hungarian), embroideries, beadwork, tapestries, silk costumes and painting, horsemanship, intricate leatherwork, metalwork and more.

Exhibitions cover Bronze Age and Xiongnu archaeological cultures and fossil finds. Traveller accounts describe the welcome and easy trade and great organisation and tolerance across borders. 

A lesson in real greatness for Trump and current world leaders perhaps!

Chinggis Khaan, also regarded as the greatest military leader in world history although only commanding an army of 100,000 soldiers.

How did he manage to conquer and control countries with populations numbering millions and his dynasty last 150 years?

Some say it was because he felt a great love for his family and his people and would sacrifice his life for them. Others that he was clever and in love with learning.

Since Mongolia parted company with Soviet Russia in 1991, the legend of Chinggis Khaan and his legacy have become increasingly important as part of the Mongolian cultural identity and national pride.

It is also important to those Mongols living in other states, established in Chinggis Khaan’s time such as Afghanistan (the Hazaras), parts of China and the old USSR.  His successful leadership and rule,  the establishment of law and unification of nomadic societies, a constant source of interest to academics and historians.

The following poem was published in a university paper in Inner Mongolia about the Yunnan Mongol community who number under 7000. They identify as Mongol yet only came to the attention of Chinese officials and academia in the late 1970s.

We Are the Sons and Daughters of the Steppes: Children and Grandchildren of Chinggis Khan

We are the sons and daughters of the steppes,
children and grandchildren of Chinggis Khan.
Under the military standard of Zandan,
riding horses and holding bows, we fought
across vast lands of the North and South.
Passing the steppes on our magical horses
and crossing the Jinsha River on (inflated)
leather bags and bamboo rafts,
we camped at the Ka Qu Tuo Frontier,
under the military standard
of Zandan.

We are the sons and daughters of the steppes,
children and grandchildren of Chinggis Khan.
We planted trees and set up schools and promoted
culture and civilisation, and our awesome
cavalry maintained peace and harmony.
Under the leadership of Zandan
we guarded the southern frontier.

We are the sons and daughters of the steppes,
children and grandchildren of Chinggis Khan.

Zandon was the son of Altemur, commander of the Mongol Yuan troops during the Yuan dynasty, his HQ at Qutuo Pass.

(The Yunnan Mongols renewed interest in genealogy similar to that of the African Americans inspired by the novel Roots. They want their children to be able to speak and read and write Mongolian and have imported teachers.)

Chinggis Khaan was a deeply spiritual person but also practical. The changes he brought to the world long-lasting. He encouraged widespread education.

In his time,  people wandered freely, traded, mixed and learnt from each other, sharing ideas as well as goods. Nomadic peoples who glanced at the horizon, ever-mindful of Mother Nature, knowing instinctively where and when to move to survive. 

Many still do this today in modern Mongolia, respecting tribal or clan connections. 

Now???

In Europe and other parts of the world, there is so much suspicion, fear and hatred of the other. Border forces and farces. Freedom to travel not a given anymore. Permits needed to build houses never mind move across country with all your goods and chattels!

What would the world look like if Chinggis Khaan had never lived?

Interesting to speculate and those thoughts and much more enriched my visit as I examined exhibits of everyday utensils, clothes, belt buckles, knives, tales of sacred animals,  ancient tools, religious artefacts and objects made or gilded with gold.

 

khan for a day indeed
Chinggis Khaan’s “throne” – I imagined being a ‘khan’ for the day!

 

Outside in the grounds, I was at last up close to a traditional ger albeit dwarfed by statues representing Mongol warriors – the army that protected Chinggis Khaan and also advanced his empire.

From the top of the main statue, the view is stunning and gives you a perspective of the size of Mongolia – vast swathes of dusty plains and snow-capped mountains sparsely populated.

Few trees survive here because of the wind.

At the ger, a little boy three or four years old was fascinated by my speech. He overheard me speaking and approached us to ask Ada, 

How is she talking? What is she saying?”

I smiled and said, “Hello.”

He mimicked me, “Hello, hello.”

Then grabbing his little friend by the arm, he followed me repeating, hello. Perhaps my Scottish accent was a new experience!

I’d smile and answer, “hello” and they’d run a few feet away or to their parents but always returned to dance around us, repeating “hello“.

Ada went into teacher mode and after a quick lecture to the boys in Mongolian, which I assumed was on courtesy, she sent them packing with a critical look at their parents.

The boy and his family left to annoy the man with birds of prey on display.

In the shadow of the horse statues, it was easy to envisage the scenes that inspired the art work I bought from the young artist in Sukhbaatar Square. The image of Chinggis Khaan painted on leather and the two watercoloured cards, contrasting day and night, evocative of the period as were many pictures in the complex.

All this public reverence of Chinggis Khaan is relatively new and linked to Mongolia’s independence from the Soviet Union, although his importance to traditional Mongolian culture never faltered.

The symbol as such has shown not only an amazing level of tenacity but also a high degree of adaptability in taking on new meanings in relation to different historical contexts and different socio-political entities. For the Mongols, it has evolved from a symbol of imperial legitimacy and privilege grounded in absolute kinship ideology and relevant exclusively to the Golden Descendants, to a potent symbol of ethnic/national identity shared by Mongols all over the world, just as the historical Mongols have gradually evolved from an empire of tribal confederation to a nation of and ethnic entity of solidarity. Thus the claim “we are the children and grandchildren of Chinggis Khan”…

Chinggis Khan, From Imperial Ancestor to Ethinic Hero, Almaz Khan

A famous Mongolian rock group, Hongk composed a song about Chinggis Khaan and performed it in March 1990 at the time the new Mongolian Republic was being formed.

Forgive Us

Forgive us for not daring
to breathe your name.
Though there are thousands of statues,
there is none of you.
We admired you in our hearts
but we dared not breathe your name.

The Equestrian Statue and Complex, plus the statues in Ulaanbaatar have rectified the suppression of this important symbol of the Mongol during the Soviet period.

(Founded in 1924, the Mongolian People’s Republic was, until the breakup of the USSR and its empire in 1991, the oldest Eastern Bloc country as well as the second oldest socialist country in the world – after the USSR. Despite political and economic dependence on Russia, much of the national culture enjoyed autonomy and protection.)

There is also a resurgence of Mongolian language and traditional script and a recognition Uighurjin Mongol script has carried history, culture, traditions and customs and fortifies Mongolian independence.

Written vertically, the characters take different forms from the beginning, middle, and end of the word. The oldest existing text believed to be on Chinggis Khaan’s Stone – the replica outside the National Museum in Ulaanbaatar and the original at the Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, Russia.

Mongolian script is not only a writing system but an art form with meaningful strokes. The script’s “tig” strokes were developed in various styles, resulting in an almost abstract style used in calligraphy nowadays.

Huge examples hang in the foyer of the complex with the rich heritage of Mongolian manuscripts categorised into three categories: religious, historical and folklore.

When the Russians influenced Mongolia, the Cyrillic script became official for public buildings and street names and in schools but Uighurjin is making a comeback.

I watched a young girl demonstrate the script and for a couple of dollars, she wrote my name, which looks much more impressive than it does in English!

In between being immersed in the ancient culture, absorbing historical facts, and the context of impressive and expansive exhibits there were interactions with people, like the little boy.

I discovered I wasn’t the only one scared of heights yet determined to climb to the top of the equestrian statue. I chose the stairs and reached the top to a breathtaking view. A lovely family took pictures of me and I of them while we huddled and clung to the wall to make sure the gale force wind didn’t blow us across the steppes.

Outside there was a wedding party using the monument for stunning photographs of their special day just as many Melburnians choose Parliament House or Federation Square or other iconic sites.

wedding in Mongolia

Watching the wedding party prompted a discussion with Bemba and Ada.

Bemba is the youngest of eight siblings. She is not married and has no children. 

Ada is one of five siblings. She married but did not have a traditional big wedding. She has two children. A daughter lives in Melbourne and is studying her Masters in International Accounting at a QUT campus. Ada taught Russian and English in secondary school before working as a tour guide. 

Mongolians traditionally had big families but like westerners, they have fewer children nowadays probably a maximum of three. However, the family unit is still everything.

Ada was born in a ger and grew up in one. Her parents have ‘returned to country’ some distance from Ulaanbaatar and at 76 and 80 years old they have moved into their first house and will enjoy the comfort of permanence, running water, and an indoor toilet.

I returned to the complex to visit the toilet and through a joint doorway, the backs of men could be seen as they urinated. Ah, cultural quirks and customs. It reminded me of a visit to France in 1984 when a similar design was used in several places we stopped.

One last look at the magnificent foyer, the beautifully carved pipe resting on the wings of a mythical beast and a photo opportunity beside the giant traditional boot.

Before leaving for the Terelj National park, I bought a card in Mongolian script as a memento.

A silhouette of a horse galloping free beside the word for joy.

mongolian card meaning JOY

I knew that feeling!

 

 

 

A Visit To Mongolia Will Make You Marvel At Life

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I’ve been home from my travels for over a month and several people have asked ‘where are the posts about your trip?’

Where indeed?

How to start – to write to please readers, as well as myself – to do justice to my experience. To rely on a memory that doesn’t work as well as it did when I was younger!

I have Facebook posts and text messages written in a hurry and scribbled journal notes hard to read.

Whenever I travelled years ago and sent letters and postcards home, Dad said I wrote like a trained spider. Well now, with years of tapping keyboards, the spider is no longer trained!

Unfortunately, my plans to use the top shelf Lenovo tablet the girls bought for me, did indeed, as best laid plans do  ‘gang aft a gley‘! Memo to travellers – don’t take new equipment unless you have more than one quick lesson from people more capable than yourself.

Thank goodness for the photographs on my Samsung phone – too many in this digital age – but they do jog the memory. Thank goodness too for Google Drive storage and a daughter with patience to save data to a separate hard drive.

The photographs will help create cameo narratives, something I’ve been encouraging my life story students to do this week.

WRITING MEMORIES FROM A PHOTOGRAPH

Examine a photograph, put yourself back in that moment, consider what was going on in your life at the time, what we don’t see before or after the photograph was taken, and write… great for family albums and scrapbooks, but the method will also help write life stories towards a memoir or autobiography and family history.

And I can recreate my travels.

Why Mongolia?

 

map of Mongolia from encyclopedia 1960? copy
Map of Mongolia circa 1950

 

I’ve mentioned before that I trace an urge to travel, and the restlessness and curiosity I’ve always felt about the world, back to childhood.  Absorbed in the contents of a set of children’s encyclopedias, Dad bought from a door-to-door salesman in 1960, I wanted to see all the lands the colourful flags represented.

Most of the pages and photographs were black and white, but in one volume, the block of full-colour photographs detailing flags a magnet for my curious eyes.

Many a dreich (bleak) day in wintry Greenock brightened by tracing and drawing the flags. Imagination fired by the unusual names of various countries giving a glimpse of the world beyond Scotland.

Where were these lands? What were the people like? How did they live?

This extract from the introductory page, taken to heart:

You will find some day, my young friends that, though words pretend to say what you mean, they do not say what you really mean at all, and I do not know of any words that can tell you all I want to say to you and all that this book means to me. Yet it is your book, and the story of it belongs to you…

…the great wonder of the earth. What does the world mean? And why am I here? Where are all the people who have been and gone? Where does the rose come from? Who holds the stars up there? What is it that seems to talk to me when the world is dark and still?

… “Oh for a book that will answer all the questions!”…

That is how our book began… it is a Big Book for Little People, and it has come into the world to make your life happy and wise and good. That is what we are meant to be. This is what we will help each other to be.

Your affectionate Friend, Arthur Mee

from The Children’s Encyclopedia founded by Arthur Mee

YOU ARE NEVER TOO OLD TO CROSS ITEMS OFF YOUR BUCKET LIST

At almost 64 years of age, I set out to realise a childhood dream to travel the Trans Siberian Railway. To explore another part of ‘the great wonder of the earth.

My starting point Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia’s capital city.

After engaging Flower Travel, the experts on such a journey, I planned the kind of trip I wanted with their agent Heidi Mason, who did a fantastic job.

  • I love history, I wanted to travel as much as possible using local trains, not be stuck with tourists.
  • I had a limited budget and was not precious about staying in fancy hotels but where possible I wanted access to clean toilets and showers.
  • Most of all I wanted to travel safely – my days of freewheeling, trusting everything to work out or hoping there’ll be accommodation available gone with my youth!

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However, when the plane touched down on April 1st, with all the cultural connotations that date has, a little voice whispered are you an April’s Fool? What on earth are you doing here alone? What if no one meets you? What is Plan B?

I queued at Immigration & Customs clutching passport and visa, plus hotel details and proof I’d depart in a few days and prayed the officials spoke good English.

If it is one regret I have it is a lack of ability with other languages, although even expert linguists say Mongolian is difficult to learn! I downloaded the free Google Translate App for Mongolian and Russian but speech output isn’t available for Mongolian so you can’t hear how the words are pronounced – or have a conversation with someone via the App.

My fears of failing to communicate groundless because there is a growing knowledge of English in Mongolia and Russia and I discovered I mime very well – especially in situations that are universal to people regardless of where you live!

I didn’t sleep much on the Air China flight from Melbourne to Beijing – who can these days travelling Economy Class? At a little over five feet and a size 12-14, I still felt squashed on the plane. I’m sure the designers of aeroplane seats missed their vocation as torturers.

My flight almost 12 hours, plus the obligatory sleepless night pre travel and the queuing and security before the flight – a standard recipe for exhaustion!

Fatigue kicked in and the reviving blast of cold air disembarking from the plane at Beijing and walking across the tarmac to waiting buses soon dissipated.

 

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how I felt

 

The two hours in transit in China taken up with queuing for the toilet (my first stop), negotiating more security, and ensuring the right path to the Transit Lounge,  puzzling over the instructions to access free WiFi, and double-checking I was in the right queue to check-in for my flight to Ulaanbaatar.

It’s disconcerting and confronting listening to announcements in a language you don’t know and hoping when English is pronounced you understand what is said. Ditto for signs that are not always multi-lingual despite being in a place like an airport or train station.

I didn’t attempt to buy a coffee but dry-mouthed fear made me search for a much-needed cup of fresh water. Not as simple a task as you’d think.

Technological expertise needed everywhere nowadays – even to use simple vending machines.

I felt empathy for the waves of foreign nationals I see floating around Melbourne Airport.

Was I wearing a stunned mullet look or one of fearful confusion as I struggled to find the code for wifi and also fill a cup with water?

 TRAVEL LESSON NUMBER ONE:

Never underestimate how quickly confidence, ability, and good judgement disappears with culture shock and the effects of lack of sleep!

arrived Mongolia airport
arrival in Ulaanbaatar
My driver Mongolia
Bemba, my driver for Mongolia

A smile and courtesy never go astray. What a relief to see a white paper sign with “MRS NEIL” in bold black ink, held aloft by a casually-dressed woman wearing a polite smile.

I’ve watched this scene in countless movies and it was repeated throughout my travels in Russia. Thank you,  Heidi Mason, your planning worked to perfection!

Bemba, my driver for Mongolia, a most welcoming sight at the airport! She apologised for her ‘poor English’.

Please don’t apologise, my Mongolian is non-existent!’

Two minutes later, the old man who accosted us in the car park not so polite or apologetic. Dressed in traditional garb, he thrust 3 stamped postcards at me.

“Buy… buy… bargain.”

His long hair, moustache, and beard reminding me of Hollywood’s Fu Manchu. I tried to remember the worth of the handful of Mongolian notes I’d converted before leaving Australia but he knew what currency he wanted.

“Dollars, dollars.”

I gave him a couple of US dollars as Bemba stepped between us and hurried me to the car.

Dismissed, Fu Manchu left to harass someone else and I stared at three unspectacular postcards with stamps of different value.

Now they’re a reminder that no matter where you go in the world there will always be someone spruiking.  Tired, gullible tourists not yet acclimatised easy prey.

Tree of Gobi, Sum Khukh Burd, Dundgobi and Reindeer herder are not the Mongolia I experienced but the postcards indicative of parts of the amazing country.

postcards of Mongolia.jpg

From the airport, snow-capped mountains in the distance hinted at the wild Mongolia I’d read about and probably home to the reindeer of the postcard, but as we headed for the city proper the rows of new apartments and sprouting high rise buildings reminded me of China 1979!

Evidence of construction, modernisation and development lined extra wide streets still showing clumps of snow leftover from a recent blizzard.

In fact, the day beneath a deep blue sky and wandering wispy clouds, warmer than I expected.  Bemba pointed to her short sleeves with a grin as I sat in the back seat,  sweltering in layers of a vest, top and fur-lined coat. What happened to the -6 degrees I’d been warned to expect?

A glimpse of a traditional ger and an impressive sculpture of a camel train stirred excitement and anticipation.  I’ve made it to Mongolia and tomorrow night I’ll be sleeping in a ger.

Hotel Nine, my accommodation for the first night, advertised as central to ‘nature, culture and temples… 400 metres from Sukhbaatar Square,’ a 14-kilometre drive.  Long enough to observe buildings, people, and the heavy traffic.

Bemba said peak hour was over yet the traffic manic! Most cars are second-hand Japanese or Korean.

Various measures introduced to deal with traffic congestion and pollution caused by petrol and diesel fumes have had limited success. Restrictions designed to encourage fewer cars on the road are circumvented.

In the city, you can only drive on the days your number plate allows – no exemptions. The week divided into days when only cars with even number plates can drive and other days for odd numbers.

People get around regulations by having two or more cars.  Even the travel company chauffeuring me!

The view from the car revealed an Ulaanbaatar similar to many cities in the west.

I couldn’t wait to shower, stretch on a bed, and with a cup of tea in hand, plan the rest of the day to discover what makes this city different.

Day one of my ‘inspired journey’ began at 11.00 am.

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Hotel Nine’s advantages: on-site restaurant, free WiFi, flat screen TV, kettle and tea-making facilities, private bathroom with bathrobe, slippers and free toiletries.

A little voice said ‘Enjoy this comfort zone while you can!’ The facilities excellent but the friendly staff the greatest asset.

The young male receptionist thrilled to meet an Aussie. His rugby coach in high school from Sydney. He still enjoyed the sport and hoped one day to travel overseas.

When I asked where the nearest bank was to exchange money, he checked on the Internet but also rang a friend to double-check opening times because it was Saturday.

He explained the route on the tourist map of the city.  We agreed that the scale of maps in most tourist brochures inaccurate and often misleading so he printed off easier to read instructions.

Despite this diligence,  I still got lost!

I confess to getting lost and confused at least once in every city I visited. Map reading, not my best skill.

However, I always managed to correct mistakes and when lost, discovered wonderful gems I may otherwise have missed.

Ulaanbaatar that first day no exception and with each find, I thought of those silver linings Mum used to talk about.

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April 1, 2017 – texting daughter, MaryJane

Hi, Love. In Mongolia and met at the airport. So far so good.
At hotel. Only one bar of wi fi. I’m going to have a shower. Will keep trying to phone then I’m going for a walk before dark. What time is it there? Don’t want to wake you too early. Or miss you if going out. xx

 

MaryJane to me

It is 4.05pm here on Saturday. What time is it there?

To MaryJane

It is 1.51 in afternoon. China is 3 hours behind and Mongolia is 2.
Flight better than expected although not much sleep. Security a bit of a nightmare and confusion but thank goodness I didn’t have drama like some people. Muslim women had headscarves poked and prodded. Pretty used to it all now. My prosthesis caused issues at Melbourne with a new machine that body scans. The young man so embarrassed when I explained anomaly on the screen. He asked a female to body-search me. Thank God China and Mongolia do not have that super-duper technology yet.

A Stroll in Ulaanbaatar

In search of a bank, I discovered a vibrant city with wide streets and impressive buildings. The hotel conveniently located and with a grid design the central city easy to explore.

STATISTICS FOR ULAANBAATAR & MONGOLIA

  • The current population of Mongolia is 3,056,876 as of Sunday, August 13, 2017, based on the latest United Nations estimates.
  • Mongolia population is equivalent to 0.04% of the total world population.
  • Mongolia ranks number 137 in the list of countries (and dependencies) by population.
  • The population density in Mongolia is 2 per square Km (5 people per square mile).
  • The total land area is 1,582,339 square Kilometres (610,944 square miles)
    72.4 % of the population is urban (2,209,488 people in 2017)
  • The median age in Mongolia is 27.6 years.
  • The population of Mongolia will be increased by 145 persons daily in 2017. (As opposed to the population of Australia will be increased by 1 053 persons daily in 2017.
  • The population of Ulaanbaatar is 844,818

From the hotel room, I saw some examples of the public buildings built when the Soviets were in charge, especially during Stalin’s time.  Mongolia gave Russia short shift during Perestroika and now as old buildings are replaced with new there’s an even greater move to privatisation to attract investment but also to move away from sameness and serviceability being the criteria.

Fascinating photos, please keep them coming! That’s interesting architecture, sort of like a Chinese riff on those houses in Bloomsbury with a colonnade linking them all together.

Friend Lisa on Facebook :

Mongolia is proud to be democratic and voter turn out is 87% although not compulsory. The transition to privatisation has winners and losers and the current government still coping with the aftermath of GFC, Russia’s push to regain ground lost and of course, China forever an uneasy neighbour considering their past history.

The building Lisa referred to was The National School of Music and Hotel Nine being in close proximity to the Arts precinct meant I walked past it every time I left the hotel.

I heard lovely strains of classical music float from open doors or windows and saw a stream of young people come and go.

A walk to Sukhbaatar Square a delight. Families, teenagers, tourists, and artists touted their wares. No doubt a typical Saturday afternoon. It is a huge space and despite plenty of activities, there were large tracts of emptiness.

Western dress the norm and from a distance, I could have been in an Australian city, but up close government buildings and statues paid homage to Chinggis Khaan and other legends of the Mongol!

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People were friendly, they posed for photos and took ones of me.  Mairi Neil was there!

The streets were clean. Many rubbish bins included ashtrays, also dual bins encouraged recycling. An  Eco toilet in the park built alongside a special place for smokers. What an innovative idea – I never saw anyone walking around smoking.

However, my eyes started to sting and water. I thought it was the slight wind and a change of temperature so persevered but I began to long to be indoors.

I found the bank – or a bank.  ( I did get lost.)

Converted some of the US dollars I’d been advised to bring to colourful Mongolian tögrög.(tugrik)

Main mission accomplished, I negotiated the busy intersections by attaching myself to locals and crossing with them because despite traffic lights the cars seemed to be able to turn regardless of whether it was red or green.  An absence of road rules I understood made me nervous!

At last, I found the National Museum and before even going inside to see their fabulous collection of historic and ethnographic artefacts, I fed my love of history and art.

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There is an amazing sculpture to the victims of political purges common under Stalin, a replica of a stone praising the great Mongolian leader Chinggis Khaan, ancient carved deer stones and a huge temple bell signifying the country’s links with the established religions of Buddhism and Hinduism.

 

The Mongol Empire was the largest land empire and the second largest overall empire in world history. 

The most famous Mongolian, the powerful Chinggis Khaan (Genghis Khan). He brought together the tribes and clans of the Mongols to establish an empire. The Mongols ruled most of Europe including Eastern Europe, Iran, Central Asia, part of south east Asia, and all of China.

The Mongolian people share many customs with nearby Turkic peoples. The most obvious being that both live in yurts, which Mongolians call gers. They have nomadic traditions, the horse a central feature in their culture, and many still practice Tengriism (Turko-Mongol shamanism).

In addition to its historic and linguistic importance, this carved ‘stele’ replica gives an explanation of the successful Mongolian military campaigns of the 13th century. The inscription dedicated to the son of Khasar, Chinggis Khaan’s brother.

The stone found in eastern Siberia in 1818 and removed from Mongolia to St Petersburg in Russia in 1936 where it is still in the State Hermitage Museum. I wonder if Mongolia has ever demanded the original be returned?

The inscription translated as:

“While Chinggis Khaan was holding an assembly of Mongolian dignitaries, after his conquest of Sartuul, Esunk, he shot a target at 335 alds” (530metres).

No wonder he is revered as a great warrior!

The Temple Bell an important symbol of the importance of Buddhism, the major religion in Mongolia.  Stalinism tried to wipe it out but it has survived and thrived.

One of the most powerful pieces of art I’ve experienced was in front of the National Museum with this explanatory plaque.

VICTIMS OF POLITICAL PURGES MEMORIAL

The decision to erect a memorial to the victims of political purges was made in 1991 and in1997 the monument designed by L. Bold was unveiled in front of the National Museum of Mongolia. The black cubic structure symbolizes oppression and grief, and the figure of a broken human torso with the head soaring upward reflects the tragic fate of the condemned yet their resolve and hope to seek the truth in light. The empty space between the frame and human figure reflects the idea that this historic tragedy shall never be erased or faded from our memory. This monument is considered the first work of modern art to be constructed in Ulaanbaatar after 1990.

The deer stone carvings discovered by a joint Mongolian-Russian archaeological team at the site of Surtiin Denj, located in Burentogtokh surn of Khovsgol aimag, in 2006. Some of the images, including a pair of fish and a spoked wheel, are rarely depicted on deer stones in Mongolia and Eurasia!

Mongolia is home to multiple types of paleontological findings, including rare species, ancient plants, and rare minerals. Various types of animals and plants, some never found in any other country, have been living in Mongolian territory for thousands of years. It’s a great place to find fossil dinosaurs and other extinct creatures!

So was it irony or serendipity that saw me spending my first night in Mongolia, relaxing on the bed, sipping a cup of soup and watching the latest movie creation from JK Rowling’s books?

 

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The movie Fantastic Beasts – with captions:)

 

I completed much more than the requisite 10,000 steps to keep fit that first afternoon walking around Ulaanbaatar and I didn’t need rocking to sleep.

Well rested, next morning, I was downstairs before the pick-up time of 9.30am to breakfast on muesli, fresh fruit and English Breakfast tea and start day two:

  • A tour of the Gandan Monastery Complex
  • A visit to the Chinggis Khaan Equestrian Statue
  • transfer to the Buuviet Ger Camp, Terelj National park

I met Ada, my guide for the next three days but before we did any sightseeing I had to get help for my eyes, which had ached all night and started to weep the minute I stepped outside. Was I allergic to Mongolia? Or the residue of sweet incense permeating the hotel walls?

eye drops from Mongolia

We called into a chemist a few moments later. Bought some eye drops. What a relief.

Ada explained my problem and I was given the drops with the assurance they’d work. And they did. It was the pollution in the air irritating my eyes.

Like a throwback to 1979 China! Mongolians living in the suburban ger camps burn fossil fuels like coal as well as wood, they also burn a lot of rubbish like old tyres to save money. The seasonal wind made the smog deceptive but it was there and my eyes detected it.

Thank you, Ada, I would have taken forever to track down a chemist and explain my problem! 

Day Two here I come…

Open House Melbourne Will Open Your Eyes To The City’s Charms

sun setting on Skye

2017 is my seventh year volunteering for Open House Melbourne weekend, an experience I love. I’m so glad to be back from an overseas trip for the event, especially since this year is a significant tenth anniversary.

10 Years of Inspiring Architecture

Emma Telfer, the new Executive Director of the Open House Melbourne Program  is

“incredibly proud to lead an organisation that’s committed to empowering citizens to be active participants in the building of our city. 

Open House Melbourne now represents an annual program of talks, tours, workshops and interviews that explore the issues, challenges and success stories of Melbourne’s built environment. 

At the heart of our program is the much-loved Open House Weekend… where 200 buildings are opening their doors so you can learn how the built environment and urban-planning initiatives influence our culture and shape our future.

 

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Nicholas Building, 37 Swanston Street, Melbourne

I was assigned Folk Architects, a studio on the eighth floor,

longstanding tenants who are capturing the spirit of the place through a publication that aims to uncover the Building’s architectural, social and cultural histories.”

The building itself was built in 1926 and the architect was Harry A Norris. It was an investment by the Nicholas family who made their fortune from Aspro.

From 1926 to 1967 a Coles department store occupied the basement and part of the ground floor. The building was home to businesses associated with the Flinders Lane garment trade, commercial artists, medical practitioners and architects. By the 2010’s the small rooms and relatively cheap rent attracted creative industry practitioners and specialist retailers, some of whom still serve the fashion industry, and it became renowned as one of Melbourne’s ‘vertical lanes’.

The novel Shantaram, written by one of Australia’s most wanted fugitives Gregory David Roberts, was written in the building. In 2003, it is believed a stencil by UK artist Banksy was painted on the building at the corner of Swanston St and Flinders Lane; a piece of plastic was put up over the piece to protect it from the elements but was later painted over by vandals causing a disturbance in the art community.

From Wikipedia

It is listed by the National Trust and is also listed by Heritage Victoria.

The National Trust of Australia highlights the architectural value of the Nicholas Building’s Cathedral Arcade on the ground floor, connecting Swanston Street to Flinders Lane; the Wunderlich terracotta cladding and thirdly, the unique condition of the building with very few alterations from its original design…

from 10 Years of Inspiring Architecture, Open House Melbourne 2017

When I turned up for duty, it is the amazing leadlight ceiling in the Cathedral Arcade and how the stained and etched glass has been incorporated in shop fronts that set the building apart from many of the new shopping malls and high-rise buildings.

There is also a patterned and ceramic tiled floor adding to the heritage signature. No wonder it rates hundreds of 4-star reviews on Trip Advisor and is described as a photographer’s delight.

This Is Why We Must Look Up and Look Down

For people into art deco, the arcade features beautiful, polished wood panels with many of the original features retained by this “interwar palazzo skyscraper“.

Like many other locals, I’ve hurried up Swanston Street or visited one of the many tenants in the Nicholas Building without fully appreciating how stunning the entrance and walkway is – the motif in the domed entrance triggers thoughts of Aladdin and his lamp – a great thought because the design is magical!

cathedral place genie design 2017

The name of the arcade apt too because just across the way is St Paul’s Cathedral, another favourite to visit during Open House, Melbourne.

 

The blurb for Open House Weekend describes how the building “continues to host a burgeoning creative community that is a catalyst for ongoing renewal. The relationship between the Nicholas Building and its inhabitants is inseparable as the building enriches the lives of its occupants.”

 

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Artist tenants looking for companions to share costs

 

As I stood at the entrance to the lifts to guide the 400 plus people who visited Folk Architects on the eighth floor I saw plenty of examples supporting their view that:

“Given that there isn’t a single signature building that defines Melbourne – the Nicholas Building represents the city in many ways as it is unassuming, diverse, culturally rich yet not ostentatious. It is a series of small and diverse tenancies, sublets with folk that are curiously interconnected. The building is also a microcosm of its surrounding laneway networks… it has the capacity to provide something for everybody – however, you might have to look beyond the surface to find the magic!”

Christie Petsinis – Folk Architects

An interesting snippet is that the Nicholas Building was home to the last manually operated elevator in Melbourne.

I worked for the Victorian Branch of the Federated Miscellaneous Workers’ Union in the 1980s and can remember printing off the Lift Attendants’ Award. I can also remember that many buildings in Melbourne employed people to operate the lifts, which before modernisation had two doors and manual controls.

 

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The lifts on the first floor

 

This Is Why I Volunteer

Part of the enjoyment of volunteering for Open House Weekend is the interaction with the people you meet as well as enjoying a different perspective of the building. I’ve been lucky over the years with those I’ve worked with but also with the buildings allocated.

Last year it was Abbotsford Convent in Collingwood, the year before it was Edgewater Towers, St Kilda. I’ve been on duty at Como House, Fitzroy High School and the Women’s Centre in Lonsdale Street where the Jessie Mac hospital used to be. Different buildings and settings encapsulating the diversity of Melbourne’s architecture and design.

Yesterday Vincent my co-volunteer who works at Crown Casino and another gaming establishment volunteered “to stay connected and give back to the community“. Gabrielle, the Precinct Manager is in her seventh-year too and loves the possibilities of learning and appreciating Melbourne by visiting lots of buildings over the weekend. She was excited that her children now participate.

I love the sharing of stories that begins even before the weekend starts. When I mentioned to a friend where I was on duty she reminisced about her hairdressing days decades ago when she was employed in a salon in the Nicholas Building. An author now she reminded me that The Wheeler Centre used to be in the Nicholas Building and I recalled attending events there.

There is still a bookshop on the first floor which hosts author events – the owner forthright about being captive in a much-photographed building!

There were several women who had come for a special presentation in The Kimono House on the second floor. The demonstration of various ways to don a kimono and explanation of the textile, design and various garment parts was a booked-out event.

I convinced the attendees who had some time to spare to take the lift up to the eighth floor and take advantage of Open House or call in when their event was finished.

Many of those who were visiting other floors were happy to join in Open House once I explained the aim of the weekend. Thank goodness the organisers give volunteers the identifying scarf and badge, but more importantly the book with information on the buildings open.

It was satisfying to direct people to nearby open buildings, especially those who were tourists and had only a few hours in the city.

This year the theme colour of black and white may have been popular with Collingwood supporters, however for members of the public, the scarves were drab and hard to spot. In the words of one lady, “You blended into the walls, I didn’t see you there!”

Not exactly a self-esteem boost but accurate nonetheless. Signage and identifying colours important, especially for those people racing from one building to the other and not taking the time to research the exact location or opening times.

 

7 years of volunteering Open House
Vibrant colours work best

 

On the train into the city, I sat beside Yvonne who used to own The Cowboys, a retail outlet in Mordialloc. The place a legend when my daughters were growing up – reinventing itself from bric-a-brac and second-hand goods to antiques. She owned the shop with her first husband, Graham.

With her new partner, John,  she heading into Melbourne to enjoy Open House, “a weekend not to be missed.”

My badge a conversation starter. Yvonne loved attending Open House and she and John had a list of places to see. They booked into a hotel overnight to make attending some of the popular places easier. A great idea.

We shared stories of Mordialloc and mutual acquaintances – it is indeed a small world!

As I stood at the entrance to the lifts I reflected on how life is never boring. One lady remembered attending ‘a school for young ladies‘ in the building and learning commercial subjects. At the same time, she recalled there was a ‘film studio’ on another floor where “those kinds of films” were made with “not so nice young ladies“.

A book on past tenants is bound to be a best seller!

Ten Stunning Photos From the Nicholas Building

Before I took up duty on the Ground Floor, I spent some time appreciating Folk Architects – especially the view from Room 815!

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I asked Tim how he remained focused on work. I’d be tempted to stare out of the window.

He agreed it was difficult some days and said how privileged he was particularly seeing the change of seasons on the swathe of trees lining St Kilda Road and surrounding parkland.

However, when it is an everyday availability, human nature kicks in and despite the distraction, familiarity lets you concentrate on work at hand.

And what amazing work Tim and his partner showcased.

Visitors heard or saw evidence of the various briefs completed and works in progress. Their fresh, innovative and sustainable approach evident in the pictures on the wall, objects in the room and awards and plans on display.

Most of the work for suburban or outer suburban landscapes but Tim’s design also used at Abbotsford Convent.

 

Visitors could see examples of materials and quirky as well as practical design. One woman attempted to sit on a chair made from a bicycle seat but thankfully changed her mind. I know basic first aid but wouldn’t consider myself an expert!

 

Folk Architects was open from 10.00am to 1.00pm but before leaving the Nicholas Building I had a last look at some of the other floors.

The stairwells and shop fronts also attractive to photographers I’m sure.

The steady stream of people using the lifts included tenants and workers. I saw several men wheeling trollies with laundry and toilet supplies as well as artists turning up for work in their studios clutching the obligatory cup of coffee heart starter.

However, I’m glad there were over 400 extra visitors -including me – to appreciate one of the city’s architectural gems!

I wonder what building I’ll be assigned next year.

 

Dunkirk – A dynamic take on Operation Dynamo

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Movie Promo

SPOILERS AHEAD!

I went to Southland with my friend Barbara to treat her to a movie and lunch for her birthday.

We agreed on Dunkirk, although we knew if it was historically accurate it would not be light cinematic entertainment.

Our childhoods spent in the shadow of WW2 – Barbara in the 1940s and me in the 1950s – so war stories, if not from family, then from school, novels, television and film ever present. 

However, so much that is offered at the cinema today doesn’t appeal and the Dunkirk story seemed a good choice. It is about a definitive moment in World War Two of mythological proportions like the RAF’s Battle Of Britain.

Years ago, I was told my uncle sailed from Scotland to help with the rescue therefore like many families throughout Britain mine had some involvement.  Others knew someone, whether a member of the British Expeditionary Force plucked from the beaches, or aboard one of the huge fleet of ships, both naval and civilian, which crossed the English Channel in the attempt to save them.

Dunkirk, the movie, tells the story of Operation Dynamo – not from the point of view of government or military command but from the perspective of the ordinary soldiers (army, navy and air) and the civilians called upon to help them return ‘home’ to England.

(The link highlighted above is an article published in 2015 on the 75th anniversary revealing ’40 amazing facts’ about the operation and is a good starting point if you know nothing about it.) 

This 1940 evacuation of hundreds of thousands of allied troops trapped on the beaches of France turned a massive military defeat into a humanitarian triumph and spawned the phrase ‘Dunkirk Spirit.’ Words used in times of adversity when ordinary people show stoicism and courage beyond expectations. Words that became part of British culture.

The Setting of Dunkirk

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In the early stages of the war, the advancing German Army swept through Belgium and Northern France to rout the British Expeditionary Force and their French allies and trap them at the Port of Dunkirk

The recreation of the armies on the beach with nowhere safe to go as sand and sea explode around them creates some of the most intense and distressing scenes of the movie, especially when seen through the eyes of the main characters.

The setting was intense, and for the movie adaptation, Nolan strove to make the scenes feel as realistic as possible. He filmed on the beach during the summer so the weather would be right, and he tried to avoid computer-generated imagery (CGI) as much as possible. Instead of having spectators feel like they’re in a theater, Nolan wrote in an essay for the Telegraph, he decided that “we’re going to put them on the beach, feeling the sand getting everywhere, confronting the waves … on small civilian boats bouncing around on the waves on this huge journey heading into a terrifying war zone.”

Even the props were legit: The crew used actual World War II-era ships from nine countries, according to the Independent, including a 350-foot French destroyer that needed to be towed to the set. They also built and featured at least one replica of a vintage plane.

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In the movie, there is no individual protagonist as such, just several interwoven storylines of people we grow to care about as the minutes unfold. We journey through nerve-wracking, narrow escapes from death with the two young soldiers from the opening scenes.

We fear for the lives of the Spitfire pilots battling in the air, nail-biting tension because we know they have limited fuel for the journey across the Channel and aerial combat.

We worry the small pleasure craft will survive the obstacle course of rough seas, u-boats and attacks from enemy aircraft.

The film is told from three points of view: on the beach with the infantry (including Fionn Whitehead and Harry Styles), the evacuation by the navy (featuring Cillian Murphy and Mark Rylance, showing how civilians came to the rescue) and then in the air (with Tom Hardy engaging in plane combat).

Speaking about the narrative structure in Premiere magazine, Christopher Nolan stated: “For the soldiers who embarked in the conflict, the events took place on different temporalities. On land, some stayed one week stuck on the beach. On the water, the events lasted a maximum day; and if you were flying to Dunkirk, the British spitfires would carry an hour of fuel. To mingle these different versions of history, one had to mix the temporal strata. Hence the complicated structure; even if the story is very simple. Do not repeat it to the studio: it will be my most experimental film.”

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Barbara and I saw the movie on the large VMax screen. The naval and air battles with accompanying ear-splitting explosions and the fear for the recognisable characters is an emotional roller coaster. The soundtrack so loud that there were several instances where I literally jumped out of my skin.

Be warned!

According to actor-director Kenneth Branagh, roughly 30 veteran Dunkirk survivors, who were in their mid-nineties, attended the premiere in London. When asked about the film, they felt that it accurately captured the event but that the soundtrack was louder than the actual bombardment, a comment that greatly amused director Christopher Nolan.

However, this is not a blood and gore war movie – much of the horror implied, although you are in no doubt about the genre.  The aim for authenticity leaves you gasping and tearful at man’s inhumanity to man.

(It is difficult not to think of the situation in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Yemen. The vast number of refugees and the constant bombardments they suffer.  The horror beamed nightly into our homes yet where is the coordinated rescue response for them?)

Barbara exclaimed at the end of Dunkirk, ‘Well, that put my blood pressure up!’

‘It raised my blood pressure too,’ I agreed. ‘And I cried.’

‘Me too,’ said Barbara. ‘I had no idea what it was like. I was a baby during the war and Dad never talked about it. My uncle was in Changi and so the war with Japan more talked about. I probably learnt about Dunkirk at school but can’t remember.’

(Historians point out that until the Fall of Singapore in 1942 the withdrawal from Dunkirk was widely viewed as the worst defeat in British military history so why would people talk about it.)

As we walked out of the cinema, I said, ‘None of us learnt about Dunkirk this way, but maybe if we did people wouldn’t be so keen to join the army and go to war – not that those poor buggers had much choice.’

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Promo for the film

Perspective Is Everything

The strength of the movie is showing the large scale event up close and personal from a variety of view points. Something writers always ask – who is telling the story?

The limited dialogue from the soldiers while on the beach and in naval ships works because they experience u-boat and air attacks and the soundtrack to their fear and the chaos of war is tension-inducing music, punctuated by explosions and all-powerful silences.

This is showing not telling – what film does best.

When interviewed by Business Insider, writer and director Christopher Nolan said,

“The tension between subjective storytelling and sort of the bigger picture is always a challenge in any film, particularly when you’re taking on, which I never have done before, historical reality.

So I really wanted to be on that beach with those guys. I wanted the audience to feel like they are there. But I also need them and want them to understand what an incredible story this is.”

Two of the soldier characters do everything they can to get off that beach and we invest our energy in their efforts.

Escapades involve a tense scene of running with a wounded soldier on a stretcher,  chosen at random so they can board a hospital ship ahead of others.

Their quick-thinking and queue-jumping raise ethical and moral questions but we feel their terror and understand their will to survive. They are both traumatised by the death and destruction they’ve seen. 

Who can blame them for not wanting to follow accepted rules or orders from people who put them there in the first place?

Likewise, the events on board one of the civilian craft involving a rescued survivor suffering shell shock and a young boy who volunteered for the rescue mission. In a scuffle on board because the survivor wants to be taken home and not be part of the rescue mission, the young boy, George falls and hits his head. He dies from the wound but the traumatised soldier is never told it was his push that killed the boy. 

When he and other survivors are finally off-loaded in England he sees a covered body taken off the boat. We assume he puts two and two together and makes four but perhaps he doesn’t.

The three storylines are woven together to form a cohesive conclusion but not neatly tied in bows or predictable endings. Life is messy and war is definitely messier.

Actions speak louder than words. Dialogue occasionally moves the story along but silence and audience interpretation work too.

Even Prime Minister Churchill’s famous speech is delivered by an ordinary soldier reading a newspaper report. His mate more interested in the free beer and accolades from civilians on the railway platform than the spin officials try to put on the debacle.

Winston Churchill had only been British Prime Minister for 16 days at the time of this event so it is probably more realistic that his speech was a bit of a non-event at the time for the soldiers.

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This is a film about human frailty and courage, about death on a grand scale and on a personal level, about the survival of the fittest and collective responsibility, about selfishness and sacrifice, about deliberate and unplanned reactions.

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Actual photograph from Dunkirk 1940

The interwoven storylines of the fictional characters in Dunkirk have been criticised as only showing the allied perspective and for being so disparate that the film is disjointed. The characters have been called weak and the split timeline confusing.

I disagree and preferred this version of history with its limited dialogue, lack of melodrama, or made up romantic nonsense such as we saw in Titanic and Pearl Harbour. The characters and their relationships are believable.

Even young George’s desire for fame displays a teenage trait. He hopped on the rescue boat because he wanted to be part of something important, he wanted his name in the paper, to be considered a somebody, not a nobody who didn’t perform well at school, who others thought wouldn’t amount to much.

When George dies from what is really a freak accident and soldiers survive horrific air battles and boat sinkings we weep for the lack of justice in the world.

The characters represented every man, the human face to an overwhelming historical event.

Who can picture 400,000 troops trapped on a stretch of beach? And comprehend that many of the 338,000 were rescued by pleasure craft – ‘Little Ships” as they became affectionally called?

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The characters in Dunkirk may be made up but Nolan did his research in creating them and recruited Joshua Levine, a historian to work on the script. He also consulted veterans before filming the movie and those who attended the premiere gave it a thumbs up.

The story arcs of the soldiers desperate to leave the beach, the civilians to the rescue and the airman who fights valiantly and is shot down make sense and like the ending of a good novel the storylines merge to a satisfying conclusion.

The war is not over but we know how it ended. We can speculate about what will ultimately happen to the characters and be grateful we glimpsed a deeper insight into a momentous historical occasion.

Art Mimicking Life

The accuracy of Nolan’s interpretation of research verified by videos available on Youtube with footage discovered in 2015 in Manchester University’s Library.

We see evacuated soldiers packed on to destroyers. All the while, other troops waited patiently on the beaches for their turn to be rescued.

“This is a truly remarkable discovery 75 years after Dunkirk, these films are testimony to the bravery of the servicemen and civilians who risked – and in many cases sacrificed – their lives to rescue the stricken army. Without Operation Dynamo, Britain would have lost the war.”

John Hodgson, Manuscripts and Archives Manager

Scenes in Nolan’s Dunkirk mirror reality from this discovered archival footage:

The footage shows the rapid passage of arriving and departing destroyers, and one Cross-Channel ferry, assisting in the evacuation. Meanwhile a destroyer fires her rear anti-aircraft guns, and another appears so low in the water as to be sinking or aground. 

Historically the films are important because they capture key moments of Operation Dynamo. We see the camera pan across the scene of fire and smoke over Dunkirk town, with its distinctive white and striped lighthouse in the background. “

Kay Gladstone, Curator at the Imperial War Museum

Apparently, Christopher Nolan first got the idea for the movie when he sailed to Dunkirk in 1992. Before he started filming he made the crossing again,  “The way the civilians would have done during the Dunkirk Evacuation. Nolan said it took 19 hours because of the conditions of the sea.”

He also “rode in the Spitfire shown in the movie in order to get a sense of the aerial feel of the fighter plane; with the purpose being to help him shoot and provide an authentically realistic experience of the dogfights for the audience.

Just as research is important for novels, so too is it important for making authentic films.

Random Scenes That Stood Out For Me

  1. When the rescued men are ushered below deck on a destroyer and it is a mug of tea and the humble but effective jam sandwich they’re given. Britain was on rations for years after the war (up until 1954) and I can remember many a jam sandwich used as a filler to stave off hunger pangs until mealtime.
  2. The defeat and despair on the faces of evacuated men crowding the decks of a destroyer as it passes the pleasure craft heading for Dunkirk.

(This poignant scene triggered a memory of a story my husband, John told me of being a young recruit in the RN in 1954. The Viet Minh victory at Dien Bien Phu signalled the end of French colonial influence in Indochina and the defeated French forces were evacuated by the aircraft carrier, Arromanches. John said you could smell the dead and the dying before his ship came abreast of the carrier. Tradition has it that crew stand at attention and salute each other when naval ships pass or draw alongside. That didn’t happen in this case and the Brits were shocked at the despair and defeat they saw from the demoralised troops aboard Arromanches.)

3.  The joy and cheers when the first flotilla of little boats arrive at Dunkirk and the men know they will be going home. Kenneth Branagh’s convincing Commander Bolton has tears glistening and you see him struggle to keep it together and not jump up and down and cheer like his men.

4. Minesweepers protect the destroyers against u-boats. These ships were not supposed to stop and pick up survivors but many did – my Uncle Captain John Dinwoodie one of those who was awarded a DSC and Bar for risking his life for survivors in 1942-45.

At Dunkirk, Lieutenant John Dinwoodie, D.S.C., R.N.R. was skipper of a trawler and went from Scotland to help in the rescue. Passenger ferries, cargo vessels, paddle steamers, excursion ships, Dutch skoots (tugboats), British tugs, fishing boats, barges, small pleasure cruisers and yachts all participated. Up to 1300 vessels set sail in the early summer of 1940.

In the movie, Commander Bolton yells to one of the few women characters and a couple of other crew from little boats. ‘Where are you from?’ and if you know your geography there is a sense of how many citizens have responded. Scotland is not just across the channel and many boats answered the call, as well as a boat from the Isle of Man!

If you know your geography there is a sense of how many UK citizens have responded. Scotland is not just across the channel and many boats answered the call, as well as a boat from the Isle of Man!

(It is a pity the credits didn’t indicate the number of little boats but I guess Nolan was not wanting his film confused with a documentary, even although it is based on fact.)

  1. I was glad the other young deckhand went to the local paper to ensure George got his 15 minutes of fame and was recorded as one of the heroes of Dunkirk. A satisfying end to his story arc.
  2. The scene where a group of desperate soldiers trapped in an abandoned trawler turn on each other is confronting but realistic. Desperation does not bring out the best in people.

When they discover a French soldier has stolen the uniform of a dead British soldier so he can escape the ugly side of humanity appears. It doesn’t matter he has saved lives and is only showing the same survive-at-all-odds behaviour as them.  He is a foreigner, albeit an ally, and they let him know he does not belong!

Dunkirk has it all – the good, the bad and the ugly…

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the story Christopher Norton has decided to tell will keep you emotionally engaged for 106 minutes and give plenty of food for thought, debate and discussion.

What more can you ask from a film?