Motherhood, Love, & Purpose

mary anne and me December 2017.jpg

A Mother’s Day Reflection

mother and pie quote

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

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

The older my children become, and as I age, the intensity of love for them deepens. I think of them every day, confirming the feelings and wisdom my own mother shared with me in the months before her death in 2009, aged eighty-nine.

She talked about her fears for my brother, George who was undergoing treatment for Leukaemia and said,

‘Loving and mothering is a lifetime responsibility – your children should never die before you. It’s not right.’

I have close friends who have lost adult children. They confirm the truth of Mum’s observation and I know each day for those friends getting up and coping with daily life is a struggle and testament to their resilience to ‘continue and carry on with life’ the way their loved ones would wish. The lead-up and actual celebration of days like today must be particularly difficult and my heart goes out to them.

‘She never quite leaves her children at home, even when she doesn’t take them along.’

Margaret Culkin Banning

When I decided to have a baby I was thirty-two and didn’t truly understand how profound becoming a parent would be personally or the effect on relationships with family, friends – and even strangers.

Born in the 1950s and part of Women’s Liberation in the late 60s and 70s, I was still expected to follow the ‘normal’ path of marrying and having children. It wasn’t my sole aim in life and I didn’t actively plan it but I went with the flow after meeting John and neither of us challenged the system, except I eschewed a white wedding and expensive reception and chose to marry in the garden of the house we bought together and party afterwards with many of the guests ‘bringing a plate’!

On reflection, I can say becoming a mother was the most exhaustive (and exhausting) change in my life – and continues to be – as long as my daughters and I remain intertwined.

I could write a lot about the picture of me in the early days of my daughter Anne’s homecoming – the congratulatory cards still visible, the dessert and glass of wine husband John prepared sitting untouched, me in an exhausted sleep all new mothers know well…

anne's birth 2

I salute my own mother for her guidance, values, and many examples of mothering. How she coped with six of us I will never know! I remember ringing her up and asking her once, after a particularly trying day with a baby plus toddler, ‘How are you still sane?

I know that the deep love and bond I had with her is one of the reasons a loving bond with my daughters came easily.

There are similarities and huge differences regarding how Mum and I parented but not in attitude and determination to be loving and loyal whenever needed. We were both extremely lucky to be with partners we loved (Mum had Dad and I had John).

Partners who wanted children and were supportive, partners unafraid to share the household chores and unglamorous aspects of parenting and in my case, I know, a partner who cherished me and never stopped showing it.

John had been married before and so to a certain extent ‘knew the ropes’ regarding parenting so I was lucky. Although being present at the birth of both our girls, a totally new experience for him just as having me, a feminist as a partner, also a new experience!

In this picture, we are pregnant and ecstatic.

joh and me when I was pregnant with Anne

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

Lewis Carroll

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

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

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

Vector Illustration of a happy multicultural group of cute swaddled babies

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

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

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

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

I still have cold sweats in the middle of the night when I think of the operation she had for ‘sticky-eye’ and a blocked tear duct when she was barely two months old, the eye specialist and the anaesthetist completely unaware of her heart condition.

There were the usual childhood accidents and illnesses too. The catastrophes that send mothers into a spin, fearful for the child’s wellbeing and welfare – Anne had no broken bones (Mary Jane delivered that excitement) but one day she bit hard and severed her tongue when she collided with a large wooden rocking horse.

I rushed to the local GP at the corner of Albert and McDonald Streets, in my slippers, wheeling five-year-old Anne in her sister’s pusher and carrying a protesting Mary Jane under my arm.

I’d stuffed a wet face-washer in Anne’s mouth to hold the tongue together and stem the bleeding (‘excellent response’ according to the doctor).

The trail of blood in the house and garden that greeted John when he rushed home after receiving a garbled message from his receptionist made him imagine a severed limb and he almost fainted. (The tongue does bleed profusely!)

However, he too praised my quick action racing to the surgery rather than ringing an ambulance or panicking. (That and delayed shock came later!)

Sometimes we amaze ourselves how we react and cope as parents.

pictures of mum and me me and mj

Mary Jane’s birth in 1989,  a more traumatic and dramatic story.

She arrived more than a week early and I barely got to Mordialloc Hospital in time for delivery sending the nursing staff into a flap. To this day she is known as ‘the baby born during the tea break’ arriving less than fifteen minutes after I walked through the front door.

John and Dr Ferguson arrived at the hospital just in time for delivery and I’m sure if there had been more traffic police on duty in those days, both would have been booked for speeding – perhaps even reckless driving.

Adding to the drama, Mary Jane breathed the meconium and amniotic fluid mixture into her lungs while in the womb and was born with the umbilical cord around her neck prompting a nurse to say, ‘Oh, she’s dead.’

The baby rushed to an incubator and the nurse reprimanded while everyone in the room paused for a moment taking stock of a miracle birth indeed! I went into shock and apparently kept asking John if I’d had a baby until they brought Mary Jane to me to be cuddled and fed!

 

Later, Mary Jane broke her arm in a ‘monkey bar’ accident at primary school but the seriousness of the fracture ignored by teachers who left her in Sick Bay while they tried to contact me or John and ‘ask what to do’ instead of taking her to a doctor or ringing an ambulance.

Our membership in the ambulance service and private health insurance on record and you can imagine the tongue lashing the administration of the school received from me.

Fortunately, a friend volunteering for reading duty noticed Mary Jane’s distress and demanded action; unfortunately, the delay and subsequent treatment at Sandringham public hospital during the upheaval of the Kennett years meant the arm was badly set and needed to be re-broken weeks later – this was done by a specialist at Como Hospital in Parkdale.

Sadly, Sandringham botched another operation when MJ was in her 20s, damaging her bowel when they discovered endometriosis during a routine operation to remove an ovarian cyst. Who says lightning doesn’t strike twice??

Often at night, I close my eyes and recall the horror of seeing my daughter with multiple tubes hanging from her young body. Flushed, in pain despite high doses of morphine, and unaware of the emergency operation, she murmured through an oxygen mask, ‘What happened?’

The déjà vu of the multiple traumas she has suffered weighs heavily on my heart. I have often wished for a magic wand to reverse the hurts or give my daughters the happiness and pain-free world of fairytales.

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Mother’s Day 1990

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

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

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

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

Agatha Christie

Motherhood indeed the most emotional and enlightened transformation for me. Everything I’ve read, shared, learnt and absorbed about other women’s experiences reveals none of our journeys is exactly the same or can be predicted.

There are similarities, but it is a unique life-changing event filled with joys and sorrows, calm and turbulent seas, problems and solutions, holding tight and letting go, embarrassing moments and moments of pride and satisfaction.

‘The heart of a mother is a deep abyss at the bottom of which you will always find forgiveness.’

Honore de Balzac

Around the world, mothers worry about their inadequacies, feel overwhelmed and many like me who became a single parent because our partner died carry guilt about not coping or spending enough time as the ‘default’ parent.

(John died when Anne was sixteen and Mary Jane thirteen – I think most will agree parenting adolescents is tough with two concerned parents, with one, I can assure you, it is challenging and at times very lonely!)

Frustration, financial stress, fear of failure or making mistakes – subjects often discussed between friends, family and in some cases counsellors.

Nurturing has never stopped from their early childhood…

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From miraculous beginnings to challenging responsibilities, navigating hopes and dreams, disasters and near misses, parenting has been rewarding, scary, comical, confronting, but most of all fulfilling.

My life has had a purpose and I’ve experienced and continue to experience a wonderful mutual love.

I am so lucky my girls as young women still want to visit and ‘hang out’ with me, travel together, see movies, play board games, walk the dog, shop, discuss and debate, laugh and even party with me.

They are friends as well as daughters, and often the nurturing role has been reversed – especially when I had breast cancer and now as I age and have lost some confidence about decision-making for the future.

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At the beginning of my writing career, at the launch of my first poetry book, I said children were the inspiration and reason I wrote and also the reason I didn’t write because motherhood is time-consuming.

Over the years, especially caring for John, I can substitute family instead of mothering but I wouldn’t really have life any other way. Loving and knowing John and our daughters have enriched me and made me the person I am today.

I hope I’ve helped add two more productive, caring citizens to the community. I’m grateful that feminism has wrought changes in society and many of the preconceptions about women and their destiny are no longer peddled – my girls have choices their grandmothers didn’t.

My Mum won a scholarship to college in Northern Ireland but her stepmother wouldn’t let her continue with study and ordered her out to work, then came WW2, the ATS and then nursing. Her stymied educational opportunities were what motivated Mum to encourage all six of her own children to study and seek suitable qualifications for what we wanted to be.

I was the first in my family to go to university and I only wish mum could have witnessed me returning to study at 57 years old and gaining a Masters degree in Writing and her two granddaughters earn Bachelor degrees.

season of our lives

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

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

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

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

Oliver Wendall Holmes.

Happy Mother’s Day to all!

Love Close to Home is Great Therapy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SADS Saves Lives and Stands for NO KILL

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

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

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

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

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

Long Stayers

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Russell
Russell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Josie

Josie was like Aurora reincarnated.

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

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

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

We weren’t the only happy family to adopt.

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

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

Maxwell 10 yrs old
Maxwell

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

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

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

‘You taking the little dog?’ I asked.

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

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

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

Harley

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

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

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

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

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

Our Perfect Match

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

They also just removed her stitches from desexing.

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

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

Almost immediately, she claimed our house as her home.

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

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

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

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

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

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

We did the lot!!

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

Today, April 23, is Lover’s Day

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

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

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

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

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

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Josie dozing while I watch ‘Vera‘!

 

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!’

underground ticket 1.jpgunderground promo.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Writer, Christine Croyden’s Note

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christine Croyden, February 2019.

portrait of Nancy Wake

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why Do We Do What We Do?

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

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

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

… To step aside is human:

One point must still be greatly dark,

The moving Why they do it;

And just as lamely can ye mark,

How far perhaps they rue it…

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

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

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

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

one of Nancy’s WW2 comrades she Captained

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Professor Wake who met up with Nancy in 1990 said:

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

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

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

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

So Many Stories Still to be Told

Other Nancy quotes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Do Border Controls and Building Barriers Quarantine Our Humanity?

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Backpacker Statue, Irkutsk Russia

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

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

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

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

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Panoramic view of Irkutsk Railway Station

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

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

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

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

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

book seller mogolia.jpg

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

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

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

‘I’ve received my passport…’

‘Wonderful,’

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

‘What do you mean?’

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

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

‘Helga, instead of Heidi? ‘

“Yep.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Messages Between MJ and me, April 2017

Missed video call at 3.58pm 

Only one bar of Wifi

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sorry it was an issue but glad you okay. Xoxox

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

Missed video call 5.55pm

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

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

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

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

Facebook Post April 4, 2017

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

 

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

Building barriers not new.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Facebook Post April 5, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

Messages Between MJ and me, April 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Will do. Xx

Is a Peaceful World Without Borders A Fantasy?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Let’s build bridges not walls

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Snatches from old movies and books rattle in my head.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

kindness is free

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

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

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

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

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

card from vet

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

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

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

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

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

Mornings
Mairi Neil

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Happy now?’ I grumble.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Aurora.jpeg

Writing about pets:

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Three weeks!?’

Pets generate lots of stories! …

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Aurora – the Roman Goddess who liked to chew

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tinsel Aurora

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She trusted me with her signed copy.

You will have worked out where the story is heading…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Mairi, are you okay?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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a lovely message and flowers from daughter number one

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Others bloomed, thank goodness.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Albert Street, Mordialloc

Mairi Neil

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

bless garden sign

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Walking the Neighbourhood

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

shoes for chronic pain

A Walk Down Memory Lane
Mairi Neil

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

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

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

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

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

Of what?

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

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

 

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:

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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.

 

 

Ducks and Albatrosses Down Under

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The beginning of the year always a mixed blessing because January 10th is John’s birthday and a reminder my husband and best friend is no longer around, yet it is a new year and the future beckons and being a glass-half-full person, I look forward to whatever challenges await.

For the last sixteen years, the girls and I have visited Stony Point each January to reflect and remember John – and yes, we chat or share our thoughts with him.

Whenever I give my writing class an exercise to write about their happy place, or a place where they feel serene, I have Stony Point in mind.

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Serenity Writing Exercise

Once a year, sometimes more often, I visit Stony Point on the outskirts of Melbourne. This tip of the Victorian coast looks across to French Island among other smaller islets and the tide flows out to the sea. There is a pier always populated with anglers – more in some seasons than others.

There is a ferry to French Island and half the pier is now fenced off for Navy patrol boats installed during John Howard’s ‘be alert not alarmed’ crusade.

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John requested his ashes be scattered where they would be carried out to sea, being ex-Royal Navy, John was more comfortable on the water than land and Stony Point fitted the bill.

There are mini-wetlands (or mud flats) at Stony Point frequently visited by shearwaters, pelicans and of course the ubiquitous seagulls. The area is attractive to fishermen and regardless of the season, you will always see boats coming and going.

The gutting and scaling table regularly visited by a host of birds who seem to know just when to land and wait for a feed. The take-offs and jockeying for advantageous positions to catch thrown leftovers provide a rambunctious display by the birds, especially the pelicans.

My daughters laugh at my delight and are convinced I have the largest collection of photographs of pelicans in the world! This year, I think they had a bet going and were counting how many pictures I took – I never discovered whose guess was correct!

Many people visit Stony Point and there is a caravan park with permanent residents as well as frequent holidaymakers. Every day there could be bushwalkers, anglers, picnickers, fossickers, commuters to French Island, naval personnel from nearby Cerberus base and a handful of locals who operate a rundown cafe/shop.

But there are times, like the other day, when we were the only ones soaking up the serenity for an hour or so before one boat returned and two families arrived to visit.

I’m sure others like me,  come to sit or walk by the short strand of sand or along the pier. Others relax while waiting for the ferry to French island. The kiosk, the railway station, the car park – so little change in sixteen years.

Stony Point is the end of the line for the train – a little diesel that comes from Frankston. The station personnel seem to be from another era of railway culture – a more friendly era – attuned to the age of steam perhaps – like my Dad and Grandfather…

However, just like the rest of the Victorian rail system, upgrading is happening to the only non-electrified rail line operated by Metro. There will be electrification to Hastings soon, but who knows when the upgrade will reach Stony Point, a place where change is rare.

 

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John’s Story Forever Linked to Stony Point

When I think of John, I remember his love for the sea. The vivid memories of years in the Royal Navy he loved to share. His time at sea an escape from a violent step-father. It gifted skills and room to grow. Life below deck a creative exercise in space management and curled in a hammock beneath clambering pipes was not conducive to sleep. In the 1950s and 60s, he served on destroyers and stowed belongings in lockers between gurgling pipes. Ironically, the life he loved contaminated him with asbestos…

When I think of John, I recall he joined the navy as a fifteen year old ‘boy sailor’ and said he learned to respect and consider others, to cook, clean, and iron, to share, to care for himself, to operate radar and radio, sort and deliver mail, be the butcher and food buyer for the mess, and also train as a deep-sea diver. He mastered calligraphy and latch-hook weaving and became the Mediterranean Fleet’s high jump and long jump champion in Malta. Above deck, he discovered the pleasure and benefits of breathing fresh sea air;  the joy of time to scan for exotic lands, learn to read the stars, be entertained by dancing dolphins, flying fish, and the unforgettable sight of the majestic blue whale.

When I think of John, I hear his voice reciting poetry and doggerel, quoting favourite passages from books he loved or people he admired (he could recite Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address!) and singing songs from favourite entertainers. A man of few words, each sentence counted. John didn’t do small talk…

His stints at sea gave him time to sit and think, to listen to the stories of others, and absorb some of life’s harsher lessons. He witnessed horrific scenes while based in the Mediterranean when Britain became embroiled in the Suez Crisis. He visited many European ports and also South America and South Africa, experiencing a variety of cultures and cuisine. Moved out of the comfort zone of his childhood English village, people and places expanded his heart and vision.

When I think of John, I remember his love for the sea and how it shaped his character. A sea he now roams as his ashes float from shore to shore, revisiting the lands he loved, being part of a marine world he admired – free of human form, he can dance with the dolphins, fly with the fish, or ride a whale.

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When I think of John, I remember his keen sense of humour, can hear his laughter and know he would laugh with us and enjoy the story I’m about to tell of our visit to Stony Point last Wednesday.

I was taking pictures of some Shearwaters and Pacific Gulls sunning themselves on the edge of the slipway jetty when a man in his early 40s and his two children, a boy of 8 and girl of 6, followed me towards the birds. Their conversation –

‘What kind of birds are they Dad?’

‘They’re ducks, son.’

‘No they’re not.’

‘Yes, they are – look,’ he points to the pelicans,’ see how small they are to the albatrosses.’

I’ve seen gannets and black swans at Stony Point but never an albatross.

When I shared the father/son conversation with the girls, we laughed – it reminded us of that funny TV ad for Bigpond or maybe Google, some years ago – when the young boy asked his Dad why the Great Wall of China was built and the dad replied, ‘to keep the rabbits out.’

For the record, the next evening on a walk with buddy Jillian, I took a picture of a duck in Mordialloc Creek.

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And this is a pelican –

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Pelicans – symbols of mutual aid and love

The Australian Pelican (Pelecanus conspicillatus) is the largest of the shorebirds that can be found along Victoria’s coastline. It has a wingspan of 2.3-2.5 metres and weighs 4 to 6.8 kilos. Wild pelicans can live up to 25 years. Predominantly white with black along the perimeters of the wings, it has a large pale, pinkish bill. An Australian pelican was recorded with the longest bill of any bird in the world. It is the most southerly breeding of all pelican species and is the only pelican found in Australia.

Between the bones on the lower bill is a stretchy patch of skin called the gular pouch. The gular pouch will stretch when it is filled with water and can hold up to three gallons. Pelicans also have a large nail on the tip of the upper part of the bill. They have short legs and large feet with webbing between all four toes.

Their diet is mainly fish but they are carnivores and will eat turtles, crustaceans and other waterbirds. They can soar to heights of 10,000 feet and can commute 150 kilometres to feeding areas. Highly social, these diurnal birds fly together in groups which can be very large. They breed in large colonies of up to 40,000 individuals.

Strong, slow fliers they often glide on thermals to conserve energy. During flight, they pull their head inward towards their body and rest it on their shoulders. They have been known to remain airborne for 24 hours as they seek food.

Pelicans pair up every breeding season and stay with the one mate for the rest of the season.

Adult pelicans rarely use the few calls they have but can hiss, blow, groan, grunt, or bill-clatter. The young are more vocal than the adults and will loudly beg for food. Australian pelicans primarily communicate with visual cues using their wings, necks, bills, and pouches, especially in courtship displays.

Like all birds, Australian pelicans perceive their environment through visual, auditory, tactile, and chemical stimuli. Opportunistic feeders, they adapt to human activity quite easily and directly approach humans to be fed or will steal food, which is problematic because they get caught on fishing lines and hooks.

The Pelican’s Paparazzi
Mairi Neil

Always gathered at Stony Point
pelicans wait for boats to arrive
yet with beaks and wings so large
it’s fishing skill keeps them alive

perhaps these pelicans are lazy
or maybe they’re super smart
stocking food for a week in that beak
without having to dive and dart…

Stony Point’s fishermen’s table
a magnet for seabirds galore
shearwaters, seagulls – even swans
compete with pelicans for more

discarded fish guts, heads and tails
whatever fishermen don’t want to eat
I love to watch and capture on camera
the birds vying for a treat after treat

I can’t explain my pelican fascination
except they soar skywards with poise
and whether they stand, sit or float
they exude serenity without noise

they don’t screech, squeal, or twitter
but seem content to ‘just be’
if reincarnation is really a thing
then it’s a pelican I choose to be!

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Anne and me with French island ferry in the background 2018

So little has changed at Stony Point thank goodness, although over the years signs have been added like the new banner announcing the naval facility is now managed by http://www.portofhastings.com and the new sign about French island is detailed and attractive.

Love for More Than One Place

When I developed cancer in 2010, I had lived in Australia nearly half a century, yet still felt I didn’t quite belong, still found myself homesick for Scotland, the land of my birth. I loved Australia, especially my home in Mordialloc where I have lived for thirty-five years. I married there and gave birth to my two daughters and brought them up in Mordialloc, but there was a passion missing, a sense of belonging I needed to ignite because if I was going to die should I return to Scotland?

After I finished chemotherapy I decided to create a bucket list because breast cancer and the treatment had me on the brink of death several times due to complications. I had always wanted to visit Australia’s red centre and see Uluru, in Australia’s heart and a sacred place for the Aborigines. I felt if I could get closer to the earth sacred to Aborigines, a connection to their mother, the country, would perhaps rub off on me.

Through research on the Internet, I discovered a tour company taking a group of writers to walk the Larapinta Trail called Desert Writers. Led by Jan Cornell, we’d spend five nights camping in the desert and walk the trail with two indigenous guides.

I didn’t hesitate and booked to fly to Alice Springs in July 2011 – still almost bald and a little fragile from a lumpectomy, haematoma, then radical mastectomy, three months of chemotherapy and a nasty bout of pneumonia thrown in for good measure.

The trip would not only realise a dream but would affirm I could still travel, which is one of my passions. It promised to encourage me to write, the most important passion I have. However, more importantly, I hoped to gain a greater appreciation and deeper connection to my adopted homeland, something I had not felt since being uprooted from Scotland as a child.

The journey fulfilled all my hopes and last year when I returned to Scotland after a twenty- year absence I loved being back, but returning to Mordialloc was coming home.

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My place is Mordialloc, where I can walk along the seashore and as far as I can see there is freedom, an infinite sea, and endless sky.

I can stroll by the Creek enjoying the beauty of native and imported flowers and trees, listen to birdsong, laugh at the antics of ducks and seagulls.

I can breathe and feel secure, even at night, because wherever I am near the sea, John is with me. We sprinkled his ashes at Stony Point so he can wander distant lands, many he’d visited as a boy sailor but always his spirit can return when he feels inclined to touch these shores again.

Whenever the girls or I am near the sea we know John is there, just as the Aborigines know their country and walk in the knowledge their ancestors are protecting their place and their stories.

When I die, my ashes will be sprinkled into the sea at Stony Point. My first journey will be to my birth country, the Western Isles of Scotland, but I will always return to these shores as long as the girls are here and so much of my life’s story.

At Stony Point, I feel calm, serene and comfortable. It is one of several places I cherish as well as marvellous Mordi!

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Walking, Writing – Is there a Plan? Hello, 2019!

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On a walk with my dearest friend, Lesley, we paused by a beautiful Illawarra Flame Tree to listen to rosellas, ravens and wattlebirds in conversation – perhaps squabbling over the best branch or sharing neighbourhood gossip birds enjoy.

It was a fitting end to 2018 – especially since the New Year has begun with an ‘unprecedented’ heatwave right across the continent.

A visual metaphor perhaps, a warning about global warming?

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LabInitio NZ cartoon

However, being a glass-half-full person, I’d rather accept the experience as an amazing gift from Mother Nature and a reminder there is countless beauty in gardens around the neighbourhood, and in the wild, for all of us to appreciate and share.

The glorious flaming tree emphasised how important the neighbourhood and nature is to me.

The number of wonderful species of plants and animals we have already lost is a worry especially when the bumblebee was added last year to the ever-growing list of endangered species overseas such as the grizzly bear, the northern spotted owl, the grey wolf, and nearly 1 in 3 of our unique Australian mammals are at risk  – mainly through habitat destruction.

But with a Federal Election coming up and climate change always in the news I am full of hope there are people, like myself who value and will work towards changing attitudes and our current Federal Government.

There is only one Earth to be respected, nurtured and shared, not just dug up, mined, fished, dredged, drilled and concreted over.

Greenpeace’s Rainbow Warrior docked in Melbourne in November to remind us there is a community of people who care and are prepared to act.

… as a writer, I am dependent on scientific inquiry for information. If I am going to write coherently – about polar bears, for example – I am dependent upon the scientists who work with polar bears for solid information of a certain sort. And yet I am troubled by this because of the way we approach animals as scientists.

Barry Lopez, from a discussion with Edward O Wilson on ‘Ecology and The Human Imagination,’ University of Utah, February 1, 1998.

Let’s celebrate the natural world

We have much to learn from the animal and natural world.

Birds are constantly adapting to changed circumstances, adversity and catastrophe. Recently, I’ve been entertained by the songs of a butcher bird that decided it likes my garden. I noticed the baby bird a few months ago so move over magpies and wattlebirds.

I am one of the few houses in Albert Street that still has a reasonable number of trees as apartment blocks and townhouses mushroom around me. A self-confessed dendrophile I will be planting more trees this year and spending time cultivating the garden with flowers and vegetables. (Even if the possums ate my broccoli and are munching their way through the top of the five photinias protecting the back fence.)

Indulging the senses

There are lots of inspirational ideas from walking around the suburbs – a mixture of indigenous, imported, practical and ornamental trees and plants attract a variety of birds, butterflies and insects.

Lesley and I have already made a pact to share more cuttings and encourage each other regarding our gardens. We are both transitioning to retirement, so my writing will indubitably reflect either success or failure!

I’ll take a leaf out of Thoreau’s practice of walking, observing, pondering and writing…

… we begin to see the whole man as we follow the crowded, highly charged, and rapidly evolving inner life that accompanies the busy outer life and reveals the thoughts behind the eyes of the familiar photographs.

Robert D Richardson Jr: Henry David Thoreau: A Life of The Mind.

Will I be inspired to be more creative and productive and take the advice I’ve meted out to students over the years? Thoreau mined his journal jottings and got essays and books out of his copious notes – not sure I’ll be so talented…

As a person who likes to ‘join the dots’ I value connectedness when memories spring to mind as I walk or travel by public transport. I have a pile of notebooks to be typed up and documents already on the computer to finish or add to and way too many photographs. (My oldest daughter banned me from ever opening an Instagram account!)

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Will 2019 be the year I use time wisely or perhaps discover a niche other than writing and teaching?

Do I write up and polish, start afresh, a bit of both or ‘now for something completely different’?

Maybe just luxuriate in reading and gardening…

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Tales of Our Lives
Mairi Neil

If you want to record your stories
consider what and ponder why –
list all the events to be remembered
and ask, ‘Who for?’

Is that a sigh?

If wondering ‘who’ don’t worry
there’s joy in a manuscript for one
reflecting on life and lessons learned
gives satisfaction when writing done!

Do we need to record our stories?
Some question the wisdom of revisiting years
but most of us have lived experiences
to prompt laughter as well as tears.

Ordinary people live extraordinary lives
an observation you often hear said –
so concentrate on the who and what
think how your stories will be read.

Will you write with pen and ink –
forming copperplated words
or tap myriad computer keys
that easily erase the absurd?

You may even take recording
to another level of authenticity,
digital voice and video programs
reproducing ‘you’ with simplicity.

And if you do go digital –
recording voice and visuals – remember
mobile phones, Youtube, Facebook
retain the serious and the trivial…

Stories have entertained us
from the beginning of humankind
witness Stone Age drawings and
precious artefacts archaeologists find.

Storytelling fills a need and
links the present to the past
by exploring our human story –
we ‘nail our colours to the mast’!

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No More Travelling To Bentleigh

It will be strange not going to class Wednesday mornings and catching up with the students in my Life Stories & Legacies class.

As I considered the final anthology, I looked around the room and realised some of the students had journeyed with me for the five years the course has been running. The women scribbling in their notebooks and tapping an iPad now friends, not students. All are amazing writers whose authentic prose and poems from the heart, were written from a depth of experience spanning decades. Edna the oldest will be turning ninety in a couple of months and Anat, the youngest in her thirties.

I watched them grow in confidence as writers, bond and trust each other, learning to be true to themselves and their stories. They shared personal and family secrets, opinions (not always politically correct), anecdotes, and many entertaining and heartbreaking tales of life’s sorrows and joys.

The class established for people who wanted to leave a written legacy. The questions each one had to answer:

  • Who am I writing for?
  • What information do I think they need to know?
  • More importantly, what do I want them to know?
  • What will they remember about me?

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I published 8 class anthologies over the years and if the students finished a semester or year they contributed work. The students who shared their stories 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018:

  • Melissa Quigley
  • Jan Wiburd
  • Annie Crane
  • Edna Gaffney
  • Nora Boghikian
  • Anat Bigos
  • Helen Thomas
  • Donna Hellier
  • Mary Robinson
  • Suzanne Dillon

Some of the students were childless but have dear friends and family to think about or aimed to publish their life stories for the general public.

No students in the final class had a partner – they either never married, were divorced, or widowed. Therefore our stories had a definite female, some may say feminist, perspective.

I am constantly awed at the resilience and determination displayed when journeys are shared – the overcoming or ongoing struggle with illness, disease, disability; the grief and mourning for loved ones touches us all, as well as the additional losses – of country, of culture, of employment, of partners, of children, of health, of pets, of self-esteem… the list can go on.

Writing is appreciating and trying to explain/understand the human condition. Yet a strong aspect of writing classes has always been laughter – not only do we love to laugh with each other but at ourselves.

Another aspect has been the delicious morning teas and birthday celebrations – on Wednesday mornings, Anat’s carer, Jill an integral part of our class family and birthday cake maker extraordinaire!

The tapestry of my life has been so much richer because of Wednesday mornings and although looking to weave new threads, or even have a rest from weaving, I’m going to miss Life Stories & Legacies where I was truly blessed with a wonderful class.

The poems and stories of all past students are important to me and when I read their words I hear their voices, imagine them in class… memories I value.

I have a bookshelf of class anthologies from Sandy Beach, Mordialloc, Bentleigh and Chelsea and reading the poems and stories I can recall the writers:

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Not Everyone is A Digital Native

We are in the digital age and the demands of readers have changed – there are websites, blogs, e-books, podcasts, audiobooks – stories experienced on a variety of devices with different screens and parameters.

If writers want to reach a variety of readers methods must change.

How to adapt is a  personal choice, and for many people, the traditional printed paper is still what they want to read and how they want to be published.

I found most of the students coming to my classes were not digital natives and preferred to keep learning the craft of writing and learning computer skills separate. Some struggled with basic formatting, some were not on email, many had ‘hunt and peck’ keyboard skills.

Fortunately, all were happy to be lifelong learners and even if it was a struggle they’d attend computer classes too, which most community houses or libraries now provide. Coping with a wide range of skills, or lack of skills a fact of life if teaching in community houses and it’s important not to leave anyone behind.

However, whether you write with pen and paper or prefer to tap your laptop or iPad you benefit from regular writing. Writing classes or workshops can be a first step to discovering not only what you want to write while learning the tools of the craft, but also how you want to be published.

Writing helps you reflect on your life and changes you’re making. … Writing regularly makes you better at writing. And writing is a powerful skill to be good at in our digital age. Writing for an audience (even if the audience is just one person) helps you to think from the perspective of the audience.

Leo Babauto

More importantly, writing classes can keep you motivated.  Writing courses proliferate online as well as bricks and mortar but for convenience and cost, community houses are hard to beat. They throw in ambience, friendship, sharing of stories and ideas, and a lot of love and caring so I’m glad the classes are continuing at Bentleigh with other teachers.

Number Nine Godfrey Street

Mairi Neil

The garden a delight from someone’s green fingers
a profusion of pastel colours glistening
while sunshine smiles and fickle autumn spits rain
I watch visitors stream inside the nondescript house
their footsteps echoing on shaded verandah
walkers scrape and stroller wheels squeak
a magpie trills in dinner-suited elegance,
preening glossy feathers and strutting the footpath
as if ushering passersby to enter stage right ––
the Isadora scarf or Hitchcock cigar missing.

A young woman, nursing a toddler on her hip,
grins a welcome to the elderly gent
clutching a chessboard and secret moves
their families farewelled to independence,
seniors care for themselves in exercise classes
small talk in craft sessions produces big results
delightful aromas drift from the kitchen ––
homemade pumpkin soup, sweet chocolate cookies,
spicy curries – recipes shared with curiosity and love
sauced with tales from distant lands.

Oil paintings and pastel drawings, the fruit
of nurtured local artists decorate the walls
this house celebrates learning, laughter and leisure …
friendships bubble, overflow to the neighbourhood
no need to cruise the retail choices of Centre Road,
sup lonely cafe lattes amid chattering conversations
or sit mesmerised by mobile screens
a house in Godfrey Street plants seeds
and grows friendships, welcomes newcomers,
encourages indigenous and immigrant to bloom.

In the house singsong voices of children tinkle
while mellow murmurings of writers’ words
capture imagination, life experience, and wisdom.
pens scratch notepads as the sewing group
across the hall coax machines to whirr into life,
garments appear patterned by creativity
wordsmiths spin sentences for pleasure
every room thrums and hums as
people connect, care, and communicate
a commitment to lifelong learning

I accept the marching magpie’s invitation
submit to being ‘led up the garden path’
and follow a thirty-year trail to discover
like the vibrant blossoms in the garden
community and harmony flourishes
at Number Nine Godfrey Street, Bentleigh.

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Can Poetry Promote Peace and Creativity Challenge Politicians Effectively?

Lake Burley Griffin Canberra

Over the last few weeks, I’ve struggled to write about Remembrance Day 2018 – or write about anything else on this blog because this anniversary was important and I wondered how I could do it justice and make sense of a lot of the thoughts rattling around in my head – particularly considering the fractious state of today’s world – a fact we are constantly reminded of due to the 24 hour news cycle and social media.

So buckle up – grab a cuppa or read the post in stages:)  ponder the words and meaning of the poems, savour the poignancy of some of the photographs.

Peace does begin with ourselves, our families, our communities…

This year, the centenary of the signing of the Armistice in World War One – 11 November 1918 – signified PEACE at last, after four years of carnage, but as many people have already written, humanity ignored all the lessons learned and we’ve hardly stopped skirmishing or creating full-blown battles ever since.

Six Excuses Not To Write

1.    I was distracted by the Victorian Election and busy working for the return of the Andrews Labor Government as well as Mordialloc’s local member, Tim Richardson MP who genuinely cares about the local community and works hard. I made this a priority and to be honest enjoyed myself and met many interesting people. No encounter every wasted for a writer…

The personal is political. Ever since my involvement in the Vietnam Moratorium Movement as a teenager, I’ve made activism a priority – the community is too important not to care enough to work for social justice and be a peace activist.  If enough people care to speak up, it does make a difference. A change of government in 1972 and Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam brought the troops home.

At a get-together, before the “Danslide” as Daniel Andrews Labor win is described, we met in Tim’s office and I gave the Premier a couple of Mordialloc Writers’ Group anthologies and advised, ‘there is no better way to understand a community than through the poems and stories of its writers.”

I hope he reads them.

 2.    I mulled for hours at how to express the disquiet I feel about exhibits and projects at the Australian War Memorial being funded by arms manufacturers and the millions of dollars the Federal Government has spent on memorials rather than the health and well-being of veterans.

At the Centenary Celebration in Canberra, I saw first-hand elements of concern. Huge guns and tanks out the front (ironically pointing over the Field of Poppies and at the statue of Sir John Monash) as if these harbingers of death and destruction should be celebrated. There’s always going to be arguments about what is glorification and what is commemoration but there should never be a debate about prioritising the welfare of veterans and recent reports indicate we are letting them down. 

3.    I’ve spent my life studying history (a subject I love), travelling to as many places as I can afford, visiting exhibitions and museums, reading widely – I’m a person who tries to join the dots to understand ‘the human condition’ we writers love to explore. This topic has so many dots to join and I have an overabundance of thoughts that don’t necessarily provide answers or coherence. It was easier to procrastinate … but in a case of physician heal thyself – I did ‘jump in and just write‘ and followed the advice I give students!

4.    I read again the poets of the First World War and visited a poignant and confronting art exhibition at Melbourne’s wonderful Shrine of Remembrance. An experience that deserves its own post although inextricably linked to the topic and so won’t get its own post now – please visit and experience for yourself.

5.    The trips to Canberra, and to Melbourne’s Shrine, were to visit the culmination of the magnificent 5000 Poppy Project. The organisers did a superb job and I was keen to see what happened to my contributions.  (As if I could find mine among the thousands of donations but ego being what it is … I should have been more creative and added sparkles or something so they would stand out!)

In Canberra,  several installations were truly works of art and in Melbourne, the knitted tributes spelt out the familiar quote and linked lines from The Ode from Laurence Binyon’s For The Fallen, and its well-known response. Too many of us probably say the verses without pondering the meaning but I guarantee seeing the words ‘in blood’ sears your heart – especially with the thin red trail linking each line, like droplets of blood and a poignant reminder each poppy represents a lost life.

6.    Maybe the most valid excuse is that the last few weeks of the school year are always manic as I collate and publish class anthologies – and this year, retiring from my position at Godfrey Street after 6 years, I wanted to go out ‘with a bang, not a whimper‘. I cracked the whip for my students and myself and there really is a finite time to sit at a computer and remain healthy.  I crossed that line too often, burning the proverbial midnight oil with bad posture and tension taking its toll on legs, bones, and back.

Poppies At Melbourne’s Shrine of Remembrance

they shall not grow old
they shall not grow old
as we that are left grow old
as we that are left grow old
age shall not weary them
age shall not weary them
nor the years condemn
nor the years condemn
at the going down of the sun
at the going down of the sun
and in the morning
and in the morning
we will remember them
we will remember them
lest we forget
lest we forget

After walking amongst well-tended gardens, I rested in sanctuaries for those broken by experience and memories.  Each secluded ‘garden’ displaying plants of different spheres of war for Australian troops.

I strolled darkened corridors absorbing the important stories we need to remember – depicted in a variety of ways without glorifying conflict. I climbed stairs to have a bird’s eye view and photograph magnificent Melbourne and the sweeping grounds of Victoria and Domain Gardens.

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Skyscrapers and tree-lined boulevards and busy thoroughfares vastly different to 1918. The city those volunteers rushed to defend now remarkably different to what they would have known.

I pondered what Brendan Nelson and Kerry Stokes might learn from the management of Melbourne’s Shrine if they visited. I prefer the way Melbourne presents the story and the stories it chooses to promote. They also have courteous, friendly staff and volunteers.

A young woman approached me when she saw me reading the Memorial Book –

Are you looking for a relative?

Yes, thought I may find my uncle’s name.

Wait a moment and I’ll get the key…

Within minutes, she was back wearing white cotton gloves and wielding a key. She asked for my uncle’s surname, unlocked the relevant glass cabinet, and carefully turned the pages until his name was revealed. She then stood aside so I could take a picture of the page.

It was a busy day for visitors because the poppy installation was being removed the next day, yet the young woman took the time to offer me a service I didn’t know about  – she went above and beyond and personalised my experience! 

Everyman Exhibition

The exhibition by artist Craig Barrett called EVERYMAN is an emotionally moving experience. Craig incorporated poetry into his art.

In 2005, he wrote:

Four men from my family were caught up in the great tides of men fighting on the Western front of the First World War… Great Uncle George remains there… others returned home with their wounds and nightmares.

In recent years I have become aware of the poets of the First World War. These men were artists who conveyed powerful images through words from their camps, their trenches, and their hospitals.

I found myself especially moved by the words of the English poets Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon… Growing up I knew little and understood less of what these men had witnessed. The poetry of Owen and Sassoon has given me a glimpse of my own family and of the family of Man entangled in war…

These words resonated because I too have an “Uncle George” I’ve written about and it is this exploration and family connection that set me on a path, to learn why a nineteen-year-old relative is buried in Egypt. How did he die? How did his death affect his family, especially sister, Kitty whom we met in 1962 when we migrated to Australia?

I remember, Aunt Kitty’s air of sadness. I was nine-years-old and at night we sat at her feet listening to stories about the Australian branch of the clan, about ANZACS and a war in a land near where our ship had passed when we came through the Suez Canal.

EVERYMAN
Siegfried Sassoon


The weariness of life that has no will
To climb the steepening hill:
The sickness of the soul for sleep, and to be still. And then once more the impassioned pygmy fist
Clenches cloudward and defiant;
The ride that would prevail, the doomed protagonist,
Grappling the ghostly giant. Victim and venturer, turn by turn; and then
Set free to be again
Companion in repose with those who once were men.

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a photograph in War Memorial Canberra

Is Every Generation Destined to Repeat The Mistakes Of The Past? 

Is there a need for us all to look deeper into what causes war, and what prevents a lasting peace?

We had the dreadful attack in the centre of Melbourne and sadly, a Federal Government reaction, we have come to expect – increasingly anti-muslim and anti-immigration dog whistling, and wanting to increase the powers of the security forces and introduce tougher anti-terror laws.

Actions designed to divide rather than unite.

Yet, there have been enquiries and research, backed by evidence and statistics, about the need for more resources to work in the community to combat radicalisation, and the alienation from mainstream society many young people experience. Experts encourage projects to improve inclusiveness and the mental health of those at risk of turning to violence.

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Men who have been caught or suspected of terrorist acts often have a history of domestic violence.  In Australia, more than 72 women and 20 children have been killed since January 2018 because of domestic and family violence. Despite knowing what we must do there seems a lack of political and social will and a lack of coordination and funding of resources to make a national difference to this scourge of homegrown terrorism. 

And then there’s the refusal or reluctance of people to recognise the Colonial Wars and the Aboriginal nations who were here and valiantly fought to keep possession of their land from colonial invaders.

Our First People are still waiting for a Treaty to be signed with peace and reconciliation a work in progress. It should be a national priority but at least the Andrews Government is making a valiant attempt to right historical wrongs. 

As John Lennon so aptly said, we have to make PEACE and do it right!

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Will We Ever See A War to End All Wars?

Armistice Day November 11, 1918, which led to the end of World War One – the war to end all wars – did not herald a lasting peace. A war has been fought somewhere in the world ever since and many historians agree that the conditions of the peace seemed to set the scene for the Second World War.

Today, Australian troops are still fighting a war and are deployed in Afghanistan (15 years and counting) and Iraq. Our drones controlled by the joint installation with the USA at Pine Gap, bomb Syria and in a plan to become one of the world’s top exporters of arms, like the USA, we sell arms to Saudia Arabia –  a country complicit in the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a Washington Post contributing columnist. The Saudi regime is also pounding the people of Yemen to oblivion.

Every day the nightly news brings us footage of soldiers and militarised police forces under fire or firing guns of formidable power somewhere in the world.

In many parts of the world, there are generations who have NEVER known peace. I was a volunteer tutor every Saturday morning to a Sudanese refugee for a year. A young woman in her 40s, with five children and a husband still stuck in a camp in Kenya, Mary had lived in a state of war in her country since she was 14 years old.

No life’s worth more than any other, no sister worth less than any brother.

Michael Franti

Peace requires effort and political will and to suggest no one wants war is wrong – arms manufacturers thrive on war, which is why their influence (even in local elections under the guise of ‘shooters and fishers’ ) is alarming.

They fund public institutions and political parties for a reason. Look no further than the power the National Rifle Association wields in the USA. Working towards peace requires recognition that the Roman poetHorace‘s oft-used quote  Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori ( It is sweet and right to die for your country) encouraged militarism and is indeed ‘The old lie” that WW1 poet Wilfred Owens asserts at the end of his most famous poem.

A poem thought to have been written between 8 October 1917 and March 1918 after his years of witnessing the horrific slaughter and destruction on the battlefields of France and Belgium:

DULCE ET DECORUM EST
Wilfred Owen 

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks, 
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge, 
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs 
And towards our distant rest began to trudge. 
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots 
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind; 
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots  
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.
Gas!Gas! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling, 
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time; 
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling, 
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime . . . 
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light, 
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning. 
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight, 
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning. 
If in some smothering dreams you too could pace 
Behind the wagon that we flung him in, 
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face, 
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin; 
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood 
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs, 
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud  
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues, 
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest 
To children ardent for some desperate glory, 
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est 
Pro patria mori.

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Can we blame the Romans for our culture of militarism and seeking military solutions?

romes delusions of grandeur

Many of us read the words of these WW1 poets at school but whether we really absorbed their message is difficult to say – unless you had experienced war or grief and could empathise – and that’s difficult for school children.

It’s difficult for some adults, which is why writers must choose words carefully and why poetry, short stories and novels can help with empathy. Here is an interesting extract from a short memoir I read recently:

During my deployments, I only had to fire my gun twice in engagements, and, in retrospect, neither of those firings was likely warranted. Suffice it to say that both times, I could feel my heart shaking, and I came close to wetting my pants.
 
The only film I’ve ever seen that captures this feeling—part terror, part adrenaline rush—is The Thin Red Line, and specifically in this woods scene, where the soldier becomes lost in the dark. He hears himself panting. Soon, bullets whish past him—directionless, it seems—and the only precedent for this, apart from Dante, astray on his path in the woods, might be Camus’s hapless prisoner in “The Guest,” who finds himself stranded and alone on the Algerian plains. What makes war so frightening isn’t the likeliness of death. It isn’t the suffering. It isn’t the inconsequentiality of humanness. Indeed, these are all apparent to anyone who’s reached middle age. Rather, it’s that sense of being alone. And I would hypothesize that it only comes to light in a warzone. After all, one realizes, especially in moments like this, that those who kill do not have any inherent fixed loyalties. Each human is invariably alone, regardless of the colors they wear.

Joshua Bernstein
Lost In The Fog

Each year documentaries are made of the tragedy and sacrifice of a whole generation in WW1, but in the words of singer/songwriter Eric Bogle, ‘… it all happened again… And again, and again …’

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GREEN FIELDS OF FRANCE 

Eric Bogle

Oh how do you do, young Willy McBride
Do you mind if I sit here down by your graveside
And rest for a while in the warm summer sun
I’ve been walking all day, and I’m nearly done
And I see by your gravestone you were only nineteen
When you joined the great fallen in 1916
Well I hope you died quick
And I hope you died clean
Or Willy McBride, was is it slow and obscene

Did they beat the drums slowly
Did they play the fife lowly
Did they sound the death march as they lowered you down
Did the band play the last post and chorus
Did the pipes play the flowers of the forest

And did you leave a wife or a sweetheart behind
In some loyal heart is your memory enshrined
And though you died back in 1916
To that loyal heart, you’re forever nineteen
Or are you a stranger without even a name
Forever enshrined behind some old glass pane
In an old photograph torn, tattered, and stained
And faded to yellow in a brown leather frame

Did they beat the drums slowly
Did they play the fife lowly
Did they sound the death march as they lowered you down
Did the band play the last post and chorus
Did the pipes play the flowers of the forest

The sun shining down on these green fields of France
The warm wind blows gently and the red poppies dance
The trenches have vanished long under the plough
No gas, no barbed wire, no guns firing now
But here in this graveyard that’s still no man’s land
The countless white crosses in mute witness stand
To man’s blind indifference to his fellow man
And a whole generation who were butchered and damned

Did they beat the drums slowly
Did they play the fife lowly
Did they sound the death march as they lowered you down
Did the band play the last post and chorus
Did the pipes play the flowers of the forest

And I can’t help but wonder oh Willy McBride
Do all those who lie here know why they died
Did you really believe them when they told you the cause?
Did you really believe that this war would end wars?
Well the suffering, the sorrow, the glory, the shame
The killing and dying it was all done in vain
Oh, Willy McBride, it all happened again
And again, and again, and again, and again

Did they beat the drums slowly
Did they play the fife lowly
Did they sound the death march as they lowered you down
Did the band play the last post and chorus
Did the pipes play the flowers of the forest 

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PEACE PROTESTERS AT WAR MEMORIAL 11/11/2018 – their sign said HONOUR THEM-PROMOTE PEACE

The horrors of WW2, Malaya, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan… we keep adding to the toll, make the words of the poets even more poignant when we realise the average age of soldiers who die in wars are 19, 20, 21, 22…

vietnam-war-timeline
SOLDIERS WHO FOUGHT IN VIETNAM WERE BARELY ADULTS MANY WITHOUT THE RIGHT TO VOTE!

ANTHEM FOR DOOMED YOUTH
Wilfred Owen

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
      — Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
      Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells; 
      Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,—
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
      And bugles calling for them from sad shires.

What candles may be held to speed them all?
      Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.
      The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.

Is a Plea for a Change in Priorities to emphasise PEACE too much to ask? 

November 11 is a reminder, not only of the tragedy and futility of  WW1 and many other wars since but a warning of the fragility of peace and the importance of working hard to avoid conflict.

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The Canberra Rotary Club is making an effort to remind people of the importance of peace and has built an easily accessible World Peace Bell as well as introducing the Rotary Peace Prize.

There are at least 23 of these bells throughout the world with plans for more. Volunteers man the bell at busy times encouraging people to recite an oath as well as ring the bell so the sound carries across the lake.

The volunteer who helped me explained the history and ensured I understood the affirmation, before reciting the lines aloud.

As I walked through Nara Park and visited the National Museum on the other side of the lake, the bell’s beautiful, deep, resonant tone tolled for peace.

The first recipients of the Peace Prize long-term advocates for world peace and activists in raising awareness and requesting an adjustment of society’s priorities:

Dr Sue Wareham OAM, Founding member of ICAN, International Campaign Against Nuclear weapons, and WILPF – ACT Branch, Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. Women from several nations and members of WILPF gathered in Europe in 1915 and tried to stop the slaughter of WW1 but to no avail. The organisation consistently works for peace and social justice.

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Imagine

Mairi Neil

Imagine all the people sharing all the world‘ – a line John Lennon wrote

Music and lyrics combined to make the song moving and memorable

And I wonder if people do imagine sharing when they listen to his words…

Great oceans of people, happy, sad, warring, peaceful, worshipping, wondering

Individual countries, cultures, nationalities, religions, powerful elites

Nation states, perhaps individual tribes and families.  21st-century social media exposes

All humanity – those not so lucky or ones we are told to fear –

Those trapped in places where war is an integral part of their journey from birth…

In my lifetime, the Middle East a constant muddle of bombs and brutality

Or the African continent with droughts, internecine wars, deadly viruses and famines

Not forgetting our neighbourhood’s volatility in the hands of Rocket Man & Dotard…  

 

A world of sharing, no possessions to kill or die for, a world of peace

No borders! This dream elicits accusations ranging from lunacy to scorn

Dreaming and desiring the impossible…  

 

Dreaming? Imagining a better future – isn’t that what we wish for our children?

Religious fundamentalists and fanatics insist

Everyone believe or have faith in a deity you can’t see, imagining a heaven and hell

And for many acquisitive others, it is land and possessions – they

Mean power, progress, personal esteem. It is difficult, but so important, to imagine

Sharing ALL the world and its bounties – thank you, John, for gifting your dream…

peace-symbol-vector flip

When you flip the peace sign upside down, it’s composed of the ancient rune ‘Algiz’ inside of a circle. ‘Algiz’ represents life, beginning, and protection; very fitting for a symbol of peace. … Add it all together, and an upside-down peace sign literally means ‘endless peace’.

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 I knitted poppies for the 5000 Poppies Project to honour our family’s ANZAC, George Alexander McInnes.

He was 19 years old when they laid him to rest in Egypt and as far as I know, no member of the family has ever visited his grave. His death and the grief that followed changed the lives of his parents and siblings forever – a common tragedy for so many families worldwide detailed in letters, diaries, poems, novels, and memoir.

Dear Mum and Dad
Mairi Neil 

WW1 began in 1914, the fighting lasted four years, but grief lasts a lifetime.

I see you both in my dreams
the image helps suppress the screams
of many mates who have been shot––
This world has really gone to pot!

When I joined up to come and fight
I thought I was doing what was right
But Mum those Bible texts you read
Don’t explain what it’s like to kill – or be dead.

Young Johnny Parker from down the road
Shot on landing. Floats at sea –– a bloated toad.
So many like him, bodies never retrieved
No prayers, no burial, relatives deceived.

If I’m shot soon, or perhaps blown apart
You’ll receive a letter to ease a painful heart
But take what it says with a pinch of salt
It’s madness here -no decency, nobody’s fault.

The cardboard dog tags disintegrated
when a body rots or is incinerated
Identities disappear over time –
whole battalions consumed in lime

So just as I dream of both of you
Hold fast your memories of me too
Because if like snow, I don’t survive
Only reminiscing will keep me alive.

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My visit to Canberra for Remembrance Day to see the Field of Poppies (62,000 of them) and take part in the national ceremony commemorating the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Armistice that ended the First World War, allowed me to take part in a historic occasion but also made me reflect on the past, present and think of the future.

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What stories we keep, how we pass stories from one generation to another, and the relevance and meaning of the stories we choose, whether personal or public.

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In Canberra, amidst the field of poppies, it was sobering to discover people who didn’t know the significance of the flower, and others that didn’t seem to care, like the private security firm that used the field as an opportunity to have a promotional photoshoot – replete with uniforms and guard dogs.

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Two men wandered around on Remembrance Day dressed in WW1 uniforms offering to pose for photos and a volunteer from the poppy project confided she had to chastise a group of young girls who laid down amongst the poppies uncaring of damage because they wanted to pose for pictures on Instagram and Facebook. There were also those who stole souvenirs from the installation, which volunteers spent hours replacing.

The days of the nation stopping for two minutes of silent reflection long gone – apparently the only thing that ‘stops the nation’ now is a horse race, like the Melbourne Cup, yet I remember as a teenager being in Myer in the city and the escalators stopping and people standing with heads bowed.

Parades and displays can be ignored but if everyone’s routine is interrupted – even for two minutes – perhaps it will make people ask why.  Why the carnage, why do we go to war? Is there another way to solve disputes? Should we rely on a few leaders to decide our destiny?

Parliament House, Canberra

There were two displays at Parliament House (270,000 poppies).

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Answers to frequently asked questions about the Poppy project.

The 5000 POPPIES project has left me in awe at how a simple idea encouraged involvement from people all over the world as well as educating about the loss of life in WW1 – and subsequent wars.

If it made people pause and consider the human cost of war, perhaps think of their family and their country’s history, seek information and reflect, then it has been a success.

Always the honour roll of those who died in conflict either at home or abroad confronts and shocks – alphabetical lists that in peacetime are associated with telephone books and thick tomes of the living. 

Australia talks about thousands of lives lost, but for other nations it is millions! When I was in Irkutsk in Russia last year, a guide said to me, ‘In Russia, we list the names of survivors (mainly officers and ‘heroes’, I might add) because there aren’t enough walls to list the dead.’

Throughout the world, we have listed on walls, monuments, and in remembrance books, names while bodies and ashes lie elsewhere.  Many resting in places where loved ones never, or can never visit.

Thousands of blood-red poppies a stunning visual reminder – each one different – representing the individuality of each lost life. The gaps in the field of poppies remind us not every casualty was/is found or identified.

For me, the creative project a chance to DO something and make a practical contribution to remembrance. Others, obviously, felt the same because it fired imaginations and activities in so many places: neighbourhood houses, U3As, schools, churches, numerous community and family groups and private individuals… and hopefully inspired discussions.

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Placing my knitted poppy beside Uncle George’s name.

1918-2018: 5000 POPPIES – A TRIBUTE

At Parliament House, the forecourt installation of handmade poppies will be there from 9-18 November while the Marble foyer poppy installation will remain until 3 February 2019.

This display of poppies, lovingly created by 5000 Poppies project volunteers – many of whom are descendants of original Anzacs – is a tribute to the thousands of Australians who died in the First World War.

It complements the sea of handcrafted poppies that will carpet the Parliament House Forecourt to mark the 100th anniversary of the Armistice, 11 November 1918. With a direct line of sight to the Australian War Memorial, the display connects with the 62,000 poppies installed on the Memorial’s grounds representing every Australian life lost in the First World War.

Courtesy of traditional and social media we’ve been flooded with information – overloaded some will say, yet it is amazing how even after 100 years, new stories and information surface.

I’ve visited places, met people, and learnt history I didn’t know and fulfilled my love of joining the dots and understanding connections. On a recent visit to Caulfield Town Hall, to their art gallery, an amazing Poppy Exhibition made me pause and read the individual stories of local VC recipients but also drew my attention to the memorial boards that cover every wall of the spacious foyer – 31 large bronze panels with 1,554 names.

Although Caufield City Council first started compiling names of soldiers, sailors and nurses from the Caulfield district as early as 1915, it would be more than a decade before they were publicly displayed… In 1930, Caulfield Town Hall underwent a major redevelopment… which included a colonnade portico opening on to a spacious memorial foyer, with a marble dado surmounted by bronze tablets. Inscribed… were the names of all those who enlisted in the Australian Imperial Forces from Caulfield… the criteria for inclusion was to have been living in the City of Caulfield at the time of enlistment, and it includes both lost and returned service people… At the time of its construction, the municipality of Caulfield included the suburbs of Elsternwick, Balaclava, St Kilda East, Carnegie, Murumbeena, Glen Huntly and Gardenvale…

There is a lovely Japanese garden at Caulfield Town Hall and I hope people visiting the Remembrance Day display took some time, like I did, to sit and calm their anger (and it is anger we should feel) at what a senseless waste of life wars are, and especially WW1  – tragedies of epic proportions.

Yet, all over Australia, we have sister city relationships with countries that may have been our enemy at some stage of history – relationships that contribute to understanding and tolerance and help make a lasting peace.

Sassoon recognised how violence and war changed men and struggled to get much of his anti-war poetry published. When he wrote, “I believe that this War is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it,” in an open letter to the House of Commons, it took the intervention of poet Robert Graves to save him from court-martial declaring Sassoon suffered shell-shock and needed to be hospitalised. 

Some could argue that it was only the insane who couldn’t see the truth of his words.    

Golgotha
Siegfried Sassoon

Through darkness curves a spume of falling flares 
That flood the field with shallow, blanching light. 
The huddled sentry stares 
On gloom at war with white, 
And white receding slow, submerged in gloom.
Guns into mimic thunder burst and boom, 
And mirthless laughter rakes the whistling night. 
The sentry keeps his watch where no one stirs 
But the brown rats, the nimble scavengers. 

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Sculpture of Barbarian, Rome Exhibition Canberra

While in Canberra for the commemoration ceremony at the War Memorial,  I visited the current exhibition ‘Rome‘ at the National Museum displaying artefacts from the British Museum. There is a marble statue fragment of a barbarian (Ramleh, Egypt, 160-170 CE), which I thought depicted the anguish felt by war’s victims both civilian and military that the WW1 poets captured in words.

This bound captive is looking up at what remains of a larger figure, perhaps intended to depict Victory. He has Germanic facial features, but he is wearing a Phrygian hat of a style worn in the Eastern Mediterranean region. This suggests that he represents a generic ‘barbarian’ or enemy of Rome. Such depictions emphasise how one of Rome’s great missions was to ‘vanquish the proud’.

peace is essential

“From War” an Exhibition by the Australian National Veterans Arts Museum at Parliament House, Canberra

For many veteran artists making art is both an expression of personal creativity and a way of ‘making meaning’.

Veteran artistic practices draw upon, and extend beyond, the individual’s experience of war and service. For some, art is a lifeline and a life force; a way to tell stories and ask important questions about themselves and their place in society.

Representing a diverse range of mediums including photography, painting, sculpture, drawing, textiles and poetry, the artists featured in the exhibition reflect on their personal questions and processes, sharing unique stories of their lived experience.

The catalyst for the establishment of the Australian National Veterans Arts Museum was veterans’ mental health. It provides a creative and multi-faceted approach to supporting veterans and families through the arts, engaging with our veteran history and heritage, culture and identity to bring forward an approach grounded in creative expression and community.

Upending modern models ANVAM uses familiar tools, the arts and place, engaging early to promote validation, identity and purpose reframing the future for those returning from war or service. How do you capture the experience of war and its aftermath and convey that to others so they understand? 

Sassoon’s honesty fobbed off as shell shock, which today we know as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) – and almost all veterans will have their share of depression as well as other symptoms of PTSD.

Statistics don’t tell individual stories, official documents can be doctored and presented from a particular perspective depending on what narrative governments want to spin. Even letters and diaries from those who were there or those writing about friends and family may have a particular perspective, may have been censored, or may deliberately alter facts to spare feelings.  

I hope all politicians and senior Defence personnel take the time to look at the artwork and read the poetry on display at Parliament House.

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soldiers Afghanistan

A Poetic Honour
Bill Charlton, (2013)


There is no greater accolade a soldier can be shown
Than to have his deeds recorded in the verses of a poem.
For medals tend to varnish and history can be wrong,
And the stories we are left with, can be stretched as time goes on.

But the simple story-telling that’s contained within a poem
Can survive through generations by word of mouth alone.
And the rhythm/rhyming nature of these classics of the past
Are easy to remember and ensure these stories last.

Great books will parch and crumble and epitaphs will fade
And tombstones all will vanish no matter how they’re made.
But the simple little verses that we pass on down the line
Are remembered with affection and have stood the test of time.

So if you have the fortune to be mentioned in a poem
Or you know some-one who has been, on the strength of deeds alone,
Then be sure that it’s an honour, which can rarely be attained
For it makes a man immortal for as long as it’s maintained.

Bill Charlton, born 1943, joined the Australian Army and served with the 1st Battalion Royal Australian Regiment in the 60s, including South Vietnam. Bill had always been interested in writing verse often sending snippets home to his wife, Robyn, which he never completed. He continued writing snippets for years after his service until he was encouraged to take up writing poetry by his wife and children, then the snippets became poems. His first attempt at poetry resulted in a literary award and encouraged he continued writing and published two books of poetry illustrated by Robyn: A Rugged Bunch of Diggers 1 and 2 and a children’s book Lulu, the Kangaroo. He continues to write individual poems for the 521 soldiers who died during the Vietnam War.

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Sculpture “Unforgiven”

Sleep
George Mansford, (September 2016)


If I could only sleep the sleep of sleeps
To capture sweet deeds I can keep
In the cloak of night greet blissful rest so rare
To dream of peace and even love should I dare

I cannot escape this shrinking smothering room
Painted with spite, hate and terrible doom
I am shackled to the past and never to be free
Deep sleep in pure white sheets is not to be

Oh to be deaf to shrieks and howls spat from spiteful guns
Blind to flitting silent shadows mid the last rays of dying suns
Be gone the shuffling file of haunted faces never to smile again
If only a welcome storm to wash away the guilt and pain

In this lonely bed, to dream of peace, goodwill and love
To walk mid young green forests reaching high above
To hear the joyful welcome calls of feathered birds so bright
To shut out the darkness of yesterday and seek tomorrow’s light.


George Mansford AM, born 1934, served in the Australian Army between 1950 and 1990 including Korea, Malayan Emergency, Malaysia, Thai Border, South Vietnam, New Guinea, Singapore and Cyclone Tracy. Having just returned home from Vietnam 1967, he started to write poetry after his first wife died. On losing his second wife and son, his writing increased dramatically as he discovered that writing was a fortunate distraction from grief and anger of war.

‘I found that promoting peace, love of country and such deep camaraderie was a wonderful sedative. It was what my loved ones and old comrades want.’

George is the author of Junior Leadership on the Battlefield and The Mad Galahs.

 

 

The Progress
Barham J. R. Ferguson, (28 August 2018)

The fog that hugs my legs like a refugee,
Shows the steps of progress towards my own peace.
I have fought for the peace of others
And lost more than blood in the process,
But I know that hope stands not behind me.

See my anguish in the oils,
See my scars in the sculpture,
See my pity in the poetry,
See my failure in the photographs,
Hear my sorrow in the song.

I miss the moment of living the dream,
Of knowing those at home are thinking of me.
Praying for me. Worried about me.
Today however, they only worry about me.
It’s not the enemy that hunts me, nor the
Danger that surrounds me.
It is for the danger within.

My current battle is with doubt. Memories.
Questions I cannot answer.
Images so vivid, I can hear them.

But the fighter in me stands tall.
I can win this war as I have done before.
Not for me, but for others.
This is why I served. This is who I am,
Either in or out of service.
So help me make that step.

And watch me emerge as a similar person
To the one you knew. Similar, but better.
That you can then
See my ambition in oils,
See my skills in sculpture,
See my power in poetry,
See my future in photographs, and
Hear my strength in song.

It is now that I realise,
My child that hugs my legs like a refugee,
Speeds the steps of progress to my own peace.

Barham Ferguson, born 1968, joined the Australian army in 1987 and saw operational service in Papua New Guinea, Southern Thailand, Iraq, Afghanistan, South Sudan, Israel, Lebanon and Jordan. An Ambassador for the Australian National veterans Art Museum and a longtime supporter of veterans’ issues, Barham discharged in July 2018 and lives in Canberra with his daughter. He is the author of Love, Life and ANZAC Biscuits, (2013), and A Feeling of Belonging (1999).


Through The Mirror
Barham J.R. Ferguson, (13 February 2017)

Through the mirror of the past,
I see myself in memories vast.
A warrior, not once outclassed,
This was who I was.

From the dust of duty first,
The last hoorah of machine gun burst,
Wounds of war no longer nursed,
The world knew who I was.

Homeward bound with dreams anew,
Perceptions changed on what I do,
My useful skills seemed less than few,
I defended who I was.

Fighting family, fighting friends,
The war has changed, it never ends.
‘’Is my life pointless?” Now depends,
On knowing who I am.

Where to start, and what to do?
What do I have that pleases you?
There’s things inside that still ring true,
They make me who I am.

Strength and honour. Discipline.
These soldier traits have not worn thin,
Unlike the uniform in the bin,
These traits are who I am.

There’s many more that made me me,
When I was in the military,
But in these threads I now can see,
That made me who I am.

Now it’s time to do what’s right,
To find a mission, and gain insight,
To be the me who can sleep at night,
‘Cause I do know who I am.

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sculpture – Finish

At the Australian War Memorial, there is a Flanders Field Garden planted with poppies and with the words of John McCrae’s poem carved on the walls to remind us that in Ypres, Belgium,  ‘men died in their thousands and the medieval town was reduced to ruins.’

In Flanders Fields
John McCrae

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below. We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie,
In Flanders fields. Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

The Unknown Australian Soldier

This year was the 25th anniversary of the interment of the Unknown Australian Soldier, who represents all Australians who have been killed in war. At the head of the tomb are the words, ‘Known unto God’, and at the foot, ‘He is all of them and he is one of us.’

“Plans to honour an unknown Australian soldier were first put forward in the 1920s, but it was not until 1993 that one was at last brought home. to mark the 75th anniversary of the end of the First World War, the remains of the soldier were recovered from Adelaide Cemetery near Villers-Bretonneux in France and transported to Australia. After lying in state in King’s Hall in Old Parliament House, the Unknown Australian Soldier was interred in the Hall of memory at the memorial on 11 November 1993. He was buried with a bayonet and a sprig of wattle in a Tasmanian blackwood coffin, and soil from Pozieres was scattered in his tomb.”

The eulogy for the Unknown Soldier was first delivered by the Honourable Paul Keating in 1993. In Canberra, on the Centenary of the Armistice, a recording was played of his speech.

The words are memorable and moving but perhaps the lines that need to be emphasised more often are:

This Unknown Australian is not interred here to glorify war over peace; or to assert a soldier’s character above a civilian’s; or one race or one nation or one religion above another; or men above women; or the war in which he fought and died above any other war; or of one generation above any that has or will come later… We have lost more than 100,000 lives, and with them all their love of this country and all their hope and energy… It is not too much to hope, therefore, that this Unknown Australian Soldier might continue to serve his country – he might enshrine a nation’s love of peace and remind us that in the sacrifice of the men and women whose names are recorded here there is faith enough for all of us.’

The current exhibitions in Canberra at the National Museum and National Library add more food for thought as well as steps in the evolution of the ‘nation’ Paul Keating was talking about.

Rome reveals how integral the military was to the Roman Empire’s greatness and an exhibition on Captain Cook and his Voyages touches on the Colonial Wars and Aborigines fighting the invasion of their land by representatives of the British Empire.

The powerful Roman and British Empires now diminished and if nothing else, the tide of history seems predictable but has mankind learnt a ‘love of peace’?

Thank Goodness For Community Initiatives

 While national politicians and governments may let their people down, there are plenty of instances of grassroots initiatives – and therefore HOPE.

Nara Peace Park, Canberra, is a case in point – not only has it the Peace Bell but myriad sections, sculptures and plaques making a statement about peace. 

TOKU 2010 by artist Shinki Kato born 1955

Toku was commissioned to celebrate the 1300th anniversary of Japan’s ancient capital, Nara. The sculpture has three main elements: A five-storied pagoda form which represents Canberra; a floating stone representing Nara; and the form of a small bird symbolising peace.

The bird resembles a Latham’s Snipe, a species which migrates annually between Japan and Canberra. The artist has created Toku to express the amicable relationship and mutual understanding shared by Canberra and Nara as sister cities.

There are tranquil areas to meander through or sit and enjoy the beauty of the gardens and lake. The day I visited, families were picnicking and playing.

 

The Pen Mightier Than The Sword

As you walk through the park there is evidence that we shouldn’t take the beauty, or sentiments, for granted. At the base of several trees are plaques – sadly some were damaged and worn by the weather. The plaques reminders that writers from poets to journalists have lost their lives fighting to express and defend ideas and freedom of speech.

“The spirit dies in all of us who keep silent in the face of tyranny”

The plaques and trees were a ‘memorial to writers who have fought for freedom of speech”  and was conceived through the vision and work of the ACT members of PEN International and dedicated by the Minister for Arts and Heritage, Mr Gary Humphries MLA, on 17 November 1996.

Among the dedications:

  • Kenule Beeson Saro-Wewa, Nigerian playwright,
  • Meena Kishwarkanel, poet and journalist,
  • Russians: Galina Starovoitova, ethnographer and dissident politician, and Larissa Ludina, newspaper editor,
  • Konka Kuris Turkish feminist writer,
  • Robert Walker Aboriginal poet, and
  • the Balibo Five, Australian journalists murdered in East Timor 1975: Greg Shackleton, Brian East, Gary Cunningham, Tony Stewart, Malcolm Rennie and
  • journalist Roger East killed in Dili, 1975.

Hopefully, somewhere a memorial plaque will be made for Jamal Khashoggi recently assassinated by agents of the Saudi Government. The plaque, a permanent reminder of those who use words to defend our right to speak and challenge those who think suppression and violence a solution.

However, for every writer silenced, there is always another who picks up the pen to peacefully bring about change. The belief that the pen is mightier than the sword and words can make a difference, a good enough motivation for me to keep writing.

 

Did you Know About The Link Between Denmark’s Royal Palace and Bendigo?

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Bendigo Town Hall, Hargreaves Street

My second duty stint last weekend for Open House Bendigo was at the Town Hall, Sunday morning. According to a tourist brochure on heritage buildings:

“If it was good enough for Denmark’s royal palace, it was good enough for Bendigo. German artist, Otto Waschatz decorated both, adorning Bendigo’s Town Hall interior with mythical figures and rich gold leaf. Outside, muscular ‘Atlas” sculptures support the clock’s weight. These are fitting fixtures for architect William Vahland’s greatest work (1878-86).”

Seeing these magnificent features a definite drawcard on Sunday, however, I don’t think the artist envisaged the hall being the registration point for cyclists involved in the second Bendigo Cycling Classic – hence the signs around the doorway asking for care and respect for the walls and floors.

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The Bendigo Town Hall stands out and beautifully renovated in 2003, it is well cared for and was one of the many buildings representing gold-rush-era heritage.

Located in the heart of the city and built in the height of the gold rush period like so many of the other wonderful buildings, it is a remarkable legacy of a time when money was plentiful, dreams were big, and prominent townsfolk and those who made the decisions for the municipality ensured the wealth and splendour of Bendigo’s ‘golden age’ did not go unnoticed.

Town Hall: Council Chambers

view from doorway council chamber

Local architect WC Vahland was commissioned to redevelop the Town Hall and came up with a masterpiece that helped secure his place as one of the city’s most revered architects. The Town Hall interiors feature decorative plaster adorned with 22-carat-gold leaf, reflecting the stories the stories of a city built on gold.

In 2003, The Bendigo town Hall returned to the elegance and beauty of its 19th-century heritage after an extensive restoration and renovation program including plasterworks murals and gold leaf worked by skilled artists and artisans.

A snippet from another tourist promotion:

The name Bendigo originated from a world famous bare-knuckled boxer, William ‘Abednigo’ Thompson. A shepherd, on the Ravenswood run near Bendigo, he was handy with his fists and became renowned as a great fighter. He lived in his hut on a creek which flowed through the valley where gold was found. It is said that this shepherd, nicknamed ‘Abednigo’ lent his name to this rich goldfield – and the rest, as they say ‘is history’.

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The Cornish Miner monument outside the Town Hall

The Cornish Miner

Erected in appreciation of the endeavours of all the underground miners of Bendigo and District who created the economy from which grew a beautiful city thus leading to further developments and helping to provide the base for Victoria to become an industrial state.

Cornishmen and their descendants formed the majority of these miners. Erected by the City of Greater Bendigo on behalf of its Citizens and the Cornish Association of Bendigo and District 1996.

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Bendigo’s Coat of Arms, hand-carved cedar, by  T. Erlecki, circa 1880s.

Open House Bendigo, 2018

On Sunday, between 10.00am and 1.00 pm, 179 people took advantage of access and traipsed through the Town Hall, joining 600 from the day before.

Jaws dropped at the old Council Chamber’s polished wood, rich leather, gorgeous wall murals and marble posts, rich gilded ceiling and pelmets.

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However, despite a clear sign and my gentle reminders, I had to ask a couple of people more than once NOT to sit in the Mayor’s Chair or rub their hands over the wood and leather.

And it wasn’t young people who were the culprits but seniors who should have known about the damage human sweat can do to artefacts and that if hundreds of people were allowed “just one photo please of me sitting in the chair” the likelihood of damage is high. I’m sure if the mayoral robes had not been encased in glass, some people would have been tugging at the chain.

The policeman role aside, I loved the stories people shared with me and the many remarks of appreciation of the skilled craftsmanship and pride in the presentation evident in the old and new council chambers and the hall.

Two ladies talked about making their debut in the Town Hall – one in 1956, the other in 1966 when Mr Oliver (who happened to be her boss) was the mayor.

He let her sit in the mayor’s chair! She can remember the fear of the small group of girls waiting in the chamber before descending the staircase to walk the full length of the ‘great hall’ to be presented to the mayor (Mr Oliver). ‘It was terrifying,’ she said, never having been so exposed to officialdom and public scrutiny, it was a relief to dance the Charmaine, their presentation dance.

She explained the event to her grandchildren who listened with polite interest and I was struck with the fact that after more than half a century, her overwhelming memory is of feeling anxious and intimidated.

Another lady was proud to tell me her son-in-law painted all the gold lettering in the hall during the renovations. I wish she had been nearby when a rare negative interaction occurred.

An old man in a faux stetson wanted to know how much gold was in the paint and how much the gilding cost. He was disappointed I didn’t know. I told him to speak with Nathan, the Town Hall representative who was managing the numbers of visitors downstairs.

Cold eyes beneath the hat stared at me for a moment, before cross-questioning who I was and why I was there. I explained about Open House and that as a long-term volunteer from Melbourne I volunteered for this inaugural Bendigo event.

His response thick with sarcasm, ‘How very altruistic of you,’ as he walked away disappointed I couldn’t give him the statistics he wanted.

I was glad Nathan was there because there was so much going on and the visitors were constant. He had shown me around the place before the doors opened and when we looked into the current council chamber he warned that although most people are respectful to watch out for ‘anti-council’ behaviour.

From my position in the hallway, I could see inside the old chamber but also see the new chamber because the wall is all glass. I kept my eye on Mr Stetson – rightly or wrongly I’d earmarked him!

Impressed by its ‘grandeur’, many people asked me why the council had stopped using the old chamber and when I pointed out the obvious they could see the new room was much more suitable:

  • the old council chamber did not have room for the current number of councillors, staff or press or the modern day technological requirements
  • the old council chamber did not have room for a public gallery and ratepayers are allowed into most council meetings
  • the cost of maintaining the old chamber – regularly cleaning it and repairing any wear and tear if it was used would be much more than for the modern chamber

The new council chamber had rows of seats for visitors plus a gallery of photos of previous mayors.

The current mayor of Bendigo is female but in the early days of the city as the dozen pictures lining the walls reveal, the ‘founding fathers’ were male.

I can almost guarantee future depictions of mayors will not be oil paintings or photographs by prized photographers or placed in huge gilt frames. I even wonder if the mayoral robes will be donned – times have changed!

The early mayors were all active in business and community organisations, each leaving a distinctive legacy and exceptional worthwhile achievements that resonate today. A lady confided to me with pride that one of the mayors pictured –  Cr JH Curnow JP, 1901 and mayor 1902-4, 1912-13, 1919-20, 1927-28 – was a relative and she had no idea of his achievements!

It Is Important to Acknowledge Mayoral Milestones

Thomas Jefferson Connelly, a solicitor, was elected mayor in 1887 – the first Bendigo native and the youngest man up to that time to hold office. He was born in Sandhurst and was 29 years old. He was president of the Australian Natives Association and a driving force behind Federation and a close friend of Australia’s second PM Alfred Deakin. Sadly, Connelly contracted typhoid fever as a result of overwork in his private practice and died at only 34 years of age leaving a widow and three children.

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Town Hall entrance

Ambrose Dunstan was one of Bendigo’s oldest Justices of the Peace and on many occasions was the assistant coroner. From 1891-2 he was President of Australian Natives Association. During his term during WW1 house numbering was carried out, 182 building permits issued and he unveiled the Soldier’s Memorial Statue, recently refurbished 2018.

The news that the armistice had been signed by German representatives reached Bendigo about midnight on November 11th 1918. At 2am on November 12th, Mayor Dunstan read a message from the Governor-general on the steps of the Town Hall to a crowd of over 1000. The joyous peal of St Paul’s bells and the continuous tolling of the town clock awakened the people, who came to the city in large numbers. The mayor invited those present to give thanks and proceeding closed with the National Anthem. Peace had been declared.”

We are close to celebrating the centenary of that PEACE and thinking about the huge numbers of war dead and casualties still makes me weep. It is not an exaggeration to think almost every household would have been touched in some way and I can just imagine the joy of this spontaneous gathering in the predawn light.

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Soldiers Memorial Bendigo 2018

David John Andrew another early mayor ‘led a very active public life and there were few movements in which he was not connected. Captain of the Bendigo Fire Brigade in 1898 he held that position until his death. Chairman of the CFA he ‘heartily devoted himself to the promotion of the best interests of firemen and the firefighting service generally.’ Born in Scotland, he was prominent in the Bendigo Caledonian Society, the Victoria Scottish Union and the Masonic Order.  For many years, as the Secretary of the Easter Fair, he was interested in the Bendigo Hospital and Benevolent Home and pursued the matter of sewerage strenuously. He believed when Bendigo was sewered the death rate would be lowered considerably and cited that in 1909 there had been 719 births and 548 deaths. He committed his life to humanitarian causes and during the years of the Great War,  he organised support for Australian soldiers and prisoners of war.

Mayor William Beebe, MBE, continued as a councillor until ten weeks before his death in 1920 and was mourned by many including PM Hughes who sent condolences: “ My deepest sympathy in your sad bereavement. Bendigo has lost a very worthy citizen and Australia one of her most loyal sons.” Beebe took the lead in patriotic movements and social, religious and philanthropic objectives hence being awarded the MBE.

Born in Sandhurst in 1857 he worked with his father as a stonemason, studied architectural drawing at the School of Mines and with his father designed and built several buildings during the 1880s. Later as an architect, Beebe was responsible for the ANA Hall, the City Markets, the Fire Station in View Street, the Royal Bank (now a restaurant) and Lansellstowe and numerous private homes.

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Another young councillor (39 years), Mayor Michael Guidice (1922-24) directed his energy and faith to commercial enterprises for the advancement of Bendigo. Managing Director of Bendigo United Breweries he was associated with the moving picture industry from its pioneering days.

In 1913 he formed the Bendigo Lyric Photoplays and personally supervised the opening and work of the new Lyric theatre that year as well as being governing director of The Shamrock Hotel. He was a moving force in forming the Shakespearean Reading and Literary Society and assisted in the formation of the Bendigo Choral Society.

Mayor Ernest Vains (1924-25) was born in Kerang and started a Stock and Station Agent’s business in Bendigo. “He had a great capacity for work and attempted to attract industries…” Director of the Bendigo Sun and the Farmers and Citizens Trustees P/L, playing a prominent role in the formation of Bendigo Rotary Club in 1925. A keen outdoor sportsman, a member of the Bendigo Jockey Club, secretary of the South Bendigo Bowling Club and office bearer Golden Square Bowling Club. When retiring from office 1926, he noted four deaths ascribed to diphtheria and two from typhoid fever and overall 497 deaths and 689 births.

Mayor Frederick Niemann born in sale 1879 and mayor during the Depression years took a prominent role in retaining the railway workshops in Bendigo. He was one of the founders of the Advance Bendigo and North League and held the position of Chief Magistrate in Bendigo with many years of experience in commerce and industry.

Thank you, Mayor Niemann, for saving the railway workshops! I caught the train to Bendigo for Open House weekend. On the way, there were plenty of rolling green fields with emerald green grass to feed the grazing cattle, horses and sheep. No obvious signs of drought yet.

The Bendigo to Melbourne train line opened in October 1862 but the steam train then a different beast entirely from the comfortable and relatively smooth ride V-Line offers today.

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Another mayor in the 1930s, Mayor George Bennetts built up the well known Bennetts Arcade Stores, one of the most progressive of its kind in Bendigo and later acquired by Woolworths. Bennetts was a keen bowler and member of Bendigo Golf Bowling Club, a Justice of the Peace and responsible for the Easter Saturday Street carnival.

There is a street sculpture by artist Maggie Fooke “After The Procession” dedicated on October 1993 and commissioned by the Bendigo Easter Fair Society. I didn’t remember seeing it on an earlier visit to Bendigo perhaps because it looks so natural! It was ‘refurbished and restored and presented to the people of Bendigo to celebrate the 140th Easter Procession on the 5th April 2010.

W.C Vahland the architect for the Town Hall, came originally from Germany seeking gold but stayed to practice his profession as an architect. How lucky was Bendigo!?

He may have struck out finding gold, but his legacy of fine buildings increased the wealth of Bendigo.

A comment on the refurbishment – a young man was keen to show me travel pictures on his phone. Inside the huge twin towers in Abu Dhabi, there are the exact same light fittings used in the hallway between Bendigo’s two council chambers – and he has seen them elsewhere!

And a final comment from an appreciative visitor to Open House at the Town Hall. She had visited ‘by default’ because like many people in Bendigo she wanted to see what had been achieved so far in the redevelopment of the Beehive Building, which was still a construction site and had been boarded up for several years.

However, her curiosity didn’t extend to waiting in a queue for over an hour and she was thrilled to come straight into the Town Hall, learn history she didn’t know and be amazed at the beautiful finishing touches on the walls and ceiling.

The woman was really enjoying the Open House weekend and agreed wholeheartedly with the current mayor, Cr Margaret O’Rourke,

Bendigo has so much fascinating architecture that will be wonderful to share with visitors and residents alike.”