Learning Sustainable Living is a Glimmer of Hope Amidst the Gloom

chelsea heights comunit centre2

On Saturday, I attended a free workshop arranged by the City of Kingston and hosted by Earthcarers Community Garden at Chelsea Heights Community Centre, Thames Promenade, Chelsea Heights.

sign about garden

It was another excellent workshop, to help me on my journey of trying to live sustainably and future proof my garden, as we learn about the inevitable effects of climate change. I have attended an information night on solar power and energy-saving materials for the home which was also excellent.

I’m glad the City of Kingston is proactive regarding climate change and has introduced some good environmental policies.

It’s uplifting to spend a few hours with others interested in the environment and always a challenge to learn something new. These workshops the council organise aim to engage and educate but also to foster friendships and community spirit. A bonus is experiencing parts of the city you may rarely visit.

When I walked up Thames Promenade from Chelsea Railway Station and spied the garden from the road and horses in the fields opposite, I thought how rural it seemed compared to the rapid development of townhouses and apartments across Kingston.

You cross where the Long Beach Trail comes from Mordialloc and continues through Centennial Park – I’ve cycled and walked this trail with my children and later with walking buddies.

The community garden has been operating for ten years and welcomes new members. I can remember attending a meeting at Chelsea Heights Community Centre when it was first established but further visits have been rare.  The established garden beds and host of activities offered now are impressive.

Members can have individual garden plots but more than half the beds are communal with work and harvests shared.

An excellent choice of venue to meet others in the community and gain knowledge about sustainability.  Many of the plants were in bloom and the variety was inspiring. We were given a complimentary booklet (available from the Council) crammed with useful information about growing vegetables and herbs, including planning, maintenance, garden health, preparing for harvest and recipes too.

home grown book
Green Gecko Publishing 2014 but Kingston Council has the rights to modify the text to reflect future developments and changes to contact details.

The First Step Towards A Very Edible Garden

The workshop was a Wicking Bed Demonstration – Growing Plants that Thrive with Less Water, presented by Jeremy from Very Edible Garden.

A wicking bed is an agricultural irrigation system used in arid countries where water is scarce. It can be used both in fields as in containers. Besides use in fields/containers outdoors, it can also be used indoors.

Wikipedia

If you Google Wicking Beds, the first post from Very Edible Gardens is 2015 but they have a whole new site dedicated to this increasingly popular way of creating sustainable garden beds here https://www.wickingbeds.com.au/and they offer ‘foolproof wicking bed conversion kits and instructional materials to the public‘.

It was a perfect day for being outside and Jeremy reminded us this was an interactive workshop. We’d build a wicking bed together. Before he began his presentation he asked for a volunteer to hold a glass jar while he put a small amount of water in the bottom and inserted a rolled-up piece of paper into the jar.

This was a timer – and Jeremy promised his presentation would be over by the time the paper had absorbed the water.

Capillarity (capillary action) will occur. The phenomenon, in which the surface of a liquid in contact with a solid – the tube of paper – is raised or lowered depending on the relative attraction of the molecules of the liquid for each other and for those of the solid.

This piece of showmanship a great introduction to a basic physics lesson and explanation as to how a wicking bed works – water is drawn up through layers from the bottom by the roots of the plants and is a more efficient way of conserving water and feeding.

Science was not my best subject at school but Jeremy was a good presenter and kept my attention better than Mr Menzies all those years ago at Croydon High.

I understood the explanation of osmosis, how plants absorb water and the cycle of evaporation into the air, but if you are interested the science is explained here.

The inventor of the wicking bed, an Australian Colin Austin has his own website, and his ongoing research into soil and improved wicking beds can be read here.

Most people present had never used a wicking bed. Some, like me, had never heard of the concept until invited to the workshop.

Jeremy noted the list of questions people wanted answers to and proceeded to answer them:

  • what is a wicking bed?
  • can you convert an existing raised bed?
  • what is the cost?
  • what soil is needed and are there different materials to choose from?
  • how small can the bed be?
  • how do you manage size?
  • can you build on concrete?
  • troubleshooting an existing bed.
  • can it be made to water automatically?

The last point was from a couple who were tired of returning from holiday to find many plants in their garden dying or dead.

Jeremy admitted the wicking system allowed you to water less frequently and a garden may survive a week in summer without adding water but it is not designed to be fully automatic.

He added that less water is used if you stay engaged with the garden bed and it is healthier too.  The wicking bed is fixed irrigation, a different type of watering system and doesn’t replace the attention and care you give to the plants apart from ensuring they have water.

the bed prepared
The garden bed we were turning into a wicking bed. The wood already lined with old carpet to protect the plastic.

Essential Steps

Your container can be any waterproof receptacle – a bucket, the colour bond garden beds commercially available, or one similar to the wooden beds of the community garden. Jeremy converted two wine barrels because he lives in an apartment and has a small patio.

A base is not necessary, but a flat surface is – a wicking bed can be built on the lawn, concrete or paving – anywhere strong enough to handle the weight, and any shape that can have a plastic liner inserted if needed because it must be waterproofed.

Jeremy advised choosing the plastic carefully – it has to be thick and lasting. Some cheap commercial products may disintegrate or puncture easily.  His company imports a Canadian product from Adelaide.

Measuring and placing the liner a great example of organisation and cooperation – the size needed cut from a roll and folded before being placed in the bed – the sides then pulled up and clamped in place.

When folding the corners attention must be paid to ensure it is as evenly upright as possible and water can’t be trapped between folds.

The Plumbing

Water is fed into a layer of gravel underneath the soil and moves up through layers so that the plant has access to water all the time. The roots suck up the water when needed.

There is a layer or barrier between the soil and base to ensure the soil is not wet all the time and air is circulating through the soil. This reservoir is important.

A pipe outlet is needed – one pipe/hose is used to feed in the water but there needs to be an outlet in case there is a lot of rain that fills the bed and to ensure no overwatering. The pipe must be between the soil and the barrier layer.

The various bits of hose and pipe can be bought from a hardware store or a kit online. Generally, the proportions for the bed are 2/3 soil and 1/3 gravel in the reservoir.

35-38cm soil depth should remain moist when the reservoir is full and the pipe outlet can be lower down at the base of the bed, or just beneath the soil layer. 40cm is a good ballpark figure to use for placement of the outlet.

It was an interactive workshop and each stage of explanation or work, Jeremy called for volunteers. People offered to cut an access point, to seal the washers, to attach the outlet pipe – we were a cooperative crowd!

All the work is upfront – it takes time to build and prepare but once that is completed, choose what you want to plant. A timely reminder to choose plants carefully before placing the bed in either the sun or shade – whatever is appropriate for the climate and situation.

Some plants do better than others in a wicking bed but plants often surprise us by adapting to an environment. According to Jeremy,  ‘plants do life differently to us and are a lot more chill.’

The advantage of a wicking bed is that you can go on holiday and not come back to dead plants providing you are not gone for several weeks!  You don’t have to water daily and you can judge and monitor how much water is used.

The Plumbing in place, now the Layers

The hard work began filling the bed with gravel, soil and mulch. Teamwork meant some people wheelbarrowed, others shovelled, and others watered. (We took it in turns and also watered ourselves with the tea and coffee provided!)

The pipe and hose in place before the gravel put in and water added to ensure a reservoir soaked before adding soil. Care must be taken at all times not to tear or puncture the plastic.

A layer of textured material placed on top of the gravel before soil added – this is to provide the all-important ‘air-obics’, plus measurements to make sure the 40cm drainage outlet.

The Soil Ready to Be Added

Every gardener knows the importance of good quality soil and compost. We wheelbarrowed and shovelled the soil as everyone shared tips and stories about where to get the best quality … Jeremy revealed the soil came from the Zoo…  there were jokes about who knew elephant poo was good fertiliser.

I remembered how a random pumpkin vine appeared in my garden when I had a neighbour who kept Lucy, the pig who loved recycling vegetable waste and rubbing herself against the fence. Nature’s recycling indeed wonderful!

After the soil came the mulch. Jeremy emphasised that the mulch should be dampened during the process. All this preparation is done before seedlings or plants added. This was the time too for trimming and stapling the plastic liner.

The Finished Wicking Bed

our finished bed

Jeremy reminded us:

  • You look after the plants and soil in the top of the bed as you would normally – this is a different type of irrigation that’s all.
  • Do not add fertiliser to the water pipe because it may build up and won’t all be flushed away.
  • Remember, it is a heavy set up and once it is in place it is hard to pull apart and move.
  • It is a fixed irrigation system and less water is used by staying engaged and enjoying looking after your plants. Some plants like garlic that like drier soil may be harder to grow.
  • Enjoy the fruits of your labour!
  • Please share if you discover resources or information that may improve the system or benefit others

After the workshop, I noticed the other beds had similar water systems installed, where the main water outlet was and the community garden’s huge water tanks.

The Grand Tour

Vicky, one of the stalwart Earthcarers gave me a grand tour and I felt honoured as she generously shared her knowledge and commitment to the garden and community.

Vicky is ‘the bee lady’ and I saw the hives. She shared her concern about the tragic loss of human and animal wildlife because of the bushfires but said that many people won’t realise the impact on an already worrying ‘bee situation’ worldwide.

Many Australian beekeepers place their hives in the National Parks and forest reserves believing they’d be more secure and the honey purer. In these catastrophic fires, habitats, houses, and everything else have been destroyed.

She showed me the composting area, where members could deposit stuff for composting and mulching and the healthy soil produced.

There are hens to recycle much of the by-products of gardening. Tables groaned under the weight of plants and herbs for sale.

Seeing the Community Garden through Vicky’s eyes was wonderful – the area where young mothers come with their babies and toddlers (one little boy loves to play ‘au natural’) and the children learn to love and nurture the environment and feel happy in a safe place.

Hopefully, nurturing the environment and gardening will be second nature to them.

Walking around the garden, you notice innovative repurposing of receptacles like baths and barbecues. Reused plant pots – even children’s toys!

There are beds devoted to flowers, to herbs, to companion plants, to fruit… community beds and those cared for by individual members.

I know clubs and schools have their own gardens and I can see the benefit of wicking beds for these places.

The world is faced with climate change and Australia is coping with catastrophic bushfires, drought and floods but it is heartening to know that there are communities and individuals, caring for the environment, nurturing gardens, sharing knowledge and contributing to sustainable living.

to planta agraden quote.jpg

 

Do You Have a Sentimental Yearning To Tell Stories About The Past?

slide of frstival

On Thursday evening, July 4th, my friend Jillian came with me to a fabulous event in the annual Glen Eira Storytelling Festival.

Not only was the event free but they put on a cuppa and delicious choice of biscuits if you turned up before starting time and plenty of us did that!

I no longer work at Godfrey Street in Bentleigh where I used to encourage my students to enter the writing competitions (and in past years a couple got guernseys!) however, my Facebook feed alerts me to Glen Eira Council posts.

They have some great events – the last one I attended was all about fashion of the Regency Period and Jane Austen.

For anyone writing recent family history (Jillian) or stories about or based on their own life (me), Thursday’s event was a great shortcut for historical detail, reminders of what Melbourne’s suburbs used to be like and a way to generate ideas to turn your life into interesting fact or fiction with specific research done by people passionate about the past and with an established following for their writing.

Nostalgia and the ‘Burbs

libby presenting
Libbi Gorr with Eamon Donnelly, David Wadelton and Aron Lewin

Award-winning television and radio broadcaster, Libbi Gorr hosted a panel of contemporary artists and authors with research, websites, and books devoted to cultural observations of our changing suburbs.

Libbi, currently, on ABC Radio Melbourne Weekends was known as Elle McFeast in the 90s. 

Lisbeth Joanne “Libbi” Gorr is an Australian broadcaster working in both TV and radio. Gorr is also an author, voice artist, writer and performer. She first came to prominence with the satirical television character that she created called “Elle McFeast”.

 Wikipedia

With her comedic skills to the fore, Libbi introduced herself by saying she looked up the meaning of Libbi and it was a wallflower, so she chose Elle because in the 90s the model and magazine was associated with long legs and great tits.

She explained that if you wanted to know her job on ABC Radio Melbourne think of her as the Waheed Ali of the weekend except she has a Jewish background, or Miranda Kerr after a feed and Oprah on Crack…

She was a young Jewish girl growing up in Murrumbena, a suburb ‘not quite Caulfield’. Her father originally, from Shepparton but his family escaped the pogroms of Russia. Her grandfather came to Australia at the same time as the Myer family but he worked on the Snowy Hydro scheme.

Sidney Myer’s family got the Sidney Myer Bowl, her father got a fruit bowl – Shepparton.

Libbi’s mother born in Caulfield – a pharmacist like her mother – ‘two generations of druggies’. Her father owned a petrol station, Gorr Automotive so Libbi said, ‘she could sniff cocaine or petrol’…

Libbi’s introduction, placing herself as a local with a connection to place important for the ‘home crowd’ – and it was a crowd – in excess of 100 people packed the room. Not a bad turn out for a winter’s evening.

 

 

The blurb on the invite about ‘burbs said:

As corner milk bars disappear, video stores shut their doors and quirky suburban houses and landscapes give way to gentrification, a group of writers, photographers and artists have set about capturing the quirks and nostalgia of our changing suburban landscapes.

Join us for an evening of cultural observations from the ‘burbs, trips done memory lane and some musings on the very strange phenomenon we call nostalgia.

Why is Nostalgia important?

Before Libbi introduced the panel she mused that Carl Jung answered that question when he studied how childhood experiences are cemented as unconscious memories connecting us to our past.

Our unconscious is the part of the mind containing memories and impulses of which we may not even be aware.

Jung talked about ‘collective unconscious’, a term to represent a form of the unconscious common to mankind as a whole and originating in the inherited structure of the brain.

We all have experienced premonitions – a sense that we know who is on the phone before it rings and we pick it up. We all have had deja vu, that feeling we’ve been somewhere before…

Jungians, almost by definition, tend to get enthused anytime something previously hidden reveals itself when whatever’s been underground finally makes it to the surface.

Carl Jung founded the field of analytical psychology and, along with Sigmund Freud, was responsible for popularizing the idea that a person’s interior life merited not just attention but dedicated exploration — a notion that has since propelled tens of millions of people into psychotherapy.

… Jung, over time, came to see the psyche as an inherently more spiritual and fluid place, an ocean that could be fished for enlightenment and healing.

Whether or not he would have wanted it this way, Jung — who regarded himself as a scientist — is today remembered more as a countercultural icon, a proponent of spirituality outside religion and the ultimate champion of dreamers and seekers everywhere, which has earned him both posthumous respect and posthumous ridicule.

Jung’s ideas laid the foundation for the widely used Myers-Briggs personality test and influenced the creation of Alcoholics Anonymous. His central tenets — the existence of a collective unconscious and the power of archetypes — have seeped into the larger domain of New Age thinking while remaining more at the fringes of mainstream psychology.

The Holy Grail of The Unconscious, Sara Corbett, The New York Times, 16/9/2009

Nostalgia is a sense that connects and cements us all and Libbi wanted the panel and the audience to consider what we get in a community when we share it or live it…

speakers being intriduced Frankston milkbar
Jessie Scott, Eamon Donnelly, David Wadelton, Aron Lewin and Libbi Gorr

The Panel

Jessie Scott, video artist and author of The Coburg Plan. Jessie is doing her PhD – the subject, video stores. She has researched many, interviewed owners and customers.

Eamon Donnelly, artist, photographer and author of The Milk Bars Book. Born in Geelong, the family moved to Melbourne. He began to take photos of places/shops. Many are now defunct and others are disappearing fast. He spent 15 years documenting change before publishing his first softcover book. A cultural artisan, his hardback book was on sale for the evening.

David Wadelton, a contemporary artist, photographer and author of soon to be published, Suburban Baroque.

 Aron Lewin, journalist/writer – recording football and real estate, chronicling progression of Melbourne shops, a Real Estate reporter. He set up the Tales of Bricks And Mortar website https://talesofbrickandmortar.com/author/alewin1/ after collecting stories about longstanding shops, restaurants and cafes across Melbourne.

Projected in the background were slides taken by the panel and whenever a familiar shop appeared, a murmur of recognition rippled through the audience.

I nudged Jillian when a picture came up of a milk bar in Edithvale and one in Seaford – several of my students have mentioned these shops in their stories.

Edithvale milkbar in background

David Wadelton – Documenting Transition

Abandoned shops, shops replaced with apartments, empty blocks… places symbolising change and loss all interest David. Change over time affects not just buildings when factories are replaced by apartments, shops on a local strip disappear or are replaced by a shopping centre…

He was fascinated by how different postwar migrant housing was compared to traditional Aussie houses. Old weatherboard home extensions added a top storey of brick to make houses look more European. The decor and colour schemes inside were soft furnishings and souvenirs from ‘the old country’.

He has photographed milk bars, newsagents, fish and chip shops… Lightbox signs: ‘sweets and smokes’ in Footscray; an adult ‘newsboy’ in Northcote,  small Barbershops in business 50+ years with souvenirs of their European homeland and their adopted homeland on the walls and counters.

He has a picture of Thornbury Espresso slide, Hattams clothes shop still with a sign ‘we take bankcard’…

David has a following and audience on Flicker, Instagram, and Google’s YouTube – he has made the transition from traditional print to digital.

speakers david and Aaron

While David was talking I thought about the milkbar that used to be at the end of Albert Street Mordialloc before several adjacent shops were demolished and turned into an ugly block of flats.

Several people tried to make a go of the business, impacted by an expanded Safeway supermarket and a new Jewels Supermarket built in Main Street. An elderly couple ran the milkbar in 1984 when John and I moved into Albert Street.

It was not long before they retired and it was bought by a man who owned another shop in Warren Road. He installed his son and a mate to run the shop before a retired army officer, originally from Wales became the last manager.

Albert Street changed dramatically in the early 90s – a petrol station/garage demolished for a nursing home, washing machine repair shop transformed into a hairdressing salon and the milk bar and mini hardware shop demolished for a block of flats. Several stand-alone houses made way for units.

Aron Lewin – Writing Poems About People and Places

Aron saw a picket fence shop and wondered who would start a shop like that, how long would it last – and it inspired a poem about why and how… and he got an idea for a website.

He went to interview the owners but they were not interested. However,  from there he looked at other small business owners in the area, shops in a strip – proprietors all knew each other with most shops around 40 and 50 years. In fact, the owners were local identities.

He focused on ones that stayed in the same place for years because he wanted to capture their stories before businesses closed and disappeared as they will…

He was fascinated by what motivated these business owners, why did they choose their particular trade/product/lifestyle? What were their challenges, successes, failures? How did they see themselves in relation to the community?

He took photos with his mobile, then teamed with a proper photographer. He aimed to interview ten people but now has fifty stories!

From a small beginning, his enthusiasm and passion to record the stories and details of old shops across Melbourne propelled and grew into a big project. It’s all about connections and relationships with a local community – stories about the butcher, the baker, the barber… recorded before the people and places disappear.

A slide of Franks Bakery, Elsternwick flashed onto the screen eliciting lots of noises of recognition from the audience and Libbi. 

‘Aw, Frank, lovely man – been there forever.’

Aron said, ‘ I saw a sign couple of days ago. It’s closing.’

‘Oh, no!’ gasped Libbi, ‘is this true? Does anyone know?’ she asked the audience.

There were murmurings and Libbi googled to check if there was anything on the Bakery website – as did others on the panel and in the audience!

are they googling the Elsternwick bakery closure?
everyone checking Google?

Jessie Scott – Extracting meaning From Unloved & Neglected Sites

A video artist/photographer, Jessie’s PhD is about Video Stores. She grew up in Moonee Ponds and the western suburbs. So many small places are disappearing, the renowned Olympic Donut place is gone and street after street subjected to gentrification with the real estate boom.

At university, she rediscovered video shops when she was studying video art and did an assignment, her Miraculous Ribbon Project. Slides of Colac Video and Network Video shops that existed then but those stores are either closed and empty or gone now.

No longer the  ‘Home Entertainment Experts’.

A Video Ezy shop was her local store. She got a text message to say it was closing and having a ‘fire sale’. That moment was when she realised how painful nostalgia felt because part of her childhood disappeared when that store closed.

People congregated to discuss, gossip, share news in the video stores. Staff would point out good movies – there’d be discussions, it was a social and family place.

Video Stores were often the first point of contact with a broader culture for people.  Nowadays with the explosion of the Internet, there is access to whatever you want but when she was growing up it was a family outing to choose your entertainment for the weekend.

Jessie’s talk reminded me of the two video shops we had in Mordialloc. Most of the time, John took the girls to choose their movies – $5 for the latest release (if they were lucky), or more likely a selection of the weekly $2 ones. (I’m talking ’90s.)

Captain Beaky’s store was their favourite and the owner nicknamed the girls ‘the horror queens’ because they loved hiring the latest horror movies – Buffy the Vampire Slayer popular!

The man in the other store on the opposite side of Main Street was nice and friendly too. Just as well because when we returned from a holiday once, the friend looking after our house and dog forgot to return the videos and left them where Goldie decided to treat them as toys she disliked.

When I offered to pay for replacements, the Video guy just laughed and said not to bother because accidents happen. Obviously, a dog lover or no one else had our taste in videos.

speakers Jesse and Eamon

Eamon Donnelly – The Milkbar Man

He was born 1981 in Geelong, his happy memories as a child are of copper coins in his back pocket as he rode his bike or walked to the milkbar to buy some lollies or ice cream.

His favourite milkbar run by the Hawkings Family.

Milkbars had colour, warmth, sounds and smells – sweet aromas – lollies, ice creams, and the owners knew everyone. They also sold cigarettes and often newspapers.

He is nostalgic for the 1980s. In the 1990s, his parents sold their renovated home and moved to Melbourne suburbia. Their new suburb did not have nearby milkbar but a golf club as a substitute.

Eamon went to university and studied graphic design and art. He returned to Geelong to take photos of his old family home and didn’t recognise the area: the family home altered, several milk bars gone – some had old signage left, others the building vanished.

He started to record Geelong first, then Melbourne – so many small businesses closing but iconic brands and typography remembered by lots of people.

Milkbars made milkshakes and spiders – many also provided school lunches being a nearby tuck shop (one even called the milkbar that).

He got a story in The Age about his first book – a soft cover book. Jenny, the daughter of one of the milkbar owners – the Hawkings – Googled him and got in touch. She loved the photographs and they corresponded.

He experienced a ‘Full Circle Moment’ – he was invited to meet the family and the Hawkings remembered the Donnellys. They met and had dinner and reminisced and discovered so many incidents were their life or the life of family members and friends crossed.

Eamon started to interview families because lots of people got in touch after the first book came out and he saw the need to save their stories.

David listening to audience member

Audience Response confirmed we love to indulge in Nostalgia

A young woman introduced herself as Phyllis.  She grew up in a milkbar and her father is in Eamon’s book.

She got emotional and apologised. Her dad passed away two years ago so the book is a treasure, ‘ I come from a Greek background, Dad was Greek.’

Libbi asked how she managed not to gorge on lollies and Phyllis laughed. ‘Dad was Greek, he said, if you steal lollies, I’ll cut your hands off, and I believed him!’

Phyllis then went on to say how much she admired her father and others like him who had little or no English when they arrived in Australia yet still ran a business.

How did they do it? Her father couldn’t speak enough English to learn or remember customer’s names but called them by descriptions like ‘giraffe lady’ (a woman who was really tall). He remembered customers that way.

She believes the milkbar building is still there in Elsternwick but now an Indian restaurant or perhaps a dodgy hamburger place!

Eamon remembered Phyllis’s dad and said there is a beautiful black and white photo of him behind the counter in his shop. He remembered how he was always smiling when he greeted customers.

A man in the audience shared a story too.

His uncle had a milkbar in Swanston Street in Melbourne city just before Bourke Street. It was a cafe too and ‘served Aussie tucker: bacon and eggs and chips.’

He used to help his uncle during holidays by selling toffee apples.

His parents had a milkbar in Huntingdale Road near Huntingdale Railway Station and in the 1960s, it was one of the busiest milkbars in Melbourne.

He ran the milkbar at 15 years old because his father got ill. They made sandwiches for nearby factories which proliferated at that time in Huntingdale. They opened from 6am – 10 pm but got a sleep-in at weekends and opened at 8.00am.

Because of some quirk in the law, they couldn’t sell groceries after 5.00pm but bribed the inspectors.  They’d board up shop and after the inspection open up again. The inspectors went away with a carton of cigarettes or large salami sausage or something similar. They also sold sly grog – brandy – an inherited side of the business from previous owners.

He remembered they sold sanitary pads, which were wrapped in brown paper in those days. Ladies would come into the shop and ask to be served by his mother. She would come and duly serve them but yell to him, ‘Get a packet of pads for the lady.’ 

Local shops provided entertainment, produce and local news!

David has been chronicling architecture of the 70s 80s 90s. Other buildings, as well as shops and milkbars, fascinated by their nostalgic and iconic status. 

His focus on the broader conspicuous change – they were on every street corner, they personify and represent change on a broader scale – no room for family businesses anymore.

Regarding the houses of migrants of that era with taste-defying interiors, garish colour schemes, eccentricity and clash of ideas – this is vanishing. Everything homogenised today, everything the same – colour schemes beige and shades of beige!

We are seeing a homogenising of culture, tastes have radically changed. He is just documenting but sees so much slipping away. His mission to record a way of life vaporising before our own eyes.

What contributes to the change?

  • Employment laws have an impact:

Contracts, transient and casual employees, staff constantly changing in franchise stores like 7/11 so no attachment to customers, no special relationship like with milkbars and small family businesses.

  • No sentimentality with 7/11 and similar franchises

Convenience stores have prepackaged mixed lollies – no choosing your own,’ one of these, two of them…’ The signage generic, the atmosphere different.

You remember the place and the people in a family business, you are cemented to it even if an employee.

You chat and value the conversations, reflect on relationships that extend beyond the shop – perhaps go to school with children, attend the same church… the shop an extension of that community.

EXHI021708.jpg
one of David’s photographs, National Gallery exhibition

Do relationships stay in the shop or do they exist and extend beyond that boundary?

Eamon said the Hawking Family became friends and a connection developed with the project but people do get displaced.

Jessie said one of the video store owners she interviewed was so well-liked by his customers that some volunteered to keep the store open while he went out cleaning to earn enough to keep the store afloat. 

Unfortunately, the store eventually had to close. Many people say they regret stores closing and miss them after they have gone but don’t patronise them to keep them viable.

Another audience member volunteered her story. She lived and worked in a local shopping strip and most of the business owners were Holocaust survivors and WW2 migrants.

They frequented shops where they could be understood, where people spoke their language and knew their culture – Jewish shops, Romanian, Polish, Scottish.

Everyone knew each other – it was a community for new migrants.

She worked in a milkbar in Malvern in the 70s, so did her sisters.  The downside was she couldn’t ‘buy cigs on the sly’ because they knew her parents.

She recalled how milkbars were referred to by their stock: a Peter’s milkbar, a Streets’ milkbar even one referred to as the weird guy you wouldn’t visit – especially on your own!

It was a night for confessions.

A man in the audience said he attended Mt Scopus College and with the help of milkbar in Armadale, he started a profitable enterprise.

He and his mates bought lollies at one price and then sold them for an inflated price from his school locker. He raised money for bands like Sky Hooks to visit and play at lunchtime concerts at school. Chocolate buttons and snakes were the most popular lollies!

When Libbi asked did Netflix and other digital technology kill video and going to the movies there was a muted response.

A man suggested that it is a change in culture and we are distancing ourselves from our neighbours so don’t blame technology because we take it up – it is a choice.

Years ago, on hot nights people sat in front gardens or on verandahs and talked to each other. Pre-television they went for walks and talked to each other.

Fences have become increasingly higher built between properties. First tall fences then security gates, even on unremarkable houses that would not be immediate targets for thieves.

A woman said that times may be changing again because of rules in some of the new estates in places like Pakenham, no front fences are allowed and side fences must be a certain height. Different councils have different rules.

Libbi asked:

DO YOU KNOW YOUR NEIGHBOURS?

Sadly, many people don’t know their neighbours citing new development, ageing and the movement and shifting of the population as reasons.

A woman who grew up behind a fruit shop said someone should do a story on the demise and change of fruit shops.

Libbi asked if she was a Cincotta and the woman said, yes. Her family owned businesses in East Malvern, Murrumbeena and Hughesdale.

Fruit shops have been absorbed into supermarkets and the trade absorbed by multi-nationals and the changing trends like organic fruit and vegetables – all big business nowadays.

ceramic art piece
Transformations 1992 by Julie Begg – ceramic art in foyer Glen Eira town hall

Has Cafe Culture replaced the Milkbar’s Role?

There is a strong cafe culture today and it is a parallel culture to the old milkbars with regular customers. The cafes are often on street corners, many developed from converted milk bars.

They are a modern social hub. For example, in Northcote, the milkbar on the corner is now a cafe – it’s about loyalty.

An Inkerman Street milkbar taken over by a cafe. They kept the name and signage, use old fashioned china crockery – a contributor to future nostalgia.

In milkbars, relationships were built and they were a meeting place for people in the neighbourhood – many cafes fulfil a similar role – providing familiarity and friendship.

ailsa oconner's sculpture
“Ourselves when young” bronze by Ailsa O’Connor  in foyer Glen Eira Town Hall

Glen Eira Town Hall

The evening had to end but people were reluctant to leave and as Libbi thanked the panels and organisers she pointed out how important a community hub is to keep the spirit of community alive and to help people belong and feel part of a place.

These events Glen Eira put on don’t cost a lot, you feel comfortable, you’ve been with people and interacted in a meaningful way,  and because it is local there is little or no travelling time…

We were all given a paper bag of mixed lollies on the way out … the reminiscing, the discussion, the relaxing warmth …

The evening proved we do yearn to share stories of the past and Nostalgia and the ‘Burbs a great success!

Well done Glen Eira Council!

If you have a story of a milk bar or other local business please share it – I have a list of stories I can write or add detail to ones already written to include milkbars:

  • I tasted my first Choc Wedge at a milk bar in Croydon 1962
  • My first trip alone on a bicycle was to the local milk bar in Croydon 1963

 

 

A Sense of Place Nurtures Belonging and Wellbeing

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COMING & GOING, bronze sculpture by Les Kossatz in Victorian Arts Centre gardens

Last Saturday, I caught up with my two sisters in the city – Cate had come down from Albury for the annual quilt show at the Exhibition Buildings and Rita and I met her at Southern Cross to spend a few hours together.

The sculpture above an apt metaphor because with the disruptions to the rail system there were replacement buses for me and delays for both my sisters. Lots of comings and goings!

Ironically, I thought I’d be late but the connection from Moorabbin to the Arts Centre by express bus was seamless and I was the first to arrive at our designated rendezvous.

Cate’s VLine delayed by a signal failure outside Seymour and Rita’s train on the Lilydale Line sat at Flinders Street ‘forever’ before continuing onto Southern Cross.

First stop, of course, was a cuppa to catch up and plan our day – my sisters would go into the quilt show for a couple of hours and I’d go into the museum opposite.

They are both into a craft and excellent sewers and knitters. However, sister Cate hadn’t entered a quilt panel this year, so I opted to catch the latest exhibition ‘From the Heart’ at Museums Victoria which focused on the regeneration of communities after the 2009 Black Saturday Bushfires.

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At Moorabbin, I had got on a crowded bus because I was prepared to stand and so ended up close and personal with a bloke from Sydney who accepted the offer too.

It became one of those random meetings that turn into a happy memory.

He was from NSW and we chatted all the way into the city comparing Melbourne and Sydney. Melbourne won! He hadn’t been here for 30 years but couldn’t believe how much it had changed – and he loved it.

‘I met my wife here – the only good thing about the place all those years ago. It was grey, grey, grey and boring.

A bit harsh, I thought but then he admitted being born and bred in the Blue Mountains and still living there.

I sit on the verandah with my coffee and listen to the birds and watch the sunrise or sunset transform the mountains and trees.’

The journey then became a mutual admiration society – we covered climate change,  the troglodytes in the LNP, the need to change the rules and reintroduce fairness and the lack of good social interaction and communication in the age of people being constantly plugged in and tuned out.

He envied Melburnites because despite disruptions our transport system ‘still worked and your Premier finishes things.’  He was impressed by our replacement services.

I envied him living in the Blue Mountains and told him one of my never to be realised dreams was ‘to afford a writers’ retreat at Varuna.

We parted ways and as I walked towards Flinders Street and paused to admire the beauty of Birrarung Marr, I appreciated again, the joy of living in ‘the world’s most liveable city’ with many public gardens and parks, heritage buildings and great facilities.

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We can explore or retreat to beautiful places with our children and friends to enjoy the outdoors if we don’t have our own garden.

There are so many delightful places the public can access to reinforce an important connection to Nature that nurtures happiness and belonging.

Melbourne Museum – An Undervalued Gem

I spent a relaxing two hours in a garden often overlooked and yet it is not only delightful but educational because it is part of the Melbourne Museum and alongside other amazing exhibitions it tells the story of our country from the perspective of our First Peoples and highlights the strong relationship they have with the land – a relationship developed over thousands of years.

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Silence and solitude are invaluable, offering time and space to reflect and contemplate. And in the Milarri Garden, there are plenty of rest stops where visitors can take time out, similar to the benefits of visiting Mingary in the heart of Melbourne.

Milarri is an initiative of the Victorian Aboriginal community. It is planted with trees and shrubs used by Indigenous people for food, technology and medicine, and promotes an understanding of Aboriginal people and their culture.

Wominjeka Milarri

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Every sign naming the plants has the Aboriginal name too if known. Milarri is from the Woi-wurrung language and means ‘outside’. Wominjeka is a Woi-wurrung word for welcome.

You discover the plants by walking a pathway that wends its way to the Forest Gallery and you are advised to watch your step because the rocks can be uneven and slippery so always remain on the path.

Also, the museum being, child-friendly as a number one priority, there are signs warning against eating and touching the plants – some of them may be poisonous if consumed. There is a water feature with eels, fish, ducks and turtles and a sign warns that eels bite.

Sometimes, when I see these signs asking for behaviour, which I deem common sense, I wonder if respect has been thrown out the window. Fortunately, on Saturday, everyone I met or observed behaved impeccably!

When you walk through the garden, you leave behind the noise of the city, the irritations, any personal worries and concerns…

The garden seems soundproofed and it is easy to absorb the serenity as well as appreciate the knowledge held by the oldest living culture in the world.

Feed your spirit.

Near the entrance, there were two exhibitions reinforcing the wonderful gift our First Peoples want to share:

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Sometimes we need to reinforce the positive messages and lessons learned in childhood. Those idyllic days when we played outside in the fresh air.

We need to take time from the busyness of our lives to reconnect with the earth and a ‘green’ place where we belong.

“What a joy it is to feel the soft, springy earth under my feet once more, to follow grassy roads that lead to ferny brooks where I can bathe my fingers in a cataract of rippling notes, or to clamber over a stone wall into green fields that tumble and roll and climb in riotous gladness!”

Helen Keller

Places and experiences that provide comfort and joy and a host of memories – all valuable contributions to health and wellbeing.

Milarri Garden is one of many places for a writer to observe the changes wrought by each season and perhaps acknowledge the changes in our life or the lives of characters in our stories.

Every culture has folklore and stories and we are fortunate in Australia to reap the benefit of the richness of many cultures from our First Peoples to the various ethnic groups and races who now call Australia home.

In Milarri, there is a sculpture, Biamie the Rainbow Serpent, by Clive Atkison and Dominic Benhura. Clive is a Yorta Yorta artist from northern Victoria and Dominic is a Shona artist from Zimbabwe. They collaborated on the artwork in 1999.

For Clive, the snake is a symbol of knowledge and wisdom, and the paved concentric circles represent harmony, strength and unity.

The sculpture reflects his respect for the wisdom and guidance of his elders.

There was also an area where paintings on the rock told a story of the trail and the animals to be found in the habitat.

Making Connections

When I meandered through the garden at the Museum, I was fascinated to read the Aboriginal names for plants I recognised as being indigenous to Mordialloc.

I remember researching how the Boon wurrung used the plants when I collated a kit for the City of Kingston while volunteering with the Friends of Bradshaw Park.

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Bradshaw Park, Mordialloc is an example of grassy woodland consisting of a lower storey of native grasses, sedges, rushes, lilies and small shrubs.

Grassy Woodland has a middle storey of shrubs and small trees with a scattered dominant tree completing the upper storey. The dominant tree species at the time of European invasion and settlement would have been the Coast Manna Gum.

The Manna Gum, Wurun, in Wurundjeri was enjoyed as a food source by the Aborigines and early settlers. The sap dries into hard sugary drops that fall to the ground – ‘manna from heaven’!

The bark comes off the tree’s pale trunk in long ribbons and the wood used to make implements such as shields and wooden water bowls called tarnuks by Victorian Aborigines. the long thin leaves were smoked over a fire to lessen fever.

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There are over 800 different wattle species in Australia and several species grow in Bradshaw Park. Wattle, karook, gum was an important food for the Boon wurrung as well as being used as a glue or cement. Taken as a medicine, the gum helped treat dysentery or was applied to wounds.

Wattleseed is high in protein and carbohydrate – the green seed pods were cooked and eaten, and dry seeds ground into flour.

Plants were used for many other things besides food. When collected, the long leaves of sedges, rushes and lilies made baskets and mats. Soaked and beaten to free the fibres they made string. The inner bark of some wattle trees also made string.

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Kangaroo grass, wooloot in Gunditjmara, was common in Victoria’s low-lying plains but grazing animals quickly destroyed much of this. The Boon wurrung used the grass to make fishing nets, using the leaves and the stem to make string. The seeds can be ground into flour.

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Common sedge, poong’ort in Djabwurrung were made into capes and worn around the neck to cure toothache.

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Sweet pittosporum, bart-bart in Gunai/Kurnai language, has a sticky substance around its seed and this is used to relieve insect stings. The inner bark is used for string.

Even the humble pigface, gadwud in Gunai/Kurnai has fruit that can be eaten raw. New leaves are eaten raw or cooked and sap from leaves can be used to treat insect stings and small cuts.

The flax lily, murmbai, in Gunditjmara is also found in Mordialloc and the fibre from strap-like leaves can make string and baskets. The fibre in the leaf makes a strong cord.

The drooping she-oak, gneering, in Gunditjmara provides hardwood for making implements such as boomerangs, shields and clubs. The young shoots chewed to relieve thirst and the cones can be eaten.

Usually, it was the women who collected vegetable foods and trapped small animals, while men hunted the larger animals. Depending on the time of year groups of hunters and gatherers went out each day to spend 4-6 hours collecting food.

Children went with their mothers to learn where to find plants, which ones to eat and how to forage. Finding food involved everyone, and all learned the skills necessary to hunt and gather. All the food was shared.

The First Peoples knew the land and it provided them with a variety of food to produce a well-balanced diet. They were not undernourished or deprived and had the kind of diet we are encouraged to follow today.

They ate fresh fruits and vegetables, fish and shellfish. The meat from wild birds and animals was lean and low in fat. Their lifestyle included plenty of exercise, particularly walking and of course, they got plenty of fresh air.

The Aboriginal people have a detailed local understanding of the seasons and the environment. Their seasonal calendar encompasses seven seasons. Each season marked by the movement of the stars in the night sky and changes in the weather coinciding with the life cycle of animals and plants.

For our sustainability and survival, we need to take heed of the knowledge our First People possess and value our environment. If some of the catastrophic predictions regarding climate change are correct, we may appreciate the medicinal, edible and practical qualities of many of the plants we have ignored or wantonly destroyed.

After the tragedy of the 2009 bushfires, acknowledgement of the importance of learning from First Peoples and allowing them to continue their stewardship of the land has been an important step.

If you can’t visit From the Heart you can access online a mini digital exhibition of the Victorian Bushfires Collection, Curious?

But you can improve your health and wellbeing and take a Milarri Garden Walk or hug a tree any time!

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Even the smallest landscape can offer pride of ownership not only to its inhabitants but to its neighbours. The world delights in a garden… Creating any garden, big or small, is, in the end, all about joy.”     

Julie Moir Messervy

 

 

 

Will This be a Winter of Discontent?

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The above meme is doing the rounds of Facebook and what Graham Norton says is such a no brainer you do wonder at those greedy people who employ tax consultants to minimise and avoid paying their share.

What kind of community do they want to live in?

One that is permanently gated with more police and security guards than teachers and doctors?

It is a timely reminder for Australians as the soon-to-be-announced (oh, please get on with it!) Federal Election is due.

It has been well-documented how many large corporations don’t pay tax and the many wealthy people, including our former PM Turnbull, who secrete money offshore in tax havens.

It looks as if the current politicians will make Taxation and the Economy the big issues – despite the fact that the LNP have now adopted some of the Labor Party’s policies.

Remember it is our money. The Federal Government has no money of its own.  So, when the tax is divided up, it is important that everyone pays their fair share and it goes where it is most needed!

We must determine where our taxes are spent and I’m glad young people are demanding governments do more to combat climate change – an issue sadly not addressed in the recent Budget.

Nor was underemployment, contract and casual employment, or the poor level of financial assistance we give to those living on Newstart addressed. This is an appallingly inadequate allowance.

Politicians get more for a daily travel allowance than people are expected to live on for a week!

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From Australian Council Of Social Services

If the Labor Party buys into the trope that ‘unemployed equals dole bludger’ or people unable to find a job are not worthy of help, then it is no longer the party of social justice. Bill Shorten’s Budget Reply better be decidedly different from Josh Frydenberg’s!

The ALP has baggage to ditch
forget rhetoric about poor versus rich
it’s about social cohesion
not fanning division
Jacinda Adern has the right pitch!

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the Melbourne march was huge

Limericks Bursting The  Budget Bubble

Mairi Neil

The Budget was delivered by Josh
no surprises there, by gosh
robotic reading
figures misleading
and included a lot of tosh!

No addressing of climate emergency
global warming not treated with urgency
Josh sold his soul
for a lump of coal
condemning us all to Purgatory

And now the hard sell will begin
to politicians lying is not a sin
there’ll be semantics
confusing statistics
the Truth always a victim of spin

The PM is a marketing man
considers winning in the can
splashing cash
to him not rash
hip pocket nerves all part of the plan

ScoMo always smugness and smiles
in Queensland, he travelled miles
to keep Nats sweet
and avoid defeat
he had a Treasury chest of guiles

Josh said the Budget is in the black
the economy on the right track
who’d have guessed
they’d rob NDIS
for that, they should get the sack!

Yet Julie wore a sparkly blue dress
at 1300 dollars it had to impress
red shoes clicked
Parliament flicked
her next job anybody’s guess

Mathias Cormann lonely without Joe
no cigars or smoke rings on show
as Dutton’s man
he’s now ‘also-ran’
a diminished powerbroker who must go

The Budget framed for election in May
when the people will have their say
about stagnant wages
refugees in cages
and prime ministers who never stay

The pork barrel has been rolled out
too late for those areas in drought
Barnaby oughta
be gaoled over water
his incompetency never in doubt

Labor’s in with a chance to win
if they promise more than spin
Bill’s Budget reply
must satisfy
‘cos people’s patience is wearing thin

Social justice can be achieved
relief for all those aggrieved
a fair go reality
if economic parity
and a living wage guaranteed

Action on climate change a must
Australia’s pastures turning to dust
species dying
suicides climbing
we need a government to trust

We’re at a point of no return
global warming a real concern
find a solution
stop pollution
destructive practices we’ll unlearn

To Neoliberalism we say goodbye
trickle down economics proven a lie
support erasion
of tax evasion
and no more turning of a blind eye!

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Do Border Controls and Building Barriers Quarantine Our Humanity?

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Backpacker Statue, Irkutsk Russia

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

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

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

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

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Panoramic view of Irkutsk Railway Station

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘I’ve received my passport…’

‘Wonderful,’

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

‘What do you mean?’

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

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

‘Helga, instead of Heidi? ‘

“Yep.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Messages Between MJ and me, April 2017

Missed video call at 3.58pm 

Only one bar of Wifi

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sorry it was an issue but glad you okay. Xoxox

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

Missed video call 5.55pm

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

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

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

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

Facebook Post April 4, 2017

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

 

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

Building barriers not new.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Facebook Post April 5, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

Messages Between MJ and me, April 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Will do. Xx

Is a Peaceful World Without Borders A Fantasy?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Let’s build bridges not walls

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Snatches from old movies and books rattle in my head.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Empathy, Acts of Kindness, Friendship – All Make Life Better

kindness is free

We dropped a couple of boxes of chocolates and a thank you card into the Kingston Veterinary Hospital when we were shopping at Thrift Park the other day because the staff at the clinic always go ‘the extra mile’.

Over my lifetime, I’ve had many pets – usually dogs – and count myself lucky most have lived long lives because it is never easy saying farewell. Dogs bring such joy and unconditional love and warmth into your life, no wonder they’re the ideal therapy pet.

But how heartbreaking when you have to say goodbye like we did last week, to our Aurora, and so many friends on Facebook were kind in their comments acknowledging how important she was in our life.

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Saying goodbye to a pet you’ve had for 14 years a wrench, and no matter how you rationalise these decisions, grief is profound. Compassionate vets, animal attendants, and understanding friends help ease the pain.

The young women we have been dealing with at Kingston Veterinary Hospital were not only loving and considerate with Aurora but cared about our welfare too. They even sent a handwritten sympathy card with a laminated imprint of Aurora’s paw – one for each of us.

card from vet

I’ve written about kindness before, the importance of it for humans in the medical world but we shouldn’t forget our relationship with the animal kingdom.

The Life Stories & Legacies writing teacher in me has to remind those who read my blog that they should not forget to record the stories of their pets because usually those stories reveal a lot about yourself and family life.

Dogs are my favourite pets and I can’t remember the family home every being without one – in fact, often two dogs.

They can be fun stories to write, dramatic, and of course sad but because family pets are like children (some people even prefer them to children) – they can be naughty, mischievous, loving – destructive (even if unintentional) – each one having their own personality and therefore great characters for you to write about.

Here is a piece I wrote in response to an exercise I gave to my class asking them to write a snapshot of their morning and to include at least one of the senses: sound, sight, smell, touch without forgetting that all-important emotional engagement for the reader.

Mornings
Mairi Neil

The 5.24am rumbles past, and on cue, Aurora begins nudging my back.

‘Too early,’ I croak and snuggle under the doona for a couple more hours sleep.

‘Yuk, your breath stinks. These early morning kisses have to stop.’

In what seems moments, a glimmer of daylight dances on the wall, then a steady rhythm of click and tap from footsteps hurrying to the railway station, after slamming car doors.

It is useless to try and sleep. Aurora, also exhausted from her alarm clock routine, lifts her head and large brown eyes to plead with me.

‘Okay, okay, I’m getting up. Now please move off my slippers and give me some space.’
She scrambles to her feet as fast as arthritic bones can and my aged body does the same.

‘Happy now?’ I grumble.

The flushing of the toilet Aurora’s signal to almost trip me up in her eagerness to be first at the backdoor where Smackos sleep in a drawer waiting to be gobbled.  She snatches the treat from my hand and dribbles as the chicken flavoured snack crumbles before disappearing into her expanding tummy.

‘That’s it,’ I say, ‘the vet’s orders!’

We shuffle back to the kitchen together to start another day.

I put the kettle on to sing, and dangle a teabag into a favourite mug souvenir from sunny California before checking the view from the kitchen window. Jasmine trembles along the fence and I wonder if the sea breeze promises a sunny day in Mordialloc.

Aurora coughs and totters into the lounge room to claim her favourite armchair and wait for me to bring my steaming cup of tea to join her.

We watch ABC24 together and discover the good and bad news before she demands a play with the ball or walks along the street – most days, like a spoilt toddler she’ll get both.

 

Aurora.jpeg

Writing about pets:

  • Do you think that animals feel love?
  • Do you think a dog can feel love? A cat?
  • These are ‘conventional pets’ what about less loveable animals?
  • What about a cow, a snake, or a spider?
  • What makes you think so?
  • Have you ever cared for or loved an unusual pet?

While we sat with the vets who shared Aurora’s dying, I asked them what was the most unusual pet they’d looked after.

Jane, a tall stunning blonde with a delightful smile, surprised me when she said she had a pet snake, ‘Great pets, easy to look after and I only have to feed it every couple of months.’

Now that is an unusual pet, I thought and remembered a neighbour who used to live next door. She had pet pythons too and one escaped – it was three weeks before she confided in me, and only because when I was walking the dog past her gate, I saw what I thought was a snake’s head pop up from a pile of rubble from their renovations.

I took the dog home and nipped next door to say, ‘I may be imagining things but I thought I saw a snake in your front yard.’

‘Oh, so that’s where he got to – I’ve been looking for him for three weeks.’

‘Three weeks!?’

Pets generate lots of stories! …

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Aurora – the Roman Goddess who liked to chew

We brought Aurora home when she was a puppy, and like all puppies, she was teething. However, despite numerous toys bought specifically for her, she found so many other things much more to her taste…

She joined our household a few months before Christmas, the timing right for her large teeth to grow perhaps because she kept us on our toes when we decorated the Christmas tree.

The coloured baubles on the tree, she either didn’t like or liked too much. Each morning when I came through to the lounge room there’d be a trail of pine needles and outside in the back garden tell-tale bright ‘flowers’ in the grass where she had taken the balls and they’d shattered.

When we moved all the decorations up to the top half of the tree hoping she’d find one of her toys more interesting, it was the electric lead of the fairy lights that gained her attention – maybe she didn’t like the carols that played along with the twinkling lights (I have to admit, I found them repetitive and annoying too) …

However, the coup de gras for our tree that Christmas was Aurora becoming entangled in the lights and tinsel and in response to my outrage running across the room and up the hallway with our tree in tow.

Needless to say, the Christmas decorations were packed away early that year – maybe if we had told our aptly named Roman Goddess it was Saturnalia she would have accepted the tree as a temporary fixture and left it alone.

Tinsel Aurora

Along with the tree and decorations, Aurora did enjoy a good chew of shoes – specifically not one, but two brand new pair of leather sandals I bought, on a ‘buy one pair, get the other 50% off’ deal.

For some reason, she only preferred the left shoe! That summer I made my old sandals last another season.

Aurora always took her loot and hid behind the couch or under a bed like a saboteur waiting for the explosion – and she certainly got that when she reappeared – although probably not the satisfaction she desired.

All parents will empathise and understand the situation – who hasn’t experienced that feeling of dread when your toddler is just too quiet or has disappeared from view.

They’re discovered in another room,  under the table, in the backyard … and you just know you’re going to find they’ve scribbled on the wall, ate something they shouldn’t or have something they shouldn’t play with…

However, it’s what Aurora chewed after the sandals that make her the only dog I’ve owned, to be included by a well-known author when he autographed his book to me.

I can tell the story now and see the funny side, but at the time it was one of those moments when I definitely needed more than Minties.  And the event triggered a reaction in me I can’t quite explain – perhaps it was the build-up of grief or just a period in my life when I’d made many life-changing adjustments too quickly… but I had what modern lingo would call ‘a meltdown’.

Aurora replaced Goldie who we had for fourteen years but she also came into my life only a few months after I lost my Dad who I loved dearly.  I was still adjusting to a new job at the Melbourne University Student Union – a full-time job entailing travel into the city after years of working part-time locally.

At the Student Union, I was the receptionist/administrative clerk for the elected student office bearers. The job was full-on because we were in the midst of a campaign to stop the introduction of VSU (Voluntary Student Unionism), a policy that would literally destroy many student activities and collective strength, particularly at small campuses. The employment future of many people at risk – including mine even although I’d literally just started working there.

In 2006, Shadowboxing, a collection of short stories by Melbourne author, Tony Birch was released but as a widow who recently returned to full-time work to put my daughters through high school and university, I lived on a tight budget with no money to spare on non-essentials – and that meant I had to curtail my love of buying books.

Fortunately, one of the Women’s Officers lent me her brand new copy,  ‘Read it on the train and give it to me tomorrow. I know you value books and will look after it.’

She trusted me with her signed copy.

You will have worked out where the story is heading…

Long story short – Aurora stole the book from my handbag, which I foolishly left on the floor in my bedroom. When I discovered the chewed remnants the next morning, the air became decidedly blue – and chilly! My daughters ready in double-quick time to leave for their respective classes.

I slammed the front door with a cursory ‘see you tonight’ through gritted teeth. I’m sure the stumps shook.

All the way to work on the train, blame, shame, and curses seesawed – ad nauseam: Aurora, the girls, myself…

Every stupid or careless thing I’d ever done in my life whirled inside my head, I was sitting down but felt weak-kneed and fought off being sick.

  • How will the owner forgive me – it was a personally signed copy!
  • Why didn’t I take more care?
  • What made Aurora go through my handbag?
  • Why didn’t the girls take more responsibility for the puppy they wanted?
  • How am I going to get a replacement book?
  • And from where?
  • How early do bookshops open?
  • What will the other office bearers think of my carelessness?

Pride is one of the deadly sins  – was that my problem – deeply wounded and worrying about myself and how others will see me? I felt the destroyed book was a betrayal of trust someone had shown in me.

I didn’t deserve the high opinion the Women’s Officer had of me and had let her down – I dreaded the confrontation ahead.

I was a child again…  waiting to be strapped by an overbearing teacher, angry because I’d played in the ‘boys’ playground (yes segregated playgrounds were a thing in the early 60s in Scotland) …

I was twelve years old and explaining to my older sister I’d lost her silver signet ring in the ocean – the ring she’d let me borrow …

By the time I walked into work, I must have looked as distressed as I felt because the one office bearer who was there, came out of his office with a worried look,

‘Mairi, are you okay?’

I burst into tears. If he hadn’t put his arms around me, my trembling legs would have collapsed.

He was the Indigenous Officer and when he heard my tale of woe his reaction immediate, ‘He’s a mate. I’ll give Tony a ring, he lives nearby.’

I couldn’t believe it! Please let him be home and willing to help!

Within a short space of time, Tony Birch arrived at the Student Union with two copies of his book – and the special pen he kept for book launches! He found the story of Aurora’s appetite for literature amusing and was only too happy to rescue me from further embarrassment.

Tony knew the Women’s Officer and replicated the message in the replacement book before signing a book for me – including Aurora’s name – ‘since she’s such a fan’.

I’ll never forget the kindness of that day.  They helped me through the ordeal with a minimum of fuss, maximum efficiency and a sense of humour.

The book returned with the owner none the wiser, keeping the episode secret justified with ‘no harm done’ but knowing what a hotbed of gossip university circles can be, I’m sure ‘the secret’ has been one of those anecdotal tales laughed at over a few beers or after-dinner coffee.

A forgotten memory recounted as I’m doing now and as long as that book sits on my bookshelf, Aurora and her most memorable escapade, never forgotten!

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a lovely message and flowers from daughter number one

It so happens that my dearest friend, Lesley, had to make a similar decision about one of her dogs the day after we farewelled Aurora.

Lesley is my dearest friend in Melbourne. We have known each other since our children were babies. We have literally been through all the big life changes together – birth, deaths, and marriages.

Whether it’s 11am or 11pm we have coffee and unburden ourselves to each other, drawing strength from our shared love and respect and being able to vent about parents, children, the economy, politics, health, neighbours – you name it we discuss it, laugh and cry, forever grateful we have each other.

And so we scheduled a long chat over coffee and a walk.

Our catch-ups and walks around the neighbourhood of whatever cafe we patronise, always a balm to the soul.

This time, we chose Alba’s in Warren Road – a place that is friendly and serves good coffee and tea. We often visit Alba’s because it is close to home and although popular, we always manage to find a table.

On our walk of the surrounding streets, we noted how many of the gardens and parks are suffering because of the recent 40 plus degree heat.

Others bloomed, thank goodness.

We were saddened to see what had obviously been a wonderful garden, neglected and dying.  A mini orchard in fact with heavily-laden nectarine and pomegranate trees.

Perhaps the original owner has died and new owners wait to sell or build and the large block will go the way of so many others in the suburbs – townhouse or apartment development.

I just hope someone enjoys the benefit of such luscious fruit before the trees are cut down if that’s their fate.

At least the area still had some green space in the form of a lovely little park we walked through to return to Warren Road and Lesley’s car, and a young woman walking her dog was grateful for the shady trees.

The lush foliage made the path a welcome and cool respite from the concrete pavements.

We were grateful many of the streets have retained nature strip trees, probably planted 20-30 years ago because they offered great shade as well as adding beauty to the street. Trees and their shade make a huge difference to comfort as our summers grow warmer.

The Andrews Labor Government is carrying through on its promise of money for pocket parks and that will certainly help create green spaces for every community.

A lecture I attended made this very clear and local council and government ignore the science at their peril.

The last few days of over 40-degree heat prompted several discussions about the importance of shaded streets on Talk-Back radio. let’s hope everyone who can do something to improve the situation will take note!

The City of Melbourne is asking people to register ‘exceptional’ trees that are important or meaningful –

City of Melbourne’s Exceptional Tree Register was adopted by Council in 2012. It enables us to recognise, celebrate and protect the exceptional trees that exist on privately owned or managed land in our city.

Perhaps a tree like this beauty Lesley and I passed – there are plenty still left in suburbia and I hope they remain.

 

Albert Street, Mordialloc

Mairi Neil

Albert Street is quiet today
a heat haze hovers
school students absent
and no U3A
the silence partly explained
by the summer holiday

Cars parked by the train track
left by commuters to the city
who’ll be late back hoping
the hovering haze will disappear
absorbed by night’s veil
and the breeze from Mordy pier

No more horses clip-clop in Mordi –
suburbia stole their stables
Pharlap and others
now picture book fables
the birds departed too – no magpie trill
or noisy minors screeching at will

It’s going to be a scorcher
the weather boffins say
and since many trees axed
the birds flew away – leaving
an uncomfortable silence
as if there’s been foul play

A whisper of wing but
no chittering chatter –
there’s no reason to sing…
an absence of wildlife
accompanies heat haze
passersby seem in a daze…

Rows of houses, rows of cars
silent, sweating, waiting
from sunrise to stars
rows of houses, rows of cars
hot steamy fixtures trapped
behind climate change bars

It’s a scorcher today and
most people avoid the heat
obeying Met Bureau warnings
they desert street after street
surrounded and smothered
by heat-hugging concrete

bless garden sign

I look at my front garden and so many of my trees and plants the result of potted gifts or random cuttings from friends. Now I will have more time (theoretically) to work in the garden I have plans to try and make it even more attractive for passersby because I know how much pleasure I get when I walk around and see beautiful gardens.

We are so lucky in Melbourne. When I travelled through Siberia I can remember some host families exclaiming at pictures of my garden, amazed at plants flourishing that they’d only seen inside, or in books.

When you walk around the streets in many parts of Europe not blessed with our weather, house and apartment windows have flowers on the windowsill or window boxes.

It is easy to understand why they value the beauty of flowers. Their deep long winters make people long for the new life and joy plants represent. Some flowers are almost revered because of the length and severity of the winter and the displays inside shops and public buildings are quite elaborate.

On leaving Irkutsk, I searched the marketplace for a basket of Pussy Willows to leave for my host, as a thank you gift. It was April and those flowers have a cultural as well as seasonal significance, being linked to the traditions of the Russian Orthodox Church and the celebration of Palm Sunday.

In Russia Easter is important, celebrated commercially in much the same way as we do Christmas. Several people in Siberia commented how lucky I was to be in Moscow at Easter because of the decorations and events.

There are no palm branches in Russia; believers traditionally carry pussy willow branches to church. Even although my hosts were not religious they still continued the cultural tradition of decorating their homes at Easter.

Walking the Neighbourhood

Strangers often stop and chat or make comments when I work in the front garden, and I’ve given cuttings to them or let them take flowers for special occasions or just to enjoy at home.

In days gone by, especially pre TV and computer, it was a common pastime for couples or families to walk the neighbourhood in the evening, chat with people still working or watering their garden or perhaps relaxing on verandahs.

When Lesley or I, or my evening walking buddy, Jillian, stroll past apartment blocks, we see balconies utilised by the occasional clothes horse and perhaps an ornamental plant but no people. As density living becomes the norm, the need to have more community gardens and parks will intensify and perhaps greater thought put into the design of buildings.

It is a different world now with different ideas of leisure and relaxation but there is a lot to be gained staying grounded in nature and being accessible to meet neighbours.

It was the tail-end of winter when I stayed in Irkutsk. The buildings were houses built in the much-maligned Stalinist era or just after, yet designed so that people’s paths crossed daily. There was play equipment for children, seats for people to sit and chat and necessary shops close by.

Even in the coldest of mornings, I watched people sweep the paths, put the rubbish in bins and then go off to work or take their children to school.

 

At the corner of Albert Street, Mordialloc, an aged care centre has been built but there is only a carpark seen by the public and no interaction at all unless the carers take residents for a walk.

Occasionally, I see a small walking group of folk from the aged care facility and can imagine their pleasure at being outside and seeing the neighbourhood.

I’m so happy when they pause beside my garden or sit on the seats outside the Allan Mclean Hall and exchange greetings.

 

shoes for chronic pain

A Walk Down Memory Lane
Mairi Neil

On a gloriously sunny day
they venture from the security of Bayside Aged Care
tentative steps into a world sometimes strange and hostile
carers cajole, encourage, guide…
vitamin D burrows into pallid skin

Jasmine and honeysuckle trail over fences, heighten senses
a child’s toy abandoned in a garden stirs a memory
washing flapping on the line, a sound from long ago
a garden bed weeded, ready for spring bulbs
sparks discussion

The ginger cat sprawled across concrete path
raises a curious head before resuming sun-baking
a noisy Jack Russell barks a territorial warning,
snuffles at the fence, wet nose nudging painted palings
the shuffling slippered feet no threat

This occasional stroll more frequent in fine weather
hesitation      pauses
clucks      whispers

silent contemplation…
They admire the rosemary bush at my gate
It’s for remembrance …

Of what?

She remembers lavender perfuming sheets
He sees possums dancing along the power lines
He hears doves cooing goodnight
She hears children demanding attention

And smiling at random thoughts
they remember the warmth of a lover’s embrace
and the cicadas’ serenade…

 

Christmas Joy Not Humbug!

Mordi pier.jpg

The Twelve Days of Christmas

The popular song aside, traditionally the ‘twelve days of Christmas’ is the period that  Christian theologians mark the time between the birth of Christ and the coming of the Magi, referred to as the three wise men.

It begins on December 25, Christmas Day and continues to January 6, the Epiphany.  For many people that is also the day they take down the Christmas Tree and put the decorations away for another year. Some people do this on January 5th others January 6th.

I can smile now remembering the first discussion my late husband, John and I had about this – I brought up Church of Scotland and non-conformist and he, brought up Church of England (Anglican rather than Episcopalian).

Although born in Australia, John spent the early part of his life in England and Christmas traditions ingrained. As a Scot whose household celebrated Hogmanay, Christmas was low key, centred around the Church:

Christmas Day only became a public holiday in 1958, and Boxing Day in 1974. The New Year’s Eve festivity, Hogmanay, was by far the largest celebration in Scotland.

Emigrating to Australia in 1962, the hot summers didn’t do anything to increase my enthusiasm for some traditions – especially ones involving Yule logs and roast dinners!

Back to the ‘Twelve days’ …

John said the tree had to be down and decorations packed away by January 6th, whereas I believed you left it up until January 6th. A ridiculous debate put in perspective the year my sister divorced her horrible first husband. She left her Christmas tree up until Easter because it brightened the house and welcomed her home with twinkling lights! As good a reason as any to break with tradition…

wild woman and christmas message

Cate’s unorthodox view remembered this year when she became an unexpected house guest for Christmas because her husband needed an urgent operation and the surgeon could fit him into his list at Frankston Hospital on Christmas Eve.

What would Christmas be without a wee miracle?

Brother-in-law Ian came through with flying colours and Christmas lunch a bigger and more special celebration than usual. The few days Cate and I spent, in and around, the large public hospital, sobering and a glimpse of the Christmas others experience.

It got me thinking that Christmas aside, there are always many people trying to ‘brighten’ the lives of others, dedicating their lives to those less fortunate – they don’t need an excuse, they do their job, follow their heart or beliefs, care about human or animal welfare – we don’t focus on the joy often enough, but absorb the negativity the press pander to – the philosophy of TV News – if it bleeds, it leads…

The nursing staff at Frankston did their best to make the ward festive – I loved the use of medical equipment tarted-up (a rubber ring/doughnut cushion stuck with coloured balls) and tinsel wrapped around trolleys and exercise equipment. But it was the effort of wonderful volunteers dressed as Mrs Christmas and elf helper on a 36-degree day that truly impressed!

We scored a candy cane before they entered the lift!

cate with hospital volunteers

Advent for many Christians begins the four weeks preceding Christmas and each Sunday up to Christmas Eve there will be special sermons and services leading up to the arrival/birth of Jesus.

However, for an increasingly secular society, Christmas begins with a flood of consumerism that reaches fever pitch and a frenzy in December but starts late October/early November…

I wrote a poem about this years ago (pre-computer), can’t find it, but suffice to say it wasn’t complimentary to junk mail or the advertising industry, which help with the humbug factor and not the joy that is found among friends and family, who use the lead up to Christmas for gatherings or tȇte-à-tȇtes.

my pink-red rose.jpgChristmas Catch-Ups

I love this time of year because in many of the cards or emails received there is news of how the year has been for friends and family and people make an effort to get together. Give me a chat and cuppa instead of presents any day because if the person lives far away, or is rarely seen, information other than ‘Merry Christmas’ is good to hear.

Sometimes even if people live close by, the busyness of life leaves meaningful conversation a rarity and so the gift of time to chat, go to the movies or a play is refreshing and food for the soul. Christmas is a great excuse and motivation to invigorate relationships. I get to have a coffee or tea with students outside class – I’m not the teacher or motivator but a friend with all ‘the issues’ that enjoy a good airing when we share what’s in our hearts and minds.

Here I am with Elhan who came to my class several years ago at Mordialloc. She is an accomplished writer in English as well as Turkish and writes a column for a Turkish newspaper in Melbourne. She took me to a cafe in Mordialloc owned by Turkish Australians, bought me ‘Turkish tea’ served in a cup with the blue-beaded eye motif to protect me from evil, and gifted me an Orhan  Pamuk novel.

It’s not a Facebook cliche when I write I’m truly blessed with the people who have come into my life through teaching and writing!

I’m transitioning to retirement but some of my friends are already enjoying more leisure time. I went to see a dear friend Uma and husband Kevin who live at Bulleen. It was lovely to have lunch in their home instead of catching up with Uma near her office in the city – our usual Christmas rendezvous.

It was an hour and a half’s journey by public transport – train to Southern Cross and then another to Heidelberg Station – but a relaxing journey that introduced areas of Melbourne I rarely visit. However, visiting will be a lot easier when the Andrews Government’s fantastic infrastructure program is complete. Looking at a time when they may not want to drive everywhere, Uma and Kevin are thrilled that accessing public transport will be so much easier and provide more choice of mode and destinations because they live near one of the many access points for the outer city loop.

After lunch, we walked to the park at the end of their street and Uma shared stories of her neighbourhood with similar pride when she and Kevin came to Mordi at Easter and we walked the foreshore and I shared where I fill up with serenity!

At the park considering the topic of my last post, I was thrilled to discover The Peace Path!

bulleen peace park

What a wonderful project! We watched families play in the park, school children walk home from nearby schools past The Peace Path, a prominent installation, a daily and fun reminder of diversity and connectedness. Well done Manningham City Council.

 

New Acquaintances Not Forgot

Many ex-students who perhaps only came for a semester or two also stay in touch and have become valued friends. At this time of year, it’s lovely to hear how they are going with their life and writing projects.

I received a welcome letter from Naoko in Japan and the delightful gift of a book and a very tempting invitation:

“an autobiography by Tomihiro  Hoshino. He writes poetries and draws paintings by his mouth. He is from my neighbour town and there is a museum. I would like to take you there. So please come visit me!'”

book cover from Japan

Serendipity!

Naoko doesn’t know that for more than twenty-five years I have bought cards and calendars from Mouth & Foot Painting Artists Australia and hold the artists in absolute awe for the exquisite products and attitude to life.

She does know that I love Japanese poetic forms and their ability to say so much in so few words – most of my classes have been introduced to haiku, tanka, renga, senryu and haibun at some point!

It is not a thick book and translated by Hiroko and Joseph McDermott was an easy read. But it is quite unlike other memoirs I’ve read considering the subject matter. The tone is not ‘poor me’ or bitter and very quickly the focus is how the writer accepted help from others and learned to paint and write with his mouth to bring meaning, purpose, joy and love into his life.

It is an upbeat memoir because yes he even grew to love and marry a faithful nurse ( not always a cliche) and found success as a writer and painter.  I understand not everyone with a disability or life-changing accident can be so lucky – but what you learn from the book is that it wasn’t just luck…

His determination and persistence, plus the loyalty, love, and consistent support from those who loved him are powerful elements not only enabling him to survive but thrive.

This First edition published in 1988 is the first of several books from Hoshino who was a high school physical education teacher until an accident in the gymnasium left him paralyzed from neck to toe and hospitalised for nine years.

He was 24 years old and in his prime.

‘I was a physical education teacher. I chose this job, not so much as I was interested in teaching, but as I wanted to keep on doing the sport I had always loved since childhood. This desire was so strong that all day long I would exercise with my students… even after the classes were out, I was running or kicking a ball around until everyone else had gone home and the grounds were empty except for me.’

The first chapter, The Accident (June 1970), is short and to the point with headings:

  • Do I Still Have Arms?
  • The Face of My Parents
  • I Will Not Die
  • From the Hospital Diary

He uses extracts from his sister’s Diary to explain the precariousness of his situation, the operations and treatment that ultimately saved his life and put his neck bones into place so he could breathe without a respirator.

“It has been decided that he can sleep without the machine. When the gauze was put back in the hole in his throat, he was encouraged to practice talking with the hole in his throat covered up. Ton-chan (my nickname) smiled happily and said in a strong voice, “The weather’s fine today.” He looked so happy that we all burst into laughter.”

haiku - owl.jpeg

The second chapter is The Joy of Writing and we learn, ‘Two years passed. Some people assumed I had died… I wavered between life and death so many times…’

However, the medical attention and constant support of his mother, brothers, sisters and close friends who take turns to nurse him every day, kept him alive. (His mother devotes her life to his recovery from day one!)

He mentions but doesn’t dwell on despondency and despair. ‘ My body had a life of its own, regardless of my wishes, though I no longer had a deep commitment to life.’

I don’t know anything about the Japanese hospital system but obviously, technology and scientific development since the 70s have changed in much the same way as ours. The treatment of accidents like Hoshino’s would be different and perhaps have different outcomes. Hospital treatments, access, cost and even where the hospital is in Japan is not the focus of the story.

There is a glimpse of how rehabilitation has made great advances when he describes the day a visiting child brought a radio-controlled toy car into the hospital and one of the mothers who was looking after her child who was a patient said:

‘If one child brings a toy like that, all the others want their own. You can’t blame them. If you’re rich, it might be okay. But what about families like ours?… Tears were welling up in her eyes.

It’s nothing to cry over…, I thought, and moved closer to the children… It was like a very clever puppy perfectly trained to perform…

Frankly, I felt like crying for one as well… watching the car race around … a certain sadness crept up over me. If people can make a precision toy like this for children, why should I have to stay on a wheelchair which moves only when someone pushes it? Why couldn’t the scientific knowledge used for such a toy also be used to move a wheelchair?

I also felt tears coming to my eyes…

Electric wheelchairs were available but he needed one specifically designed for people who can only move from the neck up. His wheelchair was actually a motorised stretcher.

In 1979, after two boffins from Suzuki Motors visited him they worked out the power and movement he had in his neck and delivered a wheelchair with a driving lever he controlled with his chin.

‘Everything about the world outside then began to look rosier once I found that people like them were working away at some research that could greatly ease my life…

Now my mother could take long-needed rests while I went out for rides.’

a vision of hope verse.jpg
From a card I bought in Oban, Scotland

In 2016, I was privileged to help start and facilitate a social group for Glen Eira Council. Over the years, I’ve had several people with ABI (Acquired Brain Injury) in my classes and I was approached to help them start a group where they could meet and discuss everything from literature, movies, politics, philosophy, therapies, culture, and even pet peeves… to relax and ‘Chat ‘N Chuckle’ with others who understood that it may take longer to speak, to listen, and understand what someone wants to say.

Many had motorised wheelchairs – today a variety of mobility aids are common but Tomihiro’s thoughts and perspective gave me a deeper understanding of how important aids are and how innate our need for independence.

An Epiphany

Tomihiro’s electric wheelchair was a long time coming and despite his mother’s relentless devotion it was often the interaction with others that gave that much-needed spark not to lose hope.

Sharing a room with a seriously ill ex-student from his junior high school who always had a cheerful smile made Tomihiro feel obligated to smile too along the lines of  ‘fake it till you make it’.

The relationship that developed between master and student a turning point, especially after the teenager was moved to another hospital and his mother visited Tomihiro, bringing a white, tulip shaped hat belonging to her son, Takaku. He wanted his former roommates to write words of encouragement such as ‘don’t give up’ and ‘have patience’.

Tomihiro wanted to write something but crunching a pen between his teeth, could only manage a tiny dot until his mother moved the hat so he managed to write one of the Chinese characters of his name “Tomi” extending the tiny dot into an “O”.

From that tentative beginning and with months of trial and error to find a painless position for his neck, he finally managed to write a single letter by himself:

“The gauze rolled around the pen in my mouth got soaked with saliva. It was also dyed with blood from the gums since I had strained so much while writing. My mother, who was watching from the side of the bed, also clenched her teeth from the strain. There was sweat on her forehead as well…

All of a sudden my life looked bright again… after having experienced the despair that I would never be able to do anything again, I felt from a single line or letter the same thrill I might have experienced setting a new sports record.”

flowers in vase.jpg

Another person who not only visited Tomihiro but was instrumental in his healing journey and his development as a writer and poet was a friend from university days.

Yoneya… and I would have dinner at the same table and every evening I would watch him say a prayer. I usually sat down with my hands unwashed and started eating … I never wondered to whom or what he was praying, nor why he said a prayer before every meal…

One day, he told me, “I am going to study in a theological school in Tokyo in order to become a minister.”

… I didn’t know exactly what it meant, but I realized what a hard and serious life he had chosen to pursue.

As soon as he heard of my injury he came to see me in the hospital. later he sent me a copy of the Bible with his apology for being unable to do anything else for me for the time being. I kept the book in a box under the bed…

Actually, I had hesitated for a long time before opening the Bible. I was afraid other people around me might think and say, “He must be in such pain to have turned for help even from the Christian God…”

… I tried to think up some excuse to open the Bible: it would help me understand history… pass the time… requite a favor extended by a senior…

… all along I knew very well what I really wanted. In my mind, I had a faint hope that something in this black-bound book might change me, just as it had changed Mr Yoneya and made him feel grateful for even the poor meals served in the university dormitory…

… when I was forced to lie on my bed unable to move or speak, I had to live a life in which every day I had to face the real me. And the real me was not strong, was not a fine person at all…

faith verse.jpg

The Power of  Spiritual Awakening

Tomihiro reads the New Testament and he recognises certain verses he has read on graves in cemeteries (St Matthew 11.28-30):

I had not known what they meant. But somehow the words stuck clearly in my mind. Perhaps I remembered them since I was then really “heavy laden,” carrying manure from the pigsty up to the fields. 

As I reread this passage over and over, I felt something warm begin to stream out from the depths of my heart…

I felt that God had prepared this passage for me long before I had even dreamed I might have the accident…when there were hard times, did I have a friend I could unburden my heart to, tell my suffering and pains?…

Lying on my back, looking up at the ceiling, I was seized by an intense sense of loneliness. I felt helpless before it… I thought that a person named Jesus might listen to me, might hold me lovingly in his arms…

haiku abandoned shell.jpg

Regardless of whether you follow a particular religion or no religion when people are faced with severe trauma, accident, disease, prolonged illness or near the end of life many may at some point ask one or more thought-provoking questions, maybe go through a period of self-reflection or self-doubt. Perhaps they consider what they took for granted or didn’t really worry about, or search for a belief that gives them inner peace:

What is life about? Is there a reason for it all? Why is life on Earth so diverse – was/is there a ‘design’? Can Science explain everything? Can religion? Is there life after death? Will I ever recover? Why me?

Seeking, and finding peace, if not answers, can be healing.

When my husband was dying we had many philosophical discussions because John was ill for a long time. He became an avid reader and thought more deeply about ideas and beliefs because he had time to digest and think about what he was reading. Time is a great commodity and gift if you use it well!

I remember telling him when various friends or family members added his name to their particular religion’s prayer list, he’d say with his usual cheeky grin,  “Good, I read an article and people who are prayed for live longer.”

The night before he died when Father Tony, the local Anglican priest called in and prayed at John’s bedside he said, “and the Heavenly Father is waiting for you, John, to hold you in his arms…”

John’s response, “Prove it!”

We all laughed and Father Tony said, “You have to trust me on this, John!” and at the funeral shared the anecdote from “my friend and pragmatist, John.”

We sang John’s favourite hymn from Royal Navy days, Abide With Me plus Lord of The Dance and he was carried out to The Internationale. If people wonder at the apparent conflict of beliefs I tell the story of the writer/educator, Paulo Freire who was asked, “How can you be a Marxist and a Christian?”

He answered, “No problem for me.”

Life is complicated and what people believe and how they cope with challenges is too. The honesty about Tomihiro’s journey, the authenticity in the telling, kept me reading and will remain with me. The simplicity of his explanation of how enriching the spirit and nurturing other senses can compensate for the loss of limbs and movement.

The Joy of Reading

He too discovered how reading enriches life – the power of story:

I spent a lot of time reading, using a simple device that let me lie on my back and read a book hanging open in front of my eyes. My mother would turn the pages for me.

Reading had not been a habit of mine when I was a child or a student… By reading books while lying on my back, I was able to learn the joy of reading. When nobody was at my bedside, there was no way to turn a page. So I kept reading the same page over and over again for as long as thirty or forty minutes. 

After such readings, I would often find something I had never noticed or understood. Some parts deeply impressed me, and I copied them into my sketchbooks…

From his hospital bed, or wheeled into the corridors by his mother, Tomihiro enjoyed being a people watcher but one day he catches sight of a person with a fox fur wrapped around her neck.

This inspires his first poem and more contemplation of not only his personal condition but how humans interact, adapt – what it means to be who we are …

And so entranced by the power of words, he studies, writes, and continually strives to improve his own writing.

In the Hallway
Hoshino Tomihiro (February 20)

A fox
Was watching
With glass eyes,
He was watching.
With the weight of his boneless neck
He was chewing his tail,
And he as watching
Me.

He noted how the glass eyes looked so sad – perhaps they reflected the feelings of his heart? He thought of the word ‘patience’ often used in letters he received. When he saw the fox transformed into neckwear, he sensed he saw himself:

I too had been living day after day, with my teeth digging into my body the more I tried to be patient… Why do I still need to hear ‘patience’…?

I haven’t really changed. The person I was before this accident – wasn’t that basically the same person I am today, even if I can’t move? Why then should I have to be patient with myself? Why should I live day by day with my teeth clenched?

Something did not make sense…

CROWN-OF-THORNS
Hoshino Tomihiro

When you can move but
must stay still,
You need endurance.
But when you’re like me,
And cannot move,
Who needs endurance
Stay still?
And soon enough,
The thorny rope of
endurance
Twisted round my body
Snapped off.

At this time, Miss Watanabe, a friend of Mr Yoneya’s visits, a Christian too,  she cared for her bedridden father for many years. From her first visit, Masako never misses a Saturday and eight years later they marry and return to live in Tomihiro’s home district near his parents. The blossoming of their relationship and her encouragement of his writing and art the impetus for his first major exhibition.

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Flowers Helped Him Bloom

When lying in bed, it was the flowers visitors brought that Tomihiro fixated on – they were beautiful, they were close at hand, and for a long time they represented the outside world he missed. Not surprising they were the first subjects he tried to draw.

When spring comes, the hospital garden is full of beds of blossoming flowers. And when I see them in bloom alongside my window my heart cheers up, even though I have to keep lying in bed… even if I feel depressed with all sorts of worries about my physical problems, all the trees outside may be in bud and even small weeds in bloom…

Regardless of what each human being may feel, the seasons go round and round in the flow of time. We may be happy or sad, become even angry and hateful… but what tiny creatures we are in the vast universe of nature!

There were always some flowers at my bedside brought by visitors and arranged in a vase by my mother. Lying on my back, I saw them day and night out of the corner of my eyes…

CHRYSANTHEMUMS
Hoshino Tomihiro

For over six years
Mr Kobayashi has been coming
To see me
With flowers.
The flowers he grows
Are as strong
As the weeds in the field
Sometimes even generously hosting bugs
Such flowers
I like most.
His flowers come
Wrapped in newspaper
On which there are left
His fingerprints.

COLUMBINES
Hoshino Tomihiro

Even a flower
When praised
Begins to look nicer,
Someone said so,
I remember.
Then I began to wonder
With fear,
If the flowers
Were looking at my painting.

sunflowers in vase.jpg

My favourite part in Tomihiro’s awakening and rebirth is when he writes about his mother. This woman deserves her own memoir! For the nine years, he was in the hospital she was with him, leaving the farm and village life in her husband’s care.

Tomihiro describes a New Year in the hospital when some patients and many staff have left for holidays. Those left decided to have a party.

All the attendants sat down together for tea on a straw mat spread in the center of the room. Normally, everybody in the hospital had to sit on a chair, not on a Japanese mat, as they did at home… my mother and the other attendants felt more relaxed squatting…

… I could not join them on the mat, but… I felt as if I was back home sitting on a mat with my mother.

They decided to have a singsong, taking it in turns –

While I was singing, I was worrying about my mother. She was to sing after me, and I had never heard her sing before. Can she sing a song? Does she even know a song to sing?…

Her turn came. She said, “I can’t really sing,” and begged the next person to go ahead. But nobody would… my mother began to sing… in a shy, thin voice… an old song I had never heard before.

… the trembling in her voice died away, and her timbre became stronger and stronger…

I was amazed. My mother, her face as shy as ever, now looked so different to me… the mother I had just seen singing was her real self. I had simply never noticed… 

She must have known many songs in her youth. Busy with bringing up children and farming, however, she must have forgotten, before she was aware of it, that she could sing.

While she worked in the small muddy family plot, doing side jobs for a small extra income well after the children had fallen asleep, and bringing us up without buying anything for herself, she must have forgotten about pleasures for herself…

I had never asked what she might want. She must have longed to take a trip or to buy some books to read. Or, even right at this moment, she might be thinking how much she would like to welcome in the New Year with my father back home…

The more I thought, the more ashamed I felt of myself. I had been concerned only about myself, thinking I alone had suffered from this injury…

I love this poem he wrote  –

poem 1

and this honest observation:

“When I was young and healthy, I used to feel very sorry for the handicapped. Sometimes I even felt uncomfortable when I saw them. While going around in my wheelchair, however, I learned something I had not noticed at all before. I was physically handicapped but I was not unhappy, nor did I dislike myself.”

It is all about perception and attitude. He explains it beautifully in a poem about a roadside flower whose Japanese name means poison and pain. He used to hate the flower because of its strange smell and preference for dank places.

Dokudami (Houttuynia)
Hoshino Tomihiro

Someone comes
And picks you up with care.
You have been scorned and despised
They all say you stink
You have been living very quietly
In this small nook along the road,
Looking up at the feet
Of passers-by,
As if waiting for someone to come to you
And need you.

Your flowers
Look just like white crosses.

The title of the book is a line from one of his poems written about the same common weed – it too suggests the mind can always be a little more perceptive and appreciative of the world we live in.

HOUTTUYNIA CORDATA
Hoshino Tomihiro

I didn’t know
How beautiful you were.
Here so close
But I didn’t know.

A book can be the gift that keeps on giving.

A good thought to end the year on and welcome 2019.

sunset glow.jpg

When A Trip is Unforseen, Unplanned and Unappealing…

 

park bench Edinburgh 2017

On Tuesday morning, in a buoyant mood, I set off for work – my last class for the term – and mind already turning over a list of appointments, events, ideas for lessons, and a list of catch-up household chores to be squeezed into the winter break.

In a folder ready for photocopying and collating, the prepared anthology of the writing students of Godfrey Street’s Writing Creatively Class.

I had burned the metaphorical midnight oil for several nights but tiredness banished when I organised the wonderful work produced this semester.  The cliched spring in my step real because a task satisfactorily completed – a job well done.

Pride Comes Before A Fall

However,  life has a way of reminding me never to be too comfortable or smug!

I’d only strode a few yards from home when I was flying through the air before landing with a thud on the concrete path.

Wings definitely clipped!

Three days later, beautiful bruises reveal themselves in places well-hidden but still painful, I  reflect on how lucky I am (no broken bones just sore muscles) and I now obey (within reason) both my daughters’ exhortations, ‘Can you just sit and do nothing – pleeease!’

I’m trying to ‘go with the flow!

windsurfing Mentone.jpg
Windsurfer, Mentone January 2018

Déjà vu or Ground Hog Day?

While sitting in Frankston Hospital’s Accident & Emergency, Facebook reminded me of my travels last year and yes, unbelievably, it was this time last year when I was limping through the last leg of the big overseas adventure because I’d tripped in the hallway at my cousin’s house in Renton near Glasgow.

Despite my lovely cousin’s pleas, I didn’t get checked out by a doctor and ‘walked through the pain,’ which led to all sorts of complications when I returned home.

My daughters were most insistent I didn’t repeat any stoicism.

I reluctantly agreed, despite feeling like one of the guest speakers at a Women’s Hospital function who said once she retired ‘a trip’ became ‘a fall’ and she was sent off to a Fall Clinic as if she had a chronic problem.

My accidents were both unexpected trips, but landing on concrete is more likely to do damage than a floor – and it felt decidedly more painful!

I can laugh about Tuesday now, but the audience of half-a-dozen workers were not laughing when I landed beside them. Several strong pairs of arms hoisted me to my feet when I told them I was ready to stand and prove I didn’t need an ambulance.

At another time I might have revelled being fussed over by a batch of young men but I just wanted to return the few yards home and ‘have a Bex and a good lie down!’

A young man escorted me the 100 feet and carried my bag. He returned a few minutes later to check I was okay but I told him my daughters were on their way.

The cavalry arrived to greet a crying mess sitting draped in a bath towel toga with a large icepack on both knees and double-checking fingers, wrists, elbows, neck and all the other places that hurt.

Maybe it is a sign of age but the pain was excruciating. Shock set in and I started to shake – the girls were decisive.

A cup of tea and a couple of Panadol and we headed for Frankston Hospital.

Mobile phones a godsend that day. They had tried for an appointment with our local doctor when I first rang them but the clinic was booked out. They’d also rang my manager and cancelled the class.

While Mary played nurse and found some looser pants for me to wear that wouldn’t pressure my knees, Anne marched down to the worksite introduced herself and recorded the company’s details. She got a contact name of a supervisor because I’d caught my foot on the corner of a manhole cover they’d removed but left jutting out from the area of pavement blocked off.

Distracted and curious by the activity I tripped, but maybe the whole path should have been closed.  Lessons to be learned all round!

Silver Linings

The day became surreal and emotions ran high – suffice to say various temperaments exposed and moments bordered on slapstick, television soapie, Grey’s Anatomy, Brooklyn 99 and then an unexpected lovely moment…

We arrived home from Frankston to find a huge box of fruit on the doorstep and a handwritten note from one of the workers hoping I am okay and wishing me well.

I really appreciated their kindness.

fruit bowls.jpg

I also appreciated my daughters’ devotion and decisiveness – they proved themselves capable and caring adults and in all the drama I had a moment of parental pride and joy – they will survive, perhaps thrive – without me and have obviously discussed and thought about ‘the ageing me’ with one of them declaring at one stage, ‘You are not superwoman and don’t have to be supermum anymore.’

And so for a few days, I am ‘taking it easy’ factoring in Panamax and Voltaren Emulgel with the vitamins and blood pressure tablets!

I’ve been touched by visits and phone calls from friends and I’m blessed that injuries don’t seem to be too drastic and the holidays will be great recuperation time.

Happenstance indeed!

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And Today is Poet’s Day

POETS day is a term used by workers in the United Kingdom to refer jocularly to Friday as the last day of the work week. The word “POETS” is an acronym for “Piss off early, tomorrow’s Saturday”: hence Friday becomes “Poets day“.

With ‘enforced’ leisure I’ve started going through notebooks and extracting the ideas jotted down – maybe I’ll get some creative writing done!

I came upon this poem – apt because it was Tuesday Class I was heading to when I tripped so here’s ‘the postcard’ I ‘didn’t send’.

Remember the perennial joke from primary school if you witnessed somebody tripping?

Oops, I tripped.

You didn’t send me a postcard!

An Acrostic Tuesday

Mairi Neil

Tuesdays during school term, I teach in Bentleigh

Up the line from Mordialloc towards the city

Easy to get to by public transport, especially trains

So convenient! And I love it! I know I am lucky, even on

Days when inclement weather suggests

A day in bed or seat by the fireside…

Yet, I‘d never use bad weather as an excuse. Unless

 

Catastrophic cyclone creates wailing whistling winds

Large hailstones the size of tennis balls thunder down

An unseasonal snowfall blocks doors, driveways, footpaths

Sleet, slush or slippery ice replaces stable ground –

Scenarios unimaginable in Mordialloc – unless you are a writer!

empty classroom

Happy Holidays and Happy Poet’s Day!

 

 

Knowledge Is Power- Here Comes The Sun!

repower poster

On Tuesday night, Environment Victoria and the Alternative Technology Association presented a seminar called Repower Your Home – one of the most informative events I’ve attended regarding the cost and value of ‘going solar’, and how renewable energy can help reduce energy costs and make Victoria, and indeed the world, a cleaner and more sustainable place to live.

Climate Change a huge issue, and in Victoria, as we head towards a state election in November, the production and consumption of energy and its cost a hot topic.

The 150 people present at the seminar were concerned about power prices but many also wanted to participate as a community to ensure whatever sustainable energy is produced, it is distributed fast, safe, and as fair as possible.

There were representatives from companies expert in providing advice and products to make homes more energy efficient. I came home with business cards and brochures plus memories of helpful, friendly conversations!

There is a lot of confusing and conflicting advice circulating, plus charlatans and cowboys prepared to take advantage of the gullible and ill-informed – more seminars like this are needed.

businesses in repower industry

Alternative Technology Association

I have been a member of this organisation for over a decade because I wanted to support scientists, engineers and environmentalists who cared about a sustainable future – their magazine ReNew, one of the first I received digitally.

They have always been ‘looking to the future’ and their work on improving electric vehicles fascinating and persistent.

Years ago, recently widowed and facing the replacement of an old hot water system,  I decided to go solar but was misled and ripped off by a company blanket marketing at the time and purporting to be experts. The installation of a solar powered hot water system became a nightmare of shoddiness and I eventually sought and achieved redress through the government ombudsman.

My ‘baptism by fire’ led me to join the ATA, do a lot more research about who to trust in this growth industry. The company that installed my main solar panels was recommended by the ATA and were reliable, efficient, and competitively priced.

For me, trust is always the key.

The Alternative Technology Association (ATA) is a not-for-profit organisation that enables, represents and inspires people to live sustainably in their homes and communities. Established in 1980, the ATA provides expert, independent advice on sustainable solutions for the home to households, government, industry and corporate clients.

The ATA has more than 6650 members across Australia walking the talk in their own homes. We have helped thousands of households save money and reduce their environmental footprint with information on energy efficiency, solar power, rainwater tanks, materials reuse and waste.

The ATA influences government policy by drawing on our technical expertise and members’ experiences. The ATA advocates in government and industry arenas for easy access to sustainable solutions as well as continual improvement of the technology, information and products needed to change the way we live. The ATA also provides consultancy services based on our technical expertise in energy, water and communications.

The ATA publishes two market-leading sustainable living magazines, Sanctuary: modern green homes and ReNew: technology for a sustainable future. The magazines have a combined readership of over 120,000.

The ATA has 14 active branches across Australia that meet regularly, holding informative seminars and workshops, sustainable house tours and attending fairs and events. We also provide an online and phone advice service for members.

 

repower meeting 1
Keiran from the ATA and Anne from Environment Victoria

 

Guest Speaker, Keiran Price – Energy Analyst

Keiran is an energy analyst with the ATA who has worked on numerous projects assessing the benefits of solar installations for residents, businesses and local governments. Prior to joining the ATA, Keiran lived in London for four years and worked at the Office of Gas and Electricity Markets and the UK Energy Market Regulator, where he was involved in the development and administration of a number of renewable energy and energy efficiency schemes. Before moving to London, Keiran was a political staffer in South Australia, a position which inspired his passion for policies that support renewable energy, sustainability and the environment.

What Are You using Electricity For?

Keiran advised we should all check our bills and look at the retail tariff we are paying – all of us are probably being ripped off.

Choice magazine did a survey recently and reached the conclusion that to get the best tariff, you need to change your retailer every three months! Most people will not do that!

However,  Keiran suggested we must shop around and the best place to look first is the Victorian Government’s website: Victorian Energy Compare a trustworthy site kept up-to-date.

Is There An Energy Crisis & How Do We Cope?

Keiran referred to a recent article in The Age about soaring power bills for a pub in Mordialloc.

(Of course, the owner just happened to be a member of the Liberal Party and the informant Matthew Guy, the Opposition Leader, who might have just shot himself in the foot if you read the comments on the article.)

Article about Doyles

After suggesting, the pub’s owner could and should reduce consumption, Keiran explained how this can be done in most households.

6 Ways To Reduce Consumption

Keiran listed items in the order of those that consume the most energy:

  1. Install reverse cycle air conditioners – they are the most efficient for providing heating and cooling – the biggest consumers of electricity
  2. Install an efficient hot water system – shop around for a replacement before it is needed to get the best deal. Go electric with a heat pump hot water system being the most efficient.
  3. Appliances like dishwashers and washing machines can have a timer so they are used during the day and you get maximum benefit from solar panels. Avoid having a clothes dryer.
  4. Cooking – if you must cook with gas because you feel more comfortable then consider using portable bottles rather than mains gas because then you don’t pay supply charge of hundreds of dollars a year.
  5. Check your refrigerator is efficient – star rating on appliances important. Don’t have a second fridge in the garage ‘for beer’. Keep that second fridge turned off with the door slightly open, and only put it on before your party or the weekend or whenever the beer is going to be consumed.
  6. Lighting consumes electricity too – replace inefficient incandescent and halogen bulbs with LED. Turn screens off at powerpoint when not in use – television, laptops, desktop computers, phone battery chargers. Standby mode still uses power! Phone and tablet chargers referred to as ‘vampire load’ using just a little bit of power but if on all the time it still consumes energy!

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How Do you Make your Home More Efficient?

** Minimise heating and cooling.

  1. Roof and walls need insulation – a no-brainer.
  • Keiran advised checking the insulation is still in the roof if you had workmen come for any reason, especially electricians, because they often disturb insulation to get access to wiring and then forget to return insulation to correct place.
  • Pop your head up into the roof cavity and check your insulation is where it should be.
  1. Floorboards, windows and doors – retrofitting floors can be complicated but worth sealing or covering with carpet.
  • There can be gaps and airflow and these should be minimised to stop draughts, also around windows and doors.
  • Windows can be shaded – external in summer because on a hot day one square metre of warmed glass is the equivalent to running a bar heater!
  • There are numerous ways of stopping direct sunlight onto glass in summer: plants, trees, blinds, sails, shutters…
  • In winter you need good curtains to keep the heat in. No airflow over top and back out the bottom – install pelmets, they are important.
  • Honeycomb blinds are the most efficient but any blinds are better than exposed windows.
  1. Run energy efficient appliances.
  • Check the star rating – the number of stars important with up to $200 a year difference in usage.
  • Eg, Even if an appliance with high star rating costs $500 more to buy than one that uses higher energy, remember that in a little over 2 years you will have saved that difference in energy costs.

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Why Solar?

Having solar panels on your roof converts sunlight into direct current (DC), an inverter converts it into alternate current (AC) to power your home and appliances.
Any excess solar power is exported to the grid and you will be paid a feed-in tariff.

Some facts – In Australia March 2018:

  • 1.8 million homes have rooftop solar
  • That’s 20% of homes
  • Or 4.7 million Australians living under solar
  • Most get a good return for their investment
  • Very few have battery storage but numbers are rising – 12% at the moment.
  • Rooftop panels need space and access to the sun
  • The standard system size is 5kw

Steps Towards Solar

  1. Get your home assessed for suitability
  2. Speak to your energy retailer and find out about tariff charges
  3. Find a solar retailer and installer
  4. Organise installation
  5. Maintain the system

Keiran emphasised that the industry is not boom or bust anymore, the market is more mature and a lot of the cowboys in earlier days have been weeded out. (Hallelujah!)

However there are still some shockers out there so don’t be ripped off.

The Clean Energy Council has an approved solar retailer list. These are companies that have signed a code of conduct.

  • If you know people who have solar – listen to their experience because word of mouth recommendations can also be good indicators on who to avoid or employ.
  • Get multiple quotes and check warranties There are 50 good solar companies in Victoria but get at least three quotes.

If installed properly, solar panels need little maintenance, usually, the rain cleans any dust or grime. Don’t be ripped off by ‘professional maintenance’ companies – this appears to be the latest marketing/moneymaking ploy.

Your investment is usually paid off in 4-6 years regardless of the size of the system you install.
4kw $4960
6kw $6900
8kw $9200
Average feed-in tariff is 11.3 cents but this reducing to 9 cents in July.

** People are now encouraged to put more panels on their roof so better to install a bigger system at the beginning.

There is an economic and environmental benefit to solar panels.

Environmentallya 5kw system in Bayside is equal to saving 6.6 tonnes of CO2 annually and taking 2.2 cars off the road!

A Myth Exploded

  • It is untrue that the amount of energy to make solar panels costs more than what is saved.
  • In 1-2 years they pay back all energy used in their creation from mining, making, transporting to installing!!
  • Economic and Environmental benefits are there!!

Feed-In Tariffs

People ask why are we only paid 11 cents for power when we put into the grid and yet we must buy at 25 cents?

The retail tariff includes:

  • The companies generation costs at the power plant
  • Transmission costs to network to various suburbs
  • Distribution costs to maintain poles and wires
  • Administration costs when retailers bundle the lot together

Your feed-in tariff does not offset distribution and transmission costs.

15-19 cent feed-in tariff is probably the highest you will get – unless you were among the lucky early takers on premium feed-in tariffs of 60 and 25 cents. These rates not available now.

There has been fluctuation over the years – dropped as low as 5 – 8, up to 11-12, will be down again to 9 cents in July.

Some retailers have introduced time-varying feed-in tariffs because electricity is worth more depending on the time of day.

In the early morning and overnight little demand so off-peak. Early evening it is peak period.

What has Changed In Victoria?

  • There has been more demand because Hazelwood Coal Powered Station closed but also there is more solar going into the market.
  • Peak time is getting later and shorter.

Off-peak                    shoulder peak                       evening rates
7.1                              10.3                                           29

Solar panels peak period for generating is morning to the middle of the day when sun is hottest – to get an advantage of the movement of the sun, panels are now being aimed west as well as north because you want to generate power in the evenings.

Because of when most solar power is produced, it is not a good fit for time-varying feeds so make sure you

  • Become an all-electric home – disconnect from gas!
  • Set appliances like washing machines and dishwashers on timers
  • Install an electric hot water system, set the timer or make sure it runs during the day from solar
  • Reverse cycle air conditioners – set them to come on to heat or cool just before you come home – spread out their use

Batteries, Panels, Inverters

If you have a hybrid system you can charge a battery and leftover electricity is stored for reuse later in the day when the sun is not charging panels. A battery stores the excess generation from midday.

Why Add A Battery?

  • Save money
  • Store and reuse electricity
  • A back-up in case power goes out
  • Gives you energy independence
  • Supporting development of new technology

A typical battery that has a rated capacity of 10kw will always have 20% retained so usable capacity will be 8kw.

You must first charge the battery to have at least 8.9kw to get the 8kw and it is better to use the electricity from the panels when first generated.

A battery should pay for itself in 10 years or it is not worth the investment.

Different types of batteries:
1. Lead acid – 40% usable capacity – 10-year life like a car battery

  1. Lithium iron – type you get in phones/tablets etc. discharge quicker but like the lead acid, capacity still degrades over time.

(The above two have the more proven technology.)

  1. Flow battery sodium ion – 100% usable capacity and more environmentally friendly.

Go for smaller battery – one that is filled up every day and emptied overnight.
Retrofitting a battery onto an older system is always terrible payback and not economical yet.

Batteries are only economical if installed at same time as solar panels and you get ‘a deal’.

**However battery prices are coming down. It depends a lot on your usage and consumption and there are some good deals – shop around!

  • Batteries don’t have great benefit to the environment.
  • Long term it does benefit the grid and development of the technology and less money is needed for poles and wires.

Going Off The Grid-

  • For the average household, it is unlikely to be economic for decades. It will cost about $50,000.
  • You still need a petrol or diesel generator as back-up.
  • If $2000 annual bills – 25 years to pay going off the grid.
  • It is much better to increase your solar system and export to the grid.
  • Add more panels on the west facing roof to shift generator arc and it will be better payback than a battery. It may require a new or additional inverter.
  • install a hybrid inverter and get battery ready.

There will be new options to sell excess energy :

  1. Reposit – sell to wholesale market via Diamond Energy
  2. Smart Homes – energy management systems directing solar to where it is needed: diverters (hot water), charging electric cars where solar generating
  3. Renters will have options too
  4. Solar financing – through council rates, negotiating good deals.

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Question Time was Interesting

I love question time at events – hearing the thoughts and ideas of the audience, learning how much they have absorbed or what opinions they bring to an event…

In question time on Tuesday, a good point was made about the language we use – why talk about “payback” – we don’t use that term when we furnish our homes, renovate or decide to invest in having children!

Investing in solar panels should be regarded as an economic and environmentally sensible decision!

Another question raised the issue of quality of panels on the market – is German made best? (A few years ago German engineering and innovation considered the best, and in some people’s eyes, the only system to buy.)

Keirain said most German companies have moved operations to China and the majority of solar panel are made there now. He advised if you go with a good installer you will find they use good quality solar panel brand!

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Environment Victoria’s Efficiency Officer, Anne Martinelli

Environment Victoria want to encourage more solar and renewables. In Victoria,
our energy system already transforming – Hazelwood closed in 2017 – the 9th large power station in Australia to close in 5 years.

  • Renewable energy – large scale and household scale – transition inevitable as cost reduces.
  • How it is managed and who benefits is not guaranteed.

20% of Victorian climate pollution comes from our homes so upgrading efficiency is important.

Many households face significant barriers:

  • Access to accurate information – it is technically complex, the renewable sector changing rapidly, lots of misinformation around
  • Cost – hurdles to bill saving – those who need it the most can’t afford upfront costs.
  • Some people are locked out of rooftop solar for various reasons: they are renting, they live in an apartment block, the roof is unsuitable or not in right situation

Environment Victoria is focusing on making political parties have good policies for the coming November election.

  1. Home energy hubs like Scotland. A network of regional one-stop advisory service like what the old SEC Home Advisory Service used to be over 30 years ago!
    Tariffs efficiency assessments, retrofit organisations, access to financial assistance. One stop shop for information from trusted sources. Scale up existing council community sector services.
    Lots of organisations like ATA offer free advice but who knows they exist?
  2. No interest, rates-based financing through councils of efficiency and solar upgrades. Currently, the Victorian Government has a pilot scheme with 22 councils helping aged pensioners and low-income households upgrade to solar. They aim to have 1000 participants and are monitoring daytime consumption. This should be scaled statewide.
  3. Virtual Power Plant – a partnership between government, industry and retailers that will finance solar and battery upgrades for low-income households, including those in social housing.
  • No upfront costs, guaranteed household bills savings
  • Maximise wider market benefits of solar and batteries
    EG. South Australia Tesla batteries – company still owns battery but connecting 50,000 households in SA. Victoria could do three times that number – maybe scope with the election coming…

We need:

  • Energy efficiency (not necessarily solar) standards for rental homes. The Residential Tenancies Act renewal a great opportunity to set standards at a basic achievable level to keep affordable.
  • Make landlords invest in bill saving appliances, keep wiring and plugs efficient, LED lights.
  • Evidence suggests: 50% homes for sale rated 5 stars or greater
    40% rental houses = zero efficiency rating
  • We must set standards so rental properties have insulation etc – perhaps help landlords so they are not putting the costs on renters.
  • There are 600,000 rental homes in Victoria.

Climate Change Is Real.

Working towards a sustainable lifestyle in our cities and countryside must be a priority.
This November use your voting power wisely – ask your local candidate

  • do they have a commitment to renewables,
  • a fairer society,
  • a safer sustainable environment –

Then ask how they will achieve their targets!

repower focus statement

Willsmere Beauty Transforms A Beastly Past

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On Sunday, March 4th, I was privileged to visit Willsmere in Kew and participate in a Heritage Walk with a resident as our guide.  This 25-acre site including buildings is now a beautiful community of apartments and gardens.

Referred to as the ‘lunatic asylum” Willsmere was converted and developed in 1993, but with the proviso that certain areas of the heritage listed site are opened to the public twice a year.

The former Kew Lunatic Asylum was built in 1872 during a period when several large public buildings were constructed after the gold rush enriched many people and the Colonial Government. Victoria was an independent state (hence the flag outside Willsmere today) and the authorities promoted the idea of an asylum to “portray Melbourne as a civilized and benevolent city.’

The building displays the influence of Europe with the architects GW Vivian and Frederick Kawerau creating Italianate and the French Second Empire buildings. There are two distinct entrances flanking the main door, one each for male and female inmates who were always separated. Inside they had separate exercise yards as well as wards and cells.

Many historical details remain and the effort to retain architectural features, including paint schemes, brickwork, tiles, wooden window surrounds, doors and balustrades make it an interesting site to access.  

I have volunteered for several years at Open House Melbourne and was thrilled to receive the invitation as a thank you gift for being part of the team. The Open House Movement is worldwide and a wonderful addition to Melbourne’s community calendar.

 I encourage everyone to set aside the last weekend in July to learn more about Melbourne and its buildings. (Last year the program extended to Ballarat so mark the last weekend in October too!)

Many of the buildings listed for Open House don’t have a museum (like Willsmere) but most provide historical information and/or context that makes visiting memorable.

History Attached to Willsmere

As a history buff, I love learning about old buildings. Willsmere has links to the architecture of colonial times but there is much more to uncover because it was built for a specific purpose.

My mother did “mental nursing” as it was called in the 1940s, and I recall her stories about how shocking it was that people with epilepsy were locked away and treated as ‘lunatics’ along with those with a psychiatric illness.  She nursed alongside my father’s older sister Mary in the epileptic colony of the Orphan Homes of Scotland.

I grew up with parents who were experienced, understanding, and compassionate and over the years I witnessed Mum providing a cup of tea and listening ear to several people recovering from breakdowns or bouts of mental ill health.

Delving into the history of places like Willsmere reminds us that even with the best intentions a society can go down a terrible path through ignorance.

Famous Patients

In a brochure about Willsmere, three famous patients are listed with the barest of details and I am sure their full stories would involve serious heartbreak and trauma. They were probably paying patients too.

  • Thomas Wentworth “Tom” Wills, (August 1835 – May 1880). He was an Australian sportsman credited with being the first cricketer of significance and a pioneer of Australian Rules football.
  • Edward De Lacy Evans who was born Ellen Tremayne or Tremaye. (? 1830 – August 1901) A servant, blacksmith and gold miner, who immigrated from Ireland to Australia in 1856, and made international news in 1879 when it was revealed he was a woman.
  • George Henry Stevens “Harry” Trott (August 1866 – November 1917). An Australian Test Cricketer committed to Kew Asylum after a series of seizures. Eventually discharged, he returned to play cricket for Victoria between 1888 and 1898.

Everyone in the asylum had a category: male/female, paying/pauper, manageable/refractory… the latter put into punishment cells that even with doors permanently open will make you shudder.

Kew Asylum

The museum established to preserve the history of the Kew Asylum and Willsmere Mental Hospital is a sobering place. Credit must be given to Central Equity Ltd., the developers for providing funding to preserve this part of our heritage.

The archive comprises over 60 objects salvaged during the redevelopment of the site, plus reproductions of historical documents, plans, and photographs.

 

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A cargo tank. Thousands of these tanks were used to carry water, hops, fruit, biscuits, bread and other produce from England to the colonies. They were reused as water tanks often in mines and country buildings. By 1876 Kew had 68 tanks installed in the towers to provide tap water.

 

The museum is a gallery, some bedrooms and an old day room converted to a library. The area, originally Ward A-A, which housed female private patients who had a view across the Yarra towards the city – whether this taunted or relaxed the women we may never know, but certainly, some of the equipment like the machine for electric shock therapy, hint at the barbaric treatment of earlier days.

One of the largest asylums in the world, the Kew Mental Asylum symbolised Victoria’s civic confidence after the gold rush. It was anticipated that being ‘sent to Kew’ would cure the mentally ill, through humane conditions, a moral environment, routine work and medical treatment.

Enlightenment principles were applied to the treatment of mental illness. “Lunatics” were placed in new asylums where illnesses of the mind would be cured by a scientific approach…Unfortunately, Kew never lived up to these benevolent intentions. Few patients were ever cured and released into the community…Kew was subject to repeated public criticism leading to a Royal Commission in 1876… conditions and morale were low…

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Within years of construction, Kew was condemned as a failure. Governments never provided sufficient funding to prevent overcrowding or employ sufficient staff. (Now isn’t that a familiar story!!)

As a result, many patients simply locked away until their death. The Royal Commission declared:

For a large percentage of our insane population we are quite sure no restraint is necessary, and yet they are all confined together under a system that must be monotonous and oppressive.

In the 1950s, Dr E. Cunningham Dax, director of the Mental Hygiene Authority, initiated a series of reforms to make conditions more tolerable. Kew Asylum gradually converted into Willsmere Mental Hospital, specialising in the care of the aged, including patients with Alzheimer’s Disease.

 

willsmere photos of patients
Thousands of patients and staff called the asylum home in its 117 years history. Up to 1000 patients at a time resident – some for a few days, others a lifetime. The Medical Superintendent had his own residence, many staff slept in the wards with their patients. Every patient was photographed on submission.

 

The paintwork, lighting and floor coverings in the museum area are typical of the Willsmere Hospital when it closed in 1988.

Female patients lived in the northern half of the building, men lived in identical southern wings. On both sides of the Asylum, paupers were housed apart from paying patients, and the difficult inmates were confined to the wards at the back near the kitchens and laundry.

Life on The Wards

Patients were encouraged to take part in activities that gave structure to their day and considered therapeutic. Some worked on the asylum’s farm, which included an orchard, fowl house, 200 pigs, 30 cows and extensive vegetable gardens.

Others worked in the laundry, kitchen or workshops, sewed clothes and made cushions, cared for fellow patients, or assembled components for outside firms. Social activities were held when staffing permitted, such as dancing, music and games on the cricket field built by the asylum community.

A staff psychiatrist from the 1920s recalled the ‘daily scene of desolation and despair’:

Most of the patients were on the airing courts walking backwards and forwards in solitary perambulation, untidily huddled together in groups like resting sheep, or isolated and stationary, looking into space as though they were held in the crystal of a dream.”

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Willsmere constitutes a rare, mostly intact, 19th-century lunatic asylum and is still an architectural Melbourne landmark above the Yarra Bend Park.  At one time it was the highest constructed point in Melbourne with the site considered suitable for Government House but dismissed by early colonists as too isolated.

Walking around you get the sense of its height and the slope of the grounds. There’s the necessity for stairs to access some apartments from the outside as well as internally.

The design included “ha-ha” walls. These retained a view without the feeling of being enclosed.  The height of these brick walls deceptive being built at an angle at the bottom making them impossible to scale.

I was fortunate to be part of the smallest group shown through Willsmere that morning. Jack, an extremely well-versed resident was our guide. Knowledgeable and a longtime Open House volunteer, he explained about the conversion of the site into a modern community of apartments and townhouses. Every sentence he spoke laced with well-deserved pride. The surroundings show love and care and the shared facilities remarkable.

The restoration work tastefully done. Red painted doorways, windows and other features are restored or new versions of the original design. Green painted features are new additions, such as the entrances to many of the apartments.

The modern concrete paths were built during the redevelopment because originally, patients and staff used the covered walkways, now converted into verandahs.

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Gardens of Trees, Flowers, and More Trees

I fell in love with the gardens, especially the trees, some of which are on a heritage list too. There is an ancient peppercorn which may be one of the oldest surviving trees left in suburban Melbourne. It is as old as Willsmere.

How many thousands of feet tramped past this gnarled trunk, how many people sat in its shade, praying, relaxing, contemplating life and death?

Male patients and staff played lawn games from 1878 and the bowling green was rebuilt by the Lawn Bowls and Greenkeepers Association as a gift to the hospital in the 1950s. There was also a cricket oval north of the asylum walls during the 1870s.

Today there is a communal barbecue area, a swimming pool, a tennis court and paths crisscrossing lawns providing lovely walks for residents to play and walk.

Jack put the conversion of this site in perspective when he said there are about 800 residents on this 25-acre site in beautiful surroundings which encourage community and a healthy lifestyle.

He pointed to the other side of the Yarra River where there is a proposed development of an old industrial site of similar acreage. The planned capacity is 2000! I can imagine the future residents of that development will look at the 1990s as a golden age.

How to Get to Willsmere

 It was a difficult but not impossible trek by public transport for me, especially on a Sunday, which explains why the email invite said ‘not suitable access via public transport’.

However, I’ve never driven or owned a car and believe ‘where there’s a will there’s a way’  –  or I’d have limited outings and adventures!

Metro’s My Journey and double-checking with Google Maps works well for public transport. I caught a train from Mordialloc to Melbourne Central where I had a choice of two buses leaving close by and dropping me at different streets off the Chandler Highway.

One bus route offered a walk of 1.5km (19 mins) and the other 1.8km (23 mins). Therefore it’s approximately a twenty-minute walk to Willsmere once you get off the bus – mainly uphill if trusting Google where you find yourself at an entrance not accessible to the general public!

I reread the email I received and realised I should have keyed in a different entrance gate. Just as well it was a gorgeous day and an interesting walk through a suburb regarded as ‘well-to-do’.  Definitely not poverty row and the housing development tastefully done, even keeping the original entrance wall to what was once the Kew Gardens.

I chose the bus heading for Box Hill Station going and a different one returning to the city.   However, heading home I had the benefit of residents’ know-how with a more direct route to the bus stop. There is no substitute for local knowledge – even better than a combination of Google Maps and Metro Journey Planner!

A pleasant, mildly undulating, treed walk to catch the alternative bus took me past the site of where Kew Children’s Cottages used to be. This stirred up memories of visiting there as a teenager in the 1960s.

Kew Cottages

As part of Croydon Uniting Church’s outreach program, my Sunday School teacher, Mr Alabaster organised for our group to each be assigned “a child” to take home for an afternoon to share the experience of a family meal.

We hadn’t lived long in Australia and had no idea the “Children” at Kew included adults. The young man we entertained as he devoured Mum’s scones was closer to 25 than 15.

I have vivid memories of Trevor who was dressed in brand new clothes, including a black vinyl jacket and tan trousers plus polished black leather shoes. No doubt he was told to be on his best behaviour but he couldn’t help boasting about his clothes.

When we picked him up it was the first time I had ever been inside an institution for people with a mental disability and it was confronting. Trevor was spruced up, but those left behind wandering the corridors and grounds not so nicely dressed or as politely behaved.

explanation of cottage sytsem at KEW

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I remember a conversation Dad had with Trevor that still makes me smile.

‘What do you do during the day, Trevor?’

“I have a job.”

“That’s wonderful, son. What’s your job?”

“I drive my truck and take all the bottles to be recycled.”

Dad was gobsmacked and sat bolt upright in his Jason Recliner. An ex-truck driver, he knew a thing or two about trucks. “You drive a truck? How big is it.”

Trevor sat still and silent as he contemplated his answer. Then he opted to indicate with his arms and a description. We worked out Trevor’s truck was red and, in fact, a four-wheeled cart he pulled and steered with a swivelled handle.

Dad relaxed and asked Trevor what music he liked!

There were several scandals regarding the treatment of disabled children in care and the Kew Cottages parents’ Association was formed in 1957, providing a founding group of 130 parents with the opportunity to advocate over issues concerning the care of their children resident at Kew Cottages.

The group was later renamed the Kew Cottages & St Nicholas Parents’ Association. In 1991 the group established a living memorial of a sensory garden designed to capture the imagination through touch, sound and smell.

The original garden planted with Australian native plants which were later replaced with exotic plants in a circular bed.

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I love walking and the day offered several pleasant walks through a leafy part of Melbourne sporting beautiful houses, luscious parks and a misty view of the city sprawl from a completely new angle.

A Tragedy

However, the past is not so loving… and another plaque reminded me of the fire in April 1996 when 9 male residents of Kew Cottages, aged between 30 and 40 years, tragically died. Two other residents and a staff member were injured.

The Kew Cottages & St Nicholas Parents’ Association erected a memorial for the victims of the fire to ensure the names will not be forgotten. I sat on a nearby bench surrounded by natural beauty trying to imagine the chaos and trauma of that night and the terrible loss to the families of the men.

History important and memorials important because the tragedy would have been newspaper headlines for only a couple of days.

I hope people walking along the path – and there is plenty of evidence dog walkers proliferate! – take the time to pause, even sit, and think about the past residents of Willsmere and Kew Cottages.

I hope they think about how the residents were treated and the failures caused by lack of funding and resources. Think about how we must ensure our society does better, and our governments don’t repeat the mistakes of the past.

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