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

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Nancy Wake, WW2 Hero

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Writer, Christine Croyden’s Note

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christine Croyden, February 2019.

portrait of Nancy Wake

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why Do We Do What We Do?

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

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

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

… To step aside is human:

One point must still be greatly dark,

The moving Why they do it;

And just as lamely can ye mark,

How far perhaps they rue it…

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

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

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

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

one of Nancy’s WW2 comrades she Captained

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Professor Wake who met up with Nancy in 1990 said:

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

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

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

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

So Many Stories Still to be Told

Other Nancy quotes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Road To Perdition Paved With Darkness Yet Riveting Viewing

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Maybe it is all the grim news that seems to pervade every news bulletin and many social media posts, combined with having time to clear shelves and files on the computer now I’m semi-retired, but virtual and digital worlds coincided yesterday.

I took a rest from deleting files when I discovered the first film review I ever wrote and searched to see if I still had the DVD. The review was an assignment for one of the units in my master’s degree, 2010, and the DVD was a bargain basement JB HiFi sale item – Road To Perdition.

Up until I studied for the Masters In Writing, my writing centred mainly on short stories and poetry – fiction writing. I also wrote reports for the Union of Australian Women and dabbled in life writing/memoir but never thought about being a reviewer of books, let alone film, which is not a genre I’d ever claim expertise in critiquing.

However, with one daughter having a Bachelor of Film & Television and the other a Bachelor of Fine Arts majoring in Media Arts, and both loving film, I have been ‘turned on’ to the medium and love its ability to bring stories to life.

I happily absorb all the knowledge shared with me and one of my favourite pastimes is to go to the movies with one or both of the girls and then enjoy a great discussion afterwards.

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Reviewing Has Its Pitfalls

Writing my first review, particularly as an academic assignment was challenging but also interesting because there are many varied opinions about one film – like reading novels – you discover taste is extremely subjective!

There are of course necessary components and expectations of what makes a ‘good’ film just like the techniques required to craft a ‘good’ novel. 

I wrote for a general online audience because as a complete novice, no way could I emulate Margaret and David of television fame, or Jim Schembri, The Age’s regular reviewer in The Green Guide. (Definitely, showing my age here!)

I followed the lecture guidelines and tried to cover all aspects of the craft and techniques of film-making, including sound and cinematography, as well as the narrative and acting.

The title of the film was intriguing and I searched the dictionary for the exact meaning of Perdition:

First meaning –         (a)  archaic : utter destruction.

                                    (b)  obsolete : loss.

Second meaning –    (a ) : eternal damnation.

                                     (b ) : hell.

In Christian theology, it is a state of eternal punishment and damnation into which a sinful and unrepentant person passes after death.

The definition of going down the road/path to perdition is taken to mean travelling towards something very dangerous or harmful.

For example: ‘It’s this kind of selfishness that leads down the road/path to perdition.’

It is an old-fashioned word rarely used nowadays but as mentioned in my opening sentence, it’s a word that suits recent times – and certainly suited this film!

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Film Review: Road To Perdition

Perdition in some religions is the state of everlasting punishment in hell that sinners endure after death, or can mean hell as a location. Director Sam Mendes in his 2002 Road to Perdition, has a neat metaphor – not only are the main characters Michael Sullivan (Tom Hanks) and his son Michael Jr (Tyler Hoechlin) driving to a town called Perdition but they are also on the way to damnation, unless as in all classical tragedies, they find redemption.

The film’s Oedipal theme explores several aspects of father and son relationships and Tom Hanks is magnificent as the main character, Michael Sullivan. (This is high praise from me because I’m not enamoured with Hanks as an actor.  I will compliment his acting in this movie. It was so good, you can’t recognise him as Tom Hanks!)

The story is about Mike Sullivan being transformed by tragedy to forge a new relationship with his son and to do this he has to destroy the relationship with John Rooney (Paul Newman), the only father he has known.

It is 1931 America, Prohibition is giving Chicago based Al Capone wealth and power and Michael Sullivan, Sr is an enforcer for John Rooney, an organised crime boss in an Illinois town populated by fellow Irish Americans. (Makes a change from the Italian mafia.)

Sullivan, an orphan raised by Rooney, is treated as a favoured son. The resentment felt by Rooney’s real son, Connor (a suitably brutal Daniel Craig), at this relationship, and his vicious murder of a disgruntled employee witnessed by Michael Jr triggers the unravelling of Sullivan Senior’s ordered life.

In his attempt to silence Michael Jr, Connor kills a younger son Peter (Liam Aiken) by mistake and Mike’s wife, Annie (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Sullivan has to salvage what is left of his family; build a relationship with a son he barely knows, and stop him following his path of being on the wrong side of the law.

Road to Perdition, written by David Self, is based on a graphic novel by Max Allan Collins and Richard Piers Rayner, but is not just a pulp gangster movie, although the influence of The Godfather and The Untouchables is evident. (The latter movie with Kevin Costner as Elliot Ness is one of my favourites!)

An Irish wake establishes the culture of Rooney’s community whereas in The Godfather, it is a wedding, and Mike Sullivan’s perfectly executed campaign against Capone reminds us of Elliot Ness in The Untouchables.

However, the usual Hollywood clichés associated with gangsters are missing – there are no spats, loud suits, and hats strategically placed over eyes or laconic bad guys chewing gum, incessantly smoking, flipping coins, or firing wisecracks.

These are businessmen, ensuring illegal enterprises remain profitable; their world is not glamorous. The film shows the impact of the violence on the person who commits it, or witnesses it. Although there is a lot of killing, much of it happens off-screen.

It is a film of lost innocence because the 12-year-old narrator, Michael Jr not only witnesses a brutal slaying but is suddenly confronted with the truth that his father is a cold-blooded killer and his cuddly ‘grandfather’ Rooney is a manipulative crime boss.

Dialogue is sparse. Based on a graphic novel the film is told in scenes that are sometimes silent — superb showing not telling. Tom Hanks is brilliant as the inarticulate cold hit man struggling with personal grief, not apologising for the life he has led, determined on vengeance while saving his only son.

Stillness and stunning imagery are used to build the powerful emotions of Rooney and Sullivan coming to terms with the changed circumstances precipitated by sociopath Connor’s actions.

There are few speeches of explanation, rather dialogue such as John Rooney’s statement to Mike that, ‘It’s a natural law that sons are put on this earth to trouble their fathers.’

And later in a pivotal showdown, ‘There are only murderers in this room, Michael. Open your eyes. This is the life we chose. The life we lead. And there is only one guarantee–none of us will see heaven.

Director Mendes says the film is ‘about the legacy that fathers leave sons and the secret worlds parents inhabit that the child never really knows.

Camera angles are deliberately chosen to see events from Michael Jr’s viewpoint. The New York Times described it as ‘a truly majestic visual tone poem‘ and it is true that cinematographer, Conrad L. Hall creates a world where light struggles to penetrate the darkness, sinister shadows bedevil the night, and long corridors intimidate, fearful faces are half-seen, and a ballet of looks and eye contact produce tension to keep the audience engaged.

The opening scenes of winter snow and ghost-like crowds change in a seasonal shift towards spring, new life and light, but the characters must first survive the visceral chill of downpours and more than one hail of bullets.

Rain runs off the brims of fedoras, soaks thick overcoats, bounces on streets and windscreens. Weather as uncontrollable as the violence set in motion by Connor.

Darkness stresses the atmosphere of destruction, and there is no character darker than Harlan Maguire (Jude Law) a strange, sinister, sadistic hired assassin who hunts the Sullivans at the behest of Capone’s organisation.

In one confrontation, Maguire is scarred and the mercenary job becomes personal. His pursuit of the Sullivans provides an explosive climax and an opportunity for amazing cinematography.

There are many captivating moments that are emotionally-engaging, particularly between father and son, and I guarantee you won’t see the surprise ending coming!

However, true to the era and the story’s comic book origins women are mainly background ‘broads’. Jennifer Jason Leigh’s appearance is brief. She cooks meals, is silently supportive, and is murdered.

Made in 2002, the other female roles of an aunt, waitress, a prostitute, and an old childless woman are even briefer but not sure I’d warm to any female character playing a prominent role in such a violent world.

Despite the macho emphasis, Road to Perdition is impressive and entertaining. The careful attention to detail (especially historical aspects of costumes, dialogue and attitude), the quality of the acting (Hanks, Newman, Law and Craig deliver excellent performances), and the haunting musical score by Thomas Newman crafts a fine tale into a memorable film.

Added Extras

Perdition, Michigan refers to a made-up town but the film is set along the shore of Lake Michigan and the graphic novel was based on a true story of Bill Gabel and the Looney mob hell-raising in the Midwest during the Great Depression.

News of the World gave it five stars, ‘The greatest gangster film since The Godfather.’

For writers and storytellers (and students of Masters in Writing!), it is the special features on DVDs that add to the enjoyment of the movie. This DVD is no exception with:

  • Audio commentary by Director Sam Mendes
  • 11 Deleted Scenes with Optional Commentary
  • HBO Special: The Making of Road To Perdition
  • CD Soundtrack Promo
  • Photo Gallery (50 stills)
  • Cast and Filmmaker Bios
  • Production Notes

Finally, a quote from the blurb,

‘Academy Award-winning director Sam Mendes (American Beauty, 1999) brings his haunting vision to a hard-edged story of lost innocence, conflicted loyalty and ambition.’

I still find writing reviews – whether of film or book – challenging but as a creative writer, it is a good exercise.

The deconstructing and examining of the narrative, layers and impact, the characters and details can only help my own understanding of craft and technique of different genres and even stimulate ideas.

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It’s International World Water Day – Can We Celebrate How We Manage Our Waterways?

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Reconnecting With Birrarung

I’ve written many posts about my volunteering with Open House Melbourne and how it has enriched my knowledge and this week I was privileged to attend an event, which is part of a collaborative program between NGV and Open House Melbourne for Melbourne Design Week called ‘Waterfront: Reconnecting With Birrarung.’

The Yarra River was called Birrarung by the Wurundjeri people who occupied the Yarra Valley and much of Central Victoria prior to European colonisation.

It is thought that Birrarung is derived from Wurundjeri words meaning “ever flowing”. Another common term was Birrarung Marr, thought to mean “river of mist” or “river bank”.

Other Aboriginal terms for the river are: Berrern,  Wongete, and Yarro-yarro

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Water symbolises life

It is crucial to our health, the environment’s health, and all ecosystems on planet Earth and because of development and climate change, it is critical that Australia, the world’s driest continent, manages our water systems well.

Urban rivers are under pressure across the world, despite the vital ecological, cultural and recreational value they offer. 

Open House Melbourne asked Melbournians to reconsider and reconnect with the river that runs through their city and consider the role design plays in reframing Melbourne’s relationship with water. 

Waterfront: Cultural Flows

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On Monday, March 18, in the Koorie Heritage Trust Gallery, Federation Square, I attended “an intimate conversation” with Rueben Berg, the first Aboriginal person appointed as a Commissioner for the Victorian Environmental Water Holder.

Australia’s Aboriginal peoples have tens of thousands of years’ experience in water management. With the appointment of the country’s first Aboriginal Water Commissioner, Rueben Berg, in late 2017, the value of that accumulated knowledge finally appears to be dawning on its governments.

As part of Melbourne Design Week—an initiative of the Victorian Government in collaboration with the NGV,  Cultural Flows was co-presented by Foreground, Open House Melbourne and supported by the Koorie Heritage Trust.

There is consistent interest in water (and recently the Murray-Darling crisis made that interest skyrocket!) therefore water management is important to discuss, but we don’t often think of it in terms of design.

Yet, Design is important to function – it is an intensely cultural act – our waterways were shaped by Aboriginal Australians and then came the effects of colonisation and settlement, the latter detrimental to our waterways.

Tim Flannery (Australian mammalogist, palaeontologist, environmentalist, author and global warming activist) described Melbourne as a temperate Kakadu before greed and corruption destroyed the landscape.

Most of us even think in a blinkered way about rivers – in terms of sewers or using them to fish.  A report released Tuesday warned the Yarra River’s environmental health is being put at risk due to litter, pollution and invasive species. 

Victoria’s Commissioner for Environmental Sustainability rated the river’s health as “poor” in 18 out of 25 environmental indicators in its first State of the Yarra report, which provides a comprehensive assessment of the baseline health of the ecosystem. 

Nearly 180 tonnes of rubbish has been collected from the river system over a four-year period! 

  • Litter-cleaning programs removed 179 tonnes of litter from the river between 2014 and 2017, including 1.29 million cigarette butts from the river and its mouth at Port Phillip Bay.
  • The report recommends planning controls be extended further north-east along the Yarra River. Between 2013 and 2017, the Environment Protection Agency received 338 water pollution reports — the vast majority of which came from Alphington and further downstream.
  • It also calls for the creation of a chief biodiversity scientist to oversee monitoring of the river’s health. The outlook for frogs and fish was deteriorating in inner-city Melbourne and urban parts of the river system, but platypuses were assessed as being in a “fair” and “stable” state.
  • The report found industrial sites likely caused more pollution at inner-city sites but

    warns against ‘inappropriate urban development’ as Melbourne’s population expands in the north-east of the city.

Rivers are much more than rubbish dumps and recreational play areas.

The current river protection zone should be extended from Warrandyte to the boundary of the Yarra Ranges National Park, the report said.

Environment Minister Lily D’Ambrosio said the Government would consider the report’s recommendations and that care for the river was a “shared responsibility” of all Victorians.

Learning from the Wurundjeri

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Melbourne’s first people have two moieties in their traditional group.  There is Bundjil the eagle, creator of all that you can see on country – the hills and mountains, waterways, rivers, creeks and billabongs.

The trees that give shelter to various creatures, and wood and bark for the houses or weelams of the Boon Wurrung peoples. He also was called upon to settle disputes between people.

The other moiety is Waang the black crow.

He is the protector of the waterways, rivers, creeks and billabongs. He makes sure that fresh water would run and be in plentiful supply for our people and the birds and animals.

As the driest inhabited continent, the rivers of Australia have been the focal point of life for up to 60,000 years for Aboriginal Australia.  They play an important role in Aboriginal social life and identity but by changing how, when, and where rivers flow, water resource development has affected the way Aboriginal communities interact with the landscape.

Yet, until recently, there was little Indigenous participation in water planning and management as well as limited capacity and understanding within water agencies about traditional rights or values.

Managing waterways is complex – and we are part of it. This land is a significant place and it is important to celebrate and appreciate the river and we can have much better outcomes if we do this in partnership with the Traditional Owners.

Important to remember that the land has not just been inhabited 200 plus years – what was the waterway like thousands of years ago?

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Many of us have never heard of Cultural Flow or know the job of water commissioners and this free event was a wonderful opportunity to learn.

Rueben is a Water Commissioner in Victoria. There are four managing water holdings for the betterment of the environment.  Our waterways are not free-flowing, there are chosen amounts allocated. Sometimes water is increased for the environment’s health to areas where there has not been enough for trees, canals, or wetlands to be healthy.

Irrigators have an allocation for agriculture but the natural environment also gets an allocation. These allocations must have environmental outcomes – not just for recreational purposes like swimming, although that is a factor in consideration.

Rueben, a Gunditjmara man from Framlingham a rural township located by the Hopkins River in the Western District of Victoria, Australia, about 20 km north-east of the coastal city of Warrnambool, studied architecture at QUT.  

He played with Lego as a child and wanted to build things but when he began the university course, he discovered he couldn’t relate to the way it was taught.

He remembered having to watch a French film and then having to decide what architecture suited the characters. It seemed irrelevant and not realistic. That disconnect caused him to leave architecture and join the public service where he was designing houses for Aboriginal people with disabilities. Doing that meaningful work led him to the position he now has.

Diversity and Listening

No one has all the answers but we must consider heritage when we think about the environment.

Design must include

  • the significance of place
  • analyse the site before action
  • enhance existing characteristics,
  • the user experience very important.

Personally, Rueben has seen a positive change in his 18 months as a water commissioner. It has been an interesting journey – Minister Neville plays a strong role and Reuben’s presence highlights this. People think more before decision-making.

There is a lot of goodwill but also fear about getting it wrong and giving offence. His message is you will cause offence but get over it and do your best. (What good advice – race relations for many people can be a steep learning curve.)

He alleviates fears and initiates conversations. Aboriginals are a diverse community and you’re not going to please everyone.

He has been positively received – inclusion not an abstract concept any more. The culture within the industry is that people want to improve. However, he is an advisor, and ultimately it must be the Aboriginal people on the ground who decide.

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What is Cultural Flow?

This is water managed and controlled by Aboriginal people. Let them decide how it is used, the rights to use – even where needed for economic benefit.

When solely managed by Aboriginal people, shared benefits are recognised eg. recreational fishing and swimming.

Self-determination is a great idea but the handing over of control may be hard when it actually happens. Although there is consultation, also cooperation, there is still no dedicated cultural flow in Melbourne.  

There are broad themes throughout Australia regarding cultural flow – water must not damage sacred trees so controlling allocation important, if too much water, also if draining natural wetlands consideration must be made not to expose Aboriginal remains.

The common thread is maintaining a living culture. When considering water allocation we must ask what are the Aboriginal values?

  • Protecting totem species – different ones for different clans
  • Ceremonies are held at certain times of the year, therefore may need water where the flow has stopped or is limited.
  • rejuvenation to encourage economic independence

Bolin Bolin Billabong, Bulleen

This is near Heidi and Italian Soccer Club. A large river red gum with a canoe scar is located at Heide Gallery in Bulleen.

It is a significant site but not connected naturally to the river so recognising the damage wrought by this disconnection water is pumped in to correct it.

The Ranch Billabong, Dimboola

In December 2018, Wotjobaluk Peoples marked the anniversary of their 2005 Native Title Consent Determination by returning water to one of their most culturally significant sites along the Wimmera River. Providing water was about recognising the past and honouring the present.

Barengi Gadjin Land Council and Wotjobaluk traditional owners turned on the pump that will fill the Billabong. Twenty megalitres from the Wimmera River will be pumped into the billabong and changes monitored to manage the site. The water is from the Victorian Environmental Water Holder’s Wimmera and Glenelg Rivers water for environment allocation.

Rueben explained that there is a fear of highlighting sacred places and exposing them to vandalism or people taking stones as souvenirs or to sell on eBay. (My initial shocked reaction that these things happen replaced quickly by sorrow because human beings are not really the best of Earth’s species.)

Rueben is careful of advertising much of the work they do, yet realises it is important for everyone to know and value a place and so preserve it. Aboriginals don’t want to go down the Uluru track where people have trampled on cultural and sacred significance.

Aboriginal people must be allowed to keep their traditional relationship with places and practice their culture and the overwhelming action/response needed is mutual TRUST and a determination that cultural flow will work.

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Budj Bim, Lake Condah, Heywood

Formed by an ancient lava flow from what was traditionally called the Budj Bim volcano, the rich resource of Lake Condah – just outside Heywood – has sustained the Gunditjmara people for thousands of years.

The way the Gunditjmara people exploited the resources of the lake was sophisticated. They developed an aquaculture system not just to catch fish, but to grow fish. They were probably the earliest fish farmers in the world, one fish trap has been dated to 6,600 years old. Eels were caught and smoked and the Traditional Owners are developing the local eel farming industry to contribute to economic development and have an important education role.

Local Traditional Owners believe the area has global significance and are applying for World Heritage listing, a remarkable landscape, much older than manmade structures in existence.

In the late 1800s, Lake Condah was drained by European settlers for grazing land. In 2010 – following a native title determination – the lake was reflooded as part of a plan to revive the ecosystem around it.

From having no Aboriginal waterway officers there are now 22. Victoria is leading the way nationally and the current Treaty negotiations will give opportunities to have water rights discussions while respecting Aboriginal traditions in the knowledge that within different groups only certain people own certain knowledge.

Sharing that knowledge requires transparency and a reliance on stakeholders to navigate bureaucracy in good faith. Reuben must find out where and with whom authority resides within various local groups, develop a strong connection to the region, build relationships and discover who has access to the knowledge, and avoid conflict – this method has worked – so far!

The Aboriginal waterways assessment tool was imported from Canada after examining how their First People manage waterways. It is the intellectual property of our First People and the government accepts this assessment tool and doesn’t interfere. It is based on the relationships of Traditional Owners.

No tension yet regarding economic benefits, and there is always ongoing discussions when an approach is made and action is taken. Cultural Flow is referring to entitlement, it is not saying First People own the water but have an entitlement of access – for example, 4% of flow at a certain time

It is like a lease – you can sell some of the water allocations if water is surplus to needs; it will be used for other environments.  The question must always be asked – what is landscape for the year and will allocation change? 

The aim is to maximise benefits across the state.

In Victoria, the agriculture industry is generally supportive and the social licence of Aboriginal people recognised. They understand for the environment’s sake and the wellbeing of Traditional Owners, the balance must be got right. The Farmers Federation and Irrigators Council support Cultural Flow and are encouraging the establishment and use of frameworks.

International examples of cultural flow are NZ and Canada. Victoria is doing well compared to the national average.

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Can we Rewild Our Creeks?

We have been modifying our waterways for thousands of years – therefore don’t rewild but bring it back to a time when people lived in harmony with the environment.

We should move to use Indigenous terms and language – refer to places by two names, change the river names to include the Aboriginal name alongside the colonial name.

Reuben suggests we learn the original place name of where we live, where we walk the dog or picnic. What is it called in the original tongue and get into the habit of saying it as a daily reminder of the cultural significance of place!

It also shows respect.

We must get the environment right or nothing will work – look at the Murray Darling mess!

  • Water Commissioners can move water across the state – metaphorically and physically. It is like a grid. Water is a public-owned asset, and the government ultimately decides. So beyond Design – where the flow goes – is a political/cultural equation.
  • Traditional sites in urban Melbourne might be managed by Parks Victoria.
  • A part of the river may need more  – water is requested – Aboriginal clans don’t have to intrinsically own the land – it is about partnerships. Not limited to having to own the land to request cultural flow.

Managing waterways is complex – and we are part of it. This land is a significant place and it is important to celebrate and appreciate the river.

Know The History of The Yarra

 

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THE YARRA FALLS

Fresh water was the key to Melbourne’s location and to its development during the first 20 years of European settlement. In 1803, the Acting Surveyor-General of NSW, Charles Grimes, rowed upstream and declared it ‘the most eligible place for a settlement I have seen.’

John Batman had explored in the vicinity during June 1835, but it was George Evans and John Lancey in the ‘Enterprize’ who stepped ashore here on 30 August 1835 on behalf of Launceston businessman, John Pascoe Fawkner.

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The Wurrundjeri – one of five tribes of the Kulin Nation – had inhabited the area for more than 40,000 years, hunting and fishing the bountiful wildlife.

The 30 painted and carved poles in Enterprise Park depict the scars they left in the river gums after making shields and canoes.

A reef rock running under the Yarra at this point prevented water downstream from contaminating the fresh water above. At low tide, there was a pretty cascade known as The Yarra Falls.

The river above the Falls provided drinking and bathing water for Melburnians until the opening of Yan Year reservoir in 1857.

The Falls was a natural barrier to river transport and the reef was blasted away in 1880 as part of the river widening and straightening works.

We can’t rewind the clock or reverse some of the poor decisions regarding our landscape and waterways but the current government in Victoria is making an effort and we must all play our part – especially regarding pollution.

The inappropriate development must be stopped and listening to the wisdom of Traditional Owners and working with them is crucial.

Rueben and other Indigenous water commissioners are aware that the environment is changing because of global warming and the various factors contributing to this change. 

How water was managed in the past might not work and best intentions can be wrong but Aboriginals have inhabited Australia for thousands of years, adapting and managing and it is about enabling them to continue this stewardship.

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Cultural Flow and self-determination must be supported:

Indigenous peoples are connected to and responsible for our lands and waters and in turn, Indigenous peoples obtain and maintain our spiritual and cultural identity, life and livelihoods from our lands, waters and resources. These cultural and customary rights and responsibilities include: 

  • a spiritual connection to lands, waters and natural resources associated with water places
  • management of significant sites located along river banks, on and in the river beds, and sites and stories associated with the water and natural resources located in the rivers and their tributaries, and the sea 
  • protection of Indigenous cultural heritage and knowledge associated with water and water places 
  • access to cultural activities such as hunting and fishing, and ceremony.

While it is not possible to homogenise all Indigenous cultural water values into one perspective, as Indigenous values are regionally diverse and complex, there are some commonalities and distinctions from non-Indigenous laws that are important to recognise and understand.

Indigenous relationships with water are holistic; combining land, water, culture, society and economy. Consequently, water and land rights, the management of resources and native title are inseparable.

Aboriginal people have a wealth of knowledge around managing water resources within the Australian landscape and have much to offer in land and water planning and management.

We need their help to maintain our waterways.

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Today, March 22nd, we celebrate International World Water Day — founded in 1993 to elevate the importance of water as a human right, focus attention on the critical need to safeguard our freshwater resources, and promote the sustainable management of public water resources across the globe.

Billions of people are still living without safe water in both the Global North and Global South, and that’s why The Story of Stuff Project continues to fight for clean, safe, affordable drinking water. That means we support keeping water in the commons and managed by public hands, not private corporations.

The Story of Stuff

You can pledge:

  • I pledge to use reusable water bottles because drinking my local tap water is more sustainable than drinking from single-use, disposable plastic bottles, and doesn’t promote water commodification.
  • I pledge to resist water privatization because water is a human right and a natural resource that should not be controlled by corporations that put profits over people.

Clean water for all is not only a basic necessity — it is a fundamental human right. Without water, there is no life.

Clean water and adequate sanitation are paramount for helping children avoid deadly diseases, ensuring girls can stay in school, creating jobs, and assisting economic, social, and human development.

Sometimes the stars seem to align, or perhaps it is down to the cliched six-degrees of separation, but several activities I’ve attended this week have all been linked to water, the environment and learning more about Australia’s First People :

  • their knowledge and links to the land, waterways and the sea that we must appreciate and honour
  • how the only way forward is to work together,  building trust and sharing knowledge
  • how there is so much more to be done to Close The Gap and ensure true equality and improved outcomes in all areas of life for Indigenous Australians.
  • the importance of marine sanctuaries and healthy seas to ensure marine life isn’t destroyed and the health and integrity of Australia’s waterways are maintained. (more on that in a separate post!)

Today — on World Water Day … please get familiar with the greatest issues in the fight to ensure clean water for all.

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Watch ‘Edie’ – Be Inspired, & Keep Your Dreams Alive

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83-year-old Edie believes that it is never too late – packing an old camping bag, leaving her life behind and embarking on an adventure she never got to have – climbing the imposing Mount Suilven in Scotland.

My daughters bought me this DVD for Christmas and I took the opportunity last weekend amidst our autumn heatwave to watch it. (Something positive and uplifting to take my mind off worrying that those we trusted have left action on climate change too late…)

Empathy

I was only pushing 65 when I went on my travel adventure but since it also included Scotland, I imagine that influenced my daughters’ decision to buy me this DVD.

It certainly is a spectacular showcase of the beauty of my birth country, especially of parts that regular tourists may not see.

Anne and Mary Jane are too young to appreciate what a brilliant actress Sheila Hancock is and probably didn’t realise how much I admire her work. I can still remember the TV series The Rag Trade (circa 1961)  with Miriam Karlin – a show my Mum never missed. (even thinking about it triggers memories of Mum’s laughter and giggling drifting up the stairs in our house in Scotland – a wonderful sound to fall asleep to – an added bonus when gifts of books, DVDs and CDs of music trigger happy memories.)

Sheila also worked on stage, other television productions, and many films – a stellar career.

Sheila Cameron HancockCBE (born 22 February 1933) is an English actress and author. Hancock trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art before starting her career in repertory theatre. Hancock went on to perform in plays and musicals in London, and her Broadway debut in Entertaining Mr Sloane (1966) earned her a Tony Award nomination for Best Lead Actress in Play. She won a Laurence Olivier Award for Best Performance in a Supporting Role in a Musical for her role in Cabaret (2007) and was nominated at the Laurence Olivier Awards four other times for her work in Sweeney Todd (1980), The Winter’s Tale (1982), Prin (1989) and Sister Act (2010).

Wikipedia entry

She is an author of several books. I have her 2004, The Two of Us,  a dual biography, of her life with second husband, actor John Thaw. The book focuses on their careers and 28-year marriage. John died of oesophageal cancer in 2002, the same disease that killed her first husband, actor Alec Ross in 1971. Sheila is also a breast cancer survivor.

(As a widow who also nursed a husband through cancer and then survived breast cancer myself, Sheila’s book resonated with me.)

Not surprising with all the personal emotional and physical obstacles overcome in her life,  she is superb as feisty Edie and any ‘acting’ seems effortless.  At 84 years old when making the movie, Sheila did all the scenes in real time and remains the oldest person to climb Mount Suilven (731 meters or 2398.29 feet) – the normal suspension of disbelief required in cinema easily achieved.

The movie is inspirational and entertaining on several levels – as mentioned the scenery alone absolutely mesmerising, Edie could have been made for the Scottish Tourism Board – I can imagine visitors to Sutherland increased after the film’s release in 2017.

Suilven is one of the most distinctive mountains in Scotland. Lying in a remote area in the west of Sutherland, it rises almost vertically from a wilderness landscape of moorland, bogs, and lochans known as Inverpolly National Nature Reserve. Suilven forms a steep-sided ridge some 2 km in length.

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Mt Suilven Scotland – Wikipedia

A Positive Ageing Story

Edie is not the usual cliched ‘grey power’ movie. There is no reuniting with or meeting a new love interest,  no romantic entanglement, no outsmarting or put down of the younger generation or authority, and no tear-jerking death scene.

Instead, there are interesting layers to unpack and questions left unanswered, leaving food for thought or discussion.

  • Will she now be able to control her future and remain ‘feeling alive’?
  • Has she finally put the past to rest?
  • Can she heal her relationship and reconcile with her daughter?
  • What of her newfound friendship with the young guide – will he make the ‘right’ choice for his future?

Easy to watch, the movie’s overall narrative says it is never too late to make your special dream a reality and be open to new experiences and new friendships

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It is ‘Herstory’

March is Women’s History Month and we learn of women who have made a difference – some of whom were written out of history.

Edie is not a tale of a ‘famous’ female achiever, but it tells a story of limited choice and restrictions familiar to many women, especially of a particular generation – and sadly, perhaps still too familiar!

Edie could be ‘everywoman’ who put the needs and desires of fathers, brothers, husbands, sons and daughters before her own happiness. It is uncomfortable viewing at times.

At the beginning of the movie, we see Edie is the sole carer for a wheelchair-bound husband, George (Donald Pelmear). He can’t speak and has to be aided to eat. When he dies, it is not long before the house is up for sale and daughter, Nancy (Wendy Morgan) is taking Edie to view a residential aged care centre that on first glance looks like a luxury hotel (the camera through Edie’s eyes drawn to a huge golden chandelier in the entrance hall) but to Edie the place represents first class misery.

There is little dialogue in the early scenes but plenty of good acting, directing, and camera work. Edie’s expressions and body language show how unimpressed she is with the facility, despite the over-enthusiastic praise of residents and activities by Nancy.

Trying too hard to ‘sell’ the place,  Nancy and the staff reminiscent of parents talking up boarding school to a reticent child. Naturally, Edie is not cooperating!

The scene where she is supposed to be learning flower-arranging and churlishly snips off the head of a flower once the instructor walks away, a great metaphor – and hints at the rebellion to come.

Edie and Nancy return to pack up the house and encounter a life-changing shock:

  • Edie focuses on an old postcard of Mt Suilven from her Dad promising they’d ‘climb it together‘.
  • Nancy finds a journal her mother kept and is appalled by the anger and misery in the short entries. Edie complains about being trapped, having to look after a child and her sick husband, having no support or pleasure, the unfairness of her workload, of being depressed at the drudgery her life has become and living a life she hates.

Nancy is hurt, offended, and furious, and not interested when Edie tries to explain the journal was a way to release her frustrations at the miserable and restrictive marriage, not motherhood… the crushing of her dreams and loss of independence… She was upset about the demands of caring for her husband after his severe stroke so early in the marriage.

It wasn’t meant to be read by anyone else!’

Nancy is too hurt and stunned to have sympathy.

But I always did my duty,’ Edie yells as her daughter storms out. (It was 30 years of caring.)

And I’m tired of doing my duty,’ Nancy yells back as she tearfully slams the gate.

No winners in that argument just valid points about the strain of changing relationships, the carer’s role, which can occur at any age, and the very human habit of not communicating honestly with those we love, and the huge gaps in society’s resources to help families in times of crises.

Appropriately, it’s a bleak, stormy, wet day and Edie is left standing at the gate drenched in rain (tears?)… like novels, metaphor important in scene setting.

That night Edie burns her journals and almost incinerates the postcard but rescues it and sits staring into the flames, deep in thought.

We glimpse ageing in suburbia with Edie’s only relief from drudgery a cuppa in a favourite local cafe where she is someone other than trapped wife or recalcitrant mother.

A lightbulb moment springs her to action and the gorgeous visuals of the journey north by train begins.  Determined to climb that mountain and keep her father’s promise she has packed ancient equipment, which must be replaced of course and the shopping trip for the latest gear from the Scottish equivalent of Kathmandu provides comedy and pathos.

Many of these scenes resonated with me because when I went into the Tarkine wilderness on a hiking and camping holiday in 2008, I hadn’t shouldered a backpack since Girl Guide days – I was also amazed and shocked at the variety and cost of camping gear but must admit to having fun trying on the clothes just like Edie.

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The Generation Gap

In Scotland, Edie meets Johnny (Kevin Guthrie) and their unusual relationship provides laughs, tension, and poignancy – Sheila Hancock has never lost her comedic timing and the close-ups of her wrinkled face and hands, falling over, and struggling with weakened limbs truthfully portrayed.

There’s a memorable scene where she rests and examines a leaf from a nearby bush. The close-up shows the veins on the leaf held beside the back of her hand – roots pump water and minerals to branches and leaves, the heart pumps blood through our veins to limbs… a leaf can be the sign of a new beginning or reaching maturity…

It is a beautifully filmed sequence and her smile and demeanour say she is glad to be alive and grateful to be in that place, at that time.

I’ve been fortunate to have many private moments in wonderful places of natural beauty, I too have been able to sit in silence and contemplate… this was a lovely moment in the narrative and I’m sure contributed to the film winning its two awards.

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At the start of her adventure because of a mix-up, Edie has to spend a night in Johnny’s share house. Two scenes are funny and emphasise gender and generation gap many people can relate to:

  1. She prepares for bed in a bathroom/toilet shared and neglected by the all-male, twenty-something household
  2. Leaving the next morning she has to navigate past four young men sprawled on the lounge room floor after a heavy night of drinking.

Genuine warmth and friendship develops between Edie and Johnny, who has his own relationship troubles because his girlfriend, Fiona (Amy Manson) is in the middle of negotiating a bank loan to create the biggest camping store in the north of Scotland while he feels trapped and longs to escape his job as a guide in what he considers a parochial area. He took on the job of training Edie for the climb solely for the money, thinking it would be easy because she would back out.

In an honest exchange of stories, we learn Edie’s life and how her spirit was broken by her husband who was a control freak. He estranged her from her father to ensure she forgot being ‘a wild child’ and just as she realised the marriage was not what she wanted and stood up to him, he had an almost fatal stroke. She sacrificed the next 30 years to dutifully care for him and ensure her daughter would have choices she didn’t.

The wisdom of age juxtaposed with impetuous youth exchanged like their stories.  But when Johnny is looking forward to guiding, Edie surprises him by insisting she climb Suilven alone! Wow – who is risk-taking and foolish now!?

The drama and tension speed up at this point – for all the characters – and the reunion of Johnny and Edie near the top of the mountain and him stepping back and letting her move unsteadily alone to the peak to add her small stone to the cairn, speaks volumes about their changed relationship. His happiness and joy reflected in a huge smile and glistening eyes.

Exhausted Edie stands proudly surveying the raw haunting beauty of Suilven and Lochinver and for Scottish me with roots still in my birthplace, the scenery and emotions evoked, breathtaking.

A satisfying and inspirational movie that is also thought-provoking because, barring tragedy, we are all ageing and/or watching loved-ones age, and how we navigate and cope with the process and live affects wellbeing and happiness.

There is a marvellous interlude when we think Edie will not survive – her equipment lost in a terrible storm and she is alone in the dark until she discovers a hermit’s hut – this episode has even more layers you can unpack if you like philosophy and ponder our relationship with nature and each other.

Triggered Memories of My Mountain Climbed

I replicated Edie’s journey, in a tiny way, when I was in Skye in 2017 – not that climbing The Storr (or Old Man of Storr as it is known) was near the effort of Mt Suilven but for someone who suffers acrophobia, I’m proud of my achievement.

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approaching The Storr

I’ve written about when I think my fear of heights started here and although The Storr has a path described as ‘well-constructed’, for me it was a challenge.

Looks can be deceptive, the gradient, the instability and variable surface of the ground underfoot, and the constant force of the wind the day I climbed presented a challenge too.

The Storr (ScottishGaelic: An Stòr) is a rocky hill on the Trotternish peninsula of the Isle of Skye in Scotland. The hill presents a steep rocky eastern face overlooking the Sound of Raasay, contrasting with gentler grassy slopes to the west.

The Storr is a prime example of the Trotternish landslip, the longest such feature in Great Britain. It is the type locality for the mineral gyrolite.

The area in front of the cliffs of the Storr is known as The Sanctuary. This has a number of weirdly shaped rock pinnacles, the remnants of ancient landslips.

A well-constructed path, used by many sightseers, leaves the A855 just north of Loch Leathan. It heads up through a clearfell area that was formerly a conifer plantation. Most day-trippers are content simply to wander around the Sanctuary, admiring the pinnacles and gazing up at The Storr’s eastern cliffs. Walkers can easily ascend to the summit, however, by skirting below the cliffs whilst heading north from the north end of the Sanctuary. After passing over a fence at a makeshift stile and climbing a brief steep section of loose rock, the recommended route for walkers heads north-west as far as Coire Scamadal, 1 km north of the summit, then doubles back and heads southwards along the north side, climbing towards the summit. From this route, visible breaks in the cliffs offer tempting short cuts, but these are steep, may not save time and may not be safe…

Wikipedia

The Storr is 719 metres (2,359ft) at its highest point – I reached the base of the steepest pinnacle but discretion being the better part of valour and considering I was on my own, I did not scramble around the narrow ledge to ‘touch’ the pinnacle because I feared the wind would blow me away or a panic attack make me freeze.

In fact, a few times during the climb I wondered if my travel insurance would pay out because I signed a clause saying I was not planning any unusual extreme ventures!

At the start, I took photographs of the area known as The Sanctuary and met plenty of tourists ‘scrambling’ and climbing to a vantage point for good views.

I then started the ascent in earnest, stopping plenty of times for photographs but also to chat with people coming down or going up:

  • How long did it take you?
  • Is the going rough?
  • Are there any landslides?
  • What’s the best side to tackle?
  • Where are you from?
  • Have you done this before?
  • Did you get to the Pinnacle?
  • The wind will blow you away!
  • It’s too hard!
  • It’s too dangerous!
  • I made it – just wanted a photo for Instagram… Facebook …
  • I took a Selfie to prove it I reached the top!

It was treacherous underfoot and I found it took all my concentration and physical ability to navigate some steep and slippery sections.

I met a lovely father and daughter from India but the little girl of eleven refused to be as enthusiastic about the challenge despite coaxing from her Dad.

They only climbed part of the way and were still negotiating about going further when I met them on my way down!

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Two lovely Italian girls shadowed me part of the way – perhaps thinking I was going to need assistance. We were all thumbs up and celebrating when we reached the base of the Pinnacle and through sign language and limited English, they said they admired someone of ‘my age’ for even attempting the climb!

I don’t know about Sheila Hancock in Edie but I found the descent as daunting as the climb and several times thought I was going to lose my footing. However, I did climb, Old Man of Storr and have some wonderful photographs of the view of Skye I would otherwise not have… and as you can see by my smiles it was a good feeling to have a small triumph over a lifelong fear of heights.

Edie, the movie, and Sheila Hancock, the actress – both inspirational.  I won’t be queuing up to climb Suilven when I’m 85 but I hope to achieve other dreams.

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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Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story

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I had a gift voucher to use for the Arts Centre which was close to expiry date (last year was not a good year healthwise for booking anything in advance) and when I saw Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story advertised with a session offering Q & A with the cast afterwards, I knew this was the perfect fit for my voucher  – and which of my friends I’d invite to share the experience.

My friend Lisa, grew up in Caulfield and developed long-standing friendships and a special affinity with Jewish culture. She also loves plays as a form of storytelling, as much as I do.

We both attended The Script Club at The Channel, a studio in the Victorian Arts Centre a couple of years ago, where we discussed classic Australian plays in a series of workshops facilitated by respected writer and drama critic, John McCallum.

What better play for us to see together than one advertised as 

A dark, funny and high-energy klezmer-folk tale inspired by the real-life story of two Romanian Jews seeking refuge in Canada in 1908.

It’s early 20th century Halifax and Chaim and Chaya, hounded from home, are waiting for immigration to decide their future, under threat of tuberculosis and typhus. Will they survive in this new land?

With neo-klezmer songs written by director Christian Barry and acclaimed genre-bending performer and musician Ben Caplan, this quirky one-act musical is written by award-winning playwright Hannah Moscovitch, who based it on the story of her own Jewish great-grandparents.

This bewitching music-theatre hybrid and cautionary tale for modern times – performed with instruments ranging from fiddle to clarinet, accordion, banjo and megaphone – was nominated for six Drama Desk Awards, won multiple Edinburgh Fringe awards and was a New York Times Critic’s Pick.

Old Stock is about humanity and finding your place in the world. Above all this story is about hope.

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The refugee crisis is a topic rarely out of the news, especially in Australia, where we have asylum seekers languishing on offshore islands under indefinite detention and any discussion we have in the media or parliament soon descends into blame, shame, distortion of facts and fear of the other.

Ironically, this week one of the most well-known asylum seekers incarcerated on Manus Island for six years has been awarded the richest literature prize in Australia, plus a smaller non-fiction prize  – a total of $125,000 – and sparking a bitter debate about the what and who is “ Australian”. 

Everyone should listen carefully to the acceptance speech, via video, of Behrouz Boochani, an Iranian Kurdish refugee because it is about being human, not labelling yourself as a particular nationality, religion, or ethnic group.

Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story definitely topical!!

Whose interest is served by dividing the world into countries, building walls, increasing security and border checks, incarcerating those fleeing violence and natural disasters, stirring up resentment and hate, attaching ridiculous and misleading labels?

Most people, if given the choice would stay put, live in their own country and prefer peace – that is the reality.

It is catastrophic events like war, civil disturbances, attempted genocide, mass inequality and natural disasters that cause refugees, like the current caravan fleeing multiple crises in Central America.

Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story, like the novel No Friend But The Mountains challenge us to humanise these tragic circumstances and are great examples of what Ursula Le Guin believed,

Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art, the art of words.”

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The Power of Stagecraft

Louisa Adamson & Christian Barry were responsible for set and lighting design but stagecraft also includes technical aspects of theatrical production like sound, costume design and makeup.

All are important to set the scene for the audience but also enable the cast to perform smoothly. 

These technical and artistic elements require a vision and interpretation that suits the theme/story and also gives the audience an enjoyable and entertaining experience.

In the foyer of the theatre, there were displays of costumes and models of sets emphasising these very points. Lisa mentioned how much she had enjoyed The King and I and we observed various people posing for photographs on a mock-up of the set for Evita fancying themselves as Eva Perón!

Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story went for 80 minutes without a break providing a challenge that a conventional drama with an interval might not and considering the subject matter and the set, I don’t think many will queue to have their photograph taken.

The lighting always important on stage but for this performance exceptionally so, to focus on a particular performer and distract the audience if props were being moved and others in the cast changed costumes or positions.

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Melbourne’s Art precinct – how lucky are we?

The Fairfax Theatre at the Arts Centre is comfortable and intimate and we had seats in the second row so had a great view of the performers and the set, which when we first sat down looked like a shipping container.

Ben Caplan in a bushy beard, top hat and a purplish jacket is spectacular and loud,  almost raunchy when he appears like a magician amid smoke and flashing lights from the top of the container.

The intro routine opens two large, swinging doors displaying various musical instruments, hats, shawl and other accoutrements on hooks and shelves but Ben sings with gusto and he’s telling the story through his songs, which requires our concentration.

While he captured our attention, the other cast members set up the remaining props and hung the Halifax sign. The compactness and portability of the design clever, and although colourful, never became a distraction from the words and music.

A simple packing case and upended suitcases interchangeable as the characters journey through life and tell their story – which involves settling in Montreal (another sign up) getting married and starting a family.

Ben acknowledged Louise in the Q & A afterwards for the set’s strong visual metaphor. Most refugees have to travel by ship at some stage in their journey (certainly the ones in this story) and it also references World War Two refugees herded into freight train carriages.

I wondered if the white-haired gentleman, who asked the question about the set had memories of his family escaping the Holocaust like Denise Weiss, one of my students who wrote a hauntingly beautiful but sad vignette about her Jewish parents escaping Hungary – a train journey her grandmother and others took that ended in the gas chamber.

Although it is based on the historical upheavals and forced journeys the Jewish people have experienced, the story and characters are an allegory, representing humanity, and all people forced from their home because of war, prejudice, fear, natural disaster, or a desire to improve the lives of their children.

What Influenced/Inspired The Play?

Ben explained, that in 2015 during the Canadian election, he was watching Canada’s Prime Minister give a speech where he referred to ‘Old Stock’ Canadians to distinguish them from recently arrived immigrants and refugees.

Conservative Leader Stephen Harper’s use this week of the term “old stock Canadians” in response to a question on support for reduced health coverage for refugees drew swift condemnation on social media, where many suggested the term has racist implications.

The newspaper article linked above has interviews with a variety of Canadians including George Elliott Clarke, Poet Laureate of Toronto. (I’m quoting him because I love poets, especially those with his ability, and who successfully show the personal is political and vice versa!)

Stock: A 7th-generation descendant of black refugees who settled in Nova Scotia in 1813, long before Confederation, Clarke also has native heritage and is a member of the Eastern Woodlands Metis Nation.

“The true ‘old-stock’ Canadians are the First Nations and Inuit and Metis, followed by the many divergent ethnicities who were also present in colonial Canada, from African slaves in muddy York to ‘German’ settlers on the South Shore of Nova Scotia, from the Chinese merchants present in Nouvelle-France to the Portuguese and Basque fishermen of Newfoundland.

“Personally, I think the current Prime Minister is unsure about his own identity and possibly nervous about the true, multicultural, multilingual, multiple-faiths and multiracial Canada that now beautifully, proudly, lives and flourishes.”

But perhaps it is a quote from Elise Harding-Davis, former curator of the North American Black Historical Museum that resonates more with what has happened to the debate in Australia – a debate that went downhill extremely fast with Prime Minister John Howard’s disgusting refusal to let the Tampa land asylum seekers and his declaration of ‘we’ll decide who comes into this country‘ plus his protegees Abbott and Morrison suggesting civilisation began with colonisation and revering Captain Cook!

Like all descendants of escaped slaves, her family was granted Canadian citizenship only in 1911.  “Canada didn’t start out lily white. In fact, the only non-immigrants are the First Nations, aboriginal people… The idea of ‘Canadian stock’ is innocent ignorance. It’s a mindset of traditional thinking that all the people who started anything of note through history were the conquerors.”

The next major influence for Ben was the war in Syria and the appalling images of fleeing refugees and that shocking image of three-year-old Syrian Alan Kurdi drowned as his family tried to escape. This tiny body, washed ashore at a popular wealthy resort in Turkey, highlighted the suffering and death of many refugees and the huge divide regarding wealth, safety, and lifestyles in the world.

On World Refugee Day 2018, a record 68.5 million people were forcibly displaced in 2017. Record high numbers of men, women and children were driven from their homes across the world due to war, violence and persecution, according to a June 2018 report by the United Nations’ refugee agency.

Playwright, Hannah Moscovitch joined Ben and Christian on the project. Although she is writing about the past and her great-grandparents, she also addresses mass migrations today and the people and countries who oppose and/or resent those migrants. She is also a playwright unafraid of making the personal political.

Singer-songwriter Ben Caplan is the story-teller/God, a performance almost Vaudevillian as he behaves like an emcee (that’s where the megaphone listed as a musical instrument comes in) and also sings, dances (one number for me recalled a scene from Fiddler On The Roof) and acts in-between introducing the various scenes where Chaim (Dani Oore) and Chaya (Mary Faye Coady) tell their story intermingled with musical interludes. (Dani plays the woodwind and Mary Faye, the violin).

This is a tragedy with comedic streaks, especially the brilliant inflexions of Chaya and Chaim’s voices delivering their lines, many with the irony and chutzpah identifiably Jewish. Mary Faye said she listened to many accents online and worked on her voice for over a year to get the accent right. (She is of Scots/Irish descent, like me.)

The rhyme and rhythm of Ben’s songs catchy (if somewhat repetitive) but one, in particular, had the audience in an uproar when he recited euphemisms for sex (some I’d heard, others bizarre) and then suggested perhaps celibacy needed ‘careful consideration’.

When he dons the shawl of a rabbi and sings as a cantor, his voice and words are haunting – I found it deeply moving, even although it wasn’t in English – the meaning and emotional impact understood.

From the reaction of the audience and the questions after the show, it is obvious many were Jewish and the choice of music and songs triggered personal memories.

One lady of Russian descent, remembered a traditional lullaby her grandmother used to sing and suggested it be included in the show to make the scene where a lullaby is sung more authentic – Ben Caplan thanked her for her input but the power of art – song, poetry, drama, music, dance – crosses all boundaries and the writer and cast want to reach the largest possible audience.

Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story touched me, a person without a Jewish heritage. I found it captivating, emotionally engaging, entertaining and memorable with, I suggest, enough authenticity to satisfy most of the Jewish people present but not isolate Gentiles.

The story is about Jewish refugees Chaim and Chaya meeting in the line at the Immigration Centre in 1908 Halifax, Canada. They are both new arrivals from Romania, both traumatised from harrowing journeys but ordered into a line for the sick. He might have typhus because he has a rash. She might have caught her sister’s tuberculosis, she has a cough. He is ‘just a kid’ at eighteen years old but after seeing his family murdered in a pogrom has grown up fast. She is twenty-four, too young to be a widow but her husband and child didn’t survive the arduous journey they made across Russia to escape what Chaim lived. 

Will they be allowed into Canada?  Will they live long enough to establish a new life? Will they fall in love and have a future together?

The Jewish experience is dominant and when you read (warning this is very disturbing)  about the rise of anti-semitic behaviour in Melbourne, this is a play with subject matter that needs as wide an audience as possible, with more Q and A’s afterwards discussing the points it raises.

What do you choose to do if someone is pounding on your door needing help – do you let them in or ignore their plight?

When are people accepted as citizens or allowed to belong and their contribution acknowledged?

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From Santa Barbara History department

The story seeks the sympathy and understanding of the audience and challenges us to confront the reality of refugees, the various reasons and circumstances forcing people to seek asylum, and the dehumanising language used by politicians, the media and bigots, the myths and misinformation, the stirring of fear when it should be compassion…

If someone is seeking help does it matter what religion, what colour, what language group, what religion they are – isn’t the fact they are desperate for help enough?

People are not numbers, not statistics, not clones – humanity is diverse.

To tell this story with shades of light and dark, fast-paced mood changes and engaging craftmanship of acting, voice, dance and music, the cast deserves hearty congratulations and lots more success as they take their show around the world.

Simone de Beauvoir once said:

It is in the knowledge of the genuine conditions of our lives that we must draw our strength to live and our reasons for acting.

I’m so glad I heard a little of the lives of Hannah Moscovitch’s Chaim and Chaya and will continue to advocate for our government to treat better those who come to Australia.

 

 

 

 

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

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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.

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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.

 

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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…

 

Icebreakers For Writers -Lessons That Work

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This year, in semi-retirement, I’m not working at the moment but I’m sure there are teachers/trainers/facilitators who are trawling the Internet or books, for fresh ideas for the first class and will appreciate some of these hints.

At this time of year, as schools reopen, so do neighbourhood houses and other groups providing activities and it is so important to be inclusive and encourage a friendly atmosphere.

People absorb more and learn better when they’re relaxed and happy.

I’m normally preparing first lessons for various classes in creative writing and although many of my students returned, or had been together for several terms, if not years, there would always be someone new so it was important to have icebreakers.

How do you help someone ‘fit in’ quickly and as easily as possible?

In 2017, I wrote a post of 10 icebreaker questions I used with a bit of tweaking for both my Writing Creatively classes and Life Stories & Legacies class.

Try them – even if your group is not specifically for writers.

For years I had a good format that involved people interviewing the person beside them and then introducing each other to the class.  This could be tweaked by changing the questions to be specific, limiting the time so it was like speed dating, ensuring people interviewed someone they didn’t socialise with outside class or didn’t know at all.

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We soon knew each other’s names and a bit about everyone’s personality – maybe even a condensed life story!

Here’s a poem I wrote after my Monday morning class at Mordialloc Neighbourhood House.

What’s in a name?
Mairi Neil

To break the ice in writing class
much to some students’ dismay
we asked each other questions
in a ‘getting to know you’ kind of way.

At first, we pondered each other’s names
their origin – had family tradition won?
We discovered Barbara may be a saint
and Victoria’s Tori is much more fun.

Amelia loves her name, as does Heather,
who hates nicknames or shortened versions
while Emily feels loved when she hears Em,
and Jan became Janette if family ructions.

A lipstick released and called Michelle
ensured Jane’s mother chose simply Jane
Michael never wants to hear Mike and
Mairi wishes her spelling more plain.

What’s in a name, I hear you say?
What’s the creative writing motivation?
Well, as any writer will tell you
all knowledge ripe for exploitation!

Who hasn’t heard of Oliver Twist,
Jane Eyre, Miss Faversham or Lorna Doon
of Harry Potter, Hercules Poirot?
And Mr D’Arcy still makes folk swoon!

Most storytellers invent characters
and characters usually need a name
think carefully as you bring yours to life
Because they may be on the road to fame!

Another year we actually ‘broke the ice’ by writing a poem after answering a series of questions. The exercise based on a famous and much-loved memoir poem Where I’m From by George Ella Ryan (writer and teacher).

Click on the link for two templates that are guaranteed to work as an icebreaker and with revision and effort some powerful poetry and maybe a short story or two will result!

Here’s my effort –

Family_Resemblance.jpgWhat Made Me?
Mairi Neil

I am from ‘wakey-wakey’ for breakfast
Storytime books and kisses goodnight.
From hopscotch, skipping, dress-ups,
Backyard games and street delights.

Childish rhymes and daisy chains,
From buttercup tests and bramble jars,
Walking to school or riding bicycles
Streets were for playing – not for cars!

Home deliveries by butcher and baker
Bottled milk at home and school
I’m from coal man black and scary
Clouds of dust when cellar full.

Shouts of ‘any old rags?’ recycled clothes
The buttons and zips Mum always kept
Eager friends traded their Dad’s best suit
Mothers screamed and children wept.

I am from Chinese checkers and chess
Scabby Queen and what card to choose
Roars of laughter, or tears and tantrums
Gracious winning and learning to lose

A migrant family farewelling the familiar
Adjusting to new home across the seas
On a long ship’s voyage. we acclimatised
To be from a house among gum trees.

Hot days of summer and restless nights
Long dry grass and fear of snakes
Mosquito netting to avoid nasty bites
No escaping plum and apple fights.

Bluetongue lizards and pesky possums
A boat full of tadpoles and croaking frogs
Screeching cockies, laughing kookaburras
A house full of stray cats and dogs.

Huntsman spiders sucked up the vacuum
Cicadas chitter to announce summer
Rabbits and hares, native mice aplenty
Magpies swooping – what a bummer!

I’m from Choc Wedges and icy poles
Long summer days at Croydon Pool
Driveway tennis and park cricket
Trips up Mt Dandenong for cool.

I’m from high school softball and hockey
A Holden car swapped for Morris van
Holidays in army tent at Coronet Bay
Shift worker Dad visiting when he can.

I’m from triple fronted brick veneer
Replacing dilapidated weatherboard
Coloured TV, Phillips stereo, cassettes
Furniture wet when rain poured.

I’m from white weddings and sad divorces
In-laws plus nephews and nieces
Heartaches of friends and relatives
Falling apart and picking up pieces…

I’m from sick and ageing parents,
Death’s challenge not ignored
A houseful of wonderful memories
As bulldozers destroyed James Road.

In the hush of evening sunsets
Imagining childhood with closed eyes
Daily shenanigans, laughter and tears
From that ‘wakey-wakey’ surprise.

I’m from hardworking parents
Love always their motivation
Gifting me ethics and values
I’m a product of their dedication.

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Melding the Power of Words, the English Language, Our Imagination and Life Experience

Introductions – Exercise One in Class

This is a fun exercise but requires a little thought and brainstorming before you write and remember to make it as creative as possible.

  • Before you say your name, sit quietly and think of three clues that describe, but doesn’t name, either the country where you were born  (if it is different from Australia) or the place in Australia you were born (could be a city, country town, interstate).
  • Now think of three clues and see if people can guess a foreign country you have visited, your favourite foreign country, or one you dream of visiting.
  • Next, say your name and your clues and others will guess the answers. (You don’t have to make it difficult! It is not a competition but just a way of introducing an aspect of yourself others may not know.)
  • Now say what you like best about your birth country and the favourite foreign country.

Hi, my name is Mairi. I was born where lochs and glens adorn postcards and men are not embarrassed to go without trousers, and our national musical instrument has been declared a weapon of war.

A few years ago I visited a country to climb a mountain and visit a grave. I went to church and prayed for their rugby team to win and ate banana pancakes.

I love the sense of humour and hospitality in my birth country and that warmth of welcome and fun was also experienced in the foreign country of my dreams.  

You don’t have to be Einstein to work out my birth country is Scotland but you may not pick up the clue about Samoa. I’ve written about the journey of my dreams here.

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Samoan survival kit – insect repellant, sunblock, water, fan and cool sarong

Always whatever people write and discuss can inspire the others in the class, and furnish lots of anecdotes, memoir or imaginative pieces to write about later.

Has the exercise, or listening to others prompted an idea for a short story, poem or family history?

AT HOME:

  • Reflect – technology and transportation today give us the opportunity to learn, often first hand, about the rest of the world. You may not have had the privilege of travelling overseas but had the thrill of talking with foreigners online, writing to pen pals, or working beside people from overseas, or maybe even have immigrants or short term visitors as neighbours.
  • The world shrinks and differences are less, the more we learn and understand about each other.
  • And everyone is capable of dreaming about crossing borders, venturing into the exotic, trying something new.

Write at least 300-500 words explaining your connection and love of your birth country and favourite foreign place or perhaps you have a vivid memory to share – good or bad. Maybe travelling advice, or write about a character you met.

Here is a reflective piece of 500 words,  I published in the final anthology of 2018 for the Writing Creatively Class at Longbeach Place, Chelsea.

A Scottish Summer
Mairi Neil

Memory can burst into the present like a firecracker or be kindled like a flickering candle flame.

Proust

Despite Scotland’s dreary weather reputation, I remember lying on dewy grass among bluebells, and purple heather, breathing in the salty air of the River Clyde and freshwater scents from Loch Thom. Clouds drifted over the brae as we wove daisy chains and picked buttercups.

Do you like butter,’ we asked, holding the flowers under our chins. We giggled and chased each other waving dandelions, their touch supposedly making you pee the bed and when they ‘died’ the same flower became a fluffy timepiece to blow ‘fairies’ into the air and call out ‘one o’clock, two o’clock…’

In summer we sucked ice-lollies bought from Peter’s shop, a place pervaded by smells of sugar and syrup from jars of sweeties: musk, mint, aniseed, liquorice… The days seemed endless – daylight lasting until near midnight. Mum begging us to come in for supper and bed, but we romped in the hills of Braeside or played games in the street.

Travellers (tinkers to us) came to camp in the farmer’s field among cow pats and sheep dung. Their decrepit caravans and ex-army tents, a tight encampment we were forbidden to visit. They scoured the local streets for odd jobs, standing on doorsteps, unkempt and dank.

In need of a good bath,’ our neighbour said, ‘they don’t half pong. I gae them a couple o’ shillings just to be rid o’ them.’ It was the 1950s and no bathrooms in caravans or tents, not even a clear burn (creek) in the farmer’s field. My childhood curiosity aroused about people living a different life to me and awareness, not all adults shared my parents’ compassion …

The Rag and Bone man another summer visitor. His van toured the housing scheme looking for goodies. If mothers worked or went shopping, lured with promises of a goldfish or a budgie, but more likely receiving a balloon or plastic water pistol, some children handed over their dad’s dinner suit or mum’s Sunday best, taken from wardrobes without permission or smuggled out of the house among shabby clothes. The smell of brake fluid and burning rubber accompanied the yells of angry women chasing ‘Steptoe and Son’ down the street, wanting to retrieve property obtained under false pretences.

Our neighbour’s wisdom again, ‘Never leave wains to their own devices!’

The long summer holidays the time to collect firewood to build a bonfire for Guy Fawkes Night, to make a guy from old clothes and stockings stuffed with newspapers to drag around the neighbourhood on a homemade bogey (go-cart) shouting ‘penny for the guy’. The Davaar Road Gang made up of neighbourhood children clubbed pocket money to amass a kitty for fireworks: Catherine Wheels, Sky Rockets, Whirly Gigs, but mainly penny bungers.

Sometimes we couldn’t wait for November 5th, and the acrid smell of gunpowder in the backyard tipped off our mothers we were exploding fireworks without supervision and we’d hear, ‘Wait until your faither gets hame. He’ll skelp your backside.’

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Three years old me with new found friends wearing their mum’s shoes!

 

Introductions – Exercise Two in Class

This one is a variation of an oldie that often does the rounds – I think there was a radio programme based in it too called Desert Island Discs…

If you were marooned on a desert island, who would you want with you? Or what (a favourite pet, perhaps…?)

  • Sit quietly and think about the situation for a couple of minutes.
  • Choose three people who you would want with you if you were marooned.
  • Introduce yourself and name the people. They can be alive or dead, imaginary, famous or infamous, literary characters, television personalities, family or friends…

My effort:

Hi, my name is Mairi and if I were marooned on a deserted island, I would want John to be with me. Ex navy he understood the vagaries of the sea, was strong, clever and practical. His common sense and calmness a balance to highly strung, impulsive me. He was great fun and an incurable romantic – we wouldn’t be a small population for long!

My second choice would be AJ Cronin, a great ethical doctor but also a wonderful writer and storyteller. We’d have many stimulating discussions and I’d get some great writing tips. And he’d ensure we stayed healthy.

My third choice would be my Mum, the best no-nonsense cook in the world and someone who was amazingly adaptable – making homes in Ireland, Scotland and Australia – she could be relied upon to adjust and settle into the new situation. And no better confidante to give unconditional love.

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Reflection and Discussion Enriches the Lesson

  • How hard was it to choose people?
  • Did you substitute a pet?
  • Were your choices all imaginary? Celebrities?
  • What surprises did you find when listening to others?

Each time I do this exercise with different classes, I change my choices and now as I look over my notes from the years of teaching, I’ve garnered a lot of information and jumping off points to write my own story or even stories.

As always, encourage writing and rewriting at home…

Write an imaginative story about being marooned – either one person or more than one.
Think and perhaps revisit Gilligan’s Island or Lord of The Flies, or perhaps Robinson Crusoe.  No genre is excluded – remember the TV sitcom setting the Family Robinson in Space? Why not have them land on Mars – or even the moon…

Explore your choices of the three companions and write in depth about why you chose them. Is there a relationship with one or more of them that can be explained in a personal essay?

For example, I may write about my mother’s cooking ability or her life’s migration journeys, perhaps choose the move from Ireland, or concentrate on emigrating to Australia.

OR

About being inspired by AJ Cronin – (1896 – 1981) a Scottish novelist and physician who wrote The Citadel (1937), the story of a doctor from a Welsh mining village who moves up the career ladder in London.

I loved this novel. It was recommended by my father and I can’t remember if I read the copy in the house or bought my own. It had controversial new ideas about medical ethics and Dad said it inspired the launch of the National Health Service.

Cronin’s other popular novel was The Stars Look Down. Both were mining novels adapted as films, as have Hatter’s Castle, The Keys of the Kingdom and The Green Years. His novella Country Doctor adapted as a long-running BBC radio and TV series Dr Finlay’s Casebook. This series compulsory viewing in our household and in a piece of serendipity, one of the housemaid jobs I had when I travelled the UK in 1973, was at the Killin Hotel – a hop-skip-and-a-jump from Callander where the series was filmed.

Another bit of serendipity and personal history was in 2017 when I stayed with my cousin in Scotland. She had recently moved to Cardross and walking around the neighbourhood led me to this discovery:

AJ cronin details.jpg

I don’t expect Cardross to be on the list of places to visit if you went with a packaged tour but it is a bonny place, steeped in history, and definitely worth a look:

I came across lovely gardens and some attractive social housing for the elderly – and as a bonus, the spring flowers were in bloom and the cafe was friendly.

See how that exercise has triggered stories for me…

Please feel free to share your thoughts and add any good icebreaking exercises because I guarantee there will be a teacher/trainer out there trawling the Internet who’ll appreciate it.

 

 

Forget Your Pride and Prejudice and Be Persuaded to Embrace The Regency Era

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At the end of last year, I went to a talk at Glen Eira Art Gallery, one of several in their Be Persuaded — Jane Austen exhibition. It brought the literary icon Jane Austen’s world to life through a fascinating selection of rare fashion, accessories, and ephemera from the 18th century and Regency era but it also sent me off on a journey to the immediate and not so immediate past!

As I’ve said many times, I like joining dots, discovering connections and links that enhance my understanding of people and the world, move me from my comfort zone and add to what I thought I knew or better still challenge my assumptions…

Presented by Dressing Australia — Museum of Costume, the exhibition highlights included an 18th-century silk gown, diaphanous Empire line frocks, spencers and other undergarments, capes and shawls, bonnets, parasols, and rare hand painted watercolours documenting fashion from the 1790s to 1840 but it also gave historical context and relevance.

The selection of little paintings – 27 in all – a unique collection illustrating the development of fashion styles during that period and according to organisers, there may not be others in existence.

Jane Austen used words, this artist used drawings – original drawings from 1793 – 1830 – to tell little stories. The drawings are detailed and in context whether it is streetwear, formal or informal and covers a range of age groups. The 18th century and Regency era’s Vogue Magazine with some tongue in cheek observations thrown in.

An exhibition of fashion we have all seen and perhaps admired/envied in period films but in reality comes with a suitcase full of disadvantages, class distinctions, and choices dictated by obedience to societal mores!

Everyone was invited to step back in time and play with games and toys that were popular during Jane Austen’s childhood as well as imagine what it must have been like wearing clothes on display. 

Memories triggered

A fabulous day in Bath immersing myself in Jane Austen country. Met so many interesting people including a couple of Aussies from Newcastle. Caught the bus to Swindon, a meandering weekend path swapped for a very fast train to Bath with just one stop! Bath is another place that could absorb a week and you’d still have a list to do but I’m happy – I had an enjoyable walk after “Jane” checking out the Regency Circle and Georgian houses before visiting a fashion museum with 100 costumes plus accessories from the early 17th century to 2017. And it was Free Comic Book Day so cosplay characters were everywhere delighting passersby, including me.

My Facebook Post May 6th 2017

Bath, a World Heritage City, yet most of my time spent tracing Jane Austen’s footsteps when I discovered a free walking tour and delightful guide with seemingly infinite knowledge of where Jane lived, visited, walked and shopped, along with places made famous by her two Bath novels: Northanger Abbey and Persuasion.

Like many others, I admire Jane Austen as a writer and studied Northanger Abbey for HSC Literature and surprised myself at how much I could recall.

There was an instant rapport with the guide who had a great sense of humour, even posing for a photograph with one of the cosplay characters from Planet of the Apes. All of us doing an impromptu dance together because music blared from a portable player nearby.

When I mentioned my daughter was a Whedon fan (the writer/filmmaker Joss Whedon) I was inundated with free comics to take back to Australia. I’ve blogged about the importance of comics and also cosplay before.

Cosplay conventions the modern generations Austen world on steroids and what fun I had attending my first one in Australia.

A wonderful, heartwarming hug at the end of the Walking Tour made my day.  In the beginning, I was the only one on the tour with two others joining when they eavesdropped and discovered the tour was free.

Am I the only person who reads brochures and local leaflets?  There is always a host of free stuff available and you get to meet amazing volunteers or organisations committed to history, the arts, and other community activities. 

If ever in Bath, the free Walking Tour a must – it leaves from the Post Office and ends at the Jane Austen Centre and you meet people passionate about their work.

The young man who accompanied me a great raconteur. We discovered a mutual love of history, had read and liked similar books – and even shared our opinion about Brexit which was a talking point everywhere in 2017. (Methinks that hasn’t changed!)

Plus, he thought I was brave travelling by myself because ‘I was older than his mother‘. He wanted to know how I got on in Russia. I told him how much I enjoyed it and to separate countries from governments, people from politicians, and not be scared to travel and find out for yourself!

outside jane austen museum.jpgThe other gentleman in the photo is Martin Salter, ‘England’s most photographed man‘ a title awarded March 2017  to recognise his ten years of outstanding service as the meeter/greeter at the Jane Austen Centre.

An icon recognised around the world because of the number of people he has welcomed, photographed, and posed beside for photographs – including me!

In the Georgian mansion that houses the Jane Austen Centre, I tried on clothes and delved into all things Jane Austen having a great giggle with other tourists and the enthusiastic employees and volunteers.

I was grateful it was just pretence because I don’t think my patience or spacial awareness, let alone deportment, would cope with the clothes of the Regency era or the lifestyle –  definitely not the lack of rights for women.

I can’t imagine living in a time where beginning a novel with the following statement is so well understood:

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”

                                        Jane Austen’s, Pride and Prejudice

After the museum, I wandered through the main streets of central Bath where the past and present nestled together with a few misfits, adaptations and imaginative additions.

Eating my sandwiches in the square I also digested what I’d learned about Jane’s life, her family, and the Bath that existed during the period she was writing. I imagined all the ladies and gents from middle and upper classes strolling through the city, admiring each other’s fashionable dresses, noting the designers and where it was purchased.

  • But what of the workers who keep the necessary machinery of life turning?
  • Where are the names of the seamstresses and the tailors who made the creations?
  • Who were the washerwomen who laundered and ironed, the maids and butlers who kept the clothes in good repair?
  • And considering that sweatshops still exist will tourists of the future attend exhibitions and ask the same questions about modern fashion?

At the nearby Fashion Museum, I barely absorbed all the interesting details because I’d reached the stage in the day when my brain signals ‘information overload’.  The exhibition at Glen Eira a great opportunity to refresh or add information. 

A different perspective is always good – especially when it comes to history and this free exhibition so close to home at Caulfield Town Hall – a magnificent period building in its own right.

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I missed the opening by Caroline Jane Knight, the fifth great niece of Jane Austen, but got to hear the engaging floor talk from Fiona Baverstock from Dressing Australia — Museum of Costume who provided the exhibits.

Her talk ran the scheduled 45 minutes and her passion and knowledge of the subject,  kept the whole room enthralled, even begging for more.  She moved around the floorspace discussing each exhibit in detail – a 3D Powerpoint presentation with pertinent asides adding to the excellent information already provided.

Fiona explained her credentials as owner/curator of Dressing Australia Museum of Costume, which is not a ‘bricks and mortar’ museum. She only does travelling exhibitions with her private collection.

Jane Austen Perennially Popular

Mention Jane Austen and people come, especially since contemporary films and TV serials have introduced Jane to new audiences and her novels appear regularly on school booklists.

The timing was right, 2017, the bicentenary of Jane Austen’s death. The last 20 years have seen a revival of interest in Austen mania – good news for Fiona who thought she had sold most of her costumes from the Regency era.

She normally weaves a story about who owned the clothes but couldn’t for this exhibition because she had got rid of so much of her collection. Instead, she chose Jane’s family and a few major characters from the more popular novels and looked for clothes to suit their persona.

Jane was born in 1775, therefore, an 18th-century girl and 25 years old when the 19th century began. Her fashion taste well-established, however, the new century meant moving away from stiff conservatism and from what we know of Jane’s personality and lifestyle, she probably embraced new styles.

We know a little about her through her novels and lead characters but which character’s characteristics match the author? Lizzie Bennet, Emma Woodhouse, Anne Elliot, the two Dashwood sisters? When she sat down to write what personal thoughts and experiences did she channel?

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Jane probably had at least one love attraction, never realised, and one proposal of marriage… accepted and almost immediately turned down. Love and marriage often discussed by her characters…

There are such beings in the world – perhaps one in a thousand – as the creature you and I should think perfection; where grace and spirit are united to worth, where the manners are equal to the heart and understanding; but such a person may not come in your way, or, if he does, he may not be the eldest son of a man of fortune, the near relation of your particular friend, and belonging to your own country.
Letter to Fanny Knight, 18 November 1814

Jane’s nephew wrote the first biography of Jane Austen and he gave us a staid view, presenting Jane as a sweet, unassuming homebody. He censored or ignored letters – and Jane was a prolific letter writer – and did what I suspect many family historians do, sanitising, omitting and caring more about what people might think than accuracy or honesty.

Jane was not like his impression, she had an acerbic tongue and a more accurate impression is gained from letters she wrote to her sister Cassandra.

Unfortunately, shortly before Cassandra died, she destroyed the bulk of their correspondence – perhaps she too was worried about Jane’s reputation, or that the words would be taken out of context.  Perhaps she wanted to shield family members and friends from forthright comments such as :

Poor woman! How can she honestly be breeding again?
                             Letter to Cassandra Austen, 1 October 1808

This quote from a beautifully illustrated book from the Bodleian Library I discovered in Dymocks. Fifty Illustrated Quotations are drawn from Jane’s letters and novels, testifying to her wit and candid humour – and some not so humorous observations.

Her comments about the effects of the Peninsular War, dislike of parties and social obligations and impressions of London, ranging from acerbic, ironic to poignant.

No surprise that her characters sometimes use bitter sarcasm when speaking of women’s inequality, ageing, the disappointments of marriage, fashion, and the social scene.

Here I am once more in this scene of dissipation and vice, and I begin to find already my morals corrupted.
Letter to Cassandra Austen (on arrival in London), 23 August 1796

I am almost afraid to tell you how my Irish friend and I behaved. Imagine to yourself everything most proliferate and shocking in the way of dancing and sitting down together.
   Letter to Cassandra Austen, 9 January 1796

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Our ball was rather more amusing than I expected… the melancholy part was to see so many dozen young women standing by without partners, and each of them with two ugly naked shoulders! It was the same room in which we danced fifteen years ago! I thought it all over, and in spite of the shame of being so much older, felt with thankfulness that I was quite as happy now as then.
                       Letter to Cassandra Austen, 9 December 1808.

Jane Austen observed – everything.

She captured behaviours, dialogue and idiosyncrasies of the people around her. As a writer, she is famous for her ironic omniscient narrator – detached and amused. For example that oft-quoted opening sentence of  Pride and Prejudice.

Her observations of life and manners of the gentry class have been described as ‘a comedy of manners’.

I could no more write a romance than an epic poem. I could not sit seriously down to write a serious romance under any other motive than to save my life; and if it were indispensable for me to keep it up and never relax into laughing at myself or other people, I am sure I should be hung before I had finished the first chapter.

No, I must keep to my own style and go on in my own way; and though I may never succeed again in that, I am convinced that I should totally fail in any other.

Letter to James Stanier Clarke, 1 April 1816

Her characters are lively and believable so that even today’s readers engage with them when society has dramatically changed because she focuses on relationships and minutiae we can identify – and thank goodness she remained true to her own style!

All six of Austen’s novels are about love and marriage among the county gentry and the larger world of the French and American Revolutions,  the Napoleonic Wars and simmering Irish and Scottish unrest don’t intervene except in her private letters.

How horrible it is to have so many people killed! And what a blessing that one cares for none of them!

Letter to Cassandra Austen on the Peninsular War, 31 May 1811.

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Discovering A Different Jane

The following novels by Jane Austen were successful in her lifetime but published anonymously:
Sense and Sensibility (1811)
Pride and Prejudice (1813)
Mansfield Park (1814)
Emma (1815)

Northanger Abbey and Persuasion were published posthumously in 1818. Jane died in Winchester in July 1817, at the age of 41.

All these relationships between women, I thought, rapidly recalling the splendid gallery of fictitious women, are too simple. […] And I tried to remember any case in the course of my reading where two women are represented as friends. […] They are now and then mothers and daughters. But almost without exception, they are shown in their relation to men. It was strange to think that all the great women of fiction were, until Jane Austen’s day, not only seen by the other sex but seen only in relation to the other sex. And how small a part of a woman’s life is that …

Virginia Woolf’s observation about the literature of her time in her 1929 essay A Room of One’s Own

I discovered earlier writing by Jane that certainly gives a clue her personality and thoughts far from staid!

She wrote the ‘history’ book when she was sixteen and we can thank the writer  JL Carr for publishing it in a series of Pocket Books:

… the originator, compiler & publisher of these Pocket Books did so in order to subsidise the writing of novels; the best known of which ‘A Month in the Country’ was short-listed for the Booker Prize in 1980 and won the Guardian Fiction Prize.

The History of England from the reign of Henry the 4th to the death of Charles the 1st. By a partial, prejudiced & ignorant Historian’ is dedicated to Cassandra and from start to the end of its 15 pages offers witty, barbed, and radical ( perhaps treasonous!) summations of various English monarchs.

teenage jane austen history

The intro has two telling quotes – I wonder if it started off as a school assignment or a rant against how and what history is taught:

Read me anything but history, for history must be false
Sir Robert Walpole

History is just the portrayal of crimes and misfortune… All ancient history is no more than accepted fiction.
Voltaire

No doubt Jane was above average intelligence and better read and informed than many teenagers of her day, which probably went with the territory of having an educated father and many brothers in a variety of occupations.

I can imagine active and lively discussions over dinner and all those long country walks but I’m guessing when the manuscript came to light it would have raised a few eyebrows. 

Was it a reaction to whatever history was considered the most important to learn or items in the news or an exercise to explore the power of words to tell a story – they could be the first examples of flash faction.

Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands. I will not allow books to prove anything.

                                            Anne Elliot, Persuasion

I’ve kept her spelling and style in these snippets –

Henry the 4th

Henry the 4th ascended the throne of England much to his own satisfaction in the year 1399, having prevailed on his cousin & predecessor Richard the 2d, to resign it to him, & to retire for the rest of his Life to Pomfret Castle, where he happened to be murdered. It is supposed that Henry was married, since he certainly had four sons, but it is not in my power to inform the Reader who was his Wife. Be this as it may, he did not live for ever, but falling ill, his son the Prince of Wales took away the Crown; whereby the King made a long speech, for which I must refer the Reader to Shakespear’s Plays & the Prince made a still longer. Things being thus settled between them the King died, & was succeeded by his son Henry who had previously beat Sir William Gascoigne.

Henry the 5th
This Prince after he succeeded to the throne grew quite reformed & Amiable, forsaking all his dissipated Companions & never thrashing Sir William again… Lord Cobham was burnt alive, but I forget what for. His Majesty then turned his thoughts to France, where he went & fought the famous Battle of Agincourt. He afterwards married the King’s daughter Catherine, a very Agreeable woman by Shakespear’s account. In spite of all this however he died, & was succeeded by his son Henry.

Henry the 6th

I cannot say much for this Monarch’s Sense – Nor would I if I could, for he was a Lancastrian. I suppose you know all about the Wars between him & The Duke of York, who was of the right side; if you do not, you had better read some other History… This King married Margaret of Anjou, a Woman whose distresses & Misfortunes were so great as almost to make me who hate her, pity her…

Edward the 4th

This Monarch was famous only for his Beauty & his Courage… his undaunted Behaviour in marrying one Woman while he was engaged to another, are sufficient proofs… One of Edward’s Mistresses was Jane Shore who had a play written about her, but it is a tragedy & therefore not worth reading. Having performed all these noble actions, his majesty died, & he was succeeded by his Son.

Edward the 5th

This unfortunate Prince lived so little a while that no body had time to draw his picture. He was murdered by his Uncle’s Contrivance, whose name was Richard the 3d.

Richard the 3d

The character of this Prince has been in general very severely treated by Historians, but as he was York, I am rather inclined to suppose him a very respectable man… Whether innocent or guilty, he did not reign long in peace for Henry Tudor E. Of Richmond, as great a Villain as ever lived, made a great fuss about getting the Crown & having killed the King at the battle of Bosworth, he succeeded to it…

Henry 7th

This Monarch soon after his accession married the Princess Elizabeth of York, by which alliance he plainly proved that he thought his own right inferior to hers, tho’ he pretended to the contrary. By this Marriage, he had two sons & two daughters, the elder of which was married to the King of Scotland & had the happiness of being grand-mother to one of the first Characters in the World. But of her, I shall have occasion to speak more at large in future… his Majesty died, & was succeeded by his son Henry whose only merit was his not being quite so bad as his daughter Elizabeth…

What the teenage Jane alludes to is the belief that Mary Queen of Scots should never have been executed and in fact, after she describes the reigns of Henry the 8th (‘Crimes & Cruelties too many to mention’),

Edward the 6th (“a favourite” … “He was beheaded…”),

Mary ( “the good luck of being advanced to the throne of England, inspite of the superior pretensions, Merit &  Beauty of her Cousins Mary Queen of Scotland & Jane Grey..),

Elizabeth ( It was the peculiar Misfortune of this Woman to have bad Ministers – Since wicked as she herself was, she could not have committed such extensive mischeif had not these vile & abandoned men connived and encouraged her in her Crimes.),

James the 1st ( Though this King had some faults, among which & as the most principal, was his allowing his Mother’s death, yet considered on the whole I cannot help liking him.) and

Charles the 1st (This amiable Monarch seems born to have suffered Misfortunes equal to those of his lovely Grandmother…),

she concludes with –

…my principal reason for undertaking the History of England being to prove the innocence of the Queen of Scotland, which I flatter myself with having effectually done, and to abuse Elizabeth, (tho’ I am rather fearful of having fallen short in the latter part of my Scheme.)

I wonder what witty observation or acerbic put down she would write regarding her popularity today, which is almost cult status thanks to – museums, festivals, competitions, documentaries, films, sequels and prequels and of course Colin Firth’s Mr Darcy – all that focus on a man!

Fiona in her talk said she had to include an outfit close to what people imagined Mr Darcy wore in that famous scene from the TV series that people remember yet it never actually happened! You know the scene when Colin Firth walks out of the lake after a swim and his partly unbuttoned undershirt is clinging to his body!

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Well, with another detour taken care of – I’ll get back to Fiona’s talk and the exhibition –

When History Is Fashionable

Be Persuaded had a firm focus on fashion but Fiona threw in lots of historical asides and gems to think about when she explained why she chose particular items:

from the rare 18th century gown which her mother might have worn at the time of Jane’s birth, through to the elegance and daring of the Regency era with its classic Empire line gowns, to the 1840s when women such as Cassandra had to once again retreat behind tight waists and voluminous skirts…

Jane was a keen observer of fashion and the role it played in defining status and the complex relationships in the society of her novels, even if in private she thought much of the detail and rules ridiculous.

I learnt from Mrs Ticker’s young lady, to my high amusement, that the stays now are not made to force the bosom up at all; that was a very unbecoming, unnatural fashion.
Letter to Cassandra Austen, 15 September 1813

 

Next week (I) shall begin my operations on my hat, on which you know my principal hopes of happiness depend.
Letter to Cassandra Austen, 27 October 1798

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Dress is at all times a frivolous distinction, and excessive solicitude about it often destroys its own aim.
                                                       Northanger Abbey

In her research, Fiona found that the French open robe style usually didn’t come with a petticoat because few survived – they were frequently taken on and off and most probably wore out. Petticoats were often made of the same fabric as the gown in a complimentary or contrasting colour.

Women didn’t wear knickers in the eighteenth century (audible gasps and giggles around the room) but diaphanous see-through gowns led to pantaloons – although many of these were knitted and flesh coloured to give the appearance of no knickers. (more audible murmurings…)

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What Influences Fashion?

Classical Greek and Roman lines are often the basis for design but also things like the Hussar Soldier Uniform and other unusual inspirations for accessories.

In the 18th century, the American revolution interrupted the supply of raw cotton and English industrialists looked to India and other colonies. The East India Company imported not just raw cotton but ready-to-wear material. Muslin, a popular dress material became available plain, coloured and even patterned.

Revolutions and wars are big influences.

For example, in WW2 and years immediately following, stripes and shoulder pads introduced and women’s suits were made from sturdy fabrics mimicking the style of military uniforms. It was a sad and serious time with material shortages plus more women in the workforce requiring suitable clothes.  Less frivolity and more practicality.

When it is happier less threatening times, clothes reflect the change of mood – frills, fripperies, colour, softer material, flowing designs …

Who can forget the sexual revolution of the 1960s and the shock of mini-skirts and Jean Shrimpton attending the Melbourne Cup hatless, in sandals without stockings, and a mini dress?

Often military inventions lead to a fashion use (nylon, rayon and drip dry fabric, lycra) or in the case of the 18th century because of the French Revolution wearing silk, which was considered luxurious, became a ‘no no’.

The Empire Line named after Napoleon’s determination to create his empire another example of fashion reflecting what is happening in society.

Muslin easier to look after than silk but still hand washed, rinsed, squeezed – towel dried and ironed. Bows and vandyke edging needed a special tiny iron to get into tucks with its point.

When dresses long, if they swept the ground women didn’t walk in parks and gravel and avoided dirty paths. They stepped from the doorway to carriage. For those stepping out more – hems went up a bit and wore gowns that could be washed or survive regular washing.

18th-century shoes had thin soles for dancing pumps. Boots were for country lanes and lace-up boots had a slightly thicker sole and heel. Fashionable shoes wore out quickly – poorer people needed stout leather because they walked more and their leather shoes thicker and more uncomfortable.

In the Regency era parasols tended to have straight handles and small canopies. Folding handles appeared mid 19th century as did the metal spoke. The parasol in the exhibition dated to the late 1840s, it has metal spokes but a straight handle and the canopy of polished cotton has ruching, a frill and wooden finial.

 

Fiona dressed Cassandra in crinoline – it was a time when there was an absence of war and the men were back and the male idea of femininity emphasised. Women were ‘financially dependent so had to kowtow.’ 

Fiona compared the dress on display to the 70s fashion of bell bottoms, describing both as ‘ridiculous’. I agree – the above illustrations from the Fashion Museum emphasise how limiting those voluminous dresses would be.

I wore bell bottoms in the 70s and they were a short-lived fashion item. The nearest I’ve been to a crinoline is a hooped dress a friend made me for my 60th birthday party when everyone had to come dressed as their favourite literary character.  I chose Jo from Little Women and the hooped petticoat and puffed-out gown not ideal for movement.

Just like in the 1820s/30s dresses were designed with restricted shoulder lines because women were not supposed to raise their arms – again we are talking about women in a particular class!

long woollen cloak:shawl.jpg

Anne Elliot, from Persuasion, was chosen to model a gown with a floor-length shawl.

Fiona asked us to note the sleeves and ruffles around the neck. The dress, fine cotton circa 1815 with flounces around the skirt. The lace a later addition. The bodice has ruching and the neckline an organdie tucker with ruffled collar. A Norwich shawl is over her shoulder.

The Norwich shawl, a long rectangle not square – perfect for wrapping or draping around Empire-line gowns. It could also be a Paisley or Edinburgh shawl, the name denotes where they were made. A Paisley square often folded into a triangle later in the 19th century when the voluminous ‘crinoline’ gowns returned to fashion.

The bustle killed the shawl as a fashionable accessory.

dress with bustle

The shawl on show magnificent, Fiona’s own version of an expensive imported Kashmir shawl fashionable in the 18th century, which encouraged weaving centres like Norwich and Paisley to produce their own versions. However, original Kashmir shawls popular with the very rich.

This shawl is ‘partially filled’ – an assistant (usually a woman) sitting beside the weaver hand sews extra, thicker strands to the back of the shawl to make it stronger and warmer. In 1845, fine wool began to be imported from Australia and the fashion industry incorporated this in dresses as well as shawls.

Lizzie Bennet’s Wedding Dress?

Any exhibition must have the young Lizzie Bennet and Fiona chose a wedding gown circa 1810 imagining it was Lizzie’s because she considered after all the build up in Pride and Prejudice,  Jane Austen could have at least given a description of Lizzie Bennet’s wedding dress.

The classic Empire line gown is of ivory silk and so fine it needs a padded hem to give it weight. The bonnet is a reproduction of the original. The pumps 18th-century shoes.

White became a popular option in 1840, after the marriage of Queen Victoria to Albert of Saxe-Coburg, when Victoria wore a white gown trimmed with Honiton lace. Illustrations of the wedding were widely published, and many brides opted for white in accordance with the Queen’s choice.

Regency era it was white or pastel colours because white was a fashionable colour not just for brides. In Brideswear Revisited – 200 years of gowns: off-white, cream, ivory and oyster more popular because ‘white flatters no one’.

The Provenance of the Gown an interesting story

It was worn by Emma Cato who married George Daniel at Chelsea Old Church in London 1810. Emma, born in Holborn 1787, was one of nine children to Thomas and Elizabeth Cato. Thomas described as a wireworker who made items such as needles, fish hooks, cages, chains, traps, decorative architectural embellishments and garden decorations.

He would have belonged to the Worshipful Company of Tin Plate and Wire Workers, a City of London Trade Guild. Fiona said he must have been a master rather than a mere worker because he left a Will.

George Daniel, variously described as book collector, literary critic and author, meant Emma came into contact with some of the literary giants of the day as he claimed membership of an exclusive circle including Charles Lamb, William Hazlitt and Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

He published critiques of their work as well as those from ‘superstars’ like Sir Walter Scott often inserting some of his own ‘dubious attempts at verse’ in the critique.

Fiona adds we can ‘only imagine what Emma’s life with a self-important wannabe poet and author must have been like. Perhaps he earned enough from his published literary criticism to keep them in comfortable circumstances.’

She surmises that if Jane Austen had been a man, George Daniel may have critiqued her work and Emma might have met her – considering Jane’s early novels were written anonymously perhaps he did come across them – how would we know?

I don’t think he could have been too horrible considering he composed a poem to his daughter for her birthday (c1815) and it was stitched together as a booklet – a reproduction on display and the original is at the University of Indiana.

And Yet Another Sidetrack… Huguenots

I always learn something new whenever I attend a talk, workshop, gallery, museum… and Fiona’s had me searching online about the Huguenots who were French Protestants active in the 16th and 17th centuries. They were forced to flee France due to religious and political persecution by the Catholic Church and the Crown.

I knew their story of persecution but not their contribution to the fashion industry and beyond.

Still a lightning-rod for collective anxieties, the word “refugee” entered the English language when the Huguenots landed. Although migration had begun beforehand on a modest scale, around 50,000 French Protestants came to England after Louis XIV revoked the 1598 Edict of Nantes at Fontainebleau in October 1685. Another 10,000 fled to Ireland, part of an exodus of perhaps 200,000 people. Other large contingents went to Holland, Sweden and Prussia. That still left the bulk of a hard-pressed but robust population of 750,000 or so to weather hardship in France and wait for more tolerant times…

According to one estimate, one in every six Britons has some Huguenot ancestry. Names of obvious French origin tell only a fraction of this tale. Yes, it’s easy enough to spot a Laurence Olivier, a Simon Le Bon, a Walter de la Mare, a Daphne du Maurier, a Samuel Courtauld, a Jon Pertwee, a Reginald Bosanquet, an Eddie Izzard, even – as the Ukip leader happily acknowledges – a Nigel Farage. Yet, just like Jewish incomers two centuries later, Huguenot migrants often changed their names or had them changed by impatient clerks.

As a Victorian history of London puts it, “the Lemaitres called themselves Masters; the Leroys, King; the Tonneliers, Coopers; the Lejeunes, Young; the LeBlancs, White; the Lenoirs, Black; the Loiseaux, Bird”.

https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/refugee-week-the-huguenots-count-among-the-most-successful-of-britains-immigrants-10330066.html

Proof refugees enrich society

The Huguenots arrived in Britain from France and brought their skill of silk weaving to Spitalfields where 300 families settled transforming it into London’s centre for silk-weaving. The most amazing silk designer of that period was a woman – Anna Maria Garthwaite.

The type of motifs, scale, rendering, and colour palette in textile patterns went in and out of fashion and can be used to identify a garment as being from the 1710s, 1740s, or 1760s.  The importance of silk-weaving and new designs to Georgian fashion cannot be underestimated as they conveyed not only taste but also status and wealth for the wearer.

Remarkably, one of the most successful and influential designers of silk patterns was an English woman, Anna Maria Garthwaite (1690-1763), who came to Spitalfields in 1730 and quickly infiltrated the male-dominated and family-based industry.  In fact, the establishment and prosperity of Spitalfields silk-weaving were due largely to waves of immigration by French Huguenots fleeing persecution in the 16th and 17th centuries, many of whom were weavers bringing advanced skills.

As a forty-year-old single woman, it is unlikely that Garthwaite received much if any of the formal training required of her male counterparts.  She worked in watercolour and at her most prolific produced approximately eighty designs a year, tapering off in the 1750s to about thirty designs per annum

http://blog.courtauld.ac.uk/documentingfashion/2016/11/03/anna-maria-garthwaite-spitalfields-silk-and-english-rococo/

Spitalfields was a major force in shaping eighteenth-century fashion because it was the centre of the silk-weaving industry in England.  Silk manufacture drove the very business of fashion as trends concentrated on new textile patterns rather than garment styles.

Weavers, joiners, smiths and merchants set up shop in Soho or Spitalfields and textile and design students at London Metropolitan University, now study some of their crafts, such as silk-weaving, silversmithing and upholstery. 

It is remarkable that a woman like Anna Maria Garthwaite achieved the level of success that she did.  It is a testament not only to her sheer talent and vision but also her courage to value her own abilities.

A woman Jane Austen would have admired and loved!

 

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