Six Moments in Kingston is a public art bus tour that celebrates Kingston’s rich history. Responding to six infamous local stories, this ambitious public art commission features performances, music, street parades, broadcasts, sculpture and videos sited around Kingston. Audiences board a public art bus to tour secret locations where each story occurred…
However, I am glad I made the effort because it was a fantastic couple of hours and lifted my spirits!
I even met up with some friends who were ‘a blast from the past’ and so returned home in a buoyant, jovial mood.
Thank you Kingston Arts!
The event was advertised as the biggest public art program in Kingston and judging by the full buses and well-organised and resourced tour (repeated over two weekends so you still have a chance to book!) the logistics and potential for hiccups must have had the organisers biting their nails.
But the tour is seamless and heaps of fun from the starting point at the front of Kingston Arts Centre to the end, by the tent installation in the carpark of the centre.
Curators David Cross and Cameron Bishop, together with a stellar group of contemporary artists, lead SIX MOMENTS IN KINGSTON, a dynamic series of six public artworks set in sites around Kingston.
Each artwork responds to an infamous local story, including the mysterious disappearance of aviator Fred Valentich in 1978, following his sighting of a UFO; a celebration of globally successful Parkdale rocker Rick Springfield’s worldwide hit ‘Jessie’s Girl’; Phil Carman’s infamous head-butting incident at Moorabbin Oval, and the story of Julie Cooper, Moorabbin’s first female councillor and Mayor. And much more!
Hop on board a magical mystery bus tour to visit six delightful artworks in secret locations around Kingston! Each tour lasts under two hours. The bus tour features local stories told by legendary Australian actors, Michael Caton (The Castle) and Kate Fitzpatrick.
Six Moments – Six memorable Stories
While we waited for the bus two young women sat in a tent erected in the forecourt. This tent, linked to the installation in the Kingston Arts Car Park (both by artist Steve Rhall) and the story of the occupants told in depth when we were on the bus.
The installations, inspired by an event in 1982, honour Moorabbin’s protest histories. At this site, two homeless schoolgirls set-up camp outside the town hall to proclaim what should be a fundamental right to all people – shelter.
It links to the work by artist Spiros Panigirakis, which refers to the removal of the historic ‘Grange’ homestead built on Kulin Nation land further down the road on Nepean Highway.
Whilst its future contested, the homestead became a squatter’s residence and at one stage it was suggested before its demolition, that it could become a women’s refuge or a hostel for the homeless.
However, the battle with developers was lost (sound familiar?) in 1983 and the Moorabbin Police Station was built and homelessness replaced in the news by other issues.
Story One – the Fundamental Right To Shelter – and to Protest
The bus drove us past the police station and as the story of ‘The Grange’ unfolded we learnt a little about the artist Spiros, his application to ‘paint the story of Moorabbin’s development on a purpose-built wall’ and the process of getting a Heritage Overlay.
This project reflects on the divisive and contentious debates led by a number of interest groups – arts, theatre, youth groups, accommodation services and commercial enterprises – around the restoration of The Grange, a prominent settler homestead built in 1856.
Redeveloped in 1977, the Moorabbin Police Station now occupies the old Grange site.
The project considers the site, the edifice of the Moorabbin Police Station and the suburban home of Tony and Dimitra Panigirakis in Moorabbin. It explores the notion of redevelopment through a series of fictional redevelopment proposals for the current site of the Moorabbin Police Station.
Using planning documents, real-estate hoardings and other public platforms that announce proposed redevelopment plans, heritage issues and planning approvals, a series of developer’s hoardings explore the notion of who controls redevelopment.
Working with Kingston Council landscape architects and urban planners, as well as his parents iconic Moorabbin home, Panigirakis looks at the ways municipal bureaucracy mediates redevelopment ideas and architectural propositions.
The work culminates in a series of installations across Moorabbin, and the production of an artist’s book that incorporates administrative and visual documentation surrounding the journey of the project.
As someone who doesn’t drive, my visits to Moorabbin are via public transport therefore many parts of the area I’d never seen before. It was fascinating and enlightening.
There were examples of a variety of architectural styles and I assume, it is the heritage overlay that has protected neighbourhood character of some of the streets and prevented Hilston Grove’s transformation into a ‘pigeon coop city’ with hastily (and in many cases shoddily) built apartments that has afflicted much of Kingston.
In 1977, the Grange was set alight and in the same year Spiros was born – I liked how the stories of the young girls attempt to get the authorities to do something concrete about homelessness joined dots and linked to the fight to save the Grange examining the big picture of neighbourhood character and housing.
We listened to the deep and soothing tones of Michael Caton as he explained how the history of the country could be told through the prism of Melbourne’s heartbeat – represented by Kingston (lots of smiles at that) – and the six stories would reveal the culture and the history of the area between the years of 1976 and 1981.
He supported the artists’ assertions that the image of Moorabbin as ‘a sleepy suburb‘ in the late 70s and early 80s ‘disguises a politically charged population actively participating in international protest movements.’
I came to live in Mordialloc, now part of Kingston, in 1984 but lived in other suburbs of Melbourne for the latter part of the 70s. It was good to be reminded of some of the ‘Headline’ stories of past media frenzies and to consider how close to home the events happened.
Story Two – When Sport is Not Necessarily Sporting
I have to confess that most stories about sport – particularly sporting celebrities, leave me underwhelmed.
I played sport when I was younger and was captain of the hockey team at Croydon High School in the 1960s, played hockey for ANU Seconds in the 70s and for the B-grade team for the City of Croydon – I even played netball as a young mum at Mordialloc Community Centre until a fall and cracked sacrum made that inadvisable.
I am a team player but would rather play than watch sport and prefer the days when Sport was added to the News and not considered the main item.
My knowledge regarding the 1980 scandal of Phil Carman’s behaviour negligible – in fact, non-existent.
The story revolved around Phil Carman who was one of the VFL’s most awarded players despite being frequently reported for bad behaviour.
Local performers explored an infamous head-butting incident between Phil Carman and umpire Graeme Carberry on Moorabbin Oval. This was filmed by video artist Laresa Kosloff and displayed on a large screen in the foyer of the club building.
Phil copped a year-long suspension and it was the end of his football career, which by all accounts was turbulent. He’d probably last one game nowadays!
Phil Carman was one of the VFL’s most brilliant players, dazzling spectators and developing a passionate following amongst fans in the 70s and early 80s. However, his career was marred by violent incidents, resulting in short-lived contracts with four VFL clubs.
This behaviour culminated in the 1980 season at Moorabbin Linton Street oval when Carman head-butted umpire Graeme Carberry, earning him the longest suspension in VFL history (20 weeks), and signalling the end of his career as a player.
Laresa Kosloff creates a choreographed video work with local footballers, exploring the gestures and symbols that characterise the Phil Carman incident and Aussie Rules football during the late 70s and early 80s…
Inspired by the ‘headbutt incident’ Laresa is currently working on an abstract interpretation of the moment that investigates the unique and universally understood language of sport.
Laresa grappled with finding a way to bring sensitivity and critical analysis to the moment without being dismissive or disrespectful to the footballing community. As with most of her practice, she navigates this thin line through carefully choreographed humour and slapstick comedy, keeping this quirky work accessible and open to all.
She has spent hours going through interviews and game footage and sketching the postures and movements inherent to the game. Through this process, she began to map out the language of gestures, emotions and the body universally understood to sporting fans across the globe.
Many of those on the bus obviously understood footy better than me and loved the video installation. I was more interested in seeing where tax dollars have been invested in this very new stadium.
As a first-time visitor, I found the home of St Kilda Football Club quite amazing and I’m sure the community is thrilled.
Our art tour interruption seemed to go unnoticed by the public intent on watching a game in progress.
No doubt the head-butt story filled the pages of local and state newspapers in 1980 and I am aware of recent controversies in sport but still have a lack of enthusiasm when some football stories (like who has a knee injury) are elevated to prime importance in the nightly news bulletins.
However, in display cabinets in the foyer, part of a Heritage Museum, the exploration of the club’s Indigenous connections is interesting with the stand taken by Nicky Winmar against racism a pivotal moment in the code.
Perhaps the subject of a future storytelling tour?
And of course, there is always the importance of what diehard fans bring to the spirit of the club.
In the 90s, when my daughters attended Mordialloc Primary School there was a yearly fundraiser revolving around Melbourne’s football teams and team colours replaced uniforms for the day.
On ‘Pie & Tinnie Day’, students bought a meat pie and can of soft drink from the Canteen and donated one and two cent coins by creating a line on the floor behind their footy team’s poster.
I learnt then how popular St Kilda was as their line snaked out the door. It was a team most in the Southeastern suburbs regarded as theirs.
Our household not footy enthusiasts but my daughter, Anne barracked for Footscray because they were called the ‘dogs’ and had a bulldog as their emblem. Devoted to real live dogs, which still are her favourite pet, she put her couple of dollars on the floor for Footscray.
However, I often had to rush home and grab John’s loose change from his bedside table so that Anne, who seemed to be the sole ‘doggy’ supporter wasn’t embarrassed by having the smallest donation line in the school!
There are consequences if you live in Melbourne you must follow footy and defend your team’s honour at all costs!
When we left St Kilda’s grounds, the bus turned onto the Nepean Highway near Wickham Road and I saw a few more streets I’d never seen before we entered a semi-industrial area.
Story Three – Fair Pay Worth Fighting For
On the bus, we heard the story of workers protesting for fair pay and better working conditions in 1979.
One of the strikers used his car to block access to the factory. A tow truck was called and while the driver was connecting up the vehicle, its owner stole his keys and threw them over a fence.
Although the original factory is gone, we were taken to the site and saw a re-enactment of
… an infamous incident involving a tow truck and physical struggles between constabulary and workers at the former Phillip Morris car park; a public art installation using illuminated LED boards and text developed with community consultation.
This project has been developed alongside The Gathering Place and Kingston Koorie Mob.
We stayed on the bus but the scene came alive through hearing the descriptions on the police radio and through conversations on the ground all played through the intercom on the bus.
Driving up to that area of Moorabbin, it struck me how high up we were compared to other parts of the city. It was an interesting perspective I’d not seen or understood before.
Story Four – Moorabbin Airport Mystery Remains Unsolved
On the way to our next stop, we were informed that Moorabbin Airport is the second busiest airport in Australia and the home of the Australian National Aviation Museum founded in 1962.
The first fact was interesting but not surprising – anyone who lives in Mordialloc will testify to the regular sound of aircraft overhead.
I visited the Museum years ago and knew friends who volunteered there and wondered how much it had changed because there was often appeals for people to get involved.
But the story we heard on Sunday was a much more recent event and the enemy – if there was one – came from another world…
In 1978, Fred Valentich took off from Moorabbin Airport in a Cessna and within minutes, radioed sightings of a metallic object hovering above him and then there was silence!
It was a routine training flight to Tasmania but when he and his plane went missing it became the subject of so much speculation it entered the realm of the ‘Twilight Zone’ – the name of a popular TV Show of stories about the paranormal and aliens.
“It is not an aircraft.”
On the evening of October 21st 1978, nineteen-year-old pilot Frederick Valentich disappeared shortly after take-off from Moorabbin airport.
Before his disappearance, Valentich reported sighting a metallic aircraft moving at high speed. Reports further southeast noted a similar aircraft sporting multiple lights on its belly before transmission abruptly ceased. Valentich and his plane were never seen again.
Partnering with the Australian National Aviation Museum and the Victorian UFO Action Group, artist collective Field Theory will work with volunteers to tell the conflicting stories, myths and unassuageable mysteries that took this story to the top of Australian security organisations.
This interactive project drops the audience deep inside the many mysteries surrounding this story.
On the bus, making full use of the intercom again, we heard the conversation between the pilot and air traffic control, we also heard excerpts of the Minutes Of October 27, from the investigation into the missing plane with a conclusion ‘human factors’ played a significant role.
There was mention of the pilot’s low IQ, his failed exams and psychological assessments, his dream to be in RAAF probably unattainable and his stories of many flying activities a facade to impress.
On the 15th October, during a drive in the Dandenongs with his girlfriend, he was reported to have said if a UFO landed, he would go in it but ‘not without you’.
The authorities emphasised he often talked about UFOs and they worked hard to besmirch his character.
His girlfriend went into a hotel near where the plane disappeared and asked for the pilot by name. They’d arranged to meet at 7.00pm but he’d already vanished.
There were articles in The Australian about a clairvoyant and New Zealand author, Colin Avery who held a seance. He said he’d been contacted by Fred. His message being – I’m in space with aliens.
He told Fred’s father to go into his son’s bedroom and wait to be contacted. Unfortunately, there was a mix up with time zones!
Sixty seconds of the radio transmitted conversation is believed to have been edited with accusations the pilot claimed he was in a galaxy far away, no longer having a physical body but was with others chosen.
I wonder what really happened??
I wonder if this tree at the airport holds secrets?
Story Five – Who Knew ‘Jessie’s Girl’ Lived in Mordialloc?
The next story stop was perhaps the biggest surprise to me – it was a five-minute walk from my house and as the bus pulled into the parking lot at Central Bayside Health we heard the story of Rick Springfield and his hit record Jessie’s Girl, which ushered in the new pop sound – a generational hit record produced by an Aussie!
Rick hailed from the ‘aspirational suburb’ of Parkdale and often visited the family home in Melrose Street, a haven of middle-class suburbia. He held his wedding reception in the house and used it as a bolt hole with not much changed from his childhood except the corner milkbar now a beauty salon.
Kingston has produced many famous sons and daughters but none quite like Rick Springfield who, in a little known fact, spent his teenage years in Parkdale.
First a heart-throb and actor in American soap General Hospital, Springfield became internationally famous for his worldwide smash hit single, Jessie’s Girl, released in 1981. The song climbed to no.1 and went platinum in the USA and Australia.
Artist Shane McGrath and local musicians honour Springfield’s place in the rock pantheon, creating their own renditions of Jessie’s Girl in the streets of Parkdale, headed up by a phalanx of bull terriers, after Rick Springfield’s love for the breed.
The scene recreated was the promotional video Rick made and we marched behind the banner and a tambourine and flute band, singing along to a boom box belting out Jessie’s Girl until we were outside Rick’s house with “Rick” himself, led there by four dogs!
Apparently, each day there is a different musical band with a brass band promised one of the performances.
Regardless of the musicians, it is a lovely, happy, interactive interlude.
Story Six – the Final Flourish
The last story featured was that of Julie Cooper who paved the way for women to enter local politics when she was elected Moorabbin City’s first female Councillor in 1976 and went onto being their first female Mayor in 1982.
A stadium named in her honour continues to be a point of contention.
On the 12th of June 1902, Australia became the first country in the world to give women the right to vote and stand for office.
However, in Moorabbin, it wasn’t until 1976 (74 years later) that the first female councillor, Julie Cooper, was elected. Julie went on to challenge the norms of local government and fulfilled another milestone when she was elected the city’s first female mayor in 1982.
Her groundbreaking achievements are today reflected in a Beaumaris stadium that bears her name and marks her role in creating opportunities for women in local politics.
As we returned to the Kingston Arts Centre we heard about Craftism – craft and activism combined to make social change – something dear to Julie’s heart.
Since the term craftivism was coined by Betsy Greer in 2003, the idea has blossomed into a global movement of like-minded makers who mend the fabric of society and make with meaning.
Textile artist Tal Fitzpatrick, along with local crafters practising hands-on craftivism, celebrates the contribution of female and gender non-conforming leaders and invited participants to take part in the struggle for gender equality.
A Melbourne-based artist who is curious about the ways craft can be deployed to bring people together and drive positive social change, Tal hosted a series of free craftivist protest banner-making workshops in Kingston during March and April.
Participants created a textile protest banner of their own. Materials were provided and these were the banners we collected at Moorabbin Station and carried and marched back to the Kingston Arts centre carpark to finish a wonderful tour!
We walked up Nepean Highway carrying the wonderful banners high led by Marcia chanting:
‘What do we want?’
‘When do we want it?’
I think Julie Cooper would have approved.
In fact, I know she would because her daughter Mandy and family were there marching and Mandy Cooper and husband John are the friends I reconnected with and previously mentioned as ‘the blast from the past’!
A selection of the banners will also be featured in an exhibition curated by Tal, called Crafting Resistance: Six Moments in Kingston at Kingston Arts Centre in September 2019 so if you can’t take part in a guided tour of Kingston’s streets and some of the stories they hold this weekend perhaps attend the exhibition – I can guarantee you won’t be disappointed.
At the end of last year, I went to a talk at Glen Eira Art Gallery, one of several in their Be Persuaded — Jane Austen exhibition. It brought the literary icon Jane Austen’s world to life through a fascinating selection of rare fashion, accessories, and ephemera from the 18th century and Regency era but it also sent me off on a journey to the immediate and not so immediate past!
As I’ve said many times, I like joining dots, discovering connections and links that enhance my understanding of people and the world, move me from my comfort zone and add to what I thought I knew or better still challenge my assumptions…
Presented by Dressing Australia — Museum of Costume, the exhibition highlights included an 18th-century silk gown, diaphanous Empire line frocks, spencers and other undergarments, capes and shawls, bonnets, parasols, and rare hand painted watercolours documenting fashion from the 1790s to 1840 but it also gave historical context and relevance.
The selection of little paintings – 27 in all – a unique collection illustrating the development of fashion styles during that period and according to organisers, there may not be others in existence.
Jane Austen used words, this artist used drawings – original drawings from 1793 – 1830 – to tell little stories. The drawings are detailed and in context whether it is streetwear, formal or informal and covers a range of age groups. The 18th century and Regency era’s Vogue Magazine with some tongue in cheek observations thrown in.
An exhibition of fashion we have all seen and perhaps admired/envied in period films but in reality comes with a suitcase full of disadvantages, class distinctions, and choices dictated by obedience to societal mores!
Everyone was invited to step back in time and play with games and toys that were popular during Jane Austen’s childhood as well as imagine what it must have been like wearing clothes on display.
A fabulous day in Bath immersing myself in Jane Austen country. Met so many interesting people including a couple of Aussies from Newcastle. Caught the bus to Swindon, a meandering weekend path swapped for a very fast train to Bath with just one stop! Bath is another place that could absorb a week and you’d still have a list to do but I’m happy – I had an enjoyable walk after “Jane” checking out the Regency Circle and Georgian houses before visiting a fashion museum with 100 costumes plus accessories from the early 17th century to 2017. And it was Free Comic Book Day so cosplay characters were everywhere delighting passersby, including me.
My Facebook Post May 6th 2017
Bath, a World Heritage City, yet most of my time spent tracing Jane Austen’s footsteps when I discovered a free walking tour and delightful guide with seemingly infinite knowledge of where Jane lived, visited, walked and shopped, along with places made famous by her two Bath novels: Northanger Abbey and Persuasion.
Like many others, I admire Jane Austen as a writer and studied Northanger Abbey for HSC Literature and surprised myself at how much I could recall.
guide advertising the tour is free
first stop on tour
the most photographed man in England
Jane looking far from welcoming
me with wax model Jane
we all had such rapport
There was an instant rapport with the guide who had a great sense of humour, even posing for a photograph with one of the cosplay characters from Planet of the Apes. All of us doing an impromptu dance together because music blared from a portable player nearby.
When I mentioned my daughter was a Whedon fan (the writer/filmmaker Joss Whedon) I was inundated with free comics to take back to Australia. I’ve blogged about the importance of comics and also cosplay before.
A wonderful, heartwarming hug at the end of the Walking Tour made my day. In the beginning, I was the only one on the tour with two others joining when they eavesdropped and discovered the tour was free.
Am I the only person who reads brochures and local leaflets? There is always a host of free stuff available and you get to meet amazing volunteers or organisations committed to history, the arts, and other community activities.
If ever in Bath, the free Walking Tour a must – it leaves from the Post Office and ends at the Jane Austen Centre and you meet people passionate about their work.
The young man who accompanied me a great raconteur. We discovered a mutual love of history, had read and liked similar books – and even shared our opinion about Brexit which was a talking point everywhere in 2017. (Methinks that hasn’t changed!)
Plus, he thought I was brave travelling by myself because ‘I was older than his mother‘. He wanted to know how I got on in Russia. I told him how much I enjoyed it and to separate countries from governments, people from politicians, and not be scared to travel and find out for yourself!
The other gentleman in the photo is Martin Salter, ‘England’s most photographed man‘ a title awarded March 2017 to recognise his ten years of outstanding service as the meeter/greeter at the Jane Austen Centre.
An icon recognised around the world because of the number of people he has welcomed, photographed, and posed beside for photographs – including me!
In the Georgian mansion that houses the Jane Austen Centre, I tried on clothes and delved into all things Jane Austen having a great giggle with other tourists and the enthusiastic employees and volunteers.
I was grateful it was just pretence because I don’t think my patience or spacial awareness, let alone deportment, would cope with the clothes of the Regency era or the lifestyle – definitely not the lack of rights for women.
I can’t imagine living in a time where beginning a novel with the following statement is so well understood:
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”
Jane Austen’s, Pride and Prejudice
After the museum, I wandered through the main streets of central Bath where the past and present nestled together with a few misfits, adaptations and imaginative additions.
Eating my sandwiches in the square I also digested what I’d learned about Jane’s life, her family, and the Bath that existed during the period she was writing. I imagined all the ladies and gents from middle and upper classes strolling through the city, admiring each other’s fashionable dresses, noting the designers and where it was purchased.
But what of the workers who keep the necessary machinery of life turning?
Where are the names of the seamstresses and the tailors who made the creations?
Who were the washerwomen who laundered and ironed, the maids and butlers who kept the clothes in good repair?
And considering that sweatshops still exist will tourists of the future attend exhibitions and ask the same questions about modern fashion?
At the nearby Fashion Museum, I barely absorbed all the interesting details because I’d reached the stage in the day when my brain signals ‘information overload’. The exhibition at Glen Eira a great opportunity to refresh or add information.
A different perspective is always good – especially when it comes to history and this free exhibition so close to home at Caulfield Town Hall – a magnificent period building in its own right.
I missed the opening by Caroline Jane Knight, the fifth great niece of Jane Austen, but got to hear the engaging floor talk from Fiona Baverstock from Dressing Australia — Museum of Costume who provided the exhibits.
Her talk ran the scheduled 45 minutes and her passion and knowledge of the subject, kept the whole room enthralled, even begging for more.She moved around the floorspace discussing each exhibit in detail – a 3D Powerpoint presentation with pertinent asides adding to the excellent information already provided.
Fiona explained her credentials as owner/curator of Dressing Australia Museum of Costume, which is not a ‘bricks and mortar’ museum. She only does travelling exhibitions with her private collection.
Jane Austen Perennially Popular
Mention Jane Austen and people come, especially since contemporary films and TV serials have introduced Jane to new audiences and her novels appear regularly on school booklists.
The timing was right, 2017, the bicentenary of Jane Austen’s death. The last 20 years have seen a revival of interest in Austen mania – good news for Fiona who thought she had sold most of her costumes from the Regency era.
She normally weaves a story about who owned the clothes but couldn’t for this exhibition because she had got rid of so much of her collection. Instead, she chose Jane’s family and a few major characters from the more popular novels and looked for clothes to suit their persona.
Jane was born in 1775, therefore, an 18th-century girl and 25 years old when the 19th century began. Her fashion taste well-established, however, the new century meant moving away from stiff conservatism and from what we know of Jane’s personality and lifestyle, she probably embraced new styles.
We know a little about her through her novels and lead characters but which character’s characteristics match the author? Lizzie Bennet, Emma Woodhouse, Anne Elliot, the two Dashwood sisters? When she sat down to write what personal thoughts and experiences did she channel?
Jane probably had at least one love attraction, never realised, and one proposal of marriage… accepted and almost immediately turned down. Love and marriage often discussed by her characters…
There are such beings in the world – perhaps one in a thousand – as the creature you and I should think perfection; where grace and spirit are united to worth, where the manners are equal to the heart and understanding; but such a person may not come in your way, or, if he does, he may not be the eldest son of a man of fortune, the near relation of your particular friend, and belonging to your own country. Letter to Fanny Knight, 18 November 1814
Jane’s nephew wrote the first biography of Jane Austen and he gave us a staid view, presenting Jane as a sweet, unassuming homebody. He censored or ignored letters – and Jane was a prolific letter writer – and did what I suspect many family historians do, sanitising, omitting and caring more about what people might think than accuracy or honesty.
Jane was not like his impression, she had an acerbic tongue and a more accurate impression is gained from letters she wrote to her sister Cassandra.
Unfortunately, shortly before Cassandra died, she destroyed the bulk of their correspondence – perhaps she too was worried about Jane’s reputation, or that the words would be taken out of context. Perhaps she wanted to shield family members and friends from forthright comments such as :
Poor woman! How can she honestly be breeding again? Letter to Cassandra Austen, 1 October 1808
This quote from a beautifully illustrated book from the Bodleian Library I discovered in Dymocks. Fifty Illustrated Quotations are drawn from Jane’s letters and novels, testifying to her wit and candid humour – and some not so humorous observations.
Her comments about the effects of the Peninsular War, dislike of parties and social obligations and impressions of London, ranging from acerbic, ironic to poignant.
No surprise that her characters sometimes use bitter sarcasm when speaking of women’s inequality, ageing, the disappointments of marriage, fashion, and the social scene.
Here I am once more in this scene of dissipation and vice, and I begin to find already my morals corrupted. Letter to Cassandra Austen (on arrival in London), 23 August 1796
I am almost afraid to tell you how my Irish friend and I behaved. Imagine to yourself everything most proliferate and shocking in the way of dancing and sitting down together. Letter to Cassandra Austen, 9 January 1796
Our ball was rather more amusing than I expected… the melancholy part was to see so many dozen young women standing by without partners, and each of them with two ugly naked shoulders! It was the same room in which we danced fifteen years ago! I thought it all over, and in spite of the shame of being so much older, felt with thankfulness that I was quite as happy now as then. Letter to Cassandra Austen, 9 December 1808.
Jane Austen observed – everything.
She captured behaviours, dialogue and idiosyncrasies of the people around her. As a writer, she is famous for her ironic omniscient narrator – detached and amused. For example that oft-quoted opening sentence of Pride and Prejudice.
Her observations of life and manners of the gentry class have been described as ‘a comedy of manners’.
I could no more write a romance than an epic poem. I could not sit seriously down to write a serious romance under any other motive than to save my life; and if it were indispensable for me to keep it up and never relax into laughing at myself or other people, I am sure I should be hung before I had finished the first chapter.
No, I must keep to my own style and go on in my own way; and though I may never succeed again in that, I am convinced that I should totally fail in any other.
Letter to James Stanier Clarke, 1 April 1816
Her characters are lively and believable so that even today’s readers engage with them when society has dramatically changed because she focuses on relationships and minutiae we can identify – and thank goodness she remained true to her own style!
All six of Austen’s novels are about love and marriage among the county gentry and the larger world of the French and American Revolutions, the Napoleonic Wars and simmering Irish and Scottish unrest don’t intervene except in her private letters.
How horrible it is to have so many people killed! And what a blessing that one cares for none of them!
Letter to Cassandra Austen on the Peninsular War, 31 May 1811.
Discovering A Different Jane
The following novels by Jane Austen were successful in her lifetime but published anonymously: Sense and Sensibility (1811) Pride and Prejudice (1813) Mansfield Park (1814) Emma (1815)
Northanger Abbey and Persuasion were published posthumously in 1818. Jane died in Winchester in July 1817, at the age of 41.
All these relationships between women, I thought, rapidly recalling the splendid gallery of fictitious women, are too simple. […] And I tried to remember any case in the course of my reading where two women are represented as friends. […] They are now and then mothers and daughters. But almost without exception, they are shown in their relation to men. It was strange to think that all the great women of fiction were, until Jane Austen’s day, not only seen by the other sex but seen only in relation to the other sex. And how small a part of a woman’s life is that …
Virginia Woolf’s observation about the literature of her time in her 1929 essay A Room of One’s Own
I discovered earlier writing by Jane that certainly gives a clue her personality and thoughts far from staid!
She wrote the ‘history’ book when she was sixteen and we can thank the writer JL Carr for publishing it in a series of Pocket Books:
… the originator, compiler & publisher of these Pocket Books did so in order to subsidise the writing of novels; the best known of which ‘A Month in the Country’ was short-listed for the Booker Prize in 1980 and won the Guardian Fiction Prize.
‘The History of England from the reign of Henry the 4th to the death of Charles the 1st. By a partial, prejudiced & ignorant Historian’ is dedicated to Cassandra and from start to the end of its 15 pages offers witty, barbed, and radical ( perhaps treasonous!) summations of various English monarchs.
The intro has two telling quotes – I wonder if it started off as a school assignment or a rant against how and what history is taught:
Read me anything but history, for history must be false
Sir Robert Walpole
History is just the portrayal of crimes and misfortune… All ancient history is no more than accepted fiction.
No doubt Jane was above average intelligence and better read and informed than many teenagers of her day, which probably went with the territory of having an educated father and many brothers in a variety of occupations.
I can imagine active and lively discussions over dinner and all those long country walks but I’m guessing when the manuscript came to light it would have raised a few eyebrows.
Was it a reaction to whatever history was considered the most important to learn or items in the news or an exercise to explore the power of words to tell a story – they could be the first examples of flash faction.
Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands. I will not allow books to prove anything.
Anne Elliot, Persuasion
I’ve kept her spelling and style in these snippets –
Henry the 4th
Henry the 4th ascended the throne of England much to his own satisfaction in the year 1399, having prevailed on his cousin & predecessor Richard the 2d, to resign it to him, & to retire for the rest of his Life to Pomfret Castle, where he happened to be murdered. It is supposed that Henry was married, since he certainly had four sons, but it is not in my power to inform the Reader who was his Wife. Be this as it may, he did not live for ever, but falling ill, his son the Prince of Wales took away the Crown; whereby the King made a long speech, for which I must refer the Reader to Shakespear’s Plays & the Prince made a still longer. Things being thus settled between them the King died, & was succeeded by his son Henry who had previously beat Sir William Gascoigne.
Henry the 5th This Prince after he succeeded to the throne grew quite reformed & Amiable, forsaking all his dissipated Companions & never thrashing Sir William again… Lord Cobham was burnt alive, but I forget what for. His Majesty then turned his thoughts to France, where he went & fought the famous Battle of Agincourt. He afterwards married the King’s daughter Catherine, a very Agreeable woman by Shakespear’s account. In spite of all this however he died, & was succeeded by his son Henry.
Henry the 6th
I cannot say much for this Monarch’s Sense – Nor would I if I could, for he was a Lancastrian. I suppose you know all about the Wars between him & The Duke of York, who was of the right side; if you do not, you had better read some other History… This King married Margaret of Anjou, a Woman whose distresses & Misfortunes were so great as almost to make me who hate her, pity her…
Edward the 4th
This Monarch was famous only for his Beauty & his Courage… his undaunted Behaviour in marrying one Woman while he was engaged to another, are sufficient proofs… One of Edward’s Mistresses was Jane Shore who had a play written about her, but it is a tragedy & therefore not worth reading. Having performed all these noble actions, his majesty died, & he was succeeded by his Son.
Edward the 5th
This unfortunate Prince lived so little a while that no body had time to draw his picture. He was murdered by his Uncle’s Contrivance, whose name was Richard the 3d.
Richard the 3d
The character of this Prince has been in general very severely treated by Historians, but as he was York, I am rather inclined to suppose him a very respectable man… Whether innocent or guilty, he did not reign long in peace for Henry Tudor E. Of Richmond, as great a Villain as ever lived, made a great fuss about getting the Crown & having killed the King at the battle of Bosworth, he succeeded to it…
This Monarch soon after his accession married the Princess Elizabeth of York, by which alliance he plainly proved that he thought his own right inferior to hers, tho’ he pretended to the contrary. By this Marriage, he had two sons & two daughters, the elder of which was married to the King of Scotland & had the happiness of being grand-mother to one of the first Characters in the World. But of her, I shall have occasion to speak more at large in future… his Majesty died, & was succeeded by his son Henry whose only merit was his not being quite so bad as his daughter Elizabeth…
What the teenage Jane alludes to is the belief that Mary Queen of Scots should never have been executed and in fact, after she describes the reigns of Henry the 8th (‘Crimes & Cruelties too many to mention’),
Edward the 6th (“a favourite” … “He was beheaded…”),
Mary ( “the good luck of being advanced to the throne of England, inspite of the superior pretensions, Merit & Beauty of her Cousins Mary Queen of Scotland & Jane Grey..),
Elizabeth ( It was the peculiar Misfortune of this Woman to have bad Ministers – Since wicked as she herself was, she could not have committed such extensive mischeif had not these vile & abandoned men connived and encouraged her in her Crimes.),
James the 1st ( Though this King had some faults, among which & as the most principal, was his allowing his Mother’s death, yet considered on the whole I cannot help liking him.) and
Charles the 1st (This amiable Monarch seems born to have suffered Misfortunes equal to those of his lovely Grandmother…),
she concludes with –
…my principal reason for undertaking the History of England being to prove the innocence of the Queen of Scotland, which I flatter myself with having effectually done, and to abuse Elizabeth, (tho’ I am rather fearful of having fallen short in the latter part of my Scheme.)
I wonder what witty observation or acerbic put down she would write regarding her popularity today, which is almost cult status thanks to – museums, festivals, competitions, documentaries, films, sequels and prequels and of course Colin Firth’s Mr Darcy – all that focus on a man!
Fiona in her talk said she had to include an outfit close to what people imagined Mr Darcy wore in that famous scene from the TV series that people remember yet it never actually happened! You know the scene when Colin Firth walks out of the lake after a swim and his partly unbuttoned undershirt is clinging to his body!
Well, with another detour taken care of – I’ll get back to Fiona’s talk and the exhibition –
When History Is Fashionable
Be Persuaded had a firm focus on fashion but Fiona threw in lots of historical asides and gems to think about when she explained why she chose particular items:
… from the rare 18th century gown which her mother might have worn at the time of Jane’s birth, through to the elegance and daring of the Regency era with its classic Empire line gowns, to the 1840s when women such as Cassandra had to once again retreat behind tight waists and voluminous skirts…
Jane was a keen observer of fashion and the role it played in defining status and the complex relationships in the society of her novels, even if in private she thought much of the detail and rules ridiculous.
I learnt from Mrs Ticker’s young lady, to my high amusement, that the stays now are not made to force the bosom up at all; that was a very unbecoming, unnatural fashion. Letter to Cassandra Austen, 15 September 1813
a mature Mrs Darcy
tulle and tissue bonnet
quilted protector and hat
Next week (I) shall begin my operations on my hat, on which you know my principal hopes of happiness depend. Letter to Cassandra Austen, 27 October 1798
Dress is at all times a frivolous distinction, and excessive solicitude about it often destroys its own aim. Northanger Abbey
In her research, Fiona found that the French open robe style usually didn’t come with a petticoat because few survived – they were frequently taken on and off and most probably wore out. Petticoats were often made of the same fabric as the gown in a complimentary or contrasting colour.
Women didn’t wear knickers in the eighteenth century (audible gasps and giggles around the room) but diaphanous see-through gowns led to pantaloons – although many of these were knitted and flesh coloured to give the appearance of no knickers. (more audible murmurings…)
What Influences Fashion?
Classical Greek and Roman lines are often the basis for design but also things like the Hussar Soldier Uniform and other unusual inspirations for accessories.
In the 18th century, the American revolution interrupted the supply of raw cotton and English industrialists looked to India and other colonies. The East India Company imported not just raw cotton but ready-to-wear material. Muslin, a popular dress material became available plain, coloured and even patterned.
Revolutions and wars are big influences.
For example, in WW2 and years immediately following, stripes and shoulder pads introduced and women’s suits were made from sturdy fabrics mimicking the style of military uniforms. It was a sad and serious time with material shortages plus more women in the workforce requiring suitable clothes. Less frivolity and more practicality.
When it is happier less threatening times, clothes reflect the change of mood – frills, fripperies, colour, softer material, flowing designs …
Who can forget the sexual revolution of the 1960s and the shock of mini-skirts and Jean Shrimpton attending the Melbourne Cup hatless, in sandals without stockings, and a mini dress?
Often military inventions lead to a fashion use (nylon, rayon and drip dry fabric, lycra) or in the case of the 18th century because of the French Revolution wearing silk, which was considered luxurious, became a ‘no no’.
The Empire Line named after Napoleon’s determination to create his empire another example of fashion reflecting what is happening in society.
Muslin easier to look after than silk but still hand washed, rinsed, squeezed – towel dried and ironed. Bows and vandyke edging needed a special tiny iron to get into tucks with its point.
When dresses long, if they swept the ground women didn’t walk in parks and gravel and avoided dirty paths. They stepped from the doorway to carriage. For those stepping out more – hems went up a bit and wore gowns that could be washed or survive regular washing.
18th-century shoes had thin soles for dancing pumps. Boots were for country lanes and lace-up boots had a slightly thicker sole and heel. Fashionable shoes wore out quickly – poorer people needed stout leather because they walked more and their leather shoes thicker and more uncomfortable.
In the Regency era parasols tended to have straight handles and small canopies. Folding handles appeared mid 19th century as did the metal spoke. The parasol in the exhibition dated to the late 1840s, it has metal spokes but a straight handle and the canopy of polished cotton has ruching, a frill and wooden finial.
Fiona dressed Cassandra in crinoline – it was a time when there was an absence of war and the men were back and the male idea of femininity emphasised. Women were ‘financially dependent so had to kowtow.’
Fiona compared the dress on display to the 70s fashion of bell bottoms, describing both as ‘ridiculous’. I agree – the above illustrations from the Fashion Museum emphasise how limiting those voluminous dresses would be.
I wore bell bottoms in the 70s and they were a short-lived fashion item. The nearest I’ve been to a crinoline is a hooped dress a friend made me for my 60th birthdayparty when everyone had to come dressed as their favourite literary character. I chose Jo from Little Women and the hooped petticoat and puffed-out gown not ideal for movement.
Just like in the 1820s/30s dresses were designed with restricted shoulder lines because women were not supposed to raise their arms – again we are talking about women in a particular class!
Anne Elliot, from Persuasion, was chosen to model a gown with a floor-length shawl.
Fiona asked us to note the sleeves and ruffles around the neck. The dress, fine cotton circa 1815 with flounces around the skirt. The lace a later addition. The bodice has ruching and the neckline an organdie tucker with ruffled collar. A Norwich shawl is over her shoulder.
The Norwich shawl, a long rectangle not square – perfect for wrapping or draping around Empire-line gowns. Itcould also be a Paisley or Edinburgh shawl, the name denotes where they were made. A Paisley square often folded into a triangle later in the 19th century when the voluminous ‘crinoline’ gowns returned to fashion.
The bustle killed the shawl as a fashionable accessory.
The shawl on show magnificent, Fiona’s own version of an expensive imported Kashmir shawl fashionable in the 18th century, which encouraged weaving centres like Norwich and Paisley to produce their own versions. However, original Kashmir shawls popular with the very rich.
This shawl is ‘partially filled’ – an assistant (usually a woman) sitting beside the weaver hand sews extra, thicker strands to the back of the shawl to make it stronger and warmer. In 1845, fine wool began to be imported from Australia and the fashion industry incorporated this in dresses as well as shawls.
Lizzie Bennet’s Wedding Dress?
Any exhibition must have the young Lizzie Bennet and Fiona chose a wedding gown circa 1810 imagining it was Lizzie’s because she considered after all the build up in Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen could have at least given a description of Lizzie Bennet’s wedding dress.
The classic Empire line gown is of ivory silk and so fine it needs a padded hem to give it weight. The bonnet is a reproduction of the original. The pumps 18th-century shoes.
White became a popular option in 1840, after the marriage of Queen Victoria to Albert of Saxe-Coburg, when Victoria wore a white gown trimmed with Honiton lace. Illustrations of the wedding were widely published, and many brides opted for white in accordance with the Queen’s choice.
Regency era it was white or pastel colours because white was a fashionable colour not just for brides. In Brideswear Revisited – 200 years of gowns: off-white, cream, ivory and oyster more popular because ‘white flatters no one’.
The Provenance of the Gown an interesting story
It was worn by Emma Cato who married George Daniel at Chelsea Old Church in London 1810. Emma, born in Holborn 1787, was one of nine children to Thomas and Elizabeth Cato. Thomas described as a wireworker who made items such as needles, fish hooks, cages, chains, traps, decorative architectural embellishments and garden decorations.
He would have belonged to the Worshipful Company of Tin Plate and Wire Workers, a City of London Trade Guild. Fiona said he must have been a master rather than a mere worker because he left a Will.
George Daniel, variously described as book collector, literary critic and author, meant Emma came into contact with some of the literary giants of the day as he claimed membership of an exclusive circle including Charles Lamb, William Hazlitt and Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
He published critiques of their work as well as those from ‘superstars’ like Sir Walter Scott often inserting some of his own ‘dubious attempts at verse’ in the critique.
Fiona adds we can ‘only imagine what Emma’s life with a self-important wannabe poet and author must have been like. Perhaps he earned enough from his published literary criticism to keep them in comfortable circumstances.’
She surmises that if Jane Austen had been a man, George Daniel may have critiqued her work and Emma might have met her – considering Jane’s early novels were written anonymously perhaps he did come across them – how would we know?
I don’t think he could have been too horrible considering he composed a poem to his daughter for her birthday (c1815) and it was stitched together as a booklet – a reproduction on display and the original is at the University of Indiana.
And Yet Another Sidetrack… Huguenots
I always learn something new whenever I attend a talk, workshop, gallery, museum… and Fiona’s had me searching online about the Huguenots who were French Protestants active in the 16th and 17th centuries. They were forced to flee France due to religious and political persecution by the Catholic Church and the Crown.
I knew their story of persecution but not their contribution to the fashion industry and beyond.
Still a lightning-rod for collective anxieties, the word “refugee” entered the English language when the Huguenots landed. Although migration had begun beforehand on a modest scale, around 50,000 French Protestants came to England after Louis XIV revoked the 1598 Edict of Nantes at Fontainebleau in October 1685. Another 10,000 fled to Ireland, part of an exodus of perhaps 200,000 people. Other large contingents went to Holland, Sweden and Prussia. That still left the bulk of a hard-pressed but robust population of 750,000 or so to weather hardship in France and wait for more tolerant times…
According to one estimate, one in every six Britons has some Huguenot ancestry. Names of obvious French origin tell only a fraction of this tale. Yes, it’s easy enough to spot a Laurence Olivier, a Simon Le Bon, a Walter de la Mare, a Daphne du Maurier, a Samuel Courtauld, a Jon Pertwee, a Reginald Bosanquet, an Eddie Izzard, even – as the Ukip leader happily acknowledges – a Nigel Farage. Yet, just like Jewish incomers two centuries later, Huguenot migrants often changed their names or had them changed by impatient clerks.
As a Victorian history of London puts it, “the Lemaitres called themselves Masters; the Leroys, King; the Tonneliers, Coopers; the Lejeunes, Young; the LeBlancs, White; the Lenoirs, Black; the Loiseaux, Bird”.
The Huguenots arrived in Britain from France and brought their skill of silk weaving to Spitalfields where 300 families settled transforming it into London’s centre for silk-weaving. The most amazing silk designer of that period was a woman – Anna Maria Garthwaite.
The type of motifs, scale, rendering, and colour palette in textile patterns went in and out of fashion and can be used to identify a garment as being from the 1710s, 1740s, or 1760s. The importance of silk-weaving and new designs to Georgian fashion cannot be underestimated as they conveyed not only taste but also status and wealth for the wearer.
Remarkably, one of the most successful and influential designers of silk patterns was an English woman, Anna Maria Garthwaite (1690-1763), who came to Spitalfields in 1730 and quickly infiltrated the male-dominated and family-based industry. In fact, the establishment and prosperity of Spitalfields silk-weaving were due largely to waves of immigration by French Huguenots fleeing persecution in the 16th and 17th centuries, many of whom were weavers bringing advanced skills.
As a forty-year-old single woman, it is unlikely that Garthwaite received much if any of the formal training required of her male counterparts. She worked in watercolour and at her most prolific produced approximately eighty designs a year, tapering off in the 1750s to about thirty designs per annum
Spitalfields was a major force in shaping eighteenth-century fashion because it was the centre of the silk-weaving industry in England. Silk manufacture drove the very business of fashion as trends concentrated on new textile patterns rather than garment styles.
Weavers, joiners, smiths and merchants set up shop in Soho or Spitalfields and textile and design students at London Metropolitan University, now study some of their crafts, such as silk-weaving, silversmithing and upholstery.
It is remarkable that a woman like Anna Maria Garthwaite achieved the level of success that she did. It is a testament not only to her sheer talent and vision but also her courage to value her own abilities.
Over the last few weeks, I’ve struggled to write about Remembrance Day 2018 – or write about anything else on this blog because this anniversary was important and I wondered how I could do it justice and make sense of a lot of the thoughts rattling around in my head – particularly considering the fractious state of today’s world – a fact we are constantly reminded of due to the 24 hour news cycle and social media.
So buckle up – grab a cuppa or read the post in stages:) ponder the words and meaning of the poems, savour the poignancy of some of the photographs.
Peace does begin with ourselves, our families, our communities…
This year, the centenary of the signing of the Armistice in World War One – 11 November 1918 – signified PEACE at last, after four years of carnage, but as many people have already written, humanity ignored all the lessons learned and we’ve hardly stopped skirmishing or creating full-blown battles ever since.
Six Excuses Not To Write
1. I was distracted by the Victorian Election and busy working for the return of the Andrews Labor Government as well as Mordialloc’s local member, Tim Richardson MP who genuinely cares about the local community and works hard. I made this a priority and to be honest enjoyed myself and met many interesting people. No encounter every wasted for a writer…
The personal is political. Ever since my involvement in the Vietnam Moratorium Movement as a teenager, I’ve made activism a priority – the community is too important not to care enough to work for social justice and be a peace activist. If enough people care to speak up, it does make a difference. A change of government in 1972 and Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam brought the troops home.
At a get-together, before the “Danslide” as Daniel Andrews Labor win is described, we met in Tim’s office and I gave the Premier a couple of Mordialloc Writers’ Group anthologies and advised, ‘there is no better way to understand a community than through the poems and stories of its writers.”
I hope he reads them.
2. I mulled for hours at how to express the disquiet I feel about exhibits and projects at the Australian War Memorial being funded by arms manufacturers and the millions of dollars the Federal Government has spent on memorials rather than the health and well-being of veterans.
At the Centenary Celebration in Canberra, I saw first-hand elements of concern. Huge guns and tanks out the front (ironically pointing over the Field of Poppies and at the statue of Sir John Monash) as if these harbingers of death and destruction should be celebrated. There’s always going to be arguments about what is glorification and what is commemoration but there should never be a debate about prioritising the welfare of veteransand recent reports indicate we are letting them down.
3. I’ve spent my life studying history (a subject I love), travelling to as many places as I can afford, visiting exhibitions and museums, reading widely – I’m a person who tries to join the dots to understand ‘the human condition’ we writers love to explore. This topic has so many dots to join and I have an overabundance of thoughts that don’t necessarily provide answers or coherence. It was easier to procrastinate … but in a case of physician heal thyself – I did ‘jump in and just write‘ and followed the advice I give students!
4. I read again the poets of the First World War and visited a poignant and confronting art exhibition at Melbourne’s wonderful Shrine of Remembrance. An experience that deserves its own post although inextricably linked to the topic and so won’t get its own post now – please visit and experience for yourself.
5. The trips to Canberra, and to Melbourne’s Shrine, were to visit the culmination of the magnificent 5000 Poppy Project. The organisers did a superb job and I was keen to see what happened to my contributions. (As if I could find mine among the thousands of donations but ego being what it is … I should have been more creative and added sparkles or something so they would stand out!)
In Canberra, several installations were truly works of art and in Melbourne, the knitted tributes spelt out the familiar quote and linked lines from The Ode from Laurence Binyon’s For The Fallen, and its well-known response. Too many of us probably say the verses without pondering the meaning but I guarantee seeing the words ‘in blood’ sears your heart – especially with the thin red trail linking each line, like droplets of blood and a poignant reminder each poppy represents a lost life.
6. Maybe the most valid excuse is that the last few weeks of the school year are always manic as I collate and publish class anthologies – and this year, retiring from my position at Godfrey Street after 6 years, I wanted to go out ‘with a bang, not a whimper‘. I cracked the whip for my students and myself and there really is a finite time to sit at a computer and remain healthy. I crossed that line too often, burning the proverbial midnight oil with bad posture and tension taking its toll on legs, bones, and back.
Poppies At Melbourne’s Shrine of Remembrance
After walking amongst well-tended gardens, I rested in sanctuaries for those broken by experience and memories. Each secluded ‘garden’ displaying plants of different spheres of war for Australian troops.
I strolled darkened corridors absorbing the important stories we need to remember – depicted in a variety of ways without glorifying conflict. I climbed stairs to have a bird’s eye view and photograph magnificent Melbourne and the sweeping grounds of Victoria and Domain Gardens.
Skyscrapers and tree-lined boulevards and busy thoroughfares vastly different to 1918. The city those volunteers rushed to defend now remarkably different to what they would have known.
I pondered what Brendan Nelson and Kerry Stokes might learn from the management of Melbourne’s Shrine if they visited. I prefer the way Melbourne presents the story and the stories it chooses to promote. They also have courteous, friendly staff and volunteers.
A young woman approached me when she saw me reading the Memorial Book –
Are you looking for a relative?
Yes, thought I may find my uncle’s name.
Wait a moment and I’ll get the key…
Within minutes, she was back wearing white cotton gloves and wielding a key. She asked for my uncle’s surname, unlocked the relevant glass cabinet, and carefully turned the pages until his name was revealed. She then stood aside so I could take a picture of the page.
It was a busy day for visitors because the poppy installation was being removed the next day, yet the young woman took the time to offer me a service I didn’t know about – she went above and beyond and personalised my experience!
The exhibition by artist Craig Barrett called EVERYMAN is an emotionally moving experience. Craig incorporated poetry into his art.
In 2005, he wrote:
Four men from my family were caught up in the great tides of men fighting on the Western front of the First World War… Great Uncle George remains there… others returned home with their wounds and nightmares.
In recent years I have become aware of the poets of the First World War. These men were artists who conveyed powerful images through words from their camps, their trenches, and their hospitals.
I found myself especially moved by the words of the English poets Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon… Growing up I knew little and understood less of what these men had witnessed. The poetry of Owen and Sassoon has given me a glimpse of my own family and of the family of Man entangled in war…
These words resonated because I too have an “Uncle George” I’ve written about and it is this exploration and family connection that set me on a path, to learn why a nineteen-year-old relative is buried in Egypt. How did he die? How did his death affect his family, especially sister, Kitty whom we met in 1962 when we migrated to Australia?
I remember, Aunt Kitty’s air of sadness. I was nine-years-old and at night we sat at her feet listening to stories about the Australian branch of the clan, about ANZACS and a war in a land near where our ship had passed when we came through the Suez Canal.
EVERYMAN Siegfried Sassoon
The weariness of life that has no will To climb the steepening hill: The sickness of the soul for sleep, and to be still. And then once more the impassioned pygmy fist Clenches cloudward and defiant; The ride that would prevail, the doomed protagonist, Grappling the ghostly giant. Victim and venturer, turn by turn; and then Set free to be again Companion in repose with those who once were men.
Is Every Generation Destined to Repeat The Mistakes Of The Past?
Is there a need for us all to look deeper into what causes war, and what prevents a lasting peace?
Yet, there have been enquiries and research, backed by evidence and statistics, about the need for more resources to work in the community to combat radicalisation, and the alienation from mainstream society many young people experience. Experts encourage projects to improve inclusiveness and the mental health of those at risk of turning to violence.
Men who have been caught or suspected of terrorist acts often have a history of domestic violence. In Australia, more than 72 women and 20 children have been killed since January 2018 because of domestic and family violence. Despite knowing what we must do there seems a lack of political and social will and a lack of coordination and funding of resources to make a national difference to this scourge of homegrown terrorism.
And then there’s the refusal or reluctance of people to recognise the Colonial Warsand the Aboriginal nations who were here and valiantly fought to keep possession of their land from colonial invaders.
As John Lennon so aptly said, we have to make PEACE and do it right!
Will We Ever See A War to End All Wars?
Armistice Day November 11, 1918, which led to the end of World War One – the war to end all wars – did not herald a lasting peace. A war has been fought somewhere in the world ever since and many historians agree that the conditions of the peace seemed to set the scene for the Second World War.
Every day the nightly news brings us footage of soldiers and militarised police forces under fire or firing guns of formidable power somewhere in the world.
In many parts of the world, there are generations who have NEVER known peace. I was a volunteer tutor every Saturday morning to a Sudanese refugee for a year. A young woman in her 40s, with five children and a husband still stuck in a camp in Kenya, Mary had lived in a state of war in her country since she was 14 years old.
No life’s worth more than any other, no sister worth less than any brother.
Peace requires effort and political will and to suggest no one wants war is wrong – arms manufacturers thrive on war, which is why their influence (even in local elections under the guise of ‘shooters and fishers’ ) is alarming.
They fund public institutions and political parties for a reason. Look no further than the power the National Rifle Association wields in the USA. Working towards peace requires recognition that the Roman poet, Horace‘s oft-used quote Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori ( It is sweet and right to die for your country) encouraged militarism and is indeed ‘The old lie” that WW1 poet Wilfred Owens asserts at the end of his most famous poem.
A poem thought to have been written between 8 October 1917 and March 1918 after his years of witnessing the horrific slaughter and destruction on the battlefields of France and Belgium:
DULCE ET DECORUM EST Wilfred Owen
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks, Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge, Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs And towards our distant rest began to trudge. Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind; Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind. Gas!Gas! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling, Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time; But someone still was yelling out and stumbling, And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime . . . Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light, As under a green sea, I saw him drowning. In all my dreams, before my helpless sight, He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning. If in some smothering dreams you too could pace Behind the wagon that we flung him in, And watch the white eyes writhing in his face, His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin; If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs, Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues, My friend, you would not tell with such high zest To children ardent for some desperate glory, The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est Pro patria mori.
Can we blame the Romans for our culture of militarism and seeking military solutions?
Many of us read the words of these WW1 poets at school but whether we really absorbed their message is difficult to say – unless you had experienced war or grief and could empathise – and that’s difficult for school children.
It’s difficult for some adults, which is why writers must choose words carefully and why poetry, short stories and novels can help with empathy. Here is an interesting extract from a short memoir I read recently:
During my deployments, I only had to fire my gun twice in engagements, and, in retrospect, neither of those firings was likely warranted. Suffice it to say that both times, I could feel my heart shaking, and I came close to wetting my pants. The only film I’ve ever seen that captures this feeling—part terror, part adrenaline rush—is The Thin Red Line, and specifically in this woods scene, where the soldier becomes lost in the dark. He hears himself panting. Soon, bullets whish past him—directionless, it seems—and the only precedent for this, apart from Dante, astray on his path in the woods, might be Camus’s hapless prisoner in “The Guest,” who finds himself stranded and alone on the Algerian plains. What makes war so frightening isn’t the likeliness of death. It isn’t the suffering. It isn’t the inconsequentiality of humanness. Indeed, these are all apparent to anyone who’s reached middle age. Rather, it’s that sense of being alone. And I would hypothesize that it only comes to light in a warzone. After all, one realizes, especially in moments like this, that those who kill do not have any inherent fixed loyalties. Each human is invariably alone, regardless of the colors they wear.
Each year documentaries are made of the tragedy and sacrifice of a whole generation in WW1, but in the words of singer/songwriter Eric Bogle, ‘… it all happened again… And again, and again …’
GREEN FIELDS OF FRANCE
Oh how do you do, young Willy McBride Do you mind if I sit here down by your graveside And rest for a while in the warm summer sun I’ve been walking all day, and I’m nearly done And I see by your gravestone you were only nineteen When you joined the great fallen in 1916 Well I hope you died quick And I hope you died clean Or Willy McBride, was is it slow and obscene
Did they beat the drums slowly Did they play the fife lowly Did they sound the death march as they lowered you down Did the band play the last post and chorus Did the pipes play the flowers of the forest
And did you leave a wife or a sweetheart behind In some loyal heart is your memory enshrined And though you died back in 1916 To that loyal heart, you’re forever nineteen Or are you a stranger without even a name Forever enshrined behind some old glass pane In an old photograph torn, tattered, and stained And faded to yellow in a brown leather frame
Did they beat the drums slowly Did they play the fife lowly Did they sound the death march as they lowered you down Did the band play the last post and chorus Did the pipes play the flowers of the forest
The sun shining down on these green fields of France The warm wind blows gently and the red poppies dance The trenches have vanished long under the plough No gas, no barbed wire, no guns firing now But here in this graveyard that’s still no man’s land The countless white crosses in mute witness stand To man’s blind indifference to his fellow man And a whole generation who were butchered and damned
Did they beat the drums slowly Did they play the fife lowly Did they sound the death march as they lowered you down Did the band play the last post and chorus Did the pipes play the flowers of the forest
And I can’t help but wonder oh Willy McBride Do all those who lie here know why they died Did you really believe them when they told you the cause? Did you really believe that this war would end wars? Well the suffering, the sorrow, the glory, the shame The killing and dying it was all done in vain Oh, Willy McBride, it all happened again And again, and again, and again, and again
Did they beat the drums slowly Did they play the fife lowly Did they sound the death march as they lowered you down Did the band play the last post and chorus Did the pipes play the flowers of the forest
The horrors of WW2, Malaya, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan… we keep adding to the toll, make the words of the poets even more poignant when we realise the average age of soldiers who die in wars are 19, 20, 21, 22…
ANTHEM FOR DOOMED YOUTH Wilfred Owen
What passing-bells for these who die as cattle? — Only the monstrous anger of the guns. Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle Can patter out their hasty orisons. No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells; Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,— The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells; And bugles calling for them from sad shires.
What candles may be held to speed them all? Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes. The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall; Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds, And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.
Is a Plea for a Change in Priorities to emphasise PEACE too much to ask?
November 11 is a reminder, not only of the tragedy and futility ofWW1 and many other wars since but a warning of the fragility of peace and the importance of working hard to avoid conflict.
The Canberra Rotary Club is making an effort to remind people of the importance of peace and has built an easily accessible World Peace Bell as well as introducing the Rotary Peace Prize.
There are at least 23 of these bells throughout the world with plans for more. Volunteers man the bell at busy times encouraging people to recite an oath as well as ring the bell so the sound carries across the lake.
The volunteer who helped me explained the history and ensured I understood the affirmation, before reciting the lines aloud.
As I walked through Nara Park and visited the National Museum on the other side of the lake, the bell’s beautiful, deep, resonant tone tolled for peace.
The first recipients of the Peace Prize long-term advocates for world peace and activists in raising awareness and requesting an adjustment of society’s priorities:
Nation states, perhaps individual tribes and families. 21st-century social media exposes
All humanity – those not so lucky or ones we are told to fear –
Those trapped in places where war is an integral part of their journey from birth…
In my lifetime, the Middle East a constant muddle of bombs and brutality
Or the African continent with droughts, internecine wars, deadly viruses and famines
Not forgetting our neighbourhood’s volatility in the hands of Rocket Man & Dotard…
A world of sharing, no possessions to kill or die for, a world of peace
No borders! This dream elicits accusations ranging from lunacy to scorn
Dreaming and desiring the impossible…
Dreaming? Imagining a better future – isn’t that what we wish for our children?
Religious fundamentalists and fanatics insist
Everyone believe or have faith in a deity you can’t see, imagining a heaven and hell
And for many acquisitive others, it is land and possessions – they
Mean power, progress, personal esteem. It is difficult, but so important, to imagine
Sharing ALL the world and its bounties – thank you, John, for gifting your dream…
When you flip the peace sign upside down, it’s composed of the ancient rune ‘Algiz’ inside of a circle. ‘Algiz’ represents life, beginning, and protection; very fitting for a symbol of peace. … Add it all together, and an upside-down peace sign literally means ‘endless peace’.
He was 19 years old when they laid him to rest in Egypt and as far as I know, no member of the family has ever visited his grave. His death and the grief that followed changed the lives of his parents and siblings forever – a common tragedy for so many families worldwide detailed in letters, diaries, poems, novels, and memoir.
Dear Mum and Dad Mairi Neil
WW1 began in 1914, the fighting lasted four years, but grief lasts a lifetime.
I see you both in my dreams the image helps suppress the screams of many mates who have been shot–– This world has really gone to pot!
When I joined up to come and fight I thought I was doing what was right But Mum those Bible texts you read Don’t explain what it’s like to kill – or be dead.
Young Johnny Parker from down the road Shot on landing. Floats at sea –– a bloated toad. So many like him, bodies never retrieved No prayers, no burial, relatives deceived.
If I’m shot soon, or perhaps blown apart You’ll receive a letter to ease a painful heart But take what it says with a pinch of salt It’s madness here -no decency, nobody’s fault.
The cardboard dog tags disintegrated when a body rots or is incinerated Identities disappear over time – whole battalions consumed in lime
So just as I dream of both of you Hold fast your memories of me too Because if like snow, I don’t survive Only reminiscing will keep me alive.
My visit to Canberra for Remembrance Day to see the Field of Poppies (62,000 of them) and take part in the national ceremony commemorating the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Armistice that ended the First World War, allowed me to take part in a historic occasion but also made me reflect on the past, present and think of the future.
What stories we keep, how we pass stories from one generation to another, and the relevance and meaning of the stories we choose, whether personal or public.
In Canberra, amidst the field of poppies, it was sobering to discover people who didn’t know the significance of the flower, and others that didn’t seem to care, like the private security firm that used the field as an opportunity to have a promotional photoshoot – replete with uniforms and guard dogs.
Two men wandered around on Remembrance Day dressed in WW1 uniforms offering to pose for photos and a volunteer from the poppy project confided she had to chastise a group of young girls who laid down amongst the poppies uncaring of damage because they wanted to pose for pictures on Instagram and Facebook. There were also those who stole souvenirs from the installation, which volunteers spent hours replacing.
Parades and displays can be ignored but if everyone’s routine is interrupted – even for two minutes – perhaps it will make people ask why. Why the carnage, why do we go to war? Is there another way to solve disputes? Should we rely on a few leaders to decide our destiny?
Parliament House, Canberra
There were two displays at Parliament House (270,000 poppies).
The 5000 POPPIES project has left me in awe at how a simple idea encouraged involvement from people all over the world as well as educating about the loss of life in WW1 – and subsequent wars.
If it made people pause and consider the human cost of war, perhaps think of their family and their country’s history, seek information and reflect, then it has been a success.
Always the honour roll of those who died in conflict either at home or abroad confronts and shocks – alphabetical lists that in peacetime are associated with telephone books and thick tomes of the living.
Australia talks about thousands of lives lost, but for other nations it is millions! When I was in Irkutsk in Russia last year, a guide said to me, ‘In Russia, we list the names of survivors (mainly officers and ‘heroes’, I might add) because there aren’t enough walls to list the dead.’
Throughout the world, we have listed on walls, monuments, and in remembrance books, names while bodies and ashes lie elsewhere. Many resting in places where loved ones never, or can never visit.
Thousands of blood-red poppies a stunning visual reminder – each one different – representing the individuality of each lost life. The gaps in the field of poppies remind us not every casualty was/is found or identified.
For me, the creative project a chance to DO something and make a practical contribution to remembrance. Others, obviously, felt the same because it fired imaginations and activities in so many places: neighbourhood houses, U3As, schools, churches, numerous community and family groups and private individuals… and hopefully inspired discussions.
1918-2018: 5000 POPPIES – A TRIBUTE
At Parliament House, the forecourt installation of handmade poppies will be there from 9-18 November while the Marble foyer poppy installation will remain until 3 February 2019.
This display of poppies, lovingly created by 5000 Poppies project volunteers – many of whom are descendants of original Anzacs – is a tribute to the thousands of Australians who died in the First World War.
It complements the sea of handcrafted poppies that will carpet the Parliament House Forecourt to mark the 100th anniversary of the Armistice, 11 November 1918. With a direct line of sight to the Australian War Memorial, the display connects with the 62,000 poppies installed on the Memorial’s grounds representing every Australian life lost in the First World War.
Courtesy of traditional and social media we’ve been flooded with information – overloaded some will say, yet it is amazing how even after 100 years, new stories and information surface.
I’ve visited places, met people, and learnt history I didn’t know and fulfilled my love of joining the dots and understanding connections. On a recent visit to Caulfield Town Hall, to their art gallery, an amazing Poppy Exhibition made me pause and read the individual stories of local VC recipients but also drew my attention to the memorial boards that cover every wall of the spacious foyer – 31 large bronze panels with 1,554 names.
Although Caufield City Council first started compiling names of soldiers, sailors and nurses from the Caulfield district as early as 1915, it would be more than a decade before they were publicly displayed… In 1930, Caulfield Town Hall underwent a major redevelopment… which included a colonnade portico opening on to a spacious memorial foyer, with a marble dado surmounted by bronze tablets. Inscribed… were the names of all those who enlisted in the Australian Imperial Forces from Caulfield… the criteria for inclusion was to have been living in the City of Caulfield at the time of enlistment, and it includes both lost and returned service people… At the time of its construction, the municipality of Caulfield included the suburbs of Elsternwick, Balaclava, St Kilda East, Carnegie, Murumbeena, Glen Huntly and Gardenvale…
There is a lovely Japanese garden at Caulfield Town Hall and I hope people visiting the Remembrance Day display took some time, like I did, to sit and calm their anger (and it is anger we should feel) at what a senseless waste of life wars are, and especially WW1 – tragedies of epic proportions.
Yet, all over Australia, we have sister city relationships with countries that may have been our enemy at some stage of history – relationships that contribute to understanding and tolerance and help make a lasting peace.
Sassoon recognised how violence and war changed men and struggled to get much of his anti-war poetry published. When he wrote, “I believe that this War is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it,” in an open letter to the House of Commons, it took the intervention of poet Robert Graves to save him from court-martial declaring Sassoon suffered shell-shock and needed to be hospitalised.
Some could argue that it was only the insane who couldn’t see the truth of his words.
Through darkness curves a spume of falling flares That flood the field with shallow, blanching light. The huddled sentry stares On gloom at war with white, And white receding slow, submerged in gloom. Guns into mimic thunder burst and boom, And mirthless laughter rakes the whistling night. The sentry keeps his watch where no one stirs But the brown rats, the nimble scavengers.
While in Canberra for the commemoration ceremony at the War Memorial, I visited the current exhibition ‘Rome‘ at the National Museum displaying artefacts from the British Museum. There is a marble statue fragment of a barbarian (Ramleh, Egypt, 160-170 CE), which I thought depicted the anguish felt by war’s victims both civilian and military that the WW1 poets captured in words.
This bound captive is looking up at what remains of a larger figure, perhaps intended to depict Victory. He has Germanic facial features, but he is wearing a Phrygian hat of a style worn in the Eastern Mediterranean region. This suggests that he represents a generic ‘barbarian’ or enemy of Rome. Such depictions emphasise how one of Rome’s great missions was to ‘vanquish the proud’.
“From War” an Exhibition by the Australian National Veterans Arts Museum at Parliament House, Canberra
For many veteran artists making art is both an expression of personal creativity and a way of ‘making meaning’.
Veteran artistic practices draw upon, and extend beyond, the individual’s experience of war and service. For some, art is a lifeline and a life force; a way to tell stories and ask important questions about themselves and their place in society.
Representing a diverse range of mediums including photography, painting, sculpture, drawing, textiles and poetry, the artists featured in the exhibition reflect on their personal questions and processes, sharing unique stories of their lived experience.
The catalyst for the establishment of the Australian National Veterans Arts Museum was veterans’ mental health. It provides a creative and multi-faceted approach to supporting veterans and families through the arts, engaging with our veteran history and heritage, culture and identity to bring forward an approach grounded in creative expression and community.
Upending modern models ANVAM uses familiar tools, the arts and place, engaging early to promote validation, identity and purpose reframing the future for those returning from war or service.How do you capture the experience of war and its aftermath and convey that to others so they understand?
Sassoon’s honesty fobbed off as shell shock, which today we know as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) – and almost all veterans will have their share of depression as well as other symptoms of PTSD.
Statistics don’t tell individual stories, official documents can be doctored and presented from a particular perspective depending on what narrative governments want to spin. Even letters and diaries from those who were there or those writing about friends and family may have a particular perspective, may have been censored, or may deliberately alter facts to spare feelings.
I hope all politicians and senior Defence personnel take the time to look at the artwork and read the poetry on display at Parliament House.
A Poetic Honour Bill Charlton, (2013)
There is no greater accolade a soldier can be shown Than to have his deeds recorded in the verses of a poem. For medals tend to varnish and history can be wrong, And the stories we are left with, can be stretched as time goes on.
But the simple story-telling that’s contained within a poem Can survive through generations by word of mouth alone. And the rhythm/rhyming nature of these classics of the past Are easy to remember and ensure these stories last.
Great books will parch and crumble and epitaphs will fade And tombstones all will vanish no matter how they’re made. But the simple little verses that we pass on down the line Are remembered with affection and have stood the test of time.
So if you have the fortune to be mentioned in a poem Or you know some-one who has been, on the strength of deeds alone, Then be sure that it’s an honour, which can rarely be attained For it makes a man immortal for as long as it’s maintained.
Bill Charlton, born 1943, joined the Australian Army and served with the 1st Battalion Royal Australian Regiment in the 60s, including South Vietnam. Bill had always been interested in writing verse often sending snippets home to his wife, Robyn, which he never completed. He continued writing snippets for years after his service until he was encouraged to take up writing poetry by his wife and children, then the snippets became poems. His first attempt at poetry resulted in a literary award and encouraged he continued writing and published two books of poetry illustrated by Robyn: A Rugged Bunch of Diggers 1 and 2 and a children’s book Lulu, the Kangaroo. He continues to write individual poems for the 521 soldiers who died during the Vietnam War.
Sleep George Mansford, (September 2016)
If I could only sleep the sleep of sleeps To capture sweet deeds I can keep In the cloak of night greet blissful rest so rare To dream of peace and even love should I dare
I cannot escape this shrinking smothering room Painted with spite, hate and terrible doom I am shackled to the past and never to be free Deep sleep in pure white sheets is not to be
Oh to be deaf to shrieks and howls spat from spiteful guns Blind to flitting silent shadows mid the last rays of dying suns Be gone the shuffling file of haunted faces never to smile again If only a welcome storm to wash away the guilt and pain
In this lonely bed, to dream of peace, goodwill and love To walk mid young green forests reaching high above To hear the joyful welcome calls of feathered birds so bright To shut out the darkness of yesterday and seek tomorrow’s light.
George Mansford AM, born 1934, served in the Australian Army between 1950 and 1990 including Korea, Malayan Emergency, Malaysia, Thai Border, South Vietnam, New Guinea, Singapore and Cyclone Tracy. Having just returned home from Vietnam 1967, he started to write poetry after his first wife died. On losing his second wife and son, his writing increased dramatically as he discovered that writing was a fortunate distraction from grief and anger of war.
‘I found that promoting peace, love of country and such deep camaraderie was a wonderful sedative. It was what my loved ones and old comrades want.’
George is the author of Junior Leadership on the Battlefield and The Mad Galahs.
The Progress Barham J. R. Ferguson, (28 August 2018)
The fog that hugs my legs like a refugee, Shows the steps of progress towards my own peace. I have fought for the peace of others And lost more than blood in the process, But I know that hope stands not behind me.
See my anguish in the oils, See my scars in the sculpture, See my pity in the poetry, See my failure in the photographs, Hear my sorrow in the song.
I miss the moment of living the dream, Of knowing those at home are thinking of me. Praying for me. Worried about me. Today however, they only worry about me. It’s not the enemy that hunts me, nor the Danger that surrounds me. It is for the danger within.
My current battle is with doubt. Memories. Questions I cannot answer. Images so vivid, I can hear them.
But the fighter in me stands tall. I can win this war as I have done before. Not for me, but for others. This is why I served. This is who I am, Either in or out of service. So help me make that step.
And watch me emerge as a similar person To the one you knew. Similar, but better. That you can then See my ambition in oils, See my skills in sculpture, See my power in poetry, See my future in photographs, and Hear my strength in song.
It is now that I realise, My child that hugs my legs like a refugee, Speeds the steps of progress to my own peace.
Barham Ferguson, born 1968, joined the Australian army in 1987 and saw operational service in Papua New Guinea, Southern Thailand, Iraq, Afghanistan, South Sudan, Israel, Lebanon and Jordan. An Ambassador for the Australian National veterans Art Museum and a longtime supporter of veterans’ issues, Barham discharged in July 2018 and lives in Canberra with his daughter. He is the author of Love, Life and ANZAC Biscuits, (2013), and A Feeling of Belonging (1999).
Through The Mirror Barham J.R. Ferguson, (13 February 2017)
Through the mirror of the past, I see myself in memories vast. A warrior, not once outclassed, This was who I was.
From the dust of duty first, The last hoorah of machine gun burst, Wounds of war no longer nursed, The world knew who I was.
Homeward bound with dreams anew, Perceptions changed on what I do, My useful skills seemed less than few, I defended who I was.
Fighting family, fighting friends, The war has changed, it never ends. ‘’Is my life pointless?” Now depends, On knowing who I am.
Where to start, and what to do? What do I have that pleases you? There’s things inside that still ring true, They make me who I am.
Strength and honour. Discipline. These soldier traits have not worn thin, Unlike the uniform in the bin, These traits are who I am.
There’s many more that made me me, When I was in the military, But in these threads I now can see, That made me who I am.
Now it’s time to do what’s right, To find a mission, and gain insight, To be the me who can sleep at night, ‘Cause I do know who I am.
At the Australian War Memorial, there is a Flanders Field Garden planted with poppies and with the words of John McCrae’s poem carved on the walls to remind us that in Ypres, Belgium, ‘men died in their thousands and the medieval town was reduced to ruins.’
In Flanders Fields John McCrae
In Flanders fields the poppies blow Between the crosses, row on row, That mark our place; and in the sky The larks, still bravely singing, fly Scarce heard amid the guns below. We are the Dead. Short days ago We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow, Loved and were loved, and now we lie, In Flanders fields. Take up our quarrel with the foe: To you from failing hands we throw The torch; be yours to hold it high. If ye break faith with us who die We shall not sleep, though poppies grow In Flanders fields.
The Unknown Australian Soldier
This year was the 25th anniversary of the interment of the Unknown Australian Soldier, who represents all Australians who have been killed in war. At the head of the tomb are the words, ‘Known unto God’, and at the foot, ‘He is all of them and he is one of us.’
“Plans to honour an unknown Australian soldier were first put forward in the 1920s, but it was not until 1993 that one was at last brought home. to mark the 75th anniversary of the end of the First World War, the remains of the soldier were recovered from Adelaide Cemetery near Villers-Bretonneux in France and transported to Australia. After lying in state in King’s Hall in Old Parliament House, the Unknown Australian Soldier was interred in the Hall of memory at the memorial on 11 November 1993. He was buried with a bayonet and a sprig of wattle in a Tasmanian blackwood coffin, and soil from Pozieres was scattered in his tomb.”
The eulogy for the Unknown Soldier was first delivered by the Honourable Paul Keating in 1993. In Canberra, on the Centenary of the Armistice, a recording was played of his speech.
The words are memorable and moving but perhaps the lines that need to be emphasised more often are:
This Unknown Australian is not interred here to glorify war over peace; or to assert a soldier’s character above a civilian’s; or one race or one nation or one religion above another; or men above women; or the war in which he fought and died above any other war; or of one generation above any that has or will come later…We have lost more than 100,000 lives, and with them all their love of this country and all their hope and energy…It is not too much to hope, therefore, that this Unknown Australian Soldier might continue to serve his country – he might enshrine a nation’s love of peace and remind us that in the sacrifice of the men and women whose names are recorded here there is faith enough for all of us.’
The current exhibitions in Canberra at the National Museum and National Library add more food for thought as well as steps in the evolution of the ‘nation’ Paul Keating was talking about.
Rome reveals how integral the military was to the Roman Empire’s greatness and an exhibition on Captain Cook and his Voyages touches on the Colonial Wars and Aborigines fighting the invasion of their land by representatives of the British Empire.
The powerful Roman and British Empires now diminished and if nothing else, the tide of history seems predictable but has mankind learnt a ‘love of peace’?
Thank Goodness For Community Initiatives
While national politicians and governments may let their people down, there are plenty of instances of grassroots initiatives – and therefore HOPE.
Nara Peace Park, Canberra, is a case in point – not only has it the Peace Bell but myriad sections, sculptures and plaques making a statement about peace.
TOKU 2010 by artist Shinki Kato born 1955
Toku was commissioned to celebrate the 1300th anniversary of Japan’s ancient capital, Nara. The sculpture has three main elements: A five-storied pagoda form which represents Canberra; a floating stone representing Nara; and the form of a small bird symbolising peace.
The bird resembles a Latham’s Snipe, a species which migrates annually between Japan and Canberra. The artist has created Toku to express the amicable relationship and mutual understanding shared by Canberra and Nara as sister cities.
There are tranquil areas to meander through or sit and enjoy the beauty of the gardens and lake. The day I visited, families were picnicking and playing.
The Pen Mightier Than The Sword
As you walk through the park there is evidence that we shouldn’t take the beauty, or sentiments, for granted. At the base of several trees are plaques – sadly some were damaged and worn by the weather. The plaques reminders that writers from poets to journalists have lost their lives fighting to express and defend ideas and freedom of speech.
“The spirit dies in all of us who keep silent in the face of tyranny”
The plaques and trees were a ‘memorial to writers who have fought for freedom of speech” and was conceived through the vision and work of the ACT members of PEN International and dedicated by the Minister for Arts and Heritage, Mr Gary Humphries MLA, on 17 November 1996.
East Timor – Greg Shackelton, Brian Peters, Malcolm, Rennie, Tony Stewart, Gary Cunningham Journalists murdered October 1975 and Roger East Dili, December 1975
Konca Kuris tortured and murdered for advocating women’s rights in Islam 1960-98
Galina Starovoitova shot St Petersburg Russia 20 November 1998 aged 22, Larissa Yudina knifed Elista Kalmykia Russia June 1998 aged 33, killed for defending democracy and free speech
Meena Kishwarkanel poet, journalist and defender of women’s rights 1957-87
Robert walker Aboriginal poet 1958-84
Among the dedications:
Kenule Beeson Saro-Wewa, Nigerian playwright,
Meena Kishwarkanel, poet and journalist,
Russians: Galina Starovoitova, ethnographer and dissident politician, and Larissa Ludina, newspaper editor,
Konka Kuris Turkish feminist writer,
Robert Walker Aboriginal poet, and
the Balibo Five, Australian journalists murdered in East Timor 1975: Greg Shackleton, Brian East, Gary Cunningham, Tony Stewart, Malcolm Rennie and
journalist Roger East killed in Dili, 1975.
Hopefully, somewhere a memorial plaque will be made for Jamal Khashoggi recently assassinated by agents of the Saudi Government. The plaque, a permanent reminder of those who use words to defend our right to speak and challenge those who think suppression and violence a solution.
However, for every writer silenced, there is always another who picks up the pen to peacefully bring about change. The belief that the pen is mightier than the sword and words can make a difference, a good enough motivation for me to keep writing.
It has been many years since libraries have only been about books – and some would argue that’s never been the sole aim of public libraries. Rather they are important community assets, providing critical services and transforming lives.
My local library is at Parkdale – a 3-minute train ride or 15 minutes walk away from where I live in Mordialloc and part of a network of libraries in the City of Kingston.
We are lucky because years ago with the onslaught of computer technology and digital books and proponents of neoliberalism’s desire to privatise and ‘monetise’ there were plenty of people murmuring about whether libraries were worth funding.
Like many public facilities and services, they came under pressure to justify their existence.
‘Books are outdated,’ a common enough catch cry…
InThe New Penguin Compact English dictionary (updated 2000) the definition of Library is:
1. a room, building or other place in which books, periodicals, CDs, videos etc are kept for reference or borrowing by the public
2. A collection resembling or suggesting a library
3. A series of related books issued by a publisher
Kingston libraries offer:
books in large and regular print, audio books, eAudiobooks &eBooks
magazines, music CD, DVDs, BluRays & Wi games
Wi-Fi and computers with internet access
computer & internet classes
programs for children – storytime tiny tots, book bugs & school holiday programs
Readz teen book club
author talks and workshops
items in community languages
comprehensive genealogy collection & computers for research
local history resources
Moving with the times…
3D Printing is an emerging technology and libraries and schools are investing in printers. When I saw these free workshops advertised I booked myself in.
I’d seen a 3D printer in action in 2014 when I spent a long weekend in Ballarat at Easter time and there was a festival happening. The Ballarat Mechanics Institute had a demonstration of a 3D printer but the room was crowded and the queue to get near the machine long, so I didn’t really learn anything except that someone had printed a row of green plastic figurines to amuse any children who’d turn up – and they were the majority of the audience.
My brother-in-law was in St Vincent’s at the time recovering from having several toes amputated because of his diabetes so the world first operation at the hospital was the main topic of conversation!
The opportunity to learn how to use the technology too good to miss.
An Introduction by Alan, the Librarian
3D printers are commonly associated with plastic – the same substance used to make Lego is the most common plastic used.
It is a filament – a thread fed through a tube into an extruder. The plastic gets hot – 240’ centigrade, the melting temperature required to take the plastic off when dried.
PLA also common with the melting temperature cooler at 190’ centigrade. It gives a more polished finish but a lot harder to take off the machine because more brittle.
ABS and other plastic easier to take off when dried.
More Than Just Plastic
3D printers also use metal and at an industrial level, they use layers.
3D printers also use paper in layers.
3D printers also use food – This developed with the idea of addressing malnutrition and/or feeding the military, making edible objects; a mini-ecosystem
3D printers used in medicine – making copies of hearts to see if there are holes and also making prosthetics.
A Parkdale Library customer printed a prosthetic hand for his grandfather.
3D Printing in the news…
Innovations in 3D printing technology could make it possible to ‘manufacture’ living organs, skin, tissue and bone rather than relying on transplants and artificial materials. Scientists are already creating bio-compatible prosthetics as well as lightweight exoskeletons, 3D models that aid in education and research, and even cool customizable limbs.
The printers enable cheap production and easy design method. Many of the designs available are free under a Creative Common License.
Select how your design will be printed remembering to factor in how much strength may be required to support whatever you are printing to get the shape and proportion you want. A lot depends on the thickness and weight of your object.
The time it takes to print will depend on the size and thickness – a thin bookmark may take a half hour to print, thicker objects 48 hours. Fluffy the three-headed pet of Hagrid in Harry Potter took two days. It was a 6-inch solid object and took less than a reel of the plastic thread, which costs $25 a reel.
The printer the library owns only prints objects in a single colour and the reels of thread we could choose from were primary colours. (I chose green for my object.)
After a look through the designs available, you load a design from the software already on the computer.
Follow digital track (data loaded) and save on an SD card like a camera.
Think of a design and imagine it in 3D – as a solid cube
The software doesn’t tell you when support is needed – you have to factor that in when you design. eg, if printing a drawer you have to remember there needs to be a space
Objects are printed on a raft – this supports the object and helps with removal from the heat platform.
Designs using software .spl and .obj are compatible with the library computer. The printer is Duratrax bought for $3000 two years ago.
Customers have found it useful – a man needed a plastic component to fix a window blind but the component was unavailable in Australia and out of date with the product no longer made. He asked the European company to send a file compatible with Parkdale’s 3D printer and he printed off the part!
Kids have completed projects too using the printer.
We were all encouraged to design and print an object – the first 3 hours of printing free, $5.00 for every hour of printing after that, with a maximum of $25.00 (the cost of a reel of the thread).
There will be a failure to print if the power supply is interrupted while the object is being printed.
Once cleaners pulled out the plug so the print had to be started again!
I chose a ‘Celtic’ bookmark, the design quite intricate. It was calculated to take 1hr and 26 minutes to print.
I picked it up yesterday and my daughter, Mary Jane removed the backing raft.
This impressive quilt was just one of many on display at the Australasian Quilt Convention, held at the Exhibition Building, Carlton Gardens, April 5-8, 2018.
It is the largest dedicated quilt event in the southern hemisphere and again I used it as an opportunity to catch up with my “quilter” sister, Cate, who came down from interstate for the event, and our younger sister, Rita joined us.
The event is a wonderful celebration of creativity, craft, and community with international participation and recognition.
If you tell stories with a quilt (as many people do), express yourself through hand-crafted clothes and gifts, or adorn and decorate with embroidery, then the convention was the place to be. And, if the day we attended was anything to go by, the organisers will be thrilled with the numbers!
I’m writing this as President Trump and his allies, UK and France, are bombing Syria and so have chosen the above quilt to showcase first.
Each beautifully stitched panel expressing sentiments dear to my heart. If only quilters and writers had political power…
The quilt maker’s statement will resonate with others, I’m sure:
Every time I hear the news it is filled with atrocities and cruelty… it bruises my shadow. I want to tightly shut my eyes, like a young child wishing not to be seen, in the hope they do not exist… but they do. perhaps shining a light on it through the graffiti of tomorrow will prompt us to see… to discuss… to understand… and to bridge the chasm of disinterest and inaction. By adding one reasoned, empathetic voice to another we will steadily erode the borders between us and achieve what we seek and can earn… a Peaceful World.
What Do Borders & Bridges Mean To You?
This challenge was one of several given to quilters here and abroad and one Maria addressed.
Quilters from the USA also exhibited quilts responding to, and exploring, two fascinating opposites – Turmoil and Tranquility.
A group of South Australian textile artists explored the hashtag symbol. They interpreted the theme in textiles. “Originally, a typewriter key symbol for ‘number’, the hashtag is now widely used as a means of connecting targeted audiences on social media platforms.’ (Another ‘topical’ topic!)
The Van Gogh Cherrywood Challenge, Dutch Gallery Tour, also came from the USA. The latest exhibit a predominantly blue swathe of exquisite quilts inspired by Vincent’s life, many of his artistic motifs, and even some fun play on titles and his name.
There was an exhibition Met In Melbourne, from eight Australian textile artists who had dinner at the AQC in 2016 and decided to create ‘pieces of/for 8’ – choosing to make quilt panels focusing on a concept of words ending in “ate” as their theme. (Grab your dictionary – concatenate, undulate, ameliorate, rotate, migrate, pomegranate, decorate and ornate.)
Like the variety of responses in writing class to prompts and triggers, the quilters didn’t disappoint. Their thought-provoking, inspirational, and brilliant interpretations, whether of word, theme, or concept absolutely delightful.
Another quilt maker asked, “Is this Paradise?”
I looked from the tour bus and saw them, Syrian refugees, huddled on a street in Athens, mattresses bundled under tarps. They all had a look of abject misery, here in a place barely able to support itself, let alone provide them with the future they had risked so much to find.
With this thought in my mind I scanned the Internet for more information about borders and bridges, there were so many stories of people crossing bridges and unmanned borders from war torn lands throughout all the world. Did any of them find their Paradise?
I liked quilt maker Jeannie Henry’s declaration that “Borders and bridges are artificial constructs created by man but ignored by nature.” Jeannie and a couple of other quilters used bridges bordering Victoria and NSW, or over the Murray River as subjects.
Linden Lancaster declares, ” I grew up in the border town of Echuca… spent many hours on the river – a scruffy, suntanned girl – swimming, fishing and riding my bike up and down the goofies with friends. Sometimes we would construct cubbies in the shadow of the bridge when the river was low. My first kiss was under that bridge, bridging childhood into adolescence. Forty years later, the painted graffiti of first crushes are still being proclaimed from the bridge pylons and framework.”
Shirley Drayton trips down memory lane too, ” The Echuca Moama Bridge… originally a road and rail bridge with the Fruit Fly Inspection a stone’s throw from the bridge, to stop the fruit from coming over the border from NSW, to prevent the spread of fruit fly. Mr Ron Hicks (my uncle) the fruit fly inspector… The cars had to stop and wait for the train to come across the bridge. Cattle were taken across for market day at approximately 6.00am, again cars had to wait until all stock and stockmen were completely across.”
How Writers can be Inspired
In my writing classes, particularly Life Stories at Godfrey Street, I’ve given Crossing Borders as a topic and ‘burning bridges’ – something most of us have done in our lives. However, many of the quilts focused on a sense of place, not just for the Borders & Bridges Challenge but even those addressing other themes.
“Place” (or setting) is a great writing topic to make a lesson around – not just for a memoir. A sense of, or focus on, a place can trigger all types of creative writing.
There were many fascinating interpretations of the Bridges & Borders topic. The quilts created were striking – geat for inspiring a writing class, especially poetry.
Topical issues, whimsy reflections, emotional reminiscing and gut-wrenching observations. Quilters love words too – some even incorporate them in quilts.
Marriage equality is the bridge across the heart of human love and understanding. Negative emotions and thoughts make up the sea of negativity that border this act of love.
Fear of or caused by sexual assault causes restrictions and confinements in lifestyle and thought. These borders are internalised, held within the model, stitched in text. The #MeToo and #TimesUp movements are exciting bridges, for the first time ever women are being heard and believed. The onus is starting to be on men to change – and not on women to curtail their lifestyle, to dress conservatively, to not provoke. Stitched into the background are words of empowerment and hope. This quilt can be hung either way up. the model in bridge pose or flying through the sky, free.
‘Bridge To Extinction’ highlights the conflict between humans and nature. Koalas create borders within their eucalypt habitat. Logging in Southeast Queensland forests shrinks these borders and threatens their survival. Using dyes, printed text, paint and stitch on fabric, I wanted to turn the dry words from the newspaper into imagery that couldn’t be ignored. As human ‘progress’ destroys its habitat, the koala escapes on a log bridge to wasteland. I reflect on the irony of providing koala bridge crossings whilst fragmenting the bushland that serves as their only food source and home.
…conceptually linked to the theme… by its very title. The borders are the empty husks of the gumnuts on the right, symbolising youth and as such empty of knowledge and the full, flowering gumnuts on the left, symbolise old age and being of wisdom and experience. The bridge is represented by the birds arching in full flight across the sky, connecting one side to the other and symbolising the flight of time between youth and old age. Leap from one side and trust that your own momentum shall carry you to the other side.
Kathryn Harmer Fox
P.T.S.D. is an insidious and debilitating disorder. Every part of your life is affected. Enduring workplace harassment and bullying led to devastating consequences for me. I was told to ‘build bridges and get over it’. Physically and mentally I was unable to cross the border from NSW to VIC for several years. My career was shattered. I learnt to mask emotions in order to function. Emotionally and creatively I felt dead for several years. the theme resonated immediately for me. The image flashed into my mind and stayed there. Creating it was cathartic. I am a survivor – speak up about bullying.
“Taken from a photograph of my daughter and granddaughter as they gaze out across the sand towardsthe open ocean. The sand is the border between land and sea. Mydaughter and granddaughter bridge the generations as they hold hands sharing the moment. They do this often in a silent communication of their shared love for the beach.”
A great display of heartfelt offerings with memorable and thoughtful designs produced by deft hands and artistic minds.
Van Gogh In Stitches
The Cherrywood Challenge was in Australia from the USA for the first time and the exhibit displayed textile art inspired by Van Gogh’s life and masterworks. It was an extensive tribute to the much-loved artist.
Participants from all over the world with 200 out of 450 entries selected. The quilts will travel throughout the world. Participants win fabric prizes, receive extensive exposure and have their work published in a book.
Not surprisingly, there is a growing interest in the Cherrywood Challenge and I think it is appealing to a younger audience than is usually associated with quilting. The next theme being Prince, the musician – cherrywoodfabricsbigcartel.com
Tradition Versus Technology
There were plenty of traditional quilts on display but I overheard a couple of older ladies lamenting the introduction of “too much technology” – for them hand stitching still the mark of a good quilter.
There may be some resistance to technology, a fear it is ‘overwhelming’ what many proudly boast as a craft were needlework and handmade were the keys to excellence.
Others were ecstatic about the new sewing machines, embroidery attachments, printers that process photographs and material, computerised design and stencil cutters and numerous other offerings from the stall holders, teachers and workshops at the convention.
The digital divide is everywhere – those that embrace and those that resist.
It may be a case of move over or adapt Baby Boomers if you don’t want the Millenials to needle you! Times change – and often for the better…
And in case you wonder where you fit in, here is a potted version of The Atlantic’s explanation – believe what you will:
Greatest Generation, 1930-1946 – they fought and many died in WW2 for ‘our freedom’.
Baby Boomers, 1946 – 1964 – freedom from fear because the war was over and relaxation of sexual mores means the name is self-explanatory.
Gen X, 1965 -1984 – because it fits a nice 20-year time span, spoiled, apparently they think they’re ‘cool’.
Gen Y, – mid-70s to mid-2000s – but considered a made-up generation, so really fake – skip to Millenials…
Millenials, 1982 -2004 – the digital natives who apparently want it all.
From a Baby Boomer With Millenial Daughters
I like traditional quilts and know how much time, effort, and expertise is involved – I’ve observed my sister and had many discussions with her and listened while she has explained in great depth the intricacies of various methods of applique, patchwork, dramatic designs, embroidery, paper-piercing and fussy cutting techniques.
However, she belongs to a quilting group that is open to new methods, technology and new ideas – caring, sharing and learning a great philosophy.
I have two creative daughters totally comfortable with new technology and pop culture.
Below is a minute selection of traditional quilts on display – there were even rows of the ‘Best in Australia” with award winners from every state.
I love the inclusion of non-traditional articles and adaptations. We met a young lass who loves cosplay. She was promoting sewing machines with attachments that did specific embroidery and lace effects.
Her anime costume a gorgeous pink layered dress with rabbit ears headgear. She wore the dress recently as a volunteer at the Children’s Hospital at Easter and attends events and does other promotions when she has time.
The dress took several weeks to make and has over $400 worth of material. A marvellous example of dedication to popular culture using centuries-old crafts.
There were two other costumes on display – one a la Jane Austen and one from the Lord of The Rings.
While I was engrossed in reading the stories behind the quilts my sisters met up with a writer and academic who has just published a book Towns and Trailblazers.
Rita was particularly impressed with Jen Wulff ‘s research of local women from the 18th, 19th or early 20th centuries, some renowned, others unknown.
‘Each trailblazer and her town have inspired a quilt block which combines to create an Australian inspired textile providing a tangible connection to places and the women remembered.’
The quilt blocks relate to the far North West coast, through to the Red Centre, across to the East Coast and down to Southern Tasmania. Short stories about the women, quilt templates and construction tips are included in the book, which Rita, bought.
Jen is a quilter too and ‘greatly values the lasting friendships made through local quilt groups and she hopes her recently published book increases awareness of both quilting and the role women had in shaping Australia.’
The Melbourne Exhibition ‘8’
“To link together, to unite in a series or chain.” Quilter Lee Vause drew inspiration from childhood games: Scrabble, Barrel of Monkeys, Snakes and Ladders and Twister.
Using thread and free motion stitching, quilter Raylene Richardson decorated face shapes emphasising different facial elements.
Showing wonderful use of texture and design and manipulation of materials, ‘Ornate’ is self-explanatory, but for ‘Migrate’ the quilter chose feathers and fish to represent the large migrations that occur in nature.
Our world is constantly turning, slowly spinning and rotating around the sun. Inspired by the marvels of the natural world Brenda Wood is fascinated by the way the sun peeks over our horizon in the east and we catch ‘the trails of its warmth and beauty, until each evening we rotate away from its heat and light…’
Sunlight travelling through our atmosphere scatters colours, stronger beams during the day than in the evening – depictions of the varying strength of colour in sunrises and sunsets represent the concept of rotating.
Instead of an adjective, quilter Sally Westcott chose a noun. The pomegranate is beautiful to eat, cook with, and to paint and draw. She enjoyed exploring its texture, shape and colour.
Internationally, award-winning, Melbourne based Neroli Henderson chose the word ‘ameliorate’ – the process of making something bad or unpleasant better. Her panels “focus on the vulnerability of the female form, and its power and ability. Creating personal, explorative works such as these helps to ameliorate the past. An artistic catharsis. These pieces seek to take memories of physical pain and loneliness and transform them into moments of beauty.”
I wonder how many people have heard of Neroli ( eiloren.com.au ), quilter, writer, editor of Textile Fibre Forum magazine (2014-16), a group owner of the popular Facebook Textile Arts group, and an artist ‘who combines art quilting techniques and materials with traditional media and digital approaches.’ She believes ‘in the use of textiles and stitch as a valid fine art medium and can often be found using this traditional “women’s work” to create feminist, political, and other social commentary based artworks.’
As my first image implies – I can’t imagine a world without art – in all its forms!
Kim Boland’s chosen word ‘undulate’ transformed into four colourful and charming panels. “Undulating, curvy, wave-like lines, found all around us, are peaceful and calming.”
Her depictions: blue ocean waves, rolling green hills, red desert dunes and yellow fields of canola. Specifically shaped pieces portray the movement of air and water across flowering fields, sandy dunes, grassy fields and ocean waves.
Carolyn Sullivan’s Retrospective
Mairi Neil (a found poem from AQC 2018)
Australia’s climate captured
cool and hot, clear and misty
searing heat, sleet, and storms
flat plateau country and
eucalypt and deciduous forest,
garden parks and deserts of
thousands of kilometres…
changing environment evoked
and expanded on cloth canvas
lovingly dyed with colours
of plants from Aussie desert and bush.
into earthy and warm
tree trunk tracks of insects,
lichen, leaf and fungi patterns,
depictions of diversity –
native animals, trees, birds,
and beautiful grasses…
hand stitched close, straight,
the vastness of the landscape
and love of country
honoured in every stitch.
There was another evocative reflection of the world by quilter Gillian Travis which if I was talented with a needle, on any level, I’d love to do! She has created quilts from her travels to exotic, and not so exotic, places like Uzbekistan, India, Sri Lanka, Guatemala, South Africa, Europe, Israel and Jordan.
These quilts focus on people and place and beg for stories to be imagined and written!
Observation and attention to detail important for quilters, photographers and writers. At the convention, you could do a course on turning your favourite photograph into a quilt and intrepid traveller Gillian’s work offered walls of inspiration.
Journeys In Stitch
Turmoil And Tranquility
“Presented by the Studio Art Quilt Associates (SAQA), this museum-quality exhibition features quilts created specifically as art pieces. Work brought from the USA explores two fascinating opposites…”
Again, what was fascinating was how each artist interpreted the words and I loved reading the stories behind the quilts. Just as we become comfortable or can relate to particular stories or genres in our taste of books, so too how the artists depicted the theme is influenced by our ideas of what the words could mean.
Sometimes what the artist was trying to do resonated more than the finished piece, and at other times little explanation was required.
Jill Kerttula from Virginia chose the turmoil of a woman’s first pregnancy: ‘physical, emotional, cultural, and mental changes and challenges, both internal and external.’ Jill used sketches from ancient medical texts, copies of cards her mother received and original images to portray turmoil and angst.
Jennifer Day from New Mexico chose Donald as her subject for Tranquility. He has ‘led a life full of twists and turns… his adulthood serving his country in the French Indonesian War in 1956 – almost 70 years ago. He later served in Korea, and in another war that he will not talk about. He has had cancer numerous times and is still fighting lung cancer.’
Jennifer took a photo of Donald as he sat in the window of an old barn in New Mexico. She captured the light of the setting sun gracing his face and “his expression leads us to believe that he is content. At age 86, I believe that he is satisfied with life and that his future holds promise.”
I was charmed by this quilt, by the subject matter and outlook of the artist and my photograph does not do it justice – each strand of hair is stitching – the artistry seamless connectivity in this work truly impressive.
Carol Capozzoli from Connecticut captured the insidious spread and effect of cancer. “From the first pathological cell division, turmoil begins… (it) spreads to surrounding tissues and possibly other body parts. With adiagnosis, the turmoil spreads to the person’s emotional and spiritual being, and to those close to the person.”
A CANCEROUS TURMOIL
Lots of the pieces celebrating nature or the seasons understandably focused on tranquillity. Judith Roderick from New Mexico chose the endangered Whooping Crane.
“There is something very compelling about a human-sized, ancient bird who has been on the planet since the dinosaurs. the Whooping Crane, one of the two North American Crane species, is the world’s most endangered crane with about 600 now in existence. This quilt was hand-drawn from some of my own photographs. It reflects my hope, intention, and prayer that they may continue to grace our skies and landscapes for ages to come.”
Illness is probably the most common disruption many of us experience and as our population ages, statistics reckon more of us will be living longer and coping with Alzheimer’s.
Diane Born from Oregon seemed to reflect from personal experience when she wrote, “That fine, immaculate woman is now mismatched and muddled. She withdraws from loved ones, snarls at children. plaque invades her brain, erupting in tangles, robbing her of memories. She mutters and mumbles, rarely smiles. paranoia stalks her, evident in mood swings, delusions, and apathy. Her sewing, hand or machine, fragments and disintegrates. Brain waves slow and falter, losing a rhythmic pattern. the lady vanishes into the disease.”
My father succumbed to dementia. It too was slow and insidious and painful to watch. Occasionally, flashes of the father we knew and loved appeared – the effect on the person and their family is indeed turmoil!
Another piece that resonated was by Michele Lea of Ohio. who admits to constantly searching for peace and tranquillity.
“Trying to find a place of light, rather than focusing on the cloud of darkness that looms over me, is a daily ritual. I suffer from chronic mental depression, which is a disease with no cure. More than 40 million people suffer from it and suicide is an ongoing threat for those of us who want to escape. The image of me floating, with butterflies draping over me as a blanket, is tranquillity. For me, it is an end to torment – a place of safety and peace; my original home where I could join my creator and become whole again.”
It is a reflection of the times and the pervasiveness of the 24-hour news cycle that the turmoil of the world refugee crisis is never far from our screens or minds. Sandy Gregg from Massachusetts observes:
“Since the beginning of time, people have left their homes to begin lives as refugees for a myriad of reasons, including war, discrimination, crop failure, and religion. This piece represents borders crossed, obstacles faced, and the turmoil that these brave people face during their travels.”
Another quilt that appealed to me used vintage postcards (collecting postcards a hobby of mine) and image transfer a technique I’d be tempted to use if a quilter.
Patricia Kennedy-Zafred from Pennsylvania is doing a series portraying women from all over the world with ‘strikingly varied concepts of beauty‘.
The images are of Japanese geisha who ‘despite the typical connotation, true geisha were highly trained in dance, music and various forms of art.‘ Their calm facial expressions ‘part of their allure, as their rigorous training was designed to create a presence of subtlety, strength, and grace.’
I have to feature Donna Deaver from Idaho who although we are living on separate continents, we have a similar way of relaxing and finding that elusive tranquillity.
“I have a deep love of the sea. It draws me in an unexplainable way, calling to me when I least expect it. Even though I no longer live by the ocean, I feel at home whenever I return. One of my favourite times of the day is early morning when the beach is empty. Listening to the infinite rhythm of the surf is a form of meditation.”
Believe it or not, the images featured are only a tiny selection of what was on offer at the AQC 2018. I’ve written about some that caught my eye, or touched my heart as a writer and haven’t done any justice at all to the array of fabrics, threads and techniques the artists applied.
Suffice to say the convention has lots to offer to those not expert or involved in the art of quilting, and from what I’ve observed the few times I’ve attended it is only going to expand and become more eclectic.
If you’ve enjoyed what you’ve read and seen in this post, I hope you attend one day, you won’t regret it.
Having firsthand knowledge of the quilting community via my older sister I know they have a sense of humour too and I love the self-deprecating quilts like this one – the three women are staring at the latest super duper sewing machine and asking “But does it make the coffee?”
After this marathon writing effort, I’m heading to the kitchen to make a cup… but will leave you with one of my personal favourites from the convention with a message for all those who struggle to achieve their dream…
Last month, I went to a Writers’ Victoria event, held at The Atheneum to hear Melbourne’s Toni Jordan in conversation with Scottish author Alexander McCall Smith. She introduced McCall Smith by listing his writing accomplishments first:
60 adult novels published,
50 children’s novels
and the acclaimed 44 Scotland Street series
his work translated into 46 languages
Jordan concluded her introduction with “Alexander has been described as a literary phenomenon, a force of nature, and an endless source of joy around the world.”
Needless to say, the filled-to-capacity theatre burst into rapturous applause proving that his fans agreed – and he hadn’t yet uttered a word!
Once McCall Smith began speaking, the conversation became very one-sided – in the words of my late mother Alexander McCall Smith can ‘talk the hind legs off a donkey’and I’ll use her lovely Scottish word meant in the kindest of ways, he’s “a blether.”
Although McCall Smith does not talk for the sake of talking, his warm-hearted view of humanity, his intelligence, a keen sense of humour, and wide-ranging life experience ensure that he is a fabulous raconteur.
We hung on every deliciously entertaining word and later queued up outside for a few minutes with the man himself when he agreed to sign books and pose for photographs. (The publisher arranged for a young man to do the duty of dealing with numerous digital devices!)
Kindness and generosity two words that come easily to the lips regarding this prolific author dressed in an off-white suit, highly polished leather shoes and exuding genteel elegance as he relaxed comfortably in the spotlight.
He introduced himself to the audience by saying if people had come to the wrong place he didn’t mind if they left and then proceeded to tell the first of many anecdotes of the evening.
‘Turning up at the wrong venue is easy to do,’ he said. “A few months ago, a man came up to me at an author’s event in New York and said he’d enjoyed my lecture although he had booked to hear an author talk about the atom bomb!”
As the laughter subsided, Toni asked Alexander, when he began writing books and leaning back into his chair, he launched into a story he’d obviously told many times.
He sent his first manuscript off when eight years old. “ It was unpublishable, of course, and probably all of two pages long. A melodrama along the lines of ‘He’s gone’ and explaining who, why and where…”
He received a polite rejection letter from the publisher, “Carry on working.” McCall Smith laughed when he said, “at least in those days publishers answered every submission and gave encouragement along with rejection!”
This story led to another personal snippet revealing again his kindness and cheeky sense of humour. A seven-year-old boy knocked on his door one day holding a book he had written.
“Go and show Mr McCall Smith,’ said the boy’s mother from the background, “he’s a writer.”
The book was two sentences long, called The Great Toffee Theft.
‘Great title,’ he told the boy.
The story was ‘A man stole a toffee. The police came and arrested him.’ The End.
The Scottish author Ian Rankin, writer of novels about the detective Rebus, lives two doors up from McCall Smith in Edinburgh, so Alexander sent the boy up to Ian’s house advising, “Mr Rankin’s into crime, he’ll be better placed to give you feedback on your manuscript.”
This recollection was the perfect segue into stories about how he sometimes inserts real people into his novels ‘with their permission, of course.’
Like all writers, he draws on life experiences for plots, characters and setting, but you can tell he has fun with all this too. The first time he put Rankin into a novel was as a cameo when he bought a valuable stolen painting from a charity shop. When Ian realised it had been stolen he returned it to the original owner. Rankin’s comment was “I wouldn’t be so decent if it was that valuable!”
In another story, Alexander had one of the Queen’s Royal Archers, ‘a doddery bunch now’ fire an arrow that goes astray and hits Ian Rankin on the shoulder. He is helped by young Bertie, one of McCall Smith’s regular heroes who recognises Rankin as a famous author because ‘a lot of his books are in the window of the local secondhand bookshop for 50p.’
Ian’s feedback? “Not true, they’d be at least £1!”
McCall Smith asked Scotland’s First Minister, Alex Salmond, (2007-2014) if he could put him in a story. ” He seemed quite chuffed.” McCall Smith had the First Minister save young Bertie from a runaway truck when the young boy froze while crossing the road. The manuscript was sent to the First Minister’s office for approval and he got a reply back in 45 minutes, “very satisfactory”. (The fastest bureaucratic approval on record!)
However, he tries not to use real people he’s read about in his writing and said, “it is rude not to Google because it implies they’re not worth Googling.” He puts in a name plus what scandal they may be involved in just to check he won’t be offending a real live person … at this point he strayed into the murky waters of Australian politics by suggesting with mock outrage that ‘the bloke with the hat (Barnaby Joyce) has had some unkind words said about him.”
Toni managed to ask a question about McCall Smith’s writing, in particular about the serial novel and the much-loved 44 Scotland Street series.
Serial novels, a genre not that common nowadays but popular in the times of Charles Dickens, and also with Tolstoy, Trollope and Flaubert.
Dickens used it as a common way to earn a living, publishing a chapter a week in a newspaper or magazine, and generally ending with a cliffhanger. This was pre-television and so he was writing the soap operas of the day. Every chapter 12,000 words and often characters fell asleep at end of the chapter – “soporific writing” said McCall Smith, “because in synchronicity, the readers often fell asleep too!”
The books would be available in libraries and the cheeky public would correct any errors they found.
There is a writer in the United States from San Francisco who revived the serial novels for the newspaper San Francisco Chronicles. Alexander met him at a writers’ convention and was advised: “Don’t write serial novels”.
Advice McCall Smith chose to ignore and when he returned to Scotland he began writing chapters in the series 44 Scotland Street.
Producing a regular chapter can be a lot of pressure and he tries to ‘have a few up his sleeve’ but that doesn’t always mean meeting deadlines is easy.
Alexander was approached by Cunard shipping to sail around South America for free and be a ‘celebrity’ guest aboard the ship. “Now if they write to you,” he said, “always say, yes.”
He had committed himself to writing a serial book but the Internet dropped out around Cape Horn. He asked the audience if they had heard of the Bermuda Triangle. This experience was similar because there was “no cloud”. He was writing instalments of Scotland Street and luckily always had some in hand or he would have missed all of his instalments for that period.
He suggested people try writing a book this way each instalment building up – a chapter a day soon leads to a book!
We shall change all that… because it is possible to change the world, if one is determined enough, and if one sees with sufficient clarity just what has to be changed.”
The Kalahari Typing School for men, Alexander McCall Smith
Many people in the audience, discovered McCall Smith from his writing about Botswana, a country where he lived and one he has “a real affection for.” He still visits regularly.
His books about The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency introduced the African country to many readers, and many readers to author McCall Smith. Internationally, he became a household name.
It was the first of McCall Smith’s books I read and this year is the 20th anniversary of the first novel published in 1998 but “written and heartfelt in 1996”.
On his website, he exhorts us to ‘celebrate 20 years of Humanity. Kindness. Humour. Forgiveness. And sheer Joy.’ And I can remember how wonderful the first book was – how refreshing to read a positive book about an African country where the protagonist, Precious Ramotswe (wonderful name) was female, not precious but ordinary and down-to-earth, yet she had an extraordinary dream, which she persisted to make reality with intelligence and drive.
The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series started life as a short story written for friends but took hold of its author and grew first to one novel and then, over the space of twenty years, to nineteen (the nineteenth book, The Colours of All the Cattle, to be published later this year). The characters have won the hearts of readers around the globe and together, the eighteen volumes published so far have become one of the world’s most successful series, with over 20 million copies sold in English and translations into 46 languages. Written as a long love-letter to a country and culture which he admires, Alexander has no plans to bring this series to an end anytime soon.
Precious Ramotswe, that kind and cheerful woman of traditional build, is the founder of Botswana’s first and only ladies’ detective agency. Her methods may not be conventional, and her manner not exactly Miss Marple, but she’s got warmth, wit and canny intuition on her side, not to mention Mr J. L. B. Matekoni, the charming proprietor of Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors and Mma Makutsi her able assistant who never tires of telling people that she graduated with a mark of 97% from the Botswana Secretarial College.
Alexander explained how the first edition of the original book had a print run of 1500 but now has 25 to 30 million copies. He was a bit worried the publisher was being too optimistic about the book and promoting it, especially when they sent him to the USA.
Referring to the United States, he said when he visited to promote his books they were friendly but he discovered they love titles and in that country ‘everybody is a vice president – even if they just look after the coffee or the photocopying machine or publicity!’
He was invited to lunch with all the vice presidents and the meeting extended from 11 to 4 p.m. He knew then that the book would take off, so to celebrate he went out and bought new shoes “two of them” for $140.
He was staying at a club related to a membership he had in Scotland. His room was not too far from the bathroom but his American publicist was mortified “You are sharing a bathroom!?”
Now when he goes to America he has his own bathroom – his books have let him step up his comfort level. However, he considered sharing a bathroom an important stage to go through. It builds character, he noted with a smile and proceeded to reminisce about his student days.
(For many years Alexander was a professor of Medical Law and worked in universities in the UK and abroad before turning his hand to writing fiction. He has written and contributed to more than 100 books including specialist academic titles.)
He has shared with “dirty people, experienced bathrooms with unidentified hairs(let’s not go there!) and fridges filled with ghastly food,” although flatmates have been great. He then added his humorous take, “Meet them later in life and they are transformed. But do you read about their convictions?”
McCall Smith’s generous writing and dry humor, his gentleness and humanity, and his ability to evoke a place and a set of characters without caricature or condescension have endeared his books to readers
New York Times
Toni managed to steer McCall Smith back onto writing and some of his other talents. He talked about being on a boat in Africa and passing the camp of two authors who were experts on baboons. He shouted across the water, “I have read Baboon Metaphysics.” This resulted in a very rare invitation to stay overnight at the campsite and learn more from the authors and their research.
The book explains how powerful female baboons are dominant. They are ambitious and for McCall Smith, not unlike Lady Macbeth so he wrote an opera about a troupe of baboons.
He collaborated to produce a chamber opera with music by Tom Cunningham to his libretto. Set in the Botswana Okavango Delta, it tells the story of the struggle for power among competing baboons in their matriarchal society—thus drawing parallels with the Macbeth story.
THE OKAVANGO MACBETH
Written for Botswana to appease his fascination with primatology, and an idea of baboon people.
In 2008, Alexander set up a small opera house in the bush just outside Gaborone, in Botswana. “It is really a garage converted with 60 seats,” but he hosted the Premiere of his opera which he said is “a really terrible opera for musically challenged people.” However, “they perform and travel with it so it can’t be all that bad until people find out what I say is true!”
The project was undertaken jointly with David Slater, a long-time resident of Botswana who had made a major contribution over the years to music in that country. The opera house was housed in an old converted transport garage discovered by Alexander when he was looking for places similar to the garage featured in The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series. It was converted into a modest auditorium with seating for sixty.
For four years, The No. 1 Ladies’ Opera House gave local singers a chance to perform in opera and in regular concerts. Botswana has a tradition of choral singing. “There are many wonderful singers there, and this gave them the opportunity to show and develop their talents. It also gave people in Gaborone the chance to see the occasional opera, something which until then, they did not have.”
The Opera House remained open until 2012. It is now closed.
He has had many collaborations, especially with composers and has worked in other branches of the arts for the last decade. For Scotland At Night he wrote the poems and Tom Cunningham wrote the music.
He loves music and created an orchestra from other people who love music ‘but are not very good.’ The conductor stopped them once because they were all playing different music! RTOM, he said – really terrible orchestral music!
Alexander and his wife Elizabeth were the founding members of the Really Terrible Orchestra, a hugely popular amateur orchestral ensemble based in Edinburgh city centre.
A bassoonist, sousaphonist and contrabassoonist, Alexander, inspired by the pleasure his own children seemed to get from orchestral playing, worked to get the ensemble going in 1995. At the time it had just 10 players and rehearsed music for the sheer fun and enjoyment of it.
The main ethos of the RTO is clear; it’s an ensemble for those who have been prevented from playing music, either through lack of talent or some other factor, to play in the company of players of a similarly terrible standard. The name was given, thankfully, to ensure that audiences would know that what they see is what they hear.
Now with 65 players and a terrible international reputation to uphold, the orchestra is more in demand than ever. Rehearsing fortnightly the ensemble is currently under the musical direction of ‘Sir’ Richard Neville-Towle.
Last year in Stockholm Sweden, he was literally astonished how many joined in the RTO. They always get a professional conductor – ‘one who’s doing the country a service.’ Socially, it is great – two trumpeters married; the viola and the double bass also met and married – the couples even produced babies!
The breadth of his body of work vividly evokes places and characters who are infused with humanity, decency, wit and humour
The National Arts Club citation
We were then treated to a performance of one of McCall Smith’s poems. He announced that it would be brief because “Often when you read a poem, even a brief one, it is a signal for people to leave.”
The poem was from his annual pamphlet that he circulates to friends. He makes 800 copies but “Actually I have only 14 friends.” The rest of the copies go to strangers.
He always puts a poem at the end of the Scotland Street books.
He was amused by a sign he saw from the taxi in LA that said, HYPNOTHERAPY NEXT RIGHT.
He loves signs and they often inspire a poem. He especially loves signs in other languages with the English translation – many of these don’t quite get the nuances of English or are more poetic than English. He uses this when he transposes them to include in his poem.
He remembered one that was in French hanging from a rickety fence above a cliff. In English it should read ‘do not lean against’ but the translated sign beneath the French read ‘do not lean again’. This much more intriguing and realistic considering the state and site of the fence!
Another sign about urinating was translated as “No Pissing” “How irrepressible and unrepentant” said McCall.
The poem he read was inspired by the sign in LA and was set on an aeroplane. He made fun of the choice of words pilots use – “at this time we commence our descent” instead of “now we are going to land.” The poem, telling the story of a flight and landing explored the idea of pilots speaking in poetic language instead of bland words. Like most of his poems, this one was humorous and brief, with a little satire.
After reading his poem, Alexander addressed the audience: ‘Any questions or complaints? You can complain.”
People queued to ask him questions, each one an adoring fan.
The first question was about his Safaris to Botswana. He’s done 4 or 5 and “They’re lots of fun.” The next one is in September for one week. They visit three towns and he loves meeting readers and loves Botswana.
He was asked about Arthur Upfield and his character Boney who was in a series of books. He remembered reading them but it was a long time ago and he didn’t know it had been turned into a television series.
He said crime fiction is about place, and he likes Keating’s books set in Bombay. “A place of eminence and a strong character are the two most important elements of crime fiction.” With a wry smile, he acknowledged the popularity of Scandinavian Noir yet, “I wasin Stockholm and didn’t see one murder!”
When he was asked what he thought of the TV series of his Number One Ladies Detective Agency rather than criticise he commented that there was also a full-length movie made. Unfortunately, the director died on the day of the film premiere. The TV series “did a good job but the film was very respectful to the book.”
He visited the film set and watched how they did some scenes 15 times to get it right. The funeral scene repeated again and again because everybody was so moved. Even the cameramen cried and they had to redo it. Anthony Magellan, the director of the film really captured the essence of the characters and story and he also got good actors for the film.
And the evening was over – a delightful “conversation” fittingly ended while talking about Precious Ramotswe and Botswana. They left the stage too soon but then delightful evenings are never long enough!
I was thrilled to have my few minutes with the author and to buy a couple more of his wonderful novels. In a world where we are bombarded daily with increasingly sad news escaping with a Mccall Smith novel soothes the spirit because it reaffirms the existence of a lot of wonderful, kind, gentle, and genteel folk and entertaining stories don’t have to be angst-ridden with mainly imperfect, unlikeable characters.
‘It was Ian Rankin who claimed that as global politics becomes more turbulent, the world will increasingly find itself in need of Alexander McCall Smith’s heart-warming novels, and he is right’
Inspired by Alexander’s reading of signs and creating poetry I decided to make an attempt to record the evening in verse and pics – after all, April is Poetry Month!
The Pursuit of Happiness
My dancing self visited Melbourne city
to listen to Alexander McCall Smith
an author known for his savoir-faire,
worldly and renowned teller of tales
that captivate. Colourful, uplifting
they counteract an oft bleak world…
I walk past the majestic Town Hall
hosting Hermès At Work
an exhibition about the birth
of the international luxury brand.
Displays of handmade objets incroyable.
Admission free to anyone who’ll listen
as clever artisans tell their stories
of commitment to craft
of style, beauty and excellence.
I doubt the homeless huddled
and begging from nearby doorways
will take up their offer…
Along the street, I stride
passing a profusion of flowers
of red, gold and orange blossoms
their subtle perfume and prettiness
a defence against the toxic traffic
and soulless concrete jungle
Utility bollards appropriated
by street artists and decorated
exhort passersby to celebrate
the timeless beauty and spirit
of Victoria’s Koori people
stalwarts of faith and courage
meaningful silhouettes and shadows
sun, moon, stars, crosses and hands
images of fertility and life cycles
unlike the ugly graffiti
meaningless tags from non-artists
seeking celebrity or notoriety.
I reach Melbourne’s Atheneum
An embodiment of Emperor Hadrian’s
seat of intellectual refinement.
A queue of literary patrons
wriggles around the block –
their joyous anticipation catching.
This meme that did the rounds of Facebook recently reminded me of using a knitting project to calm my mind and complete a commitment I made to a newfound friend when we spent a weekend in Ballarat as volunteers for that city’s first ever Open House.
Susan and I shared a B & B overnight and I heard about her involvement in the 5000 Poppies Project. I first read about this project when I attended the Spirit of Anzac Exhibition at Jeff’s Shed several years ago. Susan reminded me of the mental note I made at the time to follow up the story. She inspired me to ‘pull my finger out’ and participate.
That was October and it wasn’t until December when life went a little pear-shaped that I recalled my promise to knit poppies. The thought of an excuse to sit and focus on craft more appealing than sitting at the computer!
Back to School For Knitting Lessons
I have many happy memories of craft, especially when my children attended the Steiner Stream at Moorabbin Heights Primary School in the 90s. I loved being immersed in creative projects with them. We made felt gnomes, knitted tiny mice and any other animal you could think of to sell as fundraisers for the school.
Reconnecting with knitting became a holistic exercise.
The pure wool bought, dyed, and wound into usable skeins in the class by the children.
Purchased dowels of various thickness from Bunnings hardware were cut to size and the kids sanded the needles smooth before massaging them with beeswax.
After collecting tiny gum nuts from the garden and glueing them to the end of the needles, they were ready to knit.
I can’t remember who taught me to knit. Certainly not my mother – she always decried her knitting ability by showing a half-finished sock still on the three needles that she started to knit for Dad in the early days of their marriage. It was even brought out to Australia when we migrated – why will remain a mystery!
Mum loved repeating proverbs and the one she used to explain that lack of knitting prowess was, ‘The road to hell is paved with good intentions.’
Maybe it was my Great Aunt Teen who first taught me to knit because she was constantly knitting or crocheting and up until she died in the mid-60s she made all of us a jumper or cardigan for our birthdays.
The last item she made me was a lovely pure wool jacket and I received it the night before we left for Australia. Nine-year-old me adored that jacket and it was so well-knitted and loved that I still have it.
My daughter, Anne, even wore it for a short while although it was slightly yellowed with age. It has dogs as a pattern and she loves dogs!
Perhaps I learned to knit at Brownies or Girl Guides – I vaguely remember knitting a scarf for a doll – I know my older sister, Cate would have helped because she is as talented at knitting and crocheting as Great Aunt Teen.
However, I learned the basic skills, I know the difference between knit and purl and as a volunteer mum at the Steiner school, I found myself sitting in a circle with a group of the children and teaching them to cast on and knit.
I recall the looks of intense concentration as 7 – 9-year-old girls and boys struggled to master the craft, row by laborious row.
‘Mairi, how many stitches should I have at the end of the row?’
‘I’ve got 23.’
‘I’ve got 30.’
‘I’ve got 29.’
And so around the circle… picking up lost stitches, separating some convoluted efforts, unravelling knots, losing excess stitches…
I still have the recorder and music bags my girls sewed, knitted and embroidered just like my mother kept the placemats I made with childish hands.
Bridget Whelan, the author of Back To Creative Writing School, wrote that ‘weaving stories in your head while you travel to work or sit daydreaming in a café is not writing.’
I agree, however, sometimes it pays to take a rest from trying to fill the blank page and turn attention to some other form of creativity and that’s what I did when I set myself the task of knitting poppies for the 5000 Poppies Project.
But like all those writing projects needing editing and polishing – I didn’t quite make the target. (Although between us we did, I’m sure!)
I can list the excuses (I’m a writer so very good at excuses):
a bout of ill-health, preparing for visitors from overseas, Christmas, an unbearably hot summer, clearing clutter and preparing for the New Year… etc etc…
I did manage to knit 30 poppies and post them off so don’t feel a complete failure and on reflection 100 was a big target but an absolutely minuscule amount when you think of the number of poppies completed in what has become a global challenge.
Here is a picture from a couple of years ago when a display was placed at Parliament House, Victoria. There have also been moving tributes at the Shrine of Remembrance, the Australian War Memorial, and in London and other places of significance – hundreds of thousands of knitted poppies.
“These days, we wear our poppies not only as a symbol of remembrance of the fallen but also as a symbol of our support for those who have chosen (or in the case of those who in the past have been conscripted) to serve their country…
… we have again created a most beautiful and moving tribute at Melbourne’s iconic Shrine of Remembrance. As beautiful as it is … this is only one of many many other tributes that have been created throughout the world … created from our hearts, with love, and honour and respect.
If you could reflect … and pass on our message to anyone you know who is currently serving, or has served, or has suffered from the ongoing effects of their own service or their loved ones’ service … it is why we are doing what we are doing … This tribute is our gift to you.
Our way of saying thank you, and a poignant reminder of the depth of feeling from a grateful nation. Your service will not be forgotten. LEST WE FORGET”
In Flanders Fields by John McCrae, May 1915
In Flanders fields, the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
The Inspiration for “In Flanders Fields”
It was early days in the Second Battle of Ypres when a young Canadian artillery officer, Lieutenant Alexis Helmer, was killed on 2nd May 1915 when an exploding German artillery shell landed near him.
He was serving in the same Canadian artillery unit as a friend of his, the Canadian military doctor and artillery commander Major John McCrae. Being the brigade doctor, John McCrae was asked to conduct the burial service for Alexis because the chaplain had been called away somewhere else on duty that evening.
It is believed that later that evening, after the burial, John began the draft for his now famous poem “In Flanders Fields”. The sight of these delicate, vibrant red flowers growing on the shattered ground caught his attention. He noticed how they had sprung up in the disturbed ground of the burials around the artillery position.
In Dornie, Scotland last year I saw the McCrae memorial honouring their clansmen:
The Story Behind the Remembrance Poppy
The origin of the red Flanders poppy as a modern-day symbol of remembrance was the inspiration of an American teacher, Miss Moina Belle Michael, also known as ‘The Poppy Lady.’
She and Frenchwoman Madame Anna Guérin, known as ‘The French Poppy Lady’, encouraged people to use the red Flanders poppy as a way of remembering those who had suffered in war.
The Flanders Poppy became the symbol of remembrance that we know so well today.
Two days before the Armistice was declared at 11 o’clock on 11th November 1918, Moina Belle Michael was on duty at the YMCA Overseas War Secretaries’ headquarters in New York. She was working in the “Gemot” in Hamilton Hall. This was a reading room and a place where U.S. servicemen would often gather with friends and family to say their goodbyes before they went on overseas service.
On that day, Hamilton Hall was busy with people coming and going because the Twenty-fifth Conference of the Overseas YMCA War Secretaries was in progress. During the first part of the morning as a young soldier passed by Moina’s desk, he left a copy of the latest November edition of the Ladies HomeJournal .
When Moina found a few moments to herself, she browsed through the magazine and came across a page carrying a vivid colour illustration with the poem entitled We Shall Not Sleep.
This was an alternative name sometimes used for John McCrae’s poem, In Flanders Fields. Moina had come across the poem before, but reading it on this occasion she found herself transfixed by the last verse:
Take up our quarrel with the foe: To you from failing hands we throw The torch; be yours to hold it high. If ye break faith with us who die We shall not sleep, though poppies grow In Flanders fields.
Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae had died of pneumonia several months earlier on 28th January 1918.
In her autobiography, entitled The Miracle Flower, Moina describes this experience as ‘deeply spiritual’. She felt as though she was actually being called in person by the voices which had been silenced by death.
Three men attending the conference arrived at Moina’s desk and on behalf of the delegates asked her to accept a cheque for 10 dollars, in appreciation of the effort she had made to brighten up the place with flowers at her own expense.
She was touched by the gesture and replied that she would buy twenty-five red poppies with the money. She showed them the illustration for John McCrae’s poem In Flanders Fields together with her response to it We Shall Keep the Faith.
We Shall Keep the Faith by Moina Michael, November 1918
Oh! you who sleep in Flanders Fields,
Sleep sweet – to rise anew!
We caught the torch you threw
And holding high, we keep the Faith
With All who died.
We cherish, too, the poppy red
That grows on fields where valor led;
It seems to signal to the skies
That blood of heroes never dies,
But lends a lustre to the red
Of the flower that blooms above the dead
In Flanders Fields.
And now the Torch and Poppy Red
We wear in honor of our dead.
Fear not that ye have died for naught;
We’ll teach the lesson that ye wrought
In Flanders Fields.
The delegates took both poems back into the Conference.
The red field poppy came to be known as an internationally recognised symbol of ‘Remembrance’. From its association with poppies flowering in the spring of 1915 on the battlefields of Belgium, France, and Gallipoli, this vivid red flower has become synonymous with great loss of life in war.
Yet the scope of the poppy and its connection with the memory of those who have died in war has been expanded to help the living too. It was the inspiration and dedication of two women who promoted this same memorial flower as the means by which funds could be raised to support those in need of help, most especially servicemen and civilians suffering from physical and mental hardship as a result of a war.
Since the end of the First World War, there has been an armed conflict somewhere in the world every single day!
Out of the Great War came a lesson of ordinary people that were not ordinary. They did extraordinary things.
25000 dead in WW1 had no known grave
When I was in Scotland last year I also read about the Highland Scot who suggested the tomb of the unknown soldier.
Love and loss is the essence of our humanity. Returned men and women damaged beyond recognition examples of the extremities of loss and bereavement. They do not get over it, or move on, or get closure.
In Fromelles, France where 5000 Australians died in the most tragic night in the history of WW1 the poppies were a beautiful contrast to the tragic scene of desolation. And of course, those casualties not in uniform were rarely recorded in official history.
The book, What’s wrong with ANZAC?details the huge disparity between public remembrance ( solemn artefacts etc) often misused for militarism and nationalism compared with the ambivalent stories of sacrifice and experience of survivors and the generations of pain resulting from war.
For me, the poppy has always been about acknowledging the devastation and tragedy of lives shattered and lost, remembering, mourning and hoping it never happens again!
Patriotic music written in wartime has been used to express national pride, spread propaganda, encourage enlistment and motivate troops.
Perhaps that’s why Eric Bogle’s antiwar songs written at the time of the Vietnam War but set in WW1, were and still are definitive songs for peace, honouring those who made the greatest sacrifice and pointing out the senselessness of armed conflict, and tragic waste to humanity.
Green Fields of France by Eric Bogle
Oh how do you do, young Willy McBride
Do you mind if I sit here down by your graveside
And rest for a while in the warm summer sun
I’ve been walking all day, and I’m nearly done
And I see by your gravestone you were only nineteen
When you joined the great fallen in 1916
Well I hope you died quick
And I hope you died clean
Or Willy McBride, was is it slow and obscene
Chorus Did they beat the drums slowly Did they play the fife lowly Did they sound the death march as they lowered you down Did the band play the last post and chorus Did the pipes play the flowers of the forest
And did you leave a wife or a sweetheart behind
In some loyal heart is your memory enshrined
And though you died back in 1916
To that loyal heart, you’re forever nineteen
Or are you a stranger without even a name
Forever enshrined behind some old glass pane
In an old photograph torn, tattered, and stained
And faded to yellow in a brown leather frame
The sun shining down on these green fields of France
The warm wind blows gently and the red poppies dance
The trenches have vanished long under the plough
No gas, no barbed wire, no guns firing now
But here in this graveyard that’s still no man’s land
The countless white crosses in mute witness stand
To man’s blind indifference to his fellow man
And a whole generation was butchered and damned
And I can’t help but wonder oh Willy McBride
Do all those who lie here know why they died
Did you really believe them when they told you the cause
Did you really believe that this war would end wars
Well the suffering, the sorrow, the glory, the shame
The killing and dying it was all done in vain
Oh, Willy McBride, it all happened again
And again, and again, and again, and again
Did they beat the drums slowly Did they play the fife lowly Did they sound the death march as they lowered you down Did the band play the last post and chorus Did the pipes play the flowers of the forest
Knitting the poppies gave me the gift of calmness and a warm glow that I was doing something useful and taking part in a worthwhile project.
It also helped me reflect and in moments of melancholy reflect on how hard it is to get those in authority to focus on PEACE.
I’m sure I’ll knit a few more poppies in the future too or find another use for the hands-on creativity that helps me rest from facing the blank screen and filling the blank page…
An exchange of emails and telephone calls confirm lesson plans made can now be actioned…
Hallelujah! – I have work…
Schools have gone back but my classes in community houses don’t commence until this week, and as is the nature of being casual, contract, part-time, temporary… confirmation usually doesn’t happen until enrolments are confirmed, and that can be very last moment.
(If lucky, sometimes managers decide to run a class in the hope people will turn up on the starting day.)
An email midweek from one employer confirmed enrolments in tomorrow’s class are enough – the class will run. A telephone call Friday confirmed the other classes have numbers too.
Returning to work, after the long summer break without an income is definitely a cause for celebration – and that good old-fashioned, ‘Hallelujah.’
I’m not alone working in jobs reliant on funding and nearly everybody is at the mercy of the vagaries of the economy. Most workers are hostage to an employer whether it be in the public or private sector. And the courageous few who establish a business spend a lot of time worrying too.
It is wonderful to be told you have paid work – the certainty helps with budgeting!
In the adult education field, many teachers are employed on short-term contracts or a casual basis. Sadly, this even happens within the school system nowadays.
Uncertainty, flexibility, adaptability – the modern workers buzz words. The only guarantee is there are no guarantees.
Who Are My Students? Uncertainty and Anticipation
Some students are returning and I wonder what they have written over the holidays and if their writing projects and aims have changed. (Or have they shared my struggle to write!)
I’m curious about the new students. Always, the stirrings of excitement a motivation to remember and act upon the Girl Guide Motto, “Be Prepared.”
Despite teaching for 20 years I love the research of planning lessons. Seeking new ideas, books, craft information, a variety of sources, prompts and challenges to ensure we move out of comfort zones.
Did Anyone Put My End-of-Year Present To Work?
When classes ended for the summer holidays, and because it coincides with Christmas there is often an exchange of presents or an expectation to give a gift.
Gift giving often problematic, if you are someone like me who likes to give a book. Writers are usually avid readers and the chances of giving a book the recipient already has is high.
Print books can be expensive, especially new releases. I decided to promote writing and wrapped up a pocket notebook and pen for each student.
I asked them to keep the notebook handy and every day write down ideas for stories or poems: observations that strike them as interesting, perhaps overheard dialogue, a memorable smell, unusual sound, evocative texture or taste – all the happenings and minute details that are important to engage with readers.
Paying it Forward
I first started using a pocket notebook over 30 years ago after hearing Australian writer, playwright and poet, Dorothy Hewett interviewed on the ABC. She talked about having a notebook and pen in her apron pocket and mentioned some of the stories that grew from her scribbled thoughts.
I’m still old school and usually write by hand before recording onto the computer. Adding words, rewriting, subsequent drafts, plus editing, are all done on the computer, but that initial writing by hand allows me to be more in tune with thoughts, whether brainstorming, a stream of consciousness, or what I call ‘the splurge’ in class, or just musing.
The downside of course is finding it difficult to decipher my writing if I’ve scribbled while on public transport or in the middle of the night (I keep a notebook and pen by the bed) or under the influence of a strong emotion like anger or grief with my mind in overdrive and the hand finding it difficult to keep up.
I’m sure observers the other day thought I was mad as I paused in the middle of Main Street to jot in my notebook. (Maybe I’ll appear in another writer’s notebook as an eccentric old woman.) But I had to note a couple of young girls giggling as they crossed the road arm in arm, one wearing a t-shirt that said, “Mermaids don’t do homework”.
Uncover or Discover Stories to Record
It’s easy to become stuck in a routine or feel life is ‘same old, same old’, to rely on books, television, movies, and various social media platforms for entertainment, experience, and to extend imagination.
There is an endless amount of stories out there but it’s easy to convince yourself ‘nothing is new under the sun’ and all the original stories have been written by someone more capable or talented.
Writing is hard work, it takes effort – 5% inspiration and 95% perspiration – that’s why it helps if you have other writers encouraging, supporting and motivating your pen to move!
I discovered a poem I wrote after an icebreaker session when the writing students interviewed and introducedeach other. I listened (the most important part of any learning process) and made notes to help me remember the students.
The poem takes me back to that class, remembering the students and recalling what they wrote. It may be rhyming doggerel but it also a record of part of my life.
Poetry is great for recording snapshots of life.
Writing Class at Mordialloc Neighbourhood House 2005
WW2 was announced on the airwaves
and Heather’s family gathered round
a ten-year-old girl confused
until the air raid sirens sound.
Later, the adult Heather
chose Nursing as a career
a passion shared by Angela
who cared for children three.
Angela’s knowledge of medicine
has stood her in good stead
because she daily battles MS
gallantly facing whatever’s ahead
She’s had environmental change
to Melbourne from the Apple Isle
like Margaret Birch’s Moorabbin memory
gumboots a necessity, not style.
Margaret watched Moorabbin grow
from soldier settlements to busy metropolis
South Road’s dirt track transformed
into a modern traffic terminus.
To escape car fumes and pollution
visit Margaret Birkenhead’s home
meditate in her Edithvale garden
a splendid oasis of beauty to roam.
Sixty years of devotion and giving
mirrored by Marjorie’s journey
a shared vision of contentment
family values central to living.
These two ladies share a thirst for
knowledge and highly value education
Marjorie returned to study at sixty-five
gaining a BA and a new vocation.
She now writes family history,
children’s stories, and rhymed verse,
which strikes a chord with Phillip
whose words forever impress.
He produces poems that inspire,
they also enlighten and amuse
a talent shared by Jeanette
who adores theatre and to choose
serenity listening to classical music
whether operatic or dance
and loves to go to the cinema
whenever she has a chance.
With her beautiful English skin
rosy-cheeked regardless of fashion
She’s travelled from Tibet to Marrakesh
and cites bushwalking as a passion.
Jeannette’s love of reading and writing
shared by Fay, their meeting revealed
how grief’s strain on life’s journey
has oft times their sadness sealed.
These two widows like many others
have made a silent promise
they’ll live life to the fullest
and never a writing class miss!
Ceinwen was born in Wales
and sings as sweet as a bird
she wanted to go on stage
but her Mother said, ‘how absurd!’
Until WW2 intervened and
Ceinwen found the freedom she craved
in the RAF’s Entertainment Unit
performing dreams were saved.
Toula grew up fearful of change
with a Greek father ultra strict
friendless and often oppressed
her husband was father’s pick!
Toula escaped through books,
photography, and painting too
she wants to write her story
migrant women’s voices too few.
Amelia is an artist producing poetic
landscapes with her paintbrush
she meditates every morning
a daily routine she’ll never rush,
each moment must be enjoyed
since meeting the Dalai Lama
his wise words keeping her buoyed.
Whereas Doreen is more practical
divorced for over thirty years
and as a single parent of four
she conquered many fears.
Her Mazda 121 is special
it’s twenty-seven years old
driving gives her pleasure
and walking leaves her cold.
Doreen’s a voracious reader
writing stories that entertain
with characters and dialogue
refreshing as spring rain.
Variety is the spice of life
a well-worn cliche we know
but this group of writing students
have plenty of seeds to sow.
Each Monday promises to delight –
as their pens move across the page
characters and plots coming alive
as if on a Shakespearean stage
A friend recently commented, ‘Wow, what richness in that class of skills and life experience. I bet they wrote some great stuff!’
They did indeed!
Her observations right – I’ve been privileged to meet some truly inspirational people with powerful stories told well. The writers who have peopled my classes over the years did produce amazing poems and prose.
Unfortunately, some of the Class of 2005 are no longer here, others attended a short time, but two of the writers are still coming to classes, honing their craft and enjoying their passion for words.
Not so long ago I was celebrating the lack of timetables and freedom from routine as the summer holidays commenced… but I’ll accept the persona of the female stereotype and change my mind.
Now, I look forward to the beginning of the term and the predictability of the working week to re-establish regular writing practice and share the journey with old friends and new students.
Last week I received an email from the Arts Centre informing me that “we have another community engagement project at Arts Centre Melbourne that you might be interested in being part of called The Walking Neighbourhood.”
I was definitely interested! Especially if it turns out to be as entertaining and satisfying as Dominoes, my last community volunteering effort.
The two poetry books I published in the 1990s were inspired by my daughters and their friends, so how wonderful to see the world from the viewpoint of current young people. Primary children through to adolescents will be involved – what a privilege to hear their interests, concerns, imagination and ideas first hand unfiltered by what the media portrays and assumes.
In The Walking Neighbourhood, young people take the lead and give you the opportunity to experience life through their eyes as they take you on a unique guided tour of Melbourne’s Arts Precinct. In a series of short walks, you will be taken on a one-of-a-kind exploration of the places and stories that they think are most important.
This project is community based and is a wonderful opportunity to give children and young people a voice in sharing their ideas and perspective on their neighbourhoods and cities. Children and youth have the capacity to transform a space with their vivid imaginations, their bright and bubbly energy and their ability to think creatively approaching situations from completely different perspectives.
It is a sad fact that modern children, particularly those who live in the city and suburbs, don’t have the freedom I remember from childhood. Rarely do you see children playing in the street or local park like we did when there were fewer cars and before ‘stranger danger’ instilled fear into so many communities. Fear of children being molested, attacked or kidnapped prevents many families letting children explore or play independent of adults.
Fewer children walk to and from school without parental supervision and exploring unfamiliar places without an adult in attendance is rare.
This intergenerational project the Arts Centre Melbourne has arranged appealed to me because it is a unique opportunity.
Ironically, the children participating in this project will have an adult volunteer like me with them, but we will be stage managers and prop carriers if need be, to be directed by the children. We’ll help them present what they want as they lead the walk and share their stories.
Conceived during residencies with Mammalian Diving Reflex in 2 schools, Tasmania Australia and Toronto Canada, where 11 year olds shared very similar concerns about their lack of autonomy, The Walking Neighbourhood responds to the rising hysteria around children in public space and their safety.
In Melbourne,The Walking Neighbourhoodwill take place next weekend, Saturday June 4 and Sunday June 5 and my shifts are in the afternoon from 1pm – 4pm. It is a free event and from what I understand from attending an induction evening, there will be more than 100 children involved. This will be the most ambitious program the resident artists and local helpers have tackled since the concept’s inception in 2010.
On Friday afternoon, I went into the Arts Centre to help make craft items for the event. A space in the Arts Centre will be the launching point for the walks but also a place where adults and children alike can participate in making craft, interact and get to know each other.
Judy, Nalika and myself were given the task of making God’s Eyes– a simple task if any of us could remember how to do them! A quick Google search and memories were jogged.
The Internet is indeed amazing, but we could have done with a child to show us instead of searching for a strong enough signal to watch a Youtube demonstration. For a moment we wished we were outside painting with some of the other volunteers!
I have another session this Thursday night where I’ll be working with some of the teenagers on another craft activity – let’s hope it’s one I can do!
I’ve practised at home and made a few more God’s Eyes and just hope I don’t forget the skill for the workshops on the weekend!
Working with the volunteers and visiting artists and having a coffee and cake together in the cafe allows us to share our stories and is one of the delightful pluses of these community projects.
I also love the opportunity of seeing the city at different times and in different seasons.
In a couple of my writing classes we have been writing Triolets again and I wrote one on the train home from the Arts Centre on Friday afternoon while thinking of being there late on Tuesday evening and reflecting on what a difference light makes and how it can effect beauty and mood.
Marvellous Melbourne Mairi Neil
Marvellous Melbourne, majestic and beautiful
Breathtaking reminder of how lucky we are
Of all the world’s cities, you are the most liveable
Marvellous Melbourne, majestic and beautiful
Caught in your spell, my obsession not curable
Strolling Southgate’s walkways, beneath sun or star
Marvellous Melbourne, majestic and beautiful
Breathtaking reminder of how lucky we are
Melbourne Arts Precinct, vibrant and alive
Tourists and locals add culture and mood
Walk Princes Bridge, there is no need to drive
Melbourne Arts Precinct, vibrant and alive!
Yarra River rippling, entrancing – life thrives
Stalls, dancing, busking, a variety of food
Melbourne Arts Precinct, vibrant and alive
Tourists and locals add culture and mood.
I can appreciate the beauty of this part of Melbourne regardless of the time of day – what about you?
Have you ever been inspired to capture your love of Melbourne or another city in verse?
I read for emotional engagement – a resonance in my heart as well as mind – and a love of story. Often I don’t finish a book, or take too long reading because it’s a struggle to engage with either the characters, plot, themes or the use of language.
However, a poorly edited book will be finished if the story is powerful or the characters grab me. Cliched I know, but a book must leave something with me to think about long after it’s been returned to its owner, library, put back on my shelf, or passed to a friend.
I have no interest in writing about books I don’t like so can never claim to be an objective book reviewer – I’ll leave that to experts on other sites like writer and friend, Lisa Hill.
I’m attracted to writers who can teach me something about writing, and Andrew O’Hagan is one of my favourite authors. His use of words crafted into delightful and poignant metaphors and similes; minimal but evocative descriptions and always stories and characters with layers of meaning. He deftly structures his novels to lead to surprising revelations and links that have you nodding your head in amazement because of an ‘ah, ah’ moment of understanding.
I’ll be unashamedly partisan, O’Hagan’s lyrical prose speaks to me in more ways than one because he’s Scottish and many of his beautiful passages capture the Scotland and the people I grew up with and know so well. Even although it’s been many years since I lived full-time in Scotland, I can picture places he describes and hear beloved voices. The memories evoked pure nostalgic indulgence.
I haven’t read all his offerings but first came across his writing in The Missing, a non-fiction book that had a profound impact. I might review this another time because like his fictional works I’ve read, Our Fathers, Be Near Me, and Personality and now this latest offering The Illuminations, O’Hagan tackles relevant social issues and newsworthy events and weaves them into his characters’ lives. He researches and champions important issues affecting the human condition, makes us think and generates empathy for people and situations we may otherwise ignore.
If you become captivated like me, you’ll seek out his other books – I tend to do that with authors. I remember Mrs Saffin, the librarian at Croydon High School in 1965 trying to break me of the habit of working my way through the shelves by reading all the books of a particular author before moving on to a new writer. (She had limited success.)
On reflection, because I always wanted to be a writer, I don’t think it was a bad idea on my part. When I found an author I liked, I was probably subconsciously studying and learning their craft and how/why they earned my loyalty!
Thanks to a Christmas book voucher I bought The Illuminationsat one of my favourite Melbourne bookshops The Hill of Content . A 40 minute train ride worth making. It’s an oasis of intellectual delight where I often discover books you may not pick up elsewhere and the customer service is second to none.
Andrew O’Hagan’s novel The Illuminations is as the blurb suggests ‘a beautiful, deeply charged story, showing that no matter how we look at it, there is no such thing as an ordinary life.’
The novel’s chapters alternate between family events in Scotland and Captain Luke Campbell’s experiences in Afghanistan. Luke’s regiment, the Royal Western Fusiliers carry out the decisions of the powers that be who now believe, ‘creating electricity and irrigating the warlords’ poppy fields was a better idea than blasting the population from its caves.’
However, this policy unravels along with the mind of Luke’s commanding officer and mentor, Major Scullion, whose ‘friendship used to be like a winter coat to Luke.’
When Luke examined his face he saw the eyes of a little counter-assassin from Westmeath. They were fogged with humanitarianism and strict orders, but they were still the eyes of a man who knew what to do in a dark alleyway.
In Scotland, we are in the world of Luke’s Canadian-born grandmother, Anne Quirk, once a well-known photographer. Anne lives in a sheltered housing complex in Lochranza Court, Saltcoats on Scotland’s west coast, but her mind is unravelling with the onset of dementia. She faces the loss of independence because ‘any resident incapable of working a kettle would have to be moved to a nursing home.’
Fortunately, for Anne, her next-door neighbour, Maureen has a fascination and fondness for the ‘quirky’ resident. ‘Maureen considered herself the warden’s deputy. It wasn’t a real job or anything like that but she could help the older ones with their laundry. She watered the plants and went for the milk, tasks that gave her a feeling of usefulness she had missed.’
Retirement complexes, small towns and villages, streets full of longterm residents all have, indeed need, their Maureens, who while coming to grips with the present, mourn the past when they looked after children.
‘And one by one they left the house with their LPs and their T-shirts. That’s what happens, Maureen thought, That’s how it is, You kill yourself looking after them and then they get up and leave you. She never imagined she’d end up in a place like Lochranza Court, but it had been six years and she was used to it.’
The novel is really about Anne whose relationship with her daughter, Alice is strained. Maureen observes there ‘was clearly a part of Anne’s life that was off limits or stuck in the past, but the dementia was bringing it out.’ (This ‘illuminating’ of the past is the crux of the novel.) Maureen feels sorry for Alice and keeps her in the loop regarding her mother. She also writes to Luke on Anne’s behalf and keeps that relationship vibrant.
We learn of Harry, Luke’s grandfather, a war hero in Anne’s eyes, and of Luke’s father Sean, another soldier, also a member of the Western Fusiliers, who was killed in Northern Ireland. Anne’s dementia and occasional episodes of lucidity hint at unresolved traumas from the past and conflicting opinions about the present and future.
“…in “The Illuminations,” the Scottish novelist and critic Andrew O’Hagan has created a story that is both a howl against the war in Afghanistan and the societies that have blindly abetted it, and a multilayered, deeply felt tale of family, loss, memory, art, loyalty, secrecy and forgiveness.”
At the beginning of the book, O’Hagan thanks Abdul Aziz Froutan and colleagues in Afghanistan, as well as members of the Royal Irish regiment for answering questions. And in peculiar serendipity as I was reading the novel the ABC was broadcasting the documentary series Afghanistan Inside Australia’s Warfeaturing the same period as the novel.
In their own words and their own extraordinary, never-before-seen helmet-cam battle footage, Australia’s fighting men and women lay bare their hearts in an epic series – not just how they waged a war, but why and to what end.
O’Hagan did his research and it shows with his depiction of life in Afghanistan. He reveals the importance of violent Xbox games and heavy metal music to modern soldiers, the amount of pills popped and marijuana smoked, the physical, emotional and mental price paid abroad and at home. The horror of the fighting fascinating, but stomach-churning reading. No wonder there is a prevalence of post traumatic stress syndrome in returning soldiers.
Sitting on the wall, he smoked a cigarette, watched the water. It was a loss of spirit that had occurred in him… He later wished he could capture the peace he had known over those hours on the seawall as he looked into the the black distance, the lighthouse on the Holy Isle beating out a message just for him. The mountains of Arran he felt he had seen in another time, a recent one, but there was no gunfire or flares, no broken sleep, no enemy below, just the mountains themselves, the steady return of the fishing boats and the light that came with the morning.
After a mission goes horribly wrong, Luke leaves the army and in his quest to try and make sense of life he takes his grandmother on a road trip to Blackpool to see the famous Illuminations hoping to shed some light on the part of her life she has kept secret. In his reminiscing of growing up with a special relationship with this grandmother he reflects, ‘There was endless chat about how life used to be, with details missing.’
In the packing up of Anne’s life for the trip to Blackpool and the inevitable move to a nursing home when they return, Luke discovers letters and photographs which in Anne’s lucid moments she can explain. He begins to appreciate how talented she was as a photographer and wants to understand why she gave it all up.
In the observations and discussions about photography, the novelist has again done his homework. Another thank you at the beginning of the book is
...to Yaddo, and to Mary O’Connor and the keepers of the Joseph Mulholland Archive at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, where he studied the papers of the photographer Margaret Watkins.
Serendipity struck again – on March 13th my father would be 94 years old if alive. He died of dementia in 2005. He was an amateur photographer and although many of his photographs are of family there are others where I wonder what motivated him to take the picture? What did his artist eye see? What essence was he trying to capture?
And here in this novel we learn so much about Anne Quirk through the discussion of photography and photographs despite her dementia. I remember visiting with my dad and having conversations about the past. But did we talk about what happened? what never happened? what he wished had happened?
Dad manufactured stories to protect himself from past traumas and it seems O’Hagan’s Anne Quirk does the same. ‘You don’t see the connections in your life until it’s too late to disentangle them.’
This novel stirred many connections in my life, even the chapters set in Blackpool a place I visited in 1984 with my late husband just as they were setting up the illuminations. The B&Bs, the dance halls, the promenade, the pubs, the grey sea – all wonderfully captured by O’Hagan.
Memory resides in the simplest things but to remember is a complex and complicated task. Are we remembering reality or an imaginary world? Is a photograph an accurate memory? What did the lens not see? Are photographs worth a thousand words?
Towards the end of the novel Luke discovers how good a photographer his grandmother was when he unearths a series of rare private photographs of The Beatles 1962:
‘Luke had to stand up, astonished at the scale and the mystery of what she’d done…For all her mistakes and her bad luck, she had managed this…’
And Andrew O’Hagan has managed to create believable characters and take us into their world to make us care what happens to them. Along the way his writer’s toolbox produced some wonderful descriptions and observations. You’l look at the night sky and the variations of light differently after reading The Illuminations.
I’ll give Andrew the last word from his essay explaining the inspiration for Anne Quirk:
My search … was also a search for the women I had grown up with on the west coast of Scotland. … I realised the book was a tribute to the hidden creativity of those women. I was always drawn to them as a child, and their sense of themselves, their pain and their Glasgow houses, were a kind of haunting thing for me. I was always aware of a certain amount of thwarted ambition on their parts, and by the sense of duty that clung to their gingham “pinnies”, their tabard overalls. As a novelist you come to know that people can be metaphors of one another. My fictional elderly lady has a grandson who is a captain in the British army fighting in Afghanistan. She is interested in reality, as every photographer is, but her own story, and the masking of her talent, play a part in explaining the daily news coming from the battlefront… One’s job as a writer is sometimes to find new proteins for the ideas that matter to you, and the story of this forgotten photographer locked on to my family history in a way that gave the novel the building blocks of life.
What more can I say – read and enjoy – or let me know what you don’t like about it!