Laughter- Just What ‘Dr House’ Prescribed!


After having just read The Gun Seller by Hugh Laurie, I’d say he’s nailed the comic/satirical novel! I thoroughly enjoyed the read.

The Gun Seller was submitted under a pseudonym. Once publication was assured Laurie revealed himself as the author. Considered a talented comedian, writer, actor and musician, it’s admirable he wanted his novel to be judged on merit not reputation.

A reputation that included: Blackadder, A Bit of Fry & Laurie, Jeeves and Wooster, and House.


The Gun Seller , Laurie’s first, and to date only novel, certainly has merit – a book I didn’t want to put down so finished reading in a day. The perfect antidote to the busyness of end of year classes and the lead up to Christmas. It is light holiday reading – take it away with you and pass on the joy to another traveller.

Laughter is proven to be the best medicine and  sometimes you need a belly laugh. My dear friend and writing buddy Maureen knows my sense of humour and gave me Laurie’s book. She’d read it years ago and never forgot it. First published in 1996 by William Heinemann, it’s been published and reissued: 1997 Mandarin Paperbacks, Arrow Books 1997, 2004 and 2009 ( the edition I have).

Laurie told a London audience that ‘there will never be an American edition because, well, Americans can’t take a joke.’ Of course, it sold well and still sells in the good old U S of A!

I’m indebted to Maureen who felt I needed to lighten up (true); Laurie’s humour did the trick. It’s a while since I’ve read a book with laugh-aloud scenes and lots of giggles. The storyline is also interesting enough to be a page turner. The convoluted plot has more twists than a head full of dreadlocks.

Amazon’s blurb advises:… A wonderfully funny novel from one of Britain’s most famous comedians and star of award-winning US TV medical drama series, House.


The Gun Seller is witty and satirical, poking fun at all the cliched characters, plots and dialogue found in classical spy novels. There’s over- the-top action sequences too. Several involve the hero’s unlikely choice of transport,  a Kawasaki ZZR 1100 motorcycle. The scenes have authenticity because the bio at the front of the book, declares Hugh Laurie is ‘utterly devoted to motorcycling.’

Here’s an extract from page 18:

“Now I won’t deny that the Japanese were well off-side at Pearl Harbor, and that their ideas on preparing fish for the table are undoubtedly poor – but by golly, they do know some things about making motorcycles. Twist the throttle wide open in any gear of this machine, and it’d push your eyeballs though the back of your head. All right, so maybe that’s not a sensation most people are looking for in their choice of personal transport, but since I’d won the bike in a game of backgammon, getting home with an outrageously flukey only-throw 4-1 and three consecutive double sixes, I enjoyed it a lot. It was black, and big, and it allowed even the average rider to visit other galaxies.”

Like the Kawasaki, the novel moves fast with a perfect blend of thrills, intrigue, and laughs. An easy uncomplicated read that’s difficult to put down. Laurie’s comic timing added to impressive research or believable lies. He describes technological gizmos worthy of James Bond, the tension builds and you imagine an episode of Spooks. To break the rules or poke fun at the genre, you must know it as well as Laurie.

No political correctness of course, and the occasional f-word dots the pages, but where expected. The sex is limited and the novel’s a safe read for any teenager who understands satire.

The British Ministry of Defence (MoD) and the American CIA have their foibles, failures and funding scrutinised and satirised, but underlying the humour is a well deserved pot-shot at the power and amorality of the military industrial complex – a term bandied around in my Anti-Vietnam War days and not often mentioned since. Laurie knows his history! His hero once an officer in the Scots Guards and a veteran of Belfast is under no illusions about who are the real bad guys.

The usual bureaucrats, terrorists, diplomats, femme fatales, bank managers and lawyers are all bruised by Laurie’s wit, but the sensory detail and observations necessary for a good storyteller are there along with some original descriptions delivered in Hugh’s inimitable style:

“uglier than a car park”  “skull that dipped and bulged like a balloon full of spanners”  “flattened fighter’s nose apparently drawn on his face by someone using their left hand, or perhaps even their left foot”

“my heart was going like a road drill”   “sucking in suitcase-sized chunks of air”  “gradually, grumpily my heartbeat sorted itself out and my breathing followed at a distance”

“her long brown hair waved and cheered as it disappeared down her neck”  “the sort of eyes that can make a grown man talk gibberish to himself”

“lit a cigarette and smoked my way to the corner”

“I think I’d known she was going to be American before she opened her mouth. Too healthy to be anything else. And where do they get those teeth?”

Stereotypes abound but the laughs have no malice:

“… the guards at the door let us through with no more than a glance. British security guards, I’ve noticed, always do this; unless you happen actually to work in the building they’re guarding, in which case they’ll check everything from the fillings in your teeth to your trouser turn-ups to see if you’re the same person who went out to get a sandwich fifteen minutes ago. But if you’re a strange face, they’ll let you straight through, because frankly, it would just be too embarrassing to put you to any trouble.

If you want a place guarded properly, hire Germans.”


“I found a cab eventually, and told the driver in fluent English that I wanted Wenceslas Square. This request, I now know, is phonically identical to the Czech phrase for ‘I am an air-brained tourist, please take everything I have.’… When the driver told me how much money he wanted, I had to spend a few minutes explaining that I didn’t actually want to buy the cab, I just wanted to settle up for the fifteen minutes I’d spent in it.  He told me that it was a limousine service, or at least he said ‘limousine’ and shrugged a lot, and after a while agreed to reduce his demands to the merely astronomical.”

Thomas Lang, The Gun Seller’s hero reminds me of smooth talking Jim Rockford the private detective in The Rockford Files, a popular  TV show of the 70s.  Not a stupid smart ass, but willing to talk his way into or out of anything — a cool dude with style. However, Rockford never carried a gun whereas military and martial art expert Lang can handle guns, rifles, rockets, bombs… nothing phases him and he has a plan for all contingencies.

It’s not a literary masterpiece but the 339 pages are satisfying and funny.  If you’re looking for relief from the real world terrorism that surrounds us, then escape to a quiet corner with The Gun Seller!

Laurie makes the writing seem effortless – it’s a great debut novel and I hope he takes some of his own advice and writes another one.


Maureen ordered my copy from Benn’s Books in Bentleigh. Be prepared to have to order too because the shelf life in traditional bookshops is a matter of weeks and this book has been around a long time. Probably your best bet is to buy online.

Formatting and Frustration all Free


I could have done with listening to one of Earl Nightingale‘s inspirational speeches over the last couple of days as I tried to upload the already formatted Ebooks of Mordialloc Writers’ latest anthology: Kingston My City.

KingstonmycityFinalCover copy

I wanted to complete the dream (promise) of making the digital version free after our group launched the hard copy on the 14th November.

I had the book formatted for EPUB and MOBI and thought all I had to do was offer it to the local library, or even have it on the city’s website and the promise would be fulfilled, plus I could publish on my blog and the group’s blog and share links.

I’m a lifelong learner but my training in the workforce began with manual typewriters and progressed to an electric golfball typewriter, which I thought amazing.

I never received any formal training on computers let alone digital publishing.

manual typewriterselectric- golfball typewriter


I started blogging a year ago and only know the basics. Trying to publish our digital book, I discovered that WordPress won’t accept file types EPUB and MOBI. A young man I contacted via help and “live chat” was helpful, but he could’t tell me why these files are not accepted.

“Be Prepared” a motto I should have remembered from Girl Guides.

I visited the local library and found the staff extremely helpful, but they use a particular supplier for their ebooks, who in turn has contracts with ebook vendors. The library will happily provide a link to our book, but can’t load it directly onto their system, which is understandable.

And so my disappointment but also learning continued.

What were other possibilities?

I overthink, do too much research, and procrastinate when it comes to writing. Computer decisions also suffer from these flaws!  My confidence is easily shaken or disappears faster than a sinking ship. However, I don’t give up and I usually get there in the end.

I kept telling myself that many writers publish online everyday so decided to load the book onto Amazon and iAuthor with a zero price tag and then let people know through email or blog posts.

It’s embarrassing how many hours this process took. (It didn’t help when the Internet connection kept dropping out or slowing down – something that happens all too frequently now since a less than perfect NBN rollout.)

With the Kindle upload on Amazon I wanted to avoid giving my personal banking details, but ultimately had to because the Group doesn’t have an Amazon Account. Meanwhile, it turned out that it is easier to load the book onto iAuthor at zero price tag than Amazon.

The book is currently listed at $US1.99 on Amazon . It can be reduced to zero for a promotional period, but only if you haven’t listed the book with another site, which I have done! Another stumbling block on my learning curve!

I hope when I investigate further the book can be reduced to zero dollars, but this may have to wait until after New Year.

My blood pressure matched my frustration levels until a quicker and easier way to upload the book using other sites was revealed.


I Googled and discovered this article explaining digital publishing and read about a site similar to Smashwords, that I didn’t know about: DRAFT2DIGITAL.

Within minutes I had the book loaded and available on a host of sites and as each distributor accepts the book they will notify me by email.

The fact I’m not looking for money from the book may have made it harder to publish on Amazon and easier to publish elsewhere, however the process on Draft2Digital was certainly quicker and friendlier and one I’d use again.

They have already emailed me to say the book can be downloaded from:

iBooks and Page Foundry

They will email me as the book appears on Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Scribd, Tolino and 24 Symbols. Some of these online stores I didn’t know existed!

Most sites will guide you through downloading apps to read the book but here is information that may be of use provided by the company that originally formatted our book. Useful for those who don’t own a kindle or unaware you can read ebooks on a computer:

If you have no eReader then first you must install an eReader EXE for viewing your eBook files on your computer. This is free software.

  1. Do you have IPAD or similar device? If YES, then search “iBooks apps”;  add this free app and you will have epub format
  2. KINDLE SOFTWARE (You can get a version for your MAC or PC)  and
  3. Adobe Digital Edition (PC version)
(Run this EXE, when asked email id, skip this information, after installation you will see the icon on your desktop)
(After installation you see “LIBRARY and the Add Item to Library”, click that button and go your location where you located your epub file. Open EPUB file)

KINDLE for PC (PC version)
(Run this EXE, when asked email id, skip this information, after installation you can see icon in your desktop)
After installation then press ENTER any Kindle format : mobi)


No doubt my education will continue because the digital world is here to stay and after 20 years and nine anthologies I believe the future for Mordialloc Writers’ Group and the individual writers will be digital publishing.

We have dipped our collective toe in the water to establish our name, let’s hope we’ll soon be swimming. Enjoy our stories, share them and please let us know if you like them.




A Visit From Father Christmas


In 1959, Christmas changed dramatically for our family when my Mother went into labour and delivered a ‘Christmas Day baby.’

For as long as I can remember, my young sister Rita celebrates her birthday on the stroke of midnight Christmas Eve, to have a few moments of experiencing her own special day. I guess it’s not much fun when your birthday lands on a day everyone else receives presents!

Although Rita would be the first to admit she was often compensated with extra presents because she is also the youngest of six siblings and spent a good part of her life being ‘the baby’ to be spoiled.

Memoirs are the backstairs of history.

George Meredith

In 2003, whenever Mum stayed a few days with me, I recorded her talking about her life. These treasured memories still have to be fully typed, but I do it in small doses because hearing her voice sends me into an emotional spin. However, here is her description of Christmas 1959:

On Christmas Day, 1959, I had Rita. That Christmas some little boy had spread the story that there was no Father Christmas. ‘It’s your dad that puts the presents out,’ he told the children in the neighbourhood.

My eldest daughter Catriona and her best friend Anne Marie Docherty, who was the eldest in her family, determined to convince the children that ‘yes, there is a Santa’.

On Christmas morning Mary Docherty always went to early mass and she called in at 7.00am and asked the midwife how I was and the nurse said, ‘Oh she has a beautiful baby girl. At the moment she’s sitting up having tea and toast. The baby was born at six o’clock.’

‘Oh,’ said Mary, ‘that’s great.’

Mary went home to her house across the street and told her kids, who were now awake, ‘Do you know what Santa has brought Mrs McInnes? A beautiful baby girl!’

Her youngest daughter, Kathleen (8) said, ‘I knew there was a Santa Claus, that boy lied. Mrs McInnes wanted a baby girl and she got one.’

Well, the story went around the street and I think every child that lived in Davaar Road had to come up and see the Christmas baby that Santa brought Mrs McInnes. Rita’s birth proved Father Christmas was real!

Another neighbour, Christine McDonald had three sons and the eldest, Robert (6) got a post office set for Christmas. He came to see me and the baby with a telegram he had written, congratulating me on having Rita, my ‘Christmas Day baby’.

I’ve still got that telegram.  Poor Robert died last year – he wasn’t 50. I’ve still got that wee telegram he gave me and often think of him.

Aye, there was excitement that day.

When Rita started talking, she used to tell everyone, ‘I was born the same day as Jesus.’  Proud as punch when she said it!

Rita with great Aunt Teen
Baby Rita and Great Aunt Teen (Paternal Granny’s sister)

There is always one moment in childhood when the door opens and lets the future in.

Graham Greene

That was my mother’s recollection when she was 83 years of age. Recently, my older sister Catriona (Cate), sent me a lovely vignette she wrote entitled ‘A Favourite Childhood Memory.’  This is the story of Rita’s birth from her memory:

Christmas 1959 is my favourite childhood memory, special to my family and one of the happiest times I remember. It was not the Christmas presents that Santa brought, but the special gift of life to our family in the form of a baby girl.

I remember my mother and father helping the four oldest of us get ready for the watch night service in Saint Ninian’s Church of Scotland parish church. As the eldest, I was charged with the task of keeping Iain, George and Mairi safe and together, which I did. I remember Dad telling me, Mum was not feeling well enough to go.  Dad would stay home with Mum and my youngest brother, Alistair who was almost two years old. The walk in the dark and cold with snow threatening, would be too much for him.

We enjoyed the church service. All my favourite hymns and carols were sung: Away in a Manger, Silent Night, O Little Town of Bethlehem, Hark the Herald Angels Sing, and my very favourite, O Holy Night. Afterwards, we briskly walked home, and were sure we spotted some snowflakes. It was looking good for a White Christmas after all.

When we got home, Mum was in her pink candlewick dressing gown and because I was aware she was having a baby, I started to put two and two together. ‘Is the baby coming?’I asked.

Mum said, ‘Yes, but keep it to yourself. I want the others to go to bed after supper and cocoa.’

In October of that year, I’d been hospitalised with a neck operation called a torticollis. I was still wearing a small surgical collar and exercising and building up my neck muscles several times a day. When I was in hospital some of the other patients pointed out to me that my Mum was not overweight, but pregnant. A shock indeed to a naïve ten year old.

Once the other children were in bed, I helped Dad tidy up. When two midwives arrived I offered to make them all a cup of tea. We placed a babies bath on the kitchen table, got the baby soap and new face washers and towels out. I had also placed guest towels and nice soap in the bathroom for when they needed to wash up.

I made some more tea and took it upstairs. Only Dad and the midwives were allowed into the room so I knocked gently on the door and handed in the tray.

My sister was born at approximately 3.00 am. Dad brought her down in a blanket and I marvelled at her small hands and feet. I saw the umbilical cord tied off, and it was explained to me what that was about.

Dad and I proceeded to wash and dry her gently. We put a nappy on her, Dad being an expert after the previous five children. I sat in a chair and held her. She smelt beautiful and felt so soft, I never wanted to let her go.

I held a bottle of boiled water and sugar to her lips and she drank. Mum’s milk had not come in yet so this satisfied her. After the Doctor had been, Dad took the baby to Mum where she was put in her cot.

I helped Dad put out Santa’s gifts on the beds of my sleeping brothers and sisters. I got a gold signet ring with my initial C and a warm pink hat and scarf set. As I went to bed I saw the snow start in earnest.

We had the whole street visit Christmas Day to see the new member of our family, Margaret Carol Mc Innes. The Carol was Mum’s only acknowledgement of Christmas. She laughed when the Doctor suggested Noel.  Margaret was named after her Godmother, whom we called Rita, a Scottish tradition to anyone named Margaret.

It’s a very special and magical memory. Rita and I, are still close today -I put it down to that bonding, when I helped bathe and feed her.

Mum and Rita.jpg
Mum and Rita at a few months old.

I gather together the dreams, fantasies, experiences that preoccupied me as a girl, that stay with me and appear and reappear in different shapes and forms in all my work. Without telling everything that happened, they document all that remains most vivid.

Bell Hook

My memory of that night is different again. Catriona must have just crawled into the bed we shared and dropped off to sleep straight away. Perhaps when she lifted the blankets, the chill night air woke me, but I remember a thud as the presents ‘Santa’ had left slid off the bed onto the floor.

Excited, I sat up and peered at the bottom of the bed to see what presents were still there and grabbed the first one to open. ‘Treena, Treena, wake up! Santa’s been.’

Little did I know Treena had just managed into bed. She shrugged off my hand, and mumbled, ‘I know. Go back to sleep.’

I didn’t open the presents because I heard voices. I  recognised the deep rumble of Dad’s, but not the other voice. A sliver of light shone through the bedroom door, which Treena had left ajar.

I slid out of bed and tiptoed over to peek into the hallway bathed in an orange glow. Almost immediately I was swept up into my Dad’s arms.

‘Come and see what Father Christmas has brought Mummy,’ he said as he took me into their bedroom. I can remember others in the room, probably the midwives still tidying up and observing Mum who was propped up in bed with several pillows behind her.

Mum was white faced. Very white. As white as the shawl around a red-faced bundle in her arms. Dad bent down close to Mum and the baby, ‘Have you a kiss for your new baby sister and Mummy?’

‘Isn’t she beautiful?’ Mum said.

I clung to Dad’s neck. Mum looked different and the red-faced baby didn’t seem beautiful to me. I was hungry and wanted to open my presents, which I was sure were a lot more exciting than this baby. I probably said as much because I can remember the midwives laughing.

Much of the day remains a mystery but I do remember lots of people visiting, neighbours and relatives coming and going. With adults distracted and various children joining us in the lounge room, my brothers and I literally ran riot.

The McColgans lived across the road and had relatives staying. Carol, a McColgan cousin was 8 or 9, ages with my brother Iain whom she liked. They kissed behind the couch, or rather Carol kissed Iain. Perhaps it was all part of a game but what excitement and knowledge to tease him about for years.

When the baby’s name was announced and Mum chose Carol as a middle name with a Christmas ring to it, the McColgan’s cousin thought the baby was named after her and it seemed logical to me. I wonder where Carol is now?

Almost six decades have passed and that very special night is remembered every Christmas. A new baby is a miracle and Rita was/is special – girl number three to even up the family!

ritas wedding.png
The last of the siblings to marry Rita is a proud mother of 3 girls herself.

 Three different perspectives of the same event – what writers refer to as point of view. Details may be different in the story, but the most important points are the same.

On Christmas Day 1959 our family was changed forever by the miracle of birth and a delightful addition of a new baby sister!

A Memorable Christmas


The most thoughtful Christmas gift I ever received was unexpected and saved Christmas 2001 from disaster.

It was a scorching December with El Nino doing its worst. I worried about husband, John’s deteriorating health and determined to make Christmas as cheerful as possible. In the dry hot weather, he struggled to breathe as worsening asbestosis and an inoperable lung cancer sapped his strength.

We had sold the car because even with the help of portable oxygen bottles John now found breathing an effort. He had no energy to drive and I couldn’t. I was fortunate that many friends offered transport if I thought it necessary and I was never short of volunteers to take us to doctor and hospital appointments.

We lived within walking distance of the railway station and town centre so life without a car manageable. The girls walked to local schools – Anne to Year 9 at Mordialloc College and Mary Jane in her last year at Mordialloc Primary School.

A girlfriend who drove a six-seater van offered to pick up a Christmas tree I had on order from the local supermarket. For years, I bought a Christmas tree from a charity but lack of volunteers killed that service. In 2001, Safeway supermarket advertised real Christmas trees for the first time. What serendipity, I thought.

It was the last day of term; a week before Christmas, and the girls were excited about coming home early to decorate the tree. Christmas tree decorating, a much-loved family ritual. Anticipation put an extra bounce in their step as they left for school in the morning.

Christmas lifted our home from ordinary to spectacular with a few boxes of decorations and that extra special smell of pine spread throughout the house.

In the early days of migrating to Australia, my brothers used to cut a branch from a huge pine tree in the backyard. Latterly, my mother bought an artificial tree because she said it was less messy, but for me the smell of pine wafting through the house is Christmas and reminds me of many happy years growing up at Croydon.

xmas tree 2015.jpg


Imagine my horror when instead of collecting a tree on arrival at the supermarket, I was offered a refund by a young manager with an apologetic smile.

‘Sorry Mrs Neil someone forgot to water the trees over the weekend and they’re dried and shrivelled.’
‘All of them?’
‘Yep. Dead, I’m afraid. The weather’s been so hot.’
‘Are you getting replacements?’
‘No, sorry, we won’t be buying any more – it’s too late.’
‘What…what am I going to tell my children?’
His embarrassed ‘I’m sorry…’ trailed off as I burst into tears.

My girlfriend, Lesley led me to her van as the young manager turned various shades of red, no doubt wishing the floor would open up and he could disappear. Or maybe that was my wishful thinking!

I wept on John’s shoulder when I got home. The worry of his deteriorating health and our changing circumstances, added to my grief. We both knew the tears were not just about the Christmas tree.

‘It’s not the end of the world – or Christmas.’ John comforted, ‘come on, love, we’ll work something out.’

We resolved I would take the girls shopping the next day. Regardless of cost the best artificial Christmas tree found would be bought – although with Christmas Day so close this could be an impossible dream.

I returned to Main Street and checked the local shops, but drew a blank. I met the girls from school to tell them of the disaster at Safeway. Their stoicism humbling as they tried to cheer me up. They even expressed concern for whoever had let the trees die, worrying that they may have lost their job.

I felt less charitable and suggested there should be consequences for the blunder. As is often the case, our children surprise us and my girls’ reaction to what I’d deemed a tragedy made me feel ashamed of myself.

As we neared home, Anne and Mary Jane dawdled behind me, hiding their disappointment with downcast eyes and silence until they heard my noisy intake of breath.

I couldn’t believe it. A 6ft Christmas tree took up most of the front veranda. The fragrance of a thousand pine needles scented the air. The girls whooped at the surprise.

‘What a storyteller mummy and we believed you.’
‘What a tricker you are.’

They weren’t listening to my denials as I read the scrawled note stuck between the branches. ‘Have a great time decorating this – Merry Christmas, love Lesley.’

Already inside, the girls were yelling at John to come and see the tree. They laughed and giggled, believing I had planned ‘the best surprise’.

I rang to thank Lesley. She confessed to driving for two hours before at last finding a tree for sale in a distant suburb. ‘I know John is very ill and making this Christmas special is important for all of you.’

Lesley’s thoughtfulness certainly gave us a Christmas to remember. Her generosity allowed us to create wonderful memories as we shared the ritual dressing of the Christmas tree.

The first decoration added was a crystal and gold pineapple – a gift from another dear friend who lives in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. Jean gave me the pineapple ornament so that every Christmas I’d remember our friendship, which dates back to being toddlers in Scotland. Jean’s family our neighbours in Braeside, Greenock.

I often recall my childhood in Scotland and the excitement of making decorations at Christmas for the tree. In the 50s and 60s, ordinary folk had no spare cash for tinsel, coloured balls and all the various Christmassy ornaments available nowadays. Most people made their own.

Mum showed us how to fold the washed silver tops from the milk bottles. We threaded them into clusters for ‘bells’. We traced and cut out stars and other seasonal shapes from cardboard and covered them with the smoothed silver paper from inside cigarette packets. The coloured wrappers of chocolates (especially Quality Street) were also saved and used. Crepe paper of various colours cut into strips made excellent streamers.

Each year as the Christmas tree is decorated memories of childhood Christmases surface, but now it’s my daughters exclaiming over their homemade efforts! ‘What do you keep these for, Mum?’

One day, when they have their own homes they’ll understand the value of  treasured memories and no doubt recall happy times around the kitchen table making the decorations.

Today, I remember Lesley’s  gift that long ago Christmas. It will always remain special because John died several months later in September 2002.

2001 was the last Christmas the four of us shared and thanks to a dear friend we had a magnificent tree.


Youth And Reaching For The Stars


I love this still from Youth; it’s a great metaphor – are we all in cages waiting for the inevitability of death? Are we there from choice?  Do we talk ourselves into being ‘old’? What will it feel like to take flight, defy assumptions?

When you see the movie, you’ll understand the significance of this scene.

When I was invited by StudioCanal to the Premiere of Youth at the Classic Cinema, Elsternwick, I didn’t have to think twice about accepting because Sir Michael Caine was one of the main characters. I can’t say I’ve seen every film he’s ever been in, but I’ve seen many, and he rarely disappoints.

Youth is billed as a comedy/drama, written and directed by Paolo Sorrentino, and it has won several awards already in Europe, including the trifecta of Best Director, Best Actor (Caine) and Best film!

The storyline revolves around two elderly friends(70s/80s) on vacation in an elegant hotel/health resort at the foot of the Swiss Alps. Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine) and Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel) are linked since adolescence, but also as in-laws – Mick’s son married Fred’s daughter, Lena (Rachel Weisz), but at the beginning of the film we learn that marriage has broken down.

Fractured relationships and how you cope with them, a major theme of the film.


Fred, a famous composer/conductor, is retired from the music world. Mick, a well-known film director, is working on his last testament, a final masterpiece and is surrounded by a bevy of young screenwriters thrilled to be near and to learn from ‘the master’.

There is laugh aloud moments, and several others when quiet chuckles ripple through the cinema. The movie is shot in the eastern part of the Swiss Alps; the magnificent mountainous scenery used to good effect with excellent camera work.

I loved a delightful scene with Fred in a field observing the rhythm and musicality of nature. He begins to conduct the cud-chewing cows, Swiss cowbells tinkle, there’s a rush of a flock of birds taking flight… the music throughout the film another delight.

David Lang’s score integral to the film, especially the emotional development of Englishman, Fred, who refuses a request from Queen Elizabeth II, to perform his most famous piece, Simple Songs. He’s told; it is the only music Prince Phillip listens to, and the Queen’s emissary is persistent and insistent that Royalty does not take no for an answer.

However, Fred wrote the piece for his wife who we discover has senile dementia and is in care. He hasn’t visited her for ten years but is determined he will not conduct or have anyone else conduct another diva singing the piece.

Fred’s memories haunt him. His past behaviour is a source of conflict with his daughter who accuses him of neglecting his wife and family. Fred finally admits, ‘You were right. Music is all I understand…’

The difficulties yet the importance of communication reinforced nicely in a scene where a young masseuse at the resort massages Fred. Few words are spoken, and she mentions the power of touch and what you can say without words. Fred understands.

Multifaceted human beings are another constant with scenes of the development of various characters (including the young masseuse) needing no words. I enjoyed the visual feast of many of the scenes and how the notable cameos and subtext were interspersed throughout the main story arc. (Watch out for Paul Dano, Maradona and Jane Fonda.)

The expository dialogue in a couple of major scenes, done I assume to reduce the film’s length, but no doubt some pedants in the industry will be quick to criticise. This is where I differ from screen purists. I just love the power of story, regardless of the method of execution and being a writer for text, not screen; I’m more forgiving.

Caine’s facial expressions, his body language and the delivery of some pithy lines like ‘intellectuals have no taste’ are brilliant. We empathise with the inner turmoil of a man coming to terms with ageing, dealing with the present while reflecting on the past, contemplating the meaning of life and wondering how, or if, to make amends. He mentions several times that he’s been judged ‘apathetic’.

Death is inevitable but the quality of life is important, and it is not about trying to reclaim an idealistic ‘youth’. A quote by one of my favourite poets, Rabbie Burns,  springs to mind ‘nae man can tether time or tide…’ 

There are several threads of humour and running gags in the film. One is the daily conversation Fred and Mick have about whether they’ve managed to pee and how much. (It will raise a smile for all of us oldies obsessed with signs of deteriorating health!) The other is a Buddhist monk (Dorji Wangchuk) meditating each day trying to levitate. (For all of us still reaching for the stars and determined never to give up!)

If you’re wanting an escapist entertainment experience like the latest Star Wars release, Youth is not for you. Apart from the fact the films are vastly different genres, Youth has few special effects. You have to pay attention to each character to discover their story arc; there is no assumption of backstory knowledge like the huge Star Wars fan base.

In Youth, there are scenes where nobody speaks nor appear to be doing much yet another layer of intrigue is added to an engrossing story. One poignant mini story that had my writer’s imagination working overtime is the young escort taken to the resort by her mother.

Harrison Ford in Star Wars: The Force Awakens

For me, there are similarities with Star Wars: The Force Awakens – and not just because that movie has another of my favourite actors, Harrison Ford. In both movies wit, humour and dialogue are delivered with panache, and you’ve been entertained. What going to the movies is all about, first and foremost.

I went to see the latest Star Wars release with my daughters at 12.20am and the sleep deprivation was worth it. I loved the buzz inside the cinema complex and the enthusiasm of the audience that spanned several generations. So many had turned up in costumes.

None of the seductive sedation of Youth at the end of The Force Awakens as the audience chattered with energetic excitement reliving scenes, discussing minute details. Moviegoers were deeply moved by Youth too, but we sat and pondered in silence.

The appreciation of what you have just watched on screen is something Youth and Star Wars: The Force Awakens have in common. They both share themes of fractured relationships, ageing, relationships with children, yearning for lost passion and celebration of talent and achievement.

I took along a younger movie buddy to Youth, and she loved it – the hour long tram and train trip home (Elsternwick’s on a different line to Frankston) certainly gave us plenty of time to mull over the 124 minutes of the film. I put Youth in the same category as Still Life, another movie seen this year that I loved.

We deconstructed the dialogue, the scenes, the characters, the music, the metaphors, the message – there is a lot packed into Youth, and the contemplative silence at the end was not just the reluctance of people to leave the extremely comfortable seats in The Classic.

See it when it is released and let me know what you think. I’m happy to hear about Star Wars too – a step out of my comfort zone (I did see the original movie, but don’t consider myself hooked). However, my daughters are educating me…


We Came by Boat at Christmas Time

Orion – full steam ahead at sea. Photograph taken by & © Alan Judge (UK)

Check out this site for further details of the ship we came to Australia on in 1962. I’ve been thinking of that voyage because today, December 16th is the anniversary of our arrival in Melbourne at Station Pier. The ship finally docking at 8.00pm.

Where have those 53 years gone?

We were met by Dad’s sister, Chrissie and husband Bill, and their friends Edna and Ron Gray, Malcolm and Elizabeth Andree, Muriel and Eric Scrimshaw and Doreen and Dick Triggs (the parents of Human Rights Commissioner Gillian Triggs).

All of those couples generously volunteered their cars and time knowing there were eight of us, plus luggage! What kindness, what generosity, what a welcome!

I’ve reminisced about our trip to Australia all those years ago – a voyage of discovery, which had a profound impact, etched on my memory…

Certainly, travel is more than the seeing of sights; it is a change that goes on, deep and permanent, in the ideas of living.

Miriam Beard

In the city the other day, I lined up to view Myer windows – an annual Christmas event for Melbournites and one I remembered from that first Christmas here all those years ago.

60 years of animated windows at Myer – Santa’s Journey into Space featured 1962

The migrant ship, P&O’s Orion left cold, foggy Tilbury Docks in London on November 14th,1962. The first stop Piraeus, Greece, in the Mediterranean before the liner, continued through the Suez Canal to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and onto an Australia in the full bloom of summer – hot, humid tropics all the way and my first experience of a heatwave.

An unforgettable month long voyage for nine-year-old me, born in Greenock, Scotland, the city with the highest rainfall in the United Kingdom.

The Orion, used as a troop ship during WW2 had been refitted to carry the army of assisted migrants to Australia and New Zealand in the late 50s and early 60s. She was the first British ship to have air-conditioning in all her public rooms so we were more fortunate than my father’s sister Chrissie and husband Bill who sponsored us to Melbourne after migrating in July 1952.

We were all considered ‘ten pound Poms’ although we were actually Scots.



The open and spacious design with sliding glass doors and removable walls, made the ship’s communal areas roomy and egalitarian. The Orion now a one class ship, sported breezy passageways and staircases with chromium and bakelite fittings; as well as the polished mahogany, found in wealthy British homes of the time. The ship suited tropical cruising and life on board definitely a jaw-dropping wonder to the majority of working class passengers, who like us were heading for what we hoped was ‘the promised land,’ sunny beaches and casual living.

Farewelling fogbound Tilbury
We began our journey across the sea
The apes of Gibraltar glimpsed
But only in our imagination
The Bay of Biscay tossed and pummelled
Brother George succumbed to seasickness
And I discovered my sea legs.
Piraeus, Greece glittered in the moonlight
Monuments of an ancient past shadowing a busy port.
Spruikers cluttered the docks
Committing daylight robbery
On gullible migrants
Sister Catriona and I hugged
Our Greek dolls while the boys discovered
Cars with no engines.
Bright traditional costumes of the dolls
soft, silken,beautiful and exotic.
Poukamiso – chemise, segouni – vest,
bodia – apron, zonari – sash, mandili – scarf
and tiny Tsarouhia – shoes.

Clothes never seen on the 500 migrants
Who shuffled on board that night
Belongings bundled in sheets
Squeezed into battered suitcases
Secured with string and hoisted on
Backs used more to manual labour
than dancing to bouzoukis
Greece an intriguing taste of
Somewhere different to Scotland
Our first foreign port, a window into another world.

We discovered the cabins could be stuffy, especially when shared with Mum and my five siblings. Not enough room to swing the proverbial cat after toddler Rita’s cot was set up. Did we care? Not really. We spent as many hours as possible away from the cabin, immersed in the swimming pool or roaming the various decks playing quoits, table tennis, hide and seek, getting into mischief while avoiding serious trouble.

The pool on board – courtesy Museum Victoria

The swimming pool an exciting magnet for most of the children on board. Many like us, had never been in a pool or been able to swim in the sea beyond paddling in the shallows while shivering through cool British summers. We loved watching the sailors clean and refill the pool with saltwater each day, even learning to swim aboard ship, as did many migrants. If you didn’t master swimming, you at least floated secure in a life ring and appreciated the relief from the heat.

When we crossed the equator and ‘met’ King Neptune I don’t think anyone escaped the shenanigans or sampling the pool. No plastic sandals needed here before getting in the water, nor danger of hypothermia – the climates experienced as we moved through various zones very different to Scotland!



The ship steamed into the Suez Canal
To enter a land straight from
Arthur Mees Children’s Encyclopaedias.
Hours spent on deck peering through
Dad’s binoculars at pyramids, camels,
Sand dunes and a Bedouin unaware
Of our spying eyes as he prepared
Breakfast beside a solitary tent
The Valley of the Kings hugging
A horizon bathed in liminal desert dawn.

Closer to the ship a flotilla of Arab merchants
Beguiling the English Mrs Simpsons
And Scots Mrs MacGregors
Offering fancy leather goods,
Carved wooden elephants and watches
With rubber bands keeping hands ticking
Until the ‘Bum Boats’ skedaddled back to shore
A thief chased by the sergeant of Arms and
Caught by local police provides a distraction
Like an episode of Z-Cars or Softly Softly.
Everyone seeks a bargain and the banter
From ship rail to boats below ranged from
The comedic to course, respectful to rude.
While adults bargained, the Gully Gully Man
Fluted his cobra to awe and frighten children
The snake’s sewn mouth unnoticed as it uncoiled,
Swayed, stretched and struck before being grabbed
And thrown into a tense crowd
That evaporated squealing, like steam from
A whistling kettle.

Dad shared a cabin with the father of another large family in the cabin opposite to ours. Both men, in a two-berth cabin at the end of the corridor, worked out amicable arrangements to have private time with their spouses and family. Because Dad had been a shift worker his banishment to another cabin didn’t really affect us, although no doubt it affected Mum. We were delighted we actually saw more of him than we usually did.

A ship is a great adventure playground, and we made the most of it. We spent countless hours just standing on deck watching the ocean, fascinated by the dolphins, flying fish, the occasional albatross and of course watching for land when we were due to call into port. The sunrises and sunsets magical and memorable like the mesmerising sea.


Considered ‘all right for a girl’, I tagged along with older brothers Iain (11) and George (10) and their new friend Kenneth (12). They hatched exciting plans, whereas my older sister Catriona, who at thirteen attended the adult meal sittings with my parents, thought our games childish (and often she was right!).

Mature for her age, physically and mentally, Catriona was caught in that awkward in-between world of adolescence. The young deckhands ogled and whistled thinking she was older,but she pined for her school friends left behind in her first year at high school.

Colombo, Ceylon reached but a free Sri Lanka
Whispered chatter in dining halls and Kitchen
Of the ship. The lascar crew toiling at lower wages
Than white-skinned counterparts.
Colombo’s sweltering heat endured as
Dad searched for a ring for Mum, an anniversary looming.
We passed colourful saris and glossy black hair,
Boisterous beggars with blood-toothed grins advertising
Their love of Areca wrapped in betel leaves
Gobs of chewed nuts blackened by the sun
Dotted the streets. To my nine-year-old eyes
They were bloodstains. The smell of rotting vegetables
And sweaty humanity becoming the smell of death.
A cacophony of sounds, high pitched, persistent.
Buzzing flies biting, unfriendly like some people
Resentment at colonial betrayal simmering
Poverty displayed by stick legs and arms,
Gaunt faces, body sores, desperate words as
Crippled babies thrust into the faces
Of privileged whites streaming ashore.

Most days at sea on our month-long voyage
Spent exploring the one-class ship
Its First Class trimmings an exciting attraction
To our freewheeling gang of urban escapees
From the austerity of post war Britain.

One day, after seeing a school of flying fish the boys decided to go fishing although our only experience of this pastime in Greenock was catching tadpoles (we called them minnows) in jam jars, or  watching the tadpoles turn into frogs in our ‘secret lake’ (a big pond at the end of the Aileymill road).

English Kenneth described proper fishing, with a rod, hook and bait. We listened in awe at his expertise before scattering to find substitute equipment.

An empty toffee tin took the place of our usual jam jar. Discarded pieces of string and ribbon knotted together and tied around the rim of the tin transformed it into a ‘net’. Using orange peel as bait, we searched the decks for the best spot to launch our line and decided on a corner of the deck for crew only.

We had the run of the ship and within a couple of days knew it like our old neighbourhood ashore; certainly better than most adult passengers. We were rarely told to leave any area – an advantage of being a child.

Ignorant about the distance from the deck of the ship to the sea, and being children with an average height of four and half feet, we assumed our bundle of string more than adequate. We found a secluded corner, squeezed our skinny forms through the deck rails and hung precariously over the side.


Our imagination only accommodated fish, pods of dolphins and fanciful birds like the albatross and pelican. The voyage beautiful and benign, providing a remarkable, unique time in our young lives. We concentrated on the task at hand, unaware of the dangers of falling into shark infested waters.

Several pairs of hands took turns lowering the tin down. Kenneth received a quick lesson on democracy à la large families. Our fishing line bounced its way down the side of the ship, but stopped well short of the enticing water line. A collective groan of disappointment manifested as downturned lips and wrinkled brows. What to do? Our mission a failure, our enthusiasm fizzling like a damp squib on Guy Fawkes Night.

What happened next is one of those unpredictable solutions children invent. With almost silent agreement, our aim changed from catching fish to seeing if we could guide the tin into an open porthole. This turned out to be a much more engaging project, requiring all the skill we could muster.

We speculated what was behind the porthole immediately below, and if we’d get into trouble, but any hesitation was brief, and dismissed. We were now commandos penetrating a German submarine with a secret weapon that would win the war. Our concentration so intense the shrieks of laughter from the swimming pool above and the roar of the ship’s engines below faded to be insignificant.

We even forgot our persistent rumbling tummies stirred by the ever present smells of food lingering in every nook and cranny of the Orion. Smells drifting from the dining rooms, restaurants and decks, and from the cabins below where many of the 500 Greeks who had boarded in Piraeus cooked exotic, alluring food.

The tin edged closer to the narrow opening and the capable hands of Iain guided it to success. In the celebration, he almost dropped the string, George bumped his head on the deck rail as he cheered and Kenneth saved me from sliding head first into the briny. A little huffed because he hadn’t been the pilot, Kenneth brought us back to reality with, ‘Gosh, let’s scarper.’

Iain dropped the string as if it was a death adder.

We extricated ourselves from the deck rails, but not before I glimpsed the angry face of the Maitre d’ peering up at us. On cue, music burst from the tannoy announcing the children’s sitting for lunch.

We raced back to the cabin to collect Mum, forgetting the initial shock of the Head Waiter’s face as we giggled and revelled in the thrill of mischief. He couldn’t recognise us from hundreds of children on board – could he?

We entered the dining room with some trepidation, beginning to worry about Mum’s reaction should the Maitre d’ make a fuss, and worse would Dad find out. Our bravado tested when we saw our fishing implements sitting among the paraphernalia of the Head Waiter’s workstation. The man himself, looming larger than his six foot physique,  stood at the entrance of the dining room, head poised like a Roman Emperor watching everyone troop to their designated tables.

His patrician nose that Dad joked was more of a limb than a feature, sniffed the air for miscreants and Mum, as she often did made a pun without realising it. ‘What’s got up his nose?’ she asked Gordon, our dining room steward.

Gordon, a young man from Barrhead who had taken a shine to our family,
whispered and pointed at our tin, ‘That landed through the porthole when we were setting the tables.’ He laughed and shrugged. ‘A kid’s prank but Himself sees it as sullying His dining room.’

‘Is that so,’ said Mum laughing. ‘Wee bisums were smart to get it inside without a boat!’

The boys flashed warning looks at each other and signalled to me to remain silent. Mum’s admiration would become admonition if she knew it was her children being ‘smart’.

Kenneth, already seated, buried his head in the menu refusing eye contact. If challenged, we’d be on our own. Mum smiled and started to chat to Kenneth’s mother as Gordon brought the meals. The Maitre d,’ at the other side of the room sorting out a dispute over seating, no longer a threat to us. We relaxed to enjoy the food.

Every meal on board delicious because of the variety served, and we were always allowed seconds. We left a Britain hit by recession and found being aboard the Orion a luxurious holiday resort.

Gordon indulged our every whim, taking a particular shine to my young brother Alistair, a six year old with a cherubic face and insatiable appetite. His record for “seconds” of favourite meals being six plates of mince and tatties! If the stewards ran a competition on the appetites of their charges, Gordon would definitely win.

We laughed at pods of dolphins and flying fish
Argued over whale sightings and horizon mirages
Had competitions to see who could get closest
To the seabirds landing on railings.
The Wandering Albatross or pretty Petrels
Mesmerising. Each day fascinating.
The baby buried at sea, a stumbled upon ceremony
We didn’t let spoil the rest of our day
Only adult reflections consider sadness, social justice…

We didn’t have to go to school on board, but if we did attend classes, they were only for a couple of hours in the morning and we were given free ice cream. Ice cream in Scotland was sharing a family block after the Sunday roast – if the household budget could afford it. To be offered cones every day, a special treat indeed. However, we didn’t need too much persuading to go to school because the volunteer teachers were a lot of fun.


Perhaps it was because of the comfortable non-compulsory nature of the classes, or their multi-aged composition, but whatever the reason, I absorbed the lessons, even learning all about L.S.D. (money sums, not the drug!). I became so proficient in maths that when I arrived in Australia Mr Tinney, the Croydon Primary School headmaster wanted me to go into Grade Six. Thank goodness Mum, worried about socialisation and making friends in my own age group, insisted promotion to Grade Five was enough of a challenge especially since George was also promoted to Grade Six. However, being the youngest in class dogged me for the rest of my school life.

From the morning wake-up calls broadcast into our cabin: ‘Wakey, Wakey Rise and Shine, it’s breakfast time on the Orient Line,‘ to the host of organised parties, dress-up competitions, deck games and Housey Housey (bingo) plus talent contests; the few weeks at sea provided pleasant memories.

The ship sailed into Fremantle at dawn
Yet most passengers crowded the decks
Eager for the first glimpse of a new homeland.
And to our surprise the skirl of bagpipes
Drowned seagulls screech, as a young woman
Marched the pier welcoming her sister home.
The loving gesture warmed hearts, calmed fears
The upheaval and journey to the unknown less daunting
As the strains of Waltzing Matilda skirled skywards.

Sultry summer air caressed our skin, a hot December sun disappeared into the sea when we prepared to disembark from P&O’s Orion in 1962, thirty-two days after leaving fogbound Tilbury.

Night now dropped a velvet blanket from the sky, no gradual, long twilight here like the Scottish gloaming.


Amid harsh fluorescents, the inky sky disappeared as we docked and Aunt Chrissie grinned and waved below, jostled by hundreds of clamouring crowds on Station Pier. We interrupted Dad’s dinner to tell him we saw someone who looked like my godmother, Ina, his cousin. Five of us had heads crammed out the porthole and the lady yelled ‘are you the McInneses?’

We all nodded together and watched tears gather in her eyes to flow down her cheeks when Dad eventually joined us. A frightening crack as the bunk bed groaned under all the weight meant several of us scurried down and raced to be first at the deck rails to squeeze between adult legs and continue our observations of the chaos below.

Tears of joy stained Dad’s cheeks on seeing his only sister after a decade. His initial disappointment as the ship manoeuvred into port that the grimy part of Melbourne visible ‘looked just like Glasgow’ forgotten.

However, on deck, I trembled at the whispers of older boys that Christmas didn’t happen here. The hot night air and absence of snow was certainly unChristmassy!

Fortunately, on the way to our new home in bushy Croydon, Aunt Chrissie’s blue Ford Consul stopped beside a large department store. Myer windows blazed light and colour onto the deserted streets.

Led over to view the display of mechanical puppets narrating Santa’s journey into Space my child eyes ballooned. Had we arrived in Fairyland?
This new country promised an exciting and magical life.

Christmas did happen in summer and our first Australian Christmas proved to be as memorable as the eventful voyage on SS Orion and that very special welcome the evening of December 16, 1962.


How sad that boat arrivals are now demonised and detained when we were welcomed with open arms. My wish this Christmas is that camps on Nauru and Manus Islands are closed, refugees are welcomed to Australia and we again care about human beings to build and share this land.


Monday, Monday, So Good to Me…

cover of class anthology 2015


Today, I celebrated my last lesson for 2015 and it was with the class I have been teaching the longest – the Writing for Pleasure and Publication class, Monday mornings at Mordialloc Neighbourhood House. As I write this, I listen to a favourite song from one of my favourite groups from the 70s – Monday, Monday by the Mamas and Papas.

This poem by a student has captured our Mondays well:

Heather Yourn

Monday grinned happily
Another fun morning ahead
with happy Mordy writers
splurging to music before
gentle teasing and laughter.
Chatting over morning tea
Then homework proffered hesitantly
unaware of their talent.
Monday wished those 2 1⁄2 hours
Could last all day

A hint of sadness tinged the air this Monday, because Amelia, a longtime student couldn’t attend. Health problems for the 86 year old beginning to affect her mental and physical capabilities and there is doubt about her attendance next year.

Sadly, times are changing for some of the others in the class, although we all put on a brave face.

Monday Class Xmas 2015

Tori will be leaving us next March after coming to the class for 15 years, starting when she was 20 years old. Her mother, Lyn made a special effort to visit today and share their plans for the future, which includes a move interstate. I compile annual anthologies for all my classes and surprisingly this year, Tori produced more work than she usually does – serendipity or synchronicity??

2015 anthologiesjpg.jpg

At 35 years of age with multiple disabilities, Tori now needs a special machine at night to ensure her lungs and heart keep working while she is asleep. Lyn, who is an activist in the disability sector explained it is time  to put ‘succession plans’ into action.

She has been a sole carer for the last three and a half decades, and aware of the possibility of future health problems (she broke her ankle last year and it took 6 months to heal) she is working with her two sons and daughter who live interstate to renovate a house for herself and Tori.

Lyn gave us a large box of Lindt chocolates (yummy, yummy!) to share and a Christmas card, Tori had written. They both wanted to explain how important the writing class has been to their quality of life.

We are writers, but also a ‘family’ and have shared personal sorrows and joys, failures and triumphs. Most importantly we share a lot of fun and laughter. We were all touched to hear what a difference Mondays have made to Tori and I know Mondays won’t be the same without her.


Various people have come and gone from the Monday class, but the people there this morning have been together many years. Even Michael, a relative newcomer has been attending for three years.

He came not long after his car accident and ABI (acquired brain injury). I remember his first day when he only managed to write four lines and had no idea about email or computers. Now he is an accomplished writer, with poetry his favourite genre  published online!

Michael filling out assessment form 2015
Michael filling out an evaluation form – that cheeky grin promises something unpredictable!

Michael is accompanied by a carer and over the years they have changed, but we’ve been impressed with their writing ability. The carers participate in the ‘splurge’, the 15 minute stream of consciousness writing to prompts at the start of each lesson. At first some were reluctant, but I insist the one label we all share in the room is ‘writer,’ and if you join us, you write!

Many delightful words and talented pieces uncovered/discovered when people just write without self-editing or over-thinking.

I’m not sure if Heather (87) and Ceinwen (95) will be back next year, although both absolutely love writing. Heather lives in Mornington (over 30 kilometres from Mordialloc) and picks up Ceinwen from her retirement village at Patterson Lakes (12 kilometres from Mordialloc) to bring her to class. Even with the freeway the couple of hours roundtrip is a big ask as the pair of them struggle with arthritis and failing eyesight. Hip and cataract operations the norm nowadays for people of ‘a certain age.’

If they do decide to have Mondays off I’ll miss Ceinwen’s delightful reminiscing of Wales and England and detailed observations of Australia.

The Colour Green
Ceinwen Watson

How I love to walk across
The meadowland and fields of green
Sit beside the babbling brook
Green moss clinging to the rocks.

How I love to walk
Through country lanes
Spy green caterpillars on dock leaves
Amongst green hedges

How I love to walk along
The dirt road to the village church
Ivy sprouting tiny green shoots
Around the old oak tree’s shaded leaves.

I look for the four-leaf clover
To place in my Bible
A green reminder to keep me safe
During the coming year.

The tall fir trees in the forest
Perfumed pine reminding me
Robin Hood and his merry green men
Merged with Sherwood Forest

Today, beside the shiny green-leaved
Palm trees circling the lake
I feel settled and joyful
The retirement village and me
Reflected as one in the water.


When Ceinwen cut the delicious Christmas cake she’d brought, it was accompanied by a whisper that it may be her last Christmas with the class. A bittersweet celebration indeed.

Inspirational smile chirstmas 2015.jpg

However, worrying about the future took a back seat as we played The Storymatic six trillion stories in one little box – which one will you tell?

This writing game I picked up in a shop in St Kilda by pure chance. It can be ordered online, but for a considerable higher price than the $14.99, I paid.

I usually save it as a fun way to finish the term. The box of cards offer characters, themes, settings, plot twists and objects – you choose several cards and start writing. There are several wild cards too if you become stuck, but we’ve never had to use them.

The cards are  fantastic prompts that’ll have you writing stories out of the ordinary. The stories written today were amazing and amusing.Our selections listed below. Why not extend your imagination and see what happens?

  1. office worker, blind date, glasses, forgiveness, pet is behaving strangely, person locked out
  2. nurse,class reunion, overly large gift,reckless enthusiasm, this time its bound to work, person who’d been stood up
  3. logger, stranger in town, lucky underwear, confession, no place to hide, person who knows something other people don’t
  4. superstitious person, police investigation, stairs, birthday, not enough money, person who’ll do whatever it takes to pay the bills
  5. firebug, first night in new home, fear of getting old, something wrong with water, grandmother’s ashes, man with a tattoo
  6. bad driver, a time machine malfunctions, gun, at last, love, a rumour is going around town, a person who can’t remember an important word
  7. rescued child, woods, ice, stuck, sudden return of forgotten memory, person who can’t wait any longer

I guarantee the combinations found in the cards will help you move away from cliched stories!


After we’d shared our masterpieces there was a ‘show and tell’ of sorts. Last week Ceinwen had written a story involving a character receiving a telegram. ‘What’s that?’ asked 23 year old Michael.

kaye holding telegram 2015Kaye's telegram 1942

A picture’s worth a thousand words and here is Ceinwen with a telegram received on her wedding day during WW2. Afterwards, her husband Arthur became a POW on the Burma Railroad and was considered missing for 18 months, so it’s not surprising Ceinwen treasured this keepsake reminding her of a happy day.

Ceinwen also brought in an autograph book she received for her 12th birthday to collect signatures of famous entertainers and others from her time in theatre before and during the war. When in the airforce she was seconded to the entertainment unit because of her singing and acting ability.

kaye's autograph book 1932 when she was 12jpg

We had to explain to Michael, Tori and Sanna who George Formby was and why the signatures and little verses in Ceinwen’s book were a precious reminder of a bygone era. There is a resurgence of ukulele playing with a large group meeting at Mordialloc Neighbourhood House so some of Formby’s routines may be popular again.

George formby and girlfriend bery'ls signature
Michael filling out an evaluation form – that cheeky grin promises something unpredictable!


Our writing classes so much more than just writing – the stories we share of our real life adding to our understanding and appreciation of each other and history!

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The verses in Ceinwen’s book:


A Tragedy
She frowned on him and called him mister
Because in fun he merely kissed her
And then in spite, the following night
The naughty mister, kissed her sister!

Beauty and wealth remain but for a day
But virtue lives for ever in the mind
In her alone true happiness we find.

The inner side of every cloud
Is bright and shining
I therefore turn my clouds about
And always wear them inside out,
To show their lining.

I’ve heard from two past students that they will be returning next year, and I’m hopeful that it is not the final class for some of those present today. However, whatever happens in the future, I’m blessed to have wonderful memories of Mondays at Mordy this year and in the past. Blessed and humbled to know the beautiful greetings for Christmas and the warm hugs are genuine and heartfelt.

To Mairi – A Sonnet
Heather Yourn
As we contemplate the ending of a year,
spent each Monday with a group of friends,
under the guidance of a mentor dear,
who to our writing, her mastery lends.
We wonder at the plethora of work
of poetry, prose and stories short
most serious, but some do cause a smirk
and others incomplete by error thwart.
We’re filled with gratitude and deference
to one who weekly spends many an hour
in preparation for a splurge or homework theme
her indebted pupils to empower.
Your encouragement, while oft we fail,
We do humbly with this sonnet hail.

To be the subject of a poem – in a form recently taught – how wonderful – ’Tis the season to be merry indeed!


Getting with The Program


Thanks to a complimentary ticket from StudioCanal I went to see The Program ( the apt title explained here) at the Nova in Carlton. I was surprised at how much I  enjoyed the film, about American cyclist Lance Armstrong’s rise to multiple winner of the Tour de France and his dramatic fall embroiled in a drugs scandal involving so many participants that for many people, the sport is sullied forever.

I can remember when the amazing success of Lance Armstrong dominated the media a decade ago. A cancer survivor, he returned to cycling to win the most rugged and difficult cycling  event in the world – not once but seven times. Worshipped by adoring fans because of his courage and talent, he set up a successful charity for cancer patients and research, he had speaking engagements, wrote inspiring columns and a book – he became a sporting celebrity and motivator. One of the world’s greatest.

And then he was revealed as a cheat, not only winning because of performance enhancing drugs, but repeatedly lying and involving others in his web of deceit. The film shows how practised he became at lying.

His famous interview with Oprah admitted guilt, but not remorse. Instead, he justified his behaviour by saying other athletes used drugs!


Some people may avoid the film because there have been books and documentaries about Armstrong. However,  I’d recommend seeing The Program, even if only to appreciate how amazing Ben Foster is as Lance Armstrong, and to understand the scope of what the cyclist managed to get away with and how he fooled authorities.

The biopic as it unfolds is gripping viewing on the big screen. I found the other characters  based on real people fascinating too. The contribution of bit players in great historical moments often forgotten.

Foster captures the mannerisms and nuances of Armstrong, who I’d describe as a sociopath. There are moments when you feel sorry for him, but they are few. What drives him to punish his body in such a way? The single mindedness that drives his choices regardless of who he hurts is disconcerting, but amidst the ruthlessness he genuinely cares for cancer victims and raises millions of dollars  for cancer research.


The opening scenes where the twists and turns of the long, mountainous road is traversed by a solo cyclist, a fabulous metaphor.

Lance showed determination and courage conquering his cancer and the difficult terrain of the Tour de France, but the narrative he wove to justify bullying, cheating, lying and manipulating, ultimately left him isolated. He pushed himself to the limits of endurance, yet his arrogance, desire,  and determination to win were instrumental in his downfall.

To coin a cliche he was hoisted on his own petard!

Lance Armstrong is still alive as are most of the people mentioned in the movie so I can imagine the production’s legal team worked overtime.

However, the screenplay by John Hodge is adapted from “Seven Deadly Sins: My Pursuit of Lance Armstrong” by David Walsh, the Sunday Times sportswriter played by Chris O’Dowd and most legal issues have probably been raised before and sorted.

The dogged determination of Walsh to prove his suspicions about Armstrong is one of the main threads of the movie. When Lance’s ability to lie and bully effectively isolates Walsh from the other journalists, the vision of him standing alone in a city square, dwarfed by Armstrong’s fancy hotel another powerful metaphor.

This is what film does so well – moves the story along, engages your emotions without words or explanations.

As the drug scandal unfolds, The Program concentrates on the fall from grace of Armstrong and the other cyclists in his U.S. Postal Service team. It only briefly touches on private family lives, these glimpses great additions with deft editing by Danny Cohen.

We don’t see what background shaped Lance and influenced his choices but we do see the emotional rollercoaster of Floyd Landis (Jesse Plemons), and his transition from idealistic young cyclist from a traditional Mennonite community to winner of the Tour de France and then whistleblower and architect of Armstrong’s disgrace.

I wonder how much of his Christian values Floyd Landis absorbed because if he had not been caught by the testing doctors and then abandoned by Lance, would he have confessed?

Jesse Plemons does a wonderful job of showing a man struggling with guilt, with choices, with his conscience, but it is extremely disquieting how easily Floyd and Lance lied to journalists, race organisers and government officials before they were caught and cornered.

They may not be monsters but their monstrous actions destroyed reputations and credibility in a sporting event that many people relied on for their livelihood. And their legacy has left a cloud over subsequent sporting events.

Sadly, many people like me now see world record breakers, not first and foremost as great athletes, but as people clever enough to avoid performance enhancing drugs being detected in their system!


The narrative sticks close to the title, explaining the origin and execution of the doping ‘program’ designed and operated by the Italian physician and coach, Dr Michele Ferrari (Guillaume Canet) and adapted and organised by Armstrong for his team.

The sweeping camera shots of cinematographer Danny Cohen makes the cycling scenes live and when melded with actual footage of the races the cinema audience is ‘there’.

The scenes of injections, blood transfusions and of Lance’s cancer treatment so realistic I closed my eyes at times. The editing and camera close-ups used to good effect.

I’ve been through operations and chemotherapy and it’s mind boggling that after cancer treatment Armstrong willingly punished his body to the extent the doping regime demanded.

This film could be a great tool in classrooms to discuss ethics. The  emotions and opinions generated by the hype around Lance Armstrong as opposed to the reality, interesting topics to explore. And how culpable are people who are complicit by remaining silent when race or match fixing is suspected or known?

Australia is a sports mad country and there is big money in sport. Where is the tipping point if money corrupts? How difficult is it to make the “right” choice?

There is an interesting and amusing scene where celebrity Lance endorses products he dislikes. The insincerity of celebrity advertising revealed.

For Lance the end justified the means when it came to making money and seeking adulation. Was he always a cheat? Maybe a film exploring what influences create a Lance Armstrong will be made!

The movie ends acknowledging the source of the material and with short bios of what happened to the main players.

The evidence of the US Postal Service Pro Cycling Team-run scheme is overwhelming and is in excess of 1000 pages, and includes sworn testimony from 26 people, including 15 riders with knowledge of the US Postal Service Team (USPS Team) and its participants’ doping activities. The evidence also includes direct documentary evidence including financial payments, emails, scientific data and laboratory test results that further prove the use, possession and distribution of performance enhancing drugs by Lance Armstrong and confirm the disappointing truth about the deceptive activities of the USPS Team, a team that received tens of millions of American taxpayer dollars in funding.

Statement From USADA CEO Travis T. Tygart Regarding The U.S. Postal Service Pro Cycling Team Doping Conspiracy

The Program has had mixed reviews. Variety  considers Director “Stephen Frears’ cautious study of Lance Armstrong’s fall from grace doesn’t crack the cyclist’s implacable veneer.” Whereas The Empire and Time-Out give it four stars, which would be my inclination too.

The Program kept me engaged for the full 103 minutes. It gave my friend and I lots of fodder for an interesting discussion over coffee. I’m glad I had the opportunity to see it and have a much deeper understanding of what is involved in doping in sport. And certainly know a lot more about cycling.

Drugs and corruption are recurring themes in Australian and world sport, a film like this is relevant even if about ‘history’ – go see it!







Christmas – Let Us All Rejoice

“Christmas waves a magic wand over this world, and behold, everything is softer and more beautiful.”


Recently, I celebrated and wrote about Eid and Diwali, major religious festivals at this time of year with similar customs to the Christian celebration of Christmas.

Over the next few posts I’ll share memories of Christmas, the celebration that is part of my culture and Christianity, the religion most familiar to me.

All religions, arts and sciences are branches of the same tree.

Albert Einstein

As I finish my teaching term before the holidays, it is customary to exchange cards and gifts and share special festive foods in the lead up to Christmas.

Some schools and workplaces have Secret Santas or Kris Kringles, special Christmas parties and meals and even outings. It helps that we are heading into summer and annual holidays. The thought of a long break and perhaps an exciting time ahead certainly makes it easier to be in a jolly party mood.


I’m also aware of the celebration of Hanukkah, the Jewish festival of light because several students are Jewish.

Just as Christians believe Jesus was the Son of God and the Light of the world, Jews celebrate the importance of light.

Hanukkah celebrates the triumph of light over darkness, of purity over adulteration, of spirituality over materiality.

Jesus “Christ” is known as the founder or central figure of “Christianity.” Christmas is a Christian holiday on December 25 that commemorates the birth of Jesus. Ancient Romans also commemorated Jesus’ birth by marking a division of the calendar still in use today. The years before Jesus’ birth are marked as B.C. (Before Christ), and the years after Jesus’ birth are marked A.D. (Anno Domini, which means, in the year of our Lord).

Christmas literally means the Mass (celebration) of Christ. “Christ” is a Greek word and title, meaning “anointed” or one set apart by God for a special purpose. “Christ” is equivalent to the Hebrew word “Messiah.” Based on the words of ancient prophets, the first century Jewish people expected the arrival of the Messiah promised by God as a great deliverer of the people.

When the world seems to be in disarray, it’s wonderful to be surrounded by happiness as people plan family get togethers, holidays, and special meals. Festivities and rituals brighten the mundane to give deeper meaning to communities and individual lives.

In a multicultural country like Australia where Christmas festivities and decorations last through to the New Year, schools and workplaces celebrate regardless of whether people are Christian – it is a time to reach out and spread goodwill.

Love and joy can be infectious!

A Christmas Triolet
Mairi Neil

Peace on Earth, my Christmas dream
Regardless of your religious persuasion
Togetherness, binding like whipped cream
Peace on earth, my Christmas dream
Love and kindness must reign supreme
To mark the joy of a global occasion
Peace on Earth, my Christmas dream
Regardless of your religious persuasion

Shadows of suffering can be dispelled
Light will always banish darkness
No matter where evil has dwelled
Shadows of suffering can be dispelled
Belief in humanity encouraged and upheld
To do otherwise is destructive madness
Shadows of suffering can be dispelled
Light will always banish darkness

Let tolerance be your guiding light
To thoughtful words and deeds
The spirit of Christmas can unite
Let tolerance be your guiding light
Christian principles shining bright
Spreading Love’s promising seeds
Let tolerance be your guiding light
To thoughtful words and deeds

Houses are decorated as are shopping centres, public buildings and even streets. Although it’s only the beginning of December evidence of people embracing Christmas mode is everywhere. The staff at Mordialloc Railway Station have added some new tinsel to well-worn decorations and a house near Longbeach Place in Chelsea is into the spirit of the season.

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Today, as I walked down to Mordialloc foreshore for the annual Brunch for Peace at the Beach with the Union of Australian Women Southern Branch, soothing Christmasy songs floated in the air. The nursing home on the corner of Albert and McDonald Streets prepared for a family Christmas party. Young people helped staff decorate several tables arranged under a marquee.

Hopefully, the music, planned festivities, and presence of family will trigger happy memories for the residents of the home, many of whom suffer dementia. Even if they don’t know what the fuss is about, the activity and presence of young people should brighten their day – it certainly brightened mine as I walked past.

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Some people have the tradition of sending a letter to all of their family members and friends reporting on the major events of the year. Others have particular traditions like decorating the tree, attending Carols by Candlelight, or baking Christmas cake, plum pudding and sharing a meal with extended family. Others always holiday at the same place each year and prepare for Christmas away from home.

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we always have a ‘real’ Christmas tree, the smell of pine needles synonymous with Christmas

I was brought up a Christian and in my Scottish Presbyterian (Church of Scotland) childhood, celebrating the birth of Jesus made Christmas Day and the days leading up to it (Advent), exciting and special. The emphasis on the New Testament’s teachings about loving one another and peace and goodwill towards all mankind were the messages stressed in prayers and hymns.

Although I only occasionally attend a particular denominational church today, I still see Christmas in this light. Santa Claus, rampant consumerism, eating and partying to excess is not my idea of Christmas.

In fact, Scotland did not declare Christmas Day a public holiday until 1958. Christmas in Scotland was traditionally observed very quietly, the emphasis on religious observance not the Christmas festival.

Christmas Giving
Mairi Neil

Generosity heart warming and kind
Inspiring others to rejoice and give
For children the anticipation is exciting
Their joy and delight infectious at
Sharing gifts as well as receiving

Father Christmas  a benign fantasy figure when I was a child. My working class parents explained that he only brought to each child what the parents could afford. This explanation the same one I gave to my children while emphasising it is a season more about giving than receiving!

A great example of bringing Christmas joy to children while practising Christian charity is Senator Sarah Hanson-Young’s “Give a toy to a child in detention”. An opportunity for us to show compassion and care – qualities our Government has lost in its shameful treatment of asylum seekers and refugees.


I teach adults from many different backgrounds and with a range of life experiences. Here is a poem one class wrote:

Class Acrostic Poem 2008

Coming together at Christmas
Happiness for families
Rituals rich in memories
Insights are gained playing inside games
Stirring the pudding
Tinsel and berries, togetherness and traditions
Merrymaking, mulled wine, and mistletoe
Acceptance of gifts and family idiosyncrasies
Sweets, sauces, and sugar plum fairies

More than families have idiosyncrasies looking at Melbourne City Council’s Christmas decorations this year – they’ve got into the craze of yarn art like Longbeach Place! The expertise, time and effort in ‘dressing’ these trees certainly shows devotion.

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The Council workers are also erecting a traditional Santa’s Village which was under construction the night I was in the city.

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The magnificent spire of St Paul’s in the background – a good reminder Jesus is the reason for the season.

Christmas Joy
Mairi Neil

Let’s celebrate another Christmas,
perhaps relive the happiness and joy
that those first Christians felt
when they heard of the birth
of that special boy.
The baby fulfilled God’s promise
from the East travelled Kings three
guided by the Star of Bethlehem
knowing that they would see
a host of angels singing aloud,
and shepherds leaving their flocks
Around the manger all would crowd
to witness the amazing miracle
of the birth of that special child
agreeing He’d been sent to Earth
To secure peace,
Also tolerance and Love
and a place for the meek and mild.

One of my lessons last week focused on Christmas and similar religious celebrations. This is always a rich subject for writers to mine, particularly if you seek publication.

Shelves of bookshops and libraries sag with specialised or niche books. You can start writing today and have something ready for next year’s season – or the year after!

  • Write your annual letter  to family and/or friends recounting the good and bad things that have happened to you this year that could be considered noteworthy. (This could be factual or exaggerated, poignant or amusing.)
  • Write a poem titled Christmas Is… (substitute  your special celebration/belief if it differs from Christmas)
  • List all the trappings, events, beliefs, ‘to do’ list that make your  celebration memorable.
  • How has the celebration changed for you since childhood.
  • Is there one particular year that stands out?
  • Write a memory of the happiest Christmas.
  • A Christmas that was a disaster.
  • Have you ever celebrated Christmas,Hanukkah, Ramadan,Diwali… away from home? With people who had a different custom?
  • Have you a favourite recipe to share that marks these festivities?
  • What difference has technology made to your celebrations – do you still post cards? Have you discovered old or new friends through social media?
  • Did you believe in Santa Claus? When did you stop? Were you honest with your children/grandchildren?
  • Did you ever take part in a school play – what part did you play?
  • What’s the best present you ever received? Why?
  • What’s the worst present? Why?
  • Have you ever regretted or been embarrassed by a present you bought?

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