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

chasing asylum cover

Time For Truth-Telling

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

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

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

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

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

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

When I revisited this documentary, I wept. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

Their evidence may be unpalatable but cannot be ignored.

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

And we still have asylum seekers incarcerated!

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

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, 2006:

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

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

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

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

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

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

chasing asylum plea and blurb

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Latte Lament
by Mairi Neil © 2016

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

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

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

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

war, random shootings,
terrorist attacks, refugee crises…

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

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

Chasing Asylum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Indefinite detention

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

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

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

                         The 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees

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

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

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

People hang themselves.

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

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

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

The briefing they got on arrival was indeed brief!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Official Refugee Policy?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2017

FB_IMGTurnbull quote
Doing the rounds of Facebook

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

quoted in New York Times, Letter to Australia

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

Dr Peter Young reported measurable disorders observed in children.

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

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

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

There was a lot of fighting and self-harming.

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

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

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

Heartbreaking for the support workers to witness!

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

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

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

It took the Australian Government 17 months to investigate reports.

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

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

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

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

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

Manus Island

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

2015 – Condemnation from the UN

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

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

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

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

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

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

The refugees have:

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

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

Flashback to 1970s

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

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

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

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

Tolerance
Mairi Neil © 2017

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

 

Words can Warm, or Wound, Comfort or Control, Clarify or Confuse…

Aboriginal flag in Mordialloc

I acknowledge the Boon Wurrung as the traditional owners of Mordialloc and recognise their continuing connection to land, waters and culture and pay my respects to their elders past, present and emerging.

Yesterday was Mabo Day, a significant day for First Nation Peoples, a day to honour the vision, commitment and legacy of Eddie Mabo, who paved the way for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander land rights and Native Title in Australia.

It is also the end of Reconciliation Week, which occurs from 27 May – 3 June every year.

The dates mark the May 27,1967 Referendum that amended the Constitution to allow the Commonwealth to make laws for Aboriginal people and include them in the census and ends with June 3 when in 1992, the historic Mabo judgement by the High Court of Australia recognised that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have rights to the land.

A map of the lands of Australian First Nations
A map showing First Nations

The Mabo decision acknowledged the First Nations longstanding and unique connection to the land for the last 65,000 to 80,000 years and declared Australia was not terra nullius – a claim used to justify the colonial invasion and acquisition of the land by Britain. In 1993, the Native Title Act passed in Federal Parliament and this has returned some sovereignty in some areas to First Nation peoples.

I wrote several posts in the last few days on other subjects, but each time stopped before posting because creative writing hints or other topics paled into insignificance with what is happening in the USA and other parts of the world after the recent murder of George Floyd. 

Coupled with news of COVID-19, we have a perfect storm of misery.

George Floyd’s tragic murder captured on mobile video and replayed millions of times throughout the world has led to scenes reminiscent of the 1960s.

Scenes of civil unrest in the USA I remember watching as a teenager as they played nightly on the television news.

Sadly, many of the issues around systemic racism have still not been resolved and most politically aware people know this because what happened to George Floyd has happened to other African Americans, year in, year out!

Why do we remain silent? Why in Australia have we mostly ignored the 2015 death of David Dungay, an Aboriginal man who also struggled and said I Can’t Breathe when pinned to a bed by several prison officers in Long Bay Gaol? (The video of that incident also circulating on social media and just as distressing as George Floyd’s murder.)

Social media has fuelled the current protests, but my newsfeed often filled with videos of appalling racist incidents, particularly since the election of Donald Trump.

I only hope the rage is maintained and results in a definite change.

Too many people are still reluctant to acknowledge systemic and institutionalized racism and white privilege exists or that people of colour are targeted by the police here in Australia and the USA.

Australia had a Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody (1987-1991) but there has been a lack of action on the recommendations and avoidable deaths are still occurring.

FB_hope for the future

Please Deal the Cards Again
Mairi Neil © 2020

English has a list of words describing you
I checked the dictionary and thesaurus too
but really words will fail to record
your harmful legacy of bitter discord

How sad the office of American President
is sullied by you, the 45th resident
a narcissistic, dastardly, vainglorious fool
boastful, vacuous as you let ego rule

Pusillanimous, brutish, pompous, offensive
spouting ignorance when on the defensive
craven, fatuous, corrupt, and oafish
your addled tweets so often malicious.

A destructive numbskull you need to resign
the current civil unrest another warning sign
just go to Florida and there please stay
allow decent adult voices to have their say

Your election a nasty global surprise
a long three years have exposed your lies
let’s hope the tide will really turn blue
and in November we’ll be rid of you!

Civil Rights An Ongoing Struggle

I recall vividly hearing the news of JFK’s assassination in November 1963, the murder of Martin Luther King Jr in April 1968, and of Bobbie Kennedy in June 1968. I’m sure many people my age remember where they were exactly when they heard the news of the killings.

I’ve reviewed the film Selma, and the documentary I Am Not Your Negro – two good starting points for the background to what is happening in the USA now, also the film Hidden Figures.

Martin Luther KingJr 1968

When I went to university in Canberra in 1970 and took part in the protests supporting the Aboriginal Tent Embassy and Land Rights, I learnt firsthand the depth of Australia’s institutionalised racism and started on a journey to educate myself and to seek ways of being part of the answer and not part of the problem.

It is important not to remain silent – words in the form of poems, essays and stories are my way of working through the pain, anger and powerlessness I often feel when events like the murder of George Floyd or Aboriginal deaths in custody occur.

I also write letters to politicians and write blog posts and have conversations with people – encouraging others to be more aware and accept systemic racism exists.

When I look at the poems, I wrote in the 90s and in 2000; it seems there has been little progress, but I’ll keep writing because words are all I have and effective cultural change takes a lifetime.

When Mordialloc Writers Group hosted regular monthly Readings by The Bay, the poems and stories shared often sparked important conversations about racism. That forum no longer exists, but every community group can start conversations!

Our Burning Shame
Mairi Neil © 1992

We watched with horror
as they beat you to the ground…
on the ground
into the ground

The gang of four wielding batons
grasped tightly to
beat your head
beat your body
beat your legs…

Pounding, pounding, pounding,
pound.

A steady funeral dirge
burying the myth
of racial equality –
of equal rights

Middle-class liberals gasped
horrified at the naked truth
victims sighed with relief
the truth at last revealed
those with power to change
shrugged –
what’s the fuss about?

Rodney King – who gave you that name?
A king in black skin – a hint of irony
– or is it okay if a surname?
Your destiny now entwined
with that other dreamer…

A picture is worth a thousand words
a video worth a thousand affidavits
television news worth a thousand protests
political decisions worth a thousand votes…

Time dimmed the anger and horror
even brutes are innocent until proven guilty
at the scheduled trial
will Nuremberg be revisited?

We waited for the sentence
believing we knew the judgement
but a jury without black faces
proves society controlled by red necks
and white lies let injustice triumph…

Los Angeles burns along with our shame
those with power remain unchanged
cosmetics mask the ugly face
waspish capitalists sting… again and again.

Australians are shocked. Horrified!
Yet reality reveals our guilt.
Our smugness shattered
when black deaths in custody
inspire jokes among police
our custodians of law
don’t need lessons in brutality

We watch L.A aflame
but closed minds switch off
like television sets.
Will Australia suffer the same fate?
Today
Tomorrow
Next Week…

FB_IMartin Luther King Jr quote

I can only imagine the despair of many people of colour in the USA and our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people here but I stand in solidarity with their struggle for justice and will continue to promote events, books and articles to help others to stand in solidarity too.

It’s 20 years this week since the Reconciliation Walk across Sydney’s Harbour Bridge, a defining moment in the tortured history of Indigenous affairs in Australia.

Reconciliation
Mairi Neil, © 2000

The Past

Ningla a-Na!
We are hungry for our land!
The catch cry of the seventies
as angry black activists
reclaimed a slice of land…
They protested by establishing
an Aboriginal Tent Embassy
opposite Parliament House, Canberra

When the Embassy brutally dismantled
thousands of people
black and white together
linked arms to prevent
dispossession, yet again.

The Present

We celebrate Corroboree 2000
hundreds of thousands of people
black and white together
march across the Sydney Harbour Bridge
but how far have we come when
Treaty is still a dream
Mandatory sentencing a reality
Black deaths in custody a shame
Government statistics used to deny
the devastating generational horror
of the Stolen Children!

Despite historical misinformation
and the cultural exclusiveness
of our education system
we cannot say we did not know!
We must be honest and admit
we didn’t care enough to seek the truth
confront the injustice
move out of our comfort zone…

The Future

It is a new century
we have a second chance
to right past wrongs
resolve to move forward
all contributions important – so
write a letter of protest
challenge a racist remark
invite Aboriginal speakers
to address schools and clubs
one nation honouring
the First People of this land
Ningla a-Na
This our land.

FB_Jenny Leong MP

#black lives matter

Lament For Another Aboriginal Death In Custody
Mairi Neil ©February 2000.

What were your thoughts, young man
When you stared out the window each day
were they of family and friends
now replaced by walls tall and grey?

Did the future look bleak and sad
as inside your spirit ached
for the call of the distant past
and colours of earth sun-baked?

Did you dream of lying beneath the stars
on a blanket of gum leaves and grasses
at odds with European ideas of comfort
and structured constricting classes?

Did the dark shadow of depression
devour teenage thoughts of fun and love
your inner child struggling to grow –
plans abandoned like an ill-fitting glove?

A young man caught between two worlds
coping with life’s most turbulent age
a fifteen-year-old orphan feeling lost
confined to a cold and lonely cage

Colonial laws stole your land
foreign culture crushed traditional way
and mandatory sentencing ensures
more despair-filled cells each day

Your name now recorded in history books
will your desperate act be in vain?
Australia as a nation can only progress
if we acknowledge your people’s pain.

tree by creek

Resources Abound To Learn About Racism & Diversity

The ABC has a lot of educational resources, including videos written and produced by First Nation Peoples.

Lisa Hill’s Indigenous Literature reading list, which she compiles and adds to each year, is a fabulous resource for readers and writers.

The Little Bookroom bookshop has compiled an excellent list of books for adults and children, which they have in stock or can obtain for you.

WordPress.com has a special blog about the situation in the USA and have a detailed list of links to find out more about current events, the political context, and what you can do to help and where you can donate.

Here are practical ways you can support Aboriginal Lives Matter and a guide to researching and educating yourself on the issues.

The Victorian Women’s Trust has also compiled a list of anti-racism resources.

FB_love these messages
another fabulous meme circulating on Facebook

In a racist society, it is not enough to be non-racist. We must be anti-racist.

Angela Davis

ANZAC DAY 2020 – Light Up The Dawn

light up the dawn.jpg

A commemoration like no other…

In a few hours, thousands of people across Australia will stand in their driveway or pause inside their home to pay respects and remember those who gave their lives in WW1.

This special commemoration of an important day in the Australian calendar for national remembrance is because of COVID-19 and the unprecedented lockdown and social-distancing restrictions placed on the community to halt the spread of the virus.

Mordialloc’s local member of parliament,  Tim Richardson MP, sent a special newsletter detailing the celebration of ANZAC Day and paying tribute to veterans.

ANZAC Day Dawn services are still being held without the crowds, so the RSL has asked those who have a brass instrument to play the Last Post for their neighbourhood who will #StandTO as the official service ends with the usual minute silence.

I’ve written other posts about ANZAC Day, not to elevate or celebrate the importance of military prowess but from the perspective that all war is a tragedy and a senseless waste of human life.

I took part in the Centenary Poppy Project and my sister’s quilt block was part of an Australia-wide Gallipoli Project, one of 100 blocks chosen to mark the WW1 Centenary.

WW1 is part of our family history – the trauma is personal. We have genuine heartache and tears remembering those who paid the ultimate price. The uncle buried in Egypt, who fought at Gallipoli, shares the same name as my father.

However, I fervently wish we had a national day every year to celebrate and work towards world peace!

The details of the grave of GEORGE ALEXANDER McINNES_is here. He is one of over 60,000 who sacrificed their life in WW1.

George Alexander McInnes.jpg

The Annual Service At The Shrine

duty done artwork
sculpture at Soldiers’ memorial Bendigo

I’ve only attended the Shrine Dawn Service once but have never forgotten the emotional experience:

Ten years ago, I booked a seat on the free bus to the ANZAC dawn service at the Shrine, leaving Mordialloc Station at 4.20am. No alarm needed because I toss and turn half asleep, fearful of missing the bus. Warm clothes required for the short walk along Albert Street – especially for my head recovering from the ravages of chemotherapy.

Exhaustion, the chill from the sea air, and discomfort from cancer recovery negligible compared to what my Uncle George and other soldiers endured. I clutch a travel mug of freshly brewed tea and hurry towards a group of shadows hovering at the bus stop.

A blonde in a fur-trimmed camel coat and matching hat detaches herself from the fence and returns my ‘good morning’ with a smile. A mother and teenage son turn away obviously not wanting a conversation – it is a bit early to be chatty. An indecipherable black figure doesn’t move from a post further down the street.

The blonde speaks, ’I wish I’d thought of a travel mug.’

‘One of my better ideas. I never slept.’

‘Nor me, and I went out last night.’

‘Gosh, no point in going to bed then.’

As we laughed a ringtail possum scurried along the electricity wires, ‘He’s probably wondering what we’re doing here in the middle of the night,’ I said.

‘This is my first time.’

‘Me too,’ I say, ‘ it’s on my Bucket List.’ I point to my mauve turban, ‘breast cancer.’

‘Good on you. I’m meeting a friend who goes every year. Her dad’s a vet…’

The bus grumbles to a stop and a dozen more passengers materialise from parked cars in the street and station car park. The night streets are silent as we drive to the city, neon lights stab the inky sky, masking the stars.

At the Shrine, a sea of people merges in the predawn dimness. The number of people takes me by surprise. Such a hive of activity. All ages and genders, all shapes and sizes… a steady stream of buses from rural and suburban Melbourne, drop people off to join the crowd.

The Shrine looms out of the fog. Soldier and media scrum silhouetted against the brightening sky. A handful of lights dot the skyline, making the buildings on St Kilda Road discernible except for a massive glowing cube, changing from blue and green to red and silver, atop a building.

Perhaps Dr Who or Daleks will arrive from this gigantic ice cube to remind that man was made to mourn and peace is an elusive concept for every generation…

Serendipity or synchronicity, but even that light doused when a church service hush descended.

45,000 attend this Dawn Service.

The words and music of Buffy St Marie’s Universal Soldier and John Lennon’s Imagine come to mind just as the public address system fails miserably. I can’t hear what they say, despite gigantic strategically placed speakers.

Silently, I recite the 23rd Psalm in place of whatever solemn speech is being intoned.

To be close to the front, I squelched through grass still soggy from a recent storm and rapidly churned to mud by the crowd. I imagine George sleeping in the trenches and emotion lumps in my throat.

Buried in Egypt, he died six months after arriving at Gallipoli. A working-class boy from Williamstown. He would never have imagined this huge, eclectic crowd, heads bowed, remembering him and others who did not come home.

Colour crept into the sky, a dark red stain obliterating the fog. Two fruit bats hover and fly away, not the squadron of nesting bats a friend complained marred last year’s ceremony.

The flypast invisible because of heavy clouds but the aircraft’s’ rumble and drone a cause to celebrate with a rifle salute that startles me, even although I was prepared. How did George and his mates cope with constant bombardment? No wonder so many came home shell-shocked.

A glimmer of sunlight bounces off the medals adorning chests lined up centre stage and on the chests of people around me. No need for uniforms to remind us this is a military occasion.

The smell of traditional breakfast – sausages, bacon, eggs, toast… a drawcard for many but I have no appetite.  I weave through the crowd and climb on the bus to return home, fighting back tears and overwhelming sadness.

George, like so many others, died alone in a foreign land, never understanding what the war was about. His grave never visited by family…  Lest we forget.

FB_IMG_Harry Patch quote.jpg

World War One began in 1914 and lasted for four years; 416 809  Australians volunteered for service. 324 000 served overseas and over 60 000 were killed, including 45,000 who died on the Western Front in France and Belgium and more than 8,000 who died on the Gallipoli Peninsula in Turkey.

Many nurses in the Australian Army Nursing Service served on the Western Front. These nurses worked in overcrowded hospitals for up to 16 hours a day, looking after soldiers with shocking injuries and burns. Those who worked in hospitals close to the fighting were also in danger of being shelled by the enemy.

Red poppies worn on Remembrance or Armistice Day, November 11, are often used as a symbol for ANZAC Day too.

The tradition has its origins in a poem written in 1915 by Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, a doctor in the Royal Canadian Medical Corps. Lieutenant Colonel McCrae noticed that, despite the devastation caused by the war to towns, farms and forests, thousands of small red poppies began growing everywhere in Spring. This inspired his poem, first published in England’s Punch magazine in December 1915.

Within months it came to symbolise the sacrifices of all who were fighting in WW1.

In 1918 Moina Michael, an American, wrote a poem in reply, We Shall Keep the Faith, in which she promised to wear a poppy ‘in honour of our dead’ and so began the tradition of wearing a poppy in remembrance.

She and Frenchwoman Madame Anna Guérin, known as “The French Poppy Lady”, encouraged people to use the red Flanders poppy as a way of remembering those who had suffered in war.

wild poppies in parkdale

In Flanders Fields by John McCrae, May 1915

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

 

Nurses and Doctors Always In the Front Line

During the current coronavirus catastrophe, we have lauded medical staff as heroes. This acknowledgement of their dedication and courage is important. They put themselves at risk and serve the community in peacetime and war.

When I was on duty at the Soldiers Memorial Institute for Open House Bendigo 2019, their historical exhibits and telling of Bendigo stories impressed me. I’ve been to many historical exhibitions and museums commemorating WW1, especially during Centenary celebrations, and I always learn something new or discover another aspect not considered before.

In the recently refurbished building, they present well the stories of Bendigo nurses and doctors who went to war and also Chinese Australians.

The Returned Soldiers’ Memorial Hall grew out of the returned soldiers’ associations that were established throughout Australia during and after World War I. The first such association in Bendigo was established at the home of a local woman but by 1917 the Returned Soldiers’ Association was advocating for the creation of club rooms at the former Hustler’s Royal Reserve mine site, Pall Mall.

Local architect George Dawson Garvin was commissioned to design the Memorial Hall and the Governor of Victoria officially opened it in 1921. They added the Institute building to the Victorian Heritage Register in 1997. Recent conservation works by Lovell Chen have included the removal of past extensions and, as the building is sited over old mine shafts and on a compacted mullock heap, underpinning.

A new gallery, designed to Passive House standards and conceived as a contemporary interpretation of the arcaded loggia, nestles behind the Institute. The external use of a single material for the walls and roof blurs the scale of this new addition, allowing it to read as a single storey building. An entry vestibule at the north end mediates between the inner gallery and an encircling verandah that also provides additional exhibition space. The verandah is timber lined (floor, walls and ceiling) focusing and framing the visitors views constantly outwards through the arcaded openings, in-filled with glass and perforated mesh.

Open House, Melbourne

Seventy-four Bendigo nurses volunteered to serve in Egypt, the Dardanelles, Salonika, France, Belgium, England, Italy, India, and on hospital and transport ships. Their qualifications ranged from infectious diseases, acute care, experience in theatre, ward and hospital management. They cared for the injured and sick with care and compassion.

Of the local nurses who served, two died because of their service, and twelve were invalided home. Four were Mentioned in Despatches, one received the award of the Royal Red Cross and four received the Royal Red Cross Second Class.

bendigo nurses ww1

Thirty-one doctors from Bendigo volunteered to serve, leaving the safety and security of their positions at the Bendigo Hospital, medical practices, or studies. Some supported the recruitment and training effort in Australia, others went overseas.

The local doctors came from two distinct groups. Fifteen were linked to the Bendigo Hospital; sixteen were born or educated in Bendigo, or had family connections to Bendigo and had practised in central Victoria.

Non-combatant medical officers, they dealt with horrific wounds, grave illnesses and deaths associated with war with constant compassion and dedication.

Of the Bendigo doctors who served, three died because of service, several were invalided home, seven Mentioned in Despatches, four received the Military Cross, two received foreign decorations, one received the Distinguished Service Order and three admitted to the Order of the British Empire.

bendigo drs ww1

Over 200 Chinese-Australians joined the AIF. Almost all were born in Australia. Many were descendants of immigrants who came from southern China to central Victoria during the 1850s gold rushes.

chinese australian ww1

Samuel Tong-Way was born in Ballarat to Chinese-born parents. Despite being initially rejected by recruiting officers in 1916, Tong-Way persevered and enlisted in 1917 when there was an easing of restrictions. After training, he was posted to France in December 1918, just after the Armistice. Before returning home, Tong-Way obtained study leave at the Imperial College of Science and Technology in Kensington.

He returned to Australia in 1920 and resumed studies teaching. He taught at the Violet Street and Gravel Hill state schools and marched every ANZAC Day in Bendigo until the year before his death in 1988.

Whenever I see the honour rolls of war dead, the immensity of the loss to families is always overwhelming.  On the Bendigo roll, many surnames the same, and reflect a similar story in other Australian country towns – you ache for the farming families who lost several sons and cousins.

wwi honour roll.jpg
The Honour Roll for WW1 Bendigo and surrounding districts

This ANZAC Day, I hope all those who pass the Gallipoli Precinct at St Nicholas’ Church in Mordialloc, will pause.

Please think of the tragic loss of life in all wars and make a commitment to always champion peace. I know I will when having my daily exercise walking Josie.

Lest We Forget

 

 

Imagine a future when breast cancer is treated with antibiotics!

overcoming cancer sign

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

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

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

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

Improving Breast Cancer Outcomes: Past, Present and Future

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

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

cancer centre 1
Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre

The Past – 1990

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

His reflections and observations:

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

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

  • most cases presented as a lump or mass

  • treatment was extensive and debilitating surgery

  • psychological and physical distress for the patient

  • chemotherapy and other adjuvant treatments, not an option

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

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

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

  • metastatic treatment was limited, toxic, barbaric and ineffective

  • hormonal therapy limited and it too barbaric compared to nowadays

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

  • breast implants and reconstruction experimental

  • wards were run like ‘concentration camps’

 

peter mac history timeline

TODAY

Today it is totally different.

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

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

Clinical trials and researchers looked at:

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

In the last 30 Years

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

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

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

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

TAILORX Trial

He designed this USA study of 2006-2010.

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

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

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

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

The findings of the trial significant:

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

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

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

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

Immunotherapy Trials for triple-negative breast cancer

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

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

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

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

USA Figures

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

Important findings

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

sign about cancer centre

HEALTH EQUITY

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

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

Health equity is a fundamental social problem and screams discrimination.

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

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

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

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

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

Health inequity may cause up to 30% unnecessary deaths

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

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

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

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

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

DRUG COST 2017

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

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

Dr Winer looked at the future and made some predictions:

Next 10 Years

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

Next 25-30 Years

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

Questions from the audience

 

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

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

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

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

  1. How Do You Prevent Breast Cancer?

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

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

PERSPECTIVE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

A Twitter Feed That’s Addictive And Uplifting

morning feed lorikeets

I’ve always found refuge and comfort in words whether writing, reading, talking or listening…

However, perhaps it is ageing and adjusting to retirement or the weariness of coping with this latest cancer diagnosis, but the urge and even the passion for creative writing is difficult to muster.

Snatches of poems and stories still swirl in head and heart, but that’s where they usually stay – no ‘writer’s block’ just disinterest or lack of energy to go the next step.

Maybe I need to remove self-imposed pressure and unrealistic goals.

I haven’t fallen out of love with the art of writing, just facing the use-by date of some goals and dreams I thought important or achievable. 

Conversations with self and the in-depth reflections that often accompany a cancer diagnosis, especially when it strikes again, have led me to a new passion and much-needed relaxation.

Or rather, it has encouraged an expansion of an existing fascination and another project.

I’m talking about protecting birdlife – especially the ‘backyard birds’ I see every day – and creating a garden for man, beast, bird, bee and butterfly to enjoy.

sunflower 2

It is addictive watching the interaction when birds visit the front garden, listening to their chitter-chatter – delightful twittering.

And like the paparazzi, I try to capture the perfect photo!

They inspire me to write – not for anyone else but myself and for fun – two elements missing in the years of planning lessons, teaching technique, and inspiring others to write and publish.

I don’t have to feel guilty about writing for pleasure, or that the pleasure is mine!

pretty polly 2

Words Have Power

Words are a powerful form of communication.  I love the nuances and capabilities of the English language, although the multiple meanings and grammatical rules are complicated and confusing when you are trying to master it.

Choose wisely, check the dictionary, listen to the tone, think of interpretation…

The influence of poems, stories, and novels can stay with you for life, also excerpts of dialogue from a dramatic script or film. Favourite song lyrics may move you to tears and can take you back to an important moment in time when you hear the song.

Putting it in writing’ and sending letters or emails, recording a journal or updating a diary, even keeping a blog are all valuable forms of expression to share ideas, feelings, and creativity and wonderful when it is not a chore, venting about injustice, or keeping a friendship alive.

I hope to return to feeling elation when my words work.

Word Choice Matters

The pen can be mightier than the sword but that depends on the opponent and circumstance – wars are fought and won with military hardware and signed contracts of peace don’t seem to wield the same power.

The belief ‘sticks and stones will break my bones but names will never hurt me’ is patently untrue.

The toxicity of social media attacks and resultant damage, plus the terrible toll of suicides after bullying (virtual and physical), proof that name-calling, insults, false accusations and misinformation hurt and destroy. (The pen is as mighty as the sword?)

We have, as an example, President Trump, one of the most powerful leaders in the world, and his use of Twitter. He is certainly someone who has brought the medium into disrepute more than others, but there are many other examples of what reporters call ‘Twitter fights” – and suddenly someone has their account cancelled or removes themselves voluntarily.

In the digital age, the reputation of journalism has also taken a hit, especially when clicks are more important than content. The lack of digital literacy in the community is a worry.

There are many recorded instances of two-quick Twitter reactions/responses, and the toxic comments of trolls and others who comment with online anonymity creating more articles so that often the important news or original topic is ignored.

Poison-pen letters and nasty critiques existed long before the popularity of social media, but the digital age and the speed and distance words travel makes me content to have a twitter account of the feathered variety!

And once sent out a word takes wing beyond recall.

Horace 65-8 BC: Epistles

Not that you can ignore ‘progress’ or technological change. I did introduce my students to Twitter and we had fun writing poetry and flash fiction – a totally different use than what it was designed for – although President Trump’s tweets could fall under the category of fiction but not poetry!

these legs were made for wlaking

For the past year, walking by Mordialloc Creek and the foreshore, exercising Josie around suburban streets, exploring local parks and those further afield, provides comfort and delight but contentment is revelling in the joys of my garden’s flora and fauna.

The pleasure deepens sharing these activities with my daughters and friends.

Man does not live by words alone, despite the fact that he sometimes has to eat them.

The Wit and Wisdom of Adlai Stevenson (1965)

white heron and silhouette

dusky moorhen

The real world often disturbs these idyllic routines of the natural world.  Politics, protests, the climate emergency and mundane household maintenance intrude, along with a persistent inner voice that I should be ‘doing’ or ‘achieving’ – getting the hang of this retirement gig is difficult!

Every time I think that I’m getting old, and gradually going to the grave, something else happens.

Lillian Carter

A Comforting Stillness
Mairi Neil

In the stillness of the evening
a hush
birds nestle in the trees
until daybreak

In the stillness of the evening
a rustling
nocturnal animals forage
until daybreak

In the stillness of the evening
a hush

Above the stars twinkle
clouds veil the moon
the Milky Way cascades in flashing lights
a reminder each day a star is born
in the endless universe
yet, no sound reaches Earth

In the stillness of the evening
a hush
a rustling
a silence
my heart beats a sweet rhythm
thinking of you.

An Urgent Plea Received

Dear Mairi,

The bushfires have been worse than any of us could have imagined. If you (or anyone you know) has been affected, our hearts go out to you.    

BirdLife Australia is coordinating the response for threatened birds nationally and our fire mapping has identified the species most impacted by the inferno. Now is the time for us all to take urgent action.  

We believe millions of birds were incinerated in the blaze. Millions more have lost habitat and face starvation right now. I fear many birds, like the Rufous Scrub-bird, will soon join the list of threatened species. Their future is in our hands…

We have the plans and the people in place, but we know it will take at least $2 million to begin priority actions to save the most threatened of the birds impacted by the fires.

With your urgent help today, we can:

  • Get survey teams into fire zones as soon as possible to find threatened birds
  • Help birds recover by protecting them from predators and supporting habitat recovery
  • Rebuild populations over the long term, through actions like captive breeding programs

http://www.birdlife.org.au/

magpie in shade

Birds live in a range of habitats, making them useful indicators of what is happening in the world. Across the globe and throughout Australia, birds take exciting journeys to search for food, to follow the rain and look for breeding sites. Learning about birds helps you connect with the natural world and helps us understand more about the environment we live in.

While we enjoy a position at the forefront of bird conservation, our work is far from done. With 238 Australian birds already extinct, threatened with extinction or near threatened, we need to ensure that we don’t lose more of them.

glass owl paperweight

I’ve written recently about the extent of the devastation from bushfires, drought and climate change, but also how the threat of extinction for many of our birds has hung like the Sword of Damocles for years.

We are running out of time to address the climate emergency, but we can all contribute to protecting and improving the aspects of our local environment necessary for native wildlife, especially the birds.

Bird species have incurred huge losses, not just because of climate change, but habitats have succumbed to development, domestic cats, and a recent study of millions of birds killed by flying into the glass windows of highrise buildings is a sad read.

We can make buildings safer for birds. Architectural elements like awnings, screens, grilles, shutters and verandas deter birds from hitting buildings. Opaque glass also provides a warning…

New York City recently passed a bird-friendly law requiring all new buildings and building alterations (at least under 23 metres tall, where most fly) be designed so birds can recognise glass. Windows must be “fritted” using applied labels, dots, stripes and so on.

The search is on for various other ways of warning birds of the dangers of glass walls and windows…

A zen curtain developed in Brisbane has worked at the University of Queensland. This approach uses an open curtain of ropes strung on the side of buildings. These flutter in the breeze, making patterns and shadows on glass, which birds don’t like.

sunset at beach

Create a bird-friendly garden

Birds need a home to breed and bring up their families. Their natural habitat normally provides food, shelter, water and nesting sites, but in urban areas they need help.

BirdLife.org advise how to create a suitable habitat in backyards, parks, bush reserves and even wider communities. Here are four of their fact sheets:

magpie atop hills hoist

lorikeets enjoying the new seed block

Mordialloc Meditation
Mairi Neil

On Main Street, Mordialloc
the lull of evening signalled
by oh, so familiar sounds…
birds jostle and joust
for palm tree frond, gum-leafed house.
Dusk descends into twilight glow
the tweets and squeals
a deafening crescendo –
a cacophony of conversation:
Time for bed.
Nestle down!’
That’s my branch…’
Move over magpies!’
All must know their station
in life. There’s a sense of place,
chatter, bargain, even squabble
but eventually sharing space.

Stop skylarking about!
You lorikeet lout!’
Squeeze over sparrows.’
How precious are parrots?
Pigeons! The rooftops are home for you
go mutter your usual “coo-coo”…’
And in the gloaming, shadows
of building construction loom,
mounds of dirt in lonely gloom.
A treeless landscape, evictions rife
Mordi’s birds may face a new life.
I remember a bloody chainsaw day
shake my head and turn away…
Continue to walk by Mordi Creek
watch the ducks silently glide,
a cormorant rest in contemplation
this beautiful tranquillity
a sanctuary from conurbation.

How lovely the shimmering ripples
of boats tethered for the night,
feathered friends dive and feed
in the fast-fading light.
A familiar outline against the sky
silhouettes of ancient trees
reminding us of when this creek
hosted Bunurong corroborees.
The path peopled by dog walkers,
and school children hurrying home
joggers and health fanatics
grateful for the space to roam.
In the eucalyptus evening hush
this precious part of the day,
Mordialloc Meditative Therapy
chases my doldrums away.

australian raven 2

Hitchcock’s Crime Against Birds

I’ve always had a fascination for our feathered friends, but nursed a fear of close contact after seeing Hitchcock’s The Birds!

Nothing equals The Birds for sheer terror when Alfred Hitchcock unleashes his foul friends in one of his most shocking and memorable masterpieces… beautiful blonde Melanie Daniels rolls into Bodega Bay in pursuit of eligible bachelor Mitch Brenner. She is inexplicably attacked by a seagull. Suddenly thousands of birds are flocking into town, preying on school-children and residents in a terrifying series of attacks. Soon Mitch and Melanie are fighting for their lives against a deadly force that can’t be explained and can’t be stopped in one of Hollywood’s most horrific films of nature gone berserk.

Released in 1963, I must have seen The Birds on television in 1968 or soon after – I would have been 15 – but it could have been yesterday because it is one of those movies you never forget.

Hitchcock was a master at creating fear and who would have thought a movie with such an innocuous title could be terrifying?

It took me years to look at birds with admiration, not suspicion. And it is amazing how many people I have met over the years who were affected by that film!

For years, I preferred to keep a distance from birds, disliked seeing them caged and envied their ability to fly, but still held an irrational fear they’d try and peck at my eyes.

If you read the trivia notes on IMDb, they reveal the treatment meted out to the birds on the set of the film – behaviour not tolerated today – we should feel sorry for them not the humans.

bird feeding frenzy

Ten Birds Regularly Visit My Garden

Google Backyard Birds, to discover a host of information on birds found in Australian backyards; each state gets a mention.

Depending on what suburb you live in, the following birds will probably be common visitors.

Noisy Miner

baby noisy miner
Noisy Miner

Common Myna

common myna
Common Myna

Australian Raven

australian raven in garden
Australian Raven

Grey Butcherbird

butcher birds visiting
Butcherbirds

Magpie

magnificent magpie
Magpie

Magpie-lark

magpie-lark 3
Magpie-lark

Lorikeet

lorikeet in vivd colour
lorikeet

Red Wattlebird

wattlebird
young wattlebird

Spotted Dove

spotted dove
spotted dove

Sparrow

a very tiny sparrow
tiny sparrow

I admire and respect the tenacity and survival instincts of the bird population; their cleverness and beauty, their strength despite such fragile frames. For years, a blackbird family built their nests in the Photinia trees that line our back fence and watching the birds fly back and forth with twigs, discarded pieces of plastic and other debris hanging from tiny beaks proved how adaptable and innovative they can be.

Little Blackbird
Mairi Neil

Oh, little blackbird
with your puffed-out chest
to some your song is sweet.
Others, they despise you
native birds must compete.
You build a nest
to lay your eggs —
eat up all the food
the native birds fly away
a situation far from good
Some say we should leave
Mother Nature well alone
birds are free to travel
they often widely roam.
Perhaps accusations are absurd
because the sky is limitless
and belongs to ALL the birds!
©1997 mn

Last year, I filmed a magpie ripping threads from a coir mat and flying off to build a nest.

Drought and urban development shifts bird populations. Mordialloc now echoes to the screeching and chittering of flocks of rainbow lorikeets, especially in the evening when they roost in the iconic date palms lining Main Street, the prolific sparrows and thrushes of earlier years forced elsewhere.

Marauding Mimics
Mairi Neil

They appear on the lawn
like four pirates of old
strutting and aggressive
noisy and bold.

Fixing beady eyes
on a treasure trove
they bully incessantly —
taking what they love

They’ve come to this land
from across the sea
in an ideal climate
they thrive with glee

They raid and steal
do what pirates do best
the Common Myna
has become quite a pest
© 1996 mn

The cockatoos and galahs are still around but prefer the open area down by Mordialloc Creek.

galahs at the park
galahs feeding

Melodic butcherbirds and bullying wattlebirds have made their home in grevillea and banksias, ensuring the smaller birds rarely visit. The sky often patterned by flocks of migrating birds from the nearby Edithvale Wetlands.

Sometimes one or two rare birds choose my garden for a rest or snack instead of ‘eating on the wing’, the experience a delight, but Murphy’s Law dictates my camera is never ready to capture the moment!

Wandering in the garden with my morning cuppa, I’ve recorded quite a few of the bird calls because they are so beautiful. Identifying the singer often leaves me intrigued. Most birds are gifted with plumage to match their preferred habitat, they blend into tree foliage, the bushes, reeds or grasslands with ideal camouflage.

two lorikeets whispering
two lorikeets have the perfect cover

Shadows
Mairi Neil

The plaintive song echoes
in the university grounds
as students hurry home
past skeletal branches
of winter trees
hosting the bird’s lament

a mournful echo
of dinosaur dynasties
amid the whirr of bicycle wheels
tapping footsteps
ringtones
mobile conversations
iPod seclusion

a wistful whistle announces dusk
until full-throated celebration
a melodious call to rest
lights douse
classroom doors close
shadows deepen
the campus empties

crowded trams trundle by
bathed in artificial sunlight
tall grey buildings reach
for a star embroidered sky
this call of birded tongue
conjures ghosts
of long-forgotten species.

The Kookaburra Laughs In The Old Gum Tree…

When my family first arrived in Australia, in 1962, magpies proliferated in bushy Croydon, so did kookaburras, rosellas, cockatoos and galahs. Most of those birds absent from Mordialloc when John and I started our family here in the 1980s.

The last kookaburras sighted in nearby Bradshaw Park long before I joined the Friends group and worked to save the remnants of indigenous flora and fauna from encroaching suburbia. Bradshaw Park is the only native bushland reserve in Mordialloc and is home to 136 native species – some of which occur nowhere else in Mordialloc.

Rangers have sighted 33 native bird species, but introduced birds thrive too.

Tuneful blackbirds, thrushes and common mynas gobbled the crumbs I scattered each morning (a politically incorrect habit learned from Mum and Dad that I’ve now ceased!).

As I learned from others in the Friends group and planted indigenous trees and flowers, after many years, some native birds now call the trees and shrubbery I’ve nurtured, home.

Recently, a dear friend of 50 years visited from London. Nobuko stayed with other friends in Olinda before me and brought me a teatowel made locally as a gift. It reminded me of childhood trips to visit Sherbrooke Forest.

teatowel from nobuko

These rosellas are often seen up in the Dandenongs but there is another bird I have only been lucky to spot a couple of times in my life – very special memories.

Lyre Bird’s Lair
Mairi Neil

A forgotten memory surfaces strong
feeds a yearning now the days are long
an image of childish eyes entranced
the memorable day the lyrebird danced.
Performing his unusual repertoire of sound
the lyrebird proudly claimed his ground
tail feathers splayed shimmering white
hiding his head from onlookers’ sight
without colourful peacock arrogance
he began his shy seductive dance.
Throughout the day lovers came and went
until the lyrebird’s energy spent
and he disappeared amongst the trees
ephemeral as the morning breeze.

Walking the paths of Sherbrooke Forest,
enthused by dreams of aeons past
I hope to glimpse again the lyrebird’s dance
Tho’ its talent for mimicry limits my chance.
This bird can repeat the magpie’s trill
replicates man-made sounds at will –
chainsaw, hammer, or car alarm
he’s perfected them all as part of his charm.
The picnic area leads to the nature track
warmth of dappled sunlight upon my back.
Cloaked by primeval ferns dripping dew
I abandon pungent asphalt; exhaust fumes too
farewell gravel crunch, and human chatter
leaving creek where mosquitoes scatter.

Winding upwards to the whistling wagtail
I try to spot him but to no avail
a flurry of wings, camera shy rosella revealed
the foliage of Sherbrooke a perfect shield
As ancient eucalypts climb towards the sky
an eastern whipbird’s distinctive ‘crack’ nearby
spongy deep green moss cushions city feet
ornamental fungi from undergrowth peeps.
Vegetation hugs the path and sprouts native grass
exposed skin tickled as I stride past.
Eucalyptus tang replaces rich loam smell
the towering Mountain Ash cast their spell
fragile maidenhair ferns decorate the trail
flighty butterflies appreciating their veil.

Panting with the exertion of the climb
each pause filled with birdsong sublime
my misty breaths join whispering trees
a nearby rustling makes me freeze.
Low in the fork of a wattle tree
a sight I never expected to see
constructed with meticulous precision
a female lyrebird’s nesting vision.
A beautiful ball-shaped structure appears
the perfect home developed through years.
Of evolution, and remarkable adaptation
what an amazing bird unique to this nation
but alas like the palette of fleeting dawn
the enigmatic lyrebird and chick long gone.

© 2013

 

 

When Life Throws a Curveball, Love, Friendship and Kindness Nurtures Resilience

 

bc package.jpg
message on My Journey Kit

Last month breast cancer loomed large in my life again when an annual mammogram and ultrasound detected a small tumour.

If the worry about bushfires and climate change wasn’t enough to shatter equilibrium, here was a personal crisis requiring me to face pain, grief, loss and other assaults on happiness.

Supposedly, the season of goodwill, quality family time and holidays –  I had a list to complete:

  • putting up a tree and decorations so the glorious smell of pine resonated throughout the house confirming Christmas
  • celebrating the successes of the year – my daughter and I published four books for people wanting to leave a record of their life or a legacy for family
  • publishing a class anthology – an annual event to crown a year or semester of writing for my students
  • shopping for presents for loved ones and friends and writing cards or emails for those annual catch-ups
  • planning outings for visitors from overseas and looking forward to returning a little of the hospitality I received when I travelled to Europe and UK 2017
  • cleaning and decluttering and other rituals associated with Hogmanay – the traditional Scottish New Year, which since childhood signals clean sweeps of cupboards and wardrobes
  • writing a final blog post for the year to share my poems published and play shortlisted in 2019 enabling me to lay claim to the title ‘creative writer’ …

good luck flowers from girls.jpg

The best-laid schemes of mice and men gang aft a-gley

Rabbie Burns

Diary of An Unwelcome Diagnosis

Monday, December 2     Mammogram and ultrasound at Mentone. The radiologist said nothing but her body language; the time spent on the ultrasound, the check of x-rays just completed …  a tiny fear formed in my stomach …

‘When are you seeing the breast specialist?’

‘Thursday.’

‘Good. He’ll get the results and report.’

Thursday, December 5  the annual check-up with breast surgeon Peter – nine years since my mastectomy.  I could tell by his body language this visit was not going to end with Happy Christmas…

‘Not great news… something there, probably a cyst… how do you feel?’

‘I’ve had pain, on and off … thought it was coming from my neck …  too many hours at the computer…’

Ever solicitous and kind, Peter asked if he could examine me,

‘Where is the pain… Good, not about the pain but I can’t feel any lump, can you?’

‘No.’

He showed me the mammogram report and the ‘cyst’ causing concern…

Conclusion: New right breast 8 o’clock lesion 50mm from the nipple. This can represent complex cyst or fibroadenoma, ultrasound guided biopsy will be helpful.

‘I’ve arranged for you to have a biopsy tomorrow at Mentone – a fine needle aspiration, and, if necessary, a needle core biopsy.’

‘Needle core biopsy? Oh, that hurts… I remember…’

‘Probably won’t be necessary and I’ve requested Dr Ron Sher do it – the top man!’

Friday, December 6   I spent the night convincing myself and the girls it was a cyst. Routine follow-up biopsy. Peter being cautious. Rather than have my daughters miss work, I caught the train to Mentone and arranged to text my dear friend Lesley when finished.

I’ve had several needle aspirations and knew it would be uncomfortable but did not realise how rough that day would be.

The small room filled quickly with ultrasound equipment, two radiologists and a nurse who with Florence Nightingale compassion held my hand and stroked my arm as a fine needle aspiration became 5 core biopsies.

I received some local anaesthetic permissible for the procedure and remember stilted snatches of conversation as I fought back tears to survive the torture. Everyone was thoroughly professional and empathetic, apologising for the pain being inflicted and allowing me to catch my breath between ‘shots.’

With a collective sigh of relief almost an hour later, I took my bruised breast and instructions for care – and left.

‘You’ll get the results Wednesday at the latest.’

Again, a reading of the body language started foreboding… Lesley took one look at my flushed face and asked if I wanted to go straight home rather than have the coffee and chat we planned.

‘No, if I go home, I’ll curl into a ball and cry – let’s go to Truly Scrumptious and overindulge. I’ll buy you lunch and promise not to cry in public!

truly scrumptious.jpg

Truly Scrumptious lives up to its name; the ambience, food and service always great. And Lesley, my oldest and dearest friend in Mordialloc, was the most understanding and ideal companion for the start or was it the continuation, of my breast cancer journey.

‘Can’t believe it’s nine years,’ we said in unison as we sat down facing each other.

Later with a heightened sense that life is finite, I admired how window boxes outside softened bricks and mortar, beautifying ugliness.

Lesley shared her knowledge of plants, explaining the popularity and usefulness of Star Jasmine. (She bought this plant for me a couple of days later. Bless her!)

I’m greeted at home with a ‘pamper pack’ from my daughters: Vera and Shetland DVDs, massage oil, Bio-oil, a crossword book, chocolate, butter menthols, Rescue Remedy, calming Lavender oil – no pretence, memories of years before, a fear voiced and unvoiced – suppression of mild panic?

Lots of spontaneous hugs and expressions of love.

 Monday, December 9   Sitting at the computer, completing the final edit of a class anthology, Peter rang to say the pathology arrived.

‘I need to see you tomorrow and you’ll be in the hospital next week.’

It was after 8.30pm. A little voice inside commended his diligence for checking the pathology results and letting me know straight away but I blurted,

‘I can’t come tomorrow, I’m working. It’s the last class for the year… I can’t miss it…’

‘Well, come to my rooms as soon as you can after finishing work. I’ll tell my secretary to expect you when you can make it.’

Concentration weakened and no ‘good’ night’s sleep ahead!

I made stupid mistakes editing the class anthology – thankfully, my work (always the last included) and not a student’s.

The copy since corrected – bless the digital world! But the news of cancer returning was the beginning of a month of inner turmoil and ‘putting on a brave front’, the shrivelling of any desire to write or have confidence in what to write.

Read the anthology here – some fine writing from the students and always interesting to see the varied reactions to same or similar prompts: Longbeach place anthology December 2019

Tuesday, December 10   while preparing for the final class of the year radiologist Ingrid from Mentone rings, ‘How are you feeling? How is your breast?’

I’ve never had a follow-up phone call before and thank her while explaining I’d be seeing Peter that afternoon. I got through the class with a tight knot in my stomach and tears burning the back of eyelids.

After sharing the disconcerting news and showered with love and concern for what lay ahead, we played some fun writing games.

Would this be the last class I teach?

 

class anthology completed 2.jpg
Some writers in the anthology: standing – Susan O’Shea, Ann Hammann, Cynthia Tuvel and sitting: yours truly, Tricia Wasson and Judy Keller.

Late afternoon, daughter Mary Jane came in with me to hear Peter explain the result of the biopsies. He showed me the report – a paragraph of scientific gobbledegook swimming before my eyes but the last line, in capitals and underlined:

 

RIGHT BREAST 8.00 5CM FROM NIPPLE CORE BIOPSY – FEATURES CONSISTENT WITH ADENOID CYSTIC CARCINOMA.

‘This is a rare cancer, but we’ve caught it early. You may need some radiotherapy but no chemo…’

I glanced at Mary Jane who was taking notes (always have someone you trust with a notebook!) in case I mishear or forget the conversation.

Tears glisten and she struggles to keep it together while I surprise myself at feeling so calm. I joke to break the tension,

‘Of course, it’s a rare cancer, I’m a rare person!’

Amid the laughter, Peter explains I’d have a blood test before I leave and his receptionist will explain the arrangements for a sentinel node biopsy and hospital booking.

In a room down the corridor, Jack draws blood – an unusually pain-free experience. Well done Jack!

Many people struggle to get blood from my veins – and it’s not because I’m Scots and we give nothing away!

While Jack worked, we discussed taste in movies – he was young but didn’t like Sci-Fi or Marvel movies, preferring Realism.

Then he expressed his annoyance with computer technology – a new program recently installed by IT made his life more difficult not easier.  Ah, a familiar story – just hope whatever details of mine fed into the machine arrive where they’re supposed to!

In the evening, daughter Anne stays the night – there are tears, cuddles, cider, a favourite funny DVD that has us laughing…

We’ll get through whatever lies ahead – we’ve done it before. There’ll be disrupted sleep patterns ahead, inappropriate food choices (who said chocolate is bad for you?) and a rollercoaster of emotional energy including outbursts, tears, withdrawal and fear.

We cancel our holiday to Port Campbell booked months ago. We were to leave on Boxing Day but with the operation scheduled for Tuesday 17th, I probably won’t feel in holiday mode, nursing a sore boob. Nor will I be able to walk the dog and the attraction of Port Campbell was the dog-friendly cabin.

Wednesday, December 11  I receive a call from Brightways, a breast care nurse cancer service. They want me to come to Cabrini on Friday morning and talk about the operation, what to expect and how they can support me.

Beautiful flowers arrive from Tash, a dear friend who claims to be daughter number 3:

flowers from Tash.jpg

Joy and Fun lighten the mood…

At 10.00am my friend Jillian picks me up and we attend an end-of-year concert by Silver Blades, the Olympic Ice Skating Group of Oakleigh.

Jillian’s friend Rosey one of the group that is a mix of ages. However, the majority retired and/or aged pensioners. Seniors skating on (thin?) ice – haha!

To the strains of Abba’s Mamma Mia and other upbeat tunes, the Silver Maids (and a token male) glide around a skating rink I hadn’t visited for 40 years.

The solo displays of skill, fun, themed, team displays, glossy and glittery costumes, and a grand parade delightful and impressive.

Suddenly, it’s home time. Thank you, Jillian, for a bright spot in a so so week!

On the drive home I reminisce about teenage years in the late 60s.

A carload of excited adolescents looking for romance and excitement or just freedom from the mundane travelled from Croydon to Oakleigh on Friday or Saturday nights.

We spent most of the evening clinging to the barrier, bumping into each other or on our bottoms before returning home sitting on towels to protect the car upholstery.

I remember a lot of laughter, cold numbness of hands and feet and the discomfort of wet jeans!

Jillian is my walking buddy, a good friend, and an inspiration. A patient of Peter’s who survived breast cancer – twice, she shared that her second cancer different too and occurred thirteen years after the first!

I imagine Jillian has experienced the tangle of thoughts coursing through my mind.  A FB post makes me think Google is listening not just to my spoken words but thoughts!

happiness poster.jpg

Wednesday, December 11   News is spreading to dear friends and family. A close friend and writing colleague, Lisa turns up with a beautifully worded card, a box of sunshine, plus empathy and support.

I can unpack the contents one by one or all at once – I do it gradually but here are pics of the wonderful, thoughtful, organic products – what a box of loving sunshine!

Another friend Glenice pops in with ‘fun’ presents for under the tree and words of love and encouragement. Her husband’s health is frail yet she’s taken time out to visit me and I know she is supporting others through health crises.

Emails from friends and relatives in the UK and those living here also cards form ex-students. The cliches ‘no news is good news’ and ‘bad news travels fast’ spring to mind.

Maureen calls and continues to do so regularly, also sends texts and emails. She visits with chocolates, DVDs and buckets of love.

Barbara calls and later visits with a gorgeous orchid.

20191221_143321.jpg

All the support and love is humbling… and a sharing of the collective strength of resilient women memorable.

‘I bounce – we bounce!’

Thursday, December 12  Longbeach Place staff break-up lunch at Chelsea RSL. A nice meal and we cover various topics while not dwelling too long on stories about breast or any other cancer!

I learn that the State Government funding body has decided not to fund writing classes in neighbourhood houses – not enough employability outcomes for the demographic attracted to the classes. Not surprising since many of the students have retired that’s why they have the time to study non-Accredited courses in community houses. But surely improving skills and education access doesn’t stop – whatever happened to a commitment to lifelong learning?

I’m disappointed we seem to have moved far away from the initial concept of why community houses developed and that wellbeing and social capital don’t get a look in nowadays.

Yet, so many studies and reports talk about the challenge of our ageing population, combatting loneliness and depression, cultivating belonging, easing the tragedy of mental illness, the need for ESL students to learn the nuances of English, the importance of recording personal histories.

Ah, well, interesting timing…

quote about being

Friday, December 13   Superstitious people say the day is unlucky but I have already compromised my luck! Anyway, Dad always said 13 can be lucky – he was thirteenth in his family, was born on 13th March and had thirteen letters in his name. He always chose 13 as his lucky number.

Bronwyn, the smiling face on the Brightways brochure meets us at Cabrini. She explains the role of breast care nurses and gives me a lovely floral pillow to use post-op.

There is not an available bra in my size but she promises they will post a free Berlei bra to me. I’m advised to register for My Journey Kit from Breast Cancer Network Australia. The kit available online.

‘Thank goodness – I remember when the hard copy arrived by express post last time.’

‘Yes, the size of a couple of house bricks,’ Bronwyn said with a smile.

‘Overwhelming too – at least online I can choose what to read, download or skip.’

Thank you Berlei – funding My Care Kit is an altruistic, much appreciated financial commitment.

Estimated number of new cases of breast cancer diagnosed in 2019
19,535 =   164 males +  19,371 females

Estimated number of deaths from breast cancer in 2019
3,090 =   32 males +   3,058 females

Chance of surviving at least 5 years (2011–2015)  91%

People living with breast cancer at the end of 2014 (diagnosed in the 5 year period 2010 to 2014)              71,943

Data source: (https://ncci.canceraustralia.gov.au/diagnosis/cancer-incidence/cancer-incidence)

I’m not special – just one of many living with a breast cancer diagnosis – I acknowledge how entitled and fortunate I am to be in Australia with a network of professionals and access to excellent medical care…

At Cabrini, there were reminders of Christmas and the spirit of giving:

On the way home, we discuss the information about the operation – a lumpectomy this time – and the logistics of getting to and from the hospital.

We’re aiming for upbeat.

I notice a car parked by the side of the road and we giggle about alternative business names after Anne googles the company…

The girls drop me home and pick up a Christmas tree. We spend a lovely couple of hours decorating the tree, discussing arrangements for Christmas Day and leaving all Christmas shopping to them.

I almost feel normal!

christmas tree.jpg

Monday, December 16   On this date, 57 years ago, nine-year-old me arrived in Australia with my family. This bit of sentimental trivia sprung to mind as I prepared to go to I-MED Radiology Moorabbin for a Sentinel Node Injection before surgery.

They sent me a video to watch to prepare – this is not a pain-free procedure you’d volunteer for!

Jess, the young lass who injected small amounts of radioactive dye around my nipple apologised for the pain and said I was very brave – often people cry or baulk at the procedure.

After the injections, I had to massage the breast to make sure the fluid distributes evenly. ‘Positively erotic,’ I joke, ‘if it wasn’t so painful!’

Jess and Mary Jane laugh.

The next step, a scan and gamma-ray photo to show the radiation has highlighted the tumour and lymph nodes. Apart from a dull ache in the breast and the beginning of a tension headache, I feel fine. Alas, no turning into the Hulk with super strength!

blue moon rose.jpg

Tuesday, December 17   The Blue Moon rose growing outside my window, vibrant and beautiful as I got into the car to head to Cabrini for 10.30am. Both girls were with me and in true grief/loss reaction, I feel guilty they are going through this trauma a second time.

We don’t voice our fear – will things go pear-shaped like last time? (A lumpectomy, haematoma, more cancer discovered, mastectomy, mistaken chemo dose and pneumonia… ) Please no ‘Oops.’

Flashbacks to John’s death and feeling his absence keenly. None of us slept well – me least of all – it was after 1.00am when I drifted off, before waking at 2.00am.  John’s sister, Janet rang from England, sending love and wishing me luck.

How lovely to hear her voice, know her genuine concern but she’d forgotten how many hours difference between zones so I was the dopey – and then couldn’t sleep much afterwards because many memories stirred.

And then one of those inexplicable experiences occurred – did I imagine, dream, hope? There’s a shadow in the doorway of positive, loving energy – John, Mum… the little girl whose spirit lives in the house?

Will I get through this latest health hiccup? Is this a primary or secondary cancer? What is death like? What is life about? What have I achieved? Does it matter? What is my legacy? Will the girls be okay?

Wide awake I didn’t need the alarm to go at 6.30am so I could have a light breakfast before fasting at 7.00am!

The operation was super successful (a huge thank you Peter!) and although Christmas cards were late; I sent them out with this ditty:

An Excuse of Sorts
Please pardon this generic computer note to explain
how plans derailed when breast cancer struck again.
Mammograms, scans, doctor visits, biopsies,
hospital trips, lumpectomy and opinions galore…
this whirlwind treatment left my only boob sore!
But the surgeon triumphed, ‘I got all the tumour -‘
I smiled thanks from my drug-induced stupor,
Therefore, if he’s that happy, why not me?
I’ll also revel in being again cancer-free!
Now this health hiccup came at an awkward time
so please, accept my apologies in this twee rhyme.
I’ve been otherwise busy to muster the usual cheer
but rallying like a true Scot, ’Here’s to a guid New Year!’
                                                                          Mairi Neil 2019

quote about life changing

Another Facebook meme doing the rounds seems appropriate.

I’ll get back to writing about important happenings not centred around me in the next few posts. Finish the ‘to do’ and partially written list!

Meanwhile, to all those who read my blog. Belated best wishes for a productive, prosperous and most of all peaceful 2020

 

 

 

 

Mr Bailey’s Minder -a play about growing old disgracefully, being disgracefully old… and something much deeper!

noticeboard for play

On Saturday, I went to the matinee session of the Mordialloc Theatre Company’s latest play at the Shirley Burke Theatre, Parkdale.

My theatre buddy, Lisa cancelled because of ill-health but I am glad I didn’t let that or the wintry weather, which caused sudden and severe squalls, to convince me to stay at home in the warmth – although it was tempting!

Now I’m ‘retired’ it is easier to stay at home, especially in winter and by the demographics I’ve observed who support the MTC and the smattering of empty seats on Saturday, the cold weather and perhaps the lethargy of age took its toll, which is a pity.

The play was enjoyable, the ambience in the theatre welcoming, and you get free coffee/tea and biscuits at the interval.

In fact, if so inclined you can buy a glass of wine or sherry before the play starts. Saturday definitely, chilly so I’m not surprised many people took that option.

See this play and support your local theatre

Mr Bailey’s Minder is on until the end of the week!

theatre ticket

Of the three productions I’ve seen this year, this definitely gets a thumbs up from me and considering the response of the audience, others also agree.

  • Maybe it is because this is the first one this year by an Australian playwright and so the actors didn’t have fake American or Canadian accents.
  • Maybe it’s because I can relate more to the themes which are not only current and relevant but emotionally engaging.
  • Maybe it’s because of the actors – apart from a bit of nervousness at the beginning, their interactions were believable and entertaining.

This is the promo blurb:


blurb for play

However, discussing the play at the interval with one of the volunteers another lady joined the conversation and when I said the subject matter was interesting and topical she said, ‘Ah yes, elder abuse.’

A reflection perhaps because we are in the middle of a Royal Commission into how we treat people in Aged Care and there are stories galore about abuse in the media.

But Mr Bailey’s Minder is much more than a story about someone growing old and being mistreated or fearing mistreatment.

All the major characters in the play have fears and emotional scars – not just Mr Bailey.

We are all ageing or know someone who is and if we live long enough must face declining health and death.

We all have or will have a life to reflect on with good and bad decisions, successful or unsuccessful relationships, haunting memories of the warm glow kind or filled with regret.

Many of us have had experience with someone in the family coping with alcoholism and/or dementia and family estrangement is common too.

The play mines a rich field of life experiences.

Therese, as the title suggests, is the ‘Minder’ or carer, and frequently, takes centre stage. Her story, one of a need to belong and be valued – and to value herself – a contrast to Leo’s life of celebrity status where being a ‘famous artist’ resulted in Leo overvaluing himself! (as others did too!)

scenes from play 2

Leo Bailey (Eric Hayes) is a drunken ‘has-been’ artist suffering from decades of alcohol abuse and self-indulgent misbehaviour. He’s offended, hurt or neglected friends, several ex-wives and all but one of his children. His past is confronting – what he can remember of it, or how he remembers it, which varies depending on his mood or awareness.

Now he is facing death – and he is astute enough to know it will probably be alone.  He must also cope with the realisation that he’s lost some of his artistic abilities yet boasts how valuable his signature still is – even on a blank piece of paper (be intrigued).

Only his daughter, Margo (Juliet Hayday) continues to visit him and manage his affairs, despite being subjected to a barrage of abuse every time she steps into Leo’s home.

Margo has remained dutiful although she can’t escape the bitterness of unhappy memories of childhood spoilt by her celebrity father’s behaviour.

In the opening scene, the much-maligned Margo meets Therese (Julia Landberg), a young woman desperate for work and the latest in a long list of Leo Bailey’s minders.

We learn how ill Leo is, about his obnoxious behaviour, plus how dementia has heightened his disagreeableness.

Margo who works in investment banking does not ‘pull any punches’ regarding her father. In fact, she repeats the well-worn cliches –

  • Old people abandoned in nursing homes must look no further than their own past behaviour.
  • Abusive drunks reveal their true self – it’s never just the drink talking.
  • Adults must take responsibility for their behaviour whether they’re a celebrity or not

Therese, cagey about her past, is worried Margo will check her references. She doesn’t expect to get the job, yet in her desperation behaves alternately, belligerent and defensive. She is feisty and a survivor.

Leo comes downstairs, he is at his alcohol-sodden best, insulting Margo and Therese and accusing them of wanting to take his home and independence.

Disagreeable is an understatement.

(Interestingly, “Leo’s” lines or actions alternated between outrageous, wily astuteness and downright insulting, but a group in the audience loudly appreciated Eric’s performance – indicative that the actor who is a Life member of MTC has a following!)

The final major player to add to the emotionally scarred cast appears later.

Karl (Aaron Townley) a tradie who comes to remove a mural and repair a wall. His life is as difficult and broken as the others. He’s paying off a debt caused by an ex-business partner and recovering from a marriage breakdown caused by same debt.

Needy and lonely,  Karl continues to visit to do odd jobs after establishing a friendship with Leo and Therese who manages to get her charge to give up drinking and begin to make amends to those he has mistreated by writing letters of apology. They even start going out and visiting parks and museums.

Of course, there are sub-plots and a minor character (also played by Aaron) who will make your blood boil and an all-important twist that good drama provides.

The necessary conflict to keep an audience interested is delivered – with a couple of realistic physical scenes, which had me worried because Eric wasn’t using make-up to age!

Each character also revealed an inner conflict through actions or dialogue at some stage.

theatre program

The Playwright, Debra Oswald. 

Wikipedia tells us that Debra Oswald is a screenwriter, playwright and fiction author. She was the co-creator and head writer for series 1-5 of the award-winning Channel Ten series Offspring

Mr Bailey’s Minder and The Peach Season both premiered at Griffin Theatre Company. Mr Bailey’s Minder toured nationally in 2006 and premiered in the United States in 2008 at The Walnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia. 

When it was first released, a review said, the play

grapples with how much latitude we’re prepared to give artists we consider to be blessed with some kind of genius. It also explores the separate journeys of three individuals committed to creating a place where they can belong.

The play may also promote discussion about past behaviour and caring for ageing parents whether they were celebrities or not.

The worship of celebrity, of course, seems to have intensified in recent years. A prime example is in the acting profession where TV creates celebrities frequently, with actors who study the craft and perform on stage often overlooked or not given the recognition, they may deserve.

In this social media age celebrities flourish, however, in the future they may pay the price for their behaviour much earlier or burn out quicker.

The publicity social media gives that makes it easier to make celebrity status, also makes it easier to punish or shatter a celebrity. And with the Internet – everything is on record whether it has been edited, doctored, embellished, made up…

Plus we have an ageing population. Debra’s play will remain topical and relevant for some time.

Stagecraft and Set Design

scene from play 1

The set design and construction depicting Bailey’s disintegrating home above Sydney Harbour is eye-catching and memorable. Martin Gibbs, the Director and set designer is to be congratulated.

The various scene changes facilitated seamlessly by three exits – a door through to a kitchenette, the ‘front’ door and a staircase that led to the bedrooms and much-mentioned bathroom. The music accompanying each scene change setting the relevant mood and the lighting used to great effect to signal the passing of time and a new day.

So, add a bit of spice or emotional angst to your day and catch a session of Mr Bailey’s Minder you won’t be disappointed and it will do what all good art does – make you confront various aspects of the human condition – especially your own.

PS

A note of caution – if like me, you have experienced a loved one whose personality changed because of dementia, ageing, or a combination of both, or have experienced family estrangement, make sure you have a tissue in your pocket… you never know what triggers an emotional moment… this play just might hit the spot.

fb image

 

 

Motherhood, Love, & Purpose

mary anne and me December 2017.jpg

A Mother’s Day Reflection

mother and pie quote

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

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

The older my children become, and as I age, the intensity of love for them deepens. I think of them every day, confirming the feelings and wisdom my 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 married 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…

anne's birth 2

I salute my 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 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 vast differences regarding how Mum and I parented but not in attitude and determination to be loving and loyal whenever needed. We were both 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 novel experience for him just as having me, a feminist, as a partner, also a fresh experience!

In this picture, we are pregnant and ecstatic.

joh and me when I was pregnant with Anne

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

Lewis Carroll

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

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

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

Vector Illustration of a happy multicultural group of cute swaddled babies

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

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

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

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

I still have cold sweats in the middle of the night when I think of the operation she had for ‘sticky-eye’ and a blocked tear duct when she was barely two months old, the eye specialist and the anaesthetist 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 bleeds profusely!)

However, he too praised my quick action of 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.

pictures of mum and me me and mj

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 they know her 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!

I went into shock and apparently kept asking John if I’d had a baby until they brought Mary Jane to me for cuddling and a feed!

 

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 badly set and needed to be re-broken weeks later – a specialist did this at Como Hospital, 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.

mothers day 1990.jpeg
Mother’s Day 1990

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

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

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

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

Agatha Christie

Motherhood – the most emotional and enlightened transformation for me. Everything I’ve read, shared, learnt and absorbed about other women’s experiences reveals no journey 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 sometimes counsellors.

Nurturing has never stopped from their early childhood…

FB_IMG_1557655986840

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 and my 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.

anne me and mary 2018.jpg

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 a 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 nursing. Her stymied educational opportunities 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 of Writing and her two granddaughters earn Bachelor degrees.

season of our lives

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

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

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

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

Oliver Wendall Holmes.

Happy Mother’s Day to all!

Love Close to Home is Great Therapy

close up girls and Josie.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SADS Saves Lives and Stands for NO KILL

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

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

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

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

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

Long Stayers

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Russell
Russell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

josie at rest in garden.jpg
Josie

Josie was like Aurora reincarnated.

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

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

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

We weren’t the only happy family to adopt.

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

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

Maxwell 10 yrs old
Maxwell

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

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

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

‘You taking the little dog?’ I asked.

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

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

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

Harley

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

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

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

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

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

Our Perfect Match

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

They also just removed her stitches from desexing.

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

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

Almost immediately, she claimed our house as her home.

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

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

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

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

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

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

We did the lot!!

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

Today, April 23, is Lover’s Day

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

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

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

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

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

Josie puckered out.jpg
Josie dozing while I watch ‘Vera‘!

 

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

Nancy Wake WW2.jpg
Nancy Wake, WW2 Hero

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

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

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

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

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

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

underground ticket 1.jpgunderground promo.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Writer, Christine Croyden’s Note

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christine Croyden, February 2019.

portrait of Nancy Wake

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why Do We Do What We Do?

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

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

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

… To step aside is human:

One point must still be greatly dark,

The moving Why they do it;

And just as lamely can ye mark,

How far perhaps they rue it…

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

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

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

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

one of Nancy’s WW2 comrades she Captained

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Professor Wake who met up with Nancy in 1990 said:

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

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

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

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

So Many Stories Still to be Told

Other Nancy quotes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

download.png