Neighbourhood Houses – The Heart Of Our Community

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Chelsea Heights Community Centre captures the essence of neighbourhood houses!

On Monday, under the auspices of Longbeach Place where I teach, I did a creative writing workshop at the Kingston Arts Centre as part of a month-long promotion of community houses in the City of Kingston. This was open to the public for free.

Nine community/neighbourhood houses in the City of Kingston were given display space in the galleries to promote activities under the theme  ‘the heart of the community‘.

The promotion also coincided with Volunteer Week. The Council is always keen to encourage people to volunteer and neighbourhood houses are a great place to start a fulfilling journey!

If you are keen to help others, want to share or learn a skill, meet people and help curb your own or their isolation,  contribute to the wellbeing and social capital of the community, then there is no better place to start than a neighbourhood house!

What is a Neighbourhood House?

A Neighbourhood House is a not-for-profit local organisation set up to provide social, educational, and recreational activities for a community, in a welcoming, supportive, non-judgemental environment.

Managed by a volunteer committee and some paid administrative staff, it operates with the assistance of volunteers. There is a wealth of accredited and non-accredited courses provided by teachers like myself, but also niche groups set up such as Longbeach Place’s Yarn Art & Craft Storybook Trail, or groups for carers to have time-out, family history buffs, knitting and art enthusiasts… the list is endless.

Neighbourhood Houses have space to host morning teas, conferences, annual general meetings – regular meetings for almost any community group you can imagine. My Mordialloc Writers’ Group met at a neighbourhood house for over 20 years.

Some of the houses are Registered Training Organisations and many are Learn Locals like Longbeach Place, offering VET courses.

Neighbourhood Houses receive some funding from State and Local Governments and donations or partnerships with private enterprises and philanthropists.

Longbeach display Arts Centre

Each paper heart on the display board celebrating Longbeach Place was written by a student. In a word or phrase, they described what the neighbourhood house meant to them:

The contributions from the other houses who also used hearts, echoed the recurring sentiments of a safe, friendly environment, nurturing learning and creativity with lots of fun and educational activities.

When Did Neighbourhood Houses Start?

The Neighbourhood House movement began in Victoria in 1973 with the aim of offering people a supportive, non-threatening environment to share skills and mix socially within local communities.

Neighbourhood Houses represent and serve their community. They are accessible drop-in centres that care about social wellbeing, personal and community growth. They often attract and welcome those who feel isolated, neglected, lonely and forgotten or those who have just arrived and want to “fit in”… they provide a learning environment like no other.

The people who attend usually live, study or work within the local area, and courses and activities offered are dictated by the local community and their needs.

This makes each place unique and some develop particular strengths.

Many Houses started with specific groups in mind depending on their locality.

The 1970s – A Time Of Social Change

It was the 70s and the Women’s Liberation Movement was growing. Most community houses grew from women’s involvement and demands. They saw the need for programmes for people with disability, victims of domestic violence, new migrants and multicultural groups,  and Aboriginal/ Torres Strait Islanders, women who needed confidence in returning to study or retraining.

Women wanted childcare and playgroups for ‘stay-at-home mums’ and a place for all people to be treated equally regardless of race, religion, gender or ability. They may have left the workforce to have children but still wanted to share their skills or learn new ones as they adapted to motherhood and parenting.

1972 was a watershed in Australian political history – the Federal Labor Government of Gough Whitlam had a strong commitment to community programmes, to women and to children. State Governments followed their lead – times and our culture a’changing.

Federal money released for the first time to fund programs that actively encouraged women back to study and into the workforce by making higher education and training courses free. There were funds for women’s refuges, programs to assist families, and for childcare.

Many women ‘went back to school’ via courses at neighbourhood houses first and gained the confidence and qualifications to enter tertiary studies. Older women whose families were almost grown up returned to study and used the neighbourhood houses to fill gaps in their education but also to develop courses and activities to help others.

Wellbeing And Creativity

Neighbourhood houses help manage social change and prevent social isolation.

The last few years the Men’s Shed Movement has grown out of community houses. The benefits of men having somewhere to go to cope with adjusting to being alone, coping with health issues, retrenchments, early retirement and adjusting to years of extra life expectancy are universally accepted now.

People often discover and develop creative talents in arts and crafts suppressed at school or never given a chance to grow. Creative courses in neighbourhood houses are often the first step for people, at last, being able to show their artistic or writing talents.

Neighbourhood Houses Victoria

Neighbourhood Houses Victoria (NHV) was established in the early 1970s as the peak body for Victorian Neighbourhood Houses and Learning Centres.

  • It currently has a membership of over 380 organisations – 90% of the 390 Houses and Centres in the state.
  • The mission of the organisation is to support and develop the movement of Neighbourhood Houses and Learning Centres as individual organisations and as a collective.
  • This past year they spearheaded a campaign to have the State Government boost funding for the sector.
neighbourhood house poster
And the Andrews Labor Government did deliver by boosting investment in the neighbourhood house network by $21.8 million over the next four years.
I received a letter from Minister for Families and Children Jenny Mikakos MP in response to a postcard I sent as part of the campaign where she confirmed:

The Andrews Labor Government is backing our neighbourhood houses as we want to ensure more Victorians have access to the vital employment, training and volunteering services that many neighbourhood houses provide in our local communities across Victoria.

 Well done to everyone who campaigned for such a great result.

It is always a relief to have guaranteed funding so that courses can be planned – and with rapidly changing and increasing demographics neighbourhood house managers and committees are kept on their toes!

Writing Creatively At Kingston Arts Centre

I transplanted my usual Monday Class at Longbeach to Moorabbin along with an open invitation to the public.

At one stage, when five of the regulars sent apologies and I was struck by a dreaded winter bug I toyed with following the line of the old song, “let’s call the whole thing off…”

I had no idea what awaited me on Monday but how thrilling to greet three regular students plus some past students and friends – and a lady who said,

“I’ve never written creatively before.”

The two hours disappeared fast along with the chocolate biscuits I brought and the tea and coffee the Arts Centre provided!  Yet, we were too busy to have a designated break.

After brief introductions, we did some productive brainstorming and then with heads down the writing began.  After each exercise people shared completed sentences, paragraphs, even vignettes to the prompts. Fascinating and vastly different pieces of writing.

I targeted “the senses.” These are often neglected but improve our writing when included. The variety of responses rich and rewarding.

I love writing workshops!

At the conclusion of the exercise on the sense of smell, one participant concluded, ‘I realise I have a limited vocabulary when it comes to describing smells.’

She continued to suggest others do what she does, “when reading I write unusual and interesting words I discover in a notebook.  It helps improve my writing. Now,  I’ll watch out for how other writers describe smells.’

This is a perfect example of the wonderful feedback and help fellow writers give each other and how writing exercises and sharing in class can improve our writing.

A Personal Story

A few weeks ago, one of my past students from my 2016 class at Mordialloc Neighbourhood House emailed me. English was not her first language and she needed help with a private matter.

It was great to catch up for a coffee and fortunately, I was able to help her. She is an educated, enterprising woman who had been a journalist in Japan but like many who write facts for a living, she wanted to explore creative writing.

She lacked confidence in her own ability and struggled with the nuances of English. In the class, I encouraged her to express herself through poetry.

Her perceptions about adjusting to life in Melbourne and being able to express her feelings about other aspects of her life was a great healing journey but also led to valuable discussions in class.

She blossomed but I’ll let her tell you in her own words what attending a class at a community house meant:

My Writing Class
Naoko

I’ve never really liked classes
I’m often less enthusiastic
preferring to study on my own
I was not a good student in writing class

Yet there are good memories
reminiscent of days visiting relatives –
a bit awkward but feeling secure

In class I remembered the joy of writing
I was accepted for who I was
I made an inspiring Turkish friend
I learned authenticity is the essence of writing
I got to know each classmate’s story
From warm words of condolence
I was encouraged to keep my head high
No matter what I faced

I will take home these great gifts I received
From my writing class at Mordialloc beach

And looking at the past I regret
that I have missed the beauties of life
from being arrogant in classes

I only loved my Mum when I was a kid
And growing up into adulthood
I tended to only love one person at a time
I regret now that I may have missed
the beauties of other people
by being narrow-minded on some occasions

I will take home great gifts about life
received from my writing teacher at Mordialloc beach.

When she left for an extended trip to Japan, Naoko gifted me her poem and a beautiful watercolour she had painted. Gifts I will treasure along with her work published in the class anthology.

The poems and stories of all past students are important to me and when I read their words I hear their voice, imagine them in class… memories I value. Another of my students who has been attending my classes for a long time said exactly the same thing – she reads the anthologies and remembers.

Write your stories – leave a legacy – leave an impression for someone to remember!

Writing In the 21st Century

We are in the digital age and the demands of readers have changed – there are websites, blogs, e-books – all read on a variety of devices with different screens and parameters.

If writers want to reach readers our methods must change – how you adapt is your choice. For many people, the traditional printed paper is still what they want to read and how they want to be published.

There is room for both traditional and digital publishing and whether you write with pen and paper or prefer to tap your laptop or iPad you benefit from regular writing.

Writing classes or workshops can be a first step to discovering not only what you want to write while learning the tools of the craft, but also how you want to be published. More importantly, they can keep you motivated.

Writing courses proliferate online and in bricks and mortar but for convenience and cost, community houses are worth a look.  We throw in ambience, friendship and sharing of stories and ideas.  We learn from each other and the weekly sessions eliminate the isolation and loneliness many writers suffer.

Community houses provide computer classes too – an introduction and welcome to the digital age that is usually self-paced – again the ambience and friendship are free!

The two places I work have several courses and I can vouch for their excellence at Godfrey Street and Longbeach Place.

And if you want or see a need for a specialised course, put in a suggestion or offer to run it – that’s the beauty of neighbourhood houses! The community owns it and the community is you!

What are you waiting for?

Student, teacher, volunteer, participant – whatever your label there is a place for you in a neighbourhood house – drop in soon!

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Willsmere Beauty Transforms A Beastly Past

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On Sunday, March 4th, I was privileged to visit Willsmere in Kew and participate in a Heritage Walk with a resident as our guide.  This 25-acre site including buildings is now a beautiful community of apartments and gardens.

Referred to as the ‘lunatic asylum” Willsmere was converted and developed in 1993, but with the proviso that certain areas of the heritage listed site are opened to the public twice a year.

The former Kew Lunatic Asylum was built in 1872 during a period when several large public buildings were constructed after the gold rush enriched many people and the Colonial Government. Victoria was an independent state (hence the flag outside Willsmere today) and the authorities promoted the idea of an asylum to “portray Melbourne as a civilized and benevolent city.’

The building displays the influence of Europe with the architects GW Vivian and Frederick Kawerau creating Italianate and the French Second Empire buildings. There are two distinct entrances flanking the main door, one each for male and female inmates who were always separated. Inside they had separate exercise yards as well as wards and cells.

Many historical details remain and the effort to retain architectural features, including paint schemes, brickwork, tiles, wooden window surrounds, doors and balustrades make it an interesting site to access.  

I have volunteered for several years at Open House Melbourne and was thrilled to receive the invitation as a thank you gift for being part of the team. The Open House Movement is worldwide and a wonderful addition to Melbourne’s community calendar.

 I encourage everyone to set aside the last weekend in July to learn more about Melbourne and its buildings. (Last year the program extended to Ballarat so mark the last weekend in October too!)

Many of the buildings listed for Open House don’t have a museum (like Willsmere) but most provide historical information and/or context that makes visiting memorable.

History Attached to Willsmere

As a history buff, I love learning about old buildings. Willsmere has links to the architecture of colonial times but there is much more to uncover because it was built for a specific purpose.

My mother did “mental nursing” as it was called in the 1940s, and I recall her stories about how shocking it was that people with epilepsy were locked away and treated as ‘lunatics’ along with those with a psychiatric illness.  She nursed alongside my father’s older sister Mary in the epileptic colony of the Orphan Homes of Scotland.

I grew up with parents who were experienced, understanding, and compassionate and over the years I witnessed Mum providing a cup of tea and listening ear to several people recovering from breakdowns or bouts of mental ill health.

Delving into the history of places like Willsmere reminds us that even with the best intentions a society can go down a terrible path through ignorance.

Famous Patients

In a brochure about Willsmere, three famous patients are listed with the barest of details and I am sure their full stories would involve serious heartbreak and trauma. They were probably paying patients too.

  • Thomas Wentworth “Tom” Wills, (August 1835 – May 1880). He was an Australian sportsman credited with being the first cricketer of significance and a pioneer of Australian Rules football.
  • Edward De Lacy Evans who was born Ellen Tremayne or Tremaye. (? 1830 – August 1901) A servant, blacksmith and gold miner, who immigrated from Ireland to Australia in 1856, and made international news in 1879 when it was revealed he was a woman.
  • George Henry Stevens “Harry” Trott (August 1866 – November 1917). An Australian Test Cricketer committed to Kew Asylum after a series of seizures. Eventually discharged, he returned to play cricket for Victoria between 1888 and 1898.

Everyone in the asylum had a category: male/female, paying/pauper, manageable/refractory… the latter put into punishment cells that even with doors permanently open will make you shudder.

Kew Asylum

The museum established to preserve the history of the Kew Asylum and Willsmere Mental Hospital is a sobering place. Credit must be given to Central Equity Ltd., the developers for providing funding to preserve this part of our heritage.

The archive comprises over 60 objects salvaged during the redevelopment of the site, plus reproductions of historical documents, plans, and photographs.

 

willsmere cargo tanks.jpg
A cargo tank. Thousands of these tanks were used to carry water, hops, fruit, biscuits, bread and other produce from England to the colonies. They were reused as water tanks often in mines and country buildings. By 1876 Kew had 68 tanks installed in the towers to provide tap water.

 

The museum is a gallery, some bedrooms and an old day room converted to a library. The area, originally Ward A-A, which housed female private patients who had a view across the Yarra towards the city – whether this taunted or relaxed the women we may never know, but certainly, some of the equipment like the machine for electric shock therapy, hint at the barbaric treatment of earlier days.

One of the largest asylums in the world, the Kew Mental Asylum symbolised Victoria’s civic confidence after the gold rush. It was anticipated that being ‘sent to Kew’ would cure the mentally ill, through humane conditions, a moral environment, routine work and medical treatment.

Enlightenment principles were applied to the treatment of mental illness. “Lunatics” were placed in new asylums where illnesses of the mind would be cured by a scientific approach…Unfortunately, Kew never lived up to these benevolent intentions. Few patients were ever cured and released into the community…Kew was subject to repeated public criticism leading to a Royal Commission in 1876… conditions and morale were low…

willsmere patient treatment.jpg

Within years of construction, Kew was condemned as a failure. Governments never provided sufficient funding to prevent overcrowding or employ sufficient staff. (Now isn’t that a familiar story!!)

As a result, many patients simply locked away until their death. The Royal Commission declared:

For a large percentage of our insane population we are quite sure no restraint is necessary, and yet they are all confined together under a system that must be monotonous and oppressive.

In the 1950s, Dr E. Cunningham Dax, director of the Mental Hygiene Authority, initiated a series of reforms to make conditions more tolerable. Kew Asylum gradually converted into Willsmere Mental Hospital, specialising in the care of the aged, including patients with Alzheimer’s Disease.

 

willsmere photos of patients
Thousands of patients and staff called the asylum home in its 117 years history. Up to 1000 patients at a time resident – some for a few days, others a lifetime. The Medical Superintendent had his own residence, many staff slept in the wards with their patients. Every patient was photographed on submission.

 

The paintwork, lighting and floor coverings in the museum area are typical of the Willsmere Hospital when it closed in 1988.

Female patients lived in the northern half of the building, men lived in identical southern wings. On both sides of the Asylum, paupers were housed apart from paying patients, and the difficult inmates were confined to the wards at the back near the kitchens and laundry.

Life on The Wards

Patients were encouraged to take part in activities that gave structure to their day and considered therapeutic. Some worked on the asylum’s farm, which included an orchard, fowl house, 200 pigs, 30 cows and extensive vegetable gardens.

Others worked in the laundry, kitchen or workshops, sewed clothes and made cushions, cared for fellow patients, or assembled components for outside firms. Social activities were held when staffing permitted, such as dancing, music and games on the cricket field built by the asylum community.

A staff psychiatrist from the 1920s recalled the ‘daily scene of desolation and despair’:

Most of the patients were on the airing courts walking backwards and forwards in solitary perambulation, untidily huddled together in groups like resting sheep, or isolated and stationary, looking into space as though they were held in the crystal of a dream.”

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Willsmere constitutes a rare, mostly intact, 19th-century lunatic asylum and is still an architectural Melbourne landmark above the Yarra Bend Park.  At one time it was the highest constructed point in Melbourne with the site considered suitable for Government House but dismissed by early colonists as too isolated.

Walking around you get the sense of its height and the slope of the grounds. There’s the necessity for stairs to access some apartments from the outside as well as internally.

The design included “ha-ha” walls. These retained a view without the feeling of being enclosed.  The height of these brick walls deceptive being built at an angle at the bottom making them impossible to scale.

I was fortunate to be part of the smallest group shown through Willsmere that morning. Jack, an extremely well-versed resident was our guide. Knowledgeable and a longtime Open House volunteer, he explained about the conversion of the site into a modern community of apartments and townhouses. Every sentence he spoke laced with well-deserved pride. The surroundings show love and care and the shared facilities remarkable.

The restoration work tastefully done. Red painted doorways, windows and other features are restored or new versions of the original design. Green painted features are new additions, such as the entrances to many of the apartments.

The modern concrete paths were built during the redevelopment because originally, patients and staff used the covered walkways, now converted into verandahs.

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Gardens of Trees, Flowers, and More Trees

I fell in love with the gardens, especially the trees, some of which are on a heritage list too. There is an ancient peppercorn which may be one of the oldest surviving trees left in suburban Melbourne. It is as old as Willsmere.

How many thousands of feet tramped past this gnarled trunk, how many people sat in its shade, praying, relaxing, contemplating life and death?

Male patients and staff played lawn games from 1878 and the bowling green was rebuilt by the Lawn Bowls and Greenkeepers Association as a gift to the hospital in the 1950s. There was also a cricket oval north of the asylum walls during the 1870s.

Today there is a communal barbecue area, a swimming pool, a tennis court and paths crisscrossing lawns providing lovely walks for residents to play and walk.

Jack put the conversion of this site in perspective when he said there are about 800 residents on this 25-acre site in beautiful surroundings which encourage community and a healthy lifestyle.

He pointed to the other side of the Yarra River where there is a proposed development of an old industrial site of similar acreage. The planned capacity is 2000! I can imagine the future residents of that development will look at the 1990s as a golden age.

How to Get to Willsmere

 It was a difficult but not impossible trek by public transport for me, especially on a Sunday, which explains why the email invite said ‘not suitable access via public transport’.

However, I’ve never driven or owned a car and believe ‘where there’s a will there’s a way’  –  or I’d have limited outings and adventures!

Metro’s My Journey and double-checking with Google Maps works well for public transport. I caught a train from Mordialloc to Melbourne Central where I had a choice of two buses leaving close by and dropping me at different streets off the Chandler Highway.

One bus route offered a walk of 1.5km (19 mins) and the other 1.8km (23 mins). Therefore it’s approximately a twenty-minute walk to Willsmere once you get off the bus – mainly uphill if trusting Google where you find yourself at an entrance not accessible to the general public!

I reread the email I received and realised I should have keyed in a different entrance gate. Just as well it was a gorgeous day and an interesting walk through a suburb regarded as ‘well-to-do’.  Definitely not poverty row and the housing development tastefully done, even keeping the original entrance wall to what was once the Kew Gardens.

I chose the bus heading for Box Hill Station going and a different one returning to the city.   However, heading home I had the benefit of residents’ know-how with a more direct route to the bus stop. There is no substitute for local knowledge – even better than a combination of Google Maps and Metro Journey Planner!

A pleasant, mildly undulating, treed walk to catch the alternative bus took me past the site of where Kew Children’s Cottages used to be. This stirred up memories of visiting there as a teenager in the 1960s.

Kew Cottages

As part of Croydon Uniting Church’s outreach program, my Sunday School teacher, Mr Alabaster organised for our group to each be assigned “a child” to take home for an afternoon to share the experience of a family meal.

We hadn’t lived long in Australia and had no idea the “Children” at Kew included adults. The young man we entertained as he devoured Mum’s scones was closer to 25 than 15.

I have vivid memories of Trevor who was dressed in brand new clothes, including a black vinyl jacket and tan trousers plus polished black leather shoes. No doubt he was told to be on his best behaviour but he couldn’t help boasting about his clothes.

When we picked him up it was the first time I had ever been inside an institution for people with a mental disability and it was confronting. Trevor was spruced up, but those left behind wandering the corridors and grounds not so nicely dressed or as politely behaved.

explanation of cottage sytsem at KEW

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I remember a conversation Dad had with Trevor that still makes me smile.

‘What do you do during the day, Trevor?’

“I have a job.”

“That’s wonderful, son. What’s your job?”

“I drive my truck and take all the bottles to be recycled.”

Dad was gobsmacked and sat bolt upright in his Jason Recliner. An ex-truck driver, he knew a thing or two about trucks. “You drive a truck? How big is it.”

Trevor sat still and silent as he contemplated his answer. Then he opted to indicate with his arms and a description. We worked out Trevor’s truck was red and, in fact, a four-wheeled cart he pulled and steered with a swivelled handle.

Dad relaxed and asked Trevor what music he liked!

There were several scandals regarding the treatment of disabled children in care and the Kew Cottages parents’ Association was formed in 1957, providing a founding group of 130 parents with the opportunity to advocate over issues concerning the care of their children resident at Kew Cottages.

The group was later renamed the Kew Cottages & St Nicholas Parents’ Association. In 1991 the group established a living memorial of a sensory garden designed to capture the imagination through touch, sound and smell.

The original garden planted with Australian native plants which were later replaced with exotic plants in a circular bed.

native garden for residents kew cottages.jpg

I love walking and the day offered several pleasant walks through a leafy part of Melbourne sporting beautiful houses, luscious parks and a misty view of the city sprawl from a completely new angle.

A Tragedy

However, the past is not so loving… and another plaque reminded me of the fire in April 1996 when 9 male residents of Kew Cottages, aged between 30 and 40 years, tragically died. Two other residents and a staff member were injured.

The Kew Cottages & St Nicholas Parents’ Association erected a memorial for the victims of the fire to ensure the names will not be forgotten. I sat on a nearby bench surrounded by natural beauty trying to imagine the chaos and trauma of that night and the terrible loss to the families of the men.

History important and memorials important because the tragedy would have been newspaper headlines for only a couple of days.

I hope people walking along the path – and there is plenty of evidence dog walkers proliferate! – take the time to pause, even sit, and think about the past residents of Willsmere and Kew Cottages.

I hope they think about how the residents were treated and the failures caused by lack of funding and resources. Think about how we must ensure our society does better, and our governments don’t repeat the mistakes of the past.

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A Poem for a Special Place

mordi beach as sun sets

Mordialloc Meditation
Mairi Neil

 

In Main Street, Mordialloc
the lull of evening signalled
by oh, so familiar sounds…
the birds begin to jostle and joust
for palm tree frond, gum-leafed house.

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Dusk descends into twilight glow
the tweets and squeals
now a deafening crescendo –
a cacophony of conversation:
‘Time for bed.’
‘Nestle down!’
‘That’s my branch…’
‘Move over magpies!’
All must know their station
In life, there’s a sense of place
chatter, bargain, even squabble
but eventually, share the space.

‘Stop skylarking about!’
‘You lorikeet lout!’
‘Squeeze over sparrows.’
‘How precious are parrots?’
‘Pigeons! The rooftops are home for you
go mutter your usual “coo coo”…’

And in the gloaming, shadows
of building construction loom,
mounds of dirt inhabit lonely gloom.
A treeless landscape, evictions rife
Mordi’s birds facing a new life.
I remember a bloody chainsaw day
shake my head, and turn away…

Continue to walk by Mordi Creek
watch the ducks silently glide,
a gannet rest in contemplation
this beautiful tranquillity
a sanctuary from conurbation.

How lovely the shimmering ripples
of boats tethered for the night, as
feathered friends dive and feed
in the quickly fading light.
A familiar outline against the sky
silhouettes of ancient trees
reminding us of when this creek
hosted Bunurong corroborees.

The path peopled by dog walkers,
and school children hurrying home
joggers and health fanatics – all
grateful for the space to roam.
In the eucalyptus evening hush
this precious part of the day, my
Mordialloc meditative therapy
designed to keep the doldrums at bay.

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My Culture, My Story – What Makes a Place Special?

History Library Prahran

The Australian Heritage Festival 2018

Heritage –
1. property that descends to an heir, an inheritance
2. something valuable transmitted by or acquired from a predecessor or predecessors; a legacy
3. a country’s history and traditions
4. (used before a noun) relating to or presenting a country’s history and traditions, especially in an attractive and nostalgic way: a heritage centre

The New Penguin Compact English Dictionary, 2001

I have to thank Facebook for reminding this festival was happening and for inundating my newsfeed with events in Victoria they have decided (correctly) I might be interested in – although I have to miss many because of work, finances and/or timing.

The dreadful analytics and profiling we hear about in the news have, as Agent 86, Maxwell Smart used to say, ‘worked for good, not evil’!

And so, on Sunday, April 22, I went on the “Heritage Walk: Department Stores of Chapel Street” meeting at the Victorian History Library in Prahran to follow Steve Stefanopoulos, Mayor of Stonnington and a local historian to explore former department stores, historical sites and heritage buildings along a part of iconic Chapel Street.

 

Dynamic and in love with the history of his city, Steve reminded us to look up and around at the architecture, even when we didn’t stop to hear the history of particular buildings.

He is on the board of Open House Melbourne and as we waited for the tour to start I discovered another lady who, like me, volunteers for Open House. I was in good company.

Chapel Street, Prahran’s Charming Architecture

Before we started the tour, Steve distributed a book written by local historian, Betty Malone, Chapel Street Prahran Part One 1834-1918. This well written, 72-page book absolutely crammed with research and fascinating details and included in the price of the 2-hour tour, which for seniors was $15.00 –  fantastic value for an entertaining Sunday afternoon. (And you can add ‘healthy’ because of Steve’s brisk walking pace!)

history book

Steve walked fast and talked even faster so they were right to advertise that ‘unfortunately, it was not suitable for people with mobility issues‘ but we had traffic lights to let us cross the road and paved footpaths – very different from Betty’s description of the beginning…

In the late 1830s, when Melbourne was still young, Chapel Street was a rough, unnamed bush track leading south from the better known Gardiner’s Creek Road in the direction of the Mornington Peninsula, crossing similar tracks that led east to Dandenong and beyond. Used mainly by horsemen and stock riders with their flocks and herds, it turned and twisted as it wound its way up and down small hills and gullies, avoiding the big red gums, the patches of thick scrub and the numerous waterholes, lagoons, creeks and swampy ground that lay across its path. It must have been a pleasant track to follow in good weather, with its wattles and wildflowers, its birds and small bush creatures, though most of the men who passed along were probably more intent on spurring their animals to reach their destinations than on enjoying the surroundings.

As car horns blared, music blasted from shops, and crockery clattered amidst the chatter from the sidewalk tables outside cafes, it took concentration to listen and imagine what it must have been like last century, and the century before that… yet as our guide pointed out by regulation and effort many of the facades and even some internal features of magnificent buildings have been retained and restored to former glory.

The Osment Buildings

These photographs before (Betty’s book) and after (mine) are of the Osment buildings, built in 1910-11, they housed Osment’s Emporium, one of just a number of similar department stores erected between the late 1890s and the 1930s between Commercial Road and High Street. The decorated pediment contains the name ‘Osment Buildings’ in relief lettering.

Henry Osment once owned the Prahran Telegraph and was a local councillor from 1887 to 1898 and Mayor of Prahran in 1888-89. His descendants built the three-storey emporium.

It has a symmetrical facade of red brick and cement render. Flanking bays contained oriel bay windows with sinuously curved parapets and prominent arches. Steve was annoyed that recent modernisation removed the bay windows.

As mayor, he has worked hard to preserve the heritage uniqueness and stop inappropriate development and/or deliberate ‘vandalism’ aka modernisation destroying irreplaceable features.

A local landmark, Osment Buildings remind us of how grand and elegant early 20th Century shopping was for the well-to-do citizens of Melbourne. It has some beautiful Art Nouveau details especially the small Ionic columns of green faience between each set of windows. The arched openings are accentuated by exaggerated voussoirs (wedge-shaped stones).

An excellent example of the imposing buildings of the Marvellous Melbourne period it is now a mixture of residential flats and small studios, with shops at street level and depending on the time of day the glazing on the columns glitters in the sunlight.

Chapel Street, Still the Place To Be

Nowadays, Chapel Street Prahran has plenty of eateries to cater for the students at Swinburne University’s Prahran Campus including the popular (and cheap) Lucky Coq. But the buildings we were interested in hearing about were the emporiums, such as Moore’s and The Big Store, which used an Edwardian Free Style.

They sometimes added American Romanesque influence, such as on the Love and Lewis building.

The Big Store

The Big Store is now a Coles’ supermarket but was a business set up by William Gibson who emigrated from Glasgow in 1882. He first opened a shop in Collingwood as a partner of Francis Foy and continued to trade as sole proprietor when the partnership dissolved.

An astute businessman he survived the 1890s depression and even expanded his interests into a hosiery in Perth and woollen mills.

After William’s death in 1918,  John Maclellan, a partner merged the company with Foy’s and they remained trading as The Big Store until 1967. The furniture store had become a cigarette factory (Capstan and Black Cat brands).

Maclellan is remembered as being civic-minded and a progressive employer who provided sporting facilities for his staff and provided a lavish Christmas party for employees and their families.

…one feature that delighted children in the toy department especially at Christmas. The youngsters could travel the ups and downs of a switchback installed in one corner, the means of conveyance being a wicker basket.

 

Love And Lewis

The firm of drapers, Love and Lewis, first occupied premises in Prahran in 1897, and in 1913 replaced their original three-storey premises with a larger five-storey building. Distinctive lettering appears in the spandrels, which alternate with strips of windows and provide the horizontal emphasis to the building.

Offsetting this are vertical piers, emphasised by red and cream striped brickwork and crowned with exaggerated pairs of consoles. The top floor of the building features arched window openings with terracotta patterned panels to the spandrels.

It sold drapery of all kinds but specialised in cheaper lines of goods. Mr Lewis was the best known in Chapel Street, and people speak of him as interesting or as an eccentric… The business was moved to the city in Bourke Street.

Adelaide businessman Charles Moore built his five-storey store, the most dominant of the large emporia along Chapel Street, at the corner of Commercial Road in 1914. The design by the architects Sydney Smith and Ogg was never fully completed.

The building has two circular corner bays capped by domes that stand on elaborate drums. The main facade (only partially completed along Chapel Street) has massive Corinthian columns supported by pedestals, and banded piers at the corners, which support a heavy cornice and a balustraded parapet.

Large areas of glass light the interiors. There are huge oval windows on the first floor and an arched opening over the main Commercial Road entrance. The twin domes are especially prominent elements. The intact verandah is particularly ornate and notable and the building tastefully renovated inside.

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The section of Chapel Street we walked had several commercial buildings from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Above the ground floor, the majority of the facades have retained their original decorative features.

In some cases, Victorian facades have been ‘modernised’ during the last few decades by stripping them of their nineteenth-century decorative elements. Most of the ground floor shops-fronts have been modernised, but some were updated in the early twentieth century, and have preserved the lead-lighted shop-fronts from earlier times.

Some were rebuilt after devastating fires in the early part of the twentieth century. Reminders of earlier eras remain and for anyone interested in history or writers looking for authenticity of setting, a walk along Chapel Street is worthwhile.

As Steve said, ‘If the door is open, be respectful and go inside. Look at what original architectural features are left. Many have beautiful ceilings, cornices, mosaic floors and even pillars and statues.

A woman in our small group said she had worked in one of the big stores. It was her first job leaving school at fourteen.

‘Which counter?’ asked Steve.

‘Cosmetics.’

‘Of course,’ said the mayor and we smiled. In the era, this lady started work it would have been regarded as one of the few jobs available to females.

Several others on the tour revisited their childhood as we walked. For some, it was first jobs or where they used to shop regularly with their parents, for others they used to come to Chapel Street for a special reason or a treat.

 

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Newspaper adverts 1909

 

… haberdashery shops, milliners, dressmakers, tailors, mercery, women and children’s wear, boots and shoe stores…

Furniture shops proliferated to meet the demand of a growing district’s population. Local goods made in Melbourne’s factories were taking their place beside imported manufactures, and Prahran gained a number of watchmakers, clockmakers and jewellers from Germany and Switzerland…

The Conway Buildings

The best surviving shopfronts are in the section of Chapel Street south of High Street. Most of the original verandahs have been replaced with cantilevered awnings. However, the eight shops of Conway’s Buildings, (1890), have retained their original elaborate stonework and columns.

Some people have bought buildings and been true to heritage guidelines and restored facades beautifully but restoration is not cheap and some owners have buildings in serious disrepair.

The hotel above JB Hi-Fi is a case in point – the owner has already spent $150,000 – 200,000 just on the street entrance attempting to restore the hotel’s original features. Whereas the owner of another building is only using the street level retail area and may be waiting for the upper storeys to deteriorate beyond restoration.

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The Australian Heritage Festival is Australia’s biggest annual community-driven heritage festival. It promotes greater awareness, knowledge and understanding of our national heritage, focusing on what makes a place special, encouraging us all to embrace the future by sharing the strengths of our cultural identities.

  • An opportunity to reflect on the places where we live, work, and travel.
  • Why are they special?
  • An opportunity to celebrate our many diverse and distinctive cultures.

I hope to participate in other events before the festival is over but I chose the Chapel Street tour for personal reasons – I used to live on the corner of Alfred and Greville Streets and nostalgia is a powerful emotion and drawcard.

I love history and admire the architectural features of many old buildings but I was curious about my old flat and the area where I spent 4 years in the early 1980s.

As a teacher of Life Stories and Legacies, I’d be remiss not to take advantage of a walk down memory lane!

greville street entrance

Greville Street

I wandered down Greville Street – a tourist precinct now and upmarket! There is a lovely park, buildings have been renovated and restored, shop fronts spruced up. A vibrancy replaces grunge and the whole area has changed with vehicle access limited.

The block of flats on the corner of Alfred Street is still there, although the shrubs and small trees from 35 years ago now reach the second-floor windows of my old flat.

My local pub, The College Lawn has had a makeover, as has the little park opposite the flats. The one unimaginative swing and sad roundabout, replaced by new play equipment and seats for carers and guardians to enjoy. Trees almost block out the sprawling conglomerate of Wesley College in the background.

Some tiny Victorian homes are either gone or have been renovated with the latter now worth an absolute fortune.

I remember walking up to the Prahran Railway Station or Chapel Street and seeing Leunig working in a studio – the barest of rooms in the drabbest of buildings.

There are no bare shopfronts now and I can only guess the rents too high for a struggling artist!

I remember Checkpoint Charlie, the nickname John gave the Caretaker of our block of flats. The elderly bloke lived in the bottom flat with his wife and either got the flat rent free or was paid to keep the stairwell, foyer, gardens and carpark clean and tidy. He never missed a trick and stood at the window watching everyone coming and going. His portly, grey-haired figure often seen twitching the lace curtains.

When I lived in the flat I had a porcelain doll of Charlie Chaplin. My three-year-old nephew loved playing with Charlie’s cane and bowler hat and chatted away to the doll. He overheard us refer to Checkpoint Charlie and I guess the two Charlies were confusing because he ended up calling them both ‘Charlie Checklin’ and thought the doll sometimes lived downstairs.

Molly Meldrum lived further along Alfred Street. The border of Prahran and South Yarra very close. The South Yarra postcode much more desirable as a friend who lived in a flat near the border never tired of emphasising. However, Molly didn’t exhibit petty snobbishness and twice when I walked by I was invited to a party. There was always music coming from his house and he loved his parties and usually invited all the neighbours to minimise complaints!

I remember going to night school at the old Prahran College of Advanced Education and studying creative writing with Gerald Murnane and John Powers and treasure their feedback on the first short story I submitted and the first play.

I received my Australian Citizenship certificate at a ceremony in the Town Hall in 1981. The event sticks in my mind because Clyde Holding MP, the leader of the Opposition at the time sat on stage with his fly undone. John whispered this fact to me and when it was my turn to go up and shake hands I struggled to suppress a giggle.

I don’t know if others noticed but someone must have given him a hint by the time it came to mingling with us ‘new Australians’ afterwards.

It’s funny what memories are triggered and as I stared at my old home I thought of a writing exercise I gave my students this week, ostensibly to tap into a childhood memory to create a poem.

The Structure of “I Remember”

I remember the echo of footsteps in concrete stairwell, the squeak of rubber soles, the click of high heels, the heavy tread of work boots

I remember the singsong voices of children in the park and rumble of roller blades on pavement and road

I remember the drone of distant traffic on Punt Road, the electric trains blowing their horns and the school siren controlling the day at Wesley College

But mostly I remember the gentle tones of Simon and Garfunkel and Deanna Durbin as I relaxed in my one-bedroom sanctuary from the busyness of the working day.

One of the ways I picture memory is to see it weaving a kind of continuous spider’s web that’s laid down all the time we occupy. This invisible net allows most things to pass through it. But some are trapped, sometimes for years, sometimes only briefly. Memory’s web-net acts like a kind of border crossing. Each today must pass through it on its journey towards tomorrow and becoming another yesterday. These border crossings between our days are patrolled by the not-always-vigilant guards of remembering. Their decisions about which moments to wave through, and which to detain, veer wildly between what’s reasonable and what seems utterly capricious.

Chris Arthur, Prisoners of Memory, an essay.

 

Did You Know 35% of 15-Year-Olds Are NOT Digitally Literate or Proficient in Technology?

laptop

As mentioned in a previous blog, I attended a conference on Adult Education in the community sector where I’ve worked for two decades. This was a great opportunity to consider how learning has changed and what it will look like into the future.

The Foundation For Young Australians was represented by Shona McPherson who is passionate about redefining the role of young people in our society, as well as her belief that the not-for-profit sector can drive social innovation in Australia.

The Foundation has produced detailed reports and these can be downloaded or read on their website. The shocking statistic in the title for this blog is one of them.

Before saying, “Oh, that can’t be true,” it is worthwhile reading the research.

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Teenagers may be big on using Facebook, gaming, and texting but that is not necessarily literacy.

  • Can they use more than Google’s search engine to find information and when they find it can they verify its provenance?
  • Can they format a document?
  • Can they write and send a coherent email?
  • Do they know the difference between various types of files?
  • Do they understand about security on the Internet?

In 2018, we have more than one generation of digital natives, but not necessarily literate ones yet 90% of jobs will require digital literacy

Digital literacy involves:

  • basic skills
  • getting online
  • communication knowhow
  • navigate online
  • create documents

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What Does Being Literate Mean?

Shona focused on digital literacy and building a different mindset for the future but another speaker, Sally Thompson, the Deputy Director of the Future Social Service Institute, who is an education analyst and leader with a background in adult literacy, challenged us to think about how we view literacy and what it will mean for future adult learning needs.

What do adults use literacy for and how do they learn?

Why do they learn?

  • How do we apply reading and writing in everyday life? 
  • In this world of globalisation, many people speak read and write variations of English.
  • It is also a digital world.
  • The main game for us in the community education sector is building a network so people can live meaningful lives.
  • This is complex.

A project by the Australian National University mapped literacy in an Aboriginal community where indigenous language has been retained.

What is reading and writing to them and what did they use their literacy skills for?

Researchers discovered the church, community radio, and other shared hubs for community life were where text was generated.

  • making of culture was the aim,
  • also interacting with other groups
  • and there was extensive use of literacy mediators.

For example, in the Aboriginal community, there were a lot of fly-in/fly-out service providers. When people encountered new texts they didn’t try and master all of it but sought help from the Christian pastor, retail workers in the shops (mainly young women) and those permanent workers or volunteers at community hubs like the radio station.

We all use literacy mediators!

If you have a new mobile phone you don’t read the manual you find a teenager.

If you buy furniture or any other item that needs assembling (think Ikea) you may call a friend or check Youtube.

If you want to understand the prospectus of a tertiary institution, health information, public transport timetables, and numerous other pieces of information that may be delivered in an unfamiliar or detailed format, you ask a friend, a family member, an employee, a receptionist… even a passing member of the public who looks as if they are knowledgeable or confident!

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Globalisation has made literacy a patchwork.

It takes a village to be literate in the modern globalised world.

The image we have of someone illiterate is confirmation bias. We think poor, disadvantaged, miserable but research has proven this is NOT TRUE!

  • Researchers discovered the majority of those traditionally regarded as miserable actually live fulfilled meaningful lives by relying on networks to navigate texts.
  • They don’t see themselves as dependent nor do they usually employ someone to read and write for them.  If they do, a lot of trust is required.

However, Sally said the cliches still exist.

If you have no mates you’re in trouble, if low literacy and no friends you are in diabolical trouble.

In the community sector, we often deal with the cliches (those in diabolical trouble, friendless and illiterate, or with poor literacy skills.)

We work incredibly hard in the adult education sector to ensure people can return to education or continue lifelong learning.

However, regardless of our position, we are all literacy mediators especially administration staff who are the first responders to people coming in and needing brochures/leaflets interpreted.

Similar scenarios occur in medical facilities, retail establishments and many government or banking offices. 

There are numerous social interactions and explanations where staff are entrusted to help people or where people help others understand a map, a guidebook, operating instructions etc.

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The research into various communities showed that:

Tradesmen’s wives, parish secretaries, administration and reception staff – these people often have bi-cultural experience or knowledge.

The work they do is invisible. Comfortable in their environment, available, non-judgemental, and not in a position of authority, they will share their literacy skills.

Reflect on the number of times you have asked someone to decipher instructions, explain a form to be filled in, even translate a menu!

Literacy today is a complex issue. 

Especially financial literacy.

There are lots of mediators necessary because who can say they understand superannuation and the taxation system?

Not many as the current Royal Commission into the banks is revealing.

And as more and more services go online digital literacy is necessary to pay bills, pay for goods, issue accounts and quotes.

Sally suggests that there is a policy disconnect because the government thinks you can only teach and examine levels of literacy in a particular way and so there is a political origin of the tests we use to judge skills.

Isle of Arran 2017

How do you measure literacy?

The current tests are too narrow because we are dealing with human beings, not problems to be solved. A competency-based assessment doesn’t necessarily help.

  • We are not prepared for the modern globalised world.
  • We need to make what is needed visible and encourage the government to change its attitude to funding and other measures because technology is here to stay and in every aspect of our lives.

A conference member told a story of her 17-year-old son who wanted her to play a game on his iPad. She couldn’t understand the technology, or ‘language’  used nor the rules. He became so frustrated with trying to explain that he gave up playing with her.

When getting into the city building where the conference was held we confronted technology.

A keycard with your unique code had to be collected from a central reception area, the card was swiped to go further into the foyer and gain access to a lift to our particular building and floor.

The card had to be held in a way that the barcode was read, not swiped or tapped, which was the first instinct for most people and caused a bit of confusion.

To leave the building was a similar process – a bit like tapping on and off a Myki for the trains and trams (and this was a new experience for country members).

The use of barcodes and scanning is increasing.

I remember when I volunteered at MIFF (Melbourne International Film Festival) a few years ago only a few patrons downloaded movie tickets onto their mobile phones and the scanners we had were unreliable and didn’t always work.

Today, most people print off tickets or download them onto their phones. If you don’t, you suffer long queues at venues where less staff are employed to deal with the “digital dinosaurs”.

However, navigating websites for information or to buy products can be a nightmare because of poorly worded instructions.

Southland Shopping Centre has introduced paid parking since the train station has opened. Shoppers get the first 3 hours free and movie-goers get an extra hour if they ‘scan the barcode on their ticket’.

What is not clearly understood is that you must take your downloaded ticket to the box office and exchange it for a barcode because just scanning your printed ticket won’t give you that extra hour free. It would be helpful if these instructions were on the website or added to the ticket.

To “get out the carpark free” you have to scan the collected barcode, key in your car number plate and wait for a confirmation.

When I went with my daughters to see the latest Marvel movie (fantastic by the way!) there were a lot of confused customers, a queue at the ticket machine, and most people had to try several times to get the instruction sequence right.

Digitalisation is increasing but so are frustration levels and those not competent with new technology will be increasingly isolated.

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What does it mean to be smart?

Shona  McPherson asked the conference who was the smartest person at school and why did we think they were smart.

A quick discussion around the tables revealed we judged people’s smartness in different ways but usually who got the highest marks in a test or performed better at a sport.

On reflection, we know this is a bad perception, but we still look at who gets the highest TER at VCE.

We carry these perceptions into adult life and yet it should be challenged – employers are usually not interested in high school scores.

But, we still think in numbers when we judge success. In workplaces, it is the ones who have the best sales figures or best results who are considered the smartest.

 A truck driver may not think he is good at maths and may not be able to write well and yet he can look at a truck and know exactly how many pallets it will take, its capacity and weight and fill out relevant forms.

For us, it’s about working out the student needs and directing energy to what they don’t know, not what they already know, and giving them the confidence to see what skills they already have and to build or adapt them to the digital future.

The perception that high test scores are the indicator of smartness is now outdated in workplaces and should be challenged. Other skills are more important and not necessarily quantified by numbers

  • financial literacy, personal initiative, enterprise skills, computer coding, communicating via email etc
  • the practical application should be building those skills in schools, looking at the VCAL system to improve outcomes and adapting to digital workplaces
  • intergenerational learning – using young people skills for older learners

Accreditation will be different – individual and acquired skills will be judged holistically.

Watching 3 TED Talks you have completed learning but how do you measure it? The motivation for learning must be the number one priority but how do you provide the carrot to excite students?

And talking about TED talks these ones by Sir Ken Robinson are worth watching:

What will learning look like in the future?

  • On-demand learning, e-Learning, just in time, and m-learning (mobile learning).
  • It will be modern and contemporary, MOOC, in-bundling and less sitting in classrooms
  • Learning will be done when you want to do it.
  • It is the era of the individual – what do I need? How do I get it?
  • Less structure, more independence and embracing technology.
  • Increasingly there is the attitude ‘get on board or get out of the way.’
  • Don’t reject it because it’s everywhere like SMART phones!
  • Learning is not just face-to-face anymore but we are still connected whether through videos, podcasts, webinars, Skype, Messenger, closed Facebook groups…

Our city is changing rapidly and so must we – I was struck by how isolated Bunjil, the Great Eagle sculpture looked – almost swamped by high-rise and high-tech – and yet Aboriginal culture survives, has adapted, adopted, and influenced…

People look insignificant from the top floors of the buildings too. The future, like our city, will look different but that doesn’t have to be negative.

Teachers in the Sector have been Called to Action

  1. Challenge what you think you know
  2. More important work out what you don’t know
  3. Make a plan for the future
  4. Planning meets opportunity = luck
  5. Ask questions of mentors and others in your professional network

Lifelong learning will look different

  • Risk being foolish and making mistakes with technology.
  • Learning programs must be co-designed – sharing technical knowledge and talent.

Skills are transferable

  • behaviour management
  • confidence building
  • navigating your way around work

Don’t be a Digital Dinosaur!

How Do Writers Benefit?

Mastering digital technology has empowered writers to publish their work and keep all the income for themselves. Some writers have embraced this control and thrived, but many more still struggle striving for elusive success.

Not every writer wants to, as the latest buzzword insists “monetize” their creativity, some just want to publish their poetry, short stories, family history or novel for the joy of writing and sharing.  Even so, skills and quality control are needed.

There are many steps in the process of writing and publishing – each one important:

  • good editing
  • design formatting
  • ISBN
  • quality covers
  • copyright
  • launching – real and/or virtual
  • publicity and marketing – blogging, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Youtube…
  • financial matters such as how will people pay, downloading, invoicing and taxation responsibilities

At every step, you will encounter technology – be prepared and learn – and I can think of no better place to upgrade skills and confidence than at your local neighbourhood house.

The following are just a selection of what is on offer at Godfrey Street in Bentleigh (9557 9037), but similar classes will be found at Longbeach Place in Chelsea (9776 1386) and other community houses around the Victoria.

Understanding and mastering the new technology in a sensible, ordered way will assuage fear and frustration, limit mistakes, and save valuable writing time!

And you never know – you may be more digitally literate than you think. 

A fun lesson is writing a poem, short story, even a novel in bite-sized sentences of no more than 140 characters – the standard number for a Tweet – good luck!

Penultimate by M C Neil
The writing class complained
Digital tools are not for them
Pen and ink and even type
Will outlast this Twitter hype!

Nevertheless, they wrote some great poems and flash fiction.

 

 

 

World Book Day – A Day I Could Celebrate Every Day!

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World Book Day, April 23rd

“Books are the plane, and the train, and the road. They are the destination and the journey. They are home.”

Anna Quindlen, How Reading Changed My Life

If people, especially family and friends, are asked to agree on one object associated with me, they’d probably all say, ‘a book’.

I’m often tagged in posts or memes doing the rounds of Facebook featuring books, author quotes, libraries, bookcases and book bags – and recently, even a cake decorated as if a library.

No matter where I go, I’m always drawn to the books on display or for sale!

 

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Bookstall at Quilting and Craft Fair

 

The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.

Dr Seuss, I Can Read With My Eyes Shut!

I’ve written posts devoted to reading books, writing books, book launches, local libraries and literacy in general.

I’ve thanked my parents for valuing reading and books, and I know I’ve instilled that same love in my children.

“The habit of reading is the only enjoyment I know in which there is no alloy. It lasts when all other pleasures fade. It will be there to support you when all other resources are gone. It will be present to you when the energies of your body have fallen away from you. It will last you until your death. It will make your hours pleasant to you as long as you live.”

Anthony Trollope

I remember favourite authors from childhood – I loved Louisa M Alcott. Birthdays and Christmas were special celebrations with a new book always part of, and sometimes the main present.

my louisa alcott books

I still have some of those much-treasured childhood books and on a recent trip to Orkney and the Shetland Islands, I spent several hours in a wonderful exhibition with displays of books and toys reminiscent of my 1950s childhood, confirming that I’m not the only one who hangs onto books for years!

I can remember Mrs Saffin, the librarian at Croydon High School insisting I had to borrow other books when she saw I was working my way through a shelf of the Just William series written by English author Richmal Crompton.

The adventures of the cheeky schoolboy William Brown whose naughty escapades always seemed to end in afternoon tea of iced buns and lemonade appealed to me! But Mrs Saffin was right, I was in high school and needed to expand my horizons.

“A book is a device to ignite the imagination.”

Alan Bennett, The Uncommon Reader

William’s pluck reminded me of George aka Georgina, one of the main characters in the Famous Five stories by Enid Blyton.

I wanted to be adventurous, solve mysteries and have fun – and the thought of going off on picnics with a satchel of sandwiches, cream buns and fizzy pop, a dream come true when you are one of six siblings in a working-class family.

I expect both of these talented female authors appealed to girls like myself who either didn’t fit or ached to break, the mould of traditional expectations of girls to be pretty and demure.

Ill in bed after an emergency appendectomy, I received a bundle of books from my Aunt Chrissie: The Secret Garden, The Little Princess, The Railway Children and The Wool-Pack.

I read about grief, illness,  feudalism, colonialism, social inequality, the importance of education and the necessity to have dreams.

I read about broken families and boarding schools, kindness and meanness, courage and cowardice, love and hate.

The books all written about or from the point of view of a child or adolescent.

I remember being shocked to read that in medieval times prepubescent girls like me were married off, that even in so-called more modern times people of colour or those with a disability were maltreated and abused.

How could people believe your birth should determine your status in life?

And how exciting to learn that being adventurous, curious and even disobedient reaped rewards.

Enid Blyton’s Famous Five books gave me a thirst for adventure.  The Magic Faraway Tree indulged childhood fantasies but novels allowed me to fall in love with history, belonging, and longing, and more importantly writing!

I wanted to be a storyteller and write stories about ordinary and extraordinary people whether in the past or the now!

When I was studying for my masters’ degree, I had to reflect on what books helped shape my view of society and culture.

  • To look critically at the dominant ways in which our culture operates.
  • What books provided insight or a ‘light bulb’ moment into what it means to be human?
  • Which books helped me understand my place in the long history of human development?

Although most of the books were written from the perspective of western culture they raised issues and aspects of racism, sexism, feminism, Marxism, socialism, fascism, colonialism, and other “isms” that don’t immediately spring to mind. 

They created questions and still create conversations with people who have read them. They explore themes that are timeless. They have been made into television or cinematic films, either through adaptations or appropriation.

“Books are the quietest and most constant of friends; they are the most accessible and wisest of counsellors, and the most patient of teachers.”

Charles William Eliot

Five books I’m Glad I Still Own

A Patch of Blue

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Written 1961 and adapted to film starring Sidney Poitier in 1965.

I read this novel in 1967 when I was 14 years old, probably inspired by seeing the movie on television. The author,  Australian Elizabeth Kata produced a book with the main message of tolerance, a theme demanding we see beyond the colour of a person’s skin and reject the negativity and destructiveness of racial prejudice.

The brutal effects of an abusive family contrast with the power of education, friendship and love. 

The ending of the book is not as optimistic as the ending of the film and on reflection may have been the first time I realised or began to question the difference between how literature and film tell stories.

The book is set in America, but it made me more aware of the treatment of indigenous Australians because the 1967 Referendum Campaign was happening and stimulated public and family discussions about racism.

The 1967 Referendum made history: Australians voted overwhelmingly to amend the constitution to include Aboriginal people in the census and allow the Commonwealth to create laws for them.

The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists

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Now a free Ebook. Written in 1910 but not published until 1914.

This novel by Irish-born Robert Tressell was compulsory reading in my family circle. An accurate historical account of the lives of the working class, it delivers a comprehensive explanation of capitalism and the need for a socialist alternative.

In my last two years of high school, I studied British History, Australian History and Eighteenth-Century History and during one of the many discussions I had with my father, he handed me Tressell’s book,

Your Papa bought this and told me to read it, I’m passing it on…

When I read The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists at 16, it helped me understand what life was like for my grandparents and what shaped my father’s staunch belief in trade unionism as a means to improve the conditions of workers and challenge the excesses of capitalism. It nurtured my desire to work for social justice and later seek employment within the trade union movement.

Robert Tressell’s tale of life for craftsmen and building workers in the early part of the 20th century whilst working in the mythical, yet all too authentic, Mugsborough reveals clearly the exploitative nature of capitalism. Since its publication, it has been reprinted many times, adapted as plays, made into a television series, films and docudramas. The Labour Movement has justifiably conferred biblical status on this much-celebrated book.

Readers experience the tragedies and joys of the characters and the harshness of their workplace with the inherently unequal relationship between workers and bosses in Edwardian England as the system impacts on social relations, human activity, and their dreams for a better life.

In 2010, on one of my early forays online I made contact with Reg Johnson, the husband of Robert Tressell’s granddaughter. We exchanged emails and letters and he shared some family information and history, which enriched my understanding of the author’s struggles to get his writing published and to retain the integrity of his story – a saga that will be worthy of someone’s PhD or even another novel, I’m sure.

Crime and Punishment

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Free Ebook. Written in 1866 – in serial form.

I studied this novel by Fyodor (Mikhailovich) Dostoevsky, at school and the story, characters, theme and concepts still fascinate me. It is a great novel to stimulate discussion about whether the ends justify the means, definitions of good and evil, examine ethics and morality, and is there a fine line between sanity and madness?

The protagonist, Raskolnikov, a poor law student murders an old woman who is reviled as a pawnbroker/money-lender, but her sister who is an innocent bystander is also killed. The background is a Russia under a reforming Tsar but nevertheless a country of great inequality and poverty for freed serfs and an economy undergoing transition. 

The rich description and historical detail satisfied my love of history. It was also the first novel I had read that introduced the image of the ‘good prostitute ‘– a woman forced into prostitution by extreme poverty. Dostoevsky’s Christian socialist beliefs are not hidden as he exposes the ‘immorality’ of drunkenness and domestic violence in St Petersburg, the main setting of the novel.

There is also Siberia, a vast place with penal outposts used to banish and punish people considered a danger to society. (Dostoevsky experienced Siberia when exiled along with several other intellectuals and so described that setting realistically.)

Raskolnikov realises by committing murder he has killed his own humanity and we watch his psychological, physical and emotional health deteriorate as he struggles with deep guilt and moves towards redemption. His unravelling helped by a dogged detective who suspects Raskolnikov and is determined to punish him for the crime.

The book is a good vehicle to examine personal ethics, showing life often presents difficult choices and we may regret a choice we make. It contends ‘Fate’ is an illusion and we all have free will, but the author’s realism is underpinned by his personal life experience and political leanings and belief in Russian Orthodoxy.

This book started my fascination with Russia and I promised myself I’d visit the country ‘one day’.

Last year, I fulfilled that dream and not only travelled through Siberia on the Trans-Siberian Railway but went to Dostoevsky’s house in St Petersburg, and saw where he would have written his novels, the streets he walked, imagined the places and events that sparked his imagination…

Visited Dostoevsky’s house today where he wrote Crime And Punishment among other novels. This city was a character in his most famous stories. It’s where he developed as a writer and where his most famous fictional characters lived. Exiled to Siberia for 10 years for revolutionary activities he had to make his name all over again. This is his last address when he was earning a comfortable income after renting many cheap appartments. He rented here in 1846 and then returned 1878 until his death in 1881. It’s fitting this building should be a museum encapsulating the beginning and the end of his writing career! I breathed deeply, imagined the views from the window – oh, if only part of his talent still floated in the air to be transferred to admirers like me.

The Women’s Room

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Written 1977. Made into a film for television in 1980 starring Lee Remick and Ted Danson.

This semi-autobiographical and debut novel by Marilyn French was published at the height of the Women’s Liberation Movement and explored the oppression of women and the need for change through the protagonist Mira who escapes an inequitable 1950s marriage and returns to study at university.

The questions asked in The Women’s Room still cause debate: Is anatomy destiny? Are all men potential rapists – do they look at women as sexual objects first before recognising other qualities? Does traditional marriage suffocate women?

It was criticised for being too anti-men and having too few male characters, yet struck a chord with many women who felt trapped in society’s idea that a woman should seek to be a wife and mother and always put the needs and desires of others before her own.

The biting social commentary made me examine my mother’s life and those of her generation and question what I wanted from a relationship. The anger and despair of the women portrayed in the novel spurred me to work for change and social justice. I had read books detailing the aims and philosophy behind Women’s Liberation and French’s novel personalised and wove feminism’s threads into a rich, emotional tapestry.

I worked in a Women’s Refuge (Maroondah Halfway House) and met women who felt they couldn’t speak up or who had been beaten for speaking out. They didn’t have the privileges of the middle-class American women who people this novel and it was more difficult for them to choose a different path. Those of us at the refuge collective tried to enable the women who sought help, ensured they felt safe enough to be empowered to make choices.

I liked the style of Marilyn French’s writing, the authenticity of her characters and the pacing, not only of the main story but a series of subplots. These were voices who needed to be heard with messages I could understand.

No Great Mischief

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Written 2001. 

In this novel about the Scottish diaspora in Canada, Canadian Alistair Macleod reflects on the varied journeys of members of Clan MacDonald forced from their home during the infamous Highland Clearances. 

It explores identity, family loyalty, the connection between past and present, connection to the land, the inevitability of change, the importance and effect of cultural values, and the resilience of love, especially family love.

The narrator shows how the history of a family (mini-narrative) is rooted in the larger mega-narrative of historical events. I belong to the MacInnes Clan who share a history with the MacDonalds and this novel contributed to my understanding of the value of knowing your heritage and encouraged the exploration of my identity.

As an immigrant to Australia, I often reflect on my childhood in Scotland. Have often wondered and asked the question – where do I belong?

The narrator, Alexander MacDonald, guides us through his family’s mythic past recollecting the heroic stories of loggers, miners, excessive drinkers and adventurers. The theme of exile and links to the ancestry of their highland clan everpresent.

The legendary patriarch left the Scottish Highlands in 1779 to resettle in “the land of trees” with descendants becoming a separate Nova Scotia clan. Brothers and cousins, expert miners travel around the world and the protagonist Alexander and his twin sister, leave Cape Breton and prosper, but are haunted by the past.

No Great Mischief resonated with me because I too feel the blood ties that bind me to the land from which I came despite establishing a family here in Australia.

A recent trip back to my birth country reinforced links not only to the Scottish Highlands and my grandfather’s Isle of Skye but also to Northern Ireland and the Antrim coast, my mother’s homeland.

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“The world of books is the most remarkable creation of man. Nothing else that he builds ever lasts. Monuments fall; nations perish; civilizations grow old and die out; and, after an era of darkness, new races build others. But in the world of books are volumes that have seen this happen again and again, and yet live on, still young, still as fresh as the day they were written, still telling men’s hearts of the hearts of men centuries dead.”

Clarence Shepard Day

 

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Things found in donated books, Oxfam

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It Will Be A ‘Happy Earth Day’ If We All Care

to plant a garden

I received a couple of emails today from newsletters and blogs I subscribe to wishing me “Happy Earth Day.”

I’m ashamed to say, I didn’t know much about this celebration despite the fact it’s been happening for 48 years and is celebrated every year by more than a billion people in 180 nations around the world!

A Plea for Earth Day 2018

Mairi Neil

Earth, our planet, may be unique in this vast universe

And yet, we take its bounty for granted

Really, we are running out of time

To heal and save this damaged miracle

How foolish we are to ignore the signs

 

Do nothing’ is not an option… Reduce Reuse Recycle

Act now to save ecosystems like the Great Barrier Reef or

Year in year out, climate change will wreak havoc

greenery mordialloc

What Is Earth Day?

In 1969, U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin, recruited activist Denis Hayes to organize a teach-in on April 22, 1970, a day chosen to raise awareness among the American public of an environment many thought was in ‘visible ruins’ and to put green issues on the political agenda.

It wasn’t uncommon in some cities during rush hour to be standing on a street corner and not be able to see across the street because of pollution.

Nelson and others decided to use the consciousness-raising awareness methods from the anti-Vietnam Movement and organised protests and teach-ins, which today some people credit for launching the modern environmental movement.

“The American people finally had a forum to express its concern about what was happening to the land, rivers, lakes, and air—and they did so with spectacular exuberance.”

The day still provides a benchmark for reflection among people in the environmental community although the movement now involves many other special days focusing on different aspects of “being green” and is not just USA-centric.

By the end of 1970, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had been born, and efforts to improve air and water quality were gaining political traction. And as we all know, the USA is a world leader and many countries followed their lead but not Australia – we are still waiting for a national policy!

children at gardenworld

What Can We Do For Earth Day?

For me, every day is Earth Day and I really do try and limit my environmental footprint. My garden is a work in progress. I try and choose trees and plants that are indigenous to the area, although I do have ornamental and introduced flowers, but always I consider the birds, bees and butterflies!

butterfly on rosemarymagpies in front garden

We can all plant trees and flowers or encourage our local authorities to do so.

Be a dendrophile!

“Planting a tree, morally and poetically, requires taking care of it for a really long time, not just sticking it in the ground.” 

slide of tree presentation

 

Earth Day Facts

Although the idea for Earth Day began in the USA, activists can claim environmental victories that have impacted globally.

National Geographic lists 48 changes in the USA since 1970 and of those the following have made changes internationally:

1975 Global Agreement on Endangered Species

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species was drafted for signatures in 1973 and went into effect in 1975. Signatory countries agree to ban or restrict trade in endangered species and their body parts. Although black markets arose for such products as tiger skins and elephant tusks, countries have also worked together to combat such trafficking.

 

1982 Saving More Whales

In 1982, the International Whaling Commission finally adopted a moratorium on commercial whaling around the world, in response to more than a decade of protests and pressure from scientists. Although pirate and controversial “scientific” whale hunts continue, the end of large-scale whaling marked a big turning point for the animals, and most species began a slow recovery from the brink of extinction.

 

1986 McPackaging Improves

In 1986, McDonalds started using biodegradable packaging, in response to criticism from environmentalists over mountains of Styrofoam containers littering roadways and choking landfills. Campaigners declared a major win, and the effort helped usher in a new era of companies both working with advocacy groups and acting on their own to reduce their environmental impact. The effort also helped raise consumer awareness about the impact of their own daily choices.

 

1987 Plugging the Ozone Hole

In 1987, many of the world’s nations came together to agree on the Montreal Protocol, which outlawed a series of chemicals that had been destroying the Earth’s protective ozone layer. Most famous among these were chlorofluorocarbons. Scientists were concerned that the loss of the ozone layer could lead to blistering rates of skin cancer and other problems. The ozone hole is now healing.

 

Thank goodness for that piece of news because Los Angeles has some of the most contaminated air in the country. … In 2013, the Los Angeles-Long Beach-Riverside area ranked the 1st most ozone-polluted city, the 4th most polluted city by annual particle pollution, and the 4th most polluted city by 24-hour particle pollution…the American Lung Association’s recent “State of the Air 2017” report, has labelled the state and region a leader in air pollution, with the highest ozone levels.

Here is a poem I wrote when visiting the USA in 1997 when the emissions from cars and industry were choking the cities and I read in the newspaper that it was “marine layer”:

The Veil Lifted on L.A, USA 1997
Mairi Neil

It was like peering through a veil
each day –
not a pea-souper London fog,
nor a Melbourne winter smog,
no this was California, USA,
El Nino blamed for the
atmosphere being grey
and so, we peered through this veil
every day.

The citizens of Los Angeles
told it was the marine layer…
We breathed much easier knowing
government statistics kept showing
that in 1985 over 200 days
Los Angeles spent in ‘marine layer’ haze,
yet in 1997 there were only
twelve such days!

Some misguided tourists
(me included – and called deluded)
thought that veil each day
may be poisonous air pollution,
authorities struggling for a solution,
but no, ‘they’ said not so
and it’s so good to know
L.A.’s twenty-two lanes of traffic flow
only produces marine layer.

Tourists can breathe much easier knowing
that government statistics are showing…

Oops….

since then Climate Change revealed
and what big business and governments concealed…

 

1992 Rio Earth Summit

The United Nations Conference on Environment and Development was a major event in Rio de Janeiro that helped focus the world’s attention on big environmental problems. It spurred all kinds of solutions, from government to civil society and business. It was there that countries agreed to start working together to address climate change. Countries also committed to increasing their use of renewable energy and to respecting the needs of indigenous people, efforts that were amplified when the UN met again in Rio 20 years later.

 

1993 Protecting Biodiversity

In 1993, the Convention on Biological Diversity went into effect after being ratified by enough countries. Nations pledged to work to protect biodiversity around the world, in a decision that is often seen as the foundation for sustainable development.

 

mordialloc creek
inner Mordialloc Creek 
bridge hotel and creek
commercial part of Mordialloc Creek

 

 

1997 Early Climate Agreement

In 1997 the Kyoto Protocol was adopted by some countries (although not the U.S). It marked an early serious attempt by world leaders to address global warming in a coordinated way.

2002 Cradle to Cradle Is Published

The book Cradle to Cradle by William McDonough and Michael Braungart helped introduce their concept of biomimetic, clean design to the public. This helped kick off a new movement to rethink all manmade processes to be more in-line with nature, including the idea of ending the concept of waste and replacing it with the idea that everything can have a use as a material for something else.

 

2003 Electric Cars Get Cool

Tesla Motors was founded by Elon Musk in 2003, helping make electric cars cutting-edge again (after they languished in obscurity for a century). Other manufacturers also pushed forward with a new round of innovation, helping ramp up a technology that many pundits think will be a boon for the environment.

 

2006 Al Gore’s Movie

Love it or hate it, the documentary An Inconvenient Truth helped raise public awareness around the threat of climate change.

2007 Rise of Walking

Walk Score was founded in 2007, rating cities, neighbourhoods, and more for how pedestrian friendly they are. The company helped raise awareness of the growing walking and biking movements, which aim to get people out of cars and into more liveable communities.

I’m a great believer in walking and using public transport. Walking your neighbourhood helps you value and protect it!

2015 Climate Agreement

In late 2015, nations came together in Paris and agreed to a new plan to limit global warming. The deal opens for formal signatures on Earth Day, and it will require countries to reduce emissions according to their pledges. Environmentalists are cautiously optimistic that the agreement represents a global turning point.

2018 Species Show Recovery

In April, the lesser long-nosed bat became the first bat to be taken off the Endangered Species List. After decades of conservation work, including working with agave growers to harvest tequila in a manner more friendly to the bats, the species has recovered its numbers to an estimated 200,000, up from just a few thousand. In June 2017, Yellowstone’s grizzly bears were removed from the endangered list, while the American wood stork was removed in 2014. These examples show that the Endangered Species Act is working, conservationists say.

The Earth is fragile and many parts need healing but Mother Nature is resilient and with our help we may not need to find planet B!

little boy and ducks Mordialloc Creek

 Happy Earth Day!

Why Get Out of Bed In The Morning?

acrive voice award
Receiving an Active Voice Award

Why Do We Do What We Do?

 A presenter at an education conference I attended last month asked this question of the room full of representatives from Neighbourhood Houses and community-based Learn Locals – the sector I have worked and volunteered in for over two decades.

‘WHY’ is such an important question to ask and often the hardest to answer – just ask any parent of a young child!

It is a basic part of human nature to be curious and young children are programmed to ask countless questions as they learn about the world, regardless of whether the answer is easy or esoteric.

Later, in adolescence, the ‘why’ or perhaps a ‘why not’ becomes more a challenge to authority than general inquisitiveness – and giving answers even harder!

The education conference was titled “TOWARDS SMART AND SUSTAINABLE ADULT & COMMUNITY EDUCATION” and organised by Adult and Community Education Victoria. (ACE Vic)

The Topics Explored

  • Looking at smarter ways to work that create flexible and viable options for not-for-profits.
  • How community education & training can continue to be a critical part of the Victorian educational environment.
  • The sharing of models with future ideas and practice in engaging and holding learners.
  • What it means to be a sustainable community organisation. This includes focusing on strategy, strategic business development, the learner-centric positioning of the organisation in a competitive marketplace
  • How you can expand your contacts and networks, capture ideas & opportunities, and improve your market intelligence.

 me outside Mordi neighbourhood house

I was one of the few teachers at the conference – most attendees were managers and administrative staff so I was out of my comfort zone – again.

We were challenged to articulate why we do what we do…

  • what’s our purpose, cause, belief?
  • why do we get out of bed in the morning?
  • why should anyone care?

The presenter referred to The Golden Circle, a TED talk by Simon Sinek who declared “people buy why you do it not what you do.” Check it out on youtube.

Sinek wrote the book “Start with Why” and his premise is not the “what” that motivates us to jump out of bed in the mornings, it is the “why.”

In 2009, Simon Sinek started a movement to help people become more inspired at work, and in turn, inspire their colleagues and customers. Since then, millions have been touched by the power of his ideas, including more than 28 million who’ve watched his TED Talk based on START WITH WHY — the third most popular TED video of all time. Sinek starts with a fundamental question: Why are some people and organizations more innovative, more influential, and more profitable than others? Why do some command greater loyalty from customers and employees alike? Even among the successful, why are so few able to repeat their success over and over? People like Martin Luther King Jr., Steve Jobs, and the Wright Brothers had little in common, but they all started with WHY. They realized that people won’t truly buy into a product, service, movement, or idea until they understand the WHY behind it. START WITH WHY shows that the leaders who’ve had the greatest influence in the world all think, act, and communicate the same way — and it’s the opposite of what everyone else does. Sinek calls this powerful idea The Golden Circle, and it provides a framework upon which organizations can be built, movements can be led, and people can be inspired. And it all starts with WHY.

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Most people agreed that it is not the “what” that drives us to give great service and try and excel, but the “why.

And losing sight of your “why” is destined to make you an average or poor performer, probably unhappy, and not where you want to be.

Each table in the room was asked to discuss

  • what we do,
  • how we do it, and more importantly
  • why we do it!

The presenter had Powerpoint and we had the ubiquitous large piece of paper and pens to record ideas.

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I shared a table with representatives from Echuca, Ararat, Beaufort, Yarraville, Footscray, Bacchus Marsh, and Ballarat. Although the sector is female dominated, we had a few males and there was a range in age in the group too. Diversity important.

Firstly, we made sure we were clear on 

What we do:

  • we provide a safe space to learn, grow and build
  • we build a community
  • we create community connectedness

 

Then we moved on to –

Why do we do it?

  • Because we love and value people and community
  • Because we want to educate the community
  • Because we believe everyone has a right to education to lead a better life
  • Because we believe everyone deserves a chance and we can help them to be happy if they join our family – we are about inclusion
  • To empower people – living our values – we want to share and let them enjoy our values
  • To provide an opportunity to people who often wouldn’t fit into any other educational system
  • To act and show our actions say to people ‘we love you and want to make you happy’
  • To provide a sense of direction and offer an opportunity to as many people as possible
  • To empower people to live a fuller life with access to education to suit their needs
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First Memoir to Manuscript Class at Longbeach Place Chelsea

For the community education sector this discussion and reflection on doing the valuable job we do

  • provides guiding principles as to what we do and how we do it
  • informs our clients of our reason for being.
  • determines our behaviour
  • reflects our values.
  • determines the sort of clients we will attract and deal with because they will share in our why
  • determines the sort of people who will work in the centres and continue to represent the sector

Understanding The Sector

  • We are not commercially based providers but community-based.
  • The sector is unique.
  • The sector is not a public provider like others, nor is it commercial. It is not for profit, but we can provide programs similar to TAFE.
  • The research has been done and the government will give support through quality partnerships so there can be no implication the standard at the community level is less than expected from the TAFE sector.

Adult community education provides

  • employment pathways,
  • recreational activities, 
  • builds life skills, and
  • also gives people a second chance at education.

The community sector is a dynamic contribution to all of these reasons of why people enrol in courses or attend activities!

As a writing teacher, I know why I do what I do

Writers are continually told to remember the “W’s” – who, what, where, when and why…

If you want a story to be memorable and engaging getting the why right is a winner – a strong character needs motivation, reader’s demand a mystery or back story that explains the good and bad actions of the hero and villain as well as the current reasons for their actions and story conflict.

And so it is with a one-off workshop or a career teaching others to write –

We need to reflect and dig deep and answer honestly what inspires us and what motivates us so that we can not only give of our best but also be satisfied and happy ourselves.

Enthusiasm, passion and joy necessary to inspire others.

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  • Understanding why we do what we do comes with deep reflection of self.
  • Awareness of what makes our heart beat. 
  • What experiences/values in our lives lend an influence as to why we do the things we do.

Looking back I remember why I started to write and also teach writing.

( I always say I fell into the teaching career, but on reflection it was perhaps a natural progression from volunteering and establishing the Mordialloc Writers’ Group to teaching at Sandybeach Centre and then Mordialloc Neighbourhood House, Godfrey Street Community House and Longbeach Place, Chelsea – a tiny ripple in a small pond.)

  • I was lucky to have the influence of some great teachers – one in particular Dr Norman Saffin (PhD in Literature). He taught me four HSC subjects in my last year at Croydon High School and instilled a love of history but also a confidence in my writing ability.
  • I had wonderful parents who nurtured a love of books and great writers.  A book can change your life – never underestimate the power of story – you are never alone if you can read!
  • My father’s belief in socialism and my mother’s Christianity instilled a commitment to serving community and fighting for not only equality but equity.  I can’t imagine a life that didn’t include being of service.
  • My Dad had a talent for creative writing and loved poetry – I can still hear his voice reciting Rabbie Burns. Dad always encouraged me to fulfil my dream of being a published writer – I suspect because if times were different that’s what he would have chosen to be.
  • Writing is as natural as breathing to me.
  • The joy I feel when I write keeps me alive – whether I share the words with others or not. I feel privileged to have been able to follow my heart – to see my words in print and to help others become published.
  • What a wonderful motivation it is when words work  or connect with a reader and they take the time to tell me or thank me for helping them on their writing journey,  and being in a classroom with people who want to write is a fantastic privilege – especially because so many are talented writers!

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Doing what you like is freedom.

Liking what you do is happiness.

Next month the City of Kingston will be showcasing neighbourhood houses at the Arts Centre in Moorabbin, and people will have the opportunity to participate in a free writing creatively class as well as other activities.

  • Date& Venue: Monday 21 May at 1.30pm – 3.30pm Writing Creatively in Gallery 2.
  • Contact Rebekah Longbeach Place on 9776 1386

Come along and say hello to me – you never know you might discover that writing or another activity will decide or confirm why you get up in the morning!

FINAL-Neighbourhood-House-Week-A4-Flyer

Come celebrate community heART

I start work tomorrow for the new term at Godfrey Street Community House – another venue to check out for great activities.

Tuesday Class Poem – Godfrey Street, Bentleigh

Mairi Neil

Tuesday, a scarlet day, like a magnificent sunset
It’s a blushing woman, ‘Gone with the Wind
It’s a juicy Victoria plum, dripping sweetness
It’s a burning bush, splashing golden sparks
It’s the last glass of claret, enriching palates
It’s a heated argument, getting out of hand
It’s a colicky baby, seeking comfort
We muse, we brainstorm, we mindmap
Writer’s block banished as we write.

Quilters Quell Feelings Of Despair And Piece Together Stories To Impress

1. the earth without art is just 'eh'
THE EARTH WITHOUT ART IS JUST ‘EH’

This impressive quilt was just one of many on display at the Australasian Quilt Convention, held at the Exhibition Building, Carlton Gardens, April 5-8, 2018.

It is the largest dedicated quilt event in the southern hemisphere and again I used it as an opportunity to catch up with my “quilter” sister, Cate, who came down from interstate for the event, and our younger sister, Rita joined us.

The event is a wonderful celebration of creativity, craft, and community with international participation and recognition.

If you tell stories with a quilt (as many people do), express yourself through hand-crafted clothes and gifts, or adorn and decorate with embroidery, then the convention was the place to be. And, if the day we attended was anything to go by, the organisers will be thrilled with the numbers!

3. closeup bridges over bombs quilt
PEACE – entered in AQC Challenge – Borders & Bridges

Tragic Coincidence

I’m writing this as President Trump and his allies, UK and France, are bombing Syria and so have chosen the above quilt to showcase first.

Each beautifully stitched panel expressing sentiments dear to my heart. If only quilters and writers had political power…

The quilt maker’s statement will resonate with others, I’m sure:

Every time I hear the news it is filled with atrocities and cruelty… it bruises my shadow. I want to tightly shut my eyes, like a young child wishing not to be seen, in the hope they do not exist… but they do. perhaps shining a light on it through the graffiti of tomorrow will prompt us to see… to discuss… to understand… and to bridge the chasm of disinterest and inaction. By adding one reasoned, empathetic voice to another we will steadily erode the borders between us and achieve what we seek and can earn… a Peaceful World.

Maria Mason

What Do Borders & Bridges Mean To You?

This challenge was one of several given to quilters here and abroad and one Maria addressed.

Quilters from the USA also exhibited quilts responding to, and exploring, two fascinating opposites – Turmoil and Tranquility.

A group of South Australian textile artists explored the hashtag symbol. They interpreted the theme in textiles.  “Originally, a typewriter key symbol for ‘number’, the hashtag is now widely used as a means of connecting targeted audiences on social media platforms.’ (Another ‘topical’ topic!)

The Van Gogh Cherrywood Challenge, Dutch Gallery Tour, also came from the USA. The latest exhibit a predominantly blue swathe of exquisite quilts inspired by Vincent’s life, many of his artistic motifs, and even some fun play on titles and his name.

There was an exhibition Met In Melbourne, from eight Australian textile artists who had dinner at the AQC in 2016 and decided to create ‘pieces of/for 8’ – choosing to make quilt panels focusing on a concept of words ending in “ate” as their theme. (Grab your dictionary – concatenate, undulate, ameliorate, rotate, migrate, pomegranate, decorate and ornate.)

Like the variety of responses in writing class to prompts and triggers, the quilters didn’t disappoint. Their thought-provoking, inspirational, and brilliant interpretations, whether of word, theme, or concept absolutely delightful. 

 

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Who would have thought of the violin’s bridge?

 

Another quilt maker asked, “Is this Paradise?”

I looked from the tour bus and saw them, Syrian refugees, huddled on a street in Athens, mattresses bundled under tarps. They all had a look of abject misery, here in a place barely able to support itself, let alone provide them with the future they had risked so much to find.

With this thought in my mind I scanned the Internet for more information about borders and bridges, there were so many stories of people crossing bridges and unmanned borders from war torn lands throughout all the world. Did any of them find their Paradise?

Sue Mobilia

5. is this paradise quilt.jpg
Is This Paradise?

I liked quilt maker Jeannie Henry’s declaration that “Borders and bridges are artificial constructs created by man but ignored by nature.” Jeannie and a couple of other quilters used bridges bordering Victoria and NSW, or over the Murray River as subjects.

Linden Lancaster declares, ” I grew up in the border town of Echuca… spent many hours on the river – a scruffy, suntanned girl – swimming, fishing and riding my bike up and down the goofies with friends. Sometimes we would construct cubbies in the shadow of the bridge when the river was low. My first kiss was under that bridge, bridging childhood into adolescence. Forty years later, the painted graffiti of first crushes are still being proclaimed from the bridge pylons and framework.”

Shirley Drayton trips down memory lane too, ” The Echuca Moama Bridge… originally a road and rail bridge with the Fruit Fly Inspection a stone’s throw from the bridge, to stop the fruit from coming over the border from NSW, to prevent the spread of fruit fly. Mr Ron Hicks (my uncle) the fruit fly inspector… The cars had to stop and wait for the train to come across the bridge. Cattle were taken across for market day at approximately 6.00am, again cars had to wait until all stock and stockmen were completely across.”

How Writers can be Inspired

In my writing classes, particularly Life Stories at Godfrey Street, I’ve given Crossing Borders as a topic and ‘burning bridges’ – something most of us have done in our lives. However, many of the quilts focused on a sense of place, not just for the Borders & Bridges Challenge but even those addressing other themes.

“Place” (or setting) is a great writing topic to make a lesson around – not just for a memoir. A sense of, or focus on, a place can trigger all types of creative writing.

There were many fascinating interpretations of the Bridges & Borders topic. The quilts created were striking – geat for inspiring a writing class, especially poetry.

Topical issues, whimsy reflections, emotional reminiscing and gut-wrenching observations. Quilters love words too – some even incorporate them in quilts.

quilt marriage equality.jpg
Marriage Equality 2017

 

Marriage equality is the bridge across the heart of human love and understanding. Negative emotions and thoughts make up the sea of negativity that border this act of love.

Ronda Hazel

 

12. young woman and body not to be abused.jpg
The World Awaits #TimesUp

 

Fear of or caused by sexual assault causes restrictions and confinements in lifestyle and thought. These borders are internalised, held within the model, stitched in text. The #MeToo and #TimesUp movements are exciting bridges, for the first time ever women are being heard and believed. The onus is starting to be on men to change – and not on women to curtail their lifestyle, to dress conservatively, to not provoke. Stitched into the background are words of empowerment and hope. This quilt can be hung either way up. the model in bridge pose or flying through the sky, free.

Neroli Henderson.

 

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Bridge To Extinction

 

‘Bridge To Extinction’ highlights the conflict between humans and nature. Koalas create borders within their eucalypt habitat. Logging in Southeast Queensland forests shrinks these borders and threatens their survival. Using dyes, printed text, paint and stitch on fabric, I wanted to turn the dry words from the newspaper into imagery that couldn’t be ignored. As human ‘progress’ destroys its habitat, the koala escapes on a log bridge to wasteland. I reflect on the irony of providing koala bridge crossings whilst fragmenting the bushland that serves as their only food source and home.

Marie Mitchell

 

 

13. rosellas and galahs quilt
Bridging The Borders

 

conceptually linked to the theme… by its very title. The borders are the empty husks of the gumnuts on the right, symbolising youth and as such empty of knowledge and the full, flowering gumnuts on the left, symbolise old age and being of wisdom and experience. The bridge is represented by the birds arching in full flight across the sky, connecting one side to the other and symbolising the flight of time between youth and old age. Leap from one side and trust that your own momentum shall carry you to the other side.

Kathryn Harmer Fox

 

11. masking ptsd - bulding bridges quilt
A Hidden Reality

 

P.T.S.D. is an insidious and debilitating disorder. Every part of your life is affected. Enduring workplace harassment and bullying led to devastating consequences for me. I was told to ‘build bridges and get over it’. Physically and mentally I was unable to cross the border from NSW to VIC for several years. My career was shattered. I learnt to mask emotions in order to function. Emotionally and creatively I felt dead for several years. the theme resonated immediately for me. The image flashed into my mind and stayed there. Creating it was cathartic. I am a survivor – speak up about bullying.

Julie Evans

 

9. looking for the edge- two generations bridged
Looking For The Edge

 

“Taken from a photograph of my daughter and granddaughter as they gaze out across the sand towards the open ocean. The sand is the border between land and sea. My daughter and granddaughter bridge the generations as they hold hands sharing the moment. They do this often in a silent communication of their shared love for the beach.”

Di Tramontana

 

14. love bridges all borders
LOVE BRIDGES ALL BORDERS

A great display of heartfelt offerings with memorable and thoughtful designs produced by deft hands and artistic minds.

Van Gogh In Stitches

The Cherrywood Challenge was in Australia from the USA for the first time and the exhibit displayed textile art inspired by Van Gogh’s life and masterworks. It was an extensive tribute to the much-loved artist.

Participants from all over the world with 200 out of 450 entries selected. The quilts will travel throughout the world. Participants win fabric prizes, receive extensive exposure and have their work published in a book.

Not surprisingly, there is a growing interest in the Cherrywood Challenge and I think it is appealing to a younger audience than is usually associated with quilting. The next theme being Prince, the musician – cherrywoodfabricsbigcartel.com

 

 

Tradition Versus Technology

There were plenty of traditional quilts on display but I overheard a couple of older ladies lamenting the introduction of “too much technology” – for them hand stitching still the mark of a good quilter.

There may be some resistance to technology, a fear it is ‘overwhelming’ what many proudly boast as a craft were needlework and handmade were the keys to excellence.

Others were ecstatic about the new sewing machines, embroidery attachments, printers that process photographs and material, computerised design and stencil cutters and numerous other offerings from the stall holders, teachers and workshops at the convention.

The digital divide is everywhere – those that embrace and those that resist.

It may be a case of move over or adapt Baby Boomers if you don’t want the Millenials to needle you! Times change – and often for the better…

1949 attitudes to women and sewing.jpg

Generations Explained

And in case you wonder where you fit in, here is a potted version of The Atlantic’s explanation – believe what you will:

  • Greatest Generation, 1930-1946 – they fought and many died in WW2 for ‘our freedom’.
  • Baby Boomers, 1946 – 1964 – freedom from fear because the war was over and relaxation of sexual mores means the name is self-explanatory.
  • Gen X, 1965 -1984 – because it fits a nice 20-year time span, spoiled, apparently they think they’re ‘cool’.
  • Gen Y, – mid-70s to mid-2000s – but considered a made-up generation, so really fake – skip to Millenials…
  • Millenials, 1982 -2004 – the digital natives who apparently want it all.

From a Baby Boomer With Millenial Daughters

I like traditional quilts and know how much time, effort, and expertise is involved – I’ve observed my sister and had many discussions with her and listened while she has explained in great depth the intricacies of various methods of applique, patchwork, dramatic designs, embroidery, paper-piercing and fussy cutting techniques.

However, she belongs to a quilting group that is open to new methods, technology and new ideas – caring, sharing and learning a great philosophy.

I have two creative daughters totally comfortable with new technology and pop culture.

Below is a minute selection of traditional quilts on display – there were even rows of the ‘Best in Australia” with award winners from every state.

I love the inclusion of non-traditional articles and adaptations. We met a young lass who loves cosplay. She was promoting sewing machines with attachments that did specific embroidery and lace effects.

We chatted about cosplay and I mentioned some of the memorable costumes I saw when I went to a convention in Sydney a few years ago.

Her anime costume a gorgeous pink layered dress with rabbit ears headgear. She wore the dress recently as a volunteer at the Children’s Hospital at Easter and attends events and does other promotions when she has time.

The dress took several weeks to make and has over $400 worth of material. A marvellous example of dedication to popular culture using centuries-old crafts.

There were two other costumes on display – one a la Jane Austen and one from the Lord of The Rings.

While I was engrossed in reading the stories behind the quilts my sisters met up with a writer and academic who has just published a book Towns and Trailblazers.

Rita was particularly impressed with Jen Wulff ‘s research of local women from the 18th, 19th or early 20th centuries, some renowned, others unknown.

‘Each trailblazer and her town have inspired a quilt block which combines to create an Australian inspired textile providing a tangible connection to places and the women remembered.’

29. quilt of forgotten women

The quilt blocks relate to the far North West coast, through to the Red Centre, across to the East Coast and down to Southern Tasmania. Short stories about the women, quilt templates and construction tips are included in the book, which Rita, bought.

Jen is a quilter too and ‘greatly values the lasting friendships made through local quilt groups and she hopes her recently published book increases awareness of both quilting and the role women had in shaping Australia.’

The Melbourne Exhibition ‘8’

 

31. concatenate exhibition 8 quilt.jpg
CONCATENATE

 

“To link together, to unite in a series or chain.” Quilter Lee Vause drew inspiration from childhood games: Scrabble, Barrel of Monkeys, Snakes and Ladders and Twister.

 

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DECORATE

 

Using thread and free motion stitching, quilter Raylene Richardson decorated face shapes emphasising different facial elements.

33. ornate.jpg
ORNATE

Showing wonderful use of texture and design and manipulation of materials, ‘Ornate’ is self-explanatory, but for ‘Migrate’ the quilter chose feathers and fish to represent the large migrations that occur in nature.

 

 33. Migrate 8.jpg
MIGRATE

 

Our world is constantly turning, slowly spinning and rotating around the sun. Inspired by the marvels of the natural world Brenda Wood is fascinated by the way the sun peeks over our horizon in the east and we catch ‘the trails of its warmth and beauty, until each evening we rotate away from its heat and light…’

Sunlight travelling through our atmosphere scatters colours, stronger beams during the day than in the evening – depictions of the varying strength of colour in sunrises and sunsets represent the concept of rotating.

 

34. exhibition 8 1.jpg
ROTATE

Instead of an adjective, quilter Sally Westcott chose a noun. The pomegranate is beautiful to eat, cook with, and to paint and draw. She enjoyed exploring its texture, shape and colour.

 

38.  pomegranate.jpg
POMEGRANATE

Internationally, award-winning, Melbourne based Neroli Henderson chose the word ‘ameliorate’ – the process of making something bad or unpleasant better. Her panels “focus on the vulnerability of the female form, and its power and ability. Creating personal, explorative works such as these helps to ameliorate the past. An artistic catharsis. These pieces seek to take memories of physical pain and loneliness and transform them into moments of beauty.

 

36. female form quilt exhibitioin 8.jpg
AMELIORATE

 

I wonder how many people have heard of Neroli ( eiloren.com.au ), quilter, writer, editor of Textile Fibre Forum magazine (2014-16), a group owner of the popular Facebook Textile Arts group, and an artist ‘who combines art quilting techniques and materials with traditional media and digital approaches.’ She believes ‘in the use of textiles and stitch as a valid fine art medium and can often be found using this traditional “women’s work” to create feminist, political, and other social commentary based artworks.’

As my first image implies – I can’t imagine a world without art – in all its forms!

 

36. undulate quilt.jpg
UNDULATE

Kim Boland’s chosen word ‘undulate’ transformed into four colourful and charming panels. “Undulating, curvy, wave-like lines, found all around us, are peaceful and calming.”

 

Her depictions: blue ocean waves, rolling green hills, red desert dunes and yellow fields of canola. Specifically shaped pieces portray the movement of air and water across flowering fields, sandy dunes, grassy fields and ocean waves.

Carolyn Sullivan’s Retrospective

Mairi Neil (a found poem from AQC 2018)

Australia’s climate captured
cool and hot, clear and misty
searing heat, sleet, and storms
flat plateau country and
eucalypt and deciduous forest,
garden parks and deserts of
thousands of kilometres…
changing environment evoked
and expanded on cloth canvas
lovingly dyed with colours
of plants from Aussie desert and bush.
Plainness transformed
into earthy and warm
tantalising textures,
tree trunk tracks of insects,
lichen, leaf and fungi patterns,
depictions of diversity –
native animals, trees, birds,
and beautiful grasses…
hand stitched close, straight,
the vastness of the landscape
and love of country
honoured in every stitch.

Retrospective.jpg

There was another evocative reflection of the world by quilter Gillian Travis which if I was talented with a needle, on any level, I’d love to do!  She has created quilts from her travels to exotic, and not so exotic, places like Uzbekistan, India, Sri Lanka, Guatemala, South Africa, Europe, Israel and Jordan.

These quilts focus on people and place and beg for stories to be imagined and written!

Observation and attention to detail important for quilters, photographers and writers. At the convention, you could do a course on turning your favourite photograph into a quilt and intrepid traveller Gillian’s work offered walls of inspiration.

Journeys In Stitch

 

Turmoil And Tranquility

“Presented by the Studio Art Quilt Associates (SAQA), this museum-quality exhibition features quilts created specifically as art pieces. Work brought from the USA explores two fascinating opposites…”

Again, what was fascinating was how each artist interpreted the words and I loved reading the stories behind the quilts.  Just as we become comfortable or can relate to particular stories or genres in our taste of books, so too how the artists depicted the theme is influenced by our ideas of what the words could mean.

Sometimes what the artist was trying to do resonated more than the finished piece, and at other times little explanation was required.

Jill Kerttula from Virginia chose the turmoil of a woman’s first pregnancy: ‘physical, emotional, cultural, and mental changes and challenges, both internal and external.’ Jill used sketches from ancient medical texts, copies of cards her mother received and original images to portray turmoil and angst.

baby quilt - turmoil.jpg
BABY QUILT

Jennifer Day from New Mexico chose Donald as her subject for Tranquility. He has ‘led a life full of twists and turns… his adulthood serving his country in the French Indonesian War in 1956 – almost 70 years ago. He later served in Korea, and in another war that he will not talk about. He has had cancer numerous times and is still fighting lung cancer.’

Jennifer took a photo of Donald as he sat in the window of an old barn in New Mexico. She captured the light of the setting sun gracing his face and “his expression leads us to believe that he is content. At age 86, I believe that he is satisfied with life and that his future holds promise.”

I was charmed by this quilt, by the subject matter and outlook of the artist and my photograph does not do it justice – each strand of hair is stitching – the artistry seamless connectivity in this work truly impressive.

donald in the light quilt.jpg
DONALD IN THE LIGHT

Carol Capozzoli from Connecticut captured the insidious spread and effect of cancer. “From the first pathological cell division, turmoil begins… (it) spreads to surrounding tissues and possibly other body parts. With a diagnosis, the turmoil spreads to the person’s emotional and spiritual being, and to those close to the person.”

cancerous turmoil quilt.jpg

  A CANCEROUS TURMOIL

Lots of the pieces celebrating nature or the seasons understandably focused on tranquillity. Judith Roderick from New Mexico chose the endangered Whooping Crane.

“There is something very compelling about a human-sized, ancient bird who has been on the planet since the dinosaurs. the Whooping Crane, one of the two North American Crane species, is the world’s most endangered crane with about 600 now in existence. This quilt was hand-drawn from some of my own photographs. It reflects my hope, intention, and prayer that they may continue to grace our skies and landscapes for ages to come.”

whooper image in water quilt.jpg
Whooper

Illness is probably the most common disruption many of us experience and as our population ages, statistics reckon more of us will be living longer and coping with Alzheimer’s.

Diane Born from Oregon seemed to reflect from personal experience when she wrote, “That fine, immaculate woman is now mismatched and muddled. She withdraws from loved ones, snarls at children. plaque invades her brain, erupting in tangles, robbing her of memories. She mutters and mumbles, rarely smiles. paranoia stalks her, evident in mood swings, delusions, and apathy. Her sewing, hand or machine, fragments and disintegrates. Brain waves slow and falter, losing a rhythmic pattern. the lady vanishes into the disease.”

My father succumbed to dementia. It too was slow and insidious and painful to watch. Occasionally, flashes of the father we knew and loved appeared – the effect on the person and their family is indeed turmoil!

slow death alzheimers quilt.jpg
A SLOW DEATH BY ALZHEIMER’S

Another piece that resonated was by Michele Lea of Ohio. who admits to constantly searching for peace and tranquillity.

“Trying to find a place of light, rather than focusing on the cloud of darkness that looms over me, is a daily ritual. I suffer from chronic mental depression, which is a disease with no cure. More than 40 million people suffer from it and suicide is an ongoing threat for those of us who want to escape. The image of me floating, with butterflies draping over me as a blanket, is tranquillity. For me, it is an end to torment – a place of safety and peace; my original home where I could join my creator and become whole again.”

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TRANQUILLITY THE END

It is a reflection of the times and the pervasiveness of the 24-hour news cycle that the turmoil of the world refugee crisis is never far from our screens or minds. Sandy Gregg from Massachusetts observes:

Since the beginning of time, people have left their homes to begin lives as refugees for a myriad of reasons, including war, discrimination, crop failure, and religion. This piece represents borders crossed, obstacles faced, and the turmoil that these brave people face during their travels.”

turmoil of refugees quilt.jpg
CROSSINGS I

Another quilt that appealed to me used vintage postcards (collecting postcards a hobby of mine) and image transfer a technique I’d be tempted to use if a quilter.

Patricia Kennedy-Zafred from Pennsylvania is doing a series portraying women from all over the world with ‘strikingly varied concepts of beauty‘.

The images are of Japanese geisha who ‘despite the typical connotation, true geisha were highly trained in dance, music and various forms of art.‘ Their calm facial expressions ‘part of their allure, as their rigorous training was designed to create a presence of subtlety, strength, and grace.’

geishas.jpg
A SEPARATE REALITY

I have to feature Donna Deaver from Idaho who although we are living on separate continents, we have a similar way of relaxing and finding that elusive tranquillity.

I have a deep love of the sea. It draws me in an unexplainable way, calling to me when I least expect it. Even though I no longer live by the ocean, I feel at home whenever I return. One of my favourite times of the day is early morning when the beach is empty. Listening to the infinite rhythm of the surf is a form of meditation.”

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MORNING WALK

Believe it or not, the images featured are only a tiny selection of what was on offer at the AQC 2018. I’ve written about some that caught my eye, or touched my heart as a writer and haven’t done any justice at all to the array of fabrics, threads and techniques the artists applied.

Suffice to say the convention has lots to offer to those not expert or involved in the art of quilting, and from what I’ve observed the few times I’ve attended it is only going to expand and become more eclectic.

If you’ve enjoyed what you’ve read and seen in this post, I hope you attend one day, you won’t regret it.

Having firsthand knowledge of the quilting community via my older sister I know they have a sense of humour too and I love the self-deprecating quilts like this one – the three women are staring at the latest super duper sewing machine and asking “But does it make the coffee?”

quilters - but does it make the coffee.jpg

After this marathon writing effort, I’m heading to the kitchen to make a cup… but will leave you with one of my personal favourites from the convention with a message for all those who struggle to achieve their dream…

 

nevertheless she spersisted.jpg
A tribute to Senator Elizabeth Warren.

 

McCall Smith – A Number One Author And Raconteur

Alexander mcCall Smith - happy to see fans

Last month, I went to a Writers’ Victoria event, held at The Atheneum to hear Melbourne’s Toni Jordan in conversation with Scottish author Alexander McCall Smith. She introduced McCall Smith by listing his writing accomplishments first:

  • 60 adult novels published,
  • 50 children’s novels
  • and the acclaimed 44 Scotland Street series
  • his work translated into 46 languages

Jordan concluded her introduction with “Alexander has been described as a literary phenomenon, a force of nature, and an endless source of joy around the world.

Needless to say, the filled-to-capacity theatre burst into rapturous applause proving that his fans agreed – and he hadn’t yet uttered a word!

a novel about happiness

Once McCall Smith began speaking, the conversation became very one-sided – in the words of my late mother Alexander McCall Smith can ‘talk the hind legs off a donkey’ and I’ll use her lovely Scottish word meant in the kindest of ways, he’s “a blether.

Although McCall Smith does not talk for the sake of talking, his warm-hearted view of humanity, his intelligence, a keen sense of humour, and wide-ranging life experience ensure that he is a fabulous raconteur.

We hung on every deliciously entertaining word and later queued up outside for a few minutes with the man himself when he agreed to sign books and pose for photographs. (The publisher arranged for a young man to do the duty of dealing with numerous digital devices!)

Kindness and generosity two words that come easily to the lips regarding this prolific author dressed in an off-white suit, highly polished leather shoes and exuding genteel elegance as he relaxed comfortably in the spotlight.

He introduced himself to the audience by saying if people had come to the wrong place he didn’t mind if they left and then proceeded to tell the first of many anecdotes of the evening.

‘Turning up at the wrong venue is easy to do,’ he said. “A few months ago, a man came up to me at an author’s event in New York and said he’d enjoyed my lecture although he had booked to hear an author talk about the atom bomb!”

As the laughter subsided, Toni asked Alexander, when he began writing books and leaning back into his chair, he launched into a story he’d obviously told many times.

He sent his first manuscript off when eight years old. “ It was unpublishable, of course, and probably all of two pages long. A melodrama along the lines of ‘He’s gone’ and explaining who, why and where…

He received a polite rejection letter from the publisher, “Carry on working.” McCall Smith laughed when he said, “at least in those days publishers answered every submission and gave encouragement along with rejection!”

a novel about bertie

This story led to another personal snippet revealing again his kindness and cheeky sense of humour. A seven-year-old boy knocked on his door one day holding a book he had written.

Go and show Mr McCall Smith,’ said the boy’s mother from the background, “he’s a writer.”

The book was two sentences long, called The Great Toffee Theft.

Great title,’ he told the boy.

The story was ‘A man stole a toffee. The police came and arrested him.’ The End.

The Scottish author Ian Rankin, writer of novels about the detective Rebus, lives two doors up from McCall Smith in Edinburgh, so Alexander sent the boy up to Ian’s house advising, “Mr Rankin’s into crime, he’ll be better placed to give you feedback on your manuscript.”

This recollection was the perfect segue into stories about how he sometimes inserts real people into his novels ‘with their permission, of course.’

Like all writers, he draws on life experiences for plots, characters and setting, but you can tell he has fun with all this too. The first time he put Rankin into a novel was as a cameo when he bought a valuable stolen painting from a charity shop. When Ian realised it had been stolen he returned it to the original owner. Rankin’s comment was “I wouldn’t be so decent if it was that valuable!”

In another story, Alexander had one of the Queen’s Royal Archers, ‘a doddery bunch now’ fire an arrow that goes astray and hits Ian Rankin on the shoulder. He is helped by young Bertie, one of McCall Smith’s regular heroes who recognises Rankin as a famous author because ‘a lot of his books are in the window of the local secondhand bookshop for 50p.’

Ian’s feedback? “Not true, they’d be at least £1!”

McCall Smith asked Scotland’s First Minister, Alex Salmond, (2007-2014) if he could put him in a story. ” He seemed quite chuffed.” McCall Smith had the First Minister save young Bertie from a runaway truck when the young boy froze while crossing the road. The manuscript was sent to the First Minister’s office for approval and he got a reply back in 45 minutes, “very satisfactory”. (The fastest bureaucratic approval on record!)

44 scotland street

However, he tries not to use real people he’s read about in his writing and said, “it is rude not to Google because it implies they’re not worth Googling.” He puts in a name plus what scandal they may be involved in just to check he won’t be offending a real live person … at this point he strayed into the murky waters of Australian politics by suggesting with mock outrage that ‘the bloke with the hat (Barnaby Joyce) has had some unkind words said about him.”

Toni managed to ask a question about McCall Smith’s writing, in particular about the serial novel and the much-loved 44 Scotland Street series.

Serial Novels

Serial novels, a genre not that common nowadays but popular in the times of Charles Dickens, and also with Tolstoy, Trollope and Flaubert.

Dickens used it as a common way to earn a living, publishing a chapter a week in a newspaper or magazine, and generally ending with a cliffhanger. This was pre-television and so he was writing the soap operas of the day. Every chapter 12,000 words and often characters fell asleep at end of the chapter – “soporific writing” said McCall Smith, “because in synchronicity, the readers often fell asleep too!

The books would be available in libraries and the cheeky public would correct any errors they found.

There is a writer in the United States from San Francisco who revived the serial novels for the newspaper San Francisco Chronicles. Alexander met him at a writers’ convention and was advised: “Don’t write serial novels”.

Advice McCall Smith chose to ignore and when he returned to Scotland he began writing chapters in the series 44 Scotland Street.

Producing a regular chapter can be a lot of pressure and he tries to ‘have a few up his sleeve’ but that doesn’t always mean meeting deadlines is easy.

Alexander was approached by Cunard shipping to sail around South America for free and be a ‘celebrity’ guest aboard the ship. “Now if they write to you,” he said, “always say, yes.

He had committed himself to writing a serial book but the Internet dropped out around Cape Horn. He asked the audience if they had heard of the Bermuda Triangle. This experience was similar because there was “no cloud”. He was writing instalments of Scotland Street and luckily always had some in hand or he would have missed all of his instalments for that period.

He suggested people try writing a book this way each instalment building up –  a chapter a day soon leads to a book!

no 1 ladies detective agency

 

We shall change all that… because it is possible to change the world, if one is determined enough, and if one sees with sufficient clarity just what has to be changed.”

The Kalahari Typing School for men, Alexander McCall Smith

Many people in the audience, discovered McCall Smith from his writing about Botswana, a country where he lived and one he has “a real affection for.”  He still visits regularly.

His books about The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency introduced the African country to many readers, and many readers to author McCall Smith.  Internationally, he became a household name.

It was the first of McCall Smith’s books I read and this year is the 20th anniversary of the first novel published in 1998 but “written and heartfelt in 1996”.

On his website, he exhorts us to ‘celebrate 20 years of Humanity. Kindness. Humour. Forgiveness. And sheer Joy.’ And I can remember how wonderful the first book was – how refreshing to read a positive book about an African country where the protagonist, Precious Ramotswe (wonderful name) was female, not precious but ordinary and down-to-earth, yet she had an extraordinary dream, which she persisted to make reality with intelligence and drive.

The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series started life as a short story written for friends but took hold of its author and grew first to one novel and then, over the space of twenty years, to nineteen (the nineteenth book, The Colours of All the Cattle, to be published later this year). The characters have won the hearts of readers around the globe and together, the eighteen volumes published so far have become one of the world’s most successful series, with over 20 million copies sold in English and translations into 46 languages. Written as a long love-letter to a country and culture which he admires, Alexander has no plans to bring this series to an end anytime soon.

Precious Ramotswe, that kind and cheerful woman of traditional build, is the founder of Botswana’s first and only ladies’ detective agency. Her methods may not be conventional, and her manner not exactly Miss Marple, but she’s got warmth, wit and canny intuition on her side, not to mention Mr J. L. B. Matekoni, the charming proprietor of Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors and Mma Makutsi her able assistant who never tires of telling people that she graduated with a mark of 97% from the Botswana Secretarial College.

Alexander explained how the first edition of the original book had a print run of 1500 but now has 25 to 30 million copies. He was a bit worried the publisher was being too optimistic about the book and promoting it, especially when they sent him to the USA.

Referring to the United States, he said when he visited to promote his books they were friendly but he discovered they love titles and in that country ‘everybody is a vice president – even if they just look after the coffee or the photocopying machine or publicity!

He was invited to lunch with all the vice presidents and the meeting extended from 11 to 4 p.m. He knew then that the book would take off, so to celebrate he went out and bought new shoes “two of them” for $140.

He was staying at a club related to a membership he had in Scotland. His room was not too far from the bathroom but his American publicist was mortified “You are sharing a bathroom!?”

Now when he goes to America he has his own bathroom – his books have let him step up his comfort level. However, he considered sharing a bathroom an important stage to go through. It builds character, he noted with a smile and proceeded to reminisce about his student days.

(For many years Alexander was a professor of Medical Law and worked in universities in the UK and abroad before turning his hand to writing fiction. He has written and contributed to more than 100 books including specialist academic titles.)

He has shared with “dirty people, experienced bathrooms with unidentified hairs (let’s not go there!) and fridges filled with ghastly food,” although flatmates have been great. He then added his humorous take, “Meet them later in life and they are transformed. But do you read about their convictions?”

McCall Smith’s generous writing and dry humor, his gentleness and humanity, and his ability to evoke a place and a set of characters without caricature or condescension have endeared his books to readers

New York Times

Toni managed to steer McCall Smith back onto writing and some of his other talents. He talked about being on a boat in Africa and passing the camp of two authors who were experts on baboons. He shouted across the water, “I have read Baboon Metaphysics.” This resulted in a very rare invitation to stay overnight at the campsite and learn more from the authors and their research.

The book explains how powerful female baboons are dominant. They are ambitious and for McCall Smith, not unlike Lady Macbeth so he wrote an opera about a troupe of baboons.

He collaborated to produce a chamber opera with music by Tom Cunningham to his libretto. Set in the Botswana Okavango Delta, it tells the story of the struggle for power among competing baboons in their matriarchal society—thus drawing parallels with the Macbeth story.

THE OKAVANGO MACBETH

Written for Botswana to appease his fascination with primatology,  and an idea of baboon people.

In 2008, Alexander set up a small opera house in the bush just outside Gaborone, in Botswana. “It is really a garage converted with 60 seats,” but he hosted the Premiere of his opera which he said is “a really terrible opera for musically challenged people.” However, “they perform and travel with it so it can’t be all that bad until people find out what I say is true!

The project was undertaken jointly with David Slater, a long-time resident of Botswana who had made a major contribution over the years to music in that country. The opera house was housed in an old converted transport garage discovered by Alexander when he was looking for places similar to the garage featured in The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series. It was converted into a modest auditorium with seating for sixty.

For four years, The No. 1 Ladies’ Opera House gave local singers a chance to perform in opera and in regular concerts. Botswana has a tradition of choral singing. “There are many wonderful singers there, and this gave them the opportunity to show and develop their talents. It also gave people in Gaborone the chance to see the occasional opera, something which until then, they did not have.”

The Opera House remained open until 2012. It is now closed.

Other Collaborations

He has had many collaborations, especially with composers and has worked in other branches of the arts for the last decade. For Scotland At Night he wrote the poems and Tom Cunningham wrote the music.

He loves music and created an orchestra from other people who love music ‘but are not very good.’ The conductor stopped them once because they were all playing different music! RTOM, he said – really terrible orchestral music!

Alexander and his wife Elizabeth were the founding members of the Really Terrible Orchestra, a hugely popular amateur orchestral ensemble based in Edinburgh city centre.

A bassoonist, sousaphonist and contrabassoonist, Alexander, inspired by the pleasure his own children seemed to get from orchestral playing, worked to get the ensemble going in 1995. At the time it had just 10 players and rehearsed music for the sheer fun and enjoyment of it.

The main ethos of the RTO is clear; it’s an ensemble for those who have been prevented from playing music, either through lack of talent or some other factor, to play in the company of players of a similarly terrible standard. The name was given, thankfully, to ensure that audiences would know that what they see is what they hear.

Now with 65 players and a terrible international reputation to uphold, the orchestra is more in demand than ever. Rehearsing fortnightly the ensemble is currently under the musical direction of ‘Sir’ Richard Neville-Towle.

Last year in Stockholm Sweden, he was literally astonished how many joined in the RTO. They always get a professional conductor – ‘one who’s doing the country a service.’ Socially, it is great – two trumpeters married; the viola and the double bass also met and married – the couples even produced babies!

The breadth of his body of work vividly evokes places and characters who are infused with humanity, decency, wit and humour

The National Arts Club citation

Alexander McCall Smith and me 3

 

Alexander’s Poetry

We were then treated to a performance of one of McCall Smith’s poems. He announced that it would be brief because “Often when you read a poem, even a brief one, it is a signal for people to leave.”

The poem was from his annual pamphlet that he circulates to friends. He makes 800 copies but “Actually I have only 14 friends.” The rest of the copies go to strangers.

He always puts a poem at the end of the Scotland Street books.

He was amused by a sign he saw from the taxi in LA that said, HYPNOTHERAPY NEXT RIGHT.

He loves signs and they often inspire a poem. He especially loves signs in other languages with the English translation – many of these don’t quite get the nuances of English or are more poetic than English. He uses this when he transposes them to include in his poem.

He remembered one that was in French hanging from a rickety fence above a cliff. In English it should read ‘do not lean against’ but the translated sign beneath the French read ‘do not lean again’. This much more intriguing and realistic considering the state and site of the fence!

Another sign about urinating was translated as “No Pissing” “How irrepressible and unrepentant” said McCall.

The poem he read was inspired by the sign in LA and was set on an aeroplane. He made fun of the choice of words pilots use – “at this time we commence our descent” instead of “now we are going to land.” The poem, telling the story of a flight and landing explored the idea of pilots speaking in poetic language instead of bland words. Like most of his poems, this one was humorous and brief, with a little satire.

After reading his poem, Alexander addressed the audience: ‘Any questions or complaints? You can complain.

As if!

People queued to ask him questions, each one an adoring fan.

The first question was about his Safaris to Botswana. He’s done 4 or 5 and “They’re lots of fun.” The next one is in September for one week. They visit three towns and he loves meeting readers and loves Botswana.

He was asked about Arthur Upfield and his character Boney who was in a series of books. He remembered reading them but it was a long time ago and he didn’t know it had been turned into a television series.

He said crime fiction is about place, and he likes Keating’s books set in Bombay. “A place of eminence and a strong character are the two most important elements of crime fiction.” With a wry smile, he acknowledged the popularity of Scandinavian Noir yet, “I was in Stockholm and didn’t see one murder!”

When he was asked what he thought of the TV series of his Number One Ladies Detective Agency rather than criticise he commented that there was also a full-length movie made. Unfortunately, the director died on the day of the film premiere. The TV series “did a good job but the film was very respectful to the book.”

He visited the film set and watched how they did some scenes 15 times to get it right. The funeral scene repeated again and again because everybody was so moved. Even the cameramen cried and they had to redo it. Anthony Magellan, the director of the film really captured the essence of the characters and story and he also got good actors for the film.

And the evening was over – a delightful “conversation” fittingly ended while talking about Precious Ramotswe and Botswana. They left the stage too soon but then delightful evenings are never long enough!

I was thrilled to have my few minutes with the author and to buy a couple more of his wonderful novels. In a world where we are bombarded daily with increasingly sad news escaping with a Mccall Smith novel soothes the spirit because it reaffirms the existence of a lot of wonderful, kind, gentle, and genteel folk and entertaining stories don’t have to be angst-ridden with mainly imperfect, unlikeable characters.

It was Ian Rankin who claimed that as global politics becomes more turbulent, the world will increasingly find itself in need of Alexander McCall Smith’s heart-warming novels, and he is right’ 

The Scotsman

the atheneum library sign

Inspired by Alexander’s reading of signs and creating poetry I decided to make an attempt to record the evening in verse and pics – after all, April is Poetry Month!

The Pursuit of Happiness
Mairi Neil

My dancing self visited Melbourne city
to listen to Alexander McCall Smith
an author known for his savoir-faire,
worldly and renowned teller of tales
that captivate. Colourful, uplifting
they counteract an oft bleak world…

I walk past the majestic Town Hall
hosting Hermès At Work
an exhibition about the birth
of the international luxury brand.
Displays of handmade objets incroyable.
Admission free to anyone who’ll listen

as clever artisans tell their stories
of commitment to craft
of style, beauty and excellence.
I doubt the homeless huddled
and begging from nearby doorways
will take up their offer…

Along the street, I stride
passing a profusion of flowers
of red, gold and orange blossoms
their subtle perfume and prettiness
a defence against the toxic traffic
and soulless concrete jungle

Utility bollards appropriated
by street artists and decorated
exhort passersby to celebrate
the timeless beauty and spirit
of Victoria’s Koori people
stalwarts of faith and courage

meaningful silhouettes and shadows
sun, moon, stars, crosses and hands
images of fertility and life cycles
unlike the ugly graffiti
meaningless tags from non-artists
seeking celebrity or notoriety.

I reach Melbourne’s Atheneum
An embodiment of Emperor Hadrian’s
seat of intellectual refinement.
A queue of literary patrons
wriggles around the block –
their joyous anticipation catching.

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