Australian Creatures Great and Small Need Respect and Restored Habitat but Right Now Rescue Remedies are Priority!

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At our local vet, a baby possum held by a qualified wildlife rescuer

Experts suggest more than a billion animals have died in the bushfires engulfing eastern Australia and animal rights groups have asked the Victorian Government to replicate the action of the NSW Government and drop thousands of kilograms of carrots and sweet potatoes into bushfire-affected areas to save starving wildlife.

Although feeding wildlife and making them dependent on people for food can create problems too. However, Lyn White, of Animals Australia has said:

This is an unprecedented situation which requires unique and innovative solutions.

It is indeed!

And Guardian Australia revealed two days ago that already 80% of the Blue Mountains and 50% of Gondwana rainforests have burned – and the bushfire crisis is ongoing.

As a conservationist and longtime supporter of animal organisations, even proudly earning the title ‘Champion’ from WWF Australia,  never in my worst nightmare did I think the devastation we are experiencing would happen, but the signs have been there for a long time regarding habitat destruction as this 1999 article states:

birds already facing extinction

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Some mythology has the crow as a portent of death…

The terrible losses suffered must motivate all levels of government and all communities to think about development, urban creep, logging, mining, land clearing and overall treatment of our rivers, parks and nature reserves.

Do we want a world with less diversity, a world without birdsong, a world where TV documentaries or zoos are the only available access to certain species?

The only creature on earth whose natural habitat is a zoo is the zookeeper.

Robert Brault

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What have we done & What can we do?

The statistics of a billion animals dead and millions of acres destroyed, and figures skyrocketing daily are too massive for me to comprehend. This is where a picture is worth a thousand words and heart-breaking images saturating social media and the traditional press show the urgency of this climate catastrophe.

There are also heartwarming stories and pictures of animals being rescued and treated for burns, other injuries, plus starvation or thirst because their homes no longer exist.

Communities not affected by the fires have responded in amazing ways. One of the most popular and most needed at the beginning of the bushfire disaster was the plea for pouches for injured and orphaned baby koalas, kangaroos, wallabies, wombats, possums and bats.

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Late November, I attended a special sewing workshop to make these pouches at Mordialloc Neighbourhood House.

Bushfires had been burning for weeks in Queensland and NSW but increased as summer drew near and temperatures got hotter. Much of the news taken up with debates about climate change, fire resources and apportioning blame and it took some time for the public to understand the impact on our wildlife.

I was aware because of membership of WWF but wanted to do something practical. I can still hear my parents saying, ‘actions speak louder than words’ and I always feel I’ve achieved something if I can see a practical outcome.

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However, it felt strange attending a workshop as a participant, not the facilitator!  I hadn’t visited the House for two years although I’d taught writing there for over twenty and it was the ‘home’ of Mordialloc Writers Group.

There was a new manager, and I didn’t know anyone in the sewing group – in fact, I was the only ring-in who had answered the call advertised on Facebook.

the sewing b at Mordi house

Made welcome immediately and offered a brief tutorial,  I joined the production line, to cut out pouches and listen to expert advice and tips. I took a baker’s dozen pouches home to sew and posted them to Sydney the following week, receiving a lovely email of appreciation.

The patterns are freely available from the Animal Rescue Freecycle Craft Guild and many other places found on Google. You can mix and match material – injured wildlife care about comfort (cotton or other soft materials for liners) not fashion.

Knitters and those able to crochet can make items too and Facebook groups have sprung up advertising community gatherings and mass knitting and crochet events.

I had an attempt at knitting an outer pouch over Christmas but the pile of pouches I sent to Gippsland were mainly liners from cutting up a flannelette sheet.

Not sure if it was because I was recovering from surgery, misread the pattern, or I’m a slow knitter, but the one outer pouch I knitted took ages and turned out a different size than I expected. And here was me thinking the pattern would be easier to follow than the Poppy Project I did!

Support From All Over Australia and Internationally

Just like the firefighting and fundraising efforts, people from all over the world have rallied to send money and craft items for a variety of wildlife organisations. I’ve heard reports the response has overwhelmed some centres with koala mittens and bat wraps, while others desperately need large pouches for kangaroos.

I hope this fabulous outpouring of support will continue but we must put pressure on those in power to accept the realities of climate change, accept the consequences of lost or degraded habitat and instigate policies to turn this tragic situation around.

Life's gamble

Think Global and Act Local

Our CSIRO scientists warned us about the effects of climate change as has Greta Thunberg and the ‘A-list’ of conservationists headed by Sir David Attenborough and Jane Goodall.

As I write, giant hailstones pelt Parliament House, Canberra – I’m sad for the damage to vegetation, homes and birds but oh, how I wish they could knock some sense into the politicians ignoring all the best advice from public servants, emergency service personnel and scientists.

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Meanwhile,  we can all look after the native vegetation and wildlife in our own communities – and for most of us living in suburbia that could include possums, wombats, lizards, ducks and birds. Although experts do not recommend feeding because of increased development and unusual weather patterns, looking out for the health of native wildlife will ensure their survival.

Download Fact Sheets about feeding here: https://www.healthywildlife.com.au/documents-to-download/#/

Ringtail and Brushtail possums in Melbourne have suffered because of increased development, domestic cats, and the periods of intense summer heat becoming longer. Some councils have guidelines to help positive interaction between human and possum.

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On hot days I leave a bit of food and water in the garden for our resident possums. Some friends do the same for their furry friends.

Although nocturnal animals, our little possums come down to sleep in the camellia tree during the day when it is boiling – a behaviour I’ve never seen until recently.

Sadly, when out walking I’ve come across dead possums more often.  They may have died because of the heat, starvation, a cat or dog attack and even electrocution when they’ve got too close to power lines.

Native birds dislocated because of dense development, the drought, changing climate, introduced species and lost habitat can also do with some proactive love if you still want to wake up to birdsong.

It is preferable to plant trees and flowers that provide natural food but that isn’t always possible in an urban environment.

I love it when the magpies, butcher birds, wattlebirds, rainbow lorikeets and even the vocal noisy minors visit me. Several bottlebrushes provide a feast for various birds but I supplement their diet with some wild bird seed and fill the water dish on hot days.

Google information on plants that attract butterflies and bees and trees that nurture the birds – but also the fact sheets on what not to feed them!

But most of all, listen to the scientists and take climate change seriously we do not want this horrific summer with all its tragic losses to be the new norm.

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Bendigo Hospital Promotes Connectivity, Kindness, Community, plus World-Class Health Care

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Entrance area with volunteers for Open House at a table on the right.

The award-winning Bendigo Hospital showcased last year for the inaugural Open House Bendigo and again this year. The result of the Victorian State Government’s $630 million-dollar project, the largest regional hospital in Victoria is well worth a visit, even though hospitals aren’t usually on the tourist circuit.

Over the last few months, I’ve had more interaction with the Victorian health system than I’d like because friends and close family members have needed serious surgery or other procedures. As a consumer health representative, I’m always interested in the ‘where, when and how‘ healthcare is delivered as well as any outcomes so I was determined to see Bendigo Hospital this year during Open House Bendigo.

The Bendigo Hospital Project’s much-lauded design includes therapeutic gardens and harnesses the healing power of inclusiveness and nature to deliver world-class healthcare facilities in a welcoming, holistic, and positive environment.

 I can assure you ‘seeing is believing’…

The project a Private Public Partnership between Exemplar Health and the Victorian Government and involved collaboration and consultation. The contract hands the hospital back to the government in 25 years.

Is this a pathway for the future of providing public hospital care?

Medical technology and expertise can detect and treat disease earlier, replace or heal damaged body parts, and extend life expectancy – but it all comes at a ‘dollar’ cost.

Students of history know the difficulties experienced when Medicare was introduced and the ongoing battle to retain it. To fund or even establish a universal healthcare system opens the proverbial ‘can of worms’ in Australia. Maintaining public health systems is costly financially and in political terms, because there are those ideologically opposed to the idea of government completely funding anything.   

And ‘bean-counters’ must be satisfied.

Australia’s two-tiered health system of public and private services already stretches government dollars and there is an underlying reluctance or suspicion of change from most people – especially radical change – private-public partnerships may be the compromise we need to have.

The design, organisation, and management of hospital buildings evolve at a slower pace than medicine and treatments because bricks and mortar and technological equipment require huge investment and often relocation. Expanding existing facilities may not be possible and any new site can meet community opposition or the shortcomings of political expediency.

The Bendigo Project united three existing sites. From the beginning, the architects, design team, and landscape architects OCULUS collaborated and consulted to join the various precincts through a series of connecting paths and diverse landscaped gardens, where staff, patients, and visitors could move or sit in communal and private spaces.

The scale, colours, and proportion of the built form of the hospital reference Bendigo’s distinguished heritage buildings, while establishing a strong sculpturally, formed civic element creating a more friendly and human scale.

Dja Dja Wurrung & Chinese Gardens

There is a designated area for the Dja Dja Wurrung respectful of their needs and Chinese gardens reflect the cultural diversity of the region since colonial times. The green infrastructure ensures trees and plants are inside the building as well as in gardens outside. 

Mainly indigenous plants are used but also non-indigenous to mirror the history of gardens in the Bendigo area – special plants that may have been introduced or cultivated by colonial settlers.

scar tree

Tree bark was an important resource for the Dja Dja Wurrung People and was used for the manufacture of a number of different articles such as canoes, shields and coolamons (bowls). Trees like this one, bearing the scars from bark removal can still be seen in many parts of the Country and are an important reminder of the Dja Dja Wurrung presence in the landscape.

When you enter Bendigo Hospital there is a sign that reads ‘ We are proud to acknowledge Dja Dja Wurrung as the Traditional Owners of this Country’ and at the entrance to the Aboriginal Support centre/gathering place, there is a framed Possum Skin Cloak by the artist Jida Gulpilil with the following explanation:

The creation of a Djaroon – Possum Skin Cloak to Dja Dja Wurrung people is a direct link to our past and connection to our physical and spiritual world today – it continues our healing, forever telling the stories, customs, beliefs and culture of our people. The Djaroon creates warmth and is shared with others for healing, health and wellbeing.

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The Mootchung (wattle seed pod design) represented reflects the practice of seasonal food cycle collection and movement. It is high in protein and can be cooked or eaten raw like green peas. The wood of the tree is used to make the implements for hunting and gathering other bush-foods and medicinal plants that build strength and connection to country.

Our belief, which has been passed down over 2000 generations is that our spirits and physical presence were created to encourage and support all peoples health and wellbeing, through health support, education, mutual respect and understanding: we should never disconnect from that objective as a universal community.

Jida Gulpilil 2016

 

The privacy of the Aboriginal Support area, the secluded garden with a fire circle for smoking ceremonies and meetings were designed with consultations to meet the needs and cultural sensitivities of those who use the services.

The impression of tranquillity and quietness is strong, also the smell of eucalyptus leaves. The furniture and building features made with natural materials blend into the landscape to create an inclusive and beautiful space.

The Chinese Garden with its central Pomelo tree surrounded by seats for rest and contemplation is also distinctive and beautiful.

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The plaque in English and Chinese reads:

88 

Number 88: Representing abundance, prosperity, good health and family unity.

Pomelo trees are an important symbol in Chinese culture. To the Bendigo Chinese, this is a ‘tree of life’, and pomelo tree leaves are made as an offering to the decorative Chinese dragon at many special ceremonies. This tree was propagated by Russell Jack AM, from trees grown from seed by his mother, Gladys Ah Dore in Elmore during the early 1900s. A donation from the Golden Dragon Museum of Bendigo this tree is a living reminder of the growing contribution the Bendigo Chinese community has made to Bendigo Health for more than 100 years.

Nature Invited Inside

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Our guides waiting patiently to start the tour

This recently finished hospital impressive in many ways and it was a joy to be shown around the place by one of the Oculus architects and a representative from Exemplar Health. Both women were exceptionally generous in the details they provided,  answering every question, no matter how repetitive. 

Yesterday, I received a list of all the plants and trees used in the incredibly stunning gardens because many of us requested it.

This list for the precinct is nine pages and as Joan from Exemplar Health stated in the email ‘a live document, changing over time as we work with our horticultural staff to maintain the gardens and see what is thriving (or not!) in each area.’

When I walked through the gardens and entered the hospital, first impressions were unlike any hospital I’ve ever visited. I say this as a positive, not a negative. Inside the building was even more stunning than the magnificent garden area outside where you’d expect to see rows of parked cars.

The entrance, airy and light with abstract paintings and sculptures by internationally renowned, Daylesford based artist Esther Stewart contributing to the positive ambience.

 

Stewart explores repetition and composition through colour and line. the intricate hand-painted wall painting references decorative arts, crafts and flowers from the Bendigo region. Inspired by the symmetry and formal geometry of Bendigo’s famous gold-rush era architecture.

The wall-painting features architectural elements drawn from German-born, Bendigo architect William Vahland’s ornate structures, as well as from the historic Victorian threshold tiling found in domestic and civic buildings in the Bendigo region.

Bendigo’s native flowers, Shrubby Dampiera, Sweet Bursaria and Rosy Heath have been incorporated into a repeated pattern through the piece. These decorative elements contrast with solid blocks of joyous colour, the palette of which has been inspired by the work of artists Agnes Goodsir and Emma Minnie Boyd, who were amongst the Bendigo ArtGallery’s first female acquisitions.

The elaborate wall work is a complementary counterpoint to the feathered natural light and earthy materials of Bendigo Hospital’s internal street space, providing a human warmth and local familiarity to the important new civic space.

You notice the trees growing inside the building and can’t resist checking if they are real or artificial.

Everywhere you look there is shrubbery and this green infrastructure has a remarkable, immediate, beneficial effect. The restorative power of gardens is documented here in an article written in 2015  for Frontiers in Psychology, after a study about the benefits of formal or informal gardens.

At Bendigo, there are three full-time gardeners over the three sites, plus contractors at particular times when seasonal changes may demand extra maintenance.

Our guides told us that the design of the ceiling in the entrance area was influenced by the way light filtered through the tree branches. The architects altered their original design and materials accordingly. This openness and flexibility apparent throughout the project and staff and patient input were given high priority.

We walked through the ground floor of the hospital and learned about the landscaping, soil depth, microbes, plant needs, tree needs, light and sunshine available, the reason for rainforest trees. 

When choosing plants they had to consider allergies, if plants were poisonous and could be ingested, if plants, seeds, branches, stones in rockeries could be weaponised. The mental health and dementia area have their own closed-in and safe garden.

Each floor has its own garden/rainforest – wherever you are receiving treatment there is a view to the outside world and access to plants and fresh air closeby. On the lower floors, canopy trees offer privacy from upper storeys and balconies.

We walked through the Cancer Centre and several other departments, each decorated in a specific colour scheme with artistic backdrops reflecting the seven shires that make up Bendigo. An aerial photo of some aspect of the shire enlarged behind the reception desk while chairs and other furniture complement the main colour.

When looking at the Cancer centre, one of the volunteers told me her husband was treated at the hospital and died in the hospice. I appreciated her volunteering because her grief would still be raw. 

The Treatment and Chemotherapy Rooms look out onto gardens, which help you relax and take your mind off what is happening but for some procedures ‘staff and patients have to remember to shut the blinds,’ she said with a smile. Patients can see out but people sitting outside can also see in!

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the chemo room

I told her that when I was going through chemo at Cabrini Brighton, they had scenic landscapes hanging on the wall and I used to stare at one of a beach, close my eyes and pretend I was in Samoa! My daughters waited in a nearby cafe until I was ready to go home but at Bendigo, support friends could sit and relax in one of the lovely courtyards.

An Interesting Segue

Last year the Cancer Council of Victoria chose Bendigo to launch a national campaign tackling obesity and cancer – a campaign claimed to be a world first.

  • Targeting ‘toxic fat’ around internal organs, the campaign revealed sugary drinks contribute to obesity and being above a healthy weight is a preventable cause of 13 types of cancer, including breast cancer.
  • Sugary drinks, including soft drinks, sports drinks, sugar-added juices and milk are the single biggest source of sugar in our diets.
  • 98% of Australians are aware obesity is a risk factor for type 2 diabetes and heart disease but as few as 40% know about its link to cancer.

Bendigo Health BANNED all sugary drinks being sold within its precinct – a great initiative for the sustainability of our health resources!

We want people to realise that they could be drinking their way towards weight gain, obesity and toxic fat, including their risk of many types of cancer.

Dr Sam Harris, consultant medical oncologist

It can’t be overstated how important a relationship with the outside world is when recovering in hospital. To be able to access natural beauty with its promise of new buds, leaves, and flowers contributes a promise of healing.

Central to the landscape architectural approach was the idea of connections and kindness… delivering high-quality public spaces, streets and edges inviting use and respite.

Key Outcomes & Sustainability Pluses

  • Design using evidence-based & biophilic design approaches
  • nearly 50 green roofs, roof decks, balconies & courtyards (some accessible), nearly 20 mental health courtyards and an Aboriginal Services Garden (part of closing the gap initiative).
  • the largest green roof in a hospital project in Australia
  • the hospital’s green roofs reduce glare and heat island effect, improving acoustics and thermal performance.
  • a 770panel 200-kilowatt solar photovoltaic panel array generates clean energy power
  • annual reduction in greenhouse gases of approximately 300,000 kilograms of CO2
  • the hospital roof can harvest and store more than 300kL of potable and no-potable rainwater in this drought-prone region
  • recycled water systems supply landscape irrigation, toilet flushing and heat rejection systems.
  • green infrastructure has been incorporated combining water sensitive urban design and structural soils and increased biological diversity.

Not surprisingly Exemplar and Oculus have won a string of awards for Bendigo Hospital, the latest only recently: the Prize for the Civic Landscape by the International Federation of Landscape Architects.

Other awards include:

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  • Premiers Sustainability Awards, winner Regional Recognition Prize
  • PCA Victorian Development of the Year
  • Good Design Awards, winner Architectural Design
  • AILA Sir Zelman Cowen Award Public Architecture
  • AILA National prize Civic Landscape

Robots In Use

While listening to our guides some hardworking robots glided along a designated corridor on a walkway above us.

The robots looked like large silver boxes to me.

The robots made in Germany (Siemens) operate on a small platform/trolley that can be raised. They deliver food and linen after being loaded by humans. The robots operate in a special corridor and lift reserved for their use, taking the items to the wards to be distributed by nurses or other staff.

The robots take themselves into a storage area to be recharged and when you consider all the repetitive movements and effort required to lift clean or dirty dishes and linen, having a machine to do it makes sense.

Further Improvements Transform Bendigo Health

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The transformation of Bendigo Health is amazing considering in 2012, some buildings were deemed non-compliant after failing to meet fire-safety standards.

The Victorian Government promised $60million last year to fit out the old hospital building, demolish towers at the Anne Caudle Centre, and complete the redevelopment of Bendigo’s hospital precinct.

Stage three of the hospital’s redevelopment brings together allied health services, including physiotherapy, social work, speech therapy, prosthetics and orthotics, clinical psychology and neuropsychology.

People recovering from illnesses and injuries will have good rehabilitation services and support close at hand when the new rehabilitation centre is complete by 2023. Work will start in 2021, this enables current services to move with minimum disruption before towers are demolished.

This stage is not part of the private-public partnership that delivered the first two stages so it will be interesting to see if the greening continues!

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Learning Sustainable Living is a Glimmer of Hope Amidst the Gloom

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

sign about garden

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The First Step Towards A Very Edible Garden

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

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

Wikipedia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Essential Steps

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

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

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

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

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

The Plumbing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Plumbing in place, now the Layers

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

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

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

The Soil Ready to Be Added

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

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

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

The Finished Wicking Bed

our finished bed

Jeremy reminded us:

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

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

The Grand Tour

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Open House Bendigo buzzes in a BEEHIVE of Activity

Before I write about another fabulous weekend in Bendigo, I acknowledge the Bendigo region of central Victoria is Djadjawurrung or Dja Dja Wurrung Country and recognise the unique relationship of Dja Dja Wurrung People to their traditional Country and pay my respects to their elders past and present.

A good way to learn about the region’s First People is to take a vintage tram ride on the Dja Dja Wurrung Tram – a moving celebration of their cultural heritage that navigates the past and present of the changing environment since colonisation.

For the second year, the City of Greater Bendigo opened its doors and partnered with Open House Melbourne to host Open House Bendigo on the last weekend in October. Supporting partners were Creative Victoria, DELWP, Heritage Council of Victoria and the La Trobe Art Institute.

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I was thrilled to volunteer again because Bendigo is a place you can easily fall in love with and being part of a volunteer crew hosting a building for Open House, I indulge my love of history and heritage and chat with a host of interesting people sharing a similar love or just satisfying their curiosity about buildings they pass every day or had a connection to in the past …

Whatever the reason, the air comes alive with stories, characters and settings and for a writer – to paraphrase our PM –  How good is an Open House weekend!?

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The crew of volunteers at the end of a busy weekend.

In a thank-you email received yesterday (and the wonderful crew who run Open House nurture and always thank the volunteers!) the statistics have been collated:

  • over 10,000 visits across 27 buildings and 9 special events
  • a clear demonstration of continuing public interest and engagement in the city’s architecture and heritage.
  • as expected the Beehive was the most popular building with over 2,123 people taking advantage of walking through the door

The cooperation and enthusiasm of building managers, owners and architects also make the program possible and local volunteers from a variety of community or educational organisations keen to showcase on this extremely busy weekend for Bendigo.

There is an annual Cycling Classic plus a Sustainable Living festival and lots of cross-pollination between events. I even paused to enjoy the excitement of one of the cycling heats:

 

Bendigo is only 90 minutes by train from Melbourne and although the weather wasn’t as pleasant as last year visitors were not deterred and not only the Beehive Complex saw increased numbers.

People queued patiently outside and inside the building to be allowed a walkthrough of half an hour – 15 minutes downstairs and 15 minutes upstairs and volunteers kept the numbers moving by ensuring the time limit strictly adhered to.

My teaching voice came in handy as I herded those on the upper floor, as did the timer on my mobile phone and the response from a good-natured crowd.

 

Why was the Beehive so busy?

The Beehive Building is a Bendigo landmark and dates back to 1872 when it was the Bendigo Mining Exchange. The building has been through many manifestations since then and therefore holds a variety of memories for the people of Bendigo.

Last year, Open House Bendigo allowed access to the construction site and the interest generated resulted in queues wending around the streets with waiting times of more than two hours – hence the timed viewing and entry this year!

The exclusive ‘sneak peek’ of  ‘never-before-seen restorative works’ and the opportunity to hear from the Developer, Craig Lightfoot, a golden opportunity few locals wanted to miss.

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Craig in deep conversation with one visitor and always the queue of others waiting…

I’ll own up to being critical of many building developers, especially those who seem to want to get rich quick and bulldoze and build rather than restore and redeem but after meeting Craig and seeing the efforts to beautifully restore the Beehive to its former glory  I could become a fangirl!

His enthusiasm and passion for retaining heritage aspects obvious. Parts of the restoration will show the history of the building to spark interest and discussion but also as a reminder of the various tradesmen who applied their skills over the 147-year history of the Beehive. Where it is safe to do so, the history of the building and restoration work will be exposed.

In many of the rooms, you will see traces of past occupiers – paintwork, wallpaper patterns, ornamental plaster, brickwork, fireplaces…

 

Similar in style to Melbourne’s Royal Arcade and by the same designer, Charles Webb, the building’s original uses include a hotel, a mining exchange, a restaurant, offices and function space. The current development uncovers the rich layers of use by removing most of, if not all of the 1920s’ and 1950s’ changes, revealing key features of the original building. Visitors had access to the ground level construction site during the 2018 Open House Bendigo program, and this year visitors will access the newly completed arcade including the second story, revealing the intricate beauty of the glass ceiling not seen for decades.

Behind a still-to-be renovated staircase there will be a quirky memento.  Workers have written their name and date they worked on the building, the earliest entry legible is 1939.

Craig assured me he’ll be adding his signature to the wall and that piece of plaster will be made stable and remain as is!

He laughed when I said his commitment to retaining so many historical details reminded me of Kevin Mc Cloud closing many of the episodes of Grand Designs with praise for the builders who retained the ‘autobiographical details’ of a building!

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The Beehive Project has been several years in the making and started five years ago. After four years of planning,  lots of compliance hoops had to be jumped: Heritage Victoria, CFA building regulations and health and safety issues as well as local building regulations. Times and expectations have changed since 1870.

My post about the restoration of Flinders Street Station provides more detail of what is required by Heritage Victoria.

To ensure disability access, a lift will be installed, modern toilet and plumbing, and most voids had to be removed because of health and safety requirements.  Craig managed to keep the centrepiece that gives those downstairs a view to the floor above and the magnificent glass ceiling by widening the walkway on either side.

To remind people the voids were once there he reversed the fill-in floorboards and although the centrepiece had to be narrowed,  the cast-iron railings remain, albeit they are replicas. Craig said the original railings were removed and sold off or are languishing somewhere in Bendigo.

Interestingly, one of the visitors told Craig for some of the original railings, he should check out Marlborough House in Wattle Street, Bendigo!

Craig duly noted the suggestion and added it to a list of snippets he’d gleaned since opening the building for the public to view. Never underestimate the value of local knowledge!

 

The building has had many reincarnations – Craig’s plans are for the food and beverage industry. A function centre, with retail and pub or cafe downstairs and intimate and cosy private dining rooms and two larger reception areas upstairs, ideal for weddings and other celebrations like corporate functions.

Coincidentally, both weekends I stayed in Bendigo for Open House, I witnessed a traditional wedding party posing for photos – this year the group was on the steps of the Art Gallery.

I hope Craig gets plenty of bookings and if the response from locals is an indication the building will get plenty of use, people love it and regard it as a Bendigo icon, pleased that it will once again be a place to visit.

 

 

A young man dressed in typical tradie gear came through with his mum, grandad and other assorted family members. His first reaction was to retie a striped plastic ribbon cordoning off one of the no-go areas, ‘I’ll get into trouble if this isn’t tied tightly and people go in…’

 ‘If anyone cops criticism it should be me,’ I said, ‘ part of my job is to ensure people stay to designated areas and don’t go into rooms closed for safety reasons or because equipment and tools are stored.’

He took a bit of convincing from his mother and me that it was okay, it was not his responsibility and it was his day off!

I later saw him explaining to his family in great detail, how he stripped the old paint off, what he’d been instructed to leave, how he scraped, sanded and carefully applied new coats…

Careful, painstaking work, but often rewarded by treasures hidden beneath.

I’m sure he is learning a lot about past painting practices and the type of paint used.  Most paints were lead-based and not the healthiest of products so I’m glad he is taking health and safety seriously!

 

A Cat Through The Roof!

As mentioned, Craig was noting a lot of the stories people told him about how they interacted with the Beehive Buildings. He intends to have a ‘Story Wall’ or some kind of archive where people visiting can learn about the building’s past.

The builders have uncovered ‘historic gems’ and some of these discoveries were on display for Open House – artefacts as well as building features like previously boxed-in metal columns, hidden plaster arches and a steel strongroom door thought to have once blocked the public from gold stored on the premises.

 

Last year, people got access to the ground floor, but this year they could venture upstairs and one story stands out – in fact, both Craig and I agreed we’d probably dream about it!

There was a staircase leading to ‘offices’ upstairs – the staircase where the tradies had left their marks.  People were curious:\ ‘what is up there?’, ‘what will it be?’

 

A lady said her Uncle Bob and Aunt Win Woods owned the Dad and Dave Cafe and ‘lived up those stairs.’

She became quite teary talking about them and remembering childhood visits when she was around 7 or 9 years old. She recalled Uncle Bob built a clothesline for his wife and placed an extended wooden walkway above the glass ceiling so she could walk out and hang her clothes.

One day, the Siamese cat that used to follow Aunt Win fell through the glass! How narrow and dangerous was that homemade path to the clothesline?

Craig and I both agreed we couldn’t get the image of a falling cat out of our mind and I kept having surreptitious peaks upwards until the end of my shift.

Perhaps the story influenced my reaction when a young mum carrying a baby leant over the cast-iron railings to stare below. Stomach lurching, I moved closer as the much-criticised scene of Michal Jackson dangling his son from the balcony flashed through my mind.

Thankfully, an anxious friend accompanying her spoke up and the young mum moved away. I didn’t have to declare my nervousness or fear of heights.

Another lady told the story of coming up the back stairs and into a shop to get her wedding dress made. The tailoress specialised in wedding dresses and discreet fittings. Craig has chosen to leave the etchings of past occupants on two of the upstairs columns and restore the various staircases.

 

 

I hope Craig meets his deadline for March 2020 and that Bendigo will be host to Open House again because I know where I’ll be going to have a cup of coffee or ice cream or just a wander through the restored arcade because as I’ve discovered curiosity does not kill the cat!

 

 

Conservation and Caring for Community a Collective Responsibility

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I’ve lived in Mordialloc for 35 years and like many living bayside I’m forever conscious of the fragility of our environment: erosion of cliffs and sand dunes, the need for the perpetual replacement of sand on some of the beaches, the close proximity of the water table and propensity to flood, importance of the wetlands for bird migration and propagation, history of the swamps and flooding in certain areas, the risk of pollution to Mordialloc Creek…

I’m also aware and proud, of the beauty we can access every day – losing count of how many sensational sunsets admired while sitting on the beach or walking along the foreshore.

sunset at Mordialloc

The glorious walks along Mordialloc Creek alone, or with Jillian, my current walking buddy, or walking the family dog, Josie with one of my daughters. You never know what or who you will encounter.

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I love strolling through Attenborough Park showing visitors the Indigenous plants, the boats moored on Mordialloc Creek and then wandering up and down the pier checking what fish are biting – or not – whether it is a good day for sailing – before finishing the tour enjoying a cuppa in one of the many cafes in Mordialloc and Parkdale.

Memories of sitting on Doyles’ deck abound – sipping a cider or cup of tea, revelling in the happy noises of chatter and laughter, birds twittering, ducks quacking, boat engines chugging and the steady drone of cars powering to work or home.

To live in such a peaceful community a blessing, especially surrounded by so much natural beauty. However, peace, tranquillity and beauty do not ‘just happen’ in urban areas because for every park, waterway or wetland there are friends’ groups and volunteers working hard to preserve the natural environment, forever vigilant against threats and encroachment.

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Mordialloc Beaumaris Conservation League Caring for 50 years!

The reason we have so much natural space and loveliness to enjoy in Kingston is that there are those within the community ever ready to defend the environment – even if that means public demonstrations, court challenges to the council and state government proposals and decisions, or campaigns of awareness that something of value is under threat.

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One such group is the Mordialloc Beaumaris Conservation League and at the end of September, I attended a low-key celebration of their 50th Anniversary.

This community group of volunteers dedicate their time to protecting and promoting the wonderful coastline of the Bayside suburbs and also monitoring the environment of Mordialloc Creek.

A name that continually pops up in regard to the group is Mary Rimington AM, who with her husband and children and a handful of stalwarts have done an outstanding job over the years, ensuring the group not only continues but achieves many successes.

Mary has been the secretary of MBCL for 30 years and is the keeper of archives – being a local school librarian  BC (before children) her training and attention to detail a wonderful asset.

Research and accurate record-keeping and a passion for the environment have helped Mary be an inveterate writer to the newspapers. Her published letters in the local paper and The Age always demonstrate knowledge and field experience. Likewise the numerous submissions to government bodies and enquiries.

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There was a board display at the celebration but also bundles of leaflets and material on shelves, which were full of remarkably rich historical information. I’m grateful to another active member of the group, Nina Earl for this summary:

  • the first AGM in 1969 and documentation and outcomes of other meetings
  • campaigns against a Bay Gas Pipeline and later channel deepening to retain the natural coastline and Mordialloc Creek
  • Copies of submissions, letters, maps, photographs, paintings
  • flyers on the long-running campaign for the Bay Trail,
  • three versions of brochures of Coast and Creek walks – the latest one used in local secondary colleges
  • the 2019 submission on the Mordialloc Freeway Environmental Effects Statement
  • the draft concept for the long-awaited Sandbelt Open Space Chain of Parks and Trails first proposed in 1984 and long supported by MBCL and still current.

The contrast between the booklets published previously and the latest one, more to do with cost and availability of technology than the information provided.

Although, there is no contest as to what booklet will appeal to young people and hopefully, encourage them to read and explore the local environment. The latest edition is stunning!

Here are selections from each to compare:

 

Mary’s son, Lew, the Treasurer for MBCL shared some firsthand memories of the various campaigns since his school days and how he and his siblings were often called in at short notice to be ‘in the picture’ if media showed interest in a campaign and a photographer turned up – his mother always media savvy!

The Hon. Clifford Hayes MLC Southern Metro and his Chief of Staff, Kelvin Thompson (an ex-MP) were invited guests and Clifford Hayes thanked the group, especially Mary and her family for their conservation work and keeping so many important and necessary campaigns in the public eye.

He promised to continue to advocate for the environment.

Passionate and dedicated community groups are the best watchdogs for the environment and to check that government projects do good, not harm and Kingston is lucky to have several active groups.

Mary spoke about some of the highs and lows of MBCL’s history – not every campaign was successful and some were more memorable than others. She commended the commitment and activism of Professor Michael Buxton and Peter Scullin who were unafraid of taking on the establishment and challenging the law.

I nominated Mary to be a co-speaker when I was asked to present at IWD 2016 because I was Kingston Citizen of the Year.  When she was awarded the Kingston Citizen of the Year in 2017, I was thrilled her remarkable community service and devotion to all things environmental was recognised!

mary rimington and me 2017

I have a deep respect for all that MBCL have achieved and know Mary is the devoted lynchpin of the group, even when some of the campaigns have been controversial or far from popular.  I’ve lived in Mordialloc for 35 years and have seen the improvements to the foreshore, the Creek, the Wetlands – all areas championed by  MBCL.

Other community groups have also been active for many years with a few prominent in the 80s and 90s when the council responded to their concerns and we are reaping the benefits today.

I became involved with some of the groups and in campaigns to rein in developers and retain the ‘village atmosphere’ so many Mordialloc residents value.

Campaigning to retain the integrity of the Green Wedge an ongoing battle debated every year for almost the last decade!

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A climate catastrophe has been declared/recognised by many countries, at the same time Victoria has massive infrastructure projects and fast-paced housing developments, and in Mordialloc and surrounds we see evidence of this daily.

We need the diligence and courage of groups like MBCL to remind us of the value of our natural environment, of what we must conserve if we want to protect the habitat for countless flora and fauna facing extinction and to ensure our own health. 

Infrastructure and housing important for a growing population but how we manage the necessary development important for the survival of the natural environment because our health and wellbeing depend on that too!

Groups like the Mordialloc Beaumaris Conservation League remind us to value the natural world and inspire us to action to convince legislators to protect and provide a vision of what is necessary for future generations.

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Establish a relationship with your surroundings, whether your garden, your street, or the wider community, value and protect the flora and fauna and we all reap the benefits.

Rosa, Memories With Licence – a template for other writers?

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It’s lovely to have a book signed by an author and although I couldn’t get to the book launch because of another launch, a friend kindly picked up a copy of Ros Collins’ latest book, Rosa by Hybrid Publishers.

The blurb announces the memories of Rosa are presented ‘with a deliberate overlay of lies and licence.’ The boldness of this statement, a little confronting, especially since the book is labelled Memoir – defined in the dictionary as a narrative or biography written from personal experience.

However, as a teacher of Life Story writing, I’ve lost count of how many times class discussions have debated the concept of truth in relation to the reliability and perspective of our memories, coupled with the attendant fear of causing hurt to someone still alive or even tarnishing the memory of someone deceased.

A memoir is considered ‘Creative Non-fiction’ and who is to say the emphasis is not on the word creative, which can be interpreted as ‘having the quality of something imaginatively created’ or ‘containing misleading inventions designed to falsify or conceal the facts’! 

… memoirs depend on memory and, despite being the subject of philosophical investigation going back as far as Plato and of plentiful scientific research since the mid-nineteenth century, memory remains an elusive topic. How does it work? Can our fondest memories of childhood and loved ones really be reduced to molecular activity in the neurons of the brain? Will medical science one day be capable of eliminating the traumatizing memories that can paralyze us, and implanting happier memories in their place? Are memories the cause of the biographical continuity that bolsters our belief in personal identity? And how accurate are memories even among the healthiest of us? Does it make sense to base our present-day attitudes and emotions on recollections of our past experiences?

Robert Atwan, Creative Nonfiction, Issue #55, The Memoir Issue

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In her introduction, Ros uses softer words to explain how Rosa differs from a previous book about her life, it is ‘much more personal… freely written’ and she admits to ‘taking liberties with the truth’.

There is still a lot of family history included in Rosa – she revisits Solly’s Girl (2015), a book that was as ‘accurate as my memory would allow’ and written as a companion piece to her now-deceased husband’s Alva’s Boy (2008). An acclaimed writer, Alan Collins wrote short stories and books about his Bondi childhood.

Ros Collins writes to entertain as well as inform and her conversational style with well-researched detail has produced wonderful stories revealing scenes of Anglo-Australian-Jewish life probably unfamiliar to many readers, and which I found fascinating.

Memoir with a little fiction, or fiction with a little history? It’s hard to say, Memories with licence.

Although of a different generation, there were historical references, organisations and events I recognised. They triggered memories, especially involvement with the labour movement and the Australian Labor Party and various campaigns in the 60s, 70s, and 80s.

The divisiveness of the Vietnam War, the election of the Whitlam Government and the opening up of educational opportunities for older women, which Rosa took advantage of. ‘The Palestinian Debate’ which still causes angst and the trade union campaigns to improve conditions for Victorian teachers that raised the ire of Premier Henry Bolte.

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Rosa ticked several boxes in the list of why I read books: for enjoyment, to be immersed in a different world, to learn something new, to encourage me to seek more information and to reflect on the human condition.

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Ros is a woman of many accomplishments with several great achievements as a qualified librarian, yet, there is no pretentiousness when she explains her journey to becoming a director of a Jewish community library at fifty-seven and her vision of a national Australian-Jewish library. 

With dedication, commitment, and tenacity she created the successful ‘Write Your Story’ program whereby the eclectic members of the Jewish community can access funds and help, and write their memoir.

‘Most memoirs -so far, more than 140 have been published, the largest such series in the world – are related to the Holocaust; eventually, as generations pass away, the stories will become more Australian, less European.’ (p122)

Her involvement with the community library for thirteen years followed by twelve years cataloguing the Yiddish library:

‘She brings the boxes of shabby books home to catalogue… A little pamphlet, held together with rusty staples; cheap yellowed paper, crumbling to pieces; no cover; a grey, grainy author’s picture.

… a first-hand account of how his village was destroyed during the Holocaust – most of the Jewish community died, locked up in the synagogue and then set on fire – he hid in a barn.’

Ros is reduced to tears translating the story for her husband – such is the power and importance of recording and sharing stories.

‘I couldn’t even find the village in the atlas, it’s been erased by some thoughtless publisher. It’s Yiddish, only a few people will ever find out what happened; there’s just my catalogue entry to provide a link.’ 

Her husband responds, ‘Libraries are important. This is your contribution.’ (p124)

Ros has catalogued and encouraged the recording and publication of so many stories of the Jewish diaspora and so it is fitting and fortunate, she decided to share her own life story and reflections – albeit with several references to her husband’s story and books. She has added a creative flair to her memories.

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The deep love and respect Ros has for her parents, husband Alan, her sons and several close friends mentioned in Rosa shines like a beacon. There is no malice in any of her memories but there is a theme of regret.

Ros repeats several times how she wished Alan had been more open and honest about his feelings – not for her but the damage done in his childhood and the guilt he carried because his mother died in childbirth. Ros also regrets not having a closer relationship with her own mother.

‘The missing mother. Rosa had always been aware, but when she first read his stories she’d never put it all together in her mind, never ‘joined the dots’, done the whole ‘lit-crit’ exercise. Perhaps it would have led them to deep and meaningful discussion and enriched their relationship if they’d talked about his emotions, but then, she reflects, he’d only have turned it into a quip, slid away from the subject with a bit of banter.  (p156)

We learn about their unconventional courtship in London and Rosa’s decision to migrate to Australia as a ‘ten pound Pom’, their determination to build a home – physically a house and financially a business but also emotionally with children – three sons, plus later, a teenager, ‘the Boy’, a fostered child described but not named.

‘The six-year-old and the five-year-old took the view that they had now acquired an older brother, but for the three-year-old, the Boy represented an heroic Superman figure; their relationship became very special and the rift, when it came, was all the more painful.’ (p89)

A family disagreement and period of estrangement always difficult to write about, the temptation to omit or embellish to justify an action. In Rosa, it is deftly handled although Ros did give herself a ‘memory with licence…’

The use of dialogue to good effect, the attention to detail and use of senses to describe food, flowers and situations – techniques writers keep in their toolbox – Ros uses all of them to produce a good read.

Italics for non-English words and terms but also for emphasis and reflections in her voice. There is a flitting backwards and forwards to weave all the family stories and people together along with their place in history without rupturing the fabric of the overall story, which is why I believe others writing their life story could use Rosa as a template.

Our memories don’t all come in a linear or chronological fashion and from my experience in writing class piecing together short stories is a natural way of collating memories and weaving the threads together.

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Ros is a proud secular Jew yet is determined her grandchildren will know the family history but does not want them to be weighed down by the Holocaust.

Throughout the book, the workings of family, worship, differences in synagogues, sects, customs and the politics of ‘those of Jewish persuasion‘ Alan’s wry remembrance of the phrase often used in the past, are explained and placed in historical as well as an Australian context. The knowledge and explanation of beliefs and practices, I found invaluable.

‘For many non-Jews, the Shoah, the Holocaust, is just another part of the war: Hitler had plans for something called the ‘The Third Reich’, and, by the way, he also intended to exterminate all of Europe’s Jews.

For Jews, the Holocaust is the war and Israel is our miracle: In every generation from Pharaoh to Hitler they have tried to destroy us; never again!’

Remembering is a solemn duty, as is recording and researching. Jewish literature wrestles with stories of survival, heroism and of course the complexities of the Middle East. Museums and memoirs multiply. Al, fifth-generation Australian and Rosa, second-generation English and ‘more British than the British’ do not exactly fit the norm for Melbourne Jewry, which is home to one of the largest communities of Holocaust survivors in the world. She thinks: We’re a perfect example of how deeply embedded the history is in our psyches even though neither of us was directly involved. (p117)

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Ros relates a speech husband, Alan made at a Shoah commemoration event at Melbourne’s Holocaust Museum where he painted a picture of 1930s Sydney and his father:

a devout xenophobe with a particular focus on Jewish refugees who told him; ‘not to mix with them’, ‘Jew-hating out-of-work Australian labourers’ and ‘well-meaning policemen who called me Ikey.’

The older audience members nodded sadly in remembrance. (p118)

The more we share our stories and make a habit of listening to others the more tolerant society we will become – I hope!

Ros explained Alan finished his talk, given over 30 years ago at the Holocaust Museum thus:

So I write about what I know which is what it is like growing up and living and dying in this country where thank God, patriotism and zealotry are negligible and when a letter arrives with OHMS on the envelope it doesn’t contain an imperative to pack your bags. (p73)

Ros reflects in 2018 that she ‘doesn’t quite share his belief in the fundamental goodness of Australia, and long ago she cast off her allegiance to England…(p73)

Considering incidents of antisemitism and some appalling statements and decisions from our political leaders, there is documented evidence racism is on the rise, and as a migrant myself, I worry about the direction Australia is headed.

Therefore, a book like Rosa that ‘flings open the windows and doors‘ and invites us to learn about a world of cultural habits and rituals often misrepresented, misunderstood, or unknown is one to grab for the bookshelf.

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In the final chapter, aptly titled Rose Garden, Ros discusses the Jewish section of a cemetery and thoughts sparked by physicist/musician/celebrity Brian Cox’s remarks on television …

…belief in some form of afterlife ‘feels right’ or more precisely, the alternative, that after death we are nothing but a bag of chemicals from which ‘nothing has left, yet what is left is not longer me’ somehow ‘feels wrong’…

The central question is, can you build a time machine? The answer is yes, you can go into the future… Going back in time, or returning to the present, would be slightly trickier, however…(p183)

Rosa harks back to childhood and a fascination with Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and repeats a conversation she had with a grandson.

‘Where will you go when you die, Grandma?’

‘Well I’m not absolutely sure because no one comes back after they die, but I think I shall go on a journey.’

‘A long one?’

‘Probably.’

‘What will you take with you?’

‘I think I can take my memory. Clever people now think it might be possible to travel through time – backwards and forwards.’

‘Oh, I’m sure you can Grandma, I once read a story like that.’

‘So did I, darling!              (p185)

Many of us can identify with this conversation, fear of or concern about dying common.

The conundrums, worries and questions of life wax and wane as we live and age, but writers continually reflect on the significance to the big picture, as well as the importance of those near and dear. Who do we love and how much do we matter to them and they to us?

It doesn’t matter what your background, race or religion as we near the end of our life most of us have failing health, increased vulnerability, and wonder how and in what manner we will die – and then what?

Rosa explores the distant and not so distant past, the present, and voices curiosity about the future. Ros has written a wonderful legacy and future descendants will understand their family’s Jewish history, current festivals and rituals, even if they choose to rationalise like she often did: The significance lies in the fact that we are together around the table, never mind the calendar.

Ros Collins was born in 1938 and after supporting her husband’s writing endeavours began to write short stories and now has two books to her credit – an inspiration indeed!

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Purpose, Persistence, and Perspiration make Edna a Published Author for her 90th birthday!

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There is no greater thrill for a teacher of creative writing than to see the joy on a student’s face when they hold in their hands, the book they have written.

When that student has put years of effort into making the dream a reality and overcome health problems, the moment even sweeter.

Yesterday, I met up with some past students of my Life Stories & Legacies class that ran from February 2014 – December 2018, at Godfrey Street Community House in Bentleigh. We gathered in Sandringham to celebrate with Edna Gaffney the publication of her memoir, Chibby From Brandy Creek.

The Life Stories class at Godfrey Street, one of the most cohesive, supportive and friendliest classes in my 20 plus years of teaching, which has included four community houses. Several of the students still meet monthly and email or phone each other regularly.

Edna is the second to publish a memoir, another student will have one out for Christmas and another perhaps in the New Year. A great bunch of writers dedicated to their purpose of leaving a legacy for family and friends. They have all led amazing lives spanning decades.

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Edna was in her mid-eighties when she came to my class with a determination to write a book about her mother, family life in Gippsland between the wars, and also her own life as a nurse, particularly, as one of the first nurses to be trained at Cabrini Hospital to care  for cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy.

In her Dedication, Edna wrote:

These efforts to record memories, I dedicate to my family and future generations. I wanted to describe my early life living in Gippsland, rural Victoria, and to honour my mother. Our family experienced a lifestyle and events different to many others and to the expectations of people today.

Miracles can occur in most families, maybe not suddenly, but over time, and I consider the eventual reunion of my siblings after the death of our mother, a miracle. Six siblings were adopted during 1943-44 and the family split up, yet we eventually reunited as adults and became a family once again. I am writing down some details of our early life for those siblings who have no memories of our natural mother.

I also record my own experiences of family and career. Change of attitude, much-needed patience and endurance to cope and care for others, are some of the qualities I learned in my working and family life – becoming a parent a profound change. My chosen profession of Nursing has altered dramatically since I began Mothercraft Nursing at the Berry Street Babies’ Home in 1947.

A Powerful Story Shared

When Edna enrolled in 2014, like many older students, she had no computer skills and in fact, no computer. However, after absorbing what it means to be a writer in the modern world, Edna enrolled in computer classes at the Community House and bought a laptop.

I don’t think she’d mind me saying that her success in writing this book was not replicated in the computer class! Wisely, she concentrated on the writing and saved money and time by allowing her daughters and me help with typing. I have no idea what happened to the laptop except it was often threatened and may indeed have been ‘chucked out the window’.

Edna’s daughter, Jane-Maree arranged the launch yesterday and was a driving force in the final stages of the project as her mother’s health deteriorated. We were determined the book would be published before Edna’s 90th birthday on July 2, 2019, and made the deadline.

However, the actual launch delayed while Edna settled into a nursing home – a disruptive, often devastating, and certainly time-consuming challenge for everyone concerned.

Fortunately, Edna likes her new home and Jane-Maree said, ‘they were great’ providing the comfortable space for the celebration.

The Journey To Publication

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Over the years, I published five of the nine anthologies for the Mordialloc Writer’s Group. Along the way I threw myself into lifelong learning, grappling with InDesign, attending workshops on desktop and digital publishing, reading books, online articles, trawling websites and information from email lists, and watching webinars to keep up with the rapid changes in the writing and publishing industry.

It is a privilege to share those skills with writing students and to be trusted with their precious words when they decide to publish. I know there are some disastrous self-publishing efforts and looking back at my early efforts, improvements can certainly be made, but I have become a small press publisher by accident and will continue to learn on the job.

Software and hardware capabilities and printing options have radically changed in a few short years.  The cost, which has a big impact on choice has changed too – you get a bigger, better bang for your buck nowadays!

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The aim of most writers is to be published – not necessarily a novel, memoir, or poetry book, but perhaps simply a short story or poem that begged to be written, or a slice of family history or an anecdote so memorable, it must be committed to print. (I prefer printed books.)

Some students come to class with a definite project in mind. They have a dream to publish a book with a target audience of friends and family.

Not everyone aims to have a book in Readings or become rich and famous with a bestseller or win a prize.

Not everyone wants to monetize (how I hate this buzz word) their talent or creativity.

Most want to write and publish for the joy and satisfaction of telling a story/stories and being able to share their writing with others who will read and appreciate their words. They desire to write or would feel strange not writing, perhaps love being a wordsmith.

When you believe in yourself and writing, being published is a realistic achievable dream.

Edna had a powerful story to tell and I gladly helped with advice and editing. My talented daughter, Mary Jane designed the cover, as she has done for several book ventures. (A reluctant book cover designer, she doesn’t refuse to help her mum.)

The class gave Edna feedback and encouragement and through this collective effort, a beautiful and readable book was offered free of charge yesterday with an option to donate to Berry Street Babies Home. (most people did!)

When you read Edna’s book you understand her strong commitment to Berry Street, where she trained as a Mothercraft Nurse, but also the deeply emotional link because of family circumstances.

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Books for Purpose Not Profit

This is the third book I’ve produced whereby the writer has donated all or most of the profit because of their commitment to a cause or appreciation of events or people. There was no profit involved with Mordialloc Writers’ anthologies either, with any money from sales going towards the publication of the next book.

When Mordialloc Writers’ Group folded in 2018, I donated group funds to Mordialloc Beach Primary School to create a scholarship and encourage creative writing. The Principal, Sue Leighton-Janse suggested the money provide ongoing writing awards for Junior, Middle and Senior school, in the name of MWG.  I only hope this happens.

You can read about Julie Wentworth: A Life Shared here. Julie, a teacher of Yoga, mentor and spiritual guide, donated the sale of her books to an orphanage in Africa caring for children with HIV.

Mary Jane and I had the privilege of working with Peter Hocking, who wrote about his recovery from a stroke and sold books to support The Stroke Foundation.

I’m sure writing and publishing is often a labour of love, and if articles discussing the state of publishing in Australia are to be believed, poetry books, even traditionally published, seldom make a profit with publishing houses using the sales from more popular books to counter-balance the low-profit margin in some literary genres.

Another book I worked on this year was a huge labour of love for a woman who wanted to celebrate her 70th birthday by publishing travel diaries kept by her parents on their first overseas trip in the 1970s.

Ruth inherited the handwritten exercise books, 500 slides and meticulously detailed itinerary notes and letters home. What to do with this material so that her brothers and sisters, her children, nieces and nephews, grandchildren will enjoy the old school and very personal travelogue?

She had a friend type the 55,000 words, paid to digitise then print the slides, and commissioned a nephew to draw maps of the route her parents travelled through continents and several countries, to introduce the three separate parts of their trip.

travel diary front covertravel diary blurb

Ruth only printed 25 of this A4 landscape book, which I edited and published.  Muriel and Len’s observations were side by side and Mary Jane chose 100 of the best photographs. Mary Jane created Ruth’s vision for the cover using Muriel and Len’s passport photos, the best close-up photographs Ruth possessed.

Not every book needs a launch or a large audience. Often writers can cover their costs and break-even. Family members may contribute or if written for a target audience (sporting/hobby club, regional or historical relevance) writers may make a small profit by self-publishing.

Writers keep control and have important input to the content, cover and cost of their book every step of the way from conception to birth if they self-publish.

It’s an exciting and worthwhile journey – not always smooth – but as John Denver sings in one of my favourite songs, ‘some days are diamonds, some days are stone,‘ and yesterday for Edna, her family and friends was a diamond day.

Well done Edna and thank you for allowing me to be a part of your dream!

{PROOF} at Parkdale Confirms Playwrights’ Power To Confront & Explore Important Themes

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Shirley Burke Theatre’s Current Production

Last night, my friend and fellow scribe, Lisa Hill attended our local theatre to enjoy {PROOF} by playwright, director and screenwriter, David Auburn. It’s a drama I’d recommend and you only have another week to grab a seat!

This is one of the best productions I’ve attended since Lisa invited me to be her ‘play buddy’ and buy a yearly ticket to Shirley Burke’s 2019 series. Other reviews of ones I’ve enjoyed this year are here and here.

Now officially an aged pensioner supporting local theatre a joyful pastime and helps ensure an accessible art scene in Kingston. There have been several mixed outings this year: some scripts and/or acting better than others, but last night was a triumph for the actors and an interesting script.

The prize-winning play written two decades ago raises relevant and timeless issues, explores the human condition to provide that all-important conflict necessary for memorable art. 

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{PROOF} examines family relationships, sibling rivalry, the stress of being a carer, grief, mental illness, hereditary disease, gender equality, the fine line between brilliance and madness, and most importantly, trust and its importance for a healthy relationship!

The title, encased in parentheses alludes to the mathematical motif running through the plot and characters.

One of the four characters, Robert (Peter Hatherley), is a mathematics genius suffering an indeterminate mental illness – not an easy role to play but he handles it well.

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Hal (Chris Hill) an ex-student of Robert’s is going through Robert’s notebooks hoping to discover another great mathematical theory, Catherine (JaneLeckie), Robert’s daughter has inherited his genius and perhaps his mental illness – a fear alluded to and voiced.

A notebook with a new groundbreaking theory becomes the centre of contention causing conflict between Hal and Catherine, and Catherine and her sister Claire (Samantha Stone).

Who wrote the entries and when? How do you establish authenticity? Who will gain from the notebook’s contents?

Jokes about maths geeks dispelling their nerdy image of being plain, boring or weird provide several laughs in a play tackling the fragility and frailty of the human mind, body, and spirit.

Serendipity or Coincidence?

Yesterday was R U OK Day? with all forms of media and health bodies promoting increased awareness of mental health. Mental illness was a strong theme in the play with the character, Robert suffering an unnamed condition. The audience learns he often disconnects from reality and displays paranoia.

I doubt I was alone in seeing the similarity between Robert’s psychosis and that of John Forbes Nash, diagnosed with schizophrenia and played by Russell Crowe in the movie, A Brilliant Mind. 

Both characters portrayed as brilliant mathematicians but in {PROOF} the audience is left wondering about Robert’s illness …

… the oft-quoted line by Oscar Levant (1906-1972) springs to mind, There’s a fine line between genius and insanity. I have erased this line.”

Another theme explored in the play is the role of carers and with an ageing population, regardless of whether healthy or sick, it’s a hot topic.

Do you care at home or put the person in an institution? What is the toll on the carer? Catherine has sacrificed her education and career to look after father, Robert. A sacrifice her sister Claire didn’t agree with and it is Claire who pays the bills for the upkeep of the house and Robert’s care.

Several poignant scenes in the play occur when the sisters, Catherine and Claire (Samantha Stone) argue about the wisdom of keeping Robert at home and whether the fragile Catherine needs to be cared for if she has inherited her father’s ‘condition’ – whatever that is – and Claire’s insistence Catherine return with her to New York after the father’s funeral so the house can be sold.

There were several scenes where anger demanded and all the actors were persuasive in their portrayals coming across as authentic, which can be hard to do with extreme emotions.

Catherine goes through the full gamut of emotions and Jane Leckie did a superb job with a minimum of make-up – her facial expressions and body language captured grief, fear, anger, disappointment, sadness, distrust, playfulness and joy – to the extent when final bows were made with her hair loose and a beaming smile it could have been a different person on stage!

Peter Hatherley’s, Robert suitably mercurial and feisty using the space on stage to good effect with expansive gestures hinting at his younger self’s confident brilliance and older self’s celebratory status but unsteady at times to remind us of his illness.

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Plenty in this play to feed private reflection and reminiscing about family responsibilities, loyalty and relationships, the opportunities and positions available for women in academia, the strain of caring for those you love when they become unlovable, and the profound, debilitating, and often unpredictable effects of grief.

The Gender Card & Generational Divide

Bearing in mind, the play is 20 years old, you don’t expect an exploration of the recent complex debates around gender to be a major theme, but there is a strong acknowledgement of the omission of ‘herstory’ in {PROOF}.

Debates on important issues demand lots of conversations in the community and it’s no secret that for years the sciences excluded women.  The situation resulting in efforts to address school curriculums, and increased encouragement of women to study mathematics and associated fields.

The issue is dealt with on stage with an interesting conversation between Hal and Catherine both in their twenties, both maths geeks, both quirky and socially awkward in their own way. The underlying romantic tension between the pair an interesting sub-story and the physical and verbal interactions between them believable and well-executed by Jane Leckie and Chris Hill.

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The play tackles the generational divide with Hal suggesting maths is ‘a young man’s game’, and even Robert mentions it is important to achieve early success to compete.

Hal reveals attending conferences and observing drug use (alcohol and LSD) and that some older men need a drug like Speed to keep their mind sharp and racing because of fears creativity has peaked in their early twenties!

Robert’s illness started in his mid-twenties and Hal who is twenty-eight fears the chance to be as brilliant and famous as Robert has passed him by.  However, if he can decipher Robert’s notebooks and perhaps discover something new… perhaps produce that great leap of the mind and experimentation that renders mathematicians awesome.

Hal believes all creative mathematicians who come up with original work are men, especially young men who are at their peak in their early twenties, but after probing by Catherine acknowledges there was a woman at Stanford University, he can’t remember her name.

Sophie Germain?’ Catherine suggests.

Hal pauses for a moment as if remembering, and replies, ‘…I’ve probably seen her at meetings, but haven’t met her…’

‘She was born in Paris in 1776,’ is Catherine’s droll comment.

‘So I’ve definitely met her,’ Hal replies with a grin.

Amidst this humour, Catherine delivers a lesson on Sophie Germain surviving the French Revolution’s Terror by hiding in her father’s study and reading. Later, formal education denied because she was a female, she furthered her education by personal study but only got noticed for her work on prime numbers when she corresponded with learned men under the male pseudonym, Antoine August Le Blanc.

Catherine explained how her father gave her the book about Sophie to read and encouraged her to study – another hint that she shared her father’s love, perhaps obsession of math. 

Hal admits his ignorance and stupidity – he has studied Germain Primes.

There is an exchange of numbers, equations and sums in their conversation similar to one Catherine had with her father at the beginning of the play and Hal starts to understand Catherine has talent, but as if threatened, he stops adding and extending figures and instead queries if Sophie’s ruse was ever discovered by Gauss, the most famous of her correspondents.

Catherine recites a long passage from a letter she has memorised where Gauss recognised the extraordinary talents of Sophie and her difficulties and courage revealing her genius to a world dominated by men.

Hal’s reaction is to kiss Sophie and then apologise for being ‘ a little drunk’!

The budding romance between Catherine and Hal is a roller-coaster ride in the play – trust shattered along with Catherine’s composure when Hal doubts her honesty and even seems to go along with Claire’s suggestion that Catherine is mentally unstable.

The kindled romance dissolved by an explosive row, reignited in an uneasy truce, perhaps understanding and acceptance, but we are left to write their future.

Stagecraft & Setting

The various set designs I’ve seen this year at Shirley Burke have been impressive – the team who build the sets deserve congratulations. It is a small intimate theatre, therefore, the stage has limitations, yet they ‘come up trumps’ every time.

Like a short story, nothing in a play, including set and props, must be there unless it advances the plot or contributes to the storyline.

{PROOF} is yet another play set in the USA but thankfully the American accents did not jar as much as earlier plays this year.

Every scene is set on the back verandah (porch) of a house near the University of Chicago where Robert’s genius is revered and where he taught before his initial ‘breakdown’ and later descent into ill health.

The confined space is not glamorous and a scattering of dead leaves suggests autumn and in another scene winter – a metaphor for Robert’s ageing and death? The need for regrowth and change? Catherine’s sacrifice and confinement for years as she cared for her father, but a promise of better things to come?

Playwriting like screenwriting is a collaborative art, for results you require the sets, actors, lighting, sound, stagecraft and direction to gel … this production of {PROOF} ticks all the boxes.

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The drabness of the porch relieved by the glimpse of the interior of the house through glass doors and at Robert’s wake the light is suitably bright accompanied by party music so we get a sense there are others inside.

Scene changes are heralded by various mood-appropriate music, the most memorable being a discordant, noisy band number after Hal admits he is with a group of fellows from the math department who play in a bar. Their signature act called ‘i’ lower case and they stand without playing anything for three minutes.

A math joke which Catherine guesses, ‘Imaginary Number?’

There are successful flashback scenes too (and a ghost scene, when grieving Catherine ‘talks’ to her father after his death).

These are often difficult to deliver effectively on stage and can be confusing for an audience to follow, but are handled well.

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Like all good dramas, Act 1 ends with a shock announcement, which gave us plenty to talk about over Interval!

An Irrelevant Aside?

It’s interesting what actions resonate with members of an audience.

The play opens with twenty-five-year-old Catherine curled asleep in a chair on the verandah. Her father, Robert wakes her up – it has just gone midnight and now officially her birthday. He has a bottle of champagne, which she insists on popping because last time he broke a window! (The first chuckle/laugh in the play.)

Catherine pops the champagne cork like a waitress serving at a high table keeping the cork under control. She proceeds to swig at the contents while conversing with her father who we learn has been unwell but now believes he is okay and is convincing her to return to study.

Because of my lived experience waitressing throughout university student days in Canberra and later travelling in Scotland, I know how to open a bottle of champagne in a confined space without letting a wayward cork hit a person or an object and yet still retain that satisfying “POP” everyone expects. It is an acquired skill, so well done Jane Leckie for not hitting a member of the cast or audience!

Another memorable moment in the play is when Hal discovers a page in one of Robert’s notebooks where he recognizes Catherine has kept him from being institutionalised (what Claire wanted) and has saved his life by caring for him. ‘Where does her strength come from? I can never repay her?’

My father had dementia and was eventually institutionalised for his own and my mother’s safety but in his lucid moments, he often uttered similar sentiments.

When the play ended, the audience gave well-deserved extended applause and Lisa and I both agreed it has been the best production we have seen this year.

I picked up a flyer advertising the next production and considering the shenanigans in the UK (is life imitating art?) it seems a timely production to end the year with a few belly laughs and the absurdities of ‘the human condition’.

If you can’t get to see {PROOF} perhaps book early to be “Out of Order‘!

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Exploring the Richness of our Multicultural, Multi-Faith Community in Kingston a Bus Ride Away

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I’ve taken a long time framing this post because of recent events and the adversarial way many parts of the media cover topics such as religion, refugees, and immigration and the resultant ire, ignorance and irritation that inevitably results, particularly on social media.

Ignorance is a keyword here – if more people moved out of their comfort zone and made the effort to learn, mix, communicate and appreciate each other’s contributions to the tapestry of society a lot of angst and misinformation could be avoided.

We are lucky living in Melbourne because there are myriad opportunities to access and enjoy what a multicultural community offers. We can live together in peace and mutual respect aware of each other’s contributions.

I’ve attended two enriching events recently, provided by the Kingston Interfaith Network to appreciate the diversity of our community.

It’s heartening to know there are people actively working to breakdown barriers and challenge bigotry and I’d recommend the annual bus trip the Network organises to visit various places of worship.

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Religion & Politics Can be Discussed With Civility

I first learned about the great work of the Kingston Interfaith Network when I attended an art exhibition at St Nicholas Church, Mordialloc and became reacquainted with parishioners I knew.

Along with many baby boomers, I grew up with family traditions of attending Sunday School and church but it never translated as ‘blind faith’.

Both parents were immersed in church life in Scotland; they continued this involvement in Croydon when we migrated.  I drifted away from organised religion in my teens and only returned to be part of a community as a young mother, to eventually drift away again.

None of us chooses the country, culture or community we are born into and the idea that there is a ‘true’ religion or ‘master’ race seems ludicrous and irrational.

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I’m grateful for access to education and several fine teachers at high school and university, to have continued that education by travelling, accessing wonderful books, films, and essays and appreciating the contribution of others to a pool of general knowledge more easily available now through the worldwide web.

I know I’m not alone among my peers questioning human existence, our relationship to the natural world and seeking meaning to life – a journey that will end one day and that day is getting closer –

I recall the pithy words of a good friend, ‘We all die and one day we’ll discover whether there is a God or life after death!

In the meantime, I intend to enjoy the journey, learning something new every day, look for the joy because focusing on social injustice and world conflicts convinces me we are stuck in Groundhog Day! (“a situation in which events are or appear to be continually repeated” )

John Lennon’s Imagine is often played to a compilation of visuals – technology leaves nothing hidden! We see the horrific death toll of the two world wars, the partition of India and Pakistan, the euphemistic ‘Troubles’ in Northern Ireland, the Vietnam War, the Biafran/Nigerian War, the Middle East, Idi Amin’s Uganda … oh, how Lennon’s lines resonate with generation after generation …

 Imagine there’s no heaven, it’s easy if you try. No hell below us, Above us only sky… Imagine there’s no countries, it isn’t hard to do. Nothing to kill or die for, and no religion too…

There is never a shortage of up-to-the-minute footage of conflicts – the world seems to produce tragedies at an alarming rate.  For many people, their religious beliefs and being part of a community helps to make sense or at least alleviate some of the fear and pain.

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A meme doing the rounds of Facebook also strikes a chord –

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Many Beliefs One Community

The Kingston Interfaith Network ‘celebrates the commonality and diversity of our spiritual communities’.

Their vision:

  • encourage understanding and respect between people of all faiths and cultures
  • affirm spiritual and religious freedom
  • work towards peace, compassion and equality within our local community

In my writing classes, we have some wonderful discussions while sharing knowledge regarding human needs, the importance of belief systems and what form these may take whether philosophical or religious.

Discussion, reflection and sharing information and experiences important for writers to understand and create characters regardless of the genre but also for citizens when we have the current Australian Parliament discussing the introduction of religious freedom legislation.

  • Since 9/11, the constant stirring of fear and misinformation about Islam looms large.
  • The Royal Commission into Abuse of Children in religious and other institutions with many still quibbling about compensation to victims has shattered the trust and appeal of several churches, especially the Catholic Church.
  • Stories about cults or gurus ripping off or abusing vulnerable people are rarely out of the news.
  • The Israel Folau controversy started a debate about freedom of speech in the context of workplace contracts and religious beliefs.

Any Interfaith Network has its work cut out!

In Kingston, the Network engages with the community by being involved in:

  • Celebrations
  • Events
  • Gatherings
  • Learning and Education
  • Community consultations and representation

I worked for the Uniting Church, Hotham Parish until daughter, Anne was born in 1986 and was fortunate to work with Rev. John Rickard who was a strong believer in ecumenicalism and social justice. A pharmacist before ‘getting the call’, he was a great boss – understanding, compassionate and down-to-earth.

I saw the church from a different perspective. Working closely with Hanover Welfare, the church raised money and provided services to people in need in the community, they also owned houses in Curzon Street and ran a kindergarten.  ‘The church’ can be a landlord, employer, business entrepreneur,  owner of private hospitals and schools. Practicalities to be dealt with that many don’t associate with theologians.

Another learning curve occurred in 2004 when I was commissioned to write the history of St Aidan’s Church and subsequently published The Little Church On The Hill for their Centenary.

The Chelsea/Carrum Anglican community influential in developing and providing youth services, fellowship groups for women, raising money for much needed social services and encouraging the arts but there were internal conflicts, debates about policies and implementation, and adapting to a world where Sunday was no longer sacrosanct.

Talking about the Christian faith my comfort zone but I still treasure a necklace made from a leather strip with the tooth of a moose blessed by an elderly Iroquois Indian when I visited their village in Montreal, Canada 1976. She wanted me to be safe on my travels.

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Westall Library Poster promoting World Book Week promoting equality and respect

World Book Day 2019

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Kingston’s World Book Day was hosted in conjunction with Kingston Council’s Interfaith Committee, established by Council to provide a conduit between Kingston Council and the faith communities within local areas to encourage open communication, interfaith dialogue and partnerships and to address the needs of the local communities.

 World Book Day theme for 2019 was Interfaith in the Libraries.  Kingston’s Interfaith Committee chose to deliver a book donations event to Kingston Libraries to further support an interfaith dialogue within the community.

Invited to write religious affiliation, I wrote Humanitarian. Nobody baulked at the label, with some attendees commenting they wished they had written that rather than nominating a religion or leaving it blank.

A warm welcome epitomised the evening with many groups taking the opportunity to display the books attached to their Faith and donate them to the library. The buzz of conversations filled the room, people browsed the books and I met acquaintances from past involvement with community groups and Mordialloc Writers’.

There were printed sheets from a variety of religious groups within the Network summarising their core beliefs, sacred texts and laws, places of worship, branches, practices and festivals, origin story, morals and ethics… in no particular order here are the sheets I picked up:

  • The International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) (aka the Hare Krishna Movement)
  • Catholic Church (Christian)
  • ECKANKAR (This means Co-worker with God -founded 1965, main temple Minnesota USA
  • Judaism
  • Baha’i Faith
  • Sufi works and practices: The Whirling Dervishes, the poetry of Rumi, the works of Ib Arabi…
  • Islam
  • Zee Cheng Khor Moral uplifting Society Inc (known as DEJIAO in Chinese)
  • Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons)

My knowledge of some of these groups minimal – and to know they worshipped in Kingston and felt welcome at the event is a testament to the religious freedom we already enjoy. (Note to Federal Government don’t fix what’s not broken!)

Fast forward to the annual bus tour I joined recently…

A Journey of Discovery

Kingston Interfaith Committee runs a bus tour once a year to places of worship to provide an opportunity for the public to learn about different faiths. Tour participants see different places of worship and ask questions in a respectful and supportive small group environment. There is no cost and a light lunch is offered by the Council.

I have been wanting to go on this tour for many years but work or other commitments meant I missed out. I was thrilled to join the 23 other participants (some followed the community bus in their own cars)  on August 7, leaving from the Council Offices at Mentone.

Guided by Elisabetta Robecchi, Community Development Officer, Social Development, we visited four places of worship.  There were people from Glen Eira and Casey communities. The only person with an outward sign of religious affiliation was a Sikh gentleman from Monash who told me most councils have these tours with some providing several a year. He had been on a few tours and generously shared his knowledge.

The places visited change each time so it wasn’t surprising to find some people had toured before, but most were first-timers like me – and what an eclectic group we were!

Elisabetta shared the two group photos taken at a mosque and Orthodox church.

We set off a bit late because of the difficulties of participants finding all-day parking – so for future reference:

  • use public transport like me, or plan ahead as to where you will park in Mentone and prepare for a walk to the meeting point!
  • Also, wear comfortable and easily divested footwear – most places you visit require removal of shoes.
  • Plus slip in a headscarf or make sure your jacket/coat has a hood for the places requiring women to cover their head.

Our itinerary:

  • Shri Shiva Vishnu Temple, Boundary Road, Carrum Downs
  • Masjid Westall, Indonesian Muslim Community Cultural Centre, Clayton South
  • Lunch at Westall Hub
  • St George Jacobite Syrian Orthodox Church, Heatherton
  • Turkish Islamic and Cultural Centre, Keysborough

Shri Shiva Vishnu Temple

Hinduism is one of the oldest surviving religions in the world, with an unbroken succession of seers and teachers. It is practised by millions of people living in the vast subcontinent of India and in many other places where Indian migrants have settled, including Australia. 

And although it is an ancient religion it continues to evolve and form new branches. Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948) represents modern India and is a religious personality who was loved throughout the world.  He preached truth and non-violence and his attempts to reform India’s religious-social tradition of caste legendary as is his fight for India’s independence from colonial rule.

You don’t need to travel to India to immerse yourself in Indian culture and learn about Hinduism.

First impressions of the Hindu temple and grounds is one of spaciousness, then lushness – the garden flowering and emerald green grass plentiful. Driving in from the road you see the Cultural Centre first, and around the corner, you release an audible gasp at the magnificence of the temple barely glimpsed from the road.

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Inside, after removing our shoes, the first thing you notice is incense thickened air. A sign requested no photos but apparently, our temple guide (a deacon) gave approval and Elisabetta shared this one she took.

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Priests were attending to devotees so I chose to switch my phone off and instead purchased a very informative book about the history of the temple and details about Hinduism, including festivals and beliefs. An incredible bargain at $5.00.

The huge area seems cavernous but there are different sections with mini enclosures holding statues of various deities. The air heavy with incense and burning charcoal and within moments I felt my eyes sting. It was obvious couples and families were worshipping with the three out of the six priests on duty.

A young couple prayed with a priest by a fertility deity (?). The priest ladled into our cupped hands, the concoction made from fruit and flowers and signalled us to drink. The nectar tasteless to me, stirring memory of drinking kava at a ceremony in Fiji. There was a small open fire like a mini BBQ but generating plenty of smoke. The fire alarm constantly beeped because of its copious smoke and from a couple of similar fires.

I had a fleeting thought of what could happen if there were sprinklers!

Our guide explained there are gods (deities) for Education, Fertility, and Birth etc. Planets match your birth sign and some gods look after you. He explained about puja or pooja, a prayer ritual performed by Hindus to one or more deities in devotional worship.

Prayers can also be offered to host and honour a guest or to spiritually celebrate an event. It may honour or celebrate the presence of a special guest, or their memories after they die. A table with baskets of fruit (oranges, apples and bananas) for $15 and a well-stocked kiosk is just inside the entrance. the deities require offerings.

A temple is a busy place with chanting in Sanskrit and the buzz of conversations plus people moving across the polished floorboards and around the perimeter where cabinets or shrines hold statues of the gods. The black, grey, or gold figures often draped with pure silk gowns and scarves.

We walked past a cabinet that appeared to have a Nazi sign scrolled on glass doors – and a member of the group asked the significance of this, which remains an important symbol in Hinduism.

The swastika represented something entirely different for thousands of years before its appropriation by the Nazi Party, and for many, it is a sacred symbol.

Versions of the design have been found in prehistoric mammoth ivory carvings, Neolithic Chinese pottery, Bronze Age stone decorations, Egyptian textiles from the Coptic Period and amid the ruins of the Ancient Greek city of Troy.

Its most enduring and spiritually significant use, however, can be seen in India, where the swastika remains an important symbol in Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism.

Despite the explanation, one of our group whispered, ‘Try going down Carlisle Street with that on your car!’ A reminder that in a multicultural society we have to be even more diligent learning about other religions and beliefs and be perceptive to differentiate when a symbol should provoke instant repulsion and condemnation and when it is used in context of worship.

The etymology of the word “swastika” can be traced to three Sanskrit roots: ‘su’ (good), ‘asti’ (exists, there is, to be) and ‘ka’ (make). That the collective meaning of these roots is effectively ‘making of goodness’ or ‘marker of goodness’ shows just how far the Nazis dragged the swastika away from its Hindu association with wellbeing, prosperity and dharmic auspiciousness.

The symbol, normally with its arms bent towards the left, is also known in Hinduism as the sathio or sauvastika. Hindus mark swastikas on thresholds, doors and the opening pages of account books – anywhere where its power to ward off misfortune might come in handy.

… it was Indian religion and culture that was the original source from which the National Socialists derived the swastika.

In Buddhism, the swastika is thought to represent the footprints of the Buddha. It takes on a liturgical function in Jainism, and in Hinduism, the clockwise symbol (the swastika as we know it, with the arms pointing right) and the counterclockwise symbol, the sauvistika, pair up to portray opposites such as light and darkness.

http://theconversation.com/how-nazis-twisted-the-swastika-into-a-symbol-of-hate-83020

The scent of flower petals mingled with fruit and incense and oils. I missed a lot of the explanations because naturally our guide spoke without amplification and my hearing is not as good as it used to be. Fortunately, the book I bought, published to celebrate a special Consecration Ceremony in April this year, is full of detail about Hinduism, the temple, the hard work and cohesion of the Indian community.

The Hindu Society of Victoria (HSV) was founded on Saraswathy pooja day in 1982 at the initiative of some Hindu migrants from Sri Lanka. Hindu migrants from India, Malaysia and other countries enthusiastically joined the Society. The topmost priority for this new gathering was to probe ways and means of realising a traditional Hindu temple. Prayer meetings were held on the last Saturday of each month at the Migrant Centre in Prahran. Poojas were performed to the pictures of deities by Sri Raman Iyer on these occasions. On 21 June 1984, this society was officially incorporated and referred to as the Hindu society of Victoria (Aust) Inc.

The HSV decided to buy a plot of land and build a temple… bought a block of land of 14.35 acres in Carrum Downs on 14 April 1985… made up of a bank loan, interest-free loans from devotees and donations. Bhoomi Poojah was performed at the site to invoke the blessings of the Almighty. Since then Thai Pongal Festival was celebrated at the site but prayer meetings continued at the Prahran Migrant Centre.

… there was a prolonged debate about the choice of deities to be installed in the temple. Eventually, the Management Committee decided to build a Shiva Vishnu temple facilitating devotees from all sects of Hinduism….

Building works started in October 1990 and Nagarajan Sthabathy and a team of 8 artisans arrived in November 1992… The Granite and Panchalokha Vigrahas and other artefacts required were crafted by well-known artisans in India. The Granite Vigrahas were sanctified by a special pooja at Kanchi Mutt.

Additional six artisans were brought from India in Jan 1994 to accelerate the temple construction… completed, with the erection of the raja Gopurams and consecration on 25 may 1997. This temple has become an inseparable part in the spiritualemancipation of the Hindus of Victoria. It has also become a must-see icon to all Hindus and non-Hindus in Australia…

Arunachalam Mahendran

Traditional Hindu temples are not just places of worship. They function as a place of learning, foster the arts and encourage social interaction. The Cultural and Heritage Centre opened on 5 May 2012, includes a wedding hall, restaurant with industrial-scale kitchen, library, Hinduism classrooms, museum and conference hall that can accommodate 200 people.

The Hinduism classes for children also offer Bhajan, Yoga and meditation for all ages. The centre hosts ceremonies on auspicious days, Hindu weddings, and a cafe open to the public, which operates six days a week.

A children’s park with playground equipment and an enclosure with peafowls and chicks as well as surrounding gardens with attractive flowers, trees, and lush foliage ensures a relaxing family-friendly environment.

The sign in the garden reads: Nature is Gods vesture. The universe is the ‘university’ for man. Do not pluck flowers treat nature with reverence.

We put on our shoes and joined the ever-patient bus driver after thanking our hosts for their welcome and farewelled the first place of worship for the day.

Shri Shiva Vishnu temple is one of the iconic Hindu temples outside the Indian subcontinent providing a spiritual and cultural legacy for future generations.

Whether you practice Hinduism or not, a visit will add to your knowledge and understanding, and appreciation of the wealth of talent immigrants bring to Australia.

Masjid Westall, Indonesian Muslim Community Cultural Centre

We travelled to Westall for our next visit to learn about Islam, a religion that has suffered the most backlash and bigotry in recent years despite Afghan cameleers being present in Australia since the early nineteenth century.

The first camel drivers arrived in Melbourne, Victoria, June 1860, when eight Muslims and Hindus arrived with the camels for the Burke and Wills expedition.

sign masjid

The word islam means ‘surrender’ and specifically implies ‘surrender to God’. A ‘muslim’ is therefore simply ‘one who surrenders’.

In the Muslim sacred text, the Qur’an, the story of Islam shares a common tradition with Judaism and a common Biblical origin when God (Allah) created the world. Chosen prophets spread the essential message of surrender to the One (Allah).

Muslims recognise all prophets including Moses and  Jesus, Rama, Krishna and Buddha but the Prophet Muhammad is the vehicle whereby the Qur’an, the final protected Word of God was revealed.

Islam is the world’s second-largest religion with over 1.8 billion followers. They make up a majority of the population in 50 countries. We mainly hear about conflict in the Middle East but devotees extend all the way from the Atlantic Ocean to the borders of China although the birthplace of this compelling faith was Arabia when it was a semi-nomadic and semi-urban civilization.

Islam is the most adhered to religion in Indonesia and in a 2010 estimate, 87.2% of the Indonesian population (225 million) identified as Muslim making Indonesia the largest Muslim population in the world.

At the Masjid Westall, we were greeted by two deacons who were generous with their knowledge and time. From the outside, the building is not imposing and doesn’t look like a mosque but once we removed our shoes and went inside the calmness and decor confirmed it was not ostentatious but a place of worship.

According to the 2016 Australian Census, the combined number of people who self-identified as Muslim in Australia, from all forms of Islam, constituted 604,200 people, or 2.6% of the total Australian population, an increase over its previous population share of 2.2% reported in the previous census 5 years…

… there are now 604,000 people who identify as Muslim in Australia. In addition, the Census reports that 1,140 of the Muslims in Australia are Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islanders.

After a welcome prayer and blessing, the deacons let us wander freely and ask questions rather than give a formal guided tour. There are 3 Indonesian mosques in Victoria, and they do keep in touch with each other and share Imams, some are students from Saudi Arabia. The mosque is Sunni, the major and orthodox branch of Islam.

Islam hasn’t escaped the fate common to other religions: sectarian divisions. There are sub-sects, but the two main branches of Islam are Sunni and the Shi’ite. They spilt over the question of the line of succession from the Prophet Muhammad.

Muslims pray 5 times a day and a digital clock has the prayer times. During the day up to 5 people will come and pray because most are working – perhaps a taxi or truck driver if nearby, maybe students and teachers from Westall Secondary next door, or others ‘just passing’.

Sundown prayers and Fridays attract the largest number with up to 50 regulars. After Christchurch, many non-Muslims visited to offer condolences and support and prayed in solidarity. The mosque provided hijabs for them but because we were only visiting and not participating we did not need to cover our head.

We all commented on how luxurious the carpet felt beneath our feet and the room was spacious even with a section for the women and children curtained off. There is a library, also a study corner and out the back a kitchen and communal area where crafts and toys are stored on shelves.

Our two gentlemen guides had set up a table with nibbles and tea and coffee – most hospitable and welcome. One deacon tried but failed to get his pictures up on his phone to show me the crowd of well-wishers who came to the mosque after the horrific events in Christchurch.

No question went unanswered and cameras worked overtime. Several people stood with the Imam’s arch in the background, others were fascinated by the displayed prayer times and mentioned seeing taxi drivers pull over to pray.

I remembered a tale of two young men…

In 2013, flying to Italy via Borneo and London, I sat between the pair. One was returning to Egypt for a holiday after being in Australia most of his life, the other, a student returning home after finishing studies at Queensland University.

The young Egyptian/Australian struggled out of his window seat to diligently adhere to the prayer times – there was a prayer mat aft, available for passengers – and throughout the flight, he read the Qur’an.

He confided in me that he had become more devout because of prejudice at work and all the things said about Muslims in the media. He felt he had to learn more about his faith (his parents and sister weren’t devout) and his origins – hence the trip “home”. He seemed unworried about the fall-out from the ‘Arab Spring’ and the ongoing sporadic violence.

The young student, returning home to his family and Muslim country didn’t bother praying and read a popular sci-fi novel in between discussing general topics ranging from history to politics and poetry. He confessed he’d love to return and work in Australia because he loved the freedom to choose his lifestyle and the climate.

I’ve often wondered what happened to these two young men – did their future turn out the way they wanted?

A little more enlightened about Masjid Westall and seeing Westall Secondary College and surrounds for the first time we set off for our lunch stop at Westall Hub – a place I’d never visited before the intergenerational project last year and one I’ve visited twice in the last four months!

I thought about the fuss in Bendigo about the building of the mosque and cultural centre and reflected on how many people would have driven or walked past Masjid Westall with no idea there is a welcome within if ever their curiosity needs satisfied.

Breaking Bread often Breaks The Ice!

Kingston Council hosted a lovely lunch at the Westall Hub providing a chance to sit and make conversation, get to know each other and share observations.

Ann, a retired accountant, introduced herself on the bus by saying, ‘I know you, I was on the Australia Day Committee that approved your Citizen of the Year Award.’

‘That was a while ago,’ I replied, ‘You have a good memory.’

We shared our interest and curiosity about the tour. Ann, a practising  Catholic was born in Lithuania; her mother could speak seven languages and because of this Ann understood Russian. Four of the people on the bus were chatting. ‘They’re speaking Russian and probably don’t realise I understand what they were saying,’ she said with a smile.

At lunch, a lady sat down beside me, ‘Do you remember me, Mairi?’

‘When I saw you, I thought you looked familiar, but I can’t place you.’

‘I’m Honey, you came to my library and ran a couple of wonderful writing workshops.’

‘Honey! Of course, that was a long time ago – how are you?’

A small world, indeed. The phrase ‘six degrees of separation’ springs to mind. Almost two decades have passed since I ran workshops at Springvale Library. I cherish the letter of appreciation from Honey and the opportunity she gave me to improve workshop skills.

I was not a ‘big name’ author yet she gave me a chance and a paid gig!

There was only one young person under 30 travelling on the bus but a Samoan family followed in their car a father with his son and daughter who could be teens or twentysomethings.

Chatting at lunch, he was pleased I’d been to Samoa. He new Aniva’s Place where I stayed. I told him about climbing Mt Vaea and paying homage to R L Stevenson’s tomb and we discussed the contribution RLS had made to Samoa, which explained why he was so revered.

He said, ‘His greatest achievement was uniting the chiefs and teaching them to negotiate and achieve independence.’ 

I mentioned how much new history I’d learned when in Samoa. I had forgotten they had been a German colony and about the peaceful surrender to the British during the war.

My great grandfather could speak German and he was an interpreter for the German/British negotiations,‘ he said and confided his Scots ancestry – family names being Crichton and Williams!

We talked a little more about Samoa and how surprised I was at the number and variety of churches in such a small place as Apia. Religion is important to Samoans and there are many rituals, including traditional Sunday feasting.

(A later discussion with his daughter and son ranged from the problem of feral dogs to their relief Folau was Tongan, not Samoan!)

Our conversation ended with a quiz – he asked, ‘What one word did Samoa give to the English language?’

The answer,  ‘Tattoo.’

My final lunchtime chat was with Dr Dinesh Sood who said, ‘I used to be a practising Hindu but now I’m a scientist,’ and a lady who used to be Russian Orthodox professed to ‘being an atheist and humanitarian‘…

I said we were an eclectic bunch.

quote about keeping faith in self

However, what I remember most about the lunch stop happened outside when I went for a walk after spying two galahs on the power lines cuddling up to each other. They looked like a heart and I thought, what a great photo opportunity.

I walked to the edge of the car park and as I aimed my camera, I heard a distressed chirrup. I looked down and a seagull sat on the nature strip with an obvious broken wing, begging for help.

What to do?

I returned to the Hub and asked at reception for help and a wonderful young woman responded immediately, ‘I’ll get a cardboard box and rescue it.’

True to her word, she sprang into action. I watched from the bus in trepidation when her initial effort to pick up the bird caused it to scurry lopsided across the busy road. Wielding her jacket, she persisted and as trucks and cars roared past, I fretted for her safety.

‘Please be careful,’ I  murmured …  miraculously, the bird and rescuer made it the other side, escaping further injury. She scooped the seagull into her jacket and returned to safety when the road was clear.

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St George Jacobite Syrian Orthodox Church, Heatherton

removing shoes

The third visit for the day introduced a completely new church to me and again the obligatory removal of shoes.

 

We were met by the priest and a warm welcoming committee. There was a powerpoint presentation, also two short talks on the history and origins of what devotees regard as the first church where the name ‘Christian’ applied.

It began in Antioch, with St Peter, after the death of Christ and surviving persecution the faithful travelled to India.

The first family practising this branch of Christianity arrive in Melbourne in 2006. Since then the number of families has reached 200 and within a decade they have raised the money to build their church and also donate thousands to charity.

(They gave $20,000 to the Kerala flood victims among other causes. A generous effort for a small congregation!)

A group of dancers performed a traditional dance of celebration about a reluctant bride being convinced the wedding is a good idea!

The costumes, music and performers a delightful treat and afterwards many took advantage of the opportunity to ask questions and join in discussions. I was fascinated by the striking curtains and altars – the furthest away can only be entered by the priest and designated elders, the smaller one is open to all.

Having St George and Jacobite in the name intrigued me – as a Scot, Jacobite referred to supporters of King James II of England or of the Stuarts claim to the throne. I know many Christian churches use different versions of the King James Bible as their sacred text but never realised one incorporated Jacobite in their name.

The mythology of St George predates Christianity and any stories I learnt as a child about his Christianity – light conquering darkness – were set in the 10th or 11th century, hence him becoming the patron saint of England. The origin story of this church interesting and proves religion is full of surprises.

Later, delicious and sumptuous afternoon tea made some of us reluctant to get back on the bus. We were farewelled with an unexpected gift and will certainly remember our visit!

Turkish Islamic and Cultural Centre, Keysborough

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Our final visit for the day was another mosque and one I’d seen from the highway many times. The imposing building flying the Australian flag and one with the symbol of Islam – the star and crescent moon.

Outside, we were warmly welcomed by a teacher from an Islamic school and several students with an open invitation to ask questions and let the students be our guides.

After removing our shoes and covering heads, we sat and listened to a welcome speech by the Imam and a young female student. The Imam’s mobile phone rang, ‘Excuse me, could be Jesus calling,‘ he said.

I love his sense of humour! In fact, laughter and smiles a significant part of the day in all the places we visited.

After the phone call, he continued with his explanation of the Five Pillars of Islam: Shahadah (Creed), Salat (Prayer), Zakay (Almsgiving), Fasting and Pilgrimage (Hajj) and a brief history of the mosque and fielded questions before inviting us on a tour.

The art and woodwork stunning inside the mosque. Most of the artisanship done locally, some imports from Turkey. The ceiling magnificent, the chandelier adorned with a Qur’anic verse in Muhammed’s favourite colour, green.

Oh, I didn’t know he was Irish,’ I quipped and my young guide laughed. She pointed out the balcony upstairs where women worship and explained the delicacy of the stencilling on the ceiling and how time-consuming the job was for the artist.

The colours, designs, placement of artefacts, windows, doors, balcony – all hold symbolic meaning. There are three places where the imam can preach depending on the number of devotees. There is a beautiful raised staircase with detailed carving and inlays.

One of the young students sang a prayer and it reminded me of being in R L Stevenson’s house in Samoa and the young guide singing a verse of his favourite hymn. Another memorable experience was being alone in the church at Hermannsburg Mission, Central Australia and Jan Cornell, the leader of the group I was with sang to test the acoustics.

The unaccompanied human voice raised in a song of praise can be truly beautiful.

Our visit coincided with one of the regular prayer times and the Imam excused himself to attend to several men waiting to pray. We sat up the back in silent contemplation.

I don’t know what the others were thinking but as I watched the prayer ritual it struck me how vulnerable these men were and how trusting. They didn’t know any of us but believed they were in a safe space just like those worshippers in Christchurch and many other places where people have been attacked.

Their trust, vulnerability, and devotion humbling.

We trooped outside for the last few photographs and the bus journey home. If there are different places on the list, I look forward to joining another tour.

No one tried to convert me and I had no epiphany, just interesting conversations and experiences to mull over and deposit in my memory bank.

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A Dickens of An Exhibition For Writers of Fashionable Fiction!

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While attending two great free workshops on aspects of Scottish history at the Prahran Mechanics’ Institute Victorian History Library last week, I picked up a flyer for another event in Stonnington – also free. (I’m prepared for the jokes about stereotypical Scot being mean!)

This is a fabulous opportunity to learn some historical background and context for many of the female characters in the classic novels of Charles Dickens and to see yet another superb collection of clothes from the Dressing Australia Museum of Costume that provided the wonderful collection of clothes and other items for Be persuaded – Jane Austen, an exhibition by Glen Eira Council in January 2019.

Fiona and Keith Baverstock use the period fashion, textiles and fashion ephemera in their collection to create a themed exhibition, which they then take on tour. The research and attention to detail and the information supplied truly awesome.

Similar to many people, I read Great Expectations, A Christmas Carol, A Tale of Two Cities and Oliver Twist while at high school. Later, I watched the many film and television adaptations of novels such as Bleak House, David Copperfield, The Mystery of Edwin Drood and Nicholas Nickelby produced by the BBC among others.

Many of Dickens’ characters and their utterances are household names. I’ve used quotes from his books in my creative writing classes, also extracts from newspaper articles because Dickens was a journalist before becoming a novelist.

Although, as one exhibit explains, he would fit right into the current complaints of  ‘fake news’ because Dickens had a dramatic streak. Always a creative writer at heart with emphasis on the ‘creative’ instead of factual reporting, he embellished stories to make them more interesting for the readers!

Charles Dickens is revered as a writer and most of the accolades are well-deserved. However, a neat summary of his life, plus many books, plays, and articles written revealing his complex personality, misbehaviour, and shabby treatment of his wife may disappoint some fans.

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First impressions of the Exhibition are of being on set preparing to make a historical film; the display of dresses stunning and cleverly grouped. The varied colours and designs catch your eye and display cases have accessories laid out as if in preparation to be donned.

You start to wander around the room and become absorbed in the stories of the women who peopled the novels of Dickens. You may be fascinated when examining the outfits and imagining their lives. What must it have been like moving around in voluminous gowns, restrictive corsetry and even more restrictive social mores and expectations?

dickens quote

Sairey (Sarah) Gamp from Martin Chuzzlewit

Dickens had a talent for creating memorable caricatures – comical but also despicable. They often personified the seven deadly sins: envy, gluttony, greed, lust, pride, sloth and wrath… and introduced words from the vernacular that became common usage.

Sarah Gamp exemplified greed, selfishness and as a drunken nurse/midwife displayed a callous disregard for others. She was ‘ a potent weapon in the campaign against untrained, incompetent nurses. It took a Florence Nightingale to fully expose and sweep aside the armies of Sarah Gamps.’

 

The 1840s gown with evidence of wear and tear is slate-coloured striped taffeta. She presided over so many deaths so wears a mourning apron and black, crepe trimmed taffeta mourning cape and her ‘gamp’ (umbrella).

The image of Mrs Gamp’s ‘gig’ umbrella clutched to her person wherever she went, or displayed ‘with particular ostentation’ against the chimney breast of her bird-sized apartment above the bird fancier’s shop in Holborn so resonated with readers that ‘gamp’ became synonymous with umbrella, just as ‘Sarah Gamp’ became synonymous with a slovenly, inebriated ‘nurse’.

A gig was a light carriage with two wheels pulled by a single horse. In the latter part of the 19th century, it was deemed suitable for ladies to drive around their estates or into the village.

... ‘the lady would need a nifty weapon to beat off any ne’er-do-wells with the temerity to approach, and when stepping down she would need a handy little parasol. The gold cap comes off the sycamore case, the parasol slides out and screws neatly into the gold tip on the other end, Voila, protection from the sun or rain.’

There was nothing dainty or lady-like about Sarah Gamp. She would have driven a cart and her ‘gamp’ a heavy umbrella.

Catherine Dickens – the discarded wife

It was the actress Miriam Margoyles portraying Catherine Dickens in her play Dickens’ Women based on or inspired by 23 different characters in the novels by Dickens that made me think more deeply about how women were portrayed by the great storyteller.

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One reviewer said the production highlighted Dickens’ “obsession with youthful beauty and his baffling relationships with his sister-in-law”.

The detailed notes along with the chosen gown for Dickens’ wife are not complimentary to the man and emphasise how unfair the legal, as well as the social system,  was regarding the treatment of women.

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Reading about Catherine and looking at the dresses on display you can’t help but notice the tiny waists, the design drawing attention to the breasts and of course, being the era of gloves and hats, there was a dress code or expectation a lady had accessories.

  • How long did it take to get dressed?
  • How complicated were the designs to maintain – especially considering the material used?
  • And in an era of women producing baby after baby, how unsuitable were those clothes for pregnancy, breastfeeding and caring for children, let alone housework.

My paternal grandmother was married in 1900, the clothes hadn’t changed that much from the years before and the family story is that she fainted twice on her wedding day as her sister pulled the corset strings tight enough to ensure she had the obligatory 18-inch waist to fit her wedding dress!

Nancy in Oliver Twist, a ‘fallen woman’

Dickens never used the term prostitute or sex worker in his novel but readers are under no illusion about Nancy and her friend Bet described:

“They wore a good deal of hair, not very neatly turned up behind, and were rather untidy about the shoes and stockings. They were not exactly pretty, perhaps; but they had a great deal of colour in their faces, and looked quite stout and healthy. being remarkably free and easy with their manners, Oliver thought them to be very nice girls indeed. Which there is no doubt they were.”

I read Oliver Twist when I was fifteen and stark images of Victorian England and the appalling living standards of the poor in cities like London remain with me. Dickens

… knew how to hold an audience. The themes in his novels did, however, challenge the accepted beliefs of the day. Oliver Twist shines a light into the dark underbelly of life in the cities like London, confronting the comfortable complacent with the relationship between poverty and crime, revealing the iniquity and inequity of the Poor Laws and the Workhouse system – and its inept and corrupt officials.”

I can remember hoping that Nancy, who showed kindness to Oliver, would somehow be miraculously transformed and freed from the seedy clutches of Bill Sykes, but deep down knew her shockingly violent death was inevitable.

The ruched and frilled dress with elaborate cording, tight waist, laced back and revealing cleavage was chosen because the silky style would have appealed to Nancy, even if she would have preferred a more striking colour. This dress was ‘Perkins Purple’ and faded over time to mauve and then pearly grey.

In my imagination, Nancy would have worn feathers in her bonnet and always had a shawl!

Miss Havisham – who can forget a woman scorned?

There have been many adaptations of Great Expectations and it remains one of Dickens’ more popular novelsAgain he takes on the establishment, the ‘haves’ and emphasises the divide between the rich and poor.

The powerful regard poverty as a crime and use prison to punish those who ‘have not’. The story of a young man overcoming obstacles to achieve success another of his recurring themes.

But it is the jilted, embittered, and wealthy Miss Havisham living in a ruined mansion with her adopted daughter Estella, who fascinates and intrigues readers and leaves a lasting impression. She still wears her wedding dress as if frozen in time.

Twenty minutes to nine was the moment the letter arrived revealing the calumny of her fiance. There she was in her wedding gown, the wedding breakfast and adornments laid out in readiness, one satin slipper still to don. And there she remained. Since then, the wedding breakfast, the decorations, the room have been weighed down by dust and cobwebs, have been nibbled by decay and vermin till the house itself is crumbling. The fraudster Compeyson took her future and her fortune (although obviously not all of it) and might as well have taken her life.

Her revenge is Estella, whom she has fashioned into a weapon to destroy men and the hapless Pip is the whetstone on which Estella is to hone her skills…

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The addendum to “Expectations unfulfilled – Miss Havisham” states that

Dickens has trouble with consistency when he sets his novels in an earlier era. This is certainly evident with the ages and setting of Great Expectations. We’ve chosen to place Miss Havisham’s wedding in the early 1800s and have dressed her in a distressed, disintegrating Regency style gown.’

All of the costumes are original 19th-century outfits and so the ‘distressed’ signs are natural. Dressing Australia’s disclaimer that they’ve chosen what they think fits/suits each character rather than adhering strictly to the publication date of the novels, although many of the costumes coincide nicely.

Oliver Twist was published in 1837, but Nancy’s gown is from a later decade. It was chosen to represent the ‘tart with a heart‘ and Nancy’s notion of what is ladylike. Estella’s exquisite gown is from the late 1850s when Dickens was writing Great Expectations, published in 1860, although the story was set in an earlier era.

Madame Defarge – Knitting while heads rolled

Madame Defarge in A Tale of Two Cities, a novel set in the time of the French Revolution is the embittered wife of a wine shop owner who owed his status and business to her revolutionary fervour.

She enjoyed knitting the names of the aristocrats she plotted to send to the guillotine and while weaving their names into Liberty Caps sat and watched their heads roll off the beheading machine.

Acknowledged as a leader of the Tricoteuse Movement, which evolved from the Market Women heroines who marched on Versailles and became ‘too uncontrollable and troublesome, and barred from the gallery of the National Convention and from political assemblies’ she proves to be devious and brutal even if her vengeful crusade facilitated by The Reign of Terror is justified.

Madame Defarge’s sister and unborn child, brother, brother-in-law and father were all killed by Darnay’s uncle, assisted by his father.


The green shot silk gown is ‘somewhat distressed’ polonaised over a black quilted satin petticoat. The Liberty Cap is pinned with a rosette and a rose. (Madame Defarge popped a rose in her cap warning that ‘outsiders’ were nearby and it was not safe for revolutionaries or the Tricoteuse to speak.)

Confronting the Ghosts of Christmas

A Christmas Carol probably ranks as one of the most read of Dickens’ novels along with Oliver Twist and Great Expectations. If not read, most English speaking people will still have heard of Scrooge or know what it means to call someone a scrooge!

A Christmas Carol sold out the minute it hit the bookstands in 1843 and has remained a favourite ever since. It has the feel-good factor – goodness triumphs over the mean and mean-spirited, adversity can be overcome, redemption is possible…

A man without conscience is not confronted by his own humanity, yet that is precisely what the Ghost of Christmas Past does to Scrooge. Look at how you used to be. Look at how others used to view you. Look at how you felt when facing rejection. Look at the beginnings of your loss of innocence when you chose greed over love.

A man entirely without compassion cares not when confronted by disturbing images of the distress of others, a man without imagination does not see what he might be missing. Yet that is precisely what the Ghost of Christmas Present shows Scrooge.

A man who is impervious to the consequences of his actions, who cares not that he has alienated all who might care for him, who does not mind a lonely, uncelebrated life and death will take no notice of the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come. And yet Scrooge does.

He has confronted his ghosts, is redeemed and regains his humanity and compassion.

The exhibition’s vision of the three ghosts as women enabled an interesting choice of costumes:

  • Christmas Past represented by a distressed Regency gown – a style from Scrooge’s youth
  • Christmas Present represented by a brown moire two-piece gown – a style from Scrooge’s present.
  • Christmas Yet to Come represented by a brown stripe taffeta gown of 1869 – a style yet to come.

There are so many characters from other novels with their stories summarised and the reasons for the choice of garments explained – please catch the exhibition before it closes.

Stand and ponder how these women lived – imagine riding in a carriage beside them, walking down a crowded London street navigating flower sellers, spruikers, beggars, even chimney sweeps… attending a dress fitting, visiting for high tea, soliciting, waiting for an errant husband or an abandoned lover, knitting while aristocrats lost their heads or haunting mean-spirited men!