Chinggis Khaan – A Fascinating Leader Loved and Revered

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Day Two – Chinggis Khaan Equestrian Statue and Museum Complex

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

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

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

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

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

tallest equestrian statue chinggis kahn

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

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

Art, Culture, Traditional Craftsmanship On Display

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now???

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

Few trees survive here because of the wind.

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

How is she talking? What is she saying?”

I smiled and said, “Hello.”

He mimicked me, “Hello, hello.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Forgive Us

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

wedding in Mongolia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

mongolian card meaning JOY

I knew that feeling!

 

 

 

A Visit To Mongolia Will Make You Marvel At Life

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

Where indeed?

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

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

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

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

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

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

WRITING MEMORIES FROM A PHOTOGRAPH

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

And I can recreate my travels.

Why Mongolia?

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

This extract from the introductory page, taken to heart:

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

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

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

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

Your affectionate Friend, Arthur Mee

from The Children’s Encyclopedia founded by Arthur Mee

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

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

My starting point Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia’s capital city.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

jetlag plus.jpg
how I felt

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 TRAVEL LESSON NUMBER ONE:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Buy… buy… bargain.”

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

“Dollars, dollars.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Despite this diligence,  I still got lost!

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

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

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

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April 1, 2017 – texting daughter, MaryJane

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

 

MaryJane to me

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

To MaryJane

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

A Stroll in Ulaanbaatar

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

STATISTICS FOR ULAANBAATAR & MONGOLIA

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

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

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

Friend Lisa on Facebook :

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

The inscription translated as:

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

No wonder he is revered as a great warrior!

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

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

VICTIMS OF POLITICAL PURGES MEMORIAL

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

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

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

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

 

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The movie Fantastic Beasts – with captions:)

 

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

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

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

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

eye drops from Mongolia

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

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

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

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

Day Two here I come…

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

sun setting on Skye

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

10 Years of Inspiring Architecture

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

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

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

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

 

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Nicholas Building, 37 Swanston Street, Melbourne

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

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

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

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

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

From Wikipedia

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

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

from 10 Years of Inspiring Architecture, Open House Melbourne 2017

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

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

This Is Why We Must Look Up and Look Down

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

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

cathedral place genie design 2017

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

 

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

 

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Artist tenants looking for companions to share costs

 

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

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

Christie Petsinis – Folk Architects

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

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

 

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The lifts on the first floor

 

This Is Why I Volunteer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

7 years of volunteering Open House
Vibrant colours work best

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ten Stunning Photos From the Nicholas Building

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

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

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

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

And what amazing work Tim and his partner showcased.

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

Dunkirk – A dynamic take on Operation Dynamo

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Movie Promo

SPOILERS AHEAD!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Setting of Dunkirk

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

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

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

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

Newsweek.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

Be warned!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Promo for the film

Perspective Is Everything

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

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

This is showing not telling – what film does best.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Actual photograph from Dunkirk 1940

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Art Mimicking Life

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

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

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

John Hodgson, Manuscripts and Archives Manager

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

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

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

Kay Gladstone, Curator at the Imperial War Museum

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

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

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

Random Scenes That Stood Out For Me

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What more can you ask from a film?

 

Time Traveller – Over Sixty, Solo and Sanguine

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I returned to work on Tuesday and of course, my writing students wanted to know how my trip went likewise friends and family.

I’ve been overseas for 96 days – a whole term – and as I return to timetables and responsibilities the best way of sharing such an amazing trip is writing about it.

The reflections won’t be chronological or a travelogue but flashbacks and memories in the form of anecdotes, poems and essays. They’ll be triggered by words, sounds, smells, tastes, events, people, postcards and photographs (I took too many!) and whatever else inspires me.

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Where did I Go? 

  • I flew to Mongolia and travelled the Trans Siberian Railway to Helsinki and then London – a journey that’s been on my bucket list for years.
  • I visited family and old friends in England staying in London, Cirencester in the Cotswolds and Colchester, another town with strong links to Roman times. I spent time in Barnes, Bath, Bibury, Burford and Bourton-0n-The-Water and other places with names beginning with a different letter of the alphabet!
  • I visited friends and family in Scotland:  Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Renton and Cardross and surrounding localities like Inverurie, Loch Lomond, Loch Carron, Rhu, Helensburgh, Oban, Plockton, Inverness, Culloden and Falkirk.
  • I visited the Isles of Skye and Arran researching family history and revisiting my own past.
  • I toured Orkney and  Shetland islands -to cross another item off my bucket list.
Nick's drawing for me
A gift to me from Nick, a young tattoo artist my daughter met in London.  Born in France, Mexican mother, father unknown, he considers himself a citizen of the world. The words “where do we come from”  poignant and his talent awesome.

Why?

I could be flippant and say ‘why not?’ however, that wouldn’t be helpful writing this blog post or to those reading it.

Fulfilling several travel dreams high on the list of answers.

(I blame my father for my wanderlust. He bought a set of Arthur Mee’s Children’s Encyclopaedias when I was seven years old. The ten volumes captivated and fascinated. Reading chapters sowed seeds of restlessness and cultivated a desire for knowledge and adventure. )

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I like challenging myself to ignore limits of ageing and osteoarthritis and I wanted to regain the confidence lost after my mastectomy.  As my baggage label announced ‘adventure before dementia’ – the fear of that disease ever present since my Dad’s diagnosis and death.

Life had become predictable and enthusiasm for writing projects disappeared. I feared my teaching was stale. A change was needed,  echoing Gough Whitlam’s campaign, it was time.

Time to introduce some excitement, step into the unknown, travel to different time zones, open up to new experiences and ways of thinking.

Ignore the negativity and prove to myself and others that the world has more people with good intentions and good in their hearts than the constant sensational news reports would have us believe.

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How To Survive Strange Beds

Mairi Neil July 2017

‘to sleep perchance to dream…’

Toss and turn, turn and toss
an uncomfortable trampoline
too narrow mattress  or oversized
tangled in unfamiliar sheets
repress a tortured scream
as thoughts unbidden creep
a monstrous murky mist
is the bedding clean?

Facebook flickers, Twitter tweets,
parading a plague of bed bugs
supported by a stream of
suited and serious newsreaders
backdropped by dinosaur-sized bugs
horror story feeders
hidden cameras reveal
cleaners who don’t clean.

Visa-less suitcases
dragged internationally
passport checks evaded
no fear of armed border guards
x-ray machines and scanners
no match for expert subterfuge
who sees intestinal worms
bed bugs, or flea circuses?

Counting sheep to sleep
but head hits
brick pillow or fluffy mountain
Never an in-between
too hot  too cold  too salty
the cultural story we know
Air-conditioning? Heater? Open window?
Ah, fresh air!

Silence is golden
until jet engines roar
jumbled voices amplify
motor mayhem, frequent footsteps
a cacophony of chaos
thin walls, rattling doors
barking dogs prowling cats
jet-lagged over active brain…

Insomnia insinuates interrupts
imagines home
the comfort zone of relaxation
to sleep perchance to dream
of travel!

I wrote this poem in class after an example in an 11-part primer on writing contemporary poetry, available online from Mslexia Magazine.

Your subject will never be new – it’s all been done before. But a contemporary poem must offer a fresh take on its theme. You need to surprise your reader and force them to look at the world in a new way. You can do this by creating some frisson in your language, with a startling metaphor or unusual syntax. Or you can approach the topic from an oblique or unexpected angle.

Linda France, Mslexia’s Poetry Advisor 1999-2005

I’m not sure if I succeeded the way Linda France would approve but one of the complaints/comments made to me and by me was having to adjust (or not) to ‘strange’ beds. And one of the wonderful delights of returning home was the familiarity and comfort of my own bed where of course I dream of travelling!

It may be a first world problem or middle-class obsession but the fear of ‘picking up something’, whether it’s skin irritations, tinea or gastro, a common topic of conversation among seasoned travellers and casual tourists.

I exploited these fears in my poem, however, I never had to worry at any time in my recent travels despite sharing berths on trains and ferries, sleeping in a Mongolian ger, a Russian homestay, and a variety of hostels and hotels.

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Plenty of mattresses and pillows to get used to and I’m grateful for my osteopath’s muscle massaging technique since I returned.  It helps my body get over the inevitable tossing and turning in strange beds and the hauling, lifting, packing and unpacking of luggage during the last three months.

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 Poetry With A Purpose

We’re doing poetry this term at Godfrey Street as we prepare to create the annual calendar where writers respond to the work of artists at the House.

Although the calendar requires haiku or terse verse, other forms of poetry will be studied and attempted as we learn the techniques of the craft: style, imagery, lines, punctuation, rhyme, rhythm, sound, stanza, subject, title and voice.

Your Turn To Write – We Tried This In Class

Adapted from an exercise recommended by Linda France:

  • Think of something you’d like to do. Choose an activity with various stages or metaphorical layers:
    fall out of love, learn to love, find a new hobby, learn to fly like a bird, swim with dolphins, exercise in a pool, sing in a choir, sing in the shower, dance with strangers, dance like no one is watching, dance through life, meditate, lose weight, save the world, cope with bad service, use public transport, recognise happiness…

■ Give your poem a title of the form ‘How to…’ (fall out of love, swim,
etc.) and write a set of instructions, addressing the reader directly and guiding them through the process, or an experience – or whatever you want to do. This is your poem, just be authentic.
■ Use everyday language, but avoid clichés.
■ Focus closely and include lots of physical detail. Think strong VERBS, concrete NOUNS.
■ Include some reported speech.

Have fun and challenge yourself, like I did writing a poem about an aspect of travel. When I was on Orkney I discovered a wonderful photographer and poet, Edwin Rendall.

Edwin’s work appears on cards and bookmarks and this short verse coupled with his photography I particularly love – perhaps with practice, I’ll be able to create something similar to convey my memories.

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Vale – Frank Jones – Thank You For Pausing and Sharing Your Poetry…

 

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There was joy in the return from my travels, but sadness too when I heard that Frank Jones had passed away on 9th of May, aged 92 years. His funeral held at St Brigid’s Mordialloc on 18th May 2017.

As a longtime member of Mordialloc Writers’ Group, Frank’s poetry and stories have graced eight of our nine anthologies. Another broken link with the group I founded in 1995 and although I am no longer active at Mordialloc workshops, I’m sure there are many Mordi writers who grieve Frank’s passing.

 

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I was privileged to attend Frank’s family celebration for his 90th, 2015.

 

Frank celebrated his 90th birthday at our regular Readings By The Bay and was the oldest writer in our last anthology, Kingston My City, contributing a marvellous reflective essay on his 65-year relationship with Mordialloc and the City of Kingston.

A natural born writer, Frank loved poetry – especially ‘bush’ and rhyming poetry – ‘the old -fashioned kind’, he said to me when he first joined the group. He wrote from the heart, a kind compassionate heart.

 

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From Casting A Line, Mordialloc Writers’ Group  2000.

 

I’ve never forgotten when he and his wife Joan turned up at the inaugural Readings By The Bay. Frank stood up and recited from memory, a poem he had written to Joan on their wedding day 50 years before! A romantic at heart too.

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Surrounded by friends and family Frank reads at his birthday celebration, held Parkdale Footy Club.

When Joan was diagnosed with breast cancer Frank suffered deeply and was shattered when she died. He, of course, used writing to share their story.  Another poem showing his love for Joan as she struggled with treatment.

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From Up The Creek with a pen! Mordialloc Writers’ Group, 2003.

I lost my partner, John in 2003, and also had a breast cancer diagnosis in 2010. These shared sorrows added a depth to my relationship with Frank I didn’t have with other writers in the group.

Frank and I lived a street apart and sometimes bumped into each other when he walked to U3A, or latterly to his acupuncturist in McDonald Street. He’d often ring me and ask for help editing or to give an opinion on a writing idea, or to share the joy of publication.

My daughters knew who was calling before Frank offered his name – he had a distinctive Aussie twang and spoke at the level you’d expect from someone going deaf.

Mairi, is that you? It’s Frank Jones,’ he boomed.

When Frank had bouts of illness that kept him from workshops or readings, I still included him in any anthology project because he always produced a memorable poem or story.

He was a writer who understood deadlines, listened to and appreciated any feedback. Also that rarity – Frank accepted the editor’s suggestions and decisions. A boon for those who helped edit the anthologies.

Frank referred to me as his ‘writing teacher’ although he never attended any of my classes!

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Eleven O Four, Mordialloc Writers’ Group 2004

Frank used his life experiences to produce interesting and contemporary pieces: –

  • growing up in the country (Kyneton area),
  • serving in WW2 in the RAAF
  • working in the building trade (a brickie)
  • and newsagency business,
  • his love of family,
  • his British heritage
  • love of swimming – he was in the icebreaker club
  • love of golf,
  • his love of dogs, especially a particular pet
  • his determination to continue to learn the craft of writing – he wrote stories, poems and a play
  • his commitment to his Christian Faith and volunteer work for St Vinnie’s
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Casting a Line, Mordialloc Writers’ Group 2000.

A prolific writer, I can remember how proud Frank was when his family collated his poems into a beautiful leather bound volume. He brought it to Sunday Readings to show us.

What a wonderful gift for a writer – your life’s work in a gold-lettered book!

The book was for one of his significant birthdays. Frank said it was after he became an ‘OBE’, ‘over bloody eighty’!

Frank’s honesty and sense of humour will be missed too. I have many photographs of Mordialloc Writers’ events over the 21 years but only the last few years are digital and easy to add to this blog post. Below is a selection from the last five years.

In Mordialloc Writer’ eighth anthology, Off the Rails, 2012, Frank wrote about attending an interstate swimming carnival – he had a pool in his backyard and swam every morning – perhaps a key to his longevity.

To Albury Grand Railway Station

Frank Jones

Hurrah! I proclaim we’re away on the train
Without fanfare or celebration
We glide down the tracks and never look back
As we leave old Spencer Street Station.

Our journey profound, we are Albury bound
In their carnival, we’re listed to swim.
We’ll strive to be best as our bodies protest
Even though we are taut, fit, and trim.

Onwards on time through a mesh of train lines
We view backyards tightly compacted
We wonder amazed, some even quite dazed
By urban plans neatly protracted.

We pay no heed as the train picks up speed
The wheels clattering faster and faster
No one complains as we head for the plains
Where drought is a common disaster.

Soon a voice loud and clear announces
!e cafeteria is ready to serve us
!reading through seats to sample the treats
The swaying train a challenge, if nervous.

Cars on the roads and trucks with their loads
All head for unknown destinations
!e train’s horn blasts every crossing we pass
No cause for great consternation.

Wangaratta and snowfields well passed
Signposted Canberra a further location
The Murray in sight and Wodonga’s delights
We are nearing our destination.

Speed now declines … it’s the end of the line
We’ll get on without hesitation
You won’t read in the papers about our capers
Or the fun of our jubilation.

We savoured the home, of ‘Albury’s Own’
So many sacrificed for this nation
On the hill high, their memorials lie
To overlook Albury’s historic Grand Station.

 

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Albury Railway Station – grand indeed.

 

Frank wrote from the heart expressing himself in a language he understood and used daily – the best qualifications a poet can have – he was himself!  He didn’t try to emulate another style or be ‘poetic’. His words authentic. Frank Jones, the poet, writer, and raconteur will be missed.

One of the first poems of Frank’s that our group published is one I have never forgotten and is alluded to in the title of this blog post. It is one I mentioned to others when on my recent travels.

I spent a lot of time overseas visiting cemeteries. Not just chasing information about relatives but because I find them fascinating historical records. Discoveries are inspiring and intriguing, headstones holding so many stories.

Sadness too – all those people who have lived and by the state of some graves, are forgotten, or the family line has died.

 

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Up The Creek with a pen! Mordialloc Writers’ Group, 2003.

 

Frank Jones – a rich legacy indeed – thank you!

You will be remembered as more than a pause between two dates.

 

Frank at Readings By The Bay 2016
Frank enjoying my apple cake at Readings By The Bay – the main reason he attended he’d say with a grin.

 

 

 

A Traveller’s Guide To Aboriginal Australia

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(Warning: Indigenous Australians are advised that the content and some of the links from this blog include images or names of people now deceased.)

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NAIDOC WEEK 2017 – 2-9 July

NAIDOC – National Aborigines & Islanders Day Observance Committee organises celebrations every year in the first full week of July.

This year the theme “Our Languages Matter” emphasised and celebrated the role that indigenous languages play in cultural identity by linking people to their land and water and in the transmission of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders’ history, spirituality and rites, through story and song.

Last year, encouraged by my good friend, writer, and award-winning blogger, Lisa Hill, I reviewed books in the ever-increasing catalogue of indigenous literature.   Lisa hosts an Indigenous Literature Week on her ANZ LitLovers LitBlog.

This year, I’ve just returned from overseas and missed the deadline but because of travelling, I decided to review Burnum Burnum’s Aboriginal Australia, A Traveller’s Guide.

The book is a treasured part of my home library.

Most people I know who travel Australia will not have read this 1988 publication. It was an expensive coffee table book years ago but well-produced with an intensity of detail and gorgeous coloured photographs of iconic Aussie landscapes!

Some of the information is confronting, but all of it enriching.  Adding to that important store of human knowledge. I guarantee it will change the way you look at the landscape of our continent and of many of the places you already know, and perhaps you may look differently at many of the debates around Aboriginal Land Rights, Australia or Invasion Day and the importance of retaining and teaching language and culture.

The book is –

A pictorial guide to Highway One, Central Australian and Tasmanian sites and places important to traditional and contemporary Aboriginal life; includes history, art, religion of particular clans, present communities and organisations, biographies; many archival photographs.

Trove entry

Here is a snippet about Hamilton near Geelong, the map showing many different language groups in that corner of Victoria alone – nine clans – how many of these languages left?

 

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part of page 276

 

To learn about the history of our country from those who have been caretakers for thousands of years, to learn about the spiritual places holding their sacred stories makes it a special traveller’s guide. A book worth reading again and again. To be read for understanding and appreciation, not for directions or entertaining experiences.

It is not a Lonely Planet guide or RACV road atlas!

However, it’s worth putting in the caravan, camper trailer, or four wheel drive if you’re touring  ‘grey nomads’ or a family that tours together. This is the history not taught in our school curriculum, or just beginning to be included.

Not necessarily bedtime reading (unless you have a big bed and plenty of elbow room) but sitting around the campfire or when having a BBQ in a campsite, you can share the knowledge and/or book.

The book tells of many nations, clans and groups adapting to life in temperate coastal regions, tropical rainforests, living by inland waterways or mighty rivers, travelling wild coastline and surviving the desert by trading with other clans.

the Mitakoodi people in the Cloncurry district used a small type of net which they obtained in trading from the Woonamurra people who lived to the north. The Kalkadoons acquired kunti (porcupine or spinifex grass gum) from the Buckingham Downs region to the south.

(Visit the Kalkadoon Cultural Centre located at Rotary Hill.)                              page 144

Sadly, some of the massacres and horrors detailed in this book have never been given enough national attention although a new map recording massacres during the frontier wars appeared in the news recently.

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Burnum Burnum’s Guide was published in the year White Australia celebrated its Bicentenary and a year the author, an activist but “warrior for peace”, mirrored the theft of Aboriginal land in 1788, by planting a flag at the base of the White Cliffs of Dover on January 26, claiming possession of England on behalf of the Aboriginal ‘Crown’!

Burnum Burnum’s Aboriginal Australia is the first book ever to offer a personal, Aboriginal vision of this, the world’s greatest island.

Through over 300 stunning colour pictures and 150 black and white archival photographs, many of which have never been published before, and through the words of one of this country’s best-known and most respected Aboriginal people, this unique book takes the reader on a journey around the continent, an unforgettable journey that reveals an Australia rarely experienced by its white inhabitants.

Creation stories are told and although most Melburnians are aware of Bunjil the eagle it’s fascinating to read slightly different versions and explanations for Port Phillip Bay, Mornington Peninsula, and the River Yarra’s  twisting trail from Warrandyte.

This extract about ancient bones discovered in 1965 rivals the speculation about burial sites in Orkney and Shetland, where I just spent two weeks exploring.

I was 12 years old in 1965 but can’t remember hearing about this at school or university when I studied Australian history.

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(For updated information on the Frontier Wars, prioritising indigenous input,  a friend’s website created several years ago is an excellent resource.  I’ve known Jane since Aboriginal Embassy Days. Her research scrupulous and commitment to sharing information comes from the heart and not reliant on funding or becoming embroiled in politics.)

Jane and I knew Burnum Burnum in the 1970s although he was first introduced as Harry Penrith. We saw his transformation after seeking to get closer to his Aboriginality he researched his family and took his Grandfather’s name.

A member of the Stolen Generation, he could finally be himself – Burnum Burnum!

Here is part of the Foreword…

For me this book represents a lifetime’s work, a journey to find my own roots in this great country. I was born in 1936, under the family gum tree at Mosquito Point, by the side of Wallaga Lake. But, under the policies of the day, I was seized by government officials and separated (at 3 months) from my family. For the next ten years, I grew up on a mission near Nowra, before being moved to the Kinchela Boys Home, near South West Rocks, where I became the first Aborigine to gain a bronze medallion in surf life-saving. My sister was sent to Cootamundra Aboriginal Girls Home, separated from me by more than 1600 kilometres…

This book is… an attempt to give the traveller a chance to view this extraordinary country as it was seen by the original Australians… Modern ecology can learn a great deal from a people who managed and maintained their world so well for 50,000 years.

… Australians are gaining a new pride in their real heritage, the one which covers 2000 generations. The story has an inevitable edge of sadness, as we understand the process and pattern of dispossession suffered after 1788. This material has been included not to provoke guilt, but to give a perception of the extraordinary differences between the original Australians and the invaders who came in 1788.

In most areas of early contact, they were greeted warmly by the Australians, who had no idea that these strange white people intended to stay…

In Europe, as people developed their civilisation from the caves to the cathedrals, they left clear evidence of their achievement for future generations to admire. In Australia, the land itself is the cathedral and worship is not confined to any four walls. Each step is a prayer and every form in the landscape – and everything that moves in it – was put there specifically for the people to use and manage…

I hope the reader will find no bitterness in the story; the past cannot be turned back… The challenge of the future is… an acceptance of the past, the first step to a positive future… no one people have a sole franchise on the ability to feel an affinity with this timeless landscape.

This book resonates more with me now than when I bought it all those years ago because of the special connection to Harry/Burnum Burnum. I’ve finished a personal trek myself, returning to my birth country (touched upon in a previous post).

My father was Scottish and my mother Irish, and I visited Scotland and Northern Ireland retracing their childhood influences, and my own.

Here are Burnum Burnum’s thoughts:

All around Melbourne, the spirit of my great great grandmother is written on the landscape. When I drive through eastern Victoria I do so with a great sense of reverence, dreaming my way through the landscape of my ancestors and my birth, I can feel the spirit of my ancestors in many places.

This book weaves a rich tapestry of people, places, flora, fauna, history, mythology, reality and Dreamtime.

Forever relevant, it will earn its keep on your bookshelf for generations.

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Back from Abroad – a little bruised, a lot of Jet Lag – but a return to Blogging!

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Does travel broaden the mind or just weary the body?

After 96 days away, I returned to Mordialloc on July 4th, and echoing Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz, I agree ‘there’s no place like home.’

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Certainly, no place as comfortable as your own bed and pillow! However, unlike Dorothy, returning home was more than just clicking my heels together.

The flight from London via Abu Dhabi entailed 24 hours travelling, including a two-hour stopover in the United Arab Emirates. Waiting time appeared shorter with increased security checks, a long walk to the departure gate for Melbourne flight, and a welcome cold beer and chat to a fellow passenger met on the first leg of my flight.

Laura lives in Melbourne too, loves books and writing and her journey to the UK, to trace family roots in Northern Ireland, mirrored some of my own experiences.

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My journey longer and more convoluted, fulfilling a teenage dream to travel the Trans-Siberian Railway and on reaching Britain visit places in my birth country not visited before.

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I cover the islands of Orkney and Shetland and spent more time exploring Aberdeen and Edinburgh than on previous visits. I caught up with friends and relatives rarely seen, some never met – one cousin last encountered in 1973, plus a dear friend from high school who came to Australia as an exchange student from Japan!

I discover Colchester, Barnes and Richmond – places near London never explored the five previous sojourns to England – the last visit twenty years ago.

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Another world ago – John was alive, I was younger and my girls were children …

This solo trip could not be more different from the outset. The luggage tag a girlfriend gave me partly true!

But unlike past travels I not only planned the journey but hoped the process, the places visited, the people met and paying attention to the details and events along the way would help me rediscover a joy in writing – not just recording or reporting.  

  • I need to discover a purpose more than the journey or destination. 
  • I want to write the way I encourage my students to write.
  • I hope to produce something worth reading.
  • I want to leave a legacy for my daughters.
  • I need to know if random notes, fragments of thoughts, dreams, ideas and triggered memories could mean something and give meaning to not only this journey but others taken.

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For some time now I’ve felt a fraud, exhorting others to polish and publish their writing while mine could not even light a fire under kindling, let alone interest a reader.

I needed to regain enthusiasm and originality. I needed the energy and desire to finish pieces of writing gathering dust and silverfish – or have the courage to throw it out and set my sights on another way to earn a living and pass the time!

What is the Creative Process?

The creative process is always a journey into the unknown but my imagination and writing seemed stale and predictable, mystery and miracles absent – much like my life, a little voice whispered.

Something had to change, I had to change and perhaps a term away from teaching and going ‘on the road’ to mark off more of the ‘bucket list’ compiled since John’s death and my mastectomy, the catalyst needed.

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As I stare at the scribbles in notebooks, browse through the thousands of photos and reflect on the past few weeks I wonder if it is enough to reignite my passion and confirm the advantages of travel … quantity is not necessarily quality!

At the moment jet lag and injuries from a fall in my last two weeks of travel tend to go with the weary body rather than broadened mind or successful return of writing mojo!

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However, a couple of more visits to my local osteopath should sort out the physical muscles and a few more nights of decent sleep and days of walking the dog will banish the jet lag.

Today I managed to type up a page of notes and put the words into some sort of structure – retracing my steps through the words on the page I recall exactly where I was and how I felt.

It may make sense to others who travel the same questioning road.

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A Pause Pondering Purpose

Mairi Neil May 2017

I choose a window table,
jam jar posie centrepiece beckoning,
the desire for scones and tea awakened
by the warm comforting aromas
drifting from a steam-filled kitchen.

The cafe noise melts and murmuring voices
from a nearby radio stir memories…
family stories merge with tales absorbed
from the relics of the ancient past
embedded in the cobbled streets walked,
the castle ruins explored, and churches
of monumental proportions visited.

The sea a grey turmoil through misty glass,
eyes imagine selkies safeguarding those
who use this highway from the islands.
So many of your countrymen seafarers –
my ancestors and your descendants.

Did your eyes focus on a distant vessel?
Did you long to leave the confines of land
or did the terror of history leave no choice?
A fat and fuzzy bumblebee attracted to the flowers
flits purposefully from Daisy to Bluebell…
perhaps that’s how it is for us all –
our destiny mapped from birth.

What explanation for my innate restlessness?
The emotion stirred by the cry of gulls,
emerging from patchwork clouds
to wheel, wander, whoosh above?
They bob and land like origami kites
captive to the wind and unpredictable sea
as sailing ships of old and ferries of today.

Salt water always the lifeblood of islands,
feeding and clothing islanders, providing jobs,
this place no different except for its past
fraught with fear, fights, flights, and elusive freedom…
Peopled by Norsemen, Gaels, Celts,
Anglo-Saxons, Spanish and more…

Strong tea melts buttered scone,
the warmth of my mother’s memory
and the radio’s jaunty Scottish tune
conspire to make me smile.
Who am I? What made me, me?
The chasing of ancestors for answers
does this path have purpose?

 

Things Are Not Always Bright And Beautiful

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Okay, I admit some of the above-mentioned creepy crawlies are beautiful (actually only the butterfly and ladybug) and I understand insects, in fact, all creatures have a place in the ecosystem, but lately there has been more of the creep factor than beauty!

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I’ll confess up front to an ambivalence towards spiders – a creature Australia seems to have too many of and of course, they love my old weatherboard house and surrounds.

I look out the kitchen window and the webs are there.

I walk out to the front porch and the spiders are there along with some other strange insects!

Daughter, Mary Jane complains often about the spider webs stretching from her car mirrors to the garden bed. They appear no matter where she parks in the driveway.

Daughter, Anne can sense a spider in the vicinity even if tiny and an anxiety attack is sparked. The spider must be removed before she’ll settle in a room!

One of my first memories of coming to live in Australia as a nine-year-old was sitting at the kitchen table in the old weatherboard house our family rented in Croydon. I’m not certain if it was my Dad or an older brother who casually pointed above my head at the wall and said, ‘watch out for the spider.’

We were always playing tricks on each other, so I ignored the warning until I saw my sisters and younger brother hurry from the table. I turned around in time to see a huntsman the size of a saucer scurry across the wall. Needless to say, I slithered under the table and followed the others outside.

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Ironically, we became immune to some of the spiders in the ‘old house’ to the extent that one lived above the old wood stove at my dad’s behest because it kept flies at bay. We nicknamed him Oscar.

However, Mum wasn’t as benevolent and didn’t shed a tear when Oscar disappeared up the vacuum cleaner one day!

Fifty-five years later I’ve encountered plenty of spiders – Red Backs along the fenceline and White Tails inside when we renovated.

The other day Mary Jane killed a Red Back on the porch – apparently, there’s an increase of them in Melbourne because of the weather. Around 300 people are bitten every year in Australia.

In recent weeks, pest controllers have been inundated with calls from Melbournians who have spotted the spiders in their homes and gardens… .the hot weather has made them come out in force.

“This time of the year, we’ve got lovely blue skies, we’ve got some humidity and we had some rain a few days ago, so there’s plenty of food for the spiders to eat,” Simon Dixon from Exopest said.

White Tail spiders are nasty little creatures and I’ve been bitten several times. John got bitten once when we were renovating and took a severe allergic reaction.

Whitetail spiders frequently occupy Melbourne homes. They seek shelter in dark nooks and crevices and at night time they go about their business eating other spiders found lurking around the home. As they don’t spin a web to catch prey, when it comes time for them to rest, they sometimes find problematic places. Towels and toys left on the floor, curtains and bedsheets and lonesome shoes are a common hiding place. Whilst they are not vicious spiders, they will bite if feeling threatened. It’s easy to see how an unsuspecting human can quickly become the recipient of a painful venomous bite.

Common signs and symptoms of a Whitetail Spider bites include instant pain similar to a bee sting. There is redness, discomfort and swelling. Ulcerations can develop and the recipient is left open to the possibility of infection at the site. In a minority of victims, there is the potential to suffer a nasty reaction such as flue like symptoms and anaphylaxis.

While working in the garden I’ve often come across various garden varieties of spider, or rather they’ve come across me. Sometimes the bites require a visit to the doctor because of the rash or pain caused.

Like most people, I give spiders a wide berth when I can and not surprisingly they were a subject of my early poetry in Small Talk poems for children, Employ Publishing 1994.

Nature’s Web
Mairi Neil

Caring for the environment is an urgent task,
stop slaughtering wildlife, poisoning waterways,
and polluting the air – is all I ask.

However…

I may respect the right of creatures
great and small
but this doesn’t mean a universal
love for all.
I live life with minimal environmental damage
I don’t buy toxic sprays or insecticides
and in the garden rampage.
Even revolting ‘blowies’, when inside
they venture
are swatted with a plastic hand
as effective deadly censure.

But…

The one creature that has me terrified,
makes me absolutely petrified
if ever it manages to creep inside,
has eight legs and a body round
and in the most unlikely places found –
it can be small and brown, or big and black,
some can swing, some can jump…
all can crawl up your back!

‘Live and let live’ is all right in theory
but if you suffer arachnophobia
that sort of tolerance makes you teary.
I know nature is wonderful
I know nature is grand
but I’d love to be rid of ALL spiders
from this land!

I’m not the only one put off by spiders as this news item about “a sizeable spider” on a suburban train testifies.

The spider successfully annexed a set of four seats on the crowded peak-hour service, as well as two seats in the row behind that it might have been eyeing off for the extra legroom.

Funnel-web spider venom could provide stroke protection

The above headline relates to an article about research being done to prevent stroke victims from suffering brain damage.

 One of Australia’s most fearsome spiders may provide the solution to protecting stroke victims from suffering brain damage.

Researchers at The University of Queensland and Monash University have found that a protein in the DNA of the funnel-web spider’s venom shuts down an ion channel known to malfunction in brain cells after strokes.

In cell experiments, the harmless chemical (called Hi1a) protected brain cells from a toxic flood of ions unleashed after a stroke strikes.

During a stroke, a blockage stops or slows the flow of blood to an area of the brain. The brain cells, suffering from a lack of blood and oxygen during a stroke then switch to metabolic pathways that don’t rely on oxygen. This creates a condition called acidosis and the oxygen-starved regions of the brain start to become damaged and die off.

Hi1a works by blocking the acid-sensing channels in the brain.

Who would have thought it? I might have to revise my opinion of that particular creepy crawly as the article states,

Stroke is one of this country’s biggest killers and a leading cause of disability, striking someone in Australia every 10 minutes.

I’ve also experienced Beetlemania

In December 2012, the Union of Australian Women Southern branch were having their annual Brunch for Peace at the Beach. The gathering is always held on Mordialloc foreshore and as usual as a coordinator and living in Mordialloc, I made my way down early to grab a spot under the shade.

Imagine my surprise to find the place swarming with bugs.

When I arrived, I discovered our usual shady area full of thousands of copulating beetles. Where is David Attenborough when I need him, I thought.

The other women arrived and we tried to ignore the busy insects but the breeding frenzy unsettling and hard to ignore. We tried to brush an area clear but didn’t want to be responsible for reducing some part of the ecosystem’s population. We gave up and moved elsewhere.

After some research, I discovered there were swarms of beetles in suburban gardens in and around Melbourne that summer, identified by scientists as  Plague Soldier Beetles, Chauliognathus lugubris.

A native species, its common name refers to its habit of forming huge mating swarms. They can appear in such large numbers that it is not uncommon for them to weigh down the limbs of weaker plants.

Their bright colour warns off predators and they are capable of releasing distasteful chemicals and so would not make a good meal.

It was nice to know the beetles were not interested in harming humans –

    not so another more recent encounter with the insect world.

When a Bee Turns Out to be A Wasp

During an afternoon working in the garden clearing overgrown vines from the fenceline, I noticed what I thought was half a dozen bees hovering near the corner of the house.

Later in the evening, when I went outside to bring in the washing I noticed the ‘bees’ were increasing in numbers and were going under the house, almost in a straight line. On closer inspection, I was pretty sure my bees were wasps.

European-Wasp-Infographic

A phone call to a local pest control company and their prompt response confirmed my fears were worse than I realised. The busy bees were European wasps and they had started to build a nest under the house!

Removal of the creepy-crawlies was completed by two men suitably attired with protective gear and spray guns full of a natural powdered essence that killed the wasps or put them into a stupor and drove them elsewhere.

Stop Press – Ross River Fever in Frankston

Last month, the Health Minister announced that six cases of Ross River Fever, a mosquito-borne virus had been detected in Melbourne – some in Frankston – a skip and a jump from Mordialloc.

There is a state-wide outbreak.

Usually, the virus is contained to specific areas where the mosquitoes carrying the virus are found. None of the six cases had travelled to those areas.

According to Wikipedia diseases transmitted by mosquitoes also include: malaria, dengue, West Nile virus, chikungunya, yellow fever, filariasis, Japanese encephalitis, Saint Louis encephalitis, Western equine encephalitis, Eastern equine encephalitis, Venezuelan equine encephalitis, La Crosse encephalitis and Zika fever.

I remember the shock when a close friend from university, Jan Storr died from Murray Valley Encephalitis after a camping holiday. John knew this grief too because a young organiser in his Union died from the same disease.

A lot of grief from such a tiny insect…

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Are insects taking over the world?

I’m not paranoid but I’ve never had a wasp invasion before and I’ve never seen so many spiders recently which makes me wonder have insect populations increased?

A quick question to Google and I discovered this research

Urban Warming Drives Insect Pest Abundance on Street Trees

Our results provide the first evidence that heat can be a key driver of insect pest outbreaks on urban trees. Since urban warming is similar in magnitude to global warming predicted in the next 50 years, pest abundance on city trees may foreshadow widespread outbreaks as natural forests also grow warmer.

… we’re looking at a future full of tiny, deadly insects.

Though scale insects are harmless for humans and don’t conjure up the shivers the way cockroaches and mosquitos do, they might be far more harmful to the environment than these other apocalypse-loving pests. The main problem is that they attack trees, which are a crucial cornerstone of urban ecosystems.

On Quora the question was asked:

Why don’t insects who outnumber us greatly, take over the world?

The response?

What makes you think they haven’t? 

If we exterminated all insects on this planet by whatever means we could invent, we would also doom ourselves.

We rely upon insects and other invertebrates to pollinate our food crops, if we didn’t have pollinators, we’d be dead.

When something dies, invertebrates clear up the corpse. Without them, we’d be living in a fetid mess of rotting corpses, dying from diseases that make mosquito-borne malaria look like fun.

We depend upon insects, even though they are not aware of it, they do rule the world, without them, we’re goners.

Somehow this rational answer isn’t that comforting – global warming could be driving an increase in more that tree insects.

As a writer with an overactive imagination, it’s the stuff horror movies are made of.

I remember Sunday School in Scotland and lustily singing praise to ‘all creatures great and small’ where the extent of interaction with insects was earwigs and bumblebees.

All Things Bright And Beautiful
Cecil F Alexander

Chorus:
All things bright and beautiful,
All creatures great and small,
All things wise and wonderful:
The Lord God made them all.

Each little flower that opens,
Each little bird that sings,
He made their glowing colours,
He made their tiny wings.

The purple-headed mountains,
The river running by,
The sunset and the morning
That brightens up the sky.

The cold wind in the winter,
The pleasant summer sun,
The ripe fruits in the garden,
He made them every one.

The tall trees in the greenwood,
The meadows where we play,
The rushes by the water,
To gather every day.

He gave us eyes to see them,
And lips that we might tell
How great is God Almighty,
Who has made all things well

 I’m not sure the same praise applies living in Australia!

The Australian Museum in Sydney ranks Australia’s most dangerous animals based on the level of threat they pose, plus how likely you are to encounter one in the wild.

The honey bee is number 2 on the list and the funnel web spider is number 7!

 

The humble honey bee, which is not native to Australia, comes second on the list because it’s both common and deadly to small subset of people. Being stung by 100 or so honey bees could put anyone at risk of a fatality, but for those who are highly-allergic, even a single sting can be a life threatening situation.

The honey bee has barbed stings, so it can only sting once. The purpose of the sting is to make you never want to bother a bee ever again…

Since 1927, 14 deaths from the spider have been recorded. It’s only the male bite that has proved fatal, however.

Direct UV light will kill a funnel web, so the spiders need somewhere to hide during the day and have been known to consider a shoe a perfectly adequate location. More commonly, the spiders builds burrows under something like a pile of bricks or a log.

Whenever I go by public transport to visit my daughter Anne I pass a mural at Balaclava Station – large colourful and bright I think it represents the food chain – the insect is much too large for my liking –

Things are definitely not always bright and beautiful – do you agree?

When It’s All Right Not To Write

a day in Fitzroy gardens copy.jpg

My writing journey seems to be much like my life – unpredictable, a mystery, an uphill battle, full of sudden surprises and even miracles.

Some days there is a structure  – usually my teaching days when I write with my students. Other days, there are scribbled notes, ideas and perhaps the start of a poem or story, or just an observation as I try and harness whatever fleeting thought an image, event or overheard word has prompted.

Recently, I’ve been troubled by an inability to write what and how I want, never finishing the stories or poems – not so much losing interest but struggling to find the joy and passion.

mordi beach october 2016

Sea-Sawing 1
Mairi Neil

When I walk by the sea, I am silenced
Not by roaring waves, tumultuous surf or crying rocks
When I walk by the sea, I am silenced
Not by the lapping wavelets or squelching sand
or the whispers of an ebbing tide.
When I walk by the sea, I am silenced
by the endless mystery of oceans
by this chameleon of colour and mood
by the changing horizon of merging sea and sky
by thoughts of the insignificance of humankind
and our attempts to tame, travel, and tease
and always the awesome sea can choose not to please
When I walk by the sea, I am silenced.

Pausing The Pen

As I prepare to go on what I am calling ‘long service leave’ (unpaid, unfortunately) from my writing classes, I’m hoping to rediscover my ‘mojo’ and enthusiasm for writing. I feel as stale and tired as my words as if I’m repeating myself and walking in circles.

Here’s hoping a term off, and weeks of new experiences as I travel the Trans-Siberian Railway and return to Scotland, my birth country to meet up with old friends and relatives, I’ll be able to reignite lost passion and enthusiasm.

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Tracking My Journey To Recovery

I’ll use the blog as a sort of journal to track my journey – inner thoughts as well as the outward physical events. I’ll write about the same subjects I suppose but perhaps have a fresh angle – definitely a different perspective!

Entries may be written in the moment, fragments and random happenings recorded – a different process from how I usually write. I’m a planner and outliner when it comes to publication, a worrier about whether anything I write is worth reading or if there is a mistake with research, grammar, spelling…

Become-a-writer.jpg

I’ve been writing since a teenager and I love reading good writing – all I’ve ever wanted to do is be a writer that others want to read.

However, if I’m ever to achieve that dream and finish a couple of important writing projects then radical action is required. I’ll be 64 years old in August – a bit long in the tooth to be regarded as an emerging writer and entering the age bracket conscious that time can run out!

 

gone fishing seat stony pt.jpg
A reminder of life’s fragility the last time I visited Stony Point!

 

Now for Something Completely Different

It’s time to remove myself from the comfort zone of teaching writing and helping others on their publishing journey. Breda now looks after the Mordialloc Writers’ Group – relinquishing that was a major step for me to take because I founded the group over 21 years ago – but the freedom I feel with the cliched weight off my shoulders is wonderful.

I’m going to fulfil another item on the ‘bucket list’ made after I survived a breast cancer interlude. Hopefully, there will be a few more crossed off the list in the future.

A couple of years ago, I went to Samoa and paid homage to Robert Louis Stevenson, a writer who inspired me in childhood.  Samoa, the first of travel adventures I’d dreamed about and promised to visit ‘one day’.

On this Trans-Siberian trip, a teenage dream will be realised and  I’ll pay homage to another favourite writer, Dostoevsky whose book Crime And Punishment, I regard as one of the top ten influences in my life. Like RLS and a few others, Dostoevsky gave me the desire to be a writer.

I’ll also be visiting the Orkney and Shetland islands, another long-held dream and the home of the wonderful writer and poet George Mackay-Brown.

Like Hillary Clinton – I aim high!

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When I’m in holiday mode, perhaps I’ll rediscover the joy and spontaneity I’ve lost and succumb to the mystical process of mind linking together random observations, thoughts, dreams and sudden ideas into storylines and poems.

Sea-Sawing  2
Mairi Neil

When I walk by the sea, I am calmed
heartbeat slows, breathing even, steps linger,
imagination sparked as dreams awaken.
When I walk by the sea, I am calmed
shells crunch underfoot, sand soft or solid,
seagulls whirl and twirl their aerial dance.
When I walk by the sea, I am calmed
blueness stretches to meet blueness or
stormy grey prances with white caps,
the horizon a promise of somewhere else.
When I walk by the sea, I am calmed
worries, fears, a bad day assuaged –
this too will pass a mantra of healing and rebirth
When I walk by the sea, I am calmed.

Playfulness Is Not Out Of The Question

My first published poems were for children and I’ve always been attracted to manipulating words for fun. Perhaps my creative journey needs to return where it began!

I know poems don’t have to rhyme, in fact in some poetry circles it’s almost a criminal offence to write what they consider ‘doggerel’ aka anything with a rhyme. However, I love playing with words, love puns and absurdity.

Sea-Sawing 3
Mairi Neil

I must go down to the sea today
to see the waves and splash
I must go into the sea today
salt water will cure my rash!
The sea has healing powers –
that’s what Mum told me
so, don’t take Nature for granted –
especially the magnificent sea.

You can play in the ocean,
swim, sail, and even water ski
it’s such a wonderful playground
so, always look after the sea.
Don’t pollute the water
home to creatures great and small
because if you listen carefully
you’ll hear the mermaids call…

Here’s to rejuvenation and a renewal of purpose or perhaps I’ll return from my journey and decide to knit and craft – reminders of a lovely period in my life when the girls attended a Steiner school and we immersed our lives in all things natural.

Time will tell.

… what we call the Creative Process is in no way limited to art or to individual acts of creating something. It is in fact, a large ongoing movement in our lives, a force that has its own will and its own purpose, and which we manifest on many levels but in definite sequences… a profoundly sacred process… visible in all aspects of my life…

Burghild Nina Holzer 1993.