The Power is in the Word – an Intergenerational Project

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On Wednesday, October 4th, Kingston Seniors Festival 2018 was launched at Westall Community Hub in Clayton South, a new community centre and library that will be twelve months old on Sunday.

The Festival opened by the Mayor, Cr. Steve Staikos who celebrated the completion of the latest Intergenerational Project: The Power’s in the Word.

mayor and ceo close up

The project presented in a partnership between the City of Kingston Social Development team, Kingston Youth Services and Kingston Arts.

I heard about it from Lydia Sorenson, the Positive Ageing Officer, Social Development whom I’d worked with when she was with Youth Services in 2016, my first involvement with an intergenerational project.

I was thrilled to work with Youth Services officers Mealea and Sophie who were involved in the earlier project too.

In 2016, I wrote a short film script and collaborated with a multi-aged team to produce it. Along the way,  we learned about camera angles, lighting, sound, scouting locations and props, permits, schedules and networking.

Favours asked of friends and family. We shared skills and professional knowledge – I gave a writing workshop, photographers lectured on the importance of light, sound experts ran us through recording equipment and dialogue, cinematographers and not for profit filmmakers gave tips and inspiration on what was possible with a limited budget and excess enthusiasm!

The school children and teenagers involved shared their ideas, knowledge and confidence of new technologies and love of all things screen. The premiere of the completed project held at the Shirley Burke Theatre in Parkdale.

Everyone revelled in the Academy Award atmosphere…

It was such a positive experience, I didn’t hesitate to get involved in this latest project.  My friend Jillian and fellow writer played the lead role in my short film, but ill health and travel commitments meant she couldn’t be involved in Power’s in the Word. However, she made the launch and enjoyed the presentations.

me and Jillian
Me and Jillian

This project began in June and entailed a commitment of 12 workshops on a Tuesday evening at the Kingston Arts Centre in Moorabbin.

Story, Print & Poetry Workshops: Inter-generational Project 2018

It was a privilege and fun to be involved with several other seniors and young people. Artwork, including linocuts and poetry, were made and displayed and at the launch, several of us read a poem written for the occasion.

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Both projects enabled me, not only to meet and interact with people I may never have met otherwise but also moved me out of my creative comfort zone. 

We worked alongside writer Emilie Zoey Baker and visual artist and printer Adrian Spurr who taught and supervised the linocuts we produced. To learn printmaking was the drawcard for me,  and to link it with poetry.

Adrian was everyone’s idea of a favourite art teacher. He made a klutz like me feel I’d produced something appealing!

The ten finished pieces from the group looked impressive although I’m not sure what the mayor will do with his framed copy!

Great Things Never Come From Comfort Zones

We started to meet in June and for 13 Tuesday nights we learnt printmaking, discussed various topics, shared stories, and wrote haiku and short prose.

There was a schedule but lots of flexibility.

It was winter and people got sick, or members of their family did. As with any free and volunteer project, people also dropped out. The timeframe coincided with the Melbourne Writers’ Festival, which meant Emilie’s attendance and input varied.

Adrian’s print workshops turned out to be more intense and time-consuming than the organisers realised. The schedule below rearranged as the weeks passed:

  • Introductions and Rumi’s Cube writing exercise
  • Writing about “love”
  • Collograph – flower print-making
  • Collograph and monoprints
  • Writing on Place – haiku
  • Writing on Place – childhood
  • Monoprint and linocut
  • Writing on Place – first home
  • Writing on Place – current linocut
  • Writing on Place – dreamscape
  • Signing of prints
  • Rehearsal and editing
  • Submission of 1-2 pieces on places we have lived

Rumi’s Cube Personality Test…

Emilie had us write as she introduced the various elements of the well-known Rumi’s Cube exercise. 

Briefly, you imagine yourself in a desert and there is a cube of whatever size, material and colour you choose. There is a ladder – you decide where it goes, and a horse – you decide where it is in the position of the cube and what colour and type of horse. There are flowers – how many, colour, type or where growing is up to you. There is a storm cloud – how far away or severe is again up to you.

Ruminating Over Rumi – Mairi Neil

Miles of sand stretching to the horizon…
a clear blue cube, water glistening like dew
a ladder of tree branches rooted in the earth
the cube drip-feeds a carpet of yellow daisies
a large grey mare, heavy with foal shelters
alongside the cube, nibbling at the flowers
preparing to lie down.
Aware the sky is now changing
white clouds becoming bruises on a sea blue sky
transforming to stormy grey
the ladder trembles and sinks
returning to the earth as the cube begins to melt
the landscape awaiting rebirth…

If you Google there are numerous interpretations of the significance of your responses. Emilie’s interpretation just one of many and had some similarities to this:

  • The cube represents you. The size of the cube is your ego. What it is made of (wood, marble, or the texture) determines your feelings or personality.
  • The ladder represents your goals. The length of the ladder shows the scale of your goals, the shorter the ladder the more simple the goal.
  • The horse represents your ideal partner
  • The flowers represent your family and friends. The number of the flowers determines your connections and how close you are to them

  • The Storm represents the obstacle(s) in your life. If the storm is close to the cube/ stationary, then you are experiencing some emotional, mental and hard situations right now.  If the storm is in the distance then you have overcome many challenges and will continue towards victory.

Emilie said she had never come across ‘a pregnant horse’ response before!

Psychoanalysis can make you hungry for comfort food…

After that exercise and the interesting discussion it raised, I was ready for a cup of tea.

Most of the workshops were between 4.30pm and 6.30pm, a couple started at 5.00pm. The lovely council officers ensured food was delivered, they arranged taxis if needed. Always their priority was the happiness and comfort of participants.

In a way, there was too much food, but we gratefully took home plastic containers of leftovers – especially on the pasta and pizza nights that the young folk enjoyed the most. A couple of the participants shared cakes and sandwiches with their U3A writing class the next day!

Collographs and Monoprints and Love

I missed the workshop on Collograph flower prints because I fell that day and had an unplanned trip! The work the others produced amazing, particularly when most were new to the art form.

The larger pieces below examples of Collography.

The writing task was about ‘Love’. I missed out on creating a collograph but could write at home without too much effort.

Love
Mairi Neil

Can love be put into words?
Trust, passion, security, contentment –
limiting the concept seems absurd.
Love is all encompassing, enthralling,
ecstatic and entrancing, but also
mundane, steady, unconditional ––
not all excitement and romancing.

It’s the years of care from a doting Dad –
caressing his ageing skin and feeling sad.
Massaging Mum’s arthritis, being close
savouring the aroma of her Sunday roast.
It’s marmalade and toast made with
daily devotion – delicious pancakes
and scones triggering emotion.

A smile causing the heart to flutter –
a light behind your eyes for no other.
Unexpected flowers to cheer the day,
orchids or roses have something to say.
A heartfelt cuddle, a warm embrace,
loving strength, if trouble you face

It’s gentle bedtime snores confirming
belonging and comfort at night.
Shared laughter and crazy dreams
It’s pride and happiness on sight.
A special tone of voice, whispering
your name, and other endearments,
a baby suckling at breast, content
the promise of future fulfilment.

Nurturing children, bathing and caring
the pleasure of siblings playing together
the squabbles, support, and sharing.
Holding hands with lovers and
celebrating each day with joy
free to be embarrassed or unduly coy.
What is love? Can words describe it well?
Live it, breathe it, only your heart will tell…

Monoprints – what a challenge

Adrian told the class to follow on from their idea for the Collograph and draw something for a monoprint. This would then be drawn on acetate with ink applied and a print produced.

I can’t draw a straight line without a ruler, in fact, I can’t draw anything and don’t try.

What was I to do?

Fortunately, a few days before, I’d been completely enthralled by the first blooms appearing on my bird of paradise plant outside the bedroom window.

Inspiration!

I tried to draw the flower head to appear like a bird – what a mess – a few more strokes and it looked like a bird sucking on the plant.

‘Don’t fiddle’ my mantra – it would have to do.

Adrian gave it the okay and I printed it off. He suggested I use a different paint tool and create a second print. And I did.

In one session I did something I never thought I could.

The monoprint was an expression of a haiku written on the train on the way to the workshop.

After worrying over the session I missed, feeling embarrassed at my artistic ineptitude and lack of talent, I achieve something that doesn’t look too bad.

I’m enjoying this project!

Outside my window
July flowering delights
homegrown paradise

Writing on Place – haiku

With my first haiku written about a place – the garden –  I continued on that theme and write about my home in Mordialloc.

For You – My Garden Haiku
Mairi Neil 2018

Outside my window
July flowering delights
homegrown paradise

The warm dawn sunlight
penetrates the ti-tree bush
baby birds awaken

Red geraniums
withstand sea breezes daily
to perfume driveway

A sturdy bottlebrush
succour to Noisy Minors
Jack’s living tribute

Magpie serenade
from majestic woody throne
a morning Etude

Wattlebird feasting
on blooming grevillea
picnic on the wing

A whiff of rosemary
reminds us of sacrifice
seeds of love and hope

Freshly cut roses
carefully arranged in vase
memories of love

Floral posies in
aromatic profusion
the colours of love

Marigolds dusk glow
sunflowers smiling happiness
promise of sweet dreams

Comments from Participants

quotes about projectemilie's haiku and quotes

And You Too Can Haiku!

Emilie gave everyone the most common guidelines for haiku: the standard seventeen syllables split up into three lines of five, seven and five syllables respectively.

A good starting point, however, most of the young participants didn’t know about haiku poetry we had a lesson where everyone was writing and mouthing syllables as they counted and worried about fitting into the criteria.

Nowadays the form is more fluid. Poets write one, two or four-line haiku and the syllable count can vary enormously.

The extreme minimalism– absolutely no unnecessary words – and the presentation of a defining moment are the most important requirements.

It is important to present the thing itself, the simple truth. No tricks –

Linda France, Mslexia

The haiku is a classical Japanese form. It was an important influence on the imagists – poets like Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams, and later the Beat Generation, in love with Zen and now it is popular with the generation into mindfulness and ‘living in the moment’.

That is essentially what the haiku is: a moment; a vivid image that seems to make time stand still.

Economy and observation are its two main qualities  –  excellent disciplines for writers, no matter how old or what genre you prefer.

Writing on Place – Childhood – and an idea for Linocut

Brainstorming, thinking in haiku mode, and seeking an image from childhood that could translate onto a tile to be printed – an image I could actually draw so it resembled my words and was achievable for a novice in the art of linocut!

my haiku displayed

Childhood Memories of Scotland
Mairi Neil

At our kitchen table
babble of happy voices
the breath of family

Weather for lamb roasts
rosemary thriving in pot
the smell of Sunday

Scones, pancakes and tea
bramble jam bubbling on stove
Mum’s off-key singing

Bitter icy winds
Jack Frost and his snowmen arrive
snowball fights are fun

The teapot ever ready
Soothing sorrows and worries
culture and comfort

Dad’s railway uniform
always trailing soot and coal
and the sound of steam

Daily tidal dance
a rumbling in the distance
tuning life’s rhythms

But shipyards must close
jobs and happiness are scarce
Australia needs us

At the dinner table
lively discussions hosted
no topic ignored

Time to leave our home
the inner child’s fear frozen
warm climate ahead

The learning curve and level of excitement rose as Adrian demonstrated the various carving and cutting tools and the method for sculpting. We were given a special board to ensure no nasty slips with very sharp objects!

Despite there being octagenarians, septuagenarians and sixty-five year old me around the table, there was no tragic blood-soaked workshops.

It is not an easy task drawing on a tile and then deciding what is positive and negative space so that you cut out a design and produce a print of what you want – what parts of the drawing will remain solid and black, what parts will not be inked.

Tanya, one of the participants who is a well-known artist in her own right, advised me to chalk white the parts that I didn’t want to carve and then wipe off the chalk when finished. Great advice.

Most of us took our tiles home in between sessions and used the tools Adrian kindly lent us so that we’d be finished by the end of the project. I am indebted to my daughter, Mary Jane for helping me and ensuring I didn’t cut away too much of the tile.

close up of my linocut

My first attempt at inking resulted in a couple of dirty marks. Adrian showed me how to clean up the tile and reprint until I was satisfied with the finished product. The second print was fine.

What a relief to know that you get a second chance, even with something as complicated as this.

Writing on Place – First Home – Belonging – What we remember…

It’s amazing how one memory triggers another and in a writing workshop, like pirates, we pick up gems from others and it helps us to remember, reflect and write.

One of the most sincere forms of respect is actually listening to what another has to say

Bryant H. McGill

Another youth worker involved in the project was Sophie and one night,  some new young people joined us and we did a getting to know you exercise called Intergen Bingo. We moved around the room to discover various facts about each other to match at least three pieces of description to a person:

  • was born overseas
  • has a dog
  • favourite food is pizza
  • catches public transport
  • likes listening to rock music
  • enjoys gardening
  • drinks coffee
  • plays a musical instrument
  • cannot eat a certain food
  • likes to tell stories
  • plays a sport
  • has an older sibling
  • wears glasses
  • can speak another language
  • has a job
  • has green eyes
  • likes going for walks

The room was soon abuzz with multiple conversations, laughter and surprise. The questions had led to more questions and a better understanding of each other.

I ticked plenty of the boxes, discovered three others had hazel eyes like me, that dog lovers outnumbered cat lovers and the names of two groups the Avalanchers and Jokers played music regarded as ‘surf rock’ – a genre I didn’t know existed.

We discussed what to read at the launch of the project. The presentation needed to be as close to a minute as possible.

A poem about the house we came to live in when we migrated to Australia in 1962 was deemed suitable.

close up of me reading

Aussie Childhood
Mairi Neil

I grew up in bushy Croydon
the trees grew thick around,
milk and bread delivered
to a tuneful clip-clop sound.

Kookaburras laughed and swooped
to steal our pet cat’s food
it wasn’t Snappy Tom, of course
but ‘roo meat, raw and good.

The streets were mainly dirt tracks
a collection of potholes and clay,
most people walked or cycled
and even strangers said, ‘gidday’.

Our weatherboard house peeled
the corrugated tin roof leaked too,
a verandah sagged under honeysuckle,
the rooms added as family grew.

Mosquito nets caused claustrophobia
possums peered down chimneys three,
but the dunny banished down the back
the most terrifying memory, for me.

Electricity brightened inside the house
so torch or candlelight had to suffice
night noises and shadows of the bush
and the smelly dunny was not nice!

The path to the toilet lined with trees
growing tall to seek the sun
but when the dark cloak of night donned
branches became hands from which to run

During the day our block was heaven
definitely a children’s adventure-land
blue tongues, geckos, tadpoles and frogs
all shared our world so grand.

A snake the greatest danger
or a bull ant bite on the toe
a truly carefree wonderful time
my rose-coloured glasses show.

I also read Sammar Bassal’s haiku because she was too bashful to read it herself.

The poem and tile great representations of how the library was her home as she struggled to learn English and find a place in her adopted country.

A design student, Sammar’s tile detailed all these wonderful fantasy characters emerging from an open book.

Home away from home
Surrounded by written words
The library has gone

close up of finsihed product.jpg

October is a month when Victoria celebrates seniors and the City of Kingston’s Seniors Festival has the theme ‘Get Social’ encouraging everyone to be involved and feel part of their local community.

Involvement in the Intergenerational project and exhibition, visiting the Westall Hub for the first time and meeting up with many new people during the course of a wonderful, learning opportunity was not only social but fun.

Kingston is a proudly diverse city, with residents coming from more than 150 countries, speaking 120 languages and following more than 28 different faiths. Council is committed to helping foster an accepting and inclusive community, regardless of anyone’s origin, ethnicity, faith, economic status, disability, age, gender or sexual orientation.

Cr. Steve Staikos, Mayor, City of Kingston.

Whatever the intergenerational project is next year, watch out for it and participate – you won’t regret it.

Here are a couple of pics of some of the seniors involved plus Sammar and the Mayor ‘getting social’.

a happy snap with the mayor.jpega nice group photo.jpg

 

When counting blessings, friends must be high on your list!

tiled mural flinders street.jpg

Coco Chanel apparently said, ‘Nature gives you the face you have at 20. Life shapes the face you have at 30, but at 50 you get the face you deserve.’

If we sulked or made a funny or unpleasant face, my Mum used to warn, ‘the wind will change and you’ll stay like that.’ Both my parents championed smiling and politeness and modelled being friendly and pleasant.

‘You use more muscles to frown than smile’ is always a good comeback when someone looks glum, but there is no scientific proof behind the old saying!

“Scientists have studied the muscles needed for both facial expressions, and to do a small smile generally uses 10 muscles; a small frown uses 6. On average, a smile uses 12 and a frown 11. However, since humans tend to smile a lot, these muscles are stronger. A frown may be slightly more effort to produce just because we aren’t as used to using these muscles.”

Science Made Simple 

However, scientific proof or not, I’m sticking with smiles, politeness and kindness to people because I feel better when I do and following another piece of Mum advice, ‘civility costs nothing.’

My face – wrinkles et al – reflects life hasn’t been easy but there are plenty of laughter lines and when I meet up with friends there are usually smiles and laughter aplenty and I try and catch up with as many as possible during term breaks.

Spring In Melbourne Town 2018
(A hybrid Haibun)
Mairi Neil

outside Alan McLean Hall.jpg
outside where U3A meet

Today, I won’t be grey and miserable
and definitely ‘not over the hill’
I’m meeting a friend of many years
several hours we’ll happily fill.

On way to the train
U3A club gathering
‘Nice day for an outing!’

Dressed for mercurial Melbourne
sturdy shoes and light jackets,
sunglasses, lanyards with names,
backpacks and lunch in packets.

‘Join us?’ their chorus
prepared for fun and adventure
my kind of ageing…

On the train beside a Metro worker
who’s heading for Glenhuntly Station
we chat about insecure work and gender
driving a train once her inclination.

I’m on the bus now
Meet you under the clocks
C u soon’

A confirmation text received
we’ve embraced the digital age
but I open a book of poetry –
I prefer words written on the page.

Train stops Platform 10
30 steps to reach the street
ever mindful of heart health

Food court wafts hot chips, coffee and cake
September’s Showtime and school hols
Flinders station’s abuzz with children
plus seagull, sparrow and pigeon trolls.

Myki tapped lightly
eyes seek a waiting friend
welcome smiles and hug

Age hasn’t happened all at once
however, we stroll not stride, to NGV
with hours to enjoy art and beauty
top priorities a pee and a cup of tea!

A young girl walks by
her straw hat embroidered –
the word – ‘paradise

Indeed! Melbourne – the world’s most liveable city.

Old friends are gold

Uma and I go back forty years BC (before children) and have encountered storms and defeats; sunny days and triumphs. Recently, retired from full-time work Uma is recovering from a serious back operation. I’m a few years older, almost retired from part-time work – four months to go – but who is counting!

For a just celebrated 61st birthday, Uma received membership to the NGV and as we walked from Flinders Street Station, she extolled the advantages and virtues of access to talks, special events, behind the scene views, plus a membership lounge – our first stop for a complimentary cuppa.

THE FAMOUS GLASS CEILING.jpg
The famous glass ceiling at NGV

I love the NGV too – it is celebrating 50 years this year and I can remember it being built. In fact, I can remember the obligatory school excursion where you got to lie on the floor and stare up at the magnificent and unusual leadlight glass ceiling.

There are always several special exhibitions at the NGV, plus their permanent collection. Uma’s input and knowledge from attending member lectures added to the richness of the day as we wandered through galleries discussing exhibits.

A recent talk about Nick Cave’s work: Sound Suit made her think differently about the pieces and how we perceive each other.

sound suit 1.jpg

Nick Cave makes sculptures that you can wear. These outfits cover the body and remove all traces of the wearer’s identity. When you are wearing a Soundsuit, no one can tell whether you are rich or poor, black or white, male or female…he created his Soundsuit series in an attempt to process his trauma associated with the 1992 Los Angeles riots.

…wearable sculptures act as symbols of endurance and a form of protection by obscuring all signs of the wearer’s race, gender, age, sexual identification and class…

made from everyday materials sourced largely from flea markets, including dyed human hair, plastic buttons, beads and feathers…joyous and spectacular…rattle and resonate when worn in performance.

sound suit.jpg

Both Uma and I were busy mums in 1992, with our firstborns leaving Prep and our second children preparing for playgroup and three-year-old kindergarten. International events reported via radio or television and often delayed by hours but the 1992 LA riots unforgettable because at the same time Australia was facing the reality of the Stolen Generation stories and alarming statistics of Aboriginal deaths in custody.

I expressed my anger and fears at Readings By The Bay, the monthly poetry and story readings held by Mordialloc Writers’ Group:

Our Burning Shame
Mairi Neil 1992

Rodney King – who gave you that name?
A “king’ in a black skin…
some will see the irony
or is it okay as a surname.
Is your destiny entwined
with that other dreamer?

The world watched in horror
as they beat you to the ground…
on the ground
into the ground.
The gang of four with official batons
grasped tightly, wielded as if warriors
beating your head
beating your body
beating your legs

Pounding, pounding, pounding…
a steady funeral dirge
burying the myth racial equality is accepted

Middle-class liberals gasped
horrified at the naked truth
other victims sighed with relief
the truth at last revealed.
Those with the power to change
shrugged away the fuss

A picture is worth a thousand words
a video worth a thousand affidavits
television news beamed across the nation
worth a thousand protests
an opportune political decision
worth a thousand votes

Time dimmed the anger and horror
even brutes deserve a trial…
innocent until proven guilty
but will Nuremberg be revisited?
We waited for the sentence
believing we knew the judgement

A jury without black faces
proved society is controlled
by red necks preferring white liars
who can live with red faces

Now Los Angeles burns –
along with our shame
those with real power
remain unchanged
Cosmetics mask ugly faces
waspish capitalists sting
again and again and again…

Shocked Australians are horrified
yet reality reveals our guilt
smugness shattered
when black deaths in custody
inspire jokes

Our custodians of the law
don’t need lessons in brutality
we watched the scenes in LA
but closed minds
can be switched off
just like television sets

Will our cities burn
today…
tomorrow…
next week…

Now, of course, the time delay is only seconds. The 24Hour media cycle (circus?) barely gives us time to digest, never mind process, events. There are social media platforms and mobile devices offering no escape or relief, and ironically, the reality of ‘fake’ news.

After almost three decades I have to pause, reflect, and ask how much have attitudes and behaviour changed?

Will the wider dissemination of news and events via the Internet make people seek further knowledge, see a different perspective, consider a change in behaviour or attitude – or will it just cement their own truth and beliefs?

Across the room beside Sound Suits is Amelia Falling by Hank Willis Thomas, a most effective photographic image on a mirror and depicting Alabama 1965 – I remember that too almost three decades before the LA Riots! :

amelia falling mirror.jpg

Amelia Falling is derived from an archival photograph taken by photojournalist Spider Martin during the Selma to Montgomery marches in Alabama in 1965…

… civil rights activist Amelia Boynton Robinson being carried by fellow marchers after having been gassed and beaten by State Troopers during what was intended to be a peaceful protest…

Willis Thomas states, ‘In a lot of my work I ask the viewer not to be passive but to actually think about active participation’.

 

What artwork will the Trump era produce – chronicle our despair, facilitate change or confront our shame?

Trumpeting Limericks To Let Off Steam

Mairi Neil, 2016

There once was a candidate Trump
elected by those who took hump
at moneyed elites
according to tweets
by Trump’s collective misogynist clump

He blew bigots up like a bicycle pump
‘deplorables’ swelled to a poisonous lump
forget about facts
diplomacy or tact
winning is all that matters to Trump

As the President-elect Donald Trump
sneered at women considered plump
his unleashed tongue
grotesque insults flung
Trump’s misogyny a cancerous lump

His presidency corrupt at the core
means the United States no more
anger and hate
an uncertain fate
Trump’s only about settling a score

He campaigned with deceit and lies
winning the penultimate prize
of course, he’s a fool
others actually rule
will the majority avert their eyes?

From Mexican artist Joaquin Segura we have Exercises on selective mutism, 2012:

protest banner.jpg

In this piece the artist has recovered a found object – a canvas banner discarded in the aftermath of a protest in Mexico City – and transformed it into a minimalist sculpture by applying layers of white paint to its surface. 

The attempt to cover up (literally ‘whitewash’) the banner’s political message is key to the work’s meaning… about efforts to silence, and render invisible, dissent – through omission, spreading misinformation and erasure – and a questioning of conceptual art’s potential to make political claims or to challenge authority.

I love writing Found Poetry and the last lesson for the term in my Writing Creatively class was exploring Found Poetry by reading a column in the local paper which collates local news snippets from a hundred years ago.

The exercise was challenging but productive and I hope the students polish the variety of poems they wrote.

Art can Confront, Challenge, move us from our Comfort Zone

Several other installations prompted discussions on a host of current media topics and various events we’d lived through.

Baby boomers have survived tumultuous, exciting times and have adapted to incredible change, especially the rise of the digital world. I’m glad there is still support for art you can touch, walk around, relate to and experience in real time, not just on screen.

Melbourne is rich with events to attend, particularly during holiday times and I never tire of the trip to the city – as a teacher of creative writing, particularly Life Stories & Legacies, cultural experiences and exhibitions offer a mine of information and material for lessons and ideas to write about, plus triggers for personal memories.

When we write about our past, it’s easy to look at memories as if through a fixed lens. Events and people, including self, coldly observed – especially childhood – embarrassments, failings, mistakes, sometimes enlarged or erased with hindsight, successes perhaps forgotten or if unrecognised at the time, now embellished. The telescope pointed at childhood fixed, and often others not consulted, so the memory, reliable or otherwise, is our own.

The immediate past and middle years, early adulthood onwards not so clear to categorise or to talk about – marriage, parenthood, working life – may still have ongoing repercussions – more likely family, friends and fellow travellers, still alive even if not active participants in your life.

The memories may be raw and traumatic and still needing some distance before reflection.

Our childhood distant, but not the experiences of our own children and their effect on our lives still being worked through, as are decisions that may have affected our health:

  • abandoning regular sport or dancing,
  • quitting smoking,
  • alcohol use,
  • prescription medication,
  • middle-aged spread,
  • promotion at work,
  • redundancies,
  • reducing to part-time
  • or casual work,
  • divorce,
  • widowhood,
  • estrangement,
  • de facto relationships,
  • weddings,
  • grandchildren,
  • retirement,
  • relocation…

… so many experiences and turning points to be written freely or honestly, or perhaps censored with ramifications fully understood.

Shared experiences, Interviewing friends, a Memoir Writer’s fodder

At the NGV, along with discussing the contents of the galleries, Uma and I chatted and remembered events of our forty years friendship. We both are the product of the first wave of feminism and both have daughters who we raised accordingly, hoping they would not go through some of the sexism and inequality we faced.

Uma, as a woman of colour, born in Malaysia, a country with a long history and acculturation from British colonialism, recognises she adapted to Australian society with relative ease compared to other migrants but we agree the conversations around #blacklivesmatter and #metoo are relevant to Australia and long overdue.

Proud to be Feminist

“You’ll love the Guerrilla Girls: Portfolio Compleat,” said Uma as she guided me to the next gallery.

Guerrilla Girls exhibition confronts gender inequality particularly in the creative fields, and because myself and both daughters (a filmmaker and a stop-motion animator) work in creative fields, Uma wanted me to see it.

We found ourselves sharing insights about subtle and not so subtle discrimination in a world that unfortunately still sees power wielded by the privileged, and in western society, the privileged are overwhelmingly white and male.

Uma confided that at work in the public service, even when she was in charge, as the manager or ‘boss’, she sat in the front row at conferences or prominent positions at meetings to be seen and she consciously spoke a little louder to be heard – a woman of colour, she had two hurdles to jump!

Guerrilla Girls is a group of anonymous feminist artists and activists who call themselves ‘the conscience of the art world’. Their posters, billboards, books, videos and live lectures use facts, humour and bold visuals to expose sexism and racism in politics, the art world and popular culture.

The collective formed in New York City in 1985 with the mission to bring gender and racial equality into focus within the greater arts community. The members protect their individual identities by wearing gorilla masks during public appearances and by adopting names of deceased female icons such as Edmonia Lewis, Kathe Kollwitz and Frida Kahlo.

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guerrilla girls and homeless

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Uma pointed to number four on the list of advantages of being a woman artist.

‘You have another 20 years,’ she said with a grin…

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Many of the observations were witty and shocking but in today’s depressing political climate ‘stating the bloody obvious.

On the way to visit another special exhibition, we paused at random objects that caught our eye.

From ‘in your face’ feminism, to the eighteenth century, known for its enlightened philosophes (you’ll be forgiven for only knowing the names of the male intellectuals – Voltaire, Rousseau, Kant, Diderot, Hume…) because women were literally and figuratively trapped – in clothes that limited mobility, a society that denied rights and access to education:

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The fashionable ideal for women in the eighteenth century comprised voluminous dresses, open at the front to reveal matching stomachers and petticoats, tall powdered clouds of hair and pointed buckled shoes. Skirts were widened with hoops or panniers to create an exaggerated hourglass silhouette that emphasised the natural waistline.

This work is known as a robe a la francaise (or sack-back gown), distinguishable by its sack-back of loose pleating and front robings trimmed with lace that conveys the luxury and ostentation of the period.

During the first half of the eighteenth century, fashionable women’s shoes for the upper and middle classes followed a common form. Straight and narrow with a pointed toe and thick-waisted heel, most were made of rich silk fabric and often had decorative trimmings known as passamaneria. This pair features exquisite metal thread bobbin lace made by braiding and twisting lengths of thread, further edged by strips of braid work. The shoes do not buckle but are worn with the latchets overlapping at the front.

How did they function?

I loved Georgette Heyer’s Regency and Georgian novels as a teenager and imagined floating around in muslin and silk dresses – a visit to a museum would have given me a reality check!

The research required for good historical fiction is painstaking and often clothes play a huge part in whether the story is believable, even more so for screenwriting.

I visited so many museums and galleries when I travelled and often looked at the displays and pondered the hours of labour to make the material, dress and shoes.

My aunt was a tailoress and my older sister an amazing seamstress too, she quilts, embroiders and does all manner of creative needlework. I know the effort and time hand sewing takes – mind-boggling!

However, the men and women hunched in candlelight, in rooms with little or no ventilation, sewing these glamorous gowns earned a pittance and history did not even record their names…

A Stitch in Time (a villanelle)
Mairi Neil

She sits sewing by dim lamplight
embroidered threads by her side
contented, happy, eyes shining bright.

In the stillness of evening light
needle and thread silently glide,
as she sits sewing by pale moonlight.

Cross-stitches, pattern small and tight
new techniques taken in her stride
contented, happy, eyes shining bright.

Her creativity in wondrous flight
imagination flows like the tide
as she sits sewing by candlelight.

Machines embraced despite Luddites
mass production becomes her guide
contentment gone, eyes no longer bright

History records seamstresses’ plight
workers stripped of all but pride
many still struggle in shadowed light
exploited, sad, eyes no longer bright.

A Day For All Things Domestic?

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Curry 2006 by Subodh Gupta

Uma was thrilled to come across an installation by an Indian born artist Subodh Gupta called Curry.

A wall displaying the various utensils used for cooking reminded Uma of growing up in Malaysia and observing her grandmother cooking. There were certain types of pots and pans, spoons and ladles found in every Indian household.

The tiffin boxes brought back memories for me too.

I first heard about tiffins and saw one when John and I became close friends with a workmate, Peter Cordeux who had been born and brought up in India as part of the British Army community.

Whenever we had parties, Peter and his wife Kathy brought a tiffin box filled with delicious curries and rice, which Peter always jokingly claimed he made.

Peter died in 2008, but his stories of growing up in India, holidaying in Pakistan and Afghanistan, being stationed in the Middle East, fighting in Malaya in 1948 during the “Insurgency,” and then the various jobs he had before migrating to Australia, including operating an ice cream van, introduced a whole new fascinating world.

His funny and serious tales reflected in those tiffin boxes! My girls loved their Uncle Peter and still miss him.

Cultural references resonate within the make-up of this artwork: the use of stainless steel in bowls, plates and cups is synonymous with the modernisation and economic development of India in the twentieth century.

Stainless steel replaced kansa (or bell metal, a brittle bronze featuring a high proportion of tin) in the 1950s and 1960s and came to transform the kitchen and eating utensils used in everyday life in India.

The nod to the multitudes of India is made in this work, where straightforward, comparatively small, individual elements are brought together at such a scale that they transcend their everyday nature.

A Writing Exercise

A common writing exercise for those writing family history or memoir is to look in cupboards and write about objects kept for sentimental reasons or as heirlooms. What is the story behind them? Why is it important to write their legacy?

Or write about and explain the value and attachment of everyday objects.

How were they acquired and is there a significant memory attached, like a birthday or anniversary, a travel story?

A trip to the NGV or the museum may help to trigger memories – this stainless steel display certainly did for me and Uma – as did the final special exhibition we walked through.

a stroll through coffee pots

A Modern Life: Tablewares 1930s – 1980s

If you want to date or explain the provenance of that treasured plate or teapot, visit the NGV before 27 January 2019. You’ll have an enjoyable history lesson too and perhaps discover that valuable piece of crockery a la Antique Roadshow!

The layout of some of the displays to mirror popular designs, I found a bit overwhelming and busy, but certainly stunning and there is a great range of designers. So much detail to produce the humble cup and saucer.

Nowadays, in trendy places, you can be offered a jam jar to drink from and your meal served on a wooden board – or even given disposable crockery and cutlery!

Not so in previous decades.

Following the Second World war, societal changes resulted in the decline of domestic servants and many women going out to work. These changes, along with the growing enthusiasm for a modern lifestyle, prompted manufacturers to produce dining wares that were versatile, easily cared for and able to go from the oven to the table.

Postwar optimism also encouraged the development of new tableware forms that were decorated in bold colours and modernist patterns.

This exhibition explores the growing engagement with modern design by commercial manufacturers charting the application of technical innovations in production and decorative techniques in pursuit of commercially competitive products.

Whilst focusing on ceramics, the exhibition also explores the use of new materials resulting from wartime technological advances including plastic, aluminium and stainless steel.

 

As we walked around the cabinets so many memories were triggered.  Personal family stories, especially memories of our mothers and the impact of their preferences, tastes and habits on our own behaviour shopping, cooking, serving meals.

Memories of setting up house in the 80s – scrounging furniture, crockery and utensils to build a home.

Uma was surprised to hear I’d worked in Johnson’s Pottery in the 70s – in fact all members of my family, apart from my young sister, worked in the Croydon factory, producing Australia’s best-known tableware.

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Mum on the pinning bench, Johnsons Pottery circa 1968

Dad was a kiln man for ten years, my mother worked on the pinning bench preparing the holders for the pottery to be fired, my brothers were kiln boys helping load and unload the kiln cars and clearing up debris, sorting and stacking; my sister worked in the decorating section and I inspected the finished products and also worked in the office during the traditional three-week Christmas shut-down period.

When the factory closed for maintenance, the only person running the office was Mr Stephen Johnson, the boss and owner before Wedgewood bought the company. Teenage me on university holidays was hired to answer the telephone and type letters.

At the time Johnsons negotiated special deals with shops like GJ Coles, David Jones and Myer – they chose a specific design that became their exclusive tableware. I took a call from the famous GJ Coles who was a personal friend of Mr Stephen’s and made afternoon tea for the many suited gentlemen who visited to seal agreements for the coming year. 

I can remember the fuss when Johnsons moved away from traditional whiteware and made their first stoneware as they tried to compete with imports from Japan.

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Japanese stoneware

Technology and mass production has made a lot of household items disposable but access to good quality tableware used to be prized – the first complete set of tableware for many being the traditional wedding present of a dinner set.

Most of my family, myself included, had a dinner set gifted as a wedding present. I have a couple of plates, the remnants of the wedding present to my grandparents and parents. Bone China still cherished and on show in cabinets in the homes of many of my generation.

John’s sister in England has a magnificent collection of blue and white pottery (Delftware) and Royal Albert and Royal Doulton Bone China, but the coffee sets and tableware in this exhibition very much examples of the everyday pieces that may not survive intact if their purpose and design enjoyed rather than displayed!

The bold colours of the 70s and 80s obvious and I’m sure similar pieces can be found in Opportunity shops as my generation declutter.

I don’t think young people today place the same value on many of the possessions older generations had to use a greater percentage of their disposable income to acquire.

I can recall seeing the famous blue Willow pattern for the first time when I came to Australia in 1962. We stayed with a cousin of Dad’s and that was the pattern of her everyday dishes. I fell in love with the oriental scenes, my imagination working overtime as usual because I’ve always had a fascination with China.

In the early days of living in Mordialloc, one of the retail chains had a sale of Blue Willow pattern crockery and I bought a set.

When the girls were young, they too ate their cereal from Willow-patterned bowls. I’ll have to ask them if the scenes had any impact on them – I’m pretty sure their answer will be no.

But perhaps in the future, looking back on their childhood or wandering through an art gallery or museum with a friend…

For Auld Lang Syne

I’m lucky to have several dear friends to enjoy the present and some have shared the immediate and not so distant past – the part of life we often struggle to write about in terms of memory and reflection.

Talking about shared experiences or interviewing friends about a particular event can help with perspective when the desire or in some cases, an urgency to record a life for family members or the general community arises.

There are three classes into which all the women past seventy that ever I knew were to be divided: 1. That dear old soul; 2. That old woman; 3. That old witch. 

Samuel Taylor Coleridge

A couple of centuries have passed since Coleridge made that statement about ‘old women’. I’m heading towards seventy and some friends are there already and we’d all agree he got it wrong. 

We may still be fighting for gender equality, and ageism is a reality, but thankfully Coleridge and the other Romantic Poets with patriarchal and sexist views are only around in print and any modern poet expressing similar views will have to contend with shaming by Guerrilla Girls!

I loved my day out with Uma and look forward to catching up with other friends ‘of a certain age’ and intend to enjoy lots of the available activities in October as we celebrate how great it is to be a senior in Melbourne.

Blossoming Bentleigh A Delight

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Last week, I sat in a cafe in Bentleigh near the railway station, pen in hand scribbling away while enjoying coffee and cake.

I’d finished class but had some time to kill before joining an Intergenerational Project within the City of Kingston.

I often use time like this to either wind down by reflecting and writing or observe and write – as I tell my students to do – never miss an opportunity to gather material for stories and poems!

Proust quote

It had been a memorable day. The first real hint of spring warmth in the air and I informed my boss of my intention to retire from Godfrey Street at the end of the year. I’ve decided to apply for the aged pension and ‘retire’ from most paid work.

Instead of teaching and travelling between neighbourhood houses, I will only teach at Chelsea – and not until second term 2019 – giving myself a transitioning period to work out how to stay connected with community, teaching, writers and the craft of storytelling I love.

Sitting and sipping coffee brought relaxation and a sense of relief – I’d made a decision I’d been avoiding although discussed aloud with family and close friends.

The times and life definitely a’changing!

quote about past bentleigh

It has been a long winter – everybody I meet says so and I have to agree, so how wonderful to feel the warmth of the sun – it energised me to be more positive.

Sunshine makes you feel better and brightens the day, especially if you work indoors like me – and so much of writing is expressing inner thoughts, delving into dreams, fears and phobias along with fantasies, imaginings and ideas… classrooms become incubators and separated from ‘outside’.

A breath of fresh air does wonders in more ways than one and I always appreciate walking or using public transport to stay grounded in reality. Having breathing space before and after work and on a sunny day, the walk a senses overload.

Albert Street to Mordialloc Station at this time of year reveals blossoming trees and flowers blooming in various gardens, including my own.

camelia mordialloc

The magpie trill competes with noisy minors, and the wattlebirds have returned to caw loudly while clawing back their territory as the grevillea and bottlebrush bud. The air is perfumed with apple and plum trees along with camellias and the perennial geraniums.

The garden at the community house in Bentleigh tended by volunteers and is delightful in spring.

The walk from Bentleigh Station up Centre Road to Godfrey street perfumed with a variety of eateries and a more pleasant stroll after State Government and Glen Eira Council’s efforts to beautify the shopping strip ‘back to normal’ after the upheaval of the level crossing removal.

If I hadn’t taken pictures and documented that massive infrastructure project memories would fade as to how it looked.

Recording Memories Important

That’s what I love about my Life Stories & Legacies class – in fact, all my classes where people write their recollections. So many different perspectives and experiences.

Trish, a student in my Mordialloc class several years ago recalled a memory about Bentleigh when I gave an exercise about a milestone most of us are eager to celebrate:

‘What do you remember from childhood when you reached double figures?’

On my birthday, the day was sunny – good things happen on sunny days, especially if a Sunday. We lived in Richmond and I was told we were moving to the country. I felt happy and excited because there would be cows and horses. We climbed in the family Buick and drove off to Bentleigh – that was ‘the country’ in the 1940s. It seemed a long drive with outer suburbs just developing and no traffic worries. The house was unfinished and surrounding paddocks our playground. Horses from Mentone intruded into the paddocks sometimes and I was scared of being trampled.

The lady at end of the road had a cow and chickens and I remember the taste of frothy warm milk straight from her cow. Francesco street was where we lived and Mrs White our only next-door neighbour. There were vegetables growing nearby and goods were delivered by horse and cart so plenty of manure available for growing. Whenever I smell the pungent aroma of horse manure, I remember moving to live in Bentleigh when I was ten years old.

There will always be critics of development and change (there are some I don’t like) however, Premier Daniel Andrews’ legacy of upgrading, building and planning much-needed infrastructure for our public transport system is amazing and long overdue. Hats off to the engineers and workers who carried out the vision.

A witness to the important change in Bentleigh:

  • The bottom two tiers of the MCG could have been filled with the earth excavated from under the McKinnon, Bentleigh and Ormond level crossings once intensive digging began for rail under road trench.
  • The Level Crossing Removal Authority estimated 150 tipper trucks left the excavation sites each hour as 500,000 tonnes of earth was moved to a Heatherton tip in the initial ten days.
  • Construction crews of 1000 plus workers toiled around the clock to minimise inconvenience and get the Frankston services running. The job completed in 37 days instead of the scheduled 94!

Short-term pain for long-term gain.

A great new station.

It may come at a political cost because people dislike disruption to their routines and with an election looming whinging from naysayers will be funded and organised by political opponents, but as someone who has never owned a car and with a great belief in living sustainably, I’m glad the state government has made investment in efficient public transport a priority.

Climate change already wreaks havoc, Melbourne’s roads are clogged, reliable public transport the most sensible and sustainable way to move people.

By removing level crossings, adding new lines, linking suburbs, creating a reliable coordinated transport mix – all of these will help a cultural change.

And at Bentleigh as in other level crossings, it will save lives as an extract from one of the Mordialloc Writers’ anthologies, Off The Rails illustrates.

Jeff Lasbury operated the kiosk on Bentleigh station for several years :

Monday, March 23rd 1998 was like any other day until 8.00 am when I heard the train horn blast, a woman scream, and a sickening thud accompanied by the hissing sound of the air brakes being applied by the train driver.

I opened the kiosk door and poked my head out to look down the ramp to the level crossing praying no one had been hurt. I could see nothing untoward and breathed a sigh of relief. I stepped out of the kiosk but decided to turn back because the train had pulled into the station as usual, when I caught sight of a body lying on the tracks almost directly in front of me.

I looked again… everything appeared unreal, an eerie silence descended. It seemed a long time before someone found something to cover the body of the young woman. I assumed the body female because of the scream I had heard but minutes later a hysterical woman came to the kiosk window and between sobs explained it was her
screaming. She had witnessed a young man hit by the train.

Overwhelmed with sadness, I felt numb, and struggled with disbelief…

The young man had been a customer and recently celebrated his 18th birthday. That morning, his mother dropped him off near the station because he was running a bit late. The boom gates came down and the lights were flashing, however, like many pedestrians, he crossed the first line because no train was on that line, but there were
two more tracks to cross. Worried about missing his train, which neared the station, he crossed the barrier, looking in the direction of his approaching train ignoring the other
way. He walked into the path of the city-bound train, which he probably didn’t hear coming because of the Walkman plugged into his ears.

Floral tributes appeared at the level crossing the next day, and a day later, the wire fence in front of the kiosk blossomed with more. Most were single flowers, some not particularly beautiful but left by people who knew and loved the young man, all touching tributes to a tragic lost life…

Some years later, a young woman walked past the kiosk to the ticket machine further up the platform. She took a little time to get her ticket and then came back past. She lost her life in exactly the same way as the young man.

Almost every level crossing will have a similar tale to tell or examples of near misses – I won’t miss the Centre Road level crossing or its clanging lights and boom gates.

A tragedy is far away from my thoughts walking Centre Road on a sunny day, the chaos of mounds of dirt, grunting and growling heavy machinery, buses replacing trains, the traffic and pedestrian diversions are all in the past too.

The new station functions well – toilets and waiting room at street level, a lift and ramp plus stairs – facilities appreciated by everyone, not just rail users.

Murals and music and a delightful community meeting place also appreciated.

I loved the piano that stayed for some time and the many people who took advantage of the freedom to tinkle the ivories… especially the ones who had talent – they attracted smiling listeners, including me.

New cafes and shops have opened and old ones refurbished. Outside tables always abuzz with the old and young plus plenty of canine companions.

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The disconnect of Centre Road caused by the level crossing now gone and people (including myself) visit shops and cafes ignored before.

What will 2019 bring?

I freely admit there will be a period of adjustment for me because I’ll miss the twice-weekly trips to Bentleigh and the community house.

I’m always surprised how easily workplaces you like become a second home but I’m looking forward to spending more time focusing on my own projects ‘at home’ and Bentleigh is only a train trip away!

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The Esplanade Vaults – An Historical Treasure Rarely Opened

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On Sunday, I took part in Open House Melbourne again – another year of memorable experiences. The weekend the showcase event of an organisation committed to ensuring cities remain sustainable and livable, that people care about architecture, design, historical significance, and community values and stay engaged with their environment.

Each time I learn a little more about the history of this wonderful city as well as making the acquaintance of many delightful people. In the past, volunteers identified by a brightly coloured scarf and badge but this year we went for a ‘faux tradie'(?) look – a one size fits all fluoro pink vest!

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The day always wonderful but the weather not always so…

July-August still winter and this year mercurial Melbourne let us know it.

Sunday, a particularly bone-chilling cold day with a consistent arctic wind from Hobson’s Bay visiting as intermittent squalls in the afternoon to remind us what season it is!

I was a building volunteer at The Esplanade Vaults in beachside St Kilda and although I’ve walked past this historical treasure many times (especially on Sunday when I got hopelessly lost and disoriented because I got off the tram one stop too early!) I never knew the vaults existed, or their significance before I was rostered on duty.

Apologies for my ignorance to all those who lived in, or frequented the popular tourist destination of St Kilda, and perhaps loved the shops ‘among the arches.’

They existed for a good part of a century before they were bricked up in the 70s because road widening narrowed the footpath and made access a hazard.

Almost 900 people visited ‘the vaults’ over Open House weekend, with almost half of them on Sunday – many blown in and appreciative of the dryness inside, if not the lack of heating and other creature comforts.

What remains is but a hollow shadow of the popular shops many remember but interesting to see inside because of their history.

The vaults date back to 1891 when public transport on the Upper Esplanade, St Kilda was upgraded to a new cable tramway replacing the Melbourne Tramway & Omnibus Company’s horse-drawn omnibus.

The roadway widened to accommodate tram tracks and included in the design was the ‘provision for ten shops with arched ceilings, the walls raised to hold the road above.’

The shops had verandahs and faced the St Kilda Baths on the Lower Esplanade. The St Kilda City Baths still there and I can recommend their friendly staff and coffee and cake. The older photo below of the Baths circa 1933.

 

The shops among the arches sold a range of merchandise suited to the location including ice cream, nuts, confectionery, haberdashery, and fish and chips. The walls are hollow and thick and it’s amazing how the noise is deadened. Nowadays trams and other traffic are constant above the shops and the road outside but are muffled to be almost unheard in the vaults.

The doors have wooden lintels and you can see the thickness of the walls. It is obvious what parts of the vaults are the original 1890s bricks and the more modern bricks used to seal them.

One of the visitors to the site on Sunday who looked about my age, perhaps older, told me a story about his childhood:

‘You know one of those shops just around the corner used to be a fish and chip shop. I’d ride my bike down here and buy some fish and chips, then leaving my bike leaning against the shop wall I’d cross the road and spend several hours on the beach. Didn’t matter when I came back my bike was still there.’

His nostalgic story ended on a wistful note, ‘No need for locks in those days…’

The City of Port Phillip Values Its Heritage

Only some of the original shops can be accessed and 2016 was the last time the Council opened them to the public. Sandra, a representative from Port Phillip Council’s Heritage Centre had set up a table to promote their local history and heritage program. It was an added bonus to have people knowledgeable about the city on hand.

heritage colunteers

My daughter lives in East St Kilda and I’m looking forward to warmer weather to follow detailed guides to five interesting walks:

  • Immigrants Trail (4 kilometres – 70-90 minutes)
  • Foreshore Trail ( 11 kilometres – 3 hours)
  • To Market To Market (1 kilometre – 30 minutes)
  • Around The Hill ((1 kilometre – 30 minutes)
  • Solar System Trail (5.9 kilometres – 90 minutes)

This last walk intriguing and the result of a 2008 project with the Astronomical Society of Victoria, Lonely Planet Foundation, City of Port Phillip, Monash University, artist Cameron Robbins and Scienceworks!

walking guides

St Kilda’s Built Heritage

The shop verandahs were removed in the 1950s but it wasn’t until the 1970s they were bricked up because of the widening of Jacka Boulevard.

Inside the vaults, on Sunday, there was a slideshow of historical pictures on a loop. Various views of  St Kilda lit up one wall and old photos were fixed on the walls in another room.  Sandra lamented there were no pictures of the shop interiors, or indeed close-ups of the shop fronts when they were thriving.

I’m sure there are snapshots in some family albums and perhaps one day they’ll be donated to a library or museum. Until then, people visiting just have to use their imagination – and everyone agreed the shop owners must have been expert at using space because the vaults are small. No wonder they needed the verandahs and a wide footpath!

the show goes on book st kilda

There was a volume of a history of St Kilda for sale plus some postcards and I bought these to share with my writing class, especially those who are writing life stories and memoir. Those who write historical fiction will find them a good resource too.

The detail of the fashions on postcards, what people are doing, the landscape or seascape, expressions on faces – all fodder for a writer to mine.

When I went to class on Monday, I showed the postcards to student Heather (90 this year) and lent her the book because I remembered a story she wrote about trips to St Kilda and having pony rides on the beach. The period the book covers, 1930 – 1983. 

Heather was thrilled, emailing me Monday night:

Am so enjoying the book. Found the name of our swimming coach, Alex Sauter who ignored me and spent all the lesson on my brother. What a wallow in old memories!

love and thanks Heather

Nothing wrong with wallowing in memories and the indigenous people of St Kilda have stories and legends too which we often forget when discussing the history of places. Stories and buildings from European settlement are only a small part of Australia’s history.

‘St Kilda’s’ Story Thousands Of Years Old…

Open House recognises this by stating:

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT OF COUNTRY

Our programming exists on what always was and always will be the land of the people of the Kulin nation. We pay our respects to Elders past, present and emerging, as well as to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the wider Melbourne community and beyond. Indigenous sovereignty has never been ceded in Australia and we try to be mindful of this in everything we do, given our focus on the modern built environment.

The vaults are what remains of the engineering structure of the 1890s and came about as part of the embankment works and built into the supporting wall for the cable tramway.

However, local historian and conservationist Meyer Eidelson who wrote the guide to some of the walks I’ve mentioned was interviewed about the vaults in 2016. 

In 1841, Derimut a leader of the Yalukit Willam who owned the land European settlers claimed as their own was bitterly disappointed by this theft. He cursed the settlement saying one day blood would rain from the sky and all would be swept away.

The shoreline of beach sands and the tea-tree grove is the traditional land of the Yalukit Willam clan of the Boon Wurrung. Legend tells of a grinding site for axes on the foreshore and also that the creator Bunjil who protects the Kulin Nation and travels as an eagle, placed rocks to stop floods and protect the indigenous settlement. Meyer believes the original foundation of the Upper Esplanade could be part of the network of those sacred rocks.

There is also more recent mythology about hauntings, victims, vampires and numerous intriguing ghost stories.

All believable when inside the vaults.

Light from the tiny vents creates shadows that dance across the floor and up the walls. The effects of the changing light from outside, the glow of artificial light inside, and the vibration from above and the steam of cars alongside plus the wind whistling through the arches interesting enough during the day but would be a dramatically different mood and atmosphere in the evening. 

On Sunday, as the foreshore and streets filled with families and others enjoying Open House, I recalled how St Kilda’s history is chequered with various murder stories, not to mention periods where almost every story was negative – either about drugs or prostitution.

The year I volunteered and was on duty at nearby Edgewater Towers, many of the stories centred around its suitability to feature in fledgeling Australian TV crime dramas because of the notoriety of some St Kilda residents!

I guess it would not be too difficult to imagine the worst if you were alone in one of the dank vaults. (Although they are surprisingly clean and free from the ‘back-alley/abandoned building’ aromas of rodents, rubbish and rotten food.)

Probably, because they have been sealed. Also with no plumbing connected and extremely thick brick walls, any living creature looking for residence would be birds through the top air vents – and yet there was no evidence inside of them.

However, there was a time when people did squat in the vaults and contrary to the general adverse image of people living rough, whoever claimed these catacombs as home left evidence of trying to decorate and soften the harsh reality of cold, rough bricks and concrete.

On Sunday, I encouraged the children who accompanied their parents, to look for the hidden (and some not so hidden!) objects pushed or stuck into cavities in the walls:

marbles, pieces of crockery, plectrums, mirror tiles, old rusty tin, pencil, CDs… a heart image…

A great place to have a writing workshop – perhaps at night with candles flickering…

  • Who put the objects there and why?
  • Were they found objects or had more significance?
  • How long were the people there?
  • Where did they go?

When I finished my shift for the day I was faced with the reality of watching a man settle himself on a bench for the night next to the vaults, his bright orange checked blanket belying the misery of his homelessness. The view of the foreshore and bay more a curse than a joy as a promised storm rolled in on the bruised clouds and I couldn’t imagine how cold his night was going to be.

I was reminded of two other issues in the public arena during the afternoon:

yulukit willum sign about plastic bags

Outside the baths, a timely reminder to ‘ditch plastic bags’ while sharing information about how traditional owners used plants.

Also, on duty at the vaults was Armah, a security guard originally from Ghana. We had a wonderful discussion about the fact Africa is a continent, not a country and how he has lived in Melbourne 21 years and never been in a gang!

I showed Armah a funny clip of the Ghanaian parliament which is doing the rounds of Facebook and he couldn’t wait to get home to tell his family and share it.

Armah has been back to Ghana a couple of times to visit family but like most migrants happy here, he considers that Australia is home.

I wish Dutton, Turnbull, Bolt, Guy et al – the pathetic politicians who dog whistle and use racist slurs to get votes could have chatted with Armah and hear the damage such targeted remarks do to communities.

Cold and tired, I caught up with my daughters for a cup of tea and a chat, sharing the memories triggered by my few hours in St Kilda.

  • I learnt to ice skate at the famous St Moritz rink along with thousands of other Melburnians in my age bracket.
  • I attended dances and functions at the St Kilda Town Hall.
  • Mordialloc Writers read at one of the first St Kilda Writers’ Festivals
  • I’ve visited numerous friends who live in different parts of the suburb
  • I still recall with fear my first visit to Luna Park and the terror of the scenic railway ride!

As I replied to Heather – there’s nothing wrong with wallowing in memories!

There is another post doing the rounds of Facebook –

Dalai Lama quote

The someplace may even be close to home. I wonder what building I’ll be allocated next year…

Who will I meet? What will I learn? What will I remember?

How many degrees of separation will there be… and will the weather be kinder!?

winter copy.jpeg

 

 

 

 

 

Winter Discontent Hints At Spring

bird of paradies close up 1

I woke up this morning with a list of writing tasks to do:

  • Three classes start next week, so lessons to plan
  • Sharing information about a delightful weekend where I caught the last day of the Gandhi Exhibition at the Immigration Museum and the Barangaroo Ngangamay celebration for NAIDOC in the Community Gallery
  • Plus a book review to finish for Lisa Hill’s wonderful celebration of Indigenous Literature she holds each year during July
  • A review of the fantastic Viking Exhibition at the Melbourne Museum where the girls took me on Mother’s Day (Yep, I’m that far behind in my To Do List!)
  • And an update about the ABC after attending a great rally at Melbourne Town Hall yesterday chaired by the accomplished and internationally famous journalist Professor  Peter Greste
  • More about my travels last year – especially Russia
  • The first assignment for a MOOC I’ve enrolled in at the University of Iowa on Moving the Margins: Fiction & Inclusion
  • Plus poems and short stories to finish, revisit and edit…

Help, I need another holiday or to go on a retreat…

A Moment of Joy…

However, all plans disappeared when I drew back the curtains and noticed my Bird of Paradise had started blooming – one of the most colourful and striking plants in the world it belongs to the plant family Strelitziaceae and I just love it.

The plant was in the garden when we bought the house in 1984 and has survived droughts, renovations, a flood, and thrip invasion.

This winter has been particularly cold – everyone I speak to agrees so it is not just grouchy arthritic me – and saying it’s cold means something considering I’m from Scotland!

But being greeted by my delightful Bird of Paradise almost in full flower warmed me up from the inside out!

In pyjamas, I rushed out to take a few photos.

Inspired, I even wrote a poem – nothing like attempting a bit of poetry (even if it is twee) to get the brain in gear on a chilly morning after a turn around the garden checking what else is in bloom.

trees minus grevillea

Mid Winter Morn in Mordialloc

Mairi Neil

Sunlight struggles to glimmer
in the dull convict-grey sky
any warmth still chained to
clumps of cloud drifting by

A faint frost skins patchy grass
soon to be melted or crunched away,
the day frozen – not quite five degrees
oh, winter please disappear today!

Imagine soft, distant, mauve clouds
hovering over a smooth, azure sea
farewelling the night edging inland
the tired fishing boats now work-free.

Birds scrabble nearby for scarce crumbs
nectar hard to find this time of year
they flap, swoop, chitter and chatter
loud demands still music to the ear.

Winter time a challenge for us all –
come on, spring, make life brighter
when flowers bloom in rainbows
our hearts and steps much lighter.

Red and pink geraniums smile amid
myriad green leaves begging for room –
daisies dance a welcome at the gate
rosemary always remembers to bloom

The beautiful Bird of Paradise flowers,
to hint that mythical Eden does exist
its orange and blue finery ready to fly
to tropical garden and romantic tryst.

Nature’s beauty  a welcome surprise
even in winter. Each splendid new day
bulbs grow and blossom without fanfare
a reminder the spring’s never far away!

Welcome Signs of Spring

Looking closely at the plants the signs of spring are there. Buds beginning to form on the camellia –

camelia buds july 18

but later it was the behaviour of a Magpie I spied out of the window that fascinated me.

magpie flying

I’ve written about the dislocation of many of the local birds because so many trees (their homes) have been removed as Mordialloc’s housing boom continues. The changes have disoriented several magpie families who have been living in the area.

Magpies build large, domed nests in thorny bushes or high up in tall trees using found objects and whatever they can collect for their nests.

IMG_3296.JPG

They are a protected species under Australian law and it is illegal to kill them but destroying their homes is obviously not considered illegal – yet the quickest way to destroy a species is to get rid of their habitat!

Magpies mate for life and normally stay together for their entire lives. They mate during springtime when the weather begins to get warmer. That’s usually when they build their large nests.

However, I watched as an industrious Magpie tore strips off an old coir mat and gathered as much material as possible in his/her beak before flying off to distant trees.

The spectacle totally engrossing for several minutes – how he/she managed to keep collecting more material in its beak without losing any amazing.

When I think how I fumble to pick up and grip stuff with hands and fingers yet birds make the most intricate of nests, woven out of a range of natural or man-made materials with mainly their beaks.

They truly are amazing creatures!

I’m sure Mr/s Magpie was gathering for a nest and not food although in winter they eat more plant material, wild fruits, berries and grains, supplemented with household scraps and food scavenged from bird tables, chicken runs, even pet food bowls.

But all bird experts say we should not feed them – especially not bread – no doubt I will do penance in the afterlife for those years of throwing out breadcrumbs when I first moved here!

Like Australian Ravens, Magpies also eat carrion and catch small mammals and birds. In the wild, Magpies prey on larger animals such as young rabbits but with urbanisation despite the destruction of habitat I don’t think they’ll go hungry and so won’t be hunting pet rabbits.

Delights, Distractions but now must ‘Do’…

While exotic plants and paving stones might make gardens appear neat and tidy, scientific advisors suggest cultivating a wilder and more natural environment benefits birds and butterflies.

This appeals to me. I try to plant as many indigenous trees and plants as possible – less maintenance and figure they’ll survive the vagaries of the weather better and hopefully help and encourage native birds.

I have very Noisy Minors who visit daily and manage to drown out the Magpies carolling. The Noisy Minors raid the Bottlebrushes vacuuming up what’s left of the nectar or any insect foolish enough to be caught.

Loss of habitat through global warming is also posing a major threat to wildlife around the world, with some studies predicting that every 1C rise will cause the eventual loss of 10 per cent of all species. (Hard to believe colder winters are in fact probably indicative of global warming as the seasons change…)

Anyway, no apologies for pausing and capturing my garden and the antics of birds on film or in words.

We writers must take inspiration where we find it and nurture the muse, especially when it is as lethargic as mine – or maybe the word is lazy!

Ah, yes, back to that list…

Mordialloc beach in winter-PANO

 

Neighbourhood Houses – The Heart Of Our Community

NH display 3
Chelsea Heights Community Centre captures the essence of neighbourhood houses!

On Monday, under the auspices of Longbeach Place where I teach, I did a creative writing workshop at the Kingston Arts Centre as part of a month-long promotion of community houses in the City of Kingston. This was open to the public for free.

Nine community/neighbourhood houses in the City of Kingston were given display space in the galleries to promote activities under the theme  ‘the heart of the community‘.

The promotion also coincided with Volunteer Week. The Council is always keen to encourage people to volunteer and neighbourhood houses are a great place to start a fulfilling journey!

If you are keen to help others, want to share or learn a skill, meet people and help curb your own or their isolation,  contribute to the wellbeing and social capital of the community, then there is no better place to start than a neighbourhood house!

What is a Neighbourhood House?

A Neighbourhood House is a not-for-profit local organisation set up to provide social, educational, and recreational activities for a community, in a welcoming, supportive, non-judgemental environment.

Managed by a volunteer committee and some paid administrative staff, it operates with the assistance of volunteers. There is a wealth of accredited and non-accredited courses provided by teachers like myself, but also niche groups set up such as Longbeach Place’s Yarn Art & Craft Storybook Trail, or groups for carers to have time-out, family history buffs, knitting and art enthusiasts… the list is endless.

Neighbourhood Houses have space to host morning teas, conferences, annual general meetings – regular meetings for almost any community group you can imagine. My Mordialloc Writers’ Group met at a neighbourhood house for over 20 years.

Some of the houses are Registered Training Organisations and many are Learn Locals like Longbeach Place, offering VET courses.

Neighbourhood Houses receive some funding from State and Local Governments and donations or partnerships with private enterprises and philanthropists.

Longbeach display Arts Centre

Each paper heart on the display board celebrating Longbeach Place was written by a student. In a word or phrase, they described what the neighbourhood house meant to them:

The contributions from the other houses who also used hearts, echoed the recurring sentiments of a safe, friendly environment, nurturing learning and creativity with lots of fun and educational activities.

When Did Neighbourhood Houses Start?

The Neighbourhood House movement began in Victoria in 1973 with the aim of offering people a supportive, non-threatening environment to share skills and mix socially within local communities.

Neighbourhood Houses represent and serve their community. They are accessible drop-in centres that care about social wellbeing, personal and community growth. They often attract and welcome those who feel isolated, neglected, lonely and forgotten or those who have just arrived and want to “fit in”… they provide a learning environment like no other.

The people who attend usually live, study or work within the local area, and courses and activities offered are dictated by the local community and their needs.

This makes each place unique and some develop particular strengths.

Many Houses started with specific groups in mind depending on their locality.

The 1970s – A Time Of Social Change

It was the 70s and the Women’s Liberation Movement was growing. Most community houses grew from women’s involvement and demands. They saw the need for programmes for people with disability, victims of domestic violence, new migrants and multicultural groups,  and Aboriginal/ Torres Strait Islanders, women who needed confidence in returning to study or retraining.

Women wanted childcare and playgroups for ‘stay-at-home mums’ and a place for all people to be treated equally regardless of race, religion, gender or ability. They may have left the workforce to have children but still wanted to share their skills or learn new ones as they adapted to motherhood and parenting.

1972 was a watershed in Australian political history – the Federal Labor Government of Gough Whitlam had a strong commitment to community programmes, to women and to children. State Governments followed their lead – times and our culture a’changing.

Federal money released for the first time to fund programs that actively encouraged women back to study and into the workforce by making higher education and training courses free. There were funds for women’s refuges, programs to assist families, and for childcare.

Many women ‘went back to school’ via courses at neighbourhood houses first and gained the confidence and qualifications to enter tertiary studies. Older women whose families were almost grown up returned to study and used the neighbourhood houses to fill gaps in their education but also to develop courses and activities to help others.

Wellbeing And Creativity

Neighbourhood houses help manage social change and prevent social isolation.

The last few years the Men’s Shed Movement has grown out of community houses. The benefits of men having somewhere to go to cope with adjusting to being alone, coping with health issues, retrenchments, early retirement and adjusting to years of extra life expectancy are universally accepted now.

People often discover and develop creative talents in arts and crafts suppressed at school or never given a chance to grow. Creative courses in neighbourhood houses are often the first step for people, at last, being able to show their artistic or writing talents.

Neighbourhood Houses Victoria

Neighbourhood Houses Victoria (NHV) was established in the early 1970s as the peak body for Victorian Neighbourhood Houses and Learning Centres.

  • It currently has a membership of over 380 organisations – 90% of the 390 Houses and Centres in the state.
  • The mission of the organisation is to support and develop the movement of Neighbourhood Houses and Learning Centres as individual organisations and as a collective.
  • This past year they spearheaded a campaign to have the State Government boost funding for the sector.
neighbourhood house poster
And the Andrews Labor Government did deliver by boosting investment in the neighbourhood house network by $21.8 million over the next four years.
I received a letter from Minister for Families and Children Jenny Mikakos MP in response to a postcard I sent as part of the campaign where she confirmed:

The Andrews Labor Government is backing our neighbourhood houses as we want to ensure more Victorians have access to the vital employment, training and volunteering services that many neighbourhood houses provide in our local communities across Victoria.

 Well done to everyone who campaigned for such a great result.

It is always a relief to have guaranteed funding so that courses can be planned – and with rapidly changing and increasing demographics neighbourhood house managers and committees are kept on their toes!

Writing Creatively At Kingston Arts Centre

I transplanted my usual Monday Class at Longbeach to Moorabbin along with an open invitation to the public.

At one stage, when five of the regulars sent apologies and I was struck by a dreaded winter bug I toyed with following the line of the old song, “let’s call the whole thing off…”

I had no idea what awaited me on Monday but how thrilling to greet three regular students plus some past students and friends – and a lady who said,

“I’ve never written creatively before.”

The two hours disappeared fast along with the chocolate biscuits I brought and the tea and coffee the Arts Centre provided!  Yet, we were too busy to have a designated break.

After brief introductions, we did some productive brainstorming and then with heads down the writing began.  After each exercise people shared completed sentences, paragraphs, even vignettes to the prompts. Fascinating and vastly different pieces of writing.

I targeted “the senses.” These are often neglected but improve our writing when included. The variety of responses rich and rewarding.

I love writing workshops!

At the conclusion of the exercise on the sense of smell, one participant concluded, ‘I realise I have a limited vocabulary when it comes to describing smells.’

She continued to suggest others do what she does, “when reading I write unusual and interesting words I discover in a notebook.  It helps improve my writing. Now,  I’ll watch out for how other writers describe smells.’

This is a perfect example of the wonderful feedback and help fellow writers give each other and how writing exercises and sharing in class can improve our writing.

A Personal Story

A few weeks ago, one of my past students from my 2016 class at Mordialloc Neighbourhood House emailed me. English was not her first language and she needed help with a private matter.

It was great to catch up for a coffee and fortunately, I was able to help her. She is an educated, enterprising woman who had been a journalist in Japan but like many who write facts for a living, she wanted to explore creative writing.

She lacked confidence in her own ability and struggled with the nuances of English. In the class, I encouraged her to express herself through poetry.

Her perceptions about adjusting to life in Melbourne and being able to express her feelings about other aspects of her life was a great healing journey but also led to valuable discussions in class.

She blossomed but I’ll let her tell you in her own words what attending a class at a community house meant:

My Writing Class
Naoko

I’ve never really liked classes
I’m often less enthusiastic
preferring to study on my own
I was not a good student in writing class

Yet there are good memories
reminiscent of days visiting relatives –
a bit awkward but feeling secure

In class I remembered the joy of writing
I was accepted for who I was
I made an inspiring Turkish friend
I learned authenticity is the essence of writing
I got to know each classmate’s story
From warm words of condolence
I was encouraged to keep my head high
No matter what I faced

I will take home these great gifts I received
From my writing class at Mordialloc beach

And looking at the past I regret
that I have missed the beauties of life
from being arrogant in classes

I only loved my Mum when I was a kid
And growing up into adulthood
I tended to only love one person at a time
I regret now that I may have missed
the beauties of other people
by being narrow-minded on some occasions

I will take home great gifts about life
received from my writing teacher at Mordialloc beach.

When she left for an extended trip to Japan, Naoko gifted me her poem and a beautiful watercolour she had painted. Gifts I will treasure along with her work published in the class anthology.

The poems and stories of all past students are important to me and when I read their words I hear their voice, imagine them in class… memories I value. Another of my students who has been attending my classes for a long time said exactly the same thing – she reads the anthologies and remembers.

Write your stories – leave a legacy – leave an impression for someone to remember!

Writing In the 21st Century

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

If writers want to reach readers our methods must change – how you adapt is your choice. For many people, the traditional printed paper is still what they want to read and how they want to be published.

There is room for both traditional and digital publishing and whether you write with pen and paper or prefer to tap your laptop or iPad you benefit from regular writing.

Writing classes or workshops can be a first step to discovering not only what you want to write while learning the tools of the craft, but also how you want to be published. More importantly, they can keep you motivated.

Writing courses proliferate online and in bricks and mortar but for convenience and cost, community houses are worth a look.  We throw in ambience, friendship and sharing of stories and ideas.  We learn from each other and the weekly sessions eliminate the isolation and loneliness many writers suffer.

Community houses provide computer classes too – an introduction and welcome to the digital age that is usually self-paced – again the ambience and friendship are free!

The two places I work have several courses and I can vouch for their excellence at Godfrey Street and Longbeach Place.

And if you want or see a need for a specialised course, put in a suggestion or offer to run it – that’s the beauty of neighbourhood houses! The community owns it and the community is you!

What are you waiting for?

Student, teacher, volunteer, participant – whatever your label there is a place for you in a neighbourhood house – drop in soon!

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Willsmere Beauty Transforms A Beastly Past

willsmere panoramic

willsmere entrance courtyard.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

History Attached to Willsmere

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

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

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

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

Famous Patients

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

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

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

Kew Asylum

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

willsmere patient treatment.jpg

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

Life on The Wards

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

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

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

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

willsmere photos of asylumwillsmere life on ward.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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

willsmere ward garden sign.jpg

Gardens of Trees, Flowers, and More Trees

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

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

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

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

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

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

How to Get to Willsmere

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kew Cottages

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

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

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

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

explanation of cottage sytsem at KEW

quote about residents 2013.jpg

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

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

“I have a job.”

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

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

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

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

Dad relaxed and asked Trevor what music he liked!

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

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

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

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

A Tragedy

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

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

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

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

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

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A Poem for a Special Place

mordi beach as sun sets

Mordialloc Meditation
Mairi Neil

 

In Main Street, Mordialloc
the lull of evening signalled
by oh, so familiar sounds…
the birds begin to jostle and joust
for palm tree frond, gum-leafed house.

palm trees by neighbourhood house.jpg

Dusk descends into twilight glow
the tweets and squeals
now a deafening crescendo –
a cacophony of conversation:
‘Time for bed.’
‘Nestle down!’
‘That’s my branch…’
‘Move over magpies!’
All must know their station
In life, there’s a sense of place
chatter, bargain, even squabble
but eventually, share the space.

‘Stop skylarking about!’
‘You lorikeet lout!’
‘Squeeze over sparrows.’
‘How precious are parrots?’
‘Pigeons! The rooftops are home for you
go mutter your usual “coo coo”…’

And in the gloaming, shadows
of building construction loom,
mounds of dirt inhabit lonely gloom.
A treeless landscape, evictions rife
Mordi’s birds facing a new life.
I remember a bloody chainsaw day
shake my head, and turn away…

Continue to walk by Mordi Creek
watch the ducks silently glide,
a gannet rest in contemplation
this beautiful tranquillity
a sanctuary from conurbation.

How lovely the shimmering ripples
of boats tethered for the night, as
feathered friends dive and feed
in the quickly fading light.
A familiar outline against the sky
silhouettes of ancient trees
reminding us of when this creek
hosted Bunurong corroborees.

The path peopled by dog walkers,
and school children hurrying home
joggers and health fanatics – all
grateful for the space to roam.
In the eucalyptus evening hush
this precious part of the day, my
Mordialloc meditative therapy
designed to keep the doldrums at bay.

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My Culture, My Story – What Makes a Place Special?

History Library Prahran

The Australian Heritage Festival 2018

Heritage –
1. property that descends to an heir, an inheritance
2. something valuable transmitted by or acquired from a predecessor or predecessors; a legacy
3. a country’s history and traditions
4. (used before a noun) relating to or presenting a country’s history and traditions, especially in an attractive and nostalgic way: a heritage centre

The New Penguin Compact English Dictionary, 2001

I have to thank Facebook for reminding this festival was happening and for inundating my newsfeed with events in Victoria they have decided (correctly) I might be interested in – although I have to miss many because of work, finances and/or timing.

The dreadful analytics and profiling we hear about in the news have, as Agent 86, Maxwell Smart used to say, ‘worked for good, not evil’!

And so, on Sunday, April 22, I went on the “Heritage Walk: Department Stores of Chapel Street” meeting at the Victorian History Library in Prahran to follow Steve Stefanopoulos, Mayor of Stonnington and a local historian to explore former department stores, historical sites and heritage buildings along a part of iconic Chapel Street.

 

Dynamic and in love with the history of his city, Steve reminded us to look up and around at the architecture, even when we didn’t stop to hear the history of particular buildings.

He is on the board of Open House Melbourne and as we waited for the tour to start I discovered another lady who, like me, volunteers for Open House. I was in good company.

Chapel Street, Prahran’s Charming Architecture

Before we started the tour, Steve distributed a book written by local historian, Betty Malone, Chapel Street Prahran Part One 1834-1918. This well written, 72-page book absolutely crammed with research and fascinating details and included in the price of the 2-hour tour, which for seniors was $15.00 –  fantastic value for an entertaining Sunday afternoon. (And you can add ‘healthy’ because of Steve’s brisk walking pace!)

history book

Steve walked fast and talked even faster so they were right to advertise that ‘unfortunately, it was not suitable for people with mobility issues‘ but we had traffic lights to let us cross the road and paved footpaths – very different from Betty’s description of the beginning…

In the late 1830s, when Melbourne was still young, Chapel Street was a rough, unnamed bush track leading south from the better known Gardiner’s Creek Road in the direction of the Mornington Peninsula, crossing similar tracks that led east to Dandenong and beyond. Used mainly by horsemen and stock riders with their flocks and herds, it turned and twisted as it wound its way up and down small hills and gullies, avoiding the big red gums, the patches of thick scrub and the numerous waterholes, lagoons, creeks and swampy ground that lay across its path. It must have been a pleasant track to follow in good weather, with its wattles and wildflowers, its birds and small bush creatures, though most of the men who passed along were probably more intent on spurring their animals to reach their destinations than on enjoying the surroundings.

As car horns blared, music blasted from shops, and crockery clattered amidst the chatter from the sidewalk tables outside cafes, it took concentration to listen and imagine what it must have been like last century, and the century before that… yet as our guide pointed out by regulation and effort many of the facades and even some internal features of magnificent buildings have been retained and restored to former glory.

The Osment Buildings

These photographs before (Betty’s book) and after (mine) are of the Osment buildings, built in 1910-11, they housed Osment’s Emporium, one of just a number of similar department stores erected between the late 1890s and the 1930s between Commercial Road and High Street. The decorated pediment contains the name ‘Osment Buildings’ in relief lettering.

Henry Osment once owned the Prahran Telegraph and was a local councillor from 1887 to 1898 and Mayor of Prahran in 1888-89. His descendants built the three-storey emporium.

It has a symmetrical facade of red brick and cement render. Flanking bays contained oriel bay windows with sinuously curved parapets and prominent arches. Steve was annoyed that recent modernisation removed the bay windows.

As mayor, he has worked hard to preserve the heritage uniqueness and stop inappropriate development and/or deliberate ‘vandalism’ aka modernisation destroying irreplaceable features.

A local landmark, Osment Buildings remind us of how grand and elegant early 20th Century shopping was for the well-to-do citizens of Melbourne. It has some beautiful Art Nouveau details especially the small Ionic columns of green faience between each set of windows. The arched openings are accentuated by exaggerated voussoirs (wedge-shaped stones).

An excellent example of the imposing buildings of the Marvellous Melbourne period it is now a mixture of residential flats and small studios, with shops at street level and depending on the time of day the glazing on the columns glitters in the sunlight.

Chapel Street, Still the Place To Be

Nowadays, Chapel Street Prahran has plenty of eateries to cater for the students at Swinburne University’s Prahran Campus including the popular (and cheap) Lucky Coq. But the buildings we were interested in hearing about were the emporiums, such as Moore’s and The Big Store, which used an Edwardian Free Style.

They sometimes added American Romanesque influence, such as on the Love and Lewis building.

The Big Store

The Big Store is now a Coles’ supermarket but was a business set up by William Gibson who emigrated from Glasgow in 1882. He first opened a shop in Collingwood as a partner of Francis Foy and continued to trade as sole proprietor when the partnership dissolved.

An astute businessman he survived the 1890s depression and even expanded his interests into a hosiery in Perth and woollen mills.

After William’s death in 1918,  John Maclellan, a partner merged the company with Foy’s and they remained trading as The Big Store until 1967. The furniture store had become a cigarette factory (Capstan and Black Cat brands).

Maclellan is remembered as being civic-minded and a progressive employer who provided sporting facilities for his staff and provided a lavish Christmas party for employees and their families.

…one feature that delighted children in the toy department especially at Christmas. The youngsters could travel the ups and downs of a switchback installed in one corner, the means of conveyance being a wicker basket.

 

Love And Lewis

The firm of drapers, Love and Lewis, first occupied premises in Prahran in 1897, and in 1913 replaced their original three-storey premises with a larger five-storey building. Distinctive lettering appears in the spandrels, which alternate with strips of windows and provide the horizontal emphasis to the building.

Offsetting this are vertical piers, emphasised by red and cream striped brickwork and crowned with exaggerated pairs of consoles. The top floor of the building features arched window openings with terracotta patterned panels to the spandrels.

It sold drapery of all kinds but specialised in cheaper lines of goods. Mr Lewis was the best known in Chapel Street, and people speak of him as interesting or as an eccentric… The business was moved to the city in Bourke Street.

Adelaide businessman Charles Moore built his five-storey store, the most dominant of the large emporia along Chapel Street, at the corner of Commercial Road in 1914. The design by the architects Sydney Smith and Ogg was never fully completed.

The building has two circular corner bays capped by domes that stand on elaborate drums. The main facade (only partially completed along Chapel Street) has massive Corinthian columns supported by pedestals, and banded piers at the corners, which support a heavy cornice and a balustraded parapet.

Large areas of glass light the interiors. There are huge oval windows on the first floor and an arched opening over the main Commercial Road entrance. The twin domes are especially prominent elements. The intact verandah is particularly ornate and notable and the building tastefully renovated inside.

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The section of Chapel Street we walked had several commercial buildings from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Above the ground floor, the majority of the facades have retained their original decorative features.

In some cases, Victorian facades have been ‘modernised’ during the last few decades by stripping them of their nineteenth-century decorative elements. Most of the ground floor shops-fronts have been modernised, but some were updated in the early twentieth century, and have preserved the lead-lighted shop-fronts from earlier times.

Some were rebuilt after devastating fires in the early part of the twentieth century. Reminders of earlier eras remain and for anyone interested in history or writers looking for authenticity of setting, a walk along Chapel Street is worthwhile.

As Steve said, ‘If the door is open, be respectful and go inside. Look at what original architectural features are left. Many have beautiful ceilings, cornices, mosaic floors and even pillars and statues.

A woman in our small group said she had worked in one of the big stores. It was her first job leaving school at fourteen.

‘Which counter?’ asked Steve.

‘Cosmetics.’

‘Of course,’ said the mayor and we smiled. In the era, this lady started work it would have been regarded as one of the few jobs available to females.

Several others on the tour revisited their childhood as we walked. For some, it was first jobs or where they used to shop regularly with their parents, for others they used to come to Chapel Street for a special reason or a treat.

 

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Newspaper adverts 1909

 

… haberdashery shops, milliners, dressmakers, tailors, mercery, women and children’s wear, boots and shoe stores…

Furniture shops proliferated to meet the demand of a growing district’s population. Local goods made in Melbourne’s factories were taking their place beside imported manufactures, and Prahran gained a number of watchmakers, clockmakers and jewellers from Germany and Switzerland…

The Conway Buildings

The best surviving shopfronts are in the section of Chapel Street south of High Street. Most of the original verandahs have been replaced with cantilevered awnings. However, the eight shops of Conway’s Buildings, (1890), have retained their original elaborate stonework and columns.

Some people have bought buildings and been true to heritage guidelines and restored facades beautifully but restoration is not cheap and some owners have buildings in serious disrepair.

The hotel above JB Hi-Fi is a case in point – the owner has already spent $150,000 – 200,000 just on the street entrance attempting to restore the hotel’s original features. Whereas the owner of another building is only using the street level retail area and may be waiting for the upper storeys to deteriorate beyond restoration.

facades worth keeping.jpg

The Australian Heritage Festival is Australia’s biggest annual community-driven heritage festival. It promotes greater awareness, knowledge and understanding of our national heritage, focusing on what makes a place special, encouraging us all to embrace the future by sharing the strengths of our cultural identities.

  • An opportunity to reflect on the places where we live, work, and travel.
  • Why are they special?
  • An opportunity to celebrate our many diverse and distinctive cultures.

I hope to participate in other events before the festival is over but I chose the Chapel Street tour for personal reasons – I used to live on the corner of Alfred and Greville Streets and nostalgia is a powerful emotion and drawcard.

I love history and admire the architectural features of many old buildings but I was curious about my old flat and the area where I spent 4 years in the early 1980s.

As a teacher of Life Stories and Legacies, I’d be remiss not to take advantage of a walk down memory lane!

greville street entrance

Greville Street

I wandered down Greville Street – a tourist precinct now and upmarket! There is a lovely park, buildings have been renovated and restored, shop fronts spruced up. A vibrancy replaces grunge and the whole area has changed with vehicle access limited.

The block of flats on the corner of Alfred Street is still there, although the shrubs and small trees from 35 years ago now reach the second-floor windows of my old flat.

My local pub, The College Lawn has had a makeover, as has the little park opposite the flats. The one unimaginative swing and sad roundabout, replaced by new play equipment and seats for carers and guardians to enjoy. Trees almost block out the sprawling conglomerate of Wesley College in the background.

Some tiny Victorian homes are either gone or have been renovated with the latter now worth an absolute fortune.

I remember walking up to the Prahran Railway Station or Chapel Street and seeing Leunig working in a studio – the barest of rooms in the drabbest of buildings.

There are no bare shopfronts now and I can only guess the rents too high for a struggling artist!

I remember Checkpoint Charlie, the nickname John gave the Caretaker of our block of flats. The elderly bloke lived in the bottom flat with his wife and either got the flat rent free or was paid to keep the stairwell, foyer, gardens and carpark clean and tidy. He never missed a trick and stood at the window watching everyone coming and going. His portly, grey-haired figure often seen twitching the lace curtains.

When I lived in the flat I had a porcelain doll of Charlie Chaplin. My three-year-old nephew loved playing with Charlie’s cane and bowler hat and chatted away to the doll. He overheard us refer to Checkpoint Charlie and I guess the two Charlies were confusing because he ended up calling them both ‘Charlie Checklin’ and thought the doll sometimes lived downstairs.

Molly Meldrum lived further along Alfred Street. The border of Prahran and South Yarra very close. The South Yarra postcode much more desirable as a friend who lived in a flat near the border never tired of emphasising. However, Molly didn’t exhibit petty snobbishness and twice when I walked by I was invited to a party. There was always music coming from his house and he loved his parties and usually invited all the neighbours to minimise complaints!

I remember going to night school at the old Prahran College of Advanced Education and studying creative writing with Gerald Murnane and John Powers and treasure their feedback on the first short story I submitted and the first play.

I received my Australian Citizenship certificate at a ceremony in the Town Hall in 1981. The event sticks in my mind because Clyde Holding MP, the leader of the Opposition at the time sat on stage with his fly undone. John whispered this fact to me and when it was my turn to go up and shake hands I struggled to suppress a giggle.

I don’t know if others noticed but someone must have given him a hint by the time it came to mingling with us ‘new Australians’ afterwards.

It’s funny what memories are triggered and as I stared at my old home I thought of a writing exercise I gave my students this week, ostensibly to tap into a childhood memory to create a poem.

The Structure of “I Remember”

I remember the echo of footsteps in concrete stairwell, the squeak of rubber soles, the click of high heels, the heavy tread of work boots

I remember the singsong voices of children in the park and rumble of roller blades on pavement and road

I remember the drone of distant traffic on Punt Road, the electric trains blowing their horns and the school siren controlling the day at Wesley College

But mostly I remember the gentle tones of Simon and Garfunkel and Deanna Durbin as I relaxed in my one-bedroom sanctuary from the busyness of the working day.

One of the ways I picture memory is to see it weaving a kind of continuous spider’s web that’s laid down all the time we occupy. This invisible net allows most things to pass through it. But some are trapped, sometimes for years, sometimes only briefly. Memory’s web-net acts like a kind of border crossing. Each today must pass through it on its journey towards tomorrow and becoming another yesterday. These border crossings between our days are patrolled by the not-always-vigilant guards of remembering. Their decisions about which moments to wave through, and which to detain, veer wildly between what’s reasonable and what seems utterly capricious.

Chris Arthur, Prisoners of Memory, an essay.

 

World Book Day – A Day I Could Celebrate Every Day!

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World Book Day, April 23rd

“Books are the plane, and the train, and the road. They are the destination and the journey. They are home.”

Anna Quindlen, How Reading Changed My Life

If people, especially family and friends, are asked to agree on one object associated with me, they’d probably all say, ‘a book’.

I’m often tagged in posts or memes doing the rounds of Facebook featuring books, author quotes, libraries, bookcases and book bags – and recently, even a cake decorated as if a library.

No matter where I go, I’m always drawn to the books on display or for sale!

 

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Bookstall at Quilting and Craft Fair

 

The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.

Dr Seuss, I Can Read With My Eyes Shut!

I’ve written posts devoted to reading books, writing books, book launches, local libraries and literacy in general.

I’ve thanked my parents for valuing reading and books, and I know I’ve instilled that same love in my children.

“The habit of reading is the only enjoyment I know in which there is no alloy. It lasts when all other pleasures fade. It will be there to support you when all other resources are gone. It will be present to you when the energies of your body have fallen away from you. It will last you until your death. It will make your hours pleasant to you as long as you live.”

Anthony Trollope

I remember favourite authors from childhood – I loved Louisa M Alcott. Birthdays and Christmas were special celebrations with a new book always part of, and sometimes the main present.

my louisa alcott books

I still have some of those much-treasured childhood books and on a recent trip to Orkney and the Shetland Islands, I spent several hours in a wonderful exhibition with displays of books and toys reminiscent of my 1950s childhood, confirming that I’m not the only one who hangs onto books for years!

I can remember Mrs Saffin, the librarian at Croydon High School insisting I had to borrow other books when she saw I was working my way through a shelf of the Just William series written by English author Richmal Crompton.

The adventures of the cheeky schoolboy William Brown whose naughty escapades always seemed to end in afternoon tea of iced buns and lemonade appealed to me! But Mrs Saffin was right, I was in high school and needed to expand my horizons.

“A book is a device to ignite the imagination.”

Alan Bennett, The Uncommon Reader

William’s pluck reminded me of George aka Georgina, one of the main characters in the Famous Five stories by Enid Blyton.

I wanted to be adventurous, solve mysteries and have fun – and the thought of going off on picnics with a satchel of sandwiches, cream buns and fizzy pop, a dream come true when you are one of six siblings in a working-class family.

I expect both of these talented female authors appealed to girls like myself who either didn’t fit or ached to break, the mould of traditional expectations of girls to be pretty and demure.

Ill in bed after an emergency appendectomy, I received a bundle of books from my Aunt Chrissie: The Secret Garden, The Little Princess, The Railway Children and The Wool-Pack.

I read about grief, illness,  feudalism, colonialism, social inequality, the importance of education and the necessity to have dreams.

I read about broken families and boarding schools, kindness and meanness, courage and cowardice, love and hate.

The books all written about or from the point of view of a child or adolescent.

I remember being shocked to read that in medieval times prepubescent girls like me were married off, that even in so-called more modern times people of colour or those with a disability were maltreated and abused.

How could people believe your birth should determine your status in life?

And how exciting to learn that being adventurous, curious and even disobedient reaped rewards.

Enid Blyton’s Famous Five books gave me a thirst for adventure.  The Magic Faraway Tree indulged childhood fantasies but novels allowed me to fall in love with history, belonging, and longing, and more importantly writing!

I wanted to be a storyteller and write stories about ordinary and extraordinary people whether in the past or the now!

When I was studying for my masters’ degree, I had to reflect on what books helped shape my view of society and culture.

  • To look critically at the dominant ways in which our culture operates.
  • What books provided insight or a ‘light bulb’ moment into what it means to be human?
  • Which books helped me understand my place in the long history of human development?

Although most of the books were written from the perspective of western culture they raised issues and aspects of racism, sexism, feminism, Marxism, socialism, fascism, colonialism, and other “isms” that don’t immediately spring to mind. 

They created questions and still create conversations with people who have read them. They explore themes that are timeless. They have been made into television or cinematic films, either through adaptations or appropriation.

“Books are the quietest and most constant of friends; they are the most accessible and wisest of counsellors, and the most patient of teachers.”

Charles William Eliot

Five books I’m Glad I Still Own

A Patch of Blue

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Written 1961 and adapted to film starring Sidney Poitier in 1965.

I read this novel in 1967 when I was 14 years old, probably inspired by seeing the movie on television. The author,  Australian Elizabeth Kata produced a book with the main message of tolerance, a theme demanding we see beyond the colour of a person’s skin and reject the negativity and destructiveness of racial prejudice.

The brutal effects of an abusive family contrast with the power of education, friendship and love. 

The ending of the book is not as optimistic as the ending of the film and on reflection may have been the first time I realised or began to question the difference between how literature and film tell stories.

The book is set in America, but it made me more aware of the treatment of indigenous Australians because the 1967 Referendum Campaign was happening and stimulated public and family discussions about racism.

The 1967 Referendum made history: Australians voted overwhelmingly to amend the constitution to include Aboriginal people in the census and allow the Commonwealth to create laws for them.

The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists

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Now a free Ebook. Written in 1910 but not published until 1914.

This novel by Irish-born Robert Tressell was compulsory reading in my family circle. An accurate historical account of the lives of the working class, it delivers a comprehensive explanation of capitalism and the need for a socialist alternative.

In my last two years of high school, I studied British History, Australian History and Eighteenth-Century History and during one of the many discussions I had with my father, he handed me Tressell’s book,

Your Papa bought this and told me to read it, I’m passing it on…

When I read The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists at 16, it helped me understand what life was like for my grandparents and what shaped my father’s staunch belief in trade unionism as a means to improve the conditions of workers and challenge the excesses of capitalism. It nurtured my desire to work for social justice and later seek employment within the trade union movement.

Robert Tressell’s tale of life for craftsmen and building workers in the early part of the 20th century whilst working in the mythical, yet all too authentic, Mugsborough reveals clearly the exploitative nature of capitalism. Since its publication, it has been reprinted many times, adapted as plays, made into a television series, films and docudramas. The Labour Movement has justifiably conferred biblical status on this much-celebrated book.

Readers experience the tragedies and joys of the characters and the harshness of their workplace with the inherently unequal relationship between workers and bosses in Edwardian England as the system impacts on social relations, human activity, and their dreams for a better life.

In 2010, on one of my early forays online I made contact with Reg Johnson, the husband of Robert Tressell’s granddaughter. We exchanged emails and letters and he shared some family information and history, which enriched my understanding of the author’s struggles to get his writing published and to retain the integrity of his story – a saga that will be worthy of someone’s PhD or even another novel, I’m sure.

Crime and Punishment

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Free Ebook. Written in 1866 – in serial form.

I studied this novel by Fyodor (Mikhailovich) Dostoevsky, at school and the story, characters, theme and concepts still fascinate me. It is a great novel to stimulate discussion about whether the ends justify the means, definitions of good and evil, examine ethics and morality, and is there a fine line between sanity and madness?

The protagonist, Raskolnikov, a poor law student murders an old woman who is reviled as a pawnbroker/money-lender, but her sister who is an innocent bystander is also killed. The background is a Russia under a reforming Tsar but nevertheless a country of great inequality and poverty for freed serfs and an economy undergoing transition. 

The rich description and historical detail satisfied my love of history. It was also the first novel I had read that introduced the image of the ‘good prostitute ‘– a woman forced into prostitution by extreme poverty. Dostoevsky’s Christian socialist beliefs are not hidden as he exposes the ‘immorality’ of drunkenness and domestic violence in St Petersburg, the main setting of the novel.

There is also Siberia, a vast place with penal outposts used to banish and punish people considered a danger to society. (Dostoevsky experienced Siberia when exiled along with several other intellectuals and so described that setting realistically.)

Raskolnikov realises by committing murder he has killed his own humanity and we watch his psychological, physical and emotional health deteriorate as he struggles with deep guilt and moves towards redemption. His unravelling helped by a dogged detective who suspects Raskolnikov and is determined to punish him for the crime.

The book is a good vehicle to examine personal ethics, showing life often presents difficult choices and we may regret a choice we make. It contends ‘Fate’ is an illusion and we all have free will, but the author’s realism is underpinned by his personal life experience and political leanings and belief in Russian Orthodoxy.

This book started my fascination with Russia and I promised myself I’d visit the country ‘one day’.

Last year, I fulfilled that dream and not only travelled through Siberia on the Trans-Siberian Railway but went to Dostoevsky’s house in St Petersburg, and saw where he would have written his novels, the streets he walked, imagined the places and events that sparked his imagination…

Visited Dostoevsky’s house today where he wrote Crime And Punishment among other novels. This city was a character in his most famous stories. It’s where he developed as a writer and where his most famous fictional characters lived. Exiled to Siberia for 10 years for revolutionary activities he had to make his name all over again. This is his last address when he was earning a comfortable income after renting many cheap appartments. He rented here in 1846 and then returned 1878 until his death in 1881. It’s fitting this building should be a museum encapsulating the beginning and the end of his writing career! I breathed deeply, imagined the views from the window – oh, if only part of his talent still floated in the air to be transferred to admirers like me.

The Women’s Room

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Written 1977. Made into a film for television in 1980 starring Lee Remick and Ted Danson.

This semi-autobiographical and debut novel by Marilyn French was published at the height of the Women’s Liberation Movement and explored the oppression of women and the need for change through the protagonist Mira who escapes an inequitable 1950s marriage and returns to study at university.

The questions asked in The Women’s Room still cause debate: Is anatomy destiny? Are all men potential rapists – do they look at women as sexual objects first before recognising other qualities? Does traditional marriage suffocate women?

It was criticised for being too anti-men and having too few male characters, yet struck a chord with many women who felt trapped in society’s idea that a woman should seek to be a wife and mother and always put the needs and desires of others before her own.

The biting social commentary made me examine my mother’s life and those of her generation and question what I wanted from a relationship. The anger and despair of the women portrayed in the novel spurred me to work for change and social justice. I had read books detailing the aims and philosophy behind Women’s Liberation and French’s novel personalised and wove feminism’s threads into a rich, emotional tapestry.

I worked in a Women’s Refuge (Maroondah Halfway House) and met women who felt they couldn’t speak up or who had been beaten for speaking out. They didn’t have the privileges of the middle-class American women who people this novel and it was more difficult for them to choose a different path. Those of us at the refuge collective tried to enable the women who sought help, ensured they felt safe enough to be empowered to make choices.

I liked the style of Marilyn French’s writing, the authenticity of her characters and the pacing, not only of the main story but a series of subplots. These were voices who needed to be heard with messages I could understand.

No Great Mischief

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Written 2001. 

In this novel about the Scottish diaspora in Canada, Canadian Alistair Macleod reflects on the varied journeys of members of Clan MacDonald forced from their home during the infamous Highland Clearances. 

It explores identity, family loyalty, the connection between past and present, connection to the land, the inevitability of change, the importance and effect of cultural values, and the resilience of love, especially family love.

The narrator shows how the history of a family (mini-narrative) is rooted in the larger mega-narrative of historical events. I belong to the MacInnes Clan who share a history with the MacDonalds and this novel contributed to my understanding of the value of knowing your heritage and encouraged the exploration of my identity.

As an immigrant to Australia, I often reflect on my childhood in Scotland. Have often wondered and asked the question – where do I belong?

The narrator, Alexander MacDonald, guides us through his family’s mythic past recollecting the heroic stories of loggers, miners, excessive drinkers and adventurers. The theme of exile and links to the ancestry of their highland clan everpresent.

The legendary patriarch left the Scottish Highlands in 1779 to resettle in “the land of trees” with descendants becoming a separate Nova Scotia clan. Brothers and cousins, expert miners travel around the world and the protagonist Alexander and his twin sister, leave Cape Breton and prosper, but are haunted by the past.

No Great Mischief resonated with me because I too feel the blood ties that bind me to the land from which I came despite establishing a family here in Australia.

A recent trip back to my birth country reinforced links not only to the Scottish Highlands and my grandfather’s Isle of Skye but also to Northern Ireland and the Antrim coast, my mother’s homeland.

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“The world of books is the most remarkable creation of man. Nothing else that he builds ever lasts. Monuments fall; nations perish; civilizations grow old and die out; and, after an era of darkness, new races build others. But in the world of books are volumes that have seen this happen again and again, and yet live on, still young, still as fresh as the day they were written, still telling men’s hearts of the hearts of men centuries dead.”

Clarence Shepard Day

 

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Things found in donated books, Oxfam

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