Road To Perdition Paved With Darkness Yet Riveting Viewing

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Maybe it is all the grim news that seems to pervade every news bulletin and many social media posts, combined with having time to clear shelves and files on the computer now I’m semi-retired, but virtual and digital worlds coincided yesterday.

I took a rest from deleting files when I discovered the first film review I ever wrote and searched to see if I still had the DVD. The review was an assignment for one of the units in my master’s degree, 2010, and the DVD was a bargain basement JB HiFi sale item – Road To Perdition.

Up until I studied for the Masters In Writing, my writing centred mainly on short stories and poetry – fiction writing. I also wrote reports for the Union of Australian Women and dabbled in life writing/memoir but never thought about being a reviewer of books, let alone film, which is not a genre I’d ever claim expertise in critiquing.

However, with one daughter having a Bachelor of Film & Television and the other a Bachelor of Fine Arts majoring in Media Arts, and both loving film, I have been ‘turned on’ to the medium and love its ability to bring stories to life.

I happily absorb all the knowledge shared with me and one of my favourite pastimes is to go to the movies with one or both of the girls and then enjoy a great discussion afterwards.

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Reviewing Has Its Pitfalls

Writing my first review, particularly as an academic assignment was challenging but also interesting because there are many varied opinions about one film – like reading novels – you discover taste is extremely subjective!

There are of course necessary components and expectations of what makes a ‘good’ film just like the techniques required to craft a ‘good’ novel. 

I wrote for a general online audience because as a complete novice, no way could I emulate Margaret and David of television fame, or Jim Schembri, The Age’s regular reviewer in The Green Guide. (Definitely, showing my age here!)

I followed the lecture guidelines and tried to cover all aspects of the craft and techniques of film-making, including sound and cinematography, as well as the narrative and acting.

The title of the film was intriguing and I searched the dictionary for the exact meaning of Perdition:

First meaning –         (a)  archaic : utter destruction.

                                    (b)  obsolete : loss.

Second meaning –    (a ) : eternal damnation.

                                     (b ) : hell.

In Christian theology, it is a state of eternal punishment and damnation into which a sinful and unrepentant person passes after death.

The definition of going down the road/path to perdition is taken to mean travelling towards something very dangerous or harmful.

For example: ‘It’s this kind of selfishness that leads down the road/path to perdition.’

It is an old-fashioned word rarely used nowadays but as mentioned in my opening sentence, it’s a word that suits recent times – and certainly suited this film!

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Film Review: Road To Perdition

Perdition in some religions is the state of everlasting punishment in hell that sinners endure after death, or can mean hell as a location. Director Sam Mendes in his 2002 Road to Perdition, has a neat metaphor – not only are the main characters Michael Sullivan (Tom Hanks) and his son Michael Jr (Tyler Hoechlin) driving to a town called Perdition but they are also on the way to damnation, unless as in all classical tragedies, they find redemption.

The film’s Oedipal theme explores several aspects of father and son relationships and Tom Hanks is magnificent as the main character, Michael Sullivan. (This is high praise from me because I’m not enamoured with Hanks as an actor.  I will compliment his acting in this movie. It was so good, you can’t recognise him as Tom Hanks!)

The story is about Mike Sullivan being transformed by tragedy to forge a new relationship with his son and to do this he has to destroy the relationship with John Rooney (Paul Newman), the only father he has known.

It is 1931 America, Prohibition is giving Chicago based Al Capone wealth and power and Michael Sullivan, Sr is an enforcer for John Rooney, an organised crime boss in an Illinois town populated by fellow Irish Americans. (Makes a change from the Italian mafia.)

Sullivan, an orphan raised by Rooney, is treated as a favoured son. The resentment felt by Rooney’s real son, Connor (a suitably brutal Daniel Craig), at this relationship, and his vicious murder of a disgruntled employee witnessed by Michael Jr triggers the unravelling of Sullivan Senior’s ordered life.

In his attempt to silence Michael Jr, Connor kills a younger son Peter (Liam Aiken) by mistake and Mike’s wife, Annie (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Sullivan has to salvage what is left of his family; build a relationship with a son he barely knows, and stop him following his path of being on the wrong side of the law.

Road to Perdition, written by David Self, is based on a graphic novel by Max Allan Collins and Richard Piers Rayner, but is not just a pulp gangster movie, although the influence of The Godfather and The Untouchables is evident. (The latter movie with Kevin Costner as Elliot Ness is one of my favourites!)

An Irish wake establishes the culture of Rooney’s community whereas in The Godfather, it is a wedding, and Mike Sullivan’s perfectly executed campaign against Capone reminds us of Elliot Ness in The Untouchables.

However, the usual Hollywood clichés associated with gangsters are missing – there are no spats, loud suits, and hats strategically placed over eyes or laconic bad guys chewing gum, incessantly smoking, flipping coins, or firing wisecracks.

These are businessmen, ensuring illegal enterprises remain profitable; their world is not glamorous. The film shows the impact of the violence on the person who commits it, or witnesses it. Although there is a lot of killing, much of it happens off-screen.

It is a film of lost innocence because the 12-year-old narrator, Michael Jr not only witnesses a brutal slaying but is suddenly confronted with the truth that his father is a cold-blooded killer and his cuddly ‘grandfather’ Rooney is a manipulative crime boss.

Dialogue is sparse. Based on a graphic novel the film is told in scenes that are sometimes silent — superb showing not telling. Tom Hanks is brilliant as the inarticulate cold hit man struggling with personal grief, not apologising for the life he has led, determined on vengeance while saving his only son.

Stillness and stunning imagery are used to build the powerful emotions of Rooney and Sullivan coming to terms with the changed circumstances precipitated by sociopath Connor’s actions.

There are few speeches of explanation, rather dialogue such as John Rooney’s statement to Mike that, ‘It’s a natural law that sons are put on this earth to trouble their fathers.’

And later in a pivotal showdown, ‘There are only murderers in this room, Michael. Open your eyes. This is the life we chose. The life we lead. And there is only one guarantee–none of us will see heaven.

Director Mendes says the film is ‘about the legacy that fathers leave sons and the secret worlds parents inhabit that the child never really knows.

Camera angles are deliberately chosen to see events from Michael Jr’s viewpoint. The New York Times described it as ‘a truly majestic visual tone poem‘ and it is true that cinematographer, Conrad L. Hall creates a world where light struggles to penetrate the darkness, sinister shadows bedevil the night, and long corridors intimidate, fearful faces are half-seen, and a ballet of looks and eye contact produce tension to keep the audience engaged.

The opening scenes of winter snow and ghost-like crowds change in a seasonal shift towards spring, new life and light, but the characters must first survive the visceral chill of downpours and more than one hail of bullets.

Rain runs off the brims of fedoras, soaks thick overcoats, bounces on streets and windscreens. Weather as uncontrollable as the violence set in motion by Connor.

Darkness stresses the atmosphere of destruction, and there is no character darker than Harlan Maguire (Jude Law) a strange, sinister, sadistic hired assassin who hunts the Sullivans at the behest of Capone’s organisation.

In one confrontation, Maguire is scarred and the mercenary job becomes personal. His pursuit of the Sullivans provides an explosive climax and an opportunity for amazing cinematography.

There are many captivating moments that are emotionally-engaging, particularly between father and son, and I guarantee you won’t see the surprise ending coming!

However, true to the era and the story’s comic book origins women are mainly background ‘broads’. Jennifer Jason Leigh’s appearance is brief. She cooks meals, is silently supportive, and is murdered.

Made in 2002, the other female roles of an aunt, waitress, a prostitute, and an old childless woman are even briefer but not sure I’d warm to any female character playing a prominent role in such a violent world.

Despite the macho emphasis, Road to Perdition is impressive and entertaining. The careful attention to detail (especially historical aspects of costumes, dialogue and attitude), the quality of the acting (Hanks, Newman, Law and Craig deliver excellent performances), and the haunting musical score by Thomas Newman crafts a fine tale into a memorable film.

Added Extras

Perdition, Michigan refers to a made-up town but the film is set along the shore of Lake Michigan and the graphic novel was based on a true story of Bill Gabel and the Looney mob hell-raising in the Midwest during the Great Depression.

News of the World gave it five stars, ‘The greatest gangster film since The Godfather.’

For writers and storytellers (and students of Masters in Writing!), it is the special features on DVDs that add to the enjoyment of the movie. This DVD is no exception with:

  • Audio commentary by Director Sam Mendes
  • 11 Deleted Scenes with Optional Commentary
  • HBO Special: The Making of Road To Perdition
  • CD Soundtrack Promo
  • Photo Gallery (50 stills)
  • Cast and Filmmaker Bios
  • Production Notes

Finally, a quote from the blurb,

‘Academy Award-winning director Sam Mendes (American Beauty, 1999) brings his haunting vision to a hard-edged story of lost innocence, conflicted loyalty and ambition.’

I still find writing reviews – whether of film or book – challenging but as a creative writer, it is a good exercise.

The deconstructing and examining of the narrative, layers and impact, the characters and details can only help my own understanding of craft and technique of different genres and even stimulate ideas.

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Water, Water, Everywhere – but is it Safe For Marine Life?

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This is the cover of a beautiful book about the importance of valuing Australia’s National Network of Marine Sanctuaries that I recently presented to my Federal Member of Parliament, the Honourable Mark Dreyfus QC, along with a letter asking for his commitment to continue to support the sanctuaries.

The letter signed by 64 constituents:

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Dear Mr Dreyfus,

LABOR’S COMMITMENT TO RESTORE AUSTRALIA’S MARINE SANCTUARIES

This book shares a message from your electorate in support of Australia’s world-leading National Network of Marine Sanctuaries.

Following the Coalition Government’s devastating cuts to Australia’s sanctuaries – equivalent to removing every second national park on land – we welcome Labor’s commitment to fully restore the National Network of Marine Sanctuaries that Labor put in place in 2012.

Thank you for your support in restoring our sanctuaries – so that they can do the job of protecting our marine life, helping to ensure we have fish for the future and benefiting our regions and local communities.

I volunteered for the privilege of approaching Mark after I signed online petitions and followed campaigns to protect our ocean.

The organisation that will keep you informed and who cleverly produced such a positive campaign is the Australian Marine Conservation Society and they are always looking for people to become Sea Guardians to protect our ocean’s wildlife.

A community of scientists & ocean conservationists working to save our marine life, established in 1965, it is an independent marine-focused charity. For over 50 Years committed staff have been dedicated to protecting ocean wildlife.

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Mark was thrilled with the book and was happy to commit to protecting marine sanctuaries.

He said the situation regarding our environment is critical – and the science confirms this.

When part of the Gillard Government, he represented Australia at several international conferences and is well aware the current Federal Government is not doing enough to combat climate change and protect our sea and landscapes. he fought hard for the resources of the CSIRO to be increased, not reduced.

I was thrilled when I saw the book too – as a writer, I appreciate the power of illustrations to enhance words.

This book is a beautiful tool, to showcase how valuable our oceans are – a tangible reminder of what we will lose if the government doesn’t protect our coastline and the sea from overfishing, pollution from stormwater run-offs and shipping, plus exceptionally harmful oil and gas exploration.

We must provide and ensure marine sanctuaries. This book showcases many wonderful conversation starters for discussions we need to have – thousands of reasons to step up now.

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How to get involved with the Campaign to Save Our Marine Life

Like many people who care about the environment, I’ve been involved in physical and online campaigns. It hasn’t been a sudden, one-issue jolt, but rather a weary trek from campaigns to stop littering to educating people about the dangers of pollution and wiping out the habitat of unique flora and fauna.

Change Habits To Save Habitats
Mairi Neil

Bali’s beaches are drowning in litter
Debris piles where no butterflies flitter
Everything dead
Apocalypse fed –
but the solution is not storming Twitter

The main culprit named is plastic
a product we embraced as fantastic
but it resists decay
and won’t go away
The destruction of marine life tragic!

Fast food a convenience we craved
Marketing gurus constantly raved
Junk created ignored
As rubbish was poured
Into the environment, we should have saved.

Who profits from accumulated trash?
Is life on Earth worth less than cash?
Greenies demonised
Consumers fed lies
While pollution spreads like a rash!

What species destroys its own nest
Where standards should be the best?
‘Away’ doesn’t exist
Rubbish isn’t a mist
We create it, so must produce less!

‘Reduce, Reuse, Recycle’ a catch cry
This must be real or we all die
The coral withers
Our PM dithers
Climate change deniers watch Earth fry.

To the tourists who boast loving Bali –
Has your behaviour increased the tally?
Of beach debris
Polluting the sea
Leave only footprints when you dally!!

Bali’s problem is really worldwide
from culpability, no one can hide
It starts with a ‘me’
I hope becomes ‘we’
From today let’s take the Earth’s side.

picking up rubbish from beach sign

A plethora of organisations – many with a specific focus – campaign for various conservation and environmental causes. Over the years, I’ve spent time concentrating on one or the other, or spread myself between several.

My motto always to give what you can when you can.

I’ve rarely had much cash to spare but my writing skills and social justice passion come in handy!

The damage to all species, including humans can be through accidental or wanton destruction, industrial smog and lung disease, overdevelopment and lack of green spaces or the current emergency of climate change.

Belonging to the Union of Australian Women and always the relevant trade union covering my paid employment gives me a good grounding in old school activism.

Living in Mordialloc for 35 years it has been a constant priority to safeguard our beautiful bayside suburb.

Maintaining the health of coastal paths and the sea very dear to me and topics I return to again and again in my poetry.

Before the Internet and mobile technology, the art of letter-writing, collecting signatures with a clipboard, demonstrating with placards and letterboxing leaflets, door-knocking and street stalls were all valid methods of making a point and having your voice heard.

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Activism Is A Label For Everyday Life

  • Attendance at Clean-Up Australia Day events – I went to one of the first held in Mordialloc more years ago than I care to remember, taking my young daughters along to learn from my example.
  • Volunteering regularly with a local environmental group. I joined Friends of Bradshaw Park and compiled an education kit for primary schools to encourage discussion about the importance of retaining and respecting local flora and fauna – again my daughters accompanied me on working bees to weed and plant.
  • Volunteering in schools to encourage care for the playground and environs. I gave workshops on the writing of poetry and short fiction around environmental issues. The fondest memory, a lovely book of pastel drawings by the children in daughter Anne’s class to illustrate a narrative poem I wrote about the then threatened Blue Whale.
  • Working with Environment Victoria to promote solar power and renewable energy. I’ve hosted a sign, letterboxed, helped establish a database of supporters, handed out information on polling day.
  • Attending and organising gatherings to hear speakers from groups such as Gene Ethics to the Australian Conservation Foundation. If you belong to a community group think about inviting speakers from environmental groups outside your comfort zone. Be challenged to think about deforestation, oil drilling, use of plastics and recycling…
  • Since a teenager, like many people, I’ve campaigned against nuclear power and in an ideal world, uranium would remain in the ground.

(Ironic, I know because I have benefited from chemotherapy as a cancer patient but as with energy sources, there are alternatives and there is no moving away from the fact the majority of uranium and byproducts are used or stored as military weapons, plus the world still has no solution to the dangerous waste created!)

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The New Way of Campaigning

There is no denying we live in a digital world now and the power of social media is immense – and it is not all as negative as some people think but a far-reaching and effective tool if, as Agent Maxwell Smart said all those years ago, ‘used for goodness…’

I respond to online appeals that often begin with an email and a request to sign a petition. After research, the knowledge gained helps me frame letters or emails to newspapers, politicians and companies.

Also, importantly, to initiate discussions among friends and family. Transferring and sharing knowledge one of the most important actions in any campaign.

As many signs at demonstrations advise (I love attending these too ) there is no Planet B.

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It was a privilege to go the extra step and arrange a meeting with my local member of parliament and gift this book, to remind him of what is at stake if the marine sanctuaries are not reinstated and extended.

For local communities, some icons like The Great Barrier Reef, and many endangered marines species, we are at a tipping point – in danger of reaching the point of no return!

The following information including beautiful photography is from the book to ask MPs for their commitment to protecting our oceans and marine life.

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Australia’s Proud history of  Commonwealth Protection of Sanctuaries

As with so many progressive policies in Australia, it all began with the Whitlam Government in 1973.

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The world’s oceans are the last great frontier for science and discovery and Australia is responsible for the third largest area of ocean on Earth

There are many sanctuaries still to be finalised – the good work must resume not be wound back or remain at a standstill.

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The dark red markers are current sanctuaries
  • Located at the junction of three major oceans, our waters are tropical temperate and sub-Antarctic.
  • We have more unique marine life than almost any other country in the world.
  • More than 85% of us live near the sea

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Healthy marine environments are central to our lifestyle, our livelihoods and our economy.  Australia has a proud bipartisan history of marine protection.

We are a nation of caretakers.

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For many decades, our leaders have acted with the foresight to ensure a sustainable balance is found between what we take from the oceans and what we conserve for the future.

This is Australia’s insurance policy against the known threats of climate change, overfishing, introduced pests and pollution.

This leadership has crossed political divides and resulted in the creation of the world’s largest National Network of Marine Sanctuaries – backed by decades of science and overwhelming community support.

Our National network of marine parks and sanctuaries will protect our greatest treasures, including Australian icons like the Great Barrier Reef.

The Finalised List of Marine Sanctuaries:

Great Barrier Reef
Flinders
Freycinet
Macquarie Island
Kangaroo Island
Apollo
Nelson

But until the following are included our special marine treasures remain at risk:

The Kimberley
Rowley Shoals
80 Mile Beach
Coral Sea

Arafura
Gulf of Carpentaria
Limmen Bight
Norfolk Island
Lord Howe Island
Solitary Islands
Jervis
Great Australian Bight
Recherche Archipelago
Bremer Bay
Margaret River
Perth Canyon
Albatross Islands
Shark Bay
Ningaloo

Please make an effort to discover these treasures and fight for them to be protected.

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THE CORAL SEA

The Coral sea – the cradle to the Great barrier reef – is one of the last wild places on Earth where ocean giants still thrive. And outside the sanctuary, the Coral Sea Marine Reserve created what is effectively the largest recreational fishing zone in Australia’s history.

THE PERTH CANYON

Beyond Rottnest Island, Perth’s backyard holds an underwater secret larger than the Grand Canyon. The Perth Canyon is one of only three places in Australia where the blue whale – the largest animal ever –  known to feed.

GEOGRAPHE BAY

As well as a popular holiday destination where people flock to relax, whale watch, fish and sail, Geographe Bay is a resting area for migrating humpback whales.

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LORD HOWE ISLAND

Home to the world’s most southerly coral reef, World Heritage-listed Lord Howe Island is a crossroads where five major ocean currents collide, creating a fascinating and unique mix of marine life.

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THE GULF OF CARPENTARIA

A crucial part of one of the last intact tropical marine systems left in the world.

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THE KIMBERLEY

The Kimberley has some of the last intact natural areas left on the planet. Its incredible beauty is matched only by its enormous diversity.

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THE GREAT AUSTRALIAN BIGHT

A globally significant breeding nursery for the southern right whale and southern bluefin tuna. The cool waters of the Bight have exceptional diversity – more than 800 species have been identified here.

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Currently, Greenpeace has an urgent campaign regarding The Bight.  I visited the iconic Rainbow Warrior when it docked in Melbourne, and the crew explained it was here specifically to make Australians aware of the dangers of oil exploration in one of the last unspoiled ocean havens in the world.

Local people living along the coastline have warned of the devastating consequences of an oil spill – and international companies ALL have a less than clean track record and CANNOT guarantee that won’t happen

The seismic blasts used to locate gas or oil in deep water are louder than grenades. The noise loud enough to burst human eardrums and can cause permanent loss to whales, which are many times more sensitive to sound. For marine animals relying on sound to communicate, mate and survive, this will be devastating!

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Furthermore, we should listen to the First Nation people living in the area – voices repeatedly ignored to our peril. What of their rights?

Overturning aqua nullius: securing Aboriginal water rights

This book by  Dr Virginia Marshall launched by the Hon. Michael Kirby AC CMG in 2017 provides important information we can no longer ignore:

Aboriginal peoples in Australia have the oldest living cultures in the world. From 1788 the British colonisation of Australia marginalised Aboriginal communities from land and water resources and their traditional rights and interests. More recently, the national water reforms further disenfranchised Aboriginal communities from their property rights in water, continuing to embed severe disadvantage. Overturning aqua nullius aims to cultivate a new understanding of Aboriginal water rights and interests in the context of Aboriginal water concepts and water policy development in Australia.

Drawing on the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Marshall argues that the reservation of Aboriginal water rights needs to be prioritised above the water rights and interests of other groups. It is only then that we can sweep away the injustice of aqua nullius and provide the first Australians with full recognition and status of their water rights and interests.

It is time to acknowledge past mistakes and work together to safeguard the future from a humanitarian as well as a scientific perspective.

There is a national and international scientific consensus on the benefits of sanctuaries. Sanctuaries protect crucial feeding and breeding areas to help ensure we have fish for the future.

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Research consistently shows the number, size and diversity of marine life greatly increase once areas are fully protected, and there is growing evidence of ‘flow on’ benefits into adjacent waters.

Tasmania’s Maria Island sanctuary has seen rock lobster numbers increase by more than 250%, spilling over to boost fishing and combat destructive sea urchin spread.

Sanctuaries also ensure coral reefs are more resilient to devastating bleaching and cyclones – making them more important than ever before.

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And it is not just Australia’s marine life that benefits…

Sanctuaries are tourism powerhouses supporting a range of growing industries in regional communities.

Long established marine sanctuaries are boosting tourism, fish populations and local businesses. They are an environmental, social, and economic success.

At Ningaloo Reef, 180,000 tourists visit and bring in $141 million each year.

Many of our treasured fishing destinations have been marine parks for years now.
Long-standing marine sanctuaries are working hand in hand with world-class recreational fishing in places like Ningaloo Reef, the Solitary Islands and right along the Queensland coast.

The establishment of our National Network of Sanctuaries has been one of the most evidence-based and consultative processes in Australia’s history.

Australians are enthusiastic supporters of marine sanctuaries, particularly once they have experienced them first hand. They express their support at public events direct to their local MPs and in the many thousands of submissions to government consultation processes.

Across the country, we hear the consensus: to be Australian is to treasure the big blue backyard that is our birthright.

It is our overwhelming desire to maintain the health of Australia’s oceans for future generations.

For our marine life, and way of life.

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We all share a duty and an opportunity to continue our nation’s proud history of stewardship of the seas – a bipartisan legacy for future generations.

On Sunday, I was rewarded for being a volunteer with Open House Melbourne, by a free trip on the river, which left from Docklands. I learnt how important the Melbourne waterfront is to Victoria’s economy. With imports and exports, it is the busiest port in Australia.

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The litter trap sign warns: If it’s on the river, it ends up in the river…

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Economic gains come at a cost and fortunately, there are many more people aware of the importance of keeping our waterways and the oceans healthy – not just in Melbourne but all along our coastline.

On the way to catch the boat, I passed a sculpture by Mark Stoner: The River Runs Through It – the message and reminder of what was and is, poignant and confronting and I hope does what good public art should do – allow us to pause, consider, and think about our understanding of the artist’s vision.

 

 

 

Citizens in democracies are lucky because we have an opportunity to ensure we vote on government policies that matter by letting our politicians know what we care about.

The most important issue for me is that action is taken to protect our waterways and oceans and attempt to heal the environment as we face climate change.

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Please feel free to use the information, perhaps get in touch and request your local member of parliament give a commitment too.

It’s International World Water Day – Can We Celebrate How We Manage Our Waterways?

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Reconnecting With Birrarung

I’ve written many posts about my volunteering with Open House Melbourne and how it has enriched my knowledge and this week I was privileged to attend an event, which is part of a collaborative program between NGV and Open House Melbourne for Melbourne Design Week called ‘Waterfront: Reconnecting With Birrarung.’

The Yarra River was called Birrarung by the Wurundjeri people who occupied the Yarra Valley and much of Central Victoria prior to European colonisation.

It is thought that Birrarung is derived from Wurundjeri words meaning “ever flowing”. Another common term was Birrarung Marr, thought to mean “river of mist” or “river bank”.

Other Aboriginal terms for the river are: Berrern,  Wongete, and Yarro-yarro

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Water symbolises life

It is crucial to our health, the environment’s health, and all ecosystems on planet Earth and because of development and climate change, it is critical that Australia, the world’s driest continent, manages our water systems well.

Urban rivers are under pressure across the world, despite the vital ecological, cultural and recreational value they offer. 

Open House Melbourne asked Melbournians to reconsider and reconnect with the river that runs through their city and consider the role design plays in reframing Melbourne’s relationship with water. 

Waterfront: Cultural Flows

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On Monday, March 18, in the Koorie Heritage Trust Gallery, Federation Square, I attended “an intimate conversation” with Rueben Berg, the first Aboriginal person appointed as a Commissioner for the Victorian Environmental Water Holder.

Australia’s Aboriginal peoples have tens of thousands of years’ experience in water management. With the appointment of the country’s first Aboriginal Water Commissioner, Rueben Berg, in late 2017, the value of that accumulated knowledge finally appears to be dawning on its governments.

As part of Melbourne Design Week—an initiative of the Victorian Government in collaboration with the NGV,  Cultural Flows was co-presented by Foreground, Open House Melbourne and supported by the Koorie Heritage Trust.

There is consistent interest in water (and recently the Murray-Darling crisis made that interest skyrocket!) therefore water management is important to discuss, but we don’t often think of it in terms of design.

Yet, Design is important to function – it is an intensely cultural act – our waterways were shaped by Aboriginal Australians and then came the effects of colonisation and settlement, the latter detrimental to our waterways.

Tim Flannery (Australian mammalogist, palaeontologist, environmentalist, author and global warming activist) described Melbourne as a temperate Kakadu before greed and corruption destroyed the landscape.

Most of us even think in a blinkered way about rivers – in terms of sewers or using them to fish.  A report released Tuesday warned the Yarra River’s environmental health is being put at risk due to litter, pollution and invasive species. 

Victoria’s Commissioner for Environmental Sustainability rated the river’s health as “poor” in 18 out of 25 environmental indicators in its first State of the Yarra report, which provides a comprehensive assessment of the baseline health of the ecosystem. 

Nearly 180 tonnes of rubbish has been collected from the river system over a four-year period! 

  • Litter-cleaning programs removed 179 tonnes of litter from the river between 2014 and 2017, including 1.29 million cigarette butts from the river and its mouth at Port Phillip Bay.
  • The report recommends planning controls be extended further north-east along the Yarra River. Between 2013 and 2017, the Environment Protection Agency received 338 water pollution reports — the vast majority of which came from Alphington and further downstream.
  • It also calls for the creation of a chief biodiversity scientist to oversee monitoring of the river’s health. The outlook for frogs and fish was deteriorating in inner-city Melbourne and urban parts of the river system, but platypuses were assessed as being in a “fair” and “stable” state.
  • The report found industrial sites likely caused more pollution at inner-city sites but

    warns against ‘inappropriate urban development’ as Melbourne’s population expands in the north-east of the city.

Rivers are much more than rubbish dumps and recreational play areas.

The current river protection zone should be extended from Warrandyte to the boundary of the Yarra Ranges National Park, the report said.

Environment Minister Lily D’Ambrosio said the Government would consider the report’s recommendations and that care for the river was a “shared responsibility” of all Victorians.

Learning from the Wurundjeri

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Melbourne’s first people have two moieties in their traditional group.  There is Bundjil the eagle, creator of all that you can see on country – the hills and mountains, waterways, rivers, creeks and billabongs.

The trees that give shelter to various creatures, and wood and bark for the houses or weelams of the Boon Wurrung peoples. He also was called upon to settle disputes between people.

The other moiety is Waang the black crow.

He is the protector of the waterways, rivers, creeks and billabongs. He makes sure that fresh water would run and be in plentiful supply for our people and the birds and animals.

As the driest inhabited continent, the rivers of Australia have been the focal point of life for up to 60,000 years for Aboriginal Australia.  They play an important role in Aboriginal social life and identity but by changing how, when, and where rivers flow, water resource development has affected the way Aboriginal communities interact with the landscape.

Yet, until recently, there was little Indigenous participation in water planning and management as well as limited capacity and understanding within water agencies about traditional rights or values.

Managing waterways is complex – and we are part of it. This land is a significant place and it is important to celebrate and appreciate the river and we can have much better outcomes if we do this in partnership with the Traditional Owners.

Important to remember that the land has not just been inhabited 200 plus years – what was the waterway like thousands of years ago?

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Many of us have never heard of Cultural Flow or know the job of water commissioners and this free event was a wonderful opportunity to learn.

Rueben is a Water Commissioner in Victoria. There are four managing water holdings for the betterment of the environment.  Our waterways are not free-flowing, there are chosen amounts allocated. Sometimes water is increased for the environment’s health to areas where there has not been enough for trees, canals, or wetlands to be healthy.

Irrigators have an allocation for agriculture but the natural environment also gets an allocation. These allocations must have environmental outcomes – not just for recreational purposes like swimming, although that is a factor in consideration.

Rueben, a Gunditjmara man from Framlingham a rural township located by the Hopkins River in the Western District of Victoria, Australia, about 20 km north-east of the coastal city of Warrnambool, studied architecture at QUT.  

He played with Lego as a child and wanted to build things but when he began the university course, he discovered he couldn’t relate to the way it was taught.

He remembered having to watch a French film and then having to decide what architecture suited the characters. It seemed irrelevant and not realistic. That disconnect caused him to leave architecture and join the public service where he was designing houses for Aboriginal people with disabilities. Doing that meaningful work led him to the position he now has.

Diversity and Listening

No one has all the answers but we must consider heritage when we think about the environment.

Design must include

  • the significance of place
  • analyse the site before action
  • enhance existing characteristics,
  • the user experience very important.

Personally, Rueben has seen a positive change in his 18 months as a water commissioner. It has been an interesting journey – Minister Neville plays a strong role and Reuben’s presence highlights this. People think more before decision-making.

There is a lot of goodwill but also fear about getting it wrong and giving offence. His message is you will cause offence but get over it and do your best. (What good advice – race relations for many people can be a steep learning curve.)

He alleviates fears and initiates conversations. Aboriginals are a diverse community and you’re not going to please everyone.

He has been positively received – inclusion not an abstract concept any more. The culture within the industry is that people want to improve. However, he is an advisor, and ultimately it must be the Aboriginal people on the ground who decide.

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What is Cultural Flow?

This is water managed and controlled by Aboriginal people. Let them decide how it is used, the rights to use – even where needed for economic benefit.

When solely managed by Aboriginal people, shared benefits are recognised eg. recreational fishing and swimming.

Self-determination is a great idea but the handing over of control may be hard when it actually happens. Although there is consultation, also cooperation, there is still no dedicated cultural flow in Melbourne.  

There are broad themes throughout Australia regarding cultural flow – water must not damage sacred trees so controlling allocation important, if too much water, also if draining natural wetlands consideration must be made not to expose Aboriginal remains.

The common thread is maintaining a living culture. When considering water allocation we must ask what are the Aboriginal values?

  • Protecting totem species – different ones for different clans
  • Ceremonies are held at certain times of the year, therefore may need water where the flow has stopped or is limited.
  • rejuvenation to encourage economic independence

Bolin Bolin Billabong, Bulleen

This is near Heidi and Italian Soccer Club. A large river red gum with a canoe scar is located at Heide Gallery in Bulleen.

It is a significant site but not connected naturally to the river so recognising the damage wrought by this disconnection water is pumped in to correct it.

The Ranch Billabong, Dimboola

In December 2018, Wotjobaluk Peoples marked the anniversary of their 2005 Native Title Consent Determination by returning water to one of their most culturally significant sites along the Wimmera River. Providing water was about recognising the past and honouring the present.

Barengi Gadjin Land Council and Wotjobaluk traditional owners turned on the pump that will fill the Billabong. Twenty megalitres from the Wimmera River will be pumped into the billabong and changes monitored to manage the site. The water is from the Victorian Environmental Water Holder’s Wimmera and Glenelg Rivers water for environment allocation.

Rueben explained that there is a fear of highlighting sacred places and exposing them to vandalism or people taking stones as souvenirs or to sell on eBay. (My initial shocked reaction that these things happen replaced quickly by sorrow because human beings are not really the best of Earth’s species.)

Rueben is careful of advertising much of the work they do, yet realises it is important for everyone to know and value a place and so preserve it. Aboriginals don’t want to go down the Uluru track where people have trampled on cultural and sacred significance.

Aboriginal people must be allowed to keep their traditional relationship with places and practice their culture and the overwhelming action/response needed is mutual TRUST and a determination that cultural flow will work.

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Budj Bim, Lake Condah, Heywood

Formed by an ancient lava flow from what was traditionally called the Budj Bim volcano, the rich resource of Lake Condah – just outside Heywood – has sustained the Gunditjmara people for thousands of years.

The way the Gunditjmara people exploited the resources of the lake was sophisticated. They developed an aquaculture system not just to catch fish, but to grow fish. They were probably the earliest fish farmers in the world, one fish trap has been dated to 6,600 years old. Eels were caught and smoked and the Traditional Owners are developing the local eel farming industry to contribute to economic development and have an important education role.

Local Traditional Owners believe the area has global significance and are applying for World Heritage listing, a remarkable landscape, much older than manmade structures in existence.

In the late 1800s, Lake Condah was drained by European settlers for grazing land. In 2010 – following a native title determination – the lake was reflooded as part of a plan to revive the ecosystem around it.

From having no Aboriginal waterway officers there are now 22. Victoria is leading the way nationally and the current Treaty negotiations will give opportunities to have water rights discussions while respecting Aboriginal traditions in the knowledge that within different groups only certain people own certain knowledge.

Sharing that knowledge requires transparency and a reliance on stakeholders to navigate bureaucracy in good faith. Reuben must find out where and with whom authority resides within various local groups, develop a strong connection to the region, build relationships and discover who has access to the knowledge, and avoid conflict – this method has worked – so far!

The Aboriginal waterways assessment tool was imported from Canada after examining how their First People manage waterways. It is the intellectual property of our First People and the government accepts this assessment tool and doesn’t interfere. It is based on the relationships of Traditional Owners.

No tension yet regarding economic benefits, and there is always ongoing discussions when an approach is made and action is taken. Cultural Flow is referring to entitlement, it is not saying First People own the water but have an entitlement of access – for example, 4% of flow at a certain time

It is like a lease – you can sell some of the water allocations if water is surplus to needs; it will be used for other environments.  The question must always be asked – what is landscape for the year and will allocation change? 

The aim is to maximise benefits across the state.

In Victoria, the agriculture industry is generally supportive and the social licence of Aboriginal people recognised. They understand for the environment’s sake and the wellbeing of Traditional Owners, the balance must be got right. The Farmers Federation and Irrigators Council support Cultural Flow and are encouraging the establishment and use of frameworks.

International examples of cultural flow are NZ and Canada. Victoria is doing well compared to the national average.

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Can we Rewild Our Creeks?

We have been modifying our waterways for thousands of years – therefore don’t rewild but bring it back to a time when people lived in harmony with the environment.

We should move to use Indigenous terms and language – refer to places by two names, change the river names to include the Aboriginal name alongside the colonial name.

Reuben suggests we learn the original place name of where we live, where we walk the dog or picnic. What is it called in the original tongue and get into the habit of saying it as a daily reminder of the cultural significance of place!

It also shows respect.

We must get the environment right or nothing will work – look at the Murray Darling mess!

  • Water Commissioners can move water across the state – metaphorically and physically. It is like a grid. Water is a public-owned asset, and the government ultimately decides. So beyond Design – where the flow goes – is a political/cultural equation.
  • Traditional sites in urban Melbourne might be managed by Parks Victoria.
  • A part of the river may need more  – water is requested – Aboriginal clans don’t have to intrinsically own the land – it is about partnerships. Not limited to having to own the land to request cultural flow.

Managing waterways is complex – and we are part of it. This land is a significant place and it is important to celebrate and appreciate the river.

Know The History of The Yarra

 

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THE YARRA FALLS

Fresh water was the key to Melbourne’s location and to its development during the first 20 years of European settlement. In 1803, the Acting Surveyor-General of NSW, Charles Grimes, rowed upstream and declared it ‘the most eligible place for a settlement I have seen.’

John Batman had explored in the vicinity during June 1835, but it was George Evans and John Lancey in the ‘Enterprize’ who stepped ashore here on 30 August 1835 on behalf of Launceston businessman, John Pascoe Fawkner.

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The Wurrundjeri – one of five tribes of the Kulin Nation – had inhabited the area for more than 40,000 years, hunting and fishing the bountiful wildlife.

The 30 painted and carved poles in Enterprise Park depict the scars they left in the river gums after making shields and canoes.

A reef rock running under the Yarra at this point prevented water downstream from contaminating the fresh water above. At low tide, there was a pretty cascade known as The Yarra Falls.

The river above the Falls provided drinking and bathing water for Melburnians until the opening of Yan Year reservoir in 1857.

The Falls was a natural barrier to river transport and the reef was blasted away in 1880 as part of the river widening and straightening works.

We can’t rewind the clock or reverse some of the poor decisions regarding our landscape and waterways but the current government in Victoria is making an effort and we must all play our part – especially regarding pollution.

The inappropriate development must be stopped and listening to the wisdom of Traditional Owners and working with them is crucial.

Rueben and other Indigenous water commissioners are aware that the environment is changing because of global warming and the various factors contributing to this change. 

How water was managed in the past might not work and best intentions can be wrong but Aboriginals have inhabited Australia for thousands of years, adapting and managing and it is about enabling them to continue this stewardship.

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Cultural Flow and self-determination must be supported:

Indigenous peoples are connected to and responsible for our lands and waters and in turn, Indigenous peoples obtain and maintain our spiritual and cultural identity, life and livelihoods from our lands, waters and resources. These cultural and customary rights and responsibilities include: 

  • a spiritual connection to lands, waters and natural resources associated with water places
  • management of significant sites located along river banks, on and in the river beds, and sites and stories associated with the water and natural resources located in the rivers and their tributaries, and the sea 
  • protection of Indigenous cultural heritage and knowledge associated with water and water places 
  • access to cultural activities such as hunting and fishing, and ceremony.

While it is not possible to homogenise all Indigenous cultural water values into one perspective, as Indigenous values are regionally diverse and complex, there are some commonalities and distinctions from non-Indigenous laws that are important to recognise and understand.

Indigenous relationships with water are holistic; combining land, water, culture, society and economy. Consequently, water and land rights, the management of resources and native title are inseparable.

Aboriginal people have a wealth of knowledge around managing water resources within the Australian landscape and have much to offer in land and water planning and management.

We need their help to maintain our waterways.

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Today, March 22nd, we celebrate International World Water Day — founded in 1993 to elevate the importance of water as a human right, focus attention on the critical need to safeguard our freshwater resources, and promote the sustainable management of public water resources across the globe.

Billions of people are still living without safe water in both the Global North and Global South, and that’s why The Story of Stuff Project continues to fight for clean, safe, affordable drinking water. That means we support keeping water in the commons and managed by public hands, not private corporations.

The Story of Stuff

You can pledge:

  • I pledge to use reusable water bottles because drinking my local tap water is more sustainable than drinking from single-use, disposable plastic bottles, and doesn’t promote water commodification.
  • I pledge to resist water privatization because water is a human right and a natural resource that should not be controlled by corporations that put profits over people.

Clean water for all is not only a basic necessity — it is a fundamental human right. Without water, there is no life.

Clean water and adequate sanitation are paramount for helping children avoid deadly diseases, ensuring girls can stay in school, creating jobs, and assisting economic, social, and human development.

Sometimes the stars seem to align, or perhaps it is down to the cliched six-degrees of separation, but several activities I’ve attended this week have all been linked to water, the environment and learning more about Australia’s First People :

  • their knowledge and links to the land, waterways and the sea that we must appreciate and honour
  • how the only way forward is to work together,  building trust and sharing knowledge
  • how there is so much more to be done to Close The Gap and ensure true equality and improved outcomes in all areas of life for Indigenous Australians.
  • the importance of marine sanctuaries and healthy seas to ensure marine life isn’t destroyed and the health and integrity of Australia’s waterways are maintained. (more on that in a separate post!)

Today — on World Water Day … please get familiar with the greatest issues in the fight to ensure clean water for all.

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A Week When Words And Actions Mattered and Yet I Couldn’t Write…

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What happened in Christchurch last Friday was so horrific, it is difficult to express in words. Sorrow, a lump of marble pressing on my heart.

I can sympathise and empathise but any personal response to such a violent, hateful act seems totally inadequate.

Paralysis almost instantaneous – horror seems to happen a lot, news of violence and terror of varying scales, reported on every media platform but this time because it was multiple deaths close to home, it seemed to hurt more.

I’ve known grief but can’t imagine the immense suffering of the dead and injured in the shootings at the Al Noor Mosque and the Linwood Islamic Centre in Christchurch, and the effect on the wider Islamic community.

The process of writing and friends in the writing community, along with close family, have always been a solace – being able to write a way of working through trauma towards healing.

However, in the last few days, an inner voice and feeling of fatigue told me writing is pointless in the face of so much hate, violence and ignorance because the people who hold such angry and irrational views won’t read or care what I write.

Perhaps expressing how I feel will not be helpful.

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However, in recent days, along with expressions of shared grief and love, there has been acknowledgement and reflection that hatred and extremism do not operate in a vacuum.

There have been thousands of words spoken and written by others expressing the belief that in private and public conversations we can, and indeed must, do better, unless we want to see a repeat and even an escalation of atrocities.

The more of us who publicly support those who need it and condemn the aggressors and hate-mongers, the better.

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We can watch our words – think before we speak because the childhood rhyme of  “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” although well-meaning is patently untrue for the many people who suffer abuse and vilification every day because of their colour, ethnicity, sexual orientation, race, religious faith, country of origin or socioeconomic status. 

Society seems too ready to marginalise groups of people and too slow at being inclusive and kind.

We can modify behaviour – our own definitely,  but also encourage others to be kinder and more welcoming – and many people do. Participating in Harmony Day celebrations is a good start but there are many organisations and events available throughout Australia.

We can all reach out and promote peace and goodwill.

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Christchurch 2019
Mairi Neil

Friday’s Breaking News
a barrage of bullets…

Broken bodies
Shattered lives
Crushed dreams
Broken hearts

The terrorist filmed his ranting rampage
to maximise hatred and fear
stunned we recoiled in horror
but amid the shock
recognition and reflection…

Who made the bullets he fired?
Who marginalised and vilified
the targets of this cowardly attack?
Who formed, repeated and spread
words of hate seeking to fracture
and divide humanity?

Thoughts and prayers are not enough

The Scales of Justice seesaw
Responsibility     Guilt                  Shame
Tolerance           Acceptance        Love

Belonging must be felt
and welcoming arms outstretched.

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World history and experience proves the power of words. That’s why manifestos are issued by demigods, tyrants, megalomaniacs and political parties of every persuasion.

Words of philosophy and faith with the aim of spreading tolerance and peace can be uplifting and healing but words can be dangerous if used to deceive by spreading misinformation, bigotry and reinforcing harmful stereotypes.

Writers must take responsibility and consider who will read our words even although we can’t control how a reader interprets what we write.

Some may argue that rules and responsibility are for those writing about and reporting facts –

  • researchers must cast their net wide and gather as much information as possible to appear balanced,
  • journalists must differentiate between report and opinion,
  • academic language and style should not be emotive, biased or inflammatory.

I believe creative writers have a responsibility too. I may not always get it right but I try to be balanced when writing characters and situations, try to avoid creating or perpetuating harmful stereotypes whether sexist, racist, or ageist.

I make efforts to continually educate myself about different cultures aware that we live in a multi-cultural country.

Ten Questions to Ask When Writing Characters

  1. Whose voices will you include?
  2. Whose voices will you ignore or leave out?
  3. What messages or ideas are dominant?
  4. Will you explore or consider alternative ideas to the mainstream?
  5. How do you portray people of different races?
  6. Are you reinforcing or undermining racial stereotypes?
  7. What roles are you assigning to male and female characters?
  8. Are you reinforcing or undermining gender stereotypes?
  9. Will you write about or relate to contemporary issues?
  10. If representing certain beliefs about people and the world are you doing it honestly?

I’ve posted before about the power of books to move me from my comfort zone. Novels have enlightened and influenced me. Stories can reveal inequity and injustice and counter hatred and ignorance. They can nurture empathy and transform tolerance into acceptance.

Reading books from other cultures and about other cultures should be encouraged from a young age.

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Poster from Scholastic Books for Book Week 1992

This post has been difficult to write and the images and detail of what happened in Christchurch will not be forgotten. They will be compartmentalised like other horrific examples of ‘Man’s inhumanity to man’.

Conversations have started at the highest levels of government to ACT and stop the demonisation of particular religious and ethnic groups and to recognise the harm done under the banner of ‘freedom of speech’.

I’m glad world leaders have promised to do something about limiting the reach or forcing corporations to take responsibility for the social media tools accessed and used to spread messages of hate, division and violence.

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And if there is anyone who does not think Islamophobia is not harmful I can relate three examples close to my home and family:

  • On Friday night, two women who work with one of my daughters caught the tram home. This was a few hours after the shootings in the Christchurch mosques. They were women of colour and a white male sitting across from them shaped his hand into a gun, pointed, and pretended to fire twice.

Shocking as this may seem, this is one of many incidents they have had to deal with over the years. Most of their life they have lived under the hysteria and abuse ‘justified’ by 9/11 and the War on Terror. Rarely do passersby intervene, help or support the victims.

My daughter’s friends stopped reporting incidents to the police because, despite the probability of camera footage and even witnesses, the police are not interested or put any follow up in the too hard basket.

  • My other daughter stays in touch with a university friend who happens to wear a hijab. The friend’s Facebook posts heart-rending when she notes, ‘It was a good day today, I was only spat on once.’

If this is happening in Melbourne, the world’s most liveable city, and Australia, the lucky country, believe it when public figures tell you they knew it was only a matter of time before there was a massacre like the Christchurch shootings.

  • On Saturday evening, my daughter was having dinner in a restaurant in Balaclava. When she looked out of the window, she saw a man abuse and grab a Jewish passerby, shove him against the wall and try and grab his Kippah from his head. She jumped up and ran outside but an employee stopped her at the door and said, ‘I’ll go.’ A woman from a nearby shop also went to the victim’s aid. No other diner moved to help and people in the street stared or scurried by.

The rise of anti-semitism is well documented and in the East St Kilda neighbourhood where my daughter lives Swastikas have been daubed on synagogues, schools, shops and fences.

We have said sorry to our First People but there is still not a widespread acknowledgement that this land was invaded and founded on genocide. The Uluru Statement from the Heart was rejected by Prime Minister Turnbull and the current Prime Minister has not changed policy.

Aboriginal Australians know all about abuse, vilification, stereotyping, and marginalisation and yet they have often been the first ones to welcome refugees and migrants into the community.

Whatever actions authorities and all of us take, I hope it is not too little too late.

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Watch ‘Edie’ – Be Inspired, & Keep Your Dreams Alive

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83-year-old Edie believes that it is never too late – packing an old camping bag, leaving her life behind and embarking on an adventure she never got to have – climbing the imposing Mount Suilven in Scotland.

My daughters bought me this DVD for Christmas and I took the opportunity last weekend amidst our autumn heatwave to watch it. (Something positive and uplifting to take my mind off worrying that those we trusted have left action on climate change too late…)

Empathy

I was only pushing 65 when I went on my travel adventure but since it also included Scotland, I imagine that influenced my daughters’ decision to buy me this DVD.

It certainly is a spectacular showcase of the beauty of my birth country, especially of parts that regular tourists may not see.

Anne and Mary Jane are too young to appreciate what a brilliant actress Sheila Hancock is and probably didn’t realise how much I admire her work. I can still remember the TV series The Rag Trade (circa 1961)  with Miriam Karlin – a show my Mum never missed. (even thinking about it triggers memories of Mum’s laughter and giggling drifting up the stairs in our house in Scotland – a wonderful sound to fall asleep to – an added bonus when gifts of books, DVDs and CDs of music trigger happy memories.)

Sheila also worked on stage, other television productions, and many films – a stellar career.

Sheila Cameron HancockCBE (born 22 February 1933) is an English actress and author. Hancock trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art before starting her career in repertory theatre. Hancock went on to perform in plays and musicals in London, and her Broadway debut in Entertaining Mr Sloane (1966) earned her a Tony Award nomination for Best Lead Actress in Play. She won a Laurence Olivier Award for Best Performance in a Supporting Role in a Musical for her role in Cabaret (2007) and was nominated at the Laurence Olivier Awards four other times for her work in Sweeney Todd (1980), The Winter’s Tale (1982), Prin (1989) and Sister Act (2010).

Wikipedia entry

She is an author of several books. I have her 2004, The Two of Us,  a dual biography, of her life with second husband, actor John Thaw. The book focuses on their careers and 28-year marriage. John died of oesophageal cancer in 2002, the same disease that killed her first husband, actor Alec Ross in 1971. Sheila is also a breast cancer survivor.

(As a widow who also nursed a husband through cancer and then survived breast cancer myself, Sheila’s book resonated with me.)

Not surprising with all the personal emotional and physical obstacles overcome in her life,  she is superb as feisty Edie and any ‘acting’ seems effortless.  At 84 years old when making the movie, Sheila did all the scenes in real time and remains the oldest person to climb Mount Suilven (731 meters or 2398.29 feet) – the normal suspension of disbelief required in cinema easily achieved.

The movie is inspirational and entertaining on several levels – as mentioned the scenery alone absolutely mesmerising, Edie could have been made for the Scottish Tourism Board – I can imagine visitors to Sutherland increased after the film’s release in 2017.

Suilven is one of the most distinctive mountains in Scotland. Lying in a remote area in the west of Sutherland, it rises almost vertically from a wilderness landscape of moorland, bogs, and lochans known as Inverpolly National Nature Reserve. Suilven forms a steep-sided ridge some 2 km in length.

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Mt Suilven Scotland – Wikipedia

A Positive Ageing Story

Edie is not the usual cliched ‘grey power’ movie. There is no reuniting with or meeting a new love interest,  no romantic entanglement, no outsmarting or put down of the younger generation or authority, and no tear-jerking death scene.

Instead, there are interesting layers to unpack and questions left unanswered, leaving food for thought or discussion.

  • Will she now be able to control her future and remain ‘feeling alive’?
  • Has she finally put the past to rest?
  • Can she heal her relationship and reconcile with her daughter?
  • What of her newfound friendship with the young guide – will he make the ‘right’ choice for his future?

Easy to watch, the movie’s overall narrative says it is never too late to make your special dream a reality and be open to new experiences and new friendships

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It is ‘Herstory’

March is Women’s History Month and we learn of women who have made a difference – some of whom were written out of history.

Edie is not a tale of a ‘famous’ female achiever, but it tells a story of limited choice and restrictions familiar to many women, especially of a particular generation – and sadly, perhaps still too familiar!

Edie could be ‘everywoman’ who put the needs and desires of fathers, brothers, husbands, sons and daughters before her own happiness. It is uncomfortable viewing at times.

At the beginning of the movie, we see Edie is the sole carer for a wheelchair-bound husband, George (Donald Pelmear). He can’t speak and has to be aided to eat. When he dies, it is not long before the house is up for sale and daughter, Nancy (Wendy Morgan) is taking Edie to view a residential aged care centre that on first glance looks like a luxury hotel (the camera through Edie’s eyes drawn to a huge golden chandelier in the entrance hall) but to Edie the place represents first class misery.

There is little dialogue in the early scenes but plenty of good acting, directing, and camera work. Edie’s expressions and body language show how unimpressed she is with the facility, despite the over-enthusiastic praise of residents and activities by Nancy.

Trying too hard to ‘sell’ the place,  Nancy and the staff reminiscent of parents talking up boarding school to a reticent child. Naturally, Edie is not cooperating!

The scene where she is supposed to be learning flower-arranging and churlishly snips off the head of a flower once the instructor walks away, a great metaphor – and hints at the rebellion to come.

Edie and Nancy return to pack up the house and encounter a life-changing shock:

  • Edie focuses on an old postcard of Mt Suilven from her Dad promising they’d ‘climb it together‘.
  • Nancy finds a journal her mother kept and is appalled by the anger and misery in the short entries. Edie complains about being trapped, having to look after a child and her sick husband, having no support or pleasure, the unfairness of her workload, of being depressed at the drudgery her life has become and living a life she hates.

Nancy is hurt, offended, and furious, and not interested when Edie tries to explain the journal was a way to release her frustrations at the miserable and restrictive marriage, not motherhood… the crushing of her dreams and loss of independence… She was upset about the demands of caring for her husband after his severe stroke so early in the marriage.

It wasn’t meant to be read by anyone else!’

Nancy is too hurt and stunned to have sympathy.

But I always did my duty,’ Edie yells as her daughter storms out. (It was 30 years of caring.)

And I’m tired of doing my duty,’ Nancy yells back as she tearfully slams the gate.

No winners in that argument just valid points about the strain of changing relationships, the carer’s role, which can occur at any age, and the very human habit of not communicating honestly with those we love, and the huge gaps in society’s resources to help families in times of crises.

Appropriately, it’s a bleak, stormy, wet day and Edie is left standing at the gate drenched in rain (tears?)… like novels, metaphor important in scene setting.

That night Edie burns her journals and almost incinerates the postcard but rescues it and sits staring into the flames, deep in thought.

We glimpse ageing in suburbia with Edie’s only relief from drudgery a cuppa in a favourite local cafe where she is someone other than trapped wife or recalcitrant mother.

A lightbulb moment springs her to action and the gorgeous visuals of the journey north by train begins.  Determined to climb that mountain and keep her father’s promise she has packed ancient equipment, which must be replaced of course and the shopping trip for the latest gear from the Scottish equivalent of Kathmandu provides comedy and pathos.

Many of these scenes resonated with me because when I went into the Tarkine wilderness on a hiking and camping holiday in 2008, I hadn’t shouldered a backpack since Girl Guide days – I was also amazed and shocked at the variety and cost of camping gear but must admit to having fun trying on the clothes just like Edie.

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The Generation Gap

In Scotland, Edie meets Johnny (Kevin Guthrie) and their unusual relationship provides laughs, tension, and poignancy – Sheila Hancock has never lost her comedic timing and the close-ups of her wrinkled face and hands, falling over, and struggling with weakened limbs truthfully portrayed.

There’s a memorable scene where she rests and examines a leaf from a nearby bush. The close-up shows the veins on the leaf held beside the back of her hand – roots pump water and minerals to branches and leaves, the heart pumps blood through our veins to limbs… a leaf can be the sign of a new beginning or reaching maturity…

It is a beautifully filmed sequence and her smile and demeanour say she is glad to be alive and grateful to be in that place, at that time.

I’ve been fortunate to have many private moments in wonderful places of natural beauty, I too have been able to sit in silence and contemplate… this was a lovely moment in the narrative and I’m sure contributed to the film winning its two awards.

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At the start of her adventure because of a mix-up, Edie has to spend a night in Johnny’s share house. Two scenes are funny and emphasise gender and generation gap many people can relate to:

  1. She prepares for bed in a bathroom/toilet shared and neglected by the all-male, twenty-something household
  2. Leaving the next morning she has to navigate past four young men sprawled on the lounge room floor after a heavy night of drinking.

Genuine warmth and friendship develops between Edie and Johnny, who has his own relationship troubles because his girlfriend, Fiona (Amy Manson) is in the middle of negotiating a bank loan to create the biggest camping store in the north of Scotland while he feels trapped and longs to escape his job as a guide in what he considers a parochial area. He took on the job of training Edie for the climb solely for the money, thinking it would be easy because she would back out.

In an honest exchange of stories, we learn Edie’s life and how her spirit was broken by her husband who was a control freak. He estranged her from her father to ensure she forgot being ‘a wild child’ and just as she realised the marriage was not what she wanted and stood up to him, he had an almost fatal stroke. She sacrificed the next 30 years to dutifully care for him and ensure her daughter would have choices she didn’t.

The wisdom of age juxtaposed with impetuous youth exchanged like their stories.  But when Johnny is looking forward to guiding, Edie surprises him by insisting she climb Suilven alone! Wow – who is risk-taking and foolish now!?

The drama and tension speed up at this point – for all the characters – and the reunion of Johnny and Edie near the top of the mountain and him stepping back and letting her move unsteadily alone to the peak to add her small stone to the cairn, speaks volumes about their changed relationship. His happiness and joy reflected in a huge smile and glistening eyes.

Exhausted Edie stands proudly surveying the raw haunting beauty of Suilven and Lochinver and for Scottish me with roots still in my birthplace, the scenery and emotions evoked, breathtaking.

A satisfying and inspirational movie that is also thought-provoking because, barring tragedy, we are all ageing and/or watching loved-ones age, and how we navigate and cope with the process and live affects wellbeing and happiness.

There is a marvellous interlude when we think Edie will not survive – her equipment lost in a terrible storm and she is alone in the dark until she discovers a hermit’s hut – this episode has even more layers you can unpack if you like philosophy and ponder our relationship with nature and each other.

Triggered Memories of My Mountain Climbed

I replicated Edie’s journey, in a tiny way, when I was in Skye in 2017 – not that climbing The Storr (or Old Man of Storr as it is known) was near the effort of Mt Suilven but for someone who suffers acrophobia, I’m proud of my achievement.

approaching old man stor.jpg
approaching The Storr

I’ve written about when I think my fear of heights started here and although The Storr has a path described as ‘well-constructed’, for me it was a challenge.

Looks can be deceptive, the gradient, the instability and variable surface of the ground underfoot, and the constant force of the wind the day I climbed presented a challenge too.

The Storr (ScottishGaelic: An Stòr) is a rocky hill on the Trotternish peninsula of the Isle of Skye in Scotland. The hill presents a steep rocky eastern face overlooking the Sound of Raasay, contrasting with gentler grassy slopes to the west.

The Storr is a prime example of the Trotternish landslip, the longest such feature in Great Britain. It is the type locality for the mineral gyrolite.

The area in front of the cliffs of the Storr is known as The Sanctuary. This has a number of weirdly shaped rock pinnacles, the remnants of ancient landslips.

A well-constructed path, used by many sightseers, leaves the A855 just north of Loch Leathan. It heads up through a clearfell area that was formerly a conifer plantation. Most day-trippers are content simply to wander around the Sanctuary, admiring the pinnacles and gazing up at The Storr’s eastern cliffs. Walkers can easily ascend to the summit, however, by skirting below the cliffs whilst heading north from the north end of the Sanctuary. After passing over a fence at a makeshift stile and climbing a brief steep section of loose rock, the recommended route for walkers heads north-west as far as Coire Scamadal, 1 km north of the summit, then doubles back and heads southwards along the north side, climbing towards the summit. From this route, visible breaks in the cliffs offer tempting short cuts, but these are steep, may not save time and may not be safe…

Wikipedia

The Storr is 719 metres (2,359ft) at its highest point – I reached the base of the steepest pinnacle but discretion being the better part of valour and considering I was on my own, I did not scramble around the narrow ledge to ‘touch’ the pinnacle because I feared the wind would blow me away or a panic attack make me freeze.

In fact, a few times during the climb I wondered if my travel insurance would pay out because I signed a clause saying I was not planning any unusual extreme ventures!

At the start, I took photographs of the area known as The Sanctuary and met plenty of tourists ‘scrambling’ and climbing to a vantage point for good views.

I then started the ascent in earnest, stopping plenty of times for photographs but also to chat with people coming down or going up:

  • How long did it take you?
  • Is the going rough?
  • Are there any landslides?
  • What’s the best side to tackle?
  • Where are you from?
  • Have you done this before?
  • Did you get to the Pinnacle?
  • The wind will blow you away!
  • It’s too hard!
  • It’s too dangerous!
  • I made it – just wanted a photo for Instagram… Facebook …
  • I took a Selfie to prove it I reached the top!

It was treacherous underfoot and I found it took all my concentration and physical ability to navigate some steep and slippery sections.

I met a lovely father and daughter from India but the little girl of eleven refused to be as enthusiastic about the challenge despite coaxing from her Dad.

They only climbed part of the way and were still negotiating about going further when I met them on my way down!

dad and daughter visiting from India old man storr.jpg

Two lovely Italian girls shadowed me part of the way – perhaps thinking I was going to need assistance. We were all thumbs up and celebrating when we reached the base of the Pinnacle and through sign language and limited English, they said they admired someone of ‘my age’ for even attempting the climb!

I don’t know about Sheila Hancock in Edie but I found the descent as daunting as the climb and several times thought I was going to lose my footing. However, I did climb, Old Man of Storr and have some wonderful photographs of the view of Skye I would otherwise not have… and as you can see by my smiles it was a good feeling to have a small triumph over a lifelong fear of heights.

Edie, the movie, and Sheila Hancock, the actress – both inspirational.  I won’t be queuing up to climb Suilven when I’m 85 but I hope to achieve other dreams.