A Poet’s Response To The News

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When I describe myself as a poet, I know there will be plenty of critics and purists to suggest what I produce is not poetry, others may say it is not ‘good’ poetry.

However, creative writing is subjective, as is taste and opinion,  so I’m sticking with the label poet, defined in The New Penguin Compact Dictionary as ‘a very imaginative or sensitive person with considerable powers of expression.’

Over the years, learning and teaching a variety of poetic forms, I have built up an armoury of words to express myself, and anyone who knows me well will testify to my imagination and sensitivity – especially when it concerns social justice.

So, poet, I am.

I love poetry – because often you can be succinct and make a point with immediate impact about political or social justice issues.

Reactions can be swift and merciless, but at least it’s a reaction and often starts a much-needed conversation about important social issues.

I do miss my classes for those discussions and the input of wonderful writers with a range of views and life experiences.

Write a Poem You Say (A Triolet)
Mairi Neil

Writing poems not for the faint-hearted
Words, technique, emotions expected
Whether for the living or dear departed
Writing poems not for the faint-hearted
Sometimes it’s hard just to get started
Brain, heart and hand not connected
Writing poems not for the faint-hearted
Words, technique, emotions expected

The 24 Hour News Cycle

When I was teaching writing, I often used to write a poem at the beginning of the lesson during Splurge – the first 15-20 minutes of writing time set aside to respond to a prompt or write whatever you want a la stream of consciousness.

Many times whatever was in the newspapers or other media occupied my thoughts – like a random comment made by a high profile public figure, on the public purse, who quite frankly should have kept his out-dated thoughts to himself:

#Me Too Movement 2018
Mairi Neil

Oh, my darling daughters, come listen to me, please
There’s sad news to relate –
the way you dress is a tease
Don’t you know that males can’t control their desire –
a hint of breast or thigh sets their genitals on fire?
No matter that you are children, or entering teenage
Men find you sexually attractive and may attack in rage
How you package your body –  if you dress attractively
Makes you responsible for men’s out-of-control sexuality!

’Tis sad, darling daughters evolution cannot work
exposure to feminism hasn’t made ‘man’ less of a jerk
Some men remain Neanderthal, think women are prizes,
slaves to breed – willing or unwilling –
just somewhere to plant their precious seed!
Countless ages pass, yet progress is oh, so slow
appendages, goods & chattels, sirens, servants,
maiden, wench, slut… terms many women know.

This the 21st century, intelligence and commonsense demands
social justice and equity with or without wedding bands.
Coupling, coming together, sex must always be consensual,
pleasurable and engaging – with behaviour respectful.
Sex, regardless of gender, is about a caring relationship
Not control or violence left over from Stone Age hubris!

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At the moment, we have a Royal Commission into Aged Care happening in South Australia. For many who have experienced the aged care system in Australia, some of the most horrifying revelations will not be a surprise, and the testimony may trigger memories they’d rather forget.

My Dad suffered dementia and was in care for several years and as a family, we can reflect on what was good and what was bad. One brother and one sister bore the brunt of many of the crises and complaints, but all of us learnt to be alert and watchful to ensure Dad was treated with respect and care.

During their late high school and university studies, both my daughters worked part-time in the kitchen of a local aged care centre. Although considered ‘one of the better ones’, it has changed hands several times and in certain aspects needs to improve.

Monday, November 9 (A Triolet)
Mairi Neil

The ambulance left with flashing light
With palpitating heart my emotions roam
As memory stirred of the terrible night
The ambulance left with flashing light
Resuscitation an unforgettable sight
Dad alone and prone, in nursing home
The ambulance left with flashing light
With palpitating heart my emotions roam

I was privileged to have a poem about Dad’s journey published in the anthology,  Memory Weaving, supported by Manningham Council’s Community Grant Program in 2014, and a story in Stolen Moments, 2006, edited by Elizabeth Bezant and Pamela J Eaves and promoted by Alzheimer’s Australia WA, Ltd and Sue Pieters-Hawke, the daughter and carer for much-loved Hazel Hawke, who never ceased to be an advocate for improved aged care resources.

Stories and poems written from the heart can be a great barometer about what is right and what is wrong in the community. Will those with the power to change be prepared to listen and make a difference?

Will the outcome of this Royal Commission provoke the same outrage and promises to accept and act on recommendations as the Banking Royal Commission?

Stolen Years
Mairi Neil

Clovelly Cottage sounds so benign
Perhaps a cottage by the sea
Or among wild mountain thyme…
This was where my Dad ended his days
Trapped in dementia’s memory haze.
A nursing home, no more, or less
Not the worst, but not the best.

Dad’s home for seven long years,
And although a reasonable place,
Most regular visits ended in tears.
Dementia is ‘the carer’s disease’,
Family relationships often a tease.
I was Dad’s sister, long since dead
Other days, a landlady, stingy with bread.

I’d search his face and dark brown eyes
Seeking the beloved Dad I knew
And sometimes, he surprised …
A brilliant smile and ‘hello’ to greet mine
‘How are you?’ followed, ‘I’m just fine!
I shouldn’t be here, take me home today.’
Then the fog of uncertainty carried him away.

For residents to live, and not just exist
Depends on staff and activities
People to cooperate, and not resist.
Many attempts did brighten Dad’s day
Food treats, excursions, music to play.
And when his speech slowly disappeared
His response to songs alleviated some fears.

I accepted the smells of talcum and urine,
The last meal’s clinging aroma
Strong disinfectants, disguising most sins.
I accepted Dad watching Days of our Lives
Forgetting my mother, assuming other wives.
I accepted Dad staring blankly at wall or door
Drooping slack-jawed, even dribbling on floor.

But I’ll never accept all those stolen years
Of a much-loved father and Papa ––
What could have been, still causes tears.
Dad’s ‘episode’ with dementia only part
Of the wonderful man within my heart.
He lived until he was eighty-three
Leaving plenty of positive memories for me!

Pressing Political Issues

Most Australians will be aware that a Federal Election is looming and there are some issues where the major political parties differ starkly in what they see as the problems the country is facing, and the solutions they are proposing.

I hope the majority of voters will think carefully and seek as much information as they can before casting their vote. An informed choice is always better than relying on headlines, adverts and click-bait.

Distraught Democracy (A Triolet)
Mairi Neil

Democracy requires some thought
The right to vote so dearly won.
Truth and Integrity can’t be bought
Democracy requires some thought
Election promises with lies fraught
Politicians desperately seek the sun
Democracy requires some thought
The right to vote so dearly won!

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The recent vote about evacuating refugees on Manus and Nauru islands for medical reasons an example of serious misrepresentation by those who seek to demonise asylum seekers and hope for a return to the horrible campaign of ‘Stop The Boats’ and other three-word slogans that almost stopped compassion and decency as being a motivation for government policy. Our Prime Minister and others should be ashamed to stoop so low again.

Election 2016
Mairi Neil

Australians are having a vote
Malcolm and Bill both want a moat
People smugglers to shatter
‘Cos Refugees don’t matter
We’ve stopped the boats they gloat.

Turn A Blind Eye
(A Villanelle)
Mairi Neil

They float like pieces of flotsam
Fear and desperation in their eyes
Praying for the sea to calm

She hoped for God’s large palm
Would He hear desperate cries,
From floating pieces of flotsam?

The water flooded like a burst dam
Boats upended amid gasps and sighs
They prayed for the sea to calm

A boat crowded like a peak hour tram
Women and children with frightened eyes
Now floating like pieces of flotsam

A rescue boat throws some ties
Refugees human in the Captain’s eyes
No more floating pieces of flotsam
Or praying for the sea to calm.

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Operation Sovereign Borders
Mairi Neil
(a found poem from Refugee Week leaflet)

Refugees and asylum seekers
wanting safety
protection
a new life
cross stormy waters
with courage
seeking justice
and a welcome
from Australian society ––
young and old.

Amazing personal stories
of darkness,
bribery,
corruption
challenges faced
uprisings survived…
Prisoners of conscience
student leaders
from Afghanistan and Burma
seeking resettlement
and freedom
seeking to celebrate and contribute.

Their hopes crushed
basic human rights violated
harsh lessons in cruelty
as the innocent
are locked up.

In limbo
on Nauru and Manus Islands
detention not freedom ––
Why?

We can do better
Stand up, Speak up
Refugees and Asylum Seekers
Welcome here!

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Business As usual in Australia
(A Found Poem)
Mairi Neil

Stunned scientists
Moved into new roles
Unrelated to their specialty
Australia, the nation driest on Earth
Shifts in rainfall but global research community
Disabled

Young climate scientists without direction
The situation depressing
Climate capability gone
Climate modelling cut

This is not about just Australia
Readings of CO2 from Mauna Loa, Hawaii, and Barrow, Alaska
Confirmation of humanity’s dominion
Over the climate.
It is mind-boggling
Grim
Australia is ground zero for climate change
1,000 positions eliminated,
Science easily commercialised

CSIRO’s management
Focus on commercially viable projects
Climate change now settled science
Basic research no longer needed

Paris last year certain
Humans are altering the planet
But Australia’s government
Isn’t serious about climate change
Business comes first!

(Words found in ‘Australia Cuts 110 Climate Scientist Jobs’, an article in Scientific American By Gayathri Vaidyanathan, ClimateWire on February 8, 2016)

Tasmania’s Beauty
Mairi Neil

Save the wilderness
from logging
Ancient trees Earth’s lungs.

Lake and hills
Reflecting pool of the future
Wilderness or resort?

Bush On Fire
Mairi Neil

The sun is dulled by a veil of cloud
Animals culled, Mother Nature a shroud
This defeated giver of life so dear
Now dried up river, its power unclear

A red threat creeping, gathering power
Creatures weeping, air rancid and sour
It dances with glee destroying obstacles with ease
Devours blade and bush, its direction a tease

Whipped and encouraged by angry wind’s collusion
The fiery menace plundered with no delusion
The sun’s conscience exploded, the cloud revealed worth
Only life-saving rain saved the scorched earth.

Haiku – Mairi Neil

Frog or toad – who knows?
No croaking from pond or lake
dooms civilisation

In a soapy swirl
of polluted waterways
purple the colour of hope

Flash Floods Not Fiction (A Haibun)
Mairi Neil

City streets awash
El Nino’s temper unleashed
Climate Change ignored

NSW, Queensland and Tasmania storm-blasted. Flooding horrendous. Cars submerged in streets, people drowned or missing. A man fishing from his balcony excites social media when the lake thirty metres from his home visits – and stays. New residents in ground level apartments, shops, and public buildings.

All life disrupted
reptiles infest the buildings
as rivers burst banks

Doctors warn of waterborne disease and the risk of bites from creatures otherwise unseen. Funnel Web spiders flushed inside, pets swept outside.

Winds howl, puff and huff
roofs wrenched from buildings and sheds
squalls strength abnormal

Storms unknown in most people’s lifetime. Sea swells surging over jetties, boats, and homes, with tsunami intent but not its reach. Was it really like this a century ago? Record keeping not an exact science.

Angry seas pummel
rocks and aged roots shaken loose
the clifftops shudder

Countryside recovering from summer bushfires, firestorms, and drought. Life sucked from weary soil, then too much water.

Fragile soil stolen
farmers tears match the deluge
Nature’s balance gone

Doomsayers shake their heads. Sacked scientists despair at self-serving politicians, the population seek soothing before resigned and resilient acceptance. Adaptation anyone?

Our planet’s life finite
Earth will return to stardust
Creation’s downside

A Wake-Up Call
Mairi Neil

The people of Longreach
Appeal to fellow Australians
You’ve forgotten us they cry
The rain has stopped
Not seen for years
The grass all withered and dry.

The people of Longreach
Appeal to fellow Australians
Do you know what it’s like here?
Drought has destroyed
Our way of life
The community we hold so dear.

The people of Longreach
Appeal to fellow Australians
Climate Change must be faced
This parched land
No longer produces
Bore water has poison laced

The people of Longreach
Are silent and so sad
Heads bowed at funeral pyre
People, cattle, farms
Now dust to dust
Their history erased by fire

The people of Longreach
Not the only community to die
The driest continent
Will shrivel and shrink
Global warming is making us fry!

So there it is folks – a poet’s response to events in the media from sexism to political gaming on refugees and aged care, to climate change and fire, flood and drought…

The Speech a PM Should Make in 2019
Mairi Neil

Men and women of Australia
And those who identify as other
There is no time to waste
You must listen to our Mother

Mother Earth, I’m referring to
The mountains, snows, and sea
The seasons, soil, and sunlight
Providing sustenance for you and me

But Mother Earth is terminally ill
Man has definitely not been kind
We’ve raped, polluted and poisoned
For wealth we craved to find

Addicted to manufactured comfort
We’ve gouged mountains into craters
Safe harbours are now wharves
To accommodate gigantic freighters.

Explosions altered landscapes
Concrete towers replacing trees
Animals hunted to extinction
Polar ice caps no longer freeze.

Climate change is not a phrase
But reality for the natural world
Global warming’s rising tides
Cities consumed as tsunamis twirl

Leaving disasters in their wake
Human structures or nature’s design
Mother Earth almost beyond healing
Unless permanent solutions we find

Climate deniers knuckle draggers
As are those mouthing ‘innovation’
Drought, bushfires, failed crops
The word should be desperation!

The time for procrastination gone
Also the sand for burying your head
Earth’s lungs struggle daily to breathe
How long before humanity is dead?

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school children strike for their future The Times, UK

Do Border Controls and Building Barriers Quarantine Our Humanity?

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Backpacker Statue, Irkutsk Russia

Passports, Visas, Customs Declarations and Border Control all part of travelling overseas today. I’ve had my fair share of good and bad experiences to write about, and they replay like a home movie as the media focus on Trump’s demand for a wall, and Australia is in the hot seat for disregarding human rights whenever it comes to homeland security and asylum seekers.

Every day the News triggers memories or provides prompts to put those elusive words on the blank page – but how to make them meaningful, interesting or thought-provoking is a different matter.

How to give readers a ‘takeaway’ to inspire, enlighten, encourage thoughts and emotional engagement – maybe even travel or share stories themselves?

I can but try – and if it becomes another ramble I hope you enjoy the photographs…

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Panoramic view of Irkutsk Railway Station

When I revisit my travel diary of travelling in Mongolia and Russia in 2017, I recall a host of other places and compare the experiences.

I admit to having lived a lucky and sheltered life regarding travel, holding a British and Australian passport, I’ve never been refused entry to a country I’ve wanted to visit – even if obtaining a visa to certain countries has been long and/or an expensive process.

It’s interesting to reflect in the context of today’s world, as well as the past, and realise  how privileged I’ve been and still am because of the citizenship and passport held, and having the finances to travel – even if most of it done on the cliched ‘smell of an oily rag’.

Anyone who has been to Russia will tell you, the visa process is lengthy and complicated so I left acquiring a Russian visa to Heidi, a magnificent asset to Flower Travel, the company I used to plan the trip of a lifetime on the Trans Siberian Train.

The five days in Mongolia and 18 days in Russia fulfilling what I wanted: to meet the locals, experience their culture, traverse the land visiting historical sites, museums, art and craft galleries and stay in a variety of accommodation: a Mongolian ger camp, hostels, homestays, hotels and of course the train.

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Supplying a current photo to their exact specifications the most difficult part of the procedure with the young woman at the local chemist spending a long time and many takes before her cross-checking on the Embassy’s website assured accuracy.

However, even after meticulous filling out of forms, when I opened the registered parcel and checked the passport details as advised,  I panicked, anxiety levels sky-rocketing.

Due to leave in a week my hands shook as I rang Heidi:

‘I’ve received my passport…’

‘Wonderful,’

‘But there’s a mistake, it’s the wrong name.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘Along the bottom, there’s a strip of white with a barcode and some Russian letters and the name is Margaret instead of Mary.’

‘Oh, don’t worry about that, I don’t think the typists they have at the Embassy are too careful – in my passport at that spot they have Helga.’

‘Helga, instead of Heidi? ‘

“Yep.’

‘Yet I had to supply all the places I’ve ever studied and the name of the manager in my last job, even if it was years ago and he may be dead!’

‘That’s right, but you are all set to go, trust me.’

I did trust Heidi because she had just returned from travelling the Trans Siberian and had organised a detailed and exciting itinerary for me as a solo traveller over 60 and generously shared insider tips.

I looked forward to a 25-day trip from Ulaanbaatar to Helsinki within my budget with the major difference compared to years ago being technology.  I used Facebook as well as Messenger to record a lot of the trip and to keep in touch with my daughters.

Social media cops a lot of criticism but it was a godsend for me when travelling – especially since the video chats were free as long as I had access to Wifi.

When a bomb exploded in the subway in St. Petersburg on April 3, 2017 and I was due to travel to Russia on April 5th my daughters were understandably worried.

It was a suicide bombing carried out by Akbarjon Jalilov, a 22-year-old Kyrgyz-born ethnic Uzbek and naturalized Russian citizen. He was among the 16 dead.

In the weeks after the bombing, authorities arrested 11 people in St. Petersburg and Moscow on suspicion of involvement in the attack. They were from Central Asian countries and the Investigative Committee later said the bombing, which injured about 50 people, was the work of “a radical Islamist terrorist community” but did not name any group. No organization claimed responsibility.

It meant the military and security were more obvious during the period I travelled and it reminded me of Northern Ireland in the 70s when I visited relatives in Belfast and Dromore.

Random acts of violence by disgruntled citizens, rebels, and zealots of various religious or ethnic persuasion are the reason most governments use to increase their security and tighten their borders, whether this actually deters or stops fanatics is debatable.

Messages Between MJ and me, April 2017

Missed video call at 3.58pm 

Only one bar of Wifi

All good, just happy you’re safe and arrived alright!!!

I’m going to have a shower will keep trying for a video chat then I’m going for a walk before dark. Will try again – what time is it there? Don’t want to wake you up too early, or miss you if going out.

Don’t stress! Go out and explore!! We are fine, just wanted to check in and see how your flight was xoxoxo It is 4.05pm here on Saturday. What time is it there xoxo

I think it’s 1.51 in afternoon – China is 3 hours behind and Mongolia is 2.

That’s good. We are at Southland. Just finishing shopping then heading home…

Flight was better than expected although not much sleep. Security a bit of a nightmare and confusion but thank goodness I didn’t have drama like some. Pretty used to it all now. My protheses caused issues at Melbourne with new machine that body scans. Young man embarrassed when I explained anomaly and asked a female to body search me. Thank God, China and Mongolia don’t have that super dooper tech yet!

Sorry it was an issue but glad you okay. Xoxox

I’m tired but okay. Eyes aching because of lack of sleep, pollution etc. but otherwise honky dory xoxox

Missed video call 5.55pm

Hey Mum, Anne told me about Russia! Scary! So glad you are safe and okay. I’m about to leave for work but if you need to talk or anything I’ll be home in 4 hours. Xoxoxo Love you!!! Xoxoxo

I’m fine darling. I nearly rang last night, not about Russia, but because that meal I bought to thank my guides decided to erupt inside me. Several pairs of knickers later and a stomach sore from vomiting, I went to bed and slept right through until Anne messaged me. So unless the terrorists make me eat, I think I’ll survive! As explained to Anne, please don’t worry if you don’t hear from me for a couple of days because communist countries tend to be heavy-booted. I expect travel delays. I will definitely be in touch when I can. Xxx

That sucks being sick, hopefully it clears up soon. But yes, we won’t panic (we will still worry since that is just what we do!) but just let us know when you can. Love you xoxo

Will do. Yes, who would have thought my last night in Mongolia would be giving their plumbing a workout and me washing pants. But glad it hit me here and not on the train. I’ll stick to cups of soup that I brought and dried crackers so won’t starve. xx Love you heaps. Hope work goes well.

Facebook Post April 4, 2017

Heading for the train station to go to Irkutsk. A last walk around the city and a few observations. Its holidays and lovely to see young boys having great fun in the park throwing an empty plastic bottle over a wooden rail as if playing volleyball. The little buildings used as refreshment places and shops are popular. Why is a bald man leaving the hairdressers grinning? Hope the young girl selling fresh strawberries at the traffic lights makes a quid. The man selling seeds and beans from the back of his van multi-skilled as he pierces a woman’s ears! Mary & Martha named their shop because of the Bible! Two soldiers are noticeable at parliament building probably because of news from St Petersburg. Old nomadic couple sitting sipping fermented milk with an open tin box for donations and a set of scales – interesting way to find your weight. Memorial to the Beatles a surprise but not the manic traffic. No wonder they have restrictions to travel. Most cars are secondhand Japanese or Korean and you can only drive on the days your number plate allows – even businesses. No exemptions. Near the hotel, I paused outside the national school of music and soaked in a beautiful song. Farewell Mongolia and thank you.

 

Oceans, seas, rivers or lakes, mountain ranges and forests are geographical features that form natural borders, but for centuries, usually after wars and invasions, borders have been man-made and their upkeep a military exercise. Imaginary lines or outposts mutually agreed or imposed to keep people in and most importantly, others out.

Building barriers not new.

In Roman times, Hadrian’s Wall was built with the aim of keeping marauding Scots out of Roman England, the Great Wall of China was ostensibly erected to keep out the Mongols,  and plenty of walled cities developed in Europe and around the world.

Border control means measures adopted by a country to regulate and monitor its borders. … It regulates the entry and exit of people, animals and goods … and in modern times it aims to stop terrorism and detect the movement of criminals across borders.

However, to defend these arbitrary borders takes time and effort, money and resources and in the case of modern-day barriers like The Berlin Wall, the Korean Demilitarized Zone, the Israeli Gaza security barrier and West Bank wall, and the current US/Mexican wall – countless lives have been lost to protect the integrity of something entirely made-up by political rulers at a particular point in history.

Governments have always regarded the ability to determine who enters or remains in their territories as a key test of their sovereignty, especially after conflicts like World War I where the winners rewarded allies with lands – actions that caused resentment and many of the problems today.

I can remember how much John Lennon’s Imagine resonated with my generation as the Vietnam War raged – the first war to be televised – so many of us desired his dream, consistently dismissed as ‘unimaginable’ and utopian.

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I’d been warned by Heidi, that the train is thoroughly searched before leaving Mongolia and then a few metres over the border, it is the Russian authorities turn.

‘The record delay is 13 hours,’ Heidi said, ‘but I don’t think you’ll suffer that horror.  However, be prepared.’

“My old Girl Guide motto,’ I said, assuring Heidi I’d have a good book, crossword puzzles, snacks, and most of all patience in my luggage. I’ll need the latter, I thought, as images of Murder On The Orient Express and several other movies about trains stuck out in the middle of nowhere flashed through my mind.

Five fast-paced, amazing days in Mongolia ground to a halt as our train and its occupants stuttered over the border to spend three hours being inspected by grim-faced and sharp-tongued Mongolian and Russian authorities,  doing ‘their duty’. 

Now would be the testing time – will the contradiction in my passport matter, are Margaret and Mary considered so similar in Russia? Fear began to gnaw at my stomach…

I know it was a customs/border security check and rarely in any country, in my experience, are the personnel conducting the checks super friendly but there is a difference between curtness and courtesy.

Facebook Post April 5, 2017

Left Mongolia and after a very long journey and overnight on the train, I have arrived at my homestay with Olga in Irkutsk. The border a nightmare that lasted several hours. Mongolian and Russian border security competing to see who can out-Nazi each other. I was relatively unscathed because a tourist but locals had bags searched while being cross-questioned. Door slamming, luggage compartments grunting and groaning, cardboard boxes ripped open and lots of yelling and some arguing. Soldiers with sniffer dogs, torches, scanners for retina checks – the works.

Eugene, my guide for the next few days, warned me there will be lots of passport checks but hopefully no more wholesale custom crap. I was adopted by a lovely lady, Nara, on the train grateful I let her and husband use my adaptor to charge their phones. Amazing what you can learn from sharing family photos on your phone and sign language. The journey through Siberia alongside Lake Baikal stunning, a sensory overload even though heaps of snow and now as I sit in Olga’s comfortable home listening to the snow melt outside my window and the joyous sound of children playing ,I’m gradually losing the rhythm of the train and the creaking and groaning of the swaying carriages, the growling hum of the diesels wheels against the rails. A group of teenagers are having a snowball fight – takes me back to my childhood in Scotland!

The fastidiousness of the border guards understandable due to the explosion in St Petersburg underground but I was grateful for the friendliness of some of the passengers aboard the train and the beauty of the scenery as we sped through the night … all helped me to relax and enjoy my holiday.

Leaving Mongolia there was a vast brown landscape, plains dotted with horses, rugged mountains in the distance and occasional reminders of winter with swathes of snow lying unmelted.

Semi-industrial towns and white-topped gers clustered in villages and camps. Then into Russia – fairytale Siberia with skeletal trees, frozen rivers and lakes…

Messages Between MJ and me, April 2017

Hi love I am safe in Irkutsk with a nice lady and her husband. There is WiFi. Not sure what time it is there or here for that matter – late afternoon. Train trip was okay and people friendly. Met by Eugene. This place has population 600,000. Next place for one night has population 2000! Got my train tix for rest of trip so far so good. Hope all is well there Xx Sorry if mistakes but fat fingers – hope you understand okay

Yay you arrived safely!!! It’s just after 7pm here (was feeding the dog so only just saw your messages!) How was the train ride? Helen says hello and that she is glad you’re safe…  Anne popped round last night…  Aurora misses you (so do I since the house is way too quiet)… I’m alright… Barbara rang me after work yesterday worried about you and Russia…  How was it getting into Russia? Are they on high alert after everything that has happened? Love you xoxoxoxo

Hi love just had a wonderful hot shower. The border was crap. They could teach the nazis. I was ok but Anna who shared my berth had to open every package and a cardboard box. She had bought stuff in Mongolia so had most locals because cheaper I guess, but 3 hours of banging seats and doors and yelling. Soldiers came on with torches checked every crevice. Sniffer dogs. Portable scanners for retina checks against passports. Cross questioning. And that’s a normal day apparently. Anna was 62 and no English but we shared pictures of our children on phones etc she was so worked up about the border checks before it happened but then she’s lived through Stalinism and all the other changes. I just smiled and kept saying tourist. Xx

Another lady Nara adopted me and when no one seemed to be there to meet me she was going to ring the travel office. Had her husband carry my bags and someone else search the platform. When Eugene found me he was all apologetic – no one had said what carriage and he started at one end of platform and worked his way to the other. Olga the lady here is very nice and her English quite good. Her husband friendly too but his English not so good. They have gone out – very trusting. And I have my own key. I may go for a walk but at the moment need to get my head around things and organise my case. Xx

That’s a bit scary but glad people were friendly and helpful xoxox That’s great you can come and go as you please and have some privacy… You have fun exploring, please be safe – I know stuff is out of your control but Anne and I really did have a big fright when we heard about the terror attack on the subway. Love you xoxoxo

I can’t afford to get cold feet or be scared love. One day at a time and do try not to worry. Look after yourself. Xx

… Yes don’t let fear rule your exciting adventure but still just have your wits about you!  Love you xoxoxo

Will do. Xx

Is a Peaceful World Without Borders A Fantasy?

Borders help create “otherness” and generate fear. If there was free movement of people there could be a reduction in flag-waving and overt nationalism and more understanding and tolerance of difference.

Allegations raised on ABC Four Corners a few days ago about the Australian government stopping Saudi women from seeking asylum in Australia and heart-rending scenes of a young girl being forced onto a plane in the Philippines, to return to Saudi Arabia to never be heard of again, were distressing and shameful beyond belief. 

The ABC claims that Australian Border Force officers have been accused of targeting vulnerable Saudi Arabian women travelling to our shores, cancelling their visas and returning them to transit countries. The issue got worldwide attention when in January of this year, when 18-year-old Saudi Rahaf al-Qunun, pleaded for asylum while holed up in a Thai hotel room.

Currently, we have refugee footballer Hakeem al-Araibi stuck in a Thai prison because Interpol and the Australian authorities stuffed up communication and Bahrain demands his extradition for alleged crimes. Hakeem has been granted refugee status in Australia, is on his way to being a model citizen and I would have thought the Australian Government should have and could protect him, but apparently, it has to be left to celebrities and sporting personnel, and the media.

Ironically, the same media that whipped up fear of the other, immigrants, refugees, asylum seekers… with headlines about hordes, queue jumpers, illegal immigrants, Australia being swamped by boats, our way of life being destroyed, traditions being wrecked, terrorists sneaking in… ad nauseam!

Words are powerful and when newspaper headlines and TV and Radio broadcasters continually and consistently use derogatory or false names for refugees and immigrants and cast aspersions on their character and motivation it affects how they are welcomed or rejected.

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Let’s build bridges not walls

At the Australian National University in the 1970s, I studied  Modern Revolutionary History with Professor Daphne Gollan and Revolts & Insurgencies with Professor Geoffrey Bartlett,  plus Russian writers:  Dostoyevsky,  Pushkin,  Solzhenitsyn,  Tolstoy,  but perhaps the most memorable impact came from Hungarian Arthur Koestler’s, Darkness at Noon.

I recalled that book when I saw the terror on the wrinkled face of the grandmother, sharing the berth on the train to Irkutsk.

She lived through Stalinism, the bloodbath of Perestroika as the Soviet Union disintegrated, and now the reign of Putin.  I watched beads of sweat gather on her upper lip, her hands shake as she opened and closed her passport and unzipped her bags waiting for the inspection.  She checked and double-checked her bundle of receipts. 

When the uniformed officer came into our cabin, he made her unpack every case and package.  He cross-questioned her on what she bought,  peered at receipts,  stared into her face at close quarters willing her to admit to lies or a mistake.

In the other carriages shouting, scraping, banging, dragging noises, wood against wood, metal against metal, boots echoing on the train’s floor.  The stillness of the night shattered by military activity throughout the train corridors while the engine hummed and generated electricity.

I unzipped my one bag and offered my passport for inspection, which was handed to another officer who stood in the corridor holding a laptop open.  She scanned my passport and like her companion stared long and hard at me making my stomach somersault.  

I swallowed hard,  hoping I looked innocent – crazy because I was –  but security of all persuasions scare me.  I don’t know why but nerves tingle and I feel I’m going to be accused and forced to admit guilt for something I didn’t do.

Snatches from old movies and books rattle in my head.

Born eight years after the end of the war in Europe and part of the generation to first experience television, endless images of escaped POWs,  Jewish and other refugees fleeing Nazi or Stasi brutality, and of course, John Wayne winning the war, are embedded in my psyche. 

  • How do people on false papers,  or with something to hide, manage to fool security?
  • How do they keep their cool?
  • How do innocent or frightened people recover from harsh treatment at borders?
  • Those poor Saudi women, those terrified Rohingya refugees, those asylum seekers stuck on Nauru and Manus Islands for years… waiting for enough people to find courage and compassion…

The last time I had been ordered around with one syllable words like ‘out’ ‘give’ ‘sit’ and ‘here’ without a ‘please or thank you’ was in 1984 ( an apt year)  when John and I were on a Cosmos tour of Europe and in a bus crossing from Switzerland into Germany.

The intense fear I felt on the bus, despite documents being in order, returned while sitting in the train carriage in Russia.  A six-foot uniformed, armed man towering over you and demanding ‘passport’ is intimidating no matter where you are. 

Minutes of examining passport photograph and visa stamps – silent but for the flicking of pages interrupted by occasional glances.  Nerve-wracking in the extreme.

In Germany, once the guards left the bus, conversation resumed at record levels, and more than one person imagined aloud the plight of the Jewish people under the Third Reich.

And to think the British people voted for Brexit and want to return to increased border checks!!

Three hours at the border or 13 hours a disconcerting run-in with authority in a foreign country always a holiday negative. Border checks a reality to be prepared for with patience.

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Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story

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I had a gift voucher to use for the Arts Centre which was close to expiry date (last year was not a good year healthwise for booking anything in advance) and when I saw Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story advertised with a session offering Q & A with the cast afterwards, I knew this was the perfect fit for my voucher  – and which of my friends I’d invite to share the experience.

My friend Lisa, grew up in Caulfield and developed long-standing friendships and a special affinity with Jewish culture. She also loves plays as a form of storytelling, as much as I do.

We both attended The Script Club at The Channel, a studio in the Victorian Arts Centre a couple of years ago, where we discussed classic Australian plays in a series of workshops facilitated by respected writer and drama critic, John McCallum.

What better play for us to see together than one advertised as 

A dark, funny and high-energy klezmer-folk tale inspired by the real-life story of two Romanian Jews seeking refuge in Canada in 1908.

It’s early 20th century Halifax and Chaim and Chaya, hounded from home, are waiting for immigration to decide their future, under threat of tuberculosis and typhus. Will they survive in this new land?

With neo-klezmer songs written by director Christian Barry and acclaimed genre-bending performer and musician Ben Caplan, this quirky one-act musical is written by award-winning playwright Hannah Moscovitch, who based it on the story of her own Jewish great-grandparents.

This bewitching music-theatre hybrid and cautionary tale for modern times – performed with instruments ranging from fiddle to clarinet, accordion, banjo and megaphone – was nominated for six Drama Desk Awards, won multiple Edinburgh Fringe awards and was a New York Times Critic’s Pick.

Old Stock is about humanity and finding your place in the world. Above all this story is about hope.

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The refugee crisis is a topic rarely out of the news, especially in Australia, where we have asylum seekers languishing on offshore islands under indefinite detention and any discussion we have in the media or parliament soon descends into blame, shame, distortion of facts and fear of the other.

Ironically, this week one of the most well-known asylum seekers incarcerated on Manus Island for six years has been awarded the richest literature prize in Australia, plus a smaller non-fiction prize  – a total of $125,000 – and sparking a bitter debate about the what and who is “ Australian”. 

Everyone should listen carefully to the acceptance speech, via video, of Behrouz Boochani, an Iranian Kurdish refugee because it is about being human, not labelling yourself as a particular nationality, religion, or ethnic group.

Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story definitely topical!!

Whose interest is served by dividing the world into countries, building walls, increasing security and border checks, incarcerating those fleeing violence and natural disasters, stirring up resentment and hate, attaching ridiculous and misleading labels?

Most people, if given the choice would stay put, live in their own country and prefer peace – that is the reality.

It is catastrophic events like war, civil disturbances, attempted genocide, mass inequality and natural disasters that cause refugees, like the current caravan fleeing multiple crises in Central America.

Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story, like the novel No Friend But The Mountains challenge us to humanise these tragic circumstances and are great examples of what Ursula Le Guin believed,

Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art, the art of words.”

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The Power of Stagecraft

Louisa Adamson & Christian Barry were responsible for set and lighting design but stagecraft also includes technical aspects of theatrical production like sound, costume design and makeup.

All are important to set the scene for the audience but also enable the cast to perform smoothly. 

These technical and artistic elements require a vision and interpretation that suits the theme/story and also gives the audience an enjoyable and entertaining experience.

In the foyer of the theatre, there were displays of costumes and models of sets emphasising these very points. Lisa mentioned how much she had enjoyed The King and I and we observed various people posing for photographs on a mock-up of the set for Evita fancying themselves as Eva Perón!

Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story went for 80 minutes without a break providing a challenge that a conventional drama with an interval might not and considering the subject matter and the set, I don’t think many will queue to have their photograph taken.

The lighting always important on stage but for this performance exceptionally so, to focus on a particular performer and distract the audience if props were being moved and others in the cast changed costumes or positions.

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Melbourne’s Art precinct – how lucky are we?

The Fairfax Theatre at the Arts Centre is comfortable and intimate and we had seats in the second row so had a great view of the performers and the set, which when we first sat down looked like a shipping container.

Ben Caplan in a bushy beard, top hat and a purplish jacket is spectacular and loud,  almost raunchy when he appears like a magician amid smoke and flashing lights from the top of the container.

The intro routine opens two large, swinging doors displaying various musical instruments, hats, shawl and other accoutrements on hooks and shelves but Ben sings with gusto and he’s telling the story through his songs, which requires our concentration.

While he captured our attention, the other cast members set up the remaining props and hung the Halifax sign. The compactness and portability of the design clever, and although colourful, never became a distraction from the words and music.

A simple packing case and upended suitcases interchangeable as the characters journey through life and tell their story – which involves settling in Montreal (another sign up) getting married and starting a family.

Ben acknowledged Louise in the Q & A afterwards for the set’s strong visual metaphor. Most refugees have to travel by ship at some stage in their journey (certainly the ones in this story) and it also references World War Two refugees herded into freight train carriages.

I wondered if the white-haired gentleman, who asked the question about the set had memories of his family escaping the Holocaust like Denise Weiss, one of my students who wrote a hauntingly beautiful but sad vignette about her Jewish parents escaping Hungary – a train journey her grandmother and others took that ended in the gas chamber.

Although it is based on the historical upheavals and forced journeys the Jewish people have experienced, the story and characters are an allegory, representing humanity, and all people forced from their home because of war, prejudice, fear, natural disaster, or a desire to improve the lives of their children.

What Influenced/Inspired The Play?

Ben explained, that in 2015 during the Canadian election, he was watching Canada’s Prime Minister give a speech where he referred to ‘Old Stock’ Canadians to distinguish them from recently arrived immigrants and refugees.

Conservative Leader Stephen Harper’s use this week of the term “old stock Canadians” in response to a question on support for reduced health coverage for refugees drew swift condemnation on social media, where many suggested the term has racist implications.

The newspaper article linked above has interviews with a variety of Canadians including George Elliott Clarke, Poet Laureate of Toronto. (I’m quoting him because I love poets, especially those with his ability, and who successfully show the personal is political and vice versa!)

Stock: A 7th-generation descendant of black refugees who settled in Nova Scotia in 1813, long before Confederation, Clarke also has native heritage and is a member of the Eastern Woodlands Metis Nation.

“The true ‘old-stock’ Canadians are the First Nations and Inuit and Metis, followed by the many divergent ethnicities who were also present in colonial Canada, from African slaves in muddy York to ‘German’ settlers on the South Shore of Nova Scotia, from the Chinese merchants present in Nouvelle-France to the Portuguese and Basque fishermen of Newfoundland.

“Personally, I think the current Prime Minister is unsure about his own identity and possibly nervous about the true, multicultural, multilingual, multiple-faiths and multiracial Canada that now beautifully, proudly, lives and flourishes.”

But perhaps it is a quote from Elise Harding-Davis, former curator of the North American Black Historical Museum that resonates more with what has happened to the debate in Australia – a debate that went downhill extremely fast with Prime Minister John Howard’s disgusting refusal to let the Tampa land asylum seekers and his declaration of ‘we’ll decide who comes into this country‘ plus his protegees Abbott and Morrison suggesting civilisation began with colonisation and revering Captain Cook!

Like all descendants of escaped slaves, her family was granted Canadian citizenship only in 1911.  “Canada didn’t start out lily white. In fact, the only non-immigrants are the First Nations, aboriginal people… The idea of ‘Canadian stock’ is innocent ignorance. It’s a mindset of traditional thinking that all the people who started anything of note through history were the conquerors.”

The next major influence for Ben was the war in Syria and the appalling images of fleeing refugees and that shocking image of three-year-old Syrian Alan Kurdi drowned as his family tried to escape. This tiny body, washed ashore at a popular wealthy resort in Turkey, highlighted the suffering and death of many refugees and the huge divide regarding wealth, safety, and lifestyles in the world.

On World Refugee Day 2018, a record 68.5 million people were forcibly displaced in 2017. Record high numbers of men, women and children were driven from their homes across the world due to war, violence and persecution, according to a June 2018 report by the United Nations’ refugee agency.

Playwright, Hannah Moscovitch joined Ben and Christian on the project. Although she is writing about the past and her great-grandparents, she also addresses mass migrations today and the people and countries who oppose and/or resent those migrants. She is also a playwright unafraid of making the personal political.

Singer-songwriter Ben Caplan is the story-teller/God, a performance almost Vaudevillian as he behaves like an emcee (that’s where the megaphone listed as a musical instrument comes in) and also sings, dances (one number for me recalled a scene from Fiddler On The Roof) and acts in-between introducing the various scenes where Chaim (Dani Oore) and Chaya (Mary Faye Coady) tell their story intermingled with musical interludes. (Dani plays the woodwind and Mary Faye, the violin).

This is a tragedy with comedic streaks, especially the brilliant inflexions of Chaya and Chaim’s voices delivering their lines, many with the irony and chutzpah identifiably Jewish. Mary Faye said she listened to many accents online and worked on her voice for over a year to get the accent right. (She is of Scots/Irish descent, like me.)

The rhyme and rhythm of Ben’s songs catchy (if somewhat repetitive) but one, in particular, had the audience in an uproar when he recited euphemisms for sex (some I’d heard, others bizarre) and then suggested perhaps celibacy needed ‘careful consideration’.

When he dons the shawl of a rabbi and sings as a cantor, his voice and words are haunting – I found it deeply moving, even although it wasn’t in English – the meaning and emotional impact understood.

From the reaction of the audience and the questions after the show, it is obvious many were Jewish and the choice of music and songs triggered personal memories.

One lady of Russian descent, remembered a traditional lullaby her grandmother used to sing and suggested it be included in the show to make the scene where a lullaby is sung more authentic – Ben Caplan thanked her for her input but the power of art – song, poetry, drama, music, dance – crosses all boundaries and the writer and cast want to reach the largest possible audience.

Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story touched me, a person without a Jewish heritage. I found it captivating, emotionally engaging, entertaining and memorable with, I suggest, enough authenticity to satisfy most of the Jewish people present but not isolate Gentiles.

The story is about Jewish refugees Chaim and Chaya meeting in the line at the Immigration Centre in 1908 Halifax, Canada. They are both new arrivals from Romania, both traumatised from harrowing journeys but ordered into a line for the sick. He might have typhus because he has a rash. She might have caught her sister’s tuberculosis, she has a cough. He is ‘just a kid’ at eighteen years old but after seeing his family murdered in a pogrom has grown up fast. She is twenty-four, too young to be a widow but her husband and child didn’t survive the arduous journey they made across Russia to escape what Chaim lived. 

Will they be allowed into Canada?  Will they live long enough to establish a new life? Will they fall in love and have a future together?

The Jewish experience is dominant and when you read (warning this is very disturbing)  about the rise of anti-semitic behaviour in Melbourne, this is a play with subject matter that needs as wide an audience as possible, with more Q and A’s afterwards discussing the points it raises.

What do you choose to do if someone is pounding on your door needing help – do you let them in or ignore their plight?

When are people accepted as citizens or allowed to belong and their contribution acknowledged?

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From Santa Barbara History department

The story seeks the sympathy and understanding of the audience and challenges us to confront the reality of refugees, the various reasons and circumstances forcing people to seek asylum, and the dehumanising language used by politicians, the media and bigots, the myths and misinformation, the stirring of fear when it should be compassion…

If someone is seeking help does it matter what religion, what colour, what language group, what religion they are – isn’t the fact they are desperate for help enough?

People are not numbers, not statistics, not clones – humanity is diverse.

To tell this story with shades of light and dark, fast-paced mood changes and engaging craftmanship of acting, voice, dance and music, the cast deserves hearty congratulations and lots more success as they take their show around the world.

Simone de Beauvoir once said:

It is in the knowledge of the genuine conditions of our lives that we must draw our strength to live and our reasons for acting.

I’m so glad I heard a little of the lives of Hannah Moscovitch’s Chaim and Chaya and will continue to advocate for our government to treat better those who come to Australia.

 

 

 

 

Empathy, Acts of Kindness, Friendship – All Make Life Better

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We dropped a couple of boxes of chocolates and a thank you card into the Kingston Veterinary Hospital when we were shopping at Thrift Park the other day because the staff at the clinic always go ‘the extra mile’.

Over my lifetime, I’ve had many pets – usually dogs – and count myself lucky most have lived long lives because it is never easy saying farewell. Dogs bring such joy and unconditional love and warmth into your life, no wonder they’re the ideal therapy pet.

But how heartbreaking when you have to say goodbye like we did last week, to our Aurora, and so many friends on Facebook were kind in their comments acknowledging how important she was in our life.

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Saying goodbye to a pet you’ve had for 14 years a wrench, and no matter how you rationalise these decisions, grief is profound. Compassionate vets, animal attendants, and understanding friends help ease the pain.

The young women we have been dealing with at Kingston Veterinary Hospital were not only loving and considerate with Aurora but cared about our welfare too. They even sent a handwritten sympathy card with a laminated imprint of Aurora’s paw – one for each of us.

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I’ve written about kindness before, the importance of it for humans in the medical world but we shouldn’t forget our relationship with the animal kingdom.

The Life Stories & Legacies writing teacher in me has to remind those who read my blog that they should not forget to record the stories of their pets because usually those stories reveal a lot about yourself and family life.

Dogs are my favourite pets and I can’t remember the family home every being without one – in fact, often two dogs.

They can be fun stories to write, dramatic, and of course sad but because family pets are like children (some people even prefer them to children) – they can be naughty, mischievous, loving – destructive (even if unintentional) – each one having their own personality and therefore great characters for you to write about.

Here is a piece I wrote in response to an exercise I gave to my class asking them to write a snapshot of their morning and to include at least one of the senses: sound, sight, smell, touch without forgetting that all-important emotional engagement for the reader.

Mornings
Mairi Neil

The 5.24am rumbles past, and on cue, Aurora begins nudging my back.

‘Too early,’ I croak and snuggle under the doona for a couple more hours sleep.

‘Yuk, your breath stinks. These early morning kisses have to stop.’

In what seems moments, a glimmer of daylight dances on the wall, then a steady rhythm of click and tap from footsteps hurrying to the railway station, after slamming car doors.

It is useless to try and sleep. Aurora, also exhausted from her alarm clock routine, lifts her head and large brown eyes to plead with me.

‘Okay, okay, I’m getting up. Now please move off my slippers and give me some space.’
She scrambles to her feet as fast as arthritic bones can and my aged body does the same.

‘Happy now?’ I grumble.

The flushing of the toilet Aurora’s signal to almost trip me up in her eagerness to be first at the backdoor where Smackos sleep in a drawer waiting to be gobbled.  She snatches the treat from my hand and dribbles as the chicken flavoured snack crumbles before disappearing into her expanding tummy.

‘That’s it,’ I say, ‘the vet’s orders!’

We shuffle back to the kitchen together to start another day.

I put the kettle on to sing, and dangle a teabag into a favourite mug souvenir from sunny California before checking the view from the kitchen window. Jasmine trembles along the fence and I wonder if the sea breeze promises a sunny day in Mordialloc.

Aurora coughs and totters into the lounge room to claim her favourite armchair and wait for me to bring my steaming cup of tea to join her.

We watch ABC24 together and discover the good and bad news before she demands a play with the ball or walks along the street – most days, like a spoilt toddler she’ll get both.

 

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Writing about pets:

  • Do you think that animals feel love?
  • Do you think a dog can feel love? A cat?
  • These are ‘conventional pets’ what about less loveable animals?
  • What about a cow, a snake, or a spider?
  • What makes you think so?
  • Have you ever cared for or loved an unusual pet?

While we sat with the vets who shared Aurora’s dying, I asked them what was the most unusual pet they’d looked after.

Jane, a tall stunning blonde with a delightful smile, surprised me when she said she had a pet snake, ‘Great pets, easy to look after and I only have to feed it every couple of months.’

Now that is an unusual pet, I thought and remembered a neighbour who used to live next door. She had pet pythons too and one escaped – it was three weeks before she confided in me, and only because when I was walking the dog past her gate, I saw what I thought was a snake’s head pop up from a pile of rubble from their renovations.

I took the dog home and nipped next door to say, ‘I may be imagining things but I thought I saw a snake in your front yard.’

‘Oh, so that’s where he got to – I’ve been looking for him for three weeks.’

‘Three weeks!?’

Pets generate lots of stories! …

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Aurora – the Roman Goddess who liked to chew

We brought Aurora home when she was a puppy, and like all puppies, she was teething. However, despite numerous toys bought specifically for her, she found so many other things much more to her taste…

She joined our household a few months before Christmas, the timing right for her large teeth to grow perhaps because she kept us on our toes when we decorated the Christmas tree.

The coloured baubles on the tree, she either didn’t like or liked too much. Each morning when I came through to the lounge room there’d be a trail of pine needles and outside in the back garden tell-tale bright ‘flowers’ in the grass where she had taken the balls and they’d shattered.

When we moved all the decorations up to the top half of the tree hoping she’d find one of her toys more interesting, it was the electric lead of the fairy lights that gained her attention – maybe she didn’t like the carols that played along with the twinkling lights (I have to admit, I found them repetitive and annoying too) …

However, the coup de gras for our tree that Christmas was Aurora becoming entangled in the lights and tinsel and in response to my outrage running across the room and up the hallway with our tree in tow.

Needless to say, the Christmas decorations were packed away early that year – maybe if we had told our aptly named Roman Goddess it was Saturnalia she would have accepted the tree as a temporary fixture and left it alone.

Tinsel Aurora

Along with the tree and decorations, Aurora did enjoy a good chew of shoes – specifically not one, but two brand new pair of leather sandals I bought, on a ‘buy one pair, get the other 50% off’ deal.

For some reason, she only preferred the left shoe! That summer I made my old sandals last another season.

Aurora always took her loot and hid behind the couch or under a bed like a saboteur waiting for the explosion – and she certainly got that when she reappeared – although probably not the satisfaction she desired.

All parents will empathise and understand the situation – who hasn’t experienced that feeling of dread when your toddler is just too quiet or has disappeared from view.

They’re discovered in another room,  under the table, in the backyard … and you just know you’re going to find they’ve scribbled on the wall, ate something they shouldn’t or have something they shouldn’t play with…

However, it’s what Aurora chewed after the sandals that make her the only dog I’ve owned, to be included by a well-known author when he autographed his book to me.

I can tell the story now and see the funny side, but at the time it was one of those moments when I definitely needed more than Minties.  And the event triggered a reaction in me I can’t quite explain – perhaps it was the build-up of grief or just a period in my life when I’d made many life-changing adjustments too quickly… but I had what modern lingo would call ‘a meltdown’.

Aurora replaced Goldie who we had for fourteen years but she also came into my life only a few months after I lost my Dad who I loved dearly.  I was still adjusting to a new job at the Melbourne University Student Union – a full-time job entailing travel into the city after years of working part-time locally.

At the Student Union, I was the receptionist/administrative clerk for the elected student office bearers. The job was full-on because we were in the midst of a campaign to stop the introduction of VSU (Voluntary Student Unionism), a policy that would literally destroy many student activities and collective strength, particularly at small campuses. The employment future of many people at risk – including mine even although I’d literally just started working there.

In 2006, Shadowboxing, a collection of short stories by Melbourne author, Tony Birch was released but as a widow who recently returned to full-time work to put my daughters through high school and university, I lived on a tight budget with no money to spare on non-essentials – and that meant I had to curtail my love of buying books.

Fortunately, one of the Women’s Officers lent me her brand new copy,  ‘Read it on the train and give it to me tomorrow. I know you value books and will look after it.’

She trusted me with her signed copy.

You will have worked out where the story is heading…

Long story short – Aurora stole the book from my handbag, which I foolishly left on the floor in my bedroom. When I discovered the chewed remnants the next morning, the air became decidedly blue – and chilly! My daughters ready in double-quick time to leave for their respective classes.

I slammed the front door with a cursory ‘see you tonight’ through gritted teeth. I’m sure the stumps shook.

All the way to work on the train, blame, shame, and curses seesawed – ad nauseam: Aurora, the girls, myself…

Every stupid or careless thing I’d ever done in my life whirled inside my head, I was sitting down but felt weak-kneed and fought off being sick.

  • How will the owner forgive me – it was a personally signed copy!
  • Why didn’t I take more care?
  • What made Aurora go through my handbag?
  • Why didn’t the girls take more responsibility for the puppy they wanted?
  • How am I going to get a replacement book?
  • And from where?
  • How early do bookshops open?
  • What will the other office bearers think of my carelessness?

Pride is one of the deadly sins  – was that my problem – deeply wounded and worrying about myself and how others will see me? I felt the destroyed book was a betrayal of trust someone had shown in me.

I didn’t deserve the high opinion the Women’s Officer had of me and had let her down – I dreaded the confrontation ahead.

I was a child again…  waiting to be strapped by an overbearing teacher, angry because I’d played in the ‘boys’ playground (yes segregated playgrounds were a thing in the early 60s in Scotland) …

I was twelve years old and explaining to my older sister I’d lost her silver signet ring in the ocean – the ring she’d let me borrow …

By the time I walked into work, I must have looked as distressed as I felt because the one office bearer who was there, came out of his office with a worried look,

‘Mairi, are you okay?’

I burst into tears. If he hadn’t put his arms around me, my trembling legs would have collapsed.

He was the Indigenous Officer and when he heard my tale of woe his reaction immediate, ‘He’s a mate. I’ll give Tony a ring, he lives nearby.’

I couldn’t believe it! Please let him be home and willing to help!

Within a short space of time, Tony Birch arrived at the Student Union with two copies of his book – and the special pen he kept for book launches! He found the story of Aurora’s appetite for literature amusing and was only too happy to rescue me from further embarrassment.

Tony knew the Women’s Officer and replicated the message in the replacement book before signing a book for me – including Aurora’s name – ‘since she’s such a fan’.

I’ll never forget the kindness of that day.  They helped me through the ordeal with a minimum of fuss, maximum efficiency and a sense of humour.

The book returned with the owner none the wiser, keeping the episode secret justified with ‘no harm done’ but knowing what a hotbed of gossip university circles can be, I’m sure ‘the secret’ has been one of those anecdotal tales laughed at over a few beers or after-dinner coffee.

A forgotten memory recounted as I’m doing now and as long as that book sits on my bookshelf, Aurora and her most memorable escapade, never forgotten!

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a lovely message and flowers from daughter number one

It so happens that my dearest friend, Lesley, had to make a similar decision about one of her dogs the day after we farewelled Aurora.

Lesley is my dearest friend in Melbourne. We have known each other since our children were babies. We have literally been through all the big life changes together – birth, deaths, and marriages.

Whether it’s 11am or 11pm we have coffee and unburden ourselves to each other, drawing strength from our shared love and respect and being able to vent about parents, children, the economy, politics, health, neighbours – you name it we discuss it, laugh and cry, forever grateful we have each other.

And so we scheduled a long chat over coffee and a walk.

Our catch-ups and walks around the neighbourhood of whatever cafe we patronise, always a balm to the soul.

This time, we chose Alba’s in Warren Road – a place that is friendly and serves good coffee and tea. We often visit Alba’s because it is close to home and although popular, we always manage to find a table.

On our walk of the surrounding streets, we noted how many of the gardens and parks are suffering because of the recent 40 plus degree heat.

Others bloomed, thank goodness.

We were saddened to see what had obviously been a wonderful garden, neglected and dying.  A mini orchard in fact with heavily-laden nectarine and pomegranate trees.

Perhaps the original owner has died and new owners wait to sell or build and the large block will go the way of so many others in the suburbs – townhouse or apartment development.

I just hope someone enjoys the benefit of such luscious fruit before the trees are cut down if that’s their fate.

At least the area still had some green space in the form of a lovely little park we walked through to return to Warren Road and Lesley’s car, and a young woman walking her dog was grateful for the shady trees.

The lush foliage made the path a welcome and cool respite from the concrete pavements.

We were grateful many of the streets have retained nature strip trees, probably planted 20-30 years ago because they offered great shade as well as adding beauty to the street. Trees and their shade make a huge difference to comfort as our summers grow warmer.

The Andrews Labor Government is carrying through on its promise of money for pocket parks and that will certainly help create green spaces for every community.

A lecture I attended made this very clear and local council and government ignore the science at their peril.

The last few days of over 40-degree heat prompted several discussions about the importance of shaded streets on Talk-Back radio. let’s hope everyone who can do something to improve the situation will take note!

The City of Melbourne is asking people to register ‘exceptional’ trees that are important or meaningful –

City of Melbourne’s Exceptional Tree Register was adopted by Council in 2012. It enables us to recognise, celebrate and protect the exceptional trees that exist on privately owned or managed land in our city.

Perhaps a tree like this beauty Lesley and I passed – there are plenty still left in suburbia and I hope they remain.

 

Albert Street, Mordialloc

Mairi Neil

Albert Street is quiet today
a heat haze hovers
school students absent
and no U3A
the silence partly explained
by the summer holiday

Cars parked by the train track
left by commuters to the city
who’ll be late back hoping
the hovering haze will disappear
absorbed by night’s veil
and the breeze from Mordy pier

No more horses clip-clop in Mordi –
suburbia stole their stables
Pharlap and others
now picture book fables
the birds departed too – no magpie trill
or noisy minors screeching at will

It’s going to be a scorcher
the weather boffins say
and since many trees axed
the birds flew away – leaving
an uncomfortable silence
as if there’s been foul play

A whisper of wing but
no chittering chatter –
there’s no reason to sing…
an absence of wildlife
accompanies heat haze
passersby seem in a daze…

Rows of houses, rows of cars
silent, sweating, waiting
from sunrise to stars
rows of houses, rows of cars
hot steamy fixtures trapped
behind climate change bars

It’s a scorcher today and
most people avoid the heat
obeying Met Bureau warnings
they desert street after street
surrounded and smothered
by heat-hugging concrete

bless garden sign

I look at my front garden and so many of my trees and plants the result of potted gifts or random cuttings from friends. Now I will have more time (theoretically) to work in the garden I have plans to try and make it even more attractive for passersby because I know how much pleasure I get when I walk around and see beautiful gardens.

We are so lucky in Melbourne. When I travelled through Siberia I can remember some host families exclaiming at pictures of my garden, amazed at plants flourishing that they’d only seen inside, or in books.

When you walk around the streets in many parts of Europe not blessed with our weather, house and apartment windows have flowers on the windowsill or window boxes.

It is easy to understand why they value the beauty of flowers. Their deep long winters make people long for the new life and joy plants represent. Some flowers are almost revered because of the length and severity of the winter and the displays inside shops and public buildings are quite elaborate.

On leaving Irkutsk, I searched the marketplace for a basket of Pussy Willows to leave for my host, as a thank you gift. It was April and those flowers have a cultural as well as seasonal significance, being linked to the traditions of the Russian Orthodox Church and the celebration of Palm Sunday.

In Russia Easter is important, celebrated commercially in much the same way as we do Christmas. Several people in Siberia commented how lucky I was to be in Moscow at Easter because of the decorations and events.

There are no palm branches in Russia; believers traditionally carry pussy willow branches to church. Even although my hosts were not religious they still continued the cultural tradition of decorating their homes at Easter.

Walking the Neighbourhood

Strangers often stop and chat or make comments when I work in the front garden, and I’ve given cuttings to them or let them take flowers for special occasions or just to enjoy at home.

In days gone by, especially pre TV and computer, it was a common pastime for couples or families to walk the neighbourhood in the evening, chat with people still working or watering their garden or perhaps relaxing on verandahs.

When Lesley or I, or my evening walking buddy, Jillian, stroll past apartment blocks, we see balconies utilised by the occasional clothes horse and perhaps an ornamental plant but no people. As density living becomes the norm, the need to have more community gardens and parks will intensify and perhaps greater thought put into the design of buildings.

It is a different world now with different ideas of leisure and relaxation but there is a lot to be gained staying grounded in nature and being accessible to meet neighbours.

It was the tail-end of winter when I stayed in Irkutsk. The buildings were houses built in the much-maligned Stalinist era or just after, yet designed so that people’s paths crossed daily. There was play equipment for children, seats for people to sit and chat and necessary shops close by.

Even in the coldest of mornings, I watched people sweep the paths, put the rubbish in bins and then go off to work or take their children to school.

 

At the corner of Albert Street, Mordialloc, an aged care centre has been built but there is only a carpark seen by the public and no interaction at all unless the carers take residents for a walk.

Occasionally, I see a small walking group of folk from the aged care facility and can imagine their pleasure at being outside and seeing the neighbourhood.

I’m so happy when they pause beside my garden or sit on the seats outside the Allan Mclean Hall and exchange greetings.

 

shoes for chronic pain

A Walk Down Memory Lane
Mairi Neil

On a gloriously sunny day
they venture from the security of Bayside Aged Care
tentative steps into a world sometimes strange and hostile
carers cajole, encourage, guide…
vitamin D burrows into pallid skin

Jasmine and honeysuckle trail over fences, heighten senses
a child’s toy abandoned in a garden stirs a memory
washing flapping on the line, a sound from long ago
a garden bed weeded, ready for spring bulbs
sparks discussion

The ginger cat sprawled across concrete path
raises a curious head before resuming sun-baking
a noisy Jack Russell barks a territorial warning,
snuffles at the fence, wet nose nudging painted palings
the shuffling slippered feet no threat

This occasional stroll more frequent in fine weather
hesitation      pauses
clucks      whispers

silent contemplation…
They admire the rosemary bush at my gate
It’s for remembrance …

Of what?

She remembers lavender perfuming sheets
He sees possums dancing along the power lines
He hears doves cooing goodnight
She hears children demanding attention

And smiling at random thoughts
they remember the warmth of a lover’s embrace
and the cicadas’ serenade…

 

Icebreakers For Writers -Lessons That Work

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This year, in semi-retirement, I’m not working at the moment but I’m sure there are teachers/trainers/facilitators who are trawling the Internet or books, for fresh ideas for the first class and will appreciate some of these hints.

At this time of year, as schools reopen, so do neighbourhood houses and other groups providing activities and it is so important to be inclusive and encourage a friendly atmosphere.

People absorb more and learn better when they’re relaxed and happy.

I’m normally preparing first lessons for various classes in creative writing and although many of my students returned, or had been together for several terms, if not years, there would always be someone new so it was important to have icebreakers.

How do you help someone ‘fit in’ quickly and as easily as possible?

In 2017, I wrote a post of 10 icebreaker questions I used with a bit of tweaking for both my Writing Creatively classes and Life Stories & Legacies class.

Try them – even if your group is not specifically for writers.

For years I had a good format that involved people interviewing the person beside them and then introducing each other to the class.  This could be tweaked by changing the questions to be specific, limiting the time so it was like speed dating, ensuring people interviewed someone they didn’t socialise with outside class or didn’t know at all.

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We soon knew each other’s names and a bit about everyone’s personality – maybe even a condensed life story!

Here’s a poem I wrote after my Monday morning class at Mordialloc Neighbourhood House.

What’s in a name?
Mairi Neil

To break the ice in writing class
much to some students’ dismay
we asked each other questions
in a ‘getting to know you’ kind of way.

At first, we pondered each other’s names
their origin – had family tradition won?
We discovered Barbara may be a saint
and Victoria’s Tori is much more fun.

Amelia loves her name, as does Heather,
who hates nicknames or shortened versions
while Emily feels loved when she hears Em,
and Jan became Janette if family ructions.

A lipstick released and called Michelle
ensured Jane’s mother chose simply Jane
Michael never wants to hear Mike and
Mairi wishes her spelling more plain.

What’s in a name, I hear you say?
What’s the creative writing motivation?
Well, as any writer will tell you
all knowledge ripe for exploitation!

Who hasn’t heard of Oliver Twist,
Jane Eyre, Miss Faversham or Lorna Doon
of Harry Potter, Hercules Poirot?
And Mr D’Arcy still makes folk swoon!

Most storytellers invent characters
and characters usually need a name
think carefully as you bring yours to life
Because they may be on the road to fame!

Another year we actually ‘broke the ice’ by writing a poem after answering a series of questions. The exercise based on a famous and much-loved memoir poem Where I’m From by George Ella Ryan (writer and teacher).

Click on the link for two templates that are guaranteed to work as an icebreaker and with revision and effort some powerful poetry and maybe a short story or two will result!

Here’s my effort –

Family_Resemblance.jpgWhat Made Me?
Mairi Neil

I am from ‘wakey-wakey’ for breakfast
Storytime books and kisses goodnight.
From hopscotch, skipping, dress-ups,
Backyard games and street delights.

Childish rhymes and daisy chains,
From buttercup tests and bramble jars,
Walking to school or riding bicycles
Streets were for playing – not for cars!

Home deliveries by butcher and baker
Bottled milk at home and school
I’m from coal man black and scary
Clouds of dust when cellar full.

Shouts of ‘any old rags?’ recycled clothes
The buttons and zips Mum always kept
Eager friends traded their Dad’s best suit
Mothers screamed and children wept.

I am from Chinese checkers and chess
Scabby Queen and what card to choose
Roars of laughter, or tears and tantrums
Gracious winning and learning to lose

A migrant family farewelling the familiar
Adjusting to new home across the seas
On a long ship’s voyage. we acclimatised
To be from a house among gum trees.

Hot days of summer and restless nights
Long dry grass and fear of snakes
Mosquito netting to avoid nasty bites
No escaping plum and apple fights.

Bluetongue lizards and pesky possums
A boat full of tadpoles and croaking frogs
Screeching cockies, laughing kookaburras
A house full of stray cats and dogs.

Huntsman spiders sucked up the vacuum
Cicadas chitter to announce summer
Rabbits and hares, native mice aplenty
Magpies swooping – what a bummer!

I’m from Choc Wedges and icy poles
Long summer days at Croydon Pool
Driveway tennis and park cricket
Trips up Mt Dandenong for cool.

I’m from high school softball and hockey
A Holden car swapped for Morris van
Holidays in army tent at Coronet Bay
Shift worker Dad visiting when he can.

I’m from triple fronted brick veneer
Replacing dilapidated weatherboard
Coloured TV, Phillips stereo, cassettes
Furniture wet when rain poured.

I’m from white weddings and sad divorces
In-laws plus nephews and nieces
Heartaches of friends and relatives
Falling apart and picking up pieces…

I’m from sick and ageing parents,
Death’s challenge not ignored
A houseful of wonderful memories
As bulldozers destroyed James Road.

In the hush of evening sunsets
Imagining childhood with closed eyes
Daily shenanigans, laughter and tears
From that ‘wakey-wakey’ surprise.

I’m from hardworking parents
Love always their motivation
Gifting me ethics and values
I’m a product of their dedication.

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Melding the Power of Words, the English Language, Our Imagination and Life Experience

Introductions – Exercise One in Class

This is a fun exercise but requires a little thought and brainstorming before you write and remember to make it as creative as possible.

  • Before you say your name, sit quietly and think of three clues that describe, but doesn’t name, either the country where you were born  (if it is different from Australia) or the place in Australia you were born (could be a city, country town, interstate).
  • Now think of three clues and see if people can guess a foreign country you have visited, your favourite foreign country, or one you dream of visiting.
  • Next, say your name and your clues and others will guess the answers. (You don’t have to make it difficult! It is not a competition but just a way of introducing an aspect of yourself others may not know.)
  • Now say what you like best about your birth country and the favourite foreign country.

Hi, my name is Mairi. I was born where lochs and glens adorn postcards and men are not embarrassed to go without trousers, and our national musical instrument has been declared a weapon of war.

A few years ago I visited a country to climb a mountain and visit a grave. I went to church and prayed for their rugby team to win and ate banana pancakes.

I love the sense of humour and hospitality in my birth country and that warmth of welcome and fun was also experienced in the foreign country of my dreams.  

You don’t have to be Einstein to work out my birth country is Scotland but you may not pick up the clue about Samoa. I’ve written about the journey of my dreams here.

Samoan survivial kit - insect repellent, sunblock, water, fan, and a cool sarong.jpg
Samoan survival kit – insect repellant, sunblock, water, fan and cool sarong

Always whatever people write and discuss can inspire the others in the class, and furnish lots of anecdotes, memoir or imaginative pieces to write about later.

Has the exercise, or listening to others prompted an idea for a short story, poem or family history?

AT HOME:

  • Reflect – technology and transportation today give us the opportunity to learn, often first hand, about the rest of the world. You may not have had the privilege of travelling overseas but had the thrill of talking with foreigners online, writing to pen pals, or working beside people from overseas, or maybe even have immigrants or short term visitors as neighbours.
  • The world shrinks and differences are less, the more we learn and understand about each other.
  • And everyone is capable of dreaming about crossing borders, venturing into the exotic, trying something new.

Write at least 300-500 words explaining your connection and love of your birth country and favourite foreign place or perhaps you have a vivid memory to share – good or bad. Maybe travelling advice, or write about a character you met.

Here is a reflective piece of 500 words,  I published in the final anthology of 2018 for the Writing Creatively Class at Longbeach Place, Chelsea.

A Scottish Summer
Mairi Neil

Memory can burst into the present like a firecracker or be kindled like a flickering candle flame.

Proust

Despite Scotland’s dreary weather reputation, I remember lying on dewy grass among bluebells, and purple heather, breathing in the salty air of the River Clyde and freshwater scents from Loch Thom. Clouds drifted over the brae as we wove daisy chains and picked buttercups.

Do you like butter,’ we asked, holding the flowers under our chins. We giggled and chased each other waving dandelions, their touch supposedly making you pee the bed and when they ‘died’ the same flower became a fluffy timepiece to blow ‘fairies’ into the air and call out ‘one o’clock, two o’clock…’

In summer we sucked ice-lollies bought from Peter’s shop, a place pervaded by smells of sugar and syrup from jars of sweeties: musk, mint, aniseed, liquorice… The days seemed endless – daylight lasting until near midnight. Mum begging us to come in for supper and bed, but we romped in the hills of Braeside or played games in the street.

Travellers (tinkers to us) came to camp in the farmer’s field among cow pats and sheep dung. Their decrepit caravans and ex-army tents, a tight encampment we were forbidden to visit. They scoured the local streets for odd jobs, standing on doorsteps, unkempt and dank.

In need of a good bath,’ our neighbour said, ‘they don’t half pong. I gae them a couple o’ shillings just to be rid o’ them.’ It was the 1950s and no bathrooms in caravans or tents, not even a clear burn (creek) in the farmer’s field. My childhood curiosity aroused about people living a different life to me and awareness, not all adults shared my parents’ compassion …

The Rag and Bone man another summer visitor. His van toured the housing scheme looking for goodies. If mothers worked or went shopping, lured with promises of a goldfish or a budgie, but more likely receiving a balloon or plastic water pistol, some children handed over their dad’s dinner suit or mum’s Sunday best, taken from wardrobes without permission or smuggled out of the house among shabby clothes. The smell of brake fluid and burning rubber accompanied the yells of angry women chasing ‘Steptoe and Son’ down the street, wanting to retrieve property obtained under false pretences.

Our neighbour’s wisdom again, ‘Never leave wains to their own devices!’

The long summer holidays the time to collect firewood to build a bonfire for Guy Fawkes Night, to make a guy from old clothes and stockings stuffed with newspapers to drag around the neighbourhood on a homemade bogey (go-cart) shouting ‘penny for the guy’. The Davaar Road Gang made up of neighbourhood children clubbed pocket money to amass a kitty for fireworks: Catherine Wheels, Sky Rockets, Whirly Gigs, but mainly penny bungers.

Sometimes we couldn’t wait for November 5th, and the acrid smell of gunpowder in the backyard tipped off our mothers we were exploding fireworks without supervision and we’d hear, ‘Wait until your faither gets hame. He’ll skelp your backside.’

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Three years old me with new found friends wearing their mum’s shoes!

 

Introductions – Exercise Two in Class

This one is a variation of an oldie that often does the rounds – I think there was a radio programme based in it too called Desert Island Discs…

If you were marooned on a desert island, who would you want with you? Or what (a favourite pet, perhaps…?)

  • Sit quietly and think about the situation for a couple of minutes.
  • Choose three people who you would want with you if you were marooned.
  • Introduce yourself and name the people. They can be alive or dead, imaginary, famous or infamous, literary characters, television personalities, family or friends…

My effort:

Hi, my name is Mairi and if I were marooned on a deserted island, I would want John to be with me. Ex navy he understood the vagaries of the sea, was strong, clever and practical. His common sense and calmness a balance to highly strung, impulsive me. He was great fun and an incurable romantic – we wouldn’t be a small population for long!

My second choice would be AJ Cronin, a great ethical doctor but also a wonderful writer and storyteller. We’d have many stimulating discussions and I’d get some great writing tips. And he’d ensure we stayed healthy.

My third choice would be my Mum, the best no-nonsense cook in the world and someone who was amazingly adaptable – making homes in Ireland, Scotland and Australia – she could be relied upon to adjust and settle into the new situation. And no better confidante to give unconditional love.

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Reflection and Discussion Enriches the Lesson

  • How hard was it to choose people?
  • Did you substitute a pet?
  • Were your choices all imaginary? Celebrities?
  • What surprises did you find when listening to others?

Each time I do this exercise with different classes, I change my choices and now as I look over my notes from the years of teaching, I’ve garnered a lot of information and jumping off points to write my own story or even stories.

As always, encourage writing and rewriting at home…

Write an imaginative story about being marooned – either one person or more than one.
Think and perhaps revisit Gilligan’s Island or Lord of The Flies, or perhaps Robinson Crusoe.  No genre is excluded – remember the TV sitcom setting the Family Robinson in Space? Why not have them land on Mars – or even the moon…

Explore your choices of the three companions and write in depth about why you chose them. Is there a relationship with one or more of them that can be explained in a personal essay?

For example, I may write about my mother’s cooking ability or her life’s migration journeys, perhaps choose the move from Ireland, or concentrate on emigrating to Australia.

OR

About being inspired by AJ Cronin – (1896 – 1981) a Scottish novelist and physician who wrote The Citadel (1937), the story of a doctor from a Welsh mining village who moves up the career ladder in London.

I loved this novel. It was recommended by my father and I can’t remember if I read the copy in the house or bought my own. It had controversial new ideas about medical ethics and Dad said it inspired the launch of the National Health Service.

Cronin’s other popular novel was The Stars Look Down. Both were mining novels adapted as films, as have Hatter’s Castle, The Keys of the Kingdom and The Green Years. His novella Country Doctor adapted as a long-running BBC radio and TV series Dr Finlay’s Casebook. This series compulsory viewing in our household and in a piece of serendipity, one of the housemaid jobs I had when I travelled the UK in 1973, was at the Killin Hotel – a hop-skip-and-a-jump from Callander where the series was filmed.

Another bit of serendipity and personal history was in 2017 when I stayed with my cousin in Scotland. She had recently moved to Cardross and walking around the neighbourhood led me to this discovery:

AJ cronin details.jpg

I don’t expect Cardross to be on the list of places to visit if you went with a packaged tour but it is a bonny place, steeped in history, and definitely worth a look:

I came across lovely gardens and some attractive social housing for the elderly – and as a bonus, the spring flowers were in bloom and the cafe was friendly.

See how that exercise has triggered stories for me…

Please feel free to share your thoughts and add any good icebreaking exercises because I guarantee there will be a teacher/trainer out there trawling the Internet who’ll appreciate it.

 

 

Forget Your Pride and Prejudice and Be Persuaded to Embrace The Regency Era

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At the end of last year, I went to a talk at Glen Eira Art Gallery, one of several in their Be Persuaded — Jane Austen exhibition. It brought the literary icon Jane Austen’s world to life through a fascinating selection of rare fashion, accessories, and ephemera from the 18th century and Regency era but it also sent me off on a journey to the immediate and not so immediate past!

As I’ve said many times, I like joining dots, discovering connections and links that enhance my understanding of people and the world, move me from my comfort zone and add to what I thought I knew or better still challenge my assumptions…

Presented by Dressing Australia — Museum of Costume, the exhibition highlights included an 18th-century silk gown, diaphanous Empire line frocks, spencers and other undergarments, capes and shawls, bonnets, parasols, and rare hand painted watercolours documenting fashion from the 1790s to 1840 but it also gave historical context and relevance.

The selection of little paintings – 27 in all – a unique collection illustrating the development of fashion styles during that period and according to organisers, there may not be others in existence.

Jane Austen used words, this artist used drawings – original drawings from 1793 – 1830 – to tell little stories. The drawings are detailed and in context whether it is streetwear, formal or informal and covers a range of age groups. The 18th century and Regency era’s Vogue Magazine with some tongue in cheek observations thrown in.

An exhibition of fashion we have all seen and perhaps admired/envied in period films but in reality comes with a suitcase full of disadvantages, class distinctions, and choices dictated by obedience to societal mores!

Everyone was invited to step back in time and play with games and toys that were popular during Jane Austen’s childhood as well as imagine what it must have been like wearing clothes on display. 

Memories triggered

A fabulous day in Bath immersing myself in Jane Austen country. Met so many interesting people including a couple of Aussies from Newcastle. Caught the bus to Swindon, a meandering weekend path swapped for a very fast train to Bath with just one stop! Bath is another place that could absorb a week and you’d still have a list to do but I’m happy – I had an enjoyable walk after “Jane” checking out the Regency Circle and Georgian houses before visiting a fashion museum with 100 costumes plus accessories from the early 17th century to 2017. And it was Free Comic Book Day so cosplay characters were everywhere delighting passersby, including me.

My Facebook Post May 6th 2017

Bath, a World Heritage City, yet most of my time spent tracing Jane Austen’s footsteps when I discovered a free walking tour and delightful guide with seemingly infinite knowledge of where Jane lived, visited, walked and shopped, along with places made famous by her two Bath novels: Northanger Abbey and Persuasion.

Like many others, I admire Jane Austen as a writer and studied Northanger Abbey for HSC Literature and surprised myself at how much I could recall.

There was an instant rapport with the guide who had a great sense of humour, even posing for a photograph with one of the cosplay characters from Planet of the Apes. All of us doing an impromptu dance together because music blared from a portable player nearby.

When I mentioned my daughter was a Whedon fan (the writer/filmmaker Joss Whedon) I was inundated with free comics to take back to Australia. I’ve blogged about the importance of comics and also cosplay before.

Cosplay conventions the modern generations Austen world on steroids and what fun I had attending my first one in Australia.

A wonderful, heartwarming hug at the end of the Walking Tour made my day.  In the beginning, I was the only one on the tour with two others joining when they eavesdropped and discovered the tour was free.

Am I the only person who reads brochures and local leaflets?  There is always a host of free stuff available and you get to meet amazing volunteers or organisations committed to history, the arts, and other community activities. 

If ever in Bath, the free Walking Tour a must – it leaves from the Post Office and ends at the Jane Austen Centre and you meet people passionate about their work.

The young man who accompanied me a great raconteur. We discovered a mutual love of history, had read and liked similar books – and even shared our opinion about Brexit which was a talking point everywhere in 2017. (Methinks that hasn’t changed!)

Plus, he thought I was brave travelling by myself because ‘I was older than his mother‘. He wanted to know how I got on in Russia. I told him how much I enjoyed it and to separate countries from governments, people from politicians, and not be scared to travel and find out for yourself!

outside jane austen museum.jpgThe other gentleman in the photo is Martin Salter, ‘England’s most photographed man‘ a title awarded March 2017  to recognise his ten years of outstanding service as the meeter/greeter at the Jane Austen Centre.

An icon recognised around the world because of the number of people he has welcomed, photographed, and posed beside for photographs – including me!

In the Georgian mansion that houses the Jane Austen Centre, I tried on clothes and delved into all things Jane Austen having a great giggle with other tourists and the enthusiastic employees and volunteers.

I was grateful it was just pretence because I don’t think my patience or spacial awareness, let alone deportment, would cope with the clothes of the Regency era or the lifestyle –  definitely not the lack of rights for women.

I can’t imagine living in a time where beginning a novel with the following statement is so well understood:

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”

                                        Jane Austen’s, Pride and Prejudice

After the museum, I wandered through the main streets of central Bath where the past and present nestled together with a few misfits, adaptations and imaginative additions.

Eating my sandwiches in the square I also digested what I’d learned about Jane’s life, her family, and the Bath that existed during the period she was writing. I imagined all the ladies and gents from middle and upper classes strolling through the city, admiring each other’s fashionable dresses, noting the designers and where it was purchased.

  • But what of the workers who keep the necessary machinery of life turning?
  • Where are the names of the seamstresses and the tailors who made the creations?
  • Who were the washerwomen who laundered and ironed, the maids and butlers who kept the clothes in good repair?
  • And considering that sweatshops still exist will tourists of the future attend exhibitions and ask the same questions about modern fashion?

At the nearby Fashion Museum, I barely absorbed all the interesting details because I’d reached the stage in the day when my brain signals ‘information overload’.  The exhibition at Glen Eira a great opportunity to refresh or add information. 

A different perspective is always good – especially when it comes to history and this free exhibition so close to home at Caulfield Town Hall – a magnificent period building in its own right.

view of town hall.jpg

I missed the opening by Caroline Jane Knight, the fifth great niece of Jane Austen, but got to hear the engaging floor talk from Fiona Baverstock from Dressing Australia — Museum of Costume who provided the exhibits.

Her talk ran the scheduled 45 minutes and her passion and knowledge of the subject,  kept the whole room enthralled, even begging for more.  She moved around the floorspace discussing each exhibit in detail – a 3D Powerpoint presentation with pertinent asides adding to the excellent information already provided.

Fiona explained her credentials as owner/curator of Dressing Australia Museum of Costume, which is not a ‘bricks and mortar’ museum. She only does travelling exhibitions with her private collection.

Jane Austen Perennially Popular

Mention Jane Austen and people come, especially since contemporary films and TV serials have introduced Jane to new audiences and her novels appear regularly on school booklists.

The timing was right, 2017, the bicentenary of Jane Austen’s death. The last 20 years have seen a revival of interest in Austen mania – good news for Fiona who thought she had sold most of her costumes from the Regency era.

She normally weaves a story about who owned the clothes but couldn’t for this exhibition because she had got rid of so much of her collection. Instead, she chose Jane’s family and a few major characters from the more popular novels and looked for clothes to suit their persona.

Jane was born in 1775, therefore, an 18th-century girl and 25 years old when the 19th century began. Her fashion taste well-established, however, the new century meant moving away from stiff conservatism and from what we know of Jane’s personality and lifestyle, she probably embraced new styles.

We know a little about her through her novels and lead characters but which character’s characteristics match the author? Lizzie Bennet, Emma Woodhouse, Anne Elliot, the two Dashwood sisters? When she sat down to write what personal thoughts and experiences did she channel?

jane writing.jpg

Jane probably had at least one love attraction, never realised, and one proposal of marriage… accepted and almost immediately turned down. Love and marriage often discussed by her characters…

There are such beings in the world – perhaps one in a thousand – as the creature you and I should think perfection; where grace and spirit are united to worth, where the manners are equal to the heart and understanding; but such a person may not come in your way, or, if he does, he may not be the eldest son of a man of fortune, the near relation of your particular friend, and belonging to your own country.
Letter to Fanny Knight, 18 November 1814

Jane’s nephew wrote the first biography of Jane Austen and he gave us a staid view, presenting Jane as a sweet, unassuming homebody. He censored or ignored letters – and Jane was a prolific letter writer – and did what I suspect many family historians do, sanitising, omitting and caring more about what people might think than accuracy or honesty.

Jane was not like his impression, she had an acerbic tongue and a more accurate impression is gained from letters she wrote to her sister Cassandra.

Unfortunately, shortly before Cassandra died, she destroyed the bulk of their correspondence – perhaps she too was worried about Jane’s reputation, or that the words would be taken out of context.  Perhaps she wanted to shield family members and friends from forthright comments such as :

Poor woman! How can she honestly be breeding again?
                             Letter to Cassandra Austen, 1 October 1808

This quote from a beautifully illustrated book from the Bodleian Library I discovered in Dymocks. Fifty Illustrated Quotations are drawn from Jane’s letters and novels, testifying to her wit and candid humour – and some not so humorous observations.

Her comments about the effects of the Peninsular War, dislike of parties and social obligations and impressions of London, ranging from acerbic, ironic to poignant.

No surprise that her characters sometimes use bitter sarcasm when speaking of women’s inequality, ageing, the disappointments of marriage, fashion, and the social scene.

Here I am once more in this scene of dissipation and vice, and I begin to find already my morals corrupted.
Letter to Cassandra Austen (on arrival in London), 23 August 1796

I am almost afraid to tell you how my Irish friend and I behaved. Imagine to yourself everything most proliferate and shocking in the way of dancing and sitting down together.
   Letter to Cassandra Austen, 9 January 1796

the harington club gentlemans sign.jpg

Our ball was rather more amusing than I expected… the melancholy part was to see so many dozen young women standing by without partners, and each of them with two ugly naked shoulders! It was the same room in which we danced fifteen years ago! I thought it all over, and in spite of the shame of being so much older, felt with thankfulness that I was quite as happy now as then.
                       Letter to Cassandra Austen, 9 December 1808.

Jane Austen observed – everything.

She captured behaviours, dialogue and idiosyncrasies of the people around her. As a writer, she is famous for her ironic omniscient narrator – detached and amused. For example that oft-quoted opening sentence of  Pride and Prejudice.

Her observations of life and manners of the gentry class have been described as ‘a comedy of manners’.

I could no more write a romance than an epic poem. I could not sit seriously down to write a serious romance under any other motive than to save my life; and if it were indispensable for me to keep it up and never relax into laughing at myself or other people, I am sure I should be hung before I had finished the first chapter.

No, I must keep to my own style and go on in my own way; and though I may never succeed again in that, I am convinced that I should totally fail in any other.

Letter to James Stanier Clarke, 1 April 1816

Her characters are lively and believable so that even today’s readers engage with them when society has dramatically changed because she focuses on relationships and minutiae we can identify – and thank goodness she remained true to her own style!

All six of Austen’s novels are about love and marriage among the county gentry and the larger world of the French and American Revolutions,  the Napoleonic Wars and simmering Irish and Scottish unrest don’t intervene except in her private letters.

How horrible it is to have so many people killed! And what a blessing that one cares for none of them!

Letter to Cassandra Austen on the Peninsular War, 31 May 1811.

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Discovering A Different Jane

The following novels by Jane Austen were successful in her lifetime but published anonymously:
Sense and Sensibility (1811)
Pride and Prejudice (1813)
Mansfield Park (1814)
Emma (1815)

Northanger Abbey and Persuasion were published posthumously in 1818. Jane died in Winchester in July 1817, at the age of 41.

All these relationships between women, I thought, rapidly recalling the splendid gallery of fictitious women, are too simple. […] And I tried to remember any case in the course of my reading where two women are represented as friends. […] They are now and then mothers and daughters. But almost without exception, they are shown in their relation to men. It was strange to think that all the great women of fiction were, until Jane Austen’s day, not only seen by the other sex but seen only in relation to the other sex. And how small a part of a woman’s life is that …

Virginia Woolf’s observation about the literature of her time in her 1929 essay A Room of One’s Own

I discovered earlier writing by Jane that certainly gives a clue her personality and thoughts far from staid!

She wrote the ‘history’ book when she was sixteen and we can thank the writer  JL Carr for publishing it in a series of Pocket Books:

… the originator, compiler & publisher of these Pocket Books did so in order to subsidise the writing of novels; the best known of which ‘A Month in the Country’ was short-listed for the Booker Prize in 1980 and won the Guardian Fiction Prize.

The History of England from the reign of Henry the 4th to the death of Charles the 1st. By a partial, prejudiced & ignorant Historian’ is dedicated to Cassandra and from start to the end of its 15 pages offers witty, barbed, and radical ( perhaps treasonous!) summations of various English monarchs.

teenage jane austen history

The intro has two telling quotes – I wonder if it started off as a school assignment or a rant against how and what history is taught:

Read me anything but history, for history must be false
Sir Robert Walpole

History is just the portrayal of crimes and misfortune… All ancient history is no more than accepted fiction.
Voltaire

No doubt Jane was above average intelligence and better read and informed than many teenagers of her day, which probably went with the territory of having an educated father and many brothers in a variety of occupations.

I can imagine active and lively discussions over dinner and all those long country walks but I’m guessing when the manuscript came to light it would have raised a few eyebrows. 

Was it a reaction to whatever history was considered the most important to learn or items in the news or an exercise to explore the power of words to tell a story – they could be the first examples of flash faction.

Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands. I will not allow books to prove anything.

                                            Anne Elliot, Persuasion

I’ve kept her spelling and style in these snippets –

Henry the 4th

Henry the 4th ascended the throne of England much to his own satisfaction in the year 1399, having prevailed on his cousin & predecessor Richard the 2d, to resign it to him, & to retire for the rest of his Life to Pomfret Castle, where he happened to be murdered. It is supposed that Henry was married, since he certainly had four sons, but it is not in my power to inform the Reader who was his Wife. Be this as it may, he did not live for ever, but falling ill, his son the Prince of Wales took away the Crown; whereby the King made a long speech, for which I must refer the Reader to Shakespear’s Plays & the Prince made a still longer. Things being thus settled between them the King died, & was succeeded by his son Henry who had previously beat Sir William Gascoigne.

Henry the 5th
This Prince after he succeeded to the throne grew quite reformed & Amiable, forsaking all his dissipated Companions & never thrashing Sir William again… Lord Cobham was burnt alive, but I forget what for. His Majesty then turned his thoughts to France, where he went & fought the famous Battle of Agincourt. He afterwards married the King’s daughter Catherine, a very Agreeable woman by Shakespear’s account. In spite of all this however he died, & was succeeded by his son Henry.

Henry the 6th

I cannot say much for this Monarch’s Sense – Nor would I if I could, for he was a Lancastrian. I suppose you know all about the Wars between him & The Duke of York, who was of the right side; if you do not, you had better read some other History… This King married Margaret of Anjou, a Woman whose distresses & Misfortunes were so great as almost to make me who hate her, pity her…

Edward the 4th

This Monarch was famous only for his Beauty & his Courage… his undaunted Behaviour in marrying one Woman while he was engaged to another, are sufficient proofs… One of Edward’s Mistresses was Jane Shore who had a play written about her, but it is a tragedy & therefore not worth reading. Having performed all these noble actions, his majesty died, & he was succeeded by his Son.

Edward the 5th

This unfortunate Prince lived so little a while that no body had time to draw his picture. He was murdered by his Uncle’s Contrivance, whose name was Richard the 3d.

Richard the 3d

The character of this Prince has been in general very severely treated by Historians, but as he was York, I am rather inclined to suppose him a very respectable man… Whether innocent or guilty, he did not reign long in peace for Henry Tudor E. Of Richmond, as great a Villain as ever lived, made a great fuss about getting the Crown & having killed the King at the battle of Bosworth, he succeeded to it…

Henry 7th

This Monarch soon after his accession married the Princess Elizabeth of York, by which alliance he plainly proved that he thought his own right inferior to hers, tho’ he pretended to the contrary. By this Marriage, he had two sons & two daughters, the elder of which was married to the King of Scotland & had the happiness of being grand-mother to one of the first Characters in the World. But of her, I shall have occasion to speak more at large in future… his Majesty died, & was succeeded by his son Henry whose only merit was his not being quite so bad as his daughter Elizabeth…

What the teenage Jane alludes to is the belief that Mary Queen of Scots should never have been executed and in fact, after she describes the reigns of Henry the 8th (‘Crimes & Cruelties too many to mention’),

Edward the 6th (“a favourite” … “He was beheaded…”),

Mary ( “the good luck of being advanced to the throne of England, inspite of the superior pretensions, Merit &  Beauty of her Cousins Mary Queen of Scotland & Jane Grey..),

Elizabeth ( It was the peculiar Misfortune of this Woman to have bad Ministers – Since wicked as she herself was, she could not have committed such extensive mischeif had not these vile & abandoned men connived and encouraged her in her Crimes.),

James the 1st ( Though this King had some faults, among which & as the most principal, was his allowing his Mother’s death, yet considered on the whole I cannot help liking him.) and

Charles the 1st (This amiable Monarch seems born to have suffered Misfortunes equal to those of his lovely Grandmother…),

she concludes with –

…my principal reason for undertaking the History of England being to prove the innocence of the Queen of Scotland, which I flatter myself with having effectually done, and to abuse Elizabeth, (tho’ I am rather fearful of having fallen short in the latter part of my Scheme.)

I wonder what witty observation or acerbic put down she would write regarding her popularity today, which is almost cult status thanks to – museums, festivals, competitions, documentaries, films, sequels and prequels and of course Colin Firth’s Mr Darcy – all that focus on a man!

Fiona in her talk said she had to include an outfit close to what people imagined Mr Darcy wore in that famous scene from the TV series that people remember yet it never actually happened! You know the scene when Colin Firth walks out of the lake after a swim and his partly unbuttoned undershirt is clinging to his body!

darcy's shirt and waistcoat.jpg

Well, with another detour taken care of – I’ll get back to Fiona’s talk and the exhibition –

When History Is Fashionable

Be Persuaded had a firm focus on fashion but Fiona threw in lots of historical asides and gems to think about when she explained why she chose particular items:

from the rare 18th century gown which her mother might have worn at the time of Jane’s birth, through to the elegance and daring of the Regency era with its classic Empire line gowns, to the 1840s when women such as Cassandra had to once again retreat behind tight waists and voluminous skirts…

Jane was a keen observer of fashion and the role it played in defining status and the complex relationships in the society of her novels, even if in private she thought much of the detail and rules ridiculous.

I learnt from Mrs Ticker’s young lady, to my high amusement, that the stays now are not made to force the bosom up at all; that was a very unbecoming, unnatural fashion.
Letter to Cassandra Austen, 15 September 1813

 

Next week (I) shall begin my operations on my hat, on which you know my principal hopes of happiness depend.
Letter to Cassandra Austen, 27 October 1798

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Dress is at all times a frivolous distinction, and excessive solicitude about it often destroys its own aim.
                                                       Northanger Abbey

In her research, Fiona found that the French open robe style usually didn’t come with a petticoat because few survived – they were frequently taken on and off and most probably wore out. Petticoats were often made of the same fabric as the gown in a complimentary or contrasting colour.

Women didn’t wear knickers in the eighteenth century (audible gasps and giggles around the room) but diaphanous see-through gowns led to pantaloons – although many of these were knitted and flesh coloured to give the appearance of no knickers. (more audible murmurings…)

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What Influences Fashion?

Classical Greek and Roman lines are often the basis for design but also things like the Hussar Soldier Uniform and other unusual inspirations for accessories.

In the 18th century, the American revolution interrupted the supply of raw cotton and English industrialists looked to India and other colonies. The East India Company imported not just raw cotton but ready-to-wear material. Muslin, a popular dress material became available plain, coloured and even patterned.

Revolutions and wars are big influences.

For example, in WW2 and years immediately following, stripes and shoulder pads introduced and women’s suits were made from sturdy fabrics mimicking the style of military uniforms. It was a sad and serious time with material shortages plus more women in the workforce requiring suitable clothes.  Less frivolity and more practicality.

When it is happier less threatening times, clothes reflect the change of mood – frills, fripperies, colour, softer material, flowing designs …

Who can forget the sexual revolution of the 1960s and the shock of mini-skirts and Jean Shrimpton attending the Melbourne Cup hatless, in sandals without stockings, and a mini dress?

Often military inventions lead to a fashion use (nylon, rayon and drip dry fabric, lycra) or in the case of the 18th century because of the French Revolution wearing silk, which was considered luxurious, became a ‘no no’.

The Empire Line named after Napoleon’s determination to create his empire another example of fashion reflecting what is happening in society.

Muslin easier to look after than silk but still hand washed, rinsed, squeezed – towel dried and ironed. Bows and vandyke edging needed a special tiny iron to get into tucks with its point.

When dresses long, if they swept the ground women didn’t walk in parks and gravel and avoided dirty paths. They stepped from the doorway to carriage. For those stepping out more – hems went up a bit and wore gowns that could be washed or survive regular washing.

18th-century shoes had thin soles for dancing pumps. Boots were for country lanes and lace-up boots had a slightly thicker sole and heel. Fashionable shoes wore out quickly – poorer people needed stout leather because they walked more and their leather shoes thicker and more uncomfortable.

In the Regency era parasols tended to have straight handles and small canopies. Folding handles appeared mid 19th century as did the metal spoke. The parasol in the exhibition dated to the late 1840s, it has metal spokes but a straight handle and the canopy of polished cotton has ruching, a frill and wooden finial.

 

Fiona dressed Cassandra in crinoline – it was a time when there was an absence of war and the men were back and the male idea of femininity emphasised. Women were ‘financially dependent so had to kowtow.’ 

Fiona compared the dress on display to the 70s fashion of bell bottoms, describing both as ‘ridiculous’. I agree – the above illustrations from the Fashion Museum emphasise how limiting those voluminous dresses would be.

I wore bell bottoms in the 70s and they were a short-lived fashion item. The nearest I’ve been to a crinoline is a hooped dress a friend made me for my 60th birthday party when everyone had to come dressed as their favourite literary character.  I chose Jo from Little Women and the hooped petticoat and puffed-out gown not ideal for movement.

Just like in the 1820s/30s dresses were designed with restricted shoulder lines because women were not supposed to raise their arms – again we are talking about women in a particular class!

long woollen cloak:shawl.jpg

Anne Elliot, from Persuasion, was chosen to model a gown with a floor-length shawl.

Fiona asked us to note the sleeves and ruffles around the neck. The dress, fine cotton circa 1815 with flounces around the skirt. The lace a later addition. The bodice has ruching and the neckline an organdie tucker with ruffled collar. A Norwich shawl is over her shoulder.

The Norwich shawl, a long rectangle not square – perfect for wrapping or draping around Empire-line gowns. It could also be a Paisley or Edinburgh shawl, the name denotes where they were made. A Paisley square often folded into a triangle later in the 19th century when the voluminous ‘crinoline’ gowns returned to fashion.

The bustle killed the shawl as a fashionable accessory.

dress with bustle

The shawl on show magnificent, Fiona’s own version of an expensive imported Kashmir shawl fashionable in the 18th century, which encouraged weaving centres like Norwich and Paisley to produce their own versions. However, original Kashmir shawls popular with the very rich.

This shawl is ‘partially filled’ – an assistant (usually a woman) sitting beside the weaver hand sews extra, thicker strands to the back of the shawl to make it stronger and warmer. In 1845, fine wool began to be imported from Australia and the fashion industry incorporated this in dresses as well as shawls.

Lizzie Bennet’s Wedding Dress?

Any exhibition must have the young Lizzie Bennet and Fiona chose a wedding gown circa 1810 imagining it was Lizzie’s because she considered after all the build up in Pride and Prejudice,  Jane Austen could have at least given a description of Lizzie Bennet’s wedding dress.

The classic Empire line gown is of ivory silk and so fine it needs a padded hem to give it weight. The bonnet is a reproduction of the original. The pumps 18th-century shoes.

White became a popular option in 1840, after the marriage of Queen Victoria to Albert of Saxe-Coburg, when Victoria wore a white gown trimmed with Honiton lace. Illustrations of the wedding were widely published, and many brides opted for white in accordance with the Queen’s choice.

Regency era it was white or pastel colours because white was a fashionable colour not just for brides. In Brideswear Revisited – 200 years of gowns: off-white, cream, ivory and oyster more popular because ‘white flatters no one’.

The Provenance of the Gown an interesting story

It was worn by Emma Cato who married George Daniel at Chelsea Old Church in London 1810. Emma, born in Holborn 1787, was one of nine children to Thomas and Elizabeth Cato. Thomas described as a wireworker who made items such as needles, fish hooks, cages, chains, traps, decorative architectural embellishments and garden decorations.

He would have belonged to the Worshipful Company of Tin Plate and Wire Workers, a City of London Trade Guild. Fiona said he must have been a master rather than a mere worker because he left a Will.

George Daniel, variously described as book collector, literary critic and author, meant Emma came into contact with some of the literary giants of the day as he claimed membership of an exclusive circle including Charles Lamb, William Hazlitt and Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

He published critiques of their work as well as those from ‘superstars’ like Sir Walter Scott often inserting some of his own ‘dubious attempts at verse’ in the critique.

Fiona adds we can ‘only imagine what Emma’s life with a self-important wannabe poet and author must have been like. Perhaps he earned enough from his published literary criticism to keep them in comfortable circumstances.’

She surmises that if Jane Austen had been a man, George Daniel may have critiqued her work and Emma might have met her – considering Jane’s early novels were written anonymously perhaps he did come across them – how would we know?

I don’t think he could have been too horrible considering he composed a poem to his daughter for her birthday (c1815) and it was stitched together as a booklet – a reproduction on display and the original is at the University of Indiana.

And Yet Another Sidetrack… Huguenots

I always learn something new whenever I attend a talk, workshop, gallery, museum… and Fiona’s had me searching online about the Huguenots who were French Protestants active in the 16th and 17th centuries. They were forced to flee France due to religious and political persecution by the Catholic Church and the Crown.

I knew their story of persecution but not their contribution to the fashion industry and beyond.

Still a lightning-rod for collective anxieties, the word “refugee” entered the English language when the Huguenots landed. Although migration had begun beforehand on a modest scale, around 50,000 French Protestants came to England after Louis XIV revoked the 1598 Edict of Nantes at Fontainebleau in October 1685. Another 10,000 fled to Ireland, part of an exodus of perhaps 200,000 people. Other large contingents went to Holland, Sweden and Prussia. That still left the bulk of a hard-pressed but robust population of 750,000 or so to weather hardship in France and wait for more tolerant times…

According to one estimate, one in every six Britons has some Huguenot ancestry. Names of obvious French origin tell only a fraction of this tale. Yes, it’s easy enough to spot a Laurence Olivier, a Simon Le Bon, a Walter de la Mare, a Daphne du Maurier, a Samuel Courtauld, a Jon Pertwee, a Reginald Bosanquet, an Eddie Izzard, even – as the Ukip leader happily acknowledges – a Nigel Farage. Yet, just like Jewish incomers two centuries later, Huguenot migrants often changed their names or had them changed by impatient clerks.

As a Victorian history of London puts it, “the Lemaitres called themselves Masters; the Leroys, King; the Tonneliers, Coopers; the Lejeunes, Young; the LeBlancs, White; the Lenoirs, Black; the Loiseaux, Bird”.

https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/refugee-week-the-huguenots-count-among-the-most-successful-of-britains-immigrants-10330066.html

Proof refugees enrich society

The Huguenots arrived in Britain from France and brought their skill of silk weaving to Spitalfields where 300 families settled transforming it into London’s centre for silk-weaving. The most amazing silk designer of that period was a woman – Anna Maria Garthwaite.

The type of motifs, scale, rendering, and colour palette in textile patterns went in and out of fashion and can be used to identify a garment as being from the 1710s, 1740s, or 1760s.  The importance of silk-weaving and new designs to Georgian fashion cannot be underestimated as they conveyed not only taste but also status and wealth for the wearer.

Remarkably, one of the most successful and influential designers of silk patterns was an English woman, Anna Maria Garthwaite (1690-1763), who came to Spitalfields in 1730 and quickly infiltrated the male-dominated and family-based industry.  In fact, the establishment and prosperity of Spitalfields silk-weaving were due largely to waves of immigration by French Huguenots fleeing persecution in the 16th and 17th centuries, many of whom were weavers bringing advanced skills.

As a forty-year-old single woman, it is unlikely that Garthwaite received much if any of the formal training required of her male counterparts.  She worked in watercolour and at her most prolific produced approximately eighty designs a year, tapering off in the 1750s to about thirty designs per annum

http://blog.courtauld.ac.uk/documentingfashion/2016/11/03/anna-maria-garthwaite-spitalfields-silk-and-english-rococo/

Spitalfields was a major force in shaping eighteenth-century fashion because it was the centre of the silk-weaving industry in England.  Silk manufacture drove the very business of fashion as trends concentrated on new textile patterns rather than garment styles.

Weavers, joiners, smiths and merchants set up shop in Soho or Spitalfields and textile and design students at London Metropolitan University, now study some of their crafts, such as silk-weaving, silversmithing and upholstery. 

It is remarkable that a woman like Anna Maria Garthwaite achieved the level of success that she did.  It is a testament not only to her sheer talent and vision but also her courage to value her own abilities.

A woman Jane Austen would have admired and loved!

 

Ducks and Albatrosses Down Under

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The beginning of the year always a mixed blessing because January 10th is John’s birthday and a reminder my husband and best friend is no longer around, yet it is a new year and the future beckons and being a glass-half-full person, I look forward to whatever challenges await.

For the last sixteen years, the girls and I have visited Stony Point each January to reflect and remember John – and yes, we chat or share our thoughts with him.

Whenever I give my writing class an exercise to write about their happy place, or a place where they feel serene, I have Stony Point in mind.

the pier stony pt 2019.jpg

Serenity Writing Exercise

Once a year, sometimes more often, I visit Stony Point on the outskirts of Melbourne. This tip of the Victorian coast looks across to French Island among other smaller islets and the tide flows out to the sea. There is a pier always populated with anglers – more in some seasons than others.

There is a ferry to French Island and half the pier is now fenced off for Navy patrol boats installed during John Howard’s ‘be alert not alarmed’ crusade.

pier and fence.jpg

John requested his ashes be scattered where they would be carried out to sea, being ex-Royal Navy, John was more comfortable on the water than land and Stony Point fitted the bill.

There are mini-wetlands (or mud flats) at Stony Point frequently visited by shearwaters, pelicans and of course the ubiquitous seagulls. The area is attractive to fishermen and regardless of the season, you will always see boats coming and going.

The gutting and scaling table regularly visited by a host of birds who seem to know just when to land and wait for a feed. The take-offs and jockeying for advantageous positions to catch thrown leftovers provide a rambunctious display by the birds, especially the pelicans.

My daughters laugh at my delight and are convinced I have the largest collection of photographs of pelicans in the world! This year, I think they had a bet going and were counting how many pictures I took – I never discovered whose guess was correct!

Many people visit Stony Point and there is a caravan park with permanent residents as well as frequent holidaymakers. Every day there could be bushwalkers, anglers, picnickers, fossickers, commuters to French Island, naval personnel from nearby Cerberus base and a handful of locals who operate a rundown cafe/shop.

But there are times, like the other day, when we were the only ones soaking up the serenity for an hour or so before one boat returned and two families arrived to visit.

I’m sure others like me,  come to sit or walk by the short strand of sand or along the pier. Others relax while waiting for the ferry to French island. The kiosk, the railway station, the car park – so little change in sixteen years.

Stony Point is the end of the line for the train – a little diesel that comes from Frankston. The station personnel seem to be from another era of railway culture – a more friendly era – attuned to the age of steam perhaps – like my Dad and Grandfather…

However, just like the rest of the Victorian rail system, upgrading is happening to the only non-electrified rail line operated by Metro. There will be electrification to Hastings soon, but who knows when the upgrade will reach Stony Point, a place where change is rare.

 

pelicans september 2018.jpg

John’s Story Forever Linked to Stony Point

When I think of John, I remember his love for the sea. The vivid memories of years in the Royal Navy he loved to share. His time at sea an escape from a violent step-father. It gifted skills and room to grow. Life below deck a creative exercise in space management and curled in a hammock beneath clambering pipes was not conducive to sleep. In the 1950s and 60s, he served on destroyers and stowed belongings in lockers between gurgling pipes. Ironically, the life he loved contaminated him with asbestos…

When I think of John, I recall he joined the navy as a fifteen year old ‘boy sailor’ and said he learned to respect and consider others, to cook, clean, and iron, to share, to care for himself, to operate radar and radio, sort and deliver mail, be the butcher and food buyer for the mess, and also train as a deep-sea diver. He mastered calligraphy and latch-hook weaving and became the Mediterranean Fleet’s high jump and long jump champion in Malta. Above deck, he discovered the pleasure and benefits of breathing fresh sea air;  the joy of time to scan for exotic lands, learn to read the stars, be entertained by dancing dolphins, flying fish, and the unforgettable sight of the majestic blue whale.

When I think of John, I hear his voice reciting poetry and doggerel, quoting favourite passages from books he loved or people he admired (he could recite Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address!) and singing songs from favourite entertainers. A man of few words, each sentence counted. John didn’t do small talk…

His stints at sea gave him time to sit and think, to listen to the stories of others, and absorb some of life’s harsher lessons. He witnessed horrific scenes while based in the Mediterranean when Britain became embroiled in the Suez Crisis. He visited many European ports and also South America and South Africa, experiencing a variety of cultures and cuisine. Moved out of the comfort zone of his childhood English village, people and places expanded his heart and vision.

When I think of John, I remember his love for the sea and how it shaped his character. A sea he now roams as his ashes float from shore to shore, revisiting the lands he loved, being part of a marine world he admired – free of human form, he can dance with the dolphins, fly with the fish, or ride a whale.

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When I think of John, I remember his keen sense of humour, can hear his laughter and know he would laugh with us and enjoy the story I’m about to tell of our visit to Stony Point last Wednesday.

I was taking pictures of some Shearwaters and Pacific Gulls sunning themselves on the edge of the slipway jetty when a man in his early 40s and his two children, a boy of 8 and girl of 6, followed me towards the birds. Their conversation –

‘What kind of birds are they Dad?’

‘They’re ducks, son.’

‘No they’re not.’

‘Yes, they are – look,’ he points to the pelicans,’ see how small they are to the albatrosses.’

I’ve seen gannets and black swans at Stony Point but never an albatross.

When I shared the father/son conversation with the girls, we laughed – it reminded us of that funny TV ad for Bigpond or maybe Google, some years ago – when the young boy asked his Dad why the Great Wall of China was built and the dad replied, ‘to keep the rabbits out.’

For the record, the next evening on a walk with buddy Jillian, I took a picture of a duck in Mordialloc Creek.

a duck in Mordi Creek.jpg

And this is a pelican –

pelican close up.jpg

Pelicans – symbols of mutual aid and love

The Australian Pelican (Pelecanus conspicillatus) is the largest of the shorebirds that can be found along Victoria’s coastline. It has a wingspan of 2.3-2.5 metres and weighs 4 to 6.8 kilos. Wild pelicans can live up to 25 years. Predominantly white with black along the perimeters of the wings, it has a large pale, pinkish bill. An Australian pelican was recorded with the longest bill of any bird in the world. It is the most southerly breeding of all pelican species and is the only pelican found in Australia.

Between the bones on the lower bill is a stretchy patch of skin called the gular pouch. The gular pouch will stretch when it is filled with water and can hold up to three gallons. Pelicans also have a large nail on the tip of the upper part of the bill. They have short legs and large feet with webbing between all four toes.

Their diet is mainly fish but they are carnivores and will eat turtles, crustaceans and other waterbirds. They can soar to heights of 10,000 feet and can commute 150 kilometres to feeding areas. Highly social, these diurnal birds fly together in groups which can be very large. They breed in large colonies of up to 40,000 individuals.

Strong, slow fliers they often glide on thermals to conserve energy. During flight, they pull their head inward towards their body and rest it on their shoulders. They have been known to remain airborne for 24 hours as they seek food.

Pelicans pair up every breeding season and stay with the one mate for the rest of the season.

Adult pelicans rarely use the few calls they have but can hiss, blow, groan, grunt, or bill-clatter. The young are more vocal than the adults and will loudly beg for food. Australian pelicans primarily communicate with visual cues using their wings, necks, bills, and pouches, especially in courtship displays.

Like all birds, Australian pelicans perceive their environment through visual, auditory, tactile, and chemical stimuli. Opportunistic feeders, they adapt to human activity quite easily and directly approach humans to be fed or will steal food, which is problematic because they get caught on fishing lines and hooks.

The Pelican’s Paparazzi
Mairi Neil

Always gathered at Stony Point
pelicans wait for boats to arrive
yet with beaks and wings so large
it’s fishing skill keeps them alive

perhaps these pelicans are lazy
or maybe they’re super smart
stocking food for a week in that beak
without having to dive and dart…

Stony Point’s fishermen’s table
a magnet for seabirds galore
shearwaters, seagulls – even swans
compete with pelicans for more

discarded fish guts, heads and tails
whatever fishermen don’t want to eat
I love to watch and capture on camera
the birds vying for a treat after treat

I can’t explain my pelican fascination
except they soar skywards with poise
and whether they stand, sit or float
they exude serenity without noise

they don’t screech, squeal, or twitter
but seem content to ‘just be’
if reincarnation is really a thing
then it’s a pelican I choose to be!

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Anne and me with French island ferry in the background 2018

So little has changed at Stony Point thank goodness, although over the years signs have been added like the new banner announcing the naval facility is now managed by http://www.portofhastings.com and the new sign about French island is detailed and attractive.

Love for More Than One Place

When I developed cancer in 2010, I had lived in Australia nearly half a century, yet still felt I didn’t quite belong, still found myself homesick for Scotland, the land of my birth. I loved Australia, especially my home in Mordialloc where I have lived for thirty-five years. I married there and gave birth to my two daughters and brought them up in Mordialloc, but there was a passion missing, a sense of belonging I needed to ignite because if I was going to die should I return to Scotland?

After I finished chemotherapy I decided to create a bucket list because breast cancer and the treatment had me on the brink of death several times due to complications. I had always wanted to visit Australia’s red centre and see Uluru, in Australia’s heart and a sacred place for the Aborigines. I felt if I could get closer to the earth sacred to Aborigines, a connection to their mother, the country, would perhaps rub off on me.

Through research on the Internet, I discovered a tour company taking a group of writers to walk the Larapinta Trail called Desert Writers. Led by Jan Cornell, we’d spend five nights camping in the desert and walk the trail with two indigenous guides.

I didn’t hesitate and booked to fly to Alice Springs in July 2011 – still almost bald and a little fragile from a lumpectomy, haematoma, then radical mastectomy, three months of chemotherapy and a nasty bout of pneumonia thrown in for good measure.

The trip would not only realise a dream but would affirm I could still travel, which is one of my passions. It promised to encourage me to write, the most important passion I have. However, more importantly, I hoped to gain a greater appreciation and deeper connection to my adopted homeland, something I had not felt since being uprooted from Scotland as a child.

The journey fulfilled all my hopes and last year when I returned to Scotland after a twenty- year absence I loved being back, but returning to Mordialloc was coming home.

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My place is Mordialloc, where I can walk along the seashore and as far as I can see there is freedom, an infinite sea, and endless sky.

I can stroll by the Creek enjoying the beauty of native and imported flowers and trees, listen to birdsong, laugh at the antics of ducks and seagulls.

I can breathe and feel secure, even at night, because wherever I am near the sea, John is with me. We sprinkled his ashes at Stony Point so he can wander distant lands, many he’d visited as a boy sailor but always his spirit can return when he feels inclined to touch these shores again.

Whenever the girls or I am near the sea we know John is there, just as the Aborigines know their country and walk in the knowledge their ancestors are protecting their place and their stories.

When I die, my ashes will be sprinkled into the sea at Stony Point. My first journey will be to my birth country, the Western Isles of Scotland, but I will always return to these shores as long as the girls are here and so much of my life’s story.

At Stony Point, I feel calm, serene and comfortable. It is one of several places I cherish as well as marvellous Mordi!

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Walking, Writing – Is there a Plan? Hello, 2019!

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On a walk with my dearest friend, Lesley, we paused by a beautiful Illawarra Flame Tree to listen to rosellas, ravens and wattlebirds in conversation – perhaps squabbling over the best branch or sharing neighbourhood gossip birds enjoy.

It was a fitting end to 2018 – especially since the New Year has begun with an ‘unprecedented’ heatwave right across the continent.

A visual metaphor perhaps, a warning about global warming?

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LabInitio NZ cartoon

However, being a glass-half-full person, I’d rather accept the experience as an amazing gift from Mother Nature and a reminder there is countless beauty in gardens around the neighbourhood, and in the wild, for all of us to appreciate and share.

The glorious flaming tree emphasised how important the neighbourhood and nature is to me.

The number of wonderful species of plants and animals we have already lost is a worry especially when the bumblebee was added last year to the ever-growing list of endangered species overseas such as the grizzly bear, the northern spotted owl, the grey wolf, and nearly 1 in 3 of our unique Australian mammals are at risk  – mainly through habitat destruction.

But with a Federal Election coming up and climate change always in the news I am full of hope there are people, like myself who value and will work towards changing attitudes and our current Federal Government.

There is only one Earth to be respected, nurtured and shared, not just dug up, mined, fished, dredged, drilled and concreted over.

Greenpeace’s Rainbow Warrior docked in Melbourne in November to remind us there is a community of people who care and are prepared to act.

… as a writer, I am dependent on scientific inquiry for information. If I am going to write coherently – about polar bears, for example – I am dependent upon the scientists who work with polar bears for solid information of a certain sort. And yet I am troubled by this because of the way we approach animals as scientists.

Barry Lopez, from a discussion with Edward O Wilson on ‘Ecology and The Human Imagination,’ University of Utah, February 1, 1998.

Let’s celebrate the natural world

We have much to learn from the animal and natural world.

Birds are constantly adapting to changed circumstances, adversity and catastrophe. Recently, I’ve been entertained by the songs of a butcher bird that decided it likes my garden. I noticed the baby bird a few months ago so move over magpies and wattlebirds.

I am one of the few houses in Albert Street that still has a reasonable number of trees as apartment blocks and townhouses mushroom around me. A self-confessed dendrophile I will be planting more trees this year and spending time cultivating the garden with flowers and vegetables. (Even if the possums ate my broccoli and are munching their way through the top of the five photinias protecting the back fence.)

Indulging the senses

There are lots of inspirational ideas from walking around the suburbs – a mixture of indigenous, imported, practical and ornamental trees and plants attract a variety of birds, butterflies and insects.

Lesley and I have already made a pact to share more cuttings and encourage each other regarding our gardens. We are both transitioning to retirement, so my writing will indubitably reflect either success or failure!

I’ll take a leaf out of Thoreau’s practice of walking, observing, pondering and writing…

… we begin to see the whole man as we follow the crowded, highly charged, and rapidly evolving inner life that accompanies the busy outer life and reveals the thoughts behind the eyes of the familiar photographs.

Robert D Richardson Jr: Henry David Thoreau: A Life of The Mind.

Will I be inspired to be more creative and productive and take the advice I’ve meted out to students over the years? Thoreau mined his journal jottings and got essays and books out of his copious notes – not sure I’ll be so talented…

As a person who likes to ‘join the dots’ I value connectedness when memories spring to mind as I walk or travel by public transport. I have a pile of notebooks to be typed up and documents already on the computer to finish or add to and way too many photographs. (My oldest daughter banned me from ever opening an Instagram account!)

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Will 2019 be the year I use time wisely or perhaps discover a niche other than writing and teaching?

Do I write up and polish, start afresh, a bit of both or ‘now for something completely different’?

Maybe just luxuriate in reading and gardening…

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Tales of Our Lives
Mairi Neil

If you want to record your stories
consider what and ponder why –
list all the events to be remembered
and ask, ‘Who for?’

Is that a sigh?

If wondering ‘who’ don’t worry
there’s joy in a manuscript for one
reflecting on life and lessons learned
gives satisfaction when writing done!

Do we need to record our stories?
Some question the wisdom of revisiting years
but most of us have lived experiences
to prompt laughter as well as tears.

Ordinary people live extraordinary lives
an observation you often hear said –
so concentrate on the who and what
think how your stories will be read.

Will you write with pen and ink –
forming copperplated words
or tap myriad computer keys
that easily erase the absurd?

You may even take recording
to another level of authenticity,
digital voice and video programs
reproducing ‘you’ with simplicity.

And if you do go digital –
recording voice and visuals – remember
mobile phones, Youtube, Facebook
retain the serious and the trivial…

Stories have entertained us
from the beginning of humankind
witness Stone Age drawings and
precious artefacts archaeologists find.

Storytelling fills a need and
links the present to the past
by exploring our human story –
we ‘nail our colours to the mast’!

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No More Travelling To Bentleigh

It will be strange not going to class Wednesday mornings and catching up with the students in my Life Stories & Legacies class.

As I considered the final anthology, I looked around the room and realised some of the students had journeyed with me for the five years the course has been running. The women scribbling in their notebooks and tapping an iPad now friends, not students. All are amazing writers whose authentic prose and poems from the heart, were written from a depth of experience spanning decades. Edna the oldest will be turning ninety in a couple of months and Anat, the youngest in her thirties.

I watched them grow in confidence as writers, bond and trust each other, learning to be true to themselves and their stories. They shared personal and family secrets, opinions (not always politically correct), anecdotes, and many entertaining and heartbreaking tales of life’s sorrows and joys.

The class established for people who wanted to leave a written legacy. The questions each one had to answer:

  • Who am I writing for?
  • What information do I think they need to know?
  • More importantly, what do I want them to know?
  • What will they remember about me?

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I published 8 class anthologies over the years and if the students finished a semester or year they contributed work. The students who shared their stories 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018:

  • Melissa Quigley
  • Jan Wiburd
  • Annie Crane
  • Edna Gaffney
  • Nora Boghikian
  • Anat Bigos
  • Helen Thomas
  • Donna Hellier
  • Mary Robinson
  • Suzanne Dillon

Some of the students were childless but have dear friends and family to think about or aimed to publish their life stories for the general public.

No students in the final class had a partner – they either never married, were divorced, or widowed. Therefore our stories had a definite female, some may say feminist, perspective.

I am constantly awed at the resilience and determination displayed when journeys are shared – the overcoming or ongoing struggle with illness, disease, disability; the grief and mourning for loved ones touches us all, as well as the additional losses – of country, of culture, of employment, of partners, of children, of health, of pets, of self-esteem… the list can go on.

Writing is appreciating and trying to explain/understand the human condition. Yet a strong aspect of writing classes has always been laughter – not only do we love to laugh with each other but at ourselves.

Another aspect has been the delicious morning teas and birthday celebrations – on Wednesday mornings, Anat’s carer, Jill an integral part of our class family and birthday cake maker extraordinaire!

The tapestry of my life has been so much richer because of Wednesday mornings and although looking to weave new threads, or even have a rest from weaving, I’m going to miss Life Stories & Legacies where I was truly blessed with a wonderful class.

The poems and stories of all past students are important to me and when I read their words I hear their voices, imagine them in class… memories I value.

I have a bookshelf of class anthologies from Sandy Beach, Mordialloc, Bentleigh and Chelsea and reading the poems and stories I can recall the writers:

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Not Everyone is A Digital Native

We are in the digital age and the demands of readers have changed – there are websites, blogs, e-books, podcasts, audiobooks – stories experienced on a variety of devices with different screens and parameters.

If writers want to reach a variety of readers methods must change.

How to adapt is a  personal choice, and for many people, the traditional printed paper is still what they want to read and how they want to be published.

I found most of the students coming to my classes were not digital natives and preferred to keep learning the craft of writing and learning computer skills separate. Some struggled with basic formatting, some were not on email, many had ‘hunt and peck’ keyboard skills.

Fortunately, all were happy to be lifelong learners and even if it was a struggle they’d attend computer classes too, which most community houses or libraries now provide. Coping with a wide range of skills, or lack of skills a fact of life if teaching in community houses and it’s important not to leave anyone behind.

However, whether you write with pen and paper or prefer to tap your laptop or iPad you benefit from regular writing. Writing classes or workshops can be a first step to discovering not only what you want to write while learning the tools of the craft, but also how you want to be published.

Writing helps you reflect on your life and changes you’re making. … Writing regularly makes you better at writing. And writing is a powerful skill to be good at in our digital age. Writing for an audience (even if the audience is just one person) helps you to think from the perspective of the audience.

Leo Babauto

More importantly, writing classes can keep you motivated.  Writing courses proliferate online as well as bricks and mortar but for convenience and cost, community houses are hard to beat. They throw in ambience, friendship, sharing of stories and ideas, and a lot of love and caring so I’m glad the classes are continuing at Bentleigh with other teachers.

Number Nine Godfrey Street

Mairi Neil

The garden a delight from someone’s green fingers
a profusion of pastel colours glistening
while sunshine smiles and fickle autumn spits rain
I watch visitors stream inside the nondescript house
their footsteps echoing on shaded verandah
walkers scrape and stroller wheels squeak
a magpie trills in dinner-suited elegance,
preening glossy feathers and strutting the footpath
as if ushering passersby to enter stage right ––
the Isadora scarf or Hitchcock cigar missing.

A young woman, nursing a toddler on her hip,
grins a welcome to the elderly gent
clutching a chessboard and secret moves
their families farewelled to independence,
seniors care for themselves in exercise classes
small talk in craft sessions produces big results
delightful aromas drift from the kitchen ––
homemade pumpkin soup, sweet chocolate cookies,
spicy curries – recipes shared with curiosity and love
sauced with tales from distant lands.

Oil paintings and pastel drawings, the fruit
of nurtured local artists decorate the walls
this house celebrates learning, laughter and leisure …
friendships bubble, overflow to the neighbourhood
no need to cruise the retail choices of Centre Road,
sup lonely cafe lattes amid chattering conversations
or sit mesmerised by mobile screens
a house in Godfrey Street plants seeds
and grows friendships, welcomes newcomers,
encourages indigenous and immigrant to bloom.

In the house singsong voices of children tinkle
while mellow murmurings of writers’ words
capture imagination, life experience, and wisdom.
pens scratch notepads as the sewing group
across the hall coax machines to whirr into life,
garments appear patterned by creativity
wordsmiths spin sentences for pleasure
every room thrums and hums as
people connect, care, and communicate
a commitment to lifelong learning

I accept the marching magpie’s invitation
submit to being ‘led up the garden path’
and follow a thirty-year trail to discover
like the vibrant blossoms in the garden
community and harmony flourishes
at Number Nine Godfrey Street, Bentleigh.

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Christmas Joy Not Humbug!

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The Twelve Days of Christmas

The popular song aside, traditionally the ‘twelve days of Christmas’ is the period that  Christian theologians mark the time between the birth of Christ and the coming of the Magi, referred to as the three wise men.

It begins on December 25, Christmas Day and continues to January 6, the Epiphany.  For many people that is also the day they take down the Christmas Tree and put the decorations away for another year. Some people do this on January 5th others January 6th.

I can smile now remembering the first discussion my late husband, John and I had about this – I brought up Church of Scotland and non-conformist and he, brought up Church of England (Anglican rather than Episcopalian).

Although born in Australia, John spent the early part of his life in England and Christmas traditions ingrained. As a Scot whose household celebrated Hogmanay, Christmas was low key, centred around the Church:

Christmas Day only became a public holiday in 1958, and Boxing Day in 1974. The New Year’s Eve festivity, Hogmanay, was by far the largest celebration in Scotland.

Emigrating to Australia in 1962, the hot summers didn’t do anything to increase my enthusiasm for some traditions – especially ones involving Yule logs and roast dinners!

Back to the ‘Twelve days’ …

John said the tree had to be down and decorations packed away by January 6th, whereas I believed you left it up until January 6th. A ridiculous debate put in perspective the year my sister divorced her horrible first husband. She left her Christmas tree up until Easter because it brightened the house and welcomed her home with twinkling lights! As good a reason as any to break with tradition…

wild woman and christmas message

Cate’s unorthodox view remembered this year when she became an unexpected house guest for Christmas because her husband needed an urgent operation and the surgeon could fit him into his list at Frankston Hospital on Christmas Eve.

What would Christmas be without a wee miracle?

Brother-in-law Ian came through with flying colours and Christmas lunch a bigger and more special celebration than usual. The few days Cate and I spent, in and around, the large public hospital, sobering and a glimpse of the Christmas others experience.

It got me thinking that Christmas aside, there are always many people trying to ‘brighten’ the lives of others, dedicating their lives to those less fortunate – they don’t need an excuse, they do their job, follow their heart or beliefs, care about human or animal welfare – we don’t focus on the joy often enough, but absorb the negativity the press pander to – the philosophy of TV News – if it bleeds, it leads…

The nursing staff at Frankston did their best to make the ward festive – I loved the use of medical equipment tarted-up (a rubber ring/doughnut cushion stuck with coloured balls) and tinsel wrapped around trolleys and exercise equipment. But it was the effort of wonderful volunteers dressed as Mrs Christmas and elf helper on a 36-degree day that truly impressed!

We scored a candy cane before they entered the lift!

cate with hospital volunteers

Advent for many Christians begins the four weeks preceding Christmas and each Sunday up to Christmas Eve there will be special sermons and services leading up to the arrival/birth of Jesus.

However, for an increasingly secular society, Christmas begins with a flood of consumerism that reaches fever pitch and a frenzy in December but starts late October/early November…

I wrote a poem about this years ago (pre-computer), can’t find it, but suffice to say it wasn’t complimentary to junk mail or the advertising industry, which help with the humbug factor and not the joy that is found among friends and family, who use the lead up to Christmas for gatherings or tȇte-à-tȇtes.

my pink-red rose.jpgChristmas Catch-Ups

I love this time of year because in many of the cards or emails received there is news of how the year has been for friends and family and people make an effort to get together. Give me a chat and cuppa instead of presents any day because if the person lives far away, or is rarely seen, information other than ‘Merry Christmas’ is good to hear.

Sometimes even if people live close by, the busyness of life leaves meaningful conversation a rarity and so the gift of time to chat, go to the movies or a play is refreshing and food for the soul. Christmas is a great excuse and motivation to invigorate relationships. I get to have a coffee or tea with students outside class – I’m not the teacher or motivator but a friend with all ‘the issues’ that enjoy a good airing when we share what’s in our hearts and minds.

Here I am with Elhan who came to my class several years ago at Mordialloc. She is an accomplished writer in English as well as Turkish and writes a column for a Turkish newspaper in Melbourne. She took me to a cafe in Mordialloc owned by Turkish Australians, bought me ‘Turkish tea’ served in a cup with the blue-beaded eye motif to protect me from evil, and gifted me an Orhan  Pamuk novel.

It’s not a Facebook cliche when I write I’m truly blessed with the people who have come into my life through teaching and writing!

I’m transitioning to retirement but some of my friends are already enjoying more leisure time. I went to see a dear friend Uma and husband Kevin who live at Bulleen. It was lovely to have lunch in their home instead of catching up with Uma near her office in the city – our usual Christmas rendezvous.

It was an hour and a half’s journey by public transport – train to Southern Cross and then another to Heidelberg Station – but a relaxing journey that introduced areas of Melbourne I rarely visit. However, visiting will be a lot easier when the Andrews Government’s fantastic infrastructure program is complete. Looking at a time when they may not want to drive everywhere, Uma and Kevin are thrilled that accessing public transport will be so much easier and provide more choice of mode and destinations because they live near one of the many access points for the outer city loop.

After lunch, we walked to the park at the end of their street and Uma shared stories of her neighbourhood with similar pride when she and Kevin came to Mordi at Easter and we walked the foreshore and I shared where I fill up with serenity!

At the park considering the topic of my last post, I was thrilled to discover The Peace Path!

bulleen peace park

What a wonderful project! We watched families play in the park, school children walk home from nearby schools past The Peace Path, a prominent installation, a daily and fun reminder of diversity and connectedness. Well done Manningham City Council.

 

New Acquaintances Not Forgot

Many ex-students who perhaps only came for a semester or two also stay in touch and have become valued friends. At this time of year, it’s lovely to hear how they are going with their life and writing projects.

I received a welcome letter from Naoko in Japan and the delightful gift of a book and a very tempting invitation:

“an autobiography by Tomihiro  Hoshino. He writes poetries and draws paintings by his mouth. He is from my neighbour town and there is a museum. I would like to take you there. So please come visit me!'”

book cover from Japan

Serendipity!

Naoko doesn’t know that for more than twenty-five years I have bought cards and calendars from Mouth & Foot Painting Artists Australia and hold the artists in absolute awe for the exquisite products and attitude to life.

She does know that I love Japanese poetic forms and their ability to say so much in so few words – most of my classes have been introduced to haiku, tanka, renga, senryu and haibun at some point!

It is not a thick book and translated by Hiroko and Joseph McDermott was an easy read. But it is quite unlike other memoirs I’ve read considering the subject matter. The tone is not ‘poor me’ or bitter and very quickly the focus is how the writer accepted help from others and learned to paint and write with his mouth to bring meaning, purpose, joy and love into his life.

It is an upbeat memoir because yes he even grew to love and marry a faithful nurse ( not always a cliche) and found success as a writer and painter.  I understand not everyone with a disability or life-changing accident can be so lucky – but what you learn from the book is that it wasn’t just luck…

His determination and persistence, plus the loyalty, love, and consistent support from those who loved him are powerful elements not only enabling him to survive but thrive.

This First edition published in 1988 is the first of several books from Hoshino who was a high school physical education teacher until an accident in the gymnasium left him paralyzed from neck to toe and hospitalised for nine years.

He was 24 years old and in his prime.

‘I was a physical education teacher. I chose this job, not so much as I was interested in teaching, but as I wanted to keep on doing the sport I had always loved since childhood. This desire was so strong that all day long I would exercise with my students… even after the classes were out, I was running or kicking a ball around until everyone else had gone home and the grounds were empty except for me.’

The first chapter, The Accident (June 1970), is short and to the point with headings:

  • Do I Still Have Arms?
  • The Face of My Parents
  • I Will Not Die
  • From the Hospital Diary

He uses extracts from his sister’s Diary to explain the precariousness of his situation, the operations and treatment that ultimately saved his life and put his neck bones into place so he could breathe without a respirator.

“It has been decided that he can sleep without the machine. When the gauze was put back in the hole in his throat, he was encouraged to practice talking with the hole in his throat covered up. Ton-chan (my nickname) smiled happily and said in a strong voice, “The weather’s fine today.” He looked so happy that we all burst into laughter.”

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The second chapter is The Joy of Writing and we learn, ‘Two years passed. Some people assumed I had died… I wavered between life and death so many times…’

However, the medical attention and constant support of his mother, brothers, sisters and close friends who take turns to nurse him every day, kept him alive. (His mother devotes her life to his recovery from day one!)

He mentions but doesn’t dwell on despondency and despair. ‘ My body had a life of its own, regardless of my wishes, though I no longer had a deep commitment to life.’

I don’t know anything about the Japanese hospital system but obviously, technology and scientific development since the 70s have changed in much the same way as ours. The treatment of accidents like Hoshino’s would be different and perhaps have different outcomes. Hospital treatments, access, cost and even where the hospital is in Japan is not the focus of the story.

There is a glimpse of how rehabilitation has made great advances when he describes the day a visiting child brought a radio-controlled toy car into the hospital and one of the mothers who was looking after her child who was a patient said:

‘If one child brings a toy like that, all the others want their own. You can’t blame them. If you’re rich, it might be okay. But what about families like ours?… Tears were welling up in her eyes.

It’s nothing to cry over…, I thought, and moved closer to the children… It was like a very clever puppy perfectly trained to perform…

Frankly, I felt like crying for one as well… watching the car race around … a certain sadness crept up over me. If people can make a precision toy like this for children, why should I have to stay on a wheelchair which moves only when someone pushes it? Why couldn’t the scientific knowledge used for such a toy also be used to move a wheelchair?

I also felt tears coming to my eyes…

Electric wheelchairs were available but he needed one specifically designed for people who can only move from the neck up. His wheelchair was actually a motorised stretcher.

In 1979, after two boffins from Suzuki Motors visited him they worked out the power and movement he had in his neck and delivered a wheelchair with a driving lever he controlled with his chin.

‘Everything about the world outside then began to look rosier once I found that people like them were working away at some research that could greatly ease my life…

Now my mother could take long-needed rests while I went out for rides.’

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From a card I bought in Oban, Scotland

In 2016, I was privileged to help start and facilitate a social group for Glen Eira Council. Over the years, I’ve had several people with ABI (Acquired Brain Injury) in my classes and I was approached to help them start a group where they could meet and discuss everything from literature, movies, politics, philosophy, therapies, culture, and even pet peeves… to relax and ‘Chat ‘N Chuckle’ with others who understood that it may take longer to speak, to listen, and understand what someone wants to say.

Many had motorised wheelchairs – today a variety of mobility aids are common but Tomihiro’s thoughts and perspective gave me a deeper understanding of how important aids are and how innate our need for independence.

An Epiphany

Tomihiro’s electric wheelchair was a long time coming and despite his mother’s relentless devotion it was often the interaction with others that gave that much-needed spark not to lose hope.

Sharing a room with a seriously ill ex-student from his junior high school who always had a cheerful smile made Tomihiro feel obligated to smile too along the lines of  ‘fake it till you make it’.

The relationship that developed between master and student a turning point, especially after the teenager was moved to another hospital and his mother visited Tomihiro, bringing a white, tulip shaped hat belonging to her son, Takaku. He wanted his former roommates to write words of encouragement such as ‘don’t give up’ and ‘have patience’.

Tomihiro wanted to write something but crunching a pen between his teeth, could only manage a tiny dot until his mother moved the hat so he managed to write one of the Chinese characters of his name “Tomi” extending the tiny dot into an “O”.

From that tentative beginning and with months of trial and error to find a painless position for his neck, he finally managed to write a single letter by himself:

“The gauze rolled around the pen in my mouth got soaked with saliva. It was also dyed with blood from the gums since I had strained so much while writing. My mother, who was watching from the side of the bed, also clenched her teeth from the strain. There was sweat on her forehead as well…

All of a sudden my life looked bright again… after having experienced the despair that I would never be able to do anything again, I felt from a single line or letter the same thrill I might have experienced setting a new sports record.”

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Another person who not only visited Tomihiro but was instrumental in his healing journey and his development as a writer and poet was a friend from university days.

Yoneya… and I would have dinner at the same table and every evening I would watch him say a prayer. I usually sat down with my hands unwashed and started eating … I never wondered to whom or what he was praying, nor why he said a prayer before every meal…

One day, he told me, “I am going to study in a theological school in Tokyo in order to become a minister.”

… I didn’t know exactly what it meant, but I realized what a hard and serious life he had chosen to pursue.

As soon as he heard of my injury he came to see me in the hospital. later he sent me a copy of the Bible with his apology for being unable to do anything else for me for the time being. I kept the book in a box under the bed…

Actually, I had hesitated for a long time before opening the Bible. I was afraid other people around me might think and say, “He must be in such pain to have turned for help even from the Christian God…”

… I tried to think up some excuse to open the Bible: it would help me understand history… pass the time… requite a favor extended by a senior…

… all along I knew very well what I really wanted. In my mind, I had a faint hope that something in this black-bound book might change me, just as it had changed Mr Yoneya and made him feel grateful for even the poor meals served in the university dormitory…

… when I was forced to lie on my bed unable to move or speak, I had to live a life in which every day I had to face the real me. And the real me was not strong, was not a fine person at all…

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The Power of  Spiritual Awakening

Tomihiro reads the New Testament and he recognises certain verses he has read on graves in cemeteries (St Matthew 11.28-30):

I had not known what they meant. But somehow the words stuck clearly in my mind. Perhaps I remembered them since I was then really “heavy laden,” carrying manure from the pigsty up to the fields. 

As I reread this passage over and over, I felt something warm begin to stream out from the depths of my heart…

I felt that God had prepared this passage for me long before I had even dreamed I might have the accident…when there were hard times, did I have a friend I could unburden my heart to, tell my suffering and pains?…

Lying on my back, looking up at the ceiling, I was seized by an intense sense of loneliness. I felt helpless before it… I thought that a person named Jesus might listen to me, might hold me lovingly in his arms…

haiku abandoned shell.jpg

Regardless of whether you follow a particular religion or no religion when people are faced with severe trauma, accident, disease, prolonged illness or near the end of life many may at some point ask one or more thought-provoking questions, maybe go through a period of self-reflection or self-doubt. Perhaps they consider what they took for granted or didn’t really worry about, or search for a belief that gives them inner peace:

What is life about? Is there a reason for it all? Why is life on Earth so diverse – was/is there a ‘design’? Can Science explain everything? Can religion? Is there life after death? Will I ever recover? Why me?

Seeking, and finding peace, if not answers, can be healing.

When my husband was dying we had many philosophical discussions because John was ill for a long time. He became an avid reader and thought more deeply about ideas and beliefs because he had time to digest and think about what he was reading. Time is a great commodity and gift if you use it well!

I remember telling him when various friends or family members added his name to their particular religion’s prayer list, he’d say with his usual cheeky grin,  “Good, I read an article and people who are prayed for live longer.”

The night before he died when Father Tony, the local Anglican priest called in and prayed at John’s bedside he said, “and the Heavenly Father is waiting for you, John, to hold you in his arms…”

John’s response, “Prove it!”

We all laughed and Father Tony said, “You have to trust me on this, John!” and at the funeral shared the anecdote from “my friend and pragmatist, John.”

We sang John’s favourite hymn from Royal Navy days, Abide With Me plus Lord of The Dance and he was carried out to The Internationale. If people wonder at the apparent conflict of beliefs I tell the story of the writer/educator, Paulo Freire who was asked, “How can you be a Marxist and a Christian?”

He answered, “No problem for me.”

Life is complicated and what people believe and how they cope with challenges is too. The honesty about Tomihiro’s journey, the authenticity in the telling, kept me reading and will remain with me. The simplicity of his explanation of how enriching the spirit and nurturing other senses can compensate for the loss of limbs and movement.

The Joy of Reading

He too discovered how reading enriches life – the power of story:

I spent a lot of time reading, using a simple device that let me lie on my back and read a book hanging open in front of my eyes. My mother would turn the pages for me.

Reading had not been a habit of mine when I was a child or a student… By reading books while lying on my back, I was able to learn the joy of reading. When nobody was at my bedside, there was no way to turn a page. So I kept reading the same page over and over again for as long as thirty or forty minutes. 

After such readings, I would often find something I had never noticed or understood. Some parts deeply impressed me, and I copied them into my sketchbooks…

From his hospital bed, or wheeled into the corridors by his mother, Tomihiro enjoyed being a people watcher but one day he catches sight of a person with a fox fur wrapped around her neck.

This inspires his first poem and more contemplation of not only his personal condition but how humans interact, adapt – what it means to be who we are …

And so entranced by the power of words, he studies, writes, and continually strives to improve his own writing.

In the Hallway
Hoshino Tomihiro (February 20)

A fox
Was watching
With glass eyes,
He was watching.
With the weight of his boneless neck
He was chewing his tail,
And he as watching
Me.

He noted how the glass eyes looked so sad – perhaps they reflected the feelings of his heart? He thought of the word ‘patience’ often used in letters he received. When he saw the fox transformed into neckwear, he sensed he saw himself:

I too had been living day after day, with my teeth digging into my body the more I tried to be patient… Why do I still need to hear ‘patience’…?

I haven’t really changed. The person I was before this accident – wasn’t that basically the same person I am today, even if I can’t move? Why then should I have to be patient with myself? Why should I live day by day with my teeth clenched?

Something did not make sense…

CROWN-OF-THORNS
Hoshino Tomihiro

When you can move but
must stay still,
You need endurance.
But when you’re like me,
And cannot move,
Who needs endurance
Stay still?
And soon enough,
The thorny rope of
endurance
Twisted round my body
Snapped off.

At this time, Miss Watanabe, a friend of Mr Yoneya’s visits, a Christian too,  she cared for her bedridden father for many years. From her first visit, Masako never misses a Saturday and eight years later they marry and return to live in Tomihiro’s home district near his parents. The blossoming of their relationship and her encouragement of his writing and art the impetus for his first major exhibition.

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Flowers Helped Him Bloom

When lying in bed, it was the flowers visitors brought that Tomihiro fixated on – they were beautiful, they were close at hand, and for a long time they represented the outside world he missed. Not surprising they were the first subjects he tried to draw.

When spring comes, the hospital garden is full of beds of blossoming flowers. And when I see them in bloom alongside my window my heart cheers up, even though I have to keep lying in bed… even if I feel depressed with all sorts of worries about my physical problems, all the trees outside may be in bud and even small weeds in bloom…

Regardless of what each human being may feel, the seasons go round and round in the flow of time. We may be happy or sad, become even angry and hateful… but what tiny creatures we are in the vast universe of nature!

There were always some flowers at my bedside brought by visitors and arranged in a vase by my mother. Lying on my back, I saw them day and night out of the corner of my eyes…

CHRYSANTHEMUMS
Hoshino Tomihiro

For over six years
Mr Kobayashi has been coming
To see me
With flowers.
The flowers he grows
Are as strong
As the weeds in the field
Sometimes even generously hosting bugs
Such flowers
I like most.
His flowers come
Wrapped in newspaper
On which there are left
His fingerprints.

COLUMBINES
Hoshino Tomihiro

Even a flower
When praised
Begins to look nicer,
Someone said so,
I remember.
Then I began to wonder
With fear,
If the flowers
Were looking at my painting.

sunflowers in vase.jpg

My favourite part in Tomihiro’s awakening and rebirth is when he writes about his mother. This woman deserves her own memoir! For the nine years, he was in the hospital she was with him, leaving the farm and village life in her husband’s care.

Tomihiro describes a New Year in the hospital when some patients and many staff have left for holidays. Those left decided to have a party.

All the attendants sat down together for tea on a straw mat spread in the center of the room. Normally, everybody in the hospital had to sit on a chair, not on a Japanese mat, as they did at home… my mother and the other attendants felt more relaxed squatting…

… I could not join them on the mat, but… I felt as if I was back home sitting on a mat with my mother.

They decided to have a singsong, taking it in turns –

While I was singing, I was worrying about my mother. She was to sing after me, and I had never heard her sing before. Can she sing a song? Does she even know a song to sing?…

Her turn came. She said, “I can’t really sing,” and begged the next person to go ahead. But nobody would… my mother began to sing… in a shy, thin voice… an old song I had never heard before.

… the trembling in her voice died away, and her timbre became stronger and stronger…

I was amazed. My mother, her face as shy as ever, now looked so different to me… the mother I had just seen singing was her real self. I had simply never noticed… 

She must have known many songs in her youth. Busy with bringing up children and farming, however, she must have forgotten, before she was aware of it, that she could sing.

While she worked in the small muddy family plot, doing side jobs for a small extra income well after the children had fallen asleep, and bringing us up without buying anything for herself, she must have forgotten about pleasures for herself…

I had never asked what she might want. She must have longed to take a trip or to buy some books to read. Or, even right at this moment, she might be thinking how much she would like to welcome in the New Year with my father back home…

The more I thought, the more ashamed I felt of myself. I had been concerned only about myself, thinking I alone had suffered from this injury…

I love this poem he wrote  –

poem 1

and this honest observation:

“When I was young and healthy, I used to feel very sorry for the handicapped. Sometimes I even felt uncomfortable when I saw them. While going around in my wheelchair, however, I learned something I had not noticed at all before. I was physically handicapped but I was not unhappy, nor did I dislike myself.”

It is all about perception and attitude. He explains it beautifully in a poem about a roadside flower whose Japanese name means poison and pain. He used to hate the flower because of its strange smell and preference for dank places.

Dokudami (Houttuynia)
Hoshino Tomihiro

Someone comes
And picks you up with care.
You have been scorned and despised
They all say you stink
You have been living very quietly
In this small nook along the road,
Looking up at the feet
Of passers-by,
As if waiting for someone to come to you
And need you.

Your flowers
Look just like white crosses.

The title of the book is a line from one of his poems written about the same common weed – it too suggests the mind can always be a little more perceptive and appreciative of the world we live in.

HOUTTUYNIA CORDATA
Hoshino Tomihiro

I didn’t know
How beautiful you were.
Here so close
But I didn’t know.

A book can be the gift that keeps on giving.

A good thought to end the year on and welcome 2019.

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Can Poetry Promote Peace and Creativity Challenge Politicians Effectively?

Lake Burley Griffin Canberra

Over the last few weeks, I’ve struggled to write about Remembrance Day 2018 – or write about anything else on this blog because this anniversary was important and I wondered how I could do it justice and make sense of a lot of the thoughts rattling around in my head – particularly considering the fractious state of today’s world – a fact we are constantly reminded of due to the 24 hour news cycle and social media.

So buckle up – grab a cuppa or read the post in stages:)  ponder the words and meaning of the poems, savour the poignancy of some of the photographs.

Peace does begin with ourselves, our families, our communities…

This year, the centenary of the signing of the Armistice in World War One – 11 November 1918 – signified PEACE at last, after four years of carnage, but as many people have already written, humanity ignored all the lessons learned and we’ve hardly stopped skirmishing or creating full-blown battles ever since.

Six Excuses Not To Write

1.    I was distracted by the Victorian Election and busy working for the return of the Andrews Labor Government as well as Mordialloc’s local member, Tim Richardson MP who genuinely cares about the local community and works hard. I made this a priority and to be honest enjoyed myself and met many interesting people. No encounter every wasted for a writer…

The personal is political. Ever since my involvement in the Vietnam Moratorium Movement as a teenager, I’ve made activism a priority – the community is too important not to care enough to work for social justice and be a peace activist.  If enough people care to speak up, it does make a difference. A change of government in 1972 and Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam brought the troops home.

At a get-together, before the “Danslide” as Daniel Andrews Labor win is described, we met in Tim’s office and I gave the Premier a couple of Mordialloc Writers’ Group anthologies and advised, ‘there is no better way to understand a community than through the poems and stories of its writers.”

I hope he reads them.

 2.    I mulled for hours at how to express the disquiet I feel about exhibits and projects at the Australian War Memorial being funded by arms manufacturers and the millions of dollars the Federal Government has spent on memorials rather than the health and well-being of veterans.

At the Centenary Celebration in Canberra, I saw first-hand elements of concern. Huge guns and tanks out the front (ironically pointing over the Field of Poppies and at the statue of Sir John Monash) as if these harbingers of death and destruction should be celebrated. There’s always going to be arguments about what is glorification and what is commemoration but there should never be a debate about prioritising the welfare of veterans and recent reports indicate we are letting them down. 

3.    I’ve spent my life studying history (a subject I love), travelling to as many places as I can afford, visiting exhibitions and museums, reading widely – I’m a person who tries to join the dots to understand ‘the human condition’ we writers love to explore. This topic has so many dots to join and I have an overabundance of thoughts that don’t necessarily provide answers or coherence. It was easier to procrastinate … but in a case of physician heal thyself – I did ‘jump in and just write‘ and followed the advice I give students!

4.    I read again the poets of the First World War and visited a poignant and confronting art exhibition at Melbourne’s wonderful Shrine of Remembrance. An experience that deserves its own post although inextricably linked to the topic and so won’t get its own post now – please visit and experience for yourself.

5.    The trips to Canberra, and to Melbourne’s Shrine, were to visit the culmination of the magnificent 5000 Poppy Project. The organisers did a superb job and I was keen to see what happened to my contributions.  (As if I could find mine among the thousands of donations but ego being what it is … I should have been more creative and added sparkles or something so they would stand out!)

In Canberra,  several installations were truly works of art and in Melbourne, the knitted tributes spelt out the familiar quote and linked lines from The Ode from Laurence Binyon’s For The Fallen, and its well-known response. Too many of us probably say the verses without pondering the meaning but I guarantee seeing the words ‘in blood’ sears your heart – especially with the thin red trail linking each line, like droplets of blood and a poignant reminder each poppy represents a lost life.

6.    Maybe the most valid excuse is that the last few weeks of the school year are always manic as I collate and publish class anthologies – and this year, retiring from my position at Godfrey Street after 6 years, I wanted to go out ‘with a bang, not a whimper‘. I cracked the whip for my students and myself and there really is a finite time to sit at a computer and remain healthy.  I crossed that line too often, burning the proverbial midnight oil with bad posture and tension taking its toll on legs, bones, and back.

Poppies At Melbourne’s Shrine of Remembrance

they shall not grow old
they shall not grow old
as we that are left grow old
as we that are left grow old
age shall not weary them
age shall not weary them
nor the years condemn
nor the years condemn
at the going down of the sun
at the going down of the sun
and in the morning
and in the morning
we will remember them
we will remember them
lest we forget
lest we forget

After walking amongst well-tended gardens, I rested in sanctuaries for those broken by experience and memories.  Each secluded ‘garden’ displaying plants of different spheres of war for Australian troops.

I strolled darkened corridors absorbing the important stories we need to remember – depicted in a variety of ways without glorifying conflict. I climbed stairs to have a bird’s eye view and photograph magnificent Melbourne and the sweeping grounds of Victoria and Domain Gardens.

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Skyscrapers and tree-lined boulevards and busy thoroughfares vastly different to 1918. The city those volunteers rushed to defend now remarkably different to what they would have known.

I pondered what Brendan Nelson and Kerry Stokes might learn from the management of Melbourne’s Shrine if they visited. I prefer the way Melbourne presents the story and the stories it chooses to promote. They also have courteous, friendly staff and volunteers.

A young woman approached me when she saw me reading the Memorial Book –

Are you looking for a relative?

Yes, thought I may find my uncle’s name.

Wait a moment and I’ll get the key…

Within minutes, she was back wearing white cotton gloves and wielding a key. She asked for my uncle’s surname, unlocked the relevant glass cabinet, and carefully turned the pages until his name was revealed. She then stood aside so I could take a picture of the page.

It was a busy day for visitors because the poppy installation was being removed the next day, yet the young woman took the time to offer me a service I didn’t know about  – she went above and beyond and personalised my experience! 

Everyman Exhibition

The exhibition by artist Craig Barrett called EVERYMAN is an emotionally moving experience. Craig incorporated poetry into his art.

In 2005, he wrote:

Four men from my family were caught up in the great tides of men fighting on the Western front of the First World War… Great Uncle George remains there… others returned home with their wounds and nightmares.

In recent years I have become aware of the poets of the First World War. These men were artists who conveyed powerful images through words from their camps, their trenches, and their hospitals.

I found myself especially moved by the words of the English poets Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon… Growing up I knew little and understood less of what these men had witnessed. The poetry of Owen and Sassoon has given me a glimpse of my own family and of the family of Man entangled in war…

These words resonated because I too have an “Uncle George” I’ve written about and it is this exploration and family connection that set me on a path, to learn why a nineteen-year-old relative is buried in Egypt. How did he die? How did his death affect his family, especially sister, Kitty whom we met in 1962 when we migrated to Australia?

I remember, Aunt Kitty’s air of sadness. I was nine-years-old and at night we sat at her feet listening to stories about the Australian branch of the clan, about ANZACS and a war in a land near where our ship had passed when we came through the Suez Canal.

EVERYMAN
Siegfried Sassoon


The weariness of life that has no will
To climb the steepening hill:
The sickness of the soul for sleep, and to be still. And then once more the impassioned pygmy fist
Clenches cloudward and defiant;
The ride that would prevail, the doomed protagonist,
Grappling the ghostly giant. Victim and venturer, turn by turn; and then
Set free to be again
Companion in repose with those who once were men.

they were so young.jpg
a photograph in War Memorial Canberra

Is Every Generation Destined to Repeat The Mistakes Of The Past? 

Is there a need for us all to look deeper into what causes war, and what prevents a lasting peace?

We had the dreadful attack in the centre of Melbourne and sadly, a Federal Government reaction, we have come to expect – increasingly anti-muslim and anti-immigration dog whistling, and wanting to increase the powers of the security forces and introduce tougher anti-terror laws.

Actions designed to divide rather than unite.

Yet, there have been enquiries and research, backed by evidence and statistics, about the need for more resources to work in the community to combat radicalisation, and the alienation from mainstream society many young people experience. Experts encourage projects to improve inclusiveness and the mental health of those at risk of turning to violence.

leunig cartoon

Men who have been caught or suspected of terrorist acts often have a history of domestic violence.  In Australia, more than 72 women and 20 children have been killed since January 2018 because of domestic and family violence. Despite knowing what we must do there seems a lack of political and social will and a lack of coordination and funding of resources to make a national difference to this scourge of homegrown terrorism. 

And then there’s the refusal or reluctance of people to recognise the Colonial Wars and the Aboriginal nations who were here and valiantly fought to keep possession of their land from colonial invaders.

Our First People are still waiting for a Treaty to be signed with peace and reconciliation a work in progress. It should be a national priority but at least the Andrews Government is making a valiant attempt to right historical wrongs. 

As John Lennon so aptly said, we have to make PEACE and do it right!

Reconciliation-5-themes.png

Will We Ever See A War to End All Wars?

Armistice Day November 11, 1918, which led to the end of World War One – the war to end all wars – did not herald a lasting peace. A war has been fought somewhere in the world ever since and many historians agree that the conditions of the peace seemed to set the scene for the Second World War.

Today, Australian troops are still fighting a war and are deployed in Afghanistan (15 years and counting) and Iraq. Our drones controlled by the joint installation with the USA at Pine Gap, bomb Syria and in a plan to become one of the world’s top exporters of arms, like the USA, we sell arms to Saudia Arabia –  a country complicit in the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a Washington Post contributing columnist. The Saudi regime is also pounding the people of Yemen to oblivion.

Every day the nightly news brings us footage of soldiers and militarised police forces under fire or firing guns of formidable power somewhere in the world.

In many parts of the world, there are generations who have NEVER known peace. I was a volunteer tutor every Saturday morning to a Sudanese refugee for a year. A young woman in her 40s, with five children and a husband still stuck in a camp in Kenya, Mary had lived in a state of war in her country since she was 14 years old.

No life’s worth more than any other, no sister worth less than any brother.

Michael Franti

Peace requires effort and political will and to suggest no one wants war is wrong – arms manufacturers thrive on war, which is why their influence (even in local elections under the guise of ‘shooters and fishers’ ) is alarming.

They fund public institutions and political parties for a reason. Look no further than the power the National Rifle Association wields in the USA. Working towards peace requires recognition that the Roman poetHorace‘s oft-used quote  Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori ( It is sweet and right to die for your country) encouraged militarism and is indeed ‘The old lie” that WW1 poet Wilfred Owens asserts at the end of his most famous poem.

A poem thought to have been written between 8 October 1917 and March 1918 after his years of witnessing the horrific slaughter and destruction on the battlefields of France and Belgium:

DULCE ET DECORUM EST
Wilfred Owen 

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks, 
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge, 
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs 
And towards our distant rest began to trudge. 
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots 
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind; 
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots  
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.
Gas!Gas! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling, 
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time; 
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling, 
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime . . . 
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light, 
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning. 
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight, 
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning. 
If in some smothering dreams you too could pace 
Behind the wagon that we flung him in, 
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face, 
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin; 
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood 
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs, 
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud  
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues, 
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest 
To children ardent for some desperate glory, 
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est 
Pro patria mori.

patriotism sculpture.jpg

Can we blame the Romans for our culture of militarism and seeking military solutions?

romes delusions of grandeur

Many of us read the words of these WW1 poets at school but whether we really absorbed their message is difficult to say – unless you had experienced war or grief and could empathise – and that’s difficult for school children.

It’s difficult for some adults, which is why writers must choose words carefully and why poetry, short stories and novels can help with empathy. Here is an interesting extract from a short memoir I read recently:

During my deployments, I only had to fire my gun twice in engagements, and, in retrospect, neither of those firings was likely warranted. Suffice it to say that both times, I could feel my heart shaking, and I came close to wetting my pants.
 
The only film I’ve ever seen that captures this feeling—part terror, part adrenaline rush—is The Thin Red Line, and specifically in this woods scene, where the soldier becomes lost in the dark. He hears himself panting. Soon, bullets whish past him—directionless, it seems—and the only precedent for this, apart from Dante, astray on his path in the woods, might be Camus’s hapless prisoner in “The Guest,” who finds himself stranded and alone on the Algerian plains. What makes war so frightening isn’t the likeliness of death. It isn’t the suffering. It isn’t the inconsequentiality of humanness. Indeed, these are all apparent to anyone who’s reached middle age. Rather, it’s that sense of being alone. And I would hypothesize that it only comes to light in a warzone. After all, one realizes, especially in moments like this, that those who kill do not have any inherent fixed loyalties. Each human is invariably alone, regardless of the colors they wear.

Joshua Bernstein
Lost In The Fog

Each year documentaries are made of the tragedy and sacrifice of a whole generation in WW1, but in the words of singer/songwriter Eric Bogle, ‘… it all happened again… And again, and again …’

recruitment poster

GREEN FIELDS OF FRANCE 

Eric Bogle

Oh how do you do, young Willy McBride
Do you mind if I sit here down by your graveside
And rest for a while in the warm summer sun
I’ve been walking all day, and I’m nearly done
And I see by your gravestone you were only nineteen
When you joined the great fallen in 1916
Well I hope you died quick
And I hope you died clean
Or Willy McBride, was is it slow and obscene

Did they beat the drums slowly
Did they play the fife lowly
Did they sound the death march as they lowered you down
Did the band play the last post and chorus
Did the pipes play the flowers of the forest

And did you leave a wife or a sweetheart behind
In some loyal heart is your memory enshrined
And though you died back in 1916
To that loyal heart, you’re forever nineteen
Or are you a stranger without even a name
Forever enshrined behind some old glass pane
In an old photograph torn, tattered, and stained
And faded to yellow in a brown leather frame

Did they beat the drums slowly
Did they play the fife lowly
Did they sound the death march as they lowered you down
Did the band play the last post and chorus
Did the pipes play the flowers of the forest

The sun shining down on these green fields of France
The warm wind blows gently and the red poppies dance
The trenches have vanished long under the plough
No gas, no barbed wire, no guns firing now
But here in this graveyard that’s still no man’s land
The countless white crosses in mute witness stand
To man’s blind indifference to his fellow man
And a whole generation who were butchered and damned

Did they beat the drums slowly
Did they play the fife lowly
Did they sound the death march as they lowered you down
Did the band play the last post and chorus
Did the pipes play the flowers of the forest

And I can’t help but wonder oh Willy McBride
Do all those who lie here know why they died
Did you really believe them when they told you the cause?
Did you really believe that this war would end wars?
Well the suffering, the sorrow, the glory, the shame
The killing and dying it was all done in vain
Oh, Willy McBride, it all happened again
And again, and again, and again, and again

Did they beat the drums slowly
Did they play the fife lowly
Did they sound the death march as they lowered you down
Did the band play the last post and chorus
Did the pipes play the flowers of the forest 

peace protestors.jpg
PEACE PROTESTERS AT WAR MEMORIAL 11/11/2018 – their sign said HONOUR THEM-PROMOTE PEACE

The horrors of WW2, Malaya, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan… we keep adding to the toll, make the words of the poets even more poignant when we realise the average age of soldiers who die in wars are 19, 20, 21, 22…

vietnam-war-timeline
SOLDIERS WHO FOUGHT IN VIETNAM WERE BARELY ADULTS MANY WITHOUT THE RIGHT TO VOTE!

ANTHEM FOR DOOMED YOUTH
Wilfred Owen

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
      — Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
      Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells; 
      Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,—
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
      And bugles calling for them from sad shires.

What candles may be held to speed them all?
      Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.
      The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.

Is a Plea for a Change in Priorities to emphasise PEACE too much to ask? 

November 11 is a reminder, not only of the tragedy and futility of  WW1 and many other wars since but a warning of the fragility of peace and the importance of working hard to avoid conflict.

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The Canberra Rotary Club is making an effort to remind people of the importance of peace and has built an easily accessible World Peace Bell as well as introducing the Rotary Peace Prize.

There are at least 23 of these bells throughout the world with plans for more. Volunteers man the bell at busy times encouraging people to recite an oath as well as ring the bell so the sound carries across the lake.

The volunteer who helped me explained the history and ensured I understood the affirmation, before reciting the lines aloud.

As I walked through Nara Park and visited the National Museum on the other side of the lake, the bell’s beautiful, deep, resonant tone tolled for peace.

The first recipients of the Peace Prize long-term advocates for world peace and activists in raising awareness and requesting an adjustment of society’s priorities:

Dr Sue Wareham OAM, Founding member of ICAN, International Campaign Against Nuclear weapons, and WILPF – ACT Branch, Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. Women from several nations and members of WILPF gathered in Europe in 1915 and tried to stop the slaughter of WW1 but to no avail. The organisation consistently works for peace and social justice.

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Imagine

Mairi Neil

Imagine all the people sharing all the world‘ – a line John Lennon wrote

Music and lyrics combined to make the song moving and memorable

And I wonder if people do imagine sharing when they listen to his words…

Great oceans of people, happy, sad, warring, peaceful, worshipping, wondering

Individual countries, cultures, nationalities, religions, powerful elites

Nation states, perhaps individual tribes and families.  21st-century social media exposes

All humanity – those not so lucky or ones we are told to fear –

Those trapped in places where war is an integral part of their journey from birth…

In my lifetime, the Middle East a constant muddle of bombs and brutality

Or the African continent with droughts, internecine wars, deadly viruses and famines

Not forgetting our neighbourhood’s volatility in the hands of Rocket Man & Dotard…  

 

A world of sharing, no possessions to kill or die for, a world of peace

No borders! This dream elicits accusations ranging from lunacy to scorn

Dreaming and desiring the impossible…  

 

Dreaming? Imagining a better future – isn’t that what we wish for our children?

Religious fundamentalists and fanatics insist

Everyone believe or have faith in a deity you can’t see, imagining a heaven and hell

And for many acquisitive others, it is land and possessions – they

Mean power, progress, personal esteem. It is difficult, but so important, to imagine

Sharing ALL the world and its bounties – thank you, John, for gifting your dream…

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When you flip the peace sign upside down, it’s composed of the ancient rune ‘Algiz’ inside of a circle. ‘Algiz’ represents life, beginning, and protection; very fitting for a symbol of peace. … Add it all together, and an upside-down peace sign literally means ‘endless peace’.

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 I knitted poppies for the 5000 Poppies Project to honour our family’s ANZAC, George Alexander McInnes.

He was 19 years old when they laid him to rest in Egypt and as far as I know, no member of the family has ever visited his grave. His death and the grief that followed changed the lives of his parents and siblings forever – a common tragedy for so many families worldwide detailed in letters, diaries, poems, novels, and memoir.

Dear Mum and Dad
Mairi Neil 

WW1 began in 1914, the fighting lasted four years, but grief lasts a lifetime.

I see you both in my dreams
the image helps suppress the screams
of many mates who have been shot––
This world has really gone to pot!

When I joined up to come and fight
I thought I was doing what was right
But Mum those Bible texts you read
Don’t explain what it’s like to kill – or be dead.

Young Johnny Parker from down the road
Shot on landing. Floats at sea –– a bloated toad.
So many like him, bodies never retrieved
No prayers, no burial, relatives deceived.

If I’m shot soon, or perhaps blown apart
You’ll receive a letter to ease a painful heart
But take what it says with a pinch of salt
It’s madness here -no decency, nobody’s fault.

The cardboard dog tags disintegrated
when a body rots or is incinerated
Identities disappear over time –
whole battalions consumed in lime

So just as I dream of both of you
Hold fast your memories of me too
Because if like snow, I don’t survive
Only reminiscing will keep me alive.

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My visit to Canberra for Remembrance Day to see the Field of Poppies (62,000 of them) and take part in the national ceremony commemorating the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Armistice that ended the First World War, allowed me to take part in a historic occasion but also made me reflect on the past, present and think of the future.

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What stories we keep, how we pass stories from one generation to another, and the relevance and meaning of the stories we choose, whether personal or public.

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In Canberra, amidst the field of poppies, it was sobering to discover people who didn’t know the significance of the flower, and others that didn’t seem to care, like the private security firm that used the field as an opportunity to have a promotional photoshoot – replete with uniforms and guard dogs.

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Two men wandered around on Remembrance Day dressed in WW1 uniforms offering to pose for photos and a volunteer from the poppy project confided she had to chastise a group of young girls who laid down amongst the poppies uncaring of damage because they wanted to pose for pictures on Instagram and Facebook. There were also those who stole souvenirs from the installation, which volunteers spent hours replacing.

The days of the nation stopping for two minutes of silent reflection long gone – apparently the only thing that ‘stops the nation’ now is a horse race, like the Melbourne Cup, yet I remember as a teenager being in Myer in the city and the escalators stopping and people standing with heads bowed.

Parades and displays can be ignored but if everyone’s routine is interrupted – even for two minutes – perhaps it will make people ask why.  Why the carnage, why do we go to war? Is there another way to solve disputes? Should we rely on a few leaders to decide our destiny?

Parliament House, Canberra

There were two displays at Parliament House (270,000 poppies).

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Answers to frequently asked questions about the Poppy project.

The 5000 POPPIES project has left me in awe at how a simple idea encouraged involvement from people all over the world as well as educating about the loss of life in WW1 – and subsequent wars.

If it made people pause and consider the human cost of war, perhaps think of their family and their country’s history, seek information and reflect, then it has been a success.

Always the honour roll of those who died in conflict either at home or abroad confronts and shocks – alphabetical lists that in peacetime are associated with telephone books and thick tomes of the living. 

Australia talks about thousands of lives lost, but for other nations it is millions! When I was in Irkutsk in Russia last year, a guide said to me, ‘In Russia, we list the names of survivors (mainly officers and ‘heroes’, I might add) because there aren’t enough walls to list the dead.’

Throughout the world, we have listed on walls, monuments, and in remembrance books, names while bodies and ashes lie elsewhere.  Many resting in places where loved ones never, or can never visit.

Thousands of blood-red poppies a stunning visual reminder – each one different – representing the individuality of each lost life. The gaps in the field of poppies remind us not every casualty was/is found or identified.

For me, the creative project a chance to DO something and make a practical contribution to remembrance. Others, obviously, felt the same because it fired imaginations and activities in so many places: neighbourhood houses, U3As, schools, churches, numerous community and family groups and private individuals… and hopefully inspired discussions.

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Placing my knitted poppy beside Uncle George’s name.

1918-2018: 5000 POPPIES – A TRIBUTE

At Parliament House, the forecourt installation of handmade poppies will be there from 9-18 November while the Marble foyer poppy installation will remain until 3 February 2019.

This display of poppies, lovingly created by 5000 Poppies project volunteers – many of whom are descendants of original Anzacs – is a tribute to the thousands of Australians who died in the First World War.

It complements the sea of handcrafted poppies that will carpet the Parliament House Forecourt to mark the 100th anniversary of the Armistice, 11 November 1918. With a direct line of sight to the Australian War Memorial, the display connects with the 62,000 poppies installed on the Memorial’s grounds representing every Australian life lost in the First World War.

Courtesy of traditional and social media we’ve been flooded with information – overloaded some will say, yet it is amazing how even after 100 years, new stories and information surface.

I’ve visited places, met people, and learnt history I didn’t know and fulfilled my love of joining the dots and understanding connections. On a recent visit to Caulfield Town Hall, to their art gallery, an amazing Poppy Exhibition made me pause and read the individual stories of local VC recipients but also drew my attention to the memorial boards that cover every wall of the spacious foyer – 31 large bronze panels with 1,554 names.

Although Caufield City Council first started compiling names of soldiers, sailors and nurses from the Caulfield district as early as 1915, it would be more than a decade before they were publicly displayed… In 1930, Caulfield Town Hall underwent a major redevelopment… which included a colonnade portico opening on to a spacious memorial foyer, with a marble dado surmounted by bronze tablets. Inscribed… were the names of all those who enlisted in the Australian Imperial Forces from Caulfield… the criteria for inclusion was to have been living in the City of Caulfield at the time of enlistment, and it includes both lost and returned service people… At the time of its construction, the municipality of Caulfield included the suburbs of Elsternwick, Balaclava, St Kilda East, Carnegie, Murumbeena, Glen Huntly and Gardenvale…

There is a lovely Japanese garden at Caulfield Town Hall and I hope people visiting the Remembrance Day display took some time, like I did, to sit and calm their anger (and it is anger we should feel) at what a senseless waste of life wars are, and especially WW1  – tragedies of epic proportions.

Yet, all over Australia, we have sister city relationships with countries that may have been our enemy at some stage of history – relationships that contribute to understanding and tolerance and help make a lasting peace.

Sassoon recognised how violence and war changed men and struggled to get much of his anti-war poetry published. When he wrote, “I believe that this War is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it,” in an open letter to the House of Commons, it took the intervention of poet Robert Graves to save him from court-martial declaring Sassoon suffered shell-shock and needed to be hospitalised. 

Some could argue that it was only the insane who couldn’t see the truth of his words.    

Golgotha
Siegfried Sassoon

Through darkness curves a spume of falling flares 
That flood the field with shallow, blanching light. 
The huddled sentry stares 
On gloom at war with white, 
And white receding slow, submerged in gloom.
Guns into mimic thunder burst and boom, 
And mirthless laughter rakes the whistling night. 
The sentry keeps his watch where no one stirs 
But the brown rats, the nimble scavengers. 

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Sculpture of Barbarian, Rome Exhibition Canberra

While in Canberra for the commemoration ceremony at the War Memorial,  I visited the current exhibition ‘Rome‘ at the National Museum displaying artefacts from the British Museum. There is a marble statue fragment of a barbarian (Ramleh, Egypt, 160-170 CE), which I thought depicted the anguish felt by war’s victims both civilian and military that the WW1 poets captured in words.

This bound captive is looking up at what remains of a larger figure, perhaps intended to depict Victory. He has Germanic facial features, but he is wearing a Phrygian hat of a style worn in the Eastern Mediterranean region. This suggests that he represents a generic ‘barbarian’ or enemy of Rome. Such depictions emphasise how one of Rome’s great missions was to ‘vanquish the proud’.

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“From War” an Exhibition by the Australian National Veterans Arts Museum at Parliament House, Canberra

For many veteran artists making art is both an expression of personal creativity and a way of ‘making meaning’.

Veteran artistic practices draw upon, and extend beyond, the individual’s experience of war and service. For some, art is a lifeline and a life force; a way to tell stories and ask important questions about themselves and their place in society.

Representing a diverse range of mediums including photography, painting, sculpture, drawing, textiles and poetry, the artists featured in the exhibition reflect on their personal questions and processes, sharing unique stories of their lived experience.

The catalyst for the establishment of the Australian National Veterans Arts Museum was veterans’ mental health. It provides a creative and multi-faceted approach to supporting veterans and families through the arts, engaging with our veteran history and heritage, culture and identity to bring forward an approach grounded in creative expression and community.

Upending modern models ANVAM uses familiar tools, the arts and place, engaging early to promote validation, identity and purpose reframing the future for those returning from war or service. How do you capture the experience of war and its aftermath and convey that to others so they understand? 

Sassoon’s honesty fobbed off as shell shock, which today we know as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) – and almost all veterans will have their share of depression as well as other symptoms of PTSD.

Statistics don’t tell individual stories, official documents can be doctored and presented from a particular perspective depending on what narrative governments want to spin. Even letters and diaries from those who were there or those writing about friends and family may have a particular perspective, may have been censored, or may deliberately alter facts to spare feelings.  

I hope all politicians and senior Defence personnel take the time to look at the artwork and read the poetry on display at Parliament House.

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soldiers Afghanistan

A Poetic Honour
Bill Charlton, (2013)


There is no greater accolade a soldier can be shown
Than to have his deeds recorded in the verses of a poem.
For medals tend to varnish and history can be wrong,
And the stories we are left with, can be stretched as time goes on.

But the simple story-telling that’s contained within a poem
Can survive through generations by word of mouth alone.
And the rhythm/rhyming nature of these classics of the past
Are easy to remember and ensure these stories last.

Great books will parch and crumble and epitaphs will fade
And tombstones all will vanish no matter how they’re made.
But the simple little verses that we pass on down the line
Are remembered with affection and have stood the test of time.

So if you have the fortune to be mentioned in a poem
Or you know some-one who has been, on the strength of deeds alone,
Then be sure that it’s an honour, which can rarely be attained
For it makes a man immortal for as long as it’s maintained.

Bill Charlton, born 1943, joined the Australian Army and served with the 1st Battalion Royal Australian Regiment in the 60s, including South Vietnam. Bill had always been interested in writing verse often sending snippets home to his wife, Robyn, which he never completed. He continued writing snippets for years after his service until he was encouraged to take up writing poetry by his wife and children, then the snippets became poems. His first attempt at poetry resulted in a literary award and encouraged he continued writing and published two books of poetry illustrated by Robyn: A Rugged Bunch of Diggers 1 and 2 and a children’s book Lulu, the Kangaroo. He continues to write individual poems for the 521 soldiers who died during the Vietnam War.

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Sculpture “Unforgiven”

Sleep
George Mansford, (September 2016)


If I could only sleep the sleep of sleeps
To capture sweet deeds I can keep
In the cloak of night greet blissful rest so rare
To dream of peace and even love should I dare

I cannot escape this shrinking smothering room
Painted with spite, hate and terrible doom
I am shackled to the past and never to be free
Deep sleep in pure white sheets is not to be

Oh to be deaf to shrieks and howls spat from spiteful guns
Blind to flitting silent shadows mid the last rays of dying suns
Be gone the shuffling file of haunted faces never to smile again
If only a welcome storm to wash away the guilt and pain

In this lonely bed, to dream of peace, goodwill and love
To walk mid young green forests reaching high above
To hear the joyful welcome calls of feathered birds so bright
To shut out the darkness of yesterday and seek tomorrow’s light.


George Mansford AM, born 1934, served in the Australian Army between 1950 and 1990 including Korea, Malayan Emergency, Malaysia, Thai Border, South Vietnam, New Guinea, Singapore and Cyclone Tracy. Having just returned home from Vietnam 1967, he started to write poetry after his first wife died. On losing his second wife and son, his writing increased dramatically as he discovered that writing was a fortunate distraction from grief and anger of war.

‘I found that promoting peace, love of country and such deep camaraderie was a wonderful sedative. It was what my loved ones and old comrades want.’

George is the author of Junior Leadership on the Battlefield and The Mad Galahs.

 

 

The Progress
Barham J. R. Ferguson, (28 August 2018)

The fog that hugs my legs like a refugee,
Shows the steps of progress towards my own peace.
I have fought for the peace of others
And lost more than blood in the process,
But I know that hope stands not behind me.

See my anguish in the oils,
See my scars in the sculpture,
See my pity in the poetry,
See my failure in the photographs,
Hear my sorrow in the song.

I miss the moment of living the dream,
Of knowing those at home are thinking of me.
Praying for me. Worried about me.
Today however, they only worry about me.
It’s not the enemy that hunts me, nor the
Danger that surrounds me.
It is for the danger within.

My current battle is with doubt. Memories.
Questions I cannot answer.
Images so vivid, I can hear them.

But the fighter in me stands tall.
I can win this war as I have done before.
Not for me, but for others.
This is why I served. This is who I am,
Either in or out of service.
So help me make that step.

And watch me emerge as a similar person
To the one you knew. Similar, but better.
That you can then
See my ambition in oils,
See my skills in sculpture,
See my power in poetry,
See my future in photographs, and
Hear my strength in song.

It is now that I realise,
My child that hugs my legs like a refugee,
Speeds the steps of progress to my own peace.

Barham Ferguson, born 1968, joined the Australian army in 1987 and saw operational service in Papua New Guinea, Southern Thailand, Iraq, Afghanistan, South Sudan, Israel, Lebanon and Jordan. An Ambassador for the Australian National veterans Art Museum and a longtime supporter of veterans’ issues, Barham discharged in July 2018 and lives in Canberra with his daughter. He is the author of Love, Life and ANZAC Biscuits, (2013), and A Feeling of Belonging (1999).


Through The Mirror
Barham J.R. Ferguson, (13 February 2017)

Through the mirror of the past,
I see myself in memories vast.
A warrior, not once outclassed,
This was who I was.

From the dust of duty first,
The last hoorah of machine gun burst,
Wounds of war no longer nursed,
The world knew who I was.

Homeward bound with dreams anew,
Perceptions changed on what I do,
My useful skills seemed less than few,
I defended who I was.

Fighting family, fighting friends,
The war has changed, it never ends.
‘’Is my life pointless?” Now depends,
On knowing who I am.

Where to start, and what to do?
What do I have that pleases you?
There’s things inside that still ring true,
They make me who I am.

Strength and honour. Discipline.
These soldier traits have not worn thin,
Unlike the uniform in the bin,
These traits are who I am.

There’s many more that made me me,
When I was in the military,
But in these threads I now can see,
That made me who I am.

Now it’s time to do what’s right,
To find a mission, and gain insight,
To be the me who can sleep at night,
‘Cause I do know who I am.

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sculpture – Finish

At the Australian War Memorial, there is a Flanders Field Garden planted with poppies and with the words of John McCrae’s poem carved on the walls to remind us that in Ypres, Belgium,  ‘men died in their thousands and the medieval town was reduced to ruins.’

In Flanders Fields
John McCrae

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below. We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie,
In Flanders fields. Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

The Unknown Australian Soldier

This year was the 25th anniversary of the interment of the Unknown Australian Soldier, who represents all Australians who have been killed in war. At the head of the tomb are the words, ‘Known unto God’, and at the foot, ‘He is all of them and he is one of us.’

“Plans to honour an unknown Australian soldier were first put forward in the 1920s, but it was not until 1993 that one was at last brought home. to mark the 75th anniversary of the end of the First World War, the remains of the soldier were recovered from Adelaide Cemetery near Villers-Bretonneux in France and transported to Australia. After lying in state in King’s Hall in Old Parliament House, the Unknown Australian Soldier was interred in the Hall of memory at the memorial on 11 November 1993. He was buried with a bayonet and a sprig of wattle in a Tasmanian blackwood coffin, and soil from Pozieres was scattered in his tomb.”

The eulogy for the Unknown Soldier was first delivered by the Honourable Paul Keating in 1993. In Canberra, on the Centenary of the Armistice, a recording was played of his speech.

The words are memorable and moving but perhaps the lines that need to be emphasised more often are:

This Unknown Australian is not interred here to glorify war over peace; or to assert a soldier’s character above a civilian’s; or one race or one nation or one religion above another; or men above women; or the war in which he fought and died above any other war; or of one generation above any that has or will come later… We have lost more than 100,000 lives, and with them all their love of this country and all their hope and energy… It is not too much to hope, therefore, that this Unknown Australian Soldier might continue to serve his country – he might enshrine a nation’s love of peace and remind us that in the sacrifice of the men and women whose names are recorded here there is faith enough for all of us.’

The current exhibitions in Canberra at the National Museum and National Library add more food for thought as well as steps in the evolution of the ‘nation’ Paul Keating was talking about.

Rome reveals how integral the military was to the Roman Empire’s greatness and an exhibition on Captain Cook and his Voyages touches on the Colonial Wars and Aborigines fighting the invasion of their land by representatives of the British Empire.

The powerful Roman and British Empires now diminished and if nothing else, the tide of history seems predictable but has mankind learnt a ‘love of peace’?

Thank Goodness For Community Initiatives

 While national politicians and governments may let their people down, there are plenty of instances of grassroots initiatives – and therefore HOPE.

Nara Peace Park, Canberra, is a case in point – not only has it the Peace Bell but myriad sections, sculptures and plaques making a statement about peace. 

TOKU 2010 by artist Shinki Kato born 1955

Toku was commissioned to celebrate the 1300th anniversary of Japan’s ancient capital, Nara. The sculpture has three main elements: A five-storied pagoda form which represents Canberra; a floating stone representing Nara; and the form of a small bird symbolising peace.

The bird resembles a Latham’s Snipe, a species which migrates annually between Japan and Canberra. The artist has created Toku to express the amicable relationship and mutual understanding shared by Canberra and Nara as sister cities.

There are tranquil areas to meander through or sit and enjoy the beauty of the gardens and lake. The day I visited, families were picnicking and playing.

 

The Pen Mightier Than The Sword

As you walk through the park there is evidence that we shouldn’t take the beauty, or sentiments, for granted. At the base of several trees are plaques – sadly some were damaged and worn by the weather. The plaques reminders that writers from poets to journalists have lost their lives fighting to express and defend ideas and freedom of speech.

“The spirit dies in all of us who keep silent in the face of tyranny”

The plaques and trees were a ‘memorial to writers who have fought for freedom of speech”  and was conceived through the vision and work of the ACT members of PEN International and dedicated by the Minister for Arts and Heritage, Mr Gary Humphries MLA, on 17 November 1996.

Among the dedications:

  • Kenule Beeson Saro-Wewa, Nigerian playwright,
  • Meena Kishwarkanel, poet and journalist,
  • Russians: Galina Starovoitova, ethnographer and dissident politician, and Larissa Ludina, newspaper editor,
  • Konka Kuris Turkish feminist writer,
  • Robert Walker Aboriginal poet, and
  • the Balibo Five, Australian journalists murdered in East Timor 1975: Greg Shackleton, Brian East, Gary Cunningham, Tony Stewart, Malcolm Rennie and
  • journalist Roger East killed in Dili, 1975.

Hopefully, somewhere a memorial plaque will be made for Jamal Khashoggi recently assassinated by agents of the Saudi Government. The plaque, a permanent reminder of those who use words to defend our right to speak and challenge those who think suppression and violence a solution.

However, for every writer silenced, there is always another who picks up the pen to peacefully bring about change. The belief that the pen is mightier than the sword and words can make a difference, a good enough motivation for me to keep writing.