A fond farewell to a friend, writer, and fellow Celt – thanks for a treasure trove of lovely memories!

Me with Kay Watson (Ceinwen) December 2013

Four days ago, I received a call from an unfamiliar number. Celtic feyness or a sixth sense made me pick up, instead of my usual practice of letting the call go to Voicemail.

‘I’m Sylvie, a friend of Kay Watson’s,’ a voice said, ‘and I’m ringing to let you know Kay passed away yesterday morning.’

I’ve reached an age where news of illness and death more frequent than I’d like and in recent times coming too often! Kay was one of my oldest students; first attending writing class at 80 years of age and publishing her memoir at 89. She only left when a move to a distant nursing home in her mid 90s made travelling and attendance difficult. 

Sylvie informed me that Kay had celebrated her 100th birthday at the beginning of the year and was thrilled to receive the obligatory greetings from the Queen. This snapshot of a grinning Kay in February speaks volumes!

Kay’s 100th birthday card from Queen Elizabeth II

We live in Covid times. The death of a family member, friend, or acquaintance presents difficulties when lockdown dictates funeral rules and visits to homes, especially to those in the aged care sector. So this will be a digital trip down Memory Lane to celebrate and farewell the life of one of the wonderful students I’ve been fortunate to meet during my time as a writing tutor.

Kay was remarkable and touched my life in many ways. The desire to honour her legacy has motivated me to shake off a torpor that’s had me avoid blogs and blogging for several months.

Many of those who follow Up The Creek With a Pen are ex-students or members of writing groups and will have met Kay in class or at the regular Sunday readings held by Mordialloc Writers’ Group until I retired in 2017. When writing, Kay preferred to be called by her Welsh name of Ceinwen, a language she still spoke fluently. Ceinwen was one of the few Welsh speakers in Melbourne, who could also read and write in Welsh, skills she often used on behalf of St David’s Welsh Church when they wanted to welcome visiting Welsh celebrities like the Welsh Choir or celebrate St David’s Day, the Welsh National Day in March.

Ceinwen means lovely, blessed, and fair – well-chosen descriptions of the Kay Watson I knew!

Kay’s memoir published 2010

My association with Ceinwen, inextricably, linked with Mordialloc Neighbourhood House, where we met because of common interests in writing and social justice. Between first volunteering, then being employed as a creative writing tutor, plus running the Mordialloc Writers’ Group and Readings By The Bay, my association with MNH lasted 21 years. Ceinwen attended Monday morning writing class for 13 of those years, also the Sunday Readings and meetings of the Union of Australian Women Southern Branch, which I coordinated. Her memoir launched on the 15th anniversary of the writers’ group, epitomised what local community writing classes and groups encourage and celebrate.

The Monday class at Mordialloc Neighbourhood House, Ceinwen’s beginning as a writer!
Kay dressed in signature orange (to match her hair she always said!) reading one of her poems at Readings By The Bay. She was a skilful knitter and knitted this suit herself!

The Launch of Ceinwen’s Journey, 2010

Good Afternoon – my name is Mairi Neil and I coordinate the Mordialloc Writers Group. Before I begin…

I acknowledge the people and elders, past and present of the Boon Wurrung Clans and the Kulin Nation. I acknowledge and uphold their unique relationship to this land and surrounding sea, a relationship of over 40,000 years. The Mordialloc Writers’ Group believes reconciliation is about recognition and healing with Australia’s Indigenous people. Together, we are Australian, let us bridge cultures and create a just society. 

Croesoa Welsh welcome for those who have specifically come for the launch of Ceinwen’s Journey, Shining in Reflection, a memoir by local writer, Kay Watson. Kay attends my writing for pleasure class here on a Monday; is a fellow member of Mordialloc Writers’ Group, and the Union of Australian Women Southern Branch, but above all she is a friend, so I am honoured to be able to launch Ceinwen’s Journey, which is a super read.

Kay is here today with her son Clive and daughter-in-law Sheila. We are also honoured to have publisher Hassanah Briedis, and I’d like to acknowledge our local member Janice Munt and convey the apologies of Federal member Mark Dreyfus and Senator Mitch Fifield both in Canberra this weekend. Several regular members of our writers’ group who couldn’t attend send congratulations too. Just as well not everyone could attend because we have already run out of chairs!

Before I extol the virtues of Kay’s memoir, I’d like to remind you of the group’s record of achievement – seven anthologies that have enabled 55 local writers to be published – many for the first time. Anthology number eight to be released at the end of this year will ensure our stories, poems, memoir, and novel extracts continue to represent this community’s culture. Local anthologies are valuable historical documents. We are the keeper of your stories as we write our own.

A word or sentence, an object or photograph, a line of poetry, a colour or a memory, and many other triggers besides, inspire writers and the breadth of Kay’s writing provides examples of all of these starting points.

Kay Watson does not suffer from writer’s block! When she first attended writing class a decade ago I acknowledged her wonderful ability to tell stories, and to tell them well. She is blessed with an amazing memory and the stories she wrote in class (and still does) are rich in detail and prompt fabulous discussions, tears and laughter, plus wonderful history lessons when we share lived experiences!

Kay with Heather Yourn (dec 2019), another longterm member of Monday class who came to my classes until 91 yrs of age. Heather wrote insightful stories and poems too. Kay and Heather had a special bond. When Heather moved to Mt Eliza she’d pick up Kay and bringing her to class because Kay lived at Patterson Lakes .

What Kay can’t remember is compensated by her vivid imagination! (Although no made up stories in this memoir!)

Her words flow effortlessly, in class every story seems true and once the excitement of this launch is over, she could produce an anthology of her short stories and poetry. But judging by her look of horror perhaps not – it is stressful putting a book together…

Kay’s memorable contribution is a story of a life spanning 89 years, written with modesty and understatement, yet she lived through the hardships of the Great Depression, the hungry uncertain years of the Great Slump, and the rationing and devastation of the Second World War when she was separated from Arthur, the love of her life. Then came children, several sojourns to Europe and the trials and tribulations of family life in the United Kingdom and retirement in Australia. 

Kay triumphs over the adjustments of resettlement, not only from England to Australia at a time of life when many would be reluctant to move from their comfort zone, but an earlier move to England from Wales. This childhood upheaval perhaps the greater challenge because she had to forgo her beloved Welsh language for the scouse accent of Liverpool. (It could have been worse she may have relocated to Glasgow!) 

Mind you adapting to ‘Strine’ has not been without dramas – like many new migrants she turned up to gatherings here in Australia with ‘a plate’ because she was told to, never realising it was supposed to have food on it!

Kay begins her story in 1921, a time of oil lamps, and tin baths used once a week before being hung in the yard. A time when wash day did indeed take all day, and children amused themselves with homemade toys, and their imagination, while mothers lit boilers, hand-washed everything, and if lucky, had a mangle to wring out the clothes to be dried in the back garden on a line of rope between wooden poles. The art of washing clothes no mean feat in the miserable weather of the UK.

At home, Kay spoke Welsh, at school English, and often home was a house of women because her Merchant Navy father spent time away at sea. These are memories of a time when the pace of life seemed slower, a time when not everyone had a car, a time when you made your own entertainment. Definitive childhood experiences leave their mark but it is amazing what memories are triggered in writing class.

First Love by Kay Watson

Keith Taylor was 15 years old and sat in the desk in front of me at school He had acne and hair sticking up like a chimney sweep’s brush dipped in oil. Not very tall, he was always straightening his spectacles with a forefinger and constantly sniffing instead of giving his nose a good blow.

I fell madly in love with Keith.

He lived in the next street and we walked to school together. Considered ‘grammar school material’, he helped me with my homework. We went to the cinema on Saturdays, and I watched him shine at football at the local recreation grounds. He was always there for me, saying, ‘You make me so happy you’re my girlfriend,’ and ‘I love your dark shining eyes.’

I gave him a photograph of myself and he kept it in his desk at school. ‘Why do you keep it there?’ I asked

‘To look at you often,’ he said, ‘because I’ll get into trouble turning around in class to look at you.’

No wonder I overlooked that he didn’t have film star features!

Love permeates this book: love of God and church, love of family, love of community, love of travel and love of having a good time. As all of you who know Kay, laughter is never far from her lips.

It has been Kay’s Faith and a keen sense of humour that has helped her through the sad times – of which there have been a few – especially the tragic loss of her beloved daughter, Dawn when only 21 years of age, and the recent loss of her husband and soul mate, Arthur.

You don’t reach 89 without having the rough as well as the smooth and yet this is not a sad book, it is indeed a celebration of a life well-lived. 

Writing your life story is not for the faint-hearted. It takes courage. When we write we reveal ourselves, expose ourselves to public scrutiny. We revisit good and bad times and often learn things about ourselves – each sentence can be as much a surprise to self as it is to the reader. It may be cathartic or be a shock but it is a wonderful gift to be able to use our very flexible and beautiful language to connect with others. And it is magic when we get it right – as Kay has done.

Sounds and Smells of War by Kay Watson

The war.  Air-raid sirens screech, enemy aircraft drone overhead. Wham Wham! Anti-aircraft batteries and crump of exploding bombs. We heard these sounds and more sitting on cold slatted wood seats in dank, brick, air raid shelters surrounded by dampness and fear of death. Our five senses overloaded every night.

Glass splintered and smashed, dancing on the cobblestones as windows hit by shrapnel. The suction and compression from huge blasts, pushed us together. We grabbed each other, held tight for comfort because there were no doors on the shelter and we could see the angry red sky blackened at the edges.

City docks aflame. The acrid smell of exploding paint drums and melting rubber in the air billowing smoke and flames from the burning sugar factory, which formed a fiery sheet on the surface of the water. 4.00am. After nine hours, the all clear siren sounded. We emerged from the shelter to the scent of burning wood. Smelly black dust hung in the air. We faced our homes, many destroyed, front doors blown off, shattered windows, rubble strewn gardens. Bewilderment. We hugged our blankets and pillows, and small babies in smelly nappies long overdue for changing.

Our kitchen relatively unscathed meant I had a cold wash. How I enjoyed the aroma of Lifebuoy Soap, the luxury of feeling clean and refreshed. We gathered the broken crockery from the red tile floor. An intense smell of soot from the kitchen range permeated upstairs, even inside chests of drawers. The force of the blast had scattered clothes from cupboards. They smelt musty and wet from the fire brigade’s efforts to save the house. Mum stood motionless and stared at the mattress, pockmarked like cinders on a hot face, by the incendiary bombs. Friends invited us to stay until we found a place outside the city, wreathing our faces in smiles. We smelled their coffee. Even burnt toast, delicious in those days.

The bitter days now behind us but the way to the new is in the shadow of the old. I enjoy more pleasant smells, especially seasonal ones, each flower bringing its own smell to my garden. Also the sea and seaweed clinging to rocks, the salt tangy ocean, the red earth of the desert and most of all sounds of birds like a choir of chirping minstrels.

There are interesting photographs in this book too – examine them closely because they all hold stories.

Please enjoy this magnificent achievement, a memoir to treasure and join with me in congratulating and welcoming author Kay Watson.

That day was probably one of the highlights of Kay’s long life and made more memorable by the support she received from fellow students in the class. One of the students, Helen, arranged for her partner to make a magnificent (and delicious) cake, in the shape of a traditional Welsh hat and many people followed the Aussie tradition of bringing a plate (food included, of course).

Another longterm student of Monday classes was Amelia, in a similar age group as Kay, they shared a close friendship. Both lived in Parkdale and loved writing poetry about the environment, especially the sea. Sadly, Amelia predeceased Kay. I read some of Amelia’s poetry at her funeral.

Kay and Amelia Auckett

I can’t attend Kay’s funeral but will finish this blog with some of her lovely poems that featured in the annual class anthologies where she favoured writing about her memories of the UK countryside. There are a few photographs too, of Kay’s classmates, several who have now passed away. There is also a picture I treasure of Kay with my mother, who was born in April 1921. The pair met a few times at Mordialloc Writers’ events and got on well but sadly, Mum died in 2009, a few months after this picture was taken.

Kay with Mum (Anne McInnes)

It is not overstating, to say everyone loved Kay and her stories never disappointed. During WW2 she was in the WAAF’s Entertainment Unit blessed with a wonderful Welsh singing voice and the actors and entertainers she met in the concerts to entertain the troops filled a list of celebrity who’s who, but I loved her travelogues. She’d bring in pictures of her and husband Arthur’s holidays to Spain and France and write about fascinating adventures.

One travel story sticks in my mind because she had the class in stitches and there were no accompanying snaps. A group of friends had hired a yacht to sail the Mediterranean islands. When the weather turned nasty, they headed for a nearby isle to drop anchor. On going ashore they discovered it was a nudist colony and to use any of the facilities, they had to, in Kay’s word ‘conform’.

I miss teaching writing in community houses, miss the many students who enriched my life with their stories and imagination. I learnt so much and will always smile when remembering the friendship, laughter, entertaining and emotional stories, and the sharing of scrumptious morning tea that were all part of Writing for Pleasure on Monday mornings.

Childhood Home by Kay Watson

I long to see the old place again, just once on a winter’s day

frost makes white the lonely fields, and skies are silver grey.

I think of our cottage and winter walks down the lane

snowdrops nod their heads, their stems stiff like cane.

Those long dark nights, and cold short days,

the low angle of the sun casting shadow haze

adding form to the landscape and drifting snow,

patterned frozen puddles where summer sunflowers grow.

I shall return in summer and breathe the rustic air,

pause at the stream to rest and reflect on things there –

remember my childhood of long ago – and I’ll sing

of the joy and peace Mother Nature always brings.

Meadowland by Kay Watson

Warm sun thaws and meadows tenderly lie

beneath the paintbox of sunrise,

the bridle of earth and sky.

Cowslips join waves of ripening corn 

to float and dance, spellbound entranced

warming my heart like a cloth of gold.

Ever changing breeze sighs through my hair

like a joyless eye, 

it is eventide when sun sinks in the west 

and drowsy butterfly folds his wings, 

birds fly to their nests no more to sing.

Flower petals close, the daisy asleep 

is that primrose buried in slumber deep?

Thoughts scatter in fancy’s flight

sweet dreams close eyelids, till dawning light.

The highest tribute to the dead is not grief but gratitude.

Thornton Wilder

Thank you Kay (Ceinwen) Watson for sharing your journey!

Kay signing a copy of her book for Alex at Readings by the Bay, 2010

In 2021, the Earth can’t risk the Groundhog Day Effect

sunrise nearing Shetland

Although it is difficult to make headlines or initiate a public discussion about anything other than the global pandemic or Trump and his supporters’ refusal to accept the results of the USA Election, Greta Thunberg who just turned 18, has reminded us global warming is still happening with devastating consequences.

For those who have never seen the movie Groundhog Day, perhaps take a few minutes to Google,  or accept the explanation below…

Groundhog Day Effect

Based on the movie Groundhog Day starring Bill Murray. It is the idea that every action that one makes; the rewards and consequences of those actions are not followed through the next day. If someone were to make a big choice, commit a crime, offend someone, make a mistake, or meet someone throughout a period of a regular 24 hour day, those rewards and consequences for all of those actions are not carried through the next day. It is all forgotten. In other words, it’s like yesterday never happened. Therefore this pattern can keep on repeating for an unknown amount of time.

 I’ve known about the dangers of the Greenhouse effect, global warming, climate change – call it what you will – all my adult life and yet each year the public discussion seems to be the same. I’m with Greta – why aren’t we woke yet?! 

A Member of the Victorian Parliament Warned about Climate Change in 1990!

Here is an extract from the Gazette the Victorian MP Jean McLean used to deliver to her constituents.

Before social media, many members of parliament made an effort to keep the electors informed via regular newsletters. Jean McLean was especially interested in the environment and social justice issues – climate change most certainly an environmental AND social justice concern.

(It was time-consuming to get the message out with the tools of typing, Gestetner printing or photocopying, hand stapling and enveloping, even before relying on Aussie Post or volunteers like me to distribute, but I am so glad Jean did! )

extract from Jean McLean MP's Gazette.jpg

Currently, we are in the midst of a pandemic with a coronavirus never seen before and mutating at an alarming rate.  My recent diagnosis of melanoma (and I know many others in my circle of friends who have had skin cancers) proves the scientists’ predictions tragically spot on!

Pollute And  Perish – a Catchcry of the 70s

selection of protest badges
selection of badges from the 70s onwards – anti-nuclear, pro-solar, warning of radiating our food

Environmentalists and conservationists have been warning about global warming since April 22, 1970, when the first Earth Day was held in the USA and scientists coined the term Greenhouse Effect. They forecast the Earth’s future in doubt because air pollution was warming the planet – pollution primarily caused by the burning of fossil fuels.

In the 80s the anti-uranium movement gained momentum against those seeking nuclear power because of the Chernobyl disaster, a place still contaminated 35 years later. It wasn’t the first but is perhaps the worst nuclear power station disaster,  yet some people still suggest nuclear power as an alternative energy source.

Since the 70s, environmental activists usually lumped in with  ‘the Left’,  disbelieved and vilified, shrugged off with contempt as ‘greenies’ and ‘tree huggers’.  Although social media favours ‘snowflakes’ and ‘leftards’ and other generic insults to cover numerous issues, not just the perceived ‘hoax‘ of climate change!

Not surprisingly, many who disbelieve climate change also favour the conspiracies around COVID19, although ironically there are some who believe the science of climate change but not the science of epidemiology (and vice versa)!

Climate messengers have expanded, from both sides of the political divide and even in the corporate sector. They admit climate change is real and we are experiencing dire human and economic consequences by ignoring the science. 

Natural disasters on the rise mean the tragedy of global warming can’t be ignored, but we shouldn’t forget many of our current political and corporate leaders have always KNOWN!

They’ve had:

  • Access, to scientific reports and data like the World Oceanographic Commission and World Meteorological Organisation, mentioned above,
  • plus a variety of other national and international research bodies. 

acrostic poem about earth day

Ignorance and lack of action a choice we really can’t afford now:

This time last year I was at home watching news of bushfires ravaging Victoria and NSW and making pouches for rescued wildlife.

Friends in the USA and Canada have shared the devastation of the 2020 fires in California that compounded the grief of coronavirus suffering.

Since the global pandemic struck, I have increased email correspondence to friends overseas or locals keeping social distance because of lockdown. Often the discussion is about the future and we recognise the existential threat of global warming. It may be off the front pages of newspapers but not forgotten by the people living with the memory of last summer’s fires in both hemispheres.

majestic tree copy.png.

Shirly is 88, and a dear friend in England who is married to a cousin of my husband’s, and like many living in the UK, she copes with what she describes as a world ‘in a mess… it’s as if Margaret Atwood wrote the year we’re living.  Dystopian.

On January 4th she wrote
 
Yesterday, quite accidentally, I turned the news channel on and your PM was extolling the joys of coal and the fact that this was Australia, not some little country dependant on Europe or America.
 
We can do what we like. We have coal and we’ll use coal.
 
He said it as though he was giving the people an enormously good piece of news. As though global warming had nothing to do with your country.   I couldn’t believe my ears.
 
But there are so many non- believers, we shouldn’t be surprised…

How right she is and the many reports about climate change updated because of another year’s data prompted others in Australia to remind the population of  PM Morrison’s pathetic position:

fb_img_1609967712420-1

I published a version of this poem in 2019 appealing to the then PM, Malcolm Turnbull. The appeal is still the same, although the PM, date, and increasingly worrying data have changed, plus we have the new ill-informed Deputy Prime Minister in the mix.

Easy actions many of us can take is to care and plant more trees, become a dendrophile. Also reduce, reuse and recycle,  and start conversations with friends and neighbours to lobby local councillors and politicians about the importance of renewable energy and government policies that help create a sustainable environment.

ancient tree.png

Most importantly, we can use our voice and our vote. This year there will be a Federal election in Australia, we must make sure climate change is addressed.

 

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.

Margaret Mead

It’s Refugee Week and We Still Don’t Accept Seeking Asylum Is A Human Right

chasing asylum cover

Time For Truth-Telling

There has been a host of issues covered by a variety of media in the last week, as the important Black Lives Matter Movement continues to dominate headlines around the world and it is also Pride Month in the USA.

An important message of BLM and Pride is about valuing human rights, a similar message the United Nations established when they devised the Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, July 1951.

tony-fernandes-human-rights-means-that-each-individual-should-quote-on-storemypic-ec083

Australia was party to this Convention as David Marr explains in an interview recorded on the 2016 documentary Chasing Asylum. 

The UN Declaration of Human Rights and Refugee Convention was a humane understanding, according to David and ‘the world’s apology to what was done to the Jewish people fleeing the Holocaust.’

When the doors are closed, people need protection and have a right to seek it!  Australia signed up to this Convention and to letting refugees come in – and they come by the sea when other channels are closed!

When I revisited this documentary, I wept. 

Even with COVID-19, when we are all encouraged to care for each other, we are detaining and treating asylum seekers as if they are criminals and of lesser value than ourselves. Fortunately, there are courageous advocates still speaking up and trying to get the Australian Government to honour the Conventions they signed.

FB_IMG_an asylum seeker 2020
A young man STILL detained – from a friend’s Facebook

I agree with David Marr, who ”defies anyone not to be moved and not feel ashamed.’

The film shows horrific footage (taken without the knowledge of those in authority) of inside the camps on Nauru and Manus Islands that Australian taxpayers fund and set up by the Federal Government.  Repeated parliaments headed by BOTH main political parties have made excuses to maintain these offshore camps.

The cost of torturing innocent people who had a RIGHT to seek asylum – $500,000 per asylum seeker per year – that is $1.2 billion to maintain Nauru and Manus Islands.

A lot of money to torture people because mandatory and indefinite detention is definitely torturing!

There is testimony from employees with firsthand experience who observed the inhumanity and horrific conditions in the detention camps. No amount of posturing and excuses will hide the fact the premise of Australia’s policy is we have a right to put refugees through hell because they came by sea and others might die at sea following their example.

It is profoundly hypocritical to claim ‘stop the boats and turn back the boats’ policies are humanitarian because they stop deaths at sea – especially when we continually engage in wars and other practices creating refugees!

The most recent mass migration of people fleeing their Syrian homeland a case in point. Australian planes bombed Syria. Many of the refugees in this documentary are Iranian, Afghani and Iraqi – Australia was part of the ‘Coalition of the Willing’ who bombed these countries!

There are reasons for refugees fleeing their homeland – foremost is war – most people would prefer to stay in their own country. If more effort made to prevent the reasons, people put themselves at risk, we would not be facing a worldwide crisis of 60 million refugees.

The countries sheltering half a million to over a million refugees are:

  • Turkey, Pakistan, Lebanon, Iran, Ethiopia and Jordan.
  • Germany accepted one million Syrian refugees in 2016.

Meanwhile, in Australia, we’ve demonised refugees since 2001 and used them as a political football.

In 2016, Chasing Asylum challenged us as a nation to confront the flagrant abuse of human rights perpetrated in our name and as a nation we responded by repeatedly electing governments to continue this inhumanity.

 

Reduced to its basest element, Australian government policy is to begrudgingly treat those who legally sought its asylum – by one mode of transport, by boat – with axiomatic cruelty, in order to discourage others from paying people smugglers and hopping into leaky boats across south-east Asia. This policy saves lives, they say, because it deters others.

But it’s not this policy that’s stopping the boats from reaching Australian shores. Australia has spent billions of dollars putting an armada to sea in the waters to the country’s north and west.

Asylum boats continue to ply the waters of the region and attempt to reach Australia. They do so in much smaller numbers now because they are intercepted, boarded and their passengers and crew forcibly turned around. Protection assessments are conducted at sea – a policy considered illegal under international law by almost every expert opinion, including that of the United Nations.

https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2017/nov/30/australias-offshore-detention-regime-is-a-brutal-and-obscene-piece-of-self-delusion

The support workers, volunteers, social workers, doctors and security personnel who speak on camera in Chasing Asylum also demonised. Classed as malcontents and whistleblowers, there have been many attempts to discredit them by sections of the government and media.

Their evidence may be unpalatable but cannot be ignored.

Because of their courage, protests from many community groups, and the persistence from MPs with a conscience like Senator Sarah Hanson-Young, the voiceless may have been ‘out of sight’ but were not ‘out of mind’!

And we still have asylum seekers incarcerated!

There is also a policy of boat turn-backs and like the disgraceful scandal of the Tampa, we ignore a basic law of the sea of helping a vessel in distress.

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, 2006:

No one knows how many boat people have died, but thousands have been rescued at sea. In the reality of dangerous journeys undertaken to gain access to reluctant coastal states, the time-honoured maritime traditions of rescue at sea collide with the growing determination of states to prevent illegal entry to their territory.

However, to seek asylum as a refugee is not illegal!

We must face the reality of the deceit of the cruel and barbaric ‘stop the boats’ mantra and there is no time like the present!

This week, our current Prime Minister Morrison (his name comes up frequently in the documentary as Immigration Minister) showed his ignorance of Australia’s history regarding slavery and his specially picked Indigenous Envoy, Tony Abbott compounded that ignorance by declaring racism and prejudice plays no part in the high rate of Aboriginal incarceration and deaths in custody.

The pair still peddle the myth that our refugee policy of mandatory offshore detention is humane!

Like many of the horrific scenes circulating on social media at the moment, this history of our offshore detention policy makes uncomfortable viewing!

chasing asylum plea and blurb

By choosing to describe asylum seekers as illegal immigrants, economic migrants, or boat people, and classifying them as less deserving of help, it is easy for politicians to justify denying them basic human rights.

I’m glad that there are still activists protesting on behalf of asylum seekers.  I will continue to donate to the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, write letters and sign petitions – trying to keep the issue alive via conversations and the written word.

Operation Sovereign Borders
Mairi Neil © 2016
(a found poem from Refugee Week leaflet)

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

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

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

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

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

Latte Lament
by Mairi Neil © 2016

We sit in the cafe
indulging a desire
for coffee and cake
and a need
for each other…

Sensitive souls
we struggle to accept
that sitting, sipping coffee:
skinny latte, cappuccino, mochaccino
long or short black

and devouring slices
of gluten-free, fructose-free, fat-free,
carrot cake and a chocolate muffin –
is not conscience free…

Modern media mobility
screams of drought, bushfires
floods at home and
tragedies abroad:

war, random shootings,
terrorist attacks, refugee crises…

France
Greece
Indonesia
Iraq
Israel
Kenya
Lebanon
Palestine
Sri Lanka
Syria,
Turkey
Ukraine
Manus Island and Nauru…

We skip the sugar and cream
search mobile screen for a funny meme.

Chasing Asylum

The opening scene of a crowded boat navigating a choppy sea has a male voice over explaining ‘I head for Australia because it is a safe, humane country… respects people… no war, calm, everything good…’

And then there is the reality as shaky footage from a concealed mobile phone camera reveals Australia has some of the harshest refugee and asylum seeker policies in the world.

We see conditions in Nauru Detention Centre – the footage filmed in secret because no journalists, filmmakers or camera crew allowed inside the Nauru camp.

Nauru a remote island, population 10,000, isolated and extremely hot, you can drive around it in 20 minutes. It is a ‘poor’ country with a failing economy.

Easy pickings for Australia to sweep responsibility to somewhere else and pass on our problem. And it is understandable why the Nauruan government accepted Australia’s offer of a cash splash and allowed a detention centre.

At the time the documentary was made there were 2,175 asylum seekers in detention on Nauru and Manus Islands, including children.

protest by grandmothers against detention
protest in 2014  demanding release of children in detention

A social worker speaks about the shock of arriving to work at the camp – meeting people already detained 400-500 days and so many security personnel giving the camp a militarised feel.

We hear faceless conversations. The views of camp, fences, tents and people from imperfect angles, but there is sufficient footage to capture the bleakness, sparse colourless surroundings, makeshift and temporary set-up. Cyclone fencing reminiscent of building sites.

Painted on the side of a tent in Nauru – Welcome To Coffin

Sad drawings and paintings by children decorate walls, featuring tear-stained faces surrounded by flames, barbed wire and guns.

The camps really set up to make the refugees feel unwelcome and to send them home or hope they’d opt to return.

The social worker said in 6 weeks the detainees degrade mentally.

We hear a man say, ‘I am 28 years old – wasting my youth here… I lost dreams.’

Indefinite detention

A shocking concept, no program, no future. Criminals in a prison can count the days until the end of their sentence, but that can’t happen in a refugee camp.

No crime committed, the UN Convention ignored, people left to rot.

A refugee is a person who “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country… ”                        

                         The 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees

  • Tortured at home
  • Tortured in the detention camps
  • Separated from their families with no prospect of being reunited.
  • No hope for the future.

A protest organised by the incarcerated men and WE WANT JUSTICE written on t-shirts.

We see men with lips sewed together, a lot of self-harm. The nurse saw a man who cut his stomach open with glass, men with stitched lips and eyelids, another beat and stabbed himself with a fluorescent light tube. A lot of cutting. And swallowing of razor blades, washing powder, bleach.

People hang themselves.

Support workers describe how they answered an advert of Facebook from the Salvation Army. When they enquired what the job entailed, the interviewer ‘made it sound like a nice place, enjoy a two-week holiday, invite your friends to apply…’

Arriving on Nauru, the fresh recruits discover an eclectic group of fellow workers: a manager of a MacDonald’s, retirees, factory workers and university students.

The only thing they had in common was no one had experience working with asylum seekers or refugees!

The briefing they got on arrival was indeed brief!

A woman said, ‘Go and help the men, befriend them. Go in pairs, mingle, I’ll be back in two hours.’

They found dispirited refugees, lying listlessly on the bed and lethargic asking, ‘Why are you here? Why are we here? How long will we be here?’

Many couldn’t sleep, were on medication because of the rapid deterioration of their mental health, which usually started after 6 weeks.

The support workers realised intakes were confused, some didn’t know they were not in Australia, others couldn’t understand why they were treated like criminals.

A support worker questioned what she was doing there and regretted signing up, especially when she read a sign that said, ‘Make sure staff are trained to use a Hoffman’s Knife.’

She discovered a Hoffman’s Knife is used to cut people down when they hang themselves! She was in a place she’d never choose to visit and she shouldn’t have taken the job.

A social worker recalled a Tamil from Sri Lanka’s story. He was the same age as herself 24/25. He was living in an area controlled by Tamil Tigers. His father shot in front of him. He and his brother left for Colombo and arrested by authorities, imprisoned and tortured for a year. He had cigarette burns on his back and genitals. Highly distressed on Nauru, he displayed symptoms of severe trauma.

He wanted to die and kept repeating ‘My life, where is my life?’

The social worker broke down, ‘I can’t help them, I have nothing of comfort to say.

People talk to themselves. Have psychotic episodes, walk around like zombies, most are medicated. Every day they have thoughts of suicide and self-harm. She can only tell them things will get better, but they know, and so does she, that it is a lie. 

A support worker saw a severe beating of a refugee by two guards – a New Zealander and an Australian – but after pressure, she changed her statement. On reflection, she is ashamed but did so because she was scared. She was the only one prepared to be honest.

The guards are ex ADF, bouncers and prison officers and are always on edge. Hyper-vigilant, many are racists. Their aggressive attitude shows no empathy for asylum seekers.

st paul's sign for refugees
ironically St paul’s in Melbourne sports a sign most Australians ignore.

Official Refugee Policy?

Although no politician offered an interview for the documentary there is enough recorded interviews and broadcasted soundbites included:

Prime Minister John Howard in 2001 – the Tampa Election – ‘we will decide who comes into this country and how…’

2009 Kevin Rudd – those coming by boat will be detained offshore

2012 Julia Gillard – ‘don’t risk a voyage at sea… don’t give money to people smugglers… you will be detained offshore

2013 Tony Abbott  – won the election with the promise to ‘stop the boats’

2013 – Scott Morrison, Immigration Minister – it is a national emergency and border security operation – ‘the boats must be stopped.’

July 19, 2013 – Australia’s policy: any asylum seeker arriving by boat will not be settled in Australia – mandatory offshore detention.

2015 – Turnbull – ‘only way to stop deaths at sea.’

2017

FB_IMGTurnbull quote
Doing the rounds of Facebook

In the documentary, Greg Lake, the public servant who ran the Detention Centre admits that he took on the job with a background of ‘upper-middle-class white guy from NSW, growing up in a place with few migrants and never meeting a refugee or asylum seeker.’

He saw the job as implementing government policy, but the policy issue changed from looking after people seeking asylum to, we will make your life worse than what you fled if you choose to stay here.

We don’t want you coming by boat and will make your life horrible so the message will get out and no one else gets on a boat. Greg Lake realised it was a deterrent strategy and people will be permanently damaged so he left – it was too hard a portfolio.

Go Back to Where You Came From Is Not An Option!

In 2011, SBS produced a reality show to tackle Australia’s refugee policy and reveal the human face behind the statistics by exposing six Australians with strong opinions about immigration to the journeys of some refugees.

Hopefully, it helped some members of the public to think more deeply and beyond three word slogans.

Ironically, one of every two Australians is an immigrant or the child of one. (I came to Australia as a child in 1962 with my parents and 5 siblings.)

Yet, despite our diverse population and culture, immigration continues to be a central political issue. Often the people who are the most vociferous and ill-informed are migrants or children of refugees who came here after WW2.

Sadly, social media has amplified bigotry and racism and spread misinformation like wildfire. Many in Australia applaud President Trump’s recent playbook by telling those in the public eye who are critical, especially women of colour like Greens MP, Mehreen Faruqi and Labor’s Anne Aly, to ‘go back where they came from’.

The “go back” insult is offensive because it is not about citizenship, said Susan Harris Rimmer, a law professor at Griffith University in Queensland. “It’s about your skin colour,” she said. “You are seen to be more loyal or disloyal depending on whether you look like the norm.”

quoted in New York Times, Letter to Australia

Does the Australian public realise the price paid to stop the boats and who pays??

Dr Peter Young reported measurable disorders observed in children.

  • Children watching parents getting sicker, young babies not feeding properly or gaining weight.
  • Children’s drawings reflect how disturbed they are watching self-harm and also many had been sexualised or seen things they shouldn’t have seen.

Mouldy damp tents with no privacy or space, erected upon white phosphate rock. Behavioural issues because there were no age-appropriate activities.

Children referred to each other with boat IDs instead of names. The practice rampant – they had forgotten their names and who they were.

There was a lot of fighting and self-harming.

A report was published in 2014 by the Human rights Commission. :

The Forgotten Children – the report of the National Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention 2014

Senator Sarah Hanson-Young collected toys and when they arrived the kids didn’t know what to do with them.

Heartbreaking for the support workers to witness!

A social worker will never forget a child’s reaction to receiving a soft toy after a year in the camp with no play activities. 

David Marr talked about the allegations of sexual and physical abuse of women and children which resulted in The Moss Review in 2015

There were details of sexualised behaviour amongst children, cigarettes traded for sex, children under 5 exposed to sexual behaviour and other activities at an inappropriate age….

It took the Australian Government 17 months to investigate reports.

No results and no repercussions instead the government legislated on July 1, 2015, that whistleblowers will face prison!!

Michael Bachelard, an Australian journalist living in Indonesia believes the threat of asylum seekers blown out of proportion and hardline policies of successive governments may have stopped the boats by successfully attacking the people smugglers’ business model, but the human cost appalling when you see the lives of the 10,000 stranded in Indonesia and those detained on Nauru and Manus.

The refugees in Indonesia can’t work, children can’t go to school, everything costs money and they can’t earn any.  (see my Staging Post Review)

Hazara refugees from Afghanistan share their stories – husbands, fathers, sons, mothers, widows… all fleeing persecution by the Taliban and seeking a better peaceful life.

Asylum seekers are now told there is no way you will make Australia home…

Manus Island

In 2013, Rudd declared a resettlement agreement with Papua New Guinea would stop the scourge of people smuggling. Some refugees who arrived on Christmas Island flown straight away to Manus Island. They were terrified, believing New Guinea still practised cannibalism. Escorted on the plane by two security guards holding their arms they were heavily guarded on the flight.

Arriving in Manus they noticed there were trees but few houses.  They saw a fruit turned teeth red, and despite assurances feared the cannibalism they’d read about in books that happened 50 years ago still occurred.

A security guard turned whistleblower, explained it was a camp for single men. He had been a prison officer for 9 years with Victorian Corrections Service, but like others employed on Manus, had only experience dealing with those from the criminal world. The camp was not what he thought a detention camp would be.  He assumed they would train expert staff.

A WW2 Nissan hut one of the buildings with a concrete floor housing 122 double bunks. In the tropical weather, the shed was stifling – odour disgusting as was the surrounds, an overcrowded gaol behind padlocked gates.

There were not enough clothes, shoes, toilets or drinking water. Faeces littered the ground.  There were cases of malaria and other sicknesses. The men resembled broken men without a future, slouched shoulders and despair on their faces.

The contrast with staff quarters, stark – carpeted floor, air conditioning, matching sheets…

The Prison Officer, a whistleblower, he voiced his concerns and was threatened by a note left on his bed, then another verbal threat.

He stopped complaining and left. ‘I had principles, we need to talk and face the reality of what is happening about refugee policy.’

There is film of a demonstration by the detainees that became violent. 100 were arrested but no criminal convictions. Apparently, the bill was $60 million damage. (I’d question the figure because the facilities on Manus and Nauru are appalling and that was the reason for the protest!)

There is a lot of resentment from locals on Manus and Nauru who are not happy with the deal their governments have made with Australia.

Seven months after one protest, asylum seekers attacked by PNG police and locals – a riot ensues. Evidence shown of the fence pushed in by locals and shots fired into the camp. 

Sixty refugees are injured, one throat slit, one lost an eye, one man killed.

Reza Berate, an Iranian, beaten and not helped when dying. We see the grief of his family in Iran and their bewilderment as to how it could have happened.

 

2015 – Condemnation from the UN

The UN investigates and confirms Australia breeched conventions and accuses those in the detention centres of torture.

Tony Abbott’s response – “We won’t be lectured to by the UN.

We are 67th in the world for refugee intake. Abbott and Morrison cut our annual intake from 20,000 to 13,000 +

Minister Peter Dutton negotiated the Cambodian Settlement claiming that country free from persecution and a safe option. Australia made a $40 million down payment declaring refugees would be voluntarily sent there. Another $15 million was paid, but only 5 refugees went there. The average wage $100 a month.

We don’t want the offshore refugees here and so we will let the government spend as much money as they want to treat them any way they like.

The options – go to Cambodia or live in the community in Nauru where there are no jobs, low pay, and the cost of living outrageously high.  $20 for 2 litre carton of milk.

The refugees have:

  • No travel documents
  • No hope of reunification with family
  • Live in demountable blocks and share rooms
  • Live behind high fences in a soulless compound
  • their accommodation will always need security because some locals threatened them
  • No guarantee of safety.

  • Refugee women have claimed 20 cases of rape and sexual assault, but no one charged!

Flashback to 1970s

70,000 Vietnamese came to Australia under Malcolm Fraser’s LNP Government. 

On the documentary, Fraser states,  ‘I believed we had an obligation because of our part in the Vietnam war… most of the refugees had been through processing in Malaysia and Australia co-operated – these refugees beneficial. Refugees add to our culture, our wealth, our diversity.’

A sign at his funeral attended by many Vietnamese – Farewell to our champion of humanity. You are forever in our hearts…

Chasing Asylum is in memory of Malcolm Fraser – 1930 – 2015

Tolerance
Mairi Neil © 2017

To those who fear the
Other
Look not only with your
Eyes, but with
Respect, reason, logic and most of all heart.
Are people less human, more evil, if different?
Nationality and ethnicity
Culture, religion, identity
Earth’s children all ache, bleed, cry, – desire belonging and love.

 

World Environment Day 2020 – A Time To Appreciate Mother Nature

 

lake in Victoria Gardens

This year’s World Environment theme is time for nature:

The foods we eat, the air we breathe, the water we drink and the climate that makes our planet habitable all come from nature.
Yet, these are exceptional times in which nature is sending us a message:
To care for ourselves, we must care for nature.
It’s time to wake up. To take notice. To raise our voices.
It’s time to build back better for People and Planet.
This World Environment Day, it’s Time for Nature.

World Environment Day 2020

COVID-19 lockdowns restrict movement in neighbourhoods, towns, cities and countryside in countries throughout the world and have done so for several months, and most people now realise how important it is to breathe fresh air and to enjoy outside activities.

The easing of some restrictions in Victoria saw hundreds flock to national parks. Many places were overwhelmed and had to be closed because the recommended 1.5 metres of social-distancing couldn’t be enforced.

We are in the middle of a pandemic that has forced governments to act for the greater good of the public health, even closing international borders despite severe economic consequences.

Ironically, because of less air travel and movement of people, plus reductions in road traffic and industrial pollution, there has been an improvement in some natural areas such as cleaner waterways and a resurgence of wildlife.

However, the consequences of climate change are still severe and deadly and as many people have pointed out – if you believe and obey the science regarding the COVID-19 pandemic why are we not believing and acting urgently on the science about climate change!

As this picture doing the rounds of Facebook shows, the damage fossil fuels cause is not a new discovery – this newspaper date is 1912!

FB_early warning of global warming
a sobering Facebook meme when you look at the date!

The Speech A Prime Minister Should Make in 2020
© Mairi Neil

Men and women of Australia
and those who identify as other
there is no time to waste
you must listen to our Mother

Mother Earth, I’m referring to –
the mountains, snows, and sea
the seasons, soil, and sunlight
sustaining you and me

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

Addicted to manufactured comfort
we’ve gouged mountains into craters
safe harbours are now wharves
to accommodate gigantic freighters.

Explosions altered landscapes
concrete towers replaced trees
animals hunted to extinction
polar ice caps no longer freeze.

Climate change is not a phrase
but a reality for the natural world
Global Warming’s rising tides
cities consumed as tsunamis swirl

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

Climate deniers knuckle draggers
as are those mouthing ‘innovation’
drought, bushfires and failed crops
the word should be desperation!

The time for procrastination gone
also the sand for burying your head
Earth’s lungs struggle daily to breathe
how long before humanity all dead?

dead bird and dandelion

Mordialloc Beach
Mairi Neil © 2013

The day is calm. Tranquil. A great-to-be-alive day. The scent of eucalyptus and pine compete with salty air and whiffs of abandoned seaweed.
The cyan sea a mirror for whipped cream clouds. Dainty dollops on a baby blue plate. Gulls sit or glide atop the glassy surface. Bathed in brilliant white sunlight, I imagine I too float and dream.
But in the distance, palm tree fronds tremble, casting lacy shadows on the warm sand. The clink of moorings and creak of masts drifts from the creek and a sudden gust of wind whips sand to sting legs and face. Airborne seagulls now screeching origami kites.
A dark veil unfurls from the horizon shattering the steel blue mirror swallowing the fluffy clouds.
Peaceful contemplation disappears, waves soap around my feet, slap at ankles, sunlight fades. I retreat to the shelter of groaning eucalypts and pine, the taste of salt bittersweet.

cormorant and seagull

Living Fossils (a villanelle)
Mairi Neil © 2014

Celebrate parks and open spaces
how they let us breathe and play
they put smiles upon our faces

Nature provides wondrous places
adding beauty to the everyday
wildlife parks, wilderness spaces

Trainers recommend 10,000 paces
exercise and be healthy they say
and put smiles upon our faces

In childhood, egg and spoon races
kite-flying, hide-n-seek, even croquet
celebrated parks and open spaces

Living demands no ‘airs and graces’
whether skies are blue or grey
let’s put smiles upon our faces

Find joy in parks and open spaces
because they let us breathe and play
and they put smiles upon our faces

In the future, they’ll discover traces
of how we spent our lives each day
they’ll dig up parks and other spaces
and put names to forgotten faces.

The importance of trees to our wellbeing and the earth’s health is, at last, being recognised by local councils (including Kingston) and I hope many more will become dendrophiles.

tree at park

We Have An Extinction Crisis In Australia

Today, I received an email from birdlife.org.au

Dear Mairi,

This year hasn’t been what any of us expected.

Australia was already in the grip of the extinction crisis, which meant our birds were facing unprecedented threats… and then the devastating bushfires struck. Fighting the extinction crisis became even more urgent.

Now we’re in a pandemic. While it’s changed how we live and work, COVID-19 hasn’t impacted our commitment to save Australian birds for future generations. We know the bushfires have compounded the extinction crisis. And we need your support to continue our vital conservation work.

Our experts estimate that the number of nationally threatened birds could rise from 134 last year to over 150 after the fires. And among them, for the first time I can recall, are birds such as the usually resilient and successful Superb Lyrebird. A wet forest bird, once considered relatively safe from bushfires, this iconic species lost over half its habitat in the inferno.

We fear the Superb Lyrebird may have plunged from being ‘common’ to being ‘threatened’ in just a few devastating weeks over summer.

Lyrebirds now desperately need a refuge.

Are We Birdbrained?
Mairi Neil ©2020

If the birds disappear or die
will bugs be kept in check –
what are the consequences
if Nature’s balance, we wreck?

Birds are landscape gardeners
planting seeds throughout the land
a tiny wren may be responsible
for the towering ash so grand…

Where would you live if your home
vanished from the neighbourhood?
If someone decided it was needed
for farmland, furniture, or firewood…

Would you relocate? Permanently migrate?
It’s Hobson’s Choice – face extinction
or take another’s territory to populate –
hoping survival is your fate.

Not only birds are endangered
global warming threatens us all –
We must act now to stop
habitat destruction, water shortages,
population pressure and urban sprawl!

magpie in garden

3.05pm Flinders Street to Frankston
Mairi Neil © 2016

He shovels a healthy salad
into bearded mouth
his bamboo fork environmentally friendly ––
but not the plastic container…

She swigs kombucha
for inner health
ignoring Mother Earth’s digestive tract
blocked by the plastic bottle and cap.

Fast food aromas embedded
in train carriage upholstery
waft in the air, cling to clothes.
Junk food litter clutters floor
peeks from discarded plastic bags…

Excess packaging the norm
as the world chokes
and even those who profess to care sucked in
and swallowed by consumerism

Landfill dumps grow garbage
litter        refuse       muck
There is no ‘away’ in throw!

Parks and Places to Play Important For Childhood Memories

  1. Write about the wild or natural places you remember playing in as a child.
  2. Where do you go today to breathe in and experience the natural world?
  3. How important is your garden, and what pleasure does it give?
  4. Describe your favourite walk?
  5. What bird, tree, flower do you see from your window/s?

yellow daisies

I spent my first nine years in Greenock, Scotland, an industrial town on the River Clyde that used to be famous for shipbuilding – the yards built the Queen Elizabeth and first Queen Mary, plus submarines for Australia.

I can’t remember much of the first three years living in a tenement in George Square, the centre of the town, but when we moved to Braeside where I started school, there is plenty of material for trips down memory lane.

Despite the rustic name (brae means hill in Scots), there were no built parks for us to play in. We spent a lot of time in back gardens (‘back greens’) and playing games in the street. Traffic minimal in the 50s and early 60s with my dad being one of the few in the street to own a vehicle. He had a motorbike at first, then bought a Bradford van.

Cars rarely disturbed our play which included hopscotch chalked on pavements (we called it ‘beds’), skipping (often with rope leftover from the clothesline), football, rounders, and British Bulldog and similar games involving lots of chasing, hiding and rough and tumble.

However, we also roamed the hill towering over the houses opposite and the farmer’s fields at the bottom of our road and a swathe of land separating upper and lower streets. The housing scheme stretched up a steep hill, Davaar Road being the topmost street and in the middle of that street, our house was number 35.

Across the road, behind a row of houses, there was a path we could climb to the top of the hill and see Gourock and the River Clyde. There were no tall trees but plenty of scrub, granite boulders and heather. Enough natural flora to keep us entertained with games influenced by episodes of popular shows broadcast by the fledgeling television industry: The Lone Ranger, the Cisco kid, Robin Hood and His Merry Men, and whatever adventure story Walt Disney promoted when he invited us to ‘wish upon a star’ on Sunday evenings.

Up the hill, I learned how to make daisy chains and to check who liked butter by waving buttercups under the chin. A memorable part of the long summer holidays was collecting twigs, branches and anything that would burn to prepare for bonfire night in November.
We never forgot Guy Fawkes and to “Remember, remember, the fifth of November, gunpowder, treason and plot!”

The hill also welcomed children roaming in hordes carrying buckets and jam jars to seek blackberries when in season. The incentive of Mum’s delicious bramble jam spurned us on. We even spread our hunt into the farmer’s fields at the bottom of the street where we weren’t supposed to go. We knew the resident bull to be a danger to life and limb – plus when the Tinkers (Gypsies/Travellers) came they camped in the fields and we were warned to respect their privacy.

Mum and Dad didn’t practice overt bigotry against Travellers like some people. Mum helped them whenever she could by paying them to do odd jobs and buying some goods they hawked, such as wooden ‘dolly’ clothes-pegs.

However, any place forbidden meant we incorporated them as a deliberate dare in games. There must be a guardian angel for stupid children!

Stranger danger not indoctrinated, and we were never overly fearful, although warned to be careful, not ‘ask for trouble’ and to obey the limitations placed on us. But I remember roaming even further afield and going to what we called ‘the secret lake’ along the Aileymill Road. This pleasant track linked the new housing scheme with isolated cottages on the way to Inverkip and Skelmorlie, tiny towns further down the coastline.

If she knew, Mum would never have sanctioned that sojourn, but we fished for tadpoles and hunted frogs and let loose our imagination and energy.

I revisited the secret lake in the 70s and like everything else seen through adult eyes; the lake had shrunk to a large puddle rather than a lake. The farmer’s fields smaller too, and the bull nowhere in sight!

I checked out my old house in the 70s and again in 2017 – Davaar Road has not changed much although the houses modernised inside; sadly Aileymill is no longer bush to roam but another housing estate.

fb meme

 

Walk the Neighbourhood Absorb the Beauty of Your Place

Walking to Mordi Station in Winter
Mairi Neil © 2009

Plane tree stripped bare
branches black against
the fading daylight
roosting rosellas
rainbow decorations.
The aroma of roast chicken and gravy
drifts from the Main Street café —
Christmas in July!

“birds are the always-present possibility of an awakening to the natural world that too many people have not yet experienced.”

Corey Finger of 10,000 Birds

egret by creek

A Little Bird Cried To Me
Mairi Neil ©2020

A world without birds, I refuse to imagine
nature’s poetry and music gone
the only tweets from computer geeks
and no delights of avian song…

Marshlands, waterways, local creeks
forests, grasslands – our neighbourhood
birdlife helps keep the climate stable
feathered friends do a host of good!

Yet, species disappear or struggle to exist
habitats destroyed by so-called progress
when wildlife families decimated
conservationists struggle for success

Intensive farming and overuse of pesticides
reduce available safe food for birds
wholesale slaughter by hunter psychopaths
killing for ‘sport’- barbaric and absurd

Factory farms breed fowls for food
exotic birds for the fashion industry
collectors and others cage birds as pets –
but birds are meant to fly free

The world will soon descend to chaos
if all the birdlife disappears from Earth
fragile ecosystems are finely tuned
each creature has an intrinsic worth

A world without birds, devastating
Nature’s poetry and music gone
the only tweets from computer geeks
unless we work to save avian song…

FB_Poem for peace
another lovely gift of words via Facebook

Walking, Wellbeing, & Writing – a commonality beyond the first letter

woodland walk Aberdeen

It has been two weeks since my last post, but considering the hive of activity online with free courses, art-related and celebrity freebies, newspapers and journals unlocking paywalls, plus the constant news updates about the coronavirus, I doubt anyone has missed my jottings!

We also had Mother’s Day last weekend, which I enjoyed even if the movie and treats shared via ZOOM on the day because stage three lockdown still operated and Anne couldn’t visit.

MJ snapped this pic of one of the delightful gifts that arrived before the day. We laughed at this clever remix of Premier Daniel Andrews’ advice ONLY to happen when Lockdown is over.

The girls and I fangirls of the Victorian Premier who has shown impressive leadership through the COVID-19 crisis.

I have a feeling this will be a favourite number played in every pub/club in Melbourne when Victorians can truly ‘get on the beers‘ and socialise guilt-free!

(My preferred tipple is cider and here I am enjoying one after a day gardening…)

Get On The Beers

I know I’m not alone in receiving more parcel deliveries during the pandemic than in recent years. The service convenient, especially online grocery shopping, which I’ve found excellent.

If you can’t go out shopping safely,  how wonderful to receive deliveries.  I’ve loved receiving real mail in the mailbox other than bills, real estate ads and donation-seeking charity blurbs.

Good Things Come In Small & Big Packages

Students from past classes have posted lovely cards and letters asking after my welfare, and my incredible friend, Lisa, sent me a gorgeous box of super healthy fruit! 

My sister knitted a Rabbie Burns doll (oh, if I could write like him!) and I’m enjoying the beautiful indoor plant and excellent read (a biography of NZ PM) from the girls and looking forward to next weekend when Anne visits and we’ll play a new board game.

Another dear friend, Lesley dropped off flowers to plant after her husband, Ian did some culling.

A day in the garden aroused Josie’s interest and jealousy. She spent the next three days digging up the cuttings one by one!

Lesley assures me there are more cuttings on the way…

When Lesley delivered the cuttings, I could give her some freshly made Anzac biscuits – a firm favourite with me and the girls now I use the already mentioned recipe from the Jean Hailes Clinic!

I also gave a batch to Mark, my wonderful neighbour who while working from home offered to clean out the gutters and fix a broken bracket. Jobs he noticed needed doing. 

I truly am blessed with the people who come into my life!

flowers from Anne

I’m fortunate with the view from my window because watching the lorikeets visit to feed is a fantastic start to the day and I don’t notice if there is any work needing doing!

two lorikeets feeding

Social Distance Lorikeet Style
Mairi Neil

Lorikeets visit the bottlebrush to feed
Often lingering after munching on seed
Red and green flashes flutter and flitter
I watch from my window as they joyously twitter
Knowing they perceive humans as a threat
Ever alert to danger, we have never met
Even camera clicks produce a pause and glare
Their nervousness shames me – but I won’t despair
Some day I hope, love and trust we will share.
©2020

bridge over creek

I take every opportunity to laugh these days because, despite the worst-case scenarios not eventuating in Victoria and being a glass-half-full person, there have been days when anxiety about the present and the future has been almost overwhelming.

Living Dangerous
Mairi Neil

We will not forget the year 2020
Coronavirus stories will see to that
pandemic panic and widespread crying
no country free from the sick and dying
people forced to isolate and quarantine
practise social distancing
whether pauper or queen…

Wildlife too, adjusted behaviour
we will not forget the year 2020
many relationships shape-shifted
the Earth a pandemic was gifted…
Wildlife’s observations during isolation
would make any book they published
a headline grabber and selling sensation!

Life as I knew it will return in some form but until then…

A chat with Mary Jane, or a phone call or FaceTime with Anne or a friend always helps calm anxiety, but the best antidote is a lengthy daily walk with Josie, a companion like no other – her unconditional love brightens the day.

There are plenty of statistics about the health benefits of walking – not just the physical but emotional and mental health benefits. Plus, there are health benefits of owning a dog.

When the time suits, I’ll be out walking Josie without creating a schedule.

Whether the weather is the cliched ‘rain, hail or shine’, dressed appropriately I walk the dog – or rather Josie walks me!

Josie loves Mordialloc too, and when we are heading to friend Jillian’s house she breaks into a trot.

Walking and inhaling the beauty of our surrounds – neighbourhood gardens, Mordi streets, the parks, the Creek, the foreshore area… restores soul and energy – and we both know it.

The sea breeze rustles trees, birds sing from branches, insects hum and water ripples – nature’s beautiful chimes announce all is right with the world.

Walking is calming and observing details to write about helps me focus on anything but the troubles the world faces.

heron graceful

If confined to stay at home with no outside stimulation, I would retreat more often to the computer not doing anything productive. Crosswords and games online or scouring Internet articles interesting but not riveting or remotely relevant to current creative projects.

I’ve discovered I can spend the day doing absolutely nothing but going around in circles – literally hearing mum’s voice when she lamented, “I can’t get out of my own road.

I often think of Mum’s little sayings and they make perfect sense!

I know other friends have shared this experience – truly a sign of these times we are living through. Crises take effort to adjust despite the many ads about the pandemic proclaiming; we are all in this together – it is a shared global experience.

Hopefully, witnessing the effect on other countries, everyone will be more aware of how precious and fragile life on Earth is and the urgent need to address the effects of climate change and inequity – pressing issues BEFORE the pandemic.

The latest news from the USA is not surprising, showing it is the poor who suffer the most in a pandemic. The article refers to New York, but it is a similar story throughout the world – we may all be going through the same storm but are definitely not in the same boat!

I hope when the worst of the pandemic is over there is more effort to ensure sustainability and a healthy world for all living creatures wherever their home may be.

tree at creek - woman watching

How has your day been?‘ 

This is a daily question from Anne as she checks in on me.

If it wasn’t for the reflections and little ‘happenings’ from walking, I’m not sure our conversation would last long.

I don’t practice formal mindfulness, but when I walk with Josie, I find this is a time of peace and meditation. A time to focus on anything other than problems or worries.

Most days it is answering emails, sorting through old papers or photographs, cooking the dinner, trying out a cake or biscuit recipe, editing a short story or poem, weeding the garden, washing clothes… jumping from one task to another, no rhyme or reason…

Did I achieve or finish anything?

Does it matter?

There is pleasure in the hours of walking, observing, and greeting (from a distance) other dog walkers, friendly strangers, friends, and acquaintances not seen for a while!

People working from home or at home because they have lost their job walk for exercise and are more visible than when in their cars.

(A definite bonus of isolation is meeting people from the past. People I met when involved with Mordialloc Primary School, the Mordialloc Writers’ Group, and who attended writing workshops I’ve held.)

two cormorants perched

Protecting Wellbeing

Like many people, during the first few weeks of COVID-19 crisis, I had an almost unhealthy obsession with the news – not only of how the pandemic was playing out in Australia but each gruesome detail of disastrous death tolls and the lockdowns in Asia, Europe, UK and USA.

I soon discovered the day much better if I limited the news source to one or two outlets, only once a day or even news-free days.

My daughters agree:

Think of your blood pressure Mum’

‘You’re dealing with cancer – one crisis at a time’

‘Let us worry about that – we’ll do the shopping’

… and true to their word, I don’t have to go anywhere except for medical visits and exercise – the latter entails gardening and walking the dog. 

Safe and contactless living!

Friends and family I haven’t been able to connect with face to face have stayed connected over the Internet and by phone. The severe social consequences some have suffered because of isolation hasn’t happened to me.

The change in circumstances has made me think more deeply from the perspective of those with disabilities or illness who always have a limited connection with the outside world and must rely entirely on carers.

Let’s hope some creative ways ZOOM and similar programs have been used to provide services will remain and give access to a richer day to those permanently socially distanced!

mushroom half circle

My walks alternate between Mordialloc Creek and McDonald Street football oval and surrounds plus wandering around the suburban streets.

Joyful as this is, I know Josie will be beside herself when we return to the off-leash dog park and she catches up with other dogs en masse. Dogs are pack animals and not overly enamoured with social distancing.

Josie loves to chase and fetch. When off-leash, she’ll be able to exercise her full potential running after balls thrown from the special holder we have to turn the ball into a long-distance missile. 

a different view of creek

Seasons Don’t Recognise Pandemics

The change from summer to autumn in the gardens has been delightful to watch. Gardens seem to have been a riot of colour this year and people have worked hard transforming their gardens or homes with imagination.

A house where a couple created a beautiful Japanese-type garden is now up for lease – maybe it is their retirement income. Kudos to them both for putting so much effort into a garden for others to enjoy. Josie and I enjoyed our daily chats and seeing the shrubs, pavers and water feature being installed.

yellow roses and lavender

I’ve watched a house around the corner being built and Josie has loved the attention from the tradies.

 

It has been pleasant to have so few cars parked in the street because of fewer commuters and no U3A classes in the Allan McLean Hall at the end of the street.

Lockdown rules changed after Mother’s Day, allowing small gatherings, businesses and workplaces to open if they can manage the social distancing guidelines. People are visiting friends and family and larger groups play or exercise in the parks or practise sport.

People are resilient, small businesses often adapt – I spotted this van in Albert Street.

cafe starstruck-cute name

But people are hurting and the local Presbyterian church recognises this and has set up a community pantry.

However, not a lot has changed in my little bubble but then apart from the dramatic decrease in traffic and more people walking and chalked pavements from kids being schooled at home, not much seemed to change in Mordialloc at the beginning of the pandemic lockdown.

We are a coastal suburb with plenty of open space and I have been steering clear of busy shopping centres since Christmas because of poor health. Other suburbs will have their unique experiences.

cormorant like a statue

Now to writing:

Where do you go for serenity?

This is something to reflect on and write about  – it might be helpful to first record where you go or what you usually do to ease anxiety.

If yoga class is something you do, or dancing or working out at the gym many of these now have classes online you may have joined.

You may favour a room, a church, a friend’s house, or a special tree in your garden.

Or perhaps you indulge in an activity like writing or walking… maybe sewing or cooking…

Your serenity place or activity may be difficult to substitute during the lockdown, or you might have found it easy to adapt.

Do you have a special place you visit only once or twice a year? A place that may hold a strong emotional attachment or memory? Writing about it may help capture the calmness and peacefulness the place represents. 

Perhaps there is there an activity or place in your daily routine easily adapted to isolation rules.

Here are more writing suggestions:

  • Imagine yourself where you find serenity. Why are you there? Has something prompted the visit?
  • Describe your serenity setting.
  • Compare at least two visits to your serenity place.
  • What happens when this place disturbed, or no longer available, or your plans must change?
  • Do you have an alternative?
  • Write a poem inspired by the word serenity.

What is the opposite of serenity for you? Is there one particular time that stands out?

Write about how you unwind or handle anxiety – this may have changed over the years.

List the various ways you are meeting the challenge of isolation and practising social-distancing. 

Did you ever consider ‘stress’ before it became a much talked about ‘modern’ disease?

(When I recorded the history of our local primary school in Mordialloc on its 125th anniversary, I interviewed many past students and staff.  I’ve never forgotten a woman who attended the school during the depression years of the 1930s and coped through the war years commenting,  ‘ No one had stress then – we just got on with life.’)

Reflect on the lives of your parents and grandparents. Do you think they suffered stress – even if they didn’t call it that?

Do you know how they dealt with the tough periods of their lives? Were the pace of life and the responsibilities they had really that different from nowadays? If so – how?

ducks happy

Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma – which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition.

Steve Jobs

Happy Writing!

Writing Techniques Add Value To Poems & Prose

Nobuko looking towards Mordialloc 2020.jpg

Day 21 -We’re still trying for fun!

We are still in stage 3 Lockdown and still practising social distancing – but not from our pens or computer keyboard!

It’s easy to write poorly, but it’s hard to write poorly every day. Wait. Let’s go back a step: It’s hard to write every day.

Rebecca Blood

Writing is a craft and like all crafts there are techniques to improve your work and to make it stand out from others. One such writing technique or device is personification.

PERSONIFICATION is giving human qualities, feelings, actions or characteristics to an inanimate or non-human object. This can include giving human characteristics to animals or animal characteristics to humans or even writing a story from an object’s point of view.

For example: the window winked at me (winking is a human action, the window is an object); the tree clawed at me – tree branches are not human arms.

  • Personification enriches poetry and prose and may be culturally biased because writers experiment, they express their emotions, reflect their upbringing and education and life experience. They will write personal views of certain human attributes, cultural perceptions, and sayings when they write creatively.
  • Personification is probably the most common figure of speech we come across and most of us use examples several times a day in speech and writing without realising we do.
  • Personification injects human behaviour into material objects or abstract concepts.

Advertisers and marketers use it to sell products all the time. For example: health educators will try to make vegetables exciting to children. 

We talk about shoes killing us, colours screaming, a furious sea battering the coastline, a doona smothering us, the wind crying, howling or whispering…

TV adverts talk about cancer as if it is a bullying soldier, an invading army, an enemy of the state… if you have cancer we must battle it.

A house might be a demanding baby to be soothed by a coat of paint…

Pay attention to the seductive ditties, words, arguments in marketing and you’ll understand the value of personification to persuade an audience, drawing them into a world they identify.

Contemplating our own mortality is a struggle and confronting – death is a taboo subject to many families and cultures, so we use personification to describe our feelings:

  • The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse in the New Testament – usually named as war, famine, disease and death.
  • We have depicted death as a serious farm worker (the Grim Reaper) – remember the Aids campaign?
  • An old woman with a broom (always witch-like) also used to represent death!

There are various representations for someone described as a fox:  a sly old fox, a silver-haired fox, a vixen, a good hunter, an evil marauder, a thief, a murderer… depends on your point of view or experience of foxes and what the story is about.

FB_IMG_fox

The Poetry Foundation suggests:

  • It’s so easy to personify that many poets don’t realise they’re doing it. Be mindful of your personification tools and use them sparingly.
  • Don’t be obscure – if you are writing about a gymnast, readers shouldn’t think you are writing about a light bulb or a tree.

In Emily Dickinson’s poem Death is a gentleman with impeccable good manners –

Because I could not stop for Death
He Kindly stopped for me
The Carriage held but just Ourselves
And Immortality.

  • Personification can pack a punch.

In 1819, cavalry charged into an unarmed crowd of men, women and children demanding parliamentary reform in Manchester, in the north of England.

About 20 people died and over 400 wounded. The tragedy shocked the country, and it became known as the Peterloo Massacre (the battle of Waterloo occurred four years earlier.)

Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem about the incident reveals his anger and contempt for the politicians fighting the reforms and who he blames for the shocking tragedy:

I met Murder on the way
He had a mask like Castlereagh
Next came Fraud, and he had on,
Like Eldon, an ermined gown;
His big tears, for he wept well,
Turned to mill-stones as they fell,
And the little children, who
Round his feet played to and from,
Thinking every tear a gem,
Had their brains knocked out by them

  • Personification can reduce big concepts, events, even people or authority to a level we can understand. It can turn the ordinary into something extraordinary, memorable, or at least something we see with new eyes.

from museum exhibit 2019.jpg

What kind Of Person?

Decide what kind of personal traits or career each of the following could be. Write a sentence or perhaps write a character profile for a story:

In case you are uninspired or unsure, I’ve shared a range of responses from past students:

A shark – a used car salesman, someone in marketing, a predator
A goat – a good climber, a person who eats anything, someone with a ravenous appetite, a stubborn old goat, mindless, randy, agile, nimble, single-minded, socially and physically active
A worm – a bookworm, wriggly, a crawler, worm their way into affections, slimy, shy, retiring
A rabbit – skittery, timid, shy, bright-eyed, brainless, harmless, breed like a rabbit, sexually irresponsible, randy, cuddly, fluffy bunny
A leech – clingy, bloodsucker, parasite, ingratiating, an invader,
An elephant – good memory, solid, stoic, get with the strength, clumsy, blunders, too big for their boots
A snake – slithery, slippery, dishonest, shedding skin, a fake, a bigamist, dangerous, untrustworthy
A wombat – hides away, muddleheaded, determined, a night worker, sleepy, retiring type
A lamb – innocent, vulnerable, frolics, gambols, meek, religious person, a follower
A rat – selfish, sneaky, dangerous, untrustworthy, crafty, survivor, deserter, attacker, insatiable

The sun 

  • When the sun entered the room, he threw his bright light into a dark corner.
  • Her warm orange glow made everyone feel better.
  • In the evening, she is a buxom wench in flame-coloured taffeta.
  • He is the centre of our world, and the day pivots around him.

A Shadow

  • The shadow crept around the building as furtive as a thief.
  • She huddled cold and forlorn in the shadow, praying for rescue.

A bushfire

  • The bushfire raged throughout the night, destroying everything in his path.

Thunder & Lightning

  • The thunder roared and lightning flashed and she knew the two giants would fight all night.

Earthquake

  • The earthquake swallowed the city in several angry bites.

We have to continually be jumping off cliffs and developing our wings on the way down.

Kurt Vonnegut

black-cat-roof.jpg

Cat on Condominium Rooftop
Mairi Neil

Soaking up the sun
green eyes ignore life below
people scurry to work
forget to look up
marching ants trudge
to soulless jobs
drones on daily grind
a boring bind.

No such limitations for the cat
rising and stretching limbs
warm tiles a luxurious bed
to sleep and dream of
the tramp of footsteps
cacophony of voices
fading     rising     fading     rising
the daily grind
not his bind.

A butterfly flitters past
pauses briefly on a tree branch
trembling wings bathed in sunlight
green eyes blink, a paw twitches
but passersby unaware
of Mother Nature’s show
weary feet tramp and trudge
the daily grind
grips and binds

An elegant stretch, the cat sits
to watch the dying sun
green eyes observe life below
people scurrying home from work
forgetting to look up
they’ve missed the sunshine
the butterfly’s graceful dance
the cat’s sunny somnolence
their daily grind
a soulless bind

© 2016

Exercise One:

Write about a character or an event and use personification. Here are some sentences that could start you off –

  1. The cloud scattered rain throughout the city.
  2. The ancient car groaned into third gear.
  3. The daffodils nodded their yellow heads as we walked up the path.
  4. The wind sang her mournful song through the rafters of the barn
  5. The microwave’s alarm told me it was time to eat my TV dinner
  6. The camcorder observed the whole tragedy
  7. The chocolate cake begged to be eaten
  8. The crockery danced on the shelves when the door slammed

Exercise Two:

Look around the room, or your home, your workplace, your garden, the local park, a cafe, a place you visit regularly… (some of these will be from memory because of COVID-19!)

Think about inanimate objects and other everyday items – what kind of vocabulary do they have?

  • The sturdy, dark brown bookcase in the corner- is it male or female? Cheerful or depressed?
  • Could the corkscrew on the bar be on a diet, have a memory of failure?
  • Is the bargain basement table sneaky or does it feel second best?
  • An antique, leather armchair and an Ikea stool do similar jobs, but do they have different ways of looking at the world
  • How do you feel about computers? Have you been frustrated and yelled at the computer – how did it answer?

  • What stories about clocks do you have? Write about your favourite or least favourite alarm clock – perhaps it is a baby’s cry and not a clock at all!

  • You may have the same bed after a failed marriage but does it feel the same – maybe miss the previous occupant?
  • What stories have you about trees in your garden – removing them, perhaps one fell down and damaged something, perhaps you always got fruit and bottled it, had a tree house… do you talk to the trees and do they answer you?

  • Those Wedgewood plates you inherited – do they have the same thoughts as you – do they feel fragile, overused, useless, precious?

Here are two of my attempts: Heirloom Horror by Mairi neil, flash fiction of 500 words.

storm in a teacup by Mairi Neil, 400 word flash fiction

Exercise Three:

In poetry and prose personify a piece of furniture you know well.

  • Perhaps it has been in the family since you were born. Perhaps you bought it last week.
  • Giving it a name is optional but you MUST give it an attitude!
  • Be inspired to write about current affairs, or a historical event a la Percy Shelley
  • Use alliteration and personification – experiment and make an effort to try something new.
  • Revisit some of your previous work and see if you can improve it by adding personification.
  • Do the seasons have a personality? An attitude? Write a poem or short prose using personification and reveal the season’s viewpoint or perspective.

 

page seventeen

Rebirth
by Mairi Neil

Lying on the beach
waves roll over me,
smoothing
life’s pain.

the warm waves
caress and massage
manipulating
moulding
malleable me

until colder waves
carve and chip,
with each sharp
intake of breath
a new shape emerges

I am reborn

© 2005 Published page seventeen, Issue 2, Celapene Press.

Happy Writing

 

 

 

 

Poetry and Prose Lets You Still Smell The Rose

roses canberra

Day Nineteen – Write so Readers Smell the Scene

Our sense of smell can do more to revive a memory than other senses and yet it is often a sense writers forget to include. Whether you are writing about indoors or outdoors remembering to include a smell will enrich the scene for the reader.

How often have you caught a whiff of perfume or food cooking and you are reminded of someone or transported to a place in memory?

Many smells are accompanied by a particular taste – sour or sweet, bland or tangy, ‘to die for’ or vomit-inducing… the experience for the reader can be visceral.

Senses empower limitations, senses expand vision within borders, senses promote understanding through pleasure. 

Dejan Stojanovic

A Lesson On Smell

Whenever we had a lesson to encourage the inclusion of smell in writing, I’d ask for suggestions and the student responses often overlapped because certain pungent smells stick in everyone’s mind.

However, the more we wracked our memories ‘to be different’ or recall what made an impression, the list grew – maybe you can add to this collection from a variety of classes:

  • The strong odour of our pets – dogs, cats, reptiles.
  • Gardens enlivened by rosemary, lavender, geraniums
  • Special perfumes – Estee Lauder, Chanel, Christina Ricci…
  • Working as a nurse in hospitals/nursing homes/clinics – the smell of disinfectant, anaesthetics, lotions and creams
  • The perspiration and sweat of fellow teammates playing a sport, the smell of lovers, of commuters, workmates, sweaty feet, old sneakers, shoe polish
  • Fresh country air, honeysuckle in hedges and cow pats in the fields
  • Lilacs and lily of the valley and roses, Daphnes – flowers with a redolence that lingers
  • The smell of the sea, seaweed, tea-tree bushes, rotting fish
  • Steam train smoke, fires burning red gum logs, barbecue and campfire smoke
  • New car smell, leather upholstery, new carpet smell, polished furniture
  • The smell of freshly turned soil, padded down straw in chicken coops, horse manure
  • Foul-smelling tanneries, abattoirs, processing sheep gut, rotting flesh, rotten meat, sour milk, vomit,
  • Antiseptic like Fennel, Dettol, bleach, ammonia, outdoor toilets, raw sewage
  • Chocolate and sweet shops, jam being cooked, baked bread,
  • Mustiness and the dank smell of cellars, caves, old, buildings
  • Dry and decaying wood – the smell of death, animal and human urine
  • Mowed grass, the eucalypts and other trees, dead flowers
  • Fish and cod liver oil, garlic, onion – many different spices
  • Whisky, rum, beer, cordial, coffee, cocoa, tea…

selection of flowers.jpg

Flowers are always a favourite and easy to include in a poem or story because they are found inside as well as outside. Every season has some shrub flowering and pot plants or cut flowers in vases are common whether on balconies or dining tables.

And what if you had no sense of smell?  People can lose it after an illness or injury. At the moment while we fight COVID19, some people are saying their sense of smell and taste are not only affected but don’t fully return once they recover from the virus.

How frustrated and disappointed would you be if unable to smell fresh coffee or baking bread?

It might be dangerous if you can’t smell because sometimes a bad smell is the first sign of danger like a gas or petrol leak.

A student who was a carpet layer said if he didn’t have a sense of smell he’d be more cautious because many of the old carpets he had to remove have animal and human urine stains and other nasties. 

You might have to rely more on the reaction of other people. Think about this if you give a character either no sense of smell or keenly developed olfactory glands. 

A Sense of Smell
Mairi Neil

If I lost my sense of smell
how could I tell
when dinner was ready or
when the dog needed a bath
I’d have to watch visitors up close
for signs of irritated eyes and nose

No memorable scents of changing seasons
to uplift and linger…
spring jasmine
honeysuckle summer
autumn lavender
winter rosemary massaged between fingers.

A walk by the sea to enliven senses
without salty air
could lead to despair
I’d drift disengaged
like floundered fish or discarded shells
without those pungent seaweed smells.

No comfort at home
from the smell of fresh sheets
and clothes newly laundered
no thrill of familiarity from a lover’s body
or distinctive perfume tied like shoelaces
to family, friends, and favourite places.

Gone the delight of visiting the lolly shop
to choose a special treat for the movies
or sniffing freshly baked bread and brewed coffee
and of course, the milky delight of newborn babies
shampooed hair and soft moisturised skin
the list is endless once you begin…

On the other hand
life could be grand
without smelly feet or rancid meat
no dog poo or stinky loo
no foul smells to make the nose twitch
oh, how I wish for an on and off switch!

© 2012

‘There should be an invention that bottles up a memory like a perfume, and it never faded, never got stale, and whenever I wanted to I could uncork the bottle, and live the memory all over again.’

Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier

lorikeet in bottlebrush.jpg

“When you write the story of your life, don’t let anyone else hold the pen!(origin unknown but quoted by Gurbaksh Chahal, Huffington Post)

Who Attends Life Story Classes?

In Life Stories Class, for three hours, students write, discuss, chat, laugh and cry, sharing experiences, memories, opinions, dreams and reflections.

  • Most classes vary in age but one class the students spanned 9 decades of living.
  • Families can be traced to colonial times or have arrived with the waves of migrants after WW2. For some English is a second language, others wish they still knew a language or culture that is lost.
  • Some have never married, others are divorced or widowed, some childless, others have children and grandchildren.
  • Some write about ancestors, immediate family, friends, ourselves, the joys and tragedies.
  • Some write prose and poetry, essays and anecdotes, flowery descriptions or minimal words.
  • Some learn how to craft the stories to include the senses, dialogue, humour or pathos.
  • We all remind ourselves how we felt, what we feel now, what we want others to know.

We gift of ourselves as we gift our words, nurturing each other, supporting each other – and most importantly, we have fun!

Here is a list that I give students and ask them to write at least a paragraph of what the smell means to them – later they are asked to expand at least two into a personal essay.

Try it – you are relying on your memory here, you don’t have to break lockdown and go outside. Many of the smells may be found inside your home or garden shed!

Think about the smells – is the smell sweet like perfume, or stinky like sewage, faint or strong, current or in the distant past? What person, place or event does it revive or what character and story can you create?

  1. pine needles
    cut grass
    Sunscreen
    eucalyptus
    rubbing alcohol
    cinnamon
    stale beer
    pencil erasers
    vinegar
    newly-vacuumed carpet
    orange peel
    radiators heating up
    mothballs
    fish – oysters
    a new car
  2. frying bacon
    damp paper
    shoe polish
    paint
    perfume
    petrol
    kerosene
    furniture polish
    floor wax
    BBQ – meat or onions
    roast or curry,
    stewed apples
    baked pie
    fresh bread
    seaweed
  3. soap
    lavender
    roses
    rosemary
    lemon
    blood
    burning
    cigarettes
    pipe smoke
    disinfectant
    nail polish/acetone
    jam cooking
    anaesthetic

Here is a piece I was triggered to write in class Letter from 17-year-old self by Mairi Neil   You might guess what smell by this old photo:

in my smoking days.jpg

Here is a mindmap template you can download for a bit of brainstorming: sensory image and language mind map

Writing Exercise 1:

  • What person, place or event do the smells revive or what character and fictional story can you create?
  • What about writing a poem –  choose one word/smell to write about – fill your white page with associations with the smell you have chosen.
  • write about morning or evening smells The Smell of Morning, 448 words by Mairi Neil

Writing Exercise 2:

List the smells you associate with a particular season:

  • The smells of summer
  • The smells of autumn
  • The smells of winter
  • The smells of spring

Now weave some of them into a story or poem…

In The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald introduces us to the Buchanans in early summer. He emphasises the breeze blowing through the room, billowing the curtains and the women’s dresses. Later, the same characters are seated in the same place in the heat of summer as weighted down, dispirited, languid.

The story has progressed and so have the characters but he connects them to the place and reveals how they have changed through the weather/season – they are no longer bright, breezy and carefree. Circumstances have changed and so have they and their earlier energy no longer on show.

He has added balance and unity to both character and story.

In their magazine a long time ago, the Victorian Writers’ Centre used to publish a writing prompt for members to practice their craft. I think there was a prize of reduced membership – not sure. I never submitted a story just used the exercise as a bit of fun.

This one had to be exactly 250 words about a ghost haunting a Georgian mansion in Southern Ireland, the visitations always accompanied by a foul smell.

The Truth Stinks
Mairi Neil

The cottage door burst open and several burly members of the local constabulary filled the room. Seamous O’Flaherty blanched with fear.

‘Ye murdering swine,’ barked Sergeant O’Neill, ‘we found your dagger outside the big house, still dripping wit poor William O’Malley’s blood.’

O’Flaherty crouched against the wall of his tumbledown cottage pleading for his life. O’Malley had been the Head Gamekeeper for George Thomas, the English aristocrat who owned half of Kiltmargh in County Mayo and the rights to land with the best game and fish. O’Malley and O’Flaherty often hurled abuse at each other after a few ales in their local.

‘Yerve got the wrong man,’ Seamous whined, ‘lots of poachers use the same kind of knife!’

‘We know ‘tis yours,’ sneered the Sergeant.

‘I’m innocent, please listen. Let me go!’  The constables ignored his pleas and hauled snivelling Seamous into the police wagon.  The rough justice continued, until within the hour, Seamous hung from the rafters of the stables nestled in the shadow of the Thomas family’s Georgian mansion.

If the indignity of such an ignominious death was not enough, the vigilante executioners had dragged Seamous through a pile of fresh horse manure before stringing him up.

On October 31st each year, on the anniversary of that terrible night, Seamous returns searching for evidence to prove his innocence. His visitations are always accompanied by a foul smell, earning him the nickname of the farting ghost.

It appears in death as in life, poor Seamous O’Flaherty stands wrongfully accused!

© 2000

Writing Exercises From Photo Prompts 

A marvellous little book compiled by Michael Marland called Pictures For Writing, published in 1996 by Blackie & Son Ltd, Glasgow and London proved a godsend in early days of teaching.

I used it a lot when I started teaching almost full-time at Sandybeach Centre and Mordialloc neighbourhood House after John died.  Here are two photographs that may spark a story. Remember to introduce smells or a smell:

three girls by shore

fighting bushfire

The bushfire picture is definitely topical as far as those living in Australia are concerned – I’m sure there will be plenty of stories, novels and poems featuring the catastrophic summer we have lived through. Tragedy compounded now by COVID 19.

Here is a short story I wrote in the last class we had for the year inspired by the summer bushfires, Bushfire Blues by Mairi Neil  

Bush On Fire
Mairi Neil
(written after Black Saturday)

The sun is dulled by a veil of cloud
animals culled, Mother Nature a shroud
This defeated giver of life so dear
a dried-up river with power unclear
a red threat creeping, gathering power
creatures weeping, air rancid and sour
It dances with glee destroying with ease
devours blade and bush its direction a tease
whipped and encouraged by wind’s collusion
fiery menace forages and causes confusion
until the sun’s conscience explodes and
a large nimbostratus cloud reveals worth
the life-saving rain soaks the scorched earth.

© 2009

More Writing Exercises

  • You return to the house where you grew up, only to learn it has been condemned.
  • Why I love the smell of …
  • Why I hate the smell of …
  • Two characters are lost in the woods or the mountains – they have to survive overnight before rescue.
  • Write a story, essay or poem using the following title: Yesterday’s Coffee, Sunsets will never be the same again or Unforgettable or The worst mess I ever had to clean up
  • What comes after this opening sentence:
  1. Why is this on the front porch?
  2. I’ve got to get out of these clothes—fast.
  3. If you want to annoy me, just

We have read stories about paparazzi haunting the alleyways and snapping celebrities putting the rubbish out, and stalkers going through bins.

Did you know the City of Kingston do spot checks of bins to ensure people are recycling properly and putting the appropriate rubbish in the right bins? Apparently, you’ll get a note to improve or a sticker to say well done.

Writing Exercises:

  • If someone inspected your rubbish bin – or recycling bin – what could they surmise about you – would they be mistaken?
  • Do you have a favourite celebrity (or one you don’t like) what do you think they’d have in their trash worth writing about?
  • Write about someone who takes shelter. What is the most dominant smell and why should it matter? (Think bus shelters, doorways, under a table, in a foxhole, in someone’s arms, in a church, in a cave …)

Two Quotes For Inspiration

This one is particularly relevant considering the disastrous economic consequences of the current lockdown because of COVID 19 and the pain many people are experiencing with social-distancing and isolation:

The arts are not a way to make a living. They are a very human way of making life more bearable. Practising an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven’s sake.

Sing in the shower. Dance to the radio. Tell stories. Write a poem to a friend, even a lousy poem. Do it as well as you possibly can. You will get an enormous reward. You will have created something.” 

Kurt Vonnegut

and from another successful writer:

Writing isn’t about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid, or making friends. In the end, it’s about enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life, as well. It’s about getting up, getting well, and getting over. Getting happy, okay? Getting happy. 

Stephen King

As always – feel free to share the post and ideas, or any work you’ve been inspired to write:)

Happy Writing

Armchair Travel Can be Fun If You Share Your Stories

ticket to Darwin 1979.jpg

Day Thirteen – Writing About Where you’ve Been – What Have You Seen?

In a world where COVID19 has locked down, cities, countries, and communities and people are practising social isolation, now is the time to reflect and relive your travels.

Time to sort out memories, photographs and mementoes and write about them from the safety of your home.

Bear at mailbox.jpg
my little bear at the mailbox

You may have had time before but needed the inclination or incentive…  hopefully, you’ll gather some ideas as you read this post.

Reality says it may be many months before we will be able to do anything but armchair travel if the destination we seek is in another country or even another state.

Today, think about writing your recollections as a contribution to collective knowledge and adding to history/herstory – especially if you have photographs.

The spread and damage of COVID19, has produced new border controls, changes to travel, work and leisure… the world is not going to be the same after this global catastrophe.

Your memories and stories have always been important to you, they may now be important to others.

I’ve been privileged to travel widely since a child. Since blogging, I’ve shared some recent travels – to Samoa, to Mongolia, to Russia, to England and to Scotland – and many places in Victoria as a volunteer for Open House Melbourne, Ballarat and Bendigo.

I’ve been inspired to write poetry as well as short stories or personal essays to explain  memorable experiences:

Visiting Singapore 1973 – a haibun
Mairi Neil

We crowd on deck as the cruise ship glides into Singapore harbour, a week after leaving Fremantle. The silver sun aglow in a cloudless azure sky. Skin fiery scarlet from too many hours in the ship’s pool as Singapore City wobbles and wilts in the heat.

I ache for relief
from this tantalising veil
and covet the sea

Engines thrum and screeches of gulls mask the first hint a change is on the way. Rain falls in sheets and shafts. Solid blocks of water pound the decks.

Clouds scud across sky
the veil now a fog blanket
hiding the city.

Beneath our feet racing rivers fill deck gutters and our shoes. On automatic pilot, we slosh for cover, although there is no icy wind in this downpour.

No unsettling chill
just instant relief
from relentless heat

Rain hammers metal, swamps furniture and people, drenching everything not covered. Metal rails hiss. Steam sizzles on the shrinking, not sinking ship. No crevice escapes. A continuous stream of trickles and dribbles demonstrates the power of this deluge.

A turmoil of grey
idyllic tropics in grip
of monsoonal rain

Yet, within minutes, the ship docks and the downpour stops as quickly as it began. Singapore city a perfect watercolour painting showcases sunlight and serenity. The tropical shower and haze but a dream as perspiration leaks from every pore.

Share Your Travel Memories

Once you have organised a story – or many – enjoy the pleasure of armchair travel and swap with those in isolation with you.  Or share online via Skype, Face Time or Zoom. The digital tools available ensure your photos or slides will be more entertaining than the slide shows of old.

I remember more than a few family and friends falling asleep when I showed my China slides in 1979!

However, when I taught at Sandybeach Centre 20 years ago, they ran a regular program for people with limited mobility called Armchair Travel, and I volunteered one afternoon to share my China travels. I had learnt to choose the most interesting slides for that audience. I targeted correctly and they retained interest and were appreciative. Make sure your pitch matches your readers, listeners or viewers:)

Anyone who travelled in the 50s – 70s will remember those family slide nights before Super 8 movies superseded the modern version of ‘magic lantern’ shows in village halls.

People have always been fascinated by travel tales, especially of the exotic and unusual. The popularity of Sir David Attenborough or the Leyland brothers is testimony to that!

The shelves of the  Travel Section in bookstores are always overflowing and Lonely Planet publications have been successfully guiding adventurous travellers for years. 

Updates when friends travel flood social media with Facebook and Instagram designed for travel photos more than any other.

But these pics are soon forgotten unless you put them into context with words. Write a few sentences about each pic or retell your experiences over a beer or cuppa.

What Travel Experience Can You Write About?

Think and share what made your travel experience different from those of thousands of others. Even if you haven’t travelled overseas or interstate you have a travel story because you can write about your neighbourhood and everyday journeys.

In 2012, Mordialloc Writers’ Group published our 8th collection of poems and stories, Off The Rails, around the theme of the Frankston Railway Line – a journey thousands of people do daily and a topic the 21 featured writers embraced with relish and creativity.

You might have journeyed on the Orient Express, the Trans Siberian, the Flying Scotsman or Puffing Billy – write about:

  • why you made the journey
  • who was with you
  • the people you met
  • the best memory
  • the worst memory
  • if you would do it again

Remember too, those walks around the neighbourhood you are allowed during COVID19 can turn up ideas for stories – fictionalised if you want. Set a story in one of the houses that intrigues you or garden you admire…

Ask questions that you don’t know the answers to:

  • Who, what, why, when, where… and make up the answers!

I took these pictures this morning when walking the dog.

Who did the drawing? What was their motivation?  How long will the drawings stay there?

Write up the reactions of people – good and bad – was seeing them transformational for someone? Did it trigger memories?

The drawing of Frida Kahlo stunning for a child or teenager to draw – could be the start of an intriguing mystery or a memory of a visit to Mexico?

There are houses with bears or pictures of bears in the window – I’ve put my bear outside yet there are no children living here now.

Your characters in the story don’t have to be obvious or stereotypical.

A house advertised a birthday boy – 8 years old today. His party probably cancelled yet his parents found a way to make him feel special and stay connected to the outside world.

Write a story where you or your character has to find a creative solution to a problem.

How do you make someone feel special in this catastrophic time if you normally treat them to an outing?

 What’s your funniest travel story?

Humour is a great way to make a story memorable and different from everyone else’s experience. The stuff-ups or unexpected laughs are usually the tales we recount first (and often) when we return from our trip.

Humorous framing or retelling can also ease the embarrassment or shame when you make a cultural faux pas or do something stupid like miss a flight, board the wrong train, get lost in a foreign city or say something strange in a foreign language you just learned.

Here is my tale of travelling with a young child in the 90s:

What is the strangest thing that has happened to you travelling?

What is the nicest (or most horrible) food you have eaten when travelling?

(A class exercise Monday 15th October 2012 )

Have You a Taste For Travel?
Mairi Neil 

When I went to Alice Springs in 2011, to walk the Larapinta Trail, I braced myself for the time when I would be offered a witchetty grub. I remembered a student, Amelia reading a story of her encounter with the delicacy when she worked as an infant welfare nurse in the Northern Territory in the 1950s. I didn’t want to shame myself by refusing and offending indigenous hosts if they offered me a meal.

Five giggling Aboriginal girls had arrived at Amelia’s house with outstretched hands, displaying half-a-dozen thick white grubs whose sluggish twists indicated they were still alive.

The girls’ gift a gesture to show Amelia she had been accepted by the community. Amelia assured me that once cooked, the grubs tasted meaty. She shared a picture of herself, sitting on the ground in a circle around a campfire, head tilted back and mouth open, ready to accept the long white grub poised above her. Her eyes sparkled as a friend snapped the photograph for posterity.

Could I be as gracious and adventurous as Amelia?

The thought of putting what looked like a fat white caterpillar into my mouth, never mind swallowing it, made me nauseous. I’ve always had what my mother referred to as a ‘weak’ stomach – perhaps if I closed my eyes I’d be able to eat enough not to offend. If I concentrated I’d be able to keep it down rather than gagging or vomiting – my usual reaction to nasty tastes.

The more I thought of eating witchetty grubs the more obsessed I became of what they would taste like. They looked shiny and soft. What meat could they be like with that texture? Perhaps they firmed when cooked. A vision of people crunching on cooked insects surfaced as I remembered the fascinating produce of street vendors when I visited China in 1979.

I remembered too, the constant dissection and examination of every meal on that tour by one of the other travellers in our group. She made me long for a Vegemite sandwich as she poked and dismembered every meal with chopsticks looking for evidence we were being served rat, cat or dog. Cultural assumptions and prejudices rife when it comes to food and her behaviour shameful.

Why I couldn’t I embrace a meal of witchetty grubs, when research provides evidence of their nutritional value? Was I riddled with prejudice too?

Near the end of the five-day trek in Central Australia, I had to face the witchetty grub dilemma. Throat constricted and mouth dry, I could barely form the words to ask our Aboriginal guide, Nicholas to describe the taste of the large fat witchetty grub wriggling in the palm of his hand.

Sweat bubbled on his lip from exertion. A streak of dirt above one eye where he’d wiped his brow, gave a warrior glint to his expression as he showed the delicacy with pride. Nicholas and his auntie had spent almost an hour digging at the roots of an acacia bush to retrieve the prize. ‘It tastes like the yolk of an egg,’ he said, ‘and has a similar texture.’

He watched me closely and must have seen the mix of emotions cross my face, perhaps heard the gulp as I tried to swallow. Egg is not one of my favourite tastes.

‘One witchetty grub,’ he said, almost to himself.

I realised how much he craved the wriggling grub in his hand but innate generosity obliged him to give it to me.

‘It’s not really big enough to share,’ I said. ‘You and auntie did all the hard work. Maybe I’ll taste them another day.’

Our smiles of relief a mirror match as Nicholas hurried away before I changed my mind.

What Armchair Travels Will You Create?

Can you match a photograph with a short poem like haiku or terse verse? I write this after a trip to Italy but it could apply to many famous places crowded with tourists. The joke about ‘exiting through the gift shop’ is very much a reality in our consumer-driven world. What do you think those communities are like now?

Write about what a place was like when you were there and research what it is like now and write a comparison.

Verona Italy

Memories of Lago Di Garda, Italy
Mairi Neil, 2013

Lake Garda absorbs the rainbow on her shores,
sways to the call of African and Indian hawkers,
moans softly as the Peler, a northern breeze,
blows from pine-clad slopes, and is
ready for the challenging midday switch
when Ora, a cooler wind, whistles from the south.
Reminiscent of a Norwegian Fjord
She is the lake who thinks she is the sea

Each afternoon she lifts the rocky hem
of her blue dress and sashays to pick at
sun-bleached pebbles or reedy soil.
Fat ducks and swans float and gossip. Gulls dive,
searching the lake’s belly for lunch or supper
Rumbling planes overhead ripple her dress
and she runs icy fingers through sandy frills
sparkling with a thousand scattered gems.

She ignores the constant drone of tourist motorbikes,
bicycles, cars and coaches speeding through galleries
built by Mussolini and prefers the memories of
Hannibal, Hardy, Goethe, Rilke and Wharton.
Torbole fishermen, tend boats and mend nets
as they have done since the fifteenth century,
amused and puzzled by modern foolishness,
their dark eyes follow colourful flapping sails.

Lake Garda’s duty is to be Madame Bountiful,
nurturing sardines, eels, carpione and trout.
Tourists and locals, promenade to and fro Riva
or ride the ferries that trust her arms.
Summer and winter sun attracts holidaymakers,
but Lake Garda indulges lovers of sports trophies,
scantily clad onlookers, and awestruck children
who worship at the shrine of physical prowess.

Lake Garda – the lake who thinks she is the sea.

More Writing Prompts

  • Write a prose poem about a place or a short story recreating the setting.
    What memories are evoked?
  • Choose a place that makes you happy or sad; or two different places where you have had contrasting experiences. (Perhaps a childhood compared with adult experience, going somewhere alone compared with a trip with family or friends, seasonal visits – winter compared to summer, idyllic memories compared to the place after a natural disaster.)
  • Contrast the two places or the mixed feelings about the same place.

Write a HAIBUN ( a combination of prose and haiku) – about your journey/journeys.

HAIBUN (hie’-bun, the “u” pronounced as in “put”) A Japanese form in which a prose text is interspersed with verse, specifically haiku. A haiku typically appears at the end of a haibun, but other haiku may appear earlier, even at the beginning. Haibun often takes the form of a diary or travel journal.

Write a poem or story using the technique of an extended metaphor:

  • Life is a journey
  • Life is a mere dream
  • Life or love  is a camera full of memories
  • Home was a prison

Have you ever had the holiday from hell?

Have You A Favourite Holiday destination?

Currumbin a Sanctuary of Serenity
Mairi Neil, 2001

Looking from the balcony of our Currumbin holiday flat, the Pacific Ocean roared and vomited white foam onto the golden sand. This was not a beach for non-swimmers or the faint-hearted. Waves crashed against jagged rocks in the distance, massaging them smooth by the next millennium but the continuous licks and slaps hadn’t altered their shape in any noticeable way since my last visit.

I stared at the black shapes rising and disappearing in the waves. Dolphins or sharks? Then laughed as the black shape rose on a wave, stretched and balanced and fell. The group of dedicated surfers braving morning chill certainly needed wet suits, and their crouching and clinging in the force of the gigantic waves an amazing workout.

A group of rosellas arrive on the balcony. They line up on the railings waiting for the plate with seed, confident I will provide their breakfast. Chittering and hopping from ledge to chair back to patio tiles, they nag me to perform my act of goodwill.

Music drifts from above. A radio disc jockey drones, children’s sing-song chatter wafts from the swimming pool below, a van backfires in the distance and the pump that tirelessly cleans the swimming pool chugs into life at regular intervals. There are ten floors of holiday flats but if inside and the balcony door is closed, each flat is soundproof.

Peak hour traffic builds, Currumbin is coming alive and I know if I don’t go for a morning walk I’ll be dodging retirees and their pet dogs, fitness fanatics in lycra shorts and Reeboks, and crew for magazine and film photoshoots because this apron of sand is immensely popular. Thank goodness the flotilla of boats on the horizon don’t try to sail closer to shore.

The rosellas are a mass of squawking as I place the seed plate on the balcony table. A hot rising sun dispels the remaining coolness and shadows of the night. The ocean sparkles turquoise. I shake yesterday’s sand from my sandals, grab a hat and make for the lift. The half-hour walks along the beach towards the surfers just what the doctor ordered.

Even More Writing Prompts

Write a poem or story where you are describing the joys of summer to an extraterrestrial life form.

  • Write a story that begins, “She tripped and fell into the burning sand…”
  • Write a story that ends, “Roll on winter.”
  • Write a poem or story where everything that provides relief during the summer randomly breaks down. The air conditioning suddenly stops working. The power goes out in your home. You can’t seem to start your car.
  • Write a story that begins “This was no ordinary day…”
  • Write a story that ends – “She found her paradise after all.”

Enjoy A Cultural Experience Without Leaving Home

A friend I met when I was working on celebrating the 125th Anniversary of Mordialloc Primary School, told me her husband was scared of flying. They were teachers and all they wanted to do when they retired was travel overseas but she refused to travel by ship.

No flying, no sailing – what could they do to satisfy their desire to visit other countries?

They compromised and innovated. They borrowed books and documentaries from the local library and researched the customs, costumes, music and food of a country. After a few weeks, they visited the place via armchair travel.

They dressed appropriately for the season, cooked a custom meal, played the music you’d expect to hear and totally immersed themselves as if they were in the chosen country. They even spoke learned phrases from a new language to each other.

Armchair travel on steroids! Happy travelling –

Happy Writing!

Baraka Challenges Us to Change Our Priorities

moon over Mordi

On February 29, I attended a screening of the 1992 film BARAKA to raise funds for Wildlife Victoria after the devastating bushfire season.

The date is special because it is a leap year and according to Google, this is a lucky year with a spirituality website suggesting, a year “when energies are higher and filled with enthusiasm, optimism, love and compassion. It is a great year to search for spiritual wisdom.”

And considering Australians are facing a climate catastrophe, a coronavirus outbreak, the aftermath of a horrific bushfire season, ongoing drought, and poor economic outlook, luck is much-needed and wisdom always worth seeking – spiritual or otherwise!

It would be nice to have a competent government that fostered optimism and enthusiasm for the future but achieving that needs work and an early election! Meanwhile, if you are not a climate denialist and you believe in social justice like me, please keep raising your voice in whatever way you can.

I saw Baraka a long time ago, but the advertised conversation scheduled after the film captured my attention because it was about “designing the future with hope and humanity” – two principles omitted from many concrete jungles we call cities and media full of gloom and doom.

The film, like a good book, needs to be absorbed and savoured in stillness. It’s like an epic novel or saga with layers of meaning to be digested and reflected upon.

Deep concentration – not a quick glance or speed read – the MC asked us to relax, be drawn into the music and visuals, be still, absorb, listen and watch … be in touch with emotions and senses, enjoy a transformational experience.’

The lights dimmed, the film rolled, I became completely immersed in the visuals and incredible soundtrack. The atmosphere calm and comfortable in the recently renovated Capitol until ironically, someone turned the air conditioner up or forgot to adjust it to the vagaries of Melbourne’s recalcitrant summer.

Luckily, the film was almost over and it was panel time so the discomfort wasn’t too much of a distraction.  

It was then the turn of the two presenters to provide the promised hope and information. To represent the current generation’s ideas for tackling the climate emergency.

To offer man-made solutions to man-made problems.

baraka panel 2.jpg
Design Hub Gallery curator Fleur Watson with climate change and resilience researcher Lauren Rickards and speculative designer Ollie Cotsaftis

BARAKA – Ron Fricke’s Guided Meditation On Humanity

A breathtaking journey across 25 countries on six continents, Baraka is a sublime reflection on the beauty and the chaos of the world. The film brings together spectacular imagery with no plot, actors, script or narrative, transcending nationality, identity, place and time. The result is a meditative panorama of our natural and human landscapes ­– a visual survey made all the more urgent and affecting given today’s climate emergency.

As much a technical masterpiece as it is a conceptual one, Baraka was shot entirely on 70mm with a custom-built computerized 65mm camera. Taking 30 months to complete, with over 14 months on location, the making of the film was a feat within itself.

Baraka quickly became a cult classic for its unique non-linear, non-narrative approach to documentary and its astonishing footage that jumps from the elating to the disturbing. The awe, harmony, destruction and rebirth of nature merge in cycles. Ultimately we are looking at humanity’s interconnectedness and our relationship to the environment.

Promotional blurb

Ger camp Mongolia

When writing, the importance of techniques such as metaphor and simile are important to improve poetry and prose, and so it is with a film. A picture replaces a thousand words especially if revealing a powerful metaphor, and there were many in Baraka.

Music to evoke mood and soundtrack using percussion to great effect are important aspects of cinema and in Baraka, it kept pace with the sweeping and varied scenes of the natural world and cities. Percussion and natural ‘noise’, especially when industrial scenes of production lines, manufacturing and mining activities filled the screen segued seamlessly from panoramic or close-ups of mountains, oceans, deserts and green plains.

Superb cinematography and editing drew us into each scene. Memorable close-ups of the faces of animals and humans, the zooming into the natural and human world’s rhythms.

Time-lapse photography provided scenes of people commuting on foot, by train and car before switching to herds of animals, marching insect lines…back to the expressions on the faces of train travellers in Tokyo … reminding me of writing poetry on peak hour trains to and from the city…

the grey army poem
Published  reflecting on Melbourne, Poetica Christi Press

Have We Forgotten the Value of Stillness?

Baraka is full of juxtapositions – we see Japanese men in a pool following a bathing ritual, crowds of men and women bathing in the Ganges – close-ups of people relaxing, luxuriating in the relaxation and purification of water, not much different to a family of baboons in a hot spring high in the mountains, ice on the baboon’s fur melting crystals as he closes his eyes… his stillness mesmerising.

A Shinto priest surrounded by fast-paced traffic and busy shoppers in Tokyo walks one foot in front of the other, heel touching toe,  as if on a tightrope or narrow ledge, snail-paced, a bell in his hand chiming with each slow, deliberate, step,  no deviation from the path or the rhythm.

I remember Donne’s poem, ‘For whom the bell tolls… ‘ It tolls for thee…

No drones in 1992, yet the visuals are stunning, probably from a helicopter or aircraft but each vein, artery, vivid colour stands out:  of mountains, rocks, snow,-laden fields, trees, shrubbery and humans…

There are painted faces, tattooed bodies, jewellery made from natural items adorning naked or semi-naked bodies dancing and performing rituals indoors and outdoors, in continents across the globe.

The camera visits temples, mosques, synagogues, churches – and most of those performing the rituals or leading the service are male (has the power balance changed?).

In a Buddhist temple, the maroon-robed, adolescent lamas chant as old women sweep the courtyards and surrounding streets and old men slowly sprinkle oil.  I remember visiting Mongolia... 

In an orthodox Christian church, an old woman garbed in traditional black sits beside a table of candles, as if in servitude,  while the priest walks ceremoniously towards an altar agleam with ornate gold and silver. He stops to pray

… and the camera focuses on another priest in another country, walking through cloisters to kneel and pray by an unadorned tomb …

There are scenes of the Hajj where hundreds of thousands of Islamic devotees make the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, a journey connected to the time of Abraham and requiring certain rituals, including walking counter-clockwise seven times around the holy Kaaba.

In Cambodia, we see rows of men in an arc following the lead of a chief/guru with a painted face. He chants and moves his hands and arms in various poses. The men emulate his loud laughs, chants, alternately sitting and standing. Their behaviour is reminiscent of a Maori haka, a ceremonial dance or challenge with vigorous movement, stamping feet, rhythmic shouting and specific facial expressions.

Australian Aboriginal dancers around a campfire sing and act a story after being painted by women who then stand and sway in the background. Females playing a supporting role or performing their own rituals in the shadows mirrored in Kenya and Nigeria…

The film spans 25 countries with a focus on first nation peoples and their connection to the natural world and the rituals that have grown or been created.

The lifestyles of first nation people have been disrupted by industrial development, yet many retain cultural rituals. (Or they did in 1992!)

In South America, tribal children peep from the jungle, behind trees thousands of years old, and wide-eyed watch as a gigantic saw screams and fells trees.  We are still destroying the Amazon rainforest at a horrendous rate.

In cities, descendants of those tribes peep through bars in pigeon-coop-sized apartments huddled in ramshackle confusion, on the side of city hills. Children peep through barred windows on the slum buildings protecting them from falling to their death. Families being contained, exploited … still… the cost of the Rio Olympics to Brazil’s poor in 2016...

native american proverb -FB

“Does the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil, set off a tornado in Texas?”

The Butterfly Effect

Cities – each building bigger than the last…

From caged people to caged birds, automated conveyor belts as thousands of hens lay eggs. From the cruelty of egg farming to chickens, checked, painted, beaks seared, thrown into chutes one by one and suddenly, there are lines of workers, clocking on and clocking off, jammed tightly on production lines…

Like the tobacco factory in Indonesia, women and girls, making cigarettes, one by one, rolling and clipping the tobacco, shaping the cigarette for a well-dressed, suited businessman to smoke as he joins the line of commuters crossing a Jakarta street…

While in India, at Hindu funerals on the Ganges we see funeral pyres, some can afford a decorated raft, others a homemade stretcher on the banks of the river. As the camera zooms in on a smouldering corpse, I steal a glance at the young lad sitting next to me. He’s ten, perhaps eleven and with his dad and is completely absorbed. I watch those grieving on the screen, the charred remains of their loved one and close my eyes for a few moments as tears sting – being a voyeur uncomfortable and sad.

But what of the crowds of women and children trawling through gigantic rubbish heaps salvaging anything that can be used, eaten, sold, repurposed. They don’t have a choice in lifestyle or of avoiding unpleasant death scenes.

Ragged and dishevelled, the scavengers move amongst bulldozers, smouldering fires and industrial shovels. The scene somewhere in India but it could be the Philippines, Nigeria, rural China… places where reports of populations exploited in this way fill the news cycle.

First Nations sovereignty – the film revealed that the people most affected are often those least responsible for the damage to the earth. A combination of approaches will equal climate justice.

We have a climate emergency as Greta and others warn our house is on fire!

quote from Black Elk.jpg

Learning to Live on the Anthropocene

Anthropocene – the current geological age, viewed as the period during which human activity has been the dominant influence on climate and the environment.

We have created an extinction crisis and must act now.  We must accept and appreciate the human impact and population on the natural world and change our behaviour.

Lauren Rickards is a human geographer in the School of Global, Urban and Social Studies at RMIT University Melbourne, where she co-leads the Climate Change Transformations research program of the Centre for Urban Research. Lauren’s research examines the social, cultural and political dimensions of the human-environment relationship, focused on climate change, disasters and the broader Anthropocene condition. A Rhodes Scholar, Lauren is a Lead Author with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change forthcoming Sixth Assessment Report and a Senior Fellow with the Earth Systems Governance network.

Lauren studies how the earth functions and is now starting to dysfunction.

For Australia, this summer of bushfires a stark wake-up call. Fears, scientists thought we had decades to deal with, are here, and we must deal with the crisis.

Here are links to recent articles about the magnitude of Australia’s bushfire crisis:

Lauren said, Baraka, made the familiar strange and makes us face up to what we regard as normal. We must start to think differently. We must not accept the view of politicians like our Prime Minister who talk of ‘the new normal‘!

drought.jpg

 

For example, bushfires are now strange and more threatening to generations brought up reciting Dorothea Mackellar’s poem about an Australia ‘of drought and flooding rains’.

‘You live in the bush. You live by the rules of the bush, and that’s it.’  These were the reflective words of Mrs Dunlop upon seeing the blackened rubble of her home, which made headline news the morning after the first, and most destructive, fire front tore through the Blue Mountains in New South Wales on 17 October 2013 (Partridge and Levy, 2013).

While seemingly a simple statement, it goes right to the heart of heated public and political debates – past and present – over who belongs where and why in the fire-prone landscapes that surround Australia’s cities. Bushfire is a constant and ongoing part of Australian history, ecology and culture. The love of a sunburnt country, the beauty and terror of fire, and the filmy veil of post-fire greenness described in the century-old poem ‘Core of My Heart’ (Mackellar, 1908) are still apt depictions of Australian identity today.

Yet longer fire seasons and an increase in extreme fire weather days with climate change add both uncertainty and urgency to Australia’s ability to coexist with fire in the future (Head et al., 2013).

Geographical fire research in Australia: Review and prospects Abstract

Download the pdf: Geographical fire research in Australia_ Review and prospects

catastrophic fire slide.jpg

Man has an obsession with fire – in the film we see various religious rituals involving lighting candles, lanterns, bonfires. Purification and burial rituals. There are shots of the sun, moon, stars juxtaposed with the fires out of control on the oil fields of Kuwait, and the explosions caused by bombs.

The foundries, crematoriums, mining and other industrial sites, and cities lit up… but also the horror of the Holocaust gas chambers, mass burials, destructive bombings.

We are able to control combustion, we have electricity because of coal but fossil fuels now need to be made strange.

Our relationship to the military-industrial complex where atomic weapons and stockpiling nuclear weapons are seen as normal must be challenged.

The film depicts soldiers on the Chinese and Russian borders protecting piles of weapons, then pans to row after row of USA military planes…

As he witnessed the first detonation of a nuclear weapon on July 16, 1945, a piece of Hindu scripture ran through the mind of Robert Oppenheimer: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds”. It is, perhaps, the most well-known line from the Bhagavad-Gita, but also the most misunderstood.

UK Article August 9,2017

The general notions about human understanding . . . which are illustrated by discoveries in atomic physics are not in the nature of things wholly unfamiliar, wholly unheard of, or new. Even in our own culture, they have a history, and in Buddhist and Hindu thought a more considerable and central place. What we shall find is an exemplification, an encouragement, and a refinement of old wisdom.’

Oppenheimer, quoted from F. Capra, The Tao of Physics.

  • chemicals
  • atmospheric aerosol loading
  • ozone depletion
  • ocean acidification
  • the equivalent of an atom bomb a week in our oceans
  • planetary boundaries transform our approach to growth
  • biodiversity loss
  • great acceleration of climate change and mother earth becomes deeply unfamiliar
  • the threat is here and people already suffering

UN scientists warn that roughly 1 million plant and animal species are on the verge of extinction due to human activity. It would be the first mass extinction since humans started walking the earth and has dire implications for the survival of our own species. Already, humans are losing key ecosystem services that nature provides, including crop pollination, storm mitigation, and clean air and water.

“Ecosystems, species, wild populations, local varieties and breeds of domesticated plants and animals are shrinking, deteriorating or vanishing. The essential, interconnected web of life on Earth is getting smaller and increasingly frayed,” said Prof. Settele. “This loss is a direct result of human activity and constitutes a direct threat to human well-being in all regions of the world.”

The IPBES’ 2019 Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services comes at a critical time for the planet and all its peoples. The report’s findings – and the years of diligent work by the many scientists who contributed – will offer a comprehensive view of the current conditions of global biodiversity. May 6, 2019

Climate Anxiety Exists Now

Lauren suggests we must:

Stop.breathe.think.connect.act

In Baraka you see people following this path, people meditating, pushing back against some of the technology and damaging changes.

We too must question technology of the future – it may be shiny and bright but not normal – Lauren refers to the common symbol we see of a pair of hands holding up the earth. She challenges that image: Let us remember –

the planet holds us up not us holding up the planet.

We need to pierce the politics of denial. Do not accept climate change as the new normal!!

We must move from the idea of a shareholder to stakeholder, not capitalism but a system where the environment is the shareholder.

I think of the endless debates people have about whether climate change is real and wonder how anyone can still be a climate denialist. Then remember a meme doing the rounds of social media and sigh:

recognized experts meme

Bio Cities Living Architecture – Beyond Green Design

The next presenter was Dr Ollie Cotsaftis, a post-disciplinary and speculative designer whose practice sits at the intersection of the human evolution, the built environment and the realm of creative biotechnologies.

His research addresses climate resilience and social innovation in speculative urban futures. Ollie is also the founder and creative director of future ensemble studio, the co-founder of Melbourne Speculative Futures—the Melbourne Chapter of The Design Futures Initiative—experiments with new ideas through his visual art practice, and most recently started a column on speculative and critical design for the This is HCD network.

Ollie wants to answer the question – How do we build our cities and stop the concrete working against us and reconnect with nature?

  • Bio Cities, Living Architecture – Beyond Green design
  • Architecture that is organic
  • Architecture that is sustainable
  • Architecture that is alive

He referred to information from the Bureau of Meteorology that shows temperatures will increase and have been increasing over the last 110 years. The slide courtesy of the CSIRO, July 2019.

temperature slide.jpg

 Ollie suggested we Google action architecture climate change for a wealth of information from people who agree the climate is changing therefore so must architecture.

Carbon dioxide causes global warming. Buildings emit almost half of the carbon dioxide in the USA and that has to stop!

One of the most well-known architects of our time, Bjarke Ingels said: “If we can Change the Climate of the World by Accident, Imagine What we can Achieve by Trying”

Bjarke has become one of the most sought-after architects. In 2019 alone, he and his team completed as many as 13 projects, including large-scale undertakings such as Copenhill, a zero-emission waste-to-energy plant. The innovative solution is the first of its kind in the world: utopia turned reality.

90% of Melbourne’s energy is still based on oil, gas and coal. The CBD is very expensive to live regarding energy use. Ollie has been involved in an experimental project to convert a high-rise corporate building into a sustainable residential alternative.

385 Bourke Street – Hope For The Future

385_Bourke_Street_2017

385 Bourke Street (also known as the State Bank Centre) is a high-rise office building located in Melbourne, Australia. It is the former head office of the State Bank of Victoria and Commonwealth Bank of Australia. It is located on the corner of Bourke and Elizabeth Streets.

The lower levels of the building are the Galleria shopping centre. Major tenants in the building are Energy Australia and Industry Superannuation fund UniSuper.

Photo and this info from Wikipedia

Built in 1983 it had poor energy efficiency. The owners have spent $2.5m for an energy retrofit to transform it into a residential building. The side exposed to the sun had solar panels fitted to capture that energy.

  • Panels have been put on the outside of the building’s upper floors facing the sun and are red because that is the colour that captures the most energy from the sun.
  • There are plants on window sills, in walkways, on ledges.

Researchers are working all the time to improve battery storage options and rechargeable batteries.

There is a micro bacterial rechargeable battery (MRB) not commercially available yet but in 5 years (just like the development of the OPVs) these could be available and embedded in buildings.

385 Bourke Street has been transformed from a carbon positive corporate tower to a carbon-negative residential tower.

The experiment has proven it is possible to transform energy inefficient city buildings into sustainable alternatives –

  • Extrusion
  • Extension of OPVs
  • Cross-section MRBs
  • Affordability is an issue and more information will be available during Melbourne Design Week march 12-22, 2020 and on April 24, where there will be a full presentation at the NGV.

Ollie wants us to think of different perceptions.  A level of awakening needed and the ability to question how we do things differently. to have –

  • Speculative ideas and consider their future
  • Speculative visions of the future

How do we move from object and service (a building) the individual to a collective way of shaping the city?

Shareholders should be the community of the city.  Even change shareholder to stakeholder, not viewing through a capitalism lens but a system where the environment is the shareholder.

A combination of approaches will equal climate justice

First Nations sovereignty important to recognise – Baraka revealed that the people most affected are often those least responsible for the damage to the earth. 

  • Inequities revealed in 1992 and still happening today
  • Environmental and economic problems caused by historical violence inflicted on first nations people – their lifestyle did not cause these events.

  • We have to face the enormous depths of problems created by history and recognise it is getting harder to predict the future and impact of technology because change happens so fast

Who moved the earth into this state of catastrophe?

It is a slow emergency on a geological timescale but for us now there is a sense of urgency. Baraka shows the disintegration of Angkor Wat in Cambodia and the reclaiming of the ruins by nature – through a variety of lens and focus you can lose track of hours and time but you get a sense there is a trajectory we are heading on…

Let’s learn from those who have lived with the earth, let them lead us to repair, restore and be on a better path. In Australia, we must listen to our Indigenous rangers about land management.

An emerging crisis implies a window of opportunity.

Organisations like Wildlife Victoria are helping creatures get through on the short term but also building bridges to an eco future and looking longterm to be positive towards a sustainable future for our wildlife.

In urban settings, we have architects and designers transforming buildings from one function to another. Considering adaptive reuse.

baraka panel 1.jpg

When a bushfire season like the one we have just experienced is so catastrophic, we can be blinded by the vastness of scale which is on the level of global plastic pollution and recycling and the bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef.  It’s easy to miss a lot of slow violence to the earth not necessarily making headline news:

  • Soil degradation
  • land theft from First Nations peoples
  • Poisoning of water and land
  • Species extinction

Ollie explained the city of Jakarta is sinking – water is being drained from tabletops and the city is drowning and must be relocated.  What about the buildings left – will they just rot or will they be reused and repurposed? This is a project to consider under the banner of a speculative future.

  • Can we program a building to degrade itself after a certain lifespan?
  • Can we adapt buildings to our needs?

Principles and ideas shared globally, not just western canon and ethics which has been a problem when everything is Eurocentric or Western-centric.

When tackling projects, cooperation needed around the world between countries and cultures with shared questions.

  • Is this anticipatory?
  • What can go wrong?
  • What are the different scenarios?
  • Have we included everyone and everything to be affected?
  • Are we doing it for the right purpose?
  • Is it the right thing to do?
  • part of the world’s problem is too many design groups are white-centric – we must share principles rather than some grand narrative of design

Greed has led to the Climate Change Catastrophe

How do we go about overtaking and replacing greed and accumulation of wealth as a motivation of the people in power?

  • Law must come into it – positive changes can be imposed by regulations and consequences
  • Often environmental laws are inadequate but even those must be enforced
  • We can funnel channels of greed – eg. You’ll lose money in fossil fuels but make money in renewables
  • We must question fundamental ideas – the shareholder model our society uses feeds inequity
  • We can slow down economic activity – bigger and faster and more luxurious is not necessarily better
  • Change the architecture of our streets to encourage more walking, more sedentary use, more shade, more trees, more places to sit and contemplate, communicate, converse…

life is in acho
a Facebook meme with a great message

Imagine a future when breast cancer is treated with antibiotics!

overcoming cancer sign

On Thursday evening, I heard this amazing thought voiced when I attended a FREE public lecture, exploring the history, current practice and future of breast cancer treatment hosted jointly by the Victorian Comprehensive Cancer Care Centre (VCCC) and Breast Cancer Network Australia (BCNA).

Held at Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre (VCCC), the CEO of BCNA, Kirsten Pilatti, introduced Dr Eric Winer, the keynote speaker and one of the world’s foremost and highly regarded breast cancer specialists from the Dana-Faber Cancer Institute in the United States.

It is not the first time Dr Winer has visited Australia to share the knowledge he’s gained from clinical trials he has designed and conducted, the results of which paved the way toward the more personalised treatment of breast cancer patients and move away from the ‘one-size fit all’ approach of previous years.

Kirsten praised Dr Winer’s commitment to ‘treating the patient not the disease’, an approach shaped by his own cancer journey, which enabled him to draw on empathy as well as expertise.

Improving Breast Cancer Outcomes: Past, Present and Future

When Dr Winer, diminutive, grey hair and glasses took over the podium, he apologised if he fell asleep or stumbled during his presentation because he had only arrived in Melbourne that morning after a long flight from Boston.

However, his well-researched presentation delivered efficiently and with aplomb, showed no sign of fatigue and he held the audience spellbound.

cancer centre 1
Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre

The Past – 1990

1990 was the beginning of Dr Winer’s career concentrating solely on breast cancer, or as he explained ‘that year was the last time I treated a patient without breast cancer.’

His reflections and observations:

  • in the USA there were 150,000 cases recorded and 44,300 deaths

  • it was a monolithic disease – doctors could only determine the stages, not the type

  • most cases presented as a lump or mass

  • treatment was extensive and debilitating surgery

  • psychological and physical distress for the patient

  • chemotherapy and other adjuvant treatments, not an option

  • women were scared, uninformed and felt victims – some felt shameful

  • breast cancer advocacy was in its infancy and sadly, even today, some women still feel or are made to feel ashamed

  • lymphedema was common whereas although it can be a problem today it is not as severe as in the past

  • metastatic treatment was limited, toxic, barbaric and ineffective

  • hormonal therapy limited and it too barbaric compared to nowadays

  • there was poor pain control and patients spent lots of time in hospital

  • breast implants and reconstruction experimental

  • wards were run like ‘concentration camps’

 

peter mac history timeline

TODAY

Today it is totally different.

  • there’s a recognition that one woman’s breast cancer not the same as another
  • a better understanding of biologics heterogeneity (2001 study – genetic differences across tumour types)
  • a better understanding of cancer biology and differences within subtypes
  • a growing appreciation of the tumour micromanagement
  • massive drug development – many new ones on the market with real improvement and better outcomes
  • a better understanding of hormone receptive tumours, they grow slowly and survival rate is high if therapy used

Studies divided tumours into high grade and low grade, and negative and positive to various hormones 

Clinical trials and researchers looked at:

the microenvironment, macroenvironment (the host), diet and exercise

In the last 30 Years

  • Less extensive surgery and more breast preservation
  • Far fewer lymph node dissections
  • Use of several adjuvant therapies to decrease surgery
  • Reduction in early and late toxicity using modern techniques
  • More convenient fractionation schedules
  • Improvements in reconstruction
  • Individualised therapy based on patient preferences
  • Radiation more accurate with better protection of the heart and lungs
  • ⅔ of women eligible to have lumpectomies choose this in the USA
  • Small number choose bilateral mastectomies
  • Advances in chemotherapy and supportive care
  • Widespread use of drugs for cancer deemed hormone therapy receptive with a substantial decline in mortality

The magnitude of late (6-20years) recurrence after an initial diagnosis of ER+ breast cancer disease has shown the value of extended hormone therapy but he is aware of the side effects of this therapy.

Adjuvant treatment is additional therapy after primary surgery to kill or inhibit micro-metastases. Primary surgery for breast cancer is accomplished by lumpectomy followed by whole-breast irradiation or by mastectomy.

In patients at increased risk, chemo, immune or hormonal therapy, kills hidden cancer cells – adjuvant therapy has proven effective in various cancers especially if lymph nodes are involved.

TAILORX Trial

He designed this USA study of 2006-2010.

It was one of the first large scale trials to examine a methodology for personalising cancer treatment.

“Any woman with early-stage breast cancer age 75 or younger should have the 21-gene expression test and discuss the results with her doctor to guide her decision to the right therapy.”

Dr Sparano MD, associate director for clinical research, Albert Einstein Cancer centre New York

The role of chemotherapy for some tumours is still unclear but the data “… confirm that using a 21-gene expression test to assess the risk of cancer recurrence can spare women unnecessary treatment if the test indicates that chemotherapy is not likely to provide benefit.”

The findings of the trial significant:

Most women with early breast cancer do not benefit from chemotherapy – that is 70% of women with the most common type of breast cancer

Women with hormone receptor (HR) – positive, HER2-negative, axillary lymph node-negative breast cancer, the discovery that treatment with chemotherapy and hormone therapy after surgery is not more beneficial than treatment with hormone therapy alone.

There is now greater attention to the quality of life and symptom management of those diagnosed with breast cancer.

  • There are a plethora of anti-HER2 drugs, these new drugs combat the adverse drug reaction patients experience
  • Targeted approaches that augment hormonal agents – an array of hormonal and chemotherapy approaches
  • Advances in radiotherapy

Immunotherapy Trials for triple-negative breast cancer

  • Immunotherapy is more used for the treatment of melanoma and lung cancers
  • It may be useful for metastatic breast cancer

Mortality rates from breast cancer have dropped 38% in the USA

During the trial, the combination of adjuvant therapy and screening compared and the findings show screening is important but can lead to overdiagnosis and overtreatment.

Some cancers may never bother you in life but are picked up by screening

USA Figures

  • 276,480 cases of invasive disease
  • 48,539 new cases of DCIS (ductal carcinoma in situ – the earliest form of breast cancer which is non-invasive)
  • 50,000 deaths

Important findings

  • Therapeutic resistance exists – this a major cause of death in developing countries where there is limited access to screening and drugs
  • Brain metastasis is a major problem for 50% of patients with HER2+
  • Need for better treatment for some cancers and reduction of chemotherapy
  • Overtreatment is an issue – causes substantial morbidity, not death

sign about cancer centre

HEALTH EQUITY

For anyone following USA politics, health equity is a big issue. Dr Winer let it be known he couldn’t imagine anyone in the room liking or supporting President Trump, or his acceptance of the current health inequalities in the USA where there is inadequate and unequal access to healthcare

Dr Winer certainly didn’t support Trump, he was ‘from Boston and no one supports Trump there!’

Health equity is a fundamental social problem and screams discrimination.

Race, poverty, limited education, lack of health insurance and health literacy all contribute to inequity.

Whether it is because of poverty, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation or being considered overweight – statistics show if you are a 30-year-old lesbian or a woman over 80, if diagnosed there is a high risk of dying from breast cancer!

Racial disparity in breast cancer persists with people of colour suffering higher rates of death.

In her introduction, Kirsten mentioned the problem in Australia regarding Aboriginal women’s access to health services. In the USA, Dr Winer said it is the African-American population who suffer, and ironically the worst equity is in Washington!

Less than optimal care can cause death from almost anything that makes a person have less access to healthcare available.

Health inequity may cause up to 30% unnecessary deaths

Regarding clinical trials – there is a low participation rate and Dr Winer wants more engagement with clinicians and better communication so there is meaningful interaction between patients and clinicians about the importance of clinical trials.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island Possum Skin Cloak – Peter MacCallum Centre acknowledges and pays respect to the Wurundjeri People, the traditional owners of the land on which the hospital stands.

Possum skin cloaks are one of the many expressions of traditional south-eastern Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Cloaks aid healing and wellbeing by connecting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to their culture and identity and spiritual healing.

We thank the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Women Survivors of Breast Cancer and other cancers that created this beautiful healing cloak, intended for use by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and their families while at Peter Mac.

In creating this healing cloak, we acknowledge the Peter Mac Foundation and our partnership with Breast Cancer Network Australia.

DRUG COST 2017

These are the amounts drug companies estimate it costs for production of various drugs used in breast cancer treatment (a year’s supply):

  • $20,000
  • $132,000
  • $120,000
  • $102,000
  • $118,000
  • $76,000
  • Dr Winer said the drug development costs 2-5 times more in the USA than anywhere else, therefore the profit margin is not reasonable.
  • The government prohibits negotiating around the cost of drugs, Dr Winer believes there should be control and regulation for the sake of health equity.

Dr Winer looked at the future and made some predictions:

Next 10 Years

  • More detailed understanding of the disease
  • Real improvements in survival and quality of life
  • Less surgery,
  • Advances and better-targeted radiation
  • Decline in deaths
  • Increase in those considered “cured”
  • Health equity may improve in the next decade
  • 25-40% reduction in deaths
  • No movement in prevention

Next 25-30 Years

  • We’ll be treating breast cancer with antibiotics
  • Death will be rare – a 50-80% reduction
  • Prevention treatment may be possible

Questions from the audience

 

  1. A man in the audience suggested dragon boat racing, which many women take up after surgery, is effective in reducing the risk of recurrence because it is good exercise and helps with weight loss and improved strength. He had attended another talk where a doctor had said that 10,000 breast screens only saved one life and wanted to know if that statistic was true.

Answer: Dr Winer said that breast screening was a less useful tool than people assumed. People have to consider their general health and quality of life and detect cancer early and choose the best treatment available.

Screening mammograms can often find invasive breast cancer and DCIS that need to be treated, but possibly some of those cancers would never grow or spread.

Dr Winer is aware that many of the hormonal therapies have horrible side effects and more work needs to be done in deciding who will benefit from it and in reducing side effects.

  1. How Do You Prevent Breast Cancer?

Dr Winer admitted his reply was the ‘impossible dream’ and with a slightly facetious smile rattled off the following:

  • Have first child before the age of 18
  • Avoid weight gain if post-menopausal
  • Avoid excessive alcohol intake
  • If the disease is in your family have regular check-ups
  • Take Tamoxifen (however, this has side effects some people find distressing!)

PERSPECTIVE

The forum was on the 7th floor of the cancer centre – an amazing view of the city you don’t often see.

I chatted with two women while waiting for the forum to start.

One had a mastectomy plus lymph bodes removed 28 years ago. She was on a trial and her chemotherapy resulted in many weeks in the hospital. Cancer, returned 11 years later but it is now 17 years since the recurrence. The other survivor had a bilateral mastectomy 27 years ago. Now in her 80s, she has decided to resign from the committee of the VCCC. She fundraised and campaigned to have the centre established.

As Dr Winer said, clinical trials and learning from the vast amount of data over the years is very important. Both these women have given so much to help clinicians understand and treat breast cancer and improve survival rates.

We all stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before.

Just as I saw the city in a different light that evening, I also saw the effectiveness of breast screening in a different light. Apparently, only 30% of breast cancers are picked up by screening and unless interpreted correctly can lead to unnecessary interference, overtreatment and a lot of angst.

Both my cancers were first detected by a routine mammogram – how lucky was I?

I left the VCCC more enlightened but with plenty to mull over on the train trip home while acknowledging my privilege.

The Peter MacCallum Centre is world-class, and the treatment I have had for breast cancer (both times) at Cabrini has been excellent and Peter Gregory, my breast surgeon, is a caring specialist who communicates well with his patients.

A big thank you to Melbourne University and the Breast Cancer Network – both organisations promoted the forum to me.

Walking down Elizabeth Street to Melbourne Central I counted my blessings, enjoying the balmy evening in our very livable city!

It is good to know my daughters and others in the future will benefit from the dedicated clinicians and researchers working towards that amazing goal of an antibiotic for breast cancer!