A National Writing Day Motivates the Muse

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I’m on holiday from classes until July 30th and in my FB feed the Scottish Poetry Library announced June 26th 2019 as ‘International Writing Day’ with a link to https://www.nationalwritingday.org.uk/

Whether international or national – it is wonderful to have a writing day and that’s what I did, sharing Wednesday with a dear friend first met through the Mordialloc Writers’ Group.

Sitting at the kitchen table, we talked about writing goals and then wrote some poetry.

We both had discovered old notebooks containing poems written years ago and discussed how many versions need to be written to ‘get it right’ – and how it never is!

Have we improved or were those early words better? Did the words come easier then? What makes a ‘good’ poem?

We both agreed that in some cases, our poems recorded life and how we felt – a bit like journalling and many poems reminded us of past events we’d forgotten.

Other poems explored language, exercised our imagination, captured a moment or were a bit of fun …

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Searching for Words and Meaning…
Mairi Neil

In writing class
we explore language
seek living words
lively words
alive words
volume high
sentencing each other
to work it out
or perhaps not
just listen, absorb and be
explore the language
search for words
taught in childhood
read in books
overheard on the train…
volume doesn’t matter
one sentence or two
from me or you
language exploration
job description
happiness prescription
research for a living
search for meaning
out-search a life
my sentence
to teach
writing in class…

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Port Campbell Sunset With Mary Jane
Mairi Neil, 1995

We stand together to watch the sun go down
sharing a marvellous miracle –
the silvery-white ball now a shade of pink,
a glowing mandarin, yellow tint, then red
and settling seagulls strutting by the water
appear to blush, blending with the foaming tide
flowing in with a rush

The fiery sphere radiates brilliant orange
colour spreads across the sky, the orb starts to
slip
slowly
seawards
silently
sinking

This forehead and eyebrows of a sleepy giant
jaundiced
floppy
fluid
flaccid
pliant

Until suddenly, the sky explodes aflame
our hearts pound
the sky astounds
The sun a misshapen balloon
Disappearing fast
going
gone
too soon…

A semi-darkened sky of colourful pools, puddles,
mere splashes mid-air
Was that brilliant display ever really there?

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A Note To Kingston Council
Mairi Neil, 1999

(responding to a report in the newspaper of a resident weeping as a gum tree aged 100 years old was chopped down to make way for new development)

A concerned citizen stood weeping
wringing her hands in despair
but the chainsaws grind and gobble
so another block is laid bare
gum trees go that once grew tall
shading homes for a hundred years
those living links to the past
chopped down despite her pleas

Eucalyptus gums are indigenous
native grasses and bushes too
home to a thousand insect species
and native birds becoming so few
where one house stood in a garden
two units are built – or more
imported trees, shrubs in fancy tubs
surrounded by a concrete pour

Developers have their dreams
And indigenous trees get in the way
‘Clear the land of all vegetation –
especially big trees,’ what they say!
Bulldozing through regulations
everything done with unseemly speed
‘We own the land now and have rights,’
but neighbours see only greed.

Some developers say they deserve thanks
After all, they’ve ‘improved’ the land
sanitised lawns introduced boutique trees
concreted paths added buildings grand!
Individual rights must be paramount
because the ‘ME’ mentality rules
environmentalists caring for community
are soft-hearted, irrelevant fools.

Who cares about rangy, old gums
that provided shade and privacy too
Who cares about a balanced ecosystem
and that birds and butterflies are few?
If YOU care about what is happening
In community streets and suburbs
Then speak up, get involved, write letters –
and counteract the Real Estate blurbs!

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Winter Stillness
Mairi Neil, 1996

A winter’s morn
white mist hides the sun
shrouding treetops
birds twitter unseen
Was it the coldest night?

A walk to the station
familiar path unseen
cold air, chilled bones
a bleak beginning
to another day of toil

At the railway station
commuters huddle in silence
but aboard in warmth a thaw
familiar faces smile greetings
cheerful chatter melts winter blues

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The World Loves PowerPoint
Mairi Neil, 1996.

I got a CDRom to make an interactive PPP
this multimedia task completely confounds me
I sit with mouth agape marvelling at the show
from Encarta ’96 – so much I don’t yet know

I don’t know how computers work
the science and technology a wonder
the subliminal flickering of the cursor
disappears off screen – oh, my blunder?
Clicks and movement directs this brain
finger muscles used again and again
activating programs seems a breeze
but this technology can be a tease
my hands don’t appear to accept the hype
as on the keyboard they stumble to type
and repeat out-dated typewriting rules
trying grammar and spelling used at school

I got a CDRom to make an interactive PPP
This multimedia task completely confounds me
Bill Gates and Microsoft what have you started –
my confidence and sanity swiftly departed!

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A Winter Walk in Woodland
Mairi Neil, 1997

The winter day cold but not drear
unusually, warm for this time of year
we choose a walk through the woods
and frost-hardened leaves crack
the path piled with fallen snow
our boots stain the pristine track

Children run ahead to climb steep hills
curbing their enthusiasm a battle of wills
they’re keen to explore and with innocence
embrace the wild creatures in this place
but most are hiding, nowhere to be seen
hibernating while of summer they dream.

The children lament the ‘waterfall’ too small
a mere trickle of water, no cascade at all
plus modern development is eating the wood
motorway and shops gobble habitat for good
landscapes changed, altered beyond repair
rivers dried – the trees weep in despair

At an old canal, hopeful enthusiast rebuild
boxes to protect dormice with optimism filled
Mother Nature resilient, she can adapt and adjust
but nurturing people’s help a definite must
tiny snowdrops gleam – such a welcome sight
of unspoilt beauty to hold in memory tight.

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I Never Thought
Mairi Neil, 1998

When we first met
I never thought
we would lie side by side
in a large comfortable bed
and not drown in passion
maturity and familiarity
take their toll

Our bodies still tingle
when hands caress
but we have grown
comfortable and content
seeking thrills less often

It is enough to know
desire and satisfaction
still exist

I never thought
we would lie side by side
and talk of mundane matters…
doors to be painted
garden beds to be weeded
leaky taps to be fixed
seams to be mended…
yet we do not rush
to start a project
or worry a task
is incomplete

It is enough to know
there is tomorrow

I never thought
spending a morning
with you puzzling to solve
a cryptic crossword
and I puzzling to
write a poem
would create a warm inner glow
provide contentment and pleasure

Our past… and imagined future
flows easily between us
Our love has a comfortable silence
as well as public vows

It is enough to know that you are here.

 

 

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I Love Cooking (after Dr Seuss)
Mairi Neil

I love cooking, I love the smell
I love it more when it turns out swell
I love old recipes, they are the best
I gather ingredients and begin with zest.

I love my oven, it’s electric. If it was gas I’d be sick.
I love my bench top, granite and wide, equipment sits side by side.
I think my cooking is okay, there’s not much more I can say.
I’m not an expert like some boast, I’ve been known to burn the toast!
There’s people who just love their food, always categorising, bad or good.
I eat to live, variety’s not king, a few favourite recipes are my thing.

I’m happy to bake my apple cake. I am.
Can even manage scones, cream and jam.
I love to peel, dice, chop and knead.
It’s from cleaning up I want to be freed.

I love cooking – it’s a necessary evil – we have to eat.
But boy I’m glad – really glad – Nandos has opened up the street

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Here’s to more National Writing days!

 

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Visit Shetland with Sunglasses & a Sense of Adventure

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Arriving at the port of Lerwick

We are experiencing a colder winter than usual this year and as I shiver, Facebook reminds me that two years ago I enjoyed warm spring weather in the UK including the lovely two weeks experiencing the Absolute Orkney & Shetland Islands Escape with several days spent in Shetland.

I’m now revisiting that time in Shetland while continuing the journey of going through boxes of past writing and teaching files to ‘clear out clutter’.

Recently, I discovered one of the first poems I wrote when I moved to Mordialloc and attempted to fulfil a dream to be a writer.

Whether scribbled poems (and this one was pre-computer days for me) or journal notes, the words, like my Facebook posts and photographs catapulted me to another place, another time – in many ways – another me!

The Change of Seasons
Mairi Neil, 1992

A winter’s day at the beginning of June,
who would have thought it cold so soon?
The hum of the fan as the gas fire burns
lifeless clothes drip on the hoist as it turns
the breeze gentler no more leaves falling
but the plaintive cry of cockies calling
to be released from their caged captivity
a monument to mankind’s insensitivity.

The cold weather outside, wet and bleak –
where is the sunlight we all seek?
My neighbour traps birds to keep for pleasure
others destroy the environment to amass treasure
I frequently criticise but no action take –
is my concern for social justice all just fake?
The silent majority murdered the Vietnamese
a radical student, I demonstrated with ease

Like winter’s rain, my protests poured down
on the heads of politicians – even the Crown.
There are always Vietnams, wrongs to be righted
has motherhood, mortgage, my conscience blighted?
Puddles on the concrete quiver and ripple
Raindrops plop like intermittent spittle
Was I more effective when young and carefree?
Persistently protesting – no one silenced me!

Perhaps mature responsibilities have weakened my voice
the business of raising a family offers limited choice…
When young, I felt strong like the rain – now I’m spittle
still caring deeply, yet doing too little
Can I blame it on SAD – sunlight deprivation
And be like a bear, accept temporary hibernation?

Winter Nights In Front of The Telly With Jimmy

On Sunday nights, a new series of the television series Shetland is broadcast. The crime drama has amassed an international audience since it began in 2013. Its popularity due to the excellent adaptation of award-winning crime novels by Ann Cleeves, a location, which provides plenty of stunning coastal scenes, strong storylines, and good acting.

Douglas Henshall plays Detective Inspector Jimmy Perez, the main character and in a recent interview, he agreed that the collection of around 300 islands lying between Orkney and the Faroe Islands, at the area where the Atlantic Ocean and the North Sea meet does intrigue and excite viewers.

“Not only because it’s beautiful but because it’s like another character in the show,” he said. “I think people are drawn to the place because they imagine themselves there.”

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Westray shoreline and cliffs – sunglasses a must!

Cinema is all about suspension of disbelief so it may come as a surprise to viewers that many scenes in Shetland are filmed in Glasgow, Barrhead, Irvine and Ayr – hundreds of miles away in the lowlands of Scotland, in places resembling Shetland!

They just have to make sure no stray trees wander into the shot because trees are still not prolific on Shetland – although that is changing!

 

There was certainly a time when Shetland was almost devoid of trees. Old photographs from the early 1900s show a strikingly stark, bare landscape, even in and around settlements.

Whilst it’s true that large tracts of the islands lack tree cover to this day, there’s no doubt that things are changing. In part, this is because of a concerted effort by public bodies to plant more trees over recent decades… 

Archaeological investigations have revealed that Shetland once enjoyed extensive tree and shrub cover, with species such as willow, downy birch, hazel and alder appearing in the pollen record. The real reasons for the lack of trees are to do with clearance for firewood and the presence of sheep, which have prevented natural regeneration. Where sheep are excluded, trees grow with little or no shelter.

Judging by the number of trees sold by local garden centres, not to mention the continuing work of the Shetland Amenity Trust, the Shetland landscape will continue to evolve; around settlements especially, we can expect it to change as much over the next generation as it has in the last one.

Alastair Hamilton, My Shetland, 2015

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In June 2017, when I visited Shetland, I still had fun looking for familiar sites from Season 1 & 2 of the TV series, the only seasons released in Australia before I left.

And last night watching the final Season Six, not yet released free to air in Melbourne, it was satisfying spotting places I visited, beaches I walked on, houses or ruins I stood beside contemplating ancient Shetland!

I visited Jarlshof one of the most remarkable archaeological sites ever excavated in the UK spanning Neolithic, Bronze and Iron Ages to Middle Ages.

No part of Shetland is more than 3 miles from the sea and everywhere the landscape is stunning.

Jarlshof
Mairi Neil

Gulls cry overhead
circling rugged cliffs
and ancient rocks
the remnants of a long-ago
but not forgotten past…
The constant motion
of waves crashing,
massaging, and chipping as they
accompany the wind song –
wild background music to
settlement, farms and crofts…
I imagine a family watching
the horizon with anticipation
the tempestuous sea surging,
the creeping mist of dawn.
Watching with hearts filled with hope
for a returning fishing fleet
or do they tremble with trepidation
at warships ploughing through
the tumultuous waves
to claim a land not their’s?

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the ruins at Jarlshof spanning the late Bronze Age through to the Middle Ages

I don’t read a lot of crime fiction nowadays but often love the TV adaptations, particularly when Ann Cleeves’ great characters like Vera and Jimmy Perez, come to life or Ian Rankin’s Rebus, Alan Hunter’s George Gently and of course Agatha Christie’s Poirot and Miss Marple.

I can thank my mother for introducing me to Agatha Christie and another of her favourites, Georges Simenon’s, Maigret. I still have several old hardback novels decades old that I should declutter because if the truth is faced, I won’t read them again.

However, they are a link to Mum and a period in my life when I virtually read a book a day commuting by train to work on the old Red Rattlers from Croydon to the City so I just can’t part with them – yet.

I even watch the repeats on TV with several reincarnations of Miss Marple to argue over who is the best and although Peter Ustinov did a fine job in the movies, most people agree that David Suchet has now made Poirot his own.

I’m biased towards British crime novelists and their television adaptations. Many of them character-driven and tackling society’s issues and a bigger picture than petty crime or one issue. They are not just police procedurals (although there is plenty of that), but explore the social reasons for crime, not just the crime itself.

They show justice is fluid and the ones set in particular periods of history mark the effects of social change – or lack of it! They examine the human condition in a way most of us experience and/or comprehend. Who isn’t flawed?

The all-important conflict necessary for gripping fiction is flawed characters and their struggles to come to terms with the world, whether external or internal. Good novelists and screenwriters of the quality of Shetland dish it up in wonderful dollops!

Shetland has examined the rise of populism and the extreme Right, people smuggling and sex-trafficking, social isolation, bigotry, child abuse and the effect of oil and gas discoveries on environmental pollution among other hot topics.

However, one of the best storylines included a character who Ann Cleeves said she wished she had written – Tosh, a female detective who is raped in the line of duty.

The way this tragedy is handled and the arcs of various characters in Shetland are examples of fine writing and storytelling.

Along the way, we learn about life in a close-knit community, where everybody almost seems to know of each other – not hard in a population of 23,000.

As a comparison, I think of the City of Mordialloc before it merged with Kingston in 1994. In an area of 5.25 square miles, there was a population of almost 28,000. A dramatic difference in population density to Shetland’s archipelago.

When I mentioned on FB that I was standing outside the house in Lerwick used for Jimmy Perez, and then posted pictures of other houses used in the series with ‘a murder committed here‘… ‘another crime scene‘ … a friend referring  to the ABC’s Dr Blake Mystery series commented,

Is there anyone left alive in Shetland? It’s a dangerous place, like Ballarat…

Indeed!

A bit like the popular English series Midsomer Murders where picturesque English villages harbour murderers and serial killers who knock off the local population at an alarming rate…

However, be assured Shetland locals are friendly and welcoming as this poster in Shetland dialect on the Library noticeboard says:

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Lerwick Library

And as this article from a local paper relates, Shetland has produced female writers who don’t necessarily delve into the dark side of human nature…

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All the people I came into contact with were wonderful and I’d return in a heartbeat.

I think at this time in my life, a place like Shetland appeals because I can imagine myself in a cottage, tending a garden and writing – no need for bright city lights anymore just a haven to indulge an inner search for peace and serenity!

I made a lovely Canadian friend, Linda during my trip and we still keep in touch hoping that one day we’ll meet again – either in Melbourne or Vancouver.

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Linda and Robina with Linda’s house on Bressay in the distance

Our guide for Shetland was Robina Barton, an expert on history and geology and also the Labour Party candidate for the north, which is held by the Liberal Democrats. (She gave him a good shake in 2017 elections!)

I found her a most obliging and generous guide similar to those I experienced one-to-one in Mongolia and Russia. Enthusiastic, knowledgeable, caring guides who added so much to my extended holiday.

Robina met Linda and me at the ferry terminal and although there was a schedule for the day, she was more than happy to take us for ‘a cup of tea’ where we discussed whether we wanted to stick with the planned tour or do something else that suited our interests and mood.

With mutual understanding, the day went from good to great and helped colour my view of Shetland – I mentioned already I would return in a heartbeat!

In the photo below we were interrupted in our orientation stroll by a man offering free boutique chocolates – now that’s what I call hospitality! A chef who had just moved to Lerwick, he was promoting his soon to be opened restaurant.

chef offering us chocolates

WELCOME TO LERWICK

Lerwick is Shetland’s capital and takes its name from Old Norse Leirvik meaning muddy bay. Sheltered by Bressay over the water – where Robina lives. I could see her house from my hotel window and said goodnight to her twinkling lights after a super day.

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Robina’s house on Bressay – just up the hill from her Liberal Democrat opponent – but they are all great friends on Shetland!

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The natural harbour attracts a wide range of visiting craft and a large cruise ship came in adding to the constant stream of ferries, fishing boats, and working craft from the oil rigs. Also a few moored ‘Viking’ long boats because of course, Shetland celebrates Up Helly Aa – the Viking Fire Festival in mid-winter January.

Lerwick, only officially named the capital in the 19th century, building on the trade from the Dutch herring industry. From a scattering of huts on a shoreline track, the busy Commercial Street developed surrounded by tightly packed narrow lanes. Later, new docks were created north of the town to accommodate the fishing fleet.

The characteristics of the buildings, brickwork and flagstones different from anything seen in Melbourne and many a lot older!

The largest ship built in Lerwick was the barque North Briton in 1836 at Hay’s Dock, now home to the Shetland Museum and Archives. There are models of typical Shetland Boats and to keep alive traditions, festivals are held and displays.

For me, the innovative incorporation of boats in buildings and gardens very appealing, but considering my forbears were all sailors and fishermen from the Isle of Skye, I loved learning about Shetlanders and the sea too!

Facebook Post, June 16, 2017

The Kveldsro House Hotel harks back to another era with Reading Rooms, relaxing lounges and shoe shine machines in the corridor. The bar even has a stained glass sign for Gents and of course, the Ladies Powder Room is some distance away!

There are plenty of tasteful furnishings and interesting artworks. The staff from Portugal, Ecuador, Greece and even Scotland 😆

I have been fortunate with all of the places I have stayed this trip.

Atop a hill and across from Shetland’s highest mountain we found where rocks crack and explode and create a moonscape. Robina a mine of information on the geological formation of Shetland.

Wildflowers blooming, sheep bleating, salt in the air and evidence of human habitation going back hundreds of years as sunlight glitters on the water like scattered gemstones.

Lunch stops are always interesting too, meeting the locals, getting to know each other, tasting Shetland delicacies. And a bonus when it rained while we were snug inside!

Different sides of mainland Shetland have different weather depending on whether exposed to North Sea or Atlantic .

We learnt a lot about geology today from Robina, our expert guide. The variety of rocks amazing. We also went on wildflower searches.

No view here boring and each pile of rocks intriguing – is it a broch, remnants of a tomb, a medieval or Viking village, a deserted croft from the cruel land clearances or collapse of herring fishing industry?

Is that of neolithic significance or a deliberate structure from WW2?

The Kveldsro House Hotel was comfortable and the staff pleasant. I usually had the same woman serving me breakfast, she was from Portugal and couldn’t wait to return home to the Mediterranean sunshine.

To do Shetland justice, I’ll have to write some more posts because although I didn’t experience any crime or startling epiphanies, I did learn some interesting history and a lot more about the natural world of birds and wildflowers.

We even got our ‘Viking’ on when we stopped at a restaurant for lunch that incorporated all things Up Helly Aa. After watching a video on the origins of the Fire Festival and reading reminisces of participants, we could dress up and let loose our inner Viking.

It was a fun interlude in a day that ended depressingly, sad – the Nightly News full of the Grenfell Tower Fire – an incredible tragedy hard to imagine.

I had spent some time in London with a friend when I arrived in the UK for this final leg of my journey and there were a couple of sisters at the hotel who joined our tour the next day who lived in London.

As you can imagine, news updates dominated the mealtime discussions over the next few days.

The horrors and brutality often associated with marauding Vikings wear a different mantle in modern times. Will those in authority whose greed, negligence and even deliberate contempt for others ever be held accountable? Death and destruction among the least wealthy and privileged in society a tale as old as time!

My next post about Shetland will definitely end on a more cheerful note!

 

 

Melbourne’s Heritage Buildings – Do You Have a Story About Meeting Under the Clocks at Flinders Street?

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Flinders Street Station June 2019

The other day I got a call from a writer friend who suggested it was the time to keep a long-promised date to have lunch at Pellegrini’s.

We met when we were both involved as volunteers in an Intergenerational Project for the City of Kingston and had talked about this outing just before the dreadful attack of terror last year and the murder of Sisto Malaspina, a co-owner of a place regarded as one of Melbourne’s must-experience institutions.

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Lee had written about her childhood half a century ago, the friendship with the owners and staff at Pellegrini’s, memories of being a migrant in Melbourne, and of her mother taking her regularly to this Italian restaurant for pasta and other familiar delicacies reminiscent of a Europe they’d left behind.

Our lunch date would begin by meeting ‘under the clocks at Flinders Street Station,’  a place, where I’m sure almost every Melburnian this century and most of last century, has used as a meeting place at one time or other.

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one group of clocks

Flinders Street Station, an iconic building holding many stories within its walls and parts of the interior, especially the upper floor Ballroom – a place everyone wanted to see when I first volunteered for Open House Melbourne a decade ago because like other sites during the last weekend in July, the public rarely have access.

My lunch date story a salutary lesson to not delay plans because we never know what is around the corner and often don’t appreciate a person or place until they’re gone, which is a nice segue into a story about the heritage restoration of Flinders Street Station…

Alas, as mentioned, parts have been closed off to the public for many years because lack of proper maintenance made some of the building unsafe and until final restoration work is done (an expensive, time-consuming process) it may be many more years before the whole building is restored to its original glory.

 

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The Restoration of Flinders Street Station

On May 29, I attended a free seminar in the Victorian Parliamentary Library by heritage architecture expert, Peter Lovell, on the Restoration of Flinders Street Station. Peter’s talk and the venue fascinating.

Access to the parliamentary South Library was appreciated, a place I’d only seen in passing, while on a quick tour of Parliament House, during the Centenary of the Women’s Petition for the vote.

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talk over and chairs being stacked

The Victorian Parliament Building also a Melbourne icon and although it has received more maintenance attention than Flinders Street Station, the restoration process is drawn out for this building too.

The day of Peter’s talk wintry with intermittent heavy showers and a biting wind, which probably explains why not all those who booked turned up, despite repeated emails to advise if ‘no show’ because there was a ‘waiting list’.

Peter also advised to allow twenty minutes to ‘go through security at the front entrance’ but there would be ‘a welcome desk in the vestibule’.

I arrived five not twenty minutes early because of unavoidable delays on the Frankston Train Line. (ah, the irony!)

My demeanour must have registered panic because the young woman on security duty said, ‘Take your time, calm down,’ as I fumbled to show the email with the details of the event, and get out my mobile phone and perfume – two items on a ‘must show’ list.

The security process reminiscent of airport security and sadly a sign of the times and upgrading the old building to accommodate new security technology a priority. How you do that in keeping with nineteenth-century architecture and expectations of access from the general public, no easy task.

Hurrying, and feeling guilty about being late I dropped my handbag, partially spilt the contents on the ground and held up a queue of others also wanting to enter via the public entrance of Parliament House. (Murphy’s Law obviously working and I could hear my wee Irish Mum’s voice, ‘more haste less speed’…)

Not a great start to the event!

Fortunately, the promised Welcome Desk was indeed welcoming and despite the tone of the emails suggesting non-negotiable punctuality, a friendly, and chatty attendant escorted me to the Library where I had a good fifteen minutes to feast on my surroundings and relax by eyeing off the floor to ceiling shelves!

The books eleven shelves high above a bench with two shelves below, so no wonder there was a ladder leaning against the wall and the top two shelves empty.

My imagination kicked in, reminding me of that scene in The Mummy with a chain reaction of crashing shelves in the Cairo Library because the librarian over-reaches,  wobbles on the ladder and the shelves of books fall like dominoes.

The sign for the seminar read Foundations – Architecture with influence – Flinders Street Restoration Project and then my eyes wandered to a variety of books, their titles almost jumping out at me:

  • A coffee table-sized, Unemployable
  • Blair – a thick hardback
  • A big blue tome titled, Australian Poetry
  • Another hardback, Paul Kelly
  • A hardback book of Cycling on an easily accessible bottom shelf…

Brought back to reality the guest speaker was introduced by Caroline, the Parliamentary Librarian…

Restoring Heritage Buildings A Specialist Field

I sat in the front row ‘all the better to hear’ the talk by the chief architect of the firm responsible for restoring the outside of iconic Flinders Street Railway Station. The seminar was the third of a three-part series on Architecture Restoration of Significance, the analysis and reuse of older buildings.

Peter’s firm specialising in Heritage – he surveyed Parliament House – furniture, fittings and the building – ascertained its conservation status and how to retain the important historical aspects and ensure it can function in the modern era before major renovations occurred.

His resume is impressive: recently the Windsor Hotel, Princess Theatre, Palais St Kilda and the State Library; also the Essendon Airport Control Tower, Wilson Hall Melbourne University, Melbourne Laneways, Sidney Myer Music Bowl and now Flinders Street Station.

Many important landmarks since European settlement that are valued by the public have received Peter’s attention to detail and extensive research to ensure what can be restored is done so to enrich our history and heritage.

All good presenters put their audience at ease and Peter was no exception, jokingly referring to the current series on SBS Great British Railway Journeys introduced by ex-Tory politician Michael Portillo. 

Peter apologised for the absence of a bright jacket to show off his knowledge of railway history! (Portillo’s signature dress code is an outlandish colourful blazer and each series he works his way through the colours of the rainbow.)

This led Peter into a segue on the various colours of the paintwork of Flinders Street Station. The paintwork appears different during the day and night and over the years.

In the 1980s the paint colour used for Flinders Street was investigated and fashion consultants of the day said the colour chosen was ‘awful‘.

Now, 30 years since that paint exploration, the current restoration began and the paint colour harks back to the original colour scheme.

The initial investigation revealed a failure of the fabric externally with extensive structural cracking. When the project began, the Christchurch earthquake had just happened therefore the Government’s main concern was the stability of the building.

There was an update of the Conservation Management Plan and the significance of this was what could or could not be changed.

The track level and platforms and range of shops along Flinders Street – all spaces were analysed. The ceilings contained the largest collection of press metal work in Australia.

Flinders Street Station

… is of National social, architectural, aesthetic and technical significance as one of the landmark buildings of Melbourne…possibly the most well known and heavily used public building in Melbourne…providing an imposing entry and exit point for thousands of travellers every day of the year…

The platforms, the ramps, stairs, subways and concourse, have been used by millions of commuters since 1910. Except for unsympathetic alterations to the ramps up to Swanston Street made in 1983, all these elements are intact and considered an integral part of Melbourne’s historic character. Even minor details, such as the ‘do not spit’ signs, the large mirror on the ladies toilets off the Elizabeth Street subway and the original timber signboards, are widely known and enjoyed.

The steps of the main arch facing into the city became a convenient and popular meeting point known as “under the clocks” and is still popular today. While the opening of the city loop in 1980 has reduced the dominant role of the station, it is still an important destination and meeting point.

As a large and imposing public building located at the major symbolic gateway into the city, on one of the most important intersections, it is a familiar and well loved landmark, and the view of the building from Flinders Street has become one of the most photographed and instantly recognisable images of Melbourne.

Heritage Council, Victoria, 2008

In 2017, while volunteering for Open House Melbourne at the Nicholson Building, I got a great bird’s eye view of the preparations to paint and restore Flinder Street Station.

Who designed Flinders Street?

The railway architect, Mr James Fawcett, and railway engineer, HP Ashworth won a competition to design a railway station for Melbourne. Fawcett, according to Peter was a ‘one horse wonder’ because he doesn’t design anything else major as an architect. Flinders Street Station is broadly Edwardian Free Style, the main building is strongly influenced by French public architecture of the 1900s, and is the only such example in Melbourne.

Fawcett was a watercolour painter of some renown – check out the Fawcett Collection at the State Library. He also designed Woodlands Homestead, a prefabricated house and was ‘a run-of-the-mill domestic architect of conventional Edwardian bungalows‘.

However, a number of suburban and country railway stations were probably also designed by Fawcett & Ashworth, such as Glenferrie, Essendon and Caulfield because they were built between 1900 and early 1920s and employ a similar, but far less elaborate, architectural style.

Peter showed slides of some old paintings of Flinders Street as a tiny train station in early Melbourne.  Other paintings showed the historical development and the station growing to have original platforms and the Degraves Street stop.

In 1899, the government held a competition to design Flinders Street and Fawcett, an employee won so there was a suggestion it was ‘an inside job’.

This was the period of the famous Thomas Bent MP, later Premier of Victoria (seen as corrupt in some people’s eyes and referred to as ‘bent by name and bent by nature’…)  Bent was certainly a colourful character and left a much-talked-about legacy especially regarding the railways. There are stories about him in two of Mordialloc Writers’ Group anthologies! (Scandalous Bayside, 2008; Off The Rails, 2012.)

scandalous bayside, anthology 6, 2008anthology 8, off the rails, 2012

Fawcett invested in art architecture, he liked innovation. In the original design, the train halls were supposed to be covered and go East-West like London’s. However, cost-cutting meant covered train halls abandoned and their direction changed to North-South.

A large multiple-arch iron roof over the platforms, with an enormous glass wall facing the river, was never built. This aspect of the design was in the manner of the grand European and English railway stations, except that the arches were to have been across the platforms, rather than along.

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You can just see part of the original covered roof to the left in this photo of the entrance to Flinders Street today

It was a grand design though and the fourth floor was to be commercial offices – and whether these offices should be private businesses or only for government and the railway was a bone of contention. (Nothing new there politicians still argue over commercial versus public use and profit and investment, financial return …)

The station was not completed until 1910 but built for commuters and had shops, canteen for workers, cafes, even a childcare centre… ahead of its time …

The office portion of the station is of social and historical significance for having incorporated extensive and heavily used public facilities. Large and convenient public toilets for women were provided at a time when such facilities were rare.

Apparently, in the 1920s it was the busiest railway station in the world. A claim with no mention of what other stations were considered for that honour and whether it encompassed a Eurocentric world view, Southern Hemisphere or included Asia!

Extensive facilities provided for the Victorian Railways Institute, which catered to the thousands of employees of the railways, as well as their families and friends. Located on the top floor, the Institute’s rooms included a Concert Hall under the main dome, a library, two classrooms and a gymnasium, a billiard room and a lecture hall at the Elizabeth Street end, which was converted to a Ballroom circa 1930.

Many of these facilities were available for hire by outside organisations and by the 1950s Flinders Street Station was home to 120 cultural social and sporting organisations, such as cat lovers, rose devotees, talented debaters and poetry lovers. This function continued until the Institute moved out in 1984.

I can remember attending the first Train Travellers Association meetings on the top floor in the late 1970s. These were the days of the old ‘red rattlers’, the Tait trains with their wooden panelling examples of Fawcett’s design work.

Carriages had leather straps hanging from the ceiling for standing passengers and too few seats catering for the postwar population explosion increasing the number of commuters travelling into the city each day.

Sadly, at the time I didn’t appreciate the heritage aspects of the upper floors!

The Train Travellers Association born out of the frustration and anger of commuters and guest speakers included Jim Fraser, Secretary of the Victorian Branch of the Railways Union (ARU) and the Shadow Transport Minister Steve Crabb.

They talked about their ideas on how to improve the Railways system, which had been badly neglected by various Liberal Governments who harboured a dream to sell the network off – one finally achieved by Jeff Kennett in 1992.

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There is no doubt that Flinders Street Railway Station was a major, stupendous building on its completion in 1910 and it still looks grand and impressive today.

A drawing of Melbourne in 1838 depicts Elizabeth Street as a creek, this is incorrect but because of the proximity of the River Yarra, Flinders Street Station buildings are on variable foundations and there was a creek flowing into the Yarra River. The proximity of the foundations to water provided challenges!

Flinders Street is basically a brick building but has attached timber elements. The timber wall cantilevered off the brick section. The timber tended to tip from the building. The original construction fraught with delays and difficulties over a decade, and scandals about incompetence led to a Royal Commission.

The base built of basalt and granite and the timber lining supported by load-bearing brick. It should have been a brick and sandstone exterior but the cost meant that was abandoned for bricked stucco.

A survey in 2015, despite budget constraints, demanded urgent repair work. There was major cracking on the roof and in some walls, people could be killed below if bricks dislodged. An inspection revealed the major culprit – blocked downpipes and a roof that had leaked for 30 years!

If only proper maintenance had been carried out at the time… I heard my Mum’s voice again, ‘a stitch in time saves nine’.

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Modern train carriages consider all commuters – design requirements very different from Fawcett’s imagination

Restoration Complex and Costly

The roof was intricate, a mixture of concrete, copper, corrugated iron – there were leaks everywhere, flashings buckled. Water damaged interiors could have been avoided and the cost of restoration halved if drains had been cleaned!

Internal work still has to be done and the slides Peter showed of the horrendous damage to the Ballroom/gymnasium, which had been used into the 1970s drew a collective gasp of horror from the audience. Timber rotted from neglect, decorative plaster ruined.

However, often it is not easy for any authority to argue for money for renovations if the public or even a small group with loud voices or influence consider it ‘a waste of time’ or ‘money is needed elsewhere’… but as every homeowner knows, you must look after your assets and budget for maintenance!

A scaffolding survey documented the process needed to restore the building and this was at ground level first so the estimate was $23 million. However, this cost blew out to $70 million when they discovered the damage to the roof and upper floors and walls.

The use of pressed metal, which includes ceilings in most office areas (in a huge variety of designs) as well as dados and friezes in some, is the most extensive in Victoria and the red painted, block fronted wall facing the platforms is the largest example of zinc cladding known in Australia.

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refurbished entrance at Flinders Street

After Christchurch, governments accept the earthquake threat is real and any major renovations or new buildings must acknowledge this threat. Initially, at Flinders Street, they planned to anchor the tower with tensile rods but it was not feasible to drill into the brickwork to anchor the building – this was deemed too disruptive and invasive. And not doable because of cavities in the brickwork.

Ingenuity and good tradespeople meant they found a way of reinforcing the roof structure. There were concrete slabs relied upon to hold the building together. The water damage and corrosion needed a new structural slab and waterproofing.

Before removal of the concrete slab, they built a bracing system to earthquake-proof the building. Seismic issues for old buildings are massive. All chimneys had to be braced – it doesn’t look elegant but the area is not accessible to the public and safety trumps elegance!

How to deal and manage risks without disrupting the running of the railways or putting commuters and the general public in danger?

A lot of the work was carried out at night where there was a three-hour opening of no train traffic! There were thousands of people involved in the project yet it was completed while the railways still operated.

The rail corridor a busy place and if a train stopped on the system it costs $50,000 an hour, therefore, they couldn’t afford to stop trains running.

Restoring the Clock Tower

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Taken 2014

The clock tower and the front steps are probably the most photographed parts of Flinders Street Station. Many of the marriages at St Paul’s on the diagonal corner make sure the station is in the background, the time of their wedding visible on the clock!

Restoring the clock tower the most challenging, requiring enormous anchoring and bracing. They used metal braces but kept the clock structure by inserting a concrete base/brace to anchor the tower. An extraordinary feat of engineering and architectural knitting of braces to the building.

The clock face had putty containing asbestos and they couldn’t salvage or reuse the glass. However, they sourced oval glass from Mexico after a worldwide search. The face is all laminated so it will not fall into the street.

Removing all the asbestos was a major challenge.

The zinc used in the pressed metal work was in good condition but it was a major campaign to restore where water had caused deformities. The repairs to the wall will now last for another 100 years.

Repointing the brickwork an exercise in patience and craftsmanship.

The use of red brick contrasted with coloured cement render, the use of banking (especially in the tower), and the grouping of windows vertically under tall arches shows the influence of American Romanesque Revival.

Salt coming through the brickwork ignored for too long and you can see the white stains. Despite several efforts, they still can’t remove the marks without major damage to bricks so abandoned the idea.

There was lots of exploration about various methods of repair, plenty of trial and error because it was heritage restoration and they were not replacing everything. the brief is to keep as much of the original as possible!

During the restoration they unravelled issues, in many cases, it was a discovery process but there was a great team of builders, engineers and tradespeople.

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plaster ceilings restored

They didn’t put graffiti coating on the paintwork because it would be too costly to keep replacing. The building has had eight or nine paintings over the years but original paint not good and streaked within seven years.

The building has always been painted the same combination of colours – creamy yellow, red south walls, green for windows.

Lead paint was an issue too. It had to be stripped off in a controlled environment or the decision made to leave as is and paint over.

South wall the best in the whole building.

There was a beautifully designed heating system, hydronic radiators but all pipes were covered in asbestos. They couldn’t risk removal or repair so cut off the radiators and sealed them to avoid asbestos drifting into Flinders Street and the Station via the vents.

The dangers of asbestos and working how to remove it safely is an issue for whoever renovates the interior.

Lighting improved colours – the interior of the dome was beautiful when cleaned. In the Ballroom, they stripped off the plasterwork and discovered pressed metal ceiling. They inserted a steel structure to seismic-proof the building but little interior work completed – that’s for the next stage of the project.

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cards made by mattirwin.com and sold at Parliament House – Flinders Street a tourist drawcard

Cracked balusters a badly seismic issue for tipping – rubber mouldy and new balusters made and pinned. Water penetrated through massive cornices.

They put in lead capping to conserve it although not these originally but had to rebuild moulding.

The stained glass magnificent designed by Fawcett because he was interested in art nouveau. Only modest replacements and it is hard to pick new panels, the rest were basically cleaned and conserved.

Refreshment rooms have glorious windows which needed epoxy repairs only  – on the first floor – not accessible yet.

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They were conscious that restoring the outside is only stage one and so they needed a storeroom because nothing that was removed was thrown out.

They even kept items left behind by workers over the years: 1950s watches, hats and other curios.  These are stored alongside ornamental plasterwork from the Ballroom. Each item labelled and stored.

Caroline gave me a special tour of the library at the end of Peter’s talk when I said it was my first visit. I loved the spiral staircase, the polished wooden doors, the magnificent ceiling and chandelier and ornamental work on columns and cornices –

Caroline answered my many questions and showed me the Reading Room, explained how one of the columns cleverly disguised the chimney for the fireplace and told me the pet name (which I have forgotten) they use for the plaster lion saved from a previous renovation.

 

It was an informative and friendly afternoon. History and heritage two of my loves and Caroline invited me back – an offer I hope to take up sooner rather than later!

On the way out, I passed students in the hall and thought how lucky they were to have a tour – I was an adult before I ventured inside the parliament building and have spent more time on the steps demonstrating than wandering inside!

But as I walked past the portraits of premiers I stopped beside my favourite – Joan Kirner – the artist has caught her twinkling eyes and her over-riding quality of kindness.

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Six Degrees of Separation

Joan was a trailblazer for women’s rights and started her public life as an activist in the Croydon area in the 60s.  I attended Croydon High and my mother admired Joan, greatly. Joan later became President of the Victorian Federation of State School Parents Clubs and later still the first female Premier of Victoria!

As I wandered into the foyer still reminiscing, I bumped into two other activist friends for women’s rights. Both were past speakers for the Union of Australian Women’s Southern Branch: Fiona McCormack then CEO of Domestic Violence Victoria but now the new Victims of Crime Commissioner for Victoria and Robyn Dale, Office Manager for Nick Staikos, MP for Bentleigh.

Fiona is the daughter-in-law of a longtime, dear friend; Robyn’s son, Tim went to school with my daughter, Anne and Robyn’s boss, Nick Staiko is also President of Godfrey Street Community House where I taught creative writing for seven years!

Another first added when I visited the Dining Room in Parliament House and shared a cuppa! Of course, we talked about politics and women’s rights…

Mum and Joan would approve!

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To Turn Your Life Into Fiction – Start at Your Local Library

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Last night I attended an author event at Sandringham Library with my good friend, Lisa Hill who is a fellow bibliophile, blogger and writer. Well-respected and fiercely independent, please check Lisa’s reviews of any of the books mentioned in this post.

I’m fortunate she keeps me in the loop about local events and on a cold, dark winter night gave me a lift in her comfortable car!

An eminent book reviewer with an award-winning blog, Lisa concentrates on Australian and New Zealand literature but also reviews an impressive range of international writers, including many translations not necessarily widely distributed.

When she heard about this event in Bayside she let me know especially since I taught  Life Stories & Legacies for several years.

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This event showcased three authors discussing how they used events from life in their novels so how apt to have a bust of Australian writer, Alan Marshall OBE outside. Alan hailed from the nearby suburb of Black Rock.

Alan’s most famous novel I Can Jump Puddles, which was on the school curriculum for years and made into a mini-series on TV, was based on his childhood fight to recover from Polio.

When I came to Australia in 1962, I think Alan Marshall was an author everyone knew and is an excellent example of turning real-life events into novels.

Library renovations are scheduled and this was the last public event before they begin so the 72 in attendance were indeed fortunate.  Before Vivienne, the Customer Service Co-ordinator for Bayside introduced the guest panel, she confided that she was celebrating her 21st Anniversary with the library – so two memorable milestones for the evening.

Vivienne also plugged the library’s campaign to promote its various services and events around the theme Libraries Change Lives, but my guess is she was preaching to the converted!

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Local author, Claire Halliday was the emcee  and in the spotlight were authors

  • Eleni Hale
  • John Tesarsch
  • Lee Kofman

Eleni was asked about the parts of her own life she mined to write her debut YA novel Stone Girl. She admitted to always wanting to write but before she could write other stories she had to write about her childhood in State Government care first.

It was a story hammering inside her to be written although she had ‘redacted being a ward of the state from her life story.’

She had been a university student, a journalist, fiancee, wife and mother but found relief in being able to write about a part of her early life never mentioned.

She released her muse and making the story fiction gave her the freedom to write without worrying about hurting others.

There are 40,000 children in the care system and her story is a compilation of those stories. Her novel a vehicle to open up and talk about her past. She listened to a lot of Metallica and similar music and kept writing!

The writing itself private and personal but became confronting when published and she faced the prospect of the publicity and marketing treadmill because as Claire suggested, journalists love a book where the author can be pressured to share what parts are true.

Eleni, a journalist herself, agreed the ‘real life experience’ is a bigger story than the novel if you expose yourself like she did, so she compiled a list of five talking points to be avoided!

The old me was about growing up in an Australian orphanage,’ said Eleni, ‘and I wore that like a cape.’

She still feels separate from the character because the media have been reasonable and looked at the actual issue she wanted to spotlight – the experience of kids in care.

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Eleni holding her novel Stone Girl

Embellishment versus Truth?

Eleni said that in the beginning, her character Sophie is twelve and has lost her mum and ends up a Ward of the State. She meets Milo on the street and he is a cool dude she is attracted to but ends up trapped in his home.

Eleni shared a true story ‘not shared publicly before.

An incident in her own life was the inspiration for the Milo scene. She was fourteen or fifteen and in care. They were encouraged to go out during the day and one day she met a Jamaican DJ who fitted the description of Milo. She ended up scared and locked in his house. The Milo scene in the book has the essence of that real-life event.

Why didn’t she smash a window?

She recalls being groggy so he must have put something in her food or drink and yet she was street smart.

Work In Progress

In Eleni’s new book, a crime thriller and still a work in progress, she will tackle a theme of ‘classism’ and the poverty it creates in Australia.

After Stone Girl was published she was contacted by many people wanting to share their stories. She gathered more knowledge and ideas and became aware of how many people are ashamed to admit they were in care or were poor and had traumatic experiences. There are many stories to be told!

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Claire Halliday introducing Lee, John and Eleni

Claire then focused on John who is a barrister in Melbourne.

He was asked if he used his clients’ stories, particularly since the theme of his book The Last Will and Testament of Henry Hoffman was an estate issue. A daughter finds a will after her father’s untimely death and wonders who is the mystery woman mentioned.

John declared that the intersection of family and money is toxic, which is why as a lawyer, he avoids estate work but it is a rich vein for storytellers.

He doesn’t directly poach client stories because that would be unethical, however, his novel has elements of autobiography. It is about a father and daughter, the relationship between parents and children, and how trauma resonates through generations.

Claire mentioned that the character Sarah is a concert pianist who has to quit music as a career. Did John draw on his experience as a cellist with a stellar career who had to quit?

John explained that when he was in Vienna the skin on his hands began to peel off and he discovered he was allergic to the dark rosin applied to the cello bow. He had to give up playing an instrument he loved.

However, his character, Sarah gave up playing because of stage fright and they both coped with the initial grief differently. He reinvented himself as a lawyer and now a writer believing ‘when one door closes another opens‘ whereas his character just got stuck.

John believes writing fiction is all about imagination and he never runs out of ideas – and hopefully, they will always be good ideas. His ‘compost heap of a mind‘ searches for a response – a counterfactual experience – and he will not worry about running out of experiences to fuel ideas to write about.

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Lee Kofman and John Tesarsch

Balancing Historical Facts, Real Life & Fiction?

Dinner With the Dissidents, John’s novel set in 1971 Moscow has an aspiring author as the main character. An Australian publisher offers him a book deal if he’ll spy on Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.

John drew on his experience trying to get his first manuscript published to the extent he empathised and appreciated the writer’s desire to be published.

It is daunting to write a novel that sits well with historical facts. He read lots of Russian novels and researched for months about that time in history before coming to the realisation that the human condition is universal. The emotions a character reveals the same regardless of ethnicity.

For his work in progress, John is having a change of pace and genre. He is writing a romantic comedy involving an Elvis impersonator – and he has been that! This drew laughter from the audience, especially when he confessed he may use a pseudonym!

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Lee Kofman is a memoirist and memoir teacher and talked about applying an evocative twist to real-life writing. She admitted to being a prolific confessional writer in three languages.

In the 90s, when she started to write in her style, there was no real creative non-fiction but she fell in love with the memoir genre, which is a slice of your life – not all autobiography.

She found the trick was to examine the difference between herself now and younger self. Look at younger self from a distance, try not to be too attached to current emotions and thoughts – look at younger self, be the cold observer. Ask what are the emotions younger self feel? Why did events happen to cause those feelings? Reveal something that happened intimately, yet do it overtly.

It is confronting to reveal something, or a life that you once hid (she referred to Eleni’s expose of her life as a State Ward) and Lee said she experienced that when writing Imperfect about her body scars.

The balances between what to include or omit difficult to attain. She found Helen Garner a good model as a writer when she advised ‘keep to your own truth and story’. Lee followed this advice when she wrote Dangerous Bride. She stuck to writing her own feelings and emotions and didn’t run down her ex just to make him look bad. It was an intimate expose of a marriage breakdown but it remained her story.

She also admires novelist Robert Dessaix.

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Lee believes successful writing is all in the voice and how you tell your story. One of Helen Garner’s books begins with a description of ordinary people having breakfast yet you keep reading.

It is how you write your voice. Keep it true and natural and your voice will be authentic.

Lee curated/edited an anthology of personal essays, SPLIT. All the contributors were told the stories had to be about endings. Personal essays are a meshing of real life and to be successful

  • the stakes must be high,
  • there must be conflict,
  • a resolution or change in the character
  • or if no resolution, show acceptance of there being no change.

Therefore, in SPLIT, the stories had to be dramatic endings, endings that changed the writer. Good essays include snippets of dialogue and colour to bring the words to life.

John said he had been asked to write a personal essay but enjoys fiction writing. Eleni finds writing personal essays confronting and would be worried about who she’ll affect so prefers hiding behind characters.

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The Editing Process – Writing For Readers or Yourself?

Eleni advised ignoring who will be reading your story and just write and worry about readership later when editing. Write first, think about publishing later; worrying about readers will block your writing flow.

She put Metallica on and just wrote furiously, not worrying about how many words or how they came out on the page.

To be a writer you must read, read and read. Then write, write, write and have tenacity without beating yourself up about how good or bad your work is.

She wrote four drafts of her 80,000-word novel and threw the first three out!

She is with Penguin and they didn’t change anything of the final draft. She only needed a line edit, not a structural edit. However, as a journalist with The Herald Sun, she is not a novice writer.

John is with Affirm publishers, who won publisher of the year. Lee is also with them as well as another publisher. They both agreed you are fortunate if you receive a structural edit. It is wonderful to get attention and good editing, many publishers don’t offer that today.

To have an independent outsider check your work is a valuable and rewarding process for a writer.

Regarding the writing process, Lee told the story of a suicidal Russian poet who left a note for his mother, sister and lover – ‘I don’t recommend it!’ She said she feels like that about memoir!

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How Important is Having Distance Between an Event and Writing About It?

A member of the audience noted the panel had all mentioned having distance between a life event/experience and writing about it – whether that was emotional, time, or relocation of place.

John said that with his music experience, it was a long time ago and he had a sense of perspective about his allergy and his reaction to not being able to play anymore. He believed having that distance adds depth to your writing but he stressed he writes fiction, it is not him but his character who is doing the experiencing. Characters must have their own life.

Eleni said it was about time – she went from someone who didn’t have a voice and became a Herald Sun journalist. But she needed time to write about when she didn’t have a voice.

For Lee, it took twenty years before she was able to write about broken relationships and her marriage.

When Eleni was asked if there was a conflict between what she experienced and how much the reader must know to understand and connect with the story, she said she had woven the story around other kids’ stories and hoped people would see and understand the telling.

She recalled her writing teacher at university saying that writing was like taking a photograph, don’t clutter it up. Good writing is picking what needs to be in the story.

Eleni tried to write an autobiography but couldn’t. Writing as fiction she had to show not tell, although it was important to be truthful. She walked in the footsteps of those who suffered plus showed the bureaucracy, social workers, the homes the kids moved around in and the other kids met along the way.

She hoped readers would see and understand.

John was asked if he thought there was a dearth of political novels in Australia and why? His novel Dinner With Dissidents set in the 1970s Russia and was about surveillance etc but considering recent events in Australia where the Australian Federal Police raided the ABC HQ in Sydney and a News Corp journalist’s home, there is obviously, fodder for political novels.

John suspects it will change here. Although we have had a relatively benign political climate, the whole apparatus of society is changing because of technology and the level of surveillance is different compared to a decade ago.

Another question from the audience raised the crime genre as a vehicle for social realism and asked Eleni if this is why she chose to write another issue based book.

The audience member referred to Wendy Squires article in The Age after the young woman Courtney Herron was murdered in Royal Park.  Wendy revealed she had been homeless and could empathise with the feeling of shame and stigma attached to people like Courtney.

Eleni agreed this was a great example of a writer using their voice and real-life experience to draw attention to an important social reality.

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Do You Write For Self or for Readers?

An audience member told the panel he was recently sent three novels to review. Two were awful. The third he found better because the writer produced a book where scenes came alive as if watching a movie.

Did the panel consider their readers?

Eleni said the first draft of her novel was awful and it would have been a punishment if someone was required to read it! She threw it out.

She believed you must weave description through the characters’ actions and dialogue. Excellent writing is visual.

John is motivated by the joy of the writing process. When he is in the writing zone he feels alive and vivid and doesn’t think about anything else but the story and moving it along. His publisher and agent can figure out the readership. He doesn’t think about what readers will take from his novels.

Lee writes for herself. She wants to answer questions and writes for selfish reasons but redrafts all the time. The last book she was very mindful of the readers.

There was a happy buzz when the panel concluded and a beeline for the table with books for sale. Others queued to talk with the authors.

The organisers can pat themselves on the back for a successful evening.

How lucky we are to have authors willing to sit in a suburban library on a cold winter’s evening and generously share their time, skills and writing tips.

Now to put some of that expert encouragement and inspiration into practice!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Saving the Earth Begins at Home and Kingston Council will help

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If you follow my blog then you know I care about the environment by advocating reduce, reuse, recycle and repurpose.

I also believe like the United Nations, that time is running out regarding global warming and species extinction.

Climate Change is real, as is the pollution or depletion of the Earth’s resources, especially drinking water and arable land, but also depleting marine life because the world’s oceans are being poisoned.

Many local councils and state governments acknowledge there is a crisis, even if our Federal Government doesn’t.

We have created havoc by over-consumption and disregarding how to responsibly dispose of man-made materials like plastics, radioactive waste and other byproducts of industrialisation and general pollution.

How can an individual help repair the damage to the environment?

 

The slogan developed years ago for tourists – take only photos and leave only footprints – should be expanded and applied to our everyday life.

Some communities are running out of places to safely put landfill and countries that bought our rubbish (yep – we exported our trash to China and Malaysia among others!) recognise this practice is not good for their populations.

Australia and the U.S.A as the biggest culprits in this region have been forced to rethink and find other solutions.

More than ever there is pressure for citizens to be more pro-active about reducing waste and also to recycle, reuse and repurpose.

Consumers have demanded plastic bag free supermarkets, returnable deposit cans and bottles, no more plastic straws, refillable cups and most of all reduced packaging – and gradually the corporate world is responding.

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There is always more to do…

I live in the City of Kingston and am grateful we have a recycling program and they are looking at ways to not only improve services to citizens but educate people on how to reduce their rubbish.

Currently, I pay rates for three rubbish bins: one for recycling of glass, tins, cardboard, paper and some plastics, one for recycling green waste – grass clippings, weeds and small tree branches,  and one for general rubbish that goes into landfill.

Kingston's recycling info
A guide to Kingston’s recycling, garbage and garden waste services

Can We Recycle More Efficiently?

I was thrilled that Kingston Council is helping citizens learn the alternatives to filling garbage bins.

In the near future, they are trialling an organic food collection, which may happen once a week – and be introduced in January 2020. For progress check the ‘Waste” page on the City of Kingston website and Back to Earth videos explaining the programme.

This new food bin will be a compost bin and it will go to a commercial facility with a 5 day turn around and sent to farmers to fertilise their land.

Contamination will be a huge issue and so the Council aims to have an intensive education program for citizens.

They have chosen this path rather than a compost hub except for access by community gardens.

You Can Be Pro-Active Now

An alternative that can be done immediately is to start your own compost at home and there will be no need to have Council collect your food scraps!

I took advantage of one of the free workshops being run to encourage people to recycle their food waste at home and turn it into compost.

I hope to spend more time in the garden and aim to create a more productive veggie patch and more flowers and want to make my own good quality compost.

Any gardener will tell you great outcomes begin with the quality of the soil – and the best soil is obtained from compost.

Plants grown in healthy soil have fewer problems with disease and pests – and that goes for vegetables as well as flowers.

Good soil contains organic matter – worm castings, decomposed leaves and remains of organisms such as insects, fungi, and bacteria. Replenishing organic matter essential – and what better way than to use your own compost.

Free: Beginners Composting, Worm Farming and Bokashi Workshop

composting workshop 1

Last Tuesday evening, I attended a workshop on Composting –  it was International Composting Awareness Week.

 I didn’t know there was such a thing – did you?

The young woman presenting is a Waste Education Officer for Kingston, a consultant to many councils and her wages paid for by JJ Richards & Sons, an Australian owned and operated family business providing innovative waste management solutions throughout Australia since 1932.

It is one of the largest privately-owned waste management companies in Australia and provides recycling, sanitary and green waste collection services.

I believe they may have more or less a monopoly on garbage collection in Melbourne and also operate in other states.

Freya said she was the one leading a team in Kingston, wearing HiVis vests and shorts, who inspect the bins on recycling day. They put a good or bad sticker on the lids to encourage people to do the right thing.

They also sort through rubbish periodically to determine what education packages may be used to determine solutions to our ever-growing rubbish problem.

If you get a Well Done sticker on your bin, leave it there to encourage others,’ said Freya. “And if you get a Warning sticker, you won’t be fined but please try and do better!”

The bin inspection program her idea, plus the use of stickers. As a multicultural city, Freya said she is aware of a lack of English language skills, which creates a barrier in the community.

Therefore, a message about what can be recycled is often misunderstood if only written in English. The stickers can be understood by everyone. 

The clarity of the message will reduce costs to the Council and ratepayers.

When I was young, I remember you got money back on glass bottles and we scoured the countryside looking for abandoned empties to return and get pocket money.

For some reason (most probably someone decided it was less profitable) the practice was stopped in Victoria. I also remember when the girls were in school in the late 80s early 90s, collecting aluminium cans was popular to raise money.

In fact, it was a good fundraiser for many charities but they competed with those on a low income who trawled the rubbish bins.

Returnable deposit schemes work in other states and countries – here is a goodnatured way of encouraging recycling I snapped in the Orkneys – the bins were outside a club.

a virtue of recycling beer cans Shetland

Freya has also initiated an effective School Program about recycling and composting so hopefully future generations will be more aware, if they are not already, of the fragility of the environment and the need for sustainability.

Many schools in the municipality have vegetable gardens, compost bins, water tanks, worm farms, hens… the children are aware of the importance of recycling to the environment that it becomes second nature.

Bin day Mordialloc
A street in Mordialloc on bin day – some residents confused about what recycling bin to put out

When I asked about reducing the amount of hard rubbish left on nature strips by people moving out or just dumping stuff, Freya said she is trialling a program in partnership with Diabetes Australia, to pick up and recycle goods abandoned by International Students at end of semester departures and readvertise them to others arriving.

This program once established can be spread throughout Melbourne.

A friend and past student who lives in the City of Glen Eira will be extremely happy to learn this because she often lamented that her street, which has many small apartment blocks, often looks like a tip because of the high turnover of renters, who are invariably international students attending Monash University.

She often commented that much of the furniture and household goods are top quality and could be reused but are left on nature strips to be collected as rubbish.

Pete seeger quote

The Cost To The Community of Dumping

The workshop I attended limited to 30 people because of the availability of space and was booked out but another one will be held on June 27.

I was pleased to see grey heads like mine but also young couples, teenagers and middle-aged – a good selection of ratepayers all wanting to learn more about recycling food waste and other organic matter.

There was a collective gasp when Freya told us that illegal dumping of rubbish was costing Kingston $203,000 per annum until she analysed the pick-ups and discovered there were three streets in Clayton South accounting for $100,000 of that figure!

Security cameras were installed and the cost reduced to $26,000 with the Clayton South area reduced to $10,000. (Whether the cost of installing and monitoring the security cameras is included, I don’t know but it is still a massive reduction!)

Freya said viewing the camera footage to get the car number plates of the culprits to issue infringement notices (and hopefully recoup some costs!) revealed awkward moments.

A truck pulled up and dumped a massive tyre but when the driver saw the camera he retrieved the tyre and drove off – not before his number plate recorded.

Another person was caught doing the toilet on a nature strip!

The car number plates showed that many of the people who dumped were from a mixture of businesses, lived out of town, and were not all locals.

Perhaps we need more provocative murals like this one I saw in Canberra above a row of bins marked for recycling – the quote says:

Civilization ends at the waterline. Beyond that, we all enter the food chain, and not always right at the top.”                       Hunter S Thompson

a to the point mural and row of waste disposal bins Canberra

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 reality 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.

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Why Compost?

Approximately 50% of the waste that goes into your garbage bin could be composted.

When sent to landfill, food and garden waste produces methane – a harmful greenhouse gas.

This waste represents 3% of Australia’s annual greenhouse gas emissions, therefore, we are all contributing to climate change.

If you compost, the environmental benefits are:

  • extend the life of the landfill sites
  • decrease greenhouse gas emissions
  • reduce waste

If you compost, the gardening benefits are:

  • improve soil structure
  • chemical free fertiliser
  • increase the yield of crops

Freya explained what composting is and how it is created and there were leaflets available to take home, and examples of the type of compost bins. Several participants shared opinions and experiences of the different methods and different bins.

‘I’m not an expert,‘ said Freya as she encouraged people to share their knowledge, ‘and always learn something at every workshop.’

I loved the generosity of those present sharing tips about where to get containers to use as compost bins or worm farms.

Freya had brought along some examples of the bins to show us plus a worm farm, which a lucky audience member won.

 

 

Freya explained, with illustrations, how to get started setting up a bin (these leaflets are available from the City of Kingston) and give us the ADAM recipe on how to compost successfully:

Aliveness

Diversity

Aeration

Moisture

Compost Ingredients

You need a mixture of green (nitrogen rich) and brown (carbon-rich) organic waste materials. The ratio being 3:1

GREEN – fresh grass clippings, fruit & vegetable scraps, bread (this may attract mice), tea leaves, coffee grounds, hair, vacuum dust, manure – vegetarian, weeds.

BROWN – tree prunings, dry grass clippings, straw, hay, cane mulch, dry leaves, bark, egg cartons, paper (serviettes, tissues…)

Other useful ingredients: wood ash, lime, egg shells, dolomite, blood and bone, dynamic lifter, soil.

A compost bin replicates what happens in the rainforest. Compost will be ready after 3-4 months.

Handy Tips 

Compost-Mate
Compost Mate tool from Bunnings
  • Poking and mixing compost helps with aeration and decomposition to produce a good compost mix. Save your back by investing in a Compost mate for $20 to stir everything up!
  • to avoid rats place chicken wire under the bin before you start filling.
  • weeds can produce seeds – kill these in a black garbage bag first before adding to the compost or you could be spreading weeds throughout your garden beds.
  • instead of buying expensive conditioner use crushed eggshells instead – Google and there will be 1000s of opinions and bits of advice!
  • remember if you add citrus worms will not go near it
  • if you set the bins up in winter, it is colder and so add a few weeks or months to breakdown time
  • too many ants in the bin is a sign the compost is too dry so sprinkle with water
  • don’t let the compost get too dry and you will prevent fruit fly and other flies
  • keep mixing regularly to stop it getting too wet or too dry
  • the smaller the pieces the quicker it will break down – blend food or cut up to small pieces
  • bins like a lid!

She provided a troubleshooting guide but said if in doubt always return to ADAM!

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an unusual flower in my friend Annie’s garden

A Plea for Earth Day
Mairi Neil

Earth, our planet, may be unique in this vast universe
And yet, we take its bounty for granted
Really, we are running out of time
To heal and save this damaged miracle
How foolish we are to ignore the signs
Do nothing is not an option… Reduce Reuse Recycle
Act now to save ecosystems like the Great Barrier Reef or
Year in year out, climate change will wreak havoc

annie's garden.jpg
A small part of Annie’s garden

Worm Farming

My knowledge of worm farms negligible and this was the part of the evening I found most interesting. As far as recycling and limiting my environmental footprint is concerned, I have been doing that most of my life.

I had good teachers because my parents lived through the Great Depression and WW2 in the UK and brought us up with the mantra  ‘waste not, want not’.

We were a working-class family, Mum saved and reused string, wrapping paper, jam jars; we wore or used things until they could no longer be handed down, or mended; our backyard grew potatoes and other vegetables, plums were turned into jam, hens provided eggs and ate scraps, and if by some miracle there was food left over, instead of compost, it was added to the plates of our pet dogs and cats.

But worm farming?

Didn’t know that was a ‘thing’ until the 1990s. I remember seeing a lot of wriggling worms at Collingwood Children’s Farm when the girls were on a school excursion and I went along as a parent helper. They were not in containers but eating their way through compost between two sheets of dark tarpaulin-like material.

The image has stayed with me but I never thought it was something I’d have at home.

When I worked at Bentleigh, one of my writing students talked about her worm farm but beyond that whenever someone mentions worms I think of a poem by Edward Larson and a song by ‘Unknown’ that I learnt at school and used to sing around the campfire when a Girl Guide:

Ooey Gooey Worm
Edward Larson

Ooey Gooey was a worm
A wiggly worm was he
He climbed upon the railroad tracks
The train he did not see…
…OOOOOEEEE  GOOOOEEE  GOO!

Worm Song

Nobody loves me, everybody hates me,
because I go and eat worms,
Long, thin, slimy ones;
Short, fat, juicy ones,
Itsy, bitsy, fuzzy wuzzy worms.

Down goes the first one,
down goes the second one,
Oh, how they wiggle and squirm.
Up comes the first one,
up comes the second one,
Itsy, bitsy, fuzzy wuzzy worms.

worm farm.jpg

At the workshop, Freya explained the advantages of worm farms:

  • ideal for homes with small yards or no gardens and for apartment balconies, courtyards
  • designed primarily for food scraps
  • low maintenance
  • faster process than composting
  • produce rich castings (vermicast)
  • and produces liquid fertiliser
  • it compliments garden waste compost – so keep fruit and veg for worms
  • you need 500-1000 worms to start (borrow from friends farms or buy from Bunnings)

 

Quick Facts

  • Worms are hermaphrodites
  • there are 3 different types of worms for compost: Tiger worms, Indian Blues and Red Wrigglers
  • they don’t like sunlight or excess heat
  • coffee speeds up the composting process
  • worms don’t have teeth so cut food into small pieces or blend it before adding to speed up the process
  • worms eat their body weight in 24 hours
  • A ring around a worm like a saddle is holding up to 10 worm babies
  • worm populations double every 2-3 months
  • their life cycle is 2-3 years
  • worms don’t smell so can be kept indoors
  • if going on holiday leave bigger pieces – it takes worms approximately 8 weeks to munch through average organic waste
  • they will eat each other
  • drain the farm regularly
  • if the worm farm dies it may because too hot so always keep in shade (a dead worm farm smells disgusting! Freya said she’d rather sort through rubbish bins than cope with that smell!)
  • add ice cubes on a really hot day
  • if worms gather on the lid they are predicting rain
  • if in a big ball they are stressed and it’s not a good sign
  • if you want them to move into a particular area to remove worm castings then use citrus peels and they’ll move to avoid this
  • Worm farms are in layers: always have a dark lid
  • separate layers of food scraps and organic waste
  • the middle layer is where worms live and travel up through holes for food
  • the bottom layer is for worm castings and fertiliser
  • drill at least 12 holes to allow worms to move between layers – on a sunny day they will burrow down deeper
  • Australian worms cope with drought and are therefore slow eaters so use imported worms from South America to start your farm
  • don’t put tea bags with plastic tags into a worm bin
  • by a bedding block made from coconut husk, soak in a bucket of water and use this to cover the first layer of your farm – add layers and/or trays one at a time once full of food and ALWAYS blanket on top this will keep out direct sunlight. Can use an old carpet in winter or add coffee to get the worms active

Setting Up A Farm

  • Buy or build one from plastic tubs
  • begin with 1000 worms (bought or gifted from friends)
  • choose a shaded area sheltered from direct sunlight and heavy rain
  • line the tray with moist ‘bedding’ or newspaper
  • distribute the bedding and worms covering each layer with moistened paper
  • let worms settle for a week before feeding them

Keep the worms happy by always maintaining: Drainage, Acidity, Air, Food and Temperature

happy worm.jpg

Bokashi Bucket

The final choice of the evening regarding composting was a Bokashi Bucket – probably the least popular method with only myself and two others admitting to having one. I haven’t used mine since I returned from overseas so maybe I shouldn’t count myself.

Bokashi is a convenient and environmentally friendly way to compost kitchen waste and it will compost almost all of your food waste – prepared foods, cooked or uncooked, meats and fish, cheese, eggs and eggshells, bread, fruit and vegetables, coffee grinds and tea leaves and bags, wilted flowers and tissues.

DO NOT put dog or cat faeces, bones or excessive liquid in the Bokashi Bucket – for these items a Biodegradable Cornstarch Bag if used, will help break them down in landfill.

 

5-Step Process To Use Bokashi Bucket

  1. Place bin close to where food produced (kitchen bench, under the sink, laundry.) Put drain plate supplied with the kit at the bottom of the bin to allow excess liquid to drain.
  2. Sprinkle a small amount of special BOKASHI MIX onto the drain plate. Add your food waste/scraps. Even paper and meat.
  3. At the end of each day, compress the waste with the mashing utensil provided or your own tool if you’ve made a bin for yourself. This removes air pockets and then sprinkle some Bokashi Mix lightly covering the surface of the waste. Reseal lid so that it is airtight.
  4. Once or twice a week drain the liquid from the bin. Repeat the filling process until the bin is full, which for an average family is just under a month. Feed the garden with the drained liquid (fertiliser) after adding water at a ratio 1:100. (Beware it is very strong fertiliser!)
  5. When the bucket is full, empty the contents into a small hole or trench in your garden, or add to your compost bin. The waste will be fermented but not broken down, to do that it needs soil. (If you have an inquisitive dog like me, dig that hole deep!)

Rinse the bucket with water, no detergent or soap, drain and repeat process. You may have to check the tap at the bottom to drain does not get clogged. Also shop around for Bokashi Mix, which can be expensive but necessary because it contains effective micro-organisms. It is usually a combination of wheat bran and rice husks that have been sprayed.

The microbes have been organically certified by both NASAA and the BFA if you buy the mix from reputable outlets.

If there is no rotting odour, the Bokashi Bin is working well. The waste inside should go foul in a day or two and even produce white mould. Always mash down well, also drain properly. It is the fermentation process that is turning the waste into a rich soil conditioner

If the mould is green or black and the Bokashi begins to smell, then tip the contents out, wash bin and begin again.

4-6 weeks after the compost has been buried, it may be dug up and used on garden beds.

Of all the composting methods, the Bokashi Bucket is probably the most expensive setting-up and with ongoing costs. However, Freya gave leaflets out (and these can be easily downloaded) with DIY options.

  • An ice-cream container works just as well
  • You may get a food caddy free from the council when they introduce recycling food waste but the problem with anything free or discounted is that it can end up abandoned on the nature strip.
  • Compost Revolution (check online) may give a discount

I think it is safe to say that everyone left the evening inspired and determined – I know I’m certainly more confident in making the right choice and being pro-active in reducing landfill and may restart using my Bokashi Bucket!

There were some great suggestions about DIY compost receptacles – including a worm farm in an old chest of drawers!

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Dog Poo – And Other Unmentionables

Polystyrene can’t be recycled in Victoria but the large rectangular containers are good to make your own worm farm.

There is still no recycling of dog poo or even special bins for collection, like in other countries – and even other councils.

Stonnington has special bins and bags available. And I saw many bins in the UK as far back as the 90s.

When I mentioned this to Freya, she said Australia was about 10 years behind many other countries.

Cultural change is slow but I guess we will get there eventually – especially with education officers like Freya and programs initiated by progressive local governments.

 

Meanwhile, we can all do what we can to REDUCE, REUSE, RECYCLE, REPURPOSE and COMPOST!

And keep our fingers crossed Federal politicians catch up!

werribee open zoo.jpg