A Different Angle on a Legend

LEGEND 
1. a traditional story sometimes popularly regarded as historical but unauthenticated.
synonyms: myth, saga, epic, tale, story, folktale, folk story, fairy tale, fable, mythos, folklore, lore, mythology, fantasy, oral history, folk tradition; urban myth
2. an extremely famous or notorious person, especially in a particular field.
synonyms: celebrity, star, superstar, icon, phenomenon, luminary, leading light, giant; Mor

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My older sister came to stay from interstate this week and I took the opportunity to use complimentary tickets for Studiocanal’s latest promotion Legend “the notorious true story of the Kray twins“. The film focuses on the notoriety of identical twin gangsters Reggie and Ronnie Kray, and their criminal empire in the East End of London during the 1960s.

To be honest, I doubt if I would have gone to see this film without the free tickets because I grew up in an era with the Krays forever in the news – and it was all bad as these headlines from UK newspapers show:

I didn’t want to see a film glorifying violence or justifying the appalling behaviour of these would be celebrities. Thankfully, Legend does not do either of these things. There are violent scenes and offensive language, but the movie concentrates on the love affair between Reggie Kray and Frances Shea and a very short time in the life of the Krays London-based criminal empire and gangster status. Frances is the narrator and we know what she wants from the relationship early in the film:

Frances Shea: You could go straight…
Reggie Kray: Life isn’t always what we want it to be.

While there is an attempt to show the human and vulnerable side to Reggie, the ultimate reality and tragic consequences dispels any sympathy you may feel for the main character. Legend is definitely not Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey!

The storyline is almost palatable when centered around the brief courtship and marriage of Reggie and Frances with the criminal activities as subplots. However, trying to make Ronnie and Reggie behave in a loving way towards anyone, even each other, an impossible task if you also depict the documented behaviour of the Krays and the other psychopaths and morons who were their associates. The episodic violence and scattering of references to celebrities, politicians and other gangsters of the time leaves unresolved and confusing subplots, but also destroys any sympathy for the people in their social circle.

However, the acting of Emily Browning as a ‘fragile’ Frances Shea and Tom Hardy as both Kray brothers lifts the film from mediocre to memorable. There are also some solid performances from recognisable British character actors showing good casting from writer/director Brian Helgeland. Christopher Eccleston plays a suitably frustrated Detective Nipper Read who eventually gets his ‘man’ and Tara Fitzgerald is a fearless and angry Mrs. Shea devastated at her daughter’s infatuation with Reggie.

Legend reveals both brothers as paranoid and violent. Their delusions of invincibility divorced from reality, although only Ronnie diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic. This quote early in the movie sums him up:

Dr. Humphries: Your brother Ron is violent and psychopathic, and I suspect he’s paranoid schizophrenic… to put it simply he’s off his fucking rocker!
[thrusts a bottle of pills to Reggie]
Dr. Humphries: Make sure he takes these…, or they’ll be serious trouble. 

The doctor’s comment an understatement! Check out Monty Python’s ‘Pirhana Bros’ sketch lampooning the Krays. This pretty well sums up what people of my generation familiar with the real life ‘legend’, thought of creeps like the uneducated Krays who were not bright or smart, but epitomised the adage ‘brawn over brains’.

Perhaps the one lesson to take away from Legend is that there was a time in British justice when murderers were gaoled for life – Ronnie Kray (62) died in prison and Reggie (67), sentenced to 30 years, served 33 because of his prison behaviour and released on compassionate grounds, died 6 weeks later from cancer. The Krays had an older brother Charlie (73) not mentioned in the film. He also died in prison a few months before Reggie.

The film has had mixed reviews since its release and I can understand why. The acting is superb and I loved the soundtrack of mainly 60s music.  The set design offers the authenticity we’ve come to expect from British period productions. Movie trivia reveals:

“The Blind Beggar pub featured in the movie is The Royal Oak on Columbia Road in London. The pub has featured in many British TV programmes. It was the same pub used in ’90s sitcom Goodnight Sweetheart and was also the scene of Victor Meldrew’s failed reunion with friends in the last episode of One Foot In The Grave.”

However, in depicting the truth about the Krays, even a condensed version of their vicious amoral life, there is not much to enjoy. You leave the cinema with a sense of relief it’s over.

We don’t learn enough about the police officers involved or see how the Krays are eventually charged and sentenced to understand what real impact they had on London. Reggie’s dramatic about turn in his treatment of Frances so sudden and out of character it strips away all pretence that the movie is a love story and makes you realise that storyline arc not developed well at all.

Yet, for all the criticisms, I think the viewing public, accepts the film on face value, acknowledging Tom Hardy’s amazing triumph acting identical twins in such a way that audiences are convinced it is two separate people. And, as mentioned before, Emily Browning is stunning as the vulnerable and fragile Frances even though we could have done with more of her backstory. The glimpses of humour mainly provided by ‘mad’ Ron are not overdone and are believable for that character.

“In the UK, Legend (2015) became the highest grossing 18-rated British film of all time, surpassing Trainspotting (1996)….”

Despite the fact:

“Critic Benjamin Lee of The Guardian wrote a negative review of the film, giving it only two stars: a poster for British distributor Studio Canal displayed these, but placed them between the twins’ heads, so that at first glance The Guardian appeared to be one of many outlets that had run four- and five-star reviews (until Lee himself pointed this out on Twitter).”

Fortunately, the violence is not as graphic as it could have been and the film does not glamorise gangsters or criminal activity – you leave the cinema glad the Krays are no longer around. There are many unexplored threads, especially in relation to Ronnie’s mental illness and treatment juxtaposed with the depression (?) Frances obviously suffered and the pills she popped.

There is also a hint that Reggie is psychopathic too:

Ronald Kray: [on his twin stabbing Jack] Why did you kill him?
Reggie Kray: [walks up, so he is pressing his forehead against his twin] Because I CAN’T KILL YOU!

Mind you by the end of the film I think most people in the audience empathised with those sentiments! Perhaps even extended hopes of retribution, vengeance and justice towards both Krays and everyone in their circle of friends who took part in the attempt to build a ‘gangster kingdom’ in 1950s/60s Britain!

Please let me know what you think of the film if you see it.

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Countdown to the Launch of Kingston My City

Not long now until the group’s ninth anthology is launched. Everyone is invited to help us celebrate 20 years of meeting together and writing.

Our community writing group has been meeting at the Mordialloc Neighbourhood House for twenty years and for our anniversary anthology we reflect on our relationship with the City of Kingston.

We have reminisced about wartime precautions on Parkdale beach and the transformation of suburban streets by developers. We have reflected on the City of Kingston’s creation by negotiation and amalgamation, Patterson Lakes created by feats of engineering.

There are snapshots of dances at Moorabbin Town Hall, surf lifesaving carnivals, Edithvale billycart shenanigans and cycling to school, the demise of horses and the rise of hoons, joyous beach weddings and sad farewells. Stories woven around everyday life and observations to trigger your own memories.

Perhaps you’ll recognise the places and characters, the community groups and events, remember when the pace of life seemed slower, be grateful for improved services. As you enjoy this collection I’m sure you’ll come to the same conclusion as the writers – Kingston is indeed a great place to live.

The Mordialloc Writers’ Group
cordially invite you to
our 20th Anniversary celebrations
and the launch
of our 9th anthology
KINGSTON MY CITY
by
former Mayor Bill Nixon (OAM)

Please join us to celebrate
our many achievements
since 1995.

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Special Guests: Making Waves, spoken word choir

When: 3.00pm Saturday, November 14th 2015

Where: Allan McLean Hall, Cnr Albert & Lewis Sts, Mordialloc

RSVP: October 30th, 2015 mairi@ozemail.com.au
Tel: 95878757 and 0403900585

This collection of writing from the Mordialloc Writers’ Group again features new writers as well as writers from previous anthologies. It is a special book celebrating our 20th anniversary including guest writers who can no longer attend because they’ve moved location. They were a link in our journey and still consider themselves ‘Mordy’ writers.

Over sixty-five writers have had the opportunity to be published authors under the auspices of Mordialloc Writers since 1995 – a proud achievement for a small group.

This year, we concentrated on the personal essay format choosing as our theme the City of Kingston. What does it mean to be born here? Attend school or grow up here? To live, work, or visit the various suburbs that make up Kingston? Each writer’s interpretation, their observations, reflections and memories will entertain, perhaps strike a chord and hopefully linger in your memory.

I hope you can join us!

What Can Poetry Teach Us?

“Fill your paper with the breathings of your heart.

William Wordsworth

Several years ago, I went to ‘Breakfast With Poets and Ideas,’ an event at Melbourne University. A selection of guest poets discussed why they wrote poetry and who or what motivated them.

They discussed the question: Can poets change the times they live in?

  • Is it okay to philosophise with your pen? 
  • Can writing be political?
  • Should it be political?
  • Do poets simply share what they see or think at a particular time?
  • Are poets revealing their feelings, arousing emotions and trying to change attitudes?

What is the purpose of poetry?

  • Is it primarily a mental exercise, a playing with words to amuse self and the reader?
  • Should teaching or preaching be secondary – perhaps non-existent?
  • Must there be a message -what of the inner child?
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Beach Park, Peter Scullin Reserve, Mordialloc

This term in class we’ve been looking at how poetic techniques, especially simile, metaphor and personification, can lift writing from the realm of ordinariness to be engaging and memorable, even if the poem is not deep and meaningful.

There are so many poems to choose from, but I’ve stuck with those regarded as classics or my personal favourites.

Metaphor by Eve Merriam
Morning is
a new sheet of paper
for you to write on

Whatever you want to say
all day
until night
folds up
and files it away

The bright words and the dark words
are gone
until dawn
and a new day
to write on.

How To Eat A Poem by Eve Merriam
Don’t be polite.
Bite in.
Pick it up with your fingers and lick the juice that
may run down your chin.
It is ready and ripe now, whenever you are.
You do not need a knife or fork or spoon
or plate or napkin or tablecloth.

For there is no core
or stem
or rind
or pit
or seed
or skin
to throw away.

Poetic language gives us life experience through the words, the poet’s power of transcendence can be magical and powerful. The images created take us to a world of enchantment, exuberance, entertainment and yet have us reflect on living and life’s ‘big picture’.

The Daffodils  by William Wordsworth, 1770 – 1850

I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the Milky Way,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.

The waves beside them danced, but they
Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:
A Poet could not but be gay,
In such a jocund company:
I gazed—and gazed—but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:

For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.

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The Land Of Nod by Robert Louis Stevenson

From breakfast on through all the day
At home among my friends I stay,
But every night I go abroad
Afar into the land of Nod.
All by myself, I have to go,
With none to tell me what to do —
All alone beside the streams
And up the mountain-sides of dreams.
The strangest things are there for me,
Both things to eat and things to see,
And many frightening sights abroad
Till morning in the land of Nod.
Try as I like to find the way,
I never can get back by day,
Nor can remember plain and clear
The curious music that I hear.

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  • Poets can sway thinking and emotions, especially of influential people and can encourage social progress and justice. (WW1 poets) The diaries of POWs and journals of soldiers examples of carefulness and mindfulness of word choice and meaning. The fragility of the human condition.

The War Sonnets: V The Soldier by Rupert Brooke

If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England’s, breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.

And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
And laughter learnt of friends; and gentleness,
In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.

Dulce Et Decorum Est by Wilfred Owen

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares, we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.
Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime . . .
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.

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Wall of memory to war dead, National War Memorial Canberra, ACT
  • Poets notice detail, they don’t pass or ignore the every day. (Emily Dickinson)

How happy is the little Stone by Emily Dickinson

How happy is the little Stone
That rambles in the Road alone,
And doesn’t care about Careers
And Exigencies never fears—
Whose Coat of elemental Brown
A passing Universe put on,
And independent as the Sun
Associates or glows alone,
Fulfilling absolute Decree
In casual simplicity—

Accomplished Facts by Carl Sandburg

Every year Emily Dickinson sent one friend
the first arbutus bud in her garden.

In a last will and testament Andrew Jackson
remembered a friend with the gift of George
Washington’s pocket spy-glass.

Napoleon too, in a last testament, mentioned a silver
watch taken from the bedroom of Frederick the Great,
and passed along this trophy to a particular friend.

O. Henry took a blood carnation from his coat lapel
and handed it to a country girl starting work in a
bean bazaar, and scribbled: “Peach blossoms may or
may not stay pink in city dust.”

So it goes. Some things we buy, some not.
Tom Jefferson was proud of his radishes, and Abe
Lincoln blacked his own boots, and Bismarck called
Berlin a wilderness of brick and newspapers.

So it goes. There are accomplished facts.
Ride, ride, ride on in the great new blimps—
Cross unheard-of oceans, circle the planet.
When you come back we may sit by five hollyhocks.
We might listen to boys fighting for marbles.
The grasshopper will look good to us.

So it goes …

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The memorial to John Lennon in Central Park NY
  • Poetry won’t teach us to live well but incite us to try to do so. (Judith Wright) Many poets immerse themselves in the natural and cultural environment, their perception of life and love laid bare in their words.

Metho Drinker by Judith Wright

Under the death of winter’s leaves he lies
who cried to Nothing and the terrible night
to be his home and bread. “O take from me
the weight and waterfall ceaseless Time
that batters down my weakness; the knives of light
whose thrust I cannot turn; the cruelty
of human eyes that dare not touch nor pity.”
Under the worn leaves of the winter city
safe in the house of Nothing now he lies.

His white and burning girl, his woman of fire,
creeps to his heart and sets a candle there
to melt away the flesh that hides from bone,
to eat the nerve that tethers him in time.
He will lie warm until the bone is bare
and on a dead dark moon he wakes alone.
It was for Death he took her; death is but this;
and yet he is uneasy under her kiss
and winces from that acid of her desire.

Caged Bird by Maya Angelou

The free bird leaps
on the back of the wind
and floats downstream
till the current ends
and dips his wings
in the orange sun rays
and dares to claim the sky.

But a bird that stalks
down his narrow cage
can seldom see through
his bars of rage
his wings are clipped and
his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing.

The caged bird sings
with fearful trill
of the things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill for the caged bird
sings of freedom

The free bird thinks of another breeze
and the trade winds soft through the sighing trees
and the fat worms waiting on a dawn-bright lawn
and he names the sky his own.

But a caged bird stands on the grave of dreams
his shadow shouts on a nightmare scream
his wings are clipped and his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing

The caged bird sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom.

bird at Alcatraz

  • Poetry will make space for your inner life. (WH Auden) We need the poet’s eye to make the familiar extraordinary. Poets have words to remind us of the daily beauties of nature, we are too busy to notice.

… rain bubblewrapping the window… its squirting glance… rustle of descending silk… streetlights tumbledown gloom… skyline of gold muted glow… rain wetting its own socks… rain grumbling across awnings and rooftops… tomorrow’s weather haunts a small room…

Funeral Blues by WH Auden

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message ‘He is Dead’.
Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.

He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong.

The stars are not wanted now; put out every one,
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun,
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood;
For nothing now can ever come to any good.

Cut Grass by Philip Larkin

Cut grass lies frail:
Brief is the breath
Mown stalks exhale.
Long, long the death

It dies in the white hours
Of young-leafed June
With chestnut flowers,
With hedges snowlike strewn,

White lilac bowed,
Lost lanes of Queen Anne’s lace,
And that high-builded cloud
Moving at summer’s pace.

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  • Poets value precision and truthfulness in language and give language intensity.

Shame by Kevin Gilbert

And some say “Shame” when we’re talkin’ up
And “Shame” for the way we are
And “Shame” cause we ain’t got a big flash house
Or a steady job and a car.
Some call it “Shame” when our kids they die
From colds or from sheer neglect
“Shame” when we live on the river banks
While collectin’ our welfare cheques
“Shame” when we’re blind from trachoma
“Shame” when we’re crippled from blights
But I reckon the worstest shame is yours
You deny us human rights

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  • Poetry can be successfully political by going inwards first before going outwards to create profound images that make the message universal. (Pablo Neruda)

The Dictators by Pablo Neruda

An odor has remained among the sugarcane:
a mixture of blood and body, a penetrating
petal that brings nausea.
Between the coconut palms the graves are full
of ruined bones, of speechless death-rattles.
The delicate dictator is talking
with top hats, gold braid, and collars.
The tiny palace gleams like a watch
and the rapid laughs with gloves on
cross the corridors at times
and join the dead voices
and the blue mouths freshly buried.
The weeping cannot be seen, like a plant
whose seeds fall endlessly on the earth,
whose large blind leaves grow even without light.
Hatred has grown scale on scale,
blow on blow, in the ghastly water of the swamp,
with a snout full of ooze and silence

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Poetry can be a potent and resistant force. A political poem often comes out of deepest privacy, perhaps the result of personal trauma.  Spiritual growth or lack of it may lead to a political poem, which comes from the poet’s innermost turmoil because poets bear witness to the times they live in. Neruda lived through the destruction of Allende’s Government in Chile and the rise of Pinochet’s military dictatorship.

The function of poetry is to raise deeper awareness, not necessarily encourage activism, but encourage thought and an inward change. Poetry will not or should not ignore evidence – it may be ephemeral, but must be authentic and truthful. Although poets use words, poetry is the art of images, the art of languages – metaphors, similes, alliteration, assonance, allusion, repetition, personification, irony, motifs, senses, parody and prophecy…

The Tyger by William Blake

Tyger! Tyger! burning bright,
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand dare seize the fire?

And what shoulder, & what art,
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand? & what dread feet?

What the hammer? what the chain?
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp
Dare its deadly terrors clasp?

When the stars threw down their spears,
And water’d heaven with their tears,
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?

Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?

We Are Going by Oodgeroo Noonuccal  

They came into the little town
A semi-naked band subdued and silent
All that remained of their tribe.
They came here to the place of their old bora ground
Where now the many white men hurry about like ants.
Notice of the estate agent reads: ‘Rubbish May Be Tipped Here’.
Now it half covers the traces of the old bora ring.
‘We are as strangers here now, but the white tribe are the strangers.
We belong here, we are of the old ways.
We are the corroboree and the bora ground,
We are the old ceremonies, the laws of the elders.
We are the wonder tales of Dream Time, the tribal legends told.
We are the past, the hunts and the laughing games, the wandering campfires.
We are the lightning bolt over Gaphembah Hill
Quick and terrible,
And the Thunderer after him, that loud fellow.
We are the quiet daybreak paling the dark lagoon.
We are the shadow-ghosts creeping back as the campfires burn low.
We are nature and the past, all the old ways
Gone now and scattered.
The scrubs are gone, the hunting and the laughter.
The eagle is gone, the emu and the kangaroo are gone from this place.
The bora ring is gone.
The corroboree is gone.
And we are going.’

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Yeats shows us how a single word can change meaning – when the beast (donkey) ‘slouches towards Bethlehem ‘…

The Second Coming by William Yeats

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.

The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

Songwriting and music’s poetic sensibilities lead to powerful messages and songwriters are less inhibited about being political. (Bob Dylan, Joan Baez) Joni Mitchell wrote Slouching Towards Bethlehem warning us like Yeats that a reckoning, a revelation is at hand!

A good poem is intrinsically musical. There is a rhythm, an innate musicality of the words so that poets don’t need the extra layer of music. However, if you include songwriting as poetry then poems can have a wide-ranging impact!

Poets always have an anxiety about how the world is changing, and this century is no exception.Issues like war perennial, but now we have global warming and the effects of climate change to worry about! It is disconcerting to consider ‘this broken thing we call the world’ but poetry does it admirably and we are enriched.

Slavery,  racism and social injustice were considered the norm not that long ago. Poets, songwriters and other artists who despised racism and slavery, who believed in the ‘brotherhood of man’ persuaded people to change their beliefs. Poets like William Blake (English), Walt Whitman (American), William Butler Yeats (Irish) and Robert Burns (Scottish).  International condemnation prophetically and eloquently phrased urging reform and their fellow citizens to embrace equality and tolerance.

Recently, I’ve been privileged to have a poem chosen for an anthology to help bring world attention to the refugee crisis. The money from the sale of the anthology will be a practical help to the greatest humanitarian crisis this century. You can read some amazing poems written for Writers For Calais Refugees.

Where would we be without poetry and the lessons we learn?

Do you have a favourite poem or a poem that has impressed you, motivated you to write, or introduced you to a technique you can use in your own writing?  Please share and I will add it to my repertoire for class.

How A Community Celebration Can Teach Tolerance

We are one, but we are many
And from all the lands on earth we come
We share a dream and sing with one voice:
I am, you are, we are Australian.

Bruce Woodley 1987

Yesterday, I moved out of my comfort zone and celebrated Eid with a variety of fellow Australians who happen to be Muslim and have chosen to settle here like my parents did 53 years ago.

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Dina, born in Palestine, educated in Dubai as a pharmacist has reinvented herself as a painter, interior designer, book illustrator. Her husband is a doctor and works as an emergency consultant, in much demand all over the world – at the moment he is in Italy.

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A new friend from Eritrea
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A new friend from Egypt

How do we meet and get to know people?

Yesterday, I met people who live in suburbs I rarely visit (Springvale, Keysborough, Dandenong), so they are not near neighbours. I won’t meet them at school – my children have left those years far behind, plus in Australia schools are divided into private and public and many people send their children to private schools on religious or cultural grounds. My girls went to the local public schools.

I may meet some at work because I teach in community houses, but by and large students and teachers enrol within a locality, their “neighbourhood” so that likelihood is diminished.

The majority of people I met yesterday were Islamic; I wouldn’t bump into them at church either!

So how do I reach out and make them feel welcome to their adopted country? How do they meet me and have the opportunity to understand who I am?

We have to make a special effort – that’s how we can build tolerance and understanding –  to learn from each other, and accept each other.

Yesterday, at the EID Celebration – Many Faiths, One Community – in the Allan McLean Hall, Mordialloc,  for a gold coin donation we could have:

  • A hijab demonstration and buy scarves and dresses
  • Taste Eritrean coffee and cake (the coffee heavily laced with ginger!)
  • Our hands or wrists painted with Henna
  • Watch a delightful cultural performance
  • Be part of a Guided Blessing
  • Dress up as Pharaoh and have a photographic memento
  • Have tea and coffee and a selection of sweet treats

Islamic Australians more often demonised and feared than welcomed, opened their hearts, shared their customs and celebrated who they are and what they offer to Australia.

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A Sheik and Scholar explained the meaning of Eid and where the celebration fitted in the Muslim calendar and blessed the gathering with a prayer.  Poet Anton read 2 or 3 poems in his native language of Malaysian, ably repeated in English by a member of the audience who volunteered to do so.

As a writing teacher, I’m privileged to hear so many original poems from students, but also poems that have inspired them to write. A lovely woman from Iraq introduced me to the wisdom and talent of Rumi:

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A band from Lebanon played and sang songs – some religious, others popular – the musicians famous in the music circuit of their birth country before they came to Australia.

There are two Eids celebrated in Islam, and both follow major acts of worship.  The first is Eid al-Fitr, which follows Ramadan and the second is Eid al-Adha, which follows the Hajj.

Most major religions have times that demand particular behaviour – Christianity has Lent, Advent and Christmas.

During the month of Ramadan, Muslims focus on purifying themselves, getting closer to God, and growing in their faith. They fast from sunrise to sunset, which includes refraining from food, drink, sexual intercourse, bad language, and bad behaviour.

They may read an entire chapter of the Qur’an each day (it has 30 chapters), so they finish the book in a month.The knowledge gained by reading the Qur’an encourages good deeds and greater acts of worship.

By fasting, they become more sympathetic to those less fortunate. By understanding what it is like to go without food or drink, they should become more generous and seek to alleviate hunger amongst the poor.

Ramadan helps to bring people together with family, friends, and neighbours because they break their fasts together.  The community is brought closer to God by offering more worship in the form of extra prayer services provided nightly in Ramadan.

Eid al-Fitr (the Festival/Holiday of Breaking Fast) follows. This festival lasts three days and celebrates the successful completion of Ramadan and the newly renewed spiritual cleansing and connection.

Associated with sweets of various kinds, other names for it are the Sugar Festival or Sweet Festival.  There are many different ways to celebrate the Eid, but, in general, the morning begins with the special Eid prayer. On the way there and while waiting for the prayer session to start it is common to recite the Eid Takbir.

There was a selection of sweet biscuits and homemade cake available yesterday – delicious!

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After praying people have a feast of sorts with their families and or friends usually travelling to family homes.  Typical foods vary by country/region.  In the Middle East, it is common to buy new clothes for the Eid and children often receive Eidia (pronounced like ‘idea’) which is money.  The Eidia received from family and friends comes from an adult to child.  Gifts between adults are rare and gifts from child to an adult even rarer.  Children use the money to buy toys and sweets.

In the US, Canada, Australia and the UK it is often more common to give children presents, not money. This compares with active Christian gifting practices such as Christmas.  Some people make Eid goody bags with trinkets, party favours, stickers, temporary tattoos, and candy to hand out to children after the Eid prayer. Gifts between adults or from child to adult occur too.

Visits to amusement parks/carnivals/circuses also happen more in the West than in other countries probably because immigrants and subsequent generations do not have large extended families to visit.  They spend time going out in smaller family groups and because of the often minority status of their holidays and the abundance of Christian holiday commercialisation they may feel the need to make Eid “extra special” ensuring the interest of future generations.

The children and proud parents yesterday illustrated how to keep the young involved and feeling part of their religion and culture and yet quite comfortable living in Australia.

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Tarek Yousery, a Driving Instructor in real life, entertained us all as he paraded his Egyptian background dressed as a Pharaoh, encouraging us all to be Pharaoh for a photo shoot.  Tarek promoted Egypt by ‘working the room’ while his wife helped you decide what costumes and jewellery to wear. Their generosity and good humour a definite highlight of the day.

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The queues for Henna painting kept two young, talented women busy. Their artistic brilliance and calm, good nature impressive – I can imagine their hands will be sore because the demand to be “tattooed” relentless. Some children (and adults) went back for more than one decoration. Mine sketched in double-quick time – amazing. Unfortunately, scrutiny made me realise how aged my hands were – how could I have my mother’s hands already??  I still feel young!

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A table with an array of scarves to be transformed into the hijab had a backdrop of gorgeous dresses. Alongside was a table doing a brisk trade with intricate and clunky jewellery pieces. Eid like our Christmas – new clothes and gifts the order of the day as people celebrate peace,  love and family.

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The hall echoed with lots of chatter, laughter and children enjoying the relaxed, festive atmosphere. I’d hoped for more locals to witness such an array of talent but bumped into Jenny, a woman I’ve met at various meetings and workshops concerning the environment and community. She had seen the notice down at the Chelsea Hub and was glad she had come along ‘to have a look’.

We both wished there were more people to appreciate the diversity that has made us a successful multicultural country and agreed we must have more opportunities to mix.  Perhaps if we get to know each other, the disgraceful display of intolerance at Bendigo in recent weeks won’t happen again, and we’ll not allow some politicians and sections of the media to keep us in a constant state of fear.

If we could raise one generation with unconditional love, there would be no Hitlers…Mankind’s greatest gift, also its greatest curse, is that we have free choice. We can make our choices built from love or from fear.

Elisabeth Kübler-Ross

Lisa Sun, the Manager of Mordialloc Neighbourhood House and her committee, deserve congratulations for organising this event in collaboration with Springvale Neighbourhood House, the Victorian Multicultural Commission and Al-Emaan Muslim Women’s Support group. The more people come together and share what we have in common, the less likely we will be pushed apart.

We’ve got this gift of love, but love is like a precious plant. You can’t just accept it and leave it in the cupboard or just think it’s going to get on by itself. You’ve got to keep watering it. You’ve got to really look after it and nurture it.

John Lennon

A big thank you to everyone who made the day a success. I felt privileged to meet so many talented and friendly people. A day like yesterday more representative of the community and Australia I love than many of the stories the media seem to enjoy flaunting. Check out Mordialloc Neighbourhood House’s Facebook page for more photos.

The next event to break down cultural barriers will be a Diwali Festival – same venue, but next month!

ABC of October – Anniversary, Breast Cancer, Check-Up

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I can’t believe another year is nearly over, but my annual mammogram reminds me, as does the city drowning in pink. To have a mastectomy in October, Breast Cancer Awareness Month can put you off pink for life!

However, I am extremely grateful to be alive and to celebrate five years survival – hooray!

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A big thank you to my two daughters for their unswerving, unconditional support and the beautiful flowers they bought me to add to their message of love and gratitude for yet another year.

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The memory of being picked up from Cabrini etched like a tattoo. The foyer of the hospital, fences of the local sports ground and numerous businesses festooned in pink,  courtesy of the McGrath Foundation or the plethora of organisations belonging to an extensive breast cancer network. So many women and men working hard and doing an excellent job keeping the disease in the public eye.

Pink balloons, ribbons, posters abounded – even pink buns from the bakery –  as I left the hospital with a drainage tube and plastic bottle where my left boob used to be.

I suppose psychologists will have a name for my word/image association and all the emotions triggered, but I’ll stick to a good old Scots word – scunnered. And I try and avoid all the hype and pinkness I can.

And so, yesterday, like other years, I went for my mammogram and ultrasound at the local radiology centre, which, as usual was decorated like a pink Christmas. However, no joy or excited anticipation for me – the only present I wanted was to hear ‘all clear for another year.’ Thank you, God, I whispered you’re a longer-lasting, caring entity than Father Christmas!

All the happy smiling faces and bunting in the world couldn’t suppress the fear lurching from my stomach and squeezing my heart and throat while I waited for the test results to determine whether the cancer is active.

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I’m aware I’m in the lucky 90% who survive five years, but the constant reminder that in Australia,  seven women a day die of breast cancer always dulls the joy. This year I lost my dear friend Margaret and another friend, Jillian had the shock of her cancer returning after 13 years. Vigilance and that little gnawing fear ever-present along with the mantras – count your blessings and one day at a time!

I often feel uncomfortable with the pinkness of breast cancer advertising and the endless walks, runs and other events seeking donations. When I saw the film Pink Ribbons Inc in 2013, I knew I wasn’t alone feeling disquiet about the corporatization of breast cancer.

I regularly donate for breast cancer research because I’m truly grateful for the excellent treatment I received, but target my donations. I want to help but shy away from the morning teas, lunches, dinners and the seemingly endless pink products.

As a writer, I can donate my skills. I was thrilled to have part of my story published along with others in a book to raise funds for research and practical assistance to those diagnosed with breast cancer. The book can be purchased from Busybird Publishing and is usually for sale at conferences or events organised by the Breast Cancer Network Australia.

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There are so many physical and mental ailments that people struggle with daily.  My wish is for people to give generously to whatever cause and not expect kudos or a toy/ribbon/trophy in return – and that big pool of medical research will keep expanding and being successful where and when it can! People live with a disability, illness and pain from birth – what courage that must take and many don’t have the collective power of a group!

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My diagnosis was in August 2010 – my birthday mammogram – and although there have been discussions about the benefits of regular testing I can only speak about my journey. I’m blessed to live in a country with access to affordable medical expertise and choice of treatment.

Long live Medicare, bulk billing, public hospitals and government funded research – and access to information so I can think for myself.

Yesterday, one of the women employed at the radiology centre greeted me like an old friend. She has given me mammograms and ultrasounds over the years and even attended a series of writing workshops I did to write up stories of her childhood in Ireland. Her welcoming smile always appreciated, and it beamed even brighter yesterday, ‘It’s been five years? No! How wonderful!!’

When I read some of my journaling from the early days of diagnosis it is indeed a wonder:

September 7th. 2010
I am feeling very poorly– ‘1’ in the rating toolbar of the journal gifted by the Breast Cancer Network Association should have a few minuses. Following diagnosis by BreastScreen, the book arrived by Express Post, accompanied by four other tomes. I only registered online that day!  Efficiency plus but 4 volumes of information: too much, too soon, and too confronting! Talk about information overload…

However, the journal is fabulous with sections for appointments, keeping track of expenses, contacts and personal observation. A practical companion for consultations, hospital visits, and to use as a bedside confidante.

It is the morning after the night before – the drama of my second operation yesterday looms large. Icepacks renewed all day on what remains of my left breast. More breast than I thought I’d have – hooray! I am obsessed with checking my wounds and fear another haematoma but Surgeon Peter assured me, ‘Mairi, I have a patient develop a haematoma once in ten years. You’re the second in as many weeks – the quota is complete until I retire!’

Vigilant and with extra diligence, the nurses check my breast and vital signs. I try to relax, repeating the mantra, ‘I’m in the best place. I’ll be okay.’

The girls’ visit full of last night’s emergency. They both look so young and vulnerable. I hate putting them through this. They explain how my breast and neck merged to burst from my pyjamas; a bright blue balloon because of the dye from the sentinel node biopsy.

‘You were turning into a female version of the Incredible Hulk, Mum,’ said Mary Jane.

‘Except you were blue not green,’ interrupted Anne, ‘and your face was whiter than that cover.’ She pats the cotton bedspread.

‘Actually,’ said Mary Jane, ‘your face was a horrible ashen. I never want to see you look that way again – especially the look in your eyes.’ She shudders, her hazel eyes glisten tears. An anxious flutter of fear ripples across my chest.

‘I knew something was wrong,’ I say quickly, ‘but didn’t know what. I’m glad you ran for a nurse. I don’t think I pressed the buzzer.’

‘You did Mum because I bumped into Hue coming in to ask what was wrong.’

‘My goodness, didn’t he get in a flap? Literally!’

We giggle at the memory. Nurse Hue is male but when he came through the doorway and took one look at me, he threw his hands in the air, flapped and squawked like a frightened bird and ran out of the room, his Vietnamese voice pitched higher than normal  yelling for assistance. Images of the distressed maiden in Victorian novels having ‘a fit of the vapours’ spring to mind and I smile at the memory despite discomfort…

A gaggle of nurses crowd my bedside, checking the swelling, hard and the size of a football. The last nurse to take my blood pressure and temperature assures the Sister-in-Charge everything was fine when she examined me. ‘That’s right, ‘I agree sensing reprimands and guilt trips, ‘I only started to feel unwell after dinner.’

Surgeon Peter materialises by the bed, the nurses part like The Red Sea. Thank goodness he was still doing the rounds of his patients. He holds my hand, his soft voice comforting. ‘You have a haematoma and the operating room is being prepared. Staff cleaning up after the last operation of the day have offered to stay on.’

I murmur appreciation, apologise for the fuss.

Barely nine hours since the last general anaesthetic, my full stomach and collapsed veins a concern. Peter assures an excellent anaesthetist has had his dinner interrupted and is on his way. The subliminal message, ‘you are in good hands,’ designed to allay fears.

I smile thanks, wrack my brains for knowledge about haematomas. Judging by the reaction of the nurses, Peter’s sombre demeanour, and the horror in the girls’ eyes, it’s serious. The phrase ‘deep shit’ springs to mind. I see the popular poster of a cat clinging to a tree branch by one paw my sister has in her toilet. I want to be a cat and have nine lives!  I recall the various crises my brother George survived as he battled leukaemia and relaxed into the pillow. What will be will be…

I watch Peter’s face as he explains the emergency to the girls. Anne pales, tears bubble in ice blue eyes, she looks about to faint. Peter directs his calm voice at Mary Jane realising that although the youngest she is handling the situation better. He leaves to prepare himself for theatre just as a nurse manoeuvres my bed towards the door, requesting help from the girls to push it to the lifts.

We gather speed; I sense the pushers are trotting, hear heavy footsteps along with squeaky wheels. The faces of the nurses and patients we pass beam uncertainty… pity from the tea lady as she squeezes her trolley out of the way.  Hue’s whispered, ‘good luck’ sounds more like ‘good bye’. Am I going to die?

Fear claws at my throat, I grip the mattress until fingers ache, I want to see my daughters’ faces but have lost my voice. The lift doors slide open, the bed bumps over a metal strip. Inside the claustrophobic space, I meet John.  His wraith-like presence is beside me, bending over, reaching arms out to gather me up. Without moving my lips I plead, ’Please darling, I can’t come yet, the girls need me.’ He smiles, understands, dissolves…

The harsh lights of the operating theatre startle me and the near empty space echoes with voices, footsteps, indeterminate noises. Everyone has gone home except for the cluster of nurses waiting to begin preparations: my vital signs monitored, inflatable white leggings attached to protect me from blood clots. Michelin Man again. Protective hat and socks fitted.

Nurse Pam introduces herself and mumbles about my full stomach, shakes her head. A portent of death.

The young anaesthetist struggles to find a vein with his portable ultrasound machine. Three attempts leave me bleeding and wincing before success and a stent inserted.

Mary Jane squeezes my hand, smiles assurance; Anne strokes my face, forgetting to wipe the tears dribbling down her pale cheeks. She bravely remains close despite her paranoia of needles. In a silent pact the girls and I ignore Nurse Pam’s voice of doom, keep fear under control, the  girls joke that the leggings make me even more like the Incredible Hulk.  I close my eyes and smile Michelin Man from an era before their time… so many memories

‘I drained a litre and a half of blood from that breast,’ Peter’s incredulous voice a wonderful sound.

I am back in the ward; the girls sit grinning at the end of the bed. The clock whirs, the small hand clicks as it leaves midnight and a ‘breast cancer complication’ behind.

September 6th disappears into the stuff of legend. The first day of the rest of my life begins…

I love this text my daughter sent me yesterday:

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With support and attitude like that how can I not feel positive!

Happy writing indeed!

Community Houses add that Much-needed Extra Fibre!

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Today, I returned to Chelsea for another eight weeks of my creative writing class grandly titled: Writing Creatively Towards the Future.  Again I was reminded how lucky I am to be teaching writing in neighbourhood houses, especially Longbeach Place Chelsea.

When I walked into the centre and saw the foyer display I was reminded of Walt Disney’s description of his studio –

Around here we don’t look backwards for very long… We keep moving forward, opening up new doors and doing new things because we’re curious… and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.

I’ve written before about Longbeach Place’s involvement in the Storybook Yarn Art Trail and the global phenomena of ‘yarn bombing’. In Chelsea, they prefer the term Urban Yarn Art, and it is happening again in 2015, but like Disney they always look forward and a new strand (or two) has been added!

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Longbeach Place will host a super fun Fibre Play Day,  on Saturday, October 24th.

There will be demonstrations of spinning, dyeing and weaving by some of Melbourne’s most talented natural fibre artisans, plus interactive activities for adults and children. Presenters will also be selling some of their beautiful fibres and yarns alongside displays of last year’s storybook characters.

The garden at the neighbourhood house will be “alive” with knitted Elves and Fairies. This iconic Australian book of verse and illustrations written 99 years ago. The world of elves and fairies imagined by Ida Rentoul Outhwaite (also known as Ida Sherbourne) in collaboration with her sister Annie who contributed a story and selection of verses to the book.

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How beautiful to see 5 Primary schools, the Girl Guides and 3 Uniting Churches participating in the 2015 Storybook Trail, giving new or another life to classic stories and even to books not necessarily well-known. We are all indebted to the Longbeach Place community for celebrating the written word and reviving crafts not so widely practised today.

Please mark your diaries now to increase healthy fibre and enjoy the Fibre Play Day on October 24th, and make sure you have explored the Storybook Yarn Art Trail before November 1st! You will be in for a delightful meander  while being introduced to characters and scenes from:

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The traditional story of Noah’s Ark from the Bible will come alive as well as Charlotte and the Ants, a classic Girl Guide Story. How wonderful the children and adults used their craft skills to reimagine these stories after reading the books.

Surrounded by all this colourful, creative craft it wasn’t difficult to spend the afternoon writing creatively with my students. Imagine the result when walking the trail, pen in hand?

Autumn Leaves
Mairi Neil

Colourful autumn leaves are fallingimg-thing
they carpet my lawn so green
the fairies have been at play again
silent and unseen.
They’ve climbed or flown into the trees
and selected a leaf for transport,
on their magic carpets, they’ve raced around
’til too exhausted to cavort.
When gentle moonlight politely gives way
to the brightness of dawning sun
the leafy vehicles are discarded…
until darkness permits more fun.

Have you visited your local community house lately? Be curious and check out the amazing activities they offer – lifelong learning at an affordable price and friendship and belonging thrown in for free!

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How To Write your Life In A Poem

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The start of a new term and the probability of new people enrolling in my classes, joining students who have been attending for months or years. The need to reinvent ‘icebreakers’ or use fresh ‘getting to know you’ techniques after 15 years of teaching had me trawling the internet.

I don’t write from ideas so much as from feelings. When something touches me deeply, I write to capture or explore or understand it. This begins in my journal where it’s just for me. Then if it seems like something I want to share, I move out of my journal and start working on a legal pad. I don’t usually know what it’s going to be or who it’s for when I begin. I write to find out!

George Ella Lyon.

I found a beautiful poem by George Ella Lyon. The many templates based on her poem ideal for creative writing students to introduce themselves.  The poem is an excellent way to record the essence of your life. No remembering of dates required, no intensive research – just pure gut feelings, emotional resonance and recalling memorable images, people, things, those snatches of stories heard from relatives.

Where I’m From by George Ella Lyon, writer and teacher

I am from clothespins,
from Clorox and carbon-tetrachloride.
I am from the dirt under the back porch.
(Black, glistening,
it tasted like beets.)
I am from the forsythia bush
the Dutch elm
whose long-gone limbs I remember
as if they were my own.

I’m from fudge and eyeglasses,
from Imogene and Alafair.
I’m from the know-it-alls
and the pass-it-ons,
from Perk up! and Pipe down!
I’m from He restoreth my soul
with a cottonball lamb
and ten verses I can say myself.

I’m from Artemus and Billie’s Branch,
fried corn and strong coffee.
From the finger my grandfather lost
to the auger,
the eye my father shut to keep his sight.

Under my bed was a dress box
spilling old pictures,
a sift of lost faces
to drift beneath my dreams.
I am from those moments–
snapped before I budded —
leaf-fall from the family tree.

Lyon had this to say about her poem:

In the summer of 1993, I decided to see what would happen if I made my own where-I’m-from lists, which I did, in a black and white speckled composition book. I edited them into a poem — not my usual way of working — but even when that was done I kept on making the lists. The process was too rich and too much fun to give up after only one poem. Realizing this, I decided to try it as an exercise with other writers, and it immediately took off. The list form is simple and familiar, and the question of where you are from reaches deep.

Last week, as usual, I wrote in class at the same time as my students. The template we used encourages honesty and self-reflection, but it can be profound or light-hearted. This poem should be a description of who you are for anyone who doesn’t know you – or at least give classmates a hint of your background or the present.

Students could follow the template exactly – if there were anything they felt like adding, or omitting, they could. As always, in my classes, the originality of the poems and information shared was fantastic.

Here is one of my efforts. Like George Ella Lyon, I couldn’t give up at one poem and this and others are still a work in progress…

What Made Me?
Mairi Neil

I am from ‘wakey-wakey’ for breakfast
Story time books and kisses goodnight.
From hopscotch, skipping, dress-ups,
Backyard games and street delights.

Childish rhymes and daisy chains,
From buttercup tests and bramble jars,
Walking to school or riding bicycles
Streets were for playing – not for cars!

Home deliveries by butcher and baker
Bottled milk  at home and school
Coal man blackened and scary
Clouds of dust when cellar full.

Shouts of ‘any old rags?’ recycled clothes
The buttons and zips Mum always kept
Eager friends traded their Dad’s best suit
Mothers screamed and children wept.

I am from Chinese checkers and chess
Scabby Queen and what card to choose
Roars of laughter, or tears and tantrums
Gracious winning and learning to lose

A migrant family farewelling the familiar
Adjusting to a new home across the seas
On a long ship’s voyage we acclimatised
To be from a house among gum trees.

Hot days of summer and restless nights
Long dry grass and fear of snakes
Mosquito netting to avoid nasty bites
No escaping plum and apple fights.

Blue tongue lizards and pesky possums
A boat full of tadpoles and croaking frogs
Screeching cockies and laughing kookaburras
Our house full of stray cats and dogs.

Huntsman spiders sucked up the vacuum
While cicadas chitter announcing summer
Rabbits and hares, native mice a plenty
Magpies swooping – what a bummer!

I’m from Choc Wedges and icy poles
Long summer days at Croydon Pool
Driveway tennis and park cricket
Trips up Mt Dandenong to stay cool.

I’m from high school softball and hockey
A Holden car swapped for Morris van
Holidays in army tent at Coronet Bay
Shift worker Dad visiting when he can.

I’m from triple-fronted brick veneer
Replacing dilapidated weatherboard
Coloured TV, Phillips stereo and cassettes
Furniture no longer wet when rain poured.

I’m from white weddings and sad divorces
In-laws and several nephews and nieces
Heartaches of friends and relatives
Falling apart and picking up pieces…

I’m from sick and ageing parents,
Death’s challenge not ignored
A houseful of wonderful memories
As bulldozers destroyed James Road.

In the hush of evening sunsets
Imagining childhood with closed eyes
Daily shenanigans, laughter and tears
From that ‘wakey-wakey’ surprise.

I’m from hardworking parents
Love always their motivation
Gifting me ethics and values
I’m a product of their dedication.

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Here is the WHERE I’M FROM Template:

I am from _____ (everyday thing), from ______ (product or brand name), and _____ (everyday thing).
I am from the_______(describe where you live, adjective, adjective, detail)
I am from the_______ (natural thing like: ocean, lake, flower, plant near your house or that you love), and the________(natural thing)
I am from_________(family tradition such as: a holiday, a place you go together, something you celebrate), and________ (something special about your family), from _______(name of person in your family), from________(another person in your family) and _______(another person in your family).
I am from the________(something your family does all the time) and________(another thing your family likes or does a lot).
From_____________(something you were told as a child, such as: santa claus, tooth fairy) and_____________(another thing you were told as a child).
I am from_________(the place you were born or where your family is from that is important to you),________(two food items that your family makes or that is special to your family).
From the__________(story about someone in your family, who is alive or dead),________________(another detail), and the_________________(another detail).
I am from____________(the place where your family keeps important pictures, keepsakes, things from your childhood)_______________(What do these things mean to you?)

Here is another version:

I am from (a specific item from your childhood home)
from (two products or objects from your past)
I am from (a phrase describing your childhood home)
and (more description of your childhood home)
I am from (a plant, tree or natural object from your past)
whose (personify the natural object)
I am from (two objects from your past)
from (two family names or ancestors)
and from (two family traits or tendencies)
from (another family trait, habit or tendency)
I am from (a religious memory or family tradition)
from (two foods from your family history)
from (a specific event in the life of an ancestor)
and from (another detail from the life of an ancestor)
(Memory or object you had as a child)
I am from the moments…
(continue this thought or repeat a line or idea from earlier in the poem)

Start writing your life in a poem and please share and let me know if it becomes addictive!

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Do We Still Want To Stretch Our Imagination?

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This paver in the Art Walk outside Melbourne’s Art Centre an apt quote as I attended The Script Club today to discuss yet another Australian play in the three-part series facilitated by theatre critic, John McCallum. The inaugural meeting covered in my post in August.

Today, ten of us discussed Jack Hibberd’s,  A Stretch Of The Imagination, using text courtesy of Currency Press (published 2000, reprinted 2014):

Monk O’Neill, the lonely misanthropist has become an archetype of the Australian character since he first appeared on our stages in 1971.

The book has two other perhaps better-known plays By Hibberd – Dimboola and White With Wire Wheels, but today we focused on  A Stretch Of The Imagination.  The blurb saying:

A Stretch Of The Imagination(1972) introduces us to the painfully lonely world of Monk O’Neill, one of the great comic creations of Australian dramatic literature. Monk’s colourful, rambling monologue cuts to the quick of what Australia once was and what one day it could become. The resilient ironies of the play will not be lost on today’s generation.

John quoted from his edition of the play where the one-man play was immediately recognised as a memorable piece of Australian theatre by drama critic Dr Margaret Williams. She nominated it as “the contemporary play, which future generations may accept as a classic”. A play with an appeal to each generation to explore and perform.

John reiterated his vision for The Script Club to examine classic scripts with the view to performance and explained his lifelong ambition to promote an Australian repertoire for production on stage. Apart from Joshua, the Producer at The Channel, myself and one other, there were seven new participants in the club. We had a discussion to put the play in context.

Most of us were baby boomers and remembered the heady days of the 60s and 70s: young people politically active with women’s liberation, the sexual revolution, anti-war and anti-conscription rallies, and Aboriginal land rights. Commonwealth Scholarships enabled people to continue their education. Writers and artists explored where we stood in the world; they discussed Australian identity. Barry Humphries’ characters like “Bazza McKenzie” appeared on the screen.

Hibberd’s play, produced by the Australian Performing Group at the Pram Factory in Melbourne was part of this ‘New Wave’, some of the characteristics being:

  • Expressions of male ritual (e.g., social habits of males in bar rooms, at football clubs, the deification of mateship and cars and general misogyny)
  • Confrontation in social relations (many plays explore confrontational situations and relationships with friends, families, co-workers and strangers)
  • The use of the vernacular, including swearing and abusive language
  • Introduced or centred a new dominant stereotype (the larrikin, hard drinking, tough talking ocker.)

Characteristics that some participants felt we could do without seeing again, even if mocked with satire and irony.  The challenge to the revolting ocker stereotype and the exploration of Australian identity could be performed without Hibberd’s ‘old, abusive, misogynistic, white male’. Is there even such a stereotype existing now? Haven’t we moved beyond that? Do we need to see more misogyny or this enduring archetype of the Australian male?

Paul McGillick introduces all the plays in the Currency Press edition and has this to say about Monk:

Monk is a distinctly unpleasant man. But he is also, at the end of the day, a very honest one and there is a strong impression that he has gone into this voluntary exile, living in a humpy on One Tree Hill (he has actually chopped down the tree in a fit of pique), in order to confront his past and through this confrontation to explore his own creativity – in effect, to create himself all over again using the raw materials of the life he has already lived.

Beneath Monk’s aggression, crudity and callous rejection of other human beings, there is despair. He has lacked the courage to commit to intimacy… and is now on a quest to find his Self. But his quest is paradoxical: he must learn to be alone, but literal aloneness is both solipsistic and narcissistic and can only result in a distorted view of the Self.

Put a group of creative people together to discuss art and like witnesses to an accident, you will get a variety of opinions and interpretations. Our group was no different. Not only did we differ on theme and relevance to the current generation but questioned whether Monk’s ramblings were fictional like the unreliable narrator in a novel. Perhaps he wasn’t ‘performing’ his life at all  – just fantasising about his overseas travel, sporting prowess, name-dropping and wishful thinking.

Several of us felt Monk’s life was believable, even if he was prone to exaggeration. John explained the New Wave celebration of Australian identity could be offensive and vulgar and the mockery nasty. Two agendas seemed to operate – a radical casting off of the past dominated by “imperial theatre” and a new nationalism proud of being “Orstralian”.

Apart from John, no one had seen the play performed and despite reading the play twice to develop sympathy for Monk, some had no sympathy at all, the character failing to resonate emotionally. Joshua went as far as to say, ‘Why write a play like this?’ He considered Monk a repellent, disgusting character who shoots his dog, kills a stranger albeit accidentally, and describes relationships with women purely in terms of sexual escapades, some extremely abusive.

I saw Monk as callous and arrogant but in his brutally honest descriptions and mockery there was a hint he knew his behaviour was unacceptable. I love Hibberd’s clever use of words, the puns and bald statements of profound or comic significance. I could see many metaphors that enriched the lines.

Was Monk just a horrible old man or an existentialist hero? Stereotypes are constructed and produced for a reason. Did the play represent the death of civilisation – the world destroyed like Monk destroyed ever relationship he had?

He had been educated (Xavier College – private school no less) had travelled to Europe and met Proust, yet he’d abused, misused, abandoned every woman he had relationships with in his life.

We all agreed that how the play is performed and interpreted by the actor is crucial to the audience’s understanding and reaction. John favours Max Gillies (someone who has acted in the role already) or Michael Caton.

We discussed universal themes and how/why the play appealed to international audiences. Is the play about ageing, about death and dying? It was likened to Arthur Miller’s Death of A Salesman, equating Monk to Willy Loman.

There was a suggestion the play was about failure. A man coming from a position of privilege (Monk had attended Xavier College) but the choices made has left him isolated, old, ill and facing death.

Or was the play about a character washed up from the Bush? Embodied with all the mythical qualities and prejudices of the ‘blokes’ written about so often in that typical Australian setting, but cut down to size. ‘Our landscape large enough to cut anyone down to size.’

Monk is isolated and exposed, amusing himself, mocking the niceties of society while coping with the reality of his body’s disintegration. His reminiscing illustrates his resilience, his honest assessment of his behaviour and clarity regarding the country’s history. He writes his will bequeathing ‘all my lands and property, goods and chattels, to the Aboriginal peoples of Australia. In the advent of extinction of the Aboriginal at the time of my decease, I would then bequeath my estate to the populous Oriental nations of the north… I am very favourably disposed towards the Chinaman. On no account must my domain fall into the clutches of the predatory and upstart albino. I believe that the tides of history will swamp and wash aside this small pink tribe of mistletoe men, like insects…Change insects to dead leaves…’

Monk then apologises for cutting down the one tall tree on his hillock!

When John asked us to discuss how the play could be performed today – Naturalism V Stylisation… I suggested the play could be set in an urban wilderness exposing the natural world we’ve destroyed, the isolation some people experience with ageing and also being at odds with ‘the norm’.

Someone else suggested a homeless person under a railway bridge. The question was asked  – could the part be played by a woman? Are there ‘ugly’ stereotypical females similar to Monk?

We stretched our own and each other’s imagination!

Researching for this post I found what the playwright, Jack Hibberd has to say  about this “monodrama about an outback philosopher, Monk O’Neill, who interlards his daily surviving chores with theatrical re-enactments of important segments from his long past.”

The play lasts nearly two hours, and requires a virtuosos actor and an interpretative director. The actor is required to physically transform into younger versions of himself, and as well to transform into other characters. Stretch, among other things, dramatizes, place, time, the strange workings of memory, history, a care for the environment, remorse, and death.

This comico-tragic work has been performed in China (Sanghai, Beijing, 1987) in Mandarin, and was the first Australian play produced in that country. It has also been produced in London (twice), the USA, Germany and NZ.

Whether John’s wish for revival happens, I’m glad I ‘stretched’ not only my ‘imagination’ but moved outside my comfort zone to ponder bigger issues in The Script Club’s lively discussion.

As usual a lovely afternoon tea was provided. The two hours flew – even going over time – a good indicator the subject matter engrossing. No one slipped out early or even looked at a watch!

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It was a glorious day to be in Melbourne and Southbank and I look forward to November and our next Script Club get-together.

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Aniva’s Place – a home away from home in Samoa

“One of the great things about travel is that you find out how many good, kind people there are.

Edith Wharton

My trip to Samoa, an embodiment of this quote, providing many happy memories and a desire to return to stay at Aniva’s Place where I felt genuinely welcomed and valued.

However, before I wax lyrical about Aniva and her hotel, like Mary Poppins, I’ll “start at the very beginning…” a very good place to launch a travel post!

Due to a ‘complimentary’ wind we arrived in Apia almost an hour earlier than scheduled, touching down at 4.20am. The warm air noticed straight away plus sweet, ‘honeysuckle’ scent of colourful Bougainvillea arborea and the beautiful, fragrant Plumeria (common name Frangipani),  as well as the usual airport fuel smells. I felt relaxed and at ease – and fully awake. There was something special about the place.

“Nobody sees a flower – really – it is so small it takes time – we haven’t time – and to see takes time, like to have a friend takes time.”

Georgia O’Keeffe

I took the time to notice and smell the flowers in Samoa – everywhere I went I soaked up the joy of the mass of colour from the tropical plants and the rain forest lushness of the vegetation.

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(Two nights after my arrival when having dinner with Hilary and Peter Ray, close friends of one of my students, they regaled me with stories of their connection with Samoa. Peter explained why they chose to build in “Paradise”. After being away from the place for a couple of years, he returned for a holiday. When he stepped off the plane and inhaled the warm, fragrant night air he knew, he was home. )

No bridge into the terminal at Faleolo International Airport, so we descended the stairs and walked the few yards to the entrance, but struck a bottleneck.

I remembered the discussion between two women on the bus taking us to the transit lounge in Sydney. They joked that going through customs and immigration at Apia would be the quickest we’d ever experience. Had they jinxed us?

I wasn’t the only one to wonder aloud what the problem was until I realised they were doing the health card checks before allowing us inside the terminal.

We’d completed the card aboard the plane – well some had – hence the delay as officers checked cards not filled out correctly, double-checking no one had a fever. The cards focused on Ebola and the countries with Ebola victims. In a country where Dengue Fever from mosquitoes is a reality, detecting and preventing the introduction of sickness indeed a priority because ‘a fever’ could be misdiagnosed later and have devastating consequences on this small island.

At least, passport control was quick, collecting my suitcase even quicker as my purple case appeared on the carousel just as I walked over. Customs took a minute at most with all luggage put through an X-ray machine. I’d first seen one of these when in NZ, 2013 – efficiency plus.

Outside the Customs and Immigration Area, I couldn’t believe the busyness of the small airport. It could be midday at Southland Shopping Centre!

A crowd of taxi drivers touted for business, people waited for relatives or friends (what dedication getting up so early), and passengers waited for flights out and all the usual workers provided expected services. I looked around for Diana, the lady I’d met at Sydney airport who had said her daughter would drop me at my hotel.

Apia Airport
Faleolo International Airport 4.30am

I must have looked confused because several taxi drivers offered to take me to town. One tall man in a bright pink Polynesian shirt was quite insistent. He followed me around as if I was lying about having a friend, or perhaps hoping to wear me down while I searched for Diana.

A visit to the tourist desk to get a map in case I did have to find my way, and the over-friendly cabbie looked over my shoulder as if he was coming with me. What a relief to hear Diana call out. She’d had a phone call from her daughter who was parking the car. The cabbie hovered within earshot.

He disappeared as Christiana arrived and didn’t hear her dismay at the size of her mother’s suitcase plus several bags. ‘All the stuff you demanded I bring my love,’ Diana said with a smile. Christiana’s worried looked increased when she saw my medium purple clothes-eater. ‘I’ve only a tiny car, Mum!’

I felt obligated to ease Christiana’s discomfort and release Diana from the hasty promise.  ‘No worries! If it doesn’t fit,’ I swept my hand to encompass the line of cabs, ‘I’m not going to be stranded.’

‘Let’s go,’ said Diana, using her registered nurse voice, ‘We’ll fit!’

And we did.

A large illuminated picture of Jesus in the carpark couldn’t be missed – the Samoan people are well-known for their religious devotion – I offered a silent thank you to the Creator.

Jesus overlooking the airport carpark - I did feel blessed
Jesus is overlooking the airport carpark – I did feel blessed!

The drive to Aniva’s Place took about an hour with plenty of kangaroo-hopping and stalling. Christiana kept apologising for her lack of experience with the manual car she’d borrowed. However, the slower than usual trip enabled Christiana to deliver Samoa uncut- the good and the bad.

She explained the speed limit in Apia and other areas of Upolu was  40 km/h around Apia or 56 km/h on the open road. Even slower in many cases because there are plenty of speed humps.

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Apia’s population is between 37,000-38,000 and comprises 45 villages and cars are expected to slow down. It’s very pleasant not to have traffic roaring past, and I found traditional Samoan courtesy and relaxed attitude extended to the way people drove.

The other anomaly about driving in Apia is the ability to turn left at red traffic lights if the way is clear –  it can be disconcerting the first time it happens. This rule probably a hangover from when Samoa switched from driving on the right side of the road to the left-hand side in 2009. They made the change and aligned with Australia and New Zealand. Six years down the track I saw no evidence of the disaster opponents prophesied, but it certainly made headlines and international news at the time.

Christiana confirmed there was a feral/stray dog problem. (We noticed plenty of dogs mooching by the side of the road.) ‘If walking and you become worried  pretend to pick up a stick, and most will run away.’

‘Hilary, the lady I have as a contact told me to carry an umbrella – flicking that open will usually scare them,’ I said, ‘and an umbrella is a good sunshade.’

‘Good idea,’ said Christiana, ‘and you’ll need a sun shade, it gets hot and humid by midday.’

She pointed out the special cages on poles. These were for rubbish, raised off the ground, so the dogs didn’t rummage.

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There is a special police unit to deal with dogs, which had just performed a cull, picking up unregistered dogs for slaughter. The culls happen periodically and are controversial, but I saw plenty of dogs searching hungrily for food and water and lying panting or asleep in the heat. Strays will suffer either way.

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The sign reads Dog Management Unit and the building extends for several blocks.
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Many of the dogs are either white or brown and very similar in looks.

Here is an account from missionary Reverend John Betteridge Stair 1815-1898: OLD SAMOA OR FLOTSAM AND JETSAM FROM THE PACIFIC OCEAN

At the time of first contact with Europeans the only mammals found on Samoa were dogs, cats, pigs, and rats, the three former, if not the latter, having been apparently introduced into the islands by the original settlers, or from later intercourse. Others have since been introduced, and have thriven well, horses, cattle, and goats being now abundant…

The dog, Maile or Uli, from u, to bite, and li, to grin, or show the teeth, was found on all the islands, but the breeds having become so much mixed it is difficult to say what was the original stock. I think it was a small breed, with sharp-pointed ears, traces of which are sometimes seen. Dogs were formerly eaten by the Samoans, as at other islands; of late years, however, the practice has been discontinued. Many dogs had run wild in the forests, and occasionally came down to the settlements-and made a dismal howling as they prowled about and searched for food. I once got a glimpse of one at a distance, in the bush, but it was very shy.

Apart from one day, when I walked into town, I heeded everyone’s warning (Samoans and Europeans) and took taxis.  At between $5-10 tala ($2.50-5.00 AUS), it would have been silly to risk my health in the heat or an attack by a dog. The day I walked I have to admit there were a couple of dogs ‘with lean and hungry looks’ slouching nearby that made me nervous.

Christiana pointed out the architecture. The Samoans live in fales, designed for their lifestyle and the weather – sleeping in fales without solid walls allows the sea breeze to pass through. We noticed many fales were open, others strung up curtains for privacy, and others have full or half walls. I can imagine that dogs were traditionally and still are a security because they are territorial. Each night at Aniva’s, I certainly knew if anyone was still about walking or driving because neighbourhood dogs barked and howled.

A typical modern fale at the Tourist Information Centre
A typical modern fale at the Tourist Information Centre
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A typical village on road from airport

The noise level of open-style living a disadvantage  – more than one tourist complained of snoring and ‘bodily noises’ disrupting their sleep when they stayed in the famous fales built on the beaches. ‘And, I never knew the ocean was so loud,’ declared one young man from Bristol, England. His last night in Samoa he booked into Aniva’s Place looking forward to an uninterrupted night’s sleep. I guess for unacclimatised westerners ear plugs should be packed!

Sunday is still a traditional church day  – Samoa being a traditional society. I was privileged to be invited to attend church with Aniva and enjoy the special lunch (to’ona’i)  cooked afterwards. I was her honoured guest, and she had been to the market at 5.00am to choose the fish for the meal. Spices are an integral part of Samoan cuisine designed to saturate the senses and delight the palate. They don’t need any lessons on ‘slow food’ – sourcing their ingredients locally with the emphasis on fresh. No fast food here (although sadly McDonalds have opened in Apia) and mealtimes are for relaxing, enjoying, communicating – and laughter – Samoans have a great sense of humour.

This generosity and caring evident from the first day when Aniva was awake at 5.20am to welcome me to the hotel! Aniva’s Place may not be classed as a 5-star luxury hotel, but the treatment is five stars plus.

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Fish cooked with a special sauce, breadfruit and taro and Samoan ‘spinach’ – taro leaves cooked in coconut cream – all delicious.  Aniva prepared fried chicken too in case I didn’t like the meal, but it remained untouched.

 I had done some homework before I went to Samoa;  the government’s tourism website informative:

In Samoan culture food is a social event that brings together family and friends to share what bountiful wonders nature has provided. As the sun rises in the east, young men are paddling their canoes out in the lagoon to catch fish, while others have gone into the plantations to cultivate and harvest what is needed for the daily meals.

The bounty of the ocean provides crayfish, snapper, masimasi, octopus, tuna and more, caught that morning and served that evening. The plantations of bananas, taro, tropical fruits and vegetables picked that day add to the freshness of the meals. And with the freshness of all this bounty, it’s the flavours that have your taste buds wondering why it never tastes this good at home.

Breakfast at Aniva’s provided a variety of Samoan cuisine with choices for a western style breakfast if desired. Fresh papaya each morning followed by banana pancakes (thin like crepes) or round pancakes (panikeke Lapotopoto) more than filling for me. There were freshly squeezed juices and coffee on offer, but Aniva and her morning helper Ciah (short for Lucia) soon discovered my addiction to tea!

The staff helping Aniva treated like family – another younger Ciah employed for cooking and housework as well as Siosi (George) who cleaned the pool, did basic maintenance and looked after the garden.

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The two Ciahs and Siosi having a break by the pool

Aniva’s Place was truly a home away from home – it is where she lives. Evidence of her life with husband Bob (now deceased) and her two sons (one a doctor in the UK, the other a rugby player there) are all around. Her interest in guests’ welfare is sincere.  I was ‘late’ back one evening after a day out with Hilary, which culminated in an unplanned, lovely meal at her home. Aniva was so relieved nothing had happened to me. ‘I was ready to call the police because you never said you’d be late!’

I apologised and took the scolding – her concern genuine and made me feel even safer than before. In fact, Aniva’s Place is so secure I never had a key to my room and never locked it.

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Another bonus of choosing Aniva’s Place was her intimate knowledge of Samoa – her father had been one of the longest- serving prime ministers, and her older sister is still a member of parliament. There is a lot of respect attached to her name – and she commands respect! Unsurprisingly, I want to return so won’t pack away the essentials to take yet!

Samoan survivial kit - insect repellent, sunblock, water, fan, and a cool sarong
Samoan survival kit – insect repellent, sunblock, water, fan, and sarong.