A Day For Blowing Bubbles

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What’s the Canberra Bubble?

A phrase frequently used by media commentators is “Canberra Bubble”, a disparaging reference to our elected representatives in federal parliament. It suggests they are disconnected from the rest of the population, not just by distance, but by reality.

When buzzwords are introduced into our everyday lexicon they’re often repeated without anyone challenging their accuracy, knowing what is actually meant, or if it is a reasonable description.

The phrase “Canberra Bubble” frequently used when federal politicians from both major parties seem more focused on leadership squabbles and factional alignments than policies to benefit the majority of the Australian population.

However, to be fair to federal politicians, they do put their hands up to enter parliament and the journey to winning an election and staying in power probably means like the most of us, they juggle several bubbles.

Question Google and you are taken to Quora and people from all over the world give you their meaning of ‘living in a bubble’.

Common themes are: isolating yourself, being shy or introverted, being naive, or the other extremes, being a victim or thinking you are superior!

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And who could forget the story of the Boy in the Bubble?

Others suggest not caring and understanding, or forgetting what is happening in the ‘outside’ world, but the consensus is “living in a bubble means you do not get out of your comfort zone.”

We live in our own bubble most of the time

My main focus is immediate family (my daughters), extended family (siblings), close friends and neighbours, my students, and then various acquaintances who pop in and out of my life.

My bubble is usually pleasant. Life is enriching, experimental but safe, and most often full of joy. Reminiscent of playing with the lovely soap bubbles Mum made for us in childhood. (And I made for my children.)

Who can forget the excitement of dipping a twisted piece of wire into soapy water and blowing the thin film of soap water into the air?

Wonderful memories of competing to produce the largest bubble – and see how long it would last without popping.

Sometimes chasing the hollow spheres to catch them or hope they’d land gently on your hand; marvelling at the iridescent surface and kaleidoscopic colour as light wove its way in uneven waves and rainbows.

forever-blowing-bubbles

Of course, bubbles burst or we blow them away and so yesterday I determined to venture from my comfort zone and attend a Workshop for Freelance Writers and Journalists at Melbourne University.

Into a place where in the past the term ‘ivory tower’in place of “bubble” has been used to disparage academia.

It is fashionable to sneer at elites with President Trump leading the charge but where would society be without the years of dedicated research and scholarship provided by academics?

The workshop I attended, a case in point, provided by the Centre for Advancing Journalism at the Graduate School of Humanities & Social Sciences for FREE!

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This wonderful opportunity to improve skills and knowledge, professional development for me, as a teacher of writing and as a blogger. I took copious notes before the facilitators agreed to send copies of their slides, so I will share the information at a later date when the slides arrive and what I learned can be more accurately passed on.

(I always have difficulty deciphering my notes. Dad used to say, ‘a trained spider’ could write clearer than me.)

A Trip Down Memory Lane

The day was full of déjà vu because I worked as an Admin Officer for the Student Union for 4 years and was reminded of that fabulous time the moment I stepped on campus through Gate 10.

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My heart lifted at the new signage. I worked at the university in 2008 and remember crowding into a room in Union House with a group of employees and students to watch Prime Minister Kevin Rudd apologise to the Stolen Generations.

I recall fighting back tears as someone who had been at the Aboriginal Embassy in the 1970s. Tried to imagine how important this recognition of our blemished and brutal past would be to those directly affected. Another crucial step towards true reconciliation with our First People.

When I was greeted on South Lawn by the familiar colours of an UMSU marquee in the distance I felt I’d been teleported into the past! 

The student union changed its name to UMSU and rebranded while I was there in the mid-2000s. (There had been a turbulent history before that and the aftermath made for an interesting settling in period for me.) 

Two seagulls pecked at the edges of a water feature, their obesity evidence of rich pickings on a campus with plenty of eateries and picnic areas to mine. I paused and watched the birds. The campus silent and empty of the usual hordes of students. Memories crowded and years of absence fell away. My feet automatically strode towards Arts West.

Melbourne University has one of the most attractive campuses in Australia, rich in history. The buildings maintained and modernised with deference to heritage and character.

I discovered another new addition, bronze plaques commemorating academics and professional staff who have made an outstanding and enduring contribution to the University community. These awarded and embedded in 2014 along the Professor’s Walk. I took a couple snapshots to remind myself to return one day and do the Historic Campus Tour. 

There is also a new cafe – always a welcome addition for hungry students without culinary skills and just learning to live independently!

professor-walk-cafe

Before the workshop started I raced along to Union House to grab a much-needed coffee. Wow – more memories – I remembered the voices of angry students protesting PM John Howard’s introduction of voluntary union contributions in an attempt to silence radicals and destroy the power of collective bargaining. 

Unfortunately, it meant the destruction of a lot of clubs and societies on campus funded by union dues – activities that made campus life worthwhile and memorable. That was a long hard fight and the first time I’d heard of Barnaby Joyce, the current leader of the National Party. 

I typed up his telephone interview with the editors of Farrago, the student newspaper – Barnaby was against VSU because he knew it would disadvantage country campuses.

Who Works Early On Saturday Morning At A University?

A cheerful man asks me, ‘What can I do you for?’

‘Flat white coffee, please?’
‘Salt and pepper, tomato sauce, a dash of engine oil?’

We laugh in unison.

‘Oh, a dash of whisky – it’ll wake me up. My grandfather called it his heart starter.’

He turns to his mate at the coffee machine with a grin as wide as the ocean.

‘I like this woman,’ then as he took my money,’You’ve made my day. I’m going to share that story. Great excuse!’

Another lady standing beside me waits for her coffee. We introduce ourselves – yes, on an almost empty campus early Saturday morning, we are going to the same place.

Sandra and I both grateful these cheery blokes have their coffee machine fired up. We agree hospitality workers deserve penalty rates!

And so do the academics, administration staff and security waiting for us…

We Were Warned – The Workshop Starts On Time!

In the lecture theatre, I hurriedly sit beside Marilyn, a retired BBC radio producer who has joined her son to live in Melbourne.

We share many stories throughout the day, lunch at the refurbished cafes in the Royal Melbourne Hospital precinct where I hear about her groundbreaking and controversial documentary for Amnesty’s 50th Anniversary, a segment for Stephen Fry on Aussie English and her involvement in U3A where she has organised a booked out talk by Don Watson of Weasel Words fame.  

What a coup!

On my other side, I whisper hello to Lucy who writes for australianlighthouses.com. A labour of love. She confides to giving up a well-paid job in the public service to become a freelance writer. She’s already had successes with travel articles for The Age: where to eat in Paris and a feature on taking her son to Japan.

To say, I felt decidedly out of my journalistic and freelancing depth, is an understatement, but we were attending to learn from experts with even more incredible pedigrees of journalism, editing and publishing:

  • Dr Margaret Simons
  • Dr Denis Muller
  • Simon Mann
  • Jo Chandler

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The subjects covered were:

  • The Pitch – how to write a succinct attractive pitch to hook editors
  • Interview skills – how to prepare, conduct and write a great interview
  • Law and Ethics – common pitfalls and risks to finances (defamation), credibility and peace of mind
  • Structure – how to construct a standard 1000 word piece for publication

The sessions packed with information that the hundreds who attended absorbed. The questions and detailed answers covered almost everything you could think of in the field of journalism.

The information I found most fascinating, and which generated a debate afterwards over networking coffee in the foyer, was Dr Denis Muller’s lecture on ethics, or lack thereof when people chase a story regardless of the law and common decency.

Dr Muller is a leading Australian ethicist and has written Journalism Ethics for the Digital Age, Scribe 2013 and Media Ethics and Disasters: Lessons from the Black Saturday Bushfires, Melbourne University Press. 2011

He mentioned in passing that the DPP in Victoria sent a letter to all media outlets in Melbourne the day after the terrible tragedy in Bourke Street, warning them to be careful not to jeopardise the trial and conviction of the accused and be guilty of Contempt of Court.

We have the history in Victoria where a paedophile priest was given a lesser sentence because radio broadcaster and now Senator Derryn Hinch went public with information that jeopardised the accused’s right to a fair trial. He was charged with contempt again over another case.

Fortunately, the majority of journalists take the law and ethics more seriously.

I farewelled my newfound friends and walked slowly back to the tram stop in Swanston Street to head home. The pleasant walk a respite from the less than comfortable chair and the brain food to be digested.

Writing fodder abounded – but more for my inner creative writer!

A wedding party was having photographs. A beautiful visual feast and fun to watch as the photographers tried to be creative with poses.

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I admired and took a closer look at a couple of sculptures. There are major works by 23 sculptors dotted around the campus, spanning centuries and countries. Many were gifted for safe keeping.

James Gilbert was born in Dublin and immigrated to Victoria in 1854. This fine example of Gilbert’s work, Atlantes was originally sited in Melbourne’s central business district. In Greek mythology, the giant Atlas supported the sky. Architecturally, Atlantes are male figures or half-figures used in place of columns to support a porch-like structure and are frequently portrayed straining under an enormous weight.

This pair originally formed part of the ornate arched entrance to the Colonial Bank of Australasia on the corner of Elizabeth and Little Collins Streets in the 1880s, and remained there until the building’s demolition in 1932.

Atlantes was salvaged and presented to the university where it was re-erected to form the porch of the Old Physiology building, which in 1970 was also demolished. Atlantes has been in its current location since 1972 and is classified by the National Trust of Australia (Victoria)

Untitled (Charity being kind to the poor) c.1893 

Designed by Austrian artist Victor Tilgner and cast at the Imperial Art Foundry of Vienna, by sculptor Edward W Raht, (Charity being kind to the poor) originally adorned one of Melbourne’s landmark buildings—the massive seven-storey Equitable Life Assurance Society Limited headquarters on the corner of Collins and Elizabeth Streets.

Mounted on the red granite portico, the bronze statue was considered ‘the crowning piece’ of the ornate structure. It symbolised the themes of protection and shelter, typical of sculpture commissioned by insurance companies to adorn their corporate buildings at the time.

Although structurally sound, by the late 1950s the building was considered uneconomical and was demolished. (Charity being kind to the poor) was presented to the University of Melbourne in 1959 by the Colonial Mutual Life Assurance Society Limited who had purchased the building in 1923.

This memorial, of Stawell stone, was built in 1926 to honour those in the University who served or died in World War 1. It originally stood at the head of the main drive but was relocated at the angle of the Law School and Wilson Hall.

I discovered a series of plaques to commemorate WWI and other conflicts, placed in 2014 beside the University’s war memorial. Perhaps funded by the Gallipoli Centenary Fund, in a similar way to Williamstown Council and their website featuring men, including my uncle, who joined up and died on active service.

I hope people take the time to read them.

On a brighter note, I also discovered another innovation since I left, a Community Garden. 

A garden is a grand teacher. It teaches patience and careful watchfulness; it teaches industry and thrift; above all it teaches entire trust.

Gertrude Jekyll

This quiet oasis a delightful discovery amongst concrete buildings.

The aims:

  • grow food as sustainably and organically as possible
  • inspire people to grow their own food
  • provide a place for learning about healthy food
  • show an alternative to how public space can be used
  • create a strong sense of community here at Melbourne University

A fantastic concept, which is flourishing.

Green relief in grey claustrophobia. The list of plants varied: Granny Smith Apples, rhubarb, pumpkin, various herbs, orange pippin, chocolate lily, native viola, Mydyim berry, and yams.

And from the practical to the ornamental – rows of gorgeous crepe myrtles in their spectacular colourful glory line the path on the way out of campus.

Just the other day, one of my students (88-year-old Edna) told the story of going out in a recent storm with hammer, nails and string to rescue a baby crepe myrtle that had just started to flower and had been flattened in the wind.

The crepe myrtle flowers are wonderful – each petal is like crepe paper,  wrinkly and crinkly, and that’s where it gets its name. They can be grown as a standard, a miniature, a low-growing spreading plant, a small shrub, a small tree and even a large tree.

Look at their beauty – they are worth rescuing!

Crepe myrtles flourish in Australia. They like a hot and dry climate and transplant well from a pot. Established with plenty of water, to ensure the root system develops, they are remarkably drought-tolerant.  All varieties provide striking colour in summer, wonderful autumn foliage and in winter have beautiful, ornate bark.

These are all newly planted since I worked at the university.

Finally, I pass large tubs grouped in the definitive and positive ‘rule of three’ and recall poems I wrote years ago when I travelled into the city daily, being very much a part of the “university bubble” – or should that be “ivory tower”?

Shadows
Mairi Neil

The plaintive song echoes
in the university grounds
as students hurry home
past skeletal branches
of winter trees
hosting the bird’s lament

mournful echoes
of dinosaur dynasties
amid the whirr of bicycle wheels,
tapping footsteps
ringtones
mobile conversations
iPod seclusion

wistful whistles announce dusk
become full-throated celebrations
melodious calls to rest
as lights douse,
classroom doors close,
shadows deepen,
and the campus empties

crowded trams trundle by
bathed in artificial sunlight
tall grey buildings reach
for a star embroidered sky
this call of birded tongue
conjures ghosts
of long forgotten species.

Melbourne Central, July 2007
Mairi Neil

Woollen scarf as fashion dictates
the student holds a radical newspaper aloft
bold black print and strident voice
denouncing government indifference

Business suits brush by
polished leather squeaks
the train home awaits
high heels click
trails of perfume dissipate
the train home awaits

From the shadows a bundle of rags
morphs into a man
murmurs drowned by
social justice warriors
his trembling hand and
cardboard begging sign ignored

Another day in Melbourne
polystyrene cup left empty
government indifference
a mirror of society…

Do you live in a bubble? Perhaps burst or blow bubbles…

Who said the more things change, the more they stay the same?

2 thoughts on “A Day For Blowing Bubbles

  1. Ah, nostalgia. I loved my time at Melbourne University. My haunts were the John Medley Building (which is the one bearing the welcome signage) and Old Arts, and the basement of the Baillieu Library where the classics journals were. (That’s classical Greek and Roman, not literature classics). These days I suppose all those journals are digitised, but back then there was no alternative but to hunker down at a desk and read them there. I was the only one in my class who ever did that, so the tutor and I had wonderful uninterrupted conversations about whatever it was, and the rest of them took notes about what we said!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You were a teacher even then! It’s such a lovely atmospheric campus and working for UMSU as I did surrounding by vibrant young people was invigorating, if demanding. I often haunted the bookshop nd attended lunchtime lectures etc. or walked up to Readings in Carlton. Wonderful discussions and conversations with everyone from the CEO to the cleaners and security:)

      Like

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