Winter Is for The Birds!


Today, in class at Bentleigh as we were busy writing our masterpieces, I had to stop and draw my students’ attention to a Noisy Miner balancing on the stem of an orange Grevillea supping the nectar. A few moments before we’d been entertained by his amazing vocals, but to see him up close and concentrating on his lunch, unaware of our scrutiny, was delightful. However, others don’t share my adulation because they can cause havoc and the introduced species are certainly ‘pirates’ when it comes to claiming territory and food.



When I spent Christmas in Canada with my oldest daughter, I missed birdsong, and indeed seeing birds. Our feathered friends had literally all flown south to escape winter – and who can blame them for that – especially since the winter of 2013 was Toronto’s worst for many years!

The valiant birds remaining scrounged what they could, excited if someone slipped on the ice and spilt coffee, or dropped their chips! Needless to say, it was the ‘rats of the sky’, pigeons, or resourceful sparrows I saw – no exotic or beautiful species – just ordinary unspectacular birds.

duplicate 2

Although, I don’t think any bird is ordinary and have been fascinated by their behaviour, their resilience, and their many talents for  years. They often appear in my poetry and stories, they are such an essential part of my life, and the life on our planet. I can’t stand seeing birds in cages and must admit Hitchcock’s The Birds, seen as a child has made me wary of too close encounters, but from a respectful distance birds never cease to amaze and earn my admiration.

Marauding Mimics
Mairi Neil

They appear on my lawn,
Like four pirates of old,
Strutting, aggressive,
Noisy and bold.

Fixing beady eyes
On a treasure trove
They push a bit here –
Then give a shove.

They’ve come to this land
from across the sea
The climate they love
And thrive with glee.

They raid and they steal
Do what pirates do best
The Common (Indian) Myna
Has become quite a pest.

Silence Is Golden
Mairi Neil

Darkness outside
says the sun is asleep
We’re snuggled together
In sleep – peacefully deep.

Until there’s a sound
A persistent ‘peep peep’.

Slumber disturbed
Thoughts in disarray
I try to identify the noise
heralding the day.

The sound,
interrupting deep sleep
a soft
‘peep peep’

The sound doesn’t stop
There’s a rhythm too
Like a fairy cobbler
Mending a fairy shoe.

A sound interrupting deep sleep
a soft ‘peep peep’

‘It’s coming from outside,’
A husky comment from you
‘Or is it the smoke detector –
replacement batteries due?’

A sound interrupting deep sleep
a persistent peep peep

‘It can’t be a bird,’ you say,
‘dawn’s still breaking.
If a feathered friend
it needs a darn good shaking.’

That sound interrupting deep sleep
a penetrating ‘peep peep’

There are habits and rules
For bird behaviour and song
the paramount one being
Song must wait ’til dawn.

That sound, interrupting deep sleep
a soft
‘peep peep’

Days turned into weeks
night’s passing disturbed –
our discovery – the noise
most definitely a bird!

An ornithologist confirmed
when the world is still dark
‘peep peep’ is the calling card
of the cheeky Mudlark.

‘Peep Peep’


Winter’s Song
Mairi Neil

It’s winter time,
The nights are long.
Oh, how I ache
For joyful birdsong.

The winter sun’s glow
Absent of heat
Stirs memories of snow,
Rain, hail and sleet.

It’s winter time
The nights are cold
Oh, how I love
Flames bright and bold.

Melbourne’s winter
Cold, it’s the coldest day
Smog-bound, fogbound
Peasouper grey.

It’s winter time
The night’s are drear
Oh, come on Spring
I want you near.

Blustery August blows
July’s temperatures warm
The stirrings of Spring
As new life forms.

It’s winter time
The nights are long
Oh, how I ache
For joyful birdsong.

This winter Melbourne has broken a few records apparently – it certainly has been a cold one – roll on spring and, I never thought I’d say it, the wattlebirds feasting on my Grevillea!

Winter Blues!
Mairi Neil

Today, it felt like winter
Cold air penetrated winter woollies
Chilled the bones
Numbed the fingers and toes
Froze ears and nose.

The grey aluminium sky
Promised rain and then
Sent it in buckets and sheets
Hailstones the size of golfballs
Cats and dogs scurried to safety.

Torrential rain pounded the windows
Bounced off the pavements
Saturating surrounds until
Puddles became pools, water
Thrown into the air by passing cars.

The wind howled at these waves
Wrestled with trees, snapped their branches
Shifted roof tiles; rattled windows
Blew under doors, lifted carpets
Whistled down hallways.

Gusts grabbed the rainwater
Dashed it against walls
Determined to inflict maximum damage
Outbursts escalated as Mother Nature’s
Children fought and grumbled

People struggled to stay upright
Umbrellas flapped inside out
Windscreen wipers seized up
And gutters not knowing whether
To drown or smother debris
Came to a standstill.

Today winter threw a tantrum and won.

Haiku by Mairi Neil

Cliff top turbulence
An explosion of feathers
Gulls blown out to sea

Pelican perches
Atop electricity pole
Fishing boats bring lunch

Pelicans leave pier
aerial acrobatics
Sightseers enjoy the show

Do birds play a part in your writing, or give you inspiration?

There’s A Story in Every Building at Open House Melbourne

“One of the great but often unmentioned causes of both happiness and misery is the quality of our environment: the kinds of walls, chairs, buildings, and streets that surround us.”

Alain de Botton – The Architecture of Happiness

Yesterday was my fifth year volunteering for Open House Melbourne and I took the afternoon shift at thirteen storey Edgewater Towers, 12 Marine Parade, St Kilda, which can be seen in the pictures below as I approached the building from Acland Street.

St Kilda 2015Marine Parade St Kilda 2015

For anyone seeking to move location, buy a house, redecorate a room or choose a hotel while on holiday, there is little doubt to discerning people that aesthetics, shape, size, colour, cleanliness and convenience are considerations as well as economics. We know that access to light, colour choice and design of buildings and furniture all affect our moods. Moving from interior to exterior, the quality of our surroundings important in a social context and our understanding of community.

Architecture is a very good test of the true strength of a society, for the most valuable things in a human state are the irrevocable things—marriage, for instance. And architecture approaches nearer than any other art to being irrevocable, because it is so difficult to get rid of. You can turn a picture with its face to the wall; it would be a nuisance to turn that Roman cathedral with its face to the wall. You can tear a poem to pieces; it is only in moments of very sincere emotion that you tear a town-hall to pieces.

G. K. Chesterton, Tremendous Trifles, 1909

Edgewater Towers  was completed in 1961, and can claim to be Melbourne’s first, privately developed high rise apartment block. It was the tallest until the completion of Robin Boyd’s twenty-storey Domain Park Flats the following year, 1962.

When I arrived in Australia, December 1962, our ship docked at Station Pier, easily seen from the balconies of Edgewater Towers. The building landscape of Melbourne proper and the surrounds of St Kilda quite flat in comparison to today and for  commuters, immigrants and tourists for many years Edgewater Towers would have been the tallest building they’d ever seen.

Yesterday several residents at Edgewater Towers offered a guided tour including a talk about the building’s history. Stories of the Architect, Mordechai Benshemesh and past notable residents delighted visitors and the writer in me.

Two flats were opened for inspection, a two bedroom on the third floor and a one bedroom on the tenth floor. Their balconies provided a birds eye view of Luna Park and the bay, highlights for photographers. There was also access  to the roof and its fabulous panoramic views, although a bit of a logistic nightmare because it was undergoing renovations and had been blocked to residents for several months for safety reasons. When they decided to join the tours, numbers got rather confusing – each tour supposedly limited to ten people!

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Last year access to this residential building was by ballot and 60 people were shown through. This year no ballots and tours designed to run every 30 minutes with 10 people per tour. It was so popular more than 200 people joined tours, and the volunteer I relieved told me there was a queue of fifteen people waiting at 9.30am and Open House wasn’t due to start until 10.00am.

As the day progressed some people were turned away or left because the waiting time deemed too long when tour times stretched to 45 minutes and more. At one stage, I wondered if some visitors had decided to take up residence.


The residents who gave up their time to show people around and talk about the history of the building were exhausted by the end of the day – I felt a bit tired myself! There was never a moment when the queue was empty.  Residents had pasted a lot of interesting information on the walls in the foyer, but it was the curiosity about the interior of flats and the rooftop view that drew people to visit. ‘I’ve driven past this building on the way to work for 20 years,’ one man said, ‘at last my curiosity satisfied.’

Another young man was quite emotional. He had just discovered his estranged grandfather had lived in the flats for decades. Sadly, his grandfather had died, but the young man and his girlfriend soaked in the ambience and imagined what his grandfather’s home would have been like as they pieced together the history of a man they didn’t know. Several architectural and design students were thrilled to examine the building as an icon from an era so different from current designs and building material. They were also curious to see how renovations had managed not to spoil the building as residents complied with new fire and health and safety regulations.

When you read the story of the émigré  architect, it was fitting the building was opened by Sir Horace Rostill Petty, the Minister of Housing and Immigration an in ‘Australian Architecture’, Harriet Edquist writes: ‘Thirteen storeys high, with great views across the bay, Edgewater Towers was a confident expression of progress and, after a period of neglect, has re-emerged as an iconic expression of post-war modernism.’

architect's story the architect

As I supervised the queue, and acted as a liaison officer with residents it was fascinating to ponder the stories of some past residents – many well-known to Australians:

the most fanous past resident

Sidney Nolan's mother

And from my teenage years, pop star Max Merritt – how I’d love to have been at one of the parties he was apparently famous for – although I believe the other residents were not too chuffed!

Max Merritt & The Meteors

And then there was the controversial pro-Choice campaigner, Scots born, Dr Bertram Wainer who exposed a web of police corruption linked to backyard abortionists. Wainer’s medical clinic was attacked and so was he and many of the residents feared the intimidation against Wainer would put their lives in danger too. Books, films and a television mini-series have been produced about this amazingly courageous and dedicated crusader.  Victorian women can thank Dr Wainer’s tireless advocacy on their behalf for the right to access safe legal abortions.

Bertram Wainer

A man I had not heard of and whose story will be told in  a documentary next year is Josef Ganz. An engineer, Ganz designed the Volkswagen Beetle, but because he was Jewish living under the Nazi regime, he was never credited with this feat. His story will have international appeal and will put Edgewater Towers in the spotlight.

Josef Ganz

This will not be the first time Edgewater Towers is featured on film because Homocide, one of the early dramas on 1960s Australian television, often used the flats  to be the home of the criminals being chased. Long term residents of St Kilda and indeed Melbourne, aware of the seedy side of the suburb’s past will not be surprised.

Homocide TV showjpgHomocide scenes

old stills from Homocide

Another  association some will regard as seedy is Bruce Small, the developer who began the project to build Edgewater Towers. He made his money with Malvern Star Bicycles (my first bicycle in Australia – bought secondhand at a high school fete for 50cents!)  but he is also credited with scandalising feminists and others when he was Mayor of the Gold Coast and introduced bikini clad meter maids.

Bruce Small of Malvern Star

Another couple of celebrity residents included the ex-footballer and later politician Brian Dixon who started the famous Life be In It Campaign, (1980s) which certainly led to health and fitness awareness for Victorians. Considering the spread of obesity, we could do with a similar campaign today.

Another two famous residents

Information about the building also included articles about the importance of maintenance and to the credit of residents of the 101 apartments there are enough owner/occupiers (50% plus) with active pride in the building to ensure renovations keep pace with sustainability values and the desire to remain living in such wonderful proximity to Port Phillip Bay. On the rooftop there are huge water tanks, plans for solar panels and preparation for new decking.

The current state was not always so:

DSC_5091-1 DSC_5092-1

Every person has a story, as does every building. Edgewater Towers has an absolute book of stories – not only famous past residents. A bit of delving will reveal some colourful ladies operated ‘massage’ parlours, there was a restaurant and a hair dressing salon. Today there is a mix of owners and renters – all will have interesting tales. I envied the view from the flats, but confess I don’t think I would write much if I lived there – the view too distracting, too beautiful for words.

One resident who was an accountant preretirement confided to me that no matter how bad his day at the office, or the traffic home, all worries disappeared with a glass of wine on the balcony watching the sun set over the water. I understand!

Since 2008, Open House Melbourne has been connecting people with good design and architecture in the city. We invite people to explore outstanding houses, buildings, infrastructure and landscapes that illustrate our rich history, reflect how we live and work, and offer insights into our future city.

Open House weekend opens doors as well as minds. You get a glimpse behind the scenes and tours of buildings you may never have the opportunity to interact with in normal day to day life.

The Weekend puts a spotlight on the unique spaces and places that form the foundation of Melbourne, providing an opportunity for you to consider what makes Melbourne unique. The Weekend showcases buildings of significance in a free and accessible format so everyone can experience the value of good design and architecture, and consider what makes a liveable city. 

I hope to be chosen as a volunteer next year and look forward to insight into another building and meeting lots of new interesting people. And I know down the track I’ll use the characters I’ve met, the locations I’ve experienced and the snippets of history I’ve absorbed, in my writing – not distracted by one of the most spectacular views of Port Phillip Bay and the Melbourne skyline.

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Have you had a close-up and personal encounter with a building or people outside your normal routine? What stories or poems will you write?

Poetry – a way to release and remember our inner child

You get your ideas from daydreaming. You get ideas from being bored. You get ideas all the time. The only difference between writers and other people is we notice when we’re doing it.

Neil Gaiman

I spend much of my time thinking up writing prompts and triggers to inspire my students and then more time planning lessons around the craft to improve the readability of their writing.


Often we write for ourselves, but if most of us are honest, we write to share our thoughts and ideas and receive a boost to ego when someone appreciates our words. Competitions or requests for submissions on a particular topic are good exercises to flex writing muscles, move out of comfort zones, find a home for a story or poem, or just enjoy the challenge of polishing a piece to share with others.

For this reason, I make an effort to send work to Poetica Christi Press who, as their latest anthology Inner Child, boasts have been ‘Proudly publishing Australian poetry for 25 years.’ I also encourage my students to send their work ‘out there’…

inner child anthology 1 inner child anthology 2

Tomorrow Poetica Christi will launch another anthology.  I’m thrilled not only to again have one of my poems selected, but also a poem from one of my students, Jan Morris who excels at performing  Aussie Bush Poetry usually with a backdrop of a painting she has done. Her canvas for the paintings, old curtains salvaged from op shops – curtains with special backing to block out the sun.

Jan with her artwork:illustration

Jan incorporates humour in the short stories she writes in class and is an example of someone who makes the effort to ‘Always look on the bright side of life‘. A retired nurse and a widow of a Vietnam veteran affected by Agent Orange, she has an amazing stockpile of sad stories, but chooses to concentrate on blessings, jokes, eccentricities and funny events!

In the Foreword of the anthology the editors say:

…the inner child is celebrated, recalled, reinvented and shared. The poems are a poignant, honest and often humorous reminder that our inner child is only a heartbeat away.

 Jan reminisced about her childhood when milk was delivered by horse and cart:

inner child anthology Jan's poem

Another poet in the anthology is Avril Bradley, whose poetry often wins awards. Avril is widely published. I first met Avril when we were both involved in the Red Room Company’s Poetry about the sea project. (Several of the poems are still online on Flicker and I guess will be forever!)

inner child anthology Avril's poem

Winner of the Poetica Christi 2014 prize was another accomplished poet, Chris Ringrose:

inner child anthology Chris Ringrose

There are many other poets, some with several poems. Each anthology inspiring other writing and giving me something to aim for to improve my own efforts.  As someone who doesn’t consider themselves a poet – rather a writer who tries to write poetry – I’m thrilled one of my poems was included. It tells the story of an object from my childhood, a link with my mother and my children. It’s the kind of poem you can write in a memoir or life story class and as I often tell my students, ‘memory poems’ are a great way of recording the past.

I wrote about a shell that sat by the fireside in Scotland when we lived there, then sat on the sideboard when we migrated to Australia. I have no idea what beach it was first washed up on or its true origins – writer’s imagination kicked in. I may never have written this poem, if the prompt of the competition hadn’t arrived in my email box!

the shell is at least 62 years old- definitely older

inner child anthology my poem

This poem by editor Leigh Hay made me smile, reminiscent of the day I caught daughter MJ trimming Barbie’s hair!

inner child anthology poem by Leigh Hay

I can’t attend the launch because I’m volunteering at Open House Melbourne tomorrow – my fifth year at this event. However, I’m sure there will be plenty of others attending – the wordsmiths of Poetica Christi Press put on a wonderful afternoon tea, great performances by some of the poets and always a lovely classical musical recital. If I close my eyes I can picture the hall and the event, but I’m so glad I have the book to dip into whenever I want to get in touch with my Inner Child!

Child, to say the very thing you really mean, the whole of it, nothing more or less or other than what you really mean; that’s the whole art and joy of words.’

C.S. Lewis

Ten Steps to writing  your own memory poem:

1. Write down in a couple of sentences of the first memory you have as a child when you were outside by yourself, or another vivid memory you often think about.

2. List the words: sight, sound, touch, taste and smell.

3. Next to these words jot down whatever you experienced related to these senses.

4. Write what happened: what were you feeling at the time? Where were you? Why do you think this memory remains significant? Write this in prose so you get everything down.

5. Revisit the words you wrote alongside the 5 senses. What descriptions capture the emotions you have written about in your prose?

6. Cross out or ignore everything else unrelated – a poem, like a short story doesn’t have to include everything and is stronger if you concentrate on the important details.

7.What emotion do you want to convey about the time? How do you want the reader to feel after reading it? It will probably be complex, but no one is going to read your exploration/explanation about what you were trying to do! They’ll be reading your poem and interpreting it from their point of view and experience. However, it’s always a bonus if people “get it” and understand the emotion of the writer.

8. Remember poems don’t have to rhyme, but usually there are line breaks and punctuation so the reader knows the rhythm and captures the mood of the poem. Think of pacing – do you want the words to move slowly or quickly over the tongue.

9. Write your poem now – whatever way you want – remember to include action – strong verbs, concrete nouns, the emotion you felt.

10. Revise your poem by cutting out any words or phrases that don’t fit in with the feelings and mood you decided to create.

Let the poem sit for a few days before final revision – and if you’re anything like me, you’ll revise it every time you read it!!

Happy writing! And please feel free to share your poem or thoughts.

Personification in Poetry, Poetic Phrases and Personal Pain


20 James Road, 1988
Mairi Neil

The TV babbles,
the gas fire hums and hisses
to the squeaking, creaking
Jason recliners
settling down for a night
in front of the ‘goggle box’.

Dad’s brandy glass
smooches the table
between sips
until the final
perfunctory kiss –
Goodnight Sweetheart!

Mum’s tea cup
gossips with the saucer
gulps snippets of
the day’s details
digested and refuelled

A cigarette smoulders
fuming or
tension released.
The marbled green ashtray
a present from Venice,
from friends now gone.

Curtains shimmer and shake
new moon’s light filters
the delighted red sky,
the room aglow,
forty years of marriage
comfy as snoozing slippers…


Albert Street, Autumn 2015
Mairi Neil

Towards the railway station
the sky turns to navy and
muted purple hue
stains remnants of clouds.

Parrots soar across
the sky; black darts
seeking branches to rest
as dusk descends.

In the orange glow
of street lamps
red and green flashes
squeal and squawk

Rosellas determined
to fight sparrows or thrushes
for roosting perches in palm trees
lining Mordialloc Main Street.

Most trees still and silent
this mild autumn night,
the sea breeze too gentle
to rustle leaves, shake fronds.

Beside the stoic finery
of native gums and ti-tree
branches of imported trees
already stripped and stark

Proud and strong and
uncomplaining, they’ll rebirth,
withstand the years of
insect and birded demands.

Watching people pass,
hearing trains trundle
inhaling the exhausts
of countless cars.

Mother Nature’s guardians,
the earth’s lungs
the Creator’s gifts
to be treasured.

I looked around the room, focused, reflected,  wrote whatever words came to mind. Short sentences and phrases, staying with a single thought in rhythmic lines…

Forgotten grapes fermenting
or is it the apples?
Buying ‘specials’ has its price.

Jasmine leaves dying
possum nests abandoned
winter on its way

Must kill the wisteria
before it destroys the fence
beauty sacrificed to finance

Ornate wooden crocodile
carved from driftwood
memories of Darwin and Kakadu

Two silver bejewelled elephants
a long way from home
reminder of senseless slaughter

Purple, tall and willowy
gifted orchid
struggling to survive

The year of the horse over
Yellow origami steed
memento from Chinese writer


Margaret’s Gift
Mairi Neil

A Waterford Crystal glass
four thistles etched for
a Scottish touch from the
Emerald Isle.
It reminded her of me…
(or perhaps it was the flaw
marring inside rim)

The seahorse wine stopper,
another reminder of …
flatmates, drinking buddies,
the good times often rolled.

Gifts painstakingly parcelled
trimmed with recycled silk ribbon
‘life is for living’ stamped
green ink on soft silk.
Bubble-wrapped and boxed,
declaration of a loving friendship
that needed no reminders…

Security at the airport alert
to a pointed silhouette
‘Please step aside’ embarrassment.
I babble about a funeral,
an old friend, we flatted together
an unexpected inheritance,
‘…crystal, fragile, be careful… please’

A young man with empathy
and clumsy gloved hands
unties the ribbon
opens the cardboard,
unfolds the bubble-wrap,
unwraps the tissue paper
‘I’m sorry for your loss…’

He fumbles and blushes
hands hampered by latex
and inexperience.
My flight is called
I hear my heart pounding
his breathless frustration…
‘It doesn’t matter,’ I whisper.

Nerves as fragile as the crystal
equilibrium shattered.
Cancer’s curse has robbed
me of yet another friend
memories more precious
than mementoes…

On board the plane
the gifts repackaged,
grief compartmentalised.
I stare at the shifting clouds,
wonder if there is
life after death…
as surreptitious tears
flow. Smothered
by the sounds of flight.

A Little Moderation Goes A Long way

Word Cloud

When pre-accredited writing classes are funded in community houses the teachers are moderated to gauge how effectively the course develops employability skills.

The moderation process allows teachers to think about what they are teaching and how they can improve. How they can deliver the course better, and improve the content. Moderation involves showing a lesson plan example, discussing how a session is organised, and hearing any feedback from students.

Students are asked what skills they have learned, where else they can use those skills and if the course meets their needs. If not, what can change to ensure their needs are met.


Governments, regardless of what level (Federal, State or local Council) want accountability for their investment in education. Community wellbeing and life skills are important, but it is the economic value, aka employability skills and the bottom line decision makers (read bean counters) consider when spending taxpayers’ dollars.

Moderation is usually done by managers or high level trainers, but in pre-accredited courses it can be peer to peer collaborative appraisal. There is examination of quality indicators and employability skills to ensure consistency of teaching and outcomes, and there’s been good use of the money government has invested.

Moderation is about:

  • standards and values – improving where necessary
  • accountability
  • demonstrating an outcome
  • preserving the courses so they are relevant

Teachers share their

  • passion
  • faith in their methods
  • clarity of purpose
  • desire for continued professional development

After moderation, if necessary a new improved session plan is submitted along with the old plan e.g.. increased time for computer skills, more time in computer room, or excursions – maybe introduction of guest speakers, short films; learning outcomes may be revised; different employability skills may be introduced  like written English for a specific job, writing a monologue or short play…

Reflection by the teacher and moderator focuses on:

How effective were the strategies used to achieve the desired outcomes
eg. Did role play improve written dialogue? Did a specific project develop team work?


The sessions I teach cover all types of writing with some focusing on specifics (Writing for Pleasure and Publication, Life Stories and Legacies, Memoir to Manuscript, Writing and Editing, Creatively Writing Towards the Future)

Skills developed include:

  • Written and spoken English – constant communication with each other, in class and beyond.
  • Planning and organising – whether an ‘outliner or pantser’ – planning a short story or organising a poem takes a variety of skills
  • Problem solving – working out plots in creative writing, character biographies and developing their place in story
  • Team work – in class we often work in pairs, but every session we listen and give feedback on each other’s writing as we workshop various pieces
  • Research skills – using traditional means from books in libraries to online ‘Googling’
  • Interview techniques – particularly relevant for those writing life stories, family histories and biographies

Some of the techniques we use to improve our creative writing and our creative non-fiction are:

  • Character questionnaires – this may involve personality tests on self, other classmates, online tests
  • Clever use of the computer – the functions of word processing software and search engines
  • Typing skills are invariably developed – the world of writing in the 21st century necessitates computer skills
  • Each session we splurge – writing in class to a prompt to trigger memory or ideas. This encourages ‘thinking on your feet’ plus use of imagination and digging deep for memories
  • Sometimes we do role play to improve dialogue skills – this encourages conversational skills and public speaking
  • Reflection activities – for editing, feedback to others and self, clarity of vision

The collaboration in class involves listening carefully to other students, sharing stories and expertise – an important aspect of learning, but also because observation and attention to detail imperative for writers.


Students learn differently. The lesson plans and any supporting information is photocopied and given to each student – this saves copious note taking and avoids lapses in memory or misunderstanding regarding what the class covered and the homework.

Sessions are tackled differently too – prompts not always written, some are visual, others tactile, or involve listening to a CD.

Some classes like to write with classical music playing in the background, others prefer silence. Objects may be brought in to act as story starters, short videos watched, photographic or word prompts distributed, often a combination of all of these.

Exercises to improve grammar or spelling, the understanding of metaphors and similes, the crossover of poetry and prose, and various other hints and techniques regarding the craft of writing incorporated as the sessions progress.


Explanations and discussions about E-books and the fast changing digital technology introduced, the ability to insert graphics, the portability of equipment available to write and save work.

Session plans must be altered to suit various groups, but at all times quality indicators and employability skills are addressed. Each year, it is not so much ‘reinventing the wheel’ but ensuring what I teach reflects the changing face of creative writing and publishing and my teaching is effective and relevant. Both student and teacher must be clear about their purpose.

One of the gifts I give my students is to collate class work in an anthology so they have a record of their achievements in edited, polished pieces. The book also serves as an historical record of their time in class, the friends they have made; writing and socialisation skills learned.

These anthologies are evidence that students not only attend classes, but have produced a piece, or several pieces of writing and understand the most important tenet I teach – writers write!


Several years ago there used to be bumper stickers declaring “If you can read this, thank a primary school teacher.”

I know there have been many debates about the value of writing courses, but as one writer observed, some of the most famous painters we know studied under a master painter or attended art classes, so why should writers expect to learn their craft in isolation.

I believe writing classes are here to stay and I’m happy a moderation process exists to always encourage improvement from teachers and courses.

Have you had a good or bad experience as a writing student? How do you think courses could be improved?

The Best Laid Plans …


NAIDOC Week celebrations are held in the first full week of July and are a time to celebrate Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander history, culture and achievements. The National NAIDOC theme for 2015 is We all Stand on Sacred Ground: Learn, Respect and Celebrate to highlight Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander peoples’ strong spiritual and cultural connection to land and sea.

Like most settled places in Australia, Mordialloc has a shameful history regarding stealing indigenous land and for many years people believed the myth that the Boon wurrung, the local Aboriginal people had been wiped out. However, like most history written by conquerors this ‘fact’ has been proven untrue.

Aboriginal culture plaque

Yesterday, I arranged to meet my friend Fran, a fellow writer and local historian so we could attend one of the City of Kingston’s NAIDOC activities. The opening of Kingston’s indigenous garden by Boon wurrung Elder Aunty Caroline Briggs, including a Welcome to Country and Smoking Ceremony was scheduled to take place at Attenborough Park alongside Mordialloc Creek, Nepean Highway, Aspendale on Sunday July 12 at 2pm.

Kingston Your City, the council’s newspaper, reported the garden’s indigenous plants are thriving, ‘including bush tucker and medicine plants displayed in an artistic array with the view to ‘linger longer’ and immerse yourself in the landscaped environment.’

The interpretive signs have traditional Boon wurrung language and express the relationship the Boon wurrung people have with the area.

traditional resources plaque plaque 3 aboriginal camp at mordy creek

Attenborough Park and Mordialloc Creek Reserve are significant Indigenous sites in the City of Kingston. Numerous shell middens and scarred trees have been found in the park and adjacent to the creek, a legacy of the Boon wurrung people, who are part of the Kulin Nation.

The Kulin term ‘Mordy Yallock’ means ‘near the sea’. This area was a favourite summer camp for the Boon Wurrung people who harvested eels, small marsupials and water fowl and collected shellfish along the shore.

This engraved tree, at Attenborough Park and others carved into significant sculptures and landmarks. The park continuously flies the Aboriginal flag, commemorating the Aboriginal reserve that was established here following European settlement.


Elders of the Boon wurrung tribe are believed to have lived out their last days in this area. Mordialloc Creek is on the northern point of Carrum Carrum Swamp, which forms a natural basin on the peninsula.

Named after early pioneer Thomas Attenborough, who settled in Dingley in the 1850s, Attenborough Park is also home to a group planting of large Monterey Cypress trees believed to be about 100 years old forming an important landmark. The trees are on the City of Kingston Significant Trees Register, due to their outstanding size and the contribution they provide to the surrounding landscape.

Mercurial Melbourne’s four seasons in the one day decided to just give us winter yesterday afternoon and non-stop rain. For someone like me who came from Scotland, and Fran who is Irish born, we assumed the celebrations would go ahead – marquees can be erected or umbrellas distributed. All the pictures above were taken by me using my smartphone, the rain constant, but not torrential.

The ceremony was to begin at 2.00pm, but as the title suggests, what was planned never eventuated. I arrived to find another woman walking up and down the path obviously looking for some sign of celebration. I approached her and she smiled with relief.

‘I thought I was going mad,’ she said, clutching the page from Kingston Your City detailing the event. ‘I’ve walked up and down this path half a dozen times – even walked to the high school in case it was moved there.’

Fran and I had also done the rounds of the park and rang the information line for Kingston Council, but to no avail. The other lady had driven from Dingley and was as disappointed as us and wondered aloud why the Council didn’t have someone present to tell people the event was cancelled.

‘They should have had a wet weather plan,’ said Fran.

‘You would have thought so,’ I said, ‘or at least made it clear in the advert that it would be cancelled if it rained.’

Our new friend introduced herself as Tatiana. We decided the best course of action was to seek the warmth and sustenance of a coffee in one of the many cafes in Mordialloc Main Street.

The next two hours were very pleasant as we discovered we had so much in common – three immigrants with a love and interest in indigenous culture as well as arts and crafts. Tatiana was Belo-Russian, born in China, but her family fled to Chile just after the Japanese invaded. Later, with her husband and two young children they came to Australia before the coup ousted President Allende.

We all agreed serendipity definitely at play and shared knowledge and life experiences. A member of the Handweavers & Spinners Guild of Victoria Tatiana showed us photographs of some beautiful bags she had made based on designs she had seen in South America, especially Bolivia.

Tatiana told us about the musk ox, which lives in the frigid Arctic. Its fur much warmer than wool or even alpaca. It’s a protected species in Alaska, and like bison, the American musk ox was once dangerously close to extinction. Fibre made from the musk ox’s undercoat is known as quiveut, or quiviut, and is extremely light and fine as well as being the most expensive ‘wool’ in the world. It’s also very rare, since it’s usually harvested by hand-combing the animals or collecting fibres from the ground after they’ve naturally been shed. These strands must be carded carefully to remove any coarse hair.

Before we went our separate ways, we returned to discussing the Boon wurrung, the environment, Australian history, climate change…

Mairi Neil

Try and imagine you lived long ago
when the Boon Wurrung gathered to meet…

Imagine their camp by Mordialloc Creek,
Corroborees celebrating plenty to eat.
Water unpolluted, no rubbish floating
Eels and turtles swimming with fish.
Kangaroos and possums in abundance
Bush tucker chosen to garnish each dish.

Plentiful food, their drinking water clean
E.coli unknown and oil slicks unseen.
The Boon Wurrung living off the land
Nurturing Mother Earth with great care,
No stripping the land or sea bare.

Long grasses to weave baskets
Seasonal plants from seeds sown
Living in harmony with nature,
Supermarket queues unknown!

Try and imagine you lived long ago
Free to travel everywhere, to and fro
Observing the Boon wurrung’s
Clever land management skills
Honouring all aspects of country
Conservation practised at will.

Today, imagination meets reality
Extremes of weather we often see,
Mother Earth weeps and begs
For urgent action, from you and me
No need to look in a crystal ball
Global Warming our wake-up call.

The day didn’t turn out how I planned, but I made a new friend, learnt a lot of information I didn’t know about Moorabbin’s history from Fran, and was introduced to the delights of another craft by Tatiana as well as hearing her migration journey.

We may not have witnessed the ceremony planned, but we valued the sacred ground, shared a love of Mordialloc and we did learn, respect and celebrate the value of shared history, culture and the desire for knowledge.

Ningla- Ana, This our Land
Indigenous and Immigrant together.

HAIKU by Mairi Neil

mordy beach storm clouds

Expressing Emotions and Finding The Words


The school holidays are over.  Like most teachers, I return to teaching tomorrow after spending much of the break researching and planning for my classes.  I did manage some relaxation and fun, but also tackled clearing out in preparation for springtime painting and came across a box with newspaper clippings and some old stories and poems, which reminded me of why I began writing.

I was reminded too of some successes and that is no bad thing – it is too easy to let rejections or disappointment loom large and forget the joy when your words work and others appreciate them too.

I’ve always enjoyed telling stories about ordinary people, showing them triumph or cope in the midst of life’s challenges, giving hope or showing they are not alone in their suffering, grief, adventure, experience, relationship difficulties… ordinary people can live extraordinary lives and they deserve a voice. I love it when someone remembers my characters or stories, the words have resonated, a connection has been made.


In the early days of Mordialloc Writers’ Group when I was a beginner writer, my husband John was diagnosed with asbestosis and later cancer. Through his work within the trade union movement and when I was employed there too, we had come in touch with many people with various types of cancer, but now it was personal. Ironically, it became more personal for me when I was diagnosed with breast cancer after John died.

Unsurprisingly, a lot of my writing was around the subject of cancer, people struggling with the disease, how people react when diagnosed, how they live with it, although I never set out to write solely on that subject and did write about other topics, especially in my writing for children.

However, my first published successes were on the subject of cancer. I tried  to make my words emotionally moving for readers so they understood or cared about people dealing with it directly or indirectly and the outlet for my work was the Anti-Cancer Council’s  Daffodil Day Literary Competition. 

noelle and me

The competition had very specific rules and in the early days the word limit was 500 words, then 750 words, and today I think stories can be 1000 words or more.

Along with the newspaper cuttings and congratulatory letters I also found a bundle of stories I never sent in, but wrote with a theme or specific word count in mind. The following is one I wrote about Fred, a very dear friend of John’s. We shared his battle with inoperable lung cancer. I hope I do him justice.


Twelve months! Is that what the Doc said? Maybe longer with treatment. This is not happening. Not today, with that vivid blue sky and the sea a turquoise carpet – hope it’s magic.

There’s that deformed bloody seagull screeching, scavenging balancing on a spindly leg, determined to stay in the game. I’m with you matey!

I’ll have the chemotherapy, radiotherapy, pills – whatever lengthens the odds. Perhaps return to sea on a coastal vessel. I’ve survived plenty of turbulence and near disasters – I’ll survive this hiccup ashore. Doctors can be wrong… I’ll get a second opinion.

When will I be returning to work? Can’t you read? What does it say on that doctor’s certificate? I have terminal cancer and twelve months to live. Today they gave me some hope… chemo seems to be working. I could be in remission. No, that doesn’t mean I’m cured! Who’s going to employ me sonny?

Mountains of red tape just to keep cash coming in. Big bucks out – for doctors, radiographers, chemists, physios, hospitals. I’ve worked hard, always paid my fair share of tax and now every snotty-nosed kid and snooty-nosed government official know more about my finances than I know meself! Trying to find out about Super’s a nightmare!

Why me? A couple of more years and I’d be on the pension, taking the dream cruise or grey nomad adventure!

The support group did help – glad I went. Never thought I’d be meditating or obsessing about nutrition. Fancy swallowing herbs in preference to a beer? Thought that lark was for hippies and cranks. If the blokes down the wharves knew! Well, I’ll drink as much foul-tasting goo as necessary if it keeps me alive.

Life is better when I’m calmer. When meditating I can feel Jean’s presence, helping me cope. I appreciate the blokes ringing and neighbours popping in. The sunlight danced on the waves this morning, the sand glittered like sprinkled fairy dust. Yeah, those bloody herbs, or the meditation must be working!

I’m doing all right. Lost the last bit of hair yesterday, but bald is fashionable. Look at Peter Garrett and all those young ones shaving their heads! Bought meself a surfboard to paddle on Patterson River every morning. Will rebuild the strength in my arms; keep the muscles toned. I’m not ready to shuffle off yet, got things I want to do.

Think I’ll take up diving, consider the sea from a different angle. Doc told me to keep looking forward.

What beaut staff at Peter Mac’s. Great to have access to all this equipment and care. But I’ll be happier when Greg comes home and he can drive me in and out for treatment. Don’t feel as confident driving anymore, get so bloody tired. Look at that poor bugger. At least I’m not that far gone. But he always has a smile and cheery word, probably happy pills. Doc said I can have some if depression hits.

Lucky Greg was with me when I had that bit of a funny turn. Some sort of fit. More bloody tests. CAT scans, ultrasounds – the works. Their best shot. Guess what will be, will be. Greg’s staying ashore to look after me, building a unit in the backyard. Turn up for the books, considering all the scrapes I got him out of when he was a kid! I won’t give up because I know everyone is praying for me.

A brain tumour caused the convulsion. Cancer’s spread. Must beat the odds old son… Just stormbound for a while.

Greg’s a bit quieter these days. S’pose it reminds him of when his mum died. Doesn’t seem like three years. I keep thinking of Jean too, thought she was standing by my bed. Guess I’ll see her soon enough.

Thank God for family. Big sister, Sal’s a trouper taking the load off Greg. Poor bugger doesn’t know whether he’s coming or going. He’s done well arranging with the hospital to borrow equipment. Might as well watch the telly in my own place and the airbed is heaven. Sal doesn’t mind Melbourne’s weather – something to moan about when she returns to Queensland.

‘He’s asleep. Sleeps most of the time now. Very peaceful. No pain at all. I won’t forget to tell him you rang. Yes, he knows how much he’s loved.’

Vale Fred Watson 2001


Alan Spence – His Writing Memorable and More Than Fine


I’m not sure Somerset Maugham‘s quote is accurate for all texts, but the books I cherish have certainly resonated deeply and a recent gift from a writer friend is a case in point. Dave, who does have Scottish ancestry, but sounds as ocker as they come is a wonderful friend who shows he is thinking of me by gifting books he discovers in opportunity shops, secondhand bookstores, or passes on books he has enjoyed.

We met for a Senior’s meal at the local Mordialloc Sporting Club and he gave me a recent find.


First published William Collins Sons & Co Ltd, 1977. Later Phoenix Paperback, 1996.

I don’t often do book reviews because as a writer I’m more comfortable reading and writing short stories and I’ll leave book reviews to my dear friend Lisa Hill who has a well-deserved prize winning blog prioritising books by  Australian and New Zealand writers, but who was kind enough to have me as a guest reviewer last year.

However, Its Colours They Are Fine is thirteen interlinked tales in Alan Spence’s first collection of short stories. Set in Glasgow, they depict aspects of life recognisable to the majority of Glaswegians who grew up there in the 50s and 60s. As someone who was born in Greenock in 1953,  a ‘kick in the bum’ or ‘stone’s throw’ away from Glasgow, I found the stories irresistible and meaningful.

Memorable, not because of what happens, but on account of the mood that is created and the shifts of feeling that are revealed. They are memorable because they ring true. They are rather like Chekhov’s stories. Spence, too, takes a little moment of ordinary experience and transforms it, in the simplest possible manner, into something significant… In an age of ugly preoccupation with violence, he draws attention to moments of beauty and stillness. He is a gentle writer, but never sentimental. The beautiful moments have always been earned… he is a writer to cherish, one offering deep and fulfilling pleasures.

The Scotsman Review

Spence’s dialogue in vernacular (braid or broad) Scots, evokes tenement life, the slums and their inhabitants, with voices of the young and old, Catholic and Protestant, Tinkers (gypsies/travellers), immigrants from Commonwealth countries, the employed and unemployed, the hopeful and disillusioned – and beneath the surface, the deeper currents of the Irish connection, the Protestant and Catholic divide manifested through adherence to Rangers or Celtic football club.(The Old Firm).

I’ve seen some statistics that say 60% of the Glasgow population has Irish ancestry  and having an Irish mother that figure wouldn’t surprise me. There have been plenty of books and films about Glasgow, showcasing the harshness of life in the tenements, but also the humour and resilience of the people. The hooliganism and open violence associated with the two major football teams,  the bigotry fuelled violence manifested in street games, school playgrounds, pubs and clubs and of course family life, still provide high drama today.

Billy Connelly’s honest humorous presentations of growing up in Glasgow, uses language and subject matter not to everyone’s taste. This video of Billy singing I Wish I was In Glasgow is sentimental and expresses feelings I can relate to, although I’d substitute Greenock. However, we are both ‘West Coasters’!

When I was reading the various stories, I kept having flashbacks to my childhood,  remembering snatches of stories from the long after-dinner sessions of storytelling from Mum and Dad. Homesickness has been described as nostalgia for the past – well I experienced plenty of nostalgia from these stories, but also admired how he elevated moments in the lives of ordinary people to memorable, magical and unforgettable events with language of poetic potency.


The title of the book comes from a story about the Orange Walk, a day when the main character Billy declares ‘God must be a Protestant’ and can’t wait to sing The Sash My Father Wore, the chorus being:

It is old but it is beautiful, and its colours they are fine
It was worn at Derry, Aughrim, Enniskillen and the Boyne.
My father wore it as a youth in bygone days of yore,
And on the Twelfth I love to wear the sash my father wore.

Like many of the stories, it is peopled by working class Protestant characters, many flawed and bigoted, but they also can be loyal, warm and humorous friends. This particular story has the march starting off on a sunny Saturday and by the end of the day they’re in a field in Gourock amid pouring rain. “Wher’s yer proddy god noo!” asked his friend.

In a few pages Spence explores the religious divide, the bigotry, the violence and the ignorance that feeds the Orange Walk and other inappropriate symbols and celebrations, but also the spiritual dimensions to everyday experiences, the importance of rituals and how people can enjoy spectacles without fully understanding their cultural or historical significance. Maybe one day the Orange Walks will go the way of the Confederate Flag , another symbol well past its used by date. Hopefully, people in Northern Ireland, Scotland and beyond will see the divisive celebrations around July 12th for the anachronism they are and consign them to history books.

Other stories focus on family relationships with Tinsel exploring a child’s excitement at putting up the Christmas decorations in a tenement flat with a father ill and out of work and a mother doing her best to keep everything together. The bright decorations and warmth and love inside contrasts with a city still reeling from the damage of world war two, cramped and crowded living conditions, and high unemployment.

The decorations left over from last year were in a cardboard box under the bed…Streamers and a few balloons and miracles of coloured paper that opened out into balls or long concertina snakes. On the table his mother spread out some empty cake boxes she’d brought home from work and cut them into shapes like Christmas trees and bells, and he got out his painting box and a saucerful of water and he coloured each one and left it to dry – green for the trees and yellow for the bells, the nearest he could get to gold.

This story stirred memories of my mother making do; determined to give us the trimmings of Christmas. She helped us make decorations from crepe paper, and even the bright coloured milk bottle tops were useful to cluster together as bells. We  cut up cardboard breakfast cereal packets and covered shapes with the silver paper from inside cigarette packets, and colourful sweetie and chocolate wrappers. There was never the disposable cash to be able to buy the glittering ornaments available today, nor the distraction of all the screen-based entertainment. Making objects and decorating the tree and the house was ‘something special to come home for… and feel warm and comforted by the thought.’

Mum holding me Christmas 1953
Mum holding me with Catriona
Dad’s sister Mary (Aunt Mamie) holding me

The story Sheaves about Harvest Sunday is told from a young boy’s viewpoint too as he tries to understand the deeper significance of Bible texts and parables in relation to his own life. Torn between pleasing his Mother by getting ready for Sunday School yet envying and wanting to play with his friends. The ritual of Sunday best, the giving of fruit and vegetables and other food to thank God for the seasons is another strong memory for me, especially singing a favourite hymn:

We plough the fields, and scatter the good seed on the land;
But it is fed and watered by God’s almighty hand:
He sends the snow in winter, the warmth to swell the grain,
The breezes and the sunshine, and soft refreshing rain.


All good gifts around us
Are sent from heaven above,
Then thank the Lord, O thank the Lord
For all His love.

Spence has the Sunday School teacher remind the city children who have no experience of cultivating the land and who struggle with understanding the language of the Bible:

And no matter what happens to you, even if the dirt of the world seems to have settled on you and made you forget who you really are, deep inside you are still his golden sheaves. And no matter how drab and grey and horrible our lives and this place may sometimes seem, remember that this is only the surface. And even the muck of hundreds of years cannot hide that other meaning which is behind all things. The meaning that we are here to celebrate. That God is love and Christ is Life.

The inscription at the beginning of the book is “To Nityananda and Shantishri (Tom and Maureen McGrath)” and a couple of the stories reflect Spence’s interest in the Indian spiritual teacher Sri Chinmoy.  A recurring theme in the stories is that there are greater cosmic forces beyond earth and although it may be fleeting we can all experience or gain insight into this at different times in our lives, a spiritual dimension to everyday life.

The Rain Dance is a wonderful rich story with many layers about a “mixed” marriage (a Protestant marrying a Catholic) in a registry office and the rituals and festivities surrounding this event. From the noisy “hens” party parading the bride-to-be in the streets for kisses and pennies to the Scramble for bell money – the father of the bride throwing a handful of coins after the church ceremony to be scrambled for by waiting children and other onlookers.

Ah remember reading,’ said Jean, ‘that scrambles go right back tae the olden days, when the didnae keep records an that. An it wis so’s the weans an everybody wid remember the wedding. then if they ever needed witnesses, they’d aw mind a the money getting scrambled.

My parents had a registry office wedding in Glasgow in 1948. No member of Dad’s family attended because they objected to him marrying Mum – upset he chose to marry an Irish woman! Fortunately, Mum’s brother Tom and wife Bessie caught the overnight boat from Belfast and along with the best man witnessed the marriage, and shared a celebratory meal and drink in a nearby hotel. My parents eventually made up their differences with Dad’s family, but I often think how sad their ‘special day’ probably was and try to imagine the ceremony and their feelings.

mums weddingEDIT
Dad and Mum married at registry office Glasgow 16/12/1948
Mum and Dad's wedding day with Tom and Bessie Courtney, Mum's brother and wife
Mum and Dad’s wedding day with Tom and Bessie Courtney, Mum’s brother and wife

Spence describes the day in a way that is culturally specific to Scotland yet full of universal observations and emotions and the description of the actual ceremony particularly poignant for me.

It was over so quickly… awkward, on the pavement, trying to keep out of the wedding-group photos of the couple that had just come out; confusion over which door to go in, then somebody showing them the way; hustle along the corridor, a few minutes’ wait, hushed, in the hall; a door opening, another wedding-group bustling past; another door opening and the registrar ushering them in.

In a low, bored drone he intoned the preliminaries… Brian was staring at the pattern on the carpet, as if he could read there the meaning of it all, the meaning they all knew at that moment. Not the lifeless ceremony, the cardboard stage-set, the dead script, the empty sham. Not that, but something at the heart of it, something real. In spite of it all, they knew, and that was what moved them, to laugh or to cry.

The other stories observe detailed fragments of life in Glasgow. Spence draws on his own childhood, with real and imagined stories. The prejudice and violence often confronting and embarrassing, none more so than Gypsy when he reveals the shameful bigotry and bullying of the people we referred to as tinkers. How sad that those at the bottom of society’s pecking order have to find  other more marginalised people to despise.

And finally, the book closes with Blue, a first person account from a grief-stricken boy coping with the death of his mother who had been ill for sometime. He works through the various connotations of “blue” whether it be his Ranger scarf, his Catholic friend’s explanation of the colour and significance of Mary’s robes, the lyrics of diverse songs like Blue Moon and Singing The Blues…

It was as if part of me already knew and accepted, but part of me cried out and denied it. I cried into my pillow and a numbness came on me, shielding me from the real pain. I was lying there, sobbing, but the other part of me, the part that accepted, simply looked on. I was watching myself crying, watching my puny grief from somewhere above it all. I was me and I was not-me.

As a writer and a reader (and as a Scot), I’m grateful Dave discovered this book for me. It is 232 pages of powerful storytelling and as the young boy in the closing story learns, despite the tragedy of his Mother’s death, life does go on and the rest of the world goes about their business. The next day “was the same. It was very ordinary. Nothing had changed…”

Except the reader – the stories will make you ponder the complexities of the human condition and engage your emotions. Trust me, you don’t have to be Scottish to enjoy them!


A Creative and Cultural Conversation

creative industry strategy logo

“The arts are not a way to make a living. They are a very human way of making life more bearable. Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven’s sake. Sing in the shower. Dance to the radio. Tell stories. Write a poem to a friend, even a lousy poem. Do it as well as you possibly can. You will get an enormous reward. You will have created something.” 

Kurt Vonnegut

This quote is appealing, but why shouldn’t creative people be entitled to ‘make a living’? One of my dreams, and I know I’m not alone, would be supporting myself from my writing, I’ve never had that luxury. I teach in several different places each week and always chase money to pay the bills. I’m fortunate to teach creative writing and be in the company of those who value words, but to be able to spend unrestricted hours writing what I want is an unfulfilled desire.

At the end of each term I publish the work from the class.
At the end of each term I publish the work from the class.

On Friday, I attended a consultation session at the Melbourne Town Hall convened by the new Victorian Government to consult with those in the creative sector to contribute towards developing “a creative industries strategy that increases the benefits that flow to the State from a vibrant creative and cultural sector.

The strategy will take a whole-of-state approach to enabling the creative and cultural industries to thrive and make a major contribution to Victoria’s future as a liveable, inclusive, prosperous and vibrant society.

Those present at one of the many consultations that will be held were invited to contribute views, ideas and aspirations in a spirit of innovation and collaboration with the facilitator adamant Martin Foley, Victoria’s Minister for Creative Industries is open to new ideas and new approaches and wanted feedback on ten themes:

Fostering creative excellence
Building audiences and markets
Enhancing creative spaces and places
Cultivating skills, entrepreneurship and innovation
Harnessing the opportunities of digital technology
Increasing participation and social impact
Supporting Aboriginal arts and culture
Advancing regional Victoria and outer metropolitan Melbourne
Enhancing international engagement
Increasing tourism

In the discussion paper it was noted:

The creative and cultural industries are a broad but interconnected field spanning arts, culture, screen and design. They encompass disciplines as diverse as game development and graphic design, fashion and filmmaking, performing arts and publishing, architecture and advertising, media and music, comedy and craft. They include activities that are commercially-driven and community- based, experimental and export ready.”

In the room, a dozen large round tables accommodated ten – twelve people. Each of us had a piece of butcher paper and coloured Textas and a scribe with a whiteboard sat out the front to collate.

Halfway through the morning some people swapped tables to ensure the maximum mix in discussion time. My table had a theatre director, a theatre/gallery owner, a university lecturer, a costume designer, a freelance HR manager in the arts industry, Federation Square’s arts project manager and her assistant, an arts council representative for City of Yarra, and an arts and sports event/festival organiser for the City of Bass, a youth music organiser, and an independent artist.

All of us agreed that our greatest challenge was having a decent income to support our art; to allow us the breathing space and time to start and finish projects. We lamented the churning out of graduates in the creative industries who can’t get jobs in their field, haven’t the workshop or studio space, and can’t afford the equipment or technology to pursue their artistic endeavours.

The devaluing of art or creativity starts in schools when there is no designated art teacher. It is carried through to art subjects being marked down at VCE and even in government when Martin Foley is the Victorian Minister for Equality. He is also the Minister for Housing, Disability Services & Ageing, Minister for Mental Health and Minister for Creative Industries. (Mr Foley previously served as the Shadow Minister for Water, Shadow Minister for Arts and Shadow Minister for Youth Affairs.) How important is ‘the arts’ if the minister has to multitask between a variety of sectors?

Everyone desired a model for economic security – the time spent chasing, securing and retaining funding a problem, especially if bureaucrats have a concept that creativity can be switched on and off and run to a timetable.

Perhaps we need to look at funding in other sector models like those used by charities and social services, but most of all the Minister for the Arts/Creative Industries needs to speak to the Minister for Education!

The TAFE system is hands, Universities the head – lots of crossover in creative industries, so both systems need to be funded adequately.

A sculpture in RMIT - which has a university and TAFE sector
A sculpture in RMIT – which has a university and TAFE sector
Mural on wall at RMIT

There needs to be more collaboration between government sectors and artists: the three tiers of government (local council, state and federal governments) make finding and funding resources a nightmare. The lack of affordable space to develop and present new work, whether it is sculpture or performing arts, can be an almost insurmountable challenge for artists who need to meet and engage with an audience.

The discussion and debate made the air thrum and hum with diverse voices, intense exchanges, shared laughter and plenty of storytelling. Archaeologist, historian, writer or industrial designer –  all have a story and ideas to share – although some people took the view of a narrow definition of ‘professional’ artist.

Indeed what is art – a definition could be debated all day! Even referring to creative industries upset some people. How do you identify as a creative person? What label do you wear?

The sustainability of the creative sector recognised as important – presenting a challenge and opportunities. Participants agreed there was a need and often demonstration of entrepreneurial skills, but many in the sector lack business and marketing skills.

The survival and success of independent artists can be a role model for the wider community, however, we need the arts to be considered across all government portfolios like environmental impact is now considered. All government departments need to embrace funding the arts.

Embed creativity in lifestyle just as coffee is embedded.

This comment reminded me of a cafe near Brighton Beach Station where the work of a NZ poet is chalked on the eaves outside the shop!

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Artistic hubs should be encouraged in outer suburbs and regional areas and when infrastructure is considered for new housing estates an arts hub could be included in the design. Art and culture should be part of building a community. Hubs would facilitate this connection. If space can be allocated for parks and gardens why not the arts?

How do you measure the value of art and culture?

Writing isn’t about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid, or making friends. In the end, it’s about enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life, as well. It’s about getting up, getting well, and getting over. Getting happy, okay? Getting happy.” 

Stephen King

We must stop using the language of economics and business-speak – we have our own language in the arts. Why does there always have to be a dollar value? Is it true if you want to be an artist in the afternoon you must be a business person in the morning?

Isn’t investment in equity, diversity, people, and the community’s wellbeing enough? Celebrating diversity and instilling confidence in the creative community important for society’s progress. As is valuing history and heritage. Victoria must be seen to promote cultural literacy and education – sector funding needs to be appropriate as well as directing support to individual artists.

There should be investment in regular programs that work, but also risk taking to encourage innovative projects. If recurrent funding the programs must be accountable and prove their worth. More cross generational programs and culturally diverse ones are needed for balance.

Should culture be free ?

A gasp went around the room when someone asked: If people pay for attending the Grand Prix, why should White Night be free?

Put a bunch of creative people in a room and you stir up a hornet’s nest!

“The creative and cultural industries are central to our identity, to the liveability of our communities, to our social cohesion and to our productivity. They are an essential part of what differentiates Victoria from other places, and have a role to play across virtually every area of society – from education and health, to justice, science, innovation, business and community development.”

The creative and cultural industries contribute to the cultural, social and economic fabric of societies.

  • What can we do to embed creativity in our everyday lives?
  • What can we do to ensure the next generation will be both consumers of, and practitioners in, the creative industries?

Check out the government’s discussion paper and please have your say. It invites your contribution to the development of Victoria’s first creative industries strategy. You may choose to respond directly to the issues and themes canvassed. Or you may choose to make a general submission that addresses other issues.

Responses close on Friday 17 July 2015

“Why am I compelled to write? . . . Because the world I create in the writing compensates for what the real world does not give me. By writing I put order in the world, give it a handle so I can grasp it…”

Gloria E. Anzaldúa

Have you an opinion or ideas for the future of creativity in Victoria? Please spare a few minutes to let the government know.

Ironing the Wrinkles of Memory


‘Knowing how to fold fitted sheets changed my life.’ A not so surprising statement from my traveller daughter on her return from three years in North America. Always organised and house proud, we often joked Anne’s cleaning frenzies bordered on OCD.

However, her announcement about the sheets as she helped me put away the laundry made me laugh and hug her. ‘You’re so like your dad, everything has to be shipshape. You’d have done well in the navy too.’

‘Well it made such a difference when I worked in the Dermatology Clinic in Toronto. We laundered everyday and if sheets are folded properly they’re so easy to put away.’

Anne grabbed another fitted sheet from my dishevelled linen cupboard and proceeded to demonstrate what she meant. Her sea-blue eyes sparkled and she flashed me the trademark smile I’d missed. ‘You’ll see, it’ll change your life too. Now, come and have a go.’

I stood by the ironing board as daughter taught mother. ‘Well, well, well,’ I said with a grin and went through the motions of folding a fitted sheet so it looked as neatly packaged as a normal one. ‘ You can teach an old dog new tricks.’

I stared at the sheets and returned to my 1950s Scottish childhood. Mum, bringing in the washing from the back green and airing it on the pulley suspended from the kitchen ceiling.

‘Can I help fold the sheets, Mum?’ I said, the ever-eager helper.

‘Aye, love, now take those ends.’ And so I learnt to fold sheets, but not without a lot of laughter because invariably we’d sing:

Shoogly shaggly over the glen

Mammy’s we pet, Daddy’s wee hen –

1,2,3, – out”

I’d have put a doll on the sheet to bounce up and down before being tipped out as we folded the sheet over. This was a common game for adults to play, bouncing a baby or toddler in a blanket. Older siblings amused each other by bouncing younger ones and with peals of laughter and squeals everyone anticipated that last bounce and the tipping onto a bed, mattress or soft grass.

Working class improvisation of a trampoline, I suppose!

I played shoogly shaggly with my girls as well and taught them how to make beds with hospital corners – a skill passed on from my ex-nurse mother. A well-made bed important not just for appearances, but comfort.

Anne snapped me out of my reverie. ‘See Mum, all the sheets fit on the shelves in neat piles?’

‘Aye, love,’ I said, channelling my Mother, ‘and isn’t it wonderful none of them need ironing!’ And so began the proverbial trip down memory lane…

I remember the heavy clunk, as the iron connected with our rickety wooden-framed ironing board. The old-fashioned instrument of my childhood, heavy and cumbersome to use. I remember too, the many burns I received from the iron’s hot silver sides while learning how to iron what seemed to be an endless pile of washing produced by our family of eight.

One particular evening sticks in my mind when my sister Catriona and I shared the weekly ironing pile and counted 64 shirts and blouses! This was the era when gender roles were very clearly defined, most garments were made of cotton, and starched and pressed clothes standard attire.


Depending on the items and the quantity to be ironed, the ironing board remained folded against the wall of the dinette and the thickness of an old blanket on the Formica kitchen table sufficed. This at least softened the noise and provided a wider surface than the ironing board, circa 1900, inherited from Dad’s mother.


Mum taught me the necessary skill for domesticity by letting me practice on handkerchiefs, serviettes, pillowcases and tray cloths. Uncomplicated ironing. However, like Erma Bombeck, I avoid the task of ironing now and shake my head in disbelief at memories of begging Mum to ‘let me help’.

Children learn what they live

Dorothy Law Nolte, PhD said children learn what they live and I suppose my introduction and desire to learn household chores such as ironing, emulated Mum. Born in 1953, even if my parents wanted more for me than to be a housewife, the message society broadcast on every level, said girls had to be good at housework. We were baby machines, supportive wives and proud housewives, and should know our place.

This message reinforced when I joined the Brownies, and later Girl Guides, although they also encouraged independence, ingenuity and imagination. My keenness to iron well and progress to more complex items, a necessity, and duly rewarded by various cloth badges to sew on my uniform. I could proudly declare I was a good helper around the house.


I’ve still got my little brass Elf badge given when I joined and made the Brownie Promise:

I promise to do my best:
To do my duty to God and the Queen
To help other people everyday
especially those at home.

Every week I’d polish my shoes and leather belt, don my brown uniform, brown beret and yellow tie and go to the local community hall to be with the other Pixies in my Brownie pack.

From memory I think one badge, the Busy Bee sported a bright yellow bumblebee. The Thrift badge an easy one to achieve in our working class home because with limited money and many mouths to feed, thriftiness became our family motto.

While the boy scouts wandered the neighbourhood fundraising for ‘Bob a Job’ and chopping wood, weeding or carrying shopping, we were firmly indoctrinated for our role as future wives and mothers.

I made something new out of something old by cutting up an old towelling nappy to make a face-washer and sewed blanket stitch to decorate its new hems. I helped Mum set a fire in the grate, clean out the ashes and fill the coal scuttle. The Homemakers and Laundry Badge involved, cleaning and dusting, setting the table, washing dishes and keeping my shared bedroom tidy (a bone of contention because I shared a bedroom for years). The white picket fence boundaries of the ‘50s well and truly delineated.


Mum used an electric iron, a far cry from the old pre World War Two flat irons, which had to be heated on the kitchen range. However, the first electric irons had no thermostat, and you tested its heat in the time-honoured way of licking your finger and dabbing the plate, or spitting lightly. The temperature judged from the sizzling of skin or spittle.

The absence of steam irons or iron that squirted water a burden because most clothes were made of cotton or linen and had to be ironed damp for the best result. Drip dry synthetics became popular after the war, made of fabric that did not wrinkle when hung dripping wet to dry to avoid ironing, but in a climate like Scotland, they took a long time to dry and who wanted clothes dripping from the pulley? Early nylon clothes washed and dried with minimum wrinkles could melt if the iron too hot. Mum often removed the clothes from the line before they were quite dry to make the pressing easier.


When we came to live in Australia, Mum took paid work in Johnson Bros. Pottery, to help save and build our own home. The washing and ironing became a shared chore, particularly when Mum worked regular overtime and Saturday morning shifts.

On many occasions clothes missed the washing cycle and had to be ironed dry if we wanted to wear them to a particular function. Steam rising from clothes straight from the washing machine, a  never to be forgotten smell. If stains from the iron or ironing board cover ruined the  item, the curses colouring the air blue not forgotten either.

Clothes were scorched when the iron over heated, and trousers and skirts developed an unacceptable shine if a damp pressing cloth forgotten (one of Dad’s large handkerchiefs our regular pressing cloth).

In my teenage years, hands and arms bore scars from sears and burns. Reminders of carelessness, lapsed concentration, being too particular, or lacking skill and strength to manipulate the iron around intricate cuffs, collars, folds and pleats.

The smell of pressed wool and linen and damp serge still lingers in nostrils, and years later I wonder if the wear and tear in my shoulder joints date back to the heavy repetitive nature of household tasks such as ironing. Teenage years in the 70s even saw us iron our long hair – no fancy hair straighteners in those days just the revolting smell of singed hair.


The second hand Hoover washing machine we inherited in Australia was a tiny single tub with a broken spin dryer. It sat on the concrete floor of an unlined, tinned roof, weatherboard outhouse fitted out as a laundry – our very own Turkish bathhouse in summer and Siberian prison in winter. We hooked the clothes from the washing machine and placed them in two huge concrete laundry sinks filled with cold water for rinsing and fed them through a mangle attached to the side of the sink.

The first manual wringer gave arm and shoulder muscles a good workout, but then we went upmarket to an electric mangle. I can’t remember if this was a hand-me-down from one of Aunt Chrissie’s many friends or a bargain Dad found and fixed. In those early days, scrounging became an art form; offers of help never rejected, but taken in the spirit of good neighbourliness. Our maxim ‘one man’s rubbish, another man’s treasure.’

The old fashioned mangles squeezed a lot of the moisture from the clothes reducing the weight and unpleasantness of hanging washing out dripping wet, although some items had to be fed through the hard rubber rollers a couple of times. The electric mangle fascinated ten year old me and in the excitement of feeding clothes through faster to spend more time playing with friends, I often tangled the clothes into bunches, and jammed the machine.

On rare occasions, trying to be too smart or fast, I fed sheets through before removing my hand from their folds. Luckily, the off switch easily reached by connections installed by Uncle Bill McKendrick, a first class electrician. The bruises and pain not so quickly fixed, or my injured pride from the harsh lecture I’d receive from Mum. I hated letting her down by appearing incompetent, aware she felt guilty at not keeping abreast of household chores. Mum and Dad worked incredibly long hours chasing money to pay the rent, put food on the table, and clothe and educate us.

Australia is a paradise for laundering clothes compared to Scotland where inclement weather makes drying clothes outside difficult. I remember washing hanging from the pulley suspended from the kitchen ceiling, or hung over wooden maidens (clothes horses) placed in front of the living room fire. Steam rising as if the clothes were smoking, a common sight in winter. The clothes dried inside always smelled of coal, if dried in the living room, or of the variety of food cooked, when dried in the kitchen.

Pulleys were fixed to the ceiling and lowered by a rope which would be then tied to a hook on the wall to keep it level until loaded with washing. When full, the pulley would be hoisted to near the ceiling. It could hold a lot of washing and Mum used it to air the clothes this way too, even in summer. Depending on what was on the menu, she’d take them down before cooking because the smell of fish could linger for days on clothes.

In the winter, Mum always had a coal fire burning in the living room with the rest of the house unheated unless we were flush with money and could feed the gas heater to heat water piped to upstair rooms with wall radiators. Most working class homes made decisions about heating depending on their budget. My Dad being a railwayman, always had work and took every piece of overtime offered so the coalman topped our bunker up at regular intervals, but even we would have struggled to feed more than one fireplace in winter.

Several neighbours whose husbands worked in the shipyards where work was seasonal and either boom or bust – often ran out of coal . They’d ask Mum if they could borrow a bucket of coal until payday and Mum never refused. There were households where the breadwinner drank heavily or the woman at home had poor or non-existent housekeeping skills. These families suffered all year, especially the Jepson family who lived across the road from us. Not only were they constantly in debt and having to borrow food and fuel, but when the Council inspector did his annual rounds, Mrs Jepson asked to borrow our kitchen cupboard doors because they had burnt theirs when they ran out of coal.

Sometimes damp washing hung on the fireguard, if more drying space was needed. Mum kept an eye on these clothes. A roaring fire generated a lot of heat and a gust of wind down the chimney could send flames awry. Drying washing could be scorched or even set alight. We were alerted to the danger of fire at an early age.

Our neighbours, ‘through the wall’ as Scottish vernacular referred to the close proximity of those who lived in semi-detached council houses,  were Kathy and Jimmy Johnson. They had a daughter Maureen, a few years older than my sister Catriona. We had not long moved to the house in Davaar Road when Mum witnessed a tragic incident she never forgot.

Teenager Maureen received a present of a nightie made out of nylon and lace, synthetic materials grown in popularity since the war. She was brushing her hair in front of the mirror hanging above the mantlepiece when flames flared and licked at her nightie. In seconds, her clothes were aflame, melting and sticking to her body. Her long hair caught alight. Maureen’s screams seared into Mum’s memory, as was the sight of the teenager running outside and throwing herself onto the ground.

Adrenalin kicked in, Mum, scaled the side fence like an Olympian, ordered Kathy to grab the rug from the hallway and throw it over Maureen. Between them they got the fire out. Mum called an ambulance. Luckily, for the Johnsons, we were one of only two families in the street with a telephone connected.

Maureen Johnson spent several weeks in hospital and although most of her scars were hidden, she had to live for the rest of her life with skin like a washer board on her torso. (No pressure suits in those days.)

If ever we ventured too close to the fire or complained about not being hot enough, Mum reminded us of Maureen. She also made sure no matter what house we lived in there was never a mirror above the fireplace.

My younger sister, Rita confesses to enjoying ironing – it’s her thinking time she says and I’m sure other people feel the same. Meanwhile my aversion has continued to grow. Perhaps, Catriona and I had too much ‘thinking time’.

Mum with unexpected visitor and pile of ironing

Certainly, I adopted Mum’s later attitude that ironing was ‘a waste of energy’. Her mantra my daughters know well, ‘the heat of your body will soon get those creases out.’

Ironically, when John and I struggled to pay the mortgage in 1990, a time when our then Prime Minister, Paul Keating said, ‘… this is the recession that Australia had to have,’ I  regularly ironed a mountain of shirts, but this time I was paid by the people who dropped their ironing off and I was grateful!

Nowadays, I check the labels of all clothes –– if there’s special washing or ironing instructions, I don’t buy. Life is too short and there are a lot more pressing (and enjoyable) matters to take up my time!

Who does your ironing?