Rosa, Memories With Licence – a template for other writers?

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It’s lovely to have a book signed by an author and although I couldn’t get to the book launch because of another launch, a friend kindly picked up a copy of Ros Collins’ latest book, Rosa by Hybrid Publishers.

The blurb announces the memories of Rosa are presented ‘with a deliberate overlay of lies and licence.’ The boldness of this statement, a little confronting, especially since the book is labelled Memoir – defined in the dictionary as a narrative or biography written from personal experience.

However, as a teacher of Life Story writing, I’ve lost count of how many times class discussions have debated the concept of truth in relation to the reliability and perspective of our memories, coupled with the attendant fear of causing hurt to someone still alive or even tarnishing the memory of someone deceased.

A memoir is considered ‘Creative Non-fiction’ and who is to say the emphasis is not on the word creative, which can be interpreted as ‘having the quality of something imaginatively created’ or ‘containing misleading inventions designed to falsify or conceal the facts’! 

… memoirs depend on memory and, despite being the subject of philosophical investigation going back as far as Plato and of plentiful scientific research since the mid-nineteenth century, memory remains an elusive topic. How does it work? Can our fondest memories of childhood and loved ones really be reduced to molecular activity in the neurons of the brain? Will medical science one day be capable of eliminating the traumatizing memories that can paralyze us, and implanting happier memories in their place? Are memories the cause of the biographical continuity that bolsters our belief in personal identity? And how accurate are memories even among the healthiest of us? Does it make sense to base our present-day attitudes and emotions on recollections of our past experiences?

Robert Atwan, Creative Nonfiction, Issue #55, The Memoir Issue

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In her introduction, Ros uses softer words to explain how Rosa differs from a previous book about her life, it is ‘much more personal… freely written’ and she admits to ‘taking liberties with the truth’.

There is still a lot of family history included in Rosa – she revisits Solly’s Girl (2015), a book that was as ‘accurate as my memory would allow’ and written as a companion piece to her now-deceased husband’s Alva’s Boy (2008). An acclaimed writer, Alan Collins wrote short stories and books about his Bondi childhood.

Ros Collins writes to entertain as well as inform and her conversational style with well-researched detail has produced wonderful stories revealing scenes of Anglo-Australian-Jewish life probably unfamiliar to many readers, and which I found fascinating.

Memoir with a little fiction, or fiction with a little history? It’s hard to say, Memories with licence.

Although of a different generation, there were historical references, organisations and events I recognised. They triggered memories, especially involvement with the labour movement and the Australian Labor Party and various campaigns in the 60s, 70s, and 80s.

The divisiveness of the Vietnam War, the election of the Whitlam Government and the opening up of educational opportunities for older women, which Rosa took advantage of. ‘The Palestinian Debate’ which still causes angst and the trade union campaigns to improve conditions for Victorian teachers that raised the ire of Premier Henry Bolte.

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Rosa ticked several boxes in the list of why I read books: for enjoyment, to be immersed in a different world, to learn something new, to encourage me to seek more information and to reflect on the human condition.

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Ros is a woman of many accomplishments with several great achievements as a qualified librarian, yet, there is no pretentiousness when she explains her journey to becoming a director of a Jewish community library at fifty-seven and her vision of a national Australian-Jewish library. 

With dedication, commitment, and tenacity she created the successful ‘Write Your Story’ program whereby the eclectic members of the Jewish community can access funds and help, and write their memoir.

‘Most memoirs -so far, more than 140 have been published, the largest such series in the world – are related to the Holocaust; eventually, as generations pass away, the stories will become more Australian, less European.’ (p122)

Her involvement with the community library for thirteen years followed by twelve years cataloguing the Yiddish library:

‘She brings the boxes of shabby books home to catalogue… A little pamphlet, held together with rusty staples; cheap yellowed paper, crumbling to pieces; no cover; a grey, grainy author’s picture.

… a first-hand account of how his village was destroyed during the Holocaust – most of the Jewish community died, locked up in the synagogue and then set on fire – he hid in a barn.’

Ros is reduced to tears translating the story for her husband – such is the power and importance of recording and sharing stories.

‘I couldn’t even find the village in the atlas, it’s been erased by some thoughtless publisher. It’s Yiddish, only a few people will ever find out what happened; there’s just my catalogue entry to provide a link.’ 

Her husband responds, ‘Libraries are important. This is your contribution.’ (p124)

Ros has catalogued and encouraged the recording and publication of so many stories of the Jewish diaspora and so it is fitting and fortunate, she decided to share her own life story and reflections – albeit with several references to her husband’s story and books. She has added a creative flair to her memories.

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The deep love and respect Ros has for her parents, husband Alan, her sons and several close friends mentioned in Rosa shines like a beacon. There is no malice in any of her memories but there is a theme of regret.

Ros repeats several times how she wished Alan had been more open and honest about his feelings – not for her but the damage done in his childhood and the guilt he carried because his mother died in childbirth. Ros also regrets not having a closer relationship with her own mother.

‘The missing mother. Rosa had always been aware, but when she first read his stories she’d never put it all together in her mind, never ‘joined the dots’, done the whole ‘lit-crit’ exercise. Perhaps it would have led them to deep and meaningful discussion and enriched their relationship if they’d talked about his emotions, but then, she reflects, he’d only have turned it into a quip, slid away from the subject with a bit of banter.  (p156)

We learn about their unconventional courtship in London and Rosa’s decision to migrate to Australia as a ‘ten pound Pom’, their determination to build a home – physically a house and financially a business but also emotionally with children – three sons, plus later, a teenager, ‘the Boy’, a fostered child described but not named.

‘The six-year-old and the five-year-old took the view that they had now acquired an older brother, but for the three-year-old, the Boy represented an heroic Superman figure; their relationship became very special and the rift, when it came, was all the more painful.’ (p89)

A family disagreement and period of estrangement always difficult to write about, the temptation to omit or embellish to justify an action. In Rosa, it is deftly handled although Ros did give herself a ‘memory with licence…’

The use of dialogue to good effect, the attention to detail and use of senses to describe food, flowers and situations – techniques writers keep in their toolbox – Ros uses all of them to produce a good read.

Italics for non-English words and terms but also for emphasis and reflections in her voice. There is a flitting backwards and forwards to weave all the family stories and people together along with their place in history without rupturing the fabric of the overall story, which is why I believe others writing their life story could use Rosa as a template.

Our memories don’t all come in a linear or chronological fashion and from my experience in writing class piecing together short stories is a natural way of collating memories and weaving the threads together.

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Ros is a proud secular Jew yet is determined her grandchildren will know the family history but does not want them to be weighed down by the Holocaust.

Throughout the book, the workings of family, worship, differences in synagogues, sects, customs and the politics of ‘those of Jewish persuasion‘ Alan’s wry remembrance of the phrase often used in the past, are explained and placed in historical as well as an Australian context. The knowledge and explanation of beliefs and practices, I found invaluable.

‘For many non-Jews, the Shoah, the Holocaust, is just another part of the war: Hitler had plans for something called the ‘The Third Reich’, and, by the way, he also intended to exterminate all of Europe’s Jews.

For Jews, the Holocaust is the war and Israel is our miracle: In every generation from Pharaoh to Hitler they have tried to destroy us; never again!’

Remembering is a solemn duty, as is recording and researching. Jewish literature wrestles with stories of survival, heroism and of course the complexities of the Middle East. Museums and memoirs multiply. Al, fifth-generation Australian and Rosa, second-generation English and ‘more British than the British’ do not exactly fit the norm for Melbourne Jewry, which is home to one of the largest communities of Holocaust survivors in the world. She thinks: We’re a perfect example of how deeply embedded the history is in our psyches even though neither of us was directly involved. (p117)

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Ros relates a speech husband, Alan made at a Shoah commemoration event at Melbourne’s Holocaust Museum where he painted a picture of 1930s Sydney and his father:

a devout xenophobe with a particular focus on Jewish refugees who told him; ‘not to mix with them’, ‘Jew-hating out-of-work Australian labourers’ and ‘well-meaning policemen who called me Ikey.’

The older audience members nodded sadly in remembrance. (p118)

The more we share our stories and make a habit of listening to others the more tolerant society we will become – I hope!

Ros explained Alan finished his talk, given over 30 years ago at the Holocaust Museum thus:

So I write about what I know which is what it is like growing up and living and dying in this country where thank God, patriotism and zealotry are negligible and when a letter arrives with OHMS on the envelope it doesn’t contain an imperative to pack your bags. (p73)

Ros reflects in 2018 that she ‘doesn’t quite share his belief in the fundamental goodness of Australia, and long ago she cast off her allegiance to England…(p73)

Considering incidents of antisemitism and some appalling statements and decisions from our political leaders, there is documented evidence racism is on the rise, and as a migrant myself, I worry about the direction Australia is headed.

Therefore, a book like Rosa that ‘flings open the windows and doors‘ and invites us to learn about a world of cultural habits and rituals often misrepresented, misunderstood, or unknown is one to grab for the bookshelf.

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In the final chapter, aptly titled Rose Garden, Ros discusses the Jewish section of a cemetery and thoughts sparked by physicist/musician/celebrity Brian Cox’s remarks on television …

…belief in some form of afterlife ‘feels right’ or more precisely, the alternative, that after death we are nothing but a bag of chemicals from which ‘nothing has left, yet what is left is not longer me’ somehow ‘feels wrong’…

The central question is, can you build a time machine? The answer is yes, you can go into the future… Going back in time, or returning to the present, would be slightly trickier, however…(p183)

Rosa harks back to childhood and a fascination with Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and repeats a conversation she had with a grandson.

‘Where will you go when you die, Grandma?’

‘Well I’m not absolutely sure because no one comes back after they die, but I think I shall go on a journey.’

‘A long one?’

‘Probably.’

‘What will you take with you?’

‘I think I can take my memory. Clever people now think it might be possible to travel through time – backwards and forwards.’

‘Oh, I’m sure you can Grandma, I once read a story like that.’

‘So did I, darling!              (p185)

Many of us can identify with this conversation, fear of or concern about dying common.

The conundrums, worries and questions of life wax and wane as we live and age, but writers continually reflect on the significance to the big picture, as well as the importance of those near and dear. Who do we love and how much do we matter to them and they to us?

It doesn’t matter what your background, race or religion as we near the end of our life most of us have failing health, increased vulnerability, and wonder how and in what manner we will die – and then what?

Rosa explores the distant and not so distant past, the present, and voices curiosity about the future. Ros has written a wonderful legacy and future descendants will understand their family’s Jewish history, current festivals and rituals, even if they choose to rationalise like she often did: The significance lies in the fact that we are together around the table, never mind the calendar.

Ros Collins was born in 1938 and after supporting her husband’s writing endeavours began to write short stories and now has two books to her credit – an inspiration indeed!

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Purpose, Persistence, and Perspiration make Edna a Published Author for her 90th birthday!

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There is no greater thrill for a teacher of creative writing than to see the joy on a student’s face when they hold in their hands, the book they have written.

When that student has put years of effort into making the dream a reality and overcome health problems, the moment even sweeter.

Yesterday, I met up with some past students of my Life Stories & Legacies class that ran from February 2014 – December 2018, at Godfrey Street Community House in Bentleigh. We gathered in Sandringham to celebrate with Edna Gaffney the publication of her memoir, Chibby From Brandy Creek.

The Life Stories class at Godfrey Street, one of the most cohesive, supportive and friendliest classes in my 20 plus years of teaching, which has included four community houses. Several of the students still meet monthly and email or phone each other regularly.

Edna is the second to publish a memoir, another student will have one out for Christmas and another perhaps in the New Year. A great bunch of writers dedicated to their purpose of leaving a legacy for family and friends. They have all led amazing lives spanning decades.

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Edna was in her mid-eighties when she came to my class with a determination to write a book about her mother, family life in Gippsland between the wars, and also her own life as a nurse, particularly, as one of the first nurses to be trained at Cabrini Hospital to care  for cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy.

In her Dedication, Edna wrote:

These efforts to record memories, I dedicate to my family and future generations. I wanted to describe my early life living in Gippsland, rural Victoria, and to honour my mother. Our family experienced a lifestyle and events different to many others and to the expectations of people today.

Miracles can occur in most families, maybe not suddenly, but over time, and I consider the eventual reunion of my siblings after the death of our mother, a miracle. Six siblings were adopted during 1943-44 and the family split up, yet we eventually reunited as adults and became a family once again. I am writing down some details of our early life for those siblings who have no memories of our natural mother.

I also record my own experiences of family and career. Change of attitude, much-needed patience and endurance to cope and care for others, are some of the qualities I learned in my working and family life – becoming a parent a profound change. My chosen profession of Nursing has altered dramatically since I began Mothercraft Nursing at the Berry Street Babies’ Home in 1947.

A Powerful Story Shared

When Edna enrolled in 2014, like many older students, she had no computer skills and in fact, no computer. However, after absorbing what it means to be a writer in the modern world, Edna enrolled in computer classes at the Community House and bought a laptop.

I don’t think she’d mind me saying that her success in writing this book was not replicated in the computer class! Wisely, she concentrated on the writing and saved money and time by allowing her daughters and me help with typing. I have no idea what happened to the laptop except it was often threatened and may indeed have been ‘chucked out the window’.

Edna’s daughter, Jane-Maree arranged the launch yesterday and was a driving force in the final stages of the project as her mother’s health deteriorated. We were determined the book would be published before Edna’s 90th birthday on July 2, 2019, and made the deadline.

However, the actual launch delayed while Edna settled into a nursing home – a disruptive, often devastating, and certainly time-consuming challenge for everyone concerned.

Fortunately, Edna likes her new home and Jane-Maree said, ‘they were great’ providing the comfortable space for the celebration.

The Journey To Publication

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Over the years, I published five of the nine anthologies for the Mordialloc Writer’s Group. Along the way I threw myself into lifelong learning, grappling with InDesign, attending workshops on desktop and digital publishing, reading books, online articles, trawling websites and information from email lists, and watching webinars to keep up with the rapid changes in the writing and publishing industry.

It is a privilege to share those skills with writing students and to be trusted with their precious words when they decide to publish. I know there are some disastrous self-publishing efforts and looking back at my early efforts, improvements can certainly be made, but I have become a small press publisher by accident and will continue to learn on the job.

Software and hardware capabilities and printing options have radically changed in a few short years.  The cost, which has a big impact on choice has changed too – you get a bigger, better bang for your buck nowadays!

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The aim of most writers is to be published – not necessarily a novel, memoir, or poetry book, but perhaps simply a short story or poem that begged to be written, or a slice of family history or an anecdote so memorable, it must be committed to print. (I prefer printed books.)

Some students come to class with a definite project in mind. They have a dream to publish a book with a target audience of friends and family.

Not everyone aims to have a book in Readings or become rich and famous with a bestseller or win a prize.

Not everyone wants to monetize (how I hate this buzz word) their talent or creativity.

Most want to write and publish for the joy and satisfaction of telling a story/stories and being able to share their writing with others who will read and appreciate their words. They desire to write or would feel strange not writing, perhaps love being a wordsmith.

When you believe in yourself and writing, being published is a realistic achievable dream.

Edna had a powerful story to tell and I gladly helped with advice and editing. My talented daughter, Mary Jane designed the cover, as she has done for several book ventures. (A reluctant book cover designer, she doesn’t refuse to help her mum.)

The class gave Edna feedback and encouragement and through this collective effort, a beautiful and readable book was offered free of charge yesterday with an option to donate to Berry Street Babies Home. (most people did!)

When you read Edna’s book you understand her strong commitment to Berry Street, where she trained as a Mothercraft Nurse, but also the deeply emotional link because of family circumstances.

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Books for Purpose Not Profit

This is the third book I’ve produced whereby the writer has donated all or most of the profit because of their commitment to a cause or appreciation of events or people. There was no profit involved with Mordialloc Writers’ anthologies either, with any money from sales going towards the publication of the next book.

When Mordialloc Writers’ Group folded in 2018, I donated group funds to Mordialloc Beach Primary School to create a scholarship and encourage creative writing. The Principal, Sue Leighton-Janse suggested the money provide ongoing writing awards for Junior, Middle and Senior school, in the name of MWG.  I only hope this happens.

You can read about Julie Wentworth: A Life Shared here. Julie, a teacher of Yoga, mentor and spiritual guide, donated the sale of her books to an orphanage in Africa caring for children with HIV.

Mary Jane and I had the privilege of working with Peter Hocking, who wrote about his recovery from a stroke and sold books to support The Stroke Foundation.

I’m sure writing and publishing is often a labour of love, and if articles discussing the state of publishing in Australia are to be believed, poetry books, even traditionally published, seldom make a profit with publishing houses using the sales from more popular books to counter-balance the low-profit margin in some literary genres.

Another book I worked on this year was a huge labour of love for a woman who wanted to celebrate her 70th birthday by publishing travel diaries kept by her parents on their first overseas trip in the 1970s.

Ruth inherited the handwritten exercise books, 500 slides and meticulously detailed itinerary notes and letters home. What to do with this material so that her brothers and sisters, her children, nieces and nephews, grandchildren will enjoy the old school and very personal travelogue?

She had a friend type the 55,000 words, paid to digitise then print the slides, and commissioned a nephew to draw maps of the route her parents travelled through continents and several countries, to introduce the three separate parts of their trip.

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Ruth only printed 25 of this A4 landscape book, which I edited and published.  Muriel and Len’s observations were side by side and Mary Jane chose 100 of the best photographs. Mary Jane created Ruth’s vision for the cover using Muriel and Len’s passport photos, the best close-up photographs Ruth possessed.

Not every book needs a launch or a large audience. Often writers can cover their costs and break-even. Family members may contribute or if written for a target audience (sporting/hobby club, regional or historical relevance) writers may make a small profit by self-publishing.

Writers keep control and have important input to the content, cover and cost of their book every step of the way from conception to birth if they self-publish.

It’s an exciting and worthwhile journey – not always smooth – but as John Denver sings in one of my favourite songs, ‘some days are diamonds, some days are stone,‘ and yesterday for Edna, her family and friends was a diamond day.

Well done Edna and thank you for allowing me to be a part of your dream!

{PROOF} at Parkdale Confirms Playwrights’ Power To Confront & Explore Important Themes

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Shirley Burke Theatre’s Current Production

Last night, my friend and fellow scribe, Lisa Hill attended our local theatre to enjoy {PROOF} by playwright, director and screenwriter, David Auburn. It’s a drama I’d recommend and you only have another week to grab a seat!

This is one of the best productions I’ve attended since Lisa invited me to be her ‘play buddy’ and buy a yearly ticket to Shirley Burke’s 2019 series. Other reviews of ones I’ve enjoyed this year are here and here.

Now officially an aged pensioner supporting local theatre a joyful pastime and helps ensure an accessible art scene in Kingston. There have been several mixed outings this year: some scripts and/or acting better than others, but last night was a triumph for the actors and an interesting script.

The prize-winning play written two decades ago raises relevant and timeless issues, explores the human condition to provide that all-important conflict necessary for memorable art. 

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{PROOF} examines family relationships, sibling rivalry, the stress of being a carer, grief, mental illness, hereditary disease, gender equality, the fine line between brilliance and madness, and most importantly, trust and its importance for a healthy relationship!

The title, encased in parentheses alludes to the mathematical motif running through the plot and characters.

One of the four characters, Robert (Peter Hatherley), is a mathematics genius suffering an indeterminate mental illness – not an easy role to play but he handles it well.

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Hal (Chris Hill) an ex-student of Robert’s is going through Robert’s notebooks hoping to discover another great mathematical theory, Catherine (JaneLeckie), Robert’s daughter has inherited his genius and perhaps his mental illness – a fear alluded to and voiced.

A notebook with a new groundbreaking theory becomes the centre of contention causing conflict between Hal and Catherine, and Catherine and her sister Claire (Samantha Stone).

Who wrote the entries and when? How do you establish authenticity? Who will gain from the notebook’s contents?

Jokes about maths geeks dispelling their nerdy image of being plain, boring or weird provide several laughs in a play tackling the fragility and frailty of the human mind, body, and spirit.

Serendipity or Coincidence?

Yesterday was R U OK Day? with all forms of media and health bodies promoting increased awareness of mental health. Mental illness was a strong theme in the play with the character, Robert suffering an unnamed condition. The audience learns he often disconnects from reality and displays paranoia.

I doubt I was alone in seeing the similarity between Robert’s psychosis and that of John Forbes Nash, diagnosed with schizophrenia and played by Russell Crowe in the movie, A Brilliant Mind. 

Both characters portrayed as brilliant mathematicians but in {PROOF} the audience is left wondering about Robert’s illness …

… the oft-quoted line by Oscar Levant (1906-1972) springs to mind, There’s a fine line between genius and insanity. I have erased this line.”

Another theme explored in the play is the role of carers and with an ageing population, regardless of whether healthy or sick, it’s a hot topic.

Do you care at home or put the person in an institution? What is the toll on the carer? Catherine has sacrificed her education and career to look after father, Robert. A sacrifice her sister Claire didn’t agree with and it is Claire who pays the bills for the upkeep of the house and Robert’s care.

Several poignant scenes in the play occur when the sisters, Catherine and Claire (Samantha Stone) argue about the wisdom of keeping Robert at home and whether the fragile Catherine needs to be cared for if she has inherited her father’s ‘condition’ – whatever that is – and Claire’s insistence Catherine return with her to New York after the father’s funeral so the house can be sold.

There were several scenes where anger demanded and all the actors were persuasive in their portrayals coming across as authentic, which can be hard to do with extreme emotions.

Catherine goes through the full gamut of emotions and Jane Leckie did a superb job with a minimum of make-up – her facial expressions and body language captured grief, fear, anger, disappointment, sadness, distrust, playfulness and joy – to the extent when final bows were made with her hair loose and a beaming smile it could have been a different person on stage!

Peter Hatherley’s, Robert suitably mercurial and feisty using the space on stage to good effect with expansive gestures hinting at his younger self’s confident brilliance and older self’s celebratory status but unsteady at times to remind us of his illness.

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Plenty in this play to feed private reflection and reminiscing about family responsibilities, loyalty and relationships, the opportunities and positions available for women in academia, the strain of caring for those you love when they become unlovable, and the profound, debilitating, and often unpredictable effects of grief.

The Gender Card & Generational Divide

Bearing in mind, the play is 20 years old, you don’t expect an exploration of the recent complex debates around gender to be a major theme, but there is a strong acknowledgement of the omission of ‘herstory’ in {PROOF}.

Debates on important issues demand lots of conversations in the community and it’s no secret that for years the sciences excluded women.  The situation resulting in efforts to address school curriculums, and increased encouragement of women to study mathematics and associated fields.

The issue is dealt with on stage with an interesting conversation between Hal and Catherine both in their twenties, both maths geeks, both quirky and socially awkward in their own way. The underlying romantic tension between the pair an interesting sub-story and the physical and verbal interactions between them believable and well-executed by Jane Leckie and Chris Hill.

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The play tackles the generational divide with Hal suggesting maths is ‘a young man’s game’, and even Robert mentions it is important to achieve early success to compete.

Hal reveals attending conferences and observing drug use (alcohol and LSD) and that some older men need a drug like Speed to keep their mind sharp and racing because of fears creativity has peaked in their early twenties!

Robert’s illness started in his mid-twenties and Hal who is twenty-eight fears the chance to be as brilliant and famous as Robert has passed him by.  However, if he can decipher Robert’s notebooks and perhaps discover something new… perhaps produce that great leap of the mind and experimentation that renders mathematicians awesome.

Hal believes all creative mathematicians who come up with original work are men, especially young men who are at their peak in their early twenties, but after probing by Catherine acknowledges there was a woman at Stanford University, he can’t remember her name.

Sophie Germain?’ Catherine suggests.

Hal pauses for a moment as if remembering, and replies, ‘…I’ve probably seen her at meetings, but haven’t met her…’

‘She was born in Paris in 1776,’ is Catherine’s droll comment.

‘So I’ve definitely met her,’ Hal replies with a grin.

Amidst this humour, Catherine delivers a lesson on Sophie Germain surviving the French Revolution’s Terror by hiding in her father’s study and reading. Later, formal education denied because she was a female, she furthered her education by personal study but only got noticed for her work on prime numbers when she corresponded with learned men under the male pseudonym, Antoine August Le Blanc.

Catherine explained how her father gave her the book about Sophie to read and encouraged her to study – another hint that she shared her father’s love, perhaps obsession of math. 

Hal admits his ignorance and stupidity – he has studied Germain Primes.

There is an exchange of numbers, equations and sums in their conversation similar to one Catherine had with her father at the beginning of the play and Hal starts to understand Catherine has talent, but as if threatened, he stops adding and extending figures and instead queries if Sophie’s ruse was ever discovered by Gauss, the most famous of her correspondents.

Catherine recites a long passage from a letter she has memorised where Gauss recognised the extraordinary talents of Sophie and her difficulties and courage revealing her genius to a world dominated by men.

Hal’s reaction is to kiss Sophie and then apologise for being ‘ a little drunk’!

The budding romance between Catherine and Hal is a roller-coaster ride in the play – trust shattered along with Catherine’s composure when Hal doubts her honesty and even seems to go along with Claire’s suggestion that Catherine is mentally unstable.

The kindled romance dissolved by an explosive row, reignited in an uneasy truce, perhaps understanding and acceptance, but we are left to write their future.

Stagecraft & Setting

The various set designs I’ve seen this year at Shirley Burke have been impressive – the team who build the sets deserve congratulations. It is a small intimate theatre, therefore, the stage has limitations, yet they ‘come up trumps’ every time.

Like a short story, nothing in a play, including set and props, must be there unless it advances the plot or contributes to the storyline.

{PROOF} is yet another play set in the USA but thankfully the American accents did not jar as much as earlier plays this year.

Every scene is set on the back verandah (porch) of a house near the University of Chicago where Robert’s genius is revered and where he taught before his initial ‘breakdown’ and later descent into ill health.

The confined space is not glamorous and a scattering of dead leaves suggests autumn and in another scene winter – a metaphor for Robert’s ageing and death? The need for regrowth and change? Catherine’s sacrifice and confinement for years as she cared for her father, but a promise of better things to come?

Playwriting like screenwriting is a collaborative art, for results you require the sets, actors, lighting, sound, stagecraft and direction to gel … this production of {PROOF} ticks all the boxes.

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The drabness of the porch relieved by the glimpse of the interior of the house through glass doors and at Robert’s wake the light is suitably bright accompanied by party music so we get a sense there are others inside.

Scene changes are heralded by various mood-appropriate music, the most memorable being a discordant, noisy band number after Hal admits he is with a group of fellows from the math department who play in a bar. Their signature act called ‘i’ lower case and they stand without playing anything for three minutes.

A math joke which Catherine guesses, ‘Imaginary Number?’

There are successful flashback scenes too (and a ghost scene, when grieving Catherine ‘talks’ to her father after his death).

These are often difficult to deliver effectively on stage and can be confusing for an audience to follow, but are handled well.

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Like all good dramas, Act 1 ends with a shock announcement, which gave us plenty to talk about over Interval!

An Irrelevant Aside?

It’s interesting what actions resonate with members of an audience.

The play opens with twenty-five-year-old Catherine curled asleep in a chair on the verandah. Her father, Robert wakes her up – it has just gone midnight and now officially her birthday. He has a bottle of champagne, which she insists on popping because last time he broke a window! (The first chuckle/laugh in the play.)

Catherine pops the champagne cork like a waitress serving at a high table keeping the cork under control. She proceeds to swig at the contents while conversing with her father who we learn has been unwell but now believes he is okay and is convincing her to return to study.

Because of my lived experience waitressing throughout university student days in Canberra and later travelling in Scotland, I know how to open a bottle of champagne in a confined space without letting a wayward cork hit a person or an object and yet still retain that satisfying “POP” everyone expects. It is an acquired skill, so well done Jane Leckie for not hitting a member of the cast or audience!

Another memorable moment in the play is when Hal discovers a page in one of Robert’s notebooks where he recognizes Catherine has kept him from being institutionalised (what Claire wanted) and has saved his life by caring for him. ‘Where does her strength come from? I can never repay her?’

My father had dementia and was eventually institutionalised for his own and my mother’s safety but in his lucid moments, he often uttered similar sentiments.

When the play ended, the audience gave well-deserved extended applause and Lisa and I both agreed it has been the best production we have seen this year.

I picked up a flyer advertising the next production and considering the shenanigans in the UK (is life imitating art?) it seems a timely production to end the year with a few belly laughs and the absurdities of ‘the human condition’.

If you can’t get to see {PROOF} perhaps book early to be “Out of Order‘!

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Exploring the Richness of our Multicultural, Multi-Faith Community in Kingston a Bus Ride Away

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I’ve taken a long time framing this post because of recent events and the adversarial way many parts of the media cover topics such as religion, refugees, and immigration and the resultant ire, ignorance and irritation that inevitably results, particularly on social media.

Ignorance is a keyword here – if more people moved out of their comfort zone and made the effort to learn, mix, communicate and appreciate each other’s contributions to the tapestry of society a lot of angst and misinformation could be avoided.

We are lucky living in Melbourne because there are myriad opportunities to access and enjoy what a multicultural community offers. We can live together in peace and mutual respect aware of each other’s contributions.

I’ve attended two enriching events recently, provided by the Kingston Interfaith Network to appreciate the diversity of our community.

It’s heartening to know there are people actively working to breakdown barriers and challenge bigotry and I’d recommend the annual bus trip the Network organises to visit various places of worship.

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Religion & Politics Can be Discussed With Civility

I first learned about the great work of the Kingston Interfaith Network when I attended an art exhibition at St Nicholas Church, Mordialloc and became reacquainted with parishioners I knew.

Along with many baby boomers, I grew up with family traditions of attending Sunday School and church but it never translated as ‘blind faith’.

Both parents were immersed in church life in Scotland; they continued this involvement in Croydon when we migrated.  I drifted away from organised religion in my teens and only returned to be part of a community as a young mother, to eventually drift away again.

None of us chooses the country, culture or community we are born into and the idea that there is a ‘true’ religion or ‘master’ race seems ludicrous and irrational.

sunset

I’m grateful for access to education and several fine teachers at high school and university, to have continued that education by travelling, accessing wonderful books, films, and essays and appreciating the contribution of others to a pool of general knowledge more easily available now through the worldwide web.

I know I’m not alone among my peers questioning human existence, our relationship to the natural world and seeking meaning to life – a journey that will end one day and that day is getting closer –

I recall the pithy words of a good friend, ‘We all die and one day we’ll discover whether there is a God or life after death!

In the meantime, I intend to enjoy the journey, learning something new every day, look for the joy because focusing on social injustice and world conflicts convinces me we are stuck in Groundhog Day! (“a situation in which events are or appear to be continually repeated” )

John Lennon’s Imagine is often played to a compilation of visuals – technology leaves nothing hidden! We see the horrific death toll of the two world wars, the partition of India and Pakistan, the euphemistic ‘Troubles’ in Northern Ireland, the Vietnam War, the Biafran/Nigerian War, the Middle East, Idi Amin’s Uganda … oh, how Lennon’s lines resonate with generation after generation …

 Imagine there’s no heaven, it’s easy if you try. No hell below us, Above us only sky… Imagine there’s no countries, it isn’t hard to do. Nothing to kill or die for, and no religion too…

There is never a shortage of up-to-the-minute footage of conflicts – the world seems to produce tragedies at an alarming rate.  For many people, their religious beliefs and being part of a community helps to make sense or at least alleviate some of the fear and pain.

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A meme doing the rounds of Facebook also strikes a chord –

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Many Beliefs One Community

The Kingston Interfaith Network ‘celebrates the commonality and diversity of our spiritual communities’.

Their vision:

  • encourage understanding and respect between people of all faiths and cultures
  • affirm spiritual and religious freedom
  • work towards peace, compassion and equality within our local community

In my writing classes, we have some wonderful discussions while sharing knowledge regarding human needs, the importance of belief systems and what form these may take whether philosophical or religious.

Discussion, reflection and sharing information and experiences important for writers to understand and create characters regardless of the genre but also for citizens when we have the current Australian Parliament discussing the introduction of religious freedom legislation.

  • Since 9/11, the constant stirring of fear and misinformation about Islam looms large.
  • The Royal Commission into Abuse of Children in religious and other institutions with many still quibbling about compensation to victims has shattered the trust and appeal of several churches, especially the Catholic Church.
  • Stories about cults or gurus ripping off or abusing vulnerable people are rarely out of the news.
  • The Israel Folau controversy started a debate about freedom of speech in the context of workplace contracts and religious beliefs.

Any Interfaith Network has its work cut out!

In Kingston, the Network engages with the community by being involved in:

  • Celebrations
  • Events
  • Gatherings
  • Learning and Education
  • Community consultations and representation

I worked for the Uniting Church, Hotham Parish until daughter, Anne was born in 1986 and was fortunate to work with Rev. John Rickard who was a strong believer in ecumenicalism and social justice. A pharmacist before ‘getting the call’, he was a great boss – understanding, compassionate and down-to-earth.

I saw the church from a different perspective. Working closely with Hanover Welfare, the church raised money and provided services to people in need in the community, they also owned houses in Curzon Street and ran a kindergarten.  ‘The church’ can be a landlord, employer, business entrepreneur,  owner of private hospitals and schools. Practicalities to be dealt with that many don’t associate with theologians.

Another learning curve occurred in 2004 when I was commissioned to write the history of St Aidan’s Church and subsequently published The Little Church On The Hill for their Centenary.

The Chelsea/Carrum Anglican community influential in developing and providing youth services, fellowship groups for women, raising money for much needed social services and encouraging the arts but there were internal conflicts, debates about policies and implementation, and adapting to a world where Sunday was no longer sacrosanct.

Talking about the Christian faith my comfort zone but I still treasure a necklace made from a leather strip with the tooth of a moose blessed by an elderly Iroquois Indian when I visited their village in Montreal, Canada 1976. She wanted me to be safe on my travels.

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Westall Library Poster promoting World Book Week promoting equality and respect

World Book Day 2019

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Kingston’s World Book Day was hosted in conjunction with Kingston Council’s Interfaith Committee, established by Council to provide a conduit between Kingston Council and the faith communities within local areas to encourage open communication, interfaith dialogue and partnerships and to address the needs of the local communities.

 World Book Day theme for 2019 was Interfaith in the Libraries.  Kingston’s Interfaith Committee chose to deliver a book donations event to Kingston Libraries to further support an interfaith dialogue within the community.

Invited to write religious affiliation, I wrote Humanitarian. Nobody baulked at the label, with some attendees commenting they wished they had written that rather than nominating a religion or leaving it blank.

A warm welcome epitomised the evening with many groups taking the opportunity to display the books attached to their Faith and donate them to the library. The buzz of conversations filled the room, people browsed the books and I met acquaintances from past involvement with community groups and Mordialloc Writers’.

There were printed sheets from a variety of religious groups within the Network summarising their core beliefs, sacred texts and laws, places of worship, branches, practices and festivals, origin story, morals and ethics… in no particular order here are the sheets I picked up:

  • The International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) (aka the Hare Krishna Movement)
  • Catholic Church (Christian)
  • ECKANKAR (This means Co-worker with God -founded 1965, main temple Minnesota USA
  • Judaism
  • Baha’i Faith
  • Sufi works and practices: The Whirling Dervishes, the poetry of Rumi, the works of Ib Arabi…
  • Islam
  • Zee Cheng Khor Moral uplifting Society Inc (known as DEJIAO in Chinese)
  • Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons)

My knowledge of some of these groups minimal – and to know they worshipped in Kingston and felt welcome at the event is a testament to the religious freedom we already enjoy. (Note to Federal Government don’t fix what’s not broken!)

Fast forward to the annual bus tour I joined recently…

A Journey of Discovery

Kingston Interfaith Committee runs a bus tour once a year to places of worship to provide an opportunity for the public to learn about different faiths. Tour participants see different places of worship and ask questions in a respectful and supportive small group environment. There is no cost and a light lunch is offered by the Council.

I have been wanting to go on this tour for many years but work or other commitments meant I missed out. I was thrilled to join the 23 other participants (some followed the community bus in their own cars)  on August 7, leaving from the Council Offices at Mentone.

Guided by Elisabetta Robecchi, Community Development Officer, Social Development, we visited four places of worship.  There were people from Glen Eira and Casey communities. The only person with an outward sign of religious affiliation was a Sikh gentleman from Monash who told me most councils have these tours with some providing several a year. He had been on a few tours and generously shared his knowledge.

The places visited change each time so it wasn’t surprising to find some people had toured before, but most were first-timers like me – and what an eclectic group we were!

Elisabetta shared the two group photos taken at a mosque and Orthodox church.

We set off a bit late because of the difficulties of participants finding all-day parking – so for future reference:

  • use public transport like me, or plan ahead as to where you will park in Mentone and prepare for a walk to the meeting point!
  • Also, wear comfortable and easily divested footwear – most places you visit require removal of shoes.
  • Plus slip in a headscarf or make sure your jacket/coat has a hood for the places requiring women to cover their head.

Our itinerary:

  • Shri Shiva Vishnu Temple, Boundary Road, Carrum Downs
  • Masjid Westall, Indonesian Muslim Community Cultural Centre, Clayton South
  • Lunch at Westall Hub
  • St George Jacobite Syrian Orthodox Church, Heatherton
  • Turkish Islamic and Cultural Centre, Keysborough

Shri Shiva Vishnu Temple

Hinduism is one of the oldest surviving religions in the world, with an unbroken succession of seers and teachers. It is practised by millions of people living in the vast subcontinent of India and in many other places where Indian migrants have settled, including Australia. 

And although it is an ancient religion it continues to evolve and form new branches. Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948) represents modern India and is a religious personality who was loved throughout the world.  He preached truth and non-violence and his attempts to reform India’s religious-social tradition of caste legendary as is his fight for India’s independence from colonial rule.

You don’t need to travel to India to immerse yourself in Indian culture and learn about Hinduism.

First impressions of the Hindu temple and grounds is one of spaciousness, then lushness – the garden flowering and emerald green grass plentiful. Driving in from the road you see the Cultural Centre first, and around the corner, you release an audible gasp at the magnificence of the temple barely glimpsed from the road.

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Inside, after removing our shoes, the first thing you notice is incense thickened air. A sign requested no photos but apparently, our temple guide (a deacon) gave approval and Elisabetta shared this one she took.

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Priests were attending to devotees so I chose to switch my phone off and instead purchased a very informative book about the history of the temple and details about Hinduism, including festivals and beliefs. An incredible bargain at $5.00.

The huge area seems cavernous but there are different sections with mini enclosures holding statues of various deities. The air heavy with incense and burning charcoal and within moments I felt my eyes sting. It was obvious couples and families were worshipping with the three out of the six priests on duty.

A young couple prayed with a priest by a fertility deity (?). The priest ladled into our cupped hands, the concoction made from fruit and flowers and signalled us to drink. The nectar tasteless to me, stirring memory of drinking kava at a ceremony in Fiji. There was a small open fire like a mini BBQ but generating plenty of smoke. The fire alarm constantly beeped because of its copious smoke and from a couple of similar fires.

I had a fleeting thought of what could happen if there were sprinklers!

Our guide explained there are gods (deities) for Education, Fertility, and Birth etc. Planets match your birth sign and some gods look after you. He explained about puja or pooja, a prayer ritual performed by Hindus to one or more deities in devotional worship.

Prayers can also be offered to host and honour a guest or to spiritually celebrate an event. It may honour or celebrate the presence of a special guest, or their memories after they die. A table with baskets of fruit (oranges, apples and bananas) for $15 and a well-stocked kiosk is just inside the entrance. the deities require offerings.

A temple is a busy place with chanting in Sanskrit and the buzz of conversations plus people moving across the polished floorboards and around the perimeter where cabinets or shrines hold statues of the gods. The black, grey, or gold figures often draped with pure silk gowns and scarves.

We walked past a cabinet that appeared to have a Nazi sign scrolled on glass doors – and a member of the group asked the significance of this, which remains an important symbol in Hinduism.

The swastika represented something entirely different for thousands of years before its appropriation by the Nazi Party, and for many, it is a sacred symbol.

Versions of the design have been found in prehistoric mammoth ivory carvings, Neolithic Chinese pottery, Bronze Age stone decorations, Egyptian textiles from the Coptic Period and amid the ruins of the Ancient Greek city of Troy.

Its most enduring and spiritually significant use, however, can be seen in India, where the swastika remains an important symbol in Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism.

Despite the explanation, one of our group whispered, ‘Try going down Carlisle Street with that on your car!’ A reminder that in a multicultural society we have to be even more diligent learning about other religions and beliefs and be perceptive to differentiate when a symbol should provoke instant repulsion and condemnation and when it is used in context of worship.

The etymology of the word “swastika” can be traced to three Sanskrit roots: ‘su’ (good), ‘asti’ (exists, there is, to be) and ‘ka’ (make). That the collective meaning of these roots is effectively ‘making of goodness’ or ‘marker of goodness’ shows just how far the Nazis dragged the swastika away from its Hindu association with wellbeing, prosperity and dharmic auspiciousness.

The symbol, normally with its arms bent towards the left, is also known in Hinduism as the sathio or sauvastika. Hindus mark swastikas on thresholds, doors and the opening pages of account books – anywhere where its power to ward off misfortune might come in handy.

… it was Indian religion and culture that was the original source from which the National Socialists derived the swastika.

In Buddhism, the swastika is thought to represent the footprints of the Buddha. It takes on a liturgical function in Jainism, and in Hinduism, the clockwise symbol (the swastika as we know it, with the arms pointing right) and the counterclockwise symbol, the sauvistika, pair up to portray opposites such as light and darkness.

http://theconversation.com/how-nazis-twisted-the-swastika-into-a-symbol-of-hate-83020

The scent of flower petals mingled with fruit and incense and oils. I missed a lot of the explanations because naturally our guide spoke without amplification and my hearing is not as good as it used to be. Fortunately, the book I bought, published to celebrate a special Consecration Ceremony in April this year, is full of detail about Hinduism, the temple, the hard work and cohesion of the Indian community.

The Hindu Society of Victoria (HSV) was founded on Saraswathy pooja day in 1982 at the initiative of some Hindu migrants from Sri Lanka. Hindu migrants from India, Malaysia and other countries enthusiastically joined the Society. The topmost priority for this new gathering was to probe ways and means of realising a traditional Hindu temple. Prayer meetings were held on the last Saturday of each month at the Migrant Centre in Prahran. Poojas were performed to the pictures of deities by Sri Raman Iyer on these occasions. On 21 June 1984, this society was officially incorporated and referred to as the Hindu society of Victoria (Aust) Inc.

The HSV decided to buy a plot of land and build a temple… bought a block of land of 14.35 acres in Carrum Downs on 14 April 1985… made up of a bank loan, interest-free loans from devotees and donations. Bhoomi Poojah was performed at the site to invoke the blessings of the Almighty. Since then Thai Pongal Festival was celebrated at the site but prayer meetings continued at the Prahran Migrant Centre.

… there was a prolonged debate about the choice of deities to be installed in the temple. Eventually, the Management Committee decided to build a Shiva Vishnu temple facilitating devotees from all sects of Hinduism….

Building works started in October 1990 and Nagarajan Sthabathy and a team of 8 artisans arrived in November 1992… The Granite and Panchalokha Vigrahas and other artefacts required were crafted by well-known artisans in India. The Granite Vigrahas were sanctified by a special pooja at Kanchi Mutt.

Additional six artisans were brought from India in Jan 1994 to accelerate the temple construction… completed, with the erection of the raja Gopurams and consecration on 25 may 1997. This temple has become an inseparable part in the spiritualemancipation of the Hindus of Victoria. It has also become a must-see icon to all Hindus and non-Hindus in Australia…

Arunachalam Mahendran

Traditional Hindu temples are not just places of worship. They function as a place of learning, foster the arts and encourage social interaction. The Cultural and Heritage Centre opened on 5 May 2012, includes a wedding hall, restaurant with industrial-scale kitchen, library, Hinduism classrooms, museum and conference hall that can accommodate 200 people.

The Hinduism classes for children also offer Bhajan, Yoga and meditation for all ages. The centre hosts ceremonies on auspicious days, Hindu weddings, and a cafe open to the public, which operates six days a week.

A children’s park with playground equipment and an enclosure with peafowls and chicks as well as surrounding gardens with attractive flowers, trees, and lush foliage ensures a relaxing family-friendly environment.

The sign in the garden reads: Nature is Gods vesture. The universe is the ‘university’ for man. Do not pluck flowers treat nature with reverence.

We put on our shoes and joined the ever-patient bus driver after thanking our hosts for their welcome and farewelled the first place of worship for the day.

Shri Shiva Vishnu temple is one of the iconic Hindu temples outside the Indian subcontinent providing a spiritual and cultural legacy for future generations.

Whether you practice Hinduism or not, a visit will add to your knowledge and understanding, and appreciation of the wealth of talent immigrants bring to Australia.

Masjid Westall, Indonesian Muslim Community Cultural Centre

We travelled to Westall for our next visit to learn about Islam, a religion that has suffered the most backlash and bigotry in recent years despite Afghan cameleers being present in Australia since the early nineteenth century.

The first camel drivers arrived in Melbourne, Victoria, June 1860, when eight Muslims and Hindus arrived with the camels for the Burke and Wills expedition.

sign masjid

The word islam means ‘surrender’ and specifically implies ‘surrender to God’. A ‘muslim’ is therefore simply ‘one who surrenders’.

In the Muslim sacred text, the Qur’an, the story of Islam shares a common tradition with Judaism and a common Biblical origin when God (Allah) created the world. Chosen prophets spread the essential message of surrender to the One (Allah).

Muslims recognise all prophets including Moses and  Jesus, Rama, Krishna and Buddha but the Prophet Muhammad is the vehicle whereby the Qur’an, the final protected Word of God was revealed.

Islam is the world’s second-largest religion with over 1.8 billion followers. They make up a majority of the population in 50 countries. We mainly hear about conflict in the Middle East but devotees extend all the way from the Atlantic Ocean to the borders of China although the birthplace of this compelling faith was Arabia when it was a semi-nomadic and semi-urban civilization.

Islam is the most adhered to religion in Indonesia and in a 2010 estimate, 87.2% of the Indonesian population (225 million) identified as Muslim making Indonesia the largest Muslim population in the world.

At the Masjid Westall, we were greeted by two deacons who were generous with their knowledge and time. From the outside, the building is not imposing and doesn’t look like a mosque but once we removed our shoes and went inside the calmness and decor confirmed it was not ostentatious but a place of worship.

According to the 2016 Australian Census, the combined number of people who self-identified as Muslim in Australia, from all forms of Islam, constituted 604,200 people, or 2.6% of the total Australian population, an increase over its previous population share of 2.2% reported in the previous census 5 years…

… there are now 604,000 people who identify as Muslim in Australia. In addition, the Census reports that 1,140 of the Muslims in Australia are Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islanders.

After a welcome prayer and blessing, the deacons let us wander freely and ask questions rather than give a formal guided tour. There are 3 Indonesian mosques in Victoria, and they do keep in touch with each other and share Imams, some are students from Saudi Arabia. The mosque is Sunni, the major and orthodox branch of Islam.

Islam hasn’t escaped the fate common to other religions: sectarian divisions. There are sub-sects, but the two main branches of Islam are Sunni and the Shi’ite. They spilt over the question of the line of succession from the Prophet Muhammad.

Muslims pray 5 times a day and a digital clock has the prayer times. During the day up to 5 people will come and pray because most are working – perhaps a taxi or truck driver if nearby, maybe students and teachers from Westall Secondary next door, or others ‘just passing’.

Sundown prayers and Fridays attract the largest number with up to 50 regulars. After Christchurch, many non-Muslims visited to offer condolences and support and prayed in solidarity. The mosque provided hijabs for them but because we were only visiting and not participating we did not need to cover our head.

We all commented on how luxurious the carpet felt beneath our feet and the room was spacious even with a section for the women and children curtained off. There is a library, also a study corner and out the back a kitchen and communal area where crafts and toys are stored on shelves.

Our two gentlemen guides had set up a table with nibbles and tea and coffee – most hospitable and welcome. One deacon tried but failed to get his pictures up on his phone to show me the crowd of well-wishers who came to the mosque after the horrific events in Christchurch.

No question went unanswered and cameras worked overtime. Several people stood with the Imam’s arch in the background, others were fascinated by the displayed prayer times and mentioned seeing taxi drivers pull over to pray.

I remembered a tale of two young men…

In 2013, flying to Italy via Borneo and London, I sat between the pair. One was returning to Egypt for a holiday after being in Australia most of his life, the other, a student returning home after finishing studies at Queensland University.

The young Egyptian/Australian struggled out of his window seat to diligently adhere to the prayer times – there was a prayer mat aft, available for passengers – and throughout the flight, he read the Qur’an.

He confided in me that he had become more devout because of prejudice at work and all the things said about Muslims in the media. He felt he had to learn more about his faith (his parents and sister weren’t devout) and his origins – hence the trip “home”. He seemed unworried about the fall-out from the ‘Arab Spring’ and the ongoing sporadic violence.

The young student, returning home to his family and Muslim country didn’t bother praying and read a popular sci-fi novel in between discussing general topics ranging from history to politics and poetry. He confessed he’d love to return and work in Australia because he loved the freedom to choose his lifestyle and the climate.

I’ve often wondered what happened to these two young men – did their future turn out the way they wanted?

A little more enlightened about Masjid Westall and seeing Westall Secondary College and surrounds for the first time we set off for our lunch stop at Westall Hub – a place I’d never visited before the intergenerational project last year and one I’ve visited twice in the last four months!

I thought about the fuss in Bendigo about the building of the mosque and cultural centre and reflected on how many people would have driven or walked past Masjid Westall with no idea there is a welcome within if ever their curiosity needs satisfied.

Breaking Bread often Breaks The Ice!

Kingston Council hosted a lovely lunch at the Westall Hub providing a chance to sit and make conversation, get to know each other and share observations.

Ann, a retired accountant, introduced herself on the bus by saying, ‘I know you, I was on the Australia Day Committee that approved your Citizen of the Year Award.’

‘That was a while ago,’ I replied, ‘You have a good memory.’

We shared our interest and curiosity about the tour. Ann, a practising  Catholic was born in Lithuania; her mother could speak seven languages and because of this Ann understood Russian. Four of the people on the bus were chatting. ‘They’re speaking Russian and probably don’t realise I understand what they were saying,’ she said with a smile.

At lunch, a lady sat down beside me, ‘Do you remember me, Mairi?’

‘When I saw you, I thought you looked familiar, but I can’t place you.’

‘I’m Honey, you came to my library and ran a couple of wonderful writing workshops.’

‘Honey! Of course, that was a long time ago – how are you?’

A small world, indeed. The phrase ‘six degrees of separation’ springs to mind. Almost two decades have passed since I ran workshops at Springvale Library. I cherish the letter of appreciation from Honey and the opportunity she gave me to improve workshop skills.

I was not a ‘big name’ author yet she gave me a chance and a paid gig!

There was only one young person under 30 travelling on the bus but a Samoan family followed in their car a father with his son and daughter who could be teens or twentysomethings.

Chatting at lunch, he was pleased I’d been to Samoa. He new Aniva’s Place where I stayed. I told him about climbing Mt Vaea and paying homage to R L Stevenson’s tomb and we discussed the contribution RLS had made to Samoa, which explained why he was so revered.

He said, ‘His greatest achievement was uniting the chiefs and teaching them to negotiate and achieve independence.’ 

I mentioned how much new history I’d learned when in Samoa. I had forgotten they had been a German colony and about the peaceful surrender to the British during the war.

My great grandfather could speak German and he was an interpreter for the German/British negotiations,‘ he said and confided his Scots ancestry – family names being Crichton and Williams!

We talked a little more about Samoa and how surprised I was at the number and variety of churches in such a small place as Apia. Religion is important to Samoans and there are many rituals, including traditional Sunday feasting.

(A later discussion with his daughter and son ranged from the problem of feral dogs to their relief Folau was Tongan, not Samoan!)

Our conversation ended with a quiz – he asked, ‘What one word did Samoa give to the English language?’

The answer,  ‘Tattoo.’

My final lunchtime chat was with Dr Dinesh Sood who said, ‘I used to be a practising Hindu but now I’m a scientist,’ and a lady who used to be Russian Orthodox professed to ‘being an atheist and humanitarian‘…

I said we were an eclectic bunch.

quote about keeping faith in self

However, what I remember most about the lunch stop happened outside when I went for a walk after spying two galahs on the power lines cuddling up to each other. They looked like a heart and I thought, what a great photo opportunity.

I walked to the edge of the car park and as I aimed my camera, I heard a distressed chirrup. I looked down and a seagull sat on the nature strip with an obvious broken wing, begging for help.

What to do?

I returned to the Hub and asked at reception for help and a wonderful young woman responded immediately, ‘I’ll get a cardboard box and rescue it.’

True to her word, she sprang into action. I watched from the bus in trepidation when her initial effort to pick up the bird caused it to scurry lopsided across the busy road. Wielding her jacket, she persisted and as trucks and cars roared past, I fretted for her safety.

‘Please be careful,’ I  murmured …  miraculously, the bird and rescuer made it the other side, escaping further injury. She scooped the seagull into her jacket and returned to safety when the road was clear.

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St George Jacobite Syrian Orthodox Church, Heatherton

removing shoes

The third visit for the day introduced a completely new church to me and again the obligatory removal of shoes.

 

We were met by the priest and a warm welcoming committee. There was a powerpoint presentation, also two short talks on the history and origins of what devotees regard as the first church where the name ‘Christian’ applied.

It began in Antioch, with St Peter, after the death of Christ and surviving persecution the faithful travelled to India.

The first family practising this branch of Christianity arrive in Melbourne in 2006. Since then the number of families has reached 200 and within a decade they have raised the money to build their church and also donate thousands to charity.

(They gave $20,000 to the Kerala flood victims among other causes. A generous effort for a small congregation!)

A group of dancers performed a traditional dance of celebration about a reluctant bride being convinced the wedding is a good idea!

The costumes, music and performers a delightful treat and afterwards many took advantage of the opportunity to ask questions and join in discussions. I was fascinated by the striking curtains and altars – the furthest away can only be entered by the priest and designated elders, the smaller one is open to all.

Having St George and Jacobite in the name intrigued me – as a Scot, Jacobite referred to supporters of King James II of England or of the Stuarts claim to the throne. I know many Christian churches use different versions of the King James Bible as their sacred text but never realised one incorporated Jacobite in their name.

The mythology of St George predates Christianity and any stories I learnt as a child about his Christianity – light conquering darkness – were set in the 10th or 11th century, hence him becoming the patron saint of England. The origin story of this church interesting and proves religion is full of surprises.

Later, delicious and sumptuous afternoon tea made some of us reluctant to get back on the bus. We were farewelled with an unexpected gift and will certainly remember our visit!

Turkish Islamic and Cultural Centre, Keysborough

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Our final visit for the day was another mosque and one I’d seen from the highway many times. The imposing building flying the Australian flag and one with the symbol of Islam – the star and crescent moon.

Outside, we were warmly welcomed by a teacher from an Islamic school and several students with an open invitation to ask questions and let the students be our guides.

After removing our shoes and covering heads, we sat and listened to a welcome speech by the Imam and a young female student. The Imam’s mobile phone rang, ‘Excuse me, could be Jesus calling,‘ he said.

I love his sense of humour! In fact, laughter and smiles a significant part of the day in all the places we visited.

After the phone call, he continued with his explanation of the Five Pillars of Islam: Shahadah (Creed), Salat (Prayer), Zakay (Almsgiving), Fasting and Pilgrimage (Hajj) and a brief history of the mosque and fielded questions before inviting us on a tour.

The art and woodwork stunning inside the mosque. Most of the artisanship done locally, some imports from Turkey. The ceiling magnificent, the chandelier adorned with a Qur’anic verse in Muhammed’s favourite colour, green.

Oh, I didn’t know he was Irish,’ I quipped and my young guide laughed. She pointed out the balcony upstairs where women worship and explained the delicacy of the stencilling on the ceiling and how time-consuming the job was for the artist.

The colours, designs, placement of artefacts, windows, doors, balcony – all hold symbolic meaning. There are three places where the imam can preach depending on the number of devotees. There is a beautiful raised staircase with detailed carving and inlays.

One of the young students sang a prayer and it reminded me of being in R L Stevenson’s house in Samoa and the young guide singing a verse of his favourite hymn. Another memorable experience was being alone in the church at Hermannsburg Mission, Central Australia and Jan Cornell, the leader of the group I was with sang to test the acoustics.

The unaccompanied human voice raised in a song of praise can be truly beautiful.

Our visit coincided with one of the regular prayer times and the Imam excused himself to attend to several men waiting to pray. We sat up the back in silent contemplation.

I don’t know what the others were thinking but as I watched the prayer ritual it struck me how vulnerable these men were and how trusting. They didn’t know any of us but believed they were in a safe space just like those worshippers in Christchurch and many other places where people have been attacked.

Their trust, vulnerability, and devotion humbling.

We trooped outside for the last few photographs and the bus journey home. If there are different places on the list, I look forward to joining another tour.

No one tried to convert me and I had no epiphany, just interesting conversations and experiences to mull over and deposit in my memory bank.

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A Dickens of An Exhibition For Writers of Fashionable Fiction!

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While attending two great free workshops on aspects of Scottish history at the Prahran Mechanics’ Institute Victorian History Library last week, I picked up a flyer for another event in Stonnington – also free. (I’m prepared for the jokes about stereotypical Scot being mean!)

This is a fabulous opportunity to learn some historical background and context for many of the female characters in the classic novels of Charles Dickens and to see yet another superb collection of clothes from the Dressing Australia Museum of Costume that provided the wonderful collection of clothes and other items for Be persuaded – Jane Austen, an exhibition by Glen Eira Council in January 2019.

Fiona and Keith Baverstock use the period fashion, textiles and fashion ephemera in their collection to create a themed exhibition, which they then take on tour. The research and attention to detail and the information supplied truly awesome.

Similar to many people, I read Great Expectations, A Christmas Carol, A Tale of Two Cities and Oliver Twist while at high school. Later, I watched the many film and television adaptations of novels such as Bleak House, David Copperfield, The Mystery of Edwin Drood and Nicholas Nickelby produced by the BBC among others.

Many of Dickens’ characters and their utterances are household names. I’ve used quotes from his books in my creative writing classes, also extracts from newspaper articles because Dickens was a journalist before becoming a novelist.

Although, as one exhibit explains, he would fit right into the current complaints of  ‘fake news’ because Dickens had a dramatic streak. Always a creative writer at heart with emphasis on the ‘creative’ instead of factual reporting, he embellished stories to make them more interesting for the readers!

Charles Dickens is revered as a writer and most of the accolades are well-deserved. However, a neat summary of his life, plus many books, plays, and articles written revealing his complex personality, misbehaviour, and shabby treatment of his wife may disappoint some fans.

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First impressions of the Exhibition are of being on set preparing to make a historical film; the display of dresses stunning and cleverly grouped. The varied colours and designs catch your eye and display cases have accessories laid out as if in preparation to be donned.

You start to wander around the room and become absorbed in the stories of the women who peopled the novels of Dickens. You may be fascinated when examining the outfits and imagining their lives. What must it have been like moving around in voluminous gowns, restrictive corsetry and even more restrictive social mores and expectations?

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Sairey (Sarah) Gamp from Martin Chuzzlewit

Dickens had a talent for creating memorable caricatures – comical but also despicable. They often personified the seven deadly sins: envy, gluttony, greed, lust, pride, sloth and wrath… and introduced words from the vernacular that became common usage.

Sarah Gamp exemplified greed, selfishness and as a drunken nurse/midwife displayed a callous disregard for others. She was ‘ a potent weapon in the campaign against untrained, incompetent nurses. It took a Florence Nightingale to fully expose and sweep aside the armies of Sarah Gamps.’

 

The 1840s gown with evidence of wear and tear is slate-coloured striped taffeta. She presided over so many deaths so wears a mourning apron and black, crepe trimmed taffeta mourning cape and her ‘gamp’ (umbrella).

The image of Mrs Gamp’s ‘gig’ umbrella clutched to her person wherever she went, or displayed ‘with particular ostentation’ against the chimney breast of her bird-sized apartment above the bird fancier’s shop in Holborn so resonated with readers that ‘gamp’ became synonymous with umbrella, just as ‘Sarah Gamp’ became synonymous with a slovenly, inebriated ‘nurse’.

A gig was a light carriage with two wheels pulled by a single horse. In the latter part of the 19th century, it was deemed suitable for ladies to drive around their estates or into the village.

... ‘the lady would need a nifty weapon to beat off any ne’er-do-wells with the temerity to approach, and when stepping down she would need a handy little parasol. The gold cap comes off the sycamore case, the parasol slides out and screws neatly into the gold tip on the other end, Voila, protection from the sun or rain.’

There was nothing dainty or lady-like about Sarah Gamp. She would have driven a cart and her ‘gamp’ a heavy umbrella.

Catherine Dickens – the discarded wife

It was the actress Miriam Margoyles portraying Catherine Dickens in her play Dickens’ Women based on or inspired by 23 different characters in the novels by Dickens that made me think more deeply about how women were portrayed by the great storyteller.

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One reviewer said the production highlighted Dickens’ “obsession with youthful beauty and his baffling relationships with his sister-in-law”.

The detailed notes along with the chosen gown for Dickens’ wife are not complimentary to the man and emphasise how unfair the legal, as well as the social system,  was regarding the treatment of women.

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Reading about Catherine and looking at the dresses on display you can’t help but notice the tiny waists, the design drawing attention to the breasts and of course, being the era of gloves and hats, there was a dress code or expectation a lady had accessories.

  • How long did it take to get dressed?
  • How complicated were the designs to maintain – especially considering the material used?
  • And in an era of women producing baby after baby, how unsuitable were those clothes for pregnancy, breastfeeding and caring for children, let alone housework.

My paternal grandmother was married in 1900, the clothes hadn’t changed that much from the years before and the family story is that she fainted twice on her wedding day as her sister pulled the corset strings tight enough to ensure she had the obligatory 18-inch waist to fit her wedding dress!

Nancy in Oliver Twist, a ‘fallen woman’

Dickens never used the term prostitute or sex worker in his novel but readers are under no illusion about Nancy and her friend Bet described:

“They wore a good deal of hair, not very neatly turned up behind, and were rather untidy about the shoes and stockings. They were not exactly pretty, perhaps; but they had a great deal of colour in their faces, and looked quite stout and healthy. being remarkably free and easy with their manners, Oliver thought them to be very nice girls indeed. Which there is no doubt they were.”

I read Oliver Twist when I was fifteen and stark images of Victorian England and the appalling living standards of the poor in cities like London remain with me. Dickens

… knew how to hold an audience. The themes in his novels did, however, challenge the accepted beliefs of the day. Oliver Twist shines a light into the dark underbelly of life in the cities like London, confronting the comfortable complacent with the relationship between poverty and crime, revealing the iniquity and inequity of the Poor Laws and the Workhouse system – and its inept and corrupt officials.”

I can remember hoping that Nancy, who showed kindness to Oliver, would somehow be miraculously transformed and freed from the seedy clutches of Bill Sykes, but deep down knew her shockingly violent death was inevitable.

The ruched and frilled dress with elaborate cording, tight waist, laced back and revealing cleavage was chosen because the silky style would have appealed to Nancy, even if she would have preferred a more striking colour. This dress was ‘Perkins Purple’ and faded over time to mauve and then pearly grey.

In my imagination, Nancy would have worn feathers in her bonnet and always had a shawl!

Miss Havisham – who can forget a woman scorned?

There have been many adaptations of Great Expectations and it remains one of Dickens’ more popular novelsAgain he takes on the establishment, the ‘haves’ and emphasises the divide between the rich and poor.

The powerful regard poverty as a crime and use prison to punish those who ‘have not’. The story of a young man overcoming obstacles to achieve success another of his recurring themes.

But it is the jilted, embittered, and wealthy Miss Havisham living in a ruined mansion with her adopted daughter Estella, who fascinates and intrigues readers and leaves a lasting impression. She still wears her wedding dress as if frozen in time.

Twenty minutes to nine was the moment the letter arrived revealing the calumny of her fiance. There she was in her wedding gown, the wedding breakfast and adornments laid out in readiness, one satin slipper still to don. And there she remained. Since then, the wedding breakfast, the decorations, the room have been weighed down by dust and cobwebs, have been nibbled by decay and vermin till the house itself is crumbling. The fraudster Compeyson took her future and her fortune (although obviously not all of it) and might as well have taken her life.

Her revenge is Estella, whom she has fashioned into a weapon to destroy men and the hapless Pip is the whetstone on which Estella is to hone her skills…

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The addendum to “Expectations unfulfilled – Miss Havisham” states that

Dickens has trouble with consistency when he sets his novels in an earlier era. This is certainly evident with the ages and setting of Great Expectations. We’ve chosen to place Miss Havisham’s wedding in the early 1800s and have dressed her in a distressed, disintegrating Regency style gown.’

All of the costumes are original 19th-century outfits and so the ‘distressed’ signs are natural. Dressing Australia’s disclaimer that they’ve chosen what they think fits/suits each character rather than adhering strictly to the publication date of the novels, although many of the costumes coincide nicely.

Oliver Twist was published in 1837, but Nancy’s gown is from a later decade. It was chosen to represent the ‘tart with a heart‘ and Nancy’s notion of what is ladylike. Estella’s exquisite gown is from the late 1850s when Dickens was writing Great Expectations, published in 1860, although the story was set in an earlier era.

Madame Defarge – Knitting while heads rolled

Madame Defarge in A Tale of Two Cities, a novel set in the time of the French Revolution is the embittered wife of a wine shop owner who owed his status and business to her revolutionary fervour.

She enjoyed knitting the names of the aristocrats she plotted to send to the guillotine and while weaving their names into Liberty Caps sat and watched their heads roll off the beheading machine.

Acknowledged as a leader of the Tricoteuse Movement, which evolved from the Market Women heroines who marched on Versailles and became ‘too uncontrollable and troublesome, and barred from the gallery of the National Convention and from political assemblies’ she proves to be devious and brutal even if her vengeful crusade facilitated by The Reign of Terror is justified.

Madame Defarge’s sister and unborn child, brother, brother-in-law and father were all killed by Darnay’s uncle, assisted by his father.


The green shot silk gown is ‘somewhat distressed’ polonaised over a black quilted satin petticoat. The Liberty Cap is pinned with a rosette and a rose. (Madame Defarge popped a rose in her cap warning that ‘outsiders’ were nearby and it was not safe for revolutionaries or the Tricoteuse to speak.)

Confronting the Ghosts of Christmas

A Christmas Carol probably ranks as one of the most read of Dickens’ novels along with Oliver Twist and Great Expectations. If not read, most English speaking people will still have heard of Scrooge or know what it means to call someone a scrooge!

A Christmas Carol sold out the minute it hit the bookstands in 1843 and has remained a favourite ever since. It has the feel-good factor – goodness triumphs over the mean and mean-spirited, adversity can be overcome, redemption is possible…

A man without conscience is not confronted by his own humanity, yet that is precisely what the Ghost of Christmas Past does to Scrooge. Look at how you used to be. Look at how others used to view you. Look at how you felt when facing rejection. Look at the beginnings of your loss of innocence when you chose greed over love.

A man entirely without compassion cares not when confronted by disturbing images of the distress of others, a man without imagination does not see what he might be missing. Yet that is precisely what the Ghost of Christmas Present shows Scrooge.

A man who is impervious to the consequences of his actions, who cares not that he has alienated all who might care for him, who does not mind a lonely, uncelebrated life and death will take no notice of the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come. And yet Scrooge does.

He has confronted his ghosts, is redeemed and regains his humanity and compassion.

The exhibition’s vision of the three ghosts as women enabled an interesting choice of costumes:

  • Christmas Past represented by a distressed Regency gown – a style from Scrooge’s youth
  • Christmas Present represented by a brown moire two-piece gown – a style from Scrooge’s present.
  • Christmas Yet to Come represented by a brown stripe taffeta gown of 1869 – a style yet to come.

There are so many characters from other novels with their stories summarised and the reasons for the choice of garments explained – please catch the exhibition before it closes.

Stand and ponder how these women lived – imagine riding in a carriage beside them, walking down a crowded London street navigating flower sellers, spruikers, beggars, even chimney sweeps… attending a dress fitting, visiting for high tea, soliciting, waiting for an errant husband or an abandoned lover, knitting while aristocrats lost their heads or haunting mean-spirited men!

Pity the poor seamstresses

Whenever I read about the world of Dickens and see the clothes of the era, the textiles, antiquated machinery, and the appalling factory conditions I am amazed at the complicated patterns, intricate beading and buttons, and delicate embroidery on the gowns, shawls and hats.

How resilient and talented must those tailors and seamstresses have been and yet we know workers in the clothing trades historically and even in current times are consistently some of the most abused, underpaid and exploited.

In much more modern times, my Aunt Chrissie was a tailoress in Scotland and eventually owned her own sewing school when she migrated to Australia. My older sister, Cate inherited Chrissie’s gift for sewing, crochet, knitting, embroidery… all handicrafts and I’ve written about her talent and her award-winning quilting.

One night, watching my sister sit and sew by a bedside lamp I was inspired to write a villanelle…

A Stitch in Time
Mairi Neil (2014)

She sits sewing by dim lamplight
embroidered threads by her side
contented, happy, eyes shining bright.

In the stillness of evening light
needle and thread silently glide,
as she sits sewing by pale moonlight.

Cross stitches pattern small and tight
new techniques taken in her stride
contented, happy, eyes shining bright.

Her creativity in wondrous flight
imagination flows like the tide
as she sits sewing by candlelight.

Machines embraced despite Luddites
mass production becomes her guide
contentment gone, eyes no longer bright

History records seamstresses’ plight
workers stripped of all but pride
many still struggle in shadowed light
exploited, sad, eyes no longer bright.

It was standard practice for women to learn how to sew and for those who did not have to work or scrabble for their living, sitting doing crochet, cross-stitch and embroidery of Bible texts, the alphabet or seasonal motifs considered a genteel pastime.

The exhibition has a lot of interesting historical detail and invaluable research for any would-be writer. Information about waves of migrants bringing new skills, new technology and techniques and of course, fashion fads. Wonderful background fillers that may even inspire short stories or novels.

Stitched with Love

“The first printed patterns for stitching woolwork on canvas were produced in Berlin in the first half of the 19th century. The craft, which became known as Berlin woolwork was promoted at the Great exhibition of 1851 in London just as the middle classes were expanding and more women had the leisure to stitch, and just as new chemical dyes produced never before imagined colours.

Some of the most popular designs were for slipper vamps and uppers. Some, like these, were never attached and have survived for us to admire. A favourite dog stitched with love.”

 

 

Celebrating NAIDOC – Voice, Treaty, and Truth long overdue

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Image from the official Naidoc site https://www.naidoc.org.au/get-involved/2019-theme

Warning: Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander people are advised this post may contain names and images of deceased people.

I couldn’t let this week pass without celebrating NAIDOC, especially since the message is such an important one for all Australians to heed.

We invite you to walk with us in a movement of the Australian people for a better future. The Indigenous voice of this country is over 65,000 plus years old.

They are the first words spoken on this continent. Languages that passed down lore, culture and knowledge for over millennia. They are precious to our nation.

It’s that Indigenous voice that includes know-how, practices, skills and innovations – found in a wide variety of contexts, such as agricultural, scientific, technical, ecological and medicinal fields, as well as biodiversity-related knowledge.  They are words connecting us to country, an understanding of country and of a people who are the oldest continuing culture on the planet.

And with 2019 being celebrated as the United Nations International Year of Indigenous Languages, it’s time for our knowledge to be heard through our voice.

For generations, we have sought recognition of our unique place in Australian history and society today. We need to be the architects of our lives and futures.

For generations, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have looked for significant and lasting change.

Voice. Treaty. Truth. were three key elements to the reforms set out in the Uluru Statement from the Heart. These reforms represent the unified position of First Nations Australians.

https://www.naidoc.org.au/get-involved/2019-theme

 

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map of Aboriginal Australia and the different ‘countries’, First Australians Gallery, National Museum Canberra

Unfortunately, because of circumstances beyond my control, I haven’t attended any events this year as in the past, but as I continue to organise the house in preparation for full retirement, I unearthed newspaper clippings and articles on various subjects, that I kept for research or out of interest.

Revisiting this treasure trove stirred a lot of memories of connection with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples since my university days and involvement in the first Aboriginal Embassy, 1972.

I’ve spent several days of reflection thinking about what I’d write today.

It’s sobering to remember that it was only in 1975 that the one-day acknowledgement of National Aborigines Day became a week-long celebration with diverse activities to acknowledge our past, examine our present and hopefully look toward a better future.

Whose Voice?

Among the pile of paper, I must decide to scan or throw out, there are many book reviews, opinion pieces and essays written by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders as well as academic or investigative reports by non-indigenous writers.

However, the realisation that there has been some progress made is tempered by the current Federal Government’s reluctance to consider a true voice in parliament for First Australians and its outright rejection of the Uluru Statement from the Heart.

Broaden Your Knowledge About Australia and Its History/Herstory

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Aboriginal language map

This is also the International Year of Indigenous Languages – a United Nations observance in 2019 with aims to raise awareness of the consequences of the endangerment of Indigenous languages across the world and to establish a link between language, development, peace, and reconciliation.

The traditional owners of Melbourne are people from the Kulin Nation, with surrounding groups including the Woiworung and Boonwurrung (the Mordialloc traditional owners) and you can learn some words here.

Please check out two blogs I follow for reviews of the work of current indigenous authors and plenty of other interesting information: Lisa Hill’s ANZ LitLovers LitBlog and Bill Holloway’s the Australian Legend.

Last year, I visited Canberra and the National Museum, which has some great exhibitions as a starting point for those seeking knowledge and understanding:

empathy, not sympathy; acceptance not tolerance.

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At the entrance of the National Museum is a magnificent set of sculptures of the Bogong Moth, acknowledging the cultural traditions of the Aboriginal peoples who lived in the ACT prior to the European invasion and settlement.

 

 

What do our First People mean by Country?

Almost every public ceremony at all levels of government now includes a ‘welcome to country’.  If you wonder why or don’t know how to explain it to visitors, an explanation follows.

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Country’ is more than just the name of a place. When used by the Aboriginal people it is about a connection to all aspects of the land; landscape, ecology, spirituality, seasonal rhythms, people and culture.

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a wall capturing the thoughts of Aboriginal visitors

 

 

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For most of us, everything we read about our First People is either white/colonial/European perceptions of Aborigines or Aboriginal perceptions of themselves.

To read Aboriginal writing allows Aborigines to speak for themselves and state their view of Australian history.

In 2019, there is a wealth of Aboriginal writing to choose from including poets, creative writers, non-fiction and academia.

Albeit almost two decades ago, in his book, Writing from the Fringe: A Study of Modern Aboriginal Literature, Hyland House, Melbourne 1990, Mudrooroo Narogin divides Aboriginal history into five periods:

  1. From the Beginning to 1788: the time of the dreaming, before the coming of the Europeans.
  2. The Time of the Invasion(s): Aboriginal culture is threatened and is forced to adapt.
  3. The Utter Conquering of the Aboriginal Peoples: many of the old ways of communication are destroyed or drastically changed.
  4. The Colonial Period: outright oppression gives way to paternalism, then to assimilation.
  5. The Period of Self-Determination: dating from the Referendum in 1967 and the Whitlam government in the early 1970s – still continuing…

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Evidence of early Aboriginal habitation of the continent includes bones uncovered at Lake Mungo in south-eastern Australia and the sites of volcanoes, such as those at Tower Hill, near Melbourne.

The oldest continuing culture in the world dates back 50,000 – 60,000 years depending on what archaeological discoveries you choose to focus on.

What we know now is that Aborigines comprised many language groups, each with their own country. They created a network of overland commerce, developed ingenious ways of finding water and food in deserts, were expert trappers and fishers, skilled herbalists and farmers with a hundred different plant foods to supplement a diet of meat, fish, eggs and insects.

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Colonial Invasion Without a Treaty

From the late 18th century, British and other Europeans arrived on the shores of this continent, some willingly, others with no or little choice: – officers, soldiers and sailors of the Crown, convicted felons, free men and women searching for economic opportunity and a new life or fresh start.

They built towns on Aboriginal land tended and shaped over thousands of years and so began the Frontier Wars and decades of conflict over the sovereignty of the land.

There never was a treaty or proper recompense for the shameful land theft but hopefully, this will be rectified soon. At least the State of Victoria is working towards a treaty.

Aboriginal writers of note during the 1960s and 70s argued for Aboriginal land rights and self-determination. People like Oodgeroo Noonuccal (Kath Walker) and Kevin Gilbert brought an Aboriginal voice to wider audiences. Both of these wonderful poets died in 1993 – a tragic loss to Australian writing.

Truth Telling

A newspaper clipping I have from The Sunday Herald, August 20, 1989, has a story by Brett Wright titled, Our Forgotten War. This challenges the lie that Aborigines didn’t fight for their country or were always the victims.

” John Lovett, Aboriginal Advisor and former elder of the  Kerrupjmara clan, surveys the stony ruins of a lost culture.

“This is one here,’ he says, standing in a ring of weathered rocks, barely discernible in a volcanic landscape strewn with boulders. Further afield, at the edge of a drained swamp known as Lake Gorrie, are the remains of stone fish traps, used to catch eels when the lake flooded.

Historians say the ruin is almost certainly the base camp of a group of Aboriginal guerrilla fighters who fought the squatters in the black version of Vietnam: the Eumeralla War of the 1840s.

Records show the resistance to white settlement was intense and bloody in Victoria’s Western District. The 1838-39 drought left the Aboriginals short of food and water, and they were forced to drive off the squatters.

In 1842, two clan leaders, Tarerarer and Tyoore, nicknamed Cocknose and Jupiter, led attacks on stations around Eumeralla River, near Macarthur. They attacked shepherds and took their sheep for food.

The Eumeralla War had begun. An unknown number of lives were lost on both sides, as the attack led to fierce reprisals by the settlers. One of the raiding parties from the Nillangundidji tribe numbered 150.

“The tactics used were very similar to those used by the Viet Cong in the Vietnam War,” Mr Lovett said.

… concentrating their attacks on settlers who had taken up land around sacred sites, the Lake Gorrie guerrillas were very successful… the campaign continued for two years until native police killed Jupiter and Cocknose. With the leaders gone, the resistance movement faded.

“What we were fighting for was to survive, to maintain and keep our traditional areas,” said Mr Lovett …(who) believe sites such as Lake Gorrie should be recognised. “It’s relevant for white and black people to know the history of Australia.’

Fast forward 20 years and a lot more truth about how the invasion and settlement of Australia played out debunks peddled myths that the Aborigines didn’t fight for their land or try and repel the invaders.

For more on Eumeralla and other Victorian sites of massacres and conflict check out this website on Australia’s Frontier Wars.

Wikipedia has more information specifically on Eumeralla and an article from The Sydney Morning Herald, August 10, 2013, A Forgotten war, A Haunted Land.

Perhaps the greatest lie that I was taught at school regarding Aborigines was that there were no Aborigines left in Tasmania after Trugannini died. The National Museum has a fantastic exhibition detailing the cultural heritage of the Tasmanian First People.

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There are many stories showing the diversity and richness of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and the most compelling are those of resistance, resilience, cultural adaptation, creativity and leadership.

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Yarning Circle

There is a lot to take in when you walk through the galleries devoted to Australian history and culture and so it’s a relief to sit and rest in a special place designed to help you relax, reflect, and yarn. And yes, you can recharge your mobile phone, if like mine the battery is low because the camera worked overtime!

 

 

Yarning circles and gathering circles are important places. They are where stories and knowledge can be shared in a caring environment that’s relaxed and comfortable. With our bodies, we include ourselves in the listening and learning that is being gifted.

Nancy Bamaga, Thabu/Samu

We could do with yarning circles in every home and community.

 

 

Do You Have a Sentimental Yearning To Tell Stories About The Past?

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On Thursday evening, July 4th, my friend Jillian came with me to a fabulous event in the annual Glen Eira Storytelling Festival.

Not only was the event free but they put on a cuppa and delicious choice of biscuits if you turned up before starting time and plenty of us did that!

I no longer work at Godfrey Street in Bentleigh where I used to encourage my students to enter the writing competitions (and in past years a couple got guernseys!) however, my Facebook feed alerts me to Glen Eira Council posts.

They have some great events – the last one I attended was all about fashion of the Regency Period and Jane Austen.

For anyone writing recent family history (Jillian) or stories about or based on their own life (me), Thursday’s event was a great shortcut for historical detail, reminders of what Melbourne’s suburbs used to be like and a way to generate ideas to turn your life into interesting fact or fiction with specific research done by people passionate about the past and with an established following for their writing.

Nostalgia and the ‘Burbs

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Libbi Gorr with Eamon Donnelly, David Wadelton and Aron Lewin

Award-winning television and radio broadcaster, Libbi Gorr hosted a panel of contemporary artists and authors with research, websites, and books devoted to cultural observations of our changing suburbs.

Libbi, currently, on ABC Radio Melbourne Weekends was known as Elle McFeast in the 90s. 

Lisbeth Joanne “Libbi” Gorr is an Australian broadcaster working in both TV and radio. Gorr is also an author, voice artist, writer and performer. She first came to prominence with the satirical television character that she created called “Elle McFeast”.

 Wikipedia

With her comedic skills to the fore, Libbi introduced herself by saying she looked up the meaning of Libbi and it was a wallflower, so she chose Elle because in the 90s the model and magazine was associated with long legs and great tits.

She explained that if you wanted to know her job on ABC Radio Melbourne think of her as the Waheed Ali of the weekend except she has a Jewish background, or Miranda Kerr after a feed and Oprah on Crack…

She was a young Jewish girl growing up in Murrumbena, a suburb ‘not quite Caulfield’. Her father originally, from Shepparton but his family escaped the pogroms of Russia. Her grandfather came to Australia at the same time as the Myer family but he worked on the Snowy Hydro scheme.

Sidney Myer’s family got the Sidney Myer Bowl, her father got a fruit bowl – Shepparton.

Libbi’s mother born in Caulfield – a pharmacist like her mother – ‘two generations of druggies’. Her father owned a petrol station, Gorr Automotive so Libbi said, ‘she could sniff cocaine or petrol’…

Libbi’s introduction, placing herself as a local with a connection to place important for the ‘home crowd’ – and it was a crowd – in excess of 100 people packed the room. Not a bad turn out for a winter’s evening.

 

 

The blurb on the invite about ‘burbs said:

As corner milk bars disappear, video stores shut their doors and quirky suburban houses and landscapes give way to gentrification, a group of writers, photographers and artists have set about capturing the quirks and nostalgia of our changing suburban landscapes.

Join us for an evening of cultural observations from the ‘burbs, trips done memory lane and some musings on the very strange phenomenon we call nostalgia.

Why is Nostalgia important?

Before Libbi introduced the panel she mused that Carl Jung answered that question when he studied how childhood experiences are cemented as unconscious memories connecting us to our past.

Our unconscious is the part of the mind containing memories and impulses of which we may not even be aware.

Jung talked about ‘collective unconscious’, a term to represent a form of the unconscious common to mankind as a whole and originating in the inherited structure of the brain.

We all have experienced premonitions – a sense that we know who is on the phone before it rings and we pick it up. We all have had deja vu, that feeling we’ve been somewhere before…

Jungians, almost by definition, tend to get enthused anytime something previously hidden reveals itself when whatever’s been underground finally makes it to the surface.

Carl Jung founded the field of analytical psychology and, along with Sigmund Freud, was responsible for popularizing the idea that a person’s interior life merited not just attention but dedicated exploration — a notion that has since propelled tens of millions of people into psychotherapy.

… Jung, over time, came to see the psyche as an inherently more spiritual and fluid place, an ocean that could be fished for enlightenment and healing.

Whether or not he would have wanted it this way, Jung — who regarded himself as a scientist — is today remembered more as a countercultural icon, a proponent of spirituality outside religion and the ultimate champion of dreamers and seekers everywhere, which has earned him both posthumous respect and posthumous ridicule.

Jung’s ideas laid the foundation for the widely used Myers-Briggs personality test and influenced the creation of Alcoholics Anonymous. His central tenets — the existence of a collective unconscious and the power of archetypes — have seeped into the larger domain of New Age thinking while remaining more at the fringes of mainstream psychology.

The Holy Grail of The Unconscious, Sara Corbett, The New York Times, 16/9/2009

Nostalgia is a sense that connects and cements us all and Libbi wanted the panel and the audience to consider what we get in a community when we share it or live it…

speakers being intriduced Frankston milkbar
Jessie Scott, Eamon Donnelly, David Wadelton, Aron Lewin and Libbi Gorr

The Panel

Jessie Scott, video artist and author of The Coburg Plan. Jessie is doing her PhD – the subject, video stores. She has researched many, interviewed owners and customers.

Eamon Donnelly, artist, photographer and author of The Milk Bars Book. Born in Geelong, the family moved to Melbourne. He began to take photos of places/shops. Many are now defunct and others are disappearing fast. He spent 15 years documenting change before publishing his first softcover book. A cultural artisan, his hardback book was on sale for the evening.

David Wadelton, a contemporary artist, photographer and author of soon to be published, Suburban Baroque.

 Aron Lewin, journalist/writer – recording football and real estate, chronicling progression of Melbourne shops, a Real Estate reporter. He set up the Tales of Bricks And Mortar website https://talesofbrickandmortar.com/author/alewin1/ after collecting stories about longstanding shops, restaurants and cafes across Melbourne.

Projected in the background were slides taken by the panel and whenever a familiar shop appeared, a murmur of recognition rippled through the audience.

I nudged Jillian when a picture came up of a milk bar in Edithvale and one in Seaford – several of my students have mentioned these shops in their stories.

Edithvale milkbar in background

David Wadelton – Documenting Transition

Abandoned shops, shops replaced with apartments, empty blocks… places symbolising change and loss all interest David. Change over time affects not just buildings when factories are replaced by apartments, shops on a local strip disappear or are replaced by a shopping centre…

He was fascinated by how different postwar migrant housing was compared to traditional Aussie houses. Old weatherboard home extensions added a top storey of brick to make houses look more European. The decor and colour schemes inside were soft furnishings and souvenirs from ‘the old country’.

He has photographed milk bars, newsagents, fish and chip shops… Lightbox signs: ‘sweets and smokes’ in Footscray; an adult ‘newsboy’ in Northcote,  small Barbershops in business 50+ years with souvenirs of their European homeland and their adopted homeland on the walls and counters.

He has a picture of Thornbury Espresso slide, Hattams clothes shop still with a sign ‘we take bankcard’…

David has a following and audience on Flicker, Instagram, and Google’s YouTube – he has made the transition from traditional print to digital.

speakers david and Aaron

While David was talking I thought about the milkbar that used to be at the end of Albert Street Mordialloc before several adjacent shops were demolished and turned into an ugly block of flats.

Several people tried to make a go of the business, impacted by an expanded Safeway supermarket and a new Jewels Supermarket built in Main Street. An elderly couple ran the milkbar in 1984 when John and I moved into Albert Street.

It was not long before they retired and it was bought by a man who owned another shop in Warren Road. He installed his son and a mate to run the shop before a retired army officer, originally from Wales became the last manager.

Albert Street changed dramatically in the early 90s – a petrol station/garage demolished for a nursing home, washing machine repair shop transformed into a hairdressing salon and the milk bar and mini hardware shop demolished for a block of flats. Several stand-alone houses made way for units.

Aron Lewin – Writing Poems About People and Places

Aron saw a picket fence shop and wondered who would start a shop like that, how long would it last – and it inspired a poem about why and how… and he got an idea for a website.

He went to interview the owners but they were not interested. However,  from there he looked at other small business owners in the area, shops in a strip – proprietors all knew each other with most shops around 40 and 50 years. In fact, the owners were local identities.

He focused on ones that stayed in the same place for years because he wanted to capture their stories before businesses closed and disappeared as they will…

He was fascinated by what motivated these business owners, why did they choose their particular trade/product/lifestyle? What were their challenges, successes, failures? How did they see themselves in relation to the community?

He took photos with his mobile, then teamed with a proper photographer. He aimed to interview ten people but now has fifty stories!

From a small beginning, his enthusiasm and passion to record the stories and details of old shops across Melbourne propelled and grew into a big project. It’s all about connections and relationships with a local community – stories about the butcher, the baker, the barber… recorded before the people and places disappear.

A slide of Franks Bakery, Elsternwick flashed onto the screen eliciting lots of noises of recognition from the audience and Libbi. 

‘Aw, Frank, lovely man – been there forever.’

Aron said, ‘ I saw a sign couple of days ago. It’s closing.’

‘Oh, no!’ gasped Libbi, ‘is this true? Does anyone know?’ she asked the audience.

There were murmurings and Libbi googled to check if there was anything on the Bakery website – as did others on the panel and in the audience!

are they googling the Elsternwick bakery closure?
everyone checking Google?

Jessie Scott – Extracting meaning From Unloved & Neglected Sites

A video artist/photographer, Jessie’s PhD is about Video Stores. She grew up in Moonee Ponds and the western suburbs. So many small places are disappearing, the renowned Olympic Donut place is gone and street after street subjected to gentrification with the real estate boom.

At university, she rediscovered video shops when she was studying video art and did an assignment, her Miraculous Ribbon Project. Slides of Colac Video and Network Video shops that existed then but those stores are either closed and empty or gone now.

No longer the  ‘Home Entertainment Experts’.

A Video Ezy shop was her local store. She got a text message to say it was closing and having a ‘fire sale’. That moment was when she realised how painful nostalgia felt because part of her childhood disappeared when that store closed.

People congregated to discuss, gossip, share news in the video stores. Staff would point out good movies – there’d be discussions, it was a social and family place.

Video Stores were often the first point of contact with a broader culture for people.  Nowadays with the explosion of the Internet, there is access to whatever you want but when she was growing up it was a family outing to choose your entertainment for the weekend.

Jessie’s talk reminded me of the two video shops we had in Mordialloc. Most of the time, John took the girls to choose their movies – $5 for the latest release (if they were lucky), or more likely a selection of the weekly $2 ones. (I’m talking ’90s.)

Captain Beaky’s store was their favourite and the owner nicknamed the girls ‘the horror queens’ because they loved hiring the latest horror movies – Buffy the Vampire Slayer popular!

The man in the other store on the opposite side of Main Street was nice and friendly too. Just as well because when we returned from a holiday once, the friend looking after our house and dog forgot to return the videos and left them where Goldie decided to treat them as toys she disliked.

When I offered to pay for replacements, the Video guy just laughed and said not to bother because accidents happen. Obviously, a dog lover or no one else had our taste in videos.

speakers Jesse and Eamon

Eamon Donnelly – The Milkbar Man

He was born 1981 in Geelong, his happy memories as a child are of copper coins in his back pocket as he rode his bike or walked to the milkbar to buy some lollies or ice cream.

His favourite milkbar run by the Hawkings Family.

Milkbars had colour, warmth, sounds and smells – sweet aromas – lollies, ice creams, and the owners knew everyone. They also sold cigarettes and often newspapers.

He is nostalgic for the 1980s. In the 1990s, his parents sold their renovated home and moved to Melbourne suburbia. Their new suburb did not have nearby milkbar but a golf club as a substitute.

Eamon went to university and studied graphic design and art. He returned to Geelong to take photos of his old family home and didn’t recognise the area: the family home altered, several milk bars gone – some had old signage left, others the building vanished.

He started to record Geelong first, then Melbourne – so many small businesses closing but iconic brands and typography remembered by lots of people.

Milkbars made milkshakes and spiders – many also provided school lunches being a nearby tuck shop (one even called the milkbar that).

He got a story in The Age about his first book – a soft cover book. Jenny, the daughter of one of the milkbar owners – the Hawkings – Googled him and got in touch. She loved the photographs and they corresponded.

He experienced a ‘Full Circle Moment’ – he was invited to meet the family and the Hawkings remembered the Donnellys. They met and had dinner and reminisced and discovered so many incidents were their life or the life of family members and friends crossed.

Eamon started to interview families because lots of people got in touch after the first book came out and he saw the need to save their stories.

David listening to audience member

Audience Response confirmed we love to indulge in Nostalgia

A young woman introduced herself as Phyllis.  She grew up in a milkbar and her father is in Eamon’s book.

She got emotional and apologised. Her dad passed away two years ago so the book is a treasure, ‘ I come from a Greek background, Dad was Greek.’

Libbi asked how she managed not to gorge on lollies and Phyllis laughed. ‘Dad was Greek, he said, if you steal lollies, I’ll cut your hands off, and I believed him!’

Phyllis then went on to say how much she admired her father and others like him who had little or no English when they arrived in Australia yet still ran a business.

How did they do it? Her father couldn’t speak enough English to learn or remember customer’s names but called them by descriptions like ‘giraffe lady’ (a woman who was really tall). He remembered customers that way.

She believes the milkbar building is still there in Elsternwick but now an Indian restaurant or perhaps a dodgy hamburger place!

Eamon remembered Phyllis’s dad and said there is a beautiful black and white photo of him behind the counter in his shop. He remembered how he was always smiling when he greeted customers.

A man in the audience shared a story too.

His uncle had a milkbar in Swanston Street in Melbourne city just before Bourke Street. It was a cafe too and ‘served Aussie tucker: bacon and eggs and chips.’

He used to help his uncle during holidays by selling toffee apples.

His parents had a milkbar in Huntingdale Road near Huntingdale Railway Station and in the 1960s, it was one of the busiest milkbars in Melbourne.

He ran the milkbar at 15 years old because his father got ill. They made sandwiches for nearby factories which proliferated at that time in Huntingdale. They opened from 6am – 10 pm but got a sleep-in at weekends and opened at 8.00am.

Because of some quirk in the law, they couldn’t sell groceries after 5.00pm but bribed the inspectors.  They’d board up shop and after the inspection open up again. The inspectors went away with a carton of cigarettes or large salami sausage or something similar. They also sold sly grog – brandy – an inherited side of the business from previous owners.

He remembered they sold sanitary pads, which were wrapped in brown paper in those days. Ladies would come into the shop and ask to be served by his mother. She would come and duly serve them but yell to him, ‘Get a packet of pads for the lady.’ 

Local shops provided entertainment, produce and local news!

David has been chronicling architecture of the 70s 80s 90s. Other buildings, as well as shops and milkbars, fascinated by their nostalgic and iconic status. 

His focus on the broader conspicuous change – they were on every street corner, they personify and represent change on a broader scale – no room for family businesses anymore.

Regarding the houses of migrants of that era with taste-defying interiors, garish colour schemes, eccentricity and clash of ideas – this is vanishing. Everything homogenised today, everything the same – colour schemes beige and shades of beige!

We are seeing a homogenising of culture, tastes have radically changed. He is just documenting but sees so much slipping away. His mission to record a way of life vaporising before our own eyes.

What contributes to the change?

  • Employment laws have an impact:

Contracts, transient and casual employees, staff constantly changing in franchise stores like 7/11 so no attachment to customers, no special relationship like with milkbars and small family businesses.

  • No sentimentality with 7/11 and similar franchises

Convenience stores have prepackaged mixed lollies – no choosing your own,’ one of these, two of them…’ The signage generic, the atmosphere different.

You remember the place and the people in a family business, you are cemented to it even if an employee.

You chat and value the conversations, reflect on relationships that extend beyond the shop – perhaps go to school with children, attend the same church… the shop an extension of that community.

EXHI021708.jpg
one of David’s photographs, National Gallery exhibition

Do relationships stay in the shop or do they exist and extend beyond that boundary?

Eamon said the Hawking Family became friends and a connection developed with the project but people do get displaced.

Jessie said one of the video store owners she interviewed was so well-liked by his customers that some volunteered to keep the store open while he went out cleaning to earn enough to keep the store afloat. 

Unfortunately, the store eventually had to close. Many people say they regret stores closing and miss them after they have gone but don’t patronise them to keep them viable.

Another audience member volunteered her story. She lived and worked in a local shopping strip and most of the business owners were Holocaust survivors and WW2 migrants.

They frequented shops where they could be understood, where people spoke their language and knew their culture – Jewish shops, Romanian, Polish, Scottish.

Everyone knew each other – it was a community for new migrants.

She worked in a milkbar in Malvern in the 70s, so did her sisters.  The downside was she couldn’t ‘buy cigs on the sly’ because they knew her parents.

She recalled how milkbars were referred to by their stock: a Peter’s milkbar, a Streets’ milkbar even one referred to as the weird guy you wouldn’t visit – especially on your own!

It was a night for confessions.

A man in the audience said he attended Mt Scopus College and with the help of milkbar in Armadale, he started a profitable enterprise.

He and his mates bought lollies at one price and then sold them for an inflated price from his school locker. He raised money for bands like Sky Hooks to visit and play at lunchtime concerts at school. Chocolate buttons and snakes were the most popular lollies!

When Libbi asked did Netflix and other digital technology kill video and going to the movies there was a muted response.

A man suggested that it is a change in culture and we are distancing ourselves from our neighbours so don’t blame technology because we take it up – it is a choice.

Years ago, on hot nights people sat in front gardens or on verandahs and talked to each other. Pre-television they went for walks and talked to each other.

Fences have become increasingly higher built between properties. First tall fences then security gates, even on unremarkable houses that would not be immediate targets for thieves.

A woman said that times may be changing again because of rules in some of the new estates in places like Pakenham, no front fences are allowed and side fences must be a certain height. Different councils have different rules.

Libbi asked:

DO YOU KNOW YOUR NEIGHBOURS?

Sadly, many people don’t know their neighbours citing new development, ageing and the movement and shifting of the population as reasons.

A woman who grew up behind a fruit shop said someone should do a story on the demise and change of fruit shops.

Libbi asked if she was a Cincotta and the woman said, yes. Her family owned businesses in East Malvern, Murrumbeena and Hughesdale.

Fruit shops have been absorbed into supermarkets and the trade absorbed by multi-nationals and the changing trends like organic fruit and vegetables – all big business nowadays.

ceramic art piece
Transformations 1992 by Julie Begg – ceramic art in foyer Glen Eira town hall

Has Cafe Culture replaced the Milkbar’s Role?

There is a strong cafe culture today and it is a parallel culture to the old milkbars with regular customers. The cafes are often on street corners, many developed from converted milk bars.

They are a modern social hub. For example, in Northcote, the milkbar on the corner is now a cafe – it’s about loyalty.

An Inkerman Street milkbar taken over by a cafe. They kept the name and signage, use old fashioned china crockery – a contributor to future nostalgia.

In milkbars, relationships were built and they were a meeting place for people in the neighbourhood – many cafes fulfil a similar role – providing familiarity and friendship.

ailsa oconner's sculpture
“Ourselves when young” bronze by Ailsa O’Connor  in foyer Glen Eira Town Hall

Glen Eira Town Hall

The evening had to end but people were reluctant to leave and as Libbi thanked the panels and organisers she pointed out how important a community hub is to keep the spirit of community alive and to help people belong and feel part of a place.

These events Glen Eira put on don’t cost a lot, you feel comfortable, you’ve been with people and interacted in a meaningful way,  and because it is local there is little or no travelling time…

We were all given a paper bag of mixed lollies on the way out … the reminiscing, the discussion, the relaxing warmth …

The evening proved we do yearn to share stories of the past and Nostalgia and the ‘Burbs a great success!

Well done Glen Eira Council!

If you have a story of a milk bar or other local business please share it – I have a list of stories I can write or add detail to ones already written to include milkbars:

  • I tasted my first Choc Wedge at a milk bar in Croydon 1962
  • My first trip alone on a bicycle was to the local milk bar in Croydon 1963

 

 

Mr Bailey’s Minder -a play about growing old disgracefully, being disgracefully old… and something much deeper!

noticeboard for play

On Saturday, I went to the matinee session of the Mordialloc Theatre Company’s latest play at the Shirley Burke Theatre, Parkdale.

My theatre buddy, Lisa cancelled because of ill-health but I am glad I didn’t let that or the wintry weather, which caused sudden and severe squalls, to convince me to stay at home in the warmth – although it was tempting!

Now I’m ‘retired’ it is easier to stay at home, especially in winter and by the demographics I’ve observed who support the MTC and the smattering of empty seats on Saturday, the cold weather and perhaps the lethargy of age took its toll, which is a pity.

The play was enjoyable, the ambience in the theatre welcoming, and you get free coffee/tea and biscuits at the interval.

In fact, if so inclined you can buy a glass of wine or sherry before the play starts. Saturday definitely, chilly so I’m not surprised many people took that option.

See this play and support your local theatre

Mr Bailey’s Minder is on until the end of the week!

theatre ticket

Of the three productions I’ve seen this year, this definitely gets a thumbs up from me and considering the response of the audience, others also agree.

  • Maybe it is because this is the first one this year by an Australian playwright and so the actors didn’t have fake American or Canadian accents.
  • Maybe it’s because I can relate more to the themes which are not only current and relevant but emotionally engaging.
  • Maybe it’s because of the actors – apart from a bit of nervousness at the beginning, their interactions were believable and entertaining.

This is the promo blurb:


blurb for play

However, discussing the play at the interval with one of the volunteers another lady joined the conversation and when I said the subject matter was interesting and topical she said, ‘Ah yes, elder abuse.’

A reflection perhaps because we are in the middle of a Royal Commission into how we treat people in Aged Care and there are stories galore about abuse in the media.

But Mr Bailey’s Minder is much more than a story about someone growing old and being mistreated or fearing mistreatment.

All the major characters in the play have fears and emotional scars – not just Mr Bailey.

We are all ageing or know someone who is and if we live long enough must face declining health and death.

We all have or will have a life to reflect on with good and bad decisions, successful or unsuccessful relationships, haunting memories of the warm glow kind or filled with regret.

Many of us have had experience with someone in the family coping with alcoholism and/or dementia and family estrangement is common too.

The play mines a rich field of life experiences.

Therese, as the title suggests, is the ‘Minder’ or carer, and frequently, takes centre stage. Her story, one of a need to belong and be valued – and to value herself – a contrast to Leo’s life of celebrity status where being a ‘famous artist’ resulted in Leo overvaluing himself! (as others did too!)

scenes from play 2

Leo Bailey (Eric Hayes) is a drunken ‘has-been’ artist suffering from decades of alcohol abuse and self-indulgent misbehaviour. He’s offended, hurt or neglected friends, several ex-wives and all but one of his children. His past is confronting – what he can remember of it, or how he remembers it, which varies depending on his mood or awareness.

Now he is facing death – and he is astute enough to know it will probably be alone.  He must also cope with the realisation that he’s lost some of his artistic abilities yet boasts how valuable his signature still is – even on a blank piece of paper (be intrigued).

Only his daughter, Margo (Juliet Hayday) continues to visit him and manage his affairs, despite being subjected to a barrage of abuse every time she steps into Leo’s home.

Margo has remained dutiful although she can’t escape the bitterness of unhappy memories of childhood spoilt by her celebrity father’s behaviour.

In the opening scene, the much-maligned Margo meets Therese (Julia Landberg), a young woman desperate for work and the latest in a long list of Leo Bailey’s minders.

We learn how ill Leo is, about his obnoxious behaviour, plus how dementia has heightened his disagreeableness.

Margo who works in investment banking does not ‘pull any punches’ regarding her father. In fact, she repeats the well-worn cliches –

  • Old people abandoned in nursing homes must look no further than their own past behaviour.
  • Abusive drunks reveal their true self – it’s never just the drink talking.
  • Adults must take responsibility for their behaviour whether they’re a celebrity or not

Therese, cagey about her past, is worried Margo will check her references. She doesn’t expect to get the job, yet in her desperation behaves alternately, belligerent and defensive. She is feisty and a survivor.

Leo comes downstairs, he is at his alcohol-sodden best, insulting Margo and Therese and accusing them of wanting to take his home and independence.

Disagreeable is an understatement.

(Interestingly, “Leo’s” lines or actions alternated between outrageous, wily astuteness and downright insulting, but a group in the audience loudly appreciated Eric’s performance – indicative that the actor who is a Life member of MTC has a following!)

The final major player to add to the emotionally scarred cast appears later.

Karl (Aaron Townley) a tradie who comes to remove a mural and repair a wall. His life is as difficult and broken as the others. He’s paying off a debt caused by an ex-business partner and recovering from a marriage breakdown caused by same debt.

Needy and lonely,  Karl continues to visit to do odd jobs after establishing a friendship with Leo and Therese who manages to get her charge to give up drinking and begin to make amends to those he has mistreated by writing letters of apology. They even start going out and visiting parks and museums.

Of course, there are sub-plots and a minor character (also played by Aaron) who will make your blood boil and an all-important twist that good drama provides.

The necessary conflict to keep an audience interested is delivered – with a couple of realistic physical scenes, which had me worried because Eric wasn’t using make-up to age!

Each character also revealed an inner conflict through actions or dialogue at some stage.

theatre program

The Playwright, Debra Oswald. 

Wikipedia tells us that Debra Oswald is a screenwriter, playwright and fiction author. She was the co-creator and head writer for series 1-5 of the award-winning Channel Ten series Offspring

Mr Bailey’s Minder and The Peach Season both premiered at Griffin Theatre Company. Mr Bailey’s Minder toured nationally in 2006 and premiered in the United States in 2008 at The Walnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia. 

When it was first released, a review said, the play

grapples with how much latitude we’re prepared to give artists we consider to be blessed with some kind of genius. It also explores the separate journeys of three individuals committed to creating a place where they can belong.

The play may also promote discussion about past behaviour and caring for ageing parents whether they were celebrities or not.

The worship of celebrity, of course, seems to have intensified in recent years. A prime example is in the acting profession where TV creates celebrities frequently, with actors who study the craft and perform on stage often overlooked or not given the recognition, they may deserve.

In this social media age celebrities flourish, however, in the future they may pay the price for their behaviour much earlier or burn out quicker.

The publicity social media gives that makes it easier to make celebrity status, also makes it easier to punish or shatter a celebrity. And with the Internet – everything is on record whether it has been edited, doctored, embellished, made up…

Plus we have an ageing population. Debra’s play will remain topical and relevant for some time.

Stagecraft and Set Design

scene from play 1

The set design and construction depicting Bailey’s disintegrating home above Sydney Harbour is eye-catching and memorable. Martin Gibbs, the Director and set designer is to be congratulated.

The various scene changes facilitated seamlessly by three exits – a door through to a kitchenette, the ‘front’ door and a staircase that led to the bedrooms and much-mentioned bathroom. The music accompanying each scene change setting the relevant mood and the lighting used to great effect to signal the passing of time and a new day.

So, add a bit of spice or emotional angst to your day and catch a session of Mr Bailey’s Minder you won’t be disappointed and it will do what all good art does – make you confront various aspects of the human condition – especially your own.

PS

A note of caution – if like me, you have experienced a loved one whose personality changed because of dementia, ageing, or a combination of both, or have experienced family estrangement, make sure you have a tissue in your pocket… you never know what triggers an emotional moment… this play just might hit the spot.

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A National Writing Day Motivates the Muse

mordi beach 2016.jpg

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 …

shoes for chronic pain

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…

sunset

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?

newspaper clipping.jpeg

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’s 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
and 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

download.jpg

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!

winter trees.jpg

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.

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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!