We are experiencing a colder winter than usual this year and as I shiver, Facebook reminds me that two years ago I enjoyed warm spring weather in the UK including the lovely two weeks experiencing the Absolute Orkney & Shetland Islands Escape with several days spent in Shetland.
I’m now revisiting that time in Shetland while continuing the journey of going through boxes of past writing and teaching files to ‘clear out clutter’.
Recently, I discovered one of the first poems I wrote when I moved to Mordialloc and attempted to fulfil a dream to be a writer.
Whether scribbled poems (and this one was pre-computer days for me) or journal notes, the words, like my Facebook posts and photographs catapulted me to another place, another time – in many ways – another me!
The Change of Seasons
Mairi Neil, 1992
A winter’s day at the beginning of June,
who would have thought it cold so soon?
The hum of the fan as the gas fire burns
lifeless clothes drip on the hoist as it turns
the breeze gentler no more leaves falling
but the plaintive cry of cockies calling
to be released from their caged captivity
a monument to mankind’s insensitivity.
The cold weather outside, wet and bleak –
where is the sunlight we all seek?
My neighbour traps birds to keep for pleasure
others destroy the environment to amass treasure
I frequently criticise but no action take –
is my concern for social justice all just fake?
The silent majority murdered the Vietnamese
a radical student, I demonstrated with ease
Like winter’s rain, my protests poured down
on the heads of politicians – even the Crown.
There are always Vietnams, wrongs to be righted
has motherhood, mortgage, my conscience blighted?
Puddles on the concrete quiver and ripple
Raindrops plop like intermittent spittle
Was I more effective when young and carefree?
Persistently protesting – no one silenced me!
Perhaps mature responsibilities have weakened my voice
the business of raising a family offers limited choice…
When young, I felt strong like the rain – now I’m spittle
still caring deeply, yet doing too little
Can I blame it on SAD – sunlight deprivation
And be like a bear, accept temporary hibernation?
Winter Nights In Front of The Telly With Jimmy
On Sunday nights, a new series of the television series Shetland is broadcast. The crime drama has amassed an international audience since it began in 2013. Its popularity due to the excellent adaptation of award-winning crime novels by Ann Cleeves, a location, which provides plenty of stunning coastal scenes, strong storylines, and good acting.
Douglas Henshall plays Detective Inspector Jimmy Perez, the main character and in a recent interview, he agreed that the collection of around 300 islands lying between Orkney and the Faroe Islands, at the area where the Atlantic Ocean and the North Sea meet does intrigue and excite viewers.
“Not only because it’s beautiful but because it’s like another character in the show,” he said. “I think people are drawn to the place because they imagine themselves there.”
Cinema is all about suspension of disbelief so it may come as a surprise to viewers that many scenes in Shetland are filmed in Glasgow, Barrhead, Irvine and Ayr – hundreds of miles away in the lowlands of Scotland, in places resembling Shetland!
They just have to make sure no stray trees wander into the shot because trees are still not prolific on Shetland – although that is changing!
There was certainly a time when Shetland was almost devoid of trees. Old photographs from the early 1900s show a strikingly stark, bare landscape, even in and around settlements.
Whilst it’s true that large tracts of the islands lack tree cover to this day, there’s no doubt that things are changing. In part, this is because of a concerted effort by public bodies to plant more trees over recent decades…
Archaeological investigations have revealed that Shetland once enjoyed extensive tree and shrub cover, with species such as willow, downy birch, hazel and alder appearing in the pollen record. The real reasons for the lack of trees are to do with clearance for firewood and the presence of sheep, which have prevented natural regeneration. Where sheep are excluded, trees grow with little or no shelter.
Judging by the number of trees sold by local garden centres, not to mention the continuing work of the Shetland Amenity Trust, the Shetland landscape will continue to evolve; around settlements especially, we can expect it to change as much over the next generation as it has in the last one.
Alastair Hamilton, My Shetland, 2015
In June 2017, when I visited Shetland, I still had fun looking for familiar sites from Season 1 & 2 of the TV series, the only seasons released in Australia before I left.
And last night watching the final Season Six, not yet released free to air in Melbourne, it was satisfying spotting places I visited, beaches I walked on, houses or ruins I stood beside contemplating ancient Shetland!
I visited Jarlshof one of the most remarkable archaeological sites ever excavated in the UK spanning Neolithic, Bronze and Iron Ages to Middle Ages.
No part of Shetland is more than 3 miles from the sea and everywhere the landscape is stunning.
Jarlshof Mairi Neil
Gulls cry overhead
circling rugged cliffs
and ancient rocks
the remnants of a long-ago
but not forgotten past…
The constant motion
of waves crashing,
massaging, and chipping as they
accompany the wind song –
wild background music to
settlement, farms and crofts…
I imagine a family watching
the horizon with anticipation
the tempestuous sea surging,
the creeping mist of dawn.
Watching with hearts filled with hope
for a returning fishing fleet
or do they tremble with trepidation
at warships ploughing through
the tumultuous waves
to claim a land not their’s?
I don’t read a lot of crime fiction nowadays but often love the TV adaptations, particularly when Ann Cleeves’ great characters like Vera and Jimmy Perez, come to life or Ian Rankin’s Rebus, Alan Hunter’s George Gently and of course Agatha Christie’s Poirot and Miss Marple.
I can thank my mother for introducing me to Agatha Christie and another of her favourites, Georges Simenon’s, Maigret. I still have several old hardback novels decades old that I should declutter because if the truth is faced, I won’t read them again.
However, they are a link to Mum and a period in my life when I virtually read a book a day commuting by train to work on the old Red Rattlers from Croydon to the City so I just can’t part with them – yet.
I even watch the repeats on TV with several reincarnations of Miss Marple to argue over who is the best and although Peter Ustinov did a fine job in the movies, most people agree that David Suchet has now made Poirot his own.
I’m biased towards British crime novelists and their television adaptations. Many of them character-driven and tackling society’s issues and a bigger picture than petty crime or one issue. They are not just police procedurals (although there is plenty of that), but explore the social reasons for crime, not just the crime itself.
They show justice is fluid and the ones set in particular periods of history mark the effects of social change – or lack of it! They examine the human condition in a way most of us experience and/or comprehend. Who isn’t flawed?
The all-important conflict necessary for gripping fiction is flawed characters and their struggles to come to terms with the world, whether external or internal. Good novelists and screenwriters of the quality of Shetland dish it up in wonderful dollops!
Shetland has examined the rise of populism and the extreme Right, people smuggling and sex-trafficking, social isolation, bigotry, child abuse and the effect of oil and gas discoveries on environmental pollution among other hot topics.
However, one of the best storylines included a character who Ann Cleeves said she wished she had written – Tosh, a female detective who is raped in the line of duty.
The way this tragedy is handled and the arcs of various characters in Shetland are examples of fine writing and storytelling.
Along the way, we learn about life in a close-knit community, where everybody almost seems to know of each other – not hard in a population of 23,000.
As a comparison, I think of the City of Mordialloc before it merged with Kingston in 1994. In an area of 5.25 square miles, there was a population of almost 28,000. A dramatic difference in population density to Shetland’s archipelago.
The beacg by Jimmy Perez’s house
the laneway to Jimmy’s house
Jimmy Perez’s house on Shetland
When I mentioned on FB that I was standing outside the house in Lerwick used for Jimmy Perez, and then posted pictures of other houses used in the series with ‘a murder committed here‘… ‘another crime scene‘ … a friend referring to the ABC’s Dr Blake Mysteryseries commented,
Is there anyone left alive in Shetland? It’s a dangerous place, like Ballarat…
A bit like the popular English series Midsomer Murders where picturesque English villages harbour murderers and serial killers who knock off the local population at an alarming rate…
However, be assured Shetland locals are friendly and welcoming as this poster in Shetland dialect on the Library noticeboard says:
And as this article from a local paper relates, Shetland has produced female writers who don’t necessarily delve into the dark side of human nature…
All the people I came into contact with were wonderful and I’d return in a heartbeat.
I think at this time in my life, a place like Shetland appeals because I can imagine myself in a cottage, tending a garden and writing – no need for bright city lights anymore just a haven to indulge an inner search for peace and serenity!
I made a lovely Canadian friend, Linda during my trip and we still keep in touch hoping that one day we’ll meet again – either in Melbourne or Vancouver.
Our guide for Shetland was Robina Barton, an expert on history and geology and also the Labour Party candidate for the north, which is held by the Liberal Democrats. (She gave him a good shake in 2017 elections!)
I found her a most obliging and generous guide similar to those I experienced one-to-one in Mongolia and Russia. Enthusiastic, knowledgeable, caring guides who added so much to my extended holiday.
Robina met Linda and me at the ferry terminal and although there was a schedule for the day, she was more than happy to take us for ‘a cup of tea’ where we discussed whether we wanted to stick with the planned tour or do something else that suited our interests and mood.
With mutual understanding, the day went from good to great and helped colour my view of Shetland – I mentioned already I would return in a heartbeat!
In the photo below we were interrupted in our orientation stroll by a man offering free boutique chocolates – now that’s what I call hospitality! A chef who had just moved to Lerwick, he was promoting his soon to be opened restaurant.
WELCOME TO LERWICK
Lerwick is Shetland’s capital and takes its name from Old Norse Leirvik meaning muddy bay. Sheltered by Bressay over the water – where Robina lives. I could see her house from my hotel window and said goodnight to her twinkling lights after a super day.
The natural harbour attracts a wide range of visiting craft and a large cruise ship came in adding to the constant stream of ferries, fishing boats, and working craft from the oil rigs. Also a few moored ‘Viking’ long boats because of course, Shetland celebrates Up Helly Aa – the Viking Fire Festival in mid-winter January.
Lerwick, only officially named the capital in the 19th century, building on the trade from the Dutch herring industry. From a scattering of huts on a shoreline track, the busy Commercial Street developed surrounded by tightly packed narrow lanes. Later, new docks were created north of the town to accommodate the fishing fleet.
The characteristics of the buildings, brickwork and flagstones different from anything seen in Melbourne and many a lot older!
The largest ship built in Lerwick was the barque North Briton in 1836 at Hay’s Dock, now home to the Shetland Museum and Archives. There are models of typical Shetland Boats and to keep alive traditions, festivals are held and displays.
For me, the innovative incorporation of boats in buildings and gardens very appealing, but considering my forbears were all sailors and fishermen from the Isle of Skye, I loved learning about Shetlanders and the sea too!
Facebook Post, June 16, 2017
The Kveldsro House Hotel harks back to another era with Reading Rooms, relaxing lounges and shoe shine machines in the corridor. The bar even has a stained glass sign for Gents and of course, the Ladies Powder Room is some distance away!
There are plenty of tasteful furnishings and interesting artworks. The staff from Portugal, Ecuador, Greece and even Scotland 😆
I have been fortunate with all of the places I have stayed this trip.
Atop a hill and across from Shetland’s highest mountain we found where rocks crack and explode and create a moonscape. Robina a mine of information on the geological formation of Shetland.
Wildflowers blooming, sheep bleating, salt in the air and evidence of human habitation going back hundreds of years as sunlight glitters on the water like scattered gemstones.
Lunch stops are always interesting too, meeting the locals, getting to know each other, tasting Shetland delicacies. And a bonus when it rained while we were snug inside!
Different sides of mainland Shetland have different weather depending on whether exposed to North Sea or Atlantic .
We learnt a lot about geology today from Robina, our expert guide. The variety of rocks amazing. We also went on wildflower searches.
No view here boring and each pile of rocks intriguing – is it a broch, remnants of a tomb, a medieval or Viking village, a deserted croft from the cruel land clearances or collapse of herring fishing industry?
Is that of neolithic significance or a deliberate structure from WW2?
The Kveldsro House Hotel was comfortable and the staff pleasant. I usually had the same woman serving me breakfast, she was from Portugal and couldn’t wait to return home to the Mediterranean sunshine.
To do Shetland justice, I’ll have to write some more posts because although I didn’t experience any crime or startling epiphanies, I did learn some interesting history and a lot more about the natural world of birds and wildflowers.
We even got our ‘Viking’ on when we stopped at a restaurant for lunch that incorporated all things Up Helly Aa. After watching a video on the origins of the Fire Festival and reading reminisces of participants, we could dress up and let loose our inner Viking.
It was a fun interlude in a day that ended depressingly, sad – the Nightly News full of the Grenfell Tower Fire – an incredible tragedy hard to imagine.
I had spent some time in London with a friend when I arrived in the UK for this final leg of my journey and there were a couple of sisters at the hotel who joined our tour the next day who lived in London.
As you can imagine, news updates dominated the mealtime discussions over the next few days.
The horrors and brutality often associated with marauding Vikings wear a different mantle in modern times. Will those in authority whose greed, negligence and even deliberate contempt for others ever be held accountable? Death and destruction among the least wealthy and privileged in society a tale as old as time!
My next post about Shetland will definitely end on a more cheerful note!
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.
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:
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.
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?
Election 2019 – A Failure For Fairness
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.
‘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.’
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…
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.
‘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!’
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.
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.
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.
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.’
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…
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.
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.
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.’
The above meme is doing the rounds of Facebook and what Graham Norton says is such a no brainer you do wonder at those greedy people who employ tax consultants to minimise and avoid paying their share.
What kind of community do they want to live in?
One that is permanently gated with more police and security guards than teachers and doctors?
It is a timely reminder for Australians as the soon-to-be-announced (oh, please get on with it!) Federal Election is due.
If the Labor Party buys into the trope that ‘unemployed equals dole bludger’ or people unable to find a job are not worthy of help, then it is no longer the party of social justice. Bill Shorten’s Budget Reply better be decidedly different from Josh Frydenberg’s!
The ALP has baggage to ditch
forget rhetoric about poor versus rich
it’s about social cohesion
not fanning division
Jacinda Adern has the right pitch!
Limericks Bursting The Budget Bubble
The Budget was delivered by Josh
no surprises there, by gosh
and included a lot of tosh!
No addressing of climate emergency
global warming not treated with urgency
Josh sold his soul
for a lump of coal
condemning us all to Purgatory
And now the hard sell will begin
to politicians lying is not a sin
there’ll be semantics
the Truth always a victim of spin
The PM is a marketing man
considers winning in the can
to him not rash
hip pocket nerves all part of the plan
ScoMo always smugness and smiles
in Queensland, he travelled miles
to keep Nats sweet
and avoid defeat
he had a Treasury chest of guiles
Josh said the Budget is in the black
the economy on the right track
who’d have guessed
they’d rob NDIS
for that, they should get the sack!
Yet Julie wore a sparkly blue dress
at 1300 dollars it had to impress
red shoes clicked
her next job anybody’s guess
Mathias Cormann lonely without Joe
no cigars or smoke rings on show
as Dutton’s man
he’s now ‘also-ran’
a diminished powerbroker who must go
The Budget framed for election in May
when the people will have their say
about stagnant wages
refugees in cages
and prime ministers who never stay
The pork barrel has been rolled out
too late for those areas in drought
be gaoled over water
his incompetency never in doubt
Labor’s in with a chance to win
if they promise more than spin
Bill’s Budget reply
‘cos people’s patience is wearing thin
Social justice can be achieved
relief for all those aggrieved
a fair go reality
if economic parity
and a living wage guaranteed
Action on climate change a must
Australia’s pastures turning to dust
we need a government to trust
We’re at a point of no return
global warming a real concern
find a solution
destructive practices we’ll unlearn
To Neoliberalism we say goodbye
trickle down economics proven a lie
of tax evasion
and no more turning of a blind eye!
83-year-old Edie believes that it is never too late – packing an old camping bag, leaving her life behind and embarking on an adventure she never got to have – climbing the imposing Mount Suilven in Scotland.
My daughters bought me this DVD for Christmas and I took the opportunity last weekend amidst our autumn heatwave to watch it. (Something positive and uplifting to take my mind off worrying that those we trusted have left action on climate change too late…)
I was only pushing 65 when I went on my travel adventure but since it also included Scotland, I imagine that influenced my daughters’ decision to buy me this DVD.
It certainly is a spectacular showcase of the beauty of my birth country, especially of parts that regular tourists may not see.
Anne and Mary Jane are too young to appreciate what a brilliant actress Sheila Hancock is and probably didn’t realise how much I admire her work. I can still remember the TV series The Rag Trade (circa 1961) with Miriam Karlin – a show my Mum never missed. (even thinking about it triggers memories of Mum’s laughter and giggling drifting up the stairs in our house in Scotland – a wonderful sound to fall asleep to – an added bonus when gifts of books, DVDs and CDs of music trigger happy memories.)
Sheila also worked on stage, other television productions, and many films – a stellar career.
She is an author of several books. I have her 2004, The Two of Us, a dual biography, of her life with second husband, actor John Thaw. The book focuses on their careers and 28-year marriage. John died of oesophageal cancer in 2002, the same disease that killed her first husband, actor Alec Ross in 1971. Sheila is also a breast cancer survivor.
(As a widow who also nursed a husband through cancer and then survived breast cancer myself, Sheila’s book resonated with me.)
Not surprising with all the personal emotional and physical obstacles overcome in her life, she is superb as feisty Edie and any ‘acting’ seems effortless. At 84 years old when making the movie, Sheila did all the scenes in real time and remains the oldest person to climb Mount Suilven (731 meters or 2398.29 feet) – the normal suspension of disbelief required in cinema easily achieved.
The movie is inspirational and entertaining on several levels – as mentioned the scenery alone absolutely mesmerising, Edie could have been made for the Scottish Tourism Board – I can imagine visitors to Sutherland increased after the film’s release in 2017.
Suilven is one of the most distinctive mountains in Scotland. Lying in a remote area in the west of Sutherland, it rises almost vertically from a wilderness landscape of moorland, bogs, and lochans known as Inverpolly National Nature Reserve. Suilven forms a steep-sided ridge some 2 km in length.
A Positive Ageing Story
Edie is not the usual cliched ‘grey power’ movie. There is no reuniting with or meeting a new love interest, no romantic entanglement, no outsmarting or put down of the younger generation or authority, and no tear-jerking death scene.
Instead, there are interesting layers to unpack and questions left unanswered, leaving food for thought or discussion.
Will she now be able to control her future and remain ‘feeling alive’?
Has she finally put the past to rest?
Can she heal her relationship and reconcile with her daughter?
What of her newfound friendship with the young guide – will he make the ‘right’ choice for his future?
Easy to watch, the movie’s overall narrative says it is never too late to make your special dream a reality and be open to new experiences and new friendships
It is ‘Herstory’
March is Women’s History Month and we learn of women who have made a difference – some of whom were written out of history.
Edie is not a tale of a ‘famous’ female achiever, but it tells a story of limited choice and restrictions familiar to many women, especially of a particular generation – and sadly, perhaps still too familiar!
Edie could be ‘everywoman’ who put the needs and desires of fathers, brothers, husbands, sons and daughters before her own happiness. It is uncomfortable viewing at times.
At the beginning of the movie, we see Edie is the sole carer for a wheelchair-bound husband, George (Donald Pelmear). He can’t speak and has to be aided to eat. When he dies, it is not long before the house is up for sale and daughter, Nancy (Wendy Morgan) is taking Edie to view a residential aged care centre that on first glance looks like a luxury hotel (the camera through Edie’s eyes drawn to a huge golden chandelier in the entrance hall) but to Edie the place represents first class misery.
There is little dialogue in the early scenes but plenty of good acting, directing, and camera work. Edie’s expressions and body language show how unimpressed she is with the facility, despite the over-enthusiastic praise of residents and activities by Nancy.
Trying too hard to ‘sell’ the place, Nancy and the staff reminiscent of parents talking up boarding school to a reticent child. Naturally, Edie is not cooperating!
The scene where she is supposed to be learning flower-arranging and churlishly snips off the head of a flower once the instructor walks away, a great metaphor – and hints at the rebellion to come.
Edie and Nancy return to pack up the house and encounter a life-changing shock:
Edie focuses on an old postcard of Mt Suilven from her Dad promising they’d ‘climb it together‘.
Nancy finds a journal her mother kept and is appalled by the anger and misery in the short entries. Edie complains about being trapped, having to look after a child and her sick husband, having no support or pleasure, the unfairness of her workload, of being depressed at the drudgery her life has become and living a life she hates.
Nancy is hurt, offended, and furious, and not interested when Edie tries to explain the journal was a way to release her frustrations at the miserable and restrictive marriage, not motherhood… the crushing of her dreams and loss of independence… She was upset about the demands of caring for her husband after his severe stroke so early in the marriage.
‘It wasn’t meant to be read by anyone else!’
Nancy is too hurt and stunned to have sympathy.
‘But I always did my duty,’ Edie yells as her daughter storms out. (It was 30 years of caring.)
‘And I’m tired of doing my duty,’ Nancy yells back as she tearfully slams the gate.
No winners in that argument just valid points about the strain of changing relationships, the carer’s role, which can occur at any age, and the very human habit of not communicating honestly with those we love, and the huge gaps in society’s resources to help families in times of crises.
Appropriately, it’s a bleak, stormy, wet day and Edie is left standing at the gate drenched in rain (tears?)… like novels, metaphor important in scene setting.
That night Edie burns her journals and almost incinerates the postcard but rescues it and sits staring into the flames, deep in thought.
We glimpse ageing in suburbia with Edie’s only relief from drudgery a cuppa in a favourite local cafe where she is someone other than trapped wife or recalcitrant mother.
A lightbulb moment springs her to action and the gorgeous visuals of the journey north by train begins. Determined to climb that mountain and keep her father’s promise she has packed ancient equipment, which must be replaced of course and the shopping trip for the latest gear from the Scottish equivalent of Kathmandu provides comedy and pathos.
Many of these scenes resonated with me because when I went into the Tarkine wilderness on a hiking and camping holiday in 2008, I hadn’t shouldered a backpack since Girl Guide days – I was also amazed and shocked at the variety and cost of camping gear but must admit to having fun trying on the clothes just like Edie.
The Generation Gap
In Scotland, Edie meets Johnny (Kevin Guthrie) and their unusual relationship provides laughs, tension, and poignancy – Sheila Hancock has never lost her comedic timing and the close-ups of her wrinkled face and hands, falling over, and struggling with weakened limbs truthfully portrayed.
There’s a memorable scene where she rests and examines a leaf from a nearby bush. The close-up shows the veins on the leaf held beside the back of her hand – roots pump water and minerals to branches and leaves, the heart pumps blood through our veins to limbs… a leaf can be the sign of a new beginning or reaching maturity…
It is a beautifully filmed sequence and her smile and demeanour say she is glad to be alive and grateful to be in that place, at that time.
I’ve been fortunate to have many private moments in wonderful places of natural beauty, I too have been able to sit in silence and contemplate… this was a lovely moment in the narrative and I’m sure contributed to the film winning its two awards.
At the start of her adventure because of a mix-up, Edie has to spend a night in Johnny’s share house. Two scenes are funny and emphasise gender and generation gap many people can relate to:
She prepares for bed in a bathroom/toilet shared and neglected by the all-male, twenty-something household
Leaving the next morning she has to navigate past four young men sprawled on the lounge room floor after a heavy night of drinking.
Genuine warmth and friendship develops between Edie and Johnny, who has his own relationship troubles because his girlfriend, Fiona (Amy Manson) is in the middle of negotiating a bank loan to create the biggest camping store in the north of Scotland while he feels trapped and longs to escape his job as a guide in what he considers a parochial area. He took on the job of training Edie for the climb solely for the money, thinking it would be easy because she would back out.
In an honest exchange of stories, we learn Edie’s life and how her spirit was broken by her husband who was a control freak. He estranged her from her father to ensure she forgot being ‘a wild child’ and just as she realised the marriage was not what she wanted and stood up to him, he had an almost fatal stroke. She sacrificed the next 30 years to dutifully care for him and ensure her daughter would have choices she didn’t.
The wisdom of age juxtaposed with impetuous youth exchanged like their stories. But when Johnny is looking forward to guiding, Edie surprises him by insisting she climb Suilven alone! Wow – who is risk-taking and foolish now!?
The drama and tension speed up at this point – for all the characters – and the reunion of Johnny and Edie near the top of the mountain and him stepping back and letting her move unsteadily alone to the peak to add her small stone to the cairn, speaks volumes about their changed relationship. His happiness and joy reflected in a huge smile and glistening eyes.
Exhausted Edie stands proudly surveying the raw haunting beauty of Suilven and Lochinver and for Scottish me with roots still in my birthplace, the scenery and emotions evoked, breathtaking.
A satisfying and inspirational movie that is also thought-provoking because, barring tragedy, we are all ageing and/or watching loved-ones age, and how we navigate and cope with the process and live affects wellbeing and happiness.
There is a marvellous interlude when we think Edie will not survive – her equipment lost in a terrible storm and she is alone in the dark until she discovers a hermit’s hut – this episode has even more layers you can unpack if you like philosophy and ponder our relationship with nature and each other.
Triggered Memories of My Mountain Climbed
I replicated Edie’s journey, in a tiny way, when I was in Skye in 2017 – not that climbing The Storr (or Old Man of Storr as it is known) was near the effort of Mt Suilven but for someone who suffers acrophobia, I’m proud of my achievement.
I’ve written about when I think my fear of heights startedhere and although The Storr has a path described as ‘well-constructed’, for me it was a challenge.
Looks can be deceptive, the gradient, the instability and variable surface of the ground underfoot, and the constant force of the wind the day I climbed presented a challenge too.
The Storr (ScottishGaelic: An Stòr) is a rocky hill on the Trotternishpeninsula of the Isle of Skye in Scotland. The hill presents a steep rocky eastern face overlooking the Sound of Raasay, contrasting with gentler grassy slopes to the west.
The Storr is a prime example of the Trotternish landslip, the longest such feature in Great Britain. It is the type locality for the mineral gyrolite.
The area in front of the cliffs of the Storr is known as The Sanctuary. This has a number of weirdly shaped rock pinnacles, the remnants of ancient landslips.
A well-constructed path, used by many sightseers, leaves the A855 just north of Loch Leathan. It heads up through a clearfell area that was formerly a conifer plantation. Most day-trippers are content simply to wander around the Sanctuary, admiring the pinnacles and gazing up at The Storr’s eastern cliffs. Walkers can easily ascend to the summit, however, by skirting below the cliffs whilst heading north from the north end of the Sanctuary. After passing over a fence at a makeshift stile and climbing a brief steep section of loose rock, the recommended route for walkers heads north-west as far as Coire Scamadal, 1 km north of the summit, then doubles back and heads southwards along the north side, climbing towards the summit. From this route, visible breaks in the cliffs offer tempting short cuts, but these are steep, may not save time and may not be safe…
The Storr is 719 metres (2,359ft) at its highest point – I reached the base of the steepest pinnacle but discretion being the better part of valour and considering I was on my own, I did not scramble around the narrow ledge to ‘touch’ the pinnacle because I feared the wind would blow me away or a panic attack make me freeze.
In fact, a few times during the climb I wondered if my travel insurance would pay out because I signed a clause saying I was not planning any unusual extreme ventures!
At the start, I took photographs of the area known as The Sanctuary and met plenty of tourists ‘scrambling’ and climbing to a vantage point for good views.
I then started the ascent in earnest, stopping plenty of times for photographs but also to chat with people coming down or going up:
How long did it take you?
Is the going rough?
Are there any landslides?
What’s the best side to tackle?
Where are you from?
Have you done this before?
Did you get to the Pinnacle?
The wind will blow you away!
It’s too hard!
It’s too dangerous!
I made it – just wanted a photo for Instagram… Facebook …
I took a Selfie to prove it I reached the top!
It was treacherous underfoot and I found it took all my concentration and physical ability to navigate some steep and slippery sections.
I met a lovely father and daughter from India but the little girl of eleven refused to be as enthusiastic about the challenge despite coaxing from her Dad.
They only climbed part of the way and were still negotiating about going further when I met them on my way down!
Two lovely Italian girls shadowed me part of the way – perhaps thinking I was going to need assistance. We were all thumbs up and celebrating when we reached the base of the Pinnacle and through sign language and limited English, they said they admired someone of ‘my age’ for even attempting the climb!
I don’t know about Sheila Hancock in Edie but I found the descent as daunting as the climb and several times thought I was going to lose my footing. However, I did climb, Old Man of Storr and have some wonderful photographs of the view of Skye I would otherwise not have… and as you can see by my smiles it was a good feeling to have a small triumph over a lifelong fear of heights.
Edie, the movie, and Sheila Hancock, the actress – both inspirational. I won’t be queuing up to climb Suilven when I’m 85 but I hope to achieve other dreams.
This year, in semi-retirement, I’m not working at the moment but I’m sure there are teachers/trainers/facilitators who are trawling the Internet or books, for fresh ideas for the first class and will appreciate some of these hints.
At this time of year, as schools reopen, so do neighbourhood houses and other groups providing activities and it is so important to be inclusive and encourage a friendly atmosphere.
People absorb more and learn better when they’re relaxed and happy.
I’m normally preparing first lessons for various classes in creative writing and although many of my students returned, or had been together for several terms, if not years, there would always be someone new so it was important to have icebreakers.
How do you help someone ‘fit in’ quickly and as easily as possible?
Try them – even if your group is not specifically for writers.
For years I had a good formatthat involved people interviewing the person beside them and then introducing each other to the class. This could be tweaked by changing the questions to be specific, limiting the time so it was like speed dating, ensuring people interviewed someone they didn’t socialise with outside class or didn’t know at all.
We soon knew each other’s names and a bit about everyone’s personality – maybe even a condensed life story!
Here’s a poem I wrote after my Monday morning class at Mordialloc Neighbourhood House.
What’s in a name? Mairi Neil
To break the ice in writing class
much to some students’ dismay
we asked each other questions
in a ‘getting to know you’ kind of way.
At first, we pondered each other’s names
their origin – had family tradition won?
We discovered Barbara may be a saint
and Victoria’s Tori is much more fun.
Amelia loves her name, as does Heather,
who hates nicknames or shortened versions
while Emily feels loved when she hears Em,
and Jan became Janette if family ructions.
A lipstick released and called Michelle
ensured Jane’s mother chose simply Jane
Michael never wants to hear Mike and
Mairi wishes her spelling more plain.
What’s in a name, I hear you say?
What’s the creative writing motivation?
Well, as any writer will tell you
all knowledge ripe for exploitation!
Who hasn’t heard of Oliver Twist,
Jane Eyre, Miss Faversham or Lorna Doon
of Harry Potter, Hercules Poirot?
And Mr D’Arcy still makes folk swoon!
Most storytellers invent characters
and characters usually need a name
think carefully as you bring yours to life
Because they may be on the road to fame!
Click on the link for two templates that are guaranteed to work as an icebreaker and with revision and effort some powerful poetry and maybe a short story or two will result!
Here’s my effort –
What Made Me?
I am from ‘wakey-wakey’ for breakfast
Storytime books and kisses goodnight.
From hopscotch, skipping, dress-ups,
Backyard games and street delights.
Childish rhymes and daisy chains,
From buttercup tests and bramble jars,
Walking to school or riding bicycles
Streets were for playing – not for cars!
Home deliveries by butcher and baker
Bottled milk at home and school
I’m from coal man black and scary
Clouds of dust when cellar full.
Shouts of ‘any old rags?’ recycled clothes
The buttons and zips Mum always kept
Eager friends traded their Dad’s best suit
Mothers screamed and children wept.
I am from Chinese checkers and chess
Scabby Queen and what card to choose
Roars of laughter, or tears and tantrums
Gracious winning and learning to lose
A migrant family farewelling the familiar
Adjusting to new home across the seas
On a long ship’s voyage. we acclimatised
To be from a house among gum trees.
Hot days of summer and restless nights
Long dry grass and fear of snakes
Mosquito netting to avoid nasty bites
No escaping plum and apple fights.
Bluetongue lizards and pesky possums
A boat full of tadpoles and croaking frogs
Screeching cockies, laughing kookaburras
A house full of stray cats and dogs.
Huntsman spiders sucked up the vacuum
Cicadas chitter to announce summer
Rabbits and hares, native mice aplenty
Magpies swooping – what a bummer!
I’m from Choc Wedges and icy poles
Long summer days at Croydon Pool
Driveway tennis and park cricket
Trips up Mt Dandenong for cool.
I’m from high school softball and hockey
A Holden car swapped for Morris van
Holidays in army tent at Coronet Bay
Shift worker Dad visiting when he can.
I’m from triple fronted brick veneer
Replacing dilapidated weatherboard
Coloured TV, Phillips stereo, cassettes
Furniture wet when rain poured.
I’m from white weddings and sad divorces
In-laws plus nephews and nieces
Heartaches of friends and relatives
Falling apart and picking up pieces…
I’m from sick and ageing parents,
Death’s challenge not ignored
A houseful of wonderful memories
As bulldozers destroyed James Road.
In the hush of evening sunsets
Imagining childhood with closed eyes
Daily shenanigans, laughter and tears
From that ‘wakey-wakey’ surprise.
I’m from hardworking parents
Love always their motivation
Gifting me ethics and values
I’m a product of their dedication.
Melding the Power of Words, the English Language, Our Imagination and Life Experience
Introductions – Exercise One in Class
This is a fun exercise but requires a little thought and brainstorming before you write and remember to make it as creative as possible.
Before you say your name, sit quietly and think of three clues that describe, but doesn’t name, either the country where you were born (if it is different from Australia) or the place in Australia you were born (could be a city, country town, interstate).
Now think of three clues and see if people can guess a foreign country you have visited, your favourite foreign country, or one you dream of visiting.
Next, say your name and your clues and others will guess the answers. (You don’t have to make it difficult! It is not a competition but just a way of introducing an aspect of yourself others may not know.)
Now say what you like best about your birth country and the favourite foreign country.
Hi, my name is Mairi. I was born where lochs and glens adorn postcards and men are not embarrassed to go without trousers, and our national musical instrument has been declared a weapon of war.
A few years ago I visited a country to climb a mountain and visit a grave. I went to church and prayed for their rugby team to win and ate banana pancakes.
I love the sense of humour and hospitality in my birth country and that warmth of welcome and fun was also experienced in the foreign country of my dreams.
Always whatever people write and discuss can inspire the others in the class, and furnish lots of anecdotes, memoir or imaginative pieces to write about later.
Has the exercise, or listening to others prompted an idea for a short story, poem or family history?
Reflect – technology and transportation today give us the opportunity to learn, often first hand, about the rest of the world. You may not have had the privilege of travelling overseas but had the thrill of talking with foreigners online, writing to pen pals, or working beside people from overseas, or maybe even have immigrants or short term visitors as neighbours.
The world shrinks and differences are less, the more we learn and understand about each other.
And everyone is capable of dreaming about crossing borders, venturing into the exotic, trying something new.
Write at least 300-500 words explaining your connection and love of your birth country and favourite foreign place or perhaps you have a vivid memory to share – good or bad. Maybe travelling advice, or write about a character you met.
Memory can burst into the present like a firecracker or be kindled like a flickering candle flame.
Despite Scotland’s dreary weather reputation, I remember lying on dewy grass among bluebells, and purple heather, breathing in the salty air of the River Clyde and freshwater scents from Loch Thom. Clouds drifted over the brae as we wove daisy chains and picked buttercups.
‘Do you like butter,’ we asked, holding the flowers under our chins. We giggled and chased each other waving dandelions, their touch supposedly making you pee the bed and when they ‘died’ the same flower became a fluffy timepiece to blow ‘fairies’ into the air and call out ‘one o’clock, two o’clock…’
In summer we sucked ice-lollies bought from Peter’s shop, a place pervaded by smells of sugar and syrup from jars of sweeties: musk, mint, aniseed, liquorice… The days seemed endless – daylight lasting until near midnight. Mum begging us to come in for supper and bed, but we romped in the hills of Braeside or played games in the street.
Travellers (tinkers to us) came to camp in the farmer’s field among cow pats and sheep dung. Their decrepit caravans and ex-army tents, a tight encampment we were forbidden to visit. They scoured the local streets for odd jobs, standing on doorsteps, unkempt and dank.
‘In need of a good bath,’ our neighbour said, ‘they don’t half pong. I gae them a couple o’ shillings just to be rid o’ them.’ It was the 1950s and no bathrooms in caravans or tents, not even a clear burn (creek) in the farmer’s field. My childhood curiosity aroused about people living a different life to me and awareness, not all adults shared my parents’ compassion …
The Rag and Bone man another summer visitor. His van toured the housing scheme looking for goodies. If mothers worked or went shopping, lured with promises of a goldfish or a budgie, but more likely receiving a balloon or plastic water pistol, some children handed over their dad’s dinner suit or mum’s Sunday best, taken from wardrobes without permission or smuggled out of the house among shabby clothes. The smell of brake fluid and burning rubber accompanied the yells of angry women chasing ‘Steptoe and Son’ down the street, wanting to retrieve property obtained under false pretences.
Our neighbour’s wisdom again, ‘Never leave wains to their own devices!’
The long summer holidays the time to collect firewood to build a bonfire for Guy Fawkes Night, to make a guy from old clothes and stockings stuffed with newspapers to drag around the neighbourhood on a homemade bogey (go-cart) shouting ‘penny for the guy’. The Davaar Road Gang made up of neighbourhood children clubbed pocket money to amass a kitty for fireworks: Catherine Wheels, Sky Rockets, Whirly Gigs, but mainly penny bungers.
Sometimes we couldn’t wait for November 5th, and the acrid smell of gunpowder in the backyard tipped off our mothers we were exploding fireworks without supervision and we’d hear, ‘Wait until your faither gets hame. He’ll skelp your backside.’
Introductions – Exercise Two in Class
This one is a variation of an oldie that often does the rounds – I think there was a radio programme based in it too called Desert Island Discs…
If you were marooned on a desert island, who would you want with you? Or what (a favourite pet, perhaps…?)
Sit quietly and think about the situation for a couple of minutes.
Choose three people who you would want with you if you were marooned.
Introduce yourself and name the people. They can be alive or dead, imaginary, famous or infamous, literary characters, television personalities, family or friends…
Hi, my name is Mairi and if I were marooned on a deserted island, I would want John to be with me. Ex navy he understood the vagaries of the sea, was strong, clever and practical. His common sense and calmness a balance to highly strung, impulsive me. He was great fun and an incurable romantic – we wouldn’t be a small population for long!
My second choice would be AJ Cronin, a great ethical doctor but also a wonderful writer and storyteller. We’d have many stimulating discussions and I’d get some great writing tips. And he’d ensure we stayed healthy.
My third choice would be my Mum, the best no-nonsense cook in the world and someone who was amazingly adaptable – making homes in Ireland, Scotland and Australia – she could be relied upon to adjust and settle into the new situation. And no better confidante to give unconditional love.
Reflection and Discussion Enriches the Lesson
How hard was it to choose people?
Did you substitute a pet?
Were your choices all imaginary? Celebrities?
What surprises did you find when listening to others?
Each time I do this exercise with different classes, I change my choices and now as I look over my notes from the years of teaching, I’ve garnered a lot of information and jumping off points to write my own story or even stories.
As always, encourage writing and rewriting at home…
Write an imaginative story about being marooned – either one person or more than one.
Think and perhaps revisit Gilligan’s Island or Lord of The Flies, or perhaps Robinson Crusoe. No genre is excluded – remember the TV sitcom setting the Family Robinson in Space? Why not have them land on Mars – or even the moon…
Explore your choices of the three companions and write in depth about why you chose them. Is there a relationship with one or more of them that can be explained in a personal essay?
For example, I may write about my mother’s cooking ability or her life’s migration journeys, perhaps choose the move from Ireland, or concentrate on emigrating to Australia.
About being inspired by AJ Cronin – (1896 – 1981) a Scottish novelist and physician who wrote The Citadel (1937), the story of a doctor from a Welsh mining village who moves up the career ladder in London.
I loved this novel. It was recommended by my father and I can’t remember if I read the copy in the house or bought my own. It had controversial new ideas about medical ethics and Dad said it inspired the launch of the National Health Service.
Cronin’s other popular novel was The Stars Look Down. Both were mining novels adapted as films, as have Hatter’s Castle,The Keys of the Kingdom and The Green Years. His novella Country Doctor adapted as a long-running BBC radio and TV series Dr Finlay’s Casebook. This series compulsory viewing in our household and in a piece of serendipity, one of the housemaid jobs I had when I travelled the UK in 1973, was at the Killin Hotel – a hop-skip-and-a-jump from Callander where the series was filmed.
Another bit of serendipity and personal history was in 2017 when I stayed with my cousin in Scotland. She had recently moved to Cardross and walking around the neighbourhood led me to this discovery:
I don’t expect Cardross to be on the list of places to visit if you went with a packaged tour but it is a bonny place, steeped in history, and definitely worth a look:
I came across lovely gardens and some attractive social housing for the elderly – and as a bonus, the spring flowers were in bloom and the cafe was friendly.
See how that exercise has triggered stories for me…
Please feel free to share your thoughts and add any good icebreaking exercises because I guarantee there will be a teacher/trainer out there trawling the Internet who’ll appreciate it.
On a walk with my dearest friend, Lesley, we paused by a beautiful Illawarra Flame Tree to listen to rosellas, ravens and wattlebirds in conversation – perhaps squabbling over the best branch or sharing neighbourhood gossip birds enjoy.
It was a fitting end to 2018 – especially since the New Year has begun with an ‘unprecedented’ heatwave right across the continent.
A visual metaphor perhaps, a warning about global warming?
However, being a glass-half-full person, I’d rather accept the experience as an amazing gift from Mother Nature and a reminder there is countless beauty in gardens around the neighbourhood, and in the wild, for all of us to appreciate and share.
The number of wonderful species of plants and animals we have already lost is a worry especially when the bumblebee was added last year to the ever-growing list of endangered species overseas such as the grizzly bear, the northern spotted owl, the grey wolf, and nearly 1 in 3 of our unique Australian mammals are at risk – mainly through habitat destruction.
But with a Federal Election coming up and climate change always in the news I am full of hope there are people, like myself who value and will work towards changing attitudes and our current Federal Government.
There is only one Earth to be respected, nurtured and shared, not just dug up, mined, fished, dredged, drilled and concreted over.
Greenpeace’s Rainbow Warrior docked in Melbourne in November to remind us there is a community of people who care and are prepared to act.
… as a writer, I am dependent on scientific inquiry for information. If I am going to write coherently – about polar bears, for example – I am dependent upon the scientists who work with polar bears for solid information of a certain sort. And yet I am troubled by this because of the way we approach animals as scientists.
Barry Lopez, from a discussion with Edward O Wilson on ‘Ecology and The Human Imagination,’ University of Utah, February 1, 1998.
Let’s celebrate the natural world
We have much to learn from the animal and natural world.
Birds are constantly adapting to changed circumstances, adversity and catastrophe. Recently, I’ve been entertained by the songs of a butcher bird that decided it likes my garden. I noticed the baby bird a few months ago so move over magpies and wattlebirds.
I am one of the few houses in Albert Street that still has a reasonable number of trees as apartment blocks and townhouses mushroom around me. A self-confessed dendrophile I will be planting more trees this year and spending time cultivating the garden with flowers and vegetables. (Even if the possums ate my broccoli and are munching their way through the top of the five photinias protecting the back fence.)
Indulging the senses
There are lots of inspirational ideas from walking around the suburbs – a mixture of indigenous, imported, practical and ornamental trees and plants attract a variety of birds, butterflies and insects.
Lesley and I have already made a pact to share more cuttings and encourage each other regarding our gardens. We are both transitioning to retirement, so my writing will indubitably reflect either success or failure!
I’ll take a leaf out of Thoreau’s practice of walking, observing, pondering and writing…
… we begin to see the whole man as we follow the crowded, highly charged, and rapidly evolving inner life that accompanies the busy outer life and reveals the thoughts behind the eyes of the familiar photographs.
Robert D Richardson Jr: Henry David Thoreau: A Life of The Mind.
Will I be inspired to be more creative and productive and take the advice I’ve meted out to students over the years? Thoreau mined his journal jottings and got essays and books out of his copious notes – not sure I’ll be so talented…
As a person who likes to ‘join the dots’ I value connectedness when memories spring to mind as I walk or travel by public transport. I have a pile of notebooks to be typed up and documents already on the computer to finish or add to and way too many photographs. (My oldest daughter banned me from ever opening an Instagram account!)
Will 2019 be the year I use time wisely or perhaps discover a niche other than writing and teaching?
Do I write up and polish, start afresh, a bit of both or ‘now for something completely different’?
Maybe just luxuriate in reading and gardening…
Tales of Our Lives
If you want to record your stories
consider what and ponder why –
list all the events to be remembered
and ask, ‘Who for?’
Is that a sigh?
If wondering ‘who’ don’t worry
there’s joy in a manuscript for one
reflecting on life and lessons learned
gives satisfaction when writing done!
Do we need to record our stories?
Some question the wisdom of revisiting years
but most of us have lived experiences
to prompt laughter as well as tears.
Ordinary people live extraordinary lives
an observation you often hear said –
so concentrate on the who and what
think how your stories will be read.
Will you write with pen and ink –
forming copperplated words
or tap myriad computer keys
that easily erase the absurd?
You may even take recording
to another level of authenticity,
digital voice and video programs
reproducing ‘you’ with simplicity.
And if you do go digital –
recording voice and visuals – remember
mobile phones, Youtube, Facebook
retain the serious and the trivial…
Stories have entertained us
from the beginning of humankind
witness Stone Age drawings and
precious artefacts archaeologists find.
Storytelling fills a need and
links the present to the past
by exploring our human story –
we ‘nail our colours to the mast’!
No More Travelling To Bentleigh
It will be strange not going to class Wednesday mornings and catching up with the students in my Life Stories & Legacies class.
As I considered the final anthology, I looked around the room and realised some of the students had journeyed with me for the five years the course has been running. The women scribbling in their notebooks and tapping an iPad now friends, not students. All are amazing writers whose authentic prose and poems from the heart, were written from a depth of experience spanning decades. Edna the oldest will be turning ninety in a couple of months and Anat, the youngest in her thirties.
I watched them grow in confidence as writers, bond and trust each other, learning to be true to themselves and their stories. They shared personal and family secrets, opinions (not always politically correct), anecdotes, and many entertaining and heartbreaking tales of life’s sorrows and joys.
The class established for people who wanted to leave a written legacy. The questions each one had to answer:
Who am I writing for?
What information do I think they need to know?
More importantly, what do I want them to know?
What will they remember about me?
I published 8 class anthologies over the years and if the students finished a semester or year they contributed work. The students who shared their stories 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018:
Some of the students were childless but have dear friends and family to think about or aimed to publish their life stories for the general public.
No students in the final class had a partner – they either never married, were divorced, or widowed. Therefore our stories had a definite female, some may say feminist, perspective.
I am constantly awed at the resilience and determination displayed when journeys are shared – the overcoming or ongoing struggle with illness, disease, disability; the grief and mourning for loved ones touches us all, as well as the additional losses – of country, of culture, of employment, of partners, of children, of health, of pets, of self-esteem… the list can go on.
Writing is appreciating and trying to explain/understand the human condition. Yet a strong aspect of writing classes has always been laughter – not only do we love to laugh with each other but at ourselves.
Another aspect has been the delicious morning teas and birthday celebrations – on Wednesday mornings, Anat’s carer, Jill an integral part of our class family and birthday cake maker extraordinaire!
The tapestry of my life has been so much richer because of Wednesday mornings and although looking to weave new threads, or even have a rest from weaving, I’m going to miss Life Stories & Legacieswhere I was truly blessed with a wonderful class.
The poems and stories of all past students are important to me and when I read their words I hear their voices, imagine them in class… memories I value.
I have a bookshelf of class anthologies from Sandy Beach, Mordialloc, Bentleigh and Chelsea and reading the poems and stories I can recall the writers:
Not Everyone is A Digital Native
We are in the digital age and the demands of readers have changed – there are websites, blogs, e-books, podcasts, audiobooks – stories experienced on a variety of devices with different screens and parameters.
If writers want to reach a variety of readers methods must change.
How to adapt is a personal choice, and for many people, the traditional printed paper is still what they want to read and how they want to be published.
I found most of the students coming to my classes were not digital natives and preferred to keep learning the craft of writing and learning computer skills separate. Some struggled with basic formatting, some were not on email, many had ‘hunt and peck’ keyboard skills.
Fortunately, all were happy to be lifelong learners and even if it was a struggle they’d attend computer classes too, which most community houses or libraries now provide. Coping with a wide range of skills, or lack of skills a fact of life if teaching in community houses and it’s important not to leave anyone behind.
However, whether you write with pen and paper or prefer to tap your laptop or iPad you benefit from regular writing. Writing classes or workshops can be a first step to discovering not only what you want to write while learning the tools of the craft, but also how you want to be published.
Writing helps you reflect on your life and changes you’re making. … Writing regularly makes you better at writing. And writing is a powerful skill to be good at in our digital age. Writing for an audience (even if the audience is just one person) helps you to think from the perspective of the audience.
More importantly, writing classes can keep you motivated. Writing courses proliferate online as well as bricks and mortar but for convenience and cost, community houses are hard to beat. They throw in ambience, friendship, sharing of stories and ideas, and a lot of love and caring so I’m glad the classes are continuing at Bentleigh with other teachers.
Number Nine Godfrey Street
The garden a delight from someone’s green fingers
a profusion of pastel colours glistening
while sunshine smiles and fickle autumn spits rain
I watch visitors stream inside the nondescript house
their footsteps echoing on shaded verandah
walkers scrape and stroller wheels squeak
a magpie trills in dinner-suited elegance,
preening glossy feathers and strutting the footpath
as if ushering passersby to enter stage right ––
the Isadora scarf or Hitchcock cigar missing.
A young woman, nursing a toddler on her hip,
grins a welcome to the elderly gent
clutching a chessboard and secret moves
their families farewelled to independence,
seniors care for themselves in exercise classes
small talk in craft sessions produces big results
delightful aromas drift from the kitchen ––
homemade pumpkin soup, sweet chocolate cookies,
spicy curries – recipes shared with curiosity and love
sauced with tales from distant lands.
Oil paintings and pastel drawings, the fruit
of nurtured local artists decorate the walls
this house celebrates learning, laughter and leisure …
friendships bubble, overflow to the neighbourhood
no need to cruise the retail choices of Centre Road,
sup lonely cafe lattes amid chattering conversations
or sit mesmerised by mobile screens
a house in Godfrey Street plants seeds
and grows friendships, welcomes newcomers,
encourages indigenous and immigrant to bloom.
In the house singsong voices of children tinkle
while mellow murmurings of writers’ words
capture imagination, life experience, and wisdom.
pens scratch notepads as the sewing group
across the hall coax machines to whirr into life,
garments appear patterned by creativity
wordsmiths spin sentences for pleasure
every room thrums and hums as
people connect, care, and communicate
a commitment to lifelong learning
I accept the marching magpie’s invitation
submit to being ‘led up the garden path’
and follow a thirty-year trail to discover
like the vibrant blossoms in the garden
community and harmony flourishes
at Number Nine Godfrey Street, Bentleigh.
The popular song aside, traditionally the ‘twelve days of Christmas’ is the period that Christian theologians mark the time between the birth of Christ and the coming of the Magi, referred to as the three wise men.
It begins on December 25, Christmas Day and continues to January 6, the Epiphany. For many people that is also the day they take down the Christmas Tree and put the decorations away for another year. Some people do this on January 5th others January 6th.
I can smile now remembering the first discussion my late husband, John and I had about this – I brought up Church of Scotland and non-conformist and he, brought up Church of England (Anglican rather than Episcopalian).
Although born in Australia, John spent the early part of his life in England and Christmas traditions ingrained. As a Scot whose household celebrated Hogmanay, Christmas was low key, centred around the Church:
Christmas Day only became a public holiday in 1958, and Boxing Day in 1974. The New Year’s Eve festivity, Hogmanay, was by far the largest celebration in Scotland.
Emigrating to Australia in 1962, the hot summers didn’t do anything to increase my enthusiasm for some traditions – especially ones involving Yule logs and roast dinners!
Back to the ‘Twelve days’ …
John said the tree had to be down and decorations packed away by January 6th, whereas I believed you left it up until January 6th. A ridiculous debate put in perspective the year my sister divorced her horrible first husband. She left her Christmas tree up until Easter because it brightened the house and welcomed her home with twinkling lights! As good a reason as any to break with tradition…
Cate’s unorthodox view remembered this year when she became an unexpected house guest for Christmas because her husband needed an urgent operation and the surgeon could fit him into his list at Frankston Hospital on Christmas Eve.
What would Christmas be without a wee miracle?
Brother-in-law Ian came through with flying colours and Christmas lunch a bigger and more special celebration than usual. The few days Cate and I spent, in and around, the large public hospital, sobering and a glimpse of the Christmas others experience.
It got me thinking that Christmas aside, there are always many people trying to ‘brighten’ the lives of others, dedicating their lives to those less fortunate – they don’t need an excuse, they do their job, follow their heart or beliefs, care about human or animal welfare – we don’t focus on the joy often enough, but absorb the negativity the press pander to – the philosophy of TV News – if it bleeds, it leads…
The nursing staff at Frankston did their best to make the ward festive – I loved the use of medical equipment tarted-up (a rubber ring/doughnut cushion stuck with coloured balls) and tinsel wrapped around trolleys and exercise equipment. But it was the effort of wonderful volunteers dressed as Mrs Christmas and elf helper on a 36-degree day that truly impressed!
We scored a candy cane before they entered the lift!
Advent for many Christians begins the four weeks preceding Christmas and each Sunday up to Christmas Eve there will be special sermons and services leading up to the arrival/birth of Jesus.
However, for an increasingly secular society, Christmas begins with a flood of consumerism that reaches fever pitch and a frenzy in December but starts late October/early November…
I wrote a poem about this years ago (pre-computer), can’t find it, but suffice to say it wasn’t complimentary to junk mail or the advertising industry, which help with the humbug factor and not the joy that is found among friends and family, who use the lead up to Christmas for gatherings or tȇte-à-tȇtes.
I love this time of year because in many of the cards or emails received there is news of how the year has been for friends and family and people make an effort to get together. Give me a chat and cuppa instead of presents any day because if the person lives far away, or is rarely seen, information other than ‘Merry Christmas’ is good to hear.
Sometimes even if people live close by, the busyness of life leaves meaningful conversation a rarity and so the gift of time to chat, go to the movies or a play is refreshing and food for the soul. Christmas is a great excuse and motivation to invigorate relationships. I get to have a coffee or tea with students outside class – I’m not the teacher or motivator but a friend with all ‘the issues’ that enjoy a good airing when we share what’s in our hearts and minds.
Here I am with Elhan who came to my class several years ago at Mordialloc. She is an accomplished writer in English as well as Turkish and writes a column for a Turkish newspaper in Melbourne. She took me to a cafe in Mordialloc owned by Turkish Australians, bought me ‘Turkish tea’ served in a cup with the blue-beaded eye motif to protect me from evil, and gifted me an Orhan Pamuk novel.
It’s not a Facebook cliche when I write I’m truly blessed with the people who have come into my life through teaching and writing!
I’m transitioning to retirement but some of my friends are already enjoying more leisure time. I went to see a dear friend Umaand husband Kevin who live at Bulleen. It was lovely to have lunch in their home instead of catching up with Uma near her office in the city – our usual Christmas rendezvous.
It was an hour and a half’s journey by public transport – train to Southern Cross and then another to Heidelberg Station – but a relaxing journey that introduced areas of Melbourne I rarely visit. However, visiting will be a lot easier when the Andrews Government’s fantastic infrastructure program is complete. Looking at a time when they may not want to drive everywhere, Uma and Kevin are thrilled that accessing public transport will be so much easier and provide more choice of mode and destinations because they live near one of the many access points for the outer city loop.
After lunch, we walked to the park at the end of their street and Uma shared stories of her neighbourhood with similar pride when she and Kevin came to Mordi at Easter and we walked the foreshore and I shared where I fill up with serenity!
What a wonderful project! We watched families play in the park, school children walk home from nearby schools past The Peace Path, a prominent installation, a daily and fun reminder of diversity and connectedness. Well done Manningham City Council.
New Acquaintances Not Forgot
Many ex-students who perhaps only came for a semester or two also stay in touch and have become valued friends. At this time of year, it’s lovely to hear how they are going with their life and writing projects.
I received a welcome letter from Naoko in Japan and the delightful gift of a book and a very tempting invitation:
“an autobiography by Tomihiro Hoshino. He writes poetries and draws paintings by his mouth. He is from my neighbour town and there is a museum. I would like to take you there. So please come visit me!'”
Naoko doesn’t know that for more than twenty-five years I have bought cards and calendars from Mouth & Foot Painting Artists Australia and hold the artists in absolute awe for the exquisite products and attitude to life.
She does know that I love Japanese poetic formsand their ability to say so much in so few words – most of my classes have been introduced to haiku, tanka, renga, senryu and haibun at some point!
It is not a thick book and translated by Hiroko and Joseph McDermott was an easy read. But it is quite unlike other memoirs I’ve read considering the subject matter. The tone is not ‘poor me’ or bitter and very quickly the focus is how the writer accepted help from others and learned to paint and write with his mouth to bring meaning, purpose, joy and love into his life.
It is an upbeat memoir because yes he even grew to love and marry a faithful nurse ( not always a cliche) and found success as a writer and painter. I understand not everyone with a disability or life-changing accident can be so lucky – but what you learn from the book is that it wasn’t just luck…
His determination and persistence, plus the loyalty, love, and consistent support from those who loved him are powerful elements not only enabling him to survive but thrive.
This First edition published in 1988 is the first of several books from Hoshino who was a high school physical education teacher until an accident in the gymnasium left him paralyzed from neck to toe and hospitalised for nine years.
He was 24 years old and in his prime.
‘I was a physical education teacher. I chose this job, not so much as I was interested in teaching, but as I wanted to keep on doing the sport I had always loved since childhood. This desire was so strong that all day long I would exercise with my students… even after the classes were out, I was running or kicking a ball around until everyone else had gone home and the grounds were empty except for me.’
The first chapter, The Accident (June 1970), is short and to the point with headings:
Do I Still Have Arms?
The Face of My Parents
I Will Not Die
From the Hospital Diary
He uses extracts from his sister’s Diary to explain the precariousness of his situation, the operations and treatment that ultimately saved his life and put his neck bones into place so he could breathe without a respirator.
“It has been decided that he can sleep without the machine. When the gauze was put back in the hole in his throat, he was encouraged to practice talking with the hole in his throat covered up. Ton-chan (my nickname) smiled happily and said in a strong voice, “The weather’s fine today.” He looked so happy that we all burst into laughter.”
The second chapter is The Joy of Writing and we learn, ‘Two years passed. Some people assumed I had died… I wavered between life and death so many times…’
However, the medical attention and constant support of his mother, brothers, sisters and close friends who take turns to nurse him every day, kept him alive. (His mother devotes her life to his recovery from day one!)
He mentions but doesn’t dwell on despondency and despair. ‘ My body had a life of its own, regardless of my wishes, though I no longer had a deep commitment to life.’
I don’t know anything about the Japanese hospital system but obviously, technology and scientific development since the 70s have changed in much the same way as ours. The treatment of accidents like Hoshino’s would be different and perhaps have different outcomes. Hospital treatments, access, cost and even where the hospital is in Japan is not the focus of the story.
There is a glimpse of how rehabilitation has made great advances when he describes the day a visiting child brought a radio-controlled toy car into the hospital and one of the mothers who was looking after her child who was a patient said:
‘If one child brings a toy like that, all the others want their own. You can’t blame them. If you’re rich, it might be okay. But what about families like ours?… Tears were welling up in her eyes.
It’s nothing to cry over…, I thought, and moved closer to the children… It was like a very clever puppy perfectly trained to perform…
Frankly, I felt like crying for one as well… watching the car race around … a certain sadness crept up over me. If people can make a precision toy like this for children, why should I have to stay on a wheelchair which moves only when someone pushes it? Why couldn’t the scientific knowledge used for such a toy also be used to move a wheelchair?
I also felt tears coming to my eyes…
Electric wheelchairs were available but he needed one specifically designed for people who can only move from the neck up. His wheelchair was actually a motorised stretcher.
In 1979, after two boffins from Suzuki Motors visited him they worked out the power and movement he had in his neck and delivered a wheelchair with a driving lever he controlled with his chin.
‘Everything about the world outside then began to look rosier once I found that people like them were working away at some research that could greatly ease my life…
Now my mother could take long-needed rests while I went out for rides.’
In 2016, I was privileged to help start and facilitate a social group for Glen Eira Council. Over the years, I’ve had several people with ABI (Acquired Brain Injury) in my classes and I was approached to help them start a group where they could meet and discuss everything from literature, movies, politics, philosophy, therapies, culture, and even pet peeves… to relax and ‘Chat ‘N Chuckle’ with others who understood that it may take longer to speak, to listen, and understand what someone wants to say.
Many had motorised wheelchairs – today a variety of mobility aids are common but Tomihiro’s thoughts and perspective gave me a deeper understanding of how important aids are and how innate our need for independence.
Tomihiro’s electric wheelchair was a long time coming and despite his mother’s relentless devotion it was often the interaction with others that gave that much-needed spark not to lose hope.
Sharing a room with a seriously ill ex-student from his junior high school who always had a cheerful smile made Tomihiro feel obligated to smile too along the lines of ‘fake it till you make it’.
The relationship that developed between master and student a turning point, especially after the teenager was moved to another hospital and his mother visited Tomihiro, bringing a white, tulip shaped hat belonging to her son, Takaku. He wanted his former roommates to write words of encouragement such as ‘don’t give up’ and ‘have patience’.
Tomihiro wanted to write something but crunching a pen between his teeth, could only manage a tiny dot until his mother moved the hat so he managed to write one of the Chinese characters of his name “Tomi” extending the tiny dot into an “O”.
From that tentative beginning and with months of trial and error to find a painless position for his neck, he finally managed to write a single letter by himself:
“The gauze rolled around the pen in my mouth got soaked with saliva. It was also dyed with blood from the gums since I had strained so much while writing. My mother, who was watching from the side of the bed, also clenched her teeth from the strain. There was sweat on her forehead as well…
All of a sudden my life looked bright again… after having experienced the despair that I would never be able to do anything again, I felt from a single line or letter the same thrill I might have experienced setting a new sports record.”
Another person who not only visited Tomihiro but was instrumental in his healing journey and his development as a writer and poet was a friend from university days.
Yoneya… and I would have dinner at the same table and every evening I would watch him say a prayer. I usually sat down with my hands unwashed and started eating … I never wondered to whom or what he was praying, nor why he said a prayer before every meal…
One day, he told me, “I am going to study in a theological school in Tokyo in order to become a minister.”
… I didn’t know exactly what it meant, but I realized what a hard and serious life he had chosen to pursue.
As soon as he heard of my injury he came to see me in the hospital. later he sent me a copy of the Bible with his apology for being unable to do anything else for me for the time being. I kept the book in a box under the bed…
Actually, I had hesitated for a long time before opening the Bible. I was afraid other people around me might think and say, “He must be in such pain to have turned for help even from the Christian God…”
… I tried to think up some excuse to open the Bible: it would help me understand history… pass the time… requite a favor extended by a senior…
… all along I knew very well what I really wanted. In my mind, I had a faint hope that something in this black-bound book might change me, just as it had changed Mr Yoneya and made him feel grateful for even the poor meals served in the university dormitory…
… when I was forced to lie on my bed unable to move or speak, I had to live a life in which every day I had to face the real me. And the real me was not strong, was not a fine person at all…
The Power of Spiritual Awakening
Tomihiro reads the New Testament and he recognises certain verses he has read on graves in cemeteries (St Matthew 11.28-30):
I had not known what they meant. But somehow the words stuck clearly in my mind. Perhaps I remembered them since I was then really “heavy laden,” carrying manure from the pigsty up to the fields.
As I reread this passage over and over, I felt something warm begin to stream out from the depths of my heart…
I felt that God had prepared this passage for me long before I had even dreamed I might have the accident…when there were hard times, did I have a friend I could unburden my heart to, tell my suffering and pains?…
Lying on my back, looking up at the ceiling, I was seized by an intense sense of loneliness. I felt helpless before it… I thought that a person named Jesus might listen to me, might hold me lovingly in his arms…
Regardless of whether you follow a particular religion or no religion when people are faced with severe trauma, accident, disease, prolonged illness or near the end of life many may at some point ask one or more thought-provoking questions, maybe go through a period of self-reflection or self-doubt. Perhaps they consider what they took for granted or didn’t really worry about, or search for a belief that gives them inner peace:
What is life about? Is there a reason for it all? Why is life on Earth so diverse – was/is there a ‘design’? Can Science explain everything? Can religion? Is there life after death? Will I ever recover? Why me?
Seeking, and finding peace, if not answers, can be healing.
When my husband was dying we had many philosophical discussions because John was ill for a long time. He became an avid reader and thought more deeply about ideas and beliefs because he had time to digest and think about what he was reading. Time is a great commodity and gift if you use it well!
I remember telling him when various friends or family members added his name to their particular religion’s prayer list, he’d say with his usual cheeky grin, “Good, I read an article and people who are prayed for live longer.”
The night before he died when Father Tony, the local Anglican priest called in and prayed at John’s bedside he said, “and the Heavenly Father is waiting for you, John, to hold you in his arms…”
John’s response, “Prove it!”
We all laughed and Father Tony said, “You have to trust me on this, John!” and at the funeral shared the anecdote from “my friend and pragmatist, John.”
We sang John’s favourite hymn from Royal Navy days, Abide With Me plus Lord of The Dance and he was carried out to The Internationale. If people wonder at the apparent conflict of beliefs I tell the story of the writer/educator, Paulo Freire who was asked, “How can you be a Marxist and a Christian?”
He answered, “No problem for me.”
Life is complicated and what people believe and how they cope with challenges is too. The honesty about Tomihiro’s journey, the authenticity in the telling, kept me reading and will remain with me. The simplicity of his explanation of how enriching the spirit and nurturing other senses can compensate for the loss of limbs and movement.
The Joy of Reading
He too discovered how reading enriches life – the power of story:
I spent a lot of time reading, using a simple device that let me lie on my back and read a book hanging open in front of my eyes. My mother would turn the pages for me.
Reading had not been a habit of mine when I was a child or a student… By reading books while lying on my back, I was able to learn the joy of reading. When nobody was at my bedside, there was no way to turn a page. So I kept reading the same page over and over again for as long as thirty or forty minutes.
After such readings, I would often find something I had never noticed or understood. Some parts deeply impressed me, and I copied them into my sketchbooks…
From his hospital bed, or wheeled into the corridors by his mother, Tomihiro enjoyed being a people watcher but one day he catches sight of a person with a fox fur wrapped around her neck.
This inspires his first poem and more contemplation of not only his personal condition but how humans interact, adapt – what it means to be who we are …
And so entranced by the power of words, he studies, writes, and continually strives to improve his own writing.
In the Hallway
Hoshino Tomihiro (February 20)
With glass eyes,
He was watching.
With the weight of his boneless neck
He was chewing his tail,
And he as watching
He noted how the glass eyes looked so sad – perhaps they reflected the feelings of his heart? He thought of the word ‘patience’ often used in letters he received. When he saw the fox transformed into neckwear, he sensed he saw himself:
I too had been living day after day, with my teeth digging into my body the more I tried to be patient… Why do I still need to hear ‘patience’…?
I haven’t really changed. The person I was before this accident – wasn’t that basically the same person I am today, even if I can’t move? Why then should I have to be patient with myself? Why should I live day by day with my teeth clenched?
Something did not make sense…
When you can move but
must stay still,
You need endurance.
But when you’re like me,
And cannot move,
Who needs endurance
And soon enough,
The thorny rope of
Twisted round my body
At this time, Miss Watanabe, a friend of Mr Yoneya’s visits, a Christian too, she cared for her bedridden father for many years. From her first visit, Masako never misses a Saturday and eight years later they marry and return to live in Tomihiro’s home district near his parents. The blossoming of their relationship and her encouragement of his writing and art the impetus for his first major exhibition.
Flowers Helped Him Bloom
When lying in bed, it was the flowers visitors brought that Tomihiro fixated on – they were beautiful, they were close at hand, and for a long time they represented the outside world he missed. Not surprising they were the first subjects he tried to draw.
When spring comes, the hospital garden is full of beds of blossoming flowers. And when I see them in bloom alongside my window my heart cheers up, even though I have to keep lying in bed… even if I feel depressed with all sorts of worries about my physical problems, all the trees outside may be in bud and even small weeds in bloom…
Regardless of what each human being may feel, the seasons go round and round in the flow of time. We may be happy or sad, become even angry and hateful… but what tiny creatures we are in the vast universe of nature!
There were always some flowers at my bedside brought by visitors and arranged in a vase by my mother. Lying on my back, I saw them day and night out of the corner of my eyes…
For over six years
Mr Kobayashi has been coming
To see me
The flowers he grows
Are as strong
As the weeds in the field
Sometimes even generously hosting bugs
I like most.
His flowers come
Wrapped in newspaper
On which there are left
Even a flower
Begins to look nicer,
Someone said so,
Then I began to wonder
If the flowers
Were looking at my painting.
My favourite part in Tomihiro’s awakening and rebirth is when he writes about his mother. This woman deserves her own memoir! For the nine years, he was in the hospital she was with him, leaving the farm and village life in her husband’s care.
Tomihiro describes a New Year in the hospital when some patients and many staff have left for holidays. Those left decided to have a party.
All the attendants sat down together for tea on a straw mat spread in the center of the room. Normally, everybody in the hospital had to sit on a chair, not on a Japanese mat, as they did at home… my mother and the other attendants felt more relaxed squatting…
… I could not join them on the mat, but… I felt as if I was back home sitting on a mat with my mother.
They decided to have a singsong, taking it in turns –
While I was singing, I was worrying about my mother. She was to sing after me, and I had never heard her sing before. Can she sing a song? Does she even know a song to sing?…
Her turn came. She said, “I can’t really sing,” and begged the next person to go ahead. But nobody would… my mother began to sing… in a shy, thin voice… an old song I had never heard before.
… the trembling in her voice died away, and her timbre became stronger and stronger…
I was amazed. My mother, her face as shy as ever, now looked so different to me… the mother I had just seen singing was her real self. I had simply never noticed…
She must have known many songs in her youth. Busy with bringing up children and farming, however, she must have forgotten, before she was aware of it, that she could sing.
While she worked in the small muddy family plot, doing side jobs for a small extra income well after the children had fallen asleep, and bringing us up without buying anything for herself, she must have forgotten about pleasures for herself…
I had never asked what she might want. She must have longed to take a trip or to buy some books to read. Or, even right at this moment, she might be thinking how much she would like to welcome in the New Year with my father back home…
The more I thought, the more ashamed I felt of myself. I had been concerned only about myself, thinking I alone had suffered from this injury…
I love this poem he wrote –
and this honest observation:
“When I was young and healthy, I used to feel very sorry for the handicapped. Sometimes I even felt uncomfortable when I saw them. While going around in my wheelchair, however, I learned something I had not noticed at all before. I was physically handicapped but I was not unhappy, nor did I dislike myself.”
It is all about perception and attitude. He explains it beautifully in a poem about a roadside flower whose Japanese name means poison and pain. He used to hate the flower because of its strange smell and preference for dank places.
And picks you up with care.
You have been scorned and despised
They all say you stink
You have been living very quietly
In this small nook along the road,
Looking up at the feet
As if waiting for someone to come to you
And need you.
Look just like white crosses.
The title of the book is a line from one of his poems written about the same common weed – it too suggests the mind can always be a little more perceptive and appreciative of the world we live in.
I didn’t know
How beautiful you were.
Here so close
But I didn’t know.
A book can be the gift that keeps on giving.
A good thought to end the year on and welcome 2019.
Over the last few weeks, I’ve struggled to write about Remembrance Day 2018 – or write about anything else on this blog because this anniversary was important and I wondered how I could do it justice and make sense of a lot of the thoughts rattling around in my head – particularly considering the fractious state of today’s world – a fact we are constantly reminded of due to the 24 hour news cycle and social media.
So buckle up – grab a cuppa or read the post in stages:) ponder the words and meaning of the poems, savour the poignancy of some of the photographs.
Peace does begin with ourselves, our families, our communities…
This year, the centenary of the signing of the Armistice in World War One – 11 November 1918 – signified PEACE at last, after four years of carnage, but as many people have already written, humanity ignored all the lessons learned and we’ve hardly stopped skirmishing or creating full-blown battles ever since.
Six Excuses Not To Write
1. I was distracted by the Victorian Election and busy working for the return of the Andrews Labor Government as well as Mordialloc’s local member, Tim Richardson MP who genuinely cares about the local community and works hard. I made this a priority and to be honest enjoyed myself and met many interesting people. No encounter every wasted for a writer…
The personal is political. Ever since my involvement in the Vietnam Moratorium Movement as a teenager, I’ve made activism a priority – the community is too important not to care enough to work for social justice and be a peace activist. If enough people care to speak up, it does make a difference. A change of government in 1972 and Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam brought the troops home.
At a get-together, before the “Danslide” as Daniel Andrews Labor win is described, we met in Tim’s office and I gave the Premier a couple of Mordialloc Writers’ Group anthologies and advised, ‘there is no better way to understand a community than through the poems and stories of its writers.”
I hope he reads them.
2. I mulled for hours at how to express the disquiet I feel about exhibits and projects at the Australian War Memorial being funded by arms manufacturers and the millions of dollars the Federal Government has spent on memorials rather than the health and well-being of veterans.
At the Centenary Celebration in Canberra, I saw first-hand elements of concern. Huge guns and tanks out the front (ironically pointing over the Field of Poppies and at the statue of Sir John Monash) as if these harbingers of death and destruction should be celebrated. There’s always going to be arguments about what is glorification and what is commemoration but there should never be a debate about prioritising the welfare of veteransand recent reports indicate we are letting them down.
3. I’ve spent my life studying history (a subject I love), travelling to as many places as I can afford, visiting exhibitions and museums, reading widely – I’m a person who tries to join the dots to understand ‘the human condition’ we writers love to explore. This topic has so many dots to join and I have an overabundance of thoughts that don’t necessarily provide answers or coherence. It was easier to procrastinate … but in a case of physician heal thyself – I did ‘jump in and just write‘ and followed the advice I give students!
4. I read again the poets of the First World War and visited a poignant and confronting art exhibition at Melbourne’s wonderful Shrine of Remembrance. An experience that deserves its own post although inextricably linked to the topic and so won’t get its own post now – please visit and experience for yourself.
5. The trips to Canberra, and to Melbourne’s Shrine, were to visit the culmination of the magnificent 5000 Poppy Project. The organisers did a superb job and I was keen to see what happened to my contributions. (As if I could find mine among the thousands of donations but ego being what it is … I should have been more creative and added sparkles or something so they would stand out!)
In Canberra, several installations were truly works of art and in Melbourne, the knitted tributes spelt out the familiar quote and linked lines from The Ode from Laurence Binyon’s For The Fallen, and its well-known response. Too many of us probably say the verses without pondering the meaning but I guarantee seeing the words ‘in blood’ sears your heart – especially with the thin red trail linking each line, like droplets of blood and a poignant reminder each poppy represents a lost life.
6. Maybe the most valid excuse is that the last few weeks of the school year are always manic as I collate and publish class anthologies – and this year, retiring from my position at Godfrey Street after 6 years, I wanted to go out ‘with a bang, not a whimper‘. I cracked the whip for my students and myself and there really is a finite time to sit at a computer and remain healthy. I crossed that line too often, burning the proverbial midnight oil with bad posture and tension taking its toll on legs, bones, and back.
Poppies At Melbourne’s Shrine of Remembrance
After walking amongst well-tended gardens, I rested in sanctuaries for those broken by experience and memories. Each secluded ‘garden’ displaying plants of different spheres of war for Australian troops.
I strolled darkened corridors absorbing the important stories we need to remember – depicted in a variety of ways without glorifying conflict. I climbed stairs to have a bird’s eye view and photograph magnificent Melbourne and the sweeping grounds of Victoria and Domain Gardens.
Skyscrapers and tree-lined boulevards and busy thoroughfares vastly different to 1918. The city those volunteers rushed to defend now remarkably different to what they would have known.
I pondered what Brendan Nelson and Kerry Stokes might learn from the management of Melbourne’s Shrine if they visited. I prefer the way Melbourne presents the story and the stories it chooses to promote. They also have courteous, friendly staff and volunteers.
A young woman approached me when she saw me reading the Memorial Book –
Are you looking for a relative?
Yes, thought I may find my uncle’s name.
Wait a moment and I’ll get the key…
Within minutes, she was back wearing white cotton gloves and wielding a key. She asked for my uncle’s surname, unlocked the relevant glass cabinet, and carefully turned the pages until his name was revealed. She then stood aside so I could take a picture of the page.
It was a busy day for visitors because the poppy installation was being removed the next day, yet the young woman took the time to offer me a service I didn’t know about – she went above and beyond and personalised my experience!
The exhibition by artist Craig Barrett called EVERYMAN is an emotionally moving experience. Craig incorporated poetry into his art.
In 2005, he wrote:
Four men from my family were caught up in the great tides of men fighting on the Western front of the First World War… Great Uncle George remains there… others returned home with their wounds and nightmares.
In recent years I have become aware of the poets of the First World War. These men were artists who conveyed powerful images through words from their camps, their trenches, and their hospitals.
I found myself especially moved by the words of the English poets Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon… Growing up I knew little and understood less of what these men had witnessed. The poetry of Owen and Sassoon has given me a glimpse of my own family and of the family of Man entangled in war…
These words resonated because I too have an “Uncle George” I’ve written about and it is this exploration and family connection that set me on a path, to learn why a nineteen-year-old relative is buried in Egypt. How did he die? How did his death affect his family, especially sister, Kitty whom we met in 1962 when we migrated to Australia?
I remember, Aunt Kitty’s air of sadness. I was nine-years-old and at night we sat at her feet listening to stories about the Australian branch of the clan, about ANZACS and a war in a land near where our ship had passed when we came through the Suez Canal.
EVERYMAN Siegfried Sassoon
The weariness of life that has no will To climb the steepening hill: The sickness of the soul for sleep, and to be still. And then once more the impassioned pygmy fist Clenches cloudward and defiant; The ride that would prevail, the doomed protagonist, Grappling the ghostly giant. Victim and venturer, turn by turn; and then Set free to be again Companion in repose with those who once were men.
Is Every Generation Destined to Repeat The Mistakes Of The Past?
Is there a need for us all to look deeper into what causes war, and what prevents a lasting peace?
Yet, there have been enquiries and research, backed by evidence and statistics, about the need for more resources to work in the community to combat radicalisation, and the alienation from mainstream society many young people experience. Experts encourage projects to improve inclusiveness and the mental health of those at risk of turning to violence.
Men who have been caught or suspected of terrorist acts often have a history of domestic violence. In Australia, more than 72 women and 20 children have been killed since January 2018 because of domestic and family violence. Despite knowing what we must do there seems a lack of political and social will and a lack of coordination and funding of resources to make a national difference to this scourge of homegrown terrorism.
And then there’s the refusal or reluctance of people to recognise the Colonial Warsand the Aboriginal nations who were here and valiantly fought to keep possession of their land from colonial invaders.
As John Lennon so aptly said, we have to make PEACE and do it right!
Will We Ever See A War to End All Wars?
Armistice Day November 11, 1918, which led to the end of World War One – the war to end all wars – did not herald a lasting peace. A war has been fought somewhere in the world ever since and many historians agree that the conditions of the peace seemed to set the scene for the Second World War.
Every day the nightly news brings us footage of soldiers and militarised police forces under fire or firing guns of formidable power somewhere in the world.
In many parts of the world, there are generations who have NEVER known peace. I was a volunteer tutor every Saturday morning to a Sudanese refugee for a year. A young woman in her 40s, with five children and a husband still stuck in a camp in Kenya, Mary had lived in a state of war in her country since she was 14 years old.
No life’s worth more than any other, no sister worth less than any brother.
Peace requires effort and political will and to suggest no one wants war is wrong – arms manufacturers thrive on war, which is why their influence (even in local elections under the guise of ‘shooters and fishers’ ) is alarming.
They fund public institutions and political parties for a reason. Look no further than the power the National Rifle Association wields in the USA. Working towards peace requires recognition that the Roman poet, Horace‘s oft-used quote Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori ( It is sweet and right to die for your country) encouraged militarism and is indeed ‘The old lie” that WW1 poet Wilfred Owens asserts at the end of his most famous poem.
A poem thought to have been written between 8 October 1917 and March 1918 after his years of witnessing the horrific slaughter and destruction on the battlefields of France and Belgium:
DULCE ET DECORUM EST Wilfred Owen
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks, Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge, Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs And towards our distant rest began to trudge. Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind; Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind. Gas!Gas! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling, Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time; But someone still was yelling out and stumbling, And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime . . . Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light, As under a green sea, I saw him drowning. In all my dreams, before my helpless sight, He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning. If in some smothering dreams you too could pace Behind the wagon that we flung him in, And watch the white eyes writhing in his face, His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin; If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs, Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues, My friend, you would not tell with such high zest To children ardent for some desperate glory, The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est Pro patria mori.
Can we blame the Romans for our culture of militarism and seeking military solutions?
Many of us read the words of these WW1 poets at school but whether we really absorbed their message is difficult to say – unless you had experienced war or grief and could empathise – and that’s difficult for school children.
It’s difficult for some adults, which is why writers must choose words carefully and why poetry, short stories and novels can help with empathy. Here is an interesting extract from a short memoir I read recently:
During my deployments, I only had to fire my gun twice in engagements, and, in retrospect, neither of those firings was likely warranted. Suffice it to say that both times, I could feel my heart shaking, and I came close to wetting my pants. The only film I’ve ever seen that captures this feeling—part terror, part adrenaline rush—is The Thin Red Line, and specifically in this woods scene, where the soldier becomes lost in the dark. He hears himself panting. Soon, bullets whish past him—directionless, it seems—and the only precedent for this, apart from Dante, astray on his path in the woods, might be Camus’s hapless prisoner in “The Guest,” who finds himself stranded and alone on the Algerian plains. What makes war so frightening isn’t the likeliness of death. It isn’t the suffering. It isn’t the inconsequentiality of humanness. Indeed, these are all apparent to anyone who’s reached middle age. Rather, it’s that sense of being alone. And I would hypothesize that it only comes to light in a warzone. After all, one realizes, especially in moments like this, that those who kill do not have any inherent fixed loyalties. Each human is invariably alone, regardless of the colors they wear.
Each year documentaries are made of the tragedy and sacrifice of a whole generation in WW1, but in the words of singer/songwriter Eric Bogle, ‘… it all happened again… And again, and again …’
GREEN FIELDS OF FRANCE
Oh how do you do, young Willy McBride Do you mind if I sit here down by your graveside And rest for a while in the warm summer sun I’ve been walking all day, and I’m nearly done And I see by your gravestone you were only nineteen When you joined the great fallen in 1916 Well I hope you died quick And I hope you died clean Or Willy McBride, was is it slow and obscene
Did they beat the drums slowly Did they play the fife lowly Did they sound the death march as they lowered you down Did the band play the last post and chorus Did the pipes play the flowers of the forest
And did you leave a wife or a sweetheart behind In some loyal heart is your memory enshrined And though you died back in 1916 To that loyal heart, you’re forever nineteen Or are you a stranger without even a name Forever enshrined behind some old glass pane In an old photograph torn, tattered, and stained And faded to yellow in a brown leather frame
Did they beat the drums slowly Did they play the fife lowly Did they sound the death march as they lowered you down Did the band play the last post and chorus Did the pipes play the flowers of the forest
The sun shining down on these green fields of France The warm wind blows gently and the red poppies dance The trenches have vanished long under the plough No gas, no barbed wire, no guns firing now But here in this graveyard that’s still no man’s land The countless white crosses in mute witness stand To man’s blind indifference to his fellow man And a whole generation who were butchered and damned
Did they beat the drums slowly Did they play the fife lowly Did they sound the death march as they lowered you down Did the band play the last post and chorus Did the pipes play the flowers of the forest
And I can’t help but wonder oh Willy McBride Do all those who lie here know why they died Did you really believe them when they told you the cause? Did you really believe that this war would end wars? Well the suffering, the sorrow, the glory, the shame The killing and dying it was all done in vain Oh, Willy McBride, it all happened again And again, and again, and again, and again
Did they beat the drums slowly Did they play the fife lowly Did they sound the death march as they lowered you down Did the band play the last post and chorus Did the pipes play the flowers of the forest
The horrors of WW2, Malaya, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan… we keep adding to the toll, make the words of the poets even more poignant when we realise the average age of soldiers who die in wars are 19, 20, 21, 22…
ANTHEM FOR DOOMED YOUTH Wilfred Owen
What passing-bells for these who die as cattle? — Only the monstrous anger of the guns. Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle Can patter out their hasty orisons. No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells; Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,— The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells; And bugles calling for them from sad shires.
What candles may be held to speed them all? Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes. The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall; Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds, And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.
Is a Plea for a Change in Priorities to emphasise PEACE too much to ask?
November 11 is a reminder, not only of the tragedy and futility ofWW1 and many other wars since but a warning of the fragility of peace and the importance of working hard to avoid conflict.
The Canberra Rotary Club is making an effort to remind people of the importance of peace and has built an easily accessible World Peace Bell as well as introducing the Rotary Peace Prize.
There are at least 23 of these bells throughout the world with plans for more. Volunteers man the bell at busy times encouraging people to recite an oath as well as ring the bell so the sound carries across the lake.
The volunteer who helped me explained the history and ensured I understood the affirmation, before reciting the lines aloud.
As I walked through Nara Park and visited the National Museum on the other side of the lake, the bell’s beautiful, deep, resonant tone tolled for peace.
The first recipients of the Peace Prize long-term advocates for world peace and activists in raising awareness and requesting an adjustment of society’s priorities:
Nation states, perhaps individual tribes and families. 21st-century social media exposes
All humanity – those not so lucky or ones we are told to fear –
Those trapped in places where war is an integral part of their journey from birth…
In my lifetime, the Middle East a constant muddle of bombs and brutality
Or the African continent with droughts, internecine wars, deadly viruses and famines
Not forgetting our neighbourhood’s volatility in the hands of Rocket Man & Dotard…
A world of sharing, no possessions to kill or die for, a world of peace
No borders! This dream elicits accusations ranging from lunacy to scorn
Dreaming and desiring the impossible…
Dreaming? Imagining a better future – isn’t that what we wish for our children?
Religious fundamentalists and fanatics insist
Everyone believe or have faith in a deity you can’t see, imagining a heaven and hell
And for many acquisitive others, it is land and possessions – they
Mean power, progress, personal esteem. It is difficult, but so important, to imagine
Sharing ALL the world and its bounties – thank you, John, for gifting your dream…
When you flip the peace sign upside down, it’s composed of the ancient rune ‘Algiz’ inside of a circle. ‘Algiz’ represents life, beginning, and protection; very fitting for a symbol of peace. … Add it all together, and an upside-down peace sign literally means ‘endless peace’.
He was 19 years old when they laid him to rest in Egypt and as far as I know, no member of the family has ever visited his grave. His death and the grief that followed changed the lives of his parents and siblings forever – a common tragedy for so many families worldwide detailed in letters, diaries, poems, novels, and memoir.
Dear Mum and Dad Mairi Neil
WW1 began in 1914, the fighting lasted four years, but grief lasts a lifetime.
I see you both in my dreams the image helps suppress the screams of many mates who have been shot–– This world has really gone to pot!
When I joined up to come and fight I thought I was doing what was right But Mum those Bible texts you read Don’t explain what it’s like to kill – or be dead.
Young Johnny Parker from down the road Shot on landing. Floats at sea –– a bloated toad. So many like him, bodies never retrieved No prayers, no burial, relatives deceived.
If I’m shot soon, or perhaps blown apart You’ll receive a letter to ease a painful heart But take what it says with a pinch of salt It’s madness here -no decency, nobody’s fault.
The cardboard dog tags disintegrated when a body rots or is incinerated Identities disappear over time – whole battalions consumed in lime
So just as I dream of both of you Hold fast your memories of me too Because if like snow, I don’t survive Only reminiscing will keep me alive.
My visit to Canberra for Remembrance Day to see the Field of Poppies (62,000 of them) and take part in the national ceremony commemorating the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Armistice that ended the First World War, allowed me to take part in a historic occasion but also made me reflect on the past, present and think of the future.
What stories we keep, how we pass stories from one generation to another, and the relevance and meaning of the stories we choose, whether personal or public.
In Canberra, amidst the field of poppies, it was sobering to discover people who didn’t know the significance of the flower, and others that didn’t seem to care, like the private security firm that used the field as an opportunity to have a promotional photoshoot – replete with uniforms and guard dogs.
Two men wandered around on Remembrance Day dressed in WW1 uniforms offering to pose for photos and a volunteer from the poppy project confided she had to chastise a group of young girls who laid down amongst the poppies uncaring of damage because they wanted to pose for pictures on Instagram and Facebook. There were also those who stole souvenirs from the installation, which volunteers spent hours replacing.
Parades and displays can be ignored but if everyone’s routine is interrupted – even for two minutes – perhaps it will make people ask why. Why the carnage, why do we go to war? Is there another way to solve disputes? Should we rely on a few leaders to decide our destiny?
Parliament House, Canberra
There were two displays at Parliament House (270,000 poppies).
The 5000 POPPIES project has left me in awe at how a simple idea encouraged involvement from people all over the world as well as educating about the loss of life in WW1 – and subsequent wars.
If it made people pause and consider the human cost of war, perhaps think of their family and their country’s history, seek information and reflect, then it has been a success.
Always the honour roll of those who died in conflict either at home or abroad confronts and shocks – alphabetical lists that in peacetime are associated with telephone books and thick tomes of the living.
Australia talks about thousands of lives lost, but for other nations it is millions! When I was in Irkutsk in Russia last year, a guide said to me, ‘In Russia, we list the names of survivors (mainly officers and ‘heroes’, I might add) because there aren’t enough walls to list the dead.’
Throughout the world, we have listed on walls, monuments, and in remembrance books, names while bodies and ashes lie elsewhere. Many resting in places where loved ones never, or can never visit.
Thousands of blood-red poppies a stunning visual reminder – each one different – representing the individuality of each lost life. The gaps in the field of poppies remind us not every casualty was/is found or identified.
For me, the creative project a chance to DO something and make a practical contribution to remembrance. Others, obviously, felt the same because it fired imaginations and activities in so many places: neighbourhood houses, U3As, schools, churches, numerous community and family groups and private individuals… and hopefully inspired discussions.
1918-2018: 5000 POPPIES – A TRIBUTE
At Parliament House, the forecourt installation of handmade poppies will be there from 9-18 November while the Marble foyer poppy installation will remain until 3 February 2019.
This display of poppies, lovingly created by 5000 Poppies project volunteers – many of whom are descendants of original Anzacs – is a tribute to the thousands of Australians who died in the First World War.
It complements the sea of handcrafted poppies that will carpet the Parliament House Forecourt to mark the 100th anniversary of the Armistice, 11 November 1918. With a direct line of sight to the Australian War Memorial, the display connects with the 62,000 poppies installed on the Memorial’s grounds representing every Australian life lost in the First World War.
Courtesy of traditional and social media we’ve been flooded with information – overloaded some will say, yet it is amazing how even after 100 years, new stories and information surface.
I’ve visited places, met people, and learnt history I didn’t know and fulfilled my love of joining the dots and understanding connections. On a recent visit to Caulfield Town Hall, to their art gallery, an amazing Poppy Exhibition made me pause and read the individual stories of local VC recipients but also drew my attention to the memorial boards that cover every wall of the spacious foyer – 31 large bronze panels with 1,554 names.
Although Caufield City Council first started compiling names of soldiers, sailors and nurses from the Caulfield district as early as 1915, it would be more than a decade before they were publicly displayed… In 1930, Caulfield Town Hall underwent a major redevelopment… which included a colonnade portico opening on to a spacious memorial foyer, with a marble dado surmounted by bronze tablets. Inscribed… were the names of all those who enlisted in the Australian Imperial Forces from Caulfield… the criteria for inclusion was to have been living in the City of Caulfield at the time of enlistment, and it includes both lost and returned service people… At the time of its construction, the municipality of Caulfield included the suburbs of Elsternwick, Balaclava, St Kilda East, Carnegie, Murumbeena, Glen Huntly and Gardenvale…
There is a lovely Japanese garden at Caulfield Town Hall and I hope people visiting the Remembrance Day display took some time, like I did, to sit and calm their anger (and it is anger we should feel) at what a senseless waste of life wars are, and especially WW1 – tragedies of epic proportions.
Yet, all over Australia, we have sister city relationships with countries that may have been our enemy at some stage of history – relationships that contribute to understanding and tolerance and help make a lasting peace.
Sassoon recognised how violence and war changed men and struggled to get much of his anti-war poetry published. When he wrote, “I believe that this War is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it,” in an open letter to the House of Commons, it took the intervention of poet Robert Graves to save him from court-martial declaring Sassoon suffered shell-shock and needed to be hospitalised.
Some could argue that it was only the insane who couldn’t see the truth of his words.
Through darkness curves a spume of falling flares That flood the field with shallow, blanching light. The huddled sentry stares On gloom at war with white, And white receding slow, submerged in gloom. Guns into mimic thunder burst and boom, And mirthless laughter rakes the whistling night. The sentry keeps his watch where no one stirs But the brown rats, the nimble scavengers.
While in Canberra for the commemoration ceremony at the War Memorial, I visited the current exhibition ‘Rome‘ at the National Museum displaying artefacts from the British Museum. There is a marble statue fragment of a barbarian (Ramleh, Egypt, 160-170 CE), which I thought depicted the anguish felt by war’s victims both civilian and military that the WW1 poets captured in words.
This bound captive is looking up at what remains of a larger figure, perhaps intended to depict Victory. He has Germanic facial features, but he is wearing a Phrygian hat of a style worn in the Eastern Mediterranean region. This suggests that he represents a generic ‘barbarian’ or enemy of Rome. Such depictions emphasise how one of Rome’s great missions was to ‘vanquish the proud’.
“From War” an Exhibition by the Australian National Veterans Arts Museum at Parliament House, Canberra
For many veteran artists making art is both an expression of personal creativity and a way of ‘making meaning’.
Veteran artistic practices draw upon, and extend beyond, the individual’s experience of war and service. For some, art is a lifeline and a life force; a way to tell stories and ask important questions about themselves and their place in society.
Representing a diverse range of mediums including photography, painting, sculpture, drawing, textiles and poetry, the artists featured in the exhibition reflect on their personal questions and processes, sharing unique stories of their lived experience.
The catalyst for the establishment of the Australian National Veterans Arts Museum was veterans’ mental health. It provides a creative and multi-faceted approach to supporting veterans and families through the arts, engaging with our veteran history and heritage, culture and identity to bring forward an approach grounded in creative expression and community.
Upending modern models ANVAM uses familiar tools, the arts and place, engaging early to promote validation, identity and purpose reframing the future for those returning from war or service.How do you capture the experience of war and its aftermath and convey that to others so they understand?
Sassoon’s honesty fobbed off as shell shock, which today we know as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) – and almost all veterans will have their share of depression as well as other symptoms of PTSD.
Statistics don’t tell individual stories, official documents can be doctored and presented from a particular perspective depending on what narrative governments want to spin. Even letters and diaries from those who were there or those writing about friends and family may have a particular perspective, may have been censored, or may deliberately alter facts to spare feelings.
I hope all politicians and senior Defence personnel take the time to look at the artwork and read the poetry on display at Parliament House.
A Poetic Honour Bill Charlton, (2013)
There is no greater accolade a soldier can be shown Than to have his deeds recorded in the verses of a poem. For medals tend to varnish and history can be wrong, And the stories we are left with, can be stretched as time goes on.
But the simple story-telling that’s contained within a poem Can survive through generations by word of mouth alone. And the rhythm/rhyming nature of these classics of the past Are easy to remember and ensure these stories last.
Great books will parch and crumble and epitaphs will fade And tombstones all will vanish no matter how they’re made. But the simple little verses that we pass on down the line Are remembered with affection and have stood the test of time.
So if you have the fortune to be mentioned in a poem Or you know some-one who has been, on the strength of deeds alone, Then be sure that it’s an honour, which can rarely be attained For it makes a man immortal for as long as it’s maintained.
Bill Charlton, born 1943, joined the Australian Army and served with the 1st Battalion Royal Australian Regiment in the 60s, including South Vietnam. Bill had always been interested in writing verse often sending snippets home to his wife, Robyn, which he never completed. He continued writing snippets for years after his service until he was encouraged to take up writing poetry by his wife and children, then the snippets became poems. His first attempt at poetry resulted in a literary award and encouraged he continued writing and published two books of poetry illustrated by Robyn: A Rugged Bunch of Diggers 1 and 2 and a children’s book Lulu, the Kangaroo. He continues to write individual poems for the 521 soldiers who died during the Vietnam War.
Sleep George Mansford, (September 2016)
If I could only sleep the sleep of sleeps To capture sweet deeds I can keep In the cloak of night greet blissful rest so rare To dream of peace and even love should I dare
I cannot escape this shrinking smothering room Painted with spite, hate and terrible doom I am shackled to the past and never to be free Deep sleep in pure white sheets is not to be
Oh to be deaf to shrieks and howls spat from spiteful guns Blind to flitting silent shadows mid the last rays of dying suns Be gone the shuffling file of haunted faces never to smile again If only a welcome storm to wash away the guilt and pain
In this lonely bed, to dream of peace, goodwill and love To walk mid young green forests reaching high above To hear the joyful welcome calls of feathered birds so bright To shut out the darkness of yesterday and seek tomorrow’s light.
George Mansford AM, born 1934, served in the Australian Army between 1950 and 1990 including Korea, Malayan Emergency, Malaysia, Thai Border, South Vietnam, New Guinea, Singapore and Cyclone Tracy. Having just returned home from Vietnam 1967, he started to write poetry after his first wife died. On losing his second wife and son, his writing increased dramatically as he discovered that writing was a fortunate distraction from grief and anger of war.
‘I found that promoting peace, love of country and such deep camaraderie was a wonderful sedative. It was what my loved ones and old comrades want.’
George is the author of Junior Leadership on the Battlefield and The Mad Galahs.
The Progress Barham J. R. Ferguson, (28 August 2018)
The fog that hugs my legs like a refugee, Shows the steps of progress towards my own peace. I have fought for the peace of others And lost more than blood in the process, But I know that hope stands not behind me.
See my anguish in the oils, See my scars in the sculpture, See my pity in the poetry, See my failure in the photographs, Hear my sorrow in the song.
I miss the moment of living the dream, Of knowing those at home are thinking of me. Praying for me. Worried about me. Today however, they only worry about me. It’s not the enemy that hunts me, nor the Danger that surrounds me. It is for the danger within.
My current battle is with doubt. Memories. Questions I cannot answer. Images so vivid, I can hear them.
But the fighter in me stands tall. I can win this war as I have done before. Not for me, but for others. This is why I served. This is who I am, Either in or out of service. So help me make that step.
And watch me emerge as a similar person To the one you knew. Similar, but better. That you can then See my ambition in oils, See my skills in sculpture, See my power in poetry, See my future in photographs, and Hear my strength in song.
It is now that I realise, My child that hugs my legs like a refugee, Speeds the steps of progress to my own peace.
Barham Ferguson, born 1968, joined the Australian army in 1987 and saw operational service in Papua New Guinea, Southern Thailand, Iraq, Afghanistan, South Sudan, Israel, Lebanon and Jordan. An Ambassador for the Australian National veterans Art Museum and a longtime supporter of veterans’ issues, Barham discharged in July 2018 and lives in Canberra with his daughter. He is the author of Love, Life and ANZAC Biscuits, (2013), and A Feeling of Belonging (1999).
Through The Mirror Barham J.R. Ferguson, (13 February 2017)
Through the mirror of the past, I see myself in memories vast. A warrior, not once outclassed, This was who I was.
From the dust of duty first, The last hoorah of machine gun burst, Wounds of war no longer nursed, The world knew who I was.
Homeward bound with dreams anew, Perceptions changed on what I do, My useful skills seemed less than few, I defended who I was.
Fighting family, fighting friends, The war has changed, it never ends. ‘’Is my life pointless?” Now depends, On knowing who I am.
Where to start, and what to do? What do I have that pleases you? There’s things inside that still ring true, They make me who I am.
Strength and honour. Discipline. These soldier traits have not worn thin, Unlike the uniform in the bin, These traits are who I am.
There’s many more that made me me, When I was in the military, But in these threads I now can see, That made me who I am.
Now it’s time to do what’s right, To find a mission, and gain insight, To be the me who can sleep at night, ‘Cause I do know who I am.
At the Australian War Memorial, there is a Flanders Field Garden planted with poppies and with the words of John McCrae’s poem carved on the walls to remind us that in Ypres, Belgium, ‘men died in their thousands and the medieval town was reduced to ruins.’
In Flanders Fields John McCrae
In Flanders fields the poppies blow Between the crosses, row on row, That mark our place; and in the sky The larks, still bravely singing, fly Scarce heard amid the guns below. We are the Dead. Short days ago We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow, Loved and were loved, and now we lie, In Flanders fields. Take up our quarrel with the foe: To you from failing hands we throw The torch; be yours to hold it high. If ye break faith with us who die We shall not sleep, though poppies grow In Flanders fields.
The Unknown Australian Soldier
This year was the 25th anniversary of the interment of the Unknown Australian Soldier, who represents all Australians who have been killed in war. At the head of the tomb are the words, ‘Known unto God’, and at the foot, ‘He is all of them and he is one of us.’
“Plans to honour an unknown Australian soldier were first put forward in the 1920s, but it was not until 1993 that one was at last brought home. to mark the 75th anniversary of the end of the First World War, the remains of the soldier were recovered from Adelaide Cemetery near Villers-Bretonneux in France and transported to Australia. After lying in state in King’s Hall in Old Parliament House, the Unknown Australian Soldier was interred in the Hall of memory at the memorial on 11 November 1993. He was buried with a bayonet and a sprig of wattle in a Tasmanian blackwood coffin, and soil from Pozieres was scattered in his tomb.”
The eulogy for the Unknown Soldier was first delivered by the Honourable Paul Keating in 1993. In Canberra, on the Centenary of the Armistice, a recording was played of his speech.
The words are memorable and moving but perhaps the lines that need to be emphasised more often are:
This Unknown Australian is not interred here to glorify war over peace; or to assert a soldier’s character above a civilian’s; or one race or one nation or one religion above another; or men above women; or the war in which he fought and died above any other war; or of one generation above any that has or will come later…We have lost more than 100,000 lives, and with them all their love of this country and all their hope and energy…It is not too much to hope, therefore, that this Unknown Australian Soldier might continue to serve his country – he might enshrine a nation’s love of peace and remind us that in the sacrifice of the men and women whose names are recorded here there is faith enough for all of us.’
The current exhibitions in Canberra at the National Museum and National Library add more food for thought as well as steps in the evolution of the ‘nation’ Paul Keating was talking about.
Rome reveals how integral the military was to the Roman Empire’s greatness and an exhibition on Captain Cook and his Voyages touches on the Colonial Wars and Aborigines fighting the invasion of their land by representatives of the British Empire.
The powerful Roman and British Empires now diminished and if nothing else, the tide of history seems predictable but has mankind learnt a ‘love of peace’?
Thank Goodness For Community Initiatives
While national politicians and governments may let their people down, there are plenty of instances of grassroots initiatives – and therefore HOPE.
Nara Peace Park, Canberra, is a case in point – not only has it the Peace Bell but myriad sections, sculptures and plaques making a statement about peace.
TOKU 2010 by artist Shinki Kato born 1955
Toku was commissioned to celebrate the 1300th anniversary of Japan’s ancient capital, Nara. The sculpture has three main elements: A five-storied pagoda form which represents Canberra; a floating stone representing Nara; and the form of a small bird symbolising peace.
The bird resembles a Latham’s Snipe, a species which migrates annually between Japan and Canberra. The artist has created Toku to express the amicable relationship and mutual understanding shared by Canberra and Nara as sister cities.
There are tranquil areas to meander through or sit and enjoy the beauty of the gardens and lake. The day I visited, families were picnicking and playing.
The Pen Mightier Than The Sword
As you walk through the park there is evidence that we shouldn’t take the beauty, or sentiments, for granted. At the base of several trees are plaques – sadly some were damaged and worn by the weather. The plaques reminders that writers from poets to journalists have lost their lives fighting to express and defend ideas and freedom of speech.
“The spirit dies in all of us who keep silent in the face of tyranny”
The plaques and trees were a ‘memorial to writers who have fought for freedom of speech” and was conceived through the vision and work of the ACT members of PEN International and dedicated by the Minister for Arts and Heritage, Mr Gary Humphries MLA, on 17 November 1996.
East Timor – Greg Shackelton, Brian Peters, Malcolm, Rennie, Tony Stewart, Gary Cunningham Journalists murdered October 1975 and Roger East Dili, December 1975
Konca Kuris tortured and murdered for advocating women’s rights in Islam 1960-98
Galina Starovoitova shot St Petersburg Russia 20 November 1998 aged 22, Larissa Yudina knifed Elista Kalmykia Russia June 1998 aged 33, killed for defending democracy and free speech
Meena Kishwarkanel poet, journalist and defender of women’s rights 1957-87
Robert walker Aboriginal poet 1958-84
Among the dedications:
Kenule Beeson Saro-Wewa, Nigerian playwright,
Meena Kishwarkanel, poet and journalist,
Russians: Galina Starovoitova, ethnographer and dissident politician, and Larissa Ludina, newspaper editor,
Konka Kuris Turkish feminist writer,
Robert Walker Aboriginal poet, and
the Balibo Five, Australian journalists murdered in East Timor 1975: Greg Shackleton, Brian East, Gary Cunningham, Tony Stewart, Malcolm Rennie and
journalist Roger East killed in Dili, 1975.
Hopefully, somewhere a memorial plaque will be made for Jamal Khashoggi recently assassinated by agents of the Saudi Government. The plaque, a permanent reminder of those who use words to defend our right to speak and challenge those who think suppression and violence a solution.
However, for every writer silenced, there is always another who picks up the pen to peacefully bring about change. The belief that the pen is mightier than the sword and words can make a difference, a good enough motivation for me to keep writing.
My second duty stint last weekend for Open House Bendigowas at the Town Hall, Sunday morning. According to a tourist brochure on heritage buildings:
“If it was good enough for Denmark’s royal palace, it was good enough for Bendigo. German artist, Otto Waschatz decorated both, adorning Bendigo’s Town Hall interior with mythical figures and rich gold leaf. Outside, muscular ‘Atlas” sculptures support the clock’s weight. These are fitting fixtures for architect William Vahland’s greatest work (1878-86).”
Seeing these magnificent features a definite drawcard on Sunday, however, I don’t think the artist envisaged the hall being the registration point for cyclists involved in the second Bendigo Cycling Classic – hence the signs around the doorway asking for care and respect for the walls and floors.
The Bendigo Town Hall stands out and beautifully renovated in 2003, it is well cared for and was one of the many buildings representing gold-rush-era heritage.
Located in the heart of the city and built in the height of the gold rush period like so many of the other wonderful buildings, it is a remarkable legacy of a time when money was plentiful, dreams were big, and prominent townsfolk and those who made the decisions for the municipality ensured the wealth and splendour of Bendigo’s ‘golden age’ did not go unnoticed.
Town Hall: Council Chambers
Local architect WC Vahland was commissioned to redevelop the Town Hall and came up with a masterpiece that helped secure his place as one of the city’s most revered architects. The Town Hall interiors feature decorative plaster adorned with 22-carat-gold leaf, reflecting the stories the stories of a city built on gold.
In 2003, The Bendigo town Hall returned to the elegance and beauty of its 19th-century heritage after an extensive restoration and renovation program including plasterworks murals and gold leaf worked by skilled artists and artisans.
A snippet from another tourist promotion:
The name Bendigo originated from a world famous bare-knuckled boxer, William ‘Abednigo’ Thompson. A shepherd, on the Ravenswood run near Bendigo, he was handy with his fists and became renowned as a great fighter. He lived in his hut on a creek which flowed through the valley where gold was found. It is said that this shepherd, nicknamed ‘Abednigo’ lent his name to this rich goldfield – and the rest, as they say ‘is history’.
The Cornish Miner
Erected in appreciation of the endeavours of all the underground miners of Bendigo and District who created the economy from which grew a beautiful city thus leading to further developments and helping to provide the base for Victoria to become an industrial state.
Cornishmen and their descendants formed the majority of these miners. Erected by the City of Greater Bendigo on behalf of its Citizens and the Cornish Association of Bendigo and District 1996.
Open House Bendigo, 2018
On Sunday, between 10.00am and 1.00 pm, 179 people took advantage of access and traipsed through the Town Hall, joining 600 from the day before.
Jaws dropped at the old Council Chamber’s polished wood, rich leather, gorgeous wall murals and marble posts, rich gilded ceiling and pelmets.
However, despite a clear sign and my gentle reminders, I had to ask a couple of people more than once NOT to sit in the Mayor’s Chair or rub their hands over the wood and leather.
And it wasn’t young people who were the culprits but seniors who should have known about the damage human sweat can do to artefacts and that if hundreds of people were allowed “just one photo please of me sitting in the chair” the likelihood of damage is high. I’m sure if the mayoral robes had not been encased in glass, some people would have been tugging at the chain.
The policeman role aside, I loved the stories people shared with me and the many remarks of appreciation of the skilled craftsmanship and pride in the presentation evident in the old and new council chambers and the hall.
Two ladies talked about making their debut in the Town Hall – one in 1956, the other in 1966 when Mr Oliver (who happened to be her boss) was the mayor.
He let her sit in the mayor’s chair! She can remember the fear of the small group of girls waiting in the chamber before descending the staircase to walk the full length of the ‘great hall’ to be presented to the mayor (Mr Oliver). ‘It was terrifying,’ she said, never having been so exposed to officialdom and public scrutiny, it was a relief to dance the Charmaine, their presentation dance.
She explained the event to her grandchildren who listened with polite interest and I was struck with the fact that after more than half a century, her overwhelming memory is of feeling anxious and intimidated.
Another lady was proud to tell me her son-in-law painted all the gold lettering in the hall during the renovations. I wish she had been nearby when a rare negative interaction occurred.
An old man in a faux stetson wanted to know how much gold was in the paint and how much the gilding cost. He was disappointed I didn’t know. I told him to speak with Nathan, the Town Hall representative who was managing the numbers of visitors downstairs.
Cold eyes beneath the hat stared at me for a moment, before cross-questioning who I was and why I was there. I explained about Open House and that as a long-term volunteer from Melbourne I volunteered for this inaugural Bendigo event.
His response thick with sarcasm, ‘How very altruistic of you,’ as he walked away disappointed I couldn’t give him the statistics he wanted.
I was glad Nathan was there because there was so much going on and the visitors were constant. He had shown me around the place before the doors opened and when we looked into the current council chamber he warned that although most people are respectful to watch out for ‘anti-council’ behaviour.
From my position in the hallway, I could see inside the old chamber but also see the new chamber because the wall is all glass. I kept my eye on Mr Stetson – rightly or wrongly I’d earmarked him!
Impressed by its ‘grandeur’, many people asked me why the council had stopped using the old chamber and when I pointed out the obvious they could see the new room was much more suitable:
the old council chamber did not have room for the current number of councillors, staff or press or the modern day technological requirements
the old council chamber did not have room for a public gallery and ratepayers are allowed into most council meetings
the cost of maintaining the old chamber – regularly cleaning it and repairing any wear and tear if it was used would be much more than for the modern chamber
The new council chamber had rows of seats for visitors plus a gallery of photos of previous mayors.
The current mayor of Bendigo is female but in the early days of the city as the dozen pictures lining the walls reveal, the ‘founding fathers’ were male.
I can almost guarantee future depictions of mayors will not be oil paintings or photographs by prized photographers or placed in huge gilt frames. I even wonder if the mayoral robes will be donned – times have changed!
The early mayors were all active in business and community organisations, each leaving a distinctive legacy and exceptional worthwhile achievements that resonate today. A lady confided to me with pride that one of the mayors pictured – Cr JH Curnow JP, 1901 and mayor 1902-4, 1912-13, 1919-20, 1927-28 – was a relative and she had no idea of his achievements!
It Is Important to Acknowledge Mayoral Milestones
Thomas Jefferson Connelly, a solicitor, was elected mayor in 1887 – the first Bendigo native and the youngest man up to that time to hold office. He was born in Sandhurst and was 29 years old. He was president of the Australian Natives Association and a driving force behind Federation and a close friend of Australia’s second PM Alfred Deakin. Sadly, Connelly contracted typhoid fever as a result of overwork in his private practice and died at only 34 years of age leaving a widow and three children.
Ambrose Dunstan was one of Bendigo’s oldest Justices of the Peace and on many occasions was the assistant coroner. From 1891-2 he was President of Australian Natives Association. During his term during WW1 house numbering was carried out, 182 building permits issued and he unveiled the Soldier’s Memorial Statue, recently refurbished 2018.
“The news that the armistice had been signed by German representatives reached Bendigo about midnight on November 11th 1918. At 2am on November 12th, Mayor Dunstan read a message from the Governor-general on the steps of the Town Hall to a crowd of over 1000. The joyous peal of St Paul’s bells and the continuous tolling of the town clock awakened the people, who came to the city in large numbers. The mayor invited those present to give thanks and proceeding closed with the National Anthem. Peace had been declared.”
We are close to celebrating the centenary of that PEACE and thinking about the huge numbers of war dead and casualties still makes me weep. It is not an exaggeration to think almost every household would have been touched in some way and I can just imagine the joy of this spontaneous gathering in the predawn light.
David John Andrew another early mayor ‘led a very active public life and there were few movements in which he was not connected.’ Captain of the Bendigo Fire Brigade in 1898 he held that position until his death. Chairman of the CFA he ‘heartily devoted himself to the promotion of the best interests of firemen and the firefighting service generally.’Born in Scotland, he was prominent in the Bendigo Caledonian Society, the Victoria Scottish Union and the Masonic Order.For many years, as the Secretary of the Easter Fair, he was interested in the Bendigo Hospital and Benevolent Home and pursued the matter of sewerage strenuously. He believed when Bendigo was sewered the death rate would be lowered considerably and cited that in 1909 there had been 719 births and 548 deaths. He committed his life to humanitarian causes and during the years of the Great War, he organised support for Australian soldiers and prisoners of war.
Mayor William Beebe, MBE, continued as a councillor until ten weeks before his death in 1920 and was mourned by many including PM Hughes who sent condolences: “ My deepest sympathy in your sad bereavement. Bendigo has lost a very worthy citizen and Australia one of her most loyal sons.” Beebe took the lead in patriotic movements and social, religious and philanthropic objectives hence being awarded the MBE.
Born in Sandhurst in 1857 he worked with his father as a stonemason, studied architectural drawing at the School of Mines and with his father designed and built several buildings during the 1880s. Later as an architect, Beebe was responsible for the ANA Hall, the City Markets, the Fire Station in View Street, the Royal Bank (now a restaurant) and Lansellstowe and numerous private homes.
Another young councillor (39 years), Mayor Michael Guidice (1922-24) directed his energy and faith to commercial enterprises for the advancement of Bendigo. Managing Director of Bendigo United Breweries he was associated with the moving picture industry from its pioneering days.
In 1913 he formed the Bendigo Lyric Photoplays and personally supervised the opening and work of the new Lyric theatre that year as well as being governing director of The Shamrock Hotel. He was a moving force in forming the Shakespearean Reading and Literary Society and assisted in the formation of the Bendigo Choral Society.
Mayor Ernest Vains (1924-25) was born in Kerang and started a Stock and Station Agent’s business in Bendigo. “Hehad a great capacity for work and attempted to attract industries…” Director of the Bendigo Sun and the Farmers and Citizens Trustees P/L, playing a prominent role in the formation of Bendigo Rotary Club in 1925. A keen outdoor sportsman, a member of the Bendigo Jockey Club, secretary of the South Bendigo Bowling Club and office bearer Golden Square Bowling Club. When retiring from office 1926, he noted four deaths ascribed to diphtheria and two from typhoid fever and overall 497 deaths and 689 births.
Mayor Frederick Niemann born in sale 1879 and mayor during the Depression years took a prominent role in retaining the railway workshops in Bendigo. He was one of the founders of the Advance Bendigo and North League and held the position of Chief Magistrate in Bendigo with many years of experience in commerce and industry.
Thank you, Mayor Niemann, for saving the railway workshops! I caught the train to Bendigo for Open House weekend. On the way, there were plenty of rolling green fields with emerald green grass to feed the grazing cattle, horses and sheep. No obvious signs of drought yet.
The Bendigo to Melbourne train line opened in October 1862 but the steam train then a different beast entirely from the comfortable and relatively smooth ride V-Line offers today.
Another mayor in the 1930s, Mayor George Bennetts built up the well known Bennetts Arcade Stores, one of the most progressive of its kind in Bendigo and later acquired by Woolworths. Bennetts was a keen bowler and member of Bendigo Golf Bowling Club, a Justice of the Peace and responsible for the Easter Saturday Street carnival.
There is a street sculpture by artist Maggie Fooke “After The Procession” dedicated on October 1993 and commissioned by the Bendigo Easter Fair Society. I didn’t remember seeing it on an earlier visit to Bendigo perhaps because it looks so natural! It was ‘refurbished and restored and presented to the people of Bendigo to celebrate the 140th Easter Procession on the 5th April 2010.
W.C Vahland the architect for the Town Hall, came originally from Germany seeking gold but stayed to practice his profession as an architect. How lucky was Bendigo!?
He may have struck out finding gold, but his legacy of fine buildings increased the wealth of Bendigo.
A comment on the refurbishment – a young man was keen to show me travel pictures on his phone. Inside the huge twin towers in Abu Dhabi, there are the exact same light fittings used in the hallway between Bendigo’s two council chambers – and he has seen them elsewhere!
And a final comment from an appreciative visitor to Open House at the Town Hall. She had visited ‘by default’ because like many people in Bendigo she wanted to see what had been achieved so far in the redevelopment of the Beehive Building, which was still a construction site and had been boarded up for several years.
However, her curiosity didn’t extend to waiting in a queue for over an hour and she was thrilled to come straight into the Town Hall, learn history she didn’t know and be amazed at the beautiful finishing touches on the walls and ceiling.
The woman was really enjoying the Open House weekend and agreed wholeheartedly with the current mayor, Cr Margaret O’Rourke,
“Bendigo has so much fascinating architecture that will be wonderful to share with visitors and residents alike.”