To Turn Your Life Into Fiction – Start at Your Local Library

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Last night I attended an author event at Sandringham Library with my good friend, Lisa Hill who is a fellow bibliophile, blogger and writer. Well-respected and fiercely independent, please check Lisa’s reviews of any of the books mentioned in this post.

I’m fortunate she keeps me in the loop about local events and on a cold, dark winter night gave me a lift in her comfortable car!

An eminent book reviewer with an award-winning blog, Lisa concentrates on Australian and New Zealand literature but also reviews an impressive range of international writers, including many translations not necessarily widely distributed.

When she heard about this event in Bayside she let me know especially since I taught  Life Stories & Legacies for several years.

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This event showcased three authors discussing how they used events from life in their novels so how apt to have a bust of Australian writer, Alan Marshall OBE outside. Alan hailed from the nearby suburb of Black Rock.

Alan’s most famous novel I Can Jump Puddles, which was on the school curriculum for years and made into a mini-series on TV, was based on his childhood fight to recover from Polio.

When I came to Australia in 1962, I think Alan Marshall was an author everyone knew and is an excellent example of turning real-life events into novels.

Library renovations are scheduled and this was the last public event before they begin so the 72 in attendance were indeed fortunate.  Before Vivienne, the Customer Service Co-ordinator for Bayside introduced the guest panel, she confided that she was celebrating her 21st Anniversary with the library – so two memorable milestones for the evening.

Vivienne also plugged the library’s campaign to promote its various services and events around the theme Libraries Change Lives, but my guess is she was preaching to the converted!

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Local author, Claire Halliday was the emcee  and in the spotlight were authors

  • Eleni Hale
  • John Tesarsch
  • Lee Kofman

Eleni was asked about the parts of her own life she mined to write her debut YA novel Stone Girl. She admitted to always wanting to write but before she could write other stories she had to write about her childhood in State Government care first.

It was a story hammering inside her to be written although she had ‘redacted being a ward of the state from her life story.’

She had been a university student, a journalist, fiancee, wife and mother but found relief in being able to write about a part of her early life never mentioned.

She released her muse and making the story fiction gave her the freedom to write without worrying about hurting others.

There are 40,000 children in the care system and her story is a compilation of those stories. Her novel a vehicle to open up and talk about her past. She listened to a lot of Metallica and similar music and kept writing!

The writing itself private and personal but became confronting when published and she faced the prospect of the publicity and marketing treadmill because as Claire suggested, journalists love a book where the author can be pressured to share what parts are true.

Eleni, a journalist herself, agreed the ‘real life experience’ is a bigger story than the novel if you expose yourself like she did, so she compiled a list of five talking points to be avoided!

The old me was about growing up in an Australian orphanage,’ said Eleni, ‘and I wore that like a cape.’

She still feels separate from the character because the media have been reasonable and looked at the actual issue she wanted to spotlight – the experience of kids in care.

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Eleni holding her novel Stone Girl

Embellishment versus Truth?

Eleni said that in the beginning, her character Sophie is twelve and has lost her mum and ends up a Ward of the State. She meets Milo on the street and he is a cool dude she is attracted to but ends up trapped in his home.

Eleni shared a true story ‘not shared publicly before.

An incident in her own life was the inspiration for the Milo scene. She was fourteen or fifteen and in care. They were encouraged to go out during the day and one day she met a Jamaican DJ who fitted the description of Milo. She ended up scared and locked in his house. The Milo scene in the book has the essence of that real-life event.

Why didn’t she smash a window?

She recalls being groggy so he must have put something in her food or drink and yet she was street smart.

Work In Progress

In Eleni’s new book, a crime thriller and still a work in progress, she will tackle a theme of ‘classism’ and the poverty it creates in Australia.

After Stone Girl was published she was contacted by many people wanting to share their stories. She gathered more knowledge and ideas and became aware of how many people are ashamed to admit they were in care or were poor and had traumatic experiences. There are many stories to be told!

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Claire Halliday introducing Lee, John and Eleni

Claire then focused on John who is a barrister in Melbourne.

He was asked if he used his clients’ stories, particularly since the theme of his book The Last Will and Testament of Henry Hoffman was an estate issue. A daughter finds a will after her father’s untimely death and wonders who is the mystery woman mentioned.

John declared that the intersection of family and money is toxic, which is why as a lawyer, he avoids estate work but it is a rich vein for storytellers.

He doesn’t directly poach client stories because that would be unethical, however, his novel has elements of autobiography. It is about a father and daughter, the relationship between parents and children, and how trauma resonates through generations.

Claire mentioned that the character Sarah is a concert pianist who has to quit music as a career. Did John draw on his experience as a cellist with a stellar career who had to quit?

John explained that when he was in Vienna the skin on his hands began to peel off and he discovered he was allergic to the dark rosin applied to the cello bow. He had to give up playing an instrument he loved.

However, his character, Sarah gave up playing because of stage fright and they both coped with the initial grief differently. He reinvented himself as a lawyer and now a writer believing ‘when one door closes another opens‘ whereas his character just got stuck.

John believes writing fiction is all about imagination and he never runs out of ideas – and hopefully, they will always be good ideas. His ‘compost heap of a mind‘ searches for a response – a counterfactual experience – and he will not worry about running out of experiences to fuel ideas to write about.

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Lee Kofman and John Tesarsch

Balancing Historical Facts, Real Life & Fiction?

Dinner With the Dissidents, John’s novel set in 1971 Moscow has an aspiring author as the main character. An Australian publisher offers him a book deal if he’ll spy on Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.

John drew on his experience trying to get his first manuscript published to the extent he empathised and appreciated the writer’s desire to be published.

It is daunting to write a novel that sits well with historical facts. He read lots of Russian novels and researched for months about that time in history before coming to the realisation that the human condition is universal. The emotions a character reveals the same regardless of ethnicity.

For his work in progress, John is having a change of pace and genre. He is writing a romantic comedy involving an Elvis impersonator – and he has been that! This drew laughter from the audience, especially when he confessed he may use a pseudonym!

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Lee Kofman is a memoirist and memoir teacher and talked about applying an evocative twist to real-life writing. She admitted to being a prolific confessional writer in three languages.

In the 90s, when she started to write in her style, there was no real creative non-fiction but she fell in love with the memoir genre, which is a slice of your life – not all autobiography.

She found the trick was to examine the difference between herself now and younger self. Look at younger self from a distance, try not to be too attached to current emotions and thoughts – look at younger self, be the cold observer. Ask what are the emotions younger self feel? Why did events happen to cause those feelings? Reveal something that happened intimately, yet do it overtly.

It is confronting to reveal something, or a life that you once hid (she referred to Eleni’s expose of her life as a State Ward) and Lee said she experienced that when writing Imperfect about her body scars.

The balances between what to include or omit difficult to attain. She found Helen Garner a good model as a writer when she advised ‘keep to your own truth and story’. Lee followed this advice when she wrote Dangerous Bride. She stuck to writing her own feelings and emotions and didn’t run down her ex just to make him look bad. It was an intimate expose of a marriage breakdown but it remained her story.

She also admires novelist Robert Dessaix.

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Lee believes successful writing is all in the voice and how you tell your story. One of Helen Garner’s books begins with a description of ordinary people having breakfast yet you keep reading.

It is how you write your voice. Keep it true and natural and your voice will be authentic.

Lee curated/edited an anthology of personal essays, SPLIT. All the contributors were told the stories had to be about endings. Personal essays are a meshing of real life and to be successful

  • the stakes must be high,
  • there must be conflict,
  • a resolution or change in the character
  • or if no resolution, show acceptance of there being no change.

Therefore, in SPLIT, the stories had to be dramatic endings, endings that changed the writer. Good essays include snippets of dialogue and colour to bring the words to life.

John said he had been asked to write a personal essay but enjoys fiction writing. Eleni finds writing personal essays confronting and would be worried about who she’ll affect so prefers hiding behind characters.

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The Editing Process – Writing For Readers or Yourself?

Eleni advised ignoring who will be reading your story and just write and worry about readership later when editing. Write first, think about publishing later; worrying about readers will block your writing flow.

She put Metallica on and just wrote furiously, not worrying about how many words or how they came out on the page.

To be a writer you must read, read and read. Then write, write, write and have tenacity without beating yourself up about how good or bad your work is.

She wrote four drafts of her 80,000-word novel and threw the first three out!

She is with Penguin and they didn’t change anything of the final draft. She only needed a line edit, not a structural edit. However, as a journalist with The Herald Sun, she is not a novice writer.

John is with Affirm publishers, who won publisher of the year. Lee is also with them as well as another publisher. They both agreed you are fortunate if you receive a structural edit. It is wonderful to get attention and good editing, many publishers don’t offer that today.

To have an independent outsider check your work is a valuable and rewarding process for a writer.

Regarding the writing process, Lee told the story of a suicidal Russian poet who left a note for his mother, sister and lover – ‘I don’t recommend it!’ She said she feels like that about memoir!

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How Important is Having Distance Between an Event and Writing About It?

A member of the audience noted the panel had all mentioned having distance between a life event/experience and writing about it – whether that was emotional, time, or relocation of place.

John said that with his music experience, it was a long time ago and he had a sense of perspective about his allergy and his reaction to not being able to play anymore. He believed having that distance adds depth to your writing but he stressed he writes fiction, it is not him but his character who is doing the experiencing. Characters must have their own life.

Eleni said it was about time – she went from someone who didn’t have a voice and became a Herald Sun journalist. But she needed time to write about when she didn’t have a voice.

For Lee, it took twenty years before she was able to write about broken relationships and her marriage.

When Eleni was asked if there was a conflict between what she experienced and how much the reader must know to understand and connect with the story, she said she had woven the story around other kids’ stories and hoped people would see and understand the telling.

She recalled her writing teacher at university saying that writing was like taking a photograph, don’t clutter it up. Good writing is picking what needs to be in the story.

Eleni tried to write an autobiography but couldn’t. Writing as fiction she had to show not tell, although it was important to be truthful. She walked in the footsteps of those who suffered plus showed the bureaucracy, social workers, the homes the kids moved around in and the other kids met along the way.

She hoped readers would see and understand.

John was asked if he thought there was a dearth of political novels in Australia and why? His novel Dinner With Dissidents set in the 1970s Russia and was about surveillance etc but considering recent events in Australia where the Australian Federal Police raided the ABC HQ in Sydney and a News Corp journalist’s home, there is obviously, fodder for political novels.

John suspects it will change here. Although we have had a relatively benign political climate, the whole apparatus of society is changing because of technology and the level of surveillance is different compared to a decade ago.

Another question from the audience raised the crime genre as a vehicle for social realism and asked Eleni if this is why she chose to write another issue based book.

The audience member referred to Wendy Squires article in The Age after the young woman Courtney Herron was murdered in Royal Park.  Wendy revealed she had been homeless and could empathise with the feeling of shame and stigma attached to people like Courtney.

Eleni agreed this was a great example of a writer using their voice and real-life experience to draw attention to an important social reality.

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Do You Write For Self or for Readers?

An audience member told the panel he was recently sent three novels to review. Two were awful. The third he found better because the writer produced a book where scenes came alive as if watching a movie.

Did the panel consider their readers?

Eleni said the first draft of her novel was awful and it would have been a punishment if someone was required to read it! She threw it out.

She believed you must weave description through the characters’ actions and dialogue. Excellent writing is visual.

John is motivated by the joy of the writing process. When he is in the writing zone he feels alive and vivid and doesn’t think about anything else but the story and moving it along. His publisher and agent can figure out the readership. He doesn’t think about what readers will take from his novels.

Lee writes for herself. She wants to answer questions and writes for selfish reasons but redrafts all the time. The last book she was very mindful of the readers.

There was a happy buzz when the panel concluded and a beeline for the table with books for sale. Others queued to talk with the authors.

The organisers can pat themselves on the back for a successful evening.

How lucky we are to have authors willing to sit in a suburban library on a cold winter’s evening and generously share their time, skills and writing tips.

Now to put some of that expert encouragement and inspiration into practice!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Advance Australia Where? A Question Still to Be Answered.

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I’m still coming to terms with the election result – as are about 50% of the population!

I was never confident of an overwhelming victory but I couldn’t believe that after six years of dysfunction, failed policies, three prime ministers and scandal after scandal of corruption and incompetence, and going to the voters with literally no policies or vision to solve climate change and social inequality that the LNP Coalition would be rewarded.

It was disappointing too that their lies were rarely challenged and the dodgy figures about unemployment – insecure work, underemployment, casual and contract work and the fact that one hour’s work a week is enough to move you from unemployment statistics –  a shameful state of affairs for a wealthy country like Australia.

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I’m a writer and writing teacher but how do I find the words to explain how saddened and shocked I am about the election result? Recommend strong verbs of course – many friends have already expressed their opinions:

gutted, shattered, crushed, appalled, stunned, alarmed, disturbed… disappointed or annoyed aren’t strong enough.

The Liberal candidate in Isaacs, my electorate, was disendorsed for posting hate speech in an ‘appalling anti-muslim rant’.

Yet, as I scrutineered for Mark Dreyfus QC MP, I couldn’t believe the hundreds of people who still voted for the dumped candidate!

My goodness, are there that many racists living in Mordialloc?’ declared Nola, my fellow scrutineer.

‘Apparently!’

Now the election is over, we have other similarly disendorsed Liberal candidates going to take their seat in parliament, no doubt under the auspices of the party that preselected them originally.

What happened to ethics and morality?

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Election 2019 – A Failure For Fairness
Mairi Neil

We’ve just had Election Day when all through Australia
we turned out to vote to prove Democracy no failure.
Votes already cast knowing shocking deals done – later
some candidates forced to resign, one by horrible one.
But the men who removed Malcolm Turnbull as PM
not reduced in number – so don’t underestimate them.
Visions of Dutton as a leader still dance in some heads…
the folk on Manus and Nauru still toss in their beds.
The ‘silent majority’ with privileged excess in their bellies
believed Murdoch’s media and the crap on their tellies!

Despite what we heard – there was a rumble abroad –
not everyone realised that Morrison’s a fraud.
Plenty tapping at keyboards and scratching of pens
letters and online posts numbered multiples of ten
Passion and persuasion for society to include all
true social justice and ‘action on climate’ their call.
Lament environmental disasters, habitat losses
a wage system and laws overwhelmingly for bosses.

Seeds grow flowers and trees bear far-reaching fruit
school strikers and protesters cocked more than a snoot
at politicians and rich cronies who legislate inequality
the climate change deniers, those fearing collective solidarity.
Raised voices had courage, progressives give each other heart
so we must continue the fight until Morrison & Co depart.
Trickle down economics a failure, we must change the rules
implement a fairer tax system to fund hospitals and schools.

Labor’s policies seemed commonsense, natural and right
but when results were tallied on that fatal Election night…
How could this be? Morrison’s win dubbed ‘a miracle’
yet so little policy evidence to prove it empirical.
The nation is deeply divided although the LNP returned
with Labor’s bold reforming plan effectively spurned.
The outcome explored by journos and political pundits
while almost 50% of the population in bewilderment sit!

I weep for the planet, the suffering, and marginalised
I thought social justice and fairness an achievable prize!
Voters had one job to do and decisively blew it
but climate emergency means there’s no time to sit!
Progressives may reel from this election result
it seems to defy logic with the winners an insult
but the struggle must continue – no time for a pause
in tackling climate catastrophes and industrial laws.

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‘It is impossible to live without failing at something unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default.’

J.K. Rowling

Banksy gives great advice

Motherhood, Love, & Purpose

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A Mother’s Day Reflection

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I’m not sure what I expected from motherhood except that life would change – and that expectation has most definitely been met!

My daughters grew inside me and remain a part of me… I can’t imagine life without them but the person who taught me most about motherhood was my own mother – an amazing woman I will probably never stop writing about!

The older my children become, and as I age, the intensity of love for them deepens. I think of them every day, confirming the feelings and wisdom my own mother shared with me in the months before her death in 2009, aged eighty-nine.

She talked about her fears for my brother, George who was undergoing treatment for Leukaemia and said,

‘Loving and mothering is a lifetime responsibility – your children should never die before you. It’s not right.’

I have close friends who have lost adult children. They confirm the truth of Mum’s observation and I know each day for those friends getting up and coping with daily life is a struggle and testament to their resilience to ‘continue and carry on with life’ the way their loved ones would wish. The lead-up and actual celebration of days like today must be particularly difficult and my heart goes out to them.

‘She never quite leaves her children at home, even when she doesn’t take them along.’

Margaret Culkin Banning

When I decided to have a baby I was thirty-two and didn’t truly understand how profound becoming a parent would be personally or the effect on relationships with family, friends – and even strangers.

Born in the 1950s and part of Women’s Liberation in the late 60s and 70s, I was still expected to follow the ‘normal’ path of marrying and having children. It wasn’t my sole aim in life and I didn’t actively plan it but I went with the flow after meeting John and neither of us challenged the system, except I eschewed a white wedding and expensive reception and chose to marry in the garden of the house we bought together and party afterwards with many of the guests ‘bringing a plate’!

On reflection, I can say becoming a mother was the most exhaustive (and exhausting) change in my life – and continues to be – as long as my daughters and I remain intertwined.

I could write a lot about the picture of me in the early days of my daughter Anne’s homecoming – the congratulatory cards still visible, the dessert and glass of wine husband John prepared sitting untouched, me in an exhausted sleep all new mothers know well…

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I salute my own mother for her guidance, values, and many examples of mothering. How she coped with six of us I will never know! I remember ringing her up and asking her once, after a particularly trying day with a baby plus toddler, ‘How are you still sane?

I know that the deep love and bond I had with her is one of the reasons a loving bond with my daughters came easily.

There are similarities and huge differences regarding how Mum and I parented but not in attitude and determination to be loving and loyal whenever needed. We were both extremely lucky to be with partners we loved (Mum had Dad and I had John).

Partners who wanted children and were supportive, partners unafraid to share the household chores and unglamorous aspects of parenting and in my case, I know, a partner who cherished me and never stopped showing it.

John had been married before and so to a certain extent ‘knew the ropes’ regarding parenting so I was lucky. Although being present at the birth of both our girls, a totally new experience for him just as having me, a feminist as a partner, also a new experience!

In this picture, we are pregnant and ecstatic.

joh and me when I was pregnant with Anne

Say, what is the spell, when her fledgelings are cheeping,
That lures the bird home to her nest?
Or wakes the tired mother whose infant is weeping,
To cuddle and croon it to rest?
For I’m sure it is nothing but Love!’

Lewis Carroll

Cheryl, now my ex-sister-in-law was a friend as well as part of the extended family in 1986. She produced the first of the next generation for our branch of the McInnes Clan in Australia in 1979 and the only ‘modern mum’ I’d observed firsthand.

She visited me in Jessie McPherson Hospital, Lonsdale Street, shortly after Anne’s birth. Into my ear, she whispered, ‘Welcome to the club.’

Her brown and my hazel eyes met as she squeezed my arm gently and with the still vivid memory of that miraculous moment when I held Anne to my breast for the first time, I knew exactly what she meant – becoming a mother, accepting the responsibility for another human being is transformational and understood by other mothers.

Vector Illustration of a happy multicultural group of cute swaddled babies

My first little ray of sunshine born after an emergency dash to Jessie Mac’s in Lonsdale Street at 3.00am, May 24, 1986.

John tailgated a taxi breaking the speed limit ( ‘they know the fastest route and where all the coppers and cameras are’ ). We hit no red lights and made the city in record time.

Three hours later Anne Courtney Neil arrived, three weeks earlier than expected but wide-eyed and ready to take on the world!

When I took Anne home from the hospital little did I know she had a hole in the heart – not discovered for almost twelve months, and then only by the extra diligence of a young doctor on work experience at the local clinic!

I still have cold sweats in the middle of the night when I think of the operation she had for ‘sticky-eye’ and a blocked tear duct when she was barely two months old, the eye specialist and the anaesthetist completely unaware of her heart condition.

There were the usual childhood accidents and illnesses too. The catastrophes that send mothers into a spin, fearful for the child’s wellbeing and welfare – Anne had no broken bones (Mary Jane delivered that excitement) but one day she bit hard and severed her tongue when she collided with a large wooden rocking horse.

I rushed to the local GP at the corner of Albert and McDonald Streets, in my slippers, wheeling five-year-old Anne in her sister’s pusher and carrying a protesting Mary Jane under my arm.

I’d stuffed a wet face-washer in Anne’s mouth to hold the tongue together and stem the bleeding (‘excellent response’ according to the doctor).

The trail of blood in the house and garden that greeted John when he rushed home after receiving a garbled message from his receptionist made him imagine a severed limb and he almost fainted. (The tongue does bleed profusely!)

However, he too praised my quick action racing to the surgery rather than ringing an ambulance or panicking. (That and delayed shock came later!)

Sometimes we amaze ourselves how we react and cope as parents.

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Mary Jane’s birth in 1989,  a more traumatic and dramatic story.

She arrived more than a week early and I barely got to Mordialloc Hospital in time for delivery sending the nursing staff into a flap. To this day she is known as ‘the baby born during the tea break’ arriving less than fifteen minutes after I walked through the front door.

John and Dr Ferguson arrived at the hospital just in time for delivery and I’m sure if there had been more traffic police on duty in those days, both would have been booked for speeding – perhaps even reckless driving.

Adding to the drama, Mary Jane breathed the meconium and amniotic fluid mixture into her lungs while in the womb and was born with the umbilical cord around her neck prompting a nurse to say, ‘Oh, she’s dead.’

The baby rushed to an incubator and the nurse reprimanded while everyone in the room paused for a moment taking stock of a miracle birth indeed! I went into shock and apparently kept asking John if I’d had a baby until they brought Mary Jane to me to be cuddled and fed!

 

Later, Mary Jane broke her arm in a ‘monkey bar’ accident at primary school but the seriousness of the fracture ignored by teachers who left her in Sick Bay while they tried to contact me or John and ‘ask what to do’ instead of taking her to a doctor or ringing an ambulance.

Our membership in the ambulance service and private health insurance on record and you can imagine the tongue lashing the administration of the school received from me.

Fortunately, a friend volunteering for reading duty noticed Mary Jane’s distress and demanded action; unfortunately, the delay and subsequent treatment at Sandringham public hospital during the upheaval of the Kennett years meant the arm was badly set and needed to be re-broken weeks later – this was done by a specialist at Como Hospital in Parkdale.

Sadly, Sandringham botched another operation when MJ was in her 20s, damaging her bowel when they discovered endometriosis during a routine operation to remove an ovarian cyst. Who says lightning doesn’t strike twice??

Often at night, I close my eyes and recall the horror of seeing my daughter with multiple tubes hanging from her young body. Flushed, in pain despite high doses of morphine, and unaware of the emergency operation, she murmured through an oxygen mask, ‘What happened?’

The déjà vu of the multiple traumas she has suffered weighs heavily on my heart. I have often wished for a magic wand to reverse the hurts or give my daughters the happiness and pain-free world of fairytales.

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Mother’s Day 1990

Motherhood exposes your deepest fears and inadequacies but it also helps you gain courage and grow – as Sophocles said, ‘Children are the anchors that hold a mother to life.’

Whenever my girls have been ill, in pain, troubled or suffering, I’ve wanted a magic wand to remove their misfortune or possess the ability to swap places and take away their discomfort. Instead, reality over fantasy,  I’ve ‘gone into bat’ for them and fought school and government authorities, bullies, and anyone else who needed to be held accountable.

Like a lioness, I will fiercely fight to protect and defend. These skills and determination I learnt from own mother – she may have been barely five foot tall but her love and commitment to all six of her children taught me to be courageous and resilient regarding caring and coping as a parent.

‘A mother’s love for her child is like nothing else in the world. It knows no law, no pity, it dares all things and crushes down remorselessly all that stands in its path.’

Agatha Christie

Motherhood indeed the most emotional and enlightened transformation for me. Everything I’ve read, shared, learnt and absorbed about other women’s experiences reveals none of our journeys is exactly the same or can be predicted.

There are similarities, but it is a unique life-changing event filled with joys and sorrows, calm and turbulent seas, problems and solutions, holding tight and letting go, embarrassing moments and moments of pride and satisfaction.

‘The heart of a mother is a deep abyss at the bottom of which you will always find forgiveness.’

Honore de Balzac

Around the world, mothers worry about their inadequacies, feel overwhelmed and many like me who became a single parent because our partner died carry guilt about not coping or spending enough time as the ‘default’ parent.

(John died when Anne was sixteen and Mary Jane thirteen – I think most will agree parenting adolescents is tough with two concerned parents, with one, I can assure you, it is challenging and at times very lonely!)

Frustration, financial stress, fear of failure or making mistakes – subjects often discussed between friends, family and in some cases counsellors.

Nurturing has never stopped from their early childhood…

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From miraculous beginnings to challenging responsibilities, navigating hopes and dreams, disasters and near misses, parenting has been rewarding, scary, comical, confronting, but most of all fulfilling.

My life has had a purpose and I’ve experienced and continue to experience a wonderful mutual love.

I am so lucky my girls as young women still want to visit and ‘hang out’ with me, travel together, see movies, play board games, walk the dog, shop, discuss and debate, laugh and even party with me.

They are friends as well as daughters, and often the nurturing role has been reversed – especially when I had breast cancer and now as I age and have lost some confidence about decision-making for the future.

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At the beginning of my writing career, at the launch of my first poetry book, I said children were the inspiration and reason I wrote and also the reason I didn’t write because motherhood is time-consuming.

Over the years, especially caring for John, I can substitute family instead of mothering but I wouldn’t really have life any other way. Loving and knowing John and our daughters have enriched me and made me the person I am today.

I hope I’ve helped add two more productive, caring citizens to the community. I’m grateful that feminism has wrought changes in society and many of the preconceptions about women and their destiny are no longer peddled – my girls have choices their grandmothers didn’t.

My Mum won a scholarship to college in Northern Ireland but her stepmother wouldn’t let her continue with study and ordered her out to work, then came WW2, the ATS and then nursing. Her stymied educational opportunities were what motivated Mum to encourage all six of her own children to study and seek suitable qualifications for what we wanted to be.

I was the first in my family to go to university and I only wish mum could have witnessed me returning to study at 57 years old and gaining a Masters degree in Writing and her two granddaughters earn Bachelor degrees.

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Always my wish has been happiness and good health for both girls – to be whatever they want to be and find contentment and fulfilment in their choices.

We are so fortunate to live in Australia and have the privileges we do and I’m glad both daughters are aware they stand on the shoulders of those who have come before, that there are still hurdles to leap, and they will always strive to ‘go higher’ and seek equity for themselves and for so many others not as fortunate.

I am happy they will follow their mother as I followed my mother in fighting for social justice.

‘Youth fades; love droops, the leaves of friendship fall;
A mother’ s secret hope outlives them all.’

Oliver Wendall Holmes.

Happy Mother’s Day to all!

Love Close to Home is Great Therapy

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The benefits of having a pet are well documented, and if that pet is a dog, one of the benefits is fun. Love and loyalty can be added to the laughter!

I wrote earlier this year about having to farewell Aurora, our beloved dog for almost 14 years and since that sad day, we have missed her companionship, affection and unconditional love.

However, we needed space and time for deep grief and because I wanted to carry out some much-needed maintenance on the house, I set a tentative date for welcoming a new member of the household as the end of May. I didn’t want any new member of our family subjected to a lot of noise and having a daily dose of strangers/strangeness.

Of course, as Rabbie Burns told us all those centuries ago ‘the best-laid plans gang aft agley’.

Centrelink ‘lost’ my pension application and worried about dwindling savings, I put major renovations on hold, plus my daughters never missed a moment in reminding me how empty the house was without Aurora – not that I needed much reminding.

I can’t remember too many periods in my life where I have lived without a dog and even wrote a special post as a writing teacher reminding people to include stories about their pets when writing a memoir or life stories.

do not remove the red ball!
There are also cats looking for homes as well as dogs

SADS Saves Lives and Stands for NO KILL

Since 1985 SADS has saved thousands  of dogs and cats from being euthanised — and from day 1 worked towards change from a culture of killing  companion animals to a culture of saving them

SADS is an established leader of the no-kill movement — and successfully operate a Melbourne-based regional animal pound on a no-kill basis, demonstrating that a no-kill policy IS possible

SADS provides veterinary care for animals that are sick or injured — including palliative care for animals that still enjoy a good quality of life

In 2015, they saved 98.6% of dogs and 96.3% of cats. Many of these animals would not have been saved by other shelters.

The Yarrambat shelter is set on 33 acres of environmentally protected land with an existing permit for the holding of 190 dogs and 50 cats. It is fully owned by SADS and has enabled many more animals to be saved, cared for and rehabilitated whilst awaiting permanent adoption. However, the infrastructure is old and badly in need of redevelopment to provide better care for our animals and to comply with the code of practice for animal shelters. This property ensures that even the most traumatised and very large active dogs can be saved due to adequate resources.

Long Stayers

In accordance with the philosophy and operation of Save-A-Dog Scheme as a “no kill” animal welfare organisation SADS honours its charter and saves all animals, both companion and otherwise, which come into its care, with the unavoidable exception of a very small percentage of animals which are deemed dangerous and therefore cannot be returned to the community. This small percentage is accepted internationally as integral when using the term “no kill”.

This save rate leaves SADS with some dogs and cats which are homeable but which do have characteristics which makes them unsuitable for some homes and therefore they do stay with SADS for a long time waiting for that appropriate person/situation to come along.

We decided to visit SADS with a list of possible adoptees from the website profiles – a list I immediately, ignored once we started looking at the dogs – and they looked at us – every set of eyes pleading to be taken home!

I fell in love with Norbet and Dala – who wouldn’t?

 

Norbet, a two-year-old, German Wirehaired Pointer X with ” a lovely personality”.

true to his breed has boundless energy. He is searching for a home where his new human companion can channel that energy in the right direction with training and stimulation. He will not be a dog to leave at home alone all day and may live with another energetic medium size female. Norbet will be great fun and will certainly keep you well exercised! We are currently taking expressions of interest…

Dala, a two-year-old, Foxhound X Beagle “has the typical behaviour of a foxhound”.

she loves being with people but once a scent comes her way that becomes her main focus! She has a very dominant personality and will need AN ADULT HOME WHERE HER HUMAN COMPANION HAS EXPERIENCE WITH CANINE DOMINANCE. She cannot be left alone during the day as she will become bored and possibly destructive.

It just so happened they were the two most unsuitable pets for me. Physically, I couldn’t control Norbet, a part wolfhound and Dala’s ‘destructive tendencies’ when left alone were a worry.

The shelter is an amazing environment full of caring staff and volunteers and I know Norbet and Dala will be well-cared for by the staff even if the right home isn’t found but I still felt awful that I couldn’t take them.

We visited Stonnington on Thursday of last week and if we could, would have brought home a truckload of homeless dogs!

Unfortunately (or fortunately!), Margaret, the manager was delayed and we couldn’t do anything that day except observe the dogs in their kennels and chat to the volunteer staff who were most helpful.

The Stonnington Shelter received the Citizen of the Year Award for a Community Group – when you see the volunteers in action you can see why – bless each and every one of them!

There was a puppy we were interested in – Xena, plus a young male dog, Russell who apparently was super friendly to all dogs and had adopted Xena when she arrived.

However, when we returned on Sunday, Xena had already been adopted and removed that morning so Russell was in a cage by himself.

Russell
Russell

The Shelter is situated in an ideal position for dogs – right next to a dog-friendly park. Prospective owners take the dog for a walk supervised by a volunteer and then in an enclosed yard you can play with the dog off-leash.

The last ‘test’ is when volunteers bring out another dog and you can observe how your chosen dog reacts and socialises.

The aim is to ensure you know what dog you are taking home and the Shelter is as sure as they can be of canine and person compatibility.

When we returned to the Shelter on Sunday after a chat with the Manager we ‘park-tested’ several dogs.

The redesigned Tooronga Park was re-opened in 1992 after the construction of the South Eastern Arterial Road and Freeway. A plaque records that ‘redevelopment of the park was made possible by the invaluable contribution of a committee of local residents who assisted in the planning and council staff who implemented their ideas.’

Well done residents and well done Stonnington Council for listening and following through on their promise.

  • The play areas for toddlers and older children well-maintained and fenced so that dogs on or off leash will not be a problem.
  • There is shade, a basketball ring, a cricket practice cage and concrete paths and grassy areas.
  • There are rubbish bins to recycle and free bags for dog poo
Molly
Molly

The first dog we ‘road-trialled’ was Molly, a four-year-old Labrador with that “wonderful labrador nature.”

but she becomes very overexcited with very little stimulation! She is need of a lot of training and will not suit a home with small children as she is too boisterous. Her new human companion will need to be physically strong. Molly does not want to be left at home alone all day

Molly was adorable but very strong and although she would settle down after some training, I decided I couldn’t risk walking her on my own because of her strength and determination to reach another dog, even if it was on the horizon.

Friendly Russell (pictured above) was just that and he showed his love of sticks by picking one up and dropping it every few feet. But he was very attached to the lovely volunteer who was our guide – or perhaps it was knowing she kept treats in the bumbag around her waist!

We were taken with Russell, the three-year-old American Staffordshire Terrier X a “happy dog who enjoys the company of both people and other dogs.” His reference said,

He would probably like to live with an easy going female canine who likes to play. As with most of his breed, he will not settle in a situation where he is left alone all day.

After walking Russell, Mary Jane confided she had fallen in love with a puppy, Josie so we asked to take her for a walk too.

Josie a five-month-old (they think) Kelpie X Staffordshire Bull Terrier. She came to Stonnington via another pound and little was known about her history.

 

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Josie

Josie was like Aurora reincarnated.

I remembered Anne had said, ‘Mum, a dog will choose us.’ 

How true that prediction because from the minute we walked Josie, and while sitting with her in the Reception Area until the Manager was free to discuss her adoption, we were enraptured!

Josie snuggled up to each of us – the girls left to get a lead from the car and prepare the back seat, I dealt with the paperwork.

We weren’t the only happy family to adopt.

In the Shelter, there are several older dogs – ten years old, maybe older. I don’t know all their stories but often older dogs have to be adopted because their owner has become infirm or moved into care and they can’t keep their pet.

I felt sorry for the older dogs, many probably grieving a longterm owner but after losing Aurora, I didn’t want take on a dog in its twilight years – some of the dogs may only have two or three years left in their life cycle.

Maxwell 10 yrs old
Maxwell

How wonderful then, to see the perfect match for gorgeous little ten-year-old Maxwell, a wirehaired Jack Russell X who had recently arrived at the shelter and was still be assessed.

An elderly couple came in looking for a dog. The lady needed a walker and her aged husband walked slowly too. While we were walking Molly, we observed Maxwell strolling sedately, beside his prospective parents. Such a perfect match!

When we returned from the park with Josie, the elderly couple were leaving, the man’s smile like a sunburst.

‘You taking the little dog?’ I asked.

They both nodded. ‘He’s old like us,’ said the man,  ‘not sure how long he has but then we’re not going to be around too much longer either!’

‘I could see you’re made for each other,’ I said.

‘Yep, we’ll be back when he’s been given the okay by the vet.’

Harley

Harley, a four-month-old Staffordshire Bull Terrier X Border Collie was ‘bursting with youthful energy, enthusiasm and the desire to be in the middle of the action all the time!’

He tries very hard to please but finds it difficult to sit still for more than a couple of minutes! Harley would very much like to live with another active youthful medium size friend to keep him busy. He will need a more adult home.

A young couple came in with their Staffy to walk and play with Harley with the aim to adopt a companion for their dog – from what we observed Harley was a perfect match but because they lived in an apartment, I’m not sure the Manager of the shelter will approve.

They may be disappointed but I’m glad the shelter is strict about adoptions and put the needs of the animals first.

When we were given the okay, we were told that if for any reason it doesn’t work out, we must bring the dog back to them.

Our Perfect Match

The trip home with Josie in the car, incident free, even although we were warned that she came via another pound and they had no idea how she travelled in a car. ‘Prepare for her to be sick because she was fed recently…’

They also just removed her stitches from desexing.

However, she was the perfect, uncomplaining angel. No scrabbling about, no whining – she snuggled into Anne in the back seat, occasionally stretching her head to peer out the window or respond to clucky and lovey-dovey noises made by Mary Jane and me when the car stopped at traffic lights.

Josie was walked around the immediate neighbourhood after letting her investigate every corner of the backyard and ‘nook and cranny’ inside the house.

Almost immediately, she claimed our house as her home.

We have adopted again and are gloriously happy – thank you SADS – a song from childhood springs to mind:

If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands

If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands!

If you’re happy and you know it, then you really ought to show it;

If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands!

You then include other actions like stamp your feet… nod your head… turning around…

We did the lot!!

Josie, our new canine companion the best therapy anyone could wish for and here’s to daily ‘happy dances’ as we grow older together!

Today, April 23, is Lover’s Day

A day to celebrate your significant other and let them know how much they mean to you. While the origin of Lover’s Day is a mystery, some sources believe that the unofficial holiday is based on St. George’s Day, a religious holiday celebrated in many parts of Europe.

It doesn’t actually say that ‘your significant other’ must be human.

I’m sure for many people, their pet gives and receives love and is the relationship valued as being the most meaningful.

Josie is now a ‘significant’ partner in my life and considering the horrific news from recent tragedies – whether it be Sri Lanka or Mozambique – I am deliriously happy to have her comforting and loving body sprawled beside me on the couch or walking beside me along the street.

The world would be a more loving and accepting place if we were like our pets – they don’t see our imperfections and their devotion awesome!

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Josie dozing while I watch ‘Vera‘!

 

Underground – an exploration of what lies beneath the surface of a war hero

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Nancy Wake, WW2 Hero

On Thursday night, I attended Underground, a play at the Shirley Burke Theatre, Parkdale – a great venue within walking distance of my home in Mordialloc, but also opposite the Parkdale Railway Station.

When I arrived home, I couldn’t wait to share the experience with my daughter.

‘What a wonderful evening! It made me glad to be a writer – so inspiring. An original interpretation… makes me want to write… keep trying different ways of telling great stories!’

‘Glad you’re so happy, Mum. Obviously, much better than your last experience,’ Mary Jane observed.

Yes, I’ve reached the stage where if I don’t like a play or film, or a book, I don’t force myself to see it through to the end and a couple of months ago, my friend Lisa and I walked out of the same theatre at the interval.  We preferred sharing a coffee and chatting to returning for the second half!

‘Indeed,’ I answered, ‘but… this production was clever, well-acted, and focused. A fantastic retelling of a powerful story about a truly heroic and intriguing woman – who so many people don’t know anything about – you included!’

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A Great Night At The Theatre A Much-needed Injection Of Joy

With my own writing in the doldrums, it was a change to feel happy and invigorated about writing. I wanted to talk about the story, the production, presentation, the acting, the stagecraft …

There is a wonderful feeling of elation when you watch a play or a film and it affects you that way. Just like the satisfaction of finishing a good book or short story.

You relish the experience, wish it hadn’t ended, want to prolong the ideas, emotions, and memories stirred. You’re ready for a discussion or to revisit a second show, a replay or reread.

There is no mystery as to why book clubs, and film and theatre appreciation groups thrive.

I missed out getting a copy of the programme – they ran out – but the lady next to me retrieved her folded copy from her bag and I snapped a shot with my phone camera.

The eclectic list of supporters thanked is interesting and indicative of the importance of this work in the wider community as well as the art world.

  • Professor Graeme Wake, a distant relative of Nancy who had joined efforts to see her honoured by New Zealand, said her death was a sad day for the country.
  • Anthony Crowley, multi-award-winning playwright
  • Michael Brindley, writer Stage Whispers
  • The Hon Tim Fischer, retired politician, leader of National Party 1990-1999
  • Uschi Felix -a versatile actress professionally trained in Germany and Australia
  • Josh Burns Labor candidate for the new Federal seat of Macnamara
  • Marisa Cesario, Programming Coordinator at Gasworks Arts Parks
  • Tamara Jungwirth, Director and CEO of Gasworks Arts Park

The Writer, Christine Croyden’s Note

Nancy Wake (1912-2011), now as The White Mouse (die Weisse Maus) left Sydney for Paris at eighteen and became a celebrated WW2 spy. She was one of only thirteen female special agents to survive the war.

My interest in her story began in 2015 when I wrote the book and lyrics for a musical The White Mouse, licensed by DSP in Sydney. In 2017, I spent six months as a resident with a theatre company in Paris where my interest in the French resistance and the German Occupation of France reignited. During this time I wrote Underground.

I describe it as a hallucinatory view of Nancy’s life.

Nancy was never keen on anyone messing with her story and hated all films, TV series and almost everything that was ever written about her, so I doubt she’d like my play.

However, I hope the small grains of truth contained within this fictionalised drama illuminate her complexity. Nancy Wake was (and still is) often referred to as a ‘difficult woman’.

She was not recognised for her efforts during WW2 in Australia until very late in her long life, despite her bravery and the admiration of the French for her contribution to their Resistance and subsequent Liberation.

In a culture where we are finally beginning to recognise women for what they do rather than how they look or behave, I feel Underground has something to say.

Christine Croyden, February 2019.

portrait of Nancy Wake

The above portrait is a rare picture of Nancy wearing some of the honours she received:

  • The George Medal,
  • 1939-45 Star,
  • the France and Germany Star,
  • the Defence Medal,
  • the British War Medal 1939-45,
  • the Croix de Guerre with Palm and Bar,
  • the Croix de Guerre with Star,
  • the US Medal for Freedom with Palm
  • the French Medaille de la Resistance
  • and she is an Officer of the Legion d’Honneur.

Underground has a lot to say and the execution by superb actors – especially Margot Knight – was impressive.

The technique of having an aged Nancy reflect on her life just before another ceremony lauding her war service, and having other actors portray the flashbacks on stage, sometimes with the older Nancy interacting, worked extremely well.

Margot Knight stayed in character throughout – her slower movements, facial expressions and word delivery never faltered. She was Nancy!  Her memories a bit addled from age, grief, and her love of Gin, but with such clear and believable delivery.

Nancy Wake was in her 99th year when she died. Her life before, during, and after the war could fill volumes.

Christine Croyden’s attempt to capture the essence of this complicated human being deserves high praise.

The ‘White Mouse’ helped countless people escape death and torture in Occupied France. On the Nazi’s ‘Most Wanted’ list she earned the moniker White Mouse because of her elusiveness. after effective operations against the enemy.

When she managed to escape to England she trained as a spy and was parachuted back into danger despite knowing the consequences if she was caught. Her French husband, Henri was tortured and murdered by the Nazis.

Nancy earned the reputation of being strong mentally, physically and emotionally – legend has her killing a man with her bare hands and executing a German agent by shooting her in the back of the head.

Underground tells us the highlights of Nancy’s life focusing mainly on the WW2 era and the drama is enhanced by song and choreography.

The story of Nancy Wake’s exploits as spy and hero are well-documented with several online links containing excellent detail. There is some repetition and the usual discrepancies regarding dates and other information because most of the articles reflect the paucity of resources available.

Everyone agrees that for a very long time Nancy Wake was ignored/neglected in a way no male war hero ever suffered.

Nancy Wake on Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nancy_Wake

Nancy Wake – the girls who spied: https://www.abc.net.au/radio/programs/fierce-girls/nancy-wake-the-girl-who-spied/9485892

Nancy Wake OA – Education Services Australia: https://www.civicsandcitizenship.edu.au/cce/nancy_wake,17565.html

Nancy Wake, A larrikin and a hero: http://www.convictcreations.com/history/nancywake.htm

National Portrait Gallery – Capturing TheMouse
Nancy Wake – The White Mouse, 2001 by Melissa Beowulf: https://www.portrait.gov.au/magazines/13/capturing-the-mouse

My Mother was a huge fan of telling the stories of women’s contribution because she felt ‘herstory’ important. It was Mum who bought me a book on Joan of Arc, The Maid of France, the French author Collette and Nancy’s book which was first released in the 1980s. Mum encouraged me to read widely and seek the untold or rarely told stories.

I read the autobiography and later when studying at university, bought a biography written in 1956 about Nancy by Russell Braddon who had been a POW of the Japanese. A prolific author, he suffered a mental breakdown several years after the war, which doctors attributed to his war experiences.

The effect of trauma and the horrendous violence people witness and become part of during a war and how it may change your attitude and personality, and most certainly your outlook on life is explored in Underground. 

The stresses and effect of the journey of other characters and their relationships with Nancy included.

However, it is the price Nancy paid for her courage and persistence and the price she saved others from paying that you think about long after the play is over.

There was a TV series starring the brilliant Noni Hazelhurst as Nancy a few years ago too and a couple of documentaries worth following up.

Why Do We Do What We Do?

That question of WHY concerning human behaviour is difficult to answer and because all of us are complex with varying degrees of experiences, different backgrounds and perspectives with various wants and needs, it is an eternal conundrum to be explored.

The ‘human condition’ a topic most writers of every genre are drawn to explore.

To dissect, and attempt to understand… Scottish poet, Rabbie Burns said, ‘the moving why they do it‘… It may be an unanswerable question.

… To step aside is human:

One point must still be greatly dark,

The moving Why they do it;

And just as lamely can ye mark,

How far perhaps they rue it…

from Address to the Unco Guid, or the Rigidly Righteous by Robert Burns

Christine Croyden has succeeded in tackling that bastion of male stories – heroism during wartime, with Underground. Succeeded shedding a little light on the motivation of Nancy Wake and her legacy.

The Allied authorities acknowledged Nancy’s exuberant spirits and physical daring but thought she was just ‘good for morale’ whereas the men and women on the ground who saw her in action formed a different opinion.

“She is the most feminine woman I know until the fighting starts. Then she is like five men.”

one of Nancy’s WW2 comrades she Captained

It is a contemporary play with a powerful beginning which gives a nod to Nancy’s New Zealand roots when the aged Nancy performs the Māori haka – a memorable visual feast.

A creative way of declaring her birthplace and links to a proud warrior race plus the profound links between Australia and New Zealand through the commemoration of ANZAC.

Nancy’s pre-war career as a journalist is used to good effect too and employing poetic licence we hear Nancy describe the horrific events of the 1938 Kristallnacht while recounting her experience of going to Vienna in 1933 to interview Adolph Hitler.

Nancy witnessed the ill-treatment of the Jewish population and the emotional rendition by Margot Knight leaves you in no doubt why Nancy dedicated her life to fighting the Nazis.

The playwright has drawn on all the available information but Margot Knight gives us insight into the horror’s effect on a young Nancy who wrote about her visit to Vienna.

“The stormtroopers had tied the Jewish people up to massive wheels. They were rolling the wheels along, and the stormtroopers were whipping the Jews. I stood there and thought, ‘I don’t know what I’ll do about it, but if I can do anything one day, I’ll do it.’ And I always had that picture in my mind, all through the war.”

Nancy Wake went on to become the Allies’ most decorated servicewoman, eventually collecting bravery awards from France, England, Australia and the United States.

In answer to being overlooked, she said of Australian authorities, ‘they can stick their award and be thankful it’s not a pineapple’.

Australia was slow to acknowledge her contribution but New Zealand is still to officially acknowledge their ‘daughter’ despite the efforts of a relative Professor Graeme Wake.

Professor Wake who met up with Nancy in 1990 said:

When I met her she was always adamant she was a New Zealander, she kept her New Zealand passport right through to when I met her and I believe beyond…

She never lived much of her life in New Zealand and left as a small child, when she was taken by her parents to Australia and hardly came back…

I believe she made one fleeting visit as a youngster to see her father before she went to Europe …

She was a forthright person, very direct on her views, clear on her views.  You knew exactly where you stood with her… a toughness of spirit which you can only admire.  

So Many Stories Still to be Told

Other Nancy quotes:

I hate wars and violence, but if they come I don’t see why we women should just wave our men a proud goodbye and then knit them balaclavas.’

‘I got away with blue murder and loved every minute of it.’

She is also reported to have said she hoped to go down in history as the woman who turned down 7,000 sex-starved Frenchmen! 

Perhaps her personality and attitude came from a tough early life when her journalist father returned to New Zealand deserting his wife and six children.

She was certainly no shrinking violet or demure lady often portrayed as the norm.

Nancy was a nurse in Australia during the early 1930s but harboured dreams of a different life and when she inherited money from an aunt left for Europe as soon as could be arranged.

What would her life have been like if no world war?

Nurse, ambulance driver, journalist, spy, commando, war hero, would-be politician…

Underground is a great play but it sparks interest and shines a light on a host of other stories deserving to be told about Nancy and many others from that era.

The play is an inspiration for telling stories in an entertaining and memorable way and I hope it returns to Kingston and more people take the opportunity to see it.

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Road To Perdition Paved With Darkness Yet Riveting Viewing

road to perdition DVD

Maybe it is all the grim news that seems to pervade every news bulletin and many social media posts, combined with having time to clear shelves and files on the computer now I’m semi-retired, but virtual and digital worlds coincided yesterday.

I took a rest from deleting files when I discovered the first film review I ever wrote and searched to see if I still had the DVD. The review was an assignment for one of the units in my master’s degree, 2010, and the DVD was a bargain basement JB HiFi sale item – Road To Perdition.

Up until I studied for the Masters In Writing, my writing centred mainly on short stories and poetry – fiction writing. I also wrote reports for the Union of Australian Women and dabbled in life writing/memoir but never thought about being a reviewer of books, let alone film, which is not a genre I’d ever claim expertise in critiquing.

However, with one daughter having a Bachelor of Film & Television and the other a Bachelor of Fine Arts majoring in Media Arts, and both loving film, I have been ‘turned on’ to the medium and love its ability to bring stories to life.

I happily absorb all the knowledge shared with me and one of my favourite pastimes is to go to the movies with one or both of the girls and then enjoy a great discussion afterwards.

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Reviewing Has Its Pitfalls

Writing my first review, particularly as an academic assignment was challenging but also interesting because there are many varied opinions about one film – like reading novels – you discover taste is extremely subjective!

There are of course necessary components and expectations of what makes a ‘good’ film just like the techniques required to craft a ‘good’ novel. 

I wrote for a general online audience because as a complete novice, no way could I emulate Margaret and David of television fame, or Jim Schembri, The Age’s regular reviewer in The Green Guide. (Definitely, showing my age here!)

I followed the lecture guidelines and tried to cover all aspects of the craft and techniques of film-making, including sound and cinematography, as well as the narrative and acting.

The title of the film was intriguing and I searched the dictionary for the exact meaning of Perdition:

First meaning –         (a)  archaic : utter destruction.

                                    (b)  obsolete : loss.

Second meaning –    (a ) : eternal damnation.

                                     (b ) : hell.

In Christian theology, it is a state of eternal punishment and damnation into which a sinful and unrepentant person passes after death.

The definition of going down the road/path to perdition is taken to mean travelling towards something very dangerous or harmful.

For example: ‘It’s this kind of selfishness that leads down the road/path to perdition.’

It is an old-fashioned word rarely used nowadays but as mentioned in my opening sentence, it’s a word that suits recent times – and certainly suited this film!

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Film Review: Road To Perdition

Perdition in some religions is the state of everlasting punishment in hell that sinners endure after death, or can mean hell as a location. Director Sam Mendes in his 2002 Road to Perdition, has a neat metaphor – not only are the main characters Michael Sullivan (Tom Hanks) and his son Michael Jr (Tyler Hoechlin) driving to a town called Perdition but they are also on the way to damnation, unless as in all classical tragedies, they find redemption.

The film’s Oedipal theme explores several aspects of father and son relationships and Tom Hanks is magnificent as the main character, Michael Sullivan. (This is high praise from me because I’m not enamoured with Hanks as an actor.  I will compliment his acting in this movie. It was so good, you can’t recognise him as Tom Hanks!)

The story is about Mike Sullivan being transformed by tragedy to forge a new relationship with his son and to do this he has to destroy the relationship with John Rooney (Paul Newman), the only father he has known.

It is 1931 America, Prohibition is giving Chicago based Al Capone wealth and power and Michael Sullivan, Sr is an enforcer for John Rooney, an organised crime boss in an Illinois town populated by fellow Irish Americans. (Makes a change from the Italian mafia.)

Sullivan, an orphan raised by Rooney, is treated as a favoured son. The resentment felt by Rooney’s real son, Connor (a suitably brutal Daniel Craig), at this relationship, and his vicious murder of a disgruntled employee witnessed by Michael Jr triggers the unravelling of Sullivan Senior’s ordered life.

In his attempt to silence Michael Jr, Connor kills a younger son Peter (Liam Aiken) by mistake and Mike’s wife, Annie (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Sullivan has to salvage what is left of his family; build a relationship with a son he barely knows, and stop him following his path of being on the wrong side of the law.

Road to Perdition, written by David Self, is based on a graphic novel by Max Allan Collins and Richard Piers Rayner, but is not just a pulp gangster movie, although the influence of The Godfather and The Untouchables is evident. (The latter movie with Kevin Costner as Elliot Ness is one of my favourites!)

An Irish wake establishes the culture of Rooney’s community whereas in The Godfather, it is a wedding, and Mike Sullivan’s perfectly executed campaign against Capone reminds us of Elliot Ness in The Untouchables.

However, the usual Hollywood clichés associated with gangsters are missing – there are no spats, loud suits, and hats strategically placed over eyes or laconic bad guys chewing gum, incessantly smoking, flipping coins, or firing wisecracks.

These are businessmen, ensuring illegal enterprises remain profitable; their world is not glamorous. The film shows the impact of the violence on the person who commits it, or witnesses it. Although there is a lot of killing, much of it happens off-screen.

It is a film of lost innocence because the 12-year-old narrator, Michael Jr not only witnesses a brutal slaying but is suddenly confronted with the truth that his father is a cold-blooded killer and his cuddly ‘grandfather’ Rooney is a manipulative crime boss.

Dialogue is sparse. Based on a graphic novel the film is told in scenes that are sometimes silent — superb showing not telling. Tom Hanks is brilliant as the inarticulate cold hit man struggling with personal grief, not apologising for the life he has led, determined on vengeance while saving his only son.

Stillness and stunning imagery are used to build the powerful emotions of Rooney and Sullivan coming to terms with the changed circumstances precipitated by sociopath Connor’s actions.

There are few speeches of explanation, rather dialogue such as John Rooney’s statement to Mike that, ‘It’s a natural law that sons are put on this earth to trouble their fathers.’

And later in a pivotal showdown, ‘There are only murderers in this room, Michael. Open your eyes. This is the life we chose. The life we lead. And there is only one guarantee–none of us will see heaven.

Director Mendes says the film is ‘about the legacy that fathers leave sons and the secret worlds parents inhabit that the child never really knows.

Camera angles are deliberately chosen to see events from Michael Jr’s viewpoint. The New York Times described it as ‘a truly majestic visual tone poem‘ and it is true that cinematographer, Conrad L. Hall creates a world where light struggles to penetrate the darkness, sinister shadows bedevil the night, and long corridors intimidate, fearful faces are half-seen, and a ballet of looks and eye contact produce tension to keep the audience engaged.

The opening scenes of winter snow and ghost-like crowds change in a seasonal shift towards spring, new life and light, but the characters must first survive the visceral chill of downpours and more than one hail of bullets.

Rain runs off the brims of fedoras, soaks thick overcoats, bounces on streets and windscreens. Weather as uncontrollable as the violence set in motion by Connor.

Darkness stresses the atmosphere of destruction, and there is no character darker than Harlan Maguire (Jude Law) a strange, sinister, sadistic hired assassin who hunts the Sullivans at the behest of Capone’s organisation.

In one confrontation, Maguire is scarred and the mercenary job becomes personal. His pursuit of the Sullivans provides an explosive climax and an opportunity for amazing cinematography.

There are many captivating moments that are emotionally-engaging, particularly between father and son, and I guarantee you won’t see the surprise ending coming!

However, true to the era and the story’s comic book origins women are mainly background ‘broads’. Jennifer Jason Leigh’s appearance is brief. She cooks meals, is silently supportive, and is murdered.

Made in 2002, the other female roles of an aunt, waitress, a prostitute, and an old childless woman are even briefer but not sure I’d warm to any female character playing a prominent role in such a violent world.

Despite the macho emphasis, Road to Perdition is impressive and entertaining. The careful attention to detail (especially historical aspects of costumes, dialogue and attitude), the quality of the acting (Hanks, Newman, Law and Craig deliver excellent performances), and the haunting musical score by Thomas Newman crafts a fine tale into a memorable film.

Added Extras

Perdition, Michigan refers to a made-up town but the film is set along the shore of Lake Michigan and the graphic novel was based on a true story of Bill Gabel and the Looney mob hell-raising in the Midwest during the Great Depression.

News of the World gave it five stars, ‘The greatest gangster film since The Godfather.’

For writers and storytellers (and students of Masters in Writing!), it is the special features on DVDs that add to the enjoyment of the movie. This DVD is no exception with:

  • Audio commentary by Director Sam Mendes
  • 11 Deleted Scenes with Optional Commentary
  • HBO Special: The Making of Road To Perdition
  • CD Soundtrack Promo
  • Photo Gallery (50 stills)
  • Cast and Filmmaker Bios
  • Production Notes

Finally, a quote from the blurb,

‘Academy Award-winning director Sam Mendes (American Beauty, 1999) brings his haunting vision to a hard-edged story of lost innocence, conflicted loyalty and ambition.’

I still find writing reviews – whether of film or book – challenging but as a creative writer, it is a good exercise.

The deconstructing and examining of the narrative, layers and impact, the characters and details can only help my own understanding of craft and technique of different genres and even stimulate ideas.

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It’s International World Water Day – Can We Celebrate How We Manage Our Waterways?

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Reconnecting With Birrarung

I’ve written many posts about my volunteering with Open House Melbourne and how it has enriched my knowledge and this week I was privileged to attend an event, which is part of a collaborative program between NGV and Open House Melbourne for Melbourne Design Week called ‘Waterfront: Reconnecting With Birrarung.’

The Yarra River was called Birrarung by the Wurundjeri people who occupied the Yarra Valley and much of Central Victoria prior to European colonisation.

It is thought that Birrarung is derived from Wurundjeri words meaning “ever flowing”. Another common term was Birrarung Marr, thought to mean “river of mist” or “river bank”.

Other Aboriginal terms for the river are: Berrern,  Wongete, and Yarro-yarro

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Water symbolises life

It is crucial to our health, the environment’s health, and all ecosystems on planet Earth and because of development and climate change, it is critical that Australia, the world’s driest continent, manages our water systems well.

Urban rivers are under pressure across the world, despite the vital ecological, cultural and recreational value they offer. 

Open House Melbourne asked Melbournians to reconsider and reconnect with the river that runs through their city and consider the role design plays in reframing Melbourne’s relationship with water. 

Waterfront: Cultural Flows

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On Monday, March 18, in the Koorie Heritage Trust Gallery, Federation Square, I attended “an intimate conversation” with Rueben Berg, the first Aboriginal person appointed as a Commissioner for the Victorian Environmental Water Holder.

Australia’s Aboriginal peoples have tens of thousands of years’ experience in water management. With the appointment of the country’s first Aboriginal Water Commissioner, Rueben Berg, in late 2017, the value of that accumulated knowledge finally appears to be dawning on its governments.

As part of Melbourne Design Week—an initiative of the Victorian Government in collaboration with the NGV,  Cultural Flows was co-presented by Foreground, Open House Melbourne and supported by the Koorie Heritage Trust.

There is consistent interest in water (and recently the Murray-Darling crisis made that interest skyrocket!) therefore water management is important to discuss, but we don’t often think of it in terms of design.

Yet, Design is important to function – it is an intensely cultural act – our waterways were shaped by Aboriginal Australians and then came the effects of colonisation and settlement, the latter detrimental to our waterways.

Tim Flannery (Australian mammalogist, palaeontologist, environmentalist, author and global warming activist) described Melbourne as a temperate Kakadu before greed and corruption destroyed the landscape.

Most of us even think in a blinkered way about rivers – in terms of sewers or using them to fish.  A report released Tuesday warned the Yarra River’s environmental health is being put at risk due to litter, pollution and invasive species. 

Victoria’s Commissioner for Environmental Sustainability rated the river’s health as “poor” in 18 out of 25 environmental indicators in its first State of the Yarra report, which provides a comprehensive assessment of the baseline health of the ecosystem. 

Nearly 180 tonnes of rubbish has been collected from the river system over a four-year period! 

  • Litter-cleaning programs removed 179 tonnes of litter from the river between 2014 and 2017, including 1.29 million cigarette butts from the river and its mouth at Port Phillip Bay.
  • The report recommends planning controls be extended further north-east along the Yarra River. Between 2013 and 2017, the Environment Protection Agency received 338 water pollution reports — the vast majority of which came from Alphington and further downstream.
  • It also calls for the creation of a chief biodiversity scientist to oversee monitoring of the river’s health. The outlook for frogs and fish was deteriorating in inner-city Melbourne and urban parts of the river system, but platypuses were assessed as being in a “fair” and “stable” state.
  • The report found industrial sites likely caused more pollution at inner-city sites but

    warns against ‘inappropriate urban development’ as Melbourne’s population expands in the north-east of the city.

Rivers are much more than rubbish dumps and recreational play areas.

The current river protection zone should be extended from Warrandyte to the boundary of the Yarra Ranges National Park, the report said.

Environment Minister Lily D’Ambrosio said the Government would consider the report’s recommendations and that care for the river was a “shared responsibility” of all Victorians.

Learning from the Wurundjeri

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Melbourne’s first people have two moieties in their traditional group.  There is Bundjil the eagle, creator of all that you can see on country – the hills and mountains, waterways, rivers, creeks and billabongs.

The trees that give shelter to various creatures, and wood and bark for the houses or weelams of the Boon Wurrung peoples. He also was called upon to settle disputes between people.

The other moiety is Waang the black crow.

He is the protector of the waterways, rivers, creeks and billabongs. He makes sure that fresh water would run and be in plentiful supply for our people and the birds and animals.

As the driest inhabited continent, the rivers of Australia have been the focal point of life for up to 60,000 years for Aboriginal Australia.  They play an important role in Aboriginal social life and identity but by changing how, when, and where rivers flow, water resource development has affected the way Aboriginal communities interact with the landscape.

Yet, until recently, there was little Indigenous participation in water planning and management as well as limited capacity and understanding within water agencies about traditional rights or values.

Managing waterways is complex – and we are part of it. This land is a significant place and it is important to celebrate and appreciate the river and we can have much better outcomes if we do this in partnership with the Traditional Owners.

Important to remember that the land has not just been inhabited 200 plus years – what was the waterway like thousands of years ago?

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Many of us have never heard of Cultural Flow or know the job of water commissioners and this free event was a wonderful opportunity to learn.

Rueben is a Water Commissioner in Victoria. There are four managing water holdings for the betterment of the environment.  Our waterways are not free-flowing, there are chosen amounts allocated. Sometimes water is increased for the environment’s health to areas where there has not been enough for trees, canals, or wetlands to be healthy.

Irrigators have an allocation for agriculture but the natural environment also gets an allocation. These allocations must have environmental outcomes – not just for recreational purposes like swimming, although that is a factor in consideration.

Rueben, a Gunditjmara man from Framlingham a rural township located by the Hopkins River in the Western District of Victoria, Australia, about 20 km north-east of the coastal city of Warrnambool, studied architecture at QUT.  

He played with Lego as a child and wanted to build things but when he began the university course, he discovered he couldn’t relate to the way it was taught.

He remembered having to watch a French film and then having to decide what architecture suited the characters. It seemed irrelevant and not realistic. That disconnect caused him to leave architecture and join the public service where he was designing houses for Aboriginal people with disabilities. Doing that meaningful work led him to the position he now has.

Diversity and Listening

No one has all the answers but we must consider heritage when we think about the environment.

Design must include

  • the significance of place
  • analyse the site before action
  • enhance existing characteristics,
  • the user experience very important.

Personally, Rueben has seen a positive change in his 18 months as a water commissioner. It has been an interesting journey – Minister Neville plays a strong role and Reuben’s presence highlights this. People think more before decision-making.

There is a lot of goodwill but also fear about getting it wrong and giving offence. His message is you will cause offence but get over it and do your best. (What good advice – race relations for many people can be a steep learning curve.)

He alleviates fears and initiates conversations. Aboriginals are a diverse community and you’re not going to please everyone.

He has been positively received – inclusion not an abstract concept any more. The culture within the industry is that people want to improve. However, he is an advisor, and ultimately it must be the Aboriginal people on the ground who decide.

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What is Cultural Flow?

This is water managed and controlled by Aboriginal people. Let them decide how it is used, the rights to use – even where needed for economic benefit.

When solely managed by Aboriginal people, shared benefits are recognised eg. recreational fishing and swimming.

Self-determination is a great idea but the handing over of control may be hard when it actually happens. Although there is consultation, also cooperation, there is still no dedicated cultural flow in Melbourne.  

There are broad themes throughout Australia regarding cultural flow – water must not damage sacred trees so controlling allocation important, if too much water, also if draining natural wetlands consideration must be made not to expose Aboriginal remains.

The common thread is maintaining a living culture. When considering water allocation we must ask what are the Aboriginal values?

  • Protecting totem species – different ones for different clans
  • Ceremonies are held at certain times of the year, therefore may need water where the flow has stopped or is limited.
  • rejuvenation to encourage economic independence

Bolin Bolin Billabong, Bulleen

This is near Heidi and Italian Soccer Club. A large river red gum with a canoe scar is located at Heide Gallery in Bulleen.

It is a significant site but not connected naturally to the river so recognising the damage wrought by this disconnection water is pumped in to correct it.

The Ranch Billabong, Dimboola

In December 2018, Wotjobaluk Peoples marked the anniversary of their 2005 Native Title Consent Determination by returning water to one of their most culturally significant sites along the Wimmera River. Providing water was about recognising the past and honouring the present.

Barengi Gadjin Land Council and Wotjobaluk traditional owners turned on the pump that will fill the Billabong. Twenty megalitres from the Wimmera River will be pumped into the billabong and changes monitored to manage the site. The water is from the Victorian Environmental Water Holder’s Wimmera and Glenelg Rivers water for environment allocation.

Rueben explained that there is a fear of highlighting sacred places and exposing them to vandalism or people taking stones as souvenirs or to sell on eBay. (My initial shocked reaction that these things happen replaced quickly by sorrow because human beings are not really the best of Earth’s species.)

Rueben is careful of advertising much of the work they do, yet realises it is important for everyone to know and value a place and so preserve it. Aboriginals don’t want to go down the Uluru track where people have trampled on cultural and sacred significance.

Aboriginal people must be allowed to keep their traditional relationship with places and practice their culture and the overwhelming action/response needed is mutual TRUST and a determination that cultural flow will work.

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Budj Bim, Lake Condah, Heywood

Formed by an ancient lava flow from what was traditionally called the Budj Bim volcano, the rich resource of Lake Condah – just outside Heywood – has sustained the Gunditjmara people for thousands of years.

The way the Gunditjmara people exploited the resources of the lake was sophisticated. They developed an aquaculture system not just to catch fish, but to grow fish. They were probably the earliest fish farmers in the world, one fish trap has been dated to 6,600 years old. Eels were caught and smoked and the Traditional Owners are developing the local eel farming industry to contribute to economic development and have an important education role.

Local Traditional Owners believe the area has global significance and are applying for World Heritage listing, a remarkable landscape, much older than manmade structures in existence.

In the late 1800s, Lake Condah was drained by European settlers for grazing land. In 2010 – following a native title determination – the lake was reflooded as part of a plan to revive the ecosystem around it.

From having no Aboriginal waterway officers there are now 22. Victoria is leading the way nationally and the current Treaty negotiations will give opportunities to have water rights discussions while respecting Aboriginal traditions in the knowledge that within different groups only certain people own certain knowledge.

Sharing that knowledge requires transparency and a reliance on stakeholders to navigate bureaucracy in good faith. Reuben must find out where and with whom authority resides within various local groups, develop a strong connection to the region, build relationships and discover who has access to the knowledge, and avoid conflict – this method has worked – so far!

The Aboriginal waterways assessment tool was imported from Canada after examining how their First People manage waterways. It is the intellectual property of our First People and the government accepts this assessment tool and doesn’t interfere. It is based on the relationships of Traditional Owners.

No tension yet regarding economic benefits, and there is always ongoing discussions when an approach is made and action is taken. Cultural Flow is referring to entitlement, it is not saying First People own the water but have an entitlement of access – for example, 4% of flow at a certain time

It is like a lease – you can sell some of the water allocations if water is surplus to needs; it will be used for other environments.  The question must always be asked – what is landscape for the year and will allocation change? 

The aim is to maximise benefits across the state.

In Victoria, the agriculture industry is generally supportive and the social licence of Aboriginal people recognised. They understand for the environment’s sake and the wellbeing of Traditional Owners, the balance must be got right. The Farmers Federation and Irrigators Council support Cultural Flow and are encouraging the establishment and use of frameworks.

International examples of cultural flow are NZ and Canada. Victoria is doing well compared to the national average.

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Can we Rewild Our Creeks?

We have been modifying our waterways for thousands of years – therefore don’t rewild but bring it back to a time when people lived in harmony with the environment.

We should move to use Indigenous terms and language – refer to places by two names, change the river names to include the Aboriginal name alongside the colonial name.

Reuben suggests we learn the original place name of where we live, where we walk the dog or picnic. What is it called in the original tongue and get into the habit of saying it as a daily reminder of the cultural significance of place!

It also shows respect.

We must get the environment right or nothing will work – look at the Murray Darling mess!

  • Water Commissioners can move water across the state – metaphorically and physically. It is like a grid. Water is a public-owned asset, and the government ultimately decides. So beyond Design – where the flow goes – is a political/cultural equation.
  • Traditional sites in urban Melbourne might be managed by Parks Victoria.
  • A part of the river may need more  – water is requested – Aboriginal clans don’t have to intrinsically own the land – it is about partnerships. Not limited to having to own the land to request cultural flow.

Managing waterways is complex – and we are part of it. This land is a significant place and it is important to celebrate and appreciate the river.

Know The History of The Yarra

 

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THE YARRA FALLS

Fresh water was the key to Melbourne’s location and to its development during the first 20 years of European settlement. In 1803, the Acting Surveyor-General of NSW, Charles Grimes, rowed upstream and declared it ‘the most eligible place for a settlement I have seen.’

John Batman had explored in the vicinity during June 1835, but it was George Evans and John Lancey in the ‘Enterprize’ who stepped ashore here on 30 August 1835 on behalf of Launceston businessman, John Pascoe Fawkner.

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The Wurrundjeri – one of five tribes of the Kulin Nation – had inhabited the area for more than 40,000 years, hunting and fishing the bountiful wildlife.

The 30 painted and carved poles in Enterprise Park depict the scars they left in the river gums after making shields and canoes.

A reef rock running under the Yarra at this point prevented water downstream from contaminating the fresh water above. At low tide, there was a pretty cascade known as The Yarra Falls.

The river above the Falls provided drinking and bathing water for Melburnians until the opening of Yan Year reservoir in 1857.

The Falls was a natural barrier to river transport and the reef was blasted away in 1880 as part of the river widening and straightening works.

We can’t rewind the clock or reverse some of the poor decisions regarding our landscape and waterways but the current government in Victoria is making an effort and we must all play our part – especially regarding pollution.

The inappropriate development must be stopped and listening to the wisdom of Traditional Owners and working with them is crucial.

Rueben and other Indigenous water commissioners are aware that the environment is changing because of global warming and the various factors contributing to this change. 

How water was managed in the past might not work and best intentions can be wrong but Aboriginals have inhabited Australia for thousands of years, adapting and managing and it is about enabling them to continue this stewardship.

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Cultural Flow and self-determination must be supported:

Indigenous peoples are connected to and responsible for our lands and waters and in turn, Indigenous peoples obtain and maintain our spiritual and cultural identity, life and livelihoods from our lands, waters and resources. These cultural and customary rights and responsibilities include: 

  • a spiritual connection to lands, waters and natural resources associated with water places
  • management of significant sites located along river banks, on and in the river beds, and sites and stories associated with the water and natural resources located in the rivers and their tributaries, and the sea 
  • protection of Indigenous cultural heritage and knowledge associated with water and water places 
  • access to cultural activities such as hunting and fishing, and ceremony.

While it is not possible to homogenise all Indigenous cultural water values into one perspective, as Indigenous values are regionally diverse and complex, there are some commonalities and distinctions from non-Indigenous laws that are important to recognise and understand.

Indigenous relationships with water are holistic; combining land, water, culture, society and economy. Consequently, water and land rights, the management of resources and native title are inseparable.

Aboriginal people have a wealth of knowledge around managing water resources within the Australian landscape and have much to offer in land and water planning and management.

We need their help to maintain our waterways.

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Today, March 22nd, we celebrate International World Water Day — founded in 1993 to elevate the importance of water as a human right, focus attention on the critical need to safeguard our freshwater resources, and promote the sustainable management of public water resources across the globe.

Billions of people are still living without safe water in both the Global North and Global South, and that’s why The Story of Stuff Project continues to fight for clean, safe, affordable drinking water. That means we support keeping water in the commons and managed by public hands, not private corporations.

The Story of Stuff

You can pledge:

  • I pledge to use reusable water bottles because drinking my local tap water is more sustainable than drinking from single-use, disposable plastic bottles, and doesn’t promote water commodification.
  • I pledge to resist water privatization because water is a human right and a natural resource that should not be controlled by corporations that put profits over people.

Clean water for all is not only a basic necessity — it is a fundamental human right. Without water, there is no life.

Clean water and adequate sanitation are paramount for helping children avoid deadly diseases, ensuring girls can stay in school, creating jobs, and assisting economic, social, and human development.

Sometimes the stars seem to align, or perhaps it is down to the cliched six-degrees of separation, but several activities I’ve attended this week have all been linked to water, the environment and learning more about Australia’s First People :

  • their knowledge and links to the land, waterways and the sea that we must appreciate and honour
  • how the only way forward is to work together,  building trust and sharing knowledge
  • how there is so much more to be done to Close The Gap and ensure true equality and improved outcomes in all areas of life for Indigenous Australians.
  • the importance of marine sanctuaries and healthy seas to ensure marine life isn’t destroyed and the health and integrity of Australia’s waterways are maintained. (more on that in a separate post!)

Today — on World Water Day … please get familiar with the greatest issues in the fight to ensure clean water for all.

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Is Love All We Need?

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#TravelEverywhereWithLove and Dogman

At the beginning of the week, I had to go into the city and because it has been a while, I took the opportunity to stroll through some of the streets and arcades I don’t normally visit and chanced upon a sculpture that looked vaguely familiar yet I hadn’t seen it before.

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Travel with Love is a global public art project that’s re-uniting the world. In the face of closing borders, it stands for keeping minds open and love flowing.

Gillie and Marc are creating interactive bronze sculptures featuring their iconic characters for leading cities across the world. When people see the familiar and beloved Rabbitwoman and Dogman in a city, they’ll know that they’re welcome there.

When I read the blurb, I remembered where I’d seen similar public art – in December 2017, walking along the St Kilda foreshore with visitors from England after showing them the little fairy penguins.

 As unlikely animal kingdom companions, the Rabbit and the Dog represent diversity and togetherness. Without a definitive race, religion, or culture, they symbolize all people as one.

A Case of Love At First Sight?

The artists, Gillie and Marc met on a film shoot in Hong Kong. Apparently, their differences should have been incompatibilities, but ‘their hearts said something else’. Seven days later they were married on the foothills of Mt Everest and are best friends and soulmates,  collaborating for over 25 years as artists.

They appear to be living proof that indeed ‘love is all you need’ and they are spreading that love by ensuring their art makes a powerful statement as a motivating force for compassion and conversation.

Sydney-based they have created these iconic hybrid characters, which are definitely eye-catching and I believe they do what all good public art should do – they start discussions.

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Dogman as paparazzi?

Two of the sculptures in St Kilda paid homage to well-known women:

  • Inspired by Angelina Jolie’s humanitarian efforts with conservation, education and women’s rights. Angelina RabbitgirlStronger than ever – stands tall and strong showing she’ll never give up.
  • Marilyn Monroe may be the world’s most recognisable sex symbol, but behind her twinkling eyes and dazzling smile was a fragile and fearful rabbit-like woman struggling to cope with her own fame. She was also one of the first celebrities to be honoured by the paparazzi. Happy Birthday Mr President highlights society’s obsession with celebrities in a fun and accessible way.

( Marilyn Rabbitgirl strikes that famous pose I wrote about when Bendigo Art Gallery hosted a giant Marilyn statue and exhibition a couple of years ago)

The third sculpture is of coffee mates a beloved motif in Gillie and Marc’s art. These coffee drinker friends warmly remind viewers of their first-morning coffee. Early Morning Coffee shows Dogman and Rabbitwoman peacefully enjoying a morning coffee.

It was loaned to three separate locations in Melbourne: Melbourne Emporium, 500 Bourke Street and St Kilda Pier.

St Kilda Pier bought the sculpture after their three-month loan period because the sculpture was so successful in bringing together the local community.

I don’t know whether Travel With Love will remain on St Collins but considering the current debate engulfing our parliament in recent days concerning refugee policy, I really hope so, because unlike our Federal Government’s attitude this sculpture encourages unity rather than enmity.

In response to the worldwide plight of refugees and immigrants, and changing border control policies, Travel with Love has been created as a stand for global unity. Connected by the public art project, each visitor (traveller and resident alike) will feel like next door neighbours.

…Rabbitwoman and Dogman tell the autobiographical tale of two opposites coming together to become best friends and soulmates. The Rabbit and the Dog, as unlikely animal-kingdom companions, represent diversity and acceptance through love.

Rabbitwoman and Dogman have a dream that all creatures, regardless of race, religion, or orientation can feel accepted and never be judged.

Dogman holds a magnificent red apple. In Chinese, the word for apple is ping. Ping also happens to be the word for peace –  a critical facet to the sculpture’s design.

2018, the Year of the Dog was going to be a year of good fortune, and the artwork aimed to engage existing community residents, while also attracting new visitors to this vibrant hub of multi-culturalism in Melbourne.

In Chinese tradition, when a dog enters a home it symbolizes the coming of good fortune. Dogs are loyal, clever and brave. Best friends to humans, they are known for having harmonious relationships with people from all walks of life and don’t discriminate against socio-economic status, race, religion, or orientation.

 “In the face of last year’s unstable global landscape, an apple signifying peace holds particular importance by spreading the message of diversity and acceptance for all beings… Gillie and I feel deeply connected to this representation, as all of our art is built upon the foundation of love and togetherness.

We combined the powerful image of Dogman with an apple in the hopes of inspiring the public to be brave in the pursuit of a better world. ”

Gillie and Marc

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Writers & Love

Love is the extremely difficult realisation that something other than oneself is real. Love, and so art and morals, is the discovery of reality.

Iris Murdoch 1919-99: ‘The Sublime and the Good‘ in  Chicago Review 13 (1959) 

Most people experience love, without noticing that there is anything remarkable about it.

Boris Pasternak 1890-1960: Doctor Zhivago (1958)

Love doesn’t just sit there, like a stone, it has to be made, like bread; remade all the time, made new.

Ursula K. Le Guin 1929 – 2018: The Lathe of Heaven (1971)

You know very well that love is, above all, the gift of oneself!

Jean Anouilh 1910-1987: Ardèle (1949)

Romantic love is one of the great and popular themes for art, especially literature and screen and in our society, we even set aside a special day to remind us of the fact!

Love The Day
Mairi Neil

Valentine’s Day, a day for lovers
Mr or Mrs Hallmark tell me so.
A day for lovers under covers
Valentine’s Day? A day for lovers!
A day when you forsake all others
A day that costs a lot of dough
Valentine’s Day, a day for lovers
Mr or Mrs Hallmark tell me so!

Remembering Mum
Mairi Neil

I can see you sitting reading a book
Twisting your hair, deep in concentration
I know you’d rather read than cook
I can see you sitting reading a book
Into another world with such a contented look
Did Dad envy the Mills and Boon destination?
I can see you sitting reading a book
Twisting your hair, deep in concentration

But there is also love of country, place, objects, family, food, music, hobbies, sport, film, books, politics, pets … the list extensive… all can add profound meaning to life, be the inspiration for getting up in the morning, the reason for decision-making, and for daily satisfaction.

LOVE

  • a word, a feeling, a concept, a theme… love can be small, specific, detailed, contained within a personal circle or there can be the bigger picture – a love for humanity.

However, you experience love, I hope it involves tenderness and caring, perhaps duty and responsibility, resilience and loyalty, commitment, maybe even fun if it is something rather than someone.

No matter the interpretation or experience, I agree with Gillie and Marc that life is better with love, and kindness, especially when it comes to treating neighbours, immigrants, refugees and others marginalised.

We are lucky to have talented artists who can confront us with ideas, and councils, philanthropists, and communities prepared to invest in public art – whether it be sculpture, murals or other installations.

When I was in Irkutsk, Russia there was a whole park full of installations, many the embodiment of well-known rhymes and fairytales or figures from mythology.

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I loved this one based on the three wise monkeys: hear no evil, see, evil, speak no evil. A cultural icon originally from the east (Japan) and well-known in the west.

I remember a small brass ornament that always sat on the mantlepiece during my childhood and I know many people in my age group (aged pensioners unite!) will remember something similar.

I wrote a prose poem years ago in class when I gave the students an exercise based on ‘an object of significance’ from their childhood.

Three Wise Monkeys
Mairi Neil

Mizaru, Kikazaru and Iwazaru sit on the mantlepiece:
seeing no evil, hearing no evil, and speaking no evil.
A Japanese pictorial maxim transplanted to Scotland.
Brought home by a great uncle, a ship’s captain,
these wise monkeys an added admonishment
to a childhood steeped in Presbyterian rules.
Yet, the shadow of evil an unseen cloak –
we live in the tatters of World War Two.
Crowded cemeteries, buildings awaiting demolition,
food rationing… crippling austerity,
shattered families struggle to find meaning,
shudder if ambulance and police sirens wail.
Speak no evil an achievable rule perhaps
but hearing no evil more difficult
and what of seeing evil or evil seen?
The brass monkeys a cold and chilly weight
in my child’s hand… etching a mystic message
of rules, to chant in the playground.

In Yekaterinburg, Siberia there was a delightful animal orchestra near the arts precinct. They brought a smile to my face and like the fairytale park in Irkutsk presented a different image of a country often represented in the media by military statues and huge murals of revolutionary figures.

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I also loved this one of folk musicians in a park renowned for festivals and open-air concerts. having lived through the 70s and adoring Dylan and Donovan as well as Baez and Mitchell, this couple melted any language barriers.

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But perhaps my favourite piece of public art when I travelled was Wincher’s Stance by John Clinch (an apt name). It was named by Susan Ritchie and commissioned by Strathclyde Passenger Transport Executive. Of course, it’s in Glasgow.

(In Scotland, winch is to kiss and cuddle. It also means to go out regularly with someone.)

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The emotion this couple radiates is recognisable to anyone who arrives or departs from those they love – it can be the joy of reunion, or ensuring a lasting impression.

It can be easy to walk past public art or grow accustomed to it or take it for granted so I’m glad I came across Dogman and reading the artist’s statement helped me reflect on its message.

Love may not be ‘all we need’ but caring for each other and recognising similarities rather than differences is a good start.  A big thank you to the many public art installations that encourage reflection and conversation!

 

A Poet’s Response To The News

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

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

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

So, poet, I am.

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

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

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

Write a Poem You Say (A Triolet)
Mairi Neil

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

The 24 Hour News Cycle

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

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

#Me Too Movement 2018
Mairi Neil

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 9 (A Triolet)
Mairi Neil

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

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

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

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

Stolen Years
Mairi Neil

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pressing Political Issues

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

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

Distraught Democracy (A Triolet)
Mairi Neil

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

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

Election 2016
Mairi Neil

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

Turn A Blind Eye
(A Villanelle)
Mairi Neil

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tasmania’s Beauty
Mairi Neil

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

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

Bush On Fire
Mairi Neil

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

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

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

Haiku – Mairi Neil

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

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

Flash Floods Not Fiction (A Haibun)
Mairi Neil

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

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

All life disrupted
reptiles infest the buildings
as rivers burst banks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Wake-Up Call
Mairi Neil

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Speech a PM Should Make in 2019
Mairi Neil

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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school children strike for their future The Times, UK

Do Border Controls and Building Barriers Quarantine Our Humanity?

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Backpacker Statue, Irkutsk Russia

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

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

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

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

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Panoramic view of Irkutsk Railway Station

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘I’ve received my passport…’

‘Wonderful,’

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

‘What do you mean?’

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

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

‘Helga, instead of Heidi? ‘

“Yep.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Messages Between MJ and me, April 2017

Missed video call at 3.58pm 

Only one bar of Wifi

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sorry it was an issue but glad you okay. Xoxox

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

Missed video call 5.55pm

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

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

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

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

Facebook Post April 4, 2017

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

 

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

Building barriers not new.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Facebook Post April 5, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

Messages Between MJ and me, April 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Will do. Xx

Is a Peaceful World Without Borders A Fantasy?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Let’s build bridges not walls

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Snatches from old movies and books rattle in my head.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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