The older my children become, and as I age, the intensity of love for them deepens. I think of them every day, confirming the feelings and wisdom my own mother shared with me in the months before her death in 2009, aged eighty-nine.
She talked about her fears for my brother, George who was undergoing treatment for Leukaemia and said,
‘Loving and mothering is a lifetime responsibility – your children should never die before you. It’s not right.’
I have close friends who have lost adult children. They confirm the truth of Mum’s observation and I know each day for those friends getting up and coping with daily life is a struggle and testament to their resilience to ‘continue and carry on with life’ the way their loved ones would wish. The lead-up and actual celebration of days like today must be particularly difficult and my heart goes out to them.
‘She never quite leaves her children at home, even when she doesn’t take them along.’
Margaret Culkin Banning
When I decided to have a baby I was thirty-two and didn’t truly understand how profound becoming a parent would be personally or the effect on relationships with family, friends – and even strangers.
Born in the 1950s and part of Women’s Liberation in the late 60s and 70s, I was still expected to follow the ‘normal’ path of marrying and having children. It wasn’t my sole aim in life and I didn’t actively plan it but I went with the flow after meeting John and neither of us challenged the system, except I eschewed a white wedding and expensive reception and chose to marry in the garden of the house we bought together and party afterwards with many of the guests ‘bringing a plate’!
On reflection, I can say becoming a mother was the most exhaustive (and exhausting) change in my life – and continues to be – as long as my daughters and I remain intertwined.
I could write a lot about the picture of me in the early days of my daughter Anne’s homecoming – the congratulatory cards still visible, the dessert and glass of wine husband John prepared sitting untouched, me in an exhausted sleep all new mothers know well…
I salute my own mother for her guidance, values, and many examples of mothering. How she coped with six of us I will never know! I remember ringing her up and asking her once, after a particularly trying day with a baby plus toddler, ‘How are you still sane?“
I know that the deep love and bond I had with her is one of the reasons a loving bond with my daughters came easily.
There are similarities and huge differences regarding how Mum and I parented but not in attitude and determination to be loving and loyal whenever needed. We were both extremely lucky to be with partners we loved (Mum had Dad and I had John).
Partners who wanted children and were supportive, partners unafraid to share the household chores and unglamorous aspects of parenting and in my case, I know, a partner who cherished me and never stopped showing it.
John had been married before and so to a certain extent ‘knew the ropes’ regarding parenting so I was lucky. Although being present at the birth of both our girls, a totally new experience for him just as having me, a feminist as a partner, also a new experience!
In this picture, we are pregnant and ecstatic.
‘Say, what is the spell, when her fledgelings are cheeping, That lures the bird home to her nest? Or wakes the tired mother whose infant is weeping, To cuddle and croon it to rest? For I’m sure it is nothing but Love!’
Cheryl, now my ex-sister-in-law was a friend as well as part of the extended family in 1986. She produced the first of the next generation for our branch of the McInnes Clan in Australia in 1979 and the only ‘modern mum’ I’d observed firsthand.
She visited me in Jessie McPherson Hospital, Lonsdale Street, shortly after Anne’s birth. Into my ear, she whispered, ‘Welcome to the club.’
Her brown and my hazel eyes met as she squeezed my arm gently and with the still vivid memory of that miraculous moment when I held Anne to my breast for the first time, I knew exactly what she meant – becoming a mother, accepting the responsibility for another human being is transformational and understood by other mothers.
My first little ray of sunshine born after an emergency dash to Jessie Mac’s in Lonsdale Street at 3.00am, May 24, 1986.
John tailgated a taxi breaking the speed limit ( ‘they know the fastest route and where all the coppers and cameras are’ ). We hit no red lights and made the city in record time.
Three hours later Anne Courtney Neil arrived, three weeks earlier than expected but wide-eyed and ready to take on the world!
When I took Anne home from the hospital little did I know she had a hole in the heart – not discovered for almost twelve months, and then only by the extra diligence of a young doctor on work experience at the local clinic!
I still have cold sweats in the middle of the night when I think of the operation she had for ‘sticky-eye’ and a blocked tear duct when she was barely two months old, the eye specialist and the anaesthetist completely unaware of her heart condition.
There were the usual childhood accidents and illnesses too. The catastrophes that send mothers into a spin, fearful for the child’s wellbeing and welfare – Anne had no broken bones (Mary Jane delivered that excitement) but one day she bit hard and severed her tongue when she collided with a large wooden rocking horse.
I rushed to the local GP at the corner of Albert and McDonald Streets, in my slippers, wheeling five-year-old Anne in her sister’s pusher and carrying a protesting Mary Jane under my arm.
I’d stuffed a wet face-washer in Anne’s mouth to hold the tongue together and stem the bleeding (‘excellent response’ according to the doctor).
The trail of blood in the house and garden that greeted John when he rushed home after receiving a garbled message from his receptionist made him imagine a severed limb and he almost fainted. (The tongue does bleed profusely!)
However, he too praised my quick action racing to the surgery rather than ringing an ambulance or panicking. (That and delayed shock came later!)
Sometimes we amaze ourselves how we react and cope as parents.
Mary Jane’s birth in 1989, a more traumatic and dramatic story.
She arrived more than a week early and I barely got to Mordialloc Hospital in time for delivery sending the nursing staff into a flap. To this day she is known as ‘the baby born during the tea break’ arriving less than fifteen minutes after I walked through the front door.
John and Dr Ferguson arrived at the hospital just in time for delivery and I’m sure if there had been more traffic police on duty in those days, both would have been booked for speeding – perhaps even reckless driving.
Adding to the drama, Mary Jane breathed the meconium and amniotic fluid mixture into her lungs while in the womb and was born with the umbilical cord around her neck prompting a nurse to say, ‘Oh, she’s dead.’
The baby rushed to an incubator and the nurse reprimanded while everyone in the room paused for a moment taking stock of a miracle birth indeed! I went into shock and apparently kept asking John if I’d had a baby until they brought Mary Jane to me to be cuddled and fed!
Later, Mary Jane broke her arm in a ‘monkey bar’ accident at primary school but the seriousness of the fracture ignored by teachers who left her in Sick Bay while they tried to contact me or John and ‘ask what to do’ instead of taking her to a doctor or ringing an ambulance.
Our membership in the ambulance service and private health insurance on record and you can imagine the tongue lashing the administration of the school received from me.
Fortunately, a friend volunteering for reading duty noticed Mary Jane’s distress and demanded action; unfortunately, the delay and subsequent treatment at Sandringham public hospital during the upheaval of the Kennett years meant the arm was badly set and needed to be re-broken weeks later – this was done by a specialist at Como Hospital in Parkdale.
Sadly, Sandringham botched another operation when MJ was in her 20s, damaging her bowel when they discovered endometriosis during a routine operation to remove an ovarian cyst. Who says lightning doesn’t strike twice??
Often at night, I close my eyes and recall the horror of seeing my daughter with multiple tubes hanging from her young body. Flushed, in pain despite high doses of morphine, and unaware of the emergency operation, she murmured through an oxygen mask, ‘What happened?’
The déjà vu of the multiple traumas she has suffered weighs heavily on my heart. I have often wished for a magic wand to reverse the hurts or give my daughters the happiness and pain-free world of fairytales.
Motherhood exposes your deepest fears and inadequacies but it also helps you gain courage and grow – as Sophocles said, ‘Children are the anchors that hold a mother to life.’
Whenever my girls have been ill, in pain, troubled or suffering, I’ve wanted a magic wand to remove their misfortune or possess the ability to swap places and take away their discomfort. Instead, reality over fantasy, I’ve ‘gone into bat’ for them and fought school and government authorities, bullies, and anyone else who needed to be held accountable.
Like a lioness, I will fiercely fight to protect and defend. These skills and determination I learnt from own mother – she may have been barely five foot tall but her love and commitment to all six of her children taught me to be courageous and resilient regarding caring and coping as a parent.
‘A mother’s love for her child is like nothing else in the world. It knows no law, no pity, it dares all things and crushes down remorselessly all that stands in its path.’
Motherhood indeed the most emotional and enlightened transformation for me. Everything I’ve read, shared, learnt and absorbed about other women’s experiences reveals none of our journeys is exactly the same or can be predicted.
There are similarities, but it is a unique life-changing event filled with joys and sorrows, calm and turbulent seas, problems and solutions, holding tight and letting go, embarrassing moments and moments of pride and satisfaction.
‘The heart of a mother is a deep abyss at the bottom of which you will always find forgiveness.’
Honore de Balzac
Around the world, mothers worry about their inadequacies, feel overwhelmed and many like me who became a single parent because our partner died carry guilt about not coping or spending enough time as the ‘default’ parent.
(John died when Anne was sixteen and Mary Jane thirteen – I think most will agree parenting adolescents is tough with two concerned parents, with one, I can assure you, it is challenging and at times very lonely!)
Frustration, financial stress, fear of failure or making mistakes – subjects often discussed between friends, family and in some cases counsellors.
Nurturing has never stopped from their early childhood…
From miraculous beginnings to challenging responsibilities, navigating hopes and dreams, disasters and near misses, parenting has been rewarding, scary, comical, confronting, but most of all fulfilling.
My life has had a purpose and I’ve experienced and continue to experience a wonderful mutual love.
I am so lucky my girls as young women still want to visit and ‘hang out’ with me, travel together, see movies, play board games, walk the dog, shop, discuss and debate, laugh and even party with me.
They are friends as well as daughters, and often the nurturing role has been reversed – especially when I had breast cancer and now as I age and have lost some confidence about decision-making for the future.
At the beginning of my writing career, at the launch of my first poetry book, I said children were the inspiration and reason I wrote and also the reason I didn’t write because motherhood is time-consuming.
Over the years, especially caring for John, I can substitute family instead of mothering but I wouldn’t really have life any other way. Loving and knowing John and our daughters have enriched me and made me the person I am today.
I hope I’ve helped add two more productive, caring citizens to the community. I’m grateful that feminism has wrought changes in society and many of the preconceptions about women and their destiny are no longer peddled – my girls have choices their grandmothers didn’t.
My Mum won a scholarship to college in Northern Ireland but her stepmother wouldn’t let her continue with study and ordered her out to work, then came WW2, the ATS and then nursing. Her stymied educational opportunities were what motivated Mum to encourage all six of her own children to study and seek suitable qualifications for what we wanted to be.
I was the first in my family to go to university and I only wish mum could have witnessed me returning to study at 57 years old and gaining a Masters degree in Writing and her two granddaughters earn Bachelor degrees.
Always my wish has been happiness and good health for both girls – to be whatever they want to be and find contentment and fulfilment in their choices.
We are so fortunate to live in Australia and have the privileges we do and I’m glad both daughters are aware they stand on the shoulders of those who have come before, that there are still hurdles to leap, and they will always strive to ‘go higher’ and seek equity for themselves and for so many others not as fortunate.
I am happy they will follow their mother as I followed my mother in fighting for social justice.
‘Youth fades; love droops, the leaves of friendship fall; A mother’ s secret hope outlives them all.’
Last Saturday, I caught up with my two sisters in the city – Cate had come down from Albury for the annual quilt show at the Exhibition Buildings and Rita and I met her at Southern Cross to spend a few hours together.
The sculpture above an apt metaphor because with the disruptions to the rail system there were replacement buses for me and delays for both my sisters. Lots of comings and goings!
Ironically, I thought I’d be late but the connection from Moorabbin to the Arts Centre by express bus was seamless and I was the first to arrive at our designated rendezvous.
Cate’s VLine delayed by a signal failure outside Seymour and Rita’s train on the Lilydale Line sat at Flinders Street ‘forever’ before continuing onto Southern Cross.
First stop, of course, was a cuppa to catch up and plan our day – my sisters would go into the quilt show for a couple of hours and I’d go into the museum opposite.
They are both into a craft and excellent sewers and knitters. However, sister Cate hadn’t entered a quilt panel this year, so I opted to catch the latest exhibition ‘From the Heart’ at Museums Victoria which focused on the regeneration of communities after the 2009 Black Saturday Bushfires.
At Moorabbin, I had got on a crowded bus because I was prepared to stand and so ended up close and personal with a bloke from Sydney who accepted the offer too.
It became one of those random meetings that turn into a happy memory.
He was from NSW and we chatted all the way into the city comparing Melbourne and Sydney. Melbourne won! He hadn’t been here for 30 years but couldn’t believe how much it had changed – and he loved it.
‘I met my wife here – the only good thing about the place all those years ago. It was grey, grey, grey and boring.‘
A bit harsh, I thought but then he admitted being born and bred in the Blue Mountains and still living there.
‘I sit on the verandah with my coffee and listen to the birds and watch the sunrise or sunset transform the mountains and trees.’
The journey then became a mutual admiration society – we covered climate change, the troglodytes in the LNP, the need to change the rules and reintroduce fairness and the lack of good social interaction and communication in the age of people being constantly plugged in and tuned out.
He envied Melburnites because despite disruptions our transport system ‘still worked and your Premier finishes things.’ He was impressed by our replacement services.
I envied him living in the Blue Mountains and told him one of my never to be realised dreams was ‘to afford a writers’ retreat at Varuna.
We parted ways and as I walked towards Flinders Street and paused to admire the beauty of Birrarung Marr, I appreciated again, the joy of living in ‘the world’s most liveable city’ with many public gardens and parks, heritage buildings and great facilities.
We can explore or retreat to beautiful places with our children and friends to enjoy the outdoors if we don’t have our own garden.
There are so many delightful places the public can access to reinforce an important connection to Nature that nurtures happiness and belonging.
Melbourne Museum – An Undervalued Gem
I spent a relaxing two hours in a garden often overlooked and yet it is not only delightful but educational because it is part of the Melbourne Museum and alongside other amazing exhibitions it tells the story of our country from the perspective of our First Peoples and highlights the strong relationship they have with the land – a relationship developed over thousands of years.
Silence and solitude are invaluable, offering time and space to reflect and contemplate. And in the Milarri Garden, there are plenty of rest stops where visitors can take time out, similar to the benefits of visiting Mingary in the heart of Melbourne.
Milarri is an initiative of the Victorian Aboriginal community. It is planted with trees and shrubs used by Indigenous people for food, technology and medicine, and promotes an understanding of Aboriginal people and their culture.
Every sign naming the plants has the Aboriginal name too if known. Milarri is from the Woi-wurrung language and means ‘outside’. Wominjeka is a Woi-wurrung word for welcome.
You discover the plants by walking a pathway that wends its way to the Forest Gallery and you are advised to watch your step because the rocks can be uneven and slippery so always remain on the path.
Also, the museum being, child-friendly as a number one priority, there are signs warning against eating and touching the plants – some of them may be poisonous if consumed. There is a water feature with eels, fish, ducks and turtles and a sign warns that eels bite.
Sometimes, when I see these signs asking for behaviour, which I deem common sense, I wonder if respect has been thrown out the window. Fortunately, on Saturday, everyone I met or observed behaved impeccably!
When you walk through the garden, you leave behind the noise of the city, the irritations, any personal worries and concerns…
The garden seems soundproofed and it is easy to absorb the serenity as well as appreciate the knowledge held by the oldest living culture in the world.
Feed your spirit.
Near the entrance, there were two exhibitions reinforcing the wonderful gift our First Peoples want to share:
Sometimes we need to reinforce the positive messages and lessons learned in childhood. Those idyllic days when we played outside in the fresh air.
We need to take time from the busyness of our lives to reconnect with the earth and a ‘green’ place where we belong.
“What a joy it is to feel the soft, springy earth under my feet once more, to follow grassy roads that lead to ferny brooks where I can bathe my fingers in a cataract of rippling notes, or to clamber over a stone wall into green fields that tumble and roll and climb in riotous gladness!”
Places and experiences that provide comfort and joy and a host of memories – all valuable contributions to health and wellbeing.
Milarri Garden is one of many places for a writer to observe the changes wrought by each season and perhaps acknowledge the changes in our life or the lives of characters in our stories.
Every culture has folklore and stories and we are fortunate in Australia to reap the benefit of the richness of many cultures from our First Peoples to the various ethnic groups and races who now call Australia home.
In Milarri, there is a sculpture, Biamie the Rainbow Serpent, by Clive Atkison and Dominic Benhura. Clive is a Yorta Yorta artist from northern Victoria and Dominic is a Shona artist from Zimbabwe. They collaborated on the artwork in 1999.
For Clive, the snake is a symbol of knowledge and wisdom, and the paved concentric circles represent harmony, strength and unity.
The sculpture reflects his respect for the wisdom and guidance of his elders.
There was also an area where paintings on the rock told a story of the trail and the animals to be found in the habitat.
When I meandered through the garden at the Museum, I was fascinated to read the Aboriginal names for plants I recognised as being indigenous to Mordialloc.
Bradshaw Park, Mordialloc is an example of grassy woodland consisting of a lower storey of native grasses, sedges, rushes, lilies and small shrubs.
Grassy Woodland has a middle storey of shrubs and small trees with a scattered dominant tree completing the upper storey. The dominant tree species at the time of European invasion and settlement would have been the Coast Manna Gum.
The Manna Gum, Wurun, in Wurundjeri was enjoyed as a food source by the Aborigines and early settlers. The sap dries into hard sugary drops that fall to the ground – ‘manna from heaven’!
The bark comes off the tree’s pale trunk in long ribbons and the wood used to make implements such as shields and wooden water bowls called tarnuksby Victorian Aborigines. the long thin leaves were smoked over a fire to lessen fever.
There are over 800 different wattle species in Australia and several species grow in Bradshaw Park. Wattle, karook, gum was an important food for the Boon wurrung as well as being used as a glue or cement. Taken as a medicine, the gum helped treat dysentery or was applied to wounds.
Wattleseed is high in protein and carbohydrate – the green seed pods were cooked and eaten, and dry seeds ground into flour.
Plants were used for many other things besides food. When collected, the long leaves of sedges, rushes and lilies made baskets and mats. Soaked and beaten to free the fibres they made string. The inner bark of some wattle trees also made string.
Kangaroo grass, wooloot in Gunditjmara, was common in Victoria’s low-lying plains but grazing animals quickly destroyed much of this. The Boon wurrung used the grass to make fishing nets, using the leaves and the stem to make string. The seeds can be ground into flour.
Common sedge, poong’ort in Djabwurrung were made into capes and worn around the neck to cure toothache.
Sweet pittosporum, bart-bart in Gunai/Kurnai language, has a sticky substance around its seed and this is used to relieve insect stings. The inner bark is used for string.
Even the humble pigface, gadwud in Gunai/Kurnai has fruit that can be eaten raw. New leaves are eaten raw or cooked and sap from leaves can be used to treat insect stings and small cuts.
The flax lily, murmbai, in Gunditjmara is also found in Mordialloc and the fibre from strap-like leaves can make string and baskets. The fibre in the leaf makes a strong cord.
The drooping she-oak, gneering, inGunditjmara provides hardwood for making implements such as boomerangs, shields and clubs. The young shoots chewed to relieve thirst and the cones can be eaten.
Usually, it was the women who collected vegetable foods and trapped small animals, while men hunted the larger animals. Depending on the time of year groups of hunters and gatherers went out each day to spend 4-6 hours collecting food.
Children went with their mothers to learn where to find plants, which ones to eat and how to forage. Finding food involved everyone, and all learned the skills necessary to hunt and gather. All the food was shared.
The First Peoples knew the land and it provided them with a variety of food to produce a well-balanced diet. They were not undernourished or deprived and had the kind of diet we are encouraged to follow today.
They ate fresh fruits and vegetables, fish and shellfish. The meat from wild birds and animals was lean and low in fat. Their lifestyle included plenty of exercise, particularly walking and of course, they got plenty of fresh air.
The Aboriginal people have a detailed local understanding of the seasons and the environment. Their seasonal calendar encompasses seven seasons. Each season marked by the movement of the stars in the night sky and changes in the weather coinciding with the life cycle of animals and plants.
For our sustainability and survival, we need to take heed of the knowledge our First People possess and value our environment. If some of the catastrophic predictions regarding climate change are correct, we may appreciate the medicinal, edible and practical qualities of many of the plants we have ignored or wantonly destroyed.
After the tragedy of the 2009 bushfires, acknowledgement of the importance of learning from First Peoples and allowing them to continue their stewardship of the land has been an important step.
If you can’t visit From the Heart you can access online a mini digital exhibition of the Victorian Bushfires Collection, Curious?
But you can improve your health and wellbeing and take a Milarri Garden Walk or hug a tree any time!
“Even the smallest landscape can offer pride of ownership not only to its inhabitants but to its neighbours. The world delights in a garden… Creating any garden, big or small, is, in the end, all about joy.”
83-year-old Edie believes that it is never too late – packing an old camping bag, leaving her life behind and embarking on an adventure she never got to have – climbing the imposing Mount Suilven in Scotland.
My daughters bought me this DVD for Christmas and I took the opportunity last weekend amidst our autumn heatwave to watch it. (Something positive and uplifting to take my mind off worrying that those we trusted have left action on climate change too late…)
I was only pushing 65 when I went on my travel adventure but since it also included Scotland, I imagine that influenced my daughters’ decision to buy me this DVD.
It certainly is a spectacular showcase of the beauty of my birth country, especially of parts that regular tourists may not see.
Anne and Mary Jane are too young to appreciate what a brilliant actress Sheila Hancock is and probably didn’t realise how much I admire her work. I can still remember the TV series The Rag Trade (circa 1961) with Miriam Karlin – a show my Mum never missed. (even thinking about it triggers memories of Mum’s laughter and giggling drifting up the stairs in our house in Scotland – a wonderful sound to fall asleep to – an added bonus when gifts of books, DVDs and CDs of music trigger happy memories.)
Sheila also worked on stage, other television productions, and many films – a stellar career.
She is an author of several books. I have her 2004, The Two of Us, a dual biography, of her life with second husband, actor John Thaw. The book focuses on their careers and 28-year marriage. John died of oesophageal cancer in 2002, the same disease that killed her first husband, actor Alec Ross in 1971. Sheila is also a breast cancer survivor.
(As a widow who also nursed a husband through cancer and then survived breast cancer myself, Sheila’s book resonated with me.)
Not surprising with all the personal emotional and physical obstacles overcome in her life, she is superb as feisty Edie and any ‘acting’ seems effortless. At 84 years old when making the movie, Sheila did all the scenes in real time and remains the oldest person to climb Mount Suilven (731 meters or 2398.29 feet) – the normal suspension of disbelief required in cinema easily achieved.
The movie is inspirational and entertaining on several levels – as mentioned the scenery alone absolutely mesmerising, Edie could have been made for the Scottish Tourism Board – I can imagine visitors to Sutherland increased after the film’s release in 2017.
Suilven is one of the most distinctive mountains in Scotland. Lying in a remote area in the west of Sutherland, it rises almost vertically from a wilderness landscape of moorland, bogs, and lochans known as Inverpolly National Nature Reserve. Suilven forms a steep-sided ridge some 2 km in length.
A Positive Ageing Story
Edie is not the usual cliched ‘grey power’ movie. There is no reuniting with or meeting a new love interest, no romantic entanglement, no outsmarting or put down of the younger generation or authority, and no tear-jerking death scene.
Instead, there are interesting layers to unpack and questions left unanswered, leaving food for thought or discussion.
Will she now be able to control her future and remain ‘feeling alive’?
Has she finally put the past to rest?
Can she heal her relationship and reconcile with her daughter?
What of her newfound friendship with the young guide – will he make the ‘right’ choice for his future?
Easy to watch, the movie’s overall narrative says it is never too late to make your special dream a reality and be open to new experiences and new friendships
It is ‘Herstory’
March is Women’s History Month and we learn of women who have made a difference – some of whom were written out of history.
Edie is not a tale of a ‘famous’ female achiever, but it tells a story of limited choice and restrictions familiar to many women, especially of a particular generation – and sadly, perhaps still too familiar!
Edie could be ‘everywoman’ who put the needs and desires of fathers, brothers, husbands, sons and daughters before her own happiness. It is uncomfortable viewing at times.
At the beginning of the movie, we see Edie is the sole carer for a wheelchair-bound husband, George (Donald Pelmear). He can’t speak and has to be aided to eat. When he dies, it is not long before the house is up for sale and daughter, Nancy (Wendy Morgan) is taking Edie to view a residential aged care centre that on first glance looks like a luxury hotel (the camera through Edie’s eyes drawn to a huge golden chandelier in the entrance hall) but to Edie the place represents first class misery.
There is little dialogue in the early scenes but plenty of good acting, directing, and camera work. Edie’s expressions and body language show how unimpressed she is with the facility, despite the over-enthusiastic praise of residents and activities by Nancy.
Trying too hard to ‘sell’ the place, Nancy and the staff reminiscent of parents talking up boarding school to a reticent child. Naturally, Edie is not cooperating!
The scene where she is supposed to be learning flower-arranging and churlishly snips off the head of a flower once the instructor walks away, a great metaphor – and hints at the rebellion to come.
Edie and Nancy return to pack up the house and encounter a life-changing shock:
Edie focuses on an old postcard of Mt Suilven from her Dad promising they’d ‘climb it together‘.
Nancy finds a journal her mother kept and is appalled by the anger and misery in the short entries. Edie complains about being trapped, having to look after a child and her sick husband, having no support or pleasure, the unfairness of her workload, of being depressed at the drudgery her life has become and living a life she hates.
Nancy is hurt, offended, and furious, and not interested when Edie tries to explain the journal was a way to release her frustrations at the miserable and restrictive marriage, not motherhood… the crushing of her dreams and loss of independence… She was upset about the demands of caring for her husband after his severe stroke so early in the marriage.
‘It wasn’t meant to be read by anyone else!’
Nancy is too hurt and stunned to have sympathy.
‘But I always did my duty,’ Edie yells as her daughter storms out. (It was 30 years of caring.)
‘And I’m tired of doing my duty,’ Nancy yells back as she tearfully slams the gate.
No winners in that argument just valid points about the strain of changing relationships, the carer’s role, which can occur at any age, and the very human habit of not communicating honestly with those we love, and the huge gaps in society’s resources to help families in times of crises.
Appropriately, it’s a bleak, stormy, wet day and Edie is left standing at the gate drenched in rain (tears?)… like novels, metaphor important in scene setting.
That night Edie burns her journals and almost incinerates the postcard but rescues it and sits staring into the flames, deep in thought.
We glimpse ageing in suburbia with Edie’s only relief from drudgery a cuppa in a favourite local cafe where she is someone other than trapped wife or recalcitrant mother.
A lightbulb moment springs her to action and the gorgeous visuals of the journey north by train begins. Determined to climb that mountain and keep her father’s promise she has packed ancient equipment, which must be replaced of course and the shopping trip for the latest gear from the Scottish equivalent of Kathmandu provides comedy and pathos.
Many of these scenes resonated with me because when I went into the Tarkine wilderness on a hiking and camping holiday in 2008, I hadn’t shouldered a backpack since Girl Guide days – I was also amazed and shocked at the variety and cost of camping gear but must admit to having fun trying on the clothes just like Edie.
The Generation Gap
In Scotland, Edie meets Johnny (Kevin Guthrie) and their unusual relationship provides laughs, tension, and poignancy – Sheila Hancock has never lost her comedic timing and the close-ups of her wrinkled face and hands, falling over, and struggling with weakened limbs truthfully portrayed.
There’s a memorable scene where she rests and examines a leaf from a nearby bush. The close-up shows the veins on the leaf held beside the back of her hand – roots pump water and minerals to branches and leaves, the heart pumps blood through our veins to limbs… a leaf can be the sign of a new beginning or reaching maturity…
It is a beautifully filmed sequence and her smile and demeanour say she is glad to be alive and grateful to be in that place, at that time.
I’ve been fortunate to have many private moments in wonderful places of natural beauty, I too have been able to sit in silence and contemplate… this was a lovely moment in the narrative and I’m sure contributed to the film winning its two awards.
At the start of her adventure because of a mix-up, Edie has to spend a night in Johnny’s share house. Two scenes are funny and emphasise gender and generation gap many people can relate to:
She prepares for bed in a bathroom/toilet shared and neglected by the all-male, twenty-something household
Leaving the next morning she has to navigate past four young men sprawled on the lounge room floor after a heavy night of drinking.
Genuine warmth and friendship develops between Edie and Johnny, who has his own relationship troubles because his girlfriend, Fiona (Amy Manson) is in the middle of negotiating a bank loan to create the biggest camping store in the north of Scotland while he feels trapped and longs to escape his job as a guide in what he considers a parochial area. He took on the job of training Edie for the climb solely for the money, thinking it would be easy because she would back out.
In an honest exchange of stories, we learn Edie’s life and how her spirit was broken by her husband who was a control freak. He estranged her from her father to ensure she forgot being ‘a wild child’ and just as she realised the marriage was not what she wanted and stood up to him, he had an almost fatal stroke. She sacrificed the next 30 years to dutifully care for him and ensure her daughter would have choices she didn’t.
The wisdom of age juxtaposed with impetuous youth exchanged like their stories. But when Johnny is looking forward to guiding, Edie surprises him by insisting she climb Suilven alone! Wow – who is risk-taking and foolish now!?
The drama and tension speed up at this point – for all the characters – and the reunion of Johnny and Edie near the top of the mountain and him stepping back and letting her move unsteadily alone to the peak to add her small stone to the cairn, speaks volumes about their changed relationship. His happiness and joy reflected in a huge smile and glistening eyes.
Exhausted Edie stands proudly surveying the raw haunting beauty of Suilven and Lochinver and for Scottish me with roots still in my birthplace, the scenery and emotions evoked, breathtaking.
A satisfying and inspirational movie that is also thought-provoking because, barring tragedy, we are all ageing and/or watching loved-ones age, and how we navigate and cope with the process and live affects wellbeing and happiness.
There is a marvellous interlude when we think Edie will not survive – her equipment lost in a terrible storm and she is alone in the dark until she discovers a hermit’s hut – this episode has even more layers you can unpack if you like philosophy and ponder our relationship with nature and each other.
Triggered Memories of My Mountain Climbed
I replicated Edie’s journey, in a tiny way, when I was in Skye in 2017 – not that climbing The Storr (or Old Man of Storr as it is known) was near the effort of Mt Suilven but for someone who suffers acrophobia, I’m proud of my achievement.
I’ve written about when I think my fear of heights startedhere and although The Storr has a path described as ‘well-constructed’, for me it was a challenge.
Looks can be deceptive, the gradient, the instability and variable surface of the ground underfoot, and the constant force of the wind the day I climbed presented a challenge too.
The Storr (ScottishGaelic: An Stòr) is a rocky hill on the Trotternishpeninsula of the Isle of Skye in Scotland. The hill presents a steep rocky eastern face overlooking the Sound of Raasay, contrasting with gentler grassy slopes to the west.
The Storr is a prime example of the Trotternish landslip, the longest such feature in Great Britain. It is the type locality for the mineral gyrolite.
The area in front of the cliffs of the Storr is known as The Sanctuary. This has a number of weirdly shaped rock pinnacles, the remnants of ancient landslips.
A well-constructed path, used by many sightseers, leaves the A855 just north of Loch Leathan. It heads up through a clearfell area that was formerly a conifer plantation. Most day-trippers are content simply to wander around the Sanctuary, admiring the pinnacles and gazing up at The Storr’s eastern cliffs. Walkers can easily ascend to the summit, however, by skirting below the cliffs whilst heading north from the north end of the Sanctuary. After passing over a fence at a makeshift stile and climbing a brief steep section of loose rock, the recommended route for walkers heads north-west as far as Coire Scamadal, 1 km north of the summit, then doubles back and heads southwards along the north side, climbing towards the summit. From this route, visible breaks in the cliffs offer tempting short cuts, but these are steep, may not save time and may not be safe…
The Storr is 719 metres (2,359ft) at its highest point – I reached the base of the steepest pinnacle but discretion being the better part of valour and considering I was on my own, I did not scramble around the narrow ledge to ‘touch’ the pinnacle because I feared the wind would blow me away or a panic attack make me freeze.
In fact, a few times during the climb I wondered if my travel insurance would pay out because I signed a clause saying I was not planning any unusual extreme ventures!
At the start, I took photographs of the area known as The Sanctuary and met plenty of tourists ‘scrambling’ and climbing to a vantage point for good views.
I then started the ascent in earnest, stopping plenty of times for photographs but also to chat with people coming down or going up:
How long did it take you?
Is the going rough?
Are there any landslides?
What’s the best side to tackle?
Where are you from?
Have you done this before?
Did you get to the Pinnacle?
The wind will blow you away!
It’s too hard!
It’s too dangerous!
I made it – just wanted a photo for Instagram… Facebook …
I took a Selfie to prove it I reached the top!
It was treacherous underfoot and I found it took all my concentration and physical ability to navigate some steep and slippery sections.
I met a lovely father and daughter from India but the little girl of eleven refused to be as enthusiastic about the challenge despite coaxing from her Dad.
They only climbed part of the way and were still negotiating about going further when I met them on my way down!
Two lovely Italian girls shadowed me part of the way – perhaps thinking I was going to need assistance. We were all thumbs up and celebrating when we reached the base of the Pinnacle and through sign language and limited English, they said they admired someone of ‘my age’ for even attempting the climb!
I don’t know about Sheila Hancock in Edie but I found the descent as daunting as the climb and several times thought I was going to lose my footing. However, I did climb, Old Man of Storr and have some wonderful photographs of the view of Skye I would otherwise not have… and as you can see by my smiles it was a good feeling to have a small triumph over a lifelong fear of heights.
Edie, the movie, and Sheila Hancock, the actress – both inspirational. I won’t be queuing up to climb Suilven when I’m 85 but I hope to achieve other dreams.
At the end of last year, I went to a talk at Glen Eira Art Gallery, one of several in their Be Persuaded — Jane Austen exhibition. It brought the literary icon Jane Austen’s world to life through a fascinating selection of rare fashion, accessories, and ephemera from the 18th century and Regency era but it also sent me off on a journey to the immediate and not so immediate past!
As I’ve said many times, I like joining dots, discovering connections and links that enhance my understanding of people and the world, move me from my comfort zone and add to what I thought I knew or better still challenge my assumptions…
Presented by Dressing Australia — Museum of Costume, the exhibition highlights included an 18th-century silk gown, diaphanous Empire line frocks, spencers and other undergarments, capes and shawls, bonnets, parasols, and rare hand painted watercolours documenting fashion from the 1790s to 1840 but it also gave historical context and relevance.
The selection of little paintings – 27 in all – a unique collection illustrating the development of fashion styles during that period and according to organisers, there may not be others in existence.
Jane Austen used words, this artist used drawings – original drawings from 1793 – 1830 – to tell little stories. The drawings are detailed and in context whether it is streetwear, formal or informal and covers a range of age groups. The 18th century and Regency era’s Vogue Magazine with some tongue in cheek observations thrown in.
An exhibition of fashion we have all seen and perhaps admired/envied in period films but in reality comes with a suitcase full of disadvantages, class distinctions, and choices dictated by obedience to societal mores!
Everyone was invited to step back in time and play with games and toys that were popular during Jane Austen’s childhood as well as imagine what it must have been like wearing clothes on display.
A fabulous day in Bath immersing myself in Jane Austen country. Met so many interesting people including a couple of Aussies from Newcastle. Caught the bus to Swindon, a meandering weekend path swapped for a very fast train to Bath with just one stop! Bath is another place that could absorb a week and you’d still have a list to do but I’m happy – I had an enjoyable walk after “Jane” checking out the Regency Circle and Georgian houses before visiting a fashion museum with 100 costumes plus accessories from the early 17th century to 2017. And it was Free Comic Book Day so cosplay characters were everywhere delighting passersby, including me.
My Facebook Post May 6th 2017
Bath, a World Heritage City, yet most of my time spent tracing Jane Austen’s footsteps when I discovered a free walking tour and delightful guide with seemingly infinite knowledge of where Jane lived, visited, walked and shopped, along with places made famous by her two Bath novels: Northanger Abbey and Persuasion.
Like many others, I admire Jane Austen as a writer and studied Northanger Abbey for HSC Literature and surprised myself at how much I could recall.
guide advertising the tour is free
first stop on tour
the most photographed man in England
Jane looking far from welcoming
me with wax model Jane
we all had such rapport
There was an instant rapport with the guide who had a great sense of humour, even posing for a photograph with one of the cosplay characters from Planet of the Apes. All of us doing an impromptu dance together because music blared from a portable player nearby.
When I mentioned my daughter was a Whedon fan (the writer/filmmaker Joss Whedon) I was inundated with free comics to take back to Australia. I’ve blogged about the importance of comics and also cosplay before.
A wonderful, heartwarming hug at the end of the Walking Tour made my day. In the beginning, I was the only one on the tour with two others joining when they eavesdropped and discovered the tour was free.
Am I the only person who reads brochures and local leaflets? There is always a host of free stuff available and you get to meet amazing volunteers or organisations committed to history, the arts, and other community activities.
If ever in Bath, the free Walking Tour a must – it leaves from the Post Office and ends at the Jane Austen Centre and you meet people passionate about their work.
The young man who accompanied me a great raconteur. We discovered a mutual love of history, had read and liked similar books – and even shared our opinion about Brexit which was a talking point everywhere in 2017. (Methinks that hasn’t changed!)
Plus, he thought I was brave travelling by myself because ‘I was older than his mother‘. He wanted to know how I got on in Russia. I told him how much I enjoyed it and to separate countries from governments, people from politicians, and not be scared to travel and find out for yourself!
The other gentleman in the photo is Martin Salter, ‘England’s most photographed man‘ a title awarded March 2017 to recognise his ten years of outstanding service as the meeter/greeter at the Jane Austen Centre.
An icon recognised around the world because of the number of people he has welcomed, photographed, and posed beside for photographs – including me!
In the Georgian mansion that houses the Jane Austen Centre, I tried on clothes and delved into all things Jane Austen having a great giggle with other tourists and the enthusiastic employees and volunteers.
I was grateful it was just pretence because I don’t think my patience or spacial awareness, let alone deportment, would cope with the clothes of the Regency era or the lifestyle – definitely not the lack of rights for women.
I can’t imagine living in a time where beginning a novel with the following statement is so well understood:
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”
Jane Austen’s, Pride and Prejudice
After the museum, I wandered through the main streets of central Bath where the past and present nestled together with a few misfits, adaptations and imaginative additions.
Eating my sandwiches in the square I also digested what I’d learned about Jane’s life, her family, and the Bath that existed during the period she was writing. I imagined all the ladies and gents from middle and upper classes strolling through the city, admiring each other’s fashionable dresses, noting the designers and where it was purchased.
But what of the workers who keep the necessary machinery of life turning?
Where are the names of the seamstresses and the tailors who made the creations?
Who were the washerwomen who laundered and ironed, the maids and butlers who kept the clothes in good repair?
And considering that sweatshops still exist will tourists of the future attend exhibitions and ask the same questions about modern fashion?
At the nearby Fashion Museum, I barely absorbed all the interesting details because I’d reached the stage in the day when my brain signals ‘information overload’. The exhibition at Glen Eira a great opportunity to refresh or add information.
A different perspective is always good – especially when it comes to history and this free exhibition so close to home at Caulfield Town Hall – a magnificent period building in its own right.
I missed the opening by Caroline Jane Knight, the fifth great niece of Jane Austen, but got to hear the engaging floor talk from Fiona Baverstock from Dressing Australia — Museum of Costume who provided the exhibits.
Her talk ran the scheduled 45 minutes and her passion and knowledge of the subject, kept the whole room enthralled, even begging for more.She moved around the floorspace discussing each exhibit in detail – a 3D Powerpoint presentation with pertinent asides adding to the excellent information already provided.
Fiona explained her credentials as owner/curator of Dressing Australia Museum of Costume, which is not a ‘bricks and mortar’ museum. She only does travelling exhibitions with her private collection.
Jane Austen Perennially Popular
Mention Jane Austen and people come, especially since contemporary films and TV serials have introduced Jane to new audiences and her novels appear regularly on school booklists.
The timing was right, 2017, the bicentenary of Jane Austen’s death. The last 20 years have seen a revival of interest in Austen mania – good news for Fiona who thought she had sold most of her costumes from the Regency era.
She normally weaves a story about who owned the clothes but couldn’t for this exhibition because she had got rid of so much of her collection. Instead, she chose Jane’s family and a few major characters from the more popular novels and looked for clothes to suit their persona.
Jane was born in 1775, therefore, an 18th-century girl and 25 years old when the 19th century began. Her fashion taste well-established, however, the new century meant moving away from stiff conservatism and from what we know of Jane’s personality and lifestyle, she probably embraced new styles.
We know a little about her through her novels and lead characters but which character’s characteristics match the author? Lizzie Bennet, Emma Woodhouse, Anne Elliot, the two Dashwood sisters? When she sat down to write what personal thoughts and experiences did she channel?
Jane probably had at least one love attraction, never realised, and one proposal of marriage… accepted and almost immediately turned down. Love and marriage often discussed by her characters…
There are such beings in the world – perhaps one in a thousand – as the creature you and I should think perfection; where grace and spirit are united to worth, where the manners are equal to the heart and understanding; but such a person may not come in your way, or, if he does, he may not be the eldest son of a man of fortune, the near relation of your particular friend, and belonging to your own country. Letter to Fanny Knight, 18 November 1814
Jane’s nephew wrote the first biography of Jane Austen and he gave us a staid view, presenting Jane as a sweet, unassuming homebody. He censored or ignored letters – and Jane was a prolific letter writer – and did what I suspect many family historians do, sanitising, omitting and caring more about what people might think than accuracy or honesty.
Jane was not like his impression, she had an acerbic tongue and a more accurate impression is gained from letters she wrote to her sister Cassandra.
Unfortunately, shortly before Cassandra died, she destroyed the bulk of their correspondence – perhaps she too was worried about Jane’s reputation, or that the words would be taken out of context. Perhaps she wanted to shield family members and friends from forthright comments such as :
Poor woman! How can she honestly be breeding again? Letter to Cassandra Austen, 1 October 1808
This quote from a beautifully illustrated book from the Bodleian Library I discovered in Dymocks. Fifty Illustrated Quotations are drawn from Jane’s letters and novels, testifying to her wit and candid humour – and some not so humorous observations.
Her comments about the effects of the Peninsular War, dislike of parties and social obligations and impressions of London, ranging from acerbic, ironic to poignant.
No surprise that her characters sometimes use bitter sarcasm when speaking of women’s inequality, ageing, the disappointments of marriage, fashion, and the social scene.
Here I am once more in this scene of dissipation and vice, and I begin to find already my morals corrupted. Letter to Cassandra Austen (on arrival in London), 23 August 1796
I am almost afraid to tell you how my Irish friend and I behaved. Imagine to yourself everything most proliferate and shocking in the way of dancing and sitting down together. Letter to Cassandra Austen, 9 January 1796
Our ball was rather more amusing than I expected… the melancholy part was to see so many dozen young women standing by without partners, and each of them with two ugly naked shoulders! It was the same room in which we danced fifteen years ago! I thought it all over, and in spite of the shame of being so much older, felt with thankfulness that I was quite as happy now as then. Letter to Cassandra Austen, 9 December 1808.
Jane Austen observed – everything.
She captured behaviours, dialogue and idiosyncrasies of the people around her. As a writer, she is famous for her ironic omniscient narrator – detached and amused. For example that oft-quoted opening sentence of Pride and Prejudice.
Her observations of life and manners of the gentry class have been described as ‘a comedy of manners’.
I could no more write a romance than an epic poem. I could not sit seriously down to write a serious romance under any other motive than to save my life; and if it were indispensable for me to keep it up and never relax into laughing at myself or other people, I am sure I should be hung before I had finished the first chapter.
No, I must keep to my own style and go on in my own way; and though I may never succeed again in that, I am convinced that I should totally fail in any other.
Letter to James Stanier Clarke, 1 April 1816
Her characters are lively and believable so that even today’s readers engage with them when society has dramatically changed because she focuses on relationships and minutiae we can identify – and thank goodness she remained true to her own style!
All six of Austen’s novels are about love and marriage among the county gentry and the larger world of the French and American Revolutions, the Napoleonic Wars and simmering Irish and Scottish unrest don’t intervene except in her private letters.
How horrible it is to have so many people killed! And what a blessing that one cares for none of them!
Letter to Cassandra Austen on the Peninsular War, 31 May 1811.
Discovering A Different Jane
The following novels by Jane Austen were successful in her lifetime but published anonymously: Sense and Sensibility (1811) Pride and Prejudice (1813) Mansfield Park (1814) Emma (1815)
Northanger Abbey and Persuasion were published posthumously in 1818. Jane died in Winchester in July 1817, at the age of 41.
All these relationships between women, I thought, rapidly recalling the splendid gallery of fictitious women, are too simple. […] And I tried to remember any case in the course of my reading where two women are represented as friends. […] They are now and then mothers and daughters. But almost without exception, they are shown in their relation to men. It was strange to think that all the great women of fiction were, until Jane Austen’s day, not only seen by the other sex but seen only in relation to the other sex. And how small a part of a woman’s life is that …
Virginia Woolf’s observation about the literature of her time in her 1929 essay A Room of One’s Own
I discovered earlier writing by Jane that certainly gives a clue her personality and thoughts far from staid!
She wrote the ‘history’ book when she was sixteen and we can thank the writer JL Carr for publishing it in a series of Pocket Books:
… the originator, compiler & publisher of these Pocket Books did so in order to subsidise the writing of novels; the best known of which ‘A Month in the Country’ was short-listed for the Booker Prize in 1980 and won the Guardian Fiction Prize.
‘The History of England from the reign of Henry the 4th to the death of Charles the 1st. By a partial, prejudiced & ignorant Historian’ is dedicated to Cassandra and from start to the end of its 15 pages offers witty, barbed, and radical ( perhaps treasonous!) summations of various English monarchs.
The intro has two telling quotes – I wonder if it started off as a school assignment or a rant against how and what history is taught:
Read me anything but history, for history must be false
Sir Robert Walpole
History is just the portrayal of crimes and misfortune… All ancient history is no more than accepted fiction.
No doubt Jane was above average intelligence and better read and informed than many teenagers of her day, which probably went with the territory of having an educated father and many brothers in a variety of occupations.
I can imagine active and lively discussions over dinner and all those long country walks but I’m guessing when the manuscript came to light it would have raised a few eyebrows.
Was it a reaction to whatever history was considered the most important to learn or items in the news or an exercise to explore the power of words to tell a story – they could be the first examples of flash faction.
Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands. I will not allow books to prove anything.
Anne Elliot, Persuasion
I’ve kept her spelling and style in these snippets –
Henry the 4th
Henry the 4th ascended the throne of England much to his own satisfaction in the year 1399, having prevailed on his cousin & predecessor Richard the 2d, to resign it to him, & to retire for the rest of his Life to Pomfret Castle, where he happened to be murdered. It is supposed that Henry was married, since he certainly had four sons, but it is not in my power to inform the Reader who was his Wife. Be this as it may, he did not live for ever, but falling ill, his son the Prince of Wales took away the Crown; whereby the King made a long speech, for which I must refer the Reader to Shakespear’s Plays & the Prince made a still longer. Things being thus settled between them the King died, & was succeeded by his son Henry who had previously beat Sir William Gascoigne.
Henry the 5th This Prince after he succeeded to the throne grew quite reformed & Amiable, forsaking all his dissipated Companions & never thrashing Sir William again… Lord Cobham was burnt alive, but I forget what for. His Majesty then turned his thoughts to France, where he went & fought the famous Battle of Agincourt. He afterwards married the King’s daughter Catherine, a very Agreeable woman by Shakespear’s account. In spite of all this however he died, & was succeeded by his son Henry.
Henry the 6th
I cannot say much for this Monarch’s Sense – Nor would I if I could, for he was a Lancastrian. I suppose you know all about the Wars between him & The Duke of York, who was of the right side; if you do not, you had better read some other History… This King married Margaret of Anjou, a Woman whose distresses & Misfortunes were so great as almost to make me who hate her, pity her…
Edward the 4th
This Monarch was famous only for his Beauty & his Courage… his undaunted Behaviour in marrying one Woman while he was engaged to another, are sufficient proofs… One of Edward’s Mistresses was Jane Shore who had a play written about her, but it is a tragedy & therefore not worth reading. Having performed all these noble actions, his majesty died, & he was succeeded by his Son.
Edward the 5th
This unfortunate Prince lived so little a while that no body had time to draw his picture. He was murdered by his Uncle’s Contrivance, whose name was Richard the 3d.
Richard the 3d
The character of this Prince has been in general very severely treated by Historians, but as he was York, I am rather inclined to suppose him a very respectable man… Whether innocent or guilty, he did not reign long in peace for Henry Tudor E. Of Richmond, as great a Villain as ever lived, made a great fuss about getting the Crown & having killed the King at the battle of Bosworth, he succeeded to it…
This Monarch soon after his accession married the Princess Elizabeth of York, by which alliance he plainly proved that he thought his own right inferior to hers, tho’ he pretended to the contrary. By this Marriage, he had two sons & two daughters, the elder of which was married to the King of Scotland & had the happiness of being grand-mother to one of the first Characters in the World. But of her, I shall have occasion to speak more at large in future… his Majesty died, & was succeeded by his son Henry whose only merit was his not being quite so bad as his daughter Elizabeth…
What the teenage Jane alludes to is the belief that Mary Queen of Scots should never have been executed and in fact, after she describes the reigns of Henry the 8th (‘Crimes & Cruelties too many to mention’),
Edward the 6th (“a favourite” … “He was beheaded…”),
Mary ( “the good luck of being advanced to the throne of England, inspite of the superior pretensions, Merit & Beauty of her Cousins Mary Queen of Scotland & Jane Grey..),
Elizabeth ( It was the peculiar Misfortune of this Woman to have bad Ministers – Since wicked as she herself was, she could not have committed such extensive mischeif had not these vile & abandoned men connived and encouraged her in her Crimes.),
James the 1st ( Though this King had some faults, among which & as the most principal, was his allowing his Mother’s death, yet considered on the whole I cannot help liking him.) and
Charles the 1st (This amiable Monarch seems born to have suffered Misfortunes equal to those of his lovely Grandmother…),
she concludes with –
…my principal reason for undertaking the History of England being to prove the innocence of the Queen of Scotland, which I flatter myself with having effectually done, and to abuse Elizabeth, (tho’ I am rather fearful of having fallen short in the latter part of my Scheme.)
I wonder what witty observation or acerbic put down she would write regarding her popularity today, which is almost cult status thanks to – museums, festivals, competitions, documentaries, films, sequels and prequels and of course Colin Firth’s Mr Darcy – all that focus on a man!
Fiona in her talk said she had to include an outfit close to what people imagined Mr Darcy wore in that famous scene from the TV series that people remember yet it never actually happened! You know the scene when Colin Firth walks out of the lake after a swim and his partly unbuttoned undershirt is clinging to his body!
Well, with another detour taken care of – I’ll get back to Fiona’s talk and the exhibition –
When History Is Fashionable
Be Persuaded had a firm focus on fashion but Fiona threw in lots of historical asides and gems to think about when she explained why she chose particular items:
… from the rare 18th century gown which her mother might have worn at the time of Jane’s birth, through to the elegance and daring of the Regency era with its classic Empire line gowns, to the 1840s when women such as Cassandra had to once again retreat behind tight waists and voluminous skirts…
Jane was a keen observer of fashion and the role it played in defining status and the complex relationships in the society of her novels, even if in private she thought much of the detail and rules ridiculous.
I learnt from Mrs Ticker’s young lady, to my high amusement, that the stays now are not made to force the bosom up at all; that was a very unbecoming, unnatural fashion. Letter to Cassandra Austen, 15 September 1813
a mature Mrs Darcy
tulle and tissue bonnet
quilted protector and hat
Next week (I) shall begin my operations on my hat, on which you know my principal hopes of happiness depend. Letter to Cassandra Austen, 27 October 1798
Dress is at all times a frivolous distinction, and excessive solicitude about it often destroys its own aim. Northanger Abbey
In her research, Fiona found that the French open robe style usually didn’t come with a petticoat because few survived – they were frequently taken on and off and most probably wore out. Petticoats were often made of the same fabric as the gown in a complimentary or contrasting colour.
Women didn’t wear knickers in the eighteenth century (audible gasps and giggles around the room) but diaphanous see-through gowns led to pantaloons – although many of these were knitted and flesh coloured to give the appearance of no knickers. (more audible murmurings…)
What Influences Fashion?
Classical Greek and Roman lines are often the basis for design but also things like the Hussar Soldier Uniform and other unusual inspirations for accessories.
In the 18th century, the American revolution interrupted the supply of raw cotton and English industrialists looked to India and other colonies. The East India Company imported not just raw cotton but ready-to-wear material. Muslin, a popular dress material became available plain, coloured and even patterned.
Revolutions and wars are big influences.
For example, in WW2 and years immediately following, stripes and shoulder pads introduced and women’s suits were made from sturdy fabrics mimicking the style of military uniforms. It was a sad and serious time with material shortages plus more women in the workforce requiring suitable clothes. Less frivolity and more practicality.
When it is happier less threatening times, clothes reflect the change of mood – frills, fripperies, colour, softer material, flowing designs …
Who can forget the sexual revolution of the 1960s and the shock of mini-skirts and Jean Shrimpton attending the Melbourne Cup hatless, in sandals without stockings, and a mini dress?
Often military inventions lead to a fashion use (nylon, rayon and drip dry fabric, lycra) or in the case of the 18th century because of the French Revolution wearing silk, which was considered luxurious, became a ‘no no’.
The Empire Line named after Napoleon’s determination to create his empire another example of fashion reflecting what is happening in society.
Muslin easier to look after than silk but still hand washed, rinsed, squeezed – towel dried and ironed. Bows and vandyke edging needed a special tiny iron to get into tucks with its point.
When dresses long, if they swept the ground women didn’t walk in parks and gravel and avoided dirty paths. They stepped from the doorway to carriage. For those stepping out more – hems went up a bit and wore gowns that could be washed or survive regular washing.
18th-century shoes had thin soles for dancing pumps. Boots were for country lanes and lace-up boots had a slightly thicker sole and heel. Fashionable shoes wore out quickly – poorer people needed stout leather because they walked more and their leather shoes thicker and more uncomfortable.
In the Regency era parasols tended to have straight handles and small canopies. Folding handles appeared mid 19th century as did the metal spoke. The parasol in the exhibition dated to the late 1840s, it has metal spokes but a straight handle and the canopy of polished cotton has ruching, a frill and wooden finial.
Fiona dressed Cassandra in crinoline – it was a time when there was an absence of war and the men were back and the male idea of femininity emphasised. Women were ‘financially dependent so had to kowtow.’
Fiona compared the dress on display to the 70s fashion of bell bottoms, describing both as ‘ridiculous’. I agree – the above illustrations from the Fashion Museum emphasise how limiting those voluminous dresses would be.
I wore bell bottoms in the 70s and they were a short-lived fashion item. The nearest I’ve been to a crinoline is a hooped dress a friend made me for my 60th birthdayparty when everyone had to come dressed as their favourite literary character. I chose Jo from Little Women and the hooped petticoat and puffed-out gown not ideal for movement.
Just like in the 1820s/30s dresses were designed with restricted shoulder lines because women were not supposed to raise their arms – again we are talking about women in a particular class!
Anne Elliot, from Persuasion, was chosen to model a gown with a floor-length shawl.
Fiona asked us to note the sleeves and ruffles around the neck. The dress, fine cotton circa 1815 with flounces around the skirt. The lace a later addition. The bodice has ruching and the neckline an organdie tucker with ruffled collar. A Norwich shawl is over her shoulder.
The Norwich shawl, a long rectangle not square – perfect for wrapping or draping around Empire-line gowns. Itcould also be a Paisley or Edinburgh shawl, the name denotes where they were made. A Paisley square often folded into a triangle later in the 19th century when the voluminous ‘crinoline’ gowns returned to fashion.
The bustle killed the shawl as a fashionable accessory.
The shawl on show magnificent, Fiona’s own version of an expensive imported Kashmir shawl fashionable in the 18th century, which encouraged weaving centres like Norwich and Paisley to produce their own versions. However, original Kashmir shawls popular with the very rich.
This shawl is ‘partially filled’ – an assistant (usually a woman) sitting beside the weaver hand sews extra, thicker strands to the back of the shawl to make it stronger and warmer. In 1845, fine wool began to be imported from Australia and the fashion industry incorporated this in dresses as well as shawls.
Lizzie Bennet’s Wedding Dress?
Any exhibition must have the young Lizzie Bennet and Fiona chose a wedding gown circa 1810 imagining it was Lizzie’s because she considered after all the build up in Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen could have at least given a description of Lizzie Bennet’s wedding dress.
The classic Empire line gown is of ivory silk and so fine it needs a padded hem to give it weight. The bonnet is a reproduction of the original. The pumps 18th-century shoes.
White became a popular option in 1840, after the marriage of Queen Victoria to Albert of Saxe-Coburg, when Victoria wore a white gown trimmed with Honiton lace. Illustrations of the wedding were widely published, and many brides opted for white in accordance with the Queen’s choice.
Regency era it was white or pastel colours because white was a fashionable colour not just for brides. In Brideswear Revisited – 200 years of gowns: off-white, cream, ivory and oyster more popular because ‘white flatters no one’.
The Provenance of the Gown an interesting story
It was worn by Emma Cato who married George Daniel at Chelsea Old Church in London 1810. Emma, born in Holborn 1787, was one of nine children to Thomas and Elizabeth Cato. Thomas described as a wireworker who made items such as needles, fish hooks, cages, chains, traps, decorative architectural embellishments and garden decorations.
He would have belonged to the Worshipful Company of Tin Plate and Wire Workers, a City of London Trade Guild. Fiona said he must have been a master rather than a mere worker because he left a Will.
George Daniel, variously described as book collector, literary critic and author, meant Emma came into contact with some of the literary giants of the day as he claimed membership of an exclusive circle including Charles Lamb, William Hazlitt and Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
He published critiques of their work as well as those from ‘superstars’ like Sir Walter Scott often inserting some of his own ‘dubious attempts at verse’ in the critique.
Fiona adds we can ‘only imagine what Emma’s life with a self-important wannabe poet and author must have been like. Perhaps he earned enough from his published literary criticism to keep them in comfortable circumstances.’
She surmises that if Jane Austen had been a man, George Daniel may have critiqued her work and Emma might have met her – considering Jane’s early novels were written anonymously perhaps he did come across them – how would we know?
I don’t think he could have been too horrible considering he composed a poem to his daughter for her birthday (c1815) and it was stitched together as a booklet – a reproduction on display and the original is at the University of Indiana.
And Yet Another Sidetrack… Huguenots
I always learn something new whenever I attend a talk, workshop, gallery, museum… and Fiona’s had me searching online about the Huguenots who were French Protestants active in the 16th and 17th centuries. They were forced to flee France due to religious and political persecution by the Catholic Church and the Crown.
I knew their story of persecution but not their contribution to the fashion industry and beyond.
Still a lightning-rod for collective anxieties, the word “refugee” entered the English language when the Huguenots landed. Although migration had begun beforehand on a modest scale, around 50,000 French Protestants came to England after Louis XIV revoked the 1598 Edict of Nantes at Fontainebleau in October 1685. Another 10,000 fled to Ireland, part of an exodus of perhaps 200,000 people. Other large contingents went to Holland, Sweden and Prussia. That still left the bulk of a hard-pressed but robust population of 750,000 or so to weather hardship in France and wait for more tolerant times…
According to one estimate, one in every six Britons has some Huguenot ancestry. Names of obvious French origin tell only a fraction of this tale. Yes, it’s easy enough to spot a Laurence Olivier, a Simon Le Bon, a Walter de la Mare, a Daphne du Maurier, a Samuel Courtauld, a Jon Pertwee, a Reginald Bosanquet, an Eddie Izzard, even – as the Ukip leader happily acknowledges – a Nigel Farage. Yet, just like Jewish incomers two centuries later, Huguenot migrants often changed their names or had them changed by impatient clerks.
As a Victorian history of London puts it, “the Lemaitres called themselves Masters; the Leroys, King; the Tonneliers, Coopers; the Lejeunes, Young; the LeBlancs, White; the Lenoirs, Black; the Loiseaux, Bird”.
The Huguenots arrived in Britain from France and brought their skill of silk weaving to Spitalfields where 300 families settled transforming it into London’s centre for silk-weaving. The most amazing silk designer of that period was a woman – Anna Maria Garthwaite.
The type of motifs, scale, rendering, and colour palette in textile patterns went in and out of fashion and can be used to identify a garment as being from the 1710s, 1740s, or 1760s. The importance of silk-weaving and new designs to Georgian fashion cannot be underestimated as they conveyed not only taste but also status and wealth for the wearer.
Remarkably, one of the most successful and influential designers of silk patterns was an English woman, Anna Maria Garthwaite (1690-1763), who came to Spitalfields in 1730 and quickly infiltrated the male-dominated and family-based industry. In fact, the establishment and prosperity of Spitalfields silk-weaving were due largely to waves of immigration by French Huguenots fleeing persecution in the 16th and 17th centuries, many of whom were weavers bringing advanced skills.
As a forty-year-old single woman, it is unlikely that Garthwaite received much if any of the formal training required of her male counterparts. She worked in watercolour and at her most prolific produced approximately eighty designs a year, tapering off in the 1750s to about thirty designs per annum
Spitalfields was a major force in shaping eighteenth-century fashion because it was the centre of the silk-weaving industry in England. Silk manufacture drove the very business of fashion as trends concentrated on new textile patterns rather than garment styles.
Weavers, joiners, smiths and merchants set up shop in Soho or Spitalfields and textile and design students at London Metropolitan University, now study some of their crafts, such as silk-weaving, silversmithing and upholstery.
It is remarkable that a woman like Anna Maria Garthwaite achieved the level of success that she did. It is a testament not only to her sheer talent and vision but also her courage to value her own abilities.
The beginning of the year always a mixed blessing because January 10th is John’s birthday and a reminder my husband and best friend is no longer around, yet it is a new year and the future beckons and being a glass-half-full person, I look forward to whatever challenges await.
For the last sixteen years, the girls and I have visited Stony Point each January to reflect and remember John – and yes, we chat or share our thoughts with him.
Whenever I give my writing class an exercise to write about their happy place, or a place where they feel serene, I have Stony Point in mind.
Serenity Writing Exercise
Once a year, sometimes more often, I visit Stony Point on the outskirts of Melbourne. This tip of the Victorian coast looks across to French Island among other smaller islets and the tide flows out to the sea. There is a pier always populated with anglers – more in some seasons than others.
There is a ferry to French Island and half the pier is now fenced off for Navy patrol boats installed during John Howard’s ‘be alert not alarmed’ crusade.
John requested his ashes be scattered where they would be carried out to sea, being ex-Royal Navy, John was more comfortable on the water than land and Stony Point fitted the bill.
There are mini-wetlands (or mud flats) at Stony Point frequently visited by shearwaters, pelicans and of course the ubiquitous seagulls. The area is attractive to fishermen and regardless of the season, you will always see boats coming and going.
The gutting and scaling table regularly visited by a host of birds who seem to know just when to land and wait for a feed. The take-offs and jockeying for advantageous positions to catch thrown leftovers provide a rambunctious display by the birds, especially the pelicans.
My daughters laugh at my delight and are convinced I have the largest collection of photographs of pelicans in the world! This year, I think they had a bet going and were counting how many pictures I took – I never discovered whose guess was correct!
Many people visit Stony Point and there is a caravan park with permanent residents as well as frequent holidaymakers. Every day there could be bushwalkers, anglers, picnickers, fossickers, commuters to French Island, naval personnel from nearby Cerberus base and a handful of locals who operate a rundown cafe/shop.
But there are times, like the other day, when we were the only ones soaking up the serenity for an hour or so before one boat returned and two families arrived to visit.
I’m sure others like me, come to sit or walk by the short strand of sand or along the pier. Others relax while waiting for the ferry to French island. The kiosk, the railway station, the car park – so little change in sixteen years.
Stony Point is the end of the line for the train – a little diesel that comes from Frankston. The station personnel seem to be from another era of railway culture – a more friendly era – attuned to the age of steam perhaps – like my Dad and Grandfather…
However, just like the rest of the Victorian rail system, upgrading is happening to the only non-electrified rail line operated by Metro. There will be electrification to Hastings soon, but who knows when the upgrade will reach Stony Point, a place where change is rare.
John’s Story Forever Linked to Stony Point
When I think of John, I remember his love for the sea. The vivid memories of years in the Royal Navy he loved to share. His time at sea an escape from a violent step-father. It gifted skills and room to grow. Life below deck a creative exercise in space management and curled in a hammock beneath clambering pipes was not conducive to sleep. In the 1950s and 60s, he served on destroyers and stowed belongings in lockers between gurgling pipes. Ironically, the life he loved contaminated him with asbestos…
When I think of John, I recall he joined the navy as a fifteen year old ‘boy sailor’ and said he learned to respect and consider others, to cook, clean, and iron, to share, to care for himself, to operate radar and radio, sort and deliver mail, be the butcher and food buyer for the mess, and also train as a deep-sea diver. He mastered calligraphy and latch-hook weaving and became the Mediterranean Fleet’s high jump and long jump champion in Malta. Above deck, he discovered the pleasure and benefits of breathing fresh sea air; the joy of time to scan for exotic lands, learn to read the stars, be entertained by dancing dolphins, flying fish, and the unforgettable sight of the majestic blue whale.
When I think of John, I hear his voice reciting poetry and doggerel, quoting favourite passages from books he loved or people he admired (he could recite Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address!) and singing songs from favourite entertainers. A man of few words, each sentence counted. John didn’t do small talk…
His stints at sea gave him time to sit and think, to listen to the stories of others, and absorb some of life’s harsher lessons. He witnessed horrific scenes while based in the Mediterranean when Britain became embroiled in the Suez Crisis. He visited many European ports and also South America and South Africa, experiencing a variety of cultures and cuisine. Moved out of the comfort zone of his childhood English village, people and places expanded his heart and vision.
When I think of John, I remember his love for the sea and how it shaped his character. A sea he now roams as his ashes float from shore to shore, revisiting the lands he loved, being part of a marine world he admired – free of human form, he can dance with the dolphins, fly with the fish, or ride a whale.
When I think of John, I remember his keen sense of humour, can hear his laughter and know he would laugh with us and enjoy the story I’m about to tell of our visit to Stony Point last Wednesday.
I was taking pictures of some Shearwaters and Pacific Gulls sunning themselves on the edge of the slipway jetty when a man in his early 40s and his two children, a boy of 8 and girl of 6, followed me towards the birds. Their conversation –
‘What kind of birds are they Dad?’
‘They’re ducks, son.’
‘No they’re not.’
‘Yes, they are – look,’ he points to the pelicans,’ see how small they are to the albatrosses.’
I’ve seen gannets and black swans at Stony Point but never an albatross.
When I shared the father/son conversation with the girls, we laughed – it reminded us of that funny TV ad for Bigpond or maybe Google, some years ago – when the young boy asked his Dad why the Great Wall of China was built and the dad replied, ‘to keep the rabbits out.’
For the record, the next evening on a walk with buddy Jillian, I took a picture of a duck in Mordialloc Creek.
And this is a pelican –
Pelicans – symbols of mutual aid and love
The Australian Pelican (Pelecanus conspicillatus) is the largest of the shorebirds that can be found along Victoria’s coastline. It has a wingspan of 2.3-2.5 metres and weighs 4 to 6.8 kilos. Wild pelicans can live up to 25 years. Predominantly white with black along the perimeters of the wings, it has a large pale, pinkish bill. An Australian pelican was recorded with the longest bill of any bird in the world. It is the most southerly breeding of all pelican species and is the only pelican found in Australia.
Between the bones on the lower bill is a stretchy patch of skin called the gular pouch. The gular pouch will stretch when it is filled with water and can hold up to three gallons. Pelicans also have a large nail on the tip of the upper part of the bill. They have short legs and large feet with webbing between all four toes.
Their diet is mainly fish but they are carnivores and will eat turtles, crustaceans and other waterbirds. They can soar to heights of 10,000 feet and can commute 150 kilometres to feeding areas. Highly social, these diurnal birds fly together in groups which can be very large. They breed in large colonies of up to 40,000 individuals.
Strong, slow fliers they often glide on thermals to conserve energy. During flight, they pull their head inward towards their body and rest it on their shoulders. They have been known to remain airborne for 24 hours as they seek food.
Pelicans pair up every breeding season and stay with the one mate for the rest of the season.
Adult pelicans rarely use the few calls they have but can hiss, blow, groan, grunt, or bill-clatter. The young are more vocal than the adults and will loudly beg for food. Australian pelicans primarily communicate with visual cues using their wings, necks, bills, and pouches, especially in courtship displays.
Like all birds, Australian pelicans perceive their environment through visual, auditory, tactile, and chemical stimuli. Opportunistic feeders, they adapt to human activity quite easily and directly approach humans to be fed or will steal food, which is problematic because they get caught on fishing lines and hooks.
The Pelican’s Paparazzi
Always gathered at Stony Point
pelicans wait for boats to arrive
yet with beaks and wings so large
it’s fishing skill keeps them alive
perhaps these pelicans are lazy
or maybe they’re super smart
stocking food for a week in that beak
without having to dive and dart…
Stony Point’s fishermen’s table
a magnet for seabirds galore
shearwaters, seagulls – even swans
compete with pelicans for more
discarded fish guts, heads and tails
whatever fishermen don’t want to eat
I love to watch and capture on camera
the birds vying for a treat after treat
I can’t explain my pelican fascination
except they soar skywards with poise
and whether they stand, sit or float
they exude serenity without noise
they don’t screech, squeal, or twitter
but seem content to ‘just be’
if reincarnation is really a thing
then it’s a pelican I choose to be!
So little has changed at Stony Point thank goodness, although over the years signs have been added like the new banner announcing the naval facility is now managed by http://www.portofhastings.com and the new sign about French island is detailed and attractive.
Love for More Than One Place
When I developed cancer in 2010, I had lived in Australia nearly half a century, yet still felt I didn’t quite belong, still found myself homesick for Scotland, the land of my birth. I loved Australia, especially my home in Mordialloc where I have lived for thirty-five years. I married there and gave birth to my two daughters and brought them up in Mordialloc, but there was a passion missing, a sense of belonging I needed to ignite because if I was going to die should I return to Scotland?
After I finished chemotherapy I decided to create a bucket list because breast cancer and the treatment had me on the brink of death several times due to complications. I had always wanted to visit Australia’s red centre and see Uluru, in Australia’s heart and a sacred place for the Aborigines. I felt if I could get closer to the earth sacred to Aborigines, a connection to their mother, the country, would perhaps rub off on me.
Through research on the Internet, I discovered a tour company taking a group of writers to walk the Larapinta Trail called Desert Writers. Led by Jan Cornell, we’d spend five nights camping in the desert and walk the trail with two indigenous guides.
I didn’t hesitate and booked to fly to Alice Springs in July 2011 – still almost bald and a little fragile from a lumpectomy, haematoma, then radical mastectomy, three months of chemotherapy and a nasty bout of pneumonia thrown in for good measure.
The trip would not only realise a dream but would affirm I could still travel, which is one of my passions. It promised to encourage me to write, the most important passion I have. However, more importantly, I hoped to gain a greater appreciation and deeper connection to my adopted homeland, something I had not felt since being uprooted from Scotland as a child.
The journey fulfilled all my hopes and last year when I returned to Scotland after a twenty- year absence I loved being back, but returning to Mordialloc was coming home.
My place is Mordialloc, where I can walk along the seashore and as far as I can see there is freedom, an infinite sea, and endless sky.
I can stroll by the Creek enjoying the beauty of native and imported flowers and trees, listen to birdsong, laugh at the antics of ducks and seagulls.
I can breathe and feel secure, even at night, because wherever I am near the sea, John is with me. We sprinkled his ashes at Stony Point so he can wander distant lands, many he’d visited as a boy sailor but always his spirit can return when he feels inclined to touch these shores again.
Whenever the girls or I am near the sea we know John is there, just as the Aborigines know their country and walk in the knowledge their ancestors are protecting their place and their stories.
When I die, my ashes will be sprinkled into the sea at Stony Point. My first journey will be to my birth country, the Western Isles of Scotland, but I will always return to these shores as long as the girls are here and so much of my life’s story.
At Stony Point, I feel calm, serene and comfortable. It is one of several places I cherish as well as marvellous Mordi!
Over the last few weeks, I’ve struggled to write about Remembrance Day 2018 – or write about anything else on this blog because this anniversary was important and I wondered how I could do it justice and make sense of a lot of the thoughts rattling around in my head – particularly considering the fractious state of today’s world – a fact we are constantly reminded of due to the 24 hour news cycle and social media.
So buckle up – grab a cuppa or read the post in stages:) ponder the words and meaning of the poems, savour the poignancy of some of the photographs.
Peace does begin with ourselves, our families, our communities…
This year, the centenary of the signing of the Armistice in World War One – 11 November 1918 – signified PEACE at last, after four years of carnage, but as many people have already written, humanity ignored all the lessons learned and we’ve hardly stopped skirmishing or creating full-blown battles ever since.
Six Excuses Not To Write
1. I was distracted by the Victorian Election and busy working for the return of the Andrews Labor Government as well as Mordialloc’s local member, Tim Richardson MP who genuinely cares about the local community and works hard. I made this a priority and to be honest enjoyed myself and met many interesting people. No encounter every wasted for a writer…
The personal is political. Ever since my involvement in the Vietnam Moratorium Movement as a teenager, I’ve made activism a priority – the community is too important not to care enough to work for social justice and be a peace activist. If enough people care to speak up, it does make a difference. A change of government in 1972 and Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam brought the troops home.
At a get-together, before the “Danslide” as Daniel Andrews Labor win is described, we met in Tim’s office and I gave the Premier a couple of Mordialloc Writers’ Group anthologies and advised, ‘there is no better way to understand a community than through the poems and stories of its writers.”
I hope he reads them.
2. I mulled for hours at how to express the disquiet I feel about exhibits and projects at the Australian War Memorial being funded by arms manufacturers and the millions of dollars the Federal Government has spent on memorials rather than the health and well-being of veterans.
At the Centenary Celebration in Canberra, I saw first-hand elements of concern. Huge guns and tanks out the front (ironically pointing over the Field of Poppies and at the statue of Sir John Monash) as if these harbingers of death and destruction should be celebrated. There’s always going to be arguments about what is glorification and what is commemoration but there should never be a debate about prioritising the welfare of veteransand recent reports indicate we are letting them down.
3. I’ve spent my life studying history (a subject I love), travelling to as many places as I can afford, visiting exhibitions and museums, reading widely – I’m a person who tries to join the dots to understand ‘the human condition’ we writers love to explore. This topic has so many dots to join and I have an overabundance of thoughts that don’t necessarily provide answers or coherence. It was easier to procrastinate … but in a case of physician heal thyself – I did ‘jump in and just write‘ and followed the advice I give students!
4. I read again the poets of the First World War and visited a poignant and confronting art exhibition at Melbourne’s wonderful Shrine of Remembrance. An experience that deserves its own post although inextricably linked to the topic and so won’t get its own post now – please visit and experience for yourself.
5. The trips to Canberra, and to Melbourne’s Shrine, were to visit the culmination of the magnificent 5000 Poppy Project. The organisers did a superb job and I was keen to see what happened to my contributions. (As if I could find mine among the thousands of donations but ego being what it is … I should have been more creative and added sparkles or something so they would stand out!)
In Canberra, several installations were truly works of art and in Melbourne, the knitted tributes spelt out the familiar quote and linked lines from The Ode from Laurence Binyon’s For The Fallen, and its well-known response. Too many of us probably say the verses without pondering the meaning but I guarantee seeing the words ‘in blood’ sears your heart – especially with the thin red trail linking each line, like droplets of blood and a poignant reminder each poppy represents a lost life.
6. Maybe the most valid excuse is that the last few weeks of the school year are always manic as I collate and publish class anthologies – and this year, retiring from my position at Godfrey Street after 6 years, I wanted to go out ‘with a bang, not a whimper‘. I cracked the whip for my students and myself and there really is a finite time to sit at a computer and remain healthy. I crossed that line too often, burning the proverbial midnight oil with bad posture and tension taking its toll on legs, bones, and back.
Poppies At Melbourne’s Shrine of Remembrance
After walking amongst well-tended gardens, I rested in sanctuaries for those broken by experience and memories. Each secluded ‘garden’ displaying plants of different spheres of war for Australian troops.
I strolled darkened corridors absorbing the important stories we need to remember – depicted in a variety of ways without glorifying conflict. I climbed stairs to have a bird’s eye view and photograph magnificent Melbourne and the sweeping grounds of Victoria and Domain Gardens.
Skyscrapers and tree-lined boulevards and busy thoroughfares vastly different to 1918. The city those volunteers rushed to defend now remarkably different to what they would have known.
I pondered what Brendan Nelson and Kerry Stokes might learn from the management of Melbourne’s Shrine if they visited. I prefer the way Melbourne presents the story and the stories it chooses to promote. They also have courteous, friendly staff and volunteers.
A young woman approached me when she saw me reading the Memorial Book –
Are you looking for a relative?
Yes, thought I may find my uncle’s name.
Wait a moment and I’ll get the key…
Within minutes, she was back wearing white cotton gloves and wielding a key. She asked for my uncle’s surname, unlocked the relevant glass cabinet, and carefully turned the pages until his name was revealed. She then stood aside so I could take a picture of the page.
It was a busy day for visitors because the poppy installation was being removed the next day, yet the young woman took the time to offer me a service I didn’t know about – she went above and beyond and personalised my experience!
The exhibition by artist Craig Barrett called EVERYMAN is an emotionally moving experience. Craig incorporated poetry into his art.
In 2005, he wrote:
Four men from my family were caught up in the great tides of men fighting on the Western front of the First World War… Great Uncle George remains there… others returned home with their wounds and nightmares.
In recent years I have become aware of the poets of the First World War. These men were artists who conveyed powerful images through words from their camps, their trenches, and their hospitals.
I found myself especially moved by the words of the English poets Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon… Growing up I knew little and understood less of what these men had witnessed. The poetry of Owen and Sassoon has given me a glimpse of my own family and of the family of Man entangled in war…
These words resonated because I too have an “Uncle George” I’ve written about and it is this exploration and family connection that set me on a path, to learn why a nineteen-year-old relative is buried in Egypt. How did he die? How did his death affect his family, especially sister, Kitty whom we met in 1962 when we migrated to Australia?
I remember, Aunt Kitty’s air of sadness. I was nine-years-old and at night we sat at her feet listening to stories about the Australian branch of the clan, about ANZACS and a war in a land near where our ship had passed when we came through the Suez Canal.
EVERYMAN Siegfried Sassoon
The weariness of life that has no will To climb the steepening hill: The sickness of the soul for sleep, and to be still. And then once more the impassioned pygmy fist Clenches cloudward and defiant; The ride that would prevail, the doomed protagonist, Grappling the ghostly giant. Victim and venturer, turn by turn; and then Set free to be again Companion in repose with those who once were men.
Is Every Generation Destined to Repeat The Mistakes Of The Past?
Is there a need for us all to look deeper into what causes war, and what prevents a lasting peace?
Yet, there have been enquiries and research, backed by evidence and statistics, about the need for more resources to work in the community to combat radicalisation, and the alienation from mainstream society many young people experience. Experts encourage projects to improve inclusiveness and the mental health of those at risk of turning to violence.
Men who have been caught or suspected of terrorist acts often have a history of domestic violence. In Australia, more than 72 women and 20 children have been killed since January 2018 because of domestic and family violence. Despite knowing what we must do there seems a lack of political and social will and a lack of coordination and funding of resources to make a national difference to this scourge of homegrown terrorism.
And then there’s the refusal or reluctance of people to recognise the Colonial Warsand the Aboriginal nations who were here and valiantly fought to keep possession of their land from colonial invaders.
As John Lennon so aptly said, we have to make PEACE and do it right!
Will We Ever See A War to End All Wars?
Armistice Day November 11, 1918, which led to the end of World War One – the war to end all wars – did not herald a lasting peace. A war has been fought somewhere in the world ever since and many historians agree that the conditions of the peace seemed to set the scene for the Second World War.
Every day the nightly news brings us footage of soldiers and militarised police forces under fire or firing guns of formidable power somewhere in the world.
In many parts of the world, there are generations who have NEVER known peace. I was a volunteer tutor every Saturday morning to a Sudanese refugee for a year. A young woman in her 40s, with five children and a husband still stuck in a camp in Kenya, Mary had lived in a state of war in her country since she was 14 years old.
No life’s worth more than any other, no sister worth less than any brother.
Peace requires effort and political will and to suggest no one wants war is wrong – arms manufacturers thrive on war, which is why their influence (even in local elections under the guise of ‘shooters and fishers’ ) is alarming.
They fund public institutions and political parties for a reason. Look no further than the power the National Rifle Association wields in the USA. Working towards peace requires recognition that the Roman poet, Horace‘s oft-used quote Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori ( It is sweet and right to die for your country) encouraged militarism and is indeed ‘The old lie” that WW1 poet Wilfred Owens asserts at the end of his most famous poem.
A poem thought to have been written between 8 October 1917 and March 1918 after his years of witnessing the horrific slaughter and destruction on the battlefields of France and Belgium:
DULCE ET DECORUM EST Wilfred Owen
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks, Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge, Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs And towards our distant rest began to trudge. Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind; Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind. Gas!Gas! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling, Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time; But someone still was yelling out and stumbling, And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime . . . Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light, As under a green sea, I saw him drowning. In all my dreams, before my helpless sight, He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning. If in some smothering dreams you too could pace Behind the wagon that we flung him in, And watch the white eyes writhing in his face, His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin; If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs, Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues, My friend, you would not tell with such high zest To children ardent for some desperate glory, The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est Pro patria mori.
Can we blame the Romans for our culture of militarism and seeking military solutions?
Many of us read the words of these WW1 poets at school but whether we really absorbed their message is difficult to say – unless you had experienced war or grief and could empathise – and that’s difficult for school children.
It’s difficult for some adults, which is why writers must choose words carefully and why poetry, short stories and novels can help with empathy. Here is an interesting extract from a short memoir I read recently:
During my deployments, I only had to fire my gun twice in engagements, and, in retrospect, neither of those firings was likely warranted. Suffice it to say that both times, I could feel my heart shaking, and I came close to wetting my pants. The only film I’ve ever seen that captures this feeling—part terror, part adrenaline rush—is The Thin Red Line, and specifically in this woods scene, where the soldier becomes lost in the dark. He hears himself panting. Soon, bullets whish past him—directionless, it seems—and the only precedent for this, apart from Dante, astray on his path in the woods, might be Camus’s hapless prisoner in “The Guest,” who finds himself stranded and alone on the Algerian plains. What makes war so frightening isn’t the likeliness of death. It isn’t the suffering. It isn’t the inconsequentiality of humanness. Indeed, these are all apparent to anyone who’s reached middle age. Rather, it’s that sense of being alone. And I would hypothesize that it only comes to light in a warzone. After all, one realizes, especially in moments like this, that those who kill do not have any inherent fixed loyalties. Each human is invariably alone, regardless of the colors they wear.
Each year documentaries are made of the tragedy and sacrifice of a whole generation in WW1, but in the words of singer/songwriter Eric Bogle, ‘… it all happened again… And again, and again …’
GREEN FIELDS OF FRANCE
Oh how do you do, young Willy McBride Do you mind if I sit here down by your graveside And rest for a while in the warm summer sun I’ve been walking all day, and I’m nearly done And I see by your gravestone you were only nineteen When you joined the great fallen in 1916 Well I hope you died quick And I hope you died clean Or Willy McBride, was is it slow and obscene
Did they beat the drums slowly Did they play the fife lowly Did they sound the death march as they lowered you down Did the band play the last post and chorus Did the pipes play the flowers of the forest
And did you leave a wife or a sweetheart behind In some loyal heart is your memory enshrined And though you died back in 1916 To that loyal heart, you’re forever nineteen Or are you a stranger without even a name Forever enshrined behind some old glass pane In an old photograph torn, tattered, and stained And faded to yellow in a brown leather frame
Did they beat the drums slowly Did they play the fife lowly Did they sound the death march as they lowered you down Did the band play the last post and chorus Did the pipes play the flowers of the forest
The sun shining down on these green fields of France The warm wind blows gently and the red poppies dance The trenches have vanished long under the plough No gas, no barbed wire, no guns firing now But here in this graveyard that’s still no man’s land The countless white crosses in mute witness stand To man’s blind indifference to his fellow man And a whole generation who were butchered and damned
Did they beat the drums slowly Did they play the fife lowly Did they sound the death march as they lowered you down Did the band play the last post and chorus Did the pipes play the flowers of the forest
And I can’t help but wonder oh Willy McBride Do all those who lie here know why they died Did you really believe them when they told you the cause? Did you really believe that this war would end wars? Well the suffering, the sorrow, the glory, the shame The killing and dying it was all done in vain Oh, Willy McBride, it all happened again And again, and again, and again, and again
Did they beat the drums slowly Did they play the fife lowly Did they sound the death march as they lowered you down Did the band play the last post and chorus Did the pipes play the flowers of the forest
The horrors of WW2, Malaya, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan… we keep adding to the toll, make the words of the poets even more poignant when we realise the average age of soldiers who die in wars are 19, 20, 21, 22…
ANTHEM FOR DOOMED YOUTH Wilfred Owen
What passing-bells for these who die as cattle? — Only the monstrous anger of the guns. Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle Can patter out their hasty orisons. No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells; Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,— The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells; And bugles calling for them from sad shires.
What candles may be held to speed them all? Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes. The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall; Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds, And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.
Is a Plea for a Change in Priorities to emphasise PEACE too much to ask?
November 11 is a reminder, not only of the tragedy and futility ofWW1 and many other wars since but a warning of the fragility of peace and the importance of working hard to avoid conflict.
The Canberra Rotary Club is making an effort to remind people of the importance of peace and has built an easily accessible World Peace Bell as well as introducing the Rotary Peace Prize.
There are at least 23 of these bells throughout the world with plans for more. Volunteers man the bell at busy times encouraging people to recite an oath as well as ring the bell so the sound carries across the lake.
The volunteer who helped me explained the history and ensured I understood the affirmation, before reciting the lines aloud.
As I walked through Nara Park and visited the National Museum on the other side of the lake, the bell’s beautiful, deep, resonant tone tolled for peace.
The first recipients of the Peace Prize long-term advocates for world peace and activists in raising awareness and requesting an adjustment of society’s priorities:
Nation states, perhaps individual tribes and families. 21st-century social media exposes
All humanity – those not so lucky or ones we are told to fear –
Those trapped in places where war is an integral part of their journey from birth…
In my lifetime, the Middle East a constant muddle of bombs and brutality
Or the African continent with droughts, internecine wars, deadly viruses and famines
Not forgetting our neighbourhood’s volatility in the hands of Rocket Man & Dotard…
A world of sharing, no possessions to kill or die for, a world of peace
No borders! This dream elicits accusations ranging from lunacy to scorn
Dreaming and desiring the impossible…
Dreaming? Imagining a better future – isn’t that what we wish for our children?
Religious fundamentalists and fanatics insist
Everyone believe or have faith in a deity you can’t see, imagining a heaven and hell
And for many acquisitive others, it is land and possessions – they
Mean power, progress, personal esteem. It is difficult, but so important, to imagine
Sharing ALL the world and its bounties – thank you, John, for gifting your dream…
When you flip the peace sign upside down, it’s composed of the ancient rune ‘Algiz’ inside of a circle. ‘Algiz’ represents life, beginning, and protection; very fitting for a symbol of peace. … Add it all together, and an upside-down peace sign literally means ‘endless peace’.
He was 19 years old when they laid him to rest in Egypt and as far as I know, no member of the family has ever visited his grave. His death and the grief that followed changed the lives of his parents and siblings forever – a common tragedy for so many families worldwide detailed in letters, diaries, poems, novels, and memoir.
Dear Mum and Dad Mairi Neil
WW1 began in 1914, the fighting lasted four years, but grief lasts a lifetime.
I see you both in my dreams the image helps suppress the screams of many mates who have been shot–– This world has really gone to pot!
When I joined up to come and fight I thought I was doing what was right But Mum those Bible texts you read Don’t explain what it’s like to kill – or be dead.
Young Johnny Parker from down the road Shot on landing. Floats at sea –– a bloated toad. So many like him, bodies never retrieved No prayers, no burial, relatives deceived.
If I’m shot soon, or perhaps blown apart You’ll receive a letter to ease a painful heart But take what it says with a pinch of salt It’s madness here -no decency, nobody’s fault.
The cardboard dog tags disintegrated when a body rots or is incinerated Identities disappear over time – whole battalions consumed in lime
So just as I dream of both of you Hold fast your memories of me too Because if like snow, I don’t survive Only reminiscing will keep me alive.
My visit to Canberra for Remembrance Day to see the Field of Poppies (62,000 of them) and take part in the national ceremony commemorating the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Armistice that ended the First World War, allowed me to take part in a historic occasion but also made me reflect on the past, present and think of the future.
What stories we keep, how we pass stories from one generation to another, and the relevance and meaning of the stories we choose, whether personal or public.
In Canberra, amidst the field of poppies, it was sobering to discover people who didn’t know the significance of the flower, and others that didn’t seem to care, like the private security firm that used the field as an opportunity to have a promotional photoshoot – replete with uniforms and guard dogs.
Two men wandered around on Remembrance Day dressed in WW1 uniforms offering to pose for photos and a volunteer from the poppy project confided she had to chastise a group of young girls who laid down amongst the poppies uncaring of damage because they wanted to pose for pictures on Instagram and Facebook. There were also those who stole souvenirs from the installation, which volunteers spent hours replacing.
Parades and displays can be ignored but if everyone’s routine is interrupted – even for two minutes – perhaps it will make people ask why. Why the carnage, why do we go to war? Is there another way to solve disputes? Should we rely on a few leaders to decide our destiny?
Parliament House, Canberra
There were two displays at Parliament House (270,000 poppies).
The 5000 POPPIES project has left me in awe at how a simple idea encouraged involvement from people all over the world as well as educating about the loss of life in WW1 – and subsequent wars.
If it made people pause and consider the human cost of war, perhaps think of their family and their country’s history, seek information and reflect, then it has been a success.
Always the honour roll of those who died in conflict either at home or abroad confronts and shocks – alphabetical lists that in peacetime are associated with telephone books and thick tomes of the living.
Australia talks about thousands of lives lost, but for other nations it is millions! When I was in Irkutsk in Russia last year, a guide said to me, ‘In Russia, we list the names of survivors (mainly officers and ‘heroes’, I might add) because there aren’t enough walls to list the dead.’
Throughout the world, we have listed on walls, monuments, and in remembrance books, names while bodies and ashes lie elsewhere. Many resting in places where loved ones never, or can never visit.
Thousands of blood-red poppies a stunning visual reminder – each one different – representing the individuality of each lost life. The gaps in the field of poppies remind us not every casualty was/is found or identified.
For me, the creative project a chance to DO something and make a practical contribution to remembrance. Others, obviously, felt the same because it fired imaginations and activities in so many places: neighbourhood houses, U3As, schools, churches, numerous community and family groups and private individuals… and hopefully inspired discussions.
1918-2018: 5000 POPPIES – A TRIBUTE
At Parliament House, the forecourt installation of handmade poppies will be there from 9-18 November while the Marble foyer poppy installation will remain until 3 February 2019.
This display of poppies, lovingly created by 5000 Poppies project volunteers – many of whom are descendants of original Anzacs – is a tribute to the thousands of Australians who died in the First World War.
It complements the sea of handcrafted poppies that will carpet the Parliament House Forecourt to mark the 100th anniversary of the Armistice, 11 November 1918. With a direct line of sight to the Australian War Memorial, the display connects with the 62,000 poppies installed on the Memorial’s grounds representing every Australian life lost in the First World War.
Courtesy of traditional and social media we’ve been flooded with information – overloaded some will say, yet it is amazing how even after 100 years, new stories and information surface.
I’ve visited places, met people, and learnt history I didn’t know and fulfilled my love of joining the dots and understanding connections. On a recent visit to Caulfield Town Hall, to their art gallery, an amazing Poppy Exhibition made me pause and read the individual stories of local VC recipients but also drew my attention to the memorial boards that cover every wall of the spacious foyer – 31 large bronze panels with 1,554 names.
Although Caufield City Council first started compiling names of soldiers, sailors and nurses from the Caulfield district as early as 1915, it would be more than a decade before they were publicly displayed… In 1930, Caulfield Town Hall underwent a major redevelopment… which included a colonnade portico opening on to a spacious memorial foyer, with a marble dado surmounted by bronze tablets. Inscribed… were the names of all those who enlisted in the Australian Imperial Forces from Caulfield… the criteria for inclusion was to have been living in the City of Caulfield at the time of enlistment, and it includes both lost and returned service people… At the time of its construction, the municipality of Caulfield included the suburbs of Elsternwick, Balaclava, St Kilda East, Carnegie, Murumbeena, Glen Huntly and Gardenvale…
There is a lovely Japanese garden at Caulfield Town Hall and I hope people visiting the Remembrance Day display took some time, like I did, to sit and calm their anger (and it is anger we should feel) at what a senseless waste of life wars are, and especially WW1 – tragedies of epic proportions.
Yet, all over Australia, we have sister city relationships with countries that may have been our enemy at some stage of history – relationships that contribute to understanding and tolerance and help make a lasting peace.
Sassoon recognised how violence and war changed men and struggled to get much of his anti-war poetry published. When he wrote, “I believe that this War is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it,” in an open letter to the House of Commons, it took the intervention of poet Robert Graves to save him from court-martial declaring Sassoon suffered shell-shock and needed to be hospitalised.
Some could argue that it was only the insane who couldn’t see the truth of his words.
Through darkness curves a spume of falling flares That flood the field with shallow, blanching light. The huddled sentry stares On gloom at war with white, And white receding slow, submerged in gloom. Guns into mimic thunder burst and boom, And mirthless laughter rakes the whistling night. The sentry keeps his watch where no one stirs But the brown rats, the nimble scavengers.
While in Canberra for the commemoration ceremony at the War Memorial, I visited the current exhibition ‘Rome‘ at the National Museum displaying artefacts from the British Museum. There is a marble statue fragment of a barbarian (Ramleh, Egypt, 160-170 CE), which I thought depicted the anguish felt by war’s victims both civilian and military that the WW1 poets captured in words.
This bound captive is looking up at what remains of a larger figure, perhaps intended to depict Victory. He has Germanic facial features, but he is wearing a Phrygian hat of a style worn in the Eastern Mediterranean region. This suggests that he represents a generic ‘barbarian’ or enemy of Rome. Such depictions emphasise how one of Rome’s great missions was to ‘vanquish the proud’.
“From War” an Exhibition by the Australian National Veterans Arts Museum at Parliament House, Canberra
For many veteran artists making art is both an expression of personal creativity and a way of ‘making meaning’.
Veteran artistic practices draw upon, and extend beyond, the individual’s experience of war and service. For some, art is a lifeline and a life force; a way to tell stories and ask important questions about themselves and their place in society.
Representing a diverse range of mediums including photography, painting, sculpture, drawing, textiles and poetry, the artists featured in the exhibition reflect on their personal questions and processes, sharing unique stories of their lived experience.
The catalyst for the establishment of the Australian National Veterans Arts Museum was veterans’ mental health. It provides a creative and multi-faceted approach to supporting veterans and families through the arts, engaging with our veteran history and heritage, culture and identity to bring forward an approach grounded in creative expression and community.
Upending modern models ANVAM uses familiar tools, the arts and place, engaging early to promote validation, identity and purpose reframing the future for those returning from war or service.How do you capture the experience of war and its aftermath and convey that to others so they understand?
Sassoon’s honesty fobbed off as shell shock, which today we know as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) – and almost all veterans will have their share of depression as well as other symptoms of PTSD.
Statistics don’t tell individual stories, official documents can be doctored and presented from a particular perspective depending on what narrative governments want to spin. Even letters and diaries from those who were there or those writing about friends and family may have a particular perspective, may have been censored, or may deliberately alter facts to spare feelings.
I hope all politicians and senior Defence personnel take the time to look at the artwork and read the poetry on display at Parliament House.
A Poetic Honour Bill Charlton, (2013)
There is no greater accolade a soldier can be shown Than to have his deeds recorded in the verses of a poem. For medals tend to varnish and history can be wrong, And the stories we are left with, can be stretched as time goes on.
But the simple story-telling that’s contained within a poem Can survive through generations by word of mouth alone. And the rhythm/rhyming nature of these classics of the past Are easy to remember and ensure these stories last.
Great books will parch and crumble and epitaphs will fade And tombstones all will vanish no matter how they’re made. But the simple little verses that we pass on down the line Are remembered with affection and have stood the test of time.
So if you have the fortune to be mentioned in a poem Or you know some-one who has been, on the strength of deeds alone, Then be sure that it’s an honour, which can rarely be attained For it makes a man immortal for as long as it’s maintained.
Bill Charlton, born 1943, joined the Australian Army and served with the 1st Battalion Royal Australian Regiment in the 60s, including South Vietnam. Bill had always been interested in writing verse often sending snippets home to his wife, Robyn, which he never completed. He continued writing snippets for years after his service until he was encouraged to take up writing poetry by his wife and children, then the snippets became poems. His first attempt at poetry resulted in a literary award and encouraged he continued writing and published two books of poetry illustrated by Robyn: A Rugged Bunch of Diggers 1 and 2 and a children’s book Lulu, the Kangaroo. He continues to write individual poems for the 521 soldiers who died during the Vietnam War.
Sleep George Mansford, (September 2016)
If I could only sleep the sleep of sleeps To capture sweet deeds I can keep In the cloak of night greet blissful rest so rare To dream of peace and even love should I dare
I cannot escape this shrinking smothering room Painted with spite, hate and terrible doom I am shackled to the past and never to be free Deep sleep in pure white sheets is not to be
Oh to be deaf to shrieks and howls spat from spiteful guns Blind to flitting silent shadows mid the last rays of dying suns Be gone the shuffling file of haunted faces never to smile again If only a welcome storm to wash away the guilt and pain
In this lonely bed, to dream of peace, goodwill and love To walk mid young green forests reaching high above To hear the joyful welcome calls of feathered birds so bright To shut out the darkness of yesterday and seek tomorrow’s light.
George Mansford AM, born 1934, served in the Australian Army between 1950 and 1990 including Korea, Malayan Emergency, Malaysia, Thai Border, South Vietnam, New Guinea, Singapore and Cyclone Tracy. Having just returned home from Vietnam 1967, he started to write poetry after his first wife died. On losing his second wife and son, his writing increased dramatically as he discovered that writing was a fortunate distraction from grief and anger of war.
‘I found that promoting peace, love of country and such deep camaraderie was a wonderful sedative. It was what my loved ones and old comrades want.’
George is the author of Junior Leadership on the Battlefield and The Mad Galahs.
The Progress Barham J. R. Ferguson, (28 August 2018)
The fog that hugs my legs like a refugee, Shows the steps of progress towards my own peace. I have fought for the peace of others And lost more than blood in the process, But I know that hope stands not behind me.
See my anguish in the oils, See my scars in the sculpture, See my pity in the poetry, See my failure in the photographs, Hear my sorrow in the song.
I miss the moment of living the dream, Of knowing those at home are thinking of me. Praying for me. Worried about me. Today however, they only worry about me. It’s not the enemy that hunts me, nor the Danger that surrounds me. It is for the danger within.
My current battle is with doubt. Memories. Questions I cannot answer. Images so vivid, I can hear them.
But the fighter in me stands tall. I can win this war as I have done before. Not for me, but for others. This is why I served. This is who I am, Either in or out of service. So help me make that step.
And watch me emerge as a similar person To the one you knew. Similar, but better. That you can then See my ambition in oils, See my skills in sculpture, See my power in poetry, See my future in photographs, and Hear my strength in song.
It is now that I realise, My child that hugs my legs like a refugee, Speeds the steps of progress to my own peace.
Barham Ferguson, born 1968, joined the Australian army in 1987 and saw operational service in Papua New Guinea, Southern Thailand, Iraq, Afghanistan, South Sudan, Israel, Lebanon and Jordan. An Ambassador for the Australian National veterans Art Museum and a longtime supporter of veterans’ issues, Barham discharged in July 2018 and lives in Canberra with his daughter. He is the author of Love, Life and ANZAC Biscuits, (2013), and A Feeling of Belonging (1999).
Through The Mirror Barham J.R. Ferguson, (13 February 2017)
Through the mirror of the past, I see myself in memories vast. A warrior, not once outclassed, This was who I was.
From the dust of duty first, The last hoorah of machine gun burst, Wounds of war no longer nursed, The world knew who I was.
Homeward bound with dreams anew, Perceptions changed on what I do, My useful skills seemed less than few, I defended who I was.
Fighting family, fighting friends, The war has changed, it never ends. ‘’Is my life pointless?” Now depends, On knowing who I am.
Where to start, and what to do? What do I have that pleases you? There’s things inside that still ring true, They make me who I am.
Strength and honour. Discipline. These soldier traits have not worn thin, Unlike the uniform in the bin, These traits are who I am.
There’s many more that made me me, When I was in the military, But in these threads I now can see, That made me who I am.
Now it’s time to do what’s right, To find a mission, and gain insight, To be the me who can sleep at night, ‘Cause I do know who I am.
At the Australian War Memorial, there is a Flanders Field Garden planted with poppies and with the words of John McCrae’s poem carved on the walls to remind us that in Ypres, Belgium, ‘men died in their thousands and the medieval town was reduced to ruins.’
In Flanders Fields John McCrae
In Flanders fields the poppies blow Between the crosses, row on row, That mark our place; and in the sky The larks, still bravely singing, fly Scarce heard amid the guns below. We are the Dead. Short days ago We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow, Loved and were loved, and now we lie, In Flanders fields. Take up our quarrel with the foe: To you from failing hands we throw The torch; be yours to hold it high. If ye break faith with us who die We shall not sleep, though poppies grow In Flanders fields.
The Unknown Australian Soldier
This year was the 25th anniversary of the interment of the Unknown Australian Soldier, who represents all Australians who have been killed in war. At the head of the tomb are the words, ‘Known unto God’, and at the foot, ‘He is all of them and he is one of us.’
“Plans to honour an unknown Australian soldier were first put forward in the 1920s, but it was not until 1993 that one was at last brought home. to mark the 75th anniversary of the end of the First World War, the remains of the soldier were recovered from Adelaide Cemetery near Villers-Bretonneux in France and transported to Australia. After lying in state in King’s Hall in Old Parliament House, the Unknown Australian Soldier was interred in the Hall of memory at the memorial on 11 November 1993. He was buried with a bayonet and a sprig of wattle in a Tasmanian blackwood coffin, and soil from Pozieres was scattered in his tomb.”
The eulogy for the Unknown Soldier was first delivered by the Honourable Paul Keating in 1993. In Canberra, on the Centenary of the Armistice, a recording was played of his speech.
The words are memorable and moving but perhaps the lines that need to be emphasised more often are:
This Unknown Australian is not interred here to glorify war over peace; or to assert a soldier’s character above a civilian’s; or one race or one nation or one religion above another; or men above women; or the war in which he fought and died above any other war; or of one generation above any that has or will come later…We have lost more than 100,000 lives, and with them all their love of this country and all their hope and energy…It is not too much to hope, therefore, that this Unknown Australian Soldier might continue to serve his country – he might enshrine a nation’s love of peace and remind us that in the sacrifice of the men and women whose names are recorded here there is faith enough for all of us.’
The current exhibitions in Canberra at the National Museum and National Library add more food for thought as well as steps in the evolution of the ‘nation’ Paul Keating was talking about.
Rome reveals how integral the military was to the Roman Empire’s greatness and an exhibition on Captain Cook and his Voyages touches on the Colonial Wars and Aborigines fighting the invasion of their land by representatives of the British Empire.
The powerful Roman and British Empires now diminished and if nothing else, the tide of history seems predictable but has mankind learnt a ‘love of peace’?
Thank Goodness For Community Initiatives
While national politicians and governments may let their people down, there are plenty of instances of grassroots initiatives – and therefore HOPE.
Nara Peace Park, Canberra, is a case in point – not only has it the Peace Bell but myriad sections, sculptures and plaques making a statement about peace.
TOKU 2010 by artist Shinki Kato born 1955
Toku was commissioned to celebrate the 1300th anniversary of Japan’s ancient capital, Nara. The sculpture has three main elements: A five-storied pagoda form which represents Canberra; a floating stone representing Nara; and the form of a small bird symbolising peace.
The bird resembles a Latham’s Snipe, a species which migrates annually between Japan and Canberra. The artist has created Toku to express the amicable relationship and mutual understanding shared by Canberra and Nara as sister cities.
There are tranquil areas to meander through or sit and enjoy the beauty of the gardens and lake. The day I visited, families were picnicking and playing.
The Pen Mightier Than The Sword
As you walk through the park there is evidence that we shouldn’t take the beauty, or sentiments, for granted. At the base of several trees are plaques – sadly some were damaged and worn by the weather. The plaques reminders that writers from poets to journalists have lost their lives fighting to express and defend ideas and freedom of speech.
“The spirit dies in all of us who keep silent in the face of tyranny”
The plaques and trees were a ‘memorial to writers who have fought for freedom of speech” and was conceived through the vision and work of the ACT members of PEN International and dedicated by the Minister for Arts and Heritage, Mr Gary Humphries MLA, on 17 November 1996.
East Timor – Greg Shackelton, Brian Peters, Malcolm, Rennie, Tony Stewart, Gary Cunningham Journalists murdered October 1975 and Roger East Dili, December 1975
Konca Kuris tortured and murdered for advocating women’s rights in Islam 1960-98
Galina Starovoitova shot St Petersburg Russia 20 November 1998 aged 22, Larissa Yudina knifed Elista Kalmykia Russia June 1998 aged 33, killed for defending democracy and free speech
Meena Kishwarkanel poet, journalist and defender of women’s rights 1957-87
Robert walker Aboriginal poet 1958-84
Among the dedications:
Kenule Beeson Saro-Wewa, Nigerian playwright,
Meena Kishwarkanel, poet and journalist,
Russians: Galina Starovoitova, ethnographer and dissident politician, and Larissa Ludina, newspaper editor,
Konka Kuris Turkish feminist writer,
Robert Walker Aboriginal poet, and
the Balibo Five, Australian journalists murdered in East Timor 1975: Greg Shackleton, Brian East, Gary Cunningham, Tony Stewart, Malcolm Rennie and
journalist Roger East killed in Dili, 1975.
Hopefully, somewhere a memorial plaque will be made for Jamal Khashoggi recently assassinated by agents of the Saudi Government. The plaque, a permanent reminder of those who use words to defend our right to speak and challenge those who think suppression and violence a solution.
However, for every writer silenced, there is always another who picks up the pen to peacefully bring about change. The belief that the pen is mightier than the sword and words can make a difference, a good enough motivation for me to keep writing.
Coco Chanel apparently said, ‘Nature gives you the face you have at 20. Life shapes the face you have at 30, but at 50 you get the face you deserve.’
If we sulked or made a funny or unpleasant face, my Mum used to warn, ‘the wind will change and you’ll stay like that.’ Both my parents championed smiling and politeness and modelled being friendly and pleasant.
‘You use more muscles to frown than smile’ is always a good comeback when someone looks glum, but there is no scientific proof behind the old saying!
“Scientists have studied the muscles needed for both facial expressions, and to do a small smile generally uses 10 muscles; a small frown uses 6. On average, a smile uses 12 and a frown 11. However, since humans tend to smile a lot, these muscles are stronger. A frown may be slightly more effort to produce just because we aren’t as used to using these muscles.”
However, scientific proof or not, I’m sticking with smiles, politeness and kindness to people because I feel better when I do and following another piece of Mum advice, ‘civility costs nothing.’
My face – wrinkles et al – reflects life hasn’t been easy but there are plenty of laughter lines and when I meet up with friends there are usually smiles and laughter aplenty and I try and catch up with as many as possible during term breaks.
Spring In Melbourne Town 2018
(A hybrid Haibun)
Today, I won’t be grey and miserable
and definitely ‘not over the hill’
I’m meeting a friend of many years
several hours we’ll happily fill.
On way to the train U3A club gathering ‘Nice day for an outing!’
Dressed for mercurial Melbourne
sturdy shoes and light jackets,
sunglasses, lanyards with names,
backpacks and lunch in packets.
‘Join us?’ their chorus prepared for fun and adventure my kind of ageing…
On the train beside a Metro worker
who’s heading for Glenhuntly Station
we chat about insecure work and gender
driving a train once her inclination.
‘I’m on the bus now Meet you under the clocks C u soon’
A confirmation text received
we’ve embraced the digital age
but I open a book of poetry –
I prefer words written on the page.
Train stops Platform 10 30 steps to reach the street ever mindful of heart health
Food court wafts hot chips, coffee and cake
September’s Showtime and school hols
Flinders station’s abuzz with children
plus seagull, sparrow and pigeon trolls.
Myki tapped lightly eyes seek a waiting friend welcome smiles and hug
Age hasn’t happened all at once
however, we stroll not stride, to NGV
with hours to enjoy art and beauty
top priorities a pee and a cup of tea!
A young girl walks by her straw hat embroidered – the word – ‘paradise‘
Indeed! Melbourne – the world’s most liveable city.
Old friends are gold
Uma and I go back forty years BC (before children) and have encountered storms and defeats; sunny days and triumphs. Recently, retired from full-time work Uma is recovering from a serious back operation. I’m a few years older, almost retired from part-time work – four months to go – but who is counting!
For a just celebrated 61st birthday, Uma received membership to the NGV and as we walked from Flinders Street Station, she extolled the advantages and virtues of access to talks, special events, behind the scene views, plus a membership lounge – our first stop for a complimentary cuppa.
I love the NGV too – it is celebrating 50 years this year and I can remember it being built. In fact, I can remember the obligatory school excursion where you got to lie on the floor and stare up at the magnificent and unusual leadlight glass ceiling.
There are always several special exhibitions at the NGV, plus their permanent collection. Uma’s input and knowledge from attending member lectures added to the richness of the day as we wandered through galleries discussing exhibits.
A recent talk about Nick Cave’s work: Sound Suit made her think differently about the pieces and how we perceive each other.
Nick Cave makes sculptures that you can wear. These outfits cover the body and remove all traces of the wearer’s identity. When you are wearing a Soundsuit, no one can tell whether you are rich or poor, black or white, male or female…he created his Soundsuit series in an attempt to process his trauma associated with the 1992 Los Angeles riots.
…wearable sculptures act as symbols of endurance and a form of protection by obscuring all signs of the wearer’s race, gender, age, sexual identification and class…
…made from everyday materials sourced largely from flea markets, including dyed human hair, plastic buttons, beads and feathers…joyous and spectacular…rattle and resonate when worn in performance.
Both Uma and I were busy mums in 1992, with our firstborns leaving Prep and our second children preparing for playgroup and three-year-old kindergarten. International events reported via radio or television and often delayed by hours but the 1992 LA riots unforgettable because at the same time Australia was facing the reality of the Stolen Generation stories and alarming statistics of Aboriginal deaths in custody.
I expressed my anger and fears at Readings By The Bay, the monthly poetry and story readings held by Mordialloc Writers’ Group:
Our Burning Shame
Mairi Neil 1992
Rodney King – who gave you that name?
A “king’ in a black skin…
some will see the irony
or is it okay as a surname.
Is your destiny entwined
with that other dreamer?
The world watched in horror
as they beat you to the ground…
on the ground
into the ground.
The gang of four with official batons
grasped tightly, wielded as if warriors
beating your head
beating your body
beating your legs
Pounding, pounding, pounding…
a steady funeral dirge
burying the myth racial equality is accepted
Middle-class liberals gasped
horrified at the naked truth
other victims sighed with relief
the truth at last revealed.
Those with the power to change
shrugged away the fuss
A picture is worth a thousand words
a video worth a thousand affidavits
television news beamed across the nation
worth a thousand protests
an opportune political decision
worth a thousand votes
Time dimmed the anger and horror
even brutes deserve a trial…
innocent until proven guilty
but will Nuremberg be revisited?
We waited for the sentence
believing we knew the judgement
A jury without black faces
proved society is controlled
by red necks preferring white liars
who can live with red faces
Now Los Angeles burns –
along with our shame
those with real power
Cosmetics mask ugly faces
waspish capitalists sting
again and again and again…
Shocked Australians are horrified
yet reality reveals our guilt
when black deaths in custody
Our custodians of the law
don’t need lessons in brutality
we watched the scenes in LA
but closed minds
can be switched off
just like television sets
Will our cities burn
Now, of course, the time delay is only seconds. The 24Hour media cycle (circus?) barely gives us time to digest, never mind process, events. There are social media platforms and mobile devices offering no escape or relief, and ironically, the reality of ‘fake’ news.
After almost three decades I have to pause, reflect, and ask how much have attitudes and behaviour changed?
Will the wider dissemination of news and events via the Internet make people seek further knowledge, see a different perspective, consider a change in behaviour or attitude – or will it just cement their own truth and beliefs?
Across the room beside Sound Suits is Amelia Falling by Hank Willis Thomas, a most effective photographic image on a mirror and depicting Alabama 1965– I remember that too almost three decades before the LA Riots! :
Amelia Falling is derived from an archival photograph taken by photojournalist Spider Martin during the Selma to Montgomery marches in Alabama in 1965…
… civil rights activist Amelia Boynton Robinson being carried by fellow marchers after having been gassed and beaten by State Troopers during what was intended to be a peaceful protest…
Willis Thomas states, ‘In a lot of my work I ask the viewer not to be passive but to actually think about active participation’.
What artwork will the Trump era produce – chronicle our despair, facilitate change or confront our shame?
Trumpeting Limericks To Let Off Steam
Mairi Neil, 2016
There once was a candidate Trump
elected by those who took hump
at moneyed elites
according to tweets
by Trump’s collective misogynist clump
He blew bigots up like a bicycle pump
‘deplorables’ swelled to a poisonous lump
forget about facts
diplomacy or tact
winning is all that matters to Trump
As the President-elect Donald Trump
sneered at women considered plump
his unleashed tongue
grotesque insults flung
Trump’s misogyny a cancerous lump
His presidency corrupt at the core
means the United States no more
anger and hate
an uncertain fate
Trump’s only about settling a score
He campaigned with deceit and lies
winning the penultimate prize
of course, he’s a fool
others actually rule
will the majority avert their eyes?
From Mexican artist Joaquin Segura we have Exercises on selective mutism, 2012:
In this piece the artist has recovered a found object – a canvas banner discarded in the aftermath of a protest in Mexico City – and transformed it into a minimalist sculpture by applying layers of white paint to its surface.
The attempt to cover up (literally ‘whitewash’) the banner’s political message is key to the work’s meaning… about efforts to silence, and render invisible, dissent – through omission, spreading misinformation and erasure – and a questioning of conceptual art’s potential to make political claims or to challenge authority.
I love writing Found Poetryand the last lesson for the term in my Writing Creativelyclass was exploring Found Poetry by reading a column in the local paper which collates local news snippets from a hundred years ago.
The exercise was challenging but productive and I hope the students polish the variety of poems they wrote.
Art can Confront, Challenge, move us from our Comfort Zone
Several other installations prompted discussions on a host of current media topics and various events we’d lived through.
Baby boomers have survived tumultuous, exciting times and have adapted to incredible change, especially the rise of the digital world. I’m glad there is still support for art you can touch, walk around, relate to and experience in real time, not just on screen.
Melbourne is rich with events to attend, particularly during holiday times and I never tire of the trip to the city – as a teacher of creative writing, particularly Life Stories & Legacies, cultural experiences and exhibitions offer a mine of information and material for lessons and ideas to write about, plus triggers for personal memories.
When we write about our past, it’s easy to look at memories as if through a fixed lens. Events and people, including self, coldly observed – especially childhood – embarrassments, failings, mistakes, sometimes enlarged or erased with hindsight, successes perhaps forgotten or if unrecognised at the time, now embellished. The telescope pointed at childhood fixed, and often others not consulted, so the memory, reliable or otherwise, is our own.
The immediate past and middle years, early adulthood onwards not so clear to categorise or to talk about – marriage, parenthood, working life – may still have ongoing repercussions – more likely family, friends and fellow travellers, still alive even if not active participants in your life.
The memories may be raw and traumatic and still needing some distance before reflection.
Our childhood distant, but not the experiences of our own children and their effect on our lives still being worked through, as are decisions that may have affected our health:
abandoning regular sport or dancing,
promotion at work,
reducing to part-time
or casual work,
de facto relationships,
… so many experiences and turning points to be written freely or honestly, or perhaps censored with ramifications fully understood.
Shared experiences, Interviewing friends, a Memoir Writer’s fodder
At the NGV, along with discussing the contents of the galleries, Uma and I chatted and remembered events of our forty years friendship. We both are the product of the first wave of feminism and both have daughters who we raised accordingly, hoping they would not go through some of the sexism and inequality we faced.
Uma, as a woman of colour, born in Malaysia, a country with a long history and acculturation from British colonialism, recognises she adapted to Australian society with relative ease compared to other migrants but we agree the conversations around #blacklivesmatter and #metoo are relevant to Australia and long overdue.
Proud to be Feminist
“You’ll love the Guerrilla Girls: Portfolio Compleat,” said Uma as she guided me to the next gallery.
Guerrilla Girls exhibition confronts gender inequality particularly in the creative fields, and because myself and both daughters (a filmmaker and a stop-motion animator) work in creative fields, Uma wanted me to see it.
We found ourselves sharing insights about subtle and not so subtle discrimination in a world that unfortunately still sees power wielded by the privileged, and in western society, the privileged are overwhelmingly white and male.
Uma confided that at work in the public service, even when she was in charge, as the manager or ‘boss’, she sat in the front row at conferences or prominent positions at meetings to be seen and she consciously spoke a little louder to be heard – a woman of colour, she had two hurdles to jump!
Guerrilla Girls is a group of anonymous feminist artists and activists who call themselves ‘the conscience of the art world’. Their posters, billboards, books, videos and live lectures use facts, humour and bold visuals to expose sexism and racism in politics, the art world and popular culture.
The collective formed in New York City in 1985 with the mission to bring gender and racial equality into focus within the greater arts community. The members protect their individual identities by wearing gorilla masks during public appearances and by adopting names of deceased female icons such as Edmonia Lewis, Kathe Kollwitz and Frida Kahlo.
Uma pointed to number four on the list of advantages of being a woman artist.
‘You have another 20 years,’ she said with a grin…
Many of the observations were witty and shocking but in today’s depressing political climate ‘stating the bloody obvious.
On the way to visit another special exhibition, we paused at random objects that caught our eye.
From ‘in your face’ feminism, to the eighteenth century, known for its enlightened philosophes (you’ll be forgiven for only knowing the names of the male intellectuals – Voltaire, Rousseau, Kant, Diderot, Hume…) because women were literally and figuratively trapped – in clothes that limited mobility, a society that denied rights and access to education:
The fashionable ideal for women in the eighteenth century comprised voluminous dresses, open at the front to reveal matching stomachers and petticoats, tall powdered clouds of hair and pointed buckled shoes. Skirts were widened with hoops or panniers to create an exaggerated hourglass silhouette that emphasised the natural waistline.
This work is known as a robe a la francaise (or sack-back gown), distinguishable by its sack-back of loose pleating and front robings trimmed with lace that conveys the luxury and ostentation of the period.
During the first half of the eighteenth century, fashionable women’s shoes for the upper and middle classes followed a common form. Straight and narrow with a pointed toe and thick-waisted heel, most were made of rich silk fabric and often had decorative trimmings known as passamaneria. This pair features exquisite metal thread bobbin lace made by braiding and twisting lengths of thread, further edged by strips of braid work. The shoes do not buckle but are worn with the latchets overlapping at the front.
How did they function?
I loved Georgette Heyer’s Regency and Georgian novels as a teenager and imagined floating around in muslin and silk dresses – a visit to a museum would have given me a reality check!
The research required for good historical fiction is painstaking and often clothes play a huge part in whether the story is believable, even more so for screenwriting.
I visited so many museums and galleries when I travelled and often looked at the displays and pondered the hours of labour to make the material, dress and shoes.
My aunt was a tailoress and my older sister an amazing seamstress too, she quilts, embroiders and does all manner of creative needlework. I know the effort and time hand sewing takes – mind-boggling!
However, the men and women hunched in candlelight, in rooms with little or no ventilation, sewing these glamorous gowns earned a pittance and history did not even record their names…
A Stitch in Time (a villanelle)
She sits sewing by dim lamplight
embroidered threads by her side
contented, happy, eyes shining bright.
In the stillness of evening light
needle and thread silently glide,
as she sits sewing by pale moonlight.
Cross-stitches, pattern small and tight
new techniques taken in her stride
contented, happy, eyes shining bright.
Her creativity in wondrous flight
imagination flows like the tide
as she sits sewing by candlelight.
Machines embraced despite Luddites
mass production becomes her guide
contentment gone, eyes no longer bright
History records seamstresses’ plight
workers stripped of all but pride
many still struggle in shadowed light
exploited, sad, eyes no longer bright.
A Day For All Things Domestic?
Uma was thrilled to come across an installation by an Indian born artist Subodh Gupta called Curry.
A wall displaying the various utensils used for cooking reminded Uma of growing up in Malaysia and observing her grandmother cooking. There were certain types of pots and pans, spoons and ladles found in every Indian household.
The tiffin boxes brought back memories for me too.
I first heard about tiffins and saw one when John and I became close friends with a workmate, Peter Cordeux who had been born and brought up in India as part of the British Army community.
Whenever we had parties, Peter and his wife Kathy brought a tiffin box filled with delicious curries and rice, which Peter always jokingly claimed he made.
Peter died in 2008, but his stories of growing up in India, holidaying in Pakistan and Afghanistan, being stationed in the Middle East, fighting in Malaya in 1948 during the “Insurgency,” and then the various jobs he had before migrating to Australia, including operating an ice cream van, introduced a whole new fascinating world.
His funny and serious tales reflected in those tiffin boxes! My girls loved their Uncle Peter and still miss him.
Cultural references resonate within the make-up of this artwork: the use of stainless steel in bowls, plates and cups is synonymous with the modernisation and economic development of India in the twentieth century.
Stainless steel replaced kansa (or bell metal, a brittle bronze featuring a high proportion of tin) in the 1950s and 1960s and came to transform the kitchen and eating utensils used in everyday life in India.
The nod to the multitudes of India is made in this work, where straightforward, comparatively small, individual elements are brought together at such a scale that they transcend their everyday nature.
A Writing Exercise
A common writing exercise for those writing family history or memoir is to look in cupboards and write about objects kept for sentimental reasons or as heirlooms. What is the story behind them? Why is it important to write their legacy?
Or write about and explain the value and attachment of everyday objects.
How were they acquired and is there a significant memory attached, like a birthday or anniversary, a travel story?
A trip to the NGV or the museum may help to trigger memories – this stainless steel display certainly did for me and Uma – as did the final special exhibition we walked through.
A Modern Life: Tablewares 1930s – 1980s
If you want to date or explain the provenance of that treasured plate or teapot, visit the NGV before 27 January 2019. You’ll have an enjoyable history lesson too and perhaps discover that valuable piece of crockery a la Antique Roadshow!
The layout of some of the displays to mirror popular designs, I found a bit overwhelming and busy, but certainly stunning and there is a great range of designers. So much detail to produce the humble cup and saucer.
Nowadays, in trendy places, you can be offered a jam jar to drink from and your meal served on a wooden board – or even given disposable crockery and cutlery!
Not so in previous decades.
Following the Second World war, societal changes resulted in the decline of domestic servants and many women going out to work. These changes, along with the growing enthusiasm for a modern lifestyle, prompted manufacturers to produce dining wares that were versatile, easily cared for and able to go from the oven to the table.
Postwar optimism also encouraged the development of new tableware forms that were decorated in bold colours and modernist patterns.
This exhibition explores the growing engagement with modern design by commercial manufacturers charting the application of technical innovations in production and decorative techniques in pursuit of commercially competitive products.
Whilst focusing on ceramics, the exhibition also explores the use of new materials resulting from wartime technological advances including plastic, aluminium and stainless steel.
As we walked around the cabinets so many memories were triggered. Personal family stories, especially memories of our mothers and the impact of their preferences, tastes and habits on our own behaviour shopping, cooking, serving meals.
Memories of setting up house in the 80s – scrounging furniture, crockery and utensils to build a home.
Uma was surprised to hear I’d worked in Johnson’s Pottery in the 70s – in fact all members of my family, apart from my young sister, worked in the Croydon factory, producing Australia’s best-known tableware.
Dad was a kiln man for ten years, my mother worked on the pinning bench preparing the holders for the pottery to be fired, my brothers were kiln boys helping load and unload the kiln cars and clearing up debris, sorting and stacking; my sister worked in the decorating section and I inspected the finished products and also worked in the office during the traditional three-week Christmas shut-down period.
When the factory closed for maintenance, the only person running the office was Mr Stephen Johnson, the boss and owner before Wedgewood bought the company. Teenage me on university holidays was hired to answer the telephone and type letters.
At the time Johnsons negotiated special deals with shops like GJ Coles, David Jones and Myer – they chose a specific design that became their exclusive tableware. I took a call from the famous GJ Coles who was a personal friend of Mr Stephen’s and made afternoon tea for the many suited gentlemen who visited to seal agreements for the coming year.
I can remember the fuss when Johnsons moved away from traditional whiteware and made their first stoneware as they tried to compete with imports from Japan.
Technology and mass production has made a lot of household items disposable but access to good quality tableware used to be prized – the first complete set of tableware for many being the traditional wedding present of a dinner set.
Most of my family, myself included, had a dinner set gifted as a wedding present. I have a couple of plates, the remnants of the wedding present to my grandparents and parents. Bone China still cherished and on show in cabinets in the homes of many of my generation.
John’s sister in England has a magnificent collection of blue and white pottery (Delftware) and Royal Albert and Royal Doulton Bone China, but the coffee sets and tableware in this exhibition very much examples of the everyday pieces that may not survive intact if their purpose and design enjoyed rather than displayed!
The bold colours of the 70s and 80s obvious and I’m sure similar pieces can be found in Opportunity shops as my generation declutter.
I don’t think young people today place the same value on many of the possessions older generations had to use a greater percentage of their disposable income to acquire.
I can recall seeing the famous blue Willow pattern for the first time when I came to Australia in 1962. We stayed with a cousin of Dad’s and that was the pattern of her everyday dishes. I fell in love with the oriental scenes, my imagination working overtime as usual because I’ve always had a fascination with China.
In the early days of living in Mordialloc, one of the retail chains had a sale of Blue Willow pattern crockery and I bought a set.
When the girls were young, they too ate their cereal from Willow-patterned bowls. I’ll have to ask them if the scenes had any impact on them – I’m pretty sure their answer will be no.
But perhaps in the future, looking back on their childhood or wandering through an art gallery or museum with a friend…
For Auld Lang Syne
I’m lucky to have several dear friends to enjoy the present and some have shared the immediate and not so distant past – the part of life we often struggle to write about in terms of memory and reflection.
Talking about shared experiences or interviewing friends about a particular event can help with perspective when the desire or in some cases, an urgency to record a life for family members or the general community arises.
There are three classes into which all the women past seventy that ever I knew were to be divided: 1. That dear old soul; 2. That old woman; 3. That old witch.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge
A couple of centuries have passed since Coleridge made that statement about ‘old women’. I’m heading towards seventy and some friends are there already and we’d all agree he got it wrong.
We may still be fighting for gender equality, and ageism is a reality, but thankfully Coleridge and the other Romantic Poets with patriarchal and sexist views are only around in print and any modern poet expressing similar views will have to contend with shaming by Guerrilla Girls!
I loved my day out with Uma and look forward to catching up with other friends ‘of a certain age’ and intend to enjoy lots of the available activities in October as we celebrate how great it is to be a senior in Melbourne.
On Tuesday morning, in a buoyant mood, I set off for work – my last class for the term – and mind already turning over a list of appointments, events, ideas for lessons, and a list of catch-up household chores to be squeezed into the winter break.
In a folder ready for photocopying and collating, the prepared anthology of the writing students of Godfrey Street’s Writing Creatively Class.
I had burned the metaphorical midnight oil for several nights but tiredness banished when I organised the wonderful work produced this semester. The cliched spring in my step real because a task satisfactorily completed – a job well done.
Pride Comes Before A Fall
However, life has a way of reminding me never to be too comfortable or smug!
I’d only strode a few yards from home when I was flying through the air before landing with a thud on the concrete path.
Wings definitely clipped!
Three days later, beautiful bruises reveal themselves in places well-hidden but still painful, I reflect on how lucky I am (no broken bones just sore muscles) and I now obey (within reason) both my daughters’ exhortations, ‘Can you just sit and do nothing – pleeease!’
I’m trying to ‘go with the flow!
Déjà vu or Ground Hog Day?
While sitting in Frankston Hospital’s Accident & Emergency, Facebook reminded me of my travels last year and yes, unbelievably, it was this time last year when I was limping through the last leg of the big overseas adventure because I’d tripped in the hallway at my cousin’s house in Renton near Glasgow.
Despite my lovely cousin’s pleas, I didn’t get checked out by a doctor and ‘walked through the pain,’ which led to all sorts of complications when I returned home.
My daughters were most insistent I didn’t repeat any stoicism.
I reluctantly agreed, despite feeling like one of the guest speakers at a Women’s Hospital function who said once she retired ‘a trip’ became ‘a fall’ and she was sent off to a Fall Clinic as if she had a chronic problem.
My accidents were both unexpected trips, but landing on concrete is more likely to do damage than a floor – and it felt decidedly more painful!
I can laugh about Tuesday now, but the audience of half-a-dozen workers were not laughing when I landed beside them. Several strong pairs of arms hoisted me to my feet when I told them I was ready to stand and prove I didn’t need an ambulance.
At another time I might have revelled being fussed over by a batch of young men but I just wanted to return the few yards home and ‘have a Bex and a good lie down!’
A young man escorted me the 100 feet and carried my bag. He returned a few minutes later to check I was okay but I told him my daughters were on their way.
The cavalry arrived to greet a crying mess sitting draped in a bath towel toga with a large icepack on both knees and double-checking fingers, wrists, elbows, neck and all the other places that hurt.
Maybe it is a sign of age but the pain was excruciating. Shock set in and I started to shake – the girls were decisive.
A cup of tea and a couple of Panadol and we headed for Frankston Hospital.
Mobile phones a godsend that day. They had tried for an appointment with our local doctor when I first rang them but the clinic was booked out. They’d also rang my manager and cancelled the class.
While Mary played nurse and found some looser pants for me to wear that wouldn’t pressure my knees, Anne marched down to the worksite introduced herself and recorded the company’s details. She got a contact name of a supervisor because I’d caught my foot on the corner of a manhole cover they’d removed but left jutting out from the area of pavement blocked off.
Distracted and curious by the activity I tripped, but maybe the whole path should have been closed. Lessons to be learned all round!
The day became surreal and emotions ran high – suffice to say various temperaments exposed and moments bordered on slapstick, television soapie, Grey’s Anatomy, Brooklyn 99 and then an unexpected lovely moment…
We arrived home from Frankston to find a huge box of fruit on the doorstep and a handwritten note from one of the workers hoping I am okay and wishing me well.
I really appreciated their kindness.
I also appreciated my daughters’ devotion and decisiveness – they proved themselves capable and caring adults and in all the drama I had a moment of parental pride and joy – they will survive, perhaps thrive – without me and have obviously discussed and thought about ‘the ageing me’ with one of them declaring at one stage, ‘You are not superwoman and don’t have to be supermum anymore.’
And so for a few days, I am ‘taking it easy’ factoring in Panamax and Voltaren Emulgel with the vitamins and blood pressure tablets!
I’ve been touched by visits and phone calls from friends and I’m blessed that injuries don’t seem to be too drastic and the holidays will be great recuperation time.
And Today is Poet’s Day
POETS day is a term used by workers in the United Kingdom to refer jocularly to Friday as the last day of the work week. The word “POETS” is an acronym for “Piss off early, tomorrow’s Saturday”: hence Friday becomes “Poets day“.
With ‘enforced’ leisure I’ve started going through notebooks and extracting the ideas jotted down – maybe I’ll get some creative writing done!
I came upon this poem – apt because it was Tuesday Class I was heading to when I tripped so here’s ‘the postcard’ I ‘didn’t send’.
Remember the perennial joke from primary school if you witnessed somebody tripping?
Oops, I tripped.
You didn’t send me a postcard!
An Acrostic Tuesday
Tuesdays during school term, I teach in Bentleigh
Up the line from Mordialloc towards the city
Easy to get to by public transport, especially trains
So convenient! And I love it! I know I am lucky, even on
Days when inclement weather suggests
A day in bed or seat by the fireside…
Yet, I‘d never use bad weather as an excuse. Unless
Last Thursday night I had the pleasurable experience of catching up with an ex-student and a current student at a performance of Hotel Sorrento at the Shirley Burke Theatre in Parkdale.
It was a dark and chilly night (notice I didn’t say stormy!) as I walked from Mordialloc to meet my fellow writers. With the portent of heavy rain in the air I admit thoughts of the sensibility of hibernation during winter crossed my mind – perhaps the bears have got it right!
However, the warmth of friendship and Scottish canniness won (supporting live theatre comes at a price, albeit a reasonable one)… and I just walked more briskly towards the golden opportunity to experience a form of creativity and writing I love, and the promise of meaningful dissections afterwards over coffee.
(One of my students, Lena – actor/singer/writer/entertainer knew a cast member – and it was wonderful to have insights from the actor’s point of view, plus learn a little about ‘life on the road’ from a performer’s perspective.)
Hotel Sorrento returned to Shirley Burke Theatre as part of HIT Productions twenty-year anniversary tour to suburban and regional venues. A thank you to the City of Kingston for upgrading and maintaining this great venue!
A classic and much-loved Australian story, Hotel Sorrentowon several awards and strongly resonated with audiences:
Winner 1990 AWGIE Award – Stage Award
Winner 1990 NSW Premier’s Literary Award – Drama
Winner 1990 Green Room Award – Best Play
Richard Franklin even turned it into a film in 1995 and it has been chosen for school curriculums.
What makes this drama so popular?
The play tells the story of the reunion of three sisters who grew up in the seaside town of Sorrento, Victoria. The “hotel” is the nickname for the family home where the verandah was a popular gathering spot for the father and his mates to drink after fishing trips.
Hilary still lives in the family home with her father, Wal and 16-year-old son, Troy. Her husband died when Troy was only six years old and she stayed in the family home, subsequently nursing her mother through cancer and now looking after her father who has a history of heart trouble.
Another sister, Pippa, an independent businesswoman, is visiting from New York and the third sister, Meg, is a successful writer, whose novel Melancholy is short-listed for the prestigious Booker Prize. She returns from England with her English husband, after a ten-year absence.
When the three sisters are reunited they face the expectations and constraints of family life, not helped by the sudden death of their father, Wal. Meg’s semi-autobiographical book triggers underlying familial tensions, miscommunications and ‘unfinished business’.
Although a play about family, the ties that bind, the strength and weakness of collective and individual memory and the importance of communicating, Hotel Sorrento is also distinctly Australian. There are words and phrases, humour, cultural references and the exploration of the age-old rivalry with England and the perceived influence and pull of the UK regarding art and artistic endeavours. And considering the majority of Australia’s population live within 100 kilometres of the coastline, the setting is one easily identifiable to Australians and a setting we are renowned for internationally.
The play premiered on stage, almost three decades and another world away from the Australia of 2018, yet as the playwright, Hannah Rayson reflected in 2015:
Hotel Sorrento was a play I wrote very early in my writing life. I think it is structurally flawed and expresses much of my inexperience as a dramatist. I have written a lot of plays since then and got better at the craft.
But there is something about this play. I wrote it with utter love and tenderness. I had a baby during the writing process and that added to a sense of dreaminess and perfect serenity. It was a journey of the soul, and even though I now think it’s clunky in part, it’s strange because actors, directors and audiences love it. It is my most produced play. It has had hundreds of productions. And the royalty cheques from it have saved my bacon on more than one occasion. It has a certain magic that I like to think comes from the happiness in which it was written.
quoted from an Essay by Cate Kennedy 2015
The audience at Parkdale agreed the play has a ‘certain magic,’ everyone laughed and applauded in the right places with interval abuzz with conversations. As is usual at these events the women outnumbered the men and I can imagine many of us were like actor/writer Kate Mulvaney who wondered what sister they identified with most!
I’m a writer from a small Australian country town who took off as far away as possible – to as many places as possible – to live and work. And one of my pieces just happened to be a (semi) ‘autobiographical’ piece. And the characters just happened to be based on my family members – their names changed. And I had also just happened to contend with a prodding press on how my family responded, and I found myself sitting at dinner tables as those very family members discussed ‘what was true and what wasn’t’.
I, like Meg, also got asked to partake in countless forums on ‘women in autobiography’ and deal with people assuming, as a female writer, that my play (legitimate, in my mind) was some form of extended ‘diary entry’, and would I ‘ever consider writing something fictional?’
And so I am Meg.
Who are you?
Are you Hilary – the broken but coping carer?
Are you Pippa – the feisty but sentimental younger sister?
Are you Wal – representing the old Australia that gets away with its violent past through its infective jingoism, embracing your own cultural stereotype?
Or Edwin – blindly intelligent and culturally bewildered?
Are you Troy – the truth-seeker and heartbreaking hope-giver?
Or maybe Dick – the belligerent, topsy-turvy patriot?
Or perhaps you are Marge – keenly entertaining them all, just trying to enjoy the art?
First published in 2014 by Currency Press as ‘What Goes Around Comes Around’.
How Do You Write “Australian”? Is There Individual versus Cultural Identity…?
“Hotel Sorrento is a powerful new Australian play that begins as a comedy about national identity and develops into a familial drama of great poignancy and reverberation.”
Peter Craven, The Australian
It is important to retain and represent whatever language and customs we have that is different from American or British productions, and not always succumb to please their audiences.
It was refreshing to hear a familiar place or lifestyle described. This pleasure captured in the opening scene as the character Marge Morrisey reads from the novel Melancholy and excitedly points out the landmarks mentioned and makes the connection that she lives where the novel is set and is seeing what the author describes…
This triggered a memory for me of taking my teenage daughters to see Candy (2006), a Heath Ledger movie set in Australia, and they commented afterwards it was wonderful to hear Aussie accents, see familiar cars and street names, and even Aussie dollars!
There is an undeniable Australian flavour about Rayson’s play, which is part of its appeal – even if some of the cliches in the dialogue are a bit outdated and inserted for the comedy value.
It doesn’t matter that many Australians have indeed moved on from the ‘cultural cringe’ every second academic talked about in the 80s (the period span of the play) because some people still participate in cutting ‘tall poppies’ to size, and other references to feminism and sexism are sadly still very much in the news.
Something that Rayson has mastered throughout her writing canon is exploring truth – personal, familial, social, sexual, cultural. And nothing tells us the truth more than a mirror. Rayson uses metaphorical mirroring throughout the text of Hotel Sorrento… she layers and layers and layers each truth until it warps dizzyingly and shifts our search as a reader and a viewer. On a glassy sea, the Moynihan family gather. They argue whether to keep a sentimental painting of their town on the wall or take it down.
The three sisters – Hil, Meg and Pippa, see mirrors of themselves and images of their potential – good and bad – in the faces of each other. They see their mother in an iron – a steaming ghost still working away in the corner of the room. A brilliant representation of a female in the shadow of the 1950s Australian landscape – smoothing out the family creases whilst ageing slowly, dying relatively young, unhappy, ‘outlived by the iron’. The sisters lament their mother strangely, almost flippantly:
‘Life sucks’, says Pippa.
‘We loved him more than we ever loved her’, says Hil, referring to their father Wal, who she also said was ‘a bastard to our mother’.
‘She’d be here night after night on her own’, says Pippa. ‘Always got the rough end of the stick, our Mum…’
And this is where I shudder. I mourn for this dead woman. I’m aware of her world – I see her type amongst my own family.
Essay, by Kate Mulvany, first published as ‘What Goes Around Comes Around’ Currency Press 2014
This early scene in the kitchen (the only room of the family home shown and obviously the hub – how true is that for most families!?) connected with me.
I’m sure others in the audience remembered Julia Gillard’s famous speech pointing out Tony Abbott’s sexism and misogyny, ( his reference to women of Australia doing the ironing!) yet the Australian people chose him as Prime Minister – Rayson spot on with her observation about gender inequality.
Hotel Sorrento offers contemplation and reflection on more than just feminist talking points as well as the strong leading roles for women.
‘Who has power, how do they wield it and who suffers at the hand of it, are questions [that] always interest me,’ Rayson began. ‘So I go to the family to explore them. I understand it in a family context. I can take the audience with me on that and make the links between what we understand in our known worlds with how the tensions might express themselves politically, in a bigger national canvas.’
quoted from an Essay by Cate Kennedy 2015
The Writer’s Craft
There is so much to learn from a well-written and performed play, especially one like Hotel Sorrento, which seems to be a perennial favourite.
Writers continually mine their life and experiences and “turn” it into a novel. Memoir and life writing are popular genres. Scripts for stage or screen adapt stories, novels, and real-life events all the time.
Hotel Sorrento poses interesting discussion points and challenges the notion of ‘truth’ in writing a story. Who owns a story if you are including family history or biographical content? What are the writer’s responsibilities? Should authenticity be compromised?
Some writers, like the character Meg, insist they have written fiction because they have changed names or tinkered with “the truth” and like Meg, may be shocked that instead of accolades they are accused of a lack of integrity because they used family memories for personal gain.
Family or friends may be resentful of the use of their history, or they may be interested in delving into the past, some may accept the author’s interpretation or perspective, others may be angry or resentful.
How accurate is your memory – is all memoir really creative non-fiction?
Do women write differently to men?
Dialogue is crucial to a play and how the story is ‘told,’ as well as the actions of characters. If a writer can master the art of dialogue, short stories and novels will be much more interesting and memorable.
Pacing and building tension important to keep the audience engaged, just as it is important in the written word to keep pages turning.
In most scenes of this play, there are only two characters talking and we gradually not only learn their backstory, the current position but begin to consider different viewpoints and piece together ‘the big picture’. The structure works well.
Character is important to story – a character must be believable, we have to be invested in their welfare or at least care what they do or say. We can love or hate them but they must engage us.
Hotel Sorrento has an interesting cast of characters and as mentioned before it is easy to identify with one of them, especially if you have siblings. The three sisters all come from the same working-class Australian background but their lives have moved in different directions with Pippa and Meg creating a life outside Australia.
The character Dick is a journalist – a different kind of writer to novelist Meg – and his strong patriotic views place him at loggerheads with Meg regarding Australian culture.
Marge, an artist and resident of Sorrento identifies with the character in the novel who represents Hilary and the novel reawakens her passion for Sorrento and her art, giving her confidence to move from ‘watercolours to oils’.
She is an observer and functions like the Greek chorus, providing an outsider’s perspective. It is fitting she explains to Dick how appropriate the novel’s title is considering the subject matter and that melancholy is not depression. She understands and empathises with the author’s sad yearning for the Sorrento of her childhood.
The father of the sisters, Wal and Meg’s English husband, Edwin provide most of the comedy and are almost caricatures of the quintessential larrikin Aussie and refined Englishman but are more nuanced especially with their interaction with the sea (which acts as a character).
A ‘cliff-hanger’ just before the interval comes as a shock and throughout the play, there is intrigue regarding the death of Troy’s father and his relationship with Pippa and Meg as well as Hilary.
The scenes with family members explore their relationship ‘issues’ and these are evenly juxtaposed with scenes exploring cultural identity through the characters of artist Marge and journalist Dick.
The tension palpable when they all come together for lunch in a scene that brings conflicting views to an explosive head.
There is no neat resolution to the drama, which leaves us wanting more and with plenty to discuss after the play ends.
I thoroughly enjoyed Hotel Sorrento but (sorry there is a but!) the production was let down by a couple of glitches with the lighting that distracted from what was happening on stage.
After the interval, I’m not sure if the lighting was supposed to mimic evening or a sunset glow, but two huge red streaks appeared as a backdrop, at first making a V and then like two spotlights.
Later there was a blue background with a white pattern which may have been designed to represent clouds, seagulls, impending storm – who knows?
Dimming and increasing the lighting to change and highlight various scenes was often mistimed too. It’s to the actors’ credit they carried on magnificently.
When we were discussing these glitches with Lena’s friend we learned of the hazards and difficulties of producing a play when you are continually on the move, arriving at different theatres with limited resources and rehearsal times.
It is a miracle there are no major stuff ups!! Well done the consummate professionalism of dedicated actors who learn to adapt and shine.
Each theatre is different, the lighting console may have been strange to the operator, or faulty – the tight schedule and limited time at each theatre means no long rehearsals.
There are four major scene locations in Hotel Sorrento, which can be contained on one stage and controlled by the lights spotlighting whatever part of the stage is hosting the scene: the kitchen of the family home, the pier, the seashore, and Meg’s living room in England.
At Shirley Burke Theatre the stage was smaller than expected and some of the props wouldn’t fit – instead of a lounge suite for Meg and Edwin’s house – an armchair and a standard lamp had to suffice!
The other props closer than the actors were used to… and because the actors double as stagehands removing or rearranging props, it was an added burden to remember who picks up because of the last minute alterations.
The cast is going to be on the road for 77 performances – they’ve done Frankston, Dandenong et al… one night and one matinee in Parkdale, and then onto Moonee Ponds before heading to country Victoria.
So many community theatres, each one presenting their own challenges, hard work and dedication.
Look up the schedule, whether you are a writer, a lover of theatre or have dreams of writing or acting – if you can catch a performance of this anniversary tour of Hannie Rayson’s Hotel Sorrento please do – you won’t regret it!
I’ve thanked my parents for valuing reading and books, and I know I’ve instilled that same love in my children.
“The habit of reading is the only enjoyment I know in which there is no alloy. It lasts when all other pleasures fade. It will be there to support you when all other resources are gone. It will be present to you when the energies of your body have fallen away from you. It will last you until your death. It will make your hours pleasant to you as long as you live.”
I remember favourite authors from childhood – I loved Louisa M Alcott. Birthdays and Christmas were special celebrations with a new book always part of, and sometimes the main present.
I still have some of those much-treasured childhood books and on a recent trip to Orkney and the Shetland Islands, I spent several hours in a wonderful exhibition with displays of books and toys reminiscent of my 1950s childhood, confirming that I’m not the only one who hangs onto books for years!
I can remember Mrs Saffin, the librarian at Croydon High School insisting I had to borrow other books when she saw I was working my way through a shelf of the Just William series written by English author Richmal Crompton.
The adventures of the cheeky schoolboy William Brown whose naughty escapades always seemed to end in afternoon tea of iced buns and lemonade appealed to me! But Mrs Saffin was right, I was in high school and needed to expand my horizons.
“A book is a device to ignite the imagination.”
Alan Bennett, The Uncommon Reader
William’s pluck reminded me of George aka Georgina, one of the main characters in the Famous Five stories by Enid Blyton.
I wanted to be adventurous, solve mysteries and have fun – and the thought of going off on picnics with a satchel of sandwiches, cream buns and fizzy pop, a dream come true when you are one of six siblings in a working-class family.
I expect both of these talented female authors appealed to girls like myself who either didn’t fit or ached to break, the mould of traditional expectations of girls to be pretty and demure.
I read about grief, illness, feudalism, colonialism, social inequality, the importance of education and the necessity to have dreams.
I read about broken families and boarding schools, kindness and meanness, courage and cowardice, love and hate.
The books all written about or from the point of view of a child or adolescent.
I remember being shocked to read that in medieval times prepubescent girls like me were married off, that even in so-called more modern times people of colour or those with a disability were maltreated and abused.
How could people believe your birth should determine your status in life?
And how exciting to learn that being adventurous, curious and even disobedient reaped rewards.
Enid Blyton’s Famous Five books gave me a thirst for adventure. The Magic Faraway Tree indulged childhood fantasies but novels allowed me to fall in love with history, belonging, and longing, and more importantly writing!
I wanted to be a storyteller and write stories about ordinary and extraordinary people whether in the past or the now!
When I was studying for my masters’ degree, I had to reflect on what books helped shape my view of society and culture.
To look critically at the dominant ways in which our culture operates.
What books provided insight or a ‘light bulb’ moment into what it means to be human?
Which books helped me understand my place in the long history of human development?
Although most of the books were written from the perspective of western culture they raised issues and aspects of racism, sexism, feminism, Marxism, socialism, fascism, colonialism, and other “isms” that don’t immediately spring to mind.
They created questions and still create conversations with people who have read them. They explore themes that are timeless. They have been made into television or cinematic films, either through adaptations or appropriation.
“Books are the quietest and most constant of friends; they are the most accessible and wisest of counsellors, and the most patient of teachers.”
I read this novel in 1967 when I was 14 years old, probably inspired by seeing the movie on television. The author, Australian Elizabeth Kata produced a book with the main message of tolerance, a theme demanding we see beyond the colour of a person’s skin and reject the negativity and destructiveness of racial prejudice.
The brutal effects of an abusive family contrast with the power of education, friendship and love.
The ending of the book is not as optimistic as the ending of the film and on reflection may have been the first time I realised or began to question the difference between how literature and film tell stories.
The book is set in America, but it made me more aware of the treatment of indigenous Australians because the 1967 Referendum Campaign was happening and stimulated public and family discussions about racism.
The 1967 Referendum made history: Australians voted overwhelmingly to amend the constitution to include Aboriginal people in the census and allow the Commonwealth to create laws for them.
This novel by Irish-born Robert Tressell was compulsory reading in my family circle. An accurate historical account of the lives of the working class, it delivers a comprehensive explanation of capitalism and the need for a socialist alternative.
In my last two years of high school, I studied British History, Australian History and Eighteenth-Century History and during one of the many discussions I had with my father, he handed me Tressell’s book,
“Your Papa bought this and told me to read it, I’m passing it on…“
When I read The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists at 16, it helped me understand what life was like for my grandparents and what shaped my father’s staunch belief in trade unionism as a means to improve the conditions of workers and challenge the excesses of capitalism. It nurtured my desire to work for social justice and later seek employment within the trade union movement.
Robert Tressell’s tale of life for craftsmen and building workers in the early part of the 20th century whilst working in the mythical, yet all too authentic, Mugsborough reveals clearly the exploitative nature of capitalism. Since its publication, it has been reprinted many times, adapted as plays, made into a television series, films and docudramas. The Labour Movement has justifiably conferred biblical status on this much-celebrated book.
Readers experience the tragedies and joys of the characters and the harshness of their workplace with the inherently unequal relationship between workers and bosses in Edwardian England as the system impacts on social relations, human activity, and their dreams for a better life.
In 2010, on one of my early forays online I made contact with Reg Johnson, the husband of Robert Tressell’s granddaughter. We exchanged emails and letters and he shared some family information and history, which enriched my understanding of the author’s struggles to get his writing published and to retain the integrity of his story – a saga that will be worthy of someone’s PhD or even another novel, I’m sure.
I studied this novel by Fyodor (Mikhailovich) Dostoevsky, at school and the story, characters, theme and concepts still fascinate me. It is a great novel to stimulate discussion about whether the ends justify the means, definitions of good and evil, examine ethics and morality, and is there a fine line between sanity and madness?
The protagonist, Raskolnikov, a poor law student murders an old woman who is reviled as a pawnbroker/money-lender, but her sister who is an innocent bystander is also killed. The background is a Russia under a reforming Tsar but nevertheless a country of great inequality and poverty for freed serfs and an economy undergoing transition.
The rich description and historical detail satisfied my love of history. It was also the first novel I had read that introduced the image of the ‘good prostitute ‘– a woman forced into prostitution by extreme poverty. Dostoevsky’s Christian socialist beliefs are not hidden as he exposes the ‘immorality’ of drunkenness and domestic violence in St Petersburg, the main setting of the novel.
There is also Siberia, a vast place with penal outposts used to banish and punish people considered a danger to society. (Dostoevsky experienced Siberia when exiled along with several other intellectuals and so described that setting realistically.)
Raskolnikov realises by committing murder he has killed his own humanity and we watch his psychological, physical and emotional health deteriorate as he struggles with deep guilt and moves towards redemption. His unravelling helped by a dogged detective who suspects Raskolnikov and is determined to punish him for the crime.
The book is a good vehicle to examine personal ethics, showing life often presents difficult choices and we may regret a choice we make. It contends ‘Fate’ is an illusion and we all have free will, but the author’s realism is underpinned by his personal life experience and political leanings and belief in Russian Orthodoxy.
This book started my fascination with Russia and I promised myself I’d visit the country ‘one day’.
Last year, I fulfilled that dream and not only travelled through Siberia on the Trans-Siberian Railway but went to Dostoevsky’s house in St Petersburg, and saw where he would have written his novels, the streets he walked, imagined the places and events that sparked his imagination…
Visited Dostoevsky’s house today where he wrote Crime And Punishment among other novels. This city was a character in his most famous stories. It’s where he developed as a writer and where his most famous fictional characters lived. Exiled to Siberia for 10 years for revolutionary activities he had to make his name all over again. This is his last address when he was earning a comfortable income after renting many cheap appartments. He rented here in 1846 and then returned 1878 until his death in 1881. It’s fitting this building should be a museum encapsulating the beginning and the end of his writing career! I breathed deeply, imagined the views from the window – oh, if only part of his talent still floated in the air to be transferred to admirers like me.
The Women’s Room
Written 1977. Made into a film for television in 1980 starring Lee Remick and Ted Danson.
This semi-autobiographical and debut novel by Marilyn French was published at the height of the Women’s Liberation Movement and explored the oppression of women and the need for change through the protagonist Mira who escapes an inequitable 1950s marriage and returns to study at university.
The questions asked in The Women’s Room still cause debate: Is anatomy destiny? Are all men potential rapists – do they look at women as sexual objects first before recognising other qualities? Does traditional marriage suffocate women?
It was criticised for being too anti-men and having too few male characters, yet struck a chord with many women who felt trapped in society’s idea that a woman should seek to be a wife and mother and always put the needs and desires of others before her own.
The biting social commentary made me examine my mother’s life and those of her generation and question what I wanted from a relationship. The anger and despair of the women portrayed in the novel spurred me to work for change and social justice. I had read books detailing the aims and philosophy behind Women’s Liberation and French’s novel personalised and wove feminism’s threads into a rich, emotional tapestry.
I worked in a Women’s Refuge (Maroondah Halfway House) and met women who felt they couldn’t speak up or who had been beaten for speaking out. They didn’t have the privileges of the middle-class American women who people this novel and it was more difficult for them to choose a different path. Those of us at the refuge collective tried to enable the women who sought help, ensured they felt safe enough to be empowered to make choices.
I liked the style of Marilyn French’s writing, the authenticity of her characters and the pacing, not only of the main story but a series of subplots. These were voices who needed to be heard with messages I could understand.
In this novel about the Scottish diaspora in Canada, Canadian Alistair Macleod reflects on the varied journeys of members of Clan MacDonald forced from their home during the infamous Highland Clearances.
It explores identity, family loyalty, the connection between past and present, connection to the land, the inevitability of change, the importance and effect of cultural values, and the resilience of love, especially family love.
The narrator shows how the history of a family (mini-narrative) is rooted in the larger mega-narrative of historical events. I belong to the MacInnes Clan who share a history with the MacDonaldsand this novel contributed to my understanding of the value of knowing your heritage and encouraged the exploration of my identity.
As an immigrant to Australia, I often reflect on my childhood in Scotland. Have often wondered and asked the question – where do I belong?
The narrator, Alexander MacDonald, guides us through his family’s mythic past recollecting the heroic stories of loggers, miners, excessive drinkers and adventurers. The theme of exile and links to the ancestry of their highland clan everpresent.
The legendary patriarch left the Scottish Highlands in 1779 to resettle in “the land of trees” with descendants becoming a separate Nova Scotia clan. Brothers and cousins, expert miners travel around the world and the protagonist Alexander and his twin sister, leave Cape Breton and prosper, but are haunted by the past.
No Great Mischief resonated with me because I too feel the blood ties that bind me to the land from which I came despite establishing a family here in Australia.
A recent trip back to my birth country reinforced links not only to the Scottish Highlands and my grandfather’s Isle of Skye but also to Northern Ireland and the Antrim coast, my mother’s homeland.
“The world of books is the most remarkable creation of man. Nothing else that he builds ever lasts. Monuments fall; nations perish; civilizations grow old and die out; and, after an era of darkness, new races build others. But in the world of books are volumes that have seen this happen again and again, and yet live on, still young, still as fresh as the day they were written, still telling men’s hearts of the hearts of men centuries dead.”