World Book Day – A Day I Could Celebrate Every Day!

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World Book Day, April 23rd

“Books are the plane, and the train, and the road. They are the destination and the journey. They are home.”

Anna Quindlen, How Reading Changed My Life

If people, especially family and friends, are asked to agree on one object associated with me, they’d probably all say, ‘a book’.

I’m often tagged in posts or memes doing the rounds of Facebook featuring books, author quotes, libraries, bookcases and book bags – and recently, even a cake decorated as if a library.

No matter where I go, I’m always drawn to the books on display or for sale!

 

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Bookstall at Quilting and Craft Fair

 

The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.

Dr Seuss, I Can Read With My Eyes Shut!

I’ve written posts devoted to reading books, writing books, book launches, local libraries and literacy in general.

I’ve thanked my parents for valuing reading and books, and I know I’ve instilled that same love in my children.

“The habit of reading is the only enjoyment I know in which there is no alloy. It lasts when all other pleasures fade. It will be there to support you when all other resources are gone. It will be present to you when the energies of your body have fallen away from you. It will last you until your death. It will make your hours pleasant to you as long as you live.”

Anthony Trollope

I remember favourite authors from childhood – I loved Louisa M Alcott. Birthdays and Christmas were special celebrations with a new book always part of, and sometimes the main present.

my louisa alcott books

I still have some of those much-treasured childhood books and on a recent trip to Orkney and the Shetland Islands, I spent several hours in a wonderful exhibition with displays of books and toys reminiscent of my 1950s childhood, confirming that I’m not the only one who hangs onto books for years!

I can remember Mrs Saffin, the librarian at Croydon High School insisting I had to borrow other books when she saw I was working my way through a shelf of the Just William series written by English author Richmal Crompton.

The adventures of the cheeky schoolboy William Brown whose naughty escapades always seemed to end in afternoon tea of iced buns and lemonade appealed to me! But Mrs Saffin was right, I was in high school and needed to expand my horizons.

“A book is a device to ignite the imagination.”

Alan Bennett, The Uncommon Reader

William’s pluck reminded me of George aka Georgina, one of the main characters in the Famous Five stories by Enid Blyton.

I wanted to be adventurous, solve mysteries and have fun – and the thought of going off on picnics with a satchel of sandwiches, cream buns and fizzy pop, a dream come true when you are one of six siblings in a working-class family.

I expect both of these talented female authors appealed to girls like myself who either didn’t fit or ached to break, the mould of traditional expectations of girls to be pretty and demure.

Ill in bed after an emergency appendectomy, I received a bundle of books from my Aunt Chrissie: The Secret Garden, The Little Princess, The Railway Children and The Wool-Pack.

I read about grief, illness,  feudalism, colonialism, social inequality, the importance of education and the necessity to have dreams.

I read about broken families and boarding schools, kindness and meanness, courage and cowardice, love and hate.

The books all written about or from the point of view of a child or adolescent.

I remember being shocked to read that in medieval times prepubescent girls like me were married off, that even in so-called more modern times people of colour or those with a disability were maltreated and abused.

How could people believe your birth should determine your status in life?

And how exciting to learn that being adventurous, curious and even disobedient reaped rewards.

Enid Blyton’s Famous Five books gave me a thirst for adventure.  The Magic Faraway Tree indulged childhood fantasies but novels allowed me to fall in love with history, belonging, and longing, and more importantly writing!

I wanted to be a storyteller and write stories about ordinary and extraordinary people whether in the past or the now!

When I was studying for my masters’ degree, I had to reflect on what books helped shape my view of society and culture.

  • To look critically at the dominant ways in which our culture operates.
  • What books provided insight or a ‘light bulb’ moment into what it means to be human?
  • Which books helped me understand my place in the long history of human development?

Although most of the books were written from the perspective of western culture they raised issues and aspects of racism, sexism, feminism, Marxism, socialism, fascism, colonialism, and other “isms” that don’t immediately spring to mind. 

They created questions and still create conversations with people who have read them. They explore themes that are timeless. They have been made into television or cinematic films, either through adaptations or appropriation.

“Books are the quietest and most constant of friends; they are the most accessible and wisest of counsellors, and the most patient of teachers.”

Charles William Eliot

Five books I’m Glad I Still Own

A Patch of Blue

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Written 1961 and adapted to film starring Sidney Poitier in 1965.

I read this novel in 1967 when I was 14 years old, probably inspired by seeing the movie on television. The author,  Australian Elizabeth Kata produced a book with the main message of tolerance, a theme demanding we see beyond the colour of a person’s skin and reject the negativity and destructiveness of racial prejudice.

The brutal effects of an abusive family contrast with the power of education, friendship and love. 

The ending of the book is not as optimistic as the ending of the film and on reflection may have been the first time I realised or began to question the difference between how literature and film tell stories.

The book is set in America, but it made me more aware of the treatment of indigenous Australians because the 1967 Referendum Campaign was happening and stimulated public and family discussions about racism.

The 1967 Referendum made history: Australians voted overwhelmingly to amend the constitution to include Aboriginal people in the census and allow the Commonwealth to create laws for them.

The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists

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Now a free Ebook. Written in 1910 but not published until 1914.

This novel by Irish-born Robert Tressell was compulsory reading in my family circle. An accurate historical account of the lives of the working class, it delivers a comprehensive explanation of capitalism and the need for a socialist alternative.

In my last two years of high school, I studied British History, Australian History and Eighteenth-Century History and during one of the many discussions I had with my father, he handed me Tressell’s book,

Your Papa bought this and told me to read it, I’m passing it on…

When I read The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists at 16, it helped me understand what life was like for my grandparents and what shaped my father’s staunch belief in trade unionism as a means to improve the conditions of workers and challenge the excesses of capitalism. It nurtured my desire to work for social justice and later seek employment within the trade union movement.

Robert Tressell’s tale of life for craftsmen and building workers in the early part of the 20th century whilst working in the mythical, yet all too authentic, Mugsborough reveals clearly the exploitative nature of capitalism. Since its publication, it has been reprinted many times, adapted as plays, made into a television series, films and docudramas. The Labour Movement has justifiably conferred biblical status on this much-celebrated book.

Readers experience the tragedies and joys of the characters and the harshness of their workplace with the inherently unequal relationship between workers and bosses in Edwardian England as the system impacts on social relations, human activity, and their dreams for a better life.

In 2010, on one of my early forays online I made contact with Reg Johnson, the husband of Robert Tressell’s granddaughter. We exchanged emails and letters and he shared some family information and history, which enriched my understanding of the author’s struggles to get his writing published and to retain the integrity of his story – a saga that will be worthy of someone’s PhD or even another novel, I’m sure.

Crime and Punishment

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Free Ebook. Written in 1866 – in serial form.

I studied this novel by Fyodor (Mikhailovich) Dostoevsky, at school and the story, characters, theme and concepts still fascinate me. It is a great novel to stimulate discussion about whether the ends justify the means, definitions of good and evil, examine ethics and morality, and is there a fine line between sanity and madness?

The protagonist, Raskolnikov, a poor law student murders an old woman who is reviled as a pawnbroker/money-lender, but her sister who is an innocent bystander is also killed. The background is a Russia under a reforming Tsar but nevertheless a country of great inequality and poverty for freed serfs and an economy undergoing transition. 

The rich description and historical detail satisfied my love of history. It was also the first novel I had read that introduced the image of the ‘good prostitute ‘– a woman forced into prostitution by extreme poverty. Dostoevsky’s Christian socialist beliefs are not hidden as he exposes the ‘immorality’ of drunkenness and domestic violence in St Petersburg, the main setting of the novel.

There is also Siberia, a vast place with penal outposts used to banish and punish people considered a danger to society. (Dostoevsky experienced Siberia when exiled along with several other intellectuals and so described that setting realistically.)

Raskolnikov realises by committing murder he has killed his own humanity and we watch his psychological, physical and emotional health deteriorate as he struggles with deep guilt and moves towards redemption. His unravelling helped by a dogged detective who suspects Raskolnikov and is determined to punish him for the crime.

The book is a good vehicle to examine personal ethics, showing life often presents difficult choices and we may regret a choice we make. It contends ‘Fate’ is an illusion and we all have free will, but the author’s realism is underpinned by his personal life experience and political leanings and belief in Russian Orthodoxy.

This book started my fascination with Russia and I promised myself I’d visit the country ‘one day’.

Last year, I fulfilled that dream and not only travelled through Siberia on the Trans-Siberian Railway but went to Dostoevsky’s house in St Petersburg, and saw where he would have written his novels, the streets he walked, imagined the places and events that sparked his imagination…

Visited Dostoevsky’s house today where he wrote Crime And Punishment among other novels. This city was a character in his most famous stories. It’s where he developed as a writer and where his most famous fictional characters lived. Exiled to Siberia for 10 years for revolutionary activities he had to make his name all over again. This is his last address when he was earning a comfortable income after renting many cheap appartments. He rented here in 1846 and then returned 1878 until his death in 1881. It’s fitting this building should be a museum encapsulating the beginning and the end of his writing career! I breathed deeply, imagined the views from the window – oh, if only part of his talent still floated in the air to be transferred to admirers like me.

The Women’s Room

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Written 1977. Made into a film for television in 1980 starring Lee Remick and Ted Danson.

This semi-autobiographical and debut novel by Marilyn French was published at the height of the Women’s Liberation Movement and explored the oppression of women and the need for change through the protagonist Mira who escapes an inequitable 1950s marriage and returns to study at university.

The questions asked in The Women’s Room still cause debate: Is anatomy destiny? Are all men potential rapists – do they look at women as sexual objects first before recognising other qualities? Does traditional marriage suffocate women?

It was criticised for being too anti-men and having too few male characters, yet struck a chord with many women who felt trapped in society’s idea that a woman should seek to be a wife and mother and always put the needs and desires of others before her own.

The biting social commentary made me examine my mother’s life and those of her generation and question what I wanted from a relationship. The anger and despair of the women portrayed in the novel spurred me to work for change and social justice. I had read books detailing the aims and philosophy behind Women’s Liberation and French’s novel personalised and wove feminism’s threads into a rich, emotional tapestry.

I worked in a Women’s Refuge (Maroondah Halfway House) and met women who felt they couldn’t speak up or who had been beaten for speaking out. They didn’t have the privileges of the middle-class American women who people this novel and it was more difficult for them to choose a different path. Those of us at the refuge collective tried to enable the women who sought help, ensured they felt safe enough to be empowered to make choices.

I liked the style of Marilyn French’s writing, the authenticity of her characters and the pacing, not only of the main story but a series of subplots. These were voices who needed to be heard with messages I could understand.

No Great Mischief

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Written 2001. 

In this novel about the Scottish diaspora in Canada, Canadian Alistair Macleod reflects on the varied journeys of members of Clan MacDonald forced from their home during the infamous Highland Clearances. 

It explores identity, family loyalty, the connection between past and present, connection to the land, the inevitability of change, the importance and effect of cultural values, and the resilience of love, especially family love.

The narrator shows how the history of a family (mini-narrative) is rooted in the larger mega-narrative of historical events. I belong to the MacInnes Clan who share a history with the MacDonalds and this novel contributed to my understanding of the value of knowing your heritage and encouraged the exploration of my identity.

As an immigrant to Australia, I often reflect on my childhood in Scotland. Have often wondered and asked the question – where do I belong?

The narrator, Alexander MacDonald, guides us through his family’s mythic past recollecting the heroic stories of loggers, miners, excessive drinkers and adventurers. The theme of exile and links to the ancestry of their highland clan everpresent.

The legendary patriarch left the Scottish Highlands in 1779 to resettle in “the land of trees” with descendants becoming a separate Nova Scotia clan. Brothers and cousins, expert miners travel around the world and the protagonist Alexander and his twin sister, leave Cape Breton and prosper, but are haunted by the past.

No Great Mischief resonated with me because I too feel the blood ties that bind me to the land from which I came despite establishing a family here in Australia.

A recent trip back to my birth country reinforced links not only to the Scottish Highlands and my grandfather’s Isle of Skye but also to Northern Ireland and the Antrim coast, my mother’s homeland.

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“The world of books is the most remarkable creation of man. Nothing else that he builds ever lasts. Monuments fall; nations perish; civilizations grow old and die out; and, after an era of darkness, new races build others. But in the world of books are volumes that have seen this happen again and again, and yet live on, still young, still as fresh as the day they were written, still telling men’s hearts of the hearts of men centuries dead.”

Clarence Shepard Day

 

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Things found in donated books, Oxfam

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Will You Make Time To Stop What You Are Doing And Read This?

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This is a review of a book written to promote the importance of books and reading.

Even if you don’t work with words or are not a self-interested writer like me, it is well-worth reading –  if you are a bibliophile, you already agree with many of the points the authors make, but their reasoning, experience and arguments may challenge or change your thinking.

High levels of literacy help communities function well – and in this era of ‘digital natives’ we need to encourage reading for meaning and understanding, taking the time to absorb, contemplate, question, perhaps transform…

Stop What You’re Doing And Read This!, a lovely ‘thank you’ gift from Denise, a student in my Writing Creatively Class at Chelsea, who knows all about the value of reading, being a retired Primary School teacher and a current volunteer teacher of ESL at U3A.

Grab a Tea or a Coffee – This is Reading Not Skimming…

As a writer, and a teacher of creative writing and life stories and legacies, I may not be the target audience for the publishers – that would be preaching to the converted – however, I enjoyed the essays immensely, gleaned some wonderful quotes and ideas for prompts to use in class, and have excellent fodder for debate if anyone challenges the importance of reading, not just for knowledge, but also for pleasure.

This book is also a timely reminder to reflect on the value of novels, poetry and the range of non-fiction literature that helps our society to progress.

Maybe give you a break from working out what is ‘fake’ news and what is real!

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The essays give insight into the lives of the writers as they explain how important reading and books have been and still are to their personal growth and their professional development.

Journeys fascinating and enjoyable – some poignant, others humorous, all interesting.

The importance of literacy and literature is a conversation we need to have, especially in the digital age where so much of learning is now visual. Instant gratification expected but not always achieved.

Stop What You’re Doing And Read This! published in 2011, in the UK by Vintage, after a report revealed:

that there are thousands of children across Britain who cannot read competently…One in three teenagers reads only two books a year, or fewer, and one in six children rarely reads books outside of the classroom. Many parents do not read stories to their children, and many homes do not have books in them…

If you keep up with reports regarding literacy in Australia, the issues raised in this book merit discussion in 2018, especially since the writers touch on how and what we are taught to read as well as the benefits of reading widely.

Reflecting what language and literature, plus books and reading mean to you personally, your family, and to our culture, should be done often – especially in our “fast-moving, dislocated technology-obsessed world.”

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My passion for words, writing and reading no secret. I’m glad I also influenced my husband to read more for pleasure as well as his job-related material because when he became very ill, reading and discussing books something we could still do together.

As a parent, I attended workshops about reading and writing, volunteered in the school library, reading recovery programmes and encouraged my children to love books just like my parents did for me.

Unashamedly the family ‘bookworm’,  I’ve produced two bookworms!

Most of my close friends are just as passionate about books and reading as I am, but living in this ‘mutual admiration society’, it is easy to forget there are lots of people who don’t read.

Stop What You’re Doing And Read This!, may not specifically be aimed at people like me but I think it relies on and encourages all bibliophiles to become proselytisers, to exhort as many people as possible to read a book, be inspired, and become an ambassador for reading:

“The book is a manifesto. In a year of rude awakening to low levels of literacy and a widespread apathy towards books and reading, this book demands an interruption… these essays… aim to convince you to make reading part of your daily life.”

I recognised many but not all of the contributors.

The ten essays by award-winning and lauded writers, researchers and industry professionals in science, technology, and publishing are as varied as their writing and professional life.

But they are all advocates of the transformative power of reading whether to encourage you to see different perspectives, introduce different worlds and ideas, entertain, improve knowledge, relieve loneliness, soothe a troubled soul and enrich living.

However, perhaps the book’s appeal could have been expanded if some genre or ‘populist’ authors had been included so that when the blurb or inside pages are scanned it won’t be dismissed as ‘too academic or highbrow’.

The essays are all well-written and rich in revealing the layers of a single book, story or poem have an impact, influence, power, perspective, resonance, and can be a trigger for remembering… 

As usual, I wear several hats:

  • as a reader and lover of books
  • as an essayist interested in writing style, content and engagement
  • as a teacher of creative writing interested in the use of language, the application of craft techniques, references and evidence of research
  • as a teacher of life stories believing in the power of story, seeking the authenticity of personal experience, language and style, use of quotes, the books and research referenced, the emotional impact of the story
  • as a writer and a poet passionate about words who wants to be immersed in different worlds and awed by images, language, clever use of words and the senses

Read a novel… to travel in time and space… quicken your sense of ordinary existence… Read a poem… it might help you uncover and articulate a thought or a feeling previously buried deep… Read a story… it imposes a unique period of peace and concentration into your busy life… Read out loud, to your children, to a partner… reading together casts a potent and intimate spell…

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The Contributors – A Stellar Line-Up!

Zadie Smith

Zadie Smith authored the novels: White Teeth, The Autograph Man, On Beauty and NW, as well as The Embassy of Cambodia and a collection of essays, Changing My Mind. She is the editor of The Book of Other People, a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and listed as one of Granta’s 20 Best Young British Novelists in 2003 and again in 2013. 

White Teeth won multiple literary awards including the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, the Whitbread First Novel Award and the Guardian First Book Award. The Autograph Man won The Jewish Quarterly Wingate Literary Prize. On Beauty was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and won the Orange Prize for Fiction and The Commonwealth Writers’ Best Book Award (Eurasia Section)

Zadie’s essay Library Life shares her journey from a bookish, working-class, immigrant family and extols the virtues of libraries, their importance to marginalised sections of our community, and their necessity in helping to establish some sort of equity in society:

It has always been, and always will be, very difficult to explain to people with money what it means not to have money. If education matters to you, they ask, and if libraries matter to you, well, why wouldn’t you be willing to pay for them if you value them?

They are the kind of people who believe value can only be measured in money, at the extreme end of which logic lies the dangerous idea that people who do not generate a lot of money for their families cannot possibly value their families as people with money do…

Like many people without a lot of money, we relied on our public services… as a necessary gateway to better opportunities… paid our taxes… to establish shared institutions from which all might benefit equally.

This essay reminded me of being at university in 1971, only there because I won a Commonwealth Scholarship despite being one of only 500 students throughout Australia chosen by the Australian National University in a pilot program designed for those most likely to succeed academically. My migrant parents had six children and no way could they find money to send me to university, never mind support me living away from home!

The scholarship paid fees and gave a modest $22 a week living allowance but no book allowance. I lived on campus for $21.50 a week, food and board only. I can’t remember if I even got the 50cents to spend!

Needless to say, the campus library was my second home.

Thank goodness, it was one of the best-resourced university libraries in Australia, and I got to know the staff very well, pestering them for books and always being the last to be chased out the door each evening.

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This is a free mini library I saw in Ballarat and a homeless man I spoke to used the service all the time!

We are lucky to have a fantastic group of public libraries in Kingston and also a small subscription library that promotes local authors by holding regular events.

Blake Morrison

Blake Morrison is the author of bestselling memoirs, And When Did You Last See Your Father? (winner of the J.R. Ackerley Prize for Autobiography and the Esquire Award for Non-Fiction) and Things My Mother Never Told Me. He wrote a study of the Bulger case, As If and the novels South of the River and The Last Weekend. He is a poet, critic, journalist and librettist.

Blake’s essay Twelve Thoughts About Reading covers almost everything reading and books can mean to people but also to those who write them. There is plenty of food for thought and discussion.

In The Great Escapehe illustrates how ‘lives are transformed by books.’ They can influence your choices and what direction your life takes. Books can be a ladder to freedom.

In Giving and Taking, he states ‘All writing depends on the generosity of the reader.’ And in Ownership, he argues ‘once it is out there in the world, the book has a life of its own: Authors may flinch and protest… but they have to let go.”

early school novels.jpg In Ownership: an extreme case of appropriation, Blake tells a story from the memoirs of Tobias Wolff when as a young writer “Found guilty of plagiarism and of bringing the school into disrepute, Wolff is expelled. yet he commits his crime in all innocence… an extreme case of a common phenomenon: reading as ownership, reading as appropriation. As Horace said, ‘Change the name and the story is about you.’

I haven’t read Wolff’s memoir but even the teaser mentioned in Blake’s essay would initiate a very lively debate among writers. Methinks it is a case of what is omitted is more interesting than what is shared!

Blake teaches creative writing in London and in Daring to say ‘I‘, explains most of his students are life writers, working in prose, however, “the poets and life writers have something important in common: the use of the first-person pronoun. Speaking in one’s own voice – ‘daring to say I’, as one student put it – is no easy thing.”

In Blake’s thoughts Why poetry matters and Another reason why poetry matters he talks about reading poetry as solace and refuge (a point expanded by contributor Jane Davis). Its association “with profundity – with the uttering of thoughts that lie too deep for tears.”

He warns that early drafts must be reworked and shaped. “The therapeutic element in writing doesn’t come from pouring things out or ‘washing your dirty linen in public’, but in finding the right words, ordering the experience, and making the story available to others.”

In Reading catatonically Blake quotes Francis Spufford’s The Child that Books Built and reminds us there are times in life when losing yourself in a book helps us cope.

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Blake prefers to read in solitude and quietness but in Company and solitude, he observes that “literature creates a sense of companionship… we meet characters… And as a result, we feel less lonely.” He also acknowledges the importance of sharing a book with others, especially if you have enjoyed it!

His thoughts Forbidden pleasure, and The canon, almost flipsides of the same coin. “Forbidden is the keyword. Just as some of the most powerful books ever written have been samizdat (works banned…) so the experience of reading is often most intense when it is surreptitious – when we feel we shouldn’t be doing it…”

Regarding set texts and books the literati say are must-reads, Blake admits “Some books are simply better than others. Or last the course longer. Or grow richer the more they are reread.”  And the canon is ever changing or should be…

Blake’s final thought, The more, the merrier the mantra of writers and publishers regarding books “We’ve no investment in keeping them to ourselves. Let the whole world have them. The world will be better for it. And the words will remain the same.”

Carmen Callil

Carmen Callil, born and educated in Melbourne left for the UK in 1960. In 1972, she founded Virago Press and ten years later became Managing Director of Chatto & Windus. In 1996, she chaired the judging panel of the Booker Prize. She is the author (with Colm Toibin) of The Modern Library: The 200 Best Novels in English since 1950 and the highly acclaimed Bad Faith. 

Carmen’s essay True Daemons truly engrossing, and triggered memories of childhood reading choices and the influence the different reading habits of parents can have and is  forthright declaring, “Books are shields against a terror of boredom, the curse of most childhoods… if the human race was separated from words and thoughts and stories, it would die.”

She touches on the digital revolution in the publishing world,

A machine can never look like a book: books are far more beautiful. Books are like gardens; a Kindle or an iPad like a supermarket – it makes life easier, but one doesn’t want to loiter in it. You can fiddle with books. Like gardens, they can be wonderful to look at. You can cuddle them and use them like a hot-water bottle; a machine can’t do any of these things…

… the human race has been telling stories and trying to record them on papyrus, on manuscripts, on stones, since the beginning of time. Whether we read on the printed page or on a machine is beside the point. It is the ideas and stories that count.”

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Tim Parks

Tim Parks lives in Milan after moving to Italy in 1980. Author of novels, non-fiction and essays, including – Destiny, Europa, Cleaver, A Season with Verona, An Italian Education, Dreams of Rivers and Seas, Teach Us to Sit Still and Italian Neighbours. He has been shortlisted for the Booker Prize, won the Somerset Maugham Award, the Betty Trask Prize, The John Llewellyn Rhys Prize, the John Florio Prize and the Italo Calvino Prize.

Tim’s essay, Mindful Reading, explores why we read certain books – in childhood, they are often chosen for us, also chosen in school; then there’s peer pressure, being sucked in by marketing hype and the desire to be fashionable – “Can’t remember the name of the author. Who cares?”

He reminds us of the importance of context, the wonder of enchantment, the pleasure of awareness, the rhythm of language, the power of words to enthral and most importantly, “You have every right to put a book down after a couple of pages, which is why it’s always wise to read a little before buying. Life is simply too short for the wrong books, or even the right books at the wrong time.”

Ah, yes – we all have those piles of TBR books by the bed or in the study! Or, ones started but never finished and we guiltily cling to them, telling ourselves they will be read ‘one day…’.

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Mark Haddon

Mark Haddon is an author, illustrator and screenwriter who has written fifteen books for children and won two BAFTAs. His bestselling novel, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time won seventeen literary prizes, including the Whitbread Award. His poetry collection, The Talking Horse and the Sad Girl and the Village Under the Sea, was published by Picador in 2005, and his last novel, The Red House, was published by Jonathan Cape in 2012. His most recent title is short story collection The Pier Falls. 

Melbournians are currently being entertained by a stage adaptation of Mike’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, and his essay The Right Words in the Right Order is as memorable as the title of his novel.

The essay is refreshing in its honesty. He contradicts many of the statements the others say. Despite having award-winning children’s novels to read at twelve he can only remember avidly devouring Erich von Daniken’s pseudoscientific overhyped Chariot of the Gods! and books about man’s fossil ancestors.

This reminded me of being a teenager at home with my brothers in the kitchen as one read passages from von Daniken’s book. In the discussion that followed we offended my mother by poking fun at claims in the Bible. Of course, the claims in Chariot of the Gods questionable but the style of the writing a lot more readable than the King James Bible.

When Mark started reading ‘proper adult novels… The words remained inky shapes on the paper…” he didn’t understand ‘the importance of taste and timing‘ and that ‘a vital part of loving literature is hating certain books and certain writers… “

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For Mark, writers must push boundaries, love language and be humane and generous even with flawed characters. Virginia Woolf captures ‘the texture of life itself‘ like no other writer. He can’t read Chekhov or Flaubert in English without feeling that he’s ‘missing something of vital importance, rather as if I were listening to a symphony rescored for piano.’

He challenges the assumption that reading has a special power to soothe the troubled mind… “when my mind is troubled, like many people, I find reading hard, if not impossible, and fiction, in particular, becomes a country from which I feel painfully exiled…”

Mark acknowledges the speed of technological change but praises Faber’s iPad app of TS Eliot’s The Waste Land –

which includes a filmed performance of the poem by Fiona Shaw, synchronised readings by Eliot, Ted Hughes, Sir Alec Guinness and Viggo Mortensen, original manuscript pages, academic interviews… It is the most wonderful thing…

Books can piggyback on these huge technological changes in a way that other art forms can’t, because they’re digital, and have been from way before Gutenberg, a string of symbols, that can be transmitted in any medium.

One of my daughters was recently commissioned to do artwork for a company in Melbourne that makes short films to explore classic texts on the school curriculum. The approach to Mary Shelley’s, Frankenstein, one I am sure will not only enliven the experience for the students but open the possibilities for teachers to encourage fabulous discussions.

Embracing the digital age in this way extends and not limits, the relevance of books.

Michael Rosen

Michael Rosen was Children’s Laureate 2007-09 and is well-known in the children’s book world. A poet, performer, broadcaster and scriptwriter, he visits schools with his one-man show to enthuse children with his passion for books and poetry. As an author and by selecting other writers’ works for anthologies he has been involved with over 140 books. He lectures and teaches in universities on children’s literature, reading and writing and set up The Children’s Funny Prize which gives awards to the funniest children’s books of the year.

Michael’s essay, Memories and ExpectationsI found delightful and warm as he illustrated the pleasure of reading aloud and the power of a story to stay with you when you identify with or recognise the characters. Stories by writer Charles Dickens rich with memorable characters.

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Michael remembers his local library as ‘a place that opened a window on the world and a door to a future life away from the area.’

He related how his parents quoted and referred to characters in the novels as the family went about their daily routine. It wasn’t necessarily an accurate quote but the essence suited the situation. This made me smile because my dad often quoted characters from RL Stevenson novels especially Long John Silver from Treasure Island. We knew a situation was dire when he’d say, “Them that dies will be the lucky ones!’

We learn a lot about Michael and his father in the essay, and his family.

“Part of the power of stories is the way in which we can see facets of this or that fictional person in the people we know, and scenes for the fictional world have echoes in the events of the real world.” 

Jane Davis

Jane Davis is the Director and founder of The Reader Organisation (TRO), a national charity dedicated to bringing about a reading revolution by making it possible for people of all ages, backgrounds and abilities to enjoy and engage with literature on a deep and personal level. Their ‘Get Into Reading’ read-aloud groups reach people who may not otherwise read, including people living in deprived areas, the mentally or chronically ill, older people living in Care Homes, prisoners, recovering addicts and excluded children. The organisation started on Merseyside but has since expanded across the UK and beyond. Jane enjoyed writing as a hobby for a number of years but gave up her full-time job to dedicate more time to it and published the novel Half-truths & White Lies.

Jane’s essay The Reading Revolution details the history of the group she founded based on people being prepared to read aloud in an inexpert, exploratory way.

the text, poem, novel, short story, play or whatever is read aloud, in its entirety, by one or more members of the group. The group talks about the book as it is read, freely interrupting the flow of the reading, with personal responses… a short poem might take half an hour, a short story two hours, War And Peace eighteen months.

The proceeds of  Stop What You’re Doing And Read This! go to Jane’s organisation and shared reading is now mainstream. It is not just for the sick, unhappy or economically deprived people in institutions.

Jane argues a compelling case for shared reading – a reading revolution –

We must reposition literature in settings – such as workplaces, mental-health services, dementia care homes, looked-after children services – where its profound worth will be seen for what it really is: the holder of human value, human meaning, and, yes, even the secrets of the universe…

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When I started the public Readings By The Bay I was astounded by the response and how hungry people were to share their poems and prose, but also to sit and listen to others read aloud. Sadly, Mordialloc Writers as a group is no more but there is a wealth of places now in Melbourne where you can go and read and listen to others read.

Jeanette Winterson

Jeanette Winterson OBE authored ten novels including The Passion, Sexing the Cherry and Written on the Body, a book of short stories, The World and Other Places, a collection of essays, Art Objects as well as many other works, including children’s books, screenplays and journalism. Her writing has won the Whitbread Award for Best First Novel, the John Llewellyn Rhys Memorial Prize, the E. M. Forster Award and the Prix d’argent at Cannes Film Festival. In her first novel, Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit based on her own upbringing she placed herself as a fictional character. She scripted the novel into a BAFTA-winning BBC drama and later re-visited that material in her bestselling memoir Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? She writes regularly for the Guardian.

Jeanette’s essay, A Bed. A Book. A Mountain, a beautifully crafted piece using reading Nan Shepherd’s book, The Living Mountain, ‘a geo-poetic exploration of the Cairngorms’ as a metaphor to prove ‘There is no substitute for reading.’

A book lets you follow a writer’s mind,‘ states Jeanette. ‘Books work from the inside out. They are a private conversation happening somewhere in the soul.’

Jeanette is quite adamant that “Attention Deficit Disorder is not a disease; it is a consequence of not reading. Teach a child to read and keep that child reading and you will change everything. And yes, I mean everything.”

As I mentioned before there is plenty in this book to start discussions, incite debates, and keep dinner conversations interesting! She justifies her assertion about ADD –

The consequences of homogenised mass culture plus the failure of our education system and our contenpt for books and art (it’s either entertainment or elitist, never vital and democratic), mean that not reading cuts off the possibility of private thinking, or of a trained mind, or of a sense of self not dependent on external factors.

A trained mind is a mind that can concentrate…

Reading stills the body for a while, allowing rest without torpor and quiet without passivity. Reading is not a passive act. Engaged in the book, in company with the writer, the mind can roam where it will. Such freedom to roam reminds us that body and mind both need exercise and activity and that neither the mind nor the body can cope with confinement.

And if the body has to cope with confinement, then all the more reason to have developed a mind that knows how to roam.

 laptops and winterson quote.jpgNicholas Carr

Nicholas Carr writes about technology, culture, and economics. He is the author of The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, a 2011 Pulitzer Prize nominee and a New York Times bestseller, but also wrote The Big Switch: Rewiring the World, from Edison to Google (2008) and Does IT Matter? (2004). His books have been translated into more than 20 languages. (www.nicholascarr.com)

In his essay, The Dreams of Readers, Nicholas admits his ‘life has been punctuated by books.’ Boyhood favourites opened frontiers ‘ to wander in and marvel at far beyond my suburban surroundings.’ The ‘tumult’ of teenage ‘put into perspective‘ by a variety of books and then in his twenties some ‘were the wedges‘ he used ‘to prise open new ways of seeing and feeling.’

What a way with words!

I must explore his reading list and perhaps his word power and engaging use of words will rub off!

Pondering all the books and poems that have made an impact on me, I agree with his statement: ‘Who would I be without these books? Someone else.’

A great part of Carr’s essay deals with the effect on our mind when we read stories, he cites the work of cognitive psychologist Keith Oatley of the University of Toronto and his colleagues whose experiments suggest that ‘the emotions stirred by literature can even alter, in subtle but real ways, people’s personalities.’

Another researcher Nicholas quotes is Norman Holland, a former scholar at McKnight Brain Institute, at the University of Florida, who argues the mind we read with “is a different mind from the one we use to navigate the real world. In our day-to-day lives, we are always trying to manipulate or otherwise act on our surroundings…

But when we open a book our expectations and our attitudes change drastically. because we understand that ‘we cannot or will not change the work of art by our actions.’, we are relieved of our desire to exert influence over objects and people and hence are able to ‘disengage our (cognitive) systems for initiating actions.’ That frees us to become absorbed in the imaginary world of the literary work.”

open diary Nicholas Carr quote

Dr Maryanne Wolf & Dr Mirit Barzillai

Dr Maryanne Wolf & Dr Mirit Barzillai. Dr Wolf is the Director of the Center for Reading and Language Research at Tufts University in the US, and an Associate Professor of Child Development. She is the author of Proust and the Squid and has published hundreds of articles on reading and learning disabilities. Dr Mirit Barzillai, I assume is her colleague.

The final essay by Maryanne and Mirit is Questions for a Reader and begins with the assertion already covered by some of the other contributors. “Reading transforms the human brain, which transforms the mind, which transforms the life of every reader.”

They make the point:

“We were never born to read or write anything. Unlike vision or language, reading has no genetic programme that unfolds to create an ideal form of itself…

learning to read lies outside the original repertoire of the human brain’s functions and requires a whole new circuit to be buily afresh with each new reader.”

A scientific explanation that explains why each child is different. Some struggle to read and others don’t… some enjoy it, others don’t… and

“The specific factors that affect the formation of the reading circuits take on special significance… as we move from a literacy-based culture to one dominated by digital tools and a digital sense of time.

Immersed and shaped anew by varied technological mediums, the reading brain as we know it will be changed and to some degree supplanted by a different reading circuit.

We are still going through this historical transition period and we must ask critical questions now ‘before the reading brains of the next generation are fully altered.”

We have all read warnings about the time children spend ‘on screen’, the alarm that perhaps their first reading experience is with an iPad, the substitution of films of books in schools instead of requiring the reading of the text, the difference reading on screen to hard copy can make to memory and understanding.

There are myriad arguments for and against but many educators and literacy experts are concerned, including our own celebrated children’s author Mem Fox.

Maryanne and Mirit refer to Socrates, Proust and cognitive neuroscience and remind us to be unquestioning and that there are ‘no pat answers’…and ‘Technological innovation is critical to all of us if we are to advance… It is clear that today’s children, not tomorrow’s, require a new set of intellectual tools and capacities if they are to become productive members of their culture.’

Lots to think about in this book – definitely worth stopping what you are doing to read.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Magical Evening With Mem – A Real Gem!

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When an invitation from our local federal member, Mark Dreyfus QC appeared in a Facebook newsfeed, I didn’t hesitate and replied straight away. 

It was no ordinary invite from a politician. Not a party political event or publicising an election campaign, but a delightful opportunity to meet and greet and have a Q&A with Australian writer and children’s author, Mem Fox.

Wow! (Said with the expression of a groupie.)

Convenient because it was happening at Doyles Hotel, Mordialloc – and exciting – there are few families in Australia who haven’t heard of Possum Magican iconic picture storybook, which still sells today!

When I congratulated Mark on the event he gave all credit to his electorate officer,  Jacob Chacko who works in his Mordialloc office. Well done, Jacob who also did a great job as the emcee that evening.

 

Few Australian homes would not have one of Mem’s books on a shelf – she’s written over 40, and more than half are international bestsellers. 

For those wishing to write children’s books, the advice on Mem’s website, an excellent resource, but perhaps her best advice delivered that evening was for would-be writers to envisage the target audience sitting on the floor in front of them.

If the children fidget with their shoelaces, stare out the window or start being naughty your story needs editing and revising!

Remember you are writing for children today, not writing a book you read as a child, nor writing a book to be read by adults because they think that’s what children should read!

 

the crowd for Mem Fox
an eager crowd – mainly women but also some men

 

My daughters are 31 and 28 years old now and treasure many of the books from childhood, especially Mem’s. Like so many in the audience (almost 300) I cheerfully queued to have my daughters’ books signed and have a chat.

 

Mem is a writer I admire for her books, but also her views on social justice, evident in her latest picture storybook, I’m Australian Too. A book she wrote to celebrate Australia’s incredible multicultural heritage and which sold out in its first three months (March-May 2017) and has been reprinted.

I love the recommended readership for the book – for readers aged 0-95.

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Ambassador for Literacy

Mem is also ‘an educationalist specialising in literacy,’ and although retired, she was Associate Professor of Literacy Studies at Flinders University, South Australia, where she taught teachers for 24 years. 

She now spends most of her time writing presentations urging parents, teachers, and others to read aloud to children aged between 0-5, and she travels the world doing it. We were lucky to have in her Isaacs on her current tour travelling Australia promoting literacy and the importance of reading.

We should also thank Melinda Shelley of 123Read2Me who is currently collecting children’s books to give to those kids who don’t have them. I think she was the one who invited Mem to visit Victoria.

If you have quality children’s books in good condition please drop them off at The Lions Club Opportunity Shop in Mordialloc Main Street and Melinda will find them a good home.

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In her talk and answers to questions from Mark and the audience, Mem was entertaining (she did study drama) along with giving good advice about writing and teaching literacy.

Although born in Melbourne, Mem grew up in Africa, attended drama school in England, and returned to Australia in 1970, aged 22. Along came marriage and motherhood and attending university as a mature age student in her early thirties.

She studied children’s literature at Flinders University and during that course, she wrote the first draft of her first book: Possum Magic, as an assignment. Mem said she was inspired to write a book about Australia for Australian children because at that time books were either from the USA or UK, or written like those books.

Possum Magic was rejected nine times over five years because it was ‘too Australian’!

It went on to become (and continues to be, to this day) the best-selling children’s book in Australia, with nearly 5 million copies sold. In 2004 its 21st birthday was celebrated with parties and events in thousands of schools and other places around Australia, and a new re-designed edition was launched. The colours of the original film of the illustrations were fading because it had been reprinted so many times. They now look gorgeous again.

Mem Fox

Mem explained the inspiration for some of her other books. There was one she wrote in her head, sitting daily beside her grandson’s incubator when he was born prematurely and struggled to survive. She focused on his perfect fingers and toes and ears. She read to him too and recounting this story she urged mothers to read to children in their womb – it is never too early to read to children.

We laughed when she said she was thrilled her grandson had perfect ears because she had one ear bigger than the other and it juts out.

I loved this anecdote because I have the same affliction. When we chatted afterwards I whispered to her that I shared the imperfection regarding ears and her passion for writing and teaching, just wish I had her talent! We laughed together – and she has a raucous laugh!

Mem confessed she preferred teaching because the writing was a nightmare!

And that I could empathise with too! As do many writers.

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Her latest book begged to be written because travelling around Australia, she realised the majority of people living here are welcoming and fair-minded yet it is the strident minority of people like Pauline Hanson who seem to dictate the heartless and cruel policies of successive governments against asylum seekers and refugees.

The loud, shrill voices encouraged politicians in our major political parties to act in shameful, illegal ways.  Many people are shocked and say ‘not in our name’ yet because the major parties have similar policies, the human rights abuses continue.

She let Mark Dreyfus know that she was disappointed in the federal ALP policy and he diplomatically asked another question.

The Responsibility of Writers With a Social Conscience

 I happen to have a loud voice myself—I’ve just woken up to the fact—and am now determined to use it, to drown out the others if I can, on behalf of the rest of us.

Mem Fox

 I’m Australian Too, takes Mem back to where she started: her passion for Australia. She hopes it will spark spirited discussions about ‘Australian-ness’, create an awareness of Australian immigration over the centuries, and begin to calm what she says is the appalling rising racism in this country.

There have been amazing positive responses, especially from schools and community centres:

We were so excited to read your book to our wonderfully diverse community of children at the service, who in turn were delighted to finally see and hear their culture represented so beautifully in the book, including the refugees and families seeking asylum, which are often forgotten…

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Mem recounted how she had personal experience of feeling ‘the other’ when she lived in Africa (Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe) where the authorities pulled her out of a local school because she was white and forced her to attend a European school, where she was bullied and laughed at for ‘speaking like an African’.

Fast forward to February this year (2017)  when she attended a conference in America a few weeks after Donald Trump was inaugurated as President and was challenged by Border Control Officers

I was interrogated as if I were some kind of prisoner, in a holding room, in full public view and hearing of everyone in the room—and was kept standing throughout, imagine because I was earning an honorarium from the conference. The Border Control patrol officer said I was ‘working’ and had come in on the wrong visa. He was wrong, as it turned out. I was right. I knew I was right. It was my 117th visit to the USA, after all.

I am ageing and white, innocent and educated, and I speak English fluently. Imagine what happened to the others in the room, including an old Iranian woman in a mauve cardigan, in her 80s, in a wheelchair. I heard and observed everything. We all did…

… the irony of my book being about welcoming immigrants …

… my story has snowballed to include the airing of stories of the many others who have suffered similarly disgraceful treatment by immigration officers makes me proud, even though my telling of the story was neither brave nor purposeful, simply an accident of timing. The focus is where it should be, but the question remains: if this can happen to me as an ageing, educated, articulate, white English speaker, what on earth happens to those who aren’t like me?

What indeed?

Writing For Children Involves Lots of Reading – Especially Other Writers!

students learning by the River Don, Inverurie, Aberdeen

Listening to Mem talk about her teaching, her understanding of children and the deep love and interaction she has with her daughter and grandson was delightful and insightful.

Write from the compost of your own life, feelings, experiences, hopes, joys, disappointments, and so on. If you do that, the reader will be able to connect with your story because it will be based on the authenticity of universal understandings.

She talked about her favourite writers and the importance of learning the craft of writing by appreciating the talent of other writers.

Currently, she was reading Elizabeth Harrower’s novels reprinted by Text Publishing. “Marvellous stories, wonderful writing … check her out…’

She reads a lot of books while travelling around Australia – real books, not digital. If going overseas for a length of time then she’ll have her Kindle because it is convenient and light, but always print books are the first preference.

As an educator, she begged young mums not to put a screen in front of young children or encourage reading on an iPad. The visceral experience of reading a print book with a young child can never be replicated by swiping a screen!

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All evening Mem stayed on message: read, read, read – widely and carefully – but don’t forget to support Australian writers and tell modern Australia’s stories. Read to learn as many different ways of using language as possible. (She praised Indian writers who in her opinion, wrote the most grammatically correct English today!)

Write, write, write but know your audience, if writing for children make sure you have the rhythm right, not necessarily to rhyme, but the perfect placement of syllables in a sentence or in verse.

And remember you are telling a story that children can identify with – a little boy who was born in Lebanon shouted for joy when he heard Mem mention “his” birth country in I’m Australian Too.

The free evening was billed as 6.30pm (for 7.00pm start) – 8.30pm. It was closer to 10.00pm when I walked home. I met up with several people I knew from being a school mum (primary and secondary school) and made new acquaintances standing in line waiting to talk with a sociable and chatty Mem who was more than generous with her time.

She signed books yet did not sell one, or have any to sell – this was not a marketing exercise or sales pitch, yet I’m sure she could have sold a box of books to the adoring crowd!

The vibrant atmosphere abuzz with joy, the sharing of stories of when we first read Possum Magic, what other books are favourites, and how thrilling to meet the author in person and have books rather than sport lauded as an Aussie success story.

I left Doyles clutching my signed treasures, satisfied and smiling and laughed aloud because someone had added sunglasses to the horse statue out the front decorated for the up and coming Spring Carnival…

horse outside Doyles

I wonder what stories he/she can tell.

 

A Traveller’s Guide To Aboriginal Australia

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(Warning: Indigenous Australians are advised that the content and some of the links from this blog include images or names of people now deceased.)

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NAIDOC WEEK 2017 – 2-9 July

NAIDOC – National Aborigines & Islanders Day Observance Committee organises celebrations every year in the first full week of July.

This year the theme “Our Languages Matter” emphasised and celebrated the role that indigenous languages play in cultural identity by linking people to their land and water and in the transmission of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders’ history, spirituality and rites, through story and song.

Last year, encouraged by my good friend, writer, and award-winning blogger, Lisa Hill, I reviewed books in the ever-increasing catalogue of indigenous literature.   Lisa hosts an Indigenous Literature Week on her ANZ LitLovers LitBlog.

This year, I’ve just returned from overseas and missed the deadline but because of travelling, I decided to review Burnum Burnum’s Aboriginal Australia, A Traveller’s Guide.

The book is a treasured part of my home library.

Most people I know who travel Australia will not have read this 1988 publication. It was an expensive coffee table book years ago but well-produced with an intensity of detail and gorgeous coloured photographs of iconic Aussie landscapes!

Some of the information is confronting, but all of it enriching.  Adding to that important store of human knowledge. I guarantee it will change the way you look at the landscape of our continent and of many of the places you already know, and perhaps you may look differently at many of the debates around Aboriginal Land Rights, Australia or Invasion Day and the importance of retaining and teaching language and culture.

The book is –

A pictorial guide to Highway One, Central Australian and Tasmanian sites and places important to traditional and contemporary Aboriginal life; includes history, art, religion of particular clans, present communities and organisations, biographies; many archival photographs.

Trove entry

Here is a snippet about Hamilton near Geelong, the map showing many different language groups in that corner of Victoria alone – nine clans – how many of these languages left?

 

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part of page 276

 

To learn about the history of our country from those who have been caretakers for thousands of years, to learn about the spiritual places holding their sacred stories makes it a special traveller’s guide. A book worth reading again and again. To be read for understanding and appreciation, not for directions or entertaining experiences.

It is not a Lonely Planet guide or RACV road atlas!

However, it’s worth putting in the caravan, camper trailer, or four wheel drive if you’re touring  ‘grey nomads’ or a family that tours together. This is the history not taught in our school curriculum, or just beginning to be included.

Not necessarily bedtime reading (unless you have a big bed and plenty of elbow room) but sitting around the campfire or when having a BBQ in a campsite, you can share the knowledge and/or book.

The book tells of many nations, clans and groups adapting to life in temperate coastal regions, tropical rainforests, living by inland waterways or mighty rivers, travelling wild coastline and surviving the desert by trading with other clans.

the Mitakoodi people in the Cloncurry district used a small type of net which they obtained in trading from the Woonamurra people who lived to the north. The Kalkadoons acquired kunti (porcupine or spinifex grass gum) from the Buckingham Downs region to the south.

(Visit the Kalkadoon Cultural Centre located at Rotary Hill.)                              page 144

Sadly, some of the massacres and horrors detailed in this book have never been given enough national attention although a new map recording massacres during the frontier wars appeared in the news recently.

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Burnum Burnum’s Guide was published in the year White Australia celebrated its Bicentenary and a year the author, an activist but “warrior for peace”, mirrored the theft of Aboriginal land in 1788, by planting a flag at the base of the White Cliffs of Dover on January 26, claiming possession of England on behalf of the Aboriginal ‘Crown’!

Burnum Burnum’s Aboriginal Australia is the first book ever to offer a personal, Aboriginal vision of this, the world’s greatest island.

Through over 300 stunning colour pictures and 150 black and white archival photographs, many of which have never been published before, and through the words of one of this country’s best-known and most respected Aboriginal people, this unique book takes the reader on a journey around the continent, an unforgettable journey that reveals an Australia rarely experienced by its white inhabitants.

Creation stories are told and although most Melburnians are aware of Bunjil the eagle it’s fascinating to read slightly different versions and explanations for Port Phillip Bay, Mornington Peninsula, and the River Yarra’s  twisting trail from Warrandyte.

This extract about ancient bones discovered in 1965 rivals the speculation about burial sites in Orkney and Shetland, where I just spent two weeks exploring.

I was 12 years old in 1965 but can’t remember hearing about this at school or university when I studied Australian history.

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(For updated information on the Frontier Wars, prioritising indigenous input,  a friend’s website created several years ago is an excellent resource.  I’ve known Jane since Aboriginal Embassy Days. Her research scrupulous and commitment to sharing information comes from the heart and not reliant on funding or becoming embroiled in politics.)

Jane and I knew Burnum Burnum in the 1970s although he was first introduced as Harry Penrith. We saw his transformation after seeking to get closer to his Aboriginality he researched his family and took his Grandfather’s name.

A member of the Stolen Generation, he could finally be himself – Burnum Burnum!

Here is part of the Foreword…

For me this book represents a lifetime’s work, a journey to find my own roots in this great country. I was born in 1936, under the family gum tree at Mosquito Point, by the side of Wallaga Lake. But, under the policies of the day, I was seized by government officials and separated (at 3 months) from my family. For the next ten years, I grew up on a mission near Nowra, before being moved to the Kinchela Boys Home, near South West Rocks, where I became the first Aborigine to gain a bronze medallion in surf life-saving. My sister was sent to Cootamundra Aboriginal Girls Home, separated from me by more than 1600 kilometres…

This book is… an attempt to give the traveller a chance to view this extraordinary country as it was seen by the original Australians… Modern ecology can learn a great deal from a people who managed and maintained their world so well for 50,000 years.

… Australians are gaining a new pride in their real heritage, the one which covers 2000 generations. The story has an inevitable edge of sadness, as we understand the process and pattern of dispossession suffered after 1788. This material has been included not to provoke guilt, but to give a perception of the extraordinary differences between the original Australians and the invaders who came in 1788.

In most areas of early contact, they were greeted warmly by the Australians, who had no idea that these strange white people intended to stay…

In Europe, as people developed their civilisation from the caves to the cathedrals, they left clear evidence of their achievement for future generations to admire. In Australia, the land itself is the cathedral and worship is not confined to any four walls. Each step is a prayer and every form in the landscape – and everything that moves in it – was put there specifically for the people to use and manage…

I hope the reader will find no bitterness in the story; the past cannot be turned back… The challenge of the future is… an acceptance of the past, the first step to a positive future… no one people have a sole franchise on the ability to feel an affinity with this timeless landscape.

This book resonates more with me now than when I bought it all those years ago because of the special connection to Harry/Burnum Burnum. I’ve finished a personal trek myself, returning to my birth country (touched upon in a previous post).

My father was Scottish and my mother Irish, and I visited Scotland and Northern Ireland retracing their childhood influences, and my own.

Here are Burnum Burnum’s thoughts:

All around Melbourne, the spirit of my great great grandmother is written on the landscape. When I drive through eastern Victoria I do so with a great sense of reverence, dreaming my way through the landscape of my ancestors and my birth, I can feel the spirit of my ancestors in many places.

This book weaves a rich tapestry of people, places, flora, fauna, history, mythology, reality and Dreamtime.

Forever relevant, it will earn its keep on your bookshelf for generations.

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Appreciation of Local Writers By Mentone Public Library

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Today, I attended an Author Appreciation event, held annually since 2011 by Mentone Public Library, an anachronism in the modern world of libraries but a valued community asset in existence for over 90 years.

(Along with others in Mordialloc Writers’ Group I helped them celebrate their 90th birthday!)

Julia Reichstein (Media & Events Officer) and Tony Brooker (President), the dynamic volunteer duo keep the library relevant in the 21st century (the books are not computerised and operate on the Dewey system with many bought by request of registered members and therefore perhaps considered dated or not popular). They revived interest in the library by encouraging local authors to speak, promote their books, and talk about their writing process.

This year they promoted seven local authors, including local groups like The Blue Chair Poets and Mordialloc Writers and Glenice Whitting, and Amanda Apthorpeboth in attendance today:

JM Yates, the author of The Vine Bleeds, a story about the consequences and survival of domestic violence returned to receive her appreciation award.

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as did Danae Andrea Harwood author of The Writers Runway, who I snapped sitting with ex-mayor and councillor, and longtime Mentone Library and local writers’ supporter, Bill Nixon.

(Bill launched Mordialloc Writers Anthology last year.)

 

Thirty people, plus the volunteers, not only celebrated a successful year but heard George Ivanoff talk about his latest YA best-selling series and his writing process.

The opportunity to buy signed copies of author books also a popular aspect of the morning.

Before George began his presentation we heard from two talented emerging writers who have presented over the years and let us share in their writing journey from high school:  Joe Bosa and Jessi Hooper.

Murray Thomson MLA introduced the day by suggesting the collective noun for the writers, readers, and historians present may be ‘an exultation’. He quoted classical poet Horace – “My memorial is done: it will outlast bronze” and added that indeed monuments like the pyramids may eventually be reduced to sand but words can last thousands of years.

Murray had researched Jessi and Joe to give the audience a sense of who they were and their inspiration for writing. He asked for their favourite quotes.

Jessi quoted Anne Frank:

Whoever is happy will make others happy too… those who have courage and faith shall never perish in misery.

Joe’s quote from George R.R. Martin’s, A Dance with Dragons:

A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies, said Jojen. The man who never reads lives only one.

The future of local writing is in great hands!

Jessi read a short prose poem entitled Trapped Under Water and Joe read from a revised manuscript of a fantasy novel written in Year 11 about a magical high school.

When George was introduced to talk about his latest series, including his 100th published book, he commented on how his life has been interwoven with Joe and Jessi (six degrees of separation): Joe attended his old school and Jessi attends the same school as George’s oldest daughter.

Pointing out these connections important, as we learnt later in his presentation!

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George is an entertaining presenter – he engages with his audience, is generous with his writing tips, reads his work with enthusiasm and shares his love of all things literary whether it is children’s books, young adult novels or his fascination with pop culture, particularly Dr Who!

His latest series is about the iconic Australian Royal Flying Doctor Service – books that reflect our country’s history and allow readers to live the adventure.

The RFDS has a rich and vibrant history, starting with the dream of a Presbyterian minister, Reverend John Flynn. Ordained in 1911, Flynn initially worked in rural and remote Australia setting up hostels and bush hospitals for pastoralists, miners, road workers, railwaymen and other settlers. He witnessed the daily struggle of pioneers living in remote areas and his vision was to provide a ‘mantle of safety’ for people of the bush.

On 15 May 1928, his dream became a reality when a long time supporter, H.V. McKay, left a large bequest for ‘an aerial experiment’. This enabled Flynn to open the Australian Inland Mission Aerial Medical Service in Cloncurry, Queensland (later to be renamed the Royal Flying Doctor Service).

George was also commissioned to write a factual picture storybook in a historical series Meet …  he had to write about the RFDS in a way to connect with young readers.

We were lucky he had brought that book along too.  He read a snippet to tease us but also to explain how he had to discover a ‘through line’ to connect the beginning and end of the story, a technique he uses for all his writing.

He has the main character, a young boy state at the beginning  about Dr Flynn ‘he saved my life…’ An explanation of Dr Flynn and the historical context follows and the book ends with the child explaining the how and why his life was saved because of the RFDS!

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George is an author and stay-at-home dad and in his own words 2016 ‘has been a great productive year’. He has a new series on the horizon and the theme of his talk today was Connection. (I told you all would be revealed!)

Connections with stories, to real life experiences and how his writing comes about. The RFDS series was his publisher’s idea. He had mentioned to Random House that he was interested in doing licence writing – he loves pop culture and has been influenced by X-Files – and he thought of TV and Movies.

However, his publisher did a deal with RFDS for four books. These would be different from George’s usual interactive You Choose Adventure books, which are totally imaginative and not realism.

The RFDS would have to be factually accurate regarding medical matters and locations, involving a lot of research. Fortunately, George and his family had a holiday already planned to drive to Uluru and so he was able to do research along the way. Publishers do not pay for research trips!

The tales of his holiday, research, and inspiration were very entertaining and insightful. We were engrossed – in fact, spellbound – especially of the process of exploring aviation plus medicine and its impact on rural Australians and turning it into an adventure series!

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The books each have a main medical ’emergency/adventure’: broken leg plus concussion in one, appendicitis and complications in another, premature birth and a snake bite in the third book and a rare genetic liver condition in the last book.

Too much research and finding out all things medical can be confronting – George confessed how  glad he was not knowing the dangers of a burst appendix when his oldest daughter had appendicitis, but now lives in dread his youngest daughter or even himself will suffer appendicitis!

Meanwhile, the holiday road trip, which turned into a research trip, gave George a lot of storylines and great ideas. He showed us holiday snaps he’d enlarged and explained how he’d been inspired.

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At Port Augusta in South Australia, he was able to visit the RFDS base at 8.00am on a Sunday. He chatted with staff, sat on a plane, lay on one of the beds, got the feel of being a pilot, doctor, passenger, patient…

He had flown in light aircraft before, knew they had smoother landings and take-offs than jets but these planes had passenger seats replaced by a mini-hospital. The series taught him how valuable it is to experience what you write about like visiting outback locations and sitting on the planes.

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At Leigh Creek, South Australia, George was fascinated by signs and unusual relics from the past. The sign on the male toilet ‘decapitated’, the KISS ice block in the freezer (who knows how long that had been there!), and the chalked sign outside the Leigh Creek Tavern with a quote from Dr Who, “Care for a jellybean?”Even the name of the cafe ‘Open Cut’.

All interesting prompts to trigger story ideas – especially the Dr Who quote – George admitted that one of his writing quirks is to include a Dr Who reference in all his stories. (Now there’s a challenge for pop culture nerds – you have  a hundred books to get through!)

The town has suffered from the closure of the mine and dwindling population and the SA Tourist Association is keen to revive its fortunes. They flew George and his publisher into the town to launch the book at the school.  Inspired by the location, they hope the book will lift the profile of Leigh Creek.

It certainly had the feel of the last place of civilisation, yet ironically, the only part of the town to feature in the book was the airport – a spot George didn’t visit – and it showed. His research of the airport relied on Google maps and he put a vending machine in the storyline where no vending machine exists! Oops!

(He discovered the blooper when they flew in for the book launch!)

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The next stop for a location was Farina and George held up more photos, including the inevitable selfie. Farina is a ghost town and the ideal setting for numerous stories. The minute they arrived, George knew a story must be set in the town among deserted, crumbling buildings.

They camped in a nearby campsite but when he explored he had the town to himself. The first building being what is left of the Transcontinental Hotel. In one disintegrating room, the drop into a cellar is dangerous. There are no signs, the town is out of mobile range, deserted – if something happened in this dangerous, isolated place…?

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When his daughters accompanied him, he spent the time saying ‘be careful’as they played chasie in and out crumbling structures. The story came to him of an accident in the town, but not of children being hurt – the book would be too short if an adult was on hand.

Instead, he thought about the adult getting hurt (falling and snapping a leg) and the children having to work out a rescue plan. Story writing is all about tension and building the reader’s anticipation.

The dry ground between the town and campsite baked and cracked – like walking on a sponge. There was an old abandoned car. He loves walking at night and so returned to the town at night and it was oppressively dark because of hardly any moonlight. He included his wander as a scene in the book – a connection with real life again! One of his characters likes to walk at night.

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The family continued on their holiday and the plots for the book series continued to form. The notorious Oodnadatta Track attempted without a four wheel drive. Three flat tyres later George knew he had to give characters the experience of flat tyres!

At last, they arrived at Coober Pedy famous for opals and underground homes and hotels. George wanted to set a story in this internationally famous town, especially when he discovered there was a drive-in cinema still operating and nearby in a carpark was an abandoned spaceship, disintegrating but still recognisable and huge!

(In the photo above George is the tiny black figure on the left.)

He discovered the spaceship was a prop left behind several years ago when a sci-fi movie was made. There are a lot of films and TV shows made in and around Coober Pedy, the landscape is interesting and intriguing. One side of the road there are stones with reflective minerals (mica?) embedded that sparkle in the sunlight. On the other side of the road, the soil is dull. It is a town of surprises and contrasts.

George set the book in the drive-in theatre and chose to make the story about a film event rather than opals and mining, which most of the stories set in Coober Pedy are about.

George read an extract, set at night, with characters scared at what seemed to be a haunted drive-in. Inexplicably, the string of Christmas lights behind him started to flash. We laughed – how spooky! Was he channelling the ghost town, Farina, or Coober Pedy?

Jokes aside, the point made by George important for writers – do your own research through experience if you can. Whether history, characters or location, it will enrich your imagination. If he had relied solely on the tourist information available, he would have written another opal mining story.

 

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The third book is set in WA in a town George visited in the past but his memory is hazy on details so he didn’t make the town a character.

The final book is based on a real-life story about a boy born with a rare genetic disease. The research involved many conversations on the phone with the boy’s father. George allowed him to read the first draft to ensure he’d got facts right.

The boy had to be flown by the RFDS from Adelaide to Melbourne for a life-saving liver transplant. The book focuses on the lightbox treatment the boy needed to stay alive; his exposure to UV rays for 6-8 hours a day up until puberty when that treatment loses its effectiveness and a transplant is the only option.

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The through-line linking the beginning and end of this story is a time travel reference. In the beginning, while he is in the lightbox, the son wishes he could time travel like the character in a book from the library. The father mentions this at the end of the story.

In the book about rescue from the ghost town, the family returns at the end to ‘lay ghosts of the accident to rest’.

In another book, the young girl stares into the eyes of the surgeon trying to work out who the eyes belong to and at the beginning of the story there is mention of the colour of eyes.

Links, connections, research hints and then George gave us a glimpse into his next 4 book series where the characters will travel through doorways into other worlds.

An entertaining and enlightening morning.  George Ivanoff  once again gave generously of his time and writing craft practice.

Julia announced that the local author events will resume in May next year – keep a look out on the library’s website – for what I am sure will be a great line-up.

Each year Julia writes and performs an amusing song about the ‘literary’ year. Accompanied by Tony on the ukelele, today was no exception.

Julia also handwrites her author appreciation notes – below is the kind message on mine.

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On behalf of local authors, I expressed OUR appreciation – well done Julia and Tony –

here’s to a great 2017!

 

Honouring A Life Shared

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The Launch of Julie Wentworth: A Life Shared

On Saturday, I went to a book launch, in Ashburton,  with my close friend and writing buddy, author Dr Glenice Whitting. This time, the celebrity of the launch was Glenice’s cousin,  Julie Wentworth.

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Glenice and Julie

 

In July, I mentioned about preparing Julie’s book for publication.

The book is filled with highlights from her life, especially the years teaching yoga and meditation.  Her friend Mark, a teacher and librarian helped capture this amazing journey by recording and typing interviews with Julie whose health has deteriorated in recent years.

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Mark and Julie

 

Julie was given my name by a friend who published her first book.  She knew I had published the last few Mordialloc Writers’ anthologies to save the group money.

My passion for enabling people to tell their stories has led to editing and book publishing. Helping other writers like Julie meant  embracing digital technology – it’s been an interesting ride with plenty more hurdles I’m sure!

 I have to thank my daughter, Mary Jane for producing a cover to the exact specifications Julie wanted – simplicity itself!

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However, to witness Julie’s joy and pride holding the finished product of her labour, and see a queue of devotees lining up for her signature, a wonderful reward.

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To know each book sold provided money for Rainbow Cottage Children & Babies Home, South Africa, a fantastic bonus.

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Lily did the honours – the pile of books dwindled rapidly.

 

The celebration of  Julie Wentworth: A Life Shared was held in the Baptist Church hall where Julie held her Yoga and Meditation classes.

One day, a Friday, in the Ashburton class, (they’re very special yogis, that group), they are strong women, each one so busy and leading full lives.

All of a sudden I couldn’t speak, couldn’t move, I couldn’t even read my notes, what I’d written for this planned class. And there was silence, and the class waited for me. And I was waiting and I thought, Am I going to drop dead here or just sit here and die? A strange feeling, a strange moment.

Eventually I said, ‘Come on, four by four, use it work with it.’ Then I just said to the class, ‘I’m sorry I don’t know what happened there; let’s move on.’ Which I did.

Then, two students phoned me and they said, ‘Julie we’d like to pay for you to go to the Golden Door, in NSW, a health retreat. They have this special offer. Would you have enough money to pay for your own airfare to Newcastle and back?’
‘Yes, I would.’

I did that. So generous, these yogis of mine. I was in a beautiful room. Walked around, did a few sessions, just relaxed and was still. Came back renewed, refreshed. How generous. The stairs of this Golden Door, seemed to go up to heaven. You opened the golden door and all you saw were the stairs. It has a good name, good people, good food, good activities. They paid for it. What a gift!

Light streamed into the room through large glass windows and our eyes feasted on a lovely garden. The tranquility and beauty an apt setting for the author’s memories and story.

The room soon filled with Julie’s friends (many of whom were past students) with the love in the room palpable. The pile of books dwindled and I joked about writer’s cramp as Julie signed one dedication after another.

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Julie’s previous book (written when 69 years old),  Love And Light: Yoga for cancer HIV/AIDS & Other Illnesses, a manual sharing her knowledge and teaching techniques, but this short autobiography reveals her amazing journey from gifted singer and music teacher to one of the most highly respected yoga teachers in Melbourne.

It includes personal details not shared before.

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When called upon to launch the book, Glenice praised Julie’s courage and determination.

Her courage to compete and win singing awards.

Dame Joan Sutherland wrote, You have great courage and obviously a great talent.

  • Courage to teach music while struggling with deteriorating hearing. 
  • Courage to leave a toxic marriage
  • Courage to survive cancer
  • Courage as a single mother to reinvent herself and support her son

Julie changed her name for protection, travelled the world to study and eventually established her own Yoga school.

In their darkest hours, Julie worked with those afflicted by Cancer and Aids.

Michelle, a palliative care nurse,  spoke about Julie’s inspiration, guidance, and support.

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Michelle

 

After a move into assisted living accommodation, Julie now faces her own health challenges with her signature courage and delightful sense of humour.

Mark spoke of the life’s lessons he’d learned from Julie, of visiting many of the sacred places overseas she mentions in the book. How she has taught him to appreciate silence.

He shared one of his favourite passages from the book:

It is one of the great losses, that people have forgotten how to just let the silence be, they tend to talk to fill that space.

It’s to do with feeling the vibration. Being aware of the good vibration or the bad vibration. You are more present. It’s the peace.

At the end of the day, when I pull out my hearing aids, I give thanks for the silence, the peace at that time of the day.

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It was a privilege to play a small part in bringing this wonderful book into ‘the light’.

All books were sold on Saturday and Julie hasn’t decided if she will have more printed.

What better recommendation can an author have than to know your book is in demand!

Julie often finishes her own meditation with a Metta from Jack Kornfield:

May I be filled with loving kindness

May I be well,

May I be peaceful and at ease,

May I be happy.

A wonderful prayer for us all!

A Poet’s Passionate Plea For Her People

(Warning: Indigenous Australians are advised that some of the links from this blog include images or names of people now deceased.)

OODGEROO NOONUCCAL (1920-1993)

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The book My People was published by Jacaranda Press in 1970 and was the first poetry book I bought with my own money! I attended university in Canberra in 1971 and I remember feeling overawed when I met Oodgeroo and Faith Bandler at a conference held at the Australian National University.

It is a book I treasure for content and memories!

Kath Walker is now better known by her Aboriginal name Oodgeroo Noonuccal and this was her third collection of poems and essays. I’ve chosen this book as another contribution to Lisa Hill’s celebration of Indigenous Literature for NAIDOC Week.

“In 1988, as a protest against continuing Aboriginal disadvantage during the Bicentennial Celebration of White Australia, Walker returned the MBE she had been awarded in 1970, and subsequently adopted the Noonuccal tribal name Oodgeroo (meaning paperbark).”

The book’s sub-title, A Kath Walker Collection apt because it is not just poems – there is what we would term flash fiction, and also speeches made by the author, a prominent political activist and fighter for social justice.

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 Judith Wright who was Jacaranda’s poetry reader in the 60s recommended the publication of  Oodgeroo’s first collection We Are Going, in 1964.

“The work was an immediate commercial success, selling more than ten thousand copies and making Walker the best selling Australian poet since CJ Dennis

The plain-speaking style of her poetry, and the strong element of protest in it, precluded literary acclaim for her work, but the role of a political ‘protest poet’ was one in which Walker would come to revel.

It was my passionate support for the rights of Aborigines  that led me to seek out Indigenous writers discovering Oodgeroo first, and then later many others.

I’ve already written about West Australian Jack Davis.

Like many white Australians who were immigrants and lived ‘in the suburbs down south’, initially knowledge of Aboriginal affairs came from school and mainstream media. At school, it was more colonial history and the less said about media coverage the better. (In the main, this still produces poor quality information!)

In the mid-60s, Harold Blair visited Croydon High School and was often in the news. My father who loved singing and had a wonderful tenor voice became very interested in everything Harold did or said. Around the dinner table, we often discussed politics including the plight of Aboriginal Australians.

Dad was genuinely shocked that the majority of Aborigines had only received voting rights in 1962 – a few months before we arrived in Australia.

On page 36-7 as well as a poem, Oodgeroo has written an historical document, prepared and presented to the 5th Annual General Meeting of the Federal Council Aboriginal Advancement, held at Adelaide, Easter 1962:

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“We want hope, not racialism, Brotherhood, not ostracism, Black advance,not white ascendance: Make us equals, not dependants…

Must we native Old Australians In our land rank as aliens? …”

Similar to Jack Davis,  her fellow writer/activist, Oodgeroo assumed a role of cultural guardian and educator for her people, establishing the Noonuccal-Nughie Education and Cultural Centre at Moongalba, near Amity Point on Stradbroke, her island home. A rich legacy includes Indigenous studies being embedded in Queensland University’s curriculum.

The poems and essays  in My People focus on conveying the point of view and plight of Aboriginal Australia to non-Aboriginal readers. The words are not strident but the message is strong. As a member of the Communist Party in the 1940s, because it was the only political party against the White Australia Policy at the time, a universal philosophy of the  ‘brotherhood of man’ influenced Oodgeroo’s work.

 All One Race (page 1)

Black tribe, yellow tribe, red, white or brown,
From where the sun jumps up to where it goes down,
Herrs and pukka-sahibs, demoiselles and squaws,
All one family, so why make wars?…
… I’m international, never mind place;
I’m for humanity, all one race.

Let us Not be Bitter (page 20)

Away with bitterness, my own dark people
Come stand with me, look forward, not back,
For a new time has come for us.
Now we must change, my people. For so long
Time for us stood still; now we know
Life is change, life is progress,
Life is learning things, life is onward.
White men had to learn civilised ways,
Now it is our turn…

An Appeal (page 3)

Statesmen, who make the nation’s laws,
With power to force unfriendly doors,
Give leadership in this our cause
That leaders owe.

Writers, who have the nation’s ear,
Your pen a sword opponents fear,
Speak of our evils loud and clear
That all may know…

And the poet continues to plea to Unions, Churches, The Press and ultimately All white well-wishers.

However, by the end of the book, there is a change of tone and readers can detect impatience and frustration at not only the slow, if any, change to a system of endemic injustice, but anger at the lack of land rights and respect for her people and country.

I am Proud (page 86)

I am black of skin among whites,
And I am proud,
Proud of race and proud of skin.
I am broken and poor,
Dressed in rags from white man’s back,
But do not think I am ashamed.
Spears could not contend against guns and we were mastered,
But there are things they could not plunder and destroy.
We were conquered but never subservient,
We were compelled but never servile.
Do not think I cringe as white men cringe to whites.
I am proud,
Though humble and poor and without a home…
So was Christ.

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Recognition of Aboriginal sovereignty,  Oodgeroo assumed would be a given once white people were educated and understood everyone’s responsibility towards the land and the rights of Native Title.

She believed enlightenment, and compassion would also lead to a material change and improvement in living conditions for Aboriginal Australians.

Oodgeroo’s mastery of English and her command of poetic techniques, coupled with deep-felt honesty and her lived experience of Aboriginal Australia has produced memorable verses of varying styles and a powerful snapshot of Australia in the late 60s.

Namatjira (page 64)

… What did their loud acclaim avail
Who gave you honour, then gave you jail?
Namatjira, they boomed your art,
They called you genius, then broke your heart.

The Dispossessed (page 65)

For Uncle Willie McKenzie

… The white man claimed your hunting grounds and you could not remain,
They made you work as menials for greedy private gain;
Your tribes are broken vagrants now wherever whites abide,
And justice of the white man means justice to you denied…

 

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Dreamstime.com

There are also personal poems where we see glimpses of the writer, activist, teacher, woman and mother. Poems about tribal ways, historical incidents, totems, unmarried mothers, the dreams of young women, family past and present, and always the longing and belonging to country:

 

Artist Son (page 54)

… Paint joy, not pain,
Paint beauty and happiness for men,
Paint the rare insight glimpses that express
What tongue cannot or pen: …

Son of Mine (page 55)

(To Denis)

My son, your troubled eyes search mine,
Puzzled and hurt by colour line.
Your black skin soft as velvet shine;
What can I tell you, son of mine?…

My Love (page 50)

Possess me? No, I cannot give
The love that others know,
For I am wedded to a cause:
The rest I must forgo…

The social part, the personal
I have renounced of old;
Mine is a dedicated life,
No man’s to have and hold…

For there are ancient wrongs to right,
Men’s malice to endure;
A long road and a lonely road,
But oh, the goal is sure.

 

I want to end on a positive note because NAIDOC 2016 has been a celebration of Aboriginal culture under the theme Songlines: the living narrative of our nation

I recommend My People to readers because of the quality of the writing and the narrative of a time past laced with the present and future. The poems, a way of understanding the historical struggle of Aboriginal Australia and the richness of its culture and traditions.

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The writer’s voice perceptive, strong, precise in detail, encapsulating a love for humanity and a vision for a peaceful, fairer future. Something we should all wish for!

A Song of Hope (page 40)

Look up, my people,
The dawn is breaking,
The world is waking
To a new bright day,
When none defame us,
No restriction tame us,
Nor colour shame us,
Nor sneer dismay…

To our fathers’ fathers
The pain, the sorrow;
To our children’s children
The glad tomorrow.

 

 

Poetry – Personal, Political, Playful And Always A Sense Of Place

(Warning: Indigenous Australians are advised that some of the links from this blog include images or names of people now deceased.)

 

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Friend, and mentor in all things literary, Lisa Hill of AnzLit fame hosts an Indigenous Literature Week in conjunction with NAIDOC and despite best intentions, I have never participated.

However, this year, I promised myself I’d participate!

I wouldn’t classify myself as a poet but I love poetry and I want to promote three Aboriginal writers whose poems, other writings and artistic endeavours have made a profound impression on me and on the creative and literary landscape of Australia: Jack Davis, Kevin Gilbert and Oodgeroo Noonuccal.

The words of all of these writers are accessible to everyone, not just because their published works are held in libraries (much of it available online), but because their use of the English language, including the nuances that often trip writers, is impeccable.

Today, I focus on Jack Davis

“Jack always had a fascination with words and when he was 10 he preferred a dictionary to a story book…

He worked as  an itinerant labourer, windmill man, horse breaker, boundary rider, drover and stockman…

At 14, outraged and indignant at the treatment of Aboriginal people by white landowners, Jack began to write poetry as a means of expression. He was influenced by Worru… who came from the same area as Jack’s father, and Jack loved to listen to Worru’s stories and songs. He began to write Aboriginal words and learned the Bibbulmun language…

A humanitarian, Jack will always be remembered for his writing about Aboriginal history and culture and for his relentless fight for justice for his people…

He was of the Aboriginal Noongar people, and much of his work dealt with the Australian Aboriginal experience. He has been referred to as the 20th Century’s Aborignal poet laureate, and many of his plays are on Australian school syllabuses.”

http://www.PoemHunter.com

All three poets write poems that fit the title of the post: their deep attachment to country, their heritage, and culture, lived experience of heartbreaking poignancy, righteous anger, deadly and accurate observations of life expressed with humour when appropriate.

They have no need of obscure references or showing off academic knowledge, and apply a range of identifiable poetic techniques to satisfy lovers of verse.

I’ve taken the third book of poetry by Jack Davis (pictured above) published in 1988 by Dent Australia, to quote from and reference the themes of his work.

The blurb from the back of this edition explains:

Whether describing a bush creature with gentle irony and a twinkle in his pen, observing the mysteries of human behaviour, evoking with lyrical grace the Aboriginal love of land, or reaching out for mutual understanding across barriers of prejudice and ignorance, these poems speak simply and openly…

1988, a significant year because White Australia celebrated their bi-centenary while Black Australia held a mourning ceremony in commemoration of the Aboriginal tribes wiped out by the atrocities of early white settlers.

Aboriginal descendants conducted a silent protest on the opposite side of the continent to Jack’s birthplace of Western Australia. They stood by the Bay at La Perouse, displaying the names of dead tribes and casting wreaths into the water.

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From the SMH at the time -elders wore red headbands symbolising bloodshed and carried signs displaying the names of tribes wiped out.

Jack Davis had already written about the tragedy of invasion and the selective memory of invaders and ‘winners’ writing history with their own spin.

His poem, One Hundred And Fifty Years, written in protest at the non-inclusion of Aborigines in the celebration of 150 years of European settlement in Western Australia, 1829-1979, tells the story from an Aboriginal perspective:

One Hundred and Fifty Years

I walked slowly along the river.
Old iron, broken concrete, rusted cans
scattered stark along the shore,
plastic strewn by man and tide
littered loudly mute on sparse growth
struggling to survive.
A flock of gulls quarrelled over debris,
a lone shag looked hopefully down at turgid water
and juggernauts of steel and stone made jigsaw
patterns against the city sky.

So now that the banners have fluttered,
the eulogies ended and the tattoos have rendered
the rattle of spears,
look back and remember the end of December
and one hundred and fifty years.

Three boys crackled past on trailbikes
long blond hair waving in the wind,
speedboats erupted power
while lesser craft surged along behind.
The breeze rustled a patch of bull-oak
reminding me of swan, bittern, wild duck winging-
now all alien to the river.
Sir John Forrest stood tall in stone
in St. George`s Terrace,
gun across shoulder,
symbolic of what had removed
the river’s first children.

And that other river, the Murray,
where Western Australia`s
first mass murderer Captain Stirling,
trappings flashing, rode gaily
at the head of twenty-four men.
For an hour they fired
and bodies black, mutilated,
floated down the blood-stained stream.
So now that the banners have fluttered,
the eulogies ended and the tattoos have rendered,
the rattle of spears,
look back and remember the end of December
and one hundred and fifty years.

This year NAIDOC celebrates Songlines: The living narrative of our nation and at last there is some progress as government bodies facilitate not only the sharing but celebrating of the stories from Aboriginal Australia.

Kingston Council has the important message of INTEGRITY, LOYALTY, RESPECT projected onto their clock tower by Aboriginal artist, Josh Muir.

 

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I chose this book of poetry by Jack Davis deliberately because of the title and many of the issues raised in the poems – issues still unresolved. The book is ‘Dedicated to Maisie Pat, and to all mothers who have suffered similar loss.’

JOHN PAT

John Pat was a 16-year-old Aboriginal boy who died of head injuries alleged to have been caused in a disturbance between police and Aborigines in Roebourne, WA, in 1983. Four police were charged with manslaughter over the incident. They were acquitted.

Write of life
the pious said
forget the past
the past is dead.
But all I see
in front of me
is a concrete floor
a cell door
and John Pat

Agh! tear out the page
forget his age
thin skull they cried
that’s why he died!
But I can’t forget
the silhouette
of a concrete floor
a cell door and John Pat

The end product
of Guddia law
is a viaduct
for fang and claw,
and a place to dwell
like Roebourne’s hell
of a concrete floor
a cell door
and John Pat

He’s there- where?
there in their minds now
deep within,
there to prance
a sidelong glance
a silly grin
to remind them all
of a Guddia wall
a cell door
and John Pat

Guddia: Kimberley term for white man

I didn’t realise how sad it would resonate today as recent tragic events in the United States unfold. The Black Lives Matter Campaign in America covered by our media and the situation overseas probably well-known.

However, for generations, Aboriginal people have been dying in police custody in our own country. Where is the outrage in mainstream media to echo in our parliaments, and determination by Federal Ministers to oversee radical change?

Since the Royal Commission in 1991, indigenous incarceration and police custody rates have actually increased and the rate of suicide among Aboriginal youth in remote Australia is also at an all-time high

Regrettably, the voices of poets and other creative people are not listened to more often and those with the power to act not energised to do so!

The foreword by Colin Johnson in John Pat And Other Poems states:

Jack Davis is one of the most important writers in Australia, and has helped to establish Aboriginal writing in English as a school within Australian literature. Prolific and energetic, he does not restrict his pen to any one genre, but has written poetry, drama, short stories and polemical pieces.

As an Aboriginal writer he is conscious that the writer has an important role to play within  his community and in the wider Australian society. He has not hesitated to use his pen in aid of a cause, stressing the need for greater understanding and a growth of tolerance. His writings are not restricted to his own community, but extend beyond into universal themes of compassion and a common humanity uniting all without regard to creed or colour.

Jack’s work is marked by his humanity, although his life has given cause enough for bitterness to find expression…

A number of strands have thus come together to produce Jack Davis the man and the writer. They are all equally important and are reflected in his work. As a dedicated writer, he has also been anxious that his craft be passed on. For five years he served as the editor of the now defunct Aboriginal periodical Identity, and successfully furthered the cause of Aboriginal writing in English by promoting such voices as that of the novelist and short-story writer Archie Weller.

Jack’s wisdom again:

THE ENDING OF POVERTY

If we were constantly to remind ourselves
of the unbelievable immensity
of the universe,
the intricate pattern of our being;
recognise the fragility of our intelligence;
listen to our own heart beat;
remember that crosses like our own
are being borne by others,
that the core of our very existence
is the birth of pain…
Then we will have
mastered the art of living
and begun to remove
poverty from its pedestal.

In the title of the post, I also promised playful and from someone who loved words as much as Jack he is at his playful best observing native animals:

EMU (p34)… the last thing I saw, you were rounding the hill  And as far as I know you are travelling still.

SWANS (p33)… Where are you going, majestic swan? I saw you and your flock fly over.

PELICAN (p36)…As she attempts to run for take-off she’s a total wipe-out when she takes her brake off.

KOOKABURRA (p28)… if we laughed away our anger, helped others in distress; then our path would be a smoother one, a walk to happiness.

CICADA (12)… Cicada, cicada, you sing the whole day long, and you have my memories within your summer song.

Another amusing verse within this collection that I loved was First Flight – a great ‘memoir’ poem. If you are working through a popular prompt topic ‘Write about your first experiences’ think of your first trip on an aeroplane.

I’m old enough to remember when flying was an expensive and rare way to travel, and children rushed outside to marvel as planes flew overhead.

FIRST FLIGHT

Yawning prodigiously I disconnected my lifeline.
While destiny voiced safety instructions
(- as we will be flying over water -)
I recollected clearly
the diving board at the old swimming pool.
Now at nine hundred and ninety k’s an hour
I counted heads in front of me,
blonds baldies brunettes blue rinses,
all targets of vulnerability.
A red eye winked
and spelt out terms for my survival,
so I re-strapped myself
into my last probable contact with synthetics.
I heard a dry choked-off scream,
not mine but
rubber protesting against bitumen,
a cool feminine voice
(- I hope you have enjoyed -)
and as we taxied in
I realised I was no longer a novice
but a calm suave veteran of the air.
Especially so
now that I was safe upon the ground.

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The last poem in the book emphasises not only Jack’s connection to the land but also a plea that those who came to rule try to understand the spiritual as well as the temporal importance of his country.

If more people read and listen to the stories and voices of Aboriginal people the future may give him his wish.

CURLEW

Weerlo, weerlo,
Some liken you to loneliness
And distances apart
But your dirge of spirit things
Twines around my heart.

You are my people crying
Bereft without their land.
Oh God!
Reach out and teach the white man
How to understand.

 

NAIDOC image 2016

 

 

 

 

 

Mother Earth Is Weeping

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We have just celebrated World Environment Day on June 5th. A day observed each year to raise global awareness to take positive environmental action to protect the natural world and our planet Earth.

The United Nations General Assembly established World Environment Day in 1972 and created the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), which is now the United Nations’ principal agency for environmental action.

The purpose of having a special World Environment Day is to raise global awareness of environmental issues, to encourage political attention and public action, and hope that individuals pledge personal commitment to environmental preservation.

Each year since 1973 there has been a theme and this year it is “Go Wild For Life – Zero tolerance for the illegal wildlife trade.”

Like many Australians, I think immediately of elephants and the ivory trade and consider wildlife trade happens somewhere remote from here. However, a little research and you soon discover we certainly need to spread the message of zero tolerance within Australia too.

“For ordinary people who might think that buying a little ivory trinket or a reptile skin handbag isn’t a big deal, we want to get the word out that it is,”

IFAW Oceania director Isabel McCrea 2014.

In Australia, it is troubling to know we have a thriving illegal trade in endangered birds and reptiles.

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Native green tree pythons (Morelia viridis) can sell for $2000-10,000 on the black market. (Credit: Wikimedia)

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A Major Mitchell cockatoo (Lophochroa leadbeateri), highly sought after on the black market, fetching up to $15,000. It is on the CITES Appendix II list. (Credit: Getty Images)

 Think Globally, Act Locally

This is a great mantra for anyone who cares about the environment, particularly when you consider the evidence of global warming.

How disastrous, not just for Australia but the world, that our current Federal Government (seeking to be re-elected) has sacked some of Australia’s and the world’s, most respected climate science researchers as it restructures the CSIRO.

CSIRO RALLY 2

This week, the eastern coast of Australia has been battered by storms with some areas experiencing catastrophic events never recorded in living memory or since records began over a century ago. Although these storms can’t be specifically assigned to climate change there is a high possibility with warmer seas and rising sea levels that future storms will be more destructive and perhaps more frequent. Climate scientists to monitor the cause and effect are needed.

Still too many people make excuses or don’t believe climate change is a reality or threat. Why is there no marching in the streets to demand our political leaders and decision makers do something now – like reinstating valuable expert scientists?

Images of NSW, Queensland, and Tasmania storm blasted fill our TV screens and newspaper columns.

Flash Floods Not Fiction (A Haibun)
Mairi Neil

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

Flooding horrendous. Cars submerged, people drowned and missing. A man fishing from his balcony excites social media when the lake thirty metres from his home visits and stays. Water, a new resident in apartments, shops, and public buildings.

All life disrupted
Reptiles infest many buildings
As rivers burst banks

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

Winds howl, puff and huff
Roofs wrenched from buildings and sheds
Squalls strength abnormal

These storms unknown in most people’s lifetime. Sea swells surging over jetties and boats with tsunami intent. Was it like this a century ago? Record keeping not an exact science.

Angry seas pummel
Rocks and roots shaken loose
The clifftops shudder

Countryside recovering from summer bushfires, firestorms, and drought. Weary fields must now cope with too much water.

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

Doomsayers shake their heads. Sacked scientists despair at self-serving politicians. The population seek soothing. Resignation followed by resilient acceptance and adaptation.

Life here is finite
The Earth will return to dust
Creation’s downside?

World Environment Day aims to:

  • Give a human face to environmental issues.
  • Empower people to become active agents of sustainable and equitable development.
  • Promote an understanding that communities are pivotal to changing attitudes towards environmental issues.
  • Advocate partnership which will ensure all nations and peoples enjoy a safer and more prosperous future.

Here are 10 things you can do to reduce global warming but writers can also write short stories, poetry, novels and essays reminding people of the fragility of planet Earth.

My friend and fellow writer Sue Parritt did just that and I went to her book launch a fortnight ago in Mornington, a coastal town where even a small rise in sea level could have a devastating effect.

Sue workshopped her first novel with Mordialloc Writers’ Group and has an essay in our last anthology, Kingston My City. Sue retired from her work as a librarian and moved to Mornington several years ago to be a full-time writer.

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Sannah And The Pilgrim, and this new novel, Pia And the Skyman published by Odyssey Books are parts one and two of a trilogy set in an Australia of the future grappling with global warming and the changes to islands in the Pacific region that produced a refugee crisis and ‘Apartheid Australia’ with people living in ‘the Brown Zone’ being virtual slaves.

The year is 2401, the location a farming settlement on the northwest coast of North island, Aotearoa. Pia has lived at Kauri Haven since fleeing imprisonment in Australia for seditious activities, through the intervention of Kaire, the man she calls the Skyman.

Sue writes speculative fiction but told me at the launch there is now a subgenre of Sci-fi called Cli-fi because of climate change and there will be more novels focusing on scenarios in a world affected by global warming.

Sannah and Pia’s stories are powerful and Sue’s easy-to-read style draws the reader into the narrative. The attention to detail and engaging prose delivers a punch as you consider the issues involved. It may be called speculative fiction but the dynamics of the story reveals a lot of truth about the human condition and mankind in general.

I appreciate that when creative writers write about moral and ethical issues and attempt to make a difference it is difficult not ‘to preach’. However, many readers (including myself) enjoy narrative when the dilemmas faced by the characters involve serious social justice issues.

Novels can have a profound effect and often resonate with the reader better than a factual account. Creative writing can engage emotions and intelligence in powerful transformative ways.

Congratulations to Sue for successfully tackling several of the most important issues of our time in the two completed parts of her trilogy and I’ll look forward to another gripping tale when the final novel comes out in October.

In the meantime, I hope more people will be become actively involved to care for the environment before it is too late!

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Do Nuns Wear Knickers? Tales From School Unleashed.

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In the midst of returning to classes after the holidays and farewelling my daughters on their overseas trip, the arrival of the latest anthology from Melaleuca Blue Publishing was a pleasant surprise. I mentioned in a previous post, that one of my poems had been chosen. However, a delay in printing meant the expected February arrival of my copy was delayed until April.

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For me, seeing something I’ve written accepted for publication is always thrilling – a vindication that just maybe I can write what others like to read, and someone believes it is worth printers’ ink.

It’s why I love producing anthologies for my students, albeit the print run is only for them and their friends or families. Writing and publishing go together like paint and canvas, cameras and developed photographs.

I consider the tangibility of holding a book, a painting or photograph one of the delights of the creative process. I’m looking forward to meeting the hard-working Kari O’Gorman (this is the third collection of life stories she has produced) and some of the other contributors at the launch/celebration in August – our ’15 minutes of fame’ moment.

The other stories and poems in Do Nuns Wear Knickers? a cross section of memories from schooldays in Australia through several generations and from the point of view of student and teacher.

… a collection of memories from award winning Australian writers expressing the joy, pain, humiliation and humour of growing up and attending school from the 1940s to the current century.

Discover why nobody uses surfboards, how to bust your teeth on a piece of fabric, what really happens on school camp, how ink wells help beat boredom, the thrill of certain library books, how coins leave callouses, why rah rah and loose bras are dangerous, how to know when to retire as a teacher, and whether or not nuns really do wear knickers.

There are stories to make you laugh and others are poignant reminders of how tough growing up can be and that some teachers were friends and mentors, others tormentors.

Sister Elizabeth’s weapons consisted of an acid tongue and a long wooden ruler which she would crack on the desk as a means of control. By the end of the day our self-esteems were as crushed as our school tunics.

The expectations we have and the pressures put on teachers captured too, especially the introduction of new technology and demands of extra-curricular activities.

Teaching staff entered the theatre, sinking into padded seats, eyes drawn forward, voices whispering, ears gossip tuned, lights dimmed… another damn after-school meeting!

Lost in semi darkness faces peered expectantly at the Power Point presentation of a Headmaster’s dream, encompassing the master plan for the much vaunted 90s IT revolution in schools…

The honesty of reflection admirable, revealing how tough transition from child to teenager, to adult can be and showing that regardless of which decade you attended school issues, idiots, inadequacies and ideas appeared.

At school, I was always the dunce trying to be king, the nerd trying to be liked. I wanted to wear the brands everyone else wore like Rip Curl and Billabong. I wanted to have the toys everyone else had like Tamagotchis. I wanted to listen to the music everyone else listened to like No Doubt. I wanted to style my hair the way everyone else did with a messy bun, butterfly clips and tons of bobby pins.

The stories remind me of my own school days, discussions in writing class with students older than me, and the reminiscing of my daughters who are twenty-somethings now.

The book is enjoyable reading and the stories trigger memories, more stories and ideas on how to write them. One of the great takeaways provided by anthologies for writerly readers.

Congratulations to Kari  – a great result and a lot of effort. This being number three, no wonder she has decided to take a rest from publishing and will concentrate on her own writing for the next year or two.

A decision I applaud and hope to emulate with no plans to produce another anthology for the Mordialloc Writers’ Group until I finish a couple of my own writing projects!

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Croydon Primary School Grade 5 1963 – I’m the last one, second row(RHS), teacher Miss O’Toole

I had sent a couple of pieces for consideration. They didn’t make the book but I’m glad I took the time to write down some memories.

The Road to Enlightenment…
Mairi Neil

It’s funny what or who we remember from school days. For me, characters stand out more than events, although the memory usually links a person with an incident.

1963 – I arrive in Australia from Scotland in December 1962 so enjoy the long summer holidays before starting term one at Croydon State School.

Although nine and half years old I’m promoted to Grade 5 because I know Long Division and LSD (money sums not the drug!).

The teacher, Miss O’Toole has tightly permed black hair and wears a pleated grey skirt every day with different coloured twin sets, favouring red the most. She sits on the corner of the desk swinging one of her stockinged legs in such a way we sometimes see the tip of her suspender belt and the fleshy top of her leg. This causes giggles and jokes from the boys in the playground.

I like Miss O’Toole because she has the same Irish accent as my Mum and shares lots of interesting stories about books and places she’s travelled.

A new friend, Nola Tickner leaves school early every day because she sat on a needle and BoxHill Hospital is monitoring its passage through her bloodstream. It eventually comes out through her big toe!

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Croydon State School 1964, Mr Stuart the teacher. I’m front row 3rd from left – worrying that if the wind changes will my face stay like that!

1964 – Mr Stuart, the Grade 6 teacher likes to strap, but thank goodness girls are exempt! He wears a grey suit, but his jacket is tight over a portly frame and never meets to button. He sometimes wears a waistcoat and tie. When he laughs his belly wobbles. He lets us put on a play I’d written after listening to the ABC Radio school hour. It’s about the three field system in Medieval England. We have a lot of fun dressing up. I play the Lord of the Manor because it was my idea. I wear a pair of pince-nez glasses that belonged to my grandmother and think I’m the ‘bee’s knees’.

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Sally Joffey has bright red hair and soft white freckled skin.  She comes to school one day with a face matching her hair except for white rings around her eyes. She looks like a strange panda and confesses she spent too long under her older sister’s sun lamp because she wanted a tan. It took weeks for her skin to return to normal.

1965 –  First Form at Croydon High School with Mr Lurajud who has a moustache and hairstyle like Hitler’s. We cruelly whisper ‘Sieg Heil’ behind his back. I’m Form Captain and at a class fundraiser, I take a plate of Tablet my mother has made. This very sweet Scottish fudge enchants Mr Lurajud, who tastes one piece and buys the whole plate for himself!

Mr Butler, the headmaster frightens us at Monday morning assembly warning of the ‘red menace’ waiting to invade Australia from Indonesia. He urges the older boys to join the Army and fight for freedom in Vietnam. Later, when an ex-student is one of the first national servicemen to die in Vietnam after stepping on a landmine, I wonder if Mr Butler regretted some of his scary speeches.

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Home from Croydon High School at lunchtime

1966 – Mr Wilson the balding Geography teacher always behaves as if he’s slumming at the school. Class handouts have to be coloured in, but he never stipulates a colour, rather just states Derwent Number 12 or Derwent Number 32…

One of six children, I don’t own Derwent pencils. I ask what colour to use and Mr Wilson lectures, ’Derwent pencils were on the booklist. Your parents should have bought them.’ Mum bought cheaper pencils at Croydon Market and I blush with shame. I learn a valuable lesson. It’s not a crime to be poor and children will never forget how you make them feel.

(Years later, I  buy my daughters Derwent pencils when they start school, not that they were asked for but because I can and because I want to give them something I couldn’t have.)

Mrs Fear, the Sewing teacher lives up to her name and ensures I hate needlework for years. My older sister finishes class projects for me and I get high marks. When my sister hands in her own work she almost fails. Not a good teacher or seamstress Mrs Fear resented my sister because she knew more than her.

1967 – Mrs Walker is a fabulous English teacher. She’d been a journalist in England and encourages me to write with the warning that journalism is not a glamorous occupation. ‘You’ll be asked to cover the local cat show as well as an exciting crime!’

She’s trying to give up smoking and chews gum all the time – her excuse for chewing in class while insisting pupils can’t do the same.

Neville Purchase’s bicycle is hit by a car on the way to school. Rumours fly around the playground he’s dead, but at a special assembly, the headmaster announces Neville has lost a leg. When Neville returns to school we must be considerate and not stare at his prosthesis. It’s the closest I have ever been to someone who has lost a limb.

1968 – Mrs Hurst wears pencil skirts so tight the boys titter about seeing the outline of her suspender belt. Mr Barouma, our French teacher had been a Landscape Gardner and survived real-life exploits living in WW2 Occupied Holland.

On hot summer days because there’s no air conditioning Mr Barouma takes us outside to sit under the trees and read. In classes straight after lunch, he tells us to put our heads down and power nap for 15 minutes. He’s Mr Popular!

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water fights a playtime feature on hot days

1969 – English teacher, Fred Carstairs, the glamour boy on the Staff payroll sports an all year suntan like an Olympian. One day, he leaves a student teacher in our clutches. The young blonde with curly hair begins writing on the blackboard. He foolishly asks if he’s spelt ‘their’ correctly.

Like scavengers fighting over a carcass we soon work out he’s not a confident speller. Even when he writes a word correctly someone tells him differently. Mr Carstairs returns to a blackboard full of misspellings. The student teacher is called Charles Dickens. The irony of his name not lost and compounds our glee.

European History teacher, Mr Jones, a proud Welshman, never lets us forget his origins. He takes us to see the film Oh What A Lovely War. A scene in the movie has a couple of privates refer to the commanding officer as ‘that Welsh bastard’.

A wave of titters floats down the rows of seats at the cinema. On the train journey home to Croydon, the boys repeat the line ad nauseam within earshot of Jones but insist they’re just discussing the film.

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the school oval only completed in 1965-66

1970 – Dr Saffin (PhD Eng Lit) my teacher for four HSC subjects. A brilliant man, who could be teaching at university but chooses to work in a state school. He has a horrific stutter and warns new students not to sit in the front row unless they wear a raincoat.

He acts out scenes from Shakespeare and his stutter miraculously disappears. Because of his teaching I win a Commonwealth Scholarship and a place at the Australian National University as well as the Victorian Shakespeare prize.

He challenges pupils to always question texts and accepted beliefs. Tells us to research answers for ourselves. He believes education is not the cramming of knowledge but the nurturing of the desire to learn. He more than any other teacher inspired my lifelong love of learning.

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It’s called Croydon Secondary College now.

Most of the above photos of Croydon High taken from  Friends of Croydon High’s Facebook. It’s depressing how little the school has changed from the outside – I just hope the inside of the classrooms has fared better over the years!

Schooldays from Myopia to Utopia
Mairi Neil

I remember the days of chalk and talk,
They seem such a long time ago…
Some memories vivid, others faded,
Some memories happy; others not so.

In the 50s and 60s corporate punishment
Considered discipline and acceptable force,
Breaking rules or challenging authority
Meant the strap, ruler, or cane – of course.

We sat in rows, faced the front of class,
Teachers used their pointers like spears.
We recited grammar, chanted times tables
Copped many a clip around the ears.

At all times you paid undivided attention
To avoid dreaded lines – or detention,
Teachers often demanded written lines,
‘I must not…’ scrawled hundreds of times.

School desks with lift-up sloping lids
Sweets and secret love notes easily hid
But no moving without permission,
Until the bell signalled intermission.

We wrote in ink with fragile nibs and pens,
Blotters, jotters – rostered ink monitors then
Teachers omniscient, few encouraged discussion
Questioning authority invited concussion.

Originality met with ‘stick to the topic’
British Empire curriculum deliberately myopic,
School uniforms ensured our regimentation
Some playgrounds practised gender segregation.

Mastering reading paramount, by phonetics,
Rote lessons repeated until they’d stick
Mental arithmetic standard daily fare
Holidays longed for, days off so rare.

Our playground at Croydon poorly equipped
We had marbles, ball games, and we skipped
Sent outside at recess whether rain or sun
Kiss Chasie could be dreaded, or was fun!

Tunnel Ball, Tag, and swapping cards galore,
Crossball, Netball, British Bulldog and more.
The boys relished their footie competitions
Girls loved ‘Chinese Elastics’ positions.

Compulsory folk dancing only some enjoyed
Holding the sweaty hands of girls and boys
I remember a boy who had horrible warts
Another’s jumper his handkerchief of sorts.

Bottles of milk delivered to drink for free
Left out in the sun it soon soured for me
Drink ‘for your health’ teachers would say
But I recall many days vomited away.

On Mondays, we assembled to honour the flag
This ritual patriotism made shoulders sag.
Promising obedience to the Law and the Queen
Regular indoctrination – no sincerity seen.

Marched into classrooms by fife and drum band
Pupils’ enthusiasm transient like sand
Migrant kids from a host of different cultures
Their lunches targets for unfriendly vultures.

School toilets always stuck up the back
A lean-to roof on an old wooden shack,
No soap or towels, a sink, nothing more
‘Holding on’ damaged bladders for sure!

Lunchtime litter duty came around each week
Lolly papers and food wrappers we had to seek
Before vying for the right to empty waste bins
Incinerator flames dancing as rubbish poked in.

Today’s resources include technological wizardry
Different attitudes serve a multitude of needs
But the most important gift has never changed
Thank your primary teacher if you can read!