Countdown to Classes so Clearing Clutter Cancelled

hard 9

Words, Writing and Waiting for Inspiration…

Mairi Neil

Words are my business and passion
Often they flow, or stay sealed like a time capsule
Remembering, imagining, creating, forgetting…
Depending on mood, knowledge, skill… a dictionary
So they colour the page: language, meaning, interpretation… frustration

Why does the sentence not work
Or the words engage? Where’s the impact?
Rambling, nothing of substance… stuttering
Don’t start… don’t stop… less is more… decisions!
Structure? Be sensible, sensitive, sarcastic, serious, succinct, smart, strong

Alliteration can work
Repetition a crafty tool. Pizzaz needed
Especially metaphor and simile

Am I mad?
Losing it?
Laughing, crying, anxious, arrogant, scared… confident…

I squeeze the words from the pen

Hammer the keyboard
And shape the words and worlds to
Vindicate the term ‘writer’
End of story!

A writer is a world trapped in a person
Victor Hugo

My classes at local neighbourhood houses begin next week and I’ve already fielded phone-calls, emails, and visits from students. The excitement is building for the various classes and a new one next term:

Writing for Pleasure & Publication at Mordialloc, Monday mornings (95874534)

Writing for Pleasure & Publication at Bentleigh,  Tuesday afternoons (95579037)

Life Stories & Legacies, Wednesday mornings at Bentleigh (95579037)

Writing Creatively Towards the Future, at Longbeach Place, Thursday mornings (97761386)

And next term we will be Blogging A Book at Bentleigh, Tuesday mornings (95579037)


If you love telling stories, hearing and reading them, playing with words, writing a journal, diary, poems or prose, family history, life stories, memoir… what better place to hone the craft and be inspired and motivated than your local community house or writers’ group!

You are lucky to be one of those people who wishes to build sand castles with words, who is willing to create a place where your imagination can wander. We build this place with the sand of memories; these castles are our memories and inventiveness made tangible.
Anne Lamott

The poem above is an acrostic, a form of poetry useful and adaptable – I often use it just for brainstorming as well as crafting into a stand-alone piece.

The form is ideal as an ice-breaker or introductory exercise in a workshop or lesson. The starting point of an acrostic can be yourself.

  • Write your name down the page and then using the letters write words or phrases across from the letters
  • Acrostics do not have to rhyme
  • There are no rules about how long a line should be, whether just one word or a phrase
  • Think about your writing aspirations and/ or personality

Mother and teacher
And a would-be novelist
It is a murder-mystery.She
Rarely gets time to write so
It will be a cold case!

Or just have fun playing with words and poetic forms!

An acrostic poem is usually, but not always, one where the first letters of the lines spell out a word or words if you read them vertically.


Definition: acrostic a·cros·tic /əˈkrôstik/ Acrostic poems are a literary composition in which certain letters in each line form a word vertically. The poem, usually in verse, has the first or the last letters of the lines, or certain other letters, in order, to form a name, word, phrase, or motto.

There are many examples of acrostics in The Bible, particularly in Psalms, but also other books. They may require some serious decoding but they are there. Here are two messages Peace and Love, cornerstones of the New Testament message.

These things I have sPoken unto you
that in me yE might have peace.
in the world ye shAll have tribulation:
but be of good Cheer;
I have overcomE the world.

                           For God so Loved the world,
that he gave his Only begotten Son,
that whosoever belieVeth in him should not perish,
but have Everlasting life.

John 16:33 and John 3:16 (King James version)

Lewis Carroll‘s Through The Looking-Glass can be read here at Project Gutenberg.

The book was dedicated to Alice Pleasance Liddell. If you read the lines from top to bottom in the following poem, you’ll see that the first letters spell out Alice’s complete name. Carroll has rhymed the lines but this is not necessary in freeform acrostics.

A boat beneath a sunny sky,
Lingering onward dreamily
In an evening of July-

Children three that nestle near,
Eager eye and willing ear,
Pleased a simple tale to hear-

Long has paled that sunny sky:
Echoes fade and memories die.
Autumn frosts have slain July.

Still she haunts me, phantomwise,
Alice moving under skies
Never seen by waking eyes.

Children yet, the tale to hear,
Eager eye and willing ear,
Lovingly shall nestle near.

In a Wonderland they lie,
Dreaming as the days go by,
Dreaming as the summers die:

Ever drifting down the stream-
Lingering in the golden gleam-
Life, what is it but a dream?
Lewis Carroll


You can even combine poetic forms – why not be creative.

A  Hairy Fairy Tale

Mairi Neil

Rapunzel, a herb, a pregnant woman craves with insatiable appetite
And orders her husband to a neighbour’s garden, in the dead of night
Perchance the neighbour watches –– to catch the thief
Unbeknown to him, this enchantress has powers to cause grief
Not happy at the crime, she demands the babe as payment for the herb
Zealous parents agree because the cravings can’t be curbed
Eventually, a girl is born, and the enchantress stakes her claim…
Longhaired Rapunzel imprisoned in tower: destined to fairy tale fame.

How does she escape and win freedom you may ask –
overcoming the power of an enchantress no easy task,
but the main theme of a fairy tale is good versus evil
and there is much we can learn from tales medieval:
consequences, promises, values of loyalty, truth, and trust
of course, LOVE frees Rapunzel – ‘happy ever after’ a must!


Try writing an Acrostic – you can even have the letters going diagonal, or have them going up rather than down -you are the writer, in control. Have fun and share the joy regardless of whether you are writing fiction or fact. It’s a great start for memoir too.

1) Write an acrostic using your name or the name of someone you love.
2) Write an acrostic about a town or city (maybe where you were born, or a place you love to visit, dream about, or a place with special significance).
3) Write an acrostic about a season – spring, summer, autumn, or winter, – the lines spelling out the name of the season, or a particular month(tree, flower, activity) – add your memories, or thoughts.

Autumn Leaving

Mairi Neil

Leaves die and fall in autumn
Each one a work of art farewelled
And as the trees become bare and
Very sad through winter days
Early buds herald the onset of
Spring and promise new life!

An Encounter Unexpected, Unexplained, Unforgettable


A video of a naked toddler running on the highway in America in the middle of the night is going viral on the Internet. The toddler’s run captured by the police car’s dash cam. That blurry image of a lost toddler triggers a buried memory from 1979 Darwin…

After an evening with friends, a workmate Ray offered to drive me back to the hostel where I was staying. Although a hot October night, the hovering storm clouds commonplace. Dark bruises hiding or foretelling sorrow?

My first week in the Top End of Australia marked with high humidity and tropical rainstorms. The start of the monsoon season—or as the locals proclaim, the suicide season. A time when temperaments become as mercurial as the weather. Anyone who can, escapes to more settled climes down south.

Work had sent me north. ‘Not the best time to be seconded from interstate, said Ray, ‘but if you survive you won’t want to leave. The Territory is full of surprises.’ He grinned. “I was sent up here for a week, five years ago.’

Along with intermittent traffic, Ray’s car sped citywards in racing mode. The clock on the dashboard glowed 11.50pm. The taste of wine consumed at dinner lingered on my tongue;  an alcoholic flush warmed neck and cheeks. I wound down the car window. Two delivery lorries roared past, the blast of air pushing my head back. Hair fluttered and skin cooled.

‘No speed limits here?’ I joked, hoping Ray would slow down, the car’s motion exacerbating a wave of rising nausea. Heat fatigue, alcohol, and a big helping of too–sweet Pavlova pressured my bloated stomach.

I don’t travel well in a car at the best of times having never held a driving licence, but in the moonlight, the six lane concrete highway became a huge swirling silver sea. Each bumpy ridge jolting like a cattle prod.

I jerked upright.’ Stop Ray! That was a child!’ The roaring wind distorted my voice.

‘What?’ Ray eased his foot from the accelerator, ‘Where?’

‘I’m sure that was a naked child by the side of the road. Stop so we can check.’


Ray kept driving. Perhaps he thought I was drunk and hallucinating, or maybe it was just typical behaviour from someone whose mantra I suspected was don’t get involved.

I swivelled my head. In the distance, a little figure flitted across the road behind us—a toddler, perhaps three years old. Too young to be deliberately playing chicken with night traffic. ‘Please stop the car. Turn around NOW.’

Fair hair and pale skin glistened in the moonlight.

Miracle of miracles we were the only car on the highway at the time.

A subliminal flash of a bloodied lump of flesh splattered on the grill of a truck, or lying in the gravel as roadkill set me trembling. Ray obeyed the urgency of my voice and slowed almost to a crawl looking for a turnoff while muttering, ‘It really is none of our business.’

‘See, there he is,’ I pointed. ‘Hiding behind that pink frangipani. Stop and I’ll grab him.’

The child was slippery. Perspiration beaded his thin body. Grimy rivulets pooled around neck and groin. His face glowed red from the exertion of running across the highway who knows how many times. I managed to grab him before he launched himself off the kerb again. He giggled and wriggled as if being chased off the highway a regular past time.

A truck growled as it thundered past. Fear coiled in my stomach as I clung to the squirming mass of flesh. ‘What’s your name, son?’ More giggles and grunts. I sniffed at a profusion of purple wisteria dangling over a fence. Sweet relief from the boy’s stale sweat.

‘What’s your name, and where do you live? Where’s mummy and daddy?’ He struggled like a terrified cat.

I stared into the blackness, gradually houses rose from the shadows of shrubbery. Ray, a bemused onlooker to our wrestling match. ‘Let’s go for a walk down some streets and perhaps he’ll point out his home,’ he said.

Once, we were far enough away from the highway, I let Little Eel slide to the ground but still gripped his hand, cajoling him along the street, ‘Is this where you live? Point to mummy and daddy’s house.’

The boy’s reluctance to walk calmly and the lack of light and life from any of the houses exasperating. ‘We need to take him to a police station,’ said Ray, ‘let’s go back to the car.’

I hid my disappointment and picked up the squirming toddler. ‘I’m sure he’s escaped from one of these houses and his parents will be frantic when they discover he’s gone.’

The scorcher of a day produced a warm claustrophobic evening. I had hoped to find an open door or swinging gate to investigate. Most people would have left windows and doors ajar, allowing the night air to circulate, relying on fly screens to keep the mosquitoes and flying cockroaches out. A flywire door easy for this sturdy little chap to negotiate. Tall for his age, babyhood only evident when you were close; he seemed old beyond his years.

When we reached Ray’s car, I spied a service station over the highway–the bright lights probably the attraction for Little Eel.

‘Ray, let’s go over to the servo. They may recognise this little boy. We can ring the police, if there’s no joy.’

We stood beneath the streetlight. Ray stared closely at little Eel as if seeing him for the first time. His nose twitched at the toddler’s pong. He shook his head and grimaced at the glistening bundle with muck embedded in every crevice. Little Eel’s palms left marks on my blouse, and the soles of his feet, caked in grime accumulated over time and not just from today’s roaming, streaked my skirt. Ray’s brown eyes flickered towards the interior of his car, fluffy, sheepskin seat covers glowed white.

‘The servo it is,’ he said, ‘let’s go,’ and with a lull in the traffic, started to walk across the highway.

Little Eel looked even more neglected in the glare of neon lights with sweaty hair plastered and encrusted to his scalp. The man on duty at the service station tutted in disgust.

‘I don’t know the little fella’s name, but his parents come in here all the time when they run out of smokes. Don’t know where they live, except wherever it is they’ll be stoned out of their minds. The kid’s feral, brings himself up.’

‘I thought he lived close, ‘ I said. ‘We found him running across the highway. Lucky he’s not been hit.’

The attendant rolled his eyes, a flush of anger staining his face. His gritted teeth stretched thin lips into a murderous scowl.

Bored with our chatter Little Eel struggled to get down, ’keem, keem…,’ he whined, hands flailing. Surprised to hear words instead of the persistent irritating giggle, I nearly dropped him.

His whiney words clicked. ‘He wants ice-cream.’

A paroxysm of excitement shook his little body as the boy slid to the tiled floor. Although a relief to aching arms, I held firmly to his hand.

‘Can you ring the police for us.’ Ray asked the attendant, and glancing at me, ‘I’ll buy the ice-cream.’ The man gave Little Eel an icy-pole before ringing the police. I smiled as Ray redeemed himself.

‘They’ll be 10-15 minutes coming from town.’

Ray and the service station attendant commiserated about the levels of drug use and abuse in a growing Darwin flooded by people seeking work in the uranium mines or returning after the devastation of Cyclone Tracy. Christmas Day 1974 burned into the psyche of Territorians with thousands still struggling to come to terms with its aftermath.

I basked in the coolness of air-conditioned comfort and limited Little Eel’s exploration of the crowded shelves of the service station, and the sticky trail of dripped vanilla icy pole.

The toddler polished off the treat quicker than a parched lizard. Fifteen minutes stretched interminably. We all sighed with relief when the police jeep arrived and a male and female officer alighted to record our details, and a description of Little Eel’s capers. They knew him and his address, pronouncing the same opinion of his parents and home life as the servo attendant.

Ray hovered at the door like a runner on blocks as I relinquished Little Eel. I blamed hormones for the tears burning the back of my eyes as  the tiny hand left mine.

I watched the police officers wrap him in a towel provided by the attendant and pass him like a parcel from one officer to the other into the patrol car. The female officer adjusted the seatbelt firmly around the toddler’s frame with a, ‘Keep your sticky hands off the buckle!’

My last sight of Little Eel, a grinning face and grimy fingers wiping a farewell of sorts across the car window.

‘He’ll be all right,’ said Ray, ‘kids are resilient.’

‘So speaks a middle-aged bachelor,’ I snapped.

Ray shrugged as he unlocked the car doors. ‘My sister Sally is a widow with six children, I help out with money, babysit, and have the kids for holidays to give her a break.’

The night air chilled. I wished for a large hole to appear so I could slide into it as easily as Little Eel slipped away from me. A concoction of fragrant frangipani and enticing erysimum wafting in the breeze couldn’t remove the toddler’s smell from my clothes. I sunk into the car seat, surrendering to weariness and sorrow.

The journey home completed in embarrassed silence as evidence of the building boom flashed past. Damaged houses derelict since the cyclone, sat alongside empty blocks and new houses, rows of rotten teeth, cavities and shiny new fillings.

I didn’t have a solution or a magic wand to ensure Little Eel’s future. I prayed Ray was right and the authorities would protect the boy, but perhaps not…


That night I decided not to accept the transfer to Darwin. It was a strange frontier town compared to Melbourne, the climate too hot and the encounter with Little Eel left me unsettled and sad.


Outside a liminal glow spreads from an almost full moon and I wonder what happened to the child caught in the police video? How many Little Eels have suffered over the last thirty-seven years? Continue to suffer? How many more will suffer in the future?

If I had stayed in Darwin, could I have made a difference to the lives of families like Little Eel’s? What am I doing now to make a difference?

Pastor Peter Marshall said, ‘Small deeds done are better than great deeds planned.’

Some decisions are questionable and some questions unanswerable. There is no going back, but we can learn from experience.




Was Man Made To Mourn?



I began to cull yet another bookshelf and the first book I picked up was Wartime Lies by Louis Begley. It hugged Elie Wiesel’s, Night, but I couldn’t remember reading it. The blurb on the back announces it is the winner of the Ernest Hemingway Foundation Award and is:

An exceptionally beautiful first novel. It is delicate in recounting the grossest of tales and it is sunny in the face of Stygian darkness. Somehow Begley has written an entrancing novel about hell, a fairytale from the inferno. I read it compulsively and I cannot forget it.

Christopher Hope.


When I was studying history at high school and later university, I read lots of books about WW2 and the Holocaust. Now, working with adults in writing classes and hearing many wartime experiences firsthand, or the pain of the aftermath of growing up in families affected by the Holocaust (especially Jewish refugees from Hungary), I often murmur the lines coined by Rabbie Burns in his poem Man was made to Mourn: A Dirge, 1785:

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

I obviously bought this paperback printed in 1992, from an op shop along with others to read, to help me teach memoir and life writing, but it has sat on the shelf unread – until today.

I started to read and didn’t put it down until I finished the 198 pages. Breakfast dishes congealed in the sink, washing sat in the machine, time literally stood still, although my mind and body suffered emotional upheaval.

Wartime Lies is a fictionalised account of nine-year-old Maciek’s survival in Nazi-occupied Poland. His comfortable middle-class family torn apart in 1939 when his doctor father leaves to fight as an officer in a Polish regiment.

The Russians have been routed by the Germans in an area of Poland bordering the Ukraine, but nationalistic Poles make a valiant, futile attempt at defence. Maciek’s father does ‘the right thing’ against the advice of Catholic friends who encourage him to flee to safer parts of Europe like other Polish Jews.

Maciek’s mother is already dead and he is shown as a sickly, fearful, spoiled boy. His mother’s sister, Tania, has been a surrogate mother running the household and choosing nannies and it is her courage, wits and determination to survive and eventually reunite Maciek with his father that forms the novel.

Tania is an incredible character. If I ever had to face the annihilation of my lifestyle with the heartbreaking brutal assaults and hardship the Jewish people suffered, this book would be my survival incentive and guide.

Tania’s forward planning, realistic plotting, unrelenting scheming, and inventive adaptations to circumstances puts James Bond to shame. The description of how she manages to escape the eviction and slaughter of the Warsaw population after the failed partisan uprising, is harrowing but pure nerves-of-steel genius.

Tania is determined never to be the victim. A fighter, who will do anything to ensure nephew Maciek, and her parents survive and only in a couple of rare scenes do we see her waver. Grandfather is a wily survivor too, having lived through pogroms, but her mother is sickly and a hindrance rather than a help.

Vulnerable but smart, Tania buys false identity cards. The family pretends to be Polish catholics, befriends kind Germans and others to miraculously escape the fate of so many Jewish people. Tania keeps her parents alive longer than most on the run despite the efforts of the SS, Jewish militia and savage Ukranian troops.

The tale is extraordinary, the style minimalist and deserving of the Hemingway Award it received. It deals with the Holocaust through the eyes of a child caught up as an observer and confused participant. The final paragraphs gut-wrenchingly sad as the reader understands that children who go through a war or similar traumatic experience are like the narrator with ‘no childhood he can bear to remember’.

(Think of those poor boy soldiers used by various ‘freedom fighters’.)

Before the war intrudes there are details of class divisions and family ructions and personalities that set the scene and immerse you in a world few people would have experienced.

However, war crushes the innocence of childhood and creates broken adults.

Night after night our TV screens are filled with the horrors from the Middle East and the African continent where wars have simmered, flared and exploded for decades. We herd asylum seekers into camps or hound and vilify ‘foreigners’ and ‘Muslims’ as undesirables and enemies, reminiscent of the world of Wartime Lies. How often do we examine our moral compass?

The power of Begley’s writing is the framing of this semi-autobiographical story as the recollection of a man reflecting on his childhood and trying to understand the man he has become. He is aware it is not a ‘new’ story.

The first three pages show:

‘ a man with a nice face and sad eyes, fifty or more winters on his back, living a moderately pleasant life in a tranquil country. He is a bookish fellow… He reveres the Aeneid. That is where he first found civil expression of his own shame at being alive, his skin intact and virgin of tattoo, when his kinsmen and almost all others, so many surely more deserving than he, perished in the conflagration…

Our man avoids Holocaust books and dinner conversations about Poland in the Second World War… Yet he pores over accounts of the torture of dissidents and political prisoners, imagining minutely each session. How long would it have been before he cried and groveled? Right away, or only after they had broken his fingers? Whom would he have betrayed and how quickly?

He has become a voyeur of evil, sometimes uncertain which role he plays in the vile pictures that pass before his eyes. Is that the inevitable evolution of the child he once was, the price to be paid for his sort of survival?…

The man with the sad eyes believes he has been changed inside forever, like a beaten dog, and gods will not cure that…’

Would you lie to survive? How often and to what extent? Does the end justify the means? How will the choices you make affect the rest of your life? What if the lies strip you of ‘honour’, your identity, forces you to accept and approve actions alien to your beliefs? How do you cope with ‘survivor guilt’? What does it do to a child to have the adult they admire and love not only condone but plan lies and deceit? How do we ‘unlearn’ behaviours?

The questions raised by Wartime Lies relevant to the debate we are having in Australia about asylum seekers arriving by boat and the flood of refugees into Europe. What would you do to flee horror and persecution? What effect will this trauma have on the thousands of children? Will they ever recover and rebuild broken lives? Do people have to wait, suffer indignities and torture before they’re ‘allowed’ to seek a better, safer life?

Apart from the introduction’s philosophical pondering there is no moralising in the book or attempt to make definitive judgement. The story of Tania and Maciek’s survival unfolds with the horrors of the war and the extermination of the Jews in Poland, as a backdrop.

Revelations of terror interspersed with scenes of believable normality. But you can’t turn the pages fast enough, the tension breathtaking. Morbid fascination and nerve trembling fear follow the central characters – will they succumb to the cruel human beings surrounding them? How will they get out of yet another tight spot? Will this person be friend or foe? And always the little voice saying what if this was me…

When asked in an interview, if the novel was autobiographical, Begley replied:

‘It is, in that I was born in Poland and I’m Jewish… I spent the war on ‘Aryan papers.’ I lived in Warsaw during the uprising, but what is in the interstices is fiction…

I’d be doing the reader a disservice if I tried to distinguish the grain of sand from what hope is the pearl that formed around it.

A child’s memory is not like that of a man who keeps diaries. If one wanted to recall precise events, one would be left with what would fit in the palm of a hand. If one wants to tell what really happened in an emotional sense, one has to imagine and invent the facts.’

Not a memoir, not an entirely factual story, but a powerful memorable telling of a period in a child’s life grounded in real life events. The truthful elements completely engage your emotions along with the fiction. An example of great story-telling and writing to remain in memory longer perhaps than if it had been a true life “I” account.

This is a book to remind us of the fragility of human decency and how easily a community can unravel if prejudices and intolerance are encouraged to fester. If ignorance and envy are allowed to devour clear thinking, decent behaviour and mutual respect.

Wartime Lies shows the worst of humanity, but also the best. There seems no limit to what human beings can do to destroy each other, but also no limit to what the human spirit can endure and still survive. Cruelty is countered by compassion, violence is calmed or outsmarted, and fear is conquered.

Apparently, Stanley Kubrick wrote a screenplay based on this novel but scrapped plans because Schindler’s List was being produced at the same time. Yet, this story begs to be filmed, to remind another generation of the damage wreaked on the world by prejudice and war.

Will enough of mankind ever say this can’t go on,  intervene and stop the cycle? Or are we forever destined to mourn?

This book remains on my bookshelf.


A Much-Needed Circuit Breaker


The frog says it all! I return to work in two weeks, and although I’ve had a longer break than many people, it has not felt like ‘a vacation’, or in Aussie vernacular ‘a holiday’.

I seem to have spent my time fretting over not achieving what I’d hoped – clearing clutter. Attempts to make more space has literally just ‘shifted the deck chairs on the Titanic’.

The piles of paper seem to have grown along with the notebooks and scraps of writing I’ve kept ‘to put on the computer and finish one day.’ A day becoming more distant by the minute!

Add articles, photo prompts, postcards, interesting pamphlets and a host of other paraphernalia to be useful for inspiration for my writing classes and a little voice (belonging to a figure with horns) whispers ‘build a bonfire, build a bonfire’.  

This is part of a ditty we used to sing at the end of the school year and one I used in a poem submitted and accepted to an anthology about schooldays.

Last day At Primary School
Mairi Neil

“Build a bonfire, build a bonfire
Put the teachers on the top
Put the text books in the middle
And burn the bloomin’ lot!”

No more walking the dusty track
No more pushing in the back
No more jostling to be first in line
No more smell of gums and pine

No more of Mr Stuart’s tests
No more fear of ‘six of the best’
No more wearing same dull dress
High school promises something fresh

Class party with games and fun
Sporting trophies to those who won
Certificates too, I got more than one
Extra long recess in which to run

But soon it’s time to say goodbye
What’s this? Why do I want to cry?
Farewell friends inner voices sigh…
Promises to stay in touch a lie.

(The anthology, Do Nuns Wear Knickers? will be published by Melaleuca Press next month.)

Most days, I relate to the frustration, exasperation and sheer desperation of this graphic on Google!

Men overwhelmed


At least, I have mapped out term one lessons for two classes, and have a host of ideas and research ready to transform into lessons for other classes. ‘Not a complete time waster, then,’ the horned inhabitant of my mind is back.

I’ve also weeded and tidied up the garden and hard as it was culled bookshelves – so there, I tell myself. But the conversion of the shed to a studio is more tortoise than hare, and I’m so behind in the Blogging 101 course, I toy with admitting defeat – and that is not me.

Enter an invitation to walk away from it all –  for 24 hours – a much-needed circuit breaker, a breath of fresh air, reminding me a change is as good as a holiday, and all those other cliches!

Rejuvenation here I come I thought, never realising what an amazing learning curve 24 hours can hold and provide triggers for stories – imaginary and memoir.

You cannot fully understand your own life without knowing and thinking beyond your life, your own neighborhood, and even your own nation.

Johnnetta Cole

Kristine, a friend of fifteen years, moved to the other side of Melbourne eleven years ago. When I met her recently at a Climate Change Rally she reminded me I had never visited her new home!

Soon, I promise,’ I said, face reddening with embarrassment.

Kristine and me
Kristine and me

In the intervening years we had caught up, but mainly at my house. However, Kristine and husband John are now retired and I’m working part time. Flexibility of time offers less excuses.

Why don’t you visit and stay overnight,’ Kristine said, ‘we belong to a walking club. You can come on a walk, I guarantee you’ll love where we live now.

Yes,’ I promised, ‘2016, will be our year of catching up. I can get the train to Altona Meadows!

You have to leave the city of your comfort and go into the wilderness of your intuition. What you’ll discover will be wonderful. What you’ll discover is yourself.

Alan Alda




Mordialloc is 24km south east of Melbourne CBD and Altona Meadows is 17km south west – suburbs opposite ends of the city with Port Phillip Bay in common and the CBD in the middle. Altona and suburbs that side of the city synonymous with the huge Altona oil refinery and industrial off-shoots, and to me, not a desirable place to live.

How wrong and ignorant can one be? (I soon found out.)

A few years ago an introduced  bus service linked both sides of the city. A bus leaves from Mordialloc to Altona but a one-way trip takes 3.5 hours as it wends its way through suburbia!! (Hence me promising to catch a train, which takes 1.5 hours.) To spend a whole day discovering a different Melbourne via this service on my ‘to do list’ for ages.

As it turned out, my first visit to Altona Meadows became a comfortable car ride because Kristine visited another friend this side of the city last Thursday. They lunched in Parkdale and Kristine arranged to pick me up afterwards.

Conversation became a catch-up and sharing of ideas on how we’d spend our time. She explained more about the various local groups  joined since retiring: She walks, cycles, plays badminton and sometimes joins her husband for golf.

I love walking and swam regularly last year with a friend but felt seriously unfit listening to Kristine’s routines. The ‘Use it or Lose it’ campaigners have no worries motivating retirees in Altona Meadows!


Kristine organises ‘walk and talk trips’ for the Altona Adventurers. This wonderful way to get to know and understand your own community as well as other communities within daily commuting distance, very popular. They travel by foot, bicycle, punt, train or tram. We are spoiled for choice in Melbourne.

We stopped by the Port Philip Eco Centre to pick up information from Ranger Bronnie about the penguins at St Kilda pier. Kristine aims to organise a ‘walk and talk’ tour in September and the Centre’s staff were more than helpful regarding maps, viewing times and even other places worthy of a tour along the bay.


The EcoCentre is located in the St Kilda Botanic Gardens’ old Park-Keeper’s house. The original building, a 1966 brick veneer had an energy efficiency rating of less than one star. The concept of a local ‘environmental hub’ was initiated by the City of Port Phillip (CoPP) in 1998 and has now grown to be the independent, community-managed, environment organisation; the Port Phillip EcoCentre Inc. Local environment groups initiated the ‘EcoHose project’ to transform the house and demonstrate sustainable building and garden design and practices.

The EcoCentre was formally launched in St Kilda Botanical Gardens in December 1999. In 2003, it was retrofitted to a 5 star level – which was state of the art at the time. Since then, public awareness and design efficiency has moved along by leaps and bounds and the EcoHouse continues to be retrofitted to a 6 star standard with improved window insulation options installed across different windows, display of new lighting technologies in various rooms (LED and T5) and new stovetop.

In providing a focus for community groups and individuals to meet and share knowledge and resources, the EcoCentre builds networks, maximizing positive environmental action, with positive flow-on effects into the community. The EcoCentre initiates educational projects and provides meeting space, office facilities, a small environmental reference library and most importantly, an example of environmental action in practice.The Committee of Management meets monthly and sub-committees function and meet on a project by project basis.

The EcoCentre has been structured as a regional ‘umbrella’ environment organization to meet the Environment Australia criteria which enables tax deductible donations. This enhances the EcoCentre’s ability to attract external funding and sponsors and ultimately provide improved services to members and the community. City of Port Phillip has continued its support in the form of building provision and utility expenses and is a key financial sponsor contributing to operational costs. In exchange the EcoCentre is committed to supporting and furthering the goals of the City of Port Phillip.

Talk about six degrees of separation! I discovered the group most involved with the welfare of the penguins is Earthcare.

What deja vu!

Earthcare week ran from 9-15 sep 1996. It aimed to raise environmental consciousness in the local environment. Earthcare received a $2000 grant from the City of Port Phillip and made Earthcare week a great success. Throughout the week activities were held for local schools, plantings, library visits and guest speakers. School children also received an educational activity kit prepared by Earthcare about the local area.

I wrote a children’s book to be included in the education kit. This was later adapted for a similar kit for the Friends of Bradshaw Park for City of Kingston’s schools. It aimed to encourage responsible dog ownership, in particular disposing of dog poo correctly and ensuring pets didn’t harm local wildlife.

Told from the perspective of the dogs, Goldie, a city dog, shows Kevin, a new arrival from the country, tips and tricks living in an urban environment.

Local conservation groups wanted to raise awareness of the effect of dog poo on many of the city’s waterways (creeks and canals), and when swept into the bay through storm water drains. Indigenous fauna, especially possums and birds are also in danger from unrestrained dogs and cats.

Bronnie was thrilled Kristine and her Adventurers  planned a visit. She spent some time detailing the choice of routes on a map provided free by the city. A walk around Albert Park lake easy to incorporate into the trip.

She also advised Kristine to buy some red cellophane paper and cut pieces able to cover the torches of those participating in the sunset viewing of the little penguins. Attached by a rubber band, this paper ensures the penguins are not ‘blinded by the light’.


While at the Ecocentre, we bought a book that provides an amazing resource for anyone interested in knowing and appreciating what’s available along the coastline of Port Phillip Bay. The rich cultural and natural history of the coast is explained in wonderful photos and well-researched text and presented in a fascinating, readable format. A handy guide for day trippers, backpackers and serious students to encourage exploration, respect, and conservation.

Coastal guide book ISBN:9780992321703 tel: (03) 94320163

We were also gifted the latest book by Meyer Eidelson about the original inhabitants of the area – Yalukit Willam, The River People of Port Phillip. Meyer has written many resources about the Port Phillip area. A joint effort by several councils, scholars, researchers and most importantly, the Boon Wurrung Foundation and Koorie Heritage Trust this is a book I’ll treasure, especially as we near Australia Day.

The book is a reminder of the rich cultural heritage colonial powers discovered when ‘the Great Southland’ was invaded and acquired as part of the British Empire in 1788.

Unaware, of what the future would hold, the elders of the first people no doubt uttered a similar greeting as their descendent Carolyn Briggs, in the introduction of the book:

“Welcome to my country, the land of the great bay of the Boon Wurrung people, our beautiful home.”

Carolyn Briggs, Boon Wurrung Foundation.


The weather had been mercurial all day, but when we arrived at Altona Meadows, the promised showers eased. Kristine took me for a walk to show the nearby wetlands and where The Friends of Skeleton Creek (another of her and John’s pastimes!) work to  conserve the area.

On the path you can walk towards Williamstown or Werribee. Across the water is Point Cook and further on, the much touted  Sanctuary Lakes. The houses are as big and glamorous as what you’d expect in Brighton – without the exclusive price tag!

This ‘Gothic’ house caught my eye and my imagination. The picture doesn’t do it justice, but there’s a dragon on the spire and one at the back. Do the owners love fantasy? The dark arts? Have they studied at Hogwarts? Writer’s notebook always handy.

Birdlife is prolific in the Altona area. I saw a magnificent Vee of black swans overhead choosing where they’d land. At Altona beach there were more swans than people because of the weather. The only place where I’ve seen more black swans is Lake Wendouree in Ballarat.

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Unfortunately, a longer walk planned for Friday didn’t eventuate because of heavy rain. Instead, Kristine drove to Williamstown and later Newport and I caught the train home – refreshed and replenished. Motivation and imagination on fire.


Newport and Williamstown, important links in my family history I’ll write about in another post. However, I discovered Kristine’s family had links going back further than mine and through the efforts of a local woman, Debra Vaughan, a permanent memorial on the foreshore at Williamstown ensures they are never forgotten.


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When Kristine moved to the west eleven years ago she discovered through family history research that an ancestor had been one of the young Irish female orphans brought to Australia at the time of Ireland’s Great Famine 1845-55.

Susannah Wright arrived at 15 years old to work as a domestic servant. One of many girls ‘rescued’ and sent to Australia to be wives, workers and breeders.The men of the colony and the government’s desire to populate the land considered a priority.

At least Kristine’s ancestor married a Mr Wright (in more ways than one) although betrothed to a different man. She eventually had eleven children.

A touch of serendipity occurred when Kristine went to her first memorial service after discovering her ancestry. When they asked if anyone was a direct descendent of Susannah Wright a man also raised his hand. Kristine met a cousin, she didn’t know about!

The Australian-Irish heritage Association provide information on all things Irish in Australia and also run writing competitions, including one specifically for women writers.

The Australian-Irish Heritage Association is an inclusive organisation which encourages and promotes an awareness of Australia’s Irish heritage. To this end, the Association creates opportunities for all to learn about, participate in and enjoy this distinctive heritage.



In September, last year, the Australian Bureau of Statistics released figures to show Victoria was Australia’s fastest growing state.

For anyone driving from A to B – particularly in and out of the city, or across suburbs the statistics won’t be a surprise. Nor, are they a surprise for train commuters, and for neighbourhoods like mine, where access to free street parking is becoming rarer by the day.

And yet, the same report reveals Victoria is still the place to be, or where people want to be:

“Victoria has also benefited for a surge in internal migration, as relatively affordable housing and good job prospects make it a magnet for the rest of Australia.
In the past six months, 37,800 Australians have moved to Victoria from other states and only 31,900 Victorians have left.”

After experiencing a sojourn to Altona Meadows and traversing the city, meeting so many delightful people and seeing delightful sights, I can definitely agree Melbourne is the city for me.

A man travels the world over in search of what he needs and returns home to find it.

George Moore









Smiling and Sharing, Celebrating Success


I’ve received one of those emails that starts the day with joy. Matilda Butler, an accomplished writer/publisher I met through the Internet in 2009 has produced more remarkable books to help women tell their stories.

Here is part of the email:

Just Released and Already in the Top 3 Bestseller List for Writing Skills

It was just two years ago that I shared news about the release of a four-volume anthology series called Seasons of Our Lives. Those volumes went on to win 9 book awards and were ranked in the top 5 in Kindle’s bestseller list for Writing Skills and in the mid-20s for Memoir.

Building on that success, held a major contest to seek the best stories that reflect on women’s lives and contribute to our understanding of ourselves as well as others. Today I’m pleased to announce the launch of:

TALES OF OUR LIVESReflection Pond, a two-volume anthology of award-winning, inspiring, women’s true stories told from perspectives that illuminate our diverse lives. The second volume is Tales Of our Lives: Fork In The Road.


And these volumes are already #2 and #3 in Kindle’s bestseller Writing Skills books and #17 and #31 in bestseller Women’s Memoirs.

Note: You still have a few hours left at the special price of $ .99. Soon the price will go up to $1.99.

When I discovered Matilda’s memoir site the information and inspirational stories led to my first foray into sending my work into cyberspace to be read by others.

The guest writers and writing tips on the site invaluable if you want to improve the telling of your stories. You also learn what other people are writing and reading.

I had three pieces published about my mother and my childhood, and even won the regular writing contest Matilda organised to encourage women to share their stories.

Mum’s Legendary Scones (including Mum’s recipe)

Guising and Galoshens (about Halloween customs in Scotland)

Fairy Cakes A Magical Journey (including Mum’s recipe)

Matilda’s first E-books of stories from women were based on the Seasons of Our Lives and I had stories in three of these books. Over the 4 volumes 100 stories were told!

A wonderful teacher who wants to encourage others, Matilda and her business partner Kendra Bonnett ensured a take-away (writing exercise and advice) was always included at the end of each story.

The concept behind the four volumes of Seasons of Our Lives originated on our website The idea was that we’d provide content to help women write their memoirs. Over time, we wanted a two-way exchange. We wanted women to be able to share their stories with us and others. And that was the beginning of a series of contests. Then last year, we decided to have just four contests — one focused on stories from each of the seasons of the year. 
• We received hundreds of entries and soon realized that we had some real gems, stories that needed to be shared more widely than just our website. We began the long process of reading all the entries and selecting just the best. 
• But we didn’t stop with just the best of the stories. We decided to write a takeaway, a mini-lesson, for each story. We wanted readers to have comments that would help them reflect on their own life stories and highlight writing suggestions that they can use as they work on their own legacy stories. 

These books are still available at Amazon:

WINTER         SPRING           SUMMER          AUTUMN


I had the privilege of meeting Matilda in 2012 when my daughter MaryJane and I travelled around the USA by train. The six-week journey, one of recuperation and adventure. I was still fragile from my mastectomy and chemotherapy and MJ from the devastating consequences of a routine operation that went horribly wrong.

After an exchange of emails, when Matilda discovered our plans, she invited us to visit her home in central Oregon. We couldn’t do this, but we were going to Portland.


Matilda and husband Bill travelled several hours by car and stayed in a hotel overnight so they could be the ‘host and hostess with the mostest.’ As our travel guides for a day in that gorgeous city, they took us to lunch and then the Portland Art Museum. The visit as fresh in my mind as if it were yesterday and a treasured memory.

We were introduced to the indigenous people’s culture and many modern-day artists.



We were in Portland to travel down the Columbia River to Astoria, tracing the steps of Captain John McInnes, my father’s Great Uncle who captained the Cadzow Forest as it plied trade between Britain, Australia and the Americas.

cadzow forest article

Unfortunately, the ship went down with all hands in 1896. Captain John’s namesake, my father’s older brother John, also a seaman, drowned off the coast of Texas in 1927. Mary Jane and I researched in the library at San Antonio for more information about both men.

We were so close, yet so far from the younger John’s grave at Corpus Christi, but due to poor planning and the train timetable a visit, there will be an excuse for another trip!

However, by experiencing the mighty Columbia River and visiting the Maritime Museum at Astoria, we imagined and absorbed life through the eyes of men aboard the Cadzow Forest. The information and exhibits in the gallery filled in gaps and provided ideas for research about what life must have been like over a century ago.


There is no better way to experience a place than through the eyes of an informed local and everyone we met in Portland, including Matilda and Bill were friendly, knowledgeable and hospitable.


There were amazing exhibits at the gallery that told stories of the human condition. As writers, we want to engage emotionally and use words. Artists use other skills and several of the pieces at Portland confronted and delved into the darkest aspects of the human soul as well as the brightest and uplifting.

As a parent who frequented art galleries and museums with my children from a young age,  I appreciated this sign, which I have never seen anywhere else.


An exhibition that will inspire a host of poems or stories for a writing class if they chose to visit was this one by American Edward Keinholz: The Western Motel 1992.



I was struck by the poignancy the artist has created by attention to detail and my imagination went into overdrive. If ever people feel the need to reinvigorate their love of writing and feel bereft of ideas, I suggest a visit to an art gallery or museum!

Another exhibition that impressed both MJ and me was one around storytelling. By pressing a button you could see a video of Portlanders (not sure if that’s what they’re called) who responded to a request to bring in an object and explain in a couple of minutes why it is important to them.

I can still feel the weight of Mary Jane’s arm as she slipped it through mine, and the warmth of her body as she cuddled close to me while we watched a young woman explain why she had held onto her mother’s X-rays long after her mother had died of an aggressive brain tumour. The story resonated with both of us for different reasons.

I kept John’s X-rays and MJ incorporated them in an amazing short film to explain grief and the human toll of industrial diseases like asbestosis.

Artists thousands of miles apart telling stories through different mediums, purists and cross-pollinators of media – but always focusing on the detail and that all-important human condition. Emotional engagement equals remembering – and we’d all like to be remembered.

Matilda’s latest books, as well as her others, excellent examples of well-written and engaging stories that you can harvest to spark your own stories and improve your readability.

More than that, they are a record showing how extraordinary the lives of ordinary people are!






Tolerance: the Beacon of the Enlightenment, an anthology compiled by the French Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies, translated by students and tutors of French at Oxford University.

A timely post from my dear friend Lisa Hill and her remarkable blog.

ANZ LitLovers LitBlog

ToleranceThis is a remarkable anthology.  I came across it via a Tweet from Emma @bookaround (Book Around the Corner) and I have enough French now to understand most of the article at Livres Hebdo to which the Tweet led.  It’s about initiatives at Harvard and Oxford in response to the attack on Free Speech in the Charlie Hebdo murders.  And down at the bottom of the article was this:

Dans le même souci de commémoration des attentats, une autre université anglo-saxonne prestigieuse, Oxford, a publié un essai autour du thème de la tolérance rédigé par 100 étudiants et professeurs. Le résultat: une traduction d’extraits d’œuvres des philosophes des lumières, initialement rassemblés dans Tolérance, le combat des lumières de la Société française d’étude du dix-huitième siècle.

L’ouvrage s’intitule Tolerance: The Beacon of the enlightment est gratuitement distribué au format PDF. Il comprend des nouvelles traductions de la Déclaration…

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Suffering Suffragettes – Women Do Laugh!


from BBC archive – women in Lancaster

It is holiday time and I relaxed at the movies with my youngest daughter Mary Jane and two longtime friends and writing buddies, Barbara and Maureen.

‘Three generations watching Suffragette,said MJ, ‘coffee afterwards should be interesting.’ And it was!

MJ is 26, I’m 62, Barbara 78, and Maureen almost 80. Four women with varying degrees of knowledge about the ‘first wave of feminism’. Four women who have experienced very different lives and education. Women who have lived through legislative changes towards gender equality, and some profound changes in attitude.

Maureen and Barbara can remember WW2 and along with me, experienced restrictions and unfairness because of our gender. I joined Women’s Liberation in the 70s.

And of course, with today’s newspaper headlines, MJ can quite rightly ask, ‘How far have we really come?’

We wanted to come away from the movie feeling empowered and uplifted, although under no illusions that the struggle for equality and respect continues in 2016.

Instead, we left the cinema angry, sad, and with a list of disappointments about aspects of the script, the choice and performance of actors, and a storyline that tried to cover too many topics, too frugally.

Was Meryl Streep chosen to play Emmeline Pankhurst to attract funding? Her cameo role came across as wooden, the dialogue bland rhetoric and any personality buried under too many layers of period costume.


BBC archives -Women’s Social and Political Union 1908

Criticisms aside, I hope people see the film, think about the issues raised, have conversations and initiate discussions – especially with fathers, husbands, brothers, sons and daughters.

Unless you deliberately seek information about the suffragettes, they receive a glance in history classes at school or are ignored altogether. Many universities no longer support Women’s Studies.

However, I’m at a loss as to what audience the film hoped for, because if it was to educate men (and new generations of women), I think it will fail to attract bums on seats.

If it is ‘preaching to the converted’ it disappoints.

If it is aimed at all women, or the general public, they should have placed more emphasis on success and focused on inspiration and the political journey.

At the end of the film’s action,  a scrolled list of various (not all) countries and the dates when women were allowed to vote is a lost opportunity. The list is not put into any sort of context to make it memorable. (A headline from a newspaper, or file footage of the achievement and public reaction against the dates would have been nice.)

Many women already know why the women’s movement developed and will go to see the movie to learn the history. They’ll seek a reason to celebrate, be entertained, empowered – there are so many women who were amazing at that time. Why the story had to be told through the life of a fictional character seems strange.

I was looking forward to a film celebrating the first wave of feminism and hoped for something as inspiring as PrideWhen that movie ended in the Kino Cinema there was spontaneous applause. The audience walked out of the cinema emotionally engaged, aware we had experienced something special;we  better understood and appreciated an important historical struggle, saw the best and worst of the human spirit.

I wanted that feeling after Suffragette. The courage and vision of those women not only gave me rights I enjoy today, but the inspiration and impetus to join the Women’s Liberation Movement when I started university in 1971.

I’ve been committed to telling and promoting herstory for years through my community involvement, my parenting, my writing, teaching, and social activism. All the issues raised in the film, including the right to vote (and why many women don’t) and wage inequality are still relevant today.

Meanwhile, domestic violence, especially the murder of women in the family home, a place where they should feel the safest, is the subject of a Royal Commission here in Victoria to grab people’s attention and effect real change.

Unfortunately, Suffragette is bleak and the sacrifices and gains the women made buried in a script that tries to do too much and tell too many important stories without giving detailed justice to most of them.

Why a fictional character when any number of women’s life story could have been told to make the same points?


In the film, Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan) becomes a suffragette, not so much by choice but by a series of accidents: she gets caught up in a direct action campaign of window-smashing, is approached by a fellow worker who cajoles her to attend a meeting.

Suddenly, from a reluctant convert begged to join, she’s blowing up mailboxes and Lloyd George’s country manor. Instant radicalisation and a speedy character arc that leaves a lot of unanswered questions about personal growth and why such violence.

Suffragette is clear about the power of men and entrenched patriarchy – from the deviousness and duplicity of politicians and police, to the tyranny of husbands and employers, but it introduces subjects like sexual abuse and exploitation, domestic violence and the abrogation of women’s rights over their own children, money and property – huge social topics – depicted briefly and focused on a handful of women as if they are the movement.

An empowered Maud rescues a young girl from the clutches of an employer who also abused Maud from twelve years old. She fought for this girl’s rights, but apart from a crying tantrum she lets a couple take her son after her husband puts him up for adoption because he can’t cope as a single parent.

The scene included to expose the lack of a mother’s rights but was a storyline that deserved longer exploration and didn’t gel with Maud’s feisty character.

Where was the sisterhood? The band of guerrillas Maud joined, would surely have stepped in. These were women prepared to damage property, suffer indignities in prison including barbaric force-feeding (the physical consequences down played in the movie).

If they couldn’t stop the adoption, they’d have encouraged her to kidnap the boy or at least make a public fight for her rights. Some of those women had money as well as influential husbands, who were not all anti suffragette.

Check out the Changeling, a movie on the profound power of a mother’s love, set in 1928 LA and based on a true story of single mother Christine Collins. A movie that tackles a host of social and political issues but never loses sight of the determination of a mother to get her son back. Ironically, 1928 is the year some British women get the vote – years behind the empire’s  ex-colonies.

This is another point of contention. There is not even a mention of the advances in other countries, no mention of our Australian hero Vida Goldstein, and no exploration of why British women had to resort to violence when Australia achieved voting rights with the help of the Women’s Suffrage Petition.

It wasn’t a documentary, but what exactly was the film when a key suffragette like Pankhurst is almost airbrushed out.

Women’s Suffrage Petition Memorial Melbourne

Suffragette emphasises at the beginning how devoted Maud is to Georgie, he’s her only son, she adores him. Why would she not put the same effort and commitment fighting for him as she does to the suffragette cause? The Maud they created in this film would explore every avenue, would demand the others help.

Edith Ellyn (played brilliantly by Helen Bonham Carter), a radical activist, based on the real-life suffragette Edith Garrod, and her supportive and committed husband would surely have helped Maud. (There is a brief mention that Edith’s husband went to prison twice for the cause and he plays an active albeit almost silent part!)

In fact, Georgie and Maud are too clean and well-dressed for the average worker in 1912 living in the squalid housing around the industrial factories of London. the opening scenes show the drudgery and relentless labouring required in places ignoring basic health and safety guidelines.

Another niggling point is when Georgie has a cough and is taken to Edith and her pharmacist husband for examination and free medicine. Given some barley sugar he doesn’t say thank you. Maud would have admonished his lack of manners. I mean this is a boy whose father makes him salute and thank the King’s picture every night.  The class system in Britain ingrained politeness and courtesy towards ‘your betters.’

Another minor irritant was Maud’s husband accusing her of wanting champagne on a beer budget… really? Doubt if that was a common expression among laundry workers in 1912 – he’d more likely berate her for trying to copy her ‘posh’ friends.

Perhaps the biggest failing in the film is not offering some joy.

I know the times were bleak for women, but I also know when a group of women with a common cause get together, we laugh, we dance, we take the mickey – and committed activists look after each other. They would not have Maud sleeping in a disused church if she is one of the inner circle.

Where were the fun scenes reliving successful operations? The frenetic scenes preparing banners, making the sashes and placards – some visual relief from the drabness and oppression?

I have happy treasured memories of Women’s Liberation meetings, Union of Australian Women events and International Women’s Day celebrations and marches. Despite  critics  wanting to portray feminists as dour, frigid and bitter, the term sisterhood is powerful has a different connotation for most women.


There could also have been more use of actual footage of the times for impact if the film was deftly edited like Selma. The actual footage used at the end of Suffragette is powerful and it shows the movement was a lot bigger than what the film suggested, but achieving the goal of the vote is years away.

In Suffragette, one scene comes close to showing camaraderie of sisterhood – when two of the characters (Violet and Maud) find a room to rent after a distraught Maud is locked out of home by her husband. The women sit on the ‘bed of nails’, which collapses accompanied by their giggles and laughter.

Women are adept at laughing in the face of adversity – gallows humour if you like – similar to soldiers under fire. The film lacked that important essence to take us on an emotional roller coaster – the audience needed to feel the ardour of these women, breathe their fire, be touched by their soul and sadness, but also their laughter, love, humanity and the solidarity that gave them the courage and spark to continue.

Two scenes stand out – a riot revealing the brutality of the police and onlookers and the tense scene where Emily Wilding Davison stepped out in front of the King’s horse. The film suggests it was deliberate suicide, yet this is debatable, especially when you look at archived footage.

Personally, I’d love a film to be made on the life of Emily, beginning with that horrific media grabbing action and then showing her journey. How and why she became a suffragette. And why so few people actually know or care about her life, preferring to define her by that one action.

We need to inspire more women and men to question how far we have come and the structural changes needed for equality and basic human rights.




Reflect, Review and Renew – Hello 2016

positive quote.jpeg

It’s the start of a new year so a good time to reflect on the positive and negative aspects of 2015, and introduce myself to others who are enrolled in Blogging 101, a wonderful free course by WordPress to help people like me who want to improve!

  • I’ll review what I’ve achieved
  • Where and how my writing and teaching can improve
  • And set some goals for 2016

(Meanwhile, abstaining from mentioning the word ‘resolutions’ – after all they’re made to be broken!)

KingstonmycityFinalCover copy

2015 was the 20th Anniversary of Mordialloc Writers’ Group, a group I founded and still coordinate. With longtime member, Glenice Whitting,  I co-edited and published a collection of personal essays from 20 past and current members.

The launch was successful and fun with over 100 people attending, including the current Mayor of Kingston and 3 past mayors, local and federal members of parliament and councillors.

tmsin Mairi and Bill 2
Mayor Tamsin Bearsley, Mairi Neil and ex-Mayor Bill Nixon.

I still have technical issues to solve to enable a book link to be permanently displayed on the Mordy Writers site and Amazon so the anthology can be downloaded free. However, these links work thanks to Draft2Digital:


Page Foundry





The book is on Amazon too but is not free there yet.

The classes I teach in local community houses have been delightful as usual. Some of the work the students finished has again been published in four class anthologies. Helping writing students publish their wonderful poems, short stories, memoir and essays is satisfying and inspiring.

2015 anthologiesjpg.jpg

Two of the classes also produced Zines mid-year – fun to write and easy to publish. We concentrate on short form poetry and flash fiction. This year we tried Twaiku and had a lot of fun. (Well some students did!)

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

Lesson planning takes a lot of time but so does blogging I’ve discovered. I know I overthink and over plan! However, I was humbled and proud when one of my blogs on the value of poetry was reblogged by another teacher/writer.

Spending so much time preparing lessons and teaching I don’t want George Bernard Shaw to be right when he said, “ He who can, does. He who cannot, teaches.”

As long as I finish some of my own projects  and have a poem or short story published elsewhere each year, I figure I can still regard myself as a writer.

My successes this year, modest though they are, were great to have:

A story in ‘You’ll Eat Worse Than that before You Die’, An Anthology of family, friendship and food, Melaleuca Blue Publishing, February 2015.


A poem in ‘Inner Child’, poetry anthology, Poetica Christi Press, June 2015.


A poem in Writers For Calais Refugees, November 2015.calais32.jpg

I started this blog at the end of 2014 and promised myself to publish at least a post a week. WordPress have kindly furnished information that proves I published 105 new posts in 2015!

In their parlance ‘the crunchy numbers’ are:

A New York City subway train holds 1,200 people. This blog was viewed about 5,000 times in 2015. If it were a NYC subway train, it would take about 4 trips to carry that many people.

The busiest day of the year was November 8th with 164 views. The most popular post that day was How A Community Celebration Can Teach Tolerance.

Not world shattering figures, but a promising start. It certainly gives me a benchmark to improve. I am thrilled at the post that received the most views because in a world where tolerance seems in short supply, I am proud my community is actively promoting inclusiveness.

The second most-viewed post was Limericks, laughter and Lessons – Form Poetry is Fun.

I don’t consider myself a poet, but do love all types of writing and playing with words. If it works as a poem, I’ll have a go. In a writing class with limited time form poetry can give students a sense of accomplishment as well as motivation to do homework.

I’m looking forward to teaching more form poetry this year.


However, for me, the post I enjoyed writing the most was sharing my visit to Samoa, not just because it was a visit to paradise and the realisation of a childhood dream, but what Samoa represented.

The trip was to celebrate 5 years with no recurrence of breast cancer after my mastectomy in October 2010. There is no more positive note to end this introductory post to my new buddies of Blogging 101.

2016 is the beginning of my journey towards a decade clear of cancer and chalking up more satisfied students and more writing credits!


Rituals and Reminiscing For Auld Lang Syne

Ceremonies cemented the impression that humanity, not chaos, reigned over the universe.

Brian Herbert

We’ve farewelled another year and welcomed 2016. I look back on my post this time last year and the opening paragraph still rings true:

Like many people, particularly in my age group, I wonder where the year has gone and if it’s true that it disappears more quickly the older you are!
If I still lived in Scotland I’d celebrate Hogmanay in the traditional manner and in years gone by I’ve kept up several of the cultural traditions, but confess to having a quiet evening at home last night and allowing my partying daughters to come home and bring in the lump of coal I left at the front door. Actually it was a briquette (a lump of compressed coal) from the family home at Croydon. Mum gave it to me to use specifically for the ‘first foot’ over the door on Hogmanay, when we moved to Mordialloc over 30 years ago.

This time of year lends itself to reflection as well as remembering cultural quirks, but because it is a ‘new’ year, it still has to unfold, be lived and stories made. I’ll continue to find inspiration and tranquility under the evening sky whether it’s walking the dog, or putting rubbish in the bins or just standing for a few minutes alone staring above at the never-ending twinkling canopy – some habits never change.

The preparation for Hogmanay always entails cleaning the house and ridding cupboards of unnecessary clutter, tidying up the garden. Physical examples of renewal,  like a journal writer starting each day on a fresh page.

On Christmas night, we experienced the last full moon for 2015 and as Anne and I walked Aurora around the neighbourhood, I tried to capture the moon with my camera phone:


December 25, 2015 – Mairi Neil

The moon gleams white, luminescent,
No drifting wisps of shape-shifting cloud.
The man in the moon yet to appear
With his benign expression,
Dark, deep set eyes and
Hint of moustachioed smile.
Tonight a vibrant sky, pink-tinged
While apricot and lilac hues waft to
Colour the rooftops, soften pavements
Breathe beauty into shadows dancing
On bricks, tiles, concrete, and steel.
A flock of parrots settle among
The topmost branches of a stoic gum
Protecting a grey water tank.
Suddenly, as if a giant hand shakes the tree,
Red breasts flash and with squeals and flaps
The birds twirl through the air –
Green wings spinning like frisbees.
Each night my eyes discover something new
A colour never seen, a glorious streak across the sky
Trees dressed in forty-shades of green
A Creator’s vision this glowing orb is perhaps
Designed to magnify…

Parrots proliferate in Mordy now – they moved in during the last drought and stayed.

In the quiet of the evening I often share significant memories of childhood and at this time of year it is New Year rituals. Family stories deserving to be heard and passed on:

In Scotland, after Mum’s frenzy of cleaning and baking, we savoured her ginger wine and blackberry wine, both non-alcoholic made from essence. How grown-up we felt, drinking ‘wine’ like the adults! (Although they were on whisky after the bells announced at midnight and Auld Lang Syne sung.)

When I returned to Scotland in 1973, at the top of the long list of items missed and to be brought from ‘the auld country’ was ginger and blackcurrant essence. I managed to procure 6 bottles from the local Co-op and Hogmanay ’74 was a good year in Croydon, Australia. A quick Google search and homesick Scots throughout the world have a similar childhood memory and taste for ‘oor ain special Hogmanay treat.’

As far back as I can remember, my parents’ parties were legendary. Not hard to do when you are part of a large family – a crowd’s already there!

Each Hogmanay, in Greenock, carpets were rolled up, Andy Stewart and Jimmy Shand records (78s, later LPs) stacked on the radiogram, and reels and jigs shook the house’s foundations. Dad’s brother, Alec and family came over from Rhu, neighbours popped in, some of Dad’s railway co-workers and even people from their St Ninian’s House Church group.

Mum’s feast prepared and eaten before midnight, included clootie dumpling (cooked in a clout /cloth) where we all fought to have a slice with the skin attached – delicious, hot or cold. There are many variations of this traditional treat:

Clootie Dumpling

250g (8oz) plain flour
125g (4oz) margarine
75g (4oz) currants
75g (4 oz) sultanas
75g (3oz) soft brown sugar (or substitute treacle)
2 lightly beaten eggs
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
I teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon nutmeg
1 teaspoon bicarb soda
1 tablespoon golden syrup
3/4 cup buttermilk

(extra flour for cloth to produce the much-loved thick skin)

  • In a large bowl mix the flour, and softened margarine, fruit, sugar, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg and bicarb of soda. Add the beaten eggs and syrup, then stir in sufficient buttermilk to form a soft batter.
  • Dip a pudding cloth into boiling water and sink it in a bowl large enough to hold the mixture, dredge lightly with flour and spoon in the mixture.
  • Draw the cloth together at the ends and tie tightly with string – make sure you leave room for expansion during cooking!
  • Place a saucer in the bottom of a large saucepan and lift the dumpling into the pan of boiling water and simmer for 3-4 hours.

Clootie Dumpling is usually served hot with cream, ice-cream or custard but is delicious cold, spread with butter or margarine and jam. Mum made a clootie at other celebrations throughout the year, especially for Dad’s birthday.

One memory of Hogmanay in early 1960s Scotland stands out over all others.

As usual we children were the first awake, and of course headed straight to the toilet. The bathroom/toilet was upstairs near all our bedrooms, but the door was locked. A quick head count and checking of beds and we knew it must be an adult inside. We waited.

And waited. Discreet tapping. No answer. Whispering then louder tapping and talking. Cousins awake as well as siblings. Lots of whispering and tapping. No answer.

Fear of admonition if we made a noise or woke hungover adults forgotten when desperation kicked in. The boys could go outside even if it was ‘brass monkey weather‘ but Catriona and I needed the bathroom. (Yes, all our cousins were male. Of three brothers, Dad was the only one to produce female offspring.)

We jiggled the door handle but couldn’t open the door. We peeked through the keyhole.

‘Uncle Alec’s asleep on the floor.’

‘His head’s against the toilet and his feet must be blocking the door.’

‘Why doesn’t he wake up?’

‘He’s drunk.’

‘Or dead.’

‘We better get Dad.’

We didn’t need to fetch Dad. Trying to be ‘as quiet as church mice’  we  ‘made enough noise to wake the dead’.

Dad couldn’t rouse his older brother either so one of the boys was sent up the drainpipe to climb in through the outside window and open the door. Dad helped an embarrassed Uncle Alec to bed and we had a story to share on Hogmanay for years, embedded in family history.



Years later an incident in 1970s Croydon, Australia not forgotten, especially by Mum and Dad. A sizeable crowd gathered in a circle in our lounge room waiting for the clock to strike twelve. Large enough to require two bottles of whisky for the all-important dram.

Dad, the host, had his favoured drop – Teacher’s, a smooth malt. Uncle Bill had a bottle of traditional Bells.

Midnight announced, Auld lang Syne sung, the first foot (my dark-haired older sister, Catriona) welcomed over the door carrying the lump of coal. The bottles opened for everyone to receive ‘the water of life‘.

Half the room sipped and smiled, the other half looked sour or stunned. Mum’s Highland friend Christine McDonald blurted, ‘What’s this? Bloody water!’

Dad had finished pouring and gulped his whisky, which he immediately spat out. The room suddenly abuzz with more than Christine examining their glasses, re-tasting and then looking for a refill of ‘proper whisky.’  Thankfully, there were always plenty of bottles available at Scots/Irish gatherings.

An examination of the bottle of Teacher’s discovered in fine print “For Display purposes Only“.

Soon everyone joked about ‘bringing in the New Year with cold tea’ but my Father’s  laugh was restrained. As the host he felt deep embarrassment.

Dad had a mercurial temper at the best of times so Mum thought it wise she return the bottle when the shops reopened.

How it came to be sold a mystery never solved and the Manager of Supa Value Supermarket’s bottleshop offered apologies.  A replacement given without fully understanding the cultural significance of what my Father perceived as a Hogmanay horror story!

Mum slid into the car beside Dad, related the manager’s apologies and handed over the bottle of whisky. ‘Is this the right Teacher’s?’

‘As long as it’s not cold tea it’ll be fine,’ Dad said with a grin, removing the bottle from the brown paper bag, ‘there’s no such thing as bad scotch – just some are better than others.’ Almost immediately, his dark brown eyes lost their twinkle, the smile became a frown.

‘What the…’ he exploded, and passed the bottle back to Mum pointing to the label. In fine print it said, “For Display purposes Only”.

At least they hadn’t moved from the parking lot, but it was a less conciliatory Mum who returned the second bottle. She gave a very embarrassed manager ‘a piece of her mind’ and a lecture on shelving stock. The second replacement bottle checked and double-checked before she left the shop.

Apparently, lightning does strike twice!

A third funny memory of Hogmanay takes place back in Scotland, but this time in 1997. My girls and I stayed a few days with relatives in Kilmarnock. This was the first Scottish New Year the girls experienced (and to date, the only one!)

Thick snow lay outside and inside Valerie and Jim’s cosy house a party was in full swing. Most of Val and Jim’s friends had two or three children, all as excited as my girls at being allowed to stay up late to dance and play. All of them taking advantage of distracted adults, more relaxed than usual.

Midnight neared and a scramble to round up everyone spread throughout the house. Jim slipped out the back door with a lump of coal to first foot at the front. The bells came and went, Auld Lang Syne sung, the children transformed the circle into a jig. Few people were interested in filling their glasses, the music turned up a notch or two and happy chaos reigned.

We forgot about Jim.

No one heard the knocking at the door. John rang from England to wish us ‘happy new year’.

Suddenly,  Valerie asked where Jim had got to.


Jim stood at the front door, teeth chattering and icicles forming on his slippers, ‘I knew you’d eventually remember, ‘ he said with an alcohol induced smile. Warm hugs all round and an extra kiss from Valerie made up for being abandoned.

Anne and Mary Jane still talk about that Hogmanay and giggle. It’s good to have a happy memory because unfortunately Valerie passed away in August 2014  after developing a rapidly progressive myeloma (bone cancer). By then she had two lovely girls of her own, heartbreakingly young to be left motherless.

Perhaps one day they’ll visit Australia and take away a happy Hogmanay memory from us.

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A final traditional Scots greeting for 2016:

Lang may yer lum reek – happiness, good health and the prosperity you seek!