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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Perhaps expressing how I feel will not be helpful.

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

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

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

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

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

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

We can all reach out and promote peace and goodwill.

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Christchurch 2019
Mairi Neil

Friday’s Breaking News
a barrage of bullets…

Broken bodies
Shattered lives
Crushed dreams
Broken hearts

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

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

Thoughts and prayers are not enough

The Scales of Justice seesaw
Responsibility     Guilt                  Shame
Tolerance           Acceptance        Love

Belonging must be felt
and welcoming arms outstretched.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ten Questions to Ask When Writing Characters

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

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

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

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Poster from Scholastic Books for Book Week 1992

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

 

 

Christmas Joy Not Humbug!

Mordi pier.jpg

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.”

haiku - owl.jpeg

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.

sunset glow.jpg

Open House Bendigo – Doorways to Fun, Friendship, Heritage, and Community

spring blooms bendigo.jpg

I’ve been volunteering for Open House Melbourne for over eight years. In that time, I have had the opportunity to attend workshops and learn interesting facts about architecture, design and heritage. I’ve visited buildings and appreciated aspects and behind the scenes rarely experienced by the general public.

Open House Melbourne is an independent organisation fostering a public appreciation for architecture and public engagement in the future of our cities.

Each year more and more buildings and events are added to this fabulous weekend.  Last year they expanded to Ballarat and this year it was Bendigo. The two regional centres will probably ‘open up’ alternate years.

Both events were a great success with thousands of visitors to the buildings, not only from locals but many people making the trip from Melbourne to take advantage of the warm welcome from the regional communities.

In Melbourne, I’ve been privileged to volunteer at:

Each shift has offered unique experiences. Special ‘thank you’ events for volunteers, allowed behind the scene tours of the Phillips Shirt Factory, Lonsdale Street and Willsmere (the old ‘lunatic’ asylum).

Now open House has expanded, I’ve visited buildings in Ballarat (2017) and this year Bendigo, educating and enjoying myself in the process. The last weekends in July and October now regular dates earmarked on the calendar

Bendigo Beamed in Spring Sunshine

shady trees bendigo.jpg

Bendigo was chosen as a significant regional hub creating an opportunity for locals and visitors alike to celebrate this wonderful city. It was a chance to view different architectural styles and learn about Bendigo’s rich history, its cultural attractions and to consider how future developments will impact the city.

Despite competition from several major events occurring at the same time (The Bendigo Agricultural Show, the second Bendigo Cycling Classic, and Bendigo Sustainable House) the support for the inaugural Open House Bendigo weekend was fantastic (11,000 visits across 23 buildings)!

The weekend provided a range of talks, walks, film screenings and workshops plus the buildings open for inspection and appreciation, all encouraging an exploration of the diversity and design of Bendigo’s built environment and history.

Bendigo was proclaimed a city in 1871, the year the Bendigo Easter Fair began – Australia’s oldest ongoing festival. I was rostered on duty at the Bendigo Tramways Depot, Australia’s oldest continually operating tram depot.

 

All Aboard For A Great Ride

The Bendigo Tramways depot was built in 1901 for the Electric Supply Company of Australia Ltd. At the time of building, the property also included what is today the Bendigo Woollen Mills, which housed the steam engines, generators and boiler until 1972. The depot was completed in 1903 for the operation of electric trams. (The first depot was constructed in 1890 near the railway station.) In addition to the tramway shed, the facility included cooling ponds, a blacksmith’s shop, carpenter’s shed, elevator house, and other support buildings.

The Tramways Depot and Workshop may not have survived had it not been for the Bendigo community’s will to keep the trams running in Bendigo once they were shut down as a public transport option. This led to the introduction of the tourist tram service in 1972. The tourist tram service celebrates 46 years of service in 2018. 

The Bendigo Tramways is known nationally and internationally for its heritage tram restoration capabilities and its rare collection of heritage trams. Trams from all over the country, including Melbourne’s City Circle trams, are all restored to their former glory in the Bendigo Tramways Workshop.

 

There were guided conductor tours on the hour led by an enthusiastic and knowledgeable guide, Ian, along with a specialised in-depth pre-booked tour led by Luke, the Workshop Manager. However, when more people turned up, Luke kindly accommodated them and ended up with a group of 24 instead of 15!

The guides were extremely proud to point out the work carried out so far for the City of Melbourne refurbishing the famous restaurant trams and the vintage trams used on the free city tourist loop.

 

On duty from 9.30am to 1.00pm, I had the opportunity to chat with Pam in the gift shop/cafe. Pam warned about the dust from the imported plane trees and said a light breeze can blow the dust about and start people coughing. She spoke from experience and said if anyone did start coughing to suggest they go to the cafe and she’d supply a glass of water. Pam discovered the problem with the plane trees after going to the doctor thinking she had asthma or an allergy.

in the shop 1.jpg

Many of the others working at the depot are volunteers.  Ian was super knowledgeable, efficient – and passionate about trams like all the volunteers. He loved the people he met volunteering and said, ‘You know, I’ve met people from all corners of the world here. I met someone from Zimbabwe and we discussed their country. I wouldn’t have met him if I wasn’t doing this job.’

Steve, a volunteer driver, in a previous life was a stipendiary magistrate who loved trams! Another Ian was the driver who gave me a lift back to town. The tram was packed and I got to sit up front with him in the driver’s seat.

Ian has been driving the vintage trams for 17 years and when an unusual fault occurred he told me it was only the second time it had happened.

I had no idea the variation in controls until I wandered around the depot peeking inside all the different trams – some still in use, others being refurbished.

Each tram has an interesting history but without the work and passion of a team of volunteers, the tramways could not have achieved many of the major milestones and awards, especially winning gold in the 2016 Australian Tourism Awards or the Hall of Fame in 2014, 2015 and 2016 Victorian Tourism Awards.

No 7 decommissioned in the 1930s, became a sleep-out before being returned for restoration in 1988. In 2000, the body was stripped of any structural additions, cleaned and put on display.

close up green tram.jpg

Tram No 30 was driven by HRH Prince Charles in 1974. This Birney tram was built in 1925 in Philadelphia USA, for South Australia and operated on the Port Adelaide line until 1935. Purchased by Geelong it operated there as Tram No 30 before being transferred to Bendigo and used for spare parts. However, in 1972 it was restored to be one of the Vintage Talking Trams and became the flagship of Bendigo Tramways.

signature tram for bendigo.jpg

One of the volunteer conductors told me the story of Charles and Di’s visit. Princess Diana was standing on the balcony of The Shamrock Hotel where they were staying. Prince Charles knew she would be out there to wave and watch him drive past. He was determined she see him driving and was so excited he went through two red lights. Needless to say, they didn’t forward on the traffic ticket!

tram 44 goldmine.jpg

Tram No 44 was one of two trams restored especially for the Prahran and Malvern Tramways Trust Centenary in 2010. Built in 1914 in Adelaide, South Australia for Prahran and Malvern Tramways Trust it was sold to the State Electricity Commission of Victoria in 1951 for Bendigo operations and painted in green and cream livery of the SEC. Ten years later, repainted maroon and cream, it joined the talking tram fleet.

front of tram 84.jpg

Tram No 84 has the most magnificent feature interior timber work of all the trams in the fleet. Built in Melbourne in 1917 for the Prahran and Malvern Tramways Trust it was later sold to the SECV in 1931 for operation in Bendigo. In 1935 it was configured to be operated by one man. It developed ‘excessive body movement’ issues and was withdrawn from service in 1965 and because of internal disagreements between supervisors didn’t return to use until 1975 when made operational by the Bendigo Trust to run on special outings. In 2010 it was refurbished to its original California configuration for the centenary celebrations of the Prahran and Malvern Tramways Trust.

trams ready use.jpg

Tram No 21, an M class tram was built in Adelaide in 1917 for the Hawthorn Tramways Trust. It was sold to the SECV in 1935 to operate in Bendigo. Retaining its one-man configuration it was repainted in the SEC livery of green and cream and ran until the closure of Bendigo’s public transport system in 1972. In 1992, it was repainted in the grey, white and blue livery of Hawthorn Tramways Trust to celebrate a significant event in the history of the City of Footscray. It operated as a Vintage Talking Tram until 2000 when it was removed to be restored to its 1930s condition. Thanks to the Bendigo Tramways Work for the Dole program it returned to service in 2005.

close up front of tram no 21

Tram No 29 was the focal point to save the trams from being dispersed and sold off when the Bendigo Tramways closed in 1972. State cabinet supported The Bendigo Trust’s proposal to run a tourism tram service using the SECV’s trams and tracks on trial until Easter 1974. However, the SEC had promised Tram No 29 to a museum in Adelaide without consultation or knowledge of the Bendigo Trust.

Community anger manifested itself in a mini-uprising and blockade to stop the tram being taken out of the depot with local businesses sending their vans and cars after the Mayor used the media to rally the citizens. The furore resulted in a ministerial committee and negotiations culminating in the entire fleet being sold to The Bendigo Trust for a ‘mere $1’ in 1977.

Relations between an aggrieved South Australian museum and the citizenry of Bendigo were later assuaged by the discovery of a sister tram, also a Birney, being used as a garden shed. Representatives of the Tramways trust negotiated the donation of this tram when the owners were promised a replica of a nineteenth century cast iron street lamp created by a skilful committee member.

The tram was restored with a grant from the State Government and presented to the Australian Electric Tramway Museum, Adelaide in 1976. Proving ‘all’s well that end’s well.’

It is mindboggling to see the before and after examples in the workshop – the state of donated or discovered trams, the craftsmanship and skill applied, and the finished product of beautiful polished wood and painted tram interiors.

Of course, the depot has a special supervisor overseeing the work –

birney's office with cat flap.jpg

The rescue cat, Birney joined the team in 2014. Originally, he was to catch mice but the sign on his office promotes him to Tramways Superintendent and of course, the Gift Shop has a range of souvenirs. I was lucky to see him at close quarters but with the increased visitors he wisely withdrew and found some spot in the sun far away from the madding crowds.

Birney the cat welcome.jpg

A Bit Of History Puts Trams In Context

With the advent of electric trams and extended tracks ‘housewives’ moved away from their local shops in the suburbs and bought goods in the heart of the city at a time when shops didn’t close until 11 pm on a Friday night, along with many hotels. ‘As a result, there were many wavering legs on Friday evenings trying to negotiate the flagstones of Pall Mall in a desperate attempt to catch the drunk express home.’

on the talking tram.jpg

I had to get at least one picture of myself on a tram and chose No 8 – it was a number 8 to Toorak that gave me the inspiration to write A Ticket to Vaudeville, the first short story I received payment for when it was published in The Weekly Times in the 80s – ironically that newspaper’s head office is in Bendigo.

Bendigo’s first people, the Dja Dja Wurrung

aboriginal tram

 

The Dja Dja Wurrung Tram takes passengers on a journey of discovery into the unique and fascinating traditions of Bendigo’s first people. The Dja Dja Wurrung, one of the five communities of the Kulin people, a federation of five distinct but strongly related communities, which also includes the Boonerwrung of Mordialloc and other southern bayside places.

All Kulin had as their defining social moiety either Bundjil, the eagle, or Waa, the crow. Long before they had contact with the European world, they had complex trading networks sharing stone axe heads and highly crafted possum-skin cloaks and other examples of useful craftsmanship and art.

bunjil the creator

Archaeological evidence shows their connection to the land extending beyond 40,000 years. It is estimated that between 20,000 and 60,000 people, speaking over 30 languages lived throughout Victoria when Europeans arrived in 1835.

Rapid colonisation, the stealing of Aboriginal land, and the destruction of families by murder and disease forced Aborigines onto missions resulting in a loss of language, traditions and more lives – a cruel devastating and violent period of history.

Today the 25,000 plus Aboriginal people who live in Victoria are concerned about self-determination, maintaining their culture and restoring their lands.

crow

The tram is a moving lesson and illustration of Dja Dja Wurrung culture and painted on the roof sides there is a host of information proudly showing their customs and practices are alive and respected – keeping them connected to the past, the present and the future. Their cultural heritage recognised and protected as a celebration of identity and community.

Even the upholstery tells a story.

Recognition and Settlement Agreement

In 2013, the Dja Dja Wurrung people entered into an agreement with the Victorian Government recognising them as the traditional owner group for this country. The agreement recognises Dja Dja Wurrung people as the traditional owners of Central Victoria and binds the state of Victoria and the Dja Dja Wurrung people to a meaningful partnership founded on mutual respect. The list of recognised Apical Ancestors is also on the tram.

HEALING COUNTRY

The Dja Dja Wurrung have lived on traditional lands and cared for country over many thousands of years. Country is more than just landscape, it is more than what is visible to the eye – it is a living entity, which holds the stories of creation and histories that cannot be erased. The Dja Dja Wurrung have nine aspirations for their country, including…

Rivers & Waterways

Our rivers and waterways are healthy and meet the needs of our people and land.

Land

Our upside-down country is healthy again (healed from the effects of mining).

Djaara (People)

Every Dja Dja Wurrung person is happy, healthy and secure in their identity, livelihood and lifestyle.

Djandak (a traditional way of business)

We have a strong and diverse economic base to provide for our health and well-being and strengthen our living culture.

Self Determination

As our country’s first people, Djaara have an established place in society and are empowered to manage our own affairs

Joint Management

All crown land on Dja Dja Wurrung country is Aboriginal title and we are the sole managers. 

close up of decorated aboriginal tram

Along with illustrations and stories of the creators, there were details of the following native animals:

GNANA-NGANITY (bat) -There are 77 bat species in Australia. Bats are nocturnal and are the only mammals capable of sustained flight. They use echolocation to navigate during the night and to find food. They are natural pest controllers as 70% of them live on a diet of insects. A baby bat is called a pup.

MUMUMBARRA (bee) – There are over 1600 species of bees that are native to Australia. Native bees are smaller than European bees and many of them don’t sting. They can be black, yellow, red, metallic green and also black with blue polka dots, and can range from fat and furry to sleek and shiny.

BALAM BALAM (butterfly) – Australia is home to more than 400 species of butterfly. A butterfly does not eat but receives nutrients from drinking nectar and pollen from flowers and plants.

MUR-MURRA (dragonfly) – the dragonfly is an aquatic insect and spends most of its six-month life near the water. There are 320 known species of dragonfly native to Australia.

GALIYT (witchetty grub) – Witchetty Grubs are mainly found in central Australia. The grub is the larvae of the Cossid Moth. Witchetty Grubs can grow up to 12 centimetres long and are eaten as part of Aboriginal diet.

DUM (frog) – The frog is the only native amphibian to Australia and tends to live near wetlands as their skin needs moisture. Depending on the species some have a special slime coating and others can burrow into the ground to keep moist.

GUWAK (kookaburra) – the kookaburra is the largest member of the Kingfisher family of birds. They eat small mammals, lizards, snakes and insects. The laugh of the kookaburra is actually a call to mark their territory.

BARRANGAL (pelican) – The pelican is found throughout Australia. They can fly 3 kilometres above the earth. Their bills can hold up to 13 litres of water and they can eat up to 9 kilograms of food each day.

WIRRAP (cod) – fish were an important part of the Dja Dja Wurrung diet and were caught in different types of traps made from rocks or nets. The Loddon and Campaspe Rivers are where Dja Dja Wurrung ancestors lived and many types of fish were found in these waterways.

BARAMUL (emu) – Baramul is fast and can run up to 50 kilometres per hour. The female lays eggs and the male emu sits on the nest to hatch the young. Mu equality! The noise that the emu makes in its throat can be heard 2 kilometres away.

YULAWIL (echidna) – The echidna is one of two monotremes, which are egg-laying mammals. The other is the platypus. Both animals feed their babies on milk. A young echidna is called a muggle. Echidnas live for around 45 years in the wild.

DUAN (phascogale) – A phascogale is a relative of the quoll and Tasmanian devil. Their diet consists of insects, spiders and centipedes. They will also eat nectar from the ironbark flowers. The male phascogale dies at around one year of age, just after breeding season. The phascogale is a shy animal and has a very bushy tail.

street art view st 2

I retired to magnolia-on-view, the Airbnb I was sharing with friend Susan whom I met volunteering for Open House Ballarat and reflected on an amazing morning and all the new cultural and historical information absorbed.

The atmosphere in my little corner of Bendigo friendly, relaxed, and fun. I was surrounded by positivity and people giving back to their community. Ian and I both agreed, volunteering for something you love gives you energy.

I met up with Jack who lives in the redeveloped Willsmere and who had been our tour guide for the place. He remembered me. A nice compliment considering as a grey-haired senior I’m often considered to be in the realms of the invisible and irrelevant now…

I laughed with a couple of locals – a retired gentleman who lived in the same street as the Depot but who had never visited. It took Open House Bendigo to change his ‘will do one day’ into ‘will do today’ and he’d brought along a son and grandson who now live in Melbourne!

I met Sandra, a writer and editor who has just moved to Bendigo. She volunteers and writes biographies for people in palliative care.

The weekend was exceeding expectations and making me forget the ache in my ribs from an unfortunate car accident a few days before.

I checked the roster and prepared to open another door!

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When counting blessings, friends must be high on your list!

tiled mural flinders street.jpg

Coco Chanel apparently said, ‘Nature gives you the face you have at 20. Life shapes the face you have at 30, but at 50 you get the face you deserve.’

If we sulked or made a funny or unpleasant face, my Mum used to warn, ‘the wind will change and you’ll stay like that.’ Both my parents championed smiling and politeness and modelled being friendly and pleasant.

‘You use more muscles to frown than smile’ is always a good comeback when someone looks glum, but there is no scientific proof behind the old saying!

“Scientists have studied the muscles needed for both facial expressions, and to do a small smile generally uses 10 muscles; a small frown uses 6. On average, a smile uses 12 and a frown 11. However, since humans tend to smile a lot, these muscles are stronger. A frown may be slightly more effort to produce just because we aren’t as used to using these muscles.”

Science Made Simple 

However, scientific proof or not, I’m sticking with smiles, politeness and kindness to people because I feel better when I do and following another piece of Mum advice, ‘civility costs nothing.’

My face – wrinkles et al – reflects life hasn’t been easy but there are plenty of laughter lines and when I meet up with friends there are usually smiles and laughter aplenty and I try and catch up with as many as possible during term breaks.

Spring In Melbourne Town 2018
(A hybrid Haibun)
Mairi Neil

outside Alan McLean Hall.jpg
outside where U3A meet

Today, I won’t be grey and miserable
and definitely ‘not over the hill’
I’m meeting a friend of many years
several hours we’ll happily fill.

On way to the train
U3A club gathering
‘Nice day for an outing!’

Dressed for mercurial Melbourne
sturdy shoes and light jackets,
sunglasses, lanyards with names,
backpacks and lunch in packets.

‘Join us?’ their chorus
prepared for fun and adventure
my kind of ageing…

On the train beside a Metro worker
who’s heading for Glenhuntly Station
we chat about insecure work and gender
driving a train once her inclination.

I’m on the bus now
Meet you under the clocks
C u soon’

A confirmation text received
we’ve embraced the digital age
but I open a book of poetry –
I prefer words written on the page.

Train stops Platform 10
30 steps to reach the street
ever mindful of heart health

Food court wafts hot chips, coffee and cake
September’s Showtime and school hols
Flinders station’s abuzz with children
plus seagull, sparrow and pigeon trolls.

Myki tapped lightly
eyes seek a waiting friend
welcome smiles and hug

Age hasn’t happened all at once
however, we stroll not stride, to NGV
with hours to enjoy art and beauty
top priorities a pee and a cup of tea!

A young girl walks by
her straw hat embroidered –
the word – ‘paradise

Indeed! Melbourne – the world’s most liveable city.

Old friends are gold

Uma and I go back forty years BC (before children) and have encountered storms and defeats; sunny days and triumphs. Recently, retired from full-time work Uma is recovering from a serious back operation. I’m a few years older, almost retired from part-time work – four months to go – but who is counting!

For a just celebrated 61st birthday, Uma received membership to the NGV and as we walked from Flinders Street Station, she extolled the advantages and virtues of access to talks, special events, behind the scene views, plus a membership lounge – our first stop for a complimentary cuppa.

THE FAMOUS GLASS CEILING.jpg
The famous glass ceiling at NGV

I love the NGV too – it is celebrating 50 years this year and I can remember it being built. In fact, I can remember the obligatory school excursion where you got to lie on the floor and stare up at the magnificent and unusual leadlight glass ceiling.

There are always several special exhibitions at the NGV, plus their permanent collection. Uma’s input and knowledge from attending member lectures added to the richness of the day as we wandered through galleries discussing exhibits.

A recent talk about Nick Cave’s work: Sound Suit made her think differently about the pieces and how we perceive each other.

sound suit 1.jpg

Nick Cave makes sculptures that you can wear. These outfits cover the body and remove all traces of the wearer’s identity. When you are wearing a Soundsuit, no one can tell whether you are rich or poor, black or white, male or female…he created his Soundsuit series in an attempt to process his trauma associated with the 1992 Los Angeles riots.

…wearable sculptures act as symbols of endurance and a form of protection by obscuring all signs of the wearer’s race, gender, age, sexual identification and class…

made from everyday materials sourced largely from flea markets, including dyed human hair, plastic buttons, beads and feathers…joyous and spectacular…rattle and resonate when worn in performance.

sound suit.jpg

Both Uma and I were busy mums in 1992, with our firstborns leaving Prep and our second children preparing for playgroup and three-year-old kindergarten. International events reported via radio or television and often delayed by hours but the 1992 LA riots unforgettable because at the same time Australia was facing the reality of the Stolen Generation stories and alarming statistics of Aboriginal deaths in custody.

I expressed my anger and fears at Readings By The Bay, the monthly poetry and story readings held by Mordialloc Writers’ Group:

Our Burning Shame
Mairi Neil 1992

Rodney King – who gave you that name?
A “king’ in a black skin…
some will see the irony
or is it okay as a surname.
Is your destiny entwined
with that other dreamer?

The world watched in horror
as they beat you to the ground…
on the ground
into the ground.
The gang of four with official batons
grasped tightly, wielded as if warriors
beating your head
beating your body
beating your legs

Pounding, pounding, pounding…
a steady funeral dirge
burying the myth racial equality is accepted

Middle-class liberals gasped
horrified at the naked truth
other victims sighed with relief
the truth at last revealed.
Those with the power to change
shrugged away the fuss

A picture is worth a thousand words
a video worth a thousand affidavits
television news beamed across the nation
worth a thousand protests
an opportune political decision
worth a thousand votes

Time dimmed the anger and horror
even brutes deserve a trial…
innocent until proven guilty
but will Nuremberg be revisited?
We waited for the sentence
believing we knew the judgement

A jury without black faces
proved society is controlled
by red necks preferring white liars
who can live with red faces

Now Los Angeles burns –
along with our shame
those with real power
remain unchanged
Cosmetics mask ugly faces
waspish capitalists sting
again and again and again…

Shocked Australians are horrified
yet reality reveals our guilt
smugness shattered
when black deaths in custody
inspire jokes

Our custodians of the law
don’t need lessons in brutality
we watched the scenes in LA
but closed minds
can be switched off
just like television sets

Will our cities burn
today…
tomorrow…
next week…

Now, of course, the time delay is only seconds. The 24Hour media cycle (circus?) barely gives us time to digest, never mind process, events. There are social media platforms and mobile devices offering no escape or relief, and ironically, the reality of ‘fake’ news.

After almost three decades I have to pause, reflect, and ask how much have attitudes and behaviour changed?

Will the wider dissemination of news and events via the Internet make people seek further knowledge, see a different perspective, consider a change in behaviour or attitude – or will it just cement their own truth and beliefs?

Across the room beside Sound Suits is Amelia Falling by Hank Willis Thomas, a most effective photographic image on a mirror and depicting Alabama 1965 – I remember that too almost three decades before the LA Riots! :

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Amelia Falling is derived from an archival photograph taken by photojournalist Spider Martin during the Selma to Montgomery marches in Alabama in 1965…

… civil rights activist Amelia Boynton Robinson being carried by fellow marchers after having been gassed and beaten by State Troopers during what was intended to be a peaceful protest…

Willis Thomas states, ‘In a lot of my work I ask the viewer not to be passive but to actually think about active participation’.

 

What artwork will the Trump era produce – chronicle our despair, facilitate change or confront our shame?

Trumpeting Limericks To Let Off Steam

Mairi Neil, 2016

There once was a candidate Trump
elected by those who took hump
at moneyed elites
according to tweets
by Trump’s collective misogynist clump

He blew bigots up like a bicycle pump
‘deplorables’ swelled to a poisonous lump
forget about facts
diplomacy or tact
winning is all that matters to Trump

As the President-elect Donald Trump
sneered at women considered plump
his unleashed tongue
grotesque insults flung
Trump’s misogyny a cancerous lump

His presidency corrupt at the core
means the United States no more
anger and hate
an uncertain fate
Trump’s only about settling a score

He campaigned with deceit and lies
winning the penultimate prize
of course, he’s a fool
others actually rule
will the majority avert their eyes?

From Mexican artist Joaquin Segura we have Exercises on selective mutism, 2012:

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In this piece the artist has recovered a found object – a canvas banner discarded in the aftermath of a protest in Mexico City – and transformed it into a minimalist sculpture by applying layers of white paint to its surface. 

The attempt to cover up (literally ‘whitewash’) the banner’s political message is key to the work’s meaning… about efforts to silence, and render invisible, dissent – through omission, spreading misinformation and erasure – and a questioning of conceptual art’s potential to make political claims or to challenge authority.

I love writing Found Poetry and the last lesson for the term in my Writing Creatively class was exploring Found Poetry by reading a column in the local paper which collates local news snippets from a hundred years ago.

The exercise was challenging but productive and I hope the students polish the variety of poems they wrote.

Art can Confront, Challenge, move us from our Comfort Zone

Several other installations prompted discussions on a host of current media topics and various events we’d lived through.

Baby boomers have survived tumultuous, exciting times and have adapted to incredible change, especially the rise of the digital world. I’m glad there is still support for art you can touch, walk around, relate to and experience in real time, not just on screen.

Melbourne is rich with events to attend, particularly during holiday times and I never tire of the trip to the city – as a teacher of creative writing, particularly Life Stories & Legacies, cultural experiences and exhibitions offer a mine of information and material for lessons and ideas to write about, plus triggers for personal memories.

When we write about our past, it’s easy to look at memories as if through a fixed lens. Events and people, including self, coldly observed – especially childhood – embarrassments, failings, mistakes, sometimes enlarged or erased with hindsight, successes perhaps forgotten or if unrecognised at the time, now embellished. The telescope pointed at childhood fixed, and often others not consulted, so the memory, reliable or otherwise, is our own.

The immediate past and middle years, early adulthood onwards not so clear to categorise or to talk about – marriage, parenthood, working life – may still have ongoing repercussions – more likely family, friends and fellow travellers, still alive even if not active participants in your life.

The memories may be raw and traumatic and still needing some distance before reflection.

Our childhood distant, but not the experiences of our own children and their effect on our lives still being worked through, as are decisions that may have affected our health:

  • abandoning regular sport or dancing,
  • quitting smoking,
  • alcohol use,
  • prescription medication,
  • middle-aged spread,
  • promotion at work,
  • redundancies,
  • reducing to part-time
  • or casual work,
  • divorce,
  • widowhood,
  • estrangement,
  • de facto relationships,
  • weddings,
  • grandchildren,
  • retirement,
  • relocation…

… so many experiences and turning points to be written freely or honestly, or perhaps censored with ramifications fully understood.

Shared experiences, Interviewing friends, a Memoir Writer’s fodder

At the NGV, along with discussing the contents of the galleries, Uma and I chatted and remembered events of our forty years friendship. We both are the product of the first wave of feminism and both have daughters who we raised accordingly, hoping they would not go through some of the sexism and inequality we faced.

Uma, as a woman of colour, born in Malaysia, a country with a long history and acculturation from British colonialism, recognises she adapted to Australian society with relative ease compared to other migrants but we agree the conversations around #blacklivesmatter and #metoo are relevant to Australia and long overdue.

Proud to be Feminist

“You’ll love the Guerrilla Girls: Portfolio Compleat,” said Uma as she guided me to the next gallery.

Guerrilla Girls exhibition confronts gender inequality particularly in the creative fields, and because myself and both daughters (a filmmaker and a stop-motion animator) work in creative fields, Uma wanted me to see it.

We found ourselves sharing insights about subtle and not so subtle discrimination in a world that unfortunately still sees power wielded by the privileged, and in western society, the privileged are overwhelmingly white and male.

Uma confided that at work in the public service, even when she was in charge, as the manager or ‘boss’, she sat in the front row at conferences or prominent positions at meetings to be seen and she consciously spoke a little louder to be heard – a woman of colour, she had two hurdles to jump!

Guerrilla Girls is a group of anonymous feminist artists and activists who call themselves ‘the conscience of the art world’. Their posters, billboards, books, videos and live lectures use facts, humour and bold visuals to expose sexism and racism in politics, the art world and popular culture.

The collective formed in New York City in 1985 with the mission to bring gender and racial equality into focus within the greater arts community. The members protect their individual identities by wearing gorilla masks during public appearances and by adopting names of deceased female icons such as Edmonia Lewis, Kathe Kollwitz and Frida Kahlo.

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guerrilla girls and homeless

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Uma pointed to number four on the list of advantages of being a woman artist.

‘You have another 20 years,’ she said with a grin…

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Many of the observations were witty and shocking but in today’s depressing political climate ‘stating the bloody obvious.

On the way to visit another special exhibition, we paused at random objects that caught our eye.

From ‘in your face’ feminism, to the eighteenth century, known for its enlightened philosophes (you’ll be forgiven for only knowing the names of the male intellectuals – Voltaire, Rousseau, Kant, Diderot, Hume…) because women were literally and figuratively trapped – in clothes that limited mobility, a society that denied rights and access to education:

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The fashionable ideal for women in the eighteenth century comprised voluminous dresses, open at the front to reveal matching stomachers and petticoats, tall powdered clouds of hair and pointed buckled shoes. Skirts were widened with hoops or panniers to create an exaggerated hourglass silhouette that emphasised the natural waistline.

This work is known as a robe a la francaise (or sack-back gown), distinguishable by its sack-back of loose pleating and front robings trimmed with lace that conveys the luxury and ostentation of the period.

During the first half of the eighteenth century, fashionable women’s shoes for the upper and middle classes followed a common form. Straight and narrow with a pointed toe and thick-waisted heel, most were made of rich silk fabric and often had decorative trimmings known as passamaneria. This pair features exquisite metal thread bobbin lace made by braiding and twisting lengths of thread, further edged by strips of braid work. The shoes do not buckle but are worn with the latchets overlapping at the front.

How did they function?

I loved Georgette Heyer’s Regency and Georgian novels as a teenager and imagined floating around in muslin and silk dresses – a visit to a museum would have given me a reality check!

The research required for good historical fiction is painstaking and often clothes play a huge part in whether the story is believable, even more so for screenwriting.

I visited so many museums and galleries when I travelled and often looked at the displays and pondered the hours of labour to make the material, dress and shoes.

My aunt was a tailoress and my older sister an amazing seamstress too, she quilts, embroiders and does all manner of creative needlework. I know the effort and time hand sewing takes – mind-boggling!

However, the men and women hunched in candlelight, in rooms with little or no ventilation, sewing these glamorous gowns earned a pittance and history did not even record their names…

A Stitch in Time (a villanelle)
Mairi Neil

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Day For All Things Domestic?

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Curry 2006 by Subodh Gupta

Uma was thrilled to come across an installation by an Indian born artist Subodh Gupta called Curry.

A wall displaying the various utensils used for cooking reminded Uma of growing up in Malaysia and observing her grandmother cooking. There were certain types of pots and pans, spoons and ladles found in every Indian household.

The tiffin boxes brought back memories for me too.

I first heard about tiffins and saw one when John and I became close friends with a workmate, Peter Cordeux who had been born and brought up in India as part of the British Army community.

Whenever we had parties, Peter and his wife Kathy brought a tiffin box filled with delicious curries and rice, which Peter always jokingly claimed he made.

Peter died in 2008, but his stories of growing up in India, holidaying in Pakistan and Afghanistan, being stationed in the Middle East, fighting in Malaya in 1948 during the “Insurgency,” and then the various jobs he had before migrating to Australia, including operating an ice cream van, introduced a whole new fascinating world.

His funny and serious tales reflected in those tiffin boxes! My girls loved their Uncle Peter and still miss him.

Cultural references resonate within the make-up of this artwork: the use of stainless steel in bowls, plates and cups is synonymous with the modernisation and economic development of India in the twentieth century.

Stainless steel replaced kansa (or bell metal, a brittle bronze featuring a high proportion of tin) in the 1950s and 1960s and came to transform the kitchen and eating utensils used in everyday life in India.

The nod to the multitudes of India is made in this work, where straightforward, comparatively small, individual elements are brought together at such a scale that they transcend their everyday nature.

A Writing Exercise

A common writing exercise for those writing family history or memoir is to look in cupboards and write about objects kept for sentimental reasons or as heirlooms. What is the story behind them? Why is it important to write their legacy?

Or write about and explain the value and attachment of everyday objects.

How were they acquired and is there a significant memory attached, like a birthday or anniversary, a travel story?

A trip to the NGV or the museum may help to trigger memories – this stainless steel display certainly did for me and Uma – as did the final special exhibition we walked through.

a stroll through coffee pots

A Modern Life: Tablewares 1930s – 1980s

If you want to date or explain the provenance of that treasured plate or teapot, visit the NGV before 27 January 2019. You’ll have an enjoyable history lesson too and perhaps discover that valuable piece of crockery a la Antique Roadshow!

The layout of some of the displays to mirror popular designs, I found a bit overwhelming and busy, but certainly stunning and there is a great range of designers. So much detail to produce the humble cup and saucer.

Nowadays, in trendy places, you can be offered a jam jar to drink from and your meal served on a wooden board – or even given disposable crockery and cutlery!

Not so in previous decades.

Following the Second World war, societal changes resulted in the decline of domestic servants and many women going out to work. These changes, along with the growing enthusiasm for a modern lifestyle, prompted manufacturers to produce dining wares that were versatile, easily cared for and able to go from the oven to the table.

Postwar optimism also encouraged the development of new tableware forms that were decorated in bold colours and modernist patterns.

This exhibition explores the growing engagement with modern design by commercial manufacturers charting the application of technical innovations in production and decorative techniques in pursuit of commercially competitive products.

Whilst focusing on ceramics, the exhibition also explores the use of new materials resulting from wartime technological advances including plastic, aluminium and stainless steel.

 

As we walked around the cabinets so many memories were triggered.  Personal family stories, especially memories of our mothers and the impact of their preferences, tastes and habits on our own behaviour shopping, cooking, serving meals.

Memories of setting up house in the 80s – scrounging furniture, crockery and utensils to build a home.

Uma was surprised to hear I’d worked in Johnson’s Pottery in the 70s – in fact all members of my family, apart from my young sister, worked in the Croydon factory, producing Australia’s best-known tableware.

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Mum on the pinning bench, Johnsons Pottery circa 1968

Dad was a kiln man for ten years, my mother worked on the pinning bench preparing the holders for the pottery to be fired, my brothers were kiln boys helping load and unload the kiln cars and clearing up debris, sorting and stacking; my sister worked in the decorating section and I inspected the finished products and also worked in the office during the traditional three-week Christmas shut-down period.

When the factory closed for maintenance, the only person running the office was Mr Stephen Johnson, the boss and owner before Wedgewood bought the company. Teenage me on university holidays was hired to answer the telephone and type letters.

At the time Johnsons negotiated special deals with shops like GJ Coles, David Jones and Myer – they chose a specific design that became their exclusive tableware. I took a call from the famous GJ Coles who was a personal friend of Mr Stephen’s and made afternoon tea for the many suited gentlemen who visited to seal agreements for the coming year. 

I can remember the fuss when Johnsons moved away from traditional whiteware and made their first stoneware as they tried to compete with imports from Japan.

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Japanese stoneware

Technology and mass production has made a lot of household items disposable but access to good quality tableware used to be prized – the first complete set of tableware for many being the traditional wedding present of a dinner set.

Most of my family, myself included, had a dinner set gifted as a wedding present. I have a couple of plates, the remnants of the wedding present to my grandparents and parents. Bone China still cherished and on show in cabinets in the homes of many of my generation.

John’s sister in England has a magnificent collection of blue and white pottery (Delftware) and Royal Albert and Royal Doulton Bone China, but the coffee sets and tableware in this exhibition very much examples of the everyday pieces that may not survive intact if their purpose and design enjoyed rather than displayed!

The bold colours of the 70s and 80s obvious and I’m sure similar pieces can be found in Opportunity shops as my generation declutter.

I don’t think young people today place the same value on many of the possessions older generations had to use a greater percentage of their disposable income to acquire.

I can recall seeing the famous blue Willow pattern for the first time when I came to Australia in 1962. We stayed with a cousin of Dad’s and that was the pattern of her everyday dishes. I fell in love with the oriental scenes, my imagination working overtime as usual because I’ve always had a fascination with China.

In the early days of living in Mordialloc, one of the retail chains had a sale of Blue Willow pattern crockery and I bought a set.

When the girls were young, they too ate their cereal from Willow-patterned bowls. I’ll have to ask them if the scenes had any impact on them – I’m pretty sure their answer will be no.

But perhaps in the future, looking back on their childhood or wandering through an art gallery or museum with a friend…

For Auld Lang Syne

I’m lucky to have several dear friends to enjoy the present and some have shared the immediate and not so distant past – the part of life we often struggle to write about in terms of memory and reflection.

Talking about shared experiences or interviewing friends about a particular event can help with perspective when the desire or in some cases, an urgency to record a life for family members or the general community arises.

There are three classes into which all the women past seventy that ever I knew were to be divided: 1. That dear old soul; 2. That old woman; 3. That old witch. 

Samuel Taylor Coleridge

A couple of centuries have passed since Coleridge made that statement about ‘old women’. I’m heading towards seventy and some friends are there already and we’d all agree he got it wrong. 

We may still be fighting for gender equality, and ageism is a reality, but thankfully Coleridge and the other Romantic Poets with patriarchal and sexist views are only around in print and any modern poet expressing similar views will have to contend with shaming by Guerrilla Girls!

I loved my day out with Uma and look forward to catching up with other friends ‘of a certain age’ and intend to enjoy lots of the available activities in October as we celebrate how great it is to be a senior in Melbourne.

We Need Another Gandhi – Another Great Soul to Remind Us to Honour all Humanity!

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One of my favourite places to visit in Melbourne is the Immigration Museum and last month I caught the final day of a magnificent exhibition on the life of Mahatma Gandhi – one of the greatest men ever to live and whose teachings and life informed, enriched and inspired me.

A great activist who changed the shape of our world by advocating for tremendous social change and justice years before Lenin formed his Bolshevik faction and before Mao Zedong embraced revolutionary ideals.

The 20th century had just begun when Gandhi developed his theories and put into practice a campaign of non-violent resistance to injustice.

 

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Today is World Humanitarian Day (WHD). It is held every year on 19 August to bring attention to the millions of people around the world who are affected by crisis and conflict and pay tribute to aid workers who risk their lives in humanitarian service and to rally support for people affected by crises around the world.

A fitting day to honour the life of Gandhi and to thank my parents for their influence and guidance in believing social change can and must happen if we want a more just and equitable world.

 

In my Life Stories & Legacies Class, I often ask the students to write about their beliefs and values and reflect on who and what influenced and perhaps still influences them.

To reflect on how much their parents, teachers, the books they read, personal experiences and current events shape their core beliefs and actions.

We’ve had a tumultuous week in the Australian Parliament revealing the best and worst of our representatives.

A week where Gandhi’s ability to dissolve prejudice in others and inspire courage to act and practise what we preach was sorely needed.

gandhi a digital exhibition poster Einstein quote
World Humanitarian Day 2018

“Around the world, conflict is forcing record numbers of people from their homes, with over 65 million people now displaced. Children are recruited by armed groups and used to fight. Women are abused and humiliated. As humanitarian workers deliver aid and medical workers provide for those in need, they are all too often targeted or treated as threats.”

UN Secretary-General, António Guter

Only 1% of the 25 million people who have fled as refugees are ever resettled.

Gandhi believed we are all citizens of the world, unbound by exclusive loyalties of race or creed or class. He became renowned for shedding attachment to material things and at the end of his life, his only worldly possessions were his sandals, watch, glasses, a couple of spoons and bowls and a book of songs!

If only more people believed in such a universal society rather than nationalistic divisions, many more refugees and displaced people would be resettled.

The exhibition at the Immigration Museum approached telling Gandhi’s story by first introducing Gandhi as an immigrant. Indeed the forming of his philosophy to campaign for change in a non-violent way began when he lived and worked in South Africa and suffered discrimination because of his skin colour and ethnicity.

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The exhibition combined digital and non-digital storytelling and made good use of extracts from the 1982 Richard Attenborough film, Gandhi and archival footage from documentaries and newsreels. At least Ben Kingsley,  the actor chosen to play Gandhi,  is of Indian heritage, his father being Gujarati and Ben’s birth name, Krishna Bhanji.

The books I bought and read about Gandhi acquired in the 1970s and it was great to refresh my memory and immerse myself in exceptionally well-laid out exhibits.

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Gandhi’s Early Life

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Incident At Pietermaritzburg, South Africa

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Many people can point to a pivotal moment or event that either changed their attitude or thinking or forced them to change the direction they were heading in life.

Gandhi’s moment was outrage at the unjust humiliation of being ejected from the train despite having a ticket, and being ejected and roughly treated because he was ‘coloured’.

He had a long, cold night to sit in the waiting room and reflect on his undignified treatment and the general status of non-whites in South Africa. His legal training and political beliefs must have worked overtime as he imagined and planned an effective response – and considered the bigger picture, especially in relation to India under British rule.

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The year my father was born (1922), Gandhi was actively promoting his doctrine of passive resistance and making headlines in newspapers. My Scottish grandfather (Papa) was well-read for a working-class man and actively involved in the trade union movement. No doubt he followed the stories of Gandhi when he visited England in 1931 and promoted peaceful negotiation of conflict.

Fighting and Marching For Equal Rights in South Africa

In 1913 the Cape Supreme Court ruled that only marriages performed under the Christian rites could be recognised. With the stroke of a pen, all Hindu, Muslim, Zoroastrian, and other religious marriages were nullified.

This judgement added to long-standing grievances of the Indian community including the three-pound tax on ex-indentured labourers and the law prohibiting Indians from crossing state borders.

Several Indian women, including Gandhi’s wife Kasturba, declared their intention to seek arrest until the judgement was overturned.

Gandhi advised two separate parties of women, the Phoenix Party and Transvaal Sisters, to cross the Natal border and break the law. They were then to urge the people of Natal to join Satyagraha and not reveal their names and addresses upon arrest.

The Phoenix Party was arrested at the border and sent to a hard labour prison for three months in Pietermaritzburg Jail. The Transvaal sisters, however, positioned themselves in Newcastle, Natal without arrest. Their influence spread quickly among the indentured labourers, helping incite massive strikes.

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In 1915, Gandhi returned to India and continued to transform himself and the movement towards independence.

gandhi's demand for independence

Gandhi’s India

The exhibition had several display cabinets with a selection of traditional Indian clay figures, dating from the 1860s and 1880s, to provide a beautiful if at times idealised, representation of the human diversity of Gandhi’s India.

They included fine examples from the famous 19th century Indian workshops of Krishnanagar, Lucknow and Pune. These artefacts have rarely been seen in Australia since many were displayed in the Indian Court at the 1880 Melbourne International exhibition at the Royal Exhibition Building.

I have several friends and have had students who migrated here from India and my daughters have school chums who were born here from immigrant parents but like most people, I probably underestimate the sheer size and diversity of India geographically as well as population-wise.

The clay figures displayed from the Krishnangar, Lucknow and Pune regions, 1860s-1880s. (Museum Victoria Collection) Also figures from Mumbai.

Various people and occupations represented:

  • everyday men, poor villager, ‘Palanquin’ carrying army officer, washerman (dhobi), female labourer, office messenger (peon), woman of high rank, drummer, Parsi (Zoroastrian) house servant, Hindu writer, priestess begging for Hindu goddess Kali, musician, cloth dealer’s servant, woman spinning yarn, Muslim man, priest for Hindu goddess Kali, horse keeper (ghorawalla), Hindu clerk, dancer (nautch girl), goldsmith (sonawalla), man carrying bundles, merchant (banian), woman from mercantile class, Parsi (Zoroastrian) gentleman, Hindu tailor, Brahmin woman, policeman, domestic ‘half-caste’ worker (ayah), Muslim gentleman, agricultural female worker (ryot), priest, Muslin cloth seller, potter at wheel, fruit seller, water carrier, horse groom, Bengali man, teacher (pundit), woman wearing lace shawl, seated priest sewing, poor villager.

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Clay figure modelling in India

Clay figure modelling has been widely practised in India for hundreds of years. Models of humans, animals and scenes from everyday life have been used for worship, as toys, ornamentation and for ethnographic purposes. A gradual shift towards naturalism in clay figure modelling in certain regions increased during the 18th century with the arrival of Western traders, European settlers and planters who took souvenirs home from India.

While the manufacture of traditional clay toys and religious idols continued, the manufacture of naturalistic clay models was centred in the regions of Krishnanagar, Lucknow and Pune. The establishment of government art schools in Calcutta, Madras and Bombay (now Mumbai) during the late 19th century further increased European influence on the various styles of clay modelling.

The advent of international exhibitions, the first held in London in 1851, saw an increasing interest in the peoples, customs and traditions of the non-Western world. The established tradition of clay figure modelling in India was an obvious way to represent an often idealised Indian people, life and culture.

What counts in life is not the mere fact that we have lived. It is what difference we have made to the lives of others that will determine the significance of the life we lead.”

Nelson Mandela

Salt March was Right Against Might…

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Satyagraha

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On 6 April 1930, Gandhi and his followers produced salt on the shores of Dandi, breaking the Salt Law. Time magazine declared Gandhi the “Man of the Year’ in 1930 and more than 1300 newspapers around the world reported the Salt March.

In June 2011, Time magazine declared the Salt March as the second most influential protest in the world.

My parents were married the year Gandhi was assassinated (1948) and after living through the tragedy and horror of WW2, my father threw himself into the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) and like many others, he was certainly inspired by Gandhi.

When I was a child I can remember the conversations of adults who visited our home and the discussions between my parents about the merits of various methods to effect change.

One name was often mentioned – Mahatma Gandhi, an activist who changed the shape of the world by encouraging people to fight for change by non-violent civil disobedience.

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The Untouchables

In the 1930s, Gandhi’s main concern was for the untouchables, whom he called the Harijans or Children of God. He strongly campaigned against systems of privilege and deliberately did the cleaning duties, particularly the cleaning of toilets, considered the duties of the untouchables.

The removal of the worst features of the caste system occupied him during this decade.

He transformed his own ashram at Sabarmati into a centre for training untouchables and edited a paper called Harijan,  contributing most of his later writings.

sabamarti museumSabarmati sites of significance 4

The Brotherhood of All Religions

Gandhi was a deeply spiritual person who believed religion was a private matter and that each person made their own approach to God.  Any attempt to create a religious state unacceptable as was any other way of differentiation between people.

His life-threatening fasts to achieve a goal legendary, and none more so than towards the end of his life when inter-communal massacres at the time of India’s liberation derailed a smooth transition to independence.

His attempt to solve the religious divisions, notably the divide between Hindu and Muslim led to a pilgrimage through the most troubled regions. Sadly, he died at the hands of a religious fanatic and his dream of a society without social or religious discrimination died too.

Gandhi Championed a Simple Life

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Gandhi worked hard on a practical level to rehabilitate and promote the Indian village, reviving agriculture, industry, education and other features of the rural culture of India. He believed his vision of communal reconciliation and a thorough reformation of Indian society at this basic level would benefit everyone. he had a desire to turn the tribes of India into self-supporting farmers.

The combination of good farming and craftsmanship would ensure a sufficient but not luxurious life.

A spinning wheel similar to the one he used and an example of spun cotton was on display. Gandhi never asked anyone to do anything he did not and he spent 15 minutes spinning every day – his meditation time – a therapeutic exercise he recommended.

Gandhi’s ideas came with strong moralistic and anarchistic leanings.

The State represents violence in a concentrated and organized form… self-government means continuous effort to be free of government control, whether it is foreign, or whether it is national… The ideally non-violent state will be an ordered anarchy.’

Women he regarded as the most exploited class of India, next to untouchables. He believed men and women were complementary – equal in status, but different in function. He campaigned for the abolition of purdah, child marriage and all customs that discriminated against women.

He believed that once women were liberated from male exploitation they would develop a high degree of sexual restraint and solve India’s population problem without other birth control methods, which he saw as an encouragement to indulgences.

Gandhi’s ideas and action challenged and changed our way of thinking.

A complex, courageous man who continually transformed himself to remain engaged with the times and true to his ideals.

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Most of the protest movements that followed his death and liberation struggles in other countries whether it was the civil rights movement in the USA, anti-nuclear and anti-Vietnam marches, the campaign against racial discrimination and Apartheid or a free Tibet – all owe a great deal to Gandhi’s legacy.

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When A Trip is Unforseen, Unplanned and Unappealing…

 

park bench Edinburgh 2017

On Tuesday morning, in a buoyant mood, I set off for work – my last class for the term – and mind already turning over a list of appointments, events, ideas for lessons, and a list of catch-up household chores to be squeezed into the winter break.

In a folder ready for photocopying and collating, the prepared anthology of the writing students of Godfrey Street’s Writing Creatively Class.

I had burned the metaphorical midnight oil for several nights but tiredness banished when I organised the wonderful work produced this semester.  The cliched spring in my step real because a task satisfactorily completed – a job well done.

Pride Comes Before A Fall

However,  life has a way of reminding me never to be too comfortable or smug!

I’d only strode a few yards from home when I was flying through the air before landing with a thud on the concrete path.

Wings definitely clipped!

Three days later, beautiful bruises reveal themselves in places well-hidden but still painful, I  reflect on how lucky I am (no broken bones just sore muscles) and I now obey (within reason) both my daughters’ exhortations, ‘Can you just sit and do nothing – pleeease!’

I’m trying to ‘go with the flow!

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Windsurfer, Mentone January 2018

Déjà vu or Ground Hog Day?

While sitting in Frankston Hospital’s Accident & Emergency, Facebook reminded me of my travels last year and yes, unbelievably, it was this time last year when I was limping through the last leg of the big overseas adventure because I’d tripped in the hallway at my cousin’s house in Renton near Glasgow.

Despite my lovely cousin’s pleas, I didn’t get checked out by a doctor and ‘walked through the pain,’ which led to all sorts of complications when I returned home.

My daughters were most insistent I didn’t repeat any stoicism.

I reluctantly agreed, despite feeling like one of the guest speakers at a Women’s Hospital function who said once she retired ‘a trip’ became ‘a fall’ and she was sent off to a Fall Clinic as if she had a chronic problem.

My accidents were both unexpected trips, but landing on concrete is more likely to do damage than a floor – and it felt decidedly more painful!

I can laugh about Tuesday now, but the audience of half-a-dozen workers were not laughing when I landed beside them. Several strong pairs of arms hoisted me to my feet when I told them I was ready to stand and prove I didn’t need an ambulance.

At another time I might have revelled being fussed over by a batch of young men but I just wanted to return the few yards home and ‘have a Bex and a good lie down!’

A young man escorted me the 100 feet and carried my bag. He returned a few minutes later to check I was okay but I told him my daughters were on their way.

The cavalry arrived to greet a crying mess sitting draped in a bath towel toga with a large icepack on both knees and double-checking fingers, wrists, elbows, neck and all the other places that hurt.

Maybe it is a sign of age but the pain was excruciating. Shock set in and I started to shake – the girls were decisive.

A cup of tea and a couple of Panadol and we headed for Frankston Hospital.

Mobile phones a godsend that day. They had tried for an appointment with our local doctor when I first rang them but the clinic was booked out. They’d also rang my manager and cancelled the class.

While Mary played nurse and found some looser pants for me to wear that wouldn’t pressure my knees, Anne marched down to the worksite introduced herself and recorded the company’s details. She got a contact name of a supervisor because I’d caught my foot on the corner of a manhole cover they’d removed but left jutting out from the area of pavement blocked off.

Distracted and curious by the activity I tripped, but maybe the whole path should have been closed.  Lessons to be learned all round!

Silver Linings

The day became surreal and emotions ran high – suffice to say various temperaments exposed and moments bordered on slapstick, television soapie, Grey’s Anatomy, Brooklyn 99 and then an unexpected lovely moment…

We arrived home from Frankston to find a huge box of fruit on the doorstep and a handwritten note from one of the workers hoping I am okay and wishing me well.

I really appreciated their kindness.

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I also appreciated my daughters’ devotion and decisiveness – they proved themselves capable and caring adults and in all the drama I had a moment of parental pride and joy – they will survive, perhaps thrive – without me and have obviously discussed and thought about ‘the ageing me’ with one of them declaring at one stage, ‘You are not superwoman and don’t have to be supermum anymore.’

And so for a few days, I am ‘taking it easy’ factoring in Panamax and Voltaren Emulgel with the vitamins and blood pressure tablets!

I’ve been touched by visits and phone calls from friends and I’m blessed that injuries don’t seem to be too drastic and the holidays will be great recuperation time.

Happenstance indeed!

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And Today is Poet’s Day

POETS day is a term used by workers in the United Kingdom to refer jocularly to Friday as the last day of the work week. The word “POETS” is an acronym for “Piss off early, tomorrow’s Saturday”: hence Friday becomes “Poets day“.

With ‘enforced’ leisure I’ve started going through notebooks and extracting the ideas jotted down – maybe I’ll get some creative writing done!

I came upon this poem – apt because it was Tuesday Class I was heading to when I tripped so here’s ‘the postcard’ I ‘didn’t send’.

Remember the perennial joke from primary school if you witnessed somebody tripping?

Oops, I tripped.

You didn’t send me a postcard!

An Acrostic Tuesday

Mairi Neil

Tuesdays during school term, I teach in Bentleigh

Up the line from Mordialloc towards the city

Easy to get to by public transport, especially trains

So convenient! And I love it! I know I am lucky, even on

Days when inclement weather suggests

A day in bed or seat by the fireside…

Yet, I‘d never use bad weather as an excuse. Unless

 

Catastrophic cyclone creates wailing whistling winds

Large hailstones the size of tennis balls thunder down

An unseasonal snowfall blocks doors, driveways, footpaths

Sleet, slush or slippery ice replaces stable ground –

Scenarios unimaginable in Mordialloc – unless you are a writer!

empty classroom

Happy Holidays and Happy Poet’s Day!

 

 

McCall Smith – A Number One Author And Raconteur

Alexander mcCall Smith - happy to see fans

Last month, I went to a Writers’ Victoria event, held at The Atheneum to hear Melbourne’s Toni Jordan in conversation with Scottish author Alexander McCall Smith. She introduced McCall Smith by listing his writing accomplishments first:

  • 60 adult novels published,
  • 50 children’s novels
  • and the acclaimed 44 Scotland Street series
  • his work translated into 46 languages

Jordan concluded her introduction with “Alexander has been described as a literary phenomenon, a force of nature, and an endless source of joy around the world.

Needless to say, the filled-to-capacity theatre burst into rapturous applause proving that his fans agreed – and he hadn’t yet uttered a word!

a novel about happiness

Once McCall Smith began speaking, the conversation became very one-sided – in the words of my late mother Alexander McCall Smith can ‘talk the hind legs off a donkey’ and I’ll use her lovely Scottish word meant in the kindest of ways, he’s “a blether.

Although McCall Smith does not talk for the sake of talking, his warm-hearted view of humanity, his intelligence, a keen sense of humour, and wide-ranging life experience ensure that he is a fabulous raconteur.

We hung on every deliciously entertaining word and later queued up outside for a few minutes with the man himself when he agreed to sign books and pose for photographs. (The publisher arranged for a young man to do the duty of dealing with numerous digital devices!)

Kindness and generosity two words that come easily to the lips regarding this prolific author dressed in an off-white suit, highly polished leather shoes and exuding genteel elegance as he relaxed comfortably in the spotlight.

He introduced himself to the audience by saying if people had come to the wrong place he didn’t mind if they left and then proceeded to tell the first of many anecdotes of the evening.

‘Turning up at the wrong venue is easy to do,’ he said. “A few months ago, a man came up to me at an author’s event in New York and said he’d enjoyed my lecture although he had booked to hear an author talk about the atom bomb!”

As the laughter subsided, Toni asked Alexander, when he began writing books and leaning back into his chair, he launched into a story he’d obviously told many times.

He sent his first manuscript off when eight years old. “ It was unpublishable, of course, and probably all of two pages long. A melodrama along the lines of ‘He’s gone’ and explaining who, why and where…

He received a polite rejection letter from the publisher, “Carry on working.” McCall Smith laughed when he said, “at least in those days publishers answered every submission and gave encouragement along with rejection!”

a novel about bertie

This story led to another personal snippet revealing again his kindness and cheeky sense of humour. A seven-year-old boy knocked on his door one day holding a book he had written.

Go and show Mr McCall Smith,’ said the boy’s mother from the background, “he’s a writer.”

The book was two sentences long, called The Great Toffee Theft.

Great title,’ he told the boy.

The story was ‘A man stole a toffee. The police came and arrested him.’ The End.

The Scottish author Ian Rankin, writer of novels about the detective Rebus, lives two doors up from McCall Smith in Edinburgh, so Alexander sent the boy up to Ian’s house advising, “Mr Rankin’s into crime, he’ll be better placed to give you feedback on your manuscript.”

This recollection was the perfect segue into stories about how he sometimes inserts real people into his novels ‘with their permission, of course.’

Like all writers, he draws on life experiences for plots, characters and setting, but you can tell he has fun with all this too. The first time he put Rankin into a novel was as a cameo when he bought a valuable stolen painting from a charity shop. When Ian realised it had been stolen he returned it to the original owner. Rankin’s comment was “I wouldn’t be so decent if it was that valuable!”

In another story, Alexander had one of the Queen’s Royal Archers, ‘a doddery bunch now’ fire an arrow that goes astray and hits Ian Rankin on the shoulder. He is helped by young Bertie, one of McCall Smith’s regular heroes who recognises Rankin as a famous author because ‘a lot of his books are in the window of the local secondhand bookshop for 50p.’

Ian’s feedback? “Not true, they’d be at least £1!”

McCall Smith asked Scotland’s First Minister, Alex Salmond, (2007-2014) if he could put him in a story. ” He seemed quite chuffed.” McCall Smith had the First Minister save young Bertie from a runaway truck when the young boy froze while crossing the road. The manuscript was sent to the First Minister’s office for approval and he got a reply back in 45 minutes, “very satisfactory”. (The fastest bureaucratic approval on record!)

44 scotland street

However, he tries not to use real people he’s read about in his writing and said, “it is rude not to Google because it implies they’re not worth Googling.” He puts in a name plus what scandal they may be involved in just to check he won’t be offending a real live person … at this point he strayed into the murky waters of Australian politics by suggesting with mock outrage that ‘the bloke with the hat (Barnaby Joyce) has had some unkind words said about him.”

Toni managed to ask a question about McCall Smith’s writing, in particular about the serial novel and the much-loved 44 Scotland Street series.

Serial Novels

Serial novels, a genre not that common nowadays but popular in the times of Charles Dickens, and also with Tolstoy, Trollope and Flaubert.

Dickens used it as a common way to earn a living, publishing a chapter a week in a newspaper or magazine, and generally ending with a cliffhanger. This was pre-television and so he was writing the soap operas of the day. Every chapter 12,000 words and often characters fell asleep at end of the chapter – “soporific writing” said McCall Smith, “because in synchronicity, the readers often fell asleep too!

The books would be available in libraries and the cheeky public would correct any errors they found.

There is a writer in the United States from San Francisco who revived the serial novels for the newspaper San Francisco Chronicles. Alexander met him at a writers’ convention and was advised: “Don’t write serial novels”.

Advice McCall Smith chose to ignore and when he returned to Scotland he began writing chapters in the series 44 Scotland Street.

Producing a regular chapter can be a lot of pressure and he tries to ‘have a few up his sleeve’ but that doesn’t always mean meeting deadlines is easy.

Alexander was approached by Cunard shipping to sail around South America for free and be a ‘celebrity’ guest aboard the ship. “Now if they write to you,” he said, “always say, yes.

He had committed himself to writing a serial book but the Internet dropped out around Cape Horn. He asked the audience if they had heard of the Bermuda Triangle. This experience was similar because there was “no cloud”. He was writing instalments of Scotland Street and luckily always had some in hand or he would have missed all of his instalments for that period.

He suggested people try writing a book this way each instalment building up –  a chapter a day soon leads to a book!

no 1 ladies detective agency

 

We shall change all that… because it is possible to change the world, if one is determined enough, and if one sees with sufficient clarity just what has to be changed.”

The Kalahari Typing School for men, Alexander McCall Smith

Many people in the audience, discovered McCall Smith from his writing about Botswana, a country where he lived and one he has “a real affection for.”  He still visits regularly.

His books about The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency introduced the African country to many readers, and many readers to author McCall Smith.  Internationally, he became a household name.

It was the first of McCall Smith’s books I read and this year is the 20th anniversary of the first novel published in 1998 but “written and heartfelt in 1996”.

On his website, he exhorts us to ‘celebrate 20 years of Humanity. Kindness. Humour. Forgiveness. And sheer Joy.’ And I can remember how wonderful the first book was – how refreshing to read a positive book about an African country where the protagonist, Precious Ramotswe (wonderful name) was female, not precious but ordinary and down-to-earth, yet she had an extraordinary dream, which she persisted to make reality with intelligence and drive.

The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series started life as a short story written for friends but took hold of its author and grew first to one novel and then, over the space of twenty years, to nineteen (the nineteenth book, The Colours of All the Cattle, to be published later this year). The characters have won the hearts of readers around the globe and together, the eighteen volumes published so far have become one of the world’s most successful series, with over 20 million copies sold in English and translations into 46 languages. Written as a long love-letter to a country and culture which he admires, Alexander has no plans to bring this series to an end anytime soon.

Precious Ramotswe, that kind and cheerful woman of traditional build, is the founder of Botswana’s first and only ladies’ detective agency. Her methods may not be conventional, and her manner not exactly Miss Marple, but she’s got warmth, wit and canny intuition on her side, not to mention Mr J. L. B. Matekoni, the charming proprietor of Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors and Mma Makutsi her able assistant who never tires of telling people that she graduated with a mark of 97% from the Botswana Secretarial College.

Alexander explained how the first edition of the original book had a print run of 1500 but now has 25 to 30 million copies. He was a bit worried the publisher was being too optimistic about the book and promoting it, especially when they sent him to the USA.

Referring to the United States, he said when he visited to promote his books they were friendly but he discovered they love titles and in that country ‘everybody is a vice president – even if they just look after the coffee or the photocopying machine or publicity!

He was invited to lunch with all the vice presidents and the meeting extended from 11 to 4 p.m. He knew then that the book would take off, so to celebrate he went out and bought new shoes “two of them” for $140.

He was staying at a club related to a membership he had in Scotland. His room was not too far from the bathroom but his American publicist was mortified “You are sharing a bathroom!?”

Now when he goes to America he has his own bathroom – his books have let him step up his comfort level. However, he considered sharing a bathroom an important stage to go through. It builds character, he noted with a smile and proceeded to reminisce about his student days.

(For many years Alexander was a professor of Medical Law and worked in universities in the UK and abroad before turning his hand to writing fiction. He has written and contributed to more than 100 books including specialist academic titles.)

He has shared with “dirty people, experienced bathrooms with unidentified hairs (let’s not go there!) and fridges filled with ghastly food,” although flatmates have been great. He then added his humorous take, “Meet them later in life and they are transformed. But do you read about their convictions?”

McCall Smith’s generous writing and dry humor, his gentleness and humanity, and his ability to evoke a place and a set of characters without caricature or condescension have endeared his books to readers

New York Times

Toni managed to steer McCall Smith back onto writing and some of his other talents. He talked about being on a boat in Africa and passing the camp of two authors who were experts on baboons. He shouted across the water, “I have read Baboon Metaphysics.” This resulted in a very rare invitation to stay overnight at the campsite and learn more from the authors and their research.

The book explains how powerful female baboons are dominant. They are ambitious and for McCall Smith, not unlike Lady Macbeth so he wrote an opera about a troupe of baboons.

He collaborated to produce a chamber opera with music by Tom Cunningham to his libretto. Set in the Botswana Okavango Delta, it tells the story of the struggle for power among competing baboons in their matriarchal society—thus drawing parallels with the Macbeth story.

THE OKAVANGO MACBETH

Written for Botswana to appease his fascination with primatology,  and an idea of baboon people.

In 2008, Alexander set up a small opera house in the bush just outside Gaborone, in Botswana. “It is really a garage converted with 60 seats,” but he hosted the Premiere of his opera which he said is “a really terrible opera for musically challenged people.” However, “they perform and travel with it so it can’t be all that bad until people find out what I say is true!

The project was undertaken jointly with David Slater, a long-time resident of Botswana who had made a major contribution over the years to music in that country. The opera house was housed in an old converted transport garage discovered by Alexander when he was looking for places similar to the garage featured in The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series. It was converted into a modest auditorium with seating for sixty.

For four years, The No. 1 Ladies’ Opera House gave local singers a chance to perform in opera and in regular concerts. Botswana has a tradition of choral singing. “There are many wonderful singers there, and this gave them the opportunity to show and develop their talents. It also gave people in Gaborone the chance to see the occasional opera, something which until then, they did not have.”

The Opera House remained open until 2012. It is now closed.

Other Collaborations

He has had many collaborations, especially with composers and has worked in other branches of the arts for the last decade. For Scotland At Night he wrote the poems and Tom Cunningham wrote the music.

He loves music and created an orchestra from other people who love music ‘but are not very good.’ The conductor stopped them once because they were all playing different music! RTOM, he said – really terrible orchestral music!

Alexander and his wife Elizabeth were the founding members of the Really Terrible Orchestra, a hugely popular amateur orchestral ensemble based in Edinburgh city centre.

A bassoonist, sousaphonist and contrabassoonist, Alexander, inspired by the pleasure his own children seemed to get from orchestral playing, worked to get the ensemble going in 1995. At the time it had just 10 players and rehearsed music for the sheer fun and enjoyment of it.

The main ethos of the RTO is clear; it’s an ensemble for those who have been prevented from playing music, either through lack of talent or some other factor, to play in the company of players of a similarly terrible standard. The name was given, thankfully, to ensure that audiences would know that what they see is what they hear.

Now with 65 players and a terrible international reputation to uphold, the orchestra is more in demand than ever. Rehearsing fortnightly the ensemble is currently under the musical direction of ‘Sir’ Richard Neville-Towle.

Last year in Stockholm Sweden, he was literally astonished how many joined in the RTO. They always get a professional conductor – ‘one who’s doing the country a service.’ Socially, it is great – two trumpeters married; the viola and the double bass also met and married – the couples even produced babies!

The breadth of his body of work vividly evokes places and characters who are infused with humanity, decency, wit and humour

The National Arts Club citation

Alexander McCall Smith and me 3

 

Alexander’s Poetry

We were then treated to a performance of one of McCall Smith’s poems. He announced that it would be brief because “Often when you read a poem, even a brief one, it is a signal for people to leave.”

The poem was from his annual pamphlet that he circulates to friends. He makes 800 copies but “Actually I have only 14 friends.” The rest of the copies go to strangers.

He always puts a poem at the end of the Scotland Street books.

He was amused by a sign he saw from the taxi in LA that said, HYPNOTHERAPY NEXT RIGHT.

He loves signs and they often inspire a poem. He especially loves signs in other languages with the English translation – many of these don’t quite get the nuances of English or are more poetic than English. He uses this when he transposes them to include in his poem.

He remembered one that was in French hanging from a rickety fence above a cliff. In English it should read ‘do not lean against’ but the translated sign beneath the French read ‘do not lean again’. This much more intriguing and realistic considering the state and site of the fence!

Another sign about urinating was translated as “No Pissing” “How irrepressible and unrepentant” said McCall.

The poem he read was inspired by the sign in LA and was set on an aeroplane. He made fun of the choice of words pilots use – “at this time we commence our descent” instead of “now we are going to land.” The poem, telling the story of a flight and landing explored the idea of pilots speaking in poetic language instead of bland words. Like most of his poems, this one was humorous and brief, with a little satire.

After reading his poem, Alexander addressed the audience: ‘Any questions or complaints? You can complain.

As if!

People queued to ask him questions, each one an adoring fan.

The first question was about his Safaris to Botswana. He’s done 4 or 5 and “They’re lots of fun.” The next one is in September for one week. They visit three towns and he loves meeting readers and loves Botswana.

He was asked about Arthur Upfield and his character Boney who was in a series of books. He remembered reading them but it was a long time ago and he didn’t know it had been turned into a television series.

He said crime fiction is about place, and he likes Keating’s books set in Bombay. “A place of eminence and a strong character are the two most important elements of crime fiction.” With a wry smile, he acknowledged the popularity of Scandinavian Noir yet, “I was in Stockholm and didn’t see one murder!”

When he was asked what he thought of the TV series of his Number One Ladies Detective Agency rather than criticise he commented that there was also a full-length movie made. Unfortunately, the director died on the day of the film premiere. The TV series “did a good job but the film was very respectful to the book.”

He visited the film set and watched how they did some scenes 15 times to get it right. The funeral scene repeated again and again because everybody was so moved. Even the cameramen cried and they had to redo it. Anthony Magellan, the director of the film really captured the essence of the characters and story and he also got good actors for the film.

And the evening was over – a delightful “conversation” fittingly ended while talking about Precious Ramotswe and Botswana. They left the stage too soon but then delightful evenings are never long enough!

I was thrilled to have my few minutes with the author and to buy a couple more of his wonderful novels. In a world where we are bombarded daily with increasingly sad news escaping with a Mccall Smith novel soothes the spirit because it reaffirms the existence of a lot of wonderful, kind, gentle, and genteel folk and entertaining stories don’t have to be angst-ridden with mainly imperfect, unlikeable characters.

It was Ian Rankin who claimed that as global politics becomes more turbulent, the world will increasingly find itself in need of Alexander McCall Smith’s heart-warming novels, and he is right’ 

The Scotsman

the atheneum library sign

Inspired by Alexander’s reading of signs and creating poetry I decided to make an attempt to record the evening in verse and pics – after all, April is Poetry Month!

The Pursuit of Happiness
Mairi Neil

My dancing self visited Melbourne city
to listen to Alexander McCall Smith
an author known for his savoir-faire,
worldly and renowned teller of tales
that captivate. Colourful, uplifting
they counteract an oft bleak world…

I walk past the majestic Town Hall
hosting Hermès At Work
an exhibition about the birth
of the international luxury brand.
Displays of handmade objets incroyable.
Admission free to anyone who’ll listen

as clever artisans tell their stories
of commitment to craft
of style, beauty and excellence.
I doubt the homeless huddled
and begging from nearby doorways
will take up their offer…

Along the street, I stride
passing a profusion of flowers
of red, gold and orange blossoms
their subtle perfume and prettiness
a defence against the toxic traffic
and soulless concrete jungle

Utility bollards appropriated
by street artists and decorated
exhort passersby to celebrate
the timeless beauty and spirit
of Victoria’s Koori people
stalwarts of faith and courage

meaningful silhouettes and shadows
sun, moon, stars, crosses and hands
images of fertility and life cycles
unlike the ugly graffiti
meaningless tags from non-artists
seeking celebrity or notoriety.

I reach Melbourne’s Atheneum
An embodiment of Emperor Hadrian’s
seat of intellectual refinement.
A queue of literary patrons
wriggles around the block –
their joyous anticipation catching.

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A Discordant Note On Harmony Day

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Harmony Day is celebrated throughout Australia on 21 March. It has become a significant day of the year when Australians are encouraged to celebrate the cultural diversity of our country.

21 March is also the United Nations International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.

We even have a government agency dealing with cultural, racial and religious intolerance, by promoting respect, fairness and a sense of belonging for everyone.

Orange is the colour chosen to represent Harmony Day. Australians are encouraged to wear orange clothing and/or the distinctive orange ribbon to show their support for cultural diversity and an inclusive Australia. 

I imagine our politicians have a drawerful of colourful ribbons and need advisors to remind them which one to wear!

However,  considering our two major parties have shown a shocking disregard for the plight of refugees still stuck in offshore detention perhaps they should refrain from being hypocritical today and leave the orange ribbon in the drawer.

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“I struggle with Australia’s record towards refugees. Australia is a nation of migrants and its culture accepts and tolerates difference. But Australia’s refugee record is quite poor internationally. This is a very bad position for a state because people judge states on their acceptance and tolerance of people who need help.

There is no excuse for any kind of policy which does not consider or protect very basic human rights.” 

Ai Weiwei: Chinese dissident artist 

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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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Ai Weiwei’s thought-provoking sculpture about the refugee crisis

 

 

International Odyssey
Mairi Neil

The trees cling to fragile foliage
like mothers reluctant to let
their children go.
The winter sun radiates
white light promising a day
of autumn glory…
It is Melbourne after all.

A blue sky pockmarked by fluffy clouds
reflecting a sea of shimmering blue
But beyond the benign bay
tragedy intrudes
fear and desperation meets
fear and distrust.

No need of Siren’s song
to lure the mariners to their death.
The monster from the deep is
dressed in political spin and
ideological hubris.
Christian charity in short supply.
To seek asylum deemed illegal

It is Australia after all.

 

 

Mairi Neil _n.jpg
Reading poetry at a Harmony Day event in Mordialloc 2016

 

A World of Bubbles
Mairi Neil

Sometimes the weight of sadness
crushes and destroys,
a cement mixer churning wails and tears
of the downtrodden –
the enslaved, imprisoned, tortured,
refugees and homeless…
a tsunami of pain
a relentless darkness
a night without dawn.

‘I want to help, but what can I do?’

A plea from compassionate people
whose words may become actions –
the cliched ‘drop in the ocean’.
Causes close to home a priority –
employees need to work,
families nurtured,
households serviced,
sick friends visited.
Joy sought in rituals
for normality’s sake.

Cocooned in bubbles we float
to survive turmoil we can’t control,
to escape the weight of crushing sadness.

Our bubbles must stay intact,
a prism of sunlight
not a prison of insensitivity.
Perhaps kiss other bubbles…
to share light and love,
to ease global sadness
resilient like a mother’s womb.

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Earth is as diverse as the planets in the universe. For most of us, each day is not a new adventure but the ‘same old same old’ unless we make an effort to move out of our comfort zone.

Communication leads to community, that is, to understanding, intimacy and mutual valuing. 

Roll May

That comfort zone may involve embracing different cultures, envisaging a different Australia to the one we are used to, learning to accept, not just tolerate – welcome others to country as the Aborigines continually welcome people to country.

Haiku – Mairi Neil

Ningla a-Na! This our land
Indigenous and immigrant
Now sharing history

Acrostic – Mairi Neil

Healing words soothe
A heartfelt hug or sincere smile
Receptive, not racist
Multicultural vibrancy Australia’s style
Outsiders no more
Not only tolerance but acceptance
You are welcome – We are enriched

Seeking asylum is not a crime.