What happened in Christchurch last Friday was so horrific, it is difficult to express in words. Sorrow, a lump of marble pressing on my heart.
I can sympathise and empathise but any personal response to such a violent, hateful act seems totally inadequate.
Paralysis almost instantaneous – horror seems to happen a lot, news of violence and terror of varying scales, reported on every media platform but this time because it was multiple deaths close to home, it seemed to hurt more.
I’ve known grief but can’t imagine the immense suffering of the dead and injured in the shootings at the Al Noor Mosque and the Linwood Islamic Centre in Christchurch, and the effect on the wider Islamic community.
The process of writing and friends in the writing community, along with close family, have always been a solace – being able to write a way of working through trauma towards healing.
However, in the last few days, an inner voice and feeling of fatigue told me writing is pointless in the face of so much hate, violence and ignorance because the people who hold such angry and irrational views won’t read or care what I write.
Perhaps expressing how I feel will not be helpful.
However, in recent days, along with expressions of shared grief and love, there has been acknowledgement and reflection that hatred and extremism do not operate in a vacuum.
There have been thousands of words spoken and written by others expressing the belief that in private and public conversations we can, and indeed must, do better, unless we want to see a repeat and even an escalation of atrocities.
The more of us who publicly support those who need it and condemn the aggressors and hate-mongers, the better.
We can watch our words – think before we speak because the childhood rhyme of “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will neverhurtme”although well-meaning is patently untrue for the many people who suffer abuse and vilification every day because of their colour, ethnicity, sexual orientation, race, religious faith, country of origin or socioeconomic status.
Society seems too ready to marginalise groups of people and too slow at being inclusive and kind.
We can modify behaviour – our own definitely, but also encourage others to be kinder and more welcoming – and many people do. Participating in Harmony Day celebrations is a good start but there are many organisations and events available throughout Australia.
The terrorist filmed his ranting rampage
to maximise hatred and fear
stunned we recoiled in horror
but amid the shock
recognition and reflection…
Who made the bullets he fired?
Who marginalised and vilified
the targets of this cowardly attack?
Who formed, repeated and spread
words of hate seeking to fracture
and divide humanity?
Thoughts and prayers are not enough
The Scales of Justice seesaw
Responsibility Guilt Shame
Tolerance Acceptance Love
Belonging must be felt
and welcoming arms outstretched.
World history and experience proves the power of words. That’s why manifestos are issued by demigods, tyrants, megalomaniacs and political parties of every persuasion.
Words of philosophy and faith with the aim of spreading tolerance and peace can be uplifting and healing but words can be dangerous if used to deceive by spreading misinformation, bigotry and reinforcing harmful stereotypes.
Writers must take responsibility and consider who will read our words even although we can’t control how a reader interprets what we write.
Some may argue that rules and responsibility are for those writing about and reporting facts –
researchers must cast their net wide and gather as much information as possible to appear balanced,
journalists must differentiate between report and opinion,
academic language and style should not be emotive, biased or inflammatory.
I believe creative writers have a responsibility too. I may not always get it right but I try to be balanced when writing characters and situations, try to avoid creating or perpetuating harmful stereotypes whether sexist, racist, or ageist.
Will you explore or consider alternative ideas to the mainstream?
How do you portray people of different races?
Are you reinforcing or undermining racial stereotypes?
What roles are you assigning to male and female characters?
Are you reinforcing or undermining gender stereotypes?
Will you write about or relate to contemporary issues?
If representing certain beliefs about people and the world are you doing it honestly?
I’ve posted before about the power of books to move me from my comfort zone. Novels have enlightened and influenced me. Stories can reveal inequity and injustice and counter hatred and ignorance. They can nurture empathy and transform tolerance into acceptance.
Reading books from other cultures and about other cultures should be encouraged from a young age.
This post has been difficult to write and the images and detail of what happened in Christchurch will not be forgotten. They will be compartmentalised like other horrific examples of ‘Man’s inhumanity to man’.
Conversations have started at the highest levels of government to ACT and stop the demonisation of particular religious and ethnic groups and to recognise the harm done under the banner of ‘freedom of speech’.
I’m glad world leaders have promised to do something about limiting the reach or forcing corporations to take responsibility for the social media tools accessed and used to spread messages of hate, division and violence.
And if there is anyone who does not think Islamophobia is not harmful I can relate three examples close to my home and family:
On Friday night, two women who work with one of my daughters caught the tram home. This was a few hours after the shootings in the Christchurch mosques. They were women of colour and a white male sitting across from them shaped his hand into a gun, pointed, and pretended to fire twice.
Shocking as this may seem, this is one of many incidents they have had to deal with over the years. Most of their life they have lived under the hysteria and abuse ‘justified’ by 9/11 and the War on Terror. Rarely do passersby intervene, help or support the victims.
My daughter’s friends stopped reporting incidents to the police because, despite the probability of camera footage and even witnesses, the police are not interested or put any follow up in the too hard basket.
My other daughter stays in touch with a university friend who happens to wear a hijab. The friend’s Facebook posts heart-rending when she notes, ‘It was a good day today, I was only spat on once.’
If this is happening in Melbourne, the world’s most liveable city, and Australia, the lucky country, believe it when public figures tell you they knew it was only a matter of time before there was a massacre like the Christchurch shootings.
On Saturday evening, my daughter was having dinner in a restaurant in Balaclava. When she looked out of the window, she saw a man abuse and grab a Jewish passerby, shove him against the wall and try and grab his Kippah from his head. She jumped up and ran outside but an employee stopped her at the door and said, ‘I’ll go.’ A woman from a nearby shop also went to the victim’s aid. No other diner moved to help and people in the street stared or scurried by.
The rise of anti-semitism is well documented and in the East St Kilda neighbourhood where my daughter lives Swastikas have been daubed on synagogues, schools, shops and fences.
We have said sorry to our First People but there is still not a widespread acknowledgement that this land was invaded and founded on genocide. The Uluru Statement from the Heart was rejected by Prime Minister Turnbull and the current Prime Minister has not changed policy.
Aboriginal Australians know all about abuse, vilification, stereotyping, and marginalisation and yet they have often been the first ones to welcome refugees and migrants into the community.
Whatever actions authorities and all of us take, I hope it is not too little too late.
At the beginning of the week, I had to go into the city and because it has been a while, I took the opportunity to stroll through some of the streets and arcades I don’t normally visit and chanced upon a sculpture that looked vaguely familiar yet I hadn’t seen it before.
Travel with Love is a global public art project that’s re-uniting the world. In the face of closing borders, it stands for keeping minds open and love flowing.
When I read the blurb, I remembered where I’d seen similar public art – in December 2017, walking along the St Kilda foreshore with visitors from England after showing them the little fairy penguins.
As unlikely animal kingdom companions, the Rabbit and the Dog represent diversity and togetherness. Without a definitive race, religion, or culture, they symbolize all people as one.
A Case of Love At First Sight?
The artists, Gillie and Marc met on a film shoot in Hong Kong. Apparently, their differences should have been incompatibilities, but ‘their hearts said something else’. Seven days later they were married on the foothills of Mt Everest and are best friends and soulmates, collaborating for over 25 years as artists.
They appear to be living proof that indeed ‘love is all you need’ and they are spreading that love by ensuring their art makes a powerful statement as a motivating force for compassion and conversation.
Sydney-based they have created these iconic hybrid characters, which are definitely eye-catching and I believe they do what all good public art should do – they start discussions.
Two of the sculptures in St Kilda paid homage to well-known women:
Inspired by Angelina Jolie’s humanitarian efforts with conservation, education and women’s rights. Angelina Rabbitgirl… Stronger than ever – stands tall and strong showing she’ll never give up.
Marilyn Monroe may be the world’s most recognisable sex symbol, but behind her twinkling eyes and dazzling smile was a fragile and fearful rabbit-like woman struggling to cope with her own fame. She was also one of the first celebrities to be honoured by the paparazzi. Happy Birthday Mr Presidenthighlights society’s obsession with celebrities in a fun and accessible way.
The third sculpture is of coffee mates a beloved motif in Gillie and Marc’s art. These coffee drinker friends warmly remind viewers of their first-morning coffee. Early Morning Coffee shows Dogman and Rabbitwoman peacefully enjoying a morning coffee.
It was loaned to three separate locations in Melbourne: Melbourne Emporium, 500 Bourke Street and St Kilda Pier.
St Kilda Pier bought the sculpture after their three-month loan period because the sculpture was so successful in bringing together the local community.
I don’t know whether Travel With Love will remain on St Collins but considering the current debate engulfing our parliament in recent days concerning refugee policy, I really hope so, because unlike our Federal Government’s attitude this sculpture encourages unity rather than enmity.
In response to the worldwide plight of refugees and immigrants, and changing border control policies, Travel with Love has been created as a stand for global unity. Connected by the public art project, each visitor (traveller and resident alike) will feel like next door neighbours.
…Rabbitwoman and Dogman tell the autobiographical tale of two opposites coming together to become best friends and soulmates. The Rabbit and the Dog, as unlikely animal-kingdom companions, represent diversity and acceptance through love.
Rabbitwoman and Dogman have a dream that all creatures, regardless of race, religion, or orientation can feel accepted and never be judged.
Dogman holds a magnificent red apple. In Chinese, the word for apple is ping. Ping also happens to be the word for peace – a critical facet to the sculpture’s design.
2018, the Year of the Dog was going to be a year of good fortune, and the artwork aimed to engage existing community residents, while also attracting new visitors to this vibrant hub of multi-culturalism in Melbourne.
In Chinese tradition, when a dog enters a home it symbolizes the coming of good fortune. Dogs are loyal, clever and brave. Best friends to humans, they are known for having harmonious relationships with people from all walks of life and don’t discriminate against socio-economic status, race, religion, or orientation.
“In the face of last year’s unstable global landscape, an apple signifying peace holds particular importance by spreading the message of diversity and acceptance for all beings… Gillie and I feel deeply connected to this representation, as all of our art is built upon the foundation of love and togetherness.
We combined the powerful image of Dogman with an apple in the hopes of inspiring the public to be brave in the pursuit of a better world. ”
Gillie and Marc
Writers & Love
Love is the extremely difficult realisation that something other than oneself is real. Love, and so art and morals, is the discovery of reality.
Iris Murdoch 1919-99: ‘The Sublime and the Good‘ in Chicago Review 13 (1959)
Most people experience love, without noticing that there is anything remarkable about it.
Boris Pasternak 1890-1960: Doctor Zhivago (1958)
Love doesn’t just sit there, like a stone, it has to be made, like bread; remade all the time, made new.
Ursula K. Le Guin 1929 – 2018: The Lathe of Heaven (1971)
You know very well that love is, above all, the gift of oneself!
Jean Anouilh 1910-1987: Ardèle (1949)
Romantic love is one of the great and popular themes for art, especially literature and screen and in our society, we even set aside a special day to remind us of the fact!
Love The Day
Valentine’s Day, a day for lovers
Mr or Mrs Hallmark tell me so.
A day for lovers under covers
Valentine’s Day? A day for lovers!
A day when you forsake all others
A day that costs a lot of dough
Valentine’s Day, a day for lovers
Mr or Mrs Hallmark tell me so!
I can see you sitting reading a book
Twisting your hair, deep in concentration
I know you’d rather read than cook
I can see you sitting reading a book
Into another world with such a contented look
Did Dad envy the Mills and Boon destination?
I can see you sitting reading a book
Twisting your hair, deep in concentration
But there is also love of country, place, objects, family, food, music, hobbies, sport, film, books, politics, pets … the list extensive… all can add profound meaning to life, be the inspiration for getting up in the morning, the reason for decision-making, and for daily satisfaction.
a word, a feeling, a concept, a theme… love can be small, specific, detailed, contained within a personal circle or there can be the bigger picture – a love for humanity.
However, you experience love, I hope it involves tenderness and caring, perhaps duty and responsibility, resilience and loyalty, commitment, maybe even fun if it is something rather than someone.
No matter the interpretation or experience, I agree with Gillie and Marc that life is better with love, and kindness, especially when it comes to treating neighbours, immigrants, refugees and others marginalised.
We are lucky to have talented artists who can confront us with ideas, and councils, philanthropists, and communities prepared to invest in public art – whether it be sculpture, murals or other installations.
When I was in Irkutsk, Russia there was a whole park full of installations, many the embodiment of well-known rhymes and fairytales or figures from mythology.
I loved this one based on the three wise monkeys: hear no evil, see, evil, speak no evil. A cultural icon originally from the east (Japan) and well-known in the west.
I remember a small brass ornament that always sat on the mantlepiece during my childhood and I know many people in my age group (aged pensioners unite!) will remember something similar.
I wrote a prose poem years ago in class when I gave the students an exercise based on ‘an object of significance’ from their childhood.
Three Wise Monkeys
Mizaru, Kikazaru and Iwazaru sit on the mantlepiece:
seeing no evil, hearing no evil, and speaking no evil.
A Japanese pictorial maxim transplanted to Scotland.
Brought home by a great uncle, a ship’s captain,
these wise monkeys an added admonishment
to a childhood steeped in Presbyterian rules.
Yet, the shadow of evil an unseen cloak –
we live in the tatters of World War Two.
Crowded cemeteries, buildings awaiting demolition,
food rationing… crippling austerity,
shattered families struggle to find meaning,
shudder if ambulance and police sirens wail.
Speak no evil an achievable rule perhaps
but hearing no evil more difficult
and what of seeing evil or evil seen?
The brass monkeys a cold and chilly weight
in my child’s hand… etching a mystic message
of rules, to chant in the playground.
In Yekaterinburg, Siberia there was a delightful animal orchestra near the arts precinct. They brought a smile to my face and like the fairytale park in Irkutsk presented a different image of a country often represented in the media by military statues and huge murals of revolutionary figures.
I also loved this one of folk musicians in a park renowned for festivals and open-air concerts. having lived through the 70s and adoring Dylan and Donovan as well as Baez and Mitchell, this couple melted any language barriers.
But perhaps my favourite piece of public art when I travelled was Wincher’s Stance by John Clinch (an apt name). It was named by Susan Ritchie and commissioned by Strathclyde Passenger Transport Executive. Of course, it’s in Glasgow.
(In Scotland, winch is to kiss and cuddle. It also means to go out regularly with someone.)
The emotion this couple radiates is recognisable to anyone who arrives or departs from those they love – it can be the joy of reunion, or ensuring a lasting impression.
It can be easy to walk past public art or grow accustomed to it or take it for granted so I’m glad I came across Dogman and reading the artist’s statement helped me reflect on its message.
Love may not be ‘all we need’ but caring for each other and recognising similarities rather than differences is a good start. A big thank you to the many public art installations that encourage reflection and conversation!
I had a gift voucher to use for the Arts Centre which was close to expiry date (last year was not a good year healthwise for booking anything in advance) and when I saw Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story advertised with a session offering Q & A with the cast afterwards, I knew this was the perfect fit for my voucher – and which of my friends I’d invite to share the experience.
My friend Lisa, grew up in Caulfield and developed long-standing friendships and a special affinity with Jewish culture. She also loves plays as a form of storytelling, as much as I do.
What better play for us to see together than one advertised as–
A dark, funny and high-energy klezmer-folk tale inspired by the real-life story of two Romanian Jews seeking refuge in Canada in 1908.
It’s early 20th century Halifax and Chaim and Chaya, hounded from home, are waiting for immigration to decide their future, under threat of tuberculosis and typhus. Will they survive in this new land?
With neo-klezmer songs written by director Christian Barry and acclaimed genre-bending performer and musician Ben Caplan, this quirky one-act musical is written by award-winning playwright Hannah Moscovitch, who based it on the story of her own Jewish great-grandparents.
This bewitching music-theatre hybrid and cautionary tale for modern times – performed with instruments ranging from fiddle to clarinet, accordion, banjo and megaphone – was nominated for six Drama Desk Awards, won multiple Edinburgh Fringe awards and was a New York Times Critic’s Pick.
Old Stock is about humanity and finding your place in the world. Above all this story is about hope.
The refugee crisis is a topic rarely out of the news, especially in Australia, where we have asylum seekers languishing on offshore islands under indefinite detention and any discussion we have in the media or parliament soon descends into blame, shame, distortion of facts and fear of the other.
Everyone should listen carefully to the acceptance speech, via video, of Behrouz Boochani, an Iranian Kurdish refugee because it is about being human, not labelling yourself as a particular nationality, religion, or ethnic group.
Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story definitely topical!!
Whose interest is served by dividing the world into countries, building walls, increasing security and border checks, incarcerating those fleeing violence and natural disasters, stirring up resentment and hate, attaching ridiculous and misleading labels?
Most people, if given the choice would stay put, live in their own country and prefer peace – that is the reality.
Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story, like the novel No Friend But The Mountains challenge us to humanise these tragic circumstances and are great examples of what Ursula Le Guin believed,
“Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art, the art of words.”
The Power of Stagecraft
Louisa Adamson & Christian Barry were responsible for set and lighting design but stagecraft also includes technical aspects of theatrical production like sound, costume design and makeup.
All are important to set the scene for the audience but also enable the cast to perform smoothly.
These technical and artistic elements require a vision and interpretation that suits the theme/story and also gives the audience an enjoyable and entertaining experience.
In the foyer of the theatre, there were displays of costumes and models of sets emphasising these very points. Lisa mentioned how much she had enjoyed The King and I and we observed various people posing for photographs on a mock-up of the set for Evita fancying themselves as Eva Perón!
Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story went for 80 minutes without a break providing a challenge that a conventional drama with an interval might not and considering the subject matter and the set, I don’t think many will queue to have their photograph taken.
The lighting always important on stage but for this performance exceptionally so, to focus on a particular performer and distract the audience if props were being moved and others in the cast changed costumes or positions.
The Fairfax Theatre at the Arts Centre is comfortable and intimate and we had seats in the second row so had a great view of the performers and the set, which when we first sat down looked like a shipping container.
Ben Caplan in a bushy beard, top hat and a purplish jacket is spectacular and loud, almost raunchy when he appears like a magician amid smoke and flashing lights from the top of the container.
The intro routine opens two large, swinging doors displaying various musical instruments, hats, shawl and other accoutrements on hooks and shelves but Ben sings with gusto and he’s telling the story through his songs, which requires our concentration.
While he captured our attention, the other cast members set up the remaining props and hung the Halifax sign. The compactness and portability of the design clever, and although colourful, never became a distraction from the words and music.
A simple packing case and upended suitcases interchangeable as the characters journey through life and tell their story – which involves settling in Montreal (another sign up) getting married and starting a family.
Ben acknowledged Louise in the Q & A afterwards for the set’s strong visual metaphor. Most refugees have to travel by ship at some stage in their journey (certainly the ones in this story) and it also references World War Two refugees herded into freight train carriages.
I wondered if the white-haired gentleman, who asked the question about the set had memories of his family escaping the Holocaust like Denise Weiss, one of my students who wrote a hauntingly beautiful but sad vignette about her Jewish parents escaping Hungary – a train journey her grandmother and others took that ended in the gas chamber.
Although it is based on the historical upheavals and forced journeys the Jewish people have experienced, the story and characters are an allegory, representing humanity, and all people forced from their home because of war, prejudice, fear, natural disaster, or a desire to improve the lives of their children.
Conservative Leader Stephen Harper’s use this week of the term “old stock Canadians” in response to a question on support for reduced health coverage for refugees drew swift condemnation on social media, where many suggested the term has racist implications.
The newspaper article linked above has interviews with a variety of Canadians including George Elliott Clarke, Poet Laureate of Toronto. (I’m quoting him because I love poets, especially those with his ability, and who successfully show the personal is political and vice versa!)
Stock: A 7th-generation descendant of black refugees who settled in Nova Scotia in 1813, long before Confederation, Clarke also has native heritage and is a member of the Eastern Woodlands Metis Nation.
“The true ‘old-stock’ Canadians are the First Nations and Inuit and Metis, followed by the many divergent ethnicities who were also present in colonial Canada, from African slaves in muddy York to ‘German’ settlers on the South Shore of Nova Scotia, from the Chinese merchants present in Nouvelle-France to the Portuguese and Basque fishermen of Newfoundland.
“Personally, I think the current Prime Minister is unsure about his own identity and possibly nervous about the true, multicultural, multilingual, multiple-faiths and multiracial Canada that now beautifully, proudly, lives and flourishes.”
But perhaps it is a quote from Elise Harding-Davis, former curator of the North American Black Historical Museum that resonates more with what has happened to the debate in Australia – a debate that went downhill extremely fast with Prime Minister John Howard’s disgusting refusal to let the Tampa land asylum seekers and his declaration of ‘we’ll decide who comes into this country‘ plus his protegees Abbott and Morrison suggesting civilisation began with colonisation and revering Captain Cook!
Like all descendants of escaped slaves, her family was granted Canadian citizenship only in 1911. “Canada didn’t start out lily white. In fact, the only non-immigrants are the First Nations, aboriginal people… The idea of ‘Canadian stock’ is innocent ignorance. It’s a mindset of traditional thinking that all the people who started anything of note through history were the conquerors.”
The next major influence for Ben was the war in Syria and the appalling images of fleeing refugees and that shocking image of three-year-old Syrian Alan Kurdi drowned as his family tried to escape. This tiny body, washed ashore at a popular wealthy resort in Turkey, highlighted the suffering and death of many refugees and the huge divide regarding wealth, safety, and lifestyles in the world.
On World Refugee Day 2018, a record 68.5 million people were forcibly displaced in 2017. Record high numbers of men, women and children were driven from their homes across the world due to war, violence and persecution, according to a June 2018 report by the United Nations’ refugee agency.
Singer-songwriter Ben Caplan is the story-teller/God, a performance almost Vaudevillian as he behaves like an emcee (that’s where the megaphone listed as a musical instrument comes in) and also sings, dances (one number for me recalled a scene from Fiddler On The Roof) and acts in-between introducing the various scenes where Chaim (Dani Oore) and Chaya (Mary Faye Coady) tell their story intermingled with musical interludes. (Dani plays the woodwind and Mary Faye, the violin).
This is a tragedy with comedic streaks, especially the brilliant inflexions of Chaya and Chaim’s voices delivering their lines, many with the irony and chutzpah identifiably Jewish. Mary Faye said she listened to many accents online and worked on her voice for over a year to get the accent right. (She is of Scots/Irish descent, like me.)
The rhyme and rhythm of Ben’s songs catchy (if somewhat repetitive) but one, in particular, had the audience in an uproar when he recited euphemisms for sex (some I’d heard, others bizarre) and then suggested perhaps celibacy needed ‘careful consideration’.
When he dons the shawl of a rabbi and sings as a cantor, his voice and words are haunting – I found it deeply moving, even although it wasn’t in English – the meaning and emotional impact understood.
From the reaction of the audience and the questions after the show, it is obvious many were Jewish and the choice of music and songs triggered personal memories.
One lady of Russian descent, remembered a traditional lullaby her grandmother used to sing and suggested it be included in the show to make the scene where a lullaby is sung more authentic – Ben Caplan thanked her for her input but the power of art – song, poetry, drama, music, dance – crosses all boundaries and the writer and cast want to reach the largest possible audience.
Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story touched me, a person without a Jewish heritage. I found it captivating, emotionally engaging, entertaining and memorable with, I suggest, enough authenticity to satisfy most of the Jewish people present but not isolate Gentiles.
The story is about Jewish refugees Chaim and Chaya meeting in the line at the Immigration Centre in 1908 Halifax, Canada. They are both new arrivals from Romania, both traumatised from harrowing journeys but ordered into a line for the sick. He might have typhus because he has a rash. She might have caught her sister’s tuberculosis, she has a cough. He is ‘just a kid’ at eighteen years old but after seeing his family murdered in a pogrom has grown up fast. She is twenty-four, too young to be a widow but her husband and child didn’t survive the arduous journey they made across Russia to escape what Chaim lived.
Will they be allowed into Canada?Will they live long enough to establish a new life? Will they fall in love and have a future together?
The Jewish experience is dominant and when you read (warning this is very disturbing) about the rise of anti-semitic behaviour in Melbourne, this is a play with subject matter that needs as wide an audience as possible, with more Q and A’s afterwards discussing the points it raises.
What do you choose to do if someone is pounding on your door needing help – do you let them in or ignore their plight?
When are people accepted as citizens or allowed to belong and their contribution acknowledged?
The story seeks the sympathy and understanding of the audience and challenges us to confront the reality of refugees, the various reasons and circumstances forcing people to seek asylum, and the dehumanising language used by politicians, the media and bigots, the myths and misinformation, the stirring of fear when it should be compassion…
If someone is seeking help does it matter what religion, what colour, what language group, what religion they are – isn’t the fact they are desperate for help enough?
People are not numbers, not statistics, not clones – humanity is diverse.
To tell this story with shades of light and dark, fast-paced mood changes and engaging craftmanship of acting, voice, dance and music, the cast deserves hearty congratulations and lots more success as they take their show around the world.
Simone de Beauvoir once said:
“It is in the knowledge of the genuine conditions of our lives that we must draw our strength to live and our reasons for acting.“
I’m so glad I heard a little of the lives of Hannah Moscovitch’s Chaim and Chaya and will continue to advocate for our government to treat better those who come to Australia.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.’
Pets generate lots of stories! …
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.
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!
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 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!
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
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
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.
A Walk Down Memory Lane
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
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
They admire the rosemary bush at my gate
It’s for remembrance …
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…
At the end of last year, I went to a talk at Glen Eira Art Gallery, one of several in their Be Persuaded — Jane Austen exhibition. It brought the literary icon Jane Austen’s world to life through a fascinating selection of rare fashion, accessories, and ephemera from the 18th century and Regency era but it also sent me off on a journey to the immediate and not so immediate past!
As I’ve said many times, I like joining dots, discovering connections and links that enhance my understanding of people and the world, move me from my comfort zone and add to what I thought I knew or better still challenge my assumptions…
Presented by Dressing Australia — Museum of Costume, the exhibition highlights included an 18th-century silk gown, diaphanous Empire line frocks, spencers and other undergarments, capes and shawls, bonnets, parasols, and rare hand painted watercolours documenting fashion from the 1790s to 1840 but it also gave historical context and relevance.
The selection of little paintings – 27 in all – a unique collection illustrating the development of fashion styles during that period and according to organisers, there may not be others in existence.
Jane Austen used words, this artist used drawings – original drawings from 1793 – 1830 – to tell little stories. The drawings are detailed and in context whether it is streetwear, formal or informal and covers a range of age groups. The 18th century and Regency era’s Vogue Magazine with some tongue in cheek observations thrown in.
An exhibition of fashion we have all seen and perhaps admired/envied in period films but in reality comes with a suitcase full of disadvantages, class distinctions, and choices dictated by obedience to societal mores!
Everyone was invited to step back in time and play with games and toys that were popular during Jane Austen’s childhood as well as imagine what it must have been like wearing clothes on display.
A fabulous day in Bath immersing myself in Jane Austen country. Met so many interesting people including a couple of Aussies from Newcastle. Caught the bus to Swindon, a meandering weekend path swapped for a very fast train to Bath with just one stop! Bath is another place that could absorb a week and you’d still have a list to do but I’m happy – I had an enjoyable walk after “Jane” checking out the Regency Circle and Georgian houses before visiting a fashion museum with 100 costumes plus accessories from the early 17th century to 2017. And it was Free Comic Book Day so cosplay characters were everywhere delighting passersby, including me.
My Facebook Post May 6th 2017
Bath, a World Heritage City, yet most of my time spent tracing Jane Austen’s footsteps when I discovered a free walking tour and delightful guide with seemingly infinite knowledge of where Jane lived, visited, walked and shopped, along with places made famous by her two Bath novels: Northanger Abbey and Persuasion.
Like many others, I admire Jane Austen as a writer and studied Northanger Abbey for HSC Literature and surprised myself at how much I could recall.
guide advertising the tour is free
first stop on tour
the most photographed man in England
Jane looking far from welcoming
me with wax model Jane
we all had such rapport
There was an instant rapport with the guide who had a great sense of humour, even posing for a photograph with one of the cosplay characters from Planet of the Apes. All of us doing an impromptu dance together because music blared from a portable player nearby.
When I mentioned my daughter was a Whedon fan (the writer/filmmaker Joss Whedon) I was inundated with free comics to take back to Australia. I’ve blogged about the importance of comics and also cosplay before.
A wonderful, heartwarming hug at the end of the Walking Tour made my day. In the beginning, I was the only one on the tour with two others joining when they eavesdropped and discovered the tour was free.
Am I the only person who reads brochures and local leaflets? There is always a host of free stuff available and you get to meet amazing volunteers or organisations committed to history, the arts, and other community activities.
If ever in Bath, the free Walking Tour a must – it leaves from the Post Office and ends at the Jane Austen Centre and you meet people passionate about their work.
The young man who accompanied me a great raconteur. We discovered a mutual love of history, had read and liked similar books – and even shared our opinion about Brexit which was a talking point everywhere in 2017. (Methinks that hasn’t changed!)
Plus, he thought I was brave travelling by myself because ‘I was older than his mother‘. He wanted to know how I got on in Russia. I told him how much I enjoyed it and to separate countries from governments, people from politicians, and not be scared to travel and find out for yourself!
The other gentleman in the photo is Martin Salter, ‘England’s most photographed man‘ a title awarded March 2017 to recognise his ten years of outstanding service as the meeter/greeter at the Jane Austen Centre.
An icon recognised around the world because of the number of people he has welcomed, photographed, and posed beside for photographs – including me!
In the Georgian mansion that houses the Jane Austen Centre, I tried on clothes and delved into all things Jane Austen having a great giggle with other tourists and the enthusiastic employees and volunteers.
I was grateful it was just pretence because I don’t think my patience or spacial awareness, let alone deportment, would cope with the clothes of the Regency era or the lifestyle – definitely not the lack of rights for women.
I can’t imagine living in a time where beginning a novel with the following statement is so well understood:
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”
Jane Austen’s, Pride and Prejudice
After the museum, I wandered through the main streets of central Bath where the past and present nestled together with a few misfits, adaptations and imaginative additions.
Eating my sandwiches in the square I also digested what I’d learned about Jane’s life, her family, and the Bath that existed during the period she was writing. I imagined all the ladies and gents from middle and upper classes strolling through the city, admiring each other’s fashionable dresses, noting the designers and where it was purchased.
But what of the workers who keep the necessary machinery of life turning?
Where are the names of the seamstresses and the tailors who made the creations?
Who were the washerwomen who laundered and ironed, the maids and butlers who kept the clothes in good repair?
And considering that sweatshops still exist will tourists of the future attend exhibitions and ask the same questions about modern fashion?
At the nearby Fashion Museum, I barely absorbed all the interesting details because I’d reached the stage in the day when my brain signals ‘information overload’. The exhibition at Glen Eira a great opportunity to refresh or add information.
A different perspective is always good – especially when it comes to history and this free exhibition so close to home at Caulfield Town Hall – a magnificent period building in its own right.
I missed the opening by Caroline Jane Knight, the fifth great niece of Jane Austen, but got to hear the engaging floor talk from Fiona Baverstock from Dressing Australia — Museum of Costume who provided the exhibits.
Her talk ran the scheduled 45 minutes and her passion and knowledge of the subject, kept the whole room enthralled, even begging for more.She moved around the floorspace discussing each exhibit in detail – a 3D Powerpoint presentation with pertinent asides adding to the excellent information already provided.
Fiona explained her credentials as owner/curator of Dressing Australia Museum of Costume, which is not a ‘bricks and mortar’ museum. She only does travelling exhibitions with her private collection.
Jane Austen Perennially Popular
Mention Jane Austen and people come, especially since contemporary films and TV serials have introduced Jane to new audiences and her novels appear regularly on school booklists.
The timing was right, 2017, the bicentenary of Jane Austen’s death. The last 20 years have seen a revival of interest in Austen mania – good news for Fiona who thought she had sold most of her costumes from the Regency era.
She normally weaves a story about who owned the clothes but couldn’t for this exhibition because she had got rid of so much of her collection. Instead, she chose Jane’s family and a few major characters from the more popular novels and looked for clothes to suit their persona.
Jane was born in 1775, therefore, an 18th-century girl and 25 years old when the 19th century began. Her fashion taste well-established, however, the new century meant moving away from stiff conservatism and from what we know of Jane’s personality and lifestyle, she probably embraced new styles.
We know a little about her through her novels and lead characters but which character’s characteristics match the author? Lizzie Bennet, Emma Woodhouse, Anne Elliot, the two Dashwood sisters? When she sat down to write what personal thoughts and experiences did she channel?
Jane probably had at least one love attraction, never realised, and one proposal of marriage… accepted and almost immediately turned down. Love and marriage often discussed by her characters…
There are such beings in the world – perhaps one in a thousand – as the creature you and I should think perfection; where grace and spirit are united to worth, where the manners are equal to the heart and understanding; but such a person may not come in your way, or, if he does, he may not be the eldest son of a man of fortune, the near relation of your particular friend, and belonging to your own country. Letter to Fanny Knight, 18 November 1814
Jane’s nephew wrote the first biography of Jane Austen and he gave us a staid view, presenting Jane as a sweet, unassuming homebody. He censored or ignored letters – and Jane was a prolific letter writer – and did what I suspect many family historians do, sanitising, omitting and caring more about what people might think than accuracy or honesty.
Jane was not like his impression, she had an acerbic tongue and a more accurate impression is gained from letters she wrote to her sister Cassandra.
Unfortunately, shortly before Cassandra died, she destroyed the bulk of their correspondence – perhaps she too was worried about Jane’s reputation, or that the words would be taken out of context. Perhaps she wanted to shield family members and friends from forthright comments such as :
Poor woman! How can she honestly be breeding again? Letter to Cassandra Austen, 1 October 1808
This quote from a beautifully illustrated book from the Bodleian Library I discovered in Dymocks. Fifty Illustrated Quotations are drawn from Jane’s letters and novels, testifying to her wit and candid humour – and some not so humorous observations.
Her comments about the effects of the Peninsular War, dislike of parties and social obligations and impressions of London, ranging from acerbic, ironic to poignant.
No surprise that her characters sometimes use bitter sarcasm when speaking of women’s inequality, ageing, the disappointments of marriage, fashion, and the social scene.
Here I am once more in this scene of dissipation and vice, and I begin to find already my morals corrupted. Letter to Cassandra Austen (on arrival in London), 23 August 1796
I am almost afraid to tell you how my Irish friend and I behaved. Imagine to yourself everything most proliferate and shocking in the way of dancing and sitting down together. Letter to Cassandra Austen, 9 January 1796
Our ball was rather more amusing than I expected… the melancholy part was to see so many dozen young women standing by without partners, and each of them with two ugly naked shoulders! It was the same room in which we danced fifteen years ago! I thought it all over, and in spite of the shame of being so much older, felt with thankfulness that I was quite as happy now as then. Letter to Cassandra Austen, 9 December 1808.
Jane Austen observed – everything.
She captured behaviours, dialogue and idiosyncrasies of the people around her. As a writer, she is famous for her ironic omniscient narrator – detached and amused. For example that oft-quoted opening sentence of Pride and Prejudice.
Her observations of life and manners of the gentry class have been described as ‘a comedy of manners’.
I could no more write a romance than an epic poem. I could not sit seriously down to write a serious romance under any other motive than to save my life; and if it were indispensable for me to keep it up and never relax into laughing at myself or other people, I am sure I should be hung before I had finished the first chapter.
No, I must keep to my own style and go on in my own way; and though I may never succeed again in that, I am convinced that I should totally fail in any other.
Letter to James Stanier Clarke, 1 April 1816
Her characters are lively and believable so that even today’s readers engage with them when society has dramatically changed because she focuses on relationships and minutiae we can identify – and thank goodness she remained true to her own style!
All six of Austen’s novels are about love and marriage among the county gentry and the larger world of the French and American Revolutions, the Napoleonic Wars and simmering Irish and Scottish unrest don’t intervene except in her private letters.
How horrible it is to have so many people killed! And what a blessing that one cares for none of them!
Letter to Cassandra Austen on the Peninsular War, 31 May 1811.
Discovering A Different Jane
The following novels by Jane Austen were successful in her lifetime but published anonymously: Sense and Sensibility (1811) Pride and Prejudice (1813) Mansfield Park (1814) Emma (1815)
Northanger Abbey and Persuasion were published posthumously in 1818. Jane died in Winchester in July 1817, at the age of 41.
All these relationships between women, I thought, rapidly recalling the splendid gallery of fictitious women, are too simple. […] And I tried to remember any case in the course of my reading where two women are represented as friends. […] They are now and then mothers and daughters. But almost without exception, they are shown in their relation to men. It was strange to think that all the great women of fiction were, until Jane Austen’s day, not only seen by the other sex but seen only in relation to the other sex. And how small a part of a woman’s life is that …
Virginia Woolf’s observation about the literature of her time in her 1929 essay A Room of One’s Own
I discovered earlier writing by Jane that certainly gives a clue her personality and thoughts far from staid!
She wrote the ‘history’ book when she was sixteen and we can thank the writer JL Carr for publishing it in a series of Pocket Books:
… the originator, compiler & publisher of these Pocket Books did so in order to subsidise the writing of novels; the best known of which ‘A Month in the Country’ was short-listed for the Booker Prize in 1980 and won the Guardian Fiction Prize.
‘The History of England from the reign of Henry the 4th to the death of Charles the 1st. By a partial, prejudiced & ignorant Historian’ is dedicated to Cassandra and from start to the end of its 15 pages offers witty, barbed, and radical ( perhaps treasonous!) summations of various English monarchs.
The intro has two telling quotes – I wonder if it started off as a school assignment or a rant against how and what history is taught:
Read me anything but history, for history must be false
Sir Robert Walpole
History is just the portrayal of crimes and misfortune… All ancient history is no more than accepted fiction.
No doubt Jane was above average intelligence and better read and informed than many teenagers of her day, which probably went with the territory of having an educated father and many brothers in a variety of occupations.
I can imagine active and lively discussions over dinner and all those long country walks but I’m guessing when the manuscript came to light it would have raised a few eyebrows.
Was it a reaction to whatever history was considered the most important to learn or items in the news or an exercise to explore the power of words to tell a story – they could be the first examples of flash faction.
Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands. I will not allow books to prove anything.
Anne Elliot, Persuasion
I’ve kept her spelling and style in these snippets –
Henry the 4th
Henry the 4th ascended the throne of England much to his own satisfaction in the year 1399, having prevailed on his cousin & predecessor Richard the 2d, to resign it to him, & to retire for the rest of his Life to Pomfret Castle, where he happened to be murdered. It is supposed that Henry was married, since he certainly had four sons, but it is not in my power to inform the Reader who was his Wife. Be this as it may, he did not live for ever, but falling ill, his son the Prince of Wales took away the Crown; whereby the King made a long speech, for which I must refer the Reader to Shakespear’s Plays & the Prince made a still longer. Things being thus settled between them the King died, & was succeeded by his son Henry who had previously beat Sir William Gascoigne.
Henry the 5th This Prince after he succeeded to the throne grew quite reformed & Amiable, forsaking all his dissipated Companions & never thrashing Sir William again… Lord Cobham was burnt alive, but I forget what for. His Majesty then turned his thoughts to France, where he went & fought the famous Battle of Agincourt. He afterwards married the King’s daughter Catherine, a very Agreeable woman by Shakespear’s account. In spite of all this however he died, & was succeeded by his son Henry.
Henry the 6th
I cannot say much for this Monarch’s Sense – Nor would I if I could, for he was a Lancastrian. I suppose you know all about the Wars between him & The Duke of York, who was of the right side; if you do not, you had better read some other History… This King married Margaret of Anjou, a Woman whose distresses & Misfortunes were so great as almost to make me who hate her, pity her…
Edward the 4th
This Monarch was famous only for his Beauty & his Courage… his undaunted Behaviour in marrying one Woman while he was engaged to another, are sufficient proofs… One of Edward’s Mistresses was Jane Shore who had a play written about her, but it is a tragedy & therefore not worth reading. Having performed all these noble actions, his majesty died, & he was succeeded by his Son.
Edward the 5th
This unfortunate Prince lived so little a while that no body had time to draw his picture. He was murdered by his Uncle’s Contrivance, whose name was Richard the 3d.
Richard the 3d
The character of this Prince has been in general very severely treated by Historians, but as he was York, I am rather inclined to suppose him a very respectable man… Whether innocent or guilty, he did not reign long in peace for Henry Tudor E. Of Richmond, as great a Villain as ever lived, made a great fuss about getting the Crown & having killed the King at the battle of Bosworth, he succeeded to it…
This Monarch soon after his accession married the Princess Elizabeth of York, by which alliance he plainly proved that he thought his own right inferior to hers, tho’ he pretended to the contrary. By this Marriage, he had two sons & two daughters, the elder of which was married to the King of Scotland & had the happiness of being grand-mother to one of the first Characters in the World. But of her, I shall have occasion to speak more at large in future… his Majesty died, & was succeeded by his son Henry whose only merit was his not being quite so bad as his daughter Elizabeth…
What the teenage Jane alludes to is the belief that Mary Queen of Scots should never have been executed and in fact, after she describes the reigns of Henry the 8th (‘Crimes & Cruelties too many to mention’),
Edward the 6th (“a favourite” … “He was beheaded…”),
Mary ( “the good luck of being advanced to the throne of England, inspite of the superior pretensions, Merit & Beauty of her Cousins Mary Queen of Scotland & Jane Grey..),
Elizabeth ( It was the peculiar Misfortune of this Woman to have bad Ministers – Since wicked as she herself was, she could not have committed such extensive mischeif had not these vile & abandoned men connived and encouraged her in her Crimes.),
James the 1st ( Though this King had some faults, among which & as the most principal, was his allowing his Mother’s death, yet considered on the whole I cannot help liking him.) and
Charles the 1st (This amiable Monarch seems born to have suffered Misfortunes equal to those of his lovely Grandmother…),
she concludes with –
…my principal reason for undertaking the History of England being to prove the innocence of the Queen of Scotland, which I flatter myself with having effectually done, and to abuse Elizabeth, (tho’ I am rather fearful of having fallen short in the latter part of my Scheme.)
I wonder what witty observation or acerbic put down she would write regarding her popularity today, which is almost cult status thanks to – museums, festivals, competitions, documentaries, films, sequels and prequels and of course Colin Firth’s Mr Darcy – all that focus on a man!
Fiona in her talk said she had to include an outfit close to what people imagined Mr Darcy wore in that famous scene from the TV series that people remember yet it never actually happened! You know the scene when Colin Firth walks out of the lake after a swim and his partly unbuttoned undershirt is clinging to his body!
Well, with another detour taken care of – I’ll get back to Fiona’s talk and the exhibition –
When History Is Fashionable
Be Persuaded had a firm focus on fashion but Fiona threw in lots of historical asides and gems to think about when she explained why she chose particular items:
… from the rare 18th century gown which her mother might have worn at the time of Jane’s birth, through to the elegance and daring of the Regency era with its classic Empire line gowns, to the 1840s when women such as Cassandra had to once again retreat behind tight waists and voluminous skirts…
Jane was a keen observer of fashion and the role it played in defining status and the complex relationships in the society of her novels, even if in private she thought much of the detail and rules ridiculous.
I learnt from Mrs Ticker’s young lady, to my high amusement, that the stays now are not made to force the bosom up at all; that was a very unbecoming, unnatural fashion. Letter to Cassandra Austen, 15 September 1813
a mature Mrs Darcy
tulle and tissue bonnet
quilted protector and hat
Next week (I) shall begin my operations on my hat, on which you know my principal hopes of happiness depend. Letter to Cassandra Austen, 27 October 1798
Dress is at all times a frivolous distinction, and excessive solicitude about it often destroys its own aim. Northanger Abbey
In her research, Fiona found that the French open robe style usually didn’t come with a petticoat because few survived – they were frequently taken on and off and most probably wore out. Petticoats were often made of the same fabric as the gown in a complimentary or contrasting colour.
Women didn’t wear knickers in the eighteenth century (audible gasps and giggles around the room) but diaphanous see-through gowns led to pantaloons – although many of these were knitted and flesh coloured to give the appearance of no knickers. (more audible murmurings…)
What Influences Fashion?
Classical Greek and Roman lines are often the basis for design but also things like the Hussar Soldier Uniform and other unusual inspirations for accessories.
In the 18th century, the American revolution interrupted the supply of raw cotton and English industrialists looked to India and other colonies. The East India Company imported not just raw cotton but ready-to-wear material. Muslin, a popular dress material became available plain, coloured and even patterned.
Revolutions and wars are big influences.
For example, in WW2 and years immediately following, stripes and shoulder pads introduced and women’s suits were made from sturdy fabrics mimicking the style of military uniforms. It was a sad and serious time with material shortages plus more women in the workforce requiring suitable clothes. Less frivolity and more practicality.
When it is happier less threatening times, clothes reflect the change of mood – frills, fripperies, colour, softer material, flowing designs …
Who can forget the sexual revolution of the 1960s and the shock of mini-skirts and Jean Shrimpton attending the Melbourne Cup hatless, in sandals without stockings, and a mini dress?
Often military inventions lead to a fashion use (nylon, rayon and drip dry fabric, lycra) or in the case of the 18th century because of the French Revolution wearing silk, which was considered luxurious, became a ‘no no’.
The Empire Line named after Napoleon’s determination to create his empire another example of fashion reflecting what is happening in society.
Muslin easier to look after than silk but still hand washed, rinsed, squeezed – towel dried and ironed. Bows and vandyke edging needed a special tiny iron to get into tucks with its point.
When dresses long, if they swept the ground women didn’t walk in parks and gravel and avoided dirty paths. They stepped from the doorway to carriage. For those stepping out more – hems went up a bit and wore gowns that could be washed or survive regular washing.
18th-century shoes had thin soles for dancing pumps. Boots were for country lanes and lace-up boots had a slightly thicker sole and heel. Fashionable shoes wore out quickly – poorer people needed stout leather because they walked more and their leather shoes thicker and more uncomfortable.
In the Regency era parasols tended to have straight handles and small canopies. Folding handles appeared mid 19th century as did the metal spoke. The parasol in the exhibition dated to the late 1840s, it has metal spokes but a straight handle and the canopy of polished cotton has ruching, a frill and wooden finial.
Fiona dressed Cassandra in crinoline – it was a time when there was an absence of war and the men were back and the male idea of femininity emphasised. Women were ‘financially dependent so had to kowtow.’
Fiona compared the dress on display to the 70s fashion of bell bottoms, describing both as ‘ridiculous’. I agree – the above illustrations from the Fashion Museum emphasise how limiting those voluminous dresses would be.
I wore bell bottoms in the 70s and they were a short-lived fashion item. The nearest I’ve been to a crinoline is a hooped dress a friend made me for my 60th birthdayparty when everyone had to come dressed as their favourite literary character. I chose Jo from Little Women and the hooped petticoat and puffed-out gown not ideal for movement.
Just like in the 1820s/30s dresses were designed with restricted shoulder lines because women were not supposed to raise their arms – again we are talking about women in a particular class!
Anne Elliot, from Persuasion, was chosen to model a gown with a floor-length shawl.
Fiona asked us to note the sleeves and ruffles around the neck. The dress, fine cotton circa 1815 with flounces around the skirt. The lace a later addition. The bodice has ruching and the neckline an organdie tucker with ruffled collar. A Norwich shawl is over her shoulder.
The Norwich shawl, a long rectangle not square – perfect for wrapping or draping around Empire-line gowns. Itcould also be a Paisley or Edinburgh shawl, the name denotes where they were made. A Paisley square often folded into a triangle later in the 19th century when the voluminous ‘crinoline’ gowns returned to fashion.
The bustle killed the shawl as a fashionable accessory.
The shawl on show magnificent, Fiona’s own version of an expensive imported Kashmir shawl fashionable in the 18th century, which encouraged weaving centres like Norwich and Paisley to produce their own versions. However, original Kashmir shawls popular with the very rich.
This shawl is ‘partially filled’ – an assistant (usually a woman) sitting beside the weaver hand sews extra, thicker strands to the back of the shawl to make it stronger and warmer. In 1845, fine wool began to be imported from Australia and the fashion industry incorporated this in dresses as well as shawls.
Lizzie Bennet’s Wedding Dress?
Any exhibition must have the young Lizzie Bennet and Fiona chose a wedding gown circa 1810 imagining it was Lizzie’s because she considered after all the build up in Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen could have at least given a description of Lizzie Bennet’s wedding dress.
The classic Empire line gown is of ivory silk and so fine it needs a padded hem to give it weight. The bonnet is a reproduction of the original. The pumps 18th-century shoes.
White became a popular option in 1840, after the marriage of Queen Victoria to Albert of Saxe-Coburg, when Victoria wore a white gown trimmed with Honiton lace. Illustrations of the wedding were widely published, and many brides opted for white in accordance with the Queen’s choice.
Regency era it was white or pastel colours because white was a fashionable colour not just for brides. In Brideswear Revisited – 200 years of gowns: off-white, cream, ivory and oyster more popular because ‘white flatters no one’.
The Provenance of the Gown an interesting story
It was worn by Emma Cato who married George Daniel at Chelsea Old Church in London 1810. Emma, born in Holborn 1787, was one of nine children to Thomas and Elizabeth Cato. Thomas described as a wireworker who made items such as needles, fish hooks, cages, chains, traps, decorative architectural embellishments and garden decorations.
He would have belonged to the Worshipful Company of Tin Plate and Wire Workers, a City of London Trade Guild. Fiona said he must have been a master rather than a mere worker because he left a Will.
George Daniel, variously described as book collector, literary critic and author, meant Emma came into contact with some of the literary giants of the day as he claimed membership of an exclusive circle including Charles Lamb, William Hazlitt and Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
He published critiques of their work as well as those from ‘superstars’ like Sir Walter Scott often inserting some of his own ‘dubious attempts at verse’ in the critique.
Fiona adds we can ‘only imagine what Emma’s life with a self-important wannabe poet and author must have been like. Perhaps he earned enough from his published literary criticism to keep them in comfortable circumstances.’
She surmises that if Jane Austen had been a man, George Daniel may have critiqued her work and Emma might have met her – considering Jane’s early novels were written anonymously perhaps he did come across them – how would we know?
I don’t think he could have been too horrible considering he composed a poem to his daughter for her birthday (c1815) and it was stitched together as a booklet – a reproduction on display and the original is at the University of Indiana.
And Yet Another Sidetrack… Huguenots
I always learn something new whenever I attend a talk, workshop, gallery, museum… and Fiona’s had me searching online about the Huguenots who were French Protestants active in the 16th and 17th centuries. They were forced to flee France due to religious and political persecution by the Catholic Church and the Crown.
I knew their story of persecution but not their contribution to the fashion industry and beyond.
Still a lightning-rod for collective anxieties, the word “refugee” entered the English language when the Huguenots landed. Although migration had begun beforehand on a modest scale, around 50,000 French Protestants came to England after Louis XIV revoked the 1598 Edict of Nantes at Fontainebleau in October 1685. Another 10,000 fled to Ireland, part of an exodus of perhaps 200,000 people. Other large contingents went to Holland, Sweden and Prussia. That still left the bulk of a hard-pressed but robust population of 750,000 or so to weather hardship in France and wait for more tolerant times…
According to one estimate, one in every six Britons has some Huguenot ancestry. Names of obvious French origin tell only a fraction of this tale. Yes, it’s easy enough to spot a Laurence Olivier, a Simon Le Bon, a Walter de la Mare, a Daphne du Maurier, a Samuel Courtauld, a Jon Pertwee, a Reginald Bosanquet, an Eddie Izzard, even – as the Ukip leader happily acknowledges – a Nigel Farage. Yet, just like Jewish incomers two centuries later, Huguenot migrants often changed their names or had them changed by impatient clerks.
As a Victorian history of London puts it, “the Lemaitres called themselves Masters; the Leroys, King; the Tonneliers, Coopers; the Lejeunes, Young; the LeBlancs, White; the Lenoirs, Black; the Loiseaux, Bird”.
The Huguenots arrived in Britain from France and brought their skill of silk weaving to Spitalfields where 300 families settled transforming it into London’s centre for silk-weaving. The most amazing silk designer of that period was a woman – Anna Maria Garthwaite.
The type of motifs, scale, rendering, and colour palette in textile patterns went in and out of fashion and can be used to identify a garment as being from the 1710s, 1740s, or 1760s. The importance of silk-weaving and new designs to Georgian fashion cannot be underestimated as they conveyed not only taste but also status and wealth for the wearer.
Remarkably, one of the most successful and influential designers of silk patterns was an English woman, Anna Maria Garthwaite (1690-1763), who came to Spitalfields in 1730 and quickly infiltrated the male-dominated and family-based industry. In fact, the establishment and prosperity of Spitalfields silk-weaving were due largely to waves of immigration by French Huguenots fleeing persecution in the 16th and 17th centuries, many of whom were weavers bringing advanced skills.
As a forty-year-old single woman, it is unlikely that Garthwaite received much if any of the formal training required of her male counterparts. She worked in watercolour and at her most prolific produced approximately eighty designs a year, tapering off in the 1750s to about thirty designs per annum
Spitalfields was a major force in shaping eighteenth-century fashion because it was the centre of the silk-weaving industry in England. Silk manufacture drove the very business of fashion as trends concentrated on new textile patterns rather than garment styles.
Weavers, joiners, smiths and merchants set up shop in Soho or Spitalfields and textile and design students at London Metropolitan University, now study some of their crafts, such as silk-weaving, silversmithing and upholstery.
It is remarkable that a woman like Anna Maria Garthwaite achieved the level of success that she did. It is a testament not only to her sheer talent and vision but also her courage to value her own abilities.
The beginning of the year always a mixed blessing because January 10th is John’s birthday and a reminder my husband and best friend is no longer around, yet it is a new year and the future beckons and being a glass-half-full person, I look forward to whatever challenges await.
For the last sixteen years, the girls and I have visited Stony Point each January to reflect and remember John – and yes, we chat or share our thoughts with him.
Whenever I give my writing class an exercise to write about their happy place, or a place where they feel serene, I have Stony Point in mind.
Serenity Writing Exercise
Once a year, sometimes more often, I visit Stony Point on the outskirts of Melbourne. This tip of the Victorian coast looks across to French Island among other smaller islets and the tide flows out to the sea. There is a pier always populated with anglers – more in some seasons than others.
There is a ferry to French Island and half the pier is now fenced off for Navy patrol boats installed during John Howard’s ‘be alert not alarmed’ crusade.
John requested his ashes be scattered where they would be carried out to sea, being ex-Royal Navy, John was more comfortable on the water than land and Stony Point fitted the bill.
There are mini-wetlands (or mud flats) at Stony Point frequently visited by shearwaters, pelicans and of course the ubiquitous seagulls. The area is attractive to fishermen and regardless of the season, you will always see boats coming and going.
The gutting and scaling table regularly visited by a host of birds who seem to know just when to land and wait for a feed. The take-offs and jockeying for advantageous positions to catch thrown leftovers provide a rambunctious display by the birds, especially the pelicans.
My daughters laugh at my delight and are convinced I have the largest collection of photographs of pelicans in the world! This year, I think they had a bet going and were counting how many pictures I took – I never discovered whose guess was correct!
Many people visit Stony Point and there is a caravan park with permanent residents as well as frequent holidaymakers. Every day there could be bushwalkers, anglers, picnickers, fossickers, commuters to French Island, naval personnel from nearby Cerberus base and a handful of locals who operate a rundown cafe/shop.
But there are times, like the other day, when we were the only ones soaking up the serenity for an hour or so before one boat returned and two families arrived to visit.
I’m sure others like me, come to sit or walk by the short strand of sand or along the pier. Others relax while waiting for the ferry to French island. The kiosk, the railway station, the car park – so little change in sixteen years.
Stony Point is the end of the line for the train – a little diesel that comes from Frankston. The station personnel seem to be from another era of railway culture – a more friendly era – attuned to the age of steam perhaps – like my Dad and Grandfather…
However, just like the rest of the Victorian rail system, upgrading is happening to the only non-electrified rail line operated by Metro. There will be electrification to Hastings soon, but who knows when the upgrade will reach Stony Point, a place where change is rare.
John’s Story Forever Linked to Stony Point
When I think of John, I remember his love for the sea. The vivid memories of years in the Royal Navy he loved to share. His time at sea an escape from a violent step-father. It gifted skills and room to grow. Life below deck a creative exercise in space management and curled in a hammock beneath clambering pipes was not conducive to sleep. In the 1950s and 60s, he served on destroyers and stowed belongings in lockers between gurgling pipes. Ironically, the life he loved contaminated him with asbestos…
When I think of John, I recall he joined the navy as a fifteen year old ‘boy sailor’ and said he learned to respect and consider others, to cook, clean, and iron, to share, to care for himself, to operate radar and radio, sort and deliver mail, be the butcher and food buyer for the mess, and also train as a deep-sea diver. He mastered calligraphy and latch-hook weaving and became the Mediterranean Fleet’s high jump and long jump champion in Malta. Above deck, he discovered the pleasure and benefits of breathing fresh sea air; the joy of time to scan for exotic lands, learn to read the stars, be entertained by dancing dolphins, flying fish, and the unforgettable sight of the majestic blue whale.
When I think of John, I hear his voice reciting poetry and doggerel, quoting favourite passages from books he loved or people he admired (he could recite Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address!) and singing songs from favourite entertainers. A man of few words, each sentence counted. John didn’t do small talk…
His stints at sea gave him time to sit and think, to listen to the stories of others, and absorb some of life’s harsher lessons. He witnessed horrific scenes while based in the Mediterranean when Britain became embroiled in the Suez Crisis. He visited many European ports and also South America and South Africa, experiencing a variety of cultures and cuisine. Moved out of the comfort zone of his childhood English village, people and places expanded his heart and vision.
When I think of John, I remember his love for the sea and how it shaped his character. A sea he now roams as his ashes float from shore to shore, revisiting the lands he loved, being part of a marine world he admired – free of human form, he can dance with the dolphins, fly with the fish, or ride a whale.
When I think of John, I remember his keen sense of humour, can hear his laughter and know he would laugh with us and enjoy the story I’m about to tell of our visit to Stony Point last Wednesday.
I was taking pictures of some Shearwaters and Pacific Gulls sunning themselves on the edge of the slipway jetty when a man in his early 40s and his two children, a boy of 8 and girl of 6, followed me towards the birds. Their conversation –
‘What kind of birds are they Dad?’
‘They’re ducks, son.’
‘No they’re not.’
‘Yes, they are – look,’ he points to the pelicans,’ see how small they are to the albatrosses.’
I’ve seen gannets and black swans at Stony Point but never an albatross.
When I shared the father/son conversation with the girls, we laughed – it reminded us of that funny TV ad for Bigpond or maybe Google, some years ago – when the young boy asked his Dad why the Great Wall of China was built and the dad replied, ‘to keep the rabbits out.’
For the record, the next evening on a walk with buddy Jillian, I took a picture of a duck in Mordialloc Creek.
And this is a pelican –
Pelicans – symbols of mutual aid and love
The Australian Pelican (Pelecanus conspicillatus) is the largest of the shorebirds that can be found along Victoria’s coastline. It has a wingspan of 2.3-2.5 metres and weighs 4 to 6.8 kilos. Wild pelicans can live up to 25 years. Predominantly white with black along the perimeters of the wings, it has a large pale, pinkish bill. An Australian pelican was recorded with the longest bill of any bird in the world. It is the most southerly breeding of all pelican species and is the only pelican found in Australia.
Between the bones on the lower bill is a stretchy patch of skin called the gular pouch. The gular pouch will stretch when it is filled with water and can hold up to three gallons. Pelicans also have a large nail on the tip of the upper part of the bill. They have short legs and large feet with webbing between all four toes.
Their diet is mainly fish but they are carnivores and will eat turtles, crustaceans and other waterbirds. They can soar to heights of 10,000 feet and can commute 150 kilometres to feeding areas. Highly social, these diurnal birds fly together in groups which can be very large. They breed in large colonies of up to 40,000 individuals.
Strong, slow fliers they often glide on thermals to conserve energy. During flight, they pull their head inward towards their body and rest it on their shoulders. They have been known to remain airborne for 24 hours as they seek food.
Pelicans pair up every breeding season and stay with the one mate for the rest of the season.
Adult pelicans rarely use the few calls they have but can hiss, blow, groan, grunt, or bill-clatter. The young are more vocal than the adults and will loudly beg for food. Australian pelicans primarily communicate with visual cues using their wings, necks, bills, and pouches, especially in courtship displays.
Like all birds, Australian pelicans perceive their environment through visual, auditory, tactile, and chemical stimuli. Opportunistic feeders, they adapt to human activity quite easily and directly approach humans to be fed or will steal food, which is problematic because they get caught on fishing lines and hooks.
The Pelican’s Paparazzi
Always gathered at Stony Point
pelicans wait for boats to arrive
yet with beaks and wings so large
it’s fishing skill keeps them alive
perhaps these pelicans are lazy
or maybe they’re super smart
stocking food for a week in that beak
without having to dive and dart…
Stony Point’s fishermen’s table
a magnet for seabirds galore
shearwaters, seagulls – even swans
compete with pelicans for more
discarded fish guts, heads and tails
whatever fishermen don’t want to eat
I love to watch and capture on camera
the birds vying for a treat after treat
I can’t explain my pelican fascination
except they soar skywards with poise
and whether they stand, sit or float
they exude serenity without noise
they don’t screech, squeal, or twitter
but seem content to ‘just be’
if reincarnation is really a thing
then it’s a pelican I choose to be!
So little has changed at Stony Point thank goodness, although over the years signs have been added like the new banner announcing the naval facility is now managed by http://www.portofhastings.com and the new sign about French island is detailed and attractive.
Love for More Than One Place
When I developed cancer in 2010, I had lived in Australia nearly half a century, yet still felt I didn’t quite belong, still found myself homesick for Scotland, the land of my birth. I loved Australia, especially my home in Mordialloc where I have lived for thirty-five years. I married there and gave birth to my two daughters and brought them up in Mordialloc, but there was a passion missing, a sense of belonging I needed to ignite because if I was going to die should I return to Scotland?
After I finished chemotherapy I decided to create a bucket list because breast cancer and the treatment had me on the brink of death several times due to complications. I had always wanted to visit Australia’s red centre and see Uluru, in Australia’s heart and a sacred place for the Aborigines. I felt if I could get closer to the earth sacred to Aborigines, a connection to their mother, the country, would perhaps rub off on me.
Through research on the Internet, I discovered a tour company taking a group of writers to walk the Larapinta Trail called Desert Writers. Led by Jan Cornell, we’d spend five nights camping in the desert and walk the trail with two indigenous guides.
I didn’t hesitate and booked to fly to Alice Springs in July 2011 – still almost bald and a little fragile from a lumpectomy, haematoma, then radical mastectomy, three months of chemotherapy and a nasty bout of pneumonia thrown in for good measure.
The trip would not only realise a dream but would affirm I could still travel, which is one of my passions. It promised to encourage me to write, the most important passion I have. However, more importantly, I hoped to gain a greater appreciation and deeper connection to my adopted homeland, something I had not felt since being uprooted from Scotland as a child.
The journey fulfilled all my hopes and last year when I returned to Scotland after a twenty- year absence I loved being back, but returning to Mordialloc was coming home.
My place is Mordialloc, where I can walk along the seashore and as far as I can see there is freedom, an infinite sea, and endless sky.
I can stroll by the Creek enjoying the beauty of native and imported flowers and trees, listen to birdsong, laugh at the antics of ducks and seagulls.
I can breathe and feel secure, even at night, because wherever I am near the sea, John is with me. We sprinkled his ashes at Stony Point so he can wander distant lands, many he’d visited as a boy sailor but always his spirit can return when he feels inclined to touch these shores again.
Whenever the girls or I am near the sea we know John is there, just as the Aborigines know their country and walk in the knowledge their ancestors are protecting their place and their stories.
When I die, my ashes will be sprinkled into the sea at Stony Point. My first journey will be to my birth country, the Western Isles of Scotland, but I will always return to these shores as long as the girls are here and so much of my life’s story.
At Stony Point, I feel calm, serene and comfortable. It is one of several places I cherish as well as marvellous Mordi!
Over the last few weeks, I’ve struggled to write about Remembrance Day 2018 – or write about anything else on this blog because this anniversary was important and I wondered how I could do it justice and make sense of a lot of the thoughts rattling around in my head – particularly considering the fractious state of today’s world – a fact we are constantly reminded of due to the 24 hour news cycle and social media.
So buckle up – grab a cuppa or read the post in stages:) ponder the words and meaning of the poems, savour the poignancy of some of the photographs.
Peace does begin with ourselves, our families, our communities…
This year, the centenary of the signing of the Armistice in World War One – 11 November 1918 – signified PEACE at last, after four years of carnage, but as many people have already written, humanity ignored all the lessons learned and we’ve hardly stopped skirmishing or creating full-blown battles ever since.
Six Excuses Not To Write
1. I was distracted by the Victorian Election and busy working for the return of the Andrews Labor Government as well as Mordialloc’s local member, Tim Richardson MP who genuinely cares about the local community and works hard. I made this a priority and to be honest enjoyed myself and met many interesting people. No encounter every wasted for a writer…
The personal is political. Ever since my involvement in the Vietnam Moratorium Movement as a teenager, I’ve made activism a priority – the community is too important not to care enough to work for social justice and be a peace activist. If enough people care to speak up, it does make a difference. A change of government in 1972 and Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam brought the troops home.
At a get-together, before the “Danslide” as Daniel Andrews Labor win is described, we met in Tim’s office and I gave the Premier a couple of Mordialloc Writers’ Group anthologies and advised, ‘there is no better way to understand a community than through the poems and stories of its writers.”
I hope he reads them.
2. I mulled for hours at how to express the disquiet I feel about exhibits and projects at the Australian War Memorial being funded by arms manufacturers and the millions of dollars the Federal Government has spent on memorials rather than the health and well-being of veterans.
At the Centenary Celebration in Canberra, I saw first-hand elements of concern. Huge guns and tanks out the front (ironically pointing over the Field of Poppies and at the statue of Sir John Monash) as if these harbingers of death and destruction should be celebrated. There’s always going to be arguments about what is glorification and what is commemoration but there should never be a debate about prioritising the welfare of veteransand recent reports indicate we are letting them down.
3. I’ve spent my life studying history (a subject I love), travelling to as many places as I can afford, visiting exhibitions and museums, reading widely – I’m a person who tries to join the dots to understand ‘the human condition’ we writers love to explore. This topic has so many dots to join and I have an overabundance of thoughts that don’t necessarily provide answers or coherence. It was easier to procrastinate … but in a case of physician heal thyself – I did ‘jump in and just write‘ and followed the advice I give students!
4. I read again the poets of the First World War and visited a poignant and confronting art exhibition at Melbourne’s wonderful Shrine of Remembrance. An experience that deserves its own post although inextricably linked to the topic and so won’t get its own post now – please visit and experience for yourself.
5. The trips to Canberra, and to Melbourne’s Shrine, were to visit the culmination of the magnificent 5000 Poppy Project. The organisers did a superb job and I was keen to see what happened to my contributions. (As if I could find mine among the thousands of donations but ego being what it is … I should have been more creative and added sparkles or something so they would stand out!)
In Canberra, several installations were truly works of art and in Melbourne, the knitted tributes spelt out the familiar quote and linked lines from The Ode from Laurence Binyon’s For The Fallen, and its well-known response. Too many of us probably say the verses without pondering the meaning but I guarantee seeing the words ‘in blood’ sears your heart – especially with the thin red trail linking each line, like droplets of blood and a poignant reminder each poppy represents a lost life.
6. Maybe the most valid excuse is that the last few weeks of the school year are always manic as I collate and publish class anthologies – and this year, retiring from my position at Godfrey Street after 6 years, I wanted to go out ‘with a bang, not a whimper‘. I cracked the whip for my students and myself and there really is a finite time to sit at a computer and remain healthy. I crossed that line too often, burning the proverbial midnight oil with bad posture and tension taking its toll on legs, bones, and back.
Poppies At Melbourne’s Shrine of Remembrance
After walking amongst well-tended gardens, I rested in sanctuaries for those broken by experience and memories. Each secluded ‘garden’ displaying plants of different spheres of war for Australian troops.
I strolled darkened corridors absorbing the important stories we need to remember – depicted in a variety of ways without glorifying conflict. I climbed stairs to have a bird’s eye view and photograph magnificent Melbourne and the sweeping grounds of Victoria and Domain Gardens.
Skyscrapers and tree-lined boulevards and busy thoroughfares vastly different to 1918. The city those volunteers rushed to defend now remarkably different to what they would have known.
I pondered what Brendan Nelson and Kerry Stokes might learn from the management of Melbourne’s Shrine if they visited. I prefer the way Melbourne presents the story and the stories it chooses to promote. They also have courteous, friendly staff and volunteers.
A young woman approached me when she saw me reading the Memorial Book –
Are you looking for a relative?
Yes, thought I may find my uncle’s name.
Wait a moment and I’ll get the key…
Within minutes, she was back wearing white cotton gloves and wielding a key. She asked for my uncle’s surname, unlocked the relevant glass cabinet, and carefully turned the pages until his name was revealed. She then stood aside so I could take a picture of the page.
It was a busy day for visitors because the poppy installation was being removed the next day, yet the young woman took the time to offer me a service I didn’t know about – she went above and beyond and personalised my experience!
The exhibition by artist Craig Barrett called EVERYMAN is an emotionally moving experience. Craig incorporated poetry into his art.
In 2005, he wrote:
Four men from my family were caught up in the great tides of men fighting on the Western front of the First World War… Great Uncle George remains there… others returned home with their wounds and nightmares.
In recent years I have become aware of the poets of the First World War. These men were artists who conveyed powerful images through words from their camps, their trenches, and their hospitals.
I found myself especially moved by the words of the English poets Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon… Growing up I knew little and understood less of what these men had witnessed. The poetry of Owen and Sassoon has given me a glimpse of my own family and of the family of Man entangled in war…
These words resonated because I too have an “Uncle George” I’ve written about and it is this exploration and family connection that set me on a path, to learn why a nineteen-year-old relative is buried in Egypt. How did he die? How did his death affect his family, especially sister, Kitty whom we met in 1962 when we migrated to Australia?
I remember, Aunt Kitty’s air of sadness. I was nine-years-old and at night we sat at her feet listening to stories about the Australian branch of the clan, about ANZACS and a war in a land near where our ship had passed when we came through the Suez Canal.
EVERYMAN Siegfried Sassoon
The weariness of life that has no will To climb the steepening hill: The sickness of the soul for sleep, and to be still. And then once more the impassioned pygmy fist Clenches cloudward and defiant; The ride that would prevail, the doomed protagonist, Grappling the ghostly giant. Victim and venturer, turn by turn; and then Set free to be again Companion in repose with those who once were men.
Is Every Generation Destined to Repeat The Mistakes Of The Past?
Is there a need for us all to look deeper into what causes war, and what prevents a lasting peace?
Yet, there have been enquiries and research, backed by evidence and statistics, about the need for more resources to work in the community to combat radicalisation, and the alienation from mainstream society many young people experience. Experts encourage projects to improve inclusiveness and the mental health of those at risk of turning to violence.
Men who have been caught or suspected of terrorist acts often have a history of domestic violence. In Australia, more than 72 women and 20 children have been killed since January 2018 because of domestic and family violence. Despite knowing what we must do there seems a lack of political and social will and a lack of coordination and funding of resources to make a national difference to this scourge of homegrown terrorism.
And then there’s the refusal or reluctance of people to recognise the Colonial Warsand the Aboriginal nations who were here and valiantly fought to keep possession of their land from colonial invaders.
As John Lennon so aptly said, we have to make PEACE and do it right!
Will We Ever See A War to End All Wars?
Armistice Day November 11, 1918, which led to the end of World War One – the war to end all wars – did not herald a lasting peace. A war has been fought somewhere in the world ever since and many historians agree that the conditions of the peace seemed to set the scene for the Second World War.
Every day the nightly news brings us footage of soldiers and militarised police forces under fire or firing guns of formidable power somewhere in the world.
In many parts of the world, there are generations who have NEVER known peace. I was a volunteer tutor every Saturday morning to a Sudanese refugee for a year. A young woman in her 40s, with five children and a husband still stuck in a camp in Kenya, Mary had lived in a state of war in her country since she was 14 years old.
No life’s worth more than any other, no sister worth less than any brother.
Peace requires effort and political will and to suggest no one wants war is wrong – arms manufacturers thrive on war, which is why their influence (even in local elections under the guise of ‘shooters and fishers’ ) is alarming.
They fund public institutions and political parties for a reason. Look no further than the power the National Rifle Association wields in the USA. Working towards peace requires recognition that the Roman poet, Horace‘s oft-used quote Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori ( It is sweet and right to die for your country) encouraged militarism and is indeed ‘The old lie” that WW1 poet Wilfred Owens asserts at the end of his most famous poem.
A poem thought to have been written between 8 October 1917 and March 1918 after his years of witnessing the horrific slaughter and destruction on the battlefields of France and Belgium:
DULCE ET DECORUM EST Wilfred Owen
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks, Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge, Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs And towards our distant rest began to trudge. Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind; Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind. Gas!Gas! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling, Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time; But someone still was yelling out and stumbling, And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime . . . Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light, As under a green sea, I saw him drowning. In all my dreams, before my helpless sight, He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning. If in some smothering dreams you too could pace Behind the wagon that we flung him in, And watch the white eyes writhing in his face, His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin; If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs, Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues, My friend, you would not tell with such high zest To children ardent for some desperate glory, The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est Pro patria mori.
Can we blame the Romans for our culture of militarism and seeking military solutions?
Many of us read the words of these WW1 poets at school but whether we really absorbed their message is difficult to say – unless you had experienced war or grief and could empathise – and that’s difficult for school children.
It’s difficult for some adults, which is why writers must choose words carefully and why poetry, short stories and novels can help with empathy. Here is an interesting extract from a short memoir I read recently:
During my deployments, I only had to fire my gun twice in engagements, and, in retrospect, neither of those firings was likely warranted. Suffice it to say that both times, I could feel my heart shaking, and I came close to wetting my pants. The only film I’ve ever seen that captures this feeling—part terror, part adrenaline rush—is The Thin Red Line, and specifically in this woods scene, where the soldier becomes lost in the dark. He hears himself panting. Soon, bullets whish past him—directionless, it seems—and the only precedent for this, apart from Dante, astray on his path in the woods, might be Camus’s hapless prisoner in “The Guest,” who finds himself stranded and alone on the Algerian plains. What makes war so frightening isn’t the likeliness of death. It isn’t the suffering. It isn’t the inconsequentiality of humanness. Indeed, these are all apparent to anyone who’s reached middle age. Rather, it’s that sense of being alone. And I would hypothesize that it only comes to light in a warzone. After all, one realizes, especially in moments like this, that those who kill do not have any inherent fixed loyalties. Each human is invariably alone, regardless of the colors they wear.
Each year documentaries are made of the tragedy and sacrifice of a whole generation in WW1, but in the words of singer/songwriter Eric Bogle, ‘… it all happened again… And again, and again …’
GREEN FIELDS OF FRANCE
Oh how do you do, young Willy McBride Do you mind if I sit here down by your graveside And rest for a while in the warm summer sun I’ve been walking all day, and I’m nearly done And I see by your gravestone you were only nineteen When you joined the great fallen in 1916 Well I hope you died quick And I hope you died clean Or Willy McBride, was is it slow and obscene
Did they beat the drums slowly Did they play the fife lowly Did they sound the death march as they lowered you down Did the band play the last post and chorus Did the pipes play the flowers of the forest
And did you leave a wife or a sweetheart behind In some loyal heart is your memory enshrined And though you died back in 1916 To that loyal heart, you’re forever nineteen Or are you a stranger without even a name Forever enshrined behind some old glass pane In an old photograph torn, tattered, and stained And faded to yellow in a brown leather frame
Did they beat the drums slowly Did they play the fife lowly Did they sound the death march as they lowered you down Did the band play the last post and chorus Did the pipes play the flowers of the forest
The sun shining down on these green fields of France The warm wind blows gently and the red poppies dance The trenches have vanished long under the plough No gas, no barbed wire, no guns firing now But here in this graveyard that’s still no man’s land The countless white crosses in mute witness stand To man’s blind indifference to his fellow man And a whole generation who were butchered and damned
Did they beat the drums slowly Did they play the fife lowly Did they sound the death march as they lowered you down Did the band play the last post and chorus Did the pipes play the flowers of the forest
And I can’t help but wonder oh Willy McBride Do all those who lie here know why they died Did you really believe them when they told you the cause? Did you really believe that this war would end wars? Well the suffering, the sorrow, the glory, the shame The killing and dying it was all done in vain Oh, Willy McBride, it all happened again And again, and again, and again, and again
Did they beat the drums slowly Did they play the fife lowly Did they sound the death march as they lowered you down Did the band play the last post and chorus Did the pipes play the flowers of the forest
The horrors of WW2, Malaya, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan… we keep adding to the toll, make the words of the poets even more poignant when we realise the average age of soldiers who die in wars are 19, 20, 21, 22…
ANTHEM FOR DOOMED YOUTH Wilfred Owen
What passing-bells for these who die as cattle? — Only the monstrous anger of the guns. Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle Can patter out their hasty orisons. No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells; Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,— The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells; And bugles calling for them from sad shires.
What candles may be held to speed them all? Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes. The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall; Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds, And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.
Is a Plea for a Change in Priorities to emphasise PEACE too much to ask?
November 11 is a reminder, not only of the tragedy and futility ofWW1 and many other wars since but a warning of the fragility of peace and the importance of working hard to avoid conflict.
The Canberra Rotary Club is making an effort to remind people of the importance of peace and has built an easily accessible World Peace Bell as well as introducing the Rotary Peace Prize.
There are at least 23 of these bells throughout the world with plans for more. Volunteers man the bell at busy times encouraging people to recite an oath as well as ring the bell so the sound carries across the lake.
The volunteer who helped me explained the history and ensured I understood the affirmation, before reciting the lines aloud.
As I walked through Nara Park and visited the National Museum on the other side of the lake, the bell’s beautiful, deep, resonant tone tolled for peace.
The first recipients of the Peace Prize long-term advocates for world peace and activists in raising awareness and requesting an adjustment of society’s priorities:
Nation states, perhaps individual tribes and families. 21st-century social media exposes
All humanity – those not so lucky or ones we are told to fear –
Those trapped in places where war is an integral part of their journey from birth…
In my lifetime, the Middle East a constant muddle of bombs and brutality
Or the African continent with droughts, internecine wars, deadly viruses and famines
Not forgetting our neighbourhood’s volatility in the hands of Rocket Man & Dotard…
A world of sharing, no possessions to kill or die for, a world of peace
No borders! This dream elicits accusations ranging from lunacy to scorn
Dreaming and desiring the impossible…
Dreaming? Imagining a better future – isn’t that what we wish for our children?
Religious fundamentalists and fanatics insist
Everyone believe or have faith in a deity you can’t see, imagining a heaven and hell
And for many acquisitive others, it is land and possessions – they
Mean power, progress, personal esteem. It is difficult, but so important, to imagine
Sharing ALL the world and its bounties – thank you, John, for gifting your dream…
When you flip the peace sign upside down, it’s composed of the ancient rune ‘Algiz’ inside of a circle. ‘Algiz’ represents life, beginning, and protection; very fitting for a symbol of peace. … Add it all together, and an upside-down peace sign literally means ‘endless peace’.
He was 19 years old when they laid him to rest in Egypt and as far as I know, no member of the family has ever visited his grave. His death and the grief that followed changed the lives of his parents and siblings forever – a common tragedy for so many families worldwide detailed in letters, diaries, poems, novels, and memoir.
Dear Mum and Dad Mairi Neil
WW1 began in 1914, the fighting lasted four years, but grief lasts a lifetime.
I see you both in my dreams the image helps suppress the screams of many mates who have been shot–– This world has really gone to pot!
When I joined up to come and fight I thought I was doing what was right But Mum those Bible texts you read Don’t explain what it’s like to kill – or be dead.
Young Johnny Parker from down the road Shot on landing. Floats at sea –– a bloated toad. So many like him, bodies never retrieved No prayers, no burial, relatives deceived.
If I’m shot soon, or perhaps blown apart You’ll receive a letter to ease a painful heart But take what it says with a pinch of salt It’s madness here -no decency, nobody’s fault.
The cardboard dog tags disintegrated when a body rots or is incinerated Identities disappear over time – whole battalions consumed in lime
So just as I dream of both of you Hold fast your memories of me too Because if like snow, I don’t survive Only reminiscing will keep me alive.
My visit to Canberra for Remembrance Day to see the Field of Poppies (62,000 of them) and take part in the national ceremony commemorating the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Armistice that ended the First World War, allowed me to take part in a historic occasion but also made me reflect on the past, present and think of the future.
What stories we keep, how we pass stories from one generation to another, and the relevance and meaning of the stories we choose, whether personal or public.
In Canberra, amidst the field of poppies, it was sobering to discover people who didn’t know the significance of the flower, and others that didn’t seem to care, like the private security firm that used the field as an opportunity to have a promotional photoshoot – replete with uniforms and guard dogs.
Two men wandered around on Remembrance Day dressed in WW1 uniforms offering to pose for photos and a volunteer from the poppy project confided she had to chastise a group of young girls who laid down amongst the poppies uncaring of damage because they wanted to pose for pictures on Instagram and Facebook. There were also those who stole souvenirs from the installation, which volunteers spent hours replacing.
Parades and displays can be ignored but if everyone’s routine is interrupted – even for two minutes – perhaps it will make people ask why. Why the carnage, why do we go to war? Is there another way to solve disputes? Should we rely on a few leaders to decide our destiny?
Parliament House, Canberra
There were two displays at Parliament House (270,000 poppies).
The 5000 POPPIES project has left me in awe at how a simple idea encouraged involvement from people all over the world as well as educating about the loss of life in WW1 – and subsequent wars.
If it made people pause and consider the human cost of war, perhaps think of their family and their country’s history, seek information and reflect, then it has been a success.
Always the honour roll of those who died in conflict either at home or abroad confronts and shocks – alphabetical lists that in peacetime are associated with telephone books and thick tomes of the living.
Australia talks about thousands of lives lost, but for other nations it is millions! When I was in Irkutsk in Russia last year, a guide said to me, ‘In Russia, we list the names of survivors (mainly officers and ‘heroes’, I might add) because there aren’t enough walls to list the dead.’
Throughout the world, we have listed on walls, monuments, and in remembrance books, names while bodies and ashes lie elsewhere. Many resting in places where loved ones never, or can never visit.
Thousands of blood-red poppies a stunning visual reminder – each one different – representing the individuality of each lost life. The gaps in the field of poppies remind us not every casualty was/is found or identified.
For me, the creative project a chance to DO something and make a practical contribution to remembrance. Others, obviously, felt the same because it fired imaginations and activities in so many places: neighbourhood houses, U3As, schools, churches, numerous community and family groups and private individuals… and hopefully inspired discussions.
1918-2018: 5000 POPPIES – A TRIBUTE
At Parliament House, the forecourt installation of handmade poppies will be there from 9-18 November while the Marble foyer poppy installation will remain until 3 February 2019.
This display of poppies, lovingly created by 5000 Poppies project volunteers – many of whom are descendants of original Anzacs – is a tribute to the thousands of Australians who died in the First World War.
It complements the sea of handcrafted poppies that will carpet the Parliament House Forecourt to mark the 100th anniversary of the Armistice, 11 November 1918. With a direct line of sight to the Australian War Memorial, the display connects with the 62,000 poppies installed on the Memorial’s grounds representing every Australian life lost in the First World War.
Courtesy of traditional and social media we’ve been flooded with information – overloaded some will say, yet it is amazing how even after 100 years, new stories and information surface.
I’ve visited places, met people, and learnt history I didn’t know and fulfilled my love of joining the dots and understanding connections. On a recent visit to Caulfield Town Hall, to their art gallery, an amazing Poppy Exhibition made me pause and read the individual stories of local VC recipients but also drew my attention to the memorial boards that cover every wall of the spacious foyer – 31 large bronze panels with 1,554 names.
Although Caufield City Council first started compiling names of soldiers, sailors and nurses from the Caulfield district as early as 1915, it would be more than a decade before they were publicly displayed… In 1930, Caulfield Town Hall underwent a major redevelopment… which included a colonnade portico opening on to a spacious memorial foyer, with a marble dado surmounted by bronze tablets. Inscribed… were the names of all those who enlisted in the Australian Imperial Forces from Caulfield… the criteria for inclusion was to have been living in the City of Caulfield at the time of enlistment, and it includes both lost and returned service people… At the time of its construction, the municipality of Caulfield included the suburbs of Elsternwick, Balaclava, St Kilda East, Carnegie, Murumbeena, Glen Huntly and Gardenvale…
There is a lovely Japanese garden at Caulfield Town Hall and I hope people visiting the Remembrance Day display took some time, like I did, to sit and calm their anger (and it is anger we should feel) at what a senseless waste of life wars are, and especially WW1 – tragedies of epic proportions.
Yet, all over Australia, we have sister city relationships with countries that may have been our enemy at some stage of history – relationships that contribute to understanding and tolerance and help make a lasting peace.
Sassoon recognised how violence and war changed men and struggled to get much of his anti-war poetry published. When he wrote, “I believe that this War is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it,” in an open letter to the House of Commons, it took the intervention of poet Robert Graves to save him from court-martial declaring Sassoon suffered shell-shock and needed to be hospitalised.
Some could argue that it was only the insane who couldn’t see the truth of his words.
Through darkness curves a spume of falling flares That flood the field with shallow, blanching light. The huddled sentry stares On gloom at war with white, And white receding slow, submerged in gloom. Guns into mimic thunder burst and boom, And mirthless laughter rakes the whistling night. The sentry keeps his watch where no one stirs But the brown rats, the nimble scavengers.
While in Canberra for the commemoration ceremony at the War Memorial, I visited the current exhibition ‘Rome‘ at the National Museum displaying artefacts from the British Museum. There is a marble statue fragment of a barbarian (Ramleh, Egypt, 160-170 CE), which I thought depicted the anguish felt by war’s victims both civilian and military that the WW1 poets captured in words.
This bound captive is looking up at what remains of a larger figure, perhaps intended to depict Victory. He has Germanic facial features, but he is wearing a Phrygian hat of a style worn in the Eastern Mediterranean region. This suggests that he represents a generic ‘barbarian’ or enemy of Rome. Such depictions emphasise how one of Rome’s great missions was to ‘vanquish the proud’.
“From War” an Exhibition by the Australian National Veterans Arts Museum at Parliament House, Canberra
For many veteran artists making art is both an expression of personal creativity and a way of ‘making meaning’.
Veteran artistic practices draw upon, and extend beyond, the individual’s experience of war and service. For some, art is a lifeline and a life force; a way to tell stories and ask important questions about themselves and their place in society.
Representing a diverse range of mediums including photography, painting, sculpture, drawing, textiles and poetry, the artists featured in the exhibition reflect on their personal questions and processes, sharing unique stories of their lived experience.
The catalyst for the establishment of the Australian National Veterans Arts Museum was veterans’ mental health. It provides a creative and multi-faceted approach to supporting veterans and families through the arts, engaging with our veteran history and heritage, culture and identity to bring forward an approach grounded in creative expression and community.
Upending modern models ANVAM uses familiar tools, the arts and place, engaging early to promote validation, identity and purpose reframing the future for those returning from war or service.How do you capture the experience of war and its aftermath and convey that to others so they understand?
Sassoon’s honesty fobbed off as shell shock, which today we know as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) – and almost all veterans will have their share of depression as well as other symptoms of PTSD.
Statistics don’t tell individual stories, official documents can be doctored and presented from a particular perspective depending on what narrative governments want to spin. Even letters and diaries from those who were there or those writing about friends and family may have a particular perspective, may have been censored, or may deliberately alter facts to spare feelings.
I hope all politicians and senior Defence personnel take the time to look at the artwork and read the poetry on display at Parliament House.
A Poetic Honour Bill Charlton, (2013)
There is no greater accolade a soldier can be shown Than to have his deeds recorded in the verses of a poem. For medals tend to varnish and history can be wrong, And the stories we are left with, can be stretched as time goes on.
But the simple story-telling that’s contained within a poem Can survive through generations by word of mouth alone. And the rhythm/rhyming nature of these classics of the past Are easy to remember and ensure these stories last.
Great books will parch and crumble and epitaphs will fade And tombstones all will vanish no matter how they’re made. But the simple little verses that we pass on down the line Are remembered with affection and have stood the test of time.
So if you have the fortune to be mentioned in a poem Or you know some-one who has been, on the strength of deeds alone, Then be sure that it’s an honour, which can rarely be attained For it makes a man immortal for as long as it’s maintained.
Bill Charlton, born 1943, joined the Australian Army and served with the 1st Battalion Royal Australian Regiment in the 60s, including South Vietnam. Bill had always been interested in writing verse often sending snippets home to his wife, Robyn, which he never completed. He continued writing snippets for years after his service until he was encouraged to take up writing poetry by his wife and children, then the snippets became poems. His first attempt at poetry resulted in a literary award and encouraged he continued writing and published two books of poetry illustrated by Robyn: A Rugged Bunch of Diggers 1 and 2 and a children’s book Lulu, the Kangaroo. He continues to write individual poems for the 521 soldiers who died during the Vietnam War.
Sleep George Mansford, (September 2016)
If I could only sleep the sleep of sleeps To capture sweet deeds I can keep In the cloak of night greet blissful rest so rare To dream of peace and even love should I dare
I cannot escape this shrinking smothering room Painted with spite, hate and terrible doom I am shackled to the past and never to be free Deep sleep in pure white sheets is not to be
Oh to be deaf to shrieks and howls spat from spiteful guns Blind to flitting silent shadows mid the last rays of dying suns Be gone the shuffling file of haunted faces never to smile again If only a welcome storm to wash away the guilt and pain
In this lonely bed, to dream of peace, goodwill and love To walk mid young green forests reaching high above To hear the joyful welcome calls of feathered birds so bright To shut out the darkness of yesterday and seek tomorrow’s light.
George Mansford AM, born 1934, served in the Australian Army between 1950 and 1990 including Korea, Malayan Emergency, Malaysia, Thai Border, South Vietnam, New Guinea, Singapore and Cyclone Tracy. Having just returned home from Vietnam 1967, he started to write poetry after his first wife died. On losing his second wife and son, his writing increased dramatically as he discovered that writing was a fortunate distraction from grief and anger of war.
‘I found that promoting peace, love of country and such deep camaraderie was a wonderful sedative. It was what my loved ones and old comrades want.’
George is the author of Junior Leadership on the Battlefield and The Mad Galahs.
The Progress Barham J. R. Ferguson, (28 August 2018)
The fog that hugs my legs like a refugee, Shows the steps of progress towards my own peace. I have fought for the peace of others And lost more than blood in the process, But I know that hope stands not behind me.
See my anguish in the oils, See my scars in the sculpture, See my pity in the poetry, See my failure in the photographs, Hear my sorrow in the song.
I miss the moment of living the dream, Of knowing those at home are thinking of me. Praying for me. Worried about me. Today however, they only worry about me. It’s not the enemy that hunts me, nor the Danger that surrounds me. It is for the danger within.
My current battle is with doubt. Memories. Questions I cannot answer. Images so vivid, I can hear them.
But the fighter in me stands tall. I can win this war as I have done before. Not for me, but for others. This is why I served. This is who I am, Either in or out of service. So help me make that step.
And watch me emerge as a similar person To the one you knew. Similar, but better. That you can then See my ambition in oils, See my skills in sculpture, See my power in poetry, See my future in photographs, and Hear my strength in song.
It is now that I realise, My child that hugs my legs like a refugee, Speeds the steps of progress to my own peace.
Barham Ferguson, born 1968, joined the Australian army in 1987 and saw operational service in Papua New Guinea, Southern Thailand, Iraq, Afghanistan, South Sudan, Israel, Lebanon and Jordan. An Ambassador for the Australian National veterans Art Museum and a longtime supporter of veterans’ issues, Barham discharged in July 2018 and lives in Canberra with his daughter. He is the author of Love, Life and ANZAC Biscuits, (2013), and A Feeling of Belonging (1999).
Through The Mirror Barham J.R. Ferguson, (13 February 2017)
Through the mirror of the past, I see myself in memories vast. A warrior, not once outclassed, This was who I was.
From the dust of duty first, The last hoorah of machine gun burst, Wounds of war no longer nursed, The world knew who I was.
Homeward bound with dreams anew, Perceptions changed on what I do, My useful skills seemed less than few, I defended who I was.
Fighting family, fighting friends, The war has changed, it never ends. ‘’Is my life pointless?” Now depends, On knowing who I am.
Where to start, and what to do? What do I have that pleases you? There’s things inside that still ring true, They make me who I am.
Strength and honour. Discipline. These soldier traits have not worn thin, Unlike the uniform in the bin, These traits are who I am.
There’s many more that made me me, When I was in the military, But in these threads I now can see, That made me who I am.
Now it’s time to do what’s right, To find a mission, and gain insight, To be the me who can sleep at night, ‘Cause I do know who I am.
At the Australian War Memorial, there is a Flanders Field Garden planted with poppies and with the words of John McCrae’s poem carved on the walls to remind us that in Ypres, Belgium, ‘men died in their thousands and the medieval town was reduced to ruins.’
In Flanders Fields John McCrae
In Flanders fields the poppies blow Between the crosses, row on row, That mark our place; and in the sky The larks, still bravely singing, fly Scarce heard amid the guns below. We are the Dead. Short days ago We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow, Loved and were loved, and now we lie, In Flanders fields. Take up our quarrel with the foe: To you from failing hands we throw The torch; be yours to hold it high. If ye break faith with us who die We shall not sleep, though poppies grow In Flanders fields.
The Unknown Australian Soldier
This year was the 25th anniversary of the interment of the Unknown Australian Soldier, who represents all Australians who have been killed in war. At the head of the tomb are the words, ‘Known unto God’, and at the foot, ‘He is all of them and he is one of us.’
“Plans to honour an unknown Australian soldier were first put forward in the 1920s, but it was not until 1993 that one was at last brought home. to mark the 75th anniversary of the end of the First World War, the remains of the soldier were recovered from Adelaide Cemetery near Villers-Bretonneux in France and transported to Australia. After lying in state in King’s Hall in Old Parliament House, the Unknown Australian Soldier was interred in the Hall of memory at the memorial on 11 November 1993. He was buried with a bayonet and a sprig of wattle in a Tasmanian blackwood coffin, and soil from Pozieres was scattered in his tomb.”
The eulogy for the Unknown Soldier was first delivered by the Honourable Paul Keating in 1993. In Canberra, on the Centenary of the Armistice, a recording was played of his speech.
The words are memorable and moving but perhaps the lines that need to be emphasised more often are:
This Unknown Australian is not interred here to glorify war over peace; or to assert a soldier’s character above a civilian’s; or one race or one nation or one religion above another; or men above women; or the war in which he fought and died above any other war; or of one generation above any that has or will come later…We have lost more than 100,000 lives, and with them all their love of this country and all their hope and energy…It is not too much to hope, therefore, that this Unknown Australian Soldier might continue to serve his country – he might enshrine a nation’s love of peace and remind us that in the sacrifice of the men and women whose names are recorded here there is faith enough for all of us.’
The current exhibitions in Canberra at the National Museum and National Library add more food for thought as well as steps in the evolution of the ‘nation’ Paul Keating was talking about.
Rome reveals how integral the military was to the Roman Empire’s greatness and an exhibition on Captain Cook and his Voyages touches on the Colonial Wars and Aborigines fighting the invasion of their land by representatives of the British Empire.
The powerful Roman and British Empires now diminished and if nothing else, the tide of history seems predictable but has mankind learnt a ‘love of peace’?
Thank Goodness For Community Initiatives
While national politicians and governments may let their people down, there are plenty of instances of grassroots initiatives – and therefore HOPE.
Nara Peace Park, Canberra, is a case in point – not only has it the Peace Bell but myriad sections, sculptures and plaques making a statement about peace.
TOKU 2010 by artist Shinki Kato born 1955
Toku was commissioned to celebrate the 1300th anniversary of Japan’s ancient capital, Nara. The sculpture has three main elements: A five-storied pagoda form which represents Canberra; a floating stone representing Nara; and the form of a small bird symbolising peace.
The bird resembles a Latham’s Snipe, a species which migrates annually between Japan and Canberra. The artist has created Toku to express the amicable relationship and mutual understanding shared by Canberra and Nara as sister cities.
There are tranquil areas to meander through or sit and enjoy the beauty of the gardens and lake. The day I visited, families were picnicking and playing.
The Pen Mightier Than The Sword
As you walk through the park there is evidence that we shouldn’t take the beauty, or sentiments, for granted. At the base of several trees are plaques – sadly some were damaged and worn by the weather. The plaques reminders that writers from poets to journalists have lost their lives fighting to express and defend ideas and freedom of speech.
“The spirit dies in all of us who keep silent in the face of tyranny”
The plaques and trees were a ‘memorial to writers who have fought for freedom of speech” and was conceived through the vision and work of the ACT members of PEN International and dedicated by the Minister for Arts and Heritage, Mr Gary Humphries MLA, on 17 November 1996.
East Timor – Greg Shackelton, Brian Peters, Malcolm, Rennie, Tony Stewart, Gary Cunningham Journalists murdered October 1975 and Roger East Dili, December 1975
Konca Kuris tortured and murdered for advocating women’s rights in Islam 1960-98
Galina Starovoitova shot St Petersburg Russia 20 November 1998 aged 22, Larissa Yudina knifed Elista Kalmykia Russia June 1998 aged 33, killed for defending democracy and free speech
Meena Kishwarkanel poet, journalist and defender of women’s rights 1957-87
Robert walker Aboriginal poet 1958-84
Among the dedications:
Kenule Beeson Saro-Wewa, Nigerian playwright,
Meena Kishwarkanel, poet and journalist,
Russians: Galina Starovoitova, ethnographer and dissident politician, and Larissa Ludina, newspaper editor,
Konka Kuris Turkish feminist writer,
Robert Walker Aboriginal poet, and
the Balibo Five, Australian journalists murdered in East Timor 1975: Greg Shackleton, Brian East, Gary Cunningham, Tony Stewart, Malcolm Rennie and
journalist Roger East killed in Dili, 1975.
Hopefully, somewhere a memorial plaque will be made for Jamal Khashoggi recently assassinated by agents of the Saudi Government. The plaque, a permanent reminder of those who use words to defend our right to speak and challenge those who think suppression and violence a solution.
However, for every writer silenced, there is always another who picks up the pen to peacefully bring about change. The belief that the pen is mightier than the sword and words can make a difference, a good enough motivation for me to keep writing.
I’ve been volunteering for Open House Melbourne for over eight years. In that time, I have had the opportunity to attend workshops and learn interesting facts about architecture, design and heritage. I’ve visited buildings and appreciated aspects and behind the scenes rarely experienced by the general public.
Open House Melbourne is an independent organisation fostering a public appreciation for architecture and public engagement in the future of our cities.
Each year more and more buildings and events are added to this fabulous weekend. Last year they expanded to Ballarat and this year it was Bendigo. The two regional centres will probably ‘open up’ alternate years.
Both events were a great success with thousands of visitors to the buildings, not only from locals but many people making the trip from Melbourne to take advantage of the warm welcome from the regional communities.
In Melbourne, I’ve been privileged to volunteer at:
Each shift has offered unique experiences. Special ‘thank you’ events for volunteers, allowed behind the scene tours of the Phillips Shirt Factory, Lonsdale Street and Willsmere (the old ‘lunatic’ asylum).
Now open House has expanded, I’ve visited buildings in Ballarat (2017) and this year Bendigo, educating and enjoying myself in the process. The last weekends in July and October now regular dates earmarked on the calendar
Bendigo Beamed in Spring Sunshine
Bendigo was chosen as a significant regional hub creating an opportunity for locals and visitors alike to celebrate this wonderful city. It was a chance to view different architectural styles and learn about Bendigo’s rich history, its cultural attractions and to consider how future developments will impact the city.
Despite competition from several major events occurring at the same time (The Bendigo Agricultural Show, the second Bendigo Cycling Classic, and Bendigo Sustainable House) the support for the inaugural Open House Bendigo weekend was fantastic (11,000 visits across 23 buildings)!
The weekend provided a range of talks, walks, film screenings and workshops plus the buildings open for inspection and appreciation, all encouraging an exploration of the diversity and design of Bendigo’s built environment and history.
Bendigo was proclaimed a city in 1871, the year the Bendigo Easter Fair began – Australia’s oldest ongoing festival. I was rostered on duty at the Bendigo Tramways Depot, Australia’s oldest continually operating tram depot.
All Aboard For A Great Ride
The Bendigo Tramways depot was built in 1901 for the Electric Supply Company of Australia Ltd. At the time of building, the property also included what is today the Bendigo Woollen Mills, which housed the steam engines, generators and boiler until 1972. The depot was completed in 1903 for the operation of electric trams. (The first depot was constructed in 1890 near the railway station.) In addition to the tramway shed, the facility included cooling ponds, a blacksmith’s shop, carpenter’s shed, elevator house, and other support buildings.
The Tramways Depot and Workshop may not have survived had it not been for the Bendigo community’s will to keep the trams running in Bendigo once they were shut down as a public transport option. This led to the introduction of the tourist tram service in 1972. The tourist tram service celebrates 46 years of service in 2018.
The Bendigo Tramways is known nationally and internationally for its heritage tram restoration capabilities and its rare collection of heritage trams. Trams from all over the country, including Melbourne’s City Circle trams, are all restored to their former glory in the Bendigo Tramways Workshop.
There were guided conductor tours on the hour led by an enthusiastic and knowledgeable guide, Ian, along with a specialised in-depth pre-booked tour led by Luke, the Workshop Manager. However, when more people turned up, Luke kindly accommodated them and ended up with a group of 24 instead of 15!
The guides were extremely proud to point out the work carried out so far for the City of Melbourne refurbishing the famous restaurant trams and the vintage trams used on the free city tourist loop.
On duty from 9.30am to 1.00pm, I had the opportunity to chat with Pam in the gift shop/cafe. Pam warned about the dust from the imported plane trees and said a light breeze can blow the dust about and start people coughing. She spoke from experience and said if anyone did start coughing to suggest they go to the cafe and she’d supply a glass of water. Pam discovered the problem with the plane trees after going to the doctor thinking she had asthma or an allergy.
Many of the others working at the depot are volunteers. Ian was super knowledgeable, efficient – and passionate about trams like all the volunteers. He loved the people he met volunteering and said, ‘You know, I’ve met people from all corners of the world here. I met someone from Zimbabwe and we discussed their country. I wouldn’t have met him if I wasn’t doing this job.’
Steve, a volunteer driver, in a previous life was a stipendiary magistrate who loved trams! Another Ian was the driver who gave me a lift back to town. The tram was packed and I got to sit up front with him in the driver’s seat.
Ian has been driving the vintage trams for 17 years and when an unusual fault occurred he told me it was only the second time it had happened.
I had no idea the variation in controls until I wandered around the depot peeking inside all the different trams – some still in use, others being refurbished.
Each tram has an interesting history but without the work and passion of a team of volunteers, the tramways could not have achieved many of the major milestones and awards, especially winning gold in the 2016 Australian Tourism Awards or the Hall of Fame in 2014, 2015 and 2016 Victorian Tourism Awards.
No 7 decommissioned in the 1930s, became a sleep-out before being returned for restoration in 1988. In 2000, the body was stripped of any structural additions, cleaned and put on display.
Tram No 30 was driven by HRH Prince Charles in 1974. This Birney tram was built in 1925 in Philadelphia USA, for South Australia and operated on the Port Adelaide line until 1935. Purchased by Geelong it operated there as Tram No 30 before being transferred to Bendigo and used for spare parts. However, in 1972 it was restored to be one of the Vintage Talking Trams and became the flagship of Bendigo Tramways.
One of the volunteer conductors told me the story of Charles and Di’s visit. Princess Diana was standing on the balcony of The Shamrock Hotel where they were staying. Prince Charles knew she would be out there to wave and watch him drive past. He was determined she see him driving and was so excited he went through two red lights. Needless to say, they didn’t forward on the traffic ticket!
Tram No 44 was one of two trams restored especially for the Prahran and Malvern Tramways Trust Centenary in 2010. Built in 1914 in Adelaide, South Australia for Prahran and Malvern Tramways Trust it was sold to the State Electricity Commission of Victoria in 1951 for Bendigo operations and painted in green and cream livery of the SEC. Ten years later, repainted maroon and cream, it joined the talking tram fleet.
Tram No 84 has the most magnificent feature interior timber work of all the trams in the fleet. Built in Melbourne in 1917 for the Prahran and Malvern Tramways Trust it was later sold to the SECV in 1931 for operation in Bendigo. In 1935 it was configured to be operated by one man. It developed ‘excessive body movement’ issues and was withdrawn from service in 1965 and because of internal disagreements between supervisors didn’t return to use until 1975 when made operational by the Bendigo Trust to run on special outings. In 2010 it was refurbished to its original California configuration for the centenary celebrations of the Prahran and Malvern Tramways Trust.
Tram No 21, an M class tram was built in Adelaide in 1917 for the Hawthorn Tramways Trust. It was sold to the SECV in 1935 to operate in Bendigo. Retaining its one-man configuration it was repainted in the SEC livery of green and cream and ran until the closure of Bendigo’s public transport system in 1972. In 1992, it was repainted in the grey, white and blue livery of Hawthorn Tramways Trust to celebrate a significant event in the history of the City of Footscray. It operated as a Vintage Talking Tram until 2000 when it was removed to be restored to its 1930s condition. Thanks to the Bendigo Tramways Work for the Dole program it returned to service in 2005.
Tram No 29 was the focal point to save the trams from being dispersed and sold off when the Bendigo Tramways closed in 1972. State cabinet supported The Bendigo Trust’s proposal to run a tourism tram service using the SECV’s trams and tracks on trial until Easter 1974. However, the SEC had promised Tram No 29 to a museum in Adelaide without consultation or knowledge of the Bendigo Trust.
Community anger manifested itself in a mini-uprising and blockade to stop the tram being taken out of the depot with local businesses sending their vans and cars after the Mayor used the media to rally the citizens. The furore resulted in a ministerial committee and negotiations culminating in the entire fleet being sold to The Bendigo Trust for a ‘mere $1’ in 1977.
Relations between an aggrieved South Australian museum and the citizenry of Bendigo were later assuaged by the discovery of a sister tram, also a Birney, being used as a garden shed. Representatives of the Tramways trust negotiated the donation of this tram when the owners were promised a replica of a nineteenth century cast iron street lamp created by a skilful committee member.
The tram was restored with a grant from the State Government and presented to the Australian Electric Tramway Museum, Adelaide in 1976. Proving ‘all’s well that end’s well.’
It is mindboggling to see the before and after examples in the workshop – the state of donated or discovered trams, the craftsmanship and skill applied, and the finished product of beautiful polished wood and painted tram interiors.
Of course, the depot has a special supervisor overseeing the work –
The rescue cat, Birney joined the team in 2014. Originally, he was to catch mice but the sign on his office promotes him to Tramways Superintendent and of course, the Gift Shop has a range of souvenirs. I was lucky to see him at close quarters but with the increased visitors he wisely withdrew and found some spot in the sun far away from the madding crowds.
A Bit Of History Puts Trams In Context
With the advent of electric trams and extended tracks ‘housewives’ moved away from their local shops in the suburbs and bought goods in the heart of the city at a time when shops didn’t close until 11 pm on a Friday night, along with many hotels. ‘As a result, there were many wavering legs on Friday evenings trying to negotiate the flagstones of Pall Mall in a desperate attempt to catch the drunk express home.’
I had to get at least one picture of myself on a tram and chose No 8 – it was a number 8 to Toorak that gave me the inspiration to write A Ticket to Vaudeville,the first short story I received payment for when it was published in The Weekly Times in the 80s – ironically that newspaper’s head office is in Bendigo.
Bendigo’s first people, the Dja Dja Wurrung
The Dja Dja Wurrung Tram takes passengers on a journey of discovery into the unique and fascinating traditions of Bendigo’s first people. The Dja Dja Wurrung, one of the five communities of the Kulin people, a federation of five distinct but strongly related communities, which also includes the Boonerwrung of Mordialloc and other southern bayside places.
All Kulin had as their defining social moiety either Bundjil, the eagle, or Waa, the crow. Long before they had contact with the European world, they had complex trading networks sharing stone axe heads and highly crafted possum-skin cloaks and other examples of useful craftsmanship and art.
Archaeological evidence shows their connection to the land extending beyond 40,000 years. It is estimated that between 20,000 and 60,000 people, speaking over 30 languages lived throughout Victoria when Europeans arrived in 1835.
Rapid colonisation, the stealing of Aboriginal land, and the destruction of families by murder and disease forced Aborigines onto missions resulting in a loss of language, traditions and more lives – a cruel devastating and violent period of history.
Today the 25,000 plus Aboriginal people who live in Victoria are concerned about self-determination, maintaining their culture and restoring their lands.
The tram is a moving lesson and illustration of Dja Dja Wurrung culture and painted on the roof sides there is a host of information proudly showing their customs and practices are alive and respected – keeping them connected to the past, the present and the future. Their cultural heritage recognised and protected as a celebration of identity and community.
Even the upholstery tells a story.
Recognition and Settlement Agreement
In 2013, the Dja Dja Wurrung peopleentered into an agreement with the Victorian Government recognising them as the traditional owner group for this country. The agreement recognises Dja Dja Wurrung people as the traditional owners of Central Victoria and binds the state of Victoria and the Dja Dja Wurrung people to a meaningful partnership founded on mutual respect. The list of recognised Apical Ancestors is also on the tram.
The Dja Dja Wurrung have lived on traditional lands and cared for country over many thousands of years. Country is more than just landscape, it is more than what is visible to the eye – it is a living entity, which holds the stories of creation and histories that cannot be erased. The Dja Dja Wurrung have nine aspirations for their country, including…
Rivers & Waterways
Our rivers and waterways are healthy and meet the needs of our people and land.
Our upside-down country is healthy again (healed from the effects of mining).
Every Dja Dja Wurrung person is happy, healthy and secure in their identity, livelihood and lifestyle.
Djandak (a traditional way of business)
We have a strong and diverse economic base to provide for our health and well-being and strengthen our living culture.
As our country’s first people, Djaara have an established place in society and are empowered to manage our own affairs
All crown land on Dja Dja Wurrung country is Aboriginal title and we are the sole managers.
Along with illustrations and stories of the creators, there were details of the following native animals:
GNANA-NGANITY (bat) -There are 77 bat species in Australia. Bats are nocturnal and are the only mammals capable of sustained flight. They use echolocation to navigate during the night and to find food. They are natural pest controllers as 70% of them live on a diet of insects. A baby bat is called a pup.
MUMUMBARRA (bee) – There are over 1600 species of bees that are native to Australia. Native bees are smaller than European bees and many of them don’t sting. They can be black, yellow, red, metallic green and also black with blue polka dots, and can range from fat and furry to sleek and shiny.
BALAM BALAM (butterfly) – Australia is home to more than 400 species of butterfly. A butterfly does not eat but receives nutrients from drinking nectar and pollen from flowers and plants.
MUR-MURRA (dragonfly) – the dragonfly is an aquatic insect and spends most of its six-month life near the water. There are 320 known species of dragonfly native to Australia.
GALIYT (witchetty grub) – Witchetty Grubs are mainly found in central Australia. The grub is the larvae of the Cossid Moth. Witchetty Grubs can grow up to 12 centimetres long and are eaten as part of Aboriginal diet.
DUM (frog) – The frog is the only native amphibian to Australia and tends to live near wetlands as their skin needs moisture. Depending on the species some have a special slime coating and others can burrow into the ground to keep moist.
GUWAK (kookaburra) – the kookaburra is the largest member of the Kingfisher family of birds. They eat small mammals, lizards, snakes and insects. The laugh of the kookaburra is actually a call to mark their territory.
BARRANGAL (pelican) – The pelican is found throughout Australia. They can fly 3 kilometres above the earth. Their bills can hold up to 13 litres of water and they can eat up to 9 kilograms of food each day.
WIRRAP (cod) – fish were an important part of the Dja Dja Wurrung diet and were caught in different types of traps made from rocks or nets. The Loddon and Campaspe Rivers are where Dja Dja Wurrung ancestors lived and many types of fish were found in these waterways.
BARAMUL (emu) – Baramul is fast and can run up to 50 kilometres per hour. The female lays eggs and the male emu sits on the nest to hatch the young. Mu equality! The noise that the emu makes in its throat can be heard 2 kilometres away.
YULAWIL (echidna) – The echidna is one of two monotremes, which are egg-laying mammals. The other is the platypus. Both animals feed their babies on milk. A young echidna is called a muggle. Echidnas live for around 45 years in the wild.
DUAN (phascogale) – A phascogale is a relative of the quoll and Tasmanian devil. Their diet consists of insects, spiders and centipedes. They will also eat nectar from the ironbark flowers. The male phascogale dies at around one year of age, just after breeding season. The phascogale is a shy animal and has a very bushy tail.
I retired to magnolia-on-view, the Airbnb I was sharing with friend Susan whom I met volunteering for Open House Ballarat and reflected on an amazing morning and all the new cultural and historical information absorbed.
The atmosphere in my little corner of Bendigo friendly, relaxed, and fun. I was surrounded by positivity and people giving back to their community. Ian and I both agreed, volunteering for something you love gives you energy.
I met up with Jack who lives in the redeveloped Willsmere and who had been our tour guide for the place. He remembered me. A nice compliment considering as a grey-haired senior I’m often considered to be in the realms of the invisible and irrelevant now…
I laughed with a couple of locals – a retired gentleman who lived in the same street as the Depot but who had never visited. It took Open House Bendigo to change his ‘will do one day’ into ‘will do today’ and he’d brought along a son and grandson who now live in Melbourne!
I met Sandra, a writer and editor who has just moved to Bendigo. She volunteers and writes biographies for people in palliative care.
The weekend was exceeding expectations and making me forget the ache in my ribs from an unfortunate car accident a few days before.
I checked the roster and prepared to open another door!
On Wednesday, October 4th, Kingston Seniors Festival 2018 was launched at Westall Community Hub in Clayton South, a new community centre and library that will be twelve months old on Sunday.
The Festival opened by the Mayor, Cr. Steve Staikos who celebrated the completion of the latest Intergenerational Project: The Power’s in the Word.
The project presented in a partnership between the City of Kingston Social Development team, Kingston Youth Services and Kingston Arts.
I heard about it from Lydia Sorenson, the Positive Ageing Officer, Social Development whom I’d worked with when she was with Youth Services in 2016, my first involvement with an intergenerational project.
I was thrilled to work with Youth Services officers Mealea and Sophie who were involved in the earlier project too.
Lydie, me and Mealea
In 2016, I wrote a short film script and collaborated with a multi-aged team to produce it. Along the way, we learned about camera angles, lighting, sound, scouting locations and props, permits, schedules and networking.
Favours asked of friends and family. We shared skills and professional knowledge – I gave a writing workshop, photographers lectured on the importance of light, sound experts ran us through recording equipment and dialogue, cinematographers and not for profit filmmakers gave tips and inspiration on what was possible with a limited budget and excess enthusiasm!
The school children and teenagers involved shared their ideas, knowledge and confidence of new technologies and love of all things screen. The premiere of the completed project held at the Shirley Burke Theatre in Parkdale.
Everyone revelled in the Academy Award atmosphere…
It was such a positive experience, I didn’t hesitate to get involved in this latest project. My friend Jillian and fellow writer played the lead role in my short film, but ill health and travel commitments meant she couldn’t be involved in Power’s in the Word. However, she made the launch and enjoyed the presentations.
This project began in June and entailed a commitment of 12 workshops on a Tuesday evening at the Kingston Arts Centre in Moorabbin.
It was a privilege and fun to be involved with several other seniors and young people. Artwork, including linocuts and poetry, were made and displayed and at the launch, several of us read a poem written for the occasion.
Both projects enabled me, not only to meet and interact with people I may never have met otherwise but also moved me out of my creative comfort zone.
We worked alongside writer Emilie Zoey Baker and visual artist and printer Adrian Spurr who taught and supervised the linocuts we produced. To learn printmaking was the drawcard for me, and to link it with poetry.
Adrian was everyone’s idea of a favourite art teacher. He made a klutz like me feel I’d produced something appealing!
The ten finished pieces from the group looked impressive although I’m not sure what the mayor will do with his framed copy!
Great Things Never Come From Comfort Zones
We started to meet in June and for 13 Tuesday nights we learnt printmaking, discussed various topics, shared stories, and wrote haiku and short prose.
There was a schedule but lots of flexibility.
It was winter and people got sick, or members of their family did. As with any free and volunteer project, people also dropped out. The timeframe coincided with the Melbourne Writers’ Festival, which meant Emilie’s attendance and input varied.
Adrian’s print workshops turned out to be more intense and time-consuming than the organisers realised. The schedule below rearranged as the weeks passed:
Briefly, you imagine yourself in a desert and there is a cube of whatever size, material and colour you choose. There is a ladder – you decide where it goes, and a horse – you decide where it is in the position of the cube and what colour and type of horse. There are flowers – how many, colour, type or where growing is up to you. There is a storm cloud – how far away or severe is again up to you.
Ruminating Over Rumi – Mairi Neil
Miles of sand stretching to the horizon…
a clear blue cube, water glistening like dew
a ladder of tree branches rooted in the earth
the cube drip-feeds a carpet of yellow daisies
a large grey mare, heavy with foal shelters
alongside the cube, nibbling at the flowers
preparing to lie down.
Aware the sky is now changing
white clouds becoming bruises on a sea blue sky
transforming to stormy grey
the ladder trembles and sinks
returning to the earth as the cube begins to melt
the landscape awaiting rebirth…
If you Google there are numerous interpretations of the significance of your responses. Emilie’s interpretation just one of many and had some similarities to this:
The cube represents you. The size of the cube is your ego. What it is made of (wood, marble, or the texture) determines your feelings or personality.
The ladder represents your goals. The length of the ladder shows the scale of your goals, the shorter the ladder the more simple the goal.
The horse represents your ideal partner.
The flowers represent your family and friends. The number of the flowers determines your connections and how close you are to them
The Storm represents the obstacle(s) in your life. If the storm is close to the cube/ stationary, then you are experiencing some emotional, mental and hard situations right now. If the storm is in the distance then you have overcome many challenges and will continue towards victory.
Emilie said she had never come across ‘a pregnant horse’ response before!
Psychoanalysis can make you hungry for comfort food…
After that exercise and the interesting discussion it raised, I was ready for a cup of tea.
Most of the workshops were between 4.30pm and 6.30pm, a couple started at 5.00pm. The lovely council officers ensured food was delivered, they arranged taxis if needed. Always their priority was the happiness and comfort of participants.
In a way, there was too much food, but we gratefully took home plastic containers of leftovers – especially on the pasta and pizza nights that the young folk enjoyed the most. A couple of the participants shared cakes and sandwiches with their U3A writing class the next day!
Collographs and Monoprints and Love
I missed the workshop on Collographflower prints because I fell that day and had an unplanned trip! The work the others produced amazing, particularly when most were new to the art form.
The larger pieces below examples of Collography.
The writing task was about ‘Love’. I missed out on creating a collograph but could write at home without too much effort.
Can love be put into words?
Trust, passion, security, contentment –
limiting the concept seems absurd.
Love is all encompassing, enthralling,
ecstatic and entrancing, but also
mundane, steady, unconditional ––
not all excitement and romancing.
It’s the years of care from a doting Dad –
caressing his ageing skin and feeling sad.
Massaging Mum’s arthritis, being close
savouring the aroma of her Sunday roast.
It’s marmalade and toast made with
daily devotion – delicious pancakes
and scones triggering emotion.
A smile causing the heart to flutter –
a light behind your eyes for no other.
Unexpected flowers to cheer the day,
orchids or roses have something to say.
A heartfelt cuddle, a warm embrace,
loving strength, if trouble you face
It’s gentle bedtime snores confirming
belonging and comfort at night.
Shared laughter and crazy dreams
It’s pride and happiness on sight.
A special tone of voice, whispering
your name, and other endearments,
a baby suckling at breast, content
the promise of future fulfilment.
Nurturing children, bathing and caring
the pleasure of siblings playing together
the squabbles, support, and sharing.
Holding hands with lovers and
celebrating each day with joy
free to be embarrassed or unduly coy.
What is love? Can words describe it well?
Live it, breathe it, only your heart will tell…
Monoprints – what a challenge
Adrian told the class to follow on from their idea for the Collograph and draw something for a monoprint. This would then be drawn on acetate with ink applied and a print produced.
I can’t draw a straight line without a ruler, in fact, I can’t draw anything and don’t try.
I tried to draw the flower head to appear like a bird – what a mess – a few more strokes and it looked like a bird sucking on the plant.
‘Don’t fiddle’ my mantra – it would have to do.
Adrian gave it the okay and I printed it off. He suggested I use a different paint tool and create a second print. And I did.
In one session I did something I never thought I could.
The monoprint was an expression of a haiku written on the train on the way to the workshop.
After worrying over the session I missed, feeling embarrassed at my artistic ineptitude and lack of talent, I achieve something that doesn’t look too bad.
I’m enjoying this project!
Outside my window July flowering delights homegrown paradise
Writing on Place – haiku
With my first haiku written about a place – the garden – I continued on that theme and write about my home in Mordialloc.
For You – My Garden Haiku
Mairi Neil 2018
Outside my window
July flowering delights
The warm dawn sunlight
penetrates the ti-tree bush
baby birds awaken
withstand sea breezes daily
to perfume driveway
A sturdy bottlebrush
succour to Noisy Minors
Jack’s living tribute
from majestic woody throne
a morning Etude
on blooming grevillea
picnic on the wing
A whiff of rosemary
reminds us of sacrifice
seeds of love and hope
Freshly cut roses
carefully arranged in vase
memories of love
Floral posies in
the colours of love
Marigolds dusk glow
sunflowers smiling happiness
promise of sweet dreams
Comments from Participants
And You Too Can Haiku!
Emilie gave everyone the most common guidelines for haiku: the standard seventeen syllables split up into three lines of five, seven and five syllables respectively.
A good starting point, however, most of the young participants didn’t know about haiku poetry we had a lesson where everyone was writing and mouthing syllables as they counted and worried about fitting into the criteria.
Nowadays the form is more fluid. Poets write one, two or four-line haiku and the syllable count can vary enormously.
The extreme minimalism– absolutely no unnecessary words – and the presentation of a defining moment are the most important requirements.
It is important to present the thing itself, the simple truth. No tricks –
The haiku is a classical Japanese form. It was an important influence on the imagists – poets like Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams, and later the Beat Generation, in love with Zen and now it is popular with the generation into mindfulness and ‘living in the moment’.
That is essentially what the haiku is: a moment; a vivid image that seems to make time stand still.
Economy and observation are its two main qualities – excellent disciplines for writers, no matter how old or what genre you prefer.
Writing on Place – Childhood – and an idea for Linocut
Brainstorming, thinking in haiku mode, and seeking an image from childhood that could translate onto a tile to be printed – an image I could actually draw so it resembled my words and was achievable for a novice in the art of linocut!
Childhood Memories of Scotland
At our kitchen table
babble of happy voices
the breath of family
Weather for lamb roasts
rosemary thriving in pot
the smell of Sunday
Scones, pancakes and tea
bramble jam bubbling on stove
Mum’s off-key singing
Bitter icy winds
Jack Frost and his snowmen arrive
snowball fights are fun
The teapot ever ready
Soothing sorrows and worries
culture and comfort
Dad’s railway uniform
always trailing soot and coal
and the sound of steam
Daily tidal dance
a rumbling in the distance
tuning life’s rhythms
But shipyards must close
jobs and happiness are scarce
Australia needs us
At the dinner table
lively discussions hosted
no topic ignored
Time to leave our home
the inner child’s fear frozen
warm climate ahead
The learning curve and level of excitement rose as Adrian demonstrated the various carving and cutting tools and the method for sculpting. We were given a special board to ensure no nasty slips with very sharp objects!
Despite there being octagenarians, septuagenarians and sixty-five year old me around the table, there was no tragic blood-soaked workshops.
It is not an easy task drawing on a tile and then deciding what is positive and negative space so that you cut out a design and produce a print of what you want – what parts of the drawing will remain solid and black, what parts will not be inked.
Tanya, one of the participants who is a well-known artist in her own right, advised me to chalk white the parts that I didn’t want to carve and then wipe off the chalk when finished. Great advice.
Most of us took our tiles home in between sessions and used the tools Adrian kindly lent us so that we’d be finished by the end of the project. I am indebted to my daughter, Mary Jane for helping me and ensuring I didn’t cut away too much of the tile.
My first attempt at inking resulted in a couple of dirty marks. Adrian showed me how to clean up the tile and reprint until I was satisfied with the finished product. The second print was fine.
What a relief to know that you get a second chance, even with something as complicated as this.
Writing on Place – First Home – Belonging – What we remember…
It’s amazing how one memory triggers another and in a writing workshop, like pirates, we pick up gems from others and it helps us to remember, reflect and write.
One of the most sincere forms of respect is actually listening to what another has to say –
Bryant H. McGill
Another youth worker involved in the project was Sophie and one night, some new young people joined us and we did a getting to know you exercise called Intergen Bingo. We moved around the room to discover various facts about each other to match at least three pieces of description to a person:
was born overseas
has a dog
favourite food is pizza
catches public transport
likes listening to rock music
plays a musical instrument
cannot eat a certain food
likes to tell stories
plays a sport
has an older sibling
can speak another language
has a job
has green eyes
likes going for walks
The room was soon abuzz with multiple conversations, laughter and surprise. The questions had led to more questions and a better understanding of each other.
I ticked plenty of the boxes, discovered three others had hazel eyes like me, that dog lovers outnumbered cat lovers and the names of two groups the Avalanchers and Jokers played music regarded as ‘surf rock’ – a genre I didn’t know existed.
We discussed what to read at the launch of the project. The presentation needed to be as close to a minute as possible.
A poem about the house we came to live in when we migrated to Australia in 1962 was deemed suitable.
I grew up in bushy Croydon
the trees grew thick around,
milk and bread delivered
to a tuneful clip-clop sound.
Kookaburras laughed and swooped
to steal our pet cat’s food
it wasn’t Snappy Tom, of course
but ‘roo meat, raw and good.
The streets were mainly dirt tracks
a collection of potholes and clay,
most people walked or cycled
and even strangers said, ‘gidday’.
Our weatherboard house peeled
the corrugated tin roof leaked too,
a verandah sagged under honeysuckle,
the rooms added as family grew.
Mosquito nets caused claustrophobia
possums peered down chimneys three,
but the dunny banished down the back
the most terrifying memory, for me.
Electricity brightened inside the house
so torch or candlelight had to suffice
night noises and shadows of the bush
and the smelly dunny was not nice!
The path to the toilet lined with trees
growing tall to seek the sun
but when the dark cloak of night donned
branches became hands from which to run
During the day our block was heaven
definitely a children’s adventure-land
blue tongues, geckos, tadpoles and frogs
all shared our world so grand.
A snake the greatest danger
or a bull ant bite on the toe
a truly carefree wonderful time
my rose-coloured glasses show.
I also read Sammar Bassal’s haiku because she was too bashful to read it herself.
The poem and tile great representations of how the library was her home as she struggled to learn English and find a place in her adopted country.
A design student, Sammar’s tile detailed all these wonderful fantasy characters emerging from an open book.
Home away from home Surrounded by written words The library has gone
October is a month when Victoria celebrates seniors and the City of Kingston’s Seniors Festival has the theme ‘Get Social’ encouraging everyone to be involved and feel part of their local community.
Involvement in the Intergenerational project and exhibition, visiting the Westall Hub for the first time and meeting up with many new people during the course of a wonderful, learning opportunity was not only social but fun.
Kingston is a proudly diverse city, with residents coming from more than 150 countries, speaking 120 languages and following more than 28 different faiths. Council is committed to helping foster an accepting and inclusive community, regardless of anyone’s origin, ethnicity, faith, economic status, disability, age, gender or sexual orientation.
Cr. Steve Staikos, Mayor, City of Kingston.
Whatever the intergenerational project is next year, watch out for it and participate – you won’t regret it.
Here are a couple of pics of some of the seniors involved plus Sammar and the Mayor ‘getting social’.
Coco Chanel apparently said, ‘Nature gives you the face you have at 20. Life shapes the face you have at 30, but at 50 you get the face you deserve.’
If we sulked or made a funny or unpleasant face, my Mum used to warn, ‘the wind will change and you’ll stay like that.’ Both my parents championed smiling and politeness and modelled being friendly and pleasant.
‘You use more muscles to frown than smile’ is always a good comeback when someone looks glum, but there is no scientific proof behind the old saying!
“Scientists have studied the muscles needed for both facial expressions, and to do a small smile generally uses 10 muscles; a small frown uses 6. On average, a smile uses 12 and a frown 11. However, since humans tend to smile a lot, these muscles are stronger. A frown may be slightly more effort to produce just because we aren’t as used to using these muscles.”
However, scientific proof or not, I’m sticking with smiles, politeness and kindness to people because I feel better when I do and following another piece of Mum advice, ‘civility costs nothing.’
My face – wrinkles et al – reflects life hasn’t been easy but there are plenty of laughter lines and when I meet up with friends there are usually smiles and laughter aplenty and I try and catch up with as many as possible during term breaks.
Spring In Melbourne Town 2018
(A hybrid Haibun)
Today, I won’t be grey and miserable
and definitely ‘not over the hill’
I’m meeting a friend of many years
several hours we’ll happily fill.
On way to the train U3A club gathering ‘Nice day for an outing!’
Dressed for mercurial Melbourne
sturdy shoes and light jackets,
sunglasses, lanyards with names,
backpacks and lunch in packets.
‘Join us?’ their chorus prepared for fun and adventure my kind of ageing…
On the train beside a Metro worker
who’s heading for Glenhuntly Station
we chat about insecure work and gender
driving a train once her inclination.
‘I’m on the bus now Meet you under the clocks C u soon’
A confirmation text received
we’ve embraced the digital age
but I open a book of poetry –
I prefer words written on the page.
Train stops Platform 10 30 steps to reach the street ever mindful of heart health
Food court wafts hot chips, coffee and cake
September’s Showtime and school hols
Flinders station’s abuzz with children
plus seagull, sparrow and pigeon trolls.
Myki tapped lightly eyes seek a waiting friend welcome smiles and hug
Age hasn’t happened all at once
however, we stroll not stride, to NGV
with hours to enjoy art and beauty
top priorities a pee and a cup of tea!
A young girl walks by her straw hat embroidered – the word – ‘paradise‘
Indeed! Melbourne – the world’s most liveable city.
Old friends are gold
Uma and I go back forty years BC (before children) and have encountered storms and defeats; sunny days and triumphs. Recently, retired from full-time work Uma is recovering from a serious back operation. I’m a few years older, almost retired from part-time work – four months to go – but who is counting!
For a just celebrated 61st birthday, Uma received membership to the NGV and as we walked from Flinders Street Station, she extolled the advantages and virtues of access to talks, special events, behind the scene views, plus a membership lounge – our first stop for a complimentary cuppa.
I love the NGV too – it is celebrating 50 years this year and I can remember it being built. In fact, I can remember the obligatory school excursion where you got to lie on the floor and stare up at the magnificent and unusual leadlight glass ceiling.
There are always several special exhibitions at the NGV, plus their permanent collection. Uma’s input and knowledge from attending member lectures added to the richness of the day as we wandered through galleries discussing exhibits.
A recent talk about Nick Cave’s work: Sound Suit made her think differently about the pieces and how we perceive each other.
Nick Cave makes sculptures that you can wear. These outfits cover the body and remove all traces of the wearer’s identity. When you are wearing a Soundsuit, no one can tell whether you are rich or poor, black or white, male or female…he created his Soundsuit series in an attempt to process his trauma associated with the 1992 Los Angeles riots.
…wearable sculptures act as symbols of endurance and a form of protection by obscuring all signs of the wearer’s race, gender, age, sexual identification and class…
…made from everyday materials sourced largely from flea markets, including dyed human hair, plastic buttons, beads and feathers…joyous and spectacular…rattle and resonate when worn in performance.
Both Uma and I were busy mums in 1992, with our firstborns leaving Prep and our second children preparing for playgroup and three-year-old kindergarten. International events reported via radio or television and often delayed by hours but the 1992 LA riots unforgettable because at the same time Australia was facing the reality of the Stolen Generation stories and alarming statistics of Aboriginal deaths in custody.
I expressed my anger and fears at Readings By The Bay, the monthly poetry and story readings held by Mordialloc Writers’ Group:
Our Burning Shame
Mairi Neil 1992
Rodney King – who gave you that name?
A “king’ in a black skin…
some will see the irony
or is it okay as a surname.
Is your destiny entwined
with that other dreamer?
The world watched in horror
as they beat you to the ground…
on the ground
into the ground.
The gang of four with official batons
grasped tightly, wielded as if warriors
beating your head
beating your body
beating your legs
Pounding, pounding, pounding…
a steady funeral dirge
burying the myth racial equality is accepted
Middle-class liberals gasped
horrified at the naked truth
other victims sighed with relief
the truth at last revealed.
Those with the power to change
shrugged away the fuss
A picture is worth a thousand words
a video worth a thousand affidavits
television news beamed across the nation
worth a thousand protests
an opportune political decision
worth a thousand votes
Time dimmed the anger and horror
even brutes deserve a trial…
innocent until proven guilty
but will Nuremberg be revisited?
We waited for the sentence
believing we knew the judgement
A jury without black faces
proved society is controlled
by red necks preferring white liars
who can live with red faces
Now Los Angeles burns –
along with our shame
those with real power
Cosmetics mask ugly faces
waspish capitalists sting
again and again and again…
Shocked Australians are horrified
yet reality reveals our guilt
when black deaths in custody
Our custodians of the law
don’t need lessons in brutality
we watched the scenes in LA
but closed minds
can be switched off
just like television sets
Will our cities burn
Now, of course, the time delay is only seconds. The 24Hour media cycle (circus?) barely gives us time to digest, never mind process, events. There are social media platforms and mobile devices offering no escape or relief, and ironically, the reality of ‘fake’ news.
After almost three decades I have to pause, reflect, and ask how much have attitudes and behaviour changed?
Will the wider dissemination of news and events via the Internet make people seek further knowledge, see a different perspective, consider a change in behaviour or attitude – or will it just cement their own truth and beliefs?
Across the room beside Sound Suits is Amelia Falling by Hank Willis Thomas, a most effective photographic image on a mirror and depicting Alabama 1965– I remember that too almost three decades before the LA Riots! :
Amelia Falling is derived from an archival photograph taken by photojournalist Spider Martin during the Selma to Montgomery marches in Alabama in 1965…
… civil rights activist Amelia Boynton Robinson being carried by fellow marchers after having been gassed and beaten by State Troopers during what was intended to be a peaceful protest…
Willis Thomas states, ‘In a lot of my work I ask the viewer not to be passive but to actually think about active participation’.
What artwork will the Trump era produce – chronicle our despair, facilitate change or confront our shame?
Trumpeting Limericks To Let Off Steam
Mairi Neil, 2016
There once was a candidate Trump
elected by those who took hump
at moneyed elites
according to tweets
by Trump’s collective misogynist clump
He blew bigots up like a bicycle pump
‘deplorables’ swelled to a poisonous lump
forget about facts
diplomacy or tact
winning is all that matters to Trump
As the President-elect Donald Trump
sneered at women considered plump
his unleashed tongue
grotesque insults flung
Trump’s misogyny a cancerous lump
His presidency corrupt at the core
means the United States no more
anger and hate
an uncertain fate
Trump’s only about settling a score
He campaigned with deceit and lies
winning the penultimate prize
of course, he’s a fool
others actually rule
will the majority avert their eyes?
From Mexican artist Joaquin Segura we have Exercises on selective mutism, 2012:
In this piece the artist has recovered a found object – a canvas banner discarded in the aftermath of a protest in Mexico City – and transformed it into a minimalist sculpture by applying layers of white paint to its surface.
The attempt to cover up (literally ‘whitewash’) the banner’s political message is key to the work’s meaning… about efforts to silence, and render invisible, dissent – through omission, spreading misinformation and erasure – and a questioning of conceptual art’s potential to make political claims or to challenge authority.
I love writing Found Poetryand the last lesson for the term in my Writing Creativelyclass was exploring Found Poetry by reading a column in the local paper which collates local news snippets from a hundred years ago.
The exercise was challenging but productive and I hope the students polish the variety of poems they wrote.
Art can Confront, Challenge, move us from our Comfort Zone
Several other installations prompted discussions on a host of current media topics and various events we’d lived through.
Baby boomers have survived tumultuous, exciting times and have adapted to incredible change, especially the rise of the digital world. I’m glad there is still support for art you can touch, walk around, relate to and experience in real time, not just on screen.
Melbourne is rich with events to attend, particularly during holiday times and I never tire of the trip to the city – as a teacher of creative writing, particularly Life Stories & Legacies, cultural experiences and exhibitions offer a mine of information and material for lessons and ideas to write about, plus triggers for personal memories.
When we write about our past, it’s easy to look at memories as if through a fixed lens. Events and people, including self, coldly observed – especially childhood – embarrassments, failings, mistakes, sometimes enlarged or erased with hindsight, successes perhaps forgotten or if unrecognised at the time, now embellished. The telescope pointed at childhood fixed, and often others not consulted, so the memory, reliable or otherwise, is our own.
The immediate past and middle years, early adulthood onwards not so clear to categorise or to talk about – marriage, parenthood, working life – may still have ongoing repercussions – more likely family, friends and fellow travellers, still alive even if not active participants in your life.
The memories may be raw and traumatic and still needing some distance before reflection.
Our childhood distant, but not the experiences of our own children and their effect on our lives still being worked through, as are decisions that may have affected our health:
abandoning regular sport or dancing,
promotion at work,
reducing to part-time
or casual work,
de facto relationships,
… so many experiences and turning points to be written freely or honestly, or perhaps censored with ramifications fully understood.
Shared experiences, Interviewing friends, a Memoir Writer’s fodder
At the NGV, along with discussing the contents of the galleries, Uma and I chatted and remembered events of our forty years friendship. We both are the product of the first wave of feminism and both have daughters who we raised accordingly, hoping they would not go through some of the sexism and inequality we faced.
Uma, as a woman of colour, born in Malaysia, a country with a long history and acculturation from British colonialism, recognises she adapted to Australian society with relative ease compared to other migrants but we agree the conversations around #blacklivesmatter and #metoo are relevant to Australia and long overdue.
Proud to be Feminist
“You’ll love the Guerrilla Girls: Portfolio Compleat,” said Uma as she guided me to the next gallery.
Guerrilla Girls exhibition confronts gender inequality particularly in the creative fields, and because myself and both daughters (a filmmaker and a stop-motion animator) work in creative fields, Uma wanted me to see it.
We found ourselves sharing insights about subtle and not so subtle discrimination in a world that unfortunately still sees power wielded by the privileged, and in western society, the privileged are overwhelmingly white and male.
Uma confided that at work in the public service, even when she was in charge, as the manager or ‘boss’, she sat in the front row at conferences or prominent positions at meetings to be seen and she consciously spoke a little louder to be heard – a woman of colour, she had two hurdles to jump!
Guerrilla Girls is a group of anonymous feminist artists and activists who call themselves ‘the conscience of the art world’. Their posters, billboards, books, videos and live lectures use facts, humour and bold visuals to expose sexism and racism in politics, the art world and popular culture.
The collective formed in New York City in 1985 with the mission to bring gender and racial equality into focus within the greater arts community. The members protect their individual identities by wearing gorilla masks during public appearances and by adopting names of deceased female icons such as Edmonia Lewis, Kathe Kollwitz and Frida Kahlo.
Uma pointed to number four on the list of advantages of being a woman artist.
‘You have another 20 years,’ she said with a grin…
Many of the observations were witty and shocking but in today’s depressing political climate ‘stating the bloody obvious.
On the way to visit another special exhibition, we paused at random objects that caught our eye.
From ‘in your face’ feminism, to the eighteenth century, known for its enlightened philosophes (you’ll be forgiven for only knowing the names of the male intellectuals – Voltaire, Rousseau, Kant, Diderot, Hume…) because women were literally and figuratively trapped – in clothes that limited mobility, a society that denied rights and access to education:
The fashionable ideal for women in the eighteenth century comprised voluminous dresses, open at the front to reveal matching stomachers and petticoats, tall powdered clouds of hair and pointed buckled shoes. Skirts were widened with hoops or panniers to create an exaggerated hourglass silhouette that emphasised the natural waistline.
This work is known as a robe a la francaise (or sack-back gown), distinguishable by its sack-back of loose pleating and front robings trimmed with lace that conveys the luxury and ostentation of the period.
During the first half of the eighteenth century, fashionable women’s shoes for the upper and middle classes followed a common form. Straight and narrow with a pointed toe and thick-waisted heel, most were made of rich silk fabric and often had decorative trimmings known as passamaneria. This pair features exquisite metal thread bobbin lace made by braiding and twisting lengths of thread, further edged by strips of braid work. The shoes do not buckle but are worn with the latchets overlapping at the front.
How did they function?
I loved Georgette Heyer’s Regency and Georgian novels as a teenager and imagined floating around in muslin and silk dresses – a visit to a museum would have given me a reality check!
The research required for good historical fiction is painstaking and often clothes play a huge part in whether the story is believable, even more so for screenwriting.
I visited so many museums and galleries when I travelled and often looked at the displays and pondered the hours of labour to make the material, dress and shoes.
My aunt was a tailoress and my older sister an amazing seamstress too, she quilts, embroiders and does all manner of creative needlework. I know the effort and time hand sewing takes – mind-boggling!
However, the men and women hunched in candlelight, in rooms with little or no ventilation, sewing these glamorous gowns earned a pittance and history did not even record their names…
A Stitch in Time (a villanelle)
She sits sewing by dim lamplight
embroidered threads by her side
contented, happy, eyes shining bright.
In the stillness of evening light
needle and thread silently glide,
as she sits sewing by pale moonlight.
Cross-stitches, pattern small and tight
new techniques taken in her stride
contented, happy, eyes shining bright.
Her creativity in wondrous flight
imagination flows like the tide
as she sits sewing by candlelight.
Machines embraced despite Luddites
mass production becomes her guide
contentment gone, eyes no longer bright
History records seamstresses’ plight
workers stripped of all but pride
many still struggle in shadowed light
exploited, sad, eyes no longer bright.
A Day For All Things Domestic?
Uma was thrilled to come across an installation by an Indian born artist Subodh Gupta called Curry.
A wall displaying the various utensils used for cooking reminded Uma of growing up in Malaysia and observing her grandmother cooking. There were certain types of pots and pans, spoons and ladles found in every Indian household.
The tiffin boxes brought back memories for me too.
I first heard about tiffins and saw one when John and I became close friends with a workmate, Peter Cordeux who had been born and brought up in India as part of the British Army community.
Whenever we had parties, Peter and his wife Kathy brought a tiffin box filled with delicious curries and rice, which Peter always jokingly claimed he made.
Peter died in 2008, but his stories of growing up in India, holidaying in Pakistan and Afghanistan, being stationed in the Middle East, fighting in Malaya in 1948 during the “Insurgency,” and then the various jobs he had before migrating to Australia, including operating an ice cream van, introduced a whole new fascinating world.
His funny and serious tales reflected in those tiffin boxes! My girls loved their Uncle Peter and still miss him.
Cultural references resonate within the make-up of this artwork: the use of stainless steel in bowls, plates and cups is synonymous with the modernisation and economic development of India in the twentieth century.
Stainless steel replaced kansa (or bell metal, a brittle bronze featuring a high proportion of tin) in the 1950s and 1960s and came to transform the kitchen and eating utensils used in everyday life in India.
The nod to the multitudes of India is made in this work, where straightforward, comparatively small, individual elements are brought together at such a scale that they transcend their everyday nature.
A Writing Exercise
A common writing exercise for those writing family history or memoir is to look in cupboards and write about objects kept for sentimental reasons or as heirlooms. What is the story behind them? Why is it important to write their legacy?
Or write about and explain the value and attachment of everyday objects.
How were they acquired and is there a significant memory attached, like a birthday or anniversary, a travel story?
A trip to the NGV or the museum may help to trigger memories – this stainless steel display certainly did for me and Uma – as did the final special exhibition we walked through.
A Modern Life: Tablewares 1930s – 1980s
If you want to date or explain the provenance of that treasured plate or teapot, visit the NGV before 27 January 2019. You’ll have an enjoyable history lesson too and perhaps discover that valuable piece of crockery a la Antique Roadshow!
The layout of some of the displays to mirror popular designs, I found a bit overwhelming and busy, but certainly stunning and there is a great range of designers. So much detail to produce the humble cup and saucer.
Nowadays, in trendy places, you can be offered a jam jar to drink from and your meal served on a wooden board – or even given disposable crockery and cutlery!