Creative Conversations and Observations for a Poet and Writer on Public Transport


On reflection, having to travel by public transport and perhaps do more walking than others need to, has been a gift for my writing. My notebook is filled with snippets of conversation, details noted, ideas, characters and plots, from daily observations as I travel from A to B by foot, bus or train.

Strange as it may seem in this modern world, I don’t drive and have never held a driving licence.


It’s a long story, which involves a deeply traumatic accident when I was a teenager, and one I won’t revisit today.

However, I make any situation work for me! I try to enthuse my students to spend more time on public transport (it is better for the planet after all) and to always be alert and have their pen and notebook at the ready.


Monday Morning
Mairi Neil

Often I wake to early dawn
Pastel colours suffused on lawn
Dewy drops dripping from leaves
Ready to fall if gentle sea breeze…

Daylight comes with steady gait
I breakfast quickly, not to be late
The working day waits for no one
And shining sun now promises fun.

Buds are blooming insects thrum
The birds from the Wetlands come
Magpies chortle, blackbirds trill
Juicy worms now a morning thrill.

Trains trundle past, destination known
A glance at the clock, time has flown
Aurora locked outside with a bone
Handbag checked for keys and phone.

The walk to work an easy pace
Night shadows gone without a trace
Neighbours’ gardens perfume the air
Examples of love, and diligent care.

Cars jostle for parking, traffic grows
Some drivers’ rage leads to blows
Modern living a frenetic dance
But I work within strolling distance

Often I wake to the early dawn
As pastel colours suffuse on lawn
Night shadows leaving without a trace
I whisper blessings for the Creator’s Grace …

albert street

Monday Afternoon
Mairi Neil

The bus arrives to a restless queue
Driver grumpy, wishing time flew
Passengers board like a mutinous crew
No smiles, or greetings, courtesies few.

Timetables set and must be obeyed
When punctual, the memories fade
Lateness, delays, cancellations weighed
Invoking criticism, complaints, tirades!

What do passengers care of roadworks?
Better to assume all drivers are jerks
Perhaps skiving off, looking for perks
Responsibility of time, theirs to shirk.

Traffic jams, stress, interrupted flow
Vehicles broken down, or going slow
Bicycles hesitant of where to go
Negotiating routes even hard for a pro.

Who’d be a bus driver, I often ask
Their daily challenge an unenviable task
The bus arrives to a restless queue
The long-suffering driver wishing time flew…

One of the poet’s I admire is Roger McGough – he writes about a world I recognise and in a recent lesson, we discussed his poem Conversations on a Train and how we could use it as inspiration.

Where is conversation taking place?
Why are the women travelling?
What do the people do for a living?
Are they experienced travellers?
What are the Illuminations?
Any more information to be gleaned?
How does the poet use language and dialogue to tell the story?

Conversation on a Train
Roger McGough

I’m Shirley, she’s Mary.
We’re from Swansea
(if there was a horse there
it’d be a one-horse town
but there isn’t even that).
We’re going to Blackpool
Just the week. A bit late I know
But then there’s the Illuminations
Isn’t there? No, never been before.
Paris last year. Didn’t like it.
Too expensive and nothing there really.

Dirty old train isn’t it?
And not even a running buffet.
Packet of crisps would do
Change at Crewe
Probably have to wait hours
For the connection, and these cases
Are bloody heavy.
And those porters only want tipping.
Reminds you of Paris that does
Tip tip tip all the time.
Think you’re made of money over there.

Toy factory, and Mary works in a shop.
Grocers. Oh it’s not bad
Mind you the money’s terrible.
Where are you from now?
Oh aye, dya know the Beatles then?
And what do you do for a living? You don’t say.
Diya hear than Mary?
Well I hope you don’t go home
And write a bloody poem about us.

In class, we worked with a partner and transposed the poem into a short piece of dialogue so we could mark the voices speaking and fill the gaps in conversation.

What differences are there between your dialogue and the poem? What’s more effective? Notice how you mentally supply the other half of the conversation because of cultural background and life experience.


We then tried to write our own poems using McGough’s as a wonderful example.

A Trip to Tassy
Mairi Neil

I’m Mary, she’s Jane
We’re from Mordialloc
Our bit of paradise
Is Mordy –
Sea, sand and serenity.

We’re going to Launceston
Just the weekend. A bit short, I know.
But you need a break, don’t you?
Yes, work’s so bloody relentless
We’re cleaners. That’s right,
In business together.

Bumpy old ride isn’t it?
Gov’ment should fix the roads.
Oh, we’ve heard that, haven’t we Mum?
Road kill. Shocking statistics.
Those bumps were pot holes.
I bloody hope so!

We clean all sorts: houses, factories,
Shops. Too right there’s some sights
And smells. Ha! Ha! That’s funny!
Jane here would love that.
What Mum? A switch on yer nose.
Yeah, people can be filthy.

Everywhere. We went to England
Last year. Buckingham Palace.
Yeah, it was clean
But ya should have seen
The dog poo in the streets.
Like I said, people are filthy.

There can be perks -mostly jerks.
Jaded Jane? You could say that.
It’s not a sought after job
For anyone. Of course, I finished
School. The economy’s crap.
What’s your line of work?
Gov’ment huh? Cushy job.
Wow, that was some bump.
Why don’t you fix the bloody roads!

Off The Rails
Off The Rails

Frankston to Flinders Street
Mairi Neil

Jason and Trev
Yeah, just finished TAFE
Our holiday gear
Is that why you thought
We were Tradies?
Jason’s tools need
A harder case than that
Like he is – Ha! Ha!
Have a guess. No, not sparkies.
Do I look like a painter?
Jas here’s a carpenter, I’m a baker.
And you’re a secretary.
Oooh! sensitive.
Nothing wrong with being a secretary
They record minutes and write too.

Trev’s sister’s a secretary
For the CEO of Metro
Pity she wasn’t the CEO
This train line needs a makeover.
You could write about that in your paper
We’re getting off at Southern Cross
Heading for the Ghan
And the desert.
You been there Pam?
Plenty of stories for you.
She’s going to write about us Trev.
Make us celebrities – eh Pam?
Front page news
Tradies Take Over Train
Tradies Testing Transport’s Timetables

Yeah, we were the jokers at TAFE
And school Jas – remember that
Trip to Springvale?
Very droll Pam – not the cemetery
But just as dead heh, Jas?
Deadly Trev – we missed the bus
Home remember? Aw getting off
So soon! Don’t you want to know
What we did? All right be like that.
Go on Trev, she like you…
Fancy coming with us Pam?
To record our story, of course!
Smile Trev I think that blonde’s
Heading this way…

Another poem by Roger McGough I love is –

Waving at Trains
Roger McGough

Do people who wave at trains
Wave at the driver, or at the train itself?
Or, do people who wave at trains
Wave at the passengers? Those hurtling strangers,
The unidentifiable flying faces?
They must think we like being waved at.
Children do perhaps, and alone
In a compartment, the occasional passenger
Who is himself a secret waver at trains.
But most of us are unimpressed.
Some even think they’re daft.
Stuck out there in a field, grinning.
But our ignoring them, our blank faces,
Even our pulled tongues and up you signs
Come three miles further down the line.
Out of harm’s way by then
They continue their walk.
Refreshed and made pure, by the mistaken belief
That their love has been returned,
Because they have not seen it rejected.
It’s like God in a way. Another day
Another universe. Always off somewhere.
And left behind, the faithful few,
Stuck out there. Not a care in the world.

Trains play a big part in my life and it is no surprise they inspire me to write.

Currently, I live opposite the Frankston railway line and 500 steps from Mordialloc Railway Station, and have done for 31 years.

Before that, I grew up in Croydon with the Lilydale line two paddocks away from our back fence. Before that, I lived in Scotland and watched my father drive trains, thrilled when he was on the Weymss Bay route and we’d wave a sheet from the back landing of our Braeside home. He’d toot the horn to let us know he’d seen us. (My Grandfather, also a locomotive engine driver in the age of steam so Dad was carrying on a family tradition.)

Dad drove steam trains, also diesels and was at 23 years of age the youngest diesel instructor for British Rail. When we arrived in Australia in 1962 with good references and proof of his 25 year career with British Rail, I can’t even imagine his devastation at being rejected by Victorian Railways, deemed too old at 40 to be a driver, and offered a job as a cleaner. ( A common immigrant story)

His active connection with working with trains forever severed – except at the dinner table where we feasted on stories of Papa and Dad’s exploits.

Trains are one of the most efficient and sustainable forms of public transport. For years I travelled to the city for work: red rattlers caught at Croydon Station at 7.30am and the infamous 5 o’clock flyer home from Flinders Street.

When I lived in Prahran for 5 years, I trammed to North Melbourne – and using the trams gave me my first paid published short story!

A move to Mordialloc in 1984 entailed travelling in and out of the city on Blue Harris trains, Silver Comengs, and now Metro’s Siemen trains. If given a choice, I opt for train travel over car, bus or plane! And I always have my writer’s notebook at hand.

3.05pm Flinders Street to Frankston
Mairi Neil

He shovels a healthy salad
into bearded mouth
his bamboo fork
environmentally friendly ––
but not the plastic container…

She swigs Kamboucha
for inner health
what about Mother Earth’s
digestive tract? Blocked
by the plastic bottle and cap.

Fast food aromas embedded
in train carriage upholstery
waft in the air, cling to clothes
junk food litter clutters floor
peeks from discarded plastic bags…

Excess packaging the norm
as the world chokes and
even those who profess care
sucked in and swallowed
by consumerism

Landfill dumps grow
There is no ‘away’ in throw!


What’s your favourite form of transport? What transport inspires your writing? Have you written a poem based on overheard conversations or observations? Please give me a link to share.

Thank you

Celebrating The Astor Theatre and Appreciating Melbourne’s Vibrant Arts Scene


Melbourne’s winter has been colder than usual this year and some days have been bleak. Night falls early, the sky beginning to darken at 5.00pm, making it easy to stay home and cuddle up with a book by the fireside. It has to be an enticing reason to venture into the cold and on Thursday night, 25th June 2015, such a reason occurred, an offer, in Godfather parlance, I couldn’t refuse.

a very special event

Courtesy of Anne, my eldest daughter, Mary Jane and I attended a gala event to take part in a piece of Melbourne’s history – the celebration of the refurbishment and saving of The Astor Theatre, an icon of entertainment and a legend in the city.

anne at astor acknowledging the sponsors and the team that kept it opened

Anne’s gift stirred many memories of my teenage years, the 60s and 70s in Melbourne where we would travel in from the outer suburbs to taste the nightlife of the city! The Astor Theatre open long after other cinemas had closed for the evening and its Chapel Street location such a contrast to Croydon, a ‘bush’ town that still had horse rails attached to wooden verandahs outside some shops when we arrived from Scotland in 1962.


A short walk from Windsor Railway Station, The Astor is one of the last single screen movie palaces in the world and has shown movies continuously since 1936, a time when ‘going to the pictures’ a highlight of many people’s week.

Always a treat, to go to The Astor, the home of the double feature that grew into a cinema showing cult favourites, Golden Era classics and new releases long after the cinema monopolies take them off screen for the latest 10 day wonder. You don’t sit through 20 minutes of advertising or promos at The Astor – you see two movies or experience an event. (Mary Jane and I watched Joss Whedon’s Cabin in The Woods with an extremely appreciative audience! My friend Eva and I sat through Tim Winton’s The Turning comparing the film interpretation to the short stories we’d read.)

Thursday night’s gala event was no exception from other Astor evenings sitting in the art deco time warp. The charm of the theatre has to be experienced and you know you are with an audience that appreciates the suspension of disbelief, the wonderment of ‘going to the pictures’.

historical movie posters

Your ticket gives you a seat – first in, best dressed – sit in the Stalls or Upstairs in the balcony. The sound, large screen and projection state of the art and modern, in comparison to the now heritage listed leather seats – if you have back problems you’ll appreciate the intermission between features.

The gala event special because like many of Melbourne’s live music venues and entertainment icons, The Astor, being an old building on prime real estate was threatened with closure. Maintenance costs and expenses for upgrading seemed insurmountable in a difficult economic climate and the spread of the digital revolution .

so many peole rallied

The public outcry and support for a piece of Melbourne’s history and current culture, some wealthy investors and the Palace Cinema group combined to save the day. Miracles do happen. My daughters and I thrilled to be part of the celebration knowing when we held up our glasses of bubbly to ‘long live The Astor’ the theatre’s future is secure with a promise to retain the features supporters cherish.

art deco ceiling many in the crowd dressed up

Needless to say the champagne,wine and beer flowed freely courtesy of Brown brothers and Peroni, ‘a delicious Italian beer’ the young hosts promoted as they carried trays of bottles and glasses around the rooms. Everyone received a famous Astor Choc Ice specialty too – an ice-cream cone with thick chocolate topping. A  jazz band’s lively repertoire ensured toes tapped and punters danced.

There were nibblies served in cardboard boats – a link with the motif of the special Melbourne premiere of ‘Women He’s Undressed’, the new documentary by Gillian Armstrong on the life of Australian costume designer Orry-Kelly who dressed stars from the Golden Era of Hollywood, won three Oscars and is largely unknown in Australia.

When Mary Jane and I walked past the theatre at 5.30pm to meet Anne for dinner, we were surprised at the crowd already gathering outside The Astor – one middle-aged matron dressed like a Hollywood silent movie star knocking on the glass doors trying to get the attention of those inside.

‘She’s keen,’ I commented.
‘And we’re underdressed,’ said MJ, as we took in some of the evening and fancy dress of the crowd.

Later, egalitarian Melbourne and The Astor witnessed  plenty of folks dressed casually coming straight from university or work. We weren’t made to feel oddities.

a huge crowd anne and me at Astor

However, the number of photographers present and the ABC van parked outside while spotlights raked the night sky plus the music from the live jazz band drifting up the street  signalled this was an exciting evening.

We were part of history – a lovely memorable part of history.

Director Gillian Armstrong and co-producer Damien Parer introduced the film, Women He’s Undressed. Gillian ecstatic to be in her hometown and getting a cheer from the crowd when she said she regarded this night, not the Sydney launch, as the world premiere. Most of her family were present and The Astor was a world famous institution – what more could she ask!

She begged us to wait until after the credits at the end so she could introduce the writer, Katherine Thomson and the star, Darren Gilshenan. It was wonderful she publicly acknowledged the team who helped make the documentary, including researchers. Film  is a collaborative art, a fact often forgotten when people gush over stars or directors.

poster for the rest of the year

 The cinema length documentary explored the life of three-time Oscar winner, Australian costume designer Orry-Kelly. A man who I’ll openly admit I knew nothing about until the promos for the gala event at The Astor. Very few Australians will have heard of him, or realised he was Australian, so I’m not alone in my ignorance.

The film draws on his memoir ‘Women I’ve Undressed’, hidden until recently because Cary Grant extracted a promise it wouldn’t be published and then used the legal system to block publication. Orry and Cary (real name Archie Leach) lived together and the famous film star insisted Orry keep their relationship secret.


We learn about Orry’s early life in Kiama and later Sydney, Australia, but most of the film concentrates on his journey in America where he makes his name as a costume designer for Warner Brothers becoming a friend and confidante to actors such as Ginger Rogers, Bette Davis, Betty Grable, Humphrey Bogart, Marilyn Munroe, Kathryn Hepburn, Barbara Stanwyck, Angela Lansbury… and the list goes on. His Oscars won for An American in Paris (1951, shared with two others), Les Girls (1957) and Some Like It Hot (1959).


The metaphor of the sea and rowing boat plus Kiama’s famous Blowhole a stroke of genius, no doubt inspired by a photograph of Orry the boy in a sailor suit and sitting in a boat, but used to great effect in the documentary.

Historically, life has never been easy if you are homosexual and Orry suffered periods of discrimination and anguish because of his sexuality. After trouble in Sydney with a gangster boyfriend he fled to New York arriving at a time when despite Prohibition, Broadway and jazz clubs thrived. Orry’s artistic talents and homosexuality soon found a niche.

Later, Orry developed an addiction to alcohol and was also known to be temperamental. A talented artist he worked at a frenetic pace. Interspersed with interviews of people who knew him, worked with him or knew of him, we return again and again to Orry in the boat – in and out of deep water, rowing gently or paddling furiously, adrift or beached, or at last in safe harbour.


We learn about the adoring, unconditional love from his mother, her foresight paying for his art lessons, as well as his aptitude for sewing from his tailor father. When a costume designer, Orry sketched the clothes, including the faces of the actors, an unusual practice at the time. His drawings became much sought after works of art. These drawings helped him become a great costume designer, actors knew the clothes were made for them as well as enhancing their roles.

A snippit from the film reveals that Bette Davis had long droopy breasts, but refused to wear an underwire bra for fear of breast cancer. Orry accommodated her figure by having clothes with fancy pockets, large collars, designs that disguised or drew attention away from her chest. They collaborated and became great friends.

The amazing, eye-popping dresses worn by Marilyn Munroe in Some Like It Hot, whereby she appears almost naked a triumph of design and to this day people wonder how Orry managed to circumvent the strict guidelines Hollywood adhered to regarding nudity, sex, swearing etc.

The official release date of Women He’s Undressed is July 16th. A film about a talented Aussie bloke few have probably heard of – someone today’s celebrity worshippers have missed!  The documentary deserves a good run and judging by the reception it received from The Astor’s audience it was a great choice for a fabulous gala event.

The film left me wanting to know more about Orry-Kelly – let me know if you felt like that too!

‘Found Poetry’ or How to Find Poems Where You Least Expect Them.

Central Australia 2011
Central Australia 2011

I suppose shaping words into poems is not too hard, however, creating a poem that others like or appreciate is difficult. This task, like all creative writing,  is worth pursuing – a challenge that can be fun.

I try to bring new ideas to class, to stretch the imagination of  students. It’s good to  move  out of  comfort zones, adapt, perhaps extend and improve writing skills. Many of my students went to school in an era where poetry was defined by set verses, set rhymes. They usually read works by  Wordsworth, Tennyson, Byron, Keats, Coleridge, Rosetti, Hope, Eliot… great and famous poets, but they provide only a small percentage of the poetry written, not only in our culture, but elsewhere.

A way of learning about poetry and how poets work is to write your own poems. Writing a Found Poem means you don’t start from scratch – rather you look for words, phrases, similes, metaphors, headlines, titles, – any text that appeals to you – and use it in a poem. You find interesting or ordinary prose  – look for strong verbs, concrete nouns, words with a richness and interest that fires imagination.

Found poems are excellent for understanding the essence of a piece of writing or seeking the essence not apparent in the prose. You choose words and distance yourself from the original writing while creating a different form by transforming the words into your poem.

War Exhibited
Mairi Neil
(a found poem from an article in Royal Auto magazine)

Night follows day
Rain turns to sun
And tanks roll
20,000 kilometres away.
After extensive planning,
As if choreographed
Buildngs are devastated
barbed wire erected
parapets protected.
But the impact of war
These are real people
Not artefacts.
Giant screens
In our lounge rooms
Evocative deep shadows
Of horror revisited
in sequence
Locating, arranging, recording
With focused narrative
Force us to embrace
The world at war.

Maybe there is a snatch of conversation you recorded in your writer’s notebook, an idea triggered by a piece of junk mail, a moving phrase in a story, a striking word in a newspaper article, a fascinating headline or book title.

Hopeful Ageing
Mairi Neil
(a found poem from advertisements for seniors)

A health breakthrough
Ultimate comfort
Never again
Aching joints
Problem toes
Swollen ankles and feet
Strained muscles
Hand pain
Knee discomfort
Blemishes and age spots…
A body shaper
To improve blood pressure
Mobility without straining
No slipping, sliding…
Warm, soothing, soft as silk companion
Retain independence
Quality of life
Reduce exercise
And take advantage of
Extra support
Never needs sharpening
Perfect relief
What is this breakthrough?

Why – it’s a miracle!

Poems – short or long, form or free verse –  language rearranged, emotions hidden until the possibilities of language explored and shared.


Using existing text to construct a poem lessens the demands of writing, but gives the opportunity for creativity and imagination. When a poem eventuates there is a sense of satisfaction. It increases a knowledge of words and builds confidence.

The Necklace
Mairi Neil
(a found poem based on The Necklace, a short story by Guy de Maupassant)

She drew near
‘At last it is done!’
I examined my sister closely
As if for the first time.
No jewellery –
Where was the necklace?
She was the prettiest
No need of fancy dresses

Where was the necklace?
It is done…?
‘Are you not making a mistake?
Selling an inheritance worth
Millions’ – I turn away
‘How dare you!’

She was always the prettiest
Now she is the wealthiest.
What blunder of destiny
Made us sisters?
My unhappiness chokes me –
Or will strangle her…

Found poetry helps demonstrate we can all construct poetry using the everyday as inspiration. We learn how poetry works and how to experiment with poetic form, using the various creative tools and language conventions we know, in an enjoyable way. Writing found poems is about keeping your ears and eyes alert to the possibilities of ordinary language.


To have fun is rule number one!  If the poem is written in stages it helps lessen the sense of panic and confusion some students have when asked to try something new and ‘think outside the box’.

Ten Simple Steps For Writing a Found Poem

1. Choose an article, a short story, a novel, a cereal packet, junk mail, newspaper headlines, obituaries, letters, bulletin boards, menus, advertisements – whatever piece of prose you want. You can even use several sources for one poem. Check your notebook for ideas, dialogue, words you may have noted.
(NB: Do not use other poems or song lyrics – they’re already poetry!!)

2. Find 50 to 150 words you like – cut them out, highlight or underline them. Remember these must be interesting words, but not necessarily unusual – strong words the key.

3. Copy the words/language (it may be a phrase) in the order you ‘found’ them.

4. Study the words carefully (this is why 150 is a good number) and remove any that are dull, offensive, sound a bit ‘off’. Reduce your number by half. With the words left, you can change punctuation and tense of you want, perhaps capitalise – a word may be a common noun easily adapted to a proper noun etc. , make the words into a possessive or plural.

5. Work on these words, maybe pare some more, until you have a cohesive poem developing. You might have to add a few words of your own although the secret is to make minimum additions – it is a found poem after all!

6. Arrange the words – maybe key words are put at beginning of lines, or perhaps the end. Maybe words going together can be split and put on different lines. Think of ending each line on a notable sound. Keep the reader’s interest . What are you trying to say?

7. Read the poem aloud as you work, listen to where you want to pause. Do the words sound good and is pacing right? Listen for the rhythm.

8. When reading your poem consider a title.

9. With found poems the rules are yours – you can change fonts, use form poetry, be as creative as you want. There are few conventions to worry about – and anyway you make the rules just as you choose the words to include!

10. As a footnote, or included under the title you can give credit to the source of your found poem(see above), particularly if all the words are taken from a story or novel.

eg. From Chapter Four, Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen.
     From Mordialloc Chelsea News, What’s On Section.
    Overheard while waiting for a train on the Frankston Line.
    From Myer’s Winter Catalogue.

The process of recasting the text you are reading in a different genre will help you become a more insightful reader and develop creativity in thinking and writing. Don’t be too concerned about the ideas in the article/story you choose, focus on the words, the headings, the language.

Arrange your word list, break the words into lines, add punctuation if desired, determine the use of white space, the lay out, and you have created a found poem!


Good luck and happy writing!

Haiku, Twaiku and Poetweets are Treats

People holding mobile phones are silhouetted against a backdrop projected with the Twitter logo in this illustration picture taken in  Warsaw September 27, 2013. Twitter Inc, the eight-year-old online messaging service, gave potential investors their first glance at its financials on Thursday when it publicly filed its IPO documents, setting the stage for one of the most-anticipated debuts in over a year. Picture taken September 27.  REUTERS/Kacper Pempel (POLAND - Tags: BUSINESS TELECOMS LOGO)
People holding mobile phones are silhouetted against a backdrop projected with the Twitter logo in this illustration picture taken in Warsaw September 27, 2013 and printed in the New York Times recently when Twitter announced its financials.

It’s the Digital Age and most of us know about Twitter – even if we don’t use social media. Twitter is a form of communicating in short sharp messages. You can only use 140 characters, including spaces between words, punctuation marks, line breaks and numbers.

If you are on twitter and tweet you’ll have an address that identifies who you are – it will be something like @whateveryourname is and then a # hashtag preceding the post. You can follow people and they can follow you!


Adventurous writers have embraced yet another form of communication and as time passes even traditionalists find themselves participating in exercises and competitions focusing on new technology.

Welcome to the future where you are required to write a short story, a poem, even a novel, in bite-sized messages of no more than 140 characters! However be careful you don’t land yourself in a heap of trouble like seventy-year-old poet Craig Raine who tweeted his fantasy about a young airport worker and unleashed some very angry responses. This one was succinct and to the point:

Adam Warne@ MrAdamWarne
‘Craig Raine, the poet?’
We have less than half a minute.
‘I studied you. For my MA at uni.
I did an MA in misogyny and the male gaze.’

I teach in community houses and most of my students fall into particular demographics: many are retired and come along to write their life stories, or that novel they’ve talked about for years. Others attend to up-skill, improve gaps in their education, or come to enjoy working with words, being able to write poems and prose the way they want rather than what they were told at school. Others are on maternity leave, long service leave, extended sick leave… many reasons to be looking for a course to enjoy.

Others want to relax and have fun being creative and learning about writing techniques, using the various tools available – and as one class title suggests ‘write for pleasure and publication’.

In most classes, I also have students with disability – acquired brain injury, physical disability related to ageing or accident, early onset Alzheimer’s and a variety of other mental health issues ranging from depression, bi-polar to schizophrenia. The wonderful advantage of teaching and studying in community houses is socialisation and appreciation of diversity, the acceptance that everyone has the one desire – to share stories and imagination through their writing – regardless of (dis) ability.

I plan my lessons to be inclusive – accepting students have a range of abilities, a range of needs – many have been attending for over a decade so I’m hoping I’m doing something right! We have successes with students having work accepted in newspapers, anthologies, and magazines. Some have produced their own books.


This past week we’ve had a lot of fun discussing how we can harness the digital age to improve our writing, or just keep up with advances in technology. Form poetry is always a satisfying challenge and in one class at Godfrey Street Bentleigh for the last 4 years we have written terse verse to match inspiring works produced by the art class. This marrying of creativity becomes a calendar sold as a regular fundraiser at Christmas.

We decided to embrace ‘Twitterdom’ and although some students had heard of Twitter and tweets, no one utilised the platform.(Not even me!) And yet it has been around a long time in the writing world as this article explains: How do I love Thee? Count 140 Characters

Thank you Internet!

I also discovered interesting articles at the excellent source for journalism, Poynter , What Twitter teaches us about writing short and well. It really is great practice for editing, being succinct, searching for the ‘better or more appropriate’ word rather than just writing the first noun or verb that pops into your head.

A clever teacher/educator, Tracee Orman has devised a Poetweet and Twaiku Poetry Exercise.


If you haven’t worked it out Twaiku is three lines and 17 syllables like a haiku, but it also limits how many characters (including spaces) are used: no more than 140 and that includes your twitter hashtag.

Remember: Traditional haiku has the first line containing 5 syllables, second line 7 syllables, and the last line 5 syllables.

A Poetweet is poetry inspired by the social-networking site Twitter. The users of this site post tweets (like Facebook status updates) limiting them to 140 characters. The original poems created are called poetweets.


This is not new – The New York Times Online, Week in Review, March 20, 2011 called on well-known writers to submit poetry – one of my favourite poets, Robert Pinsky submitted this:

Low Pay Piecework
The fifth-grade teacher and her followers–
Five classes, twenty-eight in each, all hers:
One-hundred-and-forty different characters.

So now enough of the background – I had to get down to writing – I always do the task with my students – my effort in splurge time today –

Mod Weddings by MCN
Marriage in the digital age
Invites via Facebook & tweets
One-hundred-and-forty characters
The guests just off the street

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

The Twaiku a bit easier – especially since we could just make up a Twitter call sign.
I decided to use ‘by@tweetdiddledum Mairi Neil’

Here are good examples from

raining on sunday
time to do the spring cleaning
watch raindrops instead
By @Gianinec Gianine C

Plain white pages wait
For black ink to carve a path –
Our dreams given life.
By @lilledharmabum Kate Garrett

Here are some Twaiku efforts from me in response to ABC Radio National news this morning (perhaps it’s just as well I don’t tweet):

Farewell Phillip Toyne
You made a real difference
Land and People Care
By @tweetdiddledum Mairi Neil

Trans Pacific deal
Economic benefits for whom
Free trade free for all?
By @tweetdiddledum Mairi Neil

Stop the boats he said
We now pay people smugglers
Moral compass lost!
By @tweetdiddledum Mairi Neil

Now Julie Bishop’s
Definition of foreign aid
A ‘bucket’ of crap
By @tweetdiddledum Mairi Neil

News feeds us horror
Like finding out butterflies
Will feast on dead flesh
By @tweetdiddledum Mairi Neil

Hilary Clinton
Running for the presidency
Will Bill trip her up?
By @tweetdiddledum Mairi Neil

I think back to my childhood when the telephone was considered innovative and few houses could afford to have one connected. My parents did because railwayman Dad got extra shifts if he was easily contactable and with six children to feed and clothe most of his life revolved around chasing money!

My mother always seemed to know where we had played, what we did at school etc and she’d say ‘a little bird told me’ – I was 9 or 10 years old before it clicked – the telephone a great gossip spreader! No wonder the logo for twitter is a little bird – very appropriate.

Writing Twaiku or poetweets a lot of fun and helps hone your writing skills – why don’t you try it!


Seeking Serenity


The downside of the digital age is bad news travels more than fast – it’s instantaneous. At the moment in Australia, we have a Federal government performing poorly in so many areas that once again ‘the war on terror’ must take central place to keep us living in fear and to make an out of touch government relevant to ordinary citizens.

Unfortunately, throughout the world, there are plenty of images and stories to keep the fires of fear alight. Many stories so horrible that it’s easy to forget the majority of people in Australia live life at peace. Daily life is caring and interacting with friends and family; trying to do their best at work, home, school or play, not coping with bombs like some other countries.

There are bad people in the world, in fact, the epitome of evil judging by the horrific scenes delivered in full cinematic colour and sound to our flat-screen televisions. However, ‘Man’s inhumanity to man’ is not new as this Rabbie Burns poem  often quoted by my father reveals:

‘Many and sharp the num’rous ills
Inwoven with our frame!
More pointed still we make ourselves
Regret, remorse, and shame!
And Man, whose heav’n-erected face
The smiles of love adorn, –
Man’s inhumanity to man
Makes countless thousands mourn!

Robert Burns, From Man was made to Mourn: A Dirge, 1785

To appreciate life is not always ‘gloom and doom,’  I give my students a writing task to write about a favourite place. In the Life Stories and Legacies classes, they ponder about a place that is or was special and reflect on why. This pleasurable exercise invariably calms and reminds us life can be happy, interesting, even satisfying.

Most of us have an idyllic place we visit in our imagination, or a place precious in our heart, perhaps a childhood home or holiday. It may be a longing to visit a dream place,  the motivating thought of crossing it off our bucket list. Nostalgia or desire powerful draw-cards to provide a feeling of wellbeing, relief, and distraction.  It could be a memorable travel experience – finding your Shangri-La.

One of my favourite places is Stony Point on Western Port Bay. This quiet semi-rural coastal spot has a caravan park with 50 powered sites, but no obvious cluster of permanent houses. Popular in summer, it’s the railway terminus for anyone wanting to take a ferry across to Phillip Island (famous for its fairy penguins) and French Island with the little diesel train an oddity on the electrified Metro network.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

I’m a regular traveller to Stony Point since 2002 because my husband, John’s ashes were scattered off the pier at his request. The tide swept them far out to sea, an ideal final journey for someone ex-Royal Navy with a love of the sea. ‘I’ll be on every tide no matter where you are in the world,’ he said and this has been a great comfort to me and our daughters Anne and Mary Jane. We always head for the sea on John’s birthday and the anniversary of his death whether in Australia, USA, Canada or New Zealand… places we’ve been at those times.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Stony Point’s a popular fishing spot, but in earlier times was the centre of communication by land and sea for the whole of Western Port. All rail and ferry traffic began and ended at Stony Point. The locals were mainly fisherman and farmers and sent their produce to distant markets by train or ferry. A prison farm on French Island and the needs of nearby HMAS Cerberus naval base meant there were government contracts. However, the closure of the prison and subsequent development of French Island and nearby towns have left Stony Point almost in a time warp.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Tourists who stay in the caravan park can explore the whole of the Mornington Peninsula including the galleries, cycle tracks, wineries and golf courses. The three-lane boat ramp kept in excellent condition and well-used. It attracts flocks of well-fed pelicans. The birds hang around the mud flats and gutting tables until boats return. They are rarely disappointed and fight for the scraps fishermen discard. This misquoted and misattributed poem always comes to mind:

A wonderful bird is the pelican,
His bill will hold more than his belican,
He can take in his beak
Enough food for a week
But I’m damned if I see how the helican!

Dixon Lanier Merritt

I’ve taken hundreds of photographs of the pelicans, on visits to Stony Point over the years. The girls laugh at my obsession, but I find the pelicans’ behaviour entertaining, and there is something comforting about their dignified presence. I’ve captured the place in all its seasonal glory, always amazed at how little it changes.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Although there was drama in 2004 when the Federal Government under Prime Minister John Howard decided we must be “alert not alarmed.” Security around defence establishments was increased and Stony Point changed.

As a writer, carrying my trusty pocket notebook and pen, listening and observing, I share a story from that time – a snapshot of one visit…

Journal Entry January 2004

The kiosk atop the hillock to the left of the railway station has a perfect view of pier and harbour. The dowdy dull building could do with a makeover and I wish again for the capital to give the owners an offer they can’t refuse. It would be an ideal home and income – close to the sea and John. I’m struggling with being on my own with two teenage daughters – a quiet backwater seems attractive.

I buy a cup of coffee and sit down at an outside table to soak up the serenity I crave. A whiff of Peter Jackson brings back memories of John,  a waft of white wine makes me wonder if he floats in on the tide and visits the kiosk to be re-energised.

It’s Saturday. The baby blue water reflects a brilliant cloudless sky as the weekend summer crowd builds. A  light breeze plays with the multicoloured plastic strips hanging from the doorway of the dilapidated kiosk. They’re already pushed and stretched at regular intervals making their purpose of preventing flies entering the shop irrelevant.

It’s not quite noon, but Amy, a local, sits outside on one of the half dozen outdoor table and chair sets. Dressed in summer shorts and skimpy halter-neck top, she could be mistaken for a middle-aged tourist. Crinkled skin on a too-thin neck and slim berry brown arms and legs reveal a life exposed to the sun, salt and sea. Her only encumbrances, a cigarette in one hand, and a half-full wineglass in the other.

The constant chug of boat engines competes with the chattering of noisy miner birds, interrupted at regular intervals by the rhythmic thwack-thwack, as cars trailing boats bump over the speed hump, placed with strategic significance, at the entrance to the ticket box for the carpark.

On the wooden bench beside Amy sit a couple of similar age, plus a young woman bearing such an uncanny resemblance, including her attire, that she has to be Amy’s daughter. They all hold wine glasses recently topped up from a bottle of locally produced Chardonnay now warming in the sun.

Amy sips before speaking, ‘Lil, you should’ve seen the sunrise this morning. It was liquid gold. Just pure gold, before the sky, turned orange and pink.’

‘You must’ve been up early.’

‘Yeah, the navy boat for training cadets closed off half the pier – security they say.’
The occupants of the table follow Amy’s gaze, taking in the hastily erected wire fence.

‘I reckon it was spite meself,’ said Amy, ‘ that’s why they made as much noise as the invasion of Iraq. Honestly, I bet the poor buggers in the cemetery at Crib Point sat bolt upright!’

Lil laughs. ‘What dya mean spite?’

‘Well, there’s always fights at the pub between them and the locals.’ Amy takes another sip, ‘and the muscles you get from hauling nets and sails sure beats the hell out of training that revolves around pushing buttons and tapping keyboards. Navy cadets ain’t what they used to be Lil – not like when we were young.’

Lil blushes, twists her wedding ring, looks at the man sitting beside her. The fifty-something bloke with leathery skin and balding head stares at the pier oblivious to the banter. His deep voice almost a growl. ‘Not many fishing today… the locals are usually spread along both sides of the pier.’

The relaxed group follow his gaze as a ribbon of cars hauling boats, arrive and park. The kiosk a backstop if the anglers have forgotten some item of food or bait, but most are self-sufficient. Liquid to celebrate a good catch or lament a bad one stashed in Eskies amid layers of crushed ice.

Amy sips her wine looking pensive. ‘Word is Ted that they’re gonna erect a permanent wire fence so locals won’t get access to the left side of the pier at all.’

Ted shrugs. ‘Well, it does belong to the Feds. The Port Authority just enforces policy.’

Lil’s slate grey eyes have been following the stream of cars in and out of the carpark by the jetty. Her voice is sharp, ‘Always has done and no-one bothers, Ted. So why make a big deal now? My family’s fished here for years. Everyone knows the best elephant fish and salmon are bagged from that side.’

Amy snorts. ‘It’s all that war on terror stuff,’ she shakes her cloud of red-dyed curls and rolls blue eyes skywards, ‘as if terrorists could be bothered blowing up anything here.’

Lil’s indignation flames her cheeks. ‘HMAS Cerberus is at Crib Point, and the oil refinery, fractional plant, liquid petroleum and ethane gas plant and a crude oil shipping plant – every bloody plant except the kind that will actually keep us breathing!’

She empties her glass with a gulp, ‘the security fences should be a few miles up the road if they’re serious. They only man this depot here during the week.’

The young woman smirks. ‘Maybe we can ask Al Qaida operatives to work to union rules and only attack 9 to 5, Monday to Friday?’

Ted is not amused. ‘They might do it just for the helluvit – we supported the Yanks blowing up Iraq and Afghanistan, yet the 9/11 hijackers were from Saudi Arabia. The whole point of terrorism is to be unpredictable and strike fear into ordinary people. To disrupt and cause panic…’

Lil places a placating hand on Ted’s hairy arm; her voice much calmer, ‘Okay Love, we don’t need a lecture. It’s too nice a day to worry about the war on terror.’

The persistent whine of a boat engine draws eyes seaward before Ted notices the source and points over to the far right. ‘Look at the yachts beyond that motorboat, not often you see yachts down here.’

Amy holds her hand above her eyes to deflect the glare of sunlight. ‘It’s sheltered here. I often get phone calls asking what the weather is like from people who are further up the coast. Mainly from Yaringa, that lovely boat harbour to the top of us.’

She lights another cigarette and takes a long drag. ‘Did you see in the paper a guy on a jet ski was fined for harassing dolphins? Another guy comes down with a hovercraft and goes over the mudflats – you should hear the noise that makes.’

Ted’s voice a grumble, ‘ Probably looking for abalone, the illegal trade will wipe out locals. Bet there’s divers on that yacht and they won’t stop at 5 bags.’

‘Mmm, the most delicious shellfish you’ll ever taste,’ said Lil, licking her lips.

Amy sucks at her smoke, ‘Abalone? Shell useful too, you know. They’re pearl shells,’ she stubs out her cigarette, ‘you can use them as an ashtray like this one.’

Lil’s expression suggests she can taste abalone right now. ‘You know if you are cooking Chinese stirfry cut it against the grain like you’d do meat. Don’t beat it, just dip it in breadcrumbs and egg, then drop in hot oil for a few seconds. Oh, it is beautiful!’

Sunlight bounces off the gleaming glasses, dances on the table, Amy’s silver rings and bangles shooting rays like spears. All eyes focus on several groups fishing at the pier. Families, father and son couples, mate duos, primary school children alongside teenagers, lone anglers. Mesmerised they appear to have run out of conversation. The war on terror may be headlines in the newspapers but is remote here.

Meanwhile, residents of the small fishing village use the kiosk as a backstop, a pick-up point for newspapers or the place to keep up with local gossip. Visitors to the adjacent Caravan Park or local fishermen collect the latest government circular, frequent the sandwich bar or perhaps buy the ubiquitous microwavable packaged pie and sausage roll.

Day-trippers, like me, from Melbourne, off-loaded at the terminus by the old-fashioned diesel train, sit at the tables beneath shady orange and red flowering grevilleas, sipping hot drinks from polystyrene cups or cold drinks from glass bottles or tins. We read the complimentary paper and tourist brochures or contemplate the surprising mellowness of this backwater until it is time to either catch the ferry to French or Phillip Islands or return on the train.

 I walk toward the pier. The tide is coming in with speed now and the water gurgles and glubs as it slaps against the pier pylons. I drop a sprig of rosemary and a strand of lavender into the water and whisper, ‘for you my love, memories of home. We’re doing all right.’

the flowers float from the pier

I feast on the glorious vista of the sea and islands beyond. This oasis of calm embedded in my heart. Worries dissipate and I know I’ve told John the truth – despite life’s upheavals, despite all the madness in the world, we are fortunate and doing all right!

I walk back towards the train station snatching a final look at the sea, sand and endless horizon. In a few hours, I’ll be back in the fray trying to make a difference, being bombarded by shocking news and reminding myself there is a place of serenity!

Carol always remembers
For 10 years on the anniversary of John’s death, Carol, who was the local florist and a close friend left 3 roses on our doorstep.



Recently, I was searching for a piece of writing to use in my teaching and discovered scraps of research, jotted notes of thoughts and ideas, and of course plenty of unfinished work. This piece I found started me on a journey that culminated in a short story, but it is also a snapshot of the many nights I’ve stood in my garden reflecting on how lucky I am to live in Mordialloc, pondering on the lessons I’ve learned. How different life is from what I imagined when I came to live here 31 years ago …


The woman walks along the sand from Mordialloc towards Beaumaris, within a few metres of open-air campsites once used by the Boon wurrung. Sandalled feet avoid large clusters of shells, remnants of the rich cultural life of over 2000 generations of indigenous people living here prior to Australia’s colonisation from a distant continent.

The stretch of beach as far as the eye can see is deserted, shielded from the noise of traffic and trappings of civilisation. When the pale yellow glow of the dawn lights up the sky and kisses the water, or the vivid sunset explodes in rainbow profusion, she feels connected to the timeless concept of the Aboriginal Dreaming, aches for what has been lost.

How did the Boon wurrung live as they walked these shores? What did they think when the first explorers built houses, altered the direction of the creeks and inland rivers; claimed land for fishing, cattle, sheep and market gardens?

She tries to picture the land as it once was, stretching inland from the cobalt blue sea. Imagines acres of tussocky grass, sword-sedge and lilies shaded by mast-like Blackwood trees, River Red gums and Swamp Paperbacks. Bandicoots, echidnas and wombats snuffle beneath shiny boobialla, tea-trees and wattles. Blue Wrens, Rainbow Lorikeets, and the Spotted Pardalote flit in colourful abundance from Sweet Bursaria, to White Correa and Showy Bossiaea.

There was joy and sharing of indigenous corroborees on the shores of Mordialloc Creek, as clans of the Eastern Kulin Nation: the Boon wurrung, Woi wurrung and Daung wurrung gathered from Westernport, Mt. Baw Baw, the Goulburn River and all places in between.

Did the tribal elders debate the effects and threat of white settlement? What guidance did they give to combat the confusion, ignorance, anger and grief of their clan? Did they consider any positive effects from the clash of cultures, or did they see through the baubles and sub standard rations of the empire builders? Did they appeal for protection to their moiety totems, the Wedge-tail Eagle Bunjil and the Australian Raven Waang, or were they as divided in their approach to the white man as the newcomers were to the Aborigines?

The woman’s house, one of many in Albert Street Mordialloc is built on an Aboriginal graveyard. Not a place the Boon wurrung chose, but rather a graveyard chosen for them. Death did not bestow equality or a place in the community cemetery; yet regardless of the colour of flesh, bleached bones and cremation returns all bodies to the Earth.

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust...

Thoughts of the impermanence of mankind creep unbidden into the woman’s consciousness as she stands in her garden to watch dusk descend. The glow of moonlight and twinkling of stars helps her see more clearly, to feel a connection with the land; to reflect that in the process of the European occupation, much of the natural heritage has been disguised or destroyed.

The air is redolent with the smells of this coastal community — tangy salt, fish, and seaweed, but it is now home to a diverse society with a multitude of pasts. She breathes the eucalyptus scent of the quintessential Australian gum tree, mixed with the perfume of a riot of introduced red and white roses, tumbling over the fence. She considers a constantly changing landscape as waves of immigrants create a multicultural cosmopolitan society. A city bound train thunders past; the roar of traffic from the Nepean Highway momentarily smothers the hum of night insects, and she is aware of the persistent whine of a distant car burglar alarm.

A silvery moon, enormous in the inky sky shines high above ragged clouds and she thinks of the graves. The brilliance of the moon’s all seeing, all knowing eye illuminates the garden like a carnival; bars of light filter through dark-leaved fruit trees; evening dew glistens on the grass like teardrops. The shadow of an owl swoops past; a dog barks in the distance. Nesting doves coo mournfully.

How many people have stood where she is now and stared at the millions of miles of twinkling sky? How many more will stand here?

She ponders on the 430 plant species prior to European occupation and how more than half are now extinct. Many native land animals have disappeared and only a few, such as possums and skinks survive in the urban environment, often cursed as pests. Marine communities devastated by over-harvesting and pollution, struggle to survive, especially the shellfish so loved by the Boon wurrung.

The sounds of the night are accompanied by a cool breeze caressing her skin. Stars fade, darkness descends like a soft velvet cape and she pictures the Aboriginal Flag flapping proudly in the wind in Attenborough Park. It is comforting that in many places consultation and consideration have replaced confrontation and conflict. She hopes recorded history will acknowledge contributions and mistakes; that Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal communities reconciled will have mutual understanding, that environmental awareness will halt destruction.

The moon smiles assurance, tomorrow is another day; another opportunity to embrace life and live in harmony with this beautiful land.

Nurturing Nature The Way Forward


World Environment Day was celebrated on June 5, but perhaps celebrated is the wrong word when you examine the state of  Earth. These statistics and photographs are quite depressing. How I wish people could appreciate and value nature like poet Joyce Kilmer.

His poem, Trees,  although criticised for being simplistic and sentimental is a classic that everyone remembers and quotes – many writers would wish for such an enviable record !

Frankston copy Frankston

The poem automatically springs to mind whenever I am in a botanical garden, a forest, a wood, or just walking down the street!

Trees  by Joyce Kilmer

I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.

A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the earth’s sweet flowing breast;

A tree that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;

A tree that may in summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair;

Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain.

Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.

albert street 2 albert street

HAIKU by Mairi Neil

Tree blossoms despite
Salty air and sparse rocky soil
Resilience plus!

Sturdy trees stand firm
Withstanding storms their purpose
Golden harvests win

Cherry blossom time
Nature blooms in profusion
Fat and happy ducks

ducks Aspendale spring in suburbs

I don’t know when I became enamoured with trees -I think that’s one of the gifts I’ve received from living in Australia. My early years growing up in a housing estate in Scotland didn’t contain many trees!

However, living in Croydon in 1962, we were surrounded by trees to climb, to lie under for shade, to feast off when plums and apples grew, to strip and use as make-believe spears and guns in our childish games or have plum and apple fights, and to harvest as kindling and firewood for Mum’s Raeburn stove and the living room fireplace.

We took these magnificent living structures for granted, used and abused them, rarely appreciated their beauty, or significance for the planet’s survival because of their amazing capacity to stay alive, regenerate and survive against all odds.  Knowledge, appreciation and inspiration came later.

Aussie Childhood
Mairi Neil

I grew up in bushy Croydon
the trees grew thick around,
milk and bread delivered
to a tuneful clip-clop sound.

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

The streets were mainly dirt tracks
a collection of pot holes and clay,
most people walked or cycled
and even strangers said, ‘gidday’.

Our weatherboard house peeled
the corrugated tin roof leaked too,
a verandah sagged under honeysuckle,
the rooms added as family grew.

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

Electricity brightened inside the house
so torch or candlelight had to suffice
night noises and shadows of the bush
and the smelly dunny, were not nice!

The path to the toilet lined with trees
growing tall to seek the sun
but when the dark cloak of night donned
branches became hands from which to run

During the day our block was heaven
definitely a children’s adventure-land
blue tongues, geckos, tadpoles and frogs
all shared our world so grand.

A snake the greatest danger
or a bull ant bite on the toe
a truly carefree wonderful time
my rose-coloured glasses show.

When I came to live in Mordialloc in 1984, I was an adult, soon to become a young mother. When John and I began to renovate our new home, plus create a garden, I not only noticed the trees, but became fascinated and attached to them. Involvement in a local conservation group meant I was even more captivated, not only interested in the environment, but ecology. I formed an emotional attachment to Mother Nature.

The Chestnut Tree
Mairi Neil

We cut down our chestnut tree today,
a sadness gripped my heart –
will the pain ever go away?

The tree was diseased, slowly dying
Attempted cures failed –
we stopped trying.

It was like saying goodbye
to a much-loved friend …
Is this how we all end?

The tree dominated our backyard
soft green foliage a contrast
to fruit, spiky and hard.

Veil-like shadows of leaves heralded spring
lazy days sitting beneath branches
listening to blackbirds sing

The baby lying on a blanket mesmerised
while a breeze rustled leaves and
birds and bees danced through the trees

In summer it delighted with endless charm
a shady spot for the wading pool
sun’s rays could not harm.

Warm balmy evenings, relaxing in easy chairs
sipping cool drinks at sunset
peace and tranquility, forgetting cares

Cherished memories; strong boughs hanging low
hooking the toddler’s swing
pushing the old tyre, oh so slow…

In winter, stripped bare, unattractive
as if the alien climate
is kind only to natives.

All living things eventually die
there’ll be other reasons to laugh
other reasons to cry.

seasons will come and seasons will go,
there’ll be other trees to nurture
other memories to sow.

When I put together an education kit about Bradshaw Park and discovered just how important trees were to the indigenous Australians I’m ecstatic much of this knowledge is captured in the beautiful tranquil Milarri Garden Trail  at the Melbourne Museum. It’s sad how easily generations of knowledge and expertise can be lost.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Living Fossils (a villanelle)
Mairi Neil

Celebrate parks and open spaces
How they let us breathe and play
They put smiles upon our faces

Nature provides wondrous places
Adding beauty to the everyday
Wildlife parks, wilderness spaces

Trainers recommend 10,000 paces
Exercise and be healthy they say
They put smiles upon our faces

In childhood egg and spoon races
Kite-flying, hide-n-seek, even crocquet
Celebrated parks and open spaces

Living demands no ‘airs and graces’
whether skies are blue or grey
We must put smiles upon our faces

In the future they’ll look for traces
Of how we spent our lives each day
They’ll dig up parks and other spaces
Perhaps put names to forgotten faces.

Trees, the bush, flowers, gardens – anything to do with nature can inspire me to write and I try and encourage my students to observe, reflect and write too. Inspiration is everywhere – even at Bentleigh Railway Station – this tree fascinates me as I wait for a train after class – an amazing example of how trees flourish against the odds.  It stands proud amidst concrete,  buildings, pollution and neglect, roots bulging through the fence, clinging to concrete wall. And then there is the building in the city with shrubbery sprouting like hair from a rooftop garden and trees straight and proud sentinels at the entrance.

Bentleigh station 2

melbourne city copy

HAIKU by Mairi Neil

Shadows on the hill
Early daffodils shimmer
Caught a winter chill

Beneath skies of blue
Swaying fields of amber grain
Bow heads, pray for rain.

Age does not weary love
Nurturing flowers and shrubs
Investment in health

Tranquil forest scene
Paths hidden and overgrown
Does danger lurk there?

A trip to Tasmania in 2008 to spend two weeks in the wilderness of the Tarkine was a spiritual experience as well as an exercise to prove I was still fit and capable of carrying a backpack and camping, after a bout of ill-health.

I defy anyone to visit this unique area and remain untouched by the timeless beauty, the unbelievable diversity. Experience  awe while in the presence of trees hundreds of years old, or in the case of Huon pines, thousands of years. I felt privileged to be in their presence, but also humbled by my insignificance – any time I spend on earth as transient as a leaf in comparison to these ancient monuments.

I came home rejuvenated and enervated after being close to what must be one of the most beautiful forested areas in the world. An area so many Australians value,  yet for decades has been under threat by miners, loggers and even so-called ‘eco-tourism’.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Currently, Australians are increasingly aware of the effects of climate change, the need to invest in renewable energy and divest from fossil fuels. I worked hard for Environment Victoria during the last state election and will do so again. Our political masters want us to believe the biggest threat to our world is terrorism, whereas I believe  environmental disasters pose a greater threat.

Writing is one way I can express how I feel, but also encourage others to do the same. We only have one world, let’s look after it – trees are its lungs – acknowledging their value and importance is a good start.

Winds Of Change
Mairi Neil

I am the balmy breeze that becomes the whistling wind
I wonder at the foolishness of architecture
I hear the sighs of lovers and the curses of farmers
I see the cricket matches and the collapsed houses
I want to travel the world and display my power
I am the balmy breeze that becomes the whistling wind

I pretend that I am always in control
I feel the power of Mother Nature’s other children
I touch the clouds and make them weep
I worry that there are places I cannot reach
I howl and keen in the eye of the cyclone
I am the balmy breeze that becomes the whistling wind

I understand the flutter of a baby’s hand
I manipulate heaving white horses
I whisper soft sentences and rant furious prose
I try always for my poetry to be heard
I hope always for a memorable role
I am the balmy breeze that becomes the whistling wind.

Fireside Flames Flicker as Imagination Ignited

Mordialloc Beach in winter

Mordialloc Winter Rhythm
Mairi Neil

Wattlebirds feast on
flowering grevillea
wake me from winter sleep

Morning winter fog
a row of ghostly gum trees
signpost railway station

Seagulls soar skywards
tossed by winter thermals
an aerial ballet

Blackbirds and magpies trill
as warm sunlight
penetrates tea-tree bush

By late afternoon at
Mordialloc Pier fishing
eskies overflow

Palm trees quiver
with chattering birds
as the sun sets

The full moon’s glow
suffused across a sea
now a mirror of calm

Winter has well and truly arrived in Mordialloc this week! Winter woollies the order of the day, electric blankets the order of the night! One of my students suggested being born in Scotland  made me less susceptible to the cold, however after 53 years, my blood must have thinned.

Although not completely acclimatised to the extremely hot weather, I feel the cold like anyone else. This week going to work, I too huddled in the waiting room at Mordialloc Railway Station rather than brave the southerly wind sending dust and leaves skittering along the platform and snatching at scarves, coats and hats.

It may be cold outside, but this is the perfect excuse to stay inside and write! Unless, of course, I take a walk along the foreshore or Mordialloc Creek for inspiration! The sky, sea and surrounds more interesting and mercurial in winter.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Beach Park, Mordialloc

Mairi Neil

The swings creak a slow chant
joined by seagull squawks,
children’s sing-song screams.

Children clamber over the pirate ship
slipping, sliding, spewing from
all sides like the cutthroats of old.

Abandoning ship then climbing aboard
on ladders of plastic and rope
their fantasy ship anchored in a sandy sea.

Grandparents diligently move from
slide, to swing, to see-saw and back again
a day in the park serious business.

Mothers watch from afar, this daily duty
to tire the children, their conversations
interrupted to soothe, admonish, wipe a nose.

A father returns to his boyhood with delight
monitoring his offspring while steering
the child towards equipment made for two.

Naked masts and tired trawlers bob,
the sea a wavy navy ribbon unfurled,
clouds hovering bruises in a blue sky.

Children cavort beneath the foreboding blanket
bright winter clothes transforming them into
delicious Cherry Ripes, Candy Canes and lollipops.

A blustery wind has hysterical palm tree fronds
waving and the foreshore tea-tree whispering
their attention-seeking an urgent warning.

It is time to weigh anchor.

winter tree

Mairi Neil

A plaintive song
echoes in university grounds.
Students hurry home
ignoring skeletal branches
of winter trees
and the bird’s lament.

The mournful echo
recalls dinosaur dynasties
amid the whirr of bicycle wheels,
footsteps and ring tones
mobile conversations
and iPod seclusion.

A plaintive whistle announcing dusk
before full-throated celebration
As lights douse, classroom doors close.
A melodious call to rest
as shadows deepen,
and the campus empties.

Crowded trams trundle past
bathed in artificial sunlight
beneath the star embroidered sky.
Tall grey buildings reach to conquer
the ghosts of long forgotten species
the call of birded tongue
a plaintive echo.

IMG_0856 - Version 2

Mordialloc Parliament
Mairi Neil

A winter morn in Mordialloc
cloudless sky a washed-out blue
melting frost on grassy blades
glistening bubbles of dripping dew.

A magpie family carol and cavort
breakfasting from territory marked
the wattlebirds have departed
with harsh caws and hurried darts.

From grevillea to bottlebrush
my garden their summer home
feeding on nectar’s syrupy sweetness
until chilly winter makes them roam

This garden planted as a refuge,
a tiny oasis in suburbia’s dream
native flora to encourage fauna
so many creatures––some unseen

Showy parrots squeal and screech
their sunset songs a welcome delight,
but the proud magpies debutante dance
a morning joy and favourite sight.